Gates of memory

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The Gates, mixed media including altered photograph by Wolfgang Volz, fabric sample, etc. (c) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

It was 12 years ago today (Feb. 22, 2005) that I went to New York City to see The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation in Central Park. There had been snow the day before, but the weather moderated, and the snow was grainy and melting.

Digression – how many notable snows do you remember? I find a few stick in mind, but many of them are memorable not for themselves, but for their presence in memorable situations. Of course there are the snows of childhood, which (in those pre-climate change days) built up into banks as high as my head. There is the snow I’m writing about today, which was no impediment to enjoying The Gates. There was the snow around the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada. In 2012 I remember getting out of the car and patting a snowbank in southern California, simply because I hadn’t seen snow in a long time. Context is everything. End digression.

I didn’t go alone. Much to my surprise, my parents expressed interest in seeing it. Their attitude toward contemporary art was usually one of polite bafflement, but they had spent the first years of their marriage in New York City, and felt a lasting connection to it. (Greenwich Village in the early 1950s! Imagine!) We walked through the park, and went to the Met afterward, where I bought a book on The Gates. I wrote the date on the title page.

The Gates is not Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s best work. The supports looked clunky and uninteresting; the fabric curtains had the feel of a shower curtain. But when the breeze caught the curtains one after another it was like a line of dancers moving through their steps. My eye was drawn down the line, catching the undulating paths and changing the way I saw the park. People from many different countries and all walks of life shared the space, sharing physical space and the altered space of the artist’s vision. People reached up to touch the curtains or let their hands brush the supports. Everyone seemed to be smiling. It was a good day all around. I am not inclined to nostalgia myself, with a very few exceptions, and those often as inexplicable as my memorable snows. In this case, I savor a little taste of the past, and thought I’d share it with you.

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Alan Aldridge, 1943-2017

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Appropriate imagery for an obituary: Alan Aldridge’s inside spread to Cream’s album, Goodbye, from 1969

When thinking of the 1960s, a lot of classic imagery would seem to have grown from two artists: Peter Max and Alan Aldridge. Although this is a vast oversimplification, Max and Aldridge gave shape to 60s psychedelia. It would be easy to assume either man had a hand in the film Yellow Submarine, though neither did. Aldridge was present in many ways: book covers, posters, body paint, album covers, etc. reaching far beyond the 60s. His cover for Elton John’s album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) is a classic, typically filled with imagery done in hard outlines and soft airbrushing, which typifies Aldridge’s work.

Many people know Aldridge through his work on The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (1969):

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A few of Aldridge’s designs through the years:

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above: Aldridge’s cover for “Tiger! Tiger!” by Alfred Bester, 1967

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above: Illustration from “The butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, 1973. This book was later adapted into a short film; you can read about the film’s soundtrack here.

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above: Aldridge and Harry Willock, illustration for The Lion’s Cavalcade, 1980.

Alan Aldridge was 73 years old when he died. I expect some coffee-table book, perhaps with a touring exhibit of his work, will be assembled in the next few years. Certainly he deserves one.

The Principle of Hope

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

I have resisted the temptation to turn this blog into “all John Berger all the time,” as he is a constant source of inspiration, but once in a while I give in. His last book of all-new material, Confabulations, will be reviewed in the future, and the second volume of a career-spanning “best-of” collection, entitled Landscapes” will also appear. But until then…

“From time to time I have been invited by institutions – mostly American – to speak about aesthetics. On one occasion I considered accepting and I thought of taking with me a bird made of white wood. But I didn’t go. The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.”

John Berger, “The White Bird,” from The Sense of Sight, 1985

Today’s statement from Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is a welcome if slightly dull step in the right direction. Dull in that Campbell is not a great writer, and takes a great many words to say a simple thing; important in that he is acknowledging that museums are not isolated ivory towers outside the stream of daily life. Politics is everywhere, and should not be ignored.

