Category Archives: sculpture

Letters to the Editor of the New Yorker, Unpublished

The theme of my previous post, “Still ‘Naked By The Window,'” was the fascination of watching patriarchy take care of its own, in this case tracking the orchestration of efforts, over a period of years, to restore Carl Andre’s personal reputation in advance of his retrospective at Dia, there being no question of needing to restore his artistic reputation which is unquestioned and secure. One step in this process was the publication of “The Materialist,” Calvin Tomkins’  December 5, 2011 New Yorker profile of Andre.

As a result of my post, I was made aware of two letters to the editor of the New Yorker that were sent immediately following the publication of Tomkins’ profile. One was from Mendieta’s gallerists, Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong in New York and Alison Jacques of Alison Jacques Gallery in London, and from Mendieta’s sister and administrator of her estate, Raquelin Mendieta, and one from art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Neither letter was published.

The letters are both interesting, they go over similar points but with important different emphases and information, and they contain material that I was not able to articulate as knowledgeably in my brief text. It is important to know what these letters contain, but also important to know that these letters were not published. It is important to know how hierarchies are maintained as much by what is left out of the historical record as by what is allowed in. It is in that spirit that I asked for permission to reproduce these letters here for the record and I thank the signatories for allowing me to do so.

*

From: Mary Sabbatino

Sent: Wednesday, December 07, 2011 8:45 PM

To: themail@newyorker.com

Subject: Letter to the Editor

Letter to the Editor: re: December 5, 2011 Calvin Tomkins “The Materialist”

It is disturbing to read how easily Calvin Tomkins, one of the most respected and beloved journalists of our time, fell sway to the same strategy of blaming the victim as was employed by Mr. Andre’s defense team in Ana Mendieta’s murder trial. Equally alarming from a writer and editorial team of such caliber is the repeated presentation of conjecture or opinion as fact “(an) artist who fell from the bedroom window”, “loneliness made Mendieta a rebel,”… “her anger spilled over in public..”– and the omission of crucial facts about the murder investigation. Mr. Tomkins characterizes Mendieta;s art as “morbid”, but would he use the same pejorative lens when discussing a male artist dealing with violence in his work? Regrettably, this reveals an underlying bias, in which Mr. Andre is repeatedly portrayed with positive attributes and Ms. Mendieta with negative ones.

Mr. Tomkins omitted two notable points from Mr. Andre’s recollection of the event. According to Mr. Andre, whose present memory differs significantly from his contemporaneous statements, Ms. Mendieta lost her balance in the action of opening a stuck window in their apartment and fell to her death. This story is in direct contradiction with Mr. Andre’s recorded conversation with the 911 Operator on the night/early morning of Ms. Mendieta’s death. Mr. Andre told the operator that he and his wife were watching television and began to argue, that she went into the bedroom and he followed her. Mr. Tompkins may not have been aware that when the police came to the apartment they noted scratches on Mr. Andre’s face and that no footprints nor fingerprints by Ms. Mendieta were recovered on the windowsills. Because of irregularities with the police’s collection of the evidence and with the search warrant, neither was admissible in the trial, but both were part of the pre-trial hearings. As evidence of Mr. Andre’s community of support, Mr. Tomkins points out that none of Mr. Andre’s former companions would testify against him, but this is not the only possible interpretation. Richard Finelli, the detective who investigated the case for the prosecution, told the artist’s sister, Raquelin Mendieta, that many were reluctant to testify because they feared a negative effect on their art careers.

We are rightly horrified when a woman in Afghanistan is “pardoned” for rape but must marry her rapist. We should reserve at least a shred of indignation that Ana Mendieta’s character, as many victims of rape or domestic violence find out, is on trial all over again.

Sincerely yours,

Mary Sabbatino,

Vice President, Galerie Lelong, New York

Alison Jacques, Alison Jacques Gallery, London, UK

Raquelin Mendieta, Administrator, Estate of Ana Mendieta, Los Angeles, CA

*

To the editor:

Unlike all of Calvin Tomkins’ essays on contemporary artists, his recent one on Carl Andre must necessarily discuss the circumstances by which the artist faced the charge of homicide. Acquitted on the charge after two trials, and as all who have written on her death (Tomkins included) acknowledge, the truth of what happened that night will never be known by anyone except by Andre. In this respect, Andre’s own memories seem surprisingly more detailed now then they were at the time of his trials, as the transcripts reveal. This, despite his current problems with memory loss as a result of a fall two years ago. Tomkins’ characterization of Andre as an “invisible” figure in the art world is absurd. His work sells for huge sums, is housed in museums throughout the world, and is discussed in greater or lesser detail in every survey book on contemporary art in the English language. His bibliography is substantial. Dia does not exhibit “invisible” artists.

That said, I am writing only to remark that Tomkins’ treatment of Mendieta, both as an artist and as a person, is in depressing conformity with a certain narrative first developed in the mass media. In this scenario, Mendieta’s ethnicity and character (i.e., young, hard drinking, tempestuous Latina), her own artistic stature (null, aside from her grants) is contrasted with Andre’s own commanding reputation as an internationally lauded and indeed, canonized figure within contemporary art.

Given the figures marshaled in his legal defense, not a few people declined to testify, thinking of its possible effects on their own artistic reputations. Thus, the inequities embodied in the trials themselves are skirted. Although no one was privy to the events of her death, Andre’s character witnesses were a Who’s Who of the art world’s most powerful artists, gallerists, museum professionals, and critics; this tells its own story about art world politics. On the side of the prosecution, a Cuban American family and (implied by Tomkins) some vindictive feminists, a cabal of which, as Tomkins implies, have, like the furies, spitefully pursued the stoically laconic artist.

For the record, too, I would like to mention that Mendieta’s artistic reputation, ended at the age of 36, is constantly growing and is, of course, posthumous.

Sincerely yours,

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

 

Ana Mendieta: a retrospective, catalogue, New Museum 1987

 

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Four Years of A Year of Positive Thinking: A Table of Contents

I began the blog project A Year of Positive Thinking with no end date in mind and it has proved to be an elastic and metaphoric time frame. It celebrates its fourth anniversary today. Today’s post is an updated table of contents featuring about seventy posts in an easy to search format that I hope will help give a sense of what I have done on this site in the past four years.

My first post on A Year of Positive Thinking was published April 28, 2010. In “Looking for art to love in all the right places” I teased out the different ways one can fall in love with an art work, as opposed to a person. My first project was to go out into the city I live in, New York, in search of art that I love, in keeping with the goal of the blog, which was to turn my attention to the art work that sustains and inspires me, in contrast to the works with which I have engaged in equally vital though perhaps more “negative” polemical battles in many of my other writings, including my 2009 book A Decade of Negative Thinking, whose title suggested this blog’s antonymically eponymous title.

As a friend said, well, that lasted about two weeks. Indeed, it has not always been easy to stick to the positive. Nevertheless in a world that rewards positivism, where things must be “amazing!,” a critical but passionately skeptical voice may have “positive” utility to cultural discourse. As I point out in the “About” page of this blog:

A Year of Positive Thinking may turn out to be a battleground between the two sides of my personality, something like Cassandra and Pollyanna! Cassandra tells truths no one wants to hear and Pollyanna actually does the same thing: she’s not the sweet cloying character we think of when we use the name in a disparaging way, she looks right at what she sees in the dysfunctional little town she has come to live in and her engagement with the people she meets sets in motion positive change.

I published fifty-one posts in the first two years and have published thirty-nine since. The slight decrease in the number of posts is relatively minor but to me it’s indicative of a number of factors which reflect different but familiar aspects of contemporary life. The writing I do here exists on the border between the aimless time of flânerie and the ticking clock of the 24/7 news cycle. I love to wander around, look at things, read things, trawl the web, an often solitary and anonymous paladin of the cultural field, and put things together that perhaps no one else would, without the concerns of daily journalistic deadlines or the schedules of the art market but I also want there to be a sense of necessity and I enjoy the moment when I realize that outside events provide an impetus and impose a schedule where “I have to” pull a text together in a very short time frame. Both these aspects of time require a certain independence of mind that benefits from a relative degree of financial independence or at least marginal security. I began the blog in 2010 with the help of a grant from a Creative Capital Warhol Foundation/Arts Writers Grant and in one of those moments of irrational but precious optimism that artists are able to pin onto the most minute signs of career movement. Over the past four years, for me as for millions of others, conditions have tightened while work loads have multiplied. So going to see exhibitions becomes like “playing hooky,” and writing for A Year of Positive Thinking seems like a guilty pleasure, time stolen away from other duties.

Another factor in my writing a bit less often on A Year of Positive Thinking in the past two years is that I have found it expedient to put onto Facebook content where I feel I can write a few words quickly around a link or image. There is something alarming or just plain stupid about entrusting cultural discourse to a site where there is always the possibility that it could all vanish just like that, by corporate fiat, and where, at best, material quickly becomes functionally unavailable as it drops down the page into social networking purgatory. Nevertheless, the extemporaneity and informality of such communication sometimes generates quite interesting comments threads where I may end up writing about as many words as I might have for a blog post, but with less pressure to build a coherent argument. I have never used this blog, as many other art bloggers do, as a regularly published site for the aggregation of art-related news stories by other people, I’ve used Facebook to perform that function and reserved A Year of Positive Thinking for long form, speculative non-commercial art writings. I have published a couple of the resulting Facebook discussions on A Year of Positive Thinking, with permission of the participants. Both the blog and my interventions on Facebook involve an approach to writing that is very different than the way I wrote long essays for M/E/A/N/I/N/G and for my books: I enjoy the challenge of capturing the speed and intensity of conversation in something like real time while trying to maintain some kind of standard of clarity for expository text. There is a high wire/seat of the pants aspect to the writing of a blog post: how will I pull together a constellation of thoughts, opinions, recollections, and references in a limited framework of time and length?

Publishing on a blog allows for instant communication and at the same time the blog posts remain available on the web as long as the yearly upkeep is paid. They can be accessed at any time via the tags and the timeline to the right of the page. Yet online publishing also fosters instant oblivion, in a way that a book does not. I hope this four-year table of contents featuring about seventy posts will help give a sense of what I have done on A Year of Positive Thinking these past four years, essentially writing another book, one which, despite the availability of the material on the blog’s archive as long as I maintain the site online, I would love to some day see this material published in hard copy book form, a form which I think still has a gravitas and a usefulness that online material does not.

