Volume 14, Number 1 (May 2017)
Author: Jonathan Fardy
This paper begins by considering Jean Baudrillard’s claim that “contemporary art is only contemporary with itself”(Baudrillard, 2004:105). Such a position echoes the much repeated thesis today that art has lost its historicity insofar as it no longer believes in, or is compelled by, the idea of “movements” and grand projects to change the course of art’s history. If art has indeed lost its sense of historicity, it is in part because history is no longer conceived as unitary. This paper tarries with the case of Cady Noland, whose art is at once historical and contemporary. Noland’s art mines the historical antimonies of modernist art. Today modern art is as historically marked by its longing for aesthetic purity and autonomy as it is by its heroic mythology and popularity. It is a composite image: pure formalism on the hand and all those faded James Deans of art from Picasso to Pollock. By juxtaposing modernist materials and compositional tropes with tabloid sensationalism, Noland excavates the complicities that enjoined the discourse of aesthetical “purity” and commercialism. By montaging the styles of Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction (of which her father Kenneth Noland was a leader), Pop and Minimalism, Noland creates a critical re-telling of the fabled years of American art as a means to reflect and reimagine its so-called “contemporary” condition.
I. Fabled Years
In its conventional telling, American modernist art of international standing was all but non-existent prior to the late 1940s. But with America’s post-World War II economic ascendancy, together with the influence exerted by displaced European avant-garde artists seeking refuge mostly in New York, America emerged as the center of modern art. In particular Abstract Expressionism, especially the work of Jackson Pollock, energized American art. Pollock offered a way out of the Cubist grid, which had by that time become something of a gridlock. This at least was the opinion of Clement Greenberg, America’s most powerful critic at mid-century, and Abstract Expressionism’s most vociferous supporter. What Greenberg saw in the Abstract Expressionists, and Pollock in particular, was a manner of painting that seemed to enunciate a more “essential” conception of what painting is. The so-called “poured” paintings that Pollock began making in 1949 eradicated the last remnants of representational art by effacing the figure-ground distinction, the chief compositional principle that had survived even the evisceration of traditional composition under Cubism.1
Pollock’s negation of the Cubist grid was, according to Greenberg, born out of a process of self-criticism, a critique of art articulated through the process of artmaking itself. Greenberg wrote in “Modernist Painting” of 1960, “the essence of modernism, as I see it, lies in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to critique the discipline” (Greenberg, 1993: 85). Through this historical process, he argued, each art would “be rendered ‘pure’ and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standards as well as its independence”(Greenberg, 1993:86).
The critic who picked up the flag of purism after Greenberg was Michael Fried. He threw his support behind the so-called Post Painterly Abstractionists of which Kenneth Noland, Cady Noland’s father, was a leading member. To Fried, Post Painterly Abstractionism represented a “necessary” stage in the process of self-critique by which the medium of painting, and art as a whole, would be rendered yet more pure (Fried, 1965:9). But while Fried was betting on Post Painterly Abstractionism, New York galleries were showing Pop and Minimalism. Despite their stylistic differences, Pop and Minimalism shared a common historical antecedent in found object art, most notably that of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s turn to the object is echoed in Pop’s love of banal commodities like soup cans (Warhol), hamburgers (Oldenburg) and comic strips (Lichtenstein). Likewise, the simple shapes of Minimalism derive from everyday objects such as boxes and shelves. Indeed Donald Judd, one of the founders of American Minimalism, eschewed the term “sculpture” in favor of “specific objects.”
Michael Fried greeted Minimalism with disappointment and eventually derision. In his 1967 essay, “Art and Objecthood,” Fried argued that the object-centered art of Minimalism was a kind of impoverished theatre. Minimalist art, Fried argued, requires an audience to validate its status as an artwork whereas painting and sculpture already exist as recognizable forms of art prior to their materialization. The polished muteness of Minimalism is like props in a play in which the viewer plays the lead role. This for Fried was an abdication of visual art’s calling. Minimalism’s “plea for a new genre of theatre” amounted to nothing less than “the negation of art”(Freid, 1998:153).
The polemics of the Fried-Judd debate seem in retrospect more than a little inflated. The apodictic, anti-illusionism of Minimalism with its clean geometries and polished, industrial surfaces seemed in many ways to continue the ethic of reductionist purity espoused by high modernists. Likewise Pop art might be said to parallel the “hands-off” akin, at least conceptually, to the brushless fields of paint of much Post Painterly Abstractionism. The theatricality Fried detected in the prizing of objecthood by Minimalists (and by extension Pop) ironically seemed to transpose itself into the drama of a decade-long debate during which big claims and high stakes were attached to things like boxes and soup cans. The debate exposed the theatre of American art whose market had come to expect and even demand public controversy, and when needed found the means to create it out of practically nothing.
