Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Art Spaces: Soho, Storm King, Dia, MOMA, Serra

Some rude pigeon pooped on Parrot's laptop, infecting it with diseases of the most various and unpleasant sorts. Five or six anti-malware program downloads later, the Winged Blogger is back in action, though not quite out of the woods. (My taskbar and start button only work now if I run a shareware program that fixes them every time I log in.) Parrot proposes to revive several levels of Dante's inferno for the people responsible for these nuisances: Level 1 for idiots who think it is just fun to write stuff that screws up other people's systems; Level 2 for adware and spam moguls and people who help them; Level 3 for Sony and Google and other MultiInational Information Control Freaks who invade your privacy for a living... Level 7 for Microsoft, who sells you junk that is susceptible to these invasions. Okay, I squawcked my piece.

A few weeks back the culture vultures lit down in Soho and did the 90-minute gallery tour. It wasn't planned that way - the plan was to do the 3-hour Chelsea gallery tour. But you know about the best laid plans of birds and men. Parrot, who is proud to be able to boast of being an art pro (sui generis, that is - squawck!) was fairly surprised to find that there are still 90 minutes worth of galleries left in Soho, which used to be the mecca of the contemporary art world until the Dia Foundation set up shop in west Chelsea, and everyone else followed. (At least I think that's what happened, but you can probably find alternate NYC cultural histories if you look around.) But there you go, more galleries than I could squeeze into a short afternoon.

Parrot first flapped into Lumas, a recently opened purveyor of photographic color prints in "affordable" editions. I particularly dug the Julia Christes and David Burdenys, found the Stefanie Schneiders a bit too emotionally distant, and hated the laminated surfaces of most of the displayed stock. More German photographers than you can shake ein dreipod at. The staff at Lumas is quite helpful and will engage you in conversation until you almost want to buy a photograph to make them happy. At the Multiple Impressions gallery on Wooster St. we admired the work of a young artist named Jennifer Scott McLaughlin. These days, if you want to invest in art, you grab somebody as they're heading out the door of an art school, still in cap and gown, with diploma in one hand and graduate project in the other, and purchase their best work for the price of a Korean car. Then you go home and pray for the next three years that somebody important discovers them. At Franklin Bowles galleries on West Broadway we were impressed with Gottfried Salzmann's washed and overlaid urban landscapes. No newbie he, but perhaps not as well known as he might be - none of the online art info sites I know of have him listed.

We hit a few other galleries, taking in everything from some fairly dull sculpture (but was it supposed to come to a point?), a bit of tromp l'oeuil painting that seemed to move with you as you passed by, and some neato-neo-surrealist stuff of a roughly Sgt.Pepper-cover sort. If the Boids had a few bucks to throw around we'd have come home with enough to cover the limited remaining wall space in our nest. Unfortunately, we have to leave art collecting to those who can afford it, at least until another thousand or ten people start clicking on Parrot's illustrious Lamppost, and the Googs start sending me some greenbacks. Wait a minute, I am a greenback...

Anyway, having caught the art bug (yum) we decided to take a longer flight. This time the birds were drawn to a Beacon, specifically that Beacon along the Hudson River where Dia has set up shop in a big old factory. Last year we winged it to the famous sculpture garden at Storm King, where we were primarily impressed by Mark di Suvero's
delicately imposing forms. We liked di Suvero's idea that these towering sheet metal abstractions could repair man's damaged relationship to the environment, and perhaps even to one another. How, exactly, remained unclear, but I think it has something to do with the the fact that we can feel their tonnage as lightly as we feel a Calder mobile, poised vulnerably in their spaces and thereby establishing an equality with our fragile forms. Read Heidegger on technology and you might get a sense of how this could serve to halt our very concept of our own civilization and its endless quest to conquer the environment. (I really didn't set out to write about the Storm King trip, but it was one of the adventures that inspired me to start this blog. Took quite a while before the plan was realized.)

More or less across the water is Beacon. We lit on the Dia in the afternoon, and were barely in the door when we were confronted with two rooms next to one another, each about the length of a city block. These spaces contained Walter De Maria's The Equal Area Series, which consists of many pairs of two silvery shapes, a circle and a square, set one after the other. In each pair, the circle and square have equal areas. But the area of each set differs from that of the previous one, in such a way (according to the artist) that in one room, the pieces counteract the narrowing effect of distance, while in the other they enhance it. (I suppose if you make the unforgivable mistake of approaching the exhibit backwards the effects are reversed.) This opening salvo heralds one of the M&M themes of Dia: Math and Materials. Obsession with mathematical relations is everywhere, like you stepped through the door of a Pythagorean oracle. One artist after another is described as being "fascinated with numbers" or something like that, and the "conceptual" in their art is partly based on the philosophical that these mathematical relationships are solid and real and permanent, for all their abstraction. Like art. Tsa. (An expression one of my acquaintances used to use, meaning roughly "over and done with!" Parrots like expressions to be short and sweet.)

