Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Que Serra

Tuesday was the press preview for the Richard Serra show at MoMA (up through September 10). First, of course, I had to go to the MoMA Design Store, but they were out of the key chains I wanted. Anyway, I got to the museum in time to witness Serra being introduced as one of the greatest sculptors of our time, which he undoubtedly is—if not the greatest—and I must grudgingly go along with that assessment.

I used to hate Serra’s work, finding it ego-driven and misanthropic in the extreme. He’d set up four heavy metal plates and lean them against one another so they formed a cube that looked as if it might collapse at any moment; it seemed to be all about very heavy stuff that could possibly fall on you. Then a piece did kill a rigger who was installing it--and that Serra would later make drawings entitled Dead Weight and show them in the same gallery space where that tragedy occurred seemed the height of insensitivity, not to speak of bad taste. In the Tilted Arc controversy in the eighties, I agreed with the government workers who wanted the sculpture removed from the plaza in front of the building in which they worked. Who wants to have lunch in the shadow of a big metal plate that looks if it could fall any minute? And since when does the term “site-specific” refer only the physical aspects of the place and not take into account the wellbeing of the people who use it? Art is important, but not that important.

However just as I believe it shouldn’t make any difference if an artist has Alzheimer’s (see Something to look forward to below), I also don’t think the personality of the artist—whether he’s anti-Semitic like Richard Wagner or just a hard s.o.b. like Serra--has any place in the evaluation of the work. The work is the work. So when Serra began to make pieces that really spoke to me—the Torqued Elipses in the nineties—I had to make myself forget all that other stuff. Where the earlier sculpture underscored what we already know about steel—that it’s heavy, flat, and solid and can kill you—the many-tonned Torqued Elipses work against the material’s innate qualities to become lyrical, pliable, curving, soaring and, like Gehry’s architecture, solidly grounded as much as they are unbalanced and unpredictable. When the Torqued Elipses were shown at the Dia Foundation they were a revelation. And the pieces in the sculpture garden at MoMA are wonderfully sited—the steel plays off the marble garden floor, the foliage, the sky, and the vast cityscape. However Serra’s monsters loose their vitality when they’re incarcerated in the white windowless rectangles of the interior galleries and lit with generic track lighting (really, with a gazillion dollars to play with, can’t MoMA come up with anything better?) so that they ultimately end up looking like so many caged hippos. In an effort to avoid creating a context that wouldn't compete with the sculpture, the museum setting has drained them of all life.

Like the government workers in the Federal Building, they need a place to breathe.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Getting it right, Part II

I’m reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart—well, not actually reading it, but picking it up every so often, and whatever I randomly open it to seems to address what I’m feeling at the moment.

From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death….trying to flatten out all the rough spots into a nice, smooth ride. To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake, is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to always be in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.

We want to be perfect but we keep seeing our imperfections….

Isn’t this like art? We see all the imperfections in what we’re doing, everything that doesn’t work, yet if we ever do get it together, if we finally do know what we are doing, at that moment our work dies. There’s a lot of dead art out there, a lot of dead artists walking around, and not necessarily old artists either. Sometimes art dies before it even has a chance to be born—I see this a lot in graduate schools, where everyone’s trying way too hard, and there’s an emphasis on being able to explain what we’re doing. Let’s face it, none of us can explain what we’re doing because what we’re doing is completely absurd. We’re making things that have no reason for being—unless we can imbue them with such life that they transcend reason.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Spencer Finch

Last night I went to Mass MoCA for the opening of the Spencer Finch exhibition, which will be up into 2008. It was a pleasure to discover an artist whose work I hadn’t seen before--and actually like the work, enjoy being there, and not be terrified that I’m going to meet the artist/curator and have to say something polite. It’s good I’m not a full-time critic because I really don’t like that much art, and full-time critics have to like a lot of art. I want art to be special. When I see art like that it’s exhilarating, makes me want to stay up all night. And then there was this little beauty with a sketchbook and pencil, lying on the floor under the cellophane piece, drawing without looking at the paper:

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Me again

I’ve developed a new painting format within which I can try on different kinds of figurative painting. It's a challenge (and possibly stupid) because I’ve been an abstract painter all my life, but engrossing because I’m learning stuff. Or rather figuring it out as I go. Anyway, this week I’m Gerhard Richter. Or I’m trying to be Gerhard Richter. Funny how you get a picture in your mind of what something you’re making will look like, and when it’s done—even though you’re trying to be Gerhard Richter—it looks so disappointingly yours. This may be the idiosyncratic stamp that (hopefully) makes our work compelling to other people, but for the person who lives inside us it’s, “Oh shit, me again.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The D.I.Y. Artist

In Lauren Collins's article on Banksy in The New Yorker (the May 14th issue), the elusive artist says:

I don't think art is much of a spectator sport these days. I don't know how the art world gets away with it, it's not like you hear songs on the radio that are just a mess of noise and then the d.j. says, "If you read the thesis that comes with this, it would make more sense."

Really! How do they get away with it? One wonders. But they do because there are so many more people wanting art—people who are willing, it seems, to spend millions of dollars on absolutely anything ($11 million for a Peter Doig? c’mon!)--than there is good art out there. On the other hand music, creatively, is thriving. (I happen to be stuck on the Silversun Pickups, at the moment, and the new Shins, waiting for the new Spoon, Sigur could happily o.d. just on bands whose names begin with S.) A roundtable of critics and d.j.s on NPR recently agreed that there’s more good music out there than one can reasonably keep up with—because bands are no longer dependent on record labels, and musicians are not necessarily aiming for ultimate stardom as much as they are into their music and wanting to perform it.

With music we have a voice. The money we spend on downloads and concert tickets are like votes for what we like. But there are a million gatekeepers between us and whatever art could be possible: art schools looking for well-heeled applicants who’ve been good students and are inclined to fill out forms, galleries who won’t talk to artists without knowing where they went to school, curators with careers at stake, collectors wanting to protect their investments. It’s a conglomeration of financial and social self-interest that seems more like a Second Life art world than a real life one—and into which we, as artists, and even critics (Jerry Saltz is fond of pointing out that in spite of his constant bashing of her work, Marlene Dumas’s prices only go up) have zero input. It used to be our art world and then suddenly somebody bought it out from under us, changed the carpeting and put up the wrong curtains.

Maybe Banksy, who seems to be making a lot of money in spite of himself, will help us buy it back.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Something to look forward to

Scientists have apparently discovered that the creative and cognitive activities of the brain are different in the ways they respond to stresses and aging. A friend forwarded this from Robert Genn.

Creativity and the onset of dementia have recently prompted a great deal of study and speculation. Dr. Luis Fornazzari of the Memory Clinic at the Division of Neurology, St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto, in a paper published on Tuesday, stated, "Art should be understood as a cognitive function with its own neural networks." His findings include the discovery that painters, musicians and writers who develop brain disorders may continue to be competent in their art for some time after losing other faculties. Our main brain, it seems, is vulnerable to attack just as a computer hard drive is to viruses, while our art brain is like an outboard memory card--somewhat protected or at least delayed in its potential corruption. The main characteristic of all artists seems to be that skills, techniques and methodologies need to be well learned or self-taught. In other words, ingrained skills persist and can be the last to go.

I knew it! I knew it! I always felt that de Kooning’s late paintings were some of his best—if not some of the best—paintings ever. But I still run into people who groan and say, “But he had Alzheimer’s….” And I think, so what! Aren’t they looking? That the knowledge of how a painting was created could affect the experience of it in otherwise intelligent people boggles my mind, and is another example of “art world inattentional blindness” (see Seeing…and not seeing below). It's also ironic that the lack of real world awareness that's so disparaged in late de Kooning, is considered valuable in Outsider artists.

I don't understand why should it make a difference that de Kooning had Alzheimer’s and not that Pollock might have been drunk when he made some of his famous paintings. And what about the garbage that clutters the minds of those of us who aren’t afflicted with Alzheimer’s or alcoholism? Am I a worse or better painter when I’m preoccupied with lost love, unpaid bills, and the leak in the basement? When I’m exhausted or well-rested? Hungry or not hungry? What about the brain cells that have been permanently damaged by conversations with Verizon DSL Customer Service?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Does Frank Stella have a dog?

