#95. Carl Kandutsch writes on Terms of Criticism for Contemporary Painting: A note on David Salle on Laura Owens

Laura Owens, Untitled (2013), Oil, Flashe, charcoal and wheelbarrow wheel on linen, 108 x 84″

I had heard of American painter Laura Owens. I’d seen her name bandied about, but a quick perusal of small reproductions of her paintings did not inspire me to investigate further. Then my latest copy of the New York Review of Books, a publication I take seriously, arrived in the mail. It features an essay by another painter, David Salle, on Laura Owens, whom Salle believes is a major artist[i]. Since David Salle undoubtedly knows a lot more about art in general, and painting in particular, than I do, I decided to read his essay carefully in order to figure out what I’ve been missing in Owens’ art.

The answer is that I don’t think I’m missing anything, which may well mean that I’m now too old to grasp what the younger generations are up to. It may mean something else as well, but if I knew what it is, I’d be less inclined to admit that I can’t think of anything useful to say about Owens’ paintings. So I decided to try to say something about Salle’s essay. Specifically, something about what I think of as the “terms of criticism” used by David Salle in his appreciation of Owens’ paintings.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2016, Acrylic, oil and charcoal on linen, 32 x 20 inches

By “terms of criticism” I do not mean anything technical or esoteric or theoretical. I mean the central concepts that are deployed by an art critic as the basis for judgments of value or quality – what the critic finds to be worth drawing attention to when evaluating a work of art. A good critic will use terms of criticism that are pertinent to the aesthetic experience of persons other than the critic him- or herself. They will be terms that other people – those who take an active interest in art – will find useful in understanding their own experience of the same works, because the terms of criticism provide criteria or standards by which works may be judged good or bad or indifferent. In that sense, terms of criticism may be said to constitute a contribution to the culture of the society in which one exists. For Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, the terms of criticism revolved around the notion of “modernity”, which involved experiences of the ephemeral and transient, being uprooted and anonymous, part of a crowd and so on. For Clement Greenberg at the middle of the 20th century, the terms of criticism involved ideas of taste and discernment, intuition and sensibility, self-criticism and the nature of an artistic medium. Baudelaire and Greenberg were each great critics because their aesthetic judgments articulated terms of criticism that remain relevant and productive today for anyone who seeks to understanding the cultural milieu in which those men lived and wrote and the art it produced. Of course, David Salle is not a critic by profession, and I do not expect his critical writing to be up to the standards found in Baudelaire’s or Greenberg’s work. Nonetheless, it is interesting to notice what terms of criticism actually are used in Salle’s essay on Laura Owens, first of all because they really do seem pertinent to Owens’ paintings, but more importantly because the fact that Salle’s terms of criticism are to the point tells us something about contemporary culture, including the contributions of artists like Owens to our culture, such as it is.

My procedure in this essay is straight-forward and not particularly ambitious: I will simply list the terms and concepts used by Salle in praising or appreciating her paintings and in characterizing his experience of them. The unanswered question, which Salle does not even attempt to raise, is this: why are these terms pertinent as standards of value such that a painting that is accurately characterized in or by the terms of criticism deployed by Salle can or should be considered worthy of praise in the first place? What does the pertinence of Salle’s terms to contemporary American painting tell us about our culture and the role of serious painters in our world?

Salle strongly approves of Owens’ artistic pedigree. “She developed her skills at summer art camp, going off to college at RISD, and on to CalArts for grad school. This is how artists today are made today.” At CalArts, she survived “the ritual hazing” of group critique under the stern and rigid supervision of conceptualist “arch-enforcer” Michael Asher, and had “made it.” The catalog for Owens’ current show at the Whitney Museum is a “hybrid literary form, a bildungsroman with pictures”, telling the story of “an earnest young woman from the provinces with an appealing straightforward manner who, through luck and pluck and the benevolent intervention of some well-placed patrons, grows up to see her dream of being an artist realized.” Salle’s description could well be transcribed from the celebratory toast to a young politician or CEO at a corporate awards dinner.

Salle is impressed by the 603-page catalog, which includes “a blizzard of faxes, letters, clippings, photographs, and invoices to and from Owens are her dealers and peers, including the artist’s mother, fellow artists, dealers, novelists, curators”, and last (and least) art critics, who all contribute their “shadings” to a catalog that is itself, according to Salle, a literary work that approaches The Brothers Karamazov in length. The catalog amounts to a “hybrid” expression of a contemporary truth, namely, that “any career of real substance is also a group project” involving “the world of professional art schools and the international network of galleries and alternative spaces that are the mechanisms of generational renewal” (not to mention profit-sharing plans and stock options).

As for the paintings, Salle inserts a rumor of gravitas by referring to the great British literary critic William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, although there is no evidence that he has actually read that book. For example, he points to Empson’s belief that “an author could say something in the work that could probably not be said apart from it” – which is a general insight of the New Criticism generally having little to do with Empson specifically and nothing at all to do with ambiguity. Salle goes on to praise Owens’ work on the ground that it incorporates ambiguity, and offers this example:

…a dense field of hot pink slashes on a pale lavender ground, overprinted with fragments of differently scaled grids in cadmium green, turquoise, or black – and that’s just the background. This eye-dazzler is covered with lots of wheels (eighteen!) of different sizes. Rubber tires on metal hubs or spokes – the kind of wheels found on tricycles, wagons, grocery carts, some brightly colored, Day-Glo even – are mounted on the canvas, parallel to its surface with just enough clearance to freely turn. Wheels punctuate the composition in a jaunty, syncopated rhythm – a chariot race without the chariots, a riot of implied motion on top of an already pushy abstract painting, not going anywhere, in perpetuity. Hilarious, breathtaking, circus glamour.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013, Acrylic, oil, Flashe, and wheels on linen, 108 x 84″

Where’s the ambiguity? I do not find ambiguity either in Owens’ painting nor in Salle’s description of it. In fact, Salle’s essay is scattered with serious-sounding words, but he doesn’t take his readers seriously enough to allow the possibility that one might expect him to follow up his introduction of a concept with a discussion justifying its use. He’s like a habitual name-dropper at a pretentious cocktail party who has met a lot of people. But the important point is this: Even if Owens’ pictures did convey ambiguity, why is “ambiguity” assumed to be a value in painting at all? I’m not claiming that good paintings cannot or should not include ambiguity, only that its value is not self-evident. What’s wrong with clarity and directness, with saying what you mean, or meaning what you say? Salle doesn’t bother to ask these questions because he assumes that the answers are obvious.

