"Toughness" is a term so admired that it has suffered as only that which is admired can suffer--its admirers have overused the word, and so often used it badly, that its value for describing art has declined. Used to praise Paul McCarthy's performance of Hot Dog, it illuminates a defect in taste that sets one property of certain works of great art as a necessity for subsequent art, as if a key has finally unlocked art's mystery. This defect wants to understand art a priori, before it is experienced, and sets its aesthetic agenda accordingly. Looking at art is displaced by looking for the "necessary" property, a property that must be so obvious that the shallowest intellect can easily identify it. Thus, silliness begins to pass as "critical thinking," as if thinking is the point of art, and oblivious to the fact that, in any case, silliness is not worth thinking about in the first place. Intellectually far out "art lovers" cheer Hot Dog because it is so awful that it cannot fail the test and they chastise anyone who disagrees.
So, what about Manet and Pollock (others too) who made pictures that took considerable "getting used to" before they could be accepted? By now, we know liking them is not silly although toughness is not intrinsic to everything they did. But good toughness, toughness that comes with very direct art as one of its entrance requirements, that kind of toughness will never be ruled out.
Toughness occurs when art is difficult to see. Hot Dog is difficult because it is so defective that no matter how much effort you put into it, there is nothing to experience except "difficulty" itself. On the other hand, art can be difficult because it does not offer the viewer any assistance in seeing how good it is; it avoids any extraneous appeal on behalf of itself. Its apparent rawness is a necessity that cannot be separated from its aesthetic, not an appendage or accidental effect. This toughness manifests itself as it comes together as a picture or statue, not as the point of the work, but as a means to its point. It remains valuable only because of the iron necessity that binds it to specific great works, not as an intrinsic value standing on its own. Thus toughness can be an effect of the directness of some beautiful things, a directness that ultimately supports pleasure and satisfaction, not pain. You pass through difficulty in Manet and Pollock on your way to satisfaction when you see their pictures come together as pictures, not as their point when you "understand" them. Directness is part of their luminance, a necessary aspect that is present because they cannot glow until you pass through their initial rawness if, in fact, anyone today still experiences that directness as raw. It may be they are still thought of as tough only because we know the history of their emergence and because so many have made an absolute value of it that we are reluctant to give it up. When art is good enough, taste expands to see how good it is, and the art no longer shocks in our experience of it. At that point we would be better off to consign shock to matters of art history and other academic pursuits.
Like Manet, Susan Roth uses "subjects" that are outside the boundaries of contemporaneous canons of what artists are supposed to "paint about." She is so many generations away from the original Abstract Expressionists that the mainstream no longer bothers to count, and considers her de facto "derivative." Although she is a woman, there is nothing explicitly "feminist" about her work except that it demonstrates some women are better than most men. Just as Manet robbed Goya and Velazquez, she robs Pollock. Her effect, again like Manet, isn't to achieve "progress," but to conserve value in the face of weak contemporaneous norms, such as those that support Hot Dog and its ilk. Like every important artist, she shows that innovation and conservation only seem to be opposites.
Although Roth has always offered a rich sensory experience, getting to the table for the feast has never been easy. Each picture emerges surrounded by edginess and vulnerability. They can make even the most open and cultivated viewer nervous and doubtful of their merit. Often I have found the more open I am to them, the more intense my agitation. But I have never been able to dismiss them because no matter how nerve racking, they are compelling. By going back as many times as necessary, my taste eventually turns the corner and includes them. Then their goodness is crystal clear and it is hard to imagine how they ever caused a problem. These experiences have built nerve, but they have never provided an easy access formula for coping with emerging art (hers or anyone else's).
Clearly, her pictures are painterly, as is the best painting since the 70s, even when they are clogged-up by bas relief. She takes the way she pushes paint around from Olitski, though she obviously ignores the delicious extravagance we often see in him (and Olitski has taken from her in return, by the way). Her pictures are like certain middle Pollocks because they remain grave and uncomfortable with themselves, even when they sing with media piled a foot high. Paint handling, color, and indeed "media handling" are not "smooth" in Moon Woman or Magic Mountain. But this "awkwardness" is intrinsic to their song, just as it is in middle Pollock.
There is no evidence of applied color theory in these pictures, just color itself--naked, yes; raw, perhaps; but her color always defies conventional expectations, whether the expectations are found in the color wheel or the vague gerrymandering that expects color to convey a "message." I mean, is the rawness of the red in Krishna the red of anger expressed on behalf of this or that mistreated group? Roth ought to be mad that her type of painting has been marginalized by today's art system. She might be mad about how her being female has worked out in the zone where she lives her life. But how would we ever know? And what would it matter? This red is bound to the experience of this picture. Regardless of whether the interpretations are true, they are beside the point of that experience. To editorialize about the experience is to separate it from its value as art. There are lots of red pictures. Krishna, like Matisse's Red Room, is a good red picture. Those are as rare as interpretations are common.
Toughness in not a benchmark that measures or enhances Roth's art, rather it is her art that validates and delimits toughness as still relevant to the best painting being done today. If there is a future for tough painting, it may all rest on her shoulders, just as the future of painterliness rested on Olitski's some 30 years ago.
Posted April 1, 2001
© John Link, 2001-2002