VANDAL VEGAS: BEAUTY AND BOB GUCCIONE

by James Mann LVAM Curator

All of 'em's -isms, huh? --Ray Schumpert, 1992

 

I Eclipse

There is an apparent blackout between the two halves of Brooklyn-born Bob Guccione's career as a serious painter. For fifteen years or so, he was a proverbial starving artist in Europe. Then he found a way to attain a sustainable income that would support his career as an ambitious painter. The trouble was, he made so much money, and his publishing company became such a large, complex enterprise, that it took all his time from painting. Eventually, however, he could postpone his painterly ambitions no longer. He drastically reduced his work load running General Media, and peremptorily took up the brushes again. That is the usual story told in both the popular and the art press about Guccione and his private struggle to create important art. But there is another story. The years of Guccione's self- imposed sabbatical from painting have a rough correspondence with the years when abstraction reigned supreme in American art at the highest cultural level. Guccione had little inclination, and even less time, to participate in the general progression of movements from Abstract Expressionism through Minimalism. Yet living in New York, the market and creative epicenter of those movements, and of the ripple effect from the fear-inspiring temblors of their authoritarian, worldwide domination, Guccione was fully aware of the innovations they were achieving. But understanding particular innovations is not equal to a desire to participate in or employ them in one's own work. The gradually reductive, systematic dismantlement by the abstract movements had a momentum that was unstoppable. By the mid-20th century, painting was an increasingly stripped interpretational response to previous painting. Reduction became inexorable in the analytic breakdown process, and artists at the innovative frontier could only respond narrowly to the previous development in dismantlement itself, having been left no other allowable imagistic raw material to work with. Once content was discarded, there was little left to dismantle but technique. Yet the dismantlement had to be carried out to the bitter end, and somebody had to do it. For several reasons, then, Bob Guccione chose not to be one of these executioners. Instead he amassed an art collection of old and new masters, now worth perhaps over $200 million, and developed an impressive expertise and connoisseurship. For example: once offered a Modigliani for sale, he dismissed it from across the room as not genuine, a judgment that later was dramatically confirmed. Two years afterward, the painting was sold by a major auction house as authentic, then had to be redeemed by the seller when new research proved it false. Acquiring a command of art history and developing a confident sensibility, Guccione bided his time as a painter. An artist need not have participated directly in occidental art's self- purging and purification process in order to be an eventual beneficiary thereof. By the time Guccione felt compelled to resume painting, the innovative frontier of contemporary art had changed completely. An artist of Guccione's obvious refinement could intuit this, even if, on the whole, prominent dealers, curators, and critics today still have not. Transcending the whole era of abstract art's unchallenged reign, a new conception of figuration by the Neo-Expressionist, younger American painters, and their European counterparts, signalled the end of one period of art history, and the inauguration of another. Once again the heavily anchored, simplified figural forms of early Modernism offered the makings of an accessible, reinvented visual vocabulary that could be put to innovative use by a painter of Guccione's solid esthetic strength. Guccione is an artist of key significance: his divided painting career is revealing of the major artistic issues of his time, and his new resolution of those problems is clearly important. The explanatory background, therefore, the intellectual stage must be set before discussion of his work can operate from the correct critical and historical perspective. Why is a lifetime retrospective of Bob Guccione's painting being held in 1998 at the Las Vegas Art Museum? Why now? Why Las Vegas? Why Guccione?

