Monthly Archives: July 2011

Invisibility and Criticality in The Imperium of Analytics

I will complete the third part of “Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves” with a consideration of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, currently on special view at the Frick Museum, soon, but not yet.  I am compelled to interrupt that thread with another one, about criticality and some current conditions of writing and publishing, particularly on the web (this is projected as also a three part thread). My regret at interrupting a “positive” line of thought, one that is about some artworks I love and that is not polemically driven, with one about criticality is tempered by the fact that this kind of interruption, caused as it is by competing directions of thought in a fast moving discursive atmosphere, is a component of some of the conditions of writing for the web that I will discuss in this new thread.

I am currently in what passes for my “desert,” that is to say the one place and time in the year when I am  lucky enough to be able to retreat from the fray of the world into the life of a studio near the sea where with the least distractions from daily duties and professional obligations I can struggle with my work during an intense few weeks. I can’t count on revelations from any deity shining down on me from stage right, just the few hard-won moments of deep engagement with my work that make it possible for me to survive the rest of the time. But, just as in Bellini’s painting, where not just the beneficent signs of civilization signaled by the tiny shepherd and his flock in the middle distance, but also the fortifications of various small city-states set on various Tuscan hilltops beyond are clearly visible from the rocky encampment where St. Francis receives the stigmata from an unseen divine force, the voices of the world beyond my studio intervene daily, though with far less divine purposes or effects.

Today, for example, the desperation of some and exasperation of others commenting on one of my posts about Obama and the debt ceiling fiasco on Facebook makes me want to write a longer note there so part of my brain is occupied with that. Meanwhile I also want to publish the following A Year of Positive Thinking blog posts about writing this week so they are online in the time frame of Arts Writers Convening , a conference to be held this coming week in Philadelphia sponsored by the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program (whose generosity helped me start this blog). In keeping with the paradox of St. Francis in the Desert, I have with regret chosen to not attend the Arts Writers conference because I so need these irreplaceable few days of the year that I can devote entirely to my own work, yet I still have in view these exterior markers and schedules while, as I will discuss, being perfectly aware that few if any may read my words in the right or indeed in any time frame.

Invisibility and Criticality

One evening in the 1990s I was walking down LaGuardia Place and ran into Leon Golub as he was putting out the garbage. This was some time after we had both been on a panel at The Cooper Union, “The Erotics of Painting,” organized by Lenore Malen, (May 6, 1992), during which I had made mincemeat of a critic who currently writes about art for a legendary weekly journal. I’m told that during my remarks Hans Haacke nearly fell out of his seat laughing and Brice Marden, who was sitting next to me on the panel and had just read four or five cryptics words that he had written on a napkin, something like “beauty…space…” (and I mean, only those few words), turned his head suddenly as he realized something unusual was going on (my comments from that panel are published as “The Erotics of Visuality” in my book Wet).

The evening after the panel Leon had called me up and said, “now, you’re a player.” Beyond being absolutely thrilled by his attention I think I was also slightly alarmed. I can’t retrospectively be sure what I thought. I can’t be sure if I really understood what it meant to be a player. I certainly thought I did and wanted to be one, but judging from my whole career to date and from a recent art document I will soon discuss here, I would hazard a guess and say, not really. But Leon was hopeful for me and during this chance encounter on the sidewalk in front of his house, in discussing this further, he said something to the effect of, “it’s good, you should attack as many important people as you can.” His vivid eyes gleamed as he relished the prospect of any valiant battle which he also apparently felt was a path to success or, indeed, a kind of power, although he knew as well as anybody how difficult and frustrating that path was (why won’t this show come to MoMA? [MoMA lists 9 works by Golub in its collection, however all are prints, they do not at present seem to own a major painting]).

Leon was a great painter, and a great, indeed a necessary man, he is much missed. It was a privilege to know him at all and he had been very supportive of me, of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and of my co-editor the painter Susan Bee. However his predictive powers as to my being a player were a bit shaky: I had already at that time and have since then attacked my share of powerful people yet, in one of his recent visual/textual analyses of who is who and what is what in the artworld, “A Biased and Incomplete Guide to Some Critics in New York (where I live and make art),” William Powhida gave me the highest rating on the criticality factor–95 out of 100–and the lowest on the visibility scale–5! Powhida’s amusing piece came out during the time I was involved in the major move I’ve described on this blog in the post Orbis Mundi so that I was unable to address these ratings until now. So here now are a  few thoughts on criticality and visibility or the lack thereof.

For a more legible view click on the title link above

First of all, a belated thank you William Powhida for the kudos…and the visibility!

And secondly, before I say another self-serving word on the subject (reader alert!), note that Powhida has set the bar for criticality pretty low– “Criticality: arbitrary # based on word count, description, register, analysis, news items”– so it would seem that you don’t have to be a new Adorno to make a high grade, pretty much any text which is not a direct press release and has some content other than entirely gossip- or market- related would seem to apply to one’s criticality score.

It is symptomatic, or syndromatic perhaps, of the power structure of the artworld, really of any power structure, that I have addressed this issue before, notably in my February 14, 2006 lecture at SVA, “The Art of Nonconformist Criticality,” as well as in “The White List,” written for M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online‘s 2002 issue “Is Resistance futile?,” so that not only can I refer to my previous writings and lectures, but I might as well do so because they are relevant to the discussion at hand, including the reflection that for the most part no one remembers what anyone says enough for such self-cribbing to be a problem.

That I have to bring these up is only to state the obvious that the point is, and the point that I make in these texts, that the easiest way for power to deal with non-conforming criticism is to ignore it. Whereas, to use Guy Debord‘s terms, in the Soviet/Fascist epoch of the “concentrated spectacle,” power felt that it was necessary to literally disappear the inconvenient person by killing them and erasing their image from a photograph (China remains in the antiquated Soviet model, putting dissidents in jail and even making Googling the word “jasmine” or selling jasmine branches a crime for fear of contagion of the so-called “jasmine revolution” started in Tunisia this winter), or, under McCarthyism, blacklisting them from employment or access to an audience, in the “integrated spectacle” of free-market global capitalism, extreme rendition and Patriot Act aside, power can simply follow the golden rule of ignoring something entirely. Only what is visible is important, and if it isn’t visible it can’t possibly be good, and what has thus been rendered invisible must at the same time be bad and most likely does not exist.

I named this most effective weapon for silencing alternative views “The White List,” a less violent or visibly oppressive version of “the Black List.” Let me take as an example my first published essay, “Appropriated Sexuality.” In “The White List” I note:

My essay on David Salle, “Appropriated Sexuality,” was published–because Susan and I started our own magazine instead of accepting the status quo and getting depressed! Although overall I can’t complain about getting my writing published, nevertheless my ideas have encountered a subtle form of resistance. Thinking about the “blacklist,” I realize that what I am up against is something that doesn’t have a name. I’ll call it the white list. The white list not only makes it difficult to get alternative points of view published or exhibited, but even if you can get the work out, you still don’t get referenced or credited. After “Appropriated Sexuality” was published, people who I knew had read it wrote articles about Salle in which they would say, “some feminists say” or in some other vague way suggest that there were dissenters to the party line, but they would never actually provide a factual reference. The first favorable mention of this essay appeared in a 2002 Art in America book review by Raphael Rubinstein of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism–a full 16 years after the original publication of the Salle essay! Thus, the nonconforming point of view can be taken out of history.

Actually, Rubinstein‘s was more or less the first mention of this essay at all, and for all I know the last.

In fact part of what makes the white list so effective is that it is itself invisible (the black list was hush-hush in that people were too afraid to even speak about it openly for fear of being suspected of being “fellow travelers,” but it was only semi-obscured, people spoke about it with fear, in hushed tones, public hearings/American version of show trials were held, names were placed on actual black lists, people were imprisoned or forced into exile and eventually even network television news found its conscience).

In “The Art of Nonconformist Criticality” I go into further detail about the Salle essay because it marked my entry as a “player” into the critical field:

I started writing in the early 80s when I observed major changes in art and art theory, a reversal of attitudes about studio process, and of values about feminism, which had just barely had a decade to develop into art. These changes were epitomized for me in the work of someone I had gone to art school with and who was suddenly extremely successful financially and critically, that is, David Salle. No one was writing what I thought, although they might have been saying it in private. So I started to work on an essay eventually entitled, “Appropriated Sexuality” about the misogyny of the depiction of women in Salle’s work and the complicity of the critical apparatus that supported him.

