Why Abstract?

In what lies the abstraction?

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto 1985

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto 1985

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Late Picasso

I’ve been reading some of the writings of Patrick Heron, an artist who suffered somewhat from his extreme eloquence as a writer. He certainly has me beat, and I know what he was up against, because his writing didn’t help the reception of his work. Yet like me everything he had to say came from experience, not a theoretical bone in his body. I’m particularly struck by a piece on the late work of Picasso, the last ten years. This was the art that inspired me the most at the very beginning; I loved it, and really did not agree with the standard American take, which was that it was shamefully bad. There was a flurry of interest in the wake of “bad” painting and the neo-expressionism of the 80s, but there really is no connection between late Picasso and anything that’s happened since De Kooning’s hilarious portrait of Fiorello LaGuardia. There is an affinity there for sure. Anyway, Heron’s article is so compelling I would have to quote pages. He takes me back to the days when I thought a musketeer by Picasso was the best painting ever, and makes the

Pablo Picasso, Musketeer with cupid 1969

Pablo Picasso, Musketeer with cupid 1969, my favorite painting back in the day

necessary point that reproductions are just not adequate. When I eventually saw one in person it was in fact a big disappointment, but I kept faith, despite the evidence, and many years later was very happy to see some very good ones. One recently shown in Toronto was much much better than I ever thought from the photograph, attached below. It’s quality can be felt, but I don’t feel a need to explain it, not least because Heron has already done a good enough job. Among other things he shows me the value of Picasso’s extreme abbreviation of form, which I never really understood. And for an abstractionist flags the most important thing—his beautiful clear, strong, vivid, indestructible sense of reality.

Pablo Picasso, woman with a pillow 1969

Pablo Picasso, woman with a pillow 1969, the piece I found so striking in Toronto. It probably helps that it’s big—maybe six or seven feet high.

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A Real Change

Walter BenjaminRecently I’m rediscovering the absolute genius of Walter Benjamin, including reading some texts I had a hard time with years ago. In “The Task of the Translator” he confirms remarks made in an earlier post about how artworks change over time:
“Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process. The obvious tendency of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent tendencies in the literary creation. What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later; what what once current may someday sound quaint. To seek the essence of such changes, as well as the equally constant changes of meaning, in the subjectivity of posterity rather than in the very life of language and its works, would mean—even allowing for the crudest psychologism—to confuse the root cause of a thing with its essence. More pertinently, it would mean denying, by an impotence of thought, one of the most powerful and fruitful historical processes.”
To a common-sensical rationalist it might seem over subtle to distinguish between root cause and essence, and to a confirmed post-modernist the very notion of an essence is suspect, but to an artist Benjamin affirms what is evidently real but can’t be proven—changes in reception explain everything but the fact that the artwork has a life of its own.

Frank Stella, La penna di hu 1987–2009

Frank Stella, La penna di hu 1987–2009

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Italian Old Masters

Too much has been made of Stella’s interest in Caravaggio round the time of Working Space. It’s pretty hard to find anything in Caravaggio useful to abstract art, and in a way his very strongly felt space is a bit of a distraction, because what is most important about his work is not the space but the time, namely the way that he turned the slow process of panting into an instantaneous experience, one time and one place. He had many devices to make it happen, but the most important is simply that he worked quickly and directly. Still, each piece must have taken many days, so they are montages of different moments, and the skill is in melting them into one single thing—an impression of a moment captured. Kind of like a photograph. So I can see Caravaggio’s relevance to Jeff Wall, for instance, but to get from him to Stella, or any other abstractionist, requires a few mediations, and some deeper thinking about time. Following on an earlier post, the space is emergent, a function of the artist’s work in and with time, it’s not the fundamental thing. As it happens, Stella has a stronger interest in other artists, particularly Correggio.

