In 1970 California artist John Baldessari decided he was done with art. Or at least the art he had been making up until that time. Baldessari burned the paintings he made from 1953 to 1966 and cremated them. The ashes were subsequently baked into cookies and placed in an urn. This was initially seen as a very literal destruction of his work. What John did not know at the time is by actions such as these he was creating a new body of art as well as anointing himself as the godfather of conceptual art. He wasn’t just liberating his own work he was dematerializing the whole of contemporary art. He was creating an art that encapsulated ideas not just objects.
A few years earlier, Bob Dylan committed his own equivalent to setting fire to his established body of work. Dylan at the time had been known for searing protest songs with simple narratives that evoked the angst and hopes of the post-JFK and pre-Vietnam era. His abandonment of flannels and his Woody Guthrie roots for sunglasses and an electric guitar were viewed as the ultimate act of “selling out.” It can be argued that Dylan’s radical move to “hit the mainstream” was the first time such an act was committed in popular music because surely such an act hadn’t been considered with such weight before. It probably didn’t help that his new body of work was directed with a particular blend of venom and wit at this generation which had tried to claim him as their own. While initially viewed as cruel at first, moments such as “You said you’d never compromise with the mystery tramp, but know you realize He’s not selling any alibis” from Like a Rolling Stone became prophetic in their encapsulation of the fickleness of the free love generation. Much of the criticism for this new direction had to do with the idea that he had abandoned voices that were not his own and succumbed to a kind of narcissistic self expression. After all, the reason Dylan had become the all star that he had at the time was the empathy elicited in his storyteller mode of those early folk songs. And while it is true, that Dylan’s best work in the years to follow would be of the introspective kind (see: Blood on the Tracks), he would not lose his political storytelling edge altogether as evidenced by Hurricane, a blistering indictment of the racially motivated false imprisonment of boxer Rubin Carter.
The modern gesture of “going electric” might be seen in Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreak. The auto-tuned simplicity, the minimal production value, and the subject matter were radical in evoking a kind of shivering bare-bonedness that wasn’t of the norm for the man whose ego was a universe into itself. Hip Hop stars aren’t supposed to have hearts and here is his framed, shattered and deflated. These are the types of songs Leonard Cohen is supposed to be doing not the guy who once declared himself the “fly Malcom X.” Such boasts were few and far between here. Coldest Winter which closes the album ends with the chilly declaration that he will never love again and is repeated and again and again as a kind of mantra into the void.
On the subject of heartbreak as a subject matter, we can turn to Kurt Cobain. There was a little known period in-between his garage band days prior to founding Nirvana where he found himself locked in a serious singer-songwriter mode. This coincided with the deterioriation of a brief relationship he had had with a girl who prior to dating him had been involved with an especially abusive boyfriend. He wrote a number of songs, about an albums worth, about this experience. A good portion of the songs were centered on his guilt for lacking the patience to do more and instead being preoccupied with wanting to skip ahead to having sex with her. As the songs were never released and heard by few, the style was described as Led Belly-esque in a gospel crooning manner. Cobain couldn’t find a way to finish the album in an honest fashion and decided maybe it was best to never release it out of respect for her and what she had endured. But he never forgot her. He channeled that same anger and frustration into his outspoken support for feminist issues, picking apart the blatant misogyny of modern rock culture whenever given the opportunity to. Rumor has it that Polly and Rape Me were his most direct references to this mysterious girl and were even reworked from the unreleased album. Cobain would later confide to one of his closest friends that he was happy he had never completed the project because it would have no doubt driven him mad to do so.
On the issue of madness we turn to a filmmaker. French Filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said that he demanded “that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” This statement has never been true for any other film than for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Here, madness is embraced in its entirety and leads to an equal path of creation and destruction. Affairs, natural disasters, heart attacks, inflated budgets and egos, constant uncertainty and fear of death were all the ingredients necessary to make perhaps the most important war film of all time. Madness was embraced in its entirety for its capacity to destroy and create. It was a projected reflection that marked the end of the most ambitiously creative era of American independent cinema. And what an ending. Surely, the chaotic production could not have been any other way as all of it mirrored the zeitgeist of the post-vietnam, post-watergate era. That the film was finished, much less better than just actually good, must have been a shock to all, Coppola included. And that he survived as well. Tales of the production are fraught with a list of headaches and troubles, but one less documented incident is the time a crocodile nearly ate Coppola. After an especially late night of filming, Coppola was packing everything with his crew when he waded into the swamp to retrieve a tripod. It was then he came face to face with a mythical sized crocodile submerged in the water as Martin Sheen is in the climactic moments of the film. They stared at each other for ages until at last the crocodile dipped its head back into the water and swam away. Had Coppola’s Icarus-like ambition concluded with this moment, he would’ve left an incredibly small output but he would have nevertheless been anointed the greatest American filmmaker since Orson Welles. This would’ve of course meant we would have all been spared Keanu Reeve’s British accent in Dracula as well as his delicious supply of Napa Valley wine, but nonetheless it would’ve secured the sharp burn rather than the slow fade.
Fear of the sloppy final fade may have led Bas Jan Ader to his final act.
By 1975, Dutch born conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader had produced a small oeuvre comprised of films, photographs, drawings, and performances perpetually testing the limits of gravity. In tossing himself intentionally into the Amsterdam canal or from the roof of his L.A. home issues of failure, intentional and not were raised. His work had always been positioned as a type of search, for the limits of failure with his own body and set against the inescapable force of fate. His final body of work was literally a search though. In the summer of 1975, Ader set sail across the North Atlantic alone in a small vessel with the intention of circling the Atlantic in two months. He was never seen again. Two months later his boat washed ashore the coast of Ireland but without its one man passenger. Speculation emerged. Had he been swept off by the ocean? Had the man who had tried to defy gravity finally succumbed to it? And most importantly, was it intentional? Had he sailed off with no intention of ever returning home to his wife, to his teaching post at UC Irvine, to the blossoming conceptual art scene of L.A. which had just begun to embrace him? It’s impossible to say for certain. Evidence such as a book of a sailor who undertook a similar journey with the intention of ending his life were found in his locker at Irvine and seemed to answer such questions. It seems almost unfair to attach a reading of a work that may not have been completed, especially one in which the outcome was the death of the artist.
But there are those of us who’ve speculated and found an answer that is adequate.
Bas Jan Ader did die in the summer of 1975. But in the Winter of 1976, along the shores of Chile a painter bearing a striking similarity to Ader emerged. It is the opinion of this author, that Ader shed his skin suit to embody a different persona with seemingly endless potential.
A painter quite unlike what had been seen before. Sometimes using words as pigments. Combining the radical wordplay of a rapper, the garish intimacy of the best sing songwriter evoking the shape of another’s pain and enveloped in an Icarus-like ambition, here was an artist at last not bound to gravity.
And should this iteration fail, he would float on out to sea and do it again.