Thomas Hirschhorn: Interviews

THOMAS HIRSCHHORN
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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


MoMA/Hammer/LA/Cologne/Met Museum/Belgian Congo Copal 11.1.2015

MoMA/Hammer/LA/Cologne/Met Museum/Belgian Congo Copal 11.1.2015

Critique by Vincent Galen Johnson,  Lives and Works in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson <vincentjohnsonart@gmail.com>

12:07 PM (0 minutes ago)

to Lanyartist

Updated 10:27AM Sunday 11.1.2015 re MoMA

Updated 9:56AM Sunday 11.1.2015 – re Belgian Congo Copal resin painting medium

Updated 8:57AM Sunday 11.1.2015

At the Hammer museum I saw something most interesting: In the traveling retrospective of a female Art Center MFA alum, I noticed that MoMA had acquired a six-part handwriting-as-drawing that is a work of Text-based art, culled from literature. The work had been in the artist’s graduate thesis show. I’m aware of museums seeking out the earliest examples of an artist’s work, and note that most of the work in the exhibition was not in major collections, public or private, but from the artist’s four powerhouse galleries, including Buchholtz, which means she passed the test of one of the supreme German cultural monocle examinations.

Many years ago, in reverie of the Buchholtz gallery’s presence, an artistic intervention by HAHA, made his apartment the site and space of exhibition, but through a glass window. You can read about this online.

The current Hammer retrospective artist’s career seems to have surged mostly recently, mostly upon her video works and digital media works, some of which prominently feature black characters.

Next month, another female Art Center MFA alum will have a video art retrospective, this will be at LACMA. The museum reports that the exhibition will occupy 20,000 sq. ft., the largest amount of floor space ever dedicated to a female artist exhibition there. I’m looking forward to this artist’s exhibition, and seeing what I had not seen in the past. I recall artists saying that her work made them get a headache, yet even then her career was one of the most ascendant in LA, based largely in Western Europe, specifically in Cologne and Dusseldorf, where the Ludwig Forum and K21 are among the 30 modern and contemporary art museums in the Nordheim-Westfalia region, which has the largest collection of these types of museums in the world.

As I have said many times before, it is also where over 100,000 art collectors reside; it is where Text Zur Kunzt is published and numerous art magazines are published – that is – except for those that have decamped for Berlin. It is a complete artistic universe, from bookstores to massive artist studios.

The Ludwigs both held full German doctor’s degrees in art history, and opened 13 different modern and contemporary museums in Western Europe. Although Cologne looks like an Ugly American city, it is not; it was the intellectual and artistic center of Western Europe. It is where the early 1980’s wave of German painters held sway – Immendorf, Kiefer, Richter, Baselitz, all who showed immense canvases on West Broadway in Soho. When one attends an art opening in Cologne, it is to attend the height of German fashion exhibition too.

Now Kiefer and Richter are riding most high, with Kiefer just having had a stunning retrospective at the Royal Academy in London, and will follow-up with one from his personal collection this December in Miami in the private collection space owned by the Margulies. My partner and I saw the absolute blowout Kiefer show at the R.A., which is modeled after the French Academy. Inside on the walls of the R.A. London – up high, are representational sculptures of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and so on – you get the picture. What is transmitted as well is the former relationship between state power and culture production.

As for Richter, whose stellar retrospective I also saw in London, but at the Tate Modern, just a few years ago, his market has reached over $1.2 billion in the past five years alone. As I’ve pointed out before, Richter invented a style he called Capitalist Realism while he was a student at the Dusseldorf Academy. He worked as a photorealist painter, and sold his works for not much. At one point he said he felt that he had painted himself into a corner by working against the International Style – Abstraction. He was at one point challenged to produce major abstract works, and did just that. It is this work that is his most luxurious, most commanding, rewarding, visceral, powerful.

Last, Anselm Kiefer lives in a castle. He has a driver; he dresses in 19th century landed gentry garb. The Dusseldorf Art Academy is the school which we used to look upon and dream – where artists were made to make their own paint, paint box, brushes, and every tool of the artist, taught by the giants of the German art scene. That historic and rigorous skill set training has not entered the LA art academy program, but its power to produce artists has indeed.

By the way, the New Objectivity exhibition of German art has come to LACMA, enjoy. Across the street from the Met is a similar exhibition at the Neu gallery. It’s my understanding that the son of one of German’s most prominent collectors is building a loan collection to be lent long term to LACMA; it will be composed of about a dozen artists – all men of European blood, all towering figures LA and German contemporary art.

There are recently created documentary films of both Kiefer and Richter working in their studios. Kiefer works in France, in an abandoned 300,000 sq. ft. department store that is his studio. His paint materials are mined from the French soil by a team of professionals, who then turn this into materials for making paintings.

In this context, is most rewarding to see the paintings by African Diaspora artist rise into the major gallery spaces and sell for immodest pricing, from MacArthur Binion, Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, and many more.

What is still not happening (and believe me I am looking) is the recuperation of Black Women Artists of the same generation as Barkley Hendricks, or Sam Gilliam, or whomever is in this class of black artists who experienced 40-50 year career delays.

9:56AM 11.2015 UPDATE

I’ve said this before – that LA, et al is part of the re-formation of the 20th century Paris/German art world and its economic and cultural benefactors Picasso & Matisse et. al. v . Duchamp et al. in legal terms, this re-emergent artworld decimated by WWII has been re-calibrated and reborn, by an unknown multiplier that dwarfs all past histories. No more selling a painting for a dozen eggs or a flash of the Parisian skirt now naked – who is also an artist that pays a male artist’s benefactors bill for an extravaganza of drinking and meals with all your male artistic world friends. Today, as in centuries past, many artists and other creatives and collectors, whose family became rich from slavery also take part now in this artistic paradise game, pay attention especially European collectors whose nation was major in the slave trade. Did I forget to mention the artworld universe that is enabled ana re0-enabled and thrives by and is paid for in advance by the rewards of 400 years of American slavery? This is what is called a “Trust Fund”.

“Keep a watchful eye” on the collectors in Brussels, the city that stripped the Congo of its material resources for the West to build its spectacular core buildings and its Royal Congo Museum. Brussels is the home of Magritte and more importantly, the creator of institutional critique at the genius level, not the ignorant peasant complainer level, Marcel Broodthaers, whose 2016 MoMA retrospective is being worshiped even before it is here. Brussels created Art Deco from raping the Congo. The wood in living Brussels buildings is from the Congo. Note that Broodthaers is my hero as he destroyed the equivalent of ARTFORUM through his arguments with them. That’s all I will say for now.

Colored/Negro/Black/Africa-American Artists – please read how Thomas McEvilley crushed MoMA’s utopia argument re how Modernism was created, in his several texts, the lead of which were letters and responses published in ARTFORUM. THIS LATER BECAME BOOKS. You already know how ELVIS rode the backs of Negro musical achievement to create his ART; MOMA’s 1984 PRIMITIVISM exhibition is the same ASTRONOMICAL gigantic lie.

10:27AM 11.1.2015 UPDATE

The Met acknowledges this in its current landmark “Kongo” exhibition. What it does not say but knows is that the raw materials from the Kongo were used to created Art Deco Art, based upon defamed Kongo imagery and Kongo raw materials. It also does not say that key elemental objects in the history of 20th century Modernism were created using Belgian atrocity Kongo Copal resin in its paintings; this is my research project on this material and its use that I presented in 2014 in Chicago. This Copal was thought to be the centuries sought missing element that was used by Jan Van Eyck to create paintings that looked like you were looking through water. A Polish aristocrat NY society painter named Frederick Taubes, who worked with U. Ill. chemists and Belgian National Laboratories, created the visionary version of this most sought after material in the early 1940’s. Taubes has 27 paintings in the Met. He was the most highly regarded representational painter of the European tradition of his time in NYC. Through my research, I am of the belief that not only Picasso and Pollock, and Le Corbusier, but untold numbers of other artists used Belgian Congo Copal resin in their painting materials, (from the late 19th century to at least 1970) as it was scientifically considered by paint chemists to be the super product of the age, due to its hardness and glass-like quality. Its primary use was in commercial house paint as it was a superior binder. The Getty held a symposium on its use. It was used in linoleum. It was used in mid century LP records. It was used in Konk hair cream. It was used premier art supplies in Europe and America. I have patent documentation of the major American corporations that used it. If you were an unaware Colored/Negro in say 1950/1960, your floor was covered in this linoleum; it was in your hair, and was in the paint on your walls, it ws in uyour LP’s; and it was the standard material used in the US and Britain for the first half of the 20th century. You were literally living and breathing and dancing through the biochemistry of the Kongo experience. MoMA is fully aware of this use; so is the Met and the Getty, and the Art Institute of Chicago; but there is no statement or research being done to show that Belgian Congo Copal painting resin is at the core of the creation of MODERNISM, just as the Art from the Congo is core to the Met’s collection. Picasso used this upscale house paint called Ripolin. I contacted several sources who said that Yes, it’s most likely that the premier house paint in France also used the premier resin – that from the Belgian controlled and defiled Congo. Note that over ten million Congo people were murdered by Belgium so that it could have wealth similar to the other European nations that committed similar atrocities. Congo Copal resin was most prized. In the 1940’s the NYTimes reported it selling at 60,000 bottles a year. Note that when the Congo attempted to free itself from Belgian rule, its first president was murdered by USA/British and Belgian rule.

Currently, the most historic art supply stores and Colour Men (the precursor to what we call art supply stores – which still exist in Europe) still sell Congo copal painting medium. This includes Sennilier, the most famed artist supply store in ART HISTORY – located directly across from the Louvre, which created the oil stick for Picasso, and sold to Van Gogh, et. al. A creative friend of mines in Europe made me aware of this. LeFranc & Bourgeoise in Paris (now LeFranc & Cie also see this product.)  I also uncovered this use by Grumbacher – and confronted their paint chemist and publicity department. Grumbacher took over the manufacture of Congo Copal resin paint.

Pay attention: Belgian Congo Copal Painting Resin was the most opulent artist material of its time. This was 1890-1970 at a minimum. Several other major American art supply stores used this resin and knew how it was sourced, including the F.W. Weber art supply company that started in the 19th century in Philadelphia. The papers of Weber are in the Getty Research Institute’s collection. Both Taubes and his counterpart and adversary Ralph Mayers were primary in teaching artists how to use the best art materials of the period. Yale holds the papers and research materials of Ralph Mayers. Both Mayers and Taubes were well aware that the Belgian Congo – which used horrific means of 20th century slavery to extract raw the raw materials that created Belgium’s weath. If you look at photographs of the art supplies of the period you will see they are from the Belgian Congo. This is part of my research. American Artist Magazine was the primary information provider of artist materials use and research.

MOMA’s Phenomenal Picasso Sculpture Exhibition – Images and Texts

 

“Picasso Sculpture,” a show at the Museum of Modern Art of nearly a hundred and fifty works by the definitive artist of the twentieth century, always figured to impress. It turns out to astound. I came away from the exhibits, which date from 1902 to 1964, convinced that Picasso was more naturally a sculptor than a painter, though all his training and early experience, and by far most of his prodigious energy, went into painting. He made mere hundreds of three-dimensional works, in episodic bunches, amid a ceaseless torrent of about four and a half thousand paintings. When moved to mold, carve, or assemble, he sometimes borrowed artist friends’ studios and tools and enlisted their collaboration—most notably, starting in 1928, with Julio González, who worked in iron. Picasso could be feckless about the standards of the craft. (The director of the ceramics workshop in Vallauris, where, in the late forties, Picasso took up the medium of fired clay, noted that any apprentice who went about things as the artist did would never be hired.) But, because Picasso was an amateur—nearly a hobbyist—in sculpture, it revealed the core predilections of his genius starkly, without the dizzying subtleties of his painting but true to its essence. At this magnificent show, curated by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, I began to imagine the artist’s pictures as steamrolled sculpture. Most of his paintings conjure space that is cunningly fitted to the images that inhabit it. When the space becomes real, the dynamic jolts.

