November 8–December 21
In some ways, this exhibition begins in 1974, the year Terry Atkinson left Art & Language, the conceptual art group he co-founded in 1966. This individuation, the shift from “we” to “I,” is the origin of the artist “Terry Atkinson,” known also on occasion as Terry Actor, Terry Mirrors, Terry Dog, and Terry Enola Gay. Atkinson’s longstanding commitment to group practice and the dispersion of authorship was ultimately broken by a shift within A&L that he perceived as one from the “social space of a group to that of a caucus.” For Atkinson, 1974 also marks a period in which Conceptualism calcified, “marshal[ing] the resources of an official history… and foreclosing the provisions of theory which it had done so much to plenish.”
Atkinson’s decampment is worth emphasizing as artists, especially those whose names are synonymous with canonical positions in art, don’t often bag their own authority and ardently change course. Easier is the kind of artistic maintenance and consistency we come to expect of the successful. “Artists are marketed as a kind of culturally militant version of a sacred figure, the entrepreneur.” Atkinson writes, “They are ‘radical’ and ‘challenging’, an immutable centre of self-confirming truth, and their market, logo, and brand, are promoted much in the same way as any other consumer item.” By ’74, Conceptualism to Atkinson was a cloak that the teething artist could try on. He was eager to break with it, while “retaining the supply lines from critical theory.”
The exhibition is comprised of multiple material, formal, and textual elements. Sometimes these elements appear autonomously, assuming the familiar form of a didactic, painting, drawing, or even minimal sculpture, and in other instances these elements are combined on one surface, or appended to each other as paratexts. Atkinson is a prolific writer, and his work is rarely, if ever, free of its own auto-exegesis or unloving self-criticism. Atkinson’s project could be described, without a syllable of disrespect, as a series of unresolved strategic “moves,” delineating, in his parlance, a method of “betting and trying.”
By 1975 Atkinson was making drawings and paintings of soldiers and battlefields from the First World War. These works were based on audio and video interviews Atkinson conducted with veterans of the 1916 Battle of the Somme and materials archived in the Imperial War Museum in London. They were not, however, exercises in historical documentation. “What I was trying to comment upon was the general point about the transmission and construction of history and the specific point about the transmission and construction of the history-reporting artist. Included in the construction of the latter was the reflexive function of the history of the formal resources and means of representation of, for example, history painting: and going reflexively further and further in, a history painting of a modernist painting about the problems of painting and linked, the finding of some sort of formal resources to harangue the rapidly ossifying historical transmission and construction of Conceptualism.”
Becoming “The War Artist” was not an attempt by Atkinson to make himself feel more comfortable as an artist; it was an attempt to toe a comparison between a cultural front and a warring front. “Avant-garde,” after all, is a term whose strange and ironic history is largely militaristic. William Gass writes, “From the main body of an army in medieval times, two smaller units were detached: one protected the rear during retreats, or from surprise attack, and sent stragglers back and deserters; the other comprised a line of scouts who went ahead to seek out, test, and estimate the enemy. By the 16th century, when the term was first applied to a literary movement, the avant-garde had become seditious, because its enemy turned out to be the very army it was supposed to serve.” As a “history-reporting artist,” Atkinson was pre-occupied with the history of himself as an artistic subject, and how his subjecthood had been ideologically arrived at. Atkinson speculates that when depicting history, the question of how to represent is perhaps not as pressing as the question of how to “represent the representer.” The representers in Atkinson’s drawings often give their testimony in prominent titles. At times, these titles grow into long texts, even diagrams, with the desired effect to lower expressivity and put some pressure on the conventional and subservient relation between picture and title. While you could see this as a vague postmodern address of “how pictures mean; through what technical and cognitive skills…” Atkinson’s titles/texts are much more unwieldy, humorous, and defiantly open-ended. In a painting on paper from 1979, he uses the title to comment on the “history-reporting self” as an instrument of political and social conditions:
Narrative Dispute: the New Zealand Hat – three minutes after this moment the hat fell off the branch! (No, that isn’t true!)
