Journal Archive About the Journal

A Coinage and Some Spinach

Journal entry for 31 May 2010 | Link

Finally, the journal is running as a working Django project and all is right with the world. Anyone who linked to the older articles should know that those links have rotted, effective now. See the archive for the correct ones. Sorry for missing last week's entry. I'd like to say that I was developing the mystique surrounding Fugitive Ink, making her audience check in daily to see if new genius had been delivered. But really, I was just trying to grasp Django. Now grasped, cursorily but enough to build with it, I have become a fan.

You'll notice that this serves as my personal site as well. I hope that the integration of the two—something not possible given my old site and Artblog.net—makes it a little more clear about what's going on here, at least to me. The ads are gone. This also constitutes the first design update that my personal site has had in five years, which is an eon in Internet terms. It doesn't yet do everything that the old site did, but it will. The color scheme of tomato, ecru, and black and the typographic decisions are based on the cover art for Milt Jackson And The Thelonious Monk Quintet, Blue Note release #1509.

Altermodern Kicks

Two weeks ago Artnet editor Ben Davis put an essay on the site which reports that postmodernists are recognizing the weariness of their enterprise and trying to figure out what comes next.

Do we still care about postmodernism?

Maybe not. ...the conviction that the notion means anything serious is gone.

Thus, last year, relational esthetics guru Nicolas Bourriaud officially declared that we were now in a new era, "altermodernism." Svetlana Boym has called for a new movement, "off-modernism," to get around postmodernism’s deadlocks.

Rosalind Krauss has officially abandoned the position, in favor of the "continuance of modernism." Hal Foster, introducing a recent issue of October, noted that postmodernism had "run into the sand."

I asked two friends of mine, both working curators, if the term mattered to their practice. The answer was an unambiguous no. "It makes you sound like an undergrad."

Reading this makes me feel like a Mongol eyeing a collapsed section of the Great Wall. I recommend the essay (which I learned of from Paddy Johnson's Twitter feed) in its entirety despite its length. Probably no writer sympathetic to postmodernism in general and familiar with its literature has ever displayed so much self-criticism to a general art audience. As a practice, postmodernism is typically other-critical, not self-critical, which is its main distinguishing feature compared to modernism. (Krauss's call for a continuance of modernism makes me wonder if a long practice of other-criticism finally came home to roost.) The grumblings within the inner circles have clearly been going on for some time.

Davis would like to know what comes next, which is natural. He doesn't find much to work with. Most of the reformulations of postmodernism sound a lot like postmodernism.

These days, the art world’s trendy philosophies all suggest an interest in politics: the dilettantish political mysticism of Giorgio Agamben; the Maoist mathematics of Alain Badiou; the orotund autonomism of Antonio Negri; the gentleman’s anarchism of Jacques Rancière; the fitfully incisive musings of Slavoj Zizek. I take this as a hopeful sign of a hunger for some alternative to the more cartoonishly relativist theoretical "postmodernisms."

And yet, do any of these figures offer anything resembling a clear, historically rooted response to today’s problems, any graspable alternative vision of social organization or political strategy? I would say no. They are eccentric stars in the theoretical galaxy of postmodernism, but they are not outside of it.

Later:

Similarly, from October’s Fall 2009 issue on the concept of "Contemporary Art," I note that the dominant academic reaction to the "crisis of postmodernism" debate is a kind of haughty nominalism: The problem with "postmodernism," we are told, is that it was a theory that actually tried to characterize the situation; we should just celebrate the actual diversity of art and cultural practices. The funny thing is, in its hostility to explanatory narratives and implicit celebration of untotalizable micro-narratives, this program actually sounds a lot like what people used to call "postmodern."

Finally:

If the art world continues to recycle the same old anti-historic academic bullshit and chirpy gossip then it is going to continue to be a place of intellectual irrelevance and triviality that no one takes seriously besides the people who inhabit it.

Throughout the article Davis tries to make art align with political and economic movements, or more accurately, rhetorical framings thereof. That makes a certain amount of sense because it models the history of postmodernist thought. As someone working with the problem from the inside, he doesn't have much choice. I saw red flags as soon as I encountered this material for the first time in the mid-'90s, so I have always opposed it from the outside. But when the inside is strong the opposition of outsiders is heartening. It confirms in-group status. When the insiders want out, the game changes. Nevertheless they find themselves trapped there, unable to move out beyond the scaffolding that has supported their intellectual work (or what passes for it) for decades.

