Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ridiculous studio day

I couldn’t stand the green, so I stained everything alizarin yellow . Now there’s a color you really can’t get rid of. I must be out of my mind. And what am I doing with a giant tube of alizarin yellow anyway? Did I buy this thing? It’s like having a bomb in the bottom of my paint drawer.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Not so bad studio day

The painting is slowly, painfully, improving, but it’s still GREEN—even though I’ve spent all day adding lots of other colors to it. That’s because green swallows every color that touches it. Painters, take a look at your once-white bristle brushes. Have you ever noticed that they’re all GREEN? If they aren’t, it’s only because you were smart enough never to use green in the first place.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Better studio day

I got up this morning and the painting didn’t look so bad, although it was still green.

A friend, a personal trainer by profession, wanted to know what it meant to have a “bad studio day” and I found it hard to explain, which got me wondering if there’s any other field where you can so often feel as if you’ve never done this thing before. I asked Scott, who's both an artist and chef, if he’s ever experienced it in the kitchen, and he said, “No.” Do trial lawyers ever suddenly feel as if they’ve never been in a courtroom? I doubt it. Roberto describes it as one of those moments when he begins to wonder, “How did I get this job, anyway?”

So there you are and you know nothing. And even though other artists are aware of how profoundly depressing it is, they’ll gleefully tell you—and you’ll tell everyone else as long as you’re not going through it—that it’s an exciting place to be and means your art isn’t stagnant, but growing and developing. Thanks a bunch.

So Richard came over and declared the painting “a good beginning” and pointed out where it “needs work”—i.e. most of it—although, of course, he couldn’t be specific as to what that work would look like. He described painting as “an accumulation of accidents,” and suggested that whether they turn out to be happy ones or not is sometimes just a matter of luck. I still think it's all about degree of interest, of how invested I am in seeing the final image, but now that it's become a challenge, I'm getting more interested.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bad studio day

This latest painting is just bad, a mishmash. I was on such a roll, now sent to the depths. I think it’s because I started it before the last one was finished. There was just picky stuff to do, with lots of drying time in-between, so I thought, start another one, why not? Except that for me, good paintings come from wanting to see something realized so badly that I’ll do whatever it takes. To start one too soon is like starting a new love affair before the old one is finished.

Richard, who I went to see to console myself, said—without having seen it—that the problem with this painting is that it’s green. He’s right. How often do you see a good green painting?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sometimes the right things happen to the right people

Joan Snyder has always gone against the grain, refusing to modify her expression to suit anyone but herself. Therefore she has given us some of the most emotionally direct paintings ever, some of the darkest as well as some of the most exuberant, some of the ugliest and some of the most lyrically beautiful. She scrawled words into the thick paint of her canvases long before text in paintings was in vogue, and has unabashedly expressed a decidedly feminine perspective in all of its anger, grief, joy and wrenching vulnerability. I was shown her work by an instructor at the beginning of my life as a painter and it has acted as a constant reminder that personal authenticity in art is everything. We met about twenty years later when Betty Cuningham was considering me for a show at Hirschl & Adler and brought Joan to my studio. Since then I’ve written about her work for Art in America, and later wrote a catalog essay. She’s one of the most sure, energetic, intelligent and dedicated of artists, always searching and changing, and with each exhibition pushes the envelope even further. Joan says it all, does it all, and deserves to be recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for her courage.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Not rocket science

The best and worst aspect of art is that it isn’t quantifiable. Spending time with astronautical engineers as I did a few weeks ago at M.I.T., I found myself envious of the fact that they work within a meritocracy. No doubt politics and ego show up wherever there are people, but when you get right down to it, a rocket either flies or it doesn’t—unlike the art world where things fly because someone says it does and gets enough people to agree, where things fly one day and not the next, and where hedge fund managers and advertising executives, in bed with the institutions, are often in charge of determining what flies and what doesn’t.

