Last Post, For Now

With three and a half years of this blog, I thought the new year might be a good time to take a rest. After hitting a high of 9500 unique visitors in one month, the readership has wobbled up and down, and recently dropped to just over 6000. I don’t know why, but it is possible that people are getting sick of the sound of my voice, that the posts are becoming repetitious. In any case, I’m getting sick of the sound of my own voice. The rate of posting—every second day—might be a bit too high. There is something coming up in the near future that could give the blog more momentum, and more readers, so it’s perhaps wise to regroup and enjoy some down time in anticipation of that day. I leave you with a thought from Harold Bloom:

“…the language of British and American poetry, from at least Wordsworth to the present, is overdetermined in its patternings, and so necessarily is underdetermined in its meanings.”

Make the move from literature to art and that says it for abstraction. Hope that while talking about art that speaks to me, I haven’t made the mistake of attributing meanings.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

Frank Stella, The Sermon (C-31, maquette) 1991

Frank Stella, The Sermon (C-31, maquette) 1991

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Katherine Gili

This 1974 work by Katherine Gili seems to meet many of the demands of the new English metal sculpture school, as laid out by Robin Greenwoood in his critique of Caro. It is planar, but has more than one flat side. But most attractive is way the negative spaces are activated, and that they are not closed off.

Gili74

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Table Pieces

Anthony Caro’s Table Pieces are really great, and as far as I can see they are all great, and there are literally hundreds.

Anthony Caro, Table Piece LXXXII 1969

Anthony Caro, Table Piece LXXXII 1969

Anthony Caro, Table Piece XCI 1969-70

Anthony Caro, Table Piece XCI 1969-70

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Mythological Images

Following on with Brigid Brophy’s thoughts about Tiepolo, I’m particularly struck by her implicit linking of eighteenth century rationalism with the “critical” sensibility of the present. In the last sentence of the quote in the earlier post she talks about painting succumbing to the “social age.” She suggests that renaissance mythology painting was a crucible for autonomous art, an idea I have been pondering for a long time. There might be good reasons for any abstractionist to look at Veronese and Tiepolo. This Veronese has an interesting resemblance, and emotional reversal, to the previous one that she cites. A thought provoking comparison to the male nudes by Rubens that I discussed earlier.

Paolo Veronese, Scorn, from the Allegory of Love ca. 1570

Paolo Veronese, Scorn, from the Allegory of Love ca. 1570

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Brophy on Tiepolo

This time a slightly longish quote from Brigid Brophy, but she reaches me by appreciating Tiepolo, something not so common in the sixties, or even now:

“The religious tradition in which painting grew up was always indulging in religion’s habit of breaking through the artistic conventions. The altarpiece propelled its demands through the dimensions of the picture and out into the congregation, insisting ‘The madonna depicted here really exists outside this frame and can be addressed’ or ‘The figure you see here being tortured to death really is suffering at this moment because of your sins’. The antique myths, on the other hand, could make no demands on real belief, only on imaginative belief; and so they provided a cul-de-sac into which the art of painting could retreat and there develop an aesthetic—criteria by which a painting could be judged in its own conventions and without extraneous intervention.
Antiquity as a repository of the imagination survived into the eighteenth century, when Giambattista Tiepolo was still peopling it, in the tradition of Veronese, with magnificent imagined personages and sophisticated, impossible magic. But culture had meanwhile turned round in its cul-de-sac and was prepared to spring out of the picture-frame again, armed now with a developed aesthetic in the shape of the Rules of Taste—one of which was to stab Tiepolo in the back and prefer, to his transcendent creations, the work of Mengs…The neo-classic movement to a large extent dropped ancient mythology in favor of ancient history, with all the trappings pedantically reconstructed—that is, not imagined, in the sense that Tiepolo imagined the trappings of his pictures, at all. Tiepolo was the last of the renaissance geniuses, the final exponent of a cultural tradition passed from one individual to another. When he fell into unpopularity, painting succumbed to the social age.”

