Eye Balling and Free Falling

“Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music,” by Howard Hodgkin (Photo: Miriam Perez)
Note: Hodgkin passed away on March 9, 2017.

I am just back from a week of art viewing in London—special museum exhibitions including Michelangelo, Robert Rauschenberg, Wolfgang Tillmans, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkins, Eduardo Paolozzi and Elton John‘s estimable collection of photographs, plus gallery shows by Josiah McElheny and Fred Tomaselli. This was a week of retinal richness, artists whose projects include a deep commitment to enlivening the eye.

Which brings to mind the artist David Salle. His book, How to See, came out last year, and it is fabulous. My copy is full of marks and comments, my way of carrying on a conversation with this successful visual artist who also happens to be a really good writer. Who knew? Not me! (In reviewing Salle’s book in The New York Review of Books, Sanford Schwartz points to the fact that Salle wrote art reviews back in the 1970s to pay his rent. “He doesn’t appear to have done any writing between then and starting up a few years ago, which makes the seemingly effortless skill and variety he shows here as a writer amazing. We feel we are reading the latest from a commentator who has been at it for a lifetime and yet is still making discoveries and sharp, new distinctions.”)

In his introduction, Salle states his intention:

The idea for this book is to write about contemporary art in the language that artists use when they talk among themselves—a way of speaking that differs from journalism, which tends to focus on the context surrounding art, the market, the audience, etc., and also from academic criticism, which claims its legitimacy from the realm of theory. Both are macronarratives, concerned with the big picture. Artists, on the other hand, talk to determine what works, what does not, and why. Their focus is more on the micro; it moves from the inside out.

Ever since Duchamp detached art from the retinal experience, high value has been placed on the artist’s intention. Salle is not in agreement with that, and I love his metaphor: “Intentionality is not just overrated; it puts the cart so far out in front that the horse, sensing futility, gives up and lies down in the street.”

What often passes for an idea is often propaganda. “The hard part is finding the form,” writes Salle. “The most convincing works tend to be those in which the thinking is inseparable from the doing.” Explaining a work of art doesn’t make it good after all. The late Ken Price captured that in his famous line, “Nothing I can say is going to improve how it looks.”

Salle on ideas and art:

Sometimes what we call an idea is really more of an “enthusiasm”, the passing intellectual weather. Artists are “curious”, they pursue all kind of obscure knowledge. Some like to do research, and art seems like as good a place as any to show off one’s interests. The ideas with staying power are those that intersect with an artist’s inclination for form, causing it to deepen and expand, like a paper flower that blooms when you put it in water. The right idea, one that is in productive sync with one’s talents, can unlock a whole worldview.

Like Salle, I believe that art is a language, one that has a grammar, syntax and system all its own. “The act of paying close attention to what someone made, in all of its particulars, is what stimulates an authentic, as opposed to a conditioned, response,” writes Salle.

This last week was a full tilt reminder of how rich and varied that visual language can be. Salle, as the artist/advocate, is a voice extolling the sheer excitement of being an artist who both makes and looks. His description of what all of us were seeking when we chose to study art is still alive for me today: This is a way to be in the world if you “can’t imagine your life without that empowering, free-falling, slightly scary, almost illicit thrill of creating.”

I’m with you David Salle. It is all those things.

Wolfgang Tillmans, photograph, from the show at the Tate Modern