Category Archives: painting

Painting in the 1980s: Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the 80s at Pace Gallery arrives at an interesting moment in terms of the abrupt shift of stylistic currents and tropes that characterize art history and it offers an opportunity to revisit the situation of women painters in the 1980s.

Brief study prompt: Painting in the 1980s–you weren’t supposed to do it–that is, if you were a woman, and especially a woman interested in discourse on gender politics. Different story if you were an American, Italian, or German man.

Or you could do it, although particularly if you were a male artist, but certainly not sincerely, there had to be an ironic twist. An appropriational basis in photography and language helped.

The title of the show implies the aesthetic tensions of that moment, that is, the title is not Elizabeth Murray: Paintings of the 80s, which would place the focus on her work alone during a certain time period of her working life, but Painting in the 80s, that is, her activity of painting in the 80s and, beyond that, the activity and the discipline of painting at a particular moment in Western art history.

Starting in the early 1980s, the art market experienced a huge surge after a decade of relative recession which had been, not coincidentally, marked by creative and political experimentation and which was, notably, the decade of Murray’s first fully mature work. In the new market boom, large Neo-Expressionist and appropriational painting, largely by male artists, was the dominant medium and of course the favored market commodity, with women gravitating (and being pushed, by both external and internal forces) towards photography and photobased media (with correspondingly lesser market value). While the language of the heroic history of painting could still be applied to the former, along with newer modes of criticism influenced by postmodern theory, or, even, one might say, despite the dominance of the anti-essentialism of such theory, the other–work by women artists including those peripherally or explicitly interested in gender–was drawn to and delimited by the same theory with an emphasis on an anti-essentialism that particularly targeted painting.

A so-to-speak mantraic recap of that period might be, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault Derrida, and, when it came to women artists, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer…not forgetting Baudrillard and Mary Kelly, and more, but you get the idea.

Of course there were powerful women painters during that time period, including in addition to Murray, artists such as Susan Rothenberg and Ida Applebroog. But international exhibitions and biennials of contemporary art usually included very few women and of these the three mentioned above were ubiquitous.

And at that time, as I have observed elsewhere, it was useful for such painters to do work that could be parsed for their representational depiction of ideas about the female body, femininity, gender and feminism. Abstract artists–including women painters and sculptors whose work had been so influential and notable within feminist art discourse in the 70s–often felt left out of major exhibitions and texts devoted to women artists and feminism. In that moment Elizabeth Murray’s work was a beacon. To walk into Paula Cooper Gallery in the 80s or into Murray’s first major museum retrospective, at the Whitney, in April 1988, was a thrill and inspiration. To walk into Pace Gallery today is to experience that thrill anew.

Elizabeth Murray, “Making It Up,” 1986. Oil on canvas, 10′ 4 1/8″x7′ 11 1/8″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

The paintings from that period, now as when they were first created and exhibited, are bold, confident, powerful, intensely physical, courageous in their assertion of space on and off the wall, massive, inspiring in their use of color and paint texture and application.

But at some level the paintings operated and still operate beyond discursiveness. At a time when representation and enculturation of female identity was the issue at hand, feminist criticism couldn’t quite get a grip on a large twisted broken shield or heart like a shield working at a monumental scale, leaping out at you from the gallery wall, where you couldn’t directly address a feminist narrative by which I mean the narrow interpretation of what a feminist narrative might be where representation, figuration, and appropriation would allow you to speak of psychoanalysis, for example. Not that Murray wasn’t widely admired but the important feminist criticism of the day was focused on artists whose work could be discussed in relation to Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, and there were clear specifications of what work was part of that discourse and which wasn’t.

These theoretical references were also the lodestars of a dominant anti-essentialist discourse on how the female and the feminine were socially constructed and you couldn’t address Murray’s work without dealing with how engaged she was with the basic components of painting—figure and ground, oil on canvas and support, and this was in the dangerous territory of the essentialism of painting itself. And while in fact Murray’s work demolished Greenbergian tenets, at the same time her painterly ambition both embraced and reinvigorated the great tradition of New York School painting of which his philosophy were an important component.

Elizabeth Murray, “Like A Leaf,” 1983. Oil on canvas (6 parts) 98″x90″x9″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

And, finally, as I try to give a sense of what being an artist in the1980s was like, Murray did not use “the language,” as someone once used the term to me, “those of us who have the language.” Her references could be literary and philosophical, what she said about her work was deep but different than an academic discourse, as much rooted in daily visual experience as in popular culture and in direct transmutation into paint of such experience. In discussing her work she did not use what later became known at International Art English. Very much like Philip Guston, she was very eloquent about becoming an artist, the personal and cultural sources for her imagery and style, and about studio process.

I have a history of constructing vivid but sometimes revealed to be false memories of favorite paintings by artists I love: a painting will be a lodestar in my mind, and I will remember not just it, but the wall of the museum or gallery that it hung on, and perhaps at the core of my memory is my memory of myself at the instant of seeing it. It is the moment of the coup de foudre, love at first sight, but, more than that, of when an imperative and a challenge is revealed to you in one glance. As time passes, I try to find the work again, but often can’t find any trace. Sometimes it is eventually proven to me that it never existed as I had remembered. For example, for the longest time there was a Guston painting of cherries that I had seen at McKee Gallery. There are many wonderful paintings of cherries by Philip Guston and though I love them all, somehow that one painting was in my mind the best one. I remembered where it was installed the gallery, on the back side of the back dividing wall. But no reproduction matched my memory. Finally I asked about it at David McKee Gallery, Guston’s dealer for four decades, and they figured out the year of the show I was talking about and were able to show me the layout of the show and the images, and evidently I had constructed the painting. Strangely, once my memory was proven to be false, the image began to fade in favor of verifiable works, though the ideal persisted.

Another such painting that stood out in my memory in my personal archive of works particularly significant to me–was a large multi-part question mark I had seen at Murray’s retrospective Elizabeth Murray, Paintings and Drawings, which opened at the Whitney in 1988. I never forgot the work, or more specifically, its subject, its materiality, its scale. And, again, more specifically, I remembered myself seeing it, being struck by it: it was there and I saw it, in that way you remember seeing across the street or across a large room a person who you will later meet and fall in love with, but you already did at the first instant of vision. Over the years I always wanted to see it again, and I looked for images of that painting, without success. After the Guston cherries episode I understood that I was capable of inventing archetypal paintings by other artists. Had I made up Elizabeth Murray’s monumental question mark?

