MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Glorified One

Glorified One, Leo Kenney (1945)

Glorified One, Leo Kenney (1945)

I was intrigued by the Stravinsky connection in this painting, currently on display as part of Seattle Art Museum’s Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical. Leo Kenney (1925-2001), a native of Spokane, belonged to the second generation of the Northwest School of painters.

He referred to “The Glorification of the Chosen One” section from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as the inspiration for Glorified One.

Writes the curator Patricia Junker: “Yet Kenney was well-versed in Christian scripture and might just as well have been invoking the idea of resurrection in the post-apocalyptic second coming of Christ. A creature appears to live within stone, the one remaining sign of life in a landscape of complete destruction, perhaps a symbol of hope — or it may represent the final sacrifice to plead for peace and renewal.”

The enormous influence of Stravinsky’s score on other composers — which continues to this very moment — is well documented. Associations between this period of his work and the “primitivism” and Cubism of his colleague Pablo Picasso are also frequently discussed in a more general way (usually in terms of their putative influence on the music rather than the other direction). But I’m curious now about how the music of Sacre specifically influenced particular visual artists. Any other candidates?

Filed under: art exhibition, painters, Stravinsky

Sigmar Polke’s Art of Perplexity at MOMA

Sigmar Polke

I didn’t allow myself nearly enough time during my last trip to MOMA to dig into the enormous Sigmar Polke retrospective currently on view. It’s titled Alibis — not a recondite Latin phrase, but the plural of “alibi,” as in an exculpatory proof of absence from the scene of a crime.

The MOMA introduction explains further that “Polke studiously avoided any one signature style or medium; his method exemplified the definition of alibi, ‘in or at another place,'” and additionally contains a political connotation: “Polke grew up at a time when many Germans deflected blame for the atrocities of the Nazi period with the alibi ‘I didn’t see anything.'”

Alibis is also almost absurdly huge: 250 works across a wide (and unpigeonholeable) spectrum of media created or conjured into being by Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). Born in Lower Silesia, the provocative Polke was roughly of the same generation as heavyweights Anselm Kiefer (a few years younger than Polke) and Gerhard Richter (9 years older) — but inarguably in a realm all his own, even if he never settled on an identifiable style.

As New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl puts it in his glowing review: “With caustic humor and cultivated mystery, he could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase, and even from piece to piece…” (The near-homonym of Polke’s name with “polka” only enhances the absurdist humor that’s essential to this artist’s aura.)

The exhibit’s first installation, sprawling across part of the atrium on MOMA’s second floor, immediately perplexes as to the intended “tone” as it offers a quick bird’s-eye view of four decades of the eternally distancing, ever-skeptical Polke’s work and “themes.” Not that the roughly chronological layout of Alibis really matters, given how wildly he can dart from one concept to the next: from puncturing art historical purism to complicating his critique of West German consumer culture — “Capitalist Realism” — with an ironic, Pop Art play on the Soviet dogma of “realism.”

And the tone really does perplex, as you travel from high ’60s performance art and Me Decade mushroom psychedelia to imposing glass panels painted with soot. Polke himself had begun collaborating with MOMA’s associate director, Kathy Halbreich, to design the show before he died of cancer in 2010. Doubtless he would have insisted on an even more enigmatic layout and wilder cross-connections; apparently Polke objected to the chronological convention followed here.

Holland Cotter’s New York Times review captures the weird mix of temperaments well:

Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.

Sigmar Polke, (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, private collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Sigmar Polke, Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, private collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The reception has been especially fascinating, more than usual. Talk about diametric opposition. Here’s Michael Pepi, maintaining respectfully objective attitude in The New Criterion:

Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur… [T]he current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display.

