Thursday, December 20, 2018

Donald Shambroom's"Duchamp's Last Day" and some musings on art and technology

Donald Shambroom has added to the long list of exotica on Duchamp with the publication of “Duchamp’s Last Day” by the David Zwirner Gallery. Exotic in that everything about Duchamp is strange at first although the more one understands his oeuvre the more one realizes his notion of the visual image would be exoteric to its unfolding in the 20th and the 21st century. With Marcel we are always playing catch-up. He is central to understanding the shift of the image from the individual-made to the proliferation of machine-made imagery. Not that anything he created bespoke of the assembly line as did the silkscreens of his follower Andy Warhol. The “Large Glass” remains gnarly and difficult in its homemade construction, oddly metamorphic in its subsequent history and prescient in its anticipation of the glass TV screen as the platform for mass-produced imagery. Nietzsche’s death of God quickly translates into the death of man but we would be better served to think that Duchampia presages not the death of man but just presents another concoction of man, a man whose boundaries are physically dissolved so as to function more as an object among objects in mass culture. Another epithet of Nietzsche comes to mind: ”There was one Christ and he died on the cross.”  You can see Duchamp’s destruction of the flat reflecting image all over Rauschenberg but Duchamp himself left traditional painting far behind. He makes it nigh impossible to go back to the image reflected off the flat canvas, unless like the Zombie Formalists you drain it of any residual power.
The large glass

The book describes the movements of the characters, who were present before and after Duchamp’s death. Crucial to Shambroom’s telling of the story is Duchamp’s visit earlier in the day to a bookstore to buy a book that came with 3D glasses to create Geometric anaglyphs. He had used it in the past as it allowed him to playfully dally at what he thought to be the edge of the 3D and the unimaginable fourth dimension. Shambroom cites Gertrude Stein’s statement that Duchamp was a young man who “talks very urgently about the fourth dimension.”  This strangeness will be featured at the end of the book in a playful Duchampian act of the imagination by Shambroom, which I will not relate so as not to spoil a very fanciful summation to the story.

In the interim after Duchamp’s purchase of the “Geometric Anaglyphs” we find him in conversation with the poet Georges Herbiet whose wife has recently passed away. In the evening he dines at his apartment with his close friends Man Ray, Robert Lebel, who had published the first monograph on Duchamp and their respective wives.  The topic of death keeps cropping up. The transition from life to death seems to haunt him. a phrase keeps recurring, which would become the epitaph on his tombstone: “Besides, it is always the others who die.” In other words very simply we witness the death of others but not our own.  At one point while walking Lebel outside to his car after dinner, Man Ray slipped and fell. He blurted out:” You’d thought I dropped dead.” Another premonition.

Duchamp and Man Ray taken by Cartier-Bresson
After all the guests had gone, at one in the morning, Teeny, Duchamp’s wife, found him collapsed and moribund in the bathroom. As though Man Ray was ready for this eventuality, when informed of the death, he returned camera in hand to take a deathbed photo. This photo was only made known to the public in 2011, suggesting some sort of intentional act on the part of the Duchamp estate to withhold it from the public realm. This delay provided Shambroom with ample opportunity to discuss notions of the artist deciding what is art and what isn’t and in this case something controlled conceivably from the grave. Its reproduction in the book is apparently its first appearance in the public realm.

At the very end of the story some very intriguing words are cited apropos Duchamp that were written by the artist collective: Lu Cafausu:

“Perhaps art demands that one play with death. Perhaps it introduces a game, a bit of play in the situation that no longer allows for tactics or mastery.”

“To die well is to die in one’s own life, turned towards one’s own life and away from death…the good death shows more consideration for the world than regard for the depth of the abyss.”

These words express the sine qua non of Duchamps's work that looks away from  mastery, fear and trembling before the abyss that underlie so much of Western and Eastern art for that matter. It brought to mind an essay I wrote on the sculptor Billy Lee whose early work embodied that sort of seriousness, that I always found appealing. Sculpted out of granite and shaped like the helmets of hoplites, it conveyed a notion of power and conflict embedded in the very substance of life. His new work done in China has jumped out of conflict and is all about play and fabricated in glossy material that is produced in Chinese factories.  It is also done to be part of the urban fabric not an aestheticized sculpture garden. In its use of industrial car finish it is reminiscent of the work of Anish Kapoor. In one instance of playfulness it makes fun of the imagery of his early work. It got me thinking about the energy that can be liberated when you break the barriers of art and technology and the global media.

