THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGINARY, curated by Vincent Johnson. Nan Rae Gallery. Woodbury University. Los Angeles – INSTALLATION AND OPENING PHOTOS

UPDATED 3/19/2017

Photographs from the opening of
Nine Approaches to Photography Today
Nan Rae Gallery
Woodbury University
Curated by Vincent Johnson

Adrienne DeVine
Buena Johnson
Derrick Maddox
George Porcari
Glen Wilson
Jessica Wimbley
Isabelle Lutterodt
Kathie Foley-Meyer
Salvatore Reda
Toni Scott
Vincent Johnson


This exhibition features an artist who has won a Tiffany in photography and who is publishing a book on the films of Antonioni. It features an artist who is on the short list of the next Shanghai Biennial. This artist has already had one person shows in China. It features artists who are also award winners in Hollywood and the commercial arts. It features painters, photographers, filmmakers and video artists. It features the works of an artist who is also a rising star independent curator. It features an artist born in England who is a photographer and videomaker and who is also an institutional curator in Los Angeles. It features a photographer who studied at Yale. All but one artist in the exhibition has an MFA from a prominent Southern California art school or university. That artist studied in New York. It features six African American women artists. It features an award winning artist and designer based in Portland. It features three Art Center College of Design MFAs. The exhibition catalog and zine are in progress. It will feature something I’ve never seen in Los Angeles, a collection of interviews of artists in the exhibition, almost all of whom are artists of color. The interviews trace each artist’s creative life from their first recollections to the present. It features an artist from Lima, Peru. The exhibition catalog will of course document the exhibition, but it will also contain an essay on Photography and Time and a piece on how certain animals and birds perception of time is different than humans. The zine will contain the responses to the artist questionnaire. This too is something I’ve never seen in a publication of Los Angeles artists. It’s something that happened often in Europe and was used by curators in New York as a tool to help understand the artist’s work and unnveiled the philosophical positions on how they see their art. The exhibition will have a selection of additional works in an online only show. Up the road I plan on doing more interviews and inviting more artists to answer the questionnaire on photography and a new one I’m developing for art. The opening was well attended and included dealers, collectors and art writers amidst the many art lovers who spent last Sunday afternoon seeing so much new and great photo-based work. The show looks really great. Everyone who wants to see what an older generation of sharp, gifted and talented Los Angeles Artists is up to should come check out this amazing show. Thanks. Vincent Johnson.

Kathie Foley- Meyer 25. Citizen\Soldier. 2017 Mixed media installation, vellum photos printed on acrylic, electrical components,particle hah d board, video. 95” x 73.5”

Isabelle Lutterodt 19. Meditation on Stillness. 2017 Video.

George Porcari 26. Softinstant 9 Transit Exit. 2017 Archival digital print (red car on bottom). 38” x 32” 27. Softinstant 6 (painting for tourist). 2017 Archival digital print (red cones on top). 38” x 32”

Buena Johnson 20. Rain Carnivale’. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20” 21. “Ride On” by BUENA. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20” 22. Downtown Shuffle. 2016 Photograph on Metal 16” x 20” 23. Neon Symphony. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20” 24. Eighth Note. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20”

Salvatore Reda m. 1.The Ship. 2017 Wood, color inkjet prints, metal hardware. 38” x 20”

Glen Wilson 18. Mpanjono, Ambina sy Bahary (Morondava) version 1. 1997-2017 Archival Ink-Jet Prints (on Hahnemuhle), mounted on sintra 69” x 53”

Toni Scott 9. Scream One. 2017 Mixed Media 48” x 72” 10. Scream Two. 2017 Mixed Media 48” x 72”

Derrick Maddox n, 2. for whom the son sets free. 2017 Large handmade paper sheet with composite image photo of my neighborhood torn it bbsections and embedded within the paper itself, smaller handmade paper sheets, acrylic bbpaint, house paint, oil stick, sharpie, latex glove, photo clipping, from 1950’s to 1960’s bboriginal (Life and Time) magazine articles on black life in America. bb bb18.5” x 33.5” x .25” 3. Stuc. 2017 Mixed media collage, digital composite transfer on found cardboard, oil stick, acrylic paint, nbdirt. b30” x 27” 4. Aaah! S.W.I.L.A. (Some Where In Los Angeles). 2017 Mixed media photo sculpture, a photo of random stain on sidewalk, photo transferred on hhMDF, Oil stick, acrylic paint, plastic baby foot, found object (toy flag), mounted on “The nbPerfect Pineapple” fruit box found in my neighborhood, filled with bread slicked. b b15.375” x 13.25” x 9” 5. Oh Say (that you can sang). 2017 Mixed media photo sculpture, photo, found object, acrylic paint, original floor jack from my 1968 Ranchero. 40” x 24.5”

Adrienne Devine
14. Hello. 2014 C Print.
24” x 16”
15. Mokeying Around. 2013
C Print.
36” x 24”
16. Progeny. 2013
C Print. NFS
16” x 24”
17. Isaiah59:17. 2014
C Print. 18” x 24”

Vincent Johnson 6. Soviet Space. 2017 Archival digital photographic print in black frame. 43” x 23” 7. Mexican Los Angeles (Dream). 2017 Archival digital photographic print in white frame. 44” x 34” 8. Korean Los Angele(Dream).2017 Archival digital photographic print in white frame. 44” x 34”

Exhibiting Artist Kathie Foley-Meyer with her work and Exhibiting Artist Buena Johnson in foreground.

Exhibiting Artist Toni Scott and Exhibiting Artist Adrienne DeVine

Isabelle Lutterodt 19. Meditation on Stillness. 2017 Video.




The title of the exhibition alludes to the question of what is the photographic imaginary today.

The overarching theme of the photographic imaginary is essentially photography in its myriad manifestations from ideas of photography to conception and print.

This exhibition will explore several forms of the photographic imaginary, from the real to the unreal, from the dream to what appears to be unaltered and direct photographic truth.

The exhibited works are photo-based, not strictly only photography. There is both assemblage sculpture and video onboard.

The photographic imaginary is also the conscious state of having taken a photograph with the mind or the camera, but the image not yet being in the world in print.

The exhibition does not need or even ask for work of that speaks to any particular subject, as it is each artist’s individual contemporary vision is the subject of the exhibition as platform for photographic visions.

 The exhibition takes on Matisse‘s remark “Exactitude is not truth” as a challenge.


The exhibition opens March 12, 2017 at the Nan Rae Gallery at Woodbury University and will be available for viewing from March 10, 2017.

There will be a catalog published by Woodbury University, containing essays by George Porcari on Photography and Time, Glen Wilson on How Time is Perceived and Vincent Johnson on The Photographic Imaginary. The catalog will also contain the transcribed artist’s audio interviews and exhibition documentation photography by Glen Wilson and Vincent Johnson. The catalog design and Social Media presence is designed by exhibiting artist Salvatore Reda.

A zine containing the responses to the artist questionnaire will also be published, with the possibility of a distinct one per artist.

A WordPress website will document the exhibition.

Today is March 6, 2017. Installation day.

This page will be updated starting today with documentation of the installation, by the installation crew from Hauser & Wirth gallery, Los Angeles.

Thanks for reading.

Vincent Johnson, curator, THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGINARY


JohnsonRoadProjects Summer 2015 exhibition: The Red, Green and Yellow Show by Los Angeles based artist and writer Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings - Orange Summer

The October Paintings – Orange Summer

The October Paintings - Grey Sea

The October Paintings – Grey Sea

The October Paintings - Red Bottle in Green

The October Paintings – Red Bottle in Green

JohnsonRoadProjects is the new artist run space and curatorial inquiry by Los Angeles based artist and writer Vincent Johnson

Vincent Johnson’s The Red, Green and Yellow Show at Johnson Road Projects in Los Angeles – Summer 2015 exhibition

Art Aragon Golden Boy Bail Bonds
Art Aragon Golden Boy Bail Bonds, color photograph by Vincent Johnson
The Green Bug (2010), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
The Deville
Deville Motel Downtown Los Angeles (2002), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
Southern Gents Private Club (South Central Los Angeles) (2002), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
New York Hostel Kitchen (2003), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
LA artist Vincent Johnson
Miami Beach Public Telephone (2014), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
Figueroa Hotel Parking Sign (2013), color photograph by Vincent Johnson

Welcome to the 2015 summer exhibition of Los Angeles-based artist and writer Vincent Johnson at Johnson Road Projects in Los Angeles. Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Painting and Critical Theory from Art Center College of Design. His work has been exhibited in major institutions in the U.S., Germany, Canada and Portugal. His work have been sold in art fairs in Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Portland. Johnson’s works have been reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Vincent Johnson most recently presented his research on Belgian Congo copal painting media at Theaster Gates Black Artist Retreat [B.A.R] in Chicago. Johnson also recently interviewed artist William Pope L. at his nine part exhibition at MOCA in Los Angeles for FROG magazine.

This thematic exhibition is curated from the artist’s extensive body of works and is based solely upon the presence of the colors red/or green and/or yellow being found in the works. The exhibition includes both photographs and paintings that engage and capture iconic objects found in the American urban landscape. Each work appears to embody one of the three primary colors named in the exhibition’s title. The exhibition provides exposure to the works of these artists across the span of three months; additional works will be added to the exhibition over the duration of the show.

Korea’s post-war abstraction giants: Dansaekhwa

Yesterday at the 2017 LA Art Show was the first time I ever heard an artist distinctly define his aesthetic, philosophical, religious and political artistic principals, motivations and intellectual program that drew sharp, bright, distinct and clear differences between the tenets and desires of Western High Modernist abstraction in Europe and later New York and that of the art of the Korean Post-War artistic group to which he belongs, Korea’s rising artistic circle known as Dansaekhwa. Their works make make no attempt to enter into the Western world art historical canon. Though abstract, they are representations of a completely different set of cultural, historical and material conditions.

Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles





Posted : 2015-08-19 17:02

Updated : 2015-08-19 17:02

Half-truths about ‘Dansaekhwa’


By Kate Lim

“Dansaekhwa,” an abstract movement in contemporary Korean art, is currently enjoying global fame and attention. Tributes to it are coming from all camps of the art world. It is a seminal development that an exhibition featuring seven artists, including Kim Whan-Ki, Kwon Young-Woo and Park Seo-bo, was organized as a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale this year.

Paintings of Dansaekhwa artists are now eagerly collected by museums and art foundations across the globe. Many cosmopolitan art lovers, who hardly knew anything about contemporary Korean art, are also admiring the aesthetic beauty. This global recognition naturally had a huge impact on the commercial value of art works, their prices increasing on average as much as 10 times in the last two years.

Dansaekhwa refers to abstract paintings executed in off-white, black, blue or earth-toned colors often with “hanji,” traditional Korean paper. Artists accomplish this effect using diverse techniques, for example through methodical repetition of strokes, accumulation of layers, or pushing thick oil paint through from the back of the canvas. Embodying rigorous and traditional workmanship, this genre beautifully betrays each artist’s personalized facture, eliciting an abundance of emotions.

Its popularity is a refreshing comeback of paintings in the contemporary art scene that has been dominated by installations and video arts. Compared to other genres, art lovers normally feel more intimate with paintings, of which they recently have been encountering less and less. Moreover, it has its own appeal to global art lovers because it embodies Asian-esque intricacies and a sense of austere tranquility that are not easy to find in most contemporary Western arts. The success can be understood as a welcome outlet of their longing for simple yet rich aesthetic experiences.

Strangely, the current vogue in interpreting the art has had a heavy sociopolitical weight. The current vogue departs from the artists’ pure motivation in creating their works and also departs from those who love art for the creative feelings that art imparts into life. For example, Park Seo-Bo, a protagonist of the Dansaekhwa movement, had been heavily criticized by proponents of “Minjung Art” (literally meaning ‘people’s art’ in Korean, a type of social realism movement in Korea), for creating his abstraction as an “escape” from the authoritarian political reality in the 1970s and the 1980s.

In the Venice Biennale, the sociopolitical perspective made a U-turn: the works of Dansaekhwa artists were suddenly portrayed as an artistic form of political resistance during Korea’s “darkest days.” Lee Young-Woo, the curator of the Dansaekhwa exhibition in Venice, wrote in his curatorial essay, “The cultural suppression caused by military dictatorship…can be seen as a social, historical measurement…to understand the development process. Dansaekwha, including many other art tendencies, were ubiquitous, fragmented and oppositional political strategies, regardless of their sincerity and experimental contexts.” Foreign curators also echoed this new sociopolitical interpretation. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrathasserted in Frieze Magazine said, “By choosing to abandon figuration, Dansaekhwa artists made it more challenging for the Park Chung-hee regime to coerce their work into clearly discernible visuals of political propaganda.”

For Dansaekhwa artists and art lovers, this kind of socio-politico-centric and contradictory interpretations of the same art is dismaying. In a series of personal interviews with the author, Park Seo-bo unambiguously said, “It had nothing to do with political resistance; it had no purpose” (Park Seo-bo: From Avant-Garde to Ecriture, 2013). For Park, it emerged in complete disconnection from any possible sociopolitical interpretation. The artist was simply struck with a pure desire to repeatedly draw rows of curvy lines on a wet coat of gesso. Another artist, Kwon Young-Woo’s breakthrough evolved from an off-chance discovery of the sensorial quality ofhanji. It led him to create a sea of abstract patterns through tearing, ripping, or piercing hanji. The viewers are invited to abstract and find meaning in a deep intimacy formed through the artist’s intensely repetitive and bodily engagement with the material.

It is a dangerous trend in the art world that critics always feel obliged to tightly connect artworks to the sociopolitical context and maintain a deterministic view to prioritize the sociopolitical reality over the formal and material content of the art, and the actual intention of artists. In this milieu, artists and galleries hardly resist this tyranny of critics, fear of angering them, and sometimes they aim to promote artworks by readily accepting the critics’ hegemony, regardless of the full truth of the artworks.

It is definitely a new development worth celebrating that the global art world has finally acknowledged the authentic beauty and art-historical value. It would have been a lot better, however, if it were portrayed by putting them in the broader and consistent context of the global art world, without negating the pure desire of the artists’ creativity.

Kate Lim is director of Art Platform Asia, an independent curator and art writer.


Alida Sayer / INTERVIEWS

Blog by British artist Alida Sayer, documenting her Spring 2015 residency at INTERVIEWS studio and AiR programme / Andong, Republic of Korea / 19th March to 14th June / / 영국미술작가 알리다 세이어 블로그 – 인터뷰스 레지던시에서의 기록 / 안동 / 2015년 3월 19일 – 6월 14일

May 12, 2015 at 1:46am


On Dansaekhwa*

Extract from Tactile ‘seeing’ and Dansaekhwa by Simon Morley, a paper read at the AICA Annual Conference, South Korea, October 2014

By being a-compositional or unitary surfaces, Dansaekhwa works are rendered frontal and all-over, so that they are less an affair of visual perception, and more of tactile ‘seeing.’ By avoiding the division of the surface into figure and ground, Dansaekhwa artists engage the whole field equally. Normally, a surface is divided into fields of attention (‘figure’) and fields of inattention (‘ground’), an organization of the gestalt according to loci of attention and inattention. But these works entail a homogeneity or continuum of surface, and this counters the optical sense’s intimate connection to the cognitive, and draws the works into the realm of the more embodied haptic sense. In Dansaekhwa a painting unfolds within a different cognitive paradigm to the West.  The – to Westerners – unusual uses of the discipline of painting makes it clear that  these artists were aiming to evolve a practice in relation to traditional East Asian art as well as Western modern art.

A pronounced emphasis on physical engagement  – on the studied use of the hand and measured control of the movements of the body in harmony with thought, suggests an alignment with an artisanal activity such as pottery making. This provided a context within which to shift Korean painting away from both the traditions of East Asian ‘literati’ painting and also traditional Western  art’s preoccupation with mimesis while at the same time serving to  parallel  certain aspects of the modernist Western formalism that was becoming increasingly known to Korean artists. They were working from within a consciousness bound closely to a more positive evaluation of the relationship between the synaesthesic body and cognitive processes, and the substrates of Dansaekhwa paintings communicate more subjective, ‘dark’, empathetic and transient cognitive processes grounded in greater awareness of sensory-motor experience –  tactile or haptic qualities derived from the holistic dialecticism central to traditional Korean and East Asian culture. As a consequence,  Dansaekhwa artists devised ways of manipulating materials and employing surfaces that have no real  precedents amongst Western artists, while their practices  intersect with Western art through being played out on a common art world stage which was becoming globally hegemonic during this period.

As the philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue, “human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (1980/2003, p.6) and while these metaphors are fundamentally motivated by sensory-motor experience, the bias is conditioned by recursive cultural norms. In the West the dominant conceptual metaphors regarding the experience and meaning of paintings pertain to vision, while in Dansaekhwa these are supplemented by those pertaining to touch or kneading. This is an art that is more about doing than seeing.

Another way of framing the distinction I have made is suggested by one of the Dansaekhwa artists themselves –  Lee Ufan, The concept of ‘encounter’, for Lee means an interface or dialogue taking place in the animated space between the beholder and the work. Lee writes: “Rather than my work defining me or the other way round, something different grows in the mutual interaction and response and suddenly comes into existence.”(1996, p.120). Such an ‘encounter’ is encouraged by the tactile sense, as it brings the two parties into more intimate contact.

The  art of Dansaekhwa can be regarded as a hybrid that borrows traits of Western modernism and detour them via traditional East Asian – and specifically Korean  – concepts. Within the context of globalised modern art, the specific focus of Dansaekhwa artists on the markedly material, tactile object, and on the performative dimension, can be interpreted as aiming to produce points of resistance from which to both revitalise traditional East Asian conventions and also to deconstruct the Western world-view. Multi-sensory intimacy, conveyed by the notion of a ‘tactile’ relationship to the world, one in which there is greater awareness of the embodied nature of mind, lies at the heart of the traditional East Asian thought upon which Dansaekhwa artists drew.

The emergence of Dansaekhwa in the 1970’s, and in South Korea in particular, suggests a context within which some Korean artists encountered the liberating example of Western modernism and sought to break with their own heritage and to assimilate and emulate Western modernism’s styles. In this sense, Korean monochrome painting is one of the many symptoms, manifested globally according to different time-frames in different countries, that signal the end of indigenous art and culture characterised by harmonious evolution – by repetitions, emulations and incremental departures from the norm – and by a sense of holistic embodiedness. But while Dansaekhwa artists adopted procedures and underlying assumptions from the ‘analytic’ Western tradition –  such as seeing art in terms of artistic autonomy, as highly subjectivized, and as characterized by  overt demonstrations of the freedom of expression –  they also sought  to cleave to key characteristics of the traditional ‘holistic’ Korean culture which were fast disappearing. The raw, earthy quality of Dansaekhwa evokes the experience of an agrarian society in which immersion in nature and tending the land is central. It is here also that we should seek the origins of Bachelard’s ‘cogito of kneading’ – in the awareness of the mind as something embodied in the ‘flesh’ of the physical world.


* Dansaekwha literally means ‘monochrome painting’ in Korean, and the term refers to the style of painting that arose during the second half of the 1970s in South Korea.

Visually, Dansaekhwa ruptures from tradition and the past, becoming a new stylistic tendency in a significant period of time in Korean socio-political history. Superficially, its characteristics seem to point towards an assimilation and emulation of Western modernism, and a ‘liberation’ from the strict traditions of Korea’s artistic heritage. Yet, an analysis and reading of Dansaekhwa according to influence and appropriation from Western models is not accurate, as British art historian Simon Morley writes in his article “Dansaekhwa. Korean Monochrome Painting” (Third Text,Vol. 27, Issue 2, 2013): […] a reading of Dansaekhwa in terms of influence and appropriation from Western models involves superficial stylistic comparisons and the assumption of a single master chronology. It fails to take into account the differentials within the temporality of modernity as it impacted on, and unfolded within East Asia itself and South Korea in particular.

In her book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013), Joan Kee, curator and Professor of Art History at the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor, wrote that the experimental painting that emerged in the early 1960s was both a refusal of the earlier colonial legacy as well as a response to Western modes of abstraction. However, it is important to recognise Dansaekhwa’s uniqueness as distinct from the Western canon of art history. The book is the first in-depth examination of the movement in the English language.

(description sourced from


It’s Not About You: Does Korean Abstract Painting Have Any Relation to Western Art?

Two Dansaekhwa and one post-Dansaekhwa artist talk Confucianism, artistic colonialism and death

Detail on an untitled TK hanging in his studio.

Detail of a painting by Ha Chong-Hyun, from the “Conjunction” series, hanging in his studio. Guelda Voien

In recent years, the Dansaekhwa movement in Korea has been having a moment, to say the least. The abstract painting practice has drawn abrupt appreciation both in its home country and abroad; some of the avant-garde works have grabbed seven-figure bids at auction.

Of course, sometimes distinct cultures, with little direct interaction, come upon the same idea, and even execute it similarly. Like opera—both in the East and the West, this form arose separately.

Similarly, Korean painters independently developed an abstract practice similar to the abstract expressionism that took hold in Post-war U.S., but reflecting a more Confucian approach to the sort of meaninglessness such work is thought to convey, following the Korean war.

With strong emphasis on materiality and in earthy, muted tones, Dansaekhwa painting in many ways resembled the work of Barnett Newman or Agnes Martin in the West, though such comparisons might be impolitic—or unnecessary.

In 2014 an exhibit at Kukje Gallery—Korea’s toniest by far—shed a spotlight on the once-forgotten Dansaekhwa movement, and the art world took notice. A 2015 auction at Christie’s augmented the focus on Dansaekhwa; The New Yorker ran a feature.

But at least some of the Dansaekhwa artists are tired of being compared to Western painters and analyzed by Western standards. They’re seizing the movement’s moment in the sun to talk about Korea, Korean-ness, the post-war era in their home and the future of art and politics (to name just a few minor subjects). Of course, there are also fissures in the perception of Dansaekhwa, undeniably the most-exported fine art from Korea, among Koreans. A later movement, Minjung, or “people’s art,” confronted violence and repression in the 1980s in the country. It receives far less international attention and is surely less marketable internationally, raising some questions about why the most palatable painting has also had the most institutional muscle behind it.

The Observer recently met with three artists in or near Seoul who made at least some of their work in the Dansaekhwa mode. Here’s what they had to say.

Ha Chong-Hyun

Chong-Hyun’s works, in earth tones and grays, for the most part, often feature his distinct process: pushing the paint through the back of the canvas. In his studio in Ilsan, Korea, he welcomed western journalists in August with a strong admonition: don’t compare me to Western painters. (Too late, and we’re sorry.)

The technique, though, may have been one way to make his work distinct when he did not have all the resources other painters did. “Livelihood was difficult,” he said. “Even getting the proper oil paints or canvases,” was often not possible.

He used things he had, such as barbed wire, which was plentiful in post-war Korea. But these items are employed as true materials, not as found objects, to create abstract textures and surfaces.

“Western journalists would always try to pinpoint references,” he said, “which was very difficult for me.” He was not educated in the West and rejects the idea that even the barbed wire is a symbol. “Barbed wire was easy to get,” he said. His works are usually simply about “the action between hemp and oil paint.”

Detail on a Chong-Hyun in his studio.

Detail of one of Chong-Hyun’s pieces from “Conjunction,” in his studio. Guelda Voien

In his eighties, Chong-Hyun has finally achieved a comfortable life. But it was not always the case. For years, when he had to move, schlepping his massive canvases laden with inches of thick oil paint was a huge logistical issue. He endured, though, and “they become more meaningful to me each year.”

Ha Chong-Hyun’s solo show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles goes up November 12. 

Park Seo-bo

Seo-bo’s first solo New York gallery show was earlier this year at Galerie Perrotin; he also turned 84. His textured, disciplined squares are not “conceptual,” he insists, in another rejection of the Western imposition of its vocabulary and ideas on this movement.

In his work space in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood, paintings are stored all around him but there is none of the paint splatters or disorganization one might associate with a typical artist’s studio. Perhaps this relates to his concept of Dansaekhwa painting, which is as a discipline: the end deposit of the Confucian process of self-purification is the painting.

He spoke of “painting as chanting,” and called art “the scum of emptying oneself.” So the West doesn’t have a monopoly on dramatic descriptions by artists of their work, either.

The deep veins in his almost geographical works are the result of a months-long process of soaking and layering paper. Many are in monochrome.

He’s also quick to resist the Western assumptions about what artists’ choices mean. “Monochrome is not the same as in Western art,” he said. “The burning stove creates a black… different from pitch black”; it’s more restrained.

“Ecriture, Black and White” by Park Seo-bo opens at Tina Kim Gallery in New York November 11.

Kim Yong-Ik

Yong-Ik, younger than the core Dansaekhwa artists, began his career making abstract work, but moved away from what he saw as a sort of amorality linked with abstraction in the 1980s, after a political awakening, he said. His works fill two floors at the Ilmin Museum currently and his evolution from monochrome painter to conceptual artist and politically irreverent provocateur is evident in that show.

One of his criteria for a good piece of art is the very practical stipulation that it be mobile, and therefore easy to get from the studio to the gallery. Pointing to a large assemblage of found items—his recent work—he says “this is not a good work. It’s hard to carry this.” Is he having us on? Serious? Winking, at the least? Via a translator it’s hard to tell, but with his broad smile and inviting gestures, it’s clear he’s enjoying himself either way.

Kim Yong-Ik's Triptych.

Kim Yong-Ik’s Triptych. Guelda Voien

He tells the tale of his abrupt shift towards work more rooted in the world we inhabit thusly: he was sick, and could not find a cure. Nothing was medically wrong with him, but he couldn’t leave the house. Eventually, he figured it out. He “was so sick… because of modernism.”

Looking at an early, abstract work of his, he says “these polka dots are just meaningless signs.” But the 1980s in Korea, when citizens could not leave and government paratroopers were massacring left-leaning students, was not a time for meaningless art. So he abandoned it.

Many of Yong-Ik’s later work deals with his death and his body. His later, found assemblage-type works are awash in blood-like colors, footprints, bits of trash.

Yong-Ik is not precious about his work, or his life. He worked to receive a doctorate, but when he’d completed his thesis, he simply printed the pages and went to a remote southern part of the Korean countryside, where he buried the entire dissertation in a hole in the ground. He became a very productive artist later, while an academian, he said, only because he needed more money.

The wall text next to the upper floor at Ilmin describes his latest pieces, while also perfectly illustrating the artist’s current approach to his work.

“… the ‘coffin series’ was inaugurated in 2015. As if washing and dressing his own corpse, it was through this series that the artist started to humbly embrace the fate of the modernist. Collecting his work inside coarsely built wooden boxes with texts and images of the Kristigarbha, the coffins seem to be the inevitable conclusion of the artist perceiving his footsteps—from modernist experimentations, to voicing against political situations or the self-reflection and struggle with his own ethics—in a historical context, and organizing a funeral for his works.”

“Closer…Come Closer” is up until November 6 at the Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea, and Kim Yong-Ik’s solo exhibition at Kukje Gallery opens November 22.


Interviews were conducted with the aid of a translator.


[Herald Interview] ‘Dansaekhwa is a miracle’o

he Korea Herald > Entertainment > Arts

 Published : 2014-10-16 20:31

Updated : 2014-10-16 20:31

LONDON ― From a Western viewpoint, Dansaekhwa paintings may seem confusing. They don’t fit into familiar key art movements in Western art history.

First created in the 1960s, Dansaekhwa paintings may be in line with minimalism. But behind their simple imagery is much more complex meaning. They resulted from the suppressed freedom of expression that Korean artists experienced under authoritarian governments of the past.

Artist Ha Chong-hyun, 80, recalls his selection of materials, looking at his 1973 work featuring barbed wires.

“I used wires and hemp fabrics a lot for my work. They were two of the most common materials you could find during the time. Barbed wires were frequently used after the Korean War to lock up war prisoners in jail facilities and later to imprison pro-democracy activists. Soldiers put sand in hemp cloth bags to build walls around the military stations,” Ha said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday.



Artist Ha Chong-hyun poses in front of his painting at the Frieze Masters in London. (Lee Woo-young/The Korea Herald)

Some artists expressed anger at the suppression in society through explicitly satirical paintings. But artists like Ha chose to stay muted. Instead, he went bold in the gesture of painting. He pushed thick paint through the back of the canvas ― an expression of anger against military dictatorship and of regret for traditional culture disappearing in the process of state-led rapid economic development and modernization.

It was not just Ha who made a rebellious gesture in the form of painting methods. Several other artists such as Lee U-fan, Chung Sung-hwa and Park Seo-bo took a similar approach to paintings. They applied monochromatic paints all over the canvas repetitively or drew pencil lines freely. Some let the paints flow down the canvas while some cut paper or canvas and covered them with paint.

“We didn’t know each other’s work processes at the time. But when we gathered the works from the period later, we found similarities in methods and expressions,” said Ha.

“Dansaekhwa is a miracle, like South Korea’s miraculous economic development.”

Throughout his art career, Ha has sought to try unprecedented practices in art.

He chose materials that others hadn’t thought of and came up with ways to set his paintings apart from others.

Ha has also been at the forefront of changes in the Korean art world.

He led the avant-garde art movement from 1969 to 1973 in Korea. As the head of the Korean Fine Arts Association, he struggled to revamp the then-conservative national art award, which was at the time the only path for artists to debut on the art scene.

“They (established artists) inherited the most conservative concept in art. They weren’t open to new ideas and expressions,” said Ha.

Ha was also an educator who taught arts as a professor of the nation’s prestigious art college Hongik University for 35 years. He served as director of the Seoul Museum of Art for six years.

Ha has been prolific for the past decade, devoting himself to his “Conjunction” and “Post-Conjunction” series ― a milestone series in his Dansaekhwa paintings.

“I will devote myself to promoting the unique Dansaekhwa art movement in Korea and its importance in the world’s art history. That is my last mission as an artist,” said Ha.

By Lee Woo-young, Korea Herald correspondent



The Koreans at the Top of the Art World

Next week, when V.I.P.s and special guests shuffle through Christie’s new West Galleries, in Rockefeller Center, they will alight on a series of abstract paintings by a group of relatively unknown artists. These pieces reflect a recent market craze for attractive, anodyne work with an emphasis on process and materials. But the artists at the West Galleries are not young painters from Brooklyn, Berlin, or Los Angeles. They are a group of Korean octogenarians who comprise a movement known as Tansaekhwa (or “Dansaekhwa”) and have been producing in this style since the nineteen-seventies.

Tansaekhwa will receive the red-carpet treatment from Christie’s, with a sumptuous, hundred-and-thirty-six-page catalogue, a lavish exhibition split between New York and Hong Kong, and prices to match: a million dollars for a work by Park Seo-Bo, $1.5 million for a Chung Sang-Hwa. By the standards of today’s frothy art market, the prices are far from eye-watering, but for the artists, who until now were mostly forgotten even within Korea, they are almost unfathomable. “I am unbelievably happy,” the artist Ha Chong-Hyun said on the phone from Korea. “I’m eighty-one years old. Back in the day, Koreans didn’t live this long. I shouldn’t be here. But to have this happen in my lifetime, I can’t be more thankful.”

After four decades of languishing, with occasional exhibitions in regional galleries around Korea and Japan, Ha has, within the last year, landed his first solo show in New York, seen his work enter the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, attended the opening of a highly lauded Tansaekhwa show in Venice, and watched forty-five of his paintings go on the auction block, with nine selling for more than a hundred thousand dollars. Prior to 2014, his auction record was a mere $13,303, and, in the six years from 2007 through 2013, when eight works of his went to auction, half went unsold. “To be honest, it was not possible to make a living making this kind of work in Korea,” Ha said. “I was so tired and it’s such welcome news.”

