Fine, Call Me Pop

I’m beginning to realize it’s entirely fair to classify some of my work as Pop, and I’m comfortable with the idea. It doesn’t clarify anything—categorizations and schools and movements just obscure what’s actually going on in a painting—but I’ve begun to warm up to what Pop was doing, historically. It made me uncomfortable in the past, because I didn’t arrive at what I do as a way of emulating Pop Art at all. I’m sympathetic with the non-intellectual aims of that movement, the notion that visual art can be accessible and enjoyable to anyone with eyes and that visual art can, maybe should be, entirely a perceptual matter. I’m happy that Arthur Danto considers Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to have been a major philosophical meditation calling into question the nature of art and putting an end to the notion of progress in the history of painting—but I don’t think that sort of philosophical investigation was Warhol’s mission. Whether it was or wasn’t, Danto’s insight made me realize, in my thirties, that I could consider myself a contemporary visual artist, rather than just a latecomer. I don’t think Danto would agree with me that people now have permission to do exactly the sort of thing done in the past, without irony, and create work that is absolutely vital and compelling and fresh. But his insights make this conclusion inescapable.

I conclude from Danto’s thesis that for the past seventy years or so artists have been free to do anything at all, including exactly the sort of work that has been done in the past, and what they produce can be considered entirely relevant and contemporary. Everything is permissible because anything can be art. (This doesn’t mean anything is great or even good art: that’s as rare as it ever was.) Ending the tyranny of art history is the last, great liberation for individual painters—and it was Danto’s genius to recognize all of this. The challenge now is to become oneself, in whatever idiosyncratic way works, even if the outcome looks like a painting rooted in traditions from thousands of years ago. Picasso already understood this between the wars when he was borrowing stylistic inspiration from Ingres and the figures on attic vases for the Vollard Suite.

What I’m beginning to realize, though, is that I’m sympathetic with the way in which Pop Art pushed back against art of the previous decade, along with its advocates, primarily Clement Greenberg. Pop tried to prove that art didn’t require the existential pretensions of abstract expressionism—its self-conscious Zen profundity, its rootedness in the subconscious. (Although I happen to love that.) Pop showed that art didn’t need to have any intellectual significance whatsoever, though Danto can write at length about its philosophical weight. I’m more and more convinced that much of Warhol’s work was done in an innocent spirit, without irony and without cynicism: formally, it’s in a neighborhood close to the Matisse cut-outs. But his two-dimensional renderings of Marilyn Monroe’s face or a Campbell’s soup can were also a sort of taunt, at the time, from a planet orbiting far from Matisse. With Warhol’s rendering of a familiar object or face, reducing it to its flattest possible form, he seems to mock Greenberg’s worship of painting’s “flatness” even while pleasing the masses with something Greenberg must have considered kitsch.

I’ve always been put off by what seems self-consciously hip posturing in Warhol’s productions and yet I wonder if he was often too absorbed in the challenge of what he was doing to have any sort of ironic agenda. I had lunch with AP Gorny eight years ago in Buffalo and he recalled an experience Mary Griffin, a friend of Gorny’s, had with Warhol:

I have a friend, Mary Griffin, who was the Director of The Kitchen NYC for ten years. What helped them survive every year was an annual gala. There were ‘heavy hitters’ on their board. One was Warhol of course. When you hear the stories of what he was like to be around, you realize he was always ‘paying attention’ and thinking. What happened? Of course, the Kitchen was artist-initiated with artists running everything. So it’s a sort of improvised, screwed up mess. Mary describes having worn her highest heels for this most important annual fundraising event. She ran with two slide show carousels missing their locked retainer rings. Speeding across the lobby she trips and, literally, the carousels fly out of her hands, and hundreds of slides are on the floor. Who comes out from the restroom? It’s Warhol. The lobby’s empty. Of course he seems not engaged with this crisis, but he kneels down on the floor, and helps her pick them up. But as he picks the slides up, he’s looking at them. Staring at the images he starts saying: ‘This is interesting’. He’s committing the experience to memory! 

