Tag Archives: sculpture

One Art Work in a Spinning World

In attempting to capture the impact of one modest artwork, seen in a museum outside a major metropolis, it is first necessary to fight one’s way through the tidal wave of images of art works that circulate daily, on Instagram, Facebook and dozens of major and local websites devoted to art and to the art market. It is overwhelming and impossible to try to come to grips with the sheer volume of works and of images of works, many of which look “good”–at least as images. The fact that many look and may even in actual physical space be “good”–and good here is meant to cover a wide range of possibilities of success, from aesthetically pleasing, formally clever to intelligent, even possibly intellectually challenging, or emotionally charged and weighted–is as disconcerting as the many that are just outright bad, the glittery flotsam seen at fairs, and also the temporal toys and copies, attractive but intellectually and emotionally empty product, what my mother, with the rolling rrs of her rich Eastern European accent, would dismiss with a sniff as “merrrchendise.” This is so partly because aesthetic criteria have gone underground, more a factor of subterranean custom and multiple, group-specific agreements, less the subject of intellectual debate and argument. As an example, this is what the “zombie” in “zombie formalism” is about, the sense that works that at first glance look like mid-twentieth century abstract art, c. 1949-1979, were not arrived at through the aesthetic and existential struggles of the earlier models they resemble but are more emotionally remote, seamless simulacral replicants, merely shifting around signs from those earlier forms of abstract art.

From this phantasmagoric swirl of images, I walk into a room and discover a work, unassuming yet riveting, nearly anonymous in its style and fakture yet unique and uncannily specific.

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This is an untitled turned wood sculpture by the Swiss-born artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943), included in Everything Is Dada at the Yale University Art Gallery. The exhibition is curated from the Gallery’s collection, notably from the works that were gifts of the Collection Société Anonyme, an art group founded in 1929 by Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. Included in the exhibition are works by the most iconic artists of the movement such as Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, but also very interesting works by lesser known (or, rather, previously unknown to me or forgotten by me) artists such as Morton Livingston Schamberg, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and John Covert.  I came upon Taeuber-Arp’s object in the last room of the exhibition, in the company of works by her husband Jean (Hans) Arp and also a number of works by other women artists from the period including Chef d’oeuvre accordéon, or Accordion Masterpiece, 1921, a bold painting by Suzanne Duchamp that is focused around a silver-leaf oval head-like shape, cut in by collaged elements that relate to aspects of Taeuber-Arp’s work.

Taueber-Arp’s wooden object has a humorous, cartoon-like appearance–a contemporary resemblance may be found to the way the character of the pre-schooler Ike is drawn on South Park, with a slit for a mouth–and, in fact, it is said to be in part based on the peaked cap wearing German puppet-theater character Kasperle, or “Kaspar,” about whom Jean Arp wrote a poem, “Kaspar is Dead” –“oh god our Kaspar is dead/and now there’s no-one to steal away with the burning flag/snap it everyday in the dark cloud’s braided hair.”

Yet the object has an anonymous aspect to its form, it resembles and I believe it references the shape of nineteenth-century machine tooled hat molds that informed the works of many of the Dada artists who looked to industrial forms and techniques at the same time as they appreciated, in the manner of their contemporary and colleague Walter Benjamin, earlier objects of popular culture and practice from the late 19th century. The use of turned or lathed wood creates a network of connection between early instances of mechanized craft, the colder more mechanized aspects of industrially produced objects in the 20th century, and the Bauhaus interest in linking these two strains together via craft. Other works by Taeuber-Arp also reference machine-tooled mannequins, forms and subjects that appear in works by contemporaries including de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses (1917) or in dance costumes by fellow Dada artists Oscar Schlemmer.

