Friday, August 31, 2012

Locked in the office supply closet with Jonathan Clark

Dean Liscum

I have a confession to make.

As a corporate cube dweller, I covet office supply. Actually, it's worse than that. I don't just covet the stuff. I fantasize that with the right color combination of post-it notes and pastel highlighters, I could--while on a multi-hour conference call--create a masterpiece.

To be honest, my masterpiece would be a conventional, representational artwork similar to Mark Khaisman's work as in his Irina, which he created using packaging tape on an acrylic panel and backlit with red light.

Or I'd do yet one more pointillist tribute to Seurat and create something like Eric Daigh's portraits made of push pins.

Eric Draigh, Meghan III, pushpins on board, 48" x 36"

But, I'd use those really large push pins because after about 30 minutes I would be bored with my own artistic genius and frustrated with my level of skill. Then, too, would send out Rachel Hooper to help inform me oh-what-a-piece it was and Laura Lark to advise me in...well, everything.

This sort of representational, found (in-the-office-supply-closet) art requires some skill. There's no shortage of artists that possess that skill and create art from office supplies. However, they all seem to do representative art

Houston's Jonathan Clark separates himself from the other cubical kleptomaniacs by creating abstract art as demonstrated in his show at Darke Gallery.

Jonathan Clark installation

The pieces are a dazzling discovery. From afar, they are fans or star bursts that capture your attention and draw you in with their detail.

Jonathan Clark installation, detail

Up close, they delight as you discern the post-it notes, paper clips, pencil erasers, matches, and much more that compose the pin wheels. Also, the intricate patterns of the pieces make for some interesting shadow play.

Jonathan Clark installation, detail

Most of my appreciation is simply visual and formal. The work doesn't seem to be particularly political. It is neither portraying corporate America as a pastel colored Deathstar or serving as a performance piece in which the artist as a member of the 99% (I'm using probability, here. He could be loaded) attempts to either cripple or bankrupt the 1%'s economic enterprises by hoarding all the office supply and turning it into abstract art mandalas and merchandise.

Jonathan Clark installation, detail

The star/pinwheel leitmotif does get a little tiresome after a while. But, I'm pretty sure Clark can snoop around after office hours and find some inspirational rectangles in his co-workers' desks.

Jonathan Clark installation

Perhaps among the spare change, clandestine photos, and secreted cigarettes, he'll discover a dusty leather portfolio with a legal pad in it and that will inspire him to get square.

Given the season, I'm surprised that Staples or Office Depot or some other retailer trafficking in office-school supplies hasn't hired him to do an entire series. Maybe then the kids would bring home office supply art projects that you could surreptitiously deconstruct as you needed to record a phone number or jot down a grocery list or remind yourself to send money to your favorite arts organization.

(All photos of Jonathan Clark's work are courtesy of Darke Gallery.)


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pan Recommends for the week of August 30 through September 5

The Fringe Festival is here, starting Thursday, August 30 and running weekends through September 15, at Frenetic Theater, Super Happy Fun Land, and Bohemeo's. This weekend, I'm looking forward to seeing Character: Drive by Out On A Limb Dance Company, Le Canard Imaginaire by Jessica Capistran and Alexandra Di Nunzio, and Salon by The Joanna (really curious about this one). But there is much, much more on schedule this weekend at the Fringe.

The Capitol At St. Germain Pop-Up Art Show, Thursday, August 30th from 6-10 pm at the Capitol At St. Germain. A pan-Latin American art show, featuring Byron Rabe from Guatemala, Andre Amaral from Brazil, and Norberto Clemente from Cuba. The publicity says that Rabe unveil the largest ever painted 2012 Sacred Mayan Cholqij Calendar, but wouldn't the 2013 calendar be more impressive?

Sasha Dela at the Kenmore at Darke Gallery,  6 pm on Friday, August 31. OK, this is complicated. During the slow period in August, Darke Gallery offers a residency to an artist. This summer the artist has been Emily Sloan. Several years ago, Emily Sloan designated her refrigerator an art space called The Kenmore. So during her residency at Darke Gallery, Sloan offered a residency at The Kenmore to Sasha Dela. The results of this matroyoshka of residencies will be on view Friday.

Dog Park at G Gallery, 6 pm, on Saturday, September 1. You can't go wrong with dog art (unless you are Tom Otterness): G Gallery has dog art out the wazoo, but I can't find a list of artists (including for the piece above--did you paint this green dog? If so, let us know so we can properly credit you!). You can even adopt a dog at the opening.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back to School with Candace Hicks

Robert Boyd

Candace Hicks has produced a series of silkscreens based on a simple pun. They simulate the old composition notebooks that many children used (and perhaps still used, for all I know) in school--saddle-stitched with rounded corners and a black and white random pattern on the cover. Her silkscreens are titled Composition in Green, Composition in Orange, etc., and each feature a dense cover design in that color. The pun isn't all that clever, but the silkscreens sure are pretty.

