In the second installment of a two-part article, the author continues his account of taking a free art criticism course in fall 2013 taught by David Salle at Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York. The first installment appeared in A.i.A.’s September issue.
WRITER AND CRITIC George W.S. Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context,” 1 David Salle felt, was the “umbrella” for our “very New Yorker-centric” readings, in which Salle saw a “new golden age of the essay.” A long article first published in 1980 as a special issue of the New Yorker, where Trow (1943-2006) was a staff writer, “No Context” repeats vivid keywords in such varied formulations as to overcome the fact that they arrived without much concrete reference. To Salle, Trow’s was the “first book that named the experience in which we are all living,” and “as far as I know Trow got there all by himself.” The piece begins:
Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?
With “the con,” Trow slyly shifts the ground under all those overgrown wonders. The context of “No Context” was American television, and the scope of Trow’s overview reflected his determination to remain well above this mass culture, where demographics had replaced judgment. Salle disparaged commentators Jean Baudrillard and Marshall McLuhan, but felt Trow’s influence profoundly. He called the essay “a kind of modern prayer book which you can read over and over again,” and insisted it was “not sociology in the clinical sense; it’s personal.”
Salle noted that he’d become fascinated by Trow’s concept of “the cold child,” eventually naming a painting after it. “What does that mean?” he said, “I struggled with that for a long time.” Trow warns:
Television is dangerous because it operates according to an attention span that is childish but is cold. It simulates the warmth of a childish response but is cold. . . . The cold child is happy to embrace the warm child. Both, after all, make a point of smiling.
The Cold Child
There is another possibility. It is possible to embrace the cold child, after all. To accept the corruption in his smile. Some artists and some terrorists have seen the space made ready for this possibility. They are quite candid that their interest is in defacement. Certain artists, certain terrorists, and, of course, very many children.
Salle’s 1986 painting The Cold Child (For George Trow) is divided in half, as if offering equivalents. On the right, a female nude emerges from umber shadows. On top of the nude are sketchy outlines of an overly jovial group around a table, with a waiter behind them holding a tray of drinks. On the left, as if mutating into three dimensions from the painted abstract shapes behind, an actual molded plastic seat, familiar from both elementary school and design museums, projects into our space. The painting offers startling contrasts of obscurity, hilarity and a child’s seat. These contrasts can be connected to Trow’s suggestions of the corruption of childish response. Like Trow’s essay, the painting invites repeated contemplation rather than definitive understanding.
Eventually Trow turns the essay toward the subject of magazines. Trow resigned from the New Yorker after Tina Brown became editor-in-chief. Salle recalled Trow’s increasing agitation late in life, culminating in a letter of resignation that began “Tina Tina Tina, zeitgeist all wrong.” In “Within the Context of No Context,” Trow devotes considerable attention to the mechanisms used by People magazine, condemning it not for gossip, which can form a fascinating alternative history, but for its lack of such juiciness. But it is Trow’s characterization of fashion magazines that seems most relevant to art forums:
What has been going on for some time is that what a fashion magazine advances is not the idea that there is one interesting thing to do or wear but the idea that there are a hundred and one possibilities existing together in a context that is never described, so that what shifts is not the clothes in the foreground (which was what shifted before) but the background itself, which is never shown, because it is shifting in a way that the editors cannot possibly describe but that they pretend to know, because that is what their effort has been founded on—that they do know it. This has been going on for some time, and yet fashion magazines have been more successful than ever, until they have approached the context of a Hit: they are advertised in because they are advertised in. 2
In class, Salle denigrated “good citizen art” that exists in “only one register” and “without modulation.” Levels of meaning were also the foci of writer Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Greek Way,” a review of three very different productions of Greek tragedies. Mendelsohn (b. 1960) is a gay cultural critic, classics scholar and translator who can tie these interests together in revelatory ways. “The Greek Way” was the most vivid description I’ve ever read of how context creates multiple levels of meaning:
Certainly a great deal of our admiration for Sophocles’ Antigone comes from the fact that it seems to be a sympathetic portrait of a hot-blooded young woman valiantly preserving her family against encroachments by the cold and anonymous State—a modern (and modernist) dilemma if ever there was one. How the Athenians would have viewed Antigone, and Antigone, is another matter; this is where context makes a difference. After all, they saw the play after also seeing the orphaned children of the war dead—and, perhaps more to the point, the tribute money from Athens’s subject-allies—paraded around the theatre. . . . To strip away (as often happens) the inconvenient bits that don’t speak to us today—the chorus, the masks, the angular gestures, the abstruse mythic allusions, the high poeticism of the language—is essentially to misrepresent the genre; without those elements, the elements that make plots into allegories, the domestic into the political (and even the cosmic), tragedy is miniaturized. And yet to reproduce a Greek tragedy today would be a meaningless exercise in theatrical embalming. 3
In the text that Salle e-mailed to us, he had underlined “make plots into allegories.” Mendelsohn dispatches the naturalistic approach of the first production with sarcasm: “The bearing, gestures, and diction of the actors suggested an unfortunately extended acquaintance with made-for-television miniseries.” 4 But his description of the second production, Tadashi Suzuki’s Noh-inflected version of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, conveys real excitement: “The pared-down, elemental quality you want from performances of tragedy—that is, the sense of distillation that makes allegory and allusiveness possible—was present here in a number of ways, starting with superb performances that, in the classical style, made use of a limited but extreme gestural vocabulary, conveying a great deal with a fierce economy.” 5 Then, surprisingly, Mendelsohn saves even greater excitement for Charles L. Mee’s Big Love, a freely absurd imagining of the fragmentary remainders of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Maidens, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2000. Mendelsohn notes that at Big Love’s opening the stage was bare except for a chandelier and a bathtub. Rehearsing the underlying themes in Aeschylus, Mendelsohn wonders (and Salle again underlined): “Power, gender, marriage, politics, religion—all this in a bathtub?” 6 Mendelsohn’s shift in register, this tragedy in a tub, seemed to attract Salle.
SALLE ASKED STUDENTS to see and review retrospective exhibitions: Balthus, Mike Kelley, Christopher Wool and Isa Genzken. When one student read his broad denunciation of Wool’s Guggenheim Museum show, Salle noted with a smile that we needn’t worry about hurting the artist’s feelings, since a Wool painting had fetched $26 million at auction that week. He urged us not to shy away from harsh criticism. “Don’t you have kids?” he asked. “Don’t they require empathy and brutality in almost equal measure?” He urged us to watch for that “little bit of resistance to assign responsibility to artists for their decisions.” The review I wrote of Wool’s show also had a core of resentment. Wool was feted for formal choices that I’d seen other artists develop first, but the lively class discussion of his work made me realize what his honing had achieved. By the end of class, Salle had upended my approach to the show; he said Wool’s “slacker attitude shouldn’t be taken at face value, because he does astonishingly much with so little.” Salle stressed how crucial the first sentence could be, and struggling to create an attention-grabbing opening image often led me to reevaluate what my main point was. Salle never tried to change our evaluation, but he took generous time to mark up our essays with detailed reactions to phrasing and formulation.
When we reviewed Isa Genzken’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, we’d just read “Captain Neato,” Christian Lorentzen’s essay on Wes Anderson’s films, which asks, “What will the hipsters be remembered for?” 7 In class, students started debating which of the assemblage artists in the 2007 “Unmonumental” exhibition at the New Museum in New York were hipsters. A prevailing feeling was that Genzken was better because she was not. One student opened his review with the line, “What do Isa Genzken and a drag queen have in common?” That week, Salle had also assigned “Interlude: West’s Disease,” an essay by W.H. Auden on Nathanael West’s novels. Auden found in all of West’s characters a “disease of consciousness,” a state something like despair but more nuanced and less sympathetic in Auden’s description. 8 Salle remembered Genzken from decades back, at her first exhibition in Germany, as an already accomplished artist, though a personality “obviously too strong for some people.” Then he remarked how “eerily apt” Auden’s description of West’s characters was in relation to Genzken. It had a cold depth that other writers’ vague allusions to Genzken’s alcoholism and bipolar disorder lack.