Lurking in the back of my mind when I went to see the current show at Pace Gallery was the hope that it would be there. Without seeing it I walked purposefully towards finding it. And, in the back wall of the back room, there was the painting, Cracked Question. Apart from being more askew than I remembered, less vertical, more horizontal, it looked like the painting I fell in love with but doubt set in when examination of the Whitney exhibition catalogue did not include it. Detective work and pestering of friends ensued and mention of the painting was found in a review of the show written by Rob Storr,

Like an interrogative sentence in Spanish, Murray’s show both began and ended with the same punctuation mark, but one whose significance vastly exceeded its simple editorial or grammatical function. Looming just beyond the brightly hued paintings of the 1970s that created one at the entrance, Cracked Question (1987), a mammoth multi panel, multi-faceted picture that dominated the central room of the Whitney installation, was at once the first image on which one’s eye’s fell and a tense conclusion to the chronological sequence of intervening works. (Storr, “Shape Shifter,” Art in America (April 1989), p. 275)

Storr’s description of the pivotal position of the work in the show filled in my memory of seeing myself seeing it. [Because such stories interest me, I think the solution of the mystery is that the show originated in 1987 in Dallas at the Dallas Museum of Art, and was surely planned before that. Cracked Question dates from 1987 and the Whitney show opened in the spring of 1988 so it must have been a late, but, as Storr indicates, central addition.

Elizabeth Murray, “Cracked Question,” 1987. Oil on canvas (6 parts), 13′ 5 1/2″x16′ 2″x23 1/2″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

The work is massive, sober, architectural, dramatic. In my notes I wrote that it is dispositive, it feel instinctively that it solves a problem, a conflict, although its subject stays at the moment of the question. It is sculptural and would be seen as such under any circumstances, but the dark grey and metallic silver paint emphasizes the segmented painting’s relation to steel and stone. Each part is as powerful as the whole, yet the whole embodies its existence as language–speaking of Murray’s relation to “the language,” Cracked Question is language. It doesn’t represent a punctuation mark, it is a punctuation mark. It does not only pose but it is a philosophical question and a philosophical text, that takes place in the languages of form and color and space and matter.

A friend spoke to me of the “ferocity” of Murray’s work. Cracked Question embodies and exemplifies that ferocity.

This show arrives at a moment when, after several years of the dominance of abstraction–much of it a variant of what has been termed “zombie formalism”—that is, constructions and deconstructions of established tropes of abstraction, usually very elegant, and often disconcerting, particularly for those viewers who lived through the “original” phases being sampled or replicated, because of the works’ lack of the historical content and the crucial trace of struggle for form and content that had characterized those earlier movements–there are suddenly dozens of exhibitions of figurative painting ranging in style from Alice Neel-like realism to a poetic fantastic that emerges from surrealism and can sometimes border on millennial pathos. So, right now, figuration is in, not in all cases with a overt political message, unless in terms of the racial or gender identity of the artist and the figures represented in the paintings.

So is this a case of bad timing or of good timing for this presentation of Murray’s great works from the 1980s? It is always fascinating to think about how sometimes museum retrospectives, though planned years in advance, open just at the moment when that artist’s work or that artist’s most controversial works look presciently fresh to a new generation. Often such works are revived precisely to give contemporary artists the historical buttress that will burnish their reputations: thus late figurative works by Picabia, previously seen as kitschy aberrations were first restored to critical favor in the 1980s at a time when it seemed to retrospectively offer an important patrilineage for and contribute to the historical buttressing of the work of a then emerging David Salle. Last year’s extensive Alice Neel exhibition at David Zwirner seemed perfectly keyed to the work of emerging art stars like Jordan Casteel. So what will young artists experiencing this moment’s stylistic Zeitgeist make of Elizabeth Murray’s greatest works, seen at this moment?

Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Sue Graze and Kathy Halbreich, “Elizabeth Murray, Paintings and Drawings,” exhibition catalogue, H. N. Abrams, 1987, p.131.

It should be noted that while the overall effect of Murray’s work is one of abstraction, and the artist described herself as an abstract painter in an interview included in the 1987 catalogue, there are many representational elements and references in her paintings, in a stylized style emerging from cartoons, comics, and graffiti as well as from pop artists like Claes Oldenburg: works are shaped like shoes or cups and contains stylized abstracted but identifiable figuration and still-life imagery. But her relation to representation is not in the realm of narrative or allegory, the thing itself is the important thing, the painting as an object that projects into our space carrying pigment on its surface. The importance of three-dimensionality is apparent when one compares her oil paintings from this period to related drawings: even when these are on several pieces of paper creating a shape or a broken field, they operate in a more conventional relation to form. The objectness of the shaped paintings from this period makes them always more than the working out of abstracted, biomorphic or geometric forms on a flat surface, since the form of the support itself is a biomorphic or geometric abstraction.

Elizabeth Murray, “Table Turning,” 1982-82. oil on canvas (2 parts) 8′ 10 1/4″x8′ 2 1/4″x4 2/4″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

That places them in yet another situation of appearing to be beyond language: how she declares space is different than Barnett Newman’s declaration of the equivalence between figure and ground: what is painted as form and shapes on the large shaped works may be securely within the realm of figure, but on the other hand the whole object itself is figure on the ground of the wall in a way that conventional easel paintings, even Murray’s own earlier works, are not. Thus, again, if the works can’t be incorporated or tamed into discourse of gender representation, nor to the terms of the new critical language of gender, racial identity, national identity politics, they also can’t be reduced to the purely formal terms of the earlier discourse that had characterized painting from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

 

The sculptural nature of the works emphasizes the sculptural nature of oil paint itself. One of the things I have always found the most inspiring about these works is how the three dimensional support allows me to really experience the physicality of pigment. This is one of the things that painters live for, the moments when paint comes alive in a generative fashion, so for me, how Murray allowed oil paint to dry unevenly–an area of color will be matte and then shiny, which in itself becomes sculptural. And it is never enough to look them frontally, you have to experience the surface from the side to really see the color and the brushstrokes.

