International Jarman Blue

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I am so stoked to see Derek Jarman’s Blue in the 2nd floor galleries at MoMA. It is truly one of the most formative film experiences I’ve ever had, and it changed the way I thought of both movies and monochromes. And it captured and collapsed art and film and a moment of outrageous, despairing history, when the personal and cultural toll from HIV/AIDS seemed almost beyond hope. Which is a lot for any film to carry, much less one as unusual as Blue.
The last year and a half or so, whenever the radio gets too cloying or annoying, I’ve taken to listening to the soundtrack for Blue sometimes in the car. It’s weird that an angry elegy against indifference, AIDS, and death would be so pleasant. Maybe emotionally satisfying is a better term. But I can easily recall the first times I saw Blue, at the NYFF in October 1993, and then at the New Yorker Cinema during its release.
But enough about me, because there are important things that I still didn’t realize about Blue precisely because my own intense personal encounter with the film blinded me [sic] to them.
Like I knew that Jarman had chosen Blue‘s blue for its reference to Yves Klein, but I did not realize that Jarman had been contemplating a monochrome IKB film for Klein as early as 1974, as sort of a cinematic answer to the painter’s Symphonie Monotone. Blue went through many titles and Klein-centered iterations before becoming what it finally was: a poetic documentary of Jarman’s own life and illness. [A lot of this stuff comes from Rowland Wymer’s 2006 Derek Jarman biography, which is a good read, even if “colour field” doesn’t mean what Wymer thinks it means.]
It very much became a film about Jarman’s losing his sight, and the effective end of his career, even though that’s not at all what it had been before. Because before also meant before all that went down. Blue‘s unchanging monochrome field was able to accommodate whatever content changes Jarman brought to it.
jarman_bliss_book_chelsea_space.jpgWhen Blue was still called Bliss, back in 1987, and was a Klein-related companion film to The Last of England, Jarman filled a notebook with dialogue, poems, and IKB monochrome paintings. The Bliss Book and other Blue-related preparatory and archival material will be in “Almost Bliss,” an exhibition next month at Chelsea Space, London, England.
Blue really took its finished form beginning in 1991, not as a film, but as a performance/event. Jarman and Tilda Swinton first performed Bliss at a charity fundraiser for his hospital, sandwiched between a performance of Klein’s Symphonie Monotone and a screening of The Garden. [Which must’ve been quite a night: the Klein’s supposed to be 40 minutes, and The Garden‘s an hour and a half.]
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A still of Klein’s IKB 71 (Californie), 1961, which, I have no idea what his film loop looked like, but this one seemed appropriately cinematic. It’s in a private collection, but was at the Met a few years ago.
At first Jarman used a film loop of a Klein monochrome. When the film jammed, Jarman switched to a blue gel. I don’t quite know why, but I find this easy passing between media and image to be fascinating. Bliss‘s blue began as a film of an object, but then the object disappeared, replaced by a light effect. Later, when Blue was complete, and aired simultaneously on Channel 4 and BBC radio, listeners were invited to send for a monochrome blue card they could stare at during the broadcast. A broadcast image replaced by an object.
The project evolved and funding came through in 1992, and Jarman’s own stories became the central theme. All along I figured that Jarman maybe didn’t film anything, that the blue was a chemical aspect of the film print itself. But Wymer’s book says the blue was “electronically produced.” I confess, I find this something of a letdown, even if it means MoMA’s probably OK to show Blue on digital projection rather than film. And it makes me want to do something around or to Blue and its visuals. I don’t know what yet.
#53 Almost Bliss: Notes on Derek Jarman’s Blue, curated by Donald Smith, 29.01.14 – 15.03.14, Chelsea Space [chelseaspace.org]
buy Derek Jarman (2006) by Rowland Wymer [amazon]
JUNE 2014 UPDATE In Issue 165 of Frieze (May 2014), Paul Schütze talked with Simon Fisher Turner about his longtime musical collaborations with Jarman, including the making of Blue.
Turner says they probably did six or seven live concerts of Bliss/Blue before the film. I wonder if any of them were recorded? Also this bombshell:

Derek and I had really big arguments about Blue, because at one stage people wanted to put images into it and I said, ‘You’re mad!’ By then my relationship with Derek was really good. I’d say, ‘Listen, this is really what I think.’ Then he suggested that it would be great to have some gold drifting down amidst the blueness, because he loved gold, or the occasional shadow of movement. I objected and said, ‘Please NO! It has to be pure.’

Yikes.

On Untitled (Beauty Love)

There is beauty in this painting. But the beauty is not what makes you love it.
It’s the emotion of what it says, in very simple means about life. And where we all go.
I don’t know why I get chills from Tobias Meyer’s little promo video for Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), but here we are.
I matched the audio to Michelle V. Agin’s photo from the Times this morning.

