Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Spiraling downward: From Minimal to Material

Stella Zambezi series
Robert Linsley's  New Abstraction has an interesting blog post on the notion of symmetry, that got me thinking about several of the artists that he mentioned, as well as an earlier blog on Stella, who is his “main man” in Modern painting.  This is what I wrote on his blog:

“I was thinking lately about Richter in terms of the timelessness of his work. By that I don’t mean the timelessness that would be used to describe the Neo-Platonic art of the Early Renaissance but rather a lack of time. Haacke’s closed system has a sort of circular time. It is as you say a closed system that keeps repeating two different states of being. Similar to
Stella’s “Zambezi” that you commented on in another post that to my eye draws the eye in and out in a constant repetition. Richter’s painting is just one event that cannot circle back like Stella’s and although his works literally “hold up”, they risk and do at times descend into pure materiality. This embrace of the material results in what I would call art that is “time poor” to transpose a Heideggerian notion of “world poor”. This applies to the work of someone who appears to be a Richter neophyte, Dan Colen at Gagosian. I wrote about Richter and Stella on the occasion of last winter’s show of my work with Pollaro in Boston, where I talk about the materiality of Richter but this notion of time is new and I think relevant to the understanding of his work.”


It appears that Richter wants to stop time to impress one event on the viewer to such a degree that it eliminates any consideration of what came before or after. Paul Pollaro referred to it as a kind of neon blast. Gone is the role of the imagination, which might evoke memory, or the role of symbols that could point to an inner structure of consciousness that shapes the present. It is like a TGV passing by so quickly you cannot even see it as a fixed entity. Serra’s charcoal drawings have that kind of powerful presence. They capture a one/two punch in a heightened version of push/pull.

Serra charcoal drawing

“To seal becoming with the character of being. That is the supreme 'Will to Power' “. This statement by Nietzsche might be of help in sorting out what these modern artists are after. What it means is the following: Will to impress emphatically the individual presence in such a way that its power eliminates any other entity being part of the whole. In the end there is the winner and the winner creates or pushes into the background or rather completely out of site the loser.

 It is such a twisting of the original meaning of being and becoming: The source of Being in the Greek world was “The one” that existed beyond this world and in a strange way was the origin of this world. But it was hidden from the world and not of easy access. The world we live in is a world of becoming, of beings (small b) coming into existence and passing out of it. It is therefore a world of life but also of the decay of that life. In the NeoPlatonic work of the Renaissance mystics like Ficino referred to this world as the sub-lunar world which the individual had no control over. Individuals were subject to the blind laws of the stars and pulled by the moon toward death. 
Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"

Some of the great works of art such as the "Birth of Venus" by Botticelli were created as magical talismans to give the patrons such as the Medici’s power over such maladies as melancholia. According to the astrological notions of the time melancholy was influenced by Saturn and the only antidote to it was to channel the goddess Venus. The goal was to get beyond (transcend) this sub-lunar world by accessing the divine powers.

Piero della Francesca

This transcendence was not achieved through an act of will but by knowing the right prayers or alchemical formulas or in the case of art to use the right proportions, colors and geometrical shapes. In short, a kind of knowing to achieve harmony. How different from Nietzsche’s formula, which opens the door to limitless assertion of power. It is not a statement that encourages relationships and harmonies but aggressive stopping of any alternative except that which is imposed by the “Will to Power”.

Al Held
de Kooning

Self-assertion in the work of early Al Held pushes stuff into the background. This is also true in a lot of de Kooning’s work. At least there is a relationship in that on the canvas the oppressed shapes are still seen. Late de Kooning  enters a realm of pure movement. Richter shows nothing eliminated. There is just this eternal present of pure movement.

Late de Kooning

But the risk or rather the goal is that the assertion of will is not enough to hold up the material that is used to make the painting. This is the case of the work of Dan Colen.  I had a good laugh when it was pointed out to me by Paul Pollaro that this artist works in bubble gum and tar. My work has been described as looking like it was painted with bubblegum and Pollaro’s work is made with tar: One artist working with the materials that we use separately.

Dan Colen(bubble gum)

Dan Colen(tar and feather)

There is no event in Colen, just the characteristics of the materials of tar and feather or the bubble gum that was harvested from public spaces in the city. All sprinkled with irony. Nietzsche would see this as a weakness of the will.There is not enough self-assertion to impress the self on becoming. But I would counter that this is a perverse sort of self-assertion like a child throwing a temper tantrum or getting attention by flinging its turds at its parents.*

* see: "The Impossibility of Transcendence in American Art"
* see my review of Stella at the Whitney

I can be followed on twitter @mugar49


  1. Is this where we quote Marx: Historic events occur twice, the first time as tragedy (Mugar), the second time as farce (Colen)?

