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This Week in History: Merce Cunningham’s Les Noces

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s […]

Merce Cunningham and Brandeis University Dancers in Les Noces, June 12, 1952

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.

Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.”[1] Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.

This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.

Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s.[2] Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.

Les Noces, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 1923, Music Division, Library of Congress

Howard Bay, copy of sketched costumes study for Les Noces" 1952. Walker Art Center 2011.313

Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.

Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”[3]), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess.[4] Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” [5]

Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.

Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.

Footnotes:

[1] David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal  34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.

[2] Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.

[3] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

[4] Leonard Bernstein: Teachers & Teaching (accessed June 11, 2016).

[5] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

Self-Portrait as a Building: In the Studio with Mark Manders

Recently I had the immense pleasure of visiting Mark Manders’s studio in Ronse, Belgium, to view his progress on the sculpture the Walker commissioned—his first major public artwork in the United States—for next June’s opening of the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It’s one of 16 new works (including five commissioned by the Walker) that will […]

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Fountain for Rokin Plein in Amsterdam, to be unveiled in 2017. All photos by Misa Jeffereis

Recently I had the immense pleasure of visiting Mark Manders’s studio in Ronse, Belgium, to view his progress on the sculpture the Walker commissioned—his first major public artwork in the United States—for next June’s opening of the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It’s one of 16 new works (including five commissioned by the Walker) that will animate the campus. The Walker’s history with Manders dates back to 2011 when we hosted a touring exhibition of his work, the first in North America.

My journey to meet the artist began with my renting a car in Brussels and entrusting GPS to guide me to the remote Flemish town of Ronse, where Manders lives and works. I approached a large red wooden gate, pressed a doorbell, and was greeted by the artist who led me into his home. I met his partner and his five-week-old baby boy, who was sleeping, and began to understand why Manders has chosen to live and work in this peaceful and idyllic environment. The town is situated outside of the fast-paced art world, where the artist has the resources and headspace to create massive sculptures that at once assert their monumentality, timelessness, and fragility.

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Large-scale bronze piece in the process of being painted to resemble its original clay state

Manders is known for creating surreal and hauntingly evocative sculptural installations that feature stoic figures reminiscent of ancient Rome and Greece. The artist uses deceptive materials for the works—first constructed from molded wet clay and wood, then cast in bronze—which are then painted to look indistinguishable from the original components. During our three-hour visit, I caught a rare glimpse of the artist’s thinking process and the meticulous steps that go into creating these uncanny bronze pieces.

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The artist led me through the various spaces of his labyrinthine studio, a former fabric-manufacturing factory, where the artist has lived for 11 years. Room after room, we moved through the various steps taken to create each sculpture, beginning in the artist’s library and drawing room where the brainstorming, research, and sketching takes place. The space was filled with models of his sculptures, maquettes of furniture, and drawings scattered about the floor, everything strewn haphazardly as if created hastily before moving on to the next idea. In fact, Manders’s entire studio was filled with objects that appeared ready to be deployed, containing a dynamism that reflected not only the artist’s boyish energy, but also the nature of the object’s tentative status: appearing cracked, overstuffed, fragile, discarded. Manders revealed that he thinks through his concepts over many years and keeps early drawings and models within his daily encounter in the event that he has time to realize one of his unexecuted project ideas. Each drawing is a visual reminder for Manders, and for me, a peek into the inner workings of his mind and the memories that occupy it.

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Drawings of ideas for future projects

This object evokes a mechanical device, circuit, or instrument. Manders cryptically explained that his sculptures are considered “good objects” if they can withstand the test of being on a bodega floor.

This object evokes a mechanical device, circuit, or instrument. Manders cryptically explained that his sculptures are considered “good objects” if they can withstand the test of being on a bodega floor.

For more than three decades, Manders has been developing an endless “self-portrait as a building” in the form of sculptures, still lifes, and architectural plans. The notion was inspired by his interest in writing and literature, however, realizing the greater potential of objects to convey meaning and narrative, the artist switched his focus from writing to object-making. He noted to me that books, autobiographies, and more generally, language move linearly—readers absorb one word after another, moving forward in one direction—whereas sculptures have no time or chronology associated with their consumption. There is much greater room for interpretation when proposing that an accumulation of sculptures makes up the artist’s self-portrait.

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In a drawing from the early 2000s, a floor plan articulated a building with various rooms containing objects—all of which have been produced. The artist explained that the “rooms” of his “self-portrait” continuously change, morph, and grow, and that the persona of “Mark Manders” (who is very much like, but not actually, the artist) shifts in relation to these rooms. In this excerpt from The Absence of Mark Manders (1994), he writes about his persona as a building: “Mark Manders has inhabited his self-portrait since 1986. This building can expand or shrink at any moment. In this building all words created by mankind are on hand. The building arises, like words, out of interaction with life and things. The thoughts that surround him in his building are, materialized or not, always important and never gratuitous.” As Manders toured me through his one-story studio complex, his floor plan, I realized that we were sequentially moving through the artist’s self in the form of this very building. Each room and all of the objects within it are Mark Manders.

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The artist has long produced his own newspapers, using every word from the Oxford dictionary randomly inserted into typical newspaper columns and illustrated by photographs of indistinct objects on his studio floor. The newspapers do not present current events, but rather live outside of time or place, just as the rest of his work resists stable positioning.

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The newspapers are deployed as papier-mâché stand-ins for other materials, but also appear in his finalized sculptures.

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What became clear to me is that Manders builds every aspect of his sculptures, including furniture. The artist’s father was a furniture maker and taught him some of the craft, although Manders insists that he is primarily self-taught and has acquired many woodworking skills over time. For the Walker’s commission, Manders is producing three large-scale figurative sculptures, and a comparatively intimate, life-sized cast bronze chair. When he indicated to me the low-seated chair that was cast for the Garden, I was surprised to learn that it was not sourced at a vintage store, but rather had been built by the artist. He explained that when he began making art in 1986, the furniture in his immediate surroundings was built in the 1970s and ’80s, and he has been consistently drawn to this vintage style. The combination of classical style figures and mid-century modern furniture again denies us a clear resting point in time.

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For this Walker-commissioned sculpture, Manders produced vinyl images of the full size sculpture in order to determine its height. The artist decided on the far right image for the sculpture’s final height.

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Manders kept the molds from the Walker’s totemic-like sculpture in order to produce multiple editions in the future. We examined the surface of the liquid silicone mold that captures incredible detail from the original model.

After touring what must have been about ten different rooms within his massive studio complex, Manders drove me to the foundry where his sculptures are being produced: Art Casting in Oudenaarde, Belgium. (The internationally renowned foundry—just 20 minutes away by car—works with high-profile artists from around the world, and for this reason it insists on confidentiality with a no-photography policy.) Manders excitedly toured me through the facility, explaining that the lost-wax method employed there has been used since ca. 4500–3500 BCE. Art Casting has perfected the craft, with 50 to 60 employees who specialize in the various aspects of this technique. They also use the most receptive combination of liquid silicone and a catalyst that is able to produce a perfect negative of the original model—so detailed that it can capture fingerprints—and also imports the highest quality bronze from the US. It was a fascinating place.

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Finally, I learned the ultimate stage in Manders’s process, and one of the most mystifying: the application of paint. We visited his second studio where three assistants were painting two large bronze sculptures. In order to access all sides of the massive sculptures, the team uses heavy-duty lifts to suspend the 1.5-ton sculptures in air. The painting process takes about two weeks and includes seven layers of paint. During one step the assistant actually removes paint to give the appearance that the sculpture is worn and, in another, uses a dry brush technique to gently graze the uneven surface so that pigment is only applied to the raised parts of the piece. After an exhaustive journey to their final bronze state, the sculptures return to their original models’ clay-like, fragile appearance—however, now, ready to endure the test of time.

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Erasing the Photographer’s Hand: Phil Collins’s Free Fotolab

Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016. In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he […]

An image from Phil Collin's free fotolab, 2009

An image from Phil Collins’s free fotolab, 2009

Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016.

In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he is not the author of any of the photographs shown in this work. The artist sourced the images in free fotolab by putting out a public call for rolls of undeveloped 35mm film, which he agreed to process and return to participants free of charge, on the condition that they cede all rights and claims of ownership to him. The images displayed over the nine minute, 20 second slide show depict people engaged in everyday life: celebrating with their families, going to the beach, having a picnic, drinking a cup of tea. In free fotolab, Collins presents a collage of normal, ordinary pictures, the commonplace subject matter of which is contrasted by its presentation in a formal gallery setting.

