Tag Archives: painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mira Schor, Oct.26, ’86

*

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

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Pier 92

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

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

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

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

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

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

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

Kathy Butterly, Shoshanna Wayne Gallery and Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Kathy Butterly

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

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

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

Plains Indians, drawing, Donald Elllis Gallery

Plains Indians, late 19th century, Donald Ellis Gallery

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

Jack Tworkov, oil sketch, Hollis Taggart Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

“Circle” by Benny Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking-2

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

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

Every other day from December 5 until we are done, a grouping of contributions will appear on A Year of Positive Thinking. We invite you to live through this time with all of us in a spirit of impromptu improvisation and passionate care for our futures.

Susan Bee and Mira Schor

*

Rit Premnath: The Day After

Dear 72% of non-college educated white men
Thank you for your overwhelming enthusiasm
I was following the polls
trace a mirrored line
dipping and rising
in anticipation
But when you filled your circle
the statistician’s needle shivered

You were the butt of our jokes
and we’d all but forgotten you
Now the clown has returned
shouting his white rage
With the tongue of a troll

Dear 62% of non-college educated white women
Thank you for tossing a grenade in our basement
My ears are still ringing from the aftershock
and I’m empty and sad
Like there’s been a death in the family

Dear 37% of white people
and 74% of non-whites
This morning the city was silent
and in the subway
we couldn’t bear to look at each other

I met a friend for breakfast
and we talked about this agnosia
How everything is exactly the same
but unrecognizable
cheaply built on closer inspection
like Mar-a-Lago

Dear overeducated friends
Thank you for your persistent paranoia
As you know well, the present is always Kali Yuga
The last phase of the crumbling cosmic order
The bull of dharma has lost three legs
and teeters precariously
hopping one-legged from calamity to calamity
Our angel of history zigzags

For you nothing is good enough
Until something is much worse
And even then you blame the foreclosed possibility
of that which will have been

Dear friends of various demographic categories
Thank you for being here tonight
I can’t speak for you,
but my emptiness is like a vacuum
that sucks all things into its gloom
I think we were silent because we recognized it
It has always been there
A hole at the center

We were talking yesterday
About how the art world is not for us
That we have always sensed an emptiness at its core
But we play along and service its white walls
fighting one another for its fleeting attention
Afraid that we have already invested too much
Afraid that we will disappear if we withdraw
Afraid that withdrawal is shameful
Ashamed that our politics rarely extends to action
Confused about who the objects of our politics should be
But as the ground cracks beneath our feet
we suddenly feel an orientation
A sense of possibility in this quickly widening trench

Dear teachers
Yesterday we realized that we knew nothing
Or at least that we must actively unlearn the knowledge
that has stopped us from knowing

We were silent because we were ashamed
that we didn’t even know each other
We said we must work together
But knew right away that the “we” we were talking about
is an idea that cannot be learnt
But must be made
And that none of us has the time to make it

I feel a sense of urgency
that this is a call to action
That we must try to capture and hold that feeling
of the moment before we fall when our knees have begun to buckle
Or the moment right after
When the force of gravity orients us
but we have not yet fallen
That feeling we felt the first night and the morning after
The soundlessness of that night
and the hum in our ears searching
A silence enveloped in a distant ringing
Every sound in its inverse, a listening
An ear for the mouthless

A being-with that is a listening and looking
Unlearning as directed possibility
A sensory orientation that stops the shuddering needle
We must make a new time of being-with
A time of learning through unlearning
And reorient this era post truth
Towards its looking-for
Towards its becoming by being-with

*

A Lapche near Dharapuri, Humla District, Nepal. Photo courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016

A Lapche near Dharapuri, Humla District, Nepal. Photo courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016

“Chorten, Mani and Lapche are three kinds of sacred structures built with rocks that are found throughout the region of Humla in Northwestern Nepal and Southern Tibet. …Lapche, the third and simplest category are cairns–simple rock mounds that any passerby may add to. … Lapche are an accretion of nows that are each embodied in the intentional selection and placement of a rock….Unlike villages or monasteries that serve as destinations for a traveler, Lapche are always in between or at the threshold of such places. They are polychronic nodes that mark non-sites en-route to somewhere.”

