Reflections on: The Personal in Art

[Usually I call these impromptu writings “runaway rants”, but that implies a certain combativeness or railing against something, which is sometimes true. “Reflections” is probably more fair, at least when I’m not objecting to something offensively stupid.]

SFAU #17 & #4. Both are based on the same original photo of yours truly.

Sometimes something is so goddamned obvious we don’t see it, and I would not think this about myself at all, but something almost impossible to ignore has been eluding me for over 6 years of blogging and over 500 posts. I have not considered art, consciously and deliberately, in terms of whether or not it is personal.

Typically, we think of art in terms of conceptual versus traditional, or contemporary versus modern. But whether the art is personal or impersonal may be more pertinent in some cases.

Personal art might include:

  • Human subject (think Bacon, Auerbach, Freud, Neel, Kahlo, Hopper…)
  • Conspicuous use of visual imagination (think Bosch, or the Surrealists…).
  • Grappling with the human condition (ex, Beckmann, Kollwitz, Golub…).
  • Emotion and feeling (Van Gogh, Expressionism, El Greco…)
  • The personal/human touch evident in the making of the art (The Abstract Expressionists…)
  • The manifestation of a unique vision (Bosch, Giger, Tanguy, Kubin, van Gogh, Gauguin…)
  • A recognizable style that can’t easily be imitated (Van Gogh, Bacon, Schiele…)

Impersonal art might include:

  • No subject or imagery (Minimalism, Malevich, Mondrian…)
  • No use of the visual imagination whatsoever (Appropriation art, readymades, Minimalism…)
  • No evidence of human touch (Koons, Hirst, Warhol, Duchamp, Creed…)
  • An attempt to question, challenge, oroppose traditional art (Duchamp, Kosuth, Levine…)
  • Emphasis on ideas, especially ideas about art (Duchamp, Weiner, Prince…)

There are some hybrids, like Rauschenberg, Johns, or Salle. And there are others who are somewhere in between, such as Matisse, Diebenkorn, or Kandinsky. The latter are formally innovative, but tend strongly towards abstraction. Nevertheless, a personal aesthetics is very strong. And sometimes I’m in the mood for Diebenkorn rather than Kubin. And I like the occasional Mondrian for variety. It’s just not my go-to brew.

I’m not trying to prejudice the reader, one way or the other. Rather, I’m noticing that along with the imagination (which I’ve addressed before), and skill, the personal is being increasingly filtered out of contemporary art. Part of this might have to do with how culture is radicalizing and refining, rather than stepping back and integrating with what’s worked in the past. Nobody wants to admit that perhaps they’ve ventured too far out on a limb, and rather than keep going and insisting everyone follow them, it’s time to clamor back to the drunk before trying to go higher. A radical diet might be good for shocking the system and losing a few pounds, but in the long run, you need a balanced diet.

One of the reasons contemporary art may be so infamously unpopular with the average citizen is NOT because the radical, revolutionary artists are so far ahead of everyone else philosophically, and the common person just can’t “get” it. Rather, a lot of people may just not like art that is devoid of the human, the imagination, the aesthetic, and the personal touch. And the so-called “radical” art has been recycling the same ideas since before I was born, and is not so much revolutionary as it is a certain kind of art. Some people aren’t really into the extreme, cerebral end of the spectrum. In short, it’s not the newness of the art that leaves people behind, it’s just the side of the spectrum it’s on. They don’t much like Malevich’s black square painting or Duchamp’s urinal, and those were made before they were born.

And then comes the second plain-as-day recognition: most my own art tens to the highly personal in terms of content, subject, approach, style, and/or technique. And most contemporary art that is held as super important is entirely impersonal in all those same categories.

Several days ago I wrote about something else blatantly obvious that somehow escaped my attention, and that was the simple question, “What isn’t art?” Part of the reason for that is the dialogue about art since before I was born revolves entirely around, “What is art?”. It just doesn’t even occur to one to flip the coin.

I think I was taught that the personal in art is bad, unless it is done for political ends, such as to empower a minority group.  An example comes to mind in feminist performance art such as Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, Marina Abramovićo, or perhaps Eva Hesse (who managed to make Minimalism biological, tactile, and personal).

Eva Hesse – Ventiginous Detour, 1966

Men did this somewhat less so, with the very notable exception of Chris Burden, or Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, and even Paul McCarthy. When I look at that roster, those are all artists I like [with the possible exception of Marina Abramović for being magnificently overrated IMHO].

Chris Burden, Trans-Fixed, 1974

Wait, I did an image over a decade ago with the same title:

Transfixion

Transfixion, Digital Painting, 2003.

Oh, no, mine’s “Transfixion” and not “Trans-fixed”. Incidentally, I signed up for a “New Genre” class with Chris Burden at UCLA, but I think he was let go because one of his students jumped off a balcony as art, and I got Paul McCarthy instead.

