Andrew Forge writes about the painter Frank Auerbach and the writer Robert Hughes, and about works of art in a dark age

  • Nothing if not critical by Robert Hughes
    Collins Harvill, 429 pp, £16.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 00 272075 2
  • Frank Auerbach by Robert Hughes
    Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £25.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 500 09211 7
  • Figure and Abstraction in Contemporary Painting by Ronald Paulson
    Rutgers, 283 pp, $44.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 8135 1604 8

The New York art scene in the Eighties presented spectacle of almost unrelieved decadence, in which the ‘virtues’ of the Reagan era ruled. In this desert of greed, vanity and corruption one could always rely on the tonic of Robert Hughes pieces in Time and the New York Review of Books, now collected. He lays about him splendidly, not sparing any link in the chain that tethers artists to their time, from the studio to the dealers and their pimps, and to the final rings in the wall, the museums He writes with a marvellous fluency and variety of voice – Sancho Panza of the outback, baggy-eyed fashion freak who has seen absolutely everything, measured historian, joker, unruffled lover of painting. If only there were more like him, one thinks sentimentally. But how could there be?

Most of these essays are reviews of exhibitions and they are sandwiched between longer pieces of sustained attack, the first about the fall of New York’s centrality, the last about the art boom and its consequences. And as a hilarious tail-piece he reprints his Popeian pastiche, the SoHoiad that appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1984:

As Fame’s posterior bugle softly blows,
What stench now fills the unsuspecting nose?
Pervasive, fruity, sulphurous, full and ripe.
It is the odour of an Art World Hype!
The statue shudders and is proven soon
No solid monument, but a Balloon!

It took six more years for the balloon to burst and for the frenzied dashing of the Eighties to give way to today’s gloomy freeze. Dealers despair, yesterday’s stars and their collectors look angrily this way and that, nobody knows what anything is worth and honest painters, used to hard times, tell each other that it is all for the good. But I doubt if anything has changed. The targets of Hughes’s scorn may be reeling now but his analysis remains topical and they will soon be back. The art machine will crank itself up for another round of frenzied business. For it to do otherwise, to shrink, to look about for criteria other than fashion, would be inimical to the state of the culture – just as painting itself in any serious sense is inimical to the culture.

The condition that Hughes is describing is the mutation of creative experiment into fashion. This is the mortal sickness that did for Paris and will do for New York and London and any other city that is carried away by the imperialist myth of an art centre. Hughes surveys its symptoms. There are two in particular that I should like to bring out. First, the loss of continuity represented by the inability of so many of today’s stars to draw. Second, the matter of photo-reproduction.

Comparing our fin de siècle with the last one, he reminds us that in the 1880s painting was still the dominant visual code. There was, so to speak, a contract of representation, based on drawing. Deviations, experiments, were registered against that contract. The camera rendered the contract obsolete Abstract art annulled it. Painting was no longer ‘our index of the real’. Experimental painting, having surrendered its purchase on the real world, lost its radical potential and was ripe for takeover by fashion. A generation of abstract artists grew up who had been taught by abstract artists: the discipline of formal investigation from nature through drawing was dead. Here it should be pointed out that Hughes is overstating the case: there are schools in America where drawing is taught with great intensity; there are others where it is not taught at all.

Meanwhile, the mechanical media offered representations that were more immediate, more ‘stupidly compelling’, than painting could ever be, even at its most propagandist. TV deals with imagery, not substance, not presence, and this ‘combined with the abstractness of institutional art teaching produces a fine art culture given over to information and not experience’ – a culture without a past. Speaking of the typical collector of the Eighties, Hughes says: ‘The idea of a present with continuous roots in history, where artists’ every action is judged by the unwearying tribunal of the dead, is as utterly alien to them as it is to the average American art student, raised like a battery chicken on a diet of slides.’

He gives a funny account of being an art student in Australia when the hegemony of New York was unchallenged. Everything – Leonardo, Barnett Newman – had to be learned from slides and reproductions. ‘But reproduction is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex: in Australia, without knowing it, we were anticipating that worthless “freedom” from the original art object, the sense of floating among its media clones, which would be so lauded in Eighties New York as part of the post-modernist experience.’