“Rocks map scales of geological time that vastly exceed human time and indeed precede the very existence of humans and our conception of time. We are fascinated with things that exceed our ability to grasp, and so we literally grasp them, hold and touch them, to fill them with meaning and make them ours.”

(Photo and text excerpts from Premnath, “The Chronotopography of Mountains” courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016)

Sreshta Rit Premnath is an Indian-born artist who works across multiple media, investigating systems of representation and reflecting on the process by which images become icons and events become history. Premnath is the editor of Shifter and teaches at Parsons.

*
Beverly Naidus: Holding On

I’m out of breath, running down the sidewalk in a foul-smelling, factory town in Maine. My dad works at the plastics factory, as a research chemist, putting dead leaves, textiles and flowers in between sheets of acrylic to create new decorative plastics for home design – very 1950s. He’s grateful to have a job. He’s been blacklisted.

At that moment, I don’t know any of this. I only know that the air stinks, neighborhood kids are chasing me and I don’t know why. I am four years old, with dark, curly hair and olive skin. I look quite different from the locals. I am being pelted with grapes. They shout and then chant an unfamiliar expression at me, “DIRTY LITTLE KIKE.” It fills my ears like intractable glue that no anti-adhesive can remove.

Is that when I awoke? Perhaps. It was certainly one of the first seeds of awakening. I was being raised to assimilate, and the lesson that day was this: It’s not the difference that marks you. It’s the response of others to that difference.

I have learned that lesson repeatedly over the years. As the McCarthy Era drew to a close, my New Yorker parents, both children of immigrants, moved us closer to NYC, thinking we would all be more at home there; it did not help. Our new town had been the center of the New Jersey Nazi party during the 1930s. I don’t think my parents knew this. They were assimilating, and chose to live in a non-Jewish part of town deliberately. Trouble was, a few of the neighbors were unhappy with this choice and made their displeasure known.

I felt the pressure to fit in. I sang solos in the Christmas choir at school, read the Bible secretly in bed, joined the Brownies and attempted to straighten my hair. Somehow all these attempts to be accepted fell short, and this failure came with a sticky residue of shame. That I couldn’t pass was my fault. I grew wary. I began to identify with outsiders and oddballs. I began to write poetry and draw weird surreal images searching for a way out.

Thankfully there was an exit door with a neon sign that said “LIBERATION THIS WAY.” I came of age in the late 60s. Although the complex counterculture was not necessarily a place to find easy comfort, it offered an alternative to suffocating and destructive conformity. I found safety and acceptance among feminists, queer friends, activists, artists, mystics and communities of color. All residues of dissonance between the dominant culture and my new havens of solidarity went into my creative work. Years later, as I expanded into teaching what I had learned as an artist, I began to offer similar refuge for my students to tell their stories of shame, otherness, trauma and alienation. That, combined with some media literacy and anti-oppression training, became a standard recipe for shifting or strengthening values. I saw and still see the trajectory of my work as something expansive; eventually subverting the dominant culture and replacing it with a world where difference will be celebrated and where equity and fairness will be the norm.

But I am not a Pollyanna who thought the bullies had gone away. The daily brutality of ongoing white supremacy, homophobia, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism has been ever present and the manipulations of fear & economics have created an ongoing apocalypse for many.

Two nights ago, in response to the latest assault (our recent election), we attended a community meeting in a local church in our new hometown of Tacoma, WA. that was advertised with the appropriate name, “What Now?” Organized by the facilitators of the local Anarchist Discount Center (an online “buy nothing” group), they packed the room with eager, depressed, passionate, enraged, mostly younger, seemingly white folks. We made extensive lists of what concerns us the most; the panic almost bubbled over as each new item was added to the list. Small groups discussed strategies for resistance, solidarity, educating those who are feeling lost and vulnerable. It was a beginning.