Jed Perl at The New Republic devotes a lengthy and intense piece to his disappointment: disappointment at what he characterizes as a tame, “sociological” presentation but, more importantly, at the phenomenon of Polke himself as a leading “pompier” of today’s art scene. He suggests some comparisons with Salvador Dalí: for both, “style is a put-on job, an act — but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority.” (Perl co-opts the avant-gardists scornful term for the slick and popular establishment painters they sought to subvert.):

The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity — or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity — as any exhibition I have ever seen… Pompier — and certainly the pompier of Polke — is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances… I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.

Lance Esplund at The Wall Street Journal finds himself even more repelled and has no doubt this is another example of the Emperor’s New Clothes:

Jester-of-all-trades, [Polke] was actually, according to the show’s curators, “masquerading as many different artists.” But instead of variety we get the same joke—dressed up here as a photograph; over there as a painting—played out over and over again… Deliberately disingenuous and ambiguous, Polke courted randomness through his appropriations and derisions.

Contrast that with Schjeldahl’s rapturous encomium:

[Alibis] is the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed.


Nearly everything he did reacted, somehow, against something. Celebrity was only one of the threats to the probity of his independence which required an emergency response. He was, and he remains, heroic.

And Maike Pollack at The Gallerist discovers a hopeful message as well:

Ms. Halbreich suggests that for the postwar painter, visual ambiguity represented a resistance to the ghosts of Germany’s wartime political narratives and the authority that accompanied them.

Polke’s paintings created a new terrain… In [his] chemistry and bubbles and ridged screens, we see the Internet with its endless depths of images welling up. What’s more, his paintings are not cynical; they re-enchant the world of images and the possibilities of picture-making.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition

Ballets Russes: “When Art Danced with Music”


Time to get in the mood for this weekend’s final subscription concerts of the Seattle Symphony’s season — and Ludovic Morlot has planned one hell of a program, with all three of Stravinsky’s blockbuster pre-WW I ballets.

I’m recalling the National Gallery of Art’s thought-provoking exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music last fall. The show gave a dazzling overall impression of the many different areas of creativity that the wizard Serge Diaghilev somehow managed to draw together (not without a massive amount of drama): composers, writers, painters, sculptors, costume and set designers, lighting artists, researchers, propagandists, and naturally musicians and dancers.

Diaghilev’s brain itself must have been a Gesamtkunstwerk. This was the way to out-Wagner Wagner, and Stravinsky certainly intended to do that.

The exhibition also probed into future connections, the way these artists set currents in motion that would give birth to Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism.

The always-brilliant Philip Kennicott points out that “the legend of the Ballets Russes was always a bit better — and better tended — than the reality of what the troupe and its lead artists left behind.” He offers this handy summary of what the lasting impact of the Ballet Russes as a crucible of experiment:

In less than two decades’ time, one sees the invention of something so familiar we take it for granted, the free mixing of commercial entertainment and more traditional forms of art, the valorization of branding and fashion within the intellectual realms of culture, and the troubling, persistent and essential fracturing of art into style and substance.

And it’s important to realize how much of Diaghilev’s legend became linked to the power of celebrity:

Much of what is on display falls into the category of holy relics: Costumes worn by dancers who are legendary names; programs and photographs and publicity posters from tours of the company that are still spoken of in reverential terms by those who remember or knew someone who was there. Theater, including ballet, invites hero worship, and there are many objects in this exhibition that appeal to our celebrity pleasure receptors more than our artistic ones.


[T]hat’s the difference between performance and the plastic arts. The allure of the former is all about the moment, the luck of being present, the willful illusion that magic is happening. Diaghilev sold that dream, perhaps more effectively than any impresario before or since.

Filed under: art exhibition, ballet, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

A Van Gogh Acquisition in D.C.

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Delirium: the state induced by a mere couple hours at the National Gallery of Art, my old home away from home in Washington, D.C. This time I was able to finally see the National’s most recent acquisition: Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, which Vincent van Gogh painted most likely mere weeks before his suicide in 1890. This marks the ninth van Gogh painting in the National’s collection, six of which are on view (along with another 11 prints and drawings that can be seen by appointment.)

