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A Radical Presence: Remembering Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016)

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by […]

va2014po_patterson Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo by Erin Smith.

Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo: Erin Smith

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by his generosity, his fierce memory, and his remarkable ability to tell stories, especially at the noble age of 80. Patterson, who passed away June 25, was a founding member of Fluxus, an international, postwar art movement that challenged traditional art-making modes by combining visual art, music, and performance. Like his Fluxus peers, Patterson created instruction-based works—what he called “compositions for actions”—that encouraged situations allowing for direct engagement with participants or the audience, often through humorous actions. Fluxus unlocked the potential of art to be fun, engaging, and accessible to all people, making it perhaps the most influential and significant experiments in the history of art.

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Benjamin Patterson, Variations for Double-Bass, circa 1962

Patterson was a crucial figure in Fluxus’s founding, although he is rarely recognized in the same light as other American artists of the movement such as Yoko Ono or John Cage. Perhaps his 20-year “retirement” from art in 1963—after creating work and collaborating with artists and musicians in Europe for just three short years—might account for part of his lack of recognition as a Fluxus character. Or perhaps it was his “radical” status as the sole African American artist and musician in the movement that excluded him from the annals of art history, pointing to the problematic way in which history is recorded. Despite his position, Patterson was a determined individual with a voracious appetite for learning and found joy and inspiration in discovery; he embodied and lived in the spirit of Fluxus. He considered the central function of the artist to be “a duality of discoverer and educator.”[1]

Because of his willingness to experiment, he lived a storied existence with a wide spectrum of life experiences—his early classical training in double bass, his interest in natural sciences (which led him to clean cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo), his later role as deputy director of the department of cultural affairs of the City of New York (to name just one of the many arts administration positions he held). As a student of music and composition at University of Michigan, Patterson proclaimed himself on a mission to be “the first black to ‘break the color-barrier’ in an American symphony orchestra.”[2] After several attempts at auditions in which he was immediately turned away because of the color of his skin, he moved to Canada and held the position of principal bassist in the Halifax Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, his time in Canada was cut short when he was enlisted in the US Army, serving for two years in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, based in Stuttgart. It was here, separated from the segregation and charged climate of 1950s America, that Patterson found his place in the experimental music scene of Germany.

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Benjamin Patterson, Paper Piece, 1960

Patterson moved to Cologne in 1960 and met John Cage, who profoundly shaped his thinking around indeterminacy and chance operations, which led him to marry his experimentations in classical music improvisation with actions tied to musical composition. His earliest “composition for action” work, Paper Piece (1960) consists of a set of instructions that includes the number of participants, materials to be used, and actions to be taken, such as crumpling, twisting, and rubbing together paper. With Paper Piece, not only did Patterson challenge the traditional music score by replacing music with actions, but, like Cage, he also created a system with variables determined by chance.

In an interview with Patterson by former Walker associate curator Eric Crosby and curatorial fellow Liz Glass, the artist explained how important audience participation was for Paper Piece, noting that the work was created for the de-skilled participant: “You didn’t have to study an instrument for 20 years before you could realize this score. Anybody could, with a fair amount of sensitivity, get some interesting sounds and activity out of paper.”[3] The democratic nature of the work appealed to Patterson, which stood in stark opposition to his experience in musical training, wherein the musician’s expertise divided him from the audience. Paper Piece challenged the great chasm between performer and audience. Pushing against the rigidity of classical music composition, where a score is expected to be performed the same way each time, Patterson experimented with openness and indeterminacy in the end result: “I was just fascinated with the idea of the impossibility of actually doing it, you know, of coming to an answer and everybody will have a different answer or different approach or reaction to it.”[4] Paper Piece was hugely important in Patterson reconsidering his thoughts about musical composition and heralding his new approach to art making.

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Benjamin Patterson, Pond, 1962. Photo: Erin Smith

Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and, like Paper Piece, it invokes game-playing, chance operations, and musical components. The piece consists of an 8-foot grid taped directly on the floor, a score created by the artist, wind-up toy frogs, and eight participants that stand around the grid and make corresponding sounds as the frogs hop from one quadrant to the next. The performance escalates into a cacophony of sound as more and more frogs are released, evoking the “ribbeting” of an active frog pond. While Patterson was in Minneapolis in 2014, we executed Pond with eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), the youngest group to have ever performed the piece. Pond marks a moment early in Patterson’s practice when his performances began to incorporate objects (in this case, toy frogs), which functioned as both props and as catalysts to engage the audience in a playful action.

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Benjamin Patterson, Instruction No. 2, circa 1964, Walker Art Center Permanent Collection

Perhaps his simplest composition for action, Patterson’s Instruction No. 2 (1964) consists of a small plastic box containing a bar of soap in the shape and color of a lemon slice and a paper washcloth on which is stenciled, “Please wash your face.” With this work, Patterson transforms a habitual action that typically happens in the privacy of one’s home into a public performance. The work has been realized in various public settings, and yet Patterson noted the public’s resistance toward performing this activity: “In New York people were a bit hesitant one way or another, wondering whether or not they wanted to do this activity in public because it’s something that you normally do in the bathroom, in private.”[5] Instruction No. 2 asks participants to “concentrate one’s attention and focus on an everyday activity which is very important and taken for granted.”[6] The work marks out an everyday activity as an artistic and collective action, blending art and life, which is at the core of Fluxus. Life is art. And Patterson knew exactly how to help us experience differently, appreciate, and find humor in life.

Footnotes

[1] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass. Interview with Benjamin Patterson. October 10, 2014.

[2] Patterson, Benjamin, “I’m Glad You Asked Me That Question” in Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us, ed. Valerie Cassel Oliver (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012).

[3] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass, interview with Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Magazine as Storehouse: Merce Cunningham and Aspen 5+6 (1967)

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1] ―Phyllis Johnson It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art […]

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1]

―Phyllis Johnson

It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art magazine. Named after the town where it was conceived, Aspen would not resemble a run-of-the mill publication, but rather, as Glick wrote in the inaugural editorial note, a “storehouse,” a multimedia magazine in a box that would house artist projects, writings, and objects, all of which demanded a new kind of reader—an active participant. Instead of a fixed format, each issue, of ten produced between 1965 and 1971, reflected the conceptual concerns of different guest editors and designers invited by Glick, who, under the nom de plume Phyllis Johnson, oversaw all aspects of the magazine’s production.[2]

Aspen’s innovative and shape-shifting format defied the very notion of the mainstream magazine. It stymied many, including the US Postal Service, but was welcomed by the American art community who craved an alternative platform for experimental work.[3] The mass-produced, ephemeral magazine format was well-suited to the conceptual art practices of the time, which eschewed the elitism of the art world gallery system in favor of reproducible, photographic, and text-based works.[4]  With its expansive reach through the mail delivery system and price of $8 an issue, Aspen enabled greater access to art and ideas in the United States and abroad.

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Edited by artist Brian O’Doherty (1928–) and designed by Lynn Letterman and David Dalton, number 5+6, “The Minimalism Issue,” remains one of Aspen’s most ambitious efforts. O’Doherty, in his editorial note, referred to the double issue as a “miniature museum,” which had indeed replaced the white cube of the gallery with a small off-white box.[5] Secured by a string and button, the box enclosed an abundance of diverse media that provided a curated selection of 1960s conceptual practices out of New York[6]: artist projects by O’Doherty, Dan Graham (1942–), Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), Mel Bochner (1940–), Tony Smith (1912–1980); reams of art films by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Robert Morris (1931–), László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), and Hans Richter (1888–1976); five flexi-disc records that included music by John Cage (1912–1992) and Morton Feldman (1926–1987), and recordings of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974), William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), and Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008); as well as musical scores and advertisements. It also included three staple-bound essays by Susan Sontag (1933–2004), George Kubler (1912–1996), and Roland Barthes (1915–1980). Incidentally, this was the first publication of Barthes’ famous essay in which he pronounced the death of the author, a claim that subsequently launched an entire field of literary criticism.

