Tribalism. It’s a word that seems to be used, in the current moment, to describe any number of groups of which one feels an affinity for. Tribal by choice or by birth, by circumstance or by situation, all are possible organizing methods for contemporary tribalism. Artists seem to inhabit tribes within tribes, separated by nuanced interpretations of materiality or form, of alliance and of pedigree, of historical lineage and of personal politics. Artists of particular eras are connected by shared language, the language of theory or technique, and by a kind of knowing that is defined by training and practice. Where one studied and who taught there, the mission of the institution and the variables of geography and time seem to produce artists who occupy narrow strata of the landscape of contemporary art. I have sometimes wondered what a core sample of art history would look like as one read the rings of compressed movements and art historical trends.
Art, for me, might be described as a kind of literature, or visual culture, a global, mobile reading room and a narrative of my own life experience. I often find shared understandings of the universe in the writings of artists and feel a sense of belonging, a sense of positive tribalism, and an alliance with such artists who commit to what they do, see, and feel, on the page. Writing about art is an ancillary to making art that provides a meta-narrative about both.
A few weeks ago, a package mysteriously appeared in my mailbox. It was a book by the painter David Sallethat was in a shipping envelope with no note or other info about how it got to me. I suspect the publisher just sends these things to those who teach in academic institutions with the hope they will be adopted for course work. However, as I’ve been reading How to See, Salle’s collection of essays about art, I have found it oddly compelling and even joyful. He tells stories about artists he knows from his generation and a bit earlier, and applies his own brand of sometimes-pompous theory and art historical commentary to each chapter. The result is a voice that is marginally inappropriate but truthful and seemingly authentic. What is surprising is the range of artists he does write about; all were friends or teachers (he was a student of John Baldessari at Cal Arts in the 1970’s), sometimes collaborators and/or mentors. So, he writes from personal experience and the perspective of a kind of tribalism defined by his relationship to the subjects (both people and topic).
Perhaps coincidentally, I recently watched a documentary about the painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, Salle’s contemporary and a member of the same tribe of 1980’s-New York-enfant terrible artists. The documentary portrays Schnabel in all his excess and his pompous and unbridled creative impulse which seems oddly charming, though harkens back to a distinctly different time. When thinking about the cadre of male artists of that generation, who seemingly rediscovered the cult of personality that had been partially suffused by minimalism, it is difficult to separate the performance of masculinity from the work produced by such an understanding of public maleness. Both Schnabel and Salle inhabit a decidedly pre-#MeToo, un-woke art world. Salle writes about Schnabel in his book, but focuses mostly on his filmmaking in the essay called The Camera Blinks. It is a surprising move, but in keeping with how Salle roams around the art that has inspired him in short, cleanly-written prose. His writing is more plentiful than I had realized, aside from this book. For Salle, writing seems part of a process that includes years of self-education and a way of organizing experience. In an interview from 1994, talking about his own progression as an artist, Salle notes:
You mustn’t underestimate the extent to which all this was a process of educating ourselves. Our generation was pathetically educated, just pathetic beyond imagination… We had to educate ourselves in a hundred different ways. Because if you had been hanging around the Conceptual artists all you learned about was the Frankfurt School. It was as if nothing existed before or after. So part of it was the pledge of self-education—you know, going to Venice, looking at great paintings, looking at great architecture, looking at great furniture…that’s a form of self-education… It was a tremendous explosion of information and knowledge.
This resonates with my own experience; that all the knowledge one needs is out there in the universe, waiting for one to connect the dots and make some personal sense of it, put it on the page or on the canvas, perform it or speak it.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department