Hanging in the same gallery as five other late-period van Goghs — Girl in White (1890) (also from Auvers) La Mousmé (1888), The Olive Orchard (1889), Roses (1890), and Self-Portrait (1889) — the new acquisition invites the viewer to make some very interesting comparisons. Both the sense of a mystical energy animating the landscape and the drive toward abstraction seem to me the most striking features here.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into the possession of the artist’s brother Theo and was sold to a Berlin collector in 1906, who later sold it to the great National Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon in 1955. Mellon’s widow, Rachel Lambert Mellon, was given rights of possession of this painting for her lifetime but chose to relinquish it to the National Gallery. What must it feel like to have such an intriguing masterpiece in your home (in Upperville, Virginia, for Mrs. Mellon), day after day? How does one make the decision to then “relinquish” it for the public good?

Notice where van Gogh places the horizon, the mirroring undulations of fields, flowers, clouds, road (or is it a river?). And the pulsating energy, reflecting an elemental joy despite the artist’s psychological condition at this moment in his life. Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the National, observes the following:

Because there is so little to read in the composition, the focus is on the color but even more so on brushwork — the clouds whipping around in spinning circles, opening out and closing in, van Gogh’s brush squiggling across the surface in long calligraphic strokes. The paint is applied in thick impasto, creating the marvelous textured surface of van Gogh’s best loved paintings. Through his dynamic touch and vivid, unmediated color, van Gogh expresses the intense freshness of this slice of countryside.

Filed under: art exhibition, art history

At the Frye: Tobey and Teng

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Currently on view as a counterpart to the Frye Museum’s Noguchi exhibit is Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai. The latter, more modest in scope, also attempts to break new ground in considering cross-cultural connections and impulses shared between artists.

The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) found himself at a turning point in his career when he discovered inspiration from the East. And, as with the Noguchi on display in the companion exhibition, a component of that inspiration was mediated early on by friendship with a Chinese artist. The friend in Tobey’s case, Teng Baiye (1900-1980), had moved to Seattle to study art at the University of Washington and met Tobey in the early 1920s.

Seattle was the city where Tobey had chosen to move in order to reboot his life and art after a disastrous attempt at marriage. (He eventually met his life partner, the Sweden-born Pehr Hallsten, in Ballard, according to one account.) Around three decades later, Life Magazine published its famous article hailing four “mystic painters of the Northwest,” which cemented Tobey’s image as a leading figure of the so-called “Northwest School.”

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives this glimpse into his mature work its focus. The younger Teng taught Chinese calligraphy to Tobey, who later visited his friend in Shanghai in 1934. But with the onset of the world war looming, Tobey lost contact with his friend and never heard from him again. Some very intriguing questions emerge from this juxtaposition: what interpretation of a complex traditional aesthetic did Teng mediate, and what role did this play in Tobey’s evolution of his characteristic “white writing” style?

The exhibit is also about mirroring, and the same should be asked in the other direction as well: what did Teng take away from his time in Seattle, what did he gain from his friendship with Tobey? The shocking fact is that we apparently have so little to work with. The two ink-and-paper scrolls on display represent the only works by Teng on display.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin
right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

Teng’s absorption of Western influences made him suspect back home as China struggled toward its postwar identity as a nation. Teng became a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was released from forced manual labor just a few years before his death. The vast majority of his artwork appears to have been destroyed — perhaps other works have survived in private hands, but the sparse knowledge we have is one of the points here. (Even the transliteration of Teng’s name has been maddeningly inconsistent among books in English, adding to the confusion over his legacy.)

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Meanwhile, as Life elevated Tobey to a new level of fame, questions about the identity of American artists in the postwar years were also taking on new urgency. But from today’s post-Cold War, global perspective, are we able to discover mutual influences beyond the mutual stereotypes of “East” and “West” that prevailed in the past century? As Tobey himself wrote:

Man today is challenged to extend his mental and spiritual horizons. Geographical barriers have given way before the light of science, invention and psychology. The great inventions that have demolished the former sense of special difference must await a new man who will use them positively. But this new will have seen a great light which burns away the barriers of prejudice and religious antagonism. The art of the future cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

At the Frye: Noguchi in China

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Variations on the East-meets-West meme are certainly familiar in art history, but the details really do matter. Take the case of Los Angeles-born Isamu Noguchi, the son of an “East weds West” union.