I began with no ideas about publication. But as the essay came into its final form over a period of two years, I began to send it around, to other artists and to various magazines. It was the subject of many letters of rejection from both mainstream and high academic journals that were quite informative about the parameters of art writing. At one point, it was actually accepted for publication by a middle stream regional art magazine, but dropped at the very last minute. Meanwhile my manuscript had been shown to another writer who then published in the same journal a more wishy-washy text in which my ideas were vaguely alluded to as “some feminists say”, a typical example of the kind of balanced writing that is very common in much mainstream media and whose true agenda is the devaluation of opposing views. So that was Karybdis. A thoughtful rejection from October taught me one of the principal methods society deploys to deal with resistance: they tell you that are doing something wrong, even if you’re right. They didn’t like Salle anymore than I did but the enterprise of critiquing him must be approached with “great caution.” My error was in focusing on his representations of women because that was based on an erroneous essentialist premise that such a thing as “women” could still be considered a viable category (as opposed to the theoretical point of view that “women” was a social construct), whereas from their point of view the real problem was not what he was painting, but that he was painting.

I will freely state that the Salle article started my public life, setting me on the dual path of painter/writer I have been on since, so that in some way whatever visibility I have may stem from that initial act of criticality, in keeping with Golub’s advice. (And I will parenthetically state that obviously there is a complication here: the visibility I seek is a dual one, artist/writer, but in this I am not alone and I have powerful predecessors in such polemically inclined visual artists/writers as Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Smithson, Adrian Piper, and Mary Kelly, to name just a few of many significant artists/writers).

However what I didn’t fully realize and still find hard to believe, though it is most likely one factor in the nature of my “career,” is that Salle had powerful friends and adherents and they surely did nothing to help me, if they did not go out of their way to harm me. I’m not a Pollyanna but I tend to find it hard to believe that people actively do bad things on purpose, although I know that many people who are interested in power do exactly that all the time. Nevertheless I began to realize that something had been going on when on two occasions in recent years, long after the publication of that essay, powerful men of my acquaintance in the art world made the casual (but dead serious) assumption I was “tearing up” or “ripping up” something in whatever work I was doing now. The first time was about 20 years after the publication of the Salle ssay: I was having a lively conversation about something completely different with someone at a party when one of Salle’s friends came up to us and said with a shark-like grin on his own face, “Who’s she ripping up now?” And then again just last year, I mentioned to an eminence grise of the New York artworld that I had a new book coming out (A Decade of Negative Thinking) and he said, “Who are you attacking now?”

Esprit de l’escalier: I should have told him.

[And I haven’t even talked here about my  calling some of the editors of October “aesthetic terrorists” (!) at a time when they had more real power than they may have now, as the critical organ of an aesthetic program shared by an international institutional network including major galleries and museums.]

You’d think that a reputation for critical ferocity would be a good thing, from let’s call it a business point of view. Speaking of October, a number of its editors and authors over the years, some of them initially Clement Greenberg’s disciples, have been thought of as art world Savonarolas, and that level of very serious but also often exclusionary criticality gave some of them power in part because they managed not just to be critical but to arrogate to themselves ownership of the correct language of criticality itself. And it was, for better and worse, part of the Clement Greenberg legend, but perhaps because he had most importantly backed a couple of the right horses, Jackson Pollock in particular, his criticality had the positive potential monetary value of a good stock tip, despite its destructive side–telling artists what they should or shouldn’t paint, dismissing all art with so-called literary content, and in later years being a bit of a caricature of himself, siting around with a scotch in his hand saying that’s not a good picture. At some point and for a long while, he could make artists in the market and he could break artists in their studio, a power I obviously do not have and don’t seem to have sought out despite my alleged propensity for “ripping people up.”

So who you attack, on what theoretical grounds, as well as who you back or are associated with, and how interested you are in power, all matter and Golub’s advice that I attack important people has had limited viability in terms of developing visibility. A tree can fall in the forest but those trees around it who are interested in power can determine that they will not give that particular tree the power of their admitting that they heard it fall.

At least for me there seems to be an inverse relation between criticality and visibility. I think this was Powhida’s point in including me in “A Biased and Incomplete Guide to Some Critics in New York (where I live and make art),”.

Coming next: The Imperium of Analytics

 

 

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Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, parts 1 and 2 of 3

I’ve spent the summer with my thoughts trapped inside three caves–the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave featured in Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the cave inside a malachite mine deep in the Ural Mountains featured in a 1946 Russian children’s movie The Stone Flower, and the cave whose entrance lurks in the shadow of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, currently on special display at the Frick Museum in New York.

Is it any wonder that, in a summer when the prospect of a long and deeper recession and of a second American Civil War in which the Tea Party descendants of Jefferson Davis win looms closer and closer (well, so close it’s here), one might want to take refuge in a cave, especially one with art in it? Yet I’m deeply claustrophobic so I must find a way out. This blog post/essay is my process of digging myself out.

* Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dinosaur on Central Park West

The son of a friend was about four or five years old and obsessed with dinosaurs, he knew all their names, the usual. I said, you know, creatures like that used to walk the same earth as we do. He looked at me with total incredulity and got right to the point, “Here, in New York City?”

