Recent Readings; Nancy Spero and Jo Baer
I’m saddened by the death of Nancy Spero this past weekend; I had known little about her until rather recently. What prevented me from knowing more about her sooner was a typical sort of smugness found in a lot of artists–the idea that I knew enough already. That changed when I actually saw her work in person a year and a half ago. I wish I could say that it was the first time I’d been gobsmacked by my own idiocy and another’s wonderfulness, but it wasn’t. I hope I won’t be such a clod again, but I probably will.
In case you–reader–don’t know enough about her, I highly recommend that you first read Tyler Green’s post marking her passing, followed immediately by an article he recommends in which Spero and her husband, Leon Golub, accompany Michael Kimmelman to the MET.
Her NYTimes obit is here.
On the topic of artists one may not know enough about, I’ll now segue to an article in the latest CAA Art Journal about Jo Baer by Patricia Kelly titled Jo Baer, Modernism, and Painting on the Edge. Given that the body of work I made for my MFA show was an attempt on my part to (retrospectively, of course) infiltrate and undermine historical Modernism, specifically that of the era discussed in the Kelly article, I was interested to learn that Baer’s work at the time bridged the disciplines of painting and sculpture while using visual formalist and dance/movement-based strategies as mental triggers to enhance the conceptual reception of her work on the part of the viewer.
Baer strongly made her own path, challenged contemporary artists and critics (such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg), and suffered for it, unsurprisingly. Unfortunately, the article is not available online (it might be on JSTOR, I’m not sure); I could hardly excerpt enough to do the article justice, though there are some choice quotes. Of Judd, Baer wrote that he
implies that any vacuformed plexi-bas-relief is automatically superior to any contemporary ideated marks on a flat surface. But ideas are ideas. Ideas and materials have a functional relationship, not an identity.
That is to say that ideas and materials are tools whose worth lies in their joint function, rather than as individual keys to objective ideals one can appeal to or attempt to attain via art. Though art now seems to be quite a distance off from the hegemony of minimalist sculpture’s era past, I suspect that there is an aspect of wanton materialism in much art today (very general statement, I know, but I’m just musing here–starting to stew these ideas up) which is like a flip side to an attitude of minimal austerity, as if we are now more weighted toward the allusive potency of a cacophony of material rather than toward idea, as in the past.
The relationship of works on paper (‘ideated marks on a flat surface’) to both is a question I’m pondering quite a bit lately. Personally, I feel that works on paper are more effective at evincing sustained, dynamic thought from a viewer than sculpture or painting (also ‘ideated marks on a flat surface’), in large part because we are a literate culture, and are habituated to paper being the prime vehicle of our own literacy and life of the mind. But that’s a topic for another day.
In 1983, after stating that she was “no longer an abstract artist”, Baer addressed some of Judd’s arguments against painting:
When in 1966 Judd attacked illusionism in painting he neglected to explore or even question its presence in sculpture–their aim was an ‘objectivity’ to be derived from the ‘making of non-illusionary specific objects’ (via numerical concept and a mundane restraint against philosophy’s ‘seondary properties’ –i.e., they used prefabrication, metals, geometric forms, bricks, mirrors, lamps, car paints, uniform colors, etc.). Sculpture’s basic, scandalous fiction went unregarded. All sculptures pretend to contain the real.
Certainly, this always seemed obvious to me, of course with the benefit of distanced observation. Sculpture and theater have much in common.
Kelly does address the powerful ideological climate of the time, which would have–and did–prevent most artists from questioning the era’s artistic tenets to the degree that Baer (and many other women artists) did. Relevant to this idea is a quote Kelly included from David Reed:
I am convinced that the one reason the innovations of ’70’s painting were unrecognized is that four of its leading practitioners were women: Lee Lozano, Jo Baer, Dorothea Rockburn, and Ree Morton. It’s very strange that the history of painting could be thought to end just as women were beginning to make their contributions.
Reed’s observation is quite like one made by Adrian Piper which asserts that women’s successes during Post-Modernism were met with a backlash, among which was a claim for the end of art. Danto’s essay (The End of Art) doesn’t even mention any women (to my recollection), but it is indeed strange that art would ‘end’ just as women gained greater artistic prominence than ever before.
A paternalistic atmosphere is reflected in the last bit I’ll share from the essay; in an anecdote about an encounter with Clement Greenberg, Baer recalls
Greenberg was a brilliant writer, a brilliant critic, and slimy as hell. I remember a conversation he and I had about color . . . . Clem said, ‘Jo, you know this is all very well,’ by which he meant he couldn’t promote my work if it was all white and gray. Too stark. ‘Why don’t you use pink or some other color?’ And I said, ‘Because Ken Noland already does that. You don’t need me doing it’. By which I meant . . . I wasn’t a Color Field painter. I was working with degrees of light, and he wasn’t paying attention to that. I was supposed to apologize, but I didn’t.
What I’ve excerpted here reflects my concerns–the article is rich with other information: considerations of the science of visual perception, women artists’ relationship to movement, the intersection of politics and art, as well as more detail concerning minimalist sculpture’s epic* battle with painting. If you can find a copy to read, I strongly recommend doing so (Fall 2009, Vol. 69, No. 3). The issue also has articles about Walter de Maria and Louise Bourgeois.
*I use ‘epic’ in with a tongue-in-cheeck awareness of the internet parlance of the day.