Tag Archives: Teaching Contradiction

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


Teaching Contradiction: Reality TV and Art School

This is the first of a number of projected posts I hope to weave into A Year of Positive Thinking, on the theme of “Teaching Contradiction.”

Poised as those of us who teach or are students are between the last episode of the reality show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” on Bravo Network and the beginning of the academic year, this seems like a good time  to examine how some of the contradictions enacted in the final episode of that show replicate contradictions that exist within the expectations placed on artists studying in MFA programs around the country.

The final show of what is currently being described as the “first season” of “Work of Art” established a contradiction in its own narrative premise: each episode but the last was structured around a “challenge.” The artists were given an assignment and either alone or in collaboration drawn by lot had to produce a work in about 24 hours with sometimes deliberately limited materials (you know something is wrong when A. you get only $100 to spend at Utrecht, whereas many decent old fashioned art supplies such as a tube of good quality of cadmium red oil paint can cost $50 and B. a lot of artists don’t use the kind of materials carried at Utrecht).

This seemed to be an entirely unrealistic depiction of creative work, since that brief time had to include coming up with an idea, shopping for supplies, dealing with all kinds of production demands, and doing the piece. This pace is more suitable to Bravo’s Top Chef series, since every day in a restaurant kitchen is a nearly 24 hour cycle of shopping for fresh produce and preparing dishes on demand under theatrical conditions of intense pressure with due speed whereas the time frame of the “Work of Art” challenges precluded both the kind of contemplation (reflection, research etc) or craft (here understood as refinement or finish) that are generally considered an essential part of artmaking (and since $100,000 –one the biggest individual artist grants in the world– was at stake you’d think that would matter but I digress…only  slightly). The artists who did best had some basic skills –traditional craft skills such as carpentry and mold-making seemed particularly useful–and were quick to come up with a concept, though often these were extremely literal and illustrative, a problem shared with much contemporary art.

However, to the contrary, in the last episode of “Work of Art,” the three finalists were given 3 months and $5000 to produce a body of their “own” work for a show (the fact that anyone would get $100,000 for mostly not doing their “own” work is …again, I digress). For the most part this allowed them to produce more polished work in terms of materials and surface finish though their conceptual apparatus seemed remarkably unchanged by the relatively more expanded time. Strangely the person most gifted in the short time-frame, Miles Mendenhall, who under pressure was quick, slick, and clever, knew how to make things, and how to occupy space convincingly, did not fare as well with more time, losing spatial energy while revealing the weaknesses in his conceptual frame.

Much discussion on Facebook, Jerry Saltz’s much awaited weekly recaps, and various blogs pondered how much this particular reality show with its for the most part silly assignments, awful art, weird costuming, and lack of articulated critical and aesthetic discourse or criteria even when compared to Project Runway and Top Chef  had to do with the “real” artworld. Sorry Jerry, but, perhaps because of editing, the uninformed viewer would get little background on the various contexts and references that make up the aesthetic criteria used by the judges.

In this contradiction between premise #1, pressure to produce art work in a short time within a group situation and premise #2, longer time frame for private production, “Work of Art” did bear some resemblance to one of the basic contradictions operative in two-year MFA Programs: in the equivalently short amount of time given to get an MFA degree, students experience an overwhelming exposure to a bewilderingly vast amount of diverse new artists, ideas, theoretical languages, art styles, aesthetic and political criteria (many of these contradictory), they are given lots of theoretical texts to read and are expected to see exhibitions and go to every art event they are told about, and yet they are expected to produce work regularly for critiques and discussion with teachers and visiting artists, (while, to name another contradiction, often limited to tiny studios with little privacy while implicitly expected to compete with works in museums and galleries produced with enormous yet mysteriously obscured budgets).

As a teacher, I enact the demands of this contradictory situation yet at the same time I am particularly sympathetic to its stresses because in the last 10 years a curious split in my work practice which has its roots in my earliest years as an artist has become acute: my deepest, most meaningful and most productive immersion in studio practice takes place during barely two months of the summer and away from New York City, and the much longer months of the academic year are spent in New York working on jobs (including teaching), working on my work (which may involve working with my works in digital reproduction, archiving + all the editorial, secretarial and social work that goes into even a modest career), and immersing myself in the multiple influences of current thought and art. All that uses up a lot of “bioRAM” as a friend of mine terms it, which in the summer goes entirely to the immersion in studio work and thought. Writing is the only activity that is continuous because it is an extension of thought and is stimulated equally by discourse and debate within the artworld and by time alone inside my mind.