Candace Hicks, Composition in Green, silkscreen, 2011, 20" x 25"

Candace Hicks, Composition in Orange, silkscreen, 2011, 20" x 25"

Hicks can be forgiven for producing these relatively slight works (in multiples no less) given that the rest of her work is so labor-intensive. The starting point is the same--old school composition notebooks. She evidently fills them up with her thoughts about whatever she has read recently. She is writing about literature. But she isn't composing a composition--the writing is a bit too scattered. They seem more like notes or a diary.

The thing is, I suppose she could have just displayed her actual notes, but would anyone have read them? I know I wouldn't. But what she did instead was to laboriously recreate the notes in oversized hand-embroidered fabric "composition books". As she writes in her blessedly cant-free artist statement, "By laboring over a dime store composition book, painstakingly recreating it by hand, I have found a way to express the insignificant as potentially philosophical."

Candace Hicks, Leaves of a Feather, embroidery on canvas, 6' x 10'

Leaves of a Feather is a mammoth example of this, a two page spread mounted on a wall, discussing unusual phrases and words that Hicks finds in multiple books. This is her prime subject--the coincidence of finding repeated words or other literary elements in disparate books. She constructs a theory for this (a theory that goes beyond the fact that these coincidences have no meaning whatsoever and merely reflect the human mind's well-known propensity for seeing patterns even when none actually exist). Thankfully, she labels her theory "pseudoscience," and it seems more literary than scientific--Borgesian, one might say, with a generous touch of Anglo-American science fiction. (Her reading seems quite broad, but it includes lots of science fiction.)

Candace Hicks, String Theory: Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse (detail), Volume II, 2012, sewn artist's book, 14" x 18" x 8"

Her masterpiece in this Borgesian-Dickian genre is String Theory: Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse. Usually when visual artists ask me, the viewer, to read lots of text as part of their art, my eyes glaze over. Standing in a gallery is just not conducive to reading (and most artists are absolutely terrible writers). But flipping through this enormous embroidered book was quite compelling. It helped that the subject, an examination of various works of literature from an unusual and amusing angle, was one that interested me. And she breaks up the text with pages of drawings, where she plays with the lined format of these books, exploding it in one page, showing the process of drawing/sewing the lines in another, etc. (Mexican artist Hugo Lugo has also played with blue lines on paper this way--which struck me as the visual arts version of the literary coincidences that Hicks describes--which is itself kind of a meta-coincidence.)

Candace Hicks, String Theory: Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse (detail), Volume II, 2012, sewn artist's book, 14" x 18" x 8"

But the main event is her writing. And she's right--one might just ignore these writings in a composition book, or even typeset and published in a chapbook. There is something compelling about the format she has chose, and flipping the heavy canvas pages is curiously pleasurable. I sat in that crowded room, tuning out the conversation, and read through it.

Candace Hicks, String Theory: Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse (detail), Volume II, 2012, sewn artist's book, 14" x 18" x 8" 

This work contains contradictions. The casualness of a diary or set of notes is contrasted with the  labor-intensive means of reproducing them. The male-ness of much science fiction  and the culture that surrounds it is contrasted with the female-ness of embroidery, a traditional woman's art that has historically been neglected by art historians in favor of "male" arts like painting and architecture. Hicks collapses these contradictions, at least temporarily, in this exhibit.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Like an artist in a punch bowl

Dean Liscum

When I went to Emily Sloan's Baby Ruth in a Swimming Pool at Darke Gallery, I expected a literal re-enactment of the Caddyshack movie's eponymous gag, which became a cultural meme long before a meme was anything but an esoteric term in evolutionary biology.

some of the many Darke Gallery diehards

When I arrived in the middle of the sweltering summer Saturday, I was impressed by the attendance. The crowd maintained a consistent size of about ten as people rotated in and out viewing, drinking a beer or a glass of chardonnay, eating a mini-Baby Ruth or two, and putting the two valets through their paces. And of course, there was Emily in the pool, which was not what I expected but what I should have expected.

Life-size floating dummy, Emily Sloan, or Both?

At first glance, I thought she'd constructed a life-size, human float. But upon closer inspection I realized...

...that the floating dummy was Emily, serene and silent, floating in the pool like a Baby Ruth in a swimming pool or a turd in a punch bowl.

Having attended other performance pieces of Sloan's such as the Nap Convention or Carrie Nation, I'd expected more interaction. I waited. There wasn't. After I thought about it, drinking beer and gnoshing on mini-Baby Ruths, I realized that she wasn't even the star of the performance. Fellow artist David McClain pointed out a Baby Ruth (or a shit that looked like one) that had sunk near the pool steps. I felt justified for now I had my literal interpretation/re-enactment. But then in light of the brown log, her roll became even less clear. Was she the protector of the Baby Ruth? Its doppelganger? Was she keeping it company? Was she communing with it? Was she saving it for later?

Sloan with mini-Baby Ruth balanced on her bosom by some  asshole, a.k.a. me.

Another anomaly for a Sloan show was the role of the audience. Usually in her performances, the audience has a clearly defined participatory role. In Wash, we were washed. In Nap, we slept. In Carrie Nation, we were scolded for the degenerates that we were assumed to be (and probably were, it was after all at Notsuoh). In this performance, nada. Disoriented and without direction, I decided to define my own role and placed a mini-Baby Ruth on Sloan's chest.