Although he was the dean at Korea’s most prestigious art school, Hongik University, for many years, Park Seo-Bo, who is eighty-four, had a negligible market as well. Park’s 1982 piece “Ecriture 3-82” was sold in November, 2013, for $56,750 and then resold in May of this year for $631,972. In the nineteen-eighties, Park said, he couldn’t sell this kind of work for even three million Korean won, which, at the time, was equivalent to less than four thousand dollars.

This sudden attention has blindsided the Tansaekhwa artists, but it coincides with a new global focus in the art world. Galleries are opening outposts; collectors from emerging economies are increasing their influence; and museums are revising the art-historical narrative to include under-recognized artists and movements. Tansaekhwa has found itself at the nexus of a number of changes. Alexandra Munroe, the curator of the 2011 Guggenheim Museum retrospective of Lee Ufan, an artist associated with Tansaekhwa and its most prominent exponent, describes it as a “perfect storm.”


The powerful art adviser Allan Schwartzman, who has taken a keen interest in Tansaekhwa, said, “I’ve never seen this amount of widening interest in a particular circle of non-contemporary artists, in historical material before.” The number of upcoming exhibitions associated with the group this fall supports Schwartzman’s observation. In New York alone, the blue-chip galleries Blum & Poe, Galerie Perrotin, and Tina Kim will open shows of Yun Hyong-Keun, Chung Chang-Sup, and Ha Chong-Hyun respectively, within a week of each other, starting on October 30th. In London during Frieze week, in mid-October, no fewer than three exhibitors—Axel Vervoordt, Kukje Gallery / Tina Kim, and Hakgojae—will be showing Tansaekhwa works at Frieze Masters. South of the fair, in a tony gallery space next to the Royal Academy of Art, the global mega gallery Pace will host a retrospective of Lee Ufan’s paintings from the Tansaekhwa period.

What started the market phenomenon? It can be traced to two shows of major historical works: one, at Kukje Gallery in Seoul, in August, 2014, and, less than a month later, a show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, which was curated by Joan Kee, an art historian who authored “Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method,” the first book on the movement in English. (The artists credit her for spurring international interest in their work.) Following the two exhibitions, a number of institutions acquired Tansaekhwa works, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Centre Pompidou, in Paris; the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Abu Dhabi; the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art, in New York; and M+, a new museum currently under construction in Hong Kong. Important American collectors, such as Howard Rachofsky, who, with his wife, Cindy, has promised their entire collection to the Dallas Museum of Art, also bought from these shows, under Schwartzman’s guidance.

As collectors took their cue from these influential tastemakers, auction prices went up. Since the Blum & Poe and Kukje shows last year, seventy-two works by Chung Sang-Hwa, Park Seo-Bo, Ha Chong-Hyun, and Yun Hyong-Keun have sold for more than a hundred thousand dollars each at auction. Prior to that, only four works had surpassed a hundred thousand dollars, ever. Although the sales took place in Asia, more than half of the bidders were Western collectors and new clients, Jihyun Lee, a specialist at K Auction, which holds auctions in Korea and Hong Kong, said. Seoul-based Yunah Jung, who is organizing the Christie’s selling exhibition, concurs that Western interest is driving the market.

Joan Kee, the art historian, says that Tansaekhwa has that “extra oomph factor” from its association to Lee Ufan, who was acclaimed in the late nineteen-sixties as the main theorist behind the Japanese postwar movement Mono-Ha. But she cautions that Tansaekhwa was not an official movement; there was no manifesto, nor a clearly defined group of members. The term, meaning, literally, “monochrome painting,” appeared in the mid-nineteen-seventies to describe work that shared a spare palette and an innovative approach to process, which differed from artist to artist. Lee Ufan created works consisting of lines, made by dragging his brush down the length of the canvas until the pigment disappeared, and points, made by repeatedly pressing the tip of the brush against the canvas until the paint was used up. Park Seo-Bo used pencil to draw dense scribbles, wispy lines, and sinuous loops into the still-wet surface of the painted canvas. Chung Sang-Hwa covered the canvas in a layer of zinc-based paint, laboriously stripped away sections and then repainted those areas with a slightly glossier acrylic paint. Ha Chong-Hyun used a burlap woven fabric as a support and pushed paint from the reverse side, allowing it to seep through to the front.

Works from Lee Ufan’s “From Point” series, currently on view at Pace London.
Works from Lee Ufan’s “From Point” series, currently on view at Pace London. Lee Ufan, Courtesy Pace Gallery

The resultant works had a strong, if superficial, affinity to paintings by Cy Twombly, the ZERO artists, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Niele Toroni and other exponents of postwar abstraction, but came out of a period of economic deprivation and political upheaval. In 1972, South Korean President Park Chung Hee declared martial law and instituted a new constitution that greatly expanded executive power, effectively rendering the state a dictatorship. Although political repression was met with some disaffection and resistance, the Tansaekhwa artists remained silent. “Young artists unknown to the public or with no prestigious position had nothing else to do than to repeat non-expressive expressions with no distinctive image using minimal materials,” Lee Ufan said. Park Seo-Bo described his intentions in a similar way: “I didn’t want to express anything, it was about emptying myself. The monk empties himself by ritual, by repetition. So I did the same thing.”

The artists’ choice of materials also reflected these conditions. Ha Chong-Hyun began using burlap, a material sent by the U.S. to aid South Korea and which was readily and cheaply available at Seoul’s Namdaemun Market. Specific to the Korean context yet resonant with Western abstraction, Tansaekhwa came to dominate international shows of Korean contemporary art by the late nineteen-seventies. Over time, the movement gradually fell out of favor; only its most celebrated artist, Lee Ufan, who mainly split his time between Tokyo and Paris, maintained a successful career both at home and abroad.

The response to the Kukje and Blum & Poe shows was immediate, but not entirely surprising given that it came soon after a market boom for Gutai, another rediscovered movement that was both non-Western and abstract. Founded in Japan in 1954, Gutai challenged the conventions of art in an astounding array of mediums, including painting, performance, installation, and participatory art. In recent years, the market has taken particular interest in one member, Kazuo Shiraga, who created violently expressive works by painting with his feet. Since 2009, the average price of Shiraga’s work has risen more than sixfold. This spring, the market reached a fever pitch when two of New York’s most important galleries—Dominique Lévy and Mnuchin Gallery—mounted Shiraga shows concurrently and a third gallery, Fergus McCaffrey, which has represented the Shiraga family since 2009, held a show shortly thereafter.

Tansaekhwa has several advantages over Gutai, including abundance. According to Schwartzman, who has acquired, with his clients, works by Gutai and Tansaekhwa artists, “there was never meaningful supply of Gutai.” The supply that did exist was widely dispersed. Shiraga, for instance, was represented for decades by galleries in Paris, Berlin, and London, so many of his works ended up in European collections. Because most of the Tansaekhwa artists had few market outlets prior to 2014, most of them are sitting on vast resources of material. Ha Chong-Hyun estimates that he still possesses roughly a thousand works, though he has promised a portion to a municipal museum in Korea.

As the big galleries become bigger, through larger spaces and multiple locations in cities around the world, and as the proliferation of art fairs continues unabated, more programming is needed than ever before. Tansaekhwa is particularly appealing, because, in addition to their considerable inventories of historical material, most of the artists continue to make new work. Plus, their oeuvre is almost exclusively painting, which remains the market’s most saleable medium. “Painting is painting,” the dealer Tim Blum said. “It’s a kind of a no-brainer in terms of how that gets marketed, collected and contextualized.”

Another advantage is its relative affordability, especially in comparison to its Western cognates. “For eleven million dollars I could have a Ryman, or I could build a whole history of Tansaekhwa,” one curator explained. By 2014, the market for abstract, neutral-colored, process-based painting reached its peak; works by young artists like David Ostrowski and Lucien Smith were selling at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite the fact that many of these works were created only a year or two prior. “When you look at the work of young artists, by their third show they get two to three hundred thousand dollars,” a collector said. “It fulfills the consumer’s desire for something that looks nice, but it’s a little premature. None of it’s significant art-historically.”

Tansaekhwa’s built-in historical import distinguishes it from this recent boom. The young artists, without institutional support or art-historical validation, were ultimately undone by over-supplying a market that provided thin support once the faddish exuberance dissipated. Although the market for emerging art has cooled, abstraction continues to resonate. “Clearly we’re at a moment when an audience can see this historical work through a contemporary lens,” Schwartzman said. “There’s so much interest from younger artists in abstraction. We’re well-framed to be able to look at it.” Jihyun Lee says that Western collectors bidding on Tansaekhwa feel “more comfortable” and “familiar” with the works, “because [Tansaekhwa works] are abstract, so they don’t need to understand the culture or need to study it. It comes more easily.”

The facile appeal of abstraction, coupled with the spectacular market rise—the Christie’s prices reflect a fourfold increase since the Kukje and Blum & Poe shows last fall—prompts the question of whether the frenzy over Tansaekhwa indicates a speculative-market bubble. Despite numerous institutional acquisitions, Tansaekhwa has yet to receive a major museum show, and the work may soon get too expensive for continued museum interest. “When you jump from two hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars, that’s going to kick the museums out of the market,” Schwartzman said, adding that, with the new price levels, “Markets always have a certain plateau level. It needs a next group of collectors.”

Dealers are prepared. “We’re committed to push it to another level,” Tina Kim, one of the New York gallerists, said. 2016 promises a fresh crop of Tansaekhwa exhibitions. The global juggernaut White Cube, known for its longtime representation of Damien Hirst and his Y.B.A. cohorts, will open the year with a solo show of Park Seo-Bo in London in January. Blum & Poe has three shows in the works, notably a group show in L.A. juxtaposing Tansaekhwa artists with western counterparts such as Brice Marden and Robert Ryman which will make an emphatic case for Tansaekhwa in the postwar art-historical canon. Dominique Lévy, whose show of Shiraga was integral in catapulting him to mainstream prominence, is organizing a joint show of Chung Sang-Hwa with the Chelsea gallery Greene Naftali.

There may indeed be room yet for more growth. Tina Kim recalled a recent meeting with a Chinese collector who was suspicious of these relatively low price levels. “Why is it so cheap? Why is it not half a million?” the collector asked, wondering if there was something wrong with the work.

Park, who has described himself as the best artist in Asia, is confident. “I think it should go up tenfold to reflect the right price,” he said, before predicting a price of ten million dollars for his works. “It will happen. You’ll see.”


The Storied Space of Korean Dansaekhwa: The 1992 and 2012 Exhibitions


Yeon Shim Chung

Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Theory, Hongik University, Seoul, South Korea

fig 1 Danseakhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting,
March 17-May 13, 2012. Catalogue Cover
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

This paper looks at the way two exhibitions of Dansaekhwa — at the Tate gallery, Liverpool, in 1992 and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul in 2012 — created a storied space and narrative of “non-artificial nature” and modernist Korean aesthetics.1

Dansaekhwa is known as postwar Korean abstract painting, which is also referred to as monochrome painting, Dansaekjo. Although numerous terms have been used to describe Korean abstract paintings, the recent retrospective exhibition curated by Yoon Jin Sup in 2012 in Korea clarified the current terms that I deploy in this paper. Dansaekhwa, widespread in the 1970s, marked a concrete contribution to the history of modern and contemporary Korean art, with several landmark exhibitions in Korea garnering critical attention. We shall look at two exhibitions: one outside Korea and the other in Korea, marking a twenty-year interval. Taken together, I want to create embedded stories pertaining to Dansaekhwa, which is said to be non-objective art without any narrative or subject matter. My aim will be to approach this work from a contextual vantage point while replying to the critical writing of Lee Yil (1932-1997), Dansaekhwa’s main protagonist critic. It is my hope to reconsider Dansaekhwa as a site or a storied “pictorial and social” space, thus fortifying its salient critical stories and formal innovations.

fig 2 Spirit of Korean Abstract Painting from the Ho-Am Art Museum Collection, May 15-June 30, 1996. Ho-Am Art Gallery, Seoul, Korea. Cover Image: Kwon Young-woo, Untitled. Gouache on paper, 224.5 x 170 cm

fig 3 Park Seo-bo, Eriture No. 41-78. Pencil, oil on hempen cloth, 194 x 300 cm. Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Korea

fig 4 Danseakhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting, March 17-May 13, 2012. Exhibition View at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. Left to Right: Yun Hyong-Keun, Burnt & Ultramarine Blue, 2004. Oil on linen, 259.1×162.1 cm, Private Collection; Lee Ufan, From Line, 1974. Glue and stone pigment on canvas, 194x259cm, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea; Park Seo-bo, Ecriture No. 101104, 2011. Mixed media with Korean hanji paper on canvas, 180x300cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

1. Dansaekhwa: Lee Yil’s “Hwanwon” and “Hwaksan”

Dansaekhwa, postwar abstract art in Korea, was loosely formed in the 1970s and continues to exist in the work of artists of the younger generation. Yet, interestingly enough, this style of work is not a painterly movement or school, but rather a tendency to create work that is “monochromatic,” dansaekjo, as its manifestation. This manifestation has never disappeared and has become generationally interlocked.

The 1992 exhibition entitled “Working with Nature: Contemporary Art from Korea,” consisted of the first generation of Dansaekhwa artists such as Chung Chang-Sup, Yun Hyong-Keun, Kim Tschang-Yeul, Park Seo-bo, Lee Ufan, and Lee Kang-So. Lee Yil who wrote in the exhibition catalogue defines the work as “post-minimal abstraction that is both post-formalist and post-materialist.” This implies the “limiting of the ego in the intellectual sense and a curbing of involvement in the act of painting.”2 This first important exhibition of Dansaekhwa for foreign viewers encapsulated the twin forces within its “nature,” which appeared in writings by both Lewis Biggs and Lee Yil. “Nature” was also a typical East Asian metaphor, often distinguished from any western counterpart. Nevertheless, Lee Yil did not attempt to radically depart from modernist understandings of abstraction in this exhibition, and this is what I want to discuss here.

fig 5 Critic Lee Yil and Dansaekhwa artists
(Left to Right: Choi Myung-young, Park Seo-bo, Lee Yil, Ha Chong Hyun)
Photo Archives: Lee Yujin

fig 6 Lee Yil, “The Dynamics of Hwanwon and Hwaksan,” AG, 1970.
Kim Daljin Archives, Seoul, Korea

fig 7 Chosunilbo (October 7, 1973)

fig 8 indépendants de Séoul 1974 & 1975

As Dansaekhwa was making its formation, Lee coined the terms “hwanwon” (還原, reduction) and “hwaksan” (擴散, expansion), in the catalogue preface of AG [Abbreviation of Avant-Garde] Association’s exhibition.3 In his essay, Lee defines “Hwanwon” as “[the] Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction” for the 1970 AG exhibition:

From the most rudimentary forms to the events that happen along the prolongation of the everyday, or from the most fundamental and direct experiences to the material as the coagulation of concept, today’s act of art is an all-out challenge against art itself and throws away all coxcombry. The significance of art at its most primary state lies not in it being “art.” but in it being a confirmation of life. Today’s art aims at that primitive significance…4

In this writing, Lee emphasizes today’s act of art as “rudimentary forms,” a “primary state,” and a “confirmation of life.” He continues to define “hwanwon” and “hwaksan” with the following:

Art as a “declaration of anonymity” is in itself naked art. Art reduces to the most fundamental self and at the same time expands into a state of life before art was art. What is in between such expansion and reduction is neither a certain history nor a dialectic. What lies there is a complete and true dynamic of existence. It is because a true creation lies in the awakening of this existence.5

This exhibition of AG configured the essential idea of Korean modernist criticism and pictorial traces. According to the article entitled “AG in [19]71 in the eye of the Japanese painter,” printed in Hongdaehakbo,6 Suzuki Yoshinori (鈴木慶則) responded to the AG exhibition in Seoul, noting that:

On my stay in Korea, I could see one aspect of contemporary Korean art which, without exaggeration, is never known in Japan, and, in particular, it was fortunate to see ‘AG 71[1971]’ under the title of “Reality (現實) and Realization (實現)” at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Kyeongbokgung). I assume that, considering the theme of the previous AG exhibition in 1970 as “the dynamics of hwaksan and hwanwon,” AG notices the rudimentary state of nature, and parallels its structure with the confirmation of life.… I could realize, to a certain degree, that it was similar to the feeling that I drank Coca Cola with its Korean trademark. The emerging white text of Korean [Hangeul] seemed to be fresh and new, something disparate from the taste of Coca Cola.7

By interpreting “hwanwon” as an art that reduces to the most fundamental self, Lee and the Dansaekhwa artists would later create a critical site for modernist practices of abstraction in Korea. Modernist “Reduction” as the rudimentary form of art and life is also evoked in the Park Seo-bo one-man show at Myong-Dong Gallery, which ran from October 3 to 10, 1973. In an interview with a daily Korean newspaper, Park said, “my work is an action, not an expression.”8 In this early solo exhibition, Park noted that only a “pulse” operates in his work and in a way it is “far niente (無爲).” Interestingly enough, in Park’s remarks, “being modern is the crisis of image,” of the artist in “negation” to tradition. This negation speaks elegantly to the auratic impulse of the avant-garde and it works as a modernist claim à la Clement Greenberg. In the accounts of Lee and Park in the early 1970s, there is also the coincidence of encouraging artists to return to the Zero point in art. First let’s look at Lee’s text:

In other words, art converges toward the most fundamental and singular state, while at the same time permeating into the complex cells of scientific civilization, or transposing into an unfamiliar material, or expanding into an act of no-contemplation in a pure sense. Has art already ceased to be art? No. If we were to in any context talk of “anti-art,” it would still be under the name of art. The task presented before us today is to give new meaning of life to the art that has returned to its Zero degree [point].9

In this Zero degree of art, Park elaborates his own line as being original and singular, noting that the copious retroaction on canvas enables us to feel its resistance, and its impulsive sensation leads us to the interior of canvas. This process recalls the road to reach Tao.10

On Park’s exhibition in 1973, critic Yoo Jun-Sang also expressed the idea of Park’s work returning to Zero point,11 as Park criticized Euro-centered art as a result of the Western perspective of having humans at the center of a composition looking at a thing (事物). In the interplay of negation to tradition, Western (and Modern Japanese) aesthetic values and practice, these Dansaekhwa critics and artists expand their art as an anti-art form, struggling to create the utopian Esperanto of abstraction in Korea. It was Park Seo-bo who was committed to promoting possible changes to the Korean cultural economy for art and wished to show the work of these artists abroad. Apart from his solo exhibition at Myong-Dong gallery in Seoul and Muramatsu gallery in Tokyo, the Indépendant de Séoul in 1974 was fruitful in disseminating the practice and formal concentration into abstraction known as Dansaekhwa.12 A series of exhibitions and criticism began to establish the legacy of Dansaekhwa, resulting in modernist myth of Dansaekwha in Korea and culminating in the 1992 exhibition at Tate Liverpool.

2. Korean Modernism’s Double Fate: Modernist Negation vs. Modernist Nostalgia

From the beginning of Dansaekhwa to the 1992 exhibition in the UK and the 2012 exhibition in Korea, there were no serious studies on the paradox of Lee Yil’s “hwanwon” and “hwaksan” concepts, except for a few scholarly articles by Chung Moojeong.13 There was, however, revisionist condemnation of Lee Yil’s critical perspective and other Dansaekwha critics, targeting them as descendants of colonial historicism, in particular in their critical defense of white color and monochromatic verisimilitude in their exhibition titles and articles.14 In other words, the modernist painterly practice coexists with modernist nostalgia returning to the origin and the past, unlike the Western concept. Once Lee’s “Hwanwon” (還元) designates modernist abstract practice in the same way as Western abstraction; it also plays its double, ambivalent role in designating the return to the origin in the context of nostalgia. Here, I want to bring up the double-fate of “hwanwon” and discuss the calling of “returning to the origin,” the literal meaning of “hwanwon.”15

As a backdrop to Dansaekwha, Lee Ufan’s recent interview with Yoon Jin Sup is worth quoting.16 Lee, both as witness in Korea and observer in Japan, recalls the era:

It was the time when everyone’s life was frozen up in extreme poverty; it was the era of [the] abstraction. This was the background of the monochrome. With the destitute minimality in impoverished life in one hand [and] the oppressive military government on the other hand, the monochrome appeal was an ideal fit. Employing single color or the technique of repetition was chosen as an effective collective style for the purpose of expressing the will to resist.17

This statement leads us to think of the sociopolitical and economic conditions of Korea in the late 1960s and 1970s. Political opinions were easily censored, and the ideological debates of the Right and Left were fierce. At the same time, President Park Chung-hee focused all his efforts on modernizing South Korea, effacing, to some degree, the genealogy of tradition.

Beneath this landscape, what makes “hwanwon” intriguing and polemical, even problematic is to think of what “the origin, the original or the original condition” means. To return where? And what is the Zero point, and how does it differ in the Korean context? The former is the symbolic place or site to return to and the latter is a pictorial condition to return to.18 My intention here, unlike revisionist art historians, is not to criticize why Dansaekwha artists turned toward political abstention and formal experimentation. Rather, by looking at original sources, I want to bring up the concepts of “hwanwon” and “the Zero point” within the identity of Korean abstraction.

fig 9 Five Hinseku White, May 1975, Tokyo Gallery

fig 10 Chung Sang-hwa, Untitled 73-12-11, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 227.3×181.8cm
Courtesy of Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, Korea

fig 11 Suh Seung-Won, Simultaneity 70-26, 1970. Oil on canvas
130 x 162 cm

fig 12 Lee Kang-So, Untitled – 91182, 1991. Reproduced in Working with Nature. Exhibition Catalogue (Tate Liverpool, April 8 – June 21, 1992), p. 111.

Lee Yil wrote his essay on “white thinks of” in the exhibition catalogue of “Five Hinseku White,” viewed in May, 1975 in Tokyo Gallery, with works by Lee Dong-youb, Suh Seung-won, Park Seo-bo, Huh Hwang, and Kwon Yungwoo. To the critic, “the white” is not the limitation in the use of the color of white as its literal meaning; rather, it operates in the “imaginary field” of all possibilities. Lee Yil also notes that, “To our artists, the white monochrome is rather a proposal of spiritual vision accepting the world,” unlike Western monochrome painters in search of new possibilities of painting.19 Monochrome, the literal meaning of a single color, is being used from this moment, although these artists did not employ one color at all. To the critic, the return to the original condition was evoking the Koreanness in the state of Zero degree in writing and in art making.20 In struggling to formulate the Zero point in art, Park also attempted to create the locality or singularity of abstraction, in the emphasis of physical and repetitive performativity. To the critic and painter, the type of Dansaekhwa was not a simple painting, but a “field” of performative involvement. In other words, the act of “a painting is a painting is a painting is a painting…” Thus, the painters accumulate their anti-art form or informe in the gestures of their hands and bodies.

In interpreting the color of white literally, however, Joseph Love, one critic of this exhibition wrote in the Japan Times, Sunday, May 18, 1975: “Despite geographical nearness, it is rare to see a full scale exhibition of Korean art in Japan. There is a sense of isolation, almost sadness in it after the Koryo Period and one can still detect it in contemporary art.” At the end of this article, however, his tone is calmer: “The main interest in contemporary Korean art is not in symbol, figuration or space, but in exploring textures… [the] thing which the artist makes becomes a symbol of itself and each textural incident takes on weight more than in other abstract style… an art that falls into no trap of false nationalist traditionalism while preserving its roots—i.e., a true radicalism.”21 The true radicalism is challenged by avant-garde artists whom the government pressed into service to create “minjok girokhwa (民族記錄畫)”, documenting the progress of Korea. These types of figurative paintings, following the realist style preferred by the Korean government, lessened their reputation as avant-garde modernists.22 However, Korean abstract painting still lingers in works by the next generations after Park in artists such as Kim Tae-Ho and others. (fig 13) 23 Still the performative act of painting and physical resistance is visible in their laboring with layers of paints. The modernist practice and nostalgia were completely obliterated in the 1992 exhibition in UK, under the umbrella of “[Dansaekhwa] Korean artists working with the nature.”

fig 13 Kim Tae-Ho, Internal Rhythm 95-30, 1995, Mixed media on wood panel, 162 x 131 cm

3. Unfinished Project of Dansaekhwa: The hidden voice of Dansaekhwa artists and after their stories

The 2012 exhibition of Dansaekhwa was a curatorial attempt to “stir the ashes of Modernism and rekindle the embers” to contemplate the span of forty years of the art in Korea. In terms of museographical sense, the exhibition was successful in bringing Modernist issues in Korea but its exhibition design itself silenced the sociopolitical frame and failed to create “the storied space” of Korean modernism’s double fate, as I noted above.

fig 14 Ha Chong Hyun, Counter-Phase, 1971. Newspaper and paper, dimension variable

fig 15 Ha Chong Hyun, Work 74-06, 1974. Oil on hemp cloth, 153 x 116 cm

In relation to a political voice, Ha Chong Hyun’s early works, especially Work 71-11, Counter – Phase (對位) of 1971, consists of newspaper stacks on one side and paper on the other side. The use of a newspaper stack on the floor is very new in the sense that this medium of books and newspapers corresponds to the age of the art of the [modern] city. Ha employed books and newspapers, media disseminating information when he was actively involved in AG period (1969-1973) as well. At that time, Korean newspapers were highly censored and the censored sections were covered with white spots. Any article by a political voice criticizing the Korean government and the president was completely obliterated line by line. In 1972 and 1973, the artist produced the barbed wire on a panel in which the reverse part of the canvas is knotted with wires. Ha’s use of wire, newspaper stacks etc. lies in his artistic credo, stating:

The art of this century compared to the one preceding it unravels itself in city environments. Challenging factors such as mass production, quickened flow of information, urban rationalism and its indifferent attitude, various geometric forms of city architecture, stacks of gas tanks and towering presence of chimneys, all of which remind in their anonymous realm of monuments, proved to be decisive in subverting the established order of artistic concepts. … a process of synthesizing different modes of artistic expression, from painting, sculpture to architecture and design, will experience a serious field expansion.24

By placing contemporary aesthetics in the changing city environments, Ha expands the medium of tableau to other materials and installation pieces, signaling subdued yet discernable political voices. Although this kind of experiment was short-lived in his AG period, “experimental art” in the late 1960s and 1970s produced Lee’s terms of “hwaksan” [expansion] of modernist and postmodernist thoughts in art and life. These two terms coexist in the “vernacular” development of Korean modernism and postmodernism from 1960s to 1990s.

fig 16 Ko Young Hun, This Is a Stone, 1974; Reproduced in Joseph Love, “The Roots of Korean Avant-Garde Art,” Art International, volume XIX, (June 15, 1975).

fig 17 Ju Tae Seok, Railroad, oil on canvas, 193.9×112.1cm, Private Collection

In considering Dansaekhwa critically, we also need to explore the work of the students of several Dansaekhwa artists, acolytes who went on to develop the next generation of Korean abstract painting, as well as the New Realist Painting, the so-called New Image Painting (Neo-Imagism in Lee’s words), preferring the return of images in their paintings. Often painters of the latter, preferring images in their paintings, were openly criticized by the first generation Dansaekhwa artists. In a recent colloquium with Ko Young Hoon, Ju Tae Seok, and Kim Gang-Yong, figurative artists in their late 50s and early 60s, that were taught by Park Seo-bo and Ha Chong Hyun, Kim recalled that “when I painted a brick, endless brick, it was not a real object of brick… Thinking of Dansaekhwa mentors, my brick was an object that led me to think in an abstract way. The brick was not the real one, although viewers tried to connect with the real things.”25

As thick as the surfaces Dansaekhwa artists created, their works revealed layered, storied narratives of pictorial and social space in relation to “hwanwon” and “hwaksan.” Lee’s critical terms and Dansaekhwa grew out of great social upheaval and repression as well as urbanization in Korea in the 1970s. In the paper, I discussed the double fate of “hwanwon” as the modernist negation toward abstraction and modernist nostalgia returning to the origin, which I call “vernacular” Modernism in Korea.26



Why South Korea’s monochrome painting movement is the art world’s latest obsession

Dansaekhwa, which includes painters such as Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo and Chung Chang-Sup, is capturing attention

By Margot Mottaz

12 Dec 2016

Think of South Korea today – K-pop, karaoke and plastic surgery will surely come to mind, followed by images of Seoul’s cutting-edge districts, where the latest trends in food, fashion and art are being cooked up and served to a public hungry for the new.

It’s almost hard to imagine that 40 years earlier, the avant-garde was embodied by a loose group of artists, among them Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo, Chung Chang-Sup and Kim Whan-ki, whose meditative monochrome paintings were inspired by processes, materials and nature.

And perhaps even harder to understand why they have recently emerged as some of the hottest and most desirable names on the art market. Now referred to as part of the Dansaekhwa movement (literally translated as “monochrome painting”), these painters have created something of a storm in the art world in the space of only two and a half years.

It all started with a book. In 2013, Joan Kee, associate professor of history of art at the University of Michigan, introduced Dansaekhwa to the West with Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, the first publication on the topic written in English. Shortly thereafter, in late 2014, three major shows with Dansaekhwa artists opened in Seoul, Paris and Los Angeles, at Kukje Gallery, Galerie Perrotin and Blum & Poe, respectively, the latter curated by Kee. Still going strong and with five shows by Korean artists under its belt since, Galerie Perrotin is currently showcasing works by Chung in its Hong Kong branch.

Chung Chang-Sup, Untitled. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli, courtesy of Galerie Perrotin

World-renowned museums like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Paris’s Centre Pompidou and Hong Kong’s very own M+ soon began to acquire works for their permanent collections, further cementing the group’s already strong global presence.

Line between traditional and controversial art blurs as radical artists seek ways to voice dissent

In response to such institutional success, Kukje Gallery, in collaboration with Tina Kim, New York and Boghossian Foundation, Brussels, mounted the highly-praised group exhibition “Dansaekhwa” as part of the official Collateral Event programme of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Describing this show as “strikingly memorable”, Jonathan Crockett, Phillips Asia’s deputy chairman and head of 20th century and contemporary art, cites it as a personal favourite and one of the strongest presentations that year.

According to Kee, much of Korean art’s commercial and critical popularity is, in fact, the result of a more general “turn to art history,” or in other words “the commitment to think more broadly about histories of modernism and abstraction”. Similar to the Gutai movement in Japan, Dansaekhwa rose to attention due to a desire to explore significant movements, which were previously overlooked in the grand, usually Western, art historical narrative.

Kwon Young-Woo, Untitled, 1984, Gouache, Chinese ink on Korean paper. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery

Despite their often-mentioned resemblance to American abstraction of the same period, these works are profoundly Korean. “They are original modes of expression discovered autonomously by a post-war generation of artists who grew up experiencing the Japanese occupation and military dictatorship without the privilege of freedom of expression,” explains Kukje Gallery founder and chairwoman Hyun-Sook Lee.

They are original modes of expression discovered autonomously by a post-war generation of artists who grew up experiencing the Japanese occupation and military dictatorship without the privilege of freedom of expression
Hyun-Sook Lee

In their own way, these artists looked to nature as a reaction to their disappointment in, or perhaps disillusionment with, humanity under such political conditions. Materials were central to their works and it is their raw, earthly qualities that these artists extracted and highlighted in a simple and restrained aesthetic. Chung used traditional Korean paper Hanji instead of canvas, while Ha Chong-Hyun worked with coarse, plain-woven hemp on the back of which he applied a thick layer of paint that he then pushed through the holes. Park scribbled with a pencil on freshly-painted canvases and Lee painted lines down canvases until his brush ran dry.

