Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Observations on observation

Anne Truit, First, 1961. Latex on wood, 44 1/4 x 17 3/4 x 7 in. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the artist, Washington, DC. Artwork © Estate of Anne Truitt/The Bridgeman Art Library

Doing research on Anne Truitt (1921-2004) and her current Hirshhorn Museum survey, I’m reading the catalogue essay where curator Kristen Hileman writes:

Not wanting to anchor the work in a linear narrative, or imply that her sculpture in any way ‘illustrated’ a particular event, Truitt herself was reticent to make fully explicit the connections she nevertheless acknowledged between her life and art. Instead she emphasized the importance of the transformation from the specific to the universal in her process.

After stating clearly what the artist would not have wanted, Hileman turns around to do exactly that:

The elucidation of some of the events, places, people, literary references, and philosophies that appear to constitute fragments of the iconography Truitt perceived behind her ultimately irreducible works, however, provides another lens through which to consider Truitt’s unique and highly expressive deployment of the objective language of color and geometry.

Hileman then, throughout the essay, continues to interpret Truitt's work through biography as in:

The two works further appear to convey a sense of the “powerful” and “looming” qualities the artist associated with Asheville’s mountains….” and “Truitt’s childhood encounters in and around fences lend a psychological dimension to the boundary depicted in First

Inanimate sculptures that do not include a video monitor and on which nothing is written cannot “convey” or “appear to convey” anything, and any “psychological dimension” that can be associated with an art work is elicited by the configuration of the work itself, not by specific pre-knowledge of the artist’s history.

Granted Truitt, having published her memoirs in three volumes, invites this sort of exercise more than most, however the dependence of critics and curators on information that is not intrinsic to the work is epidemic—and, because the backstory is so often used to justify or rationalize what's on view, I will even go so far as to say that it’s responsible in large part for the ridiculous amount of bad art we see out there (an artist friend wanted to blame it on the artists, but they’re not the ones making the selections, and further, this kind of thing only encourages them to think that’s what art is).

Interpreters of art seem unable to deal with the object itself and instead rely on externals, often having to do with the artist’s “intention” or political bent or, when dealing with artists like Luc Tuymans or Josh Smith, how their work represents some kind of reaction to the history of painting. But it’s really simple. The work is the work, no matter who did it, when s/he did it, or why s/he did it. Biographical information, such as the fact that Richard Serra had day jobs in steel mills is worth noting if trying to determine how he arrived at his format, but the work itself, that big thing made of metal, is something else entirely. What does it convey or express? Nothing. What are its “psychological dimensions?” None.

While it seems that the function of curators and critics should be to open up the discourse to many interpretive possibilities, this conflation of intent and biography with the work allows for a single reading, too narrow a lens through which to view any artist, especially one as evocative as Truitt.

While in Washington on Friday to see the exhibition and catch James Meyer’s excellent gallery talk (Meyer being the perfect example of an art historian who knows what’s important and what isn’t), I also had lunch with Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, who said he thought that with the advent of photography, writers about art were not so inclined to engage in elaborate description.

If so, this could explain a lot, because for me, it’s through being forced to describe something that I learn what it is and what I really think about it. In fact this is why I write about art at all, because I wouldn’t engage in such a detailed exercise on my own. It’s how I learn, and it’s how I teach students to write about art. In fact I think everyone studying any aspect of the arts should be required to take art writing, not so they can better write their theses or that noxious item we call the artist’s statement, but because through writing description you learn to observe what’s outside—and inside—you. And no matter what the endeavor—be it art, bricklaying, dentistry or cooking—observation is everything.


LXV said...

Amen and Hallelujah!

I have long defended myself with the statement: "Let the art 'speak' for itself", at the risk of appearing a simpleton. As an unschooled artist (I refuse to say "self-taught"), I vacillate between relief at having escaped the toxicity of indoctrination but at the same time squirm under pressure to conform to the expectations of curators, jurors, critics, admissions committees and other art opinion-makers.

Most catalog essays, artist's statements and other curatorial verbiage is asphyxiating. And the blog-o-sphere has merely compounded the problem to dizzying proportions All the crap starts to sound the same.

