An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
A beloved member of the Walker family and the book arts community, Rosemary Furtak, the Walker’s librarian for 29 years, passed away Sunday, July 8, 2012, at age 69.
A beloved member of the Walker family and the book arts community, Rosemary Furtak passed away Sunday, July 8, 2012, at age 69. She was a great colleague and friend, and one who will be sorely missed.
Last week we celebrated a beloved colleague, Rosemary Furtak, who retired recently after a 29-year career at the Walker. Countless curators, scholars, writers, artists, designers, and others—both inside and outside the art center—have a special fondness for the Walker Library, which houses more than 35,000 publications in a wonderfully hushed, secluded underground space. This is thanks largely to Rosemary and the infectious enthusiasm she brought to her profession as a librarian–and, more to the point, to her role in establishing and building the library’s collection of some 1,600 artist’s books.
It was for her work in both of those capacities that she received a Distinguished Service Award from the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS) at its 2012 conference, held last March in Toronto. “In the early 1980s, Rosemary was among the few art museum librarians who recognized a fundamental difference between artists’ books and others, and who segregated them into special collections areas that would eventually become known as ‘Artists’ Book Collections’,” noted Janice Lea Lurie, head librarian at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in presenting the award. “The idea that artists’ books are different, or as Rosemary stated, they are ‘books that refuse to behave like other books’, was a visionary step, as no well-defined precedents in the early 1980s existed for establishing artists’ book collections. Consequently, Rosemary was a pioneer in this area, which later became part of the “collection development” mainstream of the late 1980s and early ’90s.”
In their nomination letter, Lurie and a host of other ARLIS colleagues wrote of the ongoing impact of Rosemary’s “early and visionary leadership” not just in art museum librarianship, but also in the books arts community and “the strongly rooted ‘book-scene’ culture of the Twin Cities.” They cited her as both a “well-known local personality in the art, library, and book arts circles” and “a highly respected and beloved figure internationally”; and, finally, noting her “very quiet way” and “great modesty”—something that endeared her to so many—they proposed for her the title of “The Quiet Revolutionary.” More than 30 of Furtak’s fellow art librarians and other colleagues in book arts and museums supported the nomination.
Many of us at the Walker already miss Rosemary’s sharp insights and vast knowledge, not to mention her connoisseurship of chocolate and her sartorial flair (on any given day she could easily take the award for best-dressed Walker staffer). We will also sorely miss her miniature exhibitions of artists’ books, an ongoing series presented in a specially built display case right outside the library. Fortunately, all of these exhibitions dating back to 2005 have been documented in photos–click here to see the full collection on Flickr.
For more on Rosemary and the artists’ book collection – including 13 great examples of works—see this interview from 2008, conducted as she was co-curating the exhibition Text/Messages with Walker curator Siri Engberg; and her article, “Adventures in Collecting, originally published in Walker magazine.
In contemporary art, it’s not hard to summon nostalgia for the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when so much of what artists were producing seemed authentically new and authentically cool (at least given today’s perceptions about “authentic,” “new,” or “cool”). The art world was smaller and more manageable in many ways, not least […]
In contemporary art, it’s not hard to summon nostalgia for the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when so much of what artists were producing seemed authentically new and authentically cool (at least given today’s perceptions about “authentic,” “new,” or “cool”). The art world was smaller and more manageable in many ways, not least because the practice of discovering “alternative modernisms” had yet to be discovered. In New York, which was still regarded as its capital, artists were still colonizing the neglected downtown Manhattan lofts that would later become coveted real estate; more to the point, they were making art in these spaces that had no place in typical white-cube galleries and museums.
That’s what made the 1971 exhibition Works for New Spaces such a critical moment in the Walker’s history and, arguably, in the broader art world. Curated by then-director Martin Friedman, the show inaugurated the Walker’s new building designed by Edward Larabee Barnes, whose seven white-cube galleries were, in fact, designed specifically with these new kinds of artworks in mind. As the title indicates, 21 of its 22 works were special commissions, with artists making the work partly or wholly on site. That practice is commonplace now, but this was the first time it had been done, at least on such a wide scale.
By 1971, Friedman had been leading the Walker for a decade, establishing his reputation as “a vigorous champion of everything that is farthest out on the current art scene,” as Hilton Kramer noted in the New York Times, reviewing both Works for New Spaces and the new Barnes building. But the commissioning of new art, which has become integral to the Walker’s mission, didn’t really get underway until the late 60s, while the Barnes building was under construction.
As Friedman recalled in the Walker’s Bits & Pieces collections catalogue, those commissions included Red Grooms’ The Discount Store, installed in the State Theatre building a few blocks away on Hennepin Avenue; and outdoor works around the city by William Wegman, Richard Treiber, Barry LeVa and others for 9 Artists/9 Spaces. Regarding that show, Friedman said that “practically everything was destroyed in one way or another by the public” during what he called “tense anarchic days, with protests, riots, and bombings all over the country. … We certainly never thought of what we were doing as confrontational, but those were difficult times.” (More on 9 Artists/9 Spaces here and here.)
