Per Contra

Summer 2007

Visual Arts

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Still Against The Grain:  Thomas Chimes’s Commemoration Of The Original Avant-Garde, Or Of The Old Exceptions That Have Become The Rule, Or Of The Underground That Has Become Aboveground by Donald Kuspit



Michael R. Taylor’s catalogue essay, “Thomas Chimes:  Adventures in Pataphysics,” is overwhelming in its comprehensiveness.  It is exhaustive in its analysis of Chimes’s development.  It traces every influence on him, and his absorption of and response to the influence.  Taylor’s breakdown of Chimes’s oeuvre into four categories--crucifixion paintings, metal boxes, panel portraits, and white paintings--makes perfect sense.  Individual works are described in detail, and art historically and culturally contextualized.  Taylor makes it abundantly clear that Chimes has an important place in the history of avant-garde art.  I have no wish to repeat or underline any aspect of Taylor’s brilliant analysis--a remarkable homage to Chimes and a tour de force of art historical scholarship.  Taylor certainly convinces me that Chimes’s development parallels, recapitulates, and epitomizes the development of the avant-garde.  His art is an act of extraordinary homage to the avant-garde. 


And that will be my interpretive starting point:  such homage suggests that the avant-garde is over.  It has become history--a reliquary of images and ideas.  I am not interested in Chimes the Neo-Pataphysician--his debt to Alfred Jarry’s notion of pataphysics has been much discussed, including by myself--but in Chimes the celebratory mourner at the funeral of the avant-garde.  The first part of Taylor’s “Introduction” is titled “Notes From Underground,” a reference to Duchamp’s 1961 statement (and indirectly to Dostoyevsky)--it is the first of the two epigraphs of Taylor’s “Introduction”--”Where do we go from here?  The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.”  But where will the underground go?  It will go, and in fact has gone, aboveground.  Just as the Christians emerged from the catacombs to become a world religion, so the avant-garde has emerged from the catacombs to become an art world religion. 


This has occurred many times.  Avant-garde artists have repeatedly moved from the margin to the center.  Anti-establishment art has repeatedly become establishment art.  Today avant-garde anti-authoritarianism has become avant-garde authoritarianism.  Alfred Jarry’s tyranny of anarchy--Jarry, the inventor of the mock science of pataphysics, is Chimes’s special hero--has become radical chic.  Paradoxically, in modernity, to prove one’s avant-garde credentials they must be accepted by the establishment.  Warhol became an establishment artist early in his career with his 1965 exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and Duchamp became an establishment artist late in his career when Louise and Walter Arensberg bequeathed their collection of Duchamp’s work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1954.  It was a fate that also befell Abstract Expressionism in 1959-60 when the United States Information Service mounted an international touring exhibition of abstract expressionist painting, thus proclaiming the hegemony and triumph of American art and with that, implicitly, of American creativity and innovation.  Clement Greenberg relegated French tachists to secondrateness--he didn’t bother to mention Cobra gesturalists--and, like other advocates of the so-called New York School, he didn’t even bother to look at California abstract expressionists, despite the fact that Hans Hofmann, whose paintings he admired, moved to California, catalyzing major gestural painting. 


Taylor’s second epigraph is Warhol’s ironically perceptive, not to say boldly cynical remark, from 1968, that “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” suggesting the devaluation of fame by way of its democraticization.  Warhol’s statement is a sort of reductio ad absurdum of Greenberg’s critical observation of the 1960s art scene.  It was in part a response to Pop Art, dismissed--along with Duchamp--as Novelty Art by Greenberg.  When everybody has become a revolutionary, he remarked, the revolution--that is, the avant-garde revolution--is over.  Warhol, along with his revolutionary Pop Art--but I think it is counter-revolutionary rather than revolutionary, post-avant-garde rather than avant-garde, for it negates the subjective turn, in response to psychosocial trauma, inseparable from the avant-garde revolution, by re-turning art to social objectivity--indeed, illustrational objectivity--in its current capitalist media form.  As Chimes’s choice of avant-garde artist-heroes suggests, avant-garde art originated in subjective revolt against objectivity.  “Do not paint too much after nature,” Gauguin advised Emile Schuffenecker in a letter dated August 14, 1888.  “Art is an abstraction; derive the abstraction from nature while dreaming in front of it, and think more of the creation that will result than of nature.”  That is, observe objective reality but respond to it subjectively rather than copy it mechanically. Earlier, on January 14, 1885, he advised Schuffenecker to “work freely and passionately,”  with “great emotion.”  “Dream about it,“ and the great emotion will find its way into one’s pictures, revealing itself in “relations of lines which can’t be accounted for, since it’s the most intimate part of a man that finds itself again completely hidden.”  Thus “Emotion first! understanding later,” as he wrote to Charles Morice in July 1901.  But the substance of Pop Art, especially Warhol’s socially parasitic art, is social reality rather than emotional reality.  Warhol is emotionally cool and withholding, and mocks subjective experience.  When he said, with respect to his self-portraits, that what you see is all there is, he implied that he had no inner life, a denial that amounts to a kind of schizoid withdrawal from feeling.  Warhol’s portraits of hollow people satirize it--interiority in general--by eschewing it.  All one has to do is contrast a Warhol celebrity portrait with Chimes’s portrait of Antonin Artaud, a subjectively disturbed artist who belongs to Chimes’s inner circle of avant-garde visionaries--Artaud is perhaps only second in importance to Jarry for Chimes--to get the point. 


