Unreal Nature

July 5, 2016

The Artificiality of What It Is

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… “The word realist gives me problems too, because in a way I am not really trying to make something real. … The only way that I can accomplish what I want is to understand not the reality of what I am dealing with, but the artificiality of what it is.”

This is from Chuck Close by Robert Storr (1998):

… his solution to the problem posed by his own facility was to create difficulties, just as his solution to the problem of habit-forming style was to observe a habit-breaking regimen. Shedding his nebulous second-hand ideal of what an artist was, in exchange for finite ideas about what he as an intellectually and manually dexterous artist could do, Close effectively pitted his advanced academic training against his acquired academic taste.

Establishing new conventions is the task of the avant-garde. This means reordering art’s content-bearing priorities and reconfiguring its formal variables. Turning the attitudes of the “superstudent” that he had been inside out, Close joined the ranks of the mid-1960s avant-garde, an amalgam of conceptual, minimal, and process-oriented artists.

[line break added] By virtue of a small number of initial decisions taken in conjunction and unwaveringly adhered to, he simultaneously aligned himself with Reinhardt’s and Stella’s emphasis on frontality, Reinhardt’s and LeWitt’s faith in detachment and consistency, and Johns’s and Serra’s empirical conjugation of images and materials. Close, however, was the only “realist” in this company or in the larger community of interest they personify.

[ … ]

“Realism has always been criticized by its adversaries for its lack of selectivity, its inability to distill from the random plenitude of experience the generalized harmony of plastic relations, as though this were a flaw rather than the whole point of realist strategy. … To ask why realist art continues to be considered inferior to nonrealist art is really to raise questions of a far more general nature: Is the universal more valuable than the particular?

[line break added] Is the permanent better than the transient? Is the generalized superior to the detailed? Or more recently: Why is the flat better than the three-dimensional? Why is truth to the nature of the material more important than truth to nature or experience? Why are the demands of the medium more pressing than the demands of visual accuracy? Why is purity better than impurity?” [Linda Nochlin]

… For Close, photography’s role … was both instrumental and, in an unusual sense, editorial; unusual in that he counted on the glut of visual data it provided to counteract the natural physiologically and psychologically determined screening patterns of the direct vision.

Close tends to reconstitute a fresh image out of the one he has procedurally dismantled that is as vivid as that with which he started, if not more so, but in a different fashion. This tendency appears to have convinced some people to look at him as “just” a realist rather than as a hands-on critic fo realism’s assumptions and techniques.

… Always he is the magician who in performing a trick makes certain that the sleight of hand responsible for it is a conscious factor in the experience of the spectator.

Thus Close is not merely being label-shy when he says, “The word realist gives me problems too, because in a way I am not really trying to make something real. … The only way that I can accomplish what I want is to understand not the reality of what I am dealing with, but the artificiality of what it is.”


… His work is realist but in the two distinct ways just outlined. Its realism consists not only of subject matter and representational codes, but of the objectivity with which those codes and their abstract substrata are laid bare by its facture. By that token, Close perfectly fits the description of the modernist painter advanced by Clement Greenberg almost forty years ago: “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”

Undoubtedly Greenberg would have balked at admitting a picture-maker like Close into the high formalist enclave; nonetheless, that is where he belongs. It is the second half of Greenberg’s law that tips the scale in his favor. For Close has clearly no desire to subvert his discipline. Rather, by shunning narrative, symbol, and all other considerations of or references to things outside the frame, he has pressed ahead “to entrench it [or rather each, in turn, of the many pictorial disciplines Close practices] more firmly in its area of competence.”

The square brackets in that last paragraph are Storr’s.

My previous post from Storr’s book is here.




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