  2. Thanks.Great to get your response.In the end it all seems so sad.

  3. Martin,
    Never having heard of Dan Colen, I ask are his paintings really made of actual gum, tar and feathers?
    If so, it seems more like an ironic kind of pseudo abstraction of the sort made by Vik Muniz. Post Post Pop.
    Even the performance & assemblages of Jim Dine were Pop Art literally made from the streets from economic necessity.
    Now paintings are made with actual gum for visual irony.

    By the way, if I paint a portrait of my brother's two month old daughter for him, does it make me a Richter's wannabe - or simply a painter who wants to paint a child the way artists have for hundreds of years?

    Willy Wonka

  4. Larry,
    Yes they are made with those materials. The subject of this article is the role of time in art and how it creates an event. I tried to follow it from Stella,Serra,Held, Richter and Colen. Material in the first four artists has been subservient to the evocation of a passage of time.I found Richter to be on the edge of pure materiality and time. In Colen there is no will to create the event, just eventless material, of course with its ironic overtones. So in my thinking Colen makes the leap into pure materiality where Richter straddles the boundary of time and material.(pun intended).Of course if you lift Colen out of my dialectic and put him in another tradition,you can do that.I didn't.

    I get your point.My thought process wouldn't let him escape into that other realm of pure irony.He would be happier there.


  5. I guess I am in good company with my metaphors but probably oh the wrong side of the argument:Here is what Ruskin said about Whistler's"The Falling Rocket"
    "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face."

  6. I like the way that you addressed that. It was my take on the lack of event/investigation. There is no development to an idea and that's what is most disappointing. I agree with Larry about the pop aspect. if you remember, it was my very first comment to you.

    Actually, I respect it on those grounds but I don't think it does much for art. If there was a time capsule created as representations of art history/culture, Pop could not and should not be left out. It's that ground that I respect it. Warhol deserves a higher repect. Seems to have dealt with the time issue of Pop in frozen movement. Also his film with nothing but empty, real time. Yes, more respect, he was a researcher. But still most of his followers with their thousands of BFA and MFA degrees aren't groomed to investigate and are probably ostracized from the group for trying.
    Show message history

  7. Very interesting questions. Time poor is relative of course: one man's treasure, another man's trash. It bears some relation to a conversation I was having about public holidays this morning, on Thanksgiving, how some holidays are public, like the 4th of July, and are almost tyrannical in how they force patriotism, the way Valentine's Day force love. Some holidays can be more private, like Xmas, less so Christmas of course with Mass etc. 
    Which led me to think about people who are better in private than they are in public, and vice-versa. I have had lasting relationships with both. Mates who were great to go out with but awful to be in with, and the other way around.
    Which gets me to the artificial conflict here. Individual verses the group. It seems to me that this is what you are talking about and that it might be a false dilemma. We are stuck with both. But the individual, will, or identity, must exist, must live, must flourish for the group to exist, live, flourish. 
    There are artists who eschew the ground for the figure. Long before the minimalists, long before Robert Irwin coined the term "Self-identical." Say what you like about Michelangelo, but it was all about the figure, and impossibly even in the Last Judgement, the individual and his or her being, becoming, reigned supreme. Serra achieves what Richard Tuttle would call the paradox of extremes: where absolute white speaks loudly about black, where abject despair becomes about nothing but hope, and the other way around. Serra becomes about everyone else in an almost scary way!
    Your paintings would appear to be all ground and no figure, except the in its entirety it becomes a single entity, like the Borg, the way a coach wants to bend an entire team of individuals to his will, to play as one. His one. I don't think your figureless grounds deceive anyone into thinking that they are some John Lennon utopia where we are all one; quite the contrary, I think people are very happy to accept that you too have pushed everyone out, as you say, and created a timeless(time poor?) world where you are god. That is your creation. Your will. Nietzsche would be pleased. I certainly am. Time I have spent well.

  8. As usual your use of real world metaphors are right on.They always make your insights on art more incisive.Nice to jump out of art talk and put art back in the world of people and things.I guess Nietzsche would say that even abdication of will to power is a sort of will to power.We can't escape it.I think I wrote you recently that my work could be about waiting.Biding my time.Time slowed down but not quite time poor. Waiting for Godot.I thought your point from the ever enigmatic Tuttle interesting of how one extreme calls up the opposite.I guess we are in the world and our actions call forth reactions from the void.In the end we are judged by our actions.Who judges us?Our peers,society, The tao,the cosmos,the one,God?Something pushes back.

  9. However annoying; however much an argument spoiler; however cringeworthy and unforgivably banal to say; in the war of values, of killing and dying, judging and being reduced to nothingness, in religion, politics, society, and the arts, "different strokes for different folks" still applies. 

  10. The whole Serra debacle 30 years ago with Tilted Arc played out that force and resistance natural reality that the more Serra imposed his will, the more it became about everyone else, anyone else, a secretary having a sandwich at lunch, about being able to enjoy a view that no one thought twice about before Serra blotted it out. 