Noguchi’s hugely influential career as a sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer is usually examined with reference to the inspiration he found in Japan during his initial sojourn there in 1931. But the exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, which just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum, brings us fascinating insights about the impact of a very different Asian source: the fruit of Noguchi’s six-month-long visit to Beijing (then known as Peking) from July 1930 to January 1931.

Having spent some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim grant — where he worked as Brâncuși’s assistant — Noguchi was already developing a reputation with his abstract sculptures (and celebrity portrait busts to bring in cash). After returning to Paris for a show, he headed East but decided to make a lengthy detour from his intended destination of Japan and stopped in Beijing.

It was during this period of intense personal introspection that Noguchi was introduced to the master ink painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957). As had been the case with Brâncuși, they shared no mutual language in the conventional sense — Noguchi spoke no Mandarin, Qi no English — yet the young artist, in search of a father figure, discovered a remarkable affinity for Qi’s work. (During his deferred trip to Japan, he hoped to make a connection with his estranged real father, the writer Yone Noguchi.) They became friends, and Qi mentored Noguchi in the medium of brush ink paintings.

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis  Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

The result was more than 100 ink paintings known as the Peking Drawings. This exhibit, curated by Natsu Oyobe, is the first time a substantial number of these have been displayed alongside the work of Qi Baishi. “I did figure drawings, because that was what I knew how to do,” wrote Noguchi. “How ashamed I was of my limitations when I visited the painter Qi Baishi, whom I adopted as a teacher.” A selection of drawings created just before this life-changing trip is also on view, allowing us to assess the impact of Qi and other Chinese artists.

Especially striking is the difference in subject matter Noguchi chose, in contrast to the traditional themes of nature in Qi’s exquisite paintings: the human body, frequently nude, and mothers nursing or cradling babies in particular. In terms of scale, with their elongated dimensions, we can already see Noguchi’s later aesthetic foreshadowed.

In an essay in the fine accompanying catalogue, Lang Shaojun observes that “the basis of Noguchi’s painting remained essentially Western… His sketches are free and uninhibited, not subject to the constraints of a plastic realism associated with fine lines. Heavy ink sketching is superimposed on precise, delicate, realistic images. A layer of abstraction deconstructs and destroys the original sketch. The conscious intertwining of these two different methods creates a form-like body and its shadow, a shapeless non-shadow, an isomorph of a tangled national identity.”

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker pointed out during the press preview that Chinese scholars and art historians are keenly interested in this topic at present — and in the similar cultural cross-connections explored in the Frye’s adjoining new exhibit, Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai (to be discussed in a separate post).

“When you come upon your own culture mirrored in art through these sorts of connections, from another culture, it makes you see things you didn’t realize were there,” she remarked. Because of the disruptions of history and political developments over the last century, “what we are learning about these relationships now is on the cutting edge of scholarship.”

Birnie Danzker’s own essay in the catalogue, “Grabbism: 1930s,” underlines the larger implications of the young Noguchi’s confident borrowings and the productive line of questioning these open up:

The debate about the true nature of Noguchi’s drawings and sculpture from the 1930s and whether his work is closer in spirit to that of his teacher Qi Baishi or to that of the Chinese modernist Lin Fengmian is a fascinating study in how, after a century of cultural exchange between modern China and the West, the phenomenon of mutual “misreadings” of Western and Western art…now constitutes an integral part of the history of art.

