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Lawrence Rinder (Photo by Ben Blackwell)

I was introduced to the writing of Lawrence Rinder through his very unexpected and engaging introduction to the book Tantra Song (and written about previously on Slow Muse here and here.) Although he comes to art writing with serious credentials (he was the curator for the 2002 Whitney Biennial), Rinder’s approach to writing about art is (in my view) a perfect blend: He is globally informed but also willing to take it into the personal; idea- and context-rich in his assessments while leaving room for that which can’t be nailed down or figured out; articulate and persuasive in his writing but also refreshingly self effacing. I immediately felt at home in his view of things. So as is my nature, I am now going through the rest of his books and writings. The enjoyment continues.

Art Life: Selected Writings 1991-2005 includes 18 essays on topics ranging from Samuel Mockbee, the heroic founder and visionary of The Rural Studio, to Luc Tuymans, Louise Bourgeois and Sophie Calle. Every one is worth the read.

Rinder is currently Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a place that played a major role in my early years as an artist growing up in the Bay Area.

Here’s a few highlights to tickle your fancy just in case Rinder’s work is unfamiliar to you:

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I have no idea what art is. I can’t think of a less specific term in our language (except, possibly, that often-used and essentially meaningless word “modern”). Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about art is that it describes a zone of permission.

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I recently met a well-traveled artist who spoke earnestly of the “one true art world,” a word consisting, he said, of the constellation of newly emergent international biennials within which neo-conceptualism is the contemporary lingua franca. How depressing. After struggling so hard to liberate ourselves from the constructions of the Greenbergian canon we run like sheep into a brand new pen. It is enervating to witness the rush of young artists generating globally-informed, media-savvy, interdisciplinary works that ultimately speak to no one but curators and academics.

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Much of Minimalism…is boring to read about, but the experience of it can be great. In space, it acts. It’s crucial to appreciate this acting, this work that the art is doing.

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In my professional practice, I have found that it is indeed much more pleasant, and useful, to wonder than to know.

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A peculiarity of our time is that while few would claim to know what is going on, even fewer would part with their beliefs. In days past, a worldview that consisted solely of beliefs and little knowledge would have been considered a perilously fragile edifice. Today, it suffices. A world of belief without knowledge comes into being in the absence of doubt. Actually, it’s not that we have stopped doubting; we’ve just stopped caring.

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It is surely a unique feature of our aimless age that we fully accept the utility of asking questions without any hope of receiving a reply.

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What has made my work in the arts continually exciting and challenging and—I hope—useful, is that I have avoided resting on a comfortable bed of knowledge and instead have followed my heart to richer, if more ambiguous and challenging, territories. If, as Einstein noted, our world of definitions and propositions rests on shaky ground, this should hardly be cause for despair. Rather, it can be an invitation to a life of limitless wonders.

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Barnett Newman

I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately about irony, particularly its role in art. Many of these are conversations I have been having with parts of myself, but some of them are with friends and cotravelers. This interest was piqued a few weeks ago when a good friend with an exceptionally developed sense of art and its history commented to me about my work with this: “There’s no irony. No appropriation. No erasing of boundaries between high and low. No entertaining riffs and slights-of-hand. Which is okay with me, but how do you feel about it?”

How do I feel about it? I’m still pondering that last query but clear that the absence of irony is intentional. When I mentioned this issue to another friend, her response was, “Maybe you should strive to live your life irony-free, like your paintings!” Yet another way to think about it. Irony is a concept so complex and layered that its many permutations can keep the mind occupied for a long time and never come to a final position.

In a review of the Abstract Expressionism in New York show at the MOMA that appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, artist and writer Shane McAdams drew some generational distinctions that I found useful, particularly in the context of irony:

I grew up in a generation that would view claims of painting’s or New York’s supremacy as somewhat chauvinistic and confrontational. Our way has been more polite, less opinionated, and more circumspect, opting for the more slippery strategies of relativity and irony to make our points. The tendency has favored not being wrong over being right. If irony is to state one thing and to mean another, our generation has carved an entire worldview out of not actually meaning anything. This is the legacy of Andy Warhol, the high priest of cool detachment. So it’s not such a leap for the children of Warhol to assume that those AbExers were playing fast and loose with meaning as well, when in fact they meant every word they said.

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While viewing AbExNY, I noticed that at least half the spectators were experiencing the paintings through a camera viewfinder, snapping digital photos, saving the experience for later. The younger the viewer, the less likely they were to engage the work directly. Jackson Pollock mediated through an LCD screen seems an apt metaphor for generational detachment given his determination to dissolve the barriers between him and his painting, the exterior and interior universe: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing,” he declared in 1948. We want distance from the world and our consciousness; Pollock didn’t.

A younger generation of artists who want “distance from the world and our consciousness” do live their lives in stark contrast to the heady AbExers in the late 40s. A pendulum swing or a trend that was just moving through? Who is to say for sure. But I do like McAdams’ move to a larger arc of concern with this closing thought: “When the world looks like it’s falling apart, though, perhaps ironic detachment will begin to look less like an antidote to chauvinism and more like a banal evil, unequipped to fight the pricks of history.”

No answers, and maybe there is no need to look for any. But plenty to ponder.

And thanks to Carl Belz for linking me to McAdams’ review.