December 30, 2009

How It's Done

Adminstrator's Note: The following project by William Brovelli is exemplary of how conceptual art might be purposefully extended to break new ground as "postconceptualism." With his address of both the idea of "choice" and the virtual "evaporation" of contextual definitions of art, Brovelli creates a work that is modest in scope yet bold in conception.

"BUYPASS
The idea is to encourage the spectator to purchase an item that will become the art object (À la readymade) This event is dedicated to the life and work of Ann T. Kenyon 1932-1994.
This (multiple space) solo exhibition is to take place within a 30 day period (Jan.1, 2010 –Jan.30, 2010) Location: all *Salvation Army locations.
The purchased (personalized) item as well as the exhibition card and documentation of the event (the receipt) becomes the art object. The artwork will not be recognized as such without all three elements in place. Through the act of selection and purchase, the buyer becomes the main player via aesthetic control in the realization of the art object. It must be understood that this project is less about the Readymade per se as it is about using the readymade as a vehicle that will enable greater control on the part of the spectator in terms of deciding what or even if the art object is going to be.
There will be no artist reception, signatures or any other interaction between artist and spectator(s) during the exhibition. Anytimeafter the 30 day exhibition period, participants may contact the artist for a free exhibition card that will validate the object. (Postage paid by artist.) www.williambrovelli.com

*Note: The artist only suggests purchasing the object from the Salvation Army store. Any object not purchased from a Salvation Army store and accompanied by a receipt that falls within the exhibition date, will be considered void in terms of its relation to this project and exhibition. The Salvation Army is not affiliated with the artist or this project."



Brovelli will be included, along with John James Anderson, Diane Blackwell, Reuben Breslar, Amber Landis, Cat Manolis, Meg Mitchell, Breht O'Hearn, Ken Weathersby and David Williams, in my second installment of "Postconceptualism" at University of Maryland's Stamp Gallery in March 2011.

December 21, 2009

Small Pond Blues

Last week-end a high-level art collector was ushered around Washington, D.C. by the Washington Project for the Arts to pick 12 artists who would join WPA’s other selected artists for their annual fund-raising auction. WPA had previously put a call out to member artists to respond if they wanted to have their name included in a group from which 36 artists’ names would be drawn at random. Those 36 artist’s studios would be visited by the collector in a 36-hour whirlwind of studio visits.

The event was well under the radar of the general public, that is until Jessica Dawson’s WAPO piece came out last Friday. In her piece Dawson quoted the collector, Mera Rubell of the well-regarded Rubell Collection in Miami, and her comments on the DC-area art scene have not been well received. Subsequently, there have been several discussion topics generated both about the 36-hour studio marathon and Rubell’s comments about DC on local artists’ Facebook pages and blogs. Rubell’s comments have sparked debate which ranges from why DC artists are so isolated to how DC can build an arts community along the lines of the perceived “professional” art scenes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.(1)

I am a WPA member but did not get involved in this project because I disagreed with its structure. First, you throw your name “in the hat” for a chance you might be randomly picked for an audience with Rubell. Then, if you were among the 36 artists “lucky” enough to be selected, you just hoped Rubell’s “taste” in art would include your own work. All this to achieve “validation” to be able to donate your work for the March 2010 WPA auction. This amounts to both luck and taste: random luck to get you picked and a “judgment of taste” to get you selected.(2)

One issue being discussed among local artists post-Rubell is competition: competition between artists to get shows and competition between galleries for art collector dollars. It is important to note that WPA's “36 Studios in 36 hours” was a raffle veiled as a putative “opportunity” to show. It was presented as a “chance” for a “break” to get your artwork shown. The fact is that jurors almost exclusively base selections, like Mera Rubell most certainly did, on what they “like,” rarely based on relevance to art history, theory, or a perceptible definition of art.

It is no secret to readers of this blog that I suspect that commerce muddies art production by tempting artists to succumb to art dealer pressure to provide “product.” This suspicion is not viewed favorably by those artists and dealers who already engage in said commerce. Nor is it a favored position among those on the “outside” who are still struggling to get in on “The Art Game.”

The general consensus in DC seems to be that the local art scene needs to develop an interrelated and reciprocal environment of artists, critics, dealers and collectors so we can function as an art “community.” Without being side-tracked by the possibility that the Internet may already have invalidated the idea of “local communities,” one might suppose that a small but influential coterie of artists, critics, dealers and collectors already exists – and if you’re “in” that circle, you know it.

The other aspect to the competition issue, perhaps subliminal, is that an increased competitiveness among artists and galleries has fundamentally resulted from the outset of pluralism in the visual arts. No one seems to want to admit that the trend toward a pluralist approach in visual arts (all “styles” currently “accepted” and marketed whether figurative, conceptual, time-based, or what have you) that has dominated the art world for the past 25 years has diverted the discourse about art’s definition. Thus, competition is not even about “art” but really about how dealers can match a “style” of work to some collector’s “taste.”