The city mouse/country mouse dichotomy extends to my teaching itself: just as I paint and write, just as I imbricate written language into the language of paint, I approach the development of the artist in the classroom through text and history and in the studio through a variety of more formal and also more intuitive approaches and vice-versa: I’m committed to the artist as a historically produced thus educated to history, culturally contextualized person who should have as much control of theory as possible so it won’t have control of her–but at the same time I love the development of working–call it studio practice even when it isn’t what that used to mean or what I do–and I know that creative work needs to occasionally be unmoored from overdetermination.

In this city/graduate school environment, the upside of constant interaction/confrontation with people, work, and ideas that you have to understand, absorb, react to, sometimes defend yourself against, yet often allow to transform you, is that complacency is hard to come by. The downside is that there may not be time to process everything and all the outside voices can drown out the interior ones or, even, according to certain theoretical outlooks, deny that an inner voice exists inasmuch as it might be associated with autonomous art practices which have been deemed obsolete. And you are constantly having to put yourself forward, which for the MFA student means constantly talking about what your work means leaving little time for either doing it or for doing work whose meaning you might not have a ready explanation for, work that is transitional, even work that is a “failure.” You become all outside speech and less inside voice until you are running on empty.

Mira Schor, Voice and Speech, 2010, ink, gesso, and rabbit skin glue on linen, summer studio snapshot

Since I have always reaped tremendous energy for my work and my writing from work that at first and sometimes finally at last, seems antithetical to my own, these encounters produce my work, they are an important part of it. Dealing with the “real” world of “winter” battles is absolutely necessary. Yet so is the uninterrupted and intimate availability to my work that I feel I need in order to really paint. It’s always hard to come by, hard won, and even hard to recognize as it is happening. It relies not just on aloneness but even on loneliness. It can come out of a desperation that makes you take chances –like the Diver on the postcard at the top of my studio wall array of postcards or like the demon of fear of failure that Agnes Martin discusses in her visionary essay about creativity, “On The Perfection Underlying Life.”

In recent years debates have intensified over the the possibility of alternatives to institutionalized graduate school, as degrees proliferate and tuition costs rise disproportionately to the earning power of most artists. Thinking of this split between information and critical discourse on the one hand, and studio/post-studio/post-post-studio practice on the other in relation to the usefulness of graduate school, one could truthfully state that the knowledge one is exposed to in school is available in the world at all times, especially in urban centers: museums, galleries, books, art magazines, internet sources, panel discussions, artists’ lectures all abound, though graduate school intensifies, categorizes, and filters that knowledge through the  interpretive structuring lens of the school’s ideology and its faculty’s strongly held viewpoints while insisting on disciplined and timely engagement and response on the part of the student. But critical responses to your artwork by individual artists and critics is much harder  to come by outside the academic structure, people are just too busy and will certainly not be able to give sustained attention, so if you don’t do the work when you’re in school, you lose out on the unique opportunity to get concentrated and sustained feedback, when you want it and even when you don’t.

In a couple of diary entries from 1924, Virginia Woolf discussed the duality of work environments in her life –London/discourse/data input/sociality, and the country/solitude/introspection: “the country is like a convent, the soul swims to the top,” (August 2nd, 1924). I read this sentence when I was in my twenties and just beginning my city/country split work life and the sentence stayed with me. I found it just now through a Google search in 30 seconds, since evidently she is the only person who ever expressed that thought in those words:

Virginia Woolf, from A Writer's Diary, August 2nd, 1924, page 62

Yet the isolation and solitary confrontation with her work also brought on depression which the bustle of London dispelled. May 26th, 1924 she had written:

No matter whether it’s a reality TV show, graduate school, or the  everyday life of the working artist, it is always a matter of constant negotiation between world and self, the art itself and the making of it.

Note in the sand, 2010