Now, lying in the water, Sloan not only looked tranquil and cool, but she attained an art historical reference. Her position, costume, my prop, and the blue of the water resembled Matisse's cutouts, specifically Matisse's Icarus from his 1943 Jazz book.

Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1943

After I initiated interacting with Sloan, another attendee put pink sunglasses on her. Perhaps this was an act of charity. (It was sunny.) Perhaps, it was an act of gamesmanship (to one up me). Perhaps, it was an act of fashion. (The pink glasses did "pop" against the black outfit). Regardless, that only upped the ante. I couldn't leave well enough alone. I removed the wrapper from the candy bar. When I left, Sloan was in the following state.

On my mini-Baby Ruth-fueled drive home, I wondered about the purpose of the performance. Unlike most performances that I've seen/read about involving water, this one didn't equate water with life or rejuvenation. Rather, the water seemed to be a fluid in which a solid substance (one Baby Ruth candy bar or one female artist or both) was temporarily dispersed via agitation to create a suspension.

And so, I'm still waiting for the purpose of the piece to settle to the bottom of my mind.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gertrude Barnstone in 1984

Robert Boyd

Gertrude Barnstone in Mexico in 1959

From Honkytonk Gelato (1985) by Stephen Brook:
At the Contemporary Arts Museum, which was packed with contemporary artists who'd flocked to the Christmas party, with romping children and adults drinking, a painter was complaining to me that the slump in oil prices had also meant that corporations were buying less art. Houston was no longer a lucrative market for a large crop of artists.
"Do corporations know a great deal about modern art?"
"Zilch. See that guy over there? He's an art consultant. He tells them what to buy."
"Does he know a great deal about art?"
"You gotta be kidding. And you'll find a lot of us resent that people like him are determining what gets bought and what doesn't."
After an hour Gertrude Barnstone, who'd invited me, retrieved me and took me off to another party, at the Art League. We soon located the room with smoked salmon and cornered a table. With my mind dulled by the easy-going blandness of Dallas, to meet someone like Gertrude was refreshing. She was a feminist and quite radical in her politics. I wasn't used to that in Texas. [...] All over Texas I'd either had to keep my head down or explain myself. With Gertrude I could relax, as it became obvious that many ideas and values were shared and did not have to be either  tactfully suppressed or strenuously established. She was puzzled by my surprise at this, not knowing--how could she?--that endless conversations about property prices and skiing trips had begun to anesthetize my brain.
I read this when I was living overseas in the mid-80s. I had no idea who Gertrude Barnstone was, but it was quite thrilling to be reading about the art scene in Houston as seen from the point of view of a witty English travel writer. Since then, I've met Barnstone a couple of times with the Friday morning artists breakfast club. She's 87 years old and still sculpting, although she has a helper do her welding for her now. An artist and activist, Gertrude Barnstone belongs in the small pantheon of great Houstonians.

A Gertrude Barnstone gate


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mark Flood-Rothko

Robert Boyd

Rothko Chapel détourned by Scott Gilbert

Scott Gilbert on Facebook yesterday: "I've started a Kickstarter and a petition drive to get Mark Flood to renovate the Rothko Chapel."


He's Not Sorry

Robert Boyd

Uriel Landeros speaks. Apparently, he defaced a Picasso with spray paint because he is mad about stuff.



Robert Boyd

In my post about Marfa, there is a large Chinati-shaped hole. Without Chinati, Marfa is just a Border Patrol post/cow town. But it happened mostly by accident. New York artist Donald Judd, who had long liked the desert Southwest and had taken his family on camping trips many times, happened to be offered a couple of buildings for sale cheap in Marfa at a moment when he was pondering moving out of New York.

Donald Judd was a successful artist in New York. Certainly he was one of the most famous of the minimalists--perhaps not as well-known as Frank Stella, but up there. His name was known in the art world long before his art was because of his years as an art critic. In some ways, he made as big an impact as a writer than as an artist--his writing style is admirably matter-of-fact. Indeed, it recalls the stripped-down prose of Cormac McCarthy, another transplant to the desert southwest.
Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture. Usually it has been related, closely or distantly, to one or the other. The work is diverse, and much in it that is not in painting and sculpture is also diverse. But there are some things that occur nearly in common. [Donald Judd, "Specific Objects," 1965]
This quote from Judd's famous essay "Specific Objects" doesn't exactly sound like he's talking about Minimalism per se. When we think of Judd, we think of him in the company of Stella, Carl André, Dan Flavin, and so on. One of the things that surprises one about Chinati is that it isn't all striped-down Minimalism. You have work by artists like John Chamberlain, John Wesley and Ilya Kabakov there whose work has nothing to do with Minimalism. Judd had surprising broad tastes, and even in "Specific Objects," he refers with approval to artists who are working far afield from the Minimalist idiom.

His object with Chinati was not, therefore, to build a temple of Minimalism.  What drove him to the sheds and barracks of Fort D.A. Russell was a concern for display. As a sculptor, he had been disappointed with the way museums displayed his work. There was always too much other stuff around it--paintings in particular. His feeling was that sculpture needed to be in a dialogue with architecture, but that the relative clutter of a museum prevented this. (His ideas have been adopted at various newer museums, like the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art.)

To put his concepts of display in practice, he first bought a six-storey building in New York City that would be his home, his studio, and exhibition space for his work and work of artists he collected. But this building apparently became overwhelmed with artworks. He had the same problem as a museum--too much work to show.

In the meantime, Judd and his family had taken many trips to the Southwest, including two summers spent in Marfa. In 1971, he rented two dilapidated warehouses to store a bunch of his larger artwork. He subsequently bought the warehouses and some adjacent property in 1973. After restoration work, these would become Judd's studio and house in 1979.

Donald Judd's compound

The addition of a high wall around these structures give it the look of a compound. It ain't exactly neighborly. It makes me wonder what Judd's relation to the town was.

Today, this compound (and several other buildings downtown) are owned by the Judd Foundation. They contain his personal art collection, which is apparently substantial. I didn't see this work or the insides of these buildings, unfortunately. Despite their close relationship, Chinati and the Judd Foundation are distinct operations (I'd like to know the story behind this). You can tour the various Judd buildings in Marfa is you make a reservation and are willing to cough up $50. I passed this time, but maybe the next time I'm in Marfa, I'll take the tour.

In any case, Judd's personal properties were kind of a dress rehearsal for Chinati. Working with the Dia Foundation, Judd started buying up property around town with the intention of exhibiting some large pieces of art by himself, Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. The first two properties purchased were the artillery sheds from Fort D.A. Russell. These large brick structures had been used for storing munitions and during World War II for housing German POWs. These buildings had been basically out of commission since 1949. Judd replaced the garage doors on the buildings with large windows, and when the roofs leaked, he added quonset-style metal roofs.

The artillery sheds at Chinati

These two buildings house 100 aluminum boxes by Judd. I'm sorry to say that I didn't take any photos of them--photography was not allowed. I'm sure there is some artistic justification for this, but the effect is to force viewers to buy the Chinati coffee table book, which I did. Here's a picture of Judd's boxes from Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd.

Donald Judd, Artillery Sheds with 100 Works in Mill Aluminum (detail), 1982-86, brick structure and aluminum objects

All the boxes are the same dimensions, arranged in four parallel rows. The large windows allow one to look east at another large Judd sculpture out in the field beside the old fort. To the west are old barracks. This display seems to fulfill Judd's desire for an uncluttered environment in which to view his work. It's easy to see the whole project as a bit megalomaniacal. The sheds were unair-conditioned, and it was cooler outside than in. It made us want to get through it as quickly as possible. But the environment was beautiful. Judd really created a work that made sense as a piece of architecture. The boxes came across as non-functional furniture within the space. It was the combination of the boxes and the architectural setting that made it work. And that was obviously Judd's intent.

The Dia Foundation commissioned the boxes, but all was not well with Dia. The main problem was that the foundation was financed by Schlumberger stock that it owned. (The stock came from Philippa de Menil, one of the founders of Dia and a daughter of John and Dominique de Menil.) I'm assuming that Dia financed Marfa through a combination of dividends and sales of the stock. The problem was that Schlumberger stock tracks oil prices (Schlumberger is an oil field services company). In 1980, the stock reached $21 a share. By 1982, it had reached $8.50. It climbed a bit in 1983 to $15, but it quickly fell and remained at $7 and $8 for the rest of the decade. The price of oil went into a 15 year decline. The Chinati book blandly states,
In 1983 an extremely critical phase began: Dia's financial situation took a turn for the worse. The foundation was financed almost exclusively by the returns on Philippa Pellizzi's Schlumberger stock, and after the price plummeted over a year's time and continued to decline, Dia was forced to take "extreme measures." [...] Marfa was to become a non-profit organization apart from Dia.
The actual story was a bit more complex. When Dia suggested to Judd that Marfa be spun off, Judd sued Dia. There was a great deal of tension between Dia co-founder Heiner Friedrich and Judd. Judd was very aggressive with Dia, and had negotiated a extremely lucrative contract with them. According to New York Magazine, after 1981, Marfa "would be permanently maintained and [...] Judd would get $17,500 a month as a combined installation payment and salary." ("Medicis For a Moment," Phoebe Hoban, New York, November 25, 1985) Basically with the threat of a lawsuit over their heads, Dominique de Menil effected a coup at Dia and tossed Freidrich out on his ear. But no board reorganization could make Schlumberger stock increase in value, so the divorce from Dia was completed despite Judd's wishes. (I'm reminded of the t-shirt that SubPop published when it went through an existential crisis--"What part of 'we have no money' don't you understand?")

This was how Chinati began in 1986--lots of assets but no money. Judd suddenly had to go begging, which must not have been pleasant, particularly for a guy who acted like he was entitled to Dia's millions just a few years before. Nonetheless, he was successful, even if it was touch-and-go for the rest of his life. When he died, his estate was in debt. The Chinati Foundation had to quickly expand its board and secure additional sources of funding. Which it accomplished.

In the meantime, Chinati had grown substantially. In addition to the 100 aluminum boxes, Judd placed a series of large concrete boxes out in a field on the southwest side of the old fort. Unlike the other works in the collection, visitors are permitted to photograph these Freestanding Works in Concrete. But you aren't allowed to touch them.

Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete

Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete

Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete

When I posted a photo of myself posing in front of one of these boxes on Facebook, Dan Havel wrote:
Ahh, good ol' Judd land. Whenever I see those concrete boxes of his, methinks Judd was just influenced by culvert construction...In fact, seen monumental stacks of these by highway that are much more interesting than Judds. On the other hand, 100 boxes is incredibly beautiful in context of the buildings they are in. (Comment on Facebook, August 14, 2012)
This comment was attached to a photo of concrete culverts that he had photographed--which look remarkably like the Judds. And the thing is, these kinds of practical undecorated concrete structures are all around us, mostly unnoticed. Obviously Judd noticed them.

Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete, with concrete cisterns in the foreground

In fact, in the same field as Freestanding Works in Concrete were several old concrete cisterns, presumably dating back to the fort's days as a cavalry outpost. Aside from the fact that they are a bit worn and open on top, they are extremely similar to Judd's artwork just beyond them. Leaving them in the field had to be a deliberate action on Judd's part. He may have been reminding us that these sculptures, though abstract in any ordinary sense, were based on something--the practical heavy objects that people made of concrete.

But to me, when I imagine the way these cisterns have been used over the decades, or when I recall exploring storm sewers and culverts as an unsupervised kid, the preciousness of Judd's works seems slightly absurd. DO NOT TOUCH! I think Freestanding Works in Concrete would be improved by the addition of several teenagers drinking beers and smoking on them.

John Chamberlain Building in downtown Marfa

Not all of Chinati is on the site of the old fort. The John Chamberlain Building is in downtown Marfa. This former mohair wool warehouse sits alongside the railroad tracks that run through town (and which provided Marfa its original reason to exist, as a watering station for trains). The wool industry was subsidized by the U.S. Army during World War II. The armies invading Europe needed warm clothes, so that meant that West Texas, which had never had a wool industry before, was roped into the war effort. After the war, the subsidy and the industry disappeared, leaving behind this vast empty building. In fact, Marfa went into a long decline after World War Two--the military bases which had been so important to the city closed up, and between 1950 and 1957, there was a drought so severe that the area never fully recovered. Many farmers and ranchers simply pulled up stakes and left. When Judd came to town, land and buildings could be bought cheap.

The mohair warehouse was used to house a large collection of John Chamberlain. Again, photography was not allowed. And again, the work in conjunction with the architecture was perfect. I have long loved Chamberlain's work, and I was extremely pleased with his retrospective at the Guggenheim this year, but this was a much finer setting for the work.

Interior of the John Chamberlain Building

The pieces were large and impressive, scattered across the vast floor like boulders rolling off a mountain into the plain. That seemed deliberate. It was as if they wanted you, inside this warehouse, to be reminded of the landscape outside. But the arrangement was not random. It was more like a Japanese garden, where each element has a kind of autonomy while looking beautiful in conjunction with the other elements. A viewer had the ability to walk all around each piece, to step back and come close. But in this process, that viewer was always capturing glimpses of other Chamberlains receding into the distance. This effect worked well with the lockstep 100 boxes in the artillery sheds and worked equally well with this scattered group. It was the size of the spaces that Judd needed to do this. And this notion of massive spaces for large works has been repeated at such venues as Mass MOCA and Dia: Beacon. I propose that in this era of dead malls, defunct superstores, and places like the Astrodome, this concept could be expanded. I, for one, would pay money to tour Dia: Astrodome.

Most of the other works are in the barracks buildings. These U-shaped buildings seem a little awkward for displaying art. Judd initially offered them all to Dan Flavin, but Flavin only wanted six of them. His installations were not completed until after his death, and they are some of the most spectacular of all the installations at Chinati.

You enter one side of the barrack. The room is empty and fairly dark (there is a window at one end, so there is some natural light). The long thin room ends at the bottom of the "U", and the viewer can see some colored light shining faintly from this dark end of the room. When you walk down to the end, you see two trapezoidal hallways. And at the end of the hallways (which can be long or short, depending on which barrack you are in) are a series of colored fluorescent lights and a second bunch of differently colored fluorescent behind them. So each hallway has a different combination of colors.

Dan Flavin, untitled (Marfa project), 1996, installation

Dan Flavin, untitled (Marfa project), 1996, installation

Standing in these halls was extremely disorienting. The slanted lights and walls gave it the feeling of a funhouse. The longer I stood in the halls, the more you felt myself wanting to lean. I wonder if viewers ever fall over. These works show that "minimalism" is not necessarily the right terms for his art. He is using his medium--fluorescent lights and architecture--to create a total experience. It's not about subtracting or paring down. And by using architecture as an element, he was in tune with Judd's conception of Marfa.

Ilya Kabakov, School No. 6 (detail), 1993, installation

The same can be said of Ilya Kabakov, even though he is a very different artist from the others above, and his use of the barrack he was given is likewise very different. He wasn't interested in creating a perfect environment for displaying some objects. He was interested in the barrack's status as an abandoned, defunct space. These barracks had held cavalry soldiers, ready to mount up and push back any spillover from the Mexican Revolution. They were an obsolete corner of the history of the 20th century. Kabakov decided to create another obsolete corner of that history here--a Soviet schoolhouse called School No. 6.

The work barrack is filled with wrecked furniture, papers, straw, dirt, musical instruments, sports equipment, books, school supplies, and vitrines filled with pictures and little written notes. One good reason to buy the big Chinati book is that it translates the notes. They are memories of children of various events the school. Some seem quite universal, and some are very Soviet specific (a pilot donates a matchbook and a single burned match to the school--when he was shot down, he survived in the forest by lighting fires to keep warm as he made his way back to the front. The burned match was his very last one, with which he lit a signal fire and was rescued). The installation depicts a turned page of history.

The courtyard, unlike the other barracks at Chinati, has been allowed to become overgrown with desert plants. The top of the "U" is crudely fenced off. The fence is flimsy and has many gaps--when you look through them, you see Judd's artillery sheds. I think this may have been a little joke on Kabakov's part. He wanted you, standing within this deliberate shambles, to be able to see the clean perfection of Judd's vision.

When Kabakov created School No. 6, he took off the doors and windows facing the inner courtyard. The idea was that the elements would enter the building, allowing the artfully-created illusion of decay to become actual decay. Sand and desert critters would come inside. But when the staff discovered that insects were eating the paper, they asked Kabakov if they could close off the inside from the outside. Kabakov must have been amused by this request, but he assented. A staff of Chinati so dedicated to permanence--DO NOT TOUCH!--couldn't handle the idea that a work was designed to erode away to nothingness.

Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen, Monument to the Last Horse, 1991, aluminum, polyurethane, paint

And conservation is sometimes a challenge. Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen's Monument to the Last Horse was being repaired when I was there. The piece was made out of aluminum (fabricated from a small model by the same fabricators that did Judd's boxes.) But the rough surface was made of polyurethane attached to the aluminum framework. Then the whole thing was painted brown. It's a lovely tribute to the history of Fort D.A. Russell, and as an outsized sculpture of a normally small thing, it simultaneously fits in with Oldenburg and Van Bruggen's oeuvre and fits in with other local monuments--for example, the mammoth roadrunner Paisano Pete in Fort Stockton.

The problem is that the paint was being slowly sandblasted away by nature. The polyurethane was in danger or eroding if the paint went away. When I was there, they were removing the paint by "sandblasting" it with ground-up walnut  shells (a substance that turns out to have a large variety of industrial uses) in preparation for repainting it. The ground around Monument to the Last Horse was covered with reddish walnut shell dust.

In addition to these pieces, there are paintings by John Wesley, sculptures by Richard Long, Roni Horn, David Rabinowitch and Carl André, and drawings by Ingólfur Arnarsson. The base hospital is being slowly converted into a space for work by Robert Irwin.

In the end, Chinati feels like a monument to Donald Judd's ego, but that doesn't bother me so much. Many museums start their lives as monuments to someone's ego. Usually it's some rich guy--"Look, here is the beauty I owned." Why not let an artist do the same? After all, Chinati feels very different from your garden variety museum. Judd was willing and able to give the work he displayed profound dignity--each artist has his own place and room for the work to breathe. It should be noted, however, that his vision is very macho--gigantic pieces made of construction materials, and only one female artist in the whole bunch (and the piece Van Bruggen helped create is itself sort of a male fantasy). You see this and wonder, what would a female Chinati look like? What if Donald Judd had died 1970 of a brain tumor and Eva Hesse had lived on to create a vast collection out in the desert?

These are the kind of thoughts that can come to you as you wander from barrack to barrack, going crazy from the heat.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Against Metaphor

Mel Bochner, Win!, 2009 , acrylic on wall , 38 feet 2 inches by 33 feet 3 inches 

"Art writing in the 1950s and early '60s was uniformly bad (and bland) with the exception of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. [...] A good many of the reviewers at the time came from literary backgrounds, usually the New York School of poetry, which showed up in their exaggerated claims and overripe metaphors." [untitled paper from The Writings of Donald Judd, Mel Bochner, 2008]

"Rather, what influenced me in Orwell was his direct use of the English language, in exposition and in argument. This was a most uncommon attribute of art criticism [in the 1950s and early 60s]. Probably it has always been. Every period finds its own peculiar modes of obsfucation and intolerable bullshit when art is under discussion. Today, at least in American academe, the prevalent mode is an abstract, colonial parody of French poststructuralist jargon, thickened with gobbets of decayed Marxism. But in the early sixties, one had to contend with an airy-fairy. metaphor-ridden kind of pseudo-poetry, which infested the art magazines and made reading about art a bore and a trial." [Things I Didn't Know, Robert Hughes, 2006]


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Seen in Marfa

Robert Boyd

(More here)


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Queen of Paris: The Life of Misia Sert

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

Art historians by nature spend a great deal of time “in a pocket of the past,” to borrow a phrase from Edmund Wilson. This might account for my reading Misia Sert’s biography four times, except for the fact that she is so interesting.

Because Misia’s portrait was painted so frequently, there are ample opportunities to see her image today. I see one by Lautrec when I visit a friend’s print collection. A Vuillard painting of Misia was reproduced in the summer issue of ARTnews. And the Musée D’Orsay is currently offering Misia: Queen of Paris, an exhibition that gathered together portraits, photographs and correspondence related to her life.

Here is a brief summary of that life: Misia was painted by many important artists. She was an exceptionally talented pianist and as a child played Beethoven sitting on the lap of Franz Liszt. She helped to underwrite Diahgilev’s Ballet Russes when he brought it to Paris--Parisians can thank Misia for Nijinsky’s leaps and Stravinsky’s compositions. Misia’s influence was considerable, by pulling strings she could get a director of the French Conservatory dismissed, or obtain for an artist a Prix de Rome. Proust based two of his novel’s characters on Misia, immortalizing her in literature the way artists did on canvas. Proust called Misia “a monument of history.”

Maria Godebska Natanson Edwards Sert (1872-1950), Polish by birth, was a Parisian hostess and art patron. As the wife of Thadée Natanson, publisher of La Revue blanche magazine, she entertained artists and writers associated with the publication. Her second husband’s fortune allowed her to play hostess to “le gratin,” nobility and other swells, in her opulent apartment on the rue de Rivoli, a thematic point of interest for the D’Orsay’s curators who wrote, “The cream of Parisian society sought to be invited to her dinners and after-theater suppers.” Mallarmé, Valéry, Lautrec, Renoir, Bonnard, Vallotton, Picasso, Debussy, Stravinski, Richard Strauss, Diaghilev and Ravel were among the artists and writers included in Misia’s circle.

I choose to see Marcel Proust’s insufferable flattery of grandees as strategy; instead of simply being ridiculous, Proust was working! To create such a brilliant, subtle and astringent portrait of his milieu required hawk-eyed observation. Proust was Misia’s guest, and incorporated her role as hostess into his novel. About Misia’s fictional counterpart, Proust’s narrator states, “Royalty were not too proud to want to be her guest.”

A complex life naturally includes a few disreputable details - a lesbian relationship with Coco Chanel, for one, that “scandalous” ménage à trois underlying her third marriage, and then there was her petite morphine habit, she was known to jab the needle through her clothes. She was probably introduced to smack by her third husband, José-Maria Sert, who adored booze and cocaine. (Recreational drug use was not uncommon, Proust spoke of “the beauty of opium.")

Renoir loved to paint Misia, I know of three of his portraits, and I’m sure there are more. Supposedly he wrote her love letters which she claims she destroyed. Renoir pleaded with her, she wrote in her memoirs, to fully reveal her breasts. Being elderly and arthritic did not stop him from wanting to see that gorgeous bosom, unsurprising for a masterful painter of creamy flesh tones.

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Misia, 1904, Oil

Vuillard’s correspondence reveals he was hopelessly in love with Misia at the time she was married to Thadée Natanson. The night Vuillard looked at her and began to cry, Misia decided, was one of the most beautiful declarations of love any man had ever made to her. Vuillard’s adoration can be detected in the portrait below, in which the seated figure seems to be illuminated in a Belle Epoque interior rendered with depth distortion and unnatural coloring. Vuillard never married.

Edouard Vuillard, Misia et Thadée Natanson, 1897, Oil

Misis’a first divorce involved a questionable commercial arrangement between her first and second husband. Thadée needed money, and Alfred Edwards coveted Thadée’s wife. While Misia was blowing Edwards’ money, she was loosing him to his mistress the actress Genevieve Lantelme. Bonnard painted panels for her new apartment on the Quai Voltaire, and on them referenced a cat fight between Misia and the mistress over a pearl necklace. Lantelme was a piece of work. She attempted to seduce Misia while she was stealing Edwards. The actress died mysteriously on Edwards’ yacht, which brought Misia a bit of negative attention including a play about her life.

Pierre Bonnard was not the only artist to gently mock Misia with his art. When she destroyed one of his portraits because she found it unflattering, Lautrec retaliated by portraying Misia as a brothel madam with prominent jowls and garish red hair. Art historical anecdotes indicate Misia tolerated the antics of the very inebriated Lautrec, until he made sexual advances towards her maid.

Through the influence of her third husband, the Catalan painter José María Sert, Misia moved into the avant-gardist circle of Serge Diaghilev, who needed money for his Ballet Russes. Among the works of art Misia helped to support were Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Parade by Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau. “Misia possessed,” her biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale asserted, “an instinctive grasp of difficult avant-garde works” and give by way of example Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, derived from poetry by Stéphane Mallarmé, elaborating thus, “Nijinsky’s fetishistic masturbatory handling of the nymph’s veil upset the audience who expected his double leaps.”

Don’t forget that Picasso designed the cubist style stage sets and costumes for the ballet Parade, one of his forays into theater. This was at the same time that he snatched for his first wife one of Diaghilev’s ballerinas. Proust understood the Russian ballet’s artistic significance. His novel’s narrator displays reverence for “when Paris observed the prodigious flowering of the Ballets Russes, revealing Bakst, Nijinsky, Benois, the genius of Stravinsky.”

