Realist Masquerade

When the post about Ian Wallace’s Poverty went up on Facebook, there were comments from Ydessa Hendeles. She is a very interesting artist and has been an important figure in Toronto for many years. She remembers when the Poverty series was first shown there, and recounts that there were criticisms of the content. I know well the moralism of the Canadian art scene, which leads to all kinds of prohibitions. The most commonly heard attitude is that Wallace has no right to represent the experiences of others, the more so that his picture shows his friends acting the roles of derelicts or homeless people—supposedly he is belittling the lives of the poor. Actually, the reception of Wallace’s work, in Canada at least, has never gone beyond the art world, so the criticism itself is in bad faith, but it also distracts from the many interesting features of the work, which do have some relevance to abstraction.

As pointed out by Hendeles, the entire work has a formal, or formalist, level on which the content of the image doesn’t really matter. But looking closer, the image does matter, as does its referent, namely poverty itself. Suffice to go back to Baudelaire, who said that there were two kinds of aristocrats—those with inherited property and family name, and aristocrats of the spirit, namely artists, who might actually be broke but have a social superiority anyway. An artist can take any role, and usually whatever role they take is in the nature of a sales pitch or appeal for support, a performance. Baudelaire’s claim to an aristocracy more legitimate than the “real” one is partly performance for the benefit of the aristocratic patron, partly a compensation for the shame of his real poverty, but it also belongs to a time in which aristocratic identities were crumbling. No social identity or role is stable anymore, but in the early days of that modern condition artists took the freedom to masquerade as they chose, along with con artists, frauds and sharpies of all kinds. A noble legacy, and one to be proud of (or some might say it was until the Trump victory). But since this is art, we have to recognize that social masquerade has a tradition, going back to Watteau at least, and I would say even to the mythologies of Titian and Veronese.

Antoine Watteau, Les Champs Elysées 1717

Wallace’s kind of abstraction, with its monochrome rectangles, is the idealist branch that goes through Mondrian. I’m more interested in the realist branch of abstraction, but that might draw a blank with most people, since it’s only been traced by me. The point is that poverty is real, but the poverty that matters is that of the artist, which is not only a lack of money. The artist sees him or herself in the poor, but poverty is also allegorical—a poverty of imagination, of artistic means and possibilities, of sensibility, of a totally impoverished even though wealthy culture. Reality is revealed in the masquerade of poverty, and the masquerade is the art that keeps culture alive. This post has gone on long enough, but I think it proves that we should not have too narrow a concept of abstraction.

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Abstraction from Life

This blog is about abstract art, and I think it offers some interesting and novel ideas. It also has some unconventional ideas, and makes no apology for that. The recent post on Ian Wallace’s work is, for me, a bit of filler. I love the work and the ideas it gives me, but it’s not in the main line of what I’m doing. In fact, when I got into abstraction, so many years ago, I saw it as a break away from the Vancouver context—a healthy thing for me. So I’m not exactly happy that the post provoked comment, since there are better things to talk about, namely any other post. But now I can see that Ian’s work could be a good example of a point I make in the book. According to the artist the works in the Poverty series, and everything he’s done since, stage an irreconcilable opposition between the ideals of modernism—represented by the monochrome—and social content—represented by the documentary photograph. These are two kinds of artistic practice, with two different politics, and Wallace saw both as valid at the time. The important point is that the concept is completely formalist. The particulars of the photo don’t matter so much, it just has to stand for a certain kind of documentary; the precise color and form of the monochrome area is not so important, it just has to stand for a certain possibility in art. This is an “abstract” attitude; the contingent details of life are not eliminated, but they’re minimized and subordinated to an overall abstract concept. So today (and Wallace is not the only example) abstract art might include imagery and even photography. That pushes us toward a new definition of abstraction.

Ian Wallace, from Poverty, 1987

However, in Wallace’s work the particular photos do matter and that’s where the fun begins. For another post.

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An Opportunity, or A Christmas Message

Stella teaches something every artist should know, or does know but normally forgets—that art is not a problem, it’s an opportunity, an invitation, a promise. What it is for society I have no idea, but that’s what it is for me—an invitation to realize the great possibilities that are there. The much derided formalism is all about that, and that’s why it’s still valid. There’s no reason to single out any particular artist as the best, but true greatness is simply openness to the potentials, which are as objectively variable as they are objective. Nor does the work have to be absolutely new or unprecedented, just moving with life. I wish I had more material abundance in my life, but creative abundance is what keeps me alive, and that abundance is always available—it just takes an artist to manifest it.

Frank Stella, Merry Christmas (S—5, 3X 2D version) 1987

Today it seems like everything is going crazy in the world—conflicts are spiraling ever faster, anger is rising, panic and despair are setting in, lies and conscious deception feed ignorance and blind delusion—it really is a new period we will have to call the age of Trump. It’s so important to keep focused on art as the realm of possibility. And in that way a source of joy.