I hazard a prediction. Subsequent developments to postmodernism are going to keep getting absorbed into postmodernism as long as they continue to maintain the other-critical attitude. The next phase of art, continuing forward from self-critical to other-critical, is non-critical. Art becomes increasingly heedless of economic circumstances and politically gentle, concerned, when it shows concern at all, more with egalitarianism than complicated critiques of power. It involves objects because it has to on some level, but it's primarily striving for cooperative behavior—the artist's or the audience's. Without self-criticism to drive the work towards visual quality, artists in this new movement compete on scale. Modernists think of Picasso as the most important artist of the 20th Century. Postmodernists think the same of Duchamp. The new movement will anoint Christo. Its watchwords will be participation, collaboration, and interactivity.

Roberta Smith, covering Greater New York at P.S.1, wrote this past Friday:

...if the show has some exhilarating highs, they seem fueled less by art than by diffuse artistic energy, inspired curatorial power sharing and an inexplicable optimism. ... It pays lip service to all of the touchstones of the moment: collective art making, the ephemeral, audience participation, political subject matter, art as life, art as documentary, art as social interaction.

The main mission of “Greater New York” seems to be to prove from the inside out that not only is performance art the dominant medium of our time but also that aspects of it have infiltrated all other forms, including that of the art exhibition itself.

Dominated by videos, chockablock with performances and punctuated with other works that are in progress in some way, “Greater New York” has something of a viral, mutating organizational structure. Some of the selected artists have invited collaborators to work with them, or recommended others for the show’s performance program. The eight-page schedule mentions poetry readings, artists in residence (and office hours), collaborative performances, meet-up groups, open studios and rehearsals, and “an experiential durational happening.” It starts to sound a bit like summer camp.

The kicker:

It is rare to see a show that puts such faith in artists — or channels their generosity, imagination, passion and networking skills so deftly — while paying so little attention to actual works of art.

Meanwhile, in Providence, Greg Cook reviewed the annual grad student thesis exhibition at RISD.

...prominent installations in this year's showcase at the Rhode Island Convention Center ... of more than 170 students receiving graduate degrees give the shindig a carnival vibe. It's a celebration of sensation.

Epitomizing this is Laura Alesci's TLC. A sign on the wall says something about her installation containing a mix of pepper spray and tear gas. Opposite is a glass door revealing a glowing pink room. Walk in and mist (it made me cough, but I'm told it's safe) holds the pink light and hides the room's architecture preventing you from getting your bearings. As with 1960s Light and Space Art by James Turrell et al, there's a wondrous disorientation. You feel like you're existing in pinkness. And as your eyes readjust upon exiting, the rest of the world flashes green.

You get the idea. There are more environments to walk through, buttons to press, recordings to listen to, and videos to watch. Since someone has to label the new movement by insulting it, I hereby christen it Interactionism. It will not result in any great art—it will never summon the necessary internal pressure—but it will have the advantage of being engaging, if often in a contrived way. Where modernism was elitist and postmodernism was arch, Interactionism will be populist. Why are people waiting in line for upwards to eight hours for an opportunity to requite Marina Abramovic's stare? Why did the Starn twins build a jungle gym on the roof of the Met? They are bringing on the Interactionist future. Its fundamentally non-critical nature will dishonor postmodernism like modernism never could, although postmodernism laid the groundwork for it, just as modernism did for postmodernism. And I will not jump aboard that ship either.

Bannard Archive: It's a Wrap (For Now)

Although I've declared the Walter Darby Bannard Archive complete before, it turned out that there were some articles created in the 2000s whose absence became apparent to the author once we had attempted a complete chronology. I added eight more articles last week, all of them worth your attention. From a 2000 letter to Karen Wilkin:

Leo [Castelli] called me soon after and said he needed a slide of a painting ASAP for the announcement. I replied that I didn't have any slides but that was doing newer, more complex pictures, and I thought one of the drawings I did for them would be appropriate. Leo responded he had better come see the paintings. He did not sound happy.

From 2006, How I Did Not Get My First One-Man Show:

[My father] wanted me to be a lawyer. I dutifully went up to the door of the room at Princeton where the LSAT was being given, looked in, saw a bunch of guys I did not care for, turned around and left.

From his 2006 essay on George Bethea:

Ten years ago I wrote an essay for an exhibition of large painted collage by George Bethea in which I said that he is one of the very best artists of his generation and one that younger painters will have to come to terms with if they are to paint seriously and well. This exhibition, and much else he has done in the meantime, confirms this opinion. Furthermore, the congested surface and luxuriant color which characterizes this work is now shared by a number of excellent artists, enough to perhaps constitute a "movement," albeit one still well underground.