–Thomas May

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

A (Re)Look at van Gogh

van Gogh, The Road Menders (1889), The Phillips Collection

van Gogh, The Road Menders (1889), The Phillips Collection

Another gem of a discovery during my recent trip was the Van Gogh Repetitions exhibit at the Phillips Collection, one of my old haunts in D.C. My initial reaction, I admit, was to wonder what kind of hook yet another van Gogh show could have, but the premise to this one really is intriguing.

Surprisingly, Repetitions is the first-ever exhibit devoted to van Gogh alone in the history of the Phillips, whose permanent collection boasts some very fine examples of his work. Its focus is not the usual one of the artist’s evolution over a span, punctuated by those highly dramatic episodes of his last years that are central to the van Gogh mythology. Repetitions instead invites the viewer to ponder the artist’s recurrent interest in certain subjects, setting multiple versions of a composition side by side for close comparison and contrast.

The Postman (1889) from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The Postman (1889) from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Van Gogh, we are told, himself used the term “repetitions” to describe his habit of returning to subjects such as Joseph Roulin (the famous “postman” of Arles) and the rest of his family, or Madame Ginoux (aka “L’Arlésienne”).

I would have liked a few of the missing pieces for fuller comparison (only three of his six versions of the Postman are actually gathered here). Still, the exhibit in general is attractively sized, with a total of just 35 portraits and landscapes — paintings and works on paper — and thus all the more conducive to intimate close-up viewing and “repetitions” of the viewer’s gaze.

THe Postman (1889), The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Postman (1889), The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The differences trigger a cascade of questions about van Gogh’s process, technique, aesthetic criteria, and inspiration in general. It’s fascinating, for instance, to see his presentation of his friend Roulin morph between “Northern” naturalism and more abstract, post-Impressionist patterns – or even to compare the echoing decorations he devises for the background.

By juxtaposing examples of spontaneity – as in the version of Madame Ginoux the painter said he “knocked off” in just an hour — against a more painstakingly calculated return to the same subject, Repetitions encourages the viewer to set aside the cliches still clinging to van Gogh’s public image (above all of the mad, self-mutilating genius).

L'Arlésienne (1888), version in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York

L’Arlésienne (1888), version in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York

Since I’ve been listening obsessively of late to the Goldberg Variations (for an upcoming piece on Jeremy Denk’s recent recording), I was drawn to the analogies with what composers do in mutating themes or similar motivic material – how changes in tempo, harmonic emphasis and color, or rhythmic articulation can reveal an unsuspected dimension to what we’ve encountered in another form. It’s perhaps nitpicky, but that’s exactly what these (re)visions of the same subject offer – not literal repetitions.

Van Gogh himself likened his process to varying musical interpretations of a score. The curator’s notes also draw attention to the musical qualities he associated with his theory of “color harmonies” – as in the changes introduced to the flowers in the background of La Berceuse (Madame Roulin rocking an invisible cradle), of which he produced five versions.

La Berceuse (1889), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

La Berceuse (1889), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What of the music van Gogh’s paintings have inspired? Somehow I have a feeling that the late Henri Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement (1978) gets us a bit closer to the complexity that is van Gogh than Don McLean’s sweet but sentimental “Starry, Starry Night.”

Filed under: art exhibition

The Vanishing

Alexis Rockman: Adelies (2008); collection of Robin and Steven Arnold

Alexis Rockman: Adelies (2008); collection of Robin and Steven Arnold

A new exhibit at the Whatcom Musuem in Bellingham, Washington, examines the specter of disappearing glaciers in this era of climate change:

“Vanishing Ice” … in its array of various mediums, conveys the beauty of alpine and polar regions—the pristine landscapes that have inspired generations of artists—at a time when rising temperatures pose a threat to them.

