San­ford Schwartz

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Into Words: The Se­lected Writ­ings of Car­roll Dun­ham edited and with a fore­word by Paul Chan, and an in­tro­duc­tion by Scott Rothkopf

Car­roll Dun­ham: Wrestlers cat­a­log of an ex­hi­bi­tion at Blum and Poe, Los An­ge­les, with an es­say by Alexi Worth

Car­roll Dun­ham an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Glad­stone Gallery, New York City

Into Words:

The Se­lected Writ­ings of Car­roll Dun­ham edited and with a fore­word by Paul Chan, and an in­tro­duc­tion by Scott Rothkopf.

Bad­lands Un­lim­ited,

230 pp., $24.99 (pa­per)

Car­roll Dun­ham: Wrestlers cat­a­log of an ex­hi­bi­tion at Blum and Poe, Los An­ge­les, April 28–June 17, 2017, with an es­say by Alexi Worth. Blum and Poe, 74 pp., $48.00

Car­roll Dun­ham an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Glad­stone Gallery, New York City,

April 20–June 22, 2018

It is an odd fact of pub­lish­ing life that per­haps the most notable col­lec­tions of art crit­i­cism to have ap­peared in re­cent times have been writ­ten by artists. In 2016 the pain­ter David Salle brought out his crit­i­cism in How to See, and now Car­roll Dun­ham, who is also a pain­ter, has as­sem­bled his art writ­ing in Into Words. Like How to See, it is a solid achieve­ment. It, too, presents a num­ber of re­views and es­says we feel we will be turn­ing to again in years to come; yet the two books are sub­tly dif­fer­ent in tone.

From its very ti­tle, How to See sought a broad au­di­ence and came with a clear cause. The ti­tle said that the au­thor was go­ing to show us how to get to the essence of art and im­plied that not all art writ­ing did so. Dun­ham’s ti­tle, though, is a lit­tle mys­te­ri­ous. It first sug­gests some­thing ten­ta­tive: that the au­thor, a vis­ual artist, is try­ing to get his thoughts across in a medium that is some­what for­eign to him. But Into Words can also mean that Dun­ham is, well, into words—that he likes writ­ing. This in­ter­pre­ta­tion is not quite right, ei­ther, but it is par­tially right, and it is what gives the book much of its life. Car­roll Dun­ham has a par­tic­u­lar and often com­mand­ing voice as a writer. He can be brainy and eru­dite in one in­stance, and col­lo­quial, amused, and down to earth in the next. Per­haps be­fit­ting Art­fo­rum mag­a­zine, where many of these writ­ings ap­peared, his sen­tences are spot­ted with “so­m­a­tized,” “neo­teric,” “on­to­log­i­cally,” and the like. We hear of “the helix of codes that al­low things to feel true” and the “youth­ful pul­chri­tude” of some of Renoir’s sub­jects. He gets re­con­dite

with “pic­tures can’t re­pro­duce (rep­re­sent) qualia,” and he flunked this reader (and his Web­ster’s Col­le­giate) with “uro­boric co­nun­drum.”

At the same time Dun­ham can ex­plain a point with a ref­er­ence to Tony So­prano, or can in­for­mally and quite rightly say of art in the lat­ter part of the 1970s that the “jug­ger­naut of mod­ernism had al­ready bro­ken down and was be­ing stripped for parts.” Sound­ing like a prac­ticed jour­nal­ist who knows he has to hook his au­di­ence im­me­di­ately, he writes in the first sen­tence of an ar­ti­cle that “Kara Walker’s work seems to have al­ways brought out the worst in her.” Learned or hip, Dun­ham rarely gives us boil­er­plate, and in its pre­ci­sion and bal­ance, he has a Dr. John­son–wor­thy mo­ment when he writes, con­cern­ing a work by William Baziotes, that “ev­ery­thing about this paint­ing is am­bigu­ous with­out be­ing ten­ta­tive.”

Dun­ham’s col­lec­tion, which in­cludes a lively and valu­able in­tro­duc­tion by Scott Rothkopf, is com­posed mainly of short and es­say-length re­views dat­ing from 1994 to 2015. There are also state­ments he has made about his work and con­ver­sa­tions he has had at dif­fer­ent times with the artists Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, Michael Wil­liams, and Lau­rie Simmons, to whom he is mar­ried. The

fullest and rich­est of these writ­ings are Dun­ham’s re­views of such well-known fig­ures as Robert Rauschen­berg, Max Ernst, and Otto Dix, and he is equally good on Joe Zucker, the late El­iz­a­beth Mur­ray, and Barry Le Va—con­tem­po­rary artists who may not be known be­yond the art world. In each of these ad­mir­ing but also ob­jec­tive and manysided pieces we sense that Dun­ham is re­spond­ing to artists whose work fed his own. But he is not em­phatic about this. Nor does he dwell on the up­heaval in con­tem­po­rary art that he has been as­so­ci­ated with. Now sixty-eight, Dun­ham was part of the trans­for­ma­tion in art that be­gan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when—to stream­line a com­plex story—paint­ing, af­ter years of be­ing frowned upon as an art form by many artists, pro­gres­sive aca­demics, and grad­u­ate school art teach­ers, again be­came a force­ful way to make art. It was when, more­over, nu­mer­ous young artists, in­clud­ing artists who worked with cam­eras in­stead of oil and can­vas, re­turned to mak­ing not only rep­re­sen­ta­tional pic­tures but art­works that caught the tex­tures and is­sues of con­tem­po­rary life. It could seem as if the very thrust of modern art, and cer­tainly the pro­gres­sion into in­creas­ingly ab­stract, vir­tu­ally in­cor­po­real works ex­em­pli­fied by Min­i­mal­ism, video, and Con­cep­tual Art, was be­ing ques­tioned, even re­buffed. Dun­ham has never been as widely known as other fig­ures of this dis­rup­tive mo­ment, whether David Salle, Ju­lian Schn­abel, Cindy Sher­man, Eric Fis­chl, or JeanMichel Basquiat, per­haps be­cause, when these fig­ures were be­com­ing known in the 1980s, Dun­ham’s pic­tures at the time were not the sort to make an im­me­di­ate im­pres­sion on a wider gallery-go­ing au­di­ence. In those years, it wasn’t en­tirely clear what camp Dun­ham was in. His early paint­ings were some­what like dis­tant cousins of Cu­bism. Like Cu­bist pic­tures, they pre­sented bits of rec­og­niz­able things set within an ab­stract flow of lines. Some of those things re­sem­bled roots or ex­plod­ing water lilies. Other shapes were def­i­nitely penises, and sprays of ovoid forms had an ejac­u­la­tory pres­ence.

Yet in time these works, which were painted on wood pan­els and drew at­ten­tion to the wood grain­ing, have grown in power. With their ex­u­ber­antly strong but also fes­tive, dec­o­ra­tive col­ors and dy­nam­i­cally var­ied, ever-shift­ing lin­ear pat­terns, these early Dun­hams now ap­pear to be, at least for the present writer, among the gems of Amer­i­can late-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury art. The cat­a­log that presents the core of these pic­tures, Car­roll Dun­ham: Paint­ings on Wood, 1982–1987, from an ex­hi­bi­tion held in 2008, has given me more sheer vis­ual plea­sure than al­most any art book I own.

Not that Dun­ham’s work went down­hill from there, and not that he re­mained an artist whose spirit was muf­fled. In the four decades that he has been ex­hibit­ing, he has con­tin­ued to de­velop an art that is dis­tinc­tively his own. In his pic­tures, the loose-limbed, often black-out­lined forms we as­so­ciate with car­toon an­i­ma­tion—and a love of the tex­tures avail­able in what­ever medium he uses—are brought to­gether with a bristling, risk-tak­ing, some­times scabrous, and wry imag­i­na­tion. In Into Words he writes at one point that “it is for­ever shock­ing that Bosch could see what he saw when he saw it,” and in some sense Dun­ham is a Bosch for us now. His sub­ject isn’t bizarre, dream­like in­con­gruities. It is the prompt­ings of imp­ish, de­monic, or merely toxic vis­i­tors from no-no land who have taken up res­i­dence in our minds and are lead­ing an ac­tive life there. Dun­ham is their bi­og­ra­pher.