This has got to be one of the least interesting epochs in the history of art—not just because of the money-grubbers, but because the art world has become infused with people who are not really interested in art. They’re interested instead in novelty, in the idea of being creative and expressive in a way that’s not too taxing, and leading a cool life where they can sleep late and go to a lot of parties. Add that to a seemingly insatiable art market, and you’ve got a situation where almost anything can fly, at least for a minute.

Worth quoting from here is Raphael Rubenstein’s in-depth review in Art in America of the traveling exhibition, “High Times, Hard Times, New York Painting 1967-1975” (curated by Katie Siegel with David Reed, shown at the National Academy Museum in New York last winter, now touring Europe):

That victory is fleeting and artistic canons subject to drastic revision seem such obvious facts as to hardly need stating, but for some time the deciders of the art world have appeared to feel that their authority is both eternal and infallible. There’s been an assumption on their part, usually unspoken but detectable in the total assurance with which art institutions and markets function, that no deserving artist, living or dead, is now being overlooked. (The correlative is that every currently celebrated artist is one for the ages.)….Another factor that reinforces the long-term confidence of today’s tastemakers is the enormous level of investment—financial, social, and intellectual—in the work of most successful artists. When so many people and institutions have so much at stake, when capital and contemporary art are so deeply intertwined, it seems that nothing short of some unimaginable total artistic revolution, or a catastrophic global recession, could upset the status quo.

Rubenstein concludes:

I’ll leave it to readers to decide what is the legacy of this work, and whether to “possibility and openness” of that heady era expired circa 1975. Instead, I’ll close with a few comments on the issue of who is in “Hard Times, High Times” and who isn’t. Reviewing the show in The New York Times, Roberta Smith took Siegel and Reed to task for passing over the artists who, in her view, dominated the period—Frank Stella, Brice Marden, Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman. Without them, Smith wrote, the show was like a “time capsule from a time that didn’t quite exist.” This seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of Siegel and Reed’s project. The aim of “Hard Times, High Times” is not to reflect the standard version of New York painting 1967-75 but rather to recover a lost history, to bring back into public view works long unseen, often painted by artists who have been long overlooked…

Serious historians long ago ditched the “great men” and “great events” approach to their discipline…[and] we have learned that there is just as much historical truth to be learned at the margins of power, in the facts of everyday life, in slow, nearly invisible long-term movements, as in palaces and parliaments. “Hard Times, High Times” significantly alters how we view painting during a nine-year period; as an instance of historical revision, it offers a powerful model for anyone who isn’t satisfied with the versions of our recent culture as offered, with clockwork regularity, by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and MoMA.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The war on us

Last night I didn’t have dinner before leaving the city, and with my blood sugar plummeting and gas tank nearly empty, I stopped at a Cumberland Farms in Millerton, NY. Shuttling as I do between New York and the Berkshires, I live in a bubble that excludes malls, box stores, and most of the trappings of modern America including obesity. Nearly blinded by the fluorescent lights and unaccustomed to the glitter of row upon row of processed foods, it took me at least 15 minutes to find something in the store that I would eat—an orange, finally, and some over-salted cashews. The person behind the counter was literally a mound of flesh with a face—a teenage girl who must have weighed 300 pounds. As she lumbered away I heard her say, “I’m tired,” to no one in particular. When I went outside to pump gas, a pickup pulled up and another human mountain, a teenage boy this time, extracted himself from the truck and waddled toward the store to buy poison marketed as food. The march against the war is on Tuesday in New York. The next one should be against Doritos.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 26, 2007
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, July 10, 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Olafur Eliasson

September 5th was the opening of Olafur Eliasson’s mid-career survey at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I wasn’t there, mostly because I couldn’t bear to leave my little corner of Berkshire heaven. I’m not ready for the art world season to start, not just yet. God was, and is, rewarding us with the most fabulous weather and I’m convinced no art or art-related event could match the perfection of an early evening dip in the cool and tranquil Green River. Besides, Einar and Manuela came here on their way back to Iceland and then Berlin, with a full report.