As the exhibition’s narrative tells, ice has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. The very first known artistic depiction of a glacier dates back to 1601. It is a watercolor depicting the topography of the Rofener Glacier in Austria by a man named Abraham Jäger. But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for artists, acting also as naturalists, to explore glaciated regions, fleeing the routine of everyday life for a jolting spiritual adventure. Their artistic renderings of these hard-to-reach locales served to educate the public, sometimes even gracing the walls of natural history museums and universities…The recent art tends to illustrate the disheartening findings of climate experts.
Patricia Leach, executive director of the museum, sees “Vanishing Ice” as a powerful tool. “Through the lens of art, the viewer can start thinking about the broader issue of climate change,” she says. “Believe it or not, there are still people out there who find this to be a controversial topic. We thought that this would open up the dialogue and take away the politics of it.”

Filed under: art exhibition, environment, science

Damage Control at the Hirshhorn

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand

My first trip back to the Hirshhorn after an absurdly long hiatus was well rewarded: I could have easily spent many more hours exploring the exhibition Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.

Harold Edgerton’s landmark films of the U.S. government’s nuclear tests in the 1950s launch the show. They set its underlying tone of dizzying terror mixed with a paradoxical beauty. The aftertaste this leaves – uniquely disturbing yet fascinating – is comparable to the old-fashioned aesthetic rubric of “the sublime,” as the critic Philip Kennicott aptly points out in his excellent Washington Post review:

Most visitors, conventionally secure in the magical belief that these weapons will never again be used, will find them beautiful in a limited, purely visual way. And that isn’t particularly strange: Since the 18th century, we have had an aesthetic category for this — the sublime — into which we place and contain things that are awesome, boundless, incomprehensible and beyond imagining. There is even a measure of old-fashioned pride in our love of the sublime: Look what man has wrought.

The end of the Second World War was seen to mark the “zero hour” – and the start of something ominously new after so much destruction and nihilism – yet no doubt in the coming year we’ll encounter many reminders of how consciousness was radically changed by the earlier cataclysm that erupted in 1914. And many of the exhibit’s works provoke comparisons with the recurrent theme of revolution and overthrow that has shaped modernity itself.

One of Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s notorious piano destructions appears in the vicinity of the films of nuclear detonation. The aftermath evidenced by these ruins of twisted wire and axed wood encourages the viewer to try to make sense of the rubble – perhaps even to imagine the sounds that could now be elicited from it. It’s ultimately a romantic gesture, an echo of the rock gods of the ’60s and the sacrificial offering of their instruments at the climax of a performance: as if to signify a point of extreme expression and release, after which …only noise or silence can rule.

One of the most profoundly unsettling uses of musical imagery occurs in Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag from 2000, a video piece viewed within a narrow gallery space. It shows the artist roping a Stratocaster guitar to the back of his pickup truck and dragging it mercilessly across a rural Texas landscape. The soundtrack consists of the instrument’s tormented screams, amplified from speakers strapped to the back of the truck. Marclay’s reference to the horrendous contemporary lynching of James Byrd is beyond chilling.

The natural life cycle of music – the birth and death of sounds – is distorted in ways that underline how utopian is the illusion of the artist’s control of material. I also found myself repeatedly thinking of the principle of entropy and the natural decay of order. Here and in many of the other installations, videos, photographs, and concept pieces, the glorification of violence from earlier in the twentieth century is turned on its head, forcing us to rethink the facile acceptance of destruction as part of the pattern of “progress.”

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Kennicott reflects on the ambivalence of destruction as metaphor and the political claims of art:

There is no readily agreed upon contract for when it is okay to destroy things in the name of art, but there are degrees of transgression and limits to the acceptability of consequences. There is a big difference between Rauschenberg’s asking for and receiving permission to erase a drawing by de Kooning and the vandalism of the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who painted cartoon clown and animal faces onto an original set of Goya’s 1810-1820 “The Disasters of War” etchings. In no conceivable universe is the loss of these Goyas compensated for by the trivial graffiti the Chapmans have added, which not only defaces them but further victimizes the victims of war Goya originally depicted.