The art in Works for New Spaces, however, was presented in and around a new, pretty much universally lauded building (the one exception being a strobe-light piece by the artist group Pulsa in Loring Park), so the Walker director could be as far-out as he wished without worrying about people attacking the art. As he put it, “the artists we invited could hardly wait to attack the building, and they did, in the most amazing ways.”
Looking back 40 years from another era of “difficult times,” Friedman’s references to artists and the public on the attack, not to mention the destruction of artworks, are notable. Even if riots and bombings are still mostly taking place outside the U.S., there’s no question about the domestic factor in Time’s naming “the protester” as its “Person of the Year” with a cover story penned by Kurt Andersen.
It’s also easier to see how 1971 and Works for New Spaces were not so much the advent of the ’70s but rather a culmination of the ’60s—a decade “of relentless and discombobulating avant-gardism, when everything looked and sounded perpetually new new new,” as Andersen observes in another piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. Incidentally, his characterization of the ’60s in that article is part of a broader and fascinating complaint about how current culture seems stuck rewinding the past 20 years. Perhaps that phenomenon explains a craving for new-new-new alternatives to the same-old same-old—or maybe just a fondness for old art that was once bracingly new.
Above, Minneapolis Tribune coverage of the opening festivities for the new building and the show, which “has completely dominated the local art scene lately and continues to be a source of discussion and debate,” wrote critic Mike Steele in a later piece.
The forms in Lynda Benglis’ Adhesive Products “assume the character of spectral, primordial creatures.” One of the “products” was remounted for the 2010 Walker exhibition Abstract Resistance; and in 2009, Friedman wrote a comprehensive story about the Benglis commission in Art in America. (This quote and those following are from the exhibition catalog.)
In Siah Armajani’s Fifth Element, “a folded gold plane floats in space with no visible means of support and rotates mysteriously on its vertical axis. The supporting device, an electromagnet developed by University of Minnesota physicists, is concealed within the white ceiling box. Armajani’s use of sophisticated technology is that of a mystic.”
Created with “gauze-like fabric tautly stretched across a space,” Robert Irwin’s No Title was remounted in 2009, appropriately enough, in the Walker’s Friedman Gallery, part of the 2005 expansion to Barnes’ 1971 building. A blog post about the reinstallation shows some great archival images of Irwin and an assistant at work.
Sam Gilliam, “once associated with the Washington School of Color-field painting,” had by 1971 “abaondoned the use of the stretched canvas” to make works like Carousel Merge, above. Gilliam intended the canvas to be “hung in a variety of configurations in any given space.”
Larry Bell used “a huge vacuum chamber to adhere vaporous layers of a silver alloy on glass plates, which then assume an elusive reflectivity” in Garst’s Mind No. 2.
In James Seawright’s Network III, a “suspended light grid receives its impulses from a programmed computer,” but the viewer is also “a participant whose movements direct the patterned activity overhead.”
Born in Cuba in 1915, Carmen Herrera charted her own alternative modernism while working in virtual obscurity for some seven decades. While living in New York in the 1950s, where the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist movement held sway, she made reductive, hard-edged abstractions that predate the work of artists such as Lygia Clark in Brazil and […]
Born in Cuba in 1915, Carmen Herrera charted her own alternative modernism while working in virtual obscurity for some seven decades. While living in New York in the 1950s, where the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist movement held sway, she made reductive, hard-edged abstractions that predate the work of artists such as Lygia Clark in Brazil and Ellsworth Kelly in the U.S. There’s a particularly striking affinity between Herrera’s work and Kelly’s; notably, the two spent the same years in Paris, from 1948 to 1953, and the Walker’s extensive holdings of Kelly’s paintings, sculptures, and works on paper offer up potential for more dialogue between these artists. Her work also proved prescient as Minimalism and Op Art took hold in the 1960s, and with later minimalist developments in the work of American painters such as Brice Marden and Agnes Martin, both of whom are represented in the collection.
It wasn’t until 2004, at the age of 89, that Herrera sold her first painting; like many women artists of her generation, her work was overlooked despite her friendships and associations with prominent male artists like Barnett Newman. Now, however, the artist and her work are now receiving much-deserved attention as critics and curators investigate overlooked strands of 20th-century art in and beyond the U.S. Herrera’s paintings have entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Tate Modern; the Walker’s acquisition is special in that it includes a free-standing sculpture—the only work of its kind by Herrera—as well as three gouche-on-paper works: the blue one, a study for the sculpture, and the red and green studies below.