While no background is given for free fotolab, closely examining contextual clues (such as bottles of the Macedonian beer “Bitolsko” or an entire shelf full of books in Serbo-Croatian) reveals that some of these images can be traced to the Balkans. This isn’t surprising, as Collins has spent a significant portion of his professional career working in the region. The artist’s first video work, a 12-minute piece called how to make a refugee (1999), was shot in Macedonia during the same year as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Collins created the work after witnessing reporting methods employed by official news media covering the crisis in the region. In how to make a refugee, we see journalists directing and posing a displaced Kosovar Albanian family they are photographing. The reporters appear to show little concern for how their instructions are received by the family they direct; instead the journalists are focused on crafting a saleable news story for their domestic audiences. By filming this process of documentation, Collins exposes the imposed construction of a refugee narrative designed to fit Western consumers’ expectations about what war reporting looks like, and by extension, what refugees look like.

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999.

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999

After how to make a refugee, Collins continued with his nontraditional representation of individuals living in crisis zones. In a 2001 work entitled young serbs, Collins presents portraits of young Serbians lying serenely in the grass on a sunny day. “Anyway, here they are,” the artist writes in an email to a colleague, “romantic, sexy, deathly, intimate, posed, bucolic, disappointed, suspicious… I wanted to escape the urban grit and aggressive posturing of Western photography in Belgrade and try and pick at a romantic sensibility.”[1] Collins’s desire to show an alternative side of his subjects often erased in typical crisis reporting results in the production of more human images, immediately familiarizing for his audience what is typically portrayed as “other.” His portraits show individuals as themselves, not as people cast in roles of refugee, victim, or aggressor. The power of such personal images is undeniable on an emotional level, and it is exactly this human intimacy that makes the photographs political. Collins explains this idea succinctly in a comment regarding his work filming Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah: “If you ignore the people who inhabit these places, you don’t feel bad about bombing them.”[2]

A portrait from young serbs, 2001.

A portrait from young serbs, 2001

In much of his practice, Collins attempts to return some measure of control over representation to his subjects through the subversion of traditional corporate media narratives. The idea of agency for the subject is seen especially in real society, a 2002 project in which Collins advertised for anyone willing to remove some of their clothing to come to a luxury suite in the Maria Cristina Hotel in San Sebastian to be photographed. Collins accepted everyone who wished to take part in the project and photographed his participants engaged in any activity they chose. People are seen dancing, talking, lounging, and undressing themselves and others—one couple even took a bath. With this work, Collins reduces the influence of the photographer in the process of image creation, relinquishing control over both the choice of subject as well as the direction of the storyline.

A couple takes a bath for real society, 2002.

A couple takes a bath for real society, 2002

free fotolab can be seen as a further attempt by Collins to erase the hand of the photographer from his final product. These images are objects of truly democratic representation—they were taken for and by ordinary people with no notion of their eventual public display. They are free from any posing, framing, or staging within in aesthetic context, and both the anonymous authors and subjects reveal themselves in an uninhibited way. By showcasing these images, Collins finds a way to present the viewer with photographs untouched by his artistic bias.

By removing the professional photographer from the process of image creation, free fotolab asks its audience to consider the role of the photographer and what influence this editorial role might have over how one ultimately perceives photographic subjects. No image can ever be truly impartial; the photographer is always the unseen third party, the filter through which an image is passed before it reaches its audience. Collins’s work draws awareness to the presence of this filter, asking us to question to what extent our perceptions of the world, and especially of distant others, are based on the photographic narratives that are created for us.

Installation view of free fotolab, 2009.

Installation view of free fotolab, 2009

NOTES

[1] Collins, Phil, and Milton Keynes Gallery, Yeah, You, Baby You, (Milton Keynes England: Milton Keynes Gallery, 2005), 54.

[2] Ibid., 16.

Memories of Martin Friedman

As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up […]

Martin Friedman a Polaroid that Chuck took of Martin for the jacket of his “Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait” book.

A Polaroid Chuck Close took of Martin Friedman for the jacket of Friedman’s book Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait (Harry N. Abrams, 2005). Submitted by the artist.

As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up curator Joan Rothfuss’s reflection on Friedman’s life and legacy, we’re commemorating his passing by inviting friends, family, and colleagues to share their memories of the man who indelibly shaped the Walker. This post will be updated as new reflections come in; if you’d like to contribute a reflection, please email us.

Tom Arndt, photographer, Walker Art Center (1975–1981)

The six years I worked at the Walker Art Center changed my life.

The first time I went to Europe was with Martin and Mickey. Mickey took me to England where I photographed four projects by the British architect James Sterling. The photographs I made comprised an exhibition of his work at the Walker. Martin and Mickey were so good to me on that trip. They took me to plays in London and got me a personal tour of an exhibition of Fabergé eggs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was an amazing experience for me. I co-curated an exhibition on Minnesota press photography with Mickey. It was a great success.

Martin introduced me to George Segal. “Tom,” he said, “I’m going to create a friendship for you.” He did, and George Segal became my good friend. I still have letters from him.

There are so many other moments when they both were so supportive to me. They were there for me when I had a personal crisis in my life. When my parents died, I received wonderful personal notes of condolence from both Martin and Mickey. In 1981, Martin told me it was time for me to go and pursue my own work. I left the Walker that year, and for my going-away party we had a Hawaiian luau (I wore a lot of Hawaian shirts in those days). The guys on the exhibition crew made some palm trees, and everyone wore Hawaiian shirts, including Martin and Mickey. It was very special for me.

I learned from Martin and Mickey what a special calling it is to be an artist. They taught me to expect the best from myself and strive for the perfection of my ideas. I have gone on to have a good artistic life. I recently emailed Martin telling him that I now have galleries in New York and Paris and that I owe so much to him and Mickey for instilling in me, and so many others, a rigorous method of inquiry and the expectation of the best for ourselves.

I miss Martin and Mickey so much. I know there are so many great artists and curators that have worked with them over the years. I am so grateful to them both for making my life so profoundly better.

All my love and respect to you Martin, to you and Mickey.

Berger Fountain installed at Loring Park, Minneapolis Minnesota, circa 1975. Controversy surrounding placement of the Berger Fountain in 1973 in the Armory Gardens prompted director Martin Friedman to begin plans with the city of Minneapolis for the establishment of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Berger Fountain installed in Loring Park, Minneapolis, c. 1975. Controversy surrounding the fountain’s placement in 1973 in the Armory Gardens prompted director Martin Friedman to begin plans with the city of Minneapolis for the establishment of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Katharine DeShaw, director of development, Walker Art Center (1991–1999)

There is tale that the idea to create a Minneapolis Sculpture Garden came to Martin after the City of Minneapolis asked him to place a “dandelion fountain” in a field in front of the Walker. He was horrified—loathed the piece and did not like anyone dictating his artistic choices. That fountain is now located on the distant edge of Loring Park, far away from the brilliant garden that Martin ultimately built.

Kathleen Fluegel, director of development, Walker Art Center (1989–1991)

Martin’s passing brings back a rush of memories, such as the day after Kathy Halbreich was in town for the announcement that she was to be Martin’s successor, and he was going over a proposal with me in excruciating detail. At one point he looked across his desk at me and growled, “I’m still the director!”

I replied, “I know you are Martin, and I’m glad you are.”

He growled back, “You. Are. Not.”

At which I laughed and said, “You’re right!”

To his credit, he laughed, too.

1967 Martin and Mickey Friedman with Hubert Humphrey at Walker Art Center

Mickey and Martin Friedman with Hubert Humphrey at the Walker, 1967. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Emily Galusha, program officer, Bush Foundation (1971–1979); Board treasurer and chair, then executive director, Northern Clay Center (1991–2012)

Fifteen years ago, I was interviewing someone I very much wanted to hire as the exhibitions director at Northern Clay Center when he asked me who my role model was as an arts organization director. With no hesitation, I said Martin Friedman. His vision for the Walker as a national and international leader in its field; his almost limitless curiosity about contemporary art, as well as the culture in which it is made; his ability to bounce back and forth between relentless attention to the details that go toward perfection and the larger ends toward which the enterprise was moving; his unbending commitment to quality in all things—whether the art being presented, its presentation, the words written about it; and, finally, his wit and sense of humor: all provided characteristics to emulate. My response apparently hit a sympathetic chord, and my candidate said yes.

I first met Martin in 1971, after I joined the staff of the Bush Foundation. My colleagues and most of the board were firmly embedded in St. Paul, so the Walker was, and was in, terra incognita; I got to be the lucky explorer for the organization. After the foundation approved a couple of grants to the performing arts program, Martin approached us for support for exhibitions. Martin’s vision, and his ability to realize that vision, produced an outsized impact of those grants on the Walker, the region, and contemporary art. His exhibitions were not just about objects, but about ideas expressed through objects.

