Jed Perl Collected Essays Magicians and Charlatans

Being There

By: - Dec 11, 2012

Jed Perl

Phil Press, fellow Boston artist and founder of Cambridge Adult Ed's Studio School, first introduced me to Jed Perl and his writing in the early 90’s . They had met as young painters at Skowhegan in the early 70’s and remained in contact during the intervening years. Occasionally, Phil would invite Jed to Cambridge to lecture to his students on some topic related to the New York art scene. I would always make a point of attending these talks, as his insights into the vacuity and hype of whatever scene was current, were an inspiration to persevere in my solitary struggle to make paint and painting a vital language of self-expression.

We are all three products of the figurative revival of the late sixties and early 70’s that gave credence to the language of painting from observation, a method that had been brutally sidelined by Abstraction, Conceptualism, Minimalism and Pop Art. Phil had studied at the Studio School in New York City, which was a stopping off place for many painters who wanted to work in a representational visual language when it was hard to find such instruction elsewhere in the academic world. Phil went on to get his MFA at Queens where Louis Finkelstein, a luminary of the figurative movement taught with his wife artist, Gretna Campbell. Phil seems to think that Jed studied painting for a while at Brooklyn College where Philip Pearlstein and Gabriel Laderman taught. Laderman was known as much for his polemics on behalf of figuration as for his painting. I studied at Yale, whose identity as a center of the avant-garde was tempered by the arrival of Bill Bailey, who succeeded in bringing in as visitng artists many of the above-mentioned artists of the figurative movement.

To understand Perl’s philosophical stance that he has steadfastly held for more than twenty years, it is necessary to see his thinking as formed in the context of that figurative revival. For a moment, and in retrospect a very brief moment, there was the hope of an alternative direction to art or at least that figuration could continue on a tract parallel to the avant-garde. I have written elsewhere that figuration wanted to revive the particular experience of being in the here and now in contradistinction to an art object totally Greenbergian on the one hand, with its obsession with absolute forms, and mediatized on the other, with its obsession to place the individual in the context of an absolute socially defined identity.

I recall vividly wandering the museums and galleries of New York and Boston and feeling a deep sense of alienation from the abstract painting, the conceptual sculpture, the media based Warhols, all issuing from an extreme rational analysis of modern life. A language that jumped out of the physical space that our bodies moved in replaced the magic of art that could make real and tactile the present. There was never the smell of grass, the wind in your face, nor the vibrancy of the seasons. The paintings of Gretna Campbell or Stanley Lewis that Perl admired were literally a breathe of fresh air. The human existential reality of being in the world had found a place to stand. For one brief moment the grey clouds of rationalism opened up to a vivid blue sky where the senses of the body pulsated.

Another key to understanding Jed Perl can be found in his admiration for the great critics and artists of early modernism. Confronted with now several generations of American artists that see art as  providing a wonderful playground for lazy experimentation of lifestyles, ways of seeing and being, Jed, whose understanding of the tradition of Western Art allows him to talk intelligently about Chardin, Poussin and Vuillard sets up camp in the tradition of the art critics and shapers of early Modernism, such as Edmund Wilson, Meyer Schapiro, Lincoln Kirstein, (all of whom are dedicated individual essays in the “Magicians and Charlatans”),Picasso and Stravinsky.

When the bourgeois world of the 19th century fell apart under the weight of science there was, in part, a dancing on the grave of the past by the new guard. There was also the awareness that something had been lost as well as gained, that the representational visual language that had held the real in its thrall for over 500 years had broken open and that deconstruction liberated incredible energy.

Perl sees that energy in Picasso’s semantizing of Cezanne in the “Les Demoiselles ‘d’Avignon” or in his appreciation of Edmund Wilson’s understanding of Stravinsky’s musical energy. These were makers and shapers (the title of his essay on Lincoln Kirstein) who would pick up the pieces like Eliot and Pound and make new realities. They knew and cherished the pieces of the past and ruefully accepted that the Europe they loved had suffered a catastrophe and like Humpty Dumpty no one could put the pieces back together again.

