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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—”Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

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If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

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There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

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And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

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“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

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If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

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For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

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“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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Jack Whitten (Photo: Rose Art Museum)

Yesterday I attended a symposium on the “status and stakes” of painting today. Most of the speakers were academics—art historians and curators whose business it is to categorize, systemize and prognosticate on where the world of art has been and where it is trending before it actually does.

These are concepts that hold a kind of intellectual interest for me. But I am also aware that they exist quite distinct from the day-to-day business of my life and work in the studio.

The most heartening takeaway for me was a ubiquitous agreement by all that painting is very much alive, thriving, and once again at the center of contemporary art discourse. For those of us old enough to have lived through the “painting is dead” pronouncements that started in the early 1960s and suffered through years of being asked why we did something so anachronistic as painting, there is bit of a self-congratulatory, “told you so” moment. But as one of the speakers put it, painting never stopped during those years, it just got elbowed out of the art hot seat as new forms like conceptual, performance, installation, new media and anti-art art took center stage. Katy Siegel, Curator-at-Large at Brandeis University, made the point that the popularity of painting today cannot be explained simply by market demand. There’s more to this resurgence than just commercialism and consumer demand. For someone who got the call at age 17 and has spent her life working in this form (that would be me), the answer is obvious.

When theorists gather, a lot of time gets spent on words, meaning, signifiers, subtexts, referents. Discussion about what the term “painting” means today is robust as that category keeps expanding beyond something that exists on canvas over stretcher bars. The usefulness of old standby words like “abstraction”, “artist”, “painter” have changed considerably and may not be serviceable in the current circumstances. ( Siegel said her students today eschew all the existing definitions and simply say, “I make stuff.”) Suzanne Hudson, USC professor and author of Painting Now (available in March 2015), reminded us of Leo Steinberg‘s open definition of painting as “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered.” She also finished her thoughtful remarks with a well known quote by Robert Ryman about how art progresses not through organized movements but because “everyone has to take little bites, little pieces of it and work on that.”

Energy flooded back in the room for me when artist Jack Whitten claimed his wise elder status and stepped into a whole lot of theorizing to keep the very act of art making central to the discussion. “Painting is hard work. When I am in my cave—that’s what I call my studio—I cannot see where I am going. It’s just blind man’s bluff in there…We do what we do out of necessity, and it comes out of our own world. I can see a work in my brain, and making the painting is a reproduction of that concept. It is moving something from the inside to the outside. It is scary and it is hard.”

Thank you Jack for bringing the essence back into this never ending, multi-faceted conversation. His timely interjection reminded me of another wise elder, John Cage, when he addressed the inchoateness of creation and making:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

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John Cage (Photo: Tucson Sentinel)

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My friend Joshua Baer writes about wine with more creativity than anyone I know. (His reviews appear monthly in Santa Fe’s THE Magazine, and all his columns can be found on One Bottle.) Last month he blended a review of 2012 Comte Abbatucci Rosé “Cuvée Faustine” with his admiration for the artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993.)

Our mutual admiration for Diebenkorn (who we affectionately refer to as just plain “Dick”, or RD) runs deep. Joshua’s father, the well respected California photographer Morley Baer, knew Diebenkorn and actually photographed some of his paintings for him. Joshua and I share vignettes about RD and his life like kids with trading cards.

In a tribute that appeared in the New Yorker right after RD’s death, Adam Gopnik wrote about the Diebenkorn legacy in words that still feel resonant twenty years later. Yes, RD’s Ocean Park #48 sold for $13,250,000 at a Christie’s auction two years ago. But during his life, RD was pretty much dismissed by the East coast art cartel. When I arrived in Manhattan in the early 70s, few of the artists with whom I became friends even knew who he was. Given the influence RD had had on my work as a young West Coast art student, I found this disregard unsettling.

In his 1993 article, Gopnik references several of the RD obituaries that had just appeared. In one RD was described as a “poet of sunny spaciousness.”

The obituaries were typical of the slightly backhanded compliments that Diebenkorn had been getting for most of his career. Americans don’t want their painters to be affectionately regarded—we mostly like them tetchy and transcendental—and “sunny spaciousness” sounds more like something we ask of an apartment than of an abstract master. Even “lyrical painter” is one of those winking epithets—like “scrappy infielder,” hardworking comedian,” or “sensitive art critic”—which are really code for “not so hot.”

As one art critic had previously framed his take on RD, “Kenneth Noland is a shark; Diebenkorn is a little goldfish.”