The show’s first gallery features the best known and, instructively, the least successful of Picasso’s early forays into the medium: “Head of a Woman” (1909), a bronze, cast from clay, which is complexly rumpled, in the manner of incipient Cubism. The work fails because the energetic surface articulation bears no organic relation to the head’s sullen mass; it amounts to a wraparound relief. The piece is a painter’s folly, which Picasso did not repeat (except with the similarly hapless plaster “Apple,” of the same year), even as its style vastly influenced such subsequent sculptors as the futurist Umberto Boccioni. (No innovation of Picasso’s was too tangential to spawn a modern-art cliché.) Picasso put sculpture aside for a few years, then returned to it as an extension of his breakthroughs, with Georges Braque, in the revolutionary aesthetics of collage. Two versions of the large, wall-hung “Guitar” (1912-14)—the first in cardboard, paper, and string; the second in sheet metal and wire—did for sculpture something of what Picasso had already done for painting: they turned it inside out. The term “negative space,” for the air that he let into the anatomized musical instrument, doesn’t suffice to describe the effect. The voids register as active forms, which the shapes passively accommodate. No longer set apart from the world, forward-looking art after “Guitar” adds the world to its inventory.

Then came the most talismanic of modern bibelots: “Glass of Absinthe” (1914), a small bronze of a cubistically fissured, ridged, and whorled vessel with, atop it, a filigreed metal spoon bearing a bronze sugar cube. Picasso created it the same year that the liquor was banned in France, in the mistaken belief that it made people crazy. (It was really just fancied by people who were prone to craziness.) All six casts of the work, from as many collections, are convened here for the first time since their creation. Each incorporates a differently designed spoon and is differently slathered or dappled with paint. The brushwork, especially in sprightly dot patterns, blurs the objects’ contours, rendering them approximate in ways that wittily invoke intoxication. But these are true sculptures, as judged by the essential test that they function in the round. Circle them. Each shift in viewpoint discovers a distinct formal configuration and image. Picasso here steps into the history of the art that, in order to move a viewer, requires a viewer to move. The best of his other Cubism-related works, such as “Still Life” (1914), which fringes a tipped shelf with upholstery tassels, run to assembled and painted reliefs, like pop-up pictures. Their dance of everyday stuff with august form—reality marrying representation—has never ceased to inspire generations of visual hybridists, from Kurt Schwitters to Robert Rauschenberg and Rachel Harrison, and it never will. But these works mainly harvested ideas from Picasso’s painting. His attention to sculpture lapsed again, until 1927.

Picasso’s creations in plaster, wood, and metal between that banner year and the mid-thirties belong in the first rank of sculpture since ancient times. Most are massy: female forms that can seem swollen to the point of bursting, or tumescent and writhing with sexual abandon. A glory of the show is the number of works rendered in fragile plaster, straight from the artist’s hand; he rarely paid much attention to the surface quality of the final bronzes, which tend to be dull. His initial masterworks of the period, made with González, are open networks of thin iron rods, vaguely suggesting jungle gyms, which gave rise to the somewhat misleading catchphrase “drawing in space,” coined by Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. More truly, the rectangular arrays encage space. They yield an image—coalescing into a kind of drawing, of a geometrically abstracted figure—when viewed from either end. That’s delightful. But the wonder of the works is their appearance from other angles: the image pulled apart, accordion fashion, to drink in the ambient air. Again, emptiness becomes substance.

Notice, incidentally, how the rods meet the bases. As always, when a Picasso sculpture rests on more than one point each footing conveys a specific weight and tension, like the precisely gauged step of a ballerina. It presses down or strains upward in a way that gives otherwise inexplicable animation to the forms above. Few other sculptors play so acutely with gravity. David Smith is one. Another is Alberto Giacometti, whom Picasso befriended, admired, and mightily affected. Works in this show directly anticipate Giacometti’s skinny figures and even, by a few months, his classic, harrowing “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932).

Of the scores of pieces that merit lengthy discussion, I’ll cite one: “Woman with Vase” (1933), a bronze of a plaster sculpture that, cast in cement, accompanied “Guernica” at the Spanish Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Paris, in 1937. She stands more than seven feet tall, with a bulbous head, breasts, and belly, on spindly legs. Her left arm is missing, as if ripped off. Her right arm extends far forward, clutching a tall vase. Seen from the side, the gesture suggests a tender offering. Viewed head on, it delivers a startling, knockout punch. What isn’t this work about? It conjoins Iberian antiquity and Parisian modernity, love and loss, hope and anger, celebration and mourning. Another bronze cast of it stands at Picasso’s tomb, in the Château de Vauvenargues, as a memorial and, perhaps, as a master key to the secrets of his art. Certainly, it overshadows the somewhat indulgent—and, now and then, plain silly—sculptural creations of his later years, such as the gewgaw-elaborated bronze “Little Girl Jumping Rope” (1950). Exceptions from that time include a stunning selection of his riffs on ceramic vessels, lively bent-metal maquettes for public art, and a group of six “Bathers” from 1956: flat figures, one almost nine feet tall, made of scrap wood and standing in a shared, beachlike bed of pebbles. Its éclat might well sink the hearts of contemporary installation artists.

The herky-jerky intermittence of Picasso’s involvement with sculpture might seem an obstacle to a reconsideration of his achievement, but it proves to be a boon. Each generation looks at Picasso in its own way. This show gives us a Picasso for an age of cascading uncertainties. The story it tells is messier than the period-by-period, not to mention mistress-by-mistress, narratives of the past. Instead, each piece finds the artist in a moment of decision, adventuring beyond his absolute command of pictorial aesthetics into physical and social space, where everything is in flux and in question. We are in Picasso’s studio, looking over his shoulder, and wondering, along with him, What about this? 

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peter schjeldahl

Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic.

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Art & Design
Review: Picasso, Completely Himself in 3 Dimensions

By ROBERTA SMITH

SEPT. 10, 2015
Photo
Picasso’s “Woman With Hat,” made of painted sheet metal in the early 1960s, is in “Picasso Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art. Credit 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

11PICASSO-blog427

 

0911PICASSOJP3-blog427

“Still Life With Guitar,” 1912.

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“Standing Bull,” 1947 or 1948.

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“Bust of a Woman” in the gallery Boisgeloup Sculpture Studio, 1930-32.

 

Many exhibitions are good, some are great and a very few are tantamount to works of art in their own right — for their clarity, lyricism and accumulative wisdom.

The Museum of Modern Art’s staggering “Picasso Sculpture” is in the third category. Large, ambitious and unavoidably, dizzyingly peripatetic, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It sustains its vision through a ring of 11 grand spaces on the museum’s fourth floor, tracing the serial genre-bending forays into three dimensions wrought by this 20th-century titan of painting. Each bout lasted a few years and was different from the one before, and each has been given its own gallery, more or less.

With one stunning exception — the voluptuous saturnine Marie-Thérèse Walter — the women in Picasso’s life don’t herald stylistic changes in the round as they tend to on canvas. In sculpture, the materials become the muses.

The show, which opens on Monday, is the latest in a string of landmark Pablo Picasso exhibitions for which the Modern has been justly famous since 1939. It is full of loans that perhaps only this museum has the clout to secure, including about 50 pieces from its collaborator, the Musée Picasso in Paris. The approximately 140 sculptures here were made between 1902 and 1964; encompass at least 10 media — among them wood, plaster, sheet metal, clay, beach-smoothed pebbles — and, in assemblage, all manner of found objects great and small. The galleries are dotted with works never before exhibited in New York, and reunite related efforts not seen together since they were in Picasso’s studio.

The show’s two grandest, most thrilling reunions are the gathering in its second gallery of all six “Glass of Absinthe” sculptures of 1914, those tiny weirdly Keatonesque charmers of painted bronze that can suggest drunken faces and profiles; and in its fourth, the five monumental tumescent heads in white plaster of Marie-Thérèse, more than have ever been shown together, at least in the United States. Seen from the vantage point of the absinthe glasses, the first Marie-Thérèse bust looms in the distance, as if at the end of a garden.

High points aside, there hasn’t been a Picasso sculpture survey of this scope in this country since 1967. That’s when the first large exhibition of sculpture that Picasso ever permitted reached the Modern after incarnations in London and Paris. He kept his sculptures close, like family, and none closer than the great plasters, which were apparently absent from the ’67 presentation. He lived among great jumbles of them from the 1930s on, as attested by the photographs that Brassai took in the artist’s studios between 1932 and 1945. Two dozen Brassai images line a small gallery here, adding to the show’s ricocheting cross-references and insights.

Credit2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Like its predecessor, this exhibition raises the question of whether Picasso was a better sculptor or painter. It’s a tough call. In each medium, he disrupted art with a track-switching masterpiece: In painting there is the vehement “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907, on view in the fifth-floor galleries, one of the central pylons on which he and Braque erected Cubism. And he did art perhaps an even greater favor with the boxy constructed wall piece “Guitar” — a 1914 work that initiates modern sculpture by establishing space itself — hollowness, volume, weightlessness — as one of its primary materials.

 

Picasso was more completely himself in three dimensions: a magician, a magpie genius, a comedic entertainer and a tinkerer with superb reflexes. His many gifts — versatility, voraciousness, a need for constant reinvention — are more sharply apparent in real space and tangible materials. We can’t miss his consummate grasp of tactility and form or of the potential for found objects and materials to lead double lives. Screws could be legs of a girl reading a book. A spigot could be the crest of a crane whose body and tail feathers were once the head of a shovel. A small flat-faced deity carved from a scrap of wood is reddened and rubbed until it looks like ancient terra cotta.
Photo
“Glass of Absinthe,” 1914. Credit 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

With the exception of cast bronze, which he seems not to have cared for, Picasso never met a material he couldn’t subdue, exalt and transform at the same time, nor come across an idea in other art — whether ancient or contemporary — that he could not use. There’s no wasted motion, not an extra grain of matter, just a supreme economy. Even pedestrian pieces have redeeming aspects. The inexplicably beloved bronze “Man With a Lamb” of 1943 may strike you as the best Leonard Baskin ever, or maybe a monument to John Cleese, but the big clumsy hands with which the man grasps the struggling creature are extraordinary. And, in fact, Picasso mastered bronze when he personalized it by painting it, as he had with the absinthe glasses.

That’s just one way he brought painting with him to sculpture. In the show’s eighth gallery, covering 1945 to 1953, he paints with glaze on ceramic vessels in the shape of figures and animals, on bronze casts of assemblages, including the shovel-backed “Crane,” and on a woman and toddler cobbled together from flimsy scraps of lumber that might be a work by an outsider artist. Here also, he makes monstrous assemblage flowers for a ceramic pot and a watering can from wood, metal and crockery shards ingeniously stuck together with plaster and painted. Their bristling energy and yellow colors suggest a homage to van Gogh’s sunflowers. And then, in the same time span, he goes tiny and smooth, incising stunning little faces on impeccably chosen beach pebbles, out-Kleeing Paul Klee with a little Cycladic thrown in for good measure.

Picasso’s constant motion is much more apparent, and maybe more fruitful, in sculpture. In the show’s opening gallery, which covers 1902 to 1909, we see him first in capable thrall to Gauguin with a pint-size unfired clay rendering of an old seated woman, whose sensitive face is clearer in a Brassai photograph later in the show. But soon come the double jolts of Iberian and African sculpture, evidenced by a scary little wood idol, carved from what once seems to have been a table leg painted green. Its furious black eyes are the heads of tiny screws.

He also always cut his losses. In this first gallery, the 1909 bronze “Head of a Woman” is powerful as ever, but also more clearly one of the great dead ends in early modernism: a futile attempt to bring the flickering facets of Analytical Cubism, and Cézanne into three dimensions. The future of sculpture lay with Braque’s innovation, Cubist collage.