Whether it was Tony Smith’s build-it-yourself model of his minimalist sculpture The Maze (1967) or the many films and audio recordings that required hours of attention, in the wake of the death of the author, issue 5+6 championed the birth of the reader, foregrounding his or her role in participating in the production of art and ideas. Therefore, the same year that art critic Michael Fried (1939–) published the iconic essay in which he declared himself against theater, specifically the theatricality of minimalism, which existed only for its audience, Aspen 5+6 was producing minimalist art on a mass level, disseminating the magazine to a reading audience located across the country, who were cast as active participants.

Among the many treasures of issue number 5+6 is a flexi-disc of two recordings by Merce Cunningham. Side “A” features Cunningham reading his seminal 1952 essay “Space, Time, Dance,” in which he expresses the views that initiated a “choreographic turn,” in modern American dance while Side B labeled simply “Further Thoughts” includes an interview with Cunningham from 1967 in which he expands upon his theory of dance fifteen years later.

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Cunningham’s measured, but conversational reading of “Space, Time, Dance” comes through surprisingly clearly on the warm, crackling flexi-disc recording. This essay touches on many key artistic strategies that would characterize his dance career. His discussion revolves around the equal importance of space and time in the dance, and he describes his innovative “formal structure based on time,”[7] as well as his commitment to using chance operations to create indeterminate choreographies that objectify everyday movement, blurring the boundaries between art and life. Just a year earlier, John Cage had begun experimenting with chance operations in his music. Cage created extensive charts that catalogued different musical elements and used the structure of time to determine the order of those elements by way of chance procedures. This method had a profound influence on Cunningham, who sought to use the devices of chance and indeterminacy in his dances, which he experimented with for the first time in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951).[8]

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Jasper Johns’ décor for MCDC’s Walkaround Time, which consisted of seven inflatable plastic “pillows,” each displaying a different image from Duchamp’s masterwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1928. Collection Walker Art Center

Reacting to American modern dance that sought to express the “new” but could not shirk the expressionist and narrative forms of ballet, Cunningham saw chance operations as offering a new kind of freedom from the old forms, in which dance could be “a space in which anything can happen.”[9] Using the formal structure of time measured by a stopwatch as brackets that enclosed the dance, Cunningham would precisely choreograph a sequence of movements and then allow chance, the toss of a coin for example, to determine their arrangement. Cunningham insisted that all parts of his dances—choreography, scenography, music—be independently created and only come together afterwards, all corresponding in the same way to space and time. All of the elements of the performance on stage are thus “autonomous” but “connected at structural points.”[10] He describes his artistic process as “man-made” though “the final synthesis” has a “natural result.”[11] As a consequence, the “dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music.”[12] Instead of being subordinate to one or the other, dance and music are free agents that only conform to the predetermined formal structure of time. In doing so, Cunningham was constantly challenging himself and his dancers. They would learn the choreographies in silence, using timed notation and often only hear the accompanying music for the first time in performance. Most of all, his dances challenged audiences who were accustomed to a linear progression of familiar, synchronized movement that took place center stage and in concert with the music. In Cunningham’s dances, audiences was presented with simultaneous but disparate choreographies occurring all over the stage that were independent from the music—a landscape of space and time they could navigate on their own terms.[13]

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For his 1969 décor design for MCDC, Robert Morris created a mobile column complete with airplane runway lights. During the performance, the column traversed the stage from left to right and back, shining the bright lights against a reflective scrim hung upstage and the dancers’ costumes, which were covered in reflective paint. Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Canfield. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969. Photo: James Klosty

