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What Foxy Knows
February 26, 1983

A few weeks ago, I saw John Woodall’s performance, Decision (ARTWEEK 2/5/83); and I wondered again, as I saw a brilliant mind at work, why it was that painting (and sculpture, too) had failed to capture the best minds of a generation. When I got home, I decided to reread what I had written when first I began to think about this question last spring. I had put it away then as too crazy and personal to print, but now, emboldened by Woodall's performance, here it is:

Wednesday, May 12, 1982
Why Did Painting Fail to Capture the Best Minds of a Generation?
I have been reading around in Alan Sondheim’s book, Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America, published in 1977. He writes about how diverse the artists in his book are and how different their concerns are from those common to other artists of their time (early-to-middle seventies). He plays various complex games with his artists’ works and lives, arranging them in a variety of revealing and then concealing patterns, striving to get at some common factors that will unite them all, and also secretly setting them up as the wave of the future. But there's something else they are besides that elusive wave, and it suddenly shows clearly when you read their biographies: none of them were painters, all but one were born in the 1940s, came to maturity in the 1960s and to prominence in the early 1970s.

Now, then, my question becomes more specific: Why did painting fail to capture the best minds of, specifically, the generation of the later sixties, early seventies. (I suppose I've made some people angry already...those who were born in the forties, matured in the sixties, and are still painting in the seventies and eighties—and whom I've now said were not among the best minds of their generation. Well, dear reader, I don't mean you. If the shoe fits, take it off, because the whole question is only rhetorical. It’s only there to start your mind to puzzling about “painting...the best minds...a generation.”)

I used to think that the decline of painting during the seventies from its preeminence among artists maturing in the forties to fifties was due to the new forms of education for artists that arose in the fifties-specifically, art education moved in the fifties from studio schools to university art departments, and so the entrance requirements for the profession changed from the ability to hold a paintbrush and the willingness to accept a lower position in the American class system, to higher-than-average SAT scores in verbal and mathematical skills and the desire for upward mobility. (That's what college is all about, isn't it?) It seemed to me that the shift from a visual/tactile thought process as the entrance hurdle, to a verbal/mathematical one—from a right brain to a left brain, as the latest pop psych has it—was characteristic also of the shift in American art in the sixties to seventies and that, therefore, change in American art might reasonably be traced to the change in the recruiting system and educational emphasis for those Americans who wanted, for whatever personal or communal reasons, to express themselves.

 But now, reading around in Sondheim's book, I’ve found another reason because the people in his book are, as he says himself, individuals, and the art they make derives its very considerable power from the power of their individual experiences. Painting had, for many artists maturing in the forties to fifties, been able to serve the need for the expression of personal experience. Why then did it fail to serve that need for the generation maturing in the sixties to seventies? It failed, I think, by reason of its very sixties success at something else—namely, the achievement of fame and fortune. It was during the sixties that the transformation began, for some of the works of some of the forties-to-fifties artists, from personal work about powerful experiences into very expensive commodities for decorator showrooms disguised as galleries; and it was during the sixties that there also began the concomitant transformation of the artists who made these works, from the alienated prophets who were “voyaging in the night, one knows not where, on an unknown vessel, an absolute struggle with the real” (to quote Robert Motherwell from sometime in the mid-fifties)—transformation into celebrities of the kind that Motherwell is today. (I’ll never forget a photograph in Esquire of Adolph Gottlieb wearing a yachting cap in his expensive living room.) All that alienation of all those artists and their art from their original source and goal certainly alienated the artists maturing in the seventies, during the time of “the triumph of American painting”. In fact, the artists of that sixties generation became alienated from painting itself.

 What has been the result? Well, right off, painting, as an art form, is poorer. It did not expand/transform to integrate the new forms of old needs which the generations of the sixties and seventies had to express. The experience of the artists in Sondheim's book might once have been expressed through painting, and the tools of painting would have grown even richer, for the use of the artists of the eighties generation which is just beginning. But that growth of painting did not happen, and painting today is still stuck in the late fifties and early sixties. Don't tell me about New Image painting. Joan Brown was doing that when she was an undergraduate. And so was Jay DeFeo, ten years before that. And don't tell me about Julian Schnabel. What funk was, before it was commercialized in the sixties, was what Schnabel does today. It seems as if painting, in order to get over its false triumph in the sixties, in order even to be useful to the generation coming up, will have to go back and start over at 1959.

 Thus, I think painting is the poorer now because so many of the best minds of the generation of the sixties were revolted by the successful commercialization of the (painting) art world and had to turn to new and, in many ways, far less flexible media in order to speak the stories and to sing the songs of their souls.

 Well, dear reader, I had gone that far in writing this last May When a jingle came to mind. It was the onset of a creativity fit of the kind Sam Richardson said, in my last column, that he reserves for Wednesdays when you can do anything, no matter how silly you look. And, coincidentally, I had written all of the above on a Wednesday. Well, nowadays, my silly seasons are reserved for Sundays, because the rest of the time I have to keep up the front of a very proper administrator. But since I'm typing this on Sunday, and I have both John Woodall and Sam Richardson as role models, here comes anything: 

 Jingle for the eighties: Dumb as a painter/is not dumb as an ox, no, dumb as a painter/is dumb like a fox.

 The jingle of my silly Wednesday last May gave me lots of ideas for the rest of the week, but now I've run out of space, so you'll have to wait for them until next time.