Interesting that Brophy was married to Michael Levey, whose book on Tiepolo sits on my shelf. But her insights are more far-reaching. Strictly speaking, this image is not a mythology, but it connects with her Shakespearean associations in the earlier post.

Tiepolo, Banquet of Cleopatra 1744

Giambattista Tiepolo, Banquet of Cleopatra 1744

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Brian Nation

This is from the blog of my old friend Brian Nation, a truly gifted writer—although he’s not a famous writer because, as he said at one point, he found it more enjoyable to act at being a writer than to actually be one. Spoken like a true artist. Anyway, in his perception:

“Capitalism hates art more than ever.”

These words deserve to be singled out. As counter intuitive as the current market makes them seem, they are absolutely true. Brian doesn’t make art or music, though he feels them both strongly. In another post he recounts what happened when, at the age of fourteen, a teacher introduced him to e.e.cummings:

“As he talked I read the lines and fires started in my toes and spread up through my groin, my belly, chest and finally my brain setting off a bomb of amazed excitement. My whole body shuddered, my eyes bugged out. It was as though I’d been sitting there in the back of that dark room for nine years, nauseated — half-asleep, and somebody opened a door and let in a blaze of sunlight.
I had no idea such poetry existed or was even possible. I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing. A world had opened up and I rushed in, leaving behind, or so I thought, the dark rooms forever. It affected everything I thought or did from that day on.”

Now that’s spoken like a true artist. Even taking into account his age and discounting e.e.cummings, he has the true motivation and displays the true signs. Today I very much doubt such responses are common. How many artists catch fire like that? Such people don’t go to art school—they instantly sense how far away from the real thing it is. Is art anymore the doorway to the possible? It must be, but despite the enormous growth of the art world, it still only matters to the same lucky few.

Photo of Brian Nation by Anna McGarrigle from 1966 or 67. Ste. Catherine Street, Montreal. As he says about it: "Contrary to appearances I was NOT a hippie. I was an artiste. Or as one landlord put it when he refused to rent his flat to me, 'pas d'existentialistes ici'".

Photo of Brian Nation by Anna McGarrigle from 1966 or 67, Ste. Catherine Street, Montreal. As he says about it: “Contrary to appearances I was NOT a hippie. I was an artiste. Or as one landlord put it when he refused to rent his flat to me, ‘pas d’existentialistes ici'”.

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Lifeline

In tough times go back to the work that helps you know yourself. The supportive aspect of authority, even though that authority is not indwelling, but granted by you..

Frank Stella, Brit (Q6) 1990

Frank Stella, Brit (Q6) 1990

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Conventional Discourse

I was probably inspired to start talking about authority as a principle active in art by Harold Bloom, who has a lot to say on the topic, usually with reference to the Freudian transference. It just occurred to me that his use of the concept is a brilliant swerve away from the discourse of power. You have to be of a certain age and to have lived through a certain history to be fed up with hearing about power, whether it’s feminist talk or the formulaic Foucauldian clichés that get passed around in the university. Art has nothing to do with social power, and has no responsibility for whatever people do to each other. It is not implicated, or complicit, or oppressive, or does anything to sustain or abet any evil at all. But it is constituted around authority, like all other aspects of the human monkey’s life. Another area of interest for Bloom is the authority of religious texts, certainly a relevant topic today, with the war of the Caliphate in the Middle East. Religious wars are fought on behalf of the authority of a poetic fiction. So am I wrong about the innocence of art? Absolutely not, because today all genuine art is blasphemy.

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchus 1638-40

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchus 1638-40

As an image of male power, this picture is definitely comic—but no less serious for that—and comic especially in relation to the other male nudes by Rubens reproduced on this blog over the last year, all of which are abject and very narcissistic/erotic. One might say this nude is realist, and realistic about power, where the others are narcissistic fantasies. In the other three the genitals are covered by a little wisp of cloth, which gives a sense of how proportionately small they are in relation the massive muscled bodies. In the Bacchus that doesn’t seem to be the case, because it’s simply realist. In the other three the entire body is a phallus—the sexual organs shrink in depiction as they grow in fantasy, no pun intended. An aspect of art as sexual display, a recurring topic (cf. Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons, Carolee Schneeman), and maybe worth more thought under the heading of authority versus power.

