Henning vs. Modern Art


Hey, painting! You’re stupid!

Over the years Steve and I have directed our critical eye toward a wide array of popular works, from albums by Passion Pit to the movie Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Minus no exceptions, we’ve stuck to the big three: music, movies, and film. Stepping foot outside those felt scary and weird, like touring foreign lands without even a McDonald’s for safety. Life is scary enough without the threat of musical theater, or books!

But as retirement looms ever nearer along with the opportunity to scream our opinions in an environment that isn’t “outside Starbucks,” the time has come to take that scary step into previously untouched terrain. And so today we summon all our critical strength to go after an artistic medium that for TOO LONG has gotten a free pass on Lifting Fog. Modern art, you’re on notice.

“What is modern art?” is a great segue to our examination of why it’s dumb, so we’ll open with Wikipedia’s plebeian definition:

Artistic works produced from roughly the 1860s to the 1970s in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation. Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing and with fresh ideas about the nature of materials and functions of art.

What they really mean is:

That’s Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Circle,” from 1915. Described in words, one might say it’s a “black circle on an off-white canvas.” The old equation is 1000 words per picture, but here we’ve got to settle for seven. Should we talk about baseball for a while?

(Note #1: Modern art is not limited to geometric shapes and minimalism, but for the purposes of today’s post it is. Also for the purposes of today’s post, we’re pushing the genre’s cut-off date from the 1970s and discussing works from the 80s, 90s, and 100s. Rules have no place here.)

(Note #2: This whole post is winking BS. Cy Twombly? Nothing but love, baby.)

“I could do that!” is arguably the number one criticism of modern art, because art, we learned in normal museums with guards and depictions of fat Renaissance babies, is something the majority of us absolutely can’t do. We lack the skill, the years of tactile experience. We can finger paint, sure, and make snow angels, but we wouldn’t slap a placard on either one to sell it. Like the honey badger, though, the modern artist has learned to turn off that part of his or her brain and just GO FOR IT.

That’s “Voice of Fire” (1967) and “Onement 1” (1948), respectively, both by artist Barnett Newman. While he died over 40 years before Draw Something gave his paintings their largest stage yet, Newman would influence plenty of other stripe artists. Take “The Millers Delight,” (1992) by Harvey Quaytman:

Intriguing! Not to be outdone, Tim Bavington responded a decade later with 2005’s “Physical S.E.X.” 

“It’s saying something. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why, but it’s a painting and it’s hanging up and we all know that means it’s got to be saying something. I’m sold — let’s buy this f*cker!”

Modern artists don’t limit their focus to stripes, either — tackling projects as wide-ranging as circles, squiggles, and insane alcoholism as well. (Few can juggle all three at once, but then they aren’t superheroes.) Jackson Pollock remains the most well-known of the bunch with his splatter paintings, but between the circles of Joan Miro’s “Bleu II” (1961)

…and the squiggles of Cy Twombly’s “Cold Stream” (1966)

…it’s safe to say that no shape has been left unturned.

Now so far we’ve limited our scope to painting, maintaining at least a surface link to the older portraits and landscapes to which they’re so often compared. But the cool thing about Modern Art is that ANYTHING can be modern art. As long as you sign it, you created it. Just ask Marcel Duchamp!

An unquestionably talented and accomplished artist, Marcel Duchamp nevertheless shacked up with the Dadaists (“Dada” being French for “unbearable asshole”) and through this relationship birthed the above “Fountain” (1917). Rejected by an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, the work was quickly cemented by some as an artistic turning point.

Whether you look at it as some commentary on the Sino-Japanese War or “a toilet” is beside the point, because someone somewhere paid for it and then put it behind glass. Who asked your opinion?

Fifty years later Robert Morris decided he’d had it up to HERE with all the urinal love and created his aptly titled “Rope,” (1964) which hangs to this day on the bad third floor of the Museum of Modern Art. As you can see, he was very careful to make it as ropey as possible:

What’s interesting about “Rope” is the fact that it so clearly violates the first criticism of Modern Art — who among us is tall enough to properly hang that length of rope? — but raises an entirely new point of concern, “couldn’t that material be put to better use?” Felix Gonzalez-Torres would later perfect the art (…of this art) in “Untitled (USA Today)” (1990)

…and “Untitled (Lovers)” (1991)

Bear in mind that we’re not criticizing the quality of the work, just pointing out that some office can no longer tell time and a Duane Reade was just depleted of all its hard candy. Practical concerns!

There are many more facets of Modern Art to discuss, from the refrigerator drawings of early Jean-Michel Basquiat to polaroids of condoms that I’m sure someone has done, right?, but time is short (Gonzalez-Torres took all the damn clocks) and hey — we’ve at least scratched the surface of this thing, in original and completely valid ways. Art criticism! This is what Lifting Fog should have been doing from the start.

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5 Responses to “Henning vs. Modern Art”

  1. Jens Fog Says:

    I could have written that

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