Goaded by African art, Picasso then arrived at the groundbreaking “Guitar” by coaxing collage’s flat clean shapes into three dimensions. This mirage of hovering planes, voids and shadows in sheets of cutout, darkly rusted ferrous iron is simultaneously a mask, a body and a musical instrument. In addition to breaking open sculptural space, it made self-evident structure almost de rigueur. Next to it hangs its crucial dry run, an exact but radiant replica in creamy paper and paperboard. They preside over the absinthe glass bronzes like proud parents.
Continue reading the main story

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this review misidentified the gallery in which “Bust of a Woman” is displayed. It is the Boisgeloup Sculpture Studio, 1930-32, not the Monument to Apollinaire, 1927-1931.

“Picasso Sculpture” opens Monday and runs through Feb. 7 at the Museum of Modern Art; 212-708-9400, moma.org.

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2015, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: Picasso in 3-D. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

‘Picasso Sculpture’ Review: A Master’s Genius, in 3-D at the Museum of Modern Art

Picasso rarely hesitated to sell his paintings, but he treasured his sculptures as if they were members of his family.

New York

Almost 50 years have passed since a major exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture appeared in the U.S. The one that just opened at the Museum of Modern Art will be a revelation to everyone who sees it.

‘Woman in the Garden’ (1929-30), by Picasso ENLARGE
‘Woman in the Garden’ (1929-30), by Picasso Photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, New York

Despite Picasso’s fame, his sculpture is one of the best-kept secrets of 20th-century art. Trained as a painter, he rarely hesitated to sell his paintings, but he treasured his sculptures as if they were members of his family and did not agree to a full-scale exhibition of them until 1966, when he was 85.

Picasso’s approach to sculpture differed from that of most of the leading sculptors of his time, such as Alberto Giacometti or Henri Matisse, who cast many of their works in editions of multiple copies for sale. Except for his late, large-scale works, Picasso kept most of his sculptures as unique objects, or cast a single example for his own collection. He hoarded the unique works and peopled his studios and homes with them. Only after his death in 1973 did these sculptures become visible as a part of the collection of the Musée National Picasso in Paris. Even then, the cramped spaces of that historic building prevented successful display of the sculptures.

While paintings can be reproduced with mind-bending precision, a sculptural object must be seen directly to be understood. The curators of “Picasso Sculpture,” Ann Temkin and Anne Umland for MoMA and Virginie Perdrisot for the Musée National Picasso, have presented viewers with a remarkable gift. MoMA has cleared one of its suites of permanent collection galleries so that it can devote 22,000 square feet to the exhibition—twice the space used for the huge show of Matisse’s cut-outs. This exceptional generosity allows each of the 141 sculptures in the exhibition to rest in splendid isolation. Even when crowds fill the galleries, visitors will be able to circulate freely among the sculptures and discern the crucial differences that emerge as the objects are examined from multiple perspectives.

Picasso’s phenomenal creativity is as evident in his sculpture as it is in his paintings and graphics, yet his sculptural imagination stemmed from two fundamental approaches: one based on mass, and the other on planes. Building objects with layers of clay or plaster is deeply rooted in the history of sculpture, so it is not surprising that Picasso first employed that method. “The Jester” (1905), a modeled bronze bust, joins the tradition of the great 19th-century sculptor Auguste Rodin. Over his long career, Picasso transformed this essentially realist art with invented anatomies, such as the metamorphic masses of the series of women’s heads he made in his Boisgeloup studio (1931) and the macabrely disfigured “Death’s Head” (1941), a memento of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Picasso’s ‘Baboon and Young’ (October 1951).
Picasso’s ‘Baboon and Young’ (October 1951). Photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, NY

For all the physical presence of these sculptures, Picasso’s greatest contributions to the medium lay in the plane. The crossroad was “Head of a Woman” (1909), whose solid form is split by angular cavities and protrusions. But the revolution came with “Still Life With Guitar,” which he made from paper in 1912 and two years later built in a sheet-metal version (the two hang side-by-side in the exhibition). By constructing objects from sheets of paper or metal, Picasso upended tradition. Instead of dense forms, sculpture became a play of structured voids. Instead of a fixed mass, it became articulated space that opened to the surrounding environment. Instead of portraying people, sculpture became an art of things. The progeny of the “Guitar” range across 20th-century art and encompass the installation art so ubiquitous today.

Perhaps even more important, Picasso’s use of common materials immersed his art in the everyday world and broke down boundaries between art and life. Soon he began building works from reclaimed bits of wood, metal and found objects. He crossed the border between painting and sculpture by treating his objects as canvases for colors in works such as the fringe-trimmed “Still Life” (1914). As Picasso said, his goal was to “trick the mind,” rather than simply fool the eye.

Picasso’s creative process never segregated sculpture from painting or any other medium. Nonetheless, MoMA’s segmentation of his production not only allows the museum to showcase these little-known objects, it also highlights issues of Picasso’s career that are most clearly defined in sculpture.

The Picasso who emerges in this exhibition is far from the stereotypes of individualism and self-expression that still largely define popular opinions of his art. Instead we find an artist intent on collaboration and seriously engaging issues of public art.

Two of the finest galleries in the exhibition display the works that set him on this dual course: the airy wire constructions of 1928 that treat space as a palpable entity and the imposing assemblages of cut and found metals, especially “Woman in the Garden” (1929-30), both made with Julio González. All stem from a commission to commemorate his great friend, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and all seek to communicate to everyone Apollinaire’s sweeping, multifarious imagination.

In the final decades of his life, Picasso’s drive to create large-scale public works led to collaborations with everyone from metal fabricators to concrete casters and blasters, and culminated in the monumental head (1967) of Cor-Ten steel that stands in Daley Plaza in Chicago. The delicate maquettes for these sculptures included in the exhibition are fitting descendants of the flimsy paper guitar he made more than 50 years earlier.

Mr. FitzGerald teaches the history of modern and contemporary art at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

 

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THE GUARDIAN LONDON

Picasso Sculpture review – a dumbfounding triumph

With its pornographic plasters and bad-mannered bronzes, this thrilling exhibition resets Picasso for a new era. In three dimensions, the artist shocks

Picasso Sculpture
Picasso’s She-Goat, 1950. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Modern art – like Theseus, like Jesus Christ – has two fathers. Dad No 1, arrogant and priapic, is Pablo Picasso: the Spaniard who (with his buddy Braque) violently broke the rules of representation and left 500 years’ worth of western artistic convention in his wake. Dad No 2, understated and suave, is Marcel Duchamp: the Frenchman who bestowed everyday objects with the status of sculptures, and erased the boundary between art and life. Picasso has the largest oeuvre in the modernist canon, with more than 20,000 works to his name; Duchamp has the smallest. Picasso wanted your heart, Duchamp your head.

Art history needs both, of course. But the story of the last 50 years is one in which Picasso, once modern art’s undisputed father figure, has had to accept joint paternity with Duchamp – and lately has seemed to be losing custody altogether. The latter’s irony and ideation undergird almost all of contemporary art, while Picasso’s acts of bigheaded genius can feel passé. The effect is evident among young artists, and young critics too: I have crossed oceans to see Duchamp exhibitions, while for Picasso I sometimes struggle to get on the subway.

Picasso Sculpture
Head of a Warrior, 1933. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

So the greatest compliment I can pay to the exhibition Picasso Sculpture – a dumbfounding triumph that opens next week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – is that it has made even me, a dyed-in-the-wool Duchampian, into a raving Picassoid. In two dimensions Picasso is so familiar that you can settle into habit. In three, Picasso shocks. This show recasts and revalorises Picasso, especially in his dubious later years, as the exhibition corkscrews from “primitivist” totems to cubist explosions to near-pornographic plasters to bad-mannered bronzes. The works are endlessly surprising, sometimes bracingly and thrillingly ugly, and wittier by far than their complements on canvas or paper. They reset Picasso for a new era: an era whose artists forgot how much he can still teach us.

He’s a painter first. Picasso had no training as a sculptor, and didn’t even have a sculpture studio until he was in his 50s. Nor did he follow sculptural developments of the day. What he did care for, early in his career, were African and Oceanic sculptures, which he encountered day after day in the fusty galleries of Paris’s Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. African sculpture’s bold, stylised forms were integral to the development of Cubism, and some early sculptures here evince Picasso’s deep love of non-western figuration: a 1908 oak totem has the dimensions of a west African power figure, while a woozily imbalanced head is carved of beech and recalls Pacific statuary.

Picasso Sculpture
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Guitar, 1924. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The earliest works here feel safer than the paintings and drawings Picasso was making between 1907 and 1911, starting with the twisted Demoiselles d’Avignon (on view right upstairs from this show) and running through his analytical cubist headscratchers. Then, in 1912–13, comes the thunderclap. Picasso starts experimenting with cardboard, arranging pieces of the humble material into a sort of guitar. It’s mounted on the wall and protrudes only slightly, like a bas-relief. But where western sculpture had been an act of subtracting with a chisel or awl, Picasso’s guitar is formed, revolutionarily, by adding pieces together. And where bas-reliefs present a single perspective, Picasso’s guitar has gone haywire. Half of the body is absent, and the sound-hole has been transformed from an absence to a protruding cylinder. The front and back soundboards don’t line up. The body and the void are one, simulation is dead and buried, and sculpture will never be the same.

In this show we see both the initial cardboard variant and a later metal example, and both display not only the faceted compositional style familiar from his painting, but also the force and the stateliness of the African achievements Picasso learned from. They appear in the second gallery of this large show, and here you’ll also find the exhibition’s greatest coup – his absinthe glasses of 1914, made in an edition of six and reunited here for the first time since. These small, syncopated works are marvels of transubstantiation: the liquid in the glasses becomes solid form, while the transparent glass is rendered into opaque brown or even red and blue speckles. Each is topped with a real absinthe spoon, too: a wink at his contemporary collages.

Picasso Sculpture
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Glass of Absinthe, 1914. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Then the first world war intervenes. No sculpture from 1915 to 1927. When Picasso returns to three dimensions, he’s moved into a multiplicity of media and a multiplicity of styles. Wiry, iron drawings-in-space stand beside flowing, biomorphic bronzes. His slaphappy Woman in the Garden, from 1929-30, welds thin rods and panels of white-painted iron into a sparking assemblage that, from several angles, look like a hysterical chicken. Before the war, Picasso was asking What is a sculpture?, interrogating the medium with the same rigour he brought to his painterly experiments. After the war, and for the rest of his life, he barely cares about sculpture as a medium per se. The sculpture studio (he gets one at last in 1930) becomes a free zone, a place for even broader, more uncontrolled experimentation than the easel.

Those of us on team Duchamp can get very huffy about this later Picasso, and I have never had much use for his endless Velázquez quotations and garish 1960s nudes. Much of the later sculpture, too, is straight-up awful. The worst are the bronzes from the 1950s, of a girl skipping rope or a woman pushing a bottlecap-faced baby in a pram, are almost comically tasteless. There’s a squat, pockmarked bronze of a baboon with an extended tail and a face composed, no joke, from a toy car. Yet unlike in the high-stakes realm of modern painting, where Picasso’s egotistical late swerve can get you down, in the somewhat freer terrain of sculpture even the bombs feel worthwhile. They’re the product of an artist who still, that late in the game, was figuring out just what he wanted to do.

Picasso Sculpture
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Baboon and Young, 1951. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

And over and over, Picasso kept hitting the heights even as he got lost. There are the lascivious plaster busts of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, astounding things in which noses turn into phalluses. There are the semiotic riddles of the war years: the glorious bull’s head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars, and a burner from a gas stove flipped 90 degrees, like a standing figure. (It’s the closest Picasso ever got to a Duchampian readymade, though the title, The Venus of Gas, turns it into a paleolithic fertility goddess. And the associations with the stoves burning elsewhere in Europe until 1945 are unshakable.) Earthenware vases indebted to Minoan pottery have an unexpected humility, as do late, great wooden bathers, flat totems whose bodies are formed, in two cases, from empty picture frames.