Salle’s literariness was striking. Good writing obviously meant as much to him as painting, and while we never discussed the possibilities of fiction as art criticism, he did assign us Renata Adler. Her Pitch Dark (2013) is a novel that functions, like criticism, as cultural assessment. The protagonist, a fictional journalist with Adler’s own background, describes an ethos that is her main opponent:
This is the age of crime. I’m sure we all grant that. It’s the age, of course, of other things as well. Of the great chance, for instance, and the loss of faith, of the bureaucrat, and of technology. But from the highest public matters to the smallest private acts, the mugger, the embezzler, the burglar, the perjurer, tax chiseler, killer, gang enforcer, the plumber, party chairman, salesman, car or TV repairman, officials of the union, officials of the corporation, the archbishop, the numbers runner, the delinquent, the police; from the alley to the statehouse, behind the darkened window or the desk; this is the age of crime. And recently, I think the truth is this, over a period of days and nights some weeks ago, I became a part of it. How else account for the fact that I found myself, at three a.m. on a dark November night, haring in a rented car through the Irish countryside, under a sickle moon?” 9
Authors have used fictional portraits of the art world as an avenue for writing about art. Without creating allegoric personifications, Adler, better than most, portrays the active, striking character of social situations.
Salle reminded us to read our writing aloud and listen for cadence. We read a chapter from James Wood’s How Fiction Works on the topic of rhythm and shifts in register. Talking about Gertrude Stein’s close-cropped assertions in The Making of Americans, Salle said, “It doesn’t matter if you agree, what matters is that she believes it and links it to a rhythm—a concept of social exchange that I find very useful.” Indeed, Stein’s rhythmic bullheadedness has become the attraction—the intention behind the intention. But what did Salle mean by rhythm as social exchange? Sex? Manny Farber argued impressively that Godard’s “ping-pong motion,” an obstinate monotony, became the crucial quality setting his work apart from earlier film, prefiguring Minimalism. After one class, I overheard Salle naming Paul Hindemith as his favorite composer. Complex in meter and abruptly shifting key: was that Salle’s rhythm?
In a recent published exchange with Salle, titled “Thirty Years After,” Hal Foster opens the conversation by recalling, “There was a critique of traditional forms in the 1960s and 1970s that was repudiated in the 1980s, when there was a demand for a return to privileged mediums like painting and sculpture, even though they had been deconstructed by artists who had come before.” Salle responds, “The problem with that, from where I stand, is the assumption that anything was, or ever is, thoroughly deconstructed. That’s one of the things that art does—revive, reconstitute, and so forth.” 10 Later in the conversation, Salle returns to the subject: “But all this energy spent on which medium is the ‘right’ one for our time—I think it’s asking the wrong question. Better to ask in what rhythm something is made—or from what does it suffer. I just don’t think it’s medium-specific.” 11
Salle added, “A certain kind of literalness just makes my heart sink.” He recalled, “The first time I showed paintings in New York, a guy came up to me at the opening, introduced himself as a psychiatrist, and told me he felt excluded by my work. I’ve sometimes wondered about that—he thought the paintings were nihilistic. . . . What I was interested in, and continue to be interested in, is a state of alignment with that flow [of consciousness]. . . . Not an emptiness at all, really. But I now see that it was partly about being young—in my twenties and thirties I would have resisted any kind of too direct an interpretation; now it wouldn’t faze me at all.” 12
Salle’s website includes a page of links to his own selected writings, dating back to a 1978 catalogue essay for a Jack Goldstein exhibition at Hallwalls in Buffalo. 13 Even then he was proposing “metaphoric comparisons” but with that explicative jargon still attached. (Salle’s Bruce High Quality Foundation University course title, “Leave the Theory at Home,” might have been an admonition to himself.) His perspectives on artists are often striking, as when he describes Sherrie Levine’s appropriative art as an “iron-clad decision to make a highly aestheticized, rarefied experience out of a sense of dejection and failure.” 14 Writing recently for Town & Country, he sometimes pushes himself to be too breezy—Rosemarie Trockel “draws like an angel” and “works with a dozen other materials and has near-perfect pitch with all of them.” 15 And one wonders, “Is that all there is?” But Salle’s breeziness comes from a better motive than coexistence with perfume ads. He struggles not to be intellectually intimidating while introducing daunting art to a general public. His perspective on Mike Kelley, as on Levine, foregrounds ambivalent emotion: “It’s hard to love an artist whose primary emotional register is shame.” 16 Salle describes Kelley’s work as “perhaps the saddest that I know,” but notes that Kelley attracted “a big top of cultish, fervent partisans.” His brief, honestly heartfelt description makes one want to look again at Kelley, muse about the culture and have another stab at writing.
P.C. Smith is an artist and writer based in New York.