Olafur, I predict, is on his way to establishing himself as a household name, and when the show travels to the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 in April, and later the Dallas Museum of Art, I’ll be curious to see how he handles the media blitz that’s sure to follow. Up until now, he’s managed to remain aloof and keep the emphasis focused on the art—with the exception of Cynthia Zarin’s profile in The New Yorker (November 13, 2006--not yet available online).

Zarin is a New Yorker staff writer, and it seemed as if she didn’t have a sufficient art background and did little research, depending almost entirely on her interviews for information. A friend’s comment was “When you’re an expert, you always find something wrong” but I disagree. I mean, this is The New Yorker, which I expect to query the experts or, at the very least, read what’s been written about the subject. Because I thought of The New Yorker as a standard, discovering that it was fallible was a crisis of faith, like that moment in childhood when you first discover your parents could be wrong. The worst part was that this jumble of mis-emphasis and misinformation was held together with a gloss of the sharp and engaging writing for which The New Yorker is justly renowned, but which I now see as simply style. For instance Zarin absolutely nailed it when she described Olafur as having, “the slightly crumpled look of a shop teacher at a progressive school” but treated the work itself as nothing more than a by-product of his personality.

This was the gist of my letter to the magazine, which was not published:

To the editor:

Because I feel the magazine and its readers are capable of looking at issues in depth, I was sorry that the profile by Cynthia Zarin about the artist Olafur Eliasson concentrated on his personality and process rather than the art and the philosophy behind it—and without sufficient description of the art, you have no idea why such attention is being given to it. It is especially necessary in the case of Eliasson’s work because, since most of his work is temporary and not reproducible, the number of people who have actually seen it is small.

Zarin mentions Eliasson’s relationship to the artists “Robert Irwin and James Turrell and the idea of ‘seeing yourself seeing’” but does not explain this concept or describe how it plays out in the actual work. Later she notes that Eliasson was “deeply affected by the work of the phenomenologist philosophers, especially Edmund Husserl—with their emphasis on the individual experience of reality—and by Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin,
Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees—without going into any greater detail or telling us what it was about the Wechsler book that so affected Eliasson. The questions Eliasson is seen asking himself are presented more as musings than essential to an overarching philosophical inquiry.

In discussing Eliasson’s
Weather Project at the Tate Modern, Zarin does not mention how, in the wake of its extraordinary success, the Tate wanted to extend its run and Eliasson refused—an act that, given the artist’s consuming interest in the context of art, including that which comes before and after its installation—can be considered as much a part of the piece as its mist, mirrors, and light.

Zarin makes a case for differentiating Eliasson from his predecessors Irwin and Turrell by stating that, “Like them, he is interested in light, to which he adds a preoccupation with what he calls ‘the intersection of nature, science, and human perception.’” She goes on to say that “unlike those artists, who tend to draw the viewer’s attention to natural phenomena—Turrell’s ‘sky spaces, for example, showcase the open sky—Eliasson consistently uses mechanical artifice to create his effects….” This is absolutely not true. The work of Irwin and Turrell pioneered this “intersection of nature, science, and human perception,” making it possible for Eliasson to expand upon it, which Eliasson fully acknowledges. Further, Irwin and Turrell have done plenty of work using only mechanical means (the effect of light on scrim, to name just one example), just as Eliasson is equally involved in working with natural phenomena—as seen in a later paragraph where he says, “I want to plant flowering trees around the pool. For one week in May the petals will drop and cover the water.”

In an art world short on meaningful dialogue, where personality and process often masquerade as art, the subject of Olafur Eliasson and his work offers a unique opportunity to marry the personal with the profound and present a significant discussion on the nature of art. Since I’m sure it will be a long while before Eliasson’s work is again discussed so thoroughly in these pages, I regret that the opportunity was missed.