 

A year after Murray’s show at the Whitney, which included, in addition to Cracked Question, a number of the works in the current exhibition at Pace, I wrote the essay  “Figure/Ground,” in which I confronted the critique of painting I have indicated as dominant in the 1980s with other discourses that were not usually brought to bear on it, including those of feminism and of feminist studies of the gendered, misogynist aspects and roots of fascism. In one of the last paragraphs of the essay, I wrote about some of what I love about painting:

For a painter there is certainly tremendous pleasure in working out a thought in paint. I tis a complete process in terms of brain function: an intellectual activity joining memory, verbal knowledge, and retinal information, is a given visible existence through a physical act. But the value of painting cannot rest of any individual artist’s private pleasure. Painting is a communicative process in which information flows through the eye from one brain, one consciousness, to another, as telemetric data speeds from satellite to computer, without slowing for verbal communication. Incident of paint linger in the working mind of the painter as continuous thrills, as possibilities, like words you may soon use in a sentence, and–in a manner that seems to exist outside of spoken language—as beacons of hope to any human being for whom visuality is the site of questions and answers about existence. The black outline of a rock in a Marsden Hartley landscape, the scumbled white shawl in a portrait by Goya, the glaze of a donor’s veil in the Portinari Altarpiece, the translucent eyelid of Leonardo’s Ginevra di Benci, the pulsing red underpainting of a slave’s toe in a Delacroix, the shift from shiny to matte in a passage of indigo blue by Elizabeth Murray, are only a few of a storehouse of details that are of more than professional interest to me.

 

Images used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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“Certain reflections about art making and learning about art making” 1986

I have been teaching art since I was 22 and still a graduate student myself. Teaching is part of the way my mind is structured and I think that teaching includes learning, or continuing to learn. At this point I feel that learning might best be pursued without the pressures of teaching, but that is another story. The rest of the story is something I am considering putting into a book that would use my teaching archive as a starting point for short reflections that would situate the teaching ideas of past moments in relation to current ideas.

I recently went through my large file cabinet because I needed to find  a document with some important log-in information, which naturally was not in the file cabinet though I did eventually find it in a pile on the cabinet, which by the way normally I can’t open because of several overstuffed rolling file cabinets parked in front of it with piles of papers on top of them. Instead I went through folders of teaching materials, syllabi, but mainly all the essays that I have taught on feminism, painting, early modernism, minimalism, Fluxus, Debord, Space (exhibition space), and more, each grouping including the original xerox if a PDF version has not been found online or scanned yet, and my heavily annotated teaching copies.

In a folder of random material, I found a statement that I seem to have written for a class I taught at SUNY Purchase in the fall of 1986. I have no recollection of what the circumstances were, or whether I read this or handed it out. The statement is dated October 26, 1986, which I think is the day I wrote it, which was a Sunday, for a class at Purchase the next day.

Texts I wrote shortly after this one, such as “On Failure and Anonymity,” [Heresies 25, 1990] explore similar territory particularly in relation to art market pressures. Teaching is situational and interventional so I assume that this statement was written to address some issues that had come up in a specific class and, if written today, such comments would be less uniquely focused on material and formal production of art objects and less specific to painting. In fact ten years later I wrote and produced a videoscript to express my disgust at MFA students who were rebelling against reading the fairly moderate composite of classic modernist and postmodernist texts I was assigning to them. One point of my book would be to point to the extreme reversals that can take place in art and therefore in art education, necessitating for the teacher historical self-awareness and the ability to adapt while maintaining one’s core values. So on the one hand in the past years I have taught in a situation where political, theoretical, identity-based content is the primary line of instruction and where issues of form and style including the development of form in Western art history have been to a great extent reduced for the students to free-floating appropriatable photo images unrelated to any materiality, context, or struggle to achieve form. On the other hand issues of history, style, form and materiality still do matter in individual works and even in terms of achieving market success and my emphasis on these concerns made sense not only to my own work in the early 80s but also in the context of Purchase at that time more than to my own more conceptual and political graduate education at CalArts.

Thus despite completely different artworld conditions, educational philosophies, and theoretical discourses, a lot still resonates for me in this statement, and I can read through it my continued concern about how hard it is to continue to make art at all much less grow as an artist once one leaves school.

I wrote:

My few weeks here have led me to certain reflections about art making, and learning about art making.

My path into these reflections began by my trying to put into order what I learned about being an artist, about art and the making of it, and when I learned it.

Each person’s history is different, but there are beginnings of art life in each of your histories or you wouldn’t be here. In my case, my parents were artists and worked at home. I probably learned more than half of all I know about every aspect of art and the profession* of being an artist by the time I was 11 years old (when my father died) [*art and profession two different things]: about the role of art in daily life, about colors, brushes, work habits, art history–through art in the home, through books, weekly visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan, also about the frustrations of trying to further a career, the financial problems, the difficulties and the humiliations of dealing with clients. I know that being nurtured in a home where art was the vehicle of all values is unusual. But I still had to come to my own understanding of this life and make my own decision to make it mine.

I learned and still learn and get inspiration,ideas, hope and encouragement from art that I see, mostly old, some new. A subcategory of influence not to be underestimated is art that I hate or am threatened by. Sometimes it is easier to steal from art you hate. And of course self-definition via contrast is sometimes more dynamic than self-definition via sympathy.

I also learned from hanging out with older artists, seeing how they lived, how art permeated their lives. I learned as much about their viewpoint in art from what they thought about movies, T.V., politics, how they dealt with daily problems in their studios, their small pleasures and pet peeves, how they liked their eggs fried, than from any direct influence or instruction.

In graduate school I learned how to gossip about art, art history and the art world as an insider. I learned about cynicism and politics. The most effective teaching, again, took place in incidental, anecdotal encounters with faculty and other students, after hours, in the cafeteria, in hallways. Talk of art was everywhere but at its least vital in group crits and organized seminars.

After graduation I learned about my own psychological stake in remaining an artist. I also learned slowly about my basic themes. In a battle for my survival as an artist I learned about how to get through work blocks, about what my work was in relation to myself and to other work. In my mid-thirties a lot has been learned but it is a process which I see, with happiness, as a lifetime of work.

What I feel is crucial to an art student is to begin to examine the source and the nature or his or her interest in making art. Every thing that follows in this statement must be understood as preceded by the question of why are you doing it at all? are you doing your work because you are an art student? are you doing something central to your existence? You cannot put these questions off until you are an artist. The path begins with such questions of identity and motivation.

I sense at Purchase and at other places I’ve taught in recent years a tremendous fear of content–especially emotional, psychological, but even political or theoretical. Part of the problem stems from the overwhelming domination in most art teaching of a formalist approach, in a degraded form.

Students are led to struggle with the mechanics of making art, and they expect that if they learn the mechanics, they’ll succeed in conquering the other, the who-you-are, what-you-want, the content. Whereas I think that it should be made clear than even the mechanics return to the who-you-are. the emphasis can only be on the mechanics that have resonance for you individually.

