This weird practice I’ve been exploring leaves me very aware of how I discuss it, and of how works are explained. I try to be accurate about what I actually do, or what a work has to do with me. A lot of times, the work exists, and I announce it. Or I’m stoked to announce it. It’s on view. It is available. Sometimes it is conceptualized. Rarely is it conceived; that doesn’t feel like how it works. It’s not really found, though that is obviously part of the process. Same with declaring it, though I bridle at the ostensible ease, which can make me doubt myself as a Duchampian poseur, or an armchair usurper of someone else’s creative exertions.
But sometimes, rarely, exquisitely, there is a right word to describe the flow from which a perfect product emerges. In this case the word is realized. I realized this work in a hot-tweeted instant about an hour ago. This work was realized at the Hirshhorn Museum.
It is also interesting to me how immediately and completely realizing a work transforms the context and history around it. Something I hated with disgust I now love-hate. This huge, overbearing, aggressively dumb sculpture once seemed to me a monument to its own pomposity and that of the institution(al leadership) that brought it to town, then set it smack in the unavoidable center of things, then promptly discovered it was too big and unwieldy and expensive to get rid of, and that it wasn’t even clear the site’s hollow foundation could support the apparatus needed to remove it, or survive the attempt unscathed.
So yeah, amazing how that’s all changed now. And you can see it during the shutdown. What you can’t do, though, is ever unsee it.
When David Hammons’ How Ya Like Me Now?, a billboard-size portrait of a blonde & blue-eyed Jesse Jackson was being installed on a vacant lot in downtown Washington, DC in 1989, Black passersby who first encountered it without the soothing benefit of a museum guide or explanatory text took offense–and then a sledgehammer–to it. That incident and that work are now a major part of Hammons’ story.
Four years later, Hammons again encountered local resistance while installing another outdoor sculpture, which was then vandalized, and later destroyed. It all went down on the bucolic campus of Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
In October 1993 Hammons opened a show, curated by Deborah Rothschild, at the Williams College Museum of Art. Yardbird Suite, the indoor installation of boomboxes in trees playing Jazz was chill. The six-ton boulder placed in front Chapin Hall at the center of campus, with antique fans bolted to the top, was not.
Students began questioning and criticizing the piece as Hammons was installing it. He called it Rock Fan, which only seemed to incense those demanding deeper meaning or significance from this work of art temporarily in their midst. [He also told some agitated students that it was called The Agitator.] In Williams’ hyper-privileged and hyper-collegial culture, every gifted scholar was expected to be able to weigh in on everything. In practice, this meant students commented on Post-It notes on literally whatever poster, building, vending machine, or public sculpture they encountered.
They criticized the site, the title, the fabrication, the aesthetics, the imagined expense, and the disruption. Some complaints were reported in the weekly student paper, The Williams Record. Additional back and forth took place a daily student bulletin, plus the Post-Its. While he was on site, Hammons gave as good as he got.
“You don’t have to make it into some big mystery. Damn, relax. Use your energy on something else besides intellectual masturbation,” he said.
Hammons added that he was primarily interested in confronting and challenging people with images that they aren’t used to seeing or which seem out of place. “I’m in the business of making the invisible visible…Most of your eyes are very weak, so you need to see things you’re not accustomed to seeing so that your eyes get much stronger.” [WR 10/26/93]
In the first couple of weeks, a student or students [I haven’t been able to find yet] surrounded Rock Fan with their own sculptural responses: accordion-folded paper fans glued to small rocks [top]. Then came the painters, dousing Rock Fan with purple paint for Homecoming.
On March 3rd, 1994, David Hammons gave a slide lecture at SFMOMA, introduced by curator Gary Garrels, which ends with Rock Fan[s]:
And this is a piece at Williams College called Rock Fans.
This was protested. For about the last five months, they’ve been protesting this piece on their campus. And so some students made fans out of paper and put these little rock fans around the piece. It’s been vandalized and written about.
When the wind blows, the fans actually move. Someone said, “I don’t care how many fans you put on it, it’s not going to fly.”