The apparent dissemblance between Pop and Minimalism, between on the one hand the world of fame and commodities, and on the other that of ‘pure’ form, dramatized and amplified the contradictory logics through which the American art world (for a time), established its cultural imperium. The logic of ‘pure’ form got its polemical sounding board in the elite journals and little magazines that Greenberg and company wrote for, while the aims of American capital found its audiences through publications like Life magazine whose pages relayed an idealized image of America as a consumerist heaven where anything was possible because everything was purchasable. The art of Cady Noland historically ironizes the fact that at the start, the American modernist explosion of the mid-twentieth century got publicity in both media circuits. Noland’s art thinks this double origin not through the terms of “high” and “low” culture, but through shadow archives of complicity and collusion.
Cady Noland’ art retells the fabled years of the American art world of the mid-twentieth century. Through this retelling she critiques the received history of the American art world’s past and its present day conditions. Noland refers to herself as a sculptor, but the look of her work tends towards installation. Like the Minimalists, Noland is keenly aware of the affect that exhibition sites exert on the beholder. By her account she became interested in moving away from what she saw as the “fixed relationship” between space and objects in traditional exhibitions (Kremer and Van Winkel, 2006:158). But she contends that her identity as an installation artist was fabricated by curators who began “mixing and matching unrelated work and installing many pieces in ‘unconventional’ ways close to each other”(Kremer and Van Winkel, 2006:158). Noland’s artist statement functionally exposes the workings of the art world where curators, gallerists, and institutions produce, shape, transform, and market culture.
Noland’s installations are sprawling sites of random refuse and second-hand things. But some objects are motifs: camera parts, chain link fencing, scaffolding, walkers, wheelchairs, piping, beer cans (full, empty, crushed), tires, mops, rubber chickens, toilet seats and American flags. Interspersed throughout, usually leaned up against a wall, are photo-transfers on sheets of aluminum. Images like Patty Hearst, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Charles Manson relays stories of violence beloved by tabloids, which contrasts with the cool gleam abstraction of polished metal. The interplay between the two produces a reflective and refracting cultural space where references proliferate and multiply in an archival echo chamber.
The result is a space that at times resembles the remains of a paparazzi feeding frenzy, an all-night party, a crime scene, a yard sale, or a junk-yard. The polished metallic surfaces recall the specific objects of Minimalism and the media imagery is reminiscent of Pop, while the gleam of the metal recalls the welded works of high modernist sculpture. But the violence of the imagery disturbs the intellectual purity of the specific object, the aesthetical purity of high modernist sculpture, and the celebratory consumerism of Pop. For example, in Publyck Sculpture three white-rimmed tires hang suspended on chains within an enclosing metal frame (Figure 1). The piece is declaratively formalist in its simple geometries. The circles, straight lines, and enclosing frame are lifted from the modernist vocabulary. The frame paraphrases the early work of Minimalists while the repeated circles of the tires recall the radial motifs of the painting of Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland.
But there is also the feeling of torture and gallows about the work, a feeling quickened by the insidious inversion of the innocence of the tire swing, a child’s toy, into a carrier of metaphoric violence. Seen in the context of Beltway Terror, a sculpture of stocks of the sort the American Puritans used to punish and humiliate their heretics. Noland’s ‘publyck’ sculpture obliquely references the enclosing glare of the public imaginary as it is expressed in the mass media. Today’s tabloids are the analog to the stocks of the Puritans. Framed and entrapped, the body-become-tabloid-image is suspended in a system of signs that converts every gesture, no matter how innocent, into a voyeuristic vehicle for public exposure and ridicule, which in turn drives media stocks. American capital under the cover of American Puritanism is exposed in Noland’s brand of hyper-reportage. Noland is in a way an ironic figure of modernist self-criticism. She looks in the tabloids not only for stories of celebrity and violence, but to draw a material parallel between the image of celebrity and art world fame. Indeed the tires of Publyck Sculpture are the same as those that graced the Oldsmobile convertible that Pollock overturned while driving drunk on a country road on Long Island. Two women were riding with Pollock. One of them perished that night in 1956 along with Pollock. Had Pollock survived he may well have been convicted of manslaughter.