I received the invitation to Frank Stella's new exhibition at the Paul Kasmin Gallery (up through July 6th) and noted a marked resemblance between elements in his sculptures and the toy my neighbor's dogs left in the yard:

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Getting it right

The wonderful thing about a blog, as opposed to a magazine article, is that it's infinitely editable--which is great for those of us afflicted with lingual OCD. This aspect would have appealed to that most meticulous of artists, Myron Stout, who died in 1987 and whose show at Washburn (up until June 29th) I'm preparing to review. Someone once told me that Stout sneaked a pencil into the Whitney and a guard caught him embellishing one of the drawings in his own retrospective. Even if the story is apocryphal, it describes Stout perfectly, and you've got to admire any artist who cares that much.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Spring comes to McDonald's

I took these the other day at a rest stop on the Mass Pike heading toward Boston. People frequently try to make artificial plants look real, but I'd never seen a garden where real plants were made to look artificial. Look at the careful pairing of red and yellow tulips.

And how about that topiary? Emphasizing the fire hydrant instead of trying to hide it is an especially nice touch.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Seeing...and not seeing

I bought four of the most perfect white ceramic coffee mugs at David Mellor’s in London, had friends tote them back to the States when I couldn’t fit them into my luggage, used them for two years, and then a couple of months ago one of them disappeared. I looked everywhere, asked everyone who had been in the house, even searched my next-door neighbor’s kitchen where I might have taken it for tea. How could a mug just disappear? Then, the other day at my desk while talking to Scott on the phone, I swiveled around and saw it sitting in plain sight on top of a tub of gesso on a shelf in my studio.

I’m an artist. Aren’t I supposed to be observant?

Or how about this? I’m sitting at the counter in the brand-new kitchen of the house I’ve lived in for now, oh, at least half a year, on the phone again, when I happen to look at the bank of drawers across from me and notice—for the first time—that the handles are asymmetrical. Instead of placing them in even rows, the carpenter put the handles on the wider middle drawers higher than those on the smaller drawers next to them. Could it really be that he did that? And could it really be that I never saw it before? It makes no sense. But what really makes no sense is that this thing I didn’t even notice for six months is now driving me crazy.

The human propensity to see what we expect to see rather than what’s really there is supposedly a normal phenomenon and even has a name: “inattentional blindness.” Magicians depend on it. But when I find it in myself it’s disorienting, as if the world I think I’m in, and the one I’m really in are alternate universes.

In the art world there’s “inattentional blindness” in that people often don’t experience more than what they think they’re supposed to, based on what they’ve been told the art is about. Whenever I go to a museum I’m struck by how many more people are gathered around the wall text than the art itself. When they finally turn to the art, viewing it has turned into a game (like the inverse of “What’s Wrong With this Picture?”) of finding in it what the writer of the wall text was talking about. Any possibility of another experience is lost.

My favorite example of art world “inattentional blindness”—or maybe just fatheadedness—has to do with an altercation I had once with another visitor in James Turrell’s roofless room at PS1-MoMA. Entitled Meeting, the installation was inspired by Turrell’s lifelong involvement with the Quaker faith, and if you’ve visited it you know that you sit on benches around the perimeter to take in the changing sky exposed above. There’s no placard that says you shouldn’t talk, but for most people, even children, the place itself inspires a blissful silence that’s punctuated only by incongruous city sounds from the street you’ve forgotten is below. That day was no different. The fifteen or so visitors were hushed—except for the guy next to me who could not stop whispering to his companion. Psssz, psssz, psssz. It was making me nuts. What could be so important that he had to talk about it just then? Psssz, psssz, psssz. I was annoyed, first with him and then with myself for being annoyed. Psssz, psssz, psssz. Unable to take it anymore I tapped him on the knee and whispered as gently as I could, “This piece is about silence.” He shut up for the next twenty minutes or so but must have been seething the whole time because as he got up to leave he leaned over me and hissed, “This piece isn’t about silence, it’s about light.”