I always felt an affinity with J.G.Dokoupil, confirmed in spades by this interview, which I recommend to everyone. Dokoupil could be called a conceptual painter, and I’m a non-conceptual artist, so we should have a lot in common.
I always felt an affinity with J.G.Dokoupil, confirmed in spades by this interview, which I recommend to everyone. Dokoupil could be called a conceptual painter, and I’m a non-conceptual artist, so we should have a lot in common.
John Kelsey’s article in last September’s Artforum, with its criticisms of digital networking, combined with some comments from my friend Scott Lyall, provoked me to take a step back and ask what it is I’m doing here. This post is late, but the response is still current.
Most popular blogs are compilations, or offer some other kind of usability—I just put out my own ideas. In any case, there is a huge difference between blogging, which is basically journalism, and Facebooking, which is enthusiastic co-operation in a giant marketing system. In what way is what I am doing different from writing for Artforum? Of course “Robert Linsley,” the voice that you hear speaking out of these words, is an artifact of the technology, and a fiction, but that’s not new in any way. That it is a less enlightening, and much less entertaining voice than say…Felix Krull…is an aesthetic problem, not a world historical crisis of the disappearing subject. I think that the form rubs against the context in some small way—I don’t compromise my writing to meet the demands of so-called SEO. There is software that will alter one’s writing for maximum Google placement, I don’t use anything like that.
Maybe it is a little bit perverse to send out one’s ideas into nothingness, but no more perverse than writing a newspaper column. The real perversion here is that the labor is unpaid, like most work in the digital economy. Admitted, I take pleasure in doing it. But…it has to serve some purpose. I thought the posts could be notes for a book, but a blog has a centrifugal nature—its deep form is the tangent, or digression. The longer I write the less likely it will make one book—maybe two or three, but that’s impractical.
I was reading the catalog for the show Frank Stella 1958, and one of the writers, Megan Luke, explains Stella’s thinking about edges, which led to the early Black Paintings. He noticed that many of the second generation abstract expressionists would plonk an image in the middle of the canvas, and then feather out to the edge, losing intensity on the way. They couldn’t compose the entire field. Stella’s black stripes do away with the gap between image and edge. But this kind of thinking would also explain his more recent use of frames within frames, mentioned a couple of times on this blog. For an artist who wanted to
return to forms, but also wanted to keep the integrity of his earlier, more formal abstractions, this is an interesting way. This second example looks at first sight to be exactly what he was criticizing back in the day. But I think that implicitly at least, the criticism of the floating image unrelated to the edge is that it was in some sense involuntary or unconscious. For Stella now it’s just one more possibility.
The effect is the same as that achieved by Barré, discussed in the previous post, to make the edges of the image more visible—to work with them and with the space they produce.
their edges more vivid—the panels punch holes in the wall though to an illusionist realm while standing out strongly as shapes in our space. This is very different from the more usual approach, seen in Stella for example, of building forward into the viewer’s space. The trick is to give the edges an illusionistic kick against the wall, then go back further into pictorial space, and the result is three levels of reality—as the post on Morellet pointed out. Robert Storr claims that this was accomplished by Elizabeth Murray, but whatever its strengths, I find her work less convincing on this point. I have an idea how to do it myself, to be realized soon.
This blog has quoted Emerson’s great essay, “Experience,” more than once. Here’s Benjamin on the same topic: “Most people have no wish to learn by experience. Moreover, their convictions prevent them from doing so.” How true. That is the truth of American politics, ruled by idealists of the right who refuse on principle to learn anything from the reality they live. It might also apply to art, in every context, from theorists who can’t see what they are looking at to painters in love with their own habits.
The series Polar Coordinates for Ronnie Peterson was another tough one for me to learn to like, but now I love them. Somehow, the two layer structure, combined with the busyness of the “ground” layer, has some relevance to the fact that they are an homage to a deceased friend of the artist. And that awakens my own strong feelings about the meaning of work. Great expressiveness struggles through the geometry.
One is good, so two are better. Again I realize that the work that moves me the deepest is hard to see at first. An instinctive dislike is a good indicator of emerging quality.