Not long after the foundation began supporting the Walker’s exhibitions, Bush approved the Bush Artists Fellowships. The foundation’s executive director, Humphrey Doermann, was deeply skeptical about much of contemporary art, based on an almost complete lack of exposure. However, he did respect what Martin was accomplishing with the Walker. I arranged, with Martin’s help and participation, a lunch seminar for Humphrey, which also included curators Graham Beal and Lisa Lyons. In a wonderful three hours, they walked Humphrey through the development of contemporary art, using examples from the Walker’s collection, with no hint of artspeak or condescension. While Humphrey didn’t leave as a convert, he at least lost some degree of cynicism and took with him respect for their scholarship and passion. I was deeply grateful—and it was a lot of fun for me.

Martin Friedman with current Walker director Olga Viso and former director Kathy Halbreich, 2011

Martin Friedman with current Walker director Olga Viso and former director Kathy Halbreich, 2011

Kathy Halbreich, director, Walker Art Center (1991–2007); Associate Director and Laurenz Foundation Curator, Museum of Modern Art (2008–present)

Martin was universally recognized as an inspired, synthetic, and progressive leader; under his stewardship, the Walker became a magnet for all of us everywhere who cared about artists, performers, filmmakers, and designers of all stripes. He created a museum that was more than willing to share the risk of making new work with creative practitioners from around the globe: it, along with supporting artists early in their careers, was a mandate. I visited the Walker way before I became director in 1991; once, I came because Martin agreed to host a survey of Elizabeth Murray’s paintings and drawings I had organized with Sue Graze from the Dallas Museum. Despite his success and status, Martin also was willing to take a risk on younger curators, and many of the very best were trained by him. It meant a lot to receive his blessing, as we all knew his standards were exacting and pure. I never forgot the thrill of seeing that exhibition at the Walker.

Martin always set the pace for artistic and administrative innovation. Believing museums were civic entities rather than privileged enclaves and publicly supporting artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe when their art became political fodder for the right, he never ran from controversy. Martin was an intrepid leader, almost singularly so in the late 1980s when the culture wars sent a shudder through the field. I am sure there were things that kept him up at night, but he always appeared to be confidant, a characteristic that made him unusually persuasive. I suspect these qualities, as well as his superb eye, drew people to him and to the Walker. It never has been easy to elicit support for contemporary art, but Martin was a wizard; the Walker’s endowment was unique among contemporary museums, providing a foundation for all sorts of experimentation. Martin was brilliant at all aspects of being a director, but perhaps his most crucial talent was in developing a board that was as engaged with new ideas and as welcoming to new people as he was. Many of those trustees became his dear friends and the most devoted patrons of the museum during his tenure and beyond. As Judy Dayton often repeated, “It was a joy to support dear Walker.”

Many people told me that it was foolish to try to follow Martin, and in some ways it was taxing to follow a legend. But, in all the important ways, Martin and Mickey cared about—loved—the Walker so deeply that they left behind an immensely stable, elastic, and forward-looking institution. This made it possible for those of us who followed to be inventive and ambitious, to break some rules, and to dream big. I felt very lucky when I became director of the Walker. That sense of opportunity and good fortune only grew stronger during the 16 years I spent there, happily working with a staff and board in a community that were unparalleled, special. The Walker was a place where good governance was practiced every day and a director had unusual support. I came to realize that Martin’s profound commitment to creative people, in tandem with his belief that museums truly mattered, made everything past, present, and future possible. His work will not be forgotten because it has informed all museums of contemporary art. So many of Martin’s original ideas ultimately became accepted as routine practice. For example, when people wonder why the presence of performance in museums has suddenly become ubiquitous, I remind them that the Walker created a department of performing arts in 1970.

I always will be very grateful to Martin for cultivating the museum field so that people such as myself wanted to be part of it and could find a place to grow within it.

Ann Hatch, Walker family member; she has served on the Walker Art Center board since 1975

I was quite young when I started attending the big annual Walker family meetings at the museum. Jade Mountain was in full view then, but there was so much more to take in. At one meeting we were introduced to the new directorial candidate who was up for vote by the board and family. That young confident individual was Martin. I had gone to museums all my short life, but I’d never thought our family had started such a world-class institution, and I didn’t think about the people directing or the leadership it took to make an institution great. Mostly I wanted to stay away from the smelly guards.

Martin’s presentation was inspiring: he spoke of the TB Walker legacy, the collection, and how he intended to make a world-class institution in Minneapolis. That introduction made me realize what I was invited to be a part of at the Walker, as a world class museum, going forward.  Martin never stopped.

Whenever I went back for board meetings, he always took time to show me around and remind me in a passionate way of the importance of the legacy and my potential role in its future. That made a huge impression on me. Martin always sent me catalogues with personal notes. He encouraged me to read and see work. I loved the Walker shows and was so proud of the Walker for being the best museum for artists imaginable.

I went on several trustee tours where we met great artists in a very personal and meaningful way. Isamu Noguchi, and all the artists we saw, really respected Martin. I realized the relationships needed to build an institution. It is highly personal, taking great integrity and vision. Martin saw the big picture and had acute attention to detail.

When I started Capp Street Project in 1983, I asked Martin for his opinion of the program. His vote of enthusiasm was empowering. He wanted to know all about who was coming to be in residence and suggested artists and advisors. I was very grateful to Martin and his vision, dedication and unwavering enthusiasm for the arts.

I’m glad I knew both Martin and Mickey.

Mickey and Martin Friedman with Merce Cunningham, 1990

Mickey and Martin Friedman with Merce Cunningham, 1990

John Killacky, curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1988–1996); executive director, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (2010–present)

Four loving memories of Martin

First day hired: He showed me a map of the US with pins in it showing where former staff members were working. “Someday you’ll be a pin on this wall.”

Favorite Martin memo to all staff: “There was a dead fly in the stairwell this morning.”

Shiva: Hearing Isamu Noguchi had died, I sat in the darkened gallery, joined by Martin.

Lunchtime: January 1990 interdisciplinary Cultural Infidels festival opened with Karen Finley. Martin and Mickey attended the performance, as did the vice squad. The next day Martin asked me to lunch off-site. I thought I was fired. His comment: “I think that woman needs therapy.”

1978 Martin Friedman withj Noguchi in Walker gallery

Martin Friedman with Isamu Noguchi, 1978

Jonathan Lippincott, author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s

I only had the opportunity of speaking with Martin Friedman twice over the years, but his writing and his work as a curator were inspiring to me in writing my book, and in many projects since. His catalogs captured the excitement and innovation of their times, and his deep interest in artists’ motivations and ideas comes through in his essays and interviews. Of particular interest for me, in thinking about sculpture, were 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge, a survey exhibition that took place in 1969, and Oldenburg: Six Themes, a show delving into six recurring images in the work of Claes Oldenburg, from 1975. The former explores the major directions that sculptors were pursuing at the time, within the larger realm of industrially fabricated sculpture. The latter looks at the work of one artist in depth, considering the whole body of work and the threads of interconnection among these works. In both catalogs, Friedman’s clear critical eye and genuine interest and affection for the artwork offer a model of how to think and write about art.

Kirk McCall, exhibition technician/carpenter/draftsperson, Walker Art Center (1987–present)

We were installing the exhibition Foirades/Fizzles in 1988. I had only been at the Walker for a year or so and had felt the power and decisiveness of this small giant of a man who really deeply cared about every single aspect of the art, the artist, and its presentation. He would come in a day before an exhibition opened and always change a work (or 10) around. We called it “One-Hour Martinizing.” I remember Martin having a hard time figuring out a particular room layout. It was days going back and forth—switch, switch, switch. We’d just leave it to come back and get fresh eyes the next day. The next morning I went in and switched them the way I thought they should go to settle my own curiosity. Martin came in and looked puzzled. I felt really nervous and honestly afraid for my job. He looked up at me and didn’t say anything but winked and smiled and said, “This could work.” I knew he knew I had rearranged them, and from then on he trusted me with a question or two once and a while. It made me feel on top of the world, sincerely validated and encouraged. I knew I was in the right place and have called it home ever since.

Martin and Mickey Friedman (at right) dance at the closing party, just before the old Walker building was demolished, 1969

Martin and Mickey Friedman (at right) dance at the closing party, just before the old Walker building was demolished, 1969

Peter Murphy, media specialist, Walker Art Center (1972–present)

When I first started working at the Walker I would cheerfully take on any task assigned, filling in anywhere there was a need. On snow days I came in at 5 am to shovel snow, and later I would be painting galleries or doing building maintenance or donning the guard uniform of the time. My first encounter with Martin Friedman was when he abruptly led a contingency of us guards down to Receiving in the basement where items from the Native American show were accumulating. He gave us an impromptu lecture on what was about to emerge into the galleries. That day I was so struck by:

a. how egalitarian he was to include us nobodies,
b. how unbelievably intelligent and engaging he was (his narrative was engrossing!), and
c. how contagious his enthusiasm was. He wanted to share it with us, for this place, and what he was doing here.

