Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Archive for March 2010

What Can I Learn From a Housafire?

Just after finishing my very first blog post and sending it off to my editor, I stumbled into a bizarre bit of serendipity. I stopped into the Winkleman Gallery to catch Olympia Lambert’s Happy Gallerina performance as part of Hashtagclass.  I wound up talking to critic Sarah Schmerler, who was in the gallery figuring out how her project to provide artists with artist’s statements would work.  One of the things that got me started writing this blog was a Twitter conversation about artist’s statements and how agonizing they could be to write, and here was a critic offering to write them for artists for free.  We ended up setting up a small table in the corner and hashing out what my work is about and what she would say about it, while trying not to disturb the Happy Gallerina, who was herself navigating the perimeter of Man Bartlett’s huge pile of balloons. As Sarah described, in came Jerry Saltz and the next thing I know I’m getting a critique from my BlackBerry (you can see those paintings here.)

While trying to respond to Jerry’s questions I felt like an underweight sparring partner for a prize fighter.  I tried to slow down and get what I wanted to say out accurately, but he was already into another question, and I was constantly off balance.  I don’t mean to make it sound as if he was rude, or not listening to my answers, and I also don’t want it to sound like I wouldn’t do it again in a second.  It was tough, but it was also a great experience, and I know how lucky I am to stumble into this interaction (that crazy interactions like this one are part of what Hashtagclass are designed to promote is what makes it so interesting and successful).  The most difficult thing he asked was what I think the greatest weakness of my work is.  Even more difficult is what he thought the greatest weakness of my work is.

To me it’s how I fetishize trying to get the surface and picture “right,” overworking a painting and losing what was interesting about it in the first place.  He thought (and I’m paraphrasing here) that I am not working with the concerns of my generation, that I’m too caught up in working with ideas and surfaces that the Post-minimalists have already covered.  I’m not sure that’s fair, but while looking at images off of a 360 x 480 pixel screen without any other context (dates, sizes, etc.) he still managed to lock into some of my central formal concerns.  As I headed home (to my editor) I started to think about Post-minimalism and my relation to it, something that’s been on my mind since Saltz’s wife, Roberta Smith, used her Times editorial to call for changes in what work is being shown in New York museums.  I started to think that I had something else to think and write about.  How serendipitous is that?

While I’m trying to figure out how to tackle that, get over to Hashtagclass if you can.  If you’re an artist who wrestles with and agonizes over your artist’s statements, make sure to check out Sarah Schmerler’s session at 6:30 on Wednesday, March 17th.  I was always told that no one would write a statement for me, but if you get there early enough she will.

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Written by Brian Dupont

March 16, 2010 at 11:54 am

Why Do Artists Write? As I See It…

Since the Renaissance elevated individual painters, sculptors, and architects beyond the status as crafts- and guildsmen and created the Western notion of the artist, a few artists have maintained a writing practice alongside their physical production. Though Vasari’s Lives gave us a model for art historical writing, Vasari did not have to contend with shifting attitudes of aesthetics that found the need to categorize various projects as “Art” or “non-art.” (The impulse for catty gossip, on the other hand, appears to be woven into our DNA.) As early Modernists fought the prevailing academies, they relied heavily on the manifesto to define their agenda or identify their faction. After World War II, when the center of the Modernist art world migrated to New York and artists began to produce objects that did not look any different from everyday items, writing became a way for some artists to (try to) control the terms of debate around their work. As contemporary Western art moved from traditional disciplines and its discourse pushed past the Modernist project to a myriad of concerns (the position of art in culture, the engagement—and exploitation and repression—of the dominant culture with other cultures, the necessity of art and its attendant institutions, the viability of entire media, etc.), the volume of writing by artists truly exploded.

I see the most vital writing recently done by artists as coming from the supposed end of Modernism, by Donald Judd and Andy Warhol. Judd brought the control he sought over every facet of his work and life to his writing, and he was specific enough to take on Michael Freid and other critics on their own terms after the previous generation had largely abdicated the interpretation of their work to others. (Indeed there was a certain distrust of writers by artists. Mel Bochner has stated that in the ’60s, “artists who wrote were looked at suspiciously, as if writing somehow tainted their visual practice.”) Armed with a degree in philosophy, Judd worked in the trenches writing criticism as he found a voice for his sculpture and developing installation concerns. Because of his example, the writing projects of conceptual artists such as Bochner and Smithson were more easily accepted than they might otherwise have been. Counter to the theoretical and journalistic rigors of Judd’s writing, Warhol’s writing took the laissez-faire approach of the personal diarist. Even if his dairies weren’t intended for public consumption, they are an antecedent to our celebrity-dazed, reality-show culture. Like his art, his writing progressed from “high” art into mass marketing and popular culture, and he went so far as to found Interview Magazine, setting the bar particularly high for future artists wishing to mine celebrity culture for their work. The territory he staked out seems particularly relevant to today’s art world, which can plumb the depths of personal revelation or wade the shallows of the contemporary mediascape just as easily as it can engage the formal interplay of shape, line, mass, and color.

For young artists working now, writing has become ever more important and common, while simultaneously being dreaded. With the Internet as an everyday utility and the proliferation of social networking sites, more and more interactions occur via text; and yet I rarely meet artists who enjoy writing. The extraction of a wisdom tooth is considered preferable to writing a new artist’s statement, and writing about larger concerns or the work of other artists is out of the question. The contraction of print media means that the profit motives that lead Judd and Bochner to writing no longer obtain for artists. I think most artists would rather leave the production of text to someone they see as more qualified, which probably leads to the sad state of the statements about artist’s works found in press releases, many of which could be contenders for a Bulwer-Lytton award if there were a relevant category.

Indeed, I do dread writing. Partly because I generally do not have to do it, partly because I live with a writer who makes it seem easy (and so all the more frustrating to me), and largely because writing would keep me out of the studio. But it’s starting to seem more important to make the effort, both as a way to engage with artists and work I may not know, and as a way to decode contemporary thinking on art generally, and on painting specifically, even in the midst of the messy present. I confess that I incline toward Judd rather than Warhol; and as I endeavor to post with a semblance of regularity, I will be combining reviews with longer pieces aimed at addressing broader questions, while keeping the gossip out of it. Consider this first post a way up and off the couch.

Written by Brian Dupont

March 12, 2010 at 4:20 am

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