Art Degree Zero

I am writing this piece for a general population, not artists, curators, critics, teachers; those who’ve shaped a life around art. Not those folks, but still, I want to talk to a population who admire art; I mean people who will go to a museum, seek out a museum when traveling, maybe even read an art review, maybe even have taken a recreational watercolor class. People who already have a lean toward the humanities (history, lit, philosophy, music, etc.) who have actually read a poem and said—”hmmm….” I’m not writing this for someone who thinks Picasso was a massive con or that poetry is for a generally low-testosterone population. I want to unveil some confusion. Like the time I found myself on a teaching assignment sitting in a university cafeteria, the lone artist surrounded by theoretical mathematicians, topologists as it happened, who chose me to be the spokesman for my whole cadre, “So, what’s the deal with Andy Warhol?” they asked.

That said, art is a massive confusion for most; I mean, Andy Warhol?? What is the deal?


Christo’s Proposal for Running Fence 1972

I mean like the time I was rolling my way through graduate school in studio art at U Wisconsin—recruited to give a talk to the Woman’s Club of my hometown of Kankakee, Illinois. The idea was born at a dinner table conversation on a visit home from Madison. My folks were great encouragers of thought-provoking talk, choosing guests who would make for “thinking talk”. The lively dinner-party conversation at my folks shifted intensity when one of the guests, president of the Woman’s Club, said, “If you feel so strongly about art, talk to us!” I was railing on about the latest project from Christo who’d proposed building a 26-mile long fence, 18 feet tall made of sparkling nylon fabric, running through California’s ranching country, up and down the hills and finally to the coast where it disappeared into the sea. It would be up for 2 weeks. I was on my high horse as only a young man can be—doubling the height of that high horse by thinking of myself as not only a self-anointed artist but a true believer in the “counter-culture” “If you can convince the women of Kankakee this fence is a good idea, you can convince anyone. We pay $175 for an hour talk.”

Wow, you bet; to talk about the weirdest things going on in the little village we call the art world to the little village where I grew up (population 22,000) out in the cornfields. I jumped at the chance to prove myself. I wanted to see if I could shape an idea about the art of the day and have it be sensible to these “silent majority” folks. Big Shot had a year to prepare.

Well, I did want to talk about the weirdest things going on in the little village called the art world to the village of my hometown. Plus in 1972 that $175 would be $950 in today’s money and I was greedy for the bucks. As the date approached, though, I got scared. I’d been so full of myself. Big Shot. My public speaking CV was nil. I’d gotten on my hind legs to talk to a classroom a couple of times and I’d made one toast at a friend’s wedding. One. I started to backpedal, ready to weasel out. I mean, who’d want to offer up the thing that excites you the most to a group of baffle-eared burghers? Ah, sanctimony, my constant companion in those days, a kind of superpower I can yet call up in a blink.


So I wrote the whole talk out and was set to read the thing and then flee, tail tucked. On the day, the auditorium of the Kankakee Historical Society was jam-packed. The last time I’d been in that auditorium was to see Homer and Jethro in matching emerald-green suits headlining the Grand Ole Opry Review. The local TV station was there with lights, camera, action. The prodigal was returning. The picture in the paper advertising the event was from the time when I wore my hair as a cross between Harpo Marx and Angela Davis. My home townies of “Babbitt-ville” were ready for a freak show. Art lecture as extreme sport.


Corn Forever

I piled my wife Laura and our 2 1/2-year-old into the rusted Fiat Wagon, gone from flashy Italian red to something like ancient brick, heading past the herds of cheese’n butter factory Holsteins, and by the time we were past the state line in Beloit (every time I said the town’s name it sounded like dropping a marble into a toilet) it was all corn, fence to fence. Hoving into the outskirts of Kankakee a giant smokestack, the blond brick lodestar of Armour Pharmaceuticals you could see from 10 miles out, was the harbinger signaling that every hog pancreas in the tri-state area fattened on that corn, was being rendered into insulin. Strange to think these days of all that high fructose corn syrup that had, in fact, created the very need for all those pancreases.