Pretty good first impression! It fostered a lasting loyalty. He wanted everyone to participate and believe.

In those times—in the tailwinds of the Sixties—when the classes met full-circle (at wild, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–like parties and events), there were more intersections among all types of groups. Martin would scoop up all us hangers-on—anyone present at the end of the event, his “entourage”—and we would end up at his house. While the positions I held were not prestigious, I must have been at Martin’s at least four times. (It was there I was honored to meet and shake hands with none other than Robert Rauschenberg!) It didn’t matter who you were. He was always very direct and seemed to expect that you would rise to his level of conversation.

His expectations were high and sometimes awkward. If he walked by you and saw some refuse on the floor, he would tell you clean it up. You might think: that’s not my job, but it was clear, it is now. We should care about our own pride in the place, not just protect his. Some of his demands could be puzzlingly cryptic. I remember when I was a projectionist, Martin running into the booth saying, “We need more air!” I was perplexed as to what I was expected to do. I laughed to myself as I pictured blowing more air in—whew! whew!!

Still, I always felt we were in good hands with Martin and Mickey. You could feel the acceleration of the place in those times. He made us proud to be part of it.

Claes Oldenburg and Martin Friedman supervise the installation of Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974, for the Oldenburg retrospective Six Themes. Photographs by Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott's LLC.

Claes Oldenburg and Martin Friedman supervise the installation of Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974, for the Oldenburg retrospective Six Themes. Photo: Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott’s LLC.

Claes Oldenburg, artist

I remember meeting Martin on the terrace of the newly finished Barnes building, where we installed a yellow and blue twelve-foot high Geometric Mouse to keep an eye on its twin at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Later, when the Seventies set in, Martin and I spent days in cafes along Sunset Boulevard developing my interpretation of ordinary objects, such as a giant ashtray and three-way plug, into the exhibition Six Themes.

In 1988 came the placement in the sculpture garden, laid out by Martin, of the 50-foot-long shining spoon to which Coosje had added the red cherry that glistens with running water as spray from its stem emits rainbows.

Martin caused things to happen, and I consider his presence essential to the art of our time.

Installation of the Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974. PHOTO: Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott's LLC

Installation of the Claes Oldenburg’s Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974. Photo: Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott’s LLC

David Ryan, curator of Design, Minneapolis Institute of Art (1999–2009); librarian and assistant coordinator, Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1965–1968)

I had the exceptional good fortune to begin a 40-year museum career with Martin Friedman at the Walker Art Center in 1965. It was the beginning of a bond that lasted until his death. As with so many colleagues, his influence as a lifelong mentor is unshakeable.

At the beginning of Walter Mondale’s tenure as vice president, his wife, Joan, asked Martin to come to the VP mansion to see what he could do to lay out preselected art works in the home’s public spaces. She and her husband were the first couple to inhabit the residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory, and it was Joan’s wish to turn the home into a showcase for American art. 

By this time she had traveled extensively, attending museum exhibitions, dedicating new works of art, and otherwise directing national attention on artists. During her tenure as “Second Lady” of the United States, President Carter named her honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. 

Prior to visiting Washington, Martin asked me to assist him in working out logistics at the Mondale’s residence as we had worked together on many past museum installations. At that time, I was assistant director of the Museum Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. 

We began early one bright morning in the spring of 1977, soon after the Mondales had moved in. Aside from their lovable dog following us about, no one was home. Without losing a step, Martin begin moving art works and furnishings around, bustling about without hesitation. 

“Let’s move that over there.” “And this one over here.” “Good.” “Hmm.” “No, no.” “Not there” “Over here.” “How about this one?” “What do you think?” “Not too bad.” “I think if we move that stuffed chair out of the way—how homely can it be?” “Now then, we’re getting somewhere.” “And, that chest of drawers! That has to go!” 

“Uh, Martin,” I said. “This is the vice president’s home. Perhaps, we should slow down a bit and give some thought as to what the Mondales might want in the way of a comfortable atmosphere. It’s their living quarters!” “Hmm, yes, well, we’ll just make a few subtle changes.” 

Not much later, Martin was asking the VP staff to take furniture downstairs to storage and bring up other pieces in exchange, furniture that better complemented the art. This went on for quite an extended period. Eventually, we enjoyed a quiet lunch served by the staff while surveying a thoroughly redecorated vice president’s living space from top to bottom. 

The immediate reaction from Fritz and Joan upon first coming coming through their door is not on public record, but they certainly took pride in extending a welcome mat to all thereafter. Joan’s wish was fulfilled. Overnight, their home had indeed become a showcase for art.

One instance, one episode of a perfectionist at work. A lesson learned—a true perfectionist knows few bounds. I am immensely grateful for that invaluable lesson and many, many more at the hands of Martin Friedman over the years, forever indebted our paths crossed early on.

Martin Friedman gives a tour to Vice President Walter Mondale, 1976

Martin Friedman gives a tour to Vice President Walter Mondale, 1976

John Walsh, director emeritus, J. Paul Getty Museum

Martin was the museum director I admired the most. He was a dear friend, too, but I hardly ever saw him at the Walker. I did see him often at the Getty Museum in the 1980s and 1990s, where I was its thoroughly inexperienced director and needed all the help I could get. So we put him on an advisory committee of luminaries. We convened them once a year to review our plans for creating a brand-new museum, which we’d started to do, and for devising programs for the public, which lay a few years in the future. The best moment for Martin came when the new Getty was under construction and over budget. At its meeting the advisory committee learned that the Trustees were thinking about charging admission after the opening. It was only fair, the argument went, and besides, most museums charge, and people expect to pay. We had never conceived of doing that. The endowment was somewhere close to $6 billion. Admission to the Getty had always been free. When the issue arose at the meeting, Martin asked a few practical questions but mostly leaned back and listened to the discussion. After a half hour or so, he said to the head of the Getty Trust, “I think you people have a death wish.” Not much was said after that. The issue of an admission charge was never raised again.  

Penny Winton, longtime Walker Art Center supporter: her husband, Mike Winton, was a Walker Trustee who served as president of the board

Mike and I had known Martin ever since he was appointed director, about the time Mike joined the board. We knew how perfect Martin was for the job. We knew how miserable he could make staff and crews feel. (Picture Mickey at Wuollet’s bakery the minute it opened the morning after a Martin number, filling a box of mea culpas to assuage the wounded.) We knew his strengths and his weaknesses. We knew how loyal Justin Smith [a Walker family member and longtime trustee] was to Martin through some awkward times early on. We knew how amazing he was. We became very close to Martin and Mickey up to Mike’s last day and now to Martin’s.

The strongest glue that kept us close was Martin’s ever active sense of humor. He was at his most basic self a droll man, exceedingly droll. He loved telling funny stories even when he was the butt of them. There was the  bespoke gentleman from South America Martin was certain would end up a major contributor, and of course he’d be happy to show him around. The gent asked if the Walker had any Flegers, because he was such a Fleger fan and always looked for Flegers at every museum he visited. Eventually, Martin figured out he was taking about F. (Fernand) Leger and excused himself for  a meeting he had forgotten. He was a tease. At a board meeting a staff member was pouring coffee for the members around the table, “No, no, no, not for Winton. He’ll just roll hand grenades across the floor!” He was mischievous. Not too long ago, he and Mickey and I went to see a show on the art of Islam at the Met. Mickey quickly disappeared for a moment of peace, and I trotted after Martin. Now rather deaf, he was practically shouting, “Now where is that vase. I must show you this beautiful vase. You will love it and I am going to give it to you for Christmas,” as he leaned over its vitrine with an eighth of an inch to spare, while I watched guards racing toward us.

His love of the human comedy was constant.

Lee Kit and the Fleetingness of Feelings

“Hold your breath, dance slowly,” invites artist Lee Kit. As you walk into the dimly lit galleries, wandering from space to space, or nook to nook, you find yourself doing just that: holding your breath in quiet anticipation of what is to come. And perhaps if the gallery assistants were not standing guard you would […]

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Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly. All photos: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Hold your breath, dance slowly,” invites artist Lee Kit. As you walk into the dimly lit galleries, wandering from space to space, or nook to nook, you find yourself doing just that: holding your breath in quiet anticipation of what is to come. And perhaps if the gallery assistants were not standing guard you would dance, or at the very least catch yourself swaying as you move to the melody of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love (1961), a karaoke instrumental version of which permeates the exhibition space.