It is important to learn about materials and techniques, composition, traditions of pictorial representation, about space etc… but you can only learn from the elements you are compelled by. The others are a drag, and drag you and your work down to apathy, inertia, boredom and depression.

It must be understood that the mechanics of art making are in themselves content. They are vital only if they are seen as concrete things that are of real interest to you. They cannot function as impersonal tools. AS such they lead to deadened art. The issues of death, sex, love, hate, happiness, need, loss, attraction, repulsion, despair and exaltation exist in a 6B pencil, a stick of charcoal, in blue oil paint, in fluorescent orange, in the textures of canvas and burlap, in the square, the triangle, the cube, the sphere, the vector. There is no escape.

Don’t try to solve other people’s problems. Try to listen to yourselves and find which are your own problems. They are the only ones you will be interested enough in to spend time trying to solve. When facing a landscape, a still-life, a figure, a canvas, it is necessary to know of the conventions of representation and manufacture, but much more crucial is what it is in what you are looking at or thinking about that involves you. Studies have shown that when people see something sexually exciting in an image, their irises widen instantly and momentarily. Tune in to whatever it is in the landscape, the figure, int eh color, in the materials that make your irises widen. There are the potent details and clues of life and of art making. They are also the direction, the horizon, what my driving instructor years ago called High Aim Steer. Because if even briefly and incompletely you sense your own interest, your particularity, and trust it, you will teach yourself what you need to know to make what you have sensed.

This is what I meant when I said that I have no sympathy for boredom. I do not think that any visual experience, any experience at all, is indifferent. Meaning is masked by fear, but everything has meaning, everything has content, and only if yo make the effort to tune in to that content, can you begin to establish a discipline of self-criticism that will sustain you outside of school.

Mira Schor, Oct.26, ’86

*

Just out of curiosity I wondered what I was working on at the time I wrote this statement. Here is Walking Tuning Fork, dated November 10, 1986

Mira Schor, Walking Tuning Fork, 1986. Oil on 5 canvases, 80×12 inches overall dimension

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Pier 92

I usually start my annual obligatory (imposed on me by the society I occupy, would not necessarily go otherwise) visit to the Armory Show at Pier 92 (the more intimately scaled “classic” side) before venturing into the maze of the more vast and high-ceilinged contemporary side of Pier 94. However yesterday by chance I started on Pier 94. Early in my journey I was standing with my friend Susanna Heller at a booth of a respected gallery telling her about seeing a show last year where the paintings in reality were so boring and empty that I could not find even the most banal compliment to offer to the gallerist. There was simply nothing to say about the work except that there was nothing to say about it. Upon which Susanna say, “Mira, do you remember anything about what we were just looking at?”

Ghastly huge work, all 689 inches wide of it: AIDA Makoto, “Jumble of 100 Flowers” 2017-2017. Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 689 inches.

As a living artist I have to admit that I would like to see my work well presented and represented at such an art fair, but by the end of my rather incomplete tour of Pier 94, my friends and I felt terribly tired, and further and more dangerously, dispirited about the whole idea of being artists.

Handsome paper mixed media work by Peter Linde Busk, “Everything, Everyone, Everywhere. Ends,” 2016, at Josh Lilley. In a way a perfect fair work: large and visible, eye catching, handsome, done with quality, hip and very effective mix of materials from low, cardboard, to craft, ceramic, but presented without context.

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Only one work shone out of the blur–Florine Stettheimer’s masterpiece, Asbury Park South from 1920 (a painting scandalously deaccessioned by Fisk University in 2012) in a group exhibition organized by Jeffrey Deitch that orbited and created a lot of visual noise around it in a manner both consistent with Stettheimer’s aesthetic of excess and disruptive of the ability to properly view her painting. Many artists, including myself, have been influenced by Stettheimer, for various aspects or characteristics of her work, the narrative, the etiolated figuration, the gay sensibility in both senses of that word, the beautiful color, but in addition the works are so beautifully crafted and patented, the most beautiful colors, the most extraordinary surfaces, scumbled, dry, sculpted. This painting gave us a lift but we were still oppressed and depressed by the whole situation. Or at least I was.

Then we left selfie land and we made our way up the stairs to Pier 92. First we came upon Kathy Butterly’s works, beautifully installed at Tibor de Nagy Gallery with Shoshanna Wayne Gallery. I envy Kathy, I love ceramics and porcelain and glazes and the way color works in such media, and thus I envy her because she makes beautiful things using these elements, things that give pleasure, that people want, which is something my parents who made beautiful jewelry also did, which I can’t say that I do–my work, critical, political, and intellectual,dreamy and personal, it appears that so far it is an acquired taste! I also relate to these works because they are modest in scale and invite the viewer into a relationship that is more intimate than most of the large shiny works typical of art fairs.

Kathy Butterly, Shoshanna Wayne Gallery and Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Kathy Butterly

Next we were drawn to a Native American painting on animal hide and discovered the most beautiful and engaging group of drawings by mostly 19th century and early 20th century Plains Indians, at Donald Ellis Gallery. The inventiveness of these drawings in the artists’ efforts to depict using very reduced means (am referring to the works on paper with pencil and sometimes ink, materials which appear to be what was available to them on reservations) what they were seeing and experiencing was absolutely inspiring.

SHield and cover, Crow, Northern Plains, c.1870, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Shield and Cover, Mescalero Apache, Southern Plains c.1880, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Plains Indians, drawing, Donald Elllis Gallery

Plains Indians, late 19th century, Donald Ellis Gallery

I discovered a few Jack Tworkov works in a couple of galley booths: his poetic elegance and measure always sing out to me. Next an exhibition at Jonathan Boos of Jacob Lawrence works from the 30s,40s, and 50s, beautiful color, tenderly observed details, jagged forms. A small richly impasto Jess vase of flowers on a thin panel, an intense Ossorio.

Jack Tworkov, oil sketch, Hollis Taggart Gallery

Jacob Lawrence, Interior (Family), 1937. Tempera on paper, 30 3/8 x 25 1/5 inches, Jonathan Boos Gallery

Jess (Collins), Petals of Paint, 1964. Oil on plywood, 16 x 12.25 inches.

