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

Atta Kim — Approaching a Universal?

This afternoon we saw, Atta Kim: On Air, an exhibition of large format photographs by the Korean artist Atta Kim at the International Center of Photography.  Most of the work in this small show is visually interesting and conceptually clever.  The most remarkable and noteworthy images, however, are the composite photos of faces: Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Men, 2005; Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Women, 2005; and Self-Portrait Series, 100 Countries/100 Men, 2004.  For each of the images, Kim photographed 100 visually distinct individuals and layered the images to form a composite “portrait”.  The results are not necessarily what you’d expect.

Atta Kim, ON-AIR Project, Self-Portrait Series, 100 Countries/100 Men, 2004

The final image is, I assume, the mean of the individual images.  The differences at the edges in the size and shape of the ears, the size of the head, the configuration of the hair, etc. are rendered out-of-focus.  The regions in sharpest focus are around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth.

I was struck by the fact that elements one would typically refer to as flaws — a crooked nose, scars, skin blemishes, asymmetries, etc. — are cancelled out in the composite.  The result a kind of perfect and symmetric beauty — a straight and gently rounded nose, wide round eyes, full lips, and a smooth round face overall.

The individual images from which the composites were formed are exhibited with the final work.  It’s worth considering the source for each.  You may be inclined to think that 100 images of Tibetan men and women would, given the biological and regional parameters, reveal general similarities.  And, to some extent, they do.

But the 100 men from 100 different countries are about as diverse a set as you would find if each individual was chosen randomly.  (One qualification: Judging from the source photos, I would guess the age of the subjects ranged from around 24 to 60.)  Head size and shape, skin color, amount and configuration of hair, shape of noses, chins, eyes, etc. vary considerably from one person to the next.

If Kim has not intervened to smooth out or in any way alter the composite, the result is not what I would have predicted.  This is not a monster.  Far from it.  The composite figure strikes me as serene, appealing, and beautiful.  (This is true of all three figures, by the way.)  Why is that the case?

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Holland Cotter’s review of the exhibition is in the 12 July 2006 New York Times.

“Fear of Form”

Roberta Smith has a review in today’s NYTimes of an exhibition currently up at Bard that was curated by three Europeans.  “It originated last October at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, where it was organized by Gunnar Kvaran, the museum’s director, working with two high-profile critic-curators: Daniel Birnbaum, director of the alternative space Portikus in Frankfurt, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London.”

It focuses on contemporary American art by artists mostly in their 20s.  Smith’s review makes it sound symptomatic of so much recent work that’s heavily dependent on a late-pop conceptual-construction-installation sensibility.

Here’s an extended excerpt:

The show has an endgame, end-time mood, as if we are looking at the end of the end of the end of Pop, hyperrealism and appropriation art. The techniques of replication and copying have become so meticulous that they are beside the point. This is truly magic realism: the kind you can’t see, that has to be explained. It is also a time when artists cultivate hybridism and multiplicity and disdain stylistic coherence, in keeping with the fashionable interest in collectivity, lack of ego, the fluidity of individual identity. But too often these avoidance tactics eliminate the thread of a personal sensibility or focus.

I would call all these strategies fear of form, which can be parsed as fear of materials, of working with the hands in an overt way and of originality. Most of all originality. Can we just say it? This far from Andy Warhol and Duchamp, the dismissal of originality is perhaps the oldest ploy in the postmodern playbook. To call yourself an artist at all is by definition to announce a faith, however unacknowledged, in some form of originality, first for yourself, second, perhaps, for the rest of us.

Fear of form above all means fear of compression—of an artistic focus that condenses experiences, ideas and feelings into something whole, committed and visually comprehensible. With a few exceptions, forms of collage and assemblage dominate this show: the putting together (or simply putting side by side) of existing images and objects prevails. The consistency of this technique in two and three dimensions should have been a red flag for the curators. Collage has driven much art since the late 1970’s. Lately, and especially in this exhibition, it often seems to have become so distended and pulled apart that its components have become virtually autonomous and unrelated, which brings us back to square one.

It may be worth coming back to this.

The Bard Center for Curatorial Studies’ website for the exhibition is here.

Disambiguate Before September Ends

It’s certainly gratifying to see an article in the New York Times by Sarah Boxer reviewing an appropriation and political intervention by independent vlogger Zadi at Karmagrrrl. Zadi’s Quicktime video reframes Green Day’s tune (Wake Me Up When September Ends) as a comment on the devastation resulting from hurricane Katrina and the inability of the U.S. government to protect and care for its own citizens.

While Green Day may have intended their song as a comment on the war in Iraq, the inherent ambiguity of the lyrics leaves it open to a wide range of interpretations. The Katrina disaster, as Boxer points out, seems a more comfortable and compelling fit than Sam Bayer’s emotionally predictable video [or here] showing two young lovers separated by the war.  The subtle editing of video and audio footage gathered by Zadi is both moving and suggestive. It sends a clear message without being in any way heavy-handed or preachy. The final (unattributed line) from the President’s mother, Barbara Bush, is chilling.

After “What Comes After?”

Update: Following up on the LMCC conference, What Comes After, Caryn James has a review of a related exhibition, A Knock at the Door, and her own reflections on the politics of art in the aftermath of 9/11, in today’s NYTimes.

James points out that

while the "A Knock at the Door …" is clearly more political than its
organizers say – questioning the Patriot Act is inherently anti-Bush –
there is nothing apolitical surrounding the arts at ground zero
anymore, from victims’ family groups that are lobbying against the
International Freedom Center to Gov. George E. Pataki’s announcement in
June that he wants an "absolute guarantee" that art at the site will
not offend 9/11 families. Art in a straitjacket is no art at all. In
this politicized atmosphere, "A Knock at the Door …" lands like a
rejoinder to the governor, even though it was in the works before he
made that comment.

In the months (and years?) ahead, it will be too easy for discussions about art and memory to get hopelessly mired in, and limited to, the issue of who has the "right" or authority to speak in the wake of trauma, violence, human suffering and loss. Note the small print disclaimer on the LMCC website:

LMCC lost its World Trade Center home and the life of an artist on 9/11. We are very sensitive to the traumas of violence and terrorism. LMCC will not include any work of art in the "A Knock at the Door" exhibition that could in any way endanger the public. There will be no hazardous devices on display. The point of "A Knock at the Door" is to explore the relationships between artists and authority in the post 9/11 world, not to create risk or condone violence.

These are serious issues — not to be dismissed or ignored.  But what appears to be missing in the current literature and in the conference proceedings is more attention to the ways art and literature can bring us into a more productive exploration of the experiences, feelings, and insights of others, not as self-indulgent immersion, but as a way of extending empathy while allowing for some measure of critical analysis that might lead to a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of violence.

What Comes After?

This weekend’s conference, organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, with the optimistic title, What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery (An International Summit), brought together numerous scholars, artists, and activists from across the world to talk about the artistic response to traumatic experience and loss in the aftermath of violence. 

In spite of the statement posted to the conference website by Tom Healy — intended, perhaps, to address the controversy surrounding "inappropriate art" generally, and LMCC’s expansion of the theme of recovery on the weekend of the anniversary of "9/11" in particular —  the organizers did not focus on New York City.  It avoided what conference curator Radhika Subramaniam, in her opening remarks on Friday morning, referred to as the "parochialism and narcissism" of the local (and limited) framing of the events of 9/11/2001.  Instead, the emphasis was extended to include the role creative forms of art have played (and are playing) in places such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, Iraq, and Palestine.

Consider the list of seminar questions raised:

Design of Recovery — What are the political and aesthetic challenges of rebuilding after disaster? How do architects and planners balance utilitarian, economic and technological issues against those of environment, cultural heritage and local practice?

Afterword: Language of Recovery — What are the demands placed on language and writing by disaster? How does writing after catastrophe work as advocacy, witness, mirror, mourning, elegy or indictment?

Arts of Emergency — How are artists provoked by the mechanisms of destruction and terror? How does photography, painting and performance intervene to restore face and voice, expose the erasures of history and demand recognition?

Revenge, Reparation, Reconciliation — How can artistic media be used by formerly hostile groups to reconcile opposing points of view, recognize divergent historical narratives and promote trust? What cultural strategies do advocates, jurists and activists employ to effect accountability and foster healing?

Remembrance, Repitition, Residue
— What is the relationship of memory and forgetting to the recovery of daily life after trauma? How are the arts of memory—museums, memorials, archives—sentinels of the future?

Arts of Possibility — Can cultural and symbolic forms help to imagine a future while remembering the past and mourning loss? Can artistic strategies serve as antidotes to revenge, sorrow and despair to restore hope, encourage safety, and return the promise of tomorrow?

One can see even from this brief summary of themes that the conference was thoughtfully and courageously organized.  It has brought together a committed and important group of people whose lives are devoted to addressing these questions and to putting their insights into action. 

Unfortunately, the on-site attendance was disappointing. Ironically, Duma Kumalo, a speaker from Johannesburg, mentioned that the meager turnout was similar to so many of the truth and reconciliation hearings he attended back home in South Africa. There were also numerous mistakes made in communicating the details of the times and places of various events, problems making speakers audible to members of the audience, etc. (Sarah Hromack was hoping
the conference would include consideration of the Katrina disaster in
the South.  I did not attend, nor have I listened to, all of the
sessions.  But from what I could tell, Katrina was mentioned only in
passing — often as a point of reference for the ongoing inadequacy in
handling disaster by government institutions.)

One can only hope that the limitations of the on-site proceedings of What Comes After will be overcome and more than compensated for by creative use of the materials made available on the website and through the many productive discussions to follow in communities, cafes, pubs, and classrooms around the world.  But we can also help by contributing our own thoughts and efforts to the task of recognizing, remembering, and coming to terms with the causes and effects of violence, wherever they occur.

Resisting Color Photography

Elizabeth Olson comments (in a New York Times article today) on an exhibition opening this week at the Library of Congress, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-1943.  The exhibition is "[c]ulled from a collection of little-known color images made by photographers from the federal Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, the prints bring alive everyday rural life between 1939 and 1943."

The images were made "by about a dozen photographers to document the Depression’s effects on rural America and to rally support for government relief efforts".  So the function of these images was clearly documentary (historical) and political.

According to Olson, the photos have been in the collection of the LoC since 1946, but have "received little attention".

What struck me as odd was a remark made by the curator, Beverly Brannan: "There were questions for years about whether color photography was truly art," she said. "They were not taken as seriously as black-and-white images." In the context of the Times article, this appears to be offered as an explanation for not exhibiting these photographs.

It’s well-known that the status of color photography as art was contested for years.  "Elder statesmen of photography such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen initially described color photographs as lurid and vulgar, while others associated them unfavorably with commercial photography, amateur snapshots, or popular movies." (See the introduction to the current exhibition of color photography at the Philadelphia Museum, Mavericks of Color Photography from the Collection July 30 – November 27, 2005.)

But it seems to me that the artistic (and, by implication, aesthetic) status of an image is distinct from its historical value. Does the LoC really make such aesthetic judgments in choosing objects for an exhibition? Does anxiety over the status of photography vis a vis "the fine arts" extend to the LoC?