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Brigid Brophy

Inveterate reader Jacob Wren turned me on to Brigid Brophy‘s book about myth and social psychosis, Black Ship to Hell. I agree with what she says, and mostly with how she says it, but despite the attractive title I don’t find that the book shocks and surprises me as much as Ehrenzweig does, as I was hoping it would. Here is an interesting quote. I take the painting very seriously, but am not absolutely sure that Brophy has it right. The association with Shakespeare is intriguing though.

“Venetian mythology pictures, with their strapping, glorious, mature gods and goddesses, seem to be suggesting to us what an adulthood men and women might have enjoyed if (though the criticism is only implied) Christianity had not imposed its embargoes on sensuality. Veronese’s marvellous Venus and Adonis, in the Prado, breathes the very high summer air of Anthony and Cleopatra: the nobleness of life, it asserts, is to do thus.”

Paolo Veronese, Venus and Adonis 1580

Paolo Veronese, Venus and Adonis 1580

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Return

The world it turns, and will continue to do so.

Frank Stella, Avatabar 1996

Frank Stella, Avatabar 1996

Frank Stella, Roncador 1998

Frank Stella, Roncador 1998

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Authority Again

Thinking more about authority—I’ll bet that many, including artists, maybe especially artists, think it means ordering people about. It may well be that in daily life, but in art it’s more to do with a kind of truth, a truth that we have to acknowledge but which irritates us because it doesn’t take full account of us, or of the world as we know it. Honesty demands that we submit, but some other quality makes us search for another, stronger truth.

Robert Linsley, Untitled Watercolor 2012

Robert Linsley, Untitled Watercolor 2012

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Complete

There’s many ways to simulate wholeness, completeness, whatever one wants to call it. As many as there are ways to simulate an excess.

Frank Stella, The Whale as a Dish 1985-89

Frank Stella, The Whale as a Dish 1985-89

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Power and Authority

I think that power and authority have to be sharply distinguished. Power is what individuals seek to compensate for whatever lack they feel. Or just for the sheer pleasure of controlling someone else, if that’s what gives them pleasure. Authority is something very different. An artist must seek authority, both for themselves and as a necessary part of their education. They have to find out who is the authority—meaning their necessary predecessor—in order to find their way in art. Whether that individual is recognized by others is neither here nor there, every artist must find their own authoritative precursor. Later they have to assume authority themselves, become authoritative. The work demands nothing less. And so authority is not absolute. In art at least it’s certainly a benign form of power. This is the second use of this image in as many weeks, but it works in both places.

Robert Linsley, Fire 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor (Fire) 2014

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Crouching Woman

Going back to look again at William Tucker’s book, I find my original impression confirmed—it’s really great. Ideas come tumbling out at every turn of the page. Here’s one insight from the chapter on Rodin:

“With the Prodigal Son and the Crouching Woman, an entirely new concept of anatomy emerges, in which the human body is re-structured in terms of posture…the Crouching Woman assumes the compact, closed form of a bunched fist; within it arms and legs, knees and shoulders are torn from their original structural role, their forms and functions deliberately confused in a wilful re-assembly of the body as a bundle of lumps and axes.”

crouching_woman

An early source for abstraction, undoubtedly. Also a very interesting one. Now compare with these details of works by Cézanne and Matisse:

detailmusic-1910

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is not just art history, because what Rodin did with the figure gave Matisse a new way to distribute color, as it gave Cézanne a new way to make architecture out of the entire picture surface.

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No Creativity

Just been reading an interesting article in The Slate. It just says in very plain language what I’ve felt for a long time, namely that the rhetoric of creativity in business is merely rhetoric. Here’s one quote:

“This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it. Studies confirm what many creative people have suspected all along: People are biased against creative thinking, despite all of their insistence otherwise.”

That was my experience working on a start up with a Silicon Valley partner. Another quote, just as grimly amusing, and very much applicable to art school:

“Unfortunately, the place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring….classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.”