Clearly when you see older work now, it is the product of a system of filtration and of intensification, the dross of the time period has been filtered out and the richness of meaning has intensified over time as more historical information has been pressed into the work by the passing of time, but I also thought that my friends and I are perhaps the last generation that can really understand this work in a living way rather than an archeological way: we were brought up with the values of materiality, form, style, process, search for truth (belief in some kind of truth or honesty), with the analogue, the handmade, the personally developed (not as recipes that are copied and reconfigured endlessly but without the struggle that went into the initial works, as in zombie formalism) — at time when artists sought within the work rather than researched before the execution of the work. It often feels that our knowledge sets us apart–in a bad way: we can’t put our knowledge forward in the current mode of the sampled and reprocessed–often done very very proficiently–because we absorbed the initial relation to making of these older works, made by our parents, teachers, older friends. [I should add that often I am led to rethinking this impression, because at the same time there is so much art being made by young artists all over the world, with after all as much desire and imagination as any other previous generations brought to their work, yet, as Susanna pointed out, that may be truer when you see the work online, then one sees the work in person (as opposed to on Instagram, for which so much work is now both unconsciously and consciously created) and its potentially alienating synthetic nature often reasserts itself.

I have often quoted my mother’s words upon seeing a show at the Whitney on Picasso’s influence on American art. She was then 95 and, as it turns out, only a few weeks from her death, and she found it hard to stand for a long time, but in the taxi home she said, “it’s the kind of work that makes you want to go home and work.”

I should say that over my life as an artist (and I include in this my work as a writer about art) I have often gotten as much energy from work I “hated” as from work I loved, because the antagonism pushed and liberated me to move forward and live in my own time: such a relation may still be operative, but I suspect that the depression my friends and I felt comes from seeing now in a lot of art fairs work we just saw five minutes ago in our MFA student critiques, and from the fact that even those significant challenges to our world view are by now kind of old as well, though they may not feel that way to the people doing them or the collectors fawning over what seems to be the latest thing, really just by the latest person.

So Pier 94 made us want to give up on art making, with a few exceptions (some contemporary + Stettheimer, who died in 1944), Pier 92 made it possible to want to go home and work in the studio.

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“Circle” by Benny Andrews

The first time after September 11 that my friends and I met in Chelsea to see some exhibitions which had had the misfortune of having their opening scheduled for that day, we were ecstatic to see each other and to be out in our city. We were, however, repelled by much of the art that we saw. It had all been done before. It looked empty and now we needed not art world stuff, fluff, what my mother used to refer to contemptuously as “merchandise,” but substance, art that showed some awareness of the world we were now living in, one totally altered from the one we had thought we occupied September 10.

Now as I write we are on the eve of a calamity perhaps greater. But for some reason, in some cases with forethought or based on some quick planning, there have been some powerful artworks on view in New York during this election season, artworks that really address the political moment while providing models of how one can do it, that most difficult thing, make an artwork, particularly a two dimensional static one, drawing or painting, that has an acute political narrative and a powerful aesthetic presence. Notable among such shows have been Philip Guston’s “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”, including his “Poor Richard” and Phlebitis Series, Kerry James Marshal: Mastry at the Met Breuer, and Benny Andrews’ The Bicentennial Series at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), “Circle,” 1973. Oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 120″ x 288″. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

I have wanted to write about one of these major paintings in Benny Andrews’ show, Circle, from 1972, since I first saw it earlier this fall. When I first saw it in November, even from far, from the narrow hall, I thought, oh, here is a masterpiece, a word I rarely use. I wanted to proclaim in writing, “there is a masterpiece on view in New York.” Circumstances intervened and now the painting is on view  for just a couple more days, extended through Saturday January 21.

Circle (1973) is one of a cycle of very large multiple canvas works Andrews completed the early 70s dealing with both racism and sexism done at an intersectional moment in American history when the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the Women’s Liberation movement reached a peak of visibility and even transformational effectiveness, as the nation approached its Bicentennial.  In 1969 Andrews, a New York based artist reared in rural Georgia, Korean War veteran, activist in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and feminist movement, undertook a major cycle of works, creating one major work per year for six years building up to the Bicentennial in 1976, each work emerging from dozens of smaller paintings and drawing studies.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006). “Circle” Study #32, 1972. India ink on paper 12″ x 18″, signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Andrew’s project sprang from his concern that the African-American experience would not be included or addressed on its own terms, in its own voice, in the nation’s celebrations. Each work including Circle began with a few ideas, images, and memories, which Andrews worked through in dozens of drawings and smaller painting studies–a fact I note because often in recent years I encounter art students who think you can just do one thing, try an idea once, not realizing the kind of work that goes into working through ideas until you arrive at the most powerful form and thus also the most powerful metaphor.

Here was my first impression of the painting: Circle is a painting with collage elements of cloth, paper, and rope, on 12 linen canvases assembled to create one very large surface. At the center of the work a black man is crucified to a bed by real rope strung across the canvas. He is bound, naked except for underpants made of real stained rags, and his body is slit open with his bloody innards a split watermelon. The bed itself is a humble plain palette covered with blood stained mattress ticking. The crucified figure is held down by a circle of white women who hold the ropes tight, some scream, some are faceless, behind them their shadows are foreshortened into black silhouettes. The scene is framed by two older black women seated in rush chairs, impassively witnessing the lynching….Here is my second impression of the painting: A black man naked except for soiled underpants is tied to a bed at the center a large rectangular space, his body is slit open to reveal the inside of split watermelon, while a complex contraption above him is pulling three-dimensional watermelon like forms out of his gut. He is held down by real ropes held by a circle of mostly women and some men, encircled the figure, some very close to us the viewers, some farther back and above us in the picture plane. Each figure including the circle of torturers, the man, and even his bed cast black shadows, created by a light source that seems to come from our space in the gallery into the painting, implicating us in the circle. All the shadows fall away from us toward  the background, except for the man’s right hand which casts a claw like shadow in the reverse direction, reaching in effect towards us, the viewers.

When I first saw the work I interpreted some of what I saw in a manner that seemed narratively inconsistent: I read the two seated women in the foreground as black though that didn’t make sense, for what would two black women be doing seated impassively at a lynching? Yet it made some kind of sense to me, or I created sense: I saw them as tribal elders, archetypal matriarchs who had seen everything. One can build any interpretative narrative out of visual clues. Today the visual clues were the opposite: I felt that the circle of torturers including the two seated women all had to be white. I’m still not sure. In the gallery text on the exhibition, in the discussion on this particular work, it is noted that the images in this painting were interpreted in multiple ways, and that “in conversations with critics, Andrews stayed silent on the personal intent behind his symbolism.” Between common sense and instinct there is a range of possible interpretation. Either way these drawn, painted, and collaged, built up, seated female figures are powerful and eerie witnesses to a deeply disturbing event.

