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The NEA Visual Artists' Fellowship Program
By Nancy Princenthal
One of the most powerful of honorifics, in the visual arts, is "artists' artist." It is a term for the painter or sculptor or performance artist who is perhaps not (yet) widely recognized by the public at large, or by those who buy and sell art, or even necessarily by the critics, but is admired with special fervor by those practicing in the same discipline. Over the course of its nearly thirty-year history, the Artists' Fellowship Program of the National Endowment for the Arts established a monumental record of artists' artists, of professionals chosen by panels comprised overwhelmingly of their peers (though administrators, historians, and critics also participated). The panelists looked not for evidence of popular acclaim, but for those who deserved it; without setting themselves the goal of predicting success, their decisions were often premonitory.
Neither the work that was supported, nor the fellowship program itself, can be summarily characterized. If they could—if the Endowment's legacy in this field could be accommodated within a single framework, or ideology, or even a coherent set of descriptive terms—the program would have been an abject failure. The record of recipients does, however, tell a story. It is vivid and engrossing, but it is not easy to decipher, since it's written in several dialects. And perhaps that is its main plot: how over the lifespan of the fellowship program, the language of visual art has divided, multiplied,interwoven—and, as a result, thrived.
This essay is organized around 100 fellowship recipients whose work is illustrated in the color-plate section of the book. They were selected, from among the thousands of artists who received individual artists' grants over the twenty-eight-year life of the program, in much the same way that the awards were first made: a panel of arts professionals from around the country was asked to submit nominations, and a second panel made the final selections. (During most of the run of the fellowship program, applications were received, ultimately in the thousands, on an open basis; but for the first three years, before it was widely known, the program relied on the nominations of panelists.) The panelists who selected artists for this book represent the national scope, and the conceptual and stylistic breadth, of the fellowship program itself. Inevitably, the panel's choices reflect the interests of administrators and writers working in the field today; the artists they have chosen are, mainly, those whose work remains vital to the art production of our time. But every effort was made to reflect, as well, the changing nature of the program as it evolved, and thus this sampling permits the reconstruction of an essential passage in American visual art.
Representing the sixty artists who were awarded fellowships in the first round (1967) are Mark di Suvero, Dan Flavin, Sam Gilliam, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, Edward Ruscha, Tony Smith, and H. C. Westermann. Nominated by the program's first panelists, these artists were mere established and widely acclaimed at the time they received support than most who would receive grants subsequently. The early awards signaled the prestige of the NEA program, and also its pre-science, since these artists remain among the leading figures of their generation. Their work at the time tended to be big, clean, and bold; in keeping with prevailing tendencies, it was largely (though not exclusively) abstract. Much of it articulated a distinctly American position for visual art, and a strong relationship with unmistakably American kinds of mass media, in a period of deep interest in national cultures. All could be labeled with ease as either painting or sculpture. (At the outset, there was only one category for grant applications—"artist." Separate grants in the categories "painting" and "sculpture" were not made until 1981, though photography, crafts, printmaking, conceptual/performance art, and video were all introduced as application categories in the interim.) Most of the early recipients were white men, an inequity that would soon be redressed.
But these were hardly safe choices. A solid core of this first-round work—that by Flavin, Judd, Martin, Morris, and Smith—is Minimalist, recognizable as such by its sleek, dispassionate geometry. (Represented by black-and-white illustrations in this book are several other Minimalists of this generation who received NEA fellowships, including Carl Andre, Ronald Bladen, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, David Rabinowitch, and Fred Sandback.) Minimalism's provocation is today hard to recapture, largely because the simple clear forms associated with it (and with conceptually distinct earlier European experiments in reductive abstraction) have long since become part of the commercial design vernacular. But if the work is examined on its own terms (and several of these artists were active writers and polemicists) its radicalism is hard to miss. Rejecting standard compositional technique-focal points and hierarchically ordered areas of subsidiary interest, for one; the visible record of the artist's expressive touch, for another—the Minimalists not only abjured figuration, they also defied established assumptions within abstract art.
A primary commitment was to presentation, at the expense of representation; not just mimesis, but all kinds of metaphor were rejected outright. The new work celebrated the art object in itself, as a material presence, as a document of the labor invested in it by the artist, and as the occasion for a physical and/or perceptual experience for the viewer. But among Minimalism's many challenges, one was of a different order: it was launched against traditions governing category distinctions in the arts, as, for instance, those separating sculpture and functional object, or painting, or theatrical prop. Such challenges to conventional definitions of the arts were not new to the '60s generation (they can be seen in aspects of Modernism going back to the early twentieth century) but they are firmly identified with these artists—and, indeed, with the Endowment's Visual Artists' Fellowship Program itself. If anything can be said to have constituted an ongoing preoccupation for the program, it is support of the ever-increasing diversity of methods and media in visual art, whether such support meant helping to articulate new disciplines, or, more often, condoning—and facilitating—the fluid exchanges between them.