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Taeuber-Arp’s piece raises questions of anonymity versus signature style–a painted wood bas-relief work by her husband that is hung on the wall behind her freestanding piece points to the importance of a signature style in fixing an artist in history: Arp’s plain, flatly colored simple biomorphic forms are instantly recognizable, while Taeuber-Arp’s works are more part of a general stylistic school, with some works similar to works by Annie Albers, others to Oskar Schlemmer, others still to Paul Klee, and so forth, yet all in their way excellently crafted intelligent examples of the genre. I remember being deeply moved by an exhibition of Taeuber-Arp’s work at MoMA in 1981–which according to the catalogue included the Yale turned wood object though I don’t specifically remember seeing it then–in part because it was at the time a very rare almost unique example of an exhibition devoted to a woman artist. I vaguely remember feeling a sense of unfairness, in fact I altered the memory and placed the show in the summer, a fallow time in the museum’s schedule. But that memory was inaccurate and merely symbolized my sense that Taeuber-Arp had been both honored and yet vaguely disrespected. Or perhaps simply I felt the sadness of seeing excellent work by a woman artist who nevertheless did not have a signature style and was not that widely known and and who had died tragically in mid-life. One might here compared her trajectory to that of Sonia Delaunay, a pioneer of abstraction, with a signature style, nevertheless sharing many material interests and formal elements with Taeuber-Arp, and who enjoyed a long, prolific, and successful career that took her so much closer to the feminist art history agenda of the 70s, which then helped maintain her in the mainstream history of twentieth-century modernism.

But the question of anonymity of style is particularly pertinent to a work from the Dada period. In the exhibition there are a number of groupings that seem to address and toy with the viewer’s expectation of uniqueness or signature style. Thus three works in sequence that each appear to be works by Picabia, with the signature appearance of machine tooled forms and text.

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Well, no, perhaps a bit too tame and regular–this is by Painting, formerly Machine, (1916), by Morton Schamberg. So maybe this one is by Picabia,

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No, this is Young Woman,by Ribemont-Dessainges.

Finally, the sequence of this part of the installation ends with Picabia’s Prostitution Universel, 1916-17.

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The question of anonymity versus signature style as it is articulated in these works and others in the exhibition is representative of the dual views of technology of that era, where critical awareness of the destructive aspects of modernity and dehumanizing aspects of industrialization in the Post World War I period was matched with a continued fetishization of machine forms and technology innovations.

Returning to Taeuber-Arp’s sculpture: its size and shape are not identical to the functional objects that it recalls and the incisions that Taeuber-Arp has made into the shape serve no discernible human purpose of functionality or representation. Despite its nineteenth-century quaintness, the object has a bit of a science fiction quality to it, a depiction by some being of some being that is not human. The interventions into the form, the cuts at different angles creating completely different identities depending on one’s placement in relation to it, are what send the viewer into orbit around it: it is one of the most totally three dimensional objects I have encountered, because it is not just that it looks interesting from more than one vantage point, but that one is spun around it to try to experience and then re-experience these points of view. Yet, however much you try, you can never find yourself in exactly the same relation to it as you walk around it, so you must go round again.

Having taken the first picture (above) of my first view of the work, I took one other, having moved a few degrees to the east of it. The deeper cut at this longitude alters the cartoon head reference, and the finish of the incised planes of wood appear less golden, their surfaces are rougher as they cut into the grain of the wood.

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I decided that I should draw several views from my orbit because I always feel that drawing embeds an aesthetic experience in the body, but my juggling of colored pens and notebook caught the attention of a guard who helpfully brought over one of those ineffectual little pencil stubs that you use to take multiple choice tests.

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Frustrated in my drawing trajectory, my reluctance at returning to photography seemed to influence my camera which could not return to the correct light but I continued my orbit around the work.

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An object that forces another entity into orbit around it has a force of gravity, it has a density of matter and content that can hold its own against the phantasmagoric multiplicity of art objects that swirl around us, it proposes the possibility of an antidote. And that is something to reckon with, even after one must regretfully leave the room.

Now that Kaspar is dead, as Jean Arp concludes his poem, “non-one to teach us monograms in the stairs/his bust will adorn all truly noble firesides but there is/no snuff & comfort for a dead head.”

*

The first post on A Year of Positive Thinking, “Looking for art to love in all the right places,” appeared April 28, 2010. This is a slightly belated anniversary post, after a long hiatus.

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“Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor”-Lecture by Mira Schor

On the occasion of my mother Resia Schor‘s birthday today (b. December 5, 1910 near Lublin, Poland), I’d like to share a lecture I gave at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum August 20, 2013, in conjunction with the exhibition “Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor” at PAAM, August 16 – September 29, 2013

I take the liberty of sharing this video not just because I am proud of my parents’ extraordinary works-which I am!–but also because some of the histories, diverse traditions, and diverse methods of making that infuse their work are worth recalling now, and suggest models of art practice of interest and value even though they may belong to a very different era and philosophy of craft and art.

NOTE: comments during the lecture about the quality of the slide projections refer to issues that have been corrected in this version of the video.

The catalogue of exhibition available here

Selected installation images:

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Resia Schor, Lockerbie, 1990, and Ilya Schor, Lovers, c.1958

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“I Love You With All My Hearth”

Today, December 5, 2010, would have been my mother Resia Schor’s 100th birthday. This is not just a nostalgic realization looking back at a deep past, as it was for me in 2004 which was my father Ilya Schor‘s centennial: he had died in 1961 so forty-three years separated his death from his centennial. My mother died only four years ago, nine days before her 96th birthday. So 100 wasn’t such a stretch.  But she had no wish to make it to this landmark. “God forbid!” she said when at one point I explained to her that if she lived to but also died in 2010 I wouldn’t have to pay any estate taxes (an amusing conversation in the light of this week’s disgraceful actions in Congress!). She had retained her excellent memory, her very left politics,  her judgment of people unblurred by sentiment, and her courage intact, but when the encroachments of age threatened her independence and her ability to work, she had had enough. When my friend Tom Knechtel said goodbye to her after a visit to Provincetown in the summer of 2006, he said, “I hope I see you here next summer.” “I hope not,” she answered, flashing a beautiful smile.

When I began A Year of Positive Thinking I said that it posed the challenge to myself to find contemporary art that I love but that I would also write about significant artworks, films, and political actions and speech from the near and the deep past that have given me the courage to become and continue to be an artist and an activist. No artists are as important to that personal history as my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor.

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, silver, c.5″x4″x1″

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, detail, doors open: gouache and gold leaf on paper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I mostly lived alone together. My father had died and my sister Naomi was living away from home, at graduate school and then in Paris. Whatever the tensions that my adolescence and the grief and loss we both held inside our individual hearts imposed on us were tempered among other things by how much I loved the work in silver and gold that she had turned to in order to support my sister and me. I was a fan of her work, and I now sometimes think that if I gave her one thing it was that enthusiastic support.

In the 1950s in New York, she painted and exhibited abstract gouaches in a style reminiscent of Philip Guston. When my father died, she was fifty years old and had two daughters, eleven and seventeen years old. She had no other family. It never occurred to her to look for another man to help her support her children although it was the logical or the more traditional solution to her perilous situation. Instead, figuring that she couldn’t make a living from painting, she took up the tools of my father’s trade as a silversmith, jeweler, and creator of Judaica, transferring her abstract, modernist aesthetic from the soft medium of paint (and the arena of “high art”) to the hard medium of precious metal that challenged her forms in a more powerfully creative direction (though in the area of “craft” as defined by American art at the time).

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1983. White metal, Plexiglass, gouache on paper, 12″x9″

My mother was  a modernist through and through, unlike my father for whom modernist abstraction was a visual language he could speak articulately but it was not his mother tongue: he had deep roots in the philosophical but also the visual traditions of Hasidic folk culture going back to the Middle Ages and it was his unusual gift to carry these into the twentieth century.

Some of my aesthetic and political point of view was formed in these early experiences of art in my home. The curious and problematic thing was that the essence of modernist abstraction was conveyed by her work, but in a form that was generally considered a lesser modality: that of small scale and craft. Yet each piece was so obviously a sculpture.

Resia Schor, Fragmented Mezuzah, 21976. Brass, Plexiglass, gouache on pape with Mezuzah text, c. 12″x6.5.” In a radical and iconoclastic geture, my mother took the mezuzah and turned it inside out, revealing and cutting into small fragments the samll talismanic text that had always been hidden and not to be touched by a woman.

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.

