TERRY FENTON

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Temptation, 1880
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

 

I published this article in the July-August edition of the Edmonton Art Gallery magizine, Update. Unable to publish elsewhere at that time, I often used the magazine to publish my own views. Looking back,, it's a wonder that I survived there until 1987. When Clem Greenberg read the article, he told me that I must have got Rosenblum wrong, that no one would have the presumption to make such a pronouncement as he had. When I showed him Rosenblum's article, he was nonplussed; he just shook his head. I simply thought that Roenblum had stated something often thought but ne'er so foolishly expressed.

 

The New Historical Pantheon

Lichtenstein, Stella, Judd, and Heizer, Rauschenberg and Lewitt: these are the artists claimed by Robert Rosenblum in the January 1981 issue of Art News to make up "our historical pantheon;" these, he maintains, are the artists whose place in history is assured. I repeat: Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Don Judd, Michael Heizer, and a spectrum of artists, presumably including the former, which extends "from [Robert] Rauschenberg to [Sol] Lewitt."

Against these he places a host of lesser artists, and then asks a question about the artists whose work is advertised in art magazines and sells well but whose exhibitions are never reviewed in those same magazines, and whose work is seldom, and most likely never, purchased by art museums. Rosenblum's question is in two parts. Does the work of these artists, he asks, constitute the "other 20th century"? and if it is studied, will that study be illuminating?

It's an interesting question, but as it stands it's not likely to provoke much argument. The artists Rosenblum points to exist, certainly, and the study of them as a social and cultural phenomenon would certainly yield something: much more, no doubt, than would the study of their art. That's not the problem, as I see it. I can't really quarrel with Rosenblum's "other 20th century," but I do quarrel -- and how I quarrel! -- with his perception of "our historical pantheon."

Rosenblum's "other 20th century" includes LeRoy Neiman, Simbari, Bernard Buffet and a host of other artists whose work is sold to philistines. He compares what they represent to the "other 19th century," taking his phrase from the title of an exhibition of 19th century salon art organized and circulated in 1980-81 by the National Gallery of Canada (The Other Nineteenth Century; Paintings and Sculpture from the Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Joseph M. Tanenbaum, was shown at The Edmonton Art Gallery from December 8, 1978 to January 14,1979 as part of a nationwide tour. Mr. Rosenblum saw the exhibition at The Glenbow Museum in Calgary.) Most of the artists included in that exhibition are all but forgotten today, but many of them were famous in their own time. They were the "giants" of the salon. They didn't just sell to philistines through slick promotion. Not at all! Their customers were sophisticated, indeed, and proud of their taste. They were by no means hostile to "high art" ­ in fact, they believed the art they aquired to be high indeed. Their art dominated the salons, and they in turn dominated the art books and the museums. They were commonly believed to constitute the "historical pantheon" of their own time: Alma Tadema, Lord Leighton, Bouguereau, Meissonnier, Dalou...

Manet wasn't among them; nor were Monet, Renoir, or Pissarro ­ known of, but not generally admired. Cézanne was all but unheard of in the late 19th century, and his young admirer, van Gogh, proved to be a madman. The great art of the latter 19th century, the art that we treasure in museums today, wasn't treasured by museums then. "Sophisticated" taste preferred the salon; it preferred the academy.

Mr. Rosenblum implies, then, that the "historical pantheon" of a century ago differs from "our historical pantheon" in one important respect: that a century ago the best artists were not known or admired by critics, historians, and curators, whereas today's best artists are known, are supported, and are admired. They have prominent places in the museums and magazines. They're taught by "hip" art historians. Rosenblum believes that the spectrum of art "from Rauschenberg to Lewitt" is not just the museum art of today, but the museum art of the future. That's where I quarrel with "our historical pantheon," and that's where I disagree with many of my colleagues in museums and elsewhere. If I'm a member of the jury that deliberates upon today's "pantheon," the jury is a hung jury, the jury is still out.

Mr. Rosenblum seems to believe that he and the art world the art world have become become wise and prescient. I don't know why he believes that it has, and if he really does so believe, I'm amazed; but if he doesn't, think how many curators and critics and historians do! A curator (now a museum director) said to me more than a decade ago, "we know so much more today." And so we do; that I can't dispute. But if we know more, we've grown more complacent in the face of that knowledge; and worse yet, we've grown to confuse knowledge with taste. I see no strong evidence that taste has improved to match increased knowledge. In comparison with its 19th century equivalent, today's art world professes to admire the other side of the coin, but unfortunately it's the same coin. We've educated ourselves far beyond what the 19th century would; Rosenblum, I'm sure is enormously more "educated" than Ruskin was, but what have we gained? When it came to the art of his contemporaries, Ruskin's taste was far from perfect. Rosenblum's is worse.

