March 9, 2011


Is there a tumblr for awkward Twitterstream juxtapositions? Because there oughta be.

Screen shot 2011-03-09 at 2.22.05 PM.png

February 19, 2011

I've Got Mail

I order so many random books, usually from random independent or used booksellers on Abebooks, that don't arrive with anything like the robotic precision and up-to-the-minute email notification of Amazon, that I never know what's come in the mail until I open it. And sometimes I've forgotten what I even ordered.

Today's haul was exceptional, though:


Centerbeam is the 1980 report/documentation for a project that, as far as I can tell, was the largest contemporary public art event ever undertaken on the National Mall: Centerbeam and Icarus, a collaborative experiment/performance organized by MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, under the direction of Otto Piene.

Centerbeam was unveiled at documenta 6 in 1977, and restaged on the Mall in the summer of 1978. It involved video, lasers, giant inflatable sculptures, smoke machines, sound art, a technotopian extravaganza that was apparently a raging success, but also, from the pictures, might have been a hot mess. Not that those are mutually exclusive. Anyway, I thought I'd bought this book a year and a half ago when I first wrote about Centerbeam, but I had not.


The catalogue for the Musee d'Orsay's Leon Gimpel exhibition arrived, from Italy, and wow, it's beautifully produced. The images that get widely reproduced are some of the most arresting, but just a quick look makes me very excited to study Gimpel's work more closely. The text is only in French, which probably means it won't get the US distribution presence it deserves. [It looks so easy to buy on, though.]


And last, whoa, what an incredible surprise: Enclosure 3: Harry Partch? What the hell is this? Experimental composer Philip Blackburn is the last in a series of Partch devotees who labored to publish the visionary composer/ex-hobo's archive. Most of the Enclosure series is video and audio of performances of Partch's music, but Enclosure 3 is a dense, daunting, but engrossing facsimile edition of the notes, drawings, clippings, photos, manuscripts, and correspondence Partch kept for himself. It looks utterly fantastic.

I think my version was published in 2005, but the copyright is also from 1997, and there's only the barest hint at the process of putting the book together. It's pretty raw. But gorgeous. I'd seen it mentioned on some hip curation webshop, one of those Nieves-type outfits, but when I couldn't figure out which one it was [turns out it was], I ended up ordering it [much more cheaply] via some Amazon merchant.

Well, my copy arrived, it's awesome, and it turns out to have come from Squidco, an "improvised, composed experimental music" specialty shop based in, of all places, Wilmington, NC. Who knew, right? Squidco publishes a lot of writing and reviews of experimental music on Squid's Ear, wow, reaching back to 2003. I had no idea, but now I do, and I'm glad.

During some recent archive dives, I've come across a ton of different letterheads. Apparently, people used to write letters to each other all the time, can you imagine? Must've taken forEVER.

Anyway, one I particularly ilke is the United States Information Agency, which used to organize international tours for art exhibitions. [The USIA also took over sponsorship of the Venice Biennale from MoMA in 1964, the year Alan Solomon curated a group of Pop and abstract painters, including Rauschenberg.] Anyway, there are variations for USIA offices in embassies, but the basic format is the one seen below. This is actually from a 1965 American filmmaker-related memorandum, something to do with the secret plan to enlist Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing. Anyway:


That's it, just the agency name, and WASHINGTON, with a pared down version of the Great Seal of the United States there on the left. It's a basic, agency-wide format used by many government agencies. So clean and presumptively powerful.

I had absolutely no idea, though, about the Great Seal, its history, and how it is still used today. Between Wikipedia and the State Department [pdf], though, there's a fascinating tale. The current die is the fourth version of the original text description--or blazon, to use the heraldic term--approved by the Continental Congress in 1782. It was designed by James Horton Whitehouse of Tiffany & Co. in 1885, and replicated by Bailey Banks & Biddle in 1904. In 1986, the Bureau of Printing & Engraving made a master die from which the current and future operational dies will be created.


The die is for the front of the Great Seal, the eagle side; there has never been a die made for the back, the pyramid side. The setup since 1904 has the Great Seal affixed to a giant, counter-weighted, brass and mahogany press in the State Department. The Seal is used 2000-3000 times/year, for treaties, ambassadorial appointments, and a bunch of other official, ceremonial communications.


Here's how it works:

Sealing of Documents
In the Department of State, the term "Great Seal" has come to include not just the die, but the counter-die, the press, and the cover, or cabinet in which it is housed, as well. These stand in the Exhibit Hall of the Department, inside a glass enclosure which is kept locked at all times, even during the sealing of a document. The mahogany cabinet's doors also are kept locked, and the press is bolted and padlocked in position except when in use. The seal can be affixed only by an officer of the Department of State, under the authority of its custodian, the Secretary of State. When there are documents ready for sealing, one of the officers carries them to the enclosure where the Great Seal is kept and prepares them for impressing.
First, a 3 3/4-inch, scalloped, blank paper wafer of off-white linen stock is glued in the space provided for it to the left of the document's dating clause. If ribbons are used in binding the document, they are run under the paper wafer and glued fast. Second, the document is inserted between the counter-die, with the wafer carefully lined up between them. Third, the document is held in place with the left hand and the weighted arm of the press is pulled sharply forward with the right hand, from right to left. This drives the die down onto the wafer, document, and counter-die, which impresses the seal in relief. The die is then raised, releasing the document and allowing for its removal. When an envelope containing letters of credence or recall is to be sealed, the wafer is impressed first, and then glued to the sealed envelope, leaving the envelope itself unmarked.
In other words, letterpress.


Great Seal of the United States [wikipedia]
The Great Seal of the United States [, pdf]
Related/who knew?: Historically, great seals are signs of sovereignty, while seals and the deliberate ritual of making them have had added legal significance.


A couple of weeks ago, while stopping by the symposium attached to the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibition, I saw a huge, intriguing Robert Rauschenberg work, Visual Autobiography, in the lobby of the Patent Building auditorium.


I noticed it immediately because, hello, there was Bob rollerskating with the parachute/umbrella contraption on his back, just like he'd done at the Pop Art Festival in Washington in 1963.

But I'd also recognized the project from mentions in the various Rauschenberg-related archives I've been diving into lately; Visual Autobiography was made in 1968 by Broadside Art, Inc., a company the artist co-founded with Marian Javits [wife of Sen. Jacob Javits] to bring big, billboard-sized print technology into the service of artists.


The brochure for Visual Autobiography, which consists of three 4x5' offset lithographs, shows them installed in various, improbable ways that might have pointed out the limitations of the market: vertically, with Bob, dressed like The Music Man, standing next to them on a ladder; vertically, in a pre-war apartment, where they obviously don't fit, crawling up the wall and onto the ceiing; and horizontally, likely the only way they'd ever make it out of the tube.

The prints were published in a signed edition of 2000 [!] for just $150/set, $50 more for canvas backing "so it can be hung just as it was at the Whitney Museum," and sold via direct mail by Rand McNally. [Even today, they provide a lot of Rauschenberg bang for your buck; a full set sold at Christie's last December for just $5,000.]


Anyway, though it's called Visual, the center panel consists of a textual bio of the artist, spiraling out from a family snapshot. To read it through requires an odd/amusing bobbing and swaying that must have pleased Bob the Dancer. But right in the center, top of the circle, as easy to read as it's gonna get, it says, "Jasper Johns lived in the same building and had just painted his first flag."

UPDATE: The Broadside Art venture's debut at the Whitney, which is the ladder photo above, was covered in the New York Times; Hilton Kramer hated it. He also predicted that the market-baiting stunt would succeed wildly. As in so many other things, though, Kramer was mistaken. If Broadside ever did another edition, I can't find it. And Mrs Javits still had copies of the print to give away in 1977, almost a decade later. For all that, though, it turns out Milton Glaser and Clay Felker were also partners in the company. So much light, so little heat.

Here's a detailed writeup of Autobiography from a 2009 exhibition at Kean University []

January 29, 2011

Having A Cow

After dropping in on the National Portrait Gallery's daylong symposium [it's still going on, in fact] connected to Hide/Seek just now, and though I only saw two presentations, whoa--I feel like a cigarette.

Jonathan Katz, co-curator of Hide/Seek, titled his paper: The Sexuality of Abstraction: Agnes Martin, and he rather amazingly addressed Martin's embrace of the substantive stasis of Zen as an alternative to the more prevalent and problematic model of the closet for not addressing her lesbianism. Which she at once did and did not do in some of her formative early New York work, and which she very much did not do when she wrote and talked so extensively about her work.

One particular work, a 1961 drawing titled Cow, for example, has been traced to an illustration in her D.T. Suzuki book, where an oxherder and an ox contemplate a circle in a square. And then Katz read a quote from the artist's statements from one of Martin first shows in NYC, in which she quoted a famously, directly erotic Gertrude Stein poem--but stopped right before the hot parts. And--who knew? not I--he read some other famous-among-lesbians poem where Stein rather rhythmically builds up, and up, and up, to the moment of climax--which is symbolized by a cow. Suffice it to say, Katz's phrase, "Stein's orgasmic cows" is now right next to Gorky's "cosmic vulva" in the modernist discourse. [Holy smokes, I just Googled "cosmic vulva" and Gorky and came up empty. Have I not told that story? My apologies. Let me rest up, and then I'll get right back into it. I'm not 19 anymore, you know.]

Anyway, hot on the heels of Martin's Zen sex koans, Dominic Johnson presented work from his forthcoming book on Jack Smith's 1963 film Flaming Creatures and what he calls the "burden of disgust."

I'd heard the general story of the obscenity controversy around Flaming Creatures, prints of which were seized by police, and became the basis for several criminal obscenity cases and appeals. But I had no idea that when Lyndon Johnson was nominating Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1968, conservative senators, led by Strom Thurmond, raised Fortas's criticism of the Flaming Creatures convictions as evidence of liberalism's inherent perversity.

And that to make his point--are you sitting down? You really should be sitting down--Thurmond organized a Senate screening of Flaming Creatures during the Fortas hearings. And he sandwiched Smith's avant-garde piece between a random strip-tease film, and a couple of run-of-the-mill straight hardcore porn flicks. At the Senate. Charles Keating apparently told Newsweek that the film was so disgusting, it didn't even arouse him. This he told to Newsweek.

Sometimes it feels like you think you know the world you're living in, and sometimes, wow, you just don't.

WOW, HAS IT BEEN TWO YEARS? UPDATE I was searching to see about Johnson's Jack Smith book, and I found the videos of the "Hide/Seek" symposium presentations, so I added them here. Good times.

Meanwhile, the book, Glorious Catastrophe: Jack Smith, performance and visual culture, was released last summer. I haven't seen it, or any reviews of it, which seems unusual.

January 27, 2011

Abmassadorial Commodity

John Powers just retweeted it now in parts, and he included it in his epic Star Wars Modern piece at Triple Canopy last year, but this quote from "American Painting During the Cold War," Max Kozloff's 1973 Artforum article, is worth repeating again and again:

It signifies a new sophistication in bureaucratic circles that even dense and technical work of the intelligentsia, as long as it was self-censoring in its professional detachment from values, could be used ambassadorially as a commodity in the struggle for American dominance.
Reprinted in Artforum, Kozloff's piece was originally the introduction to the catalogue for Twenty-Five Years of American Painting, 1948-1973, James Demetrion's 1973 exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center.

Demetrion would later become the director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.

January 22, 2011

From Solomon's 'The New Art'

A little Saturday stenography. Alan Solomon wrote "The New Art," a catalogue essay for "The Popular Image," one of the first museum exhibitions of Pop Art, organized by Alice Denney in the spring of 1963 at the fledgling Washington Gallery of Modern Art. [Solomon would go on to restage the show in the ICA in London that fall, sort of obscuring or usurping Denney's and the WGMA's position in the history of Pop.]

Anyway, Solomon, who had just left Cornell to establish the Jewish Museum's contemporary program, where he gave Rauschenberg his first retrospective, and who would soon be the commissioner at the Venice Biennale where Rauschenberg would be the first American to win the International Painting Prize, discussed both Rauschenberg and Johns, along with Allan Kaprow, as key influences on the nascent Pop Artists. Because no one else seems to have put it online, here are some extended excerpts from Solomon's essay:

The point of view of the new artists depends on two basic ideas which were transmitted to them by a pair of older (in a stylistic sense) members of the group, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. A statement by Rauschenberg which has by now become quite familiar implicitly contains the first of these ideas:
Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)
Rauschenberg, along with the sculptor Richard Stankiewicz, was one of the first artists of this generation to take up again ideas which had originated fifty yeras earlier int he objects made or "found" by Picasso, Duchamp, and various members of the Dada group. Raschenberg's statement, however, suggests a much more acute consciousness of the possibility of breaking down the distinction between the artist and his life on the one hand, and the thing made on the other.


Huh, so I'm poking around online for info on the Saarinens' unrealized design for a Smithsonian Gallery of Art [above is a SI photo of the model, built in 1939 by Ray and Charles Eames, of all people, perched atop, of all things, the crate for a Paul Manship sculpture. And I'm thinking how it's too bad that WWII happened, because otherwise we'd have a sweet modernist art museum on the Mall--hah, as if.]

[According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's own history, the building never had a chance. It wasn't Congressional budget cuts or wartime reprioritizations that killed the project--it was the rejection of the modernist design by the Smithsonian Regents themselves, and by the Commission on Fine Arts--because it was modernist.]

[Charles Moore, an influential retired Chairman of the CFA called its "sheer epitome of the chaos of the Nazi art of today." Which, yow. The Commission which rejected it included sculptors Paul Manship and Mahonri Young, a grandson of Brigham Young.]

But that's not the point. Point is, a quote stuck out from the book as being both timely and relevant. It's from Holger Cahill, head of the WPA's Federal Art Project [and holy smokes, Mr. Dorothy Miller], which organized artists to make work for public buildings and spaces. He believed art and artists and the public all benefit by "a sense of an active participation in the life and thought and movement of their own time."

I haven't found the original publication info, but since the source of that 1936 quote only appears on Google as a writing sample for an English 201 course, I put the whole thing after the jump. Take a read and try to imagine it as not a politicized, partisanized view of contemporary art:

You know what, it's been too long since we had a good, old-fashioned photomuralin' around these parts.

And one that combines a bit of Google Maps-ready, roof-as-facade architecture? And camo? Even better.

I only go to the Museum of the City of New York for their gala, and I'm the loser for it: because I missed "Shaping the Future," curator Donald Albrecht's Fall 2009 exhibition of Eero Saarinen.

The show included the 1939 model for the unrealized Smithsonian Gallery of Art, which he designed with his father Eliel, and which would have sat across the Mall from John Russell Pope's just-finished neo-classical National Gallery.

But it also included some sweet, giant photos, as the NY Times' slideshow shows. Check out the big CBS-eye view of Saarinen's model for Black Rock:


The Google Maps reality is, alas, not so clean. Saarinen's CBS HQ has the usual skyscraper cruft on the roof.

But fortunately, it's right across the street from MoMA, where landscape architect Ken Smith's 2005 Roof Garden is clearly visible. As the American Society of Landscape Architects noted when it gave Smith an award in 2009, the design is rooted in historic concepts of camouflage and the abstracted simulation of natural forms.


And speaking of simulation, check out this giant color photomural from the MCNY exhibition, which almost makes you feel like you're right there in the living room of Saarinen's 1953-7 Miller House [which the family recently donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art].


Weird, the angle of the Times photo really exaggerates the sense of perspectival space in ways that a straight-on shot like the one arthag took does not.

Review | Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future [nytimes, for full-size images: Librado Romero/NYT]

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]

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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.

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