October 16, 2014

Uneasy landscape listening, post 1: The Otters

“Landscape art has never taught us one deep or holy lesson; it has not recorded that which is fleeting, nor penetrated that which was hidden, nor interpreted that which was obscure; it has never made us feel the wonder, nor the power, nor the glory, of the universe; it has not prompted to devotion, nor touched with awe; its power to move and exalt the heart has been fatally abused, and perished in the abusing.”

That is John Ruskin talking, and actually he would have made an exception for the picture on top, which shows The Holy Island, Lindisfarne, as seen by J. M. W. Turner around 1829 and embellished with some of his trademark atmospherics. But let us not allow such exceptions, as truth must be absolute, and anyway, it is not painting we’re interested in today. Instead let us think of field recording as the landscape art under discussion. Field recording, a genre that seems to come with an inbuilt promise of penetrating something hidden, of catching something fleeting, since we automatically enter a more reflective space through the fact that our supposedly prime sense, vision, does not drown out the acoustic experience. To merely listen seems to offer some kind of meditation on the secret nature of things…and indeed, if we follow Ruskin further, maybe his demands from the landscape artist would be best fulfilled by field recorder: “The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself—the art is imperfect which is visible—the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement.” Just put up a mike and press the button.

And yet once we’ve caught that which is fleeting on our storage device, we’ve hewn it in marble and disconnected it from its natural surroundings where alone it was fleeting in. And if we listen to the sounds in their new, inevitable form and sequence, they become less about place, and more about choice: of selecting certain sounds over others, of wanting to add a history or memory to the sounds or just tag them in space and time. So many choices, so much artistry revealed…field recordist Chris Watson defines the methods of his excitement already in the less than innocent act of listening: “Listening in a positive way, that is actively taking the decision to focus on certain things and reject others, is a very positive and creative thing to do in that it—for me, anyway, individually—it actually stimulates my thought processes, it makes me think perhaps more laterally about problem-solving, or how I can achieve a creative output for something…it makes me think in a different way, that’s why I find it so satisfying.”

This active mode of listening characterizes Watson’s artistry, where events are often so close-miked that they penetrate to the heart of what maybe never existed, but the sounds that surround me here at my desk remain relatively distant. I’m listening to In St Cuthbert’s Time from 2013, “a 7th century soundscape of Lindisfarne,” as the booklet promises. There is of course nothing in the wind and the waves and the birdsong that would tell me it is not supposed to happen right now. Still the sounds suggest a somewhere, and I love me a conceptual conceit, so I gather what information I can from the booklet: about Lindisfarne and its history, 7th century monasteries and the writing of gospels on one hand; Latin names for the birds in order of aural appearance on the other; but not much to connect the two.

So in the 7th century, Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the eastern English coast, was a center of Christian culture, a priory of monks with a high quota of saints living the community life with mutual washing of feet, conquering of human nature, and illuminating of gospels. Watson proposes not a sound image of, but background sounds for these activities: “The production aims to reflect upon the daily and seasonal aspects of the evolving variety of ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” An active selection of sounds that make up a vintage vibe sorted by seasons and cleaned of modern civilization (there’s cattle here, though, I hope of an ancient breed). And yet immediately a historical narrative begins, not in the sense of a story, but as a portrait of the possible attention these holy men might have spent on nature while they wandered alone in solitude. There is a nudge for the listener toward this historical angle, as Watson sends an actor through the aural picture ringing a monk’s handbell. Anecdotal evidence: here probably comes a fellow monk also looking for solitary space to leave the world behind in; let’s walk another way so both our meditations can go uninterrupted.

Which makes me more and more minded to listen to the record in analogy to history painting, not telling a complete story, but adding an interpretation to a story already told in the hope of making us feel something about it. Adding a new perspective that only hindsight can bring. Happily, there is one relatively popular history painting of St Cuthbert, executed in 1856 by the pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott. It shows an event the artist dated to 678: King Egfrid and Bishop Trumwine visiting the hermit to offer him the Bishopric of Hexham. This takes place near the end of summer on a more secluded island called Farne, which Cuthbert had chosen to remove himself one more step from the world, while he kept in loose contact with the brethren on Lindisfarne. (By the way he would choose to accept a bishopric after some years hesitation, but only to Lindisfarne, not what he had been originally offered.) We see him here with an Eider duck as an attribute, a bird that over the centuries would come to be associated with him. Above him the sweep of the swallows in the sky closely follows that of the atmospherics in the Turner watercolor on top of this post… Anyway, let us now devise a narrativity test and play an excerpt from Watson’s summer sounds against the painting and see what happens:

It works very well, doesn’t it? Here’s what Rossetti wrote about it: “The amount of work is very great. I suppose it is the only picture existing, of so definitely ‘historical’ a class, in which the surroundings are all real studies from nature—a great thing to have done. The sky and sea are sky and sea, and the boats are as accurate and real as if you had got such things to sit to you. The whole scene too, and the quiet way in which the incident is occurring, at once strike the spectator with the immense advantage of simple truth in historical art over the ‘monumental’ style…” It is as if he had made the same test to judge the painting, while we’re checking the usefulness of the sounds as a picture of bygone times (Zeitgemälde in the more layered German term).

