Hacking Along

by John Link

There is no sin, if attributed to Clement Greenberg, that the trend setters in the art world will not agree to have been fully committed.

Once again, the oiling of certain David Smith sculptures has been aired under the title Why Clement Greenberg Defaced David Smith's Sculptures, written by Abigail Cain for Artsy.

Art politics proceeds like all politics: The truth is what you can get by with saying. The more people there are who will not question your statement, the better. It thrives on herd behavior, not thoughtful reflection. It is like the Phil Donahue show, but with nasty intentions, which take advantage of herd-thinking's marked preference for negative news. It lives in the comfortable and well-protected zone of restating what the herd already thinks it knows.

The title of Cain's article assumes what her article does not, namely, that what Greenberg did as executor of Smith's estate constituted abject defacement. Inside, for those who care to look there, she provides more objective comments, paraphrasing from Sarah Hamill's "Polychrome in the Sixties: David Smith and Anthony Caro": "There was an outpouring of opinion from historians, artists, dealers, and curators alike. Their responses appeared in the pages of Art in America and the New York Times - a debate, notes art historian Sarah Hamill, that hinged on the assumption that the white paint was simply a primer. Some agreed with Greenberg, that a temporary coat was less true to Smith's intention than raw steel. Others argued that Smith's artistic process itself should be preserved." In the trendy world of art politics, titles are read and digested, text not so much. Thus, Cain can have her cake and eat it too, without paying any price for her lazy, double-faced shallowness.

Nothing is forever, and that certainly includes art. The questions surrounding the preservation of important works of art are directly proportional to the importance of the works themselves. Preservation evolves as this importance develops, and as contemporaneous thinking about the best practice of the craft changes. In contrast to Cain's politicized article on Artsy, MoMA published a thoughtful piece on the history of Jackson Pollock's Number 1A, 1948, a painting as fragile as any other New York School work from the 1940s amd 50s: (Check out MoMA's Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Bringing the Project to Conclusion: Restoration of Number 1A, 1948.) The author, James Coddington, eschews art politics in favor of a cool-eyed laying bare of the facts, facts about the preservation process applied to this particular work, and the evolving values which affected that process.

Interestingly, both authors wrote about the preservation of important art from the same period. Both are written from the perspective of 50+ years later. Cain contributes a copy-cat suckerpunch to the history of Clem-Bashing without adding anything meaningful to our understanding of either Greenberg or Smith. Coddington avoids sensationalism in favor of advancing the discussion about Number 1A, 1948.

And so the difference between Abigail Cain and James Coddington is revealed to be the difference between a hack and a pro.

Alchemy detail

Number 1A, 1948: After restoration

June 8, 2017

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