armour stack

Armour Pharmaceutical c. 1955

The country was spindled around the dark argument of Vietnam. People bought the argument of the Domino Theory of SE Asia. Lies had gotten us into a murderous war— the whole country was on a hair trigger.   In “downstate” Illinois as they called the Republican, non-Chicago part of the state, arguments abounded that disrupted many a gemütlich family embrace. The Pentagon Papers had just been released giving hard credence to what the hippie/peaceniks had been saying for years. Nixon’s Southern Strategy in the ’68 election had created the Red/Blue America we continue to be afflicted with today. Who’d want to go to indelibly red Kankakee? My pearls scattered before swine? I felt in my unbounded hubris, that I was a real artist, a member of a self-anointed elite. After all, I’d gotten a scholarship to go to school. They said, I was an artist. The Selective Service had released me from service because I was an artist. (At my induction physical—”You are an artist? Sorry, son no place for you in the army, Lang—you’re 4F.”). I felt anointed…for something? For a life of Art?

At this very fraught moment in US history, was art even relevant? More than ever. You want to be a free person? Go ahead, open the door to your studio and make something relevant. As it happened, after 15 seconds on stage, I tossed my scribbled-out prepared remarks. Turned out, there is nothing I love talking about more than art and artists. As a young radical, but at the same time, pretty much scared of almost everything, I periodically had the impulse to move toward the thing that scared me the most— “counter-phobic” I learned it was called in a later psycho-therapeutic moment. The Fool follows this line. Picture this fool, the first card of the Tarot wearing a flowery tunic, a jingle-hat on his head, about to step off a cliff, while his inner dog barks a warning. I was stepping off the cliff into the Woman’s Club of Kankakee, Illinois…foolish boy, but as I said, it paid—not entirely foolish.


Art Degree Zero was the title of my talk. A bit of a ripoff of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero coming to me by way of the art historical darling of the moment Jack Burnham (my copy of his Structure of Art annotated and underlined, had long before disintegrated into a sheaf of pages). Art was a language, after all, and the language philosophers were in the theoretical ascendancy including Barthes, Noam Chomsky,  anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, etc. etc. It was the moment when all the experimentation in modern art came to, a cliff? a wall? a step into the cultural Mariana Trench? Modern art had systematically tried to strip away all the markers that would let you know that something was actually a work of art: illusion, color, nostalgic scenery. Representation was mere depiction and deplorable to the Catechism of the avant guard.  As I’ve often said—”whittling the great log of meaning down to a toothpick.” As an art student in the 60’s and then into the 70’s, this was the puzzle to solve. And with the roaring counterculture in the background of everything cool, art could seem like a game being played to find this endpoint, the ultimate—a kind of unified field theory of art as in the goal of physics. That was cool. Like particle physics where atom smashers were trying to find the essential elements of the universe, artists were the protons hurled around the cyclotron of culture, ready to plow headlong into the status quo. I was a dedicated practitioner of this Avant Garde but I also felt a bit like a missionary to Kankakee, having received my “true believer status”  in a school well-known for feeling its way into this new order of art. The Corcoran School (through George Washington U) was a place known for testing the limits of validity, a hothouse for this Art Degree Zero business.


Woman DeKooning

How to draw a circle around the room? How to get the audience to feel like we were all in the same tribe? If you believed as I did that art was part of our biology, that art was an animal essence all humans had in common, it should be easy. Where to start? I went back to the beginning, to slides of the great bulls of Altamira and Lascaux painted on European cave walls 20 to 30 thousand years ago. If you have any doubts about art being part of the human genome, think of that, I told them. Next slide after the bulls was a de Kooning from his Woman series. Big swirls of dancing paint, bug eyes, menacing teeth and lipstick-red mouth. Her breasts, front and center, were tornados of paint. I told the story of standing with my father before that very painting in Chicago’s Art Institute. I was ten years old. Pop asks, “So what do you think that is?”  “A woman,” I said. “How can you tell?” he asks with a sly smile?” “The lipstick,” I said. That got a laugh from my audience and they were with me more or less—just like that.


