(Originally published on Quirkblog, 18 April 2014)
I never met Jean-François Lyotard, though I would have loved to. A friend of mine studied with him at the graduate program at UC Irvine and told me a few winning stories. One was from a party, where Lyotard arrived in splendid style, sporting a Colombo-worthy trench coat, a surgically-attached Galois, and two bottles of bourbon — one for the party and one for himself.
Lyotard’s writing is remarkable to me in that despite its pessimistic mien, a side effect of examining politics and the state of culture, the backbone of his work is human compassion. You don’t get that impression from very many other contemporary theorists, despite that being — by inference — the purpose of the undertaking. Maybe the work is just too bleak.
Another person whose work has been important to me, Robert Irwin, I met very briefly at an opening for one of his shows at the (woefully) now-defunct Dia Foundation galleries in New York. I had glimpsed him in the galleries but departed, and was already in the car to leave when I abruptly asked Amy to wait for a moment and ran back in. He was chatting with a small group inside the installation and I butted in, quickly thanked him for his work, and skittered out.
While in graduate school at the Tyler School of Art, Raphael Rubinstein gave a talk on the paintings of Norman Bluhm, whom I had never heard of. That was a good day. Not long after that I went to Ace Gallery in Tribeca with a couple fellow grad students and asked if they had any of Bluhm’s paintings that we could see. The dealer, perhaps bemused by my cheek, led us into a back room and showed us some ecstatic, gargantuan pieces, just off the truck and leaning against the walls. That was an even better day. A year or so later Stanley Whitney was in my studio and noticed some reproductions of Bluhm’s work on the wall and said I should go visit him up in Vermont. I replied that I thought people moved to Vermont to get away from people like me. Bluhm died the next year, and I regretted never at least sending him a letter. His wife invited Amy and I up to visit his studio a few years ago to see his paintings there. That was a phenomenal day.
Because he was gone before I knew who he was, I couldn’t thank my all-time blues favorite, Hound Dog Taylor, who played with irresistible energy. One summer I occasionally saw Brewer Phillips — Hound Dog’s right hand man, who could tear off an incendiary lead himself — high-kicking at Maxwell Street market in Chicago on Sunday mornings in the 80s. His group played across the street from us (I was one of the roving band of roustabouts who backed Little Pat Rushing there over the years), and I should have gone over on a break and said hello at some point but didn’t. Phillips died in 1999.
(Below, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, live in Ann Arbor, 1973.)
It may seem trite, and humility is too often viewed as a pitiful defect these days, but I feel an obligation to thank people who have done great work that is important to me. They might not know otherwise, and that’s a worse consequence than making an ass of myself.
“The life of a writer is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.”
— Jorge Luis Borges
Though nearby in spirit (and also geographically for some periods, in southern California), I don’t think Irwin and Lyotard ever met, but they would have had a few things to talk about. Irwin’s examinations of perception, and his analysis that between raw perception and recognition (of a traffic sign, for instance) we lose both information and engagement, led him to put experience at the center of his work, renounce painting along with presumptions of content, and create art and spaces that are perceptually both precise and ambiguous.
Irwin’s work keeps the viewer in a kind of suspension; it’s often hard to resolve what you are seeing easily, or there may be a jarringly dislocating visual experience that sharpens your awareness of the moment. I have always felt because of this that his work has an essentially ethical foundation. I don’t think Irwin would agree but in any case it’s a topic for another time. (I actually think all art has an ethical foundation in terms of what is assumed when you decide to engage the creative process, though I don’t mean that in the moralizing, prescriptive way that makes some people go DEFCON 2, simply that ethics is a natural, intrinsic aspect of living and begins with your relationship to yourself. But that’s a topic for another day too.)
For Lyotard, in essays such as “After the Sublime, the State of Aesthetics” and “Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable,” in The Inhuman, the suspension of resolution is equally important, though for somewhat different reasons. Reviewing Kant’s analysis of the sublime, Lyotard focuses on a moment out of time that happens when we are presented with a perception that does not correspond with the forms and structures that fit our prior experience — like the timbre of a strange musical instrument — or in the case of the sublime overwhelms them — like an immense and terrifying storm. If you’ve ever seen the sky turn green, you’ll know what I mean.
More broadly the essays take on the state of aesthetics and its place within the contemporary political/technological milieu. In the book, he is despondent about art’s chances in the face of these forces, but preserves hope for a practice of art that persists by inhabiting the gaps of both society and perception, and creating a different kind of avant-garde (maybe more of a philosophical/artistic resistance) by working outside the cultural demands placed on it by not just the capitalistic but also the academic establishment. It’s an unusual position. And a very useful one.