This is the most significant exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture since the artist’s death in 1973, and many works here have never been seen in the United States before. (More than a third comes from the Musée Picasso in Paris – newly reopened, though not before some major personnel upheaval.) The curators, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, have bagged some astounding loans, most importantly the absinthe glasses, and have made numerous shrewd calls on presentation. The show is installed, unusually, on MoMA’s fourth floor: Temkin and Umland have flushed away the entire postwar permanent collection to take advantage of its smaller galleries and lower ceilings. They’ve placed everything except the wall reliefs in the middle of the galleries, so you can see each work in the round. Best and bravest of all, the curators have omitted wall text for individual works: it’s just you and the sculpture, in a space that feels like a new museum. A new museum that has unearthed a new Picasso.

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Reviews

MoMA’s ‘Picasso Sculpture’ Retrospective Is a Revelatory, Witty Triumph

Pablo Picasso, Bull, ca. 1958, Cannes, plywood, tree branch, nails, and screws, 46⅛" x 56¾" x 4⅛". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF JACQUELINE PICASSO IN HONOR OF THE MUSEUM’S CONTINUOUS COMMITMENT TO PABLO PICASSO’S ART

“Picasso Sculpture,” now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is by turns staggering, intimate, revelatory, radiant, witty, and leisurely paced. Spanning a 60-year period, the show features 140 works, both large and small, reed thin and exaggeratedly rotund, that were cast in bronze, welded in iron, modeled in plaster, carved in wood, folded from sheet metal, and assembled from all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. Ordinarily, museumgoers gasp over paintings executed by this protean artist during his astonishing 80-year career. This time you’re going to hear a lot of oohs and aahs in front of his inventive three-dimensional works. Only the third retrospective ever devoted to Picasso’s sculpture, it is spaciously installed in the permanent collection galleries on the fourth floor.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1924, Paris, painted sheet metal, painted tin box, and iron wire, 43¾" × 25" × 10½". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/MUSÉE NATIONAL PICASSO, PARIS

Every room tells a different story. The show opens in 1902, when Picasso was 21 and living in Barcelona. He’d already been to Paris and was about to return there. At art school in Madrid, he had become familiar with the touchstones of Greek statuary from plaster casts; now he was looking at contemporary masters like Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and even André Derain. By the end of this brief period, the Spanish-born artist was melding tradition and innovation, a leitmotif of his career as a sculptor. Never wavering in his commitment to recognizable imagery, he transformed his subjects and themes with different materials and techniques as well as a range of styles. At first, he was tentative; later, he went full throttle. In 1909, for example, when he modeled Head of a Woman—Fernande, his companion—as well as Apple, he merely broke up their surfaces with faceted, Cubist planes.

Step into the next gallery, where Cubism holds sway, and you’ll find works by Picasso from 1912–15 that altered the history of sculpture. With sheet metal, tin plate, iron wire, nails, and scraps of wood, he created a life-size guitar, violins, a mandolin, a clarinet, and drinking glasses that elevated the stature of still life to a subject as worthy as portrait heads and standing figures. The vivid colors with which the artist completed these Cubist reliefs and small objects are as important as the unusual materials he used.Pablo Picasso, Glass of Absinthe, 1914, Paris, painted bronze with absinthe spoon, 8½" x 6½" x 3⅜". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF LOUISE REINHARDT SMITH

During the spring of 1914, Picasso also cast in bronze a series of six “Glasses of Absinthe” that have been reunited for the first time since they left his studio. Except for one that was left in its raw state, he painted all the others with different patterns and pigments. As visual puns, each absinthe glass sports a pair of eyes and a wide mouth beneath a jaunty “hat” that, formed from an actual absinthe spoon topped by a bronze sugar cube, resembles the type of straw boater worn by the French entertainer Maurice Chevalier.

Unlike in his life as a painter, Picasso made sculpture sporadically. But there was a method to these episodic forays. He seems to have been inspired to work in three dimensions at the birth of distinct art movements that he had a hand in launching. He didn’t execute another extended body of three-dimensional works until 1928 when he was commissioned to make a memorial for the grave of his close friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died during the great influenza epidemic of 1918. With iron rods, he created three versions of a charioteer. Their linear character and open spaces call to mind classic, monochromatic Cubist paintings of 1911–12. If you picture Picasso making a line drawing of, say, the robe and vertical axis of the Charioteer of Delphi, you’ll see how, yet again, the classically trained artist melded tradition and innovation.Pablo Picasso, Woman in the Garden,1929–30, Paris, welded and painted iron, 6' 9⅛" × 46⅛" × 33⅜". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/MUSÉE NATIONAL PICASSO, PARIS

This time, Picasso remained active as a sculptor. During the heady days of Surrealism’s reign in Paris, between 1929–35, the Spanish-born painter responded by creating some of his most memorable works in three dimensions as well as a series of astonishing graphite drawings on fine-textured woven paper of imaginary standing and seated women. Readily accepted as a colleague by André Breton, the pope of Surrealism, Picasso developed aspects of his Cubist sculptures that related to the tenets of the latest art-world sensation.

Having earlier worked with unlikely materials, Picasso now realized he could make larger, more fully in-the-round heads and figures. To assist with welding colanders, other objects, and scraps of old iron into unique sculptures as convincing as statues, he enlisted Julio Gonzalez, a fellow Spaniard. Three of their masterpieces reign in their own gallery. Woman in a Garden (ca. 1930–32), one of the masterpieces of this period, indeed of Picasso’s entire corpus, could not be more fetching, an adjective not often applied to the plastic arts. With her hair blowing in the breeze and her animated pose, she seems propelled toward some sort of tryst.Pablo Picasso, Head of a Warrior, 1933, Boisgeloup, plaster, metal, and wood, 47½" x 9¾" x 27". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF JACQUELINE PICASSO IN HONOR OF THE MUSEUM’S CONTINUOUS COMMITMENT TO PABLO PICASSO’S ART

The next gallery is dominated by astonishing taut, white plaster heads of women on a gargantuan scale. Yet again, Picasso looked to the past—in this instance, classical Greece—while being very much of his time. I’ve always imagined rods like those used to create the earlier charioteers to have formed the armatures of these elegant behemoths. One reason these works are so impressive is that Picasso had been thinking about how to create them for a very long time. During 1920 and 1921, he made a group of pastels and paintings with figures that had massive, pneumatic-like bodies. At this moment, he had the ability to translate this idea into three-dimensions.

As you enter the fifth space, which is dedicated to the years 1933–37, Woman with a Vase (1933), another magnificent work, metaphorically lights the way for your tour of the second half of this breathtaking retrospective. She’s a knockout who once stood in proximity to Guernica in the Spanish Loyalist Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. She, more than the iron-rod charioteers, looks as if she would have made a fitting memorial to Apollinaire.Not surprisingly, during the war years Picasso’s sculptures are less adventurous. But from time to time, he rose to the occasion with works where the subject matter is emphasized to a greater degree than stylistic concerns. You’ll find the painful Death’s Head (1941) as well as the impressive Man with a Lamb (1943), which reminds us how innocent people are slaughtered as battles rage.Pablo Picasso, She-Goat, 1950, Vallauris, bronze. 46⅜" x 56⅜" x 28⅛".©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, MRS. SIMON GUGGENHEIM FUND

After the war, Picasso’s sculptures take on a childlike aspect. He seems to be making three-dimensional objects as if he were playing with toys. He’s having fun with ceramics. He celebrates pregnancy by portraying a woman with a ceramic vessel for a belly and two for breasts. He introduces a now-beloved menagerie, including the popular She-Goat (1950) and Baboon and Young (1951), which has a head formed from model cars. And there are the magisterial “Bathers” who stand in a pool of pebbles.

The show closes with a flourish. Like a magician at a kids party, Picasso folded sheet metal into heads, women with outstretched arms, and chairs. You leave the show entertained and exhilarated and wondering why you hadn’t realized how Picasso, time and again, changed the course of the history of sculpture.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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September 9, 2015 2:54 p.m.

How Picasso the Sculptor Ruptured Art History

By

Pablo Picasso, Chair Cannes, 1961. Musée National Picasso–Paris. 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On October 9, 1912, Pablo Picasso wrote a letter to Georges Braque, his confrere in Cubism, whom he later derided as “my wife” and who, for his part, described himself and Picasso as “two mountaineers roped together.” “I am in the process of imagining a guitar,” Picasso wrote — a line that still sends shivers. He went on to declare that, after their summer working together in the South of France, he was hijacking two of the biggest artistic ideas of the century: collage and three-dimensional assemblage. Both would change the landscape of art: Via collage, painting took on a more physical body, changing its spatial presence forever; assemblage did all this, too, but in even more varied materials and space, a technique so radical that it essentially remapped the boundaries of painting, bas-relief, molding, and sculpture. Both ideas were Braques’s! As Picasso himself said, “Great artists steal.” Or as Matisse put it after a studio visit from Picasso, “He will put it all to good use in time.”

We don’t think of Picasso as a sculptor, but we should. He was a great one. In the years after that summer with Braque, Picasso performed a vivisection of 500 years of Western spatial perspective. For much of the 19th century, artists like Constable, Corot, Courbet, Manet, and many others tried to break the rigid illusionistic strictures and the structure of vaunted Renaissance perspective. Yet no matter what artists did, including Monet — breaking down every brushstroke into a physical thing that functioned at once as a mark and a picture, each one being absolutely equal to every other stroke, all but doing away with illusionistic space altogether — still, the borders and surfaces of the object reasserted themselves. With collage and assemblage, Picasso finally jarred space from a kind of 500-year sleeping sickness, a system that had silted up, impeded, and confined vision. With these works, Picasso broke forever from Renaissance tradition into modernist, Einsteinian relativity, the paradoxical space where things exist in different dimensions at once. It’s important to remember, of course, that Renaissance perspective was maniacally practiced only in the West. In Asia, Africa, and most of the rest of the world, systematic illusionistic space never caught on. In the West, however, Picasso (and the others) set space free.

Now, for the first time since the Museum of Modern Art’s epic 1967 “The Sculpture of Picasso,” MoMA returns to this fertile delta with more than 150 of his slabbed, shattering, avian-shaped, hallucinogenically assembled sculptures. This is a fantastic show. The work in this exhibition represents a macro evolution in the history of art, and at MoMA, you will see objects that look like loofahs shellacked with tough nuggets and nettles; vertebrae forms; craniums that look like crustaceans; dolls and Roman soldiers that might be from the Crab Nebula; iron-cage works that go off like slow fuses, morphing into movies, maps, and sliding diagrams. I found myself constantly having to catch my breath, reassessing what I thought about Picasso’s sculptures, even seeing a lot of what I thought were clunkers as packing information that scores of artists are still putting to good use. (One abstract cast of a crumpled paper bag basically gives rise to artists like Jean Debuffet and movements like Art Informel and Tachisme.) Whatever you do, don’t miss this exhibition; this is exactly the kind of show MoMA is made for. Museum co-curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland (with Virginie Perdrisot) make MoMA’s fourth-floor galleries look more beautiful and useful than they have ever looked. Linger in these spaces; the chance won’t come again for a long time. “Picasso Sculpture” could be one of the great learning experiences of your seeing life.

Above all, this show lets you know in your bones that beneath it all, Picasso’s art was always sculptural — always structural, architectural, and tectonically imagined first. Picture the shapes and planes of his Cubist paintings as cut up and pieced back together as sculptures. Or traditional sculpture and objects crushed into bas reliefs, then given more dimension. That is virtually what he did. “It would have sufficed,” he said, “to cut up [the Cubist paintings] — the colors being no more than indications of difference in perspective, of planes … and then assemble them … [as] sculpture.” At another time, he said he analyzed “form into separate geometric components … presenting simultaneously several views of the same object as though the spectator were walking around it or turning it over in his own hands.” It is so wildly revolutionary that it makes you wish that artists like Tintoretto and El Greco had tried this centuries ago! Or reversed the process, and we would have seen Bernini tectonically flattened.