This is a more worthy focus for DC: why bother to “compete” with New York, LA and Chicago as a “community” of artists, critics, dealers and collectors if the critical, financial and media muscle is not here? Perhaps a more interesting approach would be to create an environment of support based on DC’s unique situation. We work in a city of multiple museums, foundations and institutions that could provide a stage for us to rigorously explore the idea of art’s definition, the possibilities for what art “does” and how culture is mutually beneficial to both its producers and its consumers. All this could occur within DC without worrying about commerce because we have the opportunity here to view art as a right not a privilege.

Yes, I am talking about “socialized” art, funded and supported by tax dollars with oversight by government and meaningful successes. We have nothing to lose.

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1. It was disheartening to learn last week that there are no DC artists among the artists chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial which truly confirms DC's “small pond” stature in the art world.

2. I occasionally enter well-represented juried exhibitions like the Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize in Baltimore. In a juried show competition you gamble solely on the juror's “taste” because the competition requires only that you submit application materials, jpegs and entry fee - there is no random drawing involved.

December 17, 2009

Truitt & A Pithy Quibble



Without a doubt, the current Anne Truitt retrospective (“Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 3, 2010) will help solidify her reputation as a unique individualist who explored color within a “minimalist” framework. Truitt was often overshadowed by the dominant males of Minimal Art – Donald Judd, Tony Smith, Robert Morris and Carl Andre – and her work has been critically underserved to date. Even with Clement Greenberg solidly in her corner, Truitt’s monolithic wooden sculptures are not generally recognized as “key” works among the Minimalist canon. That may change with this retrospective’s exhaustive survey of her work. Truitt’s signature wood sculptures abound in this show and their assertion of form yielding to color is powerfully represented here.

A significant number of critics lump Truitt in with the “Washington Color School” instead of calling her a minimalist. Their theoretical connection of Truitt to Morris Louis and Ken Noland may be comprehensible in theory, yet harder to accept in a practical sense when approaching her sculpture. First, obviously – it’s sculpture; three-dimensional, floor-bound and (almost) exclusively vertical. But the clear demarcation between Truitt’s work and Washington’s colorists lies in its presence. As Greenberg noted in his essay, “Recentness of Sculpture”, her sculptures had “the look of non-art” and it was with Truitt that he discovered “how this look could confer an effect of presence.”(1)

Clem also got it right when he wrote that it was “hard to tell whether the success of Truitt’s best work was primarily sculptural or pictorial.”(2) I think this gets at the crux of a particular reading of minimalism that helps unpack Truitt’s work and explain why she’s considered a “closet” minimalist.

Minimal Art, especially as practiced by Judd and Morris, rejects the relational aspects of what they viewed as “European” ways of art making; part-to-part relationships within paintings or sculptures were rejected in favor of unitary forms and “specific objects.” As viewed by Michael Fried, their works dealt with “the nonrelational, the unitary, and the holistic.”(3) The minimalists’ creation of unitary forms like cubes or I-Beams was a result of their rejection of “part-to-part” composition. Furthermore, their belief in “wholeness” included unification of the object with its color; if there was color at all, it was generally primer gray or “rust.”

In Truitt we have a “sculptor” who happens to make three-dimensional “paintings.” Her use of her forms become similar to a painter’s use of supports, as her primary focus remains what can occur with color when it is applied to forms like hers:

“I realized that changes in color induced, or implied, changes in shape. That though color and structure retained individuality, they could join forces rather as independent melodies can combine into a harmonic whole. And that when I combined them in a particular way, they had a particular content.”(4)

It becomes abundantly clear then that Truitt’s exclusion from the patriarchal minimalists has to do with her preference for “metaphorical” color and the illusory relationships within the form of her work. Predominantly “boxes,” her preference for shifting the tonalities of her colors from plane to plane within a single structure focuses attention on the corners. Given the physics of light falling upon these geometric forms, the result is that corners more often than not appear to be fluctuating from three-dimensional to “two-dimensional.” Moreover, the actions of her hand-applied colors on those boxes often involves relationships between the changing colors on nearby, perpendicular planes that frequently produce more illusions; visual “trickery” of false depth, corners that appear to reverse and fold in on themselves.

Granted, we have to admire the maverick quality of Truitt but it is clear that her work has been critically positioned over the years as lacking the “toughness” associated with the minimalists' “boys club” of Judd, Morris, Andre, et al. That, too, may soon change. As Kristen Hileman notes in printed materials accompanying the Truitt show, “We are currently in a scholarly moment that welcomes a re-evaluation of the past and acknowledges the interplay between an artist's output and his or her individual experience.” Our appreciation of Truitt lies in her conflation of painterly sensibilities within an obdurate and “scary” structure.(5) And, indeed, there is one series of Truitt’s works on exhibit that scared me, albeit, for different reasons.