Some people describe this bizarre post-election moment like a waking nightmare, like we are in suspended animation waiting for fascism to start. But those of us who have identified as activists for decades, once we have shaken off the disgust and frustration, have noticed an expanding cohort of awakening folks. It’s essential that we share our tools for processing the daily trauma and insanity, and get grounded for the long haul. Our work will likely be much harder now, but with more imaginations and muscles joining the cause, who knows what will happen. We’ll have to hold on to each other lovingly during this bumpy ride.

Beverly Naidus, Cognitive Dissonance #8, from the series “Wrestling with the Uneasy Present.” Digital photo-collage, dimensions variable, 2016.

Beverly Naidus, Cognitive Dissonance #8, from the series “Wrestling with the Uneasy Present.” Digital photo-collage, dimensions variable, 2016.

Beverly Naidus has been subverting within academia, museums and public space for most of her adult life. She likes to stir things up via art, writing, face-to-face improvisations, online interventions and within contexts where difficult questions can be raised, vulnerable stories can be shared and connections can be made. For more about her work and pedagogy go to her website.

*

Christen Clifford: Instagram posts from @cd_clifford November 11 & 14

christen-clifford-image1-saved-for-web

Nov11
So grateful that our Jackson Heights and Flushing city councilman #DannyDromm voiced his resistance and his commitment to holding our legislature and government accountable. This was #queensrally for unity and diversity in #diversityplaza . Those “Let’s wait and see what he does” opinions—um, NO. He told us who he is. I have been thinking about the argument that “Some took him literally but not seriously, others took him seriously but not literally”  in relation to the capitulation of places like HuffPo and People magazine—taking off the warning about DT and the lavish photo spread of Ivanka’s family, respectively. This is not normal. I refuse to normalize this. I have been thinking about the connections between rape and war, about the very real #ptsd and #retraumatization happening for many people. I have been rereading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. I numbed out with Ativan for a few days. I understood why after picking up T&R and reading about “CONSTRICTION—a state of surrender where….the system of self-defense shuts down entirely.” Thinking about how Tuesday night was such a shock it was like an ambush. I didn’t see it coming. The surprise attack makes me remember “Oh, it’s Veteran’s Day” and my dad fought in WWII and he was at The Battle of the Bulge which was a famous surprise attack. Sortie. Invasion. Thinking how grabbing a woman by the pussy or groping someone on the subway is the new lying in the long grasses with a rifle all night long. Thinking about invasions of personal space, even the forced laugh and endurance of a hand that lingers a little too long, though no one else might notice it. And rape, forced intimacy, as a weapon of war. I felt crazy on Tuesday night <x-apple-data-detectors://11> . I thought the #silverlining of DT was exposing #rapeculture and I was completely ready to have our American society finally take #sexualassault survivors seriously- to listen and believe women. I was ready for a woman to be in charge so I wouldn’t feel like it was all in my head. We need more women in office. And then the rapist is elected. As if he’s my rapist. “Trauma isolates, the group recreates.” #strongertogether Some of my students fear for their safety. This is not normal. #TheResistance

Nov 14
#supermoon tonight. #lenorachampagne and I walked to see the super of our building who is in the hospital. He had a stroke. The nurse said his left side needed massage to get the blood flowing so I massaged his legs. I never thought I’d be that intimate with him but I know the healing power of touch and I grew up massaging my mom’s legs and feet so it felt normal to me. It was the first time I’ve been in a hospital for someone other than myself and I walked out thinking that I am doing really well right now and #fuckcancer like just fuck it and I just have to be in the present and enjoy my anger and take care of my anxiety. I have repeated to myself “Two steps forward, one step back.” But I know that doesn’t help the brown boys I know. Later we went on the roof and I tried to bathe in the magical power of the moon being so close #tommurrin s #lunamacaroona In my mind I am naked swimming in a lake bathing in the moon’s reflection drinking in some form of pureness that would protect those brown boys and girls. I talked to the kids about being an #upstander then obsessed over the NY Times weird letter to readers- are they capitulating or doubling down? Feel deep in my heart I can’t normalize this fascist elect but small good deeds helped. Walking, cooking, neighboring. Still thinking about feelings—how good it felt to think that HRC saw my issues and how good it feels to “other” someone else. Like middle school. Most of us grow out of it, right? We are all together under this big fucking moon, whether we like it or not.

chrsiten-clifford-image2

*These texts were originally published to Instagram @cd_clifford and then automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.

