Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City. Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-300-13706-4
Reviewed by Liam Dodds, University of Stirling
Allan Kaprow, in “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”, stated that the legacy of Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism was an art that eschewed expression and representation for a literalist emphasis on material fact. Consequently, an art would emerge, Kaprow posited, which would offer the literal presentation of the everyday world, a presentation of an everyday object untransformed where “only their real meaning will be stated”. Joshua Shannon’s The Disappearance of Objects considers the post-abstract-expressionist art of the New York Junk Culture, exploring the art of Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenber and Donald Judd as they answered the call of Kaprow’s manifesto, whilst responding to the transition of their immediate urban environment from material industrial city to the frictionless exchange of postmodernism. Borne from the modernist impulse to question the faithfulness of representation in art, the New York Junk Culture movement utilised the “simple solid object which resists everything – interpretation, incorporation, juxtaposition, transformation” in order to develop an extreme materialism which went beyond representing the material otherness of the artwork: the art of the New York Junk Culture refused representation altogether. Utilising the obsolescent detritus of New York City, the new materialistic art form presented found objects and material remnants of the lost industrial city in an attempted resistance of the dematerializing juggernaut of postmodernism. Removed from the contemporary context which inflected the sculptures of Oldenberg, Johns, Rauschenber and Judd, Shannon’s text, and the issues he raises in The Disappearance of Objects, may be seen to inform a contemporary urban Gothic, expressing the paradoxical impulse of loss and decay, re-composition and renewal characteristic of the contemporary urban environment.
Hal Foster, Shannon notes, identified American Art as expressive of a postmodern crisis in signification, “pure or literal signifiers are freed from their ballast of their signifieds, their former meanings”. Therefore, for Foster, the work of the post-abstract-expressionists represented a stage in capitalism in which all things are reduced to a single series of exchangeable signifiers. For Foster, the works of the New York Junk Culture are metonymic representations of objects of contemporary society: exchangeable objects whose only meaning is their exchangeability. Shannon argues, however, that Foster’s account fails to acknowledge the ways in which meanings inevitably accrue, unavoidably, to objects. Devoting a chapter to each artist, Shannon’s text analyses the developments in transport, urban renewal, consumer packaging and containerized shipping as New York made the transition to postmodern Gotham, considering how these contemporary developments influenced the works. Shannon argues, therefore, “this art’s obsession with urban detritus was both a wilful resistance to New York’s transformation and a grudging acknowledgement of the new urban texture of flow and sleek homogeneity”.
The obsession with the object, the literal presentation of the object, and the apparent paradox between the resistance to, and willing acknowledgement of, the postmodernization of the urban environment is most evident in the works of Jasper Johns. Johns’ sculptures signify nothing but their own identity, a sculpture of a flashlight is a flashlight is a flashlight. Rather than indulging in what Shannon terms abstraction, the realm of meanings imposed upon the object by the order of ideas implied by the object in the material world, John’s sculptures present themselves as material fact, “particular things for which even names are unjustly abstract”. The dull, grey, Light Bulb I cast in Sculpt-Metal, a cheap compound synthesized from aluminium powder and plastics, is a near precise imitation of an authentic lightbulb, albeit with an indeterminate appearance between stone and metal. A “mute object coated in grey silence”, Light Bulb I is literal about its own imitation of a lightbulb and its own materiality. However, the indeterminate appearance of the sculpture “seems to speak of a fictive civilisation, electrified but long lost”. Although the apparent antiquity of the sculpture denotes presence, Johns’ sculpture simultaneously speaks for a culture and order of objects that are absent, for, as Johns writes, “[a]n object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak for itself. Tells of others”. The loss, destruction and disappearance of objects, for Johns, speaks of a crisis for objects whereby the object itself is called into question, questioning whether the object “has any real body or any real use”. The calling into question of the integrity of the object demonstrates a progression from the modernist anxieties concerning the “faith of representation” to a concern about the integrity of the object itself, the integrity of reality.
The defining quality of the American character in this decadent period of disposability, redesign, forced obsolescence, desirability, and soft-sell advertising, was material abundance, a discourse of waste that drove the New York Junk Culture.
The flashlight: I had a particular idea in my mind what a flashlight looked like – I hadn’t really handled a flashlight since, I guess, I was a child – and I had this image of a flashlight in my head, and I wanted to go buy one as a model. I looked for a week for what I though was an ordinary flashlight, and I found all kinds of flashlights with red plastic shields, wings on the sides, all kinds of things, and I finally found the one I wanted. And it made me very suspect of my idea, because it was so difficult to find this thing I had thought was so common.
The exaggerated antiquity of Flashlight I speaks against the contemporary environment of consumerism: a “deathly fragment sent down from antiquity” the flashlight seems to speak against consumerist values of innovation and expediency. Analogous to a fossil or death mask, the flashlight speaks of loss, albeit the contemporary loss of hardware stores in Manhattan due to the suburbanization of the retail industry and the exodus of industry from the borough. The disappearance of the hardware store reflected the widespread rapid redevelopment of New York provoked by architect Robert Moses, who proposed that the abstract corporate architecture of shining metal and glass ought to replace the grey stone of industry in order to facilitate the corporate mergers that required increasing amounts of consolidated office space.
