Monday
Oct122009

Abstract Comics: An interview with Andrei Molotiu

 Andrei Molotiu co-curated the recent show Silent Pictures , is the author of the recently published anthology Abstract Comics, and of the equally recent Nautilus, a collection of his own abstract sequential art.  This Spring ArtLexis held an exhibition of his work.  Taken together Molotiu’s activity adds up to something like a campaign for “abstract comics” as a new and specific genre of contemporary art.  In the interview below Andrei and I  discuss what might be considered the rules of the game.

 

Ibn al Rabin, The Empire Strikes Back

CS:  You express disinterest in equating the abstract comic with abstract animated film.  And so I am looking at this image, Ibn al Rabin's The Empire Strikes Back, and noting how very different it is than your own work in that it moves from frame to frame quite legibly within a narrative.

AM: Well, yes, this kind of gradual transformation is one of the “established” (if we can call it that) modes of abstract comics, and people like Ibn al Rabin or Lewis Trondheim have done really fascinating things with it; personally, however, I am interested in different kind of effects in my own comics.  Sometimes when you have only such gradual transformation in an abstract comic you may almost feel like you are dealing with storyboards for animation; the shapes go from point a to point b to point c and give the illusion that you are following them through time—though an abstract comic, by definition, cannot have a sense of diegetic time (because no representation means no diegesis, no fictional world in which time can have a meaning; because introducing a sense of represented time implies moving away from the simple presence of graphic events on a page).  When you get a sense of represented time, a sense of illusion seeps in, and the comic becomes almost like a time graph, with the panels in the sequence showing events that take place some set time interval apart.  So there is something a bit paradoxical about Ibn al Rabin’s comics, especially the ones in the book Cidre et schnapps, from which this page comes.  They have titles that suggest a diegesis, a mimetic narrative, but on the other hand they are just blots on the page enacting that narrative—perhaps allegorically?  I think they work better, for me at least, if you don’t give in to the mimetic temptation, if you actually see them as blots on a page.

Andrei Molotiu, Realm of Coral in 24x24: A Vague Epic

 To see them as blots on a page also means, in a way, to see them as simultaneous, and to realize that the perceived passage of time is a construct, resulting from the visual juxtaposition of the panels.  I think it’s important—for abstract comics, and also for comics in general—to not lose this sense of simultaneity, of the unity of the layout, where you can see all the panels (on a page or a double page spread) at once.  If you do lose that sense, you end up conceiving a comic as just a storyboard, and I think that does a disservice to the potential of the medium; comics offer a complex reading structure that suggests time differently than an actual time-bound reading or viewing experience.  You can contrast it to the reading of a (prose, as opposed to graphic) novel, where the reader simply follows along a string of words; and though many words do co-exist on a single page, you don’t tend to think of their co-presence on the page as an aesthetic component of the novel.  Visual juxtaposition—and therefore, from one point of view, simultaneity—is however an active aesthetic component of the comic medium.  One thing that is interesting to me about abstract comics is exactly that they contain no preexisting narrative and therefore no excuse for a sense of diegetic time.  You’re not following a story, so what you are left with are the actual visual elements on the page (panels, shapes) that move your eye from panel to panel but outside of a fictional time frame.

The other side of the equation is the distinction between abstract comics and abstract painting.  In the Michael Fried/Clement Greenberg take on abstract painting you’re supposed to take in the painting’s composition at once, instantaneously.  Well, abstract comics won’t let you do that either:  the juxtaposition of panels that suggests a kind of simultaneity (therefore going beyond simple storyboard reading) at the same time denies instantaneity:  you can’t take in both the layout and each individual panel at once, you have at least to keep transitioning from one to the other, and from panel to panel in traditional reading order, etc.  So I think that comics work in between these two extremes, the linearity of storyboards or prose, on one hand, and the instantaneity of abstract painting, on the other.  Rather they have more of a complex tabularity, I guess, by which I means something like a table (say, the table of elements), which contains both simultaneity and sequence.  And abstract comics, I believe, are especially well-placed to exploit this complex structure.  Does that make sense?

CS:  Yes it does absolutely, I had a real appreciation for your use of Jackson Pollock’s piece in your anthology, recently in Third Mind, but it appeared as an anecdotal aside and a failure if you will because Jackson Pollock is doing “One” over and over and over again, very much involved in that sense of an at-once-ness, and the painting by Jasper Johns, Alley Oop, was a beautiful counterpoint to that.  I’m going to quote what you say in an earlier interview:  “I think that, oftentimes, abstract comics do end up maintaining more of that graphic energy, and I think that they can draw attention to this very powerful tool in the vocabulary of comics that may have been lost in a number of art and alternative comics.”  It is almost an address to action painting, only here most apparent through the lens of Jasper Johns work, and what occurs in the Johns is an abstraction of narrative as you move from left to right and frame to frame.

 

Jasper Johns, Alley Oop, 1958

AM:  You're referring to my discussion of Pollock's Red Painting 1-7,  from 1950. I gave a talk at CUNY where I expanded on Jackson Pollock beyond what I said in the introduction to the book.  There is a Hans Namuth photograph of his studio from 1951, in which you can see a number of his black and white paintings that he painted side by side, on a single piece of canvas, and that piece of canvas looks like nothing so much as an abstract comic strip.  Greenberg always discussed the importance of a painting’s being aware of its edges, of the frame, but Pollock was doing absolutely nothing of the kind; rather, he was just eyeballing it.  He would put about three different compositions on a single canvas, sometimes side by side, in a row, sometimes in more complex arrangements that look even more like abstract comics.  The way they were originally created they did not have the “instantaneity” or unity demanded by Greenberg or Fried, the canvas was divided and you tended to focus on one panel at a time, therefore needing time to explore the entire piece.  But usually he went on to cut them apart and then exhibit them only one “panel,” so to speak, at a time.  [I have, since the interview, found a couple where he didn’t cut the panels apart, such as “Number 7, 1951” and “Untitled (after CR # 328)”.]  It’s interesting that his original impulse, occasionally at least, seems to have been more towards this kind of juxtaposition of compositions, because the side-by-sideness, if that’s a word, was then completely negated in the cutting. From a Greenbergian perspective such juxtaposition was unacceptable, because it fragmented the overall composition, kept if from being unified.  Furthermore, it brought in a time element.  The only [other] time he didn’t do that was in Red Painting 1-7, from 1950.

 

Jackson Pollock, Red Painting 1-7, 1950

I’ve loved Pollock for a long time, and surprisingly enough—because most people think it’s his poorer work—I’ve always been partial to his black and white paintings.  I’m struck, whenever I see them in a museum, by the pure phenomenological experience of the dried black pigment stuck to the fibers.  There’s such a tremendous energy in those paintings, and one thing I’ve tried to do (not always consciously, but I can see it in retrospect) has been to recapture this energy and put in the service of what I call sequential dynamism—the visual forces, in a comic, that can lead you across the page from panel to panel and that in a way create a different kind of frozen moment, one in addition to an action painting’s frozen movement of the brushwork, the artist’s hand that moved across the surface of the canvas. In abstract comics you have the additional movement of  the juxtaposition of panels, the suggestion of reading direction that is given by the composition, the vectors of force in each panel.  And when I say “frozen,” it is because the abstract comic sits there, as any comic does, waiting to be put into motion by the intention of the viewer, of the reader, and also to put into motion the visual attention of the viewer.  Comics, so to speak, both are awoken by the viewer and they awake the viewer’s gaze and sense of reading.


CS:  I was fascinated by the use of the word gutter to describe the space beteen frames and the difference between paintings and comics and films is that in the comic book the frame is in the picture and there’s something very important about that. The frame being in the picture is somehow the device that pulls in the attention of the viewer differently.  An abstract comic can be very decorative and full as though they were all-over paintings in that about-to-become wallpaper sense of things.  But then you might notice that there is an almost palpable mobility of the frames themselves.  It makes me think of this toy by Dan Graham.

Dan Graham, One, found here.

So this gets me to your exhibition at ArtLexis. The piece was called 24x2: A Vague Epic, and as 24 pages on the wall it covered the gallery. Since it is available as a folio, there was for me an interest in shuffling, in my agency as a viewer being such that I could actually control the narrative. But in fact what I learned was that even though these arrived as a folio of loose sheets there was a very definite narrative in that they were pinned to the wall from beginning to end.   There’s not the sense of agency and chance that I was at first invited to consider.  Can you say something about the kind of agency that interests you, as something that is appearing from beginning to end in a deliberate way without giving someone the agency to actually shuffle?

AM:  Well, generally with regard to abstract comics, I’ve been interested not only in creating panel-to-panel sequentiality, but also in placing within each one of my pieces some kind of “narrative” arc, such as one that might lead from a low-key beginning to higher intensity and then ending low-key again.  Not all abstract comics need to do this; for example, the pieces in the anthology by Richard Hahn don't really do this, they exhibit more of a pulse and rhythm that vibrates from panel to panel, a movement in and out of the picture plane, but no arc per se.  But personally I’ve always been interested in the possibility of still maintaining such an arc—let’s call it a “sequential arc,” maybe, like a narrative arc but within abstract form.  At the same time, in 24x24 in addition to this arc I was concerned with the unity of the layouts, so in a way each page in that series forms a kind of hybrid picture that can be read both as a unified layout with a grid imposed upon it and as a sequential arc.

Andrei Molotiu, 24x24: A Vague Epic, installation view at Artlexis,  2009.

I should add that the pages were created sequentially.  They were laid out panel by panel, one at a time, and the unified composition only appears out of the juxtaposition of those sequential images.  I only realized this was going to be a series after I’d made the first three or four, and then I said to myself, ok it has to be a series of twenty-four because that is (more or less) the traditional number of pages in a comic book story, and also because there were twenty-four panels in each strip.  In this series, probably more than I’ve done in other pieces, I started to put more or less descriptive titles on each page that somewhat took them beyond pure abstraction, as for example happens in—and this has always been a huge influence on me—Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five.  Once you contemplate the meaning of the title you begin thinking of space in the sea, you begin thinking of coral, of seaweed, and therefore it is not purely abstract, it becomes an underwater space.  Obviously not a perspectival space, but a space where everything is afloat at every level; and such a “floating” space, if you will, itself tends to become abstract inasmuch as it differs from the box space of the Renaissance, where everything is weighed down to the ground.

As I began giving the pages titles, more or less akin to Pollock’s Full Fathom Five, I realized that I was actually toying with images that were right on the threshold of legibility—right beneath it, perhaps but which could suggest to people this or that kind of representational shape.  I was reading recently a review in The New Yorker, of the new Kandinsky show, and the reviewer said he could never enjoy this one painting by Kandinsky because he always sees a football helmet in it; and there’s also the story of Braque telling Picasso that he could see a squirrel in one of his cubist paintings, and Picasso basically going off and destroying his painting by trying to get rid of the squirrel.  But I don’t mind when people find such representational elements in my pieces, especially in my 24 x 24 pages—as long as this recognition remains vague and uncertain, more along the lines of a Rorshach blot.  I actually enjoy it when people interpret these abstract shapes as figurative elements, even though they were not intended as such.  Anyway, to make a long story short, I found that adding the title gave a kind of direction to the interpretation of the piece, structured the viewer’s experience as to what he or she might find in it; and when arranging the piece as a print series, with each plate printed in a different color ink, I found that color suggested a mood for that reading.  I found myself trying to give the entire series the feel  of a barely remembered film from one’s childhood, like The Empire Strikes Back, which I haven’t watched since I was twelve but still remember fondly (funny, I wasn't even thinking of Ibn al Rabin's piece when I came up with this notion!).  Trying to recall that movie, I don’t remember anything but my sensations, and tremendously vague memories of the imagery, mostly moods.  So, in a way, with 24 x 24 I was trying to suggest in the present moment that vagueness of memory (through the vagueness of abstraction in which one nevertheless may be able to find some figurative shapes, and through the titles, which almost work like chapter headings for some DVD of a long-forgotten epic film), the memory of a story more as a sequence of moods than of events—and that’s why I called it a “vague epic.”  Admittedly, “vague” is also my own bilingual pun, coming from Stéphane Mallarmé, my favorite poet (you can find my translation of his Afternoon of a Faun here.) Mallarmé was always interested in an effect of vagueness in poetry, but for him vagueness, le vague, also related to the notion of the wave, la vague.  Same word, different genders.  (And clearly, waves relate to my underwater imagery.)  Mallarmé is probably my greatest influence, when he talks about the music underneath poetry.  For him surface meaning in poetry was only necessary so that poets don’t get stoned—I mean attacked, reviled—by the public.  The true meaning of poetry is the abstract music under the words.  In the same way, I’ve been trying to get at the music underneath the images, the graphic music that underlies sequential art.
 
