Saturday, August 30, 2008

More Public Art

I just stepped outside for a moment here at work, and I noticed this strange little thing hidden in the corner of the window frame.  I tilted it up with my foot and saw that there was writing on the back of it.  I found a little painting!

On the back, it says handwritten:
And stamped:
Public Paintings: Find & Keep for a Month

Who knows how long it's been there.  So now I've got a painting by Christopher Fitzgerald for a month, starting August 30th!  I'm so excited and I think this is one of the coolest things ever.  Now I just have to decide where I'm going to leave it when my time is up.

Ryan Witte

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Women on Trial

The next thing to discuss is my going to hear Karen Finley discussing Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim.
I had no idea what to expect, but basically I saw "Karen Finley" and "Louise Bourgeois" in the same sentence and knew instantly that I had to go.

--I believe this image is Mapplethorpe, actually: SFS

We signed a waiver and the whole thing was videotaped, so if it's ever released, you can look for me.  I'm the one with the mustache.

I need to first discuss the Guggenheim, however.

--Photo credit there in the photo

Let it be known that I have the most profound respect for Wright, on so many different levels, and also that this is probably one of the single most exquisite buildings on the entire planet.  It's also kind of really wonderful to be there for an event like this, after hours, when the whole place is completely empty and silent aside from the 30-or-so of us.

Unfortunately, it's one of the worst environments to view works of art that I've ever had the displeasure to visit.  The slanted floors and ceilings make orthogonally shaped paintings seem weird and awkward.

But their curatorship is some of the worst I have ever seen in my life, especially when it comes to sculpture.  If they advertise a show of anything three-dimensional?  Don't even bother.  Newsflash, Guggenheim: the whole point of three-dimensional works (and I'm including their motorcycle show, which was brilliant in its selection of moments in industrial design, otherwise), is that you be able to walk all the way around them.

Not only do they put sculptures up against the back wall, so you can only see, at best, three sides of them, but they also have some of the most irritatingly militant guards overcompensating for inadequate egos and relishing in their little power trips.  

The Bourgeois was unbelievably worse.  They actually have some of the entire gallery spaces roped off so you can't even go inside them to look at the work.  Completely unacceptable, as far as I'm concerned.  I'd rather just not see the work at all than have to look at it from twelve feet away, and not even interact with it.

To be fair, I asked one of the employees about the ropes, and evidently visitors HAD been touching the artworks, so they felt it was necessary.  Who ARE these morons who go into a museum and TOUCH the artworks, ruining it for everyone else?

But that's just the icing on the cake, anyway.  The Guggenheim is a chronically pathetic place to view sculpture, in both the architectural environment they have to work with and the way they choose to arrange the pieces in it.

While I have the most profound respect for Finley, I've often been very conflicted about her work.  A society as ruthlessly Capitalist as ours is no more conducive to the progression of the arts than the Communist one it so adamantly derided.  Capitalism favors art that's "pretty" and the works that have had the most profound influence on the evolution of art have seldom been considered "pretty."  Quite the contrary, most of the seriously influential movements were rejected by the status-quo.

For this reason, the government subsidy of the arts in this country is extremely important.  And after we took the baton from Paris in the 1940s, we had a responsibility to the entire world, really.  Then in the mid- to late-80s we get Mapplethorpe retrospectives scandalizing Cincinatti, Andre Serrano pissing on crucifixes, Annie Sprinkle displaying her cervix to the world, and Finley.  Along with Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, her work so purposefully challenged the conservative views of those who had influence over the NEA that from that point forward, progressive artists could no longer be subsidized by the government program.  I consider that somewhat counter-productive and self-defeating in some ways--in a way totally irresponsible.

Well, Finley addressed the subject from the very beginning.  She knew exactly what she was doing when she staged those performance art shows.  It was a deliberate attack on the institution of the NEA.  While I'm still not sure if I agree with it, I have come to respect what she did tenfold because it was completely planned and intentional.

It also came to light very near the beginning that Bourgeois had asked Finley to accept an award for her when she was physically unable because she felt that what Finley was doing was the next generation of her own explorations of the nature of gender in the art world.

All in all, Finley had some incredibly profound things to say about Bourgeois' work that I was grateful to have heard.  A true performer, she also recited a number of Bourgeois' poems--she wrote various poetry from the 1930s until her death--in a highly dramatic manner that seemed to impress some of the other audience members.  I was impressed by Finley's intensity, also, but felt that her readings were a bit harsh and confrontational, and lacked a certain sensitivity and self-reflectiveness I'd have expected from Bourgeois herself.

--Photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian
Finley's insights into the misogyny of the art world institution were extremely illuminating.  She'd ended her talk in front of one of the spiders, which she pointed out, was a female member of the natural world that creates art, by spinning webs.  One comment, that Bourgeois' turn to softer, folk, craft-based materials late in life was the result of her inability to work in stone, and that somehow, the idea that stone was superior and that her choice of materials displayed a deficiency in her craft was, in itself, a misogynistic reading, made a huge impact on me.

Over a glass of wine at the end, amidst a group of most probably lesbian fans of Finley's (just got the feeling) where I felt conspicuously and unfortunately male, having gathered that she was very firmly in tune with the Feminist issues in the art world, I asked her if she might suggest some good Feminist writing for my reading list.  She seemed strangely uncomfortable about the question, which surprised me a bit, to be honest.

But she recommended The Pink Glass Swan--Selected Essays on Feminist Art by Lucy Lippard, who wrote Six Years--The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, which I've been wanting to read ever since I heard about it from one of my coworkers at Rock Center.

I told her that my 12" single of SinĂ©ad O'Connor's Jump in the River,  on which she appears being disturbingly and deliciously offensive and which I suspect is somewhat rare, is one of my most prized possessions (so true).  She seemed slightly surprised but more or less unimpressed.

In any case, I'm grateful.  I feel that I now have a much deeper understanding of Louise Bourgeois' work, and of how female artists struggled to make their way into the world of New York's 20th-Century art scene.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Things You See Every Day



Have you ever been walking up the west side of Madison Avenue and notice that between 78th and 79th Streets there's this funky sidewalk?
That was repaved in 1970 and was designed by Alexander Calder.

Is that a matter of common knowledge?  Because I've walked over that about 10,000 times and never knew, so I'm kind of freaking out right now.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Confluence, Construction, Confrontation

The next shows I want to discuss are what's happening at the Whitney Museum.  Let it be known here and henceforth that the Whitney really is my favorite museum in New York, and I'm SO happy they're building another one by Renzo Piano.  So excited!  I still have no idea why they don't want to link it to the highline, I think that would be awesome, but anyway.

I had a total epiphany at the Whitney this visit.  Many of you who have been addicted to the museums for years will likely find this a very mediocre realization.  For the record, I have done countless circuits.  For a couple of years it was the contemporary art galleries.  For a couple years it was the houses of couture.  I saw everything going on, and looked closely.  And I've seen countless incredible retrospectives over the years.

But having made a pact with myself to see everything going on at the museums, it suddenly became blatantly clear to me for the first time this summer: all of New York City's major museums are in sync with one another.  

There is a room at the Whitney's Buckminster Fuller show that looks EXACTLY like the Model Room of the Olafur Eliasson show at P.S. 1.  That same room at the Whitney has photos of Fuller teaching and hanging out being goofy and brilliant with the artists at Black Mountain College (which included Jasper Johns), who are totally on display at the Jewish Museum.  The Action/Abstraction show is a wonderful contextual extension of Johns at the Met, and starts right on the tail end of Surrealism, as if taking up where the Dali show leaves off.  The Whitney's Fuller show includes a model of his Dymaxion House, and the MoMA's Home Delivery show has another copy of the same model.  The Whitney is also showing Paul McCarthy, whose work attacks our perception of our environments in much the same way--though, clearly, with a very different attitude--that Eliasson's work does.  Home Delivery in its own similar way asks us to reevaluate our attitudes toward the spaces we occupy.  The Whitney's Progress show ties McCarthy together with Fuller and Eliasson even more profoundly.  By showing the somewhat surreal Buster Keaton film at the entrance to both the Dali and Home Delivery, MoMA ties Dali together with Fuller and thereby everything else, around and around we go.

I'm not sure exactly how the Guggenheim's Louise Bourgeois fits in (although her work does at time confront environments on a much more quiet, intimate level), or the Turner for that matter, but I've got my brain working on it.

A friend of mine called attention to the fact that trends come together for everyone in these associated circles, that people start thinking along similar lines due to a collective unconscious, and of course that's true.  But the connections that are happening in the major shows going on right now are just too profound for me to consider them arbitrary.  I really believe the curatorship in New York is an integrated force affecting style and thought on the arts in this part of the world.  And I think the major museums are purposefully tying their shows together into one New York movement of thought.

In any case, it's difficult to think of anyone who made as profound a mark on the 20th Century as Buckminster Fuller, aside from maybe Marcel Duchamp and a few others.  He really was a crazy genius.

--Photo courtesy Presidential Medal of Freedom

One of the very best things about the show is right down there in the lobby.  They have one of the only three existing Dymaxion Cars on display.
--Photo courtesy Washed Ashore, where it's claimed Leopold Stokowsky owned one of them for a short time.
For all my love of automobiles, the 1930s, industrial design, and just technology in general, I don't think I've ever seen one in person.  It's very possible that the Henry Ford Museum has one, though, so I may have seen one there, without knowing what it was.  [EDIT: It looks as if they do, and that may be the same one.  You can see the same whited-out windows.]  It appears the HFM has the only full-scale prototype of the Dymaxion House (I wonder if MoMA asked them for it--although it might have been far too difficult to move).  I went there as a young tot, and that place was just amazing to me as a little kid, by the way.  Giant steam locomotives, wheeee!  It just occurred to me, that may have been the start of my life-long love affair with cars.  If you're ever in Dearborn, Michigan--heaven help you--you should definitely go to see it.

--Image Bowlus-Teller Trailers
Surrounding it, they have all these blueprints and construction drawings for the Dymaxion Car, as well, which were very cool to see.  Its engineering was remarkably simple, in fact.  The only problem with their Dymaxion Car, though, is that its windows are whited out, so you can't see inside of it.  It's possible that this is only the shell, with none of the inner workings, but even so, it still would've been interesting to see how the body was constructed.  And if the blocked windows wasn't the Whitney's doing, then they absolutely should have a couple of the doors open so you could see inside it.

--Photo London Design Museum
On the upper floor are all of his architectural endeavors, the 4D House, the Dymaxion House, his U.S. Pavilion for the 1967 Montreal Expo (there's another connection, by the way: the MoMA show has a model of Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67, which I really, really, really, really should have gone to see when I was in Montreal last summer), and his Dymaxion World Map and his work with spheres and domes and so on.

This is just absolutely astonishing, too:

--Photo Cedrick Thevenet

I think the coolest thing to consider--aside from the fact that he was probably even more brilliant than I realized having heard over the years about so many of his contributions to our world--was how he was one of the first people to ever seriously think about sustainability.  The idea to make that a biosphere in the first place, and for him to be concerned with reconciling the proportions of world maps, shows this intense understanding, this universal perception of what the earth really is.

There's also this truly awesome telegram from him to Isamu Noguchi explaining Einstein's general theory of relativity.  Oh, and a monument floating above the East River he proposed for the United Nations (Eliasson again):
It'd have been very cool if they'd done a CGI rendering of that.  But the show has a lot of great illustrative drawings, fascinating models, videos, and a few interesting surprises.  The Whitney did a great job, once again.

The McCarthy is okay.  It's very abrasive, confrontational, and disorienting, which is obviously what the artist intended.  It's sort of the opposite side of the same coin as Eliasson, who makes the viewer a part of the work in an almost welcome, embracing sort of way, drawing your attention to how you occupy space very gently and serenely.  McCarthy's work downright attacks you with it.

I wanted to post a couple of these videos of his, too, because they are just sooooooo weird and creepy:
Of course a poignant and satirical critique of the art world and its personalities, but...yeah...weird.

This is so disgusting and disturbing on so many levels I couldn't help but just laugh (NOT for the weak of constitution):  

In any case, if you believe, as I do, that art shouldn't necessarily be comforting, but rather that it should push buttons, be provocative, and force us--even against our will, if necessary--to reevaluate our modes of thought, then for sure the McCarthy does plenty of that.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I just found out something kind of interesting in my research.  The original acoustics for Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center were designed by the firm of Bolt, Beranek & Newman, now known as BBN Technologies.  I received a nice email from Leo Beranek, he's 94 years old and the only surviving person to work on the project.

The complex calculations required by acoustics led them into computers and in the late 1950s, they bought some of the first computers, including Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-1, the computer hardware that played history's first video game.  They implemented the first person-to-person computer network, ARPANET, which became...this...and they were the first to use the "@" symbol for email addresses.

They had originally specified acoustics for a hall of 2400 seats, but the New York Herald Tribune launched a successful campaign to increase the size of the hall (it's now 2742), which completely negated all BBN's acoustic design specifications.

For the record, the hall was renovated by Cyril M. Harris and Philip Johnson in 1976 with $10.5-million from Avery Fisher and the name of the building was changed to thank him.  It's somewhat problematic that they intend to renovate again in 2010, because the Fisher estate will raise legal issues if they try to change the name again.  It may lead them to keeping the Avery Fisher name for the building, and naming the auditorium after a new donor.

I thought this was a little strange until I realized that the auditorium at the Met is actually called the Sybil B. Harrington Auditorium, because Harrington bequeathed like $7-million a year to the Met or something outrageous--money which can only be used for classical opera, by the way, nothing new.

I tried to get in contact with Cyril Harris at Columbia University, in fact, but he's evidently not in the best of health and doesn't lecture there much anymore.  He's well into his 90s, also, I'm sure.

Ryan Witte

Friday, August 1, 2008


Now that the ICFF is over, I thought it was a nice time for a fun, silly post.  The ASPCA recently held a Cat Photo Contest!  Here were a few of my favorites from the winners and runners-up.

--Boaqing Yu

--Beth Bolles

--Emily Merrick

--Karen Siastras and Jose Nunez

--Rina Deych

And my favorite of all:

--Andi Foley