On April 25, 1895 Gauguin wrote:  “In art there are only two types of people:  revolutionaries and plagiarists.  And, in the end, doesn’t the revolutionary’s work become official, once the State takes it over?”  Duchamp said something similar in April 1957:  “In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions.”  But only when the spectator “realizes” the work is it truly complete:  “Art ‘à l’état brut,’ that is still in a raw state,...must be ‘refined’ as pure sugar from molasses, by the spectator,” more precisely, by “art history,” Duchamp states, adding that “this statement will not meet with the approval of many artists.”  “The artist may shout from all the roofops that he is a genius,” but only when his work is “discussed [and] accepted by the spectator,” and thus acquires “social value,” is it likely to be “consecrated by posterity.”  Approved by the State and Art History--taking its place of recognition in the establishment Museum--it finds “ the primers of art history,” and one might add of commerce.  Indeed, the grand alliance of commerce and culture is the ultimate determining force of immortality. 


However perverse and ironical this may sound, Duchamp--a dealer as well as postartist, to use Allan Kaprow’s term for quasi-artists who blur the boundary between art and life, thus undermining the aesthetic with their anti-art or mock art--notes that this social process is absolutely necessary.  Every work of art loses its aura or emanation in twenty or thirty years, he observed, in effect becoming decadent.  It must become part of art and commercial history to endure, to be available for emotional and intellectual appreciation--for the unconscious and consciousness.  Art historians and dealers are art’s salvation, rescuing it from oblivion--“millions of artists create” in vain, Duchamp asserts, for society is indifferent to the great majority--by making it part of the life of the mind and of feeling. 


Eight decades later, commenting on James Ackerman’s 1969 essay “The Demise of the Avant-Garde:  Notes on the Sociology of Recent American Art,” by which Ackerman meant Abstract Expressionism, the sociologist Daniel Bell, in his classic study The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), wrote that the Abstract Expressionism that had been regarded as “so difficult to approach,” as Ackerman notes, and even “a sham,” had “within half a decade...been acclaimed” and “dominated the museums and galleries.”  “The legend of modernism is that of the free creative spirit at war with the bourgeoisie,” Bell wrote, but in fact the “adversary culture” of modernism has become mainstream bourgeois culture.  “Adversary intention... subversive intention” is standard operating avant-garde procedure. 


Now all this suggests that the avant-garde against-the-grain attitude has become decadent and banal.  If, as Baudelaire said, the only sin is banality, then the avant-garde has become banal, meaning unreflective matter-of-course.  It has, if one wants, become academic--assimilated to the point of becoming overfamiliar and clichéd.  Like Gauguin, Duchamp knew that this was inevitable.  So what is an artist--Chimes--to do when the avant-garde art he loves has run its course and become matter for the art historical course?  How does one make avant-garde art after the demise of the avant-garde?  How is one to make subjectively relevant art after the avant-garde has lost its subjectivity?  The only thing left to do is to analyze and commemorate the avant-garde art at its most subjective--to secure its place in collective and personal memory so completely that it seems unquestionable, so embedded in history that it and the subjectivity it explored seem inevitable.  This means taking the risk of reifying it--absolutizing it into a formula.  Such hypostatizing endorsement poses a serious threat to the subjectivist artists Chimes admires.  The subjective is invariably falsfied by being objectified and conceptualized, however intellectually convincing the results.  Reduced to intelligible prose, the subjective loses its poetry and profound absurdity. 


