Arbitrary or Wilfull?

My personal definition of the arbitrary is a finite number of options, all equally good. That’s how a modern painting, or even a modernist painting, starts – with an arbitrary beginning. What does it matter after all whether the first stroke is red or blue? If one had a reason to choose one over the other then the work would be motivated from outside, it would be an illustration. The important thing is how one gets from an arbitrary beginning to a strong illusion of necessity. At least that’s one aesthetic choice – some artists try to keep the arbitrariness to the end, also a valid approach. But this kind of arbitrariness is perhaps something different from the willfulness of early abstraction. Whether it’s Young Sailor II, or Sonia Delaunay’s halos, the modernists of the period say from 1885 – 1914, abstract or cubist or whatever kind of figurative, made strangely individual choices. Willfulness is freedom, and it’s unfortunate that artists of more recent vintage often feel they have to justify their actions in any other way. Delaunay’s concentric curves have absolutely no reason to exist, as far as I can see, and neither does their color have any rationale. In this example they might be motivated by a dancer, but she uses them all the time, for any subject.

Sonia Delaunay, Dancer - version II 1916

Sonia Delaunay, Dancer – version II 1916

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Painting Collage

Blog reader Naomi Schlinke sent me an example of her recent work. I love seeing

Naomi Schlinke, She 2014

Naomi Schlinke, She 2014

the pins that hold the collage together, partly because it means the work isn’t settled, but also because it just looks good.

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Buyers and Sellers

Recently I came across an article by Carol Vogel in the NYT on the Oscar Murillo phenomenon. I always thought that young artists get lots of attention because they are young; they deserve it because they are young, and because they are supposed to have a fresh perspective. Turns out the market likes young artists because it can speculate on their future success. Naive me. I don’t have a curmudgeonly bone in my body, but really, Murillo’s work is hardly novel. When Stefan Simchowitz says that Murillo is the most important artist of the last forty years, I have to ask where has he been? But then some people predict a big fall in the artist’s prices one day, when the speculative bubble pops. I doubt it, because the people buying him now will be the same people to sustain his prices, and the value of their own collections, later. Having said all that, I think that prices for art are not as well understood as they might be. Six figures for a Murillo is not that terribly high when one looks at the amount of money available to buy a limited number of things. Forbes this month counts over 1600 billionaires, which raises another question – why should we celebrate the wealthy as if they were athletes? I’m old school – keep your money to yourself, don’t brag about it. Of course the wealthy aren’t necessarily doing that – the info in Forbes comes from public records, but I’m sure that many newly rich like becoming celebrities on account of it. In any case, as hard as it may be for most of us to believe, art prices at the top of the market are still low, and as long as the global economy grows they have lots of upward potential. It’s the mechanisms of fame that keep most of us in the nether regions where $1000 is a lot of money. But I’m not complaining, in fact I think it’s a lot of fun, not only making art but selling it, and everything else we do in the so-called art world. To lighten up is always a good idea. Perspective liberates. I think it was Picasso who said that artists are people who can’t afford the art they want so have to make it themselves. Imagine the pleasure of collecting. If you got a great hit from one work by a particular artist, wouldn’t you want to see more? And if you owned one wouldn’t it be natural to want to have more? Come to think of it, I could give better advice than Simchowitz.

Oscar Murillo, Dark Americano 2012

Oscar Murillo, Dark Americano 2012

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Undead Formalism

I have yet to weigh in on the Stefan Simchowitz imbroglio – actually the post is written but not yet posted. However, Walter Robinson’s response comes first. He thinks that formalism is dead, and instead of adducing Jacob Kassay and Lucien Smith as proof, he works the other way and says since formalism is dead they must be zombies. Readers of this blog will know why I have little interest in their work, but that’s not a moral judgment coming from the fact that they sell lots of work to less discerning collectors. The collectors must have the same education as the artists, because everything Kassay and Smith do is within the norms of American painting. Or you could say that if Richter can do what he does to great acclaim, then Kassay and Smith are completely legitimate. Oddly, Robinson slams Greenberg – as if the dogmas of the 80s still had any validity – yet doesn’t offer a critical perspective on the work of Kassay and Smith, in fact giving it the credit of saying “something basic about what painting is—about its ontology, if you think of abstraction as a philosophical venture.” I don’t want to sound like a British curmudgeon, but these guys are not on that level. But then neither is Robinson I guess, or his criticism would be concrete rather than moral. A  critic with conventional views can hardly get a perspective on conventional art.

