Robert Lepper/ Six Characters in Search
The Fascination of Idea/
The Infatuation With Mechanism
- Diverging Ways
A bird flying across a valley draws a line bisecting the well of air that we may perceive the volume of distance to better enjoy the time we share in its flight.
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My favorite landscape of all time is Bruegel’s winter scene Hunters in the Snow.
The other is a cursory sketch of the barest few lines in brush and ink by Rembrandt.
In both the more elaborated and in the minimal, a spatial sensation of the world comes alive in one’s imagination. The closeness of Rembrandt’s to conceptual diagramming misleads; for it goes far beyond.
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Imagination is vision achieved without trying; its impulse arrives as a gift. As concept fuses into intuition, transcendence is enhanced by consciousness not being overly conscious of itself.
Calculation melts in flight thinking it can soar above the humble sparrow,
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The Communication of Intention
Where Thought Pivots upon Itself
And Strategy Becomes the Center of Pleasure
As a teacher, Robert Lepper is a great communicator whose real subject is communication as intension expressed and followed logically. His lessons invariably make art the focus for following human reasoning engaged in the perception of its own awareness.
Robert Lepper can be eloquent, but he is not a poet. Robert Lepper is a conceptualist concerned with the act of conceptualizing.
There have always been satisfactions in following an art work, when the viewer, by reassembling the artist’s logic in constructing the image, discovers his own pleasure in perception. But Lepper’s thesis at its most extreme sidetracks a fuller journey that this culminating moment, where thought pivots upon itself, becomes the be all and end all of engagement.
By assigning that function as the principal act, Lepper’s teaching anticipates a major shift in art. Though Lepper will not categorically state that as such in the classroom; it becomes the most singularly understood conception relayed to his most ambitious students- that intention needs to be openly declared, or the viewer used to signs will turn away; so strategy leads back to view itself to become the center of pleasure. The consequence makes art advertising.
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There is something troubling in the mind seeing its own performance the subject of the work instead of its pointing to greater purpose. Art is different than athletics. True virtuosity downplays itself in support of a vision.
One must have faith in the viewer, not bridle him for the race track. Efficiency of communications is crucial for the battlefield, but not necessarily for reflection or courtship. Why turn bemusement into fast living? Some joys come in the savoring.
Power pointing is unsatisfying as communication; when used in art it becomes a fast from a true communion sharing meaning in the slow, simmer of visual sensation by which we arrive at revelation.
As intriguing as it is to discern the markings of decision-making; that alone is an academic pursuit borrowed from psychology and sociology, a classroom analysis for comprehending strategies of attraction, factors in luring anticipation and capturing attention- all well and good for marketing. But if what is in front of the viewer is not aesthetic musing as well as compassion for the human quandary we all find ourselves in; it is only a puzzle game playing the viewer.
Either it is coercion or a puritanical rejection of the sensory and mistrust in the spiritual. If delight in wonder is disqualified while Cartesian logic held eternal; from there art can be social indoctrination, information management and retrieval, proof of sophistication, or a gaming pastime, but not a re-creative empowerment. Then we can all laugh while we cry, knowing that we have rejected a window on our luxuriously human dimension.
If art is just a Duchampian prank at the end of a rat-maze of logical turns; sometimes the artist slips on the banana peal. From there far greater acts of self-deception arrive. Still, a great teacher is someone who makes one think in ways one hadn’t.
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The Garden of the Postmodern
Like many of his generation of artists during the Depression, Robert Lepper paints murals for the WPA. For a vast lecture hall at the University of West Virginia he enshrines a fantasized image of industrialization attempting to follow the monumentality of Diego Rivera without his sparse execution and the dry economy of fresco. On leaving that busy, overblown commission, more suitable for an illustration in a children’s encyclopedia, Lepper arrives at a conclusion that painting is not his path; the brush not his tool.
But the subject of that mural, the machine, leads to his calling- the fascination of the tool and its functions, and its perceptual and sociological repercussions in contemporary culture increasingly dependent on industrial means. Lepper’s interests turn to product design and the fabrication of structures, assemblages, and kinetic sculpture from industrially produced materials.
Still, his significance lies elsewhere. If his art has merit, his teaching has genius. His pedagogical exchanges with his most capable students take on the revelatory aura of Platonic dialogues with Lepper as Socrates questioning the status quo. To many of his students just turning twenty, his analysis of dogma and encouragement of alternative forms of artistic engagement becomes a call to an awakening. As with Socrates, there is a voice within that one must trust, and it’s that voice that Lepper will try to have his students hear. In that he is extremely careful not to rush his students.
In Individual and Social Analysis, (two sequential classes whose formal title reverses their actual order presented with “The Oakland Project” coming in the autumn semester and “The Retrospective” in the spring), Lepper will systematically offer investigation into ways of approaching art by which that voice may be understood. His classes structure experiences to open windows.
But along with this openness and generosity, a far more reaching dialogue of his core interests will influence, if not actually formulate, what will occur in contemporary art. Lepper’s synthesis of the most progressive trends extending the technical and aesthetic range of art practice becomes with his formidable skill in addressing conceptual issues the bedrock of inspiration whose radical potential fanning out in multiple directions gets relayed to a new generation of innovators.
While Robert Lepper’s teaching at Carnegie Tech remains barely recognized; what happens there over twenty years or more, and without notoriety or fanfare, makes the place a breading ground as significant to the developments of late Modernism as Black Mountain College during the late forties and early fifties.
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Jonathan Borofsky is Hammering Man
Among the most celebrated of those who Lepper inspires- Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein, and Mel Bochner is Jonathan Borofsky.
Though Borofsky never takes his class, he is touched by Lepper’s ideas on the aesthetic of the machine- that the tool is the image, the signifier, of the society that uses it. It is an essential concept in Borofsky’s Hammering Man.
Lepper’s premise points to the architectural concept inherent in the image of a figure by an architect. Hammering Man is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s formal preparatory drawing for his hieroglyphic man. From the surrounding flat shape of blank paper on the left silhouetting the principal figure in dark ink, Hammering Man finds the beaked profile of some Egyptian god with arm raised above its head. Borofsky finds the correlation that inspires the image.
Lepper has earlier made a series of flat, almost life-size, linear steel figures as decorative wall ornamentation for the restaurant of the Pittsburgh Playhouse, a very elegant place reminiscent of New York. (The works are taken down when it closes and are presumed lost.)
But there is missing in their modernist stylization an emotional undercurrent, some charge to enliven their pertinence. Still, one can begin to see where Lepper has been pointing. But beyond the suggestion of an oil drilling rig, the force in Borofsky’s Hammering Man comes from a much more strident need; there is purpose to his design.
A Face in a Photograph Marked With Numbers
There is something else far more elusive and personal to pinpoint where Borofsky’s early diarist numbering owes a nascent spark to “The Retrospective”, Lepper’s program exploring memory as the catalyst to expression.
There is a photograph where the artist performs as himself close-up, with only his face challenging and unapologetic covered by numbers in the viewer’s face- a confrontational message impossible for anyone of Jewish descent or German not to see as strikingly comparable to the serial numbers tattooed to arms of Holocaust victims.
Significantly, the Nazis knew that it is forbidden to the Jew to mark his body; so all the better for Borofsky to press the point and reverse the humiliation pressed on the victims- to simply photograph one’s face temporarily stamped with serial numbers to drive the idea home.
Borofsky’s photograph is made long before a much younger generation makes it a rebellious identity fashion by those not wishing to participate in the corporate world. So Borofsky’s act needs to be seen from the earlier, grimmer perspective; for in fact, the Jews in Germany were if anything assimilated into the national fabric and preferred not to be marked as different. In consequence, that makes Borofsky’s photograph all the more defiant and courageous; he will not back down and run for cover- his face is right in your face.
The intensity in the expression of defiance can be clearly understood by anyone born under prejudice and alienation. After all, Borofsky is turning three as Auschwitz is discovered. Sometime later, perhaps during Borofsky’s early adolescence, the shocking awareness to his own sense of identity has to be engaged internally, though expiation has waited until the time he can manifest it in the method of his choosing.
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The Suspicion of Trauma
Behind the Blithe Persona
In comparison, one can only wonder what traumatic wound Mel Bochner, another Jewish boy a few years older than Borofsky, at six or seven or eight years old buries when the news of the Holocaust, not yet fully conceived, arrives in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, a community hushed and whispering in shock and mourning. It is impossible for even young children not to pick up on the dire significance in the air.
Is it that that has made him so remote and distant that he rejects expressing emotionally significant material, and why he can only play formalist and grammarian? Certainly Bochner is cerebral to extreme, but perhaps there is more to his seemingly blithe persona than even he can admit to himself.
Gus Brown concurs in a parallel observation made from his own experience in another part of town with what is just suggested. Similarly messages arrive for those growing up in the Black ghetto of the forties through the sixties with the news of lynchings and fire bombings that can’t be hidden from the youngest children, when in prayer meeting and hymn singing, in sermon and diatribe their communities express alarm and outrage and mourning. Their innocence, in the face of sorrow that only hatred brings, no longer intact, they must integrate that knowledge into their psyche and consciously find peace; just burying the pain may prove futile.
So the need to find a functioning accommodation emotionally and spiritually becomes essential for those young people faced with the sense of vulnerability and futility to be living in a world so grievously evil. If they become artists and haven’t resolved their pain, their emotional stability and consequently their work, by suppressing that knowledge, get pushed into extremes.
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Philip Pearlstein and
The Cancellation of Spiritual Value
With Philip Pearlstein we have a young Jewish man just old enough to be in the service towards the end of the war. He is more than a decade older than Bochner, so it’s hard to know if from that war experience or from another childhood trauma what may have caused him to be so withdrawn, but he too is extremely cautious about revealing himself in his work.
Possibly a preemptive strike, Pearlstein brings everybody down to size, sagging from the weight of inertia, poultry stranded in the display case. Very possibly there is more than intellectual nihilism operating in his structuralist objective replacing more human motives informing pictorial meaning.
Pearlstein’s strategic ambition derives its forcefulness on the denial of what was once valued in art, but returning to the figure by eliminating humanistic values is a very cold-blooded decision. It is hard to think of another artist painting the human figure with such ruthless effect.
So it is the strategic cancellation of spiritual value, burying the transforming power of art, denying it even the possibility for recuperation where Pearlstein effectively exchanges the emotional presence of the human figure for its sign. The cancellation of the traditional intention in an otherwise traditional manner becomes the new determination. Consequently, an empathetic response to his models’ essential humanity is not in his consciousness, but Pearlstein’s success in denying spiritual value is at enormous cost for those who approach his vision.
