Formalism.

x-bladen
X, Ronald Bladen, plywood, 1967,
Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave peeking in…
Greek Slave Hiram Powers detail 1857 marble, life size

Formalism in art has been around as a concept since the early 20th Century. It’s the idea that a work of art is self-contained, non-referential to anything in the phenomenal world, and, if references outside the work are present, they are solely to widen the work’s impact on itself. 

Studio of Kasimir Malevitch (1879-1939)—Art for all people, non-hierarchical—Suprematism he called it.

A quintessential exhibition in the formalist movement, Scale as Content (1967), was right there at the Corcoran where I was in school—showing up on the cover of Time Magazine. A work of Formalist Art doesn’t point to anything else, the curators said. Of course, this is nonsense, all Art points to all Art. In the big picture, looking at some powerful works of art produced under the formalist aegis, I am reminded to ask the question, “What would the painters of the horses of Pech Merle (28,000 BCE), have thought of Ron Baden’s “X” especially in the unintended juxtaposition of that powdery white marble of Hiram Power’s Greek Slave peeking out from between the firmly planted legs of the “X”. That doorway at the back left of the atrium is the entrance to the school, where I passed in my beginning years in art school everyday, as I walked into classes at the Corcoran. We experienced some muscular minds sweating away in the brick chamber of the mental workout room, parsing ideas of structuralism, epistemological exigencies, gestalt psychology’s ding an sich.  How can one, in other words, carve away at the signifiers? What lets you know something is a work of art? To search for the essence of an artwork—minimalism/formalism arrived as a logical stepping stone. Whittling the log of meaning down to a toothpick was a basic idea of the modernist agenda. And, at the Corcoran in the late 60’s, the minimal, formalist agenda was the very air we breathed. At an art school crit, I was told about my work, “Not very minimal, is it Lang?” It is hard to step onto a moving train. My art school days saw the height of formalism and, truth to tell, it was the wave I rode in on. At the Corcoran, every day, as I walked to class I passed Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk outside the museum. That piece was featured in the Scale as Content exhibit, plus inside the whole museum was filled with just two other pieces, Ron Baden’s X and Tony Smith’s Smoke. Both were gargantuan, dominating. These were the giants I had to do battle with. Inside, you were met with the museum’s architecture, a beaux-art classical fantasy. Were those columns Doric or Ironic?

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Broken Obelisk Barnet Newman, Corten steel, 1967
Corcoran Gallery & School, left.

The year before I arrived at the Corcoran most of the “traditional” faculty had been “retired”, replaced with folks just out of school, ready to elbow their way onto the pages of Artforum. Folks who were eager to make a mark in the burgeoning New York art scene of Minimalism and then turning the page to Conceptual Art. Ideas of usefulness, meaning, and beauty were heresy unless they moved the zeitgeist dial forward,

It’s important to add, the school had a robust ceramics department headed by a student of one of Japan’s Living Treasures, Shoji Hamada, Terouo Hara. As well, students were required to take three years of drawing, and my sculpture teacher, Bert Schmutzhart had actually been a student at the famous Bauhaus (1919-1935), filling us with Jungian mysticism. I’d say a pretty well-rounded course of study. It was the philosophical underpinning that really had my attention. The famous line from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the meaning is in the use” prefaced a lot of tough sounding drill-down. “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen” What you can’t talk about you must remain silent. During the “Scale…” exhibit, I worked at the periphery of the construction crew as the clay-maker for the school— “hey kid, hand me that drill…” and I saw the “X” rise up, its legs striding across the classical atrium, with the Greek Slave peeking out in a formidable, silent anti-formalist contrast. The slave seeped longing from every pore of her white marble, as I seeped longing to be free of Uncle Sam’s Selective Service to join the “fun” in Vietnam.

It was my dumb luck that got me to the Corcoran. That it would turn out to be THE art school to encounter the cutting edge of contemporary art was nothing I had planned for, I simply wanted to be in a studio class making sculpture. Studio classes were not offered at GW where was enrolled. The Corcoran, just around the corner from GW and had a reciprocal arrangement, in those days, was a staunch formalist castle, a magic castle for me where ideas ABOUT art were preeminent. What was the point, after all, in an age sliding down the oily chute of ideas supplanting actual artwork, to actually make anything? And the Corcoran looked like a castle, a 17th Century Medici castle. A solid wall of granite faced you as you went up the steps to the school entrance. It felt castel-ey anyway. And the Corcoran was the trial balloon of the utterly new; just what you saw in the slick art magazines. The Corcoran was the “Boston before Broadway” of the art world; try your ideas before the “real” market place. The Corcoran was serious, where crucial moves were being made, you saw in the much touted biennial exhibits. Rigor was the ambient sound piped in, while outside the walls of the castle, it was a roaring rage-fest of cultural change. Teargas was a part of the weather report. 1966-1970. 

