We all owe our lives to Woody Allen.
If Woody Allen had never been born, I’m sure I would be doomed to a life of celibacy. Remember the aforementioned woman who loved Cusack and Coldplay? There is absolutely no way I could have dated this person if Woody Allen didn’t exist. In tangible terms, she was light-years out of my league, along with most of the other women I’ve slept with.
But Woody Allen changed everything.
Woody Allen made it acceptable for beautiful women to sleep with nerdy, bespectacled goofballs; all we need to do is fabricate the illusion of intellectual humor, and we somehow have a chance.
The irony is that many of the women most susceptible to this scam haven’t even seen any of Woody’s movies, nor would they want to touch the actual Woody Allen if they ever had the chance (especially since he’s proven to be an uber-pervy clarinet freak). If asked, most of these foxy ladies wouldn’t classify Woody Allen as sexy, or handsome, or even likable.
But this is how media devolution works: It creates an archetype that eventually dwarfs its origin. By now, the ‘Woody Allen Personality Type’ has far greater cultural importance than the man himself. At least on the surface movies and television actively promote dating the nonbeautiful: If we have learned anything from the mass media, it’s that the only people who can make us happy are those who don’t strike us as being particularly desirable.
It causes sexual misdirection: It prompts us to need something deeper than what we want. This is why Woody Allen had made nebbish guys cool; he makes people assume there is something profound about having a relationship based on witty conversation and intellectual discourse. There isn’t. It’s just another gimmick, and it’s no different than wanting to be with someone because they’re thin or rich or the former lead singer of Whiskeytown. And it actually might be worse, because an intellectual relationship isn’t real at all. My witty banter and cerebral discourse is always completely contrived.
Right now, I have three and a half dates worth of material, all of which I pretend to deliver spontaneously. This is my strategy: If I can just coerce women into the last half of that fourth date, it’s anyone’s ball game. I’ve beaten the system, I’ve broken the code; I’ve slain the Minotaur. If we part ways on that fourth evening without some kind of conversational disaster, she probably digs me. Or at least she thinks she digs me, because who she digs is not really me.
Sadly, our relationship will not last ninety-three minutes (like Annie Hall) or ninety-six minutes (like Manhattan). It will go on for days or weeks or months or years, and I’ve already used everything in my vault. Very soon, I will have nothing more to say, and we will be sitting across from each other at breakfast, completely devoid of banter; she will feel betrayed and foolish, and I will suddenly find myself actively trying to avoid spending time with a woman I didn’t deserve to be with in the first place.
Perhaps this sounds depressing. That is not my intention. This is all normal. There’s not a lot to say during breakfast. I mean, you just woke up, you know? Nothing has happened. If neither person had an especially weird dream and nobody burned the toast, breakfast is just the time for chewing Cocoa Puffs and/or wishing you were still asleep. But we’ve been convinced not to think like that. Silence is only supposed to happen as a manifestation of supreme actualization, where both parties are so at peace with their emotional connection that it cannot be expressed through the rudimentary tools of the lexicon; otherwise, silence is proof that the magic is gone and the relationship is over (hence the phrase “We just don’t talk anymore”). For those of us who grew up in the media age, the only good silence is the kind described by the hair metal band Extreme. “More than words is all I ever needed you to show,” explained Gary Cherone on the Pornograffiti album. “Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me, cause I’d already know.” This is the difference between art and life: In art, not talking is never an extension of having nothing to say; not talking always means something. And now that art and life have become completely interchangeable, we’re forced to live inside the acoustic power chords of Nuno Bettencourt, even if most of us don’t necessarily know who the fuck Nuno Bettencourt is.
In postwar New York, existentialism was sexy, debonair, chic, and anti-academic. It was either a philosophy or something resembling one, a bundle of linked ideas and assumptions, largely imported from Europe, that attracted the herd of independent minds feeding the cultural discourse on this side of the Atlantic. Advocates quoted Jean-Paul Sartre (“existence precedes essence”) and called it an action philosophy, a survivor’s answer to nihilistic despair. Whatever it was, it went well with berets and saxophones, abstract expressionists in cold-water lofts, and heroes of novels searching for authenticity in a universe of chance, a North African desert, the pages of the Partisan Review, or a movie theater outside New Orleans.
