Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘MoMA

Out of Time (Part 3): A Wandering Market

… Or, Attack of the Giant Killer Robots![1]

As Forever Now has engaged the critical debate around painting through the lens of technology and science fiction, and if our current context or the paintings themselves (see Part 1 and Part 2) don’t support this argument, there may still be a way to map contemporary fictions onto the landscape of painting. Popular criticism of the show has been unable to avoid discussion of the current art market and its influences, and most of what has been written certainly has a dystopian flavor. So if the Postmodern landscape of the art world is a “Desert of the Real” and artists are working inside of this new (or really not so new) reality, then we must also consider that the structures that surround and support that art have also changed, perhaps without us knowing, perhaps irrevocably. The issue at hand in any contested environment is not only what can be done to right the mistakes that brought us to this place, but what unintended consequences we might visit on the future.

Painting functions as a barometer in the nexus of art and market. Painting’s deaths have coincided with economic downturns, and when things pick back up there is usually a resurgence of interest in colored mud hung on the wall. However these shifts are more a matter of narrative for critics and historians; it is safe to say that the best artists continue to make the work they want regardless of fashion, even pushing at boundaries further when they are out of the spotlight. The continuing upward trend in the market, whether bull run or bubble, is unnerving, and leading to art being assessed differently. Aesthetics and criticism are intertwined with economics and influence in a way that if not really any different than in past generations[2], is more apparent in our networked era of information wanting to be free. If Forever Now exemplifies our current condition, it is in the implication that the transition to Postmodernism has finally caught up with not only what art is being made, but how it is being talked about, exhibited and sold. As artists and dealers are being forced to adjust to a Postmodern art market[3], critics and historians are functioning more and more as market analysts, intertwining aesthetics and economics, and perhaps privileging the concerns of the latter more than they should. As the narrative threads are tied together, there is a real danger that art may eventually lose the individual spark that makes it more than mere commodity.

The painting being labeled[4] as zombie formalism makes the workings of the market easy to criticize, but the lesson to be learned is that what will come next isn’t going to be a return to what we used to have. Writing in the Brooklyn Rail about the less heralded Whitney Museum exhibition Remote Viewing a decade ago, Stephen Maine derided the trend of “vernacular abstraction” as

“…the order of the day, with formalists scarce among younger painters … In part, this is a response to pressures of an expanding market, wherein collectors with deep pockets but little taste for art history, impatient with the linguistic indifference of high abstraction, are provided some anecdotal avenues of approach to the work.”

It is troubling for the discourse of art that who buys the work, for whatever reason (real or imagined) affects the criticism of it. Certainly great works have had ignominious beginnings, and while charges of philistinism are routinely leveled at new money forcing its way into any rarefied market, such criticism can be just as much about reinforcing a status quo of back channel exclusivity and power as lamenting the passing of connoisseurship.

The work in Remote Viewing exhibited a strong trend towards the idiosyncratic and handmade; towards uneven surfaces that did not compromise their facture for easy decoration and did not skimp on authorial labor.[5] These qualities are not really less evident in Forever Now but they have become far less emphasized as personal expression through the manipulation of materials has come to be seen as historical redundant; if any mark that can be made has already been made, how can it be a vehicle for unique personal expression? Over the last decade painting has absorbed the values of a market that embraced artists like Jeff Koons, whose legacy and practice espouses commodification and production above all else. In “Zombie Formalism” this legacy has trickled down to young artists who emulate the slick look and easy production from the top of a flush market. There are consequences to removing the artist’s hand and head from making art. Previously every artist that turned the studio into a production line first had to figure out how to make the thing themselves; the vacuousness of the worst contemporary painting is the result of short cuts and shoddy effort, of time not spent on the work.

Likewise there are consequences to the shift to an economic Postmodernism. The rise of “art” within Western European society[6] as something for the individual was tied to the rise of the middle class. The art of the academy mirrored the ossification of a society that eventually birthed not only Marxism, but also Modernism; avante garde art ceased to be made for the middle (i.e. merchant) class as evidenced by the title “bourgeois” descending into deprecating slur. Modernism also saw popular culture embrace different media than high art, furthering the divide.[7] With the shift to Postmodernism all but complete, we are faced with the demise of the middle class’s relevance to art portending the demise of the middle class itself. As more wealth accumulates to the top 1% and the middle class shrinks, collecting art has come to be seen as a game for oligarchs and the super-rich. This perception is reinforced every time the art press puts sales figures ahead of aesthetic content, and it ultimately only serves those wielding money in the art market like a weapon.

There has been money and influence behind the form and content of art from the beginning[8], but the opinion of artists, critics and connoisseurs carries less and less weight. We’re nearly 30 years removed from Robert Hughes’ essay Requiem for a Featherweight.[9] His critique of Basquait included coupling the Whitney Museum’s interest with the economic drive for a retrospective, but instead of destroying Basquait’s reputation, in the intervening years all we’ve seen is his continued canonization and an increase in his resale prices. Setting aside the validity of Hughes’ critique, it is evident that economic interests trump the critic as lone curmudgeon.[10] Instead of tilting at windmills of artistic reputation propped up as an asset class, we would do better to provide an alternate narrative of art grounded in what we are for, not against. We do not all have to agree (indeed, we should expect to vehemently disagree at times), but we do have to make a story for contemporary art that allows the thinking and making of the work, not its price, to be paramount.

 

 

[1] Which I’ve been teasing here in the notes since Part 1; that’s why you read the notes, people.

[2] We’ve all read enough pithy references about the Medici and their influence on the art of the residence, so let’s just pretend I put one here.

[3] Best outlined by Tim Schneider in The Gray Market.

[4] It’s a label that seems very dependent on current popular culture and its fixation on Zombies (for example, with the Walking Dead). If this work had come to prominence even 5 years ago when vampires and the Twilight movies were all the rage, I’m sure we would’ve been hearing about “vampire formalism” and paintings that looked good (and even sparkled) on the wall, but were devoid of any reflection of substance or deeper content, and were ultimately sucking the life out of painting.

[5] It’s interesting to note that the only artist in both shows, Julie Mehertu, has gone against the grain in both shows; showing more highly polished and produced works in Remote Viewing, and more gestural and seemingly transitional works in Forever Now.

[6] This only applies to western art out of the Renaissance tradition; Eastern art has followed a slightly different path, although artists were still dependent on an infrastructure provided by the ruling elite. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn comparing working within the free market to academia?

[7] One of the more interesting implications in Postmodernism is so called “high” art circling back and incorporating these media (photography, film and video, digital and internet practice) into contemporary discourse.

[8] Everybody wave to the Medici!

[9] Originally published in the New Criterion, 1988 and collected in Nothing If Not Critical.

[10] See Dave Hickey as a current example.

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Written by Brian Dupont

February 15, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Out of Time (Part 2): In the Desert.

As part 1 of this essay considered the metaphorical space of the desert as a model for the new condition of painting within Postmodernism, the physical space of Forever Now is equally revealing. The exhibition is on the top floor, sitting in stark contrast to Matisse’s cut outs.[1] Compared to the lyrical journey on a pleasantly winding path that circumnavigates one of the high-water marks of modernism and pure pleasure in color and form, how is an exhibition mucking around in the creation of the grimy present supposed to stand up? The show feels as if it is being hyped to raise its profile as much as possible just on the way to the 4th floor. A large painting hangs over the main lobby like a billboard and several monumentally framed pieces are propped against the wall on either side of the entrance, like outsized carnival barker’s signs. Once inside the large space[2] is divided into a series of branching chambers with partitions encouraging meandering and no strict path, but also no exit except back the way one came.[3] Dead-ending against the back wall forces the viewer to rebound and wind one’s way back through the show and make new connections and consider different relations and viewpoints. The exhibition layout cancels any hierarchy and allows for slipping glimpses of how some model of the whole might lock together. Looking at the show is an exercise in exploration, of navigating terrain that is not set.

Other than being painting made recently, the work has no common denominator, outside of perhaps generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale[4], although many of the works have bits of the real world peeking through. The artists share no agenda or style; they are simply trying to make paintings that reflect how they interact with and process their world. That their work shows its influences and continues a dialog with art of the past does not necessarily point to any “atemporal” influence of the net, beyond its reality as a condition of our shared world. All of the artists have started making their mature work, if not lived their entire lives since the advent of Postmodernism; the interaction between the history of images and present production is ingrained in how they approach the canvas.