Trying to find an order of subject matter for a Table of Contents is hard because the blog format, with its capacity for links and pictures and the web’s orientation towards  a more diverse range of writing than the strictly or even partially academic has fostered my already marked penchant for associative thinking. Also, parenthetically, blog publishing allows for the immediate accessibility, through links, of material that in a book would be consigned to the endnotes and left to the reader’s enterprise to delve into further. In fact the writing style of the blog posts owe much of its tone and flavor to the kind of more personal and informal writing that I enjoyed salting away into the endnotes of my books. Whereas my two books, Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture (1997) and A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life (2009) each focus pretty evenly on feminism, painting, and teaching, the blog has given me the opportunity to comment on political events, write about film, and develop a photo essay format.

In keeping with this fluid, infinitely connected textual and visual frame, this table of contents will put specific posts into more than one section when it seems relevant, in order to be true to the content and to connect to the most readers, true to the web environment of samplers, and surfers, Google and Wikipedia addicted readers of this time. This four year table of contents builds on the one I published two years ago: I’ve kept the first selections intact, added one oddball post I had withheld last time around, and have reordered the categories slightly though it gets harder to contain the material into even the loosely defined categories I had selected two years ago–Art (painting and sculpture) [this specification is deceptive since I write about video, installation, and other forms of art, but just having a heading “art” would seem too general], Feminism, Women Artists, Politics, Teaching, Film, Conditions of Writing a Blog, Oddball, Studio Practice, and Family, or The Schor Project. Within each section, the posts, linked for instant accessibility of course, are listed in chronological order with a little summary of the subject and an occasional excerpt. This table of contents does not contain links to named people and events, these exist within the posts themselves.

I have bold faced some of the posts that I reference the most frequently when discussing the blog.

One technical point: some of the posts contain embedded film clips from YouTube but over the years some of the clips are no longer available due to copyright issues  but I have left the embeds in place, as markers whose emptiness may perhaps serve as enticements to try to see the film in question by some other means.

Preface: “About”

Introduction: Looking for art to love in all the right places (April 28, 2010)

I’ve fallen in love with many more artworks than I have men and without giving anything away I’d have to say that I’ve had better luck with the artworks I’ve loved and even the ones I’ve hated. No painting I’ve ever seen was married or loved someone else, or got in the way of my need for independence or solitude, and if I’ve tired of a work, having taken from it all that I needed and then outgrown it, the parting has always been amicable with the possibility of hooking up again always open to me. Meanwhile, and you can fill in the personal analogy or not, I pay a lot of attention to works I really dislike and get a lot of energy for my own work as a result.

Art (painting and sculpture):

Reality Show: Otto Dix  (June 28, 2010) I’ll let one of my readers sum this one up:

I’ll confess, when I saw the tweets start flying about Mira Schor’s essay on Otto Dix, Greater NY, and Bravo’s Work of Art, I was skeptical. How the hell was she gonna fit any of those, never mind all three–at once–onto a blog called A Year of Positive Thinking?

By gum, she pulled it off.

Otto Dix, a brief footnote: drawing and ideational aesthetics (July 5, 2010)

Under the circumstances, I was struck by the speaker’s use of the word “ideation” as a substitute for the word drawing. It stuck in my head partly because it is sort of a cool word, with its pseudo-scientific and vaguely military/corporate buzz. On the other hand it’s somewhere between annoying and sinister in its implications to art making.

Postcard post (August 8, 2010) In this set of virtual postcards to my readers, I write about some of my favorite works of art and works of popular culture, including Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ, the sculptural program of the North Portal of Chartres Cathedral, Giotto’s frescoes from the Scrovegni Chapel, Star Trek, and Buster Keaton.

Anselm Kiefer@Larry Gagosian: Last Century in Berlin (December 24, 2010)  The forcible eviction of a few peaceable demonstrators by the NYPD from the Kiefer exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in December 2010 was the spur to consider aspects of this body of Kiefer’s work with its inflated production values and questionable arrogation of Judaism.

Above the entrance of a vast space occupied by a German were letters written in black script. In transliterated Hebrew and English, they spelled out “Next Year in Jerusalem,” the concluding line of the Passover Haggadah. Next Year in Jerusalem? My hackles were officially raised even before I turned the corner and entered the occupied territory of Gagosian Gallery. I still don’t really want to write about Kiefer, so here is just a précis. The installation reminded me of nothing so much as Bloomingdales’s cosmetics floor if its Christmas decorations had a Holocaust theme.

The fault is not in our stars but in our brand: Abstract Expressionism at MoMA (October 3, 2010)

This led me to think about the work through the lens of the Brand. At first this seems to contradict approaches to art-making that are characteristic of the period, such as the picture plane as the arena of existential search. But of course most of the artists in the first two generations of Abstract Expressionism became known for a particular stylistic brand: drip (Pollock), zip (Newman), stroke (de Kooning), chroma (Rothko). Here then are some major case histories from the main exhibition.

Money can’t buy you love but art friendships can create joy (February 6, 2011) This post, about the exhibition “Poets and Painters” at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, allowed me to consider the joyful and creative network of friendships among artists including Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, Edwin Denby, Alex Katz, Mimi Gross, Red Grooms, Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, John Ashberry, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers, among others.

There is a particular kind of collaboration among artists who are friends that is special because it takes place outside of the frame of the art market, often before each individual’s path is fixed and their fate is determined, that is before some become rich and famous, while others struggle along, and still others die or vanish from the scene into another type of life than the one of the artist. Such moments are nearly impossible to sustain, but it can be pretty conclusively proven that these are often the happiest times in the lives of these artists and often too those artworks that later are seen to have the greatest market value emerge from just these moments of friendships and creative projects undertaken in relative conditions of anonymity, for the sheer joy of making and the pleasure in shared ideas.

Wonderment and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, parts 1 and 2 of 3  (July 28, 2011) & part 3 (August 18, 2011)  A consideration of 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, which was on special display at the Frick Museum in New York in the spring of 2011.

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.

Art of the Occupy Wall Street Era (October 12, 2011) On Creative Time curator Nato Thompson’s exhibition, Living as Form

Youthfulness in Old Age (December 8, 2011) On expansive creativity in old age, exhibitions of  later works by Joan Mitchell, Richard Artschwager, and Matta.

You put a spell on me (January 1, 2012) on two extraordinary exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini and Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures.

As a teacher, I’m interested in how one can use art or artifacts that may seem inaccessible or irrelevant because they were made in ancient or foreign cultures seemingly alien to our own and also because works like these African sculptures or Renaissance paintings seem to have already been digested, for once and for all by our own history, so that our ability to use them appears doubly blocked. How do you use old art? How do you use any great art while not sinking into preciousness?

A State of Intense Excitement and Apollonian Reserve (October 13, 2012), on an exhibition at the Morgan Library of color studies on paper by Josef Albers.

Three days more to see “Toxic Beauty” (December 5, 2012), on Frank Moore’s exhibition of paintings at the Grey Art Gallery and of sketches and videos at the Fales Collection, in relation to the endlessly recurring narrative of the death of painting.

That the narrative of the death of painting is still ongoing should be evidence at the very least of painting remaining a naggingly persistent ghost, or not even a ghost but a kind of zombie entity, not quite dead enough to go completely unmentioned. It continues to appear if only as a negative, as something that cannot be done…. At one point last spring it occurred to me to write a series of essays on the theme of When Exactly Did Painting Die? Not exactly a murder mystery, you see, not a Whodunit but rather a What Was the Time of Death mystery, or, maybe, When Was the Victim Last Seen Alive? mystery.[…] (In Moore’s 1994 painting Easter) Blood seeps out of two slices into a loaf of bread and into the middle of a puddle of spilled heavy cream which has oozed out from an overturned cartoon. The red paint has been dropped into the pool of white paint to create a very careful Jackson Pollock in the shape of a Crown of Thorns. The Christ reference and the art reference are at the center of a still-life painting with an almost folk art sensibility: the dusting of flour on the loaf of bread is created with a kind of spray effect which is completely different in technical feel than the loaf, or the cream and blood spill. It’s a folk Zurbaran of the AIDS era.

Catching up by playing hooky: Bernini, Shea, Cage, and Picasso (January 1, 2013), at Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim,

By the time I got to the middle of the ramp, before I even got to a painted sketch for Guernica of the screaming horse’s head, I wrote in my notes, “I would say, at this point, fuck it, this is a necessary show, don’t tell me you’re a painter or interested in painting and not see this show, forget what you know or think you’ve seen, or think you know about Picasso, and just look.” That I would be so emphatic seems silly given Picasso’s totally accepted status as a genius, but it reflects the fact that for many artists Picasso’s relation to subject, to medium, and to drawing, is as foreign as the back side of the moon.

Resisting Pier Pressure (March 10, 2013), this post epitomizes what I intended when I began A Year of Positive Thinking, the pleasure of discovering art works that I love, including a group of small clay reliefs by an artist I had never heard of before but whose works I have thought of often since I first saw them.

What does a man see when he looks at his own image? (April 12, 2013), on a very particular and powerful instance of the female gaze, in paintings by Susanna Heller.

The living and the dead: Wool, Motherwell, Kelley, and Kentridge (January 1, 2014), Abridged version: Christopher Wool? Not a fan. Longer recap: Motherwell? Not a fan either except when I occasionally am. Kelley? “…you can admire an artist tremendously, feel strongly that he is an important artist, and still not “love” his work. That is the case for me with Kelley. But love is probably the wrong word anyway to address work driven by a powerful undercurrent of abjection and self-loathing, from some of his earliest performances to the scenarios of the massive video installation work, Day is Done.” I manage to weave Star Trek, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tale “Quack! Quack! Stick to My Back!” into this post.

Intimacy and Spectacle 2: answering a questionnaire about contemporary art museums (January 19, 2014) News of MoMA’s destruction/expansion plans happened to coincide with a request from a graduate student in cultural management at the University of Madeira to answer some questions about the contemporary museum.

As a sub-theme to this section, one thread that runs through several posts is the importance of drawing as a way to apprehend the world. Several posts feature my love of drawing, including works by Philip Guston and Otto Dix, and the importance of drawing to my own art practice becomes a practical tool to circumvent institutional prohibitions of photography in special exhibitions, in posts such as Otto Dix, a brief footnote: drawing and ideational aesthetics, Looking for art to love in all the right places, You put a spell on me, and a post about The Mourners at the Metropolitan Museum, Looking for art to love, day two: uptown from May 1, 2010 as well as in Catching up by playing hooky: Bernini, Shea, Cage, and Picasso. More recent posts that feature drawing are Hurtling through life at a deliberate pace: an appreciation of Richard Artschwager (1923-February 9, 2013), A Drawing, inspired by the discovery of an ink on paper self-portrait drawing by my father Ilya Schor, Craft and Process: Jasper Johns/Regrets, and the series of posts on my own work from the summer of 2013 Day by Day in the Studio.