II Prism-ism

Many critics have said that in contemporary art, beyond the confused concept of Post-Modernism, there is no definitive or even identifiable art movement which, operating at the highest cultural level, clearly represents both the most important art of the present day, and the direction in which high art is headed after the turn of the millennium. Invocation of the term Pluralism is commonly used to name the esthetic indeterminacy of the current situation. There are indeed a plethora of dissimilar modes of visual art on the scene today. Subscribers to artistic Pluralism claim that these different kinds of art at present are all equally eligible participants on the artistic playing field. One may reasonably disagree with this argument. The prevailing logic goes astray when, first of all, it fails to recognize that the movements that go beyond painting and sculpture, the so-called "dematerialization of art" movements, represent the dead-end of a two-century process of the analytic dismantlement of occidental high art. These movements or modes are, mainly: Conceptual, Performance, Installation, and Environmental Art. Next, the logic of Pluralism misses the main point when examining new visual art, painting and sculpture, for definite and specific stylistic or formal similarities, parallels, or convergences, such as were found in visual-art movements of the past five or six hundred years. Identifiable or defining stylistic similarities are not relevant to the new situation. Such similarities may, can, and will occur, but only coincidentally, if not accidentally. They are not the defining characteristic of the new art. The new vanguard has in common not similar symptoms of outward appearance, but rather the same general, constructive purpose. Bob Guccione's recent work does not have to look at all like that of Mimmo Paladino, G‚rard Garouste, Audrey Flack, Jorg Immendorf, R.B. Kitaj, Katherine Porter, Carlo Maria Mariani, Pat Steir, Odd Nerdrum, Paola Gandolfi, or Stephen McKenna, and so on, in order to belong to the same movement. Nor need there be visual resemblance between the work of any two or more of them as well. The most advanced artists today are those who are reconstituting the arts of painting and sculpture from the ruins of the late-dismantlement period. Theirs is an art which seeks to recover the technical and expressive resources that were systematically stripped away and abandoned, beginning in the 19th, and accelerating over the course of the 20th century. That dismantlement process reached a virtual North Pole, representing complete artistic impoverishment. The only possible forward motion from that pole now, upon any vector, returns south, via latitudes previously passed through on the way north to the pole. Art returns through these regions with altered eyesight, a point of view changed forever by the ordeal of the polar journey. Now artists can take advantage of all the innovations of more than a century of artistic experimentation. Predictably, most serious artists today are either standing still or walking around in circles at the North Pole, the termination point, the dead-end of the late-dismantlement esthetic. The most advanced artists, however, are busy reconstituting the art form they are engaged in practicing. Because these artists now have the freedom, for the first time in art history, to exploit ALL the possibilities of art, each can elect which of these possibilities to explore in a given work or a given phase of personal artistic development. Like a sunbeam split by a prism, art's vision has greatly widened, and its potential component parts have been manifestly multiplied. They can be put back together again now, in ways not previously attempted or imagined, and ways that can be highly dissimilar: bearing no obvious relationship to each other, nor jointly inhabiting a clear continuum.

III Reconstitution

Besides taking advantage of more than a century's radical innovations, today's most progressive art is also in the process of reconstituting high art, by innovatively reclaiming the previously lost and abandoned resources of technique and content. This movement already includes more stylistic and formal variety within its single, coherent, overall esthetic--variety manifested in unlimited combinations of abstract and figurative modes--than existed in any previous period in world art history. Although bewildering in technical and formal variety, the general movement can be defined by four distinct groupings or types of work: transposed, aggregate, manifold, and fused. The four different types are not stylistic categories, but rather four different methods by which artists assemble and forge their work out of the infinitude of manners and materials available to them. 1) Transposed: a style from art history is lifted whole and introduced to depiction of the contemporary world and that world's attendant intellectual concerns. 2) Aggregate: a number of disparate modes, media, physical elements, and/or methods are jarringly juxtaposed with no accompanying effort or success in persuasively unifying the overall composition or reducing the degree of disjointedness between the separate elements. 3) Manifold: although various discrete elements of source, style, iconography, narrative, and form remain individually identifiable, a persuasive artistic logic and unity have been imparted to the new, individual work of art. 4) Fused: A number of culturally disparate elements, of thought, subject, theme, technique, etc., are endowed, united, and expressed with the arresting innovation of a single, notably original style.