Sound artist/musician Patrick Farmer will have none of that. In his review of Watson’s record for The Field Reporter he insists: “This is not a case of a prerequisite willing suspension of disbelief. Nothing here seems to be paraded as a fiction.” Instead, Farmer attempts to take the artist by his word (or his implications), and is immediately stopped in his tracks on a technical point: “Watson states, or muses, that the sounds herein are a representation of the Holy Isle, Lindisfarne, some 1300 years ago. Unease… How is it that one can listen to this over electronic speakers, through whatever electronic device is preferred, and ultimately made, with electronic equipment, the modernist of the modern!” Farmer’s own argument places him in the classicist camp of the modernist of the modern, as he would prefer an utterly abstract purity of concept: “Each time I felt the sounds therein were better suited to an unapproachable, almost playful, sense of abstraction. When I say better suited, I mean I prefer to treat them as sounds entirely distinct from the concept upon which Watson lays them… For me this is abstract electronic music. Leading me to listen as intently as possible to this disc, as sounds, rather than as any form of nature, re-presented or re-imagined.” Unease… How is it one can listen to readily identifiable sounds that clearly speak of the wind and the waves and the birds and pretend they are abstract just because they are rendered through an electronic medium designed to transmit the signals that creative people send us to our ears? (Though actually sometimes the nature portrayed in St Cuthbert’s Time seems to aspire to the condition of abstract electronic music: birds’ song appearing almost quantized in repeated rhythm, and the winnowing of snipe like heavy tremolo effects turned up and down through a pitch-shifter (I’m sure all sounds here have natural causes, but checking the winnowing of snipe against anonymous recordings of the same on youtube, or even against the track “Sunsets” in Watson’s earlier album Stepping into the Dark, they do have incredible electrified presence here).

Of course Farmer is right in his unease, that by these technical means we cannot learn what the monks actually perceived: “Microphones are not ears, and we, at least I, do not listen, and certainly do not hear, sequentially, which to my mind, is exactly the manner upon which the segments are here laid flat… We have a way to go (I hesitantly speculate) before the represented soundworld of In St Cuthbert’s Time is even a relative truth...” Clearly both artists have different agendas: Farmer wants abstract art (which would have to be passively consumed by the mind), while Watson wants to provoke us to lateral thinking (as if we needed provocation). Farmer rightly sees that the methods of excitement do not stand to reason; yet, in the end, saying In St Cuthbert’s Time is abstract electronic music is about as useful as saying that the Waverley novels are concrete poetry. It does away with so much on offer (and in case we are worried by the fact that we might simply mistake this for a pure landscape recording if we just go by aural information without reading the booklet, then that’s ok because in history painting you often need the extraneous information of at least a title to have a clue what’s going on…)

Farmer himself made a wonderful record in duet with David Lacey called Pictures of Men in 2013, the same year as Watson’s Cuthbert. An aggressively figurative title, these pictures are not of men themselves, but maybe of their belongings, their transport and surroundings, and mostly of their abstract electronic music. It mixes sounds of decipherable origins with abstract noise and musical tones at an anecdotal pace. But some of the ingredients are the same as Watson’s, so what could better prove the difference in concept than to compare these sounds under the same conditions. What story will they yield?