CS:  This is what I like about the introduction of that piece by Jasper Johns, and I was thinking very much of abstraction as a sort of unconscious moving through the narrative.  I can tell you from a viewer’s experience what your work looked like in the gallery: My initial response was that this is very cool, as in that register of cool as opposed to hot.  The gutter is now literally the wall, the abstraction is very decorative, and it took time.  The colors became cues, spotting the wall as a kind of punctuation in time.  For someone literally standing in the middle of the room and looking at everything from the distance, slowly - and I haven't yet even reached the point where I understand that there is a beginning and an end - I’m  beginning to see  what the gutter is doing - that it is in a very literal way creating a discretion between one thing and the next. I then began to see  that there are different topographies, each page was giving me a view that was really quite specific, there are even different angles of viewing.  It became clear that there wasn’t an homogenous space from one page to the next that had been simply sliced apart. This was not immediately evident but gradually evident.  So the way that you’re talking abut the epic as something that can belong to a childhood memory, that earning of one’s way past some field and into another where sensations are evoked and specific but not articulated as though they belong to ... well in this case the fall guy is narrative but we don’t even need narrative anymore at this point.   And it’s only after this point that I understand enough to ask the question “Can these be shuffled around?” can I arrange them at whim?, and there’s a clear narrative I’m told. It’s not until that point that I go up to them and I read the titles.  I am moving around the room, checking back and forth, trying to ascertain with effort some sort of meaning that I’m being guided towards which ultimately fails.  I don’t know if anyone has ever told you what it was like to look at that hanging in the gallery.
 
AM: I’m tremendously grateful to you for telling me all this.  In many ways that’s how I wished it to be read. I don’t want to say you were “correct,” but it confirms that I was able to create them in such a way so as to convey the experience that I’d had myself and that I was trying to convey.


 

You mentioned Jasper Johns, and I hadn’t quite put this together before now—but I think there is a connection between what I do in 24 x 24 and what Jasper Johns did in his painting Alley Oop.  There, Johns pasted a Sunday Alley Oop page to his canvas and covered it with just blotches of paint, blotting out the representational details but leaving in the larger shapes, so that abstraction is revealed as a kind of unconscious of the representation—he draws out the vagueness, the abstract wave of shapes that’s underneath the narrative of the Alley Oop story.  This is close to what I was trying to do in 24x24 and more generally in my abstract comics.  One of my favorite comic artists is Jack Kirby, who did a great amount of comics from the ‘40s through the ‘80s.  You can see a transformation of his work around the mid-sixties, and I believe that at the time he is beginning to learn form Lichtenstein, noticing the powerful abstraction of form had always been there in his own work but becoming more and more self-conscious about it. Especially in 1965 to 1975, his work becomes so graphically powerful and intentional, and I find myself enjoying it not so much for the storylines but for the unconscious abstraction underneath the story, that gives the story its graphic weight.  In a way, in 24x24 or in my piece Expedition to the Interior I’m almost providing for the reader’s conscious  experience something that I experience, in other comics, as the unconscious.   Of course, abstract painting itself was trying to do that, with Kandinsky already trying to provide harmonious compositions, like he had seen in earlier art, but without the distraction of representational form.  But abstract comics do this for sequential art.

 

Andrei Molotiu, Expedition to the Interior

CS:  This is really what made me interested in Stanley Cavell and his thoughts about automatism. He’s talking about film but he’s interested in the camera, and the relation film has to what he refers to as the photograph’s automatism.  In The World Viewed, published in 1971, he’s describing film as being in a situation in which it hasn’t realized itself as a medium, and that it’s become a way in which we look out at the world and we hide behind ourselves as we do so.   
 
AM:  What does he mean by that?
 
CS:  He says, and here is literally the passage: “Our  condition has become one in which our natural mode of perception is to view, feeling unseen.  We don’t so much look at the world as we look out at it from behind the self.  It is our fantasies, now all completely thwarted and out of hand which are unseen and which must be kept unseen.”* Film hides us in the dark, as it were.  And so he wants to fight for film’s potential, for film to fully realize itself as a medium, by leaving this place where we look out at the world from behind the self.
 
AM:  So it’s referring simply to the notion of film as a voyeuristic medium, where the body of the viewer is hidden?
 
CS:  Yes, and so he comes upon this word automatism as a way of, you were talking about  energies as moving from frame to frame, and he’s speaking of medium-specificity as having this unconscious automatism, and of not being given a priori: “one might say that the task is no longer to produce an instance of an art but a new medium within it...  The failure to establish a medium is a new depth, and absoluteness, of artistic failure.”  He continues, “In calling such things automatism's I do not mean that they automatically insure artistic success or death but in mastering a tradition one masters the range of automatism's on which the tradition maintains itself, and in deploying them one’s work is assured a place in that tradition.”  Because of your own resistance to film and interest in the dynamic sequentiality of the comic I’m drawn to the sense of this word “automatism” as a way of understanding the dynamics of the medium, which is now a growing international scene of abstract comics.  You’ve shown that it is only the conditions of visibility, what I’m pointing to as automatisms that are already visible in the medium, which have to do with what you were referring to as their graphic energy.  Cavell is putting pressure on film and narrative and still, much in the way that you want to be resistant ...

AM:  I would have to go back to Cavell’s text for a full understanding of what he means by “automatism,” but one thing we might be saying here may have to do with the subconscious ways of reading or scanning the page that are involved in taking in any comic—does that approach “automatism” in the way you are using it?
 
CS: Yes, and it is true that I may be pushing the word a little bit closer to you than it actually is.  Another thing I can’t help think about is the little conversation we had about Bergson’s Matter and Memory, you were actually thinking of this quite seriously before you embarked on Abstract Comics.

AM:  Yes, I have something on Bergson that was published in a web journal, actually, a good while ago.  If we are going to gather everything that I’ve done and look at what it has to do with abstract comics, let me go back quickly and say that I did study with Stanley Cavell.  I was half film and half studio-art major (fortunately they were in the same department), and there was an active debate between my film-studies advisor, Vlada Petric, the curator of the Harvard film archive at the time, and Cavell.  Petric was always concerned with identifying the specifically “cinematic” in cinema, declaring some films not at all cinematic, inasmuch as they didn’t do anything interesting with editing, camera angles, what have you. I’m sure this influenced my notion of sequential art, wanting comics do more than simply represent, narrate.  But, on the other hand, Cavell’s response was that the moment you put something in front of a camera and film it, transferring an image of reality onto celluloid, it becomes automatically cinematic; and so the debate was between the cinematic as a kind of active intentional quality put into the piece by the artist, and the cinematic as a preexisting condition of the medium itself.  Within comics such automatism may relate to the pre-set structures of reading—from top to bottom, left to right—which already create a kind of pre-existing dynamic of reading; but the visual experience of the comic can be enhanced through the more active, intentional introduction of sequential dynamism—which I suppose would correspond to Petric’s notion of the cinematic.

Andrei Molotiu, 24x24: A Vague Epic, installation view

 
CS: Are the new pieces in which you are thinking of animation, is that a new step for you or have you been thinking about it for a long time?

AM:  That goes back to having done film and animation back in college.  When I was 15, 16, like everybody else I wanted to direct, to be a film-maker, but in college, after having studied both film and studio, when having to make a choice for my senior thesis I decided to go to studio.  But I’ve always felt caught between the two. More immediately, my recent flirtation with animation started a couple of months ago when I simply couldn’t settle on a color scheme for a comic I had created, and so I decided, why not just try all colors, shift the color continuously? I thought I remembered Photoshop has some animation capabilities, and it took me about half an hour to figure out how it works.  So, for that piece Flow, I made the colors shift from top left to bottom right—enhancing the direction of reading a comic—looping through the entire color spectrum.  When I finished it I thought that’s kind of cool, the design itself can stay put but the colors can shift, and I thought that’s the only way for an abstract comic to contain animation and yet still remain a comic, not become animation.  Then a Finnish visual poet who had found our abstract comics blog back in April and discovered the notion of Abstract Comics, she’s done a lot of them since, Satu  Kaikkonen,  posted a blog entry saying she wanted to try animated abstract comics too, partially because she found what I had done unsatisfactory, too limited.  That got me thinking about how far the notion of animated comics could go.  This is a debate not only in abstract comics, by the way, but even in mainstream comics, you see some web comics from Marvel or DC containing limited animation—and critics say that then they stop being comics at all. The question, for me, is whether one can maintain the abstract relationships of shape to shape, from panel to panel, across the comic’s grid, once you’ve added movement inside the grid.  If you add movement, is it still a comic?  To some extent I’m not sure it is.  The thing about comics is that still images create the illusion of dynamic movement, so the moment you put an actual, time-based movement within each previously static image, within each panel, it works against that illusion of movement, that sequential dynamism born out of still images which I see as the essence of comics—or at least of abstract comics.  Nevertheless, in some way I wanted to explore the edge between comics and animation, and to some extent I don’t see this as a major direction but a brief exploration; I’m not sure how far I will go into it, because I really think of abstract comics, pure comics, as the main field I want to explore.  But I think also having done all these abstract comics I needed a break, to clear my mind for a while.  My most recent, For Bruce Conner, is the one I’m happiest with.  Yes, it is inspired by Bruce Conner’s films but even more immediately inspired by Bruce Conner’s drawings, which I’ve been utterly bowled over by—for example the little ink drawing hanging as a scroll in the Third Mind show, which was absolutely one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen (the tiny reproduction of it in the catalog is disastrously small and conveys nothing of its effect).  So the animation that I made started from a hand-drawn remix that I had done about half a year ago of a Bruce Conner drawing, and it somehow felt appropriate to animate it.  I ended up cutting it up into quarters and arranging it in four panels, and having each panel loop through an animation cycle, so that it’s both static and dynamic, and each cycle is a slightly different length.  The movement in each panel is from the top left to the bottom right, again to emphasize the direction reading of a comic, but because they have different cycles the overall composition of the four-panel piece changes gradually, as the four panels start in sync, fall out of sync, then take a very long time to fall back into sync—so that almost at no moment is the composition ever the same.  So I like the idea of a combination of the grid structure of an abstract comic with movement, it becomes a kind of hybrid medium, but I still think the animation makes it a unified image more than a comic where you would read the panels in order, 1,2,3,4.  On the other hand I’ve found that, if I force myself to impose that sequential reading, and, say, look at panel one for the duration of a cycle, then shift to panel two and—if it’s halfway through a cycle—I wait for a new cycle to begin and then watch that entire cycle, then move on to panel three and so on, it is quite satisfying.  It does weird things to one’s sense of rhythm.

CS:  I’m  interested in how the animation is in relation to the gutter and you mentioned that you were going to the edges. What came up for me (and this is very opportunistic) is that in JStor you can type up a name to see what happens and so I typed up Bruce Conner as I was interested in the fact that you had chosen his work as the vehicle with which you would step in to this new form - a questionable form you’re saying. What came up was a pretty interesting short little essay from October called “Observations on the Long Take,” by Pierre Paolo Pasolini.  He’s interested it seems in Bruce Conner as someone who is really involved in montage and what it is that montage does.**  Here’s a nice little passage, "The language of action is thus the  language of non-symbolic signs in the present tense; but in the present it makes no sense, and if it  does, it does so only subjectively, and in an incomplete and mysterious way."  He is interested in montage as opposed to the long take in that it is the cut as the ending that produces meaning. I’m interested in thinking of these abstract comics - and I’m  coming at this from an art-historical perspective, I don’t know anything about comic books, I never even read them! - But I’m really interested in the fact that the page of the comic book has frames that appear as the picturing. And it is not neutral in that it even has a name, and that the gutter is actively producing meaning. I like very much that Pasolini was thinking about the language of action as a language of non-symbolic signs and what it means to cut into that...