Feminism:

Two early posts were related to the Modern Women project at MoMA:

Stealth Feminism at MoMA (May 16, 2010)

On gradually realizing during a random visit to the museum that individual works by women artists and small shows of works by women artists were scattered throughout the museum, like treasures in a treasure hunt that has not been advertised as such.

MoMA Panel: Art “Institutions and Feminist Politics Now”  (May 23, 2010)

A recap of a day of panel discussion held at MoMA, held May 21, 2010, as part of their Modern Women Project.

According to Roxana Marcoci, Curator, Photography, these curatorial discussions and initiatives emerged from a desire for greater transparency within the institution; she described the participants’ organization as non-hierarchical and cross-generational. The nature of this feminist work had forced departmental boundaries to be breached as researching work by women forced a greater transdisciplinarity. …

This question of permission is both the positive and negative side of the whole story: better to get the permission — which can only come from an activism brewing from below anyway — than not get the permission. But any freedom or rights based on patriarchal noblesse oblige or realpolitik can be withdrawn when it serves the institution, which is why continued vigilance and activism are always necessary. Some might take issue with the idea that it is better to get that permission and get some feminist action in a dominant institution such as MoMA but I think it all has to happen all over all the time and over and over again (over and over because feminism has tended not to have a good institutional memory, even if you take into account that we live in an ahistorical time).

A Great Artist (on Louise Bourgeois) (May 31, 2010), written the day Louise Bourgeois died.

Sometimes an artwork hedges its bets, or, by some minute concession to accessibility, in some tiny betrayal of form, apologizes for itself. I never detected that in Bourgeois’s work.

Stephan von Huene, Feminist Teacher (September 4, 2010) written about my mentor at CalArts, with whom I studied after I left the Feminist Art Program.

Biographies of Women Artists: Instinct and Intellect  (July 10, 2011) Some thoughts about Lee Krasner, on the occasion of a New York Times book review of Gail Levin’s biography of the artist.

“I’m 27 and Unmarried…” 40 Years later  (October 10, 2011) I use a piece written by my sister Naomi Schor for Glamour Magazine in 1971 to reflect on the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement and how some of contradictions and societal imperatives of that time may still exist despite many advances for women in the United States.

A Feminist Correspondence  (December 9, 2011) This post republishes my appreciation of British feminist art historian and psychotherapist Rozsika Parker from November 22, 2010, with a more recent quite extraordinary correspondence this post initiated, between me and Parker’s collaborator, the art historian Griselda Pollock.

In your blog you rightly captured what it was that Rosie gave us and me in terms of making me a feminist writer on art: that things mattered deeply and seriously and that art touches on things that matter to us as we live them. That was what saved me from a bloodless and remote art history which I still cannot inhabit. (G. Pollock)

A Discussion on Facebook About Feminism (May 21, 2012) This post picks up on the epistolary nature of “A Feminist Correspondence,” but transposes the format of emailed letters to a Facebook conversation, of the kind that occasionally make that off corporate space a platform for community and discussion among people who are not in the same room and who may or may not have ever actually met. I had posted on Facebook a link to a New York Times editorial, “The Campaign Against Women,” with the query “Is there still a need for “Woman”-focused feminism or would other theories and political positions be more useful?” The discussion that ensued is one that is all the more pressing for being so familiar, but expressed with informed passion by all the participants (who agreed to have the conversation republished on the blog). I have participated in many such conversations on Facebook as it seems that issues surrounding feminism remain perpetually pressing, perpetually unresolved particularly to the women artists who are my interlocutors as well as to men who take an interest in the subject and feel concern for their women students as they begin to grapple with these issues.

Women Artists:

Since there is much contestation over the designation feminist and in order to make access to posts about individual artists easier, I thought I’d create this separate category, of the notable posts on specific women artists.

Looking for Art to love–MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos (May 8, 2010)

“Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” is itself a tale of two egos: downstairs, that of the individual living woman whose body you can witness and potentially engage with at some level, and, upstairs, the projected ego of the woman who has hijacked curatorial common sense, whose many incarnations are screaming at you in an unpardonably cacophonous, unedited installation, who has created a kind of Disneyworld of the Spanish Inquisition through her use of re-enactors in stressful situations while rewriting the history of performance art so that she exists sui generis, without any historical context.

A Great Artist (on Louise Bourgeois) (May 31, 2010)

A Remembrance: Sarah Wells (June 6, 1950-June 6, 1998) (June 6, 2011) On the work of a wonderful artist and a wonderful person, a dear friend exactly my age, who died too young, on her birthday.

Biographies of Women Artists: Instinct and Intellect (July 10, 2011)

On Being a “Lady” (February 10, 2013) was my solution for how to review a show I was in, “since the show is divided into two parts, installed along two separate sections of the space, with one side featuring the works of women artists who are deceased, and the other side featuring those of us still among the living, I feel that I can safely recommend the dead without incurring controversy among the other living artists in the show or referring to my own work in it or the ramifications of the word “lady, ” which I know has stirred some controversy.” This is a brief review but provides the occasion to highlight some wonderful art works by artist such as Alice Neel, Alma Thomas, Irene Rice Pereira, Edith Schloss, Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Asawa, and Janice Biala.

What does a man see when he looks at his own image? (April 12, 2013)

Politics:

My Whole Street is a Mosque (August 19, 2010)  This piece was written when there was a media furor over the plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero and it occurred to me how absurd this was when the street that I lived on in Lower Manhattan, Lispenard Street, effectively was an outdoor mosque, when men pray on the sidewalk several times a day. This blog post ended up on The Huffington Post and was one of my few experiences with going viral, in a very modest way.

Confessions of a Yellow Dog Democrat (October 21, 2010) Attempting to reconcile my own profound disappointment at the timidity of Democratic party politicians with the reasons I could for many years call myself a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” I tried to cram as many references with as many links to as many great moments in American history, some which I witnessed, some which I already experienced as legendary, as I could, in order to give younger readers a sense of why anyone would still identify with a political party or regret no longer identifying with it.

This Past Week in Activism: Three Modest Gestures (December 12, 2010) How Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, 1868, at the National Gallery in London, becomes a potent witness for a teach-in of students protesting the tripling of educational fees by the Cameron Government, and other valiant political gestures.

Should we trust anyone under 30? (with some excerpts from “Recipe Art” and other essays (June 20, 2011) Concerns about generational reversals, as observed before Occupy Wall Street.

Somebody Had to Shoot Liberty Valance (September 18, 2011)  The relevance to our current political dilemmas of John Ford’s late masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a starkly simple, cinematically almost archaic yet profound meditation on the role of violence in creating the American democracy and on the nature of history itself.

Art of the Occupy Wall Street Era (October 12, 2011)

A Discussion on Facebook About “Occupy Museums” (October 19, 2011) A topical example of the kind of Facebook discussion thread which at its best is a new form of group authorship. Bonus: photos of a 1984 demonstration outside the renovated MoMA to protest the lack of women in the inaugural exhibition.

“Books are like people” (November 15, 2011) The destruction of the People’s Library by the NYPD seen through the lens of art historian Leo Steinberg’s  remembrances of the signal importance of books during his childhood as a young refugee in Berlin and London.

Where the Fuck Was Edward Albee? (May 8, 2013), I return to the politics of eradicating books, in this case the horrendous plan hatched during the regime of Mayor Bloomberg to gut the stacks and remove the books from the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.

“amazing!” (October 13, 2012), on the jarring aspects and political implications of the style of presentation of talks at the 2012 Creative Time Summit in New York City in relation to the content of specific artworks and subjects. This was a post that seemed to touch a nerve and went semi-viral.

the Creative Time Summit’s first day was marked by a relentless positivism embodied in its chosen style of presentation, a style derived from the equally relentlessly positivistic and corporatized TED Talks. […] The word “amazing” was used liberally, notably by the organizers. Many of the speakers were indeed AMAZING but it is a crucial semiotic point that this style and format, enabled and dictated by the available technology, comes to the university and art world from the corporate world, in the Steve Jobs super salesmanship genre, thus they carry political DNA from these sources while other methods of presentation and thus of knowledge and political valence are suppressed.

Teaching:

All my writing is an extension of my deeply felt vocation for teaching but some texts specifically address conditions and specifics of teaching art.

Teaching Contradiction: Reality TV and Art School (August 27, 2010) On contradictions that exist within the expectations placed on artists studying in MFA programs around the country, as suggested by the end of the first season of the Bravo Network reality show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.”

While working on a syllabus on a winter’s afternoon (January 17, 2011) Listening to “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood: A Musical Journey in the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” while planning a syllabus including works and writings by Guy Debord, Michel de Certeau, John Cage, and Simone Weil (& see also Should we trust anyone under 30? to learn more about what happened in that class.)

Free Speech (October 2, 2012) noted a number of events in the fall of 2012 exploring alternatives to current educational institutions, including the Free University’s open air classes held in Madison Square Park September 21, 2012.

Film:

Magic Tricks in the Dark (May 14, 2010), on William Kentridge‘s installation of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès

In the Wave (May 20, 2010) a comparative appreciation of the films and the artistic friendship of Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, inspired by Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Two in the Wave.

Money can’t buy you love but art friendships can create joy (February 6, 2011) This post includes an appreciation of Rudy Burckhardt’s films including Money, (1967), his first feature film of his 200 or so films, with script by Joe Brainard, about a money mad billionaire played by Edwin Denby, a film which combines a goofy, spontaneous home movie feeling (with actors including the artists Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Yvonne Jacquette, Neil Welliver,  Rackstraw Downes, as well as these artists’ children, Jacob Burckhardt, Titus Welliver, and Tom Burckhardt–now all adult artists engaged in film, acting, and painting).

Somebody Had to Shoot Liberty Valance (September 18, 2011)

Wonderment and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, parts 1 & 2 (July 28, 2011) a post inspired by Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams and my rediscovery of the 1946 Soviet era children’ film, The Stone Flower.

Craft and Process: “Mingei: Are You Here?” and other ghost stories (April 3, 2014), a show of contemporary art and traditional Japanese folk objects reviewed through the lens of an analysis of the allegory of creativity in Kenji Mizoguchi’s great 1953 film Ugetsu.

Conditions of Writing a Blog:

Three blog posts from the summer of 2011 examine the conditions of contemporary web publication and readership, centered around instant readership tracking mechanisms such as Google analytics, and their effect on what gets written about, and the increasingly compressed time available for elucidation of artworks and events, in relation to earlier forms of hard copy small journal publications, with a post devoted to two essays by John Berger, “The Moment of Cubism” and “The Hals Mystery.”