Curated by Misa Jeffereis, the Walker exhibition marks Lee’s first US solo show and is presented as part of a two-part exhibition. (A small sound in your head, curated by Martin Germann at SMAK, Ghent, will open on May 28.) With gentle care and great sensitivity, Lee offers us an interior space, a domestic space, and perhaps what is usually coded as a female space. Forgoing the open-plan galleries many contemporary artists and artworks seem to favor these days, the architecture of the show evokes an interior with many walls, doorways, hallways, and closet-like niches that are populated with wardrobes, tables, and other household furnishings.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

Using floor lamps and the soft light that spills over from the many projections that punctuate the gallery, Lee casts a warm glow on the unremarkable actions we tend to perform behind closed doors: The works in the show incorporate objects of an intimate nature, ranging from bathroom products (Nivea cream, Smith’s lip balm, Johnson’s baby oil, etc.) to a shower stall situated in a corner of the exhibition. Beyond these direct references to commonplace consumer products, his works more broadly evoke the daily regimen of personal hygiene and care that we conduct in private. We are shown fragments of hands and soles of feet, body parts that heighten our sensations of touch and which we can imagine caressing with the various creams and lotions alluded to throughout the exhibition.

Though deeply personal, the show suggests an intimacy not limited to the artist himself. You can feel traces of the body, an unspecified, non-gendered body, that had inhabited the space before: Folding chairs are arranged throughout, variously opened or left leaning against walls, while rugs are displayed both rolled and unfurled so you can imagine yourself taking up where the previous tenant had left off, tidying and rearranging objects as you might at home.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

This sense of familiarity resonates throughout the exhibition: When presented with the phrases “Fuck you” and “You feed yourself everyday” (transferred via inkjet onto a piece of cardboard or, in the case of the latter, at eye level directly onto the wall), you can easily imagine moments, the most private of moments, when you might look up into the bathroom mirror after washing your face and, assessing your reflection, offer up words of uncharitable condemnation or, if in a more generous spirit, of self-encouragement.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

“When we talk about places, we seldom consider our emotions,” Lee says. “People don’t often talk about emotions, particularly in art. They talk about concepts and ideas, but emotions are also very important. I’m not talking about expression. I’m referring to feelings that are subtle and often indescribable.”1 Lee’s installations, or what he calls “situations,” can be described as meditations on feelings that are subtle and indescribable. Like emotions, the exhibition possesses a dematerialized presence that feels at once ethereal and embodied, imagined and very real. The works that inhabit the spaces are themselves fragile and ephemeral (digitally projected images permeate the installation; lightweight, translucent plastic bins are stacked up and scattered throughout the space; and paintings on cardboard and paper are casually tacked onto the wall). The modes of presentation also suggest a transience or impermanence (projected images fade into one another; passersby cast shadows onto the projection surfaces, the shadows ostensibly becoming a part of the experience of the artwork that is impossible to hold onto). There is no beginning, middle, or end, no narrative structure to grasp; instead, you get the sense that you have experienced an all-consuming sensation that, albeit pleasurable in the moment, begins to slip away the moment you walk back into the daylight.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

But perhaps the act of forgetting is precisely the point. Upon entering the exhibition, the space stirs up a feeling—a tender, loving, comforting feeling—guided by Lee’s sensitivity to the poetics and aesthetics of touch. We indulge in this feeling as we wander in and out of the various recesses of the physical architecture, an analogue to our subconscious mind, but it eventually recedes from our memory once we exit the gallery. In other words, Lee prompts us to actualize through movement the fleeting nature of our feelings, and in turn the impossibility of rendering them permanent or concrete. “I focus on a moment that attracts my attention and then I extend it,” Lee says. “When I stretch it, I begin to see it more clearly. Then I pull in other things from the moment and extend it again, until I cannot extend it any further.”2 Despite the artist’s attempts, and by extension our own, to stretch a moment, to prolong a memory by visiting and revisiting it over and over again, the original feeling inevitably fades. And so the exhibition, despite being sweet and romantic, is also tinged with sadness. Because for every good feeling or memory had, there is always the possibility of subsequent longing. Dance ever so slowly, Lee seems to suggest, for this feeling, too, will soon evaporate.

Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly is on view at the Walker from May 12 to October 9, 2016.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

Footnotes

1 Lee Kit in conversation with Misa Jeffereis and Olga Viso; “Lee Kit: The Good Traveler” in Lee Kit: Never (London: Koenig Books, 2016), 25.

2 Lee Kit in conversation with Misa Jeffereis and Olga Viso; “Lee Kit: The Good Traveler” in Lee Kit: Never (London: Koenig Books, 2016), 25.

Building Bridges: Symposium at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

This past weekend, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin hosted Building Bridges, a symposium reflecting upon curatorial practice and how curators move from educational to institutional contexts. The conference was held on occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Young Curators Residency Program (YCRP), which annually brings three non-Italian recent graduates of curating courses to […]

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

This past weekend, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin hosted Building Bridges, a symposium reflecting upon curatorial practice and how curators move from educational to institutional contexts. The conference was held on occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Young Curators Residency Program (YCRP), which annually brings three non-Italian recent graduates of curating courses to Italy to research contemporary Italian art. During the residency, the curators travel across the country, meet artists and visit museums, and complete the project by curating an exhibition drawing on their research.

The symposium audience

The symposium audience

Following a welcome by foundation President Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the foundation’s curator, Irene Calderoni, introduced the symposium’s aims and key themes. Looking back at the residency since its inception in 2007, the symposium sought to evaluate its goals, structure, and influence on the field. Firstly, Calderoni addressed how training and educational contexts facilitate a move into institutional employment and, in particular, how study, research, and experimentation translate into professional modes of working. Secondly, Calderoni positioned the conference as a means for the foundation to evaluate its approach as both a contemporary arts institution and an educational organization (aside from YCRP, the Foundation runs Campo, a curating course established in 2012 for students based in Italy).

Beatrix Ruf, Dr Simon Sheikh, Mark Rappolt, Tom Eccles, Pavel Pyś

Beatrix Ruf, Dr Simon Sheikh, Mark Rappolt, Tom Eccles, Pavel Pyś

The first panel brought together Beatrix Ruf (Director, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), Tom Eccles (Executive Director, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College), Dr. Simon Sheikh (Reader in Art, and Programme Director of MFA Curating, Goldsmiths College), and me, moderated by Mark Rappolt (Editor-in-Chief, ArtReview). All of the panel’s participants had arrived to curating from a variety of paths—semiotics, dance, sociology and art history. Each emphasized the very inceptive nature of contemporary art, which has meant that curating is inherently cross-disciplinary, informed by lateral thinking and hybrid approaches that pool together knowledge from vastly different places. How then do you teach a profession which doesn’t comfortably sit within a single discipline and university department? Eccles and Sheikh both agreed on the importance of combining theory and practice and providing young curators with practical experience while still studying. We all emphasized the importance of the physical, embodied encounter with art, rather than its digital representation. As an example, Eccles pointed out that the first assignment students at Bard College face is to select a work from the CCS Bard collection and propose its display and interpretation. Ruf, Sheikh, and Eccles all drew attention to the waning viability of working as a freelance curator, and the shift from the model of the “independent curator” popular in the 1990s to professionals increasingly affiliated with ever-larger institutions. Following a round of questions, all of the panel’s participants noted that curating courses lack a more informed and detailed approach to teaching fundraising, as well as management and leadership skills.

João Laia, Joanna Warsza, Mark Rappolt, Francesco Manacorda, Kate Strain

João Laia, Joanna Warsza, Mark Rappolt, Francesco Manacorda, and Kate Strain

The second panel brought together João Laia (Co-Founder and Curator, The Green Parrot), Francesco Manacorda (Artistic Director, Tate Liverpool), Kate Strain (Director, Grazer Kunstverein), and Joanna Warsza (Head of CuratorLab, Konstfack). The afternoon’s conversation centered on themes of audience engagement and fostering relationships between institutions and visitors. Strain argued for curators to work in a variety of contexts and cited her own experiences ranging from running a vegan cafe to collaborating with universities as giving her a strong sense of the importance of hospitality and working with a different demographics. Warsza responded that it is the curator’s very responsibility to deal with their audience, while Laia argued for sensitivity towards the geopolitical nature of local contexts and how projects are translated and adapted to these. Manacorda stressed the need for institutions to collaborate directly with audiences and cited the recent Tate Liverpool exhibition An Imagined Museum as an example of the museum engaging in direct dialogue with local audiences. The exhibition drew on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 to propose a fictional scenario in which the exhibited artworks will cease to exist. As part of the exhibition, Tate Liverpool asked local audiences to memorize the works, and then removed these from view in the exhibition’s final weekend. Visitors were then invited to return to Tate Liverpool and recollect and narrate the missing artworks, sharing their personal experiences and readings.

