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The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh
My longtime readers are familiar with my view of an art making world that is so striated that the layers often never even touch each other. For the alien who arrives on earth wanting to crack the code on what is going on with these humans and contemporary art, good luck making sense of its many faces. The rarefied strata of auction houses and by invitation only art events is its own unisphere. Meanwhile there are millions of fieldworkers sowing conceptual seeds, plowing the plein air furrows, harvesting the artifact grain, leveling the minimal fields for the inertia of winter.
Like Howard Zinn‘s wise reminder that the newspaper is a completely inaccurate portrait of reality (it’s where the bad news gets reported with little of the immeasurable good that happens every day), the point of view of the field workers is rarely heard. Meanwhile news about Jeff Koons, one of the many Kardashians of the art world, streams at us steadily.
So how refreshing to find someone who is speaking for the rest of us. Jeffrey Skinner‘s book, The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is a quirky blend of memoir, mentoring and comic musings on a life in the arts. While poetry has its own particular terrain, Skinner’s mapping of that territory produces useful guidelines for visual artists, musicians and other expressive aspirants. This is the first book I have found that is written to the middle of the spectrum, to those who are neither beginners nor celebrities. Full time field workers.
Also absent from this assemblage of wisdom and wit is the dour disappointment (or its variant, condescension) that can be sensed in other poets’ writings. For example, Donald Hall, a poet I admire, starts his collection of essays, Poetry and Ambition, with these words:
I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.
An ambitious project—but sensible, I think. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition–a modesty, alas, genuine…if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense. Of course the great majority of contemporary poems, in any era, will always be bad or mediocre. (Our time may well be characterized by more mediocrity and less badness.) But if failure is constant the types of failure vary, and the qualities and habits of our society specify the manners and the methods of our failure. I think that we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.
The field workers I know have no shortage of serious ambition. That is not the missing piece, Donald.
On the other hand, Skinner speaks to the practical, every day nature of an artist’s life. From his introduction:
Moderately successful poets have one recompense that more than rights the balance of unfairness, that keeps them hoping, and dreaming words, long after the realization that what they do will not lead to fame or money in this world, nor immortality in the next:
They get to write poetry.
That’s it, really. Sometime early in life moderately successful poets discovered the world and felt their DNA rise up and lean toward it like iron filings to a magnet.
Nothing in life is certain. It’s less certain as a poet. You have to commit to the uncertainty. You have to commit to unreasonable devotion, and to an art that, though practiced by many, is appreciated by very few…
Every (moderately) successful poet I know has taken the long view. What is the long view? Well, what it’s not is a stab at the art, a dabbling, a part-time avocation. Taking the long view has nothing to do with a desire for the cool of being a poet. . . . The long view is not an infatuation.
The book can be read in one sitting but the wisdom stays with you. Two thumbs up for anyone who has made creativity their life path.
Robert Hughes (Image Courtesy of Robert Pierce)
Since Robert Hughes‘ death on Monday, the flinging has been steady. Quotes from his writing are all over Facebook and Twitter, and fortunately many of his pithy put downs are well within the 140 character limit.
Yes he was controversial. Yes he pissed a lot of people off. But the meanspiritedness of some remembrances has been surprising to me.
A good example is the obiturary that appeared on The Art Newspaper site, written by Donald Lee. Jason Edward Kaufman, contributing editor at Art + Auction at Louise Blouin Media, had this to say about the piece:
The Art Newspaper wastes half a two-paragraph obit snidely tittering about Robert Hughes having been a failed painter in his youth. This pompous, semi-informed, irresponsible mischaracterization does a disservice not only to an excellent critic, but to the newspaper (my former employer) and its readers. Imagine a two-paragraph obit of Kenneth Clark that focuses on his having written bad poetry in university. It’s mean and irrelevant.
By contrast Kaufman points to Richard Woodward‘s obituary in the Wall Street Journal as a more evenhanded remembrance. Here are a few samples from Woodward’s piece:
Robert Hughes, who died on Monday at the age of 74, leaves behind many admirers but few followers. The most feared art critic of his time, as learned as he was readable, he cultivated no acolytes who aped his opinions and verbal mannerisms, as did Clement Greenberg and Pauline Kael, critics of equal stature. Despite his professorial air, Hughes spurned academia and it has responded in kind. Future doctoral students in art history will likely dismiss his writings as those of a journalist and television personality, or climb the tenure ladder by trying to disprove his belief that the art of his time was mainly second-rate or worse. Unlike his fellow contrarian Hilton Kramer, who co-founded The New Criterion magazine as a forum for unfashionable high-modernist views, Hughes created no institutional legacy.