The mathematical theming of Dia's "conceptual" art is often reflected in the strongly geometrical nature of the works, which is nowhere more abundant than in Sol LeWitt's wall drawings. Sometimes entitled according their mathematical concepts, these unbelievably anal works cover entire large walls with finely ruled pencil markings. Ranging from simple ideas like "Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, covering the wall evenly" to complex concepts involving midpoints and arcs and whatnot, these works often shimmer with fantasized colors as our visual mechanisms try to come to terms with the unimaginable division of white spaces. Undeniably impressive, conceptual by definition, these works for me nevertheless seem closer to what is usually labelled "outsider art" - which is for the most part art by people with various DSM III illnesses - the ones who build incredibly detailed temples out of aluminum foil or cover the sides of barns with inscriptions that only they can decipher. One can imagine LeWitt, who has recently departed this life, trying in the next one to dig a hole to China with a spoon.

In fact, Michael Heizer has supplied Dia with something of a beginning to this project, a large space composed of four large, variously shaped holes in the floor. The holes might well be the result of surrounding another of Dia's illustrious art spaces with concrete - I mean Richard Serra's towering curved walls. These rusted metallic sculptures have become something of an artworld icon. Serra is touted as "a titan of sculpture, one of the last great modernists" - by no less than NY Times art critic Michael Kimmelman (6/1/07 p.E25). Serra is all over the place these days, with a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), a large permanent installation at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (you know, the art space designed by that other ubiquitous supporter of steel prices, Frank Gehry) and plenty of recent exhibitions at major spaces like
the Gagosian Gallery. Serra's work is sometimes explained in terms of its psychological origin, e.g., that he worked in steel yards. The artist himself has pointed to his experience seeing the hull of a ship raised as the origin of his ideas. That is interesting, but of course nobody outside the Duchamp school looks at rusted ship hulls as art, so the next stop is to talk about the fact that you need to move around in Serra's works to observe them, or that it is not physically possible to take in an entire work at once. "They're too complicated; from the outside you don't know what the inside is like, and vice versa", says Kimmelman in his review, adding that really "there is no inside or outside". That's good, but the same is true of the shell of a condemned building. Which might be made into art - through murals, graffiti, photography, etc. - but I don't think anyone is inviting graffiti artists to help out Serra's iron maidens.

What the critics are getting at is that Serra's work forces observers to use their imagination - to envision the work in their "mind's eye" even though it is right there in all its massive ferrous presence (or is it ferric? neither, I think; thank god for high school chemistry). As Kimmelman again puts it: "What matters in the end are your own reactions while moving through the sculptures, at a given moment, the works being Rorschachs of indeterminate meaning" (p.E28). But in my HO, for a leading art critic to write this without blinking is pretty scary. Because this applies to not only abandoned buildings but any object under the sun. This is Duchamp (or George Dickie) aesthetics on stilts: it's art if you put it in a museum, and it says whatever you make it say, and it means what you want it to mean. Okay, thanks, Richard, Mike... Aesthetic Relativism 101 is dismissed, see you next week.

This is not some isolated issue about the value of recent works by one contemporary artist. Serra's Tilted Arc (1981) is often pointed to as a turning point in the debate over public art. His description of the work matches pretty much what we have been talking about:
"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes." ( Serra's work was eventually removed and destroyed by court order. This criminal act of "justice" was clearly based on the idea that public complaints about the inconvenience of walking around Tilted Arc and other lowbrow issues carry more weight than our cultural heritage, even when ithe latter consists of several tons of steel. But the travesty of judicial idiocy and the closed minds of Federal Plaza secretaries do not settle the question: what is the value of this art? For if it indeed has no meaning of its own then I don't see why anyone should give a hoot whether it was removed or not. Somebody put it there; somebody can take it away. Why did they put it there? There had better be a reason.

This reason is not provided by the relativist idea that art is just a kind of prop
that you use to "play games of make-believe", as Kendall Walton puts it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem, "A Coney Isalnd of the Mind", which begins with a war image from Goya and then paints a picture of suburban post-War America in which he imagines the insipid images of billboards and superficial suburban bliss as a re-enactment of that suffering in a different form. A "Coney Island of the mind" is what Walton and Kimmelman seem to think art is; a Torqued Ellipse is a good place to play splatter-paint games with your imagination. But Ferlinghetti's poem suggests that Coney Island is a troubled place and the artist is not a roller coaster operator but a tightrope walker without a net: he is "constantly risking absurdity/and death/whenever he performs/above the heads/of his audience"; moreover he must do this "all without mistaking/ any thing/ for what it may not be" (#15). Roughly: art uses our illusions of who we are to reflect back to us who we really are: our sometimes ghoulish, soulless banality, our paranoia, our inhumanity.

Now my guess is this: Serra's superficial description of Tilted Arc does not reveal his true hand as an artist; that, rather, partly comes out in his response to its demise:
"I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people" (same source). Certainly not from the 20th century onward. Art is not democratic, and it does not therefore suggest that whatever we think it means, then by definition, that's what it means. It is not an amusement park of the mind. It is a tightrope act, and with Tilted Arc, Serra did not so much fall as he was knocked down by the chorus of boos from people whose culture is defined by the Burger King across the street. But I don't know what poses the greater danger: these inanities from below, or the relativist interpretations from above. Serra's works are terrifying, they threaten to fall, they threaten to capture and destroy you, they separate you from your sense of direction and balance and purpose and wrap you in mystery. They are metallic forms of vertigo; they separate spaces from one another so that you cannot rejoin them with your senses, and the fact that you can do so with your imagination is small consolation for their disorienting message. They mean precisely what they are, and precisely not what you want them to mean.

