Abstraction in Iran

My facebook friend from Vancouver, Mohammad Salemy, has written a piece about the modernist art collection in Tehran. It’s worth a read. The collection is very rich, but right now I’m interested in the abstraction. Stella spent time there in the sixties, and drew inspiration for his Protractor series. He is also friends with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, a very interesting artist I will discuss here one day. She was married to a senior diplomat—part of the establishment you might say, so I’m sure there’s some good Stella in the collection, but I know for certain there’s a major Pollock. The topic of modernist abstraction in Iran really draws me—maybe because I know some great Iranian artists—and part of the story is certainly the influence and role of this collection. Mohammad says that Iranian artists don’t want it to travel because they fear the works will be seized by self-proclaimed former owners and sold. In other words, Iranian artists value cosmopolitan modernism, and don’t see it as antagonistic to their own culture.

Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red ground 1950

Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red Ground 1950

My position on this has two sides. First of all, the meaning and value of abstract art has yet to be determined, and presumably different contexts will have different proposals to make. We need those perspectives. Corollary is that no one can set a limit as to what use Iranians, or anyone else for that matter, can make of modern art. Secondly, I don’t believe that the global culture is western culture, and certainly does not belong to western elites. The global culture is made of refugees, expats, diasporas, students, adventurers—just take a look, it is not western and not white. So it’s wrong to claim that abstraction, with it’s universalizing tendency, is an instrument of colonialism. This is my view from here, peering through the fog of identity politics, surfing the confusion. The Iranian view is what I want to know.

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Shame

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anton Ehrenzweig’s idea that artists are shameless, that art is a kind of self exposure that demonstrates a courageous defiance of social norms—of guilt in fact. I’ve discussed it before on this blog. But even though it is a theory of expression, it’s not about subjectivity as we understand it today, about the artist’s “identity.”

The artist’s self-display necessarily has a sexual component, but today there are no erotic shocks. Too many people have learned from modern art not to pay any attention to the proprieties—even to believe that defiance of the proprieties has a moral value. And in the age of Trump the high standard of shamelessness observed by the ruling class makes the merely erotic kind seem paltry. The famous 1% are truly a class with no class.

In the face of these difficulties I have to admire those artists who have still managed to take a real risk—and make it real; mentioned on this blog have been Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons and Carolee Schneeman, all great in different ways. Of the three I have most respect and admiration for Fraser. But what they all prove is that it’s not enough to take off your clothes, in fact it’s not enough to present explicit sex, it is absolutely crucial where, when and how those things are done—as in all art. Society is still there, and the human monkey is still subject to society’s greatest weapon—shame, an emotion that can kill. Who can defend against mockery? Well, evidently lots of people today, but an artist still has to find the intolerable spot, where the monkey either laughs or throws a rock because it can’t help itself—and then internal form and external context (meaning the art world) have to be rightly arranged to silence the monkey.

I come from a pretty nervous place, and used to be very sensitive to shame. It’s taken many years to grow a thicker skin, and I would say it’s come entirely from inside—no one else’s example ever helped me. One turning point happened a few years ago. “Embarrassing” photos were taken, and sent. But even though I looked very undignified, was surprised to realize that I just didn’t care. I wasn’t embarrassed, and just to register that fact at the time was a milestone. But, though I think the whole story is quite amusing, and I would happily tell it to some people, I won’t reveal it on this blog. The reason is that the sexual component is not shocking, but there were other aspects that would be sure to bring on the abuse. I don’t want to be jeered by any other monkey, who would? And even though I was missing some of my clothes, the photos were not erotic. But that’s a bit disingenuous. All images are erotic, and the erotic may be more strongly present when the image is deliberately low key, undemonstrative. When I saw the famous “ordinary women” Dove ads in Berlin about ten years ago, I found them very striking and incredibly sexy.

img_0495

I can hear the obvious criticism—that I’ve just performed a sleight of hand and substituted the female body for my own. But the modes of self display are different for men and women, and for male and female artists. Another post for that.

