Blogs Untitled (Blog) Victoria Sung

Victoria Sung is Curatorial Assistant at Walker Art Center. Previously, she worked at arts and culture institutions in New York, including Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Victoria holds a BA and MBA from Harvard and an MA in History of Art and Visual Culture from Oxford.

Game On: Ericka Beckman’s You The Better

Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better […]

ex2016lto_exh Visual Arts, Exhibitions. Less Than One April 7 - December 31, 2016 Galleries 1, 2, 3, and Perlman. Less Than One is an international, multigenerational group show offering in-depth presentations of work from the 1960s to the present by 16 artists central to the Walker’s collection. The exhibition surveys a range of approaches—from painting and sculpture to drawing, installation, moving image, performance, and photography—sequencing compelling groupings of works by each artist that underscore the often provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking nature of the Walker’s multidisciplinary holdings. Less Than One includes pieces by Lutz Bacher, Ericka Beckman, Trisha Brown, Paul Chan, Trisha Donnelly, Renée Green, Charline von Heyl, Jasper Johns, Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk, Adrian Piper, Sigmar Polke, Pope.L, James Richards, Dieter Roth, and Kara Walker. Curator: Fionn Meade with Victoria Sung

Installation view of Ericka Beckman’s You The Better (1983/2015) in Less Than One at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better is on view through December 31 in the Walker group exhibition Less Than One. Here, we talk about the spirit of easy collaboration in New York of the 1970s and 80s, how the original film resonates with today’s plugged-in audiences, and the analogy between games of chance and life.

Victoria Sung: There seems to have been a real spirit of collaboration—especially in the fields of experimental dance, film, and theater—in downtown New York during the late 1970s and ’80s. We can see this in your films, where Ashley Bickerton, Mike Kelley, and other artist-friends take part. How did you get started in film, and how did this collaborative spirit inform your work?

Ericka Beckman: I loved film because it recorded performance, and I used film as a very plastic element—much like a moving canvas—for performance work. I started first by using myself, and then I began to engage my friends, who all loved to perform. At the particular time this film was made, conditions in the economy and in the art world allowed for a lot of experimentation because there wasn’t a real active gallery scene until 1980/1981. Artists worked with what they could, and a lot of what they could work with was the city itself and themselves. Because everyone was doing performance work, or somehow engaged in it, it was very easy to collaborate and do workshop collaborations (i.e. not necessarily make work that’s finished or ready for an audience, but really just develop ideas).


Many artist-friends—like Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and David Salle—based their early work in performance before shifting to object-making. And whether or not they were performers in their own works, they engaged pretty easily in the work that I was doing because we were all concerned with the available media at the time, especially the media that we grew up on—records, television shows, and commercials. We tossed around a lot of ideas, mixed what we saw on television with what music we were hearing, what we were reading, what we were watching in theaters. The period was really marked by a fluency among all of these mediums.

Sung: In 1983, when You The Better premiered at the New York Film Festival as a 16 mm film, it wasn’t picked up readily by the “art world.”

Beckman: You The Better was my first 16 mm film. I was trying at this time to build a larger audience for my work than just the few venues that were in downtown New York for screening, so I moved to 16 mm hoping that I would be able to engage a larger distribution structure.

This particular film was created after a long, introverted period in my life when I was beginning to investigate what is behind performance. What is the language of action? How do we learn as children to do things? How is our identity formed through action? I wanted to make something work without using narration or dialogue, and because I was using this theatrical, industrial medium of 16 mm film, I knew that I had to have some kind of hook. When I was making the Super-8 Trilogy that was based on Piaget’s work (my sort of incubation period), I made a film that involved Mike Kelley doing a series of team sports outdoors.[1] I said, “This is it: gaming structure is going to replace narrative for me.”

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Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 1. Courtesy the artist

When the film came out it was so off the path of what you expect to see in a theatrical film because of its non-narrative gaming structure. Though it circulated quite a bit, I wasn’t able to show it the way I wanted to show it; I showed it on screens in museums in conjunction with a lot of art shows, but there was a really strong divide—a barrier in fact—between film and visual art in the late ’80s.

Sung: It’s interesting to hear about this deep divide between the moving image and visual arts worlds, especially when thinking about the popular reception the so-called Pictures Generation was getting at the time. Though perhaps it’s not as straightforward as this, the language of appropriation, the pre-digital, the photographic also figures in your work. Given this context, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the somewhat delayed reception for You The Better and what it means to see the work being revisited with renewed energy over these last few years.

