2.15.2010

Vanishing Point

By WILLIAM PYM
“I’ve been to the point of no return”
The last word on Paul Cézanne
Cézanne made great paintings: the 1880s fruit bowls are boss and alive, solving problems left and right and acting brave – but this one is rubbish. This one is slow-witted and physically in quite poor shape, unmuscular. It is easy to tell when you’re standing in front of a really duff one because it’ll have a stupefying, narcotic effect upon you. Indeed, I get nervous during the long, loomy approach to the dire Philadelphia Bathers here at the elbow of our museum’s L-shaped modern and contemporary wing: will I pass out before making it all the way to étant Donnés and the Johns? Now it is often delightful and necessary to fall asleep to art, but this particular stuff should never be trusted as a sedative. The Post-Impressionist school in England and France had no contingency plan, no means of waking up after such deep slumber. Painting had reinvented itself many times over in the second half of the 19th Century, and much had been accomplished, very quickly. Painting’s practitioners had begun to snooze as a result, dreaming like sovereigns. All these changes had brought us to the end of the 500-year evolution of classicism, the end of the line, and Cézanne here built the commemorative clubhouse, the padded mind’s opium den of mutual benefit and class comfort, an anemic, introverted and self-indulgent place where nothing new would be discovered. Around this point modern practice called itself Modernism, lamely, mostly taking advantage of the fact that everyone was too lethargic to do anything apart from give new names to things that they had made and named years before, and hang out with the same people all the time.

You all know already why this happened, even without art history; you know about the locomotive chuffing smoke across Monet’s trip to the suburbs in Sunday search of a bridge, a boat and a river, you know about the black chimney stack in the back of Seurat’s leisure scenes. These are the portentous apparitions of the beautiful, benevolent, untouched first generation of the machine age floating through the air, and they were ultimately too complicated for the painter of modern life to handle with their minds or in paint, especially after all the exhausting genuine discoveries they had instigated from the day of Courbet. The Post-Impressionist would not attempt a full confrontation with the industrial revolution in progress. The reasons why vary from artist to artist, but they all fall somewhere between paralytic fear and rank laziness. It’s a drag, but you will be relieved to hear that art would recover. We believe that it will always recover. The lessons of a strong man who became a man in those years will help us negotiate a few problems in our own weird art times. This is the happiest of stories.

“I’ve seen what the man can do”
Heralding the arrival of Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein was born in the USA, on the lower east side of Manhattan, of Polish immigrants. He studied sculpture in Paris from 1902-1905, his early 20s, developing a stripped approach to essential form and a sensitivity to materials. He enrolled before Brancusi, it’s been noted. He married an English woman and became an English citizen in 1907. In London he found that Post-Impressionism had long since mutated into a conservative movement to which dopey self-hailed progressives clung, frightened of revolution and reaction. Of their number Walter Sickert, John Singer Sargent, Augustus John and particularly Harold Gilman made some very beautiful paintings, but they had stopped wanting to see the world anew and to turn art upside down. They had posted up in the plump couches of that clubhouse I was talking about, the English chapter, and were content to cede their long-held position of standard-bearer for major cultural change.

Epstein was a far too interesting guy to accept this style of modern living. He did not want to hang out with people who felt like this, and this tea party did not appeal to him. A young critic called Hulme (who died in the war, as many of his contemporaries would, three years later) gave a lecture called ‘Modern Art and its Philosophy’ at the Quest Club in London in 1914, published soon after in Speculations Magazine. Man o man, clubs and magazines don’t have names like that anymore. The lecture bravely championed a Radical Modernism that faced up to machines and mechanization and a hand that wasn’t intimidated by their perfect sort of strength. My preferred historian of this period, Charles Harrison, summarized Hulme’s thoughts perfectly in saying that Modernism’s true goals would be realized with “an essentially late-romantic, pessimist, anti-rational and reactionary imagination.” To catapult us into the industrial future, to participate in it on the cultural vanguard, the artist required an abundance of faith, a colorful mind unafraid of fantasy on a hitherto inconceivable scale, and a propensity to take risks.