Christen Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, curator at Dixon Place, mother and teaches at The New School. She is a core member of The No Wave Performance Task Force and the creator of The Pussy Bow, a feminist action disguised as a fashion accessory. She lives in Queens and online @cd_clifford

*

Shirley Kaneda

Sadly, not only did we not see the first woman to be the President of the most powerful country in the free world, but we are also now faced with grave concerns of civil liberty brought on by the ultra conservative agenda of Trump and his coterie of advisors who blatantly support white male supremacy. Their reactionary views on everything from free trade which greatly aids the world’s poorest people, advancement of minorities, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, and least of all economic disparity can now be set back decades.

53% of white women voted for Trump. Even if traditional feminism may not be attractive to some women, it would seem to be a no-brainer to elect an eminently qualified woman candidate to a hate inspiring incompetent racist and sexist buffoon in 2016. Evidently, these white women put race over advancing the status of women at the expense of domination over liberation. At least, being white gives them the perception that they have power over everyone who is not.

I recently saw a video of a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley that was held at Cambridge Union Society, Cambridge University in 1965. The topic was “The American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro.” Almost the entire audience except for a few blacks here and there was white. Baldwin was already a well-established writer and civil rights activist and Buckley was a young editor and founder of the conservative National Review. Baldwin was riveting. The exchange could not have been better made as a movie. Baldwin’s passionate, articulate oppression of American blacks was so intelligent, deft and moving that he received a standing ovation by the young audience when he finished. Buckley on the other hand resorted to attempting to strip Baldwin of respect by commenting that it was curious that Baldwin all of sudden spoke with a British accent. He did no such thing of course, but it is the white’s position to paint blacks as the barbaric “other” and incapable of becoming civilized. In the end the Society took a vote on the proposition and Baldwin won by 540-160 on the issue of “The American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro.”

Evidently the mostly white audience of this debate in 1965 was far more progressive than the 51% of Americans who elected Trump in 2016. The issue of the economy and the diminishing middle class were certainly factors in this election, but they are inextricably tied to the not so latent issue of race easily promoted by Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

How do we break this cycle of bigotry and oppression? First we must divest ourselves from the notion of “other.” From my perspective, the mutual respect for difference must extend to oneself. The other must not be an extension of the notion of tolerance and non-judgment. It may be confusing to think of the dominant – subordinate relationship and the notion of other which were possibly and probably progressive at one time, but now must be disposed for no other reason than the fact that it is archaic and counter-productive. The concept of the other has to be abandoned and absorbed so it can produce independence. The other is now revealed as a myth that signifies anything that is not “I” and which does nothing to alter the dynamic of power.

Shirley Kaneda, Untitled, 2016, 30” x 34”, acrylic on linen.

Shirley Kaneda, Untitled, 2016, 30” x 34”, acrylic on linen.

Shirley Kaneda is an abstract painter, contributing editor to Bomb Magazine and a Professor at Pratt Institute.

The video that Kaneda refers to of the 1965 debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” can be viewed here.

*

William Villalongo

My figures toil between various histories and an endless natural world conscious of painting as their condition of being. These new works meditate on the Black male presence in society as a figure shifting in out of visibility. It is a post-human existence in which the form disperses and recollects in various form like fallen autumn leaves, more subject to the conditions of nature than individual will. Yet, like nature it has the power of regeneration held within the substance of its decay. “Hands up” and “hoodies” become symbols of resistance as well as the figurative elements associated with body language.

William Villalongo, Seed, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage 79" X 40"

William Villalongo, Seed, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 79″ X 40″

William Villalongo, Speak No Evil, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 40" X 39"

William Villalongo, Speak No Evil, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 40″ X 39″

William Villalongo lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Villalongo is the recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptor’s Grant. Villalongo is currently represented by Susan Inglett Gallery.

