In Conversation

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe with Joan Waltemath

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, left to right: “step,” “the chameleon and the wraith,” and “the way birds use gravity. Courtesy of the artist.

Joan Waltemath (Rail): Could you tell us a bit of your background?

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: I was born in the south of England and went to art school and then to London University Institute of Education for a year before coming to America, in 1968, first to study at Florida State and then to New York, where I first showed a painting in a group show at O.K. Harris in 1971. I subsequently showed in New York at Susan Caldwell, Paula Cooper, John Weber and Annie Plumb, and the last time I had a show in New York was with Stark in 1994. I want to reverse the relationship between color and drawing in painting but haven’t noticed widespread interest in my endeavors in this regard.

            As to other stuff, I co-founded October, originally with Lucio Pozzi as well as Ros and Annette (Michelson). Lucio left before the first issue appeared and I left after the third. I hear, incidentally, that October’s official history misrepresents its genesis. Seems a bit much coming from people who are supposed to care about history. I have always taught and moved to California in 1980 without meaning to because John Baldessari invited me to teach one semester at Cal Arts. But I ended up being there for six years, after which I was hired to develop the MFA program at Art Center College of Design where I am now.

Rail: That’s a very brief summary. You’re talking about all these moves from this place to that place to that place and those moves are really precipitated by concrete chance but there’s also a characteristic of the kind of transition one makes like, for example, in your case coming from England to the United States!

Gilbert-Rolfe: Well in that case at least that’s true. When I was seventeen there was a show at the Tate Gallery called Art USA Now. I was an English art student and the date was 1967 or something so I didn’t know about anything except figurative painting and went there to see the Pop Artists. But it had paintings in it by Pollock and, more importantly for me as things have turned out, by Newman. I had never seen that much space in painting before, but in that echoed for me the space of films like Howard Hawk’s Red River it seemed to be about America in some way and that’s what determined that I should go to America. I certainly never thought I’d live in America for more than three years but here I am.

Rail: I’d like to clarify something. You write, and you really have a presence in your writing, and you’re also painting? Where does your work lie, and how do you negotiate that relationship between your writing and your painting, which I see as being different languages. Can you do them at the same time?

Gilbert-Rolfe: I do do them at the same time, one in the morning, and then one in the afternoon, and then I return to the first one in the evening. As to the relationship between the two, I think painting starts where argument leaves off. I find it much easier to write than to paint for that reason—painting’s what words can’t do or something like that. If you look at my career as a whole, which I’ve only recently begun doing, you’ll see that changes occurred in both the painting and the writing around the early eighties. What I’ve done since then follows from what I did in the seventies but it owes less to received opinion regarding what either painting or art criticism or theory should be. I started to write art criticism in 1973 when Bobby Pincus-Witten invited me to write for reviews for Artforum, which I did for about a year or so. Short reviews are limiting but I did manage to write a couple of longer essays for them, one on Bob Morris and the other on Brice Marden.

            The first phase of my writing is represented in Immanence and Contradiction (1986), the elements of the second in my second collection of essays, Beyond Piety (1995). I used to have this little record that they gave away with a fringe art mag in the late sixties which had Duchamp on it saying that the work of art has a right to be boring. By the eighties I’d decided it doesn’t. Since then I’ve written more often about things other than visual art, although I’d done that all along to some extent—the first essay in Immanence and Contradiction is about Godard, and how, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, his films are made out of making the fictional and the recently historical interact. Fashion interests me and I have tried to write about that and it’s really from there, as well as wanting to write about Frank Gehry, that I began to write about architecture. I’ve known Frank since the late seventies so he could explain things to me.

            Currently I’m developing the counter-theory to the one that’s boring that I introduced in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (2000), which among other things has led me to propose an alternative history for painting which emphasizes Boucher rather than Lebrun, Fragonard rather than David, Manet but forget about Courbet it’s far too fat, Cézanne but because of his interest in materiality, which as Richard Shiff has pointed out is what was important to him, Matisse rather than Picasso. Picasso leads, or has been made to lead, to people trying to be more primordial than Pablo. Matisse—and the MoMA show clinched the sense in which he’s more of a blast—obliges one to think of intensity as an affair which cannot lead to resolution through grunting, still less through some putatively empirical reduction.