I had the impression from this story that Warhol was not only memorizing the experience, but was simply transfixed by what he saw in the slides, receptively aware of anything and everything as a channel for delight. He couldn’t help himself. There was an important slideshow presentation waiting (could there be such a thing in the days before the Powerpoint deck?) but Andy couldn’t tear himself away from these random slides. I can identify with childlike rapture over the commonplace. That kind of delight is partly why I absorb myself for weeks with an image of taffy.

The first time I was aware someone would call my work Pop was around the time of that conversation with Gorny. Before I was represented by Oxford Gallery, I found an article about Art Brokerage, an entirely web-based platform for selling artwork—primarily from people who want to resell work they’ve purchased in the past. I surfed around at the site and noticed that it was seeking paintings by Thiebaud for a particular buyer. I found an email for the company’s owner, Donna Rose, and wrote, “Are you looking specifically for Thiebaud or will any old painting of candy do?” She was amused and said, no, just Thiebaud, but she asked to see my work. She offered to put them up for sale, and she sold some. This was not something she often did—posting new work directly from a painter rather than reselling work already in someone’s collection—and she didn’t want me to advertise the fact. I’m now represented exclusively by Oxford Gallery and it’s been years since I’ve worked with Donna. I wasn’t entirely alone; she sold original, new work by friends of hers: Ed Ruscha and Russell Chatham, for example. She’d also sold work by Lisa Yuskavage early in her career, when Yuskavage was still unrecognized, and, I think, hanging out in Vegas, where Donna’s company is headquartered. When Donna tagged my candy jars as Pop I was startled, because it hadn’t entered my mind. The series of salt water taffy paintings I’m doing now represent a reprise of the same situation: they could easily be considered Pop, with subject matter that would have been deemed unworthy of representation before Pop.

Yet when Donna tagged my candy jar paintings as Pop at artbrokerage.com, it irked me because I hadn’t arrived at them with Pop Art in mind at all. There were only two Pop artists who had found a place in my heart over the years: Jim Dine and Wayne Thiebaud, especially Dine. Though I have been painting candy for years, it wasn’t as a result of my admiration for Thiebaud’s confections. With her painting of four stacked honey jars, arranged to almost entirely fill a square canvas, Janet Fish gave me the idea of filling an ordinary jar with gum balls and enlarging the image dramatically to create a unified field of color across the surface. After gum balls, I moved on to jelly beans. Chiclets. Breath mints. And so on. The motive was to solve a formal challenge: to find a way to paint a straightforwardly realistic still life while making color the primary consideration and giving it as much real estate on the canvas as possible. But the repetitive format had roots, as well, in the way Rothko could paint the same horizon line, the same format for his subtle color, over and over. Monet with his haystacks. And Warhol with his color variations within the armature of the same arrangement of flat patterns to depict the same face. The fact that I was painting in a traditionally realistic way seemed, for me, to put the work somewhere outside the category of Pop. I’ve warmed up to this designation because I’ve become more conscious of the way Pop was a repudiation of a dominant theoretical aesthetic—it was a conclusive rejection of the last real set of rules, a repudiation of theory itself.

There was a mixture of defiance and ironic acquiescence in the way Pop accepted, as a tease, (while it was also rejecting) Greenberg’s influence over the art world at the time. Flatness still demands tribute from painters everywhere, including the perceptual painters, and their results can be wonderful. It’s always on my mind as well, whether I’m doing it justice or not. But I like Pop’s punk eagerness to do what was forbidden. It defied Greenberg by being kitschy, even as it submitted to him, ironically, by being flat—paradoxically short-circuiting his dominance. Try to get flatter than this, Clement! That kind of defiance-cum-acquiescence runs throughout what I do in a slightly different way, especially in the candy paintings, because I’m embracing a lowly, unserious subject for formal reasons—and also out of love for its humble beauty and appeal and almost erotic physicality—while painting these objects with highly realistic methods that ultimately stretch back centuries. The paint itself becomes more and more my focus, in ways that probably wouldn’t be of interest to anyone but me. Oddly enough that aligns me just a bit, alas, with Greenberg but he would wince, thank God, since I’m haunted more by Manet and Velasquez and Welliver than anyone striving for flatness, when it comes to the feel of the paint as I apply it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that now.

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