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by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

I was delighted to discover during a recent short trip to Washington, D.C. that this city is reinventing itself yet again. The art galleries are moving and growing, and the museums are mounting important exhibitions that both train the eye and provide historical perspective.

In our summer issue, we look at the work of two artists currently represented by major exhibitions in Washington, D.C.: Yves Klein at the Hirshhorn and Robert Ryman at the Phillips Collection. Robert Stalker gives us his reading of French artist Yves Klein, who died quite suddenly of a heart attack in 1962, at the age of 34. By that same year, in New York, Robert Ryman had given up on being a jazz musician in order to make paintings. While protecting modern masterpieces as a guard the Museum of Modern Art, standing in the museum for hours at a time, he spent his time really looking, which trained his eye and helped him develop his artistic voice. These two magnificent exhibitions more than justify a trip to D.C.

Philip Auslander reflects on aging rock stars, particularly the Rolling Stones. Taking the question of why the Stones have been singled out as the objects of humor for being “too old to rock ‘n’ roll,” he addresses a number of issues concerning age, rock culture, and cultural narratives.





Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer living outside of Atlanta, GA and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

Photos above, clockwise from upper left: Yves Klein, installation view of Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers © 2010 Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo by Lee Stalsworth. Portrait of Paul McCartney, July 15, 2009 appearance on Late Show with David Letterman;  Robert Ryman, To Gertrude Mellon, 1958 © Robert Ryman 2010.


Robert Ryman, Untitled c.1965. © 2010 Robert Ryman

Truth in Painting

Variations + Improvisations:

Robert Ryman at the Phillips Collection

by Deanna Sirlin

"Painting is about the visual; the meaning of painting is painting."

– Robert Ryman


Robert Ryman has been painting for 60 years. He knows what his work is about, and considers himself a realist when he puts down a mark, whether a line on steel or a stroke of white paint on linen. Painted form is the essential, the real, and not a representation of anything else. “The painting is the meaning” writes Vesela Sretenovic, curator of the Ryman exhibition at the Phillips. Ryman’s line, his paint, is an end in itself, and not an allusion to any other reality. It is what is.

At the Phillips, there are 26 small paintings and drawings, all of them square and most measuring less than a foot on a side. Most would be considered monochrome. Ryman’s Untitled from 1959 is a thick and rich painting, almost entirely white with a black splotch at the center of the top. Nine soft squares grid off the painting; each contains a tapestry of brushstrokes that relates to the next square. For Ryman, realism resides in the reality of the painting itself. He is not trying to copy or simulate anything. The meaning of the painting is in the materiality of paint on linen. To experience it, you have to really look at the paint, how it sits on the canvas; its substance, richness, and balance constitute its reality.

I have recently been reflecting on why representational content seems to take precedence over formal values like light, form, hue, and composition. Do not a painting’s formal qualities speak to what it is truly about? Why should we think of a painting’s meaning as lying in what it represents rather than in the reality of what is actually present? A line of paint, white and thick as it gracefully extends over a small block of square canvas, is something real. Is not the touch of the paint to the canvas in alla prima or direct painting more sublime than a picture of, well, just about anything? 

Susan Sontag took on this issue in her well-known 1966 essay “Against Interpretation.” She describes modern perception of art as “the odd vision by which something we have learned to call ‘form’ is separated off from something we have learned to call ‘content,’ and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory. . . . it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. . . . None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.” By reducing art to representation, we have lost sight of its true value.


Robert Ryman, Untitled c. 1964 © 2010 Robert Ryman

The time Ryman spent just looking at paintings during his stint as a museum guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him the tools to really see and understand paint and composition. He learned that the dialogue among the formal elements of a painting is the one that matters; pictures of stuff are only as good as the way they are painted. Ryman credits Matisse as an influence--not for his color sense, but for the way he applied paint. Ryman similarly describes the impact of Rothko on him by saying, “Rothko’s paintings were not pictures of things, or images of something, and that was the most interesting thing about them. I was not taken by the color so much, but by the way they worked on the wall and how they came out into the space; how they had presence, independently of what they represented.”