Though he doesn’t talk at length in Into Words about how his gen­er­a­tion

came about, he touches on the is­sue in tan­ta­liz­ing bits. When he says that “some­what sur­pris­ingly, many of the sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ments in paint­ing at the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury de­pended upon rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the hu­man fig­ure,” one agrees that this is some­what sur­pris­ing and be­lieves that it is ac­cu­rate. It has also, I think, gone al­most un­no­ticed by the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple con­cerned with con­tem­po­rary art. At an­other point, look­ing at “eight­ies paint­ing,” Dun­ham refers to “the more heroic el­e­ments of that decade’s residue,” and he as­tutely says (with­out elab­o­rat­ing on his point) that this is “an as­pect much of the art world would pre­fer to for­get.” In talk­ing about Otto Dix, a pain­ter Dun­ham ap­pears to iden­tify with, he cap­tures an es­sen­tial tenor of his own art and that of many of the artists who ap­peared on the scene when he did (and con­tin­ued to ap­pear, in a new wave of painters, in the 1990s) when he notes the Ger­man artist’s “con­fronta­tional con­ser­vatism.”

What keeps us read­ing Dun­ham, though, are pas­sages and even phrases in which he com­ments on all sorts of art-his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, or on the ways artists think, or on how art touches us. He writes that in the 1970s, when Min­i­mal­ism and Con­cep­tual Art were fly­ing high, “the generic vi­sion of a good sculp­ture was a well-made gray box filled with fas­ci­nat­ing ideas,” and else­where he says forthrightly that when “smart vis­ual artists talk about their pro­gram self­de­cep­tion is al­ways a risk.” It is lovely, in an­other es­say, to read that “when paint­ings out­last their cre­ator they sus­tain a shard of con­scious­ness from a van­ished life.” Writ­ing that “it’s a beau­ti­ful thing when artists move in sur­pris­ing di­rec­tions that are later deemed to have been in­evitable,” Dun­ham’s sub­jects are change, move­ment, and aware­ness, and not nec­es­sar­ily artists at all. Dun­ham might be de­scrib­ing the way his au­di­ence has come to see the sur­pris­ing di­rec­tions his own art has taken. Es­pe­cially in his first decades, he seemed to be reg­u­larly rein­vent­ing him­self as he went along. Af­ter mak­ing the pic­tures on wood that were largely ab­stract and yet con­tained ves­tiges of known things, he moved on to pic­tures that sug­gested pul­sat­ing, rest­less, hairy, or erupt­ing blobs. Later there were pic­tures of bub­bling, squar­ish en­ti­ties that might be equipped with lips lolling here and there and shapes that were like short­hand for vagi­nas.

In the 1990s Dun­ham’s scenes be­came rife with ag­gres­sive hu­manoid fig­ures that had im­mense teeth re­sem­bling win­dows, or tended to point pis­tols at one an­other. In­stead of noses they might have penises, with tiny purse­like scro­tums for nos­trils. An­other group of pic­tures, pre­sent­ing big rounded shapes ringed around the edges with these cranky, bark­ing fig­ures, sug­gested tor­mented plan­ets. In other can­vases Dun­ham’s squab­bling stand-ins for peo­ple were found at­tack­ing one an­other in ships or grow­ing out of high-rise apart­ments.