Elisa Caldana, Molly Everett, Cesare Pietroiusti, Rä di Martino, Stefano Collicelli Cagol, João Laia, Rosalie Doubal, Gianluca e Massimiliano De Serio

Elisa Caldana, Molly Everett, Cesare Pietroiusti, Rä di Martino, Stefano Collicelli Cagol, João Laia, Rosalie Doubal, Gianluca e Massimiliano De Serio

Sunday’s sessions brought together past YCRP participants and artists previously invited to exhibit their work as part of the curators’ final exhibition. Moderated by Stefano Collicelli Cagol (Curator at Large, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, and previous YCRP co-ordinator), the discussion focused on the curators’ and artists’ experiences of collaborating, their expectations and the challenges they faced. Artists including Rä di Martino, Cesare Pietroiusti, and Chiara Fumai shared their experiences of working with non-Italian curators and the memories of the final YCRP exhibitions they participated in. In particular, the artists noted their enthusiasm for establishing relationships with curators, which often translated into long-term conversations. Curators including me, Rosalie Doubal (Associate Curator, ICA London), Kate Strain, and Andrey Parshikov (Head of Research, Manege Museum Association) recounted their expectations and experiences of working in Italy, the challenges of working with curators they had previously never collaborated with, as well as questions of sensitivity towards local context and artists. Both the artists and curators discussed the long-term results of the YCRP, which has nurtured ongoing collaborations and extending invitations to artists to participate in further exhibitions. The legacy of the YCRP program lies largely in this network of ever-growing exchanges and dialogues between Italian artists and non-Italian curators.

Building Bridges made apparent that there is no fast-track, linear, logical, and formal path for curators to move from the educational to institutional contexts. Instead, curators enter institutions through a series of both formal educational experiences as well as self-organized professional ones. The YCRP, along with opportunities such as the Walker Art Center Curatorial Fellowship and Cubitt Curatorial Fellowship, provide a vital in-between stepping-stone from study to work. Crucial to the YCRP is the ability to spend time with artists and peers, talking, exchanging ideas and engaging with a new cultural context. Driven by research, the residency teaches young curators how to work together, often beyond a linguistical boundary, and collaborate to create a culturally sensitive and timely exhibition. Here, at the Walker, the Curatorial Fellowship program provides young curators with a wide scope of experiences. The program places fellows at the center of the visual arts department, offering the opportunity to work closely with senior curatorial colleagues and directly with artists, the collection and across the visual arts program. The fellowship provides a firm grounding in curating in an interdisciplinary and institutional context and allows young curators to contribute to an exhibition from its conception through to fruition. Fellows are also exposed to good working practices, such as team-building, management skills and collegiality, which as Building Bridges saw are usually values and skills learned on the job, rather than as part of a structured working environment. Opportunities such as the YCRP and the Walker’s Curatorial Fellowships are key ways of developing professionals in the field, embedding curators right at the heart of an institution’s mission.

 

Artists Installing: Lee Kit

Hong Kong artist Lee Kit spent the past two-and-a-half weeks in the gallery working on his site-specific installation for his first solo museum exhibition in the US, Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly. The installation features new videos and paintings, as well as everyday objects sourced from Home Depot and IKEA: cabinets, lamps, rugs, chairs, […]

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Lee Kit at Home Depot stacking up storage containers, which will function as projector pedestals in the installation. All photos: Misa Jeffereis

Hong Kong artist Lee Kit spent the past two-and-a-half weeks in the gallery working on his site-specific installation for his first solo museum exhibition in the US, Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly. The installation features new videos and paintings, as well as everyday objects sourced from Home Depot and IKEA: cabinets, lamps, rugs, chairs, and storage containers. Opening Thursday, the exhibition is a poetic, sensorial, immersive environment that invites viewers to experience it in their own way. Please join me and the artist—as well as Martin Germann, senior curator at SMAK, which is opens Lee’s first solo exhibition in a European institution on May 28—for the opening-day artist talk on Thursday, May 12. In the meantime, here’s a look at the artist’s preparations for his Walker show.

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Figuring out which videos play on each monitor in I can’t help falling in love, a 13-channel video installation in the Walker’s permanent collection

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Technicians John and Michael installing the shower stall purchased at Home Depot

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Hot off the press! Kit eagerly opening the exhibition catalogue produced for the concurrent exhibitions at SMAK and the Walker

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Lee and graphic designer Gabriela Baka in the gallery, working on the exhibition didactics

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Lee securing one of his paintings to the wall

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Light plays an important role in the installation.

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Putting the final touches on the installation

 

Second Thoughts: Fred Sandback and the Virtual Line

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord. […]

Sandback ten

Pages from Fred Sandback, Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions, 1977, artist’s book, offset lithography, Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord.

Mining the Walker’s Rosemary Furtak Collection of artist’s books, I came across Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions (1977), a book-as-exhibition by Fred Sandback. The thin, pamphlet-like publication, devoid of text, comprises renderings of drawn-line constructions that emerge from a white grid atop a starkly contrasting black field. Sandback’s bold U- and L-shaped linear constructions appear three-dimensional within a two-dimensional plane. The artist achieved this by plotting forms onto matrices of 120-degree angle intersections of white gridded lines. This trompe l’oeil is facilitated by a process known as isometric projection, in which specific angles and intersections give “flat” surfaces the illusion of three-dimensionality. What appears to the eye as an object extending from the page is referred to as an “impossible object,” a term that can be readily applied to Sandback’s transformative drawings and minimal sculptures. The artist’s works transcend dimensions and, in the hindsight of our post-digital age, open his practice up to a discourse surrounding the virtual. The isometric process afforded Sandback the ability to work in an “imagined” space, positing the page as a virtual plane with indeterminate spatial possibilities for his linear constructions—literally blurring the lines between drawing, sculpture, and architecture.

This slippage between media and this expanded notion of virtual space transported me back to Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, a 2015 exhibition of the artist’s Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. The work consists of 64 drawings that together present all of the possible configurations of the associated yarn sculptures. The sculptural realizations of these drawings were presented in three adjacent, walled of spaces. The exhibition marked the US premiere of the work and its first realization since its 1975 debut in Munich. Each week, the three sculptures on view—each comprising three taught strands of yarn—were replaced and by the end of the run of the show 20 iterations of the work were constructed, the most ever shown in its history. Even though 44 configurations remained unseen, the level of variability achieved in this rotating display speaks to the virtual possibilities of Sandback’s minimal constructions, which challenge the viewer to actively engage in a dialogue with line and space.

Installation view of Fred Sandback, No. 1-64 from 64 Three-Part Pieces for München Kunstraum, 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 2

Installation view of Fred Sandback, Untitled (64 Three-Part Pieces), 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

Sandback’s practice upends conventions of artistic autonomy and authorship, as curators, registrars, and art handlers become what art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson describes as “art workers,” renegotiating the relationship between art and work as they labor the works to life in real time and space.[1] They do not simply place an object on the wall or on a pedestal, but put in motion an experiential mise-en-scène, in which sculpture unfolds in a relational space between bodies and the imagined “object.” Sandback noted that his works were meant to exist in a “pedestrian space,” and the yarn constructions, primarily placed along the ground or connecting the wall to the ground, invite viewers to enter a newly demarcated space. The taught fibers frame mundane spaces and create apertures onto a field of virtual possibilities.

Sandback view 3

Installation view of Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2015, Artwork from the Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 4

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Study for Kunstraum Munich), c. 1975, Felt tip pen, marker, and pencil on isometric paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm), Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The 64 drawings displayed alongside the rotating yarn sculptures at the Pulitzer, which represented all possible yarn constructions, were accompanied by a series of preliminary sketches. These “flat” diagrams acted as instructions for the realization of these works within the gallery space. The lines of the drawings, which float within the two-dimensional field, beg to come off of the page and it becomes the role of curators, registrars, and art handlers to translate the image from one dimension to another. Sandback distills the sculptural object into information, returning the material process to a germinal “zero degree” state of absolute potential, in which lines on a page become platforms for reimagining the relationship between bodies and objects in space. Sandback’s drawings and sculptures exist in and out of time; in and out of space—the artist relinquishes his authority and provides an indeterminate platform for viewers to reimagine the temporal and spatial possibilities of what appears before their eyes. In this manner, Sandback implicates the proverbial “art worker” in a virtual negotiation with the line and its unstable dimensionality.

Although Sandback had no concrete association with the Fluxus movement, his Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions and his Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces), as well as his drawings and diagrammatic elastic cord sculpture certificates within the Walker’s collection function analogously to Fluxus scores and instructions. The lines, whether emerging from the grid or floating in space, activate viewers and prompt them to imagine construction in mental space or to actually physically realize the sculptural form within architectural space.