Salle states that Owens epitomizes the post-modernist sensibility, but it isn’t clear what that means either. For one thing, she “borrows” and “appropriates” images from a wide variety of “lowbrow” sources – children’s books, calendar art, greeting cards, supermarket magazines, and so on. Salle doesn’t explain the significance of that, implying that anyone who asks is too unsophisticated to be reading his essay or looking at Owens’ paintings in the first place. “The ability to be influenced in a productive way, which includes making one’s influences legible to the audience, might be essential to success in today’s art world …” “Might” be? The art of painting, to the extent it’s more than a hobby, is an essentially historical practice. It follows that there has never been a time when “the ability to be influenced in a productive way”, and to incorporate one’s influences in ways that make sense to the viewer, has been less than essential to serious painting.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014, Acrylic, oil, Flashe, silkscreen ink, Pantone ink, pastel, paper, and wood on linen, 138 x 104 inches

Other sounds of emptiness ring out in Salle’s essay, for example when he identifies Owens’ work as “the apotheosis of the digital age”. “The defining feature of digital art – of digital information generally – is its weightlessness. Images, colors, marks, text, are essentially decals in a nondimensional electronic space. They exist, but only up to a point. They can excite the mind, but you can’t touch them. An air of weightlessness remains even when they are transferred to the physical surface of a painting. If these images were to fall, nothing would catch them.” It doesn’t take a lot of insight to notice that all “information” per se, not just “digital” information, and in fact all words, concepts, feelings, images, signs, ideas, thoughts, hopes, regrets, forebodings, warnings, implications, data, evidence and every other kind of non-material object that has ever existed are in fact equally “weightless”, and if they were all somehow cleansed from the world’s mass, it would be not one gram lighter. I agree that Owens’ paintings lack weight, but if there is something special about “digital” information, Salle hasn’t identified it, nor has he explained how any of this distinguishes Owens’ paintings.

At the outset I promised to list some of the terms of criticism that occur in Salle’s essay. The following are terms in which Owens’ paintings are praised: “positive can-do energy”; paint is applied “with a pleasing paint-by-numbers quality”, so that one can “feel the hobby store just around the corner”; “like illustrations in a children’s book”; “images that kids find appealing; animals in the forest, princesses, wild-haired children”, “fairy-tale stuff”; “like novel forms of candy seen in a glass jar”, similar to “greeting cards”; an “Alice-in-Wonderland feeling”; “witty and cartoony-weird”; “engaging and fun”; a shade of blue “found in a tea shop or a girl’s bedroom”; drawings of “cats playing with balls of yarn”; a motif “that one might find on a young girl’s flannel pajamas, something a sophisticated seven-year-old would find amusing and a bit arch”; design similar to what one finds in “children’s books and child-friendly graphics”; “this is art that’s comfortable wearing fuzzy slippers”; and so on. If all of this weren’t a bit creepy coming from a man of 66 years, it would be just, well, infantile. But again, why is childishness a term of praise for a contemporary painter? From whence comes the idea that art gets better by way of emotional regression?

At the end of the day, what Salle finds appealing about Owens’ art is exactly its childishness, because it suggests a state of being free of anxiety and fear. (The idea that children are without anxiety is an absurd and destructive idea hatched in the mind of an adult who refuses to grow up.) Owens’ work is without angst or black humor; she “makes being a good citizen into an aesthetic”; it “has no anxiety about being nerdy, or not much anxiety period.” Oddly, near the end of his essay Salle remarks that upon leaving the exhibition, he was left with a “strange and unexpected hollow sensation”. This is odd because one might expect that to the extent one’s experience of art is a “hollow sensation”, the art has failed aesthetically. But Salle seems to regard hollowness as exactly what he’s seeking and finding in Owens’ art. What does it mean for a culture to find value in emptiness?

[i] David Salle, Art in Free Fall, The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2018, Vol. LXV, Number 2, available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/02/08/laura-owens-art-free-fall/.


  1. I just finished an essay based on the Salle essay.There is one by Schjeldahl in the New Yorker which is equally fatuos. Here is the end of my essay:”She told Schjeldahl of a list of dictates to aspire to as an artist when she was in her early twenties: among them was “Think big:” “Contradict yourself constantly” “No Guilt” “Do not be afraid of anything” “Know if you didn’t choose to be an artist-You would have certainly entertained world domination or mass murder or sainthood.” I would say they are a pretty good description of her work today. She thinks big but not very deeply. She can easily contradict herself since any position she holds means so little to her it can be easily changed. I would love to be a person without guilt but how can you live and love among others without at least occasionally feeling you are not fulfilling your expectations or the expectations of others. (though I’ll admit she may just be referring to painting not human relationships)And if you think art is keeping you from indulging in mass murder, maybe your art should be a self-aware exploration of those dark desires.”


    1. I saw a interview on YouTube with Schjeldahl and the comedian Steve Martin. Martin brought up that Schjeldahl had a problem with the painter Bonnard. Schjeldahl admitted reluctantly that perhaps he may have been wrong, but was quick to add that one can look for hours at the color in a Warhol flower painting.

      This exchange highlights for me the American idea of Art. A distrust of European high falutin ideas like beauty, and a give the finger celebration of the banal which is raised to the level of Art. This attitude is quite apparent in the work of Laura Owens with it’s mix of cartoon characters and quirky hobby store trash.

      As regards Ambiguity I think it is inherent to painting at least good painting.


  2. Very good, tough (though not “tough-guy”/thug-like), American criticism. Nice this kind of thing is still published in the Old Country. . .


  3. Little to disagree with here Carl, I’m sure you weren’t surprised as I surmise you knew what Salle was up to.

    Help! I’ve just renewed my subscription to NYR books; but of course, when it comes to art they nearly always get it wrong. As does the LRB – a recent notable exception being an article on the Cezanne portraits exhibition. Why, one wonders, do these literary journals (often so good on literary and political matters) go for the usual suspects as the “world’s greatest living artist” (Freud, Bacon, Hockney, Hodgkin, guess who’s next….SS?) But in return, painters and sculptors nearly always go awry when it comes to poetry.

    So much easier to spread acres of (discourse) on what clearly deserves dissing, rather than talk about painting, painting that is painting……


  4. What worries me, Carl, is why you should waste your time, and undoubted writing skills, on ‘childishness’ just because it appears in the NY Review of Books ?