DO HO SUH, Doorknobs, Wieland Strasse, 18, 12159 Berlin, Germany, 2011 polyester fabric and stainless steel wire, 19.25 x 21.61 x 3.35 inches, 48.9 x 54.9 x 8.5 cm, Edition of 3. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

For now, this wave has not lost any of its momentum. According to the Blouin Art Sales Index, no less than 250 works by these artists went under the hammer in 2016 alone, a steep increase from the 80 works sold in 2013. This year also saw the record of the highest price achieved for any Korean artist break when Kim Whan-ki’s 1970 painting Untitled fetched a solid US$4.2 million at Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong sale in April.

Park Seo-Bo, Écriture No. 960406, 1996, 
Hanji paper on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of Phillips

Sotheby’s, leveraging Korea’s incredibly popular music industry, invited K-pop icon and avid collector T.O.P to curate #TTTOP, an evening sale of Western and Asian contemporary art. Though the social media buzz it created could have sufficed to measure its success among a new, younger generation of collectors, the exercise also proved fruitful as it earned the house a total of US$17.4 million for 28 lots, with a work by Lee selling for US$1.403 million and another by Park for US$830,502.

This winter, Phillips Asia also offered works by these same artists in its inaugural sale in Hong Kong, after witnessing strong demand by both established and emerging collectors in its New York and London sales.

New generation of experimental Chinese artists reflect a globalising world

If the last two years have seen Korean artists showcased outside their home country, recent developments suggest that galleries are looking to make their way in to build strong relationships with local collectors. Taking the lead in April was Galerie Perrotin which opened a space in Seoul on the ground floor of the building that also houses Christie’s’ decade-old outpost.

When asked if Seoul was on its way to becoming a global contemporary art hub, Alice Lung, the co-director of the gallery in Hong Kong and Seoul, said she was confident in the city’s commitment to diversifying its artistic programme through international shows, adding that South Korea in fact counts the world’s greatest number of private art museums. Following this lead, fellow blue chip dealer Pace Gallery, already present across the United States, Europe and Asia, announced its plan to expand by opening an office in the capital.

Lee Ufan, From Winds, 1986, oil on canvas. Photos: Courtesy of Phillips

Could Dansaekhwa’s popularity eventually be dismissed as yet another commercial fad? It’s unlikely, Lee says, because “the overwhelming consensus is that Dansaekhwa is still underappreciated.”

With critical acclaim and prices soaring, a fresh crop of collectors will have to take over for the market not to plateau. And it could very well be found soon in China, where the first Dansaekhwa exhibition will take place at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai next year.

DO HO SUH, Reflection, 2004, polyester fabric and stainless steel. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York / Hong Kong

New Dansaekhwa artists to look out for

Our experts tell us which contemporary Korean artists they believe will be the next big thing, following in the footsteps of the Dansaekhwa painters who have paved the way to international opportunities and recognition.

Jonathan Crockett:
“There is certainly a selection of up-and-coming Korean artists who are starting to receive recognition on the world stage, including mid-career artist Suh Do-ho, Suh whose monumental welcome mat created from hundreds of tiny figures featured in our inaugural sale in Asia.”

Hyun-Sook Lee:
“I would like to point to Haegue Yang and Kyungah Ham. Yang recently held exhibitions at the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, while Ham received terrific attention in response to her exhibitions at the Encounters sector of Art Basel, Hong Kong and the Taipei Biennial, both in 2016.”

Alice Lung:
“Anicka Yi is arguably one of the most noteworthy contemporary Korean artists. She is known for her works that stimulate the olfactory senses, which is a fairly rare concept in the dominantly visual world of conceptual art. She was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize in October, and as a result, her works will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum next year.”


Korean abstract art 5 artists exciting the international art market

Korean abstract art: 5 artists exciting the international art market

Ahead of the private selling exhibition Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art at Christie’s Hong Kong galleries this month, specialist Yunah Jung profiles the modern and contemporary Korean abstract artists making waves on the international art scene

Translating as ‘monochrome’, the Dansaekhwa movement was created in post-war Korea by artists wishing to reject the conservative and corrupt National Exhibition. Their style was simple and austere, inspired by traditional Asian ink painting and the beauty of nature.

In recent years, figures from the Dansaekhwa movement and Korean abstract art have been at the forefront of the Asian modern and contemporary art market. This is in part thanks to a comprehensive book about the movement, Dansaekhwa (The Greenfell Press), being published in English for the first time as well as a growing interest among museum curators and scholars in reviving art movements that have been overlooked by history.

But, as Christie’s specialist Yunah Jung explains, perhaps most importantly, the new interest in Korean abstract art comes from ‘the recognition that the works are philosophically profound, visually beautiful, and conceptually unique.’


Park Seo-Bo (b. 1931)

Park Seo-Bo, Écriture No. 41-75, 1975. Oil and pencil on canvas. 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in. (130 x 162 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Park Seo-Bo is one of the most important artists from the Dansaekhwa movement and he played a significant role in liberating artists from the institutional conservatism that prevailed in mid-century Korea. This exhibition features works by Park spanning the early 1970s to the present that epitomise his intense attention to detail. This characteristic can be particularly seen in the tightly repetitive markings of his Ecriture, Myobup series from the 1970s and beyond which evoke the elegance of the eastern tradition of calligraphy painting.

Eastern calligraphy was thought to reveal the universal life force of ‘qi’, transmitting the essence of our being and bringing unity between the artist and his true self. Here Park plays with the infinite aesthetic possibilities of black and white, weaving elegant loops in pencil and transcending the mark on the page to present a universal experience to the viewer.

During the 1980s, Park began working with Hanji — traditional Korean paper. For these works he applied multiple layers of Hanji to the canvas, overlaid with sheets of paper soaked in acrylic paint and ink. Korean art critic Kim Bok-Young said of Park, ‘He does not simply see a piece of paper as something to draw on, but as a solemn object he has to confront.’

Main image at top: Park Seo-Bo, Écriture No. 93-75, 1975. Oil and pencil on canvas. Signed, titled, inscribed in Hanja calligraphy; signed in English ‘PARK SEO-BO’; titled ‘Écriture No. 93-75’; dated ‘1975’ (on the reverse). 51 1/8 x 63 5/8 in. (130 x 162 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art


Chung Sang-Hwa (b. 1932)

Chung Sang Hwa, Untitled (10-15), 2005. This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Chung Sang Hwa, Untitled (90-3)-7), 1990. This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

After studying western painting in Paris in the 1960s Chung Sang-Hwa settled in Kobe, Japan, where he developed his ‘rip’ and ‘fill’ paintings, creating complicated grids of horizontal, diagonal and vertical lines and adding depth to the flat surface of the canvas.

Chung first spreads the mixture of kaolin clay, water and glue evenly on the canvas and waits until it is completely dry. He removes the canvas from the wood stretcher and draws grids of horizontal and vertical lines on the reverse. He then carefully folds it along the lines and rips off the paint from the chosen sections. The bare grid underneath is filled with multiple layers of acrylic paint. Chung repeats the actions of ‘rip’ and ‘fill’ until he finds a perfect harmony of reduction and addition, claiming that, ‘The final result is not the target of my work but to present the process of how it is done.’

In this way, French critic Philippe Piguet believes, ‘The paintings of Chung Sang-Hwa are produced in such a way that they offer themselves to sight like screens on which the painter attempts to reveal a double presence, that of the world at its most essential, and his own presence, in all its intensity.’


Yun Hyong-Keun (1928 – 2007)

Yun Hyong Keun, Umber-Blue, 1979-1987. Oil on linen. 51 3/8 x 31 1/2 in. (130.5 x 80 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Yun Hyong-Keun is widely known for his simple yet highly meditative paintings, evoking the concept of nature in art, an idea that has been at the core of traditional Asian ink painting for centuries. Yun’s work appears to be a part of nature, completely unified with it, without any hint of artifice.

Carol Vogel of The New York Times points out that one of Yun’s Umber-Blue paintings bears a distinct resemblance to Richard Serra and Barnett Newman’s work while other critics comment that a trace of Mark Rothko is also apparent. However, Yun’s works are not influenced by these Western painters; Korean art critic Hong Gai emphasises the fact that Yun found his creative inspiration in the work of 18th century Korean painter and scholar Kim Jeong-Hui who is known for developing a unique style of calligraphy.

As early as 1973, Yun started experimenting with his signature colours; Burnt Umber represents earth, and Light Ultramarine the ocean. As this 1979-1987 masterpiece exemplifies, the unique mixture of two pigments allows a colour of great range and depth, which Yun preferred to call ‘the colour of rotted leaves’.


Chung Chang-Sup (1927-2011)

Chung Chang-Sup (1927-2011), Meditation No.93102, 1993. Best fiber on cotton. 88 1/4 x 48 in. (244 x 122 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Chung Chang-Sup (1927-2011), Meditation No.97407, 1997. Best fiber on canvas. 88 1/4 x 48 in. (244 x 122 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Chung Chang-Sup is known as the master of ‘Hanji’ due to his extensive use of the traditional Korean paper for his enquiries into meditation. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Chung rigorously explored the possibilities of Western oil paint, displaying a certain affinity in style to the Art Informel movement that prevailed in Paris at that time.

He and his peers became leading figures in the Dansaekhwa movement in the 1970s and shared a desire to create their own style rooted in their cultural identity, while also looking to Western abstract art. Beginning with a thick oil painting technique in the 1950s to the early 1960s, Chung gradually thinned the oil in his work to maximise the incidental effect and explore the spontaneous permeation of paint onto the canvas, recalling the Asian ink painting technique.

In his ongoing search for his own visual language, Chung encountered Tak, a main component of Hanji used in the 1970s. Hanji is also called ‘hundred paper’ due to the 99 steps involved in the complex production process required to make just one sheet. It is extremely strong and widely used in traditional Korean architecture as wallpaper, a window or even a door.

Chung stated that his rediscovery of Tak was inevitable: ‘When I was young, the first thing I saw as soon as I woke up in the morning was soft sunlight penetrating through a Tak paper window… I felt a strong intimacy when reencountering the paper and I was immediately absorbed in experimenting with it for my art.’ During the 1980s, Chung’s Tak series began to lose form completely. The production process and material itself become his art work.

Lewis Biggs, in the curatorial essay for an exhibition entitled Working Nature: Contemporary Art from Korea at Tate Liverpool in 1992, interpreted Chung’s painting as ‘not images but analogies, lyrical recreations of the experience of life, with all its formlessness, its decay and change. It is the paper, not the artist, speaking to us.’


Ha Chong-Hyun (B. 1935)

Ha Chong-Hyun, Conjunction No. 97-035. Oil on hemp cloth. 86 5/8 x 47 1/4 in. (220 x 120 cm.). This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Like his peers, Ha started his artistic career as a painter, associating himself with the style of Art Informel in the early 1960s. Through various experimentations with everyday materials such as flour, paper and wire in the early 1970s, Ha finally encountered the coarse, plain-woven hemp which was widely used as a material for rice bags in Korea at the time.

As soon as he employed it in his art, Ha realised it was the perfect material with which to connect his inner self to the outside world. In order to accentuate its material properties, he applies a thick layer of paint on the reverse of a canvas and presses it until it penetrates to the other side — he repeats the process throughout his Conjunction series of paintings.

Showcased in the exhibition, these works epitomise the evolution of his style throughout the 1980s and 2000s and clearly manifest the idea of painting as a tool for meditation as well as a bodily process. This idea was explained by Phippe Dagen who said that Ha’s limited materials and colours lead to simplicity of composition resulting in a meditative repetition and visual neutrality that work to eliminate the ego and reduce the painting to silence.

It is crucial to understand that the elimination of the artist from the painting is key to Ha’s works; they are an effort to have a sincere conversation with nature, at odds with the ego behind Western Abstract Expressionism.

Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art is on view 6 November — 4 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong




Skin & Surface

What is Dansaekhwa and what is its legacy today?

Dansaekhwa, or ‘Korean Monochrome Painting’, is the name ascribed to a style of painting practiced by a loosely affiliated set of Korean artists who came to prominence in the 1970s. Three recent exhibitions — at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Alexander Gray Associates, New York, and Kukje Gallery, Seoul — have, for the first time in a generation, brought this work to an audience outside of Korea, while a presentation of Dansaekhwa will be shown as part of the 56th Venice Biennale in May this year. We asked the curators of these exhibitions — Sam Bardaouil, Till Fellrath, Joan Kee and Yoon Jin Sup — to reflect on the key factors that led to the development of Dansaekhwa’s unique aesthetic and what its legacy is today.

Yoon Jin Sup

It is difficult to define the Korean monochrome painting style known as Dansaekhwa (or Tansaekhwa, depending on which Roman­ization system is used). Many would argue that it wasn’t even a movement. It certainly didn’t have a manifesto, a core group of artists with shared ideas or a publication through which to disseminate those artists’ opinions. In terms of a Korean Avant-garde, groups such as Space & Time and Avant-Garde, who were active before the Dansaekhwa artists, should be seen as more closely fitting that description. It’s also important to remember that the leading Dansaekhwa artists – including Park Seobo, Yun Hyong-keun, Chung Sang-Hwa, Chung Chang-Sup and Kwon Young-woo – were primarily seen as practicing Informel, which held sway from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. During the troubled period following the Korean War (1950–53), these artists tried to express the calamity of the conflict by taking an existential perspective and by using material forms. By the mid-1960s, however, their activities – which centred around the Hyundae Mihyup (Association of Modern Artists) – had become disorganized both ideologically and practically. It was out of this disordered context that the Avant-Garde and Space & Time groups forged a new philosophy, which would go on to influence Dansaekhwa.

By the late 1960s, the first signs of Dansaekhwa had begun to emerge and the style slowly began to take root in the early 1970s. Certainly, it is possible to identify a Dansaekhwa approach in the works of Lee Dong-Yeob and Hur Hwang in the first exhibition of ‘Indépendants’ in Seoul in 1972. A close relationship developed between the group of artists who participated in the ‘École de Seoul’, an annual exhibition series founded by Park in 1975, while the artist Lee Ufan’s frequent travels between Korea and Japan had resulted in the dissemination of the ideas of Japanese Mono-ha in Korea, with Lee’s status and popularity ensuring his artistic influence was broad-reaching. By the mid-1970s, Dansaekhwa had become a dominant force in Korea and was prominently promoted in Japan through exhibitions such as ‘Korea Facets of Contemporary Art’, held at the Tokyo Central Museum of Art in 1977, as well as the ‘École de Seoul’ and ‘Seoul Contemporary Art Festival’ exhibition series in the Korean capital.


Ha Chonghyun, Work 74-06, 1974, oil on hemp, 1.5 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Ha Chonghyun, Work 74-06, 1974, oil on hemp, 1.5 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Yet, despite these examples of the style’s official recognition, Dansaekhwa in the 1970s was characterized by diverse formal languages and materials exploring themes of tactility, spirit and performance. For instance, Jin Ok-Sun based her works on the repetition of geometric patterns, Kim Yong-Ik experimented with illusion by emphasizing the material quality of fabrics and Park Jang-Nyun explored the effects of creasing through monochrome paint on canvas. Of all the Dansaekhwa artists, Chung Sang-Hwa’s pioneering work most clearly embraced the style’s core concepts; his repeated application and removal of paint, using the cracks created from the folding of canvas, formed powerfully austere statements. It is in the physicality of his works that I have unexpectedly found the physical analogy of the ‘body’ vitally important in understanding Dansaekhwa.

The surfaces of Chung’s canvases form a kind of skin, created through repetitive actions that combine to build up a highly textured surface akin to a weathered landscape. This interest in the relationship between skin and the surface qualities of painting was shared by other artists: Kim Guiline, for example, repeatedly sprayed dozens of layers of black paint over the surface of his canvases; Choi Byung-So drew lines on newspaper with a ballpoint pen until the content was completely obscured; and Lee Dong-Youb left subtle traces of grey paint on his white canvases.

The use of repetition and the emphasis on the physicality of materials can be seen in the recurring rhythmic lines drawn with pencil on gessoed canvas by Park Seobo, as well as in Ha Chonghyun’s use of loosely woven hessian, or Baeapbub, through which he pushed thick oil paint from the back. It is also identifiable in the work of Yun Hyong-Keun, who spread smooth watery pigments of deep brown and blue onto rough cotton, creating a surface reminiscent of traditional ink-wash painting. The physicality of the painting surface is exaggerated in the work of Chung Chang-Sup, who formed shapes by sculpting thick Korean paper pulp with his hands after pouring it over the canvas. The basics of calligraphy, point and line, which Lee learned as a child, are essential motifs in his practice; Lee’s work also reflects the philosophy of the I Ching, which purports that the universe starts and ends at a single point. Kim Guiline’s black paintings resemble the scorched chimneys found in traditional rural Korean houses while Ha’s obverse style of painting reminds us of the ancient building techniques used in Korean adobe houses. These painting methods originate in the unique cultural traditions of Korea and it is no surprise to find the Dansaekhwa artists adopting approaches that differ from the emphasis on vision which underpinned Western abstraction and Minimalism.

From a Western perspective, the ideas and materials used in Dansaekhwa may seem novel or even radical. But given that the second generation of artists working in this style continues to maintain the group’s original ideas – drawing now on the materials of a post-industrial society – it seems undeniable that Dansaekhwa is still a vitally important school. It is because of this ongoing vitality that I believe it is necessary to explore the historical differences between the relatively short-lived period of Minimalist vocabularies in the West and the very different painting experiments happening in Korea at the same time. Dansaekhwa’s formal vocabularies of austerity and simplicity shouldn’t be viewed as mere curiosities or as evidence of that archaic term ‘Orientalism’. Following a recent spate of Dansaekhwa exhibitions around the globe, the conceptual and formal rigour seen in the historical works of these artists has finally spread to an international audience. I am thrilled about this nascent appreciation, as it crystallizes some important points of East-West contact in the history of postwar visual art.


Yun Hyongkeun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1978, oil on linen, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Yun Hyongkeun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1978, oil on linen, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

In my introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition ‘The Facet of Korean and Japanese Contemporary Art’ at the Gwangju Biennale in 2000, I chose to refer to this school of painting as Dansaekhwa rather than Korean Monochrome Painting. I thought that by evoking the ‘monochrome’, which to me suggests something neutral, I risked losing the distinctive qualities that define Dansaekhwa; nor did I wish simply to assign a local flavour to an international phenomenon. As the school finally achieves wider recognition, this becomes an important distinction and, with many Western art specialists now showing an interest in Dansaekhwa, we find ourselves presented with a momentous opportunity to re-evaluate history.

Translated from Korean by Park Hee-Jin.

Joan Kee

Firstly, it should be stressed that Tansaekhwa was never an official movement; there was no consolidated group of artists who consciously worked together toward actualizing a particular set of ideas. Certainly, the artists to which this rubric was retroactively applied (it’s worth remembering that it was critics like Lee Yil and Nakahara Yusuke who first discussed the idea of a ‘Korean monochrome painting’, not the artists themselves) exhibited in the same shows – such as the ‘École de Seoul’ series – graduated from the same schools, namely Hongik University or Seoul National University, were often friends (Chung Sang-Hwa and Kwon Young-woo had studios in the same building in Paris in the late 1970s, for example) and even occasionally painted together (there is a wonderful shot of Park Seobo and Lee Ufan working side by side in Park’s studio in Seoul in August 1972). But there was no manifesto. If Tansaekhwa was a movement it was one that was largely invented to fulfil various agendas, most of which had very little to do with abstraction – or even painting, for that matter. In fact, what all these very different artists had in common was a commitment to thinking more intensively about the constituent elements of mark, line, frame, surface and space around which they understood the medium of painting.

Many artists now classified under the Tansaekhwa rubric began to exhibit their works publicly in 1973. At that time, there was a profound uncertainty about the country’s social system and how to operate within it; less than a year earlier, South Korean president Park Chung-hee had declared martial law. Aside from what might be described as the terrifying arbitrariness of outright dictatorship, even more fundamental, perhaps, was the resulting societal instability. In whom – or what – could you actually trust?

In the art world, much of this anxiety played itself out in the discussion over what exactly the modern and the contemporary entailed. The wonderfully diverse range of works being produced at the time – including, but not limited to, early examples of Tansaekhwa – could be seen as the result of a lack of consensus about what it actually meant to make art for a present whose goalposts seemed to shift constantly.


 Chung Sang-Hwa, Untitled 73-7, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Chung Sang-Hwa, Untitled 73-7, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

We need only think of the extent to which artists like Kwon Young-woo or Yun Hyongkeun challenged received notions about particular media. As artists who had been educated in the 1940s and ’50s, just after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, they contended with the legacy of a Japanese imperial bureaucracy that very clearly distinguished between media based on their constituent materials – oil painting vs. ink, sculpture vs. printing etc. This taxonomy was not easily ignored. Even well into the 1970s, painting – specifically, oil painting – took pride of place; sculpture still hadn’t shaken its pejorative associations with menial labour. At the same time, by the early ’70s the old arbiters of value such as the Kukjŏn – the annual government salon first held in 1948 and modelled along the lines of the imperial Japanese salon – had lost most of its clout. Also, there was no real viable commercial market in Korea for anything other than figurative ink painting, ceramics and, to a much lesser extent, figurative oil painting. Thus, even in some of the darkest days of Korea’s postwar history, there was a peculiar, and perhaps unexpected, sense of freedom that made it possible for artists to think around and between the distinctions that had been vigorously policed for many decades by institutions like the Kukjŏn.

Tansaekhwa artists regarded themselves as painters, yet their kind of painting had little to do with any pre-existing rhetoric, nor did they believe that painting had to live up to any obligation to be allegorical. This is not to say that representation didn’t matter to them, only that their paintings weren’t legible in the way their most ardent champions wanted them to be. While terms such as ‘naturalism’, ‘Koreanness’ and ‘Minimalism’ are frequently invoked vis-à-vis Tansaekhwa, the works themselves highlight the limitations of verbal description.

Born broadly between the late 1920s and the early 1940s, the Tansaekhwa artists were only too aware of the physical and psychological devastation wreaked by the Korean War, which began in 1950. Their understanding of concepts such as permanence, durability and time is strikingly different from that of the next generation. There’s a specificity to how they manipulate paint and its properties that exceeds the kind of decision-making ascribable to taste or strategy; their mark-making verges on a form of self-commemoration, almost as if they fear they may not live to see their works completed.

That work by artists such as Park Seobo or Ha Chonghyun has now been defined as Tansaekwha implies a shift in the promotion and reception of contemporary Korean art – as though the movement has become a form of branding tool. It also points to the emergence of a discrete body of contemporary Asian art, in which Japan-based critics and institutions have played an enormously important role. Yet, the concerns these paintings raise in and of themselves deflect such considerations by getting us to look long and hard at what actually stands before us.


Chung Sang-Hwa, Work 73-1-9, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Chung Sang-Hwa, Work 73-1-9, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath

Dansaekhwa was the result of an organic process: one of many philosophical, political and artistic negotiations and discussions by a number of artists of a certain generation, who found themselves intertwined within a complex network of conflicted histories, geographies, artistic lineages and, ultimately, loyalties. One of the central issues that the Dansaekhwa artists were facing at the time was the oscillation between national identity and artistic identity. This was probably best illustrated by Lee Ufan’s comments at one of the roundtables that coincided with the 1968 ‘Contemporary Korean Painting’ exhibition, held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and intended to offer a panoramic representation of the latest Korean art. In response to a discussion about what contemporary Asian art could be, triggered by a number of reviews that had accused the artists of following the latest art trends of New York and Paris, Lee expressed his frustration at reconciling the gap between what was expected of him as a Korean and what he aspired to be as an artist.

Discussions around notions of the colour white, monochrome and ‘Koreanness’ became either a deliberate topic for Dansaekhwa artists or an ongoing association foisted on the group. Various exhibitions reinforced this: ‘Modern Art 73’ at Myongdong Gallery, Seoul, in 1973; ‘Five Korean Artists: Five Kinds of White’ at Tokyo Gallery in the Ginza district of Tokyo in 1975; and ‘Korea: Facet of Contemporary Art’ in 1977 at Tokyo’s Central Museum of Art, organized by the prominent critic and curator Nakahara Yusuke. Korea’s participation at the 1978–79 ‘Secondes rencontres internationales d’art contemporain’ (Second International Encounters of Contemporary Art), at the Grand Palais in Paris, also comes to mind. Not only did these essentializing evaluations emanate from local Western critics, but also from some Korean journalists. One denounced the works as derivative of Western trends and as failing to adequately represent a country with thousands of years of artistic tradition. Shows that followed years later – ‘Working with Nature: Traditional Thought in Contemporary Art from Korea’ at Tate Liverpool in 1992 or ‘Les peintres du silence’ (Painters of Silence) at the Musée des Arts Asiatiques in Nice in 1998, for instance – were still somewhat burdened by such associations.

An interesting parallel exists between the political disposition underpinning Dansaekhwa’s emphasis on process (action) and the move away from figuration, and the concurrent political framing of Abstract Expressionism in the US as a distinct American counter-position to the Social Realism that was predominant in most postwar communist nations. At the height of the Cold War, leading American critics and historians such as John Canaday, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Leo Steinberg and, of course, Clement Greenberg, celebrated and promoted Abstract Expressionism as the culmination of a pure art; a marker of rebellion against both political and aesthetic agendas. The CIA’s International Cooperation Department was one of the most active divisions in the agency, playing a leading role in promoting ‘American’ Abstract Expressionism, but also introducing the US public to similar artistic manifestations elsewhere as an indication of a form of ‘Internationalism’, thereby relegating the cultural impact of communism’s Social Realism to the margins. This could not have been truer than in the case of South Korea, with its North Korean communist counterpart right next door. It should come as no surprise that the US State Department’s International Cooperation Administration organized the 1957 University of Minnesota show ‘Contemporary Korean Art’ and many other similar cultural exchanges.

While the US was recruiting the agency of art to counter the cultural impact of communism by promoting Abstract Expressionism, it was also providing military and economic assistance to President Park Chung-hee’s political regime in exchange for sending South Korean troops to help with the war in Vietnam. As such, by choosing to abandon figuration, Dansaekhwa artists made it more challenging for the regime to coerce their work into clearly discernible visuals of political propaganda, while still participating in major national exhibitions: a form of subtle revolution from within, perhaps? This is an aspect of Dansaekhwa that merits further investigation.


Park Seobo, Ecriture No. 881106, 1988, mixed media on hanji paper, 1.3 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: Alexander Gray Associates, New York

Park Seobo, Ecriture No. 881106, 1988, mixed media on hanji paper, 1.3 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: Alexander Gray Associates, New York

Although the term ‘monochrome’ has long been associated with Dansaekhwa, we embarked on an interesting discussion with Lee and Yoon in a symposium at Kukje Gallery last September in which we challenged its relevance. We proposed the term ‘process’ rather than monochrome. From speaking to Dansaekhwa artists, or referring to what they have left behind in their writings and other accounts, none of them seems to have been primarily concerned with colour, but rather with the process of a physical action that occupied a period of time and took place in a set space; one that centred on repetition, rhythm and an uncompromising acknowledgment of the materiality and act of painting. It would be interesting to explore the validity of such a term, if not as a substitute then as an equally indicative expression of what Dansaekhwa attempts to do. Questioning the term ‘monochrome’ provides us with a platform for critical reflection on the association of Dansaekhwa with abstraction. We see abstraction as, arguably, a consequence of the artists’ approach to painting and not a primary formalistic concern or end. Painting to these artists is an act of physical movement and interaction with the canvas and materials rather than a gradual process towards the abstract representation of physical things.

Our interest in Dansaekhwa stems from our ongoing investigation into Modernity and the negotiation of its premises and foundations in different parts of the world. Modernity cannot be viewed simply as a Western construct that was imported to other places only to be simulated to a less successful extent. If European Modernism owes the regeneration of its pictorial and stylistic language at least in part to the influx of the cultural objects of the Other (against a contested colonial backdrop), why can it not be argued that Dansaekhwa is an example of a similar act of negotiation and appropriation? In other words, if European Modernism’s adaptations and reformulations of aesthetics different to their own have been hailed as Avant-garde, why is any discussion about a similar, non-European counterpart almost always framed within a rhetoric of imitation and nationalism? This is a critical question to be explored further when contemplating new avenues or frameworks for how to speak or write about Dansaekhwa.

Yoon Jin Sup is a freelance curator, art critic and artist who lives in Seoul, Korea. He curated ‘Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting’ for the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in 2012, and ‘The Art of Dansaekhwa’ at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, in 2014. He is currently President of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) International Congress, Korea.

Joan Kee is Associate Professor of History of Art at the University of Michigan, USA, specializing in Modern and contemporary art, and the author of over 70 publications on contemporary Asian art, including Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (Minnesota, 2013). In 2014, she curated ‘From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction’, at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, USA, the first major survey of Dansaekhwa outside of Korea.

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath are the co-founders of the curatorial platform Art Reoriented, based in Munich, Germany, and New York, USA. Recent exhibitions in 2014 include ‘Songs of Loss and Songs of Love’ at the Gwangju Museum of Art, Korea, ‘Overcoming the Modern: Dansaekhwa’ at Alexander Gray in New York and ‘Mona Hatoum: Turbulence’ at Mathaf in Doha, Qatar. In 2013, they curated the Lebanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Italy. Their latest book Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring: Conversations with Artists from the Arab World will be published by Skira this spring.



Posted : 2016-11-01 16:43

Updated : 2016-11-01 19:49

Korean art gains more global presence

An installation view of “Dansaekhwa” exhibit at the Palazzo Contarini-Polignac in Venice, Italy in 2015.
/ Courtesy of Kukje Gallery

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Korea’s contemporary art has gained a strong presence on the international art scene, mainly with a rediscovered art movement from the 1970s as well as a new generation of artists making their names globally. The boom breathed life into the art market; according to, the Korean art market has become the 10th largest in the world in terms of art auction turnover as of 2015.

Reflecting increasing interest in Korean art, more international art figures are visiting Korea and providing new insights on the swelling presence of Korean art.

An internationally established gallerist, who believes her role is to bring attention to notable artists, said Korea has become a key player in the international art market.

Art dealer and collector Pearl Lam

Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong-based art dealer and owner of Pearl Lam Galleries, visited Korea last month to see two artists managed by her gallery — Kim Tschang-yeul and Suki Seokyeong Kang.

The two artists are poles apart ― Kim, 87, is an established artist who developed his own water drop painting style over a lifetime, while Kang, 38, explores harmony and balance through installation works based on the backgrounds of Oriental paintings.

Lam praised the spirituality in Kim’s works. “He is very intellectual. Who would you paint just a drop of water? This is really touching. I am studying more about his works and how he thinks. And I think he is a thinker on top of that,” Lam said in an interview with The Korea Times during her stay in Seoul. “For many years, a lot of quiet, meditative art has been out of focus of the art world. In the world with such heavy consumerism, we have to go back and look at things with more spirituality.”

Lam will present Kim’s signature water drop paintings at her Hong Kong gallery next March, which coincides with Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, Asia’s largest contemporary art fair.

“My job is to make him international and make his work known internationally. And that is why we chose the period of Art Basel Hong Kong time with a lot of international collectors coming so that they can see his works, especially early ones from the 1970s,” Lam said.

An installation view of “Foot & Moon,” a solo exhibition of Suki Seokyeong Kang at Pearl Lam Gallery in
Hong Kong

Kang majored in Oriental painting at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, and further studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London. Lam said Kang’s installations are time-consuming, but have an intellectual feeling.