a work by Lucien Smith

a work by Lucien Smith

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The three abstract watercolors with erotic associations didn’t sell on eBay, so I’m trying three more, this time a bit more formalist. The results are disappointing, but not necessarily final. I just sold five watercolors in Toronto, so have every reason to believe there is a demand. These new ones are built around circles and spirals. Usually an

Robert Linsley, untitled watercolor 2010

Robert Linsley, untitled watercolor 2010

attempted spiral quickly breaks up into something else, in other words becomes a more complex shape. I love to make the shapes talk to each other, mirror each other, dance around together and apart, and all the other beautiful things that one can find in old pictures.


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Still dwelling on the Sydney Paths to Abstraction catalog, which I find surprisingly inspiring. Surprising because many of the works have never been among my favorites. But there are two great merits to this show and catalog – the prominent places given to Klee and to printmaking, especially woodcuts. As I discussed before on this blog, the woodcut seems to have been a major facilitator of abstraction, because of its particular kind of

Wassily Kandinsky, pages from Klange, 1912

Wassily Kandinsky, pages from Klange, 1912

registration and mis-registration, and because images often verge on the unintelligible. It’s not easy to render in relief printing, and though professionals can master it, as witness the great mass culture wood engravings of the late nineteenth century, in this particular area artists were able to put confusion and inexperience to good use. The standard way to

Paul Gauguin, Auti te Pape (artist's proof) 1893-94

Paul Gauguin, Auti te Pape (artist’s proof) 1893-94

proceed was probably to glue a drawing to the block, then cut into the wood through the negative areas, taking care to preserve the lines. If I was to do it – and hope to in the not far off future – I would forgo the drawing and just cut directly into the wood. What pleasurable difficulties would arise then!

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My ebay offerings are about learning how to sell art in this new context. It occurs to me that close up views might help, so I’m belatedly adding these to the listings, but it’s also enjoyable just to look at them, and gives a good excuse to say something. I put my first

detailmention of the ebay listings between posts, but the pieces really deserve their own treatment in a post. This close up shows how the forms break and jump over gaps, making an interlacing with the ground. The second one shows clearly how overlapping colors make new colors, a banal observation but a difficult technique to master.


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The Lost Steps

Returning to an earlier discussion of books and art, my own favorite iconic novel of art is Alejo Carpentier‘s The Lost Steps. Although it is about a musicologist, it does have a lot to say about abstraction, if we can tune into the tradition of abstraction as research in the primordial. My emblematic quote:

“…they lie who say man cannot escape his epoch. The Stone Age, like the Middle Ages, is still within our reach. The gloomy mansions of romanticism, with its doomed loves, are still open. But none of this was for me, because the only human race to which it is forbidden to sever the bonds of time is the race of those who create art…”


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A Gesture

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

As part of an ongoing experiment to try for more control over my own market, I’ve put three watercolors on ebay. This first one is here. Another very comical one is here.

IMG_3258 copy

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

Anecdotal evidence suggests this second one is quite popular. I was provoked to do this by my friend Chris Gergley, who had some success with his photographs on ebay.

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Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates recently gave a talk in Toronto, which sadly I missed, but the other day I came across two articles about him, one in the New Yorker, the other in the New York Times Magazine. As usual, certain small details caught my attention. For one, he comes from an academic background, has worked for the city of Chicago, and proudly claims competence in working with bureaucracies. But as an example of the artist as manager, who orchestrates many employees, I think he’s outstanding. He is much more interesting than Xu Zhen, for one. He has attracted a lot of support because his project is urban redevelopment, though he does it with an arts and culture slant. But the South Side of Chicago is culture in a way – I’m thinking of Chicago blues and jazz – so his distant local precursors might include the Sun Ra Arkestra and the AACM. My aversion to bureaucracy and bureaucratic art is pretty strong, but what seems to me different about Gates is precisely his improvised musical performances, which by accounts seem pretty strong. The art that he sells to support his development activities seems like middle of the road conceptualism, but that’s not the real art. At the end of the New Yorker piece, Hamza Walker, of the Renaissance Society, wonders if the value of what Gates does is merely symbolic, but if so it’s no different from any other art. Every painting and sculpture is one small piece of the world transformed, one new thing. Gates’ work is in the vein of “social sculpture,” in which the materials are buildings. I guess I can see why that might be more exciting to some people than another painting, but it’s hardly a revolution in art, as I have been saying for a long time now. Jeffrey Deitch says that the art world has responded to Gates because he offers a “vision,” something rare today. It’s a vision of social change and improvement, a community working with its hands and heads and hearts to clean up the inner city mess and rebuild some kind of normal life. But I have the perspective of my own context, where all that has been done long ago and yet goes on today, so much so that I want to run screaming when I hear the word “community.” Again, what makes Gates’ rebuild different and special is that it’s an emerging city of art and music, whereas in my town, building the city and organizing community has no place for what I call art – for real art,  free from communal responsibilities. It’s also a model of the artist’s life – not only the artist as leader and entrepreneur, but as less narcissistic and selfish.

