Saturday, October 29, 2011

One day, four works of art

A few nights ago, I had a dream where I was floating and diving underwater like a dolphin and—as when swimming in real life—I never wanted to stop.

Yesterday I had an art day like that: long, solitary experiences with four very different kinds of work that invited endless immersion.  Whenever, as happens all too frequently, I start to wonder why I’m in this field, I can look back on this day and remember why.

Photo: courtesy MoMA.
Willem de Kooning, Pirate (Untitled II), 1981
Oil on canvas
7' 4" x 6' 4 3/4" (223.4 x 194.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund, 1982
© 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I got to MoMA early to see the de Kooning exhibition again, this time on my own, and went straight to the back in advance of the hoards with their walkie-talkies. Except for the guard, I was alone in front of de Kooning’s Pirate (Untitled II), and the longer I stood there, the more it revealed to me. The experience was so animated it was like watching TV, only better. After about twenty minutes the guard, an older black man, came up and said, quietly, “Looks as if you like that painting.” I asked him how he felt about it, seeing it day after day—did it hold up?—and he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I told him how much I love the wispy late work, as opposed to the ones with looping closed lines, which feel static and tight. The guard pointed out that they were the very last ones de Kooning painted, and suggested that perhaps by then the artist’s mind really was gone. He showed me the area he liked best, a wall of somewhat earlier large abstractions that reminded him of Lee Krasner, and told me, proudly, that he’d worked at MoMA for more than twenty years.

Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011
JANET CARDIFF (Canadian, b. 1957)
The Forty Part Motet (2001)
Reworking of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui”(1575), by
Thomas Tallis
40-track sound recording (14:00 minutes), 40 speakers
Dimensions variable
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and
Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Rolf Hoffmann, 2002

I could have stopped there, completely fulfilled, but instead I took the E out to PS 1 (only two stops from MoMA). While I’ll do almost anything to avoid 9/11 nostalgia, Sasha Frere-Jones, in a recent New Yorker article, mentioned the Janet Cardiff sound installation from 2001, The Forty-Part Motet, which is part of PS 1's September 11 exhibition, and I was eager to experience it. Frere-Jones wrote:

Cardiff re-created the performance of a forty-member choir, each singer emerging through a separate speaker, performing the 1573 Thomas Tallis piece “Spem in alium.” In eleven minutes, it uses a stunning variety of overlapping, interlocking parts, as deft in its repetition as anything Steve Reich has done. The interplay of the voices is also moving—I have rarely visited the work and not seen people crying within minutes.

I’ve been a fan of Cardiff's ever since the percussive piece she and George Bures Miller installed in 2006 at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, which gets my all-time favorite award for site-specific art (read my review here). Happily The Forty-Part Motet lived up to my expectations—was exalted and exhalting. I could have just as easily been in Canterbury Cathedral during Evensong, but there’s also something about the anonymity of the experience that makes it surprisingly personal. While I was there, two young women were inspired to dance, but attempting to photograph them (with their permission), I was sharply remonstrated by the guard—an action that was jarring and surprisingly upsetting in the way it pierced a euphoric moment. Something like that would never have happened in Europe, I thought, especially in England where museum attendants can be sensitive to the point of being apologetic. So I left the room and came back again later when—with the exception of a different guard who lurked quietly in the corner, absorbed in his cell phone—I was able to listen to the whole thing again, this time completely alone.
Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011.
JAMES TURRELL (American, b. 1943)
Meeting (1986)
Interior fluorescent light and open sky
Room: 259 x 279 ½ inches (657.9 x 709.3 cm);
portal: 157 x 177 inches (398.8 x 449.6 cm)
Long-term installation, MoMA PS1, Long Island City,
New York

Where I went to recuperate was James Turrell’s Meeting (1986), unexpectedly open in the early afternoon where, for more than a half hour, I was alone in one of my favorite places in the world. At one point a man opened the door, stuck his head in, and immediately left, having had his fill—but that was all. The sky “ceiling” was picturesquely blue and wisped with clouds on that sunny day, while soft, cool breezes wafted about the room. Perfect.