    1. I didn’t waste much time really Tim, a couple of hours last Sunday afternoon. My father gave me a subscription to the Review for Christmas. Pete: I think it’s good to have a bit of variety in the kind of writing that appears here.

      Apart from all that, there is a serious issue, which I characterized as the “terms of criticism” that are used in a serious cultural resource (the NY Review of Books) that is widely known and influential. How a culture expresses or interprets itself ought to be of concern to everyone, or so it seems to me. abcrit is to be exclusively reserved for painters and sculptors talking among themselves, then I have no role here.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I take your point, Carl, and I am (I hope) as concerned with “how our culture expresses itself” as mist people involved..My question would be whether the sort of example your article proposed as an illustration of it, is really to be taken that seriously. I have a suspicion that even the NYT RB indulges in promotion at times; and, as with all these mass media organs, one has to sort out the wood from the trees as best one can.
    I am not for one moment querying your right of choice of subject matter for comment; and of course, Abccrit gains by it. .


  6. I have read the original review (free to read and download) and Carl’s article too. The closing lines of the latter might (ironically!) have some weight:

    “… Salle remarks that upon leaving the exhibition, he was left with a “strange and unexpected hollow sensation”. This is odd because one might expect that to the extent one’s experience of art is a “hollow sensation”, the art has failed aesthetically… What does it mean for a culture to find value in emptiness?”

    Could this be the unintended purpose/function/effect/affect/outcome of Laura Owens’ art? Not that emptiness should be valued so much as identified in digital forms.

    The well known quotation from Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’ – “There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists.” sprang to mind. Has Laura Owens divined the spirit of our times?

    Just an empty thought…


    1. I think that Laura Owens perfectly expresses the spiritual emptiness and infantilism of a society that chooses Donald Trump, an adult baby, as its leader. In that sense she has divined the spirit of our times. Andy Warhol was the first American to celebrate superficiality as far as I know, but unlike Owens, he was not free of anxiety, and even his paint-by-numbers cartoon characters are nervous, never far from the electric chairs and car crashes. Owens’ art seems exactly as Salle describes it, but while Salle apparently finds this worth celebrating, I find it disturbing.


  7. Carl – Warhol may well have been “the first American to celebrate superficiality”, but he had an equally qualified ancestor in Marcel Duchamp with his mustachioed Mona Lisa who is hot in the arse, and other samples.
    The question then arises, was French society of the time undergoing a Trumpist transformation as the underlying cause? To my knowledge, it was more likely that Duchamp was reacting to the challenge of Picasso and Matisse and Braque et al,(which he could not cope with), rather than the former, I doubt that Warhol and co. would have arrived at their interpretation of the zeitgeist had it not been for the precedent set by previous art history, which of course brings us to the ‘artist’s’ work in your article, which, equally, is totally dependent on precedent as much as anything else.
    Incidentally, I posed the question earlier: what would Trumpist art look like ? and now we have the answer.


    1. Duchamp’s primary trope is irony, which is an intellectual trope having to do with knowing more than one reveals. I suspect that irony provided a shortcut to being “more advanced” than the cubists he began by emulating. By contrast, Warhol is deadpan, deliberately dumb, as the celebrities he ended up painting are necessarily dumb because they are completely objectified in the mass media that makes them idols to worship rather than persons with interior lives. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe are actually poignant in this way. There is nothing ironic in the images of Elvis Presley drawing a gun or in the self-assertion of a Brillo box for that matter. Laura Owens seems to operate on an almost purely emotional level, by way of regression.


      1. The stated raison d’etre of your essay, Carl, as I understand it, is:that the “terms of criticism” being used “reflect society”; in this case in the criticism of Salle on Laura Owens work.

        Whereas I don’t doubt that you are correct in your assessment that Duchamp’s methods differ from Warhol’s, my point was that they both, to an unspecifiable degree,arrived at their ‘terms of criticiism’ as a result of the successful art that was contemporary with their own efforts NOT being obviously framed as social comment but only doing the job that all artists are supposed to be doing – challenging the art that precedes them. The problem for Warhol and Duchamp was that they , for whatever reasons, opted out of that challenge and decided on a path of social and/or aesthetic commentary to bring them success, success, of course, being the operative term.


  8. The pertinent key to Laura Owens’ success (and she obviously is very successful and has a strong position in the present art world) seems to be down to her persistence and support from patrons, as mentioned in the essay. It appeals to a mass market because she covers so many diverse present day, graphic visual images which give a sense of something for everyone. And apparently the more work you create (and Owens creates masses of huge stuff) the more demand there will be for it.
    David Salle’s work seems to be in a similar ball park and perhaps that is why he is celebrating her success rather than being disturbed by it.
    Owens work seems to be deeply superficial, which is what a lot of present day mass media is all about.


    1. “These are works that so want to be liked that whatever strangeness they embody is always held in check; they never go too far in any direction or wander off the road. By doing just enough to her readymades, with an infectious zeal and lots of elbow grease, Owens makes distinctive works that fit in perfectly with the times. Critics, curators, and collectors concur…”

      In other words, kitsch. These are not so interesting times – which is kind of interesting.


  9. Tim wrote:

    “The stated raison d’etre of your essay, Carl, as I understand it, is:that the “terms of criticism” being used “reflect society”; in this case in the criticism of Salle on Laura Owens work.
    Whereas I don’t doubt that you are correct in your assessment that Duchamp’s methods differ from Warhol’s, my point was that they both, to an unspecifiable degree,arrived at their ‘terms of criticiism’ as a result of the successful art that was contemporary with their own efforts NOT being obviously framed as social comment but only doing the job that all artists are supposed to be doing – challenging the art that precedes them.”

    “Terms of criticism” ought to mean a bit more than “reflecting society”, which suggests that the critic’s job is simply to repeat and confirm society’s conventional views and opinions. When I read the Salle essay, I became interested in what he found to be worth saying about Owen’s art, what he finds to be of interest and therefore valuable, worthy of praise. What Baudelaire found to be worth saying about, say, Delacroix or Manet or Wagner was relatively unheard of, yet his terms of criticism have proven to be prophetic in the sense that anyone trying to understand the dawn of modernity in Paris in the 19th century is advised to read Baudelaire’s criticism.)

    Salle uses terms of criticism that would strike someone like Clement Greenberg, not very long ago, as completely bizarre – not to mention intellectually sloppy, historically ignorant, careless, irresponsible, childish, and so on. Today these terms are taken for granted, or assumed to be relevant and important, even beyond questioning. “Ambiguity” for example. Putting aside the fact that Salle doesn’t know what “ambiguity” means, or that “irony” is not a sub-species of “ambiguity”, how did it come to be that “ambiguity” is considered an aesthetic value?

    (It is not things (e.g., words, paintings) that are ambiguous, but what people say (via words and paintings, for example). When someone says something ambiguous, we don’t know WHAT he or she is saying.)


    1. Carl, do you think Salle’s intellectual sloppiness and the other traits you mention could be to do with him being a painter with (very broadly?) similar leanings to Owen, and not being a professional critic as such?


      1. Noella, I have no idea about that. I take it for granted that his view is at least to some extent representative, given the facts that it (as far as I can tell) accurately describes Owens’ paintings, and that Owens has an exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

        Here is what a more well-known professional critic, Roberta Smith, has to say:

        A new self-awareness entered painting toward the end of the 20th century, which initiated an irreverent, sometimes but not always loving interrogation of the medium. Artists of several generations and many stripes pushed this approach forward, ransacking painting’s history and conventions, examining it as both a commodity and an object in space, toying with its taboos and its pursuit of a signature style.

        One of the most innovative explorers of this vanguard has been Laura Owens, the subject of a jubilant, chameleonic midcareer survey now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
        Ms. Owens loves painting but she approaches it with a rare combination of sincerity and irony. Distinguished by a sly, comedic beauty, her work has a playful, knowing, almost-Rococo lightness of being in which pleasure, humor, intelligence and a seductive sense of usually high color mingle freely……

        [When are people going to tire of this sort of formulaic, cliched hipster nonsense?]:

        Ms. Owens is unafraid of heavy pinks or frilly brushwork that play the feminine, as well as the feminist, against the macho bravura typical of the medium. Nor is she shy about the allure of the low: greeting cards, cartoons and children’s book illustrations; embroidery, sequins and felt appliqué; elaborate uses of digitalization and printing. Her works riff on past styles; the tensions between pictorial and actual space; the eternal conflict of abstraction and image; the act of looking, including peripheral vision. Some paintings here even make cameos in neighboring paintings…….

        Within the drops are tiny scenes of studio life, including a depiction of Ms. Owens at work, sitting on the floor, as if to say that despite the sweat and tears, there will be fun. It’s not hard to imagine the original Color Fielders, for whom abstraction and flatness were sacred, spinning in their graves.

        [They just can’t get enough of that 600+ page catalog, which will be like totally AWESOME on your coffee table for your next cocktail party.]

        The catalog brims with archival material — notes, sketches, news releases and price lists — and photographs superimposed, with drop shadows galore. Interspersed are oral histories and comments from family, friends, collaborators, former teachers and students. Although there are several essays, the totality is a kind of biography in the raw. (The only downside is that it’s not so useful as a record of the actual show.) It documents Ms. Owens’s thinking and working processes, her artistic community and the nuts and bolts of her career, starting with typed letters and proceeding to email and text exchanges with dealers and curators, even those for this show. Designed by Tiffany Malakooti, the catalog takes brilliant advantage of Ms. Owens’s apparent reluctance to throw things out.


  10. Carl – you wrote: ” ..What Baudelaire found to be worth saying about ,say, Delacroix or Manet or Wagner was relatively unheard of, yet his terms of criticism have proven to be prophetic in the sense that anyone trying to understand the dawn of modernity in Paris in the XIXth C. is advised to read Baudelaire’s criticisms.”
    Precisely, I agree. But the perceptions mentioned arrived decades after the period in question. Which raises another question as to whether the Carl Kandutsch’s of fifty years hence will be bothered, in their ‘terms of criticism’, with the trivia of the early 21st century art world ? I say art WORLD advisedly, because is it not likely that other more potent signals of the state of culture will have been found more worthy of comment ? Until and unless the coming passing of the century produces a Delacroix or a Manet or a Wagner, what will be the point of projecting the idea, through criticism, that infantile inferiority will suffice as a substitute, merely because it is there ? Until the advent of modern means of communication, the dross of history disappeared awaiting the archeologists. We should do the same with ours.


  11. Roberta Smith: “A new self-awareness entered painting toward the end of the 20th century, which initiated an irreverent, sometimes but not always loving interrogation of the medium. Artists of several generations and many stripes pushed this approach forward, ransacking painting’s history and conventions, examining it as both a commodity and an object in space, toying with its taboos and its pursuit of a signature style.”

    With a little fine-tuning, this could be a description of what Manet did in the mid-19th century. The fine-tuning would require eliminating the absolute arrogance and contempt for history and for the ideas of inspiration and instruction that is heard in the words “ransacking” and “toying with.” The arrogance and contempt apparently come from a couple of French professors who informed us 50 years ago that there is no such thing as an “author” and whose influence has somehow been inflated far beyond any reasonable measure.


    1. But surely you are not suggesting, Carl, that because you can perceive parallels between some of the AIMS of Sallel/Owens and Manet, that we should take them both equally
      seriously ?

      Duchamp was also French, and so was Manet; and therein lies the rub !!


      1. …whereby the early modernists were investigating the potentials of their medium for the communication/instantiation of some kind of shared artistic truth, and the post-modernists, having given up on truth, are investigating their medium for something else. ( Commercial success? Influence as a meme? Likes?)

        This is more of a query than a statement.


  12. I know Carl won’t agree, but Rauschenberg springs to mind for me, not as a fellow-traveller of Owens, or as setting a bad precedent for her work to follow, but as someone who had, at least for a few years, a genuine talent for coherently including found objects into the visual array of his early ‘combines’, and making meaning out of that; and doing this to an extent that puts Owens work to shame. Owens has none of that visual talent, it would appear. Her juxtapositions are a kind of clunking, amatuer surrealism; her attraction seemingly lies for some in exactly that perverse lack of synthesis. But this negativity is so easy, anyone could do it (Owens got lucky), and now that Roberta Smith et al have given the nod, a few thousand art students will feel vindicated in not trying very hard to do anything at all.

    All round, this is irresponsible and unpardonable. Art doesn’t by any means have to be po-faced serious, but it needs to be meaningful, visually, which requires some sort of synthesis, even if the ‘how’ is ineffable. I guess the problem stems from just that (necessary) ineffability of meaning, that is so ill-defined as to allow false claims on its genuine requirements for a measure of originality. In other words, crap art can rather easily claim it brings a new kind of meaningful synthesis to the table, and in the minds of artists and critics who themselves have no visual sense or talent, that claim cannot be invalidated.