These qualities suited adventurous Epstein very well. His version of this imagination created Rock Drill, a plaster figure straddling an actual large, industrial drill, and it is a work of terrifying proportions. The figure resembles the muscles of the machine in every way, with a long, angled snout, piston-like limbs and a perfectly milled grille of ribs around a tiny heart, the work’s only remotely organic element, shriveled and pathetic, like a deflated balloon. It is a disgusting and full-blooded realization of the man-machine, the perversely romantic projection of mankind’s total mutability and potential for submission in an industrial era. More than just a proper stab at making art about the true Modern existence, Rock Drill is an early readymade/combine work that has had remarkable art legs, scarcely bettered in the century since, its original impact intact, a wonder. Having said this, I’ve never seen Rock Drill, nor have many folks still living. The plaster figure was quickly dismantled from the drill, the drill discarded (or returned), and the plaster torso cast in bronze, where it remains, always worth seeing, unfailingly on display, at the museum on London’s Millbank now called Tate Britain.

You will be unsurprised to discover that the sculptural separation of the machine from the figure coincided with a spiritual fracture in Epstein’s life. Appalled by war, and friends killed, pointlessly, in the slog of trench attrition, the artist adopted a conscious style that he would keep for the rest of his life. To call it penitent is to be overdramatic and needlessly religious, but Epstein stepped back, markedly, from the energies of his younger years. His vision of the future had become so intense and so urgent that it unwittingly bordered on Fascism, or more particularly, emotional nihilism towards other humans. Rock Drill is not responsible for bringing Europe to its knees between 1914-1918, but it was and is totemic of everything the flabbier Post-Impressionists feared about the industrial revolution. A “late-romantic, pessimist, anti-rational and reactionary imagination” could achieve a full confrontation with the reality of machines, but the outcome of that confrontation would invariably be industry’s victory. Young machines had the surprising might to seduce and infect, and the stamina to stick around. Epstein had been consumed.

“They can’t touch the world we live in”
The gifts of Mark Leckey

Around the millennium the English artist Mark Leckey (b. 1964) made a saturated c-print of the bronze Rock Drill’s bust, actual size, perhaps larger. There was an incandescent, fluorescent color in the background, perhaps cerulean blue, I forget. It was usually paired with a comparable image of a waxy-looking Little Richard in similar circumstances. They seemed embalmed in the gelatinous bleed of Technicolor, preserved. Not for nothing did the artist soften and respond to this fearsome work in a work of his own.

Leckey’s Big Box Statue Action sculpture appeared briefly in the Duveen galleries of the Tate in 2003, the conclusion of a series of projects collectively called Soundsystem that had previously taken place in London, New York and Zurich. Soundsystem is a term first used to describe the hand-assembled, giant and self-contained PA systems that birthed deejay culture in ’60s Jamaica, and Leckey’s versions were loving, committed extensions of those objects, delicately tuned but powerful rigs with as much sculptural personality as physical usefulness.

The Big Box system closely echoed the three dimensional size, heft and organic hue of Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940-41), and there, in the first hall of the Tate of 2003, Leckey’s work and Epstein’s work were placed next to each other. In Epstein’s sculpture two fat figures, larger than you or I, are squashed against each other in a tussly embrace. The angel, with long slab-like wings, appears to be supporting the tired second chap. The wings’ erect vertical position out the angel’s back (undoubtedly a symptom, as many features in this work are, of the original stone block’s shape) makes it seem as if both figures are leaning against a wall for support.

Close to 100 percent of pubescent-plus viewers of this sculpture will quickly notice the extent to which it looks as though Jacob and the Angel are having sex with each other, or that they have just had sex with each other, or are about to have sex with each other. Critical descriptions of this work tend to overlook this interpretation, and they do this, I am sure, because it is so completely obvious. The brimming sensuality of this work is a good indicator of where Epstein was at and how far he had come. The work is demonstrably that of a committed Christian, a pious thing, yet tender, and ripe. It is as human as Rock Drill is inhuman.
Leckey’s Big Box faced the two dirty rotters and played them a set of music including a track from industrial animals Throbbing Gristle, selections of Gabba music (a furious breed of repetitive ‘90s techno, popularized in Holland, that does not dip below 150 beats per minute, and can push up to 220), sound works from Dada father Raoul Hausmann, a Händel piece, sophisticated but euphoric and goofy Japanese synthesizer disco from Yellow Magic Orchestra, Erik Satie’s Truly Flabby Preludes for a Dog, Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, and a trancelike, slightly unsettling 1969 Beach Boys number called Our Prayer. I’ll note now, before getting lifted away in prose, that it doesn’t matter whether you pick up on the deeply-held meaning in these selections or don’t. Some of those songs have meant something to me for a long time, and others I have still never heard. It don’t matter. The sound system’s sound is not an academic glossary to be committed to memory. The music is a gift, not a test.

Leckey brought night music to Epstein’s second masterpiece because it shows a hand and a mood – a groove in Epstein’s career – that should be celebrated. It deserves a soundtrack. Jacob and the Angel’s post-ejaculatory smoothness, the warm, spent energy that courses through its form and content, represents the artist’s homeward trajectory towards peace after an exhausting life lived at a tremendous pace. The slathering desires and popped veins of youth are no big deal, the Rock Drill’s frightening form and everything it represented is no big deal; Jacob and the Angel demonstrates how the human heartbeat will even itself out eventually. Big Box Statue Action volunteered examples of contemporary heartbeats to Jacob; it fed him, partly to worship and nourish, and partly to ask contemporary questions.

“Feel your heartbeat lose its rhythm”
Bungling the millenium

The contemporary art world, currently a very young place, exists, logically enough, as a reflection of the real world of the young: the challenges they face and the choices they make. The Epsteins of today, the ones who push through and discover themselves in the future, happy with their lives as adults, will reveal themselves when middle-aged curators, collectors and critics recovers from their obsession with youth, an analogous hobby to plastic surgery, sports car purchases, or hard drug use in later life. I’m deeply optimistic about things working themselves out and a return to regularity, but I am not in the business of forecasting here; I’ll leave that to expert rich fuckers out there. “There has never been a better time to be under 25!” So said the master, Dave Hickey, at the Frieze Art Fair’s keynote speech we sweated through in London this past October. Let’s leave the future there, with indeterminate sarcasm – Dave’s way.

The challenges faced by the young stem from a surfeit of available information. Earlier successful channels of information dissemination from human to human – including mail-order distribution, letter writing, trading circles, fanzines, libraries, dinner parties, gigs, second-hand shops, club nights and the radio – are now easily and all done with computers, which are fast as lightning and available at any time, entirely unfettered by prior restrictions of culture, morals and ethics, and mind-blowingly powerful. Like the first factory, it has made an entire human way instantly redundant. And it’s this device that has allowed a buck at 25 to be the slickest, smartest, most unflappable buck in their town, to then travel to New York with a position and a look that will allow them to unleash this freshness on the art world, then get shows, get written about, and get paid. You know all of this already, I know.

Information in itself is not the problem. It will ever remain the best way to become a smarter person. Mark Leckey bombarded Epstein’s work with a cacophony of pulses, pulses he has been lucky to feel: a pulse to work to, a pulse to get high to, a pulse to dance to, a pulse to fuck to and a pulse to procreate to, pulse to pray to. With modern exposure of the sort that our machines have allowed, a young human will grow to earnestly embody each one of these pulses, and Leckey’s soundtrack shows how it’s done, a modern soul’s confessional. We live in this pantheistic fog, and this is not a problem. The problem is voice. The communication of information is necessarily mediated by digital compression while it travels – this is the way it can move over great distances in a short time – and along that journey communication’s pulse becomes synthetic. In the course of this binary conversion the human voice loses inflection, and without inflection we are unintelligible to one another.

We are in the same position that Jacob Epstein found himself when he made his Rock Drill, in a once-earnest relationship now teetering on violence, in a love where each party cannot get through to the other. We never planned on being forced to submit, but here we are, edged out of the frame or coopted into the thing that inspired us to be contemporary and to make art. Artists are machines again; is it any surprise that money, drugs and attractive physical appearance – three top lubricants for the streamlined navigation of the art world – are among the young artist’s topmost interests? Many of our number have fully bungled their love affair with the perks of our modern machine age.

“My life ain’t no holiday”
A suggestion for eventual triumph

This long thought ends where it began, facing the western entrance of the Philadelphia Art Museum, with the Schuylkill river drifting north to the stripped mountains of Northern Pennsylvania behind us. To the left sits Social Consciousness, from 1954: Epstein is an old man now. And it is a totally outrageous piece, unlike really any other sort of public art. And unless the viewer is a child, and can frolic and pose for photographs in and around its over-the-top theatrical tableau, that viewer will have a hard time denying Social Consciousness its bizarre, ghoulish intensity. Let me tell you about it. Two horrifyingly malnourished men in disintegrating rags appear to be dying in the arms of what appear to be three kindly space aliens, and everyone is appreciably bigger than life-sized and bronze. It’s too much, man, it’s almost impossible to look at. Before last summer, when the city created a permanent home for a prop from the movie Rocky IV at the Eastern entrance to the Art Museum (a promotional tool for the cash-in clunker Rocky Balboa that will now live forever as an hideous monument to a non-existent boxer played by Sylvester Stallone and the embarrassing fact that John Street’s Philadelphia government would sell a glorious institution permanently short for a trifling amount of money), Social Consciousness was the weirdest thing by far at the museum.

It’s worth loving, though, as much as beefy Rocky is worth immediately vandalizing. Social Consciousness is what happened after Jacob and the Angel had happened to Rock Drill; it shows the third place, the place the man went when he has ran out of juice after getting it so late. The connoisseur-like sensuality of Jacob – a mid-life discovery – will eventually give way to the soppy, sad ‘conscience’ of weary years, years of exhaustion, and impotence. Looking back at his life now, Epstein made some major mistakes, but he had a stretch of years brimming with sensitivity and joy, them middle years, and he had, surely, earned the right to rest, eventually. Freaky though it is, Social Consciousness is another accomplished, honest work, reliably so, and a fine and suitable end to our life of the artist. I suppose, considering them both now, that the place Epstein ended up is the place Cézanne ended up too. Epstein lost his pulse, too, a tired dude. We’ll all get tired soon. Cézanne will bore you to tears regularly, though, and Epstein will never do that, never. And Epstein never actively planned to grow feeble. Oh, it don’t matter any more. We’re through with these guys. We’re bringing this thing around.

Social Consciousness long faced an empty plinth in Philadelphia. Louise Nevelson’s Atmosphere and Environment XII, 1970, is the sculpture that lives on that plinth, and it returned last spring after what feels like several years of restoration off-site, the meticulous replacement of thousands of corroded screws and reinforcement of the integral structure. It’s great that it’s back. Let’s note, with those of you keeping score, how amusing it is that Louise Nevelson and her version of black mass shits on 2007’s dark angel, Banks Violette, conclusively, almost 30 years after her death. Experience’s effortless triumph is sometimes a thing of beauty! No need to hate hard or get distracted, though: let’s note its form. Atmosphere and Environment XII looks, a lot, like a soundsystem, a stacked rig of cuboids each outfitted in various internal configurations for different effects. Some have extra grids inside of them, others curved pieces of steel. It has formal rigor and strength, like it could stand strong in a major party. It offers Social Consciousness major validation and support, it speaks to the older work’s shaky despair with clarity and friendship; it plays it a tune. It cannot help but play it a tune, for this is what it was built to do.

The uncanny similarity between these two sculptures and the two elements of Leckey’s Big Box Statue Action initiated this meandering investigation. Both installations teach their viewers that to respond is a direct means to correct, to balance confusion and restore regularity. The lessons of Jacob Epstein are proof that the human heartbeat loses its rhythm, but that recovery is always available. The way to find it is to respond, and a response is always available. A response is a reaction, and a reaction is an action, a jump-start to an irregular pulse. We are getting lost in these years of digital revolution, unable to tackle it full-force. Like the first industrial revolution, we fear that it willdevour us.

So speak to another human being. Do not retreat. Now is a time of outward action, not internal repetition. For those artists among you who are comfortable with the current situation, wake up! You will be able to go back to bed later – of course you will, dear – but there is business to attend to now. There will be no cultural vanishing point, no matter what we discover to rival the workings of the human soul. Begin again to use the voice you were born with. Check your pulse and the pulse of your brothers and sisters before you make another piece of art.

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