Presaging by 20 years the eventual rewrite of the West Coast’s influence on American art brought about by the 200+ venue mega-exhibit, Pacific Standard Time, Gopnik makes the case that Diebenkorn was in fact a key figure in that transformation of California from “provincial backwater to an artmaking capital equal to New York.” But he also acknowledges how slow others were to see that influence clearly:

His best paintings, the “Ocean Park” series were begun in the late sixties, when the ideological thuggery that has dominated New York art criticism ever since was just coming into being. Mannerism produces ideologues the way civil wards produce refugees: an art in which everything is held in quotation marks demands one gang of commentators to untangle its allusions and another gang of commentators to mock the first. Diebenkorn was patronized, or just ignored, by the ideological thugs of the left and encumbered with praise by the ideological thugs on the right…They admired his work for its absences, for all that it didn’t include (explicit political or ironic content, the more obvious kinds of pop imagery), and thereby left an impression, which may be hard to erase, of Diebenkorn as a Malibu Matisse.

Gopnik speaks to the influence of Matisse on RD’s work—which is certainly valid—but he shifts gears and makes the case that Diebenkorn is actually much more in the tradition of Cézanne:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—-radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

In spite of the current proclivity to report on art that feasts on irony morning, noon and night, there are many of us who are more drawn to that sphere of “unbending classical sincerity.” And if anyone can make being square the coolest compliment ever, it would be RD.

Call me square, PLEASE.

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Richard Diebenkorn in front of Ocean Park #59, Ashland and Main studio, Santa Monica, 1972 (Photo: Gilbert Lloyd Courtesy: Orange County Museum of Art)

More posts on Slow Muse about RD:

The Shape-Making Impulse

State of Paint

This Flashing Present

Diebenkorn’s Fields of Silence

Pacific Standard Time: Proof at the Norton Simon Museum

Pacific Standard Time: Begin the Rewrite

The Other Coast, Reconsidered

Left Coast Report

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“When Pressure Exceeds Weight VI,” by Richard Tuttle (2012) (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Universal Limited Art Editions)

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“In Praise of Historical Determinism I, II, III,” by Richard Tuttle (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Brooke Alexander)

Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a sophisticated, intelligent, inventive, provocative and exuberant exploration of over 40 years’ worth of printmaking by one of the great living artists of our time. Famously gifted in an ability to see around, under and behind a thing in a way that repeatedly surprises and delights those of us who follow his work closely, Richard Tuttle is the perfect candidate to playfully dismantle the tradition-bound world of printmaking. This show upends the orthodoxy of woodcuts, wood engravings, lithography, intaglio, colographs and monoprints, and the results reveal a great deal about Tuttle’s artistic practice and the way he thinks.

I have been a Tuttle fan most of my art making life. His show at the Whitney Museum in 1975 took place right after I arrived in New York City from California, and it was one of those life changing experiences for me. Controversial and bravely stated, that show cost curator Marcia Tucker her job. But it also gave many of us a paragon for how the visually playful and simple can express an Eastern philosophical sensibility—demonstrated simply by a nailed segment of white twine that took stewardship of an entire wall. Tuttle’s work has spoken to me directly and personally ever since. (A list of previous Slow Muse posts about Tuttle is included below.)

Since that show in 1975 there have been many other exhibits, most recently the massive retrospective mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2005 (which, in a sweet coming full circle, also made its way to the Whitney.) In many ways however this show at Bowdoin offers even more transparency into Tuttle’s work than the others. With over 100 pieces on display, you are able to track his tireless eye and perpetually investigative mind at work.

This exhibit exposes in meticulous detail how Tuttle breaks things down, the way he pulls something wide open and then allows another something quite exquisite to emerge from the most unexpected shards of that dismantling. An early woodcut was created using magic markers. A series of intaglio prints incorporates the ubiquitous tarlatan (the special cloth traditionally used to carefully wipe ink from a plate) as a tiny grid matrix that is brought into the composition as an unexpected flourish. Plates are cut into shapes and the edges become lines in the composition. Paper pulp and other elements go into the press along with the plate, sometimes squeezing out the sides and extending the shape outside the familiar rectilinear form. This isn’t a slackerish disregard for technique but an exuberant celebration of pressing and pressure, another way to extend the dimensions and capabilities of the printing press itself.

The curatorial text is very well done. Unlike the common proclivity to “explain” the art and to dumb things down to the lowest common demoninator, the wall words in this exhibit are respectful, informed and enhancing. Thank you for that curators Christina von Rotenhan and Joachim Homann.

Does a trip to Maine need additional incentives? I think not!

The show, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine (about a 2.5 hour drive from Boston), is on view through October 19, 2014.