My description of the narrative does not really explain why I call this a masterpiece. Let me try to get at the core of it: the work is large and thus impressive because of that, but that would not be enough, there are lots of empty-headed large paintings around. So it is large and it depicts a powerful and disturbing event, it is in a line of history back to paintings depicting the martyrdom of Christian saints, the flaying of Peter, and of course scenes of the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Lamentation. But it takes place on a flat white ground, someplace that is very modernist in its flatness, and this place is a nowhere, bleached out of detail: only one exotic tree hints also at a biblical theme as a white woman hands some fruit to a white man who is clinging to the trunk of the tree. And it is not exactly a painting, as each figure and object that appears is composed from two dimensional and three dimensional elements. It is as sculptural as it is painterly.

The use of actual rope which we feel palpably as we look at the work–we see its texture and the shadows the rope casts on the surface–this binds up to the paintings as much as it binds the figure to his bed of suffering. Its reality enters our space and it implicates us.  The ropes do something else as well, they bind the painting, and they cross the lines created by the individual canvases that create the surface. The use of these 12 canvases to create one large work was in part the result of circumstance, the size of the artist’s studio could not accommodate one large work:

The idea of my new work is the expression of an individual, in this case, a black individual, in America, in the 70’s, using the Bicentennial as  focal point. throughout the work, I emphasize the history of this country over two hundred years. My new work forces me to position myself in that kind of arena. Though I don’t work on the idea of the spectacular, I did want to work on the challenge of bigness. I had to do the “big”work even though I had to do them small enough in sections, so they could get out of my door and down the staircase of the building.  So as I worked in my studio, I said I have to approach this honestly, and I made no attempt to hide or redesign the panels or the lines between them.

But that decision is part of what makes this such a brilliant addition to the grand tradition of painting: the lines of separation between the canvases undermine that tradition even as they build upon it and speak as an equal to it.

I think of this as a great American painting, because it depicts American history and emerges from the artist’s lived experience of Jim Crow in the South and institutional racism in the North. It should be as celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, or any song by Mahalia Jackson. But I think of it also in relation to the great tradition of Western painting, culminating as it once did in an installation in the Louvre of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus and Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It should have pride of place in a major American museum.

Now as ever there’s a lot of talk about the effectiveness of art in or as political activism, particular the old art of painting, which is seen as static, and also as compromised by its association with the history of both Christian and secular capitalist Western power. And it’s very rare that a work of “political” art has made a difference in a specific political situation. In fact often such a work is not even widely seen at the time.  Edouard Manet prudently didn’t exhibit his work, The Execution of Maximilian for several years because it would not have been safe to do, similarly James Ensor rolled up Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 and it wasn’t exhibited for thirty years and for all I know stowed it under his bed. Picasso’s Guernica is one of the rare works done in reaction to a current event that was known at the time it was done because of the fame of the artist.

And of course none of these works whether seen or not would have altered the course of history. Nevertheless when these works are seen at a later time, they hold within their visual and material decisions the power of the artist’s connection to the subject, which is power/powerlessness and injustice/justice. The works have a political effect: they give people courage, when they are seen, whether it is during the artist’s lifetime or a hundred years later. And speaking selfishly as an artist: the area where I feel the courage is not only the area of political activism, but as an artist That is, it is not only the subject, but the form, or it is the conjunction of the two, but if it were only the subject, it would most likely not have the effect of giving me courage, as an artist.

 

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M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking-10

The first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, was published in December 1986. M/E/A/N/I/N/G is a collaboration between two artists, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, both painters with expanded interests in writing and politics, and an extended community of artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets, whom we sought to engage in discourse and to give a voice to.

For our 30th anniversary and final issue, we asked some long-time contributors and some new friends to create images and write about where they place meaning today. As ever, we have encouraged artists and writers to feel free to speak to the concerns that have the most meaning to them right now.

We began on December 5 and every other day since we have posted a grouping of contributions on A Year of Positive Thinking. We thank our contributors and readers for living through this time with all of us in a spirit of impromptu improvisation and passionate care for our futures.

This is the last post of the final issue.

Susan Bee and Mira Schor

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Susan Bee

This final issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G brings back memories of our first issue, which came out in December 1986. At that time, I was a young artist and a new mother, working at freelance jobs as an editor and graphic designer. I had a baby at home and was full of optimism. Emma was born in May of 1985 and tragically she died 23 years later in 2008. I was 33 when she was born and Mira and I started to think of starting our own arts publication.

Susan Bee, "Non Finito," 2016. Oil on linen, 24" x 30".

Susan Bee, “Non Finito,” 2016. Oil on linen, 24″ x 30″.

In 1992, I had my first solo painting show, when I was 40-years-old. Now, I’m almost 65 and nearing the traditional retirement age with a 24-year-old son, Felix, and a 40-year marriage to the poet Charles Bernstein. I have been a member of the vibrant all-women artist’s collective, A.I.R. Gallery, for 20 years and will have a solo show of new paintings there in March 2017. I have been teaching, publishing artist’s books, and showing my art for many years.

This election has sent me into a tailspin. I hoped to be greeting a woman president in my lifetime, and now the possibility seems remote and I am heartbroken to be facing the next four years of this administration. As a secular Jewish feminist, artist, and professor, the future in this country that my immigrant artist parents, refugees from Berlin and Palestine, came to in 1947, looks bleaker than it did just a short time ago on Election Day. Since that day, I have been taking refuge in viewing art. Through the contemplation of art and poetry, I have been trying to escape the isolation and desolation of the present moment. I know that we need to fight on and that I need to work with my community to create a strong push back to the hatred and bigotry that surrounds us. My optimism is being sorely tested by the hatred that has been empowered in this country.

Susan Bee, "Afraid to Talk," 2016. Oil, enamel, and sand on linen, 24" x 30".

Susan Bee, “Afraid to Talk,” 2016. Oil, enamel, and sand on linen, 24″ x 30″.

Now, my 30-year editorial partnership with Mira is coming to an end. However, I have no plans to retire from art and life. I am grateful that we had the opportunity to publish over a hundred critics, poets, and artists. Hopefully, the artists, writers, and other creative spirits, who have nourished our project, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, for all these years, will continue to lead the way forward and point us to a future that will enrich us all.

November 2016

Susan Bee, "Pow," 2014. Oil, enamel, and sand on canvas, 30" x 24"

Susan Bee, “Pow,” 2014. Oil, enamel, and sand on canvas, 30″ x 24″

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Mira Schor

Written during the Preoccupation: Activism, Heroism, and Art.