Johns’ sculptures, therefore, reworked the serial objects of contemporary consumerist culture. Invoking an antique materiality, Johns’ sculptures presented specific, found objects as literal, material, fact outside of the growing system of abstraction characteristic of the postmodern society. The objects, however, once presented resist the interpretation of literal, material fact imposed by the artist. The object, in presentation, loses the use value that would speak against the exchangeable signifiers of the postmodern city, without which the object becomes a mere, albeit nostalgic, symbol of a flashlight. Moreover, once presented the object cannot resist abstraction, as each viewer of the object explores their own junkyard of mental and physical reflections upon the associations invoked by the object in order to explain the object’s presence. This attempted resistance to abstraction appears increasingly futile in New York post-9/11. The excess of meaning connoted by the location renders any surviving object a remnant of the attacks, as connotations of the World Trade Centre inevitably coat the mute, grey object like Sculpt-Metal. Post-9/11, the ornate presentation of flashlight may never represent a mere flashlight, rather, once presented the flashlight must represent a tribute to the courage of those who attempted to evacuate the darkened, smoke-filled, claustrophobic fire escapes of the fallen towers.
An excess of abstraction is not isolated to the scarred streets of stricken New York, rather the literal presentation of a found object in contemporary society connotes any number of disasters that have befallen the once resilient cities of contemporary America. The Heidelberg Project in Detroit, created by Tyree Guyton, reflects the excess of meaning associated with the excess of urban detritus of contemporary society. The freestanding sculpture Noah’s Ark, alluding to a flood of urban detritus as a powerboat overflows with a sea of discoloured, frayed stuffed animals, could not only represent the displaced peoples of Detroit who fled seething unemployment and racial tensions, but the displaced families of New Orleans post-Katrina. Alluding to oral culture and history, The Heidelberg Project plays on the homonyms of “soles” and “souls” to demonstrate that even the most mundane, everyday objects testify to a buried history. Symbolising the “souls of the wandering homeless”, the worn cloth, leather and vinyl shoes that line the edge of the grass along the length of the sidewalk represent those who waited, and those who still wait, in the unemployment lines of the post-industrial city of Detroit. The Soles of the Most High, which features pairs of shoes suspended from the highest branches of the canopy, beckons the buried spectre of racial lynching whilst alluding to contemporary memorials of gang related shootings, invoking an anticipated violence that the sculpture never delivers. Guyton’s freestanding sculpture The Oven epitomizes the excess of meaning connoted by the literal presentation of the found object. The carelessly discarded, unadorned and weathered pairs of shoes acknowledge the victims of the concentration camps whose very existence in the camps was only verifiable by the everyday items left behind. The colourful excess of Guyton’s works that adorn the abandoned buildings of his own neighbourhood have begun to infect the former industrial areas of Detroit, whereby disused buildings are identifiable by Guyton’s trademark colourful and exuberant polka dots, graphically demonstrating the failure of the administration’s attempted renewal of the urban community. Despite the routine destruction of the Guyton’s sculptures by the Detroit administration, the resilience of The Heidelberg Project demonstrates the capability of a public art program to unify and revitalize an urban community. Despite the contemporary excess of objects The Heidelberg Project continues the artistic resistance to the disappearance of objects, as the urban renewal of Guyton’s art provokes the urban renewal of a displaced community.
The paradoxical impulse of Johns’ art, the imposing antiquity which denotes presence whilst, simultaneously, the loss of use value in presentation renders the art form a mere nostalgic symbol of an ideal form, is reflective of the paradoxical impulses of the contemporary urban environment. Once the land of infinite possibilities, the former resilience of American cities demonstrated in the progressive inevitability of the “rebuild” mantra which countered the destruction of Chicago or San Francisco has given way to a “memorial” impulse which has characterised response to the terrorist attacks of Oklahoma and New York. Where once the creative destruction of capitalism induced the construction of the new over and above and beyond the ruins of the old, the ruins of Detroit and New Orleans dominate the contemporary urban environment, speaking of loss and absence. However, it is in this absence that nature begins its own ”reclamation project”, the disconcerting absence of the towering structures of the city reveal an unsuspected, an excess, presence of life. Therefore, the excess of ruinous fragments in contemporary society seem to speak against the myth of America as the land of infinite possibility and renewal, whilst, simultaneously, the ruinous fragments advocate the possibility of renewal as the excess of urban detritus is utilised in art. The works of Johns and Guyton, therefore, represent the Gothic ruins of the contemporary urban environment, speaking simultaneously of composition and decomposition, of renewal and decay, of cities frozen in time and the encroachment of the environment into the urban. The works of Johns and Guyton, therefore, voice an urban anxiety of the loss of resilience, voicing the new fragility of the post-industrial city.
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