A certain amount of pressure is exerted, in the art market, by the simple demand for traditionally defined objects: paintings and works on paper that can be hung in a domestic interior and, with somewhat more difficulty, sculptures that can be installed there. This is hardly the only factor determining the commercial, much less the critical, viability of art. Certainly the degree of influence exerted by the market on art is debatable, and clearly museums and other public exhibiting institutions have become crucially important as sources of financial support for the arts. However, just as clearly, the government can play a critical role in freeing artists from the need to comply with the preferences and constraints of private collectors.
To be sure, for many artists awarded fellowships in the late '60s, and later, "circumvention of the commercial sector" (a term in wide circulation at the time) was, at most, a secondary concern. When Judd, for instance, opened his influential article "Specific Objects," by claiming that "Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture," he was describing the work's challenges to historical art, and not, primarily, to that art's market. The same is true of Mark di Suvero's work, which managed to be both painterly and sculptural, bringing the bravado of big-gesture brushwork to the construction of assembled and welded sculpture. Tony Smith, an architect by training, applied the modularity and functional imperatives of his design practice to his sculpture, though he kept the two disciplines discrete. (Judd, by contrast, ultimately became very interested in integrating fine and applied art as the Bauhaus and De Stijl masters of the early twentieth century had advocated, a goal he achieved at the residential, studio, and exhibition spaces at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, illustrated here.) Dan Flavin, working throughout his career with simple configurations of colored fluorescent light bulbs, illuminated (in more ways than one) the relationship between sculpture and useful design, though his work had no direct functional application.
But for all the Minimalists, including those who, like Robert Morris, explored very different issues in later work, the rejection of a metaphorical in favor of a plainly declarative visual language also implied a repositioning of art with respect to ordinary life. Sculptures and paintings were not transcendent objects; it was precisely their ordinariness, their quiddity, that merited enhanced attention. Making art did not involve sublimation into a realm of rarefied sensibility, it was work, pure and simple. Knocked off its pedestal, both symbolically and literally, art was to be created by laborers, in industrial spaces, using commercial materials.
Of course, this thinking (and its rhetoric) caught in its net many artists whose motivation was quite different. For instance, the painter Agnes Martin, associated by age with the Abstract Expressionists (she was born in 1912), is affiliated by style with the Minimalist artists, especially in her use of the Cartesian grid. But her meditative work reflects, in its colors and the tenor of its hand-penciled lines, an acute sympathy for the conditions of light and atmosphere in the natural world. "It is not what is seen, it is what is known forever in the mind," Martin has said in response to questions about her work's relationship to the landscape of the Southwest, where she moved from lower Manhattan in 1967, the same year the NEA awarded her a fellowship. Ed Ruscha, of the same generation as the largely East-Coast Minimalists, is a Los Angeles-based artist whose sharp, funny paintings combined elements of consumer-happy Pop and archly cerebral Conceptualism with a distinctly Southern California focus on car culture, and a driver's-eye perspective on the West Coast landscape. Sam Gilliam, a painter based in Washington D.C., was associated there with the Co]or Field painters who took up the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Staining raw canvas with freely poured pigments, the Color Field artists caused paint to literally become part of the support surface, making image and object inseparable in a manner only one step removed from what the Minimalists were doing in sculpture at the same time. One of the best-known African-American artists of his time, Gilliam, born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, remains an active and widely admired abstractionist, whose paintings (as illustrated here) have increasingly involved constructed three-dimensional elements.
H.C. Westermann, a renegade prankster of the highest order, was initially based in Chicago, and became a mentor there to younger artists establishing an acidly comic regional painting idiom determinedly independent of New York. A masterful carpenter, Westermann fashioned his sculpture from wood, hardware, and miscellaneous commercial objects, investing them with significance both emotionally gripping and impenetrably ironic. The Walnut Death Ship illustrated here, one of a series of such vessels (they derive from an aircraft carrier attack that Westermann survived during service in World War II), combines comedy and tragic mortality in equal measure, its fastidious construction no security against its terrible, laughable fate.
In short, the artists of the first round include both clear favorites and long shots, artists already or soon to be successful in the major centers of contemporary art, and others whose work was less well-known outside a group of local, ardent admirers. Several of the artists awarded fellowships in the first years would later receive support in other fellowship categories, from Painting to New Genres. And in the next few years, the NEA program's embrace of artists working in new disciplines greatly increased. Recipients in the next two years included a quartet of diverse artists whose (loosely defined) common purpose was the investigation of perception, as shaped both physiologically and culturally. Richard Tuttle, a fellowship recipient in 1969, is a visual poet who works at the very brink of immateriality, making objects consisting of nothing more (in the most attenuated examples) than bent wire and its shadow. A deeply reflective and disciplined artist, Tuttle trains his sight on visual incidents of such frailty and precision, realized in such eminently disposable materials (they have included bubble wrap, Styrofoam, and tin foil), that his work is easily overlooked—or, paradoxically, condemned for being too precious. But the exacting standards he sets for his audience, calling for appreciation of surpassingly subtle variations in texture, light, contour, and weight, have had a broad impact on the expectations and habits of art viewers.