Well, O.K., three to four minutes then (No, that’s not true either)…
A narrative anecdotal index of ‘being’ a British artist (1980).
Auckland infantrymen watching ‘working class’ (1917) ——> ‘bourgeois’ (1958) infantrymen of the Bedfordshire Regiment march by.
Early summer evening, Somme area, Summer 1917
Conte and gouache on paper / 49 1/2 x 75 / 1979
Another way to launch an account of these drawings and paintings would be by pointing to a basic, yet enigmatic aspect: that is, their formal orientation to us as viewers. One might instinctively sense that in each, the way through the material is not straightforward. The viewer must accept they are looking at cover versions of Socialist Realism. For Atkinson, Socialist Realism was a way to about face Conceptualism, its exultant confidence, and roots in Western Modernism. “Social Realism was Western art’s most conspicuous ideological opposite…I was seeking, as far as I could tell, that this work should mark itself out as a self-conscious attempt to break out from what I considered by 1974 as the narrowing preoccupations of Conceptualism… I was looking for a set of both formal and, I use the word guardedly, expressive resources which Western Modernism claimed to be its opposite; claimed to see as ideological detritus…So in making the WW1 pictures it seemed to me that I was, perhaps, using a perfectly respectable avant-garde strategy; the use of ideological and formal material which established Western Modernism considered to be rubbish, and I suppose, equally resonantly, dangerous political rubbish.”
This is perhaps most apparent in the exhibition in Desert: an aide–memoire before memory (2013–2014), a series of eighteen drawings which conflate a hot issue—our recent Gulf Wars—with a very cold and distant one, Rommel, the WW2 German tank tactician, and his Afrika Korps. Here, Atkinson’s mind moves naturally into the malformations of the realities he was never a part of. Gruesomeness and debasement are constants, but they never get his entire attention. The horrificness of war is there, but it is unfelt. They are too ready with affect and absurdity after the violence has passed, too weird with their mixture of distance and amateurism for us to not see the artist making them. When Atkinson draws he does not hope himself to be Goya, however deluded the thought. Everything depends in these works on our taking the drawings formal un-seriousness, seriously, or just seriously enough. They are not parodies—the term is too final, but the drawings are handled playfully by an artist for whom so much is at stake—empire, war, the ideological constructions of history, and the class of the corpses. It seems truly part of Atkinson’s way of proceeding that artistic labor and a representation of the working, warring class come towards some such managed confrontation. As Atkinson sees it, the class of the historical war painting has changed. Awe at the triumph of a painted scene of military technology or victory is long gone, but laughter at the painting’s class concerns, or distaste for its heavy breathing, or boredom with its solemnity, or confusion (even perhaps resentment) at the macabre all remained intact for the “progressive” audience.
The art-historian T.J. Clark, a friend and colleague of Atkinson’s at Leeds University in the late 1970s writes, “Most British painting is a genteel endeavor. Why? The answer derives, I think, from painting’s unique vulnerability to its patrons. Painting, from the 1860s on, was the central modernist art—I follow Mallarmé and Nietzsche in this—precisely because it hovered constantly, constitutively, on the edge of complete assimilation to an upper-class ethos of aesthetic novelty, refined cuisine, ‘daring’ entertainment. The closeness was a threat, and most artists succumbed to it.” These war works describe both the grunts in the trenches and the history painting as belonging to one and the same class system. Put frankly, the subject of these war works is more the ideological arrangement of art and history than it is war. Perhaps it seems perverse to use limbless grunts to discuss art, but Atkinson would argue that Conceptualism’s exclusion of political or militaristic labor has been far more harmful.