Mammoth, Natural History Museum, NYC

"Un Mammouth," illustration from my second or third grade history book, Petite Histoire de la France, Lycee Francais, mid-1950s

I was never interested in dinosaurs, too snake-like for me. But as a child I was fascinated by the idea that other creatures now extinct had once roamed the earth.  The pictures and simple stories in my history book from second or third grade conveyed the wondrous idea that once upon a great but intelligible amount of time past, there had once been Mammoths here. Yet the “here” of my schoolbook was already marked by estrangement: its “here” was France, but I was not French, had never lived in France, had in fact not yet visited France when I read the book. It didn’t occur to me to imagine a single ancestor who might have ever struggled with a Mammoth, though I suppose genealogically speaking it’s possible that my grandfather, a Hasidic folk artist, a sign painter and stone carver in a shtetl in Galicia, may have had deep in his ancestry some fellow in the back of the cave carving a little bison out of a piece of bone, sometime back in 32,000 BC–we all do descend from someone back then, fifteen hundred generations ago, but basically I didn’t think there were any Jewish cavemen!

My little friend’s disbelief and the Mammoth in my history book returned to my mind seeing the fantastical narrative device used by Herzog near the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, when he pulls the camera away from the rock face protecting the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of France and shows us a nearby nuclear power plant (I looked it up, there is one) whose hot steam emissions are said to fuel a hi-tech glass-enclosed hothouse in which radioactive albino crocodiles in a pool seem to be prepared to restart the process of evolution in case there’s a nuclear accident and we have to start all over again. Like the image that had crossed the mind of my little friend, of dinosaurs walking down the street in front of his mother’s apartment on Fifth Avenue, Herzog’s fiction (or science fiction–as he explained to Stephen Colbert: “I want the audience with me with wild fantasies”) points to the jarring and slightly ridiculous effect of considering the deep past’s uncanny co-existence with our present.

My response to the Herzog movie has centered on what may seem like the “wrong” thing: what really struck me and has stayed in my mind are not the cave paintings themselves, amazing though they are, according to any criteria, be it expressive verisimilitude, mystery of original purpose, nearly unfathomable age, and difficulty of location and surface, but Herzog’s use of 3D which serves to enhance what is from my point of view the central thematic of the movie, which is that estrangement is intrinsic to wonderment.

The principal claim for Herzog’s use of 3D is that it would give the viewer a better approximation of the effect of the cave paintings’ adaptation to the curved walls. Herzog says he wanted to “intensify” the experience for the movie viewer. But my most powerful impression was of the way that the 3D amplified the separation between figure and ground, creating a flattening effect that does not feel like the way that we see. I mean, yes, if I look at you, I don’t really see the room around you in focus, but you are not a flat cutout doll completely separate from a distant ground, there is a much greater impression of visual integration. But in the Herzog movie human beings were sharply separate from the space they occupied, whether in the scenes filmed in the cave itself as well as when they were filmed in the landscape.

At the end of the movie, the camera draws further and further away from people exploring the landscape around the cave. The human figures, flattened, outlined, and distinct from the stone ground they stand on, become smaller and smaller paper cutout dolls, human beings as not even ants but toys for an all-seeing deity or creative force (which here is Herzog or whoever he is a stand-in for). The cave paintings are almost just an intermediary focus for the true subject of the film which the stupendous difference between the scale of human effort, however valiant, and the incomprehensibly greater scale of archeological time.

Herzog’s storyteller’s voice and foreign accent in English also cast the spell of the folktale over the documentary format. And when one of his guides in the cave calls for silence so that perhaps the visitors will hear the sound of their own heart beat in the deep stillness of the deepest recess of the cave, for a second you think, yes, let me just look and listen to my own heartbeat, maybe I will really feel I am there, but instead of that silence and the dream of private experience, cue the Wagnerian chorus! Again, the “documentary” filmmaker seems to insist on the absolute absurdity of actually thinking that you could experience the cave and its art in a pure fashion. As Stephen Colbert says, “Let me ask you a question here: You making any of this stuff up?” Herzog has gone out of his way to make sure that is a fair question.