In comparison to the solidly delineated figures by Giotto we see a striking contrast to Pearlstein’s abject view of others. The lyrical compassion employed by Giotto, whose physical ugliness is commented upon in his lifetime, is spoken as testimony to the nobility of his images. Even in The Passion, Giotto’s people aren’t seen in their pain as listless as Pearlstein’s unclothed middle-aged housewives; their anatomies rueful like refugees saddled as washbasins, but what is all this clutter supposed to mean?
It’s not that Pearlstein shows us flawed humanity; we’re all flawed, but here we can see where an artist can choose looking at the surface or choose going deeper, and by that choice establish in his painting how he sees himself. For a painting is always a self-portrait, but unlike Francis Bacon, Pearlstein won’t acknowledge himself at the center of loss; if he had, then showing us our isolation in his might convey a bond of trust.
Perhaps Pearlstein hasn’t learned the magic lesson in compassion that can transform the transgressions of the outside form; instead, that omission has soured his legacy, and by that we know Philip Pearlstein all too well. We have more than a sense of how he sees himself, and we have clearly a view of what he feels towards others.
It’s not known how much of “The Retrospective” is in place when he and Andy Warhol take Lepper’s class “Fundamentals of Pictorial Design” first presented in 1947. Certainly, the implication in Lepper’s conversations with Pearlstein when working together outside of class is visible in Pearlstein’s treatment of structural intent as signage. He has taken Lepper’s Modernist enthusiasm for formal clarity as his goal and made the structural deployment in painting the figure the reason to paint the figure and by doing so Pearlstein has proven his position.
It is here that Pearlstein has made his bargain; whereas anybody could have told him that the very nature of twentieth century art movements preclude generally their transcending the historical moment for something more universal. The niche on which observance of ideology rests obliges the partisan to uphold proofs of compliance; its mannerism of methodology denying any other intent.
But for Pearlstein there is no human motive otherwise to paint the human image. Unlike Caravaggio’s compassionate passion in painting the bare feet of humble humanity (that of course has an iconic strategy as well); Pearlstein’s objective is strictly utilitarian packaging. Like the folk signs from country stores borrowed by Jasper Johns, a Philip Pearlstein is signage like the humped Camel. No one would dare suggest he has depicted Nature.
Like Picabia’s monkey, Pearlstein greets us mercilessly. Possibly in respect for the Feminist sensibility, to prove how distasteful his job is he has made his image of Woman a log of anatomical parts so uninspiring that no man would bother fantasizing on their inner life. Imagine all those long tedious hours of painting them as barns with breasts and kneecaps and shins.
More likely though, he doesn’t believe the poetic dimension in empathetic empowerment. With Pearlstein’s rejection of emotional attributes precluding living issue, penetration on the psychic wavelength never menaces their mental vacancy. Safely girdled from lyrical insemination, the parts to his women may as well be extruded rubber; for without the dimension of self-realization they are merely robots; as is Pearlstein himself pantomiming a responsive being alive to the sympathetic throbbing of their pulses.
To use the word naked for Pearlstein or his models would imply consciousness of their exposure to another consciousness, but neither can we use the word nude for that would suggest an ease of being; they are neither. They are simply “in uniform” waiting to punch your ticket on your way to the performance; so one has to consider it farce.
One sits back in all astonishment to watch the spectacle of Philip Pearlstein weighed down by the burden of the great style, a later-day Sir Joshua Reynolds, carrying his cargo of displaced women on his weary shoulders as he trudges his way up Parnassus only to be greeted by its simulacra.
Can we believe Pearlstein’s whole elaborate journey but the unmasking of chimera- the game of arriving as Natures mortes affixed to the Modernist Tree where Pearlstein is mocking everyone. That finally we understand its postmodern twist- he has left us a fabricated empyrean, a celestial plastic paradise as frivolous as any Rococo vaulted ceiling; except now we have ballooning women floating about us instead of cherubim.
As such, Pearlstein’s aping Picabia has effectively disengaged authority from any moral measure of value. If at first he had wished to qualify his predecessor Picasso’s motive “the artist painting his model”; Pearlstein, like Picasso, has fallen in love with his own tale. And Pearlstein’s provocation merely makes a mockery of his failure to redeem value with meaning.
It’s probable that Lepper speaks in class about engaging the memory of emotional experience as a vehicle to finding expression. Given that, it is curious to see blank indifference by Pearlstein’s models whose tissue is numb to his gaze. Using them is such a repressive sort of avoidance. It does become, in view of Lepper’s call to mobilizing the emotive force, a very deliberate sort of extreme position, so different than how Lucian Freud paints his models whose sex docilely squirms under his vibrant gaze.
But there is simply no indication that Pearlstein feels sympathy towards his models whatsoever. Compared to Picasso’s squat almost pigmy-like pre-cubistic females whose identification to the ancient Iberian race Picasso clearly feels sympathy, Pearlstein’s mocking effigies suggest a cannibalistic attitude. But where one might say the head hunter feels a malign reverence towards the captive soul whose skull he has shrunken; one can only imagine Philip Pearlstein’s view of the persons he paints.
A Strange Sleight of Hand
The Righteous Feminist
It is indeed a strange sleight of hand for the Feminist Linda Nochlin to get so bent out of shape when male artists paint the female nude with obvious relish and praise Philip Pearlstein’s objectifying humans where the individual emptied of personal destiny is interchangeable as any other commodity of exchange within an impersonal system of codification. There is inconsistency here that a critic who uses the word “obscene” not imagine how applicable that word might be to describe a Pearlstein.
Perhaps Nochlin’s dander only gets up when an artist’s bravura is unabashedly inappropriate for the discretion needed in subjects of atrocities or in flagrant sexual portrayal demeaning women. But what about the extreme tendency to sever sentiment from the person- when neither projection on or from the image arouses sympathy of any kind?
Doesn’t Nochlin see in Pearlstein’s tranquilized models a numbing violation as great as in any dehumanized view of women as sex object? Perhaps it’s just the perception of misplaced emphasis in her polemics of what constitutes reprehensible attitudes. But in Pearlstein’s treating his models only as objects on his shelf, in rankings of fat ones, skinny ones, one doesn’t have to travel far to remember atrocities well maintained by support teams of clerical workers thinking themselves free of moral implication by doing one allotted task marking in the daily tallies. Without empathy we are lost.
For Philip Pearlstein to state openly his denunciation of spiritual values is tantamount to disowning the concept of the soul. It then becomes hard to grasp what Pearlstein’s sense of morality is based upon, and that has ramifications for an artist who paints the human image; as it does for the critic that supports that vision. One can’t have it both ways- either for the artist or his critic. Either humans have a miraculous awareness that can fathom the universal awareness, or why ever bother making art!
An Issue of Faith
‘The Immediate Feeling of Essential Being’
For isn’t that what Alberti speaks about as the “divine force” that evokes presence from absence? That evocation of a sentient being from the gross material is described as the very pinnacle of artistic genius. And it should apply to painting the human figure as well as specifically portraiture. Either the artist can see the divine in the human subject and can evoke that spirit, or one has to ask if he is incapable of communing.
It brings to mind Schopenhauer’s aphorism operating here as does Friedrich Heinrich Jocabi’s concept “Wesenheitsgefühl”- ‘the immediate feeling of essential being’ to the discussion of what legitimizes an artist’s impressions of others:
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit.
It is an issue of faith that defines all our other beliefs and decisions and extends our vision to embrace the unity of soul and matter. If one doesn’t believe in the soul, it doesn’t matter; for if we are not spiritual beings, morality is inconsequential as is art. But if we are spiritual beings; then everything we do has meaning, and we need to consider Pearlstein’s protracted campaign outside the parenthetical protection of art for art’s sake, that narrow niche of expertise in which his works obligingly fit, to a broader sense of who we are and what we need to get back from a work of art.
Nor can Nochlin sustain conviction by proclaiming when works are morally “obscene” and when works are independent and immune of moral factors. If Linda Nochlin herself cannot distinguish her blindsiding her moral rigor in accommodating Pearlstein’s vision of humans, we would do well to wonder what her views are ultimately based upon. Can we really judge a work’s communicative structure independently from the spiritual dimension?
The Feminist stringent emphasis on defining error marshals her constituency, but its focus is an impossible arbitration outside the precinct of on-the-job harassment and obscures the complexities that make the entire issue a Gordian knot. The psychic dynamic of attraction/antipathy between the sexes is an inaccessible determination.
And what a dreary world it portends when others try to force us all into lock-step. Once again, the mechanics of compliance overlook the spiritual dimension which can’t be seen from the outside. One can’t redress the dilemma of what constitutes legitimate courtship from deliberate abuse by slashing it in two, but it has given Nochlin a nostrum to qualify what is grievous behavior from what is acceptable.
The very horror that the Feminists abhor in dehumanizing imagery immediately reverses its outrage to become applause once the violated parties, now liberated from heterosexual discourse and a balanced critique, wantonly expose their bodies in scornful display to assert their independence from courtesy. It’s staggering to believe such gratuitous flaunting unattached to spiritual meaning could be imagined as anything other than misguided decadence or that the performers are doing anything beyond banality in the abuse of themselves.
Yet when the act falls within the safeguards of the right to self-actualization in artistic expression; the convolutions of this mayhem are irresolvable. But isn’t there inconsistency in demanding freedom from being objectified by one’s sexuality and then turning around to expose oneself in Hieronymus delight?
Likewise, coming from the other extreme, to support Philip Pearlstein’s images of female models made mannequins, utterly, spiritually depersonalized as “the artist’s model”, not his wife or lover, daughter or muse, crush or whore, but anonymous, paid model and banish the mystical ardor in a male artist’s view of the female being seems more than arbitrary in declaring what is virtuous from what is base. For a critic to be laissez-faire on the one hand and condemning on the other suggests critical capriciousness.
The issue is about artistic discretion. How we use the nude figure remains the most essential subject in art by which we reflect upon our lives and our mortality. Our identification to the figure’s nakedness serves as a trigger to pathos without which an emotional connection to its meaning would go flat. Otherwise the gratuitous representation of nudity without aesthetic anchorage in support of emotional significance devalues the human image and by consequence demeans us.
Perhaps the dilemma of this discourse may be found in the confusion of what constitutes aesthetic musing, which by this writer’s definition must embrace the spiritual, empathetic dimension in viewing human images distinguished from other amusements proffered by the more superficial popular culture. The polarity between these consciousnesses has always remained distinctly understood and their spheres of deployment kept separate until the aesthetic response in high art and its essential humanism are condemned and suppressed during the feverish reprisals of Feminism.
