Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Merry Christmas, Al (A Detractor)

I've been blogging my research on an obscure-musician-turned-obscure-Fluxus-artist, Albert Fine, here and here.

It's difficult to talk about Fluxus historically because so many Fluxus artists (in the broad sense) made histories part of their artwork. And straightforward diaries (we-did-this-and-then-this-and-so-and-so-was-there) and letters are part of the art too, not concerned with facts per-se. The typical historical records of the time, then--The New York Times, for instance--aren't very helpful either for the who-what-where-when, because of how fringe things were.

I've been getting into Fine's papers, his music, his letters, and corresponding with whatever living associates I can find via the googles, who have been very helpful! But for some reason, while I spent quite a long time searching Boston newspapers, I never really searched the NYT. When you're really getting into something, trying to understand its dimensions and such, perspective goes out the window, something left for the end of the project. Luckily, the Times' art critic, John Canaday, left a fascinating witness statement for the prosecution.

Canaday, from what I can gather (not being an artist or art historian) was greatly distressed by the collapse of technique in art, by the rise of conceptualism and the amateurism expressed by the less adept among the abstract expressionists, the worst of whom showed "exceptional tolerance for incompetence and deception." (That phrase, via wikipedia [I'll admit], comes from his very first September 1959 column.)

[PARENTHETICAL PARAGRAPH: Conceptual and performance art have become such an axiomatic feature of the sixties in the popular and critical vocabulary that it's hard to recognize just how transgressive they were. That's also a danger of being "in" criticism, to some extent, and losing perspective: I walked through a quiet library last night listening to the mash-up release of David Tudor's Rainforest II (an electronic piece that sounds like--you guessed it) and John Cage's Mureau, which takes segments of Thoreau's journals and recomposes the syllables according to chance procedures. I actually blog John Adams' reaction to hearing this piece read at Harvard here, towards the end. I bought this at the Amazon MP3 store for a dollar per track--$1.98 in all--a couple weekends ago out of curiousity. It's a very tedious release, to be sure, but I might have been the first person to download it there, because I see it's back to $13.98, and each track is "Album only." Last night, though, I was studying for a massive post-1960 listening exam in an avant-garde music class. While there's no Cage on it, this worked well as a pallette cleanser. But walking around in the quieter corners of the library, I got some funny looks as a strange voice bellowed nonsense over the sound of tropical birds drowning in sine-tones. Far-out is still far-out.]

Back to Fine: So, I found Canady's December 24, 1966 review in the Times here (Proquest subscription), and--since it's just one segment of a longer article--I think it's within the bounds of fair use to reproduce both paragraphs on Albert Fine. First of all, it's notable that this musician had a solo-show as an artist. Second of all, whatever happened to Christmas spirit? Third of all, I wonder what happened to the show--which was open through January 12th--as a result of this review? To someone who would appreciate Fine's art, Canady's scathing review might be the best advertisement. The review is a run-down starting with the Paul Sachs collection of "masters" (including Rembrandt [yes, Rembrandt] and Picasso and Matisse at) at MOMA. Fine is several column inches lower, and the whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite movie scenes:

Albert Fine (Grand Central Moderns, 8 West 56th Street): Presenting itself as avant-garde, this is the stalest, dreariest little show of the year. The only interesting thing about it is the question as to how a sensible dealer could ever rationalize a reason for hanging it, and why a critic who to the best of his knowledge is still in his right mind finds himself bothering to review it. Mr. Fine, who is 34 years old and holds an M.S. degree in conducting from the Julliard School of Music, has gathered together on one wall some detritus (example, a dried banana peel) and other unexceptional objects (example, a shirt cardboard) and has mounted each one crudely within uniform dime-store frames. As a weekend assignment in a freshmen art laboratory section, this display might get a bare passing mark as a demonstration of what Dada was doing 50 years ago.

The rest of Mr. Fine’s exhibition involves a certain amount of painting and drawing (or, at least, the use of the brush, the pencil and the pen) and here he flunks miserably. He is the total amateur, totally lacking in imagination, totally devoid of any technical skill, and totally fooled, it would appear, as to what he is doing. One thing alone justifies the exhibition, and it is not an argument ordinarily proposed as a justification: Mr. Fine’s pretentious infantilism demonstrates the quality of a section of our culture that has lost all respect for itself but doesn’t know it yet. To Jan. 12

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