November 23, 2011

'You Are Good Dome Builders.'

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(K-2-28) This is the first of our United States, Department of Commerce, Trade Fair domes. It was erected in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1957. The U.S. Department of Commerce came to me in an emergency and with a very small budget. We were given thirty days to design and produce this structure, which we succeeded in doing. It had to be so designed that it could be folded up and put into one DC-4, which was all that was available for that task. It had to be flown across the ocean to Afghanistan, accompanied by only one of my engineers. All its parts were color coded so that the Afghan people were able to erect it by putting the red end to the red hold on the hub and the blue to the blue, etc. The Afghans didn't know what they were building at all. They thought it was meant to be a conventional rectilinear structure, but suddenly found they had produced a hemispherical structure. They were bogle [sic] eyed and excited. The workers began to shoot-the-shoots [sic] down the taut nylon-geon-skin of the dome. The king of Afghanistan acclaimed the dome.

World society is accustomed to the concept of an architectural design which is erected by skilled craftsmen who's [sic] skill, a priori, permitted the architect to design the kind of building which the craftsmen build. It was up to the architect to keep in mind that which the craftsmen could build.

In the case of our Afghan dome, when the Afghan people saw that the Afghan workmen had put up a new dome structure they attributed its spherical success to the Afghans' craft skill. They said to the Afghan workmen shooting the shoots down the dome, "You are good dome builders." The workmen replied, "Yes we are" and the Afghans applauded. So they said it was obviously Afghan architecture--a modern plastic and aluminum super-yurt. This made our dome the hit of the Kabul 1957 Trade Fair and the U.S.A. Departmetn of Commerce who had originally taken on the dome only as a last minute emergency device to stay within budget yet meet a challenge decided to see if this unexpected geodesic virtue, of popular appeal, would meet with equal favor elsewhere. It did time and time again.


This is a picture of the same Afghan dome which being 100% demountable, without parts loss or deterioration, went on economically in disassembled condition successively by air to New Delhi, Bangkok, Burma, Tokyo, the Philippines, and then down to Lima, Peru, on the west coast of South America and is now back in Africa again. This geodesic dome is now on its second local-stop trip around the world by air. It now has many counterparts doing the same.

Buckminster Fuller, from World Design Science Decade 1965-1975, Document 2: Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends And Needs, 1963, pp. 78-9. [All WDSD documents are available for download at the Buckminster Fuller Institute.]

Previously: Welcome to the Kabul Dome
In Afghanistan Did Buckminster Fuller A Statecrafty Geodesic Dome Erect


There are so many fascinating things about the Gene Davis Giveaway, I almost don't know where to start. And I'm embarrassed to not have known about it sooner. Gene Davis Giveaway, or Give Away, or as it was called at the time by its creators, The Event, was an amazing art project, part Happening, part Conceptual Art, part ur-Post-Modernist appropriationist market critique, and--yes--part Relational Aesthetics mayhem. And it happened in Washington, DC, in 1969.

The story, as it was fed to Washington Post critic Paul Richards, is that in the spring of 1969, DC sculptor Ed McGowin and art critic/artist Douglas Davis were at a party, trying to figure out how to declare the end of the once-edgy, now "Establishment"-friendly Washington Color School movement. Douglas wanted to "gather [all] the color paintings and destroy them," and McGowin said no, "let's give them all away."

So they approached Gene Davis, who agreed to let McGowin and Davis make 50 replicas of Popsicle, one of his trademark stripe paintings. Davis mixed and supplied the paint, while McGowin and some art students from the Corcoran produced the 6x6-ft paintings. When it was all done, Gene came to silkscreen the three creators' signatures on the back of each canvas. Sometimes the fabricators signed the works, too.

McGowin and Gene Davis screening Giveaway signatures with Douglas Davis looking on, from Douglas Davis's The Giveaway Box, via Gene Davis: A Memorial Exhibition, 1987

Meanwhile, Douglas invited 500 local swells to a black-tie party in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, where the 50 "Gene Davis Paintings" would be given away, free, to lucky attendees whose names were pulled from a large bowl. [Actually, I think it was 40 paintings, because 10 had been pre-sold to folks who underwrote the production of "The Event." I'd bet they were exchanged for around $1,000, an attractive discount from the $3,000 price of an "original" Davis painting at the time.]

And that's how the Gene Davis Giveaway was positioned at the time, and apparently, for long afterward: Gene Davis paintings by any other name that still looked as sweet. At 0% of the price.


In his uncannily prescient and expansive preview of Gene Davis Giveaway in the Post, Richards likens the project's collaborative "assembly line production" to "a different sort of event that not so long ago celebrated the dominance of another kind of painting." Which, obviously, I must quote at length:

That earlier event was performed on a Willem de Kooning drawing by Robert Rauschenberg, a painter then unknown [sic]. The drawing had been made freely, almost automatically, in the abstract manner with soft pencil on fine rag paper. Working freely, almost automatically, in the abstract expressionist manner, Rauschenberg erased it.

Traces of pencil marks remained so that the handwritings of both artists were visible when their work was shown as "Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg."

Rauschenberg's gesture marked a point in the history of art. His erasing did not destroy--but underlined--the premise of the artwork it altered. Freehand erasing is to freehand drawing as mass production is to the tedious production of an "original" Gene Davis stripe.

That's one way of looking at it. There are others. Some see the Giveaway as a publicity gimmick and others see it as a way to get something nice for nothing and still others regard it as a joke. Douglas Davis feels the Giveaway--with its color, its lottery, its glamor, its suspense--is itself a special work of art.

Wow. Exactly! Except that I think Richards' actual take was one or more of those unnamed "others," and that Davis & McGowin fed him the rest. When Douglas looked back on Gene Davis Giveaway in 1987 in a catalogue essay for the recently deceased painters' memorial exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that re-examined the project in light of postmodernism's challenge to originality and authorship, Richards poo-poohed it all as "self-congratulatory hyperbole."

Which you'd expect if Richards thought the Event was a "publicity gimmick" or a "joke," but not if it were "a special work of art" which just so happened to align with, if not prefigure, the contemporary art world's next two decades of conceptual and theoretical developments.


By Douglas Davis's 1987 account, though, there's no question that he and his collaborators "were in the midst of artmaking," and that the art was "The Event" itself:

What I remember most about that evening is the roar. The crowd was enormous, virtually filling the gigantic ballroom [above]...The atmosphere approached that of a ritual, yes, but the ritual of Wall Street or striptease. Very early, the chanting began: "Give it away, give it away." When we finally drew the names of the winners out of a large silver bowl, the yelps and screams of the victors, and the groans of the losers, were earsplitting. I began to feel ashamed of myself. Barbara Gold of the Baltimore Sun was the only critic who sensed the conceptual edge in "Giveaway." She claimed that the patrons calmed down toward the end, stunned by their own vulgarity, by the shock of recognizing "how totally monetary value could get in the way of the aesthetic pleasure." "A vague air of sheepishness became pervasive," she wrote. I hope her reportage is more accurate than my memory. I recall nothing but loud, overbearing greed to the last. Photographs reveal the winners waving their rolled Popsicles in the air as they left the Mayflower, dancing above a sea of black-tied oglers. At least for the moment, free art, having found its owners, returned to the realm of the precious. No, Walter Benjamin, the aura of Popsicle glowed that night in fifty different directions.
Alright, maybe that is a little hyperbolic.

In any case, I think it's clear that under the Erased de Kooning analogy, Gene Davis Giveaway is really a work by Douglas Davis and Ed McGowin. But that poses the uncomfortable question, what if you erase a de Kooning, but you don't become Robert Rauschenberg? For all his DC Happenings and on-point conceptualizing, Douglas Davis is less well known for making art than for his 1970s tenure as the art critic at Newsweek, and for organizing the Open Circuits symposium that brought video art to MoMA in 1974.

And while Gene Davis's market is pretty sleepy, it's still more established today than either Douglas's or McGowin's. And so it is that most of the Popsicles in public are optimistically/delusionally presented and traded as Gene Davis. Because even in 1987, Douglas didn't realize his project would also prefigure the eventual acceptance of editioned originals and outsourced painting.

So while you can put on a happy conceptual face and say the piece is still working, on another level, it's gotta hurt when, as recently as 2010, Douglas Davis's own copy of Popsicle is being sold--along with his Giveaway Box, the trove of ephemera, documentation, and related materials he'd assiduously collected as part of Gene Davis Giveaway--as a Gene Davis. That's like the A/P right there, the ur-After Popsicle, and it still only makes $11,000.


How Ya Like Me Now?, a large painting of a white Jesse Jackson by David Hammons, was one of seven outdoor works in "The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism," an ambitious exhibition organized in the Fall of 1989 by Richard Powell at the Washington Project for the Arts.

The other six outdoor artworks were installed without a hitch, but approval for Hammons' painting to be erected on a DC city-owned parking lot dragged on for six months, three months after the show opened. When the OK was suddenly given [with no explanation of either the delay or the decision], WPA staffers hurriedly erected How Ya Like Me Now? on the lot at 7th & G Streets [where the Verizon Center currently sits], across the street from one of the intended target audiences for its questioning title, the National Portrait Gallery.

The NPG had no portraits of blacks on display at the time. And Hammons suggested that a portrait of Jackson, arguably the most prominent African American in the US in 1988, would already be in the museum if he'd been white. Jackson had lost the Democratic Party's nomination for president to Michael Dukakis after hitting a wall of white voter resistance in Wisconsin, a phenomenon of racist reluctance pundits called "the Bradley Effect."

But a billboard-size portrait of a pink-cheeked Jackson suddenly appearing on the streets of DC with no explanation and a Kool Mo Dee lyric for a title was bound to arouse controversy. And when WPA curator Powell, who is black, left three white staffers to finish installing the piece, a crowd of young black men formed, voiced their protest against the artwork--and then took a sledgehammer to it and tore it down.


The Washington Post showed a photo of the only piece left standing on 7th Street, Jackson's blonde afro and part of his blue eyes. After some back and forth in which Hammons kind of complained that the WPA did not install the work as high off the ground as had originally been called for, and the WPA complained about the city's footdragging delays and said it was going to send the scalped Jackson back to Hammons for repair, the damaged tin painting went back on view, encircled by hammers, for the remainder of the exhibition.

All of which makes me very interested to know when and how How Ya Like Me Know? ended up in its current home in a private DC collection.

The most complete account of this story I can find online is this 1998 Duke Alumni Magazine article on RIchard Powell, who went on to become a very prominent art historian and author []

November 1, 2011

Sarah Sze Street View

Just this morning, while I was watching Sarah Sze's 2010 lecture at the Smtihsonian American Art Museum, and she was showing videos of her installations for the first time [borrowed, with permission, she said, from various YouTube users, which is nice]. And I found myself thinking, "Hah, try running the Google Street View Trike through that!"

But of course, Google already did.


Street View just announced the release of imagery from The High Line, which was apparently captured by the Trike this spring, just before the second, Northern section opened.


And whaddyaknow, there's Sarah Sze and her crew, installing her bird city, Still Life with Landscape (Model for a Habitat). That's Sze and her updo on the left. On the LEFT. Focus, people, focus.

And I do believe that is dearly departed High Line curator Lauren Ross with the lanyard, checking in on things. [Happily, Ross isn't dead; she just moved to Tulsa.]

These photos are actually in reverse order; the Trike was driving south. I haven't spotted any traces of a Google Guide yet. But I do notice that with this early morning shoot, the Street View pano stitching algorithm erases the Trike's shadow. Leave no trace.

Well, let's just get this out of the way: if you can only see one Warhol exhibition in Washington this year, see Shadows. The Warhol Headlines show is very slight. It's hard to call it a highlight, but a series of three 1982 or '83 silkscreen paintings of successive pages in the NY Post did remind me a bit of the newspaper On Kawara used to line the boxes of his date paintings. Also, the show includes the three Screen Tests where the subjects appear to be reading and unaware they were being filmed: Alan Solomon, Grace Glueck, and Arman. That really is all.


But let's back up because, hey-ho, did you know the National Gallery's East Wing was built with red brick infill walls?? It's like Long Island City up in there behind IM Pei's Indiana granite.


I also love that a construction worker in 1975 declared his allegiance to the Pittsburgh Steelers, practically in the Baltimore Colts' own backyard. That was the year the Terrible Towel was invented, and when the Steelers did, in fact, win their second Super Bowl in a row. Also, I thoroughly approve of this epic-scale scaffolding. Glaze it and set it up at the beach for me, please.

Anyway, after the Warhol bust, I went downstairs for a close look at one of the NGA's current strengths: contemporary monochromes. I'm working on some little monochrome panels right now, and I wanted to see surfaces and techniques--and to see if I'm inadvertently copying anyone I don't want to.

I think I want a really immaculate, glassy, brushstroke-free surface, and I definitely know I want a continuity around the edge of the thin steel and aluminum panels I'm trying. So I figure setting out to study the cleanest, smoothest paintings I can find will be yield some hints.


So first up: Byron Kim's Synecdoche (1991-), the multipanel grid of monochromes based on various art world folks' skin tones.

Between 1981 and 1985, Paul Tschinkel and Marc H. Miller produced 17 episodes of ART/newyork, a subscription-based video magazine about contemporary art for use, incredibly, in public schools and libraries.


Their 1982 interview with Richard Serra, a Yale classmate of Tschinkel's, came just as the Tilted Arc controversy was heating up. And speaking of heating up, hoo-boy, does Serra get going about the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Agency conflict with Robert Venturi. Fiery fun stuff.

His 1980 interview with Douglas Crimp covers a lot of the same PADC territory with a bit more specificity. By pointing out, for example, that Venturi's proposed motif was also favored by Albert Speers, not just that they might as well stick swastikas on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But his story about being told that he'd never get work in this town again is basically the same.

Also interesting, if less incendiary: Serra used to exhibit models of site specific projects-in-progress, such as this rather sexy steel tabletop version of Twain. Do want.


ART/newyork - Richard Serra's Tilted Arc artist interview []
order copies of ART/newyork to this very day []

August 19, 2011



The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security on the government's deployment of body scanner technology on streets and in roving vans.


These are the three pages of the FOIA report that did not come from a scanner manufacturer's publicly available brochures and website, and that were not the publicly available agenda for a scanner industry conference.


Related: DODDOACID, one of a suite of six Redaction Paintings made in 2007 by Jenny Holzer from FOIA documents, and acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 2010 []

FOIA Note #20 (August 15, 2011) Government Transparency [ via @wagnerblog]


In the early Cold War of the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union countered American condemnation of its repressive actions in East Germany and Hungary with criticism of the US's internal policies of segregation and racial discrimination. Planners of the US Pavilion at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, the first since before WWII, warned that "the desegregation issue would be 'underlined rather than evaded by omission.'" As longtime USIA design director Jack Masey put it in his 2008 book, Cold War Confrontations, "The Unfinished Business" Pavilion was created by Fortune magazine and/for the State Department "as a way to save face--openly and directly--[by anticipating] negative Soviet propaganda about domestic problems in the US."

Fortune art director Leo Lionni designed both the pavilions and the exhibit as three distinct sections: past, present and future. The form of each pavilion mirrored the content of its exhibit, though none were so programmatically matched as the first pavilion, where the darkly colored "chaotic crystal" of the exterior [below]

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was wallpapered inside with a jumbled, kaleidoscopic collage of US newspapers. Headlines related to desegregation battles were interspersed among other front page stories, presumably to dilute the racism issue by expanding the context, and to underscore the country's uncensored media as a site of free debate and progress.


The second, present pavilion had some quotes from President Eisenhower and other leaders, whatever, but it was the bright future pavilion that turned out to be the most incendiary. For its expansive, smooth walls featured large photomurals of amber waves of grain, and a group of happy, young children--"white, colored, and yellow"--playing in a flower-filled meadow.


Which basically made segregationist politicians from the South's heads explode when they found out about it. Masey gives an overview of the controversy in his book, including some declassified letters from outraged Dixiecrats to Eisenhower's acting Secretary of State. But Michael Krenns devotes an entire chapter to the political shitstorm surrounding the "Unfinished Business" pavilion in his 1999 history anthology, The Impact of Race on US Foreign Policy: A Reader. Great stuff.

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1958, angry congressmen criticized the exhibit for "foul[ing] the nation's nest." The pavilion was temporarily shut down--the official explanation was "poor craftmanship" on the part of the "Belgian carpenters" who somehow failed to properly execute Lionni's original concept. By including too many news clippings about Little Rock and Gov. Faubus. Leonni hustled to Brussels to make ordered changes to bring "balance" to the desegregation issue.

They even posted a disclaimer that children of various races playing together "did not represent US policy, but was representative of the freedom of choice available in the US." And still Georgia's segregationist senator Herman Talmadge protested, demanding an end to exhibition's "unwarranted invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the states of the South."

Faced with calls for a congressional investigation that could turn "The Unfinished Business" into The Neverending Business, the Eisenhower administration caved, and by mid-summer, the State Department shut down what the European press had called "the most effective propaganda in the American Pavilion" and replaced it with an exhibit about the unfinished business of public health.

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What's the opposite of writer's block, the thing where you have so much damn good stuff to write about, you're paralyzed into inaction? Because that's what I've got, and August vacation voids or not, I just can't help it; I'm gonna blog it all and let Google sort it out.

cold_war_confrontations.jpgFor example, for all the dome- and Expo-loving going on around here, you'd think by now I would have gotten my hands on a copy of Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan's 2008 book, Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War, but no.

As the longtime design director for the US Information Agency, Jack Masey was basically the client, or the producer, of the expo-related architecture, art, media, domes, pavilions, exhibitions, and propaganda that folks like Buckminster Fuller, Shoji Sadao, the Eameses, and George Nelson became famous for.

Cold War Confrontations is a fantastically surfable book, a thick, highly visual memoir of the USIA's greatest hits. It's based on the premise that the structured, official propaganda pageants of world expos, culture exchanges and trade shows, played pivotal roles in the course of post-war world history:

At Expos, however, the teams are not playing games; rather, they competed by presenting to the world examples of a nation's best architecture, technology, arts, crafts, manufacturing, and performing arts. And in so doing, they sometimes, somehow, change the world. [p. 110]

There were many people who believe[d] that to be true. I sort of want it to be true, at least in the same sense that I'd rather see street gangs settle their differences by breakdancing instead of drive-by shootings. Maybe it's better to see these expos as reflections of the cultures that produced them, or of their aspirations. Because the views expressed therein do not, it turns out, necessarily represent the opinions of the United States of America as a whole, or of their elected representatives and/or government officials.


Case in point: The "Unfinished Business" pavilion, designed by Leo Lionni [!] for the 1958 Brussels World Expo. Holy Smokes, people.

Masey tells a longer version of the story in the book, but here's a condensed version: in 1956, a team that included Boston ICA director James Plaut consulted with MIT economist Walt Rostow on the contents of the official US pavilion, which was being designed by Edward Durrell Stone. The idea was to emphasize the US's people and cultural accomplishments. Rostow's team also called on the US to be frank and self-critical in recognizing its "unfinished business," by which they meant "soil erosion, urban decay, and race relations."


Somehow, though the giant, donut-shaped pavilion had room for a Vogue fashion show on water; a proto-Pop, pseudo-combine street sign streetscape; and a giant, aerial photomural of Manhattan installed in a half-pipe [WTF!? I don't know! We'll come back to it!]; there wasn't room to "address 'the Negro Problem.'" And so somehow [?] Henry Luce's Fortune magazine became the State Department's partner/sponsor of a smaller garden pavilion devoted to "Unfinished Business," and the magazine's creative director Leo Lionni designed it.


That's the model above, and it looks pretty damn close to the real thing. Lionni conceived of three linked, raised pavilions, each about six meters long, as a frankly allegorical timeline, in which America's problems get literally smoothed out. Or as Masey put it, "the content of the interior was also to be conveyed through the exterior." Which means that the somber, "chaotic crystal" of the past had already given way to the much brighter, Family of Man-colored present. A little more ironing and the square, orderly, utopian future was just steps away. That was the concept, anyway, but that's not exactly how it turned out.

[to be continued in the morning]

Buy Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War on Amazon [amazon]

June 18, 2011

Out Of 'Out Of Practice'

Away | Out, 2010, Seth Adeslberger via

Seth Adelsberger's evocation of Erased de Kooning Drawing in this work on found paper manages to be both calculated and offhand. It was one of my favorites in "Out of Practice," Baltimore gallery Nudashank's sweet show about studio and process in Joshua Abelow's temporary Art Blog Art Blog space. It closes today, so hop to.

Out of Practice, through June 18 []
Nudashank is an awesome Baltimore gallery []
Seth Adelsberger portfolio site []

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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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