Beckman: That’s a good question. In the ’90s, when media switched over from analog to digital there was a change, a big sea change, and there were more and more things coming into the gallery that were time-based. I was pretty aware of it, but I wasn’t really thinking about my work re-entering the art world; I was off doing other films at that time. And then, around 2011, some curators came to my studio and sort of opened up a box of my work. It was pretty amazing that there was a younger audience that could totally engage with it. And I find it really rewarding because the conversations that I’ve had with young curators have been the kind of dialogue that I’ve been missing and wanting for so many years.

Sung: We can see today that you were ahead of the curve in terms of engaging such concepts as digital avatars, virtual reality, cybernetics, video gaming—all of which has become so prevalent in today’s networked society. As you’ve hinted above, this may be a reason why audiences are so much more able and ready to engage with this type of work now.

Beckman: Right. When I made this film it was a faux-interactive game, and the idea of interactivity was sort of coming into being, but there wasn’t really anything out there except for arcade games, which I studied a lot, and casinos. You The Better was going to set up what maybe an interactive computer game or an interactive betting game could be. I started with these very simple games of chance. What is chance? Why are there so many games that are fascinated with chance? And it soon became clear to me that the gambling aspect was the fundamental structure for the uber game I was constructing, because I could use the audience as the bettor here. The audience is able to think about why the bets are being laid down, and to engage with what the players are doing. These ideas are cultural: with all of the activity going on today in terms of digital gaming, and the fact that kids now grow up learning the behaviors of other people by playing games, we understand these kinds of games even though many of us don’t go out and gamble.

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Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 2. Courtesy the artist

While I was doing research for the film, I went to a live casino in the desert in southern California, and inside was a jai-alai game being played by Mexicans and bet on by predominantly white men. There was a big distance between the betting area and the playing area. The betting area was high, like in a mezzanine, and then the pit was the game play. The game play was very rough, and there was a net protecting the bettors from the players. I kept thinking about that kind of use of human value. That informed this idea of the big separation between the off-camera bettor (the audience) and the players; as a result, the audience is not fully able to empathize with the players and the players are arguing with the audience, but they don’t know that it’s not the audience, it’s really the house that they’re fighting against.

Sung: In thinking about the game as structuring device, and the various game piece-like motifs and “blue-collar” uniforms adapted for the film, I’m wondering if you can speak to the larger, social implications of You The Better.

Beckman: Most of the players are boys or young men. That was a conscious decision: much of my work from this particular period created a cast of characters that you saw more and more of in culture, such as the highly active and productive achiever. Again, it’s 1983. I wanted to get at the underbelly of the myths that were out there to promote capitalism. And I found that the casino is a perfect example of it, because you have people going in with this false hope that they can win at something that is either purely chance or rigged. So this optimism for economic gain was a myth that I really wanted to debunk. But I didn’t want to go at it didactically and do something really direct with it; I wanted to create a kind of situation where you could experience what the players are going through.

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Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 3. Courtesy the artist

Sung: The Walker’s presentation of You The Better shows the film as part of a larger installation with props based on those from the original film. It’d be interesting to hear you talk about the different modes of presentation—16 mm film versus installation—and if and how this changes the work today.

Beckman: Most of the work was shot in a black studio—it was produced in my studio in New York City, a basketball court of P.S. 1, and a swimming pool at Media Study/Buffalo. What that allowed me to do was to have a field that’s off screen that can merge with what’s on screen. I wasn’t thinking about film as cuts, but as a framing device in a larger context, in a larger space. Something is captured here, but there’s all this other stuff going on around it. And I conceived of the world that way—this big game world. So when it came time to do this particular installation, I flipped through all of my drawings from the time to figure out what game boards I wanted to use, what kind of structures I wanted to put in the room with the film. The house shape is the predominant motif, and it keeps on changing from being a target to a scoreboard to representing an actual house. It also brings in the Monopoly element—that we’re occupying some structure here that is motivated by capitalism.

ex2016lto_exh Visual Arts, Exhibitions. Less Than One April 7 - December 31, 2016 Galleries 1, 2, 3, and Perlman. Less Than One is an international, multigenerational group show offering in-depth presentations of work from the 1960s to the present by 16 artists central to the Walker’s collection. The exhibition surveys a range of approaches—from painting and sculpture to drawing, installation, moving image, performance, and photography—sequencing compelling groupings of works by each artist that underscore the often provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking nature of the Walker’s multidisciplinary holdings. Less Than One includes pieces by Lutz Bacher, Ericka Beckman, Trisha Brown, Paul Chan, Trisha Donnelly, Renée Green, Charline von Heyl, Jasper Johns, Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk, Adrian Piper, Sigmar Polke, Pope.L, James Richards, Dieter Roth, and Kara Walker. Curator: Fionn Meade with Victoria Sung

Installation view of You the Better in Less Than One at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

I’ve been revisiting a number of my films because the work was always conceived that way; I kept a lot of my props in storage because I wanted at some point to do an install with the film. It’s not until now with digital projection, where you can synchronize lighting and other cues to the film itself, that it’s possible to do this kind of work. It’s definitely shaping my ideas for future work. I’m becoming less and less interested in working on a screen per se, like one screen, but instead am looking to work with multiple screens and multiple objects and lighting cues.

