A few weeks ago I spoke with Michael Shaw for his long-running art podcast, The Conversation. And when I say long-running, I mean both he’s been doing the podcast for a long time, and holy smokes, not only did we talk a long time, he got two whole episodes out of that content. (Granted the first part *does* have “meandering” right in the description.)
Amazing people are always sneaking into town and talking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum without my knowing. Last October it was Arthur Jafa and Ja’Tovia Gary, who spoke about their work, Black music, and the conception of a Black Cinema.
At least I’m not the only one out of the loop; until the audience questions, neither Jafa nor Gary seemed to know Kanye West had rolled up that morning on Howard University with his Sunday Service tour. [Gary was not. Having. Immmmmmt, either, and criticized West’s appropriation of gospel church practice as self-promoting spectacle, as well as his alignment with fascism and the forces of state violence. Jafa was taught.]
Anyway, point is, video of the event turns out to include Jafa’s epic Love is the message, the message is death and Gary’s 2015 short film The Ecstatic Experience, neither of which I’d seen in the wild. [Gary has an excerpt on her own Vimeo.]
Jafa’s piece was acquired jointly by SAAM and the Hirshhorn.
The artist Elizabeth “Betty” Stokes di Robilant was interviewed by Christie’s in May 2013. Stokes was a longtime friend of Cy Twombly. Their story and relationship and collaboration, and her later erasure from Twombly’s official story, is discussed in Chalk, a biography of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin, which was published in October 2018. Rivkin quotes the interview by Robert Brown, which was published on the occasion of the sale of a painted bronze cast of a 1966 [or 1956, or 1959, or 1980 or 1981, or 1990] sculpture Twombly gave to dee Robilant for her 10th wedding anniversary. Twombly later reworked and cast the sculpture in 1990 in an edition of five. Di Robilant’s three children each got one; she got one, and Twombly got one. Ed. 1 of 5 was sold at Christie’s London on June 25th, 2013, for GBP 1.63 million.
I’ve written about “Dislocations” before. It’s one of the contemporary shows at MoMA that left a deep impression on me when I first moved to New York. It was in 1991-2 when Rob Storr curated huge, room-dominating sculptures by Chris Burden and Louise Bourgeois, and installations [!?] by Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper, the Kabakovs, and David Hammons.
I just found this 5yo photo of Hammons’ Public Enemy, which I guess I had looked up because I was deep into photomurals at the time, and really wanted to find (or make) Hammons’ big photocube of the piece’s namesake, Teddy Roosevelt and his Grateful Savages [sic, obv].
In the intervening years MoMA has upped their archival game significantly, by putting a ton of exhibition material online, including the press release, checklist, brochure, installation photos, and a pdf of Storr’s catalogue. [Oh wow, Sophie Calle was in that show? Guess her intervention–removing paintings from the Modern’s galleries–was so subtle, I forgot.]
This was the first work of Hammons’ I’d ever seen, probably the first time I’d heard of him. Which seems crazy now, but reading the show’s time capsule of a catalogue, maybe I wasn’t so far behind. Storr waxes and marvels at what is now known about Hammons’ practice:
Hammons has preferred the city as a workplace and its citizens as his audience and sometime co-workers. Street flotsam and jetsam are his materials. What he brings to the gallery is all and sundry that it traditionally excludes. What he extracts from those materials and brings to the objects and installations that he has created outside the museums are the marvels and mysteries that lie already and everywhere to hand along heavily trafficked thoroughfares, in public parks, and in the so-called vacant lots littered with the evidence of their constant nomadic occupation and use…
“I like doing stuff better on the street, because art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have superiority over anything else.” [he said in an otherwise unpublished interview which I now think we should unearth. -ed.]
Storr goes on about Hammons’ improvisatory process, “like jazz,” in which, despite a year of lead time, “all options remained open and the result wholly unforeseen” until the artist arrived to install the work. Which must have given MoMA an institutional heart attack.
And which, really? Because you can’t just pick up four huge photomurals or a substrate for them. And those sandbags seem very manufactured and ordered from somewhere. True, if you just work fast enough, those NYPD barriers were all over town, free for the taking. [Do they still have those? For throwback protests?]