Carol Diehl

How can you write about Robert Irwin and not be aware of his scrim pieces? Or, for that matter, about Eliasson and not know he'd turned rivers green? I could have gone on, to comment on how Zarin says, “Eliasson invites comparison to Buckminster Fuller, with whom he shares an interest in the aesthetics and the utility of mathematic forms,” without saying where this influence comes from: his collaboration with Einar Thorsteinn, who was Fuller’s protégé. Although the stamp of Einar’s geometry is visible throughout Olafur’s work and they frequently share exhibition credit, Einar was not available for an interview when Zarin visited the he goes unmentioned? Not that Einar minded; he often says he likes “being famous for not being famous.” But it skews the picture to leave him out of an article that’s almost entirely about Olafur’s collaborative process.

There’s more but I’ll stop. If the article had been written by Calvin Tomkins (author of Duchamp, one of the best art biographies ever) or Peter Schjeldahl (who doesn’t write profiles, but if he did…) I’d be jealous. But that’s how I want to feel when I read The New Yorker.

There. At least I’ve gotten this one off my chest, where it’s been sitting since November. Too bad I didn’t have a blog then, so I could have responded in the moment. And to read a spot-on critique of another New Yorker article (on Paul McCartney, who seems to be showing up in all of my posts, and I haven’t even heard his new album), along with a riveting exchange with its author, go to

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Free art for all!

I received this in the mail, handwritten on a postcard. Included with it was a blank 5 x 7 card, a photograph of two adorable little girls, and a self-addressed stamped envelope:

Dear Carol,

Last year our oldest daughter, Ellora (then 4) asked “if she and her sister (Twyla 1 yrs. old) could have some art for their bedroom." So for their birthdays (5 & 2) I wrote to 7 artist [sic] and asked them to send them a card (these now framed and hanging in their room). As Ellora’s 6th birthday is approaching, she asked “if they could get some more art for their birthdays.” If at all possible will you do something on the enclosed blank card and mail it back for them.

Thank you,
Mark Daley

I do not know Mark Daley unless, perhaps, he was once a graduate student of mine. The envelope was sent to me c/o the School of Visual Arts.

Then a friend received this letter out of the blue from the New York Studio School:

Dear Mr. X,

The New York Studio School is pleased to announce its Annual Fall Benefit. On October 25th, 2007, we will host this event at the beautifully restored Prince George Ballroom in New York City. This is the most important fundraiser for the School and is regularly attended by important collectors, artists, and other prominent figures in the New York City art world.

Enclosed please find a blank canvas on which we invite you to create a work of art that we hope you will donate to the Benefit. If you prefer, please contribute a piece of work of equivalent size (11” x 14”). Ideally we’re looking for drawings, paintings, or sculpture. Donated work will be sold for the benefit of NYSS and all proceeds from the sale of work will go directly to support the School.

Donated works must be postmarked or hand-delivered to the School by August 31st, 2007 and will be featured on the School’s web site at Please note that submission of your work indicates that you give NYSS permission to reproduce it on the website and in any promotional materials related to the sale of the work.

…By way of thanks, we would like to invite all contributing artists to join us on October 25th to enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and see the work at the event….

Artists are always being asked to contribute to this or that, but this is something new. A blank canvas? What do people think? That artists have a special conduit to God, and art just spews out of us without any effort? Would they ask their dentist to clean their teeth for nothing? Or have I been missing out on free dental hygiene all these years because I simply didn't know to ask? Well I have a wedding coming up, of very dear friends, and some beautiful fabric I’ve been saving—I think I’ll send it to Marc Jacobs and ask if he’ll run me up a little something. And Paul McCartney—he was so cooperative about the yoga eye exercise video below—I’ll ask him to write a song just for Jeanette and Erica, and if he agrees to come and perform it at the reception, we’ll give him dinner. It’s the least I can do to help make the wedding really special.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Really seeing