“I visited her studio earlier this year and when I saw her work, I just loved it — for whatever reason, I don’t know. But I think Kang is an amazing artist,” the art dealer said. “I think in Korea you have many fantastic artists.”

Lam does not label Kim and Kang as Korean artists. “They are both good artists and I’m only interested in good artists. Actually, I don’t have problems with (an artist’s) passport,” Lam said. “For me, it’s not about Chinese, Korean, American or whatever. Whether you are a good artist or not is the only thing that matters.”

Lam, a daughter of the late Hong Kong tycoon Lim Por-yen, has been a pioneer in the Chinese art world since the early 1990s, when the world paid little to no attention to Chinese contemporary art.

“I am promoting the Asian perspective, rather than a Western point of view,” Lam said. “The West colonized all Asian culture for a long time until now. Most artists study in the West, learn the Western approach to art and think from the Western perspective with a sprinkle of local context. That’s too easy.”

That is the reason why Lam is interested in artists who deconstruct such a Western approach.

Lam analyzed that the Dansaekhwa phenomenon is a part of the art world’s interest in the postwar period.

“People are always looking at what happened after the World War II. In Europe, it is the beginning of everything ― we have the Zero Movement from Germany and then Arte Povera in Italy. Then it goes to Japan and they discover the Gutai group and Mono-ha Movement,” Lam said. “What happened in Korea after World War II is the Korean War and then the Dansaekhwa. We are always looking at the first art movement after the war and all of today’s contemporary art rises from that moment.

“It is interesting that people don’t see the world. I think they should see the world’s context,” Lam said.

Lam said if Korea didn’t impose an import tax on artworks, the art capital of Asia would be here.

“Hong Kong is a tax-free port and there is no censorship, so it became an art hub of Asia. We are still missing institutions for cultivating art in order to truly become a cultural center,” Lam said. “Korea has become an important market in the global art scene and international galleries all talk about Korea. There are many art museums and collectors in Korea, which constitute the commercial market base.”

Dansaekhwa to make splash in China


Dansaekhwa paintingChung Chang-sup’s “UNTITLED 73-12-11” / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

Dansaekhwa, or Korean monochrome painting, continues to receive market and critical attention internationally. Dansaekhwa is Korea’s first collective and international art movement that bloomed in the 1970s. It reflects Korean sentiments and aesthetics by investigating flatness and materiality through a process of repetition and meditation.

In June, Chung Sang-hwa held his first solo exhibition in the United States, jointly hosted by Dominique Levy Gallery and Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. Levy commented that Chung was singular in his ritualistic and systematic approach. “Chung’s process is so deeply temporal that it becomes an act of contemplation, of meditation, and that is as much his work as the canvas itself,” she said.

Paintings of fellow Dansaekhwa artist Yun Hyong-keun (1928-2007) will be presented in New York’s David Zwirner Gallery from Jan. 13 to Feb. 19, 2017. The artist’s Korean promoter PKM Gallery said, “We will be at the forefront of promoting Yun’s paintings and strengthening his status at David Zwirner Gallery and also in the international art market.”

Yun was one of the earliest Dansaekhwa artists who made his name internationally. American sculptor Donald Judd (1928-1994) noticed the restrained elegance in Yun’s works when he visited Korea and later invited Yun for an exhibit at the Chinati Foundation, his contemporary art museum in Marfa, Texass.

Budi Tek, founder of the Yuz Museum in Shanghai

The Korean art movement got noticed by Chinese as well and will have a major survey in a contemporary art museum in Shanghai next autumn.

Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and chairman of the Yuz Foundation, visited Korea in October to announce the first Dansaekhwa show in China at Yuz Museum in Shanghai.

“It is my way of respecting the originality of those master artists of Dansaekhwa,” Tek said.

Yuz Museum is a contemporary museum that holds exhibitions based on Tek’s extensive collections of Chinese and Western art as well as the world’s top artists such as Yang Fudong, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol.

As a collector, Tek owns Dansaekhwa paintings, but he did not disclose the details of his own collection of Korean monochrome paintings. The Yuz exhibition of Dansaekhwa will be organized in collaboration with several Korean and international art institutions.

“Dansaekhwa is a major achievement for the Korean art scene and it could be the missing link in Asian contemporary art. I congratulate this successful, admirable movement,” Tek said.

Tek said he has great expectations for the upcoming Dansaekhwa exhibit, which will present the art movement in the context of Chinese and international contemporary art.

“The three philosophical tendencies of Chinese contemporary art are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Dansaekhwa is talking about nature, minimalism and emptiness, which are related to Taoism,” he said. “Dansaekhwa is part of the Asian philosophical movement, which is very important in the contemporary art world. We are talking about contemporary art, not country, in terms of art movement.”

The collector-philanthropist said Dansaekhwa has been ignored for many decades, but being rediscovered later rather raised the value of the works, just like a matured wine tastes better.

“Many good artists succeed too early and fail too soon, being corrupted by market forces. Dansaekhwa is so beautiful, simple and spiritual because it was not interfered with by the market too early,” Tek said.

Is Albert Oehlen Germany’s Greatest Painter of the 21st century?



Portrait Albert Oehlen

Source Code and Stress Test

Like almost no other artist, Albert Oehlen subjects painting to a stress test. For over 30 years he’s been tinkering with the medium’s source code: colour and paint application, lines and layers, titles and triumphs, disappointments and expectations. These elements are all played against one another and caught off guard. Daniel Baumann leads us through the work.

Networks were invented to facilitate communication between dissimilar systems, the media theorist, artist, and programmer Alexander R. Galloway wrote in Spike #39. One could say that art has an analogous function: it develops its meaning as a network linking thinking and life. What particularly struck me about Galloway’s article, however, was his description of software as existing in three distinct modes: source code, executable code, and interface. This got me thinking that the majority of so-called post-Internet art barely ever goes beyond the interface – that is, beyond a desktop-like appearance. This would explain why such art is always immediately recognizable even though it comes in many different forms: it is an art of the surface. Among the huge array of objects, texts, painted-over prints, and distorted scans, one can indeed find works that deal with source code and contend with the depths it involves. But it’s not so easy to tell them apart from all the rest. Similarly, at the beginning of the 1980s, it wasn’t immediately apparent how and why Albert Oehlen’s paintings were so different from the “wild” Neo-Expressionism that was everywhere at the time. Leafing through the catalogues and books focusing on German art from this era, one finds images of Oehlen’s work alongside paintings by Elvira Bach, Werner Büttner, Walter Dahn, Martin Disler, Georg Herold, Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Middendorf, Markus Oehlen, Salomé, Klaudia Schifferle, and Andreas Schulze – and the difference is not always so obvious.

Yet it would have been possible quite early on to see that Oehlen’s concerns lay elsewhere. Initial clues were offered by the titles of his paintings: among them Gegen den Liberalismus (Against Liberalism, 1980); Morgenlicht fällt ins Führerhauptquartier (Morning Light Falls in the Führer’s Headquarters, 1982); Treppenhaus Spezial (Staircase Special, 1984); and Selbstporträt mit verschissener Unterhose und blauer Mauritius (Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius, 1984). There is no mode of painting that can cover such a wide range of themes and non-themes, but that was exactly the point. Like Büttner and Kippenberger, or above all Sigmar Polke, Oehlen used such statements to push the subject matter and imagery of painting to the limits of its potential, as a way of demystifying the medium, undermining expectations and, ultimately, liberating art from the mission it was purported to have by collectors, institutions, and admirers of artists like Joseph Beuys or Anselm Kiefer. “So, what you had to do was to put an excessive amount of stress on the medium [painting], that’s how the real beauty comes out,” Oehlen explained in a 1991 conversation with Wilfried Dickhoff and the Austrian linguist Martin Prinzhorn, who was among the first to participate in the discussion of this strategy of making excessive demands.

In the exhibition catalogue for a show at Galerie Borgmann Capitain in Cologne in 1986, Prinzhorn gives an accurate description of how Oehlen’s art resists any simple meaning being ascribed to it: “For art criticism, that old game of allocating form and content is always central. No matter how complex it might be, it ultimately always aims at a form of ‘understanding’ that presupposes such an endeavour as a meaningful allegory or metaphor. The art we are discussing here does not allow for these kinds of interpretative mechanisms.”

As recently as 2005, American curator Bonnie Clearwater wrote: “Albert Oehlen is a difficult artist to pin down. This is deliberate on his part.” To this day, most of the writing on Oehlen is an attempt to do just that. This endeavour is confronted by a body of work that exploits contradictions and assimilates them into its underlying structure.

In addition, attempts to domesticate Oehlen’s work are made more difficult by the artist himself staking out a position in his writings and giving numerous interviews that turn commonly held ideas upside-down.

Until 1987, Oehlen made figurative paintings that didn’t differentiate between the sincere and the banal and primarily worked with a spectrum of greys and browns. In 1984 he introduced the three primary colours, blue, red, and yellow, as if the point were to think back to Mondrian. This is when he painted Portrait A.H. (1984), a large-format portrait of Adolf Hitler in primary colours – which still seems borderline today. Also around this time, Oehlen began experimenting with elements foreign to painting proper, incorporating stickers, metal signs, and above all mirrors into his paintings. He opened up the closed space of the canvas using the most banal means possible. In this way, Oehlen’s work feigns a conceptual approach that ostensibly provides an easy point of entry for people doubtful of painting’s value. Finally, in 1987, Oehlen produced a series of figurative works, each of which was titled Abstract Painting. What was originally intended as a dig at the traditional opposition of figuration and abstraction became a long-term engagement with abstract painting – insofar as this is still a valid term.

Oehlen claims that his behaviour and artistic practice as a young artist were also an attempt to break into the temple of painting. In 1988, something went missing as part of this process and hasn’t returned since: perspective. Kippenberger’s 1986 exhibition “Die Perspektivenscheisse” (The Perspective-Shit) at Gerald Just in Hannover already signalled that something was in the air. In 1989, the same year as the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people did indeed lose perspective. In Oehlen’s case, it was replaced with layering: the pictorial space, which had previously been structured hierarchically with foreground, middle ground, and background, began to spread across the picture plane and stack up in multiple layers. This gave a new prominence to colour as a material as well as to the role of line.

In 1991 Oehlen began making drawings on the computer without knowing too much about the technical details. The resulting images were printed out, silkscreened onto large canvases, and worked on some more with paint. The computer-drawn lines became monumental, raising questions around the nature of materiality. While the digital offers no resistance and can be modified at will, paint insists on a life of its own: its sheen varies, depending on the way the light falls; it drips or is too matte or thick in all the wrong places. There is a certain arrogance to its materiality – a quality foreign to the digital, which is so endlessly compliant. In the following years, Oehlen conducted further experiments with the digital, working through various possibilities for drawing and colour, and creating invitation cards and posters that look as if Photoshop were having a bad dream. Oehlen then continued to broaden his territory, especially in the late 90s, with a series of grey paintings in which he adopts Gerhard Richter’s famous blurring technique. As in Richter’s works, this process resulted in images that both suggested a lot of associations and were formally elegant. One might think that such an effect is inevitable: blurry grey is always a big hit. This would seem to support Walter Robinson’s theory of “zombie formalism”, which claims that contemporary painting is dominated by work that refers in more or less covert ways to art (like the work of Christopher Wool or Albert Oehlen) that is well established on the market.

After the turn of the millennium, Oehlen’s practice expanded at an even faster pace. This period saw the emergence of collage, such as that shown at the Vienna Secession in 2004; collage on paintings, as shown at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin in 2011; paintings on collage, as shown at Gagosian in New York in 2014. He has also made large pictures by gluing advertising posters on top of one another; finger paintings; large charcoal drawings; and, since 2014, paintings on aluminium Dibond that depict the dark silhouettes of trees against a red and white background. Trees first appeared in Oehlen’s work in the late 80s; now, 25 years later, they have been given their own extensive series. According to Oehlen, the tree works well as a form because it is both abstract and figurative, while allowing for flatness and depth, detail and mass, density and line. As a structure, it engenders connections through the image, as well as obscuring it and partitioning it. And it is powerful enough to hold its own against the layers of red and white. These paintings have a somewhat monstrous quality. They are astonishingly cold and harsh, and leave a striking impression of irreconcilability.

The details are fantastic: the matteness, the sheen, the brushstrokes, the fade-to-white, the traces of glue, the spray paint particles, the lines. Above all: the lines. If anything, these lines are the content of Oehlen’s work.

They invite the viewer to look closely, to study the application of paint, the edges, sections, and progressions. Standing in front of an Oehlen painting is like standing in front of an idea. These paintings cancel out the division between form and content, figuration and abstraction. Whether they are good or bad or wrong, they are aware of their particular depth, but it has nothing to do with perspective. Instead it has everything to do with the details – they are the source code from which the image is produced, which is also what breaks down the system of painting. It’s in the details that a space opens up, space that is also time – the time one takes to look, without ever being seduced, without ever being instructed, without ever being tickled by tricks, without having to love. For me, these paintings bring to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films, which have a sense of distance that is hard to match. These pictures are like an Internet protocol that enables the very possibility of exchange.

Translated by Bonnie Begusch


ALBERT OEHLEN, born 1954 in Krefeld, lives in Switzerland. EXHIBITIONS: Home and GardenNew Museum, New York (solo); An Old Painting in Spirit, Kunsthalle Zürich (solo) (2015); Fabric Paintings, Skarstedt Gallery, New York (solo); Variations: Conversations in and around Abstract Painting, LACMA, Los Angeles; Die 5000 Finger von Dr. Ö, Museum Wiesbaden (solo); Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles (solo); Galerie Max Hetzler, Paris (solo); do it Moscow, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moskau; No Problem: Cologne/ New York, 1984–1989, David Zwirner, New York (2014); mumok, Wien (solo); La Biennale di Venezia; Albert Oehlen / John Sparagana, Studiolo, Zürich (2013). REPRESENTED BY Gagosian Gallery, New York; Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Paris

DANIEL BAUMANN is director of Kunsthalle Zürich.



Home and Garden


New York didn’t get the Albert Oehlen survey it deserved. Although there are plenty of strong paintings among the twenty-five or so included in Home and Garden at the New Museum, and for the most part they are installed to sufficient impact, this show short-changes Oehlen’s crucial relationship to the legacy of New York painting since the 1940s, without which he would be far less the critical painter he has been for some time. Leaving underwhelmed, my assessment was reinforced by a small yet potent presentation of works from 2011 and 2013 at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago that collage silhouettes of Swiss cows onto canvases to make complicated paintings with no paint. The works in Chicago distill and extend the terms of the two most recent works at the New Museum, both Untitled (2009-11), representatives of Oehlen’s “Fingermalerei” (finger paintings) that put the look of New York School painting front and center with or without apology. (It’s not clear why the New Museum show doesn’t include any work made after 2011.)

Albert Oehlen, Festnahme [Arrest], 1996. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 75 1/4 × 96 1/2 in.

Before I get into what I’m trying to get at, I want to be clear that I don’t think the artist is to be blamed for this missed opportunity. Surveys, as such, are often nasty business, and Oehlen’s production has been tailor-made to resist summation, clarification, and established (or the establishment of) historical frameworks. Moreover the virtual evidence of his concurrent exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich, called “An Old Painting in Spirit,” suggests more momentum is there, if only because of the inclusion of brand new paintings that look in pixelated reproduction like, yes, something new.

It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that my disappointment is with the curator. And while it may be old news for any of us who have put up with tired and repetitive rhetoric about painting since the late 1980s, at this point—well into the 21st century—I’ll admit to being surprised by reading this in Massimiliano Gioni’s essay: “It is ironic—if not downright depressing or, perhaps sadly illuminating—that one of the best descriptions of what life in the digital era feels like had to be captured in the old medium of painting rather than in some new, hyper-technological invention.” I’m not sure this is the most productive bias to have when organizing a show of Oehlen, given that he has dismantled it probably more than any other contemporary artist. Maybe painting never gave up its ability to provide some of the best descriptions of life. Like a killer pop song or jazz riff (more about this below), painting can embody or provoke contradictory attitudes all at once. Painting may be old, but it is not over the hill.

Since the beginning of his career Oehlen has provided plenty of bait for curators and critics who went all in against painting. As a student of Sigmar Polke’s in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1980s, he was well positioned to take up the terms of “bad painting” that had been established the decade before and produce early pictures that provide the triple insult of first making “bad” versions of “bad painting,” then giving them what they need to hide in plain sight amongst so-called new-expressionism (aping what I once heard Lari Pittman describe as “it’s my feelings painting” with a requisite brown palette and squiggles), and, finally then a half-hearted slap of self-portraiture. Self-portrait with One-hole Vase [Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf] (1984) is one of two prime examples included here, and with the advantage of hindsight it sets up the enduring attitude of Oehlen’s work: representing himself as a hunched over pasty-faced puppet, it looks as if he was using his wooden finger to stick his doubts about painting in that damn vase. (I think this painting might also be a nod to Willem de Kooning’s The Glazier (1940), but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Albert Oehlen, Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf [Self- portrait with One-hole Vase], 1984. Oil on canvas, 67 × 102 3/8 in.

From there, the exhibition jumps to five paintings from 1988, 1989, and 1992, when Oehlen turned to abstraction alongside his partner in crime Martin Kippenberger. These canvases are from the period when I was first introduced to Oehlen’s work (at Luhring Augustine in 1991), and seeing them here lined up on a wall my first thought was that they did not age well. When this body of work was first shown it held a certain interest with a peculiar range of painterly moves that managed to survive the brown (so much brown!) but a tentativeness has now overtaken them. Nonetheless they are critical to understanding the bigger picture of Oehlen’s significant achievements, triumphs that I think have everything to do with New York painting before the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, etc. I could call this the de Kooning problem, but instead I think it’s an answer to some of the current thinking about painting overall.

In the catalogue, Gioni is joined by Mark Godfrey who, in his essay, makes it clear that he does know painting. However he only gives passing mention to de Kooning while stating the obvious: Oehlen’s path to abstraction was not like Mondrian’s or Malevich’s or Barnett Newman’s. I find this disingenuous when what Oehlen’s path is like is de Kooning’s. As John Elderfield’s impeccable 2011 MoMA survey demonstrated, de Kooning was as much a vulgarian as anyone who has followed him, willing to upend expectations again and again. That Oehlen has what de Kooning had does not mean that his work is lesser for having been “done” before in both attitude and form. Instead it provides solid evidence that some of the best things about painting really never change, and one of those things is that painting never stops being contradictory.

In 1963 Roy Lichtenstein said he wanted to make a painting that was so “despicable” that no one would want to hang it, and no doubt many at the time thought he had achieved just that. Three years later, John Adkins Richardson published an essay, now ripe for rediscovery, called “Dada, Camp, and the Mode Called Pop” in which he wrote about some black Jazz musicians who created “masterpieces of condescension”: “Because the performance of these ‘put ons’ requires great technical facility and inasmuch as they are done with good humor they are not offensive to anyone, least of all to the rare white man who comprehends their purpose.” Technical facility doesn’t really change, even if it looks or operates differently in various historical periods. It’s the attitude that is never able to be only one thing or stay the same over time, whether in the double-duty love/hate, authentic/fabricated strokes of a mid-1950s de Kooning (see my review of the MoMA retrospective in the October 2011 Rail), or the computer paintings that Oehlen started in the early 1990s.

The five computer paintings that come next in the chronology of Oehlen’s survey are the tipping point of his work overall, because it’s only after them that Oehlen becomes the “technician of freedom” that he proclaimed with authority and spot-on humor in his recent commencement address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The constraints of the New Museum do achieve one surprise: they amplify Oehlen’s achievements as some of the super-sized paintings of the early 2000s are able to remain approachable and even intimate in perverse, perfect ways: Born to be late (2001), for example, is breathtaking here mainly because it remains inviting while being irritating and too much. It’s also one of my favorites because it has the perfect title to push back against the notion that painting has been, or will ever have to be, on the clock.


Terry R. Myers TERRY MYERS is a Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


June 8, 2015 5:00 p.m.

Albert Oehlen Is Like a Badger of Painting


Party Dreams, 2001. Inkjet print and mixed mediums on canvas. Photo: Courtesy Cristin Tierney Gallery

The New Museum’s tight two-floor, 27-work exhibition of Albert Oehlen gives ample evidence of the ways and whys this 61-year-old German artist is one of the most influential painters working anywhere today—a virtual freedom machine. Oehlen is like a badger of painting, a cross between a weasel and a small bear, fearlessly scouring painting’s possibilities, implications, and metaprograms, scavenging for sweet spots, weaknesses, ways to decode, remap, and break down the medium’s programs, surfaces, image depiction, markmaking, and brushstrokes. I love his work, but I am not even sure that I actually like it. I hear the liberating bells it rings, and revel in them. And yet his work almost always has the look of being messy and structurally delirious, with so many visual and coloristic cross-references firing at once that they become soups of incredible pictorial gibberish. Like they come at me too hard.

For the first eight years of his career, I think I thought of Oehlen as a strong second-string Kippenberger, Schnabel, Markus Lüpertz, or Polke type of painter — German, punkish, trashy, brash, tearing up painting in carnivorous ways. That was in the early 1980s, and I found him good and smart but not up to first-level ambition or admiration. I don’t think I thought about him again until the mid-1990s. Then he threw me for a real loop. His early work had been large, splashy mash-ups of figures, household objects, and abstract shapes in marshy fields of muddy color. Then, almost out of nowhere, and probably before anyone of his generation, in 1992, he began probing the significant surfaces and possibilities of digital imagery and the tools that make it. Employing a Texas Instruments computer and picture programs, along with spray-paint, silk screen, collage, and bushstrokes, utilizing mainly black and white — colors that are more ideas than real, as they don’t actually exist in nature — he suddenly developed a subspecies of painting all his own. So many other artists have now followed in his footsteps that it may be hard for viewers to grasp just how shocking this work looked at the time. At least it was for me.

Untitled, 2007. Oil and paper on canvas. Photo: Collection Cynthia and Abe Steinberger

When you get to the section of the show containing these, you’re seeing Oehlen finding something in painting’s inherent program, something that must have been there from the beginning — another level of abstract possibilities and endless processes, a way to almost paint against painting’s program, rather than making the medium adapt and absorb human needs. This opened 10,000 doors, to as many artists. Pause here to give Oehlen props — even if the works strike you as stark, too stripped-down, lazy, or the beginning of too many subsequent bad careers to name. Oehlen found a way to embed electromagnetic information into the spaces, surfaces, and materials of painting.

They struck me that way, too. As when I had relegated him to the second tier in the ’80s, in the mid-1990s, I saw these black-and-white works as too easy, thought the surfaces looked slapped together, and couldn’t process that lines were being made with a new device called a “mouse” and then transferred into coded files and reproduced onto the canvas. (Almost the exact resistances we see today to artists like Wade Guyton and Richard Prince.) I had no problem with an artist not touching his work — this was nearly 100 years on from Duchamp, and 30 years after Warhol. And yet I failed to see that Oehlen had bypassed then-fashionable critique theory and deconstructions of painting. Instead he was voraciously badgering the medium’s carcass, transforming, reevaluating, seeing that painting’s deepest structures contained the possibilities of adaptation, mutation, and growth while also redefining skill and beauty and maybe tools. The ways he was doing all that even now look radical and magical, like maps to other kinds of thinking, graphic worlds, and chains of non-symbolic meaning.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Oehlen also created large, allover abstract fields of reproduced images, pictures that looked swollen from bee stings, out of focus, about to erupt into visual nothingness. His colors became highly keyed-up, acidic, hazes of pink, purple, magenta. With little annoying bad-boy nihilism, these works seemed to take old-school Abstract Expressionism, Rauschenberg, and Rosenquist on pop-punk joyrides, all the while maintaining graphic-pictorial integrity and control. Again, I’m not even sure I actually like these paintings. Yet I see them as real signposts pointing in so many directions simultaneously that I see these canvases as compasses to wherever I allow them to take me.

For this, the curators of this show deserve a lot of credit. Not only because the New Museum has one of the worst spaces for exhibitions, but because rather than laying out a building-filling survey of an art star, they have chosen to give us two or three of these highly unstable crucial oscillation points in Oehlen’s career. The result is that you see through mastery and market thoughts, and glimpse an artist whose energy is hot like de Kooning’s but whose work is endlessly ironic, posed, utilizing ideas that others and probably he dismissed as useless, silly, stupid. That’s what I meant by calling Oehlen a “freedom machine.” We’re not just seeing silk screening, computer graphics, color, images, and the like; the deep content of this work is flexibility, openness, the willingness to abandon everything to see how much more the vessel of painting and even the self might hold, while at the same time making it all look as easy and sometimes as ugly as pie. Oehlen reminds us that first and foremost, all artists are or should be technicians of freedom that set other people loose.


Artists Q&A

‘Humans Will Have the Last Word’: A Talk With Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen photographed on June 8 at the New Museum.


A retrospective of Albert Oehlen’s work runs through September 13 at the New Museum in New York.

Bill Powers: I understand that in high school you papered your bedroom walls with cheap supermarket advertising.
Albert Oehlen: That’s right. When I was fifteen. It was my kind of protest. I was living with—what I considered—a bourgeois family.

BP: I heard you once made a rule that on half of a canvas you would use only expensive paint and on the other half very cheap paint.
AO: Yeah, I did these kinds of experiments a lot. It has an impact on your work. It makes things slower and you come to impossible results. You might put your paint in alphabetical order and say, “I’m only using A through K today.” It makes no sense, but you wonder what will happen on the canvas.

BP: Is that something you learned from Sigmar Polke? The need to experiment?
AO: This is stuff that just came to mind, but I did find out that other artists had similar ideas, yes. Like when Malcolm Morley makes an oil painting after a watercolor he did—he transfers it with these grids and is able to keep the aesthetic of watercolor, only done in oil. For someone who knows about painting you can see how that’s strange. I love this kind of thinking. Malcolm Morley has done a lot in that direction and has a kind of humor.

BP: Is humor something that you value in painting?
AO: I think it should be there anyway.

BP: People make a big deal about your use of technology in painting. Do you remember the first time you worked with Photoshop?
AO: The thing that was important for me was when, in 1990, I got a Texas Instruments laptop. I liked the pixelation. It was like a filter: take it or leave it. Then I thought the only way for me not to accept what was happening there was to hand-paint over it. This meant that I had the last word instead of the technology. And I liked the fact that I could call what I did “computer paintings.” Also, they captured a moment in history. They are time-stamped by the technology.

BP: And you were employing this technology in real time. There was nothing nostalgic about it as in, say, the Mario Brothers videos of Cory Arcangel.
AO: It really depends on what you want. I wasn’t trying to profit from the technology—in fact, quite the opposite. I made a fool of myself and of the technology. It was a struggle between us.

BP: In the end will technology overtake us? Like when Garry Kasparov plays the computer in chess, is it just a matter of time before the machines win?
AO: I don’t know if I can give the right answer, but I know the answer I want to be true: humans will have the last word.

BP: Has music directly influenced your art? I know John Currin will listen to horror music or bad heavy metal in the studio.
AO: I did a lot of paintings listening to Frankie Laine.

BP: That’s not very punk rock of you.
AO: It just put me in the right mood.

BP: Christopher Wool is a good friend of yours. What did you think of his recent show at Luhring Augustine?
AO: I loved it. When I first saw photos of the sculptures I thought he’d gone crazy. Then, when I saw them in person, I realized how smart they are.

BP: You made your fabric paintings in the early ’90s while living in Spain?
AO: Martin Kippenberger and I went to live in the Spanish countryside, but then we moved to Madrid because it got too boring.

BP: Can we talk about your relationship with Kippenberger? What did you admire about him?
AO: Technically he was far ahead of all of us. He could sit in front of a painting and work on it for hours. I could never do that. I’d step back, interrupt the process, but I saw myself as a real artist. Kippenberger was very disciplined and I liked his craziness. Also, I liked his feedback very much.

BP: So you guys would trade ideas?
AO: He would see something that I was doing and would respond to it, make something more extreme. I made funny self-portraits, then he made self-portraits, almost as an answer to me, a parody on it—like the thing with the swastika. Do you know this story? I painted a Rodchenko sculpture and he looked at my painting and said, “For the life of me, I can’t see the swastika in this painting.” He made a joke of it. If you were with Kippenberger, you had to take whatever he dished out. You might tell him about an idea you had for a new painting one night, and the next morning he would have made 20 of them. You couldn’t even be mad at him.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “ ‘Humans Will Have the Last Word’: A Talk With Albert Oehlen.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


Albert Oehlen: ‘There’s something hysterical about magenta’

Fuelled by beer and speed, Albert Oehlen ran riot through the Berlin art world. He made intentionally bad paintings, worked only in grey, and was even anti-art altogether. Now’s he’s living the outdoors life in Switzerland – so why do his trees still look psychopathic?

A detail from Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, by Albert Oehlen
‘Alarming’ … a detail from Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, by Albert Oehlen. Photograph: Stefan Rohner/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Albert Oehlen has filled the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair with big paintings of trees. Oehlen’s trees are black, skeletal and deformed-looking, their thin curving branches extending beyond blocks of smeared magenta into pure white backgrounds. In some paintings, straight black parallel lines suggest the trees are standing on an autobahn and, indeed, their minimalism and bold colours would not look out of place on a Kraftwerk album cover.

In others, a single long line of black spray-paint trails across the canvas like a hurried graffiti scrawl – except that these are not canvases, but shiny, smooth, synthetic sheets of Dibond, a polythene-coated aluminium board more commonly used for advertising displays in trade fairs. “I like the stiffness,” says Oehlen, “It has this modern technological feel to it, and it’s actually much easier to paint on than canvas. I wasn’t looking for another surface, I just tried it one day and liked it.”

Untitled (Baum 46), 2015
Untitled (Baum 46), 2015. Photograph: Stefan Rohner/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

This kind of accidental development is emblematic of Oehlen’s approach to making art, which is somehow both instinctive and cerebral. He paints in the long shadow of abstraction, abstract expressionism and minimalism, as if aware that the act of painting is a gesture of defiance in the face of history. When he talks about his work, it is often in a self-deprecating and mischievous way. It is almost as if he doesn’t take his vocation seriously, when in fact the opposite is true. Like his paintings, Oehlen is hard to pin down: elusive, I suspect, by nature rather than design.

“I don’t intend to be cryptic or difficult,” he says at one point, “I am like I am. I work and sometimes I get ideas and I pursue those ideas until I exhaust them. To me, it all fits together. It’s a continuous work for me – and of me.” As is often the case, his attempt at elucidation ends with a wry laugh. I have never encountered an artist who so effortlessly debunks the myth that to make art you must be a tortured soul. “I do struggle,” he says, “but mostly, I struggle because I have a lot of work to do. Often, I have one recurring problem: how to make a painting that is entertaining – to me and to everyone else. It’s a lot of effort, that one idea. It means I am often trying to do something that is impossible. So, yes, what I do is playful, but it is also work.”

Albert Oehlen
Neue Wilde no longer … ‘We wanted to be – pathetic words – new and provocative’: Albert Oehlen. Photograph: Oliver Schultz-Berndt

Oehlen currently lives and works in Buhlen, a small town near Zurich. It seems an oddly sedate base for a former enfant terrible of German painting, but the days of beer and speed in post-punk Berlin have given way to an outdoor lifestyle of hiking and skiing in the surrounding mountains. Back then, Oehlen was best friends with the hard-drinking Martin Kippenberger, and at the vanguard of the Neue Wilde movement. “We hung out together, we had fun, we got into trouble. We wanted to be – pathetic words – ‘new and provocative’. But, the flip side of that coin is that you can’t ask for success because you have set yourself up to be totally against the very idea of success.”