James Turrell, a 1968 recipient, is as committed as Tuttle to an art of light, shadow, and their most carefully calibrated perturbations. But Turrell manipulates these elements with work that ranges from the room-sized (walk-in installations composed of controlled volumes of colored light, such as the rich, tart Key Lime illustrated here) to the colossal: for many years, he has been working at Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona, subtly transforming it into a vast optical instrument with ramps and apertures placed to frame particular events in the solar and celestial calendar. Though not yet fully available to the public, Turrell's Roden Crater project has already exerted considerable influence on art's physical and conceptual limits.
But in terms of shaping patterns of expectation and understanding for art, few artists who emerged in the late sixties have been as influential as Bruce Nauman, a 1968 fellow. Sensitive from the beginning to the manifold paradoxes involved in laying claim to perceptual experience, Nauman has devised a seemingly endless variety of exercises for examining the relative privileges of authorship, response (both perceptual and emotional), and consumption. The materials he uses have included steel mesh fencing, taxidermists' plastic molds, and neon signage; landmark works have ranged from an ironically spectacular enlargement of his own signature (extended vertically fourteen times, in neon) to videotaped performance—staged pratfalls, in slow motion; screaming heads, in real time—that make extreme physical and psychological states seem abstract. Greatly interested in wordplay, Nauman gravitates toward its limits: "I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs," he said in a 1989 interview.
These artists' work, concerned above all with sensory experience rather than material value ("This is not minimalism and it is not conceptual work, it is perceptual work," Turrell has said), stretched the art market's tolerance. Not that it lacked commercial and institutional support. Nauman had his first solo exhibition, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, when he was just twenty-four; he had a one-person show at Leo Castelli in New York two years later, and his first museum survey by the time he was thirty, in 1972 (the NEA grant came when he was twenty-seven); Tuttle's work, which also won early acclaim, was the subject of a 1975 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Still, these artists' work was hardly free of controversy, and the ambivalence toward the commercial market it reflected is visible in other decisions they have made. Tuttle, Nauman, and Turrell have all, independently, chosen to live in the rural Southwest, far from major centers of contemporary art production. And, however much success it has garnered, it is hard to imagine any of this work being developed with the commercial market as its sole support, since rethinking every aspect of the relationship between artists and viewers—as perceivers, respondents, and, not least, consumers—is critical to its meaning. Indeed the reconfiguration of the public, understood both in the aggregate and as disparate communities and individuals, with vastly different predispositions, expectations, and interests, is one of this work's most important impulses.
The Seventies: Three-Dimensional Work
By 1973, the circle of visual arts fellowship recipients had again widened exponentially. Robert Irwin, a California-based artist, was deeply interested, like his colleague Turrell, in shaping perceptual experience through subtle manipulations of light. Beginning with paint on canvas, but soon moving to theatrical scrim (as in the later work illustrated here), Irwin created light-controlled conditions for optical responses that hovered just short of flat-out illusion. Irwin's interest in shaping experience has since found expression in designs for public spaces, from the gardens that flank the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to the atrium of the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., where the National Endowment for the Arts has its headquarters. With his public projects, Irwin became a leading figure in developing a kind of public art conceived in response to the conditions of its site. In a treatise called Being and Circumstance: Notes toward a Conditional Art, he promoted a "phenomenal, conditional, responsive art" that is "site conditioned/determined. Here the sculptural response draws all of its cues (reasons for being) from its surroundings. This requires the process to begin with an intimate, hands-on reading of the site."
Richard Artschwager, like H.C. Westermann, is a skilled carpenter. Although he was a student in New York of the French Modernist Amedée Ozenfant for two years after World War II, Artschwager initially spurned this training, opening a small furniture factory before devoting himself full time to art. Combining the rigors of fine cabinet-making with the insouciance of Pop, Artschwager entered into an investigation of the meaning of integrity—of "honesty to materials" and to the forms demanded by function—as it applies both to objects generally deemed "useful" (tables and chairs, for instance), and to art. The resulting hybrids have included unusable furniture, Formica-surfaced sculpture, and, ultimately, photo-based images executed in acrylic on textured plastic surfaces.
