Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jane Rosen's mountaintop ranch

Art-Vent House Report #7

Well God really is on Facebook (see Hiatus below). Before leaving for California, I wrote this Status Update:

Carol Diehl is flying to SF in the early morning, off to Big Sur for son Matt & Michelle's wedding. Sun predicted for the Friday nuptials (yeah!), tomorrow heavy rain and high winds—just the thing for driving down Highway 1.”

….and got this message:

"hi carol, it’s your old neighbor from greene st! i now have a ranch about an hour south of sf right off of hwy 1. the winds and rain are supposed to be formidable (60-80mph sustained!!!). here’s my number if you need a pit stop. you might and it would be great to see you. best jane"

So when I found myself in San Francisco following a white knuckle flight (after circling for an hour in zero visibility, the pilot announced that he’d “never been so happy to land”) looking out the airport windows at trees bent in half by the wind and wondering what to do, I called Jane Rosen, who I never knew that well and hadn’t seen in (fifteen? twenty?) years, who told me the road was washed out from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay and that I should sit tight. A good thing because when I called the Ripplewood Resort, where I was to have stayed that night, the woman at the desk made out like I was being a wimp (“there are other roads to get here…”) and then next day when I did arrive I saw that a giant redwood had come down across the river not 50 feet from my cabin.

I got the last available room in an absolutely lovely airport Marriott with a balcony looking out on trees and the smell of eucalyptus in the air (“Toto, we’re not at JFK anymore”), and the next day on the way to Big Sur stopped off at Jane’s. “I want you to see what a loft on Greene Street will buy in California,” she’d said, her words echoing my mind as I navigated the steep dirt road to the house at the top of the mountain with vistas all around, where Neil Young is her nearest neighbor.

“My lover is a place not a person,” Jane says, “I’ve never loved a man as much as I love this property—I’m romantically involved with it, I hate being away from it, and I want everybody to meet it.”

On Thanksgiving vacation in 1989, while visiting her brother, a physician at Stanford, they were driving the gorgeous stretch of Highway 1 below San Francisco when, she told me, “we got to this road and there was a moment of recognition. I said ‘I want to live here' and my brother said, ‘Don’t be silly, Jane, no one lives here. Cows live here.’ But I was clear, more than I’d ever been in my life.” After renting nearby and going back and forth to New York, there was the miracle of the property not being officially for sale but owned by a woman who knew her work….and when, in 2001, she sold her loft (which she bought, raw, in 1969 for $10,000 when hardly anyone lived in SoHo) her friends celebrated, she says, because they couldn’t stand to listen to her talk about her ambivalence any longer. By 2005, she was living out her "Jewish cowgirl" fantasies full time.

Giving up the loft, the art world, her friends—all New York meant—to live on a mountaintop with her dogs (and now horses, although she doesn’t ride) took a tremendous leap of faith. In so many ways Jane was convinced she’d committed career suicide. But her sculpture, always nature-based, took on new life in the fresh air, and through many connections to regional galleries, her career is thriving. “I didn’t want to be Queen of the Art World,” she says, “I wanted to be Morris Graves and make work until the day I died. I wanted to show people the story in nature so they wouldn’t fuck it up anymore, so found other ways to do business and make the best work I can.”

Recycled Provencale limestone, discarded cut-offs from stone used for building, waiting to turn into sculpture

In that she is enthusiastically assisted by Alex Rohrig and former student Sebastian Ages, who made us a wonderful lunch of fresh, local produce—after which, eager to get back to work, Jane sent me on my way.

Jane with Alex and Sebastian

While the top of the mountain was sunny, the beach at the bottom was still gray from the storm.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Big Love @ Big Sur

Photo: Rachel Short

The wedding under the Big Sur redwoods was vivid and mythical (son Matt’s words), a true love fest—made even more so by the presence of Zach, Nick, Nora and Maisie, ages 3,4, 6 and 8, the children of both Michelle’s best friend and Matt’s step-sister. Today, reading “For Some Parents Shouting is the New Spanking” ("most emailed" in the Times), I thought about how happy and expressed everyone was, how the children intermingled with the adults for the entire weekend without incident—no tears, no drama—their presence adding significantly to the joyous vibe. I’ve observed that parents who yell and feel guilty about it tend to be those who are most afraid to assert themselves, letting bad behavior go until they can’t stand it anymore—like my friend who, instead of nipping it in the bud, used to tolerate her daughter’s endless whining before exploding (and 15 years later she still whines). The hallmark of such parents is the anxious “Okay?” they attach to every directive, as if begging permission from their children to set the terms. I can’t claim I never lost it as a parent, but I found that being clear and tenacious enabled me to truly enjoy my children (looking back, although my life has always had richness and depth, the time when my sons were small was the happiest of all—as well as the most artistically productive). The parents of the children at the wedding had done their work beforehand so could trust them to roam free and have a good time. Hardly repressed, here’s little Zach on the dance floor:

