Monthly Archives: June 2010

Reality Show: Otto Dix

First, some quick comparisons among two current exhibitions in New York City and an exhibitionistic pop culture event, Otto Dix at the Neue Galerie, Greater New York 2010 at MoMA P.S.1, and Work of Art: The Next Great Artist on Bravo Network.  You can have some fun imagining the portraits Otto Dix might have made of the panelists and jurors on “Work of Art:” after all, he specialized in turning even the most distinguished scientists and artists, including himself, into demonic characters. Take the strapless tight-fitting red satin mini-dress with big bow on the bustier which seems to be the template outfit in terms of style and color for the female hosts of reality shows on Bravo — China Chow on “Work of Art” and Kelly Choi on Top Chef Masters — I’m considering the advisability and semiotics of wearing such an outfit, with stiletto heels, of course, when I meet my new students at my first graduate seminar or core studio class next fall.

China Chow and the "next great artists"

Now look at Otto Dix’s intense, garish scarlet red 1925 portrait of the noted and notorious Weimar-era dancer Anita Berber, note the triumphant sense of sexuality and style in her figure and, written on her mask-like face, sad features hidden under her stylized make-up, and her crisped left hand, the tragic self-awareness underlying this figure’s display:

Otto Dix, Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 1925, oil and tempera on plywood, 47 3/8x 25 1/2 inches, Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart

It is easy to poke fun at a TV reality show. I watch it because it’s there; because it’s a pop phenomenon that may end up infiltrating the expectations of art students and affirming popular misrepresentations of how artists work and think; I want to know what happens next because that’s the nature of narrative; I enjoy Jerry Saltz’s weekly behind the scenes recaps up to that point only; and, all pleasantries and rationalizations aside, does anyone seriously think any one of the participants deserves a $100,000 prize, functionally one of the biggest cash grants to an individual artist in the world? Unreal.

As for reality, here’s reality for you, distilled into a modest drawing of a man horribly injured in World War I: it’s precisely the delicacy and skill of the pencil rendering of the left side of the man’s face and the delicate water colored stripping of his shirt that make the equally delicately rendered watercolor gash that violates the right side of his face so subversive.

Otto Dix, Wounded Veteran, 1922, watercolor and pencil, 19 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches, Private Collection

This drawing, along with a few other spare, beautifully executed, matter-of-fact  gory drawings of human intestines and brains, is exhibited in a second floor room at The Neue Galerie  dedicated to Der Krieg (War), a series of 50 prints by Otto Dix originally published in 1924. Don’t miss Der Krieg. There are many relevant art historical comparisons, notably to Goya’s Disasters of War, but it is also important to think of these works in relation to the wars we are currently engaged in, that we barely pay attention to and from whose effects on human bodies we have been shielded.

Otto Dix, Mealtime in the Trench, from Der Krieg (War), 1924, etching and drypoint

In fact don’t miss the Otto Dix exhibition at the Neue Galerie even though some of the work and most of the installation may be problematic.

I was just reading Carroll Dunham’s well-researched, fair assessment of this exhibition in the current Summer 2010 Artforum. He notes that it’s not a complete Dix retrospective since it leaves out all his post WWII production and some Weimar-era masterworks which were not available for loan and that the show is installed in a “garbled and out of focus” manner. It’s true that in a few cases the themes seem mislabeled and it’s a little hard to follow the logic of a very overcrowded installation. Dunham seems to be of two minds about Dix: having seen Dix’s work in “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” at the Met in 2006-07 he was “convinced that Dix was an enormously important missing piece of the history of early modernism” but the current show leaves him an unclear picture of Dix’s place: “History was both with and against him, in ways far more vivid and direct than many of us ever experience,and the contingencies of fate have made it hard for us to accurately reconstruct his achievement.” In terms of Dix’s place in the history of twentieth century modernist painting, Dunham seems overly concerned with who Dix may have influenced, or, more precisely, with the validation of Dix by the admiration for or Oedipal interest in Dix’s work on the part of artists who Dunham considers important (he gives the example of Baselitz).

There are undoubtedly some issues with Dix’s work: a tendency towards the mannerist, the kitschy, and the misogynistic, maybe even, on the basis of recognized visual tropes at least, the anti-Semitic. But, as I read Dunham’s review, I thought, “Yeah but the place is packed with amazing, ridiculously intense masterpieces, and even the kitschy paintings pack more power than most work we see.”

