The Hammer Nails It.
UCLA’s Hammer Museum has become a kind of haven for surprising exhibitions of undervalued, under known, less acclaimed, even forgotten, and occasionally, just eccentric, artists. Over the past decade Lee Bontecau and Llyn Foulkes re-entered the public imagination through close examinations of their work, for instance, and were taken up again with momentum from those moments forward. From June 6 to September 20th 2015, a small show of the “paintings” of Joseph Holtzman, originating from the Berkeley Art Museum, continues in that important tradition at the Hammer. I suspect his work will have similar repercussions after being seen in both locations as well. The brochure that accompanies the exhibition tells us that Holtzman returned to painting in 2004 after a hiatus of 25 years. The results are extraordinary and unusual – the work of a deep set of convictions and confidences and a devil may care attitude at the same time.
The reason I put “paintings” in quotation marks is that the works that are painted are presented within an all-over display – the well-known vaulted room on the second floor in which every surface has been meticulously provided by the artist. The stunning result argues for equal value for decoration as well as the authorial expression of the paintings simultaneously. Decoration has been decried at least since early modernism. Famously Adolf Loos equated ornamentation with “crime,” or, at the very least, with unregulated passion and therefore in need of repression. He was using much the same argument as those used against the emancipation of women at the same time. The indeterminacy of passion was dangerous according to Loos and it is, oxymoronically, the precision of Holtzman’s uncertain and ambiguous aesthetics that make the room and the paintings so persuasive today.
Modernism’s clean, and eventually, funereal style led to a deadly brutalism, particularly in architecture, embraced by both the west and the east during the Cold War. Those who loved decoration were always challenging the subjugation of the celebratory in favor of the cerebral, including color, from the peripheries but they remained in the minority. In the 1970s decoration and “pattern” painting was re-introduced through artists such as Miriam Schapiro, Izhar Patkin, Valerie Jaudon, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Kim MacConnel and Ned Smyth, among others. Its re-birth as a “serious/triumphant” discourse began. One of the earliest more famous moments in its full resurrection was Andy Warhol’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1971 where he installed his works against highly colorful “cow” wallpaper. The concept of wallpaper in itself invoked both class (he had changed his name from the immigrant Warhola), sex, and gender and became a moment in the emergent discourse of “queer.” The political distance between “macho” producer and “feminine” consumer in Warhol’s work at its core became one touchstone of the new dialogues as elaborated by Kenneth Silver and inculcating Susan Sontag’s famous “Notes on Camp” essay of 1964.
Richard Meyer (not the architect but the Stanford art historian) and Larry Rinder, the curator of the exhibition met at the Hammer on the evening of June 10th to discuss the work to an enthralled public. Both possessed highly articulate and erudite interpretations of the work and made Holtzman’s efforts even more compelling by their easy and engaging understanding. Meyer’s “non-normative” categorization of Holtzman’s work resonated throughout. Holtzman, who had founded, edited and designed the famous magazine NEST: A quarterly of interiors, was further elaborated on by the two scholars in terms of his methods of painting on marble (for its quality of light); his framing the images with wooden pallets (used originally just to carry these heavy objects); his meticulous and deliberately surround of the complicated and dense expressions with a kind of garish green hue overall; and his arrangements for seating that included comfortable chairs made of materials with image references to the White House, a kind of bucolic American Fragonard farm scene and even a nod to the famous Paul Revere painting by Grant Wood (“The British are coming, the British are coming” which has its own involuntary undertones, not the least of which is the word “revere”). The references in the paintings obscurely allude to a history of ornamentation, historical classicism and certain pop cultural moments in a kind of frantic sense of the passion which Loos (pronounced Lose) had warned us against. A must see exhibition.