  11. Brilliant blog! Excellent piece of writing. Thank you. "Time poor" is an inspired query. Your question as to whether modernism is time poor remains unclear as the jury, strangely enough, is still out for the vast majority, making it still the high risk venture it was for the last century. Much of it was a black box by design. Hermetic. A trap of sorts. Some would say don't go there. Roach motel. But as an artist the rewards were abundant. Freedom. Time and space to explore. To examine. To know. To understand. For ourselves. A great luxury at a high price. Time to work on your own house. Not for the greater good necessarily. Not the cathedral. Not the great society. Not lockstep with a grand design. Not Federalism. Instead a landscape littered with hovels perhaps. Time poor. Perhaps. And yes, a sobering look in the mirror for all who call themselves artist. But I don't worry. I don't think it has been a waste of time. Time impoverishment. I believe. Democracy means more choice and opportunity for the inspirations and ideas of the individual. Which gives us all hope. Because they are out there. We are out there. Postmodernism just picked up where modernism left off, when modernism became too brittle, busy with too many rules, dwindling pie, and too few in power. We are all post modernists, and I for one am happy, very happy, with the lack of clarity and order in its wake, preferring freedom every time! Live and let live. Can't have one without the other. Not just art for art's sake, but long live, and let live, art! 

    1. Like your connection of the political to the aesthetic.. It is intriguing that "Push and pull" as seen in Hoffmann and Held seems to plays a big role in 20thc painting.Probably a reflection of how we as individuals have to survive in the market place. Watching the end of "The Wild Bunch" I got the feeling that all this self assertion ends up in a delirium? Sort of like Pollock.

  12. I like the way you connect the battle of ideas and the layering of forms - your notion of the "oppressed" forms showing at the back of the picture.

    1. I remember thinking about how Matisse's colors sought harmony and Held's sought to oppress.Different aesthetics indeed.In the end they both create a visual event with color and that is exciting to me.

  13. An email reply from Jed Perl:

    "Thanks for your kind words. Yes, I read you on Nietzsche and I do think we're on the same wavelength. "

    Very best,

  14. I have since read Boris Groys,the Marxist philosopher trained in the Soviet Union and East Germany.Groys in E-Flux talks about Malevich's project as distinct from Mondrian's.The absolute supremacy of his forms destroys the visual language of the past and gives us a new language grounded on nothing but itself.No way to be nostalgic about a past that is obliterated. Mondrian comes to his abstraction via a reduction of perception that drags the past along with it in the form of warms and cools, push and pull and the verticals and horizontals of real space. .Stella and the zombie artist I refer to elsewhere are in the Malevich strain of abstraction.It is the art of the bureaucrat who wants to manipulate the individual into larger social structures and needs to reduce his complexity to nil.

  15. Look at this recent MFA grad's statement (she calls in Homage?).Absorbed so much Hegelian lingo without knowing the origin.Does she have a self? will she grow?Is growth in the equation:

    "Instagram promises democratic exposure for visual artists. It offers freedom from a reliance on the gallery as a gatekeeper of the art world. But, freedom at what cost? Companies like Instagram and Facebook manufacture a unique economy of users, all working as unpaid freelancers for the platforms that they help to populate. In our post-commodity culture, images in the form of posts represent a closed loop of exchange, whereby levels of engagement are subsumed by the word “like” as an icon of approval. With these new works from my Homage series, I confront the relentless circulation of images on social media. Through the screenshot, I amass exhaustive collections of Instagram posts, culling the endless variations on perceived subjective quirks and co-opting them into collective digital portraits. By appropriating these shared images into new works, I am interrupting the closed loop of exchange and highlighting the exploitation inherent in its initial creation. By resurrecting the poor image, as posited by Hito Steyerl, I recontextualize the infinitely circulated jpeg as an object commodity once again, thereby subverting the platform’s social network."

  16. The white cube is a remnant of the sacred space of the church.The transmission of some truth in that space is still real and is lost online. I address it here:

  17. I tweeted this and got this response Replying to
    alain servais
    Replying to
    I hate the « spritualization » of art or anything else by the way. I want to laugh each time I see people requesting more silence in a museum than in a church 😂

  18. The two responses from Addison remind me that he always pointed out he was a Gemini. Also there was a populist anything goes side to this thinking. But what he said about my work about removing the other from it reminds me of the somewhat startled tone of Rosanna Warren in her review of my work when I said something about purifying the self
    as though that was not a path one could honestly take. And in a sense the role of the other cannot be ignored but what if the other was something numinous and only could be revealed by listening patiently?

  19. Strange. Been painting over 50 years now and have Never thought about these things. I get up every morning go into my studio and paint . Guess I'm more stuck in the right brain. My wife claims my left brain half is useless. Which means I leave all this Analysis to others. Meanwhile I paint.

    1. A comment now eight years after the fact. Stuff just lingers on on the internet.