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. 

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