Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blurring America

I went to the Guggenheim the other day. I stood in front of a still life depicting a salt & pepper shaker huddled together with a shiny chrome napkin dispenser, creamer, and a bottle of ketchup and cried.

It must have been an instance of nostalgia. Or perhaps what the Germans call “home pain,” Heimweh. As always, I turn to writing when overcome by a feeling that remains muddled in my mind. Writing helps me tickle out the inarticulable, which is usually a one-liner: I left the Guggenheim feeling “nostalgic.”

Art critics dare not use nostalgia as a point of departure. It even seems to have become a bit of a dirty word these days as many artists are accused of making nothing new under the sun. Instead their work is “nostalgic,” hence, lacking in originality, often harking back to the 60s and 70s, on the one hand, or the 20s and 30s, on the other. Indeed, in the critic’s vernacular, “nostalgic” is almost on par with “decorative”; that is, the anti-thesis of “critical” or “conceptual.”

So why did this “nostalgia” leave me with a feeling that these artworks were surprisingly good? Yet another simple feeling, this “good,” but it was the complex emotions stirred up by this good that made me go home to ferret out the reason I might have unwillingly become a fan of the much-maligned Photorealists.

In the 1970s in America, High Art was far from Photorealism. Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimal, you name it, that was High. Photorealism was low. It was so low, it wasn’t even Camp. But photorealism leaned towards an appropriation of the aesthetic adopted by Harley Davidson drivers or people in Chevy pick-ups, tits and ass and sunsets galore spray-gunned or airbrushed in glittery gloss along the side of the Slushy Shack. “Neon in daylight,” said Frank O’Hara.

And that’s just it. The photorealists borrowed from a “real” aesthetic but their subject matter was poetic, and perhaps even politically real. When Robert Bechtle depicts a family eating soft ice cream at an outdoor roadside hamburger and frankfurter joint, you see a lot more than just that. In Foster’s Freeze, Escalon (1975), the mother sits somewhat distanced from her children, as if buying them ice cream buys her the time to look through the booklet she’s just bought explaining the historical site just visited. The ice cream is the kids’ compensation, in turn, for having suffered through the historical site. It’s the father (or the stepfather, or the boyfriend – with the rampant rate of divorce-on-demand in the 70s) who takes the snapshot. His aviator sunglasses have been left behind on the table. He’s caught them by surprise. No pleads for a smile, look this way, “Say cheese,” no: instead he’s captured the moment, this in-between moment of a summer holiday road trip, before the map gets pulled out again, and “Mom, how much longer do we have to drive?”

We slurped blue-ice with abandon. We didn’t have to nibble at dainty pink, green or lilac macarons from LadurĂ©e. We gorged on black-and-white cookies by the bundle, ripping them apart to eat the creamy stuff in the middle first and had competitions as to who could stuff the most Ritz crackers in their mouth and still sing, “Mary had a little lamb.” The world was … fun. These are the remembered emotions unearthed by a picture of a woman and two children eating ice cream.

And as for that diner shot? The diner was the democratic eatery, par excellence. It catered to the late-night shift, the to-go crowd, truck drivers and men in blue overalls. I was neither, but I was a part of the hedonist late-night Manhattan transfers, that is, a disco dancer, and the diner provided a hangout spot to recap and refuel. Our “last drink” at 4 a.m. was a water and a cup of borsch before hitting the sack. I miss that. I really do.