Theaster Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi in performance

Theaster Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi in performance

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Leon Ferrari

In an earlier post I was critical of Leon Ferrari, and was feeling as if I might have been too much so. I thought he deserved further research, so have been looking at a couple of catalogs. Although I have to give him credit – some erotic collages look interesting – where his work approaches abstraction, mostly through calligraphy, sadly my negative judgements have to remain. This piece for example loses a lot by the title. The Kama Sutra might be worth something, and I like the tradition of grotesque alphabets, but in the end it’s just too obvious, and too illustrative.

Leon Ferrari, Kama Sutra I  1979

Leon Ferrari, Kama Sutra I 1979

Joseph Balthazar Sivestre, Alphabet Anthropomorphe 1834

Joseph Balthazar Sivestre, Alphabet Anthropomorphe 1834 A quasi erotic sign system.

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Hopeless but Realistic

A number of years ago I saw the great Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Someone was going on about how he had no education, couldn’t finish high school, no skills, no talents, no hope at all in fact, so his only option was to become a rock star. That was very funny, but funnier is the recent thought that one might have a post-graduate degree, excellent language skills, wide education, deep knowledge of art, including substantial technique, and likewise no hope of ever earning a livelihood, so one’s only option is to sell a lot of art for high prices – the odds of which are about the same as having a platinum record.


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David Harvey

David Harvey is a pretty great thinker, in fact I might say necessary for anyone who wants to understand what’s really going on in the world today. Is it important for an abstract artist to care about that? If they want abstraction to be something more than a cute commodity I guess it is, though there is no way to specify how any knowledge should be put to work by art. I just found a good article by Harvey here. My own encounter with him was mentioned in an earlier post. He is trained as a geographer, and that’s good because it proves that one doesn’t have to be a professional economist to have something to say about the way the world is organized. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that economists are among those responsible for the mess. Rescue economics from the economists.


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This piece was my second Island painting. At the time I thought of it as my clown painting,

Robert Linsley, Island of the Burning Tar Pits 1998

Robert Linsley, Island of the Burning Tar Pits 1998

and clowns – from Bruce Nauman to Paul McCarthy – were very present in art at that time. In painting, Gary Hume’s “Snowman” was in the back of my mind.

Gary Hume, Snowman

Gary Hume, Snowman 1996

But which of these pictures is more “conceptual,” and which more “abstract?”

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Non-Identity Again

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the very bad idea that human rights should be extended to animals. I don’t think we can just carry on treating the rest of the world as if it only existed only to serve our needs, but this is the wrong way to make a change. In fact it doesn’t change anything, just reaffirms the anthropocentric view. What matters above all is to recognize the otherness of the world, in other words it’s existence apart from us, and outside our economy. This is completely relevant to art, because it has to do with recognizing the otherness of art. Actually, that otherness doesn’t just exist, it has to be fostered in the studio, but it’s the real source of value in art.

Asuka, three-year-old female chimpanzee, draws an oil painting at a studio at Izu Shaboten Park in Ito

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I don’t know much about Gaitonde‘s career, the dating of his work, significance of his titles and so on. However, with time it grows on me, so I have to talk about it. He makes me realize that abstractionists often use forms with little character, to stay this side of figuration. The other common device is all-over or grid like compositions. Gaitonde’s work uses both, though his shapes have a smidgeon more of resemblance to specific things than usual. The forms in my own Island works are some small amount closer to recognizability still, and my arrangements are not generically grid like. Does that make them less abstract? Of such fine distinctions will the future of abstraction be made.

