THE IDEA THAT TEN ARTISTS would agree to be placed together as a group and exhibit under a collective title is not a completely new one, but it is one that has been out of circulation for some time. An artist-defined sociality determined by a common concern—one might even call it a “cause”—creates a situation opposed to the large group show of the ’60s, which usually stuck artists in erroneous categories (examples: Johns and Rauschenberg as Pop artists, or Noland and Poons as Op artists). What is most troublesome in the new show “Ten Approaches to the Decorative” is, however, that word: decoration.1 Since “decorative” is about as pejorative a description as “literary” or “theatrical,” it is something of a shock for these artists to use it deliberately to characterize their work. But the word misleads if one expects homogeneity, for the works do not resemble one another—these are ten approaches. Except for one thing perhaps: the artists can all be said to work in a definite anti-Minimalist style.
Many of the artists use holistic, nonrelational motific systems reminiscent of Stella. This should not distract us from the basic methodology at work: collage. As much as the formal structures used are identified as the decorative part of the work, there must be a grounding technique that will achieve that structure, and it is collage. I discriminate between two kinds of collage, which may occur simultaneously in the most dense and complex work. There is literal collage; that is, the actual use of pasted paper, or real objects added to what is essentially a painting or sculpture. Then one has metaphorical collage, where the formal characteristics of the work, whatever they are (meanings, overtones, elements), take on greater resonance because they have been decontextualized and then layered, not merely juxtaposed.
Decoration becomes decontextualized by virtue of its being borrowed. The source of the materials or motifs must stay clear, but the materials occur in a dissociated context, i.e. a painting, or sculpture. They appear out of context instead of as a design on a tile, a pattern on a quilt, or a repeated unit on a piece of fabric. Removed from its usual role, the decoration becomes both sign and design, both itself and quoted material (as in the dual situation of Johns’ Flags).
Usually, one would expect art to transcend such borrowing, to reinvent or perhaps confer new status on the decorative sources. On the contrary, this work refuses to prearrange emotional responses or established value systems. Also, the forms, which may strike us as neutralized, can be filled with any kind of meaning, for example, as reference to other decoration, as a feminist statement, as a diaristic accumulation of experience, as a pun on modernist painting, or even as a diagram of the “fourth dimension.” And the metaphoric collage of reference may assume any formal pose, from static to complex.
To speak of the work itself: Jane Kaufman uses Stella’s nonrelational patterns from the black paintings—the “deductively” structured concentric rectangles and squares, the repeated diagonal stripes and so on. But her paintings are small and come in pairs. They are neither arrogant nor aggressive, and reject autonomy. She wittily refers to the fact that Stella’s works were once derogatorily called “pin stripe” paintings, thus making their affinity to fabric design quite clear. Kaufman fills in the “pin stripe” with bugle beads (used to stud, ornament and decorate clothing) which reflect light and make the paintings sparkle. The small scale and the sparkly surface recall the small, handcrafted object, not the gigantic, impersonal look of modernism. Kaufman’s work is humble—in size, workmanship, and borrowing. Borrowing in metaphorical collage is a form of humility, not flattery. Kaufman further wants her work to invoke values antithetical to those of Stella’s. She writes: “[The work] is in pairs for romantic, emotional, psychological, and social reasons.”2 How removed this is from the esthetics of Minimal painting is obvious. By the decontextualization of those strategies Kaufman exposes the source material as being, first of all, decoration, or functionless ornaments in the world. It is fitting that her paintings deliberately visualize a conflict between her borrowing from modernist sources and her humanization of subject matter. She wants to re-energize the idea of the decorative (and, by extension, modernist abstract painting), freeing it from charges of indifference and vacuity.
It is, in fact, another irony that decoration is accused of being emotionally sterile. For the painting of the last 20 years has been convinced that a physical flatness should be equated with an emotional flatness. On the other hand, work which is called “decorative” can cease to be only about itself and begin to explore other kinds of experience, the depth of experience. It wants to accumulate details, image and space (collage), and discover a variety of reference. Narrow references to art history are replaced with various cultural signs and designs of general and multivalent meaning.
Valerie Jaudon showed one painting which resembled an intricate Islamic pattern, from a carved tile, perhaps, or maybe a carpet. But she creates her own patterns (many artists copy them from various pattern books). She creates a species of metaphorical collage by showing how much (say) Stella owes to this tradition of intricate interlocking pattern/decoration. She can refer to both sources. Her work is monochromatic, copper on unprimed canvas, which restricts the complexity of her design to a linear figuration. Jaudon shares this “unnatural” palette with Kaufman: shiny, reflective, unnatural color, the color of things which are nonfunctional or decorative, and which ornaments other things. It is obviously not going too far to relate this to the use of metallics and bright, sensuous artificial hues in Persian and Indian miniatures, illuminated manuscripts, etc.
