Archives for posts with tag: De Stijl

Kandinsky

Last night I heard a reference to Gesamtkunstwerk on the PBS Idea Channel available on YouTube. This morning The Globe and Mail contained an article by Russell Smith that referenced the same thing. I always enjoy a good coincidence, a pleasure I share with André Breton. I recommend his book Nadja. It elicits an aesthetic appreciation of coincidence, and once you’ve developed the habit of noticing such things, there’s a world of accidental art to be explored. Breton was an arrogant bastard, but I like him in spite of his faults.

The problem is, if you begin to suspect a real connection within a coincidence, its beauty begins to drain out. I’m not talking about the one world, all and everything, cosmic consciousness, clear light, nirvana kind of connection. That’s a whole different, perfect beauty. That doesn’t drain anywhere, it’s already there. I’m talking about causality, which ruins everything.

So it may be the case that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is fashionable right now, and as a fashion victim, I’m also trying to write about it. Wagner is associated with the idea, but let’s consider Wassily Kandinsky, author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), who was somewhat of a Theosophist, a synesthete, and the painter of the world’s first abstract, or non-objective painting in 1910.

From the very beginning there were various understandings of ‘abstract art’. It was something spiritual for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but formal, and a touch political, for Malevich and Tatlin. Today the term seems totally empty and its only reference is historical. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter anything written about the centenary of this event. It would have been fun to read.

This is where I would build a case for some kind of non-coincidental connection between synesthesia, or the desire for it, and the Gesamtkunstwerk. But I really don’t feel like it. I don’t sense any worthwhile aha in a conclusion

It’s claimed that Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, and Vladimir Nabokov also lived with synesthesia. That might be interesting, then again, I don’t think so. It’s not a good coincidence.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, untitled, watercolour, 188 x 196 cm., 1910, collection of Paris, Musee National Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. As far as I know, this is the first abstract painting in the Western tradition.

williams-web
I’ve just discovered an interesting artist, Alan Uglow, thanks to an article by Gregory Williams in The Brooklyn Rail (Image courtesy of Brooklyn Rail) The painting on the right is from 1994, the serigraph “portrait” of the painting is from 2000.

This was going to be about Uglow and me and possibly Gerhard Richter and how copying your own work is a way forward from appropriation, the arbitrariness of subject matter, and the general flatness of everything. Then I got upset.

The problem started when I searched for Sherrie Levine to confirm she was the one who did rephotographing. That’s when I stumbled on this painting of hers, part of a series completed between 1987 and 2002. This particular one is from 1988.

Sherrie Levine plywood

So why am I upset?

I made these two plywood knot paintings in 1993, and called them The Things at the Edge of the Universe 1 and 2, 45″ x 50″ and 15″ x 26″.

edguniv93 45x50

thgsuniv93 15x26

So of course they have something to do with appropriation and how it is related to the difficulty deciding on subject matter when all things seem equal. They are ‘found’ compositions to some extent. All I had to do was colour them in.

We’re living on a very smooth plain, it’s difficult to find things sticking up enough to warrant sincere attention. This also has a bearing on attitudes to copyright, which is the reason everything I publish has been under

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

But there is more. These two paintings are not just about appropriation, the lack of reasons and commitments, and the act of choosing itself. The latter two were well covered by Warhol and Duchamp respectively. The first one, appropriation art, is mainly a rehash of Warhol and Duchamp’s ideas taken to their end point. When youthful spite subsides, it’s time to respect your tradition. That’s the only way to change it. (T. S. Eliot, more or less.)

These two paintings have rounded corners, mildly suggestive of cathode ray tubes, what TV’s looked like in 1993. They are covered in very scratched quarter-inch plexiglass which elevates visibility to a second simultaneous picture plane. The plexiglass has a gridded array of holes drilled in it for finishing nails and the occasional screw. The grid is not square with the sides of the work, which gives the grid some tilt, but no vanishing point.

The nails hold the layers together, but they are also visible objects that travel through all the virtual objects generated with paint and scratches. Nails as wormholes perhaps, the things at the edge of the universe maybe – and all along we thought it was the painted knots. “Ha ha”, as Bosse-de-Nage the dog faced baboon would say. (Please refer to Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician).

For the most part I don’t mind obscurity, but there are times when it’s frustrating. Frustrating because I feel compelled to defend and explain my work when I come across things that look quite similar – plywood knot paintings for example. But as Mosheim apparently said, “Renown is a source of toil and sorrow; obscurity is a source of happiness” [I got this from  J. W. Von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Washington and London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), p. 6. And I have no idea who Mosheim is.]

