Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, The Brooklyn Rail Guest Critic
By Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Portrait of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Historicization may be part of what we expect from art, but Fredrick Jameson’s recommendation that one “Always historicize” sounds like a rule. The problem, I think, is the word ‘“always.” It makes it sound as though historicism is always the same and always observed or digested in the same way. “Always” is an absolute, everything else other than absolutely nothing isn’t. I’d prefer something less than “always,” not least because art is involved, and little if not nothing is always true of art. What is more I don’t think it’s always the same or always indispensable, for example sometimes it’s a priority but at others neither the first nor even the second quality or property of the work one needs to consider.
Phong Bui’s invitation for me to be the Brooklyn Rail’s guest critic seemed a good opportunity to see what a range of people would write if asked to respond, in any way they chose, to Jameson’s recommendation to “Always historicize.” Having read what they’ve written I’ve come to think that people are generally much closer to one another than they had previously seemed to be.
Robert Pippin traces the history of historicity from its invention by Johann Gottfried von Herder until now, passing through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s introduction of dissatisfaction with what we have done to everything around us, and Hegel’s work on the extent to which, and how, history makes sense. (Implicitly, when compared with God). It is the Rousseau question with which he ends, and a version of it towards which almost everyone seems to lead. The present context is one of dissatisfaction with what we (meaning primarily Europeans and their descendants) have done. This succeeds two or so centuries in which we were by and large very pleased with ourselves. But if the problem is generally recognized, there seems to be widespread desire to invoke it but little agreement on how to solve it. Joseph North and Todd Cronan recognize the inevitability, and usefulness, of historicity but also don’t see it as a way of discussing what is to be done. Of the people I invited to write, only W.J.T. Mitchell expresses enthusiasm for always historicizing. But having insisted on total allegiance to the command to always be conscious of the need to historicize, he insists that he would also like to see a comparable enthusiasm for the aesthetic. Who wouldn’t? The problem is that it seldom happens; it is much more often the case that historical significance outweighs any interest in the aesthetic. Mitchell says I must be thinking of social realism when I talk about this, but I’m not. I’m talking about contemporary art, of which here are two examples.
Rosemarie Trockel first proposes that her work be seen in a context where painting is regarded as having more prestige than needlework, the one being an art while the other is a craft. This was once the case but has not been so for about a hundred years, so the practice seems like a conceit rather than an attempt to find anything out by bringing up ancient history. Then on top of that she suggests that everything she does is fueled by irritability, or rage, at the macho behavior of German painters. This seems like pettiness, and hardly likely to do much about ending capitalism. The other example is similarly one in which historical significance is raised without any clear relationship to history. Benjamin Buchloh wants to apply a program to the work of Gerhard Richter which is derived from the words of two conceptual artists who have no use for painting except to demean it.1 Furthermore, having adopted the idea fifty or so years ago, he has not returned to it despite Richter’s painting going through some significant changes on its surface throughout the period, which I think means that changes have taken place, and that these affect the meaning it generates and that we see. These are sad examples, although splendidly successful when it comes to the art’s popularity with rich collectors and some artists. Other than that they don’t do much with history, whether myth, fait accompli, or a mixture of the two, except invoke it as an authority. In this respect, among others, they stand in sharp contrast with Don Mee Choi’s work or, in another way, Penny Florence’s. Choi’s work is historicized from the start. It is made out of material that is recognized as historical, directly rather than distantly related to the work. One could not discuss (or otherwise appreciate) the work without discussing historical events, and the conditions they produce and effect. I’d argue that the work is about a truth made of equal doses of history and poetry, or, to be more precise, of the historical and the poetic. Penny Florence is similar in that she also deals with an aspect of the historical context as it is, rather than as a faded—or should that be jaded—fact that has been naturalized into a myth of how things once were, which still sets the terms of contemporary discussion. In fact, there is very little discussion because the subject fits uncomfortably (at best) into the way people generally want to talk about it. It is hard to make it fit into a repertory of resentment, which is the preferred use of history nowadays. Florence is to be congratulated for finding a place in the discussion for ambiguity and confusion, and describing how it works. She mentions Deleuze in regard to dualism, and I think his work is generally relevant to hers because of its vitalism: “For Deleuze, the question of literature” (and for us the visual arts) “is linked not to the question of its textuality, or even to its historicity, but to its ‘vitality,’ that is, to its ‘tenor’ of Life.”2
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Surge, 2021. Oil on Linen, 59 x 64 inches. Courtesy the artist.
So on the one hand (speaking of art), we can’t help but be historicists, so there’s no need to “always” do it; on the other hand (speaking of politics), we should never be historicists, because the ills of capitalism can’t be fixed by “tort reform.”
Florence mentions Barnett Newman, who once said that if people looked at his paintings attentively there’d be world peace, but he also wrote an introduction to some of Peter Kropotkin’s essays. In an era in which we are beset by global warming, it might be worth looking at those again. But I should like to return to W.J.T. Mitchell’s irreducible area of disagreement with me: the phenomenal. This is a question where I don’t think we can find anything in common, and it affects other contributors to this collection. Mitchell accuses me of being a Post-Modernist committed to relativism and of wanting to propose a formalist “presentism” as opposed to an historical grasp of the work. I don’t think that’s quite right, to lapse into litotes, because—as in a quote by Barthes that I have used and Rex Butler quotes in his essay here—I don’t think that formalism banishes history from the work. On the contrary I think it adds to it, when it’s allowed to, which it often isn’t.