I quote John Berger above to disagree with him, and to contrast his thoughts with Campbell’s. Berger’s attitude reflects old museum thinking, the ivory tower approach. Campbell’s statement, “The citizens who founded The Met envisioned it first and foremost as an educational entity, along the lines of the great European museums, that would help teach these merging populations about their origins and about one another” is accurate to an extent, though it is unlikely that many of the founders thought much about the “merging populations.” Museums were genteel places for the gentry to contemplate the objects owned by the gentry of past centuries. Education has rightly grown in importance decade by decade, until it is the central focus of museums. Not a moment too soon, as the story of migration, forced or voluntary, has profoundly shaped art history. So many great “American” artists were born elsewhere, yet their art is integral to the creative history of the country. We are immigrants, and museums are one place to savor how great a thing that can be.

Compare today’s attitude to Berger’s, from “The Historical Function of the Museum,” included in his book The Moment of Cubism (1969):

The art museum curators of the world (with perhaps three or four exceptions) are simply not with us….We, the public, have our hours of admission and are accepted as a diurnal necessity; but no curator dreams of considering that his work actually begins with us.

That dream has come, and today it is firmly in the waking world as well. Berger’s cynicism (even he admitted that he sounded “jaundiced”) has been swept aside by the increasing focus on the audience for the art, and ways to further educate and engage that audience. Now prejudice is being codified in government policy (yes, I know – it’s not the first time that has happened; what’s important is that it is happening now and we have the ability to do something about it) the function of the museum is even more important. This may require that collections be re-assessed, galleries rehung, but this can be done without harm; quite the contrary, artists of quality who were overlooked for years due to their nationality, gender, sexuality, and so on, can now take their proper places in the historical narrative.

I would have liked a more forthright declaration from Campbell, but the Met is the “grey lady” of museums (a nickname given to The New York Times, which itself is becoming more forthright.) and is likely to be stately where other are raucous.

So I would say to John Berger’s ghost, the time has come. Speak of the principle of hope and the existence of evil. They are part of what makes us alive, and part of what makes our art. Museums are home to both through that history. Museums were castles set apart; now they have the chance to be in the thick of it.

Postscript: I had planned to include another Berger quote, only to find that this essay by Scott Esposito included it centrally.

De-installing, sort of

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I am retiring my Jenny Holzer shirt, moving it into the shadowy realm of “clothes fit to wear around the house but not for public wear.” It’s worn, with stains that won’t come out and a few spots threatening to turn into holes. I won’t throw it out until it reaches a greater state of decrepitude, and I’ll miss it then. I rarely become nostalgic about objects, so the exceptions are noteworthy.

“Protect Me From What I Want” is one of the most famous of Holzer’s Truisms series, which were written from 1977 to 1979. The Truisms are pithy, sometimes moving, and always dancing at the edge of truth with one foot on either side of the line. She has produced posters of them, made metal plaques, had them projected on scoreboards and JumboTrons, and printed on shirts. I bought this one at Printed Matter in New York City some ten or eleven years ago, at a guess. I wore it to the Armory Show in New York one yeas, and found a display of her work there. The gallerist on hand grabbed a camera and asked if he could photograph me for Holzer: “She loves seeing people wearing her work.” Needless to say, I posed.

The popularity of the phrase led art collector Dakis Joannou to name a yacht with it. He has since replaced it with another yacht, not named after any Holzer artwork. The phrase has also been used as the title of a song and a movie – perhaps more than one of each. It’s an acknowledgement of our own predilection for what can do us harm. Fill in your own weakness(es) here.

Holzer’s truisms are statements that seem true, whether they are in fact or not, as opposed to the dictionary definition, which is a statement that is so obviously true as to hardly need repeating. While not quite “alternative facts” – Holzer’s are much more credible, for a start – they are not all easily believed on close inspection. Her humor is her saving grace; it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the underlying cynicism of many of her truisms and have the whole thing turn sour. Holzer herself said “I wanted to have almost every subject represented, almost every possible point of view…*” Her presentation is benign, even fun, but underneath there is often a broken and poisoned worldview. That so many of her works draw from real life (paintings of redacted government documents, for example) roots her to present experience. Much as I enjoy Holzer’s work, it is best seen in small quantities, to allow each work to breathe and be free from overload.

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Jenny Holzer’s post-Truisms work is excellent (an example above), but the greater length of the texts, and the at times deeply disturbing subject matter, makes them harder to warm up to. But when projected onto the facade of a building, or carved into a stone bench, they are gripping. Like Barbara Kruger, Holzer has combined the forces of text and image into a single whole. In this computerized age, which melds language and image with little effort, Holzer is a perfect fit. She knew what the future would look like. Now it’s here, and she blends right in.