Resia Schor, The Moon, 1967. Pendant, silver, gold, precious and semi-precious stones, c.3″x2.5″

Resia Schor, The Moon, back

When potential customers came to visit, there would be the ritual of showing the work: she would gradually open one case and soft pouch after another, unwrap little tissue paper packets, laying out gold and silver pendants and pins studded with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, heavily sculpted silver Mezuzahs, chains whose silver and gold links and  blue African blue glass beads made from ground lapis lazuli tinkled softly, and earrings made with ancient beads from “Roman excawations.” At the end of the unveiling, a profusion of treasures would cover the coffee table in our living room. I never tired of seeing the work and better yet of handling it, wearing it, sculptural, glowing, deeply satisfying as an aesthetic experience that was tactile as well as visual. Her rings in particular became part of my identity.

Resia Schor, silver and gold rings from the 1980s to the 2000s

I also loved to watch my parents at work, in the small “maid’s room” of our Upper West Side apartment. When my father was a teenager, before he went to The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he had been apprenticed in a kind of medieval guild practice as an engraver and goldsmith, and his gestures at work, with metal as with gouache and brush, were light and deft. My mother had watched him work, she claimed he had taught her some basic skills. After he died she took one course in soldering, but basically she taught herself to make her own work. But her body language at her work was different than his, more determined, she radiated an intense and physical absorption.

Resia Schor, soldering, summer 2002. Video still from Mira Schor, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor,” 2003

When my mother was about 8 years old, spending the summer at her grandparents’ house in a small village near Lublin, in Poland, there was a fire next door, always a dangerous event, but all the more so in a small rural community of wooden houses in the early years of the twentieth century. Left alone, as the aunt who was in charge of her ran out with her own small children, my mother decided to save the bedding, so she tied all the pillows up into a sheet, and got her bundle and herself out of the house. Later they could not untie her knot.

This story always seemed metaphoric and predictive of my mother’s strengths and abilities. She was courageous and had presence of mind: when, as she sat with my father and friends in a café in Paris in May 1940 and saw French peasants from the East pushing their belongings and their elderly relatives in wheel-barrows through the streets of Paris, with their livestock in tow, she understood that she, my father, and their friends, poor Jewish émigrés, must leave at once and so, early the next morning, they fled, with only a few lumps of sugar and a change of underwear, a day ahead of Hitler’s army.

English was the fifth language she learned, after Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and French: when I was at summer camp, she once wrote to me “I love you with all my hearth.” One of the important images of my adolescence is of my always very elegant little mother wearing goggles, hair covered in a dirty bandana, face blackened by metal dust, carbon, and red metal polish, wielding a gas-powered torch over a gas burner on our kitchen stove to solder her large silver mezuzahs. Vulcan’s sister at a domestic forge.

The heat of that unquenchable fire inhabits a recurrent dream I have had for many years that the burners on my stove spontaneously alight and like the burning bush, the flame cannot be extinguished and the bush is not consumed.

Video still, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor.”

In a 1974 letter to his sister Janice, Jack Tworkov wrote about my mother “[…] alone in the house, always fighting loneliness, but better off than most because she has a work in hand and makes a living from it. ” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov). “A work in hand,” those are powerfully meaningful words to describe her and to describe what I feel I learned from her – the importance of dedication to a self-created aesthetic task pursued in daily practice. To have a work in hand gave meaning to her life and to mine and my sister’s.

Resia Schor, c.1928

Resia and Ilya Schor, under the Magnolia tree on the grounds of the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, c.1935

Resia Schor, Student ID, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, 1930

Resia Schor, Carte d”Eleve, Louvre Museum, 1938

Resia Schor, Provincetown, 1960, photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Resia Schor with Naomi and Mira, from top 1965, 1982, 1985

Richard Howard, “Jewelry by Resia Schor,” Craft Horizons, July/August, 1966

Resia Schor, Gold Pin, c. 1970

Resia Schor, 2005. Photo: Chie Nishio

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Stephan von Huene, Feminist Teacher

I wrote this appreciation of Stephan von Huene, the American sculptor later based in Germany, upon the publication of a beautiful catalogue of “Tune the World,” his retrospective exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, 2002-2003. Living in New York City I could have only the diminished pleasure of reading the catalogue, Stephan von Huene, Resounding Sculptures, rather than the full pleasure of experiencing works whose synaesthetic performances remain fresh and vivid in my memory. However the catalogue with its accompanying CD does a great service in bringing to mind a wonderful and complex artist, human being, and for me, a teacher and mentor of inestimable importance.