Invisibility and Criticality in the Imperium of Analytics (July 31, 2011)

The Imperium of Analytics (August 2, 2011)

The Berger Mystery (August 11, 2011)

Odd ball

“Miss Read” (April 14, 2012), an obituary in the Times reveals the identity of a writer whose book I read on a train during one of the strangest yet most memorable evenings of my life.

Studio Practice:

In the summer of 2013, I hijacked A Year of Positive Thinking for a slightly separate project, Day by Day in the Studio: I posted selected works I had done on specific calendar days from forty-three summers as an artist and discussed many of the topics relevant to this Table of Contents: family history, teaching, drawing, craft and process, feminism, and I reflected on a spectrum of influences and studio conditions, down to the very tables I work on. This was a personal project and provided the opportunity to situate statements about specific works within the complex forces that underlay any art work but I also tried to discuss themes that would have broader interest to readers who were artists themselves or interested in how artists work. This project was helpful in developing the work I was doing as I was writing about it, with the final post suggesting the title I used for an exhibition of paintings held in Los Angeles in October 2013, Chthonic Garden.

There were fourteen posts in all in this series: some contain mostly images of my work from the 1970s to the present with very little text, so the ones I have selected are among the more developed texts.

Day by day in the studio 1: July 13 (July 13, 2013) I introduce some of the rhythms of my studio practice, and some of the recurring anxieties about productivity.

As my friends can attest through forty years of listening to me wail over the phone about how I’m not working, the work isn’t going well, that I know I always say that but this time it’s really bad, no amount of experience and of tricks I’ve successfully played on myself in the past mitigates the sense of despair that overwhelms me, even as, as it turns out a few weeks later, I was and am in fact “working.” I’m despondent until a moment when I feel a sense of access to the work, where I both feel that I am working and that I can see the work I am doing without its already being historicized within my own process.

Day by Day in the Studio 2: July 14 (July 14, 2014) on my use of different kinds of translucent, delicate paper and my habit of working on both sides of the paper.

Day by Day in the Studio 4: July 16 (July 16, 2014) I have written about the phenomenon of “Trite Tropes” and “Recipe Art,” here I take note of my own early work with various trite tropes including tropes that weren’t quite so trite when I first came to them:

The dress is long since a trope of feminist-inspired art but at the time it was not that prevalent, and there was not so much of a leader/follower situation as that it was a moment when a range of subjects and materials from women’s daily lives and personal experience were newly available to women artists of a range of age and experience.

Day by Day in the Studio 5: July 17 (July 17, 2013), on the tricks one plays on oneself to get past work block.

Day by Day in the Studio 8: July 30 (July 30, 2013), about illusions of both subjectivity and objectivity on the part of the artist. I examine the arc of my relationship to critical theory since the mid-1980s:

The conflict I have indicated between work that remains responsible to/restricted by critical/theoretical concerns and work that would be free to engage with visual pleasure in a less mediated way is itself an unreliable portrait of “myself.” I can’t possibly separate the intellectual from the visual. Even when I stick my nose in the earth, I’m doing it because I’m inspired by a text I’m reading.

Day to Day in the Studio 9: August 1 (August 1, 2013) A work from 1984 invites a consideration of past and future, the sudden disappearance of essentials of studio practice including specific art supplies (an ongoing topic of discussion among artists “who use art supplies to make art” as a friend recently described it), and considerations of how the future may affect our present labor.

Reading predictions of the future can make you wonder about what you work so hard to accomplish in the present. For example I put a great deal of effort and resources into trying to preserve my parents’ work and histories, as well as my own artwork, but if New York is going to be largely underwater in fifty to a hundred years, as some studies predict, so will its museums and libraries, so maybe I shouldn’t bother.

Day by Day in the Studio 10: August 3 (August 3, 2013) on working equally on the front and the back of paintings, drawings, and even of frontally oriented bas-reliefs and sculptures, in my work and that of my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor, and on my reacquisition of a book on Rajput Painting that had been very influential in my formative years as an artist, before I went to graduate school. I had to order a new copy just so that I could  check my memory of this line of 16th century Indian poetry:

This night of rain and rapture, all Vrindavana/ unmoored, adrift, lost in the solid dark of rain/ in torrents of sweet rain.

Day by Day in the Studio 12: August 11 (August 11, 2013), about the stability of work tables over decades.

Day by Day in the Studio 13: August 15 (August 15, 2013), I consider “how much, practically speaking, it takes to get anything, however modest, done as or for an artist, how much psychic energy it takes to believe in artworks and to make others believe in them, particularly the degree of intensity of belief that at least one person must feel for artwork in order for it to survive after an artist’s death.”

Day by Day in the Studio 14: August 24 (August 24, 2013), on a word to describe the content of recent paintings,

This week I have fallen in love with a word, the word Chthonic …. How do we fall in love with words these days? I clicked on the link in the Wikipedia entry for Persephone, and , at 2AM, having finally torn myself away from gazing at the definition on the screen, I jumped out of bed to go and gaze at the Wikipedia page some more…Chthonic, “it typically refers to the interior of the soil, rather than the living surface of the land.”

In three recent blog posts I have continued to explore the importance of studio process and of craft, in response to situation where access to such aspects of art making is impeded by ideology and circumstance.

Craft and Process: Jasper Johns / Regrets (March 25, 2014),

I am interested in the capacity of material experimentation and serial practices to bring an artist to the expression of, the performance of, the actualization of content the artist had intended or desired but might not have arrived at if trust had not been put into process and materiality at some point or another.

Craft and Process: “Mingei: Are You Here?” and other ghost stories (April 3, 2014), continuing my interest in “an approach to art making that acknowledges the equal importance of making and thinking and I’m committed to the idea that there is a richness of intellectual content inherent in materiality and process,” I review a recent show of contemporary art and traditional Japanese folk objects through the lens of an analysis of the allegory of creativity in Kenji Mizoguchi’s great 1953 film Ugetsu.

Craft and Process: Tools and “wild ‘reserves’ for enlightened knowledge” (April 116, 2014) a beautiful old work chair in the studio of Chaim Gross opens up a consideration of tools and craft, the pleasure I take from watching things being made by hand, and my belief that there is “an intelligence in the craft, in the gesture.”

Family, or “The Schor Project:”

These texts form the nucleus of a project to which I am deeply committed, a cultural autobiography into which I would fold my parents’ lives and artworks and the influence of my sister’s work as a scholar and a feminist. This project would rely on archival images and on artworks, it might take the form of a book, but the blog posts have suggested the format of the photo essay, either still in book form or as photo- and text-based artworks. These posts may seem also like a hijacking into personal territory but if the goal of A Year of Positive Thinking was to turn my attention to the art work that sustains and inspires me, this goes to the core.

For Father’s Day: Ilya Schor (1904-1961) (June 18, 2010), a celebration of my father Ilya Schor’s work, featuring some small paintings made in Marseilles, France while my parents awaited a visa to America.

“I Love You with All My Hearth” (December 5, 2010) an appreciation of my mother Resia Schor’s work, published on what would have been her 100th birthday:

That my mother as a person had sought economic survival through her own aesthetic labor was already a lesson in feminism for me and my sister. And, as she developed her own style and techniques in her new medium, it became intriguingly clear that my parents’ work embodied a strangely crossed gender art message that in itself contributed to my sister Naomi and my involvement with feminism and perhaps too to the slightly unusual flavor of our feminist outlook. Inasmuch as art movements are gender coded, my father’s work — folkloric, figurative, narrative, Jewish, delicate, light in weight — carried a feminine code. My mother’s work, abstract, muscularly sculptural although still relatively small in scale but heavy in weight carried a code that would seem to be masculine, as those terms are used.

Orbis Mundi (April 24, 2011) An essay prompted by a major move and the resulting intimate contact with my family’s archival ephemera and their collection of art objects, including a mysterious ceramic ball with Christian liturgical associations, which lays the path for my future project of writing an artistic autobiography in a photo essay format.

So I have bucked an American axiom, that you can’t go home again. I have returned to the building I was born into, and to the beautiful apartment I moved into when I was five–the day I first saw the apartment with my parents, taking the elevator from our smaller apartment a few floors below, is the moment where my conscious memory truly begins. Thus infuriating circumstances have precipitated my taking on part of what I consider my destiny, that is to archive and to mark as best I can the memory of my family’s life, particularly my parents’ lives in Warsaw and Paris before the War, their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, and their creative life in New York as the background for the path I have taken in my life as what I would call an inflected American.

“I’m Unmarried and Single…” 40 Years Later (October 10, 2011). On my sister Naomi Schor’s birthday, I begin a task I hope to continue, of writing about her via the magazines she collected over the years, to address her intellectual life through the popular culture she loved and the political events we lived through together, rather than through her notable work as a feminist theorist and scholar of French Literature and psychoanalytic theory, a body of work too daunting for me to address effectively.

A Drawing (March 26, 2013). Reaching into a closet in my family apartment has a cave of Ali Baba aspect: you reach in, grab at something that looks like scrap paper, and lo and behold there is something beautiful, here a self-portrait ink drawing by my father.

I was born: Past, Present, and (June 1, 2013) “As I first became an artist, I began to consider some of this burden of memory. Now I am used to it, that burden is my destiny.”

Naomi Schor at 70 (October 10, 2013), to celebrate my late sister’s birthday, “some of her many books and articles that are of continued interest, both for her original theoretical insights, her perceptive and nuanced writing style, and also, as traces of the theoretical and linguistics styles that mark developments not just in her work but in the fields within which she worked, from French Literature to Feminist Theory to Gender Politics to Aesthetics.”

*

Although it would seem that I should set aside A Year of Positive Thinking in order to more fully develop the project of writing such an artistic autobiography, I am reluctant to do so because it is hard to give up any space for public speech, even if, as a self-published blog with a modest readership, I am speaking while standing on a tiny slippery stone in the middle of a vast ocean of media and opinion. So, in the sporadic fashion of the past four years, I plan to continue for a while longer, because there are still some unfinished sketches for posts that I have carried around like my own personal “giant rats of Sumatra,” (“Watson…a story for which the world is not yet prepared”) and because even just the goal of looking for art I love, and the occasional discovery of such work, is a lifelong proposition and can only help expand my cultural life as an artist. The year of a positive thinking is a metaphorical time frame and if it is sometimes quite difficult to maintain a positive outlook in a precarious world, A Year of Positive Thinking retains its uses for me even if only as an aspirational mode of thinking.

 


 

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Craft and Process: Tools and “wild ‘reserves’ for enlightened knowledge.”

I begin with a picture of me, but one where I am only an incidental subject.