Below, a selection of Beckman’s drawings for You The Better :

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Ericka Beckman, Playing Field and Spin, Study No. 1. All drawings courtesy the artist

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Ericka Beckman, Playing Field and Spin, Study No. 2

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Ericka Beckman, Study for Power of the Spin

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Ericka Beckman, Study for Center of the Spin

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Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Slateman

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Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Wheels and Gold

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Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 2

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Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 3

Footnote

[1] Beckman’s Piaget trilogy—We Imitate; We Break Up (1978), The Broken Rule (1979), and Out of Hand (1980)—applies Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s developmental theories of learning to game playing, exploring such ideas as how team sports use movement rather than language as a means of communication.

To Poke, to Prod, to Flip, to Fold: Unpacking the Box

Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space. Let’s start by unpacking what we […]

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung
Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman

Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space.

Let’s start by unpacking what we mean by the title Unpacking the Box. We are referring to, of course, the literal box (you’ll see that all of the objects on view take the form of a box or box-like container, whether that be a suitcase, a cabinet, or a backpack) but also the metaphorical box, meaning the museum as white cube or box. These objects throw into question the distinction between an artwork and its immediate frame, or container, and by extension, between the art object and the museum that houses it. The container is complicit, even critical to our understanding of the artwork; in fact, it is the artwork.

This type of so-called “institutional critique” has a relatively long history within the history of art. Perhaps the best place to begin would be Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), the first edition of which was created between 1935 and 1941. A suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks (rendered at precisely 33 percent of their original size), the Boîte questioned the status of the unique work of art. What did it mean for an artist to reproduce at miniature scale objects from his own oeuvre? Are these “multiples” diminished as works of art? In reproducing and disseminating his artworks, Duchamp challenged not only the unique work of art but also the authority of the institutions that displayed them. Here, one could have a portable exhibition of one’s own outside of the museum apparatus.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

The Boîte en valise has been reproduced several times, thus embodying the spirit of the facsimile. The Walker’s red Boîte is from Series F, produced in Paris in 1966 in an edition of 75. It includes several intentional changes from the first production, including 12 additional reproductions. Most recently, the publisher Walther König produced a new, posthumous facsimile, edited by Mathieu Mercier under the supervision of Association Marcel Duchamp. It uses contemporary digital printing and production technologies to allow for a larger edition at a modest price. This new edition, released in 2015, makes it possible for the Boîte to be viewed, reimagined, and even purchased outside of the museum and gallery system, honoring Duchamp’s original democratic desire.

The intentional variations between the two Boîtes is one that we tried to highlight by placing them side by side. In addition to the obvious differences in color, material, and scale, there are more subtle changes that speak to Duchamp’s playful and irreverent sense of humor. If you look at the backsides of two of the elements on view, for example, you’ll see that the 2015 Boîte presents a two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil approximation of the three-dimensional wooden armature of the earlier Boîte. In other words, the structural function of this detail has been rendered purely decorative. Moreover, the proximity between the two editions and their linear sequencing mimics an assembly line of sorts, perhaps intimating the seriality of their production.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

Across the hall from the vitrine hosting the two Boîtes is a selection of Fluxus multiples that took their inspiration, in part, from Duchamp’s transgressive gesture of shrinking his life’s work into a portable container. On display are a number of Fluxus editions that take the form of a box, suitcase, or so-called “Fluxkits.” Fluxus was a movement of international artists active in the 1960s and 1970s founded by George Maciunas. In 1964, he established ©Fluxus Editions—a collection of affordable publications and multiples. ©Fluxus Editions allowed Maciunas to bring together concepts by a network of artists around the world, facilitating an ethos of collaboration through joint publication.

Many of the objects on view were acquired by the Walker in 1989, establishing one of the most comprehensive Fluxus collections in the United States, and were subsequently displayed in the Walker’s 1993 exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss. Although similar in packaging, each multiple is distinctive in terms of idea, the items they contain, and how artists intended audience interaction. These editions were performative, acting as “scores” or instructions, for exercises of the body and mind.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

While many of these Fluxus multiples were meant to be physically unpacked, poked, prodded, flipped, and folded, they—like Duchamp’s Boîte—have become fragile over time. Fluxus multiples posited play as practice and audience participation as fundamental to the full realization of the work, but these boxes now exist behind glass in a state of suspended animation. Unpacking the Box attempts to activate these works by prompting passersby to imagine new modes of interaction. Boxes and kits are propped open, the door to a cabinet is left slightly ajar, contents spill out of a backpack in a manner of what might be called orderly chaos. We’ve started the process of unpacking and leave it to you to use your imagination to unpack, arrange, and rearrange the objects on view.