Perhaps some of my reflections on his role as my teacher at a particular historical moment may be of some value in deepening the contextualization of his work while giving some personal impressions of the man. He was my mentor at CalArts after I left the Feminist Art Program. There are some people in one’s life who are absolutely irreplaceable, Steph was one of them. He remained a supportive friend and benevolent influence for me until his untimely death from cancer September 5, 2000. At that time, I had hoped to find a publisher for a draft of this text but was not able to do so. Here it is part of a group of posts exploring the theme of “Teaching Contradiction.” In this case the “contradiction” is that Stephan was the most nurturing teacher I had in graduate school and thus as much a Feminist teacher as any other.

I met Stephan von Huene when I came to study painting as an MFA student at CalArts in 1971.If one can set the artistic or more precisely the art academic scene of that moment, the dominant aesthetic philosophy of American art schools and art departments of universities was that of Greenbergian formalism. Painting had to be large, abstract, oil or acrylic on canvas. Period. No figuration, no narrative, no overt personal or political content. Sculpture was not particularly considered, but perhaps it is enough to say that it was often taught in dark and greasy garage-like environments by large, heavily bearded men wielding heavy power tools and acetylene torches (in Canada they called them “tuskers”). Of course, in the wider art world there were movements that contradicted these aesthetic imperatives: pop art provided an enjoyable outlet for younger artists interested in popular culture, there were the Hairy Who artists such as Ed Paschke, based in Chicago, who were practitioners of a kind of cartoon-like, colorful surrealism. Beyond that were the possibilities for time-based performance art and for non-art suggested by Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, by John Cage, Fluxus and other underground art movements. But typically these had not penetrated the art academy.

Finally, any desires that might be specific to a feminist investigation of art and culture were only on the verge of being named. Just as CalArts welcomed the Fluxus movement in the person of Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, and also artists such as Allan Kaprow and John Baldessari, so it was the first school in North America, indeed anywhere as far as I know, to welcome the new movement of feminism as part of its educational program. This was one of the reasons I chose the school.

The CalArts Feminist Art Program, run by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, was an exciting and intense experimental aesthetic and political educational program embedded within this already experimental art school. The women who chose to work within it were provided a unique political education and were given the opportunity to be artistic pioneers, as art subject matter, materials, history and theory were reevaluated and re-written. However, because this was a radical experiment that included a critique of gendered systems of power, the atmosphere in the program could become quite charged, as the professors dealt with questions of authority within a political movement dedicated to the critique of authority.

Given the situation I have just described, it may seem strange that I chose Stephan von Huene as my official “mentor” for my second year of study. The retrospective of his works provides a focus for an understanding of why in fact he was such an appropriate “feminist teacher.”

His contribution to my development was first and foremost to treat me with the greatest courtesy as a person and to appreciate the specificity of my work: at the time, I painted small gouaches representing personal narratives in a style related to artists whose work I only came to hear of through the research activities of the feminist program, such as Florine Stettheimer and Frida Kahlo. From a Greenbergian point of view these were “illustrative,” a pejorative description. If the goal of teaching through nurturing rather than through abuse was a primary rhetoric of the feminist art program, I found Stephan to be the most nurturing of the teachers I encountered at CalArts. He respected the criteria by which I wished the work to be judged. Since my principal interest at the time was to tell the story of my development as a young sexual being and at the same time to challenge the limitations set by the dominant formalist aesthetic, a formalist critique of the work seemed irrelevant, although even at CalArts it was the prevailing method, at least when it came to painting. So here was Stephan embracing the delicate role of art therapist at the same time as he prodded me into accepting change, chance and accident as formal and methodological principles, always with gentleness and humor.

He also shared his own searches and discoveries, from his work and life, his readings, and even from the psychotherapy he told me he had been in or perhaps was undergoing at that time. Again this was an unusual teaching method, revealing what might be interpreted as weakness while retaining the authority of knowledge and wisdom.