"The list of artistic borrowings throughout every era is endless. But in our time, the hand of the contemporary artist proposes a distinctive interpretive slant through use of a new medium, or such novel techniques that the images, even of otherwise unmitigated appropriations, are totally transformed. Method, as a determinant of form, is of paramount importance. Scale and context are altogether altered. The personality of the interpreting artist becomes so predominant that such works are clearly never intended as copies or pastiches. Through isolation of elements and distillation of multiple sources, the personality of the interpreting artist finds expression." (--Franklin Hill Perrell, in Art after Art, 1994 exhibition catalogue, Nassau County Museum of Art; included paintings by Bob Guccione)

IV Vandalism

The present writer used a notion like Perrell's above, put more succinctly, in a broadside manifesto published and distributed in 1995 at a protest demonstration outside the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The demonstration was organized by self-styled radical-realist painters resentful at their systematic exclusion from the Whitney Biennial exhibitions. The phrasing in that manifesto: "The new art's typical method of employing the wide range of cultural references, by which it grapples with the whole surrounding culture, is to distort or effectively deface its sources as it bends them innovatively to its own expressive needs." That broadside was titled Founding and First Manifesto of Vandalism (after the Futurist manifesto of 1909), in which the logic of this ironic name for the new movement in world art was given in detail. The term Vandalism was originally inspired by the use of the phrase "cultural vandalism" in an essay by the late Morse Peckham, on the role of the artist in occidental culture, called "Romanticism and Behavior" (1974). But the first order of business in this name game is to dispose of the term Post-Modernism, for the present purpose, which is easy to do. Over 90% of the uses of "Post-Modernism" refer to art that falls under the late-dismantlement esthetic, and the new art movement being discussed here completely transcends that period esthetic. So Post-Modernism is finished: obsolete both as a term and as a movement in the fine arts. Whatever the merits of the 1995 broadside manifesto's argument, it proposes, for what is apparently the first time (aside from Achille Bonito Oliva's transavanguardia), to fix a name, definition, description, and coherent explanation for the new, international movement in art to which Bob Guccione's new painting and drawing belong. Guccione himself has expressed puzzlement at the apparent absence of a coherent movement, or of a generally accepted explanation thereof. The present brief essay is meant in part to overcome the general puzzlement on that question. Vandalism would be in good company as a name of derogatory meaning eventually accepted as the name of a movement, or of an entire period of art history. Examples: Gothic (barbaric), Baroque (misshapen pearl), Fauve (wild beast), Impressionism, Cubism (coined by the Fauve, Matisse). The art critic Barbara Rose has proposed Art after Post-Modernism as the title of the present author's work-in-progress on the movement. But out of an instinct for play, in which the name Vandalism itself is offered, let us suppose another name were put forward, one geographically correct for the present exhibition and its critical enterprise, one less plainly earnest and more forthright in its sense of humor.