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Wooster and the Reality Principle

Wodehouse’s books are light, and lightness is one of the qualities I esteem in any art. But they are not any less concerned with reality as it is lived. Here is Bertie Wooster’s favourite aunt, regaling him with some affectionate badinage:

‘I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It’s amazing,’ she said, drinking me in once more. ‘To look at you, one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot – certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are a worse scourge than the Black Death. I tell you, Bertie, when I contemplate you I seem to come up against all the underlying sorrow and horror of life with such a thud that I feel as if I had walked into a lamp post.’

All I can say is slapstick is highest form of art, and the lowest, and to join those two limits is the right way.

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

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The Mystery of Jeeves

The genius of P.G.Wodehouse has been well recognized. And so it should be. His books are so funny and give so much pleasure that they make life more bearable. But he was also a very intelligent and sophisticated artist, the more so that his books are entirely made from conventions and stock characters, and basically tell the same story over and over again. That’s not to say that there is no development. In the early stories there are clues to the character of Jeeves—he has his moods and preferences. Later on he goes to another plane, something astral maybe. He becomes mysterious, spectral, a figure of the imagination, vivid but insubstantial:

“Presently I was aware that Jeeves was with me. I hadn’t heard him come in, but you often don’t with Jeeves. He just streams silently from spot A to spot B, like some gas.”

Wooster always describes him as “shimmering” in and out. I think he’s an emanation of Wooster, and that’s so funny because he is supposed to be much more intelligent than Wooster; but then the levels of irony in Wooster’s self presentation may be as yet uncounted. Wodehouse’s evolution is toward the more abstract—but completely in and through convention. Perhaps the two are synonymous anyway.

P.G.Wodehouse

P.G.Wodehouse

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Invention and Labour

I read recently about Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic, an allegorical/historical cycle of gigantic paintings, some actually as much as 20 feet high.

Alphonse Mujcha, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor

Alphonse Mujcha, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor (early 20th. century)

I’d like to see them, but even before doing so I’m getting tired. Too much work! Mucha is clearly a modern artist, and in fact well known for his Art Nouveau posters, but he was not a modernist. Those conservative souls who bemoan the disappearance of technique in modern art would probably love his work, but they are missing the important point put forward by the modernists—that one moment of invention is worth a thousand hours of labour. This is why a small Klee, or a small Picasso still life (which might contain several moments of invention) is better, more inspiring, and offers more to enjoy than a grand museum filling cycle.

Pablo Picasso, Still life with stone, 1924

Pablo Picasso, Still life with stone, 1924

And this is why I’ve always felt that later modernism, in which one moment of creative freedom might be extended over an entire cycle of large pictures, is a kind of failure—a failure to maintain the energy of invention.

Mark Rothko, No. 61 1953

Mark Rothko, No. 61 1953

Some are happy to see art enslaved by nationalistic nonsense, others prefer the cosmopolitan modernism of the auction room, but in the age of Trump and the neo-liberals, it’s the underlying sameness of these two models that matters—and the recognition that there is another way.

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This World or Another

At the time of writing, a couple of weeks before publication, the Trump election is everyone’s topic of discussion, and the content of that discussion can get pretty intense—intensely apocalyptic in some cases. I’ve been putting in my own opinion on Facebook, and I’m as involved in communal life as anyone, but I’m also on a binge of reading P.G.Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster books. Is that escapism? Maybe, but it’s an escape to something more fundamental than political hysteria. Wodehouse is clever, funny, and very artful; on occasion he also offers a more or less profound truth. Take this passage:

“I had seen this man before only in the decent habiliments suitable to the metropolis, and I confess that even in the predicament in which I found myself I was able to shudder at the spectacle he presented in the country. It is, of course, an axiom, as I have heard Jeeves call it, that the smaller the man the louder the check suit, and old Bassett’s apparel was in keeping with his lack of inches. Prismatic is the only word for those frightful tweeds and, oddly enough, the spectacle of them had the effect of steadying my nerves. They gave me the feeling that nothing mattered.”