In fact, let me start with the kitschiest painting I can’t ever forget, Self-Portrait with Muse, 1924:

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Muse, 1924, oil and tempera on canvas, 31 7/8 x 37 3/8 inches, Osthaus Museum Hagen

Here the fully clothed, thin-lipped, stern-faced fair-haired male artist encounters an almost comically over-endowed, flamboyantly ethnic — whether Semitic or Latin — woman. He confronts her, he is confronted by her, as she raises her hand in a gesture which can be read as a greeting, a blessing, or a stoppage, a counter-action to the reach of his brush which is in effect creating her. She is hardly the passive creation of a Pygmalion and if you look at some of the depictions of women by fascist-approved artists of the same general period in Germany you immediately get what makes this painting so different and seditious even though it does portray a naked woman and a clothed man, a familiar theme in the history of Western representation.

Dix’s wild muse has an over-ripeness of sensuality and an extreme quality as a representation that more than equals his own and a specificity that makes it hard to think of her as an abject victim of the male gaze. Their meeting ground is the blank space of the painting surface itself, the lack of situational specifics giving this  a mythological implication and, formally, a modernist undertone with a medieval subtext: this is a very flat painting yet closer in its spirit and its use of space to the flatness of Northern Renaissance painting, which is one of the main sources of Dix’s several painterly and graphic styles.

Dix’s Self-Portrait with Nude Model (1923) is less kitschy but perhaps more troubling because of the emphasis of the anatomical sexual representation and the dazed, blurry expression of the woman’s face. Dix is imposing as a figure here, but there is something strangely affecting and not entirely protected in his self-depiction, despite the military bearing under the civilian clothes.

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Nude Model, 1923, oil on canvas, 41 3/8 x 35 3/8 inches, Private Collection

Here I think it is useful to think of Dix’s self-portrait, his rigid, soldiery demeanor, in relation to the “soldier male,” the subject of Klaus Theweleit’s fascinating two volume study of the psycho-sexual roots of fascism in turn of the century Prussia,  Male Fantasies  –Volume 1: women, floods, bodies, history (published in German in 1977, University of Minnesota Press, 1987) and Volume 2: male bodies: paralyzing the white terror (published in German in 1977, University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Theweleit studies the memoirs and pulp fiction and films made by and for the officers of the Friekorps, private armies who fought battles of internal repression in Germany between the two world wars and paved the path for Nazism, in particular examining their violent sexual depiction of women, communists, and Jews. This analysis remains of great importance and relevance as a tool for understanding similar manifestations in our time.

I first used Theweleit’s books as a tool in my analysis of the gendered aspects of the critique of painting in my 1989 essay “Figure/Ground.” I would have to reread the books in order to draw out new quotes, which is tempting: I strongly recommend both volumes.

The “soldier male” (according to Theweleit’s term) has never fully developed  “secure sense of external boundaries,” a pleasurable sense of the membrane of skin. He fears the “Red floods” — of the masses, blood, dirt, “morass,” “slime,” “pulp,” woman — which he perceives as constantly threatening to dissolve his “external boundaries.” He also fears the liquid forces insecurely caged within his own body interior and unconscious. The “soldier male resolves these conflictual fears by the construction of a militarized, regimented body, by incorporation into a desexualized phalanx of men, and by the reduction, through killing, of all outer threats back to the red pulp he images everything living to be. “He escapes by mashing others to the pulp he himself threatens to become.” (Mira Schor, “Figure/Ground,” Wet, 149)

[Cross reference this description with the recent fetishization in the press of General Stanley McChrystal’s hard body and self-mortifying spartan habits].

Otto Dix, Human Intestines, 1920, watercolor, 18 1/8 x 15 inches

In the first years after WWI, Dix sometimes provoked his friend “with his detailed description of the pleasurable sensation to be had when bayoneting an enemy to death” (Olaf Peters, Otto Dix, exhibition catalogue, Prestel: 2010, 96) but often spoke of the nightmares he had for years afterwards.

Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance Under Gas, from Der Krieg (War), 1924, etching, ,

Describing the plot of  one of these examples of Friekorps literature, Theweleit writes: “The central point of the construction of this murder is that the woman castrates the man. There is also the implication that she is a whore; the fact that she is the only woman traveling with six men is clear enough indication. The weapon she uses to castrate him is initially hidden; the pistol is pulled unexpectedly out of her apron, as if it were a concealed … penis? […] “It is a phallic, not a vaginal potency that  is fantasized and feared.” (Vol 1, p. 72). Again, an interesting background to Dix’s many paintings of “lustmord,” sex murders.