Yet a fully integrated work of art is a channel to a broad range of response. As such it may elicit musing on the human condition that includes sexual attraction. Evil, just as beauty, resides in the eye of the beholder; as does respect or distain for the spiritual dimension in our lives. One can’t pull threads from the weave or the whole fabric unwinds.
That is where this debate stands. Having stated this, one could leave it to the reader to make his or her own conclusions. One is neither suggesting censure, nor does one want to be censured by cynics and pedants who have proclaimed what is and what isn’t acceptable practice.
Nor did one set out to impose one’s belief on others; one never even thought of it as a belief- the sense of essential being in all that is before us, the miracle in which we play our parts. One just imagined a subject, and it came into being in the doing. Until one was told that one’s philosophical attitude, as suggested by the work, is incorrect; one never proclaimed it nor defended its right to be expressed. One hadn’t understood that it was so unapproved, so incommensurable with objective practice.
Yes, that has since changed. And even then, it remained mostly one’s own affair how one perceived the world until the violence of extreme positions made it impossible to remain quiet. If some wish to accuse this writer of gross solemnities; he isn’t the first to bring up moral issues as Nochlin has done or the alarm of spiritual consciousness as Pearlstein’s excuse to refuse another point of view co-existing. And Rappaport hasn’t begun to reach the vagaries expressed in Nochlin or Pearlstein’s sophistries. We call it power pointing.
The Fairytale of a Miserly Old Woman:
An ‘Unenthusiastic’ Response in Support to the Rome Prize
Pearlstein’s “unenthusiastic” response to Rappaport’s paintings in a letter of October 6, 1989 replying to the younger man’s request for support of the Rome Prize is a telling document about both artists. Certainly the paintings of both men have their virtues and weaknesses as all singular expressions must. But Pearlstein’s letter reveals so much more beyond the scope of his artistic concerns. Certainly it’s useful to point out what he sees as failings in the younger man’s paintings, but Pearlstein can’t budge from his staunch position to allow another view.
Rappaport is dumfounded. It reminds him of the fairytale of a beggar coming to the kitchen window of a frugal woman who keeps pinching pieces of dough smaller that once baked grow proportionately larger; so the miserly woman just can’t give him any morsel and sends the hungry soul on his way. Though Pearlstein starts his letter by saying that he likes the former student and respects his intellect; he just can’t extend himself beyond his own particular agenda to acknowledge the strengths that outweigh the shortcomings in Rappaport’s painting.
The Rome Prize, no longer the exclusive bastion of traditional painting, changes almost the very year after Rappaport in 1968 is runner-up and is awarded the Chaloner Prize. From then on juries are pulled from the ranks of the avant-garde. Still, with the stature of Philip Pearlstein leveraging clout; the selection committees might have allowed an occasion to re-consider the vitality of figurative painting and bring back a fellow following in the long established tradition of the place. Pearlstein’s lack of encouragement, whereby he shows his defensiveness in not stepping outside his own niche, not only delivers a stunning blow to Rappaport’s fortunes, it sabotages the presence of an invigorated tradition at these juried selections.
For Rappaport, having subordinated himself by going back to school and then submitting this request is certainly a disaster. Without an enthusiastic recommendation from an established artist he remains disenfranchised in the system. Pearlstein obviously knows that and washes his hands clean.
Like the old woman in the fairytale who sits down to eat all the bread and gets turned into a raven that must peck for its dinner; Pearlstein’s lack of charity will turn him into a Philip Pearlstein.
His letter to Rappaport is strangely ambivalent; he is obviously trying not to say no, but no sooner suggesting something positive; he reverses himself and slams the door:
“At the same time your work while superficially related to the Neo-Expressionists and New Image modes lacks their sarcasm, irony, nastiness that gives them an edge. Your work is too serious for that- relates more to the Cobra school which I don’t feel sympathy for.
“I think you should apply for the American Academy in Rome grant. You can use my name but know that I would say what I’ve said in this letter.”
Pearlstein’s criticism of the “lack of structural complexity” that he sees in the portraits of Robert Lepper and Herbert Simon, Rappaport takes to heart and might well have constructed his application addressing that focus but for Pearlstein’s continuing with this dismissal of the portraits’ similarity to earlier work that he remembers: “and emphasize what I thought was a major weakness then- an overt romanticism that implies spiritual or mystic values. I am not in tune with that.”
It is clearly written by someone deadly against empathy- that the soul does not sing its tune within the greater mystery, or that a period of works within an artist’s oeuvre not leave open to enchantment showering lightheartedness into trajectories unanchored by ideology. Need we always specify, in order to maintain conceptual clarity, the remote, mechanisms of disillusioning transforming sensation into clinically empirical data? Can’t some aspects of an artist’s work show us what it is to be fully human in a fluid universe? Should all of that have orchestrated such rebuke!
Though nowadays flippancy is common among those who profess detachment; still, it’s strange to see Pearlstein by the open window sending insight on its way. One never imagines one is such a radical until face to face with a passport officer serving one with a deportation warrant.
Strategically an artist may exclude what intrudes upon the artifice of his determination, but why this overreaching authority that can brook no freedom for others. Why need be so controlling when already well ensconced in one’s own art historical niche? And why would anyone want to join him there. For some of us, Pearlstein’s flounder plopped in a bucket.
In comparison to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a story of a human denied his humanity still vitally engaged in the need to love; Pearlstein’s tune deafness to its call is alarming. He refuses even the concept of love, even its whisper coming from another room. No other voices emanate from a Philip Pearlstein- only the inhalation cut short as the trap snaps his models’ stifle.
In the faces that he paints there is no gaze to hold the viewer in reflection- to reminisce perhaps upon the chance of youth; without the soul there is no presence or absence, no pathos, no adieu. God does not exist.
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Consequently, placed in the context of these two former students of Lepper, Borofsky does make his person more available to his viewers and his expression more directly involved with life’s issues.
However back in the early sixties, Borofsky, covered with wet plaster gluing down the hairs on his forearms obsesses in his intractable manner to make the ugliest cubistic boxes ever made in the depths of his hideaway in the basement of Fine Arts; he is fiercely distrustful of giving himself away.
Even as an undergraduate Borofsky is a powerful and stubbornly independent fellow; he doesn’t like to be pushed. Still, he can’t avoid Lepper’s ideas spoken within earshot. Everybody from freshman year on is curious about the storyboards of drawings that culminate in “The Oakland Project”; while what is produced for “The Retrospective” remains an elusive mystery, unless, and until it begins to be understood.
So Borofsky takes seriously the intoning refrain of “The Retrospective”. When Borofsky’s acquaintance with the heart of darkness does surface, he cleaves his way through. If anybody is going to be pierced with remorse, he will accommodate with a battering-ram. Borofsky is Hammering Man.
Let the subconscious take the initiative.”
In “The Retrospective”, assignments are designated experiments to be unrestrained by prior resolution that their completions not be made precious or neutralized by fear of being unacceptable to critical inspection or social propriety. He cautions not to polish or censor, that what might be unanticipated may after the surprise and shock be personal revelation; one can always return for later evaluation, so he chides continually: “Leave it!”
What does it mean to “Let the subconscious take the initiative”? Do not avert one’s eyes from anarchy or tame the clamor if that should arise. Do not be afraid. There may be authenticity of expression in what one unravels from that forbidding reservoir.
Lepper’s grave, hoarse insistence turning full throttle resonates like the stirring apparition of a ravaged prophet arriving from the desert in his demand- that and “Let it be!”
He flicks ashes into a lid of a jar and pulls tobacco from his lips. It is strange that such a grimacing and tattered remnant of desiccated flesh and bone could hold his audience enthralled. His most emphatic statements come through the knot of clenched jaw tightened around stained teeth to take another hit of nicotine.
A seductive timbre of deep velvet descends as his voice hits bottom gravel; swallowing- a lump of thyroid swelling below the jaw line. But from this gasping shipwreck flows sonorous plums as he continues his sermon.
The memory of experience is the substance to engage. It need not be explained. Enter into it. But don’t level it out; don’t sanitize it. Take it to where it leads but don’t illustrate it. Evoke the emotion welling up. Enter what you most need to say. So Lepper looks up at one of his students struggling to comprehend, and he chuckles to himself knowing full well it’s a lifetime’s work.
After class, with much milling about, one slides up to those surrounding the old dude smoking his Camels to his fingertips while citing an example or chuckling at another mischance by Henri Matisse or the possibility that Picasso really takes naps in his studio in the afternoon. He looks like the usual scruffy suspect of congenial intellectualism in frayed shirt collars and eyeglasses like magnifying lenses- not debonair as Samuel Beckett, but lean and mustached and like Faulkner maybe wishing for a drink as he takes his last few drawls.
For those few students that get to know him outside of the classroom, that filial privilege sees another side far more peevish. He’s still fighting battles in Pittsburgh that have been won elsewhere. He’s locked himself into an agenda that is getting old. When he drinks a little too much he gets cranky. He knows he’s buried alive. His teaching is his salvation.
Lepper will say: “What I may ask of you now may take more than this semester to come to fruition; I am not concerned that you show me results.”
Expression waits upon the event. Often, advice burrows ever deeper until the artist within awakens. The call “Let the subconscious take the initiative” has been the evocation.
* * * * * *
Already an institution by the time Mel Bochner and Jonathan Borofsky are students, by the mid 1950s Lepper has a dedicated, vocal and articulate following, and his classes continue to attract students through the 1960s. The most ambitious learn rhetoric in class in the process of analytical inquiry. Conversations after class sessions with Lepper trailed by half a dozen students almost always spill over into the corridors and follow him out the building.
A natural raconteur and interlocutor, Lepper advances propositions to be considered which cross boundaries of disciplines to inform the intellectual brew of the College of Fine Arts that houses in one magnificent Beaux-arts building the departments of Drama, Architecture, Music, and Painting and Design. Many of the most imaginative people on campus whether theoretical physicist or architect can be seen engaged in theoretical speculations with Lepper.
The Oakland Project
“It can be found close at hand: that one doesn’t need to travel to exotic places; and that discovering what is unique to one’s own culture and time will make it authentic.”
It is the core lesson of “The Oakland Project” in the first semester of “Individual and Social Analysis”, said straight out in the opening session.
The campus rests at the edge of a gorge, bordering and overlooking Oakland, a section of Pittsburgh built upon a high plateau and its cultural center, home to the Carnegie Museums, Library, and Music Hall, the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, and a string of hospitals. So the decision to include Carnegie Tech as part of the study in gathering sociological data is a choice left to the student. The semester’s assignment is to ascertain what is the central, binding, cohesive purpose, if any, in this composite of institutions and constituencies, how does the population relate to one another, and what patterns can be assumed as logical due to necessity and circumstance.