But he’s just finished proving that many things matter—clothes, colour, taste, style. That final sentence is striking but also easy to pass over, even to miss. What does it mean anyway? I think I’ve had that experience, in a moment of stress. Or felt that if only I could win through the struggle of life I could allow small things to matter again. Anomie, indifference as the highest stage of aestheticism—the political arguments against a life in art, especially abstraction, are already in place. But the place where “nothing matters” is also the place of freedom, and not only for art. It’s not that nothing matters, it’s just that the available choices don’t make any difference—like the choice between Clinton and Trump. Once you see that, new possibilities for action arise.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 (first state)

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 (first state)

In the first stage of this new collage, the biggest yet at 60×48″, a black space breaks through the frame. It’s a lot like #7, also in vertical format.

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Music in the Studio

A lot of artists like to play music while they work. I think it’s a dangerous thing to do. The problem is that the feelings of the music possess you and then you start to believe that your own work has the same feeling. If you feel the music a lot you can enter a delusional state and imagine that your work is great, when really you haven’t given it a chance. Actually, having said that, I realize it might be too generous to my colleagues, most of whom probably use music as background noise, as it is in many workplaces. As such it can be a tool of concentration, a way of distracting oneself away from the normal background noise in one’s head. But once the flow is happening, it becomes an obstacle to concentration, a distraction. At some point, it has to be turned off.

Robert Linsley, Collage #7 2016, watercolor, watercolor pencil, silkscreen, acrylic, enamel collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #7 2016, watercolor, watercolor pencil, silkscreen, acrylic, enamel collage on canvas

But then listening to Das Lied von der Erde in the studio while working on this collage, I found the music joyful, despite it’s apparent seriousness. The joy is in the composer’s exercise of artistic capacities, skills, knowledge—the ability to put things together, also the pay off from my own efforts. So which way does the influence go? Does the music cast a glow over the work, or does the act of working open me up to the music?

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Another Kind of Artist

I find this woman‘s work fascinating. Over a period of many years Isabelle Mège persuaded prominent photographers to shoot her portrait. Now she is regarded as the artist. The feminist side of what she is doing is obvious and the bouleversement of the model/artist relationship is also something familiar, but the idea of the artist making their work by controlling other artists from a distance is novel, daring and almost shocking. It may be typical of contemporary work in many respects, but still proves that there is always another way. Human invention is unlimited.

Constant Anée, Untitled 2000

Constant Anée, Untitled 2000

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Modern Labor

Kafka has this to say about the entrepreneurial culture:

“The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.”

This thought is prophetic not only because there was no entrepreneurial culture as we know it in those days, but also because it is a thought about innovation and technical change.

450px-kafka

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Simon Hantaï

Hantaï‘s works have an evident beauty, but I never found them interesting enough to really study because they rely too much on the process. Too hands off, not enough intervention by the artist. The right balance of those two things is tricky. Clearly less of the artist is a good thing, but not none. The artist has to be present in order to be transformed by the work. Anyway, now I understand that Hantaï’s strength is variation, which I always admire. His wall-like installations look like a jungle, other works channel Matisse’s cut-outs, others have a homely shape, like a potato.

Simon Hantaï, Meun 1968 (left) Etude 1968 (right)

Simon Hantaï, Meun 1968 (left) Etude 1968 (right)

Hantaï with his homely forms

Hantaï with his homely forms

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Early Gaitonde

Vasudeo S Gaitonde, Untitled 1955

Vasudeo S Gaitonde, Untitled 1955

For those interested in Gaitonde, here are works from the fifties and early sixties that show the influence of Klee and de Staël. As mentioned earlier on this blog, these two artists were important for any cosmopolitan modernist at that period. No matter where. The ethnic content is not the important thing.

