Serra Interview with Lynne Cooke at MoMA

Having read Serra’s book of writings and interviews, and having watched and listened to the long interviews and discussions spawned by this retrospective and other recent exhibitions, I went to the MoMA  discussion last night assuming I would hear nothing new.  I was wrong.

Serra is an exceptionally thoughtful man who takes even the most conventional questions seriously, i.e. as an opportunity to think through a situation or engage with an idea as if he were confronting it for the first time.  He turns the conversation around, Serra-style, on his own terms and makes it an “event” in the Deleuzean sense of the term, avoiding at all cost the media-event or spectacle.

He said he doesn’t like doing too many interviews, particularly around occasions such as the retrospective, because it tends to encourage a debilitating self-consciousness and repetition.  There’s a hidden danger in taking yourself as the subject of investigation and viewing your work from the outside, particularly in public.  This practice of disengagement, done too often and over a long period of time, can distort your relation to and involvement in your work.

So, what we saw was Serra at work.

When asked if there was anything new that occurred to him during the course of the MoMA show, he said the one thing he noticed in this and his other recent exhibitions was “people gathering to see the work together”.  He didn’t elaborate but I take it he was impressed by the combination of pleasure and collective fascination viewers experience as they walk around and through Band, Torqued Torus Inversion, and Sequence. There’s a perceptual and intellectual curiosity induced, particularly by these large steel works, which gives rise to questions, observations, and discussions.  That happens less and less frequently in exhibitions of contemporary art.

Serra noted, perhaps with a touch of disparagement, that when he became involved in the arts, museums were experienced as either banks or churches.  The placement of this statement suggested that the reception of the work at MoMA was a welcome change.  While I’m inclined to think that the scale and force of his recent work both promotes and benefits from a return to the “reverence” and respect required in a church, there may be something different going on here.  Serra and MoMA have created a high-brow “Exploratorium” for the viewer.  And I say that without irony or criticism.  There is no photography allowed in the galleries.  You don’t have the distracting and annoying cell-phone photo-tourism going on around you.  You’re there to walk and look at the work—nothing else.  It’s a controlled public space which approaches ideal viewing conditions.  This makes it more likely that you’ll engage the work as Serra does. You sense the weight—”how your body senses weight”—and, at the same time, the non-material realization, geometrical elegance, and grace of these objects.  They make present what Serra refers to as “the concentration of mass” and “substance of the void”.  And then the “skin”.  “When the weight gets to the skin, it really becomes weightless.”

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

Back from the West Coast

The weather was uncharacteristically warm, dry, and sunny for the first ten days.  And given the approaching solstice, the days were long — the sun set around 10:30 pm and rose about 3:45 am.  That made it much easier to keep the music and drink flowing in the pubs until the wee hours.

On our way up to Donegal we visited Doolin, home to many well-known and accomplished musicians.  We arrived on a Monday and were fortunate not to have too many tourists in the area.  The pubs were busy, but not crowded, so we could sit close to the group at O’Connor’s and enjoy the music.

In Doolin the instruments were not amplified, which seems no longer to be the norm, even for traditional sessions in Ireland.  At sessions later that week in Clifden and Donegal town, amplification for guitars, fiddles, flutes, and drums was used even in small, intimate setttings.

I definitely had an eye out for musicians pushing the limits of traditional music while retaining much of the instrumentation and musical forms.  In a small shop called the Melody Maker, on the Diamond in Donegal, they were playing a CD by Kila which sounded promising.  It was there I found a recent recording with DVD by Téada“Inné Amárach” — not exactly “pushing the limits”, but concert trad of a very high quality.

On our way back to Shannon we returned for a Saturday night in Doolin at the Fernhill Farmhouse where our host Suzanne made us more than welcome.  Unfortunately, the pubs were overrun with noisy tourists this time through, so it was impossible to hear the music over the din. (It’s come to this?  We’ll be back in October.  That should help.)  I did manage to find some Kila CDs (Lemonade and Buns and Luna Park) at Magnetic Music, “the last music cafe before America”. The lyrics are in Irish with translations available on the website.


If we hadn’t been monitoring his website over the last several weeks, we would have missed a rare opportunity to hear Berlin artist and entrepreneur Robert Henke (Monolake) performing live in NYC.  His only NY appearance was last night at Love, a small club on MacDougal.

Henke was in good form behind his Monodeck II switchboard. He has a wide range of sounds which he mixes and blends with amazing facility. His improvisations push “minimal/techno/ambient/house…” to extremes but always with balance and control. If you aren’t familiar with his work, check it out. He’s in another category altogether.

There are lots of downloads on his website and a number of very good CDs available.  In fact…they’re all good. For background, try the interviews at Disquiet and through the link on Henke’s website.

Sounding Off

Late last night I was listening to Ivan Pavlov’s recent recording Patherns (under the name CoH)
and visiting some blogs I hadn’t seen for awhile. A standard stop for me has always been Sarah Hromack’s Forward Retreat.  Sarah recently finished her MA in Visual Criticism at California College of the Arts. I’ve been following her blog in my own intermittent way since she was a curatorial assistant at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh.  Scrolling down the right panel I scanned her list of links to other blogs — People : Projects.  In her typically generous way, she still includes an outbound link to Asymptote as “Timothy Quigley”.

I won’t go into the implications of clicking on your own name except to say that I landed on 17 July 2006. What’s the significance, if any, of hitting a post from last July? Given the July post is the first one that comes up on the homepage — and this is not an error —  clearly raises questions about the status of Asymptote. (I’ve always slightly resented the question (“possibly moribund?”) placed next to my name over at Crooked Timber. I’m never one to admit Asymptote might be “in terminal decline”.  Just a non-traditional blog on hold. But it does force me to acknowledge more than one transition.

It was July of last year that I took a new assignment as director of the Bachelor’s Program at The New School.  My workload increased and took me further away from “philosophical approaches, departures, and drivebys”. At the same time, The New School adopted Blackboard as the “learning management system” for the university and put all of our course materials behind a massive firewall. That meant that if I was to maintain my public website, which I’ve had for years, I would have to basically post most of my course materials twice. That didn’t happen. I blogged…but only for my courses and for colleagues interested in learning more about web-based resources for teaching and research.

So…here I was last night, looking at another project drifting further away on the long tail.

Oh, right…there’s one more thing worth mentioning. I’d just returned from Diapason, a gallery/performance space in Manhattan for “sound and intermedia” run by Michael Schumacher. We went to hear Shared Frequencies, a street performance outside the building on 6th Ave. just south of Bryant Park by Kabir Carter and a sound installation in the gallery by Andrea Parkins.

As it turned out, 6th Ave. in midtown just in front of a bus stop on a warm Saturday evening was a difficult venue for Carter’s piece, which was overwhelmed by street noise.  We quickly gave up and climbed a flight of stairs to the gallery to hear what Parkins had done.

The piece is described as

purposefully flawed sonic structures, built from a variety of sources, including sound recordings that document the specificity of objects — collected or invented — as they are set into motion. (Upended wine glasses on tilted/greasy mirrors, taut lines of plastic tubing, wobbly plaster forms, apples/potatoes that roll across a bumpy floor, spinning metal washers, stretched skeins of plastic gimp, raspy little snapshots in the wind — these might be performers.)

On the way back, I had the usual “What did you think?” “What did you think?” conversation about both works. The problem, as usual, is the difficulty of talking critically about new works in a hybrid (or “emerging”) form with a relatively brief history. Most of the work in this vein is more closely related to non-narrative sculpture, abstract painting, and installation than it is to music. So I often find myself talking about the formal structures of shape, movement, direction, texture, development, and coherence. It’s not always clear what, if any, criteria exist for evaluating the work. Sure, you can say you didn’t like it…it was too chaotic, didn’t do anything for me, blahblahblah. But when pressed to unpack those judgments and justify them, it’s notoriously difficult to do.

The reason, it seems to me, is that you can’t engage in a principled critical discussion without a set of theoretical tools (concepts) that bring aspects of the work into focus. We know how to do this with established art forms, even though we can (and do) argue about the value of adopting one conceptual framework over another. But in the case of abstract (non-referential) sound works — glitch, ambient, electronica, etc. — we need new concepts that capture what’s compelling, intriguing, and new.

All of which is to say, I’m back, working on a new but related project.  Thanks Sarah.

Cyborgs and Zombies in the Classroom

There’s a discussion going on in the Wired Campus blog on the question of how, to what extent, and with what effects students’ cognitive abilities are being altered by new technologies.  The discussion was triggered by an article in The Sunday Times of London, “Report: The Next Step in Brain Evolution” by Richard Woods.

The basic argument is familiar.  Given the pervasive use of mobile phones, instant text messaging, email, and blogs for communication, young people today are encountering so much information so rapidly that multi-tasking and on-the-fly assessment has become the norm accompanied by reduced attention spans and diminished ability to concentrate and reflect on ideas, engage in an extended conversation or discussion, analyze and critically interpret an argument or text, etc., etc. 

When this phenomenon is present in the classroom, the instructor is faced with a dilemma:  Do I do what I’ve always done and try to discipline them to listen to a lecture, take notes, and follow-up with questions and critical comments?  Or do I completely rethink my approach by incorporating more discussion, multimedia presentations, online resources, and group collaborations?

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this so-called dilemma accurately represents the situation, it’s worth noting the most provocative aspect of Woods’ article — the claim by cognitive scientist Andy Clark that today’s students (and everyone else immersed in digital technology) should be considered “cyborgs” given their radically altered cognitive behavior and emerging skills.  Due to the interfaces and tools we use today, thinking is being increasingly externalized — taking place “outside the head” — to such an extent that “[i]t will soon be harder than ever to tell where the human user stops and the rest of the world begins”. (Edge’s Third Culture profile and article by Clark are here, and interview from 2004 at the Institute for the Future here, and the Wikipedia entry here.)

The notion that thoughts and mental content are not entirely “in the head” is not new to contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Fred Dretske, to take just one recent example).  Debates between internalists and externalists have given rise to a vast literature on the topic.  To what extent this is relevant to how students acquire and make use of information is not obvious to me.  But surely we’ve reached the point where our reflections on the matter and our pedagogical responses can and should go beyond the anecdotal by taking advantage of current empirical evidence.

Actually, I’m probably less concerned about cyborgs than I am about zombies in the classroom.