Marcel Duchamp—Nude Descending a Staircase

Next up was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a piece first shown in the US at the 1912 Armory show in NYC, a classic “Fig A” to illustrate the shatter of Cubism. One critical wag at the time called it “explosion in a shingle factory.” This delighted Duchamp so much he decided to move to the US where he saw a fertile field to test his thought experiments. My audience thought it funny too. I was rolling. A bit… “Think of strobe photography and Einstein’s ideas of relativity,” I said.


Next picture…Duchamp’s 1917 work called Fountain. He’d bought a urinal at a plumbing store, signed it R Mutt and exhibited it lying on it’s back on a stand. That got my burghers riled up. Murmuring, tittering. Not funny. But Fountain’s challenge was to say, stop what you are doing and think. What is a work of art? Duchamp had declared an end of retinal art, an end of looking. The art that excited him was art that made you think. Think and then maybe look. He saw the brain itself as a sensory apparatus.

By 1972 all that “pruning”, that shaving of the log of meaning had gotten us to with that hard-to-swallow 1917 Duchamp piece. He was the precursor to Andy Warhol. I said, “Imagine walking your dog and you see a friend walking along across the street. You point and say ‘Look, Rex, there’s Sally.'” The dog looks at the pointing hand. That’s what Duchamp was trying to express. Art is not about a thing, it’s about identifying, and naming, drawing a circle around an experience. This last whittled shaving, this last click in the tumbler was called Conceptual Art. I wanted to talk about this, how to measure out the eternal with the merest means possible. In 1972 the cool thing to do was to make art “about” art just as the new money was “money” “about” money. 40 years down the road gives me 20/20 hindsight but something in my Women’s Club talk started a ball rolling that continues to have momentum. We now live in an image-world of fake news and bluff, of “reality” TV, of the thing called the Simulacrum by French Language Philosophers in 1972. We might forget it was also a time when money itself was going through a process of abstraction; monetary instruments were so far away from, say, how much is this cow worth? this bushel of corn? I mean what’s a dollar bill worth except an agreed upon hallucination. The stock market was becoming a place to trade futures, derivatives, puts and calls, credit default swaps and lately, cryptocurrencies. Money and art, always strange bedfellows, were now shacking up big-time in the great brothel of the auction house.

I then told my audience about a fellow student who had a job working in a photo lab. She was told to throw away all the unclaimed slides. Instead, she sorted the images into three categories—birthdays, Christmases and picnics. In our seminar, she set up three projectors and simultaneously showed the images. The people depicted were all nationalities and classes. The stunning thing was they were all the same picture regardless of context. They had all arrived at the snap of the camera from different circumstances but once the… SNAP! they were all unified in a kind of banality of existence. Her slide show was shocking and had impact. Art can be thought alone. She was asking, “What are photographs, anyway?” (In the eighties she would gain renown for “appropriations”—taking a famous photograph, by say, Walker Evans and exhibiting it as her own—titled Sherrie Levine after Walker Evans) She was asking the question—Is anything original? In the age of massive reproduction, what is original?

I had had a snarky chip on my shoulder when I stepped into the auditorium. Who were these philistines from my hometown more than half of whom would be in favor of de-funding any art organization? These folks were largely pro-war conservatives and also, the town was racially segregated by a train-track dividing line. One Halloween, our house had been graffitied with swastikas and a “Christ Killer Jew” epithet. I had been afraid of really opening up at the beginning, after all, these were crucial times and could be dangerous to someone who looked like me, but I was rolling now. I declared Art Degree Zero as setting the stage for human society to be free. This is what Fountain meant to me. Suddenly as I looked out at my audience (and this came to me in a rush) that these folks were not in opposition. I had grown up in this town. Mostly women (the few men were all related to me) in their uptown suits, were leaning into my talk. All my hipper-than-thou faded away. These were my people. Young as I was, I had traversed some significant territory, raising a child, held down a couple of difficult jobs, but most of all, I had taken a real stand to be an artist. And, I was loving my audience.