Vasudeo Gaitonde, Homi Bhaba study 1959

Vasudeo Gaitonde, Homi Bhaba study 1959

I still think that the Island paintings are a great solution, and not enough recognized as such, but my watercolors are more conventional in that the shapes they work with

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

are also characterless and generic - in fact one reason I like Gaitonde’s work might be that his shapes are similar to mine. When shapes must invent themselves, as in the poured Islands, they can be as articulated and multiform as they need to be. Normally the artist invents shapes, and the decorum of abstraction calls for a minimal effort. So much for decorum. There must be a better way, but theoretical harangues won’t make it appear any faster. Stella’s work suggests that ready-made forms might be a good option – ready-made forms, not objects. My method, which I also recognize in Gaitonde, is to develop those characterless forms from the inside out, into working groups. On a technical note I’ve switched to hot press paper, which is harder to work with. The main problem is to control the water, and the piece above has the normal solution, but I’m tending toward

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

the blotchy, mottled look, caused by more water, as perhaps more interesting. On another technical note, here are dry patches of sidewalk surrounded by snow melt, islands you might say. They certainly resemble Gaitonde’s forms. I wouldn’t be one to draw from nature so directly as to trace or otherwise copy them, but take encouragement that forms in abstract pictures can be as natural.


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An earlier post got me thinking. Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is an iconic work of literature for modernists, from say Cezanne to Picasso. The blank map in The Hunting of the Snark is equally important for the transition from abstraction to conceptualism, call it the era of Robert Smithson. Lately I’m wondering if Henry James’ “The Figure in the Carpet” might have a similar status today. Several artists have mentioned it to me over the years. It’s a very funny story because the narrator’s voice is so obviously mannered, and his perspective limited. James is certainly having fun with him. I’m not sure if that kind of sophistication and that much art is normally present in global conceptualism, in fact doubt it. But what makes the story very contemporary is that it’s about criticism. Of the three main characters – excluding the novelist they are obsessed with, who only makes a cameo appearance – the two men are critics and the woman, a love interest of them both, is a writer. The idea of art as an erotic quest is likely to be greeted skeptically in the prudish realm of conceptual art, which talks a lot about sex but doesn’t think of itself as sex, another important difference from modernism, but the idea of criticism as erotic quest is much funnier anyway. Looking deeper, the idealism of the characters, their belief in art as a holy grail of experience and the elusive “figure in the carpet” as a kind of ecstasy only accessible to initiates, is out of keeping with the disillusioned temper of our times. The irony and intellectualism of the story gives it a place in our world, but its aestheticism can only be received in quotes. Maybe that’s the role of the critic as hero.

Pablo Picasso, from the Vollard Suite, illustrations for "The Unknown Masterpiece" 1927

Pablo Picasso, from the Vollard Suite, illustrations for “The Unknown Masterpiece” 1927


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Early Monet

Some years ago I was very struck by this Monet in Chicago. It is beautifully ordinary – the subject, the treatment – a kind of bland, unassuming realism. I thought of Harold

Claude Monet, Bank of the Seine at Bennecourt 1868

Claude Monet, Bank of the Seine at Bennecourt 1868

Bloom’s description of Wordsworth, whose use of ordinary language in poetry is so original and influential that it can hardly be seen any more. It’s too big to be visible. Monet is not such a revolutionary, because he owes a lot to Corot and other French plein-air painters, but I think it’s still hard to connect with the poetry of this work, very moving and apparently so conventional. Abstraction acknowledges late Monet, but is it possible to work backwards to this as an origin? I think one of the most interesting questions for art history are the realist sources of abstraction. A few thoughts on the topic here.

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Circuit Lines

The complexity of Stella’s Circuit series is diabolical. Interesting is that there are relationships that no one could be expected to see, or that, because of the crowdedness of the work, are close to impossible to see, and that the artist has invested a lot of energy in them knowing that they will be invisible. This series might be Stella’s belated cubism, the works in which he acquired the deep skills and knowledge that enabled succeeding series. For example, the patterns of etched lines are pretty clear and understandable, but they are layered over cut out shapes. Some of the cut outs specified in the preparatory drawings are negative, some are positive shapes, and in the finished works they move forward and back and tilt at different angles. And of course they are all overpainted. It’s very hard to keep track of the etched pattern, but Stella has paid a lot of attention to the specifics of where the lines start and end. The drawings are on layered sheets of acetate.