Unpacking the Box is on view until February 19, 2017.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote

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

Andrea Büttner and the Aesthetics of Humility

Despite the bright blue fabric walls that, at first glance, seem to make a bold declaration of sorts, Andrea Büttner is an exhibition that operates at a quieter level. It is an exhibition that seems to ask for little more than patience, curiosity, and close looking, and in placing such a premium on the activities […]

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

Despite the bright blue fabric walls that, at first glance, seem to make a bold declaration of sorts, Andrea Büttner is an exhibition that operates at a quieter level. It is an exhibition that seems to ask for little more than patience, curiosity, and close looking, and in placing such a premium on the activities of the viewer, confers an equal footing to artistic production and reception. Perhaps not in the sense of calling for an active form of looking, as in the need for the viewer to “activate” the piece (the works are all of a passive nature, and I mean this with the greatest regard), but rather her practice seems to respond to a careful and thoughtful type of looking. It is in this realm of psychological safety, where the artist trusts the viewer and the viewer trusts the artist, that Büttner inserts supposedly small or shameful subjects into the space of the gallery. From mosses that grow close to the earth (humus in Latin) to beggars who also lower themselves to the ground in supplication, Andrea Büttner offers a meditation on the aesthetics of humility.

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner with Limestone with moss (2015). Photo: Gene Pittman

Limestone with moss (2015) is a limestone rock covered in a variety of mosses native to Minnesota. Moss, as the artist points out in an adjoining work, was deemed a “lower plant” among early botanists (in comparison to “the higher, or perfect, flowering plants”). In fact, it is still widely considered a primitive plant form, as evidenced by the fact that it is often described by what it lacks: flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, and apparently any basic internal vascular system that would enable it to conduct water. Yet, by placing a moss-covered rock in the middle of the gallery, Büttner prompts the viewer to bend down and appreciate the multi-faceted beauty of mosses—the fine threads of these tangled green tapestries, the softness and sponginess that seem to demand touch, or simply that a living, breathing organism currently resides in the white cube of the museum. Moss, in Büttner’s hands, becomes not something to discard or trample on, but rather something with which to engage, or at the very least, take notice of.

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner with two woodcuts, both titled Beggar (2015), in the background. Photo: Gene Pittman

Similarly, two large-scale woodcuts of hooded beggars introduce the perhaps shameful act of seeking charity into the gallery. Fittingly, the German expression “Ohne Moos nichts los,” or “without moss you don’t get anywhere,” connects the two works in question (moss serving as a metaphor for money). Here, Büttner introduces another supposedly dirty concept into the space of the gallery—money or the solicitation thereof. Yet, the brown inked background of one of the woodcuts evokes the brown habit associated with St. Francis of Assisi, a frequent reference for the artist, who renounced his wealth and imbued poverty with a spiritual virtuousness. In Büttner’s presentation, then, the beggars suggest a holy dignity as opposed to an earthly desperation.

In both instances, moss and beggars seem to languish in the spotlight. The moss curls into itself, as if shielding itself from the bright light of the gallery (a far cry from the damp, darkened spots in which it prefers to flourish). The beggars, too, fall to the ground, pulling their hoods entirely over their heads. Yet, despite the urge to hide, both maintain a level of vulnerability out of a necessity, if you will: the moss, though naturally conditioned to roll inward due to the absence of moisture, exposes its green shoots, as if asking for water, and the cloaked beggars with their bare forearms, money. Whether seeking water or money—or, more broadly, patience and time—Büttner’s work seems to ask another party, the viewer, for mercy.

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner with Benches (2012). Photo: Gene Pittman

Seen in this light, the bright blue walls, which hug one another at a perpendicular angle, can be attributed to another gesture of generosity—specifically, that of bringing attention to an often overlooked part of a room, the corner. Nestled into this corner are three Benches (2012) constructed of planks of wood placed atop plastic crates. These benches offer the weary museum-goer a moment of respite, a place to rest her feet. In the case of Andrea Büttner, then, mercy is reciprocal—between artist and audience, production and reception—ultimately demonstrating Büttner’s tacit acknowledgment that symbiosis (as in the relationship of moss to nature, or beggars to society) is a necessary, and welcome, condition of art making.

