It was a moment of transition for the Los Angeles art scene. In 1979, influenced by the art-life social principles emerging out of conceptual and performance art practices, an enterprising artist named Marc Kreisel established a hotel and bar fashioned to the needs of his fellow artists, and had done so in an all-but-abandoned corner of downtown LA situated between Little Tokyo and the River.
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This was an overt acknowledgment of a shift in the art geography of Los Angeles, away from the breezy storefronts of beachfront-Bohemian Venice and toward a loft-littered landscape of industry and dereliction like that of SoHo in New York, River North in Chicago, South of Market in San Francisco, and other places where artists were proliferating in number and seeking adequate work (and just-adequate-enough living) space. These blasted districts contained no amenities of any kind, save a few saloons and flophouses that served the truckers coming through at all hours. Al’s Bar and the American Hotel, by contrast, were established for the benefit of newly permanent, if very restless, residents, residents who had found themselves priced out of Santa Monica and Pasadena and converged on downtown as a last resort.
Taking as his inspiration the work and philosophy of German Fluxus-Conceptualist Joseph Beuys, Kreisel from the first viewed the whole thing, from real estate to entertainment, as a “social sculpture,” Only instead of relying on Beuys’ metaphorical structures, such as the sprawling energy pipeline Honey Pump, Kreisel made of the American, and in particular Al’s, a quintessentially American experiment, a practical, self-sustaining, and community-oriented phenomenon that could pay for both itself and its customers – a “money pump,” in his words. This was no mere capitulation to capitalism, but rather a realization of Beuys’ dictum that, in essence, art is capital. Kreisel’s social sculpture assisted artists not only by providing them a hangout and showing their work, but by supporting them in their artmaking by acquiring their art – entirely with earnings – and by galvanizing them around a gathering point in an otherwise invisible warehouse neighborhood. Al’s Bar, in Kreisel’s view, served its community as patron and as nerve center – what he considered not just a spotlight but a “job site” for artists. Even more than Beuys’s own poetical propositions, Kreisel’s hotel and bar, a no-nonsense experiment in community-building within a market economy, anticipated the social-practice art dominating artistic discourse for the last two decades. In 1979 Kreisel made art world into art.
To this day Kreisel is known first and foremost as Al’s Bar’s visionary paterfamilias. But he was and remains every bit as much an artist as the people his watering hole served. He was making his own artwork back then, and he makes his own artwork now. Over the past several decades, with frequent forays into “pure” assemblage, Kreisel has concentrated on the extended, and emphatically physical, use of photography, conflating photographic prints with sculptural forms and found objects. Now he has turned to building two-dimensional panel works out of so many pieces of photographically reproduced brushstrokes( a reversal of the “painterly photograph” in which painterliness lies entirely within the photographic picture, manipulated or not). Much of Kreisel’s work, no matter how overtly personal, addresses thematic concerns in the social realm; indeed, one prominent leitmotif in his art is the framing of social response and action in the context of autobiographical expression and reflection. But the new panel works, while still referencing the figure and its pathos, have moved Kreisel into a more formal and contemplative realm.
Are the new multi-sectioned artworks any less “social” than Kreisel’s previous work? They do seem to turn in on themselves ruminatively, backing away from the urgent and abiding issues he has addressed in such narrative- and situation-laden pieces as Who’s a Jew? and Don’t Listen to My Neighbor I Have the Truth. The new work does not maintain the conceptual and often performative qualities of the previous projects, much less the sense of collective effort manifested not only in Al’s Bar but in the situational document pieces. But, even if the current work seems quiet and inward compared to the ambition and insight of those earlier pieces, it still provides address to extra-artistic issues. Only now, they model themselves, wryly, on classic painting.
Even as Kreisel’s art has brimmed with social engagement, even as it has taken the formalities of conceptual art – specifically conceptual photography – and blown them up to occupy room and time, and even as his art can seem ragged-edged in its physical informality, it has always claimed an aesthetic self-possession, a clarity and even tidiness that helps drive its message(s) home. Kreisel is a no-bullshit kind of guy, and the precision and directness of his “social art” – each artwork clearly enunciating, or at least making self-evident, readily recognizable and highly specific moral and political themes – reflects his forthrightness and even contrariness. By contrast, the current photo-paintings (for lack of a better term) pose a softer tone in their visual painterliness and quirky mystery: they are clearly figural in their shapes, our eyes filling in where details of the apparent subjects elide, and the references seem heroic, humorous, and amorous, “timeless,” indeed classic themes that bespeak art history rather than human affairs.
But these themes are classic precisely because they bespeak human affairs. Kreisel conjures them and critiques them at the same time, examining their relevance and finding them, however lacking in specifics, touching in their universal appeal – and, as a result, perfect foil for a continuing stab at contemporary foibles. Ode to Zurburan, composed of myriad yellow-orange “brushstrokes” (again, a single photographed brushstroke turned transparent and repeated infinitely) can read like the entwined heads and shoulders of lovers, but finally reveals itself as a still life as citric as its dominant color signals. One cliché is thus cleverly replaced by another. By contrast, a darker silhouette, of a figure clearly lying in a heap, begins to appeal to our sympathy; but not only are its circumstances not elucidated, neither is the figure’s identity (although the title, Wrestler (Homage to Eakins), does reveal the source of the image). We recognize only pain, brokenness, defeat, exhaustion – or we don’t because, in this era of nagging social media, we demand details and reject the universal condition(s) of humankind. Faux news, as Kreisel laments, takes the poetry out of everything. He attempts to restore that poetry even when he, too, takes on a caustic tone. The Falling Man works, distorted, collaged figures seemingly leaping with their overly long arms raised, seem part humanoid, part cartoon character, part pastiche, inviting us to identify them by the blur of assembled materials – images? – that comprise them. And in Centaur in the Garden, Moron in the White House Kreisel knocks the stuffing out of a galloping centaur, the very embodiment of noble intention, by crowning it with a mop of sour-yellow hair combed into a now all-too-familiar flop. Is this empty show of bravado what comprises our current leadership, Kreisel asks?
In this work of 2017 and later Kreisel may be taking a break, or retreating altogether, from the massive collations of material and effort that constitute the bulk of his oeuvre. And he may be turning to more universal issues, or at least images, than those he’d previously addressed. But he is by no means turning away from the world. That world is ever with him, and his art remains devoted to its revelation – revelation of its inanity, insanity, and injustice – and to reasserting through aesthetic plain-talking what keeps us going as a species: hope. Artfulness and even beauty have now become arrows in Kreisel’s quiver, adding to rather than replacing his characteristic succinctness and impatience with folly. Al’s Bar, after all, was no folly: as ludicrous as it seemed to open an art bar at the butt end of the city, that was where the artists were, and they made it a success. In turn, Al’s Bar actively helped sustain them. Kreisel has long since taken himself out of the managerial realm and put himself back in the ranks of the artists; but his great moment of entrepreneurship was itself made as much of art as of ambition. And as an artist, Marc Kreisel remains very much a social animal.
By Peter Frank