A piece with a title and a description that might cause you to overlook it, an application for a teaching award at the University of Miami, is full of useful insights about art and writing:

[Writing students] are instructed, beyond the usual textual corrections (which are applied liberally; I tell them only half-jokingly that to grade I weigh the blue ink) on the importance of drama, rhythm, clarity, brevity and humor, and, above all, that the writing, however bland or esoteric the subject, must have life, must be effective, must grab the reader and convince. It is suggested to read the paper out loud in front of a mirror or to to a friend. Jargon, cliches and "boilerplate" are clearly highlighted and "blue-inked" and it is explained to everyone that recognizing and eliminating triteness and dead usage is essential and why.

From a 2007 interview with Piri Halasz (whose From the Mayor's Doorstep is now a blog):

We were lucky in the '60s. The AE artists had "broken the ice" and set things up for us. There was a growing appetite for and excitement about innovative work, and there was plenty of it being done. There were sharp people like your Time-mate David Bourdon, a very likable guy and excellent interviewer who repeatedly asked me pointed questions which made me realize I had not thought as many things through as I supposed I had. There was Clem and his keen eye and constant encouragement. There was endless talk with smart artists who had good ideas. New critics, magazines, markets and galleries. New money. New materials. Endless invitations to lecture, judge, write. A real feeling of expansion, invention, of riding a big wave.

See also the 2006 catalog essay for his show at Edison College, the introduction for a book on Brian Rutenberg, and the 2009 version of Artbroken, which I daresay I had some influence on:

99% of everything we are was settled long before we even got started as human beings. Life has come a long way, and every inch of the journey had to be negotiated with our planet. The conditions of earth are literally part of us. Billions of small, insistent expectations are built in to our billions of neurons, and every one of them is an ancient lesson learned.

As usual I have to thank Chris Rywalt for his copyediting powers, without which most of these articles would be riddled with irritating errors. And that rather does complete the archive, save for new essays that I hope are forthcoming. Darby is seeking a publisher for a collected volume of these essays, which would benefit artists and art writers for generations to come.

New Work

It was a little too wet to photograph, but this is the latest completed thing in the studio.

Metropolitan Spring by Franklin Einspruch

Metropolitan Spring, 2010, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird likens the activity following a long creative fallow spell to an attack of amoebic dysentery. I see what she's talking about. (I hope that's no comment upon the quality of the product.)

Incorrect Spinach

Life begins on the day you start a garden, says the Chinese proverb. I've started other gardens before this one but none so elaborate. Two raised beds, each two by six feet, filled with a porridge of organic soil, compost, and peat moss. Tomatoes and peppers in one, spinach and nasturtiums in the other.

The spinach has grown a central flowering stalk.

Left: correct. Right: Uh oh.

I know that you don't allow most vegetables to flower, so I looked it up in my gardening book. It turns out that there's a term for it, bolting, and it gives the spinach a sharp taste. The book recommends snipping off any edible leaves and shearing the whole plant an inch over the dirt.

Hi-ya.

Gardening, I find, requires ruthlessness. I wonder if that's what the Chinese had in mind.

In related news, NPR did a story on an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden entitled Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers. Hence I also learned the term deadheading, which has nothing to do with Jerry Garcia.

"She tramped through the woods her entire life," [perfectly named garden designer Todd] Forrest says. "I have no doubt that she was out there deadheading, dividing. Any gardener is only happy when you're out in the garden pulling a weed or two, including dandelions."

This bit was lovely:

In something of a shock, Forrest made sure the mix of flowers included dandelions, a move that he says raised an eyebrow or two around the Botanical Garden. Long adds that they have to keep the staff gardeners from uprooting the tiny yellow flowering weeds.

"I know for a fact that this is the first time we've grown dandelions for a flower show," Forrest says. "But dandelions were very important to her. In fact, she referred to herself more as a dandelion. She felt more comfortable and more natural in the fields with the dandelions than she would in the drawing rooms with the fancy folks around Amherst."

And this:

"She used to bring her niece Maddy to her room and she would close the door and lock it, and say, 'This is freedom.'"

Amen.

Persian Miniature Painting Summer Extravaganza

This summer, three exhibitions at three Boston institutions will feature scenes from the Shahnama (the modern spelling, and better pronunciation, is Shahnameh, stress on the last syllable). The Shahnameh is a 45,000-line Persian poem from 1010 AD that provided an enormous quantity and richness of source material for painters, and this year we celebrate its millenary. Currently up at the MFA is Romantic Interludes: Women in Firdawsi's Shahnama. Heroic Gestes: Epic Tales from Firdawsi's Shahnama starts June 18 at the Sackler. A third exhibition about which few details are available starts July 6 at the Houghton Library at Harvard. I'm happy to report that I have an assignment to write about these shows for one of our local weeklies, slated to come out in early July.