- 2009 retrospective at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, UK: Exhibition guide and Frieze review
- Interview in the Guardian: “Carmen Herrera: ‘Every painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win’”
- New York Times feature: ”At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting”
- Biography from Hispanic Heritage in the Americas
Gallery view of “Absentee Landlord,” with works by Claes Oldenburg, Gedi Sibony, Scott Burton, and Marlene McCarty. All photos by Cameron Wittig. Filmmaker and pop culture provocateur John Waters has played many roles in his career, but never that of curator until now. At the invitation of the Walker, he enacted a “curatorial intervention” in […]
Gallery view of “Absentee Landlord,” with works by Claes Oldenburg, Gedi Sibony, Scott Burton, and Marlene McCarty. All photos by Cameron Wittig.
Filmmaker and pop culture provocateur John Waters has played many roles in his career, but never that of curator until now. At the invitation of the Walker, he enacted a “curatorial intervention” in one of its current collection exhibitions and the result, Absentee Landlord, is infused with his trademark blend of subversion, wit, and insight. Walker curator Betsy Carpenter recently spoke with Waters about his lifelong interest in art and his own photographic practice.
Most people coming to the exhibition will know you as a filmmaker and a writer, but fewer will know that you are an avid collector of contemporary art. Since this is your first foray as a curator here at the Walker, would you give us a little background?
I bought the first piece in my collection when I was maybe eight years old. I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and in the gift shop they had for probably a dollar a print of a work by Miró. I remember I loved it and took it home and put it in my bedroom, and all my friends went, “Ew, that’s horrible, why would you hang that ugly thing?” And I realized the great power that contemporary art has. I still have that piece and it really looks real because it’s so old and it’s in this old frame. It’s the only fake I have in my whole house but it was the first thing in my collection, so I like to think of it as real.
Do you remember what it was about the Miró that struck you?
Well, I wasn’t looking for compliments. I was just saying to myself that I liked it— and then I was amazed to see how crazy it could make people who couldn’t see what I saw, which was, I guess, art. That was the first time that had ever happened.
Were your parents interested in art?
Not especially, but we did have big books of classics, of old masters and that kind of stuff. And of course, I always looked at anything with nudity—as a child that was the main thing I wanted to look for in the old masters. We got Life magazine, and at that time it was like getting 100 magazines today. Life made Jackson Pollock famous; I remember reading the article “Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter?” and being obsessed by that. Later, as a teenager, I pretended to be an abstract painter but my work was horrible; I kept none of it. I wanted to be a beatnik—that character that Ric Ocasek played in Hairspray, that’s kind of what I wanted to be. I remember liking Marisol’s work, and I really liked Kienholz a lot. His works were fascinating to me—a little bit dirty and a little bit shocking.
So true, there is definitely a dark side to his work.
So I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. My parents did not discourage it, but they certainly didn’t love my interests. Before my dad died he used to say to me whenever I would buy something, “You bought that? They saw you coming, boy.” I’ve never even sold one piece I’ve collected in the past, but my dad was the only person I ever would be uncouth enough to show auction prices to—like “See?” I find that really offensive in general, but with my dad I liked doing that and he would laugh.
You are also a photographer. When did your photographic practice start? Was it an extension of your filmmaking?
Around about 1990, I think, I started doing it for myself, but I didn’t show it to anybody for a while. Before that I had collected contemporary art for a long time. I have a silver Jackie Kennedy print by Warhol and a couple of Lichtensteins that I got in high school. The Jackie was given to me by my girlfriend—it was that long ago. It was $100, which was like $1,000 then. It was a lot. So I did collect art very early, and then I stopped for a long time, and when I finally got a little money from making movies, I started again. I went to every gallery around the late ’80s, and always went to Colin de Land’s gallery, American Fine Arts. I really liked his shows the best. One day Colin just said, “Do you ever paint or anything?” I said, “No, but I have these little photographs.” He said, “What do you mean you have these photographs?” So I did have a whole body of work already, and I think I had purposefully only showed them to very few people until Colin came down and saw them and he offered me a show.
Do you think you needed to have that support or a certain validation from a gallery to take your work seriously as an artist?
Oh, yes. Especially for me coming into the art world from show business, something which in America—not so much in Europe but in America—creates this great skepticism.
Let’s go back to talk about what it was about contemporary art that your eightyear- old self who bought the Miró recognized as a power to piss people off.
Well, Jackson Pollock pissed people off. Then Warhol pissed off all the people that liked Jackson Pollock, which was even more exciting to me. So of course Pop art is what got me hooked. I was very, very obsessed. As a teenager I actually would sneak away to New York on a bus and go see shows. I saw Claes Oldenburg’s Store when it opened originally, and the really early Warhol films, too.
Gallery view of Absentee Landlord, with works by Yves Klein, Eugene Meatyard, Carl Andre, and Russ Meyers
You witnessed key moments, legendary really, of 20th-century art. Today the art of that era has been accepted, even embraced by the general public, whereas back then it wasn’t.