Misia Sert in Venice, 1948 – Musée D’Orsay exhibition image

Before she sponsored talent, Misia discerned it, flawlessly according to many. Clive James in his profile on Misia stated, “her personality was volcanic, her taste was original, penetrating and in most cases definitive.” Nevertheless it is the opinion of more than a few that Misia enjoyed causing trouble as much as she did fostering creativity. Perhaps it was insistence on artistic excellence that made her imperious and rude, she walked out on Mallarmé’s poetry reading, but he remained devoted. Many of the traits Proust assigned to his battleaxe hostess Madame Verdurin were Misia’s. Paul Morand, an acquaintance, said Misia was “more Madame Verdurin than the original, taking to or rejecting men and women at first glance.” Clive James reduced Misia’s haughtiness to, “you had to be gifted before Misia wanted to know you.”

Musée D’Orsay curators picked up on the theme of Misia as a divisive trouble maker when they wrote, “Misia was an arbiter of taste and fashion, bringing together her friends just to set them against each other at a later date.” In this they were guided by memoirs and biographies offering evidence that Misia at times could be a witch. Jean Cocteau’s biography is one, but Cocteau’s statements must be understood in light of his belief that Diaghilev stifled his theatrical art. “The impresario,” Cocteau wrote, “was an expert at making trouble for recalcitrant or ‘disloyal’ artists, and to do the job more thoroughly he had the habit of enlisting the very considerable trouble-making expertise of Misia Sert.”

Misia was godmother to Picasso’s first son, and Picasso painted her portrait. Picasso biographer John Richardson spits venom at Misia. Among the bitchy things Richardson called Misia were, “a liar,” “famously dangerous,” “meddlesome.” “Backstabbing proclivities,” was another sulfurous term. It’s ironic that one of the best Misia stories I have ever read came from Richardson. Misia, in her box at the Ballet, raises a lorgnette to survey the packed house, and recognizing no one she knows says, “There’s no one here!”

In 1914 when the German army was advancing on Paris, Cocteau forgave his “chere Misia” for whatever treacheries he believed she and Diaghilev committed, and joined her convoy of ambulances bringing aid to the front. Parisian couturiers owed her, Misia figured, so she got them to turn over their delivery vans and donate supplies. The narrative of Misia’s ambulance brigade appears summarized in Francis Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau and is worth repeating:
(Misia’s) energy diverted from ballet to patriotism, she had obtained authorization from General Gallieni, the military governor of Paris, to form a convoy of ambulances to administer first aid as close to the front as possible; she persuaded the grands couturiers to contribute their idle vans, had their interiors refitted, and formed a team of volunteers that included Sert, Cocteau, Iribe, and a professional nurse, apparently the Madame Rumilly mentioned by Gide. Headed by Misia’s own Mercedes, which contained Misia herself, Iribe at the wheel, and Cocteau beside him “dressed by Poiret as a volunteer male nurse,” the convoy set off toward the firing line. The horrifying sights they soon met up with are described by Misia in her memoirs – the bodies of dead horses littering the roads, fragments of men and animals thrown in the air by explosives still hanging on the branches of trees.
After that war Misia put on a gala in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The next war illuminated a few cowards, which Misia and Cocteau, who attempted to rescue the poet Max Jacobs from the Nazis, certainly were not. Misia’s string pulling could not save Jacob’s life. What did Picasso do to help his friend? By the time Misia was finding Coco Chanel her clients and instructing her on matters of art and taste, her irreplaceable influence had spanned the disciplines of art, music, literature, dance, theater and fashion.

About the homosexuality - belief and doubt are evenly divided. Cocteau wrote a play based on Misia’s sexual attraction to her third husband’s very young mistress, critics blasted it as “vacuous.” And she and Coco Chanel fought like lovers; Misia resented Chanel’s veering into art patronage. (Chanel said Misia’s husband stank - Misia declared it was she who conceived the idea of selling perfume.)

In her memoir Chanel said Misia was, “my one real friend, but my feeling for her was more than friendship.” When Misia died in 1950, Chanel dressed her body and laid it on flowers. After Misia’s death Chanel wrote, “we love people only for their faults; Misia gave me ample reason to love her.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson, 1895, Oil on Cardboard

Lautrec created one of the most captivating portraits ever made of Misia in 1895. She is depicted in her theater box dressed in a seductive low-back gown, leaning forward to watch the performance. Lautrec’s image has consonance with Proust’s literary characterization of Misia as the Princess Yourbeletieff. “The princess,” Proust’s narrator said, “was a sponsor of all these new great men.” The narrator describes the princess in her box at the Ballet, “bearing on her head an immense, quivering aigrette, unknown to the women of Paris, which they all sought to copy.”

Proust’s literary profile blends well with Cocteau’s eye witness description of Misia in her theater box, “Madame Sert sat wearing her Persian aigrette and Diaghilev stood behind her, watching his dancers through a tiny mother-of-pearl opera glass.”