At MoMA, you will see all these separate components — faceted shapes, tectonic plains, abstract forms, axiomatic lines, and more — in sculptures that all point to undiscovered dimensions. But not in the first gallery. The figurative works here, from 1902 through 1909, are really just Picasso turning the key in the sculptural ignition; assimilating Degas, Maillol, and Matisse; African, Oceanic, and early Iberian sculpture, seeing what he can put “to good use.” The primitive-looking wooden totemlike objects have nowhere near the force of the Kongo power figures with hundreds of nails hammered into the surface that predate them; they look as if they might have been made by Gauguin, but lack his sense of decorative flatness. Or elsewhere, since Rodin did smushed female forms, so does Picasso. Still, two pieces from 1909 vibrate with a more pressing tension. The first, a small plaster Apple, which looks like a Chinese cube puzzle carved by Cézanne. It clues you in — despite not being an especially convincing sculpture — to the simultaneity that Picasso is after, as the apple looks like it is changing shapes and being seen from several perspectives at once. The other is the solid bronze Head of a Woman, whose angled, sluicing protrusions radiate the drama of two-dimensional Cubism that is already happening in his paintings and is about to detonate into sculptural space. But the bust is still leaden, bound to a space and governed by a gravity that are about to give way.

The rupture comes in the next galleries. Categories prolapse in constructed, cut, painted, assembled, and cast works that might be bas-relief, paintings, sculptures, all of the above, or none at all. You’re seeing something never seen before, yet Picasso does it with such utter clarity that you can feel the scales fall from your eyes. And even think, I could do this. Ponder the incomprehensibly influential guitars. For the first time in the history of Western sculpture, the inside, or the hollowness, of form is depicted — here, the hole of the guitar becomes an object with space and illusion all at once. Imagine Michelangelo’s David somehow also revealing chest cavity and organs flip-flopping and interfacing with the outer surfaces, seeing this beautiful boy from behind and in front at once. The guitars represent a new kind of illusion and a new realness in sculpture simultaneously, where the object comes to self-explanatory life and negative space isn’t a void anymore. In the same astounding gallery are the famous absinthe glasses, which do the same things but in more compact scale, using curves, torque, and twists, exploring different material states and gravity in ways that push dimensional limits into something like the uncanny. Are we really seeing these things from all sides — including the liquid — at the same time? The same thing is happening in the guitars.

Opportunistic superpredator that he was, when Picasso took, he took fast. Between that October 1912 letter to Braque and December 3 that year, he made paperboard, string, and painted-wire guitars, each of which exists in a spectrum of different non-narrative spaces at once. By 1915, in addition to groundbreaking collages, Picasso fashioned more guitars out of sheet metal, paper, wood, nails, string, canvas, and painted wire paper. Three of them are here. And still radioactive. These works change the sculptural game. The guitars are what Donald Judd later called “specific objects”: neither conventional sculpture nor musical instruments, but something else. (In fact, let’s use “something else” as one of the definitions of art.) At the same time, the guitars also seem to contain interior dimensions never before probed in sculpture. By 1915, there’s the splayed-open violin that lets you see the inside, outside, and left and right sides of the object at once. You think, Yes! He’s doing with sculpture what he does in paintings: finding a way to see breasts, anus, vulva, eyes, buttocks, belly button, and mouth at the same time! Picasso’s sculpture so encompasses this strange all-at-once dimension that today, flatfish with eyes on the same side of their heads are called “Picasso fish.”

In the middle of this gallery are the six painted bronze absinthe glasses, each with a real sugar spoon, each cast from an identical wax mold. Every one of them looks different; I have no idea how. They’re almost too much to deal with. Each comes to cartoonish life, at once slabbed and angular, Neolithic and modern. Here you witness the interior interweaving and untwining of form, temporal shifts, visual glitches, the force of an imagination dancing. Picasso decants the absinthe, lets you see the glass and through it. The liquid substance transforms into a decorated vessel, then slush, solid, translucent, polka-dotted plasma, all while appearing malleable, in changing states, or freezing. The sugar cube on the spoon turns into a boulder, a minimalist sculpture, and part of a pyramid about to be dropped into this vast alchemical caldron. Fins on the glass might be vestigial body parts, cooling devices, or mating plumage; spirals are really flanges; balance is impossible. Is the cup tilting? Twisting? Stable? Serving itself? We simultaneously behold this twisty thing from above, below, left, and right. In this gallery, Picasso’s works create the sculptural equivalent of what is known in geometry as a tesseract, ­a four-dimensional analogue of a cube, or a hypercube, which some speculate would, if entered in one place — say, MoMA — deposit you under the ocean or in another dimension. Whatever’s happening here, that’s what happened to art in 1912: It started in one place and ended in another.

After this outburst, there was sculptural silence from Picasso for almost a decade. The show picks up again in 1928, with two small, curvaceous bronze shapes that could be a woman running on a beach as you see the thunder of the Cubist guitars made more pliable, organic, sensual. Make a mental note; they foreshadow something spectacular to come. In fact, almost everything in this gallery is stuff that Picasso will put to real use further along.

The next gallery gave me whiplash. And got me hot. This space is a bacchanalian garden of voluptuous, abstract female forms made between 1930 and 1937. Here are new hieroglyphic shapes becoming faces, heads, breasts, mouths, vulvae — pendulous forms that are so unphilosophical and distorted that they become concretions of garrulous, graceful, free-flowing, libidinous meaning. This work doesn’t fit into any other concurrent movement of the time; Picasso is off the sculptural reservation here. Biographer John Richardson tells us that the woman Picasso was picturing was his “greatest sexual passion.” Her name is Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso spotted her when she emerged from the Paris Metro on January 8, 1927. Instantly smitten, he approached, proclaiming, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together.” She’d never heard of him and was 17; he was 45 and married. So began a ten-year frenzied secret affair that cast Picasso as consuming monster, inflictor of abject cruelty (she was “a slice of melon” which he “denied … orgasm”). It is in these sculptures (and paintings of this period) that Picasso’s art gets fleshier and more organic, as he claims a larger part of himself and catapults himself from Cubism forever.

Many academics pooh-pooh this and much that follows in Picasso’s work. It’s true: At this point, he does break with modernist teleological progress, and certainly with Cubism; most of what comes next doesn’t fit neatly anywhere art-historically. Only in Picasso-ism. And he produced epic amounts of art, much of it not that good or even very avant-garde-looking. Yet it’s squeamish and persnickety to limit the greatness of Picasso to just Cubism and a few other high points. In this gallery, you see art that is blissed-out, brutal, Greek, goofy, a genus of modern Venuses rendered in new formal topographies. With Matisse, Miro, Calder, and others, Picasso is paving the way for much of the biomorphic abstraction used by artists all over the world ever since. The busts of Marie-Thérèse are a real depiction of how love deforms. They’re the ones I’d want in my inner museum. They also lead directly to the desexualized screaming faces and tortured forms of Guernica (1937). The curators also provide a great insider finger-wag at and lesson about Picasso the psycho pirate. Installed in the center of this gallery is the bronze Reclining Bather (1931). This work comes directly out of all Matisse’s much-earlier nudes. Placed here, it is a reminder that, though Matisse was never this animally sexual, without his incredible lifelong influence, many reckon that there’d be no continually reforming (a.k.a. catching up) Picasso. That’s how thorough these curators are.

There’s so much more: galleries packed with uncovered information for artists and viewers, single works that can detonate into whole careers. Please visit this exhibit more than once; every gallery is a world unto itself that deserves attention. And before you leave the show, think about where it is in the museum. And why. All other rotating shows have been elsewhere at MoMA, in temporary galleries. While many museum visitors might protest the absence of the usual masterpieces on this floor, we must be grateful that MoMA undertook the gargantuan task of totally dismantling the fourth-floor permanent collection for the Picasso show. The ceilings and spaces of the second- and sixth-floor galleries would have overwhelmed, dwarfed, and distracted from this work. Other spaces at MoMA are too small. And composite cement floors would have been wrong. Temkin and Umland’s Picasso show points to a way through MoMA’s spatial problems, suggesting that these galleries don’t always have to be static with teleologically installed masterpieces from the enormous collection. Instead, they can be used for continual experimenting with the greatest collection of Modernism on Earth, opening that collection up, letting the world see just how incredible MoMA really is, and perhaps helping to heal a multitude of sins. This Picasso show lets us see things we hadn’t dreamed of before. All while seeing an artist edging into undiscovered spaces, interstices between flatness and dimensionality, spaces that are at once ancient Egyptian, clear, and Mesopotamian in insistence. Picasso lifts a veil. I might still want to live with a Matisse, but “Picasso Sculpture” lets us know that space — even MoMA’s — really has a wide wingspan.

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HYPERALLERGIC

Photo Essays

Pablo Picasso, Now in 3D

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Sylvette" (1954) at left and "Little Horse" (1961) at right (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s hard to get excited for another Pablo Picasso exhibition. He is, after all, the Steven Spielberg of European modernism — flashy, prolific, proficient at a vast range of genres, and overrepresented in the mainstream cultural canon. But Picasso Sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art‘s (MoMA) first exhibition since the late 1960s devoted to the master painter and collageist’s three-dimensional works, is an opportunity to discover a relatively obscure part of his practice. Save a handful of exceptions, Picasso kept his sculptures to himself until the penultimate decade of his life, and even now only certain types of works are widely circulated: the Cubist still lifes, the plaster busts of women, the bronze and wood assemblages derived from his encounters with African art. These works figure prominently in Picasso Sculpture, but so do his incredibly fine and playful ceramic vases of the late 1940s and early ’50s, the somber bronzes he made living through World War II in Paris, and the funny, whimsical plaster and wood sculptures of the mid ’30s. While so much of Picasso’s two-dimensional work has been rendered static by its status as seminal art history, many of the sculptures in this show are refreshingly surprising and inventive.

One of Pablo Picasso's "Glass of Absinthe" painted bronze sculptures from 1914, all six of which are included in 'Picasso Sculpture'

The exhibition’s roughly 140 works are arranged in mostly chronological order across 10 rooms on MoMA’s fourth floor. Each gallery is devoted to works produced during one specific bout of sculptural production. Unlike his continuous two-dimensional output, Picasso went long stretches without making sculpture and then would apply himself to working intensely with one type of imagery, style, or material for a few years. A room off the “War Years” gallery features a small presentation of 24 photographs Brassaï took in Picasso’s studio in 1932 and 1943, offering a sense of how he lived with the works spread across every available surface.

Controversially — at least for those easily offended by unorthodox exhibition design — there are no wall labels in the show. Each visitor must arm herself with a 24-page booklet that lists the vital stats for each work. Speaking at Wednesday’s press preview, MoMA’s chief curator and the co-curator of Picasso Sculpture, Ann Temkin, explained that conventional wall texts would have been impractical and confusing, requiring visitors to continually zig-zag from the pedestals and display cases to the gallery walls and back, while the booklet allows them to get and stay nose-to-nose with the works. And there are plenty of small, intricate pieces that benefit from close and sustained inspection.

Pablo Picasso, "Woman with Leaves" (1934)

What’s most startling about Picasso’s sculptures is how, for the most part, they do not seem to have aged. All those Cubist collages and blue period portraits may look like relics of the last century, but pieces like the tiny plaster figure “Woman with Leaves” from 1934 — whose dress was made by pressing corrugated cardboard into wet plaster and whose face resembles an ancestor of the beloved robot Johnny 5 from Short Circuit — or the group of five small, wand-like wooden sculptures of standing and seated women from 1930 — evocative of outsider art but also Alberto Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois’s many totemic or needle-shaped sculptures — look like they could have been made last year.