One can’t help reflecting that when Walter Benjamin first diagnosed the effects of mechanical reproduction sixty years ago, it was to welcome it as a liberation. Works of art were being released from their aura, their unique place in space and time, their roots in the past, their ties to social ritual. Reproduction universalises, moving art towards the masses. His optimism contrasts sadly with the ‘worthless freedom’ of latter days.

There is no mystery about what gets left out in a slide of a picture: its actual size. This means that the physical link between picture and its maker is gone, and with it, the on-looker’s relationship to it as an object in the world. What is left is information, stylistic information, compositional information, iconographic information and so on, all disembodied. And yet it is on the basis of this often trivial information that an overwhelming proportion of the discourse about painting takes place, from the art historian in research to critics, collectors and curators making crucial choices. Far from being liberated by photography, a painter is likely to feel trapped in an obligatory misrepresentation. Some painters, that is. For there is a choice: to swim with the current or against it. To swim with it is to agree that painting is merely one (classy) way among many of mediating images. This is the Warhol line, and it ends with the deplorable Jeff Koons in charge. To swim against it is to insist that there is a certain channel for the imagination, a way of relating to the world that is defined uniquely by painting. Where does such a belief come from? It is easy to rehearse sociological arguments, to attribute it to the prestige of museums, to art classes at an early age, low-level cultural brain-washing. But these accounts have come to seem less and less convincing. One has known too many people whose attraction to painting, whether as viewers or as painters, seemed unbidden and inexorable, and to whom the symbolic manipulation of form in the light and substance of paint on a flat surface seemed like a biological necessity.

The counter-example to everything Hughes excoriates in SoHo is Frank Auerbach. His monograph is extremely well illustrated. The drawings come across with depth and range and the paintings have been photographed with close and unexaggerated attention to their surface. The colour is remarkably well-balanced, although there is a certain picked-out effect in places. For Hughes, his subject is exemplary His account is centred in the coaly fastness of Auerbach’s studio but one is continually reminded in negative, as it were, of that other world beyond, of the art scene and its failures. Hughes brings out Auerbach’s persistence, his self-critical unease, the depth of his roots in the culture of painting, his allegeiance to drawing, the carnal presence of his work. A lesser critic might have made myths out of all this – the thick paint, the fanaticism, the terribilita. But there is a realistic steadiness and an accuracy about Hughes’s account that make the book compelling, not only because of how it studies the artist but because of how it reflects the needs of an integrated and highly imaginative mind, the author’s.

At times, face to face with pictures, even the most sophisticated rhetoric will sound strained. Then it seems that the project of translation is an impossible one, given the unstable, feverish interaction between word and image, the endless ways in which meaning flickers between name and not-yet-named, the nature of recognition itself, its boundaries stretching all the way from brute perception to the most elaborated reaches of pictorial culture.

The greatest art writers have often side-stepped: Ruskin going on about clouds and rocks in order to capture his Turner, Baudelaire writing his greatest piece around a minor illustrator whom he could re-invent. Ronald Paulson is at his best when he is hammering out parallels between writers and painters, when he can lay a text over a picture and work up a fit. The essays collected here were written between 1977 and 1984, at the same time as he was writing his Representations of Revolution. The Ideas in that book provide the schema he brings to the art of his generation and the one before. He is interested in two kinds of fiction in relation to painting: the stories that artists tell themselves in order to shape what they do, and the stories critics tell the artists in orer to shape what they have done; and in particular, how the traffic between these two kinds of fiction has touched on the ebb and flow between abstraction and figuration. It is a promising theme but these essays are so weakly organised and his language so awkward and rebarbative that one’s interest tends to collapse. Mine revived when he discussed the titles of de Kooning’s paintings. Surprisingly, he sees ‘a crisis of the visual and the verbal’ in Abstract Expressionism – and he is very good on Balthus and Bacon, bringing writers, Artaud, Bataille and Eliot, into close conjunction with the pictures.