The media posthumously crowned Pollock as the quintessential rebel without a cause – “the puffy James Dean of American art” – as Robert Hughes called him. Pollock’s death made the cover of The New York Times, while Life ran the headline “Rebel Artist’s Tragic Ending”(Life, 1956). Noland reveals that potent mix of publicity, celebrity, the commercialism of life and death, beneath the historical veneer of American modernism’s Puritan values of simplicity, truth-to-materials, and anti-illusionism. Noland shows how the modernist opposition to image worked in concert with an unacknowledged debt to its power in shaping the public imagination of American modernist art. The collusion between the rhetoric of form and image is plainly evident in Pollock’s 1949 appearance in Life whose headline boldly asked: “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States” (Life, 1949). Posed conspicuously in his paint-spattered jeans, arms crossed, cigarette drooping from his mouth, the photograph made Pollock into the original bad boy of American art. In an article published shortly before his death Life dubbed Pollock “Jack the Dripper.”
Noland shows us the extent to which the purveyors and promoters of modernist formalism colluded with the power of image and tabloid-style promotion to capture the American public’s fascination. The chief strategy of this unconscious collusion is clear in the representation of Abstract Expressionism as an art born of bad boys and lone rangers. Pollock’s skeins of paint-cum-lasso: the original outlaw of American art. Noland shows that the other side of Greenberg’s rarefied interpretation of Pollock is a Hollywood fiction. As Phillip Monk observes, “Noland’s work deals with the binary opposition of outlaw and celebrity and the transformative act that changes one into the other”(Monk, 1996:23).
Alongside the outlaw, Noland’s work also deploys the figure of the saboteur. Her repeated use of the image of Patty Hearst sporting a machine gun and an urban guerilla’s beret is a recurrent motif. Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, was an art history student at the University of California, Berkeley when members of the left-wing para-military group, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), abducted her and demanded ransom from her family. The abduction created a media frenzy, which expanded exponentially when Patty Hearst announced to the press via audiotape that she had joined the SLA in their armed struggle against American capitalism and imperialism. The Hearst family, very much a member of America’s economic elite, was shocked and publicly embarrassed. The family that had made its fortune in the media industry now found itself at the center of a media firestorm. Things went from bad to worse for the Hearst family when a short time later Patty Hearst was caught on surveillance tape holding up a bank along with her SLA comrades.
The image of Patty Hearst as an armed guerilla posed in front of the SLA flag functions as a dark icon in Noland’s iconography. Hearst as image is an icon to (among other things) self-criticism. The Patty Hearst story, as it played itself out in the news, was a virtual essay in bourgeois self-critique. To all appearances here was a bright, young woman from one of the wealthiest families in America who had chosen to militate against her privilege and the system that made it possible. The Hearst story hyperbolically refracted the protests on college campuses, like Hearst’s alma-mater Berkeley, where students exploited the university system in order to radicalize it from the inside out. Patty Hearst and the college protests on America’s elite campuses are exemplary case-studies in a form of self-critique. Yet the Patty Hearst story was also a story of the failure of self-critique. Captured by the FBI and sentenced to seven years in jail, her sentence was commuted by President Carter after having served 22 months. Later, President Clinton gave her a full pardon shortly before the end of his second term (Ebster, 2004:125-126). The pardon served a national agenda. It restored the Hearst name and with it a cornerstone image of American media and American capital. Self-critical resistance was retroactively defanged through reappropriation and the standing social order of wealth and privilege saved. The media-image of Patty Hearst was transformed from urban guerilla to helpless victim of “terrorism,” a charge that greatly intensified in post-9/11 America. Today Hearst is a celebrity. She has authored a book, been the subject of a documentary, and she continues to crop up on the television and radio circuits.
That self-criticality can fail is a major theme in Noland’s art. In This Piece Doesn’t Have a Title Yet, 11,000 six-packs of beer stacked in various heights scale the gallery walls fenced in by metal scaffolding (Figure 2). Tools left by the artist are scattered throughout the space along with Budweiser logos and American flags; from the ceiling hang red, white and blue vinyl flags of the sort that decorate used car lots. The beer cans riff on the idea of the art world as a high-class party culture, an intoxicating social space of money, fame and celebrity. The beer cans also call to mind the tough, hard-drinking image of the Abstract Expressionists whose rows at the Cedar Tavern in New York have acquired mythological significance. The beer cans also quote from Jasper Johns sculpture of bronzed ale cans. The scaffolding replays the industrial geometry of Minimalism. The repetitive rows upon rows of aluminum cans is reminiscent of Warhol’s soup cans. The art historical references are overdetermined. The work is an abyss of quotation: a vertiginous matrix of codes, histories, and cultural memory. But the meaning of This Piece Doesn’t Have A Title Yet is not exhausted in its historical reworking of modernist art; it also interrogates the contemporary conditions of the American art market.