Amy Sillman’s abstractions provide the clearest model of how painting can make something new when the language of invention is played out, and in the process they show just how obsolete the idea of “newness” is. They are often (and incorrectly) labeled as a grab-bag mix of styles, a criticism that latches on to surface similarity rather than looking at just what Sillman creates for herself. She has found her voice in the direct handling of paint, getting colors that don’t easily go together to mix with gesture, shape and space to form a hard won picture that just barely keeps their different compositional elements in balance. They teeter on the edge of falling off the ledge, but the constant revisions within the picture are what give them their subtle vibrational energy and move the eye through the painting. The more complicated she gets the better; her simpler paintings flatten out as though with too few pictorial balls in the air there is not enough to sustain interest, either hers or the viewer’s. While there are no intimations of the figure here, it has often made appearances in her work; when it does it is more complicated in its relation to abstract elements in the picture than Guston[5] while remaining much more autonomous than in deKooning.[6] Just because she is working with a subject others have used, she is not beholden to them and her practice allows her raise content in subtler ways than her supposed sources.

Nicole Eisenman’s large portrait heads combined confrontational scale with unassuming demeanor. They confront Picasso with a sly rejoinder born of a contemporary eye. Her large frontal slabs of color are as precisely keyed as Sillman’s, and the paint surface is as worked and rewarding of close inspection. In several of the paintings she has pasted ethnographic clippings onto the surface. Their shapes echo those built in paint, put they flicker irritatingly, causing a difficult shift in resolutions of scale as the dull grisaille of newsprint or Xerox tries to hide against oil paint, but sit on the surface pushing the space in the painting back. They continue to grate, itching the brain; the fact that I want them removed is probably why they’re there. It is also an example of just how aware a critic must be of one’s own biases. One of my favorite paintings by Eisenman, The Break up, has a similar format, but lacks additional collage. I found myself longing for its unadulterated surface, and spent time going back to see if I could get the artist’s intent rather than trying to make them fit into my own preconceptions. Her Easter Island portraits make for a dynamic conversation with Mark Grohtjahn’s mask paintings, which explode out with color and minute gesture – the mass is the same as Eisenman’s, but built as a mosaic rather than a slab; we get to see to very different artists approaching a similar idea in very different ways. In Grohtjahn any sense of a source portrait is obliterated in a flurry of paint. His works are not without their own material quirks. Impasto paint curls around stretched linen, but the paint is actually on cardboard. If you look carefully you can detect the slight deflection of the surface plane away from the wall in one of the panels.

These sorts of material inconsistencies and deviations from “pure” painting run throughput the work in the show. Greenberg’s purity of medium was being discarded almost as quickly as it was becoming established dogma, and what a painting is made out of is considered only when it is blatantly foregrounded by the work, and then if it is so obvious the work usually falls flat. Rashid Johnson’s scratches in soap and wax fail for inserting a Twombly-esque distraction where none is needed[7]; if the resonance of the materials and their importance to the artist’s cultural and ethnic experience is the central point then shouldn’t the simple act of just matter-of-factly putting them on the surface be enough? Trying to make it look like art seems more self-conscious and is ultimately unconvincing. On the opposite end of a similar spectrum Richard Aldrich’s wispy gestures are interesting as sketches writ large, an idea proposed quickly in the studio, but they do not read as full blown statements – it is here that we start to encounter the slippery slope of just how much work really is needed to make a painting.[8] It seems as if the critical eye may slide over some paintings that seem to easily made, too strategized into being. By contrast Dianna Molzan breaks apart the components of a painting to make charming and inventive objects that inject personal idiosyncrasy into the cool ontology of the painting as object. Every aspect of her wry objects is carefully considered[9], and this investment results in a warmth and humor in a small scale object[10] that stands up to an empire of large canvases.

Twombly’s influence runs deep through the exhibition, like a common genetic marker. His off-handed and scrawling gesture is a common antecedent to Provisionalism and other strains of the abject in contemporary painting.[11] Critics have not laid the blame at his doorstep, but he is the precursor for the aesthetic developments that are the most troubling to the old guard. He heralds the obsolescence of virtuosity, the divorce of the monumental work matched to a grand statement. To put it another way, when Richard Serra called Twombly the bravest person in modern art for taking on Pollock with only a pencil, the other side of this is that it was possible not only to take on Pollock with only a pencil, but to win. In winning he shifted the stakes and scope away from the tortures of labor and towards the academics of abstraction. He removed doubt[12] from the process of making a painting that was an anathema to Guston and deKooning. It’s instructive to compare his Treatise on the Veil to Forever Now and see just how much contemporary painting falls under his influence. There are other such giants that loom over painting (Polke comes to mind) but Forever Now’s focus on abstraction is what foregrounds Twombly.

Perhaps the most surprising comparison to Twombly is Julie Mehertu, who has covered her trademark precise pen line with flicks of brushed ink. It’s as if turbulent weather and atmosphere has descended to surround her previous architectural subjects. In the larger painting on view it is possible to discern her more standard pictorial language in earlier layers, giving these works the feeling that they were unsatisfactory works that were treated as salvage experiments. They also seem to come out of the small scale (and definitely less-produced) paintings in her recent solo show at Mariam Goodman, but whether they represent a new direction or merely a tangent in her practice, they stand out for how they relate to the exhibition’s curatorial conceit. Mehertu’s iconic works are steeped in the relationships of systems and the transfer of information across global networks; there is a robust thread connecting them to the digital references the concept of the atemporal suggests (and William Gibson’s writings practically demand), but Hoptman’s focus is on the recycling and reclamation of images and references rather than the mechanisms and infrastructure of that transfer. As such whatever formal turns Mehertu takes, the comparison of the exhibition is limited to surface similarities of the aesthetic qualities of the objects themselves and not to exploring the deeper implications of the interactions.[13]

Collector’s darling and critical whipping boy Oscar Murillo is presenting his paintings for the first time in New York. Given the arc and design of his career it would seem to raise expectations perhaps beyond what the paintings can support.[14] Murillo seems aware of the possible bind, and his interest in moving his art past just being pretty pictures on the wall is on view in a pile of unstretched canvases left lying in the corner to be dragged around and rearranged by the show’s visitors. The gesture speaks to a common desire by painters, especially those working abstractly, to be taken seriously and express something beyond mere decoration.[15] Murrilo’s answer is to allow the viewer to interact with his works as he does before they are finally stretched. There is a frission to be found in touching and moving works in a museum, however the artist’s studio is not necessarily an ideal arena for viewing art, and importing its processes into a museum trivializes his choices rather than lending them gravitas. Instead of revealing thought and process they become just an opportunity for the audience to take selfies. The gesture also feels arbitrary, as his stretched paintings on the walls are not out of place with the rest of the exhibition.[16] The bruised surfaces and casually gestural compositions belie an elegant colorist with a keen sense for collage and editing together fragments to form a cohesive whole; his integration of the separate parts and seams are much more integrated into his overall process and the resulting paintings than Albert Oehlen’s recent exhibition with a similar focus. The youngest artist in the show, he is emblematic of the potential problems of a new, metastasized art market that limits judgment to such a narrow career arc, without allowances for growth or change.

Forever Now is MoMA’s first exhibition of painting in 30 years, but beyond the imprimatur it is neither encyclopedic or revolutionary; instead it continues a line of exploration that maps trends and similarities in Postmodern painting. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975 at the Whitney Museum explored how painting turned towards objecthood in the wake of Minimalism and the advent of Postmodernism. Cheim and Read presented Reinventing Abstraction, a less known history of the 70’s and 80’s as a source of continuing rehabilitation of abstraction in painting during a period when Neo-expressionism crested into a second wave of conceptual art; it showed painting that was being made in studios the last time MoMA put on a painting show, and illustrated just how much influence can shift and change. In the vein of the shifting landscape of criticism and fashion, one should also consider the Whitney’s Remote Veiwing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing), which explored contemporary painting’s relation to dense and personal networks of information.[17] An exhibition a decade past, its links and history organize a thesis that is not dissimilar to that of Forever Now, but with a drastically different focus. The network of Remote Viewing leads to practices of labor-intensive detail, to an exhaustive search for a framework that will mesh with a personal vision. Forever Now references the contemporary Internet, where the birth and appropriation of images are midwifed by brand identities and the ease of cutting and pasting over a wi-fi connection. That so much of Forever Now seems to fall flat[18] may point to this ease of execution; as labor is devalued across the economy, the less demand there is for works of art that grate with a material density that cannot be easily replicated by a JPEG or digital scan, but the most successful works on view maintain their material reality as paintings. This remains true throughout the medium’s history, no matter the whims of the bazaar.

 

The essay concludes in Part 3.

 

[1] Conveniently coinciding with the exhibition title, entrance to the show is not timed.

[2] Which is not dissimilar from the large gallery spaces where most of this work is exhibited.

[3] A strategy well known in the design retail stores.

[4] Most of the works lock in at a large, but not overwhelming scale.

[5] Who could only get close to head-like lumps when working abstractly.

[6] Who made the abstraction of the figure the entire subject, the figure was the space of the painting, never really in it.

[7] Johnson’s inclusion is curious as he is primarily known for much stronger sculptural work, and the “paintings” included are a minor strain in his practice. These works fit with the exhibition in a way that one of his mirrored shelving reliefs do not, but that speaks more to his being included as a broader marker representing his practice; this in turn points to a possible agenda not encoded in the works themselves.

[8] I’m reminded of deKooning stepping back and wondering if his start could contain a picture, and it seems like for Aldrich the answer is not only “Yes” but also “…and it’s done.”

[9] Just examine the care and detail in the construction of her stretchers. The more common commercial stretcher builds would interrupt the delicate geometries she creates.

[10] And they are objects as opposed to pictures; their depth and the relation of the inside to the outside are inherent to them in a way that separates them from “Painting” proper.

[11] Much like Richard Tuttle in sculpture.

[12] Think of the references to graphitti that abound around his work and consider the confidence of his marks as someone stepping up to a wall with limited time and no room for doubt.

[13] I do not think it was necessarily a good idea to hang Mehertu’s paintings adjacent to Rashid Johnson’s works. The superficial similarities, albeit played out in contradictory materials (ink separated by isolating layers of acrylic vs. the earthy weight of soap and wax) are a facile comparison. It would have been just as obvious to hang Jacob Kassay’s silver mirrors across from Johnson, if he had been included.

[14] Then again, maybe not. One can also look at the recent trend of museum-quality shows in commercial (mega)galleries and then think that maybe David Zwirner has a much cannier strategy mapped out (remember the giant killer robots mentioned in the notes of Part 1? They’re coming in Part 3).

[15] It is nearly impossible to circumvent such criticism, but perhaps painters would be better off reading this than importing a Columbian chocolate factory to 19th Street for a month.

[16] It may be a litmus test for how you feel about the show and contemporary painting in general if you consider that to be a good thing or bad thing.

[17] It is startling to read contemporary criticism of the show and to see the nascent fragmentation of painting as a medium and similar concerns that are the same after so much time. Perhaps there is an origin for Provisionalism in Vernacular abstraction, or at least a historical precedent.

[18] There is always room for curatorial kvetching: I would’ve cut Bradley and Josh Smith and replaced them with R.H. Quaytman and Joanne Greenbaum.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2015 at 12:00 am

Out of Time (Part 1): ‘Forever Now’ and the New Landscape of Painting.

Painting has had it rough lately, it’s as if constantly dying and being reborn has really taken something out of the medium. For better or worse it has been yoked to the very definition and expectations of what art is, and painters have become accountable not only on formal but also economic grounds. Hatred of “Provisionalism[1] has given way to similar reactions about “Zombie Formalism[2] where a good deal of the criticism hinges not on the work but on how it is being made and just who is buying it. The new crisis of criticism in contemporary painting hinges on just how slippery the medium is and how its relations to the constantly shifting ground of the art worlds[3] have been exposed.

Forever Now, MoMA’s first new painting survey in 30 years, gives critics a good deal to try and grab on to.[4] From the beginning the show stakes a claim on the key feature of our time being an internet derived “atemporality”[5], with information easily accessible with a few clicks leading to a deluge of historical reference that can effectively remove art from historical place. However, the hip nod to William Gibson[6] and the technological present disguises the broader import of the show; in mapping out a space for painting where the entire wealth of history and aesthetic investigation is open (and constantly re-opened) to use[7] curator Laura Hoptman has marked our present circumstances as unequivocally Postmodern. A better pop cultural reference would be Morpheus stepping back to reveal the desert of the real to Neo[8] at the beginning of “The Matrix.” Coming from the gleaming skyscrapers and clear blue skies of high modernism, the scorched earth and sky of the truth of reality is a foreboding sight. It would seem a landscape of exhausted strategies and unintended consequences where survival will take more work than before, but it also allows for broader interactions and a greater degree of possibility.[9]

For artists this desert is terrain where the hierarchies of how to make art and what to make it out of don’t apply. Freed from the need to worry about pushing forward[10] or heralding an agenda, the artist may make what they want out of whatever material will mesh with their formal, conceptual, political, or aesthetic ends. Simply making something “new”[11] is too transient a glory and no longer laudable; the novelty of invention wears off too quickly and everyone’s sources are easily discovered.[12] This end of progress is also the end of avant garde; one can’t be at the forefront of a movement if there is no front, or if looking backward in reflection can’t be labeled as merely retrograde. This is ultimately disorienting for all involved as the criticism of any given work requires a careful approach on its own terms. The old signposts aren’t necessarily relevant, and the headstrong critic will find themselves revealing more about their own bias than the work’s. Likewise the artist must be acutely aware of what s/he stands for, and how they relate to the shifting context that surrounds their work lest they loose control of it. The lack of supposed progress raises the stakes because responsibility falls on the individual, it can’t be easily deflected to a group or movement. This is the cost of the freedom wished for by artists in bygone eras.[13]

Once we accept that atemporatlity is synonymous with Postmodernism[14] it can bee seen as a crutch to lay responsibility at the feet of the internet. Digital technologies have rapidly increased the flow of information, but Postmodernism predates widespread integration of digital networks into the fabric of our culture.[15] The first Postmodernists were analog artists, researching in libraries and archives, and collating physical objects, artifacts, and documents into their work. The inherent speed of all art was the same, but if painting has been slow to accept and accelerate into the new terrain of Postmodernism it is because it is a medium of material and individual gesture it does not lend itself to quick dissemination.[16] Painters are figuring out how to integrate the history of their medium into a continuum that more recent, easily digitized media were born into; but as those media aspire to the status and economic benefits enjoyed by painting more possibilities are opened as the boundaries blur.[17] Postmodern painters are finding their way; the work on view in Forever Now, or any other show of painting being made today, should not be seen as an example of living in the wreckage, but the slow start of a new beginning, of building a new frontier.

 

The essay continues in Part 2 and Part 3.

 

 

[1] Or “crapstraction” if you’re being kind of rude about it while simultaneously trying to come up with something punchy. This isn’t a label that one would apply if you were also to admit to liking some examples of the work under discussion.

[2] A term coined by Martin Mugar and subsequently introduced to mass appeal by Walter Robinson.

[3] I subscribe to a “many worlds” view of the art world as a way to simplify our understanding of something that is otherwise too complex to entertain. In short individual interactions overlap with geography and economies so that upon a microscopic view the connections and networks form webs that are too dense to separate, but upon pulling back to an extreme macro view the interactions separate into clusters of mass. How these clusters relate to influence and wealth, and just how shared they are is probably what is leading to a certain amount of critical disgust with painting overall.

[4] My favorite being Jason Farago’s review in the Guardian.

[5] Quoted from the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition.

[6] The reference to William Gibson seems more like trendy name dropping than anything else

[7] With that use swinging between stewardship and strip-mining.

[8] A wide-eyed and well groomed protagonist fresh out of art school with his MFA if ever there was one.

[9] You just have to look out for the giant killer robots, which we’ll discuss in part three.

[10] And presumably continuing the modernist drive towards some sort of purity.

[11] A value that nevertheless seems to be widely mourned in the reviews of the exhibition. See Peter Schjeldal in the New Yorker, among others.

[12] If not advertised as loudly as possible.

[13] In technical parlance, these circumstances aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

[14] Taking the red pill as it were.

[15] I take my historical cues from Danto, and put the emergence of Postmodernism with Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

[16] An image of the painting can be shared easily enough, but it is different from an actual painting; the materials must still be reckoned with in a way that is not required to simply print a digital file.

[17] The specter of the monetary advantage that rides on the definition remains sobering; the economic implications of tearing down boundary walls and opening up art’s discourse is the ground that will pit the upper reaches of the art market against it’s broader population.

Written by Brian Dupont

December 30, 2014 at 12:08 am

Intent or Artifact: Richard Serra’s Drawings.

I will confess that I have long had a fascination with the drawings of sculptors. Drawing as a medium is immediate in a way no other medium is; a mark on paper direct from the artist’s hand is about as close to thought or intent as you can get. Where a painter’s hand will leave an equivalent gesture from drawing to painting (think of Terry Winters or Brice Marden), a sculptor (may) have an interesting turn as the marks turn to towards the artist’s thinking in three dimensions. There was something to a drawing with the directness of a schematic, something only as refined as it needed to be yet dealing with idiosyncratic manufacture that spoke to me, but in a dialect I couldn’t quite fathom.

Richard Serra’s drawings approached this basic interest from the opposite horizon. His sculptural output seems to be about taking the basic language of art that is regularly commanded by drawing (line, volume, mass, gesture) and transposing it into sculpture (and from sculpture, one could argue, to architecture). A product of the late 60’s, Serra’s early concerns dovetailed with larger questions raised by the reductiveness of late Modernism in a way that could not help but engage painting. His early installation works of paintstick on linen stapled directly to the wall could easily be called paintings if the artist wanted to. (And matches the polished and otherwise anonymous metal wall reliefs of  painters like Ellsworth Kelly.)

Abstract Slavery (1974) is a monochrome masterpiece of subtle orientations of mass, angle, and material that communicates with little in the way of vocabulary beyond the considerable work of making it. One edge is trimmed perpendicular to the floor, and the irregular plane suggests a cut into space that remains flat on the wall. The scale and irregularity alter the viewer’s space with a shove, which is about as direct as communication gets.

As a retrospective of his drawings organized by the Menil collection opens at the Metropolitan Museum, viewers will get a chance to see a less trumpeted side of the artist, his commitment to process. Serra’s drawings are not composed pictorially, but of an intent to act on a space or material. Since his heralded list of verbs and his under-recognized process based works of splashing, scattering, and other action on found industrial material that preceded his props, the artist’s commitment to the materials and process has not been as explored. Large bends in steel plates are not always talked about for the work of their making, but it is clear that the artist approaches them in this fashion, as would the ship builders whose steel plants help manufacture the pieces. Likewise his approach to his drawings exhibits a particular rigor that does not necessarily privilege the object.

Laura Gilbert’s look at the provenance and dating of the material that will be on view strikes me as utterly beside the point. The “installation drawings” simply do not exhibit any concern with finicky notions of a precious object or the artist’s hand. It is likely that anonymous assistants did a good deal of the manual labor of applying heated paintstick to linen, and it seems much more appropriate to consider those pieces of linen as no more special than a particular plate of steel or lead. Any minor surface inflection is beside the point, and with them dates of production or concerns about whether they are originals or copies. They are, as the artist bluntly states, material.

That is not to say that the Mr. Serra has discarded any care about his work in favor of some ephemeral notion of the dissolution of the art object; how could anyone with such an obvious dedication to weight and mass? I continually find myself thinking about his early work To Lift in MoMA’s collection. Made by the artist simply grabbing a piece of vulcanized rubber and lifting it up off the floor so that the sheet could support the weight of its new found (sculptural) volume, it is as direct a gesture as drawing can get. My engagement with the work comes from my day job as an art handler tasked to pack and crate works for shipment. Looking at the task of crating the sculpture with little information other than the picture, I wondered if the volume needed to be crated, or if we might just be shipping a flat piece of rubber that would be “re-lifted” for the exhibition. There was also the chance that nothing would be sent, and a new piece of rubber would be trimmed to size and lifted, duplicating the original (an exhibition copy).

Any of these courses of action would potentially fit within Mr. Serra’s practice. As it turns out I was able to talk to a colleague who had designed a crate for the work, one that supported a very aged fold of vulcanized rubber (a decidedly non-archival material that does not age well). I asked after the possibility of replacing the rubber, and it turns out that the artist was unconcerned with change in the material over time, looking at it as a natural process in the life of the piece. In the end the matter is one of an artist with a realized and considered practice working through his concerns through an engagement with materials and the process enacted on them; just as some bent plates sitting in a steel yard in the Bronx do not a Serra make, some new linen, paintstick, and staples do not change the artist’s intentions on the space around him, or us.

 

 

Written by Brian Dupont

April 14, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in General

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