***

Further installments of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking will appear here every other day. Contributors will include Alexandria Smith, Altoon Sultan, Ann McCoy, Aziz+Cucher, Aviva Rahmani, Bailey Doogan, Bradley Rubenstein, Deborah Kass, Erica Hunt, Faith Wilding, Hermine Ford, Jennifer Bartlett, Jenny Perlin, Johanna Drucker, Joseph Nechvatal, Joy Garnett and Bill Jones, Joyce Kozloff, Judith Linhares, Kat Griefen, Kate Gilmore, Legacy Russell, Lenore Malen, LigoranoReeese, Mary Garrard, Martha Wilson, Maureen Connor, Michelle Jaffé, Mimi Gross, Myrel Chernick, Noah Dillon, Noah Fischer, Peter Rostovsky, LigoranoReese, Rachel Owens, Robert C. Morgan, Robin Mitchell, Roger Denson,  Sheila Pepe, Susanna Heller, Suzy Spence, Tamara Gonzalez and Chris Martin, Susan Bee, Mira Schor, and more. If you are interested in this series and don’t want to miss any of it, please subscribe to A Year of Positive Thinking during this period, by clicking on subscribe at the upper right of the blog online, making sure to verify your email when prompted.

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

 

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Tangible Visuality: Stuart Davis, Carmen Herrera, and Hilma af Klint

Three exhibitions currently on view in New York City–Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, and the Hilma af Klint exhibition that is secreted within The Keeper exhibition at the New Museum–provide object lessons on the necessity of seeing “in person” artworks that in reproduction appear flat and graphic in a way that stays fixed at the level of an image with no scale so that when looking at the images most people, particularly those brought up entirely within the regime of Instagram would not see why they should see the works and, further, might not be able to see the work when in front of it because many people now see exclusively through the lens of their smart phone.

The Stuart Davis show and the Hilma af Klint show close this weekend. Sunday September 25th is the last day of each show. I hope that my readers in New York City will make a point of seeing both shows. It would be a shame to miss them.

As usual and in the case of all three exhibitions I will leave it to museum wall text, Wikipedia, and other reviewers to go into the historical background of the artist, and will focus on my experience in front of some of the key works in the exhibitions, beginning with the shows at the Whitney.

Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is an exuberant and joyful survey of the work of an original American modernist artist whose work demonstrated how an artist can be of his time and yet be original and predictive, anticipatory of works that followed him. I was immediately struck by how different the works are in person than in reproduction, where they appear so flatly graphic. This flatness may diminish their interest for people who see them in pictures as representatives of a style, or for people (like me) who see the works as part of a family of artists from Fernand Leger to Raoul Dufy, Miro and Matisse to Lichtenstein and Warhol–these particular associations actually might not be a positive recommendation because of over-familiarity or dislike in some cases. A Google image search of his work may in fact appear noisy to the point of being nauseating, an impression erased when in the presence of the works and also by examining the works close up so that you can focus on details, each work offering paintings within paintings, and on the way they are painted.

year-stuart-davis-image-search

When you see them “in person” their physicality and painterliness as well as their scale creates a different and vivid impression, often more intimate than you might imagine, in some of the early works, such as the Lucky Strike paintings from the early 1920s, which have a tremendous sense of delicacy and intimacy in the details of what seem like works about advertising and commercial signage.

year-stuart-davis-luckystrike-1921-img_1383

If such early works have a precisionist care in how they are painted that recalls early Renaissance painters like Pietro Lorenzetti or Domenico Veneziano, as much as they do product advertisements and packaging design from the 1920s, later works offer a bolder more sculptural approach, and suggests a whole other range of range of artists who followed Davis, including Elizabeth Murray and Al Held.