In fact ever since Paleolithic cave paintings began to be rediscovered in the late 19th and the 20th century there have been people who thought they were fake. People continue to think this or pretend to for their own purposes . I’m not taking the position held by some that these are 19th Century fakes but Herzog’s propensity for artistry/fakery puts the whole enterprise in question. And anyway contemporary perception is so influenced by simulacral thinking that the gleaming nearly flesh colored crystalline deposits that encase bear skulls and covers large areas of the cave floor in a shiny flat layer of hard shiny pink glop looks a little too much like the cheesy sets of the first Star Trek series. In fact caves are visited with regularity in all variants of Star Trek, for one thing because the possibility of beaming people through barriers of stone holds a particular fascination.

In one episode, The Devil in the Dark (1967), miners of an important mineral element found in tunnels within solid rock under a planet’s surface are being killed by an unknown force (with moving multicultural tolerance plot twist of course). The cave chambers have been mapped, much as they are in another fascinating detail of Herzog’s film, the laser imaging of the interior shape of the Chauvet Cave with its network of irregular shaped chambers.

Map of the Chauvet cave chambers found @http://www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html

Detail of computer visualization of the interior conformation of the Chauvet cave chambers

One could find the Star Trek narratives to be memorable and powerful at the same time as it was pretty obvious that the rocks were made of spray-painted Styrofoam and bubble-wrap seemed to be the principal building block of the universe.

Bear Skull in the Chauvet Cave

"The Injured Horta," The Devil in the Dark, Star Trek, 1967

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave

That does not diminish the potential for magic because at the same time even just the idea of the cave is very powerful in a somatic sense: I could barely breathe during much of the Herzog film, a sensation that was only lifted when, towards the end, as the camera makes a repeat sweep through the deepest cavern, it is revealed that when the cave paintings were made and for thousands of years thereafter the cave chambers were more open to the outer landscape, giving freer access to men and to the bears who left their claw marks on the painted walls. It was only after I could visualize an opening to the outside world that I could breathe better and experience the thrill of a group of lunging beasts.

Horses, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave painting

*

You may once have had experiences of wonderment and delight, perhaps most uniquely in childhood, in your imagination, reading a book, hearing a story, or seeing something of incomparable beauty. You’d think being an artist would give you continued access to such experiences but for the most part life as a professional artist is at best a negotiation among the constantly changing realities of contemporary art, the limitations of one’s own abilities, and some internal core ability to still experience such wonderment when it presents itself, despite competitiveness, jealousy, and the infrequency of such experiences. Basically we once experienced wonderment and now we do the best we can. So when we do on rare occasions experience wonderment or delight, it is notable, and for a moment we may return to the prelapsarian intensity, awe, and joy first experienced in childhood and which is part of the secret fuel for a lifetime of art practice.

*The Stone Flower

Sometime in the 1950s when I was a child my mother took me to see an old Russian movie playing in a second run movie house someplace near Carnegie Hall. This experience remained in my mind as an intense visual experience, colorful, rich in detail, and one somehow tinged with the obscure and exotic. Distinct images from the movie remained in my mind as well as the sense of how it was to actually be in the theater watching it. I can nearly feel it to this day, a haptic and visual sense of being there and of seeing myself seeing it, but the movie itself disappeared from my cultural scope. I wasn’t sure of its title and I forgot the story. I never asked my mother about it and I never came across a revival or even a reference to it.

My mother took me to see old movies often, usually Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, at MoMA, so being taken to see an old movie was not a unique experience, and the foreign language, Russian, was one which I did not exactly understand but whose soft sweet intonations I was familiar with from hearing it spoken by family friends, yet something about the circumstance of seeing this movie seems to have stood out for me as out of the ordinary, but perhaps it is just that I saw something beautiful on a day when I was just primed to receive it.

It should be said that where I remember seeing it was a kind of New York version of a dark cave or grotto, this old movie theater someplace near Carnegie Hall but which was not the Carnegie Hall Cinema. That was part of the exotic, this was not someplace we ever had been to see a movie before or went to after. [I did find a reference in the New York Times to the movie being shown at the New York Historical Society in March 1955, that is, three blocks from our apartment, but I am pretty sure that wasn’t the time or place, and since  you can only search the Times archive for articles and editorial content, not for movie ads, unless another madeleine dipped in espresso fills in the details of my memory, I will eventually have to track through two or three years worth of microfiche at the New York Public Library in the hopes of recuperating the date and location.*See postscript below]

This winter a strong, palpable remembrance of the movie resurfaced during a studio visit, triggered by a student’s use of mass-produced glass flower vases assembled in some measure to try to summon up a sense of the wondrous in the intangibility of air contained within glass, I think. The movie’s title, which had always been at the tip of my mind, came to me, or at least enough to have the confidence to Google what I thought it might be– The Stone Flower. I first found a variety of references, including to the Serge Prokofieff opera The Tale of the Stone Flower, based on a P. Bazhov’s fairy tale “The Malachite Box,” a 19th century folk tale, and then reference to the film itself. I asked a young Russian painter, Tatiana Istomina if she remembered such a film from her childhood and she then found the whole film for me on YouTube. There in 8 parts with English subtitles was the film I remembered, and my memory had been exact as to both the exoticism and the magical beauty.