The happenings within the Fine Arts Building make it a society in microcosm. So Lepper waits to see who will take advantage of its colorful spectacle. In observing the goings on in that multi-faceted factory he will advise: “What goes on in the wings may be as interesting as what goes on on stage.”
And maybe it becomes obvious to a young Andy Warhol that those that hold power sit across from the stage, quietly reflecting on the goings-on before them and nodding when and if necessary. It is not the actor but the director who makes judgments. The fewer the words; the more power one has.
Much has changed since Lepper’s time. But back then on any given evening as one enters the building and passes through its basement corridor, the seeming babbling confusion of the inmates take on the aspect of a Fellini film as Drama crews building sets and actors mouthing their lines work cheek and jowl amongst ceramicists and sculptors as echoes from the musicians cubicles filters through the building to the top floors housing the architectural and painting studios.
It is one more factory in a city of factories; a cultural factory, but a factory none-the-less. Across the lawn, the rolling hallway of Baker Hall slopes down following the curve of the descending hillside it is built upon. The joke is that if the school had failed, Andrew Carnegie would have made it an assembly line.
In examining the social factors of the place, the student is to imagine himself as an alien parachuting down onto foreign soil, and needing to assemble observations in order to comprehend its organizational principles, its customs and protocol, its work and entertainments, and the rituals and religious observance in which the population engages, collects data by randomly drawing what attracts him without pre-conceived objective. Over time the accumulation of drawings take on a recognizable shape and its content better understood.
* * * * * * *
“An artist in mid Twentieth Century Pittsburgh can make art as important as an artist in Fourteenth Century Florence.”
Lepper’s primary objective is for his students to find what is genuine and true to them. His presentation surveys the contemporary moment for options available for their own discovery of what is unique to them and what fascinates them in the world they find themselves.
At the outset, Lepper’s introduction to his year long class lists four basic motivations for doing art: the sensory and sensual, the structural, the sociopolitical, and the internal and private. These headings are for general referral and stating them is just the starting point in a dialogue open to individual orientation and response where Lepper assures his class that he has no intention of forcing his personal inclination.
The Simple Poetry of the Essence of Being
That declaration of ecumenical openness, not withstanding, belies a contradictory but usual prejudice among modernists of Lepper’s generation that traditional figurative painting should not break from the literal realism of the nineteenth-century unless done radically, categorically, and explicitly as a declared critical departure that would then make it modern.
Lepper is too theoretically aligned with the progressive view of modernism’s linear projection and too insistent towards definable clarity of intent to advocate an impenetrable imbalance in the economy of means whose values he can’t find equivalencies despite his call to listening to the subconscious. For Lepper is too restrictive and unbending in his view of representational painting to countenance tradition as still evolving in a spiraling back to its source as the evocation of a mystery- the simple poetry of the essence of being.
That is his blind spot. And he doesn’t own up to his bias as he sees tradition parenthetically locked-in to the historical past by the dominance of modernism’s assigning its identifiable category- a modernism that traded one rigid formula for another.
Had Lepper ever seen its aperture wide open and walked in to an illusion unbound to one set of boundaries? Robert Lepper had given up painting because he could only see it as a picture formula of schematic markings on a two dimensional surface indicating a three-dimensional perspective- a methodology meant to be used in pre-determined ways; consequently he could not stamp it with his own signature because his vision was too literally predetermined and consequently clichéd. So having given up its proprieties entirely, he took the road to another set of ways and means.
He can cross over the boundaries from painting to graphic design because he sees both as signage. That is what he imparts to Pearlstein and Warhol specifically, but he can’t abide for all his wishing to say otherwise to go to the opposite- a further extreme of ambiguous reality slipping through different levels of appearance. For all of Lepper’s proposing an open-ended spectrum of possibilities, ultimately he is incapable of mystery; he needs full disclosure.
When Lepper tries to be disobedient with an ironic bang, his punch lines, like those of the postmodernists, announce their trickery in advance. As such they are proofs of being spoofs, but their edge dulls as quickly as the recognition of their being just jokes. He can take his rationale to the edge of irony, but it can’t cross the threshold to the inexplicable. There he is uneasy; for there are no proofs to be found, only enjoyment in entering into the mystery of a wilderness without a roadmap.
A finely sculpted tool or vessel can be endlessly enjoyed in its circulating sensuality of logical response. Perhaps that may be possible with a painted figure as well if only painted as a living sculpture, but that is not the only purpose in painting figuratively. And in compositions that hold the promise of uncertainty between actors, it’s not always possible to announce a definitive conclusion as to what role the characters play in the story. Then again, do we ever really know? When intrigue finds resolution, its allure ceases to be savored.
But as a teacher he is careful in his observations. Very few of his students ever encounter that blind spot while still students. Robert Lepper is a kind man.
The Voice Within
Painting has magic. If you enter into it, it will enfold you and carry you. But if you shame it and hold it in contempt, it will die in front of you as would a wonderful lover.
And if you are such an oaf and braggart, then you’d shout: “See, how unworthy she is. I was right all along!”
But later when she comes back to life for a real lover, don’t pretend it was all a mistake.
* * * * * *
Among the handful of dedicated former students who maintain close ties to him through the decades is Richard Rappaport, and of all of them, he is the most independent rascal in the bunch whose work alone elicits the most ambivalence in Lepper. Perhaps he is the only one with whom Lepper is so unabashedly candid knowing how much the younger brute keeps his own council; so Lepper doesn’t bother to guard qualifying his discomfort with a figuration undeclared as to the degree its realism suggests or even what its subject is exactly.
The economist in Lepper can never let go of a balanced accounting; he is not comfortable with the idea of spending one’s resources without the promise of a payback. So how can he accept a figuration whose subjectivity refutes a completely logical interpretation?
He offers a whole semester of “The Retrospective”, softening his plea to evoke the power of residual emotion by absolving the student from explaining its source, but Lepper cannot account for figures stretched across a canvas in shallow space as the weathered frieze of a medieval church indefinably floating on poured washes of color in a Morris Louis Veil or the vast emptiness of Rothko.
Is it because of amnesia that the ground is so elusive? How can one take an image and toss it to the wind? But that is exactly Rappaport’s intention. Faces in isolation, reticent and subdued emerge from shadows into twilight barely saturating the canvas as drained of pleasure as any gathering of lost souls in an Antonioni desert.
“You’re mixing time frames, Richard. Is that intended to be a Christ figure; then where is the Cross? People are too busy and too lazy. They don’t want to work that hard.”
But what is the problem! The archetypes can cross cultures and still resonate with meaning; for the meaning in the iconic image ultimately remains the same despite the details of prophet, saint, hero, or thief, matriarch, or whore. We’re all the above, lost and found and forgotten and rediscovered.
The iconic figure becomes the foil; whether one identifies or assumes a role in relation to the figure that is either fallen or risen or ridiculed or insane. We assume ourselves into the narrative that takes on a celebratory function, mimicking but outside of what formerly is the role of the religious icon- still needed though no longer Christ or Shiva or Aphrodite, but just wanderers like ourselves in whose faces compassion is the reason for our trust.
The point is not to quickly, efficiently come to a conclusion, nod one’s head in knowing what its meaning is, its story line. The story simply functions to provide an armature for humans to find a ground for reflection. As paintings are mute; the viewer enters into its stillness.
* * * * * *
The Spectacle of Incoherence
The Trope of Chaos
We can take an example from Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines manifesting the opposing strategy of frenzied distraction set in the chaotic spectacle of the aesthetic of incoherence.
(Leaving aside claims of originality in Rauschenberg’s reapplying the bizarre spectacle of oriental cultures’ patterning on top of patterning that shock with the strident glut of color against color in cities of the subcontinent - an issue that belongs to a critique of colonial usurpation of historical entitlement aptly addressed in The English Patient where Michael Ondaatje speaks of “the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever”), Rauschenberg redistributes attention away from a centralized psychological focus. His practice is one more act of the avant-garde to diffuse the subject away from the human image.
Rauschenberg’s talent is like nature herself, having no constant objective but the ever changing, mutating momentum of a kaleidoscope of sensual matter recycling the indeterminate happening around us in which we play our parts. His Combines, like Minutiae, are never meant initially to stand alone but to be freestanding set pieces for Cunningham/Cage melees of diverging dancers scrambling by in an orchestration liquidating thematic centrality in favor of a multiplicity of competing choices. It is simply the trope of the three-ring circus. But art should be more than a circus.
All that display of proof is what is so distracting and tedious in the vast spectacles of Baroque painting repeated by Cunningham and Cage in an enormous extravagance of resources to prove their avant-garde standing when ultimately they return, if only on occasion, to the central condition of spatial and temporal duration held in the stillness of the singular pose.
One doesn’t need the envelope of noise where John Cage’s influence will lead; one must discriminate with great care one’s choices of input from errant fragmentation of sensible, corporeal involvement, not suspend oneself deeper into a perpetually enlarging screen of disqualified orientation.
And, though at first this may sound contradictory to this general tendency; as the Combines assert themselves as objects, the more they remain just objects in one’s face, and the more distant they become. So distracting attention away from a deeper focus, Rauschenberg crosses the great dividing line where modern art, dance, and music losses itself to the numbing immanence of blanket spectacle, and the whole enterprise capsizes in a typhoon of randomness.
Like its title claims, Minutiae, is just a flea market collection for the theatre of frenzy, a flirtatious screen of nostalgic confection that can’t get passed the blast of the opening chords- its phenomenology but luscious congress as its reception does not inspire a deeper connection.
So Rauschenberg takes us to the sultry half-tattered sighs where dreams, made or shattered, leave us in the lurch marvelously- seduced by the perfumed hand leading us to pleasure- tantalizing if one only wants to be tantalized; his eager never going beyond its own satisfaction so much in a hurry to win our participation- so inconclusive, so promiscuous. So unlike Rothko or Pollock, who await us in their passion, patiently, solemnly. There is no rush.
But Rauschenberg can’t wait. Yes, he has a marvelous talent for materials plied one against the other, but to what point- even the most fleeting sensations need imply a suggestion of causality. Once he abandons the stillness in the painted rectangle for the spectacle early in his career, the call to interactive engagement is too frenetic; we’re never allowed a deliberate approach on our own initiative to one serene source. Rauschenberg gives so much and so little; we’re left dizzy from promise.
What about the luminous clarity of limitation, that dimension of committed intention where non-essential display ceases freeing us from the drifting turbulence of unfocused indulgence.