  13. Carl and Richard tell us that Post Modernists have given up on ‘truth’ and that there is nothing new about their practice..
    Which raIses the question as to what exactly they are about (in their practice)
    The only observable answers that I have ever been able to grasp, in kind in exhibitions, or in endless publicity material, are Sensation and Social / Political or Referential Commentary.

    I am sure the Sistine Chapel Ceiling was sensational when it was first unveiled, but I don’t think that that is the kind of sensation we are referring to;.The Royal Academy exhibition.of that title is nearer the mark. As far as sensation, social and referential commentary in general is concerned, I have always been left with the feeling that – as the ‘subject’ of typical (post modernist) ‘manifestations’ (usually called sculpture),- why bother to use ART for this purpose at all, when so many other media in the modern world make a far better job of it and are far more potently suited to the task.
    Nobody would deny that, historically,art has been built around, social / political and other subjects successfully, and, of course is referential by definition. But the subject was only what made it successful art from the point of view of the consumer, NOT the artist who created it who was primarily motivated by what we can only define as inspiration and intensity of feeling for a medium and its possibilities of interpretation, (as the principal measure of success).
    Which leads us to conclude that any art which is devoted to the former and lacks the latter,is doomed art.



    1. But…! The (supposedly) clever thing about Owens is that she apparently has no social / political or other subjects, no message, no reasons, no commentary – so it must be just good art, right?

      And, ironically, doesn’t our NEW abstract art also put itself as far as possible outside of “referential”. This seems to be the very thing that is “dooming” us to oblivion, on the one hand, yet working to Owens advantage. We too have no message or social engagement, and can’t give any kind of story of what our work is about. Personally, I’m quite content with that, because we have what is a proper engagement and debate on what is visual. Unfortunately those in positions of influence in the artworld seem to be mostly visually illiterate, so they cannot see what we are trying to do. What it means in effect is that all our work is totally open and vulnerable to a proper visual critique, whereas Owens’ is completely impenetrable to it. “Perversity” is the new watchword. You feel that to make a “better” Owens would be to make a worse painting.

      Owens, like us, lacks subject matter in the conventional sense. However, what she has is a whole mountain of “backstory” which can be subjectively invented around what she does, and especially round her personally, to prove that she has relevance and originality and CONTEXT. This leads back to what I think is an interesting discussion about the relationship between originality (or its flipside, novelty) and how to extend in some new way the lasting visual values that we see in the great artists we admire from the past.


  14. Tim wrote: “Carl and Richard tell us that Post Modernists have given up on ‘truth’ and that there is nothing new about their practice..”

    The idea of “giving up on truth” is an academic conceit, like the rest of post-modernism. In fact, nobody ever gives up on truth except those who give up on life, and those people don’t make art.


    1. Here is Stanley Cavell’s description of what human life would be like if what people say about a “postmodern world” were actually meant seriously and an accurate characterization of the world in which we actually life – if it were more than an “academic conceit” I described it. I think this description is pertinent to Owens’ paintings.

      “What would human life be like if nothing were (any longer) an intellectual scandal? What if we could accommodate to anything and everything – to assume a mood in which we assert with conviction that what we see are neither objects or their representations, but virtualities, simulacra; that no juxtaposition or sequence of events can be ruled out as out of the ordinary; that, in effect, the world is incapable (any longer?) of producing surprises, that there is no overall expectation in terms of which a development may count as unnatural or inhuman; that you can no more tell what might be of interest to you than you can tell from the description of a dream what event has caused the dreamer fear or grief; that humankind’s terrible capacity for adaptation has become absolutized; that for those with some judgment left life has become a nightmare. This is meant as a set of suppositions of a world in which skepticism is pointless. The description of this state of affairs is derived in part from things people say in characterizing the world as postmodern…”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, but none of this stops individual artists, critics and curators from invoking post- modernist arguments and ideas as a justification/inspiration for their work.
        It’s absurd to say we live in a post-modernist world, and just as absurd to say that we live in a modernist world. The world is the world, independent of our current strategies for explaining it. And if “modern” and “post-modern” are only there to describe a prevailing intellectual climate, then there are surely parts of the art world that fit the post-modernist bill, even if all involved drop their intellectual conceits as soon as they leave their desks and go to buy a pizza.


  15. Robin – yes, we have been down this road before: whether or not art, good or bad, has to be ABOUT something. I personally think it does; but being’ about’ is not the same as ‘reference’. As Matisse said: he does not paint what he is looking at; he paints what he feels about
    (fr. sensation) what he is looking at.
    Owens may satisfy her audience on the basis of what her subjects refer to; but what intensity of feeling does she project other than that they are there.? and that idea was arrived at long long ago, so it is not even novel.and I therefore do not think it is original either..

    I too, am deeply involved with trying to make a non referential sculpture, and that attempt involves me in trying to define what it should be about, and then, achieve it..
    I agree, unfortunately, that trying to persuade an audience of critics, curators an so on,that this is a worthy, and indeed essential, task for an artist is another matter; as you say, visual illiteracy abounds.


  16. I think Robin has a completely valid point about visual illiteracy. I have lost most of my audience since giving up landscape painting and changing to abstract work. People who are used to literal meaning just ‘don’t get it’ and I think that is due to a lack of engaged exposure as well as undeveloped visual understanding. In some ways that could galvanise the quest for creating better work with visual meaning. If it means something to the painter/sculptor eventually one would hope it could filter through to the viewer.
    It feels like Owens is taking short cuts and I wonder if her work would stand the test of time.


  17. Re: Stanley Cavell’s description of a “postmodern world”. Yes, that is dystopia, and is pertinent to the world of Owens, Salle, Smith etc., where everything is devalued to sameness.

    The problem remains, though, of how to inch things forward in positive fashion, how to make intelligent progress without dissing all that is good about what came before, how to do something new without repeating mannerisms of the past. Art cannot stand still. But if our most respected critics and commentators cannot distinguish stupid novelty from genuine innovation and discovery, we are headed for the undifferentiated hell Cavell elicits. Perhaps we are there already. This looks like sculpture from hell:


    1. I’ve been saying for a long time, Frank Stella has a lot to answer for, including this kind of massive brainless sprawling mess.

      For a mini-micro-second it looks fantastic, like it really could be something new and exciting, because a massive sprawling intelligent mess could be really great. In this case, the disappointment sets in immediately.


  18. Where do you get these dreadful samples from, Robin ??
    Your remark, Carl, serves to corroborate my earlier comment that other media are much better suited to this sort of thing; so why do people insist on calling it art ?