Thankfully, I think it’s possible to feel schadenfreude for my own misfortune. Grimly satisfying wound licking isn’t half bad. While flattering myself that my work measures up to his, I can easily imagine myself in the circumstances of Kurt Schwitters. He said we shouldn’t worry about his obscurity and poverty because he knew very well how important he was. And he is important – his shadow continues to grow, just as Picasso’s shrinks. Therefore, I will not be bothered by the fact that I seem to have made a career of being overlooked and underestimated.

mz-231-miss-blanche-1923
http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kurt-schwitters/mz-231-miss-blanche-1923

1923 – and it contains seeds of almost all the ‘retinal’ art that follows. (“Retinal” is a reference to Duchamp’s pejorative term for all art that isn’t ‘conceptual’, for lack of a better word. It seems to me though, that visual art would use a retinal vehicle.) And looking at this one humble collage from 1923, I know I have a lot of work to do. The insidious influence of theory still drives me, I’m not retinal enough.

Sherrie Levine has made her career as an “appropriation artist”. She came to my attention in 1980 when she rephotographed pictures by Walker Evans and showed them as her own. It was a brilliant choice because Evans was such a damned earnest photographer, living in a time when artists really thought they were making a difference (aesthetic, political or both) – Schwitters, John Heartfield, Rodchenko, and so on. Levine’s move was a refreshingly bitter thing to do.

I’m sympathetic with appropriation, and in the 1970’s I tried my hand at it with a series of one-piece collages. From time to time, from 1976 to 1999, I tore things from newspapers, magazines, brochures, and maps that appealed to me, mounted them and signed them. These two are both coincidentally from 1979. I picked them because they look nice on my computer screen.

collage 1979

collage map 1979

Seeing that map once again makes me think it would make a great painting – a little bit of a Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series thing going on.

Richard_Diebenkorn's_painting_'Ocean_Park_No.129'
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Diebenkorn%27s_painting_%27Ocean_Park_No.129%27.jpg

My use of appropriation was sour grapes and cleverness to some extent, but it still had a hint of vicarious escape from media saturation in it. I took back the initiative, the choosing, I was less of a passive consumer. That was the do-good, Schwitters part, but that’s hardly adequate.

Appropriation is basically a rehash of Conceptual and Pop art. It is the blindingly obvious thing to do after Duchamp and Warhol. It’s also a one-trick pony to establish an art career – but if you keep doing the same thing for long enough, you’ll probably get famous. Morris Lewis demonstrated it and General Idea satirized it. As far as appropriation goes, I couldn’t be bothered with anything more than some scrap booking – there are so many other things to think about.

So much for being vexed, and onto the matter of copying your own work. I have three rules for art making: It needs charm, it acknowledges its roots in a tradition, and it contains some other idea, hopefully a new way to see or understand something. That’s a tall order, and I know I don’t always succeed.

In 1977 I propped a book on the arm of a chair. It was open to a photograph of Marcel Duchamp taken by Alfred Stieglitz and I photographed it. I then signed and dated the photo. If art were physics, then Duchamp’s Law would be, “The art of a thing is the choice.” I chose Stieglitz’s photo to be my art.

Levine’s photos of Evan’s photos are more pointed – they’re just the photos with no surrounding context, they’re about appropriation, pure and simple. My photo is polluted with context: the image, the book and the chair in my living room – frames within frames. Besides appropriation, it’s also about my sense of being on the outside, looking through a window into the art world, like watching a family dinner while standing in the snow. Art students sometimes feel that way, very Dickens.

Duchamp 1977
I also enjoyed signing the front – photographers rarely do that.

I 2000, I photographed my photograph and printed it on enough paper to write a screed. It was intended to be amusing like my Artist Statement from a previous post.

Duchamp 2000

It says, “I don’t think Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine are Postmodernists. I see them as Academic Modernists, Duchamp’s epigoni reworking the readymade concept ad nauseum. My student work of 1977 reflects the same concerns: I accepted what I was taught about permissible museum-grade transgression. To a certain extent, Modernism seems to have been about the quiddity of art itself. Assuming this problem has been solved, and as far as I know, it hasn’t, the next logical step is the quiddity of quiddity. Unfortunately this issue is extremely abstract, and artists are better applied than theoretical philosophers. Instead, let’s suppose for a moment that some point would be served if we were to force historical facts into a dialectical process. This granted, the next dialectical step is to reconsider the ideas negated by Modernism. Notwithstanding De Stijl and Earthworks, (because historical facts must be carefully chosen) the negated ideas are the Beautiful and the Sublime. The other next dialectical step is to chose the particulars of Modernism which need to be negated. Let these be transgression and the logical model of art practice. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that my dialectical thinking has discovered the possibility of a post Modernism. It only lacks a name.”