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More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Vogel 50 x 50

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

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To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

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My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

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Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

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The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

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Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
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Charles Burchfield writing at his desk, by William Doran (Photo: Charles E. Burchfield Archives, Gift of William Doran)

For years I had Charles Burchfield misfiled under “Depression Era Regional Artists” along with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. It wasn’t a file I spent much time rifling through, so my error wasn’t discovered until I saw the show of his work curated by artist Robert Gober in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York. (An earlier post detailing that revelatory show is Burchfield on my Mind.)

Everything changed when I saw his work in a full continuum. In just one day Burchfield catapulted from an obscure regionalist whose work I barely knew to one of my favorite artists. My passion for him has only increased with time.

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Burchfield’s Autumnal Fantasy

While I was in Chautauqua New York for the opening of my show, On the Surface: Outward Appearances (details here), I was able to see two exhibitions that featured Burchfield and his work. One was serendipitously upstairs from On the Surface at the Strohl Arts Center—The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield. By comingling both visual and verbal Burchfieldisms, this show makes the best case yet for his true identity as a visionary, a nature mystic, and a channel. Once you get that it is so obvious, especially when reading the words he wrote.

With the exception of Robert Gober,* art historians have not embraced the deeply mystical aspects of Burchfield’s work. He is not included in the list of visionary artists along with the likes of William Blake, Gustave Moreau and Morris Graves. Burchfield doesn’t look the part, that’s for certain: his unpretentious midwestern demeanor just doesn’t suggest “mystic” to anyone. Visiting the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo—which boasts the largest collection of his work—I found the curatorial commentary rather tone deaf to the rhapsodic quality of Burchfield’s connection with the natural world. The portrait of him that they seem to draw is one of a benign, hard working landscape artist who had a peculiar tendency towards extra swirls which they refer to as “heat waves”.

I get it. Burchfield’s ability to see the auric fields that exist around every tree, flower and star is not an aesthetic category that is easy to explain. I had the extraordinary advantage of viewing his work with my friend Linda who possesses a similar ability, so her immediate recognition of what Burchfield was up to reinforced my own intuitive sense of his gift of mystical seeing.

A few of Burchfield’s hand scrawled messages included in the Chautauqua show read like mystical pronouncements, as instructions channeled to him directly. One that I did not photograph captures the essence of Burchfield’s seminal assignment:

Give yourself up entirely to nature. Let nature woo you.

That line couples nicely with another Burchfield quote:

An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.

Given the increased interest in Burchfield and his work, I am certain there are several researchers working on what will become the newly updated and definitive biography of his life. I hope any future retelling will include a more robust recognition of Burchfield’s deeply mystical and visionary nature.

Handwritten notes from the Burchfield exhibit at Chautauqua:

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“You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers.”

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“It is up to you now, to carry on. Are you equal to the task?”

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“You are completely dead – Devoid of any emotional attitude toward nature Wake up – be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.”

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*Robert Gober is the one voice that does acknowledge Birchfield’s otherworldliness. In his catalog for the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Gober goes so far as to describe Burchfield’s work as “immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature…often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities.”

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“Desert Breath,” land art in the Eastern Sahara Desert in Egypt. Two spirals emanate from a circular depression 100 feet in diameter. The installation occupies over a million square feet of desert and can be viewed from the air. Artist Danae Stratou, designer and architect Alexandra Stratou, and architect Stella Constantinides created the project between 1995 and 1997. It has since been left to slowly disintegrate. (Photos: Laughing Squid)

Those who know me well know of my passion for Fanny Howe—her poetry and her prose speak to me deeply. One of my favorite Howe essays, “Bewilderment” (included in her book, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life) is a particular favorite, and one that I go back to again and again.

In this passage she turns to dreams and how they engage with us. Her descriptions are so closely aligned with how art comes into being in my studio. There is a dialogue and a dance happening every time I encounter a surface that is asking to be engaged in the process of becoming something else.

As we all know, a dream hesitates. it doesn’t grasp, it stands back, it jokes, it makes itself scared, it circles, and it fizzles.

A dream often undermines the narratives of power and winning…

A dream breaks into parts and contradicts its own will, even as it travels around and around.

For me, bewilderment is like a dream: one continually returning pause on a gyre and in both my stories and my poems it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything else emerges on paper.

For the spiral-walked there is no plain path, no up and down, no inside or outside. But there are strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion.

Spiral walking! I love that phrase. Howe then combines the concept of the spiral with the mystic tradition of the maze, another invitation to be in bewilderment:

The construction of high-hedged mazes is a concession to bewilderment, just as Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty rises and sinks under the weight of Utah’s salt water—both site and non-site—a shape that must turn back or drop off—that can climb and wind down—that has noetic as well as poetic attributes, miming infinity in its uncertain end.