    1. The Grauniad, of course. Laura Cumming, Jonathan Jones, Adrian Searle are our very own Roberta Smiths etc. I’m very choosey, there’s plenty more even worse crap out there.

      I think, Tim, the battle for what is and what is not art was lost a long time ago. Everything is art. We might just manage a rearguard action to defend “sculpture” as distinct from “art object”, but even that looks like only a slender chance, especially since even Caro claimed that anything could be sculpture. And so it can. So then, that is why I’m not bothering anymore, and focussing on “three-dimensionality” and “spatiality” as values that are hopefully a bit harder to corrupt, even though at the moment those values are not really recognised by everyone (not mentioning any names).

      And “abstract” of course! That’s an important value and nobody wants it anyway. It’s all ours! At least I thought it was until Roberta Smith claimed a picture of seagulls was “nearly abstract”, and Cumming claimed flying pigs were abstract elements in a sculpture. But I think they are only dallying with it, and not really interested in appropriation. I hope.


      1. Robin – You should go over to the Telewag, like my grandmother who did the crossword every day until she was 94. You can’t go wrong with people who think art is for painting horses.


      2. I’m afraid that, despite Adrian Searle and co’s very worst efforts at corrupting the whole bloody artworld for the forseeable future, I’m addicted to the Guardian cryptic. Though whether I’ll be still doing it at 94 is a bit of a long shot.


  19. Returning to the theme of originality, here is Glenn Gould talking very interestingly about the originality, but lack of contemporaneity, in Bach. Plus some great music! Bach the “constructor”.


    1. What better way to celebrate Caroline’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, than listening to this beautiful Glenn Gould film.

      All credit to Carl Kandutsch, Tim Scott, Robin et al for the work put in to this mighty discussion.


      1. Thank you Pete, and happy birthday to Caroline.
        A genius playing an even greater genius’ masterwork. I thought the singer was very good too. Perhaps a welcome break from Owens’ rubbish? Amazing that Bach’s music was overlooked in favour of his trendier sons – ha!


  20. Richard Ward’s comment was an interesting one:
    “It’s absurd to say we live in a post-modernist world, and just as absurd to say that we live in a modernist world. The world is the world, independent of our current strategies for explaining it. “
    Although times change and we do need to make sense of experiences, happenings, using
    language through concepts, such as modernism, Richard also offers a challenge to this rather simplistic attitude to naming and defining.
    If you look at modernism there are plenty of versions: rationalistic, scientific, political, anarchistic, etc, etc, some of which could be seen as actually being postmodern (using irony, scepticism). Postmodernism has its more sensible derivatives as well, which still value notions of truth, reason, ethics, etc.
    Why do we need to place ourselves simply within a cultural genre? Other than to make us feel comfortable, secure and validated?
    I understand Carl’s decision to critique Laura Owens’ “work” as it has some power in the art world, some status, yet its visual value is so lacking it is an easy target, on this forum at least.
    Once you commit to the importance of the visual, in visual art, see an art work as an object, in its own right, you can start to have a dialogue with others on what the appropriate value and meaning might be. That brings us back to what is of value visually, but it is a question that participants on this forum continue to struggle with, certainly in trying to find any common ground.
    But I admire people continuing to try.
    Having said that are we trying to understand other’s points of view or are we just trying to win an argument. Or perhaps just testing our own theories out?
    How much real dialogue is there, can there, be?


  21. Incidentally, Robin, your Caro quote is a misquote (to my knowledge,and I stand corrected if I am wrong),endlessly repeated in the press. What he actually said ,and meant, was that art could be MADE from anything, which is, of course, a very different kettle of fish.

    The answer to your search for a critic is obvious; I nominate Carl, but I am not sure whether they will offer him a job on the Guardian.

    John, I think the answer to your point is that at least Abcrit commentators, on the whole, are trying hard to “deal with what is of value visually” even if they don’t get very far most of the time..


  22. emailed to me by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

    Letter to John Baldessari from Jeremy as to why Laura Owens does not merit his interest:
    “Laura Owens’ work always reminds me of Hallmark Christmas cards. Their composition is like Hallmark cards and they are always all the same size, so that there’s nothing specific about the size of the work and its relation to the viewer’s experience of scale as a result. I understand that these are qualities that people like, and while I find them boring others think them critically adorable. In a general way the work fits into Bruce Hainley’s critical method, which is a combination of early Barthes and the Hollywood Reporter, for example. From such perspectives it’s a good thing that the work offers no surprises to anyone interested in complication or for that matter the history of art and what is actually possible in that regard, that the work is very crudely made (like a duck with a hammer, quack quack bang bang) but that it still manages to be dead rather than lively. These are regarded as positive assaults on tradition, but I find them unconvincing.
    From my point of view Laura’s work represents a retreat from inventiveness into an academic art of reference rather than experience, as far as Barthes goes it’s the ‘readerly’ as opposed to the ‘writerly,’ where the former is a philistine rejection of the latter. The heaviness of the work is of a kind found in a lot of work that is said to embody a world view which is not that of the while male, and as such it’s a cliché that can’t possibly do what it is said to do. That would be ok with me if it weren’t just heavy and inert. The only time Laura ever spoke directly to me it was to accuse me of not having paid sufficient attention to her work. Actually I have in my life been careful not to spend to much time on things that seem to me banal, and especially not on the aggressive banal, there’s nothing by me of more than a sentence or two on Al Held or Keiffer, for instance, because to me nothing happens in the work that encourages me to have a new thought about its premise. Same thing with Laura, aggression as a form of reassurance, thick and sloppy as a sign of immediacy. Or rather as a sign of immediacy brought under the control of the word and the already digested, apparently reassuring for many but for me only one more a sign of the triumph of the shrill, which is the kind of reassurance that I only find depressing.”


  23. There’s been a tendency to seek originality in the activity and conventions of art-making, rather than in unexplored areas of human experience. To use a scientific parallel, Frank Stella (among others) has largely concentrated his efforts on building original telescopes, rather than exploring the cosmos.
    Some of these telescopes may be just wacky and some may turn out to powerful instruments, but in a limited field like painting this kind of activity is bound to become sterile, whatever the ingenuity of its participants.
    Maybe it is the search for this kind of originality that has led to the proliferations of the “expanded field”. These have then become ends in themselves. It is not asked often enough if they are useful new telescopes or just wacky irrelevances.
    Meanwhile the actual exploration of the cosmos gets treated as a kind of shabby nostalgia – What are a couple of far-off nebulae against this big new shiny telescope?