It all sounds like an impossibly faraway time, before the tyranny of the global market turned artists into unapologetic careerists. “I was even against art for a while,” he says, laughing. “Punk was in the air, but, really I didn’t belong to punk.” As a strategy, though, punk made sense to him. “It interested me because it asked the question – what happens if you work with something that you are not a master of and don’t control? That’s still an interesting question.”

It is one that has resounded though all of Oehlen’s work to one degree or another, not least in his constant adopting of often absurd-seeming rules and limitations. He once laboured on a series of paintings in which he only used shades of grey. For another series of intentionally “bad paintings” – including a garish portrait of Hitler – he stuck rigorously to red, yellow and blue.

Untitled (Baum 30), 2015
Untitled (Baum 30), 2015. Photograph: Stuart Burford photography/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

He has an odd and wilfully dysfunctional relationship with what many might consider the most fundamental aspect of painting: colour. “For a long time, I just didn’t care about it,” he told me, when I visited his studio, which looks out over snow-covered rooftops to the mountains beyond. “I just put my paint on the palette and worked with what was there. Then I thought, what would happen if I did care about colour?”

It is this kind of approach that has led some critics to dismiss Oehlen as a chancer, while others, including a new generation of younger artists that includes Urs Fischer, Wade Guyton and Michael Williams, have found his punkish attitude and constant stylistic shifts a source of inspiration. In the mid-90s, he was ahead of the game in his use of digitally manipulated images for a series he called Computer Paintings. Before that, he made “smear paintings” using his fingers instead of a brush.

The Tree paintings first appeared in more messily abstract form some 20 years ago. “They are more simple and more complicated now,” he says. “When you place those black lines against a magenta background, something alarming happens. Magenta is a hysterical colour somehow. To me, they look like psychopathic trees – psychopathic human trees.”

He pauses for a moment. “But, I’m not really interested in what the paintings mean. People can interpret then how they want, but, for me, painting is about trying to get as far away from meaning as possible, which is perhaps the most difficult thing of all. Really, I am just trying to make something new every time. I’m an experimenter who can live with the contradictions and even the mistakes that experimentation entails. If we were talking musically,” he adds, “it’s definitely Frank Zappa, not Leonard Cohen.”

Albert Oehlen is at the Gagosian Gallery, London, until 24 March

Jun. 01, 2015

The Accidental Abstractionist

Albert Oehlen: Untitled, 2014, oil on wood, 82⅝ by 67 inches.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin and Paris.

1. Quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, trans. Damion Searls, Atlanta and New York, J&L Books, 2011, p. 246.
2. Ibid., p. 248-49.
3. Quoted in Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert, “Ordinary Madness: An Interview with Albert Oehlen,” Frieze 78, October, 2003, pp. 110.
4. Quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, p. 344.
5. Quoted in Valérie Duponchelle, “Albert Oehlen: ‘Je suis un alien très discipliné!’” Le Figaro, Nov. 25, 2009, My translation.
6. Ralf Beil has an interesting discussion about the relationship of Oehlen’s art to the fall of the Berlin Wall in his essay “Red Light District: On the Eros of Impurity in the Work of Albert Oehlen,” Paintings/Pinturas, Salamanca, Domus Artium, in association with the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, 2002, p. 30.
7. Quoted in Beil, p. 16.
8. “Interview: Alexander Klar and Albert Oehlen,” originally published in German in Albert Oehlen: Fingermalerei, Cologne, Walther König, 2010; English translation from Albert Oehlen: New Paintings, Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, 2014, p. 82.
9. Quoted in Duponchelle; Glenn O’Brien, interview with Albert Oehlen, Interview, May 2009, p. 108.
10. Quoted in Duponchelle.
11. Possibly Oehlen had in the back of his mind the title of Red Krayola’s 1999 LP Fingerpainting, a record to which he contributed electronic rhythm tracks. Since the 1980s, Oehlen has pursued musical experiments, releasing recordings under his own name, with his brother Markus as Van Oehlen, and, most extensively, with Red Krayola.
12. Quoted in Heiser and Verwoert, p. 106.
13. “Interview: Alexander Klar and Albert Oehlen,” p. 82.
14. Quoted in Heiser and Verwoert, p. 109-10.

The most important for us is to realize what is possible
and what is not.

—Albert Oehlen


IF YOU HAD TO cram Albert Oehlen’s career into one sentence suitable for a book jacket blurb, you might come up with something along the lines of: The unlikely tale of how an exponent of “bad painting” in 1980s Cologne became a major legatee of gestural Abstract Expressionist painting. Even for a longtime admirer of Oehlen’s work like me, the notion that he is among the most compelling inheritors of the legacy of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell comes as something of a shock. This, after all, is an artist who made his name with paintings such as Morning Light Falls into the Führer’s Headquarters (1983), a big, garish expressionistic depiction of Hitler’s HQ, bearing several actual mirrors, into which Oehlen has inserted a giant painted swastika, and Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius (1984), where the artist, clad in the aforementioned soiled shorts, is portrayed examining a rare postage stamp held in a pair of tweezers.

Throughout the 1980s, Oehlen was Martin Kippenberger’s main partner-in-art-crime, participating in public provocations and wildly offbeat projects (like covering a Ford Capri with brown paint and oatmeal) as well as producing an endless torrent of books and exhibitions. The duo were among the loudest members of what Susanne Kippenberger, in her biography of her brother Martin, calls the “Hetzler Boys,” an all-male cohort of artists who showed with Cologne dealer Max Hetzler. As Oehlen later recalled, “With Hetzler we made asses of ourselves and made everyone hate us. We climbed on tables and pulled down our pants—extreme artist behavior.”1 Imbued with a punk-derived insolence, and maybe influenced by the radical Maoist politics he had absorbed as a teenager in the early 1970s, Oehlen took up subjects and painting styles that were calculated to offend the German art establishment, often with imagery that tested the limits of its tolerance, its liberal ideals. The depth of Oehlen’s dissatisfaction with the status quo is revealed when he talks about how he and Werner Büttner met with disapproval for their friendship and solidarity with Kippenberger, whom many in the early 1980s saw as a drunken, attention-seeking clown rather than as an artist of substance. “We lost favor with some people too—art-lovers, gallerists, museum people—when we supported Kippenberger. He was unserious. They said, ‘Do you want to go with the monkey house or with us?’ I said I’d rather stay with the monkey house, thank you—or rather, that that was real art. Not the stuff you think art is.”2

Although they painted together, showed and made books together, traveled and caroused together and, on a few occasions, even lived together, Oehlen and Kippenberger were two very different kinds of artists. Their differences are not always easy to discern, but one place to look for fault lines is in their relationship to painting as a medium. Although the social attitudes expressed in their work and their subject matter often overlapped, Oehlen and Kippenberger diverged when it came to their painting sensibilities. Even at the time when Oehlen was creating scabrous works such as Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and larding his canvases with swastikas and painfully awkward figuration, his feeling for the physical effects of brush and oil paint was hard to miss.

Some of the differences between Oehlen and Kippenberger may stem from the fact that Oehlen was a slower painter, even in the manic mid-1980s. When they came up with an idea together, which, he says, they often did, “Kippenberger would churn out 60 pieces overnight, straight away, so that at breakfast the next morning I knew I could forget it.”3 Of course, Kippenberger was an immensely gifted painter, but I don’t think he ever fully shared Oehlen’s interest in its matière or in expanding its technical possibilities (something which became central to Oehlen’s work after 1989). I don’t know, for instance, of any 1980s painting by Kippenberger that is as heavily worked, or as luscious, as Oehlen’s Four Travel Bags (1981). Significantly, Oehlen has always been primarily a painter and a painter without assistants, while Kippenberger, who died in 1997, was an artist who made a lot of paintings but was perfectly willing to outsource the brush-on-canvas part of his work (even at the beginning of his career) and, as the years went by, was as engaged with sculpture and installation as he was with painting.

Perhaps it was precisely because of Oehlen’s attraction to the richness of his chosen medium, his capacity to indulge in sheer painterliness, that he needed Kippenberger—the master of the monkey house inoculated him against the temptations of conventionally “good” painting. As long as Oehlen was so closely linked to Kippenberger, there was no chance of his being sucked into the deadly orbit of Neo-Expressionist hacks, of settling for petty ambitions. Instead, he could stake out a zone for paintings that resisted stylistic pigeonholing, just as they defied assimilation into polite discourse. And what did Kippenberger gain artistically from Oehlen? I suspect that Oehlen’s gifts as a painter and his gradually emerging ambition to engage the legacy of 20th-century abstraction may have helped Kippenberger to push for more formal complexity in his own paintings and to find a balance between corrosive satire and painterly verve. There is a world of difference between the stylistic blandness of early Kippenberger paintings such as the 1976-77 series “Uno di voi, un tedesco in Firenze” (One of you, a German in Florence) and the kind of canvases he was producing at the height of his association with Oehlen.


IN EARLY 1988, Oehlen and Kippenberger rented a house/studio in the southern Spanish town of Carmona. Oehlen recalls that “Spain was extremely productive for us, totally extreme; for me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development.”4 It also seems to have marked the end of his “wild years” and the start of his long residence in various parts of Spain. If the period 1988-89 marks a transition in Oehlen’s work, one has to ask if the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Western Communism influenced his practice. Oehlen has dismissed the idea, telling a French interviewer in 2009, “I was in Spain when the Wall fell. I saw on TV the arrival of the East German cars, the ‘Trabis.’ I can’t say I was upset. I didn’t feel very German.”5 Interestingly, Oehlen refers to his 1988-97 abstract paintings as “post-non-objective.” The phrase is odd since you would expect an artist who had switched from figuration to abstraction to call his new work “post-representational” or “post-figurative” rather than “post-non-objective,” the term “non-objective” being a common synonym for abstraction. Oehlen’s odd terminology suggests that he wanted to escape the abstract/figurative binary, in order to make paintings in which one didn’t have to take sides, and in which content wouldn’t be equated with the presence or absence of recognizable imagery. This stance parallels post-1989 geopolitics, insofar as the postwar discourse around abstraction had been intimately bound up with the ideological debates of the Cold War, especially in West Germany where, as an alternative to the social realist styles imposed throughout the Communist Bloc, abstract art was widely seen as emblematic of the Federal Republic’s integration into the democratic West.6

As the 1990s progressed and Oehlen continued to work abstractly, he began to experiment with different materials and techniques. In 1992, he started his “Fabric Paintings,” oil paintings executed on pieces of commercially printed fabric stitched together and stretched like traditional canvas. In the same year he also first turned to the computer as a compositional tool. Although Oehlen’s embrace of the computer might suggest some ramping up of production, this doesn’t seem to have occurred. By 1996, his pace of painting had slowed down to eight or 10 canvases per year, even as his range of techniques multiplied. He began to employ silkscreens, digital printing, collage and spray paint as well as oils and acrylics, often on a single canvas; this hybrid practice has continued to the present.

It didn’t escape some critics that certain bodies of work Oehlen made in the 1990s (the “Fabric Paintings” and a group of gray paintings from 1997) evoked projects by two major German painters of the previous generation, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the latter of whom had been Oehlen’s teacher in Hamburg. Oehlen has explained his intermittent making of gray paintings as a spur to using more color: “I wanted to paint even more powerfully colored pictures and prescribed the gray ones for myself as therapy so as to artificially heighten the craving for color.”7 I don’t doubt the artist’s explanation, but I also think that the gray paintings, like the “Fabric Paintings,” can be seen as evidence of Oehlen’s compulsion to struggle directly with art history. Rather than deprive himself of printed-fabric supports or all-gray paintings because such elements had been notably explored by other artists, Oehlen decided to utilize them in ways that were recognizably his own and might contribute to the history of the medium.

Like most great painters (and maybe all of them), Oehlen is keenly aware of what has been done before and how difficult it can be to open up new creative space. Refreshingly, he doesn’t simply plunder art history for stylistic options or knowing references, but instead seeks to understand, assimilate and, with luck, transcend past precedents. For the last seven or eight years, the historical antecedent that Oehlen has been contending with most directly has been Abstract Expressionism. The process began, the artist says, when he saw an exhibition titled “Action Painting” at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

It was by no means my favorite type of painting; I merely thought I should give it a try, and since my approach is a deliberate, very slow way of painting and a very artificial procedure, it cannot ever be considered spontaneous or aggressive. Everything that played a role in action painting was intentionally left out, totally eliminated. My pictures were constructed. And then to be confronted with the term ”action” . . . after my work of the past twenty years . . . that was finally the moment when I was able to get somewhere with action. When I integrated it into my practice, it became a wholly different story than if I had simply charged at the canvas headfirst in 1988.8

So deeply immersed has Oehlen become in Abstract Expressionism that de Kooning now looms greater for him than any other artist. In 2009 he told a French interviewer that de Kooning was his “absolute master, a painter who was truly fascinating all through his life,” and when Glenn O’Brien asked who inspired him in the history of abstract painting, Oehlen replied, “It’s mostly de Kooning. I was fascinated by others, but the thing that lasts is de Kooning.”9

The “Action Painting” show also inspired Oehlen to start using a painting tool he had never considered. “I said to myself: ‘Which painting could one add to this hanging?’ That influenced my way of painting: I started to use my hands, something I found ridiculous and impossible before.”10 Although it was a departure in Oehlen’s work, finger painting had a well-known precedent in Gerhard Richter’s allover monochromes of 1972. Maybe that was one of the reasons that Oehlen had found it “impossible” before 2008. Something he saw in the “Action Painting” show must have suggested to him how he could try Fingermalerei in a way that wouldn’t be dismissed as Richteresque.11


FINGER PAINTING IS but one of the many ways that Oehlen has sought throughout his career to interfere with or detour around conventional approaches to painting. Again and again, this studio restlessness has helped him to avoid settling down into any formulaic style. Large oil works are sometimes painted on canvas supports that carry ink-jet printed enlargements of the artist’s digital drawings. On several occasions he has used one of his paintings as a film screen, projecting onto it the 1986 movie 9½ Weeks, starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. Nor has he ruled out provocations that hark back to his Kippenberger years: Oehlen’s 2008 finger painting titled FM 9 features a toilet seat glued to the canvas. In the mid-1990s his writer friend Rainald Goetz challenged Oehlen’s emphasis on “clarity.” (“He told me that believing yourself to have achieved clarity was a stupid state to be in.”12 ) As a result, Oehlen started a new body of emphatically nonabstract work that he calls “computer collage posters.” Similarly, around 2008 he began affixing Spanish advertising posters to his canvases and painting over them with brushes and his fingers. As artistically successful as the poster paintings have been, I didn’t expect Oehlen to stay with them forever, and in fact in 2014 he unveiled a new mode: stark paintings on aluminum panels of black treelike forms against geometric shapes and white grounds. There is no finger painting, no “action” in sight: de Kooning seems to have left the room.

The presence of the posters, with their cheap, emphatic graphics guarantee that the painting won’t be “pure,” that the experience of looking at it will involve some kind of conflict, on the canvas and in the viewer’s mind. What are these works about? Is the presence of the poster just a way for the painter to have something to take off from, as when de Kooning would paint a big arbitrary letter shape so he wouldn’t be stuck with a blank canvas? Or is the artist trying to say something about high and low, about the interweaving of pop culture and fine art, about advertising and contemporary painting?

Ultimately, the effect of the paintings, the kind of experiences they offer, is far more subtle and rewarding than such crass binaries. But perhaps it is the very crassness of this initial juxtaposition, its blatancy, that permits Oehlen to venture into such complex painting territory, to do the amazing things with color, gesture, space and light that make the poster paintings feel as visually rich as some Baroque masterpiece. Recently my eye was caught by a striking resemblance—or so it seemed to me—between some of Oehlen’s poster paintings and the zigzagging yellow and purple satin garments in Anthony van Dyck’s 1632 portrait of the doomed English sovereign Charles I and his family. (Oehlen’s colorful schmears can also evoke passages in Cy Twombly’s paintings, but his compositions are wisely devoid of any Twomblyesque graffiti.)

In 2010 Oehlen explained his decision to start painting over posters:

It evolved slowly, and finally I would permit myself something that could have been misunderstood before. Back then [in the late 1980s and 1990s] it wouldn’t have worked. It would have been overpainting, which was already around. Overpainting always interested me, but there were already stupendous works that couldn’t be topped.13

Here, I think, is a wonderful glimpse into what has made Oehlen such a significant painter. He knows that the technique of “overpainting” holds great potential for his work, and he also knows that if he doesn’t approach it properly, if he doesn’t find an unprecedented relationship of ground image and paint, he will just be repeating what so many other artists have done before him. Patient, rigorous in his conceptualizing, and then, when the moment comes, absolutely free, as if he were the first one in the world to attempt the thing at hand, Oehlen is able to turn the anxiety of influence into the most personal of styles.

When I included Oehlen in my May 2009 A.i.A. article “Provisional Painting” it was because of these overpainted poster paintings as well as his earlier black-and-white computer paintings. At the start of the article I described him, Raoul De Keyser, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann and Michael Krebber as “artists who have long made works that look casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling. In different ways, they all deliberately turn away from ‘strong’ painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse.” One aspect of Oehlen’s work that made it look “provisional” to me was his use of basic graphic design software, with crude pixelation and obviously off-the-shelf effects. The situation of a gifted and experienced painter deliberately turning to a drawing tool that seemed to exclude all his skills was paradoxical, even perverse. That it resulted in unexpectedly compelling paintings forced me to rethink some fundamental painting issues, as did the exhilarating balance between virtuosity and defacement in the overpainted posters. (Rereading my brief description of these works in “Provisional Painting” I think that I didn’t do justice to their painterly lyricism.)

In “Provisional Painting” I connected punk to a particular approach to painting. Oehlen has some interesting things to say on the subject. He explicitly links his initial choice to become a painter to the ethos of punk. As he recalls in a 2003 interview:

What sparked my interest was a desire to be involved with the medium that quintessentially represented High Art but which at the time, in the late 1970s, was coming under fierce attack. Added to which, there was a general feeling of massive potential in painting, since so little was happening in that field. It was more or less a black hole. And it coincided with Punk, the feeling that one could use rudimentary means to revitalize the whole thing. There was no question of being intimidated by jibes like: “Go and learn to play an instrument.”14

Oehlen is then asked how he feels about the punk attitude now. Noting that it can be helpful in giving young people the confidence “they might otherwise have lacked,” Oehlen adds that “it soon becomes ridiculous.” Like any other originally iconoclastic, avant-garde, disruptive stance, punk inevitably turned into a codified style.

Something similar seems to have been happening among younger painters attracted to the painting mode I identified in my 2009 article. If a new generation of artists (and maybe an occasional contemporary) wishes to learn valuable lessons from Albert Oehlen, they will not find what they are looking for in any of his specific moves (compositional overload, playing high against low, mixing the digital and the handmade, inserting text into abstraction, etc.), although his brilliance as a colorist should be taken as a challenge by all chromophobic painters. Admirers should focus, rather, on his refusal, for more than three decades, to ever be satisfied with his own art, and on his equally sustained, equally demanding pursuit of a deep dialogue with art history.


Albert Oehlen


Albert Oehlen studied in Hamburg with Sigmar Polke, played a central role in a prodigious group of artists who came to the fore in the ’80s, and was associated with various movements and groups—some apt, some gratuitous. I would describe him with that popular health-food term free radical. Today, the German-born Oehlen lives and works in Berlin, Switzerland, and Spain. A retrospective of his work opened recently at Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, and he has a solo show running all this month at Luhring Augustine in New York. I interviewed him in New York when he came for the opening of a show featuring the work of his late friend Martin Kippenberger at the Museum of Modern Art. During the interview, we were joined by Oehlen’s friend and mine, the painter Christopher Wool.

GLENN O’BRIEN: Maybe this is a dumb question, but what made you want to be an artist in the first place?

ALBERT OEHLEN: Oh, I can’t remember the moment where I had this idea or made the decision, because I think I always had the feeling that I am an artist. My father was an artist, my brother’s an artist, so . . . [laughs]

O’BRIEN: Your brother is close to you in age, right?

OEHLEN: Yes, he’s two years younger and also a painter and a sculptor . . . He makes sculptures all the time. I think the moment where I would have made the decision—if I had made the decision—was in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Everything was still under the strong influence of the ’68 turbulences, and I was really shaken by that. One saw one’s role differently. It didn’t occur to me to make a kind of normal career, like learning to be an artist and becoming one. Because at that time, especially when you’re young and a bit naïve, a lot of things seem possible.

O’BRIEN: It seems like you were involved in a lot of groups, or certainly extended families of friends, who were doing things together.

OEHLEN: It was more extended families rather than groups.

O’BRIEN: I guess it was kind of like what was going on in New York around the same time. It was kind of a scene, and the same people were making paintings and making music and making films.

OEHLEN: Yeah, it was like that. It was friendships, and not much more. We were colleagues—I mean, fellow students.

O’BRIEN: Did you study alongside Martin Kippenberger?

OEHLEN: No, he was at the same school [Academy of Fine Arts Hamburg], but a couple of years before me. And our paths crossed at that moment. We moved in different directions. He, from Hamburg to Berlin, and I, from Berlin to Hamburg. But still we met . . . [laughs] maybe one day when we were both in the same city, and became friends.

O’BRIEN: You were in a band. Were you making music then, or did that come later?

OEHLEN: I never made music seriously. My brother was in a punk band at that time.

O’BRIEN: Which band?

OEHLEN: Mittagspause. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. They were good.

O’BRIEN: That rings a bell. I tried to keep up with the Germans. I used to write for this German music paper—do you remember Spex?

OEHLEN: Yeah, of course.

O’BRIEN: I wrote for them, and I followed the German bands a little bit. I was a huge fan of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubaten.

OEHLEN: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Well, that was a bit later. Markus’s band was very early. They tried to be the German Wire. I liked them. But I never played an instrument. Of course, I was part of some militant activities at that time and then later with Mayo Thompson, who was a friend.

O’BRIEN: You’re part of the history of Red Krayola, a band member, officially, even if you weren’t.

OEHLEN: It wasn’t really about music, but I was somehow involved—like talking, ideas . . .

O’BRIEN: There was a lot of funny stuff going on that was sort of the edge of music at that time.



(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence)
Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Albert Oehlen
from the Blue issue

Albert Oehlen: I was always interested in the transportation of meaning, and I tried to find out what’s possible with that. When I started I was a kind of left-wing radical and I was interested in transporting this meaning-like making propaganda. I always liked the work of Immendorff; he did this thing too and he seemed to fail very early, but he continued doing it, and this was a very interesting thing for me. I couldn’t repeat this experience but I had his experiences in mind when I started with my things. I experimented by trying to glorify something in the painting or trying to criticize. I saw very early that this failed and I wouldn’t like the result. But I thought that I had to do it because as an artwork the result would be good; if I had the feeling that it wouldn’t work, I thought I had to prove that it doesn’t work. I thought this was good enough to do. The question is: what is the frame? what shall it be? what is the real subject of the work? Then you can say, ‘OK now I’ll paint Stalin,’ but you haven’t really painted Stalin, you did something else because you cannot find out if you were trying to praise or criticize him-there are more than two viewpoints. I started with this idea and I still have in mind that it’s absolutely not clear what the picture is saying-this is a big problem.

Pataphysics: Do you want your images to be clear?

AO: Yes, but this wish is determined by the above-mentioned problem. It should always be visible in my paintings that this wish is present-otherwise my art would be funny or even satirical. Once the painting does not say anything, this does not mean that my general attitude towards clarity has changed, only the result turns out to be quite complex and no ‘solution’ in a folk-psychological sense has taken place. But the intention is the same and there is no reason to change it. On the other hand, this intention should not lead to idealization, which on this level would always mean decrease in content.

P: In relation to your belief that artworks function ‘either to glorify or criticize,’ how do you position your painting of Hitler done in 1986?

AO: This Hitler painting is a very big failure; it really is a disaster somehow, but it was meant as that. It was meant as an extreme point of content and the extreme point of painting. This idea of the three basic colors was meant to make it very artificial and the subject Hitler was meant as a maximum of content and association. But these two aspects together were meant as something that doesn’t work, and this picture has failed so much that it just looks like an ugly, wild painting. It was the result of an experiment where I wanted to prove that propaganda doesn’t work, and it really didn’t work.

P: Is it possible for painting today to ‘oppose’ failure?

AO: The idea of ‘failure’ is connected with the historical context. Art always seems to give answers in the historical perspective; glorifying or criticizing or simply advertising ‘failure’ is a strategy to oppose such concepts by blocking them and by not playing around with them and changing their meanings.

P: How do you see your painting of Hitler in relation to Keifer’s images of Fascist architecture?

AO: I have a doubt I can really say something. Kiefer deals with speculations. With misunderstandings. And, of course, Kiefer knows he is clean-he knows he is not a fascist. I try to prove that these are misunderstandings-for example, I don’t believe in symbols. Symbols are, in practice, never used as independent global units. The idea of ‘openness’ with respect to symbols is-in most cases-a lie. The truth is that pigs always want to deal with things in their own language and that is why they need symbols. Even if symbols work in their language in a way which seems to be independent and precise, they are only vehicles of the intentions of the language in question. At the same time they deny this, because the viewer learns to deal with the symbols-they learn the language and believe it is their own language.

P: Do you see any relationship between the recent events in Berlin and your work of the past decade?

AO: No, I don’t see a relationship. The main moving in my consciousness is that I started with very big intentions-I used art for propaganda, for saying something-and now I get more and more disappointed by seeing that that’s not possible, and I try to blame the art on it, of course. This shouldn’t sound like I’m unhappy with the art or with the politics, but I think if the relationship between art and reality is that way, then I want to prove that it is that way.

P: What defines beauty in art? Can art be beautiful if it is a lie?

AO: I can find something beautiful if I understand the idea and if I think there’s the right thought behind it. To lie in art would be a misunderstanding-it would be taking art for something that it isn’t; for example, to try to use it. This is the main lie, the main misunderstanding, in art, that you can use it as something to pleasure the eye as an organ. This idea is really a thing that is around. Or the thought that you could enjoy art, really directly enjoy it…

P: In relation to this how do you see the series of carpets you exhibited in 1987…?

AO: This is a good example because this is absolutely about failure. This is about the misunderstanding of using art because it’s artwork that you really use because you run around on it and you step on it. They were collages and they all have critical texts on them; they’re phrases that are supposed to be critical but they are platitudes. They don’t say much, they just say things like : ‘Be young, be radical’ or ‘Don’t fall asleep’ or ‘The yell against hunger’-all these stupid things that don’t say anything.

P: Is this the same with the phrases on your more recent paintings?

AO: These things are kind of the opposite; these are optimistic phrases. These are phrases I took out of poems by Walt Whitman and some of Guy Debord. I found phrases that have the same sound and the same meaning.

P: What was the importance of your experience as a member of Sigmar Polke’s class in the ’70s?

AO: We were quite alone there, and I had only one friend in this class who was Georg Herold. Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn’t able to teach us something in the classical sense, so he gave us a main lecture for every artist, which is to destroy a chair. This is the only thing I can remember. Then he showed me a film he made, and told me about his travellings in Australia… I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy. Today it should still be possible, but it’s very difficult. Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things.

P: Do you worry about where your work is presented?

AO: No. I decided once that I shouldn’t care about that because I’m not this kind of artist, like some Americans who have control over everything that happens with their work and place it in special collections. But I can’t care about that, I cannot control it. I feel I have to make one good picture after another and this should be my work.

P: You’ve said that you attempt to avoid making errors. How do you trust yourself enough to be able to judge what is and what isn’t an error?

AO: There are two kinds of mistakes. The one mistake is the ‘bad’ picture. Of course, I’ve made pictures that I don’t like or like less than others. The other mistake is the positive mistake where I say I can afford this mistake because this is not the meaning of the picture. I like these mistakes or these errors but with them I try to prove that the subject or the concept of the picture is on something else-in this case the mistakes are good. For example, in the beginning I made horrible mistakes in the classical sense of painting just to prove that I wasn’t interested in this.

P: Formally, what is the importance of composition in your recent work?

AO: It is a composition of the ingredients: content = stubbornness and motive = why am I doing this. But at the end there is no problem of composition because ‘the thing’ is, what’s happening in the middle of the picture and reverse.

Carol Bove: Dossier

The Phaidon Folio

The Four-Hour Art Week? Read Carol Bove’s Self-Help Guide for Artists

By Artspace Editors

March 30, 2015

The Four-Hour Art Week? Read Carol Bove's Self-Help Guide for Artists

The artist Carol Bove

The sculptor Carol Bove likes to play with associations and forms as she builds her assemblages of constructed and readymade objects. Time and space to experiment are crucial elements of her process, as is a certain psychological sovereignty—Bove writes that “creating a nonpurposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential.” Here, the Brooklyn-based artist gives her best advice for finding happiness (rather than “succeeding”) as an artist, excerpted in its entirety from the new book AKADEMIE X: Lesson in Art + Life.


Years ago, from 1995–2000, I used to live in an illegal loft building under the Manhattan Bridge. It was one of the few artists’ buildings in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) at the time, and it was known for its ridiculous DIY door buzzers. On the ground floor was a paper recycling plant and there were always clouds of flies. There must have been more than a hundred people living there, along with lots of dogs and other pets. One loft housed a black-market exotic animal dealer. When he was busted, people claimed to have seen a kangaroo, but all I ever saw, when he once held the front door open for me, was a box full of prairie dogs.

A friend of mine lived upstairs and he was photographing a special breed of butterfly that he’d mail-ordered in advance of his participation at the Venice Biennale. He was planning to make a butterfly garden there. While he was out getting lunch one day, a neighbor’s cat hunted and killed every one of his subjects. It was a disaster for him, but I couldn’t help laughing, even though I think of myself as a very kind and sympathetic friend. It was just so thrilling that this art-studio problem was so common, primal, fragile, fantastical, violent, and yet silly, all at the same time. It makes me laugh even now as I’m writing. A cat hunting butterflies is a much clearer, more available image of the drama of a studio emergency than “I overworked my painting.”

Two German girls lived in the loft next to mine and I overheard them talking one day. I wasn’t eavesdropping – the old industrial building was crudely constructed to begin with and the additions were all makeshift, so noise traveled. For several months the sounds in my studio consisted of someone sculpting with a chainsaw (upstairs), continuous jazz practice (downstairs), and the German girls talking (next door). I only understood a few words of German at the time. I knew the word for work: arbeit. So as they talked I would hear a string of syllables and then this word, arbeit  … another string of syllables, arbeit  … string of syllables, arbeit …  I couldn’t believe how much they used the word. And I wondered to myself if I used that word as often.

I decided to stop using the word “work” as an experiment. It was very difficult! I had to compensate by substituting a more specific description of the activity. For example, instead of “I’m going to my studio to work,” I’d have to say, “I’m going to make some drawings.” Or instead of “I’m going to work around the house,” I’d have to say, “I’m going to clean the kitchen and fold some laundry.” I discovered that the absence of the word ‘work’ forced me to reconsider assumptions about leisure, because the idea of work implied its opposite. I let go of the notion that I deserved a certain amount of downtime from being productive or from being active. The labour/leisure dichotomy became uncoupled and then dissolved. I couldn’t use labour to allay guilt or self-punish or feel superior. Work didn’t exist, so all the psychological payoff of work for work’s sake had nowhere to go.


I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter. The work exercise made me feel as if I was awakening from one of the spells of capitalism. And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.


Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.

One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.

The first self-help book I want to recommend is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book is based on the idea of artistic recovery, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s recovery for a stuck artist. I don’t consider myself stuck, but I still get a lot out of most of the exercises. Cameron addresses the idea of work and to a certain extent, information management, but the book came out in 1992, before the internet really came into our lives. She understands the creative process and how to teach it; the techniques she describes work. I know what you’re thinking: “Carol, I’m scared. That sounds New Agey.” I can’t promise you that it will help you or that you will like it or that your friends won’t tease you for reading it. But I can promise that it won’t diminish your critical faculties, or your intellectual ability, or your access to rational thought or anything like that. If you’re scared or squeamish about New Agey sounding books, I say that’s all the more reason to read them. A willingness to take psychological risks is another one of the most important skills for an artist to develop.

The other self-help book I want to recommend is Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Workweek. What’s the opposite of New Agey? Hiring a virtual assistant in India to take care of your everyday tasks, as Ferris recommends. I didn’t take that particular piece of advice, but his techniques for time-management, dealing with information overload and email addiction are really helpful. I also liked some of his ideas regarding income automation.


Before I went to New York University to get my bachelor’s degree, and after an initial attempt at art school that only lasted a semester, I took several years off. I quickly realized in my first attempt that at the rate I was going there was way I was going to be transformed into an artist by the school and that I’d be better off waiting till I was ready to apply myself. It was a wise decision, but it didn’t come from intellect; I simply knew in an urgent, emotional way that I wasn’t capable of getting anything out of the classroom at that time. I was lucky that my parents didn’t pressure me to complete school. On the contrary; they were paying for it and reasoned that if I couldn’t get straight As in the first semester of art school I was wasting their money. (Here’s something that strikes me as very different now from back then in 1988: in those days, going to art school wasn’t considered a reasonable thing to do. The reasonable people went into graphic design or architecture or something with a practical application. Art school was for irresponsible freakazoids with no plan. Or you could say, romantics. Now, it seems as if there’s a perception that going to art school is part of a clear career path that you can follow towards a respectable profession. The market is bigger and can support more people, sure, but if it seems as if there is a clear path, that’s an illusion. Academicism, professionalism, bureaucracy, and officialdom are all toxic to artmaking. They are necessary interference and shaping obstacles, not facilitators.)

Going back to school was great – after fourteen semesters off, I was ready. The worst part about being back in school was making art and having to explain it at the same time. It made it impossible for me to feel safe when experimenting. As a consequence of my profound self-doubt and insecurity, I was censoring what I really felt compelled to make, reasoning that since I was stupid, whatever I truly wanted to make would be stupid. I thought I would be better off faking it.

As soon as I got out of school, I was very curious to know what exactly it was that I was censoring, because the repression was so assiduous that I had absolutely no idea what it might be. I decided to try an experiment. I would make whatever I wanted for three months with the understanding that I would not show what I dredged up. Not to anyone. But I felt the need to discover my secret.

I can tell you now, since a lot of time has passed, that I discovered I wanted to draw portraits of pretty women. It seemed dumb at first, but I was patient and nonjudgmental and just let my desire take me wherever it wanted to go, and that’s been my modus operandi ever since.

Creating a nonpurposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential. You can tell when you’re looking at art that was a drag to make: it’s a drag to look at. On the other hand, it’s thrilling to watch someone work through a problem that’s exciting for him, even if the subject matter wouldn’t normally move you.

I’ve watched kids playing with exciting, fun toys like bubble guns – they’re good for ten minutes. But something like a doctor’s kit that allows them to rehearse the drama of their lives is inexhaustibly interesting; they’ll carry it everywhere for months. Your art should be like that kind of toy. It may be an intellectual project, but it needs to be invested with your psychic life and driven by emotional necessity.

This uncensoring exercise was so helpful for me. I recommend it. I did it in my late twenties, when I already had some education and experience and I was trying to find an authentic way to respond to all the ideas and artworks that already existed or that were coming into existence around me.


The format of school dictates a certain rhythm or pace of working. In the same way that in the Law and Order universe a murderer needs to be caught and brought to justice in roughly fifty minutes, artworks need to be completed and critiqued during the semester. I get the feeling that people set their speed in school and then it’s reinforced by the art-fair schedule, and with the multiplying venues, our ability to fly cheaply and send high-res images instantly, everything is accelerating. But it’s up to you to decide whether or not your work benefits from that pace. I always find Jay DeFeo’sThe Rose inspiring when I need a reminder that it doesn’t have to happen so fast.


Becoming an artist is not a good business plan.


I’m assuming you want to be an artist for life. I can see that people in their twenties have a lot of anxiety when their peers are showing and they’re not, and I worried about that too. But I understand now that it’s not a race and I wish I hadn’t wasted all that energy worrying. In almost every instance I can think of, getting off to an early start hasn’t been an advantage to artists’ careers. You probably shouldn’t even get serious about showing your work in a commercial context until you’re close to thirty. Until then, it’s best to observe. While you’re learning how the art world works, keep the stakes low. That’s to say, keep the career stakes low. It’s never the wrong time to embrace psychological risk.

I’ve just more or less equated selling with career, but those things are not equivalent and it’s obviously more complicated than that. The Gift: The Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, a book by Lewis Hyde, has been particularly helpful for me in adopting the right attitude to releasing artworks into the market. It contains an analysis of gift economies that develops a picture of unalienated labour. The first half of the book, which looks at gift-giving practices in tribal society and in folklore, has shaped my thinking even more than the treatments on artistic expression in the second half.


You do need to know some art history. As a producer of art objects/gestures, the conventions you decide to ignore and the conventions you decide to repeat are as important, if not more so, than what you invent. If you’re a total novice start with Cubism to Surrealism and then study 1945–75, then take it from there.

Everybody my age read Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. If you ever want to understand something about our subconscious, our unarticulated assumptions, you could get some clues from that book. The theory of the 1980s is important for the very reason that it formed our mentality, but it has receded from our conscious thoughts. The subconscious realm of unarticulated assumptions is a powerful, invisible shaping force in the world.


Artwork comes from the total personality: ego, self, id, conscious and unconscious, transpersonal, linguistic and nonlinguistic, historically determined, sensual, emotional, physical, mental, ideological, and cultural. I believe that in order to make something that’s meaningful you have to start by figuring yourself out psychologically. In order to figure myself out I’ve applied different modes of critique such as Marxism, feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, history, ayurvedic principles, philosophy, Feldenkrais technique, anthropology, astrology, the physiology of perception, contemplating life as a caveman, health-food regimens, psychedelic experiences, reading self-help books, ebay, falling in love, practicing magical rites, teaching, the scientific method, psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, and dharmic traditions, fasting and other austerities, exercise, napping, resonance repatterning, literature and poetry, friendships, parenting, humour, and countless others. Artwork is self-expression, and clearly I’m talking about a notion of self that radiates far outside of one’s body or even one’s time.


– Benjamin, Walter. Illuminationen: Ausgewahlte Schriften.  Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1961. Translated by Harry Zohn as Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968.

Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is completely different every time I read it. He’s making a projection about what will happen as a result of images becoming reproducible, and we have to use all of our powers of imagination to dismantle our media environment for long enough to know what he must have meant. And then we compare this reflection to the text measured against our own time. I also often come back to one line from the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”

– Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way; A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992.

– Ferris, Timothy. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.  New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007.

– Kwon, Miwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October. Vol. 80 (March–May 1997): pp. 85–110.

There’s more to site-specificity, as this text shows, than art objects being influenced by their environments or made with a specific location in mind.

– Wallis, Brian and Marcia Tucker, eds. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation.  New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.

– Fifteen-year-old art magazines.

Fifteen years is about half of a fashion cycle, so you see artworks in their least flattering light.


– Curtis, Adam, dir. The Century of the Self. BBC Four, 2002. Television series.

This British television documentary series offers a fascinating history of the valorization of self-expression as it was popularized over the twentieth century.



Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Carol Bove: RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?

September 7 to October 19, 2013
630 Greenwich Street
New York City, 212-431-4977

Installation view of Carol Bove, RA, or Why is an orange like a bell? Photo Credit: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York.

Installation view of Carol Bove, RA, or Why is an orange like a bell? Photo Credit: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York.

Carol Bove does not consider her art in terms of its site-specificity, which might come as a surprise considering her recent projects for institutions such as the Highline and the Museum of Modern Art.  Hers is a more holistic approach to site specificity as a call-and-response between a sculpture, its materials, and the surrounding environment. In an interview with Art in America in May 2012, Bove explains: “My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.” This is why I find it particularly worrisome that the press releases and texts in situ introducing two of her ongoing sculpture installations in New York City, Caterpillar at the Highline Park (through May 2014) and Equinox at MoMA (through January 2014), recommend allegorical interpretations of the art based solely on their material or textual components.

It is Bove’s solo show at Maccarone, her second with the gallery, titled RA, or Why is an orange like a bell? that most thoroughly escapes this trap of over interpretation. The work in all three exhibitions share materials: concrete, brass, cast steel, and powder-finished steel; unlike the outdoor installation on the Highline and the show at MoMA, the gallery pieces are not physically bolted down and hence not corralled by a specific space and its host of references. RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?  confounds traditional notions of artistic authorship and object category. Only six of the twelve works listed are attributed to Bove herself, who regularly folds the works of others into her own shows in what she calls “forced collaborations.” Among Bove’s six works, a large percentage of the materials were industrially fabricated or found, and their identity as “artworks” is complicated by this sense of previous history. Just past the gallery’s entrance is one of Bove’s simplest and most eloquent works—an untitled sculpture in the round, made in 2013, in which a slab of petrified wood is fastened to one edge of a steel beam towering almost a dozen feet tall. Here, the support structure is an essential armature, and the fossilized organism an animated protagonist in comparison.

Carol Bove, Untitled, 2013, petrified wood, steel 143 x 43 1/2 x 35 inches. Photo credit: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York.



One of her most virtuosic displays is Peel’s foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep (2013). The work consists of delicate brass open cubes and rectangles screwed into intricate formations and woven into the openings of a concrete pillar. Even though not all the shapes implemented are regular cubes, the edges of both materials contribute to the contours of a regular grid when viewed straight on. As one walks around the piece, however, the tidy geometry ebbs into formal chaos before straightening itself again. The same could be said of her two white powder coated steel sculptures, Solar Feminine and Hieroglyph (both 2013), whose forms yawn and contract when observed in rotation, and I-Beam Sculpture (2013), which is set low to the ground and becomes nearly indistinct from it at certain angles.  In all these works, Bove’s aforementioned notion of disaggregation is not merely a physical phenomenon, but an optical one.

The remaining works in the presentation were made by Lionel and Joanne Ziprin, Harry Smith, Richard Berger, and other unnamed members of their Lower East Side bohemian circle from the 1950s and ‘60s. Their contributions include a glass vitrine of anonymous doodles, scraps, and more complete works on paper (ca. 1951-1955). These, the list of works informs us, are not meant to be scrutinized for their content, but to be “illustrative of the creative atmosphere of the Ziprin circle”—much in the way the books in Bove’s iconic George Nelson shelf sculptures operate as cultural indicators rather than texts.  The centerpiece of the show, if such a work exists, is Harry Smith’s Design for Qor Corporation (ca. 1960), a diminutively sized painting on cardboard sporting a brash red and green grid-like pattern with Celtic affinity. It is suspended high between two large panes of glass—a two-dimensional vitrine—such that one can’t look at the Smith painting without seeing other works in periphery. In a brilliant multi-dimensional play, this work is at once a motif, a shadow, and a physical intervention, imprinted upon the show without leaving an actual trace.

The artist does not make explicit why she chose the Ziprin circle’s works to feature alongside her own. The choice was certainly not incidental or merely aesthetic; in conjunction with her Maccarone show, Bove co-curated with Philip Smith a reading-room of Ziprin and Harry Smith ephemera a few blocks away at 98 Morton Street. In this appendix-like exhibition are works from the duo’s short-lived design company Qor Collective and other eccentric commercial projects like Inkweed Studios. When Lionel Ziprin passed away in 2009, he left behind an epic volume of poetry, which included the autobiographical lines: “I am not an artist. I am not an / outsider. I am a citizen of the / republic and I have remained / anonymous all the time by choice.” Nine years ago, Bove offered a companion statement in an interview with the curator Beatrix Ruf: “It has to be apparent that the piece was put together for this particular occasion, in this particular space, which exists in a particular cultural context at a particular moment in time. […] The objects are assembled from non-art objects and my fantasy is that they could return to a state of non-art.”

The show probably leaves room for an essay to be written about the link between Ziprin and co.’s Kabbalistic undertakings and the spiritual inflections in Bove’s titles, but I believe that it is unwise to give too much emphasis to cross-interpretation. Rather than looking at either body of work as an index, allegory, and appendage to the other, we should regard RA as a staged meeting of kindred objects that we are invited to observe before everything disbands again



May 04, 2012

Carol Bove

Carol Bove in Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, June 9-Sept. 16.

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and ’70s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions-of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises-both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ’60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) and rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to Sept. 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced. The edited transcript of our conversation, which took place at her studio in February, begins in medias res as Bove describes her plans for this latter work.

CAROL BOVE The installation [in New York] will have a platform featuring a totemic sculpture-a huge I-beam with a log attached to it. It’s a 16-million-year-old piece of petrified wood. At first glance it seems like a normal object; it looks like regular wood, so pedestrian as to be almost disappointing. Then, as you touch the material, you discover that in places it’s broken like a rock. You begin to understand what it is.

The platform has another element, my attempt at generic sculpture. I wanted to make something complicated, like tangled spaghetti, out of a material that has a different texture. That part will be made out of tubular steel and appear almost sinuous, though with an awkwardness because I’m making it out of half circles joined together. In a way it’s diametrically opposed to the petrified wood. It’s shiny, hard, smooth, industrially produced; its horizontal orientation balances out the composition as well. I hope that this sculpture will engage the city in both material and temporal registers.

BRIAN SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things . . . and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now-I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the work’s intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

SHOLIS You’ve been conceiving this piece for New York at the same time as you’ve been creating a work for Documenta. Are they going to be on view at the same time?

BOVE That was the original plan; now I think they won’t.

SHOLIS I ask because I think of your exhibitions as exquisite compositions in which each work relates to every other work. Is that how you’re thinking of them here?

BOVE Well, I hadn’t thought explicitly of setting up a circuit between the two sculptures. But I was thinking of them together. The work for Germany will be situated on the grounds of the Orangerie in Kassel and will follow their compositional strategy. Everything there is placed in a line, so what I’m creating will be stiffly in line with another statue that’s already there.

SHOLIS And what kind of elements will it have?

BOVE It will have the same kind of elements [as the New York piece]: a totemic sculpture incorporating petrified wood, as well as another abstract component, this time a network of variously scaled cubes in bronze and steel. I want it to function for viewers at a distance and to have details fascinating enough to hold the attention of someone who has come closer to it. An additional platform I’m creating in this case, however, will stand apart from the rest of the work and have nothing resting on it.

SHOLIS Can you tell me a little bit about the Orangerie?

BOVE The venue is an 18th-century building with extensive grounds. Off to both sides of the main garden are hedged-in spaces I think of as outdoor rooms, in the center of which are statues. One is Apollo and the other is Flora. I wanted Apollo; I felt the Apollonian context would be a nice contrast to some of my works’ elements. But I didn’t get him. I’m OK with Flora, of course. It’s a strange space; it feels kind of metaphysical.

SHOLIS Has this been a rewarding enough experience that you would consider making more outdoor work?

BOVE Yes, it has been great, and I’m really into it. I’m excited by having to work with the viewer indifference I described earlier. I have enjoyed making works that need to be complete in themselves, that don’t need an engaged viewer. It has seemed to me like an opportunity to try and communicate with the unconscious realm.

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks-my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs-shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you set them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up un-becoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

SHOLIS The majority of the sculptures you’ve made are, right now, in a disaggregated state. They’re in museum storage or collectors’ storage.

BOVE They are resting [laughs]. They don’t have to be sculpture all the time. The ones that are put together, that are performing . . . well, knowing that they are out there takes some kind of energy out of me, psychic energy.

SHOLIS That’s perfectly understandable. Let’s return to the topic of place, this time Red Hook. Of all the neighborhoods in New York City in which I can imagine you living and working, this one seems the most appropriate. It’s the most weathered, it’s an aging industrial waterfront. Is that important to your practice?

BOVE Yes, totally. Like the Berkeley waterfront, it’s another site of American industrial decline, which fascinates me. The neighborhood is separate from the rest of Brooklyn, divided from it by a highway; it functions as a kind of hideout. I wasn’t looking, but when I found the building in which I now live I immediately thought, “OK, this is my house.” A close friend from Berkeley saw it and said, “You’ve moved back to Berkeley.”

SHOLIS If you moved to another part of New York would your work change?

BOVE Probably. I worry about moving. My materials are so much a part of this particular environment. My processes are also specific to the particular fabricators whose shops are in this neighborhood. I feel very attached to where I am.

SHOLIS Do you adapt your ideas to the skills possessed by the craftsmen you work with?

BOVE Yes, I would say so. It’s not just Red Hook, but New York more generally. I sometimes make sculptures that look like jewelry, and in the jewelry district here you can get any thickness of chain, or get something plated—almost anything I need I can find here. I can also sell my metal scraps and use the money to buy new materials; metals are convertible commodities in New York.

SHOLIS Your process is beginning to sound like managing a series of flows. Materials sometimes literally wash ashore a few blocks away. Some get made into artworks and enter another circuit, and the leftovers are eventually recycled.

BOVE It’s not all movement; there is also a lot of . . . well, marinating. I take in more than I need, and things sit around together for a while.

SHOLIS There’s another side to your work that many people discuss, an aspect that is derived in part from its references to spiritual seekers or guides.

BOVE Perhaps this ties in to what I said earlier about the ability of public artworks to engage a different part of a viewer’s consciousness, because it requires a different kind of attention. Sometimes when people hear the word “psychic” they think “flaky.” I’m interested in means of apprehension that are not necessarily anti-analytic but that are not routed through the intellect.

SHOLIS A prelinguistic understanding?

BOVE Not prelinguistic or anti-linguistic or anti-intellectual. Just nonlinguistic. Sort of like the process my work has undergone in the last few years, moving away from the inclusion of—or direct reference to—printed material. There are still cultural references, but it’s not as easy to discern a particular one.

That shift is in part because I don’t want my work to seem like a research project. One is rewarded for being visually literate and knowing about the culture that this material emerges from, but it’s not a game of figuring out how the different references relate to each other. I prefer the idea of “irresolvability.” I want my works to have a shifting identity.
So the new works are more vague? Though perhaps without the negative connotations associated with that word.

BOVE I want to recuperate vagueness. Sometimes I imagine myself as the first viewer, and I look for elements that cause me to think, “I don’t get that,” or, “That doesn’t do anything for me.”

SHOLIS In past interviews you’ve mentioned the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Kama Sutra. Plus many of the pocket paperbacks in your early work were translations of books on sociology and psychology by European authors. How conscious are you of bringing to bear upon your work an intellectual heritage that isn’t American?

BOVE It’s important, but I’m also interested in the American filter. I feel that you’ve phrased the question as if these were active choices on my part, but the intellectual culture in Berkeley when I was growing up was very international, very assimilationist. Many people living there and then were looking to other cultures for meaning. It can seem now like an impulse to get rid of everything in American culture. Every aspect of American ideology was being reevaluated, although in retrospect I can see how a lot of the dominant culture was reproduced unconsciously.

My first big sculpture show, in 2003, was called “Experiment in Total Freedom.” That was a kind of joke about the era, or at least my experience of it. Adults seemed so permissive: “You can do whatever you want!” As a child, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I feel I actually need a structure in order to do something. There is something kind of limiting about total freedom.

SHOLIS That cultural moment didn’t last long, nor does it continue in many places today. Perhaps it’s not sustainable.

BOVE I hate to generalize about the period, or about the place. I’ll simply say that cultural inquiry of the kind that went on in the Bay Area in the ’60s is a process, and it could still be very exciting. Becoming fully conscious, you know, would be a great thing. It would be great for many people today to engage with that idea.

SHOLIS I want to ask you about the legacy of Surrealism. Do you feel that the ideas about consciousness animating it ever truly broke on these shores?

BOVE In California—Berkeley, San Francisco—there’s a tradition of found-object assemblage, stuff that is almost naively inherited from Surrealists. There was a kind of beat culture, exemplified by Wallace Berman, that seems like Surrealism plus the Kabbalah, which is an interesting formulation. My early experiences with art-making were through that instantiation of Surrealism. I was attracted as a young person to Bruce Conner’s work. If Surrealism did find a home in the U.S., I feel like that’s where it went—to California.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether Surrealism is too silly for us. I don’t mean that dismissively; I love Surrealism. I think there is a lot of it in American art, but people don’t want to call it that because it sounds too silly. We have an aversion to, a squeamishness about, the unseriousness of the unconscious.

SHOLIS I can tell by this long table covered with books and periodicals that you spend time sifting through all manner of visual materials. What else are you looking at lately?

BOVE Right now I’m looking at Plop Art.


BOVE Plop Art.

SHOLIS To learn how to be a public artist?

BOVE[laughs] Not to learn how to do it—just to see what’s out there. The art world is critical of it, but I’m finding much that fascinates me. Its relative disuse gives it a lot of . . . wilderness.

SHOLIS It’s unsupervised. You can explore it at your own pace.

BOVE I like that. Do you know [George] Gurdjieff? He thought that esoteric knowledge is almost like a material—a material of which there is a finite amount. If you have certain knowledge, you can’t just give it to everyone. If you share it, you are actually parceling it out. But if no one’s paying attention, well, that’s how a sculpture that’s in plain sight could seem like it has a wilderness. For people who do want to give it attention, it can give something back. All the material hasn’t been snatched up. That’s part of what I found interesting about the New York City project.

SHOLIS Do you suspect that people will figure out that part of the work is millions of years old?

BOVE I hope so. It has a lot of . . . energy stored up in it.

SHOLIS Where did you find the petrified wood?

BOVE On the Internet, of course. I went out to Washington State to pick it up.

SHOLIS At some point you decided that it would be OK to use materials that you didn’t happen across on the Brooklyn waterfront, or you didn’t find in a used bookstore. Was that a difficult threshold to cross?

BOVE I was aware of the transition. I had set certain constraints on my activities, and I had to ask, Is there a reason for the constraint? Or does it no longer serve me?

SHOLIS What is the constraint in your studio now, if there is one? Or does your studio practice replicate the freedom and chaos of your childhood in Berkeley?

BOVE I’m sure there are a lot of constraints but maybe there are so many of them that I don’t even know how to articulate them. I started with very rigid ones. At first I was only looking at issues of Playboy published between 1967 and 1972, or something like that. That was it. I couldn’t invent anything. I could photograph them or draw from them but that was it. I started off very confined, and have gradually loosened up.

Brian Sholis is a PhD candidate in the department of history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.


Collaborative artist book published on the occasion of Carol Bove’s exhibition, Plants and Mammals, held at the Horticutural Society of New York, 2008. Includes a poster designed by Bove, a 4″ x 5″ c-print of Bove’s sculptural contribution to the show and a fold-out, accordion-style picture book by Janine Lariviere, titled Twentieth Century Narcissus, that chronicles the narcissus cultivars, or daffodil to us laypeople, throughout the twentieth century.

“The photos of flowers in this book have been taken from the gardening catalogs that came to my house between 2002 and 2005. I composed a timeline with the photos according to each flower’s date of origin. By no means is this an exhaustive encyclopedia of the twentieth century’s daffodils. I hoped to have flowers for each year but instead found the flowers in varying concentrations throughout the century.

The daffodil bulb itself is a kind of record. It has the potential to persist indefinitely, blooming again every year. The maintenance of this living library depends on people keeping track of the flowers and choosing to grow them. Current and past tastes, breeding innovations, and the ease of growing, all contribute to determining what remains from the past to present.” – Janine Lariviere

8 ½ x 5 ½ inches (22 x 14 cm)
accordian book in slipcase with inserts
100 pages, fully illustrated in color
ISBN: 9780615285801
Horticultural Society of New York, 2009


Abandoned Futures: On Carol Bove

Sculpture as a study in disintegration.

In September 1967, the artist Robert Smithson boarded the No. 30 bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan on a science-fiction journey to his hometown. In his account of the trip, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Smithson describes a decaying post-industrial landscape where even the equipment for building a new highway looked like “pre-historic creatures trapped in the mud, or, better, extinct machines—mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin.” In his day, what is now called the High Line—the park built atop an old elevated railway spur on Manhattan’s West Side—was not yet such a ruin; it was entirely abandoned only in 1980. Since the first section of the High Line opened as a park in 2009, it has been as good an advertisement as any for an outlook that is surely the antithesis of Smithson’s pessimistic vision of a landscape pocked with “monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” Such terrain has proven ideal for real estate speculation, with its memory-traces offering a decorative “distressed” context for what might otherwise seem too glossy and boringly upmarket—dull.

The High Line project is not yet finished, and if you want a taste of the spur’s ramshackle grit from the days when only intrepid trespassers found their way onto its forgotten tracks, you can book a guided walking tour of the unfinished portion, which runs above a railyard that at some point is supposed to be occupied by sixteen mixed-use skyscrapers encompassing more than 12 million square feet of space. The topic of the tour is not the High Line itself but rather “Caterpillar,” a group of seven sculptures by the Brooklyn-based artist Carol Bove (on view through May), and the latest installment in the High Line’s ongoing public art program. Three of Bove’s pieces are rectilinear assemblages built of rusted I-beams that look as much like remains from the spur’s old rail machinery—or the flayed dinosaurs of Smithson’s Passaic—as brand-new constructions. A couple of others are, by contrast, snow-white curlicues of powder-coated steel, looking like bits of giant springs that have been partially unsprung. It’s strange to see them sitting amid weeds and rubble.

Whereas the I-beam constructions seem like remains from the past, the curlicues appear to have dropped in from a spiffy future that’s still as desirable as a child’s new toy. A representation of the present, full of plans and halfway built, might be the smallest of the pieces here, Visible Things and Colors (2013). Made of concrete and grids of little brass cubes, it could be a sort of architectural model, a reflection of the obdurate plans and glittering future being fashioned for the area. But another of the works, Monel (2012), might be an admonition against such ambitions, at least if you know its backstory. Essentially a flat slab of bronze, a kind of horizontal monolith, Monel was previously shown at last year’s Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. Not long after being returned to Bove’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it was engulfed by the salty floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy, which corroded its glossy surface and introduced an unanticipated patina of decay. For Bove as for Smithson, there are always new ruins in the future; some of them we can learn to live with.

Another seven of Bove’s works are on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 12 under the title “The Equinox.” Among them are an I-beam structure (Chesed, 2013) and one of the coiled and uncoiled powder-coated steel pieces (although its title, The White Tubular Glyph, 2012, belies the fact that one section of it is actually black); still another is very similar to Visible Things and Colors on the High Line, except that along with brass squares it uses high-density fiberboard, painted white, rather than concrete and feels correspondingly lighter. At MoMA, Bove has put the formal vocabulary of “Caterpillar” in a different context. No weeds here: the seven works are kept immaculate and untouchable on a vast white platform. Nearby, a mass of debris—wood, rusty wire and who knows what else—seems to belong to a different formal idiom altogether. Could it have been retrieved from the unkempt mess of the unrenovated portion of the High Line? Its title is Disgusting Mattress (2012). Maybe it’s another remnant of Sandy’s depredations; in any case, one more souvenir of disaster. The title of another piece at MoMA, Triguna (2012), is a reference to “the three universal qualities (gunas) of all experience in the Ayurvedic tradition: light, darkness, and change,” as the wall text notes. What’s remarkable is the understated way Bove’s art evokes all three.

* * *

Such art might, no doubt, be a little too understated for some tastes. Disgusting Mattress looks like sculpture in the pristine setting of MoMA, but on the High Line it would be just another bit of rubbish. By contrast, the works in powder-coated steel might seem too obviously sculptural in the museum, if not in the weeds. But permeability to its context is essential to Bove’s art. “A sculpture’s unfixed identity is a basic point of entry for me,” she’s said. “An artwork can be repelling for its cheesiness and conservatism and at the same time its elegance will point to the possibility for some kind of heightened experience.” The aspect of Bove’s art that points toward the search for heightened—I might even say transcendent—experience can best be seen at a third New York exhibition of her work. It’s in the West Village at Maccarone, where Bove has a solo show with the riddling title “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?”, and she has also curated (at a project space around the corner, with Philip Smith) an exhibition called “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates” (both through October 19). The difference is not so much in Bove’s sculptures themselves; they are similar to the ones at MoMA and the High Line. It’s rather in the context she’s created by placing them in juxtaposition to the work of the cult figures Ziprin and Smith—of whom more shortly.

A word like “transcendent” can set off alarms. It doesn’t sound very critical or rigorous, and it might evoke New Age claptrap. The risk of plunging into some sort of hippie-dippy self-delusion comes with the territory that Bove’s been exploring ever since her sculpture began attracting attention a decade or so ago. Especially in the beginning (and in less overt ways, still today), the matter of her work—its materials and subject matter—has often mined or evoked the 1960s, which for her was the time of “a spontaneous widespread movement to reevaluate culture and to investigate being.”

It was a period of political unrest, but above all of spiritual upheaval. Among Bove’s first works to draw notice were sculptures in the form of shelving units displaying arrays of books and objects. Typical of these is one from 2002–03 called Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges, which takes its name, as you might guess, from one of the approximately twenty paperbacks it includes—some others being George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Some of the books are shelved upright, some have been placed in piles (spine out or bottom out), but two are held open to display black-and-white picture spreads: one showing African sculpture, the other what looks like an encounter-group exercise in which a scrum of people is holding someone up above their heads; the elevated person looks full of joy. Also on the shelves are a metronome and a sort of abstract object made of sticks and string, a kind of arts-and-crafts-class version of Constructivist sculpture (apparently, it illustrates the structural principle that Buckminster Fuller dubbed “tensegrity”). The selection of books is, of course, singular; it could have been the bookshelf in the home of some kid I went to school with, whose parents were much hipper and more worldly than my own. But the piece is not only about the content of the books it contains; it’s also about style and form—how the wood-and-metal shelving unit is as much a product of its time as the books, and how the square configuration of the piece as a whole recalls the back-to-basics aesthetics of the minimalist art of the 1960s.

Could such a sculpture, a Borgesian time machine, be owned by someone whose apartment is filled with books overflowing from shelves and piling up everywhere? I doubt it. Entropy would eventually erase the carefully constructed yet fragile distinction between Bove’s fastidiously arranged books and randomly accumulated new ones, and the old ones might even be read again. For Bove, that’s as it should be. Although her work teems with clever references to the history of modern art, it does not reaffirm the idea of a self-contained and autonomous history of art. Instead, it suggests that the impetus behind changes in art are part and parcel of broader cultural trends.

* * *

Bove no longer makes pieces like Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges, but what has endured is her focus on the intellectual process by which fairly ordinary things can coalesce into a work of art and just as easily splinter apart and return to the quotidian world. As she recently told the critic Brian Sholis, “My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.”