For a certain extraordinary period of time, everyone wanted to be existential. Not everyone knew what this meant, exactly, but everyone wanted the distinction. Misused and overused, the very word existential began to function as a sort of highbrow condiment of choice, the squirt of moutarde de Dijon that spiced up the hot dog of a banal conversation. It was irresistible. To Norman Mailer, existential signified the cool of John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960—or maybe it meant a mutual climax achieved by anal intercourse. If you wore sunglasses in the subway and listened to Miles Davis, you were probably existential.
Was there a difference between existential and cool? Yes. Though it was possible to be both, as the example of Miles Davis attests, there were a lot of cool cats without an existential bone in their body. Think of Johnny Carson or James Bond or Mickey Mantle. At the same time some bona-fide existentialists would bore you stiff if you had to spend an hour in their company at La Coupole or Les Deux Magots. I feel certain, for example, that an hour with Heidegger, whose existential credentials are impeccable, would be harder to endure than an hour with Wittgenstein or Bertrand Russell.
According to Albert Camus, Algerian-born hero of the French Resistance, practicing existentialism was like fishing in a bathtub. A well-meaning neighbor, thinking to humor the fisherman in the bathtub, says, “Catch anything?” “No, you fool,” the fisherman replies. “Can’t you see this is a bathtub?” Delmore Schwartz sticks with the bathtub image. “Existentialism,” he wrote, “means that no one else can take a bath for you.”
Some of the greatest moments in the history of existentialism are:
• Nietzsche’s announcement in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science, 1882) that God is dead.
• Time magazine’s confirmation that God is dead in its cover story of April 8, 1966.
• The moment Jean-Paul Sartre realized that in hell he would have to room with Albert Camus.
• The moment when, in a BBC-TV production of a Sartre novel, a man who has impregnated a young woman and now, in a fit of conscience and remorse, lifts a cleaver to lop off his offending organ, has second thoughts. “I cannot do it,” he says, putting down the cleaver. “I am condemned to be free.”
• The moment when David Hemmings as the no-name photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) retrieves the nonexistent tennis ball that the mime troupe pretends to have lost.
• The moment in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) when the spy, played by Richard Burton in his seedy trench coat, decides to die with the librarian, played by Claire Bloom, rather than abandon her on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and escape to his freedom in the West.
• The first time Herman Melville’s Bartleby, an existentialist avant la lettre, says, “I would prefer not to,” declining to perform a task assigned him by his boss.
• The evening in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960) when the hero, a young family man, drives off and decides not to return home. The hero’s last name, Angstrom, includes the German word for anxiety or dread, Angst, which was second only to alienation as the term of choice in the bars below 14th Street during those heady postwar days when existentialism ruled the discursive roost.
Existentialism died with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Relief pitchers began to sport flamboyant mustaches, feminists insisted that the personal was political, Andy Warhol made silkscreen prints of Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the phrase Deep Throat referred first to a porn flick about a blowjob queen and then to a clandestine news source spilling the beans on Watergate, and Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” eclipsed Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” as the most recorded love song of the 20th century. All this plus Vietnam and deconstruction spelled the demise of existentialism.
Such perhaps is the fate of certain avant-garde movements in art or thought. They arrive with the intent to move heaven and earth, and after they’ve gone, what they leave is their faded glamour, and it’s the same old hard earth, and heaven’s as remote as ever.
Barnett Newman’s work is often considered a paradox.
A pictorial oeuvre that oscillates between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. It therefore serves as an intergenerational bridge between the two. This bridge shares the sentiments of the former through its gestural abstraction and fascination with the ‘primitive’ and the latter through its inclusive color field and self-revelatory zips. It therefore becomes difficult to categorize this oscillation, especially since its further aided by other elements such as size, medium, and color relationships. These negotiate the differences between the two movements, creating paintings liberated from medium-specificity through their access into the world of objects. However, this experimentation with objecthood is driven by a modernist discourse of autonomy. A discourse that propagates its own self-awareness by declaring ‘I am Art’.