Chimes’s problem is to keep the against-the-grain attitude and mood--the poetic/subjective spirit rather than the now dead/objective letter--of avant-garde art alive, demonstrating its authenticity in defiance of the institutionalization that defends against it.  Neutralized into a fashion, against-the-grainness becomes inauthentic and manageable--peculiarly pathetic and pointless.  The moment when Stravinsky’s avant-garde Rites of Spring was used as the score for Walt Disney’s popular Fantasia--this occurred only two short decades after Stravinsky wrote his dissonant music--it became fashionable kitsch.  It lost its bite and harshness--its staccato “savagery”--and became soothing marshmellow music.  Something similar happened when Yves St. Laurent made his Mondrian dress, and just three weeks ago, when organic mannequins showcased armor-clad dresses described as high-tech Futurist.  Hussein Chalayan, the fashion designer who invented them, and is celebrated as “a very avant-garde designer,” said he is not really “so out there” avant-garde.  He is right:  he’s a kitschifer of avant-garde art.


I think Chimes successfully solves the problem--maintains the aura of subjectivity, of dreaminess that resists the world’s objectivity, of the avant-garde insistence on emotion in response to the bourgeoisie who do not give unconscious emotion and fantasy their due, of avant-garde against-the-grain creativity in response to a bourgeoisie that channels its creativity into practical survival (ironically making avant-garde adverserial creativity possible), in short, of the avant-garde that achieved subjective authenticity by going against-the-grain of the supposedly existentially inauthentic bourgeoisie--in the peculiarly passionate and poignant surfaces of his portraits of avant-garde figures and the wooden frames whose autonomous grain uncannily embodies their creativity.  If, as Anton Ehrenzweig argued, the inarticulate has emotional carrying power--conveys intimate and hidden feeling--then Chimes’s inarticulate surfaces are profoundly and purposefully subjective in import. 


Chimes is neither a revolutionary nor a plagiarist, to recall Gauguin’s distinction, but a memorialist of avant-garde subjectivity, that is, he is in melancholy relationship with an avant-garde that exists in dream-like and idealizing memory rather than in mundane contemporary reality.  Chimes emotionally lives in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Paris, however much he physically lives in twenty first century Philadelphia.  For Chimes the Parisian avant-garde exists through its absence.  He gives this absence--this lostness--esthetic presence, indeed, sublime substance in the uncanny surfaces of his paintings and frames.  Deeply embedded in and contained by these surfaces, and kept afloat by their inherent uncanniness, Chimes’s avant-garde figures acquire sacred presence.  They are in effect ghostly gods--hadean touchstones of creativity.  Filled with enthusiasm for them, Chimes in effect becomes one of them.  But his passion for them is tinged with melancholy, because they have become objectified by history, as their photographs--poor surrogates for the real thing, not to say uncreative simulations of creative presence--show.  But Chimes’s exquisite paint and grainy wood bring the dead photographs, and the dead figures in them, to creative and mournful emotional life.  Chimes in effect abstracts their vital spirit from their dead bodies, symbolizing and dramatizing that spirit in “touching” pure paint and relentlessly dynamic gestural grain, leaving the bodies as mementos mori, which in fact is what photographs are.      


Chimes symbiotically connects with the avant-garde past through a process of what Duchamp called “esthetic osmosis.”  That is, the avant-garde passes into his art through the membrane of his paint even as the paint transmutes it--again Duchamp’s term--for his own emotional and esthetic purposes, more pointedly, to keep himself creatively alive in dark post-avant-garde times, and in a society whose rampant materialism and vulgarity are antithetical to the fine-tuned sensibility and creative emotionality of Chimes’s avant-garde figures, and to his own fine-tuned surfaces, sensitive with feeling, whether of paint or wood.  Chimes turns to the past to stay fresh in the present, and to find sanctuary in a society that has lost subjective depth, however full of suffering it is.  Most of all, Chimes holds on to the avant-garde art of the past because of art’s uncertain future.  “The colored past outshines tomorrow’s grey,” Apollinaire wrote in his poem Cortege--”Près du passé luisant demain est incolore”--and Chimes agrees with him. 