I am sitting in the studio of Chaim Gross at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation in Greenwich Village during an event on Chaim’s birthday March 17 (b.1902-1991). Because of a lifelong friendship with the Gross family, I feel I am at home in a space where I will not be judged, so I am comfortable sitting alone without feeling any necessity to fill the social space with small talk with strangers. I can take a few minutes of contemplation in Chaim’s studio. This space, even cleaned up and staged for its function in a museum, is a different kind of studio than the ones I often visit in my professional capacity as a teacher, where such tools are not available to the artist, both for practical reasons and also, sometimes, for ideological ones. I  am surrounded by Chaim’s artworks, some of his art collection, and by his wonderful tools. I am surrounded by color and materiality and the purpose of craft.This is officially a historical space, a museum; it is an encapsulation or a representation of a practice which is not only historic but historicized. Someone has caught me unawares, as I consider how I am being historicized through my own craft practice, as “someone who uses art supplies to make art,” as a friend has recently described my rare and dying breed, through my knowledge of these spaces and the practices that took place within them, through such associations that I cannot erase, that is, historicized through that inevitable but shocking process wherein the valuable knowledge one acquires over a life time is suddenly held by some as irrelevant to the problems of the present and the future.

A few moments after this picture was taken, I turned my head slightly and focused on a chair.

It is just a chair, an earlier era’s successful design for a work chair of adjustable height. It is also delicately ornate, with an art nouveau line. And it is old, so the wood and metal framework have a patina that maybe were not part of its original condition, but the curving lines, the darkened metal, and the worn and stained wood concentrate my attention: here is something that offers an alternative to the current design of chairs favored by institutions.

Theoretical discourse does not elect to keep practices at a distance, so that first it has to leave its own place to analyze them and then by simply inverting them may find itself at home. The partitioning (découpage) that it carries out, it also repeats. This partitioning is imposed on it by history. Procedures without discourse are collected and located in an area organized by the past and giving them the role, a determining one for theory, of being constituted as wild “reserves” for enlightened knowledge. (Michel de Certeau, p64 The Practice of Everyday Life)

Some of Chaim’s tools are on view,

The studio is in an order and a degree of cleanliness that is a function of its being a museum, not a place of current work. But Chaim was a professional man and a craftsman so I am sure that his tools were kept in good order in this system he worked out for himself.

Chaim was one of the three men in my childhood who I was able to observe at work or at least was able to observe the working studios of.

The painter Jack Tworkov was another. He too cared deeply about quality of craftsmanship, whether it was how to construct the surface of a painting or restore the surface of an old oak table or bone and stuff a leg of lamb, and his tools were remarkably well organized and maintained.

The first and most important artist I was able to observe at work was my father Ilya Schor. Today is his birthday: he was born in Zloczow, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, April 16, 1904.

As a teenager he was apprenticed to an engraver and goldsmith before he went to art school. This seems to have been the remainder of a European craft guild system and the tools were probably closer to those of the 15th century than to today’s. For example, soldering was done by propelling the flame through a tube using with one’s own breath. My father used to smoke 4 packs a day in those years, but, a young man, he could do that.

Ilya Schor c.1920 (at the left)

In 1937 he brought this drill from Poland to Paris, where he still used it, and from Paris to Marseilles, and from Marseilles to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to New York. This drill survived the Holocaust. Of course he did not use it anymore when I watched him work, he had an electric drill. But he showed me how the old one worked. It was clear that it was archaic, even for him, but it created a living bridge bringing me as close to when men made fire by striking two flints together as to the technologies of my own time.

Watching him engrave on hardwood was a great show: his movements were careful, accurate, but also swift and deft. I loved watching him roll out the thick black printer’s ink on a piece of glass, and I loved the rounded wood tool that rubbed the paper against the block to catch the ink smoothly, and finally I loved the revelation of the reverse image when the paper was pulled from the block.

To hold small silver objects secure while he engraved them, he embedded them into tar, which he softened with the flame of a Bunsen burner. The tar formed the top surface of a T-shaped block of wood which fit into the slot of a heavy base which he could swivel with his left hand while engraving with his right. The two part base is made of solid metal, the spherical section is like the turning orb of the earth, and with a similar density, I’m pretty sure it is made of lead.

This was all a long time ago. Around the world, artisans today may still use similar tools but technological transformations in the production of sculpture, images, and objects of all kinds are always privileged signs of contemporaneity. If they were starting out their art lives today, these three artists, born within four years of each other, all from the area of the pale of settlement, Chaim, Jack, and Ilya, would most likely be at the forefront of technological innovation, bringing as much ability and ingenuity to new methods of production as they exhibited with the tools they were given. People sometimes ask me if I am tempted to take up my father’s tools, the way my mother did after my father died, but the craft is in fact very hard, physically arduous, and without much beyond the most basic training even harder, and if I sometimes consider having some of my mother’s jewelry produced as multiples (another story for another day), I think more in terms of 3D printing in plastic! But if they would have opted for the new, if I too would opt for the new, nevertheless there was a tremendous satisfaction for them in their ability to manipulate materials, of a job well done in the working day, and there was tremendous pleasure for me in watching them work. I still love watching things being made. And most importantly, it was evident even to me as a child that there was an intelligence in the craft, in the gesture.

Returning to the chair in Chaim’s studio, it became a figure in a painting, in which furniture of the “hot desk” studio of the present/future and of the old painting studio of the past exist in a perpetually reversible relation of metaphoric temperature.

 

 

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Craft and Process: “Mingei: Are You Here?” and other ghost stories

All I want to do in this post is recommend Mingei: Are You Here?, an exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea which runs through this Saturday April 5. But detours of thought, details of multiple projects, and ulterior motives have complicated the matter: the following is whatever of these threads of thought could be ordered and researched sufficiently and fit into a relatively sensible text against a short deadline.

I’ve been thinking a lot about craft recently. Not from the point of view of a personal practice in crafts such as pottery, weaving, or more contemporary ventures into 3-D printing, not because I want to claim crafts associated with femininity for any kind of  identity politics. I’m concerned more generally about an approach to art making that acknowledges the equal importance of making and thinking and I’m committed to the idea that there is a richness of intellectual content inherent in materiality and process.

I find that the direction of my thought is in sync with others in the art world, including the just released April 2014 issue of the Brooklyn Rail which contains a section on craft guest edited by Lowery Stokes Sims whose introductory essay “Beyond The Horizons of Craft: Diversity in the Global Art Market” notes some of the class and gender issues raised by the question of craft or handicraft, as well as the inclusion of ceramic and wood carved sculptures in the Whitney Biennial, as well as the success of recent exhibitions of works in clay and porcelain by artist such as Lynda Benglis and Kathy Butterly.

My train of thought has deep roots in the art works produced by my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor, who often worked in areas that had been delimited by high art as being part of the second class of “applied arts,” that is to say craft, such as jewelry and the creation of objects of Judaica. [My introduction to a recent exhibition I curated of some of their work is available on Academia.edu] Although I did not follow their path exactly in terms of the type of artwork I produce, I appreciated from my earliest moments of consciousness the pleasure of working ably with materials and the visual as well as conceptual intelligence of the marks and objects they made and those they collected. My current train of thought about the role of craft, process, and materiality is part of the ongoing negotiation I have engaged in since my earliest moments as an artist, between “wet” (embodiment, materiality, pigmentation, fakture, form) and “dry” (the precession of language, theory, and the concomitant privileging of photographic and digital media), where I have rejected the necessity imposed by the adherents of both sides to chose either one over the other, instead finding a way to step back and forth across the line, or, at best, work within the line of demarcation. My thoughts on craft and process is also the result of stress occasioned by the contrast between the richness of art that exists as living history and as presently available languages and the poverty of visual means and materials that I see some young artists disposing of when the emphasis of their environment is on theory preceding practice and on dematerialized practices rather than ones in any way connected to base materiality or the disciplines of painting and sculpture and their histories.

Here is some of what I’ve done in the past few weeks: I spent hours rubbing a decade of oxydation off of a group of twenty small silver and gold objects by my mother; I’ve compared the ornate form of an early twentieth century office chair in the studio of Chaim Gross with the modernist whiteness of office furnishings as represented in the New Museum’s recently announced plan for New Inc; I’ve worked on a series of reversible paintings where I seek to destabilize the hierarchy between the archaic, material, emotive, and the contemporary, digital, cool; I’ve tried to cram readings and rereadings of several books I have on the issue of craft in contemporary culture, including Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, and I’ve trawled Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life for instrumental quotes explaining the way that, at least since the Enlightenment, in Western culture, theory has absorbed the intelligence of crafted objects while arrogating superiority over these practices. I’ve even wasted some time trying to prove that the etymology of the French word métier is the primordial Greek mythological figure of the Titan generation, Metis: although metis means “wisdom,” “skill,” or “craft,”  etymology could not take me where I wanted it to go. Instead Sennett posits Pandora as the provocative goddess for his investigation of craft and material culture. I always disliked the myth of Pandora, that a woman’s curiosity would be held accountable for human kind’s ingenuity in crafting destruction.

But for today, all I can do is recommend  Mingei: Are You Here?  which runs through this Saturday April 5, and view it principally through the lens of the beautiful and heart-wrenching movie it brought to mind, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film masterpiece Ugetsu.

In Ugetsu, the main protagonist is Genjurō, a poor farmer and potter who lives in a humble hut at the outskirts of a small village where he works against time, dreaming of the money he can make by selling his wares at the market. He is not a bad person, but he is crass, materialistic, and selfish: he browbeats his devoted wife and risks their lives to tend to his kiln during the pillaging of their village during a civil war time raid, so that he can complete and take his wares to a larger market town, profiteering during a time of instability. Genjurō, his wife, their young son, and their neighbors attempt to evade bands of marauding soldiers by rowing across a lake to the town rather than walking over land. When, in an eerie foreboding fog, time slows and he and his other companions come upon floating ghostly omens of disaster, he insists on turning back to leave his wife and child alone on the shore, presumably to spare them the dangers that may lie ahead, but effectively abandoning them to cruel fate.

Each scene up to this point in the film is short, the action and the settings are rough. In general the film is very theatrical in its precise and economic use of each scene to advance the narrative as boldly and also as simply as possible, organized like a play where something happens and then the actor leaves the stage and the next diagetic moment can take place, as well as in the way sets, though representing the outdoors, often appear to be shot on an interior stage so that naturalism and artifice are in constant interplay. The efficiency and roughness of plot-furthering scenes only highlights the longer episodes when the film slows and the characters are plunged into beauty, mystery, and terror.

In the bustling market Genjurō is approached by a noblewoman and her elderly maid. These mysterious ladies buy many things and lead him to the noblewoman’s dwelling. There, through the most subtle process of transformation of mise en scene, filmed from above like the survey of a foreign planet, out of what at first seems like an inchoate weed-covered wilderness, an abode of the greatest refinement slowly emerges and he finds himself welcomed into a place of the most exquisite beauty.

His beautiful and aristocratic hostess, Lady Wakasa, dressed in sumptuous heavy brocades and ethereally diaphanous garments plies him with compliments for his craft such as he has never heard and seduces him into a marriage demanded by the spirit of her dead father, a Hamlet like ghost speaking from an empty warrior’s mask. The intense mixture of aesthetic refinement and boundless physical passion are like a dream. He has passed through a portal into a space so marvelous he cannot fully understand what is going on. Throwing himself on a perfectly groomed lawn by the now sparkling lake on a sunny day after a night of sexual passion, he exclaims ecstatically, “‘I’ve never dreamed such pleasure existed. This is exquisite! It’s paradise.”

Incredibly, and without the overt drama of the narrative of Ugetsu, that is somewhat the sensation I had when I walked from Kiki Smith’s exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, through a narrow passage way into a new smaller wing that Pace has built under the High Line and found myself, without preparation or expectation, in an exquisite, thrilling, soul-soothing, museum quality exhibition of craft objects and artworks, arranged in an inventive, harmonious, and instructive manner for contemplation. In a modest sized rectangular white walled exhibition space, objects of daily use, artifacts ancient and new, paintings and pots, quilts, and kimonos were arrayed on two tiers, hung from the ceiling, against works hung on wall that were subtly dematerialized by natural light coming from unseen skylights along the edges of the dropped ceiling. So-called high art, priceless antique jars, futon covers from the late nineteenth century made from distressed scraps of indigo colored material, all co-existing in an atmosphere of great calm, dignity, and beauty.

The sense of wonderment and confusion came first from the overall sensation of light and the unusual arrangement of objects, and from the immediate sense of displacement: in a gallery in Chelsea, an ancient Japanese garment and a teapot from the 1970s very much like one I own and use.

Filtered light, multiplicity of diverse objects, a kimono here, a teapot there, a painting there. Where was I?

I went back out to look at the wall text: the exhibition is Mingei Are You Here? an exhibition curated by Nick Tremley, originating at Pace London, focusing on works done in the spirit of Mingei, or “people’s art,” folk art, a Japanese philosophical and aesthetic movement conceptualized in the 1920s by Japanese theorist Sōetsu Yanagi. Mingei is a philosophy which “assigned value to and saw beauty in simple, anonymously produced utilitarian objects, signifying a revaluation of popular crafts in the midst of the industrial revolution.” (Nick Trembley, catalogue essay). Mingei was an influential part of an international Arts and Crafts movement that responded to the mechanization of industrial production with a complex respect for low culture, folk produced utilitarian objects of daily usage, and mass produced objects of simple and beautiful design. Yanagi and others rescued from obscurity and destruction humble folk ceramics from earlier centuries from Korea and Japan.

Excursus #1.

*It is of some significance that I had passed from Kiki Smith’s show to this exhibition. The narrow front desk area between the two gallery space had served as much as a portal between worlds as the foggy lake in Ugetsu. Before I happened upon the second, magical gallery space, Smith’s current exhibition had struck me as occupying a great deal of real estate with very little concept or substance, with no sense of a search or a theme, just various objects for purchase, some shiny wares for market, some beautiful (tapestries made from pleasing but not stylistically individuated images created or assembled by Smith), some just merchandise. As I passed through her show, a chronology of mental snapshots of Smith’s shows came to my mind, from the first work I saw of hers in the 1980s at the old Fawbush Gallery on Broadway, which included human figures made of rice paper hanging from hooks, utterly contingent shells of fragile skin that seemed to emerge from the AIDS crisis that Smith was deeply connected to, to a show in about 1993 at Fawbush in his next space in Soho that later became the smaller of Deitch Project’s spaces, the one on Grand Street, where a life-size wax figure of a woman on all fours trailing a chain of entrails seemed to herald a return to a type of essentialist representation of woman that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier, to exhibitions a bit later at Pace Wildenstein in Soho where a kind of nineteenth century fairy tale illustration style of representation and narrative began to slowly erode the criticality and urgency of meaning which had been inherent in Smith’s use of materials and her approach to the human figure in the years she made her reputation, in favor of a more popularly accessible visual language and reference field.

This is only one of several instances of a contemporary artist with a large profile in the market whose early work’s vitality and criticality is long forgotten and often hard to find examples of online: when a young artist is faced with this vacuity within the work of a famous artist without the benefit of a deeper knowledge of the work that created the artist’s reputation in the first place, the disjuncture between name, brand, and artistic depth can only add one more bit of cynicism about the contemporary art market and world.

Excursus #2

*One work in Smith’s exhibition opens my excursus up to another extraordinary exhibition centered on explorations of materials associated with craft, Gauguin: Metamorphoses at MoMA. In this exhibition two three-dimensional figures of women are outstanding: Oviri (Savage) from 1894, a partly enameled stoneware figure of a young woman whose voluptuous earthy beauty is emphasized by the earthen burnt siena colored surface of her skin yet undermined by the resemblance of her pose to that of a deposition of Christ–Gauguin thought so highly of this work that he wanted it placed as his gravestone–and Tahiti Girl (c. 1896), a figurative sculpture that Gauguin  crafted in wood, adorned with felt, silk, seashell and mother of pearl jewelry and amulets. Tahiti Girl‘s head is huge in relation to the rest of her body, nearly life size in relation to the half-sized body, with her legs tapering down like those of an elfin creature in a child’s fairy story. The work is exhibited three-dimensionally so that the process of crafting is made fully visible: what appears from the front view to be a continuous figure, with the head and body part of the same piece of wood, in the back is revealed to be a separate piece of wood, bolted to the body, a huge ghost-like bulbous shape left in an unfinished state, hewn with rough chisel marks, unlike the uncannily smooth burnished surface of the front. The necklace veils the juncture. She is as much as a spirit figure of exotic female beauty as the Lady Wakasa. And in Gauguin’s Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal, Gauguin writes of sensual intoxication similar to the rapture expressed by Genjurō:  “Plein silence. Mais quelles  harmonies violents dans les parfums naturels qui grisent l’artiste voyajeur? Que de beaux fruits dans l’eclat polychrome des feuilles, des fruits, des fleurs!” Total silence. But what violents harmonies in the natural perfumes which intoxicate the artist voyager? What beautiful fruits in the brilliant multicolored leaves, fruits, flowers!”

 

 

In sum, aesthetic responses are always set in a context: here the emptiness of much that appears as central in the art market is contrasted with the inspiration that can come from transformative works by an artist that you don’t even particularly love. The Smith show, empty of concept, composed of  a few shiny wares for market, Gauguin’s transported responses to inchoate and incomprehensible beauty of another civilization both set the stage for my response to the calm beauty of the objects in Mingei are you here?

*

It is revealed to Genjurō that the Lady Wakasa is a ghost whose soul has wandered in search of the  the full experience  of a woman’s sexual life and true love, which her murder during the Civil War had preempted. Recalling his wife and child, he manages to flee her desperate embrace, waving her father’s sword at her, he throws himself into the dark night. When he awakens he finds that her exquisite home is a burned-out ruin, the impeccable lawn by the lake a tangled field of brambles and weeds.

I returned to see the exhibition Mingei Are You Here?  two weeks later and had a more complex and nuanced experience. While I did not suffer so dramatic a transformation of my aesthetic experience as Genjurō, discovering that his beautiful love is a cursed phantom trying to take him to the spirit world forever, nevertheless I began to distinguish differences in what was arrayed so artfully that at first I had been so overwhelmed with wonderment, while my pleasure in the exhibition catalogue’s intriguingly Mingei-style design, with its modest brown paper cover and shoji-screen like fold out inserts, was slightly undermined by some of the historical complexities of the Mingei movement, including its uses to xenophobic assertions of Japanese nationalism in the pre-World War II period.

Unknown maker, Ainu Attush robe, late 19th c.

I realized that I experienced a hierarchy  of fascination, with the most ancient artifacts and the most modest and simple of the contemporary mass produced objects at the top. Among my favorite works are a wooden kettle hook hanger from the Edo-Meiji period (nineteenth century) whose utility is not clear to a contemporary Western viewer, so that the experience is principally aesthetic or material: the dark reddish-brown patina of the wood and the curvature of the shape, a curved form that is also a box; a conical shaped object of bamboo and bronze that is a Falcon basket from the Edo period; a beech plywood and brass Butterfly stool manufactured by Tendo Mokko from 1954; and a brushed stainless steel kettle designed by Sori Yanagi in 1994 and still in current manufacture–I have one just like it. Of the modern art works, small granite sculptures by Isamu Noguchi seemed particularly powerful when placed next to these anonymous folk objects: in one work in particular, Untitled (Small Torso), the stone is allowed to be itself and the effort necessary to inscribe any mark into it, even one or two incisions, is a powerful trace within the work.

Each of these objects has an absolute tangibility as well as an ineffable quality that cannot be captured or fixed, although daily usage and absent-minded but constant concentration and contemplation can bring it close. Thus the beauty of the humble mass produced kettle from the 1970s:

On the wall, 2 oil paintings on canvas by Lee Ufan: Dialogue, 2007 and With Winds, 1989; Butterfly Stool by Sori Yanagi, 1954; Sgrafo Modern porcelain, designed by Peter Müller, c. 1960-80.

In the context of the old and often the anonymous, some contemporary works looked much better to me than they might have in other contexts: thus, a painting by Lee Ufan suddenly made a different kind of sense as the backdrop for a series of small curiously shaped white porcelain shapes of the Sgrafo Modern-Korallen Series (design by Peter Müller, c. 1960-1980) and for some ancient Japanese folk rain gear and a backpack made of indigo dyed cotton and layers of fiber than it does as just one more work in the current surfeit of contemporary “casualist” or “provisional” abstraction.

There were also a number of large contemporary hangings, sculpture, and paintings that I realized that I was simply blotting out: works such as Mai-Thu Perret’s enameled ceramic gold glazed slab, When I look I do not see, when I listen there is no sound (2011), Trisha Donnelly’s large Untitled slab of Stone Azul Macaubas, a mauve stone whose high polish reminded me all too much of what one might find in a deluxe bathroom of a new four-star hotel in Dubai, and even Steven Prina’s brightly painted Blinds. Their optic effect felt jarringly vulgar in the context of Mingei’s embrace of the modest, which parallels the aesthetic principles expressed by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki in his 1933 artistic and ethnological manifesto, In Praise of Shadows. They were gaudy ghosts of the market but, luckily, irrelevant to the impact of the exhibition as a whole.