I did not like the Swan Engravings at first—critics talk about rich blacks, but I just saw a dull all-over gray, because I really don’t like that wiped-plate look so much appreciated by intaglio printers. But…having taken a longer and a closer look, I now can’t get enough of them. They are made by mounting leftover metal plates on a plywood backing, and printed in one run, some areas in relief, others in intaglio, with spontaneous orchestration of areas and intense compression of forms. The knotted swirls in the upper right corner of this one are drawn with tusche resist—direct realization of a good formal idea very tightly packed into its space. As it turns out, each of the pieces assembled for one of the Swan Engravings,
whether relief or intaglio, had to be wiped separately, and to a very particular degree. According to one account “Half a day of shop time was entailed in the inking of of a single Swan plate. After each impression was pulled, the plate was then cleared of ink and prepared once again.” They also required custom made paper, since ordinary paper would not be sensitive enough to pick up the ink. Here is another image, with better
nuances of black. I’ve even come to like the color of these pieces.
Readers of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of the work of Frank Stella. It seems I’m in a minority. I was talking to a friend who calls him the Leroy Neiman of contemporary art, and says that no one he knows has any interest in Stella. At the same time he was rhapsodizing about the early Black Paintings. It may be true that it’s hard to find a group of leaders in the art world today that take Stella seriously. Well…they’re wrong. Critical resistance may be a sign of quality in art, though that’s a hard case to make nowadays, when everything is allowed. But our cultural establishment is not as liberal as it thinks it is—real creativity is likely still hard for most viewers to recognize, or tolerate.
I’ve also been reading Gerhard Richter Writings: 1961-2007, which is mostly conversations with various sorts of journalists, and it has some very interesting things. There is mention of his incredible prices, and I think his modesty is genuine. He certainly believes that art prices are way out of proportion, his own included. About the print
illustrated (an offset lithograph) he says “I understand that someone paid $26000 at auction, and that’s definitely at least $25000 too much.” My friend mentioned above does a little dealing, and he recently sold an edition by Richter (not the one below). Between sealing the deal and collecting the money the market value of that particular piece
went up by $20,000. From an interview with Der Spiegel: “When you hear about these record sums, it’s flattering, of course, but at the same time it’s shocking…In fact, when I’m in a bad mood, I see this kind of success as a sign that something has gone askew in the world—that the buyers know nothing about art, and that somehow I conned them. And they do indeed tend to pay too much for art. There is a huge discrepancy between the true value and relevance of art and the insane prices people are paying for it…There are buyers who bid by telephone for a work of art they’ve never actually seen. That’s not art appreciation, it’s neglect. And it’s a factor that contributes to diminishing culture.” True, but the conclusion is wrong. Over the long term there may be a link between intrinsic value and price, but in today’s market there is no cultural or aesthetic significance to art prices. They are not symptoms of anything, but merely rise and fall as do other assets. There’s no doubt that art prices are a bubble, and there is a bubble in Gerhard Richter in particular. All bubbles deflate eventually—when no more new buyers enter the market, prices have to go down. That’s why the art world now depends heavily on new collectors from Brazil, Russia, China and India, the so-called BRIC economies, but that resource is also finite. And when a bubble goes down, it happens fast. Consider all the people who bought Apple at $700 a share only six months ago.
Of course when the market corrects is the time to buy, and if I was able I would buy Stella. Even today one can get a nice Stella print for $5000, or less, and in terms of real value over time, those are better investments than Richter paintings at several millions.
The comparison of print and painting is valid because the nature of painting has changed. The unique work has done itself in, not least because of Richter, one of the inventors of the edition of unique works, as mentioned before on this blog. In any case, at the end of one’s life there is either an accomplishment to show for all that time or not, and the beautiful, the genial, the inspiring Moby Dick series is a major achievement, and draws everything else that Stella has done up with it.
