American comics, Russian Suprematism and German philosophy: welcome to the world of Andy Hope 1930
American comics, Russian Suprematism and German philosophy: welcome to the world of Andy Hope 1930
Andy Hope 1930 – the name adopted in 2010 by the artist formerly known as Andreas Hofer – is heir to a genealogy of candid, often astringent, declarations by German philosophers, writers and artists about the nature and purpose of the ‘America’ they visited, resided in temporarily, or never saw. This providential arc of opinion ranges almost operatically from the stay-at-home punditry of Hegel’s temporizing historical futurism to Max Weber’s on-site prognosis of American secularization read from the entrails of its Protestant sects; from the rehearsal of America’s basest symptoms by Thomas Mann – ‘a disgusting exhibition of primitive Puritanism, hatred, fear, corruption and self-righteousness’1 – to Theodor Adorno’s unremitting jeremiads against the popular ‘culture industry’ for which the upstart nation bore clear and ultimate responsibility.
Adorno, in particular, caught some of the contaminating – and paradoxical – inevitability attached to the pressing need to reckon with what America gave to the 20th century: ‘[…] it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that every consciousness today that has not appropriated the American experience, even if with resistance, has something reactionary to it.’2 But his crushingly instrumental accounts of the make-up and experience of popular cultural forms – ‘sentimental’ music or Hollywood movies, for example – are predicated on a kind of catharsis of self-denigration utterly foreign to the assumptions and greater purpose of Hope 1930. ‘The actual function of sentimental music,’ Adorno suggested, ‘… lies rather in the temporary release given to the awareness that one has missed fulfillment.’ It follows that this ‘confession of … unhappiness reconciles [listeners], by means of this “release,” to their social dependence.’3
When Hope 1930 titled a recent painting Sub-History Light (2013) after the words inscribed across its top, he seems to have called both Hegel and Adorno to task. For not only does his conception of a kind of impenitently unserious under-history dispel the compulsive gravitas and crushing inevitability of Hegel’s historical spirit, but it also echoes and impugns the hierarchic, often patronizing, morality of Adorno’s aesthetic chiaroscuro. In ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ (a chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944) he and Max Horkheimer opined: ‘Light art has accompanied autonomous art as its shadow. It is the social bad conscience of serious art.’4 The black silhouette dominating Sub-History Light is that of a Minnie Mouse/Lady Liberty combo holding up a lantern, perched on top of a podium-cum-skyscraper punctuated by a central cross-shaped white aperture surrounded by smaller square-shaped ‘windows’, as if together constituting a ragged field of Suprematist squares. The work is a parody of the effects and pretensions of ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Liberty’ and of the impress of American forms and values on European templates. But above all it kicks back against the moral dualism to which many of the earlier German commentators on America, Adorno in particular, were committed. It addresses the necessary and compromised, but also potentially liberating, co-dependencies of the 21st century: the sustainability of the built environment with the sky and its ‘elements’; the psychological morphology that refuses to discriminate between ‘high’ and ‘low’ emblematic forms; the undertow of dual functionalities and multiple readings which deliver personal or aesthetic subtexts to the deliberations on, and becomings of, ‘history’. In contrast to Mike Kelley’s deliciously salacious drawing onto a photograph of the Statue of Liberty (part of Reconstructed History, 1989) done in the character of a smutty-minded school child – and supported by a mischievously parodic associated text5 – Hope 1930 has not launched an aesthetic assault on the symbolization of freedom so much as pointed to the attritions and supplements which have liberated it from the dangers of its own purity.
These antitheses run deep, for Adorno also weighed in on what he termed the ‘chemical change’ taking place in the conjugation of identification, selfhood and brand-oriented promotion in the US in the mid-20th century in relation to ‘the name’: that fundamental linguistic marker to which, he suggested, ‘magic most easily attaches.’6 While Adorno impugns this turn as a ‘metamorphosis into capricious, manipulable designations’ driven by the over-familiar exchange of first names and collective standardization in the US, Hope 1930 took the unusual but deliberate step in 2010 of renaming himself after the signature that he had long used on his work, often accompanied by a range of ancillary signs, symbols and phrases, ‘Andy Hope 1930’. Rather than a sell-out contraction that hid ‘the awkward distance between individuals’ (Adorno) signalled by the historical embeddedness of the bourgeois family name, Hope 1930’s second christening had several objectives and effects: most immediately, it offered a twisted translation into English of his German birth name Andreas Hofer, sealing in place an overlay between languages, geographies and allegorical potentials; secondly it both collapsed and compounded the distance between the artist and his on-canvas persona; and, third, it supplied a numerical rapprochement with a salient moment of Western art and political history – ‘1930,’ an indicator of deep economic turmoil and social and cultural change that profoundly marked the very conceptualization of the ‘future.’