At the end of Ugetsu, Genjaro is again working at his potter’s wheel. He has been transformed by everything that he has experienced, by the spectral encounter with aesthetic perfection in the person of the Lady Wakasa , and by the spectral reminder of the warm intimacy of family life which he had taken for granted when he had it, of which one precious reminder is given to him in a final ghostly encounter. In contrast to the rushed sloppy way he churned out as many pots as he could for the market when we first saw him, now he lovingly crafts a single pot, light catching the gleam of the wet clay as it turns and as the ghostly voice of his wife expresses her joy and admiration for his work, which at last fulfills her hopes for him. The film ends. We see him fire his kiln but we never see the completed work. Yet the intimation is that it will be beautiful, that all the suffering will be expressed in the beauty of a common object, crafted with love.

Strangely the texts I have read on Ugetsu don’t focus on the film as an allegory of art making. But I see it that way. I also can see that the moral of the story, that great art is not arrived at through crass commercialism and personal ambition for riches, but through the infusion of suffering and loss into a work done within a process of craft (and I use that term in the most expanded manner possible including so-called deskilled processes) is for some an outdated idea of who the artist is and what art is in contemporary culture. The quaint notions of objecthood, craft, sacrifice for art, aura–for what could be more auratic than a single pot which has been wrought–with humility and selflessness–over the souls of two dead women?–surely these are not characteristics directly applicable to contemporary practice.

Unknown maker, Sake Bottle, 17th century

So how does one get from the empty studio in which a young artist may be sitting on his tuffett like Little Miss Muffett, trying to bridge the gap between theory/ intentionality/ideation and artwork which may have some materiality or emotive weight? How does one get from the merely illustrative to the internally performative?

One answer is offered by one of the contemporary works in Mingei: Are You Here?, Simon Fujiwara’s Like Father, Like Son (2013): within glass vitrines there are two plates, one whole, one shattered, and four photos with typed text on cards such as one might find in a small local ethnographic museum of a slightly earlier era. The text relates what appears to be a personal narrative by the artist, about his absent Japanese father, pottery lessons, and the work of Bernard Leach, a British man who was a recognized master of Japanese traditional pottery in the early twentieth century. Yet, despite the first person voice, the stylistic signifiers and subtly shifting pronouns signal that this is an unreliable narrative even if some or even all of it is based on autobiography. In contrast to many of the other works of craft and art in the exhibition, this is clearly a contemporary conceptual artwork, with all the irony and distantiation than comes with that designation, rather than a straightforward work of craft. Nevertheless something about how one might proceed in this moment of imbedded disbelief in the kind of authenticity of the more historical works in the exhibition is implicit in the conclusion of the piece:

To make something you have to break something, to have something to break you have to make something–it does not have to be a plate, or a painting, but it has to be something you can see clearly enough to wield the hammer.

*

Further reading on Mingei: Are You Here?

“Mingei: Tradition and Craft; Simplicity and the Everyday” by Altoon Sultan

“‘Mokujiki Fever’ Endures” by Alice Rawsthorn

“Mingei: Are You Here?” by Michael Straus

Further reading on Ugetsu:

Ugetsu: From the Other Shore” by Phillip Lopate

Ugetsu” By Keiko McDonald

Ugetsu monogatari, 1953, complete film, my description of the film and the stills in no way convey the profound impact of the cinematic whole which by the end of the film will have efficiently reached into your heart and ripped it out  [this link may not last]

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The living and the dead: Wool, Motherwell, Kelley, and Kentridge

Let me start by saying that I am not a huge fan of Robert Motherwell’s work although, or perhaps because, it is part of the visual landscape of what was considered good painting in my youth, with all the repressive elements that such a term might imply.

The Dead  Motherwell spoke at the Pasadena Art Museum when I was a graduate student at CalArts and I remember him saying, in an effort to reach out to younger artists working in new media, that every generation of artists is faced with a wall and there is always a chink in the wall where one can break through, but the location of that chink, its nature changes, so that if for his generation the chink was located in painting, he understood, with what nevertheless seemed like some condescension, that perhaps at that moment (Spring 1973) the chink might be located elsewhere. I remember thinking, thanks a lot, you mean you had yours and now whatever, what about those of us who still are committed to some understanding of painting?

I have another relation to him that is irrelevant to art criticism but that places him in a fonder one degree of separation–when the upper echelons of the New York School artworld moved from summering in funky old Ptown to the Hamptons starting in the late 50s, he stayed on and was a mainstay of Provincetown’s art scene for decades: one used to see him tootling around town in his Rolls, or was it a Mercedes–a convertible for sure–and I’d stand behind him on line at the grocery store as he bought potato chips and if my memory serves me right Dorritos, or was it Cheetos?– in preparation for the weekly poker game he went to with a bunch of regulars, old pals and neighbors from the East End of town. His funeral service June 20, 1991 was held on his deck, at low tide, and was open to everyone. Apparently when he had his final heart attack and the local volunteer rescue squad came to take him to the hospital in Hyannis, he asked to look at the bay one more time, perhaps he knew it was one last time, or so it was told. I felt bonded to him in that love of a place and my morning summer walk on the beach if it is low tide takes me to his house (left as was for 22 years until it was sold this summer, probably tarted up next) and out onto the farthest flat that extends out in front of it.

This personal digression may seem to have nothing to do with anything of relevance to artworks currently on view in New York City but possibly it makes sense when considering that perhaps what is living and what is dead in art does not necessarily have much to do with the present condition of the artist. At the very least I can confirm by having attended his public funeral that the artist Robert Motherwell is really most sincerely dead. But the happenstance geographic sympathy I feel with him doesn’t change my views about those of his works that I find trapped in a formalist politesse that smothers the spirit of abstract painting.

The Dead Nor am I a fan of Christopher Wool’s work, pacem the canon formation/hagiography in operation in many of the notable reviews of the show–Peter Schjeldahl: “Like it or not, Christopher Wool, now fifty-eight, is probably the most important American painter of his generation,” Roberta Smith: first, October 24, “this exhibition is an elegant experiential treat” but, while assuring him the best patrilineage, still a bit tepid “How a painting is made has long been part of its content — before Pollock for sure, and even before Manet. Mr. Wool contributes to that continuum” becomes, Friday December 27, 2013 (page C22 of the newspaper), “”one of the most beautiful exhibitions to unwind up the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp in some time” (FYI my post about Picasso Black and White last January 1, 2013),  and pacem his anointment by the market. The works I am most familiar with, the black and white language paintings, leave me cold as conceptual word play even as I acknowledge that all his paintings are impeccably elegant in terms of postmodern formalist “im-politisse.”

So when a friend who was in New York for just a few days and was trying to see as much art and as many friends as possible in a short time suggested either the Chris Wool and Robert Motherwell exhibitions at the Guggenheim or Chris Burden at the New Museum, I chose the Guggenheim mostly because, of the two possibilities, it was the easier one for me to get to. But even when there is work you don’t feel you have to see, you never know when work you think you know will surprise you, and my museum visit turned out to be an example of that.

A firm believer in the assistance of gravity, when it comes to the Guggenheim, I always start at the top of the ramp and work my way down even though the museum persists in placing chronology in the reverse direction so that if you care about chronological order you have to climb up from the beginning of the artist’s career to the top. So as we passed by some of the corporate-lobby elegant swirls and swooshes of the large most recent works around the 6th and 5th floor levels, I started wondering at what point going backwards down into his past we would arrive at the work that was deemed just sufficiently interesting or edgy to be noted by people in the New York artworld while containing the seeds of corporate decor so as to  make people start giving him the money to start producing more ambitiously-sized corporate merchandise.

I don’t object to “no-hands” techniques of screen printing and other methods of producing a painting–in fact the Wool exhibition made me start to think more fondly of Wade Guyton’s digitally printed paeons to corporate modernism in his exhibition at the Whitney last year: Guyton’s paintings at least gave me the eerie sensation that I was on the set of a 1960s spy caper movie, all shiny white surfaces, Knoll furniture, white shag rugs, and Marrimekko patterns, which brought back a happy whiff of being a teenager in New York in the suddenly swinging ’60s, while Wool’s paintings give off more of Bloomberg corporate headquarters vibe than Lever House or In Like Flint. And I am not looking for overt affect or an emotive artist’s hand: paintings by Isa Genzken currently at MoMA do not betray overt emotionality except in their unyielding reserve, but even those which are relatively “no hands” have an inch by inch surface tension that is riveting. Obviously my opinion about Wool differs from some of the most notable journalistic critics in New York, but as far as I am concerned these paintings have no punctum. They suffer from PDS: Punctum Deficiency Syndrome. (see my essay on painting, “Course Proposal,” when I speak of similar disorders, P.I.S., Painting Illiteracy Syndrome, and P.D.S, Painting Deprivation Syndrome).

The Living At this point in the proceedings, after we passed some more black and white graffiti-inspired pseudo-edgy versions of boring later Brice Mardens and flower patterns in the genre of Phillip Taaffe, we made the detour into Robert Motherwell: Early Collages. Looking at a photograph of Motherwell in his studio in the 1940s at the entrance (and exit) of the show, I thought about the story he tells in Emile de Antonio‘s 1970 film Painters Paintings about how he had at one time used chance to select a title for a painting, as other artists were doing at the time, by sticking his finger randomly in a favorite book and had come up with the title The Homely Protestant. In other words I entered the Motherwell show with a bit of snark based on a sense of familiarity.

But the very first work I came upon, a very small ink drawing from 1941 in which Motherwell explored the influence of Surrealism, set me thinking in another direction, of a young artist trying to figure out for himself the meaning of new styles and ideas, working with sincerity as well as skill or elegance. Slightly later drawings from the period have abstracted figurative elements and bright colors I would not associate with Motherwell: a very Louise Bourgeois-like small drawing of an abstracted figure drawn in black ink is punctuated by bright pink and yellow, larger collages work with juxtapositions of patterned wall purple and white flocked paper or are built on foundations of robin’s egg blue gouache.

