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]

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.

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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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