But this avoids the art, and art is the issue. I've seen a certain amount of work by artists in Rosenblum's "Pantheon" -- in fact, I once shared something of his enthusiasm for one of them, Frank Stella, but that was in the 1960s when Stella's art was better and when I was more taken with the art magazines and with ''philosophy" than I am today. But even in the '60s his art was usually too correctly drawn and designed, too "pat." His drawing and design occupied the mind superficially: that is, at the expense of the eye. But Judd's sculpture is more designed still, much more designed. How "pat," how "set," how boxed and bland, For the most part, his and Lewitt's is an art of the deadpan and bland, of the "aesthetics of boredom" which equates high seriousness with tedium.

So much of the new "pantheon's" art is literary, insofar, at least as it pretends to be "philosophical." And how philosophical it pretends to be! Artists nowadays profess to be interested in "structures" and in "language" after the fashion of recent French and English philosophers. I don't mean to call English and French philosophy into question, but philosophy isn't art and language, language especially, isn't vision, no more than Ruskin's high-flown religious interpretations were vision.

Because, notwithstanding its high-falutin pretensions, the other 19th century hasn't changed. "Revival" be damned, it's as mediocre as it always was! Alma Tadema was shown at the Metropolitan Museum a few years back, and was included in The Other Nineteenth Century. He's no Degas. He could lay out pictures beautifully; he even had a sense of colour -- always bright and clear -- but drawing and finish always destroyed what colour and design suggested. His pictures are neat, lifeless, and "literary." How much like the art of today's pantheon! The same holds true for Lord Leighton, one of the most acclaimed artists of his time. One of the better pictures in The Other Nineteenth Century was a Leighton oil sketch. But it was small and, above all, it lacked "finish." The same thing happens with some of today's abstract art. Frank Stella's works on paper can be beautiful and even "sensitive," but how often they die when they're enlarged. I haven't yet seen a good Lewitt or a Lichtenstein that's better than passable, and, in my opinion, Rauschenberg is one of the most overrated painters of our time. He can't put a picture together.

So who are my pantheon candidates? Of the abstract painters and sculptors, Jules Olitski is, certainly, as is Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, Helen Frankenthaler, Friedl Dzubas, and Robert Motherwell. These artists, I have to admit, are all "formalists." But what a misnomer! "Formalism," presumably, is cold and empty, is consumed with "ideas" rather than "feeling," whereas theirs is the only abstract art of "feeling" that I've seen recently: their art and the art of their younger contemporaries.

The predicament of those younger in New York and elsewhere, concerns me more than the predicament of the artists I've mentioned. For, in varying degrees the older artists occupy a part of the "pantheon," a small part, no doubt, and in some cases no more than a lower corner. Nevertheless, their place is moderately secure ­ just as Monet's was in the late 19th century: liked but not well liked. They rose to prominence during the '60s. Their art is represented (although seldom in depth) in museums around the world.

This isn't the case with the abstract painters and sculptors who emerged or matured in the 70s: Larry Poons, Daryl Hughto, Michael Steiner, Stanley Boxer, and Darby Bannard are probably the best known, but they're hardly a part of any generally-accepted "pantheon." Their art has seldom been seen in the museums and never in a big way; it has seldom been discussed in feature articles in the art magazines; and some of their exhibitions with dealers haven't even been reviewed. This neglect is excused because the artists in question belong, supposedly, to the "establishment"! To be "established," in their case, means to share something of the neglect enjoyed by LeRoy Neiman, Simbari, and Bernard Buffet. But compared to some of their colleagues in New York, in England, and across Canada, these artists are established, indeed. How many museums own works by Dan Christensen, Robert Christie, Peter Hide, Doug Haynes, Larry Zox, Terrence Keller, Kikuo Saito, John Griefen, Paul Fournier, James Wolfe, John McLean, Carol Sutton, Alan Reynolds?

I'm not suggesting that these are the only good artists that are neglected nowadays there are many more -- but the list does suggest that "another 1970s" does exist, and that the artists who make it up are not yet candidates for "our pantheon." Whether they will only time and the survival of their art will tell. I confess, I'm not prescient