Ronald Davis
Catalog Essay for the exhibition: Hopper Curates

GHOSTS by Dave Hickey


In a cold like this, the stars snapped like distant coyotes, beyond the moon, and you’ll see the shadows of actual coyotes, going across the alfalfa field. And the pine trees make little noises, sudden and stealthy, as if they are walking about. And the place heaves with ghosts. But when one has gotten used to one’s home-ghosts, be they never so many, they are like one’s own family, but nearer than blood. It is the ghosts that one misses most, the ghosts there of the Rocky Mountains.

--- D. H. Lawrence on Taos, Mornings in Mexico


In the early 1970's, give or take a few years, Dennis Hopper, Larry Bell, Kenneth Price, Ron Cooper, Ronald Davis and Robert Dean Stockwell all made their way to Taos, New Mexico and have, for the most, part remained there to live and work. In the begining, it was mostly fun and chemicals in the shadow of the sixties, but gradually things settled down. Today, the most interesting attribute of these artists’ transmigration from the West Coast is that it was part of a larger diaspora of American artists who left New York and Los Angeles during this period. Among the artists of my acquaintance, Bob Rauschenberg, Jim Rosenquist and John Chamberlain all moved to Florida. Ellsworth Kelly moved to Spensertown, New York. Donald Judd moved to Marfa, Bruce Nauman to Gallesteao, New Mexico, John McCracken to the Sangre de Christos, Jim Turrell to southern Arizona, Ed Keinholz to Idaho, and Michael Heizer to the Nevada desert. Peter Saul moved to Paris and Don van Vliet to Brussels. (Cy Twombly had escaped to Rome a decade earlier.) Billy Al Bengston sailed off to Hawaii. Craig Kauffman decamped to the Philippines. Ed Ruscha stayed in Los Angeles, but he built a house in the high Mohave and never moved to New York. Doug Wheeler and Terry Allen moved to Santa Fe. Luis Jimenez left Manhattan for Hondo, New Mexico.

This evacuation seemed strange at the time, even catastrophic, but, it was less exotic than it seemed, In the long view, it has become obvious that the European village culture established in downtown Manhattan, by New York School Painters and their post painterly inheritors was more the exception than the rule. American artists have always, in one sense or another, lived off the land: Thomas Cole, Frederick Church and Martin Johnson Heade, on the Hudson River, George Caleb Bingham on the Mississippi, Remington, Russell, Bierstadt on the Great Plains, Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Stewart Curry in the Midwest, along with photographers like Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and William Eggleston who took quotidian distances of ordinary America as their palatte.

The Seventies diaspora was different, however. All previous diaspora created distinct styles; their artists embraced distinct subject matter that could be read as rejections of cosmopolitan life in favor of a more regional and place-centered culture milieu. The Seventies Diaspora, on the other hand, constituted a willful extension of cosmopolitan life into the far reaches of the American landscape. As such, it may be taken as marking the death of regionalism as one of art's religions. All of the artists who participated in the Seventies Diaspora---and all the artists in Dennis Hopper’s exhibition particularly---abandoned the metropolitan art-world with mature, cosmopolitan styles firmly in place. Unlike earlier artistic Quixotes in the American outback, none of the artists in Dennis Hopper’s exhibition arrived in search of their own art, and unlike so much artwork in artistic colonies, their work never stoops to the celebration and rationalization of the local lifestyle; it never takes the tourist attractions of the region as a crutch.

For these artists, the lure of place was of an entirely different order, something more like an imperial colonization, a voluntary banishment from the tumult of the marketplace upon which they all continue to depend---an exile made possible by technological innovations in travel and communication. (I myself, tucked away in Las Vegas, have been the beneficiary of these same innovations). As a result, I have participated in dinner table conversation in Taos, Santa Fe, Aspen and Marfa that might just as easily have transpired in Rome, or in Roman North Africa during the heyday of the Empire. The ability of this frontier cosmopolitanism to sustain the life and work of artists in their voluntary retreats, however, also speaks to a stylistic peculiarity of American art in the nineteen sixties.

To grasp this peculiarity, you have to put yourself back in the swirl of the paradigm-shift, into a moment when the future seemed unlikely, the past seemed irrelevant, and American hegemony seemed assured. For those of us who lived through that moment, it felt like the beginning of the end, like “The Last Movie” in which anything might happen. It was presumed that nothing much came before and nothing much would come after. These conditions created a triumphant, a-historical, Augustan art, designed for the moment and for eternity and nothing much between. So, today we look in vain for historical precedents or consequences. Pop and Minimalism seem to have blossomed up from the moment of their creation. Today, they are continue as occasional practices that draw from their own resources. No news is required, no scene, no tumult of shifting styles. One looks in vain for historical commentary, or artistic development in the work of Ken Price, or Donald Judd, or Ronald Davis, or Ellsworth Kelly or Larry Bell. All of this work is self-creating; it arises from its own steady a-historical premises; it is shaped by the occasion for which the work is made. Some artists have different styles but they are never "early" or "late" styles. Today, yesterday, tomorrow, it don't matter. In the history of western Art, this work stands as a place set aside practiced today in places set aside.

The local causes of the Seventies Diaspora were obvious: the bloody tang of the Viet Nam War, the negative charisma of Richard Nixon, the mauve dusk of sixties ebullience, the deteriorating conditions of life in New York and Los Angeles, the shift of patronage to the public sector, the escalating fashion for ephemeral and conceptual art, and the consequent devaluation of artists for whom the physical world is indispensable. All these played a part, not for their actual consequence, but for what they meant. They meant that the idea of America as the city on the hill, as a forgiving, joyous, civilization was not to be. This peaceful kingdom, unfortunately, was the world for which all this work was made.

Even so, places might be found, where the work itself might continue to be created under chastened circumstances, and in my experience Taos is one of the most beautiful and chastening places in the world. It has an encouraging history of harboring fugitives, killing priests and assassinating governors. In the twentieth century, it has probably produced more serious art and literature than any other non-metropolitan area in the United States, and, throughout this century, Taos’ virtues have remained more amenable to producers of art than to it’s consumers. It has resisted gentrification because, for all its beauty, Taos is not a cozy place. There is not much that architecture or landscaping can do to mitigate the daunting hegemony of the sky, the sweep of the flat, the looming scale of the distant mountains, and the perpetual inference of Lawrence’s ghosts.  Day in day out, year round, Taos is hardly even a human place. It is the Top of the World, more the Wild West than the Southwest---more Tibet, in fact, than Palm Springs. So if you want a beautiful place to work that bears with it the perpetual reminder that all you do will be broken, buried, blasted and blown away---a place that makes you brave and serious Taos is the place for you.