‘Little Uglies’

I’ve had a research question simmering on the back burner for a while, trying to figure out what the history of modernism and contemporary art have been in Washington DC. Partly, it was the dearth of good modernist architecture that got me wondering, then a crash course in the history of contemporary art and official Washington generally, and the odd genesis of the Hirshhorn Museum specifically. Then there was some sporadic attempts at securing Washington’s place at the art world table [more on those later].
Then last spring, I attended a dinner in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Though they were originally built in an off-the-shelf, 1950s corporate modernist style that matched the building, in 1969, Walter Annenberg, Richard Nixon’s newly appointed ambassador to Great Britain, gutted the space and installed the current veneer of neo-colonial splendor. That gut job stood in nicely for the essentially anti-modernist hostility of the Washington Establishment. Little did I know.
In the the latest batch of White House documents released by the National Archives and the Nixon Library this week is an incredible 1970 memo from Nixon to his chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, outlining a direct, political assault on the NEA’s support of “the modern art and music kick,” which he he associated with “the Kennedy-Shriver crowd,” art whose supporters “are 95 percent against us anyway.”
The LA Times’ Christopher Knight has some great context and quotes, but the full document is well worth a read [pdf]. My favorite part is the postscript, which has Annenberg’s fingerprints all over it:

P.S. I also also want a check made with regard to the incredibly atrocious modern art that has been scattered around the embassies around the world…I know that [Kenneth] Keating has done some cleaning out of the Embassy in New Delhi, but I want to know what they are doing in some of the other places One of the worst, incidentally, was [career Foreign Service Officer Richard H.] Davis in Rumania.
We, of course, cannot tell the Ambassadors what kind of art they personally can have, but I found in travelling around the world that many of our Ambassadors were displaying the moder art due to the fact that they were compelled to because of some committee which once was headed up by Mrs. Kefauver and where they were loaned some of these little uglies from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At least, I want a quiet check made–not one that is going to hit the newspapers and stir up all the troops–but I simply want it understood that this Administration is going to turn away from the policy of forcing our embassies abroad or those who receive assistance from the United States at home to move in the direction of off-beat art, music, and literature.

The “little uglies” probably came from MoMA’s International Council, which, along with the DC-based Woodward Foundation, often arranged embassy art loans.
Until the creation of the committee Nixon referred to, that is. The Art in Embassies Program was started in 1964 by Nancy Kefauver, who was selected by John and Jackie Kennedy for the post. In a 1990 NY Times history of the AIEP, David Scott, who helped Kefauver get going, recalled that Washington was scorning modernism just fine before Nixon took over:

“It was at a time when we were still fighting the battle of whether modern art was seditious or evil or un-American…As a result of the McCarthy period, people were very suspicious about having any government agency deal with abstract art. If you didn’t like the art, maybe the person was a Communist.”

Digging around, I’m kind of intrigued by Michael Krenn’s 2005 book Fall-out shelters for the human spirit: American art and the Cold War, which looks at the US Government’s interactions with the private art world, primarily through the State Dept, the USIA, and the Smithsonian. From the preview:

What the government hoped to accomplish and what the art community had I mind, however, were often at odds. Intense domestic controversies resulted, particularly surrounding the promotion of modern or abstract expressionist art. Ultimately, the exhibition of American art overseas was one of the most controversial Cold War initiatives undertaken by the United States.

At $50, though, I might need a little more than a Google Book preview.
Meanwhile, poking around MoMA’s archive site to try and see what some of these ‘little uglies’ might have been, I found the 1966 exhibition, “Two Decades of American Painting 1945-1965,” organized by Waldo Rasmussen, which included 111 works by 35 postwar artists, including Gene Davis, Hans Hoffman and Jasper Johns.
It was a straight-up museum exhibit, not embassy art, but it did travel to India and Australia from Japan, and was accompanied by a film program, The Experimental Film in America, which sounds specifically designed to give Nixon an aneurysm.
And the Johns that was in the show? the a White Flag painting from 1955, which the artist held onto until 1998, when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum.

‘The Art Game In Washington’

Recently I’ve been researching the postwar history of contemporary art and architecture in Washington DC. This article sounds like it could have been written last week:

The Art Game in Washington
Amid a growing art boom, local artists feel they are being overshadowed by national museums, budget-conscious curators, overly commercial gallery owners and a public that all too willingly listens to critics.

by Bob Arnebeck, The Washington Post Magazine, Sept. 17, 1978.

Lookin’ For Love In All Wrong Places

Last night on very short notice, I went to “Running for Cover(age), A panel discussion on arts criticism in the DC area,” organized by the Washington Project for the Arts. Here are the impetus and content of the discussion in a nutshell:
The Rubells have a Morris Lapidus-designed hotel in SW DC that they’ve been working to turn from ghetto-sketchy-by-the-freeway to edgy-hip.
A few years back, they bought a Dan Steinhilber sculpture at the WPA benefit auction, and he became suddenly/locally famous.
This year, the WPA asked Mera Rubell to select artists for its auction.
Instead of guaranteeing a big auction haul and a little more glamour by importing art world hotness, she decided to find work by visiting DMV [DC, Virginia, Maryland, it always confuses me] artist studios en masse.
The WPA received 200 applications. For studio visits. To donate art to a benefit.
[Slightly less dramatic pause/update: Adam from WPA emailed to clarify that donor artists receive half the proceeds of the work sold at the benefit auction, so it’s not a straight-up, NY-style call for donations. Duly noted.]

Continue reading “Lookin’ For Love In All Wrong Places”

Delirious DC

At the 1931 Beaux Arts Ball, more than a dozen New York architects came dressed as their buildings: [l to r] A. Stewart Walker [Fuller Building], Leonard Schultze [Waldorf-Astoria], Ely Jaques Kahn [Squibb Building], William Van Alen [Chrysler Building, who clearly booked his own stylist], Ralph Walker [Irving Trust Company], and Joseph Freedlander [Museum of the City of New York].
Rem Koolhaas included the Ball in his 1978 history/”retroactive manifesto,” Delirious New York.
Which was hook enough for Lali Chetwynd, whose 2006 performance piece, “Delirious!” reimagined the Beaux Arts Ball as a skyscraper cocktail party. It was ably documented by Showstudio:
“Delirious!” was staged in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond, which comprised a giant, inflatable ovoid canopy atop a cylindrical amphitheater/event space.
Which, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the much-discussed, little-funded inflatable balloon space Diller Scofidio + Renfro have designed for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.
So now we have some idea what will go down in the Hirshhorn Balloon if and when it is realized: Liz Diller will appear at a $5,000-a-table benefit, dressed as her creation, and probably looking not a little like this:
but in light blue.
Or perhaps.
Soon after “Delirious!,” Chetwynd changed her first name to Spartacus. Tom Morton discussed the implications of this move in Frieze:

Chetwynd’s adopted moniker seems designed to make us stage a mock-heroic mini-drama in our minds, in which she persuades a band of artists to stop pitting themselves against each other and instead revolt against their masters. Push this fantasy a little further (and Chetwynd’s art is nothing if not about pushing idle thoughts as far they’ll go), and we might imagine the defeated rebels refusing, pace Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, to identify their chief, instead claiming one after the other ‘I’m Spartacus’, only to be symbolically crucified by a poor auction result or a less than complimentary review.
If this flight of fancy resembles the absurd, unexpectedly telling narratives and motifs that characterize Chetwynd’s work, then this is no mistake. In her practice the epic and the everyday speak through each other in accents of giggled hope.

Giggled hope seems to be an apt operating principle for the Hirshhorn’s Balloon of Cultural Democracy. Is it not now time for us balloon lovers, each of us, to put on our puffy down coats, cinch our hoods around our noses, and raise the defiant cry to all who dare challenge or pooh-pooh us, “I’m Liz Diller!” “I’m Liz Diller!” To the Mall!
[hoodie image via old chum’s flickr, thanks to the purely coincidentally titled blog, an ambitious project collapsing]

Time To Make The Doughnut

Sweet. The Hirshhorn Museum is floating the idea to turn its central plaza into a 4-story event space by filling it with a giant temporary balloon pavilion by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The $5 million pavilion would be put up to house “performing arts, film series and conferences to foster a wide-ranging public debate on cultural values.”
It’s a grand and awesome-looking architectural gesture that would dance around the bureaucratic hurdles any permanent structures on the Mall would face. The key to its success, obviously, is the programming.
The popularity of the Hirshhorn’s Afterhours DJ parties is proof of concept for courtyard events. But that sounds like barely the tip of the programming iceberg. Think of the Hans Ulrich Obrist-era Serpentine, which fills the temporary pavilion with concerts and and 24-hr lecture marathons–bring your sleeping bag! And of course, you can throw one helluva benefit dinner in that thing.
A lot of work to be done, but it’s nice to see the folks at the Hirshhorn are well-versed in the grand tradition of implausible balloon interventions on the National Mall. And with the even grander tradition of talking to the New York Times, not the local Washington Post, when you want to make cultural attention.
UPDATE: aha. Score another one for the bloggers. Here’s then-new Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek talking to Tyler Green in April [!] about his plans:

We really want to engage the arts in big themes not just in the galleries, but outside the museum, say in a tent-type structure on the National Mall. One of these events would be in the fall and one would be in the spring, in a kind of inflatable building. The structure would house 500-1000 people and we’d have programming that includes everyone, from trustees to directors to curators to artists. [Koshalek showed me drawings of what the tent might look like.] It’s about where the cultural institution needs to go in the future to be relevant.

In Washington, a Different Kind of Bubble [nyt via tropolism chad]

Before There Were Satelloons: Prof. Thaddeus SC Lowe And The Union Army Balloon Corps

Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was once one of the country’s most famous aeronauts. His grand plan to fly a balloon across the Atlantic was shelved by the outbreak of the Civil War. He preferred to be called Professor. On July 11, 1861, with the help of Prof. Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, Lowe demonstrated the aerial reconnaissance capabilities of his varnished silk, gas-filled balloon Enterprise by ascending 500 feet above the Columbia Armory [on the site of the National Mall where the National Air & Space Museum now stands] and transmitting the first aerial telegram to President Abraham Lincoln.
Like many first messages, Lowe’s telegram is mostly about itself:

This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.

Lowe persuaded Lincoln to appoint him Chief Aeronaut and to establish the Union Army Balloon Corps.
Lowe ordered seven balloons be fabricated in Philadelphia, while portable gas generators were built in Washington:

The generators were built at the Washington Navy Yard by master joiners who fashioned a contraption of copper plumbing and tanks which, when filled with sulfuric acid and iron filings, would yield hydrogen gas. The generators were Lowe’s own design and were considered a marvel of engineering. They were designed to be loaded into box crates that could easily fit on a standard buckboard. The generators took more time to build than the balloons and were not as readily available as the first balloon.

They sound fantastic, and I love the standardized buckboard-scale design. It’s at once obvious and totally subjective. Do any of these things survive?
Anyway, even more than the establishment of Balloon Camp, this is my favorite part of the Balloon Corps story, partly because I cross the Chain Bridge at least once a weekday when I’m in DC:

By October 1, 1861, the first balloon, the Union, was ready for action. Though it lacked a portable gas generator, it was called into immediate service. It was gassed up in Washington and towed overnight to Lewinsville via Chain Bridge. The fully covered and trellised bridge required that the towing handlers crawl over the bridge beams and stringers to cross the upper Potomac River into Fairfax County. The balloon and crew arrived by daylight, exhausted from the nine-hour overnight ordeal, when a gale-force wind took the balloon away. It was later recovered, but not before Lowe, who was humiliated by the incident, went on a tirade about the delays in providing proper equipment.

The Balloon Corps continued with somewhat more success until Lowe resigned in 1863. The top photos are credited to Matthew Brady and date to 1862. They are from the Smithsonian’s collection of awesome, unnecessarily watermarked public domain photos of military and scientific balloons. The bridge one is from wikipedia.
On This Spot [blog.nasm.si.edu]
Union Army Balloon Corps [wikipedia]

Curate The Controversy?

So now that the White House has returned Alma Thomas’s 1968 painting, Watusi (Hard Edge) to the Hirshhorn amid a flurry of interest in its making and in the artist herself, I assume the museum will quickly put it on public view. Probably with a bit of explanatory text about how and why the aged, arthritic Thomas appropriated her composition from The Snail, one of last works Matisse managed to create before he died.
Maybe they’d even put it alongside some Matisse paintings, which demonstrate the early modernists’ bold innovation of appropriating motifs and forms from African art.
Or maybe they could go all out and borrow The Snail from the Tate, so it could hang alongside Thomas’s painting, allowing a careful examination of what she saw, but also of what she changed.
I’ll be waiting by my inbox for that press release.

Oy. White House Sends Alma Thomas Painting Back To The Hirshhorn

I guess I can understand if the White House saw the rightwing faux-controversy over Alma Thomas’s Watusi (Hard Edge) as an unhelpful distraction, and it’s not like the country elected Obama to be curator-in-chief, but that doesn’t mean their people need to make shit up about it.
Randy Kennedy reported tonight on the NY Times’ ArtBeat blog that the painting has been returned to the Hirshhorn Museum. Watusi is well-known [at least as well-known as a painting by Alma Thomas, an African American woman in DC who only began painting abstraction and exhibiting her work after she retired from teaching, can be] as a deliberate appropriation and alteration of a late cutout painting/collage by Henri Matisse. Some critics of the Obamas ignored this history and strategy and decided the work was plagiarized and that Thomas was either a fraud or a hack.
I read the every comment on the original FreeRepublic.com thread about this controversy, and I wrote that the criticisms were grounded in longstanding conservative views on the primacy of craft and originality in the evaluation of art. In contemporary art terms, the critics of Thomas’s work rejected the pared down abstraction of both her and Matisse [without noticing or caring about the differences in technique: painting vs. collage], and they rejected the validity of appropriation as an artistic strategy [without noticing or caring about the significant differences Thomas introduced]. But it’s now obvious that this controversy is not about Alma Thomas or even about art; it’s about politics.
Which is the only explanation I can think of for why the White House misrepresented the painting’s fate:

Semonti Stephens, the deputy press secretary for Mrs. Obama, said that the painting had been intended to go in the first lady’s office and that the the decision not to put it there was made only because its dimensions did not work in the space in which it was to hang.
“This piece just didn’t fit right in the room,” Ms. Stephens said, adding that the first lady continues to admire the work of Alma Thomas and is happy to have one of her works in the White House. “There’s no other reason,” she said of the other painting. “It really has nothing to do with the work itself.”

As long as you equate “decision not to put it there” with “decision to take it down,” that statement is technically true. But the implication that the painting was not hanging in the First Lady’s office is completely false. It was, and it was there for quite some time. The office is small, and the painting is big, but it certainly seemed to fit fine until a bunch of wingnuts pitched a fit over it.
Off The Wall: White House Drops [i.e., Changes Mind] About Painting [nyt]
Previously: On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas

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. [mcgill.ca]
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.

On Wingnuts On Alma Thomas

I guess it doesn’t matter anymore that I don’t see why the White House’s art borrowing is news now, when almost the entire list was already published and discussed four months ago [and many weeks before that, too].
Because now some wingnut Know-Nothings have taken it upon themselves to accuse Alma Thomas of plagiarizing Henri Matisse, an act which reinforces their hard-held disdain for the Obamas and anyone and anything associated with them.
It’s a false and defamatory claim, and the real story of Thomas and Matisse is deeply fascinating and diametrically opposed to the spiteful, divisive worldview in which it originated. But it didn’t seem that useful to just say so.
So I went ahead and read all 200 or so comments on the Free Republic thread where the controversy was born to see if they figured out on their own that Thomas’s 1963 painting, Watusi (Hard Edge) [top] was originally created as a deliberate reworking of Matisse’s large 1953 cutout collage, l’Escargot [above], and that it had always been recognized and discussed as such by the people who followed Thomas’s work.
By around comment #120, they’d at least decided that it was “a study,” and that Thomas wasn’t a fraud, just a hack. So a small victory for fact buried under an inflammatory and inaccurate headline.
As a hopeless art elitist and documented Obama campaign donor, there’s obviously nothing I could ever say that would persuade a hater that the Obamas’ choices of art do not, in fact, catch them out as uppity, ignorant, race-hating, affirmative actionist, communist, stalinist, Nazi frauds or whatever.
Look under the hood, though, and the substance of the angry right’s criticism of Thomas–and, often enough, frankly, of Matisse–sounds very familiar: specifically, the perceived lack of skill involved in making “modern” art; and Thomas’s lack of originality, or more precisely, the rejection of appropriation as a valid artistic strategy.

Continue reading “On Wingnuts On Alma Thomas”

On Knuckleheads On Anne Truitt


I’ll have more to say about the incredible work of Anne Truitt in the Hirshhorn’s retrospective, thoughtfully curated by Kristen Hileman.

Whether on canvas, paper or sculpture-like wooden armatures, Truitt’s exhaustively spare paintings induce, by design, a lot of processing by the viewer. Those interpretations can range from the biographic–reading the works as minimalistic evocations of places, people, and memories from the artist’s life; to the flighty-poetic–riffs on whatever sublimity the colors have been up to lately in nature; to the maddening and/or inapt–pronouncements by critics and curators in positions of authority in the art world who you’d expect would know better. I’m starting with the latter.

Truitt was one of critic Clement Greenberg’s favorite Minimalists. Unfortunately for her career, that was a bit like being one of George Bush’s favorite Democrats. And also? There was this, from Greenberg’s 1968 profile of Truitt in Vogue, which Hileman quotes in her catalogue essay:

She certainly does not ‘belong.’ But then how could a housewife, with three small children, living in Washington belong? How could such a person fit the role of pioneer of far-out art?

Besides/because of Truitt’s DC isolation, her work was difficult to place in the art world’s discourse, which at the time was organized around where you drank: Cedar Bar or Max’s Kansas City. Since then, of course, a critical context has developed that can accommodate minimalist abstraction and color and emotion and metaphor and extraordinary process. Which made Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher’s demonstrably wrong characterization of Truitt’s art historical significance in his opening remarks at the museum’s panel discussion Thursday night all the more baffling.

Brougher described Truitt’s work as hugely influential at the time “for Minimalism, Color Field School, whatever you want to call it.” I guess it’ll all make sense when his definitive catalogue on the Whatever School is published.

And it’s shooting fish in a barrel, I know, but I’ll end with Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik’s flight of sexist goofiness. In one of her books, Truitt skewered Roberta Smith for a condescending, gender-based review of her work. I’d love to hear what the artist would have said about Gopnik, who framed his entire review around the idea that Truitt’s human-scaled sculptures are actually mannequins and that her project is somehow transgressive fashion:

This one here could be a matronly Martha Cunningham, clad in forest green but with a stripe of scarlet at her hem to show she’s still got spunk. There are the Updike girls, modish in tight-fitting lime and pumpkin and pink. And there’s that absurd Mrs. Snyder: She’s paired a perfectly nice linen suit with shoes in red and black patent leather.

Truitt’s best sculptures, even at their most soberly geometrical, tend to “girlish” pastels or fashion brights — or worse, she mixes the two.
The analogy to fashion seems right. It feels as though Truitt has realized that the so-called “rules” of art are more like fashion etiquette than laws of nature. You imagine that it’s simply not possible, dahhling, to wear blue with green — until the year that some new designer has everybody doing it. If you have the courage to get there first, you’ll either make a fool of yourself or be recognized as fashion forward. The truly bold don’t care which happens. That’s Truitt.

Hahahaha, NO. It is not.

While using show-offy obversion to argue Truitt’s significance, Gopnik manages to get Minimalism, Judd, Morris and Truitt wrong, all in one paragraph:

And yet, by the terms of the minimalist movement, Truitt once again turns out to have gotten things wrong. “Real” minimalism was supposed to be absolutely legible and “whole,” so you could know a sculpture’s essence almost at one glance. At the very least, you were supposed to get a clear “gestalt” of any minimalist sculpture just by walking all around it. Truitt’s sculptures often mess that up, by striping each side of an upright in very different colors.

Judd was interested in the integrity of the object’s shape itself, it had nothing to do with the viewer; he could not have cared less. Gestalt, meanwhile, was Robert Morris’s concept for shape, whose “wholeness” could only [not “just”] be understood by the viewer experiencing it from all sides.

For Morris, the issue with color wasn’t just uniformity; color was “optical” and “unstable,” “inconsistent with the physical nature of sculpture.” It thwarted Gestalt [*cough, Judd’s anodized metal and tinted plexi *cough*]. But for Truitt, color was the Gestalt. She didn’t get Minimalism wrong; she proved it wrong.

My own admiration for Truitt’s work arose from her prescient infusion of content into abstracted, minimalist form; I thrilled to discover in her an antecedent to the contemporary artists I came up liking: Gober, Gonzalez-Torres, Horn, Hodges. But the longer I stay with it, and the more I see, the more it feels like a subtle deployment of memory to explore perception and experience. It makes me want to see Truitts alongside works by Ad Reinhardt, James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, or–moving off the color reservation–even something like Cardiff/Bures-Miller’s Forty-Part Motet. Hmm. That’s more than I thought I’d have to say.

On The Public-Sculpture Gravy Train

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]

Public Art On The Mall: Centerbeam & Icarus

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.

District Of Colombia??

W. T. F.???
The National Mall is ringed with Smithsonian museums, none of which seem to have programmed a piece of public art or sculpture outside their own walls in at least a generation.
Washington DC has no public art program to speak of. And that’s not just because you can’t call those insane “parades” of paint-a-pandas and paint-a-donkey/elephant “art”; they’re tourist marketing, pure and simple.
And yet. Another such parade seems to have miraculously materialized on the District of Columbia’s streets. A parade of hearts. There was one in front of my family’s hotel when we picked them up to do the tourist circuit. There were three along our walks to the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.
Each is painted with quotes and factoids about Colombia, the country. They turn out to be part of Colombia es Pasion, an official [Colombian] government branding campaign designed, according to a regurgitated press release in the Examiner, “to educate and show the world the true Colombia.” In addition to the three we saw, there are 37 other giant fiberglass hearts which “appear along city streets in high-traffic areas. They will be hard to miss, standing eight feet tall, featuring colorful, hand-painted designs that showcase a particular aspect of Colombia that may surprise visitors.”
Visitors and locals both. Who the hell gave this thing the green light? The campaign was created for the Colombian government by BBDO Sancho, the Colombian subsidiary of the global ad agency, and was designed by another Bogota agency called Sistole. But there is absolutely no one–no agency or overseeing organization or authority from Washington DC or the US mentioned in the press release/article.
I can think of approximately one thousand art projects that would be better to see on the streets and plazas of Our Nation’s Capital before a bunch of South American heart-shaped billboards.
So the only way I can make sense of their presence is that Washington DC is now an open, international platform for sculpture, art, whatever! The way Houston has no zoning laws, and you can build whatever the hell you want next to whatever the hell is already there, Washington’s many complex, overlapping bureaucracies have thrown out the rulebook and thrown open the streets for whatever cockamamie scheme you’ve been cooking up. Bring’em down and set’em up!
An invitation to Discover Colombia Through Its Heart [examiner.com]
Colombia llegó a Estados Unidos/ Colombia came to the US [and just dumped their marketing bullshit on our street corners] [colombiaespasion.com, google translate]

Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time

As Antoni helpfully pointed out in an email, Canadian artist Brian Jungen has created a work wherein he carves a design into the gallery wall with a router, which leaves a bevel-edged channel which, as one viewer in Vancouver described it, “revealed all the coloured layers of paint like layers of sediment.”

Sounds awesome, and awfully similar to Huyghe’s and ___?__’s pieces. And Jungen’s one-man show did travel to the New Museum’s temporary Chelsea location in 2005. [Which is kind of problematic: did the New Museum’s 22nd Street space walls even have hundreds of coats of exhibition-related repainting to expose and contemplate? And so what happens to this work without the supposed burden of Art History lurking right behind that fresh coat of paint? Please tell me there’s more to a piece like this than expedient aesthetic pleasure.]

And anyway, I didn’t see Jungen’s show. Which is really too bad, because this piece sounds kind of sweet. Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time, 2001:

consists of a handcrafted cedar pallet that is surmounted by neatly stacked cafeteria trays in several colors. While the form can be understood in terms of the classic minimalist cube, it is also a facsimile of an escape pod that was fashioned by an inmate at one of Canada’s largest prisons. Knowing that the cafeteria trays were delivered by truck to another facility for cleaning, the prisoner had built up and glued together many cafeteria trays, leaving a void at the center in which he could hide while the trays were being transported. In this sculpture the void is taken up with a television playing daytime programming and soap operas.

Hmm, not getting the TV aspect, but still. It’s got some nice Tony Feher-meets-Swiss Baroque-period Judd-meets-early Michael Phelan vibe going on. Also, and obviously, the title just backed into me in the lunch line.