Ploeg Kees Van Der

The Silent Baroque

Christian Leigh (ED) Edition Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg 1989, English text. 288pp. tel. 662 - 841 561


The Silent Baroque -

This lavishly designed book was published in conjunction with a large group show of the same name, featuring artists such as Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, Alexis Rockman and Philip Taaffe, at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, Salzburg.
Austria, and especially Salzburg, is synonymous with baroque, as today's tourist industry tries to make us believe. Austria too has a bad reputation for having given rise to Nazism and never having rid itself of it properly. It is afflicted with an almost pathological nostalgia for its bygone grandeur as an imperial monarchy. Next to his introductory paragraph, Leigh published a picture of legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler being applauded by an enthusiastic audience, among which Hitler, Goering and Goebbels are the most prominent. By doing so he proves to be aware of the ambivalent nature of this idyllic looking country.
Right at the beginning of the book this sets a political tone somewhat at odds with the book's appearance as a glossy coffee- table item. Once one has started to read, this turns out to be mere surface. Leigh even seems to infer that superficiality in itself is baroque - a tragic misunderstanding. He claims not to be interested in the baroque as a historical phenomenon as such. If he had been interested we would probably have had quite a different book, certainly not this celebration of flimsiness, notwithstanding its physical weight. What he is aiming at remains unclear. Jeff Koons’ cover radiates precisely the same pretentious ambiguity. Picturing a black dog on a watermelon it might be intended as a critique of racism. If so, it is so disguised that it throws doubt on the sincerity of its designer.
No limits were set on the participating artists and writers with regard to form and content of their contributions. The resulting book is a free-wheeling collection of individual projects and essays lacking any coherence whatsoever. So let us forget about the promising title and review the articles and projects for what they are.
In his essay, Donald Kuspit raises Leigh himself as curator to the rank of artist. A discussion of the current tendency among curators to transform their exhibitions into art works - frequendy to the detriment of the artist’s intentions - would have been more to the point here. An interesting, but generally neglected phenomenon in this context, is that only the current hype of group-shows enables curators to do this. Perhaps it is about time to return to the intellectual integrity of one person exhibitions or at most of shows featuring a few congenial artists.
The New York art scene has been rather well exposed the last years. Leigh's organizing principle of artists based in New York has become a boring cliché rather than a case in point. As a matter of fact, it does not mean much more than labels such as recent Dutch art, recent Transsylvanian art or recent West-Virginia art would, i.e. virtually nothing.
Of course, there must be some interesting and thought- provoking projects where so much talent is brought together, but it is equally clear that talent needs to be challenged with a well conceived context in order to get the best out of it. Meyer Vaisman’s story of the Hameln rat-catcher shows an intelligent strategy: neither artsy images nor flattering colours but a grim fairytale, effectively updated in the way it is told. This is by far more perverse than Bob Nickas' collection of artist’s dumb answers to his dumb question: What makes for perversity?
Beautiful though Haim Steinbach's pictures may be, they can but enhance the ephemerality of this preject. The addition of nicely printed words as images in their own right - an all too common practice nowadays - makes it even worse. Jonathan Lasker, with his autonomous typographical inventions, stays pretty close to the tide of thebook. So do Joel Otterson and James Porto in recontextualizing Otterson's hysterical objects through Porto’s photographs. Unfortunately, the introduction is marred by some mistakes. Peter Halley accompanies his well-known cell paintings with carefully composed text fragments tracing the history of our modern awareness of distance in space and time, and its psychological implications. In doing so his paintings certainly acquire a deeper meaning, but it seems doubtful that this compliments his painterly achievement. Claudia Hart created rhymes in an eighteenth century style accompanied by oldwoodcuts, commenting upon the contemporary art scene. Her contribution makes one wonder again why she gets so much acclaim for her trendy flirtations with history.
Many of the picture projects are pretty indifferent. The artists seem hardly to have realized that a hook is not a gallery or a museum. In my opinion some of the essays are among the more interesting contributions in this book; James L Croaks The History of Everything is a witty evaluation of the postmodern trend in art writing in which the crisis of meaning is all too often an easy excuse to evade meaning at all. Regina Joseph makes an interesting comparison between punk and baroque, thus questioning our comfortable classification of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.
By far the best contributions in my opinion are those dealing with sadness and oppression as the outcome of the AIDS epidemic that has so catastrophically hit the New York art scene. Dan Camerons Life during wartime and Jerry Saltz' The end of‘the end' are both brave attempts to come to terms with this situation that cannot and must not be ignored. The making of art is being changed by artists who rightly refuse to ignore it. The halcyon days are over. After years of dwelling predominantly in its own cheerful reserve of a booming market and of the star status of its major protagonists, art now seems to become politicizedagain. Relating to the social has long been very important in the work of artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and - in a more indirect way - in that of the artists who belonged to the pioneering Nature Morte Gallery. Now the social and artistic impact of AIDS is becoming a general issue no serious artist will be able to dismiss.
The outburst of hatred some hard core reactionaries launched against the National Endowment for the Arts is as much a symptom of the present situation as is the emotional helplessness and political unwillingness to confront aids. For that reason Gran Fury’s project ACT-UP may be the best project in The Silent Baroque.
Its content raises moral issues we cannot escape and its form effectively employs the seductive devices of advertising - a kind of perversion we seem to need in order to awake from our sweet dreams. Recently Biennale director Giuseppe Caradente tried to ban another Gran Fury project from his exhibition because it criticized the Pope for his opinion on AIDS. Of course, there were people who thought the project did not have to do with art. They missed the point; when politics try to rule the arts, the arts have to be political. Unintentionally, Christian Leigh has made this point with his ‘silent baroque’.