The rooms devoted to bodies of work made between 1933 and 1937 and between 1945 and 1953 are especially rich in such seemingly ageless works. One rarely seen group, installed in a display case in the latter room, is a set of nine small pebbles, bone fragments, and chunks of ceramic into which Picasso engraved faces. The tiny works’ lines and features are very sharp and elegant, but the unconventional, improvisational choice of medium and method epitomize what makes Picasso’s sculptures so interesting. He was never formally trained in three-dimensional art making, as he was in painting, and it shows in both his willingness to break with tradition and convention, and his tendency to delve into practices like bronze casting, welding, and carving as he learned to master them. This resulted in some of the wonderfully strange, funny, and enduring works that make this show so worthwhile.

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "The Jester" (1905)

Pablo Picasso's "Seated Woman" (1902) is the earliest work in 'Picasso Sculpture'

Pablo Picasso, "Still Life" (1914)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Head of a Woman" (1929–30) at left and "Woman in the Garden" (1929–30) at right

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Head of a Woman" (1931, cement) at left and "Head of a Woman" (1931, plaster) at right

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "The Reaper" (ca. 1934) at left and "The Orator" (1933–34) at right

Pablo Picasso, "An Anatomy: Three Women" (1933)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Death's Head" (1941) at left and "Man with Lamb" (1943) at right

Pablo Picasso, "Woman in Long Dress" (1943)

Pablo Picasso, "Cat" (1941)

Installation view of photographs by Brassaï of Pablo Picasso's Paris studio in 1932 and 1943

Installation view of Pablo Picasso's small engraved pebble and ceramic works in 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Pregnant Woman" (1950) at left and "Pregnant Woman" (1949) at right

Installation view of Pablo Picasso's ceramic works from between 1945 and 1953 in 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Pablo Picasso, "Insect" (1951)

Pablo Picasso, "Little Owl" (1951–52)

Pablo Picasso, "Woman Carrying a Child" (1953)

Pablo Picasso, "Goat Skull with Bottle" (1951)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Woman with a Baby Carriage" (1950–54) in the foreground

Detail of Pablo Picasso's "Baboon and Young" (1951)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Woman with Outstretched Arms" (1961) at left and the exhibition's latest work, "Maquette for Richard J. Daley Center Sculpture" (1964), at right

Picasso Sculpture opens September 14 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through February 7, 2015.

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

MoMA Explores Picasso in the Round

WSJ goes inside the installation of the blockbuster exhibition ‘Picasso Sculpture’

 

Just outside the closed fourth-floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, normally home to works from MoMA’s postwar collection, museum guards have been diplomatically turning away visitors on the hunt for masterpieces like Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31” and Jasper Johns’s “Flag.”

MoMA is temporarily rearranging itself to make room—a lot of room—for an artist who, perhaps more than any other, has helped shape the museum through the decades: Pablo Picasso.

Opening Sept. 14, “Picasso Sculpture” will occupy the museum’s entire fourth floor, in a show exploring the artist’s work in three dimensions. MoMA is the only venue for the exhibition, the largest U.S. presentation of his sculptures in nearly a half-century.

Given the Spaniard’s profound influence on 20th- and even 21st-century art, and the stratospheric prices his paintings can command at auction, it would be a stretch to describe any aspect of his work as under-the-radar. But if there were a candidate for that distinction, it would be the sculpture, which hasn’t received nearly the same number of dedicated exhibitions as his paintings.

Trained as a painter but self-taught as a sculptor, Picasso made three-dimensional work throughout his career, but intermittently, with lapses that sometimes lasted years.

“The restless imagination of this artist, the almost crazy sense of invention, comes through in the sculpture like nowhere else,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, and co-curator of the exhibition, which runs through Feb. 7, 2016. “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

According to Diana Widmaier-Picasso, an art historian and granddaughter of the artist who is preparing a multivolume catalog raisonné of the sculpture, he made more than 2,000 three-dimensional works, a number that includes editions—multiple identical works cast or otherwise reproduced from the same mold or template—but excludes his ceramics.

Bronze, plaster, terra-cotta, cardboard, cement and wood are just some of the more than two dozen mediums and materials represented in the show—not to mention found objects ranging from upholstery fringe to bicycle parts to kitchen colanders.

The show is organized into eight chronological chapters. Opening with Picasso’s early experiments in clay, bronze and wood, it quickly progresses to early cubist sculptures, like the 1909 bronze “Head of a Woman” and a beguiling little plaster apple, before vaulting into the constructions and assemblages of the early teens.

Pablo Picasso, next to one of his sculptures. ENLARGE
Pablo Picasso, next to one of his sculptures. Photo: Bunk/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Innovations of the later 1920s and early ’30s include fanciful found-object collages and the wire sculptures that Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, dubbed “drawings in space.”

The postwar decades saw Picasso ensconced on the French Riviera, where everything from beach pebbles to sheet metal became raw material for his work.

“We hope that every single room in this exhibition is like discovering a different artist,” said co-curator Anne Umland, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA.

To do justice to the approximately 140 sculptures on view, Ms. Temkin and Ms. Umland made a radical decision: Wherever possible, each free-standing sculpture would be displayed for 360-degree viewing. And no paintings—sculpture only.

Their mission, said Ms. Temkin: “To give sculpture its first-class status.”

That takes space. At about 22,000 square feet, the exhibition’s footprint is approximately twice that of last autumn’s “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” which drew some 724,000 visitors. And it isn’t necessarily because the sculptures are huge—many are surprisingly modest in scale.

Conservators look over items from Pablo Picasso's ‘Bathers’ sculptures during the installation of the ‘Picasso Sculpture’ exhibition at MoMA. ENLARGE
Conservators look over items from Pablo Picasso’s ‘Bathers’ sculptures during the installation of the ‘Picasso Sculpture’ exhibition at MoMA. Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

“Picasso Sculpture” is likely to be as popular as the Matisse show, if not more so, but its generous space allotment brings a welcome bonus: no timed ticketing. However, there may be queuing and controlled entry during peak hours.

Late last month, the fourth floor was a work in progress, with custom pedestals in place and crafted-to-scale replicas—some flat and photographic, others three-dimensional—standing in for much of the art.

Although the curators had assigned the works to specific galleries, final placement within in each room has been an organic process, Ms. Temkin said. For example, “Bathers,” a group of life-size, playful sculptures from 1956, has been moved twice in pursuit of the most effective sight lines. In its final spot, it is the first thing visitors see when they enter the penultimate room.

Eleven of the works in “Picasso Sculpture” hail from MoMA’s own collection, including perennial favorites like the 1950 “She-Goat” and 1951 “Baboon and Young.”

That leaves about 130 sculptures coming from other institutions and private collections internationally—and a delivery schedule resembling a military campaign, with the last pieces arriving just a few days ahead of the exhibition previews. Many required personal couriers, a logistical challenge during late-summer vacation time, especially in France.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘She-Goat’ sculpture. ENLARGE
Pablo Picasso’s ‘She-Goat’ sculpture. Photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Some 50 sculptures and eight works on paper come from the Musée national Picasso-Paris, along with 24 images of Picasso’s sculptures taken by the photographer Brassaï in the 1930s and 1940s.

Because the artist kept so many of his sculptures until he died, and left no will, the Musée, a state institution established after his death, received many of those works in lieu of estate tax, with the remainder going largely to family members. The Musée is collaborating with MoMA on the exhibition.

In the galleries, the willingness to give each work its elbow room was apparent. In the second room, for instance, the 1914 “Glass of Absinthe”—an edition of six bronzes, each distinctively hand-painted—is dramatically showcased, each of the works on its own pedestal with several feet of viewing space between them.

A few galleries farther on, a flat maquette, or replica, of the 1942 bronze “Bull’s Head” claimed an entire wall. Despite the work’s modest dimensions, the curators had no fear of the real thing being dwarfed by its backdrop. “It’s that imposing,” said Ms. Temkin.

Ms. Umland concurred: “It has a force field.”

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THE ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Picasso’s great ingenuity as a sculptor revealed by MoMA

Pablo Picasso Near his Sculpture Goat With Bottle May 7, 1953 © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

Pablo Picasso Near his Sculpture Goat With Bottle May 7, 1953 © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

The “Great Man” theory of history is out of fashion these days; we no longer believe that an individual act of heroism can be the chief engine of development. But how else can we make sense of Pablo Picasso, who seems to have invented everything? The Spanish painter had help (Henri Matisse, Georges Braque), but his stature remains singular.

Yet Picasso the sculptor is a relative unknown, especially in the US, where the last show of his sculptural work was held in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It included 204 pieces, around 90% of which came from the artist’s own collection.

Now, the museum returns to Picasso’s sculpture with a show of around 150 works made over the course of his career. The curatorial logic behind the show is simple, says the co-curator, Ann Temkin, “to show that sculpture is a core part of Picasso’s career and that it hasn’t thoroughly been looked at in an exhibition in the United States in 50 years.”

Sculpture “says so much about him as an artist”, she says. “A view of Picasso as a painter or a maker of works on paper is really an incomplete view.”
Picasso’s ingenuity is evident everywhere in his sculpture. “It’s almost as if you’re looking at work by different artists each time,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Anne Umland. “He is always setting up and solving new sculptural challenges. His engagement with sculpture happened periodically and in very clear chapters.”

The show will take over the museum’s entire fourth floor, giving each piece sufficient space so that it can be appreciated in-the-round. Around 50 of the works come from the Musée national Picasso in Paris and additional loans are due from the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other institutions.

“Standard art history texts put so much emphasis on the breakthrough decade and the rest is treated as later work,” Temkin says. (Picasso’s most inventive period is generally considered to have been between 1907 and 1914.) “But with Picasso’s sculpture, it revs up and becomes a larger and larger part of his work.” Umland says she was particularly surprised by his work of the 1950s. “There is a wide range of materials and subjects from those years, from tiny pebbles to large-scale assemblages held together by plaster and wood, to his deep engagement with pottery and ceramics,” she says. “He had a way of looking at the world in terms of its sculptural development.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue written by Temkin, Umland, Virginie Perdrisot (the sculpture and ceramics curator at Musée Picasso) and Luise Mahler (an assistant curator at MoMA). In addition, a children’s book written by the museum’s curatorial assistant Nancy Lim and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna will be published.

The show is sponsored chiefly by Hyundai Card, Monique M. Schoen Warshaw, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, Robert Menschel and Janet Wallach and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III. MoMA is the sole venue.

• Picasso Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 14 September-7 February 2016

Reviews of Beaute Congo – Congolese Paintings 1926-2015 at Fondation Cartier Paris

This is a historic exhibition of Congo artists from 1926 – 2015 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The core art collection of African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is from the Congo. The Congo was a colony of Belgium from the last decade of the 19th century until at least 1960, when its president was assassinated.

Vincent Johnson

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Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Beauté Congo – 1926–2015 – Congo Kitoko

July 11–November 15, 2015

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
261, boulevard Raspail
75014 Paris
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday 11am–8pm,
Tuesday 11am–10pm

T +33 (0) 1 42 18 56 50

www.fondation.cartier.com

A place of extraordinary cultural vitality, the creative spirit of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be honored in the Beauté Congo–1926–2015–Congo Kitoko exhibition presented at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain with André Magnin, Chief Curator.

