Monday, November 24, 2008

Diving In

There are some really wonderful things going on over at the MoMA, at the moment.

First is the gargantuan installation piece by Pipilotti Rist, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Feet).  It's really astonishing.  The entire atrium is filled with it.  And because of the ambient sound of the piece, practically the whole museum throbs with it.

I stepped into the room and first walked around it.  It seems that the MoMA, most particularly of the museums, has very much begun encouraging visitors to lay around.  I really like it.  I think when viewers of artwork are reclined is in some ways when they might be most susceptible to truly contemplating the work and absorbing it.  Of course there may be more intellectual work that would favor standing upright and having just downed an espresso, but this isn't one of them.  It was Friday evening, so the whole room was packed full of people laying around on the floor, the circular upholstered eyeball in the center was totally occupied.  It really reminded me of the Chillout rooms at the Raves back in the olden days.

I'm also reminded that in the 1970s, the New York Philharmonic held their "Rug Concerts," where conductor Pierre Boulez removed all the seats from the auditorium, the orchestra would be down on the floor, and the audiences would lay around on rugs with cushions on the floor.  I wish it were possible to bring that back, I think it would be fantastic.

I wasn't sure if I would sit on the floor of MoMA's atrium, but eventually I realized I must.  The room was silent, but after I sat there for a few minutes, the soundtrack started coming in, almost inaudibly at first, to the point I wasn't sure if there were any sound.  Then it became obvious.  It's sound effects of the human body and vaguely natural sounds overlayed by a sort of beautiful, floating, chanting, haunting melody.  I was grateful, actually, that I'd stumbled in while it was still silent.

The imagery caused a similar experience, due to my timing.  When I first walked in, the video was showing an underwater scene, waving and swirling around the walls.  It appeared very abstract at that moment in the cycle.  In fact, it kind of reminded me of the psychedelic special effects in Barbarella.  But as I watched through the ten-minute cycle of video, a lot of things came into focus.

Rist says that the footage was taken during the shooting of her first feature-length film, which will be released next year.  This piece is basically about the very tactile experience of nature at various scales: at a human scale, the scale of a pig in a field (very funny, actually), the scale of an earthworm or snail--walking, traveling through.  Bare feet trudging through shallow, muddy water, stepping on pieces of fruit, squishing them between toes.  Fruit contains seeds, the potential for birth.  Swimming, an exercise that completely immerses the body in the natural environment, like a womb.  Long close up views of breasts, a nipple, not erotic exactly, though there's something to that, too.  More it feels primal: the female body as the source of life, the cradle of life, like the earth itself.  It also draws this connection with the act of viewing Pour, which is all encompassing, immersive, and tactile: the speakers are actually inside the upholstered benches.  So I wasn't able to lay on them, myself, but I presume that you can actually feel the sound rumbling through your body.  The curator also explained that they conceived of the atrium like a pool, filling it up with liquid artwork.

Rist drew the analogy between the MoMA's atrium and a cathedral.  She's right; it does have that quality at times.  And that's sort of the point, it's a communal experience.  She also mentioned something about how so much art, media, entertainment gets piped into our homes where we experience it alone or only in very small groups, distracted and unengaged.  The museum environment provides that sense of communally experiencing visual works.  

One might say the same for the cinema, but in so many ways, home video has destroyed people's ability to enjoy going to see movies.  On the one hand, it's destroyed any sense of courtesy or respect because people are so used to watching in their living rooms where they can do as they please.  On the other, it's spoiled audiences, conditioned by their own tightly controlled, personalized home viewing preferences, so they can no longer appreciate the communal experience of watching along with a full audience.

A museum is one of the only places left where this is still possible.  Most visitors don't have a set of rules and regulations for how artwork should be viewed, because they don't ever view artworks in their own homes, on their own terms.  Of course, I've discussed Museum Etiquette before, and I think it's extremely important.  But at the same time, Fine Art naturally seems to demand a greater sense of reverence from its audience than a blockbuster action film.