The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others—places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.

And even if it is associated with childhood, madness, stupidity, and failure, even if it shows not only how to get lost but also how it feels not to return, bewilderment has a high status in several mystical traditions.

The definition of bewilder is “to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.” It is a collapse of the referential and an invitation to sustain tetherlessness. Bewilderment “breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that.)

Mystics get this. I think many artists do too.

[Note: You can view Desert Breath from Google Earth here.]

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Meredith Monk (Photo: Peter Ross)

Meredith Monk was an ubiquitous influence on me during my early years as an artist in New York City duing the 70s. Already an icon, she explored forms of expression that ranged wide and deep, crossing over into so many different métiers—dance, music, visual art, writing, film, performance, theater. She is the archetype of artist as shaman, artist as visionary.

In a recent interview with Monk, she makes this observation:

There are basically two kinds of artists. One is a mirror of the particular time that artist lives in. The other is more the way that I think about things, which is a more timeless kind of idea of very fundamental energies and cycles of human behavior and things that recur. We are sensitive, and we stand a little bit away from the world, enough to respond to it, but at the same time we offer an alternative.

What I’m trying to do is to offer an experience, a direct experience in the very distracted world that we’re living in, which might not be so easy. It’s very hard for us to let go of our devices and distractions, and the nakedness of the present is, for many people, very painful. The stillness, the not being entertained, and just the being in the present is not that easy, but I think that that’s what I’m trying to do in my work — to offer a situation where audience members could actually let go of the distractions, let go of the mental narrator, let go of the restlessness for a certain period of time.

Monk’s first paragraph captures a concept I have circled around for years, and she does it with such simplicity and clarity. And her second paragraph—how we manage in this very distracted world—is a succint reminder of the importance of putting down our devices on a regular basis (not just on holidays) and being in the “nakedness of the present.” May your 4th of July be full of that.

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The Whitney Museum’s current Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, soon to be abandoned for the new Renzo Piano space downtown. Photo: Gryffindor, via Wikimedia Commons.

As controversies are already abounding regarding the opening of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum (The most visible being John Yau‘s recent essay in the Brooklyn Rail, The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine), I have been thinking about art criticism and what it means to me as an artist and maker. I have no interest in Koons or in seeing the show, but responses to his work may at times present a narrative that is of interest. Now that’s a curious thing, when art with which I have no connection can create a conversation around it that can be compelling.

A passage I found in Rebecca Solnit‘s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness”, from her new collection, Men Explain Things to Me, addresses some of this.

Referring to her years as an art critic:

I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

The proclivity to “make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable” is an ongoing challenge for any artist whose work is to dig deep into that which is uncertain and unknowable. “What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether,” says Solnit.

But there is also a kind of counter-criticism that actually expands the work of art, that opens up its meanings and its possibilities. Criticism of this kind can liberate a work of art and will engage in a conversation that keeps feeding the imagination. That is when criticism achieves a whole new level.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas…this is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence: the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

That is how it feels to read the really good writers about art. I put John Yau in that category along with W. S. Di Piero, Lawrence Rinder, David Levi Strauss, Sianne Ngai, Dave Hickey, Michael Kimmelman, Sebastian Smee and Donald Kuspit. And of course my all time favorite writer about contemporary art—the great Carl Belz.

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“Untitled (Rorschach),” a 1999 work by Sigmar Polke.(Photo: Alistair Overruck/Estateof Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society)

The current show of Sigmar Polke’s work at MOMA, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, is staggeringly expansive. With 260 works of art filling 10 galleries plus the atrium, the curators wisely moved most of the accompanying text into a 30 page handout on newsprint. Headspinnigly complex, the feeling of being overwhelmed is unavoidable.

Sebastian Smee took a stab at it in his recent review in the Boston Globe:

What kind of artist was Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)? The question affords no easy answer.

Besides being the most protean major artist of the past three or four decades, this German face-puller, tongue-poker, and cackling boogeyman was the kind of artist willing to spend weeks and months extracting purple pigment from the glands of snails (following ancient, imperial precedent) only to apply the precious substance to silk with a kind of desultory shoulder shrug.

He was the kind of artist who was happy to spend vast chunks of his life hand-painting raster dots — the pixel grids that make up imagery on television screens and printed matter — or pointing a video camera at whatever took his fancy…Replete with paintings, drawings, and prints on every scale and in every conceivable medium (and in some media, like “meteoric granulate,” “iron mica,” and “thermal enamel,” you probably never conceived of), as well as videos, photographs, photocopies, sculptures, and stained glass, [the exhibit] arrives four years after the artist’s death, at the age of 69.