Drawing for Zeltweg

Drawing for Zeltweg

Maquette for Zeltweg

Maquette for Zeltweg

Frank Stella, Zeltweg 1982

Frank Stella, Zeltweg 1982

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Private Showing

This week I brought a few works to Toronto for a small showing. Also had a great conversation with my friend Jan Tumlir about biomorphic blobs, abstract expressionism, naivety, large forms, music and other topics. Jan brings the news from LA, always interesting. He has a sense for art, and is very well informed about painting in particular. He gave a very good talk at the local art school, about monochromes and music.



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Studio Show

I recently published a review of the work of Jeff Tutt, an artist also mentioned earlier on this blog. I can’t add much more to what I said in the review, except that it might be too much about local circumstances and not enough about the work itself. But then that is one consequence of the position I’m developing – that it’s not always necessary to say something about an artwork. Simpler work attracts my interest more than evident complexity, but that’s an aspect of the attraction to difficulty, one of the most pleasurable features of art. Simplicity is no longer simple.

Jeff Tutt's show in Josh Thorpe's studio, Toronto 2014

Jeff Tutt’s show in Josh Thorpe’s studio, Toronto 2014

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Philosophy of An Artist

In his book Working Space, Stella makes a comment in passing that I can’t get out of my mind. He says “…life is more wonderful than the imagination and recall of the people who live it.” Objectively true. How can our individual selves encompass the majesty of what is? A glimpse now and then. But what’s good about this comment is that it brings us to lived experience, the passage of time as we know it – dreary humdrum day to day. Recollection is inadequate anyway because we miss most of what happens in life, especially nowadays. But imagination is the faculty that reveals the present. For certain people, including me, work is how it’s done, the way to peer out and over the down of daily life. Make the colors sing, make the forms dance, why waste any more moments? The advocates of discursive art would laugh, but what’s real is real. Why should we prefer a clever thought to the non-conceptual experience of art? The first is necessary and inevitable, the second is an achievement of the moment – the achievement that makes the moment, even if we don’t know it at the time. I’ve had this piece hanging in my house for a few months now, and I never really liked it. Always thought it was not quite up to standard. But now I see in it energy and life that’s independent of myself. I was trying to bring the illusion of light to my normally pretty flat way of painting, so the intellectual side, the realm of conscious intentions, is covered. But the emotional side, in other words the pleasure available to the viewer, took care of itself. What a gift to me, to realize this is the way into the present and out of my own limitations. That’s why I’ve been making art for such a long time.

Robert Linsley, Yellow Sea 2011

Robert Linsley, Yellow Sea 2011

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Here’s a photo of the picture essay in The Sunday Times that I mentioned in the last post. It’s not online, that I know, but a number of blogs have commented on it, so it must


have been striking to a few people. I recently came across an interesting quote from Proust. He says that while reading “…we receive the communication of another thought, but while we remain all alone, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power we have in solitude, which conversation dissipates immediately.” Oh for the days of conversation. Today one’s intellectual power is dissipated as soon one opens the newspaper or turns on the TV news. The word “dissipation” has connotations of drinking and sexing around. Today we are all lost in an orgy of information, which means that our attention is constantly scattered among millions of inconsequential facts. They may in fact be important facts or events, to many people, but excess makes them all equally unimportant to most of us most of the time, even as we are swept away by waves of emotion and concern. The news makes every real crisis trivial, even as trivialities take up too much space in our attention. Perspective is annihilated. That’s a pretty banal observation by now, but no less true, and no less a problem for the individual, one which can only be solved by and for the individual. This is why artists like Morandi and Mohamedi, who condense and focus attention, are such a welcome presence for many. Looking at that kind of art might be an experience similar to reading for Proust. This is also why it’s hard to sustain the value of abstract art in today’s culture, because “discursive,” or politically engaged art has simply joined the flow. This is another way to say that the now ubiquitous discursive mode is uncritical. One can’t call any political position “critical;” the only possible critique is to reject the image world. Moments of experience valuable to the individual are threatened, even in art galleries and museums, yet how can any artist deny the narrative and dramatic power of photojournalism like this? To transform destruction into art is a coping mechanism. The remnants of the avant-garde claim to negate art as a way to  recapture the real as collective experience, as politics in other words, but the effort is doomed and even suicidal. Even as I write this I feel myself being swept into the vortex, spinning through theoretical positions that can never be theoretically reconciled. But life must still be lived, and art is still possible. Does the photojournalist snatch a formed moment from the chaos? Maybe so. Is that a crime? The paradox is that as long as the politically engaged artist gives the priority to art they have political integrity. But there’s still a lot of confusion as to what political change – the presumed goal – really is.