Rist's piece calls all of this into question in a beautiful, hypnotic installation.  I do hope more artists will recognize what museums have become, culturally speaking, what they can be and can provide, and take advantage of it, encourage it, the way this artist has.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Five Fairs

I do love the world's fairs.  They encapsulate so much of what is brand new in ideas and forms at the times they're held, are normally spectacular, and they've also offered conceptions of the future, which, aside from being almost more representative of their times than what was going on in the present, were just campy and fun.  Though it may start to appear that I'm obsessed with them, I still felt compelled to report that Life magazine has recently unleashed an astonishing collection of high-quality images of the 1939 World's Fair.  They have the Brussels and San Francisco fairs included there, as well, but not the 1964, it appears.

Another related thing I discovered and never mentioned is that the Urban Simulation Team at UCLA has digitally recreated the entire Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead, amongst others.  There are also some truly exquisite platinum prints by photographer, C. D. Arnold:

--Photo courtesy Columbia University.
But the CGI walk-through is amazing.  It gives this unprecedented impression of how the whole thing was laid out.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Friday, November 21, 2008

Fine Fabrics

A couple of quick items:

First, one of my favorite textile designers from Brooklyn, Aviva Stanoff, unveiled some new pieces.  This happened a while ago, but they still deserve to be seen.  Stanoff creates textures and amazing color effects in the velvet with real live plants and flowers, which impressed me so much when I first discovered her work and interviewed her for the story.  She also has one of the most impeccable eyes for color that I've ever seen.

I was also made aware of some new products from Chilewich.  Their table linens are all very earth-toned and neutral, from what I can tell.  I definitely need some super glossy, shocking bright orange vases arranged on this first table.  But the settings are still wonderfully textural:

This one I thought had a vaguely Asian sort of sensibility to it, very minimal and classy:

This Dot table runner looks like fine linen, but it's actually a new interpretation of an outdated pressed vinyl manufacturing process:

©2008, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Best Medicine

The next thing to discuss is the Alexander Calder show at the Whitney, subtitled The Paris Years, 1926-1933.  This was such a vibrant time in Calder's life, essentially where it all happens, and a great focus for a show.

--All images courtesy of the Whitney Museum, except where otherwise noted.

Basically, three things happen.  First, while studying at the Art Students League in New York, Calder makes extra money working for the National Police Gazette and is asked to cover the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus, and is strongly influenced by it.  Second, drawing upon his engineering education, he begins creating his miniature circus, performing it in a basement, which becomes a huge hit with the Parisian avant-garde.  And third, he goes to visit Piet Mondrian's studio in 1930, which he says "shocks" him into embracing abstract art.  It's in Paris that he creates a revolution.

The term "mobiles" was allegedly coined by Calder's friend Marcel Duchamp, "stabiles" by his friend Jean Arp.  Somebody really needs to do an Arp show soon, by the way.  I love his work.

The Cirque Calder, originally designed to fit in his suitcase, eventually grew to fill five suitcases, and of course, it's in the Whitney's permanent collection.  

They had the suitcases themselves on display there, as well, were showing videos of the different circus acts, and even had a guy performing some miniature acrobatic acts live in the gallery on a tray hanging from his shoulders.  I thought that was a great idea, but I'm not sure anyone could do it with as much charm as Calder himself.

At the entrance to the show is a wall of his portraits, presumably from before the Mondrian experience, although he was associating with such an awesome group of people, I wouldn't be surprised if he kept doing them.  I also think Calder was one of the only people to really do three-dimensional line drawings.  They have actual drawings of some of his circus performers, and you can really see the direct relationship between the pencil line and the armature wire.  Here's Jimmy Durante:
Ah, Cha-Cha-Cha.

He'd also met a toy manufacturer who'd suggested he start creating articulated toys, which he did.  He never found the man again, but they have some of the toys on display next to the circus.

Another room has all these smaller armature wire sculptures that, for me, illustrate one of the things I truly love most about Calder.  It was through Calder, almost singularly, that I realized not only that art can be fun, because that sounds like something you say to a kindergartener, but that art can actually be funny.  Calder wasn't expressing some depressing inner turmoil, he was playing.  He was really enjoying himself.

I think Dali was having fun, too.  And although, as I've said before, Fountain may very well be the most important piece of sculpture of the entire century--and on some level, I believe Duchamp knew it was--I also imagine Duchamp with a mischievous twinkle in his eye when he unveiled it.  