V.S.Gaitonde, untitled watercolor 1957

V.S.Gaitonde, untitled watercolor 1957

V.S.Gaitonde, untitled abstraction 1962

V.S.Gaitonde, untitled abstraction 1962

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A Polemic

Another chapter of my book looks at that universal favorite, Gerhard Richter. It may be the first genuine critique of an overrated artist, and the book is probably worth the price for that alone. It’s not original though; I take my lead from Benjamin H.D.Buchloh, Richter’s greatest critical supporter, already reported on this blog. Buchloh claims that Richter and Stella are competitors in the realm of corporate abstraction. I find that a point for point comparison of the two is not favorable to Richter. 

Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (804-9) 1994

Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (804-9) 1994

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No Inconsistencies

The previous post on one of Stella’s Polish Villages may give the impression that all works in the series are as carefully irregular. Actually, most of them seem to be perfectly reasonable. I’m not aware of how Stella sees the situation or whether he cares if line segments are parallel or continuous. In any case, there’s no law that says they have to be. He said that he gave a lot of attention to precise placement of the shapes—in that case I admire him for tweaking many of the details out of alignment. These observations are connected with my earlier thoughts about Kandinsky, and they are an aspect of my own changing feelings about abstraction. Learning doesn’t stop, and learning to be free is always worthwhile. Or better—learning to let art go free of our very natural drive to organize. That would be the advantage of geometry for abstraction—that it lets us be clearly inconsistent.

Frabnk Stella, Chodorow 2 1971

Frabnk Stella, Chodorow 2 1971

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Possibly Annoying Details

Straight lines that form geometric shapes always imply some kind of consistent order. It might have something to do with buildings, because walls that don’t meet at ninety degrees, or don’t quite meet at all, seem awkward, even though there are well designed buildings that have those kind of things. Funny little bump outs or patches that fill inconsistencies in the design can have a vernacular charm, but usually they’re just interruptions in what should be a logical movement—or in what we normally feel should be a logical movement from beginning to end of the object. But it’s not wise to approach art with the same expectation.

Frank Stella, Dawidgrodek II, 1971

Frank Stella, Dawidgrodek II, 1971

Take for example one of Stella’s Polish Village series. The fact that the large red hockey stick shape has no parallel edges is not really that remarkable—that’s how Stella can get twisted planes and hints of perspective, familiar since the Irregular Polygons. The divergences are obvious because the shape is quite large, but smaller, more subtle irregularities are more thought provoking. The left vertical edge of the left hand green bar at the bottom lines up with the right vertical edge of the blue bar above it—but not quite. It’s a close thing, but not a hundred per cent. There is some kind of logic to a line up like that, and at a quick glance we might assume that the piece is built around such correspondences. But there is no other even approximate connection between the blue and green bars. In fact the left hand edge of the lower section of the right hand green bar is not even parallel to any of the edges of the blue bars. In fact the top edges of the blades of the two blue hockey sticks on the right are not lined up with each other or even parallel to the red edge. 

These are small details, and they take some time to register. You can’t see them unless you make an effort and use a straight edge. So do they matter? Yes, in direct proportion as the assumption of internal consistency comes easily to mind. That’s the viewer’s share, but for the artist even more important is the fact that’s much easier to construct a consistently logical and integrated whole than to manage a host of particulars. But an art work should be a set of peculiar particulars and they don’t need to depend on each other. Why does the bottom edge of the left hand green bar stop where it does? Because it does.