Michelangelo Merisi da Carravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew c.1600

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew c.1600

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A recent article in the NYT by Stephen Marche makes the case for failure, although he’s talking about writers not artists. He mentions how business, particularly the Silicon Valley variety, has taken up Samuel Beckett’s phrase “fail better,” but with a complete reversal of meaning. “Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success…To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.”  That’s so funny. Of course it’s true but one might as well enjoy the descent, meaning the long water slide to the inevitable. Marche also quotes Ezra Pound, words I’ve heard before but had forgotten: “I found out after 70 years I was not a lunatic but a moron.” Hilarious. Of course we don’t have the whole conversation. It’s difficult enough to be anything at all, so he really should be happy.


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Greenberg had this to say about what he regarded as Pollock’s major achievement:

“It wasn’t the space. I think the shallow illusion of depth had Cubist antecedents, and of course there was Miró’s indeterminate space. When Bryan Robertson writes about a new kind of space he’s full of shit. It’s the all-overness that’s gotten into contemporary taste. It’s become what one demands of advanced painting. Jackson brought this to head more than anyone.”

About the space maybe so, maybe not; about contemporary taste absolutely right. And now those who care about art are looking for something else.


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Watching Landscape

Another one of Pollock’s remarks is a real eye opener for me, a lesson:

“I don’t look at the view, I watch it. The land is alive, tells you things when you let it.”

Very interesting, and inspiring.

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer 1947

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer 1947

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More Matter of Fact

Following on from the previous post, Andrea Fraser’s effort at desublimation is better yet. I think it transcends the obvious caption, “art as prostitution.” Again it’s totally objective, but it hits hard when we consider that it “really” happened. The effect of the real, if you would have it that way, is working well, which means it’s been reinvented in this piece. Apparently she made efforts to protect the identity of her client/collector, by ensuring his face is not clear in the video, but I don’t think he asked for that—they are her scruples. There’s a level of feeling in this piece that Koons never has. An artist not afraid to go all the way with her work is always going to access feeling. Fraser may be the critical conceptualist, and Koons the parodist of painting, but she makes him seem too much the idea artist. But then maybe Fraser’s piece seems realer to me because in it a woman is taking the initiative. In both this piece and Koons’ the partner is a cipher. Despite her extravert behavior as a stripper, and her political shenanigans in Italy, La Cicciolina has a strangely bland persona, at least as it appears to me—but then I don’t have any experience of her outside of Koons’s work. In both of these works the artist is fully in control, but then they are the ones who are taking the risk. It would be interesting to imagine a genuinely collaborative sex piece, or perhaps one in which there were two competing agendas.

Andrea Fraser, Untitled 2003

Andrea Fraser, Untitled 2003

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Matter of Fact

Continuing with one of my favorite topics—the erotics of art, especially abstraction, or one might call it art as sex and sex as art. If art is fundamentally erotic then to make art out of sex is redundant, but for some reason it is done, and I find that interesting. The phenomenon might have something to do with the decline of interest in traditional media, because that entails a kind of desublimation—what was always implicit becomes explicit. But I think it’s more than that—sex is really in the substance of painting and sculpture, it’s not just represented or alluded to, it’s really there. How did it get there? An interesting question that will take time to answer, or at least to speculate about. In any case, art can be as explicit as it wants and remain art, so Jeff Koons, since he is a real artist, must have been determined not to be out done by amateur pornography. The Made in Heaven series is really goofball, but good nevertheless. What’s disturbing is its corny staginess,

Jeff Koons, Wolfman 1991

Jeff Koons, Wolfman 1991

but that’s also why it works. Above all it’s objective and it objectifies not only sex but all the nonsense that accumulates around sex in our culture. In our world. It manages to be explicit and completely fake at the same time, through the magic of art, which saves both illusion and naivety in one gesture of completely objective knowingness. No mystery, only truth, but truth is a dream that still manages to be explicitly real. I think it’s a step past Carolee Schneeman’s great piece Fuses, although hate to say so. It would be nice to live in Schneeman’s world, but it might turn out to be Koons’s world in the end anyway. But I also wonder what is served by this particular narcissistic display, even as I remember Ehrenzweig and his compelling analysis of exactly that. The general artworld revulsion mentioned by Jerry Saltz seems defensive, because the work is very bold. Meanwhile, Koons seems to have mastered narcissistic display as a technique, at least that’s what one might think after reading Ingrid Sischy’s interview in Vanity Fair, with its incredible photos of Jeff Koons pumping iron in the nude, and sitting with his wife on their bed with their six children lined up like the famous string of puppies. Men themselves hardly believe in patriarchy anymore, and no male artist would take as a career goal to become a hero/father, and then flaunt success, and this takes us full circle to where we started three posts ago and Barry Schwabsky’s comments on Koons as a man who says yes. As unlikely as he may seem in the role…it is astonishing.