Rather than the expressive or symbolic movement, Cunningham’s interest lay in creating “pure movement,” performed simply as a thing in itself such that “what is seen is what it is.”[14] At the core of his fascination with chance is Cunningham’s embracing of the beauty of the randomness and the logic of everyday life. In a stunning turn of phrase, Cunningham asks the listener to consider an hour of their day, and all of the occurrences that naturally fill that hour, and how “each thing […] succeeds each thing.”[15] Cunningham wanted his dances to have a similar effect, of a set of seemingly natural occurrences taking place over the course of a period of time. Similar to Duchamp’s readymades, Cunningham saw everything in life as eventful and everyday movement—whether riding a bicycle onstage, getting rained on, running out to get a cup of coffee, or simply standing—as worthy in and of itself of a place on the stage. “Dancing,” as he explains, “is a visible action of life.”[16]

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Mobile enough to take on MCDC’s first world tour in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg’s free-standing stage décor for MCDC’s Minutiae prompted interaction by the dancers who moved around and through itRobert Rauschenberg  décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976,  oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood. Collection Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Issue 5+6 is dedicated to the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), who famously declared that “things exist, we do not need to create them; we only need to seize the relationships between them.”[17] However, it might as well have been dedicated to Cunningham, whose dances grasped the rare and beautiful indeterminate choreographies derived from chance operations. Aspen 5 +6, in many ways, reflects Cunningham’s philosophy of dance. It also maps a network of influential artists and composers with whom he had collaborated or would do so in the future: Cage, his partner in life and art; Rauschenberg, who met and began working with Cunningham at Black Mountain College, served as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and designed more than 20 costumes and stage decors for Cunningham; Feldman, who composed music for multiple productions; Morris whose work greatly influenced Cunningham and Cage, and who would design the stage décor for Cunningham’s Canfield in 1969; Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984), whose film projections would illuminate the stage in Cunningham’s Variations V (and who filmed Morris’s performance Site (1964), which was included in the issue); and finally, Duchamp, whose experimental work with chance, the everyday, and the boundaries between art and life inspired and shaped the practices of Cunningham, Cage, and many fellow artists in their circle. A sustained look at Aspen 5 + 6 provides just a glimpse of the vast constellations of art practices grouped around Cunningham that will be on view in the forthcoming Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition in February 2017.

Peruse all ten issues of Aspen at Ubu Web.

 

Footnotes

[1] Phyllis Johnson, “Letter from the Editor,” Aspen, no. 1 (1965): n.p.

[2] Allen, Gwen. 2011. Artists’ Magazines: an alternative space for art. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press), 43.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Ibid, 52.

[5] Ibid, 49.

[6] Ibid, 49.

[7] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[8] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 58.

[9] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[10] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[11] Cunningham, Merce. 1951 “The function and technique of dance.” 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 60.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 276.

[14] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Edson, Laurie. 2000. Reading relationally: postmodern perspectives on literature and art. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 63.

 

The Patron Saint of Ruined Media: On Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna

As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b.  1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.   And on […]

As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b.  1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.

 

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”[1]

 

Lorna (created between 1979 and 1983) was the first interactive piece of video art created for LaserDisc, and uses the technological capabilities of the LaserDisc to tell a compelling story about an agoraphobic woman.[2]  Renowned for their visual clarity (particularly when compared to other media at the time, such as Betamax or VHS) LaserDiscs were nevertheless never commercially viable due to their expense and inability to record television. LaserDiscs prefigured DVDs and Blu-rays in several capacities, not least in their ability to play, pause, fast forward, and select various options from a menu stored on the disc. All of these technologically advanced affordances are available to the player in Lorna, which combines long clips of video with interactions best compared to point-and-click graphic adventure games. Furthermore, because Lorna’s agoraphobia is facilitated by various kinds of technology (in particular the television and the telephone) it feels appropriate to access her story via obvious and almost obtrusive technological means.

