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Erin Hogan

A few weeks ago I posted a review of a new book on Slow Painting, Spiral Jetta by Erin Hogan. And now that I’ve finished reading the book I can recommend it without reservation to anyone who has interest in contemporary art, particularly land art, and who would enjoy a thoughtful adventure served up in a particularly sassy fashion.

Hogan’s writing style is a lively combination of the self-effacing humor of a David Sedaris with the thoughtful insights of a Suzi Gablik. Having made the pilgrimage to most of the land art sites that Hogan visits in her book, I loved retracing my steps with her. My regular readers know how passionately I love Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, so of course I loved every description of the treacherous dirt roads, the primal sense of pilgrimage, the difficulty of traveling in unmarked territory where getting lost and never being heard of again feels very real at times. Her gift of self-deprecating humor keeps the entire art road trip narrative engaging, and her sharp mind makes the journey meaningful to the reader who is traveling with her vicariously.

Here are a few passages that stood out for me:

I walked into the spiral and back out of it. I lay down in the center of it. I crisscrossed its rings, I crouched down and tasted the salt. I looked around, still overwhelmed by the work’s nonmonumentality. I tried to experience it physically, without processing it through any art-historical filter. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t separate my encounter with Spiral Jetty from the reading and thinking I had done about art of this era, by now deeply entrenched in my reptile brain. Trying to consider this object in isolation, to bypass art history, was like trying to knock an irritating song out of my head. I only managed to turn up the volume. It was with this force that the views of critics and historians crowded into my consciousness.

Like anything good and complex, Spiral Jetty can be thought of in many different ways. As lame as it sounds, those “ways” came down to two for me: space and time. Not small topics, I realize. But Spiral Jetty beautifully and subtly distills its experience into those fundamental categories…

Being at Spiral Jetty engendered in me a sense of articulated space, one that wasn’t alienating because it was marked by mountains, edges, colors, which together staved off the disorientation I associate with open, ungridded space, like being on a sailboat at sea…the space is elemental and understandable, only a little overwhelming, and deeply inspiring.

And this:

Smithson’s essay on the Spiral Jetty reads like a stoner’s manifesto, all over the map and deeply profound: he hits Brancusi’s sketcch of James as a “spiral ear”; he talks about lattices, a sense of scale that “resonates in the eye and the ear at the same time,” a “reinforcement and prolongation of spirals that reverberates up and down space and time.” Taking a breath, he concludes, “So it is that one ceases to consider art in terms of an object.”

And I finally knew what he meant. There is something in Spiral Jetty that gives it the internal coherence, the completeness, the self-containment and instantaneity, that makes art. It is a physical quality of a supremely constructed entity, with complex internal relationships that harmonize into a glorious whole.

And how’s this for just about the best blurb ever on the back of a book?

Across the marvelously unexpected little road saga, the stud muffin cowboys of late twentieth-century American art at long last meet their sly gamine match. Pretty much doing for land art what Geoff Dyer did for D. H. Lawrnece, Ms. Hogan, an urban fish decidedly out of water, flopping about in the high desert parch, makes for marvelously endearing company. At at times harrowingly (albeit comically) unreliable navigator (who doesn’t bring a compass along on solo treks across such vast empty expanses?), Hogan nevertheless manages to deploy an expertly modulated prose, tracking the heaviest of subjects with the lightest of touches, melding gravitas with whimsy (vodka and tonic), in a narrative that in the end, like the art is surveys, manages to be about what it is to be an individual alone—pinprick-contingent, achingly vulnerable, gobsmacked enthralled—in the face of all that is.

–Lawrence Weschler*

Hogan’s is a fresh and welcomed new voice.

*I’ve referenced Weschler’s work in earlier blog postings here. Search on his name here if you’d like to read more by him.

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I found an article in The Independent yesterday that I posted on my filter blog Slow Painting. It has dominated my thinking all day. In a singularly succinct manner, it captures a core set of issues that are at the center of my disaffection with a number of trends in contemporary art. These are some of the same concerns that drove me to start blogging two years ago.