These days, while at work in the studio, it's hard to resist the compulsion to "craft"[sic] a rationale for what I have always done naturally just because the prospective audience can't engage with the work directly on its own terms, or worse, wants to be spoonfed a juicy tidbit. This self-consciousness is a huge stumbling block.

Thank you for registering your opinion so very clearly and decisively. You are a good writer (and thinker).

nils said...

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." And the problem for late 20th c art is that instead of a worldview, religious or otherwise that demanded, visual representation with all the codes, markers, symbols, understood when seen. Etc. 100 years after Cubism,with an artist like Truitt you face something clearly a priveleged object, clearly painted, offering nothing except itself. Is that all of it? The bewildered seek solace in the familiar, hence the biographical. And, of course, in ascribing motives to an opaque object the feckless curator becomes collusive in a fiction. The title means this! The artist meant that! She said, I said! Dizzy with the freedom of saying whatever sounds right, in this case, Hileman, saunters down a garden path unaware of the she is going in the wrong direction further and further from the art and to a point where only her voice can be heard. The problem is that she isn't very bright when night falls. But then she is paid to be an explainer. That she doesn't know what to explain isn't her fault. She comes schooled from an art world where anything is better than something.

Katie Claiborne said...

Yes, and I wholeheartedly agree that curators use biography as a justification for the inclusion of artists work in exhibitions- sometimes bad work.

I was recently at a lecture given by an artist on the occasion of a solo show, and neither the artist, nor the curator, said anything about the work visually during the course of an hour and a half....At that point I knew that this artist was there not because of what they made (which was god awful by the way), but what they wrote and said....and because what they said and wrote fit into some spreading notion that it is intrinsically good and pertinent to our culture to make work which is cross disciplinary.

It made want to stand on my chair and scream honestly... to sit for an hour and a half listening to "an artist" who never once really talked about their work like the person who made it.

It is an ugly and alienating trend for sure.

Victoria Webb said...

Someone recently commented on one of my paintings, suggesting that it was evocative of Francis Bacon's works of exposed flesh.
Nothing could have been farther from my thoughts at the time.

It often seems as though the writer wants to inject his/her own projection of meaning onto a work of art. Dangerous territory.

Carol Diehl said...

Lady Xoc--I completely agree. However I prefer "self-taught" to "unschooled" -- which sounds to me like an endeavor that has nothing to do with, and is outside of, the history of Western art. Actually, now that I think of it, why do we need either?

Victoria Webb--I don't think that artists are always the best interpreters of their work, and whatever anyone wants to ascribe to it is valid as long as it holds up under visual scrutiny. It is the right of viewers and writers to project, and I believer that the more interpretations an artwork elicits the better it is.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I'm confused by one thing though: You criticize the exhibition's curator for her discussion of Truitt's biography in relation to the work... and praise James Meyer's Hirshorn talk, which was substantially about the connections between Truitt's biography and the work. Why was one OK and not the other?

Also, Truitt's titles oft make plain the relationship between her life/experiences and the work, no?


Carol Diehl said...

It's always surprising when two people attend the same event and come away with different impressions. I took copious notes and now, looking over them, find only a couple of comments that refer to anything outside of Truitt's studio life. But the proof is in the podcast:


I find Truitt's titles no less obscure than those of any other artist, and no more deserving of emphasis.

CAP said...

While I agree that the critic’s first duty is to correctly identify the work and its salient qualities, this is not always easy. The line between intrinsic and extrinsic properties can be a very fine one, is fraught with metaphysical or philosophical issues. To say, for instance, that only the physical qualities of an abstract work count, that there can be no expressive or psychological dimension to the meaning, supposes that these physical qualities have some naked or pure form, distinct from metaphoric or structural service. There’s a philosophical bun fight right there. Critics typically appeal to art history to invoke precedents for certain usages – to show why certain qualities are prominent and how they convey metaphors for moods or attitudes; in other words, express feelings.

