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]

Editing A Life In Painting

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Richter’s studio, 1965, as seen in Elger’s A Life In Painting. Note the lady in the bikini on the left, which
Jasper Johns is well known for destroying his early work, thereby managing and reordering the story of his art by altering its history. But he is by no means alone. Gerhard Richter does it, too. And by turning his image archive and even the list of his paintings into works of art in their own right, Richter might have Johns beat.
Here is an excerpt from Dietmar Elger’s 2009 Richter bio/history, A Life In Painting, which I hadn’t noticed until recently:

In fact, Richter destroyed most of his early [i.e., pre-1962, as well as early photo paintings] works. They are known now only through reproductions in his well-organized archive. There was never, however, a radical break of the sort suggested by his self-organized catalogue raisonne (Werkverzeichnis, or “work list,” as he terms it). This catalog is one of Richter’s ongoing projects–a work in itself–and has long been a subject of controversy. Catalogues raisonnes are ordinarily assembled by scholars, who strive to document every authentic work by a given artist, and are organized chronologically. For Richter, the point is less to establish authenticity than to establish a trajectory within the artwork that he deems acceptable. His catalog does not include all of his work, nor is it consistently chronological. The artist has always excluded his earliest work; while some critics would like to believe that it documents the first paintings that incorporate media images as source material, this is simply not the case. [pp. 44-5.]

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Tisch/ Table, CR-1, 1962, via gerhard-richter.com
Count me as one of those critics, or viewers. I knew he’d painted works before then, but I had no idea, for example, that Tisch, which is listed in Richter’s definitive-seeming numbering scheme as CR-1, was actually painted after several other paintings in his catalogue raisonne. It’s No. 1 because looking back from the late 1960s, Richter had figured it was a good place to start.

Things We Were Going To Do Are Now Being Done By Others.

And speaking of big universes and small worlds, I’m starting to listen to the 1991 recordings of John Cage’s Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), and just ten minutes in, I’m reminded that Cage’s childhood friendship with the unorthodox-but-nearly-canonical Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley is the most unlikely Mormon/modern music connection since La Monte Young [grandson of Brigham].

Without intending to, I’m going from lake to lake
Salt air
Salt Lake
Hugh Nibley
I hadn’t seen him since high school days
I asked him what he thought about other planets
and sentient populations.
“Yes,” he said, “throughout the universe.
It’s Mormon doctrine.”
We’d said goodbye.
I opened the door of the car,
picked up my attache case,
and everything in it fell out on the grass
and the gutter.
His comment:
“Something memorable always happens.”

Which, hmm, if it only served to get me into a transcribing-and-posting mind for the next excerpt Cage read, then it’s worth it:

Things we were going to do
are now being done by others.
They were, it seems, not in our minds to do.
Were we or they out of our minds?
But simply ready to enter any open mind
any mind disturbed enough not to have an idea in it.

Richteriana, Postmasters Gallery, 12 May 2012

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Destroyed Richter Painting No. 04, 2012, oil on canvas, 110x110cm

Postmasters is pleased to announce:
RICHTERIANA
GREG ALLEN, DAVID DIAO, RORY DONALDSON,
HASAN ELAHI, FABIAN MARCACCIO, RAFAËL ROZENDAAL
May 12 – June 16, 2012
opening reception, saturday, may 12, 6-8
Postmasters‘ new exhibition Richteriana attempts to examine the current canonization of Gerhard Richter, presenting six artists whose works pre-date, update, expand, and subvert “the greatest living artist’s” own.
…[snip much amazing thinking and description of great artists and their work]…
Greg Allen’s Destroyed Richter Paintings channel the elder artist’s own private documentary images back into the photo- based painting feedback loop he once deemed “photography by other means.” They reproduce the experience of encountering Richter’s lost originals, while becoming new objects themselves. By engaging the sprawling Chinese photo-painting industry that has grown up in Richter’s wake, Allen forefronts the market’s incredulous perception of the artist’s autonomy–and his right to declare or destroy his own work.

