I just pulled out some Future Systems books last night, and I'd forgotten how hard I'd fallen for them. And though I knew they were The Future at the time, it's still pretty awesome/eerie how much our 2006 ended up looking like their 1993. It seems like Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete's tenacious, visionary modernist pursuits, their interest in prefab and industrial manufacturing in architecture and energy efficiency, became dominant themes, even as FS's own practice split apart with the end of its principals' relationship.

The other thing that seems prescient, for better or worse, is Kaplicky's voracious image consumption. Those little source/idea books Future Systems put out, filled with hundreds of photos and drawings culled from the seductive, Western "image cascade" that washed over Kaplicky after he left Communist Czechoslovakia, feel exactly like the world's favoritest tumblr.

[Of course, they also feel like a conditioned response to the multiscreen info overload of capitalist love the Eameses made for exhibition in Moscow in the Cold War, and Kaplicky's own "vast collection" echos the 310,000+ piece image archive Ray Eames donated to the Library of Congress.]

But that's the good part. Future Systems also anticipated the thing that most annoys the hell out of me about Tumblr and FFFound and the entire world now, the carefree casualness with credit and sourcing.

By that I obviously don't mean I have hangups with attribution, or--double obviously--copyright infringement. [The title page of one catalogue has this refreshing disclaimer, "All reasonable efforts have been made to trace the copyright holders of the photographs. The Publishers and Future Systems apologise to anyone who has not been reached."] It's just that when I see an image that interests me, I want to know more. I want context. Origin. History. Tangents. I want to learn things that don't necessarily only involve how something looks.


So anyway, does anyone recognize this kind of awesome prefab construction system Kaplicky included in his Influences: A Visual Essay [on the top of page 28 of Marcus Field's 1999 Future Systems monograph, btw]? If I had to guess, I'd say it's some random Prouvé follower, but that doesn't narrow it down.

UPDATE And we have a winner, Doug from Materiality Office has identified Fritz Haller as the designer of this steel frame building system, probably from a house in Solothurn, Germany. Many thanks!

[l to r] Viola Farber, Bruce King, Remy Charlip, Carolyn Brown & Merce Cunningham performing Nocturnes in 1956. photo CDF/Louis A. Stevenson, Jr. via the estate project

Remy Charlip was an early collaborator in Merce Cunningham's orbit. Years before he began his second or third acclaimed career as a children's book illustrator and author, Charlip danced with Cunningham and Martha Graham in New York and at Black Mountain College. He created the programs for the August 1952 Cage et al performance at BMC which is considered the first "Happening." They were printed on cigarette paper, and were placed at the entrance next to a bowl of tobacco, with an ashtray on each seat.

image of what has to be a Charlip program for a different Cage performance, via The Arts at Black Mountain College

Though he's a bit off on the dates, what with Cage only buying the VW bus in 1959, John Held's Charlip biography lays out the basic configuration of the bus:

As if BMC was not enough, Charlip received continuing post-graduate work from 1956-1961 in the back of a Volkswagen Microbus driven by John Cage, navigated by Merce Cunningham, enlivened by Robert Rauschenberg, with traveling companions Nicholas Cernovich and dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Steve Paxton and others.
[l to r] Carolyn Brown, Steve Paxton & Merce Cunningham, 1961, image via cepress

A couple of weeks ago, Paxton talked to the Washington Post about the bus: Later that year [1960? '61? -ed.] Remy resigned, and I was invited into the smaller company. This meant touring around the U.S. in a Volkswagen bus, which, I was informed, it was my duty to pack. And unpack. And distribute and later collect all the items packed. There were the spaces under the seats, a compartment in the back, and a roof rack to transport nine persons' personal luggage, the equipment of John Cage and David Tudor for various musical adventures, and the sets and costumes for the tour. The bus was heavy laden, and it never let us down, including at least two tours the the West Coast.

John or Merce drove, and John liked to play Scrabble when off-duty. The rest of us conversed and Viola [Farber] knitted. It was rather like a family around the hearth. Long silence, naps, breaks to stretch and walk about, and usually some amazing treat produced by John, a huge salad perhaps, or once Rogue River pears at perfect ripeness with pear liquor to accompany. David was quiet, Marilyn Wood chatty, Carolyn [Brown] and Viola made comment, Merce sometimes spoke, John and Bob laughed a lot, and both were great story-tellers. I remember the actual driving fondly.It may have been amidst family-like intimacy of the bus that Paxton and Rauschenberg started the relationship that ended the relationship between Rauschenberg and Johns in 1961-2.

Robert Rauschenberg & Steve Paxton, with Alex Hay [l] and Trisha Brown [r] rehearsing Spring Training, 1965. image via SAAM Rauschenberg catalogue, 1976

December 17, 2011

The VW Years: Ch. 1

John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg photographed in 1960 by Richard Avedon

In a few days, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform for the last time. I have not been a close follower of Cunningham's work, except in the New Yorker way, how, for the two decades since I moved to the city, Merce and his company were an integral part of the cultural fabric. Merce? You're soaking in it!

I was always more of a Cage fan. And so it's been fascinating, and enlightening, and continually surprising over the last year or so, as I've been digging into the early days of Rauschenberg and Johns, trying to understand their formative work and context, to see how closely connected they were with Merce and John. How small the circle of artists was which generated so many incredible works and ideas. And yet how infrequently I consider their work in relation to each other, or consider the nature of their collaboration beyond the basic namecheck.

In a way, I guess Rauschenberg and Johns and their intense, but short-lived collaborative period serves as the antithesis of Cunningham and Cage's lifelong partnership. But they all began so close, and so much together.

Anyway, as I've become more familiar and more admiring of Cunningham's work and Cage's work with him, I've begun trying to piece together the world they inhabited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were just starting out. And one thing that comes up in every story about those days is the VW microbus Merce and his fledgling company would pile into to tour the country. Cunningham's longtime principal dancer Carolyn Brown even titled the chapter in her 2007 memoir "The VW Years."


But I'll get to that. First, the story of the VW bus itself, how John Cage bought it, and how it figured into various peoples' accounts of those crazy, early days.

cage_milan_peggy_guggenheim.jpgIn 1958, Cage had performed at a blowout retrospective concert organized by Johns, Rauschenberg, and hustler/activist/filmmaker Emile de Antonio; and he'd exhibited his scores at Stable Gallery. Then in the taught and performed in Europe, including at Expo '58 in Brussels, and then settled into a several months' residency in Milan at RAI, Italian state television. In February of 1959, after hanging out with Peggy Guggenheim at her Venetian palazzo, he appeared on Lascia o Raddoppia, the local equivalent of the $64,000 Question, where he performed new compositions, became famous by the end of the week--and ended up winning 5 million lira in a series of ridiculously rigged questions about mushrooms.

And so he took his winnings and Italian fame back to the US, where he used part of the money to buy a piano for himself, and a white VW microbus for Merce and the company to tour in.

The most extensive accounts of the Italian game show boondoggle and the VW van purchase are from Begin Again, Kenneth Silverman's Cage biography, and Stefano Pocci's guest post on the John Cage Trust blog.

Lascia o Raddoppia, Milan, 1959 [johncagetrust]

December 10, 2011

The Cosby Sweater Project

"Season 3, Episode 3: 'Golden Anniversary'"

This is epic. Painting the key sweaters of The Cosby Show, one episode at a time, in chronological order. Which is awesome, not because it charts the evolution of the Cosby Sweater; any punk with a tumblr could do that. But because it's fun to imagine Thomas Nozkowski's reaction, as the seasons progress, and he hears the footsteps behind him, getting ever closer. And an occasional spastic, growly laugh.

The Cosby Sweater Project [ via I wish I could remember]

Thumbnail image for neuhart_solar_do-nothing.jpg

A few months ago, I was asked to write something about Ray and Charles Eames by the folks at Humanities Magazine, published by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEH had provided some funding to Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's documentary, Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter, so a straight-up review wouldn't really work. But I was encouraged by the documentary's title, and its exploration of Ray's role in the duo's collaborative process, and so I decided to float the idea that there's a lot to learn by considering the Eameses as artists:

Throughout their own careers, whether making architecture, furniture, toys, annual reports, or films, the Eameses presented themselves as designers. And despite their forays into education, computing, and international diplomacy, that's how they are typically seen. But calling the Eameses designers while trying to account for their polymathic legacy can be problematic, particularly if we're picturing the designer as a lone, heroic genius: Charles Eames as the Howard Roark of American consumer capitalism. It invites many esoteric and academic questions about process, context, gender, and collaboration, which are interesting but hard to resolve. When considered from an artistic perspective, however, many of these complications evaporate. Accepting Ray and Charles Eames as artists and their studio work as art gets us away from the arbitrage over who did what and how. Plus, it enriches and deepens the contemporary understanding of their role in the culture of their time.
That's John Neuhart up there, by the way; he built the Eameses' greatest object besides their house, and one of the greatest unsung, unrecognized artworks of the modernist era, the Solar Do-Nothing Machine.

Modern Love, Humanities Magazine, Nov/Dec. 2011 []

Insurrection, 1962, image:

I needed to see some hard-to-find Chris Burden catalogues--more on that later, but soon--and the quickest place I could find them was the Corcoran School's library. I called ahead, and they had them waiting for me, so I was in and out of the library in no time.

Which left me with a little time to wander. And there is a very nice gallery with a nice, old Ellsworth Kelly diptych, and this wonderful Anne Truitt sculpture in the center of the room.

Insurrection was installed very dramatically with Hardcastle, another 1962 work, in Kristen Hileman's Truitt retrospective at the Hirshhorn. Hardcastle confronted you head-on through the doorway, while Insurrection was turned sideways; on edge, with only the slab's thinness and wooden brackets visible. It was only as you moved around it--following the contours of those unfortunate Karim Rashidian raised platforms--that they switched out: Hardcastle's heft gave way, and Insurrection widened, revealing that they shared the same structure.

Hardcastle, 1962, via

The install of Insurrection at the Corcoran, meanwhile, is much less enigmatic. There are off-center approaches from three different sides, so the sculpture is what it is when you see it. Moving around it is an experience, not a discovery. [The full frontal orientation faces the Kelly, Yellow with Red Triangle, from 1973.]

Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, image

Even though they're the same shape/structure, I remember Hardcastle's monochrome face felt more massive--and then artificial, as its red brackets popped into view. Insurrection's two-tone reds make it feel more like two volumes immediately, which turn out to be one.

Back down on the floor where they belong, Truitt's larger sculptures always feel like a presence, in space, and yet they're paint[ings?] [ed?] And yet there is paint. Maybe 1962 was before her reportedly vigorous sanding and multiple coats kicked in, because Truitt's surface is most definitely painted with a brush. Kelly's surface, meanwhile, is only disturbed by the weave of his canvas; I'm going to assume he used a roller. But wow, there's a brush going around the edges. And how. Just slapped right on there.

I'm trying to better understand the sense of paintings as objects, of the picture plane as nothing of the sort. I didn't plan today to see these two artists' works--Truitt's and Kelly's--which explore this very idea, in the form of painting/sculpture, but here they were. I still have to look some more, but basically, I came away thinking I might be really knocking myself out too much over my smoothly brushed-on painting surfaces.

previously: many Anne Truitt posts on
and a little on looking at Ellsworth Kelly

November 9, 2011

Intergalactic Lens Flares


i love that the headline on this story, "Hubble Directly Observes The Disk Around A Black Hole," has to be followed immediately by, "but it's not that disk."

The spectacular patterns and rays in the photo above of the double quasar known as HE 1104-1805 are apparently imaging artifacts from the Hubble Space Telescope, They're caused by the circular aperture and the structural elements of the telescope itself.

Meanwhile, the accretion disk is only visible at all because HE 1104-1805 is subject to gravitational lensing, distortions in the light caused by the gravitational pull of an intervening galaxy.

I can't quite articulate it yet, but there's something here about the appeal and limits of opticality; the utility and limitations of the narrow, visible part of the spectrum; and the documentation and characterization of distortion that I find very interesting. And then there's the inextricable relationship between the instrument and its object; which then collapses as the universe itself--the galaxy-as-lens--becomes the instrument for viewing itself.

Hubble Directly Observes the Disc Around a Black Hole [, via]
What's That Strange Disk Around That Black Hole? []

November 7, 2011

Luminous Canvas, Sham Paris


Sweet, near the end of World War I, Paris planned and began construction on a "Sham Paris," decoy trains, stations, avenues and factories, to confuse German aerial bombers.

Above, a detail from the photo, "Luminous canvas on the ground to represent, to German airmen at night, oneof the great Paris railway stations: The Camouflage Gare de l'Est."

Like the 1920 editors of The Illustrated London News, I would have liked some aerial photos of the deception.

A Paris Made to be Destroyed--Sham Paris, 1917/18 [ptak science books]
Suspiciously related: Maskelyne's Sham Alexandria, or The Greatest Camo Story Ever Told

I've been writing this post in my head for months, years, even, but so many pieces have piled up in my browser tabs, it's slowing my computer down. And plus, this weekend MoMA announced that they acquired and will exhibit Untitled (Free/Still), the original [sic] free-Thai-curry-in-a-gallery work, so it's time to step back and look more closely at Rirkrit Tiravanija's art practice. First, by starting with what we are fed. Here is a small sampling platter of familiar statements by and about the artist and his work:

"It's part of what has been called 'relational aesthetics,' " said Ann Temkin, chief curator in MoMA's department of painting and sculpture. "Joseph Beuys created social sculpture; it's the act of doing things together, where you, the viewer, can be part of the experience."
That's from MoMA's press release in the NY Times.
You could say his art is all about building "chaotic structures." Then again, it's about lots of things; his work is so open-ended and departs so radically from the art market's orientation toward precious objects, that it's earned many labels, many - like utopian or chaotic - that only tell part of the story. But one that's stuck, for better or worse, is French theorist-critic Nicholas Bourriaud's "relational aesthetics," the idea of judging the social relationships sparked by an artwork instead of merely considering the object.
That's Paul Schmelzer, now/again of the Walker Art Center, an early and frequent supporter of Rikrit's work, writing in 2006.


Tiravanija's art is free. You only need the experience. In fact, the essence of his work resides in the community, their interrelationships, and chance. Make art without objects, their purpose is a complaint against the possession and accumulation.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, which owns Untitled (Caravan), a 1999 plywood model of a camping trailer, with kitchen, above.

Rirkrit as quoted by Bruce Hainley in Artforum, 1996:

"Basically I started to make things so that people would have to use them," he has said, "which means if you [collectors, museum curators, anyone in these roles] want to buy something then you have to use it. . . . It's not meant to be put out with other sculpture or like another relic and looked at, but you have to use it. I found that was the best solution to my contradiction in terms of making things and not making things. Or trying to make less things, but more useful things or more useful relationships. My feeling has always been that everyone makes a work - including the people who . . . re-use it. When I say re-use it, I just mean use it. You don't have to make it look exactly how it was. It's more a matter of spirit."


And here's Faye Hirsch in Art in America this summer, perfectly teeing up her making-of story for Untitled (the map of the land of feeling), [above] an extraordinary 84-foot-long print edition Rirkrit has worked on for the last three years with students and staff at Columbia's Leroy Neiman Center for Print Studies:

Rirkrit Tiravanija has never been known as a maker of elaborate objects. In a market-riven art world, he has remained, since the early '90s, a steadfast conceptualist whose immaterial projects, enmeshing daily life and creative practice, have earned him a key role in the development of relational art. At galleries and museums around the world, he has prepared meals and fed visitors, broadcast live radio programs, installed social spaces for instruction and discussion, set up apartments--where he or visitors might live for the duration of a show--and dismantled doors and windows, leaning them against walls. At two of the three venues for his 2004 retrospective, the "display" consisted of a sequence of empty rooms referencing (in their proportions and an accompanying audio) his selected exhibitions over the years.

When Tiravanija does make objects, they are generally of a modest nature--most often multiples and ephemera connected with exhibitions. At his show this spring at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York, for example, he set up a room where an assistant screenprinted white T-shirts with his signature terse, block-print headlines, ranging in tone from vaguely political (LESS OIL MORE COURAGE) to hospitably absurd (I HAVE DOUGHNUTS AT HOME). They cost $20 apiece.

Ah yes, the t-shirts. Not sure if I ended up being the only one, but I was apparently the first to order a complete set of all 24 shirts. So there's that.


I have been an admirer and follower of Rirkrit's work since his earliest shows at Gavin's, and Untitled (Playtime), the awesome, ply&plexi, kid-sized replica of Philip Johnson's Glass House he built in MoMA's sculpture garden in 1997 [above] bought him at least a decade of good karma in my book.

And so it's only very recently that I've started to watch and wonder if I'm the only one who-- See, this is why Faye Hirsch's quote is so perfect: because it encapsulates exactly how people talk and write and think about Rirkrit's work, and it's perfectly and exactly wrong.

I'm sorry, that's the overdramatic hook in this post. What I really mean is, as his social, experiential, ephemeral practice, his "art without objects" has taken off, Rirkrit has also been making some of the blingiest, sexy-shiniest, most ridiculously commodified luxury objects around. I love them. Why can we not talk about them more?

October 23, 2011


Joie de Vivre, Mark di Suvero, Zuccotti Park, detail of image via

Or maybe #OccupyJoiedeVivre, then? Either way, please tell me I'm not the first or only one to think of this. Actually, please tell me someone's already working on it.

Mark di Suvero's giant steel sculpture, Joie de Vivre was built in 1997 and stood for several years in the exit plaza for the Holland Tunnel, then at Storm King, and in 2006 it was installed in its new home, Zuccotti Park. Whether its art historical significance is fully appreciated, or whether it's called "The Big Red Thing," di Suvero's sculpture has become an icon of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The Peace Tower, 1966, image via newsgrist

Which is good, because di Suvero himself is an icon of artistic involvement in political action, activism, and social justice. In 1966, along with Irving Petlin and others, di Suvero designed The Artists' Tower of Protest, also known as The Peace Tower, one of the earliest and largest artist-organized protests against the Vietnam War.

The Peace Tower stood on a vacant lot on the corner of Sunset and La Cienega Boulevards in Los Angeles, which Petlin's Artists Protest Committee rented for three months. They solicited 2x2 art objects from 400 artists, which were installed onsite. Documentation of The Peace Tower is currently included in Pacific Standard Time at the Getty.

Peace Tower @Whitney Biennial, 2006, image via wjff

In 2006, Rirkrit Tiravanija worked with di Suvero and Petlin to re-create The Peace Tower as a protest to the Iraq War as part of the Whitney Biennial. The new tower was festooned with 180 2x2 panels created by invited artists, including many artists from the LA original. [And Joy Garnett, hello!]

So it would seem to me, that when you're organizing a global protest against injustice at the foot of a Mark di Suvero sculpture, shouldn't you organize it on the Mark i Suvero sculpture? And shouldn't you do that, NOT by climbing the sculpture and demanding cigarettes be delivered to you by police cherrypicker, thereby precipitating the fencing off of said sculpture and the park space around it, but by tracking down the artist himself and enlisting him in a call for artists to create 2x2 panels that will be installed on Joie de Vivre itself?

And though it might be hard to measure--or identify, for that matter--the impacts on policy of the war protests in 1966 and 2006, circumstances almost seem to demand an incarnation of a protest tower in 2011-12. And at the very least, art people, doesn't this make 10000x more sense than marching on the Frick?

Related: Jeffrey Kastner's remarkable interview with Irving Petlin, Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit in the March 2006 Artforum [artforum via findarticles]

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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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