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Pacific Standard Time, the sprawling art exposition that includes encampments at 60 different venues in the Los Angeles area, has already shifted the narrative for signifiers like California, art, post war, innovation.
The experience as it turns out is even more overwhelming and implication-rich than I imagined. (My pre-visit post is here.) And even though I spent my early life on the West Coast and am very familiar with the work of many of these California artists, the visual impact still has me feeling a bit too dizzied to offer a linear account. As Roberta Smith wrote in the Times, “’Pacific Standard Time’ has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.”
The image that comes to mind is an immense tarp laid out in the desert, an expanse of flatness that seemed inert. Then one day a helium truck showed up. Who knew? The immense and colorful hot air balloon, air borne and levitating over Los Angeles right now, is more spectacular than anyone imagined.
With my sensibility villi all still aflutter from a week of overstimulation I’ll just launch in and share a few highlights. A good beginning is the Getty (the organization that conceived and underwrote this whole thing) and the Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970 show. Just a few words but mostly images.
And no better place to start than the two paintings by Richard Diebenkorn included in the show and pictured above. Very different from each other but both utterly exquisite. My partner Dave sat in front of these and said, “These two are worth the trip.”
And here are some other memorables:
This Mary Corse painting so subtle and reflective it is nearly impossible to capture it in a photograph.
Ah. Bruce Conner. Finally this artist and his multifarious gifts are on display all over town (as well as at the Rose Museum in Boston). This early piece is a particular gem.
Black Dahlia, 1960, Bruce Conner. Offset photograph, feather, nails, paper collage, tobacco, rubber hose, fabric, sequins, string, and mixed media. Courtesy of the Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Ed Moses. In his 80s now with a legacy that is legion. This early collage is compelling as is a piece on resin.
Ronald Davis and his gorgeous mastery of olored polyester resins and fiberglass. (Note: There is another stunning Davis painting on view at the Norton Simon museum.)
John Altoon (who died way too young, in 1969), was doing his own Ocean Park series before Diebenkorn made the Venice neighborhood world famous.
Craig Kauffman mastered industrial plastics and his ethereal works seem to float in space.
Often referenced for his teaching at UCLA, Lee Mullican had an interest in spiritual dimensions and was influenced by Native American traditions, Surrealism, Zen Buddhism and jazz.
Sam Francis mastered the edges in this piece. (Another exquisitely understated and tonal Francis is hanging in MOCA Los Angeles.)
OK. I’ll stop there for now. More, more, more to come.
When I was coming of age as an artist in California in the late 60s and early 70s, the culture of contemporary art was centered unquestionably in New York City. Art Forum, Art in America et al gave small and occasional nods to what was happening in Chicago, Santa Fe or the West Coast. But most of us who were studying art somewhere other than Manhattan took our cues from the art epicenter on the East Coast.
Meanwhile all around us, West Coast artists were churning out work that spoke to other sensibilities and other traditions. We were in proximity to great artists like Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Nathan Olivera, Wayne Thiebaud, Miriam Shapiro, Ray Saunders.
The first major exhibit I have seen that highlighted that uniquely California visual legacy was The Third Mind at the Guggenheim in 2009. That exhibition explored how Asian art, literature, and philosophy influenced American visual art and culture, and many of the artists included were from the West Coast. It described a rich period in our history that was more inclusive and multifaceted than the standard telling has let on.
Little did I know at the time that the Getty had a much more ambitious plan to recast the story of art in post-WWII America. Pacific Standard Time emerged from a Getty Research Institute initiative focused on art in Los Angeles and California. “Through archival acquisitions, oral history interviews, public programming, exhibitions, and publications, the Research Institute is responding to the need to locate, collect, document, and preserve the art historical record of this vibrant period.”
‘Bout time. And Roberta Smith of the New York Times agrees:
“Pacific Standard Time” has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process. Taken together, its shows may be the next best thing to being there the first time around, or maybe even better: they surely reveal more than any single individual living through these times could have seen or known about.
To a great extent this epic of exhibitions reflect our moment’s broader historical attitude, which might be characterized as No Artist Left Behind. Anyone who made art at a given moment is eligible to be part of the history of that moment. It’s expansive and inclusive and also reminds of me of Lewis Carroll’s imaginary full-scale map, which was meant to be as large as the area it charted.
“Pacific Standard Time” is a great argument for museums concentrating first and foremost on local history, for a kind of cosmopolitan regionalism, if you will. It sets an example that other curators in other cities should follow, beginning in my mind with Chicago and San Francisco. If America has more than one art capital, it probably has more than two.