More to come, obviously.
Previously, related:
a destroyed Richter/Palermo collaboration
“I am practising photography by other means.”
On repainting Gerhard Richter
Overpainted vs Destroyed Gerhard Richter

Fingerspuren

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Fingerspuren/Finger Marks, with Palermo, 1970, image via gerhard-richter.com
Despite an 11-year difference in their age, Gerhard Richter and Blinky Palermo became fast friends in the early 1960s. Richter’s first wife Ema sewed Palermo’s groundbreaking Stoffbilder/Cloth Pictures starting in 1966, and Palermo influenced Richter’s move towards readymade abstraction with the Color Chart paintings.
In 1970, while Palermo was studiosurfing among his Dusseldorf friends, he painted the first stencil/multiple version of his blue triangle over Richter’s door. And then the two artists collaborated for the first time, on a painting.
Or rather, two paintings: Fingerspuren (Fingermarks) was a grey monochrome diptych, painted by hand, one side by each artist, that formed a 2-meter square whole. Palermo’s canvas is the much busier one on the left.
In Dia’s 2009 book on Palermo’s masterpiece, To the People of New York City, Christine Mehring wrote about Fingerspuren:

It is tempting to see this as a manifestation of what many believe are differences in the artists’ temperaments: Richter’s more calculated, meticulous manner of painting versus Palermo’s more process-oriented practice…It seems more likely that Palermo’s disarrayed, isolated marks are gestures of self-assertion. After all, the gray monochrome was the domain of Palermo’s friend, who furthermore relayed that the diptych originated from his own working on a gray monochrome and asking Palermo to “join in, and make one too.” Fingerspuren remained a merely semi-collaborative beginning to Palermo and Richter’s collaborative period.

This collaborative period was at its peak in 1971, when the duo’s painted wall and sculpture installation was shown at Heiner Friedrich’s gallery in Cologne, and when Fingerspuren was included in Richter’s first major retrospective at the Kunstverein in Dusseldorf.
I haven’t been able to find any info on the when or the how of Fingerspuren‘s subsequent destruction, but maybe its merely “semi-collaborative” nature accounts for some of the why.

Infiltration & Replication, Untitled (for Parkett) – Part 2

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Untitled (for Parkett), 1994 image via phillips de pury
I’ve been wondering how Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard edition, Untitled (for Parkett) was playing out in the real world. How many of the 84+15+? copies still existed? How many had been installed? Installed and destroyed? Have any been installed and preserved after its permanent site traded hands? Or are most/all of them like mine, still sitting in the box, rolled up, and “incomplete,” waiting? Waiting for what? The perfect wall in the house you’ll never leave? The market to rise too high to ignore?
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Untitled (for Parkett), 1994 image via christie’s
What I already knew: seven examples of Untitled (for Parkett) have come up for auction, the first in 2000, and at least three of them didn’t sell, including one example that was missing its certificate. The sales prices, $4,000, $10,000, £6,600, are pretty low in the Felixian scheme of things. More importantly, though, they’re low in relation to real estate, even to high-end wallcovering; if someone were to install the billboard, and then sold the space where it resided, the market value alone–or in combination with the reassurance that eh, whatever, there are a hundred more–is not enough to aid its preservation.
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Installation shot, 149 Books, 1994, image via julie ault’s felix gonzalez-torres
Untitled (for Parkett), then is almost doomed by its own nature to exist in a state of fungible incompleteness, or worthless realization, or inevitable destruction. Any billboards that do get installed permanently somewhere will only exist until the paper fades, or the loft is sold, or the kitchen gets remodeled. And then it’ll be gone.
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installation view, London, 2001, all images from here on via parkett
I contacted both the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation and Parkett. Allison Hemler, the Foundation’s Director of Archives and Communications did some investigating, and found very little information indeed. There are almost no records of the status of the 84+15 editions, with the exception of #19, which was permanently installedat the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. [Interestingly, it’s not listed in the collection database, though another Felix piece is. It’s apparently been included in three exhibitions between 1998 and 2009. I’ve emailed the Gallery for any information or images, but haven’t heard back. UPDATE: And a spokesperson told me the work was not in the 2009 show, and is not installed, but is “in the Gallery’s works on paper archive.” So. So I guess there are no known permanent installations of the work right now, despite those being, of course, the only kind.]
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installation view, MoMA, 2001
The “several exhibition copies” mentioned in the catalogue raisonne turns out to be just four. Triumph Productions, the Manhattan outdoor advertising printer which created the original 8-panel silk screen is still going strong, but neither the Foundation nor the Estate before it has ever reprinted Untitled (for Parkett) for exhibition, and there are currently no practices in place for doing so.
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installation view, dublin, 2002
So unlike many, even most, of Gonzalez-Torres’ other works, which are endlessly reproducible and renewable, Untitled (for Parkett) has a finite and dwindling existence. Unless it is installed and preserved in those sites. Which is possible. A billboard preservation network could emerge. These mostly private spaces could become the sites of public pilgrimage. Assuming they were ever private to begin with. From a 1991 interview with Bob Nickas:

Someone’s agenda has been enacted to define “public” and “private.” We’re really talking about private property because there is no private space anymore. Our intimate desires, fantasies, and dreams are ruled and intercepted by the public sphere.

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installation view, venice, 2003
Though it has apparently never been written about specifically, Untitled (for Parkett) is mostly seen in reproduction, and in exhibitions. The Foundation’s exhibition history lists 14 shows, including eight exhibitions where it’s not clear if the billboard was shown, or just illustrated: three were at commercial galleries, one was organized by the Sammlung Goetz, and two were at museums. In addition to the three shows in Adelaide which included a single print, the billboard was installed in six exhibitions. I’d add a seventh, the 1997 Whitney Biennial; I remember it installed in the lobby, with the curtain of light strings, Untitled (America), hanging in front of it.
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installation view, 2010, singapore
But three of the six shows, including the debut exhibition in 1994, one at MoMA in 2001, and another in 2010 at Singapore’s Tyler Print Institute, are Parkett collection shows. Parkett’s ever-growing collection of artist editions is basically on constant world tour. It’s traveled to at least seven additional venues. Their installation images are interlaced throughout this post in reverse chronological order. They show that billboard at every venue. And why not? Besides the Jeff Koons balloon toy, it’s one of their most ambitious, awesome editions.
Here’s the complete [I think] list: 149 Books, New York (1994); Louisiana Museum, Denmark (1996); MAK Center, Los Angeles (1997); London (2001); MoMA, NY (2001); Dublin (2002); Venice (2003); Kanazawa, Japan (2009); Singapore (2010); Seoul (2011). Ten installations, almost every one with different dimensions and site specific quirks, which should make reinstalling a single exhibition print impossible [as well as unauthorized].
So is Parkett churning through actual numbered editions? The A.P.’s? An undeclared stack of exhibition copies? They haven’t gotten back to me, so I don’t know. But that’s 15 installations total.
Felix did discuss the edition, , or an early conception of it, anyway, with Joseph Kosuth in 1993:

JK: This goes from the earlier idea of the collector as someone who buys knickknacks to the idea of the collector as patron. It’s a certain kind of leap that has more tod o with intellectual engagement and less to do with reducing art to nice little things in the apartment.
FGT: You know, someone once asked me to make an edition of prints. But I thought, why make an edition, why make a print? The world doesn’t need any more prints by artists. So I said no. But then I thought about it, and I said, well, why don’t we push the limits and do a billboard? The conditions are such that you can only show it in public. You have to show it in public.

Obviously, he decided to push the limit in a different direction. When Kosuth lauded his embrace and tweak of a “traditional form” and context, Gonzalez-Torres responded:

Well, my first reaction was a very predictable Leftist reaction which more and more I am questioning and finding very static and self-defeating. At this point I do not want to be outside the structure of power, I do not want to be the opposition, the alternative. Alternative to what? To power? No. I want to have power. It’s effective in terms of change. I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. All the ideological apparatuses are, in other words, replicating themselves, because that’s the way the culture works. So if I function as a virus, an imposter, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions. And I think that maybe I’m embracing those institutions which before I would have rejected. Money and capitalism are powers that are here to stay, at least for the moment. It’s within those structures that change can and will take place. My embrace is a strategy related to my initial rejection.

I can’t tell if the market-based capitalist system is failing to realize Untitled (for Parkett), or succeeding in preserving it, in bulk, unrealized and incomplete, for the future–or both. But it is certain that Felix has successfully infiltrated Parkett, which is busy replicating his work together with their institution.

You Don’t Complete Me, Or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (for Parkett), Part 1

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this one. Untitled, 1991, Site #21: 504 W 44th St.
One of the formative artworks in my life is set to re-appear this month. I saw one of the giant black & white billboards of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ empty bed in the city in 1992 before I realized it was part of MoMA’s Projects series. Billboards were supposed to promote something, to give you information, I thought, not to leave you wondering. Wondering what the hell is being sold here, what something as private and messy as a bed is doing on a billboard.
When I next walked into MoMA, though, and saw the same billboard, and read curator Anne Umland’s brochure for the show, I realized my encounter was exactly the kind of “illogical meeting” Felix had intended:

Rather than clipping something from the mass media and repositioning it within the clean smooth space of a work of art, he makes the photograph of the bed the informational fragment, and collages it into the broad and varied pattern of the contemporary urban landscape.
The artist has explained that by “taking a little bit of information and displaying this information in absolutely ironic and illogical meetings,” he hopes to reveal the real meaning of issues. The juxtaposition of an image that we are inclined to read as private and a space usually conceived of as public is what Gonzalez-Torres would describe as an “illogical meeting.” When we call something illogical, we are essentially saying that it runs counter to our expectations.

Umland also wrote, “Much of Gonzalez-Torres’ art questions what we mean when we describe something as private or as public.”
This public/private aspect of billboards kicked off a 1993 discussion between Gonzalez-Torres and Joseph Kosuth, both of whom, it turned out, had created billboards that, as Felix put it, “can only be shown in public. They’re privately owned but always publicly shown.”

[Kosuth:] …there were very few people who wanted to spend their money without getting some ‘goods’, you know.
FGT: Well, you opened the way for other artists. People can buy these billboards, but they have to put them in public–they have to rent a public space. It’s like buying edition prints, except that you have to put them up on billboards. It’s also doing a service to the collectors because they don’t have to put the works into storage!

Never mind that fabrication and the monthly cost of renting adspace far outstrips any storage cost. I think Felix’s point with his billboards was that he was fine delivering collectors the “goods”; but to see the goods, they have to print them up and install them in public.
All except one.
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For every Felix billboard, the owner gets an image, a certificate, and the right to fabricate and install it in public any time. But for one billboard, Untitled (for Parkett) [above], Felix created his own “illogical meeting,” a work which thwarts the very expectations he set up for the rest of his work.
Felix created Untitled (for Parkett), in 1994 for, as the parenthetical says, Parkett’s editions series. The abstraction-like image is a black & white photo of sand churned up by footprints. It was published in an “edition of 84, 15 a.p., several exhibition copies,” and produced the same way as his other billboards are [or were, anyway], as giant silk screened sheets of Appleton coated paper that get tiled and pasted up like wallpaper.
But when they do, that’s it. They’re permanent, can’t be moved. Can’t be taken down and reinstalled. As the lot description in the Phillips catalogue last month that got me thinking about this in the first place put it,

This piece is not complete until installed. The installation site will be its permanent location until the piece is destroyed.

Now, this is not news to me. As it turns out, I have this edition. I have several, in fact, which I bought hoarded precisely because I knew that they were one-time deals, and that, like most New Yorkers, I was not expecting to be in my apartment forever. I figured I’d move someday, maybe even into a place where I could fit a 3×7-meter billboard. Then who knows, maybe I’d move again, or at least rehang the place, and so I’d need another, and so on, and so on…
But the Phillips language struck a chord in a new way. In 2007, Christie’s explained the piece a little harshly: “This work should be displayed in only one location; removal will destroy the piece.” But that’s easy, just never remove it. And anyway, that’s after it’s installed, in some distant unimaginable future. Phillips, though, pointed out the weird anomaly of Untitled (for Parkett), which is that the work, as it exists, as it’s being sold, as I have it, in fact, is incomplete.
Suddenly, I’m not a steward preserving the work; I’m an obstacle impeding its realization. And so is everyone else who bought the work, only to keep it rolled up. The people who hold it in stasis, retarding its potential, and keeping it viable and exchangeable in the marketplace.
As this description I missed in 2010 shows, Phillips’s language of incompleteness seems to come from Parkett themselves:

According to the publisher, Untitled (For Parkett) employs the materials of industrial advertising which are not meant to last indefinately [sic]. The Billboard is not water-proof. Marks and imperfections in the printing are a natural result of the printing process and are part of the image. Bubbles or wrinkles remaining in the paper after installation are an expected and acceptable part of the finished work. The billboard is designed to be installed either indoors or outdoors. Like most of the artist’s works installation is an integral conceptual part of the work, and is considered incomplete until then.

Not only are you depriving the work of its destiny by not installing it, it’s not going to last anyway.
And that auction catalogue blurb turns out to be just about the longest thing anyone’s ever published on Untitled (for Parkett) before. So I started poking around a bit. [to be continued]

Has Erik Satie Been Performed On US Network Television Since 1963?


This 1963 episode of I’ve Got A Secret pops up periodically. From this week on Boing Boing to Alex Ross’s 2007 blog post searching for Karl Schenzer.
And it is, indeed, pretty interesting. John Cale was recently arrived in New York City–Ross notes that he got a ride down from Tanglewood in Iannis Xenakis’s car–and still a couple of years away and a stint under LaMonte Young’s sway from forming the Velvet Underground. John Cage enlisted him and some other sympathetic pianists to perform Vexations, an epic 1949 composition by Erik Satie, for the first time. That was Cale’s secret. Schenzer’s was that he alone stayed for the entire 18-hour performance.
Of course, Cage himself had appeared on I’ve Got A Secret in 1960, giving a raucous rendition of his composition, Water Walk, while dressed, typically, like a Methodist minister.

Three years later, Cale and Schenzer also exude a buttoned-up, Cageian seriousness, but what caught my attention was Schenzer’s namecheck of the concert’s sponsor, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, which Cage and Jasper Johns had just launched.
By 1963, I guess these folks were becoming better known, and certain of them, particularly Johns and Rauschenberg, were selling a fair amount of artwork. Yet as soon as they had two nickels to rub together, these artists were using the money to support and propagate the work of their fellow artists.
And it really amazes me to think that the cultural factions of the time were still so close together that this avant garde crew could turn up on a network TV game show. John Cage may have turned up at some point in the intervening 30 years, but it’s very easy for me to imagine that the first mention of Erik Satie on CBS was also his last.

Jan Kaplicky Loved This Modular Construction System By, Uh,

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I just pulled out some Future Systems books last night, and I’d forgotten how hard I’d fallen for them. And though I knew they were The Future at the time, it’s still pretty awesome/eerie how much our 2006 ended up looking like their 1993. It seems like Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete’s tenacious, visionary modernist pursuits, their interest in prefab and industrial manufacturing in architecture and energy efficiency, became dominant themes, even as FS’s own practice split apart with the end of its principals’ relationship.
The other thing that seems prescient, for better or worse, is Kaplicky’s voracious image consumption. Those little source/idea books Future Systems put out, filled with hundreds of photos and drawings culled from the seductive, Western “image cascade” that washed over Kaplicky after he left Communist Czechoslovakia, feel exactly like the world’s favoritest tumblr.
[Of course, they also feel like a conditioned response to the multiscreen info overload of capitalist love the Eameses made for exhibition in Moscow in the Cold War, and Kaplicky’s own “vast collection” echos the 310,000+ piece image archive Ray Eames donated to the Library of Congress.]
But that’s the good part. Future Systems also anticipated the thing that most annoys the hell out of me about Tumblr and FFFound and the entire world now, the carefree casualness with credit and sourcing.
By that I obviously don’t mean I have hangups with attribution, or–double obviously–copyright infringement. [The title page of one catalogue has this refreshing disclaimer, “All reasonable efforts have been made to trace the copyright holders of the photographs. The Publishers and Future Systems apologise to anyone who has not been reached.”] It’s just that when I see an image that interests me, I want to know more. I want context. Origin. History. Tangents. I want to learn things that don’t necessarily only involve how something looks.
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So anyway, does anyone recognize this kind of awesome prefab construction system Kaplicky included in his Influences: A Visual Essay [on the top of page 28 of Marcus Field’s 1999 Future Systems monograph, btw]? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s some random Prouvé follower, but that doesn’t narrow it down.
UPDATE And we have a winner, Doug from Materiality Office has identified Fritz Haller as the designer of this steel frame building system, probably from a house in Solothurn, Germany. Many thanks!

The VW Years: Ch. 2, Remy Charlip & Steve Paxton

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[l to r] Viola Farber, Bruce King, Remy Charlip, Carolyn Brown & Merce Cunningham performing Nocturnes in 1956. photo CDF/Louis A. Stevenson, Jr. via the estate project
Remy Charlip was an early collaborator in Merce Cunningham’s orbit. Years before he began his second or third acclaimed career as a children’s book illustrator and author, Charlip danced with Cunningham and Martha Graham in New York and at Black Mountain College. He created the programs for the August 1952 Cage et al performance at BMC which is considered the first “Happening.” They were printed on cigarette paper, and were placed at the entrance next to a bowl of tobacco, with an ashtray on each seat.
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image of what has to be a Charlip program for a different Cage performance, via The Arts at Black Mountain College
Though he’s a bit off on the dates, what with Cage only buying the VW bus in 1959, John Held’s Charlip biography lays out the basic configuration of the bus:

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

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[l to r] Carolyn Brown, Steve Paxton & Merce Cunningham, 1961, image via cepress
A couple of weeks ago, Paxton talked to the Washington Post about the bus: Later that year [1960? ’61? -ed.] Remy resigned, and I was invited into the smaller company. This meant touring around the U.S. in a Volkswagen bus, which, I was informed, it was my duty to pack. And unpack. And distribute and later collect all the items packed. There were the spaces under the seats, a compartment in the back, and a roof rack to transport nine persons’ personal luggage, the equipment of John Cage and David Tudor for various musical adventures, and the sets and costumes for the tour. The bus was heavy laden, and it never let us down, including at least two tours the the West Coast.
John or Merce drove, and John liked to play Scrabble when off-duty. The rest of us conversed and Viola [Farber] knitted. It was rather like a family around the hearth. Long silence, naps, breaks to stretch and walk about, and usually some amazing treat produced by John, a huge salad perhaps, or once Rogue River pears at perfect ripeness with pear liquor to accompany. David was quiet, Marilyn Wood chatty, Carolyn [Brown] and Viola made comment, Merce sometimes spoke, John and Bob laughed a lot, and both were great story-tellers. I remember the actual driving fondly.

It may have been amidst family-like intimacy of the bus that Paxton and Rauschenberg started the relationship that ended the relationship between Rauschenberg and Johns in 1961-2.
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Robert Rauschenberg & Steve Paxton, with Alex Hay [l] and Trisha Brown [r] rehearsing Spring Training, 1965. image via SAAM Rauschenberg catalogue, 1976

The VW Years: Ch. 1

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John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg photographed in 1960 by Richard Avedon
In a few days, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform for the last time. I have not been a close follower of Cunningham’s work, except in the New Yorker way, how, for the two decades since I moved to the city, Merce and his company were an integral part of the cultural fabric. Merce? You’re soaking in it!
I was always more of a Cage fan. And so it’s been fascinating, and enlightening, and continually surprising over the last year or so, as I’ve been digging into the early days of Rauschenberg and Johns, trying to understand their formative work and context, to see how closely connected they were with Merce and John. How small the circle of artists was which generated so many incredible works and ideas. And yet how infrequently I consider their work in relation to each other, or consider the nature of their collaboration beyond the basic namecheck.
In a way, I guess Rauschenberg and Johns and their intense, but short-lived collaborative period serves as the antithesis of Cunningham and Cage’s lifelong partnership. But they all began so close, and so much together.
Anyway, as I’ve become more familiar and more admiring of Cunningham’s work and Cage’s work with him, I’ve begun trying to piece together the world they inhabited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were just starting out. And one thing that comes up in every story about those days is the VW microbus Merce and his fledgling company would pile into to tour the country. Cunningham’s longtime principal dancer Carolyn Brown even titled the chapter in her 2007 memoir “The VW Years.”
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But I’ll get to that. First, the story of the VW bus itself, how John Cage bought it, and how it figured into various peoples’ accounts of those crazy, early days.
cage_milan_peggy_guggenheim.jpgIn 1958, Cage had performed at a blowout retrospective concert organized by Johns, Rauschenberg, and hustler/activist/filmmaker Emile de Antonio; and he’d exhibited his scores at Stable Gallery. Then in the taught and performed in Europe, including at Expo ’58 in Brussels, and then settled into a several months’ residency in Milan at RAI, Italian state television. In February of 1959, after hanging out with Peggy Guggenheim at her Venetian palazzo, he appeared on Lascia o Raddoppia, the local equivalent of the $64,000 Question, where he performed new compositions, became famous by the end of the week–and ended up winning 5 million lira in a series of ridiculously rigged questions about mushrooms.
And so he took his winnings and Italian fame back to the US, where he used part of the money to buy a piano for himself, and a white VW microbus for Merce and the company to tour in.
The most extensive accounts of the Italian game show boondoggle and the VW van purchase are from Begin Again, Kenneth Silverman’s Cage biography, and Stefano Pocci’s guest post on the John Cage Trust blog.
Lascia o Raddoppia, Milan, 1959 [johncagetrust]

The Cosby Sweater Project

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“Season 3, Episode 3: ‘Golden Anniversary'”
This is epic. Painting the key sweaters of The Cosby Show, one episode at a time, in chronological order. Which is awesome, not because it charts the evolution of the Cosby Sweater; any punk with a tumblr could do that. But because it’s fun to imagine Thomas Nozkowski’s reaction, as the seasons progress, and he hears the footsteps behind him, getting ever closer. And an occasional spastic, growly laugh.
The Cosby Sweater Project [thecosbysweaterproject.com via I wish I could remember]

Considering The Eameses As Artists

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A few months ago, I was asked to write something about Ray and Charles Eames by the folks at Humanities Magazine, published by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The NEH had provided some funding to Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s documentary, Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter, so a straight-up review wouldn’t really work. But I was encouraged by the documentary’s title, and its exploration of Ray’s role in the duo’s collaborative process, and so I decided to float the idea that there’s a lot to learn by considering the Eameses as artists:

Throughout their own careers, whether making architecture, furniture, toys, annual reports, or films, the Eameses presented themselves as designers. And despite their forays into education, computing, and international diplomacy, that’s how they are typically seen. But calling the Eameses designers while trying to account for their polymathic legacy can be problematic, particularly if we’re picturing the designer as a lone, heroic genius: Charles Eames as the Howard Roark of American consumer capitalism. It invites many esoteric and academic questions about process, context, gender, and collaboration, which are interesting but hard to resolve. When considered from an artistic perspective, however, many of these complications evaporate. Accepting Ray and Charles Eames as artists and their studio work as art gets us away from the arbitrage over who did what and how. Plus, it enriches and deepens the contemporary understanding of their role in the culture of their time.

That’s John Neuhart up there, by the way; he built the Eameses’ greatest object besides their house, and one of the greatest unsung, unrecognized artworks of the modernist era, the Solar Do-Nothing Machine.
Modern Love, Humanities Magazine, Nov/Dec. 2011 [neh.gov]

What I Looked At Today: Anne Truitt

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Insurrection, 1962, image: corcoran.org
I needed to see some hard-to-find Chris Burden catalogues–more on that later, but soon–and the quickest place I could find them was the Corcoran School’s library. I called ahead, and they had them waiting for me, so I was in and out of the library in no time.
Which left me with a little time to wander. And there is a very nice gallery with a nice, old Ellsworth Kelly diptych, and this wonderful Anne Truitt sculpture in the center of the room.
Insurrection was installed very dramatically with Hardcastle, another 1962 work, in Kristen Hileman’s Truitt retrospective at the Hirshhorn. Hardcastle confronted you head-on through the doorway, while Insurrection was turned sideways; on edge, with only the slab’s thinness and wooden brackets visible. It was only as you moved around it–following the contours of those unfortunate Karim Rashidian raised platforms–that they switched out: Hardcastle’s heft gave way, and Insurrection widened, revealing that they shared the same structure.
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Hardcastle, 1962, via annetruitt.org
The install of Insurrection at the Corcoran, meanwhile, is much less enigmatic. There are off-center approaches from three different sides, so the sculpture is what it is when you see it. Moving around it is an experience, not a discovery. [The full frontal orientation faces the Kelly, Yellow with Red Triangle, from 1973.]
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Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, image corcoran.org
Even though they’re the same shape/structure, I remember Hardcastle‘s monochrome face felt more massive–and then artificial, as its red brackets popped into view. Insurrection’s two-tone reds make it feel more like two volumes immediately, which turn out to be one.
Back down on the floor where they belong, Truitt’s larger sculptures always feel like a presence, in space, and yet they’re paint[ings?] [ed?] And yet there is paint. Maybe 1962 was before her reportedly vigorous sanding and multiple coats kicked in, because Truitt’s surface is most definitely painted with a brush. Kelly’s surface, meanwhile, is only disturbed by the weave of his canvas; I’m going to assume he used a roller. But wow, there’s a brush going around the edges. And how. Just slapped right on there.
I’m trying to better understand the sense of paintings as objects, of the picture plane as nothing of the sort. I didn’t plan today to see these two artists’ works–Truitt’s and Kelly’s–which explore this very idea, in the form of painting/sculpture, but here they were. I still have to look some more, but basically, I came away thinking I might be really knocking myself out too much over my smoothly brushed-on painting surfaces.
previously: many Anne Truitt posts on greg.org
and a little on looking at Ellsworth Kelly