In re­cent years, Dun­ham has set­tled in (to the ex­tent that this artist can set­tle in) as the chron­i­cler of more fully formed hu­man be­ings, usu­ally seen in na­ture. The woman in these pic­tures is called a Bather and the men—they com­prised a show this spring at the Glad­stone Gallery in New York—are

called Wrestlers. Fe­male or male, they are to­tally naked and am­ply en­dowed with dread­locks, mus­cles, and other body parts, namely breasts, but­tocks, nip­ples, penises, scro­tums, pu­bic hair, and anuses. These el­e­ments are pro­nounced. Nip­ples are so stiff and erect that they are lit­tle ver­sions of the hats the Pu­ri­tans wore. The paint­ings ac­cord­ingly are so strange, dar­ing, frisky, and, in an in­vig­o­rat­ing way, ridicu­lous that with each new ex­hi­bi­tion of them Dun­ham has kept his au­di­ence as sus­pended as he did in his ear­lier years, when ev­ery group of pic­tures broke new ground. We are kept won­der­ing how far he can take his con­ven­tion-bust­ing cre­ations.

Yet there are prob­a­bly few Amer­i­can artists whose var­i­ous works, seen over a long course of time, feel, as Dun­ham’s do, so much of a piece. What pos­si­bly ac­counts for the sense that we look at a sin­gle, ever-evolv­ing fam­ily of forms (and also spurs the out­ward va­ri­ety of his pic­tures) might be called Dun­ham’s draw­ing self. As his many ex­hib­ited and pub­lished works on pa­per show, Dun­ham seems to draw with the un­think­ing ease and reg­u­lar­ity of breath­ing. His paint­ings, for all their height­ened color, are in some ways draw­ings writ large. In a scin­til­lat­ing 2017 es­say about Dun­ham’s re­cent Wrestlers, the pain­ter Alexi Worth, in one of in­nu­mer­able pitch-per­fect de­scrip­tions, refers to “teenager­ish grapho­ma­nia” as an ele­ment in Dun­ham’s artis­tic makeup. (Worth is, ir­ri­tat­ingly, an­other ac­com­plished pain­ter-critic.)

Worth’s phrase hit me be­cause Dun­ham’s pic­tures can seem, though not in any bi­o­graph­i­cal, lit­eral sense, like a mon­u­ment to the kid who, in what­ever grade school or high school class he was in, couldn’t stop draw­ing in his note­books (or any­where else) and who by def­i­ni­tion was cre­at­ing images that the teacher wasn’t sup­posed to see and ev­ery­one else wanted to see. Over the years, Dun­ham has seem­ingly let his doodling self, which he per­haps per­ceives as a gate­way to his in­stinc­tive, deeper, and truer self, take him wher­ever it wants to go. It is im­por­tant to note that Dun­ham is not a sketcher, which im­plies some­one work­ing from what is be­fore the artist’s eyes. He is al­ways, rather, on some level a doo­dler, which sug­gests some­one work­ing from what is in the artist’s head.

To hear it de­scribed, Dun­ham’s art can be con­sid­ered that of a be­lated Sur­re­al­ist—an artist wait­ing at the door of his semi­con­scious mind, ex­pect­ing some­thing li­bidi­nous, maybe un­sa­vory, and, with luck, lib­er­at­ingly un­ortho­dox to walk out and take its place be­fore him. Yet un­like most Sur­re­al­ists, he is keenly con­cerned with form. His need is to play with his given theme, or im­age, in pic­ture af­ter pic­ture un­til it is ex­hausted. The first time you see one of his char­ac­ters with a top hat and a nose that is like a cross be­tween a fairly erect pe­nis and a kabob skewer with only one chunk of meat left on it you may find your­self sim­ply gig­gling. But if you fol­low the per­mu­ta­tions of this dick­head in pic­ture af­ter pic­ture you find that he takes on a dif­fer­ent life. He be­comes a us­able form. You see Dun­ham mov­ing him around on the can­vas or page to the point where he might be ap­pear­ing side­ways, or only his hat will be vis­i­ble, and even­tu­ally he is hardly there at all. We watch as he be­comes a spent mo­tif. It doesn’t take long, more­over, in ab­sorb­ing Dun­ham’s Bather or Wrestler pic­tures to un­der­stand how gen­i­tals, nip­ples, and anuses for him are com­po­nents in the over­all ar­chi­tec­ture of the given scene. When he shows pri­vate parts, they are all stan­dard­ized, car­toon-ob­vi­ous, and gen­er­ally out­lined in black or are un­miss­able black dots. In ef­fect, they are part of the scaf­fold­ing of strong lines and mark­ings that make the pic­tures feel as if they are as much about ways to form bal­anced con­struc­tions as they are ag­gres­sive demon­stra­tions of taboo-break­ing and freak­i­ness.