Ryman’s early life as a jazz musician gave him special training in the reality of abstraction. When a musician plays a note on an instrument, that note, its sound and length and tenor contain its meaning, especially when it is the player that chooses it. Is it not the same for some artists when they are making a painting? Each brushstroke or line, like each note, is a decision fraught with its own meaning. Ryman’s strength as an artist lies in his realization that the touch of his paint to the canvas is realer than any picture of reality, and that the stroke itself speaks uncannily. Each painting is a complete world that does not need to be named for an external referent, which is why Ryman’s paintings are generally untitled. One small canvas named after its purchaser, Gertrude Mellon, was only given that title decades after the work was made. In the video below, Ryman recounts a charming narrative about an artist and a collector that touches on the true value of things like paintings and titles of paintings.

Ryman’s works look extraordinary at the Phillips Collection because they were installed with the same attention to the wall, the edge, and the use of space that Ryman gave them when he painted them. Ryman’s love of materials and his use of them in each work is echoed in the way the museum has hung his paintings. Seeing them in summer, one feels their light and coolness. Seeing them at Pace in NYC some years ago on the coldest, snowiest day of February they exuded great warmth.


Robert Ryman, Untitled c. 1957, © 2010 Robert Ryman



Deanna Sirlin is a painter who just relaunched her updated website at

The Exhibition Robert Ryman: Variations & Improvisations is at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., from 5 June - 12 September, 2010.


Yves Klein, installation view of Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. ©2010 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Touching the Void:

Yves Klein at the Hirshhorn

By Robert Stalker

“What bliss there is in blueness.  I never knew how blue blueness could be.”

 —Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (1938)


A painter who rarely picked up a brush, who eventually concocted “paintings” not with paint at all, but with fire, who sought in his famous blue monochromes to achieve what he called a “static velocity”—contradictions and paradoxes lie at the heart of the life and work of Yves Klein. “All facts that are contradictions are genuine principles of universal explanation,” the artist himself wrote in his justly famous “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” (1961). Of the many contradictions surrounding Klein, perhaps the most provocative is the artist’s claim, in terms reminiscent of Duchamp’s dismissal of “retinal” art, that painting is not a function of the eye. 

The first major retrospective of Klein’s work in the U.S. for almost thirty years, the Hirshhorn’s With the void, Full Powers (May 20-Sept. 12, 2010) brings together approximately 200 works, charting Klein’s development from monochrome painting, to sponge reliefs, to the so-called “anthropometries” and “air architecture” projects, shedding valuable light on Klein’s many intriguing contradictions, especially his seemingly paradoxical understanding of the visual.  Supplementing the major work with sketches, photographs, letters, writings, and films, this fabulous exhibit affords a welcome opportunity to reassess how Klein, ever devoted to the immaterial and “the void,” remained throughout his career surprisingly preoccupied with the place of tactility within the optical field.  

The key details of Klein’s life and career are fairly well known.  He was born in Nice in 1928, to Fred and Marie Klein, a figurative painter and well-known abstract painter, respectively.  A Judo enthusiast who studied in Japan and became an instructor in France, Klein published in 1954 The Fundamentals of Judo, a notable primer on the subject, in which Klein credited Judo with “the discovery of the human body in a spiritual space,” an idea crucial to his future aesthetics.  Early on he formed important friendships with the artist Arman Fernandez and writer Claude Pascal, sharing with them not only a passion for Judo but also a fascination with Rosicrucianism, an esoteric mystical tradition in which Klein’s own interest in the void, fire, and energy would find a deep resonance.  Around 1947, he composed his Monotone Symphony, a musical piece consisting of a single note held for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of silence, anticipating in sound the extreme reductiveness of his own famous monochrome paintings.  On April 28, 1958, only a few years into an already sensational artistic career, Klein mounted his landmark exhibition, commonly identified nowadays as “the Void,” at the Gallerie Iris Clert in Paris, exhibiting little more than a small, empty cabinet standing in a gallery whose walls Klein had painted white, having sought, as he later put it in his lecture at the Sorbonne (1959), “to create an atmosphere, a pictorial, climate that is invisible but present.” (The Hirshhorn exhibit, With the Void, Full Powers, takes its title from a remark that Albert Camus, a visitor to the gallery, wrote in the guest book at this now-legendary show).  In 1962, Klein suddenly suffered a series of heart attacks, the possible result of chemical pigment poisoning, abruptly ending the career of an artist Walter Hopps christened “the most interesting purely abstract artist to come out of Europe since Mondrian.”  Klein was 34.  