To Hegel’s archly circumspect disavowal of a future that might be American and Adorno’s denigration of mass culture – and to the old-order rigidity of their categorical imperatives – Hope 1930 retorts by sketching a new space-time matrix emblematized in a series of crystallizations in which American landscapes or locations (Nevada, the Wild West); protagonists (cowboys, native Americans, fallen Hollywood or B-movie stars, comics superheroes, Billy the Kid, Tarzan); genres (abstraction, Tiki); monsters (human-animal hybrids, Jurassic-era megafauna, sci-fi villains); and cities (the caryatid-suffused, Deco-like Gotham of Srfffian Sphere or Drxbngl Echo [both 2013]) are blended with various mood-seeking evocations or divergent registers of history, temporality and place (the era of the dinosaurs or of Socrates; or specific bandwidths in the comic book omniverse). This uncoupling of history from the logic of a predictable future following on from fathomable pasts is accentuated by the artist’s well-tuned sense of strategic hybridity as humans are mixed with animals, gods or supermen; and events beset and re-organized through a set of possibles or contingencies sited in but mitigating against the existent. America represents a major axis of rotation for the artist’s compounds, a key point of production for its graphic repertoire and an allegorical horizon for the divulgence of imaginary futures.
In the abecedarium of Hope 1930’s furious projections, ‘A-Abstraction’ (used as a title and sometimes written on the canvas) is a leading indicator of the associative medleys to which the artist commits. At once ‘American’ and the ‘Alpha’ abstraction, the mode of gestural mark making summoned up by this volatile abbreviation is, for the most part, left off-stage. Certain unconsolidated pictorial interludes aside, we rarely encounter in Hope 1930’s paintings much evidence of the signature visual languages of the Abstract Expressionism to which this term apparently refers (all-over surfaces, burr-edged perimeters, corporealizing impasto). While the vertically formatted series, A Question of Re-Entry (2013), for example, refers quite directly to the ‘zips’ in Barnett Newman’s paintings (including Outcry, 1958; Treble, 1960; By Twos, 1949) and screenprints (The Moment, 1966), it offers to intervene in, or disturb, the meditative qualities of the earlier pieces and trouble their evocation of the discourse of the sublime.7 In fact, Hope’s works are inhabited much more explicitly by outcroppings of Suprematist geometry, or – in recent paintings, at least – intermittent accumulations of Paul Cézanne-like colour patches, each allusion vested, somewhat unknowably, between genuine homage and willful pastiche. In Mr. + Mr. Kent (2013) we are referred to something like a popular point of origin for another genealogy of American Abstraction – manifest, for example, in the abstract vocabulary of Star Wars where it is also hedged by an ‘iconic’ Suprematist manner (as witnessed by the fuzzy-framed black rectangles of Final Screen I and II, both 2013).
‘American Abstraction’ is, therefore, one of the artist’s phantom platforms, a food group without which painting could not survive, but something that is at the same time ultimately indigestible. It is thus that the designation appears in the company of the credibly extinct (dinosaurs) or alongside the ciphers of a stock cowboy figure who (via the persona attributed to Jackson Pollock) may have been one of its historical points of origin. ‘A-Abstraction’ eventuates as a kind of operating system for the unconscious of earlier 20th century non-figurative painting, a clearing-house for the vanquishment of Piet Mondrian’s – but especially Kazimir Malevich’s – rectilinear variants. It connotes the end of modernist utopianism and the beginning of the aesthetic false consciousness of corporate-denominated individual freedom.
The evanescence of a central style attested here is accentuated by Hope 1930’s material and conceptual reworkings of space and time. His desertion of the heartlands of American abstraction is met by an almost prurient fascination for the peripheries of the political and military imperium of the US, places at the very edges of its reach, beyond what the artist referred to as ‘this island earth’ – the moon, on which two of its citizens were the first to tread – and the ‘outer space’ that lies beyond, conquerable by potential – in the real world – but by default in the comics ethos. In otherworldly works such as Hollywood on the Moon (2004) and They Came Back from Moon (2003) (from the exhibition Welt ohne Ende World without End, at Munich’s Lenbachhaus, 2005), Hope 1930 poses the fantasies and obsessions of the media machine alongside the triumphalist repetition compulsion of the return – pointing us, inexorably, to the making of history by sequel. In They Came Back from Moon, for example, three vacuously unexpressive heads are posed underneath an American flag in which the stars have been replaced by a crescent moon: the vainglorious conquest of space is refigured as an exercise in shock and stupefaction. While Outland (2006), Mistery in Space (2003) and NEVERWORLD (2005) inflect these deterritorializations by leading us backwards in time or into the beyond, intimations of extraterrestrial remoteness are often met by further expansions and contractions of the lens through which America sees. Hope elides the US with the jungle in works from a 1995-96 series based on Lee Falk’s comic strips The Phantom (first penned in 1936) and The Crystal World (2008) from a series of drawings that reworks the title pages of used copies of J.G. Ballard’s book. Elsewhere he looks to the conjectural optic of the ‘dark continent’ (in the series Impressions d‘Amérique, 2013) – in which a superhero is cross-dressed in an American Indian headdress – on the one hand, having already scoured the nation’s interior (Into the Unknown America, 2002) for a glimpse of what it hides from itself, on the other.