The vast sources of decoration which an artist can draw from are practically endless, and these works constantly remind us that decorative traditions around the world, from all periods, offer known similarities. These artists do not merely play a game of free association—the visual evidence is there. Every culture has certain visual needs, but usually not of the kind which became the “high art” of Western civilization. Those visual needs were satisfied by decoration and ornament on functional items, religious objects, and human bodies. When Jaudon relates her interest in “nonwestern art, architecture and ornament,” she is acknowledging what she has been looking at, and for what reasons.
Joyce Kozloff’s large painting in this show openly states what she’s interested in—designs and patterns on Amerindian blankets and rugs, Islamic ornamentation, gyroscope configurations, as well as the strategies of formalism, which she dissects and then refutes. Although this work refers to local passages from Stella (once again!), the motifs behave simultaneously as flower forms and illusionistic abstract elements. They are not isolated singly as in a Stella, but repeated systematically across a large surface zone. Kozloff’s form of collage is more literal than the others in the show, except Schapiro. The overall effect of her work is like Rauschenberg of the early ’50s. Instead of literally using printed, embroidered cloth, clothing, quilts, etc., Kozloff paints the patterns, uniting them on the surface, but keeping their separate identities. She decontextualizes the patterns by making them decoration alone, removed from their functional base or object. Her work is thus a homogeneous flat collage, almost a contradiction in terms.
The decorative systems of this painting, Hidden Chambers, are opposed in color, style, and motif, but are grounded in their common surface. For all the dry regularity and tightness of execution, Kozloff’s work is irrational and playful. Her statement, “Negating the Negative (An answer to Ad Reinhardt’s ’On Negation’)” is also a playful disavowal of the formal and philosophical basis which led to the “pure, purist, puritanical, Minimalist, post-Minimalist, reductivist, formalist, pristine, austere, bare, blank, bland, boring,” etc. art which she is attempting to undermine. Yet her paintings are not didactic or pedantic. They are humorous—and that is rare in modern art, where humor usually takes the pose of parody.
There are three artists who, despite their differing means, are involved with the possibilities of humor in decorative art. Barbara Zucker writes: “To me, humor is survival.” In her work, as well as in John Torreano’s and Robert Zakanych’s, the humor is that of the outside, a humor which helps the outsider survive. Zucker’s and Torreano’s works are so bizarre that they don’t look like other art and they don’t look like anything else. Zucker’s pipe-fixtures with aluminum clown-collars painted either white or silver function as one-line jokes. (Jokes, by the way, could be understood as a form of collage, in that they relate two previously unrelatables.) Torreano’s rounded vertical slabs, made of thick paint with embedded rhinestones, try to weld together high art and camp, highbrow and lowbrow, naive and sophisticated, serious and flip, frigid and excremental. Although he seems the least decorative of the group, he shares the sensibility of Zucker (humor), the color of Kaufman and Jaudon (reflective and “cheap”), and the irrationality of Kozloff.
Zakanych says of his painting (which comes very close to the look of wallpaper): “The images were too referential, too representational; a flower; a pattern.” Flowers do not appear as abstract forms but are pictorially represented. Pasty lavenders, browns and salmons seem to be mixed with a milky white. It is almost as if Zakanych wished to start all over again, like Klee, knowing nothing. This attitude is neither an easy nor a fashionable one. His stalks of flowers, repeated over and over, beg to be compared with .Warhol’s peonies, but there is nothing mechanical about them. There is little more clearly defined here than the kind of surface quality he is trying to get, and the work has only literal meaning. Although he shows signs of being a genuine naif, there is still more attitude than visual realization present in his work.
For the admirers of George Sugarman’s sculptures, it might have been odd to see the paintings he chose to be in a “decoration” show. Obviously his true decorative work, the sculptures, are better work all around. He was known earlier for smallish, simple, brightly colored shapes (triangles, squares without centers, alphabet shapes) glued on top of one another. They are good-natured and decorative and might make sense in an environment like this more disposed to accept them on their own terms. They are childlike without being childish. Sugarman’s fascination with additive structure, with homogeneous collage, overlays meanings from those of toy blocks to David Smith. It is the kind of playfulness which Calder never stops trying to achieve. The paintings are difficult to describe, except that flower forms pop up again, and there are long, meandering lines made up of short tapewormlike sections of white paint, which sometimes complete petal forms. They were correctly installed near Zakanych’s work, if only because both artists are after something which has yet to be fully visualized.
