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Najeev 1, from a new painting series

I found an extraordinary essay by Steve Baker titled “To go about noisily: clutter, writing and design.” I’ve been mulling over the issues he raises for several weeks and I am still formulating my thoughts on this topic. Clutter: It’s a much more complex topic than those hoarder reality shows would suggest. When I come to some clarity, I will write more about Baker’s essay.

But an epigraph from Schopenhauer that Baker uses at the beginning of his piece caught my attention: “The surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment.”

Really? My first response was, that’s not about me since I don’t pick up a book every time I have a free moment (but how about every other?) In all seriousness, my thinking life is best described as hybrid vigor: I am happiest when there are other points of view to consider. I like an idea landscape richly textured, and the origin of the flora and fauna doesn’t matter to me at all. The Schopenhauer approach is too stark and monastic to appeal to my pluralist (or as some would say, excessive) tendencies.

And what’s more, the best ideas stand up well over time, and they can still feed you when you come back to them later. A good example is this quote by W. S. Piero from his book of essays on modern art, Out of Eden. I first posted it on Slow Muse in 2007. When I ran across it quite by accident this morning I wanted to share it here again.

Why are the jets and emulsive tracks of paints in Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 so compelling? It’s not only because he was creating a greater plasticity of space and laying out dozens of contested fields of formal activity where disintegrating patterns pitch against imminent, struggling stabilities. There’s something one can’t reduce satisfactorily to formal terms. In 1964 the Romanian-born Eliade, who was a great admirer of his countryman Brancusi, spoke of “nonfigurative painters who abolish representational forms and surfaces, penetrate to the inside of matter, and try to reveal the ultimate structures of substance.” In order to talk about Pollock, and Rothko for that matter, in other than purely formalist vocabularies (and to avoid the useless argument that both were representationalists masquerading as abstractionists), we have to…talk about the sacred and the mundane. Eliade also says that non-representational art corresponds to the “demythologization” in religion advocated by Rudolph Bultmann. As Christianity may dissolve the images and symbols of its traditional narratives to confront once again the freshness of religious experience in our secular, materialistic time, certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation. Moreover, he says, today’s artist “sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’ The time of the epiphany has not yet arrived, or does the world truly have no face?” I think Pollock and Rothko worked to paint that facelessness. For Rothko it was toned with a magisterial, voluminous solemnity. For Pollock the tone was one of self-devouring conflict.


Lawrence Rinder (Photo by Ben Blackwell)

I was introduced to the writing of Lawrence Rinder through his very unexpected and engaging introduction to the book Tantra Song (and written about previously on Slow Muse here and here.) Although he comes to art writing with serious credentials (he was the curator for the 2002 Whitney Biennial), Rinder’s approach to writing about art is (in my view) a perfect blend: He is globally informed but also willing to take it into the personal; idea- and context-rich in his assessments while leaving room for that which can’t be nailed down or figured out; articulate and persuasive in his writing but also refreshingly self effacing. I immediately felt at home in his view of things. So as is my nature, I am now going through the rest of his books and writings. The enjoyment continues.

Art Life: Selected Writings 1991-2005 includes 18 essays on topics ranging from Samuel Mockbee, the heroic founder and visionary of The Rural Studio, to Luc Tuymans, Louise Bourgeois and Sophie Calle. Every one is worth the read.

Rinder is currently Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a place that played a major role in my early years as an artist growing up in the Bay Area.

Here’s a few highlights to tickle your fancy just in case Rinder’s work is unfamiliar to you:

I have no idea what art is. I can’t think of a less specific term in our language (except, possibly, that often-used and essentially meaningless word “modern”). Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about art is that it describes a zone of permission.

I recently met a well-traveled artist who spoke earnestly of the “one true art world,” a word consisting, he said, of the constellation of newly emergent international biennials within which neo-conceptualism is the contemporary lingua franca. How depressing. After struggling so hard to liberate ourselves from the constructions of the Greenbergian canon we run like sheep into a brand new pen. It is enervating to witness the rush of young artists generating globally-informed, media-savvy, interdisciplinary works that ultimately speak to no one but curators and academics.

Much of Minimalism…is boring to read about, but the experience of it can be great. In space, it acts. It’s crucial to appreciate this acting, this work that the art is doing.

In my professional practice, I have found that it is indeed much more pleasant, and useful, to wonder than to know.

A peculiarity of our time is that while few would claim to know what is going on, even fewer would part with their beliefs. In days past, a worldview that consisted solely of beliefs and little knowledge would have been considered a perilously fragile edifice. Today, it suffices. A world of belief without knowledge comes into being in the absence of doubt. Actually, it’s not that we have stopped doubting; we’ve just stopped caring.

It is surely a unique feature of our aimless age that we fully accept the utility of asking questions without any hope of receiving a reply.

What has made my work in the arts continually exciting and challenging and—I hope—useful, is that I have avoided resting on a comfortable bed of knowledge and instead have followed my heart to richer, if more ambiguous and challenging, territories. If, as Einstein noted, our world of definitions and propositions rests on shaky ground, this should hardly be cause for despair. Rather, it can be an invitation to a life of limitless wonders.

Continuing the theme of music and its multifarious explorations…

I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.