There still was the will to recreate a whole in the face of the wholesale destruction of the first World War. In the laissez-faire aesthetics of the contemporary art scene (the title of the introductory essay in this new collection of his essays) that is hell bent on chopping up bourgeois reality into smaller and smaller pieces, Perl sees no love of history. And when the past is referenced by contemporary figurative artist like John Currin it is distorted to appear to be as ironic and cynical as their own work. It is brought down to their level.  

I still have several photocopies of Perl’s essay from the October, 1992 issue of “The New Republic”, entitled ”The Art Nobody Knows”. It spells out the way in which the art scene, in its ever anxious need to promote the “new”, makes it impossible for those artists, who see art as a coherent language, deserving a lifetime of study, from having the air, space and money to pursue that goal. I would hand the article out to my painting students at the Art Institute of Boston in order to give them some perspective on where the tenets of my classroom came from. Hopefully it encouraged them to avoid being sucked into the latest fad at Yale or New York. The essay referenced the English artists Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff as paragons of figuration. From a pedagogical point of view, they were valuable as stopping off points on the road from figuration to abstraction, which was the essential goal of my classroom experience. Unfortunately, few of my students despite intelligence and talent heeded Perl’s message. Their talent got them to Yale and to New York but the human all too human need to belong to a status quo got the better of them. They imprinted on whatever was then the current scene.

Many of the issues in the essays in “Magicians and Charlatans”, culled from his writing of the last decade, are already present in an essay I wrote in 1992:  The Whitney Biennials, commercialism, the art industry, the importance of the slow making of art over time, the need for patterns and form and the way the structure and culture of the New York scene make this slow growth impossible. His interests represent the effort of someone who cares not only about New York artists but always tries to put his finger on the pulse of a larger meaning or zeitgeist in which they all participate.

I recall a more recent essay that appeared in the “The New Republic” on the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the MOMA that was sent to me by Mark Gottsegen, the author of the “Painters Handbook.” This one pulled out all the verbal weaponry and pearls of wisdom that he is capable of. It was a full-fledged frontal assault on Sherman, a deconstructor of female myths becoming a myth in a major retrospectivet. After the smoke had cleared she still remained intact. Cindy, as Perl points out, is an industry supported by dealers, curators and collectors. When you unleash an assault on her you are only one person fighting an army.

The worlds of Rome and Bernini are so well fathomed as to appear as fresh and new as the early 20th century in New York, that he exquisitely depicts through essays on the writing of Meyer Schapiro, Edmund Wilson and Lincoln Kirstein. The contemporary scene of Tony Oursler, Bill Viola, Robert Gober and John Currin leave him for the most part without a label. Except for Gober they are dismissed as lacking the seriousness that he would like to see in their work but he does not dismiss them out of hand. He gives them their day, tries to understand why they have achieved their notoriety. Why this inability to give them and others such as  Lisa Yuskavage, Mary Heilmann and Elizabeth Peyton a positive value . Those artists, who were reviewed in the earlier part of our new millennium are probably past their shelf life. For all I know they aren’t taken seriously today by even the hipster critics. I have to agree with Perl there is something missing. But what?

To shed some light on this, it is interesting to try to sift out Perl’s politics. I am sure he often gets backed into a corner where someone says: if you are so conservative in your tastes in art you must be right wing in your politics. He never hesitates to say he is for Obama or that Reagan destroyed the economy by cutting taxes, which in turn inflated the art market of the 80’s. In art he is an elitist but in politics he is an egalitarian.

This distinction is current in some circles of New York Intelligentsia and was said of William A Henry 3rd’s book “In Defense of Elitism” in the early 90’s, that he bemoaned the weakening of the hierarchy of excellence over popular culture but was still egalitarian in his politics.  Perhaps this is why Perl uses the economic expression laissez –faire culture (the title of the introductory essay of this collection) to point blame to the conflation of commerce and art culture. It was leveraged in his attack on the multi-millionaire Eli Broad’s museum in LA, where the endower and the endowed see no separation of interest. Broad is a collector who purchases Jeff Koons' gilded pop items then builds a museum/supermarket to promote his purchases.

Leo Castelli, the renowned late art dealer, is depicted as no more than a crass opportunist. The guilty parties are the capitalists, that need something to sell to the public and choose “how clever am I” art that is supposed to challenge the commercial enterprise they are involved in.  I beg to differ: I think a different reading of history would point to egalitarianism as the cause of the vacuity in the art of today as much as unfettered capitalism.