AM:  As I said, I was also a film studies major, and this goes back to the basic debate between the long take and montage, between André Bazin and Eisenstein.  For Eisenstein the meaning of film comes from the cut, the edit.   Bazin was more focused on the long take, and clearly this inspired the debate I mentioned earlier between Petric and Cavell (Bazin, like Cavell, was more interested in the phenomenology of film photography, which is better expressed in the long take); but in terms of the drawn medium of comics, there is a very close parallel between the way meaning arises between the panels, in the gutter, and the way that Eisenstein discussed the notion of the edit. Eisenstein started from a notion of dialectics—well, dialectical materialism, as he was supposed to say under the Soviet regime—and for him there was a dialectical relationship between the two shots united by a cut, with the resulting meaning being greater than the sum of the two parts.  This is not really different from what Scott McCloud discusses, in his book Understanding Comics, with his notion of closure.  For McCloud, comics are inevitably fragmented, but as we read them we effect this closure from panel to panel that makes us perceive continuity across each gutter, when in fact there is no continuity, there is only a cut.  Sometimes closure can be achieved very easily, automatically, such as in what McCloud calls moment-to-moment transitions.  On the other hand, there are transitions where closure is not so automatic, such as when two completely different things happen in the two panels, and you are the one who has to put the two things together, to find the continuity.  The best example that McCloud gives—and the subject may seem rather cliché, maybe because he is so imbued with traditional comic-book narrative or maybe because he is doing it ironically—shows in the first panel a man yielding an axe, screaming “I’m going to kill you” as he chases another fellow; in the second  panel all you see is a cityscape with a scream sound-effect rising over it.  We automatically assume that the second panel is occuring immediately after the first, and the scream rising over the cityscape is the scream of the person who was killed by the axe murderer.  But clearly a lot of assumptions on the part of the reader play a role in this act of closure, in order to unify the narrative—as McCloud says, it is the reader who decides to let the axe drop.  To go back to abstract comics, this has been very useful for me to realize that abstract comics did not have to work only in the gradual transformation—apparently “moment-to-moment”—way we discussed earlier, when we were talking about the work of, say, Ibn al Rabin. Clearly the closure is effected there very easily.  But in many of my comics I avoid such a gradual transformation and like to juxtapose images where you cannot see a clear transition the one to the other—but you are, ideally, effecting the closure abstractly.  I guess I’m proposing that closure does not necessarily need story, representation, to function. It’s more like getting two very different sound events that still make sense rhythmically or even melodically, one after the other. 

Erasing Dreamland, by Mark Charles Brown, 2006

 

CS:  The interest in Bruce Conners is very specific in supporting what you said, and the background is that the film alluded to by Pasolini is Report, a film of Kennedy being shot.   What I was noticing in the Mark Charles Brown's interpretation of Conners [above] is a similar but filmic interest in what happens when different frames are cutting into the movement of a scene.

AM:  Well what it reminds me of is Abel Gance’s Napoleon, 1927 or so. The movie is mostly  projected with only one projector, but in the final sequence all of a sudden  two more projectors kick in, and the screen goes from being the traditional 3:4 ratio to a 1:4 ratio, an incredibly wide screen.   In this final sequence—the conquest of Italy—the three screens sometimes are synchronized, sometimes are out of sync, and it becomes an amazing visual experience, an ecstasy of imagery.  It’s done with tinted film, and to celebrate Napoleon’s victory the left screen becomes tinted blue, the right red, transforming into the French flag itself. 

 

Abel Gance, Napoleon, found here.

 

An effect of this is that it makes you aware of film as a spectacle presented to you while you are in the auditorium, as oppposed to allowing you to be a voyeur, in the dark, and sucking you into the diegesis of the film.  When you have only one screen you get one diegesis to be sucked into, but having three side by side you are too aware of the spectacle of projection to remain simply a voyeur.  I guess you get the same thing from Nam June Paik’s installations—many TVs at the same time function very differently than the fascination of a single one—or from Christian Marclay’s pieces with three or four side by side screens, with montages of different music clips.
 
CS:  What happens when the shift is made as it has been from the frame by frame appearance of the comic book as it appears on a page, and a page that is going to be turned - which is a very specific thing - and referring to this thing called the gutter as what appears between each page when it is pinned to the wall?
 
AM:  Well, beyond the gutter you have two more things in any comic, you have the little valley in the spine between two pages (is there a word for that?) and the rhythm of page to page turning, which is a very powerful tool in comics.  Artists who have made longer abstract comics have taken into account the experience of the viewer upon turning the pages, not only from the point of view of shifting from one page to the next, but also knowing the impact of a shape or graphic event being on the right-hand or left-hand page, on the verso or recto.  For the anthology I asked the contributors whether they wanted their piece to start on the left-hand side or the right-hand side, and most had clear preferences.  This effect, this dimension is also currently used in conventional comics—for example in a superhero story you might have the big reveal of the villain as you turn the page, and therefore you get a kind of visceral experience of this revelation.  Clearly this effect is not quite possible in an exhibition, because if you put the pages side by side on the wall you don’t get the experience of turning the page.  The difference between a book experience and a wall experience, if I may say so, is if I may that a wall experience is a second-degree tabular experience—that is, not only are the panels side-by-side in the space of the page, but the pages are side-by-side in the space of the wall.  On the other hand, this way on the wall you get a second degree gutter, so to speak, which for me becomes quite powerful, but in a different way.  This issue—book versus wall—has been to some extent debated in the notion, and the movement, of gallery comics spearheaded by the artist Christian Hill, who has pushed for comics made specifically for the gallery.  In the show, when we placed Patrick McDonnell’s pages on the wall, side by side, their compositions seemed to move up and down across the pages, almost in a wave.  If you step back and see the whole comic at once you can get the feeling of the narrative arc in one glance, and then you can step closer and read it frame by frame.
 
Going back to our discussion of my animation, it would be interesting to begin questioning the use of the gutter in cinema and animation. We were drawing an equivalence between the comic book’s gutter and the film’s cut, when discussing Eisenstein and McCloud, but if you project two or more reels side by side, you really get a double gutter, in a way a gutter in space and one in time, and that deserves to be more explored.
 
CS:  I would like for posterity’s sake to ask you about the show that was at MoMA, Comic Abstraction.  You were just describing a real ambition to exhibit comics in a gallery context...
 
AM:  What was funny about the show is that I was working on my Abstract Comics book when I learned that MoMA was doing a show called Comic Abstraction and I thought “Oh my god, I’m being scooped!”  But their focus turned out to be really quite the opposite of mine, because abstract comics is about a series of juxtaposed abstract images, while Comic Abstraction turned out to be concerned with traditionally unified abstract works—paintings, mostly—which happened to contain rendering elements derived from comics. The only piece that might have had some overlap was by Rivane Neuenschwander.  She colored in the pages of an old Uncle Scrooge comic, maintaining the panels and graphic rhythm of color from panel to panel, together with the empty word balloons.  But overall they are two very distinct movements.  My concern about the Comic Abstraction show at MoMA is that it continued the logic of their 1990 High/Low show, which is basicaly a logic of high art’s appropriation of popular, and supposedly anonymous, culture.  To some extent, MoMA still seems to be able to enshrine “popular culture” only when it has been appropriated in high art.  There was a good example of this in the Comic Abstraction catalog (which I don’t happen to have on hand right now), in the entry for an artist who made large murals by copying explosions from a comic book.  The catalog showed the comic-book panel that had been copied, but only labeled it as the source for the painter’s imagery, giving it no other credits whatsoever.  Clearly it was from a recent comic, written and drawn and inked and colored by somebody—by people who have names.  The panel must have been scanned from the actual comic, so they could have easily found the names of its creators.  Not labeling it as anything but a (apparently anonymous) source for the mural denies the agency of the comic artists, and suggests that such lowly imagery is only given merit through its appropriation in “high” art.
 
CS:  It’s a curator’s sensibility to appropriate in such a way.  As you began talking I had this strong reaction to the manner of appropriating, and thinking of Jasper Johns’s painting and how important Leo Steinberg’s essay “Other Criteria” was, or is for me, in finding another way to talk about early Pop Art paintings as flatbed picture planes.***  I like very much your efforts in all of this to have some integrity about what is actually visible in a medium, and this is what I was trying to get at with regard to automatism.
 
AM:  The overall tendency in what I am doing is completely to ignore high and low hierarchies, and to realize that powerful formal developments have arisen with as much creative agency at every level of culture.  Jack Kirby is as important for me as Jackson Pollock, and I draw no distinction between the two in the way that MoMA, for example, might.


 

Jack Kirby, Thor, found here.
 

 *  Stanley Cavell, "Automatism," in The World Viewed, Harvard University press, c. 1971, pp. 101-108.

** Pier Paolo Pasolini, Norman MacAfee and Craig Owens, "Observations on the Long Take,"  October, V. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 3-6.

***  Leo Steinberg, "Other Criteria," published in Other Criteria, University of Chicago Press, c. 1972.

 Catherine Spaeth, c. 2009

 

Saturday
Aug292009

Parasitic Relations: A Walk Through "Intersections and Interstices" With Richard Jochum and Steven Dubin

On October 2, 2008 I joined Graeme Sullivan, Maurizio Pelligrin, and Richard Jochum in Richard's studio to discuss his upcoming exhibition. Until the previous day Maurizio and I were both unfamiliar with the artist's work. By Richard's own account it was a conversation that failed, beginning with two artists vying for territory and my own concerns about the role of conjecture in art criticism. Nonetheless, the conversation was published in the catalog as an important supplement to the exhibition.

What follows is a conversation held while walking through the exhibition "Intersections and Interstices" at Columbia University's Macy Gallery with Richard Jochum, and subsequently joined by the sociologist of art Steven C. Dubin. Dubin writes frequently for Art in America and had just published a feature article describing his studio visit to Liza Lou in South Africa. I publish this conversation now on the occasion of Richard Jochum's current exhibition "Unexpected Weight Loss" at the Dowd Gallery, SUNY Cortland.

Maurizio Pellegrin and Graeme Sullivan in Richard Jochum's studio, October 2, 2008

CS: Richard, about a month ago we held a conversation in your studio about the exhibition before it had been realized, and there was immediate difficulty about that - were you prepared for that difficulty?

RJ: You can never project conversations, how they unfold, and a group of four can already be quite complex. When you are one- on- one with a person you can rely on undivided attention. And although I had no specific expectations, I hoped for us to have a somewhat choreographed conversation, one that would dig deeper into the matter step- by step. I planned for us to have breakfast with each other first, but because Maurizio was on a tight schedule we started right off. And I think it did not really help that I had provided a computer link beforehand so that people knew what this was about since it made Maurizio start with a dismissive statement: "Couldn't this exhibition just be a blog?".

CS: The sense of anxiety was really more like "Are you an artist?"! Maurizio's work is installation-oriented, and very formalist in a sense.

RJ: So it really wasn't until the conversation ended that things got into place and I thought we were actually getting somewhere!

CS: Richard’s studio was the site of a conversation about a show that had not yet appeared, and there is a kind of dissonance between the studio and the appearance of the work in a gallery context. So when we got to the beginning everything ended, and between then and now the exhibition has appeared. What is the place of the object in this appearance from the studio to the gallery?

SD: I have to jump in and say that Liza Lou’s work is such a meticulous process, literally individually placing tens of thousands of beads. In all cases the pieces were horizontal rather than vertical and they were covered up so that only a small area was exposed. I had to actually request that they be revealed and I was disruptive to the whole studio. Their work was all very Zen, there were thirty people in their own worlds with MP3 players doing something which is both methodical and creative. To see them horizontally and imagine them vertically, and then to see them three weeks later, more complete as well as more complex, and then to finally see them vertically - yes there is a huge difference.

CS: The piece that really drew me (Condition of Capture, 2008) looks like a painting, you don’t know what it is made of until you investigate it very closely and for a length of time, the difference you are describing between the studio and the wall, as you describe it with thirty people and their MP3’s, is a little more dramatic than Pollock’s horizontal and vertical movement from the studio to the wall.

SD: It’s really a privilege to see that whole process, she had to have the vision of what was going to appear, that’s pretty phenomenal.

Liza Lou, installation view of L&M exhibition, Sept.24th - Dec.13th, 2008, found here.

CS: Richard, what you are doing doesn’t resonate at all with a material craft but both your work and Liza Lou's have strong resonance with Minimalist forms, that is the only link I see. I'm enjoying walking through this exhibition with you and with a different familiarity to what I’ve seen. Your work and Liza Lou's are of course very different. There is a blog, and a studio, different formats in which you present your work, that are shaped by a sociality, reflecting conversations, individuals and their words, floated out there as bodies and words.

SD: One of the things that I said in my review of Liza Lou’s work is that it invites touching, it’s so seductive, it’s huge, it glimmers and you want to understand. There is something similar here, there seems to be an invitation to touch but at the same time there is a frustration in it, because there is the suggestion of something that is very tactile. And I think the key might be in something that you said about the craft, she is reviving a craft tradition. This is very seductive but it is seductive in a very different way. I almost hesitate to say this because it sounds like a judgment and it's not, but there is a coldness here, it both seduces and pushes you away at the same time, whereas Liza Lou’s work is hot.

DogEars from the series PaperWorks, 2007-present, dimensions variable.

CS: There is definitely something about their removal. With Liza Lou, there is a coiled pile of beaded rope (Continuous Mile, 2007-2008) protecting an interior we can't access, and I’ve taken people to see it twice, people who ordinarily I never have to say “Do not touch the art work!” Of course they know that but still they automatically go for that rope, they want to feel the weight of it in their hand. So what is here in your work Richard clearly is an invitation to touch but an emphatic removal from it at the same time. In the studio they were flimsy papers on the wall, and so there was a sense of touch, these are mounted, pulled away from touch by their presentation in the gallery. And Richard, we didn’t once talk about materiality in your studio!