In his re­cent New York ex­hi­bi­tion the strong­est paint­ing, the 2017 Any Day, in which Dun­ham’s tus­sling males share the stage with a Bather who has turned her back on them, is per­haps not a work that ev­ery mu­seum (or maybe any mu­seum) would be ready to hang at this point. Dun­ham’s peo­ple share the space of this large can­vas with a goofy but ob­ser­vant dog, some hov­er­ing pot­bel­lied birds, and a third-grader’s idea of grass, sky, and flow­ers. Yet the paint­ing ex­udes above all a com­po­si­tional stur­di­ness and mon­u­men­tal­ity. If it is the prog­eny of any ear­lier art­works, a good can­di­date would be Léger’s pub­lic-spir­ited late pic­tures of work­ers and fam­i­lies.

What, in the end, does Into Words mean? My hunch is that Dun­ham’s ti­tle stems from the same de­sire on his part that view­ers see the lib­er­ty­tak­ing and the or­der-de­mand­ing sides of his pic­tures as go­ing back and forth be­tween each other at the same time. His ti­tle is an an­nounce­ment of move­ment. It says that some­thing—we don’t know what it is—is chang­ing, in this case into words, be­fore our eyes. His feel­ing for tran­si­tions and si­mul­tane­ity may ac­count also for his lik­ing to con­duct con­ver­sa­tions with fel­low artists and his in­clud­ing the con­ver­sa­tions, counted as equals with his ar­ti­cles, in Into Words.

Even be­fore this in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Dun­ham’s ti­tle dawned on me, I found that some of the more strik­ing pas­sages in his writ­ing were like lit­tle trips where sen­tences be­gan in one place and landed at un­fore­seen other des­ti­na­tions. When he in­ter­views Jim Nutt, for in­stance, he de­scribes, ex­act­ingly, the pain­ter’s home and Nutt the artist and per­son, and in back-to-back sen­tences he both times starts by look­ing at his sub­ject one way and ar­rives some­where else. Dun­ham says of the pain­ter that “he has a friendly, mod­est as­pect but with de­cid­edly prickly un­der­tones. One has the sense that he doesn’t suf­fer fools but is a bit un­clear about how to iden­tify them.”

The way both sen­tences turn at the ends can be heard in Dun­ham’s ar­ti­cle about the pic­tures Pi­casso did in his last years, called Mos­queteros (Mus­ke­teers), which were shown in New York in 2009. Dun­ham at one point writes about the artist that “the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal fan­tasies and nar­cis­sis­tic ideation that stalk the perime­ter of many artists’ psy­ches must have seemed like re­al­ity to him.” The odd ef­fect is that re­al­ity be­comes merely an­other state of con­scious­ness, and Dun­ham comes back to some­thing like this thought, and this kind of sen­tence con­struc­tion, in de­scrib­ing images cre­ated by Max Ernst: “These pic­tures of other worlds are like X-rays of our own, rev­e­la­tory af­ter­im­ages squirm­ing be­hind the screen of re­al­ity.”

The “screen of re­al­ity” may be, on its own, Dun­ham’s most un­canny and au­da­cious phrase, or no­tion. It is in­stantly desta­bi­liz­ing to think of re­al­ity as but a façade. But the words are also a kind of in­vi­ta­tion, and they deftly evoke Dun­ham’s own art. Go­ing “be­hind the screen of re­al­ity” is what we do when we look at his pic­tures.

Car­roll Dun­ham: Any Day, 78 x 100 inches, 2017

Car­roll Dun­ham: Po­plar, 90 3/4 x 60 1/4 inches, 1984

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