Lorna opens much like a montage at the beginning of a television show—it is even accompanied by a strangely upbeat country song. After this introduction, Hershman Leeson’s camera pans around the room only to settle on a pile of mundane objects. These objects, which include a fish bowl, a television, and a wallet, introduce the player to the central mechanic of Lorna: branching menus. The player navigates the menu easily with a remote to select one of the objects. Similar to the home screen on commercial DVDs with forking options (Play Movie, Subtitles, Bloopers, etc.) this first screen helps launch the player into different parts of the piece. Exploring Lorna’s environment (which includes the ability to watch her television programs, look through her wallet, and even have sex with a delivery man) helps the player feel empathy for her and her condition. Lorna’s life is expressed and contained by the limits of her apartment, which is why Hershman Leeson’s camera lingers and repeatedly returns to Lorna’s possessions ̶ they, after all, have a heightened relevance in her life. The objects themselves can trigger a new video clip or take the player to another menu for other choices (for instance, selecting the television takes the player to a number of different television segments), and it is impossible to know in advance if the object you just clicked on will lead you back to the title menu, back to the screen you were just on, or to another part of the narrative entirely.

Compared to both Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1977), the key early adventure videogames which relied on typed text commands and had no visuals, the blending of film and photography with interactive menus in Lorna was a major technologic achievement. Merging film and game, Lorna stands at the edge of how media is often demarcated, requiring input from the player even as it remains primarily voyeuristic.

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Image credit: “Prehistories of Media Art: 1965- Present.” http://systemsapproach.net/edu/SAIC/AHTC/PHONM/FLL06/03.html, accessed July 14, 2016

As the work’s sequences are not fixed in a specific order, Lorna unfolds in a nonlinear way that differs from playthrough to playthrough. Ultimately, by navigating through menus in different orders, the player can conclude the story with three wildly different endings: Lorna can kill herself, leave her apartment for Los Angeles, or destroy her television set. This last choice is particularly poignant, as Lorna’s connection to her telephone and television enable and reinforce her agoraphobia. Hershman Leeson’s prescience about the way technology has become more and more all-consuming in our daily lives underscores Lorna’s continued relevance. Or at least it should.

This relevance is often lost in the opaqueness of Lorna’s user interface. I didn’t fully understand Lorna’s complexity until I saw a diagram that explained how its sequences fit together and branched off from one another.

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Image credit: Lynn Hershman Leeson, ” Schematic of Lorna Videodisk Branching System,” 1984, ink on paper.

This schematic gave me a much clearer picture of the interactivity and complexity Hershman Leeson was trying to cultivate in Lorna. Unfortunately, this interactivity was more forcefully conveyed to me in the schematic than in any interaction with the piece itself. This is because, like so many media creations, Lorna was ahead of the technology it needed. To create Lorna, Hershman Leeson coopted an available media form (LaserDisc) that was, ultimately, not optimal for her purpose. Lorna easily becomes stuck on particular passages, has trouble returning to its previous menus, and can be fast-forwarded in such a way that it circumvents its complex choices. The Walker Archive houses the original disc along with the transferred DVD, and primary researchers are only allowed to play the DVD. The problems with the DVD magnify the inherited problems with the original disc—problems that are an artifact of using the laserdisc in a way it was not meant to be used. Hershman Leeson has noted that she likes “to preserve the glitches of time, the underbelly of an era … I keep the scars intact.” Ontological honesty is refreshing in an era with an insatiable appetite for reskinning and iterating characters and storylines (see the recent success of Pokémon GO, the record-setting box-office attendance numbers for the latest Star Wars, etc.). These scars, inherited from the original LaserdDisc, distract from the experience so much that Lorna is almost unplayable on DVD.

Either way, both the disc and the DVD’s capacity for interactivity are woefully antiquated when compared to any modern computer. Choosing to program for this format is gloriously inefficient in terms of pure interactivity, but very helpful if, like Hershman Leeson, the images and video are just as important as the interactive elements.[3] Interacting with Lorna in its current DVD state, one cannot help but wish it had been preserved on a computer. However, a transcription of that sort would have completely obfuscated the transgressive way Hershman Leeson expanded the uses of the laserdisc.