We need the stillness of painting. There to compose ourselves in the present, we come before the equanimity in the face that greets the beholder as if a babe just born; and so we arrive to the source of human compassion, retracing our threading dance out in the chaotic world to the self-possession possible in returning to its serenity.
Our coming before the human image welcoming us in stillness becomes a silent, healing communing. We can always make up a story, may even have a story, but we don’t need a story. That’s what the modernist search for the abstract is mostly about- to get away from the story. That’s what Rothko declares vehemently- there’s no literal explanation; just experience being there.
The Pluck of a Chord
The Mapping of Conceptual Targets
For whatever fascination compels the mind in Lepper’s dialectics, one saw clearly the limitation of their purview; that their bearing on the visual image is a didactic ritual mapping conceptual targets in otherwise unchartable densities- the reflexive containment of logistical, Platonic concept of form in space useful only when held in the mind in the most ephemeral manner of moral radiance; its essential clarity omniscient only through the third eye.
Otherwise, conceptualism is an academic lesson in seeing and conceiving spacial order for the uninitiated- the acquired skill fundamental to the practice of design, architecture, and painting in those activities’ planning stages and fascinating as such. By itself, the experience of viewing a conceptual piece focuses the mind’s attention to the semblance of clarity. For a proposal of intention that has no intention of following through to its actualization is pretence of committed intention- the suggestion fraudulent as another fantasy occasion for a culture devoid of substance.
If for a moment the viewer is suspended in abstraction; it’s like looking at the diagrammatic scheme of one point perspective in Renaissance painting, outlining the stage without the performance, without the set or actors or chorus, without humans with souls and histories and purposes occupying an observable, sensually felt, natural world.
A Zen garden is still a garden for imagination to roam about. No matter that its rigorous elimination of non-essential elements may make it more a desert or moonscape, it allows freedom for the sun and the moon and the wind, and in that, freedom for the mind.
Even in the most sensitive of conceptual installations the experience wears thin. Fred Sandback’s conceptual thread defining ideal divisions of order in gallery spaces merges the coherent tendencies of conceptualism and minimalism to one point channeling the mind into a pristine meditative state. It is refreshing; perhaps even ethereal, but soon the limitation in experiencing the markings of elemental strategy in his hermetic installations becomes routine, and the original austerity which had first startled ceases to intrigue, and the viewer no longer bothers to look but simply recognizes its field of reference.
The pluck of a chord may resonate afterwards calling us to stillness in the reflection of the moment, but the poetry of its music is not Mozart’s last requiem. The meditative rigor acquired from Sandback’s conceptual program can be retained for our residual use, and we can enter into the state without viewing. After staring at the flame of a candle, one ceases to need the candle to be in the present.
Life holds enough moments of phenomenal illumination as the delight of watching trailing onto shore seawater washing over one’s toes magnifying the form of one’s feet crystal clear while dissolving its fluid contours into languorous rushing streams muddying its retreat like a maiden in flight.
Without the whimsy and passion of the real world to offset the cerebral overview, the lesson in conceptualism is pedantic preaching. Of course works that ignore a conceptual plan seldom satisfy the whole person of the viewer, but so much of conceptual art acts by telegraphing its pretensions instead of letting the inherent beauty of the concept surface naturally in the viewing.
* * * * * *
The Transmission of Concept
In the manner of philosophical speculation contained in rigorous rhetorical address, Robert Lepper’s fascination with the play of conceptual circumstance is his life’s greatest artwork. Perhaps we should call him philosopher as well as artist whose teaching embracing both is based in his own version of structural anthropology.
Lepper focuses on the means and mechanisms of encounters with the viewer. Concerns of structural transmission merging psychological and contextual accommodation anticipate the viewer’s participation and are received conceptually. Consequently, the persuasive clarity of address communicated by the economy in concept is the inherent aesthetic of its expression and the satisfaction in its reception.
Lepper’s mind had an uncanny fierceness; he could pierce your mind with an idea the way ordinance can penetrate a tank. He expanded minds with ideas constructed like an erector set once the site was cleared. He was seduced by ideas- by the very idea of an idea. And he’d seduce you with that taste for ideas. In that avuncular role he’d take you around the town showing you the sights- isn’t this one so refreshing, and that one so farouche, and that one so tight to be a marvel of precision movement. Ideas were everything. But they could lead one astray.
If in retrospect, one were to stand up to him on any issue; that isn’t meant that one needs to slay the father after all this time. That isn’t the case for one had always been a respectful visitor to a vastly different mindset. It was understood as a privilege, but it seemed even then doomed by the very limitations that gave it power. Clearly one felt a vastly different need that found sustenance in the older forms. And of course that path was disparaged by those wishing to be seen as modern. If one said this too shall pass, one never imagined turning to writing or to be the mole burrowing within the garden, waiting for the time to ripen.
However, in making an account of one’s own deliberated conclusions of a lifetime at a vastly accelerated cultural moment than the one in which Lepper taught; it is now the occasion to address some vital issues of disagreement. But that doesn’t deny his influence in refining one’s ability to think clearly or the beauty of the ideas that he treasured and shared passionately and eloquently. Like children of great parents, only the closest of students can pinpoint a great teacher’s mishaps.
Perhaps it has to do with generations where one serves Rome and expediency and the other Jerusalem; the empyrean of modernism just left one cold and so very alone as most of one’s generation raced to belong.
Robert Lepper’s prophesy has held true and most likely was inevitable. But it has used itself up like a firestorm through the forest. Sometimes that is very cleansing. But it is not a permanent condition. The revolution that Lepper vouchsafed is locked in aimless repetition, and simply it is past the point of being any longer beneficial in the present. It is time to rethink where we might go. Sometimes going backwards is forward.
* * * * * * * * *
Codes of Intention: The Censure of Ambiguity,
The Pejorative of Eclecticism
Six Characters in Search
An episode occurs during Rappaport’s visit to family in Pittsburgh in 1982. After Lepper categorically disqualifies what he sees as “eclecticism” in the 1965 allegory Six Characters in Search reproduced on a two page advertisement spread in the current March issue of Art in America, his former student never asks him as they are driving back from lunch in the old man’s dilapidated Dodge what he means by eclectic. Scanning the image in his mind, he doesn’t see its validity, though the bruise lingers with the dismissal.
If there is a hint of mockery in the iconic formula, what is wrong with that? Why should not the artist both honor and take pot shots at traditional forms? Or by whose practice is the artist’s technique being judged as a deviation? The conventions of the figurative tradition that form the historical periods are always made by one or two artists stretching the earlier grammar of pictorial device and technical application in imaginative manner that suits their individual inclination. The prejudicial attacks by the avant-garde calling figurative painting reactionary is a strategy to misdirect attention away from the pleasure of inventive play possible when a figurative artist chooses to alter conventional grammatical practice whereby a new practice evolves.
If in Six Characters in Search the painting’s individualized portraits are more like Northern European Late Gothic than Renaissance idealized figures, or there is in the manner of painting them an elusive echo that can’t quite be accounted for; that is how the tradition remains vital. In what manner is a figurative work absolute any more than language? Grammar is altered for expressive reason. Inter-textual shuffling, broken syntax, and a different emphasis on finish are what determine the re-vitalized texture from which the human image may be experienced in a new light. The artist is playing individual portraits against a floating painterly space. Why need that be criticized as eclectic? It is an absolute standard that Lepper, the avant-garde card holder, wishes to radically impose upon the re-creative venture of figurative painting. Lepper is dead against traditional figuration to have recourse to the pleasure in playing with its own conventions. He thinks only the avant-garde has the right to innovation.
Nor does Lepper see how the traditional artist may be attracted to some aspects of more “advanced practice”, (a term as self-infatuated as ‘reactionary” is pejorative), or that in Six Characters in Search the assertion of the image is provocation in the very transparency of its presence. The problem for Lepper is that it is not trying to be disobedient, so it doesn’t announce itself as deviant; it just is itself, naïve in the most natural way.
Perhaps Lepper is stymied by the pervading silence, but the painting’s emptiness, the existential vacancy in figures orphaned by malaise is at the heart of the best of cinema and literature happening concurrently. That there is no depiction of dialogue is its articulation; the painting is not inconclusive, but our lives which it reveals are.
Of course Lepper knows the very real persons enlisted to pose for this event- each painted in isolation; each an empirical rendition and psychological study taking its imaginary place in a very real fiction. John Lilly, Lepper’s favorite student and the artist’s best friend, is at the extreme left. Next to him are two views of another art school chum as she turns on her own axis within the larger orbit of saltimbanques.
The choreography of the painting has gone through a metamorphosis. Its original intention as a Deposition from the Cross is transformed into a dream. The reproachful figure of the artist reassembles as the sleepwalker of a nightmare- caught at an uncertain moment like a fly in amber. (It is no coincidence that the artist has grown up drawing the fossils splayed as giant drowned birds at the Carnegie Museum’s Hall of Dinosaurs.)
The supporting actors’ positions have altered within the compositional structure after several early figures are removed. The conceptual scheme goes from the symmetry of a cross against which the placement of the supporting figures cradling the dead Christ gets pulled downward to the risen figure returning upright and the others stretched out in radial symmetry.
Looking at the front elevation, the central figure’s right arm reaches the top of the compositional pyramid while his left stretches out before him as if in blind man’s bluff holding back the players making a carousel rotating around him. As would be seen in its floor plan, a pyramid is contained in a circle; the figures aligning briefly in their orbits around the divinely inspired rebel.
The central figure is reminiscent of poses that travel through generations of artists’ borrowings going from Michelangelo’s Christ in The Last Judgment to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with the crimson shape floating in the sky a banner. The references are discernable to anyone familiar with such landmarks; no one need be confused. From there one can interpret new manifestations.
This practice of borrowing has gone on for millennium. There is no figurative icon that hasn’t already been invented nor any new stories but love, ambition, and the alienation of the individual by the collective. These are what we have to work with. Only the fashions and tools change, but not the ways we use them.
Lepper focuses his art on the consequences of process, the integrity of systems, the efficiency signs; Rappaport on the attraction of the face, the expressiveness of the body, the loneliness in being human. Where one is logical; the other is the elusive expression of a mystery.
If The Burial of Christ of the year before is used by the nineteen year old to paint the figure, knowing very well that his subject is death; Six Characters in Search becomes a much more evolved expression. The piece has the cohesiveness of Greek tragedy- the chorus attending the hero’s collision with Fate, punishment for hubris or difference or some other crime of identity.