V Vegasism

The name has real merit. With no respect for history or chronology, dynastic Las Vegas empire-builders have fashioned an urban landscape filled with a cascading chaos of re-combined and elaborated building styles that are at once the world's largest, deliberately artificial esthetic constructs, as well as thoroughly pragmatic self-advertisements. The only esthetic hierarchy present is one of luxury, not of style. As the for-profit pleasure palaces compete for business, they produce ever-grander imaginative and decorative conceptions, and range indiscriminately worldwide, up and down the ladder of cultural levels, for the imagery that they construct into the most physically extensive examples of free semiosis--the artistically unfettered free manipulation and combination of signs and symbols--that the world has ever witnessed. If the basic challenge of art after Post-Modernism is that in today's diverse and chaotic culture, the most competent and valuable art will be that which makes the fullest and richest use of the entire range of culture at all levels, both past and present, then clearly Las Vegas is already the urban objective-correlative, the unofficial world capital of this new movement in art. Moreover, because of the dismantling legacy of Pop Art, art of high-cultural intent today can adequately reconstitute high art only by exploiting usable expressive resources found in any level of culture. Therefore, may one not with justice say that, as hospitality and welcome center for art after Post-Modernism on the grandest scale (which is architecture), Las Vegas is already the uncontested heavyweight champion city of the world? That is, in terms of the total surround, the looks of the man-made environment, the economic life that embraces art and colossally projects and objectifies it. As an environmentally artificial, built place, Las Vegas now rises as a total exploration of expressive resources and possibilities, an entirely new way of incorporating many different kinds of artistic expression from the widest possible range of cultural origins and levels. A select miscellany illustrates the exploding esthetic strength of Las Vegas decor and architecture. The Egyptian temple design of the Luxor pyramid's latest additions gives it a more extensive level of genuine architectural integrity and nobility. The Gaudi Bar, as the symbolic heart of the new Sunset Station hotel-casino, has a freshness and pizzazz more spectacular than Antoni Gaudi's original architecture and decorative work in Barcelona. And New York, New York, thus far the largest simulacrum construction in the world (until the $2 billion hotel-casino version of Venice is completed, to be followed by one that re-invents Paris) takes "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" (--Walter Benjamin) to its empirical ultima Thule. This structure contains a panoply of architectural, artistic, and decorative styles, at all cultural levels, that is unprecedented: from an imitation Tamara de Lempicka art-deco mural, to a mock subway station decorated by a flown-in I.R.T. graffiti artist of authentic vintage. Great daring and imaginative conviction are already present in the building-scape of Las Vegas. They establish a built and living environment that can more easily lay claim, to the new esthetic principles of art after Post-Modernism, than can any other city worldwide. This esthetic explores all accessible levels of culture, principles which Las Vegas has put into widespread, already existing practice. The decorated architecture of Las Vegas, both exterior and interior, exemplifies a non-prescriptive and non-hierarchical openness to artistic manifestations utilizing any expressive possibilities found in the culture of the whole human world. Without prescriptive, authoritarian design principles, Las Vegas maintains an objective openness to all possibilities of artistic expression, making it the city above all others most eligible to step forward as symbol and showcase of a new worldwide movement in the fine arts and architecture. When Robert Venturi published a book of architectural theory a quarter of a century ago called Learning from Las Vegas, the implications of the title were on the whole not taken seriously by intellectuals, sophisticates, and old-style cosmopolitans. But something profound has changed about the worldwide perception of Las Vegas, when in 1998, one can watch a dozen new copies of Venturi's book, in less than a week, fly off the shelf at the concourse bookstore of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Finding prophecy in Venturi's title, Vegasism can be the appropriate name, the name that sticks, for the epoch-making fine-arts movement that will follow Post-Modernism, and that already is effectively succeeding it.