Robert Linsley, Sphere #8 2013

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolour 2013

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Aristocrat of the Spirit

You have to know that you are right. But if no one else agrees then you’re a poor sap anyway. Indifference to shame helps. The shame of poverty, for example. Baudelaire turned poverty into “poverty.” Shamelessness fosters conviction.

biography-of-charles-baudelaire

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Wallace’s Poverty

Ian Wallace’s Poverty is a fiction. Can someone who is really poor take an interest in that? You’d have to be indifferent to wealth to begin with to appreciate both rich and poor as roles, to take them as art. For that, an upbringing in the middle class or higher is probably necessary.

Ian Wallace, Poverty (one panel) 1980 – ongoing

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Arbitrary Beginnings, Well Known Ends

Further on in the Richter film, starting at 54 minutes, there’s a conversation between the artist and Benjamin Buchloh. They hit on all the points I make in the book, and the conclusion is as I described it. Richter knows he’s finished a work when he feels it’s “right,” and what feels right has been pre-determined long ago. This is what I cannot abide, and why I find Richter’s work so disappointing. And moral alibis for the destruction of all those possibilities by the squeegee is just mannerism; call it critical mannerism or empty talk that always takes a negative position in order to affirm the status quo.

The finishing wipe, from Gerhard Richter, Painting, a 2011 film by Corinna Belz

The finishing wipe, from Gerhard Richter, Painting, a 2011 film by Corinna Belz

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Decisions, Maybe Bad Ones

This video of Gerhard Richter in his studio shows him painting a couple of largish abstracts, with three big pots of paint—yellow, red and blue—and a wide brush. The sequence in question is from 12-23 minutes. It’s a pleasure to watch someone with so many years of experience and accumulated skill swing a brush, and he has a great method—just straight forward wet into wet, building structures, dragging the paint or lifting the brush as he feels his way. At the end he admits he’s been enjoying himself, and it shows.

Unfortunately. at the moment one can only see a trailer

Since I watched the film it’s been taken off Youtube and now I think one has to pay to view. Here are a couple of links to the film for those who want to follow up.
https://www.fandor.com/films/gerhard_richter_painting

He says he should “find a way to make them just as fast, just as fancy free, but would leave them finished too. And good.” But wait a minute—of course that’s the right goal, but lots of artists have reached it. Picasso managed to turn out several thousand improvisations that stand as perfectly finished and resolved works. For that matter, there’s plenty of “fancy free” in Poussin, of all people, in the skies and landscapes. My Island paintings manage the same thing. Richter says, “it’s so much fun and they look good—for two hours.” Okay, so they’re not finished, first effort doesn’t get the result—de Kooning knew what to do about that, and Richter’s pictures look a lot like early stage de Koonings. But Richter’s idea of “finish” is to obliterate them with his squeegee and make an all-over single thing, with no incident, no form, no decisions showing. That last move, the same move every time, happens at 39 minutes to about 47. I talk about his method in my book, but just for now, it seems as if Richter has a day job, in his case making decorative abstractions for millionaire’s apartments, so he can buy time to paint for the pleasure of it—just like many of us. But he doesn’t keep the paintings he makes for pleasure. Sounds kind of avant-garde.

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Illusions of Identity

A couple of months ago I read about the American writer Lionel Shriver and the scandal she caused at a writer’s festival in Brisbane. At the time I was sympathetic but passed on. Recently a follow up article showed that the whole imbroglio is more interesting and more important than it seemed at the time. Or maybe the times have changed. Some people think that the Trump victory has emboldened critics of “political correctness,” assuming that such critics are reactionary to begin with. I think it’s rather that the Trump victory has exposed the utter failure of neo-liberalism, and so of identity politics as well. Looking back I can’t believe that I didn’t single out these comments from Shriver: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” That’s pretty strong, and also rings true. But then what is an “identity” anyway? The definition of the word means a “sameness.” If two things are identical they are the same. In the way that many use the term, it means group solidarity or group identity, that each member is at one with the group. The sense that Shriver seems to give it—meaning what it should or really does mean for her—is really “self-identity.” That may be confusing at first, but the “self-identical” is what is whole, integrated, unified and autonomous. Apply that to a person and it means that all of the parts of that person belong entirely to him or herself, that they are a complete self-directed individual. Personally, when I admit how permeable and porous I am, how the outside world pours through me all the time, and how much that flood fills my mind and influences what I do, I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be fully autonomous. Autonomy is an ideal, but it’s an ideal worth striving for, because only autonomous individuals can have relationships with others. A relationship between autonomous individuals is the definition of democracy. It’s also the western concept of marriage. So there it is, politics and sexual politics all at once, both dependent on an ideal type that may not completely exist in any particular example. But I share Shriver’s impatience with the followers of identity politics, because they lack the strength, or courage, or whatever it takes, to try for autonomy. They want to surrender to an external authority. 

