Tag Archives: William Kentridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Magic Tricks in the Dark

An earlier, unfinished version of this post went out to my subscribers by mistake yesterday although I immediately deleted it and it does not appear on the blog itself. Also, for subscribers who receive these posts in their email: this post contains videos that you will not see in the email program, you have to click on the site itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised at what gets media attention: my previous post, about Marina Abramovic’s live performance in “The Artist is Present” went viral, mainly because of the louche interest elicited by my speculations on how she pees. That is to say, I got attention not so much for what else I said about her exhibition at MoMA but just for that one provocative question. Meanwhile I’ve been stymied in my efforts to figure out how to convey the importance to me of a particular moment sitting in the dark in William Kentridge‘s installation of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. But since the Kentridge show closes May 17 and I hope that anyone who has not seen the show will go see it, I’ll try to pull out of the darkness a few stray thoughts suggested by my experience of his work, like the floating pages that Kentridge snatches from the air as they float into his hands in several of his recent films. (This is a series of impressions, not a review, Roberta’s Smith’s New York Times review when the show opened offers a fair assessment).

I had set out in New York City last month to look for art works to fall in love with. Of all the categories of falling in love that I identified, the one that mattered the most because it was in some way attainable yet not total, was the category of something, however fragmentary, that would propel me back into my studio with sense of affirmation of creativity and a provocation for honesty and frankness of the gesture. Sitting for the first time facing Tabula Rasa I (2003), one of the 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, I was thrilled by a particular moment where the dark liquid in a coffee cup is poured out on a sheet of white paper as a cloud of charcoal dust, and the charcoal seems to draws itself, the paper is folded and when the artist reopens it, he gazes on a self-portrait of himself at the table .

William Kentridge, still from Tabula Rasa I, 2003, from 7 Pieces for Georges Melies

Kentridge’s films are interesting in that they are made up of elements that in themselves are not necessarily that interesting. The individual charcoal drawings that make up his films are done in a stodgy, static, outdated academic style, which may be deliberate and strategic but I think is also just the way he draws; in his most recent works, the film tricks he borrows from the early history of film animation, including a consistent use of reverse motion, may seem even more obsolescent; the music in all the films has a slightly nostalgic quality that could be too sentimental. The work doesn’t have an iota of the kind of ironic distance that remains so much a marker of contemporaneity in art. Yet when the drawings are put into constant motion of inventive fluidity, the music lends a driving haunting quality that transcends the nostalgic, and the subject matter whether it is apartheid in South Africa or the private life of the studio artist is literary, personal, generous, and modest, all in the best sense, the totality of the work speaks to a genuine and impressive confidence in the artist’s own creativity, and in creativity in general.

The first time I saw the Kentridge show, I was thinking to myself, “this work makes me want to go home and work,” and, also,  “I have to step up my game.” (Just then, Susan Bee, sitting next to me in the dark room spoke up, “This work is too good, it makes you want to give up.” She said that I had left that category out of my list of types of falling in love with art!) The work opens up the possibility of serious creative play for the artist/viewer precisely because it is made up of so many unpromising or unremarkable components and because Kentridge never uses his confidence in his own work as a weapon, as so many artists do (see the first room on the 6th floor of MoMA of  Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present in contradistinction).

The recent work’s focus on the artist’s studio practice, the action of making, of reaching for an idea, literally snatching ideas as they float past you, about pigment, matter and its vanishing, is echoed in the quotes used to good effect in the wall text:

“Walking, thinking, stalking the image. Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours spent walking, pacing back and forth across the space, gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark …It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film or sculpture) a different invisible work must be done.”

Beyond this invisible or seemingly unproductive preparatory work, which Kentridge literalizes by filming himself pacing in his studio, looking through books, day dreaming about his wife who then appears, touches his shoulder and as quickly disappears from the frame, a naked but unidealized body, Kentridge also comments on the importance of  process even when the results are not immediately evident:

“Everything can be saved. Everything is provisional. A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revised by the next drawing. … The smudges of erasure thicken time in the film, but they also serve as a record of the days and months spent making the fim — a record of thinking in slow motion.”