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Out of Control

Recently I saw a remarkable four page spread of photos in the Sunday Times of the turmoil in Kiev. Part of their effect was owing to their size, somewhat larger than the usual newspaper photo, but they were also intensely dramatic. Maybe every photo today is a movie still. I can detect generic narrative forms in the documentary works of both Alan Sekula and Ed Burtynsky, though I doubt they planted them there. But now documentary is also cinematic. That is all very interesting, but the problem for abstraction is to survive the blizzard of the world. I’m working on a way right now.

Anti government protests in Ukraine

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The Sexual Gesture

About a year ago Laura Owens was interviewed in Arforum, and she said some interesting things about sex and painting. I meant to comment, and can’t believe it was that long ago.

“I had asked myself, in a depressed mood: is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks? At the same time, in 2013, does anyone at all have this ability, or is it an antiquated and sentimental idea? Isn’t it interesting that a male orgasm has a DNA imprint that will replicate itself over and over again, reinforcing itself the way language or naming might, but the female orgasm has no use, no mark, no locatability? It can’t even be located in time. There’s no moment when ejaculate comes out, really. I want to think about how that can be the model for a new gesture. What is that gesture in art, or in painting? The DNA replicant reminds me of the signature, like Picasso’s signature on the painting being comparable to sperm. That sounds really gendered, but it’s not – I’m specifically locating production that’s telegraphing itself, which feels very old-fashioned.”

My first thought is that the sperm is not the orgasm. Orgasm as the artistic gesture is the right direction, I believe, and it’s worth following, but the sperm and the egg, which have equal amounts of DNA for replication, are what they are, and independent from the orgasm. Maybe her depression is clouding her thinking, which happens. Just in passing I have to say that I don’t understand this kind of female inferiority complex vis-a-vis male sexuality. In my mythology (maybe I should post it on the blog), men were an invention of the female sex, a bit different from what it says in the bible. This power imbalance between the sexes is what feels old-fashioned to me. In any case, as a true artist, Owens is fixated on the visible, on appearances, so she gives overmuch weight to the apparition of ejaculate. But in normative sex, you can’t see it and it leaves no visible mark. An ejaculation as something to watch or mark with belongs to our digital era, the age of masturbation.

Marcel Duchamp, Paysage fautif 1946

Marcel Duchamp, Paysage fautif 1946

And that brings us back to art. If you can see the mark, it’s guaranteed that conception will not occur. Only conceptual art.




Duchamp’s little “painting,” which anticipates certain kinds of abstraction, is made of semen on celluloid, a special insert into the copy of the Boite en Valise that he gave to his lover, the artist Maria Martins.

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Sex and the Empty Canvas

I’d like to think more about sex and abstraction, because there is something undiscovered there. But in the era of mass pornography and internet explicitness, a genuinely artistic approach to sex might be anerotic. The other day I was driving around Toronto and saw a billboard for a sex expo trade fair in the convention center. Those kind of things bring to mind Dan Graham’s “Detumescence.” As an indirect approach, start with Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.

Erect and sublime, for one moment of time.
In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
While they waited and listened in awe.

Clearly the Snark is a love object, certainly female. The courtship rituals include the familiar eating out and offers of money:

“‘You may seek it with thimbles – and seek it with care;
You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
You may charm it with smiles and soap -’”

The “climax” of the poem is “The Vanishing,” after that plunge into the chasm.

“‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!’

The Baker goes on:

“I engage with the Snark – every dark after dark -
In a dreamy delirious fight:
I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,
And I use it for striking a light:

“But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,
In a moment (of this I am sure),
I shall softly and suddenly vanish away -
And the notion I cannot endure!”