A week after the election, a cold heavy rain struck New York in a kind of climatic embodiment of our political shock and misery. Wearing the depressing New York winter uniform of black down coat for the first time of the season, huddled in the small doorway of a fortune teller’s establishment on Lexington Avenue, I waited for a bus and I thought about what I would write about for this final issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G.

My first instinct was to consider the role of activism in relation to being an artist but immediately my mind made a leap from activism to heroism. In the seconds between these two words, I was in tears as two stories I had been told by my mother since my childhood sprang to mind, one of political bravery, the other of personal bravery.

Please bear with me as I retell these stories, because they frame my ideas about the role of activism and the role of art and the artist in a moment of political necessity for activism.

To begin with, the story of personal bravery: my mother was very proud of her friendship with one of the most important Jewish families in pre-war Poland, that of Rabbi Moses Schorr, a religious leader, a historian, and the first Jewish member of the Polish Senate. The Schorrs (no relation) were kind, wealthy, generous, noble in bearing and behavior. At the outbreak of WWII Rabbi Schorr fled Poland towards the East where he was captured, imprisoned, and tortured by the Russians, dying in a Russian labor camp in 1941 (for more on the relation of Russia with Germany at that time, with interesting echoes in recent weeks, see here). Rabbi Schorr’s daughters survived the war, and I knew one of them well, Fela, a beautiful, kind, imperious, and broken woman, all at once. The story I was told by my mother though I never spoke of it with Fela herself, was that Fela and her mother along with Fela’s two small sons and her small nephew, all children under the age of 10, were imprisoned by the Gestapo in France. It was announced that children who were orphans would not be deported to Auschwitz so Fela and her elderly mother determined to commit suicide. Her mother took poison and died, Fela jumped out a window but survived and was saved and sheltered by doctors until the end of the war a few months later. She and the three children in her care survived the war.

The circumstances of the story were hard to believe, because it made no sense that orphans would be spared deportation and because of the cruelty of the promise, but the randomness of genocide was embedded in my consciousness as well as the emblem of maternal courage. [This story is true, you can read more here.]

The story of political bravery was embodied for me in the name Bartoszek. Franciszek Bartoszek was a friend of my parents from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. He was a painter. And he was Polish. That is to say, he was not Jewish. This was central to the story, because that was a primary distinction my mother always made, a paradox at the center of her own patriotism. If she described someone simply as Polish she also was indicating that they were not Jewish, and it meant that Bartoszek’s bravery was motivated by more than personal survival. When my mother showed me the picture of him she always told me that he was a hero. She would tell me that he would risk his life just to bring a poor woman some small amount of butter. Her admiration for him was such that I have never been able to say his name without being overcome with tears, the emotional outlet of my more fierce and stoic mother. When I was able to research him online, the story was verified: Bartoszek was a renowned Polish patriot and hero of the Polish resistance, who died in a military action in Warsaw in 1943.

From l. to r., Ilya Schor, unknown woman, Franciszek Bartoszek, Paris, 1937.

From l. to r., Ilya Schor, unknown woman, Franciszek Bartoszek, Paris, 1937.

I have photographs of him with my father. They are in a park in Paris sometime shortly before the war, most likely in 1937. The photos are very small, so I blew up a detail of one to try to decipher if one could see the courage to come in the face of the man in the time approaching the crisis. When I sent this picture to Luka Rayski, a Polish artist who translated for me a stele erected in Poland in Bartoszek’s honor, he wrote back that it was “so hard to imagine, those last pre-war years.” But I thought no, it is not hard to imagine that time. Not, I hasten to add, that I think another Holocaust is coming, yet we are in such a time, a time I call the Preoccupation.

Photo detail, Bartoszek, Paris, c. 1937; Stele installed in Czarnow in 1964: Franciszek Bartoszek, “Jacek” [code name “Jack”] Born October 27, 1910 in Pieranie, spent his youth in Czarnow, Painter, Ardent Patriot, Colonel of People’s Guard, Died fighting Hitlerist occupiers, May 15, 1943 in Warsaw.

Photo detail, Bartoszek, Paris, c. 1937; Stele installed in Czarnow in 1964: Franciszek Bartoszek, “Jacek” [code name “Jack”] Born October 27, 1910 in Pieranie, spent his youth in Czarnow, Painter, Ardent Patriot, Colonel of People’s Guard, Died fighting Hitlerist occupiers, May 15, 1943 in Warsaw.

Years ago a non-Jewish friend of mine told me that she often wondered whether people would have saved her if she was a Jew during WWII. I found this strange since she was not Jewish and did not have my family’s history of the Shoah. More importantly, I had never really asked myself that question, not only because I couldn’t bear to contemplate the answer, but mostly because I was so consumed by its corollary opposite, that is, would I have the courage to risk my life in order to save someone else or in defense of a cause? From a very early age I was totally aware that if that was the test, I would fail.

The sine qua non of resistance is that you have to be prepared to die for freedom, even though of course there is a big gap between marching on Trump Tower holding “Pussy Power” signs and prison or death.

If heroism is summoned as the ultimate necessity for freedom, nevertheless practically speaking most of us who care about what is going on are considering activism. It is quite striking how many people at all levels of society are mobilizing, from the political leaders of the state of California to artists in New York City mobilizing to provide imagery and objects for the Women’s March on D.C. and beyond.

Susan and I decided to start M/E/A/N/I/N/G in 1986, during the Reagan administration. I remember the precise moment—standing near the corner of West Broadway and Canal Street in December 1980, a month after Reagan had been elected and a few days after John Lennon had been killed—when I had realized that a switch had been flipped. Something was over. If I didn’t grasp the full import of the switch in terms of where we have arrived now, I experienced that every value I had been imbued with had just been turned upside down, including in art. The 1980s was a very contentious decade, highly polemic and divisive but perhaps because of that it was also a bracing and inspiring time during which there was a lot of activism, including responses by artists to the AIDS crisis, to urban gentrification, and to the backlash against second wave feminism. The Guerrilla Girls’ first poster appeared overnight in Soho and Tribeca in 1985, we published the first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G in December 1986. But despite the political polarization, looking back, no matter what happened in politics in the ’80s, I didn’t feel that the end of the world as I had known it was upon us and like Susan I had the optimism that comes from the energy of youthful mid-life and from doing something constructive. I was 36 when we started the magazine. I had been out of art school for 13 years, I had had a full-time teaching job in Canada and had given it up to move back to New York, I had had gallery representation and my first one-person shows in New York and had lost that. M/E/A/N/I/N/G opened up my community and gave me a sense of place in the art world. It has been the only sustained collaboration I have been involved with and the many things Susan and I have in common and the differences between us, as well as the small scale of our operation–two people, two issues a year during our hard copy days–all worked for me. And when we ended our print run in 1996, if anything I felt more optimistic and confident about my own life than I had when we started.