I’ve been enjoying Stella’s prints, and discovering one series after another. Usually each new one is a challenge. I have the catalogue raisonné of the prints up to 1982, and look at it with pleasure every day. And the prints after 1982 are even better. There seems to be a widespread prejudice among painters against Stella’s relief paintings, or say among certain painters—moldy figs and young fogeys. Elizabeth Murray is an artist I respect, and she’s been mentioned on this blog more than once, but how does one account for a remark like this (from an interview with Robert Storr)? “…of course I was completely aware of Stella’s work…I am not sure what my relationship to Stella’s work was, he is so big and macho and I think he’s an incredible artist, but I just never thought he was a painter…” Perhaps bigotry is the right word. But if one really craves traditional two dimensional paintings, Stella’s efforts in that direction are his prints, and that idea of course entails a different
conception of painting, probably still unacceptable to “painters.” And in later works of the Kleist series, printing methods and ideas, such as templates, repetition of images in different colors, inverted or reversed etc., were used in unique painted images.
“Ideas make us think; we think ideas. They are what are urgent in our minds—contrary to the mindset of colleges and universities which are proudest claiming that they teach how to do it, how to think, how to write, how to read and end up leaving the students cold, in debt, stupidified and hating what they’ve done in those years in classrooms, being prepared mostly for bad jobs—and unable even to follow the news in something more than a tabloid.”
Couldn’t express better the emptiness of the claim so frequently made in education that the content of one’s thought or writing doesn’t matter, that there is only a skill to be taught. This is connected with the way that art in the university is emptied out by bureaucracy. All institutions are agnostic with respect to art—all languages, styles, positions, stances and manners have to be treated equally, which spreads the illusion that they actually are all equal, and hence equally pointless. The educative power of art itself, as described in an earlier post, is utterly negated in favor of bureaucratic forms. This has some relevance to abstraction, because there is a fine distinction to be made between the ideas that art has, and those that possess it.
This blog has occasionally commented on current affairs, particularly as to the role of technology in the economy. I think this is relevant to art, not least because the most overused word today (or one of them) is creativity. What used to be the special role of artists has become the necessary possession of every business. Apparently. I intend to say much more about this because it’s important for abstraction as non-conceptual practice, but right now I want to offer some perspective on our current techno-ideology.
The assumption that artificial intelligence is possible is based on one fallacy and one very sinister misconception. First of all is the fallacious assumption that every complex mental task—writing a symphony, judging whether someone is lying or not, scoring a goal in hockey, learning a language, playing the piano—can be broken down into a series of simpler ones. Many actions can, but not all. In some, such as playing a musical instrument, many lesser tasks are repeatedly practiced and built together into a new holistic accomplishment that can’t be retrospectively broken down. Secondly, and more importantly, the definition of intelligence used by AI researchers is completely functional. If one can’t tell if a given action was performed by a machine or a person, then the distinction is lost. This idea is the contribution of Alan Turing. The problem is that all measures of the adequacy of AI are based on finished accomplishments, on the past, and leaves the human capacity to find the new or the as yet unforeseeable out of consideration. This ability to recognize the new could be called learning, and AI researchers are very concerned to make a machine that can learn. Yet artificial intelligence will arrive one day and pass the Turing test, because our human capacity to learn, our adaptability, which far exceeds that of the computer, has allowed us to adapt to it. We are reducing our own capacities to meet the machine on its level—because learning is above all social, and our society, and economy, have adopted the computer. Jaron Lanier has made important observations about this, from the inside.
Again Emerson provides a vivid perspective on contemporary America:
“All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished. They are punished by fear…..Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions. One thing he teaches, that there is rottenness where he appears….Our property is timid, our laws are timid, our cultivated classes are timid. Fear for ages has boded and mowed and gibbered over government and property. That obscene bird is not there for nothing. He indicates great wrongs which must be revised.”