Tributes to Hughes have cited his withering put-downs, and they were indeed numerous and often salutary in their fearlessness and high style. He enjoyed deflating exalted reputations. The writings of the trendy sociologist Jean Baudrillard were dismissed as “sumptuous poppycock in the French manner, de haut en bas,” and he enshrined his skepticism about New York’s ’80s art stars in a 1984 Augustan satire titled “The SoHoiad, or the Masque of Art.” A public feud with Julian Schnabel entertained readers of art gossip for years.
But no one could doubt how ardently he believed in the soul-nourishing potency of art. His most euphoric books are those on two of its great art capitals, Barcelona and Rome. Skill at painting and drawing were his measure of artistic success, and he found it in the work of Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Philip Pearlstein, Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Philip Guston, R. Crumb and David Hockney…
By the end of his life Hughes knew how endangered, if not hopeless, his views had become. His elitist aesthetics and patrician diction supported a populist ethos that celebrated excellence in carpentry and art-making alike, and hoped to play down the role of money in ruling everything, a shaky position to maintain at any time and maybe impossible to duplicate by anyone brave enough to emulate his example.
Hughes holds a place in me because of his ardent, passionate defense of that “soul-nourishing potency of art.” I began this blog six years ago after reading a quote from him that became my talisman:
What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
That sentiment will continue to be a touchstone for what matters most to me.
Adieu Master Hughes. May you now truly rest in peace.
The unstoppable nature of art making…from a recent installation in Chelsea
Adam Davidson‘s piece in the Sunday Times magazine, How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality, explores that rarefied world of art auctions, blue chip galleries, U.H.N.W.I’s (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals) and sky high prices. In a sentence: “The art market, in other words, is a proxy for the fate of the superrich themselves.”
Tracking that zone of activity is about as meaningful to me and the work I do each day as an update on the number of caviar eggs consumed in Monte Carlo. While Davidson’s piece includes some economic insights into this rarefied market—“Art is often valuable precisely because it isn’t a sensible way to make money”—my favorite paragraph came at the very end:
As I talked to art advisers and economists, I kept thinking of my childhood in Westbeth, a subsidized housing complex for artists in Greenwich Village. Our neighbors, painters and sculptors among them, were decidedly not rich. To them, the very idea that art should make someone wealthy was laughable, even offensive. It makes me happy to think that this world of art-as-investment is a minuscule fraction of the art world overall. Most people who create, trade and own art do it for a much simpler reason. They just like it.
And thank god they do.
A few highlights from a day spent at the San Francisco Museum of Art, a visit that followed the feast that was Pacific Standard Time in Los Angeles over Thanksgiving…
Francesca Woodman‘s life was a short one. The daughter of two visual artists, her precocious gifts were apparent early on. She attended RISD, did a residency at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough New Hampshire. She committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22.
Thirty years later, Woodman’s work is still timelessly haunting, deeply personal, darkly envisioned but not without moments of light and a redemptive glimmer. Most of the images are self portraits of some kind. Her body is her highly plastic terrain, creating landscapes of skin and flesh that are exploratory, not exploitative, direct and yet hidden.
The show is enormous and yet I felt drawn to spend time with every image. Her work has that kind of mystery and intrigue. I’m generally not a photohound but this was work so painterly and distinct it was hard to not give it your full attention.
Her parents, George and Betty Woodman, have been careful stewards of Woodman’s body of work all these years. They waited for just the right venue and opportunity for Francesca’s first retrospective.
Further reading: Ted Loos has written an excellent article in the New York Times that provides a good overview on Francesca and the show.
A few other viewing highlights:
The Richard Serra drawing show that was at the Met this summer is now at SFMOMA. They look different in every venue. Some of these are exquisite and are reminiscent of those gorgeous overworked drawings by Brice Marden in his MOMA retrospective from a few years ago. Others feel less enchanting but the statement being made is a big one. This is, after all, Richard Fucking Serra.
SFMOMA does a lot of design shows, and the latest features the iconic head of design at Braun for many years, Dieter Rams. Rams is associated with a variety of iconic pieces and is known for his memorable edicts, most famously his advocacy for “less but better” design.
Richard Aldrich, a young artist from Brooklyn, has a room of new paintings. The work is open, fresh, painterly and smart. He’s someone I will be keeping track of from here on.
