Living in the wilds of central Europe, I’m often late — often several years late — for trending U.S. entertainment. I watched "Arrested Development," season 1, for the first time in 2013. So I’m feeling rather edgy that I recently binge-watched "I Love Dick," having grown intrigued by reading an interview with the male lead, Kevin Bacon, in Esquire. While I enjoyed the show’s trainwreck-y drive, I was struck by the artwork created by Bacon’s character Dick Jarrett, an art instructor and internationally-renowned Texan artist/cowboy. It’s a reasonable question to ask whether Dick’s art is any good. But the real question is whether the art the creators envisioned their character might create is any good — good enough to make feasible his fictional status as a world-famous sculptor and land artist.
Most viewers will recall a key sculpture in the series that is accidentally bumped off its plinth and broken: The work is, unsurprisingly, called "Untitled," and consists of exactly one found object, a brick. “I like a straight line,” Dick explains, defending his work after he just slammed the pretentious, boring art film made by Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn), the woman who becomes obsessed with him. In a later episode, this same brick will be rearranged into a stack of its broken parts, creating something we are meant to see as significantly better than the found object alone.
The creators, including "Transparent" genius Jill Soloway, wound up borrowing ideas from existing artists to create their Dick’s creations. That’s fair enough, and I’d wager that 98 percent of the show’s viewers would not recognize the sources of inspiration for the art included. But for the 2 percent of us that do, it’s a fun game to play. And I’ll be honest — if Dick Jarrett were a real artist, I’d be a fan.
Consider the brick. The history of using found objects as art, also called “ready-mades,” links back most prominently to the sculptures “by” Marcel Duchamp, including his seminal (or should it be “urinal”) Fountain of 1917, a century ago, when he purchased a urinal, turned it on its side, signed the name of an invented artist upon it (“R. Mutt,” which was inspired by the urinal company) and proclaimed it one of the greatest sculptures of its time (he also did not officially claim to have been the artist behind it, though he was fooling no one). The most famous recent example is Tracy Emin’s My Bed, in which she preserved her own bed after a multi-week binge of self-destructive behavior (sex, drugs, smoking, alcohol . . . one presumes some rock 'n' roll) and considered it a snapshot of her self at the time. It sold for over a million, and attracts hundreds of thousands of admirers every year to see it on display.
But bricks, as objects, have also been featured in art. My own publisher, Phaidon, has an illustrated book entitled "Brick," which features many a photo of . . . well, you guessed it. But the most infamous ready-made brick sculpture is Equivalent by Carl Andre, which my Guardian colleague, art critic Jonathan Jones, tore apart, and which I will agree is more interesting to think about than to look at. It consists of purchased bricks laid in an orderly stack. That’s it. Dick’s brick is just a solitary individual perched upon a plinth. If you like it, it’s about the artist seeing art in something ordinary. If you don’t like it, then you can certainly say, “It’s just a brick.” I sympathize with this knee-jerk response. But as a riposte, I would quote my friend, the great conceptual artist Ulay, who has said about conceptual art, “Some can’t, others don’t.”
In terms of Dick’s über-macho, cowboy personality, there are any number of potential real artists to call upon. There is also Dick Hebdige, the real-life cultural theorist upon whom Dick is based. (The author of the novel "I Love Dick" that inspired the series has stated that Hebdige was the inspiration, but tried to change as much as possible about the character, so as not to incur his wrath; he nevertheless filed a cease-and-desist order against her, and is no fan of either the book or the series.) Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Richard Long, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are all known for a measure of machismo.
Dick’s closest comparison in the art world is Donald Judd, a pioneer of ready-mades. While born in Missouri, his foundation is based in Marfa, Texas, where all the action in "I Love Dick" takes place, and Judd is the reason why Marfa actually is, in real life, a destination for artists and writers. Judd’s Chinati Foundation has a permanent collection featuring works by the likes of Carl Andre and Richard Long as part of a 340-acre desert plot of land.
In the 1960s, Judd proactively turned against what he considered traditional, European art values, and focused on “specific objects,” which included ready-mades, purchased and arranged by the artist but not “made” by him. He also combined sculpture with architecture and land art, blurring the boundaries, as in his 1977 Untitled (calling your work Untitled represents a thoroughly unhelpful shrug of the shoulders, but it has been the hip thing to do since the '60s), which consists of Cor-Ten steel rings in an outdoor landscape in Munster, Germany. He preferred “plain and simple” art, focusing on angles and sheets and clean lines. He's the sort of artist who would certainly have said “I like a straight line.”
But the most striking art shown in the show as having been made by Dick Jarrett appears to have been inspired by Richard Long. The British artist is known for works like Houghton Cross, an X made of slate stones; Full Moon Circle, a circle of flat stones that looks like a reflecting pool; and A Line in Norfolk, which, as the title suggests, is a razor-straight line of ochre-colored found stones. There is a canal gouged arrow-straight into the earth, running as far into the distance as the eye can see. There is a usable sculpture in the form of Dick’s swimming pool, a perfectly round concrete saucer floating above the vast, wild desert expanse (into which Dick plunges naked at the end of the first episode, and into which Chris dips near the end of the series).
But most memorable is the climactic work that Dick makes before “quitting” art and leaving Marfa. Inspired by a sidewinder snake, he creates a writhe of boulders in a form that art historians would call figura serpentinata, a snake-like S shape, which Michelangelo described as the most beautiful pose into which your subject might be contorted (he established Mannerism, which featured unrealistically contorted figures, bent for dramatic effect). It is beautiful and interesting and distinctive and the sort of thing we art historians can write much about. Is it ready-made art? It is, in the sense that Richard Long makes ready-mades, often out of found natural, rather than man-made, objects.
If the invented Dick Jarrett and the works he is meant to have made indeed qualify as great art, then does that make Jill Soloway and her collaborators, those who conceived of Dick’s art, themselves great artists? Yes, if you consider making quality television an art form. But they are more paying homage to a mosaic of established, real-life artists, riffing off the work of others to create Dick’s oeuvre. But there’s an art to that, as well. After all, perhaps the art of others can be considered as found objects, ready-mades that a third party can appropriate, reinstall in a slightly different way, and then call their own.