Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gee's Bend Quilts

I hope that every artist who complains about their day job and how little time they have to make art saw the Gee's Bend quilts that have been travelling around the US the last three years. And then I hope that all those complaining artists just shut up. Like me. I've had my comeuppance.

Probably enough has been said about the quilts already, and anyone with half a finger on the pulse of the art world knows about it. The press release says, "Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with the Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta, the exhibition has been on a three-year, coast-to-coast, twelve-venue tour since its premiere in Houston in the fall of 2003." I saw the show at the de Young a few weeks ago. It closes today. I believe this the final venue. I have to thank Mel Prest for mentioning it to me several times.

Now, here are some people who I would think have good reason to complain about their day jobs. Farmers and fieldworkers, raising families in poverty, geographically cut off from opportunity and resources- who has time to be creative? And yet their faith in family, God, hard work, and consistent and continual making resulted in beautiful and very moving objects that have shifted from functional bedcovers to concrete, visual, transcendent objects that are innovative testaments to the handmade and communal.

I found this show tremendously moving, not only because of the circumstances in which they were made. For a museum exhibition, it's not enough to be moved by these circumstances. Certainly, art objects made in a difficult situation can tell us valuable things about the people and their times, but for the object to be aesthetically powerful requires something more. And it seems the women of Gee's Bend found that.

Of course, I was moved by the story of how these quilts were made, and I was especially moved that the quilts are made in spite of a day's work, often in the company of others. I found it especially interesting that a functional product- something so functional in the circumstances in which it was used that it could even barely be called craft- which implies hobby and decoration- could be elevated to art object. This is part of what I found both humbling and inspiring.

But there's more. These quilts are truly handmade- hand cut, handstitched- and while many utilize various traditional patterns, these often have little twists and interruptions in them, while many others eschew pattern and have a feel of improvised compostion, more modern collage than historical symmetric structure. Up close you can see the stitches, the fabric frayed by washing and use. But stand back, and they feel composed by a commanding and experienced eye capable of setting up rhythm and contrast, tension and surprise.

I often read press releases for exhibitions in which So-and-so's art plays with some crap notion of this assumption or that received idea or another that questions and challenges our assumptions about this or that miniscule thing that results in a paradigm shift to some other imagined nothing. Geez, they're pretentious and cliched at the same time.

But in the Gee's Bend show here are some genuine questions about where art comes from, how it's made and for whom, who makes it, art's origins and place in daily life. That's powerful stuff, and there is a real challenge to our assumptions. This show does it in broad daylight with no theoretical sleight of hand, and with a mimimum of contextual and historical knowledge required. It's just so plainly and visibly beautiful and bold. It makes me want to say lame predictable things like "celebration of the spirit," and "triumph over adversity."

It's too obvious a connection to talk about the quilts in relation to geometric abstraction- they're just different animals with a different purpose. In fact, I think it's a waste of time to make a competition between the quilts and painting. They are about different things, and anyone with a pair of eyes knows that immediately. I see these as closest to Korean wrapping cloths called bojagi, which are also made using fabric scraps.

The closest art connection I keep making is to Rauschenberg, and his reuse of materials, especially fabric. Compostionally, feeling-wise, there seems to be something shared in how things are arranged, a sensitivity to color and pattern, to the use of found materials. I'm thinking not only of Rauschbenerg's combines, but also his cardboard pieces.

But even still, this is a fruitless comparison. I really brought up Rauschenberg to make another point. There is his famous quote, "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)" I think that for the Gee's Bend quilters that gap doesn't exist at all. There is no split. The quilts and their making are part of a greater whole- the lives of their makers. This seems unusual to me these days. It is especially unusual for art, which often seems disconnected from life's dailyness. Partly, it is unique, I think, because of the medium itself- fabric and thread, which are ordinary and domestic materials that anyone is familiar with- and because these quilts are originally functional objects; most contemorary art does not have these origins. The quilts were intended to be part of everyday life. The quilters and their families are the primary, original audience, and the primary users. There seems to be no gap between the maker, the intended object and its use, and people who use it. This wholeness is also unique because these quilters defied tradition by not settling into historical patterns, but instead used their eyes to compose and make, working by hand and responding immediately to their materials, learning from and working in the company of each other, day after day over the years. It's remarkable to see how these objects, made for a specific use in a particular place, can now function as powerful art objects for a much larger, more diverse audience.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Miami: My Report, Your Musings

