September 13, 2014

Genius coasting

Wait, this is funny:

…and purposefully so, I’d argue. At the top is Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach from 1922. The women are usually identified as maenads, who make a habit of running around in bacchic frenzy, partying or tearing somebody limb from limb, and if you keep that in mind the painting might actually hold some sort of balance between frenetic energy and downright goofiness…that is, until you see the Dalí beneath that, which is Women Lying on the Beach from 1926. It must be a direct riposte, no? An after to Picasso’s before, there’s even a woman with a leg cramp! He's pulling Pablos leg? Actually we know that Dalí had a color reproduction of the Two Women on his studio wall at the time, says Ian Gibson’s biography of the man (quoting the painter’s sister).

But Gibson doesn’t mention the Women on the Beach, and usually the influence of Picasso’s neo-classicist works on the younger painter is illustrated with a very related Dalí work, the much better known Figure on the Rocks, also from 1926. Here a single woman is glued to the rock in something close to a crucifixion pose, with overtones of Prometheus waiting for his eagle to return. She actually has one upstretched leg like the woman with the cramp, but here it’s rested on a sort of rocky pedestal. So indeed, one might approach this painting in proper terms and conclude that Dalí used Picasso’s sturdy neo-classicism to give the topic some weight…and yet, the Three Women stand more for what I like in early Dalí (I'm reacquainting myself with him for work, so I’m thumbing through the complete paintings and reading the biography), the way he comes to Paris just asking for trouble, taking over Tanguy’s complete shtick wholesale, or trademark elements of Arp or Ernst, somewhere between appropriation and poking his tongue out. This confrontative attitude in hindsight gets kind of lost through our knowledge of the myth-mongering to come. 

1926 is also the year that Dalí first met Picasso on an early trip to Paris. Here’s how he tells the story in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí: “When I arrived at Picasso’s studio I was as deeply moved and as full of respect as though I was having an audience with the Pope. ‘I have come to see you,’ I said, ‘before visiting the Louvre.’ ‘Quite right,’ he answered. I had brought a small painting, carefully packed; he looked at it for at least fifteen minutes, and made no comment whatsoever. After which we went up to the next storey, where for two hours Picasso showed me quantities of his paintings. He kept going back and forth, dragging out great canvases which he placed against the easel. Then he went to fetch others among an infinity of canvases stacked in rows against the wall. I could see that he was going to enormous trouble. At each new canvas he cast me a glance filled with a vivacity and an intelligence so violent that it made me tremble…”

Dalí also doesn’t say anything, and this appears an indication that he’ll be worthy of the master. Picasso would remain a lifelong obsession: in the early 1930s, for example, Dalí pretended the two of them had collaborated on an etching, though, to quote Gibson, “without the knowledge of the older artist, Dalinian additions were made to a previous Picasso print [Three Bathers, we’re staying on the beach] and the a new engraving of their ‘collaboration’ was run off.” Or, in 1933, there was a double portrait of Picasso being Dalí made by Philippe Halsman, who often collaborated with the latter on elaborately staged photographs that cemented the myth of the mad genius (who levitated cats or exercised his moustache). One could easily characterize Dalí’s behavior as trollish (in the modern sense of the word), before they drifted into different camps politically, which led Dalí to attack Picasso as an anarchist, and Picasso to ignore the younger man altogether. Anyway, to come back to the initial pairing of paintings, I also found a little undated sketch, probably from that later period (I guess, since it is inscribed in English) of one of the Women at the Beach. And while the joke this time is a different one, note that again the motif is used for a joke: “Picasso’s Influence,” it says on top of the sheet. I need Picasso like I need a cramp in the foot.

The point of Dalí’s obsession was genius. Picasso was regarded as the officially approved undeniable genius as a force of nature, while Dalí had to work for/with the concept, receiving inspiration through the antennae of his moustache, defining and redefining his role (“the only difference between Dalí and a madman is, Dalí is not mad…”—by the way it takes him ten times as long to throw the punch line in the clips I’ve seen, often his humor gets lost in the delivery). Of course, his is also the much more tolerable concept of genius compared to standing around in underpants and projecting virility pointing a brush…but then again when I think of that Picassoan self-image, I have to think of the film The Mystery of Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot from 1956, where the protagonist bends gender every bit as subtly as his rival, the professed masturbator.

The mystery of the title (which is, in more absolute terms, the mystery of creation, which we are supposed to witness through the lens of Picasso’s effort) isn’t to be found anywhere in the film, unfortunately. It doesn’t help that this is, for my taste, the worst period for Picasso, in which he produced endless formal variations of his received themes (bullfighting, women with funnily constructed faces), and had not yet found the formal casualness of the late work, which allowed him to explore these and more private themes in more depth again. The circumstances of the making (the close camera eye, the unusual paints and picture ground used to make each brushstroke visible on film) also wouldn’t have helped. In the most interesting scene, the making of the movie itself is staged: Picasso sits at the canvas under a bright spotlight (think interrogation scenario) in the dark of the studio, and the director orders him to start and stop creating on command, as supposedly film is running short (it’s all a bit ridiculous, since obviously there are several cameras for the artist, the director, the painting being done, the meter counting the length of the film, etc.). In his willingness to please (though he’s very manly and professional about it), Picasso seems almost vulnerable…or does he seem vulnerable because the art is so pretty? He draws a bouquet of flowers, circumscribes it with a frilly fish, sort of turns that into a rooster, with lots of nice decor in it…

“Just stop at the black,” the director says. “Should I get the inks ready?” asks the artist. “Yes but quickly, we have two minutes left.” They turn to color and Picasso draws a silly head over the whole thing, interested only in how he can create, one thing after another, no matter what. Then time is running out again, and no aesthetic conclusion seems in sight, will we have to stop prematurely at what is not yet a satisfying image? No, Clouzot says he’s been cheating, there’s still more film left. You can do that to Picasso. If you keep him as an art slave tied to your bedpost, he will deliver every time.

Dalí describes him in his Secret Life: “Like a slave he is chained hand and foot by the chains of his own inventions.”