The few times he intervened in a more traditional, formalist, or simply practical manner were few but therefore memorable: for example, he once told me that he could tell the size of a person’s studio just from looking at the work – this seemed like a magic trick, but it is one that has served me well as a teacher. When the ceiling of my studio was damaged by a major leak, damaging delicate gouache on paper paintings I had lain on the floor, he said with his characteristic humorous exuberance, “This is great, you should put all your work in the shower!”

The  most important studio visit came a year after I had graduated. Stephan visited my studio in New York. He made it clear that he was not pleased with the work I’d done since I left school. He felt that I’d lost my direction, what he had felt was special to my work. I don’t remember exactly what he said, though I can still see him in the room. In fact what happened is that I instantly translated his sparely voiced critique into an interpretation of what I should do next to get back to the core he seemed as committed to as I was (or, rather, in that moment, to which he was more committed than I seemed to him to be). The resolve formed in that moment of translation and erasure of the actual comments set me back on the path that I have followed since. I could only even half hear his criticism because he had been supportive of my work and my criteria of judgement.

Most astonishingly, in relation to my being a painter, he once told me that he hated “pigmentation.” This is so revealing when one thinks of works he did in the mid-70s such as the Glass Pipes, where he seemed to desire a total dematerialization of art — “the sculptural direction toward nothing,” he writes. I felt that this work represented a life and death struggle for freedom from embodiment, and yet took the form of the sound of a scream, one of the most elementally embodied, reflexive human reactions of shock, fear, and existential horror. As a painter, I found his disgust with pigmentation funny but also bracing and it never interfered with his attitude as a teacher.

Stephan did not believe in showing students his own artworks. Or rather, he believed one shouldn’t try to influence students into imitation of the teacher’s work by immediately impressing the students with his style. Could there be any better example of his unwillingness to abuse professorial power than to deny himself that aspect of stylistic influence that appeals to so many who teach? And perhaps something else was at play, a kind of privacy, diffidence, and maybe the sense that his work was unusual and inimitable.

Stephan von Huene, Totem Tone III, 1969-70, wood and mixed media with sound

But finally I did get to see a few of his works, at the end of my first year at school. My memory is a little shaky but I know that I saw one of the Totem Tones at CalArts (see reference & sound link near the end of this post) – a strange, beautiful, uncompromising object emanating weird, funny but also forbidding sounds, yet welcoming through the warmth of the beautifully crafted wooden materials. Beauty and strangeness, science with archaic mechanisms emitting modern atonal sounds, the work seemed perfectly matched to the person, whose aristocratic demeanor commanded a particular respect – and it amazes me now to realize that he was then only 39 years old.

Stephan von Huene, Rosebud Annunciator, 1967-69, wood, leather, computer and mixed media

Around the same time, I believe that I also saw Tap Dancer and Rosebud Annunciator at his home.

Stephan von Huene, Tap Dancer

These works then and now also suggest why he was such a perfect teacher, though a man, for a feminist female young artist in the context of the then prevalent LA “fetish finish” art movement. The relation to Surrealism perceptible in his work was resonant for many women artists including myself  interested in narrativity and representation of sexuality. The work’s use of dark wood and his variant of fine crafting seemed to have more to do with the California Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century than with the prevalent surfer culture. William Wilson does a good job in his catalogue essay of describing the art world of Los Angeles in the late 60s and the anomalous position of von Huene within that context. His work had some connections with that of Ed Keinholz, as has been noted. But socially he didn’t play the macho game; in fact stories from that scene would cause him to flinch as if recoiling in pain and distaste. He was marked by his early childhood experience of cultural otherness, as the child of German immigrants, and that gave him a sensitivity to similar experiences in others.

