Archive for the 'art' Category

Not sure what to call this rant.

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Art History books are full of errors.

I read art history books from time to time. Sometimes I’ll read a passage where a work seems misinterpreted and I’ll wince. If I see this error repeated over and over again in several different books, I’ll go to my blog and write an Andy Rooney-like post.

The painting, La Raie Vert [the Green Stripe] from 1905 by Henri Matisse is a great painting. It’s a painting that everyone likes. It’s a famous painting. You think of Matisse as being a little too frilly—big turquoise floral patterns, naked French woman dressed up as Moroccans, lounging on cushions, their faces looking like 1920s illustrations for Vogue. But the Green Line is something else—it’s a tough painting. The sitter* is looking almost straight ahead, the oval of her face dead-center on the canvas. The background is separated into three near-geometric sections—orange, teal and purple. Much of her is outlined in black. And also there appears to be a green stripe that runs down the center of her face from her forehead into her upper lip and chin.

green stripe

And so an art historian looks at that green stripe and thinks “wow, that green stripe is really something. I mean, that green stripe is crazy, right? It doesn’t make sense. That green stripe is so arbitrary!”

And then Mitch Magee has to read over and over again in art history books that La Raie Vert is one of the first examples of the use of arbitrary (or unnatural or random) color in Western Art. And then I wince.

Staring in the Baroque**, there appeared the flashy convention in portrait painting of depicting a subject using two different light sources of different temperatures—the warm light source would indicate lamp light, the cool light source would indicate natural light coming from a window. You see this kind of lighting now in movies and also in classic illustrations like Haddon Sunblom’s Coca-Cola Santa:


Santa’s face is being lit by the warm glow of a fireplace and the right side of his head is being lit by the cool light of some window we can’t see, like really strong moonlight or something. And as those two light sources meet and mix, there is a dark patch on the right side of his forehead.

Light is funny—it doesn’t combine in the same way we would expect pigments to combine. And weird things happen when two light sources of different temperatures mix. And sometimes colors shift in unexpected ways.

Matisse in his Fauve period was inheriting a tradition of French painting that was very much interested in the effects of light. If you were Monet, you would sit around and look at haystacks all day. You would make lots and lots of paintings of haystacks at different times of day and you would concentrate on the quality of light that hit the surface of those haystacks. You thought of images as little particles of light hitting your eyeballs. You would try to be impartial in your perception of light—sometimes a haystack might look purple; sometimes a haystack might look orange; sometimes green. Light is weird.



Derain and Matisse knew what Monet was up to—they had made similar work. What they both decided to do in the early years of the 20th century was to push these impressionist investigations into visual perception (where a shadow on green grass can appear purple, for example) one step further. It was like they had a big “color intensity” knob attached to an impressionist painting and decided to turn it all the way up. When they saw a shadow that appeared slightly blue, they would just make it blue. When an orange-looking light hit the side of a brown boat, they’d paint the boat orange. It was all based on observation. And to some it looked arbitrary.

La Raie Vert, is not an example of the “arbitrary” use of color (what painting is?) It is a painting that—among other things—emphasizes the strange visual effect that occurs when different temperatures of light combine—the “warm” yellow light from a lamp, combing with the “cool” white light from a window, creating what to Matisse’s eyes looked like a dark, almost-greenish stripe that ran down the center of the sitters face. And so he made the stripe green.

* EDIT: Somehow I forgot that the sitter was Mme Matisse! Whoops.

** (I may be a bit off here. I’m thinking of the work of Jacob Jordaens. Most painting from the Baroque uses one light source. This minor convention of using two light sources really hits its stride in the 19th cen. and becomes an illustration and portrait painting convention a little later on near the turn of the century.)

I think I need to go back to MoMA and give the Jeff Wall show another chance.

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Jeff Wall is one of those artists that smart people seem to really like. Nearly every smart person I know seems to think of Wall as a seminal figure.

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick lap around his retrospective at MoMA. Maybe a bit too quick because I still don’t see why everyone goes so apeshit over Jeff Wall. I need to think about him a bit more.

