October 27, 2009

American Painting Now Then


How to account for my dogged fascination with the temporary/permanent, futuristic/historic paradoxes of Expo art and architecture?

Buckminster Fuller's 20-story Biosphere was far and away his greatest single success and the hit of the most successful modernist world's fair, the Expo 67 in Montreal. And yet how little did I consider what was in it: a giant exhibit of the movies; The American Spirit, an exhibit of NASA satellites and space capsules; some crafts or whatever, and American Painting Now, 23 huge paintings commissioned by Alan Solomon from a "Who's Who of modern art," including :

James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Their works illustrated trends such as abstract expressionism, op, pop, hardedge and geometric art. Like the space component, this part of the American exhibition was truly spectacular. The works, gigantic, simple and colourful, paid a vibrant tribute to the creative vitality of artists who now count among the great masters of 20th century painting.
Uh, and from Fuller, too, from the looks of that giant Dymaxion Map right there.


From a 1996 book on Voice of Fire, Barnett Newman's own 17-foot tall contribution, we learn Solomon requested that the artists [all male?] "contribute paintings that are (a) large in scale and (b) vertical in format."

newman_voice_of_fire.jpgI want to quote "Exorcism in Montreal," the April 30, 1967 review by NY Times critic and famous Newman nemesis John Canaday, in its entirety, but I won't:

Here we have the same old clique of names that have been handed the favors regularly in Venice and everywhere else on the circuit. A natural response to the list is "Oh, no, not again!" There is that tiresome Barnett Newman, who this time turns out three vertical stripes in two colors--but they are 17 feet high. There's Jim Dine, with nothing but two big slabs of enameled canvas, in two flat colors, bearing in one corner a notation as to the brand of paint used--and the panels are 35 feet high. There is Roy Lichtenstein being Roy Lichtenstein again, but now 29 feet high.

There are all the rest of the club, not including some whose work was not fully installed on press day, and some whose work seems to me to have more substance than the ones listed, for instance James Rosenquist's colossal "Firepole." I have chosen the most vacuous because in this setting even they are part of a genuinely spectacular show fulfilling demands that could not have been met by any other kind of painting.

The dimensions given above tell that the paintings, most of them done for this spot (what other spot could hold them?), are gargantuan...they are played against strips of sail cloth in heights up to that of a 10-story building. It is as if the whole water-treading esthetic that they represent had been originated and sustained by some genii who knew that one day a form of painting bold enough and shallow enough to supply enormous bright banners for this pavilion would be necessary.

And then there's Canaday's assessment of the NASA artifacts, which basically hits it home for me with the art/science beauty paradox:
...since technology is creating the most beautiful objects today, and the most imaginative ones, Apollo might also be thought to have added one more muse to the group that he has always chaperoned.

Of course, there is no separating the fascination of the Apollo Command Module as a scientific object from its quality as an esthetic one, with its self-generated form and its patina burnt into it during the minutes of its descent rather than by centuries of weather, but it is a beautiful object all the same--inherently beautiful, and no other word than beautiful will do--as well as an historical monument with emotive associations And that is what great works of art used to be.

Ah, so it's just the domes and the satelloons.


Update: From Architecture & Nature (2003), more details/corrections on who showed what: Kelly had a 30' canvas, no title given. Robert Indiana, Cardinal Numbers. At just 13'x15', Robert Motherwell's Big Painting #2 was anything but. Lichtenstein: Big Modern Painting [sensing a theme here?] Helen Frankenthaler was The Woman Painter. And the Dymaxion Map was by Johns, "a small [sic] token to his friend Fuller's desire to have the map be the centerpiece of the pavilion."

Interior images of Biosphere, the US Pavilion at Expo 67 from The Dixon Slide Collection at McGill University. []
Q: was this the Ellsworth Kelly? [no, see update above]

Previously: Hmm. That satelloon & command module show was so good, they used it again at Expo 70 in Osaka.

October 12, 2009

Echo I


This 1960 LIFE Magazine photo by Grey Villet of Antenna bouncing first message off Echo I satellite is a great, uh, echo of Trevor Paglen's The Other Night Sky series.

It's got shiny spheres, and science re-creations, and DC artists and quotes from curator and museum director friends. But it's been a few weeks now, and the only thing I can say about Blake Gopnik's mind-numbing/blowing article on Jim Sanborn is that this passage on public art is pretty damn funny:

The fame of the CIA commission "funded me for all the years since," Sanborn says. It put him on the public-sculpture gravy train. He stopped living in his scruffy studio building in Northeast Washington (it's where he met his wife, Jae Ko, a well-known local sculptor), bought a house in Georgetown, designed a home in the Shenandoahs and continued to fund his more "serious" art, such as "Atomic Time."

But lately, the commissions have dried up. Today's selection panels, he complains, go for "decorative embellishments."

Damn those panels. If only noted art historian/author Dan Brown would write a book about Washington, he could include another mention of Sanborn's work.

??!!??: Sparking Interest Within the Sphere of Art | 'Physics' May Be Most Substantive D.C. Piece in Half-Century [washingtonpost via man]


Just like how, once you've learned it, you start hearing a word all the time, now I see satelloons everywhere. Including at the Buckminster Fuller retrospective last year at the Whitney [which went on to Chicago this summer.]

Buckminster Fuller and his architecture partner Shoji Sadao mocked up this photo of a photocollage, Project for Floating Cloud Structures (Cloud Nine) , around 1960. Cloud Nines are self-contained communities of several thousand people living inside enclosed geodesic spheres a mile wide, which float over the earth's surface.

Because the geodesic structure increases in strength as it gets bigger, and its surface increases at a power of two, while its volume increases at a power of three, Fuller hypothesized that heating the interior air even one degree will set the Cloud Nines aloft.

Obviously, as a sexy, futuristic utopian image, Cloud Nine is hard to pass up, but holy crap, Bucky, did you think for two seconds about the urban fabric and the social experience of living trapped in a floating dome? I'd love to see someone write an SF story about it. Because I think it might be a fantastically totalitarian disaster.


There are two versions of the Cloud Nine image: [the earlier?] one has smooth, silvery, featureless spheres. I'd call them satelloons, even. The other [above] has line drawings of the geodesic structure collaged onto it.

It was only now, as I get around to finally posting about them, that the relationship between Cloud Nines and satelloons might be more than formalistic. The original satelloon, Project Echo launched in 1960, the same year Fuller and Sadao designed their giant floating spheres. Could there have been a connection?

The easiest, most obvious thing to do might be to ring up Shoji Sadao. What is he up to these days, anyway? You'd think that given the recent interest in Fuller's work, a guy who worked so closely with Fuller on so many major projects--he's credited with the dome at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal, arguably the most spectacular Fuller structure ever realized--would be all over the place. I mean, it was only a few years ago that he gave up his position as executive director of the Noguchi Foundation in Long Island City. And then he curated that great Fuller-Noguchi show in 2006. [Sadao was also a longtime collaborator with Noguchi and the chief overseer of his legacy.] Anyone spoken with him lately?

In a 1970 paper, two Harvard/Smithsonian scientists proposed A Passive Stable Satellite for Accurate Laser Ranging. Dubbed project Cannonball, the 38-cm spherical satellite would be covered with triangular reflectors and would weigh--did someone drop a decimal?--a prodigious 8000 pounds. Cannonball would be a stable laser target which would allow surface mapping of the earth with 10cm accuracy by reflecting laser light between earth base stations. It was designed to be launched using an extra Saturn rocket left over from the Apollo program, but it didn't happen.


The passive laser reflector disco ball-lookin' satellite trend didn't really kick in until 1976, when NASA launched LAGEOS I [LAser GEO-something Satellite, above], which was built by ASI, the Italian Space Agency, from a NASA design. The 60cm-diameter aluminum-coated brass sphere is set with 426 cube-cornered retro-reflectors--4 are germanium, the rest are glass.

ASI built another, identical satellite, LAGEOS II [below], which was launched in 1992.


A third passive retro-reflector satellite, called LARES, was designed as an all-Italy project, and is set to launch in 2009 on an ESA rocket. LARES is smaller [36cm], made of solid tungsten, and contains 92 retroreflectors.


In 1989, Russia launched two Etalon satellites [below], which are each 1.3m in diameter and contain 2,145 retro-reflectors.


NASA launched Larets, a tiny 21cm sphere with 60 prismatic reflectors into low-earth orbit in 2003. It is very similar in design to the German GFZ-1 [below], which was launched in 1995 and burned up in 1999. They also look llike Buckminster Fuller Fly's-Eye Domes.


The most disco ball-looking of all, though is Project Starshine, a series of three student project satellites [??] which launched between 1999 and 2003. Built from spare hardware, each Starshine sphere was covered with almost 900-1500 mirrors polished by students around the world. The satellites reflected sunlight, enabling a network of schools to track their movement. They all burned up as they re-entered the atmosphere, and Starshines 4 & 5 have been waiting for a ride into space since 2004.


LAGEOS I also contains a plaque [below] designed by Carl Sagan and drawn by Jon Lomberg. It consists of three maps showing the position of the continents in the distant past, the present, and 10 million years from now, when the satellite is expected to re-enter earth's atmosphere. The idea being, I assume, to let whoever retrieves the beautiful, shiny artifact from space some time before that happens know that we totally knew they were going to do that.


Space Flight Dolphin is a life-sized "inflatable dolphin sculpture/satellite by the space artist Richard Clar. The sculpture/satellite will be made from a memory alloy that springs into shape when heated by the sun.

It will transmit a magnetic signal "modulated by dolphin 'voices'" [Clar's quotes] in an attempt to communicate with extra-terrestrial intelligence. Also, "as the sculpture/satellite orbits the Earth, the dolphin voices will be monitored in various museums around the world, providing a link between different people and cultures on our own planet."

Near as I can tell, Space Flight Dolphin was conceived in 1982, and was approved by NASA for inclusion in its special payload program in 1986. Which is the same year Star Trek IV came out. So if anyone copied anyone, it was Star Trek.

This still is from an animated short which was screened last year at the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival.

Space Flight Dolphin: An Art-and-Technology Payload for the Space Shuttle | Richard Clar's Art Technologies []


While we contemplate the Colombian Heart Attack that has befallen Washington DC, it might be worthwhile to remember the good old days, such as they were, when the National Mall was the site of ambitious public art projects. Projects like Centerbeam and Icarus.

Centerbeam was the result of a 22-artist collaboration organized by MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies under the leadership of the artist Otto Piene. It was a 144-ft long 128-ft long [in DC] steel sculpture resembling a radio tower on its side, which served as a platform for an array of artistic deployments of cutting edge technologies, including laser projections on steam, holograms, neon and argon beams, and electronic and computer-generated music. And giant inflatable sculptures.

After a highly acclaimed debut at Documenta 6 in 1977, Centerbeam was reinstalled on the Mall during the Summer of 1978. The site was the open space north of the newly opened National Air & Space Museum, and directly across the Mall from the just-opened East Gallery of the NGA [where The National Museum of the American Indian now stands].

Centerbeam gave nightly performances/happenings/experiences throughout the summer, culminating in two nights' performance of Icarus, a "sky opera" in steam, balloons, lasers, and sound created by Piene and Paul Earls.

Based loosely on Ovid, Icarus cast Piene's 250-ft tall red and black flower-shaped sculpture as the title character; another red anemone-shaped balloon was Daedalus, and Centerbeam was the Minotaur.

Centerbeam was officially sponsored by the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the Mall, and the Smithsonian. The directors of both the NGA [Carter Brown] and the Hirshhorn Museum [Abram Lerner] are thanked for their encouragement in MIT's 1980 catalogue of Centerbeam, but no Smithsonian art museum--and no art curator--appears to have been involved in the presentation of the work. Most of the coordination was handled by Susan Hamilton, who worked in the office of Charles Blitzer, the Assistant Secretary for History and Art. In fact, the Air & Space Museum's director and staff gets the most effusive praise and seems to have been the most closely involved with the project, even to the point of using the NASM as Centerbeam's mailing address.

The Washington Post did not review Icarus, and in the paper's only feature on the opening of Centerbeam, Jo Ann Lewis cited anonymous critics who "generally saw it as a big, endearing toy, but not art. There seems no reason to amend that conclusion here."

Of course, no one cares what the Post says about art, and Piene and his CAVS collaborators probably did not mind the absence of more traditionally minded art worlders. Since his days as a founder of Group Zero in the early 1960s, Piene had been self-consciously seeking a path that would lead art out and away from the rareified, precious object fixations of collectors and museums.

Group Zero was ahead of several curves, and their place in the story of conceptualism, minimalism, Arte Povera, and other important developments of art in the 1960s is getting a boost. And Piene's work looked pretty nice and strong in Sperone Westwater's very fresh-looking Zero show last year. Are Centerbeam and Icarus really just wonky art/science experiments, examples of the played out model of unalloyed, Utopian technophilia that spawned earlier collaborative dogpiles like the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World's Fair?

Or is there a real history of "real" art by Piene and his collaborators that needs to be looked at again? Despite the apparent indifference of its official art world at the time, was Washington DC actually the site of some significant artistic production that did not involve freakin' Color Fields? Inquiring balloon-sculpting minds want to know.

August 26, 2009

The SA-60 Spherical Airship


According to BoingBoing, the Sierra Nevada Corporation's been testing its SA-60 Spherical Airship at the Reno-Stead Airport. [SNC's the same company whose surveillance blimp was set to be mooned this month by 1,500 hundred angry Canadians in the quiet border downs of Sarnia/Port Huron. I think high winds scuttled the ballooning, and hence, the mooning.]

The SA-60 [above] was first demonstrated successfully in 2004 by a knot of gruff-sounding defense contractors--none of whose domain names work anymore. At the time, the manned, operational version--suitable for use "for both defense and homeland security purposes including surveillance of battlefields and domestic borders and ports."--was expected to have a diameter of 76 feet. An unmanned, solar-powered version would have a diameter of 200 feet.

Since I've got my hands full turning satelloons and other fantastic, spherical balloon airships into art, I hope someone else will pick up the slack and start celebrating the glorious poetry that is the military industrial complex press release. God Bless America!:

Press Release: July 1, 2004

SNC Enters Exclusive Partnership with Proxity Digital Networks Subsidiary
Cyber Aerospace and Techsphere Systems on Spherical Airship

Sparks, Nevada - (July 1, 2004) - Sierra Nevada Corporation announced today that it has entered into an exclusive partnership agreement with Proxity Digital Networks subsidiary Cyber Aerospace and Techsphere Systems to provide technology, payload and sensor integration for government and commercial end users of the SA-60 Spherical Airship.

Proxity Digital Networks, Inc. and Techsphere Systems International, Inc., recently announced through Cyber Aerospace Corp., an operating subsidiary of Proxity's On Alert Systems, that the SA-60 low altitude surveillance airship has flown at 10,000 feet altitude with a payload exceeding 500 pounds, thus satisfying all flight criteria required under existing contracts. The 10,000 ft. flight took place as Cyber Aerospace conducted contractor demonstration flights for the U.S. Navy at Captain Walter Francis Duke Regional Airport in Hollywood, St. Mary's County, MD.

William Assman was a balloon racer from St. Louis who attempted several times to win the John Gordon Bennett Trophy, a flying endurance competition to spur development of gas balloon technology, which was founded in 1906 by the sporty owner of the New York Herald.

Miss Sofia was one of Assman's earlier balloons, probably from 1910-11. In the 1910 International Balloon Race, Assman rode as aide on the German balloon Harburg II and sustained multiple injuries when it crashed into a Canadian lake. [That's how the race was run; the balloons would just go as far as they could, then land, and report their position. Farthest/last one flying won.]

He was flying the Miss Sofia in 1911, though.

But not in 1912, when the NY Times reported his balloon, the St Louis IV, was eliminated from the qualifying round with technical problems. By 1913, he was flying the Miss Sophia II [sic], which had a valve torn out by strong wind. Said the Times: "When he found he could not start, he took his pocketknife and cut his $1,800 balloon to pieces."

You'd think that even though he never won the Bennett Trophy, a daring balloonist named Assman would be more famous than he currently appears to be. [via andy]

July 21, 2009



If I'm a little high right now, it's just because these conservators just hit like every art button I have:

To photo-document Spiral Jetty, we used a tethered helium balloon about 8-10 feet in diameter, attached to a digital camera that would take an image every few seconds until the camera's memory card filled up. Each of us let out string from a spool and sent the balloon up anywhere from 50 to 600 meters, depending on what we were trying to capture and other factors such as wind and amount of helium to give lift. The results were absolutely amazing! Now I have a low tech, low cost way to take aerial images of the sculpture -- something I plan to do on an annual basis. These images can be paired with data that we collected using a Total Station survey instrument in order to create scaled 3D maps and diagrams of the Jetty and its materials.
Extending the Conservation Framework: A Site-Specific Conservation Discussion with Francesca Esmay [ via man]

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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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