Well into the seventies, a great deal of work recognized by the Endowment continued to engage ideas related to Minimalism. Barry Le Va's sculpture, really a variant of Post-Minimalism rather than Minimalism proper, was based on the random dispersal of common materials, a compositional strategy meant in part to express the physical world's inexorable progress toward chaos. (The "Post" in Post-Minimalism is misleading, since distinguishing the two chronologically is difficult, though it does separate a more lenient, process-oriented approach from a more rigorously rectilinear and machined one.) Scattering strips of felt, shattered glass, powder, and ball bearings at random on the floor, Le Va (who received a fellowship in 1976) created ephemeral landscapes determined by the chance confluence of the particulars of a given space, set of materials, and gestures. (In the years since, Le Va's work has grown increasingly rule-determined, as in the work illustrated here, while remaining unyieldingly abstract.)
On the other hand, Joel Shapiro (a 1975 recipient) redirected the language of Minimalism toward the figure, producing highly simplified geometric forms that by the middle seventies had organized themselves into diminutive houses. Oddly positioned, placed at the end of shelves extending from the wall or atop tables stood on the floor, these toy-sized structures each established a kind of perceptual quarantine; the spatial environments they produced in their own immediate vicinity seemed unnervingly discontinuous with the bigger, more shapeless and ambiguous world to which the viewer was, by default, relegated. (Shapiro's recent work includes over-life-size human figures, though its forms remain simple and sticklike, and are still, always, off balance, as can be seen in the public sculpture illustrated here.) Nancy Graves (a 1973 recipient) was a realist of a different persuasion who first gained recognition for sculptures of camels, a subject matter sufficiently odd, realized with a fidelity sufficiently exacting, that the very tradition invoked—figurative sculpture—seemed unequal to the results. In subsequent work, Graves used a great variety of found material, most strikingly fruits, vegetables, and other flora cast in metal, welded together in freely associative compositions, and painted with equal license. Unquestionably a species of objective figuration, Graves's sculpture threw both parts of the term into question, transforming the most familiar of objects into characters in a language of unrestricted and highly expressive abstraction.
As can be seen in Graves's work, the mid-seventies was a period in which influences from outside mainstream Modernist traditions were strongly felt, often expressed through craft techniques—an interest pursued, in part, because of late Minimalism's emphasis on process rather than product. For instance Martin Puryear, a 1977 recipient, studied woodworking and other craft techniques in both Africa and Scandinavia, and brought these disparate experiences to bear in his eccentric abstractions, which often weave subtle historical references into technique, as well as subject matter. Puryear has worked with a very wide range of materials, from rawhide and wood (using furniture-making techniques) to tarred wire mesh (from shipbuilding) to, in recent work, cast metal; his work's references range from tribal artifacts to futurist shelters. Significantly, Puryear, who is black, sought not "primitivism" but skill in Africa; writing about his work in 1989, curator Robert Storr compared it to Westermann's and Artschwager's, and noted that "of late ... the concept of mastery has fallen into almost total disrespect, becoming little more than an epithet for the ostentatious display of facility ... [but] to speak of mastery does not suppose an innate capacity nor assert a suspect claim to genius: It simply names the culmination of a prolonged and utterly practical education." Similarly, Jackie Winsor (who received three fellowships, the first in 1974), chose methods and materials—including, early in her career, wound twine—that reflected a similar interest in traditional techniques, and in ensuring that the creative process is clearly manifest in the finished object.
The sculpture of Puryear and Winsor resides comfortably within the precincts of contemporary art; the work of ceramists Robert Arneson, Michael Lucero, and Peter Voulkos, on the other hand, lives an edgy life between art and craft. All were awarded grants as "artists," Arneson in 1973, Voulkos in 1976, and Lucero in 1979; Voulkos and Lucero would subsequently receive fellowships in the Crafts category, a field in which they maintain distinguished careers without in any way relinquishing the attention of the art world. Arneson, who later received support as a sculptor, was a figurative artist of great ebullience and reckless humor. Crossing wires between cool, Pop-related figuration and dangerously hot-headed political satire, he demonstrated unrivaled virtuosity in his medium, while also using techniques (gluing together elements broken in firing, for instance, or applying both glazes and paint to fired clay) considered taboo in the field. Voulkos, a mentor to a generation of American artists and craftspeople who use fired clay, was himself inspired by the gestural freedom of the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he is roughly contemporary (he was born in 1924), and also by the Zen embrace of chance and accident in design. His free-form compositions in clay, which dispense with conventional requirements regarding both function and technique, are poles apart from the work of the younger Michael Lucero, who has flouted a different set of rules. Lucero mixes messages with abandon in his work, which often takes the form of usable vessels, though its language is of the most exuberant figurative painting.
Excerpted from A CREATIVE LEGACY by Nancy Princenthal, Jennifer Dowley, Introduction by Bill Ivey. Copyright © 2001 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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