This is as true of describing a Rothko as ‘sublime’ (or infinitely ambivalent) as a Stella as ‘brash’, a Calder as ‘whimsical’ or a Serra as ‘aggressive’. The works demonstrate or highlight qualities that preceding practice allows us to validly interpret in terms of mood or feeling. So I don’t want to rule out expressive meaning to abstraction. Although, I do want to rule out a necessary link from this to the artist’s intention or psychology. To say this about the artist’s work, is not necessarily to say the artist felt this way while making the work or since. Also, what the artist sets out to do and what is actually achieved is not always the same thing. Even in writing, what we think we’ve said plainly is often not what the reader understands us to have written. Contrary to Lewis Carroll’s famous declaration, a word does not mean just as I want it to. On the other hand, the artist is as entitled to an interpretation of the work as anyone else, so I wouldn’t want to simply ignore artist’s statements either. They may be right, they may be wrong, but in any case I’m inclined to say a work permits more than one right or valid interpretation.

I think we would agree there, although you haven’t exactly said that.

Lastly, you raise the example of Tuymans, as an artist cherished for his convenient ideals and sound bites, and I was immediately reminded of a recent post by Sharon Butler, where Tuymans seems to have dumbed-down the right-on statements, and now offers something much closer to the traditional “Duh, I just do it” - with his "It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange". Well he is pretty much a made guy now, so they will cut him some slack. But this does pretty much put the ball fairly and squarely in the critic/curator’s court. If they want the meaning, there’re no free rides in his statements anymore.

Anonymous said...

This is why I read your blog. Thanks.

Carol Diehl said...

Don't get me wrong. I am all for interpretation--the more the better. But there is a big distinction to be made between saying what a work “could be read as” and what it “seems to represent” –especially when the latter is tied to a specific event in the artist’s life. A distinction has to be made between the opinion of the writer and what the piece actually presents.

Hileman handles it a little better here: “Returning to "First," the unexpected heights of the sculptures pickets, one tall and two shorter, expand the work from the concept of boundaries to a depiction of three joined but distinct entities, perhaps not without parallels in the relationships among Truitt and her two siblings.”

However, constantly returning to the biographical makes for a narrow, rather than expansive, reading of the work, and makes it seem simple-minded—-she made a piece with three pickets because she was one of three children—-rather than, say, how the unevenness of the picket fence, which stands for a kind of ideal in our culture, could be seen as representing the loss of innocence we all experience at some point in childhood when the life we thought would be regular turns out not to be. Or that the piece,
with its Trinity of verticals and triangulated top, can be seen as resembling a cathedral.

A straight biography would have been more appropriate for an artist who was very clear in expressing her antipathy to this kind of analogizing:

“…I generally feel uncomfortable with any personalizing of art criticism, and doubly uncomfortable because it is particularly common, and subtly condescending, in criticism addressed to the art of women.” (Prospect, p.89).

CAP said...

Well there's a double bind there - to accept the artist's statement but ignore her biography!

It does say more about the critic that they can only think to personify the three pickets on these very narrow terms. Why not The Holy Trinity? Triangulation? Euclid? or more daringly - the challenge of scale and position to entity? Do they remain versions of the one and same picket for being different sizes in different places? Is shape alone enough to idenitfy 'the picket'?

Much Minimalism is concerned with precisely this deployment of modules or a unitary assembly (say, LeWitt, Judd and Andre). But there are some critics (and not always male) that will find this a little dry, literally and metaphorically.

Carol Diehl said...

Biography is interesting and sheds a lot of light on the nature of creativity. I would never say that it should be ignored, just DON'T READ IT INTO THE WORK. And Truitt is right, these analogies with details about early or personal life afflict curators and critics particularly when writing about women, as if male artists have intellectual agendas and women domestic ones. Ellsworth Kelly is also one of three siblings, but nobody says that's why he does so many triptychs, or that they "appear to represent" his brotherly relationships. Hmmm. I wonder which is supposed to be Ellsworth--red, yellow or blue?

MR said...

As far as I can tell, "First" is not a picket fence but a sculpture. By framing it as resemblance to a picket fence we already undercut what it is. As long as the Trinity is evoked I call upon St. Augustine who pointed out " the dark riddle of a resemblance."
There is an insuperable gulf between a thing and our perception of it and Truitt plays with this fundamental problem.
It is a philosophical problem and not biographical.

