At the contest, surrounded by frat boys, Kelley recounts a blasphemous impromptu speech he gave on the “evils” of the opposing football team, rhetoric that obviously resonates contemporaneously.While the second volume includes primarily project statements, Kelley’s often read as essays and are as enjoyable as the critical, theoretical, and creative essays in Foul Perfection.Casting aside romantic “artists speak through their creations” talk, it would seem a historical truth that the mum artist stands on intellectual high ground. Of course, exceptions like Malevich, Judd, Smithson, and, recently, Pope. But aside from a smattering of publications commissioning writing by visual artists, much of today’s writing by artists consists of an enigmatic little paragraph called the artist statement, often riddled with vagaries and clichés.
If Rosler’s attitude about her own art and art in general is hot, Ruscha’s is icy.
As with Warhol, there’s a deadened air about Ruscha and his declarations: Europe is boring, a photo is just a means to an end, the work is about the West only because I live there. Without the zany veneer that then accompanied art that did things like immortalize every building on Sunset Strip in an artist’s book, you emerge with the sense that Ruscha’s practice could never have been as successful as it has.
While one of the two-volume set of Kelley’s books and much of the Ruscha book consist of statements, interviews, or project proposals, Rosler’s consists entirely of critical essays on art history, contemporary art, and the conditions of the art-making environment, all of which go a long way toward defining her own visual output, which she actually mentions very little.
In an early essay, Rosler defines her mission as writer and artist: to disrupt the idea that the way things are is the way they must be.
But I’m nitpicking—Rosler’s critical and visual output has remained focused, consistent, and relevant for the better part of four decades now without slipping into complacency.
would seem likely to annoy Rosler, who consistently expresses impatience in her book with artists who hide behind enigma or who mimic the language and/or production values of the systems they’re critiquing.Although his writing style is surprisingly dry for someone whose art is often so funny, the anecdotes that dot these volumes are terrific fodder for future psychoanalysts of Kelley’s work.In the funniest of the bunch, Kelly describes his sarcastic creation—a dummy for an “effigy-burning contest” during his time at the jock-heavy University of Michigan.Her focus ranges from pop art’s detournement of the female image to war photography to the marginalization and restrictions American contemporary artists have suffered under conservative administrations.Occasionally her logic is questionable, as in “Place, Position, Power, Politics,” when she argues that the late eighties culture wars and the subsequent loss of government funding is a severe blow to artists, although in earlier essays she had argued vigorously that artists should seek to take control of the art-presenting system.Ruscha cloaks himself in enigma throughout the book, much of which is interviews.It’s important to remember that Ruscha represented a key link between West Coast pop and conceptual art, and an artist’s public attitude (constructed or otherwise) played an important role in how their work was received.Permeability between these two types of art world production has become negligible, and much of what passes for writing by artists in anthologies and other texts takes the form of informal communiqués or diaries.In a 1945 anthology called editors Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves write in the first sentence of their introduction, “The contemporary artist, asked to write about his art, hesitates.” But why?” questions, which, because of Ruscha’s ability to talk in circles, is revealed as comically pointless.A smattering of notebook drawings and the abstract poetry book ending prove infinitely more evocative of Ruscha’s artistic intentions than the interviews.