Photo: courtesy MoMA, PS 1
BARBARA KRUGER (American, b. 1945)
Untitled (Questions) (1991)
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl
66 3/16 x 92 5/8 x 2 1/2 inches (168.1 x 235.3 x 6.4 cm)
Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for
Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New

On my way out of the September 11 exhibition I passed this piece from 1991 by Barbara Kruger. While I didn’t spend half an hour communing with it, it’s stayed with me, as it seems particularly relevant to the present time. If I haven’t posted lately, it’s because I’ve been caught up in the issues around Occupy Wall Street, without quite knowing how to process them as far as my blog was concerned. With the mainstream press reporting so little in the beginning, Facebook became my news source. Suddenly I was grateful that I’d accepted as “friends” over 1,000 people I don’t know, and their links to video footage, news reports from outside the country, and on-the-spot commentary, was riveting, inspiring, and disturbing.  The actions of the police, in one scary videotaped scene after another—especially in Oakland—are unconscionable. If this were China, we’d be appalled. Why do we accept it as business-as-usual in a country that gives lip service to free speech and human rights? Now that it’s turned on us in a big way, we can see what the black community has known all along, that police forces are often made up of people who are excited by violence, who can’t wait to use their authority against such dire threats as Citibank customers endeavoring to close their accounts, or Naomi Wolf in her evening dress (an event that made the headlines in The Guardian, which I subscribe to online, but was significantly left out of the New York Times). Not to speak of the group that's most armed and dangerous: nurses.

I’m just enough of a Quaker, an idealist—and an American—to believe, like Marine veteran Sergeant Shamar Thomas in the now-famous video where he successfully talks down a bunch of cops, that the police should be protecting our Constitutional right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  Is that really so far-fetched?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On de Kooning, Orozco, and Twombly…

I could not agree more with Roberta Smith’s strongly worded review of Gabriel Orozco’s show at Marian Goodman, which ended Saturday (note: the images look better online than they did in person). My thoughts exactly: a case of an artist who can do wonderful things (his drawings on money and tickets being some of my favorite artworks ever), churning out stuff for the marketplace to the point that I wonder if he even knows who he is anymore. But then you have to feel sorry for anyone who shows while de Kooning is on at MoMA, and has to stand up to the inevitable comparisons.

Willem de Kooning. Pink Angels. c. 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 52 x 40" (132.1 x 101.6 cm). Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I didn’t see how the de Kooning retrospective could live up to the hype but it did—it was energizing and inspiring, even though some of the selected pieces (especially from the artist’s late period) weren’t the best examples, not to to speak of the pedestrian installation. Is it really necessary to group all of the “woman” paintings together in a row? At MoMA, chronology wins out over aesthetics, as if we’re all art historians for whom it’s important to compare similar paintings side-by-side. Big square rooms, white walls, everything lined up in order…hey, it’s the 21st century! How about a little originality? And also is it necessary to show SO MUCH work at one time? I know that’s a silly question since the whole idea of a blockbuster is to cram in as much as possible—and to hell with selection. Why show three black –and-white paintings when you can get ten? The result, no matter how great the artist, can be overwhelm and overkill, and it’s to de Kooning’s credit that he survives it here.

I remember approaching the gigantic 2005 Cy Twombly works on paper show at the Whitney with high anticipation, and coming out thinking…eh? Fortunately my love for Twombly has since been restored, especially this summer when I went to a beautiful small show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, where his work was paired with that of Poussin—to Twombly’s advantage. Often you can learn more about an artist by looking at a few well-chosen paintings than being distracted and suffocated with more.