MR said...

Truitt's titles oft make plain the relationship between her life/experiences and the work, no?

Mr Tyler. its a relationship in the way seven stars are linked together by lines is called the Big Dipper. That her work often has titles that seem to point to an event or place in her life in no way explains either. How could it?
Mayer was anecdotal about the titles and sculpture. It simply showed he knew her as his discussion of "A Wall for Apricots" makes plain. But what she told him was incomplete. How does that figure? There's a big difference between that and making the tenuous assertions that Hileman makes where for one thing there is no room polyvalence.

Anonymous said...

I think that this is an awfully narrow battleground.

There is certainly room for thinking about Truitt's work within the context of Truitt's biography. (Same story for Picasso's. Or Matisse's. Or Rothko's. Etc.)

I don't think anyone is suggesting that an artist's work be considered *only* within the context of their biography. I don't understand why anyone would suggest that Truitt's (or anyone else's) work be considered wholly absent from that artist's biography. (Are you arguing that Arthur Wheelock's last NGA Rembrandt show/focus was invalid for these same reasons?)

I mean, at some point it feels like there's something else at play here, because the resoluteness of the positions seems a little firm.


Carol Diehl said...

Well at least I'm consistent! It may not be an issue of vital importance to other people, but it is to me. Anyone who has read my writing knows that my blog is essentially a rant against this kind of interpretation, and that in my critical writing I'm interested in isolating the experience from the context, hence my interest in Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson for whom this is paramount. As for the place of biography, please re-read my comment of 11/8.

Anonymous said...

But isn't that one-size-fits-all approach a little stringent? Isn't our knowledge and appreciation of Matisse's late work enhanced by our knowledge of his biography/health issues/his compulsion to find ways to create regardless of his physical difficulties?

Carol Diehl said...

Absolutely! Just as knowing that Truitt's childhood nearsightedness caused her to see the world in terms of shapes rather than specific objects gives us insight into her creative development. As long as we don't conflate that information with the work, make it what the work MEANS, we're on firm ground.

Pretty Lady said...

Rock on, Carol.

An interesting exercise for me, when reading curatorial verbiage attached to mediocre art, is--is the person writing as a genuine exploration of the work, or merely to stake out territory?

Because it seems to me that an awful lot of both artistic and verbal crap is perpetrated in order to justify the author's place in the world--to earn paycheck, a title, or the right to look down on other people.

I'll tolerate a lot of mediocrity as long as it is sincere. The problem is that bad faith has become so prevalent, it drains the energy from honest effort. And that many of the perpetrators can't tell the difference.

Anonymous said...

Ooops that last anon comment was me.


Anonymous said...

The battlefield shrinks smaler. Seems like an awfully small peg on which to hang a critical hat.

(I mean, an artist receives a LONG overdue retrospective, it reveals her to be a major, overlooked figure... and this is the debate around the show? Seems awfully small.)


Carol Diehl said...

Just as the work of a worthy artist can be undermined as in: "Even as she participated in the carpool...Truitt continued making drawings...." Can you imagine such a thing being written about, say, Tony Smith? He also had three children and may or may not have been an involved parent, but if he were, no one would think to write "Even as he ferried his three children to and from school, Smith continued to work on his sculpture..."

You, PL, have a daughter. Better keep her under wraps if you want to be taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

"Even as she participated in the carpool...Truitt continued making drawings...."

Uh... seriously?

Someone curated the first major Truitt show but is trying to "undermine" the artist? Isn't that a bit, well, unlikely?


Anonymous said...

And by 'uh, seriously?' I mean that the quote has two ellipses and lacks context and seems... slightly manufactured.

Furthermore, Truitt wrote a great deal about her work, motherhood, her children and how her experiences as a mother impacted her art-making and vice versa. No one is arguing that a sculpture "means" Child X, etc., just that a consideration of the artist's biography in the context of her work (and vice versa) is fair ground for scholarship. Especially considering that Truitt herself spent umpteen pages on such. I mean, Truitt didn't just open the door, she built it.


Anonymous said...