Among these are Memo and Memo#2 from 1956 in which the color is pared down to red, green, white and black, each with a quadrant of the painting a diagrammatic drawing in black and white, in contrast to more brightly hued and often more representational or symbolic areas, with fragments of objects and language on the bottom left of the work. While responding to the boldness, simplicity, and clarity of the composition of these Memo paintings, I was struck by a relation that they suggested to black and white works by Myron Stout such as Number 3, 1954 from 1954 (in the collection of MoMA). Stout’s work is incomprehensible or, rather, radically misunderstood if you see it in reproduction only, since its intensity and action comes from the indecision betrayed in the pentimenti at the edges, the borderlines between black “ground” and white “figure,” a borderline that Stout in some cases may have spent a decade battling over.

year-stuart-davis-memo2-img_1441

year-stuart-davis-memo2-detail-img_1443

year-held-bwx1-1968-img_5436

year-stout-1954

Davis’ paintings betray no such hesitancy yet he did use masking tape to determine shape and placement before deciding on the final configuration and composition. This process is most poignantly evident in his final work, left “unfinished” the night he died. This painting would have made a perfect companion to the unfinished work by Mondrian included in the Met’s recent excellent exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. It was exciting and incredibly contemporary to see the tape and the push pin marks left on and in the surface where Mondrian had perhaps temporarily placed bits of colored paper. To see traces of Mondrian’s process again emphasized the handmade quality of works whose familiarity as images is so ubiquitous that fashion accessories and regularly copied from them.

In Davis’ painting, Fin, dried out strips of tan masking tape create a grid pattern over one section of the work while lines of black tape are used to rehearse placement of black lines to be painted onto the composition. The painting surface is very dry and often sketchy. The medium is casein rather than oil, a dry surfaced medium which it is possible that Davis used for underpainting, to be covered by oil at a later stage of the work. The surface and the bright colors make this look like the first layer for a 1940s movie poster, yet it is completely finished, as Davis perhaps intuited when he wrote the word “fin,” end, which he had just seen on TV at the end of a French movie–he died later that same night. The work is vibrant both in color and in composition, a restless vivacity, and a tremendous sense of optimism.

year-stuart-davis-fin-cropped-img_1433

year-stuart-davis-fin-detail-img_1451

year-stuart-davis-fin-detail-img_1448

At the bottom of the paining is a green, red, black and white parallelogram that reads like the future of painting: ten years later the character and form of this detail would reappear  freshly conceived in works by artist such as David Reed, Mary Heilmann, and Elizabeth Murray, and other artists from the movement that is the focus of the exhibition catalogue High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975. You see in its the beginning of Murray’s work, or Thomas Nozkowski‘s, and the abstractions–paintings and collages–of Richard Tuttle.

year-stuart-davis-fin-detail-img_1449

In my notebook at the exhibition I wrote of this last work, “one of the most inspiring paintings I have seen in some time.” While it may seem that I am fetishizing incidents of painterliness rather than focusing on a dryer analysis of the role in which Davis is fixed as a somewhat maverick American modernist addressing commodity culture and language, I am responding to the aliveness of these incidents within the painting and to the expanding family of painters that individually and together give me the sense of optimism about artmaking that is essential to its continued practice.

*

I have in recent months expressed exasperation at the recent phenomenon in the artworld of finally giving old, very old women artists–100 is the new 70–“their due,” with the current exhibition of Carmen Herrera’s work a prime example. I don’t think I am alone in not having heard of Herrera’s work until her work became an instance of this phenomenon and, seeing her work in reproduction with no previous experience of it, the flatness of the work combined with the formal reductiveness did not appeal to me. However “The Blanco Y Verde Series, 1959-1971, a group of nine white and green paintings, handsomely installed in the central room of the show, offers yet another proof of the necessity of seeing in person abstract work which may appear so flat and graphic in reproduction that it does not convey the need to see the actual work. This is one of the works from the series, as reproduced on the museums website. Here are two pictures of it I took, one close up.

year-herrera-img_1463

year-herrera-detail-img_1464

Herrera’s work is indeed extremely flat and for the most part without surface incident that would betray the trace of a hand. Only if, out of professional curiosity, you look very closely you can see in rare instances some traces of how the paint was applied. Yet in some of the work, notably the Blanco Y Verde series, a group of nine large easel size canvases with flat white surfaces crossed by delicate green darts or shards meeting at sharp finally balanced points of tension, there is a weight that comes from the totality of the surface of each work as well as the group of paintings as a sculptural installation.  Something  happens at the sharp points where green and white intersect and abut that interacts with the viewer’s scale, and the surfaces’ very dryness creates a kind of blank haze that the thin green darts punctuate. As is so often the case with paintings that involve a flatly applied geometric design, reproduction leaves out the objectness of the canvas, something that Herrara has carefully considered: the paintings are not framed or edged with wood as was the convention in that time period, and one painting has one side or edge of the stretcher painted green (the other edges are white).