So, going beyond the painting of the year before, Six Characters in Search is where Rappaport first pointedly takes the Christ image to stand for alienation of the individual. The response the viewer brings testifies simply to a universal need for compassion, solace shared in the face of bewilderment, loneliness, threats of disenfranchisement and the fear of not belonging.
What troubles Lepper is this eclecticism of unspecified sources and context; it’s too opaque, too obscure, especially the overriding malevolence that emanates from Six Characters in Search; whereas for Rappaport the transformations are transparent, the begetting logical- the archetype of the crucified rebel standing for the Jewish People as the image of remembrance looks back to view inquisitory tribunals that thread their way to Rome’s destruction and looting of the Temple. Still it remains that the painting’s implications are universal- the uncertainty of safe haven, the punishment for difference.
The artist as archaeologist digs through the strata of time to find ourselves in cultures built one on top of the other; erasures in the text; confusions at defining an outline from the barest trace in the palimpsest; the process that puts us in the past with no clear story but the one we already know. Shakespeare borrows from Plutarch who looks to Homer. Rappaport simply collapses episodes as if rings of a telescope; each fitting within the concentric order and always the same few stories- plots no longer need elaboration; metaphors understood implicitly.
Paintings are lyric performances. One needs only the welcome to response- the privilege of poetry; no proofs needed; no nomination introduced. Literature compresses into allegorical images and from there iconography. Always the essential condition is reflected in the human figure. Access to meaning requires being human. It need not be named, simply felt.
Painting the portrait, even more so than the figure, arrives as the result of compassion exchanged openly. The etiquette requires a grave and subtle intimacy. The gaze in the painting, if turned towards the viewer, is always in reservation, always a paradox- a reach across a chiasm where speech cannot cross. From very early on in childhood, from as far back as memory can go when encountering painting, especially the portrait, Rappaport is immersed in this sense of the other staring back as from farewell; so that speech is unnecessary, as is narrative.
It will be in his paintings what bothers those who won’t stand intimately before that gaze; so that who is the beholder and who the beheld ceases to be issue; that the one portrayed is spiritually complicit with the viewer, as the model has to be with the artist or the work fails. What draws attention is vulnerability turning compassion, the consciousness that the language of mortality is inseparable from the language of life, and that awareness makes life much more vivid and holy.
The Distrust of Empathy, the Denial of Mystery
That is what confounds those who won’t participate; who want another message, complaining it’s so somber and morbid, so emotional; that its representation is unfathomable. But its enigma is at the core of who we are, and it is exactly what Lepper and Pearlstein refute as Romantic in the alchemy needed to transpose the psychic persona onto the material of canvas. Its compassion is the medium they can’t and won’t see, for it would require them to let go of their yardsticks and more than that, let go of themselves.
That, if anything, is Rappaport’s genius- his ability to leave himself behind and tune into the other. Only by emptying oneself, making oneself a hollow vessel, can the other cautiously, tentatively enter into a sympathetic channel. It is not paint and canvas that is the true medium, but the moment when for a few minutes both painter and subject remain open to compassion.
Both teacher and student are pointing to process. The difference between the two men is where one is a tool maker; the other paints humans in stories that need no explanation. They are just going in opposite directions. The older man’s cynosure is but the decree of the moment; so Lepper races for clarity of mechanism, the tool to mark his passage through Modernism. Where Lepper turns to limitation as the means to find beauty through economy; his former student embraces a vast epic of images.
Rappaport’s course penetrates the depths to the heart. Submersion into a face transports one. One can follow its genetic coding as it bridges time to some primordial response where human beings become aware of something beyond definitions. So Rappaport traces evidence in the human body left in the detritus of time; erosions revealing passages in the narrative stream of which we are all a part. Cultures swirl around, recycling themes with different trappings. Scratch through one layer and you find another saying the same tale from a thousand years before.
But Lepper resists the stories behind the allegory honed down to iconic simplicity. Lepper’s radical ideal of logical intension disqualifies as deviation the force of Rappaport’s figures needing the imagination of viewers to reach out to the gaze looking back with compassion, to re-create meaning through that exchange. Lepper needs more control; he’s suspicious of such interdependency. He could not endorse such liberation for his clients. It’s unclear that he ever really sees a compact with them. He insists on an order in protocol that clearly sets the course for them to follow.
Lepper is saying that the problem of Six Characters in Search is that it holds literary tendencies that need elucidation; if one is going to use the figure, its purpose should be clearly evident. Allegory need be readable; the metaphor clear; the symbol crisp. Different handles make for difficult juggling.
But what seems to be Rappaport’s greater transgression is the passion and theatricality in an iconography setting the tormented protagonist at the center of hallucination. The provocation resides in the self idolatry of the artist, a ritual of alienation set in the asylum of the world. The artist is unaware, that at the very moment of painting Six Characters in Search, a painting about persecution and madness, that Marat/Sade is about to come to Broadway.
The actors in the painting are suspended in silence; the central figure mute. But if the artist is now trying to explain the painting in words after Lepper’s comment of twenty five years before; it’s not that it need be explained. It’s a shock to find oneself so little understood, so alone in the world, but after all, isn’t that what is the subject of the painting, this particular painting.
The ambiguity in Six Characters in Search is the problem. But how else to convey the disquiet in alienation while stranded among strangers who live as robots, live as they are told; fearful to be made fools, so numb to treasures offered in love but not approved; who can’t see or hear unless told what it means, told that it has value? Where can one find another soul who has faith; another who can trust what he or she sees and feels; who is willing to believe without proofs?
A second later, Lepper, continuing with “But it is a remarkable work considering you were just a boy when you painted it,” reverses the pejorative emphasis of the word “eclectic” he just used in offering sound advice: “Richard, I have to say that the work like this one done while you were still a student that got you awarded the Chaloner Prize is where your strength lies, not in abstraction and sensual manipulation; there you will be seen like everybody else.”
So you can see that he means well. But Lepper has betrayed himself, for though he can see that his former student has a unique manner of expressing himself; he still abhors the wandering uncertainty that doesn’t abate in Six Characters, for he depends too desperately to Apollonian resolve.
But absolute authority of identification is already being questioned by deconstructive theory almost at that very moment in the summer of 1965 when Rappaport paints Six Characters in Search; so that Lepper’s criticism of eclecticism is being neutralized by Foucault’s description of the contemporary moment’s dislocation of one authoritive voice by the cacophony of spiraling layers of repetition and commentary. We read reviews and look at reproductions instead of the original. Hasn’t that then also eliminated the original artist or author? Instead we have squadrons of critics and theorists filling publications with endless duplication.
Doesn’t the title itself of Six Characters in Search point to this very problematic situation? The subject of the painting is the madness of the artist and seeker brought on by imploding cultural chaos, with no firm resolution of purpose; and in its absence only arbitrary success to satisfy those unwilling to see; that there is no one to master the problem of identity, of why we are here and who we can turn to, unless we have faith in ourselves.
Was it that disquiet and uncertainty that Lepper means as eclectic; that the work holds too many rings of consciousness going at once that its shifting realities refute the focus of the modernist abstract obliging us to obedience to hold to one minimal focus?
Whereas, the ambiguity in Six Characters in Search, in resisting an immediately determined reading, waits upon the viewer’s dropping the expectation of formulized denouement, and in entering its mystery, by way of empathetic identification or sympathetic compassion, re-creates his or her own meaning.
The Primacy of the Face
The ambiguity and eclecticism that Lepper, and later Pearlstein, distrust is precisely the point where choice can go either way. Consciousness resides in the mutability of the call, in its heightened realization reviewed at the instant of internal verdict skirting attraction and cost; that it is luxurious to prolong the present now reconciled to an unknown outcome; that there is no need for an outcome to resolve the moment. The moment is complete.
As in all of Rappaport’s images leading to the face, seduction need not lead to action beyond its revelation- to the compelling attraction of the face. The artist lives in the encounter with the other, the friend, the beloved, the muse who keeps him spellbound. It is the spell that he is trying to recreate. The primacy of illumination must come suddenly as in an act of faith; for meaning is found while party to seduction which though unannounced is openly comprehended.
The mystery is where one enters. Such attentiveness by the beholder is the place where the face resides. Its repose is not paralysis of indecision; it is languorous anticipation, courtship prior to annunciation, as if the angel has fallen out of breath before the Virgin- a moment in eternity where both forget to breathe in an unspeakable present, open to intuition, minimally, cautiously tendered to the other and returned as discretely in silence for fear that enchantment vanish. Certainty held before another’s will; attraction to the other’s completeness, the possible extends into the eternal, a chime infinitesimally heard in abeyance- suspended in the wakefulness outside of narrative or dramatic gesture or time. There is no other conclusion; painting holds the mirror, as it does towards the other, the friend, for the viewer to assume.
Art is the reflection of the eloquence of being, an epiphany that comes to the athlete or warrior, musician or artist, or the lover entering passion. One is compelled to life. That is its redemption and its privilege; otherwise one faces a self-obliterating weariness. Poor Lepper, even at the very end of his life he held on to failure as if his prize. Such a futile mindset for an artist to look for approval! Only in entering freely into the fog of the primal wilderness in our genes left as a reminiscence, can one find an opening to an ecstatic revelation; only then can one step away from amnesia to arrive as oneself.
It is here that Lepper will refute his own call to the subconscious. Nothing in his nature can truly trust the Dionysian dimension of sexual volition whose flauntingly naked exhibitionism stays self-contained. The central figure for whom the others, who won’t stand naked before the world, are in search, is unreachable, unapproachable, neither Christ casting them into damnation nor available as the object of mourning, and certainly not one of adoration, but a phantom of corporal presence whose confrontation, audacious in its deadpan theatricality is a performance piece- as the artist as graven image hurls all before him into Purgatory.
The painting is perversion- called into being as the painter, in the solitude of the garage used as makeshift studio, hangs the canvas under the one stark light bulb and enters the territory of sublime suspension whereby subject and object fuse in the coherence of its painting. But there is no consolation in eclipsing the problem of exploitation. The viewer must choose the renunciation of voyeurism or participate in its intoxication. It is pitilessly uncomfortable to those instinctively wary of its un-conciliatory defiance. It is perversely shameless and shameful. The arousal of shame has crossed a boundary that is not entirely polite.
Would one mark it a blasphemy, no; that would be praise. It will be treated as ambiguity- a failure in clarity.
Strange that such an affect on the viewer would be seen as ambiguous. That there remains simultaneity of shame in the stark nakedness of the wrathful prophet in the central figure does not indicate indecision on the part of the artist. That compound in ourselves is exactly what we encounter while riding against our deeper nature.