The director, Aleksandr Putshko, is sometimes referred to as the “Soviet Walt Disney,” and there are some similarities to Disney in the delightful representations of nature and even in the bad guys: it turns out that Soviet films and Disney films share the same type of villains–the local rich person and his brutal overseer. But The Stone Flower is more like its near contemporary, the great British ballet movie The Red Shoes (1948); it shares with that film not just rich vibrant color and a sense of set design that seems influenced by the stage design style of the Bolshoi Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Also and more importantly it shares with The Red Shoes the theme of the artist as torn between an all-consuming search for perfection in art practice and what The Red Shoes’ pivotal character of the ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov, contemptuously refers to as “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Because you see, and here is what I think is so fascinating about this particular aesthetic memory, I had remembered everything about The Stone Flower except perhaps the most salient reason the movie had such an impact on me: it is about being an artist, not just about being naturally gifted and skilled but more importantly about the sacrifices that the artist makes in the obsessive search for perfection.

The film is framed by a narrative device: peasant children gather around the campfire of an old man and clamor for him to tell them a story, which then unfolds in a once upon a time era, not as deep in the past as the Chauvet cave painters, but in the equally lost past of  19th century peasant life in Czarist Russia. In the story he tells, which he carefully distinguishes for his young audience as not a fairy tale, which is for little children. but, rather, “folklore and narrative,” the young hero Danila neglects his duties guarding cattle while he is enraptured by the beauty of a wildflower in the forest. He is observed in this early sign of artistry by a sorceress disguised as a salamander wearing a little tiara: this is the Mistress of Copper Mountain. [This scene comes in at about 7 minutes into the film).

In that first scene in the forest the basic fakery of cinema comes through in a very intense way, similar to the richly detailed illustrations of children’s books in the 19th and early 20th century: there is a very strong naturalism, in the use of real trees, vegetation, and real animals from squirrels to a small herd of cows, yet the atmosphere is intensified by deep color and chiaroscuro and the suggestion of compressed space, the space of the cinema set, a kind of cave in itself. I think that the combination of naturalism, even realism, with artifice is part of what made the film such an intense and memorable experience. If anything, in fact I think definitively, the analogue nature of the sets and the special effects add to the wonder.

But please remember, a film viewed on YouTube cannot replicate the experience of seeing a film lauded for its color–it received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Color at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1946–filling the screen of a darkened movie theater.

When Danila’s absorption in the patterns of the flower causes him to neglect the cattle, he is to be beaten but an old stone carver defends him to the cruel overseer and so is beaten for his troubles. But then the boy is given over to the stone carver as a ward and student. Danila grows into a handsome and supremely gifted stone carver but he is dissatisfied with his most ambitious achievement, a flower-shaped malachite vase. He wants “to gather all the beauty of a living flower and show it in the stone that it would never wither.”

The second part of the following clip takes place in a barely lit peasant’s wood cottage (a type of cave) where Danila and a number of old stone carvers consider the nature of artmaking. Danila hears the tale of the Stone Flower: “The Stone Flower? What’s it like?” “It’s to for us to see it. One who sees it will forget all about earthly life.” I’ve included this clip because now this interests me, this narrative discussion about art. I would wager that even though perhaps as a child I found the scene a bit talky compared to the forest and cave scenes, I took its meaning to heart, a warning about the danger of forgetting about earthly life if you devote yourself to art.

Danila feels he must see this stone flower and to do so he must go to the cave which formed the center of my childhood memory–in the last section of the film, where a happy ending does nothing to convince any artist of the relative value of  “the doubtful comforts of human love” to one who is absorbed in the search for perfection at the heart of The Stone Flower.. Ah, now readers, here the rub: since I first saw the entire film on YouTube in a series of 8 clips, the 2 clips that take place within the cave have been removed for copyright infringement by the production company Mosfilm which has the entire film up on its own YouTube channel where you can watch the whole thing, and with subtitles if you click on “cc”.

What’s perceivable as fake can also be deeply convincing emotionally and powerful aesthetically, the “fake” is a manner of estrangement that can lead to wonder, and the idea of the cave being a magical creative site.