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Late Discoveries

Barry Schwabsky has written an insightful review of two current museum shows, Agnes Martin and Carmen Herrera. Herrera is a fascinating figure for everyone, because she holds the record for late discovery of a living artist—after sixty years of obscurity she became canonical almost overnight. She beats Louise Bourgeoise. Most artists are unrecognized, so naturally we all want to know how it happened. Logically, the first and only criterion for recognition is good work, but this is work that somehow wasn’t seen, and the question then becomes why was that? Schwabsky takes this on directly, even confessing that he must have seen her work at some point, but just didn’t see it. When he eventually did, he was very struck, and says “…her art was blessedly free of the familiarity that too often leads us just to nod politely and walk on.” But that’s exactly what happens every day, with every artist. “Familiar” means fitting accepted categories, recognizing that for every category there can only be a limited number of canonical figures.

It’s not easy to open one’s perceptions to something outside of the normal frames. In the studio it can’t be rushed, it either happens or not, so for the art viewer or art lover it must be the same—we have to be patient with our audience. And these days we also have to realize that there are similar difficulties to seeing variations within a particular frame. There are so many artists, and not even a professional can dig deep at every encounter. The best informed viewers just box it and walk on to the next work. Their knowledge allows them to place whatever they see and decide in an instant whether to stay in that place for any length of time—a perfect segue into Schwabsky’s remarks about Agnes Martin, which concern the problem of time, meaning what happens when we give time to a work. It can change before our eyes, for one thing. We can change as well, but again, who ever says that’s easy is certainly wrong. Martin offers unprogrammed, empty time, time just as it is, and as such it must be the most valuable thing there is, because that’s really all there is. But speaking art critically, there are degrees of emptiness. In my book I suggest that Gego offers more of less than most, maybe more of less than Martin. The problem is the perception of distinctions that matter a lot even though they are very small. Herrera brings Schwabsky to this exact insight.

“This is the elementary secret behind the power of her work, which is nothing less than the power to assert a continuous presence through time: the infinite alternation between positive and negative forms. A duality is set up, but it never becomes a stable hierarchy; the color forms keep shifting in emphasis so that the painting continually refreshes itself. The idea is simple enough; what’s rare is the aesthetic judgment. Not everyone has the taste for those unexpected balances found within an imbalance, which can allow the artist to put the idea to work a little bit differently, time after time, without wearing it out.”

Carmen Herrera, White and Green 1959

Carmen Herrera, White and Green 1959

Personally I’m much more interested in the imbalances found within a balance, and that distinction matters. Topic for the next post. When one finds a balance, isn’t that just familiarity again? Isn’t it what we want to find, because we’ve had it before and liked it then? A reason to nod and walk on?

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While Waiting

The topic of waiting is not to be confused with procrastination. From an art point of view the biggest problem is the need to be busy, because the true religion of the modern world, in every culture, is work. The religion of art and the religion of work are in some sense in opposition, and they should be kept that way—we have to resist the syncretic tendency that would make art one god in the temple of work, like the Hindu mandir with statues of every mythic name, including Buddha and Christ.

Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Toronto

Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Toronto

So what do you do while you wait? The question itself reveals the flaw—the need to do something. It probably all starts with language—the common assertion that time is “spent,” from which is derived the axiom that time is money. Or once upon a time money bought up language. In any case, this is another topic of my book, developed in the chapter on Gego. Time should just be left without our input. Empty time. But not empty, because the fabric of time is the unfolding process of whatever is coming to be. Emptiness should be our stance toward it.

Robert Linsley, Island Generation One 2013

Robert Linsley, Island Generation One 2013

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Those Who Wait

The theme of waiting deserves a few posts. I originally thought I could make one, or even two, but it’s too rich of a topic. What is Fontana waiting for? His slashes are titled “Attesa,” which I would translate as “the wait.” Ironically, whatever development his work promises is already completed, even before the picture is painted. There is nothing to wait for. This is one topic of my book.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spatiale Attesa 1965

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spatiale Attesa 1965

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The Wait

Waiting. Waiting for a pot to boil, for the daylight to change, for the rain to fall, for a flower to bloom—some processes take time, and so waiting is a natural and unavoidable state. For an art that aims to be nature rather than represent it, patience is skill, and technique. Kafka had something to say about this, a quote I have always found very moving and inspiring:

“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.”