When you think of Jeff Wall you think of light boxes—big transparent photographs lit from behind with florescent bulbs and mounted to the wall. Light boxes are just intrinsically great—any large photo lit from behind is going to look fantastic. I don’t care what it is—a Tylenol ad at the airport—if it’s in a light box, I’m sold. So we can all agree that light boxes are good—that’s one thing that Jeff Wall has going for him.

You also think about the fact that his photos are carefully posed. Even though they look like he just went into the street and happened to be at the right moment to capture something interesting, that’s not what happened—he spent days (days!) rounding up people to pose for him in very specific locations. So if you weren’t familiar with Wall’s work you’d say to yourself, “Whoa, look at that redneck making that ‘slanty-eyed’ gesture to that Asian dude.”
But you’d be wrong because these were “actors” of a sort.

That the photos are “fakes,” meant to look real, is interesting to some people. There was a critical armature that developed around photography in the 60’s and 70’s that attempted to understand the medium by determining its unique and intrinsic properties. One of the intrinsic properties of Photography was thought to be its “truthfulness”—a photograph was a record of light hitting film; it was impartial in that way; it didn’t have the messy subjectivity that painting had. So when you looked at a Henri Cartier Bresson photo, you thought to yourself, “Oh, how delightful that he was there to capture that moment. Isn’t life magical?” By posing everything to look real, Jeff Wall undercuts this assumption of photography’s truthfulness and that makes people feel kind of exhilarated, as if one of life’s big barriers had finally been torn down. “Thank God we can no longer trust the accuracy of the photo,” they say. (they don’t really…)

But perhaps Wall is less a photographic provocateur than a throwback to a 19th century mode of photography that took painting as its model. He seems to like to fill his work with art historical references.
There’s this one that borrows from a 19th century woodblock print from Katsushika Hokusai.

The little figures on the left of this one are posed like the ones in Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” or maybe like that Giorgione painting whose name I don’t remember. In any event, his pictures look vaguely art historical. People seem to like this about him too.

They also like his politics. Wall has concern for the underclass and really we all should. Even though to you and me, rounding up a bunch of itinerant laborers and making them pose for several days for a big expensive photo seems like the height of bourgeois decadence, for some people this makes Wall a friend of the common man. Kind of like Courbet—an artist that Wall also quotes.

So I’m obviously missing Wall’s greatness and importance. But I’m going to go back to MoMA and see the show again.

I know I don’t write a lot on my blog anymore so I’ll try to be better about that too.

Brice and Drinking

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Am I hung over? I feel achy. I was all prepared to write something about Brice Marden today but, my God, that task seems pretty arduous given how I feel—I feel achy. I don’t feel like writing about Brice Marden.

I went out to a bar last night with Dyna Moe and Julie Klausner and two of Julie’s friends, one of whom had a cool haircut and was wearing a Russian Constructivist-style dress. Good going, with that dress! The bar was serving free vodka. So I drank a lot of free vodka tonics. Is that what bars do nowadays—just serve people free vodka?

The Brice Marden show at MoMA is certainly worth a look. I saw it about two weeks ago with Kaveri, so my memory of it has dimmed a bit. And somehow, Kaveri and I forgot to see the drawing part of the show so I can only comment on the paintings. They are good.

It’s like coming face to face with some Protestant view of the almighty—massive, austere, humane. The exhibition begins with a bunch of his early monochrome paintings. I remember them being mostly green and grey and beautiful. Beautiful because the color is so subtle—greens…greys…like being in the English countryside on a damp day—and because they have a waxy surface. He mixes beeswax into his paints. How does he do it? I think he dilutes the beeswax in turpentine and then mixes that into oil paint, but I’m not sure. He lays it on with a spatula. There’s a tiny strip of primed canvas with waxy drips at the bottom. If he were my age, he would just go out and buy some Gamblin Wax Medium and mix that in, but he’s too old-school for that. I could see how most people would be bored silly by these monochrome paintings and, eventually, I was one of those people.


In the next rooms there are some more monochrome paintings, but this time they’re made from canvases of differing colors, placed side-by-side or stacked. From a distance they look like flags—flags from a very sensitive country, a country whose flag designers decided to differentiate the left band of yellow ever-so-slightly from the one on the right. The larger ones look like the best Amish quilts you ever saw. You’ll see a painting made up of seven canvases stacked together with three slightly different reds plus a dark grey and light grayish-blue. “Very stately,” you’ll say to yourself. Like all his paintings, the surface has this soft waxyness to it that makes you feel like the paintings are your friends.


Then, all of a sudden, the monochromes are replaced by many large-scale gestural works—lots of beautifully-colored squiggles on a light-colored ground—like Jackson Pollock, distilled through the ersatz-Scientific Method of Minimalism. They’re very majestic and grand, the type of painting that would make a humanist like Lucio Fontana blush. If America had a tradition of making religious paintings, they would look like this. Actually, America does have a tradition of making religious paintings and they do look like this—Pollock, Ad Reinhart, Rothko—Marden basically falls into that tradition. A real minimalist would probably not like these paintings because they don’t adhere to a “what you see is what you see” philosophy—to appreciate them requires a leap of faith that what you’re seeing is not merely a bunch of squiggles on a surface. Painting is like that—it creates a world beyond the literal. This is annoying to some people.

The final paintings in the show are also of squiggles, but a different sort of squiggle—not gestural but carefully-painted and wider, like the train paths of some crazy subway map. The lines take very eratic paths but almost never go off the canvas, they skirt along the edge for a while and dive in to the center of the painting. I really love these final paintings; they’re my favorite paintings in the show.


These weren’t in the show.

This Is Not an Art Post

Friday, September 15th, 2006

I think if I were a member of Congress, or the head of a university, or in some other such position of authority which demanded I get my portrait painted, I would hire Brian Calvin to paint it. I’m sure he would make me look like a pretty cool dude. I hope Brian wouldn’t mind, but I would choose to wear a navy blue suit, just to be funny and to separate me from his other models and because it’s only fitting that a member of Congress wear a navy blue suit.


Try as I might to hate his paintings, I think Brian Calvin is a pretty good artist. He has a show up right now at Anton Kern. You might think you hate him because of his subject—good-looking kids looking spaced-out in their street clothes. You think, “Oh Christ, this is some Barry McGee bullshit, isn’t it?” But rather than being a masturbatory exercise in street style, his paintings are austere and beautiful and carefully considered and very much engaged in the elusive language of painting that most people don’t care about because it’s pretty tedious, I supose, what with all the talk about the “edge” and “surface” and “the picture plane” and whatnot. So the paintings are great. And a little stupid because who really cares about his cute street kids and his cartoony style which is why I’d be wearing the suit.

The best Brain Calvin paintings remind me very much of Piero Della Francesca:



Thursday, August 24th, 2006

I finally got around to seeing the DADA exhibit at MoMA Yesterday.
This is the only picture I was allowed to take.

The guard said, “No pictures on the 6th floor.”
I said, “even if I don’t use a flash?”
He said, “Yeah, they don’t like people taking pictures of new exhibitions.”
I said, “OK.”

When you think of Dada you probably think of smart dudes in bowler hats making bad-assed art jokes.

Or maybe you think of paintings with a mannered hysteria about them—pictures of meaty-looking dudes with their legs blown off, maybe with some collaged bits of gears thrown in.


It was WWI, after all, and people were dying horrible deaths all around so I guess I can forgive Otto Dix for painting the way he did, but still they look pretty bad.

Duchamp’s art looks good: all these strange deadpan objects—like a freaky looking wine bottle holder—sending off their bad vibes throughout the gallery space. Yikes, readymades are creepy!


I like how little work Duchamp made in his lifetime—it makes me feel OK that I’m not producing a lot of work at the moment. Although I can’t play chess and Duchamp was a very good chess-player.

But still, Duchamp is pretty ice-cold and after a while you think, “I don’t care about this coat rack.”

Though, what you forget about with Dada is how lovely some of it is. How esthetic.

Man, I was really blown away by Jean Arp. Why hadn’t I thought about Arp? I think about Tuttle all the time and Jean Arp was doing Tuttle long before Tuttle. Some people called him “Hans.”

Look at this thing:


He would do some automatic drawings of shapes and then send those off to a carpenter to be cut out in wood and then he’d screw them together and paint them. Pretty good plan, I’d say. There are a few of these in the show. I love how gentle and unassuming they are. But also kind of tough and sloppy. He also made some great paintings and collages.

Kurt Schwitters is great too. I’ll take Kurt Schwitters over Rauschenberg. Yeah, I said it. I mean, wasn’t that Combine show at the Met disappointing? Didn’t you think, “Eh, these are kind of pompous. Who needs ‘em?”

Anyway, the biggest revelation of the Dada show was finding the work of Sophie Taeuber. Who the hell is Sophie Taeuber? I guess she was married to Jean “Hans” Arp. She made some really great needlepoint “paintings”:

I don’t remember if this one was in the show. Taeuber also did a series of small wood sculptures that are fantastic. Here is one of them:


I think she might have made these cool marionettes in the show too.

So Sophie Taeuber is great.

Here’s her picture:


Here’s a very cool picture of Jean Arp:



Friday, May 26th, 2006

Went to Chelsea to see art a couple of days ago.

Man, is it taxing walking around looking at artwork.

The Nathalie Djurberg show at Zack Feuer (LFL), a series of creepy, sexually-charged claymation shorts shown on separate monitors, was fun but I didn’t have the patience to sit through all of them. For me, it’s weird standing around a gallery for an hour looking at TV monitors. “Send me the DVD!” I want to say. Why do video artists even want to show their work in a gallery context? Isn’t it strange that gallerists are always trying to hawk a bunch of CDs, something so easily replicated, for thousands of dollars? Artists in the 60s and 70s worked so hard to make art that was not commodifiable and now that we have it with cheap CDs, video artists want to run right back into the gallery with all the paintings and sculptures. Then again, people still pay good money for instructions on how to make a Sol Lewitt, even though I could easily make one on my livingroom wall right now and it would look great.

What else?—the Dirk Skreber show, “Crystal Mess,” at Friedrich Petzel looks good. Landscapes of strangeness and destruction worked up with fat layers of paint.

I liked the Stephen Mueller paintings at Baumgartner. I liked them because the small ones reminded me of my own stuff. The big ones I didn’t care for.

Here’s what the small paintings looked like—a shield-shape with a flat-footed pattern on top of a washy ground:


This one sort of looks like a Ukrainian egg hovering over a winter landscape:


Good paintings, right? I’m not so sure about that shield shape, though—it seems like there was once a vogue for taking the heraldic shapes you find in the sticker-books at stationary shops and putting them in your paintings, but that time has passed, Stephen. It’s probably better just to make up a shape. The symmetry is nice. I’m a big fan of symmetry—it’s a pretty dumb solution (in a good way) for organizing a canvas and it calls attention to the literal shape of the supports, pushing the painting ever closer toward “objecthood,” although maybe that too is old hat.

In the 60s, abstract painting was in its last gasp and it had a lot of symmetry. Artists wanted to make paintings as deadpan and direct as possible without all that faggy fussing around with composition. They also thought that compositions that were all about how the individual parts related to each other—as apposed to having the painting be just one big “thing” without parts—were lame.

So they made big symmetrical paintings like this:

And this:


These look better up close.

Art Blogging

Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

It would take a huge force of effort for me to be an art-blogger. I walk around Chelsea and think, “maybe I’ll write about so-and-so’s show” and then I’ll get back home and think, “eh, why bother?” Even with my meager four-class-a-week teaching job, the idea of finding time to say something coherent and interesting about a work of art seems daunting. I mean, maybe if I were getting paid…

An artwork that I’ve been meaning to write about is a piece now on view (I think) in MoMA’s contemporary collection: Janet Cardiff’s A Reworking of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. This is a “Sound Piece.” “Sound Piece” usually means walking into a room and setting off motion detectors that play creepy, atmospheric music and sounds of people whispering, but in this case it means something good.

You walk into a large room and arranged in a huge circle are 40 speakers on stands about the height of your head. It looks like some strange ritual, like you’ve happened upon a coven of speaker-people.

If you happen to walk in at the beginning of the piece all you hear is silence. As you walk up to the speakers you hear voices, the voices of people muttering, having little conversations, coughing— just general ambient sound. You realize that every speaker is playing an individual human voice and you think, “that’s pretty cool, I guess.”

And then slowly all the speakers start singing and it’s amazing.

What they’re singing is a forty-part choral piece written in the Renaissance by the English composer, Thomas Tallis—forty unique parts! Each voice is emanating from its own individual speaker. All the parts meld into this incredible wash, you feel enveloped. Sometimes, just the tenors are singing and then, all of a sudden, the sopranos will join in and then all 40 speakers are “singing” at the top of their lungs and feel a type of religious ecstasy.

What’s great about Cardiff’s piece is that you can walk around the circle of speakers and put your ear up to each one and hear a single, isolated voice. You begin to understand how the work, Spem in Alium, is constructed, how stunningly complicated it is. When you step into the center of the circle, it’s an ethereal wash of sound, when you step up to a single speaker, it’s an isolated voice, sometimes singing something very simple-sounding. Often, you step up to a speaker, and it’s not singing at all—it’s resting. It’s an experience you would never have if you went to a concert of the same work or bought the CD.

Basically, all Early Music is fantastic. At one point, I bought a bunch of early choral music and it’s all great, so Cardiff is basically just tweaking a work of art that’s already amazing. But she’s tweaking it in a very ingenious way. So it’s worth a listen.

OK, I’ll Write About Art (or “Nozkowski vs. Heilmann”)

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

A couple days ago a Mary Heilmann post was placed on Painters NYC, sparking a debate regarding the merits of her work, compared to that of Thomas Nozkowski. While everyone seemed to gush over Nozkowski’s work, many were turned off by Mary Heilmann’s stuff and that led me to think that there is an unsettling Cult of Nozkowski afoot in New York and beyond. Go into any art program (especially at Rutgers, where he teaches) and you’ll see tons of Nozkowski-like paintings, quirky intimate abstractions, obsessively labored, always with a few gauzy washes, always with some colorful foreground shapes.

And of course, you’d really have to be a cold-hearted bastard not too like a Nozkowski painting. Look at this one from his show now up at Max Protech:

It’s incredibly sophisticated and lovely—that soft navy wash across the background, overlapping the outside blobby shapes—terrific. And the blobby shapes themselves, each a different color, are so subtle and precious, it really takes you aback. And the size of his paintings—that un-hip “couch” size that no self-respecting artist works in—is great.

Here’s another one:

And another:

So what’s the problem? No problem really. But Nozkowski’s strengths—his gentleness, his intimacy, the endless revisions his canvases go through—are also his weaknesses. You want to say, “Jesus, Tom, stop being so lovely.” You look at the above painting and you know that he must have changed the color of those squares 87 times and it just makes you depressed. Maybe you think about yourself endlessly mixing colors, fiddling with color relationships, thinking to yourself, “God, I’m such an asshole, just put a color down and be done with it.” Nozkowski lives in this world, this world of painters obsessions; it’s why so many painters love him.

Compare that with this painting by Mary Heilmann:

Bam! This painting would punch a Nozkowski painting right in the face. It looks so effortless; it probably was effortless. And it has a really charged “dumbness” that Nozkowski would never allow. It says to you, “look, I’m a ‘geometric abstraction’—my colors are orange, red, yellow, black, green and blue.” This type of semiological approach to painting is also very un-Nozkowski and it pushes Heilmann into a conceptual realm that most painters dare not tread. And still the paintings are very arresting, gorgeous even.

Like this one.

And this.

So I’m down on painters who don’t like Heilmann. But, I’m also down on clever types who can’t find joy in Nozkowski.

Why Not Write About Dana Schutz?

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

“Don’t be critical of Dana Schutz!” is what Kaveri told me when I said I may write this blog post. This weekend, we both went to see her mini-retrospective at Brandeis.

Why would I be critical of Dana Schutz? Look at this great picture of her standing in her studio:

She looks fun, right? Like the type of artist, you’d like to get to know?

And I have a sort of soft spot for her work because it’s the type of stuff that would have marked you as majorly uncool when I was in grad school. Back in the day (late 90s), only rich dudes who read Bukowski and looked at a lot of Frank Auerbach would adopt that type of figurative/expressionist language. So she has gigantic balls, I think.

And it’s funny because the work now on view at the Rose Museum is different from the Dana Schutz I first encountered. I first saw her work when she was a graduate student at Columbia, and back then it had more the look of “painting critique” that was then the rage. “Painting critique” really wasn’t a critique at all but a way of reframing expressionist language so you could take one step back from all that surging feeling and say to the viewer, “so this is what feeling was like; remember that?” What you’d do is you’d take a typical expressionist approach to mark-making—say, a big pour of paint or a big slash with a housepainters brush—and you’d do it in a very, very deliberate way so it looked icy-cool. And to this day, paintings conceived in this fashion look awesome.

Here’s kind of what her paintings looked like back then, a big network of swords:

But nowadays, she looks more like an actual expressionist, albeit with a lot of humor and a kooky narrative thrown in, like a modern day Philip Guston. And looking at those swords, maybe she’s always drawn on Guston, pre-abstraction Guston like this:

Or post-abstraction Guston like this:

She has the same fascination with the corporeal. In a lot of her paintings people are getting picked apart, their entrails are hanging out, they’re blowing out huge amounts of snot, or chewing their face out or something.

But the color is nothing like Guston, who seemed to mostly stick with white, Cadmium Red Light, and black. Dana Schutz will lay down a thin wash of, say, magenta as a ground; and then she’ll very deliberately clump up mounds of pre-mixed color that play off against that ground—olive green, bright plum, beige, navy blue. She’ll clump-up a big mountain with a certain set of colors and then she’ll move over to a tree and paint that in a different way, with a different set of colors. You look at her color choices and you think, “Jesus, I could never do that.”

But, does it all click for me? The cryptic narratives, the lush and jarring color, the fun blobs of paint, the political high-mindedness, the gross-out body stuff—does it all come together?

Not entirely, but I was instructed not to be negative. I like Dana Schutz. By all accounts she’s very nice. Kaveri has met her in passing a few times and reports that she’s terrific, so there you go. Also, if I ever meet her at a party, I want her to like me.

Storr vs. Danto

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Last week I went to an art lecture, really more of a conversation, held uptown between Robert Storr and Arthur Danto, two esteemed art critics.

You know I like Robert Storr. I like his writings, I like his attitude, I like his hair. A friend pointed out to me that he chooses to champion some pretty dubious artists (Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close). I don’t care—we all have our tastes and Storr’s tastes are refreshingly broad and and his writing insightful.

It turns out I also like Danto, kind of an oddball grandfather type, slightly heavyset with a white beard, gregarious and opinionated. He said that American critics whose ideas are derived from continental philosophy of the past century (basically the editors of OCTOBER) were “medieval” and had no relation to the art being produced today. Danto comes to art by way of philosophy (and he came to philosophy by way of art, coming to New York from Detroit to be an Abstract Expressionist). In regard to art, his philosophical concerns are primarily ontological—seeing the Warhol Brillo Box show in the mid-sixties was a breakthrough moment. “What makes these Brillo Boxes—which look just like the ones in the grocery store, despite being made of plywood—different from the ones in the grocery store?” he said to himself and off he went to write several books which I’ve heard are good, but haven’t read.

The high point of the evening came when Storr and Danto butted heads for ten minutes over the merits of Bruce Nauman, Storr was pro-Nauman, Danto was against. Storr gave a reasoned, detailed appeal but Danto wasn’t having it.

Here are Arthur Danto’s reasons for not liking Nauman:
1. Nauman always assumes an antagonistic relationship to his audience
2. Too noisy
3. Relies on lame jokes
4. Danto didn’t need to take that crap

I think those are pretty good reasons. I’ve never really fallen in love with Nauman, even though liking him is pretty much a prerequisite if you want to be a hip young artist. Maybe there’s a general misanthropy about his work that I don’t like, as Danto suggests.

Here are two more things I don’t really care for that everyone else seems to like:
1. stuffed grape leaves
2. Cat Power