    Liked by 1 person

  24. What may explain the hyperbole about Owens is that she comes out of the anti-modernist group of Provisional and Casualist painters that tried to deconstruct the Greenbergian modernist hegemony.It has a lot of admirers and Salle as a neo-expressionist sees himself as a forerunner having pursued the same anti-modernist road along with Schnabel who reinvented himself as a Provisional painter. I think what they forget is that on her way to stardom Owens started looking more like Stella and lost her casual wit. Clearly she wanted to move out of the pack of Provisionalist painters. I think this is why Roberta Smith makes a fool of herself praising an artist who barely resembles the artist she once admired.


      1. Any suggestions?
        BTW, regarding your previous comment – argument seems vital and healthy to me, and yes, I do it to test out my theories, and yes, to win the argument, what else? Sometimes I argue for the sake of it. Arguing is life, though it doesn’t have to be nasty or negative. Arguing on Abcrit and Brancaster has changed the way I work and the way I think about my work. But it may well be that the discussions have been more purposeful regarding sculpture than those for painting. In which case, someone has to do something more focussed on new painting, perhaps?


  25. But surely Robin, that is because sculpture is twenty times mote difficult than painting; after all painters only have to worry about one view, whereas if you have your way, we will have hundreds to deal with !


    1. Yes Tim I am sure sculpture is much harder than painting. I have learnt so much from the way the Brancaster sculptors approach their work and the complexity of their ideas and visual outcomes, they have really broadened my approach to painting.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Less abstract sculpture than painting equals less competition. Painters with ambition have an awful lot to compete with. It is why abstract sculpture has far more mileage than abstract painting, a longer future, perhaps?
      You could argue that makes painting more difficult; if you are ‘visually’ ambitious.


    1. What, only “hundreds” of views, Tim? Surely it’s in the millions. In fact, so many, there aren’t any!

      John, I don’t think the problems with painting are to do with greater competition – in fact I’m not sure there are that many good abstract painters around anyway – but to a lack of clarity about what making a properly abstract painting really means; whereas that seems to me to have not only clarified somewhat in abstract sculpture, but also, paradoxically, broadened out. Everyone is going to disagree with this, but I think abstract sculpture now is incredibly diverse, more diverse than it was in the sixties, because of all the diversity and complexity of the content it is prepared to attempt to synthesise. The “field” for abstract sculpture to now operate in seems to me, from my perspective, to be massive and really “open”, and could actually benefit from more people doing it. Oddly, although abstract painting looks on the surface to have more people doing a greater variety of things, the content doesn’t seem to me to be all that diverse – i.e. the “field” for painting to operate in feels quite narrow.

      In that sense, John, you may be right, that it is in fact harder to do something original in abstract painting at the moment, and everything looks like it is a little bit more derivative of things from the past. The new sculpture has the look of something completely new.


      1. I agree with most of this. Interestingly I see abstract painters having to compete with the best of figurative painters in a way that I don’t seem to see abstract sculptors having to compete with figurative sculptors. I need to have a think on this: probably my lack of interest in figurative sculpture and the fact that I am a painter.
        There is also mileage in pursuing newness in abstract painting, but its newness cannot match that of the latest abstract sculpture which indeed looks so very ‘different’, its difference throwing some people (including me four years ago).
        Someone should write something on the sheer visual ability to take in an awful lot of diverse and complex content in an art work. There is a developmental process here that is quite strange. i certainly found it very disconcerting (psychologically/emotionally/intellectually) when work that I once rated and valued so highly became too simplistic and just didn’t give me enough to engage with. Big loss here.
        Yet also much to gain.


  26. There has been ,since the late 60’s and 70’s, a strong belief and commitment to Abstract in sculpture and a refusal to look to figuration to resolve the difficulties of ‘Abstract’.
    ‘Sculpture from the Body” was an honest confrontation with the’ body ‘ specifically and not figuration in general. It was necessary as part of an ongoing analysis of aspects of Abstract sculpture as they presented themselves through sculptors actual work.[ only undertaken by a small group of sculptors and students]
    The so called ‘New Sculpture’ is not a recent thing but a current form of a long term project
    [ in my opinion ].
    It seems to me that something equivalent to this has not occurred in Abstract Painting. Certainly what has already been described as a pooling of resources.
    You are right John,no such notion seems to have gained traction.Significantly, for sculpture, Rodin and Degas etc. were for most sculptors put to one side and not made central to S F T B
    The absence of any great support for Abstract sculpture has provided the perfect ground for re-thinking the whole thing.An environment of continual rejection and destruction of the myths of the art form that is sculpture balanced against the prospect of new inventions to be discovered .
    By no means is this a done deal, and it is far too soon to be summarising any achievements.


    1. God, but you are fickle, Mr. Smart. Last time you spoke about this you were adamant that Sculpture from the Body was the shedding of the last vestige of everything non-abstract. And whilst I agree that there is no done deal, and this is no time to be writing our own history or coming to any conclusions, I do think what’s happening is absolutely new – a new phase entirely in sculpture. That’s my take on it.


  27. Well said Robin…you have done it again and absolutely put your finger right on it.

    For me now, fickleness could be a natural condition of looking at Art made doubly more difficult by the fact that the thing that unites the sculpture we are making and the complexity of it and what it is of that complexity that you can take away with you.
    It is not about changing your mind it is about facing the reality, and this could be true for all art.
    In Mark Skilton’s Brancaster Chronicle No. 4 I pointed out how much the sculpture had changed for me from a previous visit ,so much so I believed he had changed the piece. Great art will always re present itself as if you had not seen it before,and that would not be just Abstract art and that seems to be a condition of any Art. What kind of certainty can you have in this new world ? Believing that you know anything ,is, in my opinion a massive disadvantage.

    I have said loads of times how ‘new’ I think some of the sculptures made by Alex, Mark,Tim,you and myself are ,starting with Mark’s “Greedy” as far as the Brancaster Chronicles are concerned.[see Brancaster Chronicle No 4 for the written and unedited transcript]
    In us saying that something is ‘new’ attempts to define the ‘new’ as I have just demonstrated and will inevitably fluctuate, a common problem in art anyway.
    With art that purports to be as fluid as ours the problem is all the greater maybe, and for different reasons.

