Peter Schjeldahl

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ken-price_teaser

The Ken Price show catalog is full of gems. Here are a few:

Price tended to progress in loose series. “It’s the most enjoyable way to work. It’s a lot more satisfying than taking a single piece to completion before you begin the next one…You get a lot more feedback, there are moments of linear progression that makes you think your work is improving.”

As Peter Schjeldahl notes, “It’s as if he crossed a bridge, and burned it, and then buried the river. His use of the ceramic vessel…doesn’t so much take off from the form’s history, as teach that history to mean something novel.”

“When my work is successful, there’s an organic fusion between the surface and the color.”

“I like to work in series or groups of work,” he would say. “I can learn where I’m going faster that way.”

As Price once said to Billy Al Bengston, in Price’s own patois, “I go de out by going de in.” This strategy reflects the accommodation made by Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria to the difficulty of making sculpture in the American West—the problem being that the sky always wins, that the void invariably preempts the volume.

Price is less accessible as an artist because the contemporary art world, remodeled by public money, bad education, ill-gotten gains, and tax breaks for the rich—driven by fashion fantasies, gossip, auction scams, and raw box-office data—has virtually exploded…As a consequence, by tearing down the walls, we have, well, torn down the walls that provided a fragile refuge for civilizing endeavors like Price’s. We have ceded commentary and coverage to the blare of popular media—to the ad pages of theoretical magazines, to public museums, the popular press, the social media, and to universities, which Susan Sontag rather shrewdly observed are little more than pale appendages of popular culture.

Nuance, delicate or less so, is not much in vogue these days.

“I was in pursuit of my own direction and tried to resist hooking up with some movement as a way of getting attention for my work and being seen as cool and cutting edge. But I noticed those movements were coming and going kind of fast.”

Vija Celmins, in conversation with Ken Price: “I remember Brancusi said, ‘Art should be like a well planned crime.’ Which is to say that you don’t discuss it before, and you don’t talk much about it afterwards either.”

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cloudsovermidwest
Ghostly demarcations of the land under cloud cover, taken over the US midsection during a recent cross country flight.

My very clever and well read niece Rebecca Ricks sent me a link to an essay published in Frieze Magazine last year. Titled Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art, it is an edited version of a lecture given by Peter Schjeldahl at the School of Visual Arts.

Peter Schjeldahl of course is the long time art critic at the New Yorker magazine. I read just about every article he writes and connect with him more than I don’t. This essay is particularly full of resonant wisdom and what’s more, it includes the full text of my favorite Wallace Stevens poem, “The idea of Order at Key West” (whose final line is referred to in the title: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins,/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”) Schjeldahl says this about the poem after quoting it: “I think it’s safe to say that nothing in recent writing or art reaches this level of beauty and intelligence, so confidently, let alone with such total mastery of form.”

It just may be that there is a stealth tribe, not easily determined but primal nonetheless: the kinship of those who carry an unearthly passion for that poem. Recite it by heart, and you’re in.

A few snippets from Schjeldahl’s essay (and there are oh so many):

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Good art evicts intelligence from its left-brain command centre into other parts of the brain, and of the body. It does this by some or another touch or twist of beauty, which can’t be conceptualized but only undergone, like a beneficent seizure.

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To be really good at anything, assuming that you’re talented, is to work harder and longer, with more ruthless honesty and discipline, than other people could do without bursting into tears. Your secret is that, hard as it may be, it doesn’t feel like work to you. It feels normal, like eating and sleeping…

So as an artist you’re lonely. You know the fragility and vulnerability of your Great Good Place but you lean your whole weight into it anyhow. Along with wanting fame and money and sex, like everybody, you want to slip that place into the map of the world, to make the world a little less wretched to you. You will even go without the fame and money and sex parts, if necessary. You will be misunderstood, often enough by people – darling dumbbells – who praise you. (Be kind to them if you can.) That’s the deal. No one said you were an artist. You said you were an artist. You asked for it. No whining.

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From my early days: Graphix 5, from 1977

David Cope is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz (my alma mater). In a segment on Radio Lab over the weekend, he described an extraordinary project he began in 1981 when he was suffering from a serious case of composer’s block. After a conversation with a computer scientist, Cope developed the idea that it might be possible to use the computational power of a computer to identify the essential DNA of his compositional style and then aid him in assembling the opera he hoped to write.

A program called EMI, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, was the result of that effort. The description of how this “tool” works is fascinating. While he originally intended to use it for help with his own musical development, he quickly saw its potential to parse and uncover the patterning in all music.

The first results of this effort seemed lifeless to Cope. But with tweaking and adjustments, the results became quite extraordinary. It seems that there is a signature in the structure of a composition, and that signature can be used for propagation.

In Cope’s words:

My idea was that every work of music contains a set of instructions for creating different but highly related replications of itself. These instructions, interpreted correctly, can lead to interesting discoveries about musical structure as well as, hopefully, create new instances of stylistically-faithful music.

My rationale for discovering such instructions was based, in part, on the concept of recombinancy. Recombinancy can be defined simply as a method for producing new music by recombining extant music into new logical successions…recombinancy appears everywhere as a natural evolutionary and creative process. All the great books in the English language, for example, are constructed from recombinations of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Similarly, most of the great works of Western art music exist as recombinations of the twelve pitches of the equal-tempered scale and their octave equivalents. The secret lies not in the invention of new letters or notes but in the subtlety and elegance of their recombination.

Of course, simply breaking a musical work into smaller parts and randomly combining them into new orders almost certainly produces gibberish. Effective recombination requires extensive musical analysis and very careful recombination to be effective at even an elemental level no less the highly musical level of which I dreamed.

(The Radio Lab link above offers samples of music written using EMI by Cope as well as compositions “inspired” by the elemental DNA of Bach and other composers.)

This provokes my sense of what is signatory in art as well. Peter Schjeldahl wrote a piece in the New Yorker several years ago that has haunted me ever since. While suffering from dementia at the end of his life, de Kooning was still painting elementally de Kooning works. Which causes one to ask, where does style reside anyway? (I have also pondered the claim of neurologists who say a brain damaged person in the West can sing the happy birthday ditty even if they cannot speak or recognize their family members.) Researchers have tried to identify the fractal-like DNA of a Jackson Pollock painting—not without controversy, however—or those other small tells that end up determining the authenticity of a work of art.

On a more personal level, can you spot the signatory patterns in your own work? Looking back at my early efforts I see all sorts of patterns, proclivities, inclinations and tendencies that feel familiar to me now. Cope’s approach is scientific and my judgment is subjective, but the question is still floating for me.


More recent work: Sloycha, 2011

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Japanese calligraphy, beautiful in its inexplicable mystery (From the LACMA collection)

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Beauty is not a concept. …Beauty harmonizes consciousness from top to bottom. It is as organically vital as digestion. Beauty is, or ought to be, no big deal, though the lack of it is. Without regular events of beauty, we live estranged from existence, including our own.

—Peter Schjeldahl

Yesterday I had an engaging and thoughtful conversation with art impresario/gallery directory/arts and community advocate/photographer Martine Bisagni. Ever the visionary, Martine’s latest project is the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery and associated Brooklyn Workshop Gallery Foundation. More about that undertaking will be forthcoming here.

Our conversation was far ranging but of course (it seems to be my inevitable proclivity) we touched down on beauty. I’ve written about this particular portion of the art terrain many times on this blog (do a search on beauty for a long list of posts). This quote from the New Yorker‘s Schjeldahl seems like a good addition.

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