This definitely illustrates that I had developed some hostility towards theory.

Not much more to say. Here are three related works:

barrel collage 1979
One-piece collage, 1977.

barrel drawing 1999
Pencil drawing, 1999.

barrel photo 2000
Photograph, 2000.

Nasonex

ARTIST’S STATEMENT,
IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT
THE “ARTIST’S STATEMENT AS BUSINESS LETTER”
HAS BECOME A STANDARDIZED LITERARY FORM
THAT BEARS LITTLE RELATION TO THE LONG TRADITION OF
“THE ARTIST MANIFESTO”
YET, IT (THE “ARTIST’S STATEMENT AS BUSINESS LETTER”)
TRADES ON THE GLAMOUR OF A SUPPOSED CONNECTION

By Stephen Eric Armstrong, artist, January, 2001

Numerous boxes that market and protect things like pharmaceuticals, soda crackers and nails enter my home. I have been saving these boxes, carefully undoing them, and then painting them. This process:

1. Redeems (almost Biblically) commodified objects to a context of personal value by way of laborious embellishment with gesso and paint. Late Capitalism’s colonization of the individual is reversed by the exercise of taste. Artists must be earnest and diligent if they are to succeed in the great task of ideological intervention. We are not to be envied in this hard work.

2. Plays with the fundamental notion that a painting is a flat thing that offers a virtual, or apparent, volume. The boxes were not flat when I found them, but of course, they were flat at some earlier time on a factory floor somewhere, but this is irrelevant because the point is, they were designed to be folded and glued, or possibly stapled, and not be flat, and when most of us encounter them they aren’t flat, and we don’t generally understand them as being flat, but I made them flat and then I painted them to suggest illusory volumes of celestial proportions. But, simultaneously, and contradictorily, these illusory volumes look like nothing more than paint on cardboard. These paintings demonstrate the letter of Clement Greenberg without the spirit, or the spirit without the letter, or perhaps neither, or even both. Moreover, they could equally be regarded as Minimalism deconstructed. There is a lonely grandeur in such subtleties.

3. Celebrates the ordinary, that inevitable place where we all live. The boxes document the private life of a household as it is reflected in its consumer choices. Marx said that commercial relations falsify human relations – this process needs to be turned around, and this can only be accomplished by remembering who we are – we the people, who truly own this world. These boxes are cargo-cult totems for personal lives lost in global commercial culture. They reclaim a folk tradition and re-integrate the individual into meaningful social constellations. (see #1)

4. Sets up a figure/ground tension on a painted surface that has no clearly discernible figure on a ground, and is, indeed, only ground and nothing else. This tension is achieved by way of the peculiar shapes of the boxes. The shapes cause our perceptual mechanisms to seize upon the entire painted surface as a figure, while the ground becomes the framing materials I suppose, or even the entire world in which the figure exists. These paintings deny the figure/ground relation, but by so doing, export that relation into the real world, becoming in the process, virtual sculpture. (see #2)

5. Etc.

Originally published in Wegway No. 7, Fall 2004.

(But I still find it kind of amusing and worth putting out there again. I initially wrote it to accompany a two person show I had at the SPIN Gallery in Toronto with Gary Michael Dault, but I only ever received one comment about it. Happily it was someone who thought it was funny. So basically, nobody read it, and I suppose in a way that was part of the point. Who, after all, actually reads the dreck usually found in artists’ statements? Roy Lichtenstein said, “ Philosophers rarely, if ever, create art and artists’ philosophy is equally moronic. What artists think they are doing and how they are later seen is always in contradiction; witness the writings of the Futurists, Purists, and even Mondrian.”* A bit harsh perhaps, but more or less true.)

(I might write a future post that compares the above quote with something Susan Sontag said)

(I might also write a future post about the hot conflict between the Formalist Party (items 2 and 4 in the artist statement) and the Ideological Interventionist Party (items 1 and 3). The Formalists are presently in a minority position)

*Roy Lichtenstein, “Interview with Philip Smith,” Arts Magazine (November 1977), p. 26.

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