I wrote an article a while ago about one of the most alarming and fascination artist couples — and a true marriage of opposites — Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre. As I said, this is a feature movie, or mini-series, just waiting to happen, and it culminates with Ana’s death after plummeting 34 stories from their luxury apartment in Manhattan. Whether it was an accident, a suicide, or murder is still unknown.

Andre is a cool (as in cold-as-ice) Minimalist sculptor who is most famous, at least in my mind, for arranging floor tiles in squares on the floor.

Carl Andre, 64 Aluminum Square,1969

There are a whole bunch of these square floor sculptures, and the good news is that if you like any one of them you can reproduce it yourself by noting how many squares there are, and making a purchase at the local hardware store.

Ana’s work looks a bit more like this:

or this:

Ana deals with the body, blood, life, death, being a woman, her cultural background, psychology, and so on. Andre deals with very cerebral ideas about art, and impenetrable objects devoid of the human (unless you consider the act of placing tiles or bricks on the floor tells us something significant about the artist, which is mundane at best). [Note: I also did performance art revolving around the body, and even including blood.]

They could not be further apart. And between these two artists, one may have a preference (as to the art, not the person here), or even a very strong preference. There’s no contest for me. I can’t even take Andre seriously. I’m not afraid to say when I think something is bullshit, and bricks or tiles on the floor placed in a gallery, for me, is so goddamned innocuous that even if it isn’t bullshit, I might prefer bullshit. I mean, at least Manzoni’s canned artist’s shit was funny. In Andre’s art, the persona is eradicated.

I know that my views are anathema in the art world, so you may beg to differ with me. Have a vote:

Of course you don’t really have to choose, and the art student or teacher of today will generally either pick both, because they are seen as important in art history, or they will pick Ana because she’s a woman of color, and Andre is a heterosexual white male. Some, obviously, will choose Ana for the reasons I do.

I can just go down the line and every artist I like is on the personal end of the spectrum. I prefer the Abstract Expressionist, such as Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning over the more Minimalist painters who followed: Stella, Reinhardt, Newman, and Ryman.

One of Frank Stella’s protractor paintings.

I love Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, and El Greco. I’ll take Frida Kahlo over Diego Rivera most days, though when I first discovered her, I found her work too self-obsessed, about personal pain, and so on, until I read up on her, after which I thought it was rather justified.


We just learned that Jeff Koons’s “Bunny” is the highest selling artwork at auction by any living artist. It’s an appropriation work. He didn’t conceive it, though he conceived of copying it. He didn’t make it. And it says virtually nothing about him. And even when he includes himself in his art, it still says nothing about him beyond using himself for self-promotion.


I was taught that the personal was kinda’ bad in art, unsophisticated. I recall a painting teacher at UCLA telling us how she abhorred the “angst” in Francis Bacon’s art, and this at a time when in music, Nirvana had just cut Nevermind (if you know the music you know what I’m getting at). She also told me that I’d never make it to grad school because my paintings were figurative. Here’s a painting from more than a quarter century ago, when I was 25, for her beginning, undergraduate, painting class.

I got a B- in the course, though this same painting and a sculpture were later shown in a group exhibit at the Orlando gallery in Los Angeles.

OK, I did get an “A” in the sculpture class I made this in, which was taught by Charles Ray, who really, really liked this piece. Yeah, and I got A’s in pretty much every other art class, including Paul McCarthy’s, and my feminist photography classes. I even got a 10k fellowship in my senior year, which was only awarded to one person, and based on a juried exhibition. People tend to think that all my teachers thought I was shit, and I’m just bitter and whatnot. No, it was only in grad school that I was completely defeated, because I happened to go to a radical political school where, well, you just couldn’t have my biology and succeed. I was disqualified. But, notice how personal the pieces above are. And while I did manage to win at playing other people’s game of art, I also had to buy my own approach and what I really wanted to do, because it was too personal, to representational, and too painterly.

Much art, now, prizes itself on eliminating the personal touch. It’s part of the point why the art is superior, and more philosophically advanced. The individual, artist originator, we learned from Roland Barthes, is DEAD. After Picasso who is the most famous artists of the 20th century?There are a few contenders, but Warhol must be among them. He’s famous for having an art factory, where other people churned out his work for him in a style that mimicked commercial/advertising art. While his facade is extremely famous — the wig and the glasses and the performance of simulated naivete — the actual man is unknown, unless he is, as Robert Hughes famously pronounced, stupid. He pronounced that there was nothing in his art beneath he surface, and declared the same thing about himself. He stated, “I want to be a machine”. So, despite the instant recognizability of his visage, what we know as Andy Warhol is a caricature.

His Brillo boxes tell us nothing about him.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Baxes, 1964.

Some may disagree, because they are quite fond of Andy, or the puppet he ironically portrays himself to be, but what can you say of his use of the imagination? We can heap on the accolades, but as is the case of all appropriationist art, it seeks to obliterate the individual in subject, content, and execution, in favor of the presumed universal of the bland object from popular culture. To the degree we know Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Levine, Prince, or Duchamp it is from photos of them and interviews, but not at all via their art. It’s not about them, there are no feelings in it, nor content, and that’s the point. That’s the radical new perspective.