Chris, I look forward to your comments about the Gee's Bend Quilts, Ruth Asawa's sculpture and Joan Mitchell's painting, but given that there's been a lot of blog talk about the arts fairs in Miami last week--including your own perceptive observation on Edward Winkleman's site and an e-mail we shared last light--I wonder if you wouldn't mind detouring briefly to the fairs. Just to recap our conversation, you commented about the lack of critical coverage of the artwork in the fair, and you wondered about the long-term effect these fairs will have on artists' careers, as well as how the fairs affect an artist's day-to-day artmaking. These are interesting issues. Would you talk about them a bit for our blog?

One of the things that interested/scared/shocked me is that I heard several dealers say they were thinking about closing their galleries, or moving to much smaller quarters, and using the fairs as their primary art-selling venues. This presupposes they can get into the fairs they want to be in (there's a lot of competition for booths, and for every dealer who gets into the venue of her/his choice, there are probably two or three others who don't). Actually, a few dealers are already going this route. There's one Parisian dealer, Vanessa Suchar, who bills herself "la galleriste sans galerie"--the gallerist without a gallery--and there's a Washington dealer who works out of an office but who has strong visibility at the fairs. What does THAT mean for us as artists?

I've posted below an excerpt from the Miami coverage on my blog so that our readers can click on and get a sense of the event.

Imagine Costco on steroids and filled with art. Now throw in a carnival atmosphere, tradeshow commercialism, museum reverence, fashion attitude, and the frenzy of Filene’s Basement when the bridal gowns go on sale. Add sublimely beautiful contemporary paintings, modern masters from the secondary market (like Ad Reinhart from his pre-somber period in three booths), big-ass sculpture, inventive installations, cartoon imagery, and some rice and beans (I’m not kidding). And, hey, why not include the oversize figure of a man performing a physically impossible scatological function? Like the blind men describing an elephant, no one perception comes close to describing this event but together they create a pretty good picture of this behemoth of a show.

Lucia Madriz: Money Talks, floor installation of rice and beans, dimensions variable, at Jacob Karpio Galeria in Art Basel Miami Beach. Below: birdseye view of ABMB at the Convention Center.

And when you've had enough of this Miami talk, I'm all ears about Gee's Bend, Asawa and Mitchell. I won't bring up Miami again. Until next year.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Speaking in Tongues

Jeepers, Joanne, that last post was a doozy. Of course, I am looking forward with great anticipation to the Marden show coming to SFMoMA in February. I have the catalog, and when I look at the listing of pieces in the catalog certain works are specified as NY, SF, or Berlin only, and a large number of works will be in SF exclusively, so it looks like it will be larger show here. I hope there are lots of drawings, and I would prefer an installation that mixes the paintings and drawings rather than separating them, as the NY installation does.

I expect that the Marden show will be on the fourth floor, where we saw the Kiefer show together. Those galleries had some walls removed for the Matthew Barney show this past summer (pfft!), so there is wide open space and long walls, which serve the Kiefers currently there so well, and I presume will serve Marden well, too.

Thinking back to the Kiefer show, Heaven and Earth, I keep bouncing off of Twombly and Serra. Part of it is color (narrow), and part of it is size (large) and scale (large things feeling intimate, large things feeling human). With Serra the connection is very much about material and about the plane- Serra's flat weathered surfaces (real and natural) and actual physical spaces, and Kiefer's painted crumbling surfaces (representation and artifice) and depicted deep spaces- there is a similar operation of providing the viewer a space, locating the body, Serra like architecture, Kiefer as illusion.

With Twombly there is a color and material connection, but the most immediate is a use of history, story, narrative, and poetic language, and Kiefer connects with that. In each of these three artists there is a grandeur and ambition. The space they fill is cultural, social, political. It is interesting that Serra's corner splash of thrown lead was revealed in the company of Kiefer, and it's a shame the museum didn't take the opportunity to hang nearby the majestic, juvenile, rich, pre-literate, architectural, "speaking-in-tongues"1 blackboard-like surface with white-scrawled-loops Twombly that it acquired in 2000 and has not shown in two or three years2 (see a bad JPEG).