And this is after Williams students painted the rock. Someone called me and told me that now they feel like it’s theirs, because they painted it their school colors.
Rock Fan was originally meant to travel to SFMOMA, too, but at some point Hammons decided it would not. He left it at Williams; it was removed in April, during Spring Break. The fans went back to the artist. I haven’t found the rock.
In 1997 Hammons appropriated the Williams students’ response to his sculpture to make a new Rock Fan out of a stone and pleated fabric. In 2004 the director of the Williams Museum found out about it at Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn’s place, and acquired it for the collection. In 2012 Robbi Behr (’97) designed a Rock Fan-themed coffee mug for their 15th reunion.
Last year I spotted this structure in a front yard in Washington, DC. It is a wedge-shaped cabin [?] made of wood and siding and decking and corrugated plastic. The translucent plastic panel on the angled side facing the house is hinged and often propped open, like a canopy. There is a small platform in front, but I could not see what, if anything, is inside, without going into the yard.
It reminded me, in the accumulation of fleeting instants I’d see it, of Andrea Zittel’s Wagon Stations.
And her Homestead Units.
And her Cellular Compartment Units.
Those Cellular Compartment Units especially stood out for me, as I wondered what this structure could be for, what could be inside. Zittel created a separate space for each, “single human need or desire from sleeping to eating to reading to watching TV.”
I resisted the impulse to declare someone else’s garden folly a work, and nothing I googled ever brought me any closer to finding one of my own, or figuring out what it is.
I happened to drive by the house again recently, and the structure is still there. So I’ve been thinking of it again.
I had three chairs in my house, but only one in my sitting shed in my front yard, Thoreau did not write.
I just need a quiet place to write, but I live on a very busy street with constant traffic.
Anyway, I’ve decided to go ahead, and let this stay as is, as ed. 1. And I am ready to make another. A structure customized for a single human need or purpose. It could be writing, or reading, or sitting, or showering, or pissing. Actually, there’s already a structure for that.
Last winter I was visiting museums on the Mall a lot in order to write this review/roundup. It was pretty grim going, and I don’t think I was wrong about the mood.
These black cubes appeared along my drive, and I would take note of them, think about them. They had an eye-catching, out-of-place presence and no discernible purpose, which made them feel of temporary sculpture. They were also alongside a conduit road whose main feature was not slowing you down on your way, which created a tension, if only for the briefest (passing) moment.
They made me think of Tony Smith’s Die, obviously, but if anything, that easy association pushed back against my own doing anything with these cubes. They also made me think, though, of Smith’s massive 1967 sculpture Smoke, which, like so much of his work, first came into being as black plywood.
Smith built Smoke in one half of the Corcoran’s atrium while Ronald Bladen built X in the other. Or rather, the Corcoran built Smoke and X for Smith and Bladen. The sculptures were commissions, fabricated by the museum’s carpenters for a three-artist show called, “Scale as Content.” [The third work was Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, which was installed outside, facing the White House and the Washington Monument. The Corcoran ended up owning none of these works.]
Artforum’s retardataire reviewer didn’t like it “as art,” but “Scale as Content” feels pretty on the nose for Smith, who realized Die in six foot steel in 1968 after noodling for six years over a six inch cardboard model. [In 1967 Smith also showed a plywood version of Maze, and published the cardboard version in Aspen Magazine.]
Anyway, these boxes were not placed where they are for artistic reasons. I finally went to investigate them on foot in January. They’re cover/markers for some infrastructure node, presumably related to the construction staging on the lawn between the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. They’re close to crosswalks; maybe they’re hookups for eventual pedestrian crossing signals.
But this is not really the time, and these are not in the place, for benign indifference to the apparatus of the state. In this era of plate readers, wifi sniffers, Stingrays, and ICE raids on pizza delivery guys, these black boxes now feel like–like black boxes. Given what we keep finding out on a daily basis in DC, what could we possibly not know yet? You don’t have to be Trevor Paglen to wonder about the menace of ersatz apparatuses popping up on the major thoroughfares of Washington. Are they some nefarious surveillance system in waiting, or one that’s already at work?
The intervening months have also brought Paglen’s Trinity Cube and Rachel Whiteread’s cast voids to town, and so I still pass these cubes and still think. One thing I think a lot about is the point of declaring something a work. Another thing is declaring. Another is a work. Sometimes, during a year of wondering if I’m rationalizing, I wonder if the reflexivity, the impulsion, the emptiness of these things are reasons in themselves. Emptiness as Content.
I am a bigger fan of Wolfgang Tillmans than of the British royal family, but this is a truly excellent image, and I would definitely like to see it IRL, preferably pinned on my wall. It’ll be sold at Christie’s during Frieze Week.
As a 1/1 acquired directly from the artist, and with no exhibition history, I’d imagine this print has an interesting story of its own.
If I don’t scare up an extraneous GBP 50,000 by next month, perhaps a Shanzhai Tillmans series is in order. Of course, unlike a Shanzhai Gursky, I’m not sure what the difference between a Tillmans and a Shanzhai Tillmans would even be.
“One night I could not have dreamed that I painted a large American flag, but the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” Those materials included three canvases that the artist mounted on plywood, strips of newspaper, and encaustic paint—a mixture of pigment and molten wax that has formed a surface of lumps and smears. The newspaper scraps visible beneath the stripes and forty-eight stars lend this icon historical specificity. The American flag is something “the mind already knows,” but its execution complicates the representation and invites close inspection.
By draining most of the color from the flag but leaving subtle gradations in tone, the artist shifts our attention from the familiarity of the image to the way in which it is made. “White Flag” is painted on three separate panels: the stars, the seven upper stripes to the right of the stars, and the longer stripes below. The artist worked on each panel separately.
After applying a ground of unbleached beeswax, the artist built up the stars, the negative areas around them, and the stripes with applications of collage — cut or torn pieces of newsprint, other papers, and bits of fabric. The artist dipped these into molten beeswax and adhered them to the surface. The artist then joined the three panels and overpainted them with more beeswax mixed with pigments, adding touches of white oil.
cf. Study for White Flag, 2018, Crayola washable marker on coloring page, 8 1/2 x 11 in. (21.6 x 28 cm)
And here I am starting to feel about headboards-I-don’t-own-as-readymade-paintings like Dan Flavin ended up feeling about fluorescent lights: stuck.
Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. Can you just imagine the market pressure? Demanding you to keep repeating your greatest hit, to keep churning out every iteration of the formula, to see the concept through to the bitter end, until it’s ultimately the headboard on your own deathbed, stained with your own hairgrease, that becomes your final, ghostly selfie. The hammer drops, the crowd cheers, your kids want to cash out and move your estate to Zwirner, authorizing faux-finish headboards in posthumous editions.
Damn. That got dark fast. And here I’d only planned to point out that this king-size, faux snakeskin quilted pleather number is most definitely in the top ten of the series. The top five, even. If you want it, you have until next week to let me know, at which point it’ll slip from all our grasps.
“Paint roller through a Picasso, well, there’s your Powerless Structures right there,” I said. “But can it really be that easy?” And then I remembered that Michael & Ingar hadn’t thought so back in 2004 when they put a safe behind a Hirst.
And then there’s this quote, mentioned in the Ganz sale catalogue, from Jacques Prevert, who visited Picasso two weeks before Le Marin was painted, and a month after the artist had been told by the Gestapo he was to be sent to a German concentration camp:
Picasso, more than any other artist, reacts to the things around him. Everything he does is a response to something he has seen or felt, something that has surprised or moved him. (Quoted in M. Cone, op. cit., p. 135)
So yes, I will react. And if you need me, I will be honing my paint roller throwing technique until the #chinesepaintmill Picasso arrives.
update update: Thinking about how to actually make this work, I look back to an even earlier Elmgreen & Dragset performance piece, 12 Hours of White Paint, Powerless Structures, Fig. 15 (1997) [above], where the duo repeatedly painted and washed off the walls of a gallery space. The downstroke is the key. I bet the painter was painting the wall opposite the Picasso and so had his back to it, and on the end of his downstroke he stabbed it. Which is fine, but I had hoped to work a rollerful of paint into the disaster somehow.
These nice but unremarkable chairs would go nicely with our humble chair, I thought, but claiming that is the reason to buy them would be a lie. You would buy them–I would buy them–because 65 years ago, the family registrar marked two of the three chairs with inventory numbers: D.R. 53.1758. I am fine with acknowledging this.
I realized that buying something you might conceivably need would violate the spirit of the occasion. Beyond all other auctions, a Rockefeller Auction is pure want. And what is wanted, above all, is provenance.
Could provenance and its auratic power be isolated from the object that is its ostensible vehicle? What object might make that possible? It would not just have to be non-precious, or non-aesthetic; it would almost have to thwart value and appeal. It couldn’t be ironic or sentimental, or hold even a remote association with Rockefeller personally–which seemed a little intrusive–or with the family and their history and legacy.
I love that this puzzle presented itself at the exact same time I was dealing with the Japanese plates Danh Vo bought 11 years ago from the rural Pennsylvania estate sale of an obscure US general with a connection to the Vietnam War and the JFK assassination.Anyway, I did a reverse estimate sort on the 800 or whatever lots in the online auction. I skipped past all the Staffordshire porcelain figurines of shepherdesses. I lingered for a moment over the fireplace tools and andirons (above). I have a thing for andirons of provenance, but then I remembered that the Rockefellers did, too: David’s brother Nelson had a business selling reproductions of his art collection, including his Diego Giacometti andirons.
Then I found it: Lot 1732 An 18th Century English Cast-Iron Fireback, est. $200-400. It was in terrible condition, or rather, it had a rare patina. Like how they gratuitously leave the bird’s nest in the hood scoop of the barn find Ferrari. 1st Dibs lists two nearly identical firebacks [below] with Spes, the Roman goddess of hope, as 17th century Dutch, so Christie’s (and the Rockefellers’) description probably stems from the careful preservation of an inaccurate invoice “from WM. Jackson Co., 1 February 1956.” #provenance.
Oh, weird, what’s this, Lot 1753, Late 17th Century Italian Priedieu, “the base reduced in depth”, est. $400-600? A priedieu with the prie removed is kind of perfect. Not to question the Rockefellers’ faith, of course, just that when you put it in a home, the kneeling part of a priedieu can be a real tripping hazard. The provenance here was distinct, too: “Acquired with the contents of Hudson Pines.” David & Peggy bought Hudson Pines from his sister Babs, who’d built it. So this 10-inch deep, chopped up priedieu has a double Rockefeller provenance. I imagine it holding a tiny key bowl, or blocking an unsightly vent.
But it’s also almost the same dimensions as the fireback. Now I could see these two damaged, useless, clunky antiques together, a found monochrome diptych monument to this liquidity event, a celebration of the massive value accrued around them during the last 70 years of their 350 year existence.
Each of these marred tchotchkes ended up selling for $3000, which answers the question of what provenance is worth. And I don’t have to worry about where to put them.
Tim’s point is well taken, and borne out in the show: Vo makes both sexy, shiny, collector bait (gold-leafed flags & alphabets, Statue of Liberty fragments) and meaning-laden but head-scratchingly unaesthetic cultural detritus (the stuffing from Robert McNamara’s chair, the Unabomber’s typewriter). The typical market dynamics of art stardom readily attend to the former, while posing a challenge to the latter.
At least that’s how it looks on the secondary market. Vo’s global network of top-flight dealers know a thing or two about placing “difficult” work with “connoisseurs.” Those McNamara chairs, purchased at Sotheby’s for $146,000, were promptly stripped for parts, which were sold as separate works to nine of Marian Goodman’s most well-cultivated private and institutional clients. And some of the wonkiest Gothic and Hellenic scrap mashups with the grossest Exorcist titles are in the collection of Francois Pinault. Then Vo installed them in the Dogana alongside scrap metal rented [rented!] from Cameron Rowland and plastic tarps David Hammons dragged into Mnuchin’s joint from the street.
Two things that stuck with me from the Guggenheim, and any time I see one of Vo’s spare, deliberate installations: he makes almost as many objects as he shops, and he shops a lot.
Vo makes a lot of very interesting editions, which get equal treatment in his shows, even if they don’t garner equal attention. An easy place to start looking is the sheaf of photogravures Vo has produced with Niels Borch Jensen. There was a burst of activity in 2010, starting with Joseph Carrier’s photos of Vietnam; various family snapshots; and a candid photo of the artist who, at that moment, would have been his ex’s ex. Loaded/awkward. Anyway, seven of the 12 prints in the screencap above are in the show, and that’s still just the tip of an iceberg.
The first Vo edition I regret not getting was Seasons Greetings, made for his show at the Fredericianum in Kassel. A gift box contains a T-shirt from the Statue of Liberty; a coffee mug with a Barbara Bush quote on it from the GHWB Library shop; a book about Ted Kaczynski Harvard sued out of print; and just when you think the loaded-souvenir-shopping-as-practice has gone too far, there is a card on which Vo typed out the name of the show, JULY, IV, MDCCLXXIV– using Kaczynski’s typewriter.
I started thinking about these editions because Tim Schneider hadn’t mentioned them, at least not directly. Tim broke out the auction performance for Vo’s works: of 52 pieces to come up for sale, 13 were not gilded cardboard or Statue of Liberty chunks, and 6 of these 13 were bought in. And two of those six, I realized, were the same piece.
Two examples of Untitled, 2009 (above), from an edition of 12, had come up for auction: one at Phillips in 2016, from Daniel Buchholz (est. $8,000-12,000); and another, from Bortolozzi, in Christie’s London in 2015 (est. £10,000 – £15,000). [Christie’s deletes webpages for unsold lots, so unless you have a print catalogue, or an artnet database, you’ll need an Internet Archive.]
When Vo turned his apartment into an exhibition site for the 2010 Berlin Biennale, they were hanging in the kitchen [above]. And before that, in a Summer group show in 2009, Daniel Buchholz showed them in Köln. That credit line also includes an auction catalogue for the estate of Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, which was unmentioned anywhere else.
Which immediately got me wondering. And sure enough, there it is: 2007, Alderfer Auction in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Among the various lots of Japanese Imari ware Gen. Lemnitzer had accumulated were twolots of twelve matching plates in slightly different sizes. They totaled, with premium, around $1200. Even as a barely emerging artist, I’m sure he netted out.
The super weird thing, though I didn’t know how weird yet, was that the day after I was searching for Vo’s 11-year-old sale, a near identical pair of Imari plates was coming up for auction in West Palm Beach. The pattern was identical, the marks identical, the sizes were very slightly different, but maybe not out of the auction houses’ margin of error. The auction estimate was $40-60. Even by the cruelest market calculus, that seemed like an unlikely price curve.
There must be thousands of plates like this, I thought, wrongly. A search through almost ten thousand auctions for Imari porcelain plates turned up only one that matched the Lemnitzer plates Vo bought and the two in front of me. [Sidebar: there is too much stuff in this world.] Could this pair be an overlooked Vo edition? If it was, could it be rescued? More interestingly, if it wasn’t, did it matter?
The auratic weight of provenance, history, culture, and memory are at the crux of Vo’s work. He buys the objects he buys because of these associations, and he puts them in an art context, where their backstory operates like an informational dye packet that explodes when you read a wall text, irrevocably staining the object in your mind, if not your eye. You can complain about the inertness or opacity of Vo’s objects, and their reliance on explanations, but I’m pretty sure he dgaf. And by the time you realize it, it’s already too late; Vo has changed the way you see–and think about–what he’s put before you.
So can that connection be severed? And if severed, can it be reattached? If it never existed, can it be conjured by an identical object? Vo spends an awful lot of time shopping. It’s probably the main part of his practice, besides chopping. These intangible issues, evocations, and associations hover around every transaction we make; it’s how brands work, how fashion works, how art works. Vo transposes his objects from one sphere–the historical, political, or personal–to another, but every time we trawl through eBay or a museum shop, so do we. Consumption and the mechanisms and networks of capitalism implicate us all.
Whether these Floridian plates once sat on the shelf of the American father of the Vietnam War is immaterial. Because now these plates evoke Danh Vo. And that is something.
If you bought these plates, please know that you did so because the liveauctioneers app gave me the false impression that I had placed a winning bid, and then gave no warning before it closed the sale. While you enjoy your plates, I will enjoy thinking about them.
Built in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest public building in New York City and has been in continuous operation for over 250 years. When its sister parish Trinity Church (built 1698) burned down in 1776, St. Paul’s Chapel served as the primary place of worship for the likes of George Washington while Trinity was rebuilt. This august, historic, sacred space contains one of the two earliest public depictions of The Great Seal of The United States, of which visitors to this site have so recently read.
And St. Paul’s Church is also the place where my critique of the impertinent treatment and presentation of The Great Seal gets laughed out of town like a mobbed up president’s stooge claiming attorney-client privilege.
Behold the wide shot of the painting of The Great Seal hanging in its original spot, over the Washington Family Pew (reconstructed to some non-original spec, apparently some time after the radiators went in), and sandwiched in between World Trade Center Relief Swag exhibitions made of PVC jungle gym and clip-on tracklights? Are these original, historic exhibition fixtures made by first responders in October 2011?
Is it still there? Because this photo was taken in 2013 by historian/blogger Michael Lynch. So maybe it’s gone? I honestly don’t know whether to scream or ask for their fabricator’s contact info, whether to help one of the richest parishes in the country Kickstart some proper vitrines or take a vow to never show work again without a PVC kiosk.
But Professor Lynch is not through. He also went to Federal Hall, the site (but not the building) of George Washington’s inauguration on April 30, 1789. I have stood on the porch of Federal Hall. I have seen a musical version of the life of JP Morgan performed on the steps of Federal Hall. I have gone to the gym many times across the street from Federal Hall, but somehow I have never been inside Federal Hall.
So I have not known about the slab of the balcony from the original Federal Hall, which is on display there. The National Park Service calls it a balcony, but looking at this engraving of Washington’s inauguration, I might call it a loggia.
Anyway, despite being the site of the 1st Congress, the formation of the United States, the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and Washington’s inauguration, Federal Hall went back to being City Hall when the capital decamped to Philadelphia in 1790. And then New York City tore that place down in 1812 when they built their new City Hall.
Fragments of the building were saved, including this piece of brownstone from the loggia, which apparently went on display at Bellevue Hospital until it was returned in 1889, for the centennial. And it was given a coat of concrete, so they could carve it. And it was put in a frame on little wheels so it could be rolled around. Oops, it broke. At least now we can see the actual stone under the concrete skin, the part where the concrete repair came off also.
Here is a concrete-coated-and-carved piece of stone which you can barely see the original of, which used to be on the building here, till we tore it down, and anyway, George Washington probably stood on this to found our country. Or near it, it’s really hard to say. But this is how we do, and it apparently always has been.
Fragments of the building were saved. In a minute I have found another: the balustrade of the balcony where Washington was inaugurated. It, too, went to Bellevue, where it was incorporated into a portico. Perhaps this stone was, too? Anyway, in 1883 the balustrade went to the New York Historical Society, where it remains. [Interesting. A 1917 catalogue of Old New York views distinguishes between the NYHS and Bellevue balustrades.] It is positively lyrical. Was it by Pierre l’Enfant, who was commissioned to renovate Federal Hall in 1788? Yes. It is dated 1788-89. Thirteen arrows. Wrought iron painted yellow-gold. The New York Historical Society was headquartered in Federal Hall in 1809 and took the city’s donation of some of the original furniture.
In 1776 a committee of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were charged by the Continental Congress with creating an official seal, a sign of sovereignty and authenticity, for the new United States. Two committees later, in 1782, the primary suggestion from their committee included in the final design was the motto, E Pluribus Unum. Other committees, meanwhile, contributed the eagle, and the use of 13 elements–stars, stripes, arrows, olive leaves–to symbolize the original states in the Union.
The final design was described in terms of its heraldic elements by Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson, and this text remains the law Congress enacted in June 1782. Thomson provided an engraver with a sketch, which was turned into a die and put to use by September.
After his inauguration in April 1789, President Washington asked Thomson to transfer custody of the Great Seal from Congress to the Department of Foreign Affairs. It has remained under the charge of the Secretary of State ever since.
Between 1782 and 1885, four dies were created as replacements were needed, with minor changes or heraldic corrections each time. But since 1885, the die’s design has been fixed. It was installed inside a new press in 1904, and in 1986, the current die, along with a master die from which all future dies may be created, was put into service. An officer of the Department of State uses the Great Seal for 2-3,000 official statements, treaty documents, ambassadorial appointments, and such, per year. It is most widely seen via its depictions on the back of the $1 bill and the covers of US passports.
With this context in mind, I hereby announce a new work, Untitled (Art In Embassies), which went on exhibition this week in some courtyard at the US Embassy in Lima, Peru. It comprises a pop-up The Great Seal step & repeat tradeshow photo-opp backdrop and thirteen folding chairs, arranged in a circle.
The installation is visible in these photos showing the US’ official representative to the Summit of the Americas, a relative of the president with no experience or actual role, who cannot obtain a security clearance because she and her family are under criminal investigation; eleven alumnae of some economic development grant programs of the previous administration; and someone’s tio.
Each of the five elements in Tony Smith’s sculpture Wandering Rocks (1967) has a name: Smohawk, Shaft, Dud, Slide, and Crocus.
Of the edition of five, at least one Wandering Rocks is installed indoors. The National Gallery’s is on the lawn [above]. The Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park’s, which is the artist’s proof, was previously installed on and around a woodchipped path [below].
What is my intention? It is a new measure of man, in forms of free space, in terms of space that is defined but not enclosed, in terms of measurable space that flows so subtly into the infinite that it is impossible to know where the boundaries of art and nature lie…”
Placing art is hard. Placing sculpture in public is harder still. So many decisions can detract from the experience of art, or can thwart the artist’s intentions. With close looking and self-awareness, it is often possible to overcome these environmental obstacles and appreciate what the artist has accomplished. Additional benefit can be gained by understanding what the curator’s intentions might have been, too, whether or not they achieve them.
For the experienced art viewer, it is a special challenge to appreciate the work and understand its context while identifying the flaws, errors, or shortcomings that mar its presentation. A wonky spotlight. No benches. Audio bleeding from the video installation two galleries away. One or two of these, we can let slide. When such seemingly avoidable distractions pile up, though, and threaten to ruin an art experience, perhaps a conceptual artistic exercise can help.
To deal with unnecessarily problematic encounters with art, I propose to turn the third most egregious or annoying thing about it into a new work of its own. It may not solve the problems you identify, but maybe you’ll get some relief from art’s power to give significance and meaning to your annoyance. Maybe the thrill of discovering installfails and the interpretative exercise of ranking them will become a reassuring relief, if not a delight, when you look at art.
the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
Wrote Duchamp, who could not have imagined a work whose form–indeed, its entire existence–is predicated on the spectator’s decision to conjure it through affront.
Now, I don’t want to uncritically gamify your museum visits. Being compelled to contemplate an artwork about your connoisseurship of annoyance could become infuriating if it begins to intrude on. Every. Freaking. Poorly glazed. Painting. In the place. But it could also lead to an awakening, a liberation from the burdens of the imperfections of the external world, which in turn fosters deeper encounters with the art in front of you. Deciding not to conjure the work by deciding not to log more than one or two annoying things in an encounter is a valid, and powerful, option.
And so in honor of the eagle-eyed spotting of the sprinkler cover sitting in the lawn next to Wandering Rocks, between the otherwise unremarked-upon stanchions and the steel cheese grater fence, I have designated this work Untitled (Avoidable).
A pre-emptive note: I have seen Carl Auböck’s 1950s-era stone and leather paperweights coming up for auction at Wright20 in a few weeks.
Though they bear a superficial formal resemblance, they do not quality as editions of Untitled (Sold Out). If you submit them for authentication, please be assured that I have logged their dimensions, patina, and images, and I will know immediately that you did not buy them at a Nordstrom’s Christmas 2016 pop-up shop, so please save me the hassle and you the certain public embarrassment.
Whether it heals all wounds, time does cool all hot takes. When the Gursky show opened at the Hayward Gallery in January, I was immediately set off by this kicker from Laura Cumming’s review in The Guardian:
But the show’s masterpiece is unlike almost anything Gursky has made before. It is a new work, a single shot of some prefab houses skimmed on a mobile phone while driving through Utah. The photograph registers the speed of the car racing through the landscape – and modern life – in all its random glitches and blurs. At the same time, the houses look perilously ephemeral against the ancient mountains behind them. This fragile little thing, a spontaneous and disposable shot, is enlarged to the size of a cinema screen – a monumental homage to the mobile phone and the outsize role it plays in depicting our times.
Not just Gursky using a phonecam, but Gursky doing something new? Now that is news.
In addition to the phone and all its quotidian implications, what caught my attention was the subject: Utah. I had, just a couple of weeks before, driven along the very road in southern Utah as Gursky. I was also in the middle of a two-month mess on my server, which necessitated rebuilding my blog and its underlying software and databases. But that could wait until I identified the precise stretch of highway Gursky had captured. So I set out again, on Google Street View.
From the geology and the development, it was possible to narrow down the site of Gursky’s photos to the roads around Zion National Park, and east from Zion and Kanab, toward Grand Escalante and Staircase National Monuments. The sections of this rural, two-lane highway with guard rails and fresh blacktop were even fewer. And none of it matched.
This section of Utah is very sparsely populated, and very few roads cross it at all. So the options dwindled very quickly. But on the road between St George and the border-straddling polygamist towns of Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ, I recognized the striated mountain range immediately. But there were no houses at all.
Which, two things: it’s now obviously a composite. But before that, those poles. Gursky’s original image is full of blurs and artifacts, including what are apparently some disembodied pole fragments. These artifacts, coupled with the disparate blur on houses, patios, guard rail, etc., led me to assume Gursky had experimented with an iPhone’s panorama feature from a moving car. That he was exploiting the stitching algorithm of the phone, a source of found digital manipulation.
But of course, this turned out not to be the case. What hit me during these first few days was that this Gursky was being presented as a single image when it was now obviously a composite.
And so I set out to find the site of the other, lower half. Which, with every Streetviewed mile, was turning out to be an entirely fictional, constructed composition. While trying to rebuild my webserver I wandered the highways again, finding this or that house; meanwhile the more accurate version of Gursky’s process emerged: that he’d taken photos with a phone, and then returned to reshoot sites with his regular camera, and–like always–he just fixed the whole thing in post.
So my Gursky bust turned into a Guardian factcheck. And I was left dissatisfied, again, by Gursky’s view, even as I grew intrigued by Google’s. I found myself indexing the differences: vantage point, height, date, blur, glitch, and stitching. I imagined Streetview’s rooftop, panoramic compositor, and Gursky’s passenger driveby–which turned out to be a tripod on the shoulder. And I tried to imagine what it’s like for a maker of ambitiously scaled images to work in a world where giant companies are constantly taking a picture of the entire earth. Maybe the better digital analog for Gursky’s practice isn’t Google at all, but etsy.
In good etsy form, I have knocked off Gursky’s image by collaging the elements I’ve found. If/as I find more, I’ll add them until…until what? I don’t know, I guess until it’s done, or I get bored. If you see something say something.