I am headed to Los Angeles for a week and hope to see as much of this sprawling set of shows as possible. And celebrating Thanksgiving with my daughter and her new family makes the adventure a perfect blend of favorite things.
I am back to Slow Muse after November 30.
David Reed recently published a piece in Art in America about his encounter with Milton Resnick as a teacher and mentor. I’ve been a long time fan of Resnick’s work but have never taken the time to learn more about his influence on other gifted artists. Reed’s piece has been on my mind for several days now, and some of the anecdotes are just too good to not share, especially with fellow painters. (The full article is here.)
That first day Resnick told us that we had to decide between two ways of being painters. You could either “climb the ladder of art, struggle and sacrifice to make great works,” or “get on the moving belt, just move, you and the painting which equals your brain.” It took me a long time to figure out that he disapproved of the first and approved of the second. He told us that, as younger painters, we should put on “the shirt of Abstract Expressionism.” Each of us would then have to admit, “I canʼt understand this shirt. It doesnʼt fit my mind.” Only that way would we get on the moving belt.
He also exhorted us: “The space of the world is not the space of the mind.” “Follow the painting all the way. Be in it; forced along with it, you will change. Thatʼs art.” “Willpower must be separated from painting. Get inside and let the painting grow.” “Painting is different from knowledge.” “The soul is a vacuum. Let it be filled.” He said that the forms, indeed the entirety of the painting, should be open enough to let energy in but not open enough to let it out. He spoke of struggling with a painting, and hoping that, when he finally got it right, when the final mark was made, this mark would unsettle everything. If this mark was right, the painter would feel the floor shake and the walls tremble then fall. Everything would collapse, until only the painting would be left standing in the midst of the rubble.
Visiting a Matisse exhibition, Milton noticed that all the paintings least resembling a Matisse were from the collection of the artist. He called these the “studio paintings”: paintings done as experiments, attempts to break new ground. Milton made a distinction between studio paintings and paintings done for the market. Today, he insisted, there were too few studio paintings. When he was a young artist, before there was a market, the paintings that did not contain new discoveries were just thrown out. Immediately I decided I would only make studio paintings. I have always tried to stick with this commitment, even though it’s not practical.
What I learned about painting culture from Milton sustains me now, but I’m not sure why. I’m often slow to understand. Perhaps I’ve finally had enough time to chew over his words until at last I comprehend a little more. What is it that I have learned? Not ideas. Milton taught me not to rely on ideas. I have not learned a sensibility, nor how to express myself. I guess the closest way of describing what I learned from Milton would be to call it a way of working. But not “working” in the usual, positive sense, since that only gets in the way. Painting is more about a way of not knowing, and of not knowing for as long as possible while still working. It’s not something to brag about. But it is very important to me and crucial, I think, to making good art. Sometimes I find myself quite surprised to feel so loyal to this pursuit of painting, which is so hard to describe and impossible to justify. Can one, should one, make sacrifices for something like that? I’m surprised that I meet young painters who are still willing.
Here are a few more insights into Resnick, these coming from Geoffrey Dorfman in remarks delivered at a memorial service for Resnick when he died in 2005:
Because he had gone through the experience of his own generation, and witnessed the premature termination of their aspirations in a haze of smoke, and drink, he cautioned young artists. Because he realized, and indeed – never stopped talking about – the anxiety of making art; that you were involved in an activity that may have no end, where your every acquisition was provisional and probably discardable, and where the more you proceeded, the less fit you were for anything else: the less fit you were to run a business, the less fit you were to work for anyone else, the less fit you were to be a parent, the less fit you were to lead, the less fit you were to follow, and even the less fit you were to teach!
Like Balzac’s Frenhoffer, who said that “too much knowledge leads to a negation,” you began to get the uneasy feeling that the innocent love of art that came to you as a child was developing into something serious, and the energy was a nervous energy, and you began to have the uneasy premonition that you were actually gambling with your life. You’d feel this when the picture began to appear. The excitement provoked the thought of an exit, to take a walk, to turn on some music, maybe eat, get a cup of coffee, seek out conversation – anything to alleviate the confrontation. And it was this anxiety that permeated every stroke of the brush on your canvas, that made you seek relief and diversion, and turned you away from your task.
Your task, as Milton saw it, was to do something wonderful, to maybe become something wonderful, because that might be a necessary precondition for the former, and that by these means you would either live forever or, of course, go on with your pathetic self-deception. And no amount of rejection or acceptance by the world was going to change that.