RJ: No it became a conversation about territory and it failed. I am absolutely not at home with territory.

CS: It’s true that that conversation became very much about territory, and I’m enjoying that in the gallery context we are talking about what is materially here. Not only what’s here but having it gravitate very quickly as well to illusion and withdrawal as what is here. That’s kind of curious.

RJ: Yes, it’s a bit of a Platonic trick utilizing both, appearance and disappearance, creating a division among reality and fiction. You know, I worked a lot with paper in the 90's and created more than 40 artist’s books, most of them either small or thin and usually as multiple editions. They were very unique, they were very conceptual, and they were in German. Since I left home and came to this country, I have also left my frameset of language; so what's left is paper in it's its texture and shape without language. With one exception: the book «History of Art» from Janson which I had partly scanned and reconstructed as an accordion with two sides to look at: one with only the images and text while removing all the names of the artists.

Richard Jochum, Artist Book, 2005, 7 x 10 inches

SD: So there’s this purging that’s going on here.

CS: But look on the other side, don’t you put them back in?


RJ: Yes, this is the side which shows only the names, it’s an art history without discourse. History of Art embarks on my project dis-positiv, an exhibition series which puts on display not objects or images, but art historians, art critics, art curators, as a living embodiment of the contemporary art discourse, behind a plexi-glass wall, for two hours each, making them art objects, making them at the same time performers. While on display they are encouraged to reflect their own vision of art and their own work and where art is heading to in terms of its future. Looking at the relation between art and research, art practictioners and theorists from my own background and experience made me conclude that they are mutually inseparable, fundamentally intertwined and deeply interdependent. Boiled down to an artist's point of view: it doesn’t matter how good we are at what we do, if we don’t show it to people the title “art” is irrelevant. We are artists through our connection to the institution of art.

Richard Jochum, dis-positiv, 2000-2003. Performance project with plexi glass sculpture 750 square feet, online component, and film.

CS: So do you find that art history and criticism are an extension of your work?

RJ: Yes, definitely. The art world is the framework and community I deal with. It's not uncommon for me that I make the context in which I work become the topic of the work itself. In general, many of my projects are based on participation in one way or another, whether it is the world of art or another realm of the social. I find it particularly interesting that people in the arts are often noticeably weary wary???? of their own peers and the art world in general. I heard people criticizing the addressee of dis-positiv because "You are dealing with the art world!" And my response was, "Oh, come on, these are people too!".

CS: Maurizio very quickly launched into the issue of your blogging and you were very frank that a blog does not constitute an artwork in itself, that it was merely a vehicle for installing it in the art world?

RJ: That's right, despite the fact that there are numerous examples of intriguing blog-art out there. Over time I have created almost 60 blog sites, but almost all of them are representational rather than anything else. Only a couple of them take advantage of blogging as a particular artistic medium, such as My Favorite Saying.

CS: And it’s very social – I’m in your favorite sayings and I put it on my Facebook page and the whole thing! So it’s not only social in the presentation but in its use, you like to see an engaged community.

RJ: That's a role I am aiming for: to engage, to instigate and complexify. Injecting sentiments; setting up platforms; influencing the course of a complex system and if only in invisible, unmeasurable ways. Once we have set up our work, we cannot further control our audiences. I think we artists often hope for a certain impact of our work for the society or time we live in; and that may be a noble attitude, but in fact we really don't know in which way our sensibilities, visions and visual language speak to those who stumble upon us. The relation between art and society is not a balanced partnership among equals. It resembles more the connection between a parasite and its host. Like parasites we contribute in rather small ways to the spin of our society, a society however, which may or may not look alike without us. We are parasites mutually living from each other. An image in a gallery serves strictly speaking as a parasite, creating some of its meanings from its presentation and context. It lives off the frame, drinks from the white wall, eats from the space, no matter how much or little space there is.

CS: Do you see a parasitic balance then between the artist and the critic?

RJ: All along. I once had two artists participating in dis-positiv scratch the shape of a milk stool from a piece of felt which they then had presented as an image. It was a nice piece of work which I liked particularly for its title: «Who milks whom?» It's never clear cut and always fuzzy. Milking each other seemed perfectly descriptive for the relationship between artist and critic.

SD: Well you know the parasite is also something that can cause an upset, in your stomach, so is that the artist or is that the critic?

RJ: It can be either. Let's hope for a good relation between the host and the parasite since the end of the host equals the end of the parasite. It sounds like a moral statement or judgement. But I think the metaphor of the parasite becomes most interesting when we remove it from its moral context and read it in a broader, more logical sense.

CS: Vampire is a good word. I like the idea of infection, of being infected. Artists and art historians can be like vampires.

SD: A vampire gives eternal life, right?

RJ: And a vampire can do things we can’t do, like sleeping with the eyes open. Or hide in front of a mirror.

Richard Jochum, ParasiteMacy, 2008, ongoing series.

CS: The Parasite here, is it unusual to have the split there?

RJ: It matches the crack in the wall. Creating these parasites is a bit like creating decals – transfer pictures or simulacrums - which I started with some of my first solo shows in the late 90ies; ever since I create and collect them from different exhibition locations to prepare for a big parasite-exhibition one day: displaying nothing but parasites.

CS: Do you see it as an institutional critique, is that how you see it?

RJ: You could say so. But it's not just critique, it's also care. I constantly think about the relevance of our practice, the role of me as an artist as a care-taker and the relevance for the world I live in. That's where I am and who I am.

CS: So it’s a portrait.

RJ: I guess you are right, it’s a portrait, that’s right. We can’t change the world. We can’t fix global warming, but to aim for an impact is part of our work, it challenges me as a person and I don’t want to be oblivious to the world I deal with through my practice.

Richard Jochum, still from Atlas Goes Superman, video performance, Athens 2009.  Click here for video.

 



Copyright Catherine Spaeth 2009

Friday
Apr172009

A Walk Through "Jenny Holzer: Protect Protect" at the Whitney With Nicholas Knight

What follows is a conversation with the artist Nicholas Knight, also the author of Eponanonymous, as we walk through the Jenny Holzer  show.  We step out of the elevator and:

CS: It’s the first time I’ve spent time on this side and had the words pointing at me.

NK: I think it’s a lot more effective from this side than from the end. The texts extend past your peripheral vision and make it a more encompassing view than down there, where they recede into perspective.

 

Jenny Holzer, For Chicago, 2008, Eleven electronic LED signs with amber diodes, 2 3/8 x 334 7/8 x 576 in. (6 x 850.6 x 1463 cm),  Installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, 2008,  Texts: Truisms, 1977–79; Inflammatory Essays, 1979–82; Living, 1980–82; Survival, 1983–85; Under a Rock, 1986; Laments, 1989; Mother and Child, 1990; War, 1992; Lustmord, 1993–95; Erlauf, 1995; Arno, 1996; Blue, 1998; and Oh, 2001; © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: Attilio Maranzano, Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, commissioned through the generosity of the Edlis/Neeson Art Acquisition Fund

CS:  The floor almost vanishes completely from here.

NK:  All of the LED works have a really powerful way of dissolving space, it’s very mesmerizing.

CS: There is a painting in this exhibit that describes how the military was using strobe lights as a form of torture.  It’s interesting to watch people...

For the past 7 years Holzer has focused upon making these sculptural,  material works. After projecting on buildings, she explains that she felt a little frustrated by not being a sculptor, not being sculpture.

NK:  It’s kind of an odd thing to hear, since the work is so dependent on fabricators.

CS:  There is in her statement a worry about text, that  text can move from thing to thing without much consideration for whatever is supporting it.

NK:  That’s a myth.

CS:  It’s interesting to consider what it means for someone who does carry that burden with them still to not lay hands on the actual material.

NK:  Well, sculpture is really the catchall category of whatever doesn’t fit into the other categories.  These works are breaking down space in a classic Modernist way, there’s a definite type of touch in this work, and you move through this space with a feeling that each position you occupy is changing your relationship to it in a precisely honed way.  So it's clearly sculpture, even if she's not a sculptor.

Leo Villareal has an installation in National Gallery in the tunnel between the East and the West buildings, Multiverse, covering the hallway of the moving sidewalk with LEDs.  There’s programming code running it, it can run for 100 years and never repeat itself.  Villareal writes the program, turns on the lights, and is only indirectly responsible for anything that emerges from it.

 

Leo Villareal, Multiverse, commissioned by the National Gallery of Art, Fall 2008, 41,000 computer programmed LED's, photo courtesy of Hudson.

CS:  Like an Apple screen saver.

NK: Yes, it’s engrossing and a little gratuitous and decorative.  Here, I don’t doubt for a second that Holzer has really worked through how the texts and colors and sign forms interact with each other.  At the same time there is no way for me to spend enough time with it to decode it.  But I don’t think that type of decoding is what this work is about, even though the effects of the aesthetic strategies are similar in the end. 

Coming to this show the first time, I felt that there was a really wide gulf, and nothing in the middle.  The gulf is between the evocative, emotionally charged text and the explicit political text.  This floor piece is of a completely different sort than the redacted paintings.  I’m much more comfortable with these texts, with the evocative texts, than I am with the political texts.

CS: Holzer stopped writing her own texts in 2001 but the labels of these works as they appear on these museum walls do not give any credit to the words of others as the media. They do, however, appear in the catalog.

NK:  To take that even further, titles like “Purple,” Blue Cross,” “Red Yellow Looming” - it’s a false formalism. I can’t take it as ironic, since there is no humor.  It’s willful misdirection.  Take as an example, Lustmord. I think you see there a very highly charged way of using language, she’s sensitive to how the title is one of the ways language emerges from the work, and there she’s used it to grotesque effect.  

I think where the texts are emotionally evocative fragments, and they are broadly political instead of narrowly politicized, those fragments float to the surface, and then dissipate, and you are left with yellowhood and it’s great, you can’t really see your own feet in here and that’s nice, so you’re floating.  It doesn’t take long for your eyes to dissolve the connection between the reading side of your brain and just wallow in the visual sumptuousness of it.  We could paint some crows over there and call it a wheat field. 

CS: People often speak of sound installations as “cheating,” almost, that it captures and absorbs you…

NK:  The pace is so important to how you experience it.  Right now the text is moving sideways, and it’s going sort of slowly, you have to make some effort and go word by word, keeping in your mind the things that are disappearing beyond the edge, and I think that’s a really beautiful imposition on me as the viewer, I welcome that.  The form imposes a meaning on it that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

CS:  Here, as words go by you are drawn in by them, and her timing is perfect in terms of keeping you here. I have this feeling about the looseness of random thoughts that go through your head in daily life -  Buchloh wants to speak of the spectacle and ideology, there is too much poetry in there for me to speak just about that, but there is something about the technology. We are not just relating to technology, we are caught in it.

NK:  Technology is very carefully deployed, we’re used to seeing wires and all of that stuff but here it is so hidden.  Every LED just perfectly disappears into the wall.

CS: If something were off the littlest bit it would all fall apart.

NK:  In that way, formally speaking, the technology turns into sculptural form rather than having identity as technology.  It’s more like all-over painting, there being no composition, no center.

 

Jenny Holzer, Red Yellow Looming, 2004, Thirteen double-sided electronic LED signs with red diodes on front and amber diodes on back, 143 7/8 x 109 x 52 in. (365.5 x 276.9 x 132.1 cm), Installation view: Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria, 2004, Text: U.S. government documents, © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Attilio Maranzano, Collection of Cari and Michael J. Sacks

CS:  One of the claims of the show that is coming across pretty forcefully in the presentation of it by the museum is an interest in that gap between Goya and Matisse, a gap that echoes your concern about the difference between poetry and political rhetoric.

NK:  That’s kind of laughable, frankly.

CS:  I get it.  There is something about the sensuality and evocativeness of color.  What are you doing when you specifically choose Goya and Matisse?  Political art and formalism.  The glow of the room is a more accurate way of addressing that without looking to a narrative of painting. Given these LED works, do we really need to go to painting for that?

NK:  I don’t know what those claims do other than be opportunistic, with a sense of having a little too much care for one’s legacy.  If there is going to be any political position, you have to occupy it steadfastly. 

CS:  It’s wanting to go back to the Academy and to become History Painting all over again.

NK: But later on when the texts are about torture I really take exception...

CS:  It’s a sinister seduction?

NK:  Yes, the aestheticizing of that text.  I don’t know what she thinks she is going to accomplish by using the torture documents in that way, because as far as I’m concerned the text is already damning, but this presentation drains meaning out of it.

CS:  What about the thought of being mesmerized by horror?  There is a lot of talk about "the violence of the image," but there is also a good deal of fascination as well.