But when you compare Calder to a lot of the other work going around, it becomes clear that a lot of his contemporaries were just taking themselves WAY too seriously.  Not that their contributions weren't profound, of course.  In a way, I can see that if you're doing something that really is revolutionary, defies conventions of Beauty, or preconceptions about how art is or should be created, one strategy might be to be very, VERY serious about it, so that audiences will take it seriously, also.  Calder, on the other hand, used a strategy that may actually touch people far more deeply and universally: humor.

The best example of this is really Pigs.  I'm kind of annoyed that I can't find an image of it, but it's an armature wire sculpture of pigs mating from 1930.  That it's a male mounting a female is obvious as soon as you see it, which is pretty funny already.  But it gets better.  Of course, most of his sculptures are anatomically correct, and I love that, too, because he's just so matter of fact about it.  Male figures have penises, female have breasts: so?  If you look carefully, he's actually modeled the male pig's erect penis, penetrating the female, and there's this swirl of what I presume is armature wire semen.  Completely cracks me up.  

They're farm animals, so from the outset it reads as more just natural, mechanical.  Had he done this with human figures, it'd have been something completely different entirely.  But that's part of the genius of Calder.  It relates back to D'Arcy Thompson's brilliant book, somewhat influential in recent architecture, On Growth and Form.  Toward the end, Thompson breaks down the skeletal forms in various animals in terms of engineering, according to how they deal with tensions and stresses in the animal's body.  Calder's modeling of the structure of these figures, recalling the rib cage and musculature, wrapped up in a three-dimensional line drawing, reveals his understanding of anatomy and physiology.  What's more, he's representing the reproductive act, which automatically suggests movement, and even the biological process of it, in a way that suggests mechanics and engineering.  It's absolutely brilliant.

Then there's one of my favorite of his punch-lines in that same display case: a cow with a little pile of armature wire poop sitting behind it. 
--Image courtesy of MoMA.
Hilarious...and genius.  This accomplishes the same things.  The poop suggests both biology and movement, but in a very mechanical form.

But the cow goes further, because there's a wire connecting the head to the tail.  This one does obviously perform some actual movement.  This is one of the problems I had with the show, but more just with the whole concept of seeing Calder's work in a museum at all.  In the Whitney's defense, they really did do all they could do under the circumstances, and I'll get to that below.  But you can't touch them, interact with them, you can't really discover what they do, and I believe that interactivity is at the very core of what Calder was doing.  In other words, the very fact of being in a museum prevents the work from being experienced at all, a very unfortunate irony.

It became even more acute to me with his goldfish:
Right next to this was another one, a fishbowl.  The round bowl shape of it merely suggested by curving wires, and the water's surface around the top in wavy lines, like in this tank version.  The fishbowl I actually thought would illustrate my point better, but I can't be sure.  That I can't be sure is exactly what I'm saying.  If you look closely, the crank at the bottom right of the tank is connected to a somewhat elaborate mechanism.  These fish do something quite specific when you operate that crank.  In the bowl version, it appeared even more elaborate--it looked like there was both a crank and another lever that would do something else.  So maybe you can make the fish swim around in a circle and also have them swim up and down in the fishbowl.

The fact that I can't play with it is really tragic, the fact that I can't have the pleasure of discovering what these fish do.  Of course I can't.  Even if I owned the piece myself I probably wouldn't, at least not very often, and even so, I'd probably break it or otherwise damage it if I did.  But what the piece does, its very physical interaction with the viewer, is really what this piece is about.

There is something more, though.  It's that Calder has taken a natural process, fish swimming, and translated it into basic machinery.  To witness exactly how he rendered these movements in mechanical terms sheds an incredible light on the 1930s and its celebrations of new technology, a mode of thinking into which Buckminster Fuller seems to fit, as well, in fact.  The same goes for his sculptures that allude to astronomical movements:
This one has a crank at the bottom, too, you'll notice.  Those little spheres swing around and hit the wires of the outer sphere, spinning around on two axes.  It totally reminds me of those solar system machines they had in my science classroom:
I always thought those things were SO cool for some reason.

The next room had some of his largest sculptures, life size in many cases, and also showed some of his more mythological subjects, like Romulus & Remus.  A little bit creepy, a little bit Surrealist, I wasn't as impressed by these.  I did notice something kind of cool, though, how he executes his signature in wire:
This again draws a very literal connection between the wire and a pencil line.

Then there are the galleries showing his most complicated, abstract kinetic pieces.  The first gallery had mostly free-floating pieces or the manually-operated ones.  The other gallery showed mostly the ones operated by electric motor.  The motor-driven sculptures have to be the most conducive to museum exhibition, because no one has to touch them for them to do what they're supposed to do.  Of course, at this point, they won't (can't) turn the motors on and risk damaging the pieces.  I also think that's a horrible tragedy, as fully as I understand the reasons why it's not possible.

You know I love the Whitney, though: they do understand.  They get it.  In this room they had a video playing that showed I think almost all of these sculptures in motion.  I wish they'd posted the video on their YouTube, but in any case, I was extremely grateful they had it.   In fact, they also allowed one of the pieces to be plugged in for short periods of time, on and off (the timer had stopped working, so a guard had to keep coming over to do it), so you could witness it live and in person.  It was this one, Half Circle, Quarter Circle, and Sphere from 1932:

The reference to the sphere in the title is what makes this so absolutely brilliant.  The black bar, theoretically a one-dimensional object, physically a two-dimensional shape, maps out a three-dimensional object in space through the fourth dimension of time.  All this incredible transcendence solely because of a simple electric motor, because the piece is in motion.  A lever tilts the red circle into and out of the sphere, perfectly designed so it pulls out of the way when the black bar comes around.

Because these pieces are so extremely minimal, based on very primary, simple geometric relationships and primary color combinations, it's much more obvious that he wasn't just composing them--that's too simple--he was fully choreographing sculpture.  
--Image courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum.

--Image courtesy the Calder Foundation.
They had a separate video showing the movement of this one, Pantograph from 1931:
What really struck me was how very slow and serene its movements are.  The cycle is probably over ten minutes.  There are moments when you might not even notice that it's moving, if you weren't paying attention.  It's like the movement of heavenly bodies, heavy, monumental, timeless, and subtle.

Finally, there's the gallery with some of his larger hanging mobiles.  Here's where I had another problem.  I think it's a great shame that so many of Calder's pieces allowed to be outdoors are the stabiles.  The giant mobiles always manage to end up in some big atrium or museum lobby with absolutely no air circulation at all.  So they just hang there and do nothing.

Especially considering Calder's mechanical representations of natural processes and his interest in how movement plots virtual objects in space, it's their relationship to wind and air currents that should be doing the work.  These pieces need to be in motion to even be experienced.  Outdoors, they would draw attention to the sensation of the wind hitting your face, a tactile experience.  What's more, wind is invisible, so you have an object designed specifically to be seen that references something that can never be seen (clouds passing by overhead notwithstanding).

Like I said, the Whitney gets it.  They'd obviously had someone go in and set one or two of the mobiles in motion every hour or two.  Presumably, as finely balanced as they clearly are, they would continue to float around for a while.  But inertia is secondary to these pieces.  Primary by a long shot is the way they are created to respond to their environment.  Something about how the shape of each blade catches air current in a specific way and moves in a specific way as a result of its shape and size is, to my mind, one of the most important aspects of these pieces.  Barring the possibility of showing them outdoors where, granted, elements can be cruel to artworks, these galleries should have fans blowing.  There is not the slightest question in my mind, the galleries should have fans.

I'm also reminded of a piece by Olafur Eliasson which I didn't mention in my post about his show.  Ventilator was a fan in a shiny round metal cage hanging from a cable probably 50-feet long, blowing and swinging energetically around the soaring main space at the top of the stairs at the MoMA.  Incredibly dynamic, a great piece, and illustrates my argument perfectly.

The fact that there were almost always little kids chasing this fan around the room, obviously enjoying the hell out of the whole thing, is one of the best things about this piece.  It's the true magic of art at work and makes me so happy.  Calder's work had that, too, and it deserves to be experienced that way, with all the dynamics of joy and discovery and playfulness.

For this reason, the Whitney's Calder show really needs to be experienced in person, and I highly recommend it.  It's not a huge show, but is without doubt exquisitely executed.  I also bumped into a coworker of mine at the show, by the way--the second day in a row I'd bumped into this same coworker by accident.  Another (ex)coworker of mine works there now, too, and I spoke to him on my way out.  Very weird synchronicity.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Two Heads Are Better Than One

The talk with Peter Eisenman and Greg Lynn at the 92nd Street Y two Thursdays ago was really fascinating.  I'm so glad I found out about it and could attend.  These are easily two of the greatest minds in the world of Architectural Theory, and here they were, both on the same stage.

--Photos courtesy Essential Architecture and  Vitra.

What just occurs to me now is what a strange time we live in.  Strange because I only just now, some days later, registered the fact that there was a metal detector and a bag check to get into the building.  I didn't even notice it at the time.  Strange to live in a time where our metal belongings must be checked for safety in the most unlikely places and we barely even notice doing it anymore.

The two came out, but first Kurt Forster, the moderator, introduced the three of them and gave a bit of a speech, explaining what contributions Eisenman and Lynn had made over the years.  He also explained that all three of them have been visiting professors at Yale, and that Lynn worked for Eisenman for a while.

Eisenman was set to go first, but the first slide presentation to come up happened to be Lynn's.  Eisenman said there was no reason in particular that he needed to go first, and tossed the controller to Lynn.

Lynn talked about quite a few of the things in his new book, Form, which had just been released.  Mostly it was his interest in "primaries," uniform design modules out of which distinct and unique designs can grow or be assembled.  I thought the best example really was his flatware for Alessi.  

--Image courtesy Archipel.
Alessi told him to design the spoon, and that they'd just extrapolate all the other pieces from there.  That's how they always do it.  But Lynn wasn't quite satisfied with that, so instead he created a "primary," which isn't spoon, knife, or fork.  It's simply a design direction for the flatware line, from which can grow an infinite number of different spoons, knives, and forks of any size and for any use.

Another thing Alessi told him--complained about--is that whenever they have architects design a teapot, they never want to put handles on it, so the user is always at risk of burning his or her hands.  

Lynn didn't either, but he made his pieces out of double-walled titanium, so they wouldn't be hot to the touch.  In other words, he made the entire piece a handle.

The other thing I think was so well illuminated by this discussion is that Lynn's work is not Organic, at all; it's fully Biological.  The form his work takes is derived from the very process of growth by which it comes into existence.  What's more, it's embedded fully into the digital "soil" of the latest computer technology.  He doesn't just envision something sculptural and use the computer to model it because it's too geometrically complicated.  Rather, the very nature of his work is codependent with its digital origins.  Eisenman later made the analogy with the composition of music as opposed to its performance.  Music can be performed on electronic instruments or not, Composition is the real art.  Here's Lynn's entry for the Biennale Park Pavilion No. 3:

--Image courtesy UC Berkeley.
There are plenty more brilliant and mind-blowing things to say about Greg Lynn, but I haven't had a chance to read the book, yet.  I'll come back to him when I have.

Then Eisenman took over.  Quite surprisingly, as brilliant as the man is, and the thousands of times he's no doubt lectured to all sorts of different audiences, he seemed to not have his thoughts together all that well.  What was even more surprising, though, is that after several times he paused a sentence to say "uuuuummmmmmm," someone behind me in the audience would mock him.  I suppose it could have been an echo in the room, but I seriously don't think so.  So Eisenman would say "uuummm," and from behind me I'd hear "uuummm."

The only possibly acceptable excuses I could come up with for this is that it was a very, very, very close friend of Eisenman's whose nasty sense of humor he loves, or someone to whom he'd said "if I accidentally start to do that, please call my attention to it."  Something tells me it was neither.  The "ums" were a bit distracting, but I just cannot believe the utterly appalling nerve it would require to so blatantly disrespect someone like Peter Eisenman.  After a while, I was paying more attention to this going on than I was to what he was saying, and I resent that.  I don't care what you think of his theories, how much you might disagree with them, or even if you think he's a phony or a hack.  I don't happen to think he is, but that's beside the point.  That kind of behavior is just absolutely unacceptable.  To whoever that was, I would like to say please don't ever show your despicable face at any architectural event where I am.  As nauseatingly pacifist as I may be, I might have a hard time not kicking the person in the neck.

At any rate, Eisenman spent the majority of the time discussing his ongoing project, the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which absolutely deserved the full duration of his presentation.

He explained how the form of it is derived from a simple grid at various scales, contoured and distorted by the paths of pilgrimage through the site and the topology of the site.  He then borrowed stylistic cues from the surrounding town itself, a vaguely historical maneuver that surprised me a bit.  It's much further along than this now, in fact, many of the six building's shells, at least, are in place, but you can see the site being prepped here:

--Image courtesy Columbia.

Here are a few models:

--Images courtesy pushpullbar.
According to ArcSpace, the six buildings are conceived in three pairs: the Museum of Galician History and the New Technologies Center, the Music Theater (which he referred to as an "opera house") and Central Services Building, and the Galician Library and Periodicals Library.  The Hemeroteca (Periodicals) was the building I'd say he showed most, likely because it's the most completed of the group.  This facade is actually based on nearby Galician buildings that have windows jutting peculiarly out of them to manage sunlight:

Renderings of the Hemeroteca:

--Renderings courtesy Fundación Cidade da Cultura.

Here's the museum:

New Technologies:

And the theater:

It's slated for completion in 2012.  Truly, my hat goes off to the country of Spain for choosing such a daring and extraordinary design for a project so enormous and so deeply important to so many people.  It's the kind of project that in the U.S., unfortunately, would likely lead to the choice of something terribly conservative, safe, and ultimately mediocre--a state of affairs I hope we can change.

They finished off by sort of talking back and forth amongst the three of them, posing questions to one another and elaborating on what'd already been said, then taking questions from the audience.  It was a wholly inspiring presentation.

After the talk was over there was the book signing.  I knew there would be a long line, so I stepped outside for a moment.  When I returned and got on line, I made it right up to the front of the two men at their two desks.  I was asked with which of them I was interested in speaking.  What a question!  I should've said "both," but I didn't want to be greedy.  I said "Mr. Lynn."  To Lynn I had something very quick and easy I wanted to say that would satisfy for such a quick meeting.  With Eisenman, I have entire long, complicated conversations that would need to be had, near impossible to abridge.

Lynn evidently suspected that everyone wanted only to talk to Eisenman, and I suppose didn't want to be sitting there twiddling his thumbs, so before I even reached the front of the line, he'd already gotten up and left.  Finally the man in charge of the line said he didn't think Lynn was coming back.  So I went to talk to him out in the lobby area, where he was signing a few more copies of his book.

He was done.  I thought I might even be able to have a better conversation with him there, more casual, but it just never happened.  I told him how upset I was that his book was sitting at home on my desk, since I hadn't known there'd be a book-signing.  He said "how did you get a copy?"  I said "review copy...why, has it not been released yet?"  Evidently it'd only officially gone on sale in some parts of Europe.  I told him Rizzoli really did do a beautiful job with it, and he should tell them that.  He said "you can tell them yourself, they're right there."  There were a couple of representatives from Rizzoli standing right on the other side of me.  I told them "it's a beautiful publication."  That wasn't butt-kissing; it really is a very high-quality design and binding.

I told him his ideas had been so very influential to my thinking and thanked him for that.  I said I lived about three blocks from his Presbyterian Church, which had been mentioned early on in the talk.  He said "really? Where do you live?" and I told him.  It was around then I noticed how extremely TALL he is.  The guy has to be about 6'6" if he's an inch.  He said it's a great neighborhood and I agreed, and then he got distracted talking to someone else.  At that point, I realized, disappointingly, that he probably just wanted to get out of there already and go home.  I said thank you again and shook his hand.

Regardless, probably it will be more conducive if I bump into him at a cocktail party or something, than the trail end of a whirlwind talk and book-signing.  I can only hope.  Very, very likely, there will be more 92Y events to come worthy of discussion here.  Stay tuned.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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