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.

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.

My own faith, however, was dramatically weakened by a number of his most recent works, and totally destroyed by his one-man show at Marlborough Gallery earlier this year.

I couldn't at first believe that anyone with Rivers's reputation would allow such pointless doodles, such self-indulgent, autobiographical trivia, and such just plain silly paintings to be exhibited in his name. And yet there they were in one of our best galleries, for all the world to see.

Embarrassingly bad as the show was, however, it didn't seem to affect adversely his reputation in any way. Inflated as it now is, it remains intact.

Rivers did at least have his moments of well-earned fame - something one cannot say about altogether too many of the growing number of today's artificial , hot-house reputations. The situation of Edward Ruscha is a good case in point. Equipped with a modest talent and a ready wit, he has managed to convince a considerable portion of the art world that his art is razor-sharp in its incisiveness, and extraordinarily ''on target.'' As a result, his current show at the Whitney Museum here occupies five times as much space, and has received about four times as much respectful attention as it deserves.

Much the same sort of respectful attention is always accorded the work of Alex Katz, Lowell Nesbitt, and James Rosenquist, each of whom also managed to transform modest talents and shrewd readings of the contemporary art scene into remarkably modish and ''in'' reputations. The same is true of Larry Poons (in his recent work), Jack Beal, William Bailey, Red Grooms, Chuck Close, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Duane Hanson, Mel Ramos, Ed Paschke, Malcolm Morley - to list only a few who have been around for a while. And Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Jedd Garet, and Jonathan Borofsky, who are brand new.

It's not that these figures aren't, in most instances, quite competent, only that none of them quite deserve the reputation they have. Most of them have taken one or two interesting points and have pushed them to new and often startling extremes.

Thus, Close paints huge pictures of human heads that are easily mistaken for blown-up photographs. And Hanson does sculptures of people that are so ''realistic'' they have to be touched or stared at in order to determine whether they are people or art. In both cases, these works are executed with a degree of skill and patience that is almost unbelievable.

But skill and patience (and shock value) do not of themselves make important or great art. Neither, as a matter of fact, does the mere display of pretty colors, flashy designs, huge canvases, a skill at copying nature's appearances, provocative themes, or shocking distortions of the human figure. All these, however, have been and are essential elements of any campaign to win art-world attention and acceptance.

Now, I'm not suggesting there are art-world conspiracies designed to turn limited talents into large-scale reputations - although it has happened that trivial artistic ideas have achieved remarkable success by trendy merchandising. No, the real situation is much more complex. It is much more likely to result from indifference or ignorance on the part of art critics; dealer and curatorial ambition to be always the first with the ''new''; the art world's more than occasional circus atmosphere; the art history-derived notion that whatever follows logically from a previous painterly idea must inevitably be valid and good; and, probably most important, the growing belief that there are no objective standards in art.

It is because of these factors that reputations in art can rise and fall for reasons at times only remotely related to issues of quality. And why a number of reputations are sustained at levels considerably above their true worth, and others never manage to achieve the levels of acclaim they deserve. None of us may want it that way, but that is the way it is.

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