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Art Students League of New York - 215 West 57th Street, NYC

"High Aesthetics: Abstraction / Imagery "

A Panel Discussion that took place on
Thursday April 17,1997.

The program was dedicated to the memory of:
Willem de Kooning, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Golden, and Rosina Florio.

The panelists were:

William Agee, Mira Goldfarb Berkowitz, John Griefen, James Monte, William Pettet, and Larry Salander. Ronnie Landfield served as moderator and began the the discussion.

Information about the Panelists

Ronnie Landfield . . . . .


These are critical times. I've seen the best artists of my generation decimated by censorship and suppression. They have been misunderstood, ignored, treated with willful ignorance and disdain. The spiritual revelations that burn in these great works of art are yet to be recovered; they echo in the soul, and, like the works of William Blake, will transcend time.

High aesthetics, my aesthetics, and your aesthetics. There is no prescription for quality. In the long run each of us creates our aesthetic vision, hoping to achieve a consensus. We don't need to see every Franz Kline to understand the position Franz Kline took. And as we create works of art, each of us takes positions. Sometimes we spend our lifetimes making our positions clear; sometimes we are known only by a single work.

The 20th Century gave us abstract art, among other things. But the definition of abstraction changes as our ideas about art change. There are two mainstreams of Twentieth-Century art: the Duchampian mainstream -- Apollonian, intellectual, conceptual, and ironic. Perhaps more interesting is the Matissean mainstream -- Dionysian, intelligent, romantic, and passionate -- which strives for freedom of expression via hands-on use of materials.

The artist can be seen as metaphysician, as alchemist capable of transforming and transcending materials and objects. Artists endow material with magical powers and properties that transform matter into art and into a valuable spiritual commodity. This is the nature of and challenge inherent in making art.

  The Abstract Expressionists -- Gorky, Rothko, Motherwell, Newman, Kline, Hofmann, De Kooning, and especially Pollock -- created an ocean of images and ideas; a visual mythology from which springs the abstract art of today.

The Colorfield painters and Minimalists, like Noland, Kelly, Reinhardt, Judd, Ryman and Agnes Martin, are aesthetic artists; but it is Lyrical Abstraction, as practiced first by Morris Louis and later by Larry Poons, Frank Stella, Ronald Davis, Dan Christensen, John Griefen, William Pettet, Ronnie Landfield and many others that defines the possibilities for High Aesthetics in abstract painting today.

The art the of this century has sometimes been characterized as "hot" and "cool." It seems abstract artists are divided, deeply divided, not only about matters hot or cool. We are divided about abstraction and about imagery, and we have developed cults -- cults of the traditional, cults of the new, cults of the found object, cults of the computer. These divisions prevent us from appreciating the beauty and inner peace that comes from great art.

"I like making art. I like pouring paint from buckets. I like color, I'm sensitive to surfaces. Feeling my senses that I cannot name, except to say -- that's my aesthetic sense. Moving the stuff with long squeegees and big brushes. Using rollers through cadmium orange, hansa yellow, dioxine purple and pthalo green. Hitting an area, pulling it off, like a coup, or committing a crime, and who said artists don't take chances. Gazing for hours at the surface of a painting wondering how can I nail it?"

Abstraction is about faith, about suspension of disbelief; it's about the unknown, and making visible the invisible. It isn't the imagery, but the cynicism that is disturbing. Duchamp, Dada, Johns,Warhol, Pop, Conceptual Art -- however ironic -- make me wonder at the cynical loss of faith that fuels the popularity of those movements. Painting is visual; one must look at it and see it with one's eyes. It's hard to talk about, because it isn't about propaganda; it's just clear. Do we believe what we see? Or do we only see what we believe?

From the The Fauves -- who took the cue from Postimpressionism, using color that abstracted nature -- to the Cubists like Braque and Picasso -- who changed our perception of representation -- the concept of abstraction has changed. Picasso, inspired by Cezanne and by African and Egyptian Art, was in his time thought of as an abstract painter. However, Picasso never let go of imagery, no matter how many liberties he took in changing the way things look. And the Russian mystical painters Malevich and Rodchenko -- variously inspired by Modernism, Theosophy, Mme. Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky -- created probably what is the purest abstract art.

Rather than attempting to cover the whole history of modern art, perhaps the following three anecdotes will give a flavor of what's at stake here:

(1) Alchemy

I remember a morning in April 1966. I was nineteen years old, wearing my only Brooks Brothers suit, on the way from my 6th floor walkup apartment in the East Village to an appointment to see the famous architect Philip Johnson, whose office I would find at the top floor of the Seagrams Building, the pinnacle of Modernist Architecture of the time. I was scared, slightly in awe of my surroundings. The receptionist -- who struck me as someone straight out of The Fountainhead -- sat me down at a long empty table in the board room to wait for Mr. Johnson. As I looked out at the magnificent view through the glass windows on all sides, the whole of Manhattan, clear to the East River, could be seen. As I waited there, out of the corner of my eye I spotted something shiny on the table, something that reminded me of aluminum foil. As I looked closely I saw several tiny figures of men in a row apparently walking along on a low wooden base. I was stunned to realize that the Giacometti I was looking at was made of aluminum foil. In Giacometti's hands the stuff my mother wrapped turkeys in was turned into a powerful and succinct work of art.