But no great art is so one-dimensional as to have merely a negative meaning
. In the fact that they do not fall, that they do not trap and destroy you, that they do, as Serra says, respond to changes in your viewing position, they reintroduce a kind of humanism just when it all seemed to be headed down a black spiral vortex. You can touch these works; you can smell them; you can even hear them. Consciousness is vast, strange, confusing; perception is local, tangible and more or less well-behaved. The small grain of truth in the relativist perspective is that it is up to each of us to take what opportunities we can to restore what we have lost. And what is that? Perhaps the innocence that fled as the modern era of communication, transportation, nuclear nightmare and genocide unfolded. Serra's sculptures are the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration, shards of our existence left when all is destroyed. But they are just as much the prevision of that event, allowing us to reflect on it before it happens. They are the walls that separate us but also the smooth curves that let us flow together; the shadow over us, and the noir film that still lights the theater - and which we can edit by wandering through the theater. Like Mark di Suvero, his enormous, desnse compositions can be taken to Coney Island, where they have no weight at all. They give us the present as it is, but also the future as it might be. The former we can't control; the latter is all up to us. (Anti-Relativism 201 is dismissed.)

Serra is one of the outstanding examples of the second of Dia's two themes, the aesthetic use of the sensual properties of materials. Throughout Dia we find materials speaking for themselves: piles of broken glass, enormous stones, the color variations of sheet metal and the tree ring patterns on plywood. Donald Judd is another highly influential exponent of this school, and he is represented here in part by an installation of plywood boxes. Their polished surfaces undulate with natural tree-ring patterns that seem to express some sort of pulsating energy inside. Having just bantered about Serra I'm not going to do Donald Judd right now (or maybe ever) but the two of them sort of lead the second pack: the material guys. And what does all this have to say? Think about it: you've got the math guys, and the material guys. Mathematical relations are usually thought of as being immaterial, but fixed, unchanging. Stone and wood and glass appear to be extremely hard, solid but in fact they are transitory. The fixed immaterial and the transitory material... what binds them together in Dia, the postmodern space par excellence? The fact that the artist submits, in part, to qualities that exist outside, beyond her control; and this is the window through which the observer, in all his relativistic exuberance, can enter and direct - up to a point. The observer can bind to the works through the universality or apparent permanence, but must then try to understand how the artist means to use these properties.

That is, if the "art" is really worth anything, the artist does not merely assemble and sign off. Something is being said here, otherwise it ain't art - or if you prefer, it ain't good art (and this sentence either ain't English or it ain't good English). One thing I insist on is that mere flowery descriptions of Serra and his aesthetic, or Donald Judd and his, or Gerhard Richter and his grey glass, or Robert Smithson and his, such as we find in much superficial art criticism and commentary, does not make it art/good. The works say something or they don't, and if not, goodbye. What they say doesn't have to be obvious, or discernible without the artist's input. Part of what made me appreciate the Di Suveros was a film on his work that was showing at the main building at Storm King. Di Suvero makes no pretense, as some artists do, that his work has no meaning. People have meaning; people who do art funnel their meanings through artistic expressions, and filter them through the conventions of the artworld. Never believe artists who says their work has no meaning; or rather, treat this pretense as just another part of their art.

I should not leave Dia without mentioning that there are some rooms there that do not seem especially indebted to mathematerials. Then again, paint is a material, a point that I'm sure is not lost on Donald Judd or his school. There are paintings here that appear to be solidly in the abstract tradition - a stunning space full of Agnes Martin's work, large, striped canvases of washed-out pastel colors, with names like "Love", "Happiness", "The Sea", and - most commonly - "Untitled". Sometimes life makes one want to just crawl inside one of these works and fall asleep. At the other end of the color spectrum lie the much smaller works of Blinky Palermo, whose installation consists of several canvases collectively entitled "To the People of New York City". Their iridescent reds and yellows (labelled "cadmium") bring to mind another straightedged homage to the Big CrabApple, Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie". I'm afraid I don't really see any conceptual relationship between these works and the Dia's M&M artists. Though there is plenty of bridge work: Warhol, for example, whose silkscreen method is in a way a median between the deliberate application of paint and the appropriation of existing materials; or the amazing chamber of John Chamberlain, whose metallic sculptures are largely obtained from automobile junkyards, but in some cases offer stunning bursts of color. Color here is not a property of the material - but then again, it is, insofar as the material is an already painted object. The colors appear to say: "We are not Art Museum Colors; we are not Mother Nature's Colors; we are Automobile Paint Shop colors! But we appear very natural, don't we? Are we worse just because we're different?"

Well, color is to mathematics as paint is to material. Or so it seems; but many philosophers, from John Locke on, have thought that color is merely in the mind of the beholder. That is, merely like beauty. A good, if somewhat relativistic, note on which to end this essay.

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