I like the interplay here, too; initially it works almost as well in the same way, perhaps the birds are less drawn from nature, but they don’t need to be, as we have them before our eyes. Obviously the topics of birds and sea are filed away more orderly in separate sections. And from the start, the electronically bolstered shape of the wind does seem to tug us toward something of a monumental style, which Rossetti wouldn’t have approved of…

Pictures of Men begins with the sounds of geese and pigs and probably some other animals thrown in agitatedly making noises, while now and then almost cartoonlike bangs and scuffles stir up the commotion further. Are Farmer’s pigs really more abstract because the artists don’t flaunt a concept? Or does the conceptlessness allow the animals to appear as a mere piggish idea of a sound? (Wouldn’t it be ideologically doubtful if the sounds of pigs were mere abstract noises to be used at thoughtless will by the artists?) So here’s one final narrativity test, Farmer and Lacey’s pigs against some of their species that have been abstracted into a landscape:

Hm. (Mama pig remembers the luddite revolution?) The sounds indeed offer more cartoony action but less of the story. Which may corroborate Farmer’s theories. The differences in atmosphere between the two ways of using field recording are tangible: in Pictures of Men, nothing is “laid flat,” as Farmer describes the sounds on Watson’s disc. There is a depth to the space that renders pigs in acoustic foreshortening, that simulates concrete space, there is drama, tension, incident…but as it won’t connect except as a composition of sounds, there is but one historical narrative, as is common with abstract art: the story of a whole being made from its parts, the myth of the work’s creation. Or that is what the review of this record from The Field Reporter suggests, written by Chris Whitehead: “Listening to Pictures of Men can be like finding an old cassette in the loft from 1980. One you recorded sounds on that have long since been forgotten, an early foray into what they call field recording. Some can be recognized for what they are whereas others are dull rumbles or rattles whose provenance is obscure...” Unease… The artist’s recording excavating our own personal history (would we have realized our own past alone?), our own unlearned creative listening. The artistic mindframe during the creative process causing a related mindframe (only passive, but still questioning, maybe spiritual) in the consumer (and do we consumers imagine a greater collection of hagiographies than the story of abstract art?)

The beauty of Watson’s recording actually is more abstract in the details. Just listen to this, six minutes into the autumn: all sounds modeled to perfection in fluttering detail with stunning virtuosity (by nature, by the creative ear, by sleight of post-production?):

The stream does not do it any justice but you have an idea. It’s incredible, each little movement rounded out with loving care. It is also massive, the liner notes seem to say these must be patterns formed by swirling flocks of starlings over their roost?

Anyway, here as elsewhere, the recording is quite dense, in several layers. There is no downtime, no meditation, but over the initial rumble of the sea and/or a dark wind, nicely muffled, very warm and deep, form a stage for a series of events, mostly birds that doing their thing, collective then more confident taking solos, augmenting each other, one group coming in as the other drops out, like the sections in a big band. Sometimes the listener is allowed closer, but what most strikes me is that the landscape keeps sitting in front of my speakers performing—this is no landscape to immerse oneself in. It remains resolutely an other, looking at me, waiting to be looked at.

Might Cuthbert maybe have listened to it like that? Like something outside his experience? Of course, the sounds on the CD perform (like Patrick Farmer said) in a different medium, but as I read Bede’s life of Cuthbert (Bede was around 15 when Cuthbert died and didn’t know him, still he later traveled the isles and experienced the monastery and its surroundings), the otherness of soundscape seems to connect with the story. There are no scenes of communication with nature in the book, but of course we can’t read too much out of that in a 7th-century narrative. Let us instead have a look into what details Bede will offer on Cuthbert: “He was so zealous in watching and praying, that he is believed to have sometimes passed three or four nights together therein, during which time he neither went to his own bed, nor had any accommodation from the brethren for reposing himself. For he either passed the time alone, praying in some retired spot, or singing and making something with his hands, thus beguiling his sleepiness by labor; or, perhaps, he walked round the island, diligently examining every thing therein, and by this exercise relieved the tediousness of psalmody and watching.” And I see Cuthbert staggering around the hills where god does not temper the wind to the tonsured lamb, zoned out, using sleep deprivation as a kind of drug, driving off sleep until he can stare at things in uncomprehending wonder, the world receding from him, standing in the background like a wall of noise. Watching things to relieve the tediousness of watching them…if something is boring for two hours, try it for four…

Reading Bede it appears as if the object of the hermit life was enhancing the distance, losing interest in all things (not as philosophical exercise, but as a kind of depressing fact). Hear this story, from after when Cuthbert had settled over and built a hut on a smaller Farne island to better escape all worldly thoughts: “Now when Cuthbert had, with the assistance of the brethren, made for himself this dwelling with its chambers, he began to live in a more secluded manner. At first, indeed, when the brethren came to visit him, he would leave his cell and minister to them. He used to wash their feet devoutly with warm water, and was sometimes compelled by them to take off his shoes, that they might wash his feet also. For he had so far withdrawn his mind from attending to the care of his person, and fixed it upon the concerns of his soul, that he would often spend whole months without taking off his leathern gaiters. Sometimes, too, he would keep his shoes on from one Easter to another, only taking them off on account of the washing of feet, which then takes place at the Lord’s Supper. Wherefore, in consequence of his frequent prayers and genuflexions, which he made with his shoes on, he was discovered to have contracted a callosity on the junction of his feet and legs. At length, as his zeal after perfection grew, he shut himself up in his cell away from the sight of men, and spent his time alone in fasting, watching, and prayer, rarely having communication with any one without, and that through the window, which at first was left open, that he might see and be seen; but, after a time, he shut that also, and opened it only to give his blessing, or for any other purpose of absolute necessity.” Here he literally shuts himself from the world and its sounds, the main objective a dulling down to offer god an empty vessel? (I love this image of the washing of feet as social gesture like monkeys lousing each other.)