I also think that it is a terrible shame that SFMoMA has not made what I think is an obvious connection between the Kiefers and the many Clyfford Stills that it owns. The current directorship and curators seem to have no interest in the nearly thirty paintings that Still himself gave to the museum. It's a missed opportunity. There is an analogous ambition and poetic subject, though different pictorial and strategic approach, between these two artists. Both painters' surfaces make for a tactile, shallow painted space, but pictoriallly there is a deeper space. Still's geologic, landscapish images- wall faces, canyons, empty areas- engage the viewer in ways similar to Kiefer's images, by acknowledging the viewer outside the painting's plane and allowing a space for the viewer on either side of this inside/outside boundary, even though Still's images are unpopulated, and Kiefer relies on artifacts of humans- architecture, plowed fields, historical contextualiztion of the world through human-constructed systems. Anyway, history overlaps, and the museum snoozes, and it's a lost opportunity to draw connections between artists from different periods with different approaches, different images, and, at least outwardly, apparently different intentions.

I expected to feel oppressed by Kiefer's dense, knotty surfaces, very limited color, and the excessive use of single point perspective. Instead, I was wowed. This is a terrific show.

On this same fourth floor the wonderful Eva Hesse retrospective showed in 2002, and I think it has to have been one of the smartest, most moving, and surprising exhibitions at SFMoMA since its move to the new building. It was amazing to follow Hesse's innovations and development, to see how inventive she was in developing a unique language and use of materials, and how she redefined, clarified, and expanded the possiblities of sculpture. Amazingly, I think she was a rare combination of classic form (say, Henry Moore's biology and archaeology), process (Giacometti's construction and Arp's happenstance), and conceptual (Duchamp's notion of the found and decision). Her accomplishmnet is especially amazing when considering that she did it before dying in 1970 at age 34(!); the pace at which she worked, the development she accomplished, and the impact of her work, is akin to Van Gogh.

In the coming days I want to talk about three things I (Ann and I) saw at the de Young last Saturday: the Gee's Bend quilts, Ruth Asawa, and five Joan Mitchell paintings from her estate on loan hanging in the large open lobby. What an afternoon that was!

I titled this post "speaking in tongues" simply because I needed a title and in this entire post that might be the most unexpected bit in talking about art. But I also think there is an aspect of glossolalia to art that I welcome- it's exuberant and ecstatic, spontaneous and inspired, it doesn't or rarely makes sense although it does stand for or mean something, it's in reponse to something external made internal, it's unique and unplanned, it's in the moment, though it can occur again, and it happens within a tradition, history, or framework.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

[1] I say "speaking in tongues" because, as it's well known, of course, much of Twombly's line wobbles back and forth between writing and drawing, and many of the blackboard paintings with rows of white looping lines can be seen as pre-literate or emerging-reader writing, where the writer is using the conventions of writing- connected figures in uniform rows- but hasn't yet learned the alphabet and the symbol system of writing to represent words. Not that Twombly is pre-literate, but his "writing" is more connected to the pre-verbal, or non-verbal experience of full-on visual perception. The "speaking in tongues" reference is alluding to the question of what Twombly's "writing" might sound like. Looking at a row of loops in one of the classic Twombly's might read it literally as "oh oh oh oh oh...," or phonetically as "oooooooh," or physically as "ai yi yi yi yi," or "wow wow wow wow wow...," or "er er er er er...," or some other repetitive sound that is evoked in guttural response to the physical experience resulting from visually following the loops of Twombly's marks. The SFMoMA Twombly is full of dense, overlaid scrawls that make a different sound, perhaps one like white noise.

[2] From the San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 2000:

Twombly's "Untitled, 1971" is the first work in SFMOMA's collection by this major American painter. It's one of the artist's classic ``blackboard'' paintings, composed of swirling white and gray scribbles and graffiti-like gestures on a field of black. The painting, which has a seven-figure price tag, was purchased from the artist's private collection with money from an anonymous Bay Area donor. Made with oil-based house paint, wax and crayon on canvas, the work is one the largest by Twombly, 72, who lives in Italy.

"The acquisition of this exceptional Cy Twombly painting fills a major gap in the museum's collection of postwar abstract art," said SFMOMA director David Ross.