It makes us feel like big revolutionaries or at least socially important characters

Ron English mural, Houston Street (America Is Unformed And It Holds All Of This Promise And It Could Be Everything Or It Could Just Collapse) image ©MAIERMOUL
Ron English mural, Houston Street (America Is Unformed And It Holds All Of This Promise And It Could Be Everything Or It Could Just Collapse) image ©MAIERMOUL

Basically, I am arguing that America tried to steal modern art (à la Guilbaut), but ended up inventing contemporary art. And I am arguing that certain American qualities have figured the nature of contemporary art.

Too much of contemporary art has been understood through a European lens, regardless of where it was made, or even when. For example, the show that’s up at Gagosian now, Malevich and the American Legacy; Barnett Newman and many of the other artists in the show were not actually thinking about Malevich. In large part art historians have backgrounds in European art history, or at least have that model in mind; avant-garde structure is the default mode, and also a flattering one for intellectuals—it makes us feel like big revolutionaries or at least socially important characters who can expound on what is wrong with the world. So there’s a social investment in keeping the European lens alive, as it is understood, as well as the effects of sheer habit and entropy.

How would we rethink the art made since 1945 through the lens of American social and cultural history? I mostly focus on American art, but I think the implications are there for the rest of the world as well because America was dominant economically and artistically from the 1940s through the late 20th century, the way that Europe was at an earlier point of Modernism.

That’s beginning and end. “Unfinishedness,” which is a cliché for Ab Ex, of course (although just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true), is related to those terms in being suspended between them, and pointing in both directions. It goes back to a much earlier sense of American history, an Emersonian “all or nothing” mindset. That declaration itself is rooted in early Protestant rhetoric that proclaimed, “America is unformed and it holds all of this promise and it could be everything or it could just collapse—it could be the shining city on the hill or it could be Newark”—it could go either way. You can hear the same message in Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” speech, or in Obama’s inaugural speech—it comes from left and right.

From the artist’s side, Cady Noland speaks brilliantly about America as an unfinished project, stressing not Romantic immediacy but the condition of the temporary. So it’s not just that Ab Ex cliché; it’s something that goes back very far into American history, as well as forward in American culture right up to the present moment, and certainly through Smithson in between. To him, everything is sort of half-built, which suggests either way: growing or rotting.

– Katy Siegel, interview with Phong Bui, The Brooklyn Rail