Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Vote Against Scary Post-Halloween Lectures

Monday night I went to hear a lecture at the Dia Art Center.  Yes, their Chelsea location is closed, but this lecture series is sort of keeping them on the map until they're back up and running.  It was Tom Burr discussing Robert Ryman.

It was HORRIBLE.  If you ever notice Burr's name associated with a talk, turn around and flee.  He's one of the worst public speakers I have ever heard.  I speak to groups of perfect strangers day in and day out, conveying information and facts and figures and theories and anecdotes, objectively and subjectively, and I'm compelled to make it as entertaining as I can.  It's not always easy.  But these people wanted to be there.  They were very interested in either Burr or Ryman or both.  They'd made the trip to Eleventh Avenue of their own volition, they'd paid to be there.  I often have teenagers to contend with who are about a fraction of a second away from rolling their eyes OH so deeply back into their skulls in irritation or giving a looooong sigh of utter boredom after my every sentence.  I have absolutely no sympathy for Tom Burr.

He said from the very beginning it wouldn't be a conversation, he'd just be reading, and there would be no images; what you see is what you get.  The first proposition was a mistake because he's also a terrible writer.  Maybe if he'd just spoken to the audience it would have been sufferable, or at least had a tiny bit of personality to it.  He also made no eye contact with the audience for more than a split second and only maybe twice.  He stumbled over a word or phrase in practically every sentence out of his mouth.  To the second proposition you can say "well, Ryman is a Minimalist (the artist didn't like that term, himself, but there it is) so the work would look ridiculous in a slide show (very true), and because of the nature of his work, it's very apropos to hold the lecture against a stark white wall of this meeting room."  I don't buy it.  

First of all, it's just downright lazy.  Presumably, if Dia asks you to give a lecture for them, you'd have free reign to walk all around Dia Beacon and get your own images to illustrate what you're talking about, or even rummage through their image collection.  I would KILL for that opportunity.  Secondly, he wasn't just talking about Ryman, but also brought up Whistler and Annie Leibowitz and other artists.  I am a HUGE fan of Whistler, but his reasoning behind bringing him into the conversation at all was flimsy at best.  Lastly, let's say you stand firm on the decision to not include any images in your presentation on stylistic grounds, to give him the benefit of the doubt.  In that case, what comes out of your mouth had better be the most detailed, colorful, picturesque, enhanced descriptions of the visual pieces you're referring to.  His were hazy, vague, and entirely unhelpful. 

So all we have is this figure in all black against a huge stark white wall; when I lost the ability to keep my eyes in focus I thought it would put me in a trance.  And he launches into not only "reading voice," but with the drawling monotone inflection of an expert hypnotist.  His first self-serving gesture, which didn't strike me as such so close to the beginning of his ramble, was to recite one of his own poems.  Again, not entirely clear why it was even relevant, and not a particularly good poem, either.  It was perhaps like one of the better offerings in a high school English class anthology of student work, printed in an edition of 30.

In his defense, he did stumble onto at least one interesting observation toward the beginning.  It's that because so much of Ryman's work deals with pure textures and/or its bodily connection to the gallery space, it often operates like "paintings that are trying to be sculptures, or sculptures with a painterly affectation."  But he never elaborated on that.

I will.  Minimalism--as an abstract concept, not a grouping of specific artworks--is probably my favorite period.  I see it as the singular end point, like the head of a needle, toward which everything that had happened in Art History since the Renaissance had been directed.  By a gradual process of reduction, bit by bit, reevaluating and removing what the requisites were for something to be "art," it all leads here.  I've encountered a lot of arguments for having this belief, but I hold onto it.  It's the end point, where painting returns to its very primary, paleolithic origin, and beyond which one can go no further.  And it didn't.  At this moment, the art object begins to dissolve, and we're ushered--shoved even--into a new era, Conceptual Art.

Ryman's work, especially, rests very, very close to the tip of that needle.  It was Painting.  Just that.  Period.  It's about the application of a medium.  Primary.  The first idea that came to some brilliant cave-dwelling human 35,000 years ago, divorced from the goal to proudly record that day's buffalo hunt, first he or she had to have that idea: apply a medium to a surface.

As much as I love the alpha/omega this represents in the continuum of painting, and as fascinating an observation Burr made about the work's sculptural qualities, I run into a problem.  I encountered it also with Ad Reinhardt.  It's the great irony of this moment, and why I consider it so transcendentally important: the closer and closer one gets to the very purest, basic nature of Painting--paint on canvas, nothing more--is exactly when it begins to transform into something else, altogether, and is no longer actually Painting anymore.  What it does transform into would depend on the piece: performance art, sculpture, textile design, engineering, it doesn't matter.  The true essence of the art of painting is therefore mysteriously elusive.  As soon as you try to grasp onto it, it disappears like a ghost.  As far as I'm concerned, Ryman is standing precariously right on that threshold.

Getting back to the lecture, and speaking of high school English class, you know how a fourth grader asked to write a daunting 300 word paper will employ all kinds of strategies to build up the word count?  Like copying entire dictionary entries verbatim, repeating the exact same statement in five slightly different sentences?  Yeah, I'm not sure he included either of those examples, but that was how it came off.  His favorite one was lists.  List after list after list.

The whole paper was completely disorganized and incoherent.  He drawls on and on for a while about how when he's in a gallery space he fears his body might get attached to the wall like a prosthesis or something.  What?  Utterly irrelevant, why do we need to know that?  What does it have to do with Robert Ryman?  And above all, who cares?  Obviously, I have not the slightest problem with including subjective impressions or personal reflections into theoretical prose, I do it here all the time.  But this is just self-serving nonsense, masturbation, if you'll forgive that analogy.

Then he switches to talking about make-up, and possibly there's some useful connection, but he doesn't really figure out what it is well enough to elucidate.  List of Estée Lauder foundation colors.  List of Benjamin Moore (or whatever) whites and off-whites.  Each. one. listed. seperately. with. a. period. after. it.  I think that was when I slipped into a coma for a few moments.

When I came back around, he had switched to talking about how a Ryman painting would operate in a residential setting rather than a museum or gallery space, an interesting question if it had gone anywhere.  Instead Burr launches into a long, complete, drawn out, nondescript inventory of ALL the things he has in his living room.  No, really, I'm serious.  I got up and left.

It was entirely rude of me, it wasn't a big room or darkened or a very large audience to mask the departure of one person.  I was in the back and didn't make a scene out of it, though.  I just quietly got up and tiptoed out.  I would have left even sooner, but I wanted to be able to post about the entire lecture.  I just couldn't take it anymore.  I could tell by body language in the audience and the almost continuous string of coughs and throat clearings that the feeling was pretty much universal.  On my way out, the guy who'd checked me in gave me a goodbye smile and I smiled back.  I could be wrong, but I think his smile seemed to say "yeah, it's pretty bad, isn't it?"

I'm certainly not going to discount Dia's entire lecture series based on this one, but I will make sure it's a topic that really fascinates me before I'll be willing to make the trip down there again.  They damn well should never ask Tom Burr back to torture audiences again.  I didn't see any on their calendar that grabbed my attention the way this one had.  The real crime is that I do adore Ryman's work.  If that enthusiasm couldn't rescue this atrocious lecture, nothing was going to.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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