Taking as its point of departure the birth of modern painting in the Congo in the 1920s, this ambitious exhibition will trace almost a century of the country’s artistic production. While specifically focusing on painting, it will also include music, sculpture, photography, and comics, providing the public with the unique opportunity to discover the diverse and vibrant art scene of the region.
Access
Metro: Raspail or Denfert-Rochereau (lines 4 and 6)
Bus: 38, 68, 88, 91 RER: Denfert-Rochereau (line B)
Vélib’ and disabled parking at 2, rue Victor Schoelcher

Nomadic Nights
Information and reservations every day from 11am to 8pm (except Mondays)
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Paris hosts first ever retrospective of art from Democratic Republic of the Congo

With more eyes than ever on African art, Fondation Cartier’s expansive Beauté Congo exhibition showcases earliest paintings to today’s vibrant, political works

La Vraie Carte du Monde, by Chéri Samba, 2011.
La Vraie Carte du Monde, by Chéri Samba, 2011. Photograph: Chéri Samba/Fondation Cartier

There is a tradition in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that artists hang their paintings on the outsides of their studios, for the whole world walking by to look at.

Some paintings reflect the very streets where they hang – bars filled with music and dancing, streets overcrowded with rusting cars and elegant sapeurs strutting down the pavements, bejewelled and bedecked in flamboyant outfits. Others depict a utopia, a vision of the DRC that has left behind the conflict, poverty and corruption of the past century. Almost all are steeped in politics.

It is these paintings, and other artworks stretching back 90 years, that are to form the first ever retrospective of art from the DRC. Opening on Saturday at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, the expansive show incorporates 350 paintings, photographs, sculptures and comic books from 41 different artists.

Most of these works have never been displayed internationally, having sat among private collections in Belgium, France and Switzerland, while others were dug out from colonial archives in Brussels and a few brought over from Kinshasa, direct from the artists themselves.

The exhibition may have taken just one year for the curator, André Magnin, to put together but it has been his passion for almost 30 years, having travelled back and forth to the DRC meeting and championing many of the artists now displayed. With more eyes than ever turned to the African art world, and the recent rise in African art fairs in cities such as New York, London and Paris, Magnin, who is the world’s foremost expert on African art, said the time felt right to finally work with the Fondation Cartier to realise his vision.

Amour & Pastèque, by Chéri Samba, 1984

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Amour & Pastèque, by Chéri Samba, 1984. Photograph: Chéri Samba/Fondation Cartier

“People see the DRC as just this country of war and death and suffering but look around – these are such beautiful works filled with such colour and humour and sensuality,” said Magnin, standing before the Popular-style paintings of Pierre Bodo. “I want this exhibition to widen people’s perceptions of the country, show not only how beautiful but also how diverse and how political the art has been over those many decades. I have been wanting to do this show since 1987 but it is only now that the time felt right.”

The exhibition itself works backwards, beginning with the contemporary work of some of the younger artists painting in the capital today and ending on a series of “precursor” paintings: primitive watercolours dating back to 1926 that had lain forgotten in the depths of the Library of Brussels archive, until they were recently rediscovered by Magnin.

Untitled, by Antoinette Lubaki, c.1929

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Untitled, by Antoinette Lubaki, c.1929. Photograph: Antoinette Lubaki/Fondation Cartier

Among the newer works are a collection of photographs by Kiripi Katembo that depict the city of Kinshasa reflected in the dirty water that covers the streets, offering a certain poetry to the chaotic and polluted streets of the capital. Another series, by Sammy Baloji, superimposes photos of Congolese tribes taken on a Belgian expedition in the late 1800s on to watercolours of the country, painted by a Belgian artist during colonial times – a pointed comment on the legacy of colonisation.

Also on display are comic books of Papa Mfumu’eto, who between 1990 and 2000 produced the most popular bande dessinée (comic strips) in Kinshasa. Though they were fictional, they drew from everyday life and the corrupt politics of the Mobutu dictatorship and at their peak were more popular than the daily newspaper.

La Nostalgie, by JP Mika, 2014

La Nostalgie, by JP Mika, 2014. Photograph: JP Mika/Fondation Cartier

An elusive figure, Mfumu’eto made his first public appearance in seven years to visit the retrospective in Paris. Speaking to the Guardian, he explained how he had become drawn to the medium of comic strips. He said: “My five older sisters died before turning five and then I came along and my mother was incredibly protective of me.

“I wasn’t really able to play with other kids because my mother was afraid of losing me like she lost my sisters. I felt very isolated and anonymous in terms of the world around me and the comics came to me as a way of escaping that. The comics brought people to me – they followed the stories and wanted to know what I would create next.”

His first comic, which depicted Mobutu as a boa constrictor who swallowed things and threw them up again as money – still the most popular comic ever sold in Kinshasa – can be seen in the exhibition, alongside numerous others produced over the decade. Mfumu’eto often responded to the wishes of his readers, and when Mobutu died in exile in Morocco in 1997, the artist illustrated him impregnating a woman in hell and having to burn there forever.

However, making critical statements on politics in the DRC, even in the format of art, can often be a dangerous occupation. Mfumu’eto said he had been threatened by the authorities about his comics, while Bodo, another “Popular” artist and evangelical pastor whose paintings feature in the exhibition, died last September under allegedly suspicious circumstances.

Most artists, however, have continued regardless. One of the most internationally renowned Congolese artists in the exhibition is Chéri Samba, 58, whose works have been shown at the Pompidou in Paris as well as at MoMA in New York and at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Having begun life as a billboard painter in the 1970s, he went on to pioneer the Popular style of art – bright, eye-catching works that focused on everyday life and often incorporated text.

La Nostalgie, by JP Mika, 2014

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Untitled, by Pili Pili Mulongoy. Photograph: Pili Pili Mulongoy/Fondation Cartier

“With my paintings I want to captivate people and I want the messages of my paintings to be direct,” Samba said. “I direct my work at the leaders and I want to use my paintings to talk about subjects they may have forgotten but are important to the people. My paintings inspired by daily life and for me, the meaning of Popular art is where people of all milieux can recognise the themes, the topics, the subjects that I am treating. This was created as art for the people.

Untitled (Match Ali-Foreman, Kinshasa), by Moke, 1974

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Untitled (Match Ali-Foreman, Kinshasa), by Moke, 1974. Photograph: Moke/Fondation Cartier

“I believe everyone in earth has a mission and I believe that God gave me the tools to paint and speak my messages through my paintings.”

Figures from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama crop up in his paintings, though one of the most powerful works on display in the retrospective is a piece called Little Kadogo, I am For Peace, That is Why I Like Weapons. It is a portrait of his son dressed as a Congolese child soldier, palms up in surrender and looking directly out at the viewer.

“I can’t separate my works from politics and I don’t think I ever could,” said Samba. “Yes, my work has got me into difficulty, I have been stopped by the authorities, but it has never gone any further than that and I don’t care. It will never stop me from painting.”

Oui, il faut réfléchir, by Chéri Samba, 2014

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Oui, il faut réfléchir, by Chéri Samba, 2014. Photograph: Chéri Samba/Fondation Cartier

Art, said Samba, was everywhere in Kinshasa, from the posters on the streets to the facades of people’s houses. Now, more than ever, the art scene in the city was thriving, he said. He was heartened that a new generation had taken on the mantle of Popular art and that it was now being seen beyond the city and country’s borders.

Indeed, Samba said he would continue to paint as he had always done. “For 40 years I’ve always been doing the same thing in my paintings, particularly in terms of the message,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is the grey hair in my beard.”

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WALL STREET JOURNAL

A Vibrant Display of Congolese Art at Fondation Cartier

‘Beaute Congo,’ a sparkling new exhibition at Paris’s Fondation Cartier showcases 90 years of modern and contemporary art.

J.P. Mika, ‘Kiese na Kiese,’ 2014. ENLARGE
J.P. Mika, ‘Kiese na Kiese,’ 2014. Photo: JP Mika / Photo: Antoine de Roux

THERE IS ONLY the most fleeting sense of a Conradian heart of darkness in “Beauté Congo—1926-2015—Congo Kitoko,” the Fondation Cartier’s sparkling new show of modern and contemporary Congolese art. The exhibition, which opens in Paris tomorrow and runs through Nov. 15, is a showcase of popular art, neither stiffly academic nor fashioned by European tradition—one that reflects the buoyant resilience of the Congolese character, which refuses to dwell on a grisly colonial past.

Curated by Frenchman André Magnin—who for the past 30 years has been instrumental in introducing contemporary African artists to European audiences—the show’s scope is ambitious, spanning 90 years and featuring 350 paintings, photographs, and sculptures from around 40 Congolese artists.

Pilipili Mulongoy, ‘Untitled,’ c. 1950.
Pilipili Mulongoy, ‘Untitled,’ c. 1950. Photo: Pilipili Mulongoy / Photo: Andr

“I wanted to tell the story of 90 years of Congolese art, which has always been described partially, and was visually familiar but only fragmentarily until now,” explains Mr. Magnin.

The show, laid out in reverse chronological order, begins on the ground floor with work by newer artists such as the EZA POSSIBLES collective, established in 2003 in Kinshasa, and J.P. Mika.

Mr. Mika, who was born in Kinshasa in 1980, is part of a new generation of artists whose narrative, figurative paintings are inspired by the colorful exuberance and dandyish demeanor of Congolese street life. His recent paintings, on patterned fabrics, take their inspiration from the dynamic composition of African photographic studio portraits of the 1960s.

The artist, a graduate of Kinshasa’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, which has existed in various guises since 1943, received additional training from Chéri Chérin. Along with Chéri Samba, Mr. Chérin is one of the leading lights of the self-avowed generation of “popular painters” who began to develop their politically aware cartoonish style, mixing text and images, in the 1980s.

Both artists, who started out making commercial billboards, have several paintings on display, including a denunciative portrait by Mr. Samba of one of his sons dressed as a boy soldier, hands held high in the air.

Chéri Samba, ‘Oui, il faut réfléchir,’ 2014.
Chéri Samba, ‘Oui, il faut réfléchir,’ 2014. Photo: Chéri Samba / Photo: André Mor

In the basement is a series of black and white photographs by Jean Depara, who was born in Angola but went into exile in what was then the Belgian Congo in 1948. Mr. Depara, who died in 1997, left behind an extraordinary collection of photo-reportage depicting Kinshasa before and after independence. Particularly striking are his images of the “Bills,” young Congolese hoodlums from working-class neighborhoods who, in the 1950s, dressed in the style of their American Western heroes.

In the same room is a remarkably intricate construction of a cardboard city by Bodys Isek Kingelez, who became famous for his cardboard models of imaginary buildings. From 1992 until his death this year, he conjured up entire cities based on the kind of utopian designs he dreamt of being built.

It is something of a shock to stumble on the geometric paintings by Congolese artist Djilatendo from the 1920s to ’30s and realize how thoroughly modern they still are

 

But perhaps the greatest discovery of this entrancing exhibition is to be made in the next-door room, where vibrant Congolese paintings from the first half of the 20th century are on display. It is something of a shock to stumble on the geometric paintings by Congolese artist Djilatendo from the 1920s to ’30s and realize how thoroughly modern they still are.

Very little is known about Mr. Djilatendo’s life and work other than that he was a tailor by profession and was inspired by the work of local carpet weavers to produce his geometric panels. He and Albert Lubaki, another early artist on display, were encouraged by a Belgian administrator, Georges Thiry, who supplied them with paints and paper to produce figurative work of animals and village life.

The simple lines and bold use of color in an untitled snake painting from 1931 by Djilatendo call to mind the red fish paintings Matisse did in Morocco from 1911 to ’12. Mr. Magnin, however, is keen to stress that any similarities are coincidental, as it is highly unlikely that Djilatendo had ever come across Matisse’s art before. The comfort is knowing that, without the need for any introductions, the innate elegance of one artist later found its echo in another.

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THE ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Paris’s love affair with Congolese Modernism continues

Moke, Untitled (undated). © Moke

In 1946, a French soldier and painter named Pierre Romain-Desfossés moved to the African city of Élisabethville (now called Lubumbashi) in the Belgian Congo and set up an art studio called Atelier du Hangar. For nine years, until his death in 1954, Desfossés worked with local artists, such as Mwenze Kibwanga and Pili Pili Mulongoy and helped them get their work into galleries in Paris, London and Rome.