I think that what haunts Perl’s work, without being explicit, is that the generation which came of age after the Abstract Expressionists, in particular the boomers, let themselves be defined by the media. It was a cultural narcissism in extremis, where the inner world becomes "colonized" by the outer world.There were successions of popular styles and we let our lives be defined by them.

But what if all these successions of styles and cultural moods only reflect a slow unraveling or winding down of the unmediated self? The Abstract Expressionists had found some latent strength in the systems of Jung and Freud to map out an inner landscape. There were drives to be defined that pushed out against the world and psyches rooted in a collective consciousness that would surprise us about our true selves. These systems were a modern religion, for those who were no longer capable or willing to embrace traditional religion, that tried to create a map of an inner life for personal self assertion. They have been replaced by several generations that are medicated and mediated on all levels. If the inner and outer are the same, can we even talk about the self.The hipsters don't care. Perl has been in a twenty year long lamentation.

”Postcards from Nowhere” points out that art collectors and artists are on the same page. This state of things could be seen as the result of the loss of a mandarin class, of an elite that could differentiate the good and the bad. It must then follow that this demise of an intellectual aristocracy will end in an egalitarianism that validates any and every attempt of the masses at self- expression. I think the modern art scene is the result of "here comes everybody".

The skill necessary for painting is abandoned for installation art that appeals to the practical craft of the ordinary citizen as renovator of his or her own space. Painting was always based on the metaphysical power of the artist’s gaze to take their momentary observation and turn it into the eternal moment. Marxist critics felt that stability came from having money to buy the time to stop the visual clock and impose their vision on the world.

Now that the metaphysical base has been undercut, there is no direct contact between man and nature, man and the cosmos that one finds in Cezanne and Van Gogh or the raw imposition of the Freudian id on form that you find in Picasso or Pollock. Warhol, our John Singer Sargent, best embodies this shift of private consciousness to a totally mediated self. Now the parts are reduced to miniscule grains that are too small to piece together.

To quote Nietzsche
“Are we not well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small soft round, unending sand.” The ability to put things back together has long past? The reduction ad infinitum has become a reduction ad absurdum. Perl is the chronicler of this never-ending train wreck.

I find it telling that the frontispiece of “Magicians and Charlatans” is dedicated to Leon (presumably Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of “The New Republic”) with a quote from Po Chu-i (a Tang poet):

To Leon:

"Till day broke we sat in the moon’s clear light
 Laughing and singing, and yet never grew tired.
 In Ch’ing-an, the place of profit and fame,
 Such moods as this, how many men know?"

If Po chu-i, who was exiled for having violated Confucian precepts in his role as an assistant to the Emperor, had been born during the Maoist cultural revolution, such private moods would have made him a candidate for a good rinse of brainwashing.

What Perl could explore more thoroughly is that the Marxist notion of how the bourgeoisie suffers from “false consciousness” has so permeated our culture that, although we don’t send our artists off to a gulag for not toeing the party line, there is a shunning prevalent in academia for those who are not always current in their tastes. The real heroes for Perl are those artists that didn’t win the jackpot.

Whether they rose to the stature of those artists like  Henri Matisse that they emulated is not the issue as John Updike and Peter Plagens take issue with in their reading of Perl. Artists such as Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, and Stanley Lewis embody and embodied a tradition of artists who understood painting as a language as subtle and structured as the language we speak. You can’t judge them badly for not rising to the same level as their predecessors.

They thought it more valuable to codify the magic of the language of seeing and, like the monks of Ireland in the Dark Ages who codified the wisdom of Greek and Latin culture in their codexes, to save it from the barbaric hordes.The invasions have already begun: to quote Perl "For Matthew Barney, Richard Prince and now Cai-Guo_qiang, having a retrospective at the Guggenheim is like being a Visigoth, who has been given the keys to Rome."

Perl’s essays are a lamentation for a paradise lost, for what little we have gained on this modern train to nowhere. Like the old man on the train who bemoans the fact that he missed his stop but won’t get off at the next stop to take the next train back, he understands the arrow of time points forward. Arguably we have the wrong metaphor. Maybe we are just going around in circles.