Arlene Slavin was exemplary as a choice for this exhibition. I admired her previous work. One published comment on it did, however, seem particularly relevant to the sensibility of the current show as well as reveal why some people might be upset with it. “Slavin is a whiz at composition, but I wish she would calm down. Her complexity is more thin and decorative than it is profound. The most fragmented areas of the paintings look like designer fabrics.” I couldn’t help recalling Greenberg insisting (in Art and Culture) that Matisse’s late cutouts were not decorative even though they were intended as decoration. I am not trying to place Slavin in the same category as Matisse; that is not the point. But it is easy to see how the prejudice against the decorative can crop up at any time in relation to anyone’s work. This prejudice is both relatively new, and unevenly administered.
In this century, we have the clothes designed by Sonia Delaunay and the architectural decoration of Matisse, the tapestries of Stella and Frankenthaler, the ceramics of Picasso and Lichtenstein, among hundreds of other examples. Scratch any art movement or established artist, and you are likely to find some form of “nonprofound” activity involved with applied form. More than just a prejudice against the decorative, the criticism I cite reveals an assumption of a certain set of minimal, reductive norms for art that stress calm rather than busy-ness, holistic rather than fragmented images. These are inherited prejudices, not inherent biases.
What does Slavin really do? She divides her canvas into a system of diamond-shaped grids and fills them in with a spectrum-variety of color. The filled-in portions can take on a potentially infinite number of forms and shapes, depending on which ones are colored alike. Actually, the paintings in the “Decoration” show were relatively “calm,” with a heavy reliance on Noland, and nonfragmented and not like fabrics, as if Slavin had heeded her critic. They were also less successful than earlier, more decorative paintings. Slavin is sometimes very close to Kozloff in being a “busy” painter, but her work is more exclusively involved with modernist values. (One can easily visualize her work done in complex over-under structures done in any flat material.) Her program “I support rich lush painting” is best experienced in her other work, which aims for that flat, homogeneous collage best realized with a wide range of bright, lush color.
The biggest problem with a show with many members is that the intention of some work will remain obscure. To be seen as an individual example of a sensibility, a painting must have a context to create meaningful discourse. Tony Robbin’s painting particularly suffers because it is the only one on hand. This three-sectioned work is partially covered with a hexagon pattern filled in with sections of spotted spray paint. But the overall impression is of a deep, opaque, outer-space-like color range situated in the rust, dark and olive green range. It has outright illusionistic, receding geometric forms which are rendered in outline alone, and create ambiguous readings of the space. (Robbin’s work looks as if it owes a debt to Al Held’s black and white boxes-in-space paintings.) There is a collage of references and styles, from the art of Iran and Japan (where Robbin grew up) to the mathematics of “the fourth dimension.” Robbin’s interest in illusion and “pleasure through visual complexity” does not isolate him in this decoration show. For those artists using shiny materials, there is the illusion of light through reflection and the illusion of real jewels; there is the illusion of space defined by flat forms that are made ambiguous through segmentation; there is the illusion that is disguised allusion (original forms which look like traditional forms). There is optical illusion in many of the works, but not the kind that has anything to do with Op art. The illusion may occur in the eye, but it is neither that manipulative, nor an end in itself. For a work which addresses itself to the problems of metaphorical collage, and the multiplicity of meaning, illusion which only speaks to the facts of opticality is too thin an excuse to support pictorial creation.
Miriam Schapiro was represented in this show by a four-part work, The Seasons. In her one-person show, which could be seen at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, she exhibited a large work, Anatomy of a Kimono. It is possible to list only a few of the themes running through these works: the dialectic of literal and metaphorical collage; the layering of material and the depth of experience; the accumulation of autobiographical detail and the narrative that implies; crafts and handiwork as symbols of feminism; the techniques of Rauschenberg and the resonance of reference to the outside world. All of these things begin with a firm ground in the decorative, in the world of traditional crafts and ornamentation. The smaller work created out of embroidered handkerchiefs from around the world laid out in a grid had an unmistakable beauty and wit.
Anatomy of a Kimono is a large, multi-sectioned painting/collage with different geometrically shaped cloth patterns spread across a background of a color spectrum reminiscent of the mid-section of Rauschenberg’s Small Rebus. Schapiro’s art has been renewed through her involvement with feminism, but there are a thousand ways of filling in the void left by the demise of formalism. Schapiro has filled in her decorative forms with the content of feminism, but the same forms can relate to architecture (as her work The Seasons shows, with its rounded tops), or any of the subjects I have discussed in the work of these ten artists.
Although not all the works I have discussed have found an agreeable solution to the relationship between conception and execution, that hardly decreases their interest, specifically in how they reactivate collage for decorative purposes. They suggest multi-channel meanings, rich in human import.
1. “Ten Approaches to the Decorative,” a show at the Allesandra Gallery. Sept. 25—Oct. 29, 1976 With Valerie Jaudon, Jane Kaufman, Joyce Kozloff, Tony Robbin, Miriam Schapiro, Arlene Slavin, George Sugarman, John Torreano, Robert Zakanych, Barbara Zucker.
2. All the quotations are from a handout available during the exhibition.