As Harold Bloom has pointed out, Emerson is the ancestor of all American motivational speakers and aspirational gurus. Tony Robbins and his ilk are Emerson’s progeny, and if self-reliance has become an ideology then it has to be reinvented, or understood differently. In any case, I detect a core of truth in Emerson. For example, apply this to an American economy that has shipped manufacturing overseas: “The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power; but they who do not the thing have not the power.” The comparison will appear valid if we first apply these remarks to art. They forecast a sad end to global conceptualism, but we know that conceptualism will survive precisely because it is global—Indian and Chinese curators, designers and exhibition makers are as effective as any in the west. So in the larger economy an America that tries to specialize in finance, management, design, marketing and software, all activities peripheral to or dependent on manufacturing, will soon be powerless, because everyone else can do those things as well, if not better. The wealth, and the power derived from wealth, will accrue to those who make. Then round the thought back to its origin and observe that the dream of prosperity through positive thinking is an hysterical reaction to the real failure of an economy that has outsourced its productive capacity. Emerson is right, but the uses made of him are not.
Another quote from the memoirs of Tapies strikes a chord. He talks about his first show in New York: “The shock I felt in that world was fabulous. Despite all I could have known or imagined about the American people before my visit, the sensation of being inside a gigantic organism, with a brutal, unstoppable developmental force, was overwhelming. I immediately lost the European idea that each one of us, as an individual, is important. Even in the world of artists, which ought to be a bulwark of individuality, I had the sensation of being one more cog in the machine.” Granted, Tapies came from the very backward Spain of the 1950s, but then that’s what enabled his insight, still valid.
Lately I’m a devoted listener of Schubert’s piano sonatas. A great model for abstraction. Intricate and intellectually formed throughout but non-conceptual, complex and multi-layered but accessible entirely through feeling, light and full of invented forms. If one could make paintings like that! But one can. I used to listen to classical music when I was young but always felt I was missing something—couldn’t focus as well as I liked. Now it’s crystalline. The only pop musician I have time for anymore is my pal Rodney Graham.
“Still, all balanced against all, the works to which I refer make demands of those who would appreciate them. The metaphors sometimes span two or three abstractions; the perorations are directed to unknown agencies, the language is archaic and ambiguous….In spite of all, the works exhale a peculiar fervor.” (Jack Vance)
Recently I published a little squib on the British web site Abstract Critical, and Peter Stott, who has contributed to this blog, offered the following comment:
“The one thing that can be said about abstract art is that it is an accurate representation of as-yet unidentified object/s…Nobody knows what ‘abstract’ art signifies because one doesn’t know what the represented objects are, to say that it represents anything ‘abstract’ is speculation, to ascribe any meaning to it, is purely an arbitrary agreement between people…”
That’s the attitude I like. Optimistic.
Many of my works are figures, and many are landscapes. Since the overall rubric is “Islands,” I guess they are really all figures in a landscape. The figure might be found in the negative space or ocean, so figure and landscape are merged in a particular way.
I’m sure most people are familiar with the pastels of Degas, in which he turned nudes into landscapes. I always hated them, the most banal and flaccid of ideas, and the easiest to realize. But now that’s exactly what I’m interested in. My poor opinion of the Degas works hasn’t changed, but they are a great example of the possibilities to be found in bad ideas. It’s a literary idea, à la Finnegan’s Wake, or Olson’s Maximus, itself derivative of Joyce, but it becomes a good one when it is formally strong, when a single gesture can produce figure and landscape as one.
Been reading the catalog of a 1979 show at the Guggenheim Museum called The Planar Dimension. The essay by Margit Rowell can only be described as lucid and enlightening. Her discussion of Picasso’s constructions is brilliant, and the essay in its entirety is essential for anyone interested in the problems of relief painting. The concluding sentence of the essay summarizes the important idea of the entire show and catalog: “It is worth considering that the assertion of open space which characterizes much twentieth century art came about through the extension of two-dimensional surfaces, or a pictorial spatial concept, into actual space.” That pretty well summarizes something that a lot of painters find difficult to accept, namely that painting is not restricted to colored pigment pushed over a surface. Stella evidently learned a lot from this show, visible in his work. Some of the artists included, such as László Peri, Antoine Pevsner and Vilhelm Lundstrøm, are clearly precursors, and it is surprising and illuminating to put them in relation to Stella, since they are generally not names to conjure by. Peri made reliefs in cast concrete,
of which these are two examples. They mix illusionism with cut out shapes and
impressions into the concrete, a kind of relief. They are also polychrome. Lundstrøm’s work resembles nothing so much as Stella’s Cones and Pillars in the way it mixes tactile paint with metal forms, the more interesting the comparison in that it is so clearly unresolved, experimental, small and has suffered over time.