    So Robin for me it looks as though the more looking you do and work you make the harder the notion of certainty becomes and maybe with that goes one’s notion of clarity, because we all know that something made on Monday which looks bad can look terrific on Friday ,but not always! And I am minded of John’s last comment on newness must be a contributing factor.


    1. Bit of a mess then, but we’ll muddle through. Fickleness as the new open-mindedness…

      I can honestly say I’ve never had much of a notion about certainty. Doubt has been my constant bloody companion for the last 50 years. Yet for me it’s not a case of changing ones mind all the time but recognising the manifold nature of every aspect of the discipline. You mention Mark’s first Brancaster, and one of my memories of that is our disagreement about whether “Greedy” was or was not “spatial”. That remains an unanswered question, because it’s all relative. What’s fantastic, really fantastic, is how our understanding of that particular “spatial” value in abstract sculpture has both clarified and expanded – along with other things too. I’d say the more you know, the more you realise there is still to understand. I’d especially flag up what we think about “three-dimensionality”, which is the thing that is, I think, an actual, real, stand up kind of “discovery” for sculpture. I do think that is new, and I think to say so does not diminish it. What we can do with it is another matter, and I’ve said before that we can’t really know how good or bad our stuff is. (Obviously we have to wait for Mr. Gouk to pronounce on that!)

      You always sound a bit like you don’t want us to say anything about anything. But I repeat what I said to John, that arguing about this stuff is great.


  28. John, I am wondering if pursuing newness, for the sake of it, in abstract painting could be an empty activity if there is no meaning or feeling behind it. There is a fine balance between discovering something while pushing yourself to work in a different way and trying to create a complex image that works visually. I imagine something subtly new could come out of just constant working and reworking. It’s a case of getting to the essence of what one is capable of and that could take a while.
    In some ways I think figurative paintings (which can be kind of deconstructed into abstract forms and rhythms) can help abstract painters perhaps more than figurative sculptures help abstract sculptors. If painters can find something new to pursue I think it should be a personal endeavour, rather than a concept.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will try and write something on the concept of ‘complex diversity’ as it is something that has helped me understand what I value in painting and sculpture, both as viewer and maker. And it leaves plenty to explore. Exploring ‘less’ content, or simplicity and sameness, makes no sense, to me. The fact that there is an orignality element to it is a bonus of course and not the drive, so no, newness not for its own sake at all.
      I like an existential version of authenticity, and painting authentically is not expressing the real fixed, core, internal me,as there isn’t one. That is not to say I don’t have a strong sense of who I am and also the history and influence of painting but, with relevance to these latest postings, to be authentic is to be open to future possibilities, to uncertainty and becoming, to where I might be heading, what is pulling me into the future? Complex diversity seems something worthwhile and valuable to be pulled towards. But when I paint I am not trying desperately to fit my paintings into a preconceived idea.
      And one day I might change my mind and I have to accept that.


  29. The overwhelming nature of “Greedy”, on the day, and my interest in it since, did not reside in it’s spatiality.
    I had never seen such a force of sculpture and breaking it down into ‘issues’ was not my compelling concern.
    Space in sculpture is being constantly re defined ,as one would expect, in as many different ways as there are sculptors doing it.
    Three dimensionality was not a discovery but a demand. What I think we are discovering is also varied and wonderful, and ongoing ,as is all of it.
    Saying I do not want us to say anything about anything…well…tell me something about sculpture as Mark did with “Greedy’ that I do not already know or have not already heard ,but phrased differently, then this discussion has ‘legs’.
    One certainty I’m sure you agree is that Sculpture is an adventure and could go anywhere?


  30. Tony – nice to know that I am making, or trying ti make,’New’ sculprure: funnily enough, I fancied I was doing that fifty eight years ago, so it is a pity that I won’t be around to see where we are at in fifty eight years time !


  31. Tim..
    see from this feed Feb 16th ..2nd paragraph.

    “The so called ‘New Sculpture’ is not a recent thing but a current form of a long term project [in my opinion].”
    I thought I had your point covered.


  32. If you mean fifty eight years hence ? God forbid.
    Can you imagine it: the combined forces of the Tate,MOMA and the Met mounting a grand end of century Post Modern revival (after falling out of fashion for years,because EU art was totally dominant !


  33. “The taste for high Modernism has gone underground, and the number of people one meets who are capable of seeing abstract art, or who would even claim to have experienced conviction in the face of new work of any sort, feels vanishingly small.”

    (Michael Fried, Artforum, September 1993)

    “Here, indeed, we are up against what seems like the obsolescence of serious art in general.”

    (Jonathan Franzen in Why Bother?, 2002)

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Ref: Carl Kandutsch on Terms of Criticism for Contemporary Painting: A note on David Salle on Laura Owens

    Thanks Carl for the clarity of your essay about Salle’s essay which has provided a helpful route through its flummery. I offer the following remarks about the Laura Owens painting ‘….Flashe, and wheels on linen’. 1. Firstly, a generalizable principle of parsimony is violated in that the painting would be as good without the wheels (that hardly suggest motion) as with them. This probably means the painting without the wheels would be better. 2. I found myself thinking about Rauschenberg’s tyre on the Goat and that he had had the tyre kicking about in his studio for over a year without knowing what to do with it. When he did put it round the goat, he did it as a sudden spontaneous action. An action that literally came out of nowhere. To me it is that ‘out of nowhere’ that defines the abstract source of a genuinely creative (and courageous) act. An act, which perhaps silences the observer. This, I think also goes some distance towards defining another generalizable principle of quality in art. 3. Lastly that ‘out of nowhere’ also feeds my final point that suggests a different and less vacuous sense of the ’empty’ than the one you describe (although I also agree your sense.) This is a sense of the ’empty’ anterior to Wisdom, knowledge and information that surely is precisely the ingredient that is missing and vital if a culture is to have depth. I mean that conscious source, which has its poise in the empty, stilled mind and can be just what is needed for creative acts to thrive. So, Wisdom got lost in knowledge and knowledge got lost in information or exactly as TS Eliot put it, “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the Wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
    Having said all that but in a spirit of greater generosity, I did ponder with delight at some of Salle’s observations. “Owens bends the conceits of art theory so that her own personality can flourish,” and: “But a funny thing happened to the gestalt: life intruded.” (Quite so!) and: “The new attitude is not much interested in photography at all. It wants to rough an image up, put it through a digital sieve, and decorate the hell out of it.”
    But there again, at: “Owens doesn’t seem to have a nihilistic bone in her body.” I become uninterested in the prospects (for art) all over again.
    Chris Millar


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