If in a later age Cuthbert would be identified as somebody communing with nature and with a reciprocated fondness for eider ducks (is there some humor involved: eider downs vs. the man who doesn’t sleep), such ideas would fit better into the years e.g. around 1200, when they were lived by St Francis. There are a couple of stories of interaction with animals in Bede, though. For example Cuthbert is banning a bunch of crows after they steal thatches from the roof of his hut, then allows them back after they humbly apologize. That’s more to prove his authority over creation than his understanding of it. And finally there’s one very touching and special story. Bede again: “He would go forth, when others were asleep, and having spent the night in watchfulness return home at the hour of morning-prayer. Now one night, a brother of the monastery, seeing him go out alone followed him privately to see what he should do. But he when he left the monastery, went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God. When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element.” 

Beautiful, but again not speaking of any communication with nature, but god’s way of delousing the righteous man. The illustration I’m showing is to be found in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, a history painting, too, from the late 12th century. So this is how it could have been:

Except I’m sorry I’m cheating: these sounds are not authentic history painting, they’re merely illustrative. I’ve mixed two scenes from Watson’s Stepping into the Dark (1996) and Weather Report (2003), records whose concepts allow for a closer detail: the former listening in on hidden atmospheres of special places; the latter a stunning wealth of close-up actions forced into a single image. Weather Report is indeed a record that has the “power to move” or “touch with awe,” even if nothing fleeting is caught, but what’s caught is fixed for potential eternity, like the medium demands. And actually, the recording’s method of blowing up detail is also something that should make Ruskin very happy: “The true ideal of landscape is the expression of the specific—not the individual, but the specific—characters of every object, in their perfection… Every landscape painter should know the specific characters of every object he has to represent, rock, flower, or cloud; and in his highest ideal works, all their distinctions will be perfectly expressed, broadly or delicately, slightly or completely, according to the nature of the subject, and the degree of attention which is to be drawn to the particular object by the part it plays in the composition.”

Finally, after all the creative listening, what’s with the monk’s creativity? We remember, In St Cuthbert’s Time aimed to project the “ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” The Lindisfarne Gospels show both the figurative and the abstract. Saint Matthew sitting in a box with a curtain like in a photo booth (with a horn-blowing angel sitting on his head). Little grotesqueries that look like bathing ducks and stuff attached to ornamental patterns. Elaborate decor in wondrously outgrown, completely non-objective initials, like this chi-rho…or wait, is it a bird?

(With apologies to John Ruskin, whose second preface to Modern Painters I’ve taken out of context. The Watson quote is from a video that shows all of his infectious and commanding enthusiasm here. Patrick Farmer’s review is here. Chris Whitehead’s review of the Farmer/Lacey is here. Read all of Bede’s life of St Cuthbert here. And here’s a very nice entry on the illustrations in a manuscript of that life from the late 12th century.)

September 25, 2014

The collective conscience of this object

Arman’s accumulations of single things from the everyday belong to a general theme in the art of the mid- to late 1950s: paintings understood as objects. This identification is already complete with Jasper Johns’ Flags, created since 1954, where the common conceit is for the critic to wonder if it were a painting of a flag or indeed a flag itself. Within Arman’s more immediate circle, Yves Klein objectified color in the form of his trademark blue pure pigment (since 1956, often with a relief-like surface on his paintings and later in sponge sculptures). From 1957 on, Piero Manzoni created pictures in a white he described as colorless, whose composition was formed by folds in the fabric, hanging like crumpled sheets over the stretcher. During the same year, Klein’s brother-in-law, Günther Uecker from the group Zero, developed nail paintings (a technique he then also transferred to objects like furniture or musical instruments). And in 1958 Lucio Fontana started slashing his canvases, which for him meant part of a spatial concept where the gap offered a passage into another dimension, but which is usually received as an act of controlled violence against the holiest of holy art objects: the canvas.