This self-awareness is translated into the ethos of Abstract Expressionism. A radically individualistic movement that experimented with form, in search for content. Content that stemmed from the artist’s free will. This resulted in an impulsive, emotion-oriented association with the artwork. In some cases it was exercised through dynamically liberated gestures while at other times this dynamism was translated into the fields of color and depths of vision. However, the common method they employed to unlock this instinctual subconscious, was through psychoanalysis. They adopted Freudian and Jungian theories in order to access and express an inner layer of subjectivity. The artist becomes a mediator between his own suppressed conscious and the outside world. This occupation with the psyche is inherently narcissistic, or in other words, modernist. Its existence and prominence are self-referential. This apathy towards the social and political, or the everyday, is what allows an artist such as Newman to oppose all forms of teleological thinking. Thoughts that encompass the irrelevancy of deeper meaning or social change in an institution built on self-referentiality.
This was expressed in one of his earlier paintings called Abraham [fig.1] that dismissed utopic inclinations for a tragic sense of fear. A fear of ‘firstness’, of creating something he had never seen or done before. This tension was largely formalist since its main concern was with painting black on black, a once remote initiative. It therefore articulates the possibility that an artist could fear form as much as content. As for its expression, it was clearly autonomous in its nonrepresentational nature. It communicated a bourgeoisie self-importance by referring to a subjective reality as opposed to a universally objective one.
However, this closeness of value through the absence of chroma created an interesting relationship between the foreground and background. It demanded the viewer’s attentiveness in order to be able to perceive the blacker zip emerge from the surrounding field. This revelatory experience requires a spatiotemporal investment. And once this investment is given, the painting responds by offering the viewer an experience of time and space. This is also the case for the thin, light halo that fleetingly appears on each side of the darker zip (whose perception depends on) one’s sustained presence. This notion of presence reflects Fried’s analysis of the term in relation to Minimalism. An aspect of the artwork that is self-consciously manifested by the beholder. This aspect is theatrical in its dependence. It can not perform its role without an equally reflective audience. This engagement opens up the durationality of experience since it operates through an interaction with time and space. It was in clear opposition to the minimalist principle of presentness. A notion that legitimizes an artworks self-sufficiency through its unconscious manifestation to the beholder.
This feeling of presence is further aided by the huge scale of the canvas and the color plane known as zip. This term is appropriate since it challenges our perceptual understanding of space. It offers an illusion of a rupture into a different world, a world we can step into conceptually. This is encouraged by the width of the zip and its positioning of one edge on the axis of symmetry (thus deliberately) giving them a different weight without tilting anything in space. This play with our perception through the disruption of a clear foreground/background hierarchy opposes modernist medium-specificity. The flatness of the canvas is dressed with an illusion of dimensionality, of space, of objecthood. It becomes like an immense doorway whose totality can only be grasped from afar. This affirms our referential understanding of space. An understanding that legitimizes our existence through our own ‘spatial relation’ to the world of objects. And since our spatial relation to the artwork is trivial, we are overcome with its sublimity. This beckoning of the elemental, the instinctual, the primitive favors experience over modernist purity. It inspires within the viewer a feeling of disconcerting awe rather than a comfortable appreciation of formalist beauty. This fear is attributed to the realization that we, the mortal, finite viewer can only see things partially. In other words it marks the tragic reality of human perceptual finitude.
Another interesting example that carries these sentiments is Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue? [fig. 2] As the title suggests this painting is about fear, an elemental human emotion that has been dismissed by the stoic modernists of the late 1960s. It was therefore a clear Abstract Expressionist attempt to regain the wide spectrum of human emotion into the palette of art making. In this case the sense of fear is highly individualistic and stems from his ambiguous placement within the contemporary art world. He wanted to disengage his association with the purists, neo-plasticists and other formalists by using the primary colors expressively rather than didactically. The success of this endeavor is mainly due to the immense size of the canvas that is inherently expressive. Its pure confrontation is an evocative experience. It requires our perception to oscillate between the two margins, never encompassing the totality of the canvas.
This is further aided by the color, width, and position of the different planes. These allow the three colors to exercise a sort of balance as they try to compete on equal terms, eventually reaching an equilibrium. An equilibrium that is only achieved by the viewer’s conscious involvement. This physical, emotional, and mental engagement it demands encourages the viewer to question the seriousness of the title. We are left wondering whether we should believe it, disbelieve it, or employ both convictions simultaneously. Interestingly, this dialogue shares the theatricality of minimalism by adopting the visual language of modernism. However, had its size been reduced to a non-threatening human scale, this painting, along with most of Newman’s work would comfortably fall under the categorization of modernist medium-specificity. It would be an exercise of form. Therefore its size is what allows for this sense of perceptual finitude that acts as a bridge to minimalism.