NK: Well I think to be truly mesmerized by the horror of those texts you have to focus on the literal truth of what they say.  As far as I’m concerned the redactions are sexy images, but the documents matter more for what they say than what is covered up. As an artwork on the wall, it doesn’t function that way.  It becomes a picture. The original is too fraught, and you can misuse things the wrong way. 

CS:  Let’s say that Holzer in making these pieces is being very careful about what's outside and what’s inside, and the role of the Whitney Museum as an art institution is something important to her, and that foremost in her mind would be considerations of the aestheticization of the political, merely through the institution and its history. For example. Let's say that she's very well aware of the similarity and difference between these works and Gran Fury's The Government Has Blood On Its Hands.

 

 

Gran Fury, The Government Has Blood On It's Hands (One AIDS Death Every Half Hour), nd., courtesy of  the New York Public Library

NK: But I feel that rather than reflecting on the aestheticization of the political, she’s complicit with it.

CS: I wonder if one of the reasons there are such few pieces in the show - and people really are taking the time to look - mesmerized AND reading, and taking the time without effort to do that.  It’s a very seductive pull, and once you take that time, as people are, you are going to feel your flesh burning with some of this stuff (that’s an exaggeration, I’m not really going to write that...?)

NK:  That is true, but it's more true sometimes and less true other times.   Political speech that has no intention of being persuasive, I don’t know what its function is, and I don’t see being persuaded in this context.  A colleague of mine said that overtly political art is just sentimentality and I believe that’s true. How can sentimentality aid us in this situation?

CS:  Well, Goya is not sentimental.

 

Francisco de Goya, This is worse (Esto es peor), Plate 37 of The Disasters of War series, Etched about 1810 - 1820 (published 1863), Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland

NK:  Yes, but those atrocities have no meaning for us in a contemporary political sense.  The motivation that inspired that violence in the first place is lost to our personal experience - what’s left is the power of the image, and we understand it as a form of protest against those conditions, but those conditions aren’t affecting our lives.  You can’t say anything close to that about what Holzer is doing with her words.

CS:  She’s involved with history and what it means to represent those kinds of horrors in our time.  You know there’s so few...I think of Dana Shutz’s paintings of people eating themselves, there’s no way to represent the kind of violence that Goya was able to represent.  Lessing wrote that only text can show you what is disgusting and horrible, that paintings can never do that, that they have an attachment to medium...

NK: …and you revel in the beauty of the entrails…

CS:  Even if its a baby being ripped open.  Luscious paint.  So at the end of Lessing’s Laocoon he quotes from a description of the puss-y rags of a hermit, in order to show that words can arouse pain and disgust and horror to an extent that painting never can.  So I do want to argue that there is certainly a possibility for that here.

NK:  But what about the change of state that takes place when text is grabbed from its primary source and is reconstituted as an artwork?  The distance that imposes...I can’t follow the raw violence of it across that distance.  I’ve seen these documents online, and they were more powerful to me when the people who presented them were doing everything they could to put them into a context of persuasive speech, to argue from a close reading of their content that this is not what we ought to be doing. Holzer’s treatment fetishizes the document as an object, and separates the viewer from the content.  The change of state that occurs between taking this primary source and turning it into an undeniably high-end art product, I can’t follow the rage over that transformation.

CS:  That was initially a commission form Wired magazine, how do we play with Google searches?  And Holzer came up with these, wanting secrets to come up.  You are speaking of these as public, primary source documents. But they never really came up in the media, there was all of this subterranean noise going on that was never really made "public." Holzer's thought at the time was that each time you logged in one of these documents would come up.

There is something curious about the transition from that technology to the desire to put these documents into the museum.  What goes into the museum? Paintings go into the museums, and there is something too about wanting these documents to last in memory, that’s what museums are they are mausoleums, they are warehouses of memory.  That is the reason for the shift from documents that show up as the revelation of a secret to painting. 

NK:  Holzer deserves a lot of credit, in her career she’s demonstrated a willingness to bring a highly charged practice outside the confines of the white cube. Her outdoor work is politically engaged, in the narrow sense, but also broadly, throwing off the chains of the context.  So I take your point that her own history leads to these works here, but I just can’t follow.  As much as the LED work dissolves the architecture, it doesn’t dissolve the context of the architecture.

 

 

Jenny Holzer, Protect Protect deep purple, 2007, From the series MAP, Oil on linen, 79 x 102 1/4 in. (200.7 x 259.7 cm), Text: U.S. government document, © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Collection of Howard and Donna Stone

CS: To see such military language planted on top of earth.

NK:  What’s the military supposed to do?  It’s remarkably un-euphemized.  And it’s what we voted for.

CS:  I’m thinking of Goya’s bodies impaled on trees, this is such a different register of war.  There is something of interest to me about completely different sense of visual language for how we represent war.  Maps weren’t in Goya’s vocabulary at all.

NK:  The contractors’  bodies hanging from the bridge in Fallujah in 2004, that image was as raw as could be but still made onto the nightly news, that would be a great counter-image to Goya’s  bodies impaled on trees .

CS:  I have to say that sometimes the Warhol thing, I get quite frustrated at times, it gets very easy to pull this out as painting, they are opportunistic as paintings, clearly. 

That aside, I am not made comfortable with this, and I understand that’s "necessary" military language - fix, exploit, suppress.  Even so, in these same words it occurs to me that the opportunism in seizing upon painting is similar to the military's own conventions in seizing upon land.

And that monochrome that let’s you know that it’s painting, the touch of paint.

NK:  I can’t read the text without also "reading" these superficial marks that let you know “I'm a painting!”

CS:  Glamorizing the support of it to make it more historical, have a different context.

 

 

Jenny Holzer, MONUMENT, 2008, Twenty-two double-sided, semi-circular electronic LED signs: thirteen with red and white diodes; nine with red and blue diodes on front and blue and white diodes on back, 194 5/16 x 57 13/16 x 28 7/8 in. (493.5 x 146.8 x 73.4 cm); Installation view: Diehl + Gallery One, Moscow, 2008, Texts: Truisms, 1977–79; Inflammatory Essays, 1979–82, © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Vassilij Gureev, Collection of the artist; courtesy Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Berlin and London; and Diehl + Gallery One, Moscow

CS:  She describes a tilt-a-whirl effect, when you look up at this you get a little dizzy.  A person I brought here actually got so nauseous she had to sit down for a while in the painting room to recover from the sweat.

NK:  I love the dizziness, your eye looks for the wall, but the space is just dissolved.  And when I first saw this one I thought there was a cylindrical backing to it, I couldn’t read it as empty space. 

CS:  It’s called ribs and it’s modeled after a torture case, rigidly and loosely at the same time.  But in doing that and calling it ribs...now you can see there is a blue beyond the pink, creating illusion.  At the press opening, Holzer was very pleased about this window, at night apparently the windows across the street reflect back the colors of this room.

NK:  To get back to painting, the way that Donald Judd had to work his way through painting, Judd’s Plexiglas and the color - it’s off-base to claim an affiliation with Matisse, it’s more like Don Judd. Rich, yes, but still within an industrial vocabulary developed for different reasons than fine art.

CS: As a column, it’s a kiosk at the same time, you can’t get away from other mass media, either.

NK:  The more time I spend, the more the formal qualities of these objects really become the experience.

CS:  It’s not just the light, but the lightness, being off the ground.

 

 

Photo from exhibition catalog, Jenny Holzer: Redaction Paintings, Published by Cheim & Read (2006), Essay by Robert Storr, image courtesy of Cheim and Reid.

CS: Here are the redacted paintings. Just that tilt offers quite a bit about the armature of laying documents.

NK:  The entire subject of it becomes a multiple reproduction.  It’s very loaded, but to me these are purely aesthetic. 

CS:  Dull pinks and yellows.

NK:  Stretched and stacked. 

CS:  There is something about the way dates appear on these paintings, there are multiple dates of classification/declassification.  These dates do something to historical memory, if we are to consider these as historical paintings, what came to my mind was Gerhard Richter’s October 18th 1977 series, which he did ten years exactly after the event, with photographic images.  It seems that if one is to make history paintings today there is an involvement with the registration of time, operating on or as public memory.  Even in saying that I know that I am giving credence to the art historical authority that these paintings are hooking themselves into, very determinately, but nonetheless I think it’s worth thinking about.

NK:  Well we’re in a moment now in the transition to the new administration, and Obama’s people are attempting to make their stance clear.  To the extent that I can judge it they are doing admirable things, more documents are being released, people in Washington actually use the word “torture,” they describe what happened as torture, which is announcing what we are culpable for.  If some of these things that are presently blacked out see the light of day...Do they copy it, black it out and then release it?

CS: Is there an original somewhere that was never doctored?  I don’t know!?

NK:  If you’re going to block it out what’s the value in keeping it?

CS:  Right this is only what you get in the mail if you ask for it.

NK:  Originals exist somewhere in a non-blacked out way.

CS:  There’s a vault somewhere...

NK: So what happens to these paintings when documents are released?  I mean, I don’t need to be personally convinced that the Bush administration were a bunch of assholes.

CS:  It’s one thing to go for actual fact, "Where is the original?" and "What would it mean to have the original?".  But when we’re standing here the experience of that is really thrown back to us.  To think about what these things are, going back to the thought about being mesmerized by horror, to our own unconscious, and to how these are meant to be a site for our own mesmerization. 

That’s corny, but when you put an art historical frame around it there's the ambition for it to have real purchase, to be anything but corny.

 

Jenny Holzer, Bench 16 in the sculpture garden at the Israeli Museum, photo courtesy of theo-ethical interrogations of a stone.

CS:  The benches are also cemetery garden benches, they belong to public space differently, and we are intended to sit on them.

NK: I like them a lot, it does put you in a confrontation that is unexpected, you have to read it before you sit on it.

CS:  And you’re still going to be thinking about it. It’s different than the LED’s,  it’s a monument and a support for your body, a place where you are commemorating death.

NK:  I have the sense that if I sit on it, it’s conferring my agreement with the sentiment of the text.

CS:  They’re going to cut into your skin.

NK:  Yeah, I’m going to be complicit with that if I sit on it!

 

Jenny Holzer, Thorax, 2008, Twelve double-sided, curved electronic LED signs with white diodes on front and red and blue diodes on back, 104 1/4 x 58 5/16 x 37 1/8 in. (264.8 x 148.1 x 94.2 cm), Installation view: Cheim & Read, Armory Show 2008, New York; Text: U.S. government documents, © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Christopher Burke, The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

CS:  This is Thorax, part of our anatomy.  A lot of these are emails, xxxx’s are redactions.  I like the play with redacted and reductions. 

Really each light piece that we’ve seen is doing very different things, in some you have permission to read the back, in Thorax you don’t, it's jammed in to the corner so we can't know what’s on the other side, at all.

NK:  I suppose that’s symbolic.

CS:  This is the story of an Iraqi civilian who was killed, and we are reading the testimonies of the Americans who surrounded that death, they are all trying to document that it was no one person’s fault that he died.  One could say the interior represents the blood and all of the elision of the text wrap around the surface.  It does make me wonder where all the other texts are really from, there’s something about being informed, you have to be informed already about this piece, she is not going to give you that.

NK:  And I object to that.  This is historical information and she presents it in such a way that I can’t read what it means.  I feel like it’s a gross misuse. I’m all for the symbolic use of text that plays with a philosophical slippage between different demands made on a text, in a general theoretical way, but not these.

CS: Let’s say Holzer’s assuming that everyone who is coming to the museum is coming here for an aesthetic experience and they know that it’s Jenny Holzer, do you think that there’s anything in the gesture of asking people to take the extra step?

NK:  No I’m not convinced by that all.   I think that the energy and time it takes to read is 99% of the engagement.

CS:  So people are really going to walk out of here with color and light and Andy Warhol.

NK: And poetry.

CS:  “I can sleep with people I don’t like.”

 

Installation view of Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT(March 12, 2008 – May 31, 2009) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, Copyright 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Lili Holzer-Glier.

CS: Documents, statements, time... but what they say means nothing in this beauty.

NK: Canceled hand prints, 40 or so of them, and 40 strategies for canceling them.

CS: By hands.

NK:  Jasper Johns prints, that’s what I do with it.  Between Warhol and Johns, the aesthetic strategies are so persuasive, but so difficult to de-couple from their original intentions.

CS: This is again the dissonance between violence, documentation, and the mark, romantic and formalist, and the mark is a violent mark.  The print is the mute index of a body, layered with another hand - there is individual expression, a signature, you have these bureaucratic plebes sitting behind desks and marking things, and you want to identify the people who are making these marks, there’s that person and there’s that person...

NK:  To go back to what you were saying about Thorax, there’s nothing available to us about the story, the offense, am I supposed to look up the answers to the questions myself? 

