Category:interviews

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Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991

RB Before I knew you I saw something... You know what I'm going to say?

FGT I dedicated a piece to Ross.

RB Exactly. I thought, this is so sweet, I want to meet him. He dedicated this thing to me and I don't even know him. (laughter) It put me in the best mood. And then someone said to me, "You idiot, why would he dedicate something to you? It's his boyfriend."

-Ross Bleckner interviewing Felix Gonzalez-Torres in the Spring 1995 issue of Bomb Magazine. This is about as funny as Ross gets. He really is as foolish as Felix is thoughtful. Well worth a read.

Bonus: did you know that by Fall 1994, after five solo shows and with his retrospective set to open at the Guggenheim, Felix had never had a review in the New York Times? [I just checked, and the closest was a paragraph in a cranky 1990 survey of Minimalist revival by Roberta Smith. She called his stacks "almost laughable."]

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image: walkerart.org

Welcome to one of the oldest tabs in my browser: the inflatable balloon set for Merce Cunningham's 1968 piece, Walkaround Time, which is based on Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass, which was made by the company's artistic director at the time, Jasper Johns.

I'd backed into the pieces--seven cubes of silkscreen-and-paint on clear vinyl, reinforced with aluminum frames--a few months ago, and realized I'd seen them--and not thought much about them--at the opening of the newly expanded Walker Art Center in 2005.

Which I now regret, but which makes Merce's title resonate a little more. Cunningham dancer and longtime collaborator Carolyn Brown explains that Walkaround Time was a reference to a particular kind of purposeless movement taken from ancient computer history, when "programmers walked about while waiting for their giant room-sized computers to complete their work." It's just taken me this long to appreciate--or even to see--the work. And for some great additional links to appear.

I can already tell this is going to go long.

03/2012 UPDATE: Unfortunately, none other than former MCDC stage manager Lew Lloyd informs me that the term "balloon" is not really accurate; they were transparent vinyl boxes fit onto armatures, which could be broken down for travel. Given my noted satelloon bias, I will still think of them as balloons in my heart. For the rest of you, though, remember: not balloons. [end update]

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Something Holland Cotter wrote today made me really think: "Short Circuit is a sweet reminder of Rauschenberg's collegial generosity; he believed in art making as a communal endeavor, and acted on that belief."

Collegial generosity is certainly one way to look at it. Because Rauschenberg had exhibited in the Stable Gallery's Second and Third Annuals, he was supposed to be able to select artists to show in the Fourth Annual. For whatever reason, though, in 1955 Eleanor Ward decided only Stable alumni would be allowed in that year, and so Rauschenberg's picks--Short CircuitJasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Stan VanDerBeek, and Susan Weil--were rejected.

And so the story goes that Rauschenberg smuggled them into the show anyway, as elements in his own combine painting. [It's not clear why VanDerBeek's work wasn't included; Cotter says he didn't get a piece finished in time, but I've also read that VanDerBeek declined the combine invite.]

Rauschenberg invited the artists to, as Walter Hopps put it, "collaborate in his piece." A generous gesture, to be sure, but also a complicated one.

Short Circuit triggers a whole host of questions that I find the quite interesting: What is the status and relationship of the artworks Rauschenberg incorporated into his combine-painting? Do they still function as autonomous works? If so, why? Are they substantively different from the other cultural detritus he used--newspapers, postcards, fabric, objects? If not, why not?

In the bluntest sense, these questions are answered by the invitation for the show, which mentions none of Rauschenberg's three collaborators:

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Rauschenberg's generous inclusion of his ex-wife's painting, his friend's collage, and his partner's iconic flag painting--oh, wait, that's right, this was the first flag painting of Johns ever to be exhibited, and it was as an element of another artist's work--and behind a door to boot. Did anyone in 1955 even know that Jasper Johns' Flag wasn't Robert Rauschenberg's flag?

The story of Johns' promethean debut at Castelli Gallery in 1958 is well known. In this 1969 telling of it to Paul Cumming, Castelli visits Rauschenberg's studio in 1957, and then they pop down to Johns' studio, which is full of targets and flags, and Castelli offers him a show on the spot. Which makes the cover of Art News and changes the New York art world overnight. But check this out:

Jasper Johns was a real discovery in a certain sense because, although he existed, not many people knew about him. I saw him for the first time in a show at the Jewish Museum. That was in March of 1957, and that was the Green Target that the Modern has now. I saw that green painting. It didn't, of course, appear as a target to me at all. It was a green painting. I didn't know that he was doing targets. Well, going around and seeing the familiar painters of that time.... It was a show that had been organized by Meyer Schapiro and other people. There was Rauschenberg and Joan Mitchell, and, oh, all that younger generation. Well, I came across that green painting, and it made a tremendous impression on me right away. I looked at the name. The name didn't mean anything to me. It seemed almost like an invented name--Jasper Johns.
[Emphasis added on the parts where, holy crap, two years after exhibiting Short Circuit, there's still a question whether "Jasper Johns" exists.]

johns_white_flag_met.jpg

Johns had shown flags at Bonwit Teller [including White Flag, which he eventually gave to the Met], where he and Rauschenberg dressed windows under the commercial pseudonym Matson Jones. Except for a drawing in a group show, Johns only exhibited a flag painting under his own name in 1957, in a group show at Castelli a few weeks after their fateful studio visit.

Rauschenberg's Short Circuit--and Johns' first and most immediately important paintings of flags and targets--were created when the two artists were closest, and when Johns was essentially unknown. When the flag was stolen from Short Circuit, both artists were famous, and their split was so acrimonious, they were not speaking to each other.

These relationships and collaborations, these formative histories of the New York art world, and these contestations of autonomy, authorship, sourcing and appropriation all seem to converge on Short Circuit. And it makes me wonder, again in the bluntest terms, whose flag was it, and who was it stolen from?

November 18, 2010

Fun In Paint

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I don't know why I do it either, but here is Washington Post arts blogger Blake Gopnik ruminating on just what it is that makes Arshile Gorky's paintings so upbeat, so appealing:

The most striking thing about this AbEx show is how cheery and bright many of its paintings seem - as cheery as Gorky's "Garden [in Sochi]" - given that the movement is so often associated with gloomy existentialism, post-war angst and the dark Freudian unconscious. Could it be that its true roots are in the post-war boom and a country, and a city, coming into their own as cultural and economic hot spots? (But if so, why is Gorky having fun in paint in 1941 already? Or could it be that painting is an inherently affirmative, cheery act, and that painters can only ever mimic gloom, with the risk that silver linings may show through at any moment, in any work.)
Fun in paint? I'd have gone with, "tortured nostalgia for the garden his family had to flee during the Armenian genocide, during an attempt to blot out the horrors of the forced refugee march where his mother died of starvation, but not before instilling in her young son a desperate ambition which became the altar upon which a perennially destitute, lying, insecure Gorky sacrificed his own family and which, after abandonment, cancer and a debilitating car wreck, led him to hang himself from a tree." But if you see "fun in paint," I guess that's...

Anyway, the Garden in Sochi paintings are more properly considered surrealist, transitional, or proto-AbEx, similar to early the figurative/narrative/symbolic work by the other two members of the Fun In Paint School, Pollock and Rothko.

An interview with Gorky's wife Agnes Magruder, conducted on the occasion of Tate Modern's Gorky retrospective. She seems far more interesting than the subject matter lets on. [tate.org.uk]
Related: Gorky was an expert camofleur

November 13, 2010

Sea Force One

Christoph Brech is the master of the meaningful tight shot. In Sea Force One, he focuses in on a pair of workers in a small boat who are scrubbing the hull of Francois Pinault's black yacht in front of Punta della Dogana during the 2009 Venice Biennale.

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The work is included in "Portraits and Power: People, Politics & Structures," at Strozzina in Firenze. It is interesting to compare their writeup of the piece--

We do not know who was on board the yacht - possibly François Pinault himself, the famous French luxury goods entrepreneur and primary investor in the new Venetian exhibition area. Brech has turned his camera on a moment that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, deliberately choosing not to record the sumptuous affirmation of wealth of the yacht. It is the contrast between the size of the latter and that of the small boat, or between the black hull of the yacht and the evanescent white of the soap and of the reflections upon the water, that brings out the greatness of the vessel, the actual size of which we do not grasp. The artist succeeds in moving beyond the façade of power and wealth by stopping at its surface. He seems to be suggesting that the strategy for the construction of an image of power may lie in its antirepresentation: i.e., the "myth" of power is created by veiling or concealing the identity of those who hold it.
--with the artist's own:
The yacht Sea Force One is anchored in front of a museum at the Punta della Dogna in Venice. The waves of the lagoon are reflected in the black varnish on the ship´s hull.
From a small boat nearby, workers are cleaning the yacht.
A painting emerges from the broad, white trails of foam on the ship´s dark surface, visible only for a short while until erased by cleansing streams of water.
Once again the reflected waves dapple the yacht.
At first read, I thought Brech's focus on the formalist, painterly abstraction was notably less political than the Florentine curators' interpretation. And damned if it doesn't, in fact, look like a negative inversion of a making of film shot in Franz Kline's studio.

Which immediately reminded me of the interview Felix Gonzalez-Torres did with Rob Storr, which I've reprinted and referenced here several times over the years.

I'm glad that this question came up. I realize again how successful ideology is and how easy it was for me to fall into that trap, calling this socio-political art. All art and all cultural production is political.

I'll just give you an example. When you raise the question of political or art, people immediately jump and say, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, those are political artists. Then who are the non-political artists, as if that was possible at this point in history? Let's look at abstraction, and let's consider the most successful of those political artists, Helen Frankenthaler.

Why are they the most successful political artists, even more than Kosuth, much more than Hans Haacke, much more than Nancy and Leon or Barbara Kruger? Because they don't look political! And as we know it's all about looking natural, it's all about being the normative aspect of whatever segment of culture we're dealing with, of life. That's where someone like Frankenthaler is the most politically successful artist when it comes to the political agenda that those works entail, because she serves a very clear agenda of the Right.

For example, here is something the State Department sent to me in 1989, asking me to submit work to the Art and Embassy Program. It has this wonderful quote from George Bernard Shaw, which says, "Besides torture, art is the most persuasive weapon." And I said I didn't know that the State Department had given up on torture - they're probably not giving up on torture - but they're using both. Anyway, look at this letter, because in case you missed the point they reproduce a Franz Kline which explains very well what they want in this program. It's a very interesting letter, because it's so transparent.


I guess it's the curator's job to overexplain things [?] but Brech's title and his discussion of the work in terms of abstraction is plenty political in itself.

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My recent photomural binge has flushed out some interesting comments and suggestions, including one from Craig about the use of a photomural as a key interior design element in Woody Allen's 1980 film, Stardust Memories.

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Allen's character, filmmaker Sandy Bates, has wrapped the dining room of his Manhattan apartment with a photomural of Eddie Adams's iconic 1968 AP photo from the Tet Offensive of the shooting of captured VC Nguyen Van Lem by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. [above] It was commonly understood to be a universal symbol of man's cruelty, suffering, and inevitable mortality.

The shocking juxtaposition hadn't worn off for Richard Woodward, who used the fleeting scene a full nine years later as the opening anecdote for a critique of art's changing relationship with documentary photography. Titled, with the cloying question mark, "Serving up the Poor as Exotic Fare for Voyeurs?" Woodward seems to complain that the art world, which "favors big pictures and high prices" was messing it up for real [aka "documentary"] photography and serious subject matter:

Perhaps nothing in the film better conveys the twisted soul of the protagonist who, in his misguided need to project, magnify and expiate his guilt over the world's pain, has turned a moment of unforgettable horror into a decorative mural. It's a macabre joke about the heartless vanity that can underlie high-minded gestures; and it's a warning about photography, which can lose any claim as a moral force after countless reproductions on the wrong kind of wall.
But then he ended with this:
Many contemporary artists, like Alfredo Jaar, Sarah Charlesworth and Louise Lawler, are making work in which the use of an image - its presentation by the news media or a museum - becomes the grounds for critical scrutiny in a context of the artist's own devising. A persistent theme of art in the late 80's has been the struggle to patrol and examine the use of images. At the very least, many artists seem to be saying, it is time to stop averting our eyes.
Only this turns out to be exactly what Woody Allen was doing a full decade earlier.

Whether it's Supergraphics or Stephen Shore's Architectural Paintings or a Bloomingdale's furniture showroom, there has to be some context or precedent I'm missing here, otherwise Woody Allen should be figuring directly into the history of the emergence of the Pictures Generation.

Because the heavily stylized, black & white Stardust Memories turns out to use photomurals and their relatives as crucial thematic and visual elements.

First off, Allen has said that most of the film actually takes place in his character's head. Even his apartment, which is nominally in the film's reality, "is really a state of mind for him. And so depending on what phase of life he's in, you can see it reflected in the mural."

Though Adams's photo is often mentioned, and the stills above are common, I couldn't find images of any of the other murals. So I just rewatched Stardust Memories [at high speed] and pulled out all the ones I could find. I'd hoped that I could find some discussion of the murals and the film's design from production designer Mel Bourne, but so far, nothing. Bourne did several films with Allen, including Annie Hall and Manhattan, But he also did the production design for Fatal Attraction and, awesomely, the pilot for Miami Vice. Anyway, they're all after the jump, because, maybe some people might want to skip them? Not me.

October 19, 2010

Les Immiserables

It's hard to do bad interview with Errol Morris. But this exchange with Amanda Katz for the Boston Globe is particularly awesome:

We have this idea that reading leads to self-betterment. But reading can, properly considered, lead to self-immiserization!

Did you say immiserization?

I did indeed!

Like self-immolation, but into misery instead of fire.

Yeah, self-immolation is slightly different. That's for Brunhilde. Anyway, I picked up the Dreiser story...

related: a Morris-length rumination on immiseration by geopolicratus.

Christian Viveros-Faune's ruthless smackdown of the Luxembourg & Dayan show of Jeff Koons' porny 1990 Made In Heaven series is an acid, but necessary reminder of how economically and critically disastrous the early 1990s were for the artist. [Though I'm sure there's a schadenfreude set who hug those Dinkins-era memories close.]

It also reminds me of a 1999 panel discussion Koons did with Rob Storr at MoMA. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of Artists Space. When asked why he had not mentioned Made in Heaven during his otherwise comprehensive conversation, Koons had said that he had repudiated the work, and that he would henceforth no longer associate himself with it. That's always stuck with me.

He also mentioned being in a difficult and highly distressing custody battle at the time with his Italian ex-wife. So maybe the repudiation had a strategic element to it, and now that his son has moved and grown up, it's time for takebacks.

If anyone goes to MoMA and tracks down that recording [which is not currently online], I hope they'll tell me if I'm remembering it wrong.

UPDATE: And I may be. greg.org reader Dan emails to say that he listened to the tape yesterday at MoMA's archive, and unless it was in part of the audience Q&A he missed, then this exchange wasn't in it. I've had a distinct memory of hearing it, though, so I'll have to figure out where that might have been. I've spoken with Koons several times--we used to live across the street from each other--but this series of work was not a topic I brought up with him.

October 5, 2010

Going Long On Terry O'Shea

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Terrance O'Shea, late 1960s, 11x11x2 slab of laminated plexiglass

This summer while poking around into the conflicted treatment of the Pasadena Art Museum's Warhol Brillo Boxes, I found a tangential mystery: 10 or 30 or 40 or more Kellogg's Corn Flake Boxes Warhol authorized for the LA County Museum of Art seem to be unaccounted for. Warhol "donated" 100 boxes in 1971; the donor/collectors on LACMA's influential Contemporary Arts Council paid for the fabrication; but now the museum only has 57 in their collection, and at least ten have turned up in private collections and/or at auction.

lacma_cac_cat.jpgStill haven't figured that out. But one thing leads to another, and so I'm looking at the catalogue for the last known appearance of "all" the Warhol boxes, a 1973 show organized by Maurice Tuchman titled, Ten years of contemporary art council acquisitions, inaugurating the new contemporary art galleries, [left] and I see this title, how can I not?

Documentation of the Artist's Act of Placing One of His Sculptures in the La Brea Tar Pit, 1971, by Terrance O'Shea.

And the work consists of a photograph--a 4x5 transparency, actually, and a notarized letter/certificate. And the sculpture is a Lucite-looking prism or wedge, and there's no letter, and the LACMA website only has a thumbnail image of the letter, no text.

And the web searches for Terrance O'Shea are incredibly meager-to-nonexistent. Even though he was apparently the first LA plastics artist to win the museum's [CAC-funded, btw] New Talent Purchase Award--in 1966.

But I turn out not to be the only guy looking at Terry O'Shea in 2010. The folks at Cardwell Jimmerson in Culver City had just restaged a pivotal 1971-2 CalArts exhibition titled, "The Last Plastics Show," which had included O'Shea's work. Both times. Here's how their press release set it up:

By then [1972] the subject of plastic, resin and arious automobile-body technologies as expressed in California art had been thoroughly explored in multiple exhibitions up and down the west coast and extending east to Detroit and the Jewish Museum in New York. Moreover, the sunny technological optimism associated with California in the nineteen sixties had suddenly darkened; the hostile reception greeting LACMA's 1971 blockbuster "Art and Technology" exhibition being a case in point. This was indeed the end of an era, as older art practices and institutions (plastics and Chouinard Art Institute, for instance) gave way to the new (Conceptualism and CalArts). It was in this historical context that the artist/curators Judy Chicago, Doug Edge, adn DeWain valentine gave the exhibition its decidedly self-mocking and surprisingly poignant title: "The Last Plastics Show."
So I spoke with Tom Jimmerson, who gave me a brief sketch of O'Shea's work and life. He was sort of an artist's artist's artist, it seems, difficult to work with, and yet friend to many. Apparently holding artspeak and underwear in equal disdain, O'Shea was known to suck in his gut and let his pants fall to the ground at openings when the conversation got too hi-falutin'.

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Runes, 1968, Terry O'Shea

He made impossibly tiny works out of the shards of plastic he'd salvage from his buddies' castings: intricate capsules, spheres, eventually some book-sized slabs, which he'd keep in black velvet bags and present with a magician's flourish for the viewer to hold and manipulate. The gallery is working on an O'Shea show for 2011, Tom said, and it sounds fascinating.

But Tom didn't know the details of the LACMA piece, or the story behind it. So he put me in touch with Doug Edge, one of O'Shea's best friends [O'Shea himself died from complications associated with a life of heavy living], he'd know. And so he did. I just spoke with Edge the other day. Here's how it went down:

In 1966, Terry went to see Maurice Tuchman and showed him his work, which he pulled out from one pocket after another. O'Shea was soon awarded the New Talent Award, which meant the museum would purchase a work for the collection. Only Tuchman or whoever never really followed up. Perhaps there was some ambiguity about the artist's responsibility to produce or present options for the curator [or the collector's committee] to choose from. Or maybe the museum was supposed to approach the artist, visit his studio. Either way, though there was, in fact, a sculpture--it was a clear, polished wedge with channels carefully routed out and filled in with colored resin, like all O'Shea's sculptures, it was laboriously fabricated and detailed--the acquisition hung in the air until 1970.

oshea_lacma_wedge.jpg

On May 28 1970, O'Shea and two friends--Edge didn't name names, but would only say that one was "a real big guy--went to the museum at about 2AM, and using the fence surrounding it in some sort of catapulting maneuver, Terry had his big friend heave the little wedge into the tar pit next to the museum.

Not that LACMA knew, of course. It wasn't until many months later, perhaps precipitated by an administrator at the museum following up on an unfulfilled pledge of work, that O'Shea informed the museum that he had, in fact, delivered their work, and they were already, in fact, in possession of it.

He created a sculpture and then he--he didn't destroy it, exactly; he "placed" it in a way that it can now only be experienced as a photograph.

This work lingered in my mind for a few months. But after seeing "The Original Copy," Roxana Marcoci's show of photography and sculpture at MoMA, I really picked up the pace on tracking down O'Shea's LACMA work. Which seems almost entirely undiscussed in the art and art historical world. And yet, not only does Documentation of the Artist's Act... fit Marcoci's premise like a glove, but O'Shea himself was operating at a critical juncture in LA's artistic history, a singular link between plastics and finish fetish--which he deployed toward his own, idiosyncratic ends--and the Conceptualist irreverence of, say a Nauman or an Oppenheim, or a Ruscha, who also happened to make a work involving LACMA and fiery destruction.

But anyway, keep that all in mind while reading O'Shea's letter, which Edge graciously read to me over the phone. It's after the jump, because even though I've found some other of O'Shea's work that shows this LACMA piece was not just a one-off joke, it's hard to imagine this post going even longer that it already has.

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Hal Laessig, a Newark architect, developer, and artist who was a graduate student of Daniel Libeskind's at Cranbrook, and who came back to build three fantastical, fantasy machines for LIbeskind's contribution to the 1986 Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Aldo Rossi. Titled "Three Lessons of Architecture," the show was an argument-by-metaphorical-object about the post-structuralist concept of architecture-as-text. But the three machines were anything but fantasies: they were incredibly complex, and laboriously and meticulously designed and constructed from the barest possible historical references.

libeskind_3_lessons.jpg

The Reading Machine [l] and The Memory Machine [c] were both based on the 16th century proposals: the former, a design for a multi-book "Reading Wheel" by Agostino Ramelli, and the latter a complete reimagining of the backstage apparatus for Giulio Camillo's "Memory Theatre." The machine Laessig worked on, The Writing Machine [r], is commonly described as a realization of an early 20th century concept by Raymond Roussel, but Laessig explained that the actual design originated with a satirical auto-writing machine in Jonathan Swift's 18th-century classic, Gulliver's Travels. [See this earlier post for more discussion of the Swift reference.]

Anyway, here is the rest of my conversation with Laessig, which I found to be awesome and hilarious, probably because I didn't go to architecture school. The tales of Cranbrook in the 80s and Libeskind as a teacher are almost as interesting as the crazy story of the machines themselves--and the indentured servant grad students who built them. [An editorial note: I didn't take notes during my own talking, so I've paraphrased and compiled Laessig's comments a bit to help the chronological flow.]

G.O: How did you get involved with making these machines for Libeskind in the first place?
H.L: I went to Cranbrook to get my masters in architecture when Daniel Libeskind was there. After I graduated in '84, he called to say he'd been invited by Aldo Rossi to do an entry for the Biennale.

The first idea was to get all his past grad students to come to Cranbook to charrette and figure out what to do. But nobody besides me wanted to come back, so we didn't do that. Then he said he'd already figured out what to do, and that he'd have the students build it.

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, 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 greg.org that time.

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Category: interviews

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Our Guernica Cycle, 2017 –
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Standard Operating Procedure
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CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
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