Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cy Twombly: Words for a New Generation of Artists

"Cy Twombly: The Natural World" is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago May 16 – September 13, 2009

Allan Kaprow famously stated, in his 1958 essay entitled The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, that artists after Pollock either had to continue on with the famous Abstract Expressionist’s dance-like, subconscious, gestural method, or abandon painting altogether, in favor of a an art that was more like the experience of life itself. Kaprow chose the latter. But what of the artists who chose the former? How could they continue the traditions of painting in original and innovative ways?

As the prominence of Abstract Expressionism began to wane, the existence of one dominant movement within art ceased, as well. The age of pluralism had arrived. Artists of the next generation floundered as they attempted to retain elements of Abstract Expressionism while seeking alternative methods of working in an age marked by nuclear proliferation and a Cold War. Second generation Abstract Expressionists and those not of the New York School, like Mark Tobey, sought inspiration in the calligraphic gestures of the East. The artists attached to Black Mountain College (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Cage) concurrently opted to transform the stuff of everyday life into art for a new world.

The artist Cy Twombly somehow made his way between these two streams. Twombly received his foundational training in painting while at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Next, while working in the ferment of the Art Students League of 1950’s New York City, he made the acquaintance of Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg, in turn, insisted that Twombly take some time in the more experimental atmosphere of Black Mountain College. But it was Twombly’s travel grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in 1952, that made the greatest impact on the artist. He and Rauschenberg traveled throughout the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain, France, and North Africa). The history, geography, poetry, and mythology of this region has marked his work ever since.

Though the gestures of Tobey were indebted to the calligraphic writing of Zen Buddhism, Twombly retained elements indicative of Western cursive writing styles. At times legible, Twombly’s looping scrawls are often more suggestive than representative of actual texts. The highly energetic, tactile line quality, mixed with masterful coloration, alludes to the myths and locale of the Mediterranean. This underlying Classicism has positioned Twombly’s work squarely within the Western tradition as Postmodern shifts have drastically altered the fabric of the art world over six decades.

The work’s coloration is served best in its simplicity. In pieces that are nearly monochromatic the elegance of line and gesture are allowed a more dominant role in the composition. They approach the poetic, near musical quality of Whistler’s compositions which often incorporate the appropriate word "Harmony" in their titles. One also thinks of the early monochrome paintings by Rauschenberg such as 22 the Lily White.

In every stage of his development Twombly has fused together various media into cohesive works. His use of paint, pencil, and crayon, along with manipulations by his hands and fingers, has produced a unique style—a hybrid of painting, drawing, and writing. The graffiti-like mark making is indebted to his early affinities at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with the painting and drawing of Alberto Giacometti. His interest in text may also be linked to the collage work of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, for whom he had a similar admiration during his time in Boston.

The series of paintings often called Blackboard Paintings (1966-72) reveals Twombly’s continuing engagement with the more conceptual currents of the art world. These white on gray works bear a resemblance to texts written, erased, and overwritten on chalk boards. As text was quickly becoming a stand in for the visual image in conceptualist circles (see Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language), Twombly’s acknowledgment of this shift, while still utilizing the traditional medium of painting, is a sign of his deft use of appropriation.

One is also reminded of the blackboard works of conceptualist Joseph Beuys when viewing Twombly’s paintings of this era. The obvious difference between the two is medium. It seems that Twombly took Kaprow’s words to heart. When Cy came to that crossroads he recognized that the tradition of painting was not yet dead. His work resuscitates painting’s proclaimed corpse, proving that there is still unexplored territory to cover.

In recent years, as represented in the current show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Twombly’s work has swung in the direction of a more traditional format. To qualify this, it must be acknowledged that the tradition is Abstract Expressionism and its roots in Surrealism. Both Paul Klee and Robert Motherwell, early influences on Twombly, had retained links to Classical Western art. Twombly’s newer works, while not actually representational, provide clearer visual cues to themes of landscape and flora.

This move from non-representation to semi-abstract forms is not unusual. One is reminded of the artist Philip Guston—a notable Boston painter—who gained his initial acclaim for his Abstract Expressionist era works; dubbed by some as Abstract Impressionism. His final decades were imprinted with a change of style that incorporated cartoon-like figures and imagery that still retained his former pastel palette. The shift signaled a return to figuration for several artists who rose to prominence in the 1980s.