–Samuel Beckett, Molloy

What an evocative quote to start Alex Ross‘ most recent book, Listen to This. His columns in The New Yorker are so consistently good, and I found his first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, smart, sensitive and insightful.

The preface to this latest book speaks to one of my most consistent themes: Exquisite experiences with art live in us outside of the power of language, but we are nonetheless continually driven to share, explain, decode those states of mind:

Writing about music isn’t especially difficult. Whoever coined the epigram “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—the statement has been attributed variously to Martin Mull, Steve Martin and Elvis Costello—was muddying the waters. Certainly, music criticism is a curious and dubious science…But it is no more dubious than any other form of criticism. Every art form fights the noose of verbal description. Writing about dance is like singing about architecture; writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet. There is a fog-enshrouded border past which language cannot go…In my writing on musc, I try to demystify the art to some extent, dispel the hocus-pocus, while still respecting the boundless human complexity that gives it life.

Onward into that journey.

Sebastian Smee (Photo: Boston Globe)

What great news—Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Boston Globe, has won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Hats off!

Smee is the first art writer at the Globe whose opinion has mattered to me. His reviews are carefully crafted and thoughtful. And as knowledgeable as he is about contemporary art, his writing is engaging for anyone to read. With the current oversupply of mandarin, self-referential, “for the cognescenti only” art criticism, Smee goes against that trend. In their announcement of his selection, the Pulitzer board pointed to Smee’s “vivid and exuberant writing about art’’ and his knack for “bringing great works to life with love and appreciation.’’ All true. Refreshingly so.

On a more personal note, I have been carrying on my own “dialogue” with Smee over the past few years on Slow Muse. So much of what he has written has been noteworthy to me, and the following posts all make reference to his writings:

Chilhuly at the MFA
Mark Bradford: Silent Strength
Stella, Smee and Subjectivism
Bad Art Poisoning
Liang at the ICA
The Intuition Deliminator
The Fundamental Geometries
Fascination of Feeling: Pick One
That Damned Underbelly
Fairey: The Conversation Continues
Elizabeth Peyton: In Between
Tara Donovan

For those of you who are not familiar with Smee, here’s his bio from the Globe:

Sebastian Smee is the Globe’s art critic. He joined the paper’s staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. Before that he worked in London, where he was art critic at the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper, Modern Painters, and Prospect magazine. In 1994 he received a bachelor of arts degree, with honors, in fine arts from Sydney University. He reviews books regularly for the Spectator and is himself the author of books and essays on the British painter Lucian Freud as well as “Side by Side: Picasso v. Matisse.”

Portrait of Eleanor Heartney. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Eleanor Heartney, art critic and author of Art & Today as well as monographs on Liza Lou, Kenneth Snelson and Roxy Paine among others, has written a short but hard hitting piece on artnet that asks many of the tough questions not being addressed in the current cultural dialogue: What is art’s relationship (and obligation?) to society? What is its role in the current economy? How can the meaning and “usefulness” of art be evaluated?

Here’s an example:

I again heard the statistics about the collateral money art events infuse into the surrounding community, the dollar value added by artists and art institutions, the degree to which local economies are stimulated by the arts. Taking the higher ground, others argued that we should try to make the case that art is valuable because it instills critical discourse and participatory thinking.

But is any of it really true? If states are looking to stimulate the local economy, wouldn’t an infrastructure project have more long term effect than commissioning artists to install more giant art projects? Can one honestly make the case that states in danger of bankruptcy should be funding art festivals or even art classes instead of police forces, school lunches or Medicaid?

Heartney goes on to acknowledge that encouraging discourse is a worthy goal, but is that art’s job? Is art really up to that task? The issues are intertwined and complex.

Meanwhile, the class divide within the art world…(to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever. I have always been struck by Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion in his 1939 essay Avant Garde and Kitsch that the avant-garde remains attached to the ruling class by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Today, as private patrons who have benefited from America’s trickle up (or should we say gush up) economic policies call the shots at museums, preside over a burgeoning art market and style themselves as the New Medicis, Greenberg’s dictum seems truer than ever, and sadly, no one dares to yank the chain.

These are issues that are political, complicated and difficult. But Heartney’s point of view rings true for me. We would be better served with more discussion along these lines.


A heads up for anyone interested in getting an overview of the state of arts journalism: Regina Hackett has put together a good list on her blog, Another Bouncing Ball, In the fast-morphing world of art criticism, I found this posting helpful.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Brookyn Rail does not pay its contributors. Living on air gets thin. Other favorites from the visual art category include:

Art Fag City, Triple Canopy, Departures, Big, RED & Shiny, Bad At Sports, Dinosaurs & Robots, Idaho Arts Quarterly, Glasstire, Of Note, Kung Fu Art Critic and a site under construction, East of Borneo, which will be edited by Thomas Lawson.

There are flashier sites on the list, most prominently, FLYP Media, which is gorgeous and technically inventive. Good luck to FLYP, which seems to be aiming for an undifferentiated audience, one that will be impressed by the site’s click power and not put off by soft, feature-style arts writing.

People already in the game, on the other hand, aren’t likely to want to read what they already know, even though production values are stellar. As a bridge builder between the art audience and everybody else, FLYP serves the purpose. Its texts are elementary, but its mainstream taste is reliable. If you’ve never heard of John Baldessari, this site’s for you.