VI Beauty

Two writers, critics, essayists, men of letters, travelling in different intellectual orbits, their work unknown to each other, have, along with a certain number of artists, helped make beauty a valid intellectual problem once again, here at the end of the 20th century. The two are Frederick Turner, Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, also a poet without superior in his American generation; and Dave Hickey, a Texan who is Associate Professor of Art Criticism and Theory at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Turner is lately the author of Beauty--The Value of Values (1991); Rebirth of Value: Meditations on Beauty, etc. (1991); and The Culture of Hope (1995). Hickey has written The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993), and Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (1997). The manifestation of beauty through art, dependent as it is upon formal and technical expression, proportion, and composition, could scarcely exist under the late-dismantlement esthetic of deconstructive Post-Modernism. There, all was deliberately impermanent, gimcrack, matter-of-fact, untransformed, spiritually signifying nothing beyond itself. The art of Vegasism now has the task of re-establishing, reincarnating, reinventing beauty. Few would dispute that Bob Guccione has had more contact with carnal beauty than most living persons. How has it affected his art? Who can say? Frederick Turner could perhaps illuminate the matter, who writes of "the connection of beauty and shame," and "the mystical experience of beauty." Concerning beauty vs. shamelessness, Dave Hickey might dilate upon the legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe. For that matter, isn't it fair to say that Guccione's magazine centerfolds, for those who've seen one lately, are a bit more shameless than Hugh Hefner's? Would that make them less beautiful, in Frederick Turner's terms? One doubts he would hazard an answer, so let us spare him--and Dave Hickey too. This is not a debate either of them has asked for--specifically. Bob Guccione is the author, creative director, copyright owner, or profit-seeking instigator of more works of popular art than any other fine-artist in the history of the world. This being Las Vegas, the foregoing statement would be a pretty safe bet, probably ironclad. But no one would give you any odds on it, either. Is there evidence of Guccione's double life, his alternate career of fortune-hunting, in the fine-art that he makes? None that is directly visible, and this apparent fact is absolutely astonishing. The subjects of his newer paintings seem to occupy and transpire in a rarefied atmosphere of gestural serenity, of light-hearted lyricism, blithely called into being by its creator for the purpose of original artistic experimentation and expressive distortion. These are terms of praise, because the deformation of the visibly real is the only verifiable evidence we have of the operation of the human spirit, and is the essence of art itself. In a world of mass-media communications, we all live on a number of different cultural levels simultaneously. Yet of no one alive could this be more true than of Bob Guccione: it is the very nature of his multi-faceted, multi-level occupation and livelihood. Clearly, closely observing the pure, almost platonically generic realm that is the shifting, skewed setting for the subjects of his adventurous paintings, one finds it hard to believe that this art could remain so uninvaded or unaffected by the baser, less spiritual activities of humanity, behaviors that supply so much of Guccione's publishing empire's stock in trade. Yet here we have it, the undeniable evidence, in this quietly disquieting exhibition of a lifetime's work of distilled artistic refinement and accomplishment. Is there an explanation for this genuine paradox? If so, it can only be one flattering both to Bob Guccione and to the human capacity for making high art. We are biographically familiar with the artist type who mixes crude, brutal behavior with creating artworks of the most exacting sublimity. This model does not fit Guccione, the mild-mannered owner of a great metropolitan publishing company. Yet for his personal fortune and livelihood, he does deal in, market, and even create visual and literary imagery of the most fundamentally carnal sort. We must simply say, then, that fine-artists whose ambitions and achievement are writ large, are likely to be very complex creatures. The art to which they devote their highest level of intellectual judgment and esthetic creation is made possible by the sum total of their being and individual humanity. And it is for that level of artistic attainment that they deserve ultimately to be judged by posterity. What then is Guccione's high-art accomplishment, thus far? The 1994 Art after Art exhibition catalogue quoted above does a good job of tracing his stylistic, compositional, and spatial influences, syntheses, and fusions. The list of early modern masters exercising themselves in his work is extensive and convincing, and the results thereof are impressive with regard to his skill, command, and imagination. The following judgment is apt: "Bob Guccione never appropriates an isolated source, but rather fuses and merges elements together in a synthesis of Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism." One might add something to this list, like the Delaunays' Simultaneism, or the two Americans-in-Paris's Synchromism; but one would subtract nothing from the list. Taken altogether, the result in any given Guccione painting would best belong under Type 4, Fused Vegasism, as described in section III above. But his different-ingredients fusions are so varied and numerous that his work as a whole should be called Type 3, Manifold Vegasism. Lest this analysis seem too clinical, here follows prose. Having observed vicariously the polar journey referred to in section II above, when Bob Guccione began painting again, he did so necessarily with altered eyesight, having absorbed the lessons of the journey. He did not merely resume painting where he left off. No artist of his knowledge, taste, and intelligence could. His newer work has a comic sense, almost satirical sometimes. One finds the satirical especially present in his drawings, e.g., "The Art Dealer" and "Captain America." The new paintings also have, instead of a heavy gravitational pull, a lighter palette and a lyrical lift, a transcendent, soaring attitude, as if life were now less of burden, and the possibilities of joy have at last been multiplied. One sees this in both the still-lifes, such as "Still-Life with Three Pears" (1994), and the paintings of human figures, like "Woman in a Forest" (1993), "Goodbye Columbus" (1997), and "Earth Angel" (1997). The viewing public now greets Bob Guccione at, not "the beginning of a great career" (Emerson's words to Walt Whitman), but the recommencement of one. On Guccione's part, this amounts to a rethinking of the whole of 20th-century art, and a new set of solutions to the problem of reinventing, reinstating beauty among the legitimate goals of the artist in our time. Already, he is at work on a new series of paintings treating biblical subjects: another way of confronting the past, art history, and in the face of "the anxiety of influence" (--Harold Bloom) and tradition, nevertheless managing to "make it new" (--Pound), make "something rich and strange" (--Shelley), something with, to paraphrase Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the essential strangeness of all true beauty. The fine-art Guccione creates will then pleasantly surprise the world once again, as it does in the present exhibition at the Las Vegas Art Museum.