Untitled drawing Sand

Fred Sandback, Untitled, 1973, felt-tip pen, graphite on paper, Walker Art Center, Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, in honor of Kathy Halbreich, 2007, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

Held in the Walker’s collection, the 1973 Untitled drawing is a minimal work on paper in which the artist uses a felt-tip pen to draw five parallel lines within the center of a field of negative space. Like his preparatory drawings that are directly intended for sculptural realization, this work can be seen as a potential prompt for mental and physical constructions that transcend the two-dimensional page. Furthering this precarious boundary between score, instruction, and finished product are the certificates that accompanied the Walker’s collection of Sandback’s elastic cord sculptures upon acquisition.

pink sand

gray sand

yellow sand

Top to bottom: Fred Sandback, Pink Corner Piece; Gray Corner Piece; Yellow Corner Piece, 1970, elastic cord, donation of Virginia Dwan, 1986, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The three 1970 elastic-cord corner constructions—which predate the artist’s turn to acrylic yarn—in the Walker’s collection (Pink Corner Piece, Gray Corner Piece, and Yellow Corner Piece) were acquired in the form of a certificate of authenticity, on which the artist has used a color pen—signifying the pigment of the cord to be used—to sketch out the measurements and spatial orientation for which the sourced elastic cord is to be taught and affixed to the corner of an exhibition space. The two-dimensional certificates bare an uncanny resemblance to their three-dimensional counterparts, further complicating any fixed dimensionality of Sandback’s sculptures or works on paper. The idea of a certificate or a score as a stand-in for an object-based work is emblematic of Fluxus scores and instructions (of which the Walker has significant holdings). Inserting Sandback’s works, “flat” and otherwise, into a Fluxus discourse allows for a recontextualization of his practice beyond the limiting categorizations of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Within the frame of the Fluxus score, Sandback’s oeuvre becomes open to indeterminate manifestations on the part of the viewer-turned-participant. Sandback’s works across media take on a virtual dimension, transforming the line, at once a static signal of order and structure, into a rhizomatic network in which museum staff and passerby take on the role of “art worker”—laboring with their minds or hands to determine and redetermine the dimensionality of the work.

Note

[1] See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).

The Peripheral, the Edges, the Off-Screen: A Conversation with James Richards

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thornton’s Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richards’s own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well […]

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thorntons Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richardss own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well as in its first in-gallery presentation until the end of this year, within Less Than One. Rosebud (2013), centered on a series of censored images Richards came across in a Tokyo library, is also featured in the exhibition. The library bookscontemporary monographs on artists Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Man Rayhad been stopped at customs, where Japanese officials were instructed to use sandpaper to scratch away at any suggestive photographs before they could enter the country. Here, we talk about  the seduction of touch, the sculpt-ability of sound, and the perverse pleasures of looking.  

Victoria Sung: You gave a short interview about Radio at Night when it premiered at the Walker in 2015. Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap has also written about the piece and its sense of flow in relation to how the human body serves as a site of sensory integration and reception. I’m curious to hear you speak more about Rosebud, which the Walker acquired this past year. It seems to be a very tactile and textured piece, especially when I think about how your working process involves editing digital files on a laptop. Can you speak about this emphasis on tactility in the context of video?

James Richards: The premise of the video developed out of something utterly analogue and tactile—the sandpapering of a book page. It felt natural to then take this notion of touch or caress as a starting point and make a work that explores types of sensuality. It’s about the seductive idea of someone sitting in a customs office sandpapering away genitals, and the caressing or devotional feeling you can somewhat imagine that inducing. I guess it also touches on the idea of people queuing to rub the heel of a saint; the idea of accumulated touch as a sort of devotional thing. There’s also something in the way that the violence of the removal during the censoring process only seems to draw you in more or make you look harder, so to speak. When starting to make the work I knew I wanted to do something about different types of looking, of peering and scrutinizing.

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James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

More broadly speaking, I became interested in video through ideas like sensation—and the moving image as a source of sensation, like sculpture—rather than through an interest in cinema or television. I view the frame of the image not as a window into something but more like a surface across which sensations pass. I guess I was also interested in finding another way of looking at something familiar. I don’t think my work strictly adheres to this, but Stan Brakhage, the American Structuralist filmmaker, spoke of looking in a way that was more akin to how a baby looks—before cognition develops to the point of its being able to differentiate and name what it is seeing; prior to this, everything is just colors and shapes.[1] This idea of a precognitive relationship, of an uninterpreted, sensational kind of looking, is definitely one of the interests that run through my videos.

Sung: Brakhage made films without sound, for the most part, as he thought it would detract from the purity of the visual experience. Sound is a central, if not predominant, element in your work. Your videos are at once ethereal and physical, and I think much of this can be attributed to your ability to weight sound or give it a certain gravitas. Can you speak to the tangible, sculpt-able nature of sound in your work?

Richards: I like this idea of the unseen affective force you can have with sound. In the visual arts, of course, sound is read as secondary, in some ways, but it can be such a powerful tool. You can address someone directly with the human voice using words, language, or a song, but then you can also do things that are much more figurative—like the sound of something happening, which conjures something very visual in the mind’s eye, or how rhythms and punctuation can return viewers back to their own bodies. You can also do things that are more tonal and emotionally filter the space or filter the images that are in the space. I feel you can control a lot in very particular ways with sound, and in quite contrasting ways. Sound is something I’ve been working with for a long time now, longer than moving image, so perhaps on a very practical level it’s the medium I feel I can manipulate and control the most, the medium with which I can create the most.

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

In Rosebud there are points where the sound is literally the sound of the thing you’re seeing: you see a camera submerged in water and you can hear the sound of water on the microphone of the camera, so you are in and of that moment. At other times, that sound has been replaced by an extract of a song or a percussive element, and it completely alters how you read the image; the relationship between sound and image becomes much more imagined. It generates a third sort of space, or a third sensation, between the way you’re interpreting the sound and the image.

Sung: I know you began your artistic foray with sound—the sequencing, synthesizing, and sampling of sound—and I wonder if you find yourself returning more and more to working with solely sound.

James Richards, Crumb Mahogany 1 (2016); 6-channel digital audio, computer system; 15 minute loop. Installation view, Crumb Mahogany, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, February 26 – April 3, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Definitely. The last work I made, presented at Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (Crumb Mahogany, co-commissioned by Bergen Kunsthall, ICA London, and Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; traveling through 2016) was all about trying to spread and smear the elements of a single video across a number of rooms. In some spaces we presented configurations of speakers playing audio compositions, and other rooms had video components; rather than synchronizing the two by showing a video with two speakers on either side, for example, things were allowed to just bleed between the rooms. I find myself making further moves from the cinematic or televisual idea of synching sound and image and letting them be in discrete spaces, to convene accidentally or through people walking between them.

Sung: In hearing you talk about sound and how it possesses the potential for a certain direct or immediate address, and the moments when the sound you’re hearing might not match up to the image in front of you, I’m struck by the immersive soundtrack in Radio at Night in relation to a sense of visual distanciation. There seem to be many distancing mechanisms—you frequently use a black frame to border an image, or when you show an eye it’s not just a naked eye but an eye as seen through a handheld lens as seen through a viewfinder. Can you talk about this possible tension you’re playing with?

James Richards, Radio at Night (2015); still from digital video with sound; 8 minutes 10 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Perhaps all of these quite graphic, distancing pictorial devices create space that the sound is then occupying, because sound always is in a way immersive; maybe there is something in that tension, a kind of moving around and in between those two, the pushes and pulls between sound and image. Then conversely it’s almost like the visual emphasis on shifts in aspect ratio or the resolution of an image—or in Rosebud the scratched image—actually encourages people to carry out a kind of intense viewing. It’s as if the distancing is producing almost a strange scrutiny of sorts, and then sound steps in to somehow modify that looking.

Sung: The self-referential nature of video as a durational, time-based medium is particularly captivating in Rosebud. I recently read an essay about how art invites a particular way of looking, a slow looking, which in turn may encourage patience at a time when we are accustomed to receiving visual information immediately. Can you tease out the durational aspect of your work here?

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: I think that’s definitely one of the pleasures of Rosebud. Even in the filming, before I knew I would make a piece with the footage, I came across these books in a Tokyo library on the last day or two of a residency and thought I’d just go and film as many of them as I could before I left. For some reason I chose to film them rather than to scan them, and I think it was totally about the perverse pleasure of introducing a time element to a still image. It speaks to a kind of gorging, or ways a camera takes something in. I like the idea of the wide open aperture and the image just flowing in. With the underwater scenes I wasn’t really looking through the viewfinder but was using the camera as a sort of vessel, as an extension of my hand that could be submerged into liquids.