Kentridge’s commitment to retaining the the trace of process continues in “Double Lines, A ‘Stereo’ Interview about Drawing with William Kentridge” by Michael Auping, in the exhibition catalogue. Auping notes that Kentridge preferred to annotate the transcript of their interview, rather than polishing it into a smooth unified text. Auping writes, “He is not a polisher. He is a questioner. Reflecting the dialectical character  of Kentridge’s art, the interview takes the form of a self-argument. …As with his alter egos Felix and Soho, Kentridge in essence doubles himself in this interview by not only answering my original questions but also questioning his own answers.” In one such internal dialogue, Kentridge speaks about drawing (I’ve put the question of the answer into a lighter font color and, as in the catalogue layout, a further indent):

WK: […] If you have little money, drawing materials are not that difficult to come by. Drawing does not in most cases require special tools. In South Africa that matters in some fundamental ways. There is a democracy to drawing, and a certain kind of work ethic. One of the things that attracts me to drawing, and that in some way relates to its politics, is that it is a demonstration of agency. There is something about the act of drawing that reflect a process of labor. You have a sense of work, at least for me.

There is no work ethic. Or that is not what I am interested in. It is the appearance of work, making visible the hours on the paper. In an era in which the human labor in everything was clear, there was something utopian in making art appear effortless or at least miraculous. Now that we take the impossible for granted — digital animation, Photoshop (the invisible workings of a computer compared to the very visible and audible mechanics of a typewriter) — there seems a place for showing physical process (And through this mental process; this is not clear, but some impulse in this direction sits in my guts — not that they are to be trusted either).

These statements about materiality, process, and failure are ever more important to hear and read and see. So many young artists I know feel so much pressure to produce a marketable product that they never can trust themselves to engage in process, in making and unmaking. So much of Kentridge’s work reflects on process, change, and the constant attempt to make and unmake an image.

There is a characteristic gesture in Tabula Rasa I that caught my attention, one that recurs in a number of these works about studio practice and it is to the point of this emphasis on creativity as the very subject of Kentridge’s work: the hands of the artist as he prepares to draw or sculpt engaged in a ritual gesture of tentative prestidigitation, to conjure up the image or the mark. It is a gesture that is so self-ironizing about the artistic process that Art Carney used it often for classic comic effect in The Honeymooners, as Ed Norton, to preface the most mundane task. This film fragment captures some of these moments:

Unfortunately  it is impossible to provide good quality video links to the works that most relate to Kentridge’s homage to Méliès — such as Méliès’ The Trip to the Moon from 1902 — and to his recent use of live action animation: here it would be great to be able to see Shoot the Moon (1963), Red Grooms’ own tribute to the Méliès film, made with Rudy Burckhardt and Mimi Gross, and his live animation masterpiece, Fat Feet (1966), made with Yvonne Andersen, Dominic Falcone, and Mimi Gross, both of which sadly are not yet available on DVD. These works share Kentridge’s  pleasure in the simple magic of film although the Grooms films are less melancholic and more anarchic than Kentridge.

The degree to which the studio in Kentridge’s films is a construct and a fiction becomes clear when you see a bit of Kentridge working in his actual studio, in a clip of Art21: Kentridge’s “character” The Studio (as much a character as his other alter egos) is an intimate, dimly lit space, in perpetual twilight, seen through the scrim of the kind of greyed out scratches reminiscent of silent film. Thus it comes as a bit of shock when you see that his studio is in fact a brightly lit, state of the art, very clean space practically arranged with the requisite number of assistants.

But it is the very brightness of this actual space that makes some of Kentridge’s most recent work so strong, particularly his live performance of I Am Not Me, the Horse is Not Mine. I wish everyone I know could have shared the excitement of seeing this performance live last fall, followed the next evening by Joan Jonas’ performance of Reading Dante II, both part of performa09. There were some interesting similarities: the combination of new media with the most basic, oldest human means of artistic expression, — the body and drawing — an improvisational humble texture of the piece, the combination of video projection with very simple props and the body and voice of the artist, and literature (Dante and Gogol) as an important source read out loud by the artist. Both together made for a really inspiring and great week to be an artist!

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Looking for art to love, MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos

It’s weird, I wanted to write about a moment of inspiration and instigation I felt in front of one of William Kentridge’s films but for the moment Marina has crowded him out. It’s rare that a woman’s ego trumps a man’s, particularly in the context of one-person retrospectives in a major museum. My title therefore was first intended to highlight the battle for attention between two major artists. But, as this blurred picture suggests, that battle has been won.

Marina and William

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

I plan to stay downstairs with the living woman but the wall of noise that hit me at the door of the first room in the upstairs show, the trembling naked re-enactors, and the lack of historical contextualization in the wall text will stay with me as well. I will continue to wonder why the museum has not provided visitors with any information about international performance artworks that would seem to be of immediate relevance to this work, from contemporary women performance artists such as Gina Pane and Valie Export, and Action artists such as Herman Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. The tableaux vivant re-enactment of Nude with Skeleton (2002-2005) is for me haunted by Frida Kahlo’s The Dream (or the Bed) (1940). Women artists, nudity, and pain are recurring thematics of feminist art as well as personal obsessions of individual performers. It would be useful to offer that context even if Marina denies it.