Long overdue, perhaps. Just because Hirshhorn puts on a exhibition does not make her noticed and major especially as they offered no serious critical assessment. It should go w/o saying she accomplished what she did without the Hirshhorn and this exhibition did her no favors. It's not traveling, the catalogue is cheap, the curator's essay is fuzzy and half-baked. The exhibition design was pedestrian if for no other reason that it was chronological. Is that really the best way of doing it? The lighting was good I'll give it that but the relationship between a person and the work was cramped and when it wasn't it was static. The Parvas were ruined jammed together in a long funereal vitrine below eye level. ( but maybe proved the odd point in the essay that the artist was interested in mayan architecture. huh?) Hirshhorn blamed the odd distance between viewer and work on the risers ( curious how this was remarked upon by critics! the one qualm Gopnik had, by golly!)the major sculpture were set on but really the problem was that there was not enough space around some works and too little around others. There was no real flow and no real sense the curator understood what she was dealing with on any level except daytime tv. The curator viewed the works as essentially illustrated chapters in the life of an "interesting" artist and not works in themselves. Many works were undeniably beautiful but really crediting that to Hirshhorn would be going too far. They would look good in a warehouse.

As for Rembrandt the biographic effort seems to be a way to determine whether he painted the canvas there being so many misattributions. You cannot build an honest narrative on a fake picture. Well you can but surely we can expect the truth of what we know is based on fact as we know it?

Sappho: one complete poem extant and look what they did there.


Anonymous said...

The museum wanted to -- and tried to -- travel the show. I know from talking with several of the museums that had interest that the Hirshhorn wasn't responsible for their lack of willingness to take the show.

Critical assessment is for critics, not for the museum.

I think a chronological installation is pretty standard for an artist's first major retrospective.

Arthur Wheelock's last NGA Rembrandt show was about Rembrandt's late religious portraits. The show had nothing to do with attribution issues and everything to do with examining whether Rembrandt's biography played a role in his decision to paint so many Catholic martyrs in the final years of his life.


Anonymous said...

The Hirshhorn wasn't responsible for their show not traveling? Well they must have been convincing about something then to scare off those others. So, in addition to incompetent we should add gossipy?
Who says Hirshhorn isn't provincial?

First retrospective at Whitney in 75 a fact you will not see mentioned in any Hirshhorn document except obliquely. And BMA had one in late 80s I think.

Ah, so the curator is off the hook. She should not attempt critical assessment. That's a relief because it sure looked like she was trying.

The product description on Amazon for Wheelock's catalogue presumbaly vetted by the man himself says " recent archival research has raised questions about their attribution"
Its a problem no matter what the canvas looks like.


Anonymous said...

Both museums did installations, yes, but obviously a show then could not have encompassed the artist's entire career. (The BMA also did a show of the Arundel paintings, and there was the Corcoran/Walter Hopps show in the mid-70s too.)

If the Hirshhorn has been "gossipy" about possible destinations for the Truitt show and about why those places didn't take the show, it was not to me.

You may be looking at the wrong Rembrandt book/catalogue on Amazon. The NGA show (and accompanying catalogue) was not about attributions. Not sure if placing a link here works, but in case it does: http://www.nga.gov/past/data/exh841.shtm


Carol Diehl said...

No way do I think the curator, in her essay, was trying to "undermine" the artist. Although it's difficult to believe, given what Truitt herself wrote on the subject, I think she was simply unaware. She put a lot of effort into the exhibition and the catalog and I have no doubt her intent was to support the artist--just as the editorial assistant in the post I'm about to write thought she was supporting me.

Anonymous said...

I suspect she was fully aware (call and ask?)... and like most curators doesn't believe that the artist always gets the last say regarding how the work is historicized! ;-)


Anonymous said...

Diehl is not, by any means, the first to address this. If anyone thinks this is a narrow battleground they should read Anne Wagner: Three Woman Artists, Rosalind Krauss: In the Name of Picasso and also Roland Barthes: Death of the Author. These three essays deal with this issue and to not take them into account in discussion of this subject is to ignore the context.

Carol Diehl said...

THe complete quote:

"Even as she participated in the carpool for the nursery school organized by Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House, Truitt continued making her drawings...."