On May 8, Mahlia Noorani, the Norma Jean Calderwood Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Islamic and Later Indian Art at Harvard (whew), gave a demonstration of Persian miniature painting to a packed gallery in the Sackler. The process is astonishing in its preciousness. The paper is buffed until pearlescent, the drawing applied with a tiny brush, and the colors mixed up on the fly using gum arabic as a binder and seashells as dishes. I shot a couple of images on the phone.

Much tender regard has been lavished upon the entire process of manufacture, not just the pieces themselves, which are often glorious. I won't say too much more, though, so I have something left for the article.

Sprouts

I've made a pleasant and potentially productive acquaintance with Sprout, which is part school, part meetup, and all sciency goodness. Last night I attended the first class of Exploring Math Through Computation, and Vice Versa: Geometry and Topology in the First Person. We had a great time drawing with Pynguin. The image below is a phone shot of my classmate's MacBook Air.

Reader Mail

A reader writes:

Bunny Smedley's excellent piece also makes these observations:

The fact remains that Tate Modern has achieved remarkable success in its own terms — attracting crowds, attention, funding — precisely because it has not allowed itself to become too distracted by art, while at the same time proving itself to be very good at something else entirely — at providing a series of fun, unthreatening, slyly flattering experiences for its many and various visitors, not a few of whom pass through its doors only in order to eye each other up, to strike poses of hipness or dandyish obliviousness, to keep restless children entertained or to enjoy a slightly expensive latte while enjoying the view across the Millenium Bridge towards St. Paul’s cathedral.

Tate Modern is, in this limited sense, very good indeed at what it does... Whether any of these things are worth doing is, of course, a rather different question.

Indeed. It eventually dawned on me, after considerable disappointment and frustration, that there was a perfectly logical reason why so much of the current art system or establishment seemed wrongheaded, perverse, absurd or irrational: it didn't care that it was and it wasn't trying to be otherwise; it was simply pursuing its own priorities for its own ends, which were clearly very different from mine. It would never satisfy me because that was never its goal. Satisfying people like me would require, to paraphrase Bunny Smedley, becoming too distracted by art as such and forsaking other concerns of much greater interest, concerns it is far better suited to pursue successfully and to do well. Hence my decision to pull the plug and let the system, such as it is, go its own way while I go mine. It took me long enough. Too long.

People like him are visual people. Here's something I wrote last week chez Ed Winkleman:

The growth in the size of the art market over the last thirty years depended on finding ways of involving people who don't possess high visual discernment. This has pushed a lot art into the verbal realm, which more people have access to than the visual. The vitality of such work lies in discussion, analysis, commentary, the narrative of the artist's life or intentions, social buzz about the artist—things that lend themselves to writing and talking. Thus we have an art world full of people who walk around on crutches as if it were the usual way to walk.

The important thing to realize about the system is that it's not the only possible one. As Bill Tuckey reports:

The artists at Pick Me Up are just the tip of an iceberg whose centre is probably located somewhere beneath the chewing gum-spattered pavements of Shoreditch or Dalston in east London. For these are the heartlands of a buzzing community of design and illustration graduates who, alongside their commissioned work, exhibit, collaborate, run print workshops and share news and ideas among themselves via a zillion earnestly compiled blogs.

There's something to be said for going Galt on the art world if it isn't working for you. I can't gainsay that notion, because in 2006 I voted on Miami's future with my feet. My former Miami gallery represented my work from 1993 to 2009 and I waited in vain for that entire time for either of the local contemporary museums to exhibit any painting by any of the gallery artists. That wait continues for the remaining painters in the stable, and I'm glad I didn't stick around to see if it would ever materialize. (For the record, you don't achieve exclusion that consistent and longstanding by accident. You do it by establishing policy.) It would amaze me if my absence affected any change whatsoever, but it did free me up to try other things. And that's the point—the trying other things bit. Withdrawal is no statement at all. A reasonable choice, but not a statement. Circumvention is.

A Reading

James Sturm, My (Probably Crazy) Plan To Give Up the Internet:

About a month ago, I started seriously thinking about going offline for an extended period of time. I weighed the pros and cons, and the pros came out on top. Yes, I want to be more present when I am around my kids and not be constantly jonesing to check my e-mail. But I also need to carve out some space for myself to make new work. Two years ago, I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for artists, writers, composers, and other creative types. Although the main lodge was wired, the studios were not, and for three weeks I worked on Market Day, a graphic novel, without any intrusions. (Lunch was dropped off by my door in a basket.) I realize that I can't replicate that ideal setting for sustained focus in my daily life, but I can certainly improve my current situation.