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The Factory

Continuing on with thoughts about Jeff Koons provoked by Barry Schwabsky’s recent review, I can understand why he was struck by the giant Play-Doh piece.

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014

It looks like an early Lynda Benglis, but Schwabsky is surely right to stress the ways

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW) 1970

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW) 1970

in which Koons’ work is of this moment, how it speaks to the class of collectors who support it, and how it is very different from that of Warhol in precisely that way. I think the technique is also very contemporary, and allows it to speak to another aspect of the current economic catastrophe, namely the decline and uncertain rebirth of manufacturing in the developed world, one of the central dramas of our time. No industrial process can

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014 (detail)

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014 (detail)

meet the standards of modern art, but those standards are almost lost. The role of the hand might be somewhat understood, but that’s only a minor part of the whole thing. Koons’ studio does hand craft and hand finishing to give the impression of flawless machine construction without the presence of a hand—something we want to believe in, though it doesn’t actually exist. This piece, which apparently took twenty years, is a tour de force of aluminum casting—no, of finishing an aluminum cast. Even in a photograph the detail on, and in, the surface looks astonishing—and feels like something worth doing and worth having. Art has survived the loss of standards, and the centrality of labor, meaning the working of material, has survived the delusions of the information economy. Meanwhile, manufacturing today is all about small runs, “mass customization,” and niche markets. Koons is one limit case of a modern manufacturer in a mature developed economy, a maker of high quality goods in ultra small runs, sometimes maybe of one. The more I contemplate this piece, the more I find the widespread resentment and dislike of Koons, which goes along with his widespread acceptance, so unfair. Jerry Saltz, in his review, catches the visceral effect that Koons’ work can have. Isn’t a strong revulsion, together with undeniable importance, the modern marker of quality? Meanwhile, I have to admit that his work is more widely accepted and more widely reviled than Frank Stella’s. To the extent that success depends on others, I guess Koons is greater than Stella, much as I hate to contemplate that possibility. In any case, Koons’ first moment of greatness was the Made in Heaven series, which I will ponder in the next post.

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Uncritical and Affirmative

Barry Schwabsky has a surprisingly hard hitting piece in The Nation on the Koons retrospective, the more so as he affirms the general feeling, held by many artists for sure, myself included, that Koons is a significant figure. It’s hard to accuse any art of emptiness without sounding like an old fogey, but maybe sometimes it’s true. Schwabsky gets to the more important point, which is the artist’s refusal to be critical, and which now seems like one of the stronger positions of the 80s. Koons himself has skewed the discussion toward affirmation versus negativity, which is not exactly right, but still worth some time. The “critical” artist is also affirmative, just on behalf of a life that doesn’t exist, and this is in fact the weakness of that stance. Art can’t change the world, so “critical art” is a born failure, which it knows. The deeper question is whether art really matters as much to life as many other aspects, and the revulsion against formalism was based on a widespread feeling that it didn’t matter as much as justice or freedom or equality or sex or countless ordinary things. But then art is a minority taste, and despite the scale of the art world there are still very few who really care about it more than they do about all the many and silly things people get up to. Am I equating “art” with abstract formalism? Maybe, but not entirely. Artists used to fuss about aesthetic problems, like whether to put a certain color here or there, or what shape to make a painting—now Koons fusses interminably over the perfect polish on a stainless steel bunny, and that is an important change, maybe even a paradigmatic one. It’s the particular emptiness of a period in which everyone talks about art but very few are truly involved with it. Of course it’s the feel or style that matters, and today seriousness about art is tolerated, and deferred to in marketing talk, but it’s a little gauche and even embarrassing. You can never really be taken seriously as an artist if you are serious about art. How naive. After all, what really matters is something else, like money for example, and who can deny that? The problem with critical art is not that it is too negative, but that it has to be evaluated by external criteria. Even if you think the autonomy of art is a myth, that’s still a fatal weakness, because it’s a weakness right at the center, and Koons is the affirmative artist with nothing artistic to be affirmative about. But that’s too much to say. Criticism of that type assumes that we know what the work really is, but history has proven over and again that emptiness is a pleasant but temporary feeling. In fact that was also the mistake of the avant-garde. It thought it had art all figured out, but really knew little about it. Even about abstract formalism.

balloon dog

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No Need to Read

I just came across a book that collects all of Jackson Pollock’s sayings, at least as they have been recorded. Unlike some artists, he wrote very little. One remark caught my eye:

“You don’t got to read all the time to know books. I can read by sensing a book—I get what it’s saying. Saves time too.”

As it happens I understand exactly what he’s saying. I have many books I haven’t read, and can absorb their content just by leaving them on the shelf. It may help to see them once in a while, but opening them up is not always necessary. One faculty of an artist.

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm 1850

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm 1850

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Images Without Words

While in Vancouver for my recent show I took in Peter Culley’s excellent show at the Charles Scott Gallery. A giant montage of small to medium ink jet prints wrapped around three walls, thankfully without any explanatory wall text or captions. The shots were taken on his regular excursions to walk the dog, who features in many of the images, but since Peter is a poet the real work is in the arrangement, in the way that adjacent or distant images converse and dispute. I have done something similar, but since those days are over I can take genuine pleasure in the work just as a viewer. A great show and a real contribution to the ongoing history of photography in Vancouver.


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Criticizing the Critics

One thing I like about Alfredo Triff’s blog miami bourbaki, is that though he is very critical of the contemporary art scene, he also criticizes its critics. No simple minded moralism, but a genuine interest in art, two traits that seem to be incompatible.

YBAs in their salad days, including Hirst, Fiona Rae, Simon Patterson, Sarah Lucas

YBAs in their salad days, including Hirst, Fiona Rae, Simon Patterson, Sarah Lucas


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A Small Group

Speaking about coteries, a recent article in the NYT points out that there are world wide an estimated 200,000 or thereabouts of individuals with more than $30 million in assets, yet the total bidders at Christie’s spring 2014 auctions of contemporary art totaled a whopping 190. That’s one tenth of one percent of the potential market for even the most expensive art. All of which makes me wonder why all the fuss about high auction prices. Clearly this group of high bidders, who want to collect Francis Bacon and Richter and Peter Doig, are not only unrepresentative, and uninformed, but in the context of the entire global art world their decisions have no greater weight or significance than a random selection. Statistically that is the truth. Since I wrote this post, an article in Hyperallergic discussing the size of the private market relative to the auction market confirms the point. A small and unrepresentative pool of collectors indicates nothing, but that’s not to say that value in art can be determined by voting, or that however big, the private market is a better indicator. The number of qualified observers is maybe several hundred times greater than the number of bidders at Christie’s, and some significant amount larger than the number of all buyers, and they make their group mind decisions in the normal mysterious way, usually by gossiping about not much of anything. It seems there is a lot of scope to make an art world, but for some reason everyone is hypnotized by money. The same article says that “…the wealthiest art buyers are concentrating on a narrow range of low-risk blue-chip names.” But then that’s not true. That narrow strategy is high risk, since it doesn’t necessarily have wide support, even among the small group that really knows. History may bring a reversal, as it has many times before.