Conventional art world criticism would go on about male fears of the “chasm,” and of losing  the sense of self, which is equated with social power. I would rather ask whether that soft and sudden vanishment is not the less talked about part of sex, the aftermath as it were. The blank map in The Hunting of the Snark has long been recognized, by artists like Robert Smithson and Art/Language, as a model of the teleology of abstract painting. Could it be that the monochrome, the empty rectangle and the reduction to nothing is erotic? Desire keeps us going. Our identities depend on it. But some abstract art seems to be interested in what is after fulfillment – call it post-desire. Since desire always returns, that must be part of sex too, of its rhythm, which is also the rhythm of creation. The conclusion of the Snark is sublime, and gives the lie to the cliche that men are afraid of female sexuality. This is the Baker after he dives into the chasm:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away -
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Come to think of it, the Snark‘s blank map is an icon of modern art of the same importance as the painting of Balzac’s Frenhofer, the famous “unknown masterpiece.”

snarkmapHe had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best -
A perfect and absolute blank!”

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Recently had a chance to see two of Stella’s Indian Birds and a Circuit, and I can hardly believe that I ever thought the color in these works was arbitrary or slapdash. Stella must have said to himself that the point of art is to let the colors sing in harmony and dissonance, so why not just do it? At some point in the 70s he opened wide the taps of invention and they’ve been running ever since. At the moment I even prefer the Circuits to Moby Dick. Photographs are useless; not only is the color inaccurate, but the richness of combination of color is lost. Scale is the problem – the pictures are too big to be photographed, meaning there are too many relationships, of both color and form.

Frank Stella, Diepholz 1981

Frank Stella, Diepholz 1981

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Bizarre Spectacle

By chance I saw a bit of the closing ceremonies at Sochi, and couldn’t really believe my eyes. Giant, meaning giant, motorized stuffy toys, batting their eyes, waving and skating around. First thing I thought – what a great job for an artist, to invent these kind of spectacles and make them as silly and over the top as possible. I think Cai Guo-Qiang did it for Beijing, but I’m sure it’s become a specialized field of its own. There’s certainly scope for creative idiocy. And abstraction can become even more of a quiet niche.


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Art as Production or Not

Blog reader Naomi Schlinke has drawn my attention to the following by Bridget Riley:

“For well over two hundred years the idea of work in our society been modeled on the industrial concept of production. These demands, the demands of producing something easily and economically, have shaped our understanding of work and leisure, our ways of organizing time and living together, our views of success and failure. So prevalent and so powerfully entrenched is this concept that in the end it seems that even art has been affected, with the unprecedented notion that this thing called ‘art’ can be efficiently produced.”

The closing allusion to the ready-made and managed fabrication aside, I find this very interesting. In fact, ease of production has been a very important aspect of modern painting, even if often it’s only an apparent ease. But what I like better is the idea this passage gives me of undirected, goal-less messing about, even though this is likely not what Riley advocates at all. It reduces to time, which industry has tried to enslave with the clock. What else do I own if not my time? And why should I spend it? Is there any difference between living it and spending it? Art tells me there is. I think Riley would stress the difficulty of making anything; I would prefer to remove the moral dimension of difficulty and say there is a value in just working away without knowing what one is doing exactly, and without a clear standard of success. But the term “value” is treacherous.


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I’ve just found a really good blog – by accident naturally, as everything on the internet. It’s called miami bourbaki, written by a fellow called Alfredo Triff. There is also a link below. His meanderings may be a little obscure at times, but he has the right attitude – skeptical, combative, realistic. I’m interrupting my usual progression of posts to mention it because he has picked up on the latest small scandal out of Miami – a disgruntled local artist who broke a vase in the Ai Weiwei show. As Triff points out, Ai’s response is less than adequate. But the artist, Maximo Caminero, doesn’t have much of an issue. If he expects the Miami art museum to show more local artists, then he doesn’t understand what the role of such an institution is. The vase in question is “Han Dynasty,” almost certainly a replica, and the real destruction of culture is ongoing and longstanding. Caminero’s beef seems petty compared to that, even though he spotted the fake and Triff apparently doesn’t. Meanwhile, Triff is right that the immediate issue is the value of iconoclasm in contemporary art.


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