17 April 2014

Two East German Defectors Walk Into an Art Gallery...

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Interview between John Anthony Thwaites and Gerhard Richter, written by Sigmar Polke, October 1964

JAT:  Mr. Richter, you are the most talented of the German Pop painters; you went through all the hardships and the hostility that the movement encountered in its early days; and you now occupy a leading position in the movement. Perhaps you can tell us something about your work and your artistic development.

GR:  I have a lot of work, and I am well developed artistically, and also mentally and physically. I pull the expander front and back. And if you saw my new pictures, Mr. Thwaites, you would collapse!

JAT:  Why?

GR:  Because they’re so good! You’ve never seen such good pictures in your life. No one has ever seen such good pictures, and I can’t show them to anyone, because everyone would collapse. So in the first place I hung cloths over all the pictures, and then in due course I overpainted them all white.

JAT:  And now?

GR:  Now I don’t paint at all any more, because I don’t want to have the whole human race on my conscience.

JAT:  How many victims have your works accounted for?

GR:  I don’t know, exactly. The exact statistics do exist, of course – they run into the tens of thousands – but I can’t concern myself with trivia. It was more interesting earlier on, when the big death camps in Eastern Europe were using my pictures. The inmates used to drop dead at first sight. Those were still the simple pictures, too. Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.

JAT:  And your drawings?

GR:  I haven’t done a lot. Buchenwald and Dachau had two each, and Bergen-Belsen had one. Those were mostly used for torture purposes.

JAT:  The Russians are said to have five of your paintings and drawings. Is that so?

GR:  I don’t know how many.

JAT:  Stalin mounted his reign of terror with two pictures. After killing millions of Russians, it’s said that he caught an accidental glimpse of one of your pictures, just for a fraction of a second, and immediately dropped down dead. Is that so?

GR:  I don’t know. One of my best paintings is in the Soviet Union.

JAT:  So what happens next?

GR:  I don’t paint any more. I can’t, because I don’t want to spread terror, alarm and anxiety everywhere, and depopulate the earth. But now it’s come to the point where I only have to think my paintings out and tell someone about them, and the person rushes off in a state of panic, has a nervous breakdown, and becomes infertile. That is the worst effect. Though I can’t say so for sure, as yet, because – depending on who tells the story – I have already caused dumbness, hair loss (mainly in women) and paralysis of limbs.

JAT:  Is it true that you supply paintings to the U.S. Army?

GR:  I can’t tell you anything about that.

JAT:  Have you no scruples, or anything?

GR:  I am an artist.

JAT:  Do you believe in God?

GR:  Yes, I believe in myself. I am the greatest, I am the greatest of all!

JAT:  Thank you, Mr. Richter.

GR:  Not at all, Mr. Thwaites.
* * * *

Now being reminded (via stumbling-upon) of the bit above, which I'd completely forgotten about, having first encountered it in a book I owned some years ago.

I know that the concept of the “fatal/killing joke” (as in, “die laughing”) had been around long before the Monty Python skit based on the same premise, had been around for a long time – but deadly paintings? Gallows humor in a Cold War context of postwar Germany, as well as a cynical dismissal of the heroic notion of “art as a weapon.” Also, it hints at the pair’s own anxieties about pursuing the quaint and retrograde practice of making paintings at the dawn of the consumer age – the suspected pointlessness of creating singular, hand-crafted images amidst the deluge of mass-circulated imagery pouring forth by way of magazines, advertisements, movies and TV, etc.. “Cynical” in that one, perhaps, could only continue to paint or make art by shrugging off the suspicion that doing so meant pursuing an increasingly marginalized, devalued, insignificant endeavor.*

The cynicism and dark humor of the “interview” are most likely attributable to Polke. Jokes about the feebleness of art in the postmodern age were a constant trope in his work throughout the years. For instance, a painting produced by Polke some five years after the text above, in which the artists has a laugh at the “transcendental” conceits of the pure-abstraction school of painting...

...In which the purity of the composition is sullied (if not nullified) by the intrusion of text, text which roughly translates as, “Higher powers command: paint the upper right corner black!” (And in that font, no less.) And then there's this one from 1976, with its obvious reference to the Nazi-via-malappropraited-Nietzschean übermenschen theme, transplanted into a postwar setting...

...About which I always wondered if Polke didn't derive the idea from the title of Norman Mailer's famous essay about JFK's nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Such was the character of Sigmar Polke’s anti-mannerisms – corrosive irony combined with a pomo pastiche sensibility that appeared to disregard all notions of “high” and “low,” thus allowing a maximal accommodation for the most garish of decorative kitsch. Add to this his seemingly arbitrary or slipshod methods in the craftsmanship department, his incessant flirtation with visual murkiness, if not outright “ugliness.” Problematic and abrasive enough for some audiences, one supposes, were it not all capped off with – of course – the artist’s recurrent visual allusions to the repressed demons of Germany’s recent past. “For him,” critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote of Polke, “Aesthetic decorum appears to be roughly as important in the present state of civilization as table manners during an air raid.” Unsurprisingly, hazy accusations of borderline “nihilism” have occasionally been made by some critics.**

At any rate, Sigmar Polke will most likely be the subject of some long-overdue inkage on these shores on account of the MoMA retrospective that's presently kicking off. High time, too. Polke received only a bit of letting attention in the U.S. previously – mostly back in the days of so-called “German Invasion” early phase of the 1980s NYC art boom. I believe at the time his work was touted as an acknowledged precursor to that of art-boom passing fancy David Salle. But ultimately Polke’s work proved a little “too German” – that is, too esoteric and impenetrable – for American eyes; because the attention fell away, soon enough. The spotlight would mostly go to Anselm Kiefer for the remainder of the decade, before critical consensus began to finally settle on Richter as the most important European artist of his generation.***

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*  Wasn’t there something along these lines serving as a theme in Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until the End of the World – a character at some pointing morosely muttering about contemporary life being overrun by a “disease of images”? Difficult for me to recall the context, as it’s been about two decades since I saw the film.

**  In this respect, it could be argued that between Richter and Polke, the latter proved to be far more of an influence on younger artists in West Germany – particularly the “bad boy” Cologne coterie of Kippenberger, Oehlen, Büttner, etc.

***  In retrospect, it would seem that the American artworld craze for postwar German art mostly served to buttress the legitimacy of emerging NYC art trends. By which I mean: Polke as an establishing precedent for Salle; Georg Baselitz and A. R. Penck cast in the supporting roles for the neo-expressionism of Schnabel, Rothenberg, et al., and so on. Like some stealthily-chauvinistic booster campaign that whispers, "We've got credit in the Old World!."

15 April 2014

Life: A Remote User's Manual


Was It Ever So Simple?

Is an obsession with the past the sign of a morbid disposition? Obsession in the case meaning a constant rehashing of past occurrences and achievements – done for the sake of assuaging an anxious sense of stasis, degeneration, impasse, or reversion in the present. I find myself wondering this in recent months, as the news offers an incessant series of anniversaries – of this or that landmark legislation, historical milestone, technological innovation, tragic event or horrific massacre, etcetera etcetera etcetera. This, admittedly, might simply just another example of the news cycle doing what it does – filling news holes and broadcast time with whatever it can, especially if that whatever is easier to explain than (say) what's going on in Syria or Crimea.

At any rate...some time ago Simon mentioned the matter of retromantic tendencies within the artworld of the moment. I wasn't so convinced at first, but soon conceded that it was a trend, albeit a marginal and trifling one. In the interim, there have been several retro- exhibitions, curatorial events that have aimed – in some form or another – to restage or revisit some paradigm-shifting exhibition of years gone by. One can easily guess the likely candidates in advance. And yet another one is presently in the offing, that being the Jewish Museum's repackaging to their historic "Primary Structures" exhibition – the 1966 show being that one that offered audiences a survey of Minimalist art practices as embodied in the works of Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Anne Truitt, Ronald Bladen, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Daniel Bell, and others. Minimalism had been around for at least 5-6 years by that point, so it wasn't entirely new; but the exhibition marked the first time that the "New Art" tendency gained the notice of the broader public and the media.

Not that this amounted to public acceptance at the time, merely recognition. Minimalist art would remain controversial for years thereafter. Over the intervening half century, its legacy remained has mixed. For instance: In terms of artistic practices and impulses, did Minimalism mark the end of something, or the beginning? Some would answer "yes" to the first, framing in terms as an extremist end-gaming extension of Greenbergian notions of puristic formalism, reductive literalism, and "medium specificity." Others might argue the latter point, asserting that Minimalism constituted a break from the Greenbergian model of modernist art, and was partly responsible for introducing prefabrication and permutational seriality into art-making practices that are still very much with us today.*

The current Jewish Museum reboot affair is titled "Other Primary Structures," is the first of a two-part exhibit, and touts itself as a "sequel" and a "response" to the 1966 original. As such, it aims for historical revisionism – expanding upon its predecessor's Anglo/North American bias by including the work of artists who were supposedly doing comparable things in other places (e.g. Brazil, Croatia) around the same time. As Roberta Smith states in her NYT review, "Other Primary Structures" suffers from a number of weaknesses, not the least of which is the nature of its laissez-faire premise. Personally, I think it's a bit of curatorial overreach to try and shoehorn works by the likes of Brazilian Neo-Concretist artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica into the mix, considering that the artists involved in each respective group were pursuing very different ideas.**  But it looks like we can expect more of this sort of porousness in the second part of the exhibition, which will feature work by then-contemporaneous artists from Latin American, Eastern Europe, Israel, and Africa.

One has to allow for a fair amount of contextual slippage for this premise to work. But it's well-intentioned, I suppose. At the very least, viewers are introduced to a number of previously unknown or neglected artists. Still, by choosing to lump it in under the title of the original exhibition (even with the tacked-on "Other" qualifier), one can't but the belated inductees are still subsumed subjuncts to the Established Narrative. But that's the nature of trying to stick with the favored categorizations of art in the 1960s. It's messy business. Art practices were fragmenting, having already split off in a number of directions within first year of the decade. As Minimalism was first coming into being, so was it's nemesis – the artistic sensibility that some labeled "postminimalism," as embodied in the works of Eve Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Paul Thek, et al. Even some of the chief Minimalists (e.g., Morris, Serra) would schizophrenically vascilate between the two tendencies a few years down the road, as Bataillian ideas of the visceral, the unstable, and the uncanny began to increasingly gain traction. (Which points in the direction of another recently-resurrected exhibit, bringing us back to "When Attitudes Become Form.")

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*  There are other ways of looking at it, as well. For example: Perhaps as a passing resurgence of a Constructivist sensibility, its onotology-of-objecthood possibly intended as a brutely materialist rebuttal to the romanticism and mysticism embodied by "color field" painters like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, et al.?

If anything, the movement helped introduce usher in the phenomenon of the artist and theorist and critic, be it in relation to his own work and that of his immediate peers; with artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Sol LeWit, Dan Graham, and Robert Smithson stepping into the critical process and providing the central texts. Granted, at the time there were a handful of new critics – Barbara Rose, Lucy Lippard, Gregory Battock – who proved willing and able to analyze the work, and recognized its significance. But to read their early essays on Minimalist work if to find them floundering, grasping to nail down its key concepts, if not devise an aesthetic vocabulary for discussing the work in the first place. Judd & co. would eventually step in to intervene.

**  Grounds for debate, I'm sure. One could argue for some generalized theoretical overlap; but it's be a tenuous case, at best. Plus I doubt most of the first-gen Minimalists would ever have been so generous in extending the courtesy. They were a narrowly-focused bunch, and could often be arse-gratingly pedantic about the whole enterprise, as well.

14 April 2014

Asynchronous Interlude

Had somehow missed this previously. Looks like Domino reissued in on an anthology a few years ago, in the wake -- one would guess -- of the accolades that (rightfully) swarmed around Comicopera.

Falling somewhere in the quarter-century span between the soundtrack for vintage things like this and it's revival by these fellows, you can't help but figure that these sounds were anything other than bafflingly retardaire (if not off-putting abrasive, ugly) in 1982. And bearing "Solar Flares Burn For You" in mind, one wonders: How many times did Wyatt provide scores over the years? Enough to make up a "Music for Films" collection? Doubtful.

13 April 2014

The Cloude of Unhearyng

(Or: A series of random and incomplete late-night thoughts prompted by revisiting the music of Harry Partch for the first time in nearly two decades.)

[...]   Firstly, I recognized the architecture within within the first frame, because I immediately felt a twinge of homesickness. Which was odd, because despite two decades spent in Chicago, I never heard any mention of Partch ever having lived or worked there. I associated him exclusively with the West Coast, assumed he might have spent some time on the East Coast, but could never imagine him having reason to venture inland.

[...]   The story’s been told, by David Toop and others, about how the composer Claude Debussy encountered Indonesian gamelan music at a Parisian international expo in 1889. He was enchanted by it, having – lazing about on an adjacent grassy space, having dozed off at some point in the performance, awaking a long time later to hear the same music going on with little variation, for hours on end. It apparently gave him some sort of epiphany, about other types of music – “all-night” musics that were infinitely open and modular and had a logical and purpose all their own, obliquely interweaving itself into one’s experience and awareness, following any of the usual Western ideas about beginning or end, progression or development or focus, etc.. He wrote about it in his journals, made notes to perhaps incorporate his impressions of this music in his future compositions, but died before ever getting round to exploring the notion. His friend and associate Erik Satie proved more ready to venture down that path.

[...]    Re, that last thought...

There’s nothing like going to something you saw advertised as a performance by a “gamelan ensemble,” and being confronted by a bunch of local white folks (townies, essentially) coming out to clang away on water kettles and marimbas. This has been known to happen. Reason being that apparently at some point in the early-mid twentieth-century, gamelan music became something of an exotic ethnomusicalogical fixation in the U.S.,and the music departments of many major universities clamored to acquire all the instruments involved in making the music. Which they still own, and would otherwise be mouldering in storage if some of them hadn’t started some sort of community-outreach programs to bring people in to learn how to play them and give the occasional free-to-the-public performance.

File under: "Not what I had in mind." I don't know who’s to blame for this, but I'm fairly sure Debussy and Satie can't be held responsible.

[...]   By the time Tortoise released their 2nd album (1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die), people around town were already starting to talk shit about them. You know how it is – the backlash. Once the artist in question starts to get widespread recognition, everyone who claims to have gotten in on the ground floor gets all churlish and sneeringly dismissive. Perhaps this was the reason the group so quickly adopted the Never-Play-Your-Hometown policy that they'd adhere to for about a dozen years thereafter.

But in there sudden absence, they inspired their share of imitators around town. Small outfits with unconventional instrumentation and approaches. Lots of realtime dubbed-out knob-twisting and reverb-soaked sound manipulation, or with percussive elements taking the lead, often more openly structured and unresolved than what rock audience would've wanted or been conditioned to ever expect. I recall one such ensemble that had a marimba as their central instrument as seemed to be quite smitten with the music of Morton Feldman. There were enough of these types of groups around that for a while you might've wondered if the whole "post-rock" sound was going to be the next big underground thing in the city. Nothing doing, as it proved to be short-lived, with only one of two of the acts in question ever getting around to recording anything before splitting up.

Tortoise meanwhile, were making themselves scarce about town. "Last time I saw those guys," one local backlasher was recorded as saying, "They did nothing but play 'Tubular Bells' for forty minutes. Doubtlessly in reference to when the band started working with vibraphone and marimbas; a phase that seemed to be inspired more than Steve Reich than anything else, although I remember wishing at the time that they would've instead steered it more of a Partch-like direction.

08 April 2014

Habitat # 8 (Preface)

"It was during the nineteenth century that the 'building' became distinct from the 'monument,' a distinction that slowly entered architectural terminology. Monuments are characterized by their affectation or aesthetic pretension, their official or public character, and the influence exercised on their surroundings, while buildings are defined by their private function, the preoccupation with technique, their placement in a prescribed space. The architect came to be seen as an artist devoted to the construction of monuments, and there was a question of whether buildings were a part of architecture at all.

"There was a terrible loss of meaning that followed the extensive promotion of the building and the degradation of the monument. The monumental was rich from every point of view: rich with meaning, the sensible expression of richness. These meanings died over the course of the century. We may deplore the loss, but why return to the past? Negative utopia, a form of nostalgia motivated by a rejection of the contemporary, has no more value than its antithesis, technological utopia, which claims to accentuate what is new about the contemporary by focusing on a 'positive' factor, technique.

"The meaning ascribed to monuments disappeared in the wake of a revolution that had multiple aspects: political (the bourgeois democratic revolution, for which the revolution of 1789–93 provided the model), economic (industrialization and capitalism), and social (the extension of the city, the quantitative and qualitative rise of the working class). The demise of the monument and the rise of the building resulted from this series of cyclical events, from this conjunction of causes and reasons.

"The monument possessed meaning. Not only did it have meaning, it was meaning: strength and power. Those meanings have perished. The building has no meaning; the building has a signification. An enormous literature claiming to be of linguistic or semantic origin is now seen as derisively ideological for its failure to observe this elementary distinction between signification and meaning. A word has signification; a work (at the very least a succession of signs and significations, a literature, a succession of sentences) has meaning. As everyone knows, the most elementary sign, letter, syllable, phoneme has no signification until it becomes part of a larger unit, becomes part of a larger structure.

"The destruction of meaning, a democratic as well as an industrial revolution, engendered an abstract interest in significations. Paradoxically, and yet quite rationally, the promotion of the building was accompanied by a promotion of signs, words, and speech, which erupted together with the significations to which they corresponded. The power of the thing and the sign, which complement one another, replaced the ancient potencies, endowed with the ability to make themselves perceptible and acceptable through the symbols of kings, princes, and the aristocracy. This does not imply, however, that political power disappeared; it was simply transferred to an abstraction, the State.

"The complementary powers of the thing and the sign are incorporated into concrete, which is twofold in its nature, if we can still continue to employ the word: a brutal thing among things, a materialized abstraction and abstract matter. Simultaneously — synchronically, I should say — architectural discourse, highly pertinent, filled with significations, has supplanted architectural production (the production of a space rich with meaning). And the abstract and flawed signs of happiness, of beauty, proliferate among concrete cubes and rectangles."

- Henri Lefebrve, excerpt from Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment, c, 1973. Recently translated by Robert Bonanno, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

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