Saturday, October 29, 2011

Recently Read Art Books

by Robert Boyd

Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. Yep, another book on the Los Angeles art scene in the 60s. Regular readers know that this is one of my obsessions--partly because I fell in love with it when I lived in LA. But mostly because it seems to me that you can see what happened in LA in the 60s as an example of how "provincial" locations can develop into self-sustaining, diverse art scenes. This book gets into that development in a personality-based, journalistic way. It covers the Ferus scene very well, but moves beyond Ferus into other developments in LA during the 60s.So David Hockney, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, Judy Chicago and many other non-Ferus artists are discussed, as are such subjects as the Peace Tower, Light and Space artists, Gemini GEL, etc.

This is an example of the type of art writing I like to read. Not academic, not weighted down by theory, not focusing exclusively on the art. I suppose there are people who believe that knowing something about Ed Ruscha is irrelevant to understanding his art, or that knowing what it was like to hang out at Barney's Beanery won't tell you anything about the Finish Fetish artists... or the rise of feminist art.  I'm not one of those people--I think Barney's Beanery is relevant to both tendencies, actually. I like the "history" part of art history.

Francesca Woodman by Chris Townsend. Last year, my interest in photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was initiated by viewing the powerful documentary The Woodmans. This large hardcover book was paublished in 2006. Like most such books, there is a generous selection of artwork accompanied by a longish essay. Townsend's essay takes up 63 pages of the book and is fairly unmemorable. He makes a strenuous effort to fit Woodman's work within what was happening in photography and art concurrently, but it's a bad fit. She was too idiosyncratic and personal to fit into the early 80s art world. (This bad fit--reflected in a lack of success and recognition for Woodman during her life--may have been a small contributor to her suicide.) A better (but not perfect) context for discussing her art would have been to discuss it in terms of feminist artwork of the 70s focusing on the body, for example Hannah Wilke. Townsend touches on this, but just a bit.

But you can really just skip Townsend's essay if you want and get to the photos. 264 pages of beautifully reproduced photos give the reader a really good idea of the range of her work. (I only wish it had a DVD of her video art as well.) And this work is erotic, surreal, and haunting. Francesca Woodman would only be 53 years old now if she had survived. Considering what she accomplished in her short career, who knows what treasures we have missed because of her tragic suicide. I selfishly long to see these nonexistent photos.

Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character by Lynne Warren. This is the catalog from Jim Nutt's recent retrospective show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, curated by Warren. It's a relatively slim, handsome volume of work. I first became aware of Nutt's work in the early 1980s--it hit me like a ton of bricks in William Camfield's art since the 40s class. I related to it so well because I had come to love artists who seem to be influenced by Nutt, especially Gary Panter. If you look at Panter's early work from the early to mid 1970s, he is clearly looking at Nutt. Then Panter moves to Los Angeles, works for Slash, and helps to define the look of punk rock/new wave. This graphic style was the air I breathed when I saw Nutt. So even though Nutt comes out of the 60s, it took a decade or so for the world to catch up with his style.

Of course, by then he had moved on. For about the past 24 years, Nutt has been drawing portraits of imaginary women. His work is precise and opaque, but in colors, he seems influenced a bit by his wife, Gladys Nilson. The colors are lighter and more muted--except for the noses. these women all have enormous, dark-colored honkers. And their eyes never match. They are deeply strange. It is difficult to read an expression into them. Nutt has always marched to his own drummer, and doing variations on one subject for a quarter of a century demonstrates that he is serious about it. But I have often wondered if he left behind his weird domestic scenes of the early 70s because people were expecting him to be a "wild crazy Hairy Who" artist.

Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West by Erin Hogan. There is a crisis in art criticism in the U.S. It has been depicted as a battle between judgment and indifference (in the postmodern sense--you choose not to judge because you know any judgment, once deconstructed, will demonstrate bad faith). It has been depicted as a battle between belle lettrist writing and highly theoretical writing--the poets vs the philosophers. And most of all, it has been described as a situation where critics have zero influence over what is considered interesting and worthwhile art--that role has been usurped by art consultants, auctioneers, top dealers, and ultra-rich collectors.

Is there a way out of this crisis? I don't know, but one strategy is to abandon the creaky critical genre of the review for other forms. This book is a memoir, a personal account of a road trip. It includes journalism and aspects of the personal essay. It neither pretends indifference nor offers Olympian judgment. It is informed by theory (Michael Fried's famous essay on minimalism is a constant reference point) but in the end, it has more in common with the belle lettrist tradition. But the personal nature of the work pushes it beyond. At the risk of mischaracterizing it, it is almost like a "new journalism" or "gonzo" approach to art criticism. Not many writers could pull it off, but I found it refreshing.

Manual of Contemporary Art Style by Pablo Helguera. Helguera is a serious artist who moonlights as a humorist whose wit is aimed at the art world. It's a noble tradition--Ad Reinhardt was an extremely talented cartoonist in addition to being an ultra-puritan abstractionist. The whole book is aimed at making fun of the pretense that underlies the art world. Rather than try to summarize the whole book, let me quote one bit--advice for curators with no ideas:
1. In order to generate quick exhibition ideas: a) open a dictionary and point a finger at any page randomly; b) take the "selected" word as the topic of the exhibition and search Google using this word along with the phrase "contemporary art"; c) generate a preliminary artist list based on the names that will come up from the mentioning of this subject. For instance, if the random word is "animal," the search should provide a list of artists who use animales in their work (e.g., Joseph Beuys, Diana Thater).
2. In order to write an essay on any subject, type the theme of the essay alongside the word "conceptual." The search results will also work as [a] bibliography. [The Pablo Helguerra Manual of Contemporary Art Style, p. 26, 2007]
I wanted to try this method. The first word I got was "denuclearize". That lead nowhere, so I decided I would try it again until it worked. The second word was "mead." That didn't work, partly because "Mead" and "Meade" are common surnames. "Scowl." OK, now I'm having some success. Jean Skoggard, Sue Williams, Jon Pylypchuk,and Yoshitomo Nara are the first few I found. That would be an interesting grouping, no? The show could be called "Contempt."


1 comment:

  1. Things like this seem to happen to me quite often... I was just at the Spiral Jetty a few weeks ago. It's an eerie kind of quite out there. And here you are reviewing a book about land art in the American West. I will definitely put it on my list of reads. Thanks!