Oh, it was mostly made fun of. You look at Warhol’s beautiful little soup cans on the walls, the ones that started the whole thing, and they’re so exquisite, and they’re hand-painted, and they were so amazing. And you realize how incredibly radical that was. To me, that’s what the ’60s were, not the Beatles and stuff, but the Warhol years and certainly the larger Pop art movement and the fashions from Betsey Johnson’s Paraphernalia shop. Warhol certainly was the first ever to put drugs and homosexuality together, which was incredibly radical at the time because gay people were kind of square then, and Andy made them much hipper. I think he began gay liberation, even though he was the kind of gay person who didn’t even fit in that world. I’ve always found the people I’m most attracted to are minorities that can’t fit in their own minority.
So turning to the current moment, do you feel that the contemporary art world today still has that same sort of power to provoke?
Minimalism used to be the easiest way to infuriate people, but now that they have gotten used to it, it’s lost a little bit of its kick. That doesn’t mean it’s less good, but people have seen it before so they’ve gotten a little more used to it. Contemporary art still can make people crazy, but there is not a new movement. I’ve always wondered what the next generation of rebellion is going to be. When I was younger, it was being juvenile delinquents and beatniks and hippies and punks, and then grunge and rappers, but now what? Well, if you’re a bad boy or girl now you’re a hacker. That is how you rebel, and there is no fashion from hacking except bad posture from sitting in front of your computer. Certainly appropriation — “stealing” to the general public – can still anger people, yes. Some civilians can have great hatred for contemporary art, and that’s why whenever you go to court and have a jury deciding on appropriation, you always lose when you try to explain because they are angry that it’s worth that much in the first place, much less that you “copied.” The jury hates you for liking it and being able to see the art in it.
The idea that somehow artists are swindlers …
Maybe they are, but is that bad? I can’t stand when people say they’re “artists.” I always say, “Well, I believe that’s up to history to decide.” Or, “I believe I’ll be the judge of that.”
But don’t you consider yourself an artist?
I don’t call myself that. I say I use photography. I choke on saying I’m an artist because I really believe that is not up to me to decide. Sometimes it’s just easier to say that because you have an art show. But really, my work is hardly like Ansel Adams.’ I’m hardly using photography in that way, so it doesn’t really work to say I’m a photographer either. But when people say that to me, “I’m an artist,” I always do choke a little and think to myself, “Well! We’ll see about that!”
Waters and Carpenter (left) working on “Absentee Landlord” with chief curator Darsie Alexander
One of the benefits of working with you on this exhibition is that you have kept me laughing, and many of the works that you have selected for the show are ironic, even laugh-out-loud funny. But our audience should know that you take the art you collect very seriously. I’m interested in this fine line between seriousness and humor.
Well, to me contemporary art uses wit, and uses humor a lot, too. I would say Richard Tuttle isn’t funny, but he can use wit in a way that startles you. And I am serious about what I collect, but at the same time I embrace the impenetrability of some art, I embrace the elitism of the art world. I find it humorous because it is a secret club. Art is a magic trick. That somebody can take one thing and just put it here and call it art is a magic trick—if you can see it, and at first you can’t see it. You have to start going to galleries, you have to read, you have to learn about art history. But once you see it, you have that power—and it is power—forever.
Most people are mad that you can see it, and they think you’re lying and being pretentious. To me, pretension is pretending to see something you don’t. Well, I do see it. There is a certain humor about something that takes someone two seconds to draw that maybe goes on auction 30 years later for $10,000,000, but that’s great. That’s the magic trick of art! A lot of the art I like brings out the most unsophisticated thing you can possibly say about art, which is, “My kid could have done that.” And, the thing is, “Well then, stupid, why didn’t he? It just sold for $2,000,000. Who’s the moron?” Or the emperor’s new clothes. To me, well, that is art! If you can convince somebody that you have fashion when you’re naked, isn’t that what art is? You learn to see something that others can’t.
China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia … and now Minneapolis. Clara Kim arrives here August 1 after some particularly intensive globetrotting (more on that below). She was was most recently gallery director/curator at REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles’ center for innovative visual, media and performing arts, where she has worked since its inception in […]
China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia … and now Minneapolis. Clara Kim arrives here August 1 after some particularly intensive globetrotting (more on that below). She was was most recently gallery director/curator at REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles’ center for innovative visual, media and performing arts, where she has worked since its inception in 2003. In her new role, Kim will continue to shape and develop the Walker’s program of exhibitions, artists’ residencies, acquisitions and special projects.
In between finishing a curatorial fellowship, preparing to host a two-day conference on it for international colleagues, and continuing her work at REDCAT – not to mention preparing to relocate – Kim has few moments to spare. However, she graciously used a few of them to answer some questions:
REDCAT is a relatively new institution for contemporary art, and you played a key role in building its international influence. What aspects of your work there are you bringing to the Walker?
REDCAT is a much smaller institution than the Walker but residencies and new commissions have been the core of its programming. Like the Walker, artists are central to the institution, which serves as a safe and supportive place for new artistic production. That along with an international, interdisciplinary perspective on contemporary artistic practice — which has also been very important to REDCAT, especially the Pacific Rim i.e. Asia and Latin America, as these regions are critical to Los Angeles and increasingly important in the global economic and cultural community.