Frida Kahlo, The Dream or The Bed, 1940

Even before you get up to the level of the spectacle taking place in the square arena marked by a line of the floor, guards, warning signs, and four stands of film lights, the bright white light from the atrium is already beautiful and enticing seen from the lobby below:

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, from the lobby MoMA May 2010

The first time I went to see the show, April 29, there was still a table installed between Abramovic and those sitting opposite her. I was with Susan Bee. We have seen many exhibitions together over many years and I always value her insights. We circled the square, surveying Marina from all sides — oops, I’ve lapsed into something that is against the rules of scholarly writing: you do not refer to artists by their first name, you do not talk about what “Pablo” was doing in Guernica, but I’ve noticed that a lot of women artists and art historians, whether they know — Marina — personally or not, are referring to her by her first name, sort as if it was her only name, like Cher or Madonna.

I found some of the visuals distracting, especially Marina’s red ecclesiastical garment, which one friend has compared to one of those snuggies, the blankets with sleeves advertised on TV. Many women viewers are concerned about how Marina pees: one artist is absolutely persuaded that the (I’m told it’s a Prada) dress is designed like an astronaut’ s suit with special receptacle panels and some catherization going on in there, another is as certain that she pees into the chair (if you visualize this in further detail it would mean there’s a big hole cut out of the back of her dress, which somehow I doubt).

Nevertheless as we circled the scene with interest, Susan’s comment, after a short while, that  “it’s sort of dignified in a way” echoed my own thoughts: perhaps we had come with a bit of snarky attitude about the hype surrounding the show and were surprised at our response once we were standing there (we did not chose to sit and in any case would never have made the effort to get there early enough or pulled enough strings to score a privileged spot at the head of the list to face Marina).

There is something hypnotically appealing about the whole scene, the lights, the square, the faces of both participants,  the strange shift between proximity to and distance from the two seated figures — it may be an optical illusion but you definitely feel closer to the figures and see the details of their faces and skin in better focus from the South side of the square even though the chairs appear to be centered. The hypnotic atmosphere must also emanate from the artist who is presumably present, intent on each viewer — that is after all the premise of the work —  yet undoubtedly self-hypnotized.

I’m not sure she is responding to the viewers any more intimately than Queen Elizabeth on a receiving line — if anything, the Queen may feel more duty bound to work a display of connection. Yet Marina’s face has a melting blankness which is quite fascinating and there must inevitably be a mirroring that takes place when two beings face each other for any length of time in silence.

This week the scene was visually reduced: the ecclesiastical garment is white  and the table is gone, which exposed both participants to each other and the audience. Since photography is forbidden despite (or because of) the fact that the whole thing is a photo-shoot set, I did a quick sketch of the scene:

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, seen from the North side of the atrium MoMA May 6, 2010

I’m amused that the artist’s effort to control documentation of her work forced me to turn to that old representational technology, drawing. And through the act of drawing, I experienced a strange apprehension of the scene, a perception that I might not have had if I had just held my camera up and waved it in the general direction of the subject. As I drew, I felt that I recognized a familiar form, something about the white dress, the slumping body, the prominent nose:

Jacques-Louis David, sketch of Marie Antoinette on the way to the Guillotine, October 16, 1793

I was not sure of the orientation of Marie-Antoinette’s face in the David drawing until I got home, but meanwhile I walked around the room to draw the scene from the other side.

Mira Schor, sketch of Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, from the South of the Atrium, MOMA, May 6, 2010

I draw no meaning from this coincidental resemblance between an exhausted looking Marina and a doomed Marie-Antoinette although there is certainly a generous dose of violent martyrdom on view in the work exhibited upstairs! If, despite the self-hagiographic-monarchical-ecclesiastical set-up of The Artist is Present, there is “something dignified” about Marina’s effort not to fall asleep in her chair and keel over, and something eerily pleasant in wandering around a light flooded public square, I don’t feel there is anything either dignified or interestingly desublimated about the spectacle of a woman pinned high on a spotlit wall, balanced on a bicycle seat, her arms held up in a pose of crucifixion, trembling with pain.

….

Meanwhile in the back room … see my next post about Kentridge and creativity.

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