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By their taste you will know them

By chance Picasso bumps into Robert Delaunay, and he gives the password—“Cézanne.” Delaunay responds and now they are on the same wavelength, co-conspirators of art. But then Picasso offers the secret handshake—“the late bathers”—and Delaunay doesn’t get it. He prefers the landscapes. So Picasso politely says goodbye and goes to join his friend Braque at a corner table. Despite all the mediations of the art world—books and magazines, university education, over abundant theory, the internet—the same kinds of distinction should apply. Those who really know are always in a minority, and they recognize each other. Enthusiasms for one artist or another are just the visible signs of affinity, and very necessary. If you don’t love art and if you don’t get caught up in the work that strikes you then you’re in the wrong business anyway, and letting your enthusiasms show is a natural way to attract colleagues and allies. It might sound silly to say that “late Frank Stella” is the secret sign of advanced taste—but so it is. The incongruity is that we think of a true coterie as about five people, but all art is a mass phenomenon today.

Pablo Picasso, Three Women 1908-09

Pablo Picasso, Three Women 1908-09

Frank Stella, K56 (large version) 2-013

Frank Stella, K56 (large version) 2013

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Corporate Mind

A recent article about the “corporatization” of the arts strikes me as well-intentioned but naïve in a very precisely Canadian way. What has distinguished Canadian art for the last fifty years at least is a very pronounced bureaucratic mindset, that comes naturally with grants and the structures of peer review. Canadian artists are so used to thinking like bureaucrats that they see nothing wrong with that. I find it sickening. But you have to move around the world a bit, and get experience in different worlds, to see that bureaucracy is not an invention of governments but of business. The fact that one is paid by the taxpayers rather than directly by the market doesn’t give any freedom from the corporate mentality. At my last teaching job I saw that very clearly. My colleagues may have been outside the corporation but the corporation was definitely inside them. The only difference between the public and private sectors, at least as far as working conditions are reflected in the mentality of the worker, is that the connection between work done and reward given is not as clear—and that is very debilitating to the individual. Might as well be in business, it’s more honest.

Peer review

Peer review

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Late Barré

Late Barré is unexpectedly charming. This series is built on a grid with diagonals, with

Martin Barre. 90-91-126x126-C 1990-91

Martin Barré. 90-91-126×126-C 1990-91

certain sections filled in, most not. And the consequent forms are carefully placed to avoid obvious lining up of the edges. A sophisticated deployment of absence. Yet there is also a kind of comic theatre taking place as green shapes move in from stage right and yellow

Martin Barre, 90-91-126x126-B  1990-91

Martin Barré, 90-91-126×126-B 1990-91

from stage left, a square dance of frowning little figures. Thing is, one has to see the whole series to see the dance, to get the shock as they move around and change places. I love that kind of game with the series, that makes it a single work in many parts.

Martin Barre, 90-91-126x126-A 1990-91

Martin Barré, 90-91-126×126-A 1990-91

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Appearance and Desire

Nineteenth century artists like Cézanne and Degas believed that if they channeled sexual energy into their work they would get better results. Matisse had the same view. Models should be attractive, but the feelings they aroused had to be transformed into art—to have sex with the model would waste everything. The idea was to make pictures, not fool around with the models, so the popular view (also the uncritical feminist view), that the male artist’s studio was a kind of bordello, is completely wrong. The strength of a male artist lay in his personal restraint, which enabled untamed invention in the work. Interesting that the viewer who misinterprets the sexual content of modern pictures also misses their very real eroticism, which is found in their distortions. Of course art entails indulgence of every impulse, but the strongest drive is to make a work, so some choices have to be made, amounting to the management of desire. This paradox deserves further thought, but for now just to observe that experience rarely matches the ideal. Degas could well have been a virgin all his life, but if so I don’t think it helped his art. His drawings are full of sex, expressed through sensitivity to curve, proportion and shape. The beauty of the line is identified with the beauty of the body, and that’s why his pictures are a tad conventional; that’s why he admired the work of Bougereau and why his work is almost as unsatisfying in the end. But when he puts the model in poses that in those days