Hope’s refurbishment of temporality works in some of the same dimensions. In place of Adorno’s pessimistic assessment of American time as the prison house of social and economic machinations – ‘The power of the process of production,’ he noted, ‘extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be “free”’8 – Hope offers the speculatively dysfunctional hope of trans-temporal liberation as objects and protagonists are aligned against the grains of their types, species and epochs. First shown in the exhibition On Time at Metro Pictures in 2010 – for which he formally adopted his new name – Hope’s Time Tubes I–V (2010) represent a special case. Comprised of a series of tapered viewing devices, the interiors of which were painted black, each was supplied at one extremity with an empty frame and set atop of a pair of roughly-worked, square, column-like supports. Functioning as ex-orbital mediating terms between the apparatuses of traditional perspectival seeing and the would-be transcendent, multi-dimensional, emotive interiority elusively proposed by Malevich’s Black Square (1914–15), the Time Tubes conspire against the scientifistic literalism of the telescope or the camera obscura by presenting a palpable allegory for the experiential overlay of opacity, seeing through, and virtual – though not, as Hope noted, ‘perceptual’– emptiness.9
Few of these contingencies and little of what Hope 1930 makes of America’s capricious resolve are delivered to some form of conclusion or finality. Instead, the artist retrofits his own cosmology with specific gravities and associative atmospheres drawn from the fearless imaginaries of science-fiction and comic book traditions spawned in the mid 20th century. While providing occasional signposts that point to ‘death’ and destruction, the counter-rational attributes of these perfervid environments give rise to experiences and encounters inscribed into Hope 1930’s works, following his iconographic precedents, as ‘strange,’ ‘weird,’ ‘marvellous,’ ‘amazing,’ or ‘uncanny.’ These detours do not offer some kind of reparation for – or escape from – what Adorno referred to in Minima Moralia (1951) as ‘damaged life’; instead they betoken a speculative resilience, a capacity to comprehend the capacity to marvel or the risks and rewards of amazement. Of course things go around and around, in and out, helter-skelter; and there is a sense in which Hope 1930 travels halfway along the road with Hegel, a shared journey in which America is a way-station and, as Hegel put it, ‘Becoming presents a slow-moving succession of Spirits, a gallery of images.’ Only Hope 1930 never turns us or himself back (or in), thus refusing that ‘inwardizing’ of experience orchestrated by Hegel as it retreats to ‘the inner being’ for proper conceptual digestion.10 It is thus that Hope dares to filter out allegorical responses to the conundrums of aliens, others and selves; good and evil; the everyday and the apocalyptic – pointing all the while to the ‘who knows’ of what comes next.
1 Thomas Mann, cited in Jeffrey Meyers, ‘Thomas Mann in America,’ Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 51, no. 4, Fall 2012; http://tinyurl.com/ThomasMannAmerica [accessed 6 February 2014]
2 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,’ in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press 2013), p. 241
3 Theodor W. Adorno, sections 42 and 43 of ‘On Popular Music’, first published in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science (New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941), IX, 17–48 http://tinyurl.com/AdornoPopularMusic [accessed 6 February 2014]
4 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmond Jephcott (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press 2002), p. 107
5 See, Mike Kelley, ‘Introduction to Reconstructed History’ (1990), in Minor Histories: Statements: Conversations, Proposals, ed. John C. Welchman (Cambridge: MIT Press 2004), pp. 28–31
6 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in Hollywood: Cultural dimensions: ideology, identity and cultural industry studies, ed. Thomas Schatz, (London: Routledge 2004), p. 35
7 Andy Hope 1930, email to the author, 5 December 2013
8 Adorno, section 32 of ‘On Popular Music’, ibid.
9 This discussion of Time Tubes is adapted from my essay, ‘Medley Relays: Possibles within the Existent’ in exhibition catalogue Medley Tour by Andy Hope 1930 (kestnergesellschaft, Hanover, February 2012), pp. 25–48
10 G.W.F Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987), para 808