Thanks to DJs Mike B. & Adam Freeland for turning us all into dancing fools.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I'm off to California for son Matt's wedding in Big Sur, will post again in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I thought you'd like to know that God is on Facebook:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vik Muniz, three viewpoints (and more art about art)

Vik Muniz, Self-Portrait (I Am Too Sad To Tell You after Bas Jan Ader) (Rebus) 2003

If I had my own art magazine, I’d never publish just one review of anything, but gather a number of opinions. Many moons ago, when I worked at Artforum, we published six artists’ takes on (I think it was) a major Matisse exhibition, and it told me so much more than just about Matisse. Last week Mike Glier, Roberto Juarez and I, all painters, went to hear Vik Muniz lecture on his work at Williams College, and the result was an impassioned email exchange. For those not familiar with Muniz’s work, he generally arranges unusual media (sugar, poured chocolate, color chips, thread, wire, garbage) to form an image that he then photographs. Most often these images are already famous in the culture—say, two views of the Mona Lisa, one from peanut butter, the other with jelly, or the famous Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock rendered in dripping chocolate, or Titian’s “Icarus” made from junk.

Mike Glier:

When Muniz spoke at Williams, he was warm and articulate and his work was ambitious, but I was annoyed by the talk. In fact I was so bothered after this charming talk, I had to pause to think about the sources of the feeling.

On a pan of snow a student, Patrick Hubenthal, drew the Sphinx in ink. It was around 1990 at Williams College and the class, guided by a reading from Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies”, had just completed a discussion of the semiotics of materials. Patrick brought the pan of snow in from the cold, and as we critiqued the Sphinx it disappeared. Patrick also drew a man tenderly bottle feeding a calf, using beef gravy as his medium. Years later, in response to the same assignment another student injected bubble wrap with colored water to make a pixilated version of a Madonna which shown like stained glass when hung in the light. Yet another used her blood to draw a portrait of her mother.

After the Muniz lecture I was irritated that an important career like his has been crafted from an idea that I think of as an introductory design problem. Like the students inspired by Barthes years ago, Muniz showed multiple examples of drawings made from unusual materials like thread and food and garbage. But I don't complain when someone makes art from something as clichéd as charcoal, so perhaps it's best to consider the final product of Muniz rather then the originality of his materials.

But I was also annoyed that student works like those I described above, which were equally interesting to Muniz, are gone and appreciated by so few. But beauty disappears everyday, and often goes unappreciated. In retrospect annoyance wasn't what I was feeling after the lecture; it was a cover for grief, just a little grief over what is saved and what is lost.

With these feelings put to the side, it's easier to look at his body of work and consider individual works, many of which are very good. The "Memory Drawings" are really terrific examples of the power of photography to create collective memory. I also liked the "Sugar" drawings which tied the sweetness of children to the harshness of the lives of their parents who worked in sugar cane production. After these two pieces, I thought much of the work simply clever. But in a few works the symbolic nature of the material/s reacted with the image to make something resonant. The portrait of Sigmund Freud drawn in chocolate, for example, was a winner not only for the masterful splashing gestures, but also for the sensuality of chocolate and its potential as a vehicle for compulsion and its reference to all things anal. But Pollock in dripping chocolate was silly and an example of conceptual art reduced to a visual one-liner. I also liked the colossal copy of Caravaggio’s “Narcissus” traced in a huge scale with junk. This time he brought an image forward from art history but tied it neatly and poignantly to the ennui of modern consumer society. The portraits of Divas derived from the work of other photographers and drawn in diamonds are trashy-stylish, but I just don't find any sustenance in images of fabulous excess. And didn't Andy Warhol do the same thing in the “Diamond Dust” series?
Vik Muniz, Sigmund Freud (From Pictures of Chocolate), Cibachrome, 1997.