Jameson is said to regard Jean-Paul Sartre highly, as is also the case with others who think they have a left-wing attitude to history, and perhaps that is also true of Mitchell’s dislike of the idea. Eugene Kaelin describes Sartre’s hostility to phenomenology as a result of his being unable to bring himself to grant (see in) Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “expressive surface” an equivalence or complement to what could be expressed verbally. Unable to deal with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Sartre was therefore instead doomed to the dictionary, to meaning elaborated ad infinitum but only in terms that lead to the conclusion that “Sartre’s valorization of the techniques of representation over the matters represented would seem to have no basis in our understanding of a synthetic expressive act.”3
Lilly Wei’s decision to write about the box of chocolates Rebecca Norton and I designed gives me a chance to remind everyone that the senses, including those that one can’t control, are integral to at least a lot of art. Smell, color, and music enter one’s body whether one wants them to or not. They belong to experience as much if not more than ideas, and in that regard play no small part in history, even though they frustrate endeavors to fit them into the historical. We made the box to make fun of Duchamp’s arid misunderstanding of the so-called retinal, but I have learned more recently that Watteau’s dealer sold cosmetics as well as paintings.
In the contemporary gallery, where little monographs are on sale instead of the perfumes of two centuries ago, one may suppose that the general atmosphere is a bit different now than it was then. More about the senses, perhaps, and less concerned with being self-righteous.
Jameson’s recommendation led John C. Welchman, David Reed, Rex Butler and Joe Fyfe to discuss art as it is affected by its context, by way of individual works. Welchman says that Mike Kelley, with whom I taught for quite a few years and regard as a very good writer as well as teacher, tended to try to avoid the word “history” when describing the relationship he wanted his work to have to the world, wanting to avoid cliché and encourage complication, and also to concentrate on specifics rather than generalities. I think it would be right to compare Kelley and Choi on the question of making art out of a combination of the poetic and the historical, and congratulate Welchman for bringing some of that quality out in his essay here. Reed and Butler both write about artists whose fortunes have been affected by their historical situations, in the case of Jack Whitten, a Black artist whose work was marginalized until recently, when its treatment of themes like the obscure as opposed to the visible, the suppressed and the explicit, began recieving the attention it deserves; in that of Colin McCahon, the case of an artist working in obscurity if not isolation, and using religion to explain what he’s doing to himself and to the world. Terms whose wider use in art, Butler tells those of us who didn’t know, have been explored by Thomas Crow and which constitute their own version of a historicism.4 Fyfe describes his collaboration with someone he met in Vietnam, perhaps along with everything else a working relationship with someone who feels no need to be dissatisfied with the history of art, at least in the terms Pippin indicates, although I think he could reasonably be dissatisfied for the opposite reasons—i.e., as victim rather than beneficiary of the colonialist sort. Significantly, or so it seems to me, no mention is made of either possibility. They seem instead to just get on with it.
I could write a thousand words on every artist I invited, but there is no such length to be had. I have put Saul Ostrow’s contribution at the end because it deals with the general situation, with which Pippin’s note on the history of historiography began, and I think both essays lead to comparable conclusions.
Ostrow talks about post-modernism and the post-historical perspective, in which “history” becomes a “collection of isolated moments.” This change has led, he says, to artists being answerable to the market rather than to history, to which I’d add for clarification that they appeal to the market by way of a historical model they have otherwise dispensed with, or reduced to meaninglessness. Trockel’s work and Buchloh’s approach to Richter’s would, I think, fit this description, but I want to go straight to Pippin’s reference to dissatisfaction and North’s and Cronan’s saying that capitalism will not be ended by revolutionary number crunching. It bothers me that all the talk about context has included nothing about Russia’s behavior in Ukraine or Africa, or about the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs, but more than anything it concerns me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, that there’s no art-world-generated moaning about Trump. Some years ago T.J. Clark wrote an essay asking the left to give up dreaming about a future that would bring a dramatic end to our problems and instead work for a present which seeks for a gradualist version of a socialist answer to our needs.5 Trump is top of the list of things that need to go, and it is troubling that no artists seem to want to deal with the threat of universal and ubiquitous terror, of the most banal kind, which he personifies and why his is worshiped by his sorry but very dangerous supporters.
Malcolm Bull, “Squeegee Abstracts” (London Review of Books, August 10, 2023) on Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (MIT September 2022). For Buchloh, formalism is encapsulated by Joseph Kosuth’s dictum, “the absence of reality in art is exactly art’s reality,” and historicity by Daniel Buren’s, “art, whatever it may be, is exclusively political.” So, by implication, the ideal of a historicized formalism would be work which told us nothing about the world but did so in a way that was entirely political.
Gilles Deleuze, essays critical and clinical, translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. xvi.
E. F. Kaelin, Texts on Texts and Textuality: A Phenomenology of Literary Art, (Rodopi: Amsterdam—Atlanta, Ga., 1999) p 142.
Thomas Crow No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (Power Polemics, 2017).
T.J. Clark, “For A Left with No Future,” New Left Review Issue 74 (March—April 2012) and in his Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come (London: Thames and Hudson, 2018) pp. 237–262.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (Professor/Chair Emeritus, Art Center College of Design) is a painter who also writes about art. He has been exhibiting since 1970 and is the author of four books and numerous essays.
Artworks Available at David Richard Gallery, New York
Oil on linen
59 x 64"
Oil on linen
63 x 44"
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (t)here 2018 Oil on linen 44 x 38" Click here to view the artwork
Oil on linen
34.5 x 38"
Five Times During The Day, 4 - Late Afternoon
Oil on linen
46 x 46"
Five Times During The Day Series
Emanuel Shinwell Goes to University
Oil on linen
47.5 x 59.75"
All Artwork Copyright © Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Courtesy David Richard Gallery All photographs by Yao Zu Lu. Private viewings are available by appointment, please call or email the gallery to schedule
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