You’re completing a circle of sorts by coming to Walker, since you began your career here as an intern in the late 90s. How have you seen contemporary art and the museum world evolving since then?
Immense changes. The boom and the subsequent downturn of the economy has greatly affected cultural production. As museums all over face pressure to meet the bottom line, we need to act and think creatively, and not lose sight of the things that matter.
What kinds of trends and ideas have dominated your practice as a curator?
I suppose a commitment to a diverse, international perspective on cultural production. I believe that art should challenge and open up our minds to new ideas and thoughts; as well as speak to the social and political moment we live in.
Can you talk about exhibitions, projects, or commissions you’ve undertaken that have stood out in your mind?
Two memorable projects for me at REDCAT are with the Tokyo-based architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow – who created three original structures in response to their three-month residency in LA investigating the Case Study House program; and, more recently, Irish film/video artist Jesse Jones’ film shoot on the Russian choreographer Meyerhold’s studies in biomechanics that involved student actors and crew from CalArts. Integral to both projects was the collaboration, participation and engagement of many individuals across different fields and disciplines. The process of building relationships and trust became as critical as the end result. In fact, after the exhibition of Bow-Wow’s structures, which were made of recycled wood acquired through a local non-profit, we ended up dismantling the structures plank by plank and put the raw materials back into the cycle of use and circulation. It makes me very happy knowing that Bow-Wow’s houses morphed into skatebowls for at-risk urban youth and also helped beautification projects for Edgar Arceneaux’s Watts House Project.
Thanks to a curatorial fellowship from the Warhol Foundation, you recently had the opportunity to travel throughout Asia and Latin America exploring alternative art spaces and independent projects. Any findings or experiences or travel anecdotes you can share from this experience?
The research has been fascinating — full of surprises and contradictions — for instance, a region as wealthy as Hong Kong does not yet have a major contemporary art museum and a politically and economically unstable place such as Colombia has so many dynamic, critical artists and curators.
What did you learn from the fellowship that might affect your new role at the Walker?
That you need the support and participation of everyone in the building from top to bottom, from bottom to top, in order to make it work well.
What will you miss about Los Angeles? And/or what are you looking forward to in re-locating to Minneapolis/St. Paul?
Getting fresh produce year round. And taking up winter sports.
This morning John Waters shook hands with a fan at the downtown Minneapolis CVS Pharmacy en route to the Walker, where he appeared in front of Claes Oldenburg’s giant French fries sculpture to shoot a short video welcome for his new exhibition, Absentee Landlord. He then proceeded to the Cargill Lounge, where he charmed a group of media folks […]
This morning John Waters shook hands with a fan at the downtown Minneapolis CVS Pharmacy en route to the Walker, where he appeared in front of Claes Oldenburg’s giant French fries sculpture to shoot a short video welcome for his new exhibition, Absentee Landlord. He then proceeded to the Cargill Lounge, where he charmed a group of media folks before leading them on a preview tour of the aforementioned show — his first foray into curating.
During a post-tour Q&A, his mention of a 1990 exhibition in Los Angeles called Just Pathetic as “one of the greatest contemporary art shows ever” prompted a Google search. Many agree, it would seem; it was the first show curated by Ralph Rugoff, who was until then primarily known as an arts writer. Since then, says the Guardian UK, Rugoff has “shaken up art audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, inspiring them to engage with the kind of puzzling, cerebral work that tends to put off all but the most dedicated of contemporary art aficionados.” Not unlike Waters’ own aim with Absentee Landlord, perhaps … though he noted repeatedly throughout the tour, in so many words, that contemporary art only puts off those who refuse to give it a chance.
Spinning things out a few more degrees: Just Pathetic traveled from L.A. to the legendary American Fine Arts in New York, whose founder, “art dealer and aesthetic provocateur” Colin deLand, was the first to show Waters’ own work in photography (as he notes in an interview in the upcoming Walker magazine, Waters is pretty emphatic about not calling himself an artist).
And now that Rugoff is director of the Hayward Gallery in London, it’s hard not to wonder what Waters’ future holds. He did note during the Q&A that “you can never have too many careers”; and he has, after all, just returned to the States from the 54th Venice Biennale, where he was one of the jurors who awarded artists on June 4. Of that experience, he singled out Swedish artist Klara Lidén, whom he and the other jurors gave a special mention to for her Untitled, (Trashcan) installation — a piece he didn’t think much of until he later saw some trash cans lined up along a beach elsewhere in Venice. He and the other jurors commended her work for ”its wit and rage, as well as its ability to bring the logic of public intervention into the museum space.”
Another item too amusing not to mention: Waters — a collector with his own very astute sense for art’s monetary value — recalled looking at wall labels for artworks with his dearly departed friend Divine, whom he said would note the names of the collectors and start plotting a home robbery. “That’s why those labels say ‘Private Collection’!” he explained.
