Reputation in the art world -- a boom-or-bust affair
Although most reputations in art are well deserved, some are not. A few, as a matter of fact, are so ridiculously overblown that reason and common sense dictate they burst -- or at least be reduced to their proper size.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
On the other hand, some reputations are so unaccountably modest that one cannot help but wonder at the critical and curatorial blindness that prevents the art world from recognizing that fact.
That such discrepancies between reputation and worth exist is agreed upon by almost everyone in the art community. Where many disagree, however, is in which reputations are distorted and in what can be done about it.
These disagreements tend to run along partisan lines. To an out-and-out modernist, for instance, almost anything good said about Andrew Wyeth is by definition excessive, and way out of line with his true worth. Much the same is true of the opinions ''conservative'' art professionals hold about the likes of Robert Rauschenberg or Anthony Caro (to say nothing of even more recent reputations). There are exceptions, of course -- individuals who try to transcend partisanship, dogma, or fashion in order to make fair evaluations of another's reputation, but they are, by and large, rather few and far between.
At least that's what I discovered from an informal poll I took over the past few weeks in which I asked various art professionals to list overblown and overly humble reputations in art. Almost all gave me lists, and quite a few, as a matter of fact, seemed delighted at the opportunity.
I know how they feel. I too have felt frustrated at the glitter of certain reputations that either never deserved to be that outstanding, or that represented a level of quality achieved two or three decades before but which had since deteriorated into self-imitation or self-indulgent doodling. And I too have known artists of consistently uncommon achievement whose reputations either never matched that achievement, or were dimmed or extinguished by a change in artistic fashion.
I have tried very hard, however, not to let these personal feelings color my professional judgments. Should I suspect that I might be approaching new work too narrowly or with prejudice, I prefer to suspend judgment until I've seen more of it, or have sufficiently digested and then related its ideas both to the work itself and to its cultural context.
That can take only a few days or weeks. Or it can take years -- even decades. (I still haven't, for instance, quite decided about the paintings of Barnett Newman -- although I've been studying them for over 30 years.) When I do come to a decision, however, it tends to be quite final, unless the artist changes dramatically, or new ''evidence'' is introduced (usually in the form of a large and very inclusive retrospective of his work).
When this happens, I accept my earlier ''failure'' in judgment, and go about my business. It doesn't particularly bother me -- unless my new perception is a negative one, the artist concerned is one for whom I've previously had great respect, and his ''fall'' can only be attributed to willful superficialities -- not to age or weakening of talent.
There have been several such cases in recent American art. The most dramatic, however, and in many ways the most disturbing, is the case of Larry Rivers.
I say disturbing because Rivers showed such promise during the 1950s and early 1960s. To many he was the whiz kid of American art, the one painter with sufficient talent, imagination, and creative integrity to bring the human figure back into painting -- and to do so with dignity, humanity, and style. At a time when Abstract-Expressionism and Pop-Art were holding forth and permitting very little else to gain serious exposure, Rivers was producing and exhibiting dramatically challenging representational paintings that reminded everyone that the human figure in art was by no means a dead issue.
He was on top of the world, with a national reputation and a growing international one. But then something began to happen. It wasn't dramatic at first, just a slight indication here and there that his pictorial effects were becoming tricky and ''easy,'' that he was beginning at times to take the path of least resistance. But as the years went by, it became increasingly obvious that he was more and more aiming for the gimmicky effect, the slick formal resolution. Even so, many of us maintained our faith in him - most particularly because of works that seemed to promise a return to his earlier qualities.