Monday, April 26, 2010

The Laundry Show 1980

I read in the Washington Post that a developer is letting an artist do what he wants in some gutted space, until it is time to build the new hotel: . Thirty years ago, developers were not so ambitious, the space was smaller, but we packed in more artists: 30 in two "Laundry Shows", thanks to the late Herb White delaying the makeover of the Lee Laundry on Columbia Road into his first eatery, and many more in the Artists Invitational Museum in the Beverly Court apartments. I was the self-appointed polemicist for the artists. Leslie chose Big Al Carter to be in the first Laundry Show and we still have the painting he put in it.

Here's how the artists' revolution sounded 30 years ago.

Living with a Realist, or

What is Realistic About the Laundry Show

Cezanne's wife had it worse than most. Cezanne worked very slowly and insisted that his model stay absolutely still. His wife was one of the few who could put up with him time after time. One would think that such a collaboration would help their relationship. It didn't. Cezanne disliked her. On the other hand he loved his mother, and she never posed for him. Plus poor Mrs. Cezanne, the wife, had to bear it all in silence. When she tried to spout theories of art, the Master told her to shut up. No wonder she spent most of her time as a model a sleep.

I have it better than she did on two counts. Thanks to advances in photography, when I model I seldom have to hold a pose for much longer than a few minutes. And generally, I can spout any theories of art that I want. Hence, this essay.

I live with Leslie Kuter who made a shaped soft-painting depicting Vincent Van Gogh a few minutes after he inflicted himself with a fatal gunshot wound. That painting hung in the first Laundry Show. The head is Van Gogh's. The body is mine -- or more precisely, I modeled for it.

Van Gogh's body wasn't my first job for Kuter. Over the years I've been Mr. America's calf, Byron Nelson's hands, James Meredith's facial expression, the knuckles, knees and wrists of several baseball catchers, George Washington's torso, the limp of a Holocaust victim's forearm. You ask, "why, dear boy, have you never been yourself?" Yes, once, in the nude, on my back, and I kept my eyes open. (In the photo below of one of Leslie's works is it Michelangelo's David's hand or mine?)

But in the main I am not a whole person to Kuter the artist. I am a complete line of parts. When details in photos are hard to see, my joints come to the rescue. Cynics might say that as a whole I mean nothing to Kuter, but I look at is the other way. I am a little bit of All to her. In a philosophical flight of fancy I could boast, "Le realisme, c'est moi!"

Ah, I used a word of aesthetic discourse - realism. But what is so realistic about me being Van Gogh's body? Nothing at all! Seeing how Kuter has treated me over the years, I know that I am not nature to her. I am just one weapon in her arsenal. In one room of our apartment lie piles of wool. In another room lies me. Indeed, if I lived with an Abstract Expressionist and lounged around her a half dozen years and then she finally let her Expressioners do deep filigree work with my soul on a canvas, then I might be part of a more valid equation of realism then when Kuter stripped me naked, tied a loin cloth on me and told me to crouch like an Indian.

But what does realism mean? How we cower from that word. Instead of realism people use the word "representational" as if Kuter represents catchers while Gene Davis doesn't represent stripes. Or they use the word "images" implying that Kuter uses the image of a gun while Rothko never imagined a large shape of color. The best word around is "figurative," a word I'd accept as long as everyone admitted that Pollock was the most figurative artist around.

But there must be a difference between Kuter's art and the art of Davis, Rothko and Pollock (other than the price.) But after my long stint as a model, I realize that the words realistic, representational, images and figurative don't help much. Nor does the word "nature." To me, a red stripe is more "natural" than a Campbell's soup can.

The difference could be in the use of models. While I don't know if Davis uses models for his stripes, it seems that it would be easier for him to do his work without one than it would be for Kuter. One could define realistic art as the propensity to use models, and abstract art as the propensity to avoid models.

But what about the abstract artist who got mad at a man because his comment on the circles she used in her art was that "there are no circles in nature"? Of course, there are different kinds of models: geometric, mathematical, spiritual, and flesh and blood like me. So Kuter is a realist because she uses flesh and blood like me! She's a flesh and blood realist as opposed to a geometric realist. So at last we open the dictionary and read that realism in art is "fidelity to nature or to real life," and poof! We are back to where we started because we know that that is not Van Gogh's body on the wall -- it's mine. Realisme, c'est moi!

But, you say, everyone knows that subject matter has no place in aesthetic discussion. Forget about what the artist paints, look at how. Look at the artistry. Some painters deal with nature in a realistic manner, others in an abstract manner. To answer "Arnebeck" to the question "What is realism?" will not lead one to a position of power in the art world. But what answer would?

Hold it! What happened to our nice sophistry about aesthetics? It got us nowhere. But, does realism have anything to do with power... gulp?

The trouble is historical and that's why static philosophy fails. Early in this century most viewers of so-called abstract art didn't comprehend immediately what that art meant, or referred to, or related with. So old art had an obvious relation to a widely shared reality and the new art referred to few knew what. That situation has changed. One glance at Davis's stripes and millions of people know just what is happening. They say "I know the how and why of that!" Art becomes its own reality.