Like Shelley’s fictitious description of the ruined monolithic status of the great king and ruler Ozymandias (inspired by the pharaohs of old), Lorna is no longer intact (and perhaps never was as powerful or as realized as it pretends to be). Just as Ozymandias’s  head is no longer attached to his body, and his sneering visage looks out onto a wasteland, Lorna is a ruin. Lorna is now the outline of what it once was, and if not a warning to media artists, she can be seen as patron saint of the Ruined Digital. The ambition of Lorna coupled, with its migrations from one hardware to another, has ensured the work would quickly become unstable and unplayable. Given that the television is an antagonist throughout Lorna, there is something appealing about this ruinous state, as if the character herself might be able to escape due to the imperfections of the technology; by transferring the choices to a new system, perhaps she will be able to move away from life on the screen.

Notes

[1] Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Ozymandias,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002, 109.

[2] Hershman Leeson, Lynn, and Peter Weibel. Lynn Hershman Leeson Civic Radar. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2016, 160.

[3] From personal experience programming in ActionScript 3.0, even current computers and programs do not offer a very good platform for combining video/photography along with interactive elements.

Grey People are the Guanaco and the Button Hole: Erin Sharkey on Pope.L’s “Skin Set”

“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of […]

by White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001)

William Pope.L’s White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), part of his “Skin Set Drawings,” as installed in the exhibition Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of various colors (white, black, orange, green, and so on), offering incisive commentary on the absurdity of language about color and race. In commemoration of the Walker’s recent acquisition of a series of “Skin Set” drawings, now on view in the exhibition Less Than One, we invited Minneapolis-based poet, essayist, and educator Erin Sharkey to share her creative response to works in the series. 

I.

A Blizzard of Claims

The message looks bold. A direct statement. No modifiers like: sometimes or maybe. A straightforward statement that sounds so close to something you have always heard you might miss that something is amiss.

But you look really closely, you get up close and break the column of light in front of White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), and you see marks Pope.L made on its face. Between the bold red letters, in small script is this short musing:

write write write something I can buy. then write it out and write it again. A blizzard of claims like snowfall coating the trees in the park after the lynching

And there are small cartoon bones. The only thing here with strong singular meaning. Bones are bones whether they be food or a reminder. Or a warning.

Always bones.

And snow, clean white snow, on every surface. So quiet and still. What is snow for? To remind us of resistance to the ground? To record footsteps, coming and going? To melt?

Like any night anywhere, in his little drawing, a little house with a fire in its little fireplace, smoke spilling out of its chimney. They are inside. Warm and resting from the activities of the day. Be it farming or factory work or stringing up a black man by his neck.

Selections from William Pope.L's Skin Set, on view in Less Than One.

Selections from William Pope.L’s Skin Set, on view in Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

II.

Grey people are the Guanaco and the Button Hole

When your mother is gauze and your father a raven, you learn very early you are either sackcloth or ash. Evidence of sacrifice. Storm clouds or an old woman’s hair.

Color without color, undied, undyed.

A cloud on the ground. A heavy buoyancy.

The first math equation I learned=
A black body, a perfect closet for light + a white back turned away.
Calculation. Is there a better warning that race is replica than that it combines?

1+1= alone in this world.

Look here at all that we have built—an industry of industries, a conveyer belt for conveyer belts. All we have added is lack, and simplified by making all of this more complicated. Smoke stacks.

Black can be made.
White cannot be made, it is empty.
Black, full. Black is only everything but what it is not.
Black is pigment
White—light
They want no meaning.

Grey is no color—only want. And certainly it is not a clear thing. Transparent, clean, sterile. Oh god no, not that. Nothing pulls the curtain back on a binary like being both inverses or neither.

There is no word for the opposite of a metaphor. Literally.

I have learned uncertainty. Color is a senseless gauge. How can color be trusted anyway? It changes depending on weather. It changes when another leans in close and kisses its ear. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t understand how one could trust that another person saw the same thing as they did. Ask a friend to draw what they see. They will see what they see and say it’s what you saw.