Between 1974 and the mid 1980s Atkinson produced several distinct series of drawings and paintings that proposed the figuring of histories both “hot” and “cold.” The hottest emerged in response to the maelstrom of an imminent right-wing political culture. Take the Blue Skies series and its channeling of neocolonial exploitation; or the “Irish Works” and their phantasmagorias of Republican paramilitaries wiring plastic-bag explosives in bunkers in Armagh; or the “History Snap/Happy Snap” series of family vacation snapshots, burdened with the portent of nuclear war. The “betting and trying” of these works, the transition between the distant event and the newly synthesized and transmitted reportage, led Atkinson to conceive of himself as some kind of “information processor” or “semantic engine,” whose production was written into a historical feedback loop. His embrace in the WWI works of the expressive resources “of a proxy ‘Socialist Realism’” made way in the early to mid 1980s for a more “mechanized” conception of the artist Terry Atkinson. The subsequent paintings and texts became “some kind of prosthetic device linked… to my body, the producer.”
It is at this juncture that the material of grease made its way into Atkinson’s work. Searching for a way to further the analogy of the “semantic engine” as an autonomous program—what one might call today a “media system”—he landed on the “visceral spreads and emissions” of grease. This volatile material offered a means to convert “the image/voice/text residue” of the history works into a more explicit concern with “inscription…and a kind of mark-recording art-grunt.” The exhibition contains six examples. Fabricated on site, these Greasers consist of standardized construction materials and petroleum grease. The majority are previously unrealized and are based on a number of theoretical propositions and sketches Atkinson worked on between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. Monumentally minimalist and geometric, the works are undeniably ‘art grunt’ compared to the verbose Atkinson we find in the drawings and paintings. They are an attempt at trying to model the artistic subject through basic materiality and crude automata. Adopting the hardware/software analogy of computer science, their shaped wood slats serve as primitive motherboards into which the unstable materiality of axle grease, the “wetware,” is inserted. In later works, such as Two Software Greaser 1, a second software component is added in the form of a projected, scrolling text, which reads like a didactic explication of the terms and conditions of the work and its exhibition:
C4) At an appropriate temperature grease will turn to a liquidy oil state.
C5) Abu Dhabi is the largest oil producer in the United Arab Emirates.
C6) The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), currently estimated to be worth $875 Billion, is the world’s wealthiest sovereign fund in terms of total asset value.
C7) The Human Rights Watch report titled “The Island of Happiness”: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi.
C8) A work made of grease (that is, uncontained) can, no doubt, be curated and exhibited—with suitable temperature control and a stable physical environment it may perhaps even enter a permanent collection, where it may be absorbed by the Corporate Tyranny.
This text is an excerpt from an iteration of Two Software Greaser 1, as shown at mumok in Vienna in 2013. Open-ended, it is scratched out and re-written each time Two Software Greaser 1 is shown, suggesting the accumulative nature of the work’s potential readings.
Unlike the drawings and paintings, the greasers are not static and suggest a different form of figuring history. They are autonomously “self-reporting,” by which to mean, the work reports its own production and distribution. The volatility of the grease, the environmental factors such as temperature variation, or the movement of the work from the floor to the wall, or one site to another, means the work continues to change once Atkinson has relinquished control. The hardware frames the movement of the grease as a figurative gesture, mimicking the convention of the accident in abstract painting, those marks made without rules, without any notion of “the painting” preceding the painting. Atkinson puts it simply, “the greased troughs generate quite a lot of decorative and extraneous incident.”
What remains at stake here for Atkinson is a critique of how artists arrive at not only aesthetics, but identities. The Greasers evoke the idea that the “given model of the artistic subject” runs “implemented in the body of the artist.” This is a confusing idea at first. For Atkinson, artistic subjecthood is an overbearing convention that pre-empts decisions to make art, or to be an artist. It is a construct that is deeply tied to social, economic and political relations. He highlights a specific construction of this artistic subjectivity as having dominated the development of twentieth-century Western culture, what he terms the “Avant-Garde Model of Artistic Subjectivity” or AGMOAS for short. Atkinson has been writing about the AGMOAS since the early 2000s, though versions of this paradigm have appeared in his writing since the mid-1970s.
In these texts Atkinson has increasingly articulated his own biographical position within the narrative of the AGMOAS. He has also made apparent the model’s intrinsic links to the rise of neo-liberalism. The year 1974 loosely coincides with the full dissolution of the gold standard, the advent of a fully floating currency, and the last gasps of a growing welfare state in the UK linked to a Labour government that within five years was unceremoniously banished from power by Margaret Thatcher. The subsequent unchecked growth of speculation and privatization coincided with the construction of new forms of labor, and new notions of the working subject. For Atkinson this is far from irrelevant; the “progressive,” “radical,” and “challenging” artist, the defacto “Avant-Garde Model of Artistic Subjectivity” is a nascent neo-liberal entrepreneur, a businessy artist, who he claims, with characteristic Chomskyian aplomb, is well part of the Corporate Tyranny. In tune with the bureaucratic aura of the acronym, he surmises: “The AGMOAS is now a corporate audit.”
Terry Atkinson was born in 1939. He lives in Leamington Spa, England with his wife, artist Sue Atkinson, with whom he has frequently collaborated. The exhibition is curated by Richard Birkett. Birkett is curator at Artists Space, NY. It is Atkinson’s first institutional solo show in the United States.
This program is supported in part by The Oregon Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
1) Grease the axle.
2) Grease the Henry Moore Medallion for proper art behavior.
3) Grease seriousness.
4) Grease the European Treasure House.
5) Grease The Wall.
6) Grease The Diamond.
7) Grease the Brit.
8) Grease Rock n’ roll.
9) Grease consciousness.
10) Grease minimalism.
11) Grease God (in John Milton’s vision heaven was landscaped—perhaps by God himself! It is rumoured God is still a he!)
12) Grease language (in John Milton’s vision God spoke—from whom did God learn the language?)
13) Grease the autonomous surface.
14) Grease the materials of art.
15) Grease the practice.
1) The material of the avant-garde greasers.
2) Grease—the new material.
3) Grease as a repository of the potentially oppositional. Chortle! (Be serious now! Grease is entering the portals of serious art histories of the social referent.)
4) Grease as a disaffirming material—will it ever dry? I don’t know, but I can find out. From Castrol for example. Castrol the art object consultants.
5) Grease is the perfect material for a successful art career.
6) Grease, the perfect material for the civilization of senior common room culture.
7) Grease is the perfect material for making copies.
Paragraphs on grease.
1) It is asserted by the wise guys of art criticism that representation (or is it figuration?) leads to conservatism of practice. This is true enough. But what are we to make of the figurative state of abstraction? Hoorah for our serious art historians of the social referents of autonomous surface, of conceptual audacity (swoon), of technical daring (double-swoon).
2) Grease is the perfect material for contemporary art practice. And how is this, we ask ourselves? Because grease is a perfect resume of the shift towards consumption as its own justification! Really!
3) Grease is the perfect material of socialist realism. Because of its working class associations. The local car mechanic. (but how about Formula 1, Silverstone, etc.? Within the next decade we will see the Leningrad Glasnost Grand Prix!) Please don’t try to be ironic, rather try and make a noble stereotype out of the material of the car mechanic.
4) The attack on complacent dichotomies is complacent. Fake the attack! Grease it! Then make a double-fake! A double-fake! What’s a double-fake?
Uses for grease.
1) Grease for the career.
2) Grease for the opportunity.
3) Grease for the the going-on.
4) Grease for Dion diMucci.
5) Grease for the remembrance of the Great war—to keep the history slipping.
6) Grease for lessening the leaven of irony.
7) Grease for the sake of grease sales organizations.
8) Grease for democracy.
9) Grease for Tom Paulin’s Permafrost breakfast.
10) Grease for the Revolution (being serious, but don’t let them know you’re being serious—the real test will come soon enough—and in an October not in an art practice. Grease to distinguish work from wishful thinking.)
Terry Atkinson, Mute. Copenhagen, Denmark: Galleri Prag, 1988, p. 22.