Yves Klein, La RÍve du Feu [The Dream of Fire], c. 1961. Private Collection. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Shunk-Kender, © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, courtesy Yves Klein Archives

Co-curated by the Hirshhorn’s chief curator Kerry Brougher and Dia Foundation Director Phillipe Vergne, With the Void, Full Powers surveys in roughly chronological order the major points of Klein’s brief but astonishing career, presenting us with an opportunity to reconsider Klein’s paradoxical interest in the relations among the visual, the immaterial, and the tactile.  Of particular interest in this regard is the exhibit’s inclusion of Klein’s first official foray into the art world, the book entitled Yves: Peintures [Yves: Paintings].  Published in Madrid in 1954 in 150 numbered copies, Yves: Peintures was a small (24.5 x 11.5 cm) booklet containing 10 commercially inked monochromes of various colors printed on high-grade paper.  A kind of parody of the genre of the exhibition catalogue, including even a “Preface” by his friend Claude Pascal that consisted of blank lines in the form of paragraphs, the book contained putative “reproductions” of monochromes painted by the artist in the various locales indicated below each “painting” (e.g., Tokyo, London) along with the artist’s name, “Yves.” As we now know, of course, an essential fantasy underlies Yves: Peintures—none of the monochromes included in the book exist outside of its pages.  This gesture cleverly announces several key ideas that would preoccupy Klein throughout his career: a jokiness that belies serious aesthetic implications; a rigorous commitment to the monochrome; an interest in circumventing or subverting the gallery system; a fascination with, as he put it citing the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the miniature as a refuge of greatness; and, perhaps most interestingly, the play between presence and absence, the material and the immaterial, the visual and the tactile.   

As a book, Yves: Peintures possesses an obvious materiality and tactility, pushing the monochrome in the direction of an object, an object that one can hold, touch, and manipulate.  In a handwritten text dated January 13, 1955, Klein described the effect of the book on its “beholders,” writing that “in the depths of their stare, appeared beautiful and pure monochrome colors,” emphasizing the collapse of distance between art work and spectator as the “paintings” enter or penetrate the physical space of the viewer, a strategy Klein would soon explore in his “actual” famed blue monochromes.

After a short period painting monochromes in various colors, many included in this exhibit, Klein entered what he called his “blue epoch,” painting his now-celebrated ultramarine monochromes.  Defining painting as “radiance,” Klein sought, with the help of a professional chemist, to develop a paint that would preserve the brilliance and glow commonly lost when the dry blue pigment was combined with a fixative.  Around 1960, Klein arrived at International Klein Blue (IKB), a patented formula comprised of Rhodapas MA, ethyl alcohol, and ethyl acetate, resulting, as the exhibit’s ample showing of IKB monochromes attests, in an especially vivid, shimmering blue.  Klein applied this unusually sumptuous paint with rollers, decrying the gestural brushstroke as too “psychological,” the tension between the sensuousness of the paint and the smooth, manufactured-looking surface producing a hypnotic glow.  

Despite Klein’s repeated claims about the immateriality of these monochromes, his blue epoch, like the earlier Yves: Peintures, provocatively explores the relation between the material and the immaterial.  On the one hand, Klein experimented with various dimensions and supports.  The Hirshhorn exhibit includes examples of IKB monochromes ranging from the large, vertical “California (IKB 66)” (1961) on gauze on panel, to the smallish, square “IKB 108 (1956),” to “IKB Godet” (named for Klein’s close friend Robert Godet, in whose apartment Klein first developed his “anthropometries”) on gauze, whose dark, scumbled, streaking paint differs markedly from the brighter, ever-so-slightly bubbling and rippling surfaces of the other two.  Challenging what Klein called in his lecture at the Sorbonne the “sclerosis of recognized concepts and established rules,” the monochromes compel us to marvel at the effects of the paint and how various dimensions and material supports produce subtle differences. In addition to this level of materiality, Klein originally pushed his monochromes in the direction of the object by exhibiting them mounted on brackets extending from the wall as much as 8 inches.  (A practice not employed by the Hirshhorn’s curators, perhaps because of the potential danger to the work.)  Coupled with Klein’s statements of how his blue monochromes “impregnate” the “readers” of his monochromes (his language here recalling Yves: Peintures), his own technique of displaying his paintings suggests how he wished his paintings to penetrate the space of the viewer.  