The beer, scaffolding and flags function as hyper-commodities insofar as they are structured by their price-point value as saleable goods plus their exchange-value as art. The work thus parodies the art market’s ability to sell anything. Willem de Kooning is reported to have once joked that art dealer Leo Castelli could sell a beer can as art, and he did (Stich, 1987:100). Noland’s art exposes the art market to satirical and ironical criticism. This again is a form of self-critique, in this case a critique of the art world by the means offered by the art world. But insofar as Noland’s irony and satire are achieved only within the art market, her criticism is itself commodified. The art market simply labels Noland’s work “commodity critique” and sells it as such. The self-critical edge of Noland’s project fails insofar as it is appropriated into the logic of the art market, but it is seen to fail. The visibility of this failure marshals a meta-critique of the strategy of self-criticism as something which is always open to the threat of market reappropriation.
Twenty years ago Noland disappeared from the art scene (Saltz, 2006). At times she even forbids the showing of her work as in 2006 when Triple Candie gallery in New York failed to secure Noland’s permission for a retrospective (Saltz, 2006). In response, the curators decided to have her works fabricated by various sculptors. The resulting show, which met with mixed reviews, was titled “Cady Noland, Approximately.” It is more than a little ironic that the same artist who in a 1990 interview said that she found the “co-option of Baudrillard into art lingo…lame” became a virtual case study in the effects of simulation (Cone, 2006: 156). Noland’s disappearance reappears at Triple Candie as simulacra. With the Triple Candie show, Noland’s passed beyond the horizon of production and disappeared into the simulacral world of simulation and conspicuous consumption. To the extent that Noland’s disappearance is objectified and codified as meaningful, it perpetuates itself in the theatre of publicity. With the Triple Candie show, Noland became a visible object of public invisibility. This paradoxical theatre of disappearance has in a sense a script and it is found in the pages of Noland’s 1989 text, “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil.
There is a meta-game available for use in the United States. The rules of the game, or even that there is a game at all, are hidden to some. … The game is a synthesis of tactics, played out in the social arena, in which advantage can be gained in an oblique way. … Tabloids already use many of the game’s tactics by foreshortening and cropping celebrities, blowing them up … reducing them to photo-objects. [The game] … may entail stockpiling of real supplies or the gathering up of narcissistic supplies implying a triumph over one’s smallness and the inevitably of one’s own insignificant decay (Noland, 1989:127-129).
Noland’s conception of “evil” can be understood in roughly Baudrillard’s sense. It is not the Evil opposed to the Good, but rather evil as an illogic of opposition that opposes opposition itself. This evil lies, Baudrillard writes, in the diverting of “things from their ‘objective’ existence, in their reversal, their ‘return,’”(Baudrillard, 2004:159). Noland’s art is rife with this evil of reversibility. Stocks can imprison or they can make one rich. The subject position of celebrity is possible only insofar as the subject is perpetually reproduced as image-object. Things, objects, commodities, stocks, stockpiles can be collected, but they can also be discarded, divested, and sold off.
Noland has vanished and yet her specter circulates through a meta-language of reversibility in which her disappearance is repeatedly re-staged and re-dramatized. Witness here Nick Stillman writing for The Nation, “last year  marked the twentieth anniversary of the disappearance from the art world of Cady Noland” (Stillman, 2010). The marking of Noland’s absence has catalyzed an auto-pilot program of publicity. Publicity, like Noland’s persona, is its own spectacle. It is in need of no object beyond itself. This is how Noland’s persona, in the words of Baudrillard, “does not efface itself before emptiness, but before a redoubling of presence which effaces the opposition between presence and absence”(Baudrillard, 2008:11). This redoubling of presence through the public staging of disappearance is part of “the hidden rules of the game” Noland’s art and persona plays. In its way this is still a strategy of self-critique albeit in a form scarcely imaginable by Greenberg. Noland’s spectral art combines the strategy of public disappearance with the tactic of reversibility.
Noland’s post-object art is made of the material of publicity. Noland’s spectral game has opened novel spaces: between form and image, critique and hype, production and consumption, real and simulacral, objecthood and disappearance. Noland’s art has entered an ecstatic field of media affects in which her simulacral image critiques and parodies that art world cocktail of high-minded critique, consumerism, and celebrity.
About the Author
Jonathan Fardy is Professor of Art History at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Hong Kong. He has published articles on art and photography as well as the work of Baudrillard, Sloterdijk, Benjamin, Azoulay and others.
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