Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crossing Out A Signature Style

I was recently discussing an artwork that was by a major artist but regarded as not indicative of their “signature style”. I asked an artist whether or not he felt there was a need for artists to visually develop throughout their careers, and he responded that in his opinion this approach had actually held him back in the market.

Think here, if you will, of a signature style. In creative fields, we often talk about chameleons – Madonna, Bob Dylan, even, if you will, Robert Rauschenberg. Then, at times, we find that artists visit and revisit their breakthrough styles, even if it seems that over time this could perhaps work them into a visual corner.

Barnett Newman speaks of the revelation he had when he painted “Onement 1”, widely regarded as his breakthrough painting. He says, perhaps metaphorically, that he stared at the painting for a very long time. Months. What came next was a body of works punctuated and articulated more than anything else by a “zip”, a vertical band dissecting the canvas. Some paintings had more than one zip, but they all had at least one.

This signature style allows viewers to develop a shorthand for artists – “that’s a Warhol, that’s a Pollock, that’s a Newman,” they might say, “that’s an Agnes Martin, that’s an On Kawara,” and so forth.

Each of these artists has in some way developed an aspect of their practice that allows viewers to enter into their works. At the same time, this doesn’t imply that their works are any more or less valued, or any more or less understood. It just implies that a silkscreen painting with a slightly askew registration is more often than not a Warhol, and that a painting of a date, in white, on a solid ground, is more often than not a Kawara.

What this also means is that for certain artists this can become a limitation, a straightjacket. Not so much for the artist themselves, but for viewers who have an expectation that art is always both recognizable and immediate.

I believe, in fact, that comfort and immediacy may have replaced analysis and challenge as some of the key aspects of viewing art. In a field in which there is a constant desire to expand audiences, and a concern about alienating what must necessarily be a dwindling audience, is there an argument that signature styles lead viewers to view artworks? I think so. This checklist, which becomes dangerously close to simply marking a scorecard of classic or contemporary works, leads both artists and curators into a place in which recognition becomes synonymous with experience.

I am not sure that this is necessarily so. I am also not sure that a signature style is either good or bad for art. What I do know is that artists themselves ponder precisely this question, as to gallerists, auctioneers, and collectors. The idea that a work is marked by its maker in such a way that everybody knows leads us all into a space in which breakthroughs become tentative and experimentation is in danger of marginalization.

This also doesn’t mean that Gilles Deleuze’s statement in Plato and the Simulacrum leads us to an answer – it is not viable today to merely posit this question under the rubric of the postmodern dictum, “only that which is alike differs, and only differences are alike.” Instead, I would think more of the words of Leonard Cohen in “Everybody Knows”: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” No doubt that artists, at least are rolling the dice and crossing their fingers each time they take a tentative step away from the styles that they, or their dealers, believe ‘made’ them who they are.

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