Producing mural-sized canvases, Twombly’s recent works recall hues and forms of flowers. He seems captivated by the medium of painting. In his final years, no longer fearing the need to remain relevant, he engages the canvas for the pure love of working the medium. While previous works may have engaged and utilized texts from epic poetry and ancient mythology, these late paintings approach Classic forms with his signature mark making, but through a symbolic visual vocabulary.

Over the course of several decades Twombly has achieved what few artists could. His work is firmly entrenched in the tradition of Abstract Expressionist painting through his autographic, gestural style. At the same time, he has honored the new traditions of textual criticism found within Deconstructionist approaches to art making. This bridge-building posture places him as one of the few Modern painters with ability to carry painting into a new realm, keeping it on par with newer media at the dawn of a new century.

Interactivity: The Give and Take of Artwork

My major attraction to the work of Joseph Cornell is the potential for interactivity within the pieces. The book Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay...Eterniday(Hartigan, 2003) includes an interactive DVD that serves as the next best thing to actually handling the works themselves. Video clips show the moveable parts working as the artist intended. Aside from a few major collectors and conservators, most people never get to see this in person.

Once I discovered it, the work of Cornell only reinforced some of my natural tendencies. My childhood was marked by intense creative endeavors that I never acknowledged as "artistic" until I was in college. These creations were not "art" in the traditional sense, so I discounted them until I could comprehend their place within my art making.

As a child I tended to construct devices to enhance play. For instance, there was a period during the time that Lynda Carter starred as TV’s Wonder Woman (as campy as it was) when my two younger female cousins and I would always play Wonder Woman when we got together. My lack of foresight ensured that I would always be the villain and never the hero. I fashioned aluminum foil into star studded Amazon headbands and bracelets for them. We even utilized some of that gold cord used for gift wrapping as the magic lasso. I know, this isn’t overly creative, but this was just the beginning.

This was in the early 1980s and well before every household had its own computer. One of the most memorable items was an ID scanner made from paper and cellophane tape. My maternal grandmother worked at State Farm and she always had an abundance of some oddly sized, perforated paper that evidently had some function within the insurance industry. I usually just drew on it in church. The ID scanner—again, long before we were all accustomed to debit card swipers and PIN codes—was amazingly functional.

It consisted of a small box that was taped next to a bedroom doorframe. There was a slot in the front where our ID cards were inserted to gain access to our top secret offices. This was not just a hole cut in the face of the box; it was a slim interior compartment that only allowed the cards to be inserted a certain distance, so they wouldn’t get stuck inside. On the top surface was a keypad with dimensional keys that could actually be depressed into the main box. All in all, it was fairly advanced for a paper and tape device that mimicked something we, as a general public, had only seen on TV programs with futuristic plotlines.

In the years just after the ID scanner I moved on to bigger and sturdier objects. There was a cardboard computer panel with multiple screens and keyboards. This was colorfully painted in poster paint and could be conveniently folded up for under the bed storage. The computer panel was accompanied by a red convertible sports car. It was just a profile view—kind of like those character screens at amusement parks with holes for people to poke their faces through for photographs. But the door functioned and I think the steering wheel did too, somehow. I know we had fun with the contraptions, though they are now compost.

I wouldn’t want anyone to have saved one of these things to hang on the wall in her home. Once I started to paint in high school I gave away several sad little canvases to family members, and those are things that I also wish would no longer hang on my relatives’ walls. All of these things, spanning about an eight year period, make up my early unconscious strivings to become an artist.

The painting was officially sanctioned art and the odd constructions were the early stages of viewer participation. Just as text and images are two connected sides within my current work, paintings and interactive constructions are another pairing. This came about quite subtly, but it was always there.

The pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg had a famous quote, in his 1961 manifesto, about how he felt art should function:

I am for an art that is political—erotical—mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing that it is art at all…
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.

That is part of what I am about, too. If art is simply going to hang on the wall or sit on a pedestal and look "nice" then I don’t have nearly as much use for it. My paintings require the viewer to not only interact with the images but with the underlying text. If the paintings are part of an assemblage/construction then even greater interactivity confronts the viewer. The element of play is once again present.

Part of this may stem from my slight aversion to Modernism’s pure aesthetic aims. There has only been a brief period of time when art for art’s sake was seen as valid. For most of human history what we now term as "art" had a function outside of pure aesthetic contemplation (Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action gives an outstanding analysis of this). I respect and acknowledge the significance of multitude forms of modern and contemporary art. What I desire for my own work is to have viewers physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually interacting with it. I want the work to meet the viewer halfway, expecting something in return, but meeting the viewer wherever he or she is at in a given moment in life.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jenny Holzer: A Word by Any Other Name

The words we don’t use are just as important as the ones we do. This concept has appeared as a major tactic and practical policy of politicians for years. The public implementation of politically correct speech is an obvious example. In the 1990s, particularly, there was a push to phase out certain words that were deemed offensive to ethnic groups or other portions of the population. And politicians on both ends of the spectrum are acutely aware that what reaches the ears of the masses either by omission, or strategic changes in terminology, influences public opinion.

Jenny Holzer was one of the first visual artists to understand and utilize the written word as a powerful medium within visual art. Though Holzer began her career working in the media of painting and printmaking, she shifted to the use of words in the late 1970s while taking a course through the Whitney Museum of American Art. The contextual meanings revealed when examining texts through semiotics and deconstructionist philosophical inquiry became her primary focus.

From the first, with her Truisms project of 1977/78, Holzer has brought attention to the plight of the oppressed or disenfranchised. Truisms consisted of phrases that at first appear to be advertising slogans. This style displays both a familiarity of form and a subversive undercurrent to the viewer/reader. Do the messages of a consumerist culture offer truth or are they merely manipulations that conflate want with need? Are certain popular notions that seem innocently acceptable actually a subtle way to oppress or subjugate a particular population?

Holzer is not simply didactic and preachy, she devises phrases that may seem like truth, but are actually prone to initiate an analysis of our preconceptions. Consider this selection of Truisms:

Any surplus is immoral.
Morality is for little people.
Everyone’s work is equally important.
Humanism is obsolete.
Men are not monogamous by nature.

Holzer plays both sides of the fence, but to the same end.

Context has also been a significant element of her work throughout every stage of its development. The early Truisms were printed like posters and placed, like posters, in a guerilla art fashion. In fully public, non-artworld sanctioned locations, the Truisms were shocking to stumble upon. They were shocking in the sense that viewers did not expect to be confronted with these topics in the course of everyday life experiences.

The medium for which Holzer became best known in the 1980s and 90s was far more technologically advanced. Having already utilized the assumed truthfulness inherent in bronze wall plaques and the obvious consumerist associations of billboards, she moved to electronic LED reader boards—Spectacolor boards. The medium’s tendency to convey the most current information (i.e. temperature, time, and upcoming events) ensured that viewers would naturally gravitate to the messages displayed.

While Holzer put the boards to use in the typical art settings of museums and galleries, her co-opting of public message boards for her art was more prescient. Messages like "Protect me from what I want," running on boards in New York’s Times Square or on the Las Vegas Strip, jarred viewers into considering their various unanalyzed motivations.

The artist has always been aware of how the message and the medium need to align. She is not enamored with technology for its own sake. When one considers he exhibition—More Cliches—at the Guggenheim Museum in 1990 this becomes evident. By this time, Holzer’s electronic reader boards could have been considered a cliche. They were the medium with which her name had become synonymous. Of course, cliche had to do with the text based works in general, too. She meant to challenge some long established cliches.

More Cliches incorporated LED boards by spiraling them around the interior wall of the signature Frank Loyd Wright structure. Three hundred thirty messages chased after one another in a brilliant blur of colored light. These phrases were countered with a ring of marble benches on the floor below. Truism-style Holzer phrases had been carved into the top surfaces of these seemingly eternal, immovable benches. The play of the permanent against the ephemeral presented a challenge to viewers. Does the way messages are marketed to us, the medium employed, influence our belief in the reliability of those same messages? Are we subtly manipulated without recognizing it? Do long term assumptions have to remain "set in stone?"

Holzer’s method of composing thought provoking messages to be introduced into the public realm, by whatever means, essentially went along in a logical progression for a couple decades. Certainly, the media changed many times. Messages printed on condom wrappers were produced concurrently with xenon light projections. The latter allowed text to be directly projected onto the exterior walls of buildings, bypassing the earlier need for Spectacolor boards.

Something happened in the mid-1990s that changed Holzer’s art. It had always had a political bent, but this was enhanced after she read accounts of atrocities against women during the Bosnian war. The high occurrence of rape/murders (Lustmord, in the German) caused her to produce texts based on such an event, though written from three perspectives: the victim, the rapist/murderer, and the witnessing child of the victim. The intermingling of viewpoints within the work produces disturbing and unsettling juxtapositions.

One of the first "exhibitions" of this work was in the printed format of a German-language magazine. Included were photographs of these varying textual phrases written directly on the skin of several individuals. Cropped so that the text laden persons remain anonymous (even the locations on the bodies are unidentifiable) the quilt of images announces that this is a crime against humanity and that we are all culpable for allowing it to continue. However, the greatest controversy at the time was the ink used to print text on a card attached to the cover of the magazine. It was an ink that contained a small percentage of human blood. Accusations of health risks along with allegations of a waste of human blood were part of the firestorm.

Holzer weathered the initial controversy and has continued to exhibit the work. Most recently Lustmord was part of the exhibit PROTECT PROTECT at the Whitney Museum. Aside from the text on skin imagery there were LED display boards and bones with attached metal bands imprinted with text. While this recycling of earlier work is typical of Holzer’s shifting style, it should not be assumed that completely original work has failed to come to light over the last decade.

War, again, was the impetus for Holzer’s most recent body of work. It could be argued that this is some of Holzer’s best work in decades (I first viewed in at an opening reception with the artist at the Barbara Krakow Gallery in Boston). It finds her returning to an earlier medium—printmaking—and focusing on the omitted word over the readable word. The subject of the works is declassified documents detailing reports concerning prisoner detainees in the War on Terror.

Holzer has made photo-silkscreen enlargements of the declassified documents which she, as a U.S. citizen, easily obtained from the Library of Congress. Essentially, these are instances of prisoner abuse, on the part of the American military, which the artist perceives are indicative of the policies of the Bush administration. What one can read in the documents is gruesome at times, and unjustified at most any time. Much of each document has been blackened out, rendering words unreadable. It would seem that these omissions, though often meant to protect identities, are hiding even more heinous information.

Throughout every phase of Holzer’s work the words she provides (or doesn’t provide) us are a call to question all the information we receive. Unquestioned ideas can easily become the accepted beliefs of a culture—whether they are true or not. An understanding of Jenny Holzer’s text based work provides a useful foundation in concepts of Critical Theory that, in turn, opens up much of the art work created over the last three or four decades.

Here’s to You Reverend Robinson

The subject for the final work in my original series of altarpiece constructions is supplied by a familial myth. My mother’s mother used to tell the tale of her mother’s ancestor. It is believed that that family is descended from the Englishman John Robinson. Robinson is not quite the household name that, say, Myles Standish is. He was one of the Pilgrims, but he never made it to the Plymouth colony.

Robinson was actually the pastor for the Pilgrims. He traveled with them to the Netherlands, but he stayed there when the Mayflower sailed. Not everyone made that first journey and Robinson, as a pastor, felt he could not neglect his flock. He died there, never having seen the New World.

It is a great tale. No one in the family has ever verified the ancestry, but it does seem feasible. Robinson’s son did eventually make it to the colonies and he had descendants. For my purposes I just assume I am one of the Robinsons.

I began work on this altarpiece several years ago. Probably seven or eight years. Production stalled at one point because I needed a good image of the Mayflower to incorporate into the pictorial scheme. I did finally find something in a book I ran across while on a visit to Florida. The irony being that I was living in Massachusetts at the time. The next problem came when I was trying to decide which text to use on the panels.

For many of the "saints" in this series the incorporated text comes from their published or private writings. This has included, poetry, journals, letters, and non-fiction of various kinds. I try to use the actual handwriting of the person if at all possible. The problem with John Robinson is that these are almost universally unavailable—in his own hand or otherwise. While considering all this, other projects took precedence and I left the piece on the backburner.

Recently, I decided that I might as well try to finish off the Robinson piece and another altarpiece, each of which is fully constructed and only awaiting the final process of painting. I was forced to consider what text would need to be adhered to the panels before the painting could begin.

I started considering my own recent life in connection with Robinson’s. He exemplified the life of the "pilgrim." He was left roaming from land to land, with the hope that he would eventually reach the "promised land." And that hope was really enough to sustain him, even though he never saw the Massachusetts shoreline. As I am awaiting a new destination I am reminded that our courses sometimes change. Nevertheless, we make the most of the intermediate circumstances.

As I considered all this I was reminded of another family of pilgrims. The first two books of the Bible are largely devoted to the long journey of Abraham and his descendants. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and even Moses were all pilgrims seeking a land promised by God. None of them ever possessed that land. They wandered around it and learned some great lessons along the way. But they hoped, and that was enough. It is enough for me, too. This thinking gave me the text on which to paint this St. John altarpiece. An altarpiece of hope.