In his work, his developing interest in technology somehow had a different feel to it than that evidenced in contemporary work dealing with technology. He didn’t aspire toward the glorification of plastic. There was an increasing formal reductivism to his work in the 1970s, but he exercised an older type of craftsmanship, in much the way that Walter Benjamin noted that new technologies, when first realized in utilitarian objects, retained archaic traces, so that, for example, the first automobiles retained the outward form of the fanciest, hand-crafted horse-driven carriages, before the full impact of mass production streamlined form to function. The early works had a strange quality of surplus and quaintness of materials in order to create rather primitive sounds. And in later works such as The Semiconductor of Chemnitz there are again traces of the archaic: the face of the figure echoes the faces of mannequins in Atget photographs, just as its mechanisms seem caught somewhere between an 18th century automaton and a robot created at MIT.

Many of his works used metonymic representation of gendered body fragments in ways that reflected surrealist roots. Surrealism had been the demonized other of modernism, in the terms of the New York school: this is a recurrent theme as one can see in the writings of Clement Greenberg and Barnett Newman, among others. As feminist art sought visual form for the depiction of female sexual desire, the surrealist movement provided important models. The surrealist movement has continued to exercise an important influence on feminist art and theory because, although the surrealist artists themselves may have been unregenerate in their views about femininity: placing irrationality and madness in the feminine, at least they prized those states of being. Thus their work and that of the theorists surrounding their group, such as Bataille and Lacan, opened the door for later feminist investigation.

Von Huene’s works shared some of the characteristics of a reflection of gender identity as something learned, as a system of signs: as in many later works such as Tischtänzer, gender identity is telegraphed through a reduction of the body to a headless dancing pair of pants or tights, a system of culturally marked codes. The feminist art historian Carol Duncan had written an influential analysis of much representation of the female nude in vanguard modernist painting, “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting,” focusing on the violence done to the subjectivity of the female models, often most blatantly signaled by formal, compositional decapitation. Von Huene returned in many works to the bottom half, the sexed half, but of both men and women, and always with a focus on the signs of gender such as clothing or scale. Also appropriate to a feminist interpretation is the frequent awkwardness of the fragmented body part: the legs and boots of Tap Dancer teeter between a military appearance and the suggestion of a medical condition, transposition of right and left feet, or two left feet perhaps. Certainly his depictions or intimations of women are never exploitative, never deliberately sexually disturbing in the manner of an artist like Hans Bellmer for example.

Fragmentation, figuration, gender, craft, lack, these were all areas of interest that had strong connections to the interests of much feminist art investigation at the time and feminist psychoanalytic theory of later years.

Finally von Huene’s unusual relationship to dominant or dominating systems of power are important components for What’s Wrong with Art and Blaue Büche in which he uses formal elegance to contain his distaste for abuses of power in the art world. From percussion as pure declarative sound, in Drum, for example, he moves in Blaue Büche and Der Mann von Jüterborg to speech as a percussive instrument of power. In Drum the mechanical devices that drive the drumsticks prefigure the robots that run the world in The Matrix, while in Der Mann von Jüterborg the slow pace of an invisible man moves like a marionette, following in a disturbing yet powerful slow motion the drum beat of human speech. These works develop a sophisticated critique of systems in which the spirit of creativity and of phenomenological investigation is frustrated and perverted by market values. In these works he continues to be a valuable teacher as well as a unique artist.

Stephan Von Huene and his piece Text Tone, 1083

Stephan von Huene was born in Los Angeles in 1932 of German-born parents. He studied at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), and then received his BFA from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1959. He received a Master of Arts degree from UCLA in 1965.

In the 1960s, Von Huene exhibited wood and leather sculptures at the Pasadena Art Museum. His early work was noted for its Pop and surrealist sensibility and for his highly refined craft. He taught at Chouinard Art Institute in LA, and California State University, LA. Between 1971 to 1976 he was a teacher and Dean at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), along with Alan Kaprow and Paul Brach. He also taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1974 and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant that year. In 1975 he completed Drum, a commission with James Tenney, for the Exploratorium Museum in San Franscisco.

In 1976-77 Von Huene received a DADD grant to work in Berlin. He later moved to Germany where he was based in Hamburg and taught at the Art Academy in Karlsruhe (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe), as well as at the Fachhochschule fur Gestaltung, Hamburg, Germany. His work was included in Documenta 8.

Von Huene’s acoustic sculptural work Text Tones is one of the major works in the contemporary collection of the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Berlin’s Museum for Contemporary Art.