X bladen


During my undergrad years at the Corcoran I worked alongside the custodial crew doing odd jobs and helping when an extra hand was needed. I showed a picture of Ronald Bladen’s X, a sculpture that was a marker for heroic Minimalism, a movement that sought to squeeze all sentiment, metaphor and meaning out of an art object. The “thing itself and nothing else” in a move toward a certain kind of purity in a post A-bomb, post-holocaust world. Meaning was provisional as we were sliding toward what would become the “fake news” simulated world. I was the “Hey kid, hand me that drill” as the piece was constructed right there in the museum where I had a job. The Time magazine picture of the Bladen piece showed, framed between the legs of the X,  a neoclassical marble sculpture, part of the Corcoran’s permanent collection, Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave from 1850. As much as the new movement of minimal artists were trying to get away from myth and metaphor, I made sure my audience understood everything lives in a context. The very stripped down X was in dialogue with the slave. I said, “if you go to a museum and you are confused or pissed off, or simply dismissive of what you see, remember to look around—where are you seeing this object? What else is there? Who is there? What is going on in the world? I had a hankering for my audience to love art as I did. I was warming up to the feeling of “we are all members of the same tribe.” My judgments of my audience were evaporating as I spoke.

43ee68e7-cc47-4162-a43f-3c148cfb449e_1.649caaa03d1b85dadc600f6b701f1b7b.jpegMy senior class seminar in college was called New Media. The instructor Ed McGowin, testing the idea of identity, fame and the payoff of name recognition, had his name legally changed once a month for a year. The presiding judge who agreed to oversee the legalities was John Sirica (the same Watergate judge who oversaw the “Saturday Night Massacre” mess). McGowin had legal documentation framed and on the wall of his gallery. The format of McGowin’s class was to show up with merely a typed-out proposal testing all the ideas of what made art valid. One of my proposals was “I will move to Cape Cod and learn how to paint a typical tourist watercolor beach grass and sand fences with an abandoned child’s pail and shovel. I will then show the work in a museum.” I wanted to test the ideas of high and low art. I had a postcard on my studio wall of a weekend artfest—watercolor paintings hung from a clothesline in a churchyard. This was esoteric art’s ambition turned on it’s head. Cheesy paintings standing in for highest value, but what could hold higher value than a thought?

In 1971 conceptual art like New Media’s proposals had become the next big thing. In Wisconsin, my graduate seminar leader, Steve Kaltenbach had minted a 1/2 dollar in platinum complete with notarized documentation and went to Walgreens and bought a 50¢ grilled cheese sandwich with the coin. In contemporary value, it would be worth over $100 in raw metal alone. Think about it. Exactly. He took out 4 full page ads on 4 successive weeks in Time magazine spelling out the magazine’s name—week 1 “T”. week 2 “I”, week 3 “M”, week 4…etc.

Christo’s Running Fence proposal brought art out of the museum, out of the gallery and into the mythic American landscape. This was art that had no intrinsic value. Art had entered the world as a gift and presented to the world as such—you can’t own an idea—this was politics of the first order, and in fact Christo had traveled to every rancher’s land to present his case to 3rd generation ranchers. His documentation of the meetings was a part of the art.

It was time for a little talk from the pulpit. Make the assumption that when you see art that disturbs or chafes, there is a gift waiting to be opened. Christo’s Running Fence was the exemplar of the time. Site-specific rolled off my tongue like a native speaker—which I was. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty could stand alongside of Stonehenge which I illustrated with slides. The Fence was realized in 1976, by which time, living near the site,  I saw it go up and then down two weeks later, ephemeral as it was, still existing in my mind four decades later. I own a piece of the 26 miles of material. Very useful in the garden.