What I thought about yesterday was whether Public Enemy still existed, or could be recreated. What I wonder about today, though, is what it’ll take for Uncle Teddy to get the Silent Sam treatment.
I was absolutely floored by this tiny quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 field interview with Cudjoe Lewis, who was one of the last known survivors of the last slave-ship to come to the United States. He arrived in the US from what is now Benin in 1859 or 1860, smuggled in on the Clotilde at the age of 19. His given name was Kossula.
“I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”
His head was bowed for a time. Then he lifted his wet face: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ ”
Hurston spent three months interviewing Kossula, and even longer trying to get his history published. Because of her training an anthropologist she refused publishers’ demands that she rewrite Kossula’s vernacular testimony. 87 years later, it is being released for the first time, and I just bought it.
[This is where I originally expected this quick post to stop.]
Kossula was a leader of the community of Clotilde survivors who after attempting to return to Africa, created a settlement outside Mobile, Alabama called Africatown. In a 1914 book called Historic Sketches of the South, Emma Roche Langdon recounted the stories of the Clotilde’s voyage, the survivors, and their descendants. She spelled his name Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis.
The original was carved in wood, to be cast in bronze. When the bronze bust was ripped off the base and stolen in 2002, the pastor said it had been in front of the church for “about three decades.” Was he off by 15 years, or had it taken until the 1970s to make the cast of Rhodes’ sculpture?
In 2008 a new, similarly shaped sculpture was unveiled, though this picture from a local newscast shows it next to a wall, not on the brick pyramid, because it was installed at the Africatown Welcome Center alongside a bust of John Smith, a mayor of the nearby town of Prichard. The sculptures were donated by two filmmakers from Africa, Thomas Akodjinou from Benin and Felix Yao Amenyo Eklu from Togo, in 2007.
On his blog Akodjinou honored John Smith for his involvement in the Alabama Benin Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum, which saw Africatown as an historic symbol of reconciliation between the two interconnected cultures.
In March 2011, both sculptures were vandalized, with their heads ripped off. The sculptures were originally described as marble, but from the look of this painted and chipped base, I am doubtful.
The headless busts were still visible in 2016 when Belgian artist Maarten Vanden Eynde visited Africatown. His account is disheartening, if not downright harrowing. Besides the historic cemetery, which is sinking, many of the structures and homes are run down or abandoned, and the area is threatened by surrounding industrial redevelopment. [Tho tbh, it looks kind of typical on GSV from 2011-2017.]
In 2016 sculptor April Livingston launched a GoFundMe to make a new bust, just the head this time, to be cast out of iron. It was bolted to the base in February 2017, when she promised the local news that she could cast a million more. Me, I’m most interested in the history of the previous three.
A reader, Jon Auman, who is amused by my sense of art mystery, recently sent along a pairing of paintings. He saw Alice Neel’s 1946 Dead Father (above) in the catalogue of a Thomas Amman show in Zurich, and it reminded him of Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till.
For all but a few days after the Whitney Biennial opened, it has been beside The Point, if not impossible, to consider Schutz’s painting as a painting, not as a cultural flashpoint. But Auman’s noticed what I think is a real reference for Schutz, and it’s one that has not been raised or discussed publicly, afaik.
The immediately received and problematic genesis of Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till is the photograph of Till’s murdered body in an open casket that his mother Mamie Till caused to be published to protest his unjust killing. The most widely circulated of those photos was just young Emmett’s face, and it’s reasonable to accept that Schutz’s gashed painted surface was inspired by that picture. But other photos of the funeral reveal that Till’s body, his casket, and his surroundings, do not resemble Schutz’s depiction at all. Her painting is not a documentation; it is her construction. Which, of course it is.
And Neel’s painting of her own father’s funeral is pretty clearly a reference. Unlike her more famous portraits, Neel painted Dead Father from memory, a deliberate remove from experience and observation. Looking for a clean image of it brought up another Neel painting I’d forgotten, which feels even more relevant.
In 1951 Alice Neel painted Death of Mother Bloor, which shows the public funeral in Harlem of Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, the revered American Communist organizer and suffragist, who died in the midst of McCarthy’s witch hunts. Like Schutz, Neel cast a sympathetic eye on the historic funeral of a politically controversial figure, and constructed a painting unconstrained by photography’s documentary assertions.
In 2012, Dana Schutz talked with Jarrett Earnest at length about her painterly influences, or artists she admires. A lot of what she sees is construction. She doesn’t mention Neel, but I think it’s worth asking.
I am pleased to announce that a work I thought was gone has perhaps come back on view in Washington, D.C. The title, obviously, is derived from Gerhard Richter’s 1971 work, Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (below). But its creation, including all the vagaries involved, are inspired directly by Palermo’s work and practice.
Talking about his late student in a 1984 interview with Laszlo Glozer, Joseph Beuys said:
I believe that one of the most important things for art–and he knew it too–is the behavior of people in general. The way people live, the way they live in their space. The way people live was very important for him. The way they inhabit, the way they live, what chairs they sit on, or what they have around them, what they stuff into themselves.
I’d seen the painting first (what they have around them), but it was that charcoal (the way they live) and the horizontal blue passage on the upper left that made the work come into being (the way they inhabit). But that was last year.
Well, if I could, I would say one should perceive his works like a breath. They have something of a breath about them, a breath that vanishes…One ought to see his paintings more like breath that comes and goes, it has something porous, and it can easily vanish again. It is also highly vulnerable. Vulnerable, say, like a cornflower: when you out it into light, it fades very quickly. So one has to perceive that breathlike being as an aesthetic concept and not as a solid structure…
I still don’t know whether to post these matters, or whether it differs from filing it away, or from seeing it, or thinking it. I mean, it’s posted now because the house where this was installed last year came back on the market, with the same listing photos, and I saw them again. But what changes? Is the work still there? Would it matter if it is or isn’t? Does it matter what that crappy little painting even is?
Which seems as good a time as any to mention another work from last year, which I intentionally didn’t post, to see what it was like. Does it change now? Now that situation has been moved out and gut renovated for sure? Now that I can search for it in a different dialogue box? Now that someone else can, too?
For me the value lies in the wonder, the fleeting marvel, the tiny layers of history, of how some people lived overlaid with how other people staged. So I’m good.
I’m stoked to be speaking this coming Sunday, Oct. 29, with Anne Doran and Deborah Treisman, about their new book, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art by Walter Hopps. The discussion and book signing will take place at Alden Projects™ on the LES, starting at 6pm.
Todd Alden has an incredible-sounding show up right now which provides a nearly perfect backdrop and context for a discussion of Hopps and the emergence of the post-war LA art world: a collection of 66 exhibition posters for Ferus Gallery, which Hopps founded with Ed Kienholz, which was then taken over by Irving Blum.
I imagine the talk will draw heavily on Doran & Treisman’s book, which they created from over 100 hours of interviews with Hopps; and on the posters themselves, which Hopps, and later Blum, often created in collaboration with the budding artists themselves, including Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
It should be a great talk about a great read in a great show, so do try and come.
You could buy The Dream Colony now via bookshop.org, but why not get a copy from the authors on Sunday night? [amazon bookshop.org] Ferus Gallery: Between The Folds runs through Nov., 19, 2017, at Alden Projects™ [aldenprojects.com]
I’ve recently enjoyed and been enlightened by Martin Herbert’s new collection of essays, Tell Them I Said No published by Sternberg Press. Herbert considers ten artists who have left the “art world” and how. I put that in scare quotes because some artists stop making work, while others stop showing it, and others refuse to perform as public figures discussing or representing their work.
It’s a very thoughtful group of essays about a fascinating and challenging group of artists who, it turns out, are engaging with art and artistic practice entirely on their own terms. The artists are Agnes Martin, Albert York, Charlotte Posenenske, Stanley Brouwn, David Hammons, Lutz Bacher, Christopher D’Arcangelo, Laurie Parsons, Cady Noland, and Trisha Donnelly.
A couple of excerpts from Herbert’s introduction:
As performed today, [self-detachment] pushes against the current in an epoch of celebrity worship and its related feedback loop, increasingly universal visibility and access. A big part of the artist’s role now, in a massively professionalized art world, is showing up to self-market, being present. On all channels, ideally: see how, aside from all the photo opportunities, far-from-digital-native figures take to social media or splash themselves when possible across magazines (which grander galleries now produce themselves) or collaborate with fashion designers, all gates open.
In such a context of hectic short-termism and multiple types of oversharing, some kind of voluntary retreat, some respect for the Joycean triumvirate of silence, exile, and cunning, might constitute a vanguard, if a difficult and apparently suicidal one to countenance today since it seemingly requires earning the right to leave.
None of this, meanwhile, has transpired in a steady-state art world. Rather, the urge to pull back, where felt, echoes changing conditions over decades, from the swing toward dematerialization and its intersection with critique, to art’s transmogrification into a backcloth for the power plays of the prosperous.
Each case Herbert examines is particular; he does not try to force artists’ experiences and choices into an over-arching historical analysis. But as I found myself nodding along in recognition and admiration for these artists, I came to feel a case being made against the structures of the market- and celebrity-centered art world we’re soaking in.
This multi-faceted questioning reminded me of another paradigmatic challenge, posed by Helen Molesworth in the Dec. 2016 issue of Artforum. Molesworth asks why shock, countering shock with shock, and a strategy of épater le bourgeoisie persists as the dominant mode of modernism and the avant-garde:
Must meaning be predicated on shock? Why was a cut or a break always required for something to be historically serious or significant? Why couldn’t continuity or gentleness, even, be imagined as a hermeneutic of radicality? As someone with a nascent interest in domesticity and the quotidian, I felt that shock didn’t help me understand much of anything.
Molesworth goes on to discuss powerful examples of engagement, listening, connection and self-reflection as alternatives to the received models of attention-grabbing spectacle and an ever-intensifying cycle of shock and desensitization. In a similar way, while the artists Herbert discusses don’t show a singular path out of the current hall of mirrors, they remind us of the overlooked potential of engaging art with questioning, silence, and refusal. Who could refuse to buy Tell Them I Said No at Amazon for like $24? [amazon]
In August Artspace published an interview celebrating self-styled “art architect” Peter Marino. The “Dark Prince of Luxury,” who has become the architecture dom to the world’s wealthiest people and brands, told Andrew Goldstein the secrets of his success and career ascent in the New York of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Warhol’s Factory.
[AG:] It would seem trauma is an excellent crucible for talent.
[PM:] It really is. If you just lead your normal, banal life you don’t get enough fried brain cells to be an artist. [Laughs]
And of fortuitous meetings with future clients like the refugees Marella and Gianni Agnelli:
Everyone from Europe was coming to New York to see the art scene. And it was a double whammy. The kids today don’t remember the violence of the Red Brigades in Italy, but the communists were this close to overrunning the whole country. So all the cultured, wealthy, sophisticated people came to New York. It was a very frightening moment. And they all needed a place to stay.
And they all needed places to stay in New York. Enter Peter Marino.
Right place, right time.
I’d like to think that my architecture really expressed the times in which we lived, or helped define the time in which we lived. Because, for me, that’s one of the definitions of great art…So, I try so hard in the stores I do, in the homes I do, to make it so that if you took this compendium of my work, it would express the time in which we live.
In this, alas, I have no doubt that Marino has succeeded. Whether it’s nine-figure flagships for Chanel or similarly costly New York collector townhouse renos, and estates for “rogue Mexican bond traders,” Marino’s work embodies the defining spirit of our age: immense wealth expended on limitless craft and luxury for the pleasure of a tiny few.
Michael Heizer, Munich Rotary, 1970, transparencies and projectors, installed here at LACMA in 2012, but on view at the Whitney through Apr. 10, 2016
Michael Heizer talked about Munich Depression (1969) and Munich Rotary (1970) with Heiner Friedrich and the Whitney folks, and Interview Magazine is ON it.
HEIZER: I have a genius friend named Maris Ambats, whom I talked to about making a projector to project an image at the actual size. The deal was to let the camera be a translator between reality and a replicated reality, which means making the photograph as big as the thing itself. So here it is. It gets squeezed down through the camera, and then it’s blown back up to the same size.
…MANCUSI-UNGARO: And the first time you showed Munich Rotary was in 1971 in Detroit…
HEIZER: Sam Wagstaff [who was then the curator of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts] introduced photography to the modern-art market. He liked photography so much he wanted to show it in the grand hall in this classical museum. It’s a big, big classical building–it’s like the Louvre inside with huge rooms. He put my piece in this huge 200-foot room. It was really good, and it was intended to be a photographic offering, a photographic artwork. Wagstaff had the nerve to do that. The trustees wanted him to remove that sculpture of mine he exhibited, too, and he resigned because of it. But he had the nerve, and he believed in it. He was right. It’s become so insidious. Photography is everywhere now. Back then, it wasn’t an art-world technique. But, the thing is, you can’t separate the film derivation from the real thing. Munich Depression and Munich Rotary are different works of art, but they come from the real thing. So you can’t escape it.
DE SALVO: You can’t uncouple them.
HEIZER: No point in trying to.
This hits a lot of buttons for me, first because of what’s not really discussed: the full-scale photomurals of boulders Heizer showed alongside Munich Rotary at LACMA in 2012, in a show called “Actual Size.” [Actually, Munich Rotary is or has been called Actual Size: Munich Rotary, too.] This felt like a photo representational rebuke of MOCA’s 2012 Land Art show, which Heizer refused to participate in.
But it really all makes me rethink how photography operated in this era as both a mode of art production, and as a means of circulation. The difference between the image and what it depicts, photography’s built-in distortions of “the scale of the world,” as Sontag put it.
Destroyed Richter Painting No. 013, 2016, installation shot
The double distortion by photography and the market is what drove me to make the Destroyed Richter Paintings. I want to experience the difference (or the similarities) between a photo of a painting (or a jpg of a 4×5 slide) and an actual size reproduction of that (image of that) painting. Some have size info attached, but at first all the Destroyed Richter Paintings dimensions were extrapolated from the painting in them, and the studio space they inhabited. While figuring this out, I definitely considered conceptualist folks like Joseph Kosuth or Mel Bochner when I looked back at these issues, but Heizer and his photos were unknown to me. I sure look at them now, though.
And apparently I need to look at Audubon, too, who insisted on illustrating his birds life-size, and letting the printing people just deal. William S. Smith discusses Audubon and Actual Size in Art in America, and looks at scale and representation as analogs for control:
Heizer’s actual-size photographs of Munich Depression establish control over the context in which they are viewed–a control he could never assert over the site on which it was made. Photographs of variable scale can be reprinted, republished, circulated and annotated in popular magazines. But the actual-size works have to be seen in person in a setting where the placement of the projectors can be tightly controlled. They are photographic oddities, resistant to reproduction and circulation. This resistance, too, comes at a cost, because it makes the work, conceived supposedly in innocence of “commercial and utilitarian concerns,” entirely dependent on institutions with the resources and space that Heizer requires.
Huh, this installation view of Michael Heizer’s “Actual Size” show at LACMA in 2012 is really about the museum. Broad wins again. via x-traonline.org
This is not to just hitch my wagon to whatever 60s star is riding through town. I am actually in the middle of sending out photos of the Destroyed Richters, and unless it’s a flagrant installation shot, the works keep ending up looking like the photos. I find myself stuck in this same representational gap, in a hole, I have dug for myself. But at least I am not alone. While looking around for photos of Heizer’s “Actual Size” show, I realized they are really all about LACMA, and their giant pavilion. And though all those megaliths are presumably still where Heizer photographed them 46 years ago, the work that’s inextricably coupled with Munich Rotary, Munich Depression, created on an active suburban building site, was destroyed within months of its completion.
Now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m kind of amazed at how much the ideas that led me to Chop Shop resonated with the discussion Phyllida Barlow had at the Nasher Sculpture Center with Tyler Green. The live conversation was on MANPodcast in July 2015.
Phyllida Barlow, tryst, 2015, installation at Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas [image: manpodcast.com]
I was listening to it again tonight on the way home and pulled some highlights: like this idea of fragments:
It always seems to me extraordinary that our lineage of Western art is dependent on broken fragments of things for which we have no proper-I mean, we look at torsos that don’t have limbs, that come from Hellenic times…and they’re iconic. ‘This is great.’ and Western art runs out of that greatness. And there doesn’t seem to be an issue that the arms are missing, or the legs are missing.
So the fragment and the half-finished has for everybody-it does for me-a certain beauty. it’s sublime. [9m00s]
This notion of the fate of art:
Really a question that emerged very early on, which is, ‘Where does art end up?’…Do you, as in my case, enjoy it, or as I was doing in the 80s and 90s and just putting it on the roof of our car, and taking it somewhere and just putting it on the street corner? And abandoning these things, and finally, after a few years of doing that, one night at 3 o’clock in the morning, I took them all to Blackfriars Bridge and chucked them in the Thames. [Laughing] Such is the way of artists, you know. It was one of the most liberating things I’d done. [13m15s]
Barlow talks about touch, and how the anticipation of touch is more powerful than touch itself:
I think this issue of touch is, for me, problematic. I think touch is a language, a non-verbal language, and how you imagine touching something seems to me to be more important than actually reaching out and touching it, where the minute you’ve touched it, the mystery, or the imaginative process, gets solved. You know, that’s closure on it.
I think there are…numerous art objects where there is a longing to touch, or an interest in what this thing is. But I think that it’s up to us to work out, what we then imagine what this might be? Is it hot or cold? There are artists who very much play that; Pierre Huyghe made a sculpture that is very much hot when you touch it. I think that’s a sort of fascinating game. I found that work, for me, you know, the minute you’d done that action, I didn’t know quite what else there was to discover about it. [51m00]
Just now I listened to this and the action I thought of was cutting the Barnett Newman painting and the Gursky Rhine. The thought of cutting, and the process of composition, the decisionmaking, the weighing, these all feel vital, and different from the actual chops.
Chop Shop Newman Painting No. 1 [destroyed] and No. 2, both 2016
That experience is reserved for whoever buys it; by design it is not the same experience as the regular viewer. Taking Barlow’s perspective on touch would mean that considering the potential is more interesting. But I think what actually happens is that the decision to cut, crop, compose and define shifts a collector away from just seeing and toward creating. From the audience to the artist.
A Gerhard Richter squeegee painting is coming up for auction in February. It is CR:725-4 fourth in a series of five large paintings [225×200 cm] made in 1990, a very busy squeegee year. From The Art Newspaper:
“The years 1989 and 1990 are the most sought-after in Richter’s works,” says Isabelle Paagman, Sotheby’s senior specialist, contemporary art. “During this time he really embraces the squeegee technique in his abstract paintings. More than half of Richter’s works from that period are in museums.”
Paagman says his use of grey in Abstraktes Bild also makes it highly sought after. Grey is of particular importance for Richter; in a 2004 interview he described it as “the ideal colour for indifference, fence-sitting, keeping quiet, despair”.
I’ve been reading the transcript from Susan Weil’s interviews for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Oral History Project. It’s four sittings over several months, so stories are retold with slight variations depending on who’s there, more Thanksgiving chestnut than Rashomon, but still interesting.
One example, in her first interview session, Weil talked about the collapse of her marriage to Rauschenberg in the Summer of 1951, just as Christopher was being born, and of the aftermath, raising him as a single parent. [Bob was at Black Mountain College during the birth, then soon took up with Cy Twombly and headed to Europe for 17 months. By 1953-4, Rauschenberg was back in New York, way downtown, and in a relationship with Jasper Johns.]:
And was Bob able to see him from time to time?
WEIL: Yes. Particularly when he was in New York, that worked out. He would see him from time to time. But Christopher, he always–they’d try to do things together, and of course at that time, Bob was really into making his art life bigger and broader. So he’d often cancel meetings with Chris, because he would have a meeting with a museum person or something.
And so Bob was supposed to take Chris to the circus, and he said, “Well, Mom, he probably won’t be able to come, because he’ll have something more important.” And I felt so terrible. And of course he did come, but Christopher had it all in his head that he was not at the top of the list.
The circus reminded me of this letter, which is collaged to the face of one of Rauschenberg’s earliest combines, Untitled (1954) [above], and which was mentioned in two essays in Paul Schimmel’s 2005 Combines exhibition catalogue:
“I hope that you still like me Bob cause I still love you. Please wright me back love LOVE Christopher.” And there’s a circus clown in the corner. Same circus? Who can say? What’s notable is not whether Rauschenberg was a good dad, but that he incorporated the letter in his artwork, and how.
Untitled (1954-58), also called Untitled (Man with White Shoes) and Plymouth Rock, collection: MOCA, image: RRF
The letter is just below and to the left of an overexposed headshot of a toddler Christopher, but the handwriting is not that of a 3-year-old. Though it’s dated 1954, Rauschenberg clearly kept working on Untitled for several years. This photo of the artist’s studio shows that Christopher’s letter and photo were on there by 1958, though, the year of his (and Johns’) breakout shows at Castelli.
I’m slow to take a closer look at the conservation project to restore the coloration to Mark Rothko’s badly faded Harvard Murals (1963) using computer-calibrated light projections. The project has been going for several years, but the last winter the lit paintings went on view for the first time in decades, and remain up until July 24th. Which was the trigger for the roundtable discussion in Artforum that piqued my interest. It’s fascinating all around, but I really liked that it included artists Rebecca Quaytman, David Reed, and Ken Okiishi, who ended discussing the fate of paintings and the use of projection on painting as a creative medium in itself.
Even before the conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro explained that the projection was tuned pixel by pixel to approximate Rothko’s intended colors, I found myself jonesing to get my hands on the image, and turn it into a work of its own. Called a compensation image, it’s made by calculating the chromatic differences between the paintings’ current state and the target state. It’s a map of everything the painting has lost, an accounting of how far it’s fallen from its (hypothetical) historical potential.
It’s the color that might have been. In the case of Rothko’s Harvard Murals, Mancusi-Ungaro explained that they weren’t seeking to return the paintings’ appearance to a new, “original” state, but simply to erase the damage caused by Harvard leaving the works to bake in the sun for 15 years. The target state was determined using color-corrected Ektachrome slides from 1964 and a sixth painting, excluded from the set, which has been in dark storage in the Rothko estate.
The images above showing three of the paintings with and without the corrective projection come from a TEDx talk given by Harvard conservator Narayan Khandekar. The dramatic reveal, when the museum turns off the projection, happens every day at 4 o’clock, and is by all accounts dramatic.
What is not shown is the compensation image itself. Here is a photo of part of it, when Khandekar holds some foamcore in front of the painting. I would like to see and use the entire thing. There may be a way.
In 2011 other Harvard conservator Jens Stenger published a report on the project at the International Committee of Museums triennial in Lisbon, which is circulating as an ICOM-CC newsletter pdf. In it, Stenger discloses that the team confected a small scale test of the light correction process by using identical materials (egg and pigment) to paint another Rothko and superfade and correct it.1, 2
A is the Conservators’ Rothko. B is the painting after a few weeks under some tungsten lamps. C is the interpolated compensation image (A – B). D is the lit painting (A + C). In an incisive essay last April, John Pyper likened the compensation image’s duplicative relationship to the painting as a similar to a print and a plate. Seeing it now makes me think of a color photo negative.
Which makes me think of Alma Thomas, who painted Watusi (Hard Edge) in 1963 [!] using the form from Matisse’s giant cutout, L’Escargot, but in the inverse colors. For Thomas the colors signaled a reversal of direction for cultural appropriation. What does the color of a compensation image represent? Here it is loss, a loss caused, let’s face it, by Harvard’s years of neglect, mishandling, and occasional abuse. [Actually, the projector project does not address the physical damage, dents, scratches and graffiti the paintings received in what was, after all, a campus dining room.] At least in this case, compensation feels too diplomatic; maybe we should call it a restitution image, or a reparations image.