CS: The catalog explains that the prints of the detainees are postmortem.  How do you tell the difference between the corpse and the killer?  Not all of the forms are the same.  There is a writer’s impression, so the living signs their own name, and then there is an official of some kind signing another’s print, perhaps this is a corpse.

NK: I want to be generous but I can’t see any real meaning in those distinctions.  I can’t stop thinking about the money it takes to produce these, I mean, they are really fancy. I don’t object to people spending money to make their work.  Except it does come to the fore for me.

CS:  In her interview with Buchloh she wants us to know that hand-rendered oil grounds seemed right for the Middle East.  But there's also a whole language about production, I mean you can make as many of these as you want.

NK:  It’s a whole economic system of production, "stretched" thinly over symbolic excuses.  There’s an object that ended up here as a painting. I don’t object to the existence of that system, but this exhibition goes to show that some kinds of content don’t work within it.

CS: All of these paintings are listed as a single work, according to the wall text.

NK: All of the material production considerations don’t confront me as much in the LED pieces. For one thing, there’s no alternative. Also, the LED pieces are so “worked out.” Really, the electronic signs are just one element in a whole toolbox of strategies and techniques for making those works, and Holzer has really refined a method for using them to great effect.

CS: It’s also not burdened by the history that we know of Warhol and everybody after. 

NK: Right. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, the paintings are buried by this burden they can’t hope to live up to, because they’re just conceived and executed, and not worked through in the same way as the LED's.

 

Jenny Holzer, Left Hand (Palm Rolled), 2007, Oil on linen, 80 x 62 in. (203.2 x 157.5 cm), Text: U.S. government document, © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Collection of the artist; courtesy Cheim & Read, New York; Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Berlin and London; and Yvon Lambert, Paris

Thursday
Apr092009

A Walk Through "Third Mind" at the Guggenheim With Sanford Biggers and Noah Fischer

Sanford Biggers, Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu (In Fond Memory of Hip-Hop), mixed media, 2004

Catherine Spaeth: I am interested in both of your practices in the context of Third Mind. There is Ann Hamilton’s commissioned piece, but the show really stops at 1989. So I’m interested in how the practices and ideas that are coursing through this exhibition relate to your work, as Buddhist artists who are practicing now.  What I notice right away in both of your practices is an interest in meaning that I don't think the artists in Third Mind engage with in quite the same way.
 
Sanford Biggers:  I think our interest in meaning may be a natural progression from some of the early aesthetic nods and philosophical interpretations of Eastern art by the generations included in the Third Mind.

CS:  And you have had access to those traditions in quite a different way than past generations were able.

SB:  Yes, as you know I lived in Japan for a few years in the early 90's and went back for a residency in 2004 where I did a project with a Soto Zen temple using singing bowls, entitled Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu (In Fond Memory of Hip-Hop), 2004. A part of the project was to make Shinto singing bowls from melted down Hip-Hop jewelry that I found either here or in Tokyo, where there are several of Hip-Hop jewelry stores.  I worked with several traditional artisans to melt all of the jewelry down into an alloy to make the bowls.  The final part of the project was to actually perform the bells in the temple.  We used some of the temple's singing bowls along with mine in the final bell chorus. I drew up a diagram for the 16 participants to follow, however, it was largely improvisational.  The head monk rang the final bell.

 

Sanford Biggers, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva, 2000

One of the things I was interested in and why I did the piece with the breakdancers Mandala of The B-Bodhisattva, 2000, is that sometimes mandalas aren’t formally laid down, they are actually remembered as a dance. 
 
I also have a suite of videos that I call "koan" because they are non-sequitur videos, if you were to try to read them in a narrative they wouldn’t match but somehow there’s an anecdote in each and putting them together creates yet another anecdote. 
 
CS: Yes, at D’Amelio Terras I saw your video Cheshire which is the koan  “Man Up a Tree.” 
 
Xiangyan said: `It’s like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a  
precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and at the  
bottom of the tree someone stands and asks him: `What is the meaning of  
Bodhidharma’s coming from the West ?' 
`If the man in the tree does not  
answer, he fails in his responsibility to the person below; and if he does  
answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?'
 
 
When you think of Cheshire that way it has a darker inflection on it than the way I saw it described in reviews which was that these professionals  take ownership of the tree by climbing it but, if you think of the koan tradition it’s a little closer to being lynched in that suit, man up a tree. 
 
SB:  Well, do you remember the sculptural component to Cheshire, the smile in the tree?  This completes the double entendre.

 

Sanford Biggers, Cheshire, 2008. Aluminum, plexi-glass, LED's, timer, 33x8x67". Courtesy of the artist.

CS:  But your work as compared to Noah’s is more interested in symbols and their interpretation, and I’m thinking of the recent Neo-Hoodoo show at PS1. Unlike in Third Mind there’s a very sort of ‘90s flavor and history in Neo-Hoodoo that’s involved with syncretism and approaching work in an almost shamanistic way. Which I see a little differently in your work, Noah, it's working differently with interpretive symbols.
 
Noah Fischer: It’s true that in the sense that my work is “Buddhist”, or at least highly influenced by my Zen Buddhist background, that I haven’t used the symbols associated with Buddhism. I do think that the spirit behind Zen practice is perceived by some viewers.  That spirit was present in my recent show “Monitor,”which contemplated the sublime illusion of the computer screen, and the form/emptiness of the hardware.  

 

Noah Fischer, Monitor Family Portrait, mixed media, courtesy of the artist.

But back to your question, I have definitely worked symbols in my work. Particularly in the political work like Rhetoric Machine, an installation which basically remixed known political icons such as the American eagle, and the US president, but the game was to create a lot of space around them, and also make them personal. Because symbols become really heavy, and they they forge (political) identities and condition us. Maybe that is also a Buddhist idea. Sanford, maybe this is something that could be happening with your trees, the idea of a lynching tree can be so heavy for real, historical reason!! Maybe the problem is that there is not enough  space around the symbol to really contemplate it personally. So how do you find the space for a greater complexity?

 

 

Noah Fischer, Rhetoric Machine, detail, photo by Beckett Logan, courtesy of the artist.

SB:  I also am interested in the dual image of the Buddha finding enlightenment under the tree, and the Cheshire cat appearing and disappearing while uttering non sequitors and koans.  I think symbols can visually create koans too. How do you unload or unpack a symbol from all the baggage it already has, and of course, that baggage is usually experientially relative to each viewer.  When these symbols combine, their meanings become further complicated. 
 
NF: It’s interesting to think about the western symbols that we are talking about like the American Eagle and the lynching tree in the context of Eastern thought tools: Zen koans and capping phrases.  Because many of our Western language-based symbols- like “patriotism” or “racism” are based on logic, on not being the same as their opposites.  But with the Eastern language tools such as koans you can possibly find a new way to move around these symbols and again loosen them up.  I’m interested in that and began to do it with language in my recent installation Pop Ark which dealt with the linguistic randomness of the web.  I agree with you that using a visual language art in the West is already concerned with conglomerating and confusing a clear reading of symbols. There seems to be truth in these contradictions.

 

James Mcneill Whistler, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, 1864, Oil on canvas, 93.3 × 61.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Photo: Graydon Wood


CS:  These two paintings side by side are nice to see.  Here you have Whistler depicting a contemplative mode, and then slipping into something else entirely. 
 
NF:  Well I have a comment about that piece. 

You see this aristocratic woman enjoying the aesthetic space of the East in her parlor, it’s basically orientalist: a fantasy land. This reminds me of a big potential problem with work that has a "Zen” influence because zen is like a brand, it means relaxing time: you’re not at the office working, you’re having your green tea and your spa or whatever.  Number one it’s definitely a type of orientalism: the east in the mind of the west - with an added class thing going on.  This is not a place to deal  with the pain or reality or worldness or trash of the world. But I think that Buddhism, well, at least meditation, really helps with dealing with these things in life and in the work, so the tag Zen can be misleading... 
 
CS:  Orientalism in late nineteenth century painting was tied to the decorative arts and to the feminized domestic interior as a place of restive contemplation far removed from the labor unrest and "urban masses" that surrounded its patrons.  It was a way of domesticating the foreign. 
 
So it is interesting to consider the role of the contemplative mode in these works.  So much is laboring towards that.  One of the things that is depicted in these 19th century pieces is sound, the importance of sound, even Paul Kos’s piece out there is about the importance of sound, so sound has become in a way what emphasizes the contemplative mode that you see here.  Dewing is about sound, that woman is listening , he will also title his paintings Song of a Lark. There’s another painting over here that’s quite beautiful, Arthur Dove’s Foghorns, but also this by Augustus Vincent Tack,  the Voice of Many Waters, it’s an abstraction. So the desire to appeal to sound as a vehicle of contemplation moves from someone like Dewing in the decorative tradition to early American Modernism.

 

 

Arthur Dove, Foghorns, oil on canvas, 54.6x72.4 cm., Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, anonymous gift, c. The estate of Arthur G. Dove.
 

NF:  The work in this show is very soft, it seems to be a theme, this softness.  I see  many washes, not so many hard edges or aggressive moves. Mark Tobey’s work for example was called “miniscule” by Greenberg and you can see how it was so. The problem I find with this softness is that it becomes precious.  So I am happy that there was a Van Gogh and Pollock to bring some fieryness to the canvas.  To help us get over the “pictureness” of pictures. 

 CS: There was a very broad characterization of Abstract Expressionism with Asian calligraphy, even though artists wanted to distance themselves from such ideas, but I think that there are many artists today who medititate and wouldn’t want to put their work out in front as in any way inspired by zen practice, that’s kind of a sticky place, still. 
 
SB: Why do you think that is? 
 
CS:  Well, I think a lot of it is secular modernism, there is a lot of suspicion of so-called spirituality in art, and you can talk about that from the beginning of time, but what does interest me about Zen specifically is that out of all the spiritual practices I know of,  many people who are strong practitioners will back away from defending it as a religion. There’s a kind of objectivity about it, and whether that is something that has been earned or whether that is an illusion is a question - if you’re going to be a secular purist you don’t want to go near that question.

 

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956, oil and paper collage on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, Gift of Friends of the Whitney Museum, c. 2009 The Estate of Franz Kline/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

SB: I've always found it amazing and very self-conscious that so many artists want to deny some kind of link towards things beyond the heady western academic sense of mark/art-making. 
 
NF:  Also, if Kline is denying a connection to calligraphy maybe he’s saying “I invented it myself”, which nowadays we don’t really believe anyone ever did. So then I would pose the question: where does he think these black brushstrokes come from?  Well, probably it came right from  Japanese brushwork whether or not he admits it, but maybe there’s a little Russian Constructivism in there and German Expressionism and some other things (which were probably also influenced by Japan and China). But what he says about the work is maybe just  the game he’s playing.  
 
SB:  The other side of it is to say that it is an investigation of mark-making, which does encompass calligraphy, Constructivism - it covers a single lightening bolt in the horizon, it’s all mark-making, it can be all-encompassing or denial. 
 
NF: That’s fair.  Once it’s in the public realm if too many of those cards are given away people will over-identify with some of those things, so maybe in a way it’s better to leave that to people’s own interpretation.  
 
SB: Fair as well. 
 
CS: This is rare to see.  Pollock has a thing about #One over and over and over again, as though summing up the whole history of painting as #One.  To see an actual series, a row of such calligraphy, by Pollock is very nice.  it also looks as though, unlike the consistently additive throwing of paint so associated with action there’s been some kind of lifting away.   And here’s an instance where you have Philip Guston who abandoned abstraction completely for his Nixon series, all the shoes, and the lightbulbs, and the kkk hood in a very personal symbolism. You know in choosing these early abstractions by Guston, instead of his figurative painting, which completely eclipsed his earlier abstraction, the curators are really saying that abstraction is where the Zen is. 

 

 

Philip Guston, Poor Richard, 1971, courtesy of ubu.

NF: Yeah, I don’t know about that...that’s problematic.  It’s that brand of Zen as a gestural brushstroke. I think Zen can be anywhere- anything, right here! You just have to find the  emptiness in the form. 
 
CS: All of this abstraction is at the center.  But you know, this is an historical show and this is what happened. 
 
 NF:  Do you paint? 
 
SB:  I have a painting background, I used to paint but I just got to a wall where I wasn’t really doing anything interesting, at least in my mind. As I became more interested in the issues behind painting and representation and wanted to go into something that I thought was more experiential. And sculpture, performance, installation etc; all that did a little bit more for me, the physiciality of it and the way it operates in space had more to do with the body for me, I felt more connected to it.  I've always, however, maintained a 2-dimensional practice, but right now I’m more interested in drawing than painting, I’m interested in the mark again, but I think it has something to with the mark being less inhibited by history, painting’s got a lot of social, political and historical baggage, I don’t feel that so much with drawing. Sure, you can find baggage if you want, but that dialog is not so interesting to me these days. 
 