Dan Flavin Untitled 1972


Dan Flavin’s work transcended precious materials with cheap store-bought fluorescent fixtures creating rooms filled with light. If art was about spiritual values what was more spiritual than light itself. The best of the “light” artists was Bob Irwin. I described his piece shown while I was at the Corcoran in the rotunda central to the museum. Impossible to show a picture of the thing but the rotunda had a coffered ceiling with an oculus, a skylight in the center of the dome. Irwin had stretched a translucent scrim 14′ above the space at the juncture of wall and dome. It made you dizzy with wonder mentally and it was so unexpected that you actually ducked as you entered. This was more than an idea…a review of the piece from The Washington Post:

         “……one of the more enchanting temporary art pieces ever installed in Washington or, I’d wager, anywhere. Robert Irwin placed a cotton scrim across the drum of the Corcoran rotunda’s shallow dome, and the result was astonishing: The room, crisply pleasing at all times, was for a while transformed into a soft, subtle, magical chamber.”

Corcoran occulus

Corcoran Gallery c. 1970


A later Irwin piece Light and Space 2007

Richard Serra’s Night Shift, was made of molten lead splashed against the juncture of floor and wall and then the casts were pried away and lined up on the gallery floor. How peculiar, but if you want to speak about the weight of the world, I said, what better way than 15,000 lbs of lead. As Irwin spoke of light, Serra was speaking of pure gravity. The assumption of all this brand new work, mentally challenging, was that the brain itself was equally adept at perceiving art. Art for the eye—Art for the brain. Nodding heads.


Richard Serra—Night Shift

The idea of something being called art was enough if the artist had conviction. Duchamp certainly did. If I say its art, it is art. Artists are usually the first to reach into a dark room and turn on the lights of the future and the art of this period saw the present if not the future as Andy Warhol-type celebrity became a stand-in for the litmus test of character. If you are famous, surely you are worthy. So, what’s the deal with Andy Warhol?

I felt like I  was an ambassador from a distant planet but my audience seemed to be with me. So, what is the deal with Andy Warhol? I asked again. All great artists live exquisitely in the future and powerfully in the present. What is the present here in 1972, but our fascination with the world of commodity, fetishized commodity, shopping as a competitive sport? Shopping as recreation. Shopping along with the fetish of celebrity, where celebrities stand in for the pantheon of Olympus. Unwilling to throw politics in their faces, I avoided,  the words: alienation of the masses, reification, and the M word (Marxism), which at the time had put a very cogent finger on the pulse of the problem facing our civilization. As I spun out the notion of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, soup cans, Double Elvis’, car crashes and electric chairs I looked out and saw heads nodding in agreement. I had pointed and they were looking where I pointed. Warhol was doing landscape paintings of our present landscape, and like any artist who loves his subject Andy loved modern life. In a talk he gave when I was at the Corcoran, Andy convinced me, the Brillo box was actually beautiful. Context is everything. And as the original “What, me worry?” guy here’s Andy Warhol gone MAD.



Spoof of Andy Warhol in Mad Magazine


Could you know what Serra had to teach about gravity, with his sometimes confusing massive sculptures, without seeing them, and especially knowing about them? Eye and brain and the presence of the body. Serra’s sculpture requires that you move through space with your eye and brain and body. Presence.

How could you know better about the world of light without stepping into that Robert Irwin room at the Corcoran? His piece wasn’t about the thin scrim stretched over a space. It was the light. Could the whole person know itself otherwise? Art asks these questions, it doesn’t have answers. Neither did I, I was little more than a pup, but I felt convinced art was central to human existence, and my ladies with their matching shoes and purses and “going shopping in Chicago” suits were still with me at the end—I think they clapped, at least in my mind they sure did. I’d learned in the space of my allotted hour to follow Jasper John’s wise dictum…take something, do something to it, do something else to it. I returned to Madison more determined than ever…to take something…

One thought on “Art Degree Zero

  1. Pingback: Where are they now? Updates from Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang, Finding Meaning in the Mess (2015) – CARe PACKAGE

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