Mira Schor, "Patriotism on the Blood of Women," 1989. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches.

Mira Schor, “Patriotism on the Blood of Women,” 1989. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches.

The word of the day in the ’80s was intervention, actions specific to a moment and which did not necessarily seek to become an institution, though inevitably many cultural interventions did. I saw editing M/E/A/N/I/N/G as a kind of activism that I was able to engage in. In that spirit, our final issue is one of many artistic responses to the election and one which, as we have always tried to accomplish in M/E/A/N/I/N/G, is an open format, non-didactic environment for artists, writers, poets, art historians and critics to express their views in any cultural or personal register that means something to them, unrelated to market concerns. As we bring our project to an end after thirty years, we feel it provides one model for long-term activism within an art community. It is small potatoes in terms of major resistance to oppression but it is something that we could do then and now. It did enlarge our community and I think it meant something to the individuals we published, whether professionally or just because they were given the opportunity to think about something and express their views or tell about their work.

Mira Schor," The Self, The work, The World," 2012. Oil and ink on gesso on linen, 18"x30"

Mira Schor,” The Self, The Work, The World,” 2012. Oil and ink on gesso on linen, 18″x30″

My sense of necessity to understand the changes in culture in the ’80s led me to my critical writings and changed the course of my work as an artist, though my work has from the start had a political underpinning, primarily feminist.  Some of my recent works have been visceral responses to the news.  But I also think that other aspects of my artistic heritage and inclinations have political valence, though they might seem to be the opposite of political, that is, that the intimate, the modest, the private, though apparently recessive in a time of spectacle, can be construed as political acts. The artist is a filter between the world and the work, as I tried to indicate in a painting I did in early 2012 right after Occupy Wall Street as I was trying to diagram the place of the private artist during a political upheaval.

MIra Schor, "'Power' Figure: No Dead Enough, 2016. Ink and gesso on tracing paper, 17"x 22 1/2"

Mira Schor, “‘Power’ Figure: Not Dead Enough,” 2016. Ink and gesso on tracing paper, 17″x 22 1/2″

Since the election I’ve noticed the pleasure, indeed the gratitude people have expressed if someone shares a beautiful work of art on social media, not necessarily an outwardly political one. We recognize and value the works that use representation, figuration, and language to openly announce their political intentions, but a painting of a flower, a small abstraction, or an ancient vase can evoke as much humanity as anything more overt and the importance of such works as heroic human activity can be intense.

Susan Bee, A Not So Still Life, 2016. Oil, sand, and enamel on linen, 30" x 24"

Susan Bee, “A Not So Still Life,” 2016. Oil, sand, and enamel on linen, 30″ x 24″

We conceived of this final issue a few days before I stood in that cold rain, during a visit right after the election to the Guggenheim museum to see the Agnes Martin exhibition. I was particularly interested in one small early painting of narrow vertical black and white lines of uneven length. In the face of the impulse, in response to the political atmosphere, for artists to start churning out Guernicas, the smallest of Martin’s abstract paintings packs as much of a punch about human endeavor and heroism as anything that would will itself to make a political statement. Though small, the painting has great tension and drama. To me it represents as much of the power of the universe as a model of the atom and it is heroic in the way that artworks can be, evidence of one individual artist’s search for perfection in a realm that seemingly has no specific utility to daily life.

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960.Oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Gift of the Bayard and Harriet K. Ewing Collection

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Gift of the Bayard and Harriet K. Ewing Collection

On our way up the ramp, we slipped through the keyhole-shaped door into the study library to watch two short films of interviews with Martin, filmed late in her life. It was very intimate to listen to her words in a small room. She spoke about her desire not to work from negativity, her efforts to empty her mind entirely when working, and about the role of inspiration.

mira-agnes-martin-img_3094

mira-agnes-martin-img_3095

In one film she is shown carefully applying a thin reddish pink wash to the canvas. The soothing concentration on this simple activity generated enough calm and clarity for me that suddenly the puzzle of how to celebrate the 30th anniversary of M/E/A/N/I/N/G which had eluded us earlier in the year was solved: I have a blog, we could use my blog as an initial platform for a spontaneous, short deadline, final issue. I looked at Susan and mouthed, I have an idea. So we end as we began, with a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” production. It is the small activism of giving a few people a place for their voice, and we are grateful to all the artists and writers who found the time to respond to our call.

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meaning-two-covers

Susan Bee and Mira Schor, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, December 1986-December 2016

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We would like to thank our many wonderful contributors to the final issue: Alexandria Smith, Altoon Sultan, Ann McCoy, Aviva Rahmani, Aziz+Cucher, Bailey Doogan, Beverly Naidus, Bradley Rubenstein, Charles Bernstein, Christen Clifford, Deborah Kass, Elaine Angelopoulos, Erica Hunt, Erik Moskowitz + Amanda Trager, Faith Wilding, Felix Bernstein and Gabe Rubin, Hermine Ford, Jennifer Bartlett, Jenny Perlin, Johanna Drucker, Joseph Nechvatal, Joy Garnett and Bill Jones, Joyce Kozloff, Judith Linhares, Julie Harrison, Kate Gilmore, Legacy Russell, Lenore Malen, LigoranoReese, Mary D. Garrard, Martha Wilson, Matthew Weinstein, Maureen Connor, Michelle Jaffé, Mimi Gross, Myrel Chernick, Nancy K. Miller, Noah Dillon, Noah Fischer, Peter Rostovsky, Rachel Owens, Rit Premnath, Robert C. Morgan, Robin Mitchell, Roger Denson, Sharon Louden, Sheila Pepe, Shirley Kaneda, Susanna Heller, Suzy Spence, Tamara Gonzalez and Chris Martin, Tatiana Istomina, Toni Simon, William Villalongo.

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A History
We published 20 print issues biannually over ten years from 1986-1996. In 2000, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism was published by Duke University Press. In 2002 we began to publish M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online and have published six online issues. Issue #6 is a link to the digital reissue of all of the original twenty hard copy issues of the journal. The M/E/A/N/I/N/G archive from 1986 to 2002 is in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

All of the installments of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking can be accessed by hitting the “older” button at the bottom of this post and they will be made available as a PDF on M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online.

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