Ray Saunders was a prominent influence on me during my formative years in the Bay Area. In the small circling way of art thermals, my son studied with him at CCA a few years ago.
The way I prepare for a show is to go into hermit mode: Sequester yourself in the art cave and don’t come out until the work is ready.
That also means that most of the conversations I am having these days are with non-sentient beings (i.e., my paintings). It is in a small way like being in a gravity-free chamber with tiny porthole windows and filtered sound. A world out there? Could be, but I wouldn’t know for sure…
The extreme stories you hear about Jonathan Franzen’s elaborate methods for achieving a distraction-free zone to write make sense to me. Maybe the world is divided (once again) into two groups: Those who can write a novel in a coffee shop, and those who cannot. As for me, I know I need silence and privacy.
My cone of self inflicted silence did not block out Tom Ashbrook’s worthy interview with Frank Stella last week however. (You can listen to ithere.) Don’t you love when an elder still thinks and talks fast (and still drives that way too), is excited about exploring new forms (like digital media) and isn’t a solipsistic bag of hot air? Stella was charming, ingenuous and thoughtful. Worth the listen for sure.
A few highlights for me:
He started the interview by quoting Mario Andretti (Stella has a well known passion for car racing): “If everything is under control, you aren’t going fast enough.”
When asked about teaching art, his answer was simple: Be encouraging. Limit constraints. Keep enthusiasm alive. That is a kind of art pedagogy I can stand alongside.
Regarding the distortions of pricing seen in the art auction space, Stella was gentle. “Art world pricing is an illusion.” He graciously described the art world in all its many facets as “a complicated community.” And who is an artist’s audience, he asked? First and foremost, says Stella, you make art to please yourself. You are your own most important audience.
That’s a mantra for any studio wall.
The proliferation of memorials and remembrances of Robert Rauschenberg has begun. Michael Kimmelman’s obit in the New York Times and Michael McNay’s piece in the Guardian are both well wrought, describing this man who lived an extraordinary life and left an enormous and unforgettable body of work.
But I can’t not take a moment to contemplate the influence of Bob Raushenberg on my artistic development. It would be harmful to my personal sense of justice to not acknowledge who he was for me as an artist.
For most of us who came of age in the 60s, Rauschenberg was the harbinger, the bold marauder. His paintings and prints were visceral, muscular, retinally rich and completing seductive. But it was the relentless swing of his hand that kept knocking us out. Paintings became blends—2D, 3D, photographs, found art, montage, printmaking, technological explorations. His eye went everywhere and his hand followed. He did dance, performance, environments, collaborations. The resourcefulness, the inventiveness, the invitation to keep looking and find new ways of seeing was unending. He was a fire hose of creativity, and that energy lasted for a lifetime.
From Kimmelman’s review:
No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture.
Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated.
For me as a young art student, Rauschenberg was the paragon of Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence. I tracked his output with a tenacity for years. Over time my passion for his work changed. As often happens with authors who deeply inform a writer’s early phase, my connection with his work shifted as my own work evolved. I continued to pay attention to his ongoing explorations, but the intensity of my youthful exhuberance for anything Rauschenberg waned. But the memory of a sharp awakening to visual experience that he brought to me and many of my cohorts is for all time.
And what a great line from a 74 year old Rauschenberg: “Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”
My friend Carl Belz has written about his encounters with portrait art while heading up the Rose Museum at Brandeis a few years back. He was asked to recommend a portrait painter for the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. ” I immediately suggested Andy Warhol,” Belz writes, “who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists.”
He eventually finds his way to George Augusta, a Boston-based portrait painter. Stepping out of his contemporary art world view, Belz liked what he saw:
George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike.
So began a long and fruitful relationship between George Augusta and Brandeis University.
But there is a larger arc of meaning for Belz that emerges from this encounter. Anyone who has “discovered” an artistic enclave or tradition existing in isolation from a contemporary art world that is high profile, elite, detached, controlled, and carefully artificed knows that startling moment of revelation that there are other ways of making art far afield from those confining constructs.
I had my version of that aha! experience when I first encountered Australian aboriginal painting 20 years ago. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Johnny Warrangkula, Rover Thomas and Barbara Weir are just a few of the extraordinary artists who emerged after art supplies were first brought to the aboriginal population in the 1970s by Geoffrey Bardon. With no exposure to Western art or tradition, these artists used their own cultural heritage to produce work that, while varied and self-defined, shares an approach that is painterly, authentic, mysteriously spiritual and completely captivating. I was immediately engulfed by it, and that encounter changed my life as an artist. (An image by Kathleen Petyarre is at the bottom of this post.)