Yves Klein, installation view of Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. ©2010 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

With Klein’s move into more ground-breaking techniques and materials—such as his sponge reliefs, anthropometries, and fire paintings—comes a more explicit displacement of the artist’s touch even as these same works powerfully evoke the viewer’s desire to engage them physically, enticing our touch.  The installation of Pure Blue Pigment, a large box on the floor filled with dry blue pigment recreated for the Hirshhorn exhibit, presents us with what Klein called “a force of attraction that directed only toward itself,” an attraction seemingly borne out by the fact that only days into the show several visitors had to be escorted by guards downstairs to wash their hands, so irresistible did they find the pigment’s incitement to touch.  Similarly, the almost otherworldliness of the bumpy, craterous surface of “The Pink of the Blue” (1960), a painting comprised of natural sponges and stones saturated with pink paint, presents us with a beguilingly tangible beauty.  The anthropometries, on the other hand, in which Klein had live models dip themselves in paint and brush up against or roll over the canvas, or others, such as “Hiroshima (ANT 79)” (c. 1961) and “People Begin to Fly (ANT 96)” (1961), in which Klein spray painted around the imprint left by models’ bodies on the canvas, incorporate touch directly into the work itself, the ghostly silhouettes capturing, as Klein put it in a handwritten text, “the dimensions of being flesh through the imprints stolen from the bodies of my models.” The relation between touch and transgression suggested here by Klein’s emphasis on “stolen” imprints resonates with Klein’s “Tactile Sculpture (S22)” (1957) in which Klein envisioned nude female models housed in a box with holes designed for spectators to reach in and touch the models’ bodies, a project never realized for, as Klein said, “the police would have been on my back right away.”  Even so, the exhibit’s inclusion of this never-realized project highlights the centrality of touch within Klein’s developing aesthetic. 

The exhibit With the Void, Full Powers and its accompanying catalogue foreground Klein’s undeniable influence on future artistic developments, from minimalism and the light and space movement to conceptualism and performance art.  Klein’s interest in the place of tactility within the visual field, however, connects him in important ways to the historical avant-garde, which, as Tobias Wilke has recently emphasized in an article on Walter Benjamin, is defined by its insistence on “human perception as historically conditioned, and hence transformable.”   Klein’s interest in the relation between the tactile and the visual forms an important part not just of his aesthetic but of his ethics, an ethics that turned on, as he said, in his characteristically paradoxical way, “an immaterialism that will accomplish the rediscovery of a true love for matter as opposed to the quantitative, mummifying materialism that renders us slaves.”


Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer. 


Left to Right: The Rolling Stones, images courtesy of In the Mix and

"Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll":

The Rolling Stones as Aging Rockers

by Philip Auslander

The Rolling Stones are about to go out on tour. Tickets are $100 a piece.

But the good news is Medicare will kick in half.

- Jay Leno

The Rolling Stones aren't as young as they used to be.

Rumor has it that they're working on a new album called "Steel Wheelchairs."

Tracks include:

Hey! You! Get Offa My Barcalounger!

Let’s Take A Nap Together

I Can’t Get No Circulation

It’s Only Dulcolax but I Like It

Help Me Up!

Gimmie a Tax Shelter

Brown Splenda

19th Hip Replacement

Limpin' Jack Flash

You Can't Always Chew What You Want

She’s So Old and

Nursing Home Women

- from Submitted by: Douglas A Woolley

"I don't want to see old people doing rap or rock and roll. It makes me cringe."

- Grace Slick, former singer for Jefferson Airplane, on the occasion of her 70th birthday. CNN, August 17, 2009

"No, you're never too old to Rock'n'Roll if you're too young to die."

- Jethro Tull, "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll"

The occasion for the musings that follow was my being invited to help moderate a discussion following a showing of Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones concert film Shine  A Light for the Gerontological Society of America's meeting in Atlanta in late November 2009. To prepare for this event, I contacted a number of friends and asked them their thoughts on the constant ribbing the Stones get for being "so old"and the idea of aging in rock, and put out a query that generated a lively discussion on an email discussion list devoted to cultural studies. I want to thank all those who participated, shared their thoughts with me, and thus helped me to formulate my own. --PA

Why have the Rolling Stones become the poster boys representing rock stars who insist on performing past their prime? If the 2006 performance captured in Martin Scorsese's concert documentary Shine A Light (2008) provides any evidence, the accusation is unjust to the point of absurdity. Now in their 60s, the three original members of the group remaining--Mick Jagger (66), Keith Richards (66), and Charlie Watts (68)--are in great shape (it is almost obligatory to say that I wish I could look forward to having Mick Jagger's energy and agility or Charlie Watts's strength when I'm his age, though I'm pretty sure that ship has already sailed for me) and put on a hell of a show. It's not as if the Stones are the only ones of their generation rocking past 60, either. And yet, I never hear anyone suggest that Paul McCartney (67), Lou Reed (67), Steve Miller (66), Neil Young (64), or Stevie Nicks (61) is "too old" to be doing what they do. Ringo Starr, who just turned 70, is out on tour! So, why have the Stones been singled out as rock's codgers? This is not a question amenable to a single answer, but it does open interesting avenues of discussion, beginning with the youthful orientation of rock. 