To put this a different way, using yet another term from Duchamp--which he borrowed from psychoanalysis--Chimes has a “transference” to the art of the avant-garde past, more particularly, to the original avant-garde artists and the time when avant-garde art was original--radically different, unprecedented in its subjective depth, and creatively unsettling--a genuine breakthrough into the unexpected.  As noted, the avant-garde is represented by its most famous practitioners, particularly the sensational Alfred Jarry and his surrogate Ubu Roi.  For Chimes they are Proustian madelines, triggers evoking avant-garde originality, now a memory as distant as the figures themselves.  Chimes never quite works the transference through, and seems unwilling to do so, for he depends on the avant-garde figures for creative sustenance and inspiration, indeed, clings to them as his primary artistic objects--his extended family of true art fathers.  A transference object and transference relationship--for example, the psychoanalyst one relates to in a therapeutic relationship and who is inseparable from it, but also any object relationship in which one is involved to the extent that it seems impossible to exist without it (psychoanalysis now regards transference as a general phenomenon)--is a new edition of an old object and relationship, especially of the feelings that held it together, but also those that threatened it.  It was once a primitive object relationship, and the feelings experienced in it became paradigmatic, and thus tend to recur in mature object relationships, especially when they become existentially urgent, although they also appear in casual, less life-necessary relationships.  Chimes clearly has a desperate relationship with the avant-garde figures he portrays.  He does his filial duty to them because his art has no meaning without them.  


I am suggesting that Chimes is an art historian in principle, refining art in a raw state into esthetic and historical significance.  But Chimes refines art that has already been esthetically and historically refined into social significance.  The question is why do so.  Why struggle to restore the magic of originality--the aura of the unexpected, the charisma of the unconventional--to an avant-garde that has lost its magic, all the more so because it no longer questions artistic convention but has itself become an unquestionable convention.  No longer problematic itself, nor raising gadfly problems for art--no longer disturbing the artistic peace with its own aggressive uncertainty--it is no longer an artistic version of critical consciousness.  It is no longer an anxious exception to the rules, but the comfortable rule.  


Chimes’s panel portraits are in fact ultra-refined, as their high finish and meticulous execution indicate.  Imaginative art and high craft seamlessly fuse.  From the beginning Chimes understood they mirrored each other--that one needed craft to be imaginative, and imagination had to be “crafty” to be convincing.  This is made emphatically clear in his brilliant ink drawing Registered in the Bureau of Tempo Catastrophe, c. 1966.  In my opinion it is a sort of overture to the panel portraits, for it contains all their conceptual and stylistic ingredients, carefully orchestrated into a simultaneity.  Like the drawing, they show that beauty is impossible without the integration of imagination and craft.  That is, there can be no imaginative transformation of death--the death and loss of loved ones, with its estranging effect, for relegated to the past they become strangers--into beauty.  I think this is the fundamental esthetic task of art.  Ironically, Chimes’s panel paintings return to it, in defiance of the avant-garde ban on beauty--explicit in Barnett Newman, and dismissed as “romantic prettiness” by Apollinaire--suggesting that the creative “change from inert material into a work of art” that the artist effects is secondary to the creative change of the work of art into a thing of enduring beauty that the spectator effects.  The spectator’s interest must be sustained once the artist has made the work, and it can only be sustained by finding beauty in the work.  The spectator’s creativity is what counts once the artist’s creativity has done its job.                           


Duchamp became angry and frustrated when spectators found natural beauty--Art Nouveau beauty and the beauty of the female body (just as Man Ray did when he suggested that beautiful music could be made with it)--in the shape of the Fountain, 1917.  He expected people to respond to it with the indifference with which he claimed to present it.  They could not do so, because nothing is perceived indifferently, and because everything has its own beauty, spontaneously revealed through existential intimacy with it, that is, the historian spectator’s transference to it.  Chimes’s panel portraits suggest that he takes the position of the spectator as well as the artist--fuses the two--as he must because avant-garde art is no longer unfamiliar and surprising but has become as familiar and unsurprising as traditional art.  Apollinaire thought that the new declares itself through surprise--a notion he derived from Baudelaire’s idea of the “sensation of the new” resulting from the imaginative transformation of familiar reality (most of Apollinaire’s ideas come from Baudelaire)--but today the new has become the neo.  Once the surprise is over, the question is what does the work have to say, much as, once the orgasm is over, the question is what do the people who have intercourse have to say to each other.


Indeed, avant-garde art has become a mode of sexy spectacle, as installation and performance art make clear, in a desperate effort to reach a public.  It falls back on publicity--advertisements for itself--because it has lost its subjective touch, that is, the subjective solitude that informs the avant-garde work of Chimes’s artist-heroes, and his own work, making it also avant-garde in spirit. 



Links to Works by Thomas Chimes:

Portrait of Alfred Jarry

Antonin Artaud