Milton felt painting was not about structure, that painting occurred prior to that, and that trying to cram irrelevant knowledge into a beginner’s head created a ball of wool that would only have to be unraveled later anyway. He maintained that the function of a school was not medicinal,it shouldn’t alleviate pain but rather inject the pain of art into you, and show you why the pain was necessary. He’d say, “I come to you like a snake.” He was against mastery his whole life, and he was against the whole idea of ‘the master,” and especially the aura of the master.
I think of Milton as a painter first and always, but also as a teacher, and that is the greatest contradiction, or maybe irony, of all. Because he certainly wasn’t a natural. As his friend Yektai wrote so eloquently, “Whenever I brought a problem to Resnick, he always made it vaster.” He wasn’t a teacher in the sense that he had knowledge to impart. He didn’t think of painting as knowledge at all but, as he put it, the “unhinging of your soul from your sight.”
I don’t teach art and never have. I also am keenly aware that I never had a teacher that approached the on-the-spot tough love that Resnick gave to his students. But his legacy of insights still speaks to me.
I have tried to be rational, objective and evenhanded in thinking about the Clyfford Still Museum that finally opened this week in Denver. But it isn’t easy to stay in that place and here’s why.
The problem with Still is that many of us are holding a split deck on him and his work. On one hand many support his famously incendiary condemnation of hypocrisy in the art world (imagine what his response would be now!) and his unflinching refusal to participate in its shenanigans. He painted away, putting the works in storage. Very few were sold or circulated in his lifetime. The subversiveness of his extreme counterposition has its appeal.
But then there is that damned narcissism behind it all. And just plain bitchy curmudgeonlyness. His will stipulated that his estate would only be bequeathed to an American city that agrees to build a museum that will be a temple to Still and include nothing else. No works can ever be sold. No other artist can ever show a single piece alongside his. All Clyfford Still, all the time.
Are you serious?
There was a time when his massive canvases brought praise. Motherwell‘s response to Still’s first solo show in New York in 1946 was that it was “a bolt out of the blue.” Yes, the Stills are physical, soaring and overwhelming.
But there is something missing in the work for me. And I have been looking at Still seriously for 40 years. My problem is that even after having given his work serious time and attention, it feels static. The vibrancy I still encounter when I look at a Pollock or a Rothko or a Newman from the same era just isn’t there for me with a Still.
Much of the museum pre-publicity has been in answer to the “does he deserve it?” question that everyone has been asking, tacitly and at times overtly. Because Still’s full body of work has never been seen before, some have said the new museum is the first time Still can be fairly evaluated and appraised in the context of his own era.
That may prove to be true. But in the meantime I’m just not feeling a trip to Denver is going to do it for me.
Every once in a while a book comes along that is so provocative and powerful that it becomes the epicenter of a major change in thinking, both personally and in the world at large. I’m sure you have your list which may or may not overlap with my own, but here are three I have had a relationship with for a lifetime:
— The Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, published in 1962. Kuhn was the first to offer to concept of the paradigm shift, a concept that has been completely co-opted in our thinking and language. This was the first book I read that laid out the nonlinear nature of scientific research and the role of consensus in establishing a theory. Reading this book at age 17 launched me into a lifetime fascination with the history of science.
— A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, published in 1977. Written by an architect, this book became a primer for any complex (and often engineering) task including urban design, software engineering, pattern recognition and yes, painting. This one led to a full shelf of brilliant books by Alexander.
— Abstraction and Empathy, by Wilhelm Worringer, published in German in 1907. First exposed to this book by my professor Nan Piene while in college, Worringer’s concepts that two poles in art—abstraction (which at that time was primarily non-Western art) and empathy (European realism in the main)—are both in operation in us. Written before Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Kandinsky and Malevich explored nonrepresentationalism, this doctoral thesis is deeply prescient and still provocative.
It looks like I have a new title to add to my Hall of Fame list. Daniel Kahneman‘s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has that provocative and fundamentally paradigm shifting (thank you Kuhn) power. And what’s more Kahneman has created a vehicle for his ideas that is well written, designed for optimal understanding and irresistibly engaging.
Kahneman (who BTW was the first psychologist to win the Nobel prize for economics) offers a model for clarifying our multitude of mental processes and gives the two primary structures names, System 1 and System 2. System 2 is the conscious, thinking mind, the one that works slowly, using reason and analysis. This is our reasonable and thoughtful identity. System 1 is all that automatic and instantaneous processing, the one that has opinions and reactions that may not be logical at all but are part of our pattern-detecting survivalism. System 1 works with whatever information it has and works fast. The fact is we as humans need and use both systems. It is the misapplication of those tools that is the problem.
Kahneman takes the reader through a series of exercises that demonstrate how quickly System 1 will lead to inaccurate conclusions. He also shows how the slower more thoughtful System 2 just can’t react as quickly in certain life threatening circumstances as that instantaneous, pattern recognizing System 1. And unlike the arrogance and narcissism inflicted on the reader that has turned so many away from Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s otherwise fabulous book, The Black Swan, Kahneman places himself right alongside the rest of us in exposing how the human mind is wired to make faulty calls and misreads. We are all bozos on this bus, or so it seems!
I am only about half way through the book so there is still more juicy bits coming. But here’s why I am writing about this book prematurely: I am longing to have an in depth discussion with my art making, poetry-writing pals about how creativity calls on both System 1 and System 2. Since reading this book I have tried to observe my decision making in the studio, to track the play of these two impulses. I have a sense that being more observant of those flips and switches could lead to new ways of working, new ways of seeing my work as it unfolds. So yes I would love to explore that territory with Maureen, Nancy, Pam, Marcia, Altoon, Andrew, Thalassa, Alaleh, Lorrie, Luke, Walter, Holly, David, or you.
More on this for sure.
If there is no spirit unfolding itself in history,
No gradual growth of consciousness
Beneath the land grabs and forced migrations,
The bought elections, the betrayal of trust
By party faction in the name of progress—
What about spirit in the personal realm
Unfolding slowly inside us, so slowly
That our best days seem like a holding action?
Seasons repeat themselves, but the tree
Shading the yard keeps growing.
Don’t be chagrined that the sadness you felt
This evening beside the bed of a friend
Who’s growing weaker wasn’t more profound
Than the sadness of yesterday, that you still
Can’t imagine a fraction of what he’s feeling
As the world he loves slips from his grasp,
No progress from your perspective,
But who’s to say what you might notice
If the scroll of the last few months were unrolled
On the table before you, how clear it might be
That your understanding of all you’re losing
In losing him has been slowly deepening?
Another day, you say to yourself, at dusk
As you climb your porch steps, which you notice
Could use some scraping and painting this weekend,
A fresh coat that with luck will last a year.
The poignancy of this poem has stayed with me since I first read it in the New Yorker issue from October 24.
Carl Dennis is an American poet who has taught at State University of New York at Buffalo for a number of years. From The Poetry Foundation:
Dennis told Contemporary Authors: “I don’t see myself as belonging to any particular school of poetry. Yeats was the most important early influence, but I hope that his presence is now very difficult to detect. Like him I’m interested in making my poems sound like actual speech, something that one might actually say out loud to a single listener. In Yeats’s day this meant avoiding poetical ornament and mechanical rhythms. Today it also means avoiding poetry that is either too private (concerned with the play of the writer’s own mind and not with an actual subject outside himself) or too public (not concerned with the particular context of speaker and listener in a dramatic situation).”
Richard Tuttle, “Village VI, No. I, 10,” 2005. Illustration board, mat board, acrylic, pine, glue, corrugated cardboard, paper, wire, marker, graphite, glue sticks, and nails, 14 x 11 1/2 x 2 1/4 inches. Photo by Cathy Carver.
Chris Maybach‘s film, Richard Tuttle: Never Not an Artist, was made in 2005 on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of their retrospective of Tuttle’s work (which also came to the Whitney Museum in New York.) But after several conversations this weekend about art and comprehension—or the lack of it—and being inspired by my friend George Wingate’s very Tuttlesque sensibilities, I watched the film again last night. This is, for me, a 30 minute sermon about what matters most in art making.
A few highlights:
Tuttle offers this, very matter-of-factly, without bitterness or bite: Of the art interested public, only one in ten gets my work.
When Tuttle was working as a gallery assistant at the prestigious Betty Parsons Gallery in the early sixties, Betty told him that the abstract expressionists were painting the expanding universe. “When I heard that it caused me to consider taking the other position and to work smaller.”
“When I come into synch with the art thing that I am carrying around, I am free from myself.”
Cornelia Butler, an art critic who has written about Tuttle’s work, talks about how critics keep looking for a language to contain his work. “His work resists it.”
Roy Dowell, head of the Graduate Fine Arts Department at Otis College of Art and Design, made the point that Tuttle is not a minimalist. “There is just so much there in his work.”
Dowell also asked the question, “Where does Tuttle get his confidence?” which, given the simplicity of his aesthetics and his approach to materials, is actually an interesting question. But the fact that he has it is essential, clearly.
A few geniuses are likable humans as well. Tuttle is one of those for me.