Then there are shots of iconic but also shocking images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Wolfgang Tillmans in S&M scenes that have been sandpapered away at in a strange, impotent “desexualizing” gesture. But at the same time you can hear birds squawking outside, and the rustling of the hushed library where these images now reside, and all of this has a sense of “meanwhile” or “despite this.” I guess that’s something that happens with duration—I’m showing you this with an intensity, but at the same time something utterly unrelated is left in and seemingly happening. This concentrated, over-held attention on the one hand, and a shifting, wandering attention on the other—and moving between those two—is probably where a lot of the drama in the piece occurs. I guess it’s also one of the logics in the work that because the “center” or focus of the photograph has been removed, I end up working so much to accent or emphasize the peripheral, the edges, the off-screen.

Less Than One is on view at the Walker from April 7 to December 31, 2016.

Footnote

[1] Known for his experimental, non-narrative films, Stan Brakhage viewed cinema as a way to liberate the act of looking. In “Metaphors On Vision” (first published in the journal Film Culture in 1963), he wrote: “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?”

Becoming American: Fionn Meade on Less Than One

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition. At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it […]

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker (foreground)

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition.

At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it means to be an exile in one’s own country. Born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky in 1940 in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad), he grew up in poverty after his father lost a ranking position in the Russian Navy due to a surge in anti-Semitism against Jewish Russian families in the postwar years leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953. Brodksy quit school as a teenager and embarked on his own self-styled education, beginning to develop the cultural imagery that would eventually win him the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature.

Dodging many of the very real barriers of his time and place, Brodsky grasped intently for something different, working odd jobs—including as a coroner’s assistant, metalworker, and as part of a geology research team traveling to Central Asia—all while assembling an unusual arsenal of artistic skills. Brodsky taught himself Polish, for example, in order to translate poet and dissident Czesław Miłosz (a Nobel laureate who also became a US citizen), and learned English so he could translate John Donne and read Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Out of the prejudice and censorship surrounding him, Brodsky fashioned a unique style of direct observation and an unflappable belief in individual freedom and what he called the importance of “world culture,” a phrase borrowed from Russian essayist and poet Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), a touchstone figure for the young artist. Indeed, Brodsky’s idiosyncratic style is one that evaded authorities for some time due to its unusual bearings.

As Brodsky writes in the title essay of his collection and intellectual autobiography Less Than One, he was part of a group of young artists and thinkers imagining something new beyond the strictures of Soviet life: “If we made ethical choices, they were based not so much on immediate reality as on moral standards derived from fiction…. In its ethics, this generation was among the most bookish in the history of Russia, and thank God for that. A relationship could have been broken for good over a preference for Hemingway over Faulkner.” This “uncommon visage,” as Brodsky would later come to term his imagining of an ethics based in aesthetics, is exactly what guided the poetry he wrote and distributed as a young man, a form of underground literature printed on mimeographed sheets (called “samizdat” to describe the censored DIY publications of the Soviet bloc era) and often recited by Brodsky and others on street corners.

 Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Writing with a great wit and flare for the intimate observations of daily life, but with little to no overt political address or commentary, Brodsky gained steady recognition in the underground Soviet literary scene of the time and eventually acquired the counsel and mentorship of the great Russian poet and witness Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). It was just this flare for the observed beauty of daily life that eventually caught up with Brodsky as he was forcibly committed twice to mental institutions by Soviet authorities and later sentenced to five years hard labor in a work camp in the Artic, accused, tried, and convicted by the Soviet state. Even as Brodsky’s real crime was the circulation and popularity of his essays and poetry in underground forums, it was the charge of his not having a steady full time job, hence “social parasitism,” that was officially leveled at Brodsky during a trial that would add to his international notoriety upon the leak and distribution of his eloquent self-defense. A transcript of his trial was smuggled and distributed in the west, highlighting the following exchange, one that eventually reached an international reception:

Judge: What is your profession?

Brodsky: Translator and poet.

Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

Due largely to coordinated efforts on the behalf of Brodsky via an international network of writers—including notably the New York–based English poet W.H. Auden, an adopted American citizen as well—Brodsky was released from his five-year prison sentence early after 18 months and allowed to return to Leningrad. Harassed continually upon returning, Brodsky was encouraged to leave for Israel, which he refused to do, before being forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union at the age of 32 to Austria where he met with Auden and was eventually received as an immigrant to the United States.

Brodsky would eventually translate much of his own poetry from Russian into English, and he increasingly wrote prose in an adopted, inimitable English. As American poet Mark Strand once put it regarding Brodsky’s full embrace of the English lexicon, “The English he writes is exotic. The choices of words he makes are those that no native-born speaker would make.” Reinscribing and revitalizing language as many American innovators before and after have done, Brodsky’s English is both arresting and nervy, a remix of styles that is formal in flourish yet fresh in its oddity.

                        Life, that no one dares

to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

bares its teeth in a grin at each

encounter. What gets left of a man amounts

to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

Taken from the poem A Part of Speech, written shortly after coming to the States in 1972, the excerpt above echoes a primary theme in what would come to characterize Brodsky’s mature work, namely the repeated acknowledgment of the responsibility in the “spoken part” of protecting individual artistic expression and freedom, a part that Brodsky identifies with the agency and urgency of protecting the place where art is encountered, where “a work of art addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.” What gets left is a part, Brodsky implores, a part to play in protecting the space of direct artistic encounter.

Installation view of Less Than One

Installation view of Less Than One

When Brodsky eventually became the first immigrant to be appointed US poet laureate (in 1991), he was asked if there was any particular significance to be gleaned from the selection of a person born outside the United States receiving the honor. His immediate call and response was worldly and characteristically crisp, “Would you ask the same of Lafayette, who was from France? It’s the history of the place.” Referring to the French aristocrat and military officer Marquis de Lafayette who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War, Brodsky quickly added with self-awareness and self-effacing wit that he very much regarded himself an American. “I’ve been here 19 years, I pay taxes here,” he said, further declaring that in his new post as US poet laureate he would advocate that poetry be published and made available in hotels and supermarkets throughout the country: “People who buy The National Enquirer would buy poetry. They should be given a choice. I’m absolutely serious.”

Now on view at the Walker, the exhibition Less Than One takes its title from a 1986 collection of essays that would help Brodsky win the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. A poetic meditation on the nature of human existence and artistic expression, his text suggests that a person—defined in political and aesthetic terms—is always “less than one.” We can never be a discrete whole at any moment in time, Brodsky argues, as we are inextricably tied to our past and future selves. This drives the writer and artist to attempt to meet reality through words, images, and an uneasy embrace of artistic personae.

Brodsky wrote passionately throughout his career of art’s ability to trouble consent, question power, and disrupt the “heralds of historical necessity,” arguing instead for a “polyphony” and multivocal resonance that exists in the place “where art has stepped.” Exploring such themes as iconoclasm, the graphic use of silhouette and shadow forms, and the questioning of identity through performance, Less Than One celebrates the differential urge and unruly spirit that lies at the heart of artistic practice.

Jasper Johns's Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

Jasper Johns’s Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

The uncommon visage that can result within the space of direct artistic encounter, “free of any go-betweens,” as Brodsky put it, introduces what American philosopher William James described as the positivity of many-sided perception, not unlike a boulder or gem. Elongating perception into a shape that is sensed as duration suspended, the “direct relations” of artistic encounter are not unlike experiencing time with a friend, when you lose track of time. When Jasper Johns wrote the following note in his sketchbook in 1964, he underscored a pragmatic method that placed repetition and a startled awake active perception at the heart of his practice, and that resonates to this day: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Breaking away from the dominant painterly mode of the 1950s that consisted of highly personal and expressive abstraction, Johns looked to “things the mind already knows,” incorporating flags, targets, numbers, and other familiar signs and symbols into his artistic production. These ordinary objects take on an iconic, emblematic presence that articulates a particular type of postwar American iconoclasm—represented here by the various doubled, inverted, and multi-colored flags on view in Less Than One.

The initial encounter with Flags, 1965, at the entry to the exhibition is one of immediate recognition coupled with a companion estrangement, the familiar design of the American flag outlined in green, black, and orange (top), and gradations of grey (bottom) against a mottled grey background, with a white dot centered above and a black dot bullseye below. As an exercise in visual perception, Flags asks the viewer to focus on the dot above for a time, then close one’s eye briefly and switch focus to the dot below, activating a red, white, and blue afterimage as our retinal receptors tire from holding the initial impression and seek out a fuller range of the color spectrum triggered. Looking at Flags is an exercise in active perception where one must submit to a time beyond the clock, beyond constantly updated information, beyond the flatness of visual compression and image production, beyond ever widening abstractions of finance, beyond the atomizing nature of networked communication, and, also, beyond the rhetorical demagoguery of our moment. It is rather an opening to the active looking and “uncommon visage” that Brodsky adopts, into “direct relations” with the cultural imaginary of becoming American.

 

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