*

The third cave is one that you cannot enter, in fact you can barely see it, it’s a dark crevice of an entrance into a stone mountain in Giovanni Bellini’s 1480 painting St. Francis in the Desert  currently on special view at the Frick Museum...to be continued in my next post, that will complete this essay, which as much as anything I’ve written is true to the meanings of essay as an attempt, a trial, an endeavor, a feeling one’s way out of a cave of thoughts.

 * Postscript:  my friend Mimi Gross filled in the memory in an email from August 3, 2011:

I have the exact I mean EXACTLY the same experience about the “Stone Flower” remaining in my memory seen at the Guild Theater (the one you couldn’t remember) where I also saw Citizen Kane for the first time, those early teen age memories / and you were even younger. The same fantasy that never went away, of the sets of the cave of the glowing flower..and will watch the youtubes at a perfect moment since the memory is so delicate. More than Twenty years ago, walking in the snow in Central Park at night, with a Russian film historian, [he] told me all the details of the film, and that it was very well known (no one knew what I was talking about until then) and then, about ten years ago, I noticed it was playing one night only, maybe Walter Reader, and sent two students who happened to be at my house as I was unable to go and they had…the same reactions so many years later.

The Guild Theater was located at 33 West Fiftieth Street.

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Biographies of Women Artists: Instinct and Intellect

Reading The New York Times Book Review section today, I was struck by the ironic twist implicit in one sentence of Jed’s Perl’s review, “Freedom of Expression,” of Gail Levin’s Lee Krasner: A Biography and Patricia Albers’ Joan Mitchell-Lady Painter: A Life. Perl writes of Krasner, “by the time Krasner met Pollock she was already extraordinarily self-aware. She had a profound grasp of modern art, deeper though less instinctive than Pollock’s, which she had absorbed through her studies in the 1930s with the great teacher Hans Hofmann.”

That is a bit of an over-simplification of the details of Lee Krasner’s self-chosen path to become a modern artist and an abstract painter–every path is self-chosen of course, but, as Levin’s book makes clear, as do many others about American art in the 1920s and 30s, in this period there was no clear academic or even social path for artists to realize this desire and many of the people who felt the calling of the modern in general and of abstraction in particular pursued every opportunity for enlightenment possible without much of an established guidebook. For Krasner, Hofmann was absolutely key–“I didn’t really get…the full impact of [cubism] until I worked with Hofmann,” & “the most valid thing that came to me from Hofmann was his enthusiasm for painting and his seriousness and commitment to it” (also, more touching, “Hofmann was the first person who said encouraging things to me about my work”) –however she tried several schools and made an effort to know everyone who could teach her something during more than a decade of courageous search.

Perl’s description relates an accepted view of Krasner: that she knew more about and was more articulate about abstract art than Pollock and was therefore able to assist him with theoretical /promotional language for what he instinctively embodied in his painting. Hofmann was a participant in the creation of this mythic image, since Pollock’s most frequently quoted declaration, “I am nature” was in response to Hofmann’s question, upon his first visit to Pollock’s studio (taken there by Krasner),”Do you work from nature?” In Levin’s account, Hofmann’s reply was sadly predictive: “You don’t work from nature, you work by heart. That’s no good. You will repeat yourself.”

Krasner’s knowledge and Pollock’s genius are an established narrative. And although genius always trumps intelligence, even conservative art critic Hilton Kramer was able to suggest a different reading of the same story in his New York Times review of the influential 1981 exhibition,”Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship,’‘ organized by Barbara Rose for the Grey Art Gallery at New York University:

“Yet Krasner, through her studies with Hans Hofmann, her interest in Matisse and other modernists who could not be assimilated into the social art movement, and her acquaintance with Gorky and de Kooning, was already launched on a more independent artistic course, and it was largely through her that Pollock was first drawn into the orbit of the modernist esthetic. (Pollock was not the only person to benefit from her guidance, by the way. It was Krasner who introduced Clement Greenberg to Hofmann and his school.) Part of the fascination of this exhibition lies in the account it gives us of the powerful influence that each of these painters exerted on the development of the other.”

Krasner indeed had years of intellectual, personal, and studio involvement with abstraction before she met Pollock. She even danced to boogie-woogie music with Mondrian! According to Levin, “She considered Mondrian one of her most outstanding partners for dancing. ‘I was a fairly good dancer, that is to say I can follow easily, but the complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense.’ ‘I nearly went mad trying to follow this man’s rhythm.'”..Well, in a way that story only restates the case of Krasner as the intellectual plodder to Pollock’s intuitive and nearly incomprehensible genius, but it’s a great story nonetheless.