Last weekend we did the real life installation of the Unchained show that appeared here at the end of the summer. The late fall light was clear and crisp, and visitors to the Winter Studio gallery were a motley assortment of artists, North Shore art lovers, friends and neighbors. I also found the setting so soothing: A 19th century barn, surrounded by the armature of what is an exquisite English style summer garden (which I have written about in an earlier post here) and lots of songbirds. Conversations were easy and unforced. I felt the coming together of these 15 artists had an easy and unforced quality as well.
Context in art is like the new field of epigenetics: Circumstances and setting play a significant role for art and for DNA. This show felt like something that just happened, on its own, outside of the programmatic and the expected. Part of the fun for me was to let it drift and find its own form. Which it did without a lot of coaxing and cajoling from me or George.
Another example of “order for free?” Like so many things I have learned later in life, there is a point where you just let go and trust in the unseen trajectory and angle of repose.
For more installation shots, click here.
Some people are gifted with an ability to sit with a political or ideological opponent and have a meaningful conversation. I’m not one of those, which is probably true of most of us. We choose to spend most of our time with my like-minded tribespeople. It’s an easier path.
I don’t think this proclivity is always just about comfort and/or close-mindedness. I know for me there is a practical aspect to consider. Ask yourself: Have your views on abortion or the obligation we all have to care for each other ever been altered by a conversation with someone who approaches those issues from the other end? Rarely, right? So that human tendency to ghettoize around key issues is often pragmatic rather than just programmatic.
That said, here is an exception to that proclivity. Roger Kimball is a conservative cultural critic and stands far afield from my political and social beliefs. He has written a few jeremiads about the art world that are full of vitriol and contempt for contemporary art memes and trends. But in his book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, there are a few moments where our sensibilities actually overlap in spite of his self-professed intention to “equip the reader with a nose for balderdash and absurdity.” A few passages are worth sharing here:
In one of his essays on painting, Henry James observes that “There is a limit to what it is worthwhile to attempt to say about the greatest artists”…The great occupational hazard for an art critic or art historian is to let words come between the viewer and the experience of art—to substitute a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one. As Clement Greenberg observed somewhere, art is “a matter of self-evidence and feeling, and of the inferences of feeling, rather than of intellection and information, and the reality of art is disclosed only in experience, not in reflection upon experience”…Often, the best thing a critic can do is to effect an introduction and get out of the way.
There are several reasons for this. One reason has to do with what we might call the deep superficiality of aesthetic experience. The experience of art, like the experience of many human things, is essentially an experience of surfaces, of what meets the eye. When it comes to such realities, the effort to look behind the surface often results not in greater depth but in distortion. The philosopher Roger Scruton touched on this truth when he observed that “There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden.”
I have no argument with that point of view and particularly like the concept of missing depth and going to distortion. And don’t worry—I’m not smugly touting my open-mindedness. I revel in my subjectivity and have decided to eschew the pejorative connotations of that term. I don’t have a capacity for objectivity on those issues that matter the most. Embrace your subjectivity, that’s my motto. Or one of them.
Just back from my daughter Kellin’s wedding in Hawaii. It feels silly to try to encapsulate a week’s worth of joy and intensity so I am not going there. Even for those of us who are not ceremonial or sentimental (I never had a wedding, didn’t want a ring or a name change), this was a week to remember. Every day was thoughtfully architected by Kellin and Sean. Every moment was led by their devotion to each other and to the community that gathered to join their lives together.
On the way home I read Zadie Smith’s compilation of essays, so winningly entitled Changing My Mind (a concept I hold dear and preserve as an indelible right throughout my life). One of my favorites was about Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. In confronting the manner in which love and its tribulations are handled in that jewel of a novel, Smith has this to say about the book’s lead character Janie Crawford—and about any of us who have entered into that exquisite but potentially treacherous gauntlet:
The story of Janie’s progress through three marriages confronts the reader with the significant idea that the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.
Smith also includes this passage from the novel and a contextualizing insight:
“She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off.”
That part of Janie that is looking for someone (or something) that “spoke for far horizon” has its proud ancestor in Elizabeth Bennet, in Dorothea Brooke, in Jane Eyre.
Yes, the decision to marry is so much more than the heat of young bodies or the gravitational pull to conform to cultural norms. It is a way of looking towards the way off, to the larger arc of a life and what it can be. And for those of us farther down the road towards that way off, Hurston knows how that place has its difficulties too: “She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.”
Celebrations like this are the leaven in the loaf, with plenty of lift to go all round. We are all beneficiaries of that extraordinary something.