The whole idea that one can be "too old" to perform a particular kind of music is specific to rock. I can't think of another kind of popular music in which this is the case: one can legitimately perform folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and country for the entire course of one's life. In these genres, age often signifies experience, or just hardship, and the insight it brings, and older performers, far from becoming objects of ridicule, may assume the mantle of tribal elders. One reason for this is that none of these genres is defined as "youth music" in the way rock is. Even when performed by young people, there is nothing "youthful" about blues, country, or any of the others. In fact, when a young artist such as Taylor Swift, a pure product of Nashville, uses country music to articulate a young person's perspective, music critics reflexively emphasize that she is not a true country artist but straddles the line between country and pop--it remains to be seen whether this evaluation will remain habitual now that Swift is no longer a teen-ager. On the other side of the ledger, some older rock artists benefit from their association with other genres. Bob Dylan (68) is not chastised for his age, but that may be partly because of his long-term association with folk and country. And it was not for nothing that Neil Young filmed his 2006 concert documentary Heart of Gold on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and surrounded himself with country musicians for the occasion.

By contrast, the rock of the 1960s was understood from the outset to be music made by young people, for young people. In this respect it differed from its immediate predecessor, the rock 'n' roll of the 1950s. Rock 'n' roll was youth music in the dual sense that it expressed teen-aged restlessness and gave young people something to dance to. It was music for young people, but there was no expectation that it be produced by young people. Bill Haley was right around 30 years old when his "Rock Around the Clock" became a hit in1955. The sociologist Philip Ennis, in his book The Seventh Stream, notes "the incongruity of Haley's chubby adult persona" with his standing as a pioneer of rock 'n' roll who "emblazoned its new banner with the musical expression of teenage assertiveness." The early figures of rock 'n' roll generally were significantly older than their teenaged audiences (and, often, the subjects of their songs). Chuck Berry was 29 when he moved to Chicago and began recording for Chess records;  Bo Diddley was 27 when he recorded his eponymous hit; at 23, Jerry Lee Lewis was well beyond his high school years when he recorded "High School Confidential" in 1958, and hardly a teen when he recorded "Teenage Letter" five years later. Little Richard actually began recording as a teen-ager but had his first rock 'n' roll hits in his early 20s. 


Left to Right: Little Richard, images courtesy of Russ and Gary's "The Best Years of Music" and Music Maven Photo © Tom Egan

Fats Domino's 1957 release "The Big Beat" even suggests that rock 'n' roll, in its formative years, did not necessarily assume a young audience. The two protagonists of the song are "old grandpa [who] just made 80 years old" and is "crazy 'bout the rock 'n' roll," and Peg Leg Joe, who throws his crutches away upon hearing the big beat. The song's repeated first line, "The big beat keeps you rockin' in your seat," suggests a way of experiencing the music more in keeping with an older audience than the presumption that rock 'n' roll is dance music for teen-agers. In light of what happened to rock in the 1960s, "The Big Beat" may be taken to represent a road less traveled: rock 'n' roll imagined as rejuvenating and curative for the aged and infirm (I assume the imagery of Peg Leg Joe's rejection of his crutch derives from faith healing rituals at gospel tent shows) rather than inciting of youthful passions.

It was in the 1960s that rock music developed as youth music that had to be made by young people, not just for a young audience. The cultural politics of the time, and rock's eventual alignment with the counterculture and the anti-war movement, necessitated that rock be understood as the voice in which a generation talked to itself. It is also crucial that, in the 1960s, "young" did not mean "teen-aged" in the 1950s sense. The assumption, rather, was that young people were politically and socially aware and progressive, with a utopian bent, and musicians needed to address young people in those terms and as peers. The age disparity noticeable in the 1950s actually persisted: many of the musicians most closely associated with "the Sixties" were past college age by the Summer of Love, while large segments of their audiences were either in college or still in high school. Nevertheless, the association of rock music with the youth counterculture was cemented then and persists into the present in ever more acute forms. A recent New York Times review of a concert by Sonic Youth, whose members are in their 50s, referred to them as "old rockers," while another review in the same publication of a show by the Jesus Lizard notes that one observer muttered, in reference to the lead singer, "Dude's almost forty!"