The painting is not a literal depiction any more than its predecessor from half a century before- the eerie, desolate plane where Picasso’s circus performers in the Saltimbanques stand about as if in a dream, or the even more sublime austerity in the lamentation of the Villeneuve-les-Avignons Pieta. But the image is readable to anyone conscious. Just the mention of these two early models of immobile, silent figures locked into the driest, vacant setting, should be enough to defend the young artist of Six Characters from the critical appraisal of its ambiguous meaning; for that is its message- that we are locked into ambiguity, doomed to go around and around the carousal, uncertain for what prize we should reach for.
Isn’t that exactly what is the universal identification of Picasso’s images of lost souls in his Blue and Rose Periods; that then half a century afterwards Rappaport returns to not only in Six Characters in Search, but in The Jewess Accused five months later, then We Are All Somnambulists, followed by Rose of Washington Square in the summer of 1966, painted simultaneously with Ship of Fools. The sense of ennui that Rappaport paints prior to the escalation of the Vietnam War will reverse itself once a whole generation wakes up for a very brief moment culminating in the spring of 1968. After that it’s just business as usual.
Minimalism Mute on the Affairs of the World
So the art world rejects expressive figuration. None of the “non- objective artists” donating work for the Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam at Paula Cooper Gallery the last week of October 1968 will radically alter the course of their minimal practice, if only to upset expectations for a deviant while to mark their commitment emphatically. The announcement instead spends more space on self congratulatory text restricted by exclusivity “to represent a particular esthetic attitude” consolidating as a movement their “cohesive group of important works” as declared by their in-house critic, Lucy Lippard, than on denouncing the war- the words for peace, under their names made bold, in contrast, the faintest and smallest font on the flyer.
If anything, “by contributing major examples of their current work”, though commendable at first glance, is one of the most economical packages they will ever spend for attracting a wider public, individually and collectively. That one week exhibition puts them squarely on the map; while they reap the benefit for altruism in self aggrandizement.
And even supposing their well meaning intentions, for which one doesn’t doubt; the reality of Minimalism refutes positioning itself in response to the affairs of the world. Here is one of the great moral dilemmas facing a generation, and their work by itself is mute. Yet, art for art sake will dominate most of the next decade in the most repressive and belligerent denial of expressive human imagery.
So compounding more private issues of alienation, the problem for Rappaport becomes the strangle hold of monopolistic tendencies that insist that Francis Bacon has sole rights to the subject, and that by the mid sixties the New Realism has made figurative painting a technical objective whereby all facial expression sits on the surface like icing on a cake. All technique is mechanical proof of proficiency, and emotional expression refuted as sentimentalism catering to the bourgeoisie.
So it is not amazing to see how uncomfortable Lepper is with private emotion displayed like a flayed carcass despite all his coaching his students to ride that untamable horse if they dare. As much as he chides not to formalize or relinquish the emotive undercurrents, Lepper is mortified. He really is uneasy with the telling promiscuity set in the dreamscape of unbounded rapture of a nightmare. Lepper just won’t concede to condoning image making unbridled; the solace of the bareback ride, anticipation wobbling in a gasp of the libido’s vulnerability is too wayward for a Puritan to walk beside. But perversity is the tightrope Rappaport slides along. And its ambiguous trail into discomfort should be seen as a tool employed with purpose.
The Dark Night of the Soul
Such brutal nakedness arriving as the imaginative encapsulating moment that only isolation can liberate is far more ironic in its honesty than any sleight of hand by a critical, conceptual, semiotic performance could be.
With Six Characters in Search Rappaport begins his first of several paintings made over the years that represent a continuous cycle of reincarnations of the seeker. As in Joseph in the Pit, done five years later, the interpreter of dreams, who is a wanderer in a strange land, must face The Dark Night of the Soul. That mystical passage acknowledged by the ancient Egyptians and endured by Jesus in the Garden of Olives is a place of premonitions outside of time.
Such a vocation requires resilience. He who would take from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil shall be cast into the wilderness- not the jungle with wild animals, but the jungle in the hearts of man.
What applies for prophets applies for artists. But the artist is a boy of twenty. He will wander in the desert for forty years searching for understanding when he need only understand himself. The descent into the Pit is the only way out.
As such, Six Characters in Search is an autobiographical premonition that makes one’s own eulogy as a refusal to the hegemony of those who would mandate their appraisal; and by entering one’s own inscription into the Book of Dead as an act of affirmation to veto others’ infidelity interpreting one’s intentions so haughtily denied. It is outlawed to paint the figure emotionally; to suggest the world has a soul. It is worse to make a graven image of oneself. Or is it jealousy that denies it power; demands it beholden to someone else’s permission; that it’s too strong, too weak, too unclear. But if it can make them so dismissive, maybe they fear it more than they can admit; maybe it puts their entries into a different light, one they didn’t anticipate.
They had complained that the paintings looked to the past. They insisted the future the only way to look. They could not conceive the past need be reconsidered for the future and that the future they conceived would not remain the future.
By inscribing one’s story into the Book of Dead, of which the book of art is but an adjunct, is to stand before Judgment as a sinner and a fool, and so, eligible to cast one’s image before it becomes routine. There is no clemency, no possibility of consolation; one just does it. Only the transgressor can be so removed from the bondage of remorse.
It is inevitable that others find such an audacious act just a little conceit. He intends it to be. But the price is dear. The artist refuses self-betrayal. He becomes outlaw.
So it is The Dark Night of the Soul through which the artist finds passage against the constraints of tyranny, of ridicule, the loss of belonging. Clearly one needs to be a very obstinate person to break from the Mask of the World, not only capable of self-sacrifice, but capable of sacrificing anyone who interferes. The hard person who is seen in Six Characters in Search has no tolerance for those who choose to call him with their bluff.
Still, the unfolding waits upon the events; the die cast long ago.
* * * * * *
What is remarkable in the dialectics of Robert Lepper with his students’ is not his ability to always hit the mark or that his view hasn’t its flaws, its blind spots and obsessions, but that an idea or proposition is meant to be put out to be considered, and as it resonates within the context of the ensuing conversation, it can be reconsidered. Ultimately, Robert Lepper’s lesson is the most important one- think for oneself.
One learns to step from one vantage point to another. When one understands that a work can be seen simultaneously from multiple views, one can find equanimity; then the alchemy in the painting can play in one’s bones without need of justification.
Rappaport just raises the anti that forces Lepper’s hand. The old man bows out with grudging dismay. Though he can’t follow the other’s strange sleight of hand; still, his lesson is his blessing.
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Irony Turned Stale with Predictability
The Self-Annihilation of Contempt
Although fundamentally a formalist and admirer of coherently designed systems for applied function, Lepper is also an enthusiast of The Theatre of the Absurd. He bristles with amusement as he points out incredulities where intent is mismatched in the results. Irony is not lost on him; he understands how the joke can penetrate the moment with revelation. He encourages both rational and irrational strategies as conceptual tools to be played cooperatively in building or sabotaging anticipation that conventional compliance not rob the experience of surprise. In that manner, Robert Lepper’s teaching anticipates the irreverence of the postmodern sensibility towards predictable images.
But irony itself has turned stale with predictability. Even the expectation of thwarting expectation needs discrimination. The freshest wind arrives, but left to settle soon becomes foul. The sauciness of an impertinent art movement can only be served fresh from the pan; once poured into bowls of fine china the taste vanishes with the aroma. Ladling it out becomes irksome now that it has become custom.
Irony, caustic and contemptuous, becomes self-annihilation. Arrogance won’t heal; nor the sneer cradled in memory. Cunning turns chilling; secretly we recoil.
One might observe that to startle may not be the sole purpose of art; offense devours itself in an endless loop of replay; something far deeper must be there to penetrate time and need.
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The Artifact as Icon: The Baton Passed to Warhol
A student and professor at the same technological institute for his entire professional life, Lepper’s most engaged interest in technology is as a means of production and communication, including all the systematic processes designed for functional application, whether tool, machine, or structure and the social purposes and imperatives imposed by custom, habit, or status of the intended clients whose demands on any product influence the resulting design. That product, as Lepper would address in class, becomes the artifact of the society for whom it serves.
Philip Pearlstein states at the Warhol symposium held at The Carnegie in 1990 that from discussions in class and as Lepper’s shop assistant after school hours, he would later review Lepper’s observations with his close pal Andy Warhol, who often misses class because of his job as window dresser for a downtown department store. Pearlstein’s role is to become their link. So those subsequent discussions communicating Lepper’s ideas on the subject of the artifact of industrial production as icon reaches Warhol, as it reaches Pearlstein.
Obviously, that idea in Warhol’s hands is very successful. However, at this remove in time, the subject of the artifact as icon now used universally as a general indicator of sociological imperatives needs to be addressed with more discretion as to what is just an object from what is an art work.
Not every object has profound beauty or resonates with meaning that its presence before us stimulates our passions and awakens our minds. Yet it has become the standard to ignore aesthetics. But to leave out aesthetics makes differentiating objects from art works impossible; leaving out emotional and spiritual values puts us in limbo.
* * * * * *
Immortality is not what they think. One leaves blessings only by example. One passes to generations into the future a lesson in equanimity. That alone, once grasped in one’s heart, is the greatest bequest of all and the grandest form of remembrance.
So we leave only conversations. Of what may be received to find its place in the dialogue and from whatever vantage point offered, is not absolute, but once taken into the whole becomes balance. From there one arrives at comprehension.
Without the world of the spirit one is left with satire; then irony can only descend into farce, or worse, sarcasm, which erodes into meanness or pettiness. Without recourse to the spirit where is compassion? One can’t paint or speak about the human situation without it; for everyone has his pain and even a fool may have insight. Seldom is anybody all knowing or utterly dumb.
When one acts as an artist, one need put away ridicule. Malice doesn’t redeem a work of art; it backfires on the user.
One comes to a work of art as a supplicant. We may need nurturing or a dressing down, but to shock should not be done backhanded. To be battered leaves no room for reflection. We come before the artwork to increase our comprehension, not to close down in defense.
The artist whose work we approach in gladness is one who understands humility. We love Rembrandt and Van Gogh for their sins and failings. They can reach us because they are reachable; they are like us. They show us sights that may not always be nice or safe or pleasant because they reveal it with compassion, and so we find understanding.
Every life has its disappointment. Without compassion the artist offers a bitter cup. Without honestly facing emotion and through it finding spiritual acceptance, the artist unleashes anger disguised as satire. That type of humor turns to poison.
Lepper’s spiritual inability to find peace cripples him emotionally. It is here that he ignores his own teaching and betrays himself as an artist. For in his heart Lepper is a skeptic, and like so many sophists of his generation, he refutes the spiritual dimension which then impoverishes his ability to honestly express meaning. If he could have purged himself truthfully by following his own precept to “Let the subconscious take the initiative”, he might have resolved the need to outsmart the fools out there with a more generous offering, but he can’t or won’t.