Today, Kuter confuses more than most abstract artists. How many times have I heard the question: "Why is the baseball catcher there? How does she make it? What does it mean?"! In vain I point to the catcher's ankle and say "C'est Moi!" Kuter, as do many "realists", handles nature too abstractly for folks who knew at the age of 12 what Pollock was up to.

So what answer to the question "what is realism?" will lead us on to power (forget about understanding)? Let's stick with history. Now, the big chronicled beast that was purring and showing its fangs at the moment the Laundry Show went up was the Corcoran Gallery. How did the Corcoran answer the question?

Well: Realism is that style of art which was not included in Livingston's "Five Washington Painters" show, and that got her not a little heat. Then realism got another cold shoulder in the "Master of the 70s" show and Hilton Kramer made some snide remarks about Livington being stuck in academic and anemic 60's ruts. Meanwhile, local artists, who by virtue of the fact that they are nearby and have a nasty tendency to appear a bit realer than the Masters in Vermont, kept up their bitching. So a realistic solution to the problem presented itself: hire a curator to just busy about touring the studios of local artists, and then have that curator mount a show of Washington realists! And to keep things in perspective, let's not appoint someone like Nina Felshin or David Tennous -- they obviously know a little too much about what's going on. Let's appoint a fresh young face. Voila: Realism!

It is a bold definition. It is a classic Double Nigger definition! No only is realism a subspecies of painting but it is best handled along with that subspecies, the Washington artist.

Now, history has ways of taking care of itself. And we can ask "What is realism to the artists in the Laundry Show?" These artists happened upon an even more classic definition of realism than the Corcoran did. It is this: Realism is art without rules. And in this case not rules of perspective and design and color. Realism is the revolt against convention. When Courbet revolted against the conventions of Ingres and his followers, he called the movement Realism. Ironically, today Courbet and Ingres are more or less lumped together as realists, representational, figurative, etc. etc. Like true realists, the artists in the Laundry Show are revolting against the one remaining convention in American art (All the aesthetic ones have been cast in doubt.) They are revolting against the convention of curatorial choice.

Here is how the Laundry Show started. Claire List, the newly hired "Washington curator," visited Kuter, looked at art, wonderful. Months later rumors start that the Corcoran is mounting a show of Washington realists. Time passes. Rumors leak out about who is in the show and it becomes slowly apparent who is not in the show. Hard cheese on Kuter and many other artists. At the last minute the title surfaces: List calls her show "Images of the Seventies" so she had to eliminate those artists whose work did not span the Seventies, whose realistic work did not span the Seventies! (Kuter’s first show was 1973.) Sly after thought. Slave on artists and only change when the decade does. Good luck in 1990.

So Kuter called Bill Lombardo. They admire each others work. Each called others whose work they admire. No studio visits, no paranoia, no muss, no fuss, just a natural swelling of mutual admiration. As it happened Herb White had just bought a building across the street with a store front laundry. He was gutting it so he could fashion a bar and eatery. It would be vacant for a few months and he let Kuter and Lombardo mount all the shows they could.

But is that right? Should it be that easy? Is it right to show work that an expert hasn't certified? Don't we need doctors of art evaluation to spoon feed the public safe prescriptions?

Well, I go overboard. But I do wager that in the history of art more good art has been put on the walls in shows arranged by artists than by curators. Think of the Armory Show that American artists hung, and the Impressionists Show that Renoir and Monet hung, and the Ninth Street Show in 1951 that New York artists hung.

Two more questions: why didn't Kuter and Lombardo ask a so-called abstract artist to be in the show to underline all the useless sophistry about art? and, wouldn't I rather see my body hanging in the Corcoran?

1) The folks organizing the Laundry Show have more shows in mind. And since artists as a whole are in such jeopardy it is foolish to become pawns in curatorial battles. (The Seventies ended with Washington curators getting big play in the New York Times, but not any Washington artists.) So no lip service will be paid to curatorial definitions of art. All over the nation curators are turning back to "realism" and concocting shows of Flowers or Ships or Nudes. Only quick action by
artists can prevent the 1982 Triple Nigger Show which I predict the Corcoran will mount: Flowers done by Washington realists!

The hope is to have artist-generated shows by all Washington artists so the public can decide if they want to go out and see what the artists are doing, or what the curators want them to see.

2) Indeed, I dreamed of boozing it up at the Corcoran openings. While the little lady was being lionized, I'd lurk in the corner and sneak up on those blond beauties that flock to the Corcoran and so demurely separate from their lawyer husbands (or must they work late in order to make enough money so contributions to the arts would make a good tax deduction?) and to these blonds I'd coo "That thigh, dear, c'est moi!" Dreams.

I felt much healthier seeing my body up in the old Lee Laundry, site of the Laundry Show, much cleaner. It's silly to admit this but when I modeled for Van Gogh's body, lying on the floor, reaching up for my leg, as if I had just shot myself, fallen from the impact, opening my eyes and realizing I had botched it and was about to trudge back to bed and wait for death with complete disinterest, I tried to put myself into Van Gogh's mind. I thought about his dream of a union of artists to regulate the art trade. I recalled the show of his friends' work that he hung in a restaurant.

I'm glad I had a little part in getting Vincent into the Laundry Show. And in the spirit of comradeship which Vincent thought was the only hope for art, I'll admit the truth at last: Realism is Us.

(The way we looked in our prime. Me in my typical action pose)

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