I took the photo at top before consigning my shirt to the laundry basket. It won’t look much cleaner when it’s done, but I don’t mind. It’s a talisman for me, a reminder that art protects me from the things I don’t want: ignorance, a blind eye to beauty, the dull plodding of everyday life. Now I have to go and find a replacement.

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Holzer’s Truisms in poster form.

Book Review: Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

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A while back I touched on depression and my ongoing struggle against it. While this is not an update (I’m doing well) this post would probably not exist without it. So, yay depression…?

My girlfriend Heather works in the mental health field, and is often shown items that can help clients work through their issues, whether in a constructive, cathartic, or other way. Recently her boss showed her this book by author, illustrator, and “guerrilla artistKeri Smith. I recognized at once the therapeutic yet playful nature of the book, and its status as conceptual art. “Perfect for my blog!” I cheered.

Wreck This Journal” is not just a title, but an instruction. The entire book is made up of instructions on what to do with the book or individual pages thereof. It is gently transgressive, especially for someone from a family of book lovers like me. Nothing suffers but the book which, being one copy of printing of an edition – the book has been revised and expanded more than once since its first publication in 2007 – is easily replaced. The urge to vent, to throw stuff around, is something we’ve all felt, and this book offers creative ways to let that energy out. It diverts the intention, resets the mind out of depressive channels. I’m looking forward to doing terrible things to this book, reassured that not only is such action allowed, I’m following Smith’s own instructions.

Consider a few of her instructions:
Drip Something Here. (Ink, paint, tea) Close the book to make a print. (Rorschach, anyone? – SP)
Document a Boring Event in Detail
Cover this Page with White Things
Compost this Page. Watch it Deteriorate.
Scratch Using a Sharp Object

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While these are milder than, say, a Yoko One word piece – example above – Smith’s instructions are no less conceptual. Would the finished product, a book smeared, gouged, taped and mailed to one’s self, etc., be an artwork? You can debate that all you wish, and perhaps I will at a later date. The option of disobeying the instructions and making something else of the book is just as valid and, arguably, more creative. All I know is that, as someone who lives with depression, I will enjoy making this journal into a complete and utter mess, just as I am told to do.

You can check out Keri Smith’s blog here, though it hasn’t been updated in a while.

Advice for The Lucas

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Image showing how Ma Yansong’s design for The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will look in Exhibition Park, Los Angeles.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which now has a site in Los Angeles after a long search, will house George Lucas’s art collection and more. Here are my unsolicited bits of advice for Don Bacigalupi, founding President, Judy Kim, Deputy Director, and anyone else who will listen. The Lucas (let’s deal with that whole “narrative art” thing in a moment – doubtless it will be known far and wide by the simpler name) has the cards stacked against it in some ways, and I’d rather offer help than join the naysayers.

Okay, now to “narrative art.” As Mr. Bacigalupi writes “Narrative art is visual art that tells a story. It manifests itself in every kind of medium, in every culture, in every form that you can imagine.” In short, this museum is about everything but abstraction, and even that could be slipped in with a bit of clever sleight-of-hand. It’s a broad category encompassed in a clunky term. “Representational art” might have come closer – Lucas’s collection includes things like costume designs for movies, which only tell stories tangentially. Still, the name seems set, so let’s move on to more important things.

Perhaps the most important part of the museum’s mission is its intention to continue collecting art. Say what you will about George Lucas, he is no curator, and his collection has been built around personal taste rather than the intent to tell a story – sorry, a narrative. The samples from the collection featured on the website immediately reveal the Lucas collection’s limitations:

It consists overwhelmingly of European and American art from the 1800s on. Vast swatches of history are missing, going back to when narrative art was pretty much all there was.

The collection is also predominantly male and white. Try to convey 2oth century art without the likes of Jacob Lawrence, for example, or Betye Saar. A lot of work is needed to round out the collection.

The art is overwhelmingly secular, whereas art history is dominated for centuries at a time by religious imagery.

Lucas’s collection of photographs is more documentary than narrative – that is, the stories already exist, as opposed to photographers like Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson, who use photos to make up their own stories. It’s odd that a museum that will feature movies, children’s book illustrations, and comics has nothing make-believe in photography.

