John C. Welchman. Past Realization: Essays on Contemporary European Art XX–XXI. Vol. 1. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016. 501 pp.
Revew by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
John Welchman’s strengths (in my view) are in surrealism and surrealist derived or influenced approaches to art, which includes any sort of conceptualism, one reason why he would become the authority on the work of Mike Kelley. These qualifications serve him well here.
Most of the artists he writes about in Past Realization: Essays in Contemporary European Art would agree with what Susan Hiller says here about how the sixties saw the end of high art as a possibility and how this made necessary as well as possible other approaches to, and definitions of, art. Conceptual art owes to surrealism its basis in documentary reference rather than phenomenal presence, and the surrealists were always interested in kitsch or popular art in general. These are the most obvious respects in which one may see much of the work of these artists confirming surrealism’s influence on, and Kelly as an unavoidable fact of, contemporary art. While itself not inseparable from the work of German contemporaries, for example Martin Kippenberger, Kelley’s American example is perhaps internationally (as well as domestically) the most popular definition, among by now a couple of generations, of how art which is no longer high will use kitsch. Welchman talks about Kelley's direct influence on several of the artists here, Andy Hope 1930 for example, comparing their shared assumptions and subject matter. Regarding conceptualism’s debt to or derivation from the surrealist manifesto’s goal of turning the work of art into an analytic instrument, (early) Hans Haacke and Robert Smithson are two other strong American influences on these European artists’ approaches to subject matter and its organization.
Welchman’s approach is sympathetic, even indulgent, while being characteristically exhaustive. He says he wrote these essays systematically, beginning with “close, direct, and comparative engagement with specific bodies of work” and proceeding from there “across wider cultural, social, and political—and of course historical—territories.”
Welchman thinks that the artists he discusses are able to see historical production, broadly defined, in terms more subtle and elaborate than those available to their predecessors in the “historical and neo-avant-gardes.” Conscious that they (we) are beyond history’s “grand narratives,” they are able to think of how historical production “is viewed, administered, and interpreted,” in terms he relates to Jean-François Lyotard’s idea of the “sign of history” in The Differend (1983). Given that Lyotard was writing about interpretations that were by definition incompatible, this has to mean that these artists are able to unify in their practices a triad of positions said to be essentially distinct. I’m not sure that this is quite what happens, or that it could be, even if occupying all three positions meant presenting three incompatible positions. Furthermore, the relationship between the artist and the curator is something other than it once was when the art being curated is about art history as the history of exhibitions, that is, of curating. When Welchman says that “Xavier Velhan’s 2005 exhibition ‘Le Plein Emploi’ (‘Full Employment’) at the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain in Strasbourg are subject to a special mode of organization that secures them as a total organization,” he is describing an exhibition the artist curated and that what one went to see was how he organized it. “In fact,” Welchman says, “he has converted the taxonomic principles of the museum into a visualization system based on the recalibration of form.” The exhibition is at the same time a complicated affair, made of technology and technological reference mixed with museum expertise—and simultaneously about both the public domain and the artist’s “friends, colleagues, or acquaintances.”
It may not matter all that much if this highly determined meeting, of a version of art history’s institutional rhetoric with all sorts of other material that can be used to make symbols, is not be quite what Lyotard wrote about. There would have to be some sort of shortfall or contracting between a concept or idea being a common but not necessarily conscious historical condition and how to make a working model out of it (the concept or idea). Perhaps, though, the artist being in charge of everything explains why Welchman does less of the comparative investigating he promises than one might expect, but plenty of the expanding. All but one of the artists he discusses seem to have the kind of control over what they do that Velhan has; they are also similar in how their work is a mixture of attention to materials as historical elements of production, and of questions of identity and agency. Welchman tells us what the artists want us to be told, which typically includes a minutely detailed description of how things are made, without as far as I can see raising many questions about that along the way. Then he elaborates and contextualizes with an exhaustiveness that is too much fun to be exhausting, although when it happens—because so much else has been brought into pursuing “cultural, social and political” ramifications and references—one finds oneself surprised by what feels like an omission of something obvious. Why, for instance, in a very detailed discussion of plywood and Jan de Cock’s sense of its “honesty” —in which Welchman goes into its social (industrial) history and its use in art by Don Judd and Robert Morris and thence to its use by others, as critique of their use of it—doesn’t he mention Jean Baudrillard and simulation? Apparent lacunae like this are provocative but rare.
Also, he can embrace the artist’s reasoning (along with the wildest claims to inventiveness of a quite old-fashioned sort) in a way that leaves one unclear as to what’s at stake. In spending a lot of time explaining how a work precisely or specifically is not what it refers to, Welchman also reminds one that defining something as not something else keeps the latter at the center of the argument, and one may not be sure why. Is it the goal of contemporary art to somehow have the final word on (to use in the most responsible way) the legacy of sixties art? Here is where clarity can slip away into what the aforementioned Mike Kelley—with whom I worked for years—would call the poetic. It is in this sense that the work in this book for the most part adds up to a lot of varied and extremely inventive presentations of what are the contemporary’s versions of the grand narratives we can’t have anymore. The contemporary versions are questions about agency, the historical and the psychological being its regular sites, which are familiar in a general way. They are not European issues but cosmopolitan ones, inflected by locale but as he shows not differentiated by it artistically. Welchman’s description and pursuit of reference and inference show us by default how cosmopolitan European art is, how dependent on a largely American precedent it is, but also how far past earlier versions of that precedent it is now. How, indeed, the two are now inseparable and almost indistinguishable at every level from the individual to the institutional. Kelley’s Cal Arts (American) classmates, Steve Prina and Chris Williams, loom large if unacknowledged here in this respect. Biography aside, one might even ask whether anyone or anything can be European without having to refer to Europe’s outside, and how each uses the symbols of the other and the other as symbol, historical production consisting of coexistent and parallel incompatibles, just as Lyotard suggests it is—but in contemporary art in Europe as it were surrealistically.