So Lepper’s ambivalence to emotion brings out the trickster, but worse, his antipathy towards the spiritual will engage a chilling coolness in his closest student.
Robert Lepper’s influence on Mel Bochner is received, like Pearlstein’s, one on one. Lepper’s studio in the loge of the Fine Arts Building is a regular place for their endless rhetorical discussions, and Bochner is often seen visiting there for several years following his graduation before his permanent move to New York in late spring of 1964.
Conversing with Lepper is like a master’s class in theoretical precision in which Lepper’s deconstructive analysis anticipates the coming trends. Their discourse ruminating on conceptual schemes is the seed of inspiration that comes to fruition just a few years later in Bochner’s Conceptualism. And like a father to his son, Lepper hands over to Bochner his legacy.
Considering the substance of Lepper’s many years of mentoring Bochner; a suspicion remains why so little acknowledgement has been forthcoming. Why the tenacious aggressiveness overriding this familial bond; for surely this is not a case that one need slay the father. Lepper is not playing the role of Philip, but of Aristotle.
After all, If Socrates isn’t a literary invention; then Plato, as his protégé, by recording for posterity their dialogues makes a testament to both, and so invites us all to their banquette. Bringing their conversations to life sparks a vital ingredient into the brew. It’s the immediacy in the exchange of equality and respect between partners sharing an idea that marks the occasion a lesson to treasure.
The cup must be passed that all who thirst may have their fill. Isn’t this what art is really about, not grandstanding one’s superiority or mastery, but an offering from parent to child, friend to friend, generation to generation.
Why would Bochner bury the story of being received by the Oracle; it is such a classic whereby the hero brings that vision to the light, unless, as it will eventually be seen, that what has been grasped is the dark side. But for better or worse, Lepper’s influence will be quietly put aside, unacknowledged, and replaced by a more publicly acclaimed figure.
So Bochner’s allegiance is seen in his eulogy for his other mentor in residence once he gets to New York, His writing on Sol LeWitt in Artforum, Summer 2007 can very well have been said of Robert Lepper; “His relentless questioning of the fundamental grammars of art and his daring in cutting across the conventions of presentation helped to divert the stream of art away from object-making toward a more open and democratic vision of art’s relationship to culture.”
Accepting the first half of that statement, one must none-the-less challenge the premise and reality of the second half as hyperbole on many counts. One can only ask what about art’s relationship to life at its most essential condition and to the past which is our collective inheritance? It is a question that so outweighs art’s critical, predatory and collaborative relationship to contemporary culture- that superficial spectacle of demented democratic delusion of the most spoiled several generations known to history, which seems to be the only place where Bochner wishes to go; and by so doing extend its range, though by now this partnership has fused so thoroughly that neither identity can be distinguished from the other.
Nor does one see Bochner refraining from object-making while that market is flush with cash, as he has done in the early eighties. If anybody is a supplier of commodities; it is Mel Bochner. And Sol LeWitt by licensing his designs is no slouch either in entrepreneurial savvy. By franchising, LeWitt lets someone else do the “object-making”.
So one has to assume there is some confusion in Bochner’s stance against “object-making”. For the physical manifestation of the art object is but the material vehicle for the image, and where both come together viscerally in the receiver’s mind and body their synergy evoke memories and meanings. To state objection across the board against the material presence of art-work is one of many strategies to establish oneself in shining light- leader of the pure and free.
Like Sol LeWitt, Robert Lepper advances utopian speculations that the new art is superior to the dead tradition. Both reinforce Bochner’s trajectory. By saying something loud enough and long enough, people think it true. In that they are ambitious.
At the core of Lepper’s belief is an ideal of purity of design- his subscribing to art’s ultimate state by which the eloquence of the abstract concept seen in the integrity of form and the logic of its function is visibly comprehendible to human intelligence but separate and independent. Where human emotion plays a role is seen in the intellect’s capacity for predicting possibilities based on the latent forces implied in the design of the art object.
Certainly the familiar can get dull. So the artist tries to reconfigure shifts in composing form and placement of context to stimulate resistance in routine by which the viewer finds refreshment. Resistance offers the challenge to reconstruct form in space and by consequence re-evaluate content, and in so doing expand consciousness.
But the artist must guard against the inclination to parade virtuosity, whether by the brush or the strategy or the pretension to originality or even virtue itself, that otherwise obstructs the gesture, the selflessness of generosity, with foreclosure to mystical exchange between himself or herself and the beholder.
Because so much of conceptual strategy in the postmodern critique of society implies rebuke to the viewer; the violation of boundaries is more like a rug pulled out from under. The game is to surprise the viewer’s ability to anticipate where the artist is leading by pulling a roose. The artist stimulates the viewer’s complaisant expectations only to dash them. That act of disorientation for the viewer is the focus of the work for which he needs to accept contrition as if by default for not keeping up with what’s current and try just a little harder to get into the program.
So it is unclear how enlightened the program is; for though there may be pleasure in the surprise of dislocation, by itself it’s a hollow tactic whose point is trivial unless leading to a greater positive consciousness that extends generosity with generosity. One feels too often that its jolt is antagonistically spent as if the viewer coming to meet the artist through his work were not a friend; that the viewer stepping into the trap is marked fool.
That’s a rather servile concession that the artist demands from the viewer- a little bit too much bondage and discipline to think the viewer should be grateful.
So from the vantage point of four decades, one would have to reconsider this communion of shared interests. That if the spectacle of the surprising gesture is what Lepper most engages in speculative dialogue with Bochner, one might suggest that while Bochner’s career marks Lepper’s success as a teacher, it also marks his failure.
With jadedness in Bochner coming to the fore in 20007, the game of getting something over on the viewer has outdistanced his former mentor’s spoofs with degrading displays of vindictive.
What is inherent in the psychological disposition of the acolyte will with singular magnetism bring a telling correspondence from the master. It is Bochner’s edgy ambition that draws the spleen from Lepper’s disappointment. When they get together in Lepper’s studio, their cleverness becomes their undoing. But its perverseness does not occur to them.
* * * * * * *
Cultures Change with Technology
In 1976, Jane Altman-Rubin organizes “New York City/ Carnegie Mellon University Alumni Exhibition” at West Broadway Gallery in SoHo. In the accompanying catalogue, Robert Lepper is honored as the inspirational teacher of the majority of the participants. Warhol and Pearlstein show major works; Jonathan Borofsky has moved to LA; Mel Bochner declines.
Richard Rappaport is among Lepper’s former students in the alumni show. The technical deployment of scratchboard adapted to grattage in his Portrait of Luke Colasuonno, exhibited then, owes its inspiration to Lepper’s classroom example that it took him years of painting before he realized that the brush was not his tool.
That lesson in seeing traditional tools and methods as only the habitual practice of convention continues with Lepper’s description of painting’s mechanism as “the application of pigments floating in emulsion from the tip of bundled pig bristles tied with string to the end of a stick.”
Cultures change with the invention of new technology. Often there is a delayed response to its use. But eventually someone will see where the consequences of efficiencies of production enabling access to a far wider clientele. The entrepreneur who can mobilize the new invention will reap the rewards. Fashion will change by the degree of its availability to the broader public. In a society whose demographics are changing with a serge in prosperity, demand for the luxury commodity increases. One of the kind items are both inefficiently made and incapable of mass introduction. They are left behind in obscurity like the relics of a forgotten age.
So Warhol takes advantage of the photographic/graphic transfer to silkscreen by taking it one step further with its application in paint on canvas and glamorizing its undisguised production for an expanding, up-scaled, high end market made ready for the industrialized chic by MOMA’s full press indoctrination of the Bauhaus and company.
By the time Rappaport is a student of Lepper in 1964, Warhol becomes a master of glamorizing appropriated methodologies crossing over from light industrial processes made to seem Bohemian chic.
The nature of silkscreen is its tendency to crudeness in printing- the hand pulled squeegee pressing a glop of syrupy paint through an easily clogged silk screen often skips an even discharge. Consequently Warhol accepts what every printmaker up till then has found intriguing, but oh so alarming for perfect editions.
The process is exhibited openly as its very quality. The printed image acknowledges its descent from the original source in reduced expectation; that because it is declared unapologetically, refuses devaluation and assumes new valuation. The imperfection of the process creates a psychological distance as if the image were an iconic relic of reverence. The just immediate present becomes the historic present.
By keeping his own hands clean, Warhol assumes the stature of impresario. Following Peter Paul Rubens’ model Warhol not only takes Lepper’s lesson in making use of technology for new purposes, he also appropriates the role he plays.
But unlike Rubens’ crews of highly skilled master painters, associates of genius in themselves, Warhol’s technicians are interchangeable. Their availability in a place like downtown Manhattan results in Warhol becoming producer to a theatrical happening simultaneously with operating a workshop.
So Lepper’s lesson in observing the hierarchy of the Drama Department as a society within a society at Carnegie Tech is not lost on Warhol or its being seen by those in the schools of engineering or liberal arts as exotic, mad, but oh so glamorous. Even for those upstairs in Painting and Design, the examples of blatant exhibitionism needing release by starlets of one sex or another wishing to perform is a curious phenomenon. Be the one who allows them a stage and sit back and watch- the more vapid the mock opera the better; for what one is witnessing and recording is already a parody. The obviousness of the appropriation is the essence of its aesthetic. Don’t disguise it; relish it.
* * * * * *
That comedy is unrepeatable; the choice is to go backwards to an inefficient handmade manner of image making.
The brush is very suited to Rappaport, but so are scratched lines cut through the ink-blackened surface of scratchboard. Transferring that mock graphic technique of wood engraving one step further to the dry-hardened multi-layered surface of oil paint is simple logic. So the brush is replaced by the single edge razor blade in a technique whose name is appropriated from the French- grattage.
In 1987 Rappaport paints in more traditional manner Lepper’s portrait concurrently with one commissioned for Carnegie Mellon University of Herbert A. Simon, conceptually pairing historically two distinct cartographers of the creative impulse.
As Boswell to Lepper’s Dr. Johnson, Rappaport in 1988/89 writes “Carnegie Tech, Robert Lepper, and The Oakland Project”. Lepper, a little astonished, leaves a copy with his papers.
Neither foresees its history reconsidered after fifteen years lying dormant. But the circumstances of a lifetime are once again shifting position. The pendulum touches the extreme, hovering as in indecision, but the weight is pulling for return.
For some of us remain in the game; as cards are faced upward.
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