But is it art? What Dan Graham, Mel Brooks, Sol Lewitt, Andy Kaufman and Bruno have in common
Kaufman, Brooks, Graham, Bruno -- A dream team.
Reading a piece in the New York Times on Dan Graham's much-deserved career survey that opened recently at the Whitney, I was reminded of something that Graham himself told me when I spoke to him a couple of years ago.
He was here to lecture at the Power Plant (which in itself was kind of odd, given that, while garrulous, Graham, who's a bit mumbly and tangentially-inclined, isn't really a natural orator). Whatever the case, Graham said to me then that he viewed Conceptualism as something as something of a colossal joke -- "anarchistic humour," he said -- played on the increasingly-academic art world of the time, in the 1960s.
He was speaking, I'm sure, of people like the critic Clement Greenberg, who was desperately trying to prolong the Modernist heyday he had helped usher in with the Abstract Expressionists, and most famously, Jackson Pollock. Greenberg was shilling for something he called color field art, more pure than pure, the absence of all but essence -- which, of course, was what Abstract Expressionism, and Modernism, for that matter, was all about. The color field notion was a further distillation of that purity, which to me has always seemed odd, and kind of a sad end to a brilliant critic. The AE's were deemed, by him, as the ne plus ultra of art, the end of the line. That he felt the urge to push past that, as their relevance started to fade, seems a desperate gesture of self-interest.
"Though many critics through the years have complained that Mr. Graham’s work can be hard to love and too dryly pedagogical, he said he sees himself as a Jewish comedian working firmly in the tradition of Jewish comedy greats like Mel Brooks and Andy Kaufman, whom he considers to be great conceptual artists."
Remember, now, that Graham wasn't just himself an artist, but was the original dealer for people like Sol Lewitt and Dan Flavin, whose version of the Modernist experiment was in reviving ready-made notions and devaluing the object as art (Flavin's fluorescent tube sculptures, which he returned to the hardware store for a refund after the show; or Lewitt's pencil-on-the-wall markings, which he had no qualms about erasing).
For the inaugural generation of conceptualists, there was an intellectual challenge to the interwoven art world forces in academ-ese and the market that was pushing Pollocks and Rothkos into the hundreds of thousands (at the time); and no small degree of parodical humour in that challenge, either.
What came later got stranger, and more serious, as conceptualism morphed into performance, like Vito Acconci, who photographed himself stalking strangers, or Chris Burden, who crucified himself on the hood of a VW bug, to name but one self-mutiliating exercise.
But it's a small stretch to pair the innocent anarchy of Graham's generation with the performative impulses of the likes of Acconci and Burden and come up with Kaufman, Brooks and Cohen (and others, I guess, like Lenny Bruce, but he was in the 50s and therefore ruins my thesis. Damn him). Especially Cohen, it seems, who benefits most from all this history and understands that any great art stands as a challenge to the established order of things, and makes you see the world a little bit differently. If you damn near asphyxiate from laughing so hard while doing so (full disclosure -- I nearly passed out watching Borat), then more power to it.