The Problem of Contemporary Art (1970)



 If an artistic genius were by some miracle to appear in this age of mediocrity, he would find endless subjects for his brush in New York City despite the indications of proliferating theorists of the square. Buildings, store windows, the docks, ships, multi-colored taxi-cabs -- the color and energy of the city -- as well as the expressions on people's faces and the slump of their postures that tell the story of the city's toll and the course of their individual destinies.


 It's easier though, if you're an artist, to ignore reality. It's easier to leave the street and the problems of men behind and retreat to your studio where you can consider the essence of the intellect. The things that really matter. There you can decide whether to paint a red square or a blue one. Or whether you want ten stripes or eleven in your latest stripe painting.


 Don't let life and death, injustice, physical and emotional suffering, hunger, brutality or all the nameless hard-felt longings and desires of men -- much less irrelevancies like artistic beauty, meaning and purpose -- interfere with the important decision you're about to make. That neon tube you're going to call a sculpture. Do you want it seven feet long...or eight?


 Leaving the Whitney Museum on a warm, late August, Saturday afternoon, and walking toward the Metropolitan, one work each by Mark Rothko and Frank Stella leave with you. The cold, concentration camp architecture of the Whitney is the ideal home for these works. Stella's painting, a series of arching stripes just to the left of the entrance, reflects the anti-human, unfeeling intellectuality that freezes the soul today. More exercises in the facility of the mind, shrewd clevernesses untouched by any deeper feeling or meaning. Rothko, with the blurred outlines of his rectangles, is scarcely better. Both are obvious examples why all great artists have distrusted the mind alone, unwarmed by the emotions.


 We have profound emotional needs today that are not satisfied by the life we live, that concrete, steel, glass and the "abstract" cannot satisfy. We need reality as never before. Real grass, real air, real space, real contact with real people, and real art based on real experience. Instead, we have bleating commercials telling us the "real thing" that will satisfy our longings is a soft drink loaded with chemicals, preservatives and artificial flavorings that's going to rot our teeth and erode our systems.


 That's why it is so unpleasant to encounter "Endless Column," a fifty-foot lick of red rising among the green trees south of the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue at 79th Street. "Endless Column," a fire engine-red metal "sculpture" in the form of a vertical zig-zag with a broad bottom bolted to a concrete pad, has eight zigs and eight zags. Something for everybody.


 This is just what we don't need. More intellectual busy work. The "artist" sends his plans to a welding firm and they knock it out for him. The personal touch. As a sculpture, an exploration in the articulation of space, it's a flop, strictly a two-dimensional cut-out. The crane that hauled it into place was a more meaningful sculpture.


 Sponsored by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, "Endless Column," and endless other examples like it, is a symptom of the creative helplessness of sponsoring groups who want to be involved in the arts, don't know anything about them, then play into the hands of the "experts" by hiring gallery directors or their own curatorial "specialists" who push their creatively retarded artists on a baffled public.


 Yes, "Endless Column" can be rationalized as an expression of our technological age. But so is the Hudson River, destroyed by sewage and industrial poisons, an expression of our age. If industry and big business must slowly (or is it now rapidly) devour us all, reducing us to lungless automatons who mindlessly buy their cars, eat their artificial foods and strive earnestly for "whiter whites"...let us at least keep one small patch of green where we can refresh ourselves and attempt to keep our souls and individuality alive...the arts.


 But, is "Endless Column" that cultural oasis where you can refresh yourself in man's richer feelings? Can it make you forget about the wars, the bread that tastes like Kleenex, the heart attack you're going to have at thirty-seven, and the fact that you're a prisoner in your apartment because someone with a sharp or blunt instrument wants to make a withdrawal from his


 After its summer lull, the art season is about to begin. Prepackaged art works, offspring of the passionless rape of art by industry and the computer, will shamelessly roll off the Madison Avenue assembly line. Warm your hands over this hearth, if you can, artists and art lovers, and find solace in the mechanical joys of "abstraction," of "pure" form and color, and leave New York City and the rest of the real world behind.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms