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America’s Lessness

At the Museum of Modern Art, the current exhibition “Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today” examines two separate but related meanings of readymade color. The first category is color that is store-bought rather than hand-mixed, and the second is “found” color appropriated from everyday life. Perhaps a third category should have been established for color that conveys political and emotional baggage. The fiercely-contested presidential race, energized by the Iraq debate, is bombarding us with cadmium red, titanium white, and ultramarine blue patriotic imagery: waving flags; campaign buses plastered with candidates’ logos and slogans; stars and stripes on bumper stickers. At the same time, the small-minded presidency of George W. Bush, during which the status of the United States as an international political standard-bearer has atrophied, is reflected in American artists’ increasing disenchantment with universal themes and greater fascination with the mundane, the non-visual, the personal, and the transitory. The curators of the Whitney Biennial, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, have declared this year’s exhibit to be about “lessness,” and gathered artwork that seems dedicated to the notion that all glory is fleeting—or, more specifically, that our glory has fled.

The American Century
During the 20th century, while American artists did not generally take the country’s integrity for granted, they did tap the rich vein of its mythic virtue with a tacit understanding that it was not all illusory. In the mid-'50s, Jasper Johns adopted the American flag as the subject for a series of groundbreaking painterly meditations. The paintings are at once abstract and representational, universal and personal. Johns’ viewpoint is ambiguous, leaving the symbolic message open-ended. In the Sixties, the flag became the trusty go-to symbol for activist art makers, and remained a singularly incendiary fuse for political and aesthetic debate. In 1994, the Phoenix Art Museum organized “Old Glory: the American Flag in Contemporary Art,” an exhibition that traveled around the country for two years. One of the pieces was an actual flag, unfurled on the floor so that the viewer had to decide whether to walk around it or over it. Another incorporated a flag stuffed into a porcelain toilet, as if ready to flush. Protesters called the artists anti-American and, in Orwellian fashion, sought to limit their right to free speech.

The colors red, white, and blue—when untethered to an iconic object or image—paradoxically permit less ambiguity. For years, many an American artist disinclined to indulge in political histrionics relied on the use of that triad as a discreet shorthand for the United States and its cultural and political narrative. In 1931, when American artists were absorbed by the idea of developing unique imagery that symbolized the United States, Georgia O’Keeffe simply painted one of her classic white cow skulls on a blue background, added a fat red stripe to each side, and irreverently referred to it as her “Great American Painting.” Robert Rauschenberg used flat swatches of red, white and blue screened behind appropriated news imagery to reiterate his interest in American iconography. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that with his red, white, and blue Brillo boxes, made in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, Andy Warhol wasn’t somehow riffing on the conjunction of military and home economics in Lyndon Johnson’s guns-and-butter economy. Ellsworth Kelly, known for his rigorous exploration of pure color, has rarely made red, white, and blue paintings, probably because overcoming the embedded symbolism is so difficult. From the few he did produce, one might be tempted to infer some political motivation: he is a World War II veteran, and made them during the Vietnam era.

Nostalgia Lost
Shortly after 9/11, when most Americans were experiencing a surge of nationalism, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery mounted a show of Jack Tworkov’s abstract red, white, and blue paintings from 1956-1964. In the press release, the gallery attributes Tworkov’s limited palette to the warm, sentimental feelings and uninflected patriotism an immigrant often feels towards his adopted country. In truth, Tworkov, although older and more closely identified with the earlier Abstract Expressionists like Willem deKooning and Franz Kline, was a close friend of Johns and Rauschenberg. His use of red, white, and blue was undoubtedly informed by Johns’ flag paintings, one of which Tworkov acquired in an art trade with Johns himself.

The 2002 exhibition was promoted as a reflection of the patriotism and sense of vulnerability awakened in most Americans by the 9/11 attacks, even though Tworkov’s original intent was more nuanced and painterly than Mitchell-Innes & Nash indicate. It seems that over time, rather than losing strength, the powerful symbolism of our national colors has expanded, especially in the realm of advertising and design, where American companies rely on the combination of the determined optimism and national gravitas imparted by red, white and blue to sell their products. Witness Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren’s clothing designs and advertising campaigns; the graphics for CNN; the logos for oil companies like Exxon/Mobil and Chevron; and the unabashedly patriotic pitches of Ford and General Motors.

Yet, as entrenched as the allusive power of red, white, and blue is in American art, design, and commerce, the political or psychological content of any symbol or color is perishable over the long term. What is perceived by one generation isn’t necessarily so obvious or at least so visceral to succeeding ones. To later viewers, the original idea often becomes purely theoretical, understandable intellectually but without its inaugural emotional power. Purple once symbolized royalty because the dye, made from rare mollusks, was very expensive and therefore available only to the wealthy. Over time, as synthetic dyes were developed, purple products became widely affordable and the color no longer enjoyed such elite associations. For 3,000 years, the swastika represented life, sun, power, strength, and good luck in several different cultures, until the Nazis hijacked it in the 1930s. Today it is understood internationally as a symbol of racist, genocidal evil—so much so that a U.S. Navy barracks in California that resembled a swastika only from the air was ordered structurally modified at an expense of $600,000 in 2007. Yet 500 years from now, the swastika’s prevalent meaning may redound to something more benign.

The damage done to the United States’ international reputation by the Bush administration’s post-9/11 mistakes and the President’s heavy-handed and malign foreign policy may have begun a revision of the way Americans’ interpret the three simple colors that symbolize their national identity. These shifts may not be tectonic, but they are significant, and they have already bred a far more skeptical citizenry than the triumphant one that watched the Berlin Wall fall and the Soviet Union collapse less than twenty years ago. As much as Americans want to indulge in nostalgia for the America of The Greatest Generation, of Camelot, of Cold War victory, the deprecation of the United States’ good name has made it hard to do so with a straight face. In the realm of art, the Whitney Biennial—for the attention it generates, one of the most important surveys of contemporary art in the United States—may have inaugurated the internalization of our darker national mood. Writing in the Village Voice, Leslie Camhi saw the exhibition as enervated and the clear product of a declining American empire, that being the sustained U.S. domination of contemporary art. It seems likely, though, that as the Whitney’s curators honed their thematic conceit, they were also inspired by the bigger national picture to create an exhibition that reflects Bush’s failed presidency and our nation’s traumatic and distracted times.

From Lessness to More
The Biennial’s driving theme of “lessness” certainly yields plenty of less: less expensive materials, less labor-intensive efforts, less attention to visual impact, less of a premium on permanence, less need for physical objects of any kind. That’s not to say the work is less ambitious, but the artists’ physical effort is certainly less than what has been on display in the past. Unlike previous generations, many of the artists are disinclined to spend long meditative hours working alone in a studio, opting instead to work with a cohort of like-minded conceptualists, devising easily transportable, conceptually witty, improvised projects that can be arranged and rearranged depending on the space available. Indeed, the improvisational nature of contemporary art practice is reinforced by the current curatorial preoccupation with site-specific projects. The epoch of post-studio art practice, in which the separation between life and art making is minimized if not virtually eliminated, has arrived. In this vein, Bruce Nauman’s 2002 video installation that chronicles the activity in his empty studio is especially resonant. What emerges from the Whitney’s exhibition is a community of artists who appear compelled to limit themselves to ephemeral, transitory media, and whose work seems self-consciously designed to evanesce in a cynical age best forgotten.

The Whitney Biennial iconoclastically focuses on artistic irresoluteness and failure in a way that relates intimately, if only metaphorically, to the United States’ loss of direction and respect in the world. And it suggests that the separation of red, white, and blue from their rigid iconographic subtext—perhaps, say, a presidential contender who uses yellow and orange—may arise sooner than we think. This transition would result from what most people regard as a somber chapter in the American narrative. At the same time, it can also open the way to more nuanced and less clichéd interpretations of red, white, and blue – which are still our colors—that could inspire redemption and renewal just as readily as they might perpetuate despair.


Sharon L. Butler

Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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