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2009-2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2009-2014

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Servant Class

Jasper Johns famously said that “artists are the elite of the servant class.” Then what price subjectivity? The price varies, as does the value, and value and price are not necessarily related.

Jasper Johns, Regrets 2013

Jasper Johns, Regrets 2013

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Novelty at a Pace

To go back to the thought experiment I presented in an earlier post; when stone age man (or woman) had fire and a wheel, in principle they had the automobile, although they couldn’t make one. To get the automobile was just filling in, which took an amount of time determined by population growth. My question is what kind of genius, or vision, or imagination would it have taken for the stone age person to look at the fire, look at the wheel, and say to themselves “I could make heat move the wheel”? Would that be a moment of genius? Was it natural human dullness and inertia that prevented that thought from occurring to someone? Or did it occur, but was lost because the realization was impossible? Each invention enables others, so there are many intermediate steps from simple fire and wheel to a working automobile. But what I’m getting at is the complete falseness of the rhetoric of invention today. One can never “think outside the box.” The absolute horizon of invention is what we can touch with our hands and feel with our bodies—cut, shape, join, move. Possibilities are all material. That IS the box, and it’s impossible to think outside the box because there is no such place. There is no “virtual reality,” or information economy or realm of digital media. There’s plenty of fantasies floating around in people’s heads, for sure, but reality is all material and full of material possibilities. The consequence is that all inventions are obvious, and indeed they are. Why they appear at one time and place and not another is mere chance, which we call history.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor (Fire) 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor (Fire) 2014

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So Much

So many blades of grass, so many twigs or branches on so many trees, so many insects, and above all, so many bacteria. As I don’t cease to mention on this blog, the number of details in the world is stupefying, but also the texture of life is unfathomably tightly woven. Those who think that we as a species have dominated the biosphere are in some science fiction lala land. We may affect it, damage parts of it, but it is so much more than us. Not even to mention that our existence depends on all those details. Human beings will never comprehend even a tiny fraction of the four dimensional complexity of the system of which they are a part. An art that can’t incorporate that fact into its process is a paltry thing, in my opinion. Such is my justification for an organic abstraction.

beach

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Therese Bolliger

A few years ago I saw the ink drawings of Therese Bolliger, and they have been an important reference for my own watercolors ever since. I found them very inspiring. The ink bleeds to the edge of an area of water, and dries there, making a line—a well known effect—but what intrigued me was the way that the contours of several overlapping patches could get confused with each other. If you follow the lines you can get caught in a series of

Therese Bolliger, Interior Schema 5 2009

Therese Bolliger, Interior Schema 5 2009

loops, and lose the distinction between the discrete areas. This may not be what Therese intended, but it works for me. On the strength of works like these  she is, in my opinion, one of the best artists in Toronto. Her more recent drawings are different but still great. The titles, Rhizomatic, indicate that they could continue to grow by addition of more segments, a kind of process that I for one respond to, but the most interesting technical feature is the narrow space between certain of the zones. Sometimes they become lost, and that sometimes is a beautiful moment of letting go. Again, an unremarkable and very familiar aspect of any water based drawing or painting method, handled in a creative but pretty unassuming and subtle way.

Therese Bolliger, Rhizomatic 7 2014

Therese Bolliger, Rhizomatic 7 2014

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Lost Geometry

What is the substantial difference between an artist who diagrams and fills in completely, and one who diagrams and only partially fills in? Seems to be a lot, as the work of Martin Barré is more attractive than that of most artists who use geometry. The procedure is unpromising, and doesn’t call on much from the maker, but there’s a magic in leaving out, which is not really the same thing as doing less.

Martin Barré, 82-84 124x118 1982-84

Martin Barré, 82-84 124×118 1982-84

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Time and Motion

British artist Tom Phillips, cited on this blog before, wrote a very interesting review of the Matisse cut-out show. He mentions a film of the artist at work which shows “…Matisse in his wheelchair cutting paper with scissors….Matisse often associated this process of ‘sculpting in colour’ with flying, though another action that comes to mind is a favorite pursuit of his younger years, swimming, especially as evoked by his own descriptions of plunging into the volcanic lagoons under what he referred to as the ‘golden goblet’ of the Tahitian sky.” To see carving or drawing as equivalent to swimming or flying is to stress the changes over the results, time over place. But the most affecting aspect of the cut-outs is that time was running out for the old man. All that great work happened in a few short years, his last years, and they were not the easiest or most comfortable for him. As usual, the pain and the difficulties overcome are what matter most, and Phillips is good on that.