Picked the prettiest yellow flower in the neighbor’s garden. How can you even talk about it? And trust that when you compared the flower to the brightest yellow yolk or the creamiest stick of butter or the golden light of the moon that they really remember? Or that they make the same shapes on their memory?

A camel, no reserve, somehow crossed the salty ocean with no hump. So quick, her baby was born running before its first breath, air as thin as thread. Hang on dear life.

She was a whale. Not a devil, not a school bus. Simply an extremist wearing a cape of neutrality.

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William Pope.L, Orange People Are the First Word in the Bible (2012), on view in Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

III.

My Heart’s Envy is Violet

On a journey on a wide rough sea, insisted by waves towards the end of the spectrum by westerlies, anti-trades, that drag the path of hurricanes—our boatswain, with his tool belt of metal darners, pauses to look out over the stern’s regrets, shrinking at the furthest point as it makes itself smaller and smaller like a scolded child.

I’ve asked you to join on this voyage on this boat of hands, fingers splayed under the surface, reaching down for a hand reaching up in return. Asked that you compound the pigments, use a swirling brush; count each round until you reach the age of a stone at the deepest reach of the ocean’s floor who has never felt sunlit on its face.

Newton calculated the desire for the color of beautyberries, free for no one insisted that they be red or blue, or rather understood how far 380 nanometers away  is the troposphere. The beads of the callicarpa bush—metallic berries—squished under feet, can be used to make a fermented goblet to sustain you on your journey.

—Okay, stop.

You know that we aren’t really on a ship on a journey on a wavelength towards a perfect color that no one would force to be what it is not. We are just sitting here in chairs, or maybe you are reclined in some other way—me writing, you listening with your eyes and your tender hands.

You cannot deny the lure of red with its ordered rituals, its occasional sweets, or the pull of blue’s honest emotion, and you know that to find it is to perhaps balance on the lonesome point alone. No history shared with your conceivers. And from this acme even if you stretch as far as your arms will reach, you cannot hold blood in one hand, water in the other.

I wont convince you, though I have tried, you will agree, mightily, that the pursuit is feckless for colors don’t exist. They are only light, like so many bouncing balls. And that a man sits at a great wide table, lifts up each thing presented to him, spins it once in his hands, hums a great deal, and calls it energy or clean, mystery or nobility.

My heart wants violet. Don’t tell me it’s not its own glorious thing.

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.

On the Walker terraces with Vincent Price, 1984

On the Walker terraces with Vincent Price, 1984. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Bruce Atwater, Honorary Trustee, Walker Art Center, and former president of the board

Those who knew Martin best have commented on how he combined scholarship with showmanship, intense support for loyal staff with demanding perfectionism, and expansive vision with fiscal reality.

Martin’s capacity for real friendship was another unique and very important defining characteristic. He became a real friend to so many in the art world: artists, gallery people, collectors, other museum directors, young people just becoming interested in art, and many others.

Martin’s main friendship criteria were probably a strong interest in the arts, an appreciation of the comedy in human affairs (and, of course, of Martin’s wonderful wit), and an easy compatibility.

Our friendship really deepened when I happened to be president of the Walker board during the lead up to Martin’s retirement after so many years at the helm. All who knew him well were very concerned that this might be a traumatic period as Martin wrestled with what he would do and where he and Mickey would live after the Walker. I had several warnings about how difficult this was likely to be for all concerned.

Fortunately, Mike Winton and Tom Crosby, both of whom were very close to Martin, had been quietly thinking about this, talking with Martin, and had all three put together a plan for the Friedmans to move to NYC.

Martin and I could talk very openly about the potential emotional issues of retiring as I was thinking about the same issue. Martin handled his “retirement” in a totally admirable way. He went on to be a major force in the art world for more than twenty years based in New York.

So, here is to my dear friend Martin!! You were the best!

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. Photo: 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.

 

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