That’s an artistic technique, one that apparently Gaitonde used quite well.

VSGaitonde, Untitled 1977

VSGaitonde, Untitled 1977

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Carla Accardi

Carla Accardi was another artist I discussed on the blog several years ago, along with fellow Italians Marisa Merz and Giulio Paolini. In the book she inaugurates the formalist, or “formalist,” chapters. She should be better known on this side of the water.

Carla Accardi Giallo chiaro 1969

Carla Accardi, Giallo chiaro 1969

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A Different Frame

This collage is like #5 in the way that the frame within the frame is handled—it’s less of an image than the others, more abstract in a way. But also, unlike #s 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7, the arrangement is not supposed to be so developed, so condensed. It was to have that light, this-is-just-how-it-is feel that I found in Kandinsky. It didn’t turn out quite that way—couldn’t resist adjusting until it felt better. Even so, it does have a few straight lines in a more or less unprogrammed dance, as in Kandinsky. At first, working on top of the picture within a picture, it seemed like there was not much room to fit things, because I didn’t want to obliterate the image—in this case the cut out part of the dark grey ground. But in any good picture there is plenty of space for whatever you want to include, and that has nothing to do with size. This one is busy, but still feels comfortably spacious. The flat colored pieces of paper may help with that. The art of visual art is placement.

Robert Linsley, Collage #8 2016 watercolor, acrylic, spray, collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #8 2016 watercolor, acrylic, spray, collage on canvas

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Literary Modernism

I’ve always been drawn to artists who write their own books and illustrate them—or maybe they are actually writers who also draw. Two obvious ones who come to mind are Mervyn Peake and Bruno Schulz, and I like them both.

Mervyn Peake, manuscript page from Gormenghast

Mervyn Peake, manuscript page from Gormenghast

Personally, I see nothing in comic books or graphic novels—they’re too cinematic. If I want a film I can get one. Picture books, which have fewer pictures and fewer words, but do more with both, are much better. So Maurice Sendak is also one of my all time favourite artists, but I don’t turn up my nose at Beatrix Potter either. Does all this have anything to do with abstraction? Maybe not, but let’s not be purist. It could be relevant one day.

Maurice Sendak 2

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A Literary Art

Back at the start of this blog, in 2011 I think it was, I wrote several posts on R.H.Quaytman. She’s still one of my favourite artists, and features prominently in my book. Another artist with a very creative relationship to literature was Lygia Pape, and she has also been mentioned on the blog. They meet in the same chapter of the book.

R.H.Quaytman, Venice installation, 2011

R.H.Quaytman, Venice installation, 2011

Lygia Pape, Book of Creation 1959-60. Opened up

Lygia Pape, Book of Creation 1959-60. Opened up

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Interpretation in Time

My post on destruction got an interesting response on Facebook from reader Nicole Rigets. She says: “Old books contain new ways of seeing and thinking. In my opinion all books contain secret knowledge (even novels).” This is really fascinating. Of course the tradition of esoteric commentary on books, especially the Bible, is very old, but it’s not often remarked that the older the document the more can be seen in it. Interpretive possibilities grow over time. I think that’s an objective feature of any work of art—it’s meaning unfolds in time, it’s not actually there at the beginning. Of course I’m belaboring a point I love to belabor—namely the error of positing a meaning as the motive or origin of a work. You can’t pack meaning in, it emerges. And you don’t need an intention to begin. So how do you start? With the formal stuff, what the work actually is. Formalism doesn’t deny human meanings, it enables them. The less you bring to the work, the more it will give later. And, as Nicole Rigets points out, what it gives will always be new.