,Despite the disturbing violence depicted in these works, I find in many of Dix’s paintings of women something other than misogyny: the humanity of the women is never sugar coated into pneumatic attractiveness in the vein of John Currin, who Dunham mentions in regard to Dix’s sources in Northern Renaissance Germanic and Netherlandish portraiture. To the contrary, Dix adopts the detailed, delicate surface and the often elongated, Gothic form and angular, spiky drawn lines of the Northern manner, to depict the deep drama of the women of all ages and stages of beauty, sexuality, despair and decay. Each is vulnerable, anxious, and mortal rather than only sexually available, and each is a character with an inner life, which to me takes the work away from misogyny.

Look at the contrast between the way the anguished face, the imperfect body, and the delicately self-protective hands are depicted in Half-Nude. Look at the strange blue veins under the thin skin of the pre-pubescent girl, her femininity symbolized by the lace curtain and its pink ribbon, her sexuality by the red ribbon in her hair.

Otto Dix, Half-Nude, 1926, oil and tempera on wood, 28 3/4 x 21 5/8 inches, Private Collection

Otto Dix, Little Girl in Front of a Curtain, 1922, oil on canvas, 31 3/4"x20 inches, The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts

Hans Baldung Grien, The Three Ages and Death, c.1540, oil on panel, 151 x 59 cm, Museo del Prado

Dix represents in his work what the Friekorps’ violent pulp fiction and wan representations of the ideal woman and the “soldier male” sought to repress. Dix’s works were included in the Degenerate Art show organized by Hitler and Goebbels in 1937 [must see documentary about this exhibition]and one of the reasons he refused to leave Germany during the war was that he was sure his work would be destroyed if he left it behind (conversely the Jewish lawyer Hugo Simons took his portrait by Dix with him when he fled Germany with his family, an immensely risky thing since generally even in the mid-30s it was best to leave Germany with only the shirt on your back as if you were coming back the next day. This portrait is included in the current exhibition.)

Earlier I described Dix’s pencil and watercolor drawing of the Wounded Veteran drawing as “modest,” in the way that I have used the word modest in my essay “Modest Painting” to indicate work that does not seek to overpower the viewer by virtue of size or self-aggrandizing gesture but by its ambition for the medium itself and in this case by the subject matter represented, which is devastating, riveting, tragic, epic. I can add the obvious, but like everything in Dix’s work, it’s to the power of ten: Dix believed in drawing as he believed in painting as powerful vehicles for the transmission of meaning.

The most notable characteristic of work in this year’s Greater New York 2010 exhibition at MoMA P.S.1 is that there is little evidence of any trust in the capacity of a singular object or medium to carry meaning. Nothing is allowed to just be: nearly every painter hedges her bets and also hangs some blurry photo-montages or stick a few objects on a table, if there is a painting then there is also a video, and maybe a bench or two.

The most notable characteristic of the works exhibited in the Otto Dix retrospective at the Neue Galerie is that each painting or drawing or etching uses the specificity of each medium to transmit meaning and, boy, is that enough, because nearly every work is an atom bomb. Dix hedges no bets in the wretched human emotion and delicate perception and satire he packs into each work. Certainly some paintings and drawings go headlong into kitsch that is almost alarming, totally over the top, presumably dated in style, although nearly each of these also has something fantastic in it, and no matter what the emotion and the human content and even the handling of the material is 100% committed and fascinating. His work is pitiless, sometimes garish, yet his line is as detailed and delicate as a Flemish masterwork, his surfaces are varied and complex.

To continue the comparison between these exhibitions a bit longer, there are some tropes in Greater New York that Dix might appreciate — for instance, mud is a recurrent trope in Greater New York: this may reflect ecological concerns although often the mud seems like a metaphor for paint: instead of painting with it, you make a video of it burbling up, plopping down, it’s the original primal slime that no one has the patience to learn to discipline or trust in its expressivity). My notes from Greater New York include: “Alex Hubbard, 2 big paintings, frayed sides, 2001 A Space Odyssey monolith, projection of video of burbling mud, red benches, MUD, paint IS mud, primal goo;” “Gilad Ratman, 2 screen video, more mud.” I counted about 4 other pieces where mud or paint as goo and ooze (but in the disembodied clean form of  video of course) was featured.