I went to the MoMA show with someone who knew de Kooning and his work well, and who once took me to visit him in his vast Hampton’s studio, where I admired the artist’s hydraulic easel that not only raised and lowered into a well in the studio floor, but could turn and tilt to any angle.  At MoMA, as we were looking at Woman I, my friend told me that after working on it ceaselessly and not feeling resolved, de Kooning put the canvas under his bed and didn’t paint anything for nine months, causing much consternation in the then-small art world. He pulled it out for a visit by Meyer Shapiro, telling the art historian that he didn’t know if it was finished or not.

“It’s finished,” Shapiro said.

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm). MoMA Purchase. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

[Can we imagine Orozco choosing not to work for nine months?  Caring enough not to work for nine months?]

It’s impossible to look at de Kooning and not think of all the other artists (Pollock, Gorky, Kline, etc.) he was bouncing off of, who were working in similar ways, and to recognize how—when a group is working on the same idea, if separately—they push each other to outdo each other and develop it collectively. The downside is that the pressure to adhere to a movement or style can be very confining (I know this from personal experience, having been an abstract artist in Chicago where the Imagists held such sway that the only option was to move to New York)—however it made me think that the complete freedom we have today may be the one of the reasons so little truly great art is being produced.

Leaving the exhibition we walked down the stairs to the first floor where a massive Twombly was hung over the information desk, edge-to-edge scrawls of white crayon on a uniform gray ground. My friend and I had once shared an experience at the Clark Institute with one of Monet’s cathedral paintings, which started out appearing to be almost entirely abstract—but as we looked, the sun seemed to come out and illuminate the façade until we could see its sculptural detail clearly. Similarly here, gazing at the Twombly, the fairly regular, overall pattern of loops began to form themselves into clouds, and the painting took on the unexpected illusion of movement and depth. Gorgeous.

I’ve been back to the Clark since, wanting to see the Monet in the same way again, but it resisted. By now you’d think I would have learned the folly of trying to recreate peak experiences.

Cy Twombly. Untitled. 1970. Oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas. 13' 3 3/8" x 21' 1/8" (405 x 640.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (both by exchange). (C) 2011 Cy Twombly

Monday, October 10, 2011

Thomas Struth...and even more about teaching

Thomas Struth 2011 - courtesy Schirmer/Mosel

I just finished reading Janet Malcolm’s excellent article (New Yorker, September 26, 2011) on the photographer, Thomas Struth, whose 30-year survey I saw last July at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I often cringe when art world outsiders attempt to write about art; editors can forget that it’s a specialized field like science or sports, with specialized practices and precedents. They might assign a music writer to write about art (as the Chicago Tribune did back in the day) but an art writer to write about football? Hardly. Outsiders tend to idolize and idealize the artist, make too much of technique (which can seem magical to them), and emphasize the wrong things—Anthony Lane’s 2003 article on Howard Hodgkin in the same magazine is a case in point: Lane, normally a perceptive film critic, made much of the fact that Hodgkin would date a piece over the years it took to make it, i.e. “1998-2002,” an utterly common artistic practice, and wrote “If you know Hodgkin’s work, you can spot it across a crowded room.” Uh, that’s called personal style.

Also, to a frightening degree, most writers of profiles (art and non-art) tend to be so cowed by their subjects that they rarely question or evaluate their statements. Malcolm, however, isn’t afraid to intelligently correct what she perceives as Struth’s “mischaracterization” of photo-realist painting, and point out how, while not a conscious influence, that work anticipated Struth’s generation of photographers.

The piece begins and ends with the story of Struth’s recently commissioned portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The photograph is remarkable for its subtlety, not a quality usually associated with pictures of monarchs. Generally the poses are dry and formal or the opposite, smiling with dogs or small children, as if the photographer is trying to say, “See? Royals are human, too.”  Instead Struth wraps vulnerability, power, and constraint into a single package. Seeing the reproduction (although with no indication of size, which turns out to be 59” x 79”) and learning about the sensitivity with which Struth approached the project gave me insight into his work to the point that I wished I could go back and see the Whitechapel show all over again. If all art writing were like that, I wouldn’t be so vehement on the subject.