Two imperatives are identified as de rigeur in the high profile world of contemporary art:

Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about.

Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

The article goes on to elaborate this conundrum:

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.

It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself…

That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”

This runs in a similar vein with much of what Lawrence Weschler has explored in my still current favorite book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. What Irwin keeps moving in and out of in the interviews included in the book is related to Sontag’s issue of cutting back on content and getting the viewer closer to what is “real.”

I’ve referenced Irwin’s well known response to a Philip Guston painting in an earlier posting here but it is particularly pertinent to this discussion. He describes going to a gallery and seeing a small Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. The Brooks painting was big in every way—large shapes, with strong color. The Guston, an early piece, was small, painted in the subtle and signatory muted pinks, greys and greens. But in Irwin’s eyes, it outstripped the Brooks completely.

In Irwin’s words:

My discovery was that from one hundred yards away…I looked over, and that goddamn Guston…Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum…Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall…

Not on quality, just on power…some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

What Irwin keeps getting at—that power of the painting itself—lives outside the domain of applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases:

They only work immediately; they command an incredible presence—“a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative stance it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent. That is why for many years Irwin declined to allow his work to be photographed, because the image of the canvas was precisely what the painting was not about.

This is the deep furrow I want to plow. The contemporary concerns for obligatory meaning and languaged legitimacy melts away for me in the face of full-bodied power. Overlay and artifice? Enough already.


Robert Irwin

The books stacked by my bed may appear to be pliantly passive, but don’t be fooled: the daily jostling that rotates one to the top spot is a highly competitive challenge. Feelings have been hurt, I can sense it, when that slim volume of finely chiseled poetry gets usurped by, dare I say it, non-fiction. There’s something touchingly poignant about being shunted aside—especially after having provided hours of sensuous pleasure—by a brazen and confident competitor whose voluptuous content titillates the mind into delirium.

The latest interloper to command control of my bedstand stack is Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler. I’ve quoted from this book on this blog before (see my posting on May 12, 2008), and have read parts of it in the past. But as is the case with so many things in life, timing is everything. This book fell back into my hands recently, and I can’t put it down. I’m smitten. No doubt the other bedside volumes are murmuring their frustration with an infatuation that is lasting a little too long. Sorry, but this one is so seductive and provocative, and it is speaking to me right down to my bones.

During my formative years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robert Irwin—along with his cohorts Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price et al—were running their own art solar system out of Southern California with no fealty paid to that putative (and to some degree, self-anointed) center of the art world, New York. Their approach was insouciant, non-pedigree, fresh. As a young artist living outside the power grid of the East Coast, I was compelled by their confidence and transgressive points of view. And what a willful proclivity to be persnickety! For example, Irwin forbade any photographic reproduction of his work for a number of years, convinced that a photograph can only convey image, not presence. Cataloging and marketing be damned. I remember thinking, wow. Those guys were just so…cool.

Now, years later, I am reading the “story about the story” of Irwin and his crew during that extremely important period in their artistic evolution. What keeps striking me is how extraordinarily aligned I am with many of the issues they championed. I didn’t fully comprehend the full import as a much younger artist. Now seems to be the time when I am most able to understand, really understand, what Irwin was saying.

So many salient quotes could be offered here from this fascinating book. I’m sure I’ll be posting more from Weschler’s account in the weeks to come. But here is a start to give you some sense of Irwin’s point of view:

Irwin sometimes singles out a particular achievement of Willem de Kooning’s. “Really the best abstract expressionist paintings ever—in my opinion the best single ones—were an at-the-time recent series of large paintings by de Kooning. And one of the things about them is that they have this quality: it’s as if they were done in ten minutes. They look utterly spontaneous. A few simple gestures just explode on the canvas. But the control is amazing! The stroke stops and the paint splashes, but with the precision of the lace on a Vermeer collar. I mean, having done those kinds of paintings and tried to get that kind of freshness, I know the guy was really a master. He really knew what he was doing.”

And another:

“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

More to come, to be sure.

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