Last week the Walker announced its acquisition of a comprehensive collection of some 150 works from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: set pieces, costumes, painted drops, and props, created over several decades by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime partner. As director Olga Viso notes, “The […]
Last week the Walker announced its acquisition of a comprehensive collection of some 150 works from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: set pieces, costumes, painted drops, and props, created over several decades by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime partner.
As director Olga Viso notes, “The acquisition of these works is groundbreaking for the Walker and for the museum field at large, affirming our longstanding commitment to bringing together diverse artistic practices to form a cross-disciplinary blend of programs. We enjoyed a lasting relationship with Cunningham beginning in the early 1960s and look forward to inspiring future generations with programs, exhibitions, and new scholarship devoted to his legacy of innovation and collaboration.”
Longtime blog readers may recall a 2006 interview with assistant curator for Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald – who was then the Walker’s new program manager – in which she mentioned modeling a dress made of meat, a work titled Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Anorectic Albino by artist Jana Sterbak. That artwork, also part of the Walker’s collection, is currently […]
Longtime blog readers may recall a 2006 interview with assistant curator for Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald – who was then the Walker’s new program manager – in which she mentioned modeling a dress made of meat, a work titled Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Anorectic Albino by artist Jana Sterbak.
That artwork, also part of the Walker’s collection, is currently on view in the new exhibition Midnight Party, an occasion that prompted Steinwald to dig up a 1991 article from Montreal’s Gazette that features her in the dress.
Interestingly, the Gazette article concerns objections to Sterbak’s piece based on food waste and hunger. Yet 20 years later at the Walker, despite being in another recession (or arguably just emerging from one), complaints about the work so far have been related to animal cruelty, in addition to the perennial comments about it being gross/disgusting/etc.
Those different objections may actually stem from the two versions of Flesh Dress Sterbak created. The Gazette notes that the meat used for the National Gallery of Canada’s Flesh Dress would decompose and fall off its hanger (Steinwald did not model the dress for the duration of the exhibtion), then be replaced by a new dress every five or six weeks. The Walker’s Flesh Dress is designed for longevity, with cured meat sewn onto a dress form; instead of falling apart, it gradually dries and shrinks (a good thing, since Midnight Party is on view until 2014). One might liken it to picking up the latest “disposable fashion” from H&M or Old Navy versus investing in a couture piece by Chanel or Givenchy.
For Steinwald, the experience was especially memorable, and not just because she donned a meat dress when Lady Gaga was just a preschooler. ”The outrage [over Sterbak's work] hit the papers the same day that Martha Graham’s death was in the papers,” Steinwald remembers. “As a young dancer in training, it was a thrill to have my picture next to hers.”
“The draftsman and the wall enter a dialogue. The draftsman becomes bored but later through this meaningless activity finds peace or misery. The lines on the wall are the residue of this process. Each line is as important as each other line. All of the lines become one thing. The viewer of the lines […]
“The draftsman and the wall enter a dialogue. The draftsman becomes bored but later through this meaningless activity finds peace or misery. The lines on the wall are the residue of this process. Each line is as important as each other line. All of the lines become one thing. The viewer of the lines can see only lines on a wall. They are meaningless. That is art.”
—Sol LeWitt, 1971
Over the years, Sol LeWitt developed relationships with a cadre of assistants that he trusted to create his wall drawings — or more precisely, to carry out his legendary instructions for making them. Among them are Sachi Cho and Chip Allen, who cane to the Walker last November to install three wall drawings in the Walker collection; they’re part of the exhibition Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D, on view through April 24. Working with them were two members of the Walker’s installation crew, John Vogt and Loren Smith. Over several weeks, the quartet clocked some 525 hours in the Friedman Gallery, drawing lines, holding a straight edge while someone else drew lines, cleaning up drawn lines, sharpening leads for to draw more lines, and once in a while taking breaks from drawing lines.
Recently, John and Loren reviewed images below showing the installation of two of the drawings, taken by Walker photographer Gene Pittman. Here they weigh in on the whole process from start to finish: interpreting LeWitt’s directives, working with his master draftspersons, dealing with the aforementioned ”peace or misery,” and more.
Loren: Sachi and John worked on Wall Drawing #9 A [at left above], which was made with all graphite. For Wall Drawing #9 B [at right], Chip and I drew one layer of graphite and then drew primary colors over it. This subtle difference in materials made a huge difference in our working conditions. The colored leads are more forgiving than the dark graphite ones, so lines made with those required more going back.
John: It’s also important to note how these wall drawings really don’t register in pictures— you have to be in the gallery to see them.
Loren: Up close you can see the tiny imbalances in the lines, further back things look even and precise, and at the distance in this photo they kind of merge into a single, very subtle color.
John: This was on the end of one of the walls where we were drawing. It’s not part of the artwork, but is a practice area. We needed a place to practice how to shift from one draftsperson to another in drawing the same line, to see how that transition would look. You need to get the weight of the line right so there’s no apparent difference.