Gilad Ratman, The 588 Project, 2009, two screen video, Greater New York exhibition

When Dix painted the works in this exhibition, he too was young and extremely ambitious: even on the battlefield he was not only drawing on anything he could get his hands on, he was also keeping in touch with the artworld of his time and, as soon as he was demobilized if not before, making sure his work was included in the important exhibitions of the day. You can be sure that if he were a young man today, he would be putting his work forward with as much murderous ambitious as anyone but he wouldn’t be a contestant on “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” If at all, he would be one of the top chefs on Top Chef Masters: I watched the final episode of this year’s “Top Chef Masters” after the premiere of “Work of Art” and whereas the art “reality” show was interesting only as a manifestation of desperation — think They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? — Top Chef Masters was, relatively speaking, riveting. The judges were articulate and passionate, and, as opposed to some of the art jurors, they seemed to be better able to clarify the aesthetic criteria they were applying to the food — again, relatively speaking — either gnocchi are chewy or they’re not, the fish underdone or overcooked depending on your gustatory ideology — and the chefs were powerful characters, with compelling personal narratives that they had channeled into their work, and each finalist radiated physical and psychic power instead of play-acting self-puffery and abjection. I was particularly impressed by Hong Kong-born, Canadian chef Susur Lee and the winner, Ethiopian-born, Swedish-reared chef Marcus Samuelsson. These men were fearsome, awesome Ninjas, and Dix might have been one of them.

Dix’s inventiveness, his technical skill, and his attention to detail as well as his intensity of characterization and the fury at man’s murderous drives make each work almost ridiculously powerful. The show at the Neue Galerie is packed with one outrageous masterpiece after another, each atom bomb crammed unceremoniously close to the other, against the rules of modernist exhibition practices. While Greater New York takes a long time to get through because artists are given generous amounts of space, and because there are so many time-based works in dark rooms, in the mode of the day, the Otto Dix works are in rooms with dark colored walls that give a kind of old world feel to work that would appear totally contemporary in other circumstances, and his works on paper are in darkened rooms in order to protect them. To do many of the paintings and etching series justice you’d have to spend hours and hours and I hope people will do so. But I would also cast my vote for a Freaky Friday experiment: force the artists exhibiting in Greater New York to contend with a small space in which each work would have to intensely convey powerful meaning without relying on the luxury of excess exhibition space and give Dix’s works the modernist white cube treatment that would allow them to breathe and give them back the contemporaneity they exude, unbeknownst to most young art viewers in New York.


For Father’s Day: Ilya Schor (1904-1961)

My father Ilya Schor was an artist. He is best known for his work in Judaica including Torah Crowns, Candelabras, and Mezuzahs, for his jewelry, and for his illustrations of treasured texts of Jewish religious philosophy and folk literature by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Sholem Aleichem.

Ilya Schor, Torah Crown, detail: The Sacrifice of Isaac, pierced and engraved silver, c. early 1950s, c. 12 inches high. I can remember when my father completed one of the five Torah Crowns he made: he wore it on his head as he came out of his studio, which was in our apartment, and the bells (all details individually crafted by my father) made a beautiful sound, or, as my mother put it many years later, "had a beautiful sonority." For me as a child, what a joyful and wondrous experience of art and of religion understood through art! To my knowledge this particular Torah Crown was destroyed in a synagogue fire in the 1950s.

Ilya Schor, "Kaballah," one of 15 wood engraving illustrations to "The Earth is the Lord's" by Abraham Joshua Heschel, 2 1/2 x 3 1/4 inches each, 1949

In relation to the history of modernism, my father was perhaps a somewhat unusual artist, sometimes of his time, sometimes not: an exquisite piece of his jewelry is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum and was included in an exhibition of jewelry (my memory is that it was a show of gold jewelry but can’t find the source): his work was of course among other works from the second half of the twentieth-century but among the bold abstract blobs of metal, his delicately wrought figurative piece seemed to have mistakenly strayed from a show of Benvenuto Cellini.

I believe also that my father was an unusually gifted artist. I know, you’d assume that of course I think so, but as anyone who knows me can attest, love doesn’t necessarily alter my critical viewpoint when it comes to art. My father drew and painted and engraved and more, as he breathed, in fact given his early death, more effortlessly than he breathed, and always his work delighted, which is in itself unusual. I’ve already written a bit about my parents’ work: in my essays “Modest Painting” and “Blurring Richter” I situate the source of some of my critical point of view in my father’s work. In “Modest Painting” I write: “Every stroke of paint carries art historical DNA, and in my father’s paint stroke there is the influence of the shimmering loosening of local color found in the work of Pierre Bonnard or Vuillard (modest masters, both) but the humility of traditional Hasidic life is reflected in the reduced style quotient in his work.”

