A Contemporary Art Checklist

By Cynthia M. Kukla

Neon installation piece above entrance to the Altes Museum, Berlin’s collection of classical antiquities.

What is contemporary art? This increasingly important topic is complex and it is debated with no clear-cut conclusions, since current conditions fold back upon themselves and older conditions re-emerge anew and new technologies create seismic shifts in artistic practices.  My ‘What is contemporary art?’ checklist begins with my quick and dirty definition of ‘contemporary art’ as it has been viewed since the emergence of modern art. This helps set the stage for the understanding of – in 2013 and beyond – what it is we mean by contemporary art.

Modern Art
MA began with J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), in my opinion, look at those late watercolors, all flailing brushstrokes, no shading of forms and no image anywhere. Pure paint, in contradistinction with the Academy, the Salon and standard practice of the day. Cezanne (1839-1906) is not the father of Modernism.

Early, Middle, High and Late Modernism?
Early? the Europeans, Matisse, Picasso, et al. and Stieglitz’s group as a guide to the kind of work that counted. Middle? the Americans beginning with Hopper, Porter, and continuing through very early Abstract Expressionism when DeKooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell used discernable imagery. High? the age of Clement Greenberg and Action Painting, through Color Field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and others. Late? Pop art fits in here, yes? It is somewhat antithetical to the formalist straightjacket of Greenberg and Postmodernism was born more or less by 1980.  Then there is conceptual, earth art and performance art, streaming parallel to the various eras of Modernism, beginning with Duchamp’s much-bandied about conceptual gestures (hasn’t anyone figured out he just didn’t like to paint and couldn’t draw or paint as well as his Dada and Surrealist pals?  It is so obvious.)  Earth art and performance art embrace the political and ecological, and especially the critique of modernism (as in technological, scientific modernism) and as such, these movements move the dialog forward toward Postmodernism.

Postmodernism, was first coined in 1925, according the Webster’s though I recall in a graduate seminar assignment I gave, a student found the word ‘postmodern’ in the very late nineteenth century in various texts.  A seminal Art in America review of Philip Johnson’s architecture put everyone on notice that Johnson’s AT&T building, combining two disparate styles, was Postmodern. Certainly, Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, set forth the notion of knowledge in postmodern society as the end of ‘grand narratives’ or metanarratives.  Since Kant, and possibly some time before, metanarratives were a quintessential feature of modernity, so wisely emphasized by Lyotard. I suggest that an Oneness’ characterizes these metanarratives, that is, we are all one in agreement in, for example, that the gaze is male, for example.  That Europeans, following a brilliant, forward-moving linear trajectory since the early Greeks (though actually it was the Egyptians) confirm European superiority in art, say over, Aboriginal art, art made by women or made by non-Caucasian artists of any gender and sexual orientation.

So, the breakdown began. The result is a plurality of  “language-games,” a term coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Technology and what modern science unleashed on the planet – the atom bomb, two world wars, ecological disaster, plus social upheavals (Viet Nam, etc.) destroyed the great Modernist metanarrative. (This is the folding back on itself I refer to, as Wittgenstein was a pivotal early 20th century philosopher and his analysis had striking potency 50 years later.)  Lyotard’s’s book gives us the term ‘postmodernism’: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives this plurality of small narratives that compete with each other, replacing the totalitarianism of grand narratives.” While Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition has been criticized for embracing relativism, Lyotard states there is objective truth in this multiplicity, because truth is not stable; humans can’t understand all truths and thus, humans will never know objective truth. We are left with fragments, and in my own art work, I title various series of my paintings, all beginning with the title “My Ostraka.”    An ostrakon is a fragment, or shard from pottery or a stone chip onto which a sculptor has sketched out ideas. There is no stability or certainty of ideas, only our attempts to interpret things, to sift among fragments of information. This is a crucial element of ‘postmodernism.’

Craig Owen published his early definition of ‘postmodernism’ and we sense the more-or-less collapse of Modernism, in his two-part journal article for October in Spring 1980 and Summer 1980. In the first part, Owen says that, “Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery.”  For Owens, what he sees as different in certain contemporary artists of the 1970’s and 80’s was a studio practice that revealed such allegorical impulses. Appropriation was heavily in play in the work of Richard Prince (Marlboro Man, pulp novel covers, especially his Nurses) and Sherrie Levine’s brazen appropriations of master artists’ photographs, like Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs that she rephotographed and called her own. She repainted small Mondrians, and so on, folding their mastery into her oeuvre. I take umbrage with this, but I am pointing out what postmodern practice was, even if I myself didn’t copy say, Matisse and sign my name. Craig Owen also referenced Walter Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, where allegory is linked to impermanence, gathering together fragments and what Owen saw as an obsessional accumulation of forms and objects. (Installations are born here.)

