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Conceptual Modern Art
Is the Naked Emperor

by John Mendelssohn

Not a fortnight after the end of the presidential campaign, I'd have imagined myself pretty well inured to bullshit. Our first visit to DIA:Beacon, though, made me realize that no such thing was the case. As Claire and I walked around, considering the work of artists who, for the most part, lack perceptible skill, wit, or imagination, but who are absolutely bloated with audacity and pretentiousness, we found ourselves marveling ever more slack-jawedly at the laminated pages of curator commentary provided for the visitor's enlightenment. Behold this, about Blinky Palermo's fantastically expressive (he said sarcastically) rectangles in primary colors:


Palermo applied the paint evenly by hand, eliminating any sense of gestural activity and allowing the brush to leave only slight striations or irregularities. Rather than betraying an authoral presence, this barely perceptible facture serves to attest to the manual and notional activity of handling paint in and of itself.


Word! But around the corner, it gets even better. Writing about the work of Robert Ryman, most of whose stuff might not have had titles like Unstarted (1973) and Blank Canvas (1982), but should have, our unnamed hero or heroine explains:


Seemingly provisionally installed on small foam blocks, it is nonetheless a wall of sorts, and so creates a dialectic with the gallery wall on which it is braced, a wall that, although painted, is not in any sense a painting. By resolutely insisting on the distinction between the thematic aspect of painting and its physical materiality identity, these works fully express the idea that the relationship of paint to support, though born of material practicality, is ultimately grounded in [the] painting's capacity to explore theoretically its own activity.


It will henceforth be impossible for me to glance admiringly at the metal Schweppes sign Claire gave me for my birthday a few years ago, a sign depicting a leggy blonde with early-'60s hair of the sort that I love so much, without savoring its dialectic with the wall to which I have affixed it. For that, and for my future resolute insistence on the distinction between wall and sign, I have DIA:Beacon to thank.


At the risk of sounding very Joe the Plumber, I suspect that there isn't a sign painter anywhere in This Great Land of Ours who doesn't eat Blinky Palermo's lunch.

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