Edgar Degas, Morning Bath 1887-90

Edgar Degas, Morning Bath 1887-90

were considered undignified and even degrading, such as washing her back or climbing into a tub, he is pushing toward a more real sexuality, less trapped by appearances. It took Cézanne to go the distance, and he was a family man—his sexual restraint doesn’t feel like repression. And the works vibrate with energy. The waves that order their brushstrokes must have some sexual origins at least, even if they are finally much more than that. Sex as the creative energy of the universe is blocked in some way by appearances, but of course art is entirely a matter of appearances, so Cézanne’s achievement is the more astounding, and his horrific women are still a challenge. For any artist with a normally refined appreciation for elegant form and feminine beauty, it’s difficult to see the sexiness of Cézanne’s Bathers—I have to admit that it’s not clear to me, at least in the only one I’ve

Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

seen, yet I know it must be there. Picasso certainly saw it, Leger and Picabia too. Meanwhile, Degas made monoprints of women in brothels, and those ladies were definitely not pin-ups. He must have been in agony. Or maybe he gave in to temptation once in a while. Of unfulfillment, frustration, suffering and failure is great art made.

Edgar Degas, Brothel monoprint 1878-80

Edgar Degas, Brothel monoprint 1878-80

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Planar Spaces

From Susskind’s book comes another important formulation, also mentioned in my articles of a few years ago, now revisited: “The maximum amount of information that can be stuffed into a region of space is equal to the area of the region, not the volume.” I think this should be interesting for the sculptors to contemplate—it confirms the optical or planar type of modern sculpture. But for painting it’s also relevant, since it appears that volumes are not so much illusions of the plane as constituent of it. Or vice versa—there are no volumes without planes, or surfaces at least. If we equate the concept of information as used in science with meaning in art, then it is truly futile to fight the planar approach.

Frank Stella, Fedallah (IRS-4 1.875X) 1988

Frank Stella, Fedallah (IRS-4 1.875X) 1988

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Caminero and Ai

The tale of the broken vase has come to an end, and in an August 14th. article in the NYT we can read “Mr. Caminero’s lawyer…said: ‘My client has learned what is appropriate behavior for an artist to participate in.'” Remember that, blog readers, and watch your step. Sad but also funny, meaning I can’t help but laugh but also realize that for all the apparent liberalism and tolerance and all-too-knowingness of our society with respect to art, it still hates human freedom. I’m not laughing at Caminero. He seems a tad naive but is learning the way that every artist must, by doing. Mimicry breaking out on all sides. Interesting that the “value” of the so-called Han Dynasty pot now comes in at $10,000, a nominal sum for an artwork.


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Earlier remarks about the invisible greater part of an artwork used only classical, canonical paintings for examples. Actually, the point applies to abstraction more than anything, and the drive to eliminate the superfluous, which in some cases takes the form of works that are ostentatiously thing-like, and apparently strictly factual, only emphasizes the point. I could say that there is more invisible material in minimalism than in any other art, though to prove it seems like a tedious effort. It’s more fun to talk about information loss in Pollock, as I did in a couple of articles about science and art. The key is that the invisible part is also present and can be recognized, or “seen.” But if it’s invisible how can that be so? The kind of paradox I love.

Jackson Pollock, Summertime 1948

Jackson Pollock, Summertime 1948

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Reading a book by Leonard Susskind, which gives me further perspective on the topic of abstraction and information loss—something I’ve written about but never fully understood. Or rather, I have trouble following the scientists when they say that nature is information. The suspicion won’t leave that they are using a metaphor from the computer industry. Anyway, Susskind says “entropy is hidden information.” What he means is that if heat is added to a gas the particles vibrate faster, so it’s harder to specify their location; all the information needed to describe the substance is not available. It must be present, but it’s not easily available. “Hidden” information might work better than “lost” information, and it connects exactly with the allegorical dimension of abstract art, namely its “meaning.” Susskind goes on: “Entropy always increases.” An artist has to acknowledge that meaning is always harder to specify, and the inability to pin it down has to be accepted as constitutional for abstraction, and brought into the method, whatever that is. But an artwork, because it is a single thing, and all its parts are specifically what they are, and all its forms are just so, by definition has zero entropy. Somehow—and this is the history of modern art—a work sheds information as it condenses down into one single specific thing, so it maintains its actual zero entropy while the entropy of meaning grows. Hey, just thinking out loud.