Loren: This testing space was also important because each wall is different, depending on how it’s prepped: what kind of paint was used, and how much it was diluted.
Primary materials: Staedtler two-millimeter drafting leads, both colored and plain graphite. (above and below)
John: This is the supply table and work area. We also used this green paper to protect the wall after it’s been drawn on. Drafting tape was also used extensively, because it doesn’t leave a residue. You’ll also notice the bundles of red leads: We created drawing tools by taping together three leads with two shorter leads as spacers in between them. It makes the process more efficient, as you can draw three lines at once. Sachi and Chip have fine-tuned this with years of practice—they found that if you use any more than three leads it becomes hard to apply the right amount of pressure. Other technicians have developed their own methods over the years.
Above: Chip Allen and Loren Smith
John: After the wall was prepped, we used drafting tape to mark off the edges for the drawing are, and the cash-register receipt paper on the outside edge was used for marking measurements. It took us a day just to do those measurements, which are like mile-markers to help in checking on your work. The idea was to get approximately nine lines in an inch, but it was amazing to see how far off course you could get with measurements this small.
Loren: You get a regular rhythm going in doing this work, and it involves regular breaks. Resting is as important as drawing; this work becomes physically intense, and your body needs a break.
John: But it’s not like we were totally resting – most of the time, during breaks you’re sharpening leads at the work table.
Loren: So much of what LeWitt was after was not the finished piece, but the concept of the piece. So looking at these pictures of us working, seeing his concept for a wall drawing being carried out, is in some ways closer to his intention. Chip has worked on hundreds of these pieces, and he said that the instructions are really the art—and the act of carrying them out. Apparently LeWitt never actually saw all results of all of his instructions carried out. And he knew people could do them in their own homes, or on a wall anywhere – they just wouldn’t have the original instructions.
Above: Sachi Cho and John Vogt
John: This work becomes intense. Keeping everything mathematically precise required constant adjustments, because even being slightly off over the expanse of the wall would create lines that went way off track. You also try to avoid major accidents, like dropping the straight edge, which could do a lot of damage to lines on the wall.
Loren: I found it interesting that at the top of the wall for Wall Drawing #9 B, there is a visible fracture line, a seam in the sheetrock. The decision was made that this was part of wall’s nature, and we should leave it as is — as evidence of reality, as opposed to perfection.
John: There is no erasing with these wall drawings. Using an eraser would leave a sheen on the wall. Instead, if a line went astray we would ease out imperfections by using drafting tape to lift graphite off the wall, or scrape it off with a razor blade. We could also use paint to cover mistakes, usually as they were made but sometimes later.
John: Each wall is about 16 feet tall by 13 feet wide, and obviously, you can’t draw lines across that entire expanse. So we broke up the wall into several sections, and single lines were often drawn by two different people.
Loren: The lines we would all draw would be different in part depending on our “wingspan” – how far your arm extends, or how close to your body you can draw. If you try to stretch and draw farther than your hands and arms can comfortably reach, it creates an inconsistent line. So we needed to avoid patterns emerging in all these lines, and also to avoid any sense of character in the line—you don’t want it to look, say, crisp or authoritative.
Loren: We saw how the size of a draftsperson was a factor in other ways, too. Sachi drew faster but stopped more often, while Chip, who is considerably taller, was more of a slow-and-steady type. You might think that being taller would be an advantage, but it’s not necessarily so. Chip worked with a longer straight edge, but then he had to deal with it bowing out from the wall, and we would be checking on a line the whole time as we drew it.
John: I would get frustrated if things went off course in making the lines, but Sachi was always very calm and reassuring. We’d talk about Sol LeWitt’s ideal of the “not straight straight line” and debates among draftserpersons about how far that can be taken.
John: Here, Sachi is going back over lines to touch up.
Loren: I think one reason Sachi would return to kind of touch up lines already drawn has to do with something she told us often: it’s always important to have a human feel to the drawings. You don’t want it too perfect, because the evidence of the human hand is key.
In his earlier work, LeWitt was more into man-on-the-street instructions – things anybody could do – but over time, the nature of work changed. He began to make pieces that on some level would be affected by the personality of the person making them, so he wanted those people to have training in how to carry out the instructions. The kind of patience and dedication required to make this work isn’t something that everyone has. So in some sense it’s how he’s made personality a factor in his later work.
John: “Fresh” leads are sharp and ready to be bundled into the 3-lead drawing tool. We used the rags to wipe dust from leads, in order to prevent smudges on the wall.
John: Here, Sachi is marking the center of the wall – one of many reference points we’d make using blue tape and sharpies. The red line on either side of her hand comes from a laser level to make sure things are plumb, or level. With that tool, you quickly find out that even the smoothest-looking floors have lots of undulation.
Loren: We introduced Sachi and Chip to the laser level; before, they had been using old-fashioned levels and plumb lines. In most ways this whole process of measuring and mark-making is very hands-on; it’s kind of retaining a craft tradition, one that in LeWitt’s case goes back to the 1960s. In preparing to draw, there was an emphasis on making tools. John cut down masonite boards for a hand-made version of a straight edge, which had advantages over the manufactured metal kind. They could be longer and were definitely lighter, which is important considering how long you’re holding them against the wall.