Given that she seems to keep lowering the boundary between art and nonart to the point of near indiscernibility, it’s not surprising that the two shows at Maccarone left me wondering if there’s any difference between one person’s art and another’s, between an exhibition of Bove’s work and one she has curated. Although the show on Ziprin and Smith was as informative about those two fascinating and unlikely figures as one could hope—this is not one of those infuriating affairs where the curator calls more attention to herself than to her subject—in some ways it doesn’t seem that different from a Bove exhibition. One reason is that works by Smith, Ziprin, and his wife and constant collaborator Joanne Ziprin, as well as by a little-known West Coast sculptor named Richard Berger, had also crept into Bove’s show at Maccarone. Just as her art can encompass books and knickknacks by others, it can subsume their drawings, paintings and sculptures.

But I took Bove at her word and saw the show on Smith and Ziprin as just what it purports to be: a trawl through the archives meant to cast light on some of the most fascinating and mysterious characters in the American culture of the 1950s and ’60s. Smith is widely known as the compiler of the groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of then–nearly forgotten music recorded between 1927 and 1932. Sourced entirely from Smith’s own collection of 78 rpm “race” and “hillbilly” records, it was released by Folkways Records as three sets of two LPs each in 1952 and jump-started the nascent folk music revival that came to a peak a decade later with artists like Bob Dylan; it was a harbinger of the re-emergence of what Greil Marcus would later call “the old, weird America.” But Smith was also a pioneering experimental filmmaker who specialized in abstract animations, influenced at first by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as a painter and graphic artist, although few of his works in these media survive. And as the child of Theosophists, Smith was an adept of the occult, “the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel.”

For his friend Lionel Ziprin, coming as he did from a line of mystics and renowned rabbis, the supernatural was likewise all in the family. Ziprin thought of himself as a poet, but he seems mainly to have been a nerve center for the bohemia of the Lower East Side, at whose apartment artists, filmmakers and musicians would mingle—Bruce Conner and Jordan Belson, Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan. Ziprin was a lifelong student of Kabbalah. His wife Joanna was a designer, model and sometime artist; clearly, it was she who had to make sure of the practicalities of life in the family, and so it was she who conceived the idea—how 1950s is this?—that they support themselves by going into the greeting-card business. Thus in 1951, with the intention “to design, perfect and market an idea in greeting cards that we believe in…having to do with imagination, bits of black magic and shoe strings,” they created a company called Ink Weed Arts. It was probably the black magic that doomed the firm, which was sold off three years later, near bankruptcy, only to be succeeded by another similar—and similarly short-lived—venture, the Haunted Inkbottle. Then, in 1958, the Ziprins came across a magical new material just developed by DuPont, called Mylar. They had the idea that decorative designs could be printed on Mylar and laminated to just about anything that could be used for any imaginable purpose. To promote the idea, the Qor Corporation was founded. As one of its veterans recalled, it was “a result of both genius, lots of marijuana, and arrogance.” It just might have worked, but Lionel Ziprin had no intention of actually manufacturing anything that would then have to be sold: “I’m not going to peddle it! I’m not going to sell it on Delancey Street!” He wanted to license his designs to big corporations and collect royalties. He found no takers.

* * *

The Ziprins’ efforts to make it big in business have rightly been called “one of the most curious and wonderfully cracked attempts at merging Beat sensibility with American consumerism.” No wonder an artist like Bove is fascinated by them. That the seemingly most anodyne decorative motifs might nonetheless be impregnated with diagrammatic content of supposedly cosmic significance, such as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (a favorite of Smith’s) and allusions to materials found in books with titles like An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, sounds like a scenario from the paranoid fantasies of a Don DeLillo character. It also offers an eccentric parallel to the oft-heard demand that the barriers between art and daily life be dissolved.

Today, as the art world becomes increasingly corporatized, artists (and not only Bove) are finding impossible projects like Ziprin’s and Smith’s more appealing than ever. Where the artists go, the curators follow—and why not, since (as with Bove) the boundary between artmaking and curating has become as porous as the boundary between one person’s present and another’s past. This year’s Venice Biennale, for instance—which I haven’t had a chance to see in person—has thrown its net far beyond the official art world to find, as one observer puts it, “esoteric cosmologies…dark fantasies, enigmatic weirdness, monomaniacal tunnel vision, and much else in like vein.” It sounds like Ziprin and Smith would have fit right in, alongside such historical precursors (and merely unofficial artists) as Carl Gustav Jung, Rudolf Steiner and Roger Caillois.

Not everyone is happy about this. I’m as wary as anyone else of art being swept into some sort of Aquarian la-la land, but consider the supposedly hardheaded alternative on offer: “current artistic endeavors that define art as a social sphere of specialized forms of knowledge and dialogues that are themselves the result of historically specific linguistic and formal interventions within a highly developed system of individual and collective reading competences, incessantly shifting on a spectrum ranging from the mnemonic to the critical.” This is the art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, describing the virtues of the art he thinks was underplayed in the current Biennale. A closed “social sphere” of accredited operators is enough to drive anyone in their right mind to turn on, tune in and drop out of the bureaucratic morass, and start delving into the alternatives. Or better still, like Bove, to search out the uncharted territory where critically sanctioned artistic approaches like minimalism and Conceptualism cross paths with their disinherited Orphic doubles—or at least their memory-traces.

Thomas Hirschhorn: Interviews

Philosophical Battery

Listening to Thomas Hirschhorn talk about art, it’s hard to resist the sensation that all other artists have got it wrong. Not that he’s critical of their work — in fact, I’ve never heard him mention another living artist by name. It’s more a matter of getting caught up in his enthusiasm. Thomas Hirschhorn is a fanatic. His ardor for the thinkers after whom he names many of his works — Ingeborg Bachmann Kiosk, Deleuze Monument, Bataille Monument, and, most recently, 24h Foucault — is evident not only in these works’ devotion to their subjects’ writings but also in the sheer volume of material deployed toward this end.

Viewers must be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the amount of verbiage in Hirschhorn’s displays. How can they be expected to absorb all of it? How can they be expected to absorb ANY of it?

The answer is that they’re not. Whenever he’s given the chance, Hirschhorn reiterates that his works are not about education or the betterment of the viewer (“I am not a social worker”). Nonetheless, specialists in the fields of philosophy and museum education are, not surpsingly, unimpressed by what they see as his forays into their departments. By their standards, his artworks are failed attempts at didacticism. And what’s more, those works don’t show their lofty subjects the respect they are due.

Herein lies the crucial distinction in Hirschhorn’s work: namely, the distinction between fanaticism and fundamentalism. As Terry Eagleton wrote recently, “Fundamentalism is a textual affair. It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of Words.” In his ardor for the writing of Spinoza and Bataille, he reproduces their words in staggering quanitity, stacking them in towers of photocopied sheets or using them to wallpaper entire sections of a gallery. Moreover, he mixes them with the debris of everyday modern life: discarded beverage containers, fake washing machines, shop window mannequins. He has, in other words, dragged these writings out from their “gold standard” vault and mixed them with the dross of material reality in the most irreverant manner imaginable.

For Hirschhorn, telling someone HOW to adore is every bit as wrong as telling them WHOM to adore. Hirschhorn is hardly bothered if institutions don’t approve of the direction his mania takes him. What matters is the adoration he feels for his subjects.

Craig Garrett: Every one of your exhibitions is an accretion of excess: an excess of materials, of concepts, of voices and points of view — almost like a battle or a shouting match. Looking at your works, it’s funny to think that you came to art via graphic design, a field based on the clear expression of ideas.

Thomas Hirschhorn: But I do want to be precise, and I want to clearly express my ideas! With my work I try to be absolutely clear and absolutely precise. I want to take absolute decisions and I want to work out the absolute truth. Truth is excess, and I want to work in strictness and be overwhelmed. Art is affirmation in excess, and I must risk transgression to give form to this excess. I have to be excessive and precise at the same time. I want to assert form and I want to give form. That I want to give form does not mean that I want to make forms. I want to answer the question: what is my position? I want to do it with and through my work.

CG: Your work quotes the vernacular aesthetic of protest marchers’ placards, beggars’ signs, and temporary memorials. What draws you to this visual language?

TH: I love the power of forms made in urgency and necessity. These forms have an explosive density. They are untameable and rebellious. These forms are very far from “over-design” and “over-architecture” everywhere! The legitimacy of these forms comes from commitment, from determination, from the heart. These forms do not want to impress by overeducating aesthetics or by mainstream aesthetical concerns, and these forms are not subject to changes of lifestyle. These forms have nothing to do with fashion.

CG: That’s interesting, because you live in a city of fashion — Paris. More than any other city, it represents the extreme cultivation of quality, luxury, and style. Yet it is also a city full of people who have come not for luxury or style but for life’s most basic needs: work, freedom, security. How has your relationship to these two faces of Paris changed over the years?

TH: I’ve been living in Paris for more than twenty years now. I came to Paris for work, as you said. I did not come to Paris for quality of life, for calm, for luxury, or for style. I did not come to Paris for culture, and I did not come to be an artist. But this city gave me time, anonymity, measure, encounters to develop my work. Here in Paris, in isolation, I understood how important at was to me. This is why, as an artist now, I can stay in Paris. Paris is a very big city, a metropole among others, so it is a good place to work. And I love the ordinary everyday life in Paris.

CG: Could you explain your 24h Foucault project, which will be shown at the Palais de Tokyo for Paris’s all-night art festival, La Nuit Blanche? If I’m not mistaken, it will be your most temporary work so far but also one of the most ambitious, in terms of scale and materials.

TH: 24h Foucault is an artwork made to celebrate the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who died twenty years ago. It is a homage made without respect but with love and with ambition. I share with Marcus Steinweg the idea that philosophy is art. So 24h Foucault is the affirmation that philosophy is art and that there is friendship between philosophy and art.

24h Foucault is an artwork with different elements: a twenty-four hour auditorium, a library and documentation center, the Peter Gente archive, an audio and video library, an exhibition, a shop, and a bar with a newspaper publication. 24h Foucault wants to be a battery charged with beauty, complexity, and thinking. I want to connect my brain with this Foucault battery. I want the public to be inside a twenty-four hour brain in action. 24h Foucault wants to produce urgency, listening, confrontation, reflection, resistance, and friendship. 24h Foucault will be done in collaboration with Daniel Defert, Philippe Artieres, Marcus Steinweg, and Guillaume Desanges.

CG: You’ve said many times that your artworks employ philosophy as just another material, like tape or cardboard. Where, then, can it be found in your work? Obviously recorded lectures or photocopied essays are not philosophy — they are merely its physical shell. Can you point out a way in which Foucault’s thinking shaped the way you create art?

TH: But precisely, philosophy is also material. The texts by Marcus Steinweg are philosophical theory and material aswell, and he agrees that I use it as material. He has the liberty and takes the freedom to give me his theory as material. So in my last two works, Unfinished Walls and Stand In, I tried to work with this material by cutting, enlarging, reducing, and extracting from it.

With Marcus Steinweg, we do not work together; it is not a collaboration. Each one is responsible for what he is doing. This work is based on friendship and responsibility between philosophy and art. I try to do something new. I do not need philosophy as an artist — I need philosophy as a human being!

I love the faithful philosophy — the pure, the powerful, the cruel, the sad philosophy of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, Foucault. Concerning Foucault, I do not understand his philosophy, and I think that I don’t have to understand philosophy in general. I am not a connoisseur. I am not a specialist. I am not a theoretician. But I want to confront, fight and be affected by philosophy in general, and I love Foucault’s refusal to speak for the other.

CG: That brings up another point. Among the people critical of your work, there seems to be a feeling that you incorporate these historical thinkers in a parastic fashion, that you rely on their intellectual stature without contributing to a better understanding of their ideas.

TH: My work definitely cannot avoid misunderstanding, incomprehension, and inattention. I have to accept this, and I have to work with this. I do not complain. I want to judge, and I want my work to be judged. I want to make affirmations in and with my work, and I understand that these affirmations meet incomprehension. I disagree with differentiation, criticism and negativity because I want to work beyond criticism and negativity, and differentiation is only negative, and criticism doesn’t risk anything — it just wants to delimit and exclude. I want to work as a fan.

A fan is someone who shares with other fans the fact of being a fan, not the object of his love. Love is important, not the object of love. I want to be a fan in order to speak directly through my work from one to another. I want to fight against resentment and nihilism, the dictatorship of morality, indifference, and cynicism. I want to act freely in my practice and with what is my own. I don’t have to communicate, to explain, to justify, to argue for my work. My work allows itself to fight against the culture of powerlessness, weakness, depression, and good conscience. I am against the inconsiderate pretentiousness of narcissistic self-fulfillment. I want to act, I want to hope, and I want to be happy!

CG: This past spring, how did you manage to convince the Centre Pompidou to lend so many irreplaceable artworks for the Musée Precaire Albinet, including paintings by Mondrian and Leger? Surely the name of he project [precaire = precarious] must have set off some alarm bells in their collections management department.

TH: I asked the Centre Pompidou to lend original artworks in order to integrate their active part into the Musée Precaire Albinet. The active part from every artwork is the part that wants to change the spectator, that wants to establish the conditions for a direct dialogue from one to the other. That’s why I needed the original artworks. I did not ask for the originals for their heritage value. And I asked with the legitimacy and the expectancy of the housing complex Cité Albinet because the inhabitants wanted the original artworks!

With the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, producer of the Musée Precaire Albinet, I explained the absolute will of the project to the Centre Pompidou, the idea and the aim of the project, as I suppose everyone wanting to borrow work does. We of course had to present guarantees to the museum (insurance, transportation, and humidity and preservation conditions) like everybody. It was not easy to convince them, but it was not impossible either. I think that the implication of the people of the Cité Albinet, their understanding of the project, their acceptance and capacity to accommodate, finally convinced the museum to lend the original artworks. There was a real demand; there was a real project. There is no mission impossible in art. And why should original artwork only be lent to museums in Zurich, London, New York, or Tokyo?

CG: After your three most public undertakings (Deleuze Monument, Bataille Monument, and Musée Precaire Albinet) what is your assessment of the general public’s appreciation of intellectualism? Did your experiences with them alter your faith in the reflective capacities of society at large?

TG: Those projects do create a lot of difficulty, complexity, and beauty. Definitely I know there is a place for art in every person’s brain, and I know that art possesses the tools to enter this space.

CG: Several of the historical artists whose work you included in the Musée Precaire Albinet did not anticipate the effects that time and entropy would have on their works — the cracks in the surface of Mondrian’s paintings, the stains of the facades of Le Corbusier’s buildings. But failure is an element designed in to your work. What do you think is the main difference between your outlook and theirs?

TH: I am not interested in failure. I do not want to fail, but I do not exclude that I can fail, that my work can fail. But it is not an obsession for me. I am interested in energy, not quality. This is why my work looks as it looks! Energy yes! Quality no! I do not want to intimidate nor to exclude by working with precious, selected, valued, specific art materials. I want to include the public with and through my work, and the materials I am working with are tools to include and not to exclude. This is what makes me choose the type of materials I use. It is a political choice. I want to work for a non-exclusive audience because art can only, as art, be open to non-art. Art can only, as art, have a real importance and political meaning.

by Craig Garrett

[originally published in Flash Art no. 238 (Oct 2004)]

copyright 2004

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Thomas Hirschhorn by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Thomas Hirschhorn

by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Intensif-Station, 2010, K21, Düsseldorf. Photo by Romain Lopez, courtesy of Arndt Gallery, Berlin.

Dear Thomas,

I’ve just received your answers to my questions and your handwritten letter in an envelope at home. They surprised me in a good way. Thank you very much. When asked to write an introduction to the interview, I decided to answer you with an open letter instead.

I think I allowed myself to understand more about your work through “making” questions. When I was asked to participate in a dialogue with you, I gladly accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to think aloud about your work.

When we met some years ago, in 2003, I think, at Cantina Montejo in Mexico City, a block away from where I live, you invited me to visit you in your studio in Aubervilliers. I had imagined it as a place of labor, a place in which art making means the production of knowledge, of language, of emotions, not as a factory or a sweatshop for art, as it often happens these days worldwide. It turns out your studio was actually a former factory, which your activity totally transformed into a place full of creative energy.

When I visited you in France, on a snowy afternoon, in late 2005, Aubervilliers and its surroundings showed me a landscape and an environment that was very different from my idea of what being an artist in Paris was like. This densely populated industrial area on Paris’s outskirts not only provides the city with labor, but also with culture: music, the sport of parkour, tecktonic dance, and verlan slang. From the entrance to your studio I saw the Stade de France, France’s national stadium, Zinedine Zidane and Franck Ribéry’s playground. You gave me and our dialogue several hours (and some tea); it is there that I learned, or perhaps understood, that I could be in a new situation, in a totally different environment and universe: Paris is alive.

Thank you, Thomas.

Un abrazo fuerte.


Abraham Cruzvillegas Why live in Paris?

Thomas Hirschhorn Because living in Paris is beautiful. It makes sense for me as an artist and it’s a challenge! I love ordinary, everyday life here and I love the people I’ve met who have become my friends. I stayed in Paris because of the Frenchwomen and Frenchmen that are living here. I like France with all its unresolved contradictions, in all its complexity. I really do love the motto: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” I take it as something to fight for, at every moment. To live in Paris was never romantic to me. Coming from Switzerland, a very small country, it’s been my effort to confront myself and find out my own measure. This is only possible in a large urban city. I am speaking about “Le Grand Paris” and it’s clear to me that thinking of Paris includes all of its suburbs. To me, the interest and the beauty of working in this country and in this city come from the work of my friend Manuel Joseph, a French poet, but also from many other poets, writers, and philosophers living and working here today. They create a real dynamic. To me this makes Paris a special, powerful, rich, and graceful city of creation. I love to confront the very condensed, critical way of thinking—a sometimes fucking hypercritical thinking—that only the French can produce. I love it; it’s excessive and not always justified, but is terrifically rebellious and crazily resistant. It’s an intellectual pleasure and an artistic challenge to be confronted with such theories. There is also a real Republican, egalitarian tradition which I love. Living in Paris is stimulating and demanding, but I understand the economic pressure as an invitation to face reality. The possibility of being in touch with the sharp thinking of a Frenchman such as Manuel Joseph, without compromise and without reconciliation, gives meaning and reason for me to work here more than in any other city.

AC You worked and lived in Aubervilliers for a while. What does the banlieue mean for you?

TH I am still working in Aubervilliers, where my studio is located. Paris is not Paris without its suburbs. Aubervilliers is a part of Paris. What I need, as an artist, is to live in a space of truth, and this space of truth exists in Paris. As in almost every large city, the space of truth is its suburbs, their so-called banlieues. In Aubervilliers, as in other Parisian suburbs, one can touch the truth and be in contact with it. It’s in the suburbs that there is vitality, deception, depression, energy, utopia, autonomy, craziness, creativity, destruction, ideas, young people, hope, fights to be fought, audaciousness, disagreements, problems, and dreams. It’s in the suburbs that today’s big issues are written on the building facades. It’s in the suburbs that today’s reality can be grasped, and it’s in the suburbs that the pulse of vitality hurts. It’s in the suburbs that there is necessity and urgency. It’s the suburbs that will save the city center from a most certain death! This incredible energy has to be directed somewhere and be fruitful somehow, find a destiny and a response. This is the problem of “small” Paris. The “small” Paris turns its back to all this energy coming from the suburbs. That’s why I am for “Le Grand Paris.”

Das Auge (The Eye), 2008, Wiener Secession, Vienna. Courtesy of Arndt Gallery, Berlin.

AC How do you deal with humor in everyday life and in your work?

TH I have a lot of humor. The problem is that others don’t understand it—it’s a pity! And it’s the same thing with the humor in my work. People do not understand that there is humor in my work! More seriously, I think humor can be a path and an opening toward the other. But I do not “deal” with humor in my work, I just want to give it form as much as I can. What is certain is that I have a lot of fun doing my work, always and everywhere—in my studio and in public spaces too. To do my work is not glamorous, but it is a lot of fun. And to do my work is pleasure, it is full enjoyment.

AC Is disaster—famine, flooding, earthquake, forced migration, genocide, holocaust—a source of energy, creation, love?

TH Yes, because disaster is part of the world, our one and unique world! I agree with the world I am living in. It is only if I agree with it that I can have the power to change something. To agree does not mean to approve of everything or to support or to endure everything. To agree means to love—to love the world—beyond “respect,” “empathy,” “tolerance,” “compassion,” and “kitsch.” Love is passion, desire, ecstasy, infinitude, and cruelty. As an artist, who is part of the world, I have to confront disaster, my own disaster first, but also all disasters. I have to love this world if I want to change its conditions, I have to love the fact that disaster and “the negative” are also part of it. The world is not the world without the negative. Even within the negative, I have love for art and for artists, love for philosophy and philosophers, love for poetry and poets. This love gives me the energy and the will to create despite all the negative and despite all the past, present, and future disasters. Love is stronger than disaster.

Poor-Racer, 2009, in One-Day Sculpture, Christchurch, New Zealand.

AC What happens to the obscene when we are able to see it?

TH I never use the word obscene or obscenity. I think we are living in a time where words like these are used to impose morality. I refuse this and I refuse the kind of “hypersensitivity” developed and encouraged these days—I am sensitive but no more than any other human being. The Western and Northern luxurious hypersensitivity is the attempt to avoid contact with reality and its hard core. Terms such as obscene are used swiftly in order to protect people from exposure to the truth. Truth needs to be paid for. For there to be truth you have to make a sacrifice. I mean truth—not fact, not opinion, and not information. We are living in a dictatorship of opinions, of facts, and of information. Opinions about what is “obscene,” what is pornographic, and what should not be shown to children! As if everyone and everything should be neutralized by so-called morals or even ethics. There is no longer a single art exhibition without a warning about “obscenity” or “pornography!” But I, as an artist, want to see everything, know everything. I want to be emancipated and sovereign. I do not want to be neutralized. I do not want to be the one saying: “I can’t see this! I don’t want to see it!” I don’t need to be told what to support or not. During the second Iraq war, the former American secretary of defense said: “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” That’s exactly the point: in order to discourage inhumanity, we need to see it! As an artist, I don’t want to dream or escape reality.

I don’t want to flee the hard core of reality.

Exhibiting Poetry Today: Manuel Joseph, 2010, Centre National de L’Edition et de L’Art Imprime, Chatou (France). Photo by Romain Lopez.

AC Can you imagine a noncapitalist way or environment for sex? Not efficient, not productive, not amusing, not serious?

TH Sex is apolitical. Sex exists—thank god!—beyond politics. I think the people in North Korea have sex also, don’t they? Sex happens completely and forever beyond everything else. Sexiness is generosity, expenditure, non-economization, emancipation, infinitude, ecstasy, intensity, risk, self-authorization, pride, the absolute. Sex is not reality—sex is the real. And the real—because it is the real—stimulates, boosts, or even dopes and resists all environments and all contexts. And I refuse to fall—like a mouse—into the trap of “noncapitalist” sex!

AC Why collaborate?

TH I do not collaborate and I do not use this term collaboration. I want to work with friends, I want to work in friendship. Working in friendship, as I do with the German philosopher Marcus Steinweg or with the French poet Manuel Joseph, means to work in unshared responsibility. Unshared Responsibility is a new term we created in order to avoid collaboration. Unshared Responsibility means I am completely responsible for the work of my friend, and it means that my friend takes complete responsibility for my work. Unshared Responsibility does not mean discussion, argumentation, negotiation, or finding a compromise. Unshared Responsibility means to be absolutely committed to the work of the other, to take it for what makes its strength: a sovereign affirmation. To work in Unshared Responsibility means to take the responsibility for something I am not responsible for; it means to be generous and it means to have absolute confidence. Unshared Responsibility does not mean to control but to share the love of art, of philosophy, and of poetry. Unshared Responsibility is something I only do with someone and the work of someone I absolutely agree with.

AC Describe chaos.

TH Chaos is form. I want to give form to chaos. Chaos means complexity, inclusion, incommensurability, clarity, precision, exaggeration. Chaos is a tool and a weapon to confront the world, which is chaotic, but not in an attempt to make it more calculated, more disciplined, more educated, more moral, more satisfying, more exclusive, more ordered, more functionable, more stabilized, more simplified, or more reduced. No, chaos is the form to confront the chaotic world. I must specify the chaos, touch it, struggle with it, to finally be lost in it myself. Chaos is another word for ethics. Chaos is resistance, courage, and hope. In art, the question of form is the most important and essential question. I have to struggle with my will, I must give form in the chaos.

Théâtre Précaire 2, 2010, Les Ateliers de Rennes-Biennale d’Art Contemporain, Rennes.

AC Sometimes while looking at your work, The Planets by Gustav Holst comes to my mind.

TH I do not know Gustav Holst. Should I know about him?

AC It’s not necessary. What are you listening to recently?

TH I am listening to fado. I have three fado CDs: Maria Teresa, Katia Guerreiro, and Amália Rodrigues. My favorite one is the CD of Amália Rodrigues, Uma Casa Portuguesa. It’s beautiful music and I like to play just one song on the repeat track mode and listen to it for hours. “Barco Negro” is one of those songs—it’s sad, beautifully sad.

AC What’s the meaning of labor in your work? Do you work with assistants?

TH I love to work and I love to do my work. I always liked to work a lot, and because I like it, it’s easy for me to work and work a lot. Because I, the artist, am the art maker, I have to and want to do the work, to give it form and to work it out. I want to be overgiving in my work, I want to work with excess, and I want to be generous while working, I want to self-exploit myself! I like the fact that my work involves a lot of labor. Even when something is big, its big size is made with labor, it’s not blown up industrially. The fact that people can actually see the labor is a way to include them in my work, to make an opening. This opening and including is precisely what I mean by working, or put differently self-erection. To me the term of work and labor are positive terms, terms of self-invention, of self-authorization, and of being mobilized. I am for production and I am for affirmation. To me production is related to dignity and pride. Sometimes people tell me: “Do less! Work much less!” They are wrong, I don’t fall into this trap of nonproduction, into the trap of deception and cynicism. They don’t understand that to work—besides the big pleasure it gives me—is a necessity. It’s the necessity to give form; to assert and to defend my form. It’s necessary to insist by working a lot and by producing a lot. For those who want to do less—it’s fine with me—let them do less, let them produce less. But don’t tell me I should do less! I want to do what I love: to have fun and, to me, to have fun means to do my work! Yes, I do work with assistants.

AC How do you choose materials to work with? Do you choose?

TH I love the materials I am working with. To use the materials I work with is more than a choice—it’s a decision. Doing art politically means loving the material one works with. To love does not mean to be in love in a kitschy way or to fall in love with one’s material or lose oneself in it. Rather, to love one’s material means to place it above everything else, to work with it in awareness, and to be insistent with it. I love the material because I decided in favor of it, therefore I don’t want to replace it, substitute it, or change it. The decision about the material is an extremely important one in art. I decided on the materials I am working with because they are everyday materials. Everyone knows about them, everyone uses them—to do things other than art. These materials surround me, are easily available, unintimidating, and nonartsy. They are universal, economic, inclusive, and don’t bear any plus-value. That is the political, and because I made that decision, I cannot yield to wishes and demands for “something else” or “something new.”

AC What are you reading these days?

TH “L’éthique, essai sur la conscience du mal” by Alain Badiou, and the exhibition catalogue from MAK Vienna, “Blumen für Kim Il Sung.”

AC What are you working on now?

TH I am working on Too Too—Much Much. This is my next big work to be exhibited in the Museum Dhondt Dhaenens in Deurle, Belgium. In this work I want to give form to the logic of being overwhelmed by a situation and in assuming the consequences. I will work following my guidelines: Energy: Yes! Quality: No! I have the ambition of creating a new form, to give form to a kind of universal and conflictual hyperconsumption, a form which is the result of confronting three different overconsumptions: 1) The overconsumption of natural disasters; the consequences of being overwhelmed and alone in facing a natural disaster. 2) The overconsumption of the feeling that everything is burning everywhere and everywhere around me; and, 3) The overconsumption of personal and communal human disasters in our lives and their consequences. The question with Too Too—Much Much is: Am I able to give a form which goes beyond usual facts and criticism of consumption? Can I create in my new work some kind of desperate fun that will cut precarious breakthroughs into the hard core of reality?


Abraham Cruzvillegas’s work has been shown in over 20 countries since 1987. The Mexican artist’s most recent multimedia project, Autoconstrucción—for which he charted the makeshift evolution of his family’s house and neighborhood and found the origins of his sculptural practice—was shown at REDCAT in Los Angeles and Kurimanzutto in Mexico City. He is currently based in Berlin, where he is a DAAD artist-in-residence.

Interview: Thomas Hirschhorn on Cavemanman

Thomas Hirschhorn. All photos: Paul Schmelzer

When Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn visited the Walker last month to install Cavemanman, he spent a few minutes with me discussing the piece, a massive network of tunnels and caves made from cardboard, mailing tape, aluminum foil, and other everyday materials. In this interview, he discusses how his work is a “collage in the third dimension,” the historical and contemporary influences behind the piece, and how a cave is a good metaphor for the mind.

Interviewed in October 2006 in the installation Cavemanman, part of the Walker Art Center exhibition Heart of Darkness: Kai Althoff, Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, Thomas Hirschhorn

Paul Schmelzer: Your material is really accessible. It’s not high-art material: tape, aluminum foil, Xerox copies… Could say more about that?

Thomas Hirschhorn: I really try to use materials that everybody knows and uses in their everyday life, not for doing art. It’s very important to me that there is no question about from where the material is coming. So tape, cardboard, paper, photocopies, mailing tubes, silver paper: it’s very important to me to have materials that are in everyday use. Also, I like that [they don’t have] this arty aspect. There’s no kitsch behind it. The question is not what material is it from, the question is what’s it about? That’s why I use this material, because I believethey have a part of universality inside them.

Schmelzer: I also see there are a lot of mass communication, mass-culture items. All the philosophical tracts are Xeroxes, which is a mass production technique, and there’s also stuff from mass media.

Hirschhorn: They are a tool to make a window to another reality, or our reality to another world. I like to start with materials. They are accessible, and they still exist, because in fact it’s about a collage. It’s a collage in the third dimension, not in the 2nd dimension. What means doing a collage? It means to put things together who are not made to be put together. This is a collage, and here it is in the third dimension.

The entrance to Cavemanman in the Walker galleries

Schmelzer: Your politics have been described as radical, but I like to go back to the etymology of words. And radical doesn’t mean “extreme,” it really means “to the roots,” if you break the word apart. Are your politics radical in that traditional sense, or in that earlier sense, that sense that you’re going back to the roots of what’s fundamental about democracy, for example.

Hirschhorn: Absolutely. I’m interested in working politically, not in doing political work. Doing work politically means, yes, to question the material, to question the work that is done, to question every element: is every element I use, is it an offer, is it a key, is it a possibility to give the tool for the spectator to establish a dialogue or a confrontation with the work. That means to me, for example, working politically. In this way, yes, I would like that it has a kind of radicality, but in the small questions of materials, of elements, of light, of space, every question embracing my tool as an artist to give form has to be radical, yes.

Schmelzer: There’s often an immersive quality to your work. It’s often an environment you go into. It seems there’s extremeness in the emotional quality; for example, the piece you did early in 2006 with the images of victims of war (Superficial Engagement) or this one, it’s a bit claustrophobic, it’s lots of shiny things and bright things and bomb metaphors. So you’re dealing with things that are emotionally pretty powerful, but also intellectually powerful: Noam Chomsky and Bataille and Foucault. Is this your way of getting people to react, or is it your way of exploring ideas you care about.