The “Pith” series is a group of canvas swatches that Truitt painted thickly with black pigment. The canvas pieces have frayed edges and irregular shapes and are encased in typical museum cases with the pieces laid horizontally. By some accounts, the “Pith” works were to be hung vertically on a wall like paintings.(6) In fact, with their gestural and impasto brushwork, and in their horizontal address, they seem to speak now of Pollock and his choreographed “action painting,” rather than how Truitt may have envisioned them. There is some speculation that the frayed edges of “Pith” pieces may relate to that fuzzy “cut” on the “throat” of “Nicea.” Whether a curatorial decision or an estate preference, the decision to lay “Pith” flat is apparently something other than what the artist had in mind.


Image: Installation view of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” showing “Pith” piece in the foreground; Photograph © Copyright by Lee Stalsworth.

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1. Greenberg, Clement. “Recentness of Sculpture,” reprinted in Minimal Art: a critical anthology (G. Battcock: ed.), Berkeley, 1995, 185.

2. Ibid., 185.

3. Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago, 1998, 156.

4. Meyer, James. “Grand allusion: James Meyer talks with Anne Truitt,” ArtForum, May 2002.

5. In her 2002 conversation with James Meyer, Truitt talks about how Greenberg found her work “difficult” and that he visited again until he finally “saw it.” She recounts how when Greenberg first saw Hardcastle he “backed away from it and said, ‘Scares the shit out of me.’

6. In conversation with a Hirshhorn guide, I discovered that photographer John Gossage has recalled Truitt intended that “Pith” works were to be hung.

December 10, 2009

Bellwether (or not)



Hans Haacke’s work has investigated the extent to which cultural production intersects with political necessity. As the saying goes, “All art is political,” but only if we provide the exterior context needed to establish the relevance of a work’s politics. Without a contextual “reading” an artwork’s political intent may remain obscured or “cloudy.” Moreover, the supplemental political context of particular works of art begin to lose their impact and wane over the years, as the prevailing conditions or “climate” of their original insertion into the social order suffer the “fog” of the past.

Such is the case with many of Haacke’s works. How important are Reaganomics to us today? Does the average Westerner truly “understand” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Similarly, our disdain for slumlords is off-set by our comprehension that the economic realities of this country are built on “opportunity.” Thus, we realize that the rich can dabble in the arts and also indulge in baser aspects of greed.

Perhaps this is why Haacke did not mention his infamous “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971” in the Phillips Collection's “Conversations with Artists” last night. The particular details of those “fraudulent practices” of one financial firm in the ownership of various tenement apartment buildings in Harlem and the Lower East Side are possibly less relevant to us 38 years later. The 146 photographs were accompanied by texts describing the locations and the financial transactions behind the ownership of the pictured buildings. As recently as 1997, this work by Haacke was described as exposing a “guilty” Harry Shapolsky who was “well protected by influential friends” and that his “fraudulent practices” were overlooked by a “judicial system” that was “exceedingly forgiving.”(1)

“Shapolsky et al” is often cited as exemplary of “institutional critique” and its photo-text presentation has come to encapsulate this “academic discipline.”(2) But how can we care about this work now? In my lectures about “Shapolsky et al” I “explain” the work with supplemental information about its supposition that the “rich” are not nice people. There is also the art world gossip that this work was the reason for Haacke’s canceled Guggenheim solo show.(3)

The implication that the nature of wealth involves power is always topical. However, artworks that focus on this reality remain episodic and their “survival” as “art history” is dependent upon additional information provided by critics, curators, educators and (dare I say it?) those institutions that “manage” our consciousness.(4)

Haacke’s current exhibition at X Initiative perhaps sidesteps those issues of wealth and power to coalesce as a kind of mini-retrospective with a couple of bonuses – literally: there are giant fans with the word “Bonus” flashing on and off above them. These fans, coupled with all the windows on the fourth floor space (which used to be one of Dia’s buildings) wide open, generate an aggressively uncomfortable viewing space. Haacke gleefully referred to it as the “most adverse conditions for display of art.”

In a humorous nod to the hostile environment, Haacke has set up two devices on a table: a hygrothermograph measuring and recording the temperature and relative humidity of the space, plus a barograph recording barometric pressure.

“Whether or not” this was a subtle dig at Dia or any of that institution’s agendas, hidden or otherwise, is difficult to say. Haacke does acknowledge the metaphoric potentialities of his work.(5) Thus, one could speculate that the presentation of art that has been called “difficult” (institutional critique, systems art) in an unpleasant ambiance might yield some interesting metaphors: “cold” art as misunderstood, or its commercial denial.