Billy Lee Sculpture

The media of mass culture lifts the individual out of its locality and lets she/he vibrate in a global holism, especially now as globalism has reached its apogee and maybe subcomeing to populism. Duchamp made that merger allowable in his destruction of the flat canvas. It has since split the art world irreparably into several camps: Those who still believe in the canvas and the power of its language to affect the viewer, those who want to use that language but as something absent of any power like the Zombie Formalists, those who still try to deconstruct it in the ongoing tradition of Duchamp and finally those who take advantage of the split to merge art and technology.

Billy Lee Sculpture in the urban landscape

Don Shambroom has achieved the latter merger in his new work, taking his paintings online to merge with moving images and sound. He does not cool down the story with irony but heats it up with a kind of global and even cosmic power. If Duchamp according to Lu Cafausu turns toward his own life  and away from death Shambroom turns his work toward the depth of the abyss. His creations start out from his paintings and are augmented with news imagery and sound to take their place on the global scene.
Painting by Shambroom that leads into video manipulation

Friday, August 24, 2018

Remembering the photographer Arthur Tcholakian

When I came back to Boston from Paris in the late 70’s I rented a studio space in East Watertown. I found myself surrounded by an Armenian community not far from where I grew up. It had been rejuvenated by an influx of Armenians escaping the political turmoil of Iran and Lebanon. One of my neighbors was Richard Tashjian, the founder of the Armenian Artists Association of America a group of mostly New England artists of Armenian extraction that banded together to bring their work to the attention of the larger Boston community. With my Armenian heritage I qualified as a member and joined the group.
review in the NYTimes  

Richard had developed connections with Soviet Armenian artists. Over the next few years I was selected twice to exhibit there and eventually had work included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Yerevan.  For the most part I participated in local shows in Armenian Church basements. It was at one of these shows I met Arthur ”Harout” Tcholakian. A photographer born into a family of photographers in Jerusalem, he had immigrated to New York where he became a highly successful fashion photographer. He was at that time trying to leverage that success and I assume the money he made in the world of high end fashion to do photographic essays on topics that had more social import. “The Majesty of the Black Woman” was very successful. His book on Soviet Armenia was paid for out of his own pocket and I don’t think found much of a market. However, I am unaware of any other books that dealt with the life of that strange mixture of Armenia and Communism that was the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia.
William Saroyan by Tcholakian

I recall expressing some embarrassment to Arthur at showing with the AAAA in that church basement. Only a handful of the artists could be considered professional and many indulged in an Armenian predilection for Picassoesque cubistic language. He seemed disturbed by the distinction I was making between professional and amateur which was reminiscent of the attitude of my late friend Addison Parks, who often cringed at such distinctions.  Arthur said we would go through the show painting by painting and try to figure out how each one worked. It was a lesson in humility and acceptance of the variety of human artistic expression. Moreover, it voiced a visceral reaction on his part on how preconceptions can limit our understanding of what is really in front of us. It was an acceptance of the moment without the boundaries of labels like professional and amateur.
Selection of photos taken from his son Ara's FB page

We became friends. I often visited him where he lived in the Queens NY. The apartment was illuminated with high wattage bulbs that eliminated all shadows. It was like Arthur, a man of high wattage intensity. On the wall was a world map that made one think we were in some military HQ. He stayed up all night as most of his communications by telephone were with countries, which were awake while we slept.  He was a globalist before the word was invented. We discussed so many issues related in particular to the survival of the Armenians. We would talk for hours on end. Once for 24 hours straight. Arthur never seemed to need sleep.