Thus, Postmodern art became ‘systems analysis’ and exudes irony instead of authority. Its wry glance is at best exemplified in the enduring work of John Baldessari. He purposely used, initially, low-art black and white photo references to dispense with authority.  For example, he covered the faces of grainy black and white photos of 40’s politicos and hucksters with bright painted circles (instead of the small black bar over the eyes of people photographed, so newspapers could avoid lawsuits.)  The paintings were immediately funny. Or he painted serpentine colored lines that snakes through what seemed to be disparate mosh ups of photo images, helping us see connections among disconnected pictures. Unlike early 20th century photomontages that showed the tender feeling the artist had for the actuality of each scrap of typography juxtaposed with photo-reproduced faces, automobiles or city buildings that were assembled into a collage abstraction, Baldessari wittily and ironically juxtaposed similar grainy tabloid-like photos into a let’s-undermine-high-art whole.

Post studio/Post production

We are in it and so it is still being written as artists head off to Home Depot for art supplies for their latest installations or call up a local machine shop, upholsterer or if the artist lives in a big city, he or she calls up a swank fabricator a gallery dealer recommended.  We don’t need studios anymore, just a place to sit with a computer and our Starbuck’s coffee.

In a lot of graduate school catalogs, it is found that “post-studio practice provides space for investigating emerging and unconventional forms of visual and conceptual expression. Students will be challenged to work across multiple disciplines and fields of knowledge, both visual and non-visual. They will gain experience working within different systems of inquiry simultaneously, reflecting the reality of art practices today…to catalyze social exchange through interactive media such as installation, video / film, sound, computer / web based media, site-specific and research driven processes, and collaborative or community oriented projects. The curriculum offers a critical examination of the interrelations between artists, their works, and their intended audiences.” I am thinking of the new PhD’s in art and theory that artists are encouraged to receive.  James William Mallory Turner, you must be truly sad reading this. Did you know he completed over two thousand paintings and twenty thousand drawings and prints in his career? I only add this as I think of some of the wan gestures taking place in post-studio spaces now.

A nod goes to Roberta Smith who writes for the New York Times, “to cite the most obvious example — being an artist, should be individuation and difference, finding a voice of your own. Instead we’re getting example after example of squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism…. We cannot live by the de-materialization — or the slick re-materialization — of the art object alone. What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.”1

My Contemporary Art Checklist 

Everything at Gagosian Galleries.

The art embraces the synthetic.
Back in the day, there were the “L.A. Plastic” artists such as Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and John McCracken.  The best of these new L.A. artists was Ron Davis who created the first, major, purely plastic picture.  It was on view at the Pacific Standard Time exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art I reviewed for Aeqai in 20122. Also, historically, Lynda Benglis should be mentioned.  Lynda Benglis’ early 1970’s sculpture shared this outré sensibility, using polyurethane foam, phosphorescent pigments, poured pigmented latex, florescent colors, iridescent cellophane, glitter and metallic effects.  The stage was set for new synthetic materials and processes.

Now, in our post studio world, Wayde Guyton folds canvas into an Epson printer, the printer ink leaving the image, erratic when the printer and canvas weave are not in alignment. The regularity of the printer ink as it gums up, fades, bumps over the canvas weave is a substitute for working by hand. Brilliantly, the curator of a show of paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago where one of Guyton’s Epson printer paintings was viewed, where the gist of the show as using technology instead of a brush, was titled “Phantom Limb.”

Peter Halley’s digital prints on banner cloth and his paintings, those made with numerous – thirty to forty layers – of bright acrylic spray paint, neon colors and flocking scream synthetic, always have. They virtually glow and have no touch of the hand evident.  They are too richly colored and idiosyncratic to be confused with something you buy at IKEA, yet their embrace of the machine-made gives them that unattainable look of perfection the hand cannot match.

For this article, my pick for artist who embraces the synthetic most poignantly is Huma Bhabha. Other artists qualify, of course, but space allows for only the first person I would pick.  It is Bhabha. Her sculptures are figural and refer to traditional sculptural figures in format: the portrait bust, standing figure (kouros) and tomb figure. The works, though, are bordering on the frightening in their use and abuse of synthetic materials in conjunction with humble materials like clay and wood. Cheap plastic masks function as armature for portrait heads, common packing Styrofoam are armatures for standing figures with much of the Styrofoam purposely left visible. Bhabha’s sculptures look like surviving artifacts from a nuclear or ecological disaster and her love of science fiction is evident in the alien-like feeling these sculptures convey.  Her drawings and photographs have a similar brutish and deeply felt impact.