Totem Tone V, (1969-1970), a von Huene sound sculpture is in the collection of the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and was discussed by artist Evan Holloway in a podcast accompanying the 2006-2007 exhibition The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture, curated by Anne Ellegood. You can hear it play toward the end of the podcast, about 20 minutes in.

Stephan von Huene, Totem Tone V, 1969-70

Selected Bibliography

Stephan von Huene, The Song of the Line, The Drawing 1950-1999, by Marvin Altner, Petra Oelschlager, Petra Kipphoff, Stephan von Huene, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2010

Stephan von Huene 1962-2000: Catalogue Raisonée, by H. Bredekamp, Petra Kipphoff, J. La Barbara, F. Michel, Petra Oelschlagel, Martin Warnke, Christoph Brockaus, Olaf Breuning, Stephan von Huene, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003.

Stephan von Huene: Klangkorper/Resounding Sculptures, by Stephan von Huene, Martin Wanke, and Christoph Brockhaus. Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003

For more information:

Stephan von Huene Wikipedia article (German)

Stephan von Huene, official website

Stephan von Huene at the Berlin Museum for Contemporary Art

“Tune the World: Sound Sculptures, Pictures, Drawings,” at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, review

Stephan von Huene –Border Crosser, Border Mover, ZKM-Media Museum, 2005

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Looking for art to love in all the right places

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.

Because the basic premise of A Year of Positive Thinking is to counterbalance my proclivity for “negative thinking,” I decided that for my first posts I would set out in New York City to find art that I love. I can’t be any more sure that I’ll find an art work I love on any given trip to galleries and museums as I would be to find a person to love at a cocktail party. But seeing art is always useful to something that I do: teaching, writing, or some aspect of studio practice. Bottom line, if I remember two shows I’ve seen in Chelsea by the time I get back to the E train or to coffee and a pastry at La Bergamote Patisserie on Ninth Avenue, I’ve had a good day. If I remember it the next day, better. If I find it useful in teaching a week later, the person’s up to something.

But here I should step back and try to tease out some of the categories of “falling in love” with an artwork.

There are many ways of falling in love with an artwork, or many gradations. When I first entered the artworld as an adult, I realized that I had to have two scales of judgment: one for the great artworks of history that had made me want to be an artist but which I didn’t have much expectation of ever equaling and the other for artworks of my workaday current artworld by whose rules I had to function and might be judged myself.

There is another relation to art that is not exactly the same as love, but has inestimable value, and I’m not sure it is something a human relation can give me: some works contain something in them that stops me in my tracks and propels me back to my studio. I see something, something clicks in my mind and I think, OK, I can work, in fact I must work (I sometimes literally shield my eyes as I get out of the gallery or the museum so that nothing mediocre or hideous will erode the generative impulse).

It can be a whole work or it can be a detail in a larger work. The most extreme example in recent years because it was the most minimal was a drawing by Philip Guston at the Morgan Library which I saw in the late spring of 2008. Among a group of very simple charcoal line drawings, this one consisted of a single vertical charcoal mark about a half-inch wide coming down about an inch from the middle top border of the sheet of otherwise blank paper. That was it. A whole summer of my own work in the studio was spurred and enabled by that one stroke. It was enough for Guston, and that was part of the gift to me: he knew it was enough and left it so. It was more than enough for me. Was it a great drawing? Did I “fall in love” with it? No, not exactly. But its justness and lack of compromise spoke one word to me, an empathic “Yes.”

Unfortunately for me as a writer, the nature of this experience is largely beyond words and words are unnecessary to its instrumental effect because what I feel impelled to do is work, not write. Not that writing isn’t work but when I say my work I mean my painting and drawing – even more curious because it is the one thing in my life that I do for myself and with total pleasure – I really knew that my mother understood who I was when, one summer as we were settling into our house in Provincetown, I overheard her telling Wally Tworkov on the phone, “Mira is very busy, she hasn’t started working yet.” That pretty much sums it up.

So in sum:

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.

Mira Schor, notebook sketch of Philip Guston's drawing, "Clearing the Decks", 2008

The next 2 or 3 posts will be on art currently on view in New York.

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