Jack Whitten and the Philosophy of Jazz

“The person who got me trapped in all of this was John Coltrane.” By this artist Jack Whitten refers to his fifty-year commitment to exploring the possibilities of paint, as demonstrated in Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting at the Walker. An artist who has steadfastly held onto canvas and acrylic paint for most of his […]

ex2015jw_ins Visual Arts; Exhibitions; installation views. Jack Whitten - Five Decades of Painting, Target and Friedman Galleries, September 13, 2015 - January 24, 2016. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
Curator: Kathryn Kanjo, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Walker coordinating curator: Eric Crosby, Associate Curator, Visual Arts.

Installation view of Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

“The person who got me trapped in all of this was John Coltrane.” By this artist Jack Whitten refers to his fifty-year commitment to exploring the possibilities of paint, as demonstrated in Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting at the Walker. An artist who has steadfastly held onto canvas and acrylic paint for most of his career, Whitten falls into the art historical narrative following Abstract Expressionist painters Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman (whom he met at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village), and African American artists Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis (whose studios he visited uptown). However, it was the jazz musicians (take a look at Whitten’s all-time favorite jazz records below) and the conceptual underpinnings of their sound, or what he calls the “philosophy of jazz,” that had a direct influence on the development of his distinct visual style.

As a young art student entering New York City’s Cooper Union in the fall of 1960, Whitten quickly became entrenched in the city’s jazz scene. On KFAI’s “Mostly Jazz” he recently shared his recollections:

My introduction to New York was Birdland uptown on 52nd Street, the Five Spot downtown on Bowery, the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place, the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, and later Slugs’ Saloon—anybody from New York in the ’60s will remember the Slugs. Within the history of jazz in New York City, Slugs’ Saloon was the place to be. A lot of great people played there, including Sun Ra. Sun Ra was a staple there. Down on the lower east side in Manhattan—hell of a place.

During the 1960s, Whitten struggled with his desire to simultaneously embrace and reject the vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism—in particular, the aggressive and gestural application of paint that had come to signify the canvases of de Kooning (“Following a devastating critique by an older Abstract Expressionist painter who said, ‘Kid, you got some good de Koonings here!’ I knew I had to make a move in my work,” he says).

Whitten_New_York_Battleground_1967_Compressed

Jack Whitten, NY Battle Ground, 1964. Courtesy the artist; Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; © Jack Whitten/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It was at the turn of the 1970s that Whitten, informed by the cool jazz sensibility of Miles Davis and others, began to cool off and slow down. The feverish intensity that dominates the surfaces of his earlier works gives way to a more meditative approach in his so-called Drag paintings that seems to indulge in and explore the material and expansive qualities of paint.

In a nod to Coltrane, whose cascading notes were famously dubbed “sheets of sound,” Whitten began to experiment with what he calls “planes of light.” Pouring layer upon layer of paint to form an acrylic “slab” often up to a half inch thick, followed by dragging a 12-foot long T-shaped tool across the surface in a single motion, Whitten established a process akin to the way in which jazz musicians of the day seamlessly moved between composition and improvisation—the composition remaining essentially unchanged from performance to performance, and the improvisation, specific to a particular time and place. Take Chinese Sincerity (1974): the pooling of gallons of paint to create the acrylic slab, or foundation, can be seen as the compositional aspect of Whitten’s process, and the act of pulling the tool across the canvas, the instance of improvisation. In fact, the spontaneous gesture that ruptures the surface, revealing the multitudinous layers of color underneath, produces a certain musicality, or optical vibrations in the acrylic medium—according to the artist, it is precisely in this moment of the three-second gesture, that the painting is made.

Chinese Sincerity 300dpi_Compressed

Jack Whitten, Chinese Sincerity, 1974. Courtesy the artist; Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; © Jack Whitten/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This willingness to experiment with different conceptual and technical modes of expression, or the aesthetics of jazz, informs Whitten’s visual practice from the Drag series of the 1970s on. As you walk through the galleries, take note of the use of “disruptors” (found objects such as a piece of string or a bent wire placed beneath the canvas) that create peculiar dissonances in the poured and leveled paint, evoking the jarring sounds of Thelonious Monk and the other jazz musicians.

Listen to Whitten’s all-time favorite jazz records:

Miles Davis
Kind of Blue 
Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel (Chicago)
Bitches Brew 

John Coltrane
Blue Train 
Giant Steps
Traneing In 

Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come 

Cecil Taylor
Unit Structures

Charlie Parker
The Essential Charlie Parker

Thelonious Monk
Mysterioso

Sun Ra
Visions

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