A Generalized Plot of Entropy versus Temperature for a Single Substance

A generalized plot of entropy versus temperature for a single substance. A work of art is at the bottom left corner of the diagram, its meaning at the top right.

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The Club

Following from the previous post, an interesting comment from Clement Greenberg:

“This gets chewed over again and again, the talk about the heroic generation. I’m sick and tired of talking about it. But I’m not sick and tired of emphasizing what washouts most of these people were as human beings. And they were washouts. At the Cedar Bar there were people that I liked, but the collectivity was awful and squalid.

(Question) Did you feel this way about the Club as well?

Yes. Again it was squalid, maybe the word sordid is better. Doomed artists. Whenever artists herd apparently they’re doomed.”


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From William Tucker’s great book I learn that by the age of seventeen Rodin had been rejected three times by the Beaux-Arts. He spent twenty years earning a living as a technician/assistant working for academic sculptors, while developing his ideas on his days off. By the time Brancusi came along the social and professional situation had changed a lot, but he was likewise primarily a maker and craftsman, outside the system. Tucker has great sympathy for these difficult wanderings around the perimeter of the art world, especially with Gonzalez, whose travails he analyzes in some depth. There is strength to be won in isolation. 

Julio Gonzalez, Head 1933-34

Julio Gonzalez, Head 1933-34

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Collective Solipsism

A popular and often heard claim is that an individual creates their own reality. I think it’s more like the mass media are too much present in everyone’s mind. There is no such thing as “virtual” reality—there is such a thing as mass delusion.

Oculus VR headset

Oculus VR headset

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No Pop

It’s obvious that the realm of the mass media has increased hugely over the last sixty years, and continues to grow. It’s also clear that more people spend more of their valuable time paying attention to it. Those developments are a legitimate object of study, but I see hardly anyone—maybe no one—going about it the right way. A genuine materialist would aim for an objective measurement of how the human brain is occupied, and that could only be done from a position outside. The idea put over by the Pop artists, that the content of the mass media is a dominating aspect of our reality today, is clearly wrong. The real thing is the way that the consciousness of individual human beings is occupied by the content of the mass media, not those images or slogans themselves. Hope the point is coming across. One of the strongest features of abstract art is its refusal to play around with pop culture, and the so-called impurities of so-called post-modernism are really a kind of failure. They offer no perspective on the world and do nothing for abstraction.

Albert Oehlen, Loa 2007

Albert Oehlen, Loa 2007

If an artist like Oehlen, for example, instead of presenting his own demonic possession, would present it and step back, he would make something more abstract. But this is a debatable point—some would say that’s exactly what he does. I think something is lost in the layering of perspectives, because they all collapse down to the same position in the end. In this kind of work, the notion of critique becomes a tiresome alibi, because it can’t survive the multi-perspectival exercise anyway.

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Scientific or Social Origins

I have finally got around to Lee Smolin’s new book, about time. As sympathetic as I am to his ideas, I can’t help but look toward the blind spots. Here’s one quote: “In the past, great conceptual steps in physical science have been echoed in social sciences. Newton’s idea of absolute time and space is said to have greatly influenced the political theory of his contemporary John Locke. The notion that positions of particles were defined with respect not to each other but to absolute space was mirrored in the notion of rights defined for each citizen with respect to an unchanging absolute background of the principles of justice.” Someone who advocates the moment of emergence, the unexpected and the new should be cautious about attributing causes. I wonder why he assumes that a new world view necessarily derives from science. It could be exactly the other way around—that Newton may not have even imagined time and space as background without prior social changes that disposed him to think that way. The problem lies in an academic orientation. Since when do the social sciences have any historical importance? Their view is always retrospective and their value is merely descriptive at best. If we want a real change of paradigms don’t look for it in the university. Better is the insight of Robert Musil, already quoted on this blog: “The train of events is a train unrolling its rails ahead of itself. The river of time is a river sweeping its banks along with it. The traveler moves about on a solid floor between solid walls, but the floor and the walls are being moved along too, imperceptibly and yet in a very lively fashion, by the movements that his fellow travelers make.” I love this quote, and it has inspired some of my own work.

