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?

This entry was posted in American Modernism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *