Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On Wolfgang Laib, Ken Johnson, and pollen at MoMA

Art began with religion. Only recently in human history have allusions (other than cynical) to spirituality in art become an anathema among intellectuals.[1] It’s this prejudice that drives Ken Johnson’s peevish Times review of Wolfgang Laib’s installation in the atrium at MoMA—although where Johnson finds “a quasi-religious dimension” in a simple rectangle of sifted pollen is baffling.

But there’s more: “Don’t call the cleaning crew; that yellow spill is art,” shouts the headline, which most likely wasn’t written by Johnson, but a headline writer who, regardless, was inspired by his sentiment. Is it possible that a critic can still—in the 21st century—be made uncomfortable by art that doesn’t have a narrative, and is neither made with traditional artists’ materials nor hung on a wall?

“It’s like a big, Rothkoesque painting displayed horizontally,” Johnson says, while giving no indication as to whether this is a good or bad thing. Maybe a Rothko’s okay, but something similar made with another material on the floor, is not? Or perhaps Rothko isn’t okay either. He did, after all, make paintings for a chapel.

We will never know because Johnson never establishes his point of critical departure. He doesn’t indicate, for instance, what previous works of Laib’s he’s seen, and how this one measures up. Nor does he compare Laib with others who have attempted to bring aspects of nature indoors, such as Robert Smithson, James Turrell, or Olafur Eliasson, a younger artist who might have been inspired by Laib to create his floors of lava stone or walls of Icelandic moss—not to speak of the minimal and color field painters, from Robert Ryman to Rothko, to Kazimir Malevich (his White on White of 1918 especially comes to mind[2]), who may have been an influence.

Instead Johnson chooses to find Laib “obviously much indebted” to Joseph Beuys, although the only “obvious” similarity is that Beuys was also a German who used another of Laib’s signature materials, beeswax; the narrative and strong socio-political agenda that’s overtly stated in Beuys is significantly lacking in Laib, who neither teaches, writes, nor lectures. Further, to link Laib with Beuys and Marina Abramovic as another “performance artist” cultivating a “cult of personality” is a bit far-fetched, as Beuys’s and Abramovic’s personal participation is intrinsic to their work whereas Laib’s “performance,” if you can call it that, consists of a three-minute video describing how the MoMA piece was made.

In the video, we see a gentle man who likes to spend time in nature. He is not sanctimonious, nor does he make any claims for his work. The most philosophical Laib gets is to say, “pollen is the beginning of life.” How this portrayal could produce such antagonism is mystifying. When Johnson writes, “I do not mean to doubt his sincerity; I am not calling him a charlatan,” of course he is implying exactly that. By referring to Laib’s “seeming modesty,” “carefully-groomed saintly charisma” and describing him as a canny, professional purveyor of New Age hokum,” Johnson wants us to believe that Laib is a huckster who figured out 40 years ago that the ticket to international art world fame and fortune would be to develop a self-effacing personality, live in a remote part of Germany and collect pollen. Canny indeed!

I am reminded of my mother who was so literal-minded that she would not have been able to see the poetics in a rectangle of pollen, and assumed that anyone who dressed or acted differently from those in her suburban milieu was showing off. And, yes, her frustration at not being able to see what others saw made her angry.

No one says that a critic has to like an artist’s work. However it’s his responsibility to his public to provide a heightened level of observation, place it in a cultural context, and from there evaluate whether or not it succeeds—as well as, hopefully, be a bit ahead of his audience.

Instead, Johnson may be lagging. Recently a petition was sent to The New York Times complaining of racist and sexist comments in two reviews, an action which, like the Times in its response, I found inappropriate. However it’s surprising to find such obliviousness and, here, an apparent lack of research[3], in the writing of a critic of his stature.

Perhaps meditation would help. Hardly an invention of the New Age, and far from the trance-inducing “altered state” Johnson supposes it to be, meditation requires being fully present and observing of one’s environment and thoughts. With practice the meditator learns to distinguish between reality and imagination, between what can be immediately perceived and what’s simply the mind scurrying about, assigning meaning and making assumptions.

Sometimes a field of pollen is just a field of pollen. Or at least it’s a good place to start.

[1] It makes me think that perhaps the artificial division between “folk art” and “fine art,” as recently discussed by Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, came about partly because “folk art” does not recognize this separation.

[2] Part of the MoMA collection, Malevich's painting can be seen in the museum’s current exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1926.”

[3] While his take might still be negative, I feel this would have been a very different story if the author had spent more time with it.  One factual quibble is that Johnson says Laib “gave up” his medical studies in 1974 when Laib did, indeed, complete his degree. It’s in the wall text.

More: A thoughtful review here, by artist Altoon Sultan, and another video.


Anonymous said...

As always, your commentary is incisive. I love the poetry and simplicity of Laib's piece, not to mention that amazing color! There is so much cynicism associated with art in this age. We adore irony and scoff at anything with pure intentions. The highest aim of art is to reveal truth and the highest aim of meditation is to discern truth from faulty perception. These two pursuits are not at odds.

Anonymous said...

As always, I love your incisive commentary, Carol. I admire the poetry and simplicity of Laib's pollen piece, not to mention that amazing color! There is so much skepticism and cynicism in art in this age. We adore irony and scoff at anything with pure intentions. Surely there can be a place for wisdom in art? If the goal of meditation is to discern truth from false perception, aren't the goals of art similar? And if they aren't, shouldn't they be?

In any event, this piece does not just bring up issues of spirituality and harmony to me, although it does remind me of the tradition of making kolams in India. It ushers the natural world into an urban space . For that reason, I think this work also conveys a pressing message about our contemporary alienation from nature. I wish Johnson had chosen to address this aspect of the work, rather than focusing on "New Age hokum."

a said...

I love the idea behind this piece! Can't wait to see it. Thanks for calling out the jaded, cynical critics. Wylie

Mike Markham said...

I suspect that Mr. Johnson doesn't get out into the landscape much. I wonder how he'd feel if he spent a night — as I once did — walking about an ancient Indian medicine wheel high up in the Bighorn Mountains as the sky rotated above him. I suspect the experience would be lost on him — he'd complain about the cold or the fact that he was hungry. For me that was certainly a "spiritual" experience linking me to an ancient culture and through their artifact to a deeper appreciation of what they called "the Great Mystery". And it's still a mystery, in spite of what modern science tells us.

Why must "intellectuals" be so stubborn in insisting that everything be explained in such concrete terms? And isn't one of art's great strengths its capacity to ALLUDE to the very things that ELUDE us? This is the strength of Laib's work. It is precisely what it is ... and the artist wisely leaves you to figure it out for yourself. To quote Andre Gide: "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better".