Their work was even exhibited in venues as far away as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Hangar was later integrated into Lubumbashi’s art school, but an independent streak cut through all the art the atelier produced. As Desfossés once said: “We must speak forthrightly against all attempts to abolish the personality in favour of a uniform aesthetic according to the standards of white masters.”

This is just one episode in the history of art from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo that will be explored in a landmark exhibition opening at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in July. The show surveys 90 years of art from the African nation and includes nearly 300 pieces (mostly painting, but also photography, comics and music) by more than 40 artists. “There is a vitality to all of the work, even if there is not much continuity between the first painters included and those who came after the Second World War,” says Leanne Sacramone, a curator at the foundation who worked with the show’s chief organiser, André Magnin.

The earliest work included comes from the 1920s, when Congolese artists were encouraged by Belgian colonial officials such as Georges Thiry to make art on paper. The show then follows through the “popular artists” of the late 1970s and ends with work from the past 15 years. The exhibition is sponsored by the museum and will include a programme of events, such as dance performances.

Beauté Congo, 1926-2015, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 11 July-15 November

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 ART INFO

Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art to Exhibit a Century of Congolese Art

Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art to Exhibit a Century of Congolese Art
Chéri Samba, “Oui, il faut réfléchir” (2014); JP Mika, “Kiese na kiese (Le Bonheur et la Joie)” (2014)
(Copyright Chéri Samba; JP Mika/ Courtesy Fondation Cartier)

In a show of support for the African contemporary art scene, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris will stage “Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko” this summer to trace a century of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s artistic production, from the figurative and geometric works representing village life in the 1920s, to the unconventional collages exploring a better collective future.

Running from July 11 through November 15 at the Fondation Cartier, “Congo Kitoko” follows a series of other projects held at the Fondation featuring Congolese artists including the solo shows Bodys Isek Kingelez (1999) and J’aime Chéri Samba (2004) and the collective exhibitions Un Art Populaire (2001).

Over the years, Congolese artists learned to let their imaginations run free to create colorful works in their own highly inventive and distinctive styles. Some, such as Chéri Samba, Chéri Chérin, and Moke, found themselves inspired by daily, political, or social events that were easily recognizable by their fellow citizens, while others, like Pathy Tshindele and Kura Shomali, approached art crticially with unconventional collages and paintings. And sculptors like Bodys Isek Kingelez and Rigobert Nimi also made a name for themselves with intricate architectural models of utopian cities or robotized factories to explore the question of social cohesion.

The exhibition goes hand in hand with the French jeweler’s commitment to eradicate the conflict gold trade in Congo, where the extraction and smuggling of gold has served as an important means of funding for armed groups and army commanders in the deadliest conflict since World War II. Advocacy group Enough recently released a report that found companies including Tiffany & Co., Signet Jewelers, Cartier, JC Penney, and Target had taken proactive steps to set up requirements for their suppliers to source only from conflict-free gold refiners, contribute to solutions on the ground in Congo, and support the communities affected by mining and violence in the country.

“Congo Kitoko” will also include sculpture, photography, and comics in an effort to showcase the vibrancy and diversity of the art scene in Sub-Saharan Africa. Music also plays a significant role, as jazz, soul, and rap will be played throughout the exhibition, in conjunction with the artworks, while a never-before seen documentary by Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs, in collaboration with Césarine Bolya, will feature a series of spontaneous interviews of people who participated in Kinshasa’s 1960’s music scene.

Critical Essays on Abstract Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson

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ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Exhibitions

Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Painting lives on, but the critical terms stagnate and slacken, the art historian says

by Richard Shiff  |  5 June 2015
Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Eddie Martinez, Time Was (2007). Copyright Eddie Martinez. Courtesy the artist and a private collection
Painting is back in style. At the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the exhibition New York Painting (until 30 August) looks at the work of 11 contemporary artists based in the city, including Eddie Martinez and Antek Walczak, who are part of the medium’s “recent return to cultural acclaim,” in the words of the art historian Richard Shiff. Yet critics, who often insist on comprehensiveness, have failed to take into account the raw power of individual pictures, Shiff argues. In the below essay, which is an adapted version of his catalogue entry for the exhibition, Shiff surveys the terrain of criticism and explains why critics have been remiss.

Jack Whitten, Prime Mover (1974). Courtesy the artist.

Repetition and cliché infect art criticism. The art historian Thierry de Duve noted an irony in 2003: “About once every five years, the death of painting is announced, invariably followed by the news of its resurrection.”

Like history, criticism is subject to optics—that is, perspective. Critics once opposed photography to painting, as if the two media were representative of antithetical psychologies and social orders. This perspective lies within the penumbra of Walter Benjamin, who associated painting with focused concentration and photography and film with disruptive distraction. But photography, film and video are productive technological aids for painters, as are copiers and computers. Few of us today balk at the juxtaposition of hand-drawing and digital printing. Each can be manipulated to resemble the other—or not. It remains an artist’s choice, refined or sometimes reversed in response to immediate sensation. Critics, with their comprehensive concepts, shield themselves from such experiential disorder.

The problem is optical: two parties, critics and artists, look past each other with incompatible expectations. Art critics often typecast painters as committed “modernists” and, what is worse, “formalists.” But even Clement Greenberg, who has been maligned for his rigid evaluative standards, warned of applying conceptual order to aesthetic judgment. Few listened when he said it: “There’s no theory. No morality.” Feeling comes first. When critics argue that any emotional or intellectual position must always derive from an existing cultural construct, they beg the question, and dismiss the feeling of their own experiences.

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Consider this common, usually unchallenged, notion: photography constitutes “a phenomenon from which painting has been in retreat since the mid-19th century”. This is Douglas Crimp’s phrasing from 1981, put at the service of the argument that painting had died. Yes, photography depersonalizes imagery. But so does much modern painting. To avoid “that hand touch,” as he phrased it, Robert Mangold used sprayers and rollers. Mary Heilmann developed a slapdash technique, “a freeform, unstretched kind of painting work,” as she has said, so that her hand might be anyone’s. David Reed arranged paintings in the manner of film strips, to be animated by an anonymous viewer’s mobility. Jack Whitten combed, raked, or swept his way across paint layers: “The idea was to construct a non-relational painting by extending a single gesture to encompass the entire picture plane,” he once said. “The analogy, symbolically, was to photography.” Thoughts of impersonal, mechanistic photography have motivated many innovative painters. The two media are not at odds unless willfully put there.

A social critique like Crimp’s operates within limited optics. An artist’s need to engage in hand-work raises issues apart from the totemic value of handmade objects as markers of cultural prestige and economic status. The notion that humans have always had the desire to make paintings should not be dismissed as an arbitrary element of modernist mythology, as Crimp’s account insists. Academicised critical formulations—whether they are dialectical, historicist or determinist—have no bearing on the human need for immersion in physical acts of creation.

Ruth Root, Untitled (2014). Photo: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg

Clichéd metaphors

Corpse, zombie, vampire, ghost, mourning and cannibalization: these are among the clichéd metaphors attached to painting. In his 1984 article Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson assessed the society that had nurtured walking-dead media. His analysis derived from the prevailing theoretical discourse—the writings of Benjamin along with other Europeans, such as Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord—only to re-enter the critical conversation as an authoritative template for North Americans. Those who argued the case for postmodernism in the 1980s, with its strategies of pastiche and appropriation, seemed to act their theory out; they cited Jameson frequently, repeating his array of examples and mimicking his phrasing.

Postmodernism signaled the collapse of the modernist ideology and the dissolution of modernism’s foundations in authenticity, individual subjectivity and emotional expressiveness. Jameson noted “the waning of affect … the imitation of dead styles … the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past.” Such strategies and effects served a consumer’s “appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself”—life removed from living, feeding on the corpse of life. Gone was the integral subject, the authentic experience, the expressive self. Gone was easel painting.

Joe Bradley, Maag Areal (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Photo: Thomas Müller

The emerging consensus already troubled Max Kozloff in 1975: “A whole mode, painting, has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing.” Arthur Danto added a wrinkle in 1993: “It was … ‘handmade’ art that was dead … the easel picture.” Despite painting’s recent return to critical acclaim—or marketplace enthusiasm—metaphors of its demise persist, as if this art, when revived, were still half-dead, an aura lacking a body. As David Geers wrote in 2012: “[We] re-live a myth of a ‘wild,’ unmediated subjectivity welded inextricably to the primal medium of paint … nostalgic and mystified.”

Today, painting lives on while the critical terms pale. In 2014, Laura Hoptman organised an exhibition of recent painting, The Forever Now, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her ingenious title generated unwanted echoes of Thomas Lawson’s vilification of Barbara Rose’s analogous exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, American Painting: The Eighties, staged in 1979: “a corpse made up to look forever young.” At the time, Rose’s artists—among them, Elizabeth Murray, Mark Lancaster and Mark Schlesinger—were condemned wholesale, despite the variety of their methods. They shared only the misadventure of painting. To greet an exhibition like Rose’s or Hoptman’s with bias for or against the medium is to miss all the informative nuances. When critics harp on rising commercial values or restrict their analysis to social critique, they deny life to the medium, so that painting appears vampiric. But such a response derives from critical concepts that are projected onto the art. It ignores the work’s manifest energy.

Ross Iannatti, Hysteresis/Large no. 2 (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

Generating generalities

The politics of art keeps generating generalities. Within American universities, the case against painting has hinged on the belief that Western culture is morally bankrupt; that it is inherently sexist, racist, colonialist, imperialist and authoritarian. Because Western nations sponsor museums packed with paintings—many of which are commissioned or owned by oligarchs and dictatorial leaders—the medium can appear complicit with corruption and oppression. Yet such induction is faulty: an artist may be complicit, but painting itself exercises no agency.

In 1974, Rose warned against “the skepticism of any criticism based on distinctions of quality.” As she wrote: “weakening public trust in art may as easily pave the way to fascist counterrevolution, for a mass culture in the service of totalitarian ideals.”  When Crimp quoted from Rose’s essay in 1981, he actively excised that sentence. Her overt fear of “fascist counterrevolution” would have muddled his argument, which required opposing his “cultural” and “historical” interest to her “natural” and “mythical” aestheticism.

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

According to Crimp, Rose failed as a critic because she never challenged “the myths of high art” or “the artist as unique creator.” If these “myths” continued to inform Rose’s optics, we merely witness a conflict of systems of belief. Neither Crimp nor Rose is more ideologically progressive (although Crimp  attacked Rose’s values as regressive, implying that history had a trajectory and had left both her and the medium of painting behind).

To call Rose’s belief a myth, as Crimp did, is either trivial or inherently extreme—extreme if it implies that one’s own belief is not also a myth. All beliefs, which instigate aesthetic strategies, amount to myths; if not, they would be facts or laws of nature. But even laws of nature are subject to irregularity and exceptions to their presumed invariability; they are also therefore mythical. The “death of painting,” as a widely held theory that its adherents fail to question, is another myth. We cannot escape our myths simply by accepting alternative beliefs. To suppress general beliefs and principles altogether would be more effective—a state worth seeking, even if impossible to attain.

Artists devoted to painting believe in it, but they also doubt their belief. Their doubt opens painting, as well as its artists, to living.

Richard Shiff is professor and the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

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ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Trends

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

 ART NEWS

Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

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Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).
4

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.
5

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to
imagine.
8

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.
9

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

Footnotes
  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255

===

R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe

 

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the

statistical.

There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

Footnotes
  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

========

DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

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The Triumph of Painting

ESSAYS

AN ART THAT EATS ITS OWN HEADBarry Schwabsky


Painting in the Age of the Image


We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.


It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.


Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.


Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.


Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.


A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.


Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.


This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.

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The Triumph of Painting


The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras


‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen


The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.


Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’


Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.


Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.


Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.


By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.


Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.


Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.


Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.


Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.


Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.

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