An interest in historical and archival research,
Artists create research-intensive installations.  I think of Goshka Macuga’s digital tapestry Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not, a lengthy, two-part two photo-based black-and-white digital tapestry commissioned by Documenta 13 which was part of her solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.  Everything about it was strategic and research based, a view of the Orangerie in Afghanistan with photoshopped art curators from the Middle East and from the West.  A photoshopped cobra rises ominously in the foreground. Other examples are found in all the international surveys/fairs, biennials, museum shows and contemporary gallery spaces.

The history of installation art is so rich and global, harking back to tribal and village practices, that it is a continuing artistic impulse as old as painting, in my opinion. Sarah Sze and Magdalena Campos-Pons (who was featured in a seminal solo exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art) are featured in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Sze installation is showcased in the U. S. Pavilion and the U.S. Biennale committee has in recent times showcased only installations. Sze’s work is more synthetic than Campos-Pons, yet both use archival research, photo-documentation and complex reference systems and new media fully. (See below.) All the international surveys/fairs, biennials and museum shows are heavily-slanted with installations.

Artist curating her/his show and its exhibition space
The goal is creating a dialogue between artistic and curatorial practice; too self-conscious for me most of the time. In the hands of a sensitive and mature artist like Ann Hamilton, the work is brilliant (and Hamilton has a complex narrative and set of objectives beyond the curating trope.)

Embrace of Photoshop
Remember when Photoshop was first launched and everyone who took their hand at maneuvering the mouse and menu created stiff and clumsy ‘computer art’? The skill set of artists has increased remarkably and seductive, mesmerizing work results: Mathew Richie’s complex linear webbing in paintings and laser-cut metal sculptural accoutrements.  And vinyl decals, extending the framed paintings onto the wall, giving a mini-installation mode. Richie gets both worlds, painting by hand and adding computer generated (repetitive, perfect) line elements. Frans Ackerman benefits from Photoshop too.  Interestingly, I recall an article in Art in America where the reviewer could not believe that Al Held made his dazzling and spatially complex new paintings by hand. Yet Held’s paintings had the authority of a complex system in play.  Yes, the human brain.

Embrace of Photography as aesthetic trope and mechanical aid
Remember when “illustrational” was a dirty word?  Remember how many times your professors said your work was “too illustrational?” We aren’t talking Gibson Greeting card illustrational here, we are talking Elizabeth Peyton or Karen Killimnick illustrational.  Using an opaque projector exclusively and nakedly.  It’s OK now.

This straightforward practice is very unlike Sigmar Polke, who let himself be photographed working in the semi-darkness, painting from a projected photograph of an engraving from the French Revolution as a foundational element.  Then Polke, ever the shaman, mixed his brew of colorants and additives to make lovely, lavenderish, shimmery paintings you couldn’t photograph.  I tried, at the Venice Biennale, and though I was annoyed, I was jazzed by Polke’s ironic triumph. His point, which I applaud, is that there needs to be more, much more to a compelling image that tracing from a photograph. Commissioned specially for the 2009 Venice Biennale, Pinault bought the entire suite.

And bravo for graphic novels, roaring into museum shows after a long adolescence in the backstreets, to special zine fairs and now to the big time. Chris Ware’s graphic novel “Building Stories” was featured as one of the top ten books for 2012, this a triumph on many levels. Ware does not use photography in his work, but many graphic novel artists rely on, understandably, extensive photo archives.


Sigmar Polke’s installation of paintings at the 2007 Venice Biennale

Video has been around for over half a century and digital video has ramped up its usage by a lot of artists. Splendid videos are seen alongside boring ones everywhere. I feel the brilliance of great video artists, like Bill Viola, whose video in a small church in Venice during the 2007 Biennale was stunning, actually all of his videos are, is diminished by such a deluge of video. Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch’s videos capture most of the criteria
I set forth for ‘contemporary art’ and stunningly represent their generation’s aesthetic maxims.  They too are in this year’s Venice presentation. Make a video, everyone is doing it.

This checklist needs to be much longer but this is a start.  I leave you with a great quote from Roberta Smith: “These things should be understood by now:  the present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.”3

1.     Post-Minimal to the Max, February 14, 2010 New York Times.
2.     https://aeqai.org/2012/04/letter-from-los-angeles/
3.     Post-Minimal to the Max, February 14, 2010 New York Times.

Cynthia Kukla

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