Questioning Contemporary Art I (1971)



 Touring the galleries and museums in New York, it becomes increasingly obvious that we are surrounded by the wreckage of the modern art movement. It has crashed, and crashed hard.


 Near the Guggenheim Museum, two batches of long-haired, red, yellow and grey-clad, sweat-clothed little midgets from St. David's School pipe "block that kick, block that kick" as they whoop to Central Park for their daily bout of physical education supervised by a bellowing coach calling for a double line. "Hey, what'd I tell ya? We aren't goin' anywhere till you form a double line."


 On entering the Robert Mangold exhibition (through January 2nd), all life and vitality end.


 Can anyone of thoughtful mind believe that Mr. Mangold is accomplishing something of lasting artistic merit in his "W Series Central Vertical", "W Series Central Diagonal 1A", "1/2 X Series"? The "X" paintings, five (count 'em, 5) 3 x 5-foot grey-white canvases, have one slightly varied, pencilled X running nearly from corner to corner in each.


 Such an exhibition makes it is clear that the little fellows trotting off to Central Park have missed the boat. There is hope, however, that once their childish joy in life has been outgrown (or subdued), they too will someday get down to the serious business of life, working from stale formulas in sterile studios.


 On the way to the Museum of Modern Art and the Tony Smith exhibition, one encounters "Love" in Central Park. It is not the love that occupies a bench near the duck pond, nor the kind taking place in the hippopotamus wallow.


 No. This is "Love" Indiana Style. Robert Indiana is his name and "Love" is his game. A 10 to 12-foot high steel rendition of that famous four letter word lies piled two by two upon itself at the 59th Street end of the Park.


 Aside from the very basic fact that this stack of rusting metal is not a sculpture, having less sculptural qualities than the nearby lamp-post bases, it is one of those forcings of an issue, the loud pretense of an emotion or idea that no longer exists but we perhaps wish it did.


 Tony Smith is preoccupied with triangles and pyramids at the Museum of Modern Art through January 31st. A triangular platform forty-five feet to the side rests on the hallowed MOMA floor, its surface incised by endless triangles. Along each side of it, five pyramids reside in all their three-dimensional glory. Inside this pointed enclosure rest three solitary, regularly placed (you guessed it) pyramids.


 Mr. Smith tells us he is after monumentality and drama, and that the color red came from some other pyramid he knows about and memories of an Orozco fresco at Dartmouth. But it seems the work is more about oppressive regularity and the stifling of the human spirit. Oh, yes. He just got through designing a parking lot, then decided to do his triangles and pyramids.


 Art is in a mess. People speak of the freedom allowed contemporary artists. It is an illusion. There is a very strong academy today. The hard-edge, geometric academy.


 But freedom also assumes the will, courage, ability and responsibility to do something meaningful on an independent basis. The truth is, most artists don't know what to do, where to turn, what "style" to copy next. Few are motivated by the inner drive and significant personal vision that all top-level artists have had and must have. They blow in the wind. Hard-edged, geometric forms are in fashion? "Oh, well, I guess I'll crank out a few and make it while the making's good." That's why there are so many movements following each other in succession. There is no real depth of purpose behind most of them except the monetary one.


 What we need now and need badly, are some honest artists with courage enough to follow their own vision as immune as possible to the blandishments of the moneyed establishment that will corrupt them if it can. But the saving grace (pathetic as it is in the continuing disregard of significant artists) is that the establishment won't touch these painters because they are honest and are painting (hopefully, somewhere they're painting) gutty pictures that the culture merchants, accustomed to thinking in aesthetic cliches, can't understand and won't accept.


 A true, powerful realism is coming back. The signs are everywhere. A fresh breath of reality to wipe away the sterility of the industrial designers. These genuine realists, with blood in their veins, will attract lesser talents, the calendar painters and others, the pseudo-Wyeths. That's inevitable. But there will be a hard core of powerful creative painters to set art back on its feet again. That's a prediction.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms