Questions of Aesthetics
How much is still to be disentangled,
freed! - Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (1871)
We like books with lots of dreck
in them. - One of the dwarves in Donald Barthelme's Snow
One century's democratic culture
turned out to be another's dreck. Walt Whitman's vision
of a birth of democratic art forms in America dissolved
and in its place appeared a decidedly undemocratic divide
between high culture and kitsch. At least this was the
view that took its most influential form in Clement Greenberg's
1939 essay, "Avant Garde and Kitsch." For him,
and for other champions of the Modernist vision of art,
these were the two realms of culture in a post-industrial
society, the former noble and the latter debased. As society
became increasingly urbanized, folk or vernacular culture
was being wiped out, like the rural landscape from which
Or was it? From a different angle,
the state of post-industrial culture doesn't look so tidy.
Can't kitsch become art if it is given a different context?
That is what Pop and a good deal of art since has successfully
demonstrated. Doesn't vernacular expression simply take
different forms in an urban milieu? That is what a painting
like Edward Ruscha's Standard
Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963), taking its cue
from the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler,
vividly illustrates. Ruscha's painting begs its own interesting
questions: is the design of the gas station architectural
dreck? Or did it simply need to be interpreted anew for
the viewer to see it anew? The status of such things as
mass-produced commercial architecture and suburban tract
housing remains uncertain, a richly ambivalent territory
in American culture. And no artist has explored this territory
with more persistence than Judy Fiskin.
She has been mapping this terrain
for some 15 years, ever since she created a series of photographs
of Los Angeles stucco houses between 1973 and 1976. Succeeding
series, such as More Stucco
Aesthetic Decisions (1984) and My
Trip to New York (1986), have revealed just how
fertile this terrain can be for image-making. But it was
with the images of Stucco that Fiskin's format, subject
and style cohered.
The photographs in this series
are tiny, a little more than two inches in width and length.
The subject is pictured head on, making the facade the
central focus. The world within these diminutive rectangles
and squares has a stark appearance: the sky is a bleached-out
white; the facade itself is a series of highly contrasting
dark and light geometric components. The surrounding buildings
and the foreground landscape provide a bit of breathing
space' between the featured subject and the thick, dark
edge of the print.
The very size of her prints, coupled
with the expanse of white space which surround each –
the picture is approximately two and one-half inches wide
or tall and the photographic paper six by eight inches –
creates an additional effect. For the images are akin to
little specimens in an ongoing study, a kind of display
case of images. There are no people present, no bustle of
daily life evident in these images. Like a butterfly in
a case, the building has been removed from its context for
us to scrutinize at length.
Of course, underlying any process
of cataloging is a passion for the thing being collected.
Fiskin has dubbed her art a "photographic rescue mission"
and I find that an apt description. For it forces one to
ask: rescued from what?
From the ashheap of the unaesthetic
I would argue. From this perspective, the Dingbat
series appears central to Fiskin's mission. For her subject
here, oddball Los Angeles apartment buildings dating largely
from the 1950s and 1960s, is even more assertively removed
from any norms of high architectural taste than stucco
Consider an example from the Dingbat
series, in which a white rectangle of an apartment house,
sporting an ornamental checkerboard style pattern, is her
subject. The building itself is almost invisible at first,
creating a curious effect in which the ornamental pattern,
shaped like a sideways "T," seems to float in
space. (Levitating along with it are the address numerals
on the left and another decoration, a semiabstract star,
on the right.) Gradually, the building comes into focus,
as does the subterranean parking garage dimmed by shadow.
The horizontally aligned rectangle of the apartment house
rests almost directly in the middle of the vertical of the
picture itself. A tree sits precisely in the middle of the
building as well as the image, emphasizing the perfect symmetry
of the photograph.
There is a highly classical sense
of order in this picture, and it lends the eccentric architectural
specimen a dignity, even a beauty, it does not inherently
possess. Placing it on display, then, Fiskin also transforms
it. Although it may look wrong as architecture, it looks
right in a photograph. At the same time, by virtue of their
size, her pictures seems to possess at best a tenuous relationship
to photography of any kind. It is as if they are mind's
eye images, projected on the wall – or, as Fiskin
phrases it, on "the scale of the imagination."
Her style of picture making has
clear precedents. Ruscha's own photographs of Los Angeles
buildings, parking lots and the like are an obvious source.
Another evident influence, which Fiskin readily acknowledges,
is the photography of Walker Evans. In the classic series, American
Photographs, first exhibited and published as a
book in 1938, the beautifully composed images of architectural
facades lend a stateliness to the most humble kind of South
Like Evans, Fiskin wants to find
a way to fix our gaze on vernacular architecture, to present
it without editorializing overtly about its merits or defects.
But Fiskin's sensibility is very different from either
Ruscha's or Evans'. The photographic books by Ruscha are
about banality, either as a conceptual framework for a
series (Every Building on
the Sunset Strip) or as a central characteristic
of our contemporary environment (Thirty
four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, A
Few Palm Trees, etc.). In American
Photographs, Evans strived to create pictures which,
in microcosmic fashion, created a portrait of a people
and a nation. Fiskin's leitmotif is the nature of taste.
She is consistently finding forms of expression which run
contrary to her sensibility – that is, the sensibility
of one versed in art history (Fiskin earned a Master degree
in that field).
She found another of those contrary
realms in home and flower
shows. At both, the displays are
self-consciously "artful," but by and large they
are eccentric and often downright awkward. These "exhibits"
became the main subject of the series, Some
Aesthetic Decisions. Look, for instance, at one
photograph in which an arrangement of dried grass, shaped
like a wreath with stray ends, dangles from flowers rising
out of a tiki vase. The composition exudes a serene presence
within the photograph. But scrutinize the image too closely
and you are likely to notice the tacky backdrop, the inappropriate
pedestal and the haphazard nature of the arrangement itself.
Or gaze upon the ornate pyramidal arrangement of roses in
white vases with a bouquet of flowers at the top and bottom
for accent. The symmetry is absolutely perfect. Indeed,
as in so many others among Fiskin's photographs, the chosen
subject makes for a compelling picture. Yet the floral arrangement
itself is so garishly elaborate, the design of the vases
The energy that animates Some
Aesthetic Decisions is a strong undercurrent
of ambivalence. Clearly, Fiskin is simultaneously attracted
to and repulsed by these arrangements of flowers and the
like. Much the same attitude pervades her Portraits
of Furniture, a small series devoted to objects
from museum period rooms. Though legitimized by curators,
these items look no less eccentric to the contemporary eye:
a curvaceous Victorian sofa, for example, or a pair of ornate
dressers, one squat and the other tall. (The latter example
is absolutely true to the term "portrait," since
it is anthropomorphic in a comical fashion. One dresser
looks like the child of the other.)
There seems to be no end to the
number of things appropriate to a Fiskin photograph. Houses
from the New Jersey
shoreline, Queens and Brooklyn look entirely right within
the tiny frames of her pictures. So, too, do a variety of
buildings in an ongoing series entitled New
Architecture. At the heart of Fiskin's enterprise
is a belief in the transformative power of photography.
The persuasive picture, her work asserts, can make kitsch
objects or offbeat architecture into images worthy of aesthetic
contemplation. Fiskin demonstrates this in series after
series. In her world of miniature images, there is room
for many things. Beyond the accepted vistas of art, Fiskins
photographs insist, there is much territory left to chart.
– Robert L. Pincus
1. On the history of a vernacular cultural tradition in
the United States, see John A. Kouenhoven, The Arts in
Modern American Civilization (1948; New York: W.W. Norton & Co.),
2. See William Bartram, ed. Judy Fiskin (Los Angeles: A.R.T.
Press), 1988, pp. 3-25, for an interview with the artist
conducted by photographer John Divola.