Hirschhorn: To me, it’s never about getting people to react. As you say, the immersive manner: I feel as an artist I have to do too much. I have to do the whole thing. It’s always about the whole world. It’s always about the entire possibility, the entire thing. And of course, that’s pretentious and it’s ambitious, but in another way, it’s stupid, also, to want to do this. I have, as an artist, to stand out this ridiculousness of this ambition and this pretension. It’s always about the whole world. So that’s why I like to be over-formed, to make too much, to put everything inside. To try again and again, to put everything into the work. It’s about me, about how I see, as an artist, I can work. It’s not about a spectator who has to react or not to react or who I want to provoke or not. Never. It’s always about: what’s my tool? I think this is one of my tools; the immersive, the too-much, the stupid, the way to go over something who is permitted in a way.

Schmelzer: This work is all over-the-top consumer society kind of stuff; and the fact that you’re using what could be seen as stuff you’ve found on the street, is there a critique or a way of addressing that—the consumption culture idea?

Hirschhorn: It’s not about a critique of the consumption culture or the consumption society we live in. I’m a part of it. I’m part of this chaotic world. I’m a part of this unclarity in the world. I see as one of my missions as an artist to work in this unclarity, to work in this chaos. Not to bring clarity, not to bring clearness, to struggle with the chaos. To struggle with what’s around me. For example, to work in the chaos of the world means not to me create clear forms, to make less things or make not a lot of things. For me, to go in the same direction and even beyond this chaos and this unclarity is what I think I have to do.

Schmelzer: Now this piece, Cavemanman. You said you’re not trying to say just one thing, but, this obviously is the hermit’s cave, the bin Laden hideout, maybe even the little hole in the ground Saddam was found in, the philosopher’s cave: what was your impulse to begin this project?

Hirschhorn: One of the impulses was: a young man was condemned in France because he was making graffiti in a prehistorical site—

Schmelzer: In Lascaux?

Hirschhorn: Not in Lascaux, near Marseille. He did make graffiti, and what did his people make 30,000 years before? Aren’t they graffitists also? That was one of the points, to say I have to work out an un-hierarchical form, because we know caves—there are also fake caves. There are fake caves that are recent, there are fake caves that are very old. There are caves that have nothing inside—no painting or perhaps the painting disappeared. There are undiscovered caves. So I wanted to give this un-architectural and un-hierarchical space form into the cave. That’s why in fact the idea of a cave arised.

Then, it’s also, I’m Swiss. In Switzerland, we have a lot of caves, but we have also have a lot of tunnels. We’re tunneling all the time because there are big mountains, so this kind of obsession to tunnel, to go through the mountains and make caves in the mountain. Then, of course, the picture you mention of the
cave of Tora Bora or the caves people take to find refuge all over the world. This was the point of start for my work Cavemanman.


Schmelzer: I’m curious about the imagery from magazines here; it seems there’s a lot of images of progress and production and marking—sort of marking the earth much like they’re marking the walls of the cave.

Hirschhorn: Yes, absolutely. We are here in this cavation with these color pictures on the wall. What they share together: people at work. Every one of these people has a mission, has something to do, is at work. So I wanted to connect them to the entire history of caves: where is the space more for contemplation or religious space or a space we don’t for spirit or we don’t know. I wanted to connect it to the reality of work. To me the cave that is just a picture, the cave is in your brain, the cave is in your mind. We have our own layout of a cave in our mind. That is why, in fact, Cavemanman.

Schmelzer: So there’s an archetype of a cave we all kind of—

Hirschhorn: Not an archetype—

Schmelzer: Not an archetype but an individual conception.

Hirschhorn: Absolutely. I believe there is the possibility to structure your mind in a cave with cavations where you put something inside, with garbage, with unspeakable things. We think there’s no light on it, we think they’re forgotten. So, yeah, it’s a metaphor for the space in the mind.

Schmelzer: That leads well to all the books that are here: you have large-scale replicas of books, you have actual texts from different books of philosophy and economics even, it looks like, and political theory. And then there are these bomb-like things connected to them. It seems pretty directly that there’s maybe an explosive potential of knowledge thing, but there must be more than that!

Hirschhorn: Of course, the books are important, but not as material to read, but more as the knowledge was here, but who has to be applicated. It’s about the understanding of the world. It’s not about the knowledge we have or have not. That’s not the question. So it’s about this, that’s also why the books are not reachable in the cavation. The shelves are too high. Here there are text excerpts that could be like a decoration. Of course you can read it, because that’s always the possibility I want to give. Then the enlarged books, of course, that make an engagement to the same time, the book becomes empty because you cannot read it. So it’s important to put together these two meanings.

Finally the dynamite bombs with the books, of course it’s an image, as you say, yeah, the dynamite or the explosive in a book, but also it’s an image to me perhaps also to a paranoia idea of somebody who wants to make fear to someone who comes to discover his cave. Lonely people they have this kind of paranoia, this kind of thinking to protect themselves with this often fake protective materials. It’s another image of somebody retiring himself and trying to confront the world.

Schmelzer: It reminds me of Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber.

Hirschhorn: Absolutely. It’s not about him, but it’s just about this kind of, in a way: you have to confront the world. It’s important not to retire yourself in a cave. But in another way you have to build this cave in your mind and to struggle with what happens in this cave, in confronting it with the world.

Schmelzer: When I first started at the Walker back in ’98, the first piece I saw of yours was, in [the Walker Art Center exhibition] Unfinished History, a big Swiss Army Knife, but I didn’t understand it at all… but the materials, post-9/11, really speak to me much more. When I look around here, I see detritus, the sort of things we all saw blowing through the streets after the World Trade Center fell. Do you see your material differently after a big disaster like that?

Hirschhorn: No. It’s interesting what you say. I saw the pictures, of course, of the dust, for example, after 9/11. I saw the pictures of the millions of papers fluttering down. And, yes, it doesn’t change everything to me, but in a way it’s true. These materials, for example, that could have an importance so much at the moment on somebody’s office desk, and because something completely crazy happened, at a moment everything changed and the paper got completely no more importance to nobody. This is interesting me, because I always believe always… nobody can say to me what’s important to me. Everything can be important to everybody at a moment and at a time. This is the thing I get with this visual experience I had, the importance of things. The importance for one human being, for one element, one shoe or one thing you can see after this kind of incredible event happened; that’s touching me. I was always interested in these elements.

Schmelzer: The other day when we spoke, you mentioned the theme of the larger show this is part of, Heart of Darkness. Does that title or your knowledge of the Joseph Conrad book, does that change how you view this work? What do you think about the theme?

Hirschhorn: I think it’s fantastic. It’s a really great theme. First of all, it’s a really beautiful title, of course. And I think—I’m really happy to be in this exhibition because I think there is really a concern that is so deep in this time today, and I think to these four artists who exhibit, everybody, a kind of big work, who is in a way have built a world for himself, each. It is an ambition to build his own world. I like it a lot. This is really what I want, and perhaps what other artists want—to build a known world and to confront this world directly with the world we are living in. Heart of Darkness is beautiful because there is a heart also, in the darkness, also in the unspeakable, also in something very non-communicatable.


Schmelzer: You just struck on the theme of one of the rooms: “1 man = 1 man.” It strikes me that, much like the marking of a wall of a cave 30,000 years ago or the marking of a graffiti wall today, or the way one person’s life is destroyed in 9/11 is the same as one person’s life being destroyed today in Iraq right now. It seems like there’s that idea here, too, all the way around. This work is going to be hard for people because it’s not pretty, but it seems to have an essential love and equality about it.

Hirschhorn: Yeah, there is a heart. Absolutely. That’s why I like the title (Heart of Darkness). There’s a heart. But I don’t want to be kind, but the heart is the beautiful idea of equality between human beings. In a way I wanted to stupidly write it on the wall like graffiti: one man = one man. But in another way, I needed to build a cave that this idea gets acceptable in away. Everybody says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but…” No, no, no, it’s not about but. It’s not about fact. It’s not about journalism. It’s not about who is wrong and who is right, who is OK, who is not OK. It’s just about this idea: one man = one man. This is why I needed to build the whole cave.

Schmelzer: So you’d have a wall to hang that message on?

Hirschhorn: Absolutely.


Volume 3. No. 1. Winter 2009/10
ISSN 1752-6388


The Headless Artist:

An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn on the Friendship Between Art and Philosophy, Precarious Theatre and the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival

Ross Birrell: Why are you passionate about Spinoza?

Thomas Hirschhorn: I am passionate about Spinoza because the lecture of Ethics had a real impact on me and I am passionate about Philosophy in general because I enjoy not understanding everything. I like the fact that, in Philosophy, things remain to be understood and that work still has to be done. “Ethics” is one of the books which, for me, still remains to be understood. What I have made out so far, is that Ethics is a powerful attempt to fight obscurantism and idealism. Ethics – a book I often look into – is overwhelming in form, logic and clarity. Today more than ever it is necessary to confront this. Reading Spinoza means: accepting to insist on receptivity and sensuality without the idea of a certain type of infinity. According to Deleuze, whoever is interested by philosophy, should start with Spinoza’s Ethics. When you read Spinoza everything is transcendence. But if everything is transcendence then there exists no transcendence. If not transcendence, then everything is immanence. But if everything is immanence, there is no immanence. Spinoza presents a concept devoid of transcendence and devoid of immanence. It is the concept – as Deleuze shows – of Here and Now, the concept of Life – Life as a subject without God. An active subject, a subject of pleasure and leisure. A responsible, gay, assertive subject.

RB: Why did you choose to do the Spinoza-festival in Bijlmer How familiar were the residents of Bijlmer with Spinoza prior to the festival? And were they aware of the potential affinity in terms of immigration? For example, many of the present residents of Bijlmer are immigrants from Suriname, a former Dutch colony and Spinoza arrived in Amsterdam as a foreigner, the son of Portuguese Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition? You have said previously: ‘In my works in public spaces the context is never the issue’ Could the ‘Spinoza-festival’ have taken place anywhere?

TH: “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” could have taken place in a different neighbourhood than the “Bijlmer”. This work could have been built in another city, another country or another continent. Because Art can provoke a Dialogue or a Confrontation – from one to one – Art can do this everywhere, in the Bijlmer, but anywhere else as well. And because my work is mentally transplantable, it aims to experience its universality.

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Spinoza Library’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini

RB: ‘Foreignness to the world’, claimed Adorno, ‘is an element of art: Whoever perceives it other than as foreign fails to perceive it at all.’1 As with the Deleuze monument (Avignon, 2000) and Bataille monument (Kassel, 2002), the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival reproduces institutions of the public sphere and commercial life of society (exhibition space, library, theatre, internet café, bar, etc.) formed with familiar everyday materials (tape, cardboard, foil, Perspex, polythene, books, tv sets, computers, etc.). Paradoxically, however, this resemblance is productive of a kind of ‘foreignness’: of the structure to its surroundings, its non-functioning co-existence with community, as an autonomous artwork in society. Do you feel the Monument or the festival remains essentially foreign to the community regardless of the level of ‘participation’ involved?

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Spinoza Library’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini

TH: As always I wanted to do a universal Artwork. I did not conceive “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” as something which implements “foreignness”. Because Art is universal and because – as always – I aim my work towards a “non-exclusive audience” there was no issue about “foreignness” with the inhabitants of the Bijlmer.

But through the daily experience of “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” I realized that something unexpected was being shared with the inhabitants of the Bijlmer: the fact of being a “foreigner”. I, myself, was the “foreigner” in their neighbourhood. My project, my will to do it, my everyday battle to keep it standing was the “foreignness”. It was neither the aesthetic nor the production of my work that created “foreignness” but only the fact of decision to do it. This “foreignness” or “strangeness” allowed me to be in equal contact with the Other. As the artist I was the stranger. Being the artist, I must always accept to be the foreigner. This is my starting-point for works done together with inhabitants and has always been. It is not I – the artist – who can help, not I – the artist – who knows how to help, not I – the artist – with the pretension to help, but instead I’m the one – the artist – to have a project and to need help in order to carry it out! I cannot do it alone, I cannot do it without your help!

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Internet Corner’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Anna Kowalska

RB: Can you elaborate on the importance of the ‘guidelines’ of ‘presence and production’ for the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival? The self-demand that you be present throughout the two month long production seems to be more important to the concept of the work than simply to protect the work from vandalism (as was experienced with the Deleuze Monument in Avingon and the Raymond Carver-Altar in Glasgow). Is there a ‘dual perspective’ to be brought to bear in the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival, implied in the combined use of these terms ‘presence’ and ‘production’ – a dialectic of force and consent, akin to the demands upon the actors in ‘precarious theatre’?

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Child’s Play’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Anna Kowalska

TH: “Presence” and “Production” are terms I use for specific projects which require my presence and my production. It means to make a physical statement here and now.

I believe that only with presence – my presence – and only with production – my production – can I provoke through my work, an impact on the field. “Presence” and “Production” is fieldwork, it means confronting reality with the real. “Presence” and “Production” is the form of a commitment toward myself but also directed toward the inhabitants. “Presence” and “Production” is the key to initiate a relationship based on equality – one to one – with the unexpected. “Presence” and “Production” allow me to come in contact with the Other if I give something from myself – first. I know what this means, I know what it demands and I know what I must do in order to achieve this. “Presence” and “Production” are forms of implication towards the neighbourhood through the fact of my presence and my production. A project such as “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” is only possible because of the three months of presence and production, not only my presence and my production, but also thanks to the presence and production of Marcus Steinweg, the philosopher with his daily lectures, the presence and production of Vittori Martini, the art historian, with her daily implication as “Ambassador” and thanks to the presence and production of Alexandre Costanzo, the editor with his production of the Daily Newspaper.

RB: How does your turn toward ‘Precarious Theatre’ develop or advance your work in relation to precarious form? Has its direct use of actor-spectator relations been informed by experimental theatre directors such as Jerzy Growtowski, in terms of poor materials, or Augusto Boal, in terms of developing the inter-changeablility of the actor and audience developed from Brecht?

TH: “Precarious Theatre” will be the title of one of my next works. It comes directly from my “Spinoza-Theatre” experience which I made and integrated into “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”. I will develop this experience I had in Amsterdam, of directing the actors from the neighbourhood during two months. I cannot respond precisely to your question as I am not familiar with the two names you mention. But for sure I don’t want to be a theatre-director! I want to integrate a theatrical component into my work, during which the work becomes stage and where people are acting in the work. I call this “Precarious Theatre” because it only lasts for a short moment.

RB: Jean-Luc Nancy writes ‘“Political” would mean a community ordering itself to the unworking of its communication, or destined to this unworking: a community consciously undergoing the experience of its sharing.’2 If the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival is not a work of political art but an example of doing art politically, might it also be considered – in all its multiplicity and diversity of forms and events, its ‘not functioning’ experience, co-existence and autonomy shared with a community – as an ‘unwork’ of art, or an ‘unworking of art,’ and thus ‘political’ in Nancy’s terms?

TH: I do not conceive my work as an outcome of philosophers’ concepts or of theory. I haven’t read the book by Nancy you mention. You must be aware that I really do not read a lot – my friends know this – as I have enough to struggle with and think about with my work (I have not read half of the references you give in this interview). Furthermore I am not constructing my work on Philosophy, theory or thoughts from others but – because I am an artist today – perchance there are moments and spaces of similar dynamics. I am very, very happy about this. I am ready and open for these rare and graceful moments of encounters in concepts and forms which – together with Marcus Steinweg – we call “Friendship between Art and Philosophy”.

I want to point out that when saying ‘not-functioning’ concerning “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” or other of my works of Art, it is crucial not to forget that an artwork can be something which does not function. (I do not say that Art has no Function but Art does not have to function!) Today the question of functioning (“does it function? does it ‘work’? Is it – then – a success or not?”) arises automatically and quickly as criteria for “good” or “bad” art. This is stupid and easy. I think that the problem is not about doing art which “functions” or “works” but to do an artwork which implicates, which creates an event and which can provoke an encounter or allow encounters. But this is something which cannot be measured, there is no “yes” or “no”, there is no success or failure. Art it is something which reaches us beyond such criteria. To believe in this power of Art is to me what “working politically” as an artist means, trying to resist in and with the work to the pressure of functionality.

RB: Writing on Spinoza Deleuze claims: ‘Writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers – painters too, even chance reader – may find that they are Spinozists; indeed, such a thing is more likely for them that for professional philosophers. It is a matter of one’s practical conception of the “plan”. It is not that one may be a Spinozist without knowing it. Rather, there is a strange privilege that Spinoza enjoys something that seems to have been accomplished by him and no one else. He is a philosopher who commands an extraordinary conceptual apparatus, one that is highly developed, systematic, and scholarly; and yet he is the quintessential object of an immediate, unprepared encounter, such that a nonphilosopher, or even someone without any formal education, can receive a sudden illumination from him, a “flash”.’3 Are “the fiery words of Spinoza” also fanning the flames of the general conflagration of It’s Burning Everywhere (DCA, 19 September-29 Nov 2009)?

TH: Again, I am not illustrating Philosophy with my work. I am not reading Philosophy to do my Artwork and I am not reading Philosophy to justify my work. I need Philosophy for my life, to try to find responses to the big questions such as “Love”, to name one of the most important to me. For this, I need Philosophy – please believe it! But of course if connections, dynamics, influences or coincidences exist in my work – as you pointed out in “It’s Burning Everywhere” – I am absolutely happy. I want to be touched by grace, without belief in any correlation to genius or obscureness or that it has something to do with artistic ignorance. If you are working today in the historical field of the moment you live in, confronting all kinds of complexities, struggling with all kinds of paradoxes and contradictions, if you are still working and continue listening only to yourself, it is only normal that at some point your work is going to be a “flash”. Your quotation of Deleuze is truly an important citation to me, because it explains why I started, myself, to read Spinoza. As Deleuze with Spinoza, I – as an artist – admire how great Philosophers had interest and commitment in other thinkers and how these great Philosophers are the most able to explain the concepts of other Philosophers with their own words.

RB: Alain Badiou says in Saint Paul ‘it is necessary to pay careful attention to Paul’s lexicon, which is always extremely precise.’4 In my experience you always take great care and consideration over the language you use, via deployment of a similarly ‘precise lexicon’ to articulate your position as an artist and to distance yourself from definitions drawn from the critical vocabularies of ‘relational aesthetics,’ ‘community-based’ or ‘public art’. Why is a commitment to self-determination in writing necessary for you as an artist? Is it an ethical obligation?

TH: One thing I really understand is that in philosophy terms and notions are important. Philosophers use words with preciseness and exactitude. Philosophers are sculpting concepts following their logic in the strongest way they can. The words they use are important tools to them in order to create new terms in philosophy. I admire that enormously.

As an artist I am often surprised by effortless, inexact and empty terms or notions used in order to “explain” an artwork. I am astonished by the repeated and thoughtless use of terms in art critique. As the artist – I refuse to use them myself when I think it is not the right word to describe what I want. I have to invent my own terms and I want to insist with my own notions. I know – as an artist – that to give Form is the absolute necessity and that writing is not a necessity, but writing helps me clarify, it helps me fix and be committed to things.

Writing is a help to understand, to touch, to speak about something. But it’s only a help, my work does not depend on it. Therefore, when writing, I try – at least as the artist – to use the terms I think appropriate in relation to my work. And as a help, it is an ethical obligation towards my own work.

RB: Your work has had a long engagement with precarity and the precarious and you have used the term repeatedly in terms of materials, structures, the situation in public spaces and the question of form, each of which speak to the precarity of objects, power relations, communities and, above all, life. It seems that recently thinkers have begun to catch up with your understanding of precarious life asserted through form. For example, Judith Butler, Precarious Life (2004)and more recently Frames of War (2009) where she states: ‘Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other.’5 Has your adherence to precarity been informed by thinkers of ‘the other’ such as Butler or Levinas?

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘The Construction Team’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Anna Kowalska

TH: Again no, my adherence to precarity comes from my life, from my experience, from what I love – from the precarious forms I love – and from what I understand of it. I am really pleased to hear that Judith Butler, Emmanuel Levinas and also Manuel Joseph (a French writer and friend) have, among many others, developed serious thoughts about “Precariousness” but I must tell you, I learnt this myself and I am not going to learn something more about it. On the contrary, my tendency is – I admit – to avoid going “deeper” – because I need, yes I need, my own, my own strange, wrong, headless misunderstood, bad, stupid – but – my fucking own relation to preserve and to develop. This is not an opposition to theory or a refusal of theory, absolutely not. It has to do with being open to what comes from my own, to what comes only from my own. It just makes me happy to hear that I am not alone with the interest in “Precarity”. And I have the ambition in doing my work to intervene – through the notion of “Precarity” – in the field of Art.

RB: On the Spinoza-Monument at W139 Amsterdam 1999 you state that you wanted some elements to be ‘more overtaxing to myself’, and in the text ‘Doing art politically: What does this mean?’ you talk about ‘not economizing oneself; self-expenditure … undermining oneself; being cruel vis-à-vis one’s own work…’ In terms of expenditure, this equates to an economy without reserve, of giving yourself without reserve and shares a logic of sacrifice familiar to the writings of Artaud or Georges Bataille on the ‘potlatch’. As the language of sacrifice and annihilation at work here suggests (you make altars after all), does the work ever reach the final point of ‘self-cancellation’ or creative ‘auto-destruction’?

TH: There is a difference between self-expenditure, being cruel vis-à-vis my own work, not-economizing myself and what you call “self-cancellation” and “auto-destruction”. I want to undermine myself – my person – in doing my work – I do not want to undermine my work!

I don’t want to take myself seriously in doing my work but I want to do and take my work seriously! I want to give everything I can in order to do my work but I do not want to give my work away! The gift is not the work itself – the gift is to do it and to do it in such a way! What I love in the notion of “gift” is the offensive, demanding and even aggressive part in it, it’s the part that provokes the Other to give more! It’s the part which implies a response to the gift, a real and active response. The gift or the work must be a challenge, that is why I am not using “auto-destruction”. “Self-cancellation” to me is related to narcissism, to tearfulness and I want to resist to the fashionable tendency to self-criticism. Those terms are not related to my understanding of Art as an assertion, an absolute assertion of form, as an engagement, as a commitment to pay for, as a mission, as a never-ending conflict, as a strength and as a position.

RB: You write: ‘I want to show my work everywhere, without making any distinction between important and unimportant places, just as I don’t want to distinguish between important and unimportant people.’6 This position coincides with Rancière’s claim: ‘There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point. Everywhere there are starting points, intersections and junctions that enable us to learn something new…’.7 Is equality the foundation and condition of the universal artwork? Is such universality potentially a form of emancipation?

TH: Universality is constitutive to Art. It’s something very important to me. One can say that Art is universal because its Art. If it is not universal it is not an Artwork, it’s something else. I do oppose the term “Universality” to Culture, Tradition, Identity, Community, Religion, Obscurantism, Globalization, Internationalism, Nationalism or Regionalism. I experienced with my Artwork – and not only with the works in public space – that Universality is truly essential. There are other words for Universality: The Real, The One World, the Other, Justice, Politics, Aesthetics, Truth, the “Non-exclusive Audience” and Equality. I believe – yes, believe – in Equality. And I believe that Art has the Power of transformation. The power to transform each human being, each one and equally without any distinction. I agree that equality is the foundation and the condition of Art.

RB: Would you regard yourself as an Ignorant Artist?

TH: I am not an ignorant artist – because it’s better not to be ignorant, as artist! Of course – I love the beautiful book The Ignorant Schoolmaster and its fantastic enlightening title, but I am not a Schoolmaster – I am not even teaching Art – I am an artist! I, myself, am and want to be a Headless artist. I want to act – always – in headlessness, I want to make Art in headlessness. “Headlessness” stands for: doing my work in and with precipitation, restlessness, acceleration, generosity, expenditure, energy (energy = yes! quality = no!), stupidity, self-transgression, blindness and excess. I never want to economize myself and I know – as the artist – that I sometimes look stupid facing my work, but I have to stand out for this ridiculousness.

RB: To state ‘I’m a Worker-Soldier artist’ suggests the identity of the ‘partisan’ and elsewhere, in relation to the philosophers you have used in your work, you have insisted that you are not a specialist but a fan. Do you see a connection between ‘the partisan’ and ‘the fan’?

TH: With “worker” I wanted to point out the importance of the work, the importance of production and the importance to do it. Being a “worker” also means to refuse the terms “genius”, “star”, “prince or princess” and the term “child of miracles”. With “soldier” I want to point out that I have to fight for my work, for my position, for my form, I want to point out that this fight is never won but also never lost, I want to point out that doing art is a perpetual battle and I want to point out that to be an artist means to have a mission. With “artist” I want to point out that I have to stand up, I have to assert and I have to give form to what is important to me. I ask myself; does my work have the power to reach a public beyond the public already interested in art? Can I, through my artwork, create and establish a new term for art? And I ask myself: can my work create the condition to develop a critical corpus? A fan is somebody who loves beyond justification, beyond explication and beyond reason. Being a fan means to love.

RB: The Swiss writer, Robert Walser who led a ‘wandering and precarious existence’ has been important to you (Robert Walser Tränen, 1995, Robert Walser Kiosk 1999 (Universität Zürich-Irchel, Zurich) and he appears more than once in your Emergency Library (2003). Walser speaks of the ‘courage to create’ and commands: ‘The poet must ramble, must audaciously lose himself, must always risk everything, everything, must hope, should do so, should only hope.’8 How important is Walser to you? Do you share Walser’s hope in extremis?

TH: Robert Walser is one of the most inspired and inspiring Swiss writers. Because of the strength and power of his soul, Robert Walser is a Swiss hero. He reconciles me with my home country – with the specificity of living in Switzerland – which can create graceful writers such as Robert Walser. I love his work which is the work of existential perdition and existential uncertainty. Robert Walser himself lost his way between rebellion and gaiety. I love Robert Walser and – as many others – I am part of the “Tanner family”. And as many, I love his work with a possessive, selfish and exclusive love – I won’t share this love with anyone else, I alone have “understood” Robert Walser!

RB: Might another name for the non-exclusive audience be Multitude?

TH: No. “Multitude” to me is an imprecise and an elastic term. I invented the term of “non-exclusive audience” and I want to insist upon it, because it permits me to clearly address my work to an audience, to somebody, to a person, to one singular person. The “non-exclusive audience” is the term which allows me to direct my work toward the Other. The Other or the “non-exclusive audience” is inclusive. So the “non-exclusive audience” includes also the “spectre of evaluation” (The Institution director, Art critic, Curator, Gallerist, Collector, Art historian and Art professor). I think that – as an artist – I can’t ever direct my work toward the ”spectre of evaluation”. The “non-exclusive audience” permits me not to focus my work on the “spectre of evaluation” but to include them beside an unexpected and open audience. Furthermore, the “non-exclusive audience” is able to judge the work of the artist – directly from the heart – whereas the “spectre of evaluation” only evaluates the work.

RB: In his discussion of Gramsci, Ernesto Laclau comments, ‘The theory of hegemony presupposes, … that the “universal” is an object both impossible but necessary’.9 Is your quest to produce the universal artwork both impossible but necessary?

TH: Each Artwork is impossible. It is impossible because it’s just not necessary to do a possible Artwork! An Artwork is an impossible form and an impossible assertion and it’s impossible to defend it. Doing an Artwork – I think – is not “impossible but necessary” but it is: “impossible and necessary”. An Artwork must possess both: “impossibility and necessity”. Don’t both together make sense? Don’t both together create density, charge and energy? Don’t “impossibility and necessity” – together – give beauty?

RB: Is there a connection for you between your insistence upon the autonomy of the art work and autonomous political movements, for example in political anarchism or the Italian autonomists? I’m recalling here the improvised structure Bridge (2000) which joined the Whitechapel Art Gallery to neighbouring Freedom Press in Angel Alley in the East End of London and also the participation in the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival of Antonio Negri.

TH: No, there is no connection that I could establish. I just believe in the autonomy of Art – because it’s Art – and I do think that it is the autonomy of an Artwork which gives it its absoluteness. “Autonomy” does not mean self-sufficiency or self-enclosure, “autonomy” is something which stands up by itself, which is sovereign and proud.

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Lectures/Seminars : Toni Negri’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini

I invited Toni Negri because I admire his work and his life. And of course for his beautiful book: The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics. His lecture and the small seminar he held, during which he explained his ‘first love” of the notion “precarity”, was for me a moment of grace at “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”.

RB: In ‘Doing art politically: What does this mean?’ you write, ‘I decided to position my work in the form- and force-fields of Love, Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics’. This seems to echo the four categories of truth adhered to by Alain Badiou who also puts love ‘which alone effectuates the unity of thought and action in the world’ on an equal footing with philosophy, politics and art because of its capacity to act as a universal power. Is love for you another name for universality?

TH: When I decided myself upon these four notions as constitutes for my force- and form-fields, I wanted to use four terms or notions that define a sort of conflict zone – an area that my work always wants to touch. That is why: Love, Philosophy, Politics, Aesthetics. My work need not cover these zones equally or entirely, but I always want to touch all four terms of this zone within my work. But to me, the two terms “Politics” and “Aesthetics” are much more “negatively loaded” than the others two terms “Love” and “Philosophy” which are much more “positively loaded”. Within the force- and form-field itself, I want problematic and conflict to be clearly pointed out so that my form- and force-field is itself understood as a zone of conflict as an “in-fight”.

I am not afraid to say I love the materials I am working with – of course not with self-sufficient and sentimental Love but with the Love of the decision I took to use them, specifically. Because I love them I do not want and can not change them! Because I love them I am committed and engaged with them, this is Love.

“Love” is also another word for passion, cruelty, infinitude and ecstasy and also universality. “Love” means to me, to love someone: Duchamp, Bataille, Deleuze, Malevitch, Beuys, Warhol, Spinoza, Gramsci, Mondrian.

RB: Would you regard yourself as a militant? Of art? Of truth?

TH: I am not a militant of Art because I am an artist. I am the art maker! Art is my passion and I am passionate to be an artist. As an artist – I am a militant of Truth. I believe in the capacity of art to create – through its form its own Truth. A Truth as opposed to information, objectivity, circumstance, context, conditions, correctness, historicism, documentation, opinion, journalism, criticism, morality.

RB: Through the varied alcoves, monuments, kiosks, altars, festivals, emergency libraries you assert a series of ‘elective affinities’ with dead philosophers and dead writers. This is reminiscent of Bataille when he writes: ‘The desire to communicate is born in me out of a feeling of community binding me to Nietzsche, and not out of isolated originality.’10 Is this an ethical commitment on your part, to assert an ‘inoperative community’ with the dead?

TH: No, the explanation is much more profane. An “Altar”, a “Kiosk” and a “Monument” can only by done for dead people. But the “dead” in itself play no role in it, because my work is not about the death of that person, my work is about the life and the work of that person! As an homage to somebody it is simpler to take a person whose life and work are fulfilled. But, as an homage, it is not excluded – even if less simple – to do a work about the work of a living person. This year I will do an exhibition “Exhibiting Poetry Today: Manuel Joseph”. It will be about the work of a living French poet and a friend, Manuel Joseph, this exhibition can be understood of course as an homage.

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Running Events : Manuel Joseph, “5 Uncrescented Readings”‘ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini


1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), p. 183.

2 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991), p. 40.

3 Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, translated by Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988), p. 129.

4 Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, translated by Roy Brassier (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2003) p. 91.

5 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), p. 14.

6 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Alison M. Gingeras, Carlos Basualdo, Thomas Hirschhorn (London: Phaidon, 2004), p. 131.

7 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009), p. 17.

8 Robert Walser, ‘Writing Geschwister Tanner’, Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932, selected and translated by Christopher Middleton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005), p. 7-8.

9 Ernesto Laclau, ‘Identity and Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics’ in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 44-89.

10 Cited in Nancy, Inoperative Community, p. 4.

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