Robert Linsley, #8 from 100 Views of Mt. Baker 1997

Robert Linsley, #8 from 100 Views of Mt. Baker 1997

Everything moves together, and neither science nor art nor even sociology have priority. If we wanted to derive a principle here it would be something like The German Ideology, despite over 100 years of criticism still the most shocking and enlightening text of our time. But all this makes me sensitive to another of Smolin’s metaphors. And yes they are metaphors. In the quote above science is a metaphor, in other words a substitute for more fundamental social facts. In this quote we can hear the ideology of Silicon Valley and the desperation of the entrepreneurial culture: “Both democratic governance and the workings of the scientific community have evolved to manage several basic facts about human beings. We’re smart but we’re flawed in characteristic ways. We’re able to study our situation in nature over a single lifetime and accumulate knowledge over many lifetimes. But we have also evolved a capacity for thinking and acting at the snap of a twig. This means we often make mistakes and fool ourselves. To combat our propensity for error, we have evolved societies that embrace the contradiction between the conservative and the rebel in the service of future generations.” Conservative and rebel are nothing if not fictions, metaphors in fact for the processes of technological so-called “innovation.” Since Lee’s book makes major claims, and welcome ones, it’s disappointing to see this kind of lapse into a weak rhetoric that comes out of business. And the idea that social organization can compensate for human blindness, when it is itself a product of that same limitation, is also distressing. But then these quotes come from the final chapter of the book, in which he perhaps gets a little off his turf.

Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin

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Emergent Space

Lee Smolin’s latest book, Time Reborn, is an argument in favor of the open-ended future. We may not have known it was endangered, but apparently one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that time becomes objectified as one of the dimensions of space, something Einstein himself was unhappy with. Relativity spatializes time. Julian Barbour has been discussed on this blog, and he is the strongest advocate of the notion that the apparent passage of time is an illusion, and something of a mentor to Smolin. I’m completely in sympathy with Lee’s work on this topic, but right now the most interesting thing about it is that he holds that space is an emergent property, that space is, in a sense, the illusion. Time is fundamental, space is secondary. This comes at exactly the right time(!) to confirm thoughts that I’m not able to express clearly, though I have been making a stab at it on abstract critical. Pictorial space has to be invented, but sometimes it’s just too familiar, meaning that the faculty of invention is not engaged. Two pieces may have the same character of space but one is dead and the other feels alive. One space is invented, the other is conventional, though they are the same kind of space, maybe even made the same way. Allowing for the vagaries of mood and attention, there is a qualitative difference that can’t be theorized except in this way. Theoretically it’s easy to dismiss this idea, and quickly jump to the logical conclusion that all art is a hamster wheel. But our minds are too quick to measure, compare and understand. Consider that you might have brushed your teeth 10,000 times, that you may have walked down the same street times too numerous to count, that human beings repeat the same nonsense over and over, yet is it not possible that a moment, however much it may be filled with the same old stuff, feels good, alive, necessary, even perfect? Isn’t that what gets us out of bed? We want the unique time and space of a work to be special, but that feeling can only emerge from the familiar background, however you want to draw its outline.

Jackson Pollock, Greyed Rainbow 1953

Jackson Pollock, Greyed Rainbow 1953

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Tucker’s Stance

William Tucker’s favorite sculptors, according to his book, are Brancusi, Matisse and Degas. If one looks at his own work with this in mind, it’s clear that he is not rooted in construction, but in ideas of organic form, and surface as in some way both origin and consequence of what it covers. He wants to reconcile surface and mass, a contradictory but therefore interesting project. The problem as I see it is that his pieces inevitably feel hollow. Cubist construction has negated mass, and I mean really made it impossible to believe in solid things.

William Tucker, Day 2012

William Tucker, Day 2012

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