I just returned from a long weekend in Small Point, Maine. This quiet outcropping surrounded by the Atlantic on three sides has been my favorite migratory site for many years. Annual visits here are like the kitchen wall where penciled lines mark a child’s growth. This landscape is my personal caliper for measuring movement, some of it subtle and not so obvious.
Yes, things change here too. Each year the sand reconfigures the terrain of that enormous stretch of beach. New rock outcroppings appear. The meanders of the Morse River find new inevitable pathways to the sea. But this place feels like it has always been its own unalterable self. And if left alone (god willing), it will continue being that place, being exactly what it is.
Looking back on a life can bring up feelings of sentimentality, of nostalgia. John Gardner‘s definition of sentimental is “causeless emotion, indulgence of more emotion than seems warranted by the stimulus.” In poet Mary Ruefle‘s essay, “On Sentimentality,” from her collection, Madness, Rack and Honey, she describes nostalgia as belonging “exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage. Only highly developed cultures foster feelings of nostalgia.” She goes on to quote Peter Hoeg: “Sentimentality will always be man’s first revolt against development.” When it comes to sentimentality, she states the conundrum succinctly: You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
This has been a summer of exploring some of my own back pages. It started with Rachel Kushner‘s novel set in the art world of the 1970s, The Flamethrowers. That look back was followed by another by way of Janet Malcolm‘s collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, many of which were written about that same demi-monde one decade later, in the 1980s.
One of Malcolm’s pieces is a portrait of Ingrid Sischy, written just a few years after Sischy took over the helm of Artforum magazine as a relatively unknown young woman in 1979. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Malcolm interviewed many of the leading art critics at that time—Rosalind Krauss, Don Kuspit, Rene Ricard, Thomas McEvilley, Barbara Rose, Carter Ratcliff, Thomas Lawson, among others. This multi-valenced portrait encapsulates many of the conversations and concerns I remember from that period.
For example, Lawson describes the experience he and his friends had in coming to New York City as young artists in the early 1970s. They arrived in Manhattan about the same time I did, when everywhere was heard the edict, “Painting is Dead.” Like Lawson and his friends, that fierce dismissal deeply informed my work:
When I first arrived here postminimalism was very systematic and black and low performance, which was fine, but it was the only game in town….
There is something melancholy about our work. If pop art represented a kind of optimistic acceptance of mass culture, ours is a kind of melancholic acceptance. We never had coherence as a movement. For some reason, this generation has a particularly high incidence of extreme individualism and paranoia about one’s peers. So there has never been much of a group. This all took place after “the death of painting.” We had all been schooled in the idea that painting was finished, and the second perverse thing we did was decide to paint. Since there’s a deadness to mass-media imagery, there was a fittingness to our decision to work in a medium that we didn’t have all that much conviction about. But, interestingly, once you start working in it you become more and more convinced by it. All these years later, painting actually seems interesting in itself, rather than a mere perverse thing.
Perversity was not the driving force in my decision to be a painter, but I do remember making the concerted decision to plow through in spite of the dismissals that were heard everywhere during that era. If artists are by nature subversive, there was nothing more subversive than to paint. Ironically enough, many young painters today face an updated version of that easy dismissal. Like those of us who came of age during a previous era, they are also claiming the counterposition and subverting prevailing norms.
Like the landscape in Small Point where surface changes happen but an underlying essence remains in tact, most serious artists find their essential metier and hold to it regardless of the passing whims of culture, market or colleagues. Some artists are lucky and hit that sweet spot, where their work and trends coalesce. Those individuals are the minority however. Most of us are fueling our efforts on our own, and our work gets better the closer we cut into that essence that is each of us.