OK, I am curious, yellowists

Rothko Homage 2 Yellow

Remember when John Goodman, in The Big Lebowski, discovered he was facing philosophers when he thought they were only three dweebs who used ferrets as weapons and dressed like Dieter hosting Sprockets on Saturday Night Live? His reaction: Oh my god, not nihilists. We’re fucked. You best listen to Mr. Goodman if you’re deeply invested in the world of contemporary art. It would be a sensible reaction to Vladimir Umamet’s recent act of vandalism at the Tate Modern where he tagged one of Rothko’s Seagram’s paintings and thus, by his own philosophy, turned it into a painting about nothing but the color yellow. I find myself oddly amused and cheered by his act of Yellowism. I doubt that it’s going to knock anything off the rails in the art world in the short term, but it may help free up some individuals to start making art without trying so hard to consciously make it mean something. And it might get a few people out of the art game altogether. If you can be talked out of it (and you should be, trust me) you shouldn’t be doing anything as nutty as making art to begin with. Art should be like the Zen monastery where they chase you away fifty times and then finally let you in out of pity because they finally realize you just can’t help it.

Thanks to my Brooklyn friend Lauren, who is a bit of a yellowist herself, but is in denial about it (so far this evening anyway), I started reading up on Yellowism. The manifesto is an interesting, monotonous and nihilistic incantation that keeps asserting its authors’ right to reduce all art to nothing more than a symbol for the color yellow. Umamets and Marcin Lodyga—the founders of yellowism—amiably claim their “new context” for art nullifies everything in art so that all art means nothing but the color yellow. In the context of yellowism—in a yellowistic chamber, as they put it—all meanings, all diverse significance, all styles and shapes and mediums, signify nothing but yellow. By tagging the Rothko and then surrendering to police, Umamets was calling attention to his philosophy and also leaving behind a painting that didn’t feature much yellow but was about nothing but yellow. Rothko may have thought otherwise when he was hard at work on his subversive painting, commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant. He wanted it to be oppressive, part of a suite of paintings that would surround and envelope the restaurant’s patrons with Rothko’s especially unsunny weltschmerzen. I stood in that Rothko room last year at the Tate Modern, when I had a painting in a London pop-up exhibition, and I didn’t stay in that place for long. The whole museum felt like a prison: cold, imperious, and impersonal. Rothko did the paintings, now hanging in that room, right before he killed himself. By putting his mark on the work, Umamets was claiming to make the painting about nothing but the extremely sunny color yellow. (Though there’s nothing sunny or unsunny about yellowism itself. It’s the color of what should have been swirling at the base of Duchamp’s Fountain, for one thing and Umamets claims to be doing to Duchamp what Duchamp did to art: recontextualizing. If Duchamp can say a urinal is art, then Umamets can say any work of art is about nothing but yellow, simply by surrounding it with a new context. That’s the logic, and it’s cleverly seductive, a bit of a chess move, which is also Duchampian.)

Here’s the thing, as Alec Baldwin says way too often now. These nihilists are basically threatening to get yellow on your ass. The act of vandalism was small potatoes. The philosophy behind it is saying art itself has reached a point of exhaustion, a dead end, where meaning and purpose is so fungible that it doesn’t really exist anymore. Hey, tell me about it, Vlad. The tract about Yellowism is something to enjoy and even skim with a bit of wicked glee–it’s very funny in places and the Russian accent is perfect. As you do, think, along with me, it’s about time.  They’ve pushed postmodernism to a dead end, particularly postmodern criticism. What Yellowism leaves in its wake, if you recognize the absurdity of the kind of critical thought the yellowists are attempting to skewer and also to take to its ultimate extreme, is something only an individual artist can answer through the act of making art. A yellowist says all works of art can be reduced to nothing but metaphors for the color yellow and they can make art works mean yellow by simply placing them in a “yellowistic chamber.” (Of their monomaniacal critical thought.) It’s a quick and dirty deconstruction of art in the most simplistic way. In my view, whatever can be reduced to the color yellow in a work of art, when a yellowist gets done with it, was beside the point to begin with—what actually matters will always resist interpretation as content. The yellowists don’t go so far as to say this, but by taking all ostensible meaning in art and reducing it to the color yellow, they force you to realize that this is where postmodern criticism leads, the arbitrary domination of the critic over the work itself, as well as the tired dominion of the intellect over a mysterious, yet integral act of imagination.

More on this tomorrow.

