Modern Art: Past, Present, & Furture Tense

September 2010

Here, as we begin the season of September 2010, is a singular piece of news with long range implications for the choices we will be making in contemporary art, both today and in the future.  The Phillips Collection in Washington DC has announced that, in the context of its 90th year anniversary in 2011, it has invited the painter Joseph Marioni to organize an exhibition with two distinct aspects.  First of all, Marioni will present a selection of his paintings in a solo exhibition in the central hall of the museum’s second floor.  Secondly, he will re-hang Duncan Phillips’ great collection of modern art, from Cézanne to Rothko, in order to demonstrate what he sees as the on-going vitality and relevance of modern art in today’s contemporary art world.

If we stop to consider for a moment, this is an event of momentous consequence.  Modern art, with its central practice of painting, has been under censure now for six decades, ever since Pop and Minimalism made their appearance in New York at the end of the nineteen fifties.  The ground had been prepared for this by an act of iconoclasm on the part of Marcel Duchamp with his unveiling of the ‘ready-made’, specifically a urinal.  The arrival of this urinal in the symbolic order of art abruptly raised the status of the object and denigrated that of art in the value structure of contemporary society.  Duchamp himself notoriously declared: “I shy away from the word ‘creation’ (…) I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist” and “I doubt its value [that of art] deep down”. 

The stage was therefore set.  Modern art would be enshrined in the museum and relegated to history.  It would become irrelevant to the concerns of contemporary artists.  These would identify with Duchamp’s urinal and the new status of the object in an industrial system based on the production and commerce of objects in the post-world war II consumer society.  There is a supreme irony in this situation.  Young artists have always embraced Duchamp as an apostle of radicalism.  Duchamp, they thought, freed them from the elitist tyranny of ‘high’ art.  However, here it would appear that the master’s urinal has bound them in service to the ‘post-modern’ production of ‘socially relevant’ (read: ‘commercial’) ‘art work’.  Who can fail to have been struck by Marilyn Minter’s recent Orwellian statement in the New York Times: “I’ve been around long enough to understand the role of artists in our culture, who we are and what job we perform (…) We are the elite of the servant class, I know my place”.  How, then, does Pinocchio feel working as a donkey in the coal mines of contemporary art?  Apparently, it’s OK with Marilyn, but then, she seems to be moving into upper management.

Modern art has always offered the contemporary artist a different destiny.  In place of the post-modernist language of social relevance, it has argued for aesthetic and intellectual independence.  Barnett Newman declared in The Tiger’s Eye (1947):  “An artist paints so that he will have something to look at; at times he must write so that he will also have something to read”.  The Abstract Expressionists brought modern art to America and powerfully advanced its agenda in their work.  What is that agenda?  Rothko made the following statement: “Painting certainly is a result of thinking.  It causes thinking. It, therefore, can certainly be a form, or means, of thinking, a means of philosophic thought”.

There is, therefore, an independent aesthetic agenda in modern art that is available to the contemporary artist if he or she will explore its legacy.  Go, today, to see the Museum of Modern Art’s extraordinary Matisse exhibition ‘Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-17’ if you want to know what that agenda is.  Of course, modern art does not only look back but forward.  Joseph Marioni, a contemporary painter working in the tradition of modern art, takes the properties of color and light, inherent to his medium, and presents them in the concrete space of 21st century contemporary art.  What is conveyed?  It is the experience of modern art, both alive and relevant, as an independent value in today’s world.   

We will see it at the Phillips in October, 2011.

- Paul Rodgers, September 2010