Aged Matisse working in bed

Aged Matisse working in bed

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The Basics

John Berger could be a stupidly moralistic critic, but he was perceptive. He notoriously rejected Pollock as a decadent of the age of individualism, meaning he didn’t really understand Pollock at all, but then listen to this:

“Imagine a man brought up from birth in a white cell so that he has never seen anything except the growth of his own body. And then imagine that suddenly he is given some sticks and bright paints. If he were a man with an innate sense of balance and colour harmony, he would then, I think, cover the walls of his cell as Pollock has painted his canvases. He would want to express his ideas and feelings about growth, time, energy, death, but he would lack any vocabulary of seen or remembered visual images with which to do so. He would have nothing more than the gestures he could discover through the act of applying his coloured marks to his white walls.”

Growth, time, energy and death are not bad topics for abstraction, but they’re not easy for everyone to see.

     Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhthym (Number 30) 1950

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhthym (Number 30) 1950

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Procrastination

I found a thoughtful but also very amusing article in the NYT, by Anna Della Subin. The topic is procrastination, and she begins with the story of St. Expeditus:

According to legend, when the Roman centurion [Expeditus] decided to convert to Christianity, the Devil appeared in the form of a crow and circled above him crying “cras, cras” — Latin for “tomorrow, tomorrow.” Expeditus stomped on the bird and shouted victoriously, “Today!” For doing so, Expeditus achieved salvation, and is worshiped as the patron saint of procrastinators.

I thought for sure this was made up, but there is such a saint, and his real life history is in fact equally as hilarious. In any case, she makes a good case for procrastination, which reduces to the simple formula that not doing anything in particular is simply living, and worthwhile as such. Being myself a productivity oriented kind of guy, I am sympathetic. Some time is better spent, but it doesn’t have to be on busy work. In art, the moment of decision, which is also the moment of salvation, is always a moment, however long one has to wait for it. Everything important happens in a moment. The main human problem is that we have too much time to think during the long preparation.

Robert Linsley, Sphere #3 2013

Robert Linsley, Sphere #3 2013

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Detour

One of my favorite jazz standards is “Detour Ahead”, though I’ve only heard it in one version, and maybe not the best possible one. Was listening to it tonight.

Smooth road, clear day
But why am I the only one travelin’ this way
How strange the road to love can be so easy
Can there be a detour ahead

This has something to do with art—I know that experience well, of being the only one on the road. Solitude and originality have some relation after all. In any case, the road to love and the road to art are the same, at least part of the way. But what makes this song so great is that it has at least three distinct voices. Hear how it shifts in the next verse:

Wake up, slow down
Before you crash and break your heart
Gullible clown
You fool, you’re headed in the wrong direction
Can’t you see the detour ahead

It happens—to most artists no doubt. Now a different voice, more objective.

The further you travel
The harder to unravel the web
She spins around you
Turn back while there’s time
Can’t you see the danger sign
Soft shoulders surround you

What’s to say? You have a goal, a plan, a direction, a map—but you can’t help it, you’re only human after all. And those soft shoulders—a beautiful lyric, and a beautiful world.

Smooth road, clear night
Oh lucky me that suddenly
I saw the light
I’m turning back away
From all that trouble
Smooth road…smooth road…no detour ahead

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The View from Inside

In an old issue of the NYRB I find the following from Vladimir Ashkenazy, on his fellow pianist Sviatoslav Richter:

“The strongest element in his magnetic appeal to audiences is his conviction that what he does is absolutely right at that particular moment. It comes from the fact that he has created his own inner world, absolutely complete in his mind, and if you argue with him about anything it’s almost no use…I don’t often agree with him after the performance, but during it I can see that everything fits together and is completely sincere and devoted, and that wins me over.”

The organic truth arises at a moment, which itself arises from the surrounding moments. The retrospective critical view, which sees the totality, is always false. The problem with a lot of art today, as I keep harping on in this blog, is that a retrospective judgment is present at the beginning, as a tacit understanding of what art is supposed to be.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2012

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2012

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Kippenberger

The collection at the Stedelijk is pretty great, but l kept seeing sameness, unchanging qualities. Martin Kippenberger, for example, was a talented painter, in a completely normative way. His fooling around was fun to do and is fun to watch, but it seems to arise out of his consciousness of the unbreakable conventionality of “art.” I think that captures Kippenberger.

Martin Kippenberger, Drei Häuser mit Schlitzen (Betty Ford Klinik, Stammheim, Jüdische Grundschule) 1985

Martin Kippenberger, Drei Häuser mit Schlitzen (Betty Ford Klinik, Stammheim, Jüdische Grundschule) 1985

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Pictorial Energy

Looking at the work of Mr. Energy himself at the Wallraf-Richartz museum in Cologne—the striking thing about Rubens is that he covers so many square yards of canvas without losing intensity. The level is uniformly high. This is a bit different from the overall kind of abstraction, which has a uniform level, true, but not necessarily a uniformly high level of energy. I think Stella wants to be like Rubens in this respect.

Peter Paul Rubens, Juno and Argus c.1610

Peter Paul Rubens, Juno and Argus c.1610

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Obstacles and Tests

Talking with my friend Chris Gergley about the art world and the obstacles we all face in our careers, it came to me that I have been too one-sided in my stress on objectivity. Yes, art is objective, and yes one wants to let it stand alone and produce its own meanings, but it still needs a human enabler; art has its own life but can’t live without a person to sustain it. Might sound obvious, but it’s not—at least not in the realms of abstraction. What brought these thoughts to mind were practical problems and difficulties. Chris and I agreed that if an artist calculates their market, or makes work to meet the expectations of curators or collectors, then they really don’t think their work is worth anything. Such behavior is deeply self negating. But it can be hard when one is struggling to find one’s own language—social pressures have to be overcome, and one of the worst, in our experience, is the need and desire to be anointed and given professional help by a more successful artist. In a way that is the canonical career path, but we’ve both seen how many young artists sacrifice their own identity to fit in, how they adapt and suppress their work to enable a smooth follow on with the work of someone else. That’s tragic, but it’s also a test. An artist has to be free inside and out. Formal freedom is a given today, there are no rules, but the feeling of freedom—the freedom to think, feel, respond and create as one needs to do—has to be achieved, often against resistance. It isn’t easy and it can be painful. But if you can’t do it then you betray the work; it doesn’t get a chance to be autonomous, and its possibilities will not be realized.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2013

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The Other

In Cologne Gerhard Richter is a common presence, as one might expect. In the conference center I saw a couple of pictures by another artist that at first I mistook for Richter. Are they as good? Debatable point, but the fact that it is debatable says something. Close in person comparison of concrete details would be necessary to decide. They seem even more blandly grid like than Richter’s work, but maybe comparable to the Cage series.

richtercopy1richtercopy2

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Richter’s Church Art

I went to see Richter’s window in the cathedral of Cologne, and my first impression was that it blended in well with the other windows, which may be a good thing for the church, but doesn’t necessarily help the reputation of Herr Richter. Though the bombing left the cathedral intact, many windows must have been blown out, because there are some

Abstract windows of relatively recent date in Cologne's cathedral.

Abstract windows of relatively recent date in Cologne’s cathedral.

obviously modern ones. Most prominent are windows with recurring abstract patterns, like carpets in glass. Richter’s window is different from those in that it has a degree of randomness or variation, but on site that didn’t seem such an important distinction. You can theorize it and say that Richter replaces religious certainty with openness and chance, but that’s not an interesting thought. A banality in fact. His work is variation within a conventional manner, and doesn’t depart much from the past.

Gerhard Richter's window, Cologne

Gerhard Richter’s window, Cologne

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