Vik Muniz, Pollock (from Pictures of Chocolate)

During the Muniz lecture, I kept thinking about Richard Prince and the Pandora's box he opened when he presented other people's photographs as his own. Or his joke paintings in which the joke written on the canvas, becomes more pathetic as its content becomes depleted by endless readings. These works had a deep sadness to them, as if there was nothing left to do or say, but only repeat, repeat, repeat what is already known. Muniz also borrows from artists and photographers with abandon, but without any irony or particular feeling. Quoting great art makes his work seem "cultured' and it provides a great composition at no cost. But too often Muniz does not find the chemistry between material and image that transforms the both of them into a new work of art and as a result many of his works are only copies of the art of others made in unusual materials.

Roberto Juarez

I appreciate the thoughtful laying out of Mike’s annoyance with the Muniz lecture. I see the point about originality. But when I think about Muniz I’m thinking about photography and how it is used in ways that are different from painting and design. That’s where Andrea Serrano and his submerged crucifix in urine comes to mind. What we are looking at there is a photograph that triggers a response, which is what Muniz also does in a different way. His renderings of existing art in different media create responses that can be sensual, funny and also tender, all things I look for in art, even photos.

Also Muniz is from Brazil .where survival and joy of life live in the same house, and that sensibility comes through.

There’s a state, when you’re making a painting where you capture a certain liveliness of color and form, yet when you try to take a picture of it, you find it doesn’t translate to photography. You can’t get it. Muniz is able to capture those moments in a way that’s sensual and immediate, that photography doesn’t usually do—not well, anyway.

He has come upon a design-y way to make that media sing and laugh again. Yes, it is gimmicky, but it works. I look at his picture of Freud in chocolate and it’s ridiculous on the one hand, but it sucks me in in a way that goes deeper than just how it’s made. I think his Divas were trashy but that's what I want in a diva. (By the way I think the source for those pictures, were the credits for one of my favorite films as a child in Chicago, "Imitation of Life." )

Vik Muniz

I saw one of those diamond diva pictures the day before, at the Phillips de Pury auction house, and it was spectacular. First of all it was big and beautiful and the detail wasn’t tasteful like Andy, but glitzy and tawdry, more like a drag queen. Also Muniz was very strategic about the number of prints he made (three). So in one way he’s saying that photography isn’t precious, but then he makes it precious again, like knocking something off the pedestal and then putting it right back on.

Carol Diehl:

While I appreciate what Roberto is saying, I have to agree with Mike on the point of originality. During the lecture I was totally captivated, but once I left—unlike a great concert where you keep replaying it in your mind with pleasure—the memory of it felt empty. Muniz is delightful and intelligent, his ideas are clever and the pictures are beautiful—but is it our goal to have clever ideas and make pretty pictures? Or is it to present something that provokes a deep emotional response?

What is it we’re always telling our writing students? “Show, don’t tell.” Well it’s true for visual art as well. The best art suggests rather than tells, creates mystery, doesn’t give away the entire story but provides places for our minds to wander in new ways. A truly great work of art bears repeated viewings; every time we look at it we find more to see, experience it differently. When we’re confronted with art-about-art such as Muniz’s, because it’s a treatment of an image we already know, we swallow it whole. There’s no tension because the end of the story was given away in the first paragraph.

I’m an advocate for original imagery not because of any particular art world snobbism or belief in its preciousness, but because the quest for an image that speaks for an artist is supremely difficult and challenging, and that struggle with success and failure ultimately becomes evident in the work, making for a deeper, more satisfying experience for the viewer.

Vik Muniz, Pictures of Color

Gerhard Richter: Betty. 1988. Oil on canvas, 101.9 x 59.4 cm. The Saint. Louis Art Museum. Copyright Gerhard Richter. Photo courtesy Saint. Louis Art Museum.

This may seem incongruous coming from an artist who uses found imagery in her own paintings, and who has professed her admiration for Shepard Fairey and Olafur Eliasson: one who takes a certain pride in his lack of technical ability, who samples the work of others to create his images, and the other who works with a team on his ideas. Yet to me this is not at all contradictory—these are simply methods, different avenues taken to arrive at unique statements that engage on a wordless emotional level.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Apparently it's decided and Rio de Janeiro is going to be the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games. My Brazilian friend, Helga, sent me this promotional video and after watching it, I'm not surprised.