But it’s the comparison with Pevsner that gives me a shock. Pevsner and Gabo represent a position that seems definitively obsolete today. I remember years ago hearing Jeff Wall ridicule Gabo, who he described as MORMA—middle of the road modern art. This piece by Pevsner is called Bust, so the two large circles might be breasts, but if it is reversed, a
mistake that often happens, it looks very clearly like a face or head. Materials like celluloid
and painted metal are right in Stella’s ballpark, as are the circular holes, but the figurative aspect is truly uncanny. There’s more to learn from Rowell’s catalog, which I will revisit.
Despite my not so high opinion of the memoirs of Tapies, I continue to find interesting bits. This is his description of an early experimental phase of his work: “I was searching for images without knowing whether they were amorphous or precise, full or empty, whether they came from where bodies began or where space ended…It flowed in an almost infinite organic growth as I tried to make curved and imprecise forms to seek the most intimate and secret movements of nature.” His work has strong affinities with that of Fontana, but this comment surprises me. It makes sense that less strongly articulated forms could be an attempt to get closer to origins in nature, but I never thought of it that way. My own position has been more aesthetic, less concerned with purposes, and that might explain my interest in Fontana. Curved and imprecise forms—the pour is an origin too.
Been reading the memoirs of Antoni Tapies. I find them bland and a little disappointing for an artist of his stature, but here is one interesting observation: “A moment of lucidity will also free the artists from many hours of effort. I do not meant to say that efforts are useless, much less do I regret any of mine. What I am trying to say is that they are not necessarily unavoidable.” I agree completely. Why not just do it right the first time? Of course the capacity for that depends on preparation over years. He goes on: “We western artists fight with our work, and surely to excess.” I’m sure this is not usually the case with conceptualism, but it may be with painting. The art and science of improvisation is not well understood. I learned a lot about it very early on from jazz musicians—repetition is both the key to success and the cause of failure. Here’s two of his prints. They each have a frame within the frame, a device that I’ve admired in Stella. The square in the second one is made by ripping a hole in the paper. Good one.
I saw a large show of his prints at the Tapies Foundation in Barcelona in 2003, and immediately recognized his interest in Zen, also discussed on this blog. I’m sure it’s no secret, but the memoir confirms that he made a pretty serious study of eastern religions, including and especially Zen. More important to me is that the work makes it evident, for better and worse. These prints are not so obviously influenced by the east, but, nevertheless, it’s better to draw on western traditions of improvisation—the Zen ethic confuses natural energy flows with religious ambitions.
“Among the beds without flowers and the chipped cupids, the gnawing of actuality seemed for the moment silenced. In this place which had been left without meaning it seemed easier to feel meaning where there was perhaps none.”
Kitaj quotes the following, from a letter of Arthur Miller to Saul Bellow:
“From time to time there will be a visitor who is very dear to me, but who is unfortunately recognized by approximately a hundred million people, give or take three or four. She has all sorts of wigs, can affect a limp, sunglasses, bulky coats, etc., but if it is possible I want to find a place, perhaps a bungalow or something like, where there are not likely to be crowds looking in through windows. Do you know of any such place?”
Hilarious. Kitaj then talks about intermarriage as a metaphor for his kind of art, but one could swerve in another direction and see this visitor as a personification of painting, beloved of many but choosing who she wills. At this point I could post an obvious piece by Warhol, today known by more people than its original, but I would rather include this:
I love Galdone’s characterization of this girl—just right for someone who spilled things, broke them, messed them up, then ended up in someone else’s bed but fell asleep. I also love eroticism in art, but painting is not necessarily always available for the artist’s pleasure and satisfaction; this has something to do with obstacles. What happened to Goldilocks after her adventure in the bears’ house? Nobody knows, but it would make a great story.