Polke followed every thread and tried on every art trope. He is probably the most untethered and rule busting artist I know. The energy of his exploration is playful, but it is accompanied with a cold eye to the darker side of human nature and the world we have created. Polke “poured scorn on the idea of genuflecting before great art,” writes Smee. “An incessant, impulsive creator, he ridiculed our habit of revering artists or entering art galleries with earnest intent.”

The expansiveness and outward thrust of this extraordinary body of work is in high contrast to another artist I was reading about while I was in New York: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). One of the most intimate of 20th century artists, Morandi’s oeuvre focuses almost exclusively on a very discrete number of objects that he rearranges repeatedly. He lived most of his life in Bologna with his mother and his sisters, teaching etching to make his way. He was introverted and private but not so isolated that he did not know about his contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. (He was interested in works by Rothko and Pollock.) He once said, “nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, that what we actually see. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, just the meanings we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.”

His approach is as far from Polke’s as you could possibly get. Where Polke is epic and expansive, Morandi is concentrated, quiet, personal and intimate. Polke experimented with every medium and form he could get his hands on, and Morandi stayed with his fascination for the arrangement of form and light in a simple still life. Polke’s humor and sardonic statements about art and the world require a willed detachment from the whole enterprise of art making. Morandi seeks a oneness with his vessels, working that connection over and over again. Yet both artists achieve an extraordinary expressiveness and are unforgettably forceful in their use of visual language.

My revisit with Morandi came through an essay about his work in the poet W. S. De Piero‘s collection of essays, When Can I See You Again? De Piero has long been one of my favorite poets who write about art (For other posts about him on Slow Muse, a list of links is below) and his description of Morandi’s work pulled me back into that world with just one read.

Here are a few passages that capture so much of what I love about Morandi’s work:

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He uses the material world to disclose the inner life, to get us to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter. The work scrutinizes in a visionary way the immaterial in the material. The pictures are extreme acts of attentiveness and can induce the kind of mania Ortega described when he wrote that a maniac (or lover) is somebody with an abnormal attention span.

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The paint can be alluvial, buttery, torpid or dashed, thinly whisked, nearly transparent. For years he ground his own pigment and returned all his life to variations on the a familiar range of tones, the sanded-down oranges, blushed umbers, and smoky maroons of Bologna’s walls.

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The modern sublime isn’t about magnitude or clarion ambition: it rubs perception so close to ordinary facts of physical reality that we feel pressed against a membrane that obscurely separates us from whatever lies on the other side, if there is another side. It intensifies and restores physical reality while suggesting something larger than consciousness. The frontal sensuous forms on a Morandi canvas induce an exhilarating anxiety about what’ unnameable and invisible but felt along the nerves.

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Morandi was the least performance-conscious of the great moderns. The only audience other than himself was the space between his eye and the canvas. And no modern more-or-less figurative artist so resists or shrugs off the use of words…Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism make magpies of us, but his works don’t offer themselves up to words any more than Wallace Stevens’s poems offer themselves to illustration.

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Morandi’s chamber music of color harmonies, the degrees and directions of brushiness, the vibratory frequencies in and around objects—they don’t invite admiration, through they can charm us into casual awe. Modestly sumptuous to the eye, his art is tensely interiorized, it possess a reserve that puts us at a remove where we can observe the working relationship between the painter’s transformative eye and his silent sitters.

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He’s preoccupied not with liquidity and consistency but with what’s aspirated. He makes us see the ghost of a thing in a thing, as if he’s painting dark matter’s hues, a thing’s negative existence.

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Morandi’s art has everything to do with teasing out problems specific to the art, but one of its essential, sustaining pleasures is its comprehensive candor of presence (the studio paraphernalia expand and contract in a complex choreography of architectural or structural possibilities) blended with a humility that’s not reticence at all but something might and self-contained.

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Look long enough and the reappearing paraffin lamps, shells, Tin Man hats and the rest begin to feel like company. They were his company certainly, and they feel like they’re keeping us (and themselves) company…Their presence says: Recognize us, know us in order to know yourself.

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Giorgio Morandi (Photo: SIAE/Museo D’Arte Moderna E Contemporanea Di Trento E Rovereto)

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Other posts about De Piero:

Pitchers and Catchers
Whole Body Art
Hybrid Vigor
Matisse, Giotto and the Religious Imagination
Painting the Facelessness
Beyond Liturgy

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