Doug Cranmer, Untitled painting (abstraction) 1982

As an artist I can’t come up with a theoretical position on any of this, and why should I? I just want my work to be “non-identical,” meaning completely other from myself. And that usually means it will entail some conflict with community, family, the art world, any group that demands allegiance. In my book there is a chapter on this, about Doug Cranmer, an aboriginal abstractionist.

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Colour in Sculpture

Stella’s Town-Ho’s Story is made of cast and poured aluminum, steel, and some ready-made bits and pieces. It’s not all scrap, in fact mostly fabricated. However, the colour of the piece leans heavily on the untreated color of the different kinds of metal. There is some spray paint here and there, on the mesh or lattice pieces, but the only applied colour, meaning brushed on like most of the Moby Dick series, is tucked away inside folded or bent pieces. It’s as if it’s been deliberately hidden. You have to look for it, and so it’s like the piece as a whole—unity and conscious arrangement are certainly there, but it’s up to you to see them. That’s how abstraction in our time has to work.

this wave/whale shape looks like it's been rolled around to put the painted side inside

this wave/whale shape looks like it’s been rolled around to put the painted side inside

Just to add another layer of appreciation, Stella’s sculpture owes a lot to John Chamberlain’s painterly efforts, including this very treatment of colour.

John Chamberlain, Untitled 2009

John Chamberlain, Untitled 2009

John Chamberlain

another, older John Chamberlain

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Stories in Stories

Stella’s large sculpture, The Town-Ho’s Story, is, among other things, a collection of smaller pieces. I’ve mentioned this before, but as I suggested in the previous post, parts of the main body of the work could also be seen separately, like characters in a story. The notion of an abstract work as populated by interacting parts rather than as a single integrated thing is pretty interesting, as it opens abstraction to art history—meaning the painted drama and painted narratives of the past. Stella’s method is collage, and his sculpture is similar to his prints in that respect. And since this is abstraction, the implied narrative is built out of a dialogue with other works, such as the prints for example. The wire mesh wrapped around the upper regions of The Town-Ho’s Story resembles the computer generated schematics of Stella’s smoke ring photos, used in many of his prints and paintings. Lightness and airiness are again the keywords.

side view of "The Town-Ho's Story" showing the Chinese lattice and wave/whale grouping that could be detached as a separate Moby-Dick piece and the wire mesh at the top

side view of The Town-Ho’s Story showing the Chinese lattice and wave/whale grouping that could be detached as a separate Moby-Dick piece and the wire mesh at the top

Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch 1993

Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch 1993

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A Story

In Moby-Dick the chapter is called “The Town-Ho’s Story,” and the story is of an encounter with the white whale. In Stella’s piece the ship is heeling over, and from the side it looks like it’s taken a hit. Jammed into the honeycomb aluminum side is what looks like a normal Moby Dick work, composed of the usual Chinese lattice and a bent and folded wave/whale shapeThis configuration seems to push through the 

Side view of "The Town-Ho's Story"

Side view of “The Town-Ho’s Story”

wall, bulging into the “hold” of the ship and compressing the contents. Stella’s sculpture is violently dramatic—nothing static about this pile of metal.

a whale(?) pushing through the honeycomb wall of the ship

a whale(?) pushing through the honeycomb wall of the ship

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A Heap of Scrap Metal

On a train passing a scrap yard the piles of twisted shiny metal pieces remind me of Stella’s sculpture in Chicago. You might call the pile a piece of abstract art, in the “all over” mode, but Stella’s work is to organize the pile and make something more like an old master composition than a normal piece of contemporary abstraction. There’s more to say about that. I saw the piece, from the Moby Dick series, a few months ago. I’ve mentioned it on this blog but never had a chance to find out what it’s really like. Spent two hours, and it got better all the time. You could say that Stella is an artist who moves from high point to high point—there are a lot of high points and this is one of them.

Frank Stella,The Town-Ho's Story 1993

Frank Stella,The Town-Ho’s Story 1993

This front view shows the strong figurative aspect of Stella’s abstractions—you can see the ship heeling over to the left. The photo is a good one, but it doesn’t convey how the height of the thing works in a closed space—in person you can’t get a complete view of the upper layers, so there is the impression of a towering mass, and it’s possible to feel that piled on top are sails and clouds—light and airy things rendered in metal.

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The Day Is Long

More from the mind of Bertie Wooster:

“If there’s one thing I like it’s a quiet life. I’m not one of those fellows who get all restless and depressed if things aren’t happening to them all the time. You can’t make it too placid for me. Give me regular meals, a good show with decent music every now and then, and one or two pals to totter round with, and I ask no more.”

“It was one of those things that want doing quickly or not at all. I shut my eyes and pushed. Something seemed to give. There was a scrambling sound, a kind of yelp, a scream in the offing, and a splash. And so the long day wore on, so to speak.”

Robert Linsley, Collage #9, 2nd. state

Robert Linsley, Collage #9, stage 2

This collage hasn’t moved much since the first stop, and I’m getting impatient—not with the collage of course.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3a

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3a

So now it’s moving, but looking much worse.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3b

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3b

Later the same day. Even worse.

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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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