            Much of what I’ve written since the eighties has been about what and where we are. Of course painting is about that, but I’ve tried in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime and some of the essays in Beyond Piety, and since, to have some ideas about techno-capitalism and contemporary subjectivity that derive from looking at the general environment. I have described the contemporary, techno-capitalist world, as Heidegger’s nightmare because it fulfills all the fears he advanced in his post-war essays on technology. The difference being that we may not like the capitalism but we can’t separate ourselves from the technology. We can’t separate our sensibilities from some sort of technological simulation because each is too implicated in the other. For example, I was talking to some artists and students a few days ago about how we can’t really imagine the night sky except in its photographic version. When we see it, we have to disentangle it from its photographic version. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” an aesthete describes how he has just seen a sunset feebly attempting to impersonate a Turner, but our condition is more advanced. At the end of the nineteenth century nature had only recently begun to disappear into an image of itself while for us it is as it were natural to find it in an artificial form that has to be preserved by the state—nature as a National Park, pre-pictorialised and locked in competition with the photographic images of itself that led us to it in the first place. I think we live in a world where everyone wants to be a photograph and that we can’t separate the human sensibility that Kant theorized, and that we all take for granted whatever we say about it, from another sensibility which we also know to be ours and also to be totally saturated by technology.

Rail: I think of it more in terms of not photography per se, but as the image.

Gilbert-Rolfe: I’m not so sure. I think the properties or qualities of the electronically photographic itself—which are primarily intensity of certain sort combined with weightlessness and a surface which is flawless—rather than the image narrowly defined are what possess us on a day to day basis. In Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime I suggest that if one goes to a shopping mall one sees people in video-colored clothes eating video-colored food in a video-colored environment. It is the form or process that the image seeks to imitate or embody that tells us where we are and how we’re thinking. Cosmetics used to impersonate oil painting but nowadays they imitate photography. It used to be about layers but now cosmetics apply a layer that seeks to be identical or continuous with what it covers. A wholly contemporary version of the mask as that which enhances but does not conceal or replace, or doesn’t seem to, which distinction one could extend to other differences between how we play with the idea of the private in the public and how people did as recently as the nineteen-fifties or something. Those are the sorts of things I have in mind when suggesting that we want to live inside of the properties of the photographic in a broad sense as opposed to being driven by images themselves, which is a closely related question to be sure and one which has led me to discuss the fashion model as an image made for and by the photographic.

            I think it comes back to Wilde and to Heidegger, or maybe to Schiller when, in “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” he implies that ancient monuments encountered during a walk in the countryside are experienced as being closer to nature than to history. They have become continuous with the natural despite being products of culture at the same time that, or because, the landscape has become entirely conditioned by an historical response to it that we call the picturesque and which sees nature and ancient monuments as objects of contemplation. The difficulty as ever is that we’re in it but outside of it too. So I just wanted to propose a similar problem about contemporary technology and where we are when we think about it. It’s the Heidegger problem certainly but as I’ve said I’m interested in how we couldn’t tolerate a world in which technology does all the things he convincingly described as destructive of our sense of time and place. No one can remember life before the cell ‘phone and would no more desire to return to that condition than to a world without penicillin.

Rail: How do you see the issue and relationship of beauty to the loss of interest in nature in contemporary art?

Gilbert-Rolfe: I guess the connection would be that what was left of nature as an interest went out the door for many people when art became wholly a matter of recycled images within a fixed system à la Duchamp, Warhol, appropriation and institutional critique and so on, which is to say when we became subject to a wholly anti-aesthetic discourse. But beauty has always been something philosophers and critics have wanted to avoid. Everyone’s always wanted to get past the beautiful as quickly as possible so as to get on to the really serious issue where you didn’t have to talk about beauty and could instead talk about politics or identity as we’d say nowadays or some tantalizing but in that reassuring shred of disorder. Kant himself gets hung up in this endearing, Kant sort of way, on feminine beauty as a threat to the social. Talks himself into arguing that if she happens to have the misfortune to be beautiful a woman will want to suppress it so as to avoid disturbing a social order based on duty and obligation, or, it’s hard to look pious, even if you are, if you happen to be glamorous. So this is why I’ve talked about a fear of pleasure and a demand for instruction and the desire that the pleasurable should just be what gets you into it but then you should be ready for the sermon. Barbara Rose likes to refer to Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Sherri Levine as “The Three Yentas.” The Yentas are programmatically anti-aesthetic and indeed anti-pleasure—except for pleasure in displeasure. It’s all about how we musn’t go there at all, let’s get rid of aesthesis altogether and cut straight to the sermon.

Rail: I was trying to figure out if you saw a relationship between the disappearance of nature and the very grounding relationship of living like a pre industrial relationship with nature and the ability to sustain an interest in beauty or to actually pursue beauty as something worthwhile not having developed this fear of beauty or this need for usefulness. I guess I could never understand what was wrong with beauty.

Gilbert-Rolfe: I guess that’s sort of the artist’s point of view. Maybe that’s why it took me a long time to realize that beauty was a term that had always been marginalized. By art history as much as philosophy by the way. Wincklemann invented art history out of a narrative about style development in which the masculine is sublime and the feminine beautiful but a symptom of decline. So art history actually began with a prejudice against the beautiful. That’s why we end of up with Picasso, not Matisse.

Rail: How do you see that in today’s context ?

Gilbert-Rolfe: Today’s context is a parody of official art history and of course it’s ironical that so much conformism to be performed in the name of irony. To offer a specific answer to your question, how about the absolute desire that everything in the art gallery be awkward? Lovably awkward of course. Awkwardness is something we can sympathize or identify with on some level without having to endure surprise, as is also the case with the sanctimonious. But why should everything be awkward rather than fabulous? We have been frozen in the same place ever since 1973. I wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry, “The French Have Landed,” which is about how French theory was assimilated to Duchamp so as to ensure that nothing be allowed to change since the early seventies and while I don’t think I’ve ever understood how everything worked, I think one of the things about critical thinking is that you should be able to theorize the present and my analysis may have been helped by the fact that I saw the change take place…

Rail: From the outside, in a sense.

Gilbert-Rolfe: Outside and inside. I arrived in New York in 1970, ’71 and the crucial change is 1973, ’74.

Rail: That’s when Robert Smithson died.

Gilbert-Rolfe: Yeah, but that’s parenthetical. The real change followed from the resurrection of Duchamp happening to coincide with the arrival of Walter Benjamin in the American art world some thirty years after his death—Illuminations appeared in 1970 and everybody got tremendously hot for “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”—and the almost simultaneous appearance in translation of the first wave of French writings that the art world could pick up on. This was what I wrote about in the “French Have Landed.” The crucial texts were Roland Barthes’ and Foucault’s, not Derrida’s by all means. And Barthes, too, was the man who resurrected the work of Benjamin and Brecht for the French. He could be readily assimilated to a Duchampian conversion of Foucault’s notion of the episteme into a theory of a de-aestheticised world.

            But what actually happened in ’73-74 reminded me of Victor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Education. Shklovsky—who invented the term ‘de-familiarization’—wrote a book called Sentimental Education which is a mixture of cultural theory, art criticism, history and autobiography and in it he talks about missing the point when some Bolsheviks visited the rifle battalion in which he was serving in the spring of 1916. He and his friends were left-wing Mensheviks from Moscow while he describes the Bolsheviks as an unshaven, ignorant bunch who didn’t even know their Marx very well. Shklovsky and his friends told them all to go away. Six months later they were in power. That’s very much what 1974 was like. Suddenly idiots theorizing art exclusively as a matter of historical production, things like Joseph Kosuth signing philosophers the way that Andy signed soup cans, were being taken seriously. 

            Of course that completely fucked painting, because it could now be treated purely as an historical object by a discourse entirely devoted to death—of painting, of modernism, of the author but not the dealer. I’ve described the situation regarding the recurrent and constant death of painting and also of Kant as paralleling Derrida’s refutation of Fukuyama’s preservation of Marx as ghost in order to that he may be the one who finally lays the threat to rest. Painting has been preserved as a ghost so that successive generations of productivists can demonstrate that it’s their critical ritual that can finally exorcise it. As to your earlier question about my painting and writing, when people look at my paintings I’d appreciate it if they’d recall that they are made by the person who has demonstrated not only ostensively but also in prose that the death of painting is a crock of shit.

Rail: It never seems to work though.

Gilbert-Rolfe: Absolutely not, it’s a fatuous exercise, painting is not a purely historical object so defining it as such can only produce banality. And banality is all you get in an art world which can only have painting that apologizes for itself by being either ironical or faux naïve. By the late ’70s you have Julian Schnabel and the likes trying to revive figurative expressionism in a completely implausible way. That’s the faux naïve. At the same time one has the Germans talking about how they’re going to restart German expressionism from where Hitler cut it off and likewise the Italians with Mussolini, but coincidentally without mentioning that their works were going to have the exact same scale as abstract expressionist paintings. That’s the historical object. Baselitz is the only one who pulled it off, I think because that wasn’t what he was trying to do. The great non-painting triumph is of course Richter, Germany’s Andy.

Rail: Let’s shift the subject a bit. Don’t you agree that one has to be able to sustain attention while embracing complexity in order to understand that a work of art can move and change even though it embodies contradictions and that those contradictions are allowed to be alive and they’re not to be resolved within a simplistic format?