Belz describes his experience with thoughtful graciousness:
Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning.
Great piece Carl. You can read it in its entirety at Left Bank Art Blog.
Abuses of power and money, decisions made by self serving Philistines, the infuriatingly short sighted policies that have ramifications way beyond the bounds of the elite board room—nothing new in any of these themes. But the stories that touch my interest, art, still stick in the caw and won’t dislodge that easily. I am forced to ask the existential question of how should we respond to these flagrant travesties, especially given how many of them take place under wraps and are never really exposed?
My friend (and favorite curator) Carl Belz recently published an account that looks back to a Frank Stella acquisition that never happened during his last few months at the Rose Art Museum. (His account is here on the blog Left Bank.) His story will infuriate you if having access to works by an important artist within reach of Boston matters to you. The bad spin around Brandeis and the Rose (Battle of the Roses?) continues and Belz’s account is just one more peek into the complexity of doing the right thing in any environment—art, academia or politics—where doing good work and operating with high minded intentions are rarely rewarded.
Watching The Art of the Steal, the recently released documentary about the highly controversial move of the Barnes Foundation art collection into Philadelphia, is yet another example. Yes, critics of the film have pointed to its highly biased telling of a complex and extremely arcane tale that tracks the fate of an art collection valued at billions of dollars. But the villainy is profligate and plentiful no matter how much you skew for bias. When there is that much money at stake, you can’t keep treacherous vultures away for long.
The stoic’s stance. Is that the optimal response for any of us to take in the face of shenanigans this large in scope? Both of these accounts make me hot under the collar, but it is a heat that has nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do.
OK. That’s my rant. I’ll move on to something more positive tomorrow, I promise.
I am still carrying around a big chunk of Canada’s uncivilized wildness in me, and it just doesn’t sit well with culturally-induced cynicism. And art world cynicism is cynicism of a particular stripe, leaving one to search for a few gentle but targeted exorcisms to remove that nasty taste in the mouth.
The cynicism-inducing culprits are clear. The first is Work of Art, Bravo’s “reality” (so in quotes, that) show about making art. For me and my friends it was quick to become the summer’s top contender for the program we most love to hate. I know, Jerry Saltz is a judge, and we all love him. But one good guy can’t save a program so bereft of nutritional value. Please, someone say something soulful, authentic, resonant—just once! In this world, art is entertainment, novelty, a plaything.
The problem is that Work of Art is so high in the chip factor: You know it is bad, really bad for you. But like that bag of greasy, salty, preservative-laced, empty-caloried potato chips that you just can’t stop ingesting, they know how to hook you. I need to be rescued from my perverse curiosity! Even though I fast forward to the last 10 minutes of each episode so I only have to sit through the infuriating crit and the cheap trick elimination, that’s 10 minutes better spent doing something less painful, like beating my head against a cement wall.
The second oil spill of cynicism is actually an amazing piece of work and one that deserves full viewing by anyone interested in contemporary art. But you’ll need your Wellies on to wade through the art world slime factor which is in full view. The film Exit Through the Gift Shop, purportedly made by Banksy (England’s masked mystery man and street art’s reigning king) is one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in a darkened theater in a long time. It is cinematic trompe l’oeil, a complex mirrored snake of a thing that turns in on itself and constantly undermines any sense of a grounding wire. Part documentary, part punkumentary, part tongue in cheek expose on art and the art world, there’s no way to know just who and what this is really about. It is smart, engaging and very provocative.
But this is provocation at a price. For anyone who approaches artmaking with sincerity and respect for the deep mystery of it all, there’s just no room for you in the world portrayed by Work of Art or Exit Through the Gift Shop. And visual art is not the only creative field squeezing out practitioners who are committed to their work and don’t play the game of image, appearance and hype. This excerpt is from Will Blythe’s New York Times review of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, whose dystopic view of American life now and in the future sounds harsh, bleak and all too familiar:
Egan’s depiction of Jules, the celebrity journalist, embodies her sophisticated sympathy. Such types are normally easy prey for fiction writers, cheap signifiers of corruption. But Egan understands that the manufacture of image in the modern world is as routine as the assembly of Model T’s in the old industrial economy. Which is to say it’s done by regular people like you and me, not villains but folks just trying to get by.
It just may be that the most subversive path is to openly and candidly care most about the quality, integrity and intentionality of one’s work. And being actively subversive is a well tested antidote to cynicism’s paralyzing and deadening wake.