Warhol’s Respectability

Nicholas Penny

  • The Revenge of the Philistines by Hilton Kramer
    Secker, 445 pp, £12.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 436 23687 7
  • Gilbert and George by Carter Ratcliff
    Thames and Hudson, 271 pp, £14.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 500 27443 6
  • British Art in the 20th Century edited by Susan Compton
    Prestel-Verlag (Munich), 460 pp, £16.90, January 1987, ISBN 3 7913 0798 3

In February 1976 Hilton Kramer gave his approval to Philip Pearlstein’s ‘remorseless articulation of the authentic’. In November of the following year he alerted his readers to the absence, in the art of David Hockney, of ‘the spiritual quest at the heart of modernism’. Several years later, in June 1981, he gave warning that the stained canvases of Morris Louis, the leading member of the ‘Washington Colour School’, did not represent the breakthrough that other critics had announced. In May 1983 he declared that Fairfield Porter ‘is going to have to be recognised as one of the classics of our art’. As for ‘neo-expressionism’ and ‘maximalism’, the latest, or almost the latest, thing, he notes that, unlike Pop Art, which made an equivalent noise in the world, it ‘looked to be in dead earnest’. And Kramer seems to believe that Julian Schnabel, the leading exponent of this sort of painting, is also going to have to be recognised as one of the classics of our art. In a piece first published in the third volume of Art of Our Time (as the catalogue of the Doris and Charles Saatchi collection is so portentously entitled) he welcomes the way that, with Schnabel, painting has become ‘grave, mysterious and messy again’.

As former critic of the New York Times, now editor of the New Criterion, Kramer is a powerful figure in the American art world, and his verdicts on the various star artists considered in the reviews which he has chosen to republish in this anthology are of undoubted interest to the historian of fashion. But what makes the book worth examining at some length here is the attention devoted throughout to ‘modernism’, its origins, its prospects, and the institutions and ideas which make it possible. Taken separately, Kramer’s articles often seem, and sometimes are, cogent and outspoken. When we have read the whole book, however, we can see that his position is muddled, and far less courageous than he would like us to think.

Two characteristics of the art of the Sixties and early Seventies agitate Kramer as they must any serious commentator on modern art. One is the earnest social aspirations and concern for the environment which lay behind such developments as Land art, Performance art, Living sculpture, Body art and Community art. Kramer is unimpressed by Robert Smithson’s ‘ambition ... to break with the conventions of studio production and museum exhibitions in order to create an art that would stand in a more intimate and vital relationship to the world of nature and to the man-made social environment’. (Smithson made arrangements of different-sized bins filled with varieties of stones or sand.) Nor does he like the work of Charles Simonds, who had films made of himself naked, lying, or writhing about, in clay – a ‘telltale sign,’ observes Kramer, ‘of an immaculate, urban middle-class upbringing’. Simonds moved on to making models of primitive landscapes filled with the ‘habitations of an imaginary race of migratory little people’ which have proved popular both with museums and with private collectors.

I haven’t seen the films of Simonds in the mud, nor have I looked with much care into Smithson’s bins, but the style with which Kramer describes the achievements and questions the merits of these artists is sober: he is ‘understanding’ in his headmasterly disapproval. The joke about the middle-class upbringing (no less fair, incidentally, as a comment on mountain poetry, or indeed mountaineering) is uncharacteristic. One suspects, however, that Kramer can’t stand artists like this because they have rejected, or at least expressed distaste for, the grotesque American art world. Simonds is rebuked for inflicting on us his ‘self-invented and self-aggrandising ordeals’ in the slime, but elsewhere Schnabel is commended for his ‘display of energy and ambition’, his ‘lack of inhibition and decorum’, his ‘boisterous’ swagger. There are no jokes about the broken crockery which Schnabel sticks into his pictures as indicating an orderly bourgeois background. Indeed Schnabel is patted on the back for being ‘messy’.

Kramer reports on Simonds’s preparedness to sell his ‘habitations’ – which smack of anti-capitalist thinking – to capitalist collectors or institutions. We are reminded of the scorn which socialist politicians in this country receive from the right-wing press when they are found to be sending their children to private schools. But why isn’t Kramer more indignant with the museums or plutocrats for buying these things? He has some sage reservations concerning the priorities of modern museums, but he is passionately committed to the essentially American idea of the Museum of Modern Art as the place where ‘modernism’ belongs, the stage where it should be produced, and he is not disposed to be critical of big collectors who have their own private museums and play such a crucial role in supporting the public ones.

Artists who dislike this are almost as bad as those who want art to ‘promote awareness’ of such issues as ‘nuclear war, unemployment, toxic waste, feminism’. It is, Kramer observes, ‘theoretically conceivable, perhaps, that there might exist an artist capable of making a significant work of art out of such materials, but I frankly doubt it’ – and yet he considers such artists as Goya, David, Géricault, Daumier and Courbet as the ancestors of modern art and they were all, at least occasionally, inspired by topical political issues.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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