(2) High Aesthetics

In 1976 I saw an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called The Wild Beasts: Fauvism and its Affinities, or something like that. I'd been around more than ten years; I had more than a dozen one-man shows. I was represented by the Andre Emmerich Gallery and I saw the show, never thinking I'd learn something that would stay with me for a lifetime. But there were two small landscape paintings side by side that caught my eye as I moved through the show. I looked very hard at them both. They were about the same size, dated the same year, and they looked to be the same locale, so maybe they were made the same day. The Vlaminck on the left was very good, emotional, felt, colorful; and as I looked, I began to feel how the artist was feeling about the rent, perhaps about his wife. It was very expressive. The Matisse on the right was a better painting. It was in perfect balance, clear and harmonious. I was stunned to realize that as I gazed at it, I had learned more about the pure concentration of the art of painting than I had ever known. Matisse expressed through color, drawing, and surface what great painting was. No thoughts of rent here, only aesthetics, high aesthetics. The small Matisse painting with its dense concentration was spontaneous and precise and made me high.

(3) Power of Beauty

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my friend the painter Ron Davis on the telephone about the incredible websites he is creating for us called Lyrical Abstraction and Abstract Illusionism. Ron had used something I said as a headline that flashed across the screen in four prominent places. The headline read "› FORGOTTEN AND SUPPRESSED ART ‹" which reflects how I feel about the way museums sometimes relegate art to the basement. I told Ron that I didn't think that headline was such a good idea. He said, "Okay, give me a better idea," and as we talked I told him about a great show at The Pace Gallery I had seen earlier that day of Bonnard and Rothko. I told Ron that when Jenny and Noah saw it at the end of the day -- it was the last day -- there were lines around the block. I said, "It is so hopeful that people would do that just to see great, beautiful paintings." And when I saw it earlier in the day I ran into my friend Barbara Thomas there, and as we enjoyed the paintings, I mentioned to Barbara that I was feeling slightly sick in the spirit because I had gone to the opening of the Whitney Biennial the night before.


But these Bonnard and Rothko paintings were HEALING me.
"That's it!" Ron said.
"What's it?"
I said, and he replied,
"That's our new headline:


Larry Salander . . . . .

I was pleased to be asked to join this distinguished panel in order to participate in a discussion about quality in art. A discussion that would be banned or dismissed by those cynical enemies of art who would have us believe that the notion of quality has no place in art, or at best is an old-fashioned idea that lost its relevance long ago. The reason for this is clear- that in order to sell, curate, and write about art, you have to have art to sell, curate or write about. Therefore if you take the notion of quality out of the discussion of art you are left with grist for the mill.

Before we can begin to discuss quality we ought to come up with a definition for the word. In fact it is my belief that if we paid more attention to coming to some kind of an agreement on the meaning of the words used to discuss art there would be much less room for the current state of bullshit that surrounds it. Delacroix made an attempt at a kind of dictionary of art words but he was ultimately overwhelmed by the scale of the project / added to his more important work of making art. To give you an idea of the magnitude of such a thing, it was my good fortune some 10 or so years ago to author an article for ARTS MAGAZINE with my distinguished friend Bill Agee. In this article we called for clarity in the naming of words used in the discussion of art. I believe it took us several months of intense effort to come up with 10 or so definitions that worked for us. An entire dictionary will take a long time to complete. Why should 100 people have 100 different definitions for the word "ART", "ABSTRACT'", "REALISM," ETC. Here we will talk about quality in art; and so a proposal for a couple of definitions. I want to add that I will be happy to use others as long as we come up with something.

ART: Art is any logical systematic endeavor the result of which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words where 1 + 1 is more than 2.

QUALITY: Is the measure of how good a work of art is. In other words how high or low the sum is above 2 when adding the 1 + 1 of art.

Finally it is my firm conviction, proven by experience, that these things called art and quality are much less mysterious than those above-mentioned cynical forces of evil would have us believe. I think that assuming people are not educated to the contrary there is a human facility to react physically to quality in art. I believe that a great deal of the misinformation and baloney surrounding the world of art has created a mystery where there was none. That those dealers, curators and writers who have made what they do the primary endeavor, rather than the secondary and even tertiary endeavor that it is, seem to have forgotten that the artmaker is doing that which is primary. Their ego-inspired manipulation of this simple fact has put us in the dangerous place we who love art find ourselves in today.

For those who would remove the discussion of quality from the discussion of art I say this: That quality is all there is! That all the various things that make up a work of art invest it with a certain quality and some of it is better than others. It's tough to take but there it is... We are not involved here in a democratic process. For example how many great painters were in Venice in 1560 (in my mind the greatest moment in the history of art)...6 or 7 or 10 even. Hardly enough to keep it going here in New York in 1997. There are over 600 + art galleries, scores of museums and multitudes of writers-- can we honestly believe that if there were 10 great artists in Venice at that moment there are more here now?

So what do you do if you're cynical and put yourself in front of the continuum which is the art process that started say with Giotto? You forget about quality--strike it from the discussion and replace it with the "cutting edge", the politically correct, etc..

That is why we need to be here tonight and why we need, in spite of overwhelming odds to carry on.


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