I was able to bypass the dreary prerequisite Basic Design and Composition—holdovers from the famous Bauhaus in pre-war Germany— “construct two right-angle boxes, cube and rectangle made from mat board of 2 different sizes, you will be graded on the level of perfection, add a third rectilinear object as contrast.” This busy-work project was there to test your resolve, to see if you could cut on a line. I had been making sculpture since I was 10, I wanted to get on with my advanced ideas. I suggested to my girlfriend, stuck in that basic design class, she fashion the third box from the cubes of margarine you could get at Safeway for 10¢ a pound—Piedmont Patties. We watched the piles slowly melt at our final 3-D design exhibit, setting up a vibratory hum of disgust in the super fastidious instructor. Kids having fun. So, I had bypassed all the drear of old world apprenticeship in an audition with the head of sculpture, Ernesto Lazzari, (who had done the bust of Eleanor Roosevelt for the capital rotunda, and before the putsch that ousted all the old-liners). During his class he asked me into a kind of audition and I sculpted a bust from a live model while he watched…I got in… but depiction just didn’t cut it any more. By next semester he and his like were history in a purge of the old musty ideas of art.  Marcel Duchamp with his snow shovel and plumbing fixture was the thing. THAT was real art. Art was philosophy.

Our job was to feel where we were heading, our longing for the Zeitgeist was the Zeitgeist. I first heard that phrase in 1967 standing at the school entrance in the shadow of Neuman’s Obelisk. Zeitgeist. Yes! I want that. Where exactly is it located? That zeitgeist. Anyone who went to school there in those days would have a picture-perfect memory of the Broken Obelisk, and it was not OF anything. It wasn’t supposed to represent anything other than itself. If it was about anything it was about the nature of being outside of fleeting time and into timeless, thinking time. This was thinking art. That was timeless.

On our drawing pads we were trying to tune in to the static between stations…to pick up the music you could barely, hear, scratchy with static coming from the outside battles raging on the street and on the TV. Where were the signals for art coming from? Art history classes? From Art periodicals, glossy and pretty much required reading. What’s happening now, what’s next? It was clear that advanced art was art that talked about Art. In my senior seminar class were required to “propose” projects, not actually make anything; projects that would show the world you “got” the drift of this brave new world. We were admonished “just don’t re-create Cubism.” I proposed a project whereby I would move to Cape Cod and learn to paint touristic, souvenir watercolors and then (this was the master stroke) have an exhibit of the “Paintings” in a fancy avant guard gallery, have a review in Art Forum magazine. My exhibit would presage future talk of high art vs kitsch. Very transgressive in its anti-avant guard.

Art that talked about art was a branch on the same tree of formalism that brought the “X” to my school. Here we come to the part where we laude the curatorial power of Kynasten McShine. McShine curated, or better brought to the front of the art-mind two exhibits — “Primary Structures” concerning Minimalism 1967 and “Information” 1969 looking at the very idea of “Conceptual” art.

Kynaston McShine 1934-2018

The actual artworld of curation and markets felt like an ugly, bitchy, fictional world; a hierarchy of well defended fiefdoms, while at the street level the prime directive was never sell out, stay true. Never work for the man. We were all about the politics of purity of the 60’s. Don’t sell out! Stay true to your own heart, work for the man? Try to be serious. The ballooning money culture seemed to be spoiling everything, the planet, human relations. Money seemed to be a super dense substance, it was like radio-active, man, it could turn your best soft damp sense of the world into fluffy inert powder. The art world had linked arms with abstraction as money itself had discovered abstraction as the pork bellies and wheat futures became puts and calls, as shares in companies were traded as “financial instruments”; ideas themselves making markets. Artists didn’t really care about all this. Well, I SHOULD say the ones who really cared about making markets started Google, Facebook, Salesforce—all image/information based entities.

First Gate, hand cut pine logs, 1970.

My own gesture towards the minimalist ethos was this sculpture, above. It was probably the piece that got me into grad school. But, the minimalist train had long before departed, and it’s a tough thing to jump on a moving train. It would take another 10+ years to find my true voice.

It was weird that outside the Corcoran, in the culture there was a very real freak show going on in the streets simultaneous with what was happening the halls of government. And, in the museum, the Corcoran felt like a castle protecting the highest values of art, it was by accident and sheer luck that I wound up there. As I’m writing this at Thanksgiving time and I am truly full of the happy, sweet ichor of gratitude filling my body, I do give thanks for winding up there at that moment. In a + – force-field that generated a lot of energy, like a dynamo, it was very windy and not at all comfortable. But inside the fortress of William Corcoran, a fortress where the crucial issues of humans and the art they make, was part of the big history of humans, and of talking logically about what was happening out on the 60’s era streets as part of that big picture. I loved this kind of thing, history in action. There was a 40,000 year history, obvious with the pictures of the bulls at Altamira flashing onto the art history classroom screen forming an equation that spoke to so much. The whole story of art spilled out of the screen where art was not a piece of a narrative, but an ongoing story. Those rectangles of light spilling with stories— I wanted to be a part of that! It was my safe harbor in that fortress in a time of tumult. And, again, in that atrium—those columns, were they Doric or Ironic? A good joke is worth repeating, right?

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