But all that negligible, antiquated personal garbage is so much what I really enjoy in art. I like the way people handle paint. I love impasto. I like how Pollock flung paint.

The other thing I really like which is utterly personal, is the imagination, which often reflects someone’s internal, private world. Even if the subject matter is not human, it reflects directly on the human mind.

Yves Tanguy, Indefinite Divisibility, 1942.

Thus I like highly imaginative works, from Bosch to the Surrealists. You will also notice that the visual imagination is very unpopular today. Any use of the visual imagination is at an absolute minimum — no more than decorating a cake or setting up a desk — in the works of Warhol, Koons, and crew.

Just because someone does portraits, however, does not make their work personal. In that case, the subject may be a person, and expertly painted, but no differently than a bowl of fruit.

My most recent few series are all, come to think of it, highly personal, either explicitly in content (the Selfies from Alternate Universes series), or in use of the imagination, and in physical technique.

My second most recent piece, Monster in the Mirror, above, was done only using my imagination, was unpremeditated, and is a digital drawing using whatever drawing skills I’ve amassed. In some ways this is more personal than my altered self-portraits, because it’s a manifestation of my mind, which is more individual that my exterior appearance.

My most recent piece was another contribution to my SFAU series:

SFAU #31

And just for the people who made it this far, or skimmed here looking for some snippet to hate upon in a personal attack on reddit, here’s the female version in progress:

I intend them to be a diptych, but I’ll have to see how that looks when I’m done with her.


I’m gonna’ wrap this up, because I gotta’ go to work. Y’know, maybe it was defensive, my not being cognizant how personal my art is and how much I like personal art, because I know it’s not fashionable in the art world. Also, when you get personal attacks, as I do, the more personal the art, the more personal the attack. I really think it has to do, however — as with the question of “What isn’t art?” —  with the personal in art being so sidelined in the art discourse of the present (unless is it overtly political). I just didn’t consider it because nobody else seemed to care about it.  There is, of course, an objective remove, a conceptual element, and a detatchedt way of looking at any art, and I’m quite good at abstract, rational thought, so can always couch my art in those terms.

But now, it’s kinda obvious to me that I like to identify with a person, participate in feelings, and all that rich, human, gooey stuff. I don’t really like a urinal, floor tiles on the floor, a vacuum cleaner in a glass case, a halved sheep plastered against glass in formaldehyde, a protractor painting, an all white painting, a black square painting, and so much of contemporary art. You’ll find me instead hovering around the Rauschenberg; the Ed and Nancy Kienholz; the AE painters; the British figurative artists Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, and Lucien Freud; the Chris Burden end of the conceptual art spectrum; the Kerry James Marshall paintings; the Surrealists; and the portraits of Glenn Brown and Antony Micallef, etc.

I don’t advocate looking at art through any individual lens for more than a short spell, but here I give you “personal vs in-personal”. What you like is up to you. The world needs people who make impersonal, cerebral, theoretical art and those who enjoy it more than I do. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

~Ends

SFAU #14, by Eric Wayne. Digital painting, 24×37″ @300 dpi, 4/2018.


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2 thoughts on “Reflections on: The Personal in Art

  1. Eric, I cannot empathize enough about art school depersonalizing your work. I graduated in 1988 and always leaned toward figurative work. Not even realism. Simply work that may contain a narrative or a hidden story and perhaps a figure. It was a no win situation. If I did such work it was labeled “womens art” or out of touch or too personal. I ended up leaning toward what I can only describe as biological abstraction. I graduated confused and defeated and didn’t paint for 15 years. That’s what can happen when you’re told your inner voice is crap. I received nothing but accolades for the “abstract” work but it when you burn down the forest behind you there are no seedlings for the future. It has been a real journey to get back to the original voice and enjoy it. And Stella is truly a bore. I love the new portraits. I think they are fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Amy. Some people don’t quite believe me that there was strong discrimination against figurative painting, and depending how radical the school was, painting at all (I didn’t make a single painting beyond my first 5 weeks in graduate school). I think there were thousands or tens of thousands or more artists who were squashed because their true love was making imagery, and that was just considered backwards, or the enemy. As I love to point out, there was no significant art equivalent of the explosion of rock music of the late 60’s-early 70’s. I think generations of visual artists were thwarted.

      And I thought of you while writing this piece, because you do articulate a personal vision, definitely. Only you could make those paintings.

      I’m going to remember that it took you 15 years to recover, and re-center around what YOU wanted to do with art. That is so similar to my experience. And the work I do now, I don’t think I could do in many art schools and be taken seriously at all, or not savaged. Perhaps you feel that same about your work.

      Glad you like the new portraits (there are so many more to come, but I want to do other things as well), and thanks again for sharing a bit of your art story.

      Like

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