Another example that demonstrates these principles is Onement VI [fig. 3] and Voice of Fire [fig. 4]. The former which consists of blue paint on canvas punctured by a white zip in the center is slightly larger than human scale. Therefore its sublimity is not silenced but muted. This is done to shed light on a different element, which is the relationship of the zip to the color field. Its messy application gives us a sense of the medium. Rather then being confronted by a blatantly illusionary zip we come to terms with the subtle flatness of the canvas. This is due to our perception of the zip as encompassing a unitary visual relationship with the rest of the painting. However, this holistic association is challenged once the artwork is viewed from a distance. The thin white line is quickly transformed into a zip, a disparate part that constitutes the whole as opposed to being a part of the whole. Its brilliance is suggestive of a brighter world that acknowledges the existential drama of our humanity. A sort of drama that originated from the artist’s individualistic free will. It therefore adds onto the modernist discourse of autonomy, a sense of collectivity. This is done through the painting’s role as a mediator between the artist’s individualism and a language of universality.
The latter example, Voice of Fire [fig. 5] is an immense rectangular painting consisting of three horizontal bands of blue, red, and blue; respectively. Its phenomenal scale is a manifestation of the sublime. It imposes its exalted presence on the viewer. This creates a clear dichotomy of power between the looker and the object that is being looked at. It is no longer considered a painting but a monument that exercises speculative control. Control of our perception, motion, and emotion. Therefore, it undoubtedly enters into the realm of performance. A frozen show that requires our engagement from a distance.
It also embodies the minimalist notion of objecthood, not only through its scale, but through the red zip. Although the symmetrical composition hinders its blatancy, the juxtaposition of the red against the two blue color fields reaffirms its existence. This is due to the nature of the colors; the blue tending to recede while the red tending to advance. This allows the viewer a metaphorical access into the content of the painting, as predetermined by its maker. This aspect coupled with its threatening presence opposes modernist preoccupation with form. Medium is no longer relevant when faced with an experience of perceptual immersion.
The final logical step was to transform these zips into free-standing structures, which is what constituted some of his later work. Here II [fig. 6] is a sculpture that consists of three vertically free-standing structures mounted on an irregular steel board. This literal liberation comfortably positions the artwork within minimalism. Its objecthood is no longer bound by perception but gains a layer of tangibility. This allows the viewer to step into this space, literally and conceptually. It becomes completely performative. Instead of interacting with the totality of the flat canvas, these zips enter into a dialogue with the surrounding space. This dialogue, although interdependent, is hierarchal since its confrontation is no longer concerned with wholeness but partialness.
This sculpture also reflects minimalist engagement with industrially produced materials. This crossover from the original to the mass-produced translates the zips evocation of the sublime. However, in this case this feeling of fear is directed towards the industrially threatening material and its vertical positioning. Like most of his paintings, we can only admire this sculpture from a comfortable distance. Another interesting element is the placement of the zips in the foreground and background of the stand. Whereas in his paintings he marked this distinction through the receding and advancing nature of color, in this example he compensates the absence of color with a literal manipulation of depth. This allows the viewer to translate this literality into his paintings in order to gain a stronger perception into the illusionary world of the zips.
Whereas these zips were usually employed in his paintings in order to re-affirm the viewers perceptual finitude through scale, balance, and composition. In this case, this finitude is literalized. This literal association is linked to our tangible understanding of space. We simply can not grasp the entirety of a 3D object from one perspective. It therefore poses yet another limitation to our corporeality that is not only perceptual but physical, spatial, and temporal. Another fascinating appropriation is the inversion of the zips. While in his paintings they provided a ruptured gateway into an ephemeral reality, in his sculptures they become obtrusive elements hindering any form of access. This perhaps shows their maturation into elements that are physically confronted as opposed to ones that are conceptually walked into.
This evolution into the world of sculpture provides insight into Newman’s formulation and perception of his zips. It shows a narrative of objecthood that reached its finality through a literal physical translation. However, its finality is not conclusive since it will always rely on a dialogue with its initial birth on canvas. This dialogue mirrors Newman’s oscillation between the world of objects and the world of painting. It is for this reason that his work serves as an intergenerational bridge between the two; integrating the vocabulary of the former into the language of the latter.