Frank Stella, K 43 2008

Frank Stella, K 43 2008

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Normalized

I’m aware of how hokey the previous post became toward the end—the list of artist destroyers is pop art history, and not very good pop art history at that. However, those pairs—Malevich/Mondrian, Pollock/Rothko and Stella/Richter—are in an important sense my canon; Mondrian, Rothko and Richter the negative or anti-canon, the art I don’t like. What doesn’t ring true today is the possibly implied glamour and romanticism (in the pop sense) of destruction, especially since they are all male. There’s no shortage of women artists in my personal canon, and many of them have been treated on this blog, and in my book, so I don’t feel I slipped up with this list, but there’s more to the topic. I probably just wanted to get in some points against my least favorite artists, especially since they are so generally popular. Mondrian could have been as easily contrasted with Sonia Delaunay, whose grids and circles are formally much more forward looking; Rothko might be played off against Helen Frankenthaler, whose uneven results are so much more memorable than Rothko’s consistency. The problem is that “destruction” doesn’t quite catch everything that’s going on. Yet there is a valid point there. Huffingtonian nonsense about “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer,” shouldn’t scare us away from the real destructiveness and iconoclasm of modernist art. But however violent it may get, it’s never real destruction, of the type we saw in Bamiyan or Timbuktu. And that’s a source of frustration, especially for the avant-garde. There is a drive to destroy culture. That drive is tamed in modernism, and then history stops. Some other sense of change has to emerge.

Helen Frankenthaler's studio circa 1987

Helen Frankenthaler’s studio circa 1987

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Destruction

Further to the phenomenon of iconoclasm or demolition of cultural monuments—the first thing that comes to mind is that modern art has always been iconoclastic and in fact very destructive. I’m enraged to read about the burning of old Korans and other books in Timbuktu by Islamic militants, but I also want to understand why human beings evidently have a drive to destroy culture. Over the last sixty-seventy years the Chinese have celebrated a true holocaust of civilization by simplifying their written language, a festival that is probably now over as 3000 years of continuous literary tradition definitively enters the museum and academy as a subject for scholarly research instead of a vivid experience of collective values and history. The Chinese are completely modern, and have been for a very long time—they can destroy without physical violence. Modern art has also found a way to simultaneously destroy and preserve; the destructive impulse is incorporated into the artistic method, but actual works are always kept, as they should be. One could divide modern artists into pairs—the destroyers and the preservers. Malevich destroyer, Mondrian preserver; Pollock destroyer, Rothko preserver; Stella destroyer, Richter preserver. Picasso was the great destroyer, with no one able to balance or oppose his heroic efforts, but later it was Duchamp the destroyer and Picasso a baffled preserver. Personally, I’m on the side of the destroyers. They give us the most, including the greatest possibilities for future work.

Frank Stella, Diepholz 1981

Frank Stella, Diepholz 1981

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People or Things

The destroyed Alpha Moya mausoleum in Timbuktu, 2013

The destroyed Alpha Moya mausoleum in Timbuktu, 2013

I get very caught up in the news about iconoclasm and the destruction of culture. In one article, by the art critic of the Guardian, the stale claim that human life is worth more than culture is emphatically made. He says “Culture can be renewed, remade, reinvented. Human life cannot.” Actually, the truth is exactly opposite. All of the human, including most culture, is pretty much repetition, remakes and renewal. Only some exceptional cultural products (partially) escape that destiny and give us a particular, unrepeatable single moment. Once destroyed those things are gone forever. On the other hand, there will always be more people, and the differences between them are usually very minor. The claim that every human life is sacred is pure hokum. Certainly no one actually acts as if it’s true. Status, social influence, religious delusions, wealth, fantasies of power, and, above all, the will itself, are all valued much more highly than human life. But of course it’s a journalist’s job to repeat whatever nonsense we are compelled to tell ourselves.

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Arrived

Of course all arrivals are temporary, but this collage looks done. Had a bit of doubt as to how the increase in size (4×3′) would throw off the scale relation between the watercolor patches and the larger flat areas of paper (and, in this case, enamel, because the whole thing is built on top of an unsuccessful pour painting), but it worked out. Improvisation as usual (earlier states).

