He's Not Just Cloning Around

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

NEW YORK -- If imitation is sincerest flattery, then parody can be almost sycophantic. It allows you to indulge a love while hiding it, too, the way seventh-graders tease the classmates they have the biggest crushes on.

That, I think, is the secret to a wonderful new piece by Rodney Graham, for decades one of the best-received, but also most perplexing, of contemporary artists. The work, on display at the 303 Gallery in Chelsea, lets Graham poke fun at, and secretly wallow in, the art and legend of Morris Louis, Washington's artistic hero.

Titled "The Gifted Amateur, November 10, 1962," it consists of a wall-size color transparency stretched across three huge light boxes. The photo shows a 50-something man in blue silk pajamas -- Graham himself, recognizable from his appearances in many other works -- standing in the middle of an elegant modern living room while he pours paint onto a cream-colored canvas. The piece is a nearly perfect distillation of the myth of Louis, which includes the crucial fact that he poured his massive "stain" paintings in his suburban living room in Chevy Chase, without, it's said, leaving much mess behind.

In Graham's version of the myth, carefully spread newspapers protect the living room's parquet floor while the handsome artist -- Louis was known to be the subject of his female students' crushes -- stands immaculate among his paints. The room itself, carefully staged in a photo studio in Vancouver, is a stunning evocation of the best of postwar design. It's got a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired flagstone fireplace, a cedar-lath cathedral ceiling, sliding garden doors in floor-to-ceiling glass, walnut veneer walls and custom shelving done in perfect Danish-modern style. Its accessories are also absolutely right: a vintage Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder as well as art books by the big names of the day, such as Erwin Panofsky and John Russell. (The absence of works by Clement Greenberg, Louis's mentor and the most famous critic of that time, is notable.) The artist's pigments sit in period household vessels such as Revere Ware pots, with their trademark copper bottoms, and Tupperware bowls in 1960s green and pink; a cigarette dangles from his lips, Brat Pack style. (Louis died of lung cancer in 1962.) Even the newspaper on the floor is a legible facsimile of the edition from Nov. 8, 1962 -- two days old by the date of the depicted scene, and therefore ready to do dropcloth duty.

The whole thing stands as a re-imagining of a crucial moment in history. It's like all those pictures that try to re-create the instant of the Annunciation. And like such pictures, the goal isn't so much strict historical accuracy as narrative power. What matters isn't how perfectly they capture the past but how well they help us enter it. We can be convinced by Graham's imaginary scene, even as we realize that Louis's own living room couldn't have been anywhere as grand as the one in Graham's photo, and the abstract picture that its artist paints is not so much a perfect Louis painting as a generic stand-in for one.

The painting couldn't be by Louis, anyway, because by the date in the work's title, Louis had already been dead for two months and three days. So what we're witnessing here isn't Louis himself so much as a kind of elegiac echo of Louis in which a part-time painter -- a "gentleman amateur" in the grand tradition, judging by the title and the genteel setting -- tries to inhabit the persona of the recently dead master. And that amateur, of course, turns out to be Graham himself. (Look close enough and you can just make out that the newspaper's Nov. 8 front page is from Vancouver, where Graham is based.)

Living in our age of irony, Graham can't simply turn back his artistic clock to the era of Louis, when doubts about the power of abstraction, of art itself, were barely even entertained. Such doubts are here to stay. Graham, as a leading artist of his time, feels no choice but to make art that acknowledges how far we've come -- or fallen. There's no doubt about the irony in this picture: Our first instinct is to laugh at the exquisite tidiness of Graham's vision of the Ghost of Painting Past. But that vision's mockery is very gentle. And it happens to give Graham the chance to put on silk pajamas, stand in a gracious living room and craft pretty abstract pictures.

Graham has worked this seam before. In one video, he turned himself into an ad-campaign cowboy singing achy-breaky songs, satirizing Nashville while also twanging his heart out. He's written classic-rock soundtracks for other videos that riff on cliched acid trips. And, in an earlier light box, he put himself into the persona of the aging Cary Grant acting in "To Catch a Thief" -- a middle-aged artist playing a middle-aged actor playing a middle-aged burglar. But none of his earlier impersonations have had quite the resonance of "The Gifted Amateur," in which one of the leading artists of our day wishes himself into the skin of a great ancestor. Or if Graham can't quite imagine himself into the genius role of Louis -- such aesthetic heroism no longer wears well -- he can at least pretend, for a moment, to be a mannerly imitator mourning him in 1962.

The Gifted Amateur, November 10, 1962 is on view through June 7 at 303 Gallery, 525 W. 22nd St., New York. Call 212-255-1121 or visit

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