This might not immediately appear as the proper context for Arman’s boxes of stuff, and yet the artist places himself within it when he writes: “Even in my volumetric compositions, my aim is always pictorial rather than sculptural. I want to see my proposals understood as involving the optics of a surface rather than a realization in three dimensions. On these surfaces the uniquely chosen element is a monotypic expression – although it is a plural one because of the number of objects – and therefore very close to the monochrome approaches of Yves Klein.” The work pictured above is Paradox of Time from 1961, and indeed on the most simple level it forces us to almost look at it like at a painting: we can see the collection of objects only though a single window-paned side of the otherwise closed wooden box. So as we watch the confined space from a fixed frontal perspective, the accumulation of old alarm clocks appears like an allover structure of similar forms, arranged in their container by chance and gravity without any attempt at hierarchization.

Let us follow Arman’s own declaration of intent some more (all of this is from “The Realism of Accumulations” published in the Zero magazine in 1961, by the way). The artist states that any object collected “is not chosen according to the criteria of dada or surrealism. The question is not one of removing an object from its utilitarian, industrial, or other underlying context, presenting it from a certain angle or slanting it so as to provide it with a meaning completely different from its own, such as: anthropomorphism, analogy, reminiscences, and so on.” Instead, Arman’s multiple image of the alarm clock restores the object to its own proper context in the interplay between close repetition and slight variation (the allover): “The obsessional and emphatic aspect of the multiplicity of an object renders it similar to an even granulation, an expression of the collective conscience of this same object.” (The opposite approach would be to try and find a perfect embodiment of an idea, for example by choosing a particularly exemplary alarm clock that signals its piercing shrill ring at first sight and therefore has perfect properties for symbolizing its cultural function.)

Arman had already addressed the subject of time more than once in his earliest accumulations from 1959. There the objects were still housed in small plexiglas boxes, much more like portable sculptures than single-view pictures. One of those collected cases of old pocket watches, another an accumulation of clock faces. Both pieces remain close to a collection of spare parts so the object does not fully develop a conscience… It is only with his Paradox of Time that Arman managed to breath sufficient life and character into the wound-down alarm clocks to suggest the previous lives of everyday objects before their presentation as an artwork.

Half a decade prior to Star Trek, the title does not yet allude to time travelers killing their own ancestors with unforeseeable (and therefore unrecordable) consequences (though not only in retrospect the idea already existed since the late 19th century). The Paradox of Time is a contradiction that we all know: we see time as a constant and use the watch as a tool for precise measuring. Yet depending on situation and occupation, individual time follows very variable speed lines, sometimes creeping along in utter boredom, sometimes hurtling forward like an express train (the standard image in explanations of relativity theory and time dilation). And indeed, for each and every clock in Arman’s work time also seems to pass at different speeds, marked by dents and traces of their history. The accumulation of time-measuring devices whose time has run out is like a classic memento mori, a vanitas still life of an object in quasi-cubist multiple perspective. But the clocks are not quite dead, they are in an in-between – their differences take on characters (not through anthropomorphism, but by them being so very clocklike), they create a composition of individually formed same objects to form a very alive work. And since they are being accumulated here for probably forever, it seems that somebody still has plans for them.

Arman says: “They’re awaiting their fate.”

Arman’s colleague Jean Tinguely, a fellow member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, also had found a time-themed programmatic paradox to propel his work of the period: he spoke of “static movement.” And it almost sounds as if he had Arman’s Paradox of Time in front of him when he proclaimed a changing art for changing times, when vanitas images would no longer be needed (this is from “Dynamo Tinguely” in the same 1961 Zero magazine): “Please, would you throw away your watches! At least toss aside the minutes and hours. Obviously we all realize that we are not everlasting. Our fear of death has inspired the creation of beautiful works of art. And this was a fine thing, too. We would so much like to own, think, or be something static, eternal, and permanent. However, our only eternal possession will be change.”

And on that hopeful note, Arman’s alarm clocks keep patiently awaiting their fate.

(Happily, we can check on some of their fate. The photo on top of the page is a recent one, and above here’s one from the Arman website, some couple of decades older. Not quite static, not quite moving, as you can see. Shake it like a kaleidoscope and get a slightly new composition each morning.

This is a somewhat slapdash translation of a piece that recently appeared, in German only, in a book on the Scharpff Collection, called Sammlung im Wandel. If you want proper stylistics or check the footnotes, you can actually read the original over on the publisher’s site. Just click forward a couple of pages here.)

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! Hes 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 then 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 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 than 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...

...how 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.