I do not want to indict all painting, but it is the poster child for the western bourgeois approach to luxury arts.  It is very much steeped in a dialogue of privilege and class, a dialog that has distanced the artworld from larger society.  Some may argue that’s how it should be, but for me there’s a disconnect, an elitism that is inherent in the way it is traded, not just financially but culturally.  Who has it, where is it, how do you see it, how much was it, how do you understand it?  It privileges certain hierarchies that other artforms may not. 
 
NF: Do you think that installation gets around that problem, the exclusivity problem?  I’m thinking that non-painting forms of art can be seen as even more rarified because most people don’t even know what installations are. 
 
SB:  It's true that exclusivity is unavoidable in our field to a degree, but I think some of the non-painting forms, because they are less familiar, can be more inviting to new interpretations and readings.  
 
NF: I always get back to drawing. I believe that’s the root of this work, I almost find it hard to relate to artists who can’t or don’t  draw…I don’t want to make a judgment about them , but my feeling is that art kind of starts there.  Here’s a story… my first solo show was actually, at the San Francisco Zen Center which used to have a little gallery room, and they gave me a show before I left and came to the East Coast, and I was like 18 at the time, you know people in high school are always drawing random stuff in drawing class: rendering whatever.  For the show which was called “Objects”, I drew all sorts of things in pen and ink on paper just things around the house, like a Buddha statue but also a trash bin and a stapler, and by drawing these things I began to feel fondly towards them, I realized drawing is just a type of consciousness-practice. When you look at something well enough to render it you are attending to that thing and essentially you’re opening your heart to that thing, your consciousness is channeled at that thing, there is no heirarchy at that point, you could be drawing Bill Gates or a banana or a can of soda or a wooden mouse trap.  Anything.  And it’s the same, it’s all just consciousness.

 

Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, Ink on Dura-Lar, 18x24", courtesy of the artist.

SB:  I feel that way about process. Labor intensive work takes me away from expectation. I have an idea what direction I may be going, but that is just the set up before I go into autopilot, all actions becoming somehow equal or non hierarchical.    I’m thinking of the large sand pieces, or the glass etching I just did, with the slave vessels. That’s where the good stuff is! - when you’re working in an almost pre-conscious state.

 

Sanford Biggers, Lotus, 2007, hand-eched glass, steel, LED's, 7' diameter, courtesy of the artist.

NF: So for you it’s the labor and the repetition?

SB:  At a certain point it’s not even about the object, it’s just about going in there, the feel and sound of the charcoal and the brush against the surface.  For me its like the difference between religions and faith.  Faith is the thing that all religions have, regardless of what form or name it goes under. I think that art praxis may be the same thing, ultimately, regardless of what you ascribe to it it’s more about the act of making it.

Sanford Biggers, Lotus, detail.
 

NF:  Sometimes people use the word commitment with art and I know this has a philosophical history from Adorno which I may be passing over but for now I just mean commitment of the artist's time, and a lifelong commitment to developing the work.  Like Hsieh in the room with the time clock, what an amazing  commitment! Commitment is a special thing because it requires a focus, as opposed to multi-tasking, or distraction.

 

 

Tehching Hsieh, One-Year Performance, 1980-1981, April 11, 1980-April 11, 1981, installation of documentary photographs and original performance relics, including poster, documents, 366 time cards, 366 24 hour images, 16mm. film, time clock. 16mm. movie camera, uniform, shoes and footprints.  Collection of the artist, c, 1980-81 Tehching Hsieh, Photo, Michael Shen, c. 1981 TehChing Hsieh, New York.

SB:  In that respect, the artwork is just the byproduct of commitment.  Whether it be embodied in a painting, an object, or a repetitive action. Hsieh's photo documentation is the byproduct of a commitment or praxis, much like a Pollock painting.

CS:  Ann Hamilton is a good model for that here, she also wrote an essay for Buddha Mind and she was very clear that she’s not a practicing Buddhist, but she was included in this exhibition precisely because of this sense of commitment that interests her, that her studio practice is one of attending and being committed to that attending.  So it’s interesting that what counts for you is something you’re calling commitment and that underneath that you can include artists such as Ann Hamilton - or let's say anyone at all who expresses their work process as an intuitive not-knowing - in an exhibition like this.

 

 

 

Noah Fischer, Pop Ark, nd., detail, mixed media installation, courtesy of the artist.

NF:  Well, what else is there beside commitment, I mean, genius?  I just did this big crazy installation called Pop Ark , and something I keep thinking about…that the main point of it may have been just the doing of it- how crazy and improbable that was, but somebody did it, realized it, spent the time doing this thing.. .

Nobody else could really do it , someone felt the need to put it together.  Most artists aren’t getting rich off of this, but the commitment gives something back to us in its own way I think, and this is similar to a Buddhist practice. But unlike Buddhist practice, the commitment that artists make is quite outward and public ultimately. 

SB:  I was speaking to a group of people the other day about the prayer rug I made at Triple Candie years ago . It took close to two hundred hours to put it down, and from the moment of completion it was in a constant state of devolution. Its visual, physical presence only highlighted its temporal vulnerability. That work was very much about commitment and relinquishment.

 CS: One of the things that I’m hearing here is contentment with a thing done.

SB: Well, a thing gets done but then you’re on to the next thing, so it really doesn’t have an end. Each project is just the artifact of that commitment at that moment, but that same commitment will go into the next project. 

NF: It’s not just about the painting it’s about your life and maybe in the end, the art “career” (for lack of a better word) is about making this commitment in your time, your era.  The commitment is an exchange with people and places around you, as part of the cultural process or self-understanding of your era, therefore each artist is unique. So your work has to be different than Jackson Pollock's, as he wasn’t around to make that commitment in the ‘90s.

SB:  Practice.  That’s the word.

NF: As an artist you are creating a life of commitment or maybe more accurately as Sanford says- practice, but there is an object-thing attached to it; actually a series of things.  As  a Zen practitioner you are also involved in a life about practice but it’s discouraged to make anything of it.  Things tend to unleash desire.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Me: I have absolutely no idea what part of the world this view of the ocean came from, but it was the Google image link to the following:SuperHappyPuppy

NF: And here’s a beautiful object, they just have to get a bigger wall for that.

CS:  Did you see the show at Gagosian, Seven Days and Seven Nights?  The installation was stunning, you walked to the other side of a long wall and into seven nights and it was so dark that without the help of a guard you had no idea where your feet ended and the floor began, it was disconcerting to be thrown into the ocean in that way.

NF:  He also did the movie screens, so it’s not like he’s walking away from the human world into the natural sublime- he finds it everywhere.   

SB:  These are all taken from different places in the world, they’re different oceans.

CS: And it is as though your feet don’t know where they’re standing.

SB:  It seems to me that to think of this work in terms of East and West kind of takes away from what the work can do on its own. 

NF:  I think that as much as Globalism makes the world more connected, people will always use the mental shorthand of “East and West” because we love to separate things out…but , there is no such thing as East and West really. Depends on perspective.

 

 

Laurie Anderson, In the House, In the fire, courtesy of Obieg.

NF: I remember Laurie Anderson came out to the monastery when I was a kid in the early 1980’s , she came out to have a conversation with the abbott of the monastery Reb Anderson.  It was funny, though.  Because it was definitely like an encounter with a star. In the context of the monastery she just looked like she had been partying too hard!

SB:  I went to a retreat at Green Gulch.

NF:  That’s where I grew up.  You studied with Yvonne Rand, right?

SB:  Yes, and that’s where I met Laurie Anderson, we were all speaking at Green Gulch. That’s where I got the idea for the bell choir, Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu. I learned that different metal alloys made distinct sounds, and that came out of the conversation with Laurie...The other participants who were there at some point realized that their shared interest in Buddhism was not really addressed nor accepted by the art industry, so they made their own community to address that.  A book (Buddha Mind In Contemporary Art) came out of it but not an exhibition.

CS:  At the Bronx Museum of Art you had a piece on Buddhism and commodification, what was that like?

SB:  Well exactly, Noah, you were speaking earlier about Buddhism being a brand and that’s exactly where the idea for that show came from, the commodification of spirituality.  The first piece I did was call The Mandala of Cooption where I cast clear resin Hotei forms with floating fat shoelaces, microphones and gold chains inside the Buddhas.  There were four of them on the outside and one in the center that was robed with multicolored fat shoelaces. Basically, all of the floating objects were intended to represent Hip-Hop or urban culture but are fabricated in TaiWan, Hong Kong and Korea, so there’s no real sense of the authenticity between where these things were fabricated and what they reperesent. Even my original Hotei figure came from Mexico, was white and on the bottom and had horseshoes, pieces of rice and a four leaf clover, among other other symbols of good luck that have nothing to do with Buddhism.  So I was really interested in how commerce ignores origins for the sake of uniformity and consumption. And the mash up of symbols, once again.

 

 

Sanford Biggers, Mandala of Co-Option, 2001, Acrykic resin, fat gold chains, fat shoe laces,microphones, African mask, leather medallions, rotating mirrored turntables. Figures: 8 1/2x6x5.


The project with the singing bowls, which were all made from melted down hip-hop jewelry, was more about distilling the commercial back down and into the singular form of the singing bowl.  The bowls were used in a ceremony where each strike was like a prayer to a dead ancestor, but in this case it was Hip Hop.  An homage to the past.

NF:  Those two projects are so different. With the bell it’s an active thing if you are making a critique in the piece, it doesn’t happen in the mind so much as the body- hearing the sound of the bell and seeing what that does. In the other mode with the Hotei - you are using irony, symbolically highlighting contradictions.

SB:  For me, the Hotei's are at once both references and things.  But the bells in performance or as sound generators are autonomous and not dependent on a referent. There were three or four years between those pieces and I had become less interested in illustrating a concept than making a sensorial experience from one.

CS:  Picking up on the physicality of it I have this nagging little voice in my head that wants to say, well, there’s something trite about having a nostalgia for something more pure in the context of globalized capitalism.  But when you are working with materials and symbols as physical things that involve people, whatever is trite about that vanishes, there is an alchemy there.

NF:  Definitely.  But people have to be willing to actually participate and do it.  Experience is never trite if people are willing to do it.

 

Linda Mary Montano, Mitchell's Death, 1979, black and white video with sound,  23 minutes, collection of the artist, c. 1979, Estate of Linda Montano.

CS:  Do you think of what you do as salvific? Linda Montano approaches her work after years of practice as being therapeutic.  Is that a way to talk about your work?
 
NF:  Salvific, you mean like salvation?
 
CS: Salvation, other words people may use are redeeming, freedom is a big word...
 
NF:  There’s a Zen tradition I like which focuses on everydayness- “nothing special” so I wouldn’t say salvific, I would just say practice, which encompasses the work of every artist.  It’s just a matter of deepening the practice, becoming more aware.  For me meditating and then going to my studio, gets me over the general fear of making decisions which can be very real and into the “why not” which is a good place to draw, sculpt, or exist from.  So  ultimately it's about practice and commitment.  It’s basically about doing but doing it fully aware.
 
SB:  I think that awareness is key, that is something that meditation helps you do is to become more aware and to be able to tap into that awareness.  And if you take that to the studio it’s a dance between making decisions and letting things come through you in a way where it doesn’t get caught up.

 NF:  Meditation is  a way to work through all of these influences that are the landscape of our postpostpostmodern world and avoiding something trite and false , so it's a careful and joyful tightrope walk.

 

 

Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, detail, ink on Duralar, 18x14", courtesy of the artist.

Tuesday
Mar242009

An Interview With Robert Barry

The following telephone interview with Robert Barry occurred on March 21st, 2009

 

RB: What did you find interesting about my show at Lambert?

CS: I haven’t been in New York that long, this is now my 7th year, but I was in Ohio for a long, long time studying the history of contemporary art with Stephen Melville, so I was familiar with your work from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and in my course have often used your Inert Gas Series as a comparison to John Baldessari. For me this is a way to talk about different relationships to the literal, Baldessari’s being more rhetorical than what I see in your work. But also to have some fun with the sense of humor that was flying around. That was the context I knotted you into. So it was a real surprise to see your show, to say “Wow, this is Robert Barry,” and to see all of that color, I was really affected by the color and the space.

 I do write, and when I saw your show I was just sort of scouring the galleries in Chelsea and it was all a big whirl and sometimes it takes a while for things to settle. But when I knew that Jenny Holzer was coming I started thinking of your show again and got really interested in what you were doing in comparison to her work, and now that I’ve seen Jenny Holzer I’m even more interested in that.

 



RB: I haven’t seen her show.

CS: One of the things that she’s doing, and what surprised me about your show, is that, well, there’s almost an aggressive campaign on the part of Holzer and the curators and the museum to hook her work into a history of painting, which is very interesting to me. So one of the things I also noticed in your show was the diptych, there’s a way in which you also are thinking about what it means to hold an allegiance to painting.