Kitaj quotes Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk: “Dare to use your own will!”
There was no painter more willful than Matisse, a strange characterization of the artist of harmonious serenity, but accurate. The Bathers in Chicago, Decorative Figure On An Ornamental Ground, The Piano Lesson—all very willful efforts. This stands opposed to my own idea that the picture should be allowed to grow into its own form, but there is a place where will and Negative Capability join, and that’s where I’m heading these days.
One of my favorite contemporaries is Alexis Harding, an old friend. I think he uses gravity in a very good way, with a lot of intervention on the way down. He pours a grid of commercial enamel over artist’s oils, and when the piece is vertical the grid slides down
the surface and breaks up. But it’s not a concept. He controls how much time to give it, how fast it goes, and when the piece is drying horizontal on the floor he pokes at the paint, moves it around a bit, and generally guides it toward completion, a state never fully reached. What I especially like is the clear pattern or shape that remains. Recently his grids have become a less dominant feature, and I think the work has really moved up a notch or two. This one has an eroticism that recalls both Fontana and Burri.
His tondos are really beautiful, and he understands that the format calls for an asymmetrical arrangement. There’s a lot more to say about his work, which is becoming stronger all the time. It flows, and it has an element of improvisation.
Recently came across a 1991 interview with Stella. His comments on pieces made with poured metal confirm everything I said in an earlier post:
“For the most part yes: they are improvised…They are worked over but the process of working is improvisation…One thing I think about the process of getting older is that you become less patient…I just wanted to do it and I want now to get it over with. I think this is a more natural way for working when you are older and more experienced.”
Actually, improvisation is a good method at any age, and a great way to get the necessary experience. Whatever you intend to do—why not do it now?
for its negative areas, the way that they flow together and make chains of shapes. It departs from the architectural grid very nicely. Also attractive is that many of the edges are not straight. Neither of these features are unusual for Apfelbaum, but in this case the fact that she apparently started out with rectangles of fabric, and that their presence is still felt, makes a very interesting piece. Grounds and figures are active together—the fabric pieces can also read as ground, and that makes the negatives pop out. And the photo suggests some spatial effects as well—some of the planes seem to fold. Worth pondering. The short book length conversation with Apfelbaum will likely be ready the first week of April.
Following Kitaj I’ve been dipping into Hasidism. Parallels between mysticism and art are too easy, and without much practical use, but insights can always help—if one is ready for them. Here is a hopeful observation from Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk: “Why does God demand sacrifice of man and not of the angels?…what God desires is not the deed but the preparation. The holy angels cannot prepare themselves; they can only do the deed. Preparation is the task of man who is caught in the thicket of tremendous obstacles and must free himself. This is the advantage of the works of man.” Tremendous obstacles sounds about right when considering art, though it’s encouraging to think that the struggle is what matters. But this is also a refutation of Heschel’s denigration of objects. Meanwhile, the biggest obstacles are also the most petty, day to day problems.
Emerson has something to say about the appreciation of pictures:
“So with pictures; each will bear an emphasis of attention once, which it cannot retain, though we fain would continue to be pleased in that manner. How strongly I have felt of pictures that when you have seen one well, you must take your leave of it; you shall never see it again. I have had good lessons from pictures which I have since seen without emotion or remark.”
I know what he’s talking about, so it’s really a wonder that some works can give repeated pleasure. The reason is that it’s not the same picture the second or successive times. One has to have the capacity to be surprised—a certain plasticity or weakness of character might be required. But inveterate museum goers also have to allow for the intermittence of feelings—they are not available on demand. The great weakness of Michael Fried’s criticism is his obsessive harping on the stability and permanence of the aesthetic experiences given by the artists he most admires. Meanwhile, Emerson’s boredom with the genius of others arises from his overriding interest in his own, an admirable trait.
Been reading Emerson. He confirms something mentioned more than once on this blog:
“Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive. Man lives by pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers but by fits.”
The kind of art best able to register this intermittency has a flow, a movement, hence a forgetting. The worst is the kind that realizes a pre-existing concept.