year-herrera-1967-front-view-img_1455

year-herrera-detail-green-edge-img_1472 year-herrera-detail-white-edge-img_1473

*

The question of objectness, presence, and facticity is also relevant to the rare and amazing installation of paintings by Swedish early 20th century artist Hilma af Klint now on view as part of The Keeper exhibition. Sunday September 25th is the last day. RUN to see it if you are in New York, otherwise plan a trip to the Moderna Museet in Sweden.

A friend, artist but not painter, warned me that I might be disappointed by Hilma af Klint’s paintings because they were not very well painted. Having seen her work before I wasn’t too concerned. But upon walking into the exhibition my friend’s response was intriguing and important: not well painted in relation to what? according to what standard?

Klint’s surfaces are generally very dry and mostly flat though each painting may have large or small areas that are brushy or have a clearly demarcated section of impasto. I recommend walking around and around the installation, trying to not look at the sculptures by Carol Bove and others that are for some unfathomable reason plopped in front of the continuous row of paintings that are hung on three walls of the fourth floor. Perfectly fine sculptures in a range of materials from steel to plastic, they nevertheless seem placed there to deliberately test the viewer’s ability to not look at them so that they can concentrate on the paintings they obscure. Luckily the paintings sing out and overpower any such artworld interference.

year-hilma-and-sculptures-img_1564

My first round began to the right of the elevators. I stopped at  Swann#18, a series of uneven concentric circle of deep black, red, blue and yellow hover on a red earth ground, brushy and uneven. Three dart like shapes pierce through the ovum of the black circle, and while everything is very precise, the edges of the forms and lines are uneven, but the brushy patchy earth red ground and the slight imperfections of the lines don’t give an impression of weakness or failure or lack of interest on the part of the artist. Each surface, each transparency or opacity is considered and is part of the meaning of the work. This is not decorative or about painterliness or figure/ground, they are “about” a space and a theory which is real to her and it then operates effectively to create space. At the same time the contrast between the dense blackness and the light filled thin red ground serves to give the work a very contemporary feeling. In fact it blows out of the water similar works that came after in the conventional timeline of  modernism. Look at Swann#18 and think about Kenneth Noland. No difference in surface or scale. [Trigger warning, his website has music, it is kind of hilarious and fun.]

These works were done between 1914-1915. Think of the abstractions being done around Europe at that time, many of them small and even clumsy and half-hearted or half-assed in their approach to pure abstraction–I’m talking about you Robert Delaunay–and I am bringing this up because when MoMA organized their 2012 survey exhibition, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, they included Delaunay, but not Klint, of which exclusion more later.

year-hilma-swann16-right-wall-img_1571

year-hilma-detail18-img_1620

I went round and round the room, focusing on how the works were painted, looking at the whole work, at the room, slowing down my tour, and shifting from a clockwise to a counterclockwise direction so that as many small details and incidents of painting as possible would spring into focus. I looked closely at the surfaces, taking great joy out the myriad shifts of application and scale within the work while enjoying their size: scale plays a great role in the work, because the works themselves are large and they address the viewer’s body as an equal, they have a declarative confidence.

year-hilma-swan23-detail-img_1539

But within the larger field, marks and grounds are painted as needs be, thick and thin, delicate and contingent, abstract and narrative. This makes them so much fun, they are not dour at all, and they are not constrained by Greenbergian rules eliminating the incidental representational vignette or the diagram which flows with the flatness of the painting field while interrupting it and creating some illusion of depth. They do not suffer from dogmatism.

