Regards from Morton Feldman

Looking back beyond the ’60s and reflecting on the art scene in New York, Morton Feldman produced one of his most memorable and characteristic essays — “Give My Regards to Eighth Street”.  It was written in 1971, in the wake of pop art, specific objects, and minimalism.  The artworld was rapidly expanding; the number of galleries and collectors increasing. And assumptions about what mattered in art were changing.  Artforum had been around for nearly 10 years.  A new generation of university-educated critics and art historians were using structuralism and phenomenology to analyze works of art and “artistic production”.  Richard Serra was doing Stepped Elevation, a site-specific work on the Pulitzer’s property. Robert Smithson had completed the Spiral Jetty. And  Art News published Linda Nochlin’s provocative essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?”

It’s from that vantage point that Feldman recalls the ’50s — Cage, Guston, Greenberg, Rauschenberg, Tomlin, Mitchell, the de Koonings — and what it meant to be an artist.

Nietzsche teaches us that only the first five steps of an action can be planned.  Beyond that, on any long-range basis, one must invent a dialectic in order to survive.  Until the fifties the artist believed that he could not, must not, improvise as the bull charged — that he must adhere to the formal ritual, the unwasted motion, the accumulated knowledge that reinforces the courage of the matador, and that allows the spectator the ecstasy of feeling that he too, by knowing all that must be known to survive in the bullring, has himself defied the gods, has himself defied death.

To survive without this dialectic is what the fifties left us.  Before that, American painting had concerned itself with efficient solutions.  The Abstract Expressionists were making bigger demands on their gifts and their energies.

Their movement took the world by storm.  Nobody now denies it.  On the other hand, what are we to do with it?  There is no “tradition”.  All we are left with is a question of character.  What training have we ever had to understand what is ultimately nothing more than a question of character?  What we are trained for is analysis.  The entire dialectic of art criticism has come about through the analysis of bad painting.

Take Franz Kline.  There is no “plastic experience”.  We don’t stand back and behold the “painting”.  There is no “painting” in the ordinary sense, just as there is no “painting”, for that matter, in Piero della Francesca or Rembrandt.  There is nothing but the integrity of the creative act.  Any detail of the work is sufficient to establish this.  The fact that these details accumulate and make what is known as a work of art, proves nothing.  What else would an artist do with his time?

Now, almost twenty years later, as I see what happens to work, I ask myself more and more why everybody knows so much about art.  Thousands of people – teachers, students, collectors, critics – everybody knows everything.  To me it seems as though the artist is fighting a heavy sea in a rowboat, while alongside him a pleasure liner takes all these people to the same place.  Every graduate student today knows exactly what degree of “angst” belongs in a de Kooning, can point out disapprovingly just where he has let up, relaxed.  Everybody knows that one Bette Davis movie where she went out of style.  It’s another bullring, with everybody knowing the rules of the game.

What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment – maybe, say, six weeks – nobody understood art.  That’s why it all happened.  Because for a short while, these people were left alone.  Six weeks is all it takes to get started.  But there’s no place now where you can hide out for six weeks in this town.

Well, that’s what it was like to be an artist.  In New York, Paris, or anywhere else.

There’s something offbeat, amusing, and compelling about these remarks, which is typical of Feldman. It stopped me dead in my tracks this morning — what you need is to be left alone for six weeks to start something new.  It’s as if that gap — not knowing — gives you the space you need to experiment. You’re left alone without your usual devices, in the absence of expectations and constraints. It reminds me of the state described by Coltrane when playing with Monk’s group — he said it was like stepping into an empty elevator shaft. You’re forced to come up with new licks to survive.  And fast!

But Feldman is not just talking about the psychology of individual creation. He’s making the far more extravagant assertion that six weeks, give or take a few, of relative uncertainty enabled abstract expressionism to emerge! Now that’s a social thesis.  A provocative and useful gesture — the sort of thing one rarely encounters outside the best late night conversations. Not to be taken too literally, nor to be dismissed out of hand.  Thanks, Morty.  That’s an interesting idea. I’ll see what I can do with it.

[Feldman’s essay is in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, Exact Change, 2000, 100f.  Photo courtesy of iCamp, Munich.]

Math + Mass

The contemporary retrospective of a living artist is, depending on their influence and will, an occasion for contemplating the motivation and trajectory of a mature body of work.  It’s also an opportunity to return to familiar works, examine first-hand some seen only through reproductions, and discover those previously unknown.

Richard Serra’s retrospective at MoMA is all of that and a good deal more.  While there are, unfortunately, no drawings on view, the exhibition is supplemented by Serra’s films, articles, lectures, discussions, and numerous interviews [see below] with the artist in which Serra offers his own articulate and determined view of the work, from the early process pieces created collaboratively with Philip Glass (whom Serra is quick to acknowledge), to the prop pieces, the installations, and culminating in the elegant and sublime works of folded steel, three of which were created specifically for the current exhibition.

Serra argues that there is a clear and consistent development from the cut, lifted, and folded materials of the late 1960’s to the recent torqued toruses and ellipses.  We can argue about how convincing those relations seem to us, and we should given that out of the hundreds of works illustrated in the exhibition catalog, only twenty-seven are included in the show.

The works on view have been carefully chosen to reinforce very particular lines of development from To Lift of 1967 to Band of 2006, and from Belts, 1966-67 to Sequence, 2006.  For the visitor walking through the galleries, the exclusion of the numerous scattered, torn, splashed, and draped pieces from the ’60s, which recall the work of Eva Hesse, Barry LeVa, Robert Smithson, and Robert Morris, sets conveniently to one side the chaos of the late ’60s and early ’70s as artists looked for a way out of what appeared to be the limiting constraints of a minimalist orthodoxy.  And while these additional subplots complicate the story by dragging us back into the pessimism and disorder of those formative years, what you can’t help but appreciate in this careful and numerically limited array of sculptural objects is the extraordinary grace and power of Serra’s destination.

I’ve seen many of these dramatic and monumental steel works over the years.  But I’ve never been so impressed, walking through them and following the towering and descending flow of lines and shapes, by the way they realize the beauty of pure mathematics on a scale that is nearly overwhelming.  This grand conjunction and contrast of math and mass is a tribute to the strength of Serra’s effort, intelligence, and vision.  Whatever one may think of the man and the controversies surrounding him, the compelling quality of the work he is currently producing has to be acknowledged.

Interviews: Charlie RosePhong Bui

Slides of Serra’s works: Slate, MoMA

Image courtesy of The New York Times, 20 May 07