And while we’re here, how about Surrealism? Narrative doesn’t end with the limits of reality; your children’s book illustrations show that. Show some of the notable women surrealists, such as Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo. I could go on.

Regarding movies: a certain amount of Star Wars is inevitable, but keep it to a minimum. Without giving too much offense, they are not the immortal artworks George might imagine them to be. Again, a lot more needs to be done outside of Hollywood. Start with the Quay Brothers and go from there. Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jiri Barta, perhaps Germaine Dulac.

And let’s discuss integration – not in the racial sense, but in the sense of breaking the boundaries between mediums. Photography, illustration, and “fine art” fed off each other continuously, and still do. When movies came along, they were added to the mix. Too many times museums hang their collections by medium, and downplay the ongoing synergies. Hang drawings, photos, paintings, together by theme. Make it clear that art doesn’t content itself with boundaries.

Los Angeles is a hard market for a new museum. It has a plethora to choose from, and the Lucas will have to present top-flight exhibitions as well as its permanent collection. The museum has deep pockets, but people will only come if there’s something worth looking at. I’d suggest they look to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which presents a rich schedule of special exhibits as well as its permanent collection, and thrives a long way from any metropolitan center.

One little quibble: museums ought to strive for accuracy. As a lifelong Oz fan, I can’t help but notice that one of the John R. Neill drawings in the collection (this one) is listed as being from “The Patchwork God of Oz.” Not quite. Try “Patchwork Girl” instead.

To everyone at the Lucas, good luck! Here’s hoping you won’t need it.

Art Strike

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above: the wild and herbaceous art strike in its natural habitat.

The recent call for an Art Strike on January 20, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, leaves me conflicted. I am all for refusing to normalize the Trump administration: the incoming government seems to me to embody far too many of humanity’s worst instincts. As I have written elsewhere, symbolic acts are useful in their limited contexts. But this call, it seems to me, is misguided.

The art world has engaged in symbolic actions before. A Day Without Art, an annual event commemorating the AIDS epidemic, continues in museums and galleries to this day. But I would argue that art that refers to AIDS – I might start with Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Wojnarowicz and go on from there – is more powerful and long-lasting than any symbolic closure. Institutions are limited by their role as interpreters rather than creators, and the repercussions from wealthy, politically-connected supporters*

, so the strike makes sense to me in that context. But, if the strike is, as the announcement states, “…an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody” I do not see how closure of entire facilities achieves that effect.

There is little reason to assume that the incoming Trump Administration would care about the shuttering of art schools and museums for a day. I am not hopeful that there will be continued support for the arts from the federal government, even at current levels. The Strike announcement acknowledges that “Those who work at the institutions are divided in multiple and unequal ways, and any action taken must prioritize the voices, needs and concerns of those with the most to lose.” How then does this strike achieve anything toward those ends? It is understandable why most of the signees of this declaration are artists and critics, not museum workers.

It’s a little over a week as of this writing, but institutions have had months to think about the issues involved, and prepare (albeit hastily) displays and programs addressing social and sociopolitical issues. The Whitney Museum is planning a pay-what-you-wish day, with appropriate programming – a far better course of action that closure. The arts have been long seen as bastions of tolerance, and while that reputation is not wholly deserved, there’s nothing to keep aiming for that goal. The strike organizer’s slogan, “Hit The Streets. Bring Your Friends. Fight Back,” while catchy, suggests that this strike will somehow affect the forces of misogyny, fascism, etc., as embodied by the Trump administration. I think those affected will be art lovers who look for safe spaces and inspiration. “Hit Your Friends,” doesn’t work as a slogan or a plan for dissent.

I plan to skip the inaugural and spend the day writing and painting. Making art is a form of rebellion, especially when the powers-that-be imply that art does not matter except in financial terms. To those of you who work in the arts I say: get on stage, open the gallery, start that diptych you’ve been waiting to do. Write that poem, that novel. Make good art#. (The alarmist in me whispers “…while you still can.”)

UPDATE: LA MoCA will be offering free admission on Inauguration Day.

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*An important exception could be made for institutions that are primarily controlled by one person – how about it, Eli Broad? Got any plans for the museum that bears your name?

#Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for that phrase.