I hope in the next few years to create an artistic biography of both my parents, Ilya and Resia Schor, but in a sense mine also that will rely on their visual legacy while weaving in textual commentary on the histories they lived through — in my father’s case, childhood in the deeply Hasidic world of the Eastern European shtetl, my parents’ shared experience of the creative ferment of their generation of left-wing, secular Jews coming of age between the Wars, the artworld in Paris in the late 1930s, flight from Paris days before the Nazis arrived, loss of their entire families in the Holocaust, immigration to America, life in the New York artworld in the 1950s, and more. As I find archival material and try to document more of their work as I find it, bits and pieces of short essays have been spilling around my head, much as the essays that eventually ended up in my book A Decade of Negative Thinking, which I moved about in my mind like a ten year long game of three-dimensional virtual chess. I hope I will be able to find a form or several forms for this task because the story of their work is the subtext of my own relationship to artmaking and to the major discourses of contemporary art and I think it offers something unusual, foreign, historic, yet still valuable to contemporary art.

To celebrate Father’s Day this year I want to just focus on a few small gouaches on board or paper, made in the early 1940s. Many of my father’s paintings are worked on the verso side, and, if an object in silver, gold or brass, on every surface visible and hidden, so many of these little paintings have another painting, sketch, or drawing on the verso side.

Ilya Schor, Self-Portrait with Brush, mid-1940s, gouache on board, c. 9 x 12 inches, painted in New York

Ilya Schor, Verso of Self-Portrait with Brush, ink on board, mid-1940s. My father came by this imagery both through his roots in the folk culture of his childhood, the history of illustration and from growing up in the shtetl part of the town of Zloczow (Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Ukraine) with a strong connection to rural life.

I always found great pleasure in my father’s love of drawing and the delicacy and skill of his lines no matter what medium. I loved to watch him work: his movements were quick and skilled, his touch was deft.

Ilya Schor, Woman Reading, gouache on board, mid-1940s

Ilya Schor, pencil sketches and scratch-board maquettes for jewelry, on board, verso of Woman Reading, mid-1940s.

A few of these works were done in Marseilles where my parents, having fled Paris in the last days of May 1940 and miraculously made their way to the South of France, waited for a visa to America.

Ilya Schor, Self-Portrait in Purple shirt, gouache on paper, painted in Marseilles c.1941

Ilya Schor, verso of Self-Portrait in Purple Shirt, painted in Marseilles, c.1941.

I can locate this work in France by the newspaper cutting that my father used on the back of the work to mount it using home made glue paste. And based on the bed represented in this work, I can be sure it was painted during that time in Marseilles.

My mother told me that when they first moved into the rooming house they were terribly afflicted by bedbugs, but after a while the bedbugs seemed to get bored with them and left them alone. Later they were able to move to a nicer room in the same building only to find themselves again assaulted by the bedbugs as newcomers to the bed in the better room.

The room seems to have had a table, and a few chairs, and not much else. My parents and their friends, musicians, painters, and other members of the intelligentsia of Europe, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, though some older, the fortunate ones with their elderly parents in tow, spent a lot of time chasing down rumors of visas to America, often offered by countries, such as Brazil, who had no intention of letting them in but were willing with some persuasion to offer the small protection that an exit visa to another country might provide. Occasionally a friend would sleep in their bathtub because there was no place else to be found or no money to pay for a room. They wiled away the time playing cards and drinking tea, waiting for safe passage to America.

Ilya Schor, Two women in an Interior, gouache on aper, 6 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches, 1941, painted in Marseilles

Ilya Schor, verso of Two Women in an Interior, gouache on paper

Ilya Schor, Self-Portrait with Painting, 1941, small gouache on paper

Ilya Schor, verso of Self-Portrait with Painting, pencil on paper, sketch of the Old Port of Marseilles

This spring one of my colleagues, speaking on a panel about art and politics, said that for the first time in her life she could not imagine a future, as opposed to how she had felt during the 1990s. I was very struck by this statement. I understood what she meant: things may have been bad before but at least there was some greater level of political awareness and activism that gave one a sense of purpose or hope. I think that is what she meant and if so I would agree. And yet I also thought about my parents, waiting in that room in Marseilles: in fear of their lives, with very little money and very little to eat, clinging to the edge of war-torn Europe while hoping to escape to a country they had never intended to go to, yet they had flowers and art supplies on the table, and they drew and painted, with whatever modest means. At that moment, there was no artworld. These little paintings were for the pleasure of doing them. I wonder whether this way of expressing oneself artistically when in constrained circumstance would be available to young artists today.

Ilya Schor, Still Life, gouache on paper, c. 6 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches: next to his signature my father painted the date 10 21 41 Marseille. My parents arrived in New York two days before Pearl Harbor, so working backwards through the 10 day ocean voyage, the few weeks they spent in Lisbon before embarking, and the train trip across Spain to Portugal, it would appear that my father painted this shortly before they left Marseilles.

Ilya Schor, Self-Portrait with Still Life, 1940s, gouache on board, c. 8 1/4" x 10 1/3 inches

Ilya Schor, 1940s