RB: The diptych - of course you’re talking about 62-08, fortysix years represented in the space between the two panels. I’ve done a number of those diptychs in recent years... putting an old work next to a recent, as one piece. Only an older artist , like me, can make such a work! But you aren’t familiar with all the work from those years in between the late 60's and what I’m doing now.... paintings, installations, videos, the photographic work, all of that. Most historians focus on the early work, the so-called "conceptual" work. But as an artist I must continue working, and trying to keep it interesting, at least for me. For many years, from 1968 to 1980 I didn’t do any painting. I stopped again for a few years in the late 90's. Now, in the last year or so, I’ve picked it up again. So if I feel that I need to paint to get my ideas across then I’ll use paint. Right now, in the last year or two, I’ve started to do paintings again. But, as you can see in the show I'm also working in other ways.

 

 
CS: Is this a more emphatic return to painting that is very recent for you?

RB: I go back to it when I need it. It all depends on where my art making takes me. It really comes out of the ideas that I want to convey and where I want my work to go. What’s interesting to me is that if I need paint, I use paint. If I need photography, or vinyl letters on a wall... I have to confront the situation, the space, the place that's given to me, and see what works. I'm doing a lot of video these days. I didn’t show one in the exhibit. Maybe I should have. I've always been interested in using time in my work. That's obvious in the diptych and the "Inert Gas" piece. The videos give me another way of incorporating time. So, I call myself an artist, and use whatever I need that works for me to do the art.

CS: In the Holzer show they are avoiding certain questions by talking about the influence of both Goya and Matisse on Holzer’s painting and her work as a whole. The earlier question or comparison between painter’s works that is relevant here is that offered by Benjamin Buchloh’s 1989 essay “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions.” He was taking a position and saying that at some point you have to make a choice between Duchamp and Mondrian. Do you make that choice?

RB:  No, I don't think in those terms, I'm really an intuitive thinker.  What works, what seems to me to be an interesting direction based on my history, my feelings, on what I know, is how I work.  We are all influenced by countless things.  Some artistic, and some are not.  I can't isolate one over another.  I don't like to think that one thing influenced me more than anything else.  Except, as I've always said that my past work is my biggest influence on me.

CS: It’s clear that you’re not a willy-nilly grab-bag sort of person.

RB: If you follow the history of my work you may see in it a kind of logical progression. People tell me that one thing seems to follow out of another. It appears logical, but it’s really intuitive. It’s not something that’s just planned out ahead. For instance, I might be looking at an old piece and some idea will come to me that I might not have even thought about originally. And that’ll set me off in new a direction.

CS: Holzer is interested in making work that is “where people look.” She’s very interested in LED’s in particular, the text pieces that stream as though they were in nasdaq or Times Square.

RB:  Well, people are always looking at what catches their eye.  Isn't that what advertising is about?  To catch people's attention.  I guess that's what LED's are designed to do.  If you put an art object out into a public space, whether it's a sculpture or anything else, I suppose some people will look at it and recognise it as a piece of art, and think about it.  Others will just not be interested.  Sometimes it's nice to put something outside.  I've done it.  However, when people go to a museum or a gallery, that's what they do, they look - they become engaged with the art.  That's why they go there.  So, even more quiet, subtle work can be seen and appreciated.

CS: Her installation peices are pretty difficult to escape, they’re very insistent, they don’t have the more quiet sense of text that your words have.

 

 

RB: I don’t usually use text. Occasionally I do, but in a very different way. I think the thing that distinguishes me from other so-called language artists is that I use words. Isolated words. Words as objects. I don't use language the way that a writer would, to convey a message, or tell a story. I try not to moralize. I use the word as an object in itself. Whatever its history, it's meaning, it's associations. It's look... In the context that it’s in, a gallery, an outside space. I would even hesitate to call myself an artist who uses language. I use words. Words as objects, and of course these words are loaded and meant to grab the viewer in a way that they can interact with them - if they choose to do so. Words come from us. They don't exist in the world outside of us. They speak to us. I like working in an art context, where people come to experience art in a serious way. And, by the way, when you say “just looking”, I’m not really interested in just looking. I’m interested in looking, thinking, feeling, being engaged. Participating... Looking is what we do in our practical, everyday lives. Hopefully, one comes with expectation, and with some history, some knowledge, and will have a deeper experience that may begin with looking.

CS: I’m looking right now at a painting by Mel Bochner that was in a recent Whitney Biennial called Nothing from 2003 and on a black ground there’s a list of words, a thesuarus, “nothing, negation, non-existence, not-being, none,” etc. And that etc. is important, the painting ends with a comma as though the list is going to go on. But his sense of a word list is really quite different than your own, and so the other thing that I have in my hand here is your Word List of 2008: diffident, beyond, imply, wonder, almost, ineffable. And what’s striking me is that your words in this list do seem to have a very strong kind of pressure on a limit of knowledge.

RB: What do you mean by a limit of knowledge?

CS: “Almost” and “ineffable” are at the edge but there is a there that is palpable. “Another” you could say is a way of crossing that distance.

 

 

RB: Art is a form of knowledge. There’s this odd dichotomy, that a work of art should be both complete in itself, but should also have implications or associations beyond itself. Some artists rely solely on ambiguity. Mostly figurative artists. This kind of work I don’t find very interesting. Of course the viewer, whoever’s looking at it, is going to have their own interpretation. They’re going to take away from it whatever they want. You can’t get into their head and tell them what to think. My words are complete unto themselves, and there’s the implication that they go beyond themselves. The way I present them, they have many meanings, or no specific meaning. The person looking at the work is going to be looking at it in his or her own way and I always must take that into consideration when I make art. Once it leaves your studio, once it leaves the gallery, who knows what people are going to do with it? But ultimately, that’s where the meaning is going to be found.

CS: I do see these as related to the nouveau roman and concrete poetry.

RB: I think that’s a mistake. I’m not a poet, I’m an artist. There’s nothing new about using words and art. When I was a school kid we took a trip to the National Gallery in Washington and saw the Van Eyck picture of the Angel and the Madonna. I asked “Why are the words coming out of the mouth of the Madonna upside down?” The teacher didn’t even realize that they were upside down. Actually it's common in Flemish paintings. Of course, if God is in heaven looking down, it’s not upside down to Him! So the idea of language or words as objects being used in the visual arts is not a new idea, the two are entwined, they always have been.

 

 
CS: So the word lists and the crosses are very different with regard to orientation in relation to the reader and one of the things that strikes me is that it’s a cliche about abstract painting that you can turn it upside down or sideways and whenever such a cliche is actually materialized it doesn’t become trite as an actual experience, there’s something going on that’s much richer than any cliche. I’m looking at Word List (Painting) and Red Cross (Painting) from 2008, and wondering if Red Cross has four different hooks. Does it matter to you how they are hung?

 

 

RB: It does, they are signed in the back in a certain way. I did a series in the ‘70s called "omnidirectional drawings" where it didn’t matter how the object was hung. I liked the fact that a decision had to be made on the part of the person who owned it. That they had a responsibility to participate in it's presentation. It's an extension of that idea that I was talking about, about how meaning can change when a work goes out into the world. So I wanted to give some responsibility to the viewer in a very specific way, how is it going to be presented. Presentation is very important to me. Where and when a painting is hung and how, in what situation, really has a lot to do with its ultimate meaning. In some sense it could be as important as what’s actually in the painting, the content of the work itself. So the idea of giving some responsibilty to the owner, the viewer, was something that made sense in terms of how meaning is made. It wasn’t a cliche, it was really a part of the work itself, built into it so to speak. It's about how artworks really exist in the world.

CS: From there I think it’s nice to think of the installation at Yvon Lambert, and what interested me is that there were these very discrete works, Red Cross, Word List (Painting), and word lists as texts on the wall.

 

  

RB: My next show in May in Paris is called “Word Lists.” It’s a general idea I’ve been working on for the last year or so. Instead of arranging the words in a sort of random way, to cover a wall, as I've been doing for the last few years, I've decided to present them in a more direct, organized way. Arranging them in a line, cross or a circle is a returning to the past, but in a different way.

CS: What I enjoyed about the exhibit at Yvon Lambert, and what is relevant to the conversation we’re having about orientation and painting, is that while these felt like discrete presentations of words in terms of medium and space, it was also really interesting to see this installation as a whole and to think of a word list as something that is very plastic, it can be a thousand words long or three words long, and so where a work began and ended in the space of an installation that is involving such word lists became kind of interesting to me.

RB: Yes. The lists do imply extending beyond the confines of the immediate space. You may not know about the typewriter drawings from the ‘70's that would have a list of adjectives and adverbs that could go on for 5 or 6 pages. They would describe something that was indescribable, or at least not visible.

CS:  Do you find that over the years you've acquired a very specific vocabulary?

RB: Yes, and I add to it all the time. I draw from a list of about two to three hundred words. I’m always adding to it and taking some away.

CS: And is there anything that you can describe as a quality of those two or three hundred words?

RB: A state of mind, or suggest an some activity, a quality...not specific objects like a table, a chair, a tv set or computer.

 

 

CS: I’m interested in these states of mind that are transmitted telepathically, and I’m thinking also of what I mentioned earlier in the Word List that has “ineffable” at the bottom and “another” at the top. What I do see in the language that you’ve chosen and some of the things that you do with it is - I looked up the word telepathy and it means ‘”to be affected by distance.” It’s intriguing to find these sentences which have a completely different force.

RB: The history of the piece... the dates are 1969-2009. Those specific ones were originally for an exhibition in 1969 but were never shown. To keep with the idea of this show, the time theme that the show was about, I wanted a work that spanned the time Lambert and I have been working together. 40 years. I first started working with him in Paris in 1969. And this show and the one in Paris is really a 40th anniversary show. I originally ment them to be shown in Sao Paolo in Brazil, but there was a political problem in Brazil at that time, and the American artists in the show decided to protest by not exhibiting our work. So the works were never shown. Originally, they probably would have been presented only in the catalogue. This time, I showed them in a different version in vinyl color letters. It’s an old work in an new format, spanning those forty years. Hence the dates.

CS: There’s another sentence from 1970, “Something only you can realize.”

RB: I thought that might be interesting to see it on the window before you go in. It does put some responsibility on the viewer. Also, I think of it as a welcome in.

CS: Looking at your own reflection?

RB: You have a responsibility when you go in there and deal with this work.

CS: Now with your word lists and crosses and circles, are you thinking less about sentences, do the words as words, as objects, have a different sense for you than they did earlier?

RB: I don't want to think in terms of sentences. The window piece is from 1970. I don't think it's different, but I'm always looking for new words.

 

 

 Copyright Catherine Spaeth, 2009

Image Credits:  Inert gas Series: Neon, 1969.  Two photographs, text.  2 photos, each 8X10", 1 text, 11x8 1/2", 20 1/2x40" frame, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Installation View, Exhibition: RB 62-08, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; 62-08, 1962-2008, diptych: left panel oil on canvas, right panel, acrylic on canvas, left: 56x47.75", right: 36x36", © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Jenny Holzer, Green Purple Cross, 2008, and Blue Cross, 2008. Three double-sided electronic LED signs (two with blue and green diodes on front and blue and red diodes on back and one with blue and red diodes on front and blue and green diodes on back); and seven double-sided electronic LED signs with blue diodes on front and blue and red diodes on back. 59 x 122 5/8 x 100 11/16 in. (149.9 x 311.4 x 255.8 cm); and 85 13/16 x 109 x 100 11/16 in. (217.9 x 276.9 x 255.8 cm). Installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, 2008. Texts: Erlauf, 1995, Arno, 1996, Blue, 1998 (Green Purple Cross); and Arno, 1996 (Blue Cross). © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Lili Holzer-Glier. Collection of the artist; courtesy Yvon Lambert, Paris (Green Purple Cross); and David Roberts Art Foundation, London (Blue Cross); Mel Bochner, Nothing, 2003, oil on canvas, 45x60", Collection of Jill and Peter Kraus, image courtesy of http://www.carnegiemellontoday.com /article.asp?Aid=112; Word List, 2008, acrylic paint on wall, dimensions variable, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Jan Van Eyck, The Annunciation. Before 1435. Oil on wood transferred to canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA.; Red Cross (Painting), 2008, acrylic on canvas, 70x70", © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Installation view, exhibition:  RB 62-08, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; A Secret Desire Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Volitional State of Mind Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Particular Feeling Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Particualr Emotion Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Great Concern Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009, vinyl letters on wall, dimensions variable, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Something Only You Can Realize, 1970, vinyl letters, dimensions variable, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Red Cross, 2008 9detail0 cast acrylic, dimensions variable, 12 words, each letter 1 inch high, each letter approximately 12 inches wide, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York.