Okay, so I don’t wear glasses. Although my whole family has worn them, I never have, except intermittently, when doctors tried to pressure me into it because of an astigmatism, or told me I was at that age. I can already hear my friends groaning, because they’ve heard this from me so many times before, but I believe that glasses are much more widely prescribed than necessary—yet another stupid industry that uses too much plastic—and if you’d just look up from your computer or book and focus afar every few minutes and do yoga eye exercises every day, you won't need reading glasses (I do the exercises before getting out of bed in the morning or, as readers know, when I inadvertently find myself in the same room with performance art). I’ve discovered, however, that this is waaay too much trouble for most people, the ones who are groaning right this minute, but I’m going to plunge ahead regardless. Sometimes, when tired or under a lot of stress, I might not see so well, maybe even for a week or two, but then it normalizes. Sometimes, early in the morning or late at night, things are fuzzy, so I just don’t bother to read, or I use a magnifying glass. But most of the time—with plenty of light—I can read the names in a phonebook or the ingredients on a vitamin bottle. And I’m doing very exacting work with painting right now (unless of course, I put on a pair of glasses and discover that I’ve been an expressionist all along). So because my friends won’t take it from me, I’ve asked Paul McCartney to do a little yoga eye exercise demo and put it on YouTube. Here it is:

To read: Jacob Lieberman, Take Off Your Glasses and See

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Looking...and not seeing,

This is part of an email yesterday from Graham White, who did such a great job of revamping my Web site,

Hi Carol!

...I made a second visit to the Serra show and this time is was not as crowded, which was nice. I couldn't believe the Plexiglas fence they put around his work on the top gallery. My experience of Minimalist sculpture has always been that it works in large part by interacting with and empathizing the planes and volume of the containing space, so what could demonstrate a less sensitive appreciation to the art than to cage it in like an animal at the zoo? I guess the inverse is more likely accurate, the animals behind the cage are the viewers.

I've also noticed that for a striking number of museum goers, photographing the art has entirely replaced looking at the art. I have been spending some time in the museums this summer, and constantly see people walk up to a painting, camera in hand, snap the image and then the wall text, and move right along, all not more than 5 seconds duration, if that. Or first check the label to see if it is an artist worth capturing. One painting I gave up on seeing one day had two rows of photographers, about 12 or 15 people, with cameras going, and the second row with one hand raised above the heads of the first for the grab. I can't imagine most will ever be bothered to look at the photos if they wouldn't look at the painting. Like
counting coup.

Well, that's my art vent for today,


I've noticed the same phenom at rock concerts: people talking, texting, holding their cell phones up for others to listen, walking in and out to get drinks or whatever, as if the music were incidental, just an excuse to get together--surprisingly better in Philadelphia, Northampton, and Boston, where people actually dance, worst in New York. When I saw the last Sigur Ros tour in Philadelphia there was, as part of the piece, a 10-second moment of silence, which was duly observed and experienced by the audience--a powerful moment. When I saw them in New York it was "Whoo-hoo!"

Is there a way to configure the context for art so that it's more conducive to contemplation? Or are we just fogeys complaining that the world is going to hell?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It's a bird, it's a plane....

All I did was ask a simple question about the railings he’s making for my house, and I get back an email with this attached from John Umphlett—sculptor, teacher, shop tech and all-round wizard—who is a friend from when I taught at Bennington. Clearly the project is driving him buggy.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Tipping Point

You know how teenagers are always tipping back in their chairs? And how their elders are always yelling at them for it? Alvo Aalto observed this tendency and instead of fighting it, designed this chair for Baker House at M.I.T. so that students could tip with impunity. Accommodations in the dorm, which Aalto designed in 1949, are still the most sought after at the university. If he’d built it in 2007, I’m guessing he might have added a skateboard ramp.

This is me. Dava Newman took the photo.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Robert Irwin

My review of Robert Irwin’s PaceWildenstein show is in the September issue of Art in America with a photo that will tell you very little about what it was like to experience that installation. Irwin used to refuse to have his work photographed, and with this piece especially, it’s easy to understand why. A photograph can only reproduce what’s concretely there, and what was so palpable about this piece was what was not concrete—the sense of energy that resonated in the space between the panels on the floor and ceiling. In a conversation with Irwin at the time I was writing the review he described his intuitive process: “You don’t plan it,” he said, “you court it.”

Robert Irwin
Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue
PaceWildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street, New York City
December 9, 2006 through January 27, 2007
Photo by: Genevieve Hanson / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York