Robert Linsley, Collage #7 2016, watercolor, watercolor pencil, silkscreen, acrylic, spray, enamel collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #7 2016, watercolor, watercolor pencil, silkscreen, acrylic, spray, enamel collage on canvas

To me the rest of the series has a dark feeling, although they felt pretty good to make. They are figurative, though what is depicted is not clear—animal, mineral or human? They may be about our emerging history. They are also definitely abstract. This one is my first in a vertical format. The whatever it is bursting or falling or jumping out of the frame within the frame seems to be coming from the past. There’s a lot of Picasso in this one.

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The Fog of Art

I like a recent article by Hito Steyerl, especially this line: “Art is encryption as such, regardless of the existence of a message with a multitude of conflicting and often useless keys.” This is a little dose of aesthetics; abstraction at least offers no intelligibility, and why should it? An overrated feature of any art. Later on she gets very funny:

“Yay for expensive craft and anything vacuous that works in a chain-hotel lobby. Plastiglomerate marble, welded by corporate characters banging on about natural selection. Kits for biological “self-improvement.” Crapstraction, algostraction, personalized installations incorporating Krav Maga lessons. Religious nailpaint will slay in all seasons, especially with a Louis Vuitton logo. Hedge-fund mandalas. Modest fashion. Immodest fashion. Nativist mumbo jumbo. Genetically engineered caviar in well-behaved ethnic pottery. Conceptual plastic surgery. Racial plastic surgery. Bespoke ivory gun handles. Murals on border walls. Good luck with this. You will be my mortal enemy.”

It’s the last sentence, in which she claims her position on the side of the good, that probably explains her popularity today. That’s the last minute redemptive turn that all art makes, although it makes it in many different ways, according to the kind of art that it is. Readers of this blog will know that I have a high tolerance for charlatanism and bad faith. They’re just part of the general chaos, and I don’t care if things turn out all right in the end. They won’t anyway—how could they? There will be no end. There will certainly be an end to localized bullshit, and to temporary socio-economic systems—as human creations they are all temporary anyway—but I can’t see an actual end in sight. Even the end of human beings is too remote for one evanescent pair of eyes to make out, although in geological time it’s likely immanent.

The last part of her article is unreadable, being an attempt to lay out remedies. Who is foolish enough to demand a positive alternative? Probably the e-flux crowd. Thoroughgoing negativity doesn’t sell, that’s why Harold Rosenberg is unread today. As an artist I think that truth telling combined with wit and humour is enough; today it won’t go over. The audience demands an answer! A solution. Some hope. Even if it makes no sense. Maybe vague projections are another kind of abstract art.

christies-live-4

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Objectivity of Art

Recently a journalist has outed the legal identity of Italian author Elena Ferrante. There have been many critical responses to this piece of detective work. People are not happy. This is what Ferrante has to say about why she doesn’t want to be a public figure:

“Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”

I respond very strongly to this, especially the last sentence. Ferrante has the most sophisticated and productive understanding of anonymity. It makes art possible. Art liberated from the subjectivity of the artist gives the artist access to the infinity of creation. It’s a mutual liberation, though freedom is irrelevant to the artist really—what they need, what they want, and what they get, are capacities. But it isn’t necessary to make a fuss about names. After all, “Marcel” is as fictional a character as “Elena,” and Proust voided his own subjectivity the more effectively as he allowed some confusion between himself and the character.

image-20150903-24512-hf87ly

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Getting Closer

My new, bigger collage has been through a few changes, and it’s getting better (compare with first state). Funny how until that happens it always seems like it never will. Anyway, tried painting on the grey frame but that threw the scale off, so I flipped the grey paper around, which actually improved the whole thing. Still want to articulate the grey somehow, and the black band at the left is a gesture in that direction, but not sure what to do. The whole thing is definitely figurative, and has a trace of the old cubist guitar.

Collage #7 second state

Collage #7 second state

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