What struck me in Perl’s casual formulation of the valence of self-awareness and knowledge versus that of instinct is how much of a twist this is on the usual gender stereotype of art historical canon formation: woman as instinctive and contingent, without language, man as intellectual and empowered by self-determination and theoretical clarity. “Instinctive” or “intuitive” is usually used to describe, and mark as lesser, work by women. “Women’s intuition” is commonly a trope for something less dependable and scientifically rooted than, presumably, men’s superior reason. Or, if she did it, it was just instinct, natural, unconscious, feminine, if he did it, he was able to productively channel his anima.

The exhibition, ”Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship,’‘ changed my view of Krasner’s work. The image, “good artist, but not as great as Pollock,” was challenged by the comparative chronology of abstraction in Krasner and Pollock’s work in the 1940s and particularly by the power and intensity of Krasner “Little Image” paintings.

Or, I should say that if while in general I have shared the commonly held view of Krasner as “good but not great” in the sense that her work doesn’t transform my understanding of what painting can be, the Krasner/Pollock show at the Grey Art Gallery troubled that conformist view in two ways.

First, in a field (Abstract Expressionism) dominated by an obsession with who did what first, Krasner’s so-called cerebral labor supported by her trio of influences– Cézanne/Matisse/Mondrian–seemed to have brought her to all-over abstract mark-making a moment before Pollock was able to fully break from the figurative social realism of Thomas Hart Benton and the surrealism/Picasso-influenced heavy symbolism of his earlier work to arrive at the all-over abstraction of his great works. And the image and the surface of the “Little Image” paintings are really intense, I find them exciting in general as well as the most exciting of Krasner’s work, so what is the role or standing of the category genius, when facing such paintings?

Also, although Krasner’s work was consistently involved with a cubism-based sense of architectonic structure, from the underlying grid of her  “Little Image” paintings to her 1970s works in which she re-used cut up figure drawings from her Hofmann classes, Krasner seems to have changed course in a fairly contingent way. For all the intellectualism she gave to Pollock in support of his work, she seems to have followed unexpected urges for new directions in her own work in an instinctive/intuitive way rather than a structuralist/cerebral one, although the cubist infrastructure of her work  was certainly always a given.

Levin’s book  yields one wonderful image pertinent to this question of the intellectual versus the intuitive: apparently Krasner would jump up to produce marks at the top of her large canvases: “What I don’t want to do is get up on a ladder and hit the top. I want it to be within my body experience. I don’t want assistants working for me. I don’t experience it that way. I want to be in contact with my body and the work.”

Lee Krasner painting "Portrait in Green." Photo taken by Mark Patiky in 1969, from Gail Levin's "Lee Krasner: A Biography"

The images of Pollock in the act of painting are iconic representations which in some ways are as important and perhaps more influential than his work: his actions take us and art off of the field of painting into the performance of daily life and the actual space of the world. But here Krasner gets a moment of contingency and almost child-like joy for her involvement with the field of painting.

The two biographies join a growing bibliography of biographies of women artists. A few books of note:

Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity-A Cultural Biography by Irene Gammel is an exemplary biography about the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) a fascinating figure of the early vanguard modernist period in Germany and the United States. Essential reading in tandem with this book is Amelia Jones’s Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada.

To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era by Mary Lowenthal Felstiner (every book that reproduces Salomon’s great autobiographical series of paintings, Life? Or Theater? is worth collecting. For those who don’t know her work at all, to say that she is painting’s Anne Frank is only the quickest historical placement for a major work by a young but trained and precociously mature artist, Life? Or Theater? is a great artwork, formally inventive, personally moving, historically significant as art and as historical record, a truly heroic work as well. I’ve linked to the most readily available version, but the 1981 Viking book and the 1963 version with an introduction by Paul Tillich mean more to me, the 1963 book, which I found in on the used book section of a small Provincetown bookstore, introduced me to this artist).

Remedios Varo:Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan. A really interesting book about the Spanish-born Mexican artist not well enough known in the United States.

Paula Modersohn-Becker: Her life and Work by Gillian Perry. Another wonderful early-Twentieth century vanguard modernist painter not well enough known in the US.

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera. This is a very good book, well-written and with very good description and analysis of Kahlo’s paintings. Believe it or not, there was a time when there was no Kahlo industry, this book in a way initiated it. The only thing I can’t stand is that the original book cover with a self-portrait by Kahlo on it has been replaced by a photo of  Selma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, from her film portrayal of the artist. The movie was enjoyable but that cover is a travesty. Still, the book is terrific.

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