Gilbert-Rolfe: Oh yes, simplicity is what is ultimately so unpersuasive about Judd. I saw Judd’s retrospective and it was perfectly clear that what was great about his work was over by the early seventies and that it was over because he had always sought to essentialize and simplify things and could not recomplicate, rethink and develop the work further. And when he tried it just became repetitive, redundant. I think similar things about Richard Serra. As far as I’m concerned he may be the greatest disappointment in contemporary art. His work since the late seventies at the very latest is the most tediously mere erectile bombast. Funny how he does big curvy versions of Newman’s “Zim Zum” and no one sees it as the feminine, passive, version. I guess because it’s big.

Rail: I’ve always been very curious about those works that Judd did where he started to investigate progressions. It was in som of the anodized aluminum pieces on the wall. And then he seems to have abandoned that investigation without bringing it to any kind of fruition, as if that work betrayed the original impetus of his serially oriented boxes.

Gilbert-Rolfe: I suspect that’s true.

Rail: That was a real tragedy in his work because that was the moment when he could have reinvested his work with a complexity through those harmonic relationships in progressions—even though it would have led him away from his initial thesis. in terms of the fecundity of his own work, it would have been a much more interesting development.

Gilbert-Rolfe: Sure, it would have meant he had the balls to contradict himself. That’s why I agree with Shirley Kaneda that Stella is the most interesting painter of his generation. Stella produces lots of work which is horrible, but I’d much rather see a Stella show anytime than, say, a Serra show. Stella is an artist who began his career with this massive reduction—dispassionate painting rather than gesture, a deductive structure rather than inventiveness; in other words those black paintings will be Pollock but with straight lines and therefore anti-Pollock in a dialectical, inverse, sense. But then he realized that that was a starting point. He found a way to establish some sort of clarity of his own and then proceeded to spend the rest of his life trying to complicate it. He isn’t afraid of complications. Sure, some huge proportion of those complications turn into the just most tormented kind of heaviness, and all the rest of it. But it’s much more exciting than this perfecting of the macho image syndrome that we get from Serra. The thing with Serra is that it’s Ellsworth Kelly made heavy. That’s all.

Rail: But with Stella, it’s like an illustration of complexity, but the works themselves don’t affect complexity.

Gilbert-Rolfe: Well sometimes yes and others no I think, but it’s certainly the case that he’s hampered by the living so comfortably within the intellectually stodgy conventions and protections of the contemporary art world. Both the art historians and the art dealers retain the old model of art history, where one thing comes after another in a narrative that proceeds by everything being a critical response to everything else. And Stella’s generation is the most absurd example of never moving beyond art history 101. Stella relates his own work to Caravaggio’s by describing his work as a reversal of Caravaggio’s articulation pictorial depth. That’s art history 101 in its most diminished form. I do think the general level of discourse is kept low by art history having become an annex to the gallery system. The history of earlier art is inevitably the history of what Dukes and Cardinals owned, but I can’t see why contemporary art historians have limit themselves to rationalizing Larry Gagosian’s enthusiasms. Careers are artificially sustained by productivist appeals to the idea that the practice is interesting always because it was very interesting once. Maybe artists aren’t troubled by beauty because they aren’t concerned with grand narratives, an addiction to which unites the most purely pure historian of institutional critique with every art dealer in the world.

Rail: How about your essays on Smithson? I have used Smithson as a model to navigate through the twentieth century in my class at Cooper; it seems he spans from Superman to William Carlos Williams, from T Rex to Humbolt. The more I get into looking at his work and talking about it, the more he emerges for me as the most significant artist of the second part of the twentieth century. I think you wrote about his work beautifully in “Gravity’s Rainbow and the Spiral Jetty, with John Johnston”.

            There’s a traveling retrospective that started at the L.A. MOCA, which will open in June in New York. I find it very interesting that this first big show coincides with the reemergence of the Spiral Jetty. Since you went and saw the show, do you have any new thoughts about Smithson?

Gilbert-Rolfe: My new thought is rather like my old thought. John and I thought Pynchon and Smithson invited comparison because of the encyclopedic ambition that defines the complexity of Gravity’s Rainbow and “The Spiral Jetty”. Those works are both post-modern (although we didn’t say that) in that they come after the modern while both taking it into account and starting somewhere else. In contrast to the post-modernism with which we’re more familiar neither work uncritically preserves a frozen definition of the modern in order to not be what it otherwise can’t do without. The retrospective does give some more attention to aspects of Bob’s work that haven’t been thought through; things like the films. Diana Thater is the person who’s had the best ideas about those. With luck the retrospective will cause some trouble by enabling young ambitious artists to see the objects and through doing so correct all that has resulted from so many readings of his work having been based mostly in the myth and the rhetoric of his writings.

Rail: Yes, that’d be very interesting.

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Joan Waltemath