three weeks ago, I made up photocopies of several of my large drawings and sent
them to the Walker Art Center along with a nice letter asking the Walker to do a
showing of my work. I got a form letter back from somebody named Phillip,
who was sorry to tell me that the Walker could not show my work because the
exhibition schedule was full. Well, I was not surprised, I have given the
Walker an opportunity to show my work every year or two for the past 40 years
and while the Phillips have changed, the content of the form letter has not.
The Walker would certainly argue that Norman J. Olson is not an internationally known art world character in the first place, and in the second place, his drawings are simply not good enough to hang in the area’s premier showplace for modern art. The Walker folks may be correct on both counts. It is not uncommon for artists to overrate their own art. On the other hand, maybe the Walkerites are wrong. Maybe they are so stuck in looking at art from the perspective of academic modernism that, even if my drawings were works of great genius, they would not be able to tell.
Today, the official art venues all over the world are dominated by the Academic Modernist aesthetic which mandates that art must explore formal issues, asking most commonly, questions like, what is a painting? or what is sculpture? or endlessly and forever, what is art? Another of the rules of the Academic Modernist Aesthetic is that the medium is more important than any images or representations used; the texture of the paper and how the ink looks on the paper, for example, are more important than any representation the drawing may make.
This object oriented way of doing art grew up in the Twentieth Century, mostly, I would argue, as a reaction to the perfection of photography which was invented in the middle of the Nineteenth Century and brought to a very high stage of technological development in the Twentieth. The basic modern artist’s dilemma remains: If you want a picture of something that looks like the something, you can use a camera so, if you are doing art, you must find something to do that makes an interesting visual experience without making images that look like photographs of things.
Well, I am an Imagist artist. I make drawings that are full of images, mostly, in my case, nude figures. I started out drawing and painting representations of people and things because I believed that there was a value in representational painting; a certain human quality imparted by the hand of the artist that was fundamentally different from the chemical reactions of photography. I still believe that, even though my drawings are now made up of figures in stylized settings rather than in classical landscapes. Back in the 1960s, when I was a student at the University of Minnesota Art Department professors like Peter Busa tried to convert me to the nascent Academic Modernist Aesthetic telling me that I should look at paintings as “paint on a surface” when my concern was with the images, or pictures made by the paint and I didn’t give a rip about paint on a surface in the Jackson Pollock or Hans Hoffman sense where the paint is purely decorative or expressive and does not make images.
In the late 1960s, when I was a nearsighted and insane undergraduate stomping around the University of Minnesota Campus in thick glasses and a trench coat, cursing Peter Busa; a group of young Italians were busy embracing the kind of art that I was in full rebellion against. These artists are the ones represented in the Walker Art Center’s current “poor art” exhibit. I urge everyone, especially those who do not regularly attend art shows, to go to this exhibit to see what those of us who do Imagist art have had to contend with for the past forty years: Bundles of wood piled on the floor, lettuce hung on a rock with a piece of wire (shades of Yoko’s apple) lots of pieces that ask the question, “Is this pile of crap, (or drawing on tissue paper) art?”
For over forty years, I have been seeing the Walker exhibit this same pile-of-this-or-that-on-a-wood-floor-or-white-wall type of art while those of us doing serious image art cannot get our pictures shown on the wall of the outhouse. Since the mid-sixties, this same aesthetic has dominated art schools to the absolute exclusion of serious representational drawing and painting to the degree that this stuff, whether from the 1960s or the 1990s, is the academic art of today and rules the roost with far more of an iron fist than was ever imagined by Bougereau in the late 1800s when Cezanne was barred from the French Salon. It is no accident that Piero Gilardi and Yoko Ono both made about the same statement 40 years apart and the Walker loves them both.
None of us doing image art are ever likely to get a show at the Walker but the sweet smell of aesthetic revolution is in the air. I have found an audience for my drawings in the literary world. I have published over 100 of them in college literary magazines and third world punk poetry ‘zines in 12 foreign countries and all over the United States. Everybody that sees them, except art people, is excited about this image art that I and a few other people are doing and this gives me confidence and optimism. Maybe the Walker is wrong and there really is something about drawing and painting that makes them fundamentally human communicative activities, communications of images that have nothing to do with the texture of the fucking paper. Maybe a new aesthetic is dawning outside the high ivory tower walls that will make the Walker, in forty years, as obsolete as the salon of Bougereau and Gerome was by 1920. I am sure that if that happens, this year’s Phillip will have moved on to another museum of modern art in New York or someplace but, I will still be here and I will be the first to cheer when the Walker Art Center is finally recognized as the ossified and narrow minded institution that it is and as a place so busy looking backward that it could not even see that there was new art next door.
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