The museum guards were wearing themselves out yelling, “No Pictures, no pictures,” while the catalogue images were precisely unable to yield the experience of looking at the work in person, experiencing their thingness as collages, and tracing the formal decisions in details of placement and edge, so I’m sorry to say that this blog post is lacking in photography that would give a detailed sense of the visual decisions being made in each work, this scrap of cloth placed next to this map on this gouache surface next to this oil painted area, then perhaps displaced with the ripped edges showing, all small discoveries and joys in the making that may now be long accepted and even long rejected formalist ideas and yet when done with a genuine sense of discovery and pleasure have a vibrancy which may for some viewers be unexpected. But thinking back on the echoes in Wool’s paintings of Rauschenberg and Polke and a host of other artists going back to the Abstract Expressionists and to Cobra, two things seem clear: the facility of Wool’s marks, including in particular those moments when he seems to be riffing off the idea of wiping out a drawn loop of paint, is only simulacral of the notion of discovery within a painting.

The work is predicated on the risks taken by earlier artists, all the battles have already been fought, by somebody else, whereas in these early Motherwell collages you see those battles being fought freshly and with sincerity rather than with a facile gloss. The difference is that although Motherwell was also fighting battles that had already been fought, by Miro, Matisse, Picasso, Gris, Braque, he isn’t skating over slick ice yet, he’s still engaging. And this engagement yields a pleasure particular to works from that era: Motherwell was not unique in the formal parameters he was trying to figure out and in the appearance of the work–many lesser known artists of the time, including Fritz Bultman or Henry Botkin, produced works that look quite similar and they all seem to yield the same pleasure. Each artist was working on these European influences for him or herself at the same time as many came up with similar forms so that all these works also reveals the better part of an aesthetic consensus.

The charm of this work may be most keenly felt by those of us familiar and sympathetic to this consensus. But still, looking at many of the works in Robert Motherwell: Early Collages,  I felt something I don’t usually associate with Motherwell: when this guy was doing these works he was really alive. That quality of life is something that never leaves a work.

The Dead Since I had already not been very enthusiastic about the Wool paintings I saw before I stepped away from the main ramp  in order to see the Motherwell, I was surprised that when I stepped back into my path down the ramp Wool’s paintings looked so much worse in comparison to the Motherwell early collages. I mean, beyond worse. In some cases once I have seen something in a museum that I really like I try to put on imaginary blinders so I won’t see whatever art is installed between me and the door, but in this case I didn’t even have to make that effort. I just felt that there was nothing to see. Even the elegance of the later works pales into the most stultifying nothingness and not even nothingness made with conviction. I’ve rarely had such an experience of vacuity and I felt that no one was particularly bothering to look at the paintings, they were just walking along, up or down. If one sees Wool’s work as emerging from the moment when painting was for the umpteenth time being theorized as dead, he indicates one path taken by painters dealing with that rhetoric, which is to produce dead paintings. I lost interest in discovering that liminal work with the ineffable combo of relative edginess and the promise of corporate decoration and concentrated instead on not slipping on the last few feet of the ramp.

Even if the juxtaposition of these two shows had me convinced that in a freaky Friday sort of way, the living artist’s work was dead and the dead artist’s work was living, I still wouldn’t want to end on this binary. Nevertheless Robert Motherwell; Early Collages, which runs through January 5, is well worth seeing and these works, placed today in a small gallery on the Lower East Side, in the guise of having just come out of the studio of some young artist, would appear completely viable and credible as contemporary works because there are so many artists today, here in New York showing on the LES and Bushwick as well as elsewhere in the United States and Canada and perhaps globally, still working in the orbit of the aesthetic consensus of post-War formalism. I’m not sure what I think about what that means for painting: I often think about the durability of certain artistic traditions in the past over long periods of time with small variants based on location and time and then that a style and even an aesthetic idea would continue to be worked within and around for sixty or seventy years makes a bit more sense. Even the simulacral corporate revamping of that tradition in the genre of Christopher Wool is part of that longer term aesthetic life or even just half-life.

The Undead Between the living and the dead, a third way is offered by the retrospective of Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1. From the Homely Protestant to the Abject Catholic! If Motherwell and Wool, with roles reversed between the living and the dead, nevertheless occupy the same cultural ground, Kelley’s work is much bigger in its scope.

When I began this blog I laid out four modes of falling in  love with an artwork:

1. pole-axed by an artwork greater than me. Hugo Van der Goes, Giotto, Chartres, the Stendhal syndrome, one can weep: their ambition, piety, brutality, beauty, form, matter, is a cause for wonderment, gives you food for the arduous journey of a lifetime of artmaking and being a person.

2. creative energy generated by work you dislike strongly: why do you dislike it? It must have something to do with you (there’s a lot of bad work that doesn’t bother you). Work that seems antithetical to my practice and in the end may still be so but because I don’t care about hurting it, gives me a lot of freedom to answer it.

3. the distinction the French make between je l’aime – I love him – and je l’aime bien, I like him well enough. There is much art you can like well enough: it doesn’t rock your world, still one must respect it for the valiance and integrity of its effort.

4. uncompromising works or even moments in a work to which you respond, instantly, deeply, “yes,” that make you want to go home and work. Maybe this is a form of falling in love, because the response to some people is also simply, yes, that’s it.

Kelley’s work falls into the first category for many and if I look at my own terms–ambition, piety, brutality, beauty, form, matter–these are attributes of his work. But you can see these qualities in artwork and you can admire an artist tremendously, feel strongly that he is an important artist, and still not “love” his work. That is the case for me with Kelley. But love is probably the wrong word anyway to address work driven by a powerful undercurrent of abjection and self-loathing, from some of his earliest performances to the scenarios of the massive video installation work, Day is Done. One aspect of what is so impressive and inspiring is Kelley’s ability to work in any medium and address any art history he needs to at any given moment–he simply deploys whatever style and medium he deems necessary, what any one other artist might devote a life to he is able to do, and if I say do it without struggle, in his case I don’t mean in the empty after the party is over and the battle has been won way of Christopher Wool, but as you would use a hammer when you needed one, not feeling you had to reinvent the hammer.

Also inspiring is that he totally carries every narrative and formal idea through to the max, mobilized by a strong internal engine driven by the deep manner he has experienced the conditions of his youth. In a manner that is very similar to the way Louise Bourgeois found an endlessly recharging generator in the trauma of her father’s betrayal, Kelley takes the culture of mid-Western blue collar life and the rebellious spirit he was able to maintain in its face–and makes everything from that, from his early cropophilic performance pieces to the massive performance video installation spectacular that is Day is Done. Although ur-American high school rituals as a subject have zero native interest to me, being very foreign to my own upbringing, and even though I had to leave the rooms because the noise and movement of one of the installations of Day is Done was making me physically ill, dizzy and anxious, I know it is a great piece–I don’t love it, I bow to its power.

I was perhaps most interested in the late works, the very highly produced expensive sic-fi gizmos of the Kandor series. I was not familiar with these works about the survival of Superman’s home planet in miniature. Without knowing anything about them I immediately intuited that these were done under the aegis of Gagosian–their high production values seemed palpably emblematic of a Faustian deal with the Lucifer of the art world, a deal that perhaps was fatal, but Kandor was yet another subject from his youth to which Kelley dedicated several years researching and producing. I really loved the shiny weird shapes and hard surfaces and lights, the relation not just to Superman movies but to the movie Forbidden Planet and to Star Trek: Spock’s Brain might have been contained within one of these strange extra-terrestrial life support systems.

The Living

On the way into the room at the Met containing William’s Kentridge’s video installation work  you pass through an exhibition of paintings from the late 1950s by Al Held, including his powerful 1959 30 foot wide paintings Taxi Cab III (acrylic on paper, mounted on canvas). Taxi Cab III looks incredibly fresh and new, with vibrant color and bold strokes. Smaller abstractions accompanying this major work manage to put Held’s boldness to the use of a kind of spiritualism akin to the more delicately crafted works of Hilma Af Klint--a strange comparison that for some reason was the first thing that sprang into my mind. These paintings are very alive. Go see them.

I walked into William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time at just the moment when a silhouetted procession of musicians moved across the walls while, having been plunged into a darkened room crowded with people standing around, my friends and I had to put our hands on the shoulder of the friend in front of us in order to keep together. We were like the figures in the film and like the fools in Italo Calvino’s folk tale, “Quack! Quack! Stick to My Back” or the dance macabre at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

In The Refusal of Time, Kentridge has created an environment like a workspace of some kind, with rough unfinished sheet rock walls, dominated by a large wooden piston-like contraption moving back and forth like a machine imagined by Leonardo brought to life yet without an obvious function. A few wooden chairs are set about the room at slight angles from each other as if they had just been in use by someone, but each is bolted to the floor so that each viewer who is able to get a seat will be looking a series of several repeated and variant video projections from another point of view, thus making each viewer’s experience slightly different than the next person’s. No matter how much one tries to see everything at once it is not possible to do so.

The Refusal of Time is an immersive multi-media 30 minute experience with music and sound. A variety of scenes and narratives take place like movements of music, which include many of Kentridge’s motifs and techniques, beginning with himself as a performer in his own studio, very plain yet Chaplinesque, and expands to a number of silent film style vignettes, all in black and white, in shallow paper and cardboard painted sets reminiscent of early cinema, of Lumière movies, of Diaghilev and The Rites of Spring, and of homages to these earlier modernist works by artists like Red Grooms and Mimi Gross in Fat Feet. These scenes expand into a complex variety of expressions and enactments of drawing, the hand of the artist with an old fashioned fountain pen drawing on the page of an old school notebook a diagram of the earth with radiating lines emerging from it shifts to the hand of the artist creating swooping soft loops of white paint that swiftly move towards you like the Milky Way on a dark clear night–that particular sequence made me think of Wool’s use of looping forms: with Wool, you think empty lobby, with Kentridge you think, the Milky Way, the cosmos.

Kentridge uses established media and tropes of all these media and art forms without giving up on any of them or deploying them with the distantiation of irony or cynicism.

It is hard to take in all at once, and hard to pinpoint the exact subject matter, it is specific yet abstract. It must be seen more than once, and seen through from beginning to end, so be prepared to come in, stand around and wait until the loop is done, try to get a seat and then watch the whole thing through.

At the moment one image that has stayed with me is of a man being dressed up as planet Earth in a huge billowing balloon of a costume which jiggles as he begins to dance with joy.

This is not art that sets out to kill you, it is not about the artist assaulting you with his ego–this is something I always am struck by when I see work by Kentridge including when I have seen him perform in person. The artist Tom Knechtel has said that Kentridge turns himself into a lens through which we his viewers can see the world. Above all his subject matter is the act of artistic creation and thought. At the end, seeing the silhouetted line of musicians in diagetic context, it seemed as affirmative as it was also about the absurdities of human effort, a joyful and triumphant Dance Macabre.

The Refusal of Time is a joint acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum and The San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art. Go see it now while it is up in New York.

Robert Motherwell: Early Collages is up at the Guggenheim through January 5, Mike Kelley is at MoMA P.S.1 through February 2.

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