And then after reading Ian Bogost’s McRib essay again, I realized it was the most persuasive explanation I’ve seen of Auction Week. So

untitled (where we all go)

Sturtevant on ‘The Entangled Challenge of Replication’

It’s almost four years now since I read this paper by Sturtevant–the first extended thing I’d actually read by her, not about her–when Tate Papers came online, and it’s been rocking my world ever since. She’d prepared it in October 2007 for a symposium titled, Inherent Vice: The Replica and its Implications in Modern Sculpture Workshop.
Her crisp, verse-like text talks about replicas, copies, repeats, remakes, and re-dos, and where our “cyber” age has brought them. Here’s a favorite part:

This trap, our obsession
of what lies on the surface,
is prevalent everywhere.
It is not a question of getting
rid of these potent elements as
not knowing it could be there.
Its blatant absence is in high gear
in most of our current art whose
push and shove is production
as meaning and consumption
as use.
Or burden by heavy subjectivity
or
hiding behind anonymity,
or
displaying our vast barren interior
by retreating to regressive teeny-bopper imagery.
The interior of art, the understructure,
is being concisely and brutally eliminated.

Ironically [because the next section of the talk is a criticism of listening instead of seeing], I’ve recently begun running art papers through my laptop’s text-to-speech, turning them into artist talks, which I listen to while I work. For whatever reason, Sturtevant’s text yields one of the robot’s best [re-]performances.
So I just recorded a reading by Alex, the most naturalistic of OSX’s default voices, which you can play here. It’s about 7min. [mp3]
Or re-do it yourself with your favorite voice: Inherent Vice or Vice Versa | Sturtevant, from Tate Papers Issue 8 [tate.org.uk/research]

The Xerox Book, Infinite Loop

I have restaged one of Seth Siegelaub’s most influential shows, the 1968 The Xerox Book, as a series of animated GIFs [my 1st through 6th animated gifs, btw]. If only Seth could’ve been on infinite loop, too.
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Frontispiece of The Xerox Book, 1968, organized by Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler
Primary Information has made an incredible collection of publications from Seth Siegelaub’s archive available online. That’s where The Xerox Book images came from. [pdf]

Continue reading “The Xerox Book, Infinite Loop”

Gerrit Rietveld Chair Crate

Not sure how I never considered this, but I suddenly came across a couple of strong connections between Enzo Mari’s autoprogettazione furniture and Gerrit Rietveld.
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For one, check out the crate that this 1965 version of Rietveld’s Red Blue chair came in; this one’s from Galerie VIVID in Rotterdam. I’ve never seen this before. Maybe that’s just how they used to make crates in the 60s. But it sure looks like the underside of my Enzo Mari X IKEA table, the EFFE model.
Ikea x Enzo Mari Mashup Table
It looks even more like the structure of the Tavolo Quadrato, the square autoprogettazione table.
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Then there’s Rietveld’s 1923 Military Table, designed for the Catholic Military Home in Utrecht, and in and out of production ever since. This unfinished Oregon pine example’s from the 60s, and was in Marseille, via 1stdibs. [I have never paid much attention to Rietveld’s Military Table, but suddenly it is looking pretty sweet.
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The top is fixed onto these cross braces. It’s a solution that Mari eventually used as well. The crosspieces are not in the original autoprogettazione plans, but they did turn up in the kit of precut parts that were sold under the Metamobile name in the early 70s.
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Even though Rietveld’s autonomous approach to furniture is an obvious precedent for Mari’s; and I knew from hands-on experience that the autoprogettazione designs have a lot more “design” than their basic function requires; I guess I never imagined that Mari would make overt references to what had come before.
Previously:
The making of an Enzo Mari dining table
Enzo Mari X IKEA Mashup Recap

Larry Rivers Lamp, Olafur Eliasson Extension Cord

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So I’ve decided to make me a lamp like this Larry Rivers lamp Frank O’Hara had in his loft in the mid-60s.
Which means I’ve been trying to map out the number and types of sockets and adapters up there. And I’ve begun poking around for parts. At first, I was going to rework a vintage, industrial-style floor lamp, but those aren’t turning up with anything like the frequency I need. And the current crop of adaptable floor lamps are actually pretty unappealing, too. Really, they just make no sense here.
So to stay closer to Rivers’ approach, I think I’ll just build up a lamp from galvanized steel pipe. [I saw Colin Powell puttering around the hardware store yesterday, btw, the hardware store that had no such plumbing parts at all, just PVC, which, no thanks.]
Rather than a fuse-blowing heater made with 14 incandescent bulbs, I figure I’ll make a little constellation of incandescents, CFCs, and LEDs, in a range of whites. And as for the wiring and cord, well. I am really jonesing over this:
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It’s an extension cable, from Olafur Eliasson Studio, released in 2004 as a limited edition with the title, 10 Meter Cable For All Colours. Which, I know, is just nuts. But still. There have been more than a few works like this from Olafur, where very modest functional objects are produced for internal use, which are recouped or spun off as an edition. It is a model that works for him, and the demand is there, so.
Technically, though, for this project, it’s not what I need. And I wouldn’t cut up an Olafur cable to rework it into my thing anyway. I just mention it here because the world is an amazing place.
Previously: Frank O’Hara’s and Alfred Leslie’s Larry Rivers’ Lamp
Previously and amazing and related: Lindsey Adelman’s autoprogettazione-style, You Make It chandelier

Driving Taxis Through Heavy Neighborhoods To Look At The Paintings

Via the Hirshhorn via Art21 comes a nice two-way interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, originally published in BOMB Magazine in 1982, that ends:

RP I’m misinformed about style. I always thought it had to do with being able to wear the same kind of a jacket for ten years. I don’t know. What I wonder is . . . is it possible to have style and be unreasonable at the same time?
BK I think unreasonableness can mean any number of possible locations nearer or further away from the idea of reason. Because many of these positions are already coded, their shock value is tempered by style. A lot of times the idea of transgression really turns on a romantic conception of otherness; of a rebellion already tolerated. You know, the charming rogue, the picaresque cuteness of the bull in the china shop and in the art world, badness invades the atelier. Driving limos through heavy neighborhoods to look at the graffiti. Unstylish unreasonableness may be limited to the categories of the insane and the unpleasant (the poor, the unbeautiful, the unempowered). The non-romanticism of these kinds of otherness makes them unsightly and “vulgar” considerations for the polite company of international bohemia.

This image of limos driving “through heavy neighborhoods to look at the graffiti” is great in itself, but it also reminded me of an anecdote from, of all people, Jasper Johns.
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Jasper Johns, Harlem Light, 1967, image “taken. It’s not mine.”
It’s about the genesis of a motif that first appears in a 1967 painting, Harlem Light [above]. Here’s the version from Michael Crichton’s 1977 catalogue for Johns’ Whitney retrospective, which is still the most engrossing Johns book I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot:

Johns was taking a taxi to the airport, traveling through Harlem, when he passed a small store which had a wall painted to resemble flagstones. He decided it would appear in his next painting. Some weeks later when he began the painting, he asked David Whitney to find the flagstone wall, and photograph it. Whitney returned to say he could not find the wall anywhere. Johns himself then looked for the wall, driving back and forth across Harlem, searching for what he had briefly seen. He never found it, and finally had to conclude that it had been painted over or demolished. Thus he was obliged to re-create the flagstone wall from memory. This distressed him. “What I had hoped to do was an exact copy of the wall. It was red, black, and gray, but I’m sure that it didn’t look like what I did. But I did my best.”
Explaining further, he said: “Whatever I do seems artificial and false, to me. They–whoever painted the wall–had an idea; I doubt that whatever they did had to conform to anything except their own pleasure. I wanted to use that design. The trouble is that when you start to work, you can’t eliminate your own sophistication. If I could have traced it, I would have felt secure that I had it right. Because what’s interesting to e is the fact that it isn’t designed, but taken. It’s not mine.”

Crichton goes on to discuss the “small differences” that go unnoticed, and which are lost in creating from scratch. And of flagstones, like flags, an ideal Johnsian image,” which are found and known and abstract and concrete. Seriously, I could just keep quoting from that book all day.
But instead, I’m going to try to make sense of Kruger’s next sentence, “Unstylish unreasonableness may be limited to the categories of the insane and the unpleasant (the poor, the unbeautiful, the unempowered).”

Destroyed Agnes Martin Paintings

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Untitled, 2004, Agnes Martin’s last painting. Image via Phaidon

The visits that maybe stick in the mind are the ones where she would show me four versions of a single painting and she’d say to me. ‘I think this is the best one, what do you think?’ Invariably there was so little difference between them, it was so hard to say, they were all really beautiful. And then she’d say OK we’re gonna keep that one and we’re going to cut up the others. And I would help with a knife slice up the paintings. Those are the studio visits that I think are the sharpest, helping her destroy the work.

What goes through your mind the first time you hear something like that?

It’s her work, and I’m a co-worker in the art field. . . but yeah. It is brutal. I was there at the end of her life and she said ‘go down to the studio, there are three paintings. Hanging on the wall is the one I want to keep, I want you to destroy the other two.’ So I went down to the studio. The two paintings she wanted me to destroy were magnificent – absolutely perfect. The one on the wall was a very stormy painting, unlike anything that she had made since the 60s. I certainly didn’t want to destroy those two spectacular paintings but I did. I sliced them to ribbons and put them in the trash. When I came back. She said, ‘did you do it?’ I said, ‘I did it.’ And that was that. Our last conversation.

Arne Glimcher, in a Q&A published last month by Phaidon.
The Q&A is timed to the publication of Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Arne Glimcher, an extraordinary collection of Martin’s writings and correspondence, many works, and Glimcher’s own snapshots and notes. He would take extensive notes during his studio visits with Martin in New Mexico, and then transcribe them on the plane home.
He expands on Martin’s last request to destroy some of her work in March 2004:

A mystique exists that Agnes painted very few works but in actuality, she painted almost daily when inspired and that was with some frequency. However, only a relatively small amount of works exist from such a long and productive life because she destroyed most of the works she produced. Probably no artist has ever been a better editor than Agnes Martin. The rejected paintings were shredded with a mat knife. As she grew older, during the last few years, she enlisted the help of friends (myself included) to destroy the unacceptable works, as it was very hard to cut through the thick primed linen fabric. When I once asked her why she was destroying a particularly delicate and beautiful work, she said, ‘It’s too aggressive, and there’s a mistake.’ Most often that referred to a pooling of colour in one of the works that made the brushstrokes discontinuous. The mistake became an unwanted ‘focus’ in a non-compositional painting, which disturbed its serenity.
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Trumpet, 1967, an earlier last painting by Agnes Martin, image via zwirnerandwirth
I drove to the studio where I found three grey paintings, all of which were beautiful. Using her mat knife, I reluctantly shredded two and spared the one that hung on the wall. It was unique, expressionistically painted with stormy grey asymmetrical brushstrokes covering the surface. Five thin pencil lines visually grounded the passionate wash to the canvas. There is only one other painting with such an expressionistic asymmetrical handling of brush work. It is called Trumpet and was painted in 1967, just before she took her long hiatus and first departure from painting. On first glance, in this last painting, Agnes appears to have taken a new direction. Comparing Untitled (2004) with Trumpet, it is clear that it was not so much a change in style as it was coming full circle home.

[2016 UPDATE: In 2013 Glimcher spoke with Tate Modern curator Frances Morris about his memoir, and the last audience question was about what the last two destroyed paintings looked like:

The two that I had to destroy were very dissimilar from the one that was left, which you saw the picture of. They were much more rigorous; they were less emotional paintings. They looked more like the 70s than they did the 90s, or the late work. They seemed to be a little bit out of context, but perfect paintings, really exquisite paintings. So I took the box cutter and sliced them to ribbons.

]
In reviewing “Five Decades,” a 10-painting Zwirner & Wirth survey in 2003, Holland Cotter called the artist’s practice, “a kind of yoga of painting.” I’m still trying to think it through, and understand why she destroyed so much of her work–or her paintings, really, and maybe that’s the difference–but perhaps it involves a kind of yoga of looking as well.
Buy Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Arne Glimcher via Amazon [amazon]
Ten questions for Pace Gallery’s Arne Glimcher [phaidon via yhbhs]

Willem de Kooning Meant To Not Do That

In the 4th part of his video walkthrough of MoMA’s Willem de Kooning retrospective, James Kalm has an extended clip of curator John Elderfield talking with Glenn Lowry about how the artist’s late paintings relate to his earlier work.

Elderfield stays pretty broad, arguing that the works are valid and important, and that Gary Garrels’ and Rob Storr’s earlier MoMA show ably made their case. Which all sounds good to me. [While noting that “the topologies of the paintings are very reminiscent of earlier pictures,” Elderfield apparently felt that a press preview was not the right context for expanding on de Kooning’s practice of tracing details of earlier paintings which his assistants had projected onto primed canvases.]
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What struck me now, though, was his discussion of how the marks in de Kooning’s 80s paintings were the result of his elimination of subjectivity. Elderfield told how de Kooning “fell into a sort of trough” after seeing a hugely successful show in 1978 of his large, gestural abstractions made in 1975-7, which were in the preceding gallery. “There could have been three times that number in the exhibition,” Elderfield said,” with no drop in quality or achievement…de Kooning had said he ‘felt he could do no wrong,’ which for him, was the point at which he had to stop doing them.”
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It’s an interesting idea, and it reminds me of how much I loved those 70s paintings, and losing myself in those big, sinuously virtuosic brushstrokes. It’s really too bad Kalm’s woozy, wandering camera eye is one of the few ways left to take in that gallery.
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Still from Corinna Belz’ Gerhard Richter Painting
It also reminds me how much those de Koonings reminded me of the early states of Richter’s squeegee paintings. This concept of Richter painting and then overpainting as a transformative, not destructive, technique was what first got me looking at Richter’s destroyed paintings. [That, and Erased de Kooning Drawing, of course.]
Now it strikes me how the two painters share the urge to resist habit and ease. Richter picked up the squeegee in part to counter intentionality and the mastered brushstroke. If de Kooning was resisting the same thing when he changed up his approach after 1980, maybe there’s something to be discovered by seeing these two painters’ works together.

Art Car Parts

We can’t really control when an idea will come to us, or when it might subsequently feel significant, more than a fleeting whim. But we can decide when we make it known. And when we should maybe just shut the hell up about it for a while because seriously, people.
So one day, while driving and explaining to the kid the difference between a car logo and a hood ornament, and how sometimes, people put their own hood ornaments on their cars, usually Jeep Wagoneers, it hit me: artist-designed hood ornaments.
I mean, why should the vinyl wrap industry have all the art car fun?
They’d be awesome little sculptures, made in limited editions. Maybe they could be chromed steel, but they could just as easily be something else: acrylic. Resin. Cast glass. Wood, I suppose. They could be made or readymade. There must be some kind of universal [or relatively so] base attachment mechanism.
Oh, what an interesting context for artists to engage.
And that was that. Until the next day, when the new Artforum arrived. And there on page 52 was Alison Gingeras’ remembrance of visits with the late Franz West who, despite not driving himself, “had a crazy obsession with luxury cars.”
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[See more images at basis-wien.at.]
She told of a November 2001 museum performance in Vienna, Aktion PAR BLEU (Le Limousine Bleu), where West used a watering can to pour candy pink housepaint on a maroon Maserati Quattroporte.
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And how West was thrilled about having traded a work for a vintage Rolls Royce:

By the time I got to see his prized chariot, it wasn’t just a Rolls–it had been Westified. He swapped out the Spirit of Ecstasy…for one of his suggestive sculptures rendered in miniature. The view out the front windshield was now accented by a brownish abstract squiggle, which resembled a cross between poop and a penis. In fact, he made a few of these hood ornaments and stored them in the glove box: different colors and forms that he switched out on the daily ride to his Esteplatz studio, depending on his mood.

Which gets at the reality of how people often treat their cars as extensions of themselves, projections of their identity; or conversely, how cars are perceived–and created and marketed–as public embodiments of their occupants’ identity. West’s little artworks went into the world just ahead of him, altering his interactions with it.
With Gingeras’ story as the greatest proof of concept ever–no other mentions of West’s hood ornaments turned up online–I resolved to blog it up pronto. And then Hurricane Sandy started closing in.
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image: Casey Neistat’s instagram
And small blessings, I didn’t get around to mentioning it during the uneasy joking-in-advance period. And it was forgotten completely, and it wasn’t until just now, as I re-read Gingeras’ focus on luxury cars, that I even made a connection to the emotional peculiarities of seeing tree-crushed Range Rovers or submerged Bentleys in Sandy’s photostream. I’m not sure why that is.
Anyway, hood ornaments by artists.

Merkel Jacket Matching System

The “The Girls Of Berlusconi” collection makes it rather NSFW, but The Spectacle of The Tragedy, Dutch designer Noortje van Eekelen‘s “visual database of the European Show and its Leading Actors is pretty amazing.
Don’t you worry none about that link above, though, because it overlays this epic Pantone Matching System-style spectrum of Angela Merkel blazers over everything, no problem.
merkel_jacket_spectacle1.jpg
It’s almost enough to make me want to make a 100-piece monochrome painting set, with the color for each piece derived from each of van Eekelen’s appropriated news photos. Or maybe it’s enough to eliminate doubling, and just do each discernible color.
Or maybe it’s a screenprint portfolio, a politicized, EU-trainwreck-inspired riff on the inspiring Kayrock Color System, which I nabbed from the NY Artist Book Fair a couple of weeks ago. A beautiful work.
The Spectacle of The Tragedy [thespectacleofthetragedy.eu via guardian, thanks peteykins]
Noortje Van Eekelen portfolio site [noortjevaneekelen.nl]
Kayrock Screenprinting [kayrockscreenprinting]

John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2, On Stage Now At The Ruhr Triennial

I’m done waiting. This Europera 1 & 2 post is apparently not going to write itself.
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The Ruhr Triennial opened last weekend with what is only the third [production and fourth -ed.] staging of John Cage’s grandest* composition, the 1987 Europeras 1 & 2. It’s basically a chance operations tour de force that runs the entirety of the European opera canon–arias, stories, costumes, props, sets, lighting, libretti, staging, orchestra–through the I Ching wringer, which performance is conducted, so to speak, by the cues of a 2.75-hour clock. As Cage put it, “For 200 years the Europeans have sent us their operas. Now I’m returning all of them.”
All six performances in the Triennial’s home venue, the vast, repurposed industrial Centennial Hall Bochum sold out immediately. So far three have happened, directed by the director of the entire Triennial, avant-garde composer Heiner Goebbels.
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So I’ve been monitoring the reviews jealously, and with some indignance. The scale and ambition and significance of the work is being respected–the work has only ever been performed in Germany–but it seems that both critics and directors alike still struggle with the vocabulary and the very concept of Cage’s chance-driven work.
In the only English-language review I’ve found so far, The Financial Times’ Shirley Apthorp describes Europeras’ “extravagant evening of associative nonsense” as both “chaos” and “minutely choreographed absurdity.” Writing for FAZ Eleonore Buening criticized Goebbels for putting the “chaos Cage conceived a quarter century ago back in a Museumsvitrine.” If I read my German correctly, “The director placed too little confidence,” Buening writes, “in the expiration of the clock, the will of the participants, or even Comrade Chance.” And did Cage ever have a better comrade?
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I have never seen Europera 1 & 2, but I’ve been studying up on them for the last year or so. The original staging, commissioned in 1985 by the Frankfurt Opera, was the dissertation subject of Laura Kuhn, who was involved in the production, and who has since become the director of the John Cage Trust.
Europera 1 & 2 strikes me as a simultaneous negation and celebration of opera as an art/theatrical form, but also as a cultural and historical institution. His chance-based composition removes narrative, character arcs, literary and stage conventions, and authorial intentions from the experience of a performance. Chance is not chaos or absurdity; it’s a different syntax. How does any opera performance seem if you don’t know the story or speak the language? Would you ever call it chaos or nonsense?
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An opera diehard may want to identify the source of every passing prop, aria, or orchestral passage in Europera–did the Stump The Operahead trivia quiz during the intermission of the Met’s weekly radio broadcast ever tackle Cage? Just like a moviehound might try to flag the source of every clip in Christian Marclay’s The Clock. But that risks missing Cage’s point [which is not Marclay’s]: that the experience of the montage has quality and meaning and value in itself, apart from the original content and its juxtapositions, not because of them.
And maybe critics actually are better attuned to this now, and the problem [sic] is just/still the directors. In FAZ, discussing the “Children’s Jury” who Goebbels convened to award unconventional prizes during the Triennial, Buening found a new twist on the classic MTV Crisis when she worried that the media-saturated, “Multi-tasken” Kids These Days might be bored by Cage’s 1980s jump cut revolution. After watching a rehearsal of Europera Ruhr Nachtrichten writer Julia Gass said Cage foreshadowed the “TV Zapp Era”; actually, he was soaking in it. Cage’s vision of the future was surfing the 400-operatic channels of the past.
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Europera may be Cage’s most ambitious and explicit appropriationist work. According to Kuhn’s firsthand account of the making of, Cage, relying on the collection of Lincoln Center’s library, determined to include only operas that were in the public domain. For the flats and sets, he had researchers in Germany compile engravings and illustrations of composers, architecture, and animals from pre-20th century books. With these copyright-free source sets established, Cage used chance operations and a time log to generate the content of the opera.
And this, apparently, is where Goebbels’ otherwise extraordinary production falls short. I’ll try to account for the differences–or more precisely, the changes–between Goebbels’ version and Cage’s, the immediately apparent one is his replacement of simple, graphic flats with actual operatic sets. Buening sees this as too deterministic, too willfully absurdist [in the mold of Robert Wilson, who, inexplicably, is the Triennial’s English talking head for Europera], and stuck to the cliches and oneliners of operatic theatricality. And too much of the director’s own indulgences, which runs diametrically counter to Cage’s purging intentions.
It’s a perennial problem with Cage’s interpreters, who take the indeterminacy of his compositions as license to do whatever they want. Not coincidentally, that sounds like exactly the criticism voiced in OMM by Sebastian Hanusa over the previous production of Europeras 1 & 2 at the Hannover State Opera. [It opened in October 2001, and I confess, I was not paying much attention to German opera gossip at the time.] According to Hanusa, Lowery kept the aria singers offstage, and instead of the chance-derived staging, he created various storytelling set pieces. It sounds almost as bad as Cage’s sabotaged NY Phil debut in 1964.
But it’s better than nothing? I don’t know. Is it the kind of thing you can watch on DVD? Will Europeras ever be staged in the US? [YES, SEE BELOW.] Frankly, we may still not be ready for it. Or maybe we’ve superseded it; with the right code and a few browser tabs on YouTube, we can generate our own Europera anytime we want. Man Bartlett’s #12hPoint, I’m looking at you.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: Thanks to DJW for correcting me; Europeras 1 & 2 was staged in the US. Christopher Hunt brought the original Frankfurt production to Summerfare at SUNY Purchase in 1988. According to John Rockwell’s bemused NY Times’ review, the New York version, which took place on a grander stage, was actually closer to Cage’s original vision, which the Frankfurt Opera had to rework after its main theater was damaged by arson just before the Europeras‘ premiere. Anyway, more to come on that.
* OK, the 639-year-long organ performance of As Slow As Possible, also from 1987, at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt is also pretty grand. But I’d argue its grandeur is more the performance, not necessarily the composition.

On James Lee Byars On The Modern’s Fire Escape

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Monument to Cleopatra, 1988, currently on view at Michael Werner
I’ve been thinking a lot about James Lee Byars lately, for a whole variety of reasons. He’s been problematic for me. I’ve always felt suspicious that his sculptures, all gold leaf and marble and monumentally deluxe, are not just decorative art, but decorator art [most excellent people, but you know what I mean.] And his camp and vanity, with all the lame´, read to me like the Zen Dali artist’s version of the court jesterish, affectations decorators use to peddle their marked up wares. All of which makes the relentless pursuit of Perfection, Truth & Beauty seem a little, again, problematic. And though I obviously can’t blame Byars for him, the ascendance of Terence Koh hasn’t helped the case for monochrome life-as-art.
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A letter/multiple dated Dec. 5, 1966, from James Lee Byars to Dorothy Miller, with text: “A white paper will blow through the streets.” via MoMA Archives
But then I found out about all the wild letters. In 2007, MoMA Archivist Michelle Elligott put together a show of Byars’ art object-based correspondence with longtime painting & sculpture curator Dorothy Miller, just one of the many people he corresponded with–or at least sent stuff to–over the decades. Which are obviously and unabashedly ridiculous and awesome at the same time, a simultaneous state I had never before considered for the rest of Byars’ work.
And just yesterday, in fact, I think I figured out something else, related to another of the things that’d bugged me about Byars: his fantastical bullshitting. Like, to cite just one example, what was up with what Byars’ official bio calls his “notorious 1958 exhibition in the stairwell of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.”
Roberta Smith wrote in Byars’ 1997 Times obituary that Miller “arranged his New York debut, a show of folded-paper pieces displayed in an emergency stairwell of the museum for a few hours one afternoon.”
And though the Museum’s press archive has no record of it, Elligott mentions the “show” in the story of the 26-yo artist coldcalling from the front desk:

After seeing a work by Mark Rothko, Byars became determined to meet the artist, and in 1958 he hitchhiked from Detroit to New York and presented himself at The Museum of Modern Art, requesting an introduction. Miller was called down to meet with him. Legendarily, that same year Byars had his first exhibition at a U.S. museum, when Miller allowed him to briefly install his large works on paper in the Museum’s emergency exit stairwell. From this point forward, Byars considered Miller an important mentor and turned to her repeatedly for support.

That “Legendarily” is exactly the buggin’ I’m talking about. Elligott notes a stairwell mention in a 1967 Byars letter as “likely a reference to a show he allegedly mounted in a Museum stairwell in 1958.” And Elligott expanded on her skepticism of the stairwell “show” in a 2008 interview:

I think the stairwell exhibit story is somewhat unlikely, and that it is quite probable that Byars propagated this legend after some sort of small incident. Regardless of what happened, I do believe that Byars aggrandized the event, much as he continually cultivated his larger-than-life personality.

Which is better. I mean, artists, they’re gonna do what they do, but I don’t want my museums to be lying to me, or to be just going along with the hype.
Which brings me to yesterday, when I finally cracked open the little catalogue from Byars’ 1995 Fondation Cartier show. And read psychoanalyst/critic/PS1 adjunct curator Jean-Michel Ribettes, seeming to swallow Byars’ story whole by just cold referring to it as “his first show in an American museum–the Museum of Modern Art in New York.” But then, finally, Ribettes has some more details, presumably heard from the artist himself:

Byars’s enormous works in ink on Japan paper were hung on the five-storey fire escape. The curator, Dorothy Miller, not only agreed that the show would last just a few hours, but she and other collectors (like architect Philip Johnson and David Hayes) purchased all the pieces, which Byars himself delivered to their houses that very night, crisscrossing New York into the early hours of the morning.

So it’s less of a “show” and more of a “sale.” And this appropriated but unsourced Byars bio says Miller bought “two paper works and allows him an exhibition lasting a few hours.” And how’s this for five-storey fire escape? At MoMA in 1958? Which would’ve gone right up against the P&S department’s window?
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And here is a tall [1.8m], if not enormous, work on Japanese paper, dated 1959, which Philip Johnson gave to NYU in 1969. It was included along with several related, smaller, ink drawings, in the Grey’s “NY Cool” show of abstract non-expressionism.
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So we have a charismatic, young hitchhiker calling from the lobby, and probably dropping names of his Japanese mentors, folks like Morris Graves and Soetsu Yanagi, and asking to talk to Rothko. And when you bring him upstairs, he unrolls some of his drawings, which, hello, he’s a 26yo hitchhiker, are probably pretty cheap. And maybe PJ and Hayes passed by and went in for a drawing, too. From the Zen monk who’d set up shop and was now meditating on the fire escape outside Dorothy’s window. Now I am OK with this. But I would not call it an exhibition.
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Which is all good, because what Byars showed at the Cartier Foundation was The Monument To Language a 3-meter wide gold-leafed bronze sphere. And you know how I am about big, superlatively beautiful, shiny balls.
2007: James Lee Byars: The Art of Writing [moma.org]

When People Die, They Sing Songs: Chris Marker’s Stopover In Dubai

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As soon as I learned of Chris Marker’s death, I went to look at what I’d written about one of his most recent projects, which I’d been so stunned by, only to find that I hadn’t written anything at all, only tweeted about it, which is barely more persistent than thinking about it.
And I don’t mean Marker’s show of surreptitious Metro chick photography at Peter Blum last year, which was cliched to the point of embarrasment. It’s the short Flash video Stopover in Dubai, which appeared almost unannounced on Gorgomancy, a pseudonymous Marker website. [I prefer the direct link to the .swf file]
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For all i thought I knew and admired about Marker’s work, from the touchstones of La Jetee and Sans Soleil, up to the improbable Immemory CD-ROM, Stopover In Dubai stopped me cold. But not [just] because of the content, though it is chilling.
Stopover in Dubai is the meticulous reconstruction of a Mossad hit squad’s surreptitious mission to assassinate Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in his hotel room on January 19, 2010. The entire thing plays out silently, via CCTV surveillance video from all over the city. Not that anything actually ever “happens” in front of the cameras; the footage only shows the most seemingly banal images of people crossing hotel lobbies or waiting for elevators.
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The footage was available because the show actually assembled, not by Marker, but by Dubai’s General Department of State Security, as part of their investigation of Mahbouh’s death. The riveting, 26-minute account of the hit, titled, The murder of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, was provided by the government to Gulf News TV, the video news service of the UAE’s leading English language newspaper.

It was only after watching Stopover in awe, figuring out what it was, and then tracking down and watching the original version, that I realized Marker had appropriated GNTV/Dubai State Media’s footage exactly as they aired it, edits, captions, graphics and all. And yet he had completely remade the film. Marker replaced the news program’s generic, royalty-free, techno-lite soundtrack with a haunting, ominous string composition written by Henryk Górecki for the Kronos Quartet.
The music seems to fit perfectly, like it had been written, scored, or at least timed, to the film. Until I started digging, I’d assumed Marker had used segments of another film score, the way he’d mashed up this riot slideshow by the Times of London with music from The 400 Blows. But Marker actually just plays Górecki’s piece, “String Quartet No. 3 (‘…songs are sung’)” straight through.
Where I’d once questioned my interpretation and response to the film, wondering who was actually responsible for the elements of its success-its narrative, structure, pacing, and suspense–I now marveled at Marker’s ability to recognize how these two things existing in the world–the edited footage and the Kronos recording–resonated so powerfully with each other, and with himself and his artistic sensibilities. Marker didn’t need to do any more than make this impossible connection; it was the slightest gesture necessary, and yet the result is no less remarkable.
I don’t know if Marker saw it–maybe it’s in the liner notes for the Kronos CD–but a Nonesuch text complicates the relationship between the Górecki composition and the Mahbouh assassination in unexpectedly poignant ways.
GNTV’s opening titles tell us that the Mossad had been pursuing Mahbouh for years without success. Kronos, meanwhile, had originally commissioned Górecki to create a third work for them in 1992, and it was set to debut in 1994. But nothing came. For over 13 years. The composer finally delivered the work in 2005, with a dedication,

“To the Kronos Quartet, which for so many years has waited patiently for this quartet.” In a commentary attached to the score, Górecki added that the work had been completed in 1995, “but I continued to hold back from releasing it to the world. I don’t know why.”

The quartet’s title, meanwhile, “is inspired by the last line of a poem by the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, ‘When people die, they sing songs.'”
Just as Kronos’ long, patient wait for its song resonates with the Mossad’s long-fruitless hunt for vengeance/justice/death, the suspenseful score of a found footage, real life spy thriller is revealed as the song the target–who barely appears in the movie itself–sings when he is drugged, paralyzed, and smothered in his hotel room, out of the cameras’ view, but still within the auteur’s reach. Who was, in this case, Chris Marker.

John Cage, Antonin Becvar, And Leonard Bernstein Walk Into A Bar

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Plate from Antonin Becvar’s Atlas Elipticalis,1958, via ta3.sk
Welcome to the oldest tab in my browser: the Wikipedia page for the Czech astronomer Antonín Bečvář, who produced some extraordinary sky atlases which became indispensable astronomical reference tools around the world for decades.
Beginning with the Atlas Coeli in 1948, and then Atlas eclipticalis, 1950.0 (1958), Atlas borealis 1950.0 (1962), and Atlas australis 1950.0 (1964), Becvar and his team of students at the Skalnaté Pleso Observatory in Slovakia calculated, plotted, drew, and colored by hand every visible star in the sky over a certain magnitude, nearly 50,000 objects. The Sky Atlases were published in various editions, including large format, six-color printing with transparent overlays.
Harvard’s Sky Publishing Company acquired the international rights to Becvar’s atlases, and paid royalties, at Becvar’s request, in the form of astronomical photographic plates for his Observatory. I would imagine they are similar to the state-of-the-art emulsions developed by Kodak for the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey.
Which would all seem like plenty of hooks to get me interested, but there’s more. Because I learned of Becvar’s work while poking around the visual aesthetics, image, and artifacts of John Cage.
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a page of the part for Cello II from Cage’s Atlas Elipticalis
Cage himself discovered the Sky Atlases in the observatory at Wesleyan, where he was teaching, and he used them to compose his first orchestral piece in 1961-2, Atlas Elipticalis. Cage overlaid the star charts with musical staves, and then used chance operations to determine pitch and to construct events [“constellations”] within each instrument’s part. Any number of the 86 parts can be played at any time, according to the conductor’s and performer’s discretion.

The piece debuted where it was commissioned, in Montreal in 1962, but it was the 1964 debut in New York that caught my attention. It was a shitshow, and Leonard Bernstein was at the center of it. Atlas Elipticalis was the first Cage composition performed by the NY Philharmonic. And the musicians–with Bernstein’s acquiescence, if not his collusion–basically sabotaged it, refusing to follow the score, or to take the instructions and parameters of the music seriously at all. They booed Cage along with the audience when he came out at the end of the piece. And Cage was apparently as angry as a Zen Buddhist could be.
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image via the cover of benjamin piekut’s book, experimentalism otherwise
At least part of the problem stemmed from Cage’s use of a clock to “conduct” the piece. Actually, a clock sculpture. Designed by Cage’s Stoney Point patron, the architect Paul Williams. In the chapter of his intricately researched historic snapshot of the NY Avant-Garde in 1964 titled, “When Orchestras Attack!”, Benjamin Piekut’s thorough reconstruction of the Atlas Elipticalis scandal includes a description of the workings of Williams’ clock, which marked the beginning, end, and the 2, 4, and 6 minute marks in the 8-minute performance with green, red, and white lights, respectively. The fate of this clock sculpture is at present unknown to me. But the hunt is on.
Becvar’s atlases [ta3.sk]
Antonin Becvar’s various Sky Atlases and catalogues on Amazon [amazon]