Picasso draws what is probably a picture of his genius, a smiling face and around it the dove that always keeps coming back carrying back an olive branch from newfound territories. The artist has no need to question himself, surely he has no shame, and maybe it’s the purest form of genius, unhampered by any intentions.

It really doesn’t seem as if the actual point of the film were what the art looks like. Rather it is about the act, the flow of things as they take and retake shape. I thought it might make sense to distill the pure sounds of Picasso creating stuff. (Listen closely and you can hear the cars outside the window in the background. It’s quite a nice recording, much more open that the visually arranged horror movie laboratory darkness of the studio) So here is, for you to keep, the sound of genius coasting:

April 11, 2014

Unknown at the level of conscious study

Well, after in the previous entry we saw Kasimir Malevich blast a future critical impassé regarding Jasper Johns's crosshatch paintings (which was really Morton Feldman's fault in the first place), here he is again, helping us read our favorite comics of 2013. (If you scroll down to the bottom here you can read that the image is from Malcy Duff's mini I Have Never Seen Anyone Hold Their Nose, which has a story written on the cover beginning: "We can see . . . A woman putting shards of glass all over the outside of her house." From there we thumb through eight pages of  loosely pasted pattern fragments until finally we arrive at just what the story promised we would see: the woman standing before a rectangle inscribed as a house with little jagged fragments that read "glass." So if that doesn't prove the story then I don't know what will.)

Then, in the mostly marvelous book (and it's easy to know where to skip the tedious parts) on the Black Square by Aleksandra Shatskikh, I found this image of a 1915 work by Malevich. She describes that the artist "placed a verbal object, the noun 'Village' pencilled in thick letters, on a piece of paper in a square exhibition frame, and under the 'picture' he provided a commentary: 'Instead of drawing the huts of nature's nooks, better to write Village and it will appear to each with finer details and the sweep of an entire village.'"

Now Shatskikh goes on to speak about how "by taking the figurative principle so important for traditional art outside the framework of plasticity, Malevich put a radical end to visual art and the object as such," and how "in his commentary, the intuivist-irrationalist showed himself to be an adherent of a philosophical tradition unknown to him at the level of conscious study: his 'village' was born in the speculative world of Platonic ideas, a noumenon capable of engendering a multiplicity of phenomena." This is all very well, but it also contradicts the "sweep of an entire village" that the painter himself postulates on the page below the image, where, as Shatskikh describes it, "the swallowed word endings and and the lines' sweeping haste tell us that the idea came over the author instantaneously and he set it down just as instantaneously." Again, a contradiction like this, blocking gut theory through the halting meta-thoughts of a later time, in which an artwork's achievement will be measured by how much historical sense it makes, might in the end provoke an interpretational impassé . . . but here Malcy Duff's panels return the favor by illustrating the painterly qualities of words in rectangles in almost didactical fashion:

PS: Just for the record, I have an email from Duff saying that indeed he has never seen anyone hold their nose. This might one day prove useful to know. The last two panels are from The Heroic Mosh Of Mary's Son from 2008, though.


February 11, 2014

Pattern De-Control, or... relating stuff to other stuff can make us less speechless

Rug-making was fashionable when I was a child and families still had unimaginable amounts of time on their hands. I remember making my own little rug, wearing out my patience and learning the valuable lesson that all aesthetic endeavour must come with such compromise as to take all pride out of it. For a while my rug hung over the sofa to humiliate me, until a parent made a really ambitious one to replace my faulty effort. I also remember my mother knotting a floor rug over months that was really huge and was said to follow traditional Turkish design. Only the colours were too fresh and the material had too much bounce, it would take a hundred years of nervously pacing back and forth to make it look good and valuable.

I think back to all of that now as I listen to Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? (1978), his first work famously inspired by a fascination with antique Anatolian rugs. I’m trying to recall the bodily memory of my own knotting and my faded knowledge of the woolly texture from inside, and apply it to the music. It sure doesn’t sound like rugs. Comparing versions, I prefer the interpretation by California Ear Unit, which has a collective nervousness as if wearing a rug down, but Blum, Vigeland and Williams with their more individual voices following separate lines along sometimes symmetrical, sometimes ornamental contours sound much more as if the rug association made sense... And still, while the composition unfolds, their small adjustments to the coherent vibe, each knot its own situation, become stretched out so far that the thread threatens to loosen.

Sadly, I am not qualified as a listener to connect to my rug-making experience. The only memory I retain of music that happened a mere minute ago is one of mood and density, and the shape of the patterns and how they build one onto the other is lost already. In fact I can think of few musics where I follow the tide – somewhat different, somewhat the same – so contently and think less of a return of distinct patterns or situations. I needn’t feel bad about it, though, since Feldman is fine with me just listening for the sounds. He criticizes that “the preoccupation with making something, with systems and construction, seems to be a characteristic of music today. It has become, in many cases, the actual subject of musical composition.” (Surprisingly he’s not taking a swipe at Cage here, whose systems and construction are probably even better known than the sounds they brought us to hear, but at Boulez and his hardcore implementation of serialism.) “Of course, the history of music is, in a sense, the history of its construction,” Feldman goes on (this is his essay “Predeterminate – Indeterminate” by the way). “Music has always been involved with re-arranging systematized controls, because there seemed to be no alternative.” He describes how through the centuries control got tighter and tighter, to which twelve-tone music again offered no alternative, how systematics took over until complexity could no longer be handled. “What was emphasized was the unifying of all new musical elements into significant form. An emphasis on this more evasive element – sound – would have upset the precarious balance of the ‘ideal composition’.”
And how could it have come to that, how could sound become sidelined by the forces of history? “The evolution of music is comparable to the multiplication of machines, which everywhere collaborate with man. Today, the machine has created such a variety and contention of noises that pure sound in its slightness and monotony no longer provokes emotion. In order to excite and stir our sensibility, music has been developing toward the most complicated polyphony and toward the greatest variety of instrumental timbres and colours.” That in fact was Luigi Russolo talking, whose take on civilization was more positive, but they’re discussing the same thing. Now Feldman is stuck in the middle of the century, with music at a total deadlock as compositional taxonomists immediately file away all innovation until, finally... “between 1950 and 1951 four composers – John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and myself – became friends, saw each other constantly – and something happened.”

What happened was a “concept of music in which various elements (rhythm, pitch, dynamics etc.) were de-controlled... Only by ‘unfixing’ the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music could the sounds exist in themselves – not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with.” Feldman speaks as a maker of music here, such freedom of memories of other music cannot be demanded of the listener, who will perceive that the sounds actually reaching his ear have the same degree of fixedness that any other sounds mindfully listened to would have. It’s true that, say, if I knew the Cage piece I listened to was following systems of carefully calibrated chance procedures, and the notes were not meant to form a kind of musical composition in the traditional understanding, it would let me off the hook as I would not expect from myself to make sense of the musical incidents as they fly by... Yet no matter if born from chance or inspired by graphic notation, the sounds would still be intentionally produced or controlledly communicated, precise utterances of an artful concept or organizations of previously existing but usually unperceived sounds within SilenceTM.

Feldman is not enamoured with the conceptual side, so he thinks less of silence and more of the chance pieces. In his essay “Crippled Symmetry”, he explains the systematics: “What Cage did was to compile a table of sound events – some just a note or two, others arabesque-like figures of different proportions. Included in other charts was information pertaining to the gamut of musical parameters. Through the tossing of coins and consulting the I-Ching as oracle, the ordering and subsequent combination of all this material was arrived at. The music was then ‘fixed’ through the same method of tossing coins into a non-progressive, rhythmic ‘spatial’ notation, not unlike a distance scale on a map.” It is difficult to read about events of this complexity and still believe in de-controlling forces at work (except “fixed” is in scare quotes), since even composerly intent will have no wriggling room once the system is in place. Feldman’s explanation for why this still is sound-centred music accordingly comes from an unexpected angle: “Because this music is subject to the multiplicity of disciplines inherent in its detailed assemblage, its musical shape is only discernible at the moment of hearing – like images in a film.” (While that’s sloppy, as we don’t hear images, and most films are more like listening to our memories of the Moonlight Sonata than anything very chancy at all – we still note that his focus is again on the making, to the point of calling the work an “assemblage” of processes taken ready-made from other disciplines... it is as if the multiplicity of alien intentions were obscuring the raison d’être of the sound itself until it became pure, and that purely in the moment.) “It is not involved with the grammar of design,” Feldman says about Cage’s music, and it is noteworthy that he does not suggest, like Cage himself, it were free of intention, but free only of the language of intent. (And of course Feldman himself at that point was not interested in freedom from intention as a composer at all, he posed more like a patient craftsman, when e.g. in conversation with Cage he said: “I do it one way and then I do it another. I do it with four notes, I do it with three notes. I put it here, I put it there… and then when you’re really saturated I take C and I put it against A and it sounds like a million dollars.”)

But back to the essay “Crippled Symmetry”, back to stories of rugs and, I’m afraid, more systems again. The text is from 1981, three years after Why Patterns?, and the process still sounds fresh to him: “A growing interest in Near and Middle Eastern rugs has made me question notions I previously held on what is symmetrical and what is not. In Anatolian village and nomadic rugs there appears to be considerably less concern with the exact accuracy of the mirror image than in most rug-producing areas. The detail of an Anatolian symmetrical image was never mechanical, but idiomatically drawn...” (Here Russolo’s evolution of music as a multiplication of machines can again stand as the opposite position on the same development towards mechanization, which Feldman as a connoisseur of craft abhors. I do remember from my uncle, who also collected rugs, that asymmetries and off-colours would generally mean more ethnic handicraft and therefore more value, but that such looseness of pattern was often faked in semi-industrialized wares at least since the early 20th century. But back to the composer staring at rugs:) “I’m being distracted by a small Turkish village rug of white tile patterns in a diagonal repeat of large stars in lighter tones of red, green and beige. Though David Sylvester is right in commenting that our appreciation of rugs as this was enhanced by our exposure to modernistic Western art, still this ‘primitive’ rug was conceived at almost the same time that Matisse finished his art training.” Is it not the measure of a true aesthete that he is able to judge the most diverse arts after one set of high-strung aesthetic values, and beyond that expect the same perfectly precarious off-balance of detail from his everyday? “One day I studied that Oriental rug over there in reflected light, and followed the silver gleams which fell on its web of plum violet and opaque yellow. Suddenly it struck me how much it would be improved if I could place on it some object whose deep colour might enhance the vividness of its tints. Possessed by this idea, I was strolling aimlessly along the streets, when suddenly I found myself staring at the solution. There, in a shop window on Eighth Street, lay a huge tortoise in a large basin. I immediately bought it and brought it home. Then I sat for a long time, with eyes half-shut, studying the effect. Decidedly, the Ethiopic black, the harsh Sienna of this shell dulled the rug’s reflections without adding to it. The dominant silver gleams in it barely sparkled, crawling with lacklustre tones of dead zinc against the edges of the hard, tarnished shell. I bit my nails while I thought about a method that might remove these discords and reconcile the opposition of tones. I finally discovered that my first inspiration, which was to animate the fire of the weave by setting it off against some dark object, was wrong. In fact, this rug was too new, too petulant and gaudy. The colours were not sufficiently subdued. I had to reverse the process, dull the tones and extinguish them by the contrast of a striking object, which would eclipse all else and cast a golden light on the pale silver. Seen like that, the problem was easier to solve. I decided to glaze the shell of the tortoise with gold.” A connoisseur of rugs, a somewhat Esseintes-like aesthete (yes, that last passage was from Huysmans) – symbolists studying handicraft of the middle ages, cubist studios full of African sculpture, Feldman’s rugs and Cage studying the I-Ching – connoisseurship often inspires an avant-garde to productively misuse alien aesthetic systems of differently coded knowledge and transfer them to their own doing.

But we’re not through Feldman’s collection of rugs yet: “There is another Anatolian woven object on my floor, which I refer to as the ‘Jasper Johns’ rug. It is an arcane checkerboard format, with no apparent systematic colour design except for a free use of the rug’s colours reiterating its simple pattern. Implied in the glossy pile (though unevenly worn) of the mountainous Konya region, the older pinks, and lighter blues – was my first hint that there was something there that I could learn, if not apply to my music.”

I first came across the parallel inspiration of rugs and Johns’s so-called crosshatch paintings on Feldman’s later work in an essay by Steven Johnson (in the otherwise lacklustre book The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts). To illustrate this, Johnson takes the first painting completely given over to the crosshatch motive, Scent (1974), and starts analyzing its structure as something inherently musical (for elementary class): the painting is in three vertically divided parts – encaustic, oil on unvarnished canvas, oil on varnished canvas – and the crosshatches follow a repeating structure ABC CDE EFA. Then Johnson offers a structural analysis of Why Patterns? to prove the similarity of events with diagrams that look a lot like multi-panel paintings and so forth. And when I read this, most of all it struck me that here a painting’s musical properties served as the inspiration to a piece of music, and so it was more abstract than the music, while the music would reference both rugs and abstract painting to the point of threatening its own non-objectivity. (So much for Pater’s notion of music as the most abstract art the condition of which all other art constantly aspires to.)

Feldman goes on to relate what inspires him about Johns’s art, though reading the words one might suspect he talks more about his own work than the painter’s: “Rug patterns were either abstracted from symbols, nature or geometric shapes – leaving clues from the real world. Jasper Johns’s more recent paintings cannot be placed into any of these categories. Johns’s canvas is more of a lens, where we are guided by his eye as it travels, where the tide – somewhat different, somewhat the same – brings to mind Cage’s dictum of ‘imitating nature in the manner of its operation’. These paintings create, on one hand, the concreteness we associate with a patterned art and, on the other, an abstract poetry from not knowing its origins. We might even question in Johns whether they are patterns at all. When does a pattern become a pattern?” It is a common move in the Johns literature at least since the artist’s painting Flag (1955) to posit that e.g. this flag is not a flag (in the tradition of Magritte’s pipe not being a pipe), or even altogether non-objective. Here Feldman’s interpretation sounds like pretty average artspeak. Still it becomes clear that he was not in fact inspired by any music-like qualities, but rather by the opaqueness of the underlying systematic (which for him equals poetry), and so felt Johns’s work was occupied with similar questions of crippled symmetries and pattern variations as his own.

Further reading reveals that art historians generally seem uncomfortable with the crosshatch paintings when they try to reach beyond a structural analysis. In the standard catalogue on Johns’s work since 1974, Mark Rosenthal starts the relevant chapter by stressing how bewildering the paintings are, then quotes Barbara Rose, who called them “pseudo-abstractions – impersonations of an abstract style” (an abstraction that isn’t an abstraction like Magritte’s “pipe” again)... and somehow nobody thinks to have a good look back at Sol LeWitt’s four kinds of basic straight lines from 1969, which had delivered all the necessary clues even before the fact:

(Here’s Barbara Rose analyzing Johns’s Untitled from 1975: “1) Where edge meets edge, the brushstroke may continue in the direction it began, or it may be diverted in another direction, as if refracted by the edge of a square; 2) the direction of the stroke may remain constant while it changes colour; 3) both the colour as well as the direction of the brushstroke may remain constant across the boundary of a square; 4) in addition, the entire content of a given square may be mirrored in an adjacent square; 5) or the square may be repositioned or ‘flopped’ in the way that a reproduced image can be projected or printed backward; or 6) another possibility is that the medium may change from one square to another.” Morton Feldman analyzing Why Patterns?: “Example 1) is characteristic of a vertical pattern framed by silent beats; in this instance the rests on either end are slightly unequal. Linear patterns are naturally more ongoing, and could have the ‘short breath’ regularity of example 2) or anticipate a slight staggered rhythmic alteration such as in example 3). Another device I use is to have a longish silent timeframe that is asymmetrical, or a symmetrical frame around a short asymmetric measure.”)

In his structural reading of Johns’s Scent, Rosenthal sounds strangely tentative: “The flickering pattern of orange, violet and green brushstrokes is distributed across the canvas, and an overall compositional structure is present.” For anything marginally more complex he needs to quote an authority: “Thomas Hess noted that each panel is divided into three vertical subsections of about 12, 17 1/2 and 12 inches wide and that some of these repeat in a rhythm that can be described as a, b, c, c, d, e, e, f, a”... and from here on the analysis moves into the interrelations between patterns, panels and groundings. But once the canvas has been measured and he attempts the move into exegesis, all that Rosenbaum has to go on is the title. Pollock had painted a canvas also called Scent, and though Johns expressly forbade the connection, still Rosenbaum borrows a thought from David Shapiro, that Johns here gave “structure and permanence to Pollock as Cézanne has given to the Impressionists”. Which is very 19th century and the “fixing” (structure and permanence) does not have the required quote marks. Then Rosenthal closes with his own thought: “The only literal fragrance of scent is the paint medium itself. Yet the title suggests the presence of something masked in the lush brushstrokes, perhaps the structure that is hidden but sensed, as if a characteristic smell... Although he might otherwise be reluctant to suggest anything beyond what is literally given or literally implied, by giving Scent its title, Johns directs the viewer elsewhere, suggesting that the marks may in fact mean something.”

(“He had long been skilled in the science of smell. He believed that this sense could give one delights equal to those of hearing and sight; each sense being susceptible, if naturally keen and if properly cultivated, to new impressions, which it could intensify, coordinate and compose into that unity which constitutes a creative work. And it was not more abnormal and unnatural that an art should be called into existence by disengaging odours than that another art should be evoked by detaching sound waves or by striking the eye with diversely coloured rays. But if no person could discern, without intuition developed by study, a painting by a master from a daub, a melody of Beethoven from one by Clapisson, no more could anyone at first, without preliminary initiation, help confusing a bouquet invented by a sincere artist with a potpourri made by some manufacturer to be sold in groceries and bazaars.”)

Now what makes a reading of the crosshatch paintings so difficult, except that the artist never gave his own interpretation to guide the critic? (Johns only ever told the anecdote that he caught a brief glimpse of a car with this kind of pattern on it.) Is form all there is because in Johns we cannot trust even the abstractions? As I look down at the books strewn around my feet it strikes me that the way out of such speechlessness might lie in the much more trustworthy abstractions of Malevich, which are the mothers of all impaired symmetries and patterns abstracted from geometric shapes...

Indeed, Malevich has delivered several readings of his square that wasn’t a square. Browsing through his book The Non-Objective World it becomes clear that this artist’s more immediate connection to the abstract image has lost none of its usefulness: “The black square on the white field was the first form in which non-objective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling. Yet the general public saw in the non-objectivity of the representation the demise of art and failed to grasp the evident fact that feeling had assumed external form. The suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm.” Primeval mark-making as emotionally abstracted rhythm – this also takes care of the crosshatch paintings! Wayward geometric figures not identical with themselves, so not to be seen as themselves (and not as crosshatching, i.e. the ornamental rendering of volume) but individualized markers of time.

Malevich’s 1915 Black Square has another, similarly inspiring imperfection, and that is the maze of craquelure, which grew because Malevich had overpainted an earlier motif on a canvas in use.

Rather against the intentions of the author, who would later paint more glossy (though still skewed) squares for exhibition, this has allowed viewers to identify the work as classical painting in the sense of Joshua Reynolds’s dictum: “All good pictures crack.” It is a lo-fi square, the bad technique and visual side noises reinforcing the basic shape and idea, carrying a suggestion that the shape might in fact mean something, might form a subject. (Instead of the incident of the making as the subject, like reading the Black Square as not a painting but the illustration to an art-historical event.) From here we might think of Cage’s SilenceTM as a lo-fi silence, the crackle of the everyday reinforcing the idea of us learning to be receptive to no intended input. It is one of Cage’s most famous words: “Music is all around us. If only we had ears. There would be no need for concert halls if man could learn to enjoy the sounds that envelop him, for example, at Seventh Street and Broadway, at 4 p.m. on a rainy day ...” An idea that had been around for some time... here is an earlier connoisseur of the everyday, Russolo again, in my favourite text from him, “The Noises of Nature and Life”: “Are we not surrounded by strange and curious noises in our own home, by the most indefinable timbres and the queerest variations of pitch, emanating from the various pipes for drinking water, gas and heat? Who can deny that these noises are less annoying than those made from morning to evening by the neighbour’s piano?”

Cage took the Rosenthal article quoted above, extracted the original Jasper Johns sayings from it and made them into a poem: “the idea of background / (and background music) / idea of neutrality / air and the idea of air / (In breathing – in and out) / Satie’s ‘furniture music’ now / serving as background for music...”

Silence being the new furniture music, which serves as the background to our connoisseurship of everyday noises. But that, as we’re out of rugs to stare at, is for another occasion...

January 19, 2014

One more car, or just an impression of it...

If you're interested in comics, you can find my five favorites of 2013 over here.

June 24, 2013

Meanwhile, in his secret underground studio . . .

(Apropos of Art Now Vol 4, out now from Taschen, to which I've contributed short texts on Adel Abdessemed, Cecily Brown, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Chris Ofili, Michael Raedecker, Neo Rauch, Mark Ryden, and Piotr Uklański. You'll also find the explanation to the above, should you need one. If you're checking this blog because of Art Now, welcome! feel free to drop me a line.)

March 24, 2013

Cars and music

So I've written an essay on cars and music which you can read here in a new online music magazine called Surround. Even if you're more interested in art and less in cars and music you should still read it for my prose stylings. In fact you should read the whole magazine for all the diverse prose stylings and because some of the music discussed is very good and you may not know it (I can vouch for Kevin Drumm's Humid Weather and Michael Pisaro's The Punishment of the Tribe by Its Elders, of the few recent ones I've heard).

If you've hit on this site coming from the Surround article and are still wondering what the hell that was about, welcome! here are some links to other stuff I've written which might give some context. You'll find a post on Graham Lambkin's Softly Softly Copy Copy upstream on my blog; I've done a shorter structural reading of a record (Teatro Assente by Taku Unami and Takahiro Kawaguchi) in the finale of an article on theatrics and music in fluxus and eai for Eartrip; and in a text for a Keith Rowe exhibition you'll find some stray thoughts on narrative in conceptually-oriented music. (Should you, for some strange reason, want the Rowe text in your files, hit me for a pdf with the original illustrations I'd chosen for the exhibition folder. It made more sense that way.)  

August 14, 2012

Unknowable masterpieces and other catalog pitches

Somewhere upstream, I've been using a billiards boat by Rudolf Reiber to ponder the significance of the work of art yielding a good yarn vs. it being built from elements awkward to relate. When I feel I'm saying something witty by merely recounting the set-up, that's not just a social gift by the artist, but also relieves me from the duty of explaining the edificational use every work of art is expected to have, sharpening our mistrust of the act of experience.

Some of Rudolf's pieces make pretty good conversation, but thinking about the last bunch it struck me that maybe they were overdoing things in the opposite direction, by stating all that needed to be said and not leaving much room for thought to the viewer. (From me, that's not a dig, I want the artist to do all the work and act as a consumer myself.) This is not because his art would be making a concise statement about some objective, though, instead it creates a situation where connecting the dots might feel like an exercise in pedantry. So, to save the art from being smothered by close attention, here are a couple of catalog piece pitches for Rudolf.

Last year, he made A Whiter Shade of Pale, where he painted the four walls of an exhibition room in the shades of white used by leading art institutions: the MoMA, the Vienna Secession, the Centre Pompidou, and the Tate Modern. All there is to see are title cards near the edges of the room, naming the brand of white and the institution. (Accordingly, on his website, Rudolf presents the work as a zoom-in on one of these title cards (you'll find it after the link under "works, solid.")) An accompanying catalog essay would easily write itself. Since it's a piece about the White Cube, the essay would obviously start with a motto from Brian O'Doherty on the "Ideology of the Gallery Space." Then there'd be the history of the white monochrome, Yves Klein exhibiting an empty gallery, or, if a more historical take were required, centuries of trompe l'oeil wall painting. After such displays of profundity, the essay could end on a facetious note, with a quote from the lyrics of the Procul Harum song: "The room was humming harder / as the ceiling flew away," a clear reference to the defective neon light straining to contribute to the glare of the white cube.

But all of that is squirrelwork. So here's the real pitch: I will order me a set of Rauschenberg White Paintings from the Chinese internet site, whose showrooms I have tested in the pic above, offering "real" copies of historical masterpieces. I'll hang hang them on the walls of the installation (if such it is), then return to the White Cube everyday with fresh eyes and record my changing impressions of the canvases in situ. (That of course refers to T.J. Clark's The Sight of Death, subtitled "An Experiment in Art Writing," for which the author visited a couple of Poussins over a stretch of time. I am restaging the experiment to prove its objective textual results.) Obviously I cannot foresee how my own experiment staring at dead wall space and at the work of art in the age of cheap manual reproduction will be colored by the subtle shadings of the different institutional whites, but by the end of the process the white monochromes on white background should have developed sufficient shadings that I could name a Robert Ryman period for each Eskimo word for snow.

This is Secret from 2012 (in Rudolf's Suspiria solo show at Payne Shurvell). He commissioned his partner to do a painting for him, which was then packaged away into the pictured crate. Nobody has seen the work except the painter, not the artist nor gallerist or buyer (who have to sign an agreement not to open the thing). It's maybe not the strongest work, since this kind of thing has been done before . . . though usually the artist is the one in on the secret, so here lies the shift in meaning: the hired hand (more typically the studio assistant executing work according to the instructions of the master) is the only one knowing the content of the work, though that is to all purposes completely overshadowed by the discretion of the master, who keeps the work on a pure meta level.

If we want an essay to add something to the piece, then we would have to flesh out the plight of the assistant, make that which is packed away not just a prop in a conceptual ploy, but a secret of real value, something whose unattainability actually hurts on some higher kind of level. What we will do to achieve this, is to appropriate Balzac's classic story, The Unknown Masterpiece (you will remember, male white genius tries to paint beauty but can't to his own satisfaction, finds the right model after many years, is inspired to a frenzy of creativity and paints the perfect painting, only to find that others will see nothing but a chaos of brushstrokes (and one perfectly executed foot), leaving the masterpiece unknown since it exists only in his head). We won't need to rewrite much, a word here or there, a gender switch: our heroine will be driven by the desire to create a perfect painting worthy of the scheme the artist had thought out for it (btw, think of the story Rauschenberg told how de Kooning selected a good drawing for him to erase: "I want it to really hurt," he said), then we'll change this into an artistically happy ending, where she does create an undubitable masterpiece . . . though of course we'll never know that and even the artist won't believe she has it in her. (Tense conversation over the kitchen table. Let's hope the couple will somehow cope with the psychological complications that our essay will bring on them.)

In that same exhibition, Rudolf showed The Silence, which is a braille transcription of Ingmar Bergman's film as a 3-D movie. Again we can join the dots. It's "silence" during the Cage centennials and the year of the Paralympics. Silence, which according to Beuys has been overrated in the secretly busy Duchamp, moving at us like the names of stars on the silver screen in endless opening credits. This film gives haptic a bad name. 

But I'm not even attempting to go into the motions. Despite the artist covering all the angles, the piece has a purely slap-to-the-head kind of brilliance.

It's a braille movie in 3-D. 

May 28, 2012

More to laugh than to make you cry

This is my favorite political painting: Apollo and Marsyas by Bartolomeo Manfredi, an image from the class wars, 1620 as well as today. This spoilt brat from the one percent, slightly flabby because of all the drugs and good times, but powerful and so damn worldly wise and dangerous. He doesn’t blink an eyelid while methodically skinning us alive, he’s rather curious as to how we’ll take it. What can we do? We stare inwards in a resigned sort of dignity facing the question: at what point did it go so completely wrong? We didn’t have a chance ever for a second, did we? A painting so to the point, it’s still the same confrontation and the same outcome 400 years later . . .

I’m not being clever, by the way, this is what it really is. Just try a quick search and you’ll reassuringly find that the Marsyas myth already played a symbolical role in the class struggles of late Roman antiquity and figured in the political stage plays of the time, and that later it was discussed in that light by historians such as Giambattista Vico in his New Science from 1725. Apollo stood and stands for the patricians, Marsyas the plebeians. Class confrontations are nothing unusual in the art of the time, even though they’re mostly interpreted more mildly. You will know Velázquez’ Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan from the same period (around 1630, see here a detail). It’s similarly obvious about the artist’s sympathies with down to earth natural dignity rather than the fop satirized by a halo of self-importance. Still the image is much more complicated and much less political. It is serious about telling the myth (the details of which don’t interest us here), and more than about class conflict itself it seems about a contrast between fancy decadent high art (Apollo the god of music and poetry) vs. the mythical blacksmith as an honest craftsman. So there is satire, but not the brutal urgency of the Manfredi. But then nothing I know really compares to that.

I am thinking about favorite political art because I have just read T.J. Clark’s fantastic book Image of the People about Courbet as a political painter in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. What makes the book so great is that it allows no easy connections between an artist’s interest in the people, his realist efforts to catch a truth about them, and the resultant political impact of the painting. Clark isn’t the only one to reject these easy connections, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a thorough dividing up of all the elements at play: what the painter knew, what he wished but failed to express, what the painting knew (more than the painter, of course), what it accidently communicated at its time and now reveals to us, and how the mindframe of the contemporary viewer would allow only certain parts of the message to be painted in the first place. In the most spectacular chapter, a handful of the stone cold classics of realism slowly travel from the countryside to Paris over several exhibitions after the Salon of 1850 had been postponed. They were well received but nothing special in Ornans, where they’d been produced, immensely successful in Besançon, purposefully ignored in Dijon, gaining ever more political heft until in Paris they became a statement, because the suffering peasant population there was a headline not a fact of life and as such had more impact. And why did the country personage look so bourgeois anyway, it was insidious.

Today a painting like the Burial at Ornans cannot be read without a guidebook (well, not by me), but Clark also shows that city audiences then were almost as clueless as we are in front of the object. He quotes the critic Haussard who asked what the viewer was to make of “this long file of ludicrous masks and deformities copied from life . . . those two churchwardens with noses as crimson as their robes, this joker with the funny hat and turned-up moustaches who carries the coffin, this brawny gravedigger who poses solemnly on one knee at the graveside; this seriousness and this buffoonery, these tears, these grimaces, this Sunday-best mourning, in black coat, in smock, in beguine cap, all adding up to a funeral from some carnival, ten yards long, an immense ballad in painting, where there is more to laugh than to make you cry?”

Clark makes sense of all of that, he paints the social situation, the bourgeois fears, he shows how the paintings could be felt to threaten exactly because the motives behind them stayed unclear and so they could be connected to something larger than the socialist leanings of their author, bad enough as that was . . . But to apply his thorough research and ingenious reasoning to the fullest effect, there is one thing Clark must do: cut off the timeline before Courbet starts painting completely unreasonable paintings. Clark like others just mutters something of a descent into alcoholism and fades out early. Because, look at this, from 1861:

Alcohol might explain it. The stag fleeing from the hunt, throwing a pained look skywards, seemingly checking the weather . . . but then I remember the contemporary review of the realist masterpiece above, and isn’t this also “a ballad in painting, where there is more to laugh than to make you cry?” More responsible than drink might be the virtues of academic painting, like catching a moment most pregnant in narrative which would ennoble a nature piece to almost the status of a history painting. The same aspirations could also explain the somewhat too human expression of the stag (which reminds us of Landseer’s lifesaving dog, the forebear of the Disney comic which has had two appearances already on this blog, so enough of that).

While we’re in somewhat hilarious mood, let us look back again to one of the realist classics discussed by Clark in detail, the more obviously political Stonebreakers of 1849:

This is one of the most interpreted images ever. Courbet himself said the moral was that in this job you started carrying huge loads like the young guy and ended up bent like the old one. The men are rendered anonymous, one averted and one below the rim of his hat, which is usually read as a meaningless job killing the individual. So this is realism, a word that today seems to mean an artistic approach, but sometimes it will mean no more than a thematic engagement with some kind of low life. Because the method is rather Victorian in its close realism of detail and overall poetry, and doesn’t the picture look almost related to something like, say, a William Dyce? (Partly because the coloring is somewhat unlike Courbet—the work was destroyed in 1945 so the photo looks almost handcolored.) Courbet had seen the two stonebreakers out on the road and then invited them to the studio as models. Probably the pot sat, too, and some heaps of stones were arranged for scrutiny. The old man is carefully if stiffly bent, his left knee cushioned by some yellow grass. And then the nicest touch of balladry, this time with a more subtle humor that just makes you smile: after all the years on his mind-numbing job, the old man still puts such loving care into each single blow. He is about to hit the individual, smallish stone after some more moments of almost Zen-like concentration . . .

Contrary to the Manfredi, the image no longer works like it used to. It does not tell you about the plight of the plebeian, it is no avatar for social change. Especially when you compare it against Jean-François Millet’s prose statement on how work makes you tired and stupid a decade later:

April 20, 2012

The audience object followed him everywhere

I’ve written a rather lengthy article on performance art with musical leanings, Fluxus to now, for the recent Eartrip issue. So if you have any interest in the music and antics of, in chronological order of appearance: Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, La Monte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mattin, or Taku Unami, you can download the magazine from this site and read it. While you do that, I’ll stay here in the Beuys room, wishing I had a nice pillow of lard to lay my weary head on.

Missing in my list is John Cage, who does make a short appearance, but it still surprised me how unwilling he was to be integrated into the Fluxus part of the story. Obviously he would belong at the beginning of that. For example: one of my other tasks while writing this piece was the translation of a forthcoming essay on Cage’s 4' 33'' by Dieter Daniels, where the author relates an anecdote on how Cage would allow the complete credit for Fluxus to be ascribed to him: When in 1990 I asked him in a letter if George Maciunas wasn’t overstating things when he called the detailed Fluxus charts he had made the Travels of Saint John—because they feature John Cage as the most important protagonist—Cage simply answered: ‘No.’” Or take the Fluxus chapter in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music book: it begins with Cage at his first happening in Black Mountain College 1952, holding forth from on top of a ladder (!!!). This is the source, isn’t it.

Well, twenty years before Daniels asked him, Cage sounded much more uncomfortable with the artists whose work seemed to somehow draw from his fountain.* In For the Birds, conversations with Daniel Charles from around 1970, he said: “I am not very familiar with Fluxpieces; I believe it has something to do with distributing directions to the audience concerning the most varied actions.” Which was meant as an insult, since intentionality, or rather the lack of it, was what at that point he was most interested in. And “distributing directions” would be the most evil thing an artwork could do. In Allan Kaprow and Fluxist Dick Higgins’ work, “intentionality is present,” he lamented. “They make true objects of their happenings.” If that doesn’t sound like a mortal insult today, objectification seems to have been a mighty weapon back then. Oldenburg (as quoted in my essay) impishly saw the audience as a mere object to be provoked, and then of course think of Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood from 1967. If a thing materialized that much, it was a bad, commodifiable thing. Compare against that Cage on why he did it better: “I, on the contrary, am committed to letting anything happen, to make everything that happens acceptable.” (Which sounds a bit like Jeff Koons embracing our past, shameful taste and all.)

Daniels points out that this acceptance of everything which might happen doesn’t mean freedom for the performer, as becomes clear from a letter Cage wrote to the orchestra of the Zürich opera, berating the musicians that they had misinterpreted his work. But as a listener, you’re even worse off, you sort of need an instruction manual for 4' 33'', there’s so much you can do wrong. The audience at the premiere in 1952 were wrong. Cage: “They missed the point . . . because they didn’t know how to listen.” The listener is bound to fail.

Except George Brecht might still save the day, because around 1959 he came up with the concept of the virtuoso listener. Brecht’s score of the same name simply said: “Can hear music at any time.” Which has been read as a jibe on 4' 33'' and would be pretty funny as such, though a bit square. But it can be much more than that, since Brecht answers a real need that Cage’s piece poses. If (pretty big if) the performer of 4' 33'' doesn’t get in the way of the experience, the burden of carrying the work is shifted to the listeners’ side, who have to find something they can hear like never before. When there’s only the usual shuffling and coughing, they are in desperate need of listening virtuosity to even begin coping. Because Cage hasn’t been distributing directions, he’s been dropping urgent hints elsewhere, and now the audience object has to follow him and make the event happen in exactly the right way.

Maybe that pressure on the audience to perform has contributed to the piece’s astonishing resonance, just as much as its position in musical history as a point of no return. Cage himself was the very definition of the virtuoso listener, for whom “all sound may be music” (Brecht), but once everybody was in on basic virtuosic listening techniques, 4' 33'' became an incredibly fruitful influence on other music. There is now a deep tradition of composing with silence or sounds from the everyday without the pressure to deliver musical events (though still with high pressure on the audience to make music out of incidental sounds and noises).

Cage was right about the objects. Brecht’s pieces work best when little events indeed become like objects, or maybe even only possible objects. There is now a tendency to read the work in fashionable terms as pushing the boundaries of music. So thanks to Brecht dripping water has now become music. Polishing the instrument is music, too, proof, check, andsoforth. That would make Brecht’s work an appendix of Cage, though still an interesting one, since the areas he pushed the boundaries into were extra-musical but sort of believable as compositional events. It is maybe no coincidence that where Brecht staid within undoubtedly musical territory, his work was maybe not at its strongest. For a Drummer from 1966 read: “Drum on something you have never drummed on before. Drum with something you have never drummed with before.” These are wise words for the drum clinic, but as a performance score, they don’t exactly encourage reading deeper layers of meaning into them.

The Fluxversions of this piece (usually retroactive notations of realizations found for a score by the composer or his close circle) are immediately more interesting, if seen independently from the main score. Fluxversion 1: “Performer drums with drum sticks or drum brushes over the surface of wet mud or thick glue until brushes or sticks get stuck and can’t be lifted.” This is nice as an imperative to fail and so sends a different message. Since the outcome is fixed, though, and it probably would take a good amount of science to find a mud or glue which would really grab hold of the sticks or brushes instead of just hardening to the attacks, probably performers must rather choose to act the part—and as fiction the exercise becomes less interesting than as genuine experiment.

The second of the pieces also invites an entertainment approach: “Performer drums with sticks over a leaking feather pillow making the feathers escape the pillow.” The fifth is just awful, but strictly music again: “Performer dribbles a ping-pong ball between a hand-held racket and drum skin.” Seven is the most interesting since it has an extra layer of meaning: art being used for something useful (against the classic Oscar Wilde definition that it must be “quite useless”): “Performer drums with brushes inside a vessel filled with cream until cream is thick.”

An earlier piece by Brecht, Incidental Music from 1961, proceeds from a recital situation and, like the drum thing, distorts it through elements of absurdity, of failure, and while not of usefulness, of being used like a tool. One jumping-off point seems to have been Cage’s piano preparations and playing inside the body of the instrument. After the piano seat has been tilted against the instrument, Incidental Music part two of five goes: “Wooden blocks: A single block is placed inside the piano / A block is placed upon this block, then a third upon the second, and so forth, singly, until at least one block falls from the column.” A very cumbersome instruction for a simple task that children will discover on their own. But here there is nothing to discover, the game is surrealist in the incommensurability of the elements, and the ultimate failure is methodical.

The performer then photographs the situation, throws dried peas or beans on the keyboard (Dalí reference?), before finally, in the last part, “the piano seat is suitably arranged and the performer seats himself.” Him seated there, the obvious next act to follow this up with would be a romp through 4' 33''. Under the title: Music for Piano Lid.

There is a kind of influence, which you need to acknowledge because it is historically important in the chain of events, but which does not really help understand the work, if you take it in terms of content, because the temperaments of the supposed master and those following might be too different. Keith Rowe uses an expression for that which I think works very well, when he says (e.g. in a conversation with Radu Malfatti on the Erstwords blog): “One way of being influenced, is that people give you permission to do things. I always feel that Cage gave us permission to do something.” It was nice to find that this was actually an expression used by Cage himself, here talking about the time that he, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff met in the early 1950s (quoted after Calvin Tomkins): “Things were really popping all the time. Ideas just few back and forth between us, and in a sense we gave each other permission for the new music we were discovering.”

* Salomé Voegelin in Listening to Noise and Silence compares 4' 33'' to Duchamp’s urinal. “In many ways like Fountain, 4'33" is a ‘ready made.’ It brings silence, an extra-musical sound concept, into the concert hall, and thereby asks comparable questions of musical materiality and its conventions of performance as Duchamp did in relation to the aesthetic content and exhibition of visual art works by bringing a urinal into the gallery space. Both works introduced new, everyday, material into the realm of art and broadened the artistic process, proposing new aesthetic possibilities.” This flies in the face of most readings of 4' 33'', which usually go along the lines that silence does in fact not exist in the everyday (and therefore it is rather the concept of silence in music that is questioned to allow for the sounds that always will exist independent of the situation). But then . . . in my Eartrip piece I niggle about Brecht’s Drip Music often being realized with a pour instead of a drip, so that it sounds like somebody taking a leak! So Brecht’s piece would be a reference to 4' 33'', which I hadn’t caught before reading Voegelin’s book, and probably drops a broad hint for us to understand 4' 33'' according to her terms?!

December 25, 2011

Feierabend teaser trailer

  feierabend, the exposition by spurdertoene

Just when it had become obvious there was no way anything would happen anymore . . . Listen to the complete chain of events, and all that preceded them, over here.