Regardless, one might also conjecture that the current work of Haacke bears less resemblance to his past works of explicit critique and controversy. The Haacke of today has been marginalized to the point that he may no longer be a bellwether of conceptualism. Without the artist himself “re-contextualizing” his past and “explaining” his present position in art history, we will have to remain content to bundle up and submit to the torture.


Image: An installation shot of “Weather, or not” (2009); © Copyright by Hans Haacke. Photograph:
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1. www.medienkunstnetz.de.

2. Haacke’s characterization of institutional critique, as he admitted in Q&A that he had “kind of practiced it early on” but there is a “danger that it becomes an academic discipline.”

3. “Famously, Haacke’s refusal to withdraw the piece from his solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, led to the exhibition being cancelled. Haacke’s career has, of course, been undergirded by a heroic narrative of institutional neglect and censorship that continues to nourish his credibility as a political artist.” From Frieze Magazine, Issue 106, April 2007.

4. “Consciousness is […] a battleground of conflicting interests. Correspondingly, the products of consciousness represent interests and interpretations of the world that are potentially at odds with each other. The products of the means of production, like those means themselves, are not neutral.” From Haacke’s essay, “Museums, Managers of Consciousness” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (Peter Selz, Kristine Stiles, editors), University of California Press, 1996, 877.

5. Haacke went to some length explaining the symbolism of his portrait of Reagan placed opposite an enlarged 35mm frame of Polish protestors represented the conflict between the “opposing” mediums of painting and photography.

December 1, 2009

Critical Fragments: Narrative

“[…] the image no longer contains the terms of its past – understood as the terms of the problem to which it is seen to be a response. Rather, both the past and the problem are felt to reside outside it, and access to them can only be achieved by a long chain of explanation which characteristically takes the form of narrative.”(1)

Rosalind Krauss wrote these words about Frank Stella and his decision to work in series in 1971. By that time Stella’s best work was possibly behind him as he abandoned his flat series to move into shaped canvasses and the “Protractor” series. Krauss’s focus on Stella’s paintings became a measure of how the then-as-yet-unnamed “postmodern” painting might proceed and how it would deal with its position in art history. Her visionary grasp of the simple fact that any “meaning” attributed to a work of art comes from “outside it” is doubly impressive in retrospect. Moreover, her thoughts prompt further reflection concerning another take on the idea of “narrative” itself, particularly with respect to the painting’s “frame”.

The narrative of cinema unfolds within the frame of a camera lens. A diegesis, or fictional world, takes place inside that rectangular space that is the “look” of the camera.(2) Everything that we “see” is bounded by that framing device. Cinematic “meaning” is expressed through the diegesis which follows a narrative arc to a determinate end.

Film directors often articulate their vision through obsessive concern with every object and actor within the camera’s frame. This auteur of cinematic narrative (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Welles, Fellini) truly relies on the framing device of the camera to represent their “vision.” In this regard, these directors are often compared with old master painters in their ability to exact such power from each square foot of celluloid.

Photographic narrative is not diegetic. Indeed, it cannot be, given that a unique photograph is but a “moment” and does not follow the sequencing of film. As a result, photographic “meaning” is often supplemented by textuality exterior to the photograph. Narrative readings of photographs are thus suspect as any “story” presumed from a photograph requires interpretive textual embellishment from without.

Historically, narrative interpretations of photography were based on established traditions of how paintings were interpreted; relating part to part within the frame to deduce a story. Figures, settings, events were usually of mythic or historic importance and meant to impart knowledge to the populace, many of which were illiterate. Readings of photography have been misinformed by this relational logic. After painting had fully renounced realism by the start of the 20th Century, these relational elements became formalist. Yet modernist painting still relied on the idea of part-to-part relationships to emphasize the modern artists’ new concerns with formal elements over realism.

Narrative in abstract painting has nothing to do with a “story.” Certainly there are arguments that relationships happen between the formal elements of a painting that “tell” a story, i.e., this line relates to that line, this color balances that color. But these have become less and less important since the emphasis placed on the frame.

Narrative in abstract painting has less to do with the formal elements than it has with the frame. The frame defines the time; shows us how to look, where to begin. Narrative painting can address this linearity only through the frame.

Like the humble march of words in a sentence, moving inexorably to an ending and coherence, linear movement within a painting’s frame is yet another way to approach the narrative. Unlike cinema, photography or realist painting, abstract painting must convey the temporality of its linear process through tactility and the measurably perceptible. Without “looks” or “story,” abstract painting constructs an altogether different version of the narrative that neither deals with its status as an object nor rejects it.

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1. Krauss, Rosalind. “Problems of Criticism, X: Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” Artforum, November 1971, 69.

2. An idea expressed about still photography in Victor Burgin’s essay “Looking at Photographs” and about cinematography in Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Burgin suggests four “looks” of the photograph while Mulvey prefers three.