Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe (1975)

Paperback cover of The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe, 1975. Yes, this is my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Tom Wolfe at the Leo Castelli gallery, circa 1970. The painting and sculpture in the background are both by Roy Lichtenstein.

Tom Wolfe on William F. Buckley's Firing Line to discuss The Painted Word, July, 1975.
Tom Wolfe takes on the art world! Tom Wolfe critiques the leading theories in contemporary art! Tom Wolfe tells you all about the different stages of being an artist, from the Boho Dance to the Consummation which ensures critical success! Tom Wolfe takes on the mysteries of abstract art! You can imagine him, can’t you, in his pristine white suit, squinting close at an abstract canvas up on the wall of some Seventh Avenue gallery uptown, one of those galleries that doesn’t want to look like they’re trying too hard, that serves cheap box wine at show openings and has little cheeseballs on platters, and those little one-bite brownies that the receptionist ran out to get at Whole Foods on her lunchbreak. Delicious! The receptionist is one of those girls you see at practically every gallery, the fine-boned, sleek, mini-skirt wearing type, just out of college with a B.A. in Art History; ready to conquer the art world! Wolfe has her sized up right away-she flirts a little with the male customers, but just enough to make them confused as to if she’s actually flirting or not. They can never tell, so they keep coming back for more! And she’s eagerly solicitous of the female customers, dropping little tidbits from her daily life into her conversations with them to make her seem “relatable,” “friendly,” and not a “husband-stealing bitch.” Wolfe keeps staring at the painting, and suddenly, WHOMP! He sees it! He wonders to himself, why is it so damn flat? Why isn’t there any pigment visible on the canvas? I’m looking at a painting, but why can’t I tell that it’s a painting? It’s the damnedest thing! So he walks out of the gallery, with his hat and his walking stick, and he ponders. He makes his way to the nearest bookstore and finds their art section. He starts reading criticism. He reads Clement Greenberg, the patron saint of Abstract Expressionism. And then he learns about flatness! The sacred integrity of the picture plane! Wolfe becomes determined to peel the layers of the onion that is contemporary art.

That’s not actually the way it happened, of course. 

In his 1975 book The Painted Word Tom Wolfe, America’s favorite white-suited New Journalist, examined the New York City art scene and the leading critics of the past 30 years. The Painted Word is a slim little volume, just 100 pages in my Bantam reprint paperback, but the book packs quite a punch. In the opening pages of the book, Wolfe tells us how he got interested in writing about art theory. He was reading The New York Times on April 28, 1974, when he read an article by Hilton Kramer that basically said, in Wolfe’s words, “In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.” (p.2) Wolfe naturally wondered how modern art had arrived at this point. Wolfe focuses most on the theories of the three leading art critics of that era: Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg. Greenberg was the most influential of the three, and his mantra about the “the integrity of the picture plane” led to his endorsement of Abstract Expressionist painting. And not much else, at least, not until Post-Painterly Abstraction came into vogue in the mid 1960’s. Greenberg didn’t have much time for art that didn’t conform to his formulas about what great art should be. Pop Art? Meh, it was too figurative, too literal. And those artists were getting their ideas from pop culture and comic books! It couldn’t be serious art! Serious art came from deep inside your soul! And the way they made their art-using commercial art techniques like silk screening! Horrors!

One of Wolfe’s theories that he posits in The Painted Word is that artists, consciously or unconsciously, begin to change their styles to conform to what is popular with art critics. This theory did not exactly endear Wolfe to artists. But was he right? It’s impossible to say, since no artist would probably own up to being overly influenced by the critical mood of their time. But, as Wolfe points out in the book, many of the leading Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman all started out as figurative artists before moving to abstraction in the late 1940’s. Was that just the way their work was naturally headed, or did ideas from critics like Clement Greenberg influence the direction of their work?