One can generate elaborate justifications for vandalism to put it into seemingly acceptable art terms. Ai Weiwei may have destroyed an ancient urn (given what we know about China’s art market, there’s no certainty it wasn’t a fake), but only in the name of calling attention to the Chinese government’s systematic destruction of ancient neighborhoods and historical sites (and as a further criticism of the crazy, commercial race to own and exchange antiques). And the Chapmans may have been satirizing some underlying sadism in Goya’s work and perhaps the aestheticization of war through art as well.

Those arguments mean something only within the insular and deeply provincial space of the art world, where people still have an inflated sense of art’s power and often believe it can effect direct and revolutionary change in the world. The worst of what is on display in this exhibition is driven by the false belief that art can somehow compete with political power if it finds images or ideas or gestures that are stark enough, violent enough, to cut through the noise. In fact, compared with people who have real power — over armies, economies and the means of entertainment — artists have virtually none at all and are too often driven to a kind of futile rage through a vague sense of their own impotence.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history

William Kentridge and The Refusal of Time

William Kentridge: >i>The Refusal of Time: Dickensian "Elephant"

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time: Dickensian “Elephant”

After the Met’s recent revival of The Nose, I was eager to see The Refusal of Time, a 30-minute-long video installation by Kentridge currently being exhibited at the other Met. It was first unveiled at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012). Rumor has it that The Refusal of Time may feature in SFMOMA’s grand reopening in 2016.

The installation includes the “surround-video” effect of five films moving across the space of three screens, all enhanced by Philip Miller’s score of menacing tuba drones, breathing sounds, ululation, and what resembles an army of madly hammering Nibelungs. The soundtrack is projected through looming old-fashioned movie-set megaphones. The films involve images of relativistic metronomes, Kentridge’s characteristic animations and charcoal figures, and an eccentrically parade-dance of vaudevillean silhouettes.

The center of the space itself is dominated by a wooden contraption, a “breathing” machine-sculpture – part Victorian-industrial fantasy, part There Will Be Blood oil drill – that Kentridge explains was inspired by a description in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times of a factory machine “[moving] monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”

The installation’s title – it reminds me of a moralizing Baroque drama – meanwhile draws together reflections on the collision between “progress” and colonialism, automation, and the physics of time in the early 20th century. From the accompanying text:

Kentridge’s recent interest in the nature of time was given focus through the work of Peter Galison, a Harvard-based historian of science. Galison studied a 1905 paper on relativity in which Albert Einstein hypothesized that, due to the delay in signals relayed via telegraph wire, peripheral railway stations synchronized on a centralized clock were forever fated to operate seconds behind schedule.

Einstein’s nascent theories about the relativity of time converged with French mathematician Henri Poincaré’s development, as president of the Bureau des Longitudes, of global time zone maps at the dawn of the twentieth century. Both scientists faced the radical idea, in a newly industrialized and interconnected world, that time is not absolute but relative and resistant to control.


On the occasion of the opening in Kassel, Margaret K. Koerner published an interview with William Kentridge and Peter Galison. Kentridge explains how the work is linked to his recent Norton Lectures at Harvard:

The sixth Norton lecture took the process of making “The Refusal of Time” as an example of what the lectures had been talking about: of thinking through material, of allowing the impulses of an image or a piece of work to hold sway and see where they led. Live music was allowed to come into the lecture form at the end of the sixth lecture. The lectures, which started with Plato, end with a black hole. Even though we weren’t starting with Plato in “The Refusal of Time,” the shadow procession came back as well, and it also ends with a black hole…. The image you see at the end, those white holes going down and down, that’s the roll from a player piano. It is both music and information….

[“The Refusal of Time”] starts with: Is a black hole the end of time? As Peter [Galison] was saying, that is one of the questions that physicists consider. But as soon as you say, right, let’s start having things disappear into a black hole, it is an immediate jump to that being, as it were, a metaphorical description of death. Is any trace left when you are gone? Is there any information, attributes of you that still float around the edge? So it is both from the psychological, or the lived sense of, what is the balance between the finality of death and the continuation of attributes of people afterward?

Filed under: art exhibition, film, social criticism, video art, visual art

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