In this context, any aging rocker could be fodder for ridicule, so why the Stones? One reason, perhaps, is that they are the only major group from rock's heyday in the 1960s still to be active in a form that closely resembles who they were back then. There are any number of '60s bands still performing, of course. In the summer of 2009, the Heroes of Woodstock Tour, hosted by Country Joe McDonald, brought versions of Jefferson Starship, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, and Ten Years After to venues throughout the US (versions that, in most cases, were missing key personnel). This summer, 2010, you can enjoy a collection of musicians representing a different side of 60s rock gathered as the Happy Together Tour: the Turtles, the Grass Roots, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Buckinghams. While it is remarkable that a group like Canned Heat has a continuous history of performing and recording that spans about 45 years at this point, these tours frame the groups as nostalgia acts through which aging baby boomers can hearken back to earlier times rather than as going concerns. 

Even substantially more prominent figures present themselves in this way. Although Paul McCartney, for example, certainly continues to write, record, and perform new music, his concert appearances have become museum showcases of his career with himself playing the role of curator. He has also engaged in such exercises in nostalgia as appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (the Letterman show is taped in the same theatre in New York as Sullivan used). McCartney also performed with his band atop the marquee outside the Ed Sullivan Theatre, an event that inevitably brought to mind the Beatles' famously unexpected 1969 performance on the roof of Apple Studios in London's Savile Row for the film Let It Be

Although the Stones have not released a new album since 2005, and it is unlikely that many people are all that interested in whatever new music they may come up with, they do not engage in such self-consciously nostalgic acts. While they generally do not perform brand new material in concerts, they also do not present themselves as an oldies act or a conduit to the past, but insist that they are still a working rock 'n' roll band. In addition, they continue to perform the same personae as they always have. Whereas figures like McCartney, Eric Clapton, and even David Bowie have taken on the role of rock's elder statesmen and are noticeably "grown up" in their public demeanor, the Stones refuse to relinquish the "bad boy" image they cultivated so assiduously in their youth. "Don't tell them to to grow up and out of it," as Bowie sang in "Changes," a song that reflects on the prospects of aging rock 'n' rollers, among other things. Jagger still leers, sneers, prances, shakes his booty. Keith Richards may now seem as if years of substance abuse have (literally) tanned his hide, but the party boy gleam remains in his eye and crooked smile. Most impressive of all, Charlie Watts is still the powerful, impassive drummer he's always been. It is not just because the Stones are still around and insist on performing that they are singled out periodically as figures of fun--it is because they refuse to acknowledge the passing of time by presenting themselves either as relics or tribal elders. 

Of course, much of the humor at the expense of the aging Stones is benign, quite possibly affectionate, and probably reflects a grudging admiration of their longevity and stamina as performers. But you don't have to read Freud to know that humor is also inherently aggressive and often masks hostility. It is possible, therefore, that the humor at the Stones' expense reflects a kind of cultural resentment that they, rather than, say, the Beatles, are the the last 60s band standing. After all, even if the Stones cannot be blamed for bringing the Age of Aquarius to a close, it is widely held that their appearance at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December of 1969 was the beginning of the end for the counterculture. As is well known, the Stones, who shared the bill with a number of American bands, primarily from San Francisco, had arranged for local Hell's Angels to provide "security" (though there is some debate as to exactly what this meant) in exchange for beer, a decision that resulted in a disastrous melee and the death of a concert-goer at the hands of the Angels. In fairness to the Stones, it should be noted that the crowd was already in a violent mood by the time they came onstage, and that one of the Hell's Angels stabbed a spectator to death only after the spectator had been repelled during an attempt to storm the stage and had responded by pulling out a gun. The spectator was found on autopsy to have been high on methamphetamine; a jury judged the Angel to have acted in self-defense.