John: We also got them to use the scissor lifts instead of building scaffolding. They were a little unsure of these new tools at first, but they came to like them. There was a kind of a balance between finding new, easier ways to doing things and trusting in Sachi and Chip’s experience and the methods they’ve developed over the years – such as that 3-lead drawing tool. You might be tempted to think there could be different or quicker ways to do something, but in most cases you come to understand the reasons for doing it the way it’s been done for years.
John: Ultimately you just have to accept that it’s a long process, and there’s no way for it to go quicker. It was definitely a marathon, with a pace to it. I couldn’t do it over and over again—my patience doesn’t go that far. When you start it’s a daunting task, and you quickly realize that it doesn’t go as fast as you might imagine. So you see how it’s going to take time, and you can try to enjoy the ride—you have to—but you also have to focus on what you’re doing all the time. It’s not one of those monotonous, tedious jobs where you’re just going through the motions and trying to use your brain for other things. You have to keep track of measurements, stay focused on making sure your line doesn’t go off course.
Loren: Chip and I ended up talking a lot, and we kind of got into a pattern of measuring, drawing, measuring, drawing. Initially I wanted to fight it but if you don’t, it becomes more peaceful actually. Still, if you’re having a day where you felt like you just wanted to be done, it could be agonizing. Your experience depended on what you were bringing to the job on any given day.
John: I’m really glad we did it. It’s an amazing end to all this work. You can imagine what a grid on a wall might look like, but I had no clue as to how gorgeous it would be in the end.
Loren: Taking off the green paper and the tape was like unwrapping a present.
John: I kind of wanted to smash a bottle of champagne on it.
Links to more on Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and the people who make them:
A video with Takeshi Arita, one of the most experienced of LeWitt’s technicians, installing a piece at The Art Institute of Chicago
Blog post about the making of LeWitt’s “scribble” wall drawing in a stairwell at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which was completed last October and is, at 2,200-square-feet, the largest ever conceived by the artist
Also on the Walker blogs: an interview with an eight-year-old math-and-geometry whiz who made his own version of Wall Drawing #224, also on view in Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D.
After a recent visit to the Walker, Kari Adelaide Razdow, an EdD candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College/Department of Arts and Humanities, wrote the commentary below. In his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, media philosopher Vilém Flusser emphasizes how “the significance of images is magical,” and that “the magical nature of images must be […]
After a recent visit to the Walker, Kari Adelaide Razdow, an EdD candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College/Department of Arts and Humanities, wrote the commentary below.
In his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, media philosopher Vilém Flusser emphasizes how “the significance of images is magical,” and that “the magical nature of images must be taken into account when decoding them.” While the word “magical” is nuanced with an array of slippery interpretive possibilities, Flusser’s utterances on magic and the image provides illuminating possibilities when examining the work of Joseph Cornell, currently on view at the Walker Art Center.
With an affinity for systematic cosmic abstractions and metaphorical realms, Cornell believed that his art objects embodied elements of “white magic” which counter-balanced the black magic tendencies that he suspected implicitly and darkly lurked within many Surrealist works of art. Cornell’s first solo museum show took place at the Walker Art Center in 1953, and the current Event Horizon exhibition in its galleries allows for a glimpse at his imaginative chambers of constellation shadowboxes, moon-and-starlet obsessed film montage, and lyrical dreamscapes of collage; these Surrealist shards of ephemera allow for a tracing of Cornell’s idealistically suspended and otherworldly representations of reality.
Visually, the crisp idiosyncratic brightness seen within Cornell’s work perhaps does lie in stark contrast to the seductively unstable wisps of chaos often seen within Surrealist art (for example, in Max Ernst’s eerie landscapes). Even the poet and artist Mina Loy, Cornell’s compatriot, lauded his “hocus-pocus at play with dimension,” which she said awakened a viewer to the sublime, towards white magic. In the early 1930s, Mina Loy asserted how “’People who get mixed up with black magic do suddenly look like death’s heads’… (Max Ernst looked like ‘a skull with ligaments still attached with the false eyes of an angel.’) The Surrealists were, she thought, ‘expressive out of the cauldron over which a wizard hangs’.”
Overall, the Surrealist cauldron of chaos presented an experiment-at-play to somehow illuminate the unconscious, and perhaps for Cornell, representing chaos alone was not a luminous endpoint for a visual manifestation of the unconscious or image magic.
(Note: Midnight Party, a Walker exhibition opening March 19, borrows its title from a Cornell work included in the show, the four-minute film The Midnight Party.)
Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern, The Life of Mina Loy, p. 380. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 9. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
Loy, Mina. The Last Lunar Baedeker, p.302. Ed. Roger L. Conover. The Jargon Society, Inc., 1982.