3 Responses to “OK, I am curious, yellowists”

  1. Krystal Hampton

    All art is a mix of subjective and objective thought. Sometimes first objective and then subjective through the artist interpreting it. It returns to being objective when you discuss the art. Goes round and round. This was just a promotion of a starving artist to promote his and his friends’ “art”. All public art should be maintained by the public and they are: by leaving the art alone or restoring the art (retouching, cleaning, etc). They don’t go up to a painting and write on it.They don’t do that.That’s wrong. Now let’s exchange Umamets with Bansky; Bansky writes on buildings. Buildings can sometimes be considered as art. Frank Lloyd Wright’s contemporary buildings are works of art in itself. They’re functional too! Now say Bansky tagged one of those buildings planned by Wright; would he be considered a vandalist or artist? He would be considered a vandalist because he defaced something of value. His vandalism wouldn’t have caused so much damage and probably wouldn’t have been talked about worldwide, only on art blogs.There would be no difference there; the difference is Bansky never did anything like that (tag an important building) and they are unknown. Umamets tagged his name on a very pricey piece of art done by an artist. His work may not have been important to Umamets, me, or you, but it was important to someone who wanted to chuck 88 million dollars they had just to have one of his pieces of art. Bansky isn’t out to gain some type of fame, That’s why they’re unknown. They’re out there just to tag stuff that’s ugly. Most of the building they do are worn down. Once tagged, the person can either keep the graffiti (which is an upgrade) or repaint (which is also an upgrade). They tag things not really important. Although many people would disagree with me about the West Bank Wall, it’s just a run down wall in between two warring societies. He made the wall beautiful, promoted peace, and most definitely laughter. All of these places tagged can easily be repaired and wouldn’t bankrupt the building owner. On the other hand, Umamets, wanted to promote himself by writing his name on a very expensive piece of work. It’s like begging someone to look at you; no different from a mass shooting, but at least this doesn’t involve bloodshed however this was a very weak statement. If he didn’t want that or that wasn’t his intention, why did he do it in the first place? If it was meant to promote the artwork, well, he succeeded, but then he also took away value; so in actuality he messed with it. He’s not that well known and he wrote on it. If it were Jackson Pollock dripping some paint on it and then signing his name, it would be worth more due to Jackson Pollock’s popularity. This was a person who wanted to shock people into getting to know him and his partner’s works of art, and if you noticed…he just uses other people’s art to promote himself, which isn’t making the true definition of “art”. He adds nothing extra to the work, sometimes he rips the work right out of magazines and just writes his name on them. His work is called: ostentatious. I respect people who put some effort into making art. They may be narcissistic, but they put themselves into what they are doing in order to get the attention they want. They work on it, they promote it, they argue about it, they risk their lives for it. Bansky risks their life just to put their tag (made prior) on a building and not get caught. Photographers risks their lives sometimes to capture the best shot. Fashion designers draw up, pick out fabric, cut, sew, present,and bite their nails hoping that their line will sell as well as be liked. This person took 5 seconds to write something on work someone worked on and possibly died for to get some fame and money. That’s why it’s called vandalism; that’s why it’s wrong; that’s why he gets no admiration; and that’s why he’s in jail.

  2. dave dorsey

    Krystal, I apologize for not approving this extremely thoughtful response to my post until now. I’ve been flooded with spam over the past year and haven’t been able to sort out the genuine comments from the bogus ones. I finally found a plug-in and successfully installed it (the hard part) and your reply finally emerged from the morass of junk. I share your feelings about vandalism, and I think the act of defacing a work of art that has genuine value (economic and aesthetic) is wrong, but I admire the thinking behind the gesture. I don’t think what the Yellowists are doing is art and they don’t think so either; that’s my take on what they’re doing. What I believe they’re trying to dramatize is the relativism built into post-modern art and criticism. If I say it’s art, it’s art–what Warhol and Duchamp set in motion. It’s a philosophical stance but it has led to a lot of cerebral art without the sort of heart and connection to life that you clearly appreciate. Yellowism is almost nothing but irony–irony without content. It’s an attempt to pronounce postmodernism dead so that artist can grapple individually, one at a time, with whatever imperative drives them to make art. If Umamets could have found a potentially less destructive way to get the idea across, I’d totally approve.

  3. A Kenneth

    In my view yellowism is just an interesting game of meanings. Generally speaking, when artists are stubbornly trying to saturate their art with meanings or trying to express themselves, yellowists are doing the opposite thing – they are taking all the meanings out of the object – desaturating it, without devaluing. Although I would say that yellowism is sort of expression, but based on concealing rather than direct expression. It relates to informationally overloaded western world. Such directives as quality, talent, uniqueness, originality etc. are replaced in yellowism by numbers. Indivíduum becomes quantity. For yellowists it is important to show once and for all that visual form together with its content are already resolved and there is absolutely no need to create more of it (information). They’ve done an intelligent move by shifting the whole post-modernism, making yellowism its solid background.