Paul McCartney 1970s and present, photo courtesy of

Whatever the facts, the image of mayhem and real violence accompanying the Stones' performance of "Sympathy for the Devil" at Altamont was instantly mythologized and has become a cultural meme standing for the end of the 60s. The British poet Ruth Padel reflects this interpretation in a strongly-worded indictment of the Stones, particularly of Mick Jagger, in her book I'm a Man: Sex, Gods and Rock 'n' Roll: "The violence bluff had been called, and shown to be vacant. Jagger did not cut a heroic figure. Sexuality and theatricality is not all there is to a hero. Imitating black energy, acting the devil, singing about beating women, does not mean you can control a violent situation. The pose collapsed with the California hippie dream. San Francisco bands blamed the Stones' arrogance, but to more objective American commentators the whole psychedelia experiment was politically naive, based on 'derivative romantic themes like the return to innocence the invocation of primal authority, the mysteries of blood.' As in Nazi rhetoric, the mythic themes lugged with them romantic links between violence and authoritarianism which the stoned, armed Angels exemplified." In this light, it would not be surprising to discover covert resentment of the fact that the Stones, whose performance at Altamont came to represent everything that went wrong with the counterculture, have survived, more or less intact, to represent "the Sixties" in rock. This resentment, as much as their longevity, may underpin the choice of the Stones as the butt of jokes about being "too old to rock 'n' roll." 

There is one last thread at which I shall tug. In September of 2009, an article on Mick Taylor, who played guitar for the Rolling Stones from 1969 till 1974, when he left the group, appeared in the London Daily MailThe article made Taylor out to be a sad case. He is described as "a shambling figure in a dark grey duffle coat," "jowly and far heavier than in his prime," who lives in very modest circumstances in a small house in Suffolk that is "in serious need of repair." The author also mentions an "unopened stack of bills and threats to cut off the water, electricity and gas," "uncut grass," and "an ancient car parked in the driveway with weeds growing through its wheels. . . ." The article is partly about Taylor's potential claim for back royalties he never received for his work with the Stones, but it also emphasizes his history of drug abuse and currently destitute condition. He "scrapes a hand-to-mouth existence by playing pub gigs"; when he needs money, "he phones his friends and suggests they play a few gigs in local pubs and clubs, living out of the back of a Transit van."

This article piqued my curiosity, and a bit of research on the Internet revealed a somewhat different picture. Probably, Taylor does live modestly in Suffolk, but I was led to wonder how often he's actually there, since lists of his gigs reveal that he tours almost constantly, playing at clubs, theaters, and festivals on the Continent, in the UK, and sometimes in the US or Japan. The "friends" with whom he plays, supposedly at local pubs (who are mentioned in the Daily Mail article) are, in fact, the members of his touring band--high-level musicians with distinguished careers: "former Jeff Beck keyboard player Max Middleton, ex-Manfred Mann guitarist Denny Newman and ex-Snowy White drummer Jeff Allen."

It is not my purpose to discredit the Daily Mail article. Rather, I want to ask what underlies the way Taylor is depicted there when it apparently would have been just as possible to represent him as a successful, steadily-working, respected professional musician who doesn't play the huge venues the Stones play and doesn't make anything like the money they make, but who is far from down and out. Padel notes, "As set up in the sixties, your archetypal rock star leaves a stage littered with smashed guitars, a life littered with discarded women" and, she might have added, discarded bandmates. Taylor's predecessor, Brian Jones, was found floating in his swimming pool right at the moment the other Stones were ready to cashier him. Taylor left the group of his own accord but, as Padel suggests, the archetype of the rock star includes the clause that his success is purchased at others' expense. In mythic terms, Taylor's destitution is in some way the price of the other Stones' success and his decrepitude is the price of their longevity. The Daily Mail story resonates with this mythology: They owe him! it seems to scream, though it's a debt the Stones are unlikely to pay willingly. 

A different analogy may be even more apt. LIke The Picture of Dorian Gray that reflects the protagonist's aging and corruption, of which he shows no outward signs, in Oscar Wilde's novella, Mick Taylor, according to the Daily Mail, has grown old, fat, and has squandered his money on drugs even as the remaining Stones prosper, stay youthful and energetic, and have (supposedly) cleaned up their acts. Their continued success depends metaphorically on his representing what might have happened to them. While this version of Taylor's story may not be entirely true in that he seems not to be nearly as hard up as his sacrificial role would require, it is a necessary counterweight to the current story of the Stones. Their longevity and seemingly eternal youthfulness are assuming the proportions of cultural mythology; the decline and fall of Mick Taylor is the necessary counter-myth. 


Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.