year-hilma-swan23-detail-img_1597

year-hilma-swan23-detail-img_1599

There is a relationship to radiance and to the impact of dry white impasto that af Klint shares with her contemporary Florrine Stettheimer who followed a similar path from traditional academic training and familiarity with a contemporary artistic milieu and an unconventional deeply personal path–Steittheimer is the queen of white and pale pink impasto, creating an uncanny sense of ethereal materiality–as well as with later abstract artists whose work was both of and beyond their time, such as Jay deFeo, whose The Rose is sister to Hilma af Klint’s radiant white orbs.

year-hilma-swann12-img_1523

year-hilma-swan12-img_1529

year-defeo-rose-img_6204

year-hilma-swan-flower-detail-img_1574

year-florine-flower-img_3567

I ran into many friends while at the exhibition and we all seemed to be in a state of joyfulness. Finally I ran into a friend who had her two and half year old daughter in her stroller. Unaccountably instead of napping as planned, the child became electrified by the atmosphere in the room. We took a milk and snacks break downstairs and then returned for one more tour. The break, the false departure, and the temporary return to the presence of the works allowed me to feel more strongly than ever the relationship between the dry surfaces and the relation that the works establish between the ethereal and memory. I took many pictures with my poor little phone camera, but the works’ presence is a necessary ingredient to their further life in my mind.

I thought we would just walk around and around, as in a park, and so the mother might get a bit of a chance to spend some more time with the painting and the child might be soothed by the movement but she sang louder and louder, repeating a sentence that I could not decipher, which was just about the moment when I was able to concentrate on the detail of the origin of these works that most likely caused MoMA to not include her in Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, namely that af Klint, although an academically trained and skilled artist in a more conventional representational mode, did these extraordinary works under the influence of spiritual visions–the tour guide at the New Museum said that she painted landscapes during the day, and these glorious abstract paintings at night when perhaps she could communicate with less interference with the otherwordly non-dimensional spirits who dictated her forms to her–that is that, precisely during this key historical period, she claimed to paint as a medium. Like  Mondrian, she was interested in Theosophism, but apparently for MoMA and the art historical establishment there was a difference in how Mondrian could be absorbed into the grand narrative of modernist abstraction and how she did. The whiff of the outsider or crazy artist was too much to bear and my own inculcation into the values of high modernism are such that I had been trying to block  that aspect of her inspiration until the child sang and I finally read the wall text which included the word “medium.” I decided that the otherwordly force or being directing her painting was a damn good artist that any other modern artist would have wanted on their side, and, anyway,who knows where greatness comes from.

year-hilma-dove-img_1549

year-hilma-dove-detail-img_1610

At the center of the central silver sphere of Dove#12 there is a tiny globe within which two angels do battle, black sword and red sword clashing in an X mark at the center of the painting. There is a relationship between the symbolic and the celestial in keeping with a medieval world view, yes, perhaps that doesn’t fit into Alfred Barr Jr.‘s philosophy.

year-hilma-img_1520

But the uncategorizable is not nevertheless less great, that someone with traditional training having arrived at something so sophisticated with such command of visual language, painterly articulation, and spacial authority is way beyond an outsider artist [casting no criticism on great outsider artists]. She was not by any accounts crazy, just non-conforming. And, wisely, she knew that the category of “101-year old woman artist getting her due,” was not for her should she live. She left instructions that her work should not be exhibited until twenty years after her death, which came in 1944. It has taken another four decades since then for her due to begin to dawn on people, though the doubt and suspicion of Otherness that kept her out of MoMA’s survey of 20th century vanguard abstraction may still linger. But, still, perhaps, according to my view that women artists are trapped between two paradigms, of  “still too young” and “not dead enough,” perhaps she is finally dead enough.

Or is she? during the run of this show, which ends tomorrow, you could not find the presence of Hilma af Klint’s work on the Whitney Museum’s website if you ran a search for her name.

year-hilma-whitney-search-field-hilma

Let her have the last word, her heart and her inspired vision of a double helix,

or,

I

year-hilma-heart-img_1604

Hilma

**

for more images of and information on Hilma af Klint’s work, here is a good video, from Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen, the much more comprehensive exhibition of her work, held at the Serpentine Galleries in London in Spring 2016 (please note that the video will not play in your email program, only on the blog itself viewed on a browser).

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail