I'm still trying to figure out quite what he said, but whatever it is, Doug Ashford said the hell out of it. Forget speaking or writing like this, I wish I could even think like this. Brains back on, people! Vacation's over!

Over all, our efforts in the Democracy project were to try to see how democracy happens at the site of representation itself, not just where information is transferred or built, but rather at the very place we recognize ourselves in performing images, where we have the sense we that we are ourselves, feel a stability that is hailed and recognized by others. A radical representational moment, whether collective or not, is one that suggests we can give ourselves over to a new vision through feeling, an experience linked to contemplation and epiphany. In this way no public description of another, in frame or in detail, can be presented as politically neutral. So when Group Material asked, "How is culture made and who is it for?", we were asking for something greater than simply a larger piece of the art world's real estate. We were asking for the relationships to change between those who depict the world and those who consume it, and demonstrating that the context for this change would question more than just the museum: a contestation of all contexts for public life. In making exhibitions and public projects that sought to transform the instrumentality of representational politics, invoking questions about democracy itself, Group Material presented a belief that art directly builds who we are - it engenders us.
From Doug Ashford's "Group Material: Abstraction as the Onset of the Real," an adapted paper presented in 2009 at the "New Productivisms" conference at Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, as published online by the european institute for progressive cultural policies [ via @mattermorph via @joygarnett]

You know, some things have just been bugging me about this Blake Gopnik/Washington Post situation. I deeply don't care about Gopnik in a gossipy way. I suppose if I were pressed, I'd be generically glad for him now that it has been reported that he's going to work for Tina Brown in New York as a "special correspondent, arts," even though the I could also imagine that gig could/would be utterly irrelevant, and the specifics of it could be excruciating. Fortunately, that's not my problem.

I'm more interested in what his departure says about art-related writing and criticism in Washington, DC. In other words, what does it reveal about state of the Washington Post, does it have any implication for Gopnik's replacement?

Because, this:

It hasn't been two weeks since Tyler Green wrote that Gopnik "has been doing the best work of his career on the Smithsonian fiasco."

I'd say that's a bit of a low bar, but I have to agree; Gopnik came out quickly, clearly, and strongly in defense of art, Wojnarowicz, and curatorial independence. And before that, he'd already given the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" an excellent and strong review.


But here's the thing: we know now that when he wrote this "best work," he was either interviewing, auditioning, or negotiating for his new gig.


I've been deep in the commercial letterpress lately, and neglecting my Ant Farm. Fortunately, Mondo Blogo is there to bring me back in line, with this awesome poster the Farmers made for 20:20 Vision, their show at CAMH.

20:20 featured a Dollhouse of the Future named Kohoutek, after a comet that was supposed to crash into the earth or something, sending hippies into an apocalyptic panic, but it missed, bumming everyone out. In Kohoutek's Living Room of the Future, naked Barbies lounge around on biomorphic sofas watching a live data feed from SkyLab, seemingly unaware that they're being raised as food for the comet-surviving ants.

According to a review in Architectural Forum, there were 20:20 t-shirts as well as posters for sale. I'm dispatching my army of Houston vintage pickers forthwith.

And even though Houston was the first place Ant Farm unveiled their plans for the Dolphin Embassy, I think my favorite part is there at the bottom:

"Funds granted by the National Endowment for the Arts... A Govt. Agency"

ant farm: sex, drugs, rock & roll, cars, dolphins & architecture [mondo-blogo, thanks andy]
Previously: Cue the Dolphin Embassy []

I'm trying to imagine this happening today, or this century--or last, for that matter--and I just can't. The best account of it I've found is from Calvin Tomkins' 1964 New Yorker profile of Rauschenberg, so I'll just quote him:

[Rauschenberg and Jean Tinguely] joined forces with several other avant-garde talents to put on a rather bizarre performance in the theatre that is part of the American Embassy.

This spectacle presented simultaneously a motorized Tinguely sculpture that went back and forth across the stage doing a strip tease; a performance, in and around the piano, of John Cage's "Variation II" by the American pianist David Tudor; a picture-shoot by Niki de Saint-Phalle, Tinguely's present [sic] wife, who creates her works by firing a .22 rifle at papier-mache constructions in which plastic bags of paint are embedded; and the onstage creation of a painting by Rauschenberg, whose brushstrokes, hammer blows, and other sound effects were amplified by contact microphones attached to the canvas. (Only the back of the painting was visible to the audience, which expected to see the finished work at the end but was denied that pleasure.)

Jasper Johns, who was also having a show in Paris, contributed a painted sign reading "Entr' Acte" and a large target made of flowers. The performance drew a large and enthusiastic audience, although the Embassy, uncertain what to expect, had forbidden any advance publicity.

I mean, can you imagine it? The performance was June 20, 1961. Johns and Rauschenberg were both in Paris for shows, but from what I can tell, the impetus was the beginning of David Tudor's European tour. [Though Tudor's site doesn't seem to mention a tour.]

"Variation II" is one of Cage's most complicated, abstract works. Cage's scores almost always baffle me--when described, they often sound like impossible-to-follow instructions for making a Sol Lewitt wall drawing without a wall--and "Variations II" is no different. Here's the Getty Research Institute's explanation:

Cage's original notation consisted of five points and six lines on eleven individual plastic sheets and instructed the performer to create measurements between the dots, representing sound events, and the lines, representing parameters of sounds (amplitude, duration, overtone structure, frequency (pitch), point of occurrence, number of sounds structuring each event). The resultant measurements defined the parameters of each sound event.
David Tudor, "Nomographs" designed for a realization of John Cage's Variations II, 1961, image via GRI

Lalalala-- what? Got that? Never mind, because Tudor apparently changed it all so much, at least one scholar has called "Variations II" Tudor's own first composition. [That scholar, James Pritchett, has as clear a description of Tudor's 1961 performance techniques as I can find, btw. As for audio, the closest approximation I can find is a 1967 "Variations II" performance by Tudor, which obviously doesn't include his Parisian backup band.]

So far, I haven't found any documentation of the performance itself. But whatever exists was surely shown at the 2009 Tinguely/Rauschenberg exhibition in Basel I wrote about a little while ago.


The three Niki de St. Phalle paintings above [not to scale] were all made on the day of the performance, and Shooting Painting American Embassy [left] was in the show, but no actual shooting took place in the embassy. Both Homage to Robert Rauschenberg (Shot by Rauschenberg) [middle] and Tir de Jasper Johns [right] were shot during the day, and her catalogue raisonne says St. Phalle didn't shoot American Embassy until later.

I'm sure the folks in the Embassy were relieved.

Previously: the State Department and modernism in the 1960s
the de la Cruzes loan a Felix candy pour to the Art in Embassies Program
an amazing memo from Nixon calling for a purge of the "little uglies," aka contemporary artworks, from embassies


Alright, the search is on; I'm working to trace the history of Robert Rauschenberg's 1955 combine Short Circuit and especially to figure out what happened to Jasper Johns' flag painting, and when and how Sturtevant's flag painting got in there, and what all that means.

When I first wrote about Short Circuit last week, there was no date or story or anything about how the flag disappeared, only that it had been described as "stolen."


In his 1997 Rauschenberg catalogue, Paul Schimmel had mentioned the Johns Flag--which, like a painting by Rauschenberg's ex-wife Susan Weil, was incorporated into the combine behind two cupboard-style doors--had been stolen while the work was on exhibit. Now I've found out where and when that was, I think.

In 1976, Walter Hopps curated a Rauschenberg retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts, which is now the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art. From the catalogue:

The original flag painted by Jasper Johns was subsequently stolen and was replaced by a replica painted by Elaine Sturdevant [sic] at the time of the exhibition "Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Collage," held at the Finch College Museum of Art in March 1967. In his statement for the exhibition catalogue, Rauschenberg commented, "This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected. It is a double document."

For Rauschenberg the work remains "a double document" of the past and the ongoing present. Recently, in commenting on the stolen encaustic, he has stated, "Some day I will paint the flag myself to try to rid the piece of the bad memories surrounding the theft. Even though Elaine Sturdevant did a beautiful job, I need the therapy."

Much to unpack there, especially in that second quote. Wow.

But at least now we have a date and a place: Finch College Museum, March 1967. Finch was a women's college on the Upper East Side. From the archival photos, the Museum looks like the basement floor in one of the school's townhouses on East 78th Street [between Madison and Park]. In the 60's, under the direction of Elayne Varian, the Finch Museum had a pretty advanced contemporary exhibition program.

[One of the top Google hits for Finch College turns out to be from Calvin Tomkins' Rauschenberg bio. Legendary dealer Ivan Karp tells the story of how he was showing some girls from Finch around Castelli Gallery when Roy Lichtenstein walked in with his first comic panel paintings under his arm.]


"Art in Process" was an innovative series of exhibitions that placed sketches and models alongside finished works to examine the working practices of contemporary artists. An "Art in Process" show on Structure, for example, which went up in 1966 within months of the Jewish Museum's seminal "Primary Structures" show, contained works by Lewitt, Judd, and Smithson, including the latter's Enantiomorphic Chambers [on the right in the image above, via], which, ironically, was also lost.

Anyway, after its Spring 1967 debut at Finch, the Collage show traveled under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts. Though I can't find the complete list of venues, in February 1968, it came to the Phillips in Washington, DC, where the Post's sportswriter-turned-art-critic Paul Richard panned it by repeatedly dismissing collage as mindless random gluing and comparing it to the tacky "Snoopy's valentines" everyone had just exchanged.


Except for Short Circuit, that is, which Richard called, "the best in the show." Take note of his description, though, and that he specifically mentions reviewing all the extra documentation of the show in the Phillips back offices:

(When first exhibited, viewers could open the collage's two hinged doors to discover two paintings, one a flag picture by Jasper Johns. They're no longer visible. The doors have been nailed shut.)
No mention of the theft, the missing Johns, or any replacement. And the doors are shut on the paintings by the artist's ex-wife and ex-partner. No musing, please!
Despite the mind-boggling variety of its components, the piece somehow holds together. The composition is bright and strong. It's nice to think about (the viewer can muse on the various associations generated by relics of Miss [Judy] Garland, Lincoln and [John] Cage), but tracing the development of this work would be a hopeless task.
We shall see, Mr. Richard, we shall see.

November 21, 2010

Washington Monument Peace Sign


An interesting curatorial pairing where you'd least expect it: deep in the middle a random, Sunday afternoon print sale at Phillips de Pury.

Lot 327: Washington Monument, is an unnumbered edition sliced up from a wallpaper Andy Warhol made in 1974 for an unknown commission, but apparently never installed. Dia had 322 rolls of the stuff, which it gave to found the Warhol Museum.


With a few takebacks, I guess, because the Warhol let Dia Beacon install a whole roomful of the stuff in 2005. It looks kind of nice and abstract, a nice background for those Pasadena Brillo Boxes. [image via nyt]


Meanwhile, Lot 328 [above], was Washington Monument, a properly signed and numbered lithograph by Willem de Kooning, published in 1970. The composition's almost identical to Warhol's, as if both artists used the same photo or postcard for a source. Or as if Warhol used de Kooning's print, which would be pretty unusual. Several of these have come up at random auctions this year: #13/50 at Bloomsbury; #14/50 at Swann.

An abstract representation of an abstract original, de Kooning's Washington Monument is uncontroversial enough to be displayed in a wide range of otherwise complicated settings.

The Phillips version is #26/50, and it was sold by the defunct law firm Dreier, LLP, which was implicated in a massive securities trading fraud sideshow to the Bernard Madoff scandal.

And two related, slightly larger charcoal drawings, dated 1969-70, are on loan from the Estate to the US Ambassador's residence in London [pdf].

The drawings are untitled, but every numbered lithograph I've found is titled simply, Washington Monument. But a Connecticut antique dealer once had a signed, proof, which apparently came from a close friend of the artist. The title of the work, the friend said, is actually Washington Monument Peace Sign, and in the bottom corner, in place of an edition number, de Kooning put a little peace sign.


I'm feeling more serious about turning Richard Neutra's Cyclorama building at Gettysburg into an educational monument to the wounded and a wheelchair-accessible battlefield observation platform.

War becomes history, reduced to its most basic contours, a date, a bodycount, and a winner:

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not. In the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.


The present Memoranda may furnish a few stray glimpses into that life, and into those lurid interiors of the period, never to be fully convey'd to the future. For that purpose, and for what goes along with it, the Hospital part of the drama from '61 to '65, deserves indeed to be recorded--(I but suggest it.) Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties--the immense money expenditure, like a heavy pouring constant rain--with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans--the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals--(it seem'd sometimes as if the whole interest of the land, North and South, was one vast central Hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges)--those forming the Untold and Unwritten History of the War--infinitely greater (like Life's) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be--how much, civic and military, has already been--buried in the grave, in eternal darkness !....... But to my Memoranda.

That's Walt Whitman's foreword to his Memoranda During the War, a compilation of his diary entries, which he published in 1875.

In a country at war, so seemingly polarized by political disagreements, it's odd how easy it is to forget that not only was there a civil war, there was an aftermath, where millions of Americans had to put their lives, their families, their cities, and their country back together again. Is forget the right word for something you presumably knew, or should have known, but really never gave a thought to?

Armory Square Hospital, 1865, via

Because I didn't forget so much as never realized, never put it all together, that the wartime hospitals, where I knew Walt Whitman attended to wounded and dying soldiers, were not in Brooklyn, where the Whitman in my mind lives. They were in Washington, DC, where he'd come looking for his brother George, who'd been wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg. He stayed on, and tended over 80,000 men who belonged to what he called, "The Great Army of the Sick":

June 25, (Thursday, Sundown).--As I sit writing this paragraph I see a train of about thirty huge four-horse wagons, used as ambulances, fill'd with wounded, passing up Fourteenth street, on their way, probably, to Columbian, Carver, and Mount Pleasant Hospitals. This is the way the men come in now, seldom in small numbers, but almost always in these long, sad processions.
Whitman also visited the hospitals at the Patent Office [now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art] and at Armory Square [above, now the site of the National Air & Space Museum]. His compiled letters to his mother, published in 1897 under the title of an 1863 poem, The Wound Dresser, contain additional details of his experience.

awesome torqued circle image by marc nielsen via flickr

Originally published as "The Dresser," the poem is the centerpiece of Drum Taps, Whitman's collection of war-related poems first published in 1865, and included in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, beginning in 1867.

A stanza of "The Wound Dresser," or at least part of one, wraps around the cylindrical granite wall of the entrance to the DuPont Circle metro station:

Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all dark night - some are so young;
Some suffer so much - I recall the experience sweet and sad...
- Walt Whitman, 1867
New York carpetbagger and infrequent DuPont metro traveler that I am, I'd always assumed it was installed in the early 90s, an oblique sop of acknowledgment of the AIDS crisis. Ahh, yes and no.

The idea for the poems did originate with a community request to "honor those who cared for people with HIV/AIDS," but this had been expanded to include caregivers for all kinds of illnesses.

And so the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities sponsored a competition for poems as part of the Metro's Art in Transit program. In 2007.

One would think that a 150-year-old poem by America's greatest poet could survive a seemingly routine governmental agency arts collaboration unscathed. But I guess the public art doctors felt they must amputate to save the patient. With the last two stanzas cut off the inscription serves as an inadvertent memorial to what must still be sacrificed to make a permanent mark on the official landscape of 21st century Washington:

(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have crossed and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
For much, much original Whitman material and even more Whitman scholarship, visit The Whitman Archive []

October 20, 2010

'No Monuments To Jesus'


One of the most incredible works of visionary art in Washington DC is James Hampton's The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly. Hampton, an African American WWII veteran and janitor at the General Services Administration, built the 180+piece assemblage out of discarded furniture, cardboard, cellophane, blotter paper, and foil, in a rented DC garage. He spent at least 14 years working every night, in secret, and it was only discovered by his landlord after his death in 1964. After several uncertain years, it was donated to the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art in 1970.

Hampton told almost no one about his work, but notes attached to the various objects seem to indicate that he was receiving visitations by angels, who directed him to construct the Throne in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Most of the notes, though, and his voluminous writings, as well as the contents of a looseleaf notebook titled, The Atlas of The State of Eternity, are written in Hampton's own code, which is comprised of mixed and altered Hebrew, Greek, and Roman characters. As far as I can tell, these works have not been deciphered, nor have facsimiles been published.

update>I am happy to be corrected, especially during National Archive Month or whatever. The Archives of American Art has Hampton's writing available on microfilm. An independent researcher of enciphered documents, Dennis Stallings, has an extensive site about decoding what he calls "Hamptonese." And in 2004, San Jose State computer scientists Mark Stamp and Ethan Le published a statistical analysis of Hamptonese. Because it doesn't correspond to a typical substitution code, they defer to the previous hypothesis that Hamptonese is "the written equivalent of 'speaking in tongues.'" In other words, not their department, either.

image from Naives [sic] and Visionaries, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1974, via stopping off place

Hampton obviously showed someone his work, because there is a photo of him standing in front of it [above], which Michael from stopping off place posted this summer. Interestingly, those crowns were separated from The Throne in some way, and were only donated to the AAM in 2001. Perhaps there is more work--and more story--still out there somewhere.

After it was conserved, in 1976, The Throne... went on a several cities tour. Curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan wrote an essay laying out as much of the work's and its creator's history as could be known at the time. Hampton, who called himself Saint James in his writing, also mentioned a Baptist minister named A.J. Tyler:

Despite Hampton's Baptist background, he was not a member of a congregation in Washington. Believing that there is only one God, Hampton considered different religions unnecessary. An important encounter with the Reverend A. J. Taylor, a popular black minister who died in 1936, may have occurred in one of the neighborhood churches he occasionally visited. The Mount Airy Baptist Church, where Taylor served, was not far from Hampton's boarding house, and it is possible that the Reverend inspired Hampton during a revival meeting or Sunday sermon.

Tyler was noted for having said that in Washington, the city of monuments, there were no monuments to Jesus. During his ministry, he installed an electric sign, "Monument to Jesus," over the door of the Mount Airy Baptist Church.

Hampton may have been intrigued by the minister's idea for a monument to Jesus; the word "monument" is entered in one of his notebooks, and numerous references to A. J. Tyler appear in the assemblage. Many pieces bear labels reading "Tyler Baptist Church," although Tyler never preached in a church of that name. Hampton also indicated in his notebooks that Saint James was the pastor of "The Tyler Baptist Church." Tyler may thus have been a model and an inspiration for Hampton, whose commemoration of the Reverend seems to have mingled freely with his belief in the Second Coming.

Emphasis added because, hello, "the city of monuments."

As spectacular as Hampton's creation is, it's not at all clear that he himself considered it to be art. In fact, the texts he left behind almost certainly refute that categorization. These are devotional objects, grounded in his complex religious experience. With American Indian tribes, the Smithsonian has gone to great lengths to recognize and preserve the cultural and spiritual aspects of relics and artifacts; I wonder if there has ever been discussion of dealing with Hampton's work in the same context.

James Hampton, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, 1950-64 []

that sidewalk, that exit sign, that door. installation image of Stephen Shore's images, 1976

So yes, I've got a million other things to do, but thanks to this Mies thing being auctioned, and Michael Lobel's article on photography and scale--and by implication, photography and painting, pace Chevrier's forme tableau--I'm become slightly obsessed with the history of photomurals.

From what I can tell so far, I have the field largely [sic] to myself, but there is definitely some interesting work out there--and some interesting writing about it. And who should turn up as one of the innovators of these scale-blasting photomurals, but the master of the snapshot himself, Stephen Shore?

Just this past May, Swiss art historian Olivier Lugon published an article in Études photographiques titled, "Before the Tableau Form: Large Photographic Formats in the Exhibition Signs of Life, 1976."

Signs of Life: Symbols In the American City
was a groundbreaking and somewhat controversial show held at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery as part of the US Bicentennial celebrations. Conceived in 1974 on the heels of the publication of Learning From Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, it was, depending on who you asked, an exultation, an examination, or an elitist excoriation of commercial and populist vernacular architecture and design. They filled the gallery with iconic roadside signs, and they created dioramas of archetypal American living rooms to give all Our Stuff the museological treatment.

And to photograph it all--and to create giant, deadpan photomurals of the American residential streetscape--Izenour selected a young photographer whose seemingly unstudied roadtrip snapshots had just been shown at the Met, Stephen Shore.


Lugon quotes Venturi & Scott Brown's explanation of the show [I'm translating back here from French, so it's probably off a bit]:

"The idea was to cross the model of the billboard, this image made for distant, fugitive, distracted perception of the driver, with that of the newspaper, which is a density swarming with information." The art museum is thus invaded by two different but interdependent media regimes: the advertising billboard's principle of rapid distraction, and the extreme informational concentration of the newspaper, two opposing models for aesthetic contemplation, where the distance of the viewer from the image is either too far or too close.
Despite working at like 100x his previous [and, for the most part, subsequent] scale, Shore's illusionistic photo backdrops manage to capture the banality he loves. Banality in a good way, of course. I think this street is my favorite:


Maybe because he wasn't a fetishy print guy--Shore rather famously sent all his film to Kodak to be developed, just like civilians--he readily embraced the print quality of the photomurals. Which--I love this--turned out to be paintings.

Lugon explains that the Signs Of Life photomurals were made with an expensive, state-of-the-1976-art, 4-color airbrush-like printing system from the Nippon Enlarging Color Company, which had been licensed for the US by 3M. Who marketed it to trade fairs and restaurants as Architectural Painting. With the public and art world attention from Signs of Life, 3M brought Izenour on to promote the new medium for use by artists and museums.

In 1977, Popular Science ran an article explaining how Architectural Painting technology worked. A specially prepared color negative was scanned and split into CMYK, and the quick-drying paint was applied in overlapping strips, inkjet-style, by a computer controlled, scanning sprayer. 3M technicians then touched up the finished print by hand. All in, it cost $10-25/sf.

Expensive enough to be the second largest line item on Signs of Life's budget, and sexy enough that Venturi et al. used it again almost immediately. For their controversial [i.e., steaming hot mess, according to Robert Hughes, who I'll happily believe just this once] exhibition design for the Whitney's Bicentennial blockbuster, 200 Years of American Sculpture, the architects installed a 27-foot-tall cutout photo by Shore of Hiram Powers' iconic marble, Greek Slave, on the canopy of the museum. Ezra Stoller says it was "inspired by Caesar's Palace," which I'm sure was a compliment:


Once again, I start programming a bonus DVD for "The Original Copy," Roxana Marcoci's current show at MoMA on photography and sculpture. But I think the real story here is painting and photography.

Jean Francois Chevrier gets credit for the term forme tableau, which he used to describe the large-format photographs which began to assert a place on the wall and in the discourse that had previously been reserved for painting in the 1980s [and since]. Then Lugon mentions how Sherman, Prince, Kruger, etc. had appropriated the photography of commercialism--advertising and movies [Untitled Film Stills began in 1977]. And now here's Shore, right there in the thick of things, making giant photos with his new-fangled, trade show backdrop printing techniques--which turn out in the end to actually be paintings. [And sculpture. And architecture.]

The kicker, though, is one of the complicating factors for why I'm finding photomurals so interesting right now. And I write this as a guy who has two of Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Parkett billboard/photomurals because, once you install one, it's up, it's done, it's gone: they managed to thwart the market. Here's Lugon:

The photomural reveals itself to be extremely vulnerable. Its own installation, its dependence on conditions of fixation and lamination make it enormously fragil: with rare exceptions, it does not survive its exposition. It's one of the fundamental points that distinguishes it from painting: its incapacity to become an object of collection.

When it was developed in the 19th century, photography constituted precisely a pure image for collecting: one acquired it to conserve, because it was capable of bringing all objects in the world together into a system of thesaurisation and generalized comparison, but it's difficult to show. Small and grey, taking poorly to the wall, and with a surface that deteriorates in the light the more one views it. The grand format photos of the interwar years reversed this logic: photography became the image of exposition, but it renders it improper for collecting.

Only the forme tableau would succeed in crossing these two qualities, to make of photography an image at once for exhibiting and collecting--two criteria indispensable for accessing fine art's economic system.

I guess I've gotta call Stephen Shore now and see if that's really true, about his photomurals, I mean.

October 13, 2010

What I Didn't See

The other weekend, I pigeonholed former Washington Post art critic Paul Richard after his talk, titled "What I Saw," at the National Gallery of Art. I said that I'd been interested to hear his take on public art over his 40-year career, and he answered back, "What public art?" "I guess that was my real question," I said.

Richard then made a quick and familiar explanation that public art is outdoor art, outdoor art is sculpture, museums in town focus on painting, and so sculpture generally and outdoor sculpture specifically is marginal[ized].

I had this exchange in my mind when I watched the Post's current art critic Blake Gopnik effuse over his "favorite new discovery," a massive Alexander Calder sculpture that has been sitting on one of downtown Washington's busiest intersections for almost 30 years.

Gopnik said that in a series of Post web videos called, "The Wonders Around Us." He opens another, featuring the chair-shaped granite sculptures of the late Scott Burton, thus: "I'm at the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery, looking at works I don't often look at--the ones they keep outside."

In another video, discussing Richard Lippold's 100-foot-tall steel starburst sculpture Ad Astra, in front of the National Air and Space Museum, he ends on what he imagines is a poignant and/or ironic note:

Amazing how you look at this thing, and you realize that almost no one but you is looking at it. Not a single head turned up to look at poor Richard Lippold's magnum opus.
[Let's ignore the fact that if Lippold has a magnum opus, it's probably Orpheus and Apollo, which glitters across the atrium lobby of Avery Fisher Hall. Gopnik was going for pathos, and couldn't very well call Ad Astra a "masterpiece" so soon after calling it a TV antenna.]

Days later, Gopnik was writing about Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek's proposal to renovate the museum's sculpture garden on the Mall and add indoor exhibition space to/under it, since the current sculpture setup is "dormant," rather than "lively," and [anecdotally, at least] is always empty.

Which may be true, but that's not [quite] the point. And [for once or twice] I don't want to pick on Gopnik; in this case, I think his forthright ignoring of outdoor sculpture is probably in sync with the general population of DC. The city is stratified and carved up into ghettos for tourists and locals alike. Commuters, whether in cars or trains, on bike or on foot, rarely venture off their routes.

Outdoors, art, or sculpture in a drive-by situation quickly becomes invisible, receding into the landscape passing outside the window. But is that actually just a DC thing? I don't think so. Is it even just a city thing? Is it even just an art thing? How quickly does something become invisible, and why? What happens to art in such a context? Has someone written about this with intelligence or insight?

Is it even just outside? We like to think that art rewards close or considered looking. But how long do most people look at most artworks in most museums? [answer: for less time than it takes to read the label next to it.] Do professional art lookers sit through every blackbox video installation they enter, or do they only watch long enough to "get it"?

When I started, I thought I was writing this about DC, its critics, its particular context, sculpture, outdoor art. See how the circle keeps expanding to include everything? Now I'm a little bummed out.

Previous 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 ... 16 Next

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
greg [at] greg [dot ] org

find me on twitter: @gregorg

about this archive

Category: dc

recent projects, &c.

Social Medium:
artists writing, 2000-2015
Paper Monument, Oct. 2016
ed. by Jennifer Liese
buy, $28

Madoff Provenance Project in
'Tell Me What I Mean' at
To__Bridges__, The Bronx
11 Sept - Oct 23 2016
show | beginnings

Chop Shop
curated by Magda Sawon
1-7 March 2016

eBay Test Listings
Armory – ABMB 2015
about | proposte monocrome, rose

It Narratives, incl.
Shanzhai Gursky & Destroyed Richter
Franklin Street Works, Stamford
Sept 5 - Nov 9, 2014
about | link

TheRealHennessy Tweets Paintings, 2014 -

Standard Operating Procedure
about | buy now, 284pp, $15.99

CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
Canal Zone Richard Prince
YES RASTA 2:The Appeals Court
Decision, plus the Court's
Complete Illustrated Appendix (2013)
about | buy now, 142pp, $12.99

"Exhibition Space" @ apexart, NYC
Mar 20 - May 8, 2013
about, brochure | installation shots

HELP/LESS Curated by Chris Habib
Printed Matter, NYC
Summer 2012
panel &c.

Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
background | making of
"Richteriana," Postmasters Gallery, NYC

Canal Zone Richard
Selected Court Documents
from Cariou v. Prince (2011)
about | buy now, 376pp, $17.99