The Struth piece reminded me how much I learned in the 23 years I spent working with TIME’s estimable collection of cover art (from Warhol to Alice Neel, Alex Katz, and Christo, with my hands-down favorite being Marisol’s sculpture of Bob Hope) and commissioning pieces from “gallery artists” (the only term I could come up with that would distinguish them from illustrators) for the covers. It seemed that when the subject was a given I could see the artist’s peculiar vision more clearly—the special twist that could turn yet another image of an over-exposed celebrity into a genuine work of art.

And speaking of teaching, as we were in the posts below, it comes as no surprise that Struth studied with Gerhard Richter (described by Struth as “ironic,” with “coded” language and behavior) and photography icons Bernd and Hilla Becher of whom he said:

The big pedagogical influence was that they introduced me and others to the history of photography and to its great figures. They were fantastic teachers…in the way that they demonstrated the complexity of connections. It was an outstanding thing that when you were with Bernd and Hilla they didn’t talk about photography alone. They talked about movies, journalism, literature—stuff that was very comprehensive and complex. For example a typical thing Bernd would say was “You have to understand the photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.”

Which leads me to the idea I’ve often fantasized about, that until specializing at the college graduate level, we should be teaching not subjects but eras—Warhol in the context of the moon landing, birth control pills, Catch-22, and Marshall McLuhan makes much more sense than as part of some artificial trajectory from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. When I was at Bennington I wanted to put together a multi-disciplinary class entitled “1968” (ideally to be followed by 1954, 1944, 1929, 1917, etc.) that would go into not just the cultural, political, and scientific events but what people were eating, what their houses looked like, their religious and educational practices, important legal disputes of the day, and so on.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching everything like it’s 1890.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

More on the teaching of art…

...prompted by querying an undergrad friend the other night about his first assignments in painting. Last week the class was to paint a still life with subjects of their choice, while including some kind of organic material and a black and white photo, and this week they’re being asked to paint the sky. While I’ll always leave open the possibility that the teacher is inspired and I just don’t get it – it does happen! (see the post below) – I’ll also continue to agitate for students’ prerogative to choose their own subject matter. After all, if I wanted to encourage a kid’s sense of personal style, I wouldn’t start by having his mom pick out his clothes. To continue the analogy, the still life assignment is like saying, “You can wear anything you want as long as it’s from the Gap and has short sleeves.”

What is the most important ingredient in making a successful work of art? INTEREST. Art is hard (and then you die, as they say) and what drives it is DESIRE, a feeling not usually successfully generated by what someone else wants. Art happens through imagining an outcome and wanting so badly to see it realized that you’ll try anything, do anything, to make it happen, including starting over if the first, second, third, or hundredth attempt doesn’t succeed.

The other reason for choice in subject matter is to establish from the beginning that execution and concept are intertwined. Technique is simply the vehicle that allows an idea to reach its fullest potential. How is it we think we can expose students to a bunch of techniques using our ideas and just assume that afterwards they’ll find their own concepts to attach to them? Do ideas generate techniques or do techniques generate ideas? That’s a chicken-and-egg question.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching art like it’s 1890.

So what is a teacher’s role? Unlike some others, I believe we do have a purpose, which is to expose students to new ideas, new methods, and also validate theirs—help them to “detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [their minds] from within,” as Emerson would say, as they develop their creative intuition and artistic idiosyncrasy.

And, yes, art history is useful as long as we’re not using it to impress upon students what the culture has valued in the past, but to stimulate what’s already percolating so they can supersede it.

Needless to say, I did not share my opinions with my student friend. And while I found the sky painting assignment BEYOND BORING, I will admit to having done one:

 Carol Diehl, Gloria, 2007, oil on panel, 12" x 12".