His notion of the “moment” is intriguing to me. The moment is where you can change the course of events. It was strangely expressed in one incident involving a plumber who came to do a repair on a drain in his Queens‘ apartment. It was routine of course but for Arthur nothing was routine. He asked the plumber who was Hispanic if he knew the traditional Puerto Rican song about the chicken. He hadn’t. Are you sure? replied Arthur. He gave him a few words of the song and started to hum a tune. He kept pestering the plumber to recall the song. Before long the fellow started singing a song that he now seemed to recall and we joined in. It turns out the song does not exist. Was he mocking in a mean spirited way the susceptibility of the plumber to be coerced into pretending to know the song? Or was it again the unwillingness to accept anything routine.

I remained with Richard Tashjian’s group into the 80’s missing out on one trip to   Armenia he organized with the Soviet Republic, because of its coincidence with a new teaching job. Apparently those visits were phenomenal, full of arak fueled discussions despite the omnipresence of spies. The ministry of culture had money for the American Armenian artists visit and even paid for the trip abroad.

When I moved to North Carolina, Arthur had already moved to DC into a spacious contemporary house in Wolf Trap. He was remarried and was working on some major projects, all related to getting into the international scene to which he felt he had better access via Washington. How he paid for his lifestyle was always a mystery? I vaguely recall his referencing of a Middle Eastern financier.
Arthur Tcholakian

On what was to be our last visit he invited friends over for a large feast. It became clear at one point in the middle of the meal that most everyone at the dinner table came from a different part of the Mediterranean: Arthur from Jerusalem, another from Alexandria, a third from Lebanon and my wife Alix from Morocco.

He was only in his 50’s when he passed away. He often repeated a saying that for me summed up his view of life: as artists we have to purge ourselves of the shopkeeper. We must maintain constant vigilance against the mentality of the accountant where all has to tally. He was a risk taker and a believer in the twinkle of the eye where you transcend your past to turn that instant toward the future. While people around him were trying to add things up or to add him up he was dancing a pirouette leaving us behind as he leapt into the unknown.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My recollection of Addison Parks will appear in "Provincetown Arts" at the end of this month

Addison Parks


WHEN JOYCE CREIGER paired Addison and me
for our inaugural show in 1998 at the Creiger-
Dane Gallery on Newbury Street, little did we
know that she had initiated our twenty-year-long
friendship. Little did I know that my exhibition
partner had already achieved renown in the ’80s
in New York, not long after graduating from the
Rhode Island School of Design as part of the
neo-Expressionists with shows at the Joan Washburn
and Andrew Crispo galleries. He achieved
parallel success as an art critic at ARTS Magazine
and, when he moved to Boston, at the Christian
Science Monitor.
In 1998, Addison drew on his New York and
Boston connections to mount a show of hybrid
abstraction at Creiger-Dane entitled Severed Ear,
which, in retrospect, could only be considered
postmodern anticipating the Provisionalist
painting that Raphael Rubinstein labeled as
such in 2007. It bespoke his ability to befriend
a diverse group of artists and also a highly intuitive
mind that could sense connections unseen
to most people.
For more than a decade, Addison and his
wife, Stacey Parks, ran the Bow Street Gallery
in Cambridge. On occasion, he would host
luncheons with gallery members and other gallerists
where there were vibrant discussions on
art that one gallery member described as Pinteresque.
These are memories of Addison at his
best, a brilliant conversationalist bringing people
together to discuss the topics of art and life that
defined his existence.
People remember him. One evening, I was
conversing with someone at the Milton Resnick
and Pat Pasloff Foundation, telling him about
the death of Larry Deyab, who had been Resnick’s
studio assistant. Somehow the conversation
turned to Addison’s death, and he said
Addison had reviewed his first show in NYC.
Recently, a Boston artist contacted me out of
the blue to tell me what an impact Severed Ear
had on his life and art. Addison was not a happy
camper in Boston, and justifiably so, since a
certain fussbudget mentality reigns in this town
that was not sympathetic to charismatic types
like him. He was an enthusiast in an art scene
defined by doctors and lawyers.
What is most memorable about Addison is
his unbending resistance to those experts who
wished to define him, whether it was the doctors
who set timelines on his illness, or a stockbroker
who thought he should go all tech stock in 2000.
Sometimes I almost wondered if he possessed
the wisdom of a shaman in the way his insights
seemed to transcend the boundaries of practical
knowledge. For all of these things and more, he
will be greatly missed.
— Martin Mugar