Wolfe was quite right to focus his book on Clement Greenberg’s influential role in the criticism of this period. Back in college when I was taking an Art History class about Contemporary Art from 1945 to the present, I thought that it could easily be retitled, “Clement Greenberg’s Influence on Art and the Reaction to it.” Most of the “important” American painting of the 1945-1975 period was either clearly expressing his theories about art or rejecting them. Of course, it’s not as though artists were sitting around saying, “How can I express my rejection of Clement Greenberg’s ideas?” Pop Art was certainly a reaction to the dominant strain of Abstract Expressionism that was then fashionable. Abstract Expressionism was deeply serious, and scornful of any kind of pop culture influences. But artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, two artists whose works were important precursors to Pop Art, started to create work in the mid 1950’s that was clearly influenced by the outside world. Johns and Rauschenberg seemed to be saying, we’re not ascetic monks locked away in our downtown lofts working away at our version of an illuminated manuscript. We’re real people who drink Coke and read the newspaper. Even Johns’ seemingly simple paintings of flags and targets were painted over newspapers, leaving traces of the writing visible underneath the surface image. Johns and Rauschenberg were important influences on Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who both started creating paintings based on comic strips and newspaper photographs. Warhol and Lichtenstein married high and low culture in their Pop Art paintings and silk screens in a way that was abhorrent to most of the Abstract Expressionists. 

The Painted Word follows American art through the dominant movements from 1945 until 1975: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Op Art, Color Field Painting, and Post-Painterly Abstraction, to the beginnings of Earth Art. Wolfe shows how art critics constantly shifted their theories so that the new work would still fit into Greenberg’s obsession with flatness. Leo Steinberg had to do some rhetorical backflips to make Jasper Johns fit into the flatness box. He basically said that it was all okay because Johns had picked objects to paint like flags and targets that were already flat to begin with! Perfect! 

In one of the most brilliant parts of the book, Wolfe writes about how critics had to be constantly ahead of the game: “In an age of avant-gardism, no critic can stop a new style by meeting it head-on. To be against what is new is not to be modern. Not to be modern is to write yourself out of the scene. Not to be in the scene is to be nowhere. No, in an age of avant-gardism the only possible strategy to counter a new style which you detest is to leapfrog it. You abandon your old position and your old artists, leaping over the new style, land beyond it, point back to it, and say: ‘Oh, that’s nothing. I’ve found something newer and better…way out here.’” (p.68)

What Wolfe correctly sees is that if you have to keep moving farther and farther out to be on the leading edge, eventually you’re going to fall off the edge. And that’s what happened to painting during the time period he examines. How flat can you get? How abstract can you get? How many traditional pictorial elements can you completely eliminate from your work and still have a painting? Robert Rauschenberg beat the Minimalists at their own game a decade before they came on the scene: he was painting all-white canvases as early as 1951! You can’t get more Minimalist than that! The only thing you can see on those all-white canvases of Rauschenberg’s is the reflection of the gallery: he’s really letting the outside world in, as you focus on all those other people who are absorbed in the act of looking at art. 

At the end of the book, Wolfe shows us the only logical conclusion to these theories: there’s not even an art object anymore, it’s just a set of instructions about how to make an art object. In this way, Wolfe says, the game has come full circle: by trying to rid itself of “literary” references like people and landscapes, modern art has ultimately become literary, as there are only words to describe it, and not an actual physical object like a painting or sculpture! 

The Painted Word caused a great critical furor when it was released, and critics of all stripes attacked Wolfe. He discussed the reaction to the book at length in his 1991 interview in The Paris Review:

“It was the most vitriolic response I’ve ever had anywhere, much more so than Radical Chic or Bonfire of the Vanities. The things that I was called in print were remarkable. In fact, there were so many, I started categorizing them. One was ‘psychiatric insults’—the usual thing, this man is obviously sick. Then there were the ‘political insults’—usually I was called a fascist but occasionally a communist, a commissar. And then there were the curious round of insults I called the ‘X-rated insults,’ all taking the same form which was, This man who wrote the book is like a six-year-old at a pornographic movie; he can follow the motions of the bodies but he cannot comprehend the nuances. I always thought it was a very strange sort of insult because it cast contemporary art as pornography and I was the child. In various forms this metaphor was repeated by several different reviewers. Robert Hughes used it. He had the full image, the six-year-old, the grunts and groans, the pornographic movie and the rest of it. In the Times John Russell referred to me as a eunuch at the orgy. I think he was afraid that too many of his readers would be overstimulated by the thought of a six-year-old at a pornographic movie. So I became a eunuch at an orgy. Because of the similarity of the sexual metaphors, I was curious about this and was told later on that there had been a dinner in Bedford, New York, shortly after The Painted Word came out . . . a number of art world figures, including Robert Motherwell, in somebody’s fancy home. The subject of The Painted Word came up and Motherwell supposedly said, You know, this man Wolfe reminds me of a six-year-old at a pornographic movie. He can follow the motion of the bodies but he can’t comprehend the nuances. If it’s true, it shows what a small world the art world is. Actually that was one of the points I was trying to make in The Painted Word—that three thousand people, no more than that certainly, with roughly three hundred who live outside of the New York metropolitan area, determine all fashion in art. As far as I can tell, it was Motherwell’s conceit; he is an influential, major figure, and it spread from this dinner table in Bedford overnight, as it were.”

Wolfe coined the term “Cultureburg” to refer to the denizens of the New York art world, and he estimates that about 10,000 people around the world make up the art world. (p.21) In the same Paris Review interview, Wolfe explains why he thought the book made them so upset:

“Now maybe I’m flattering myself, but I think what made a bigger impact than the usual diatribe was that what I wrote was a history; there’s not a single critical judgment in the piece. It’s a history of taste, and I think that approach—it’s pitted on the level of a history of fashion—was infuriating. The art world can deal very easily with anybody who says they don’t like Pollock or they don’t like Rauschenberg, so what if you don’t. But to say these people blindly follow Clement Greenberg’s or Harold Rosenberg’s theories, which is pretty much what The Painted Word is saying, and that a whole era was not visual at all but literary, now that got them.”

Wolfe probably should have anticipated some of the criticism he received, since he was essentially an outsider to the fields of art history and art criticism. Wolfe didn’t establish his bona fides for being an art critic, and I think this was a big reason why critics were so hostile to the book. Wolfe appeared on William F. Buckley’s television show Firing Line in July of 1975 to discuss The Painted Word, and in his introduction of Wolfe, Buckley hit upon a major flaw of the book:

“Some of the critics have sworn an eternal hostility to him. In their criticisms they would appear to score on one point. I say they would appear to score because it is true that there is no internal evidence in The Painted Word that Tom Wolfe is himself a connoisseur of art or that he has read deeply into art history, though he may have done so and decided for editorial reasons not to encumber his thesis with that knowledge.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.73) 

Like Wolfe’s later book on architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, which I reviewed last year here, The Painted Word commits a cardinal sin for a non-fiction book: it has no footnotes and does not cite any of its sources. As Buckley said, we don’t know what Tom Wolfe has read about art history and art criticism. We don’t even know where the quotes he’s using are coming from! It always amazes me that an editor or publisher wouldn’t demand to have quotations cited in a non-fiction book. 

Wolfe does not tell us what art he likes and what art he doesn’t like in The Painted Word, and on Firing Line he explains why:

 “The book is really a social comedy…and to me it really wasn’t necessary to like or dislike a single work of art or a single artist in order to point this out. And I think in a way this is what has gotten under the skin of more critics and art historians than anything else. The one thing they’re not prepared to deal with is the process by which art becomes serious, the process by which it becomes praised, and so on.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.74) 

Wolfe’s signature flamboyant writing style is evident throughout The Painted Word. The first exclamation point comes at the end of the second sentence in the book. Wolfe’s engaging style makes the book a pleasure to read, and I enjoyed it more than From Bauhaus to Our House. I think Wolfe makes some valid points about art critics of that time being too influential. If you’re interested in American art from 1945-1975, The Painted Word will no doubt bring forth strong emotions.

1 comment:

Heliogabby said...

I liked this review of The Painted Word. No footnotes indeed!