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Second Thoughts: Fred Sandback and the Virtual Line

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

Sandback ten

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sandback view 2

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

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

Sandback view 3

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

 

Sandback view 4

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

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

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

Untitled drawing Sand

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

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

pink sand

gray sand

yellow sand

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

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

Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote

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

A Narrative for the Body: Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence. Present Sore is presented on the […]

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video, 9 minutes. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence.

Present Sore is presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016, as part of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions. It is also featured in the Portikus exhibition Model Malady (April 22–June 19, 2016).

Fabian Schöneich: Your most recent video, Present Sore, streams online via the Walker Channel and is installed in your gallery exhibition at Portikus. The format of this work is vertical: 9:16 instead of 16:9. It reminds me of the way people shoot video on their phone. Can you tell us what led to your decision of rotating your camera?

Shahyrar Nashat: It’s true—smartphones have generalized the use of vertical framing. When I came to Portikus for an initial site visit and saw the gallery, I immediately saw how a 16:9 format video would be crushed by the height of the space. On top of that, I had always struggled with the horizontal format of 16:9 because you can never fill the frame when you want to capture a limb vertically. Present Sore is an oblique high-definition figure study of a composite body. The video’s upward progression (from feet to head) necessitated a vertical format.

Schöneich: Your work often questions and highlights the homogeneity between object and body. Abstract but clean objects are representational of the body, or else the body is representational for the object or the sculpture. In Present Sore, we see the human body not as a whole, only in detail—like a close-up of the knee or the hand.

Isla Leaver-Yap: Totally. Present Sore’s focus on detail fragments the subject, showing the mechanical moving “parts” of the body and isolating their function as tools. This fragmentation implicates a wider cultural landscape that has preferences for certain types of bodies, pointing as well to an economic landscape that obfuscates the parts of labor—both human and inhuman. Shahryar, I was wondering if you could speak to this “composite” quality you referred to earlier, and talk about the bodies, types, and genders you choose as your subjects?

Nashat: Mainstream cultural representation of the human body privileges a homogeneous and wholesome body. I have always searched to represent bodies that sit outside those traditional ideals. The bodies I’m interested in might have diverse motor functions, cosmetic interventions, and applications. Like the injured elbow in Hustle in Hand (2014, video, 19 minutes). That’s why I like wounds or prosthetics. They signal injury and, therefore, anomaly. Limbs are similarly interesting. Framed away from the rest of the body, they question it, while also allowing some psychological distance from the notion of persona. For me, this is where you open the door for desire and projection.

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014, HD video, 10 minutes
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Leaver-Yap: What do you mean by “desire” and “projection”? Both terms seem particularly resonant with how your work intersects with ideas of queerness. Your work blurs lines between fetish and tool and often trades in promiscuous formal relations, by which I mean things that resemble or “stand in” for that which they represent but also complicate that representation: a vertical format as a body, a Paul Thek artwork of a rotting piece of flesh for a psychic human wound, or an artificial prosthesis as a 21st-century ideal tool for the body.

Nashat: I think art has always operated with the mechanics of desire and projection. Not only as an incentive for an artist to make work but the way the work is appreciated and consumed by the audience. The “stand-in” is a powerful strategy because it works through deception, which is another powerful ingredient. It all sounds very theoretical, but what I guess I am trying to say is that the frustration of meaning is central to any work because it creates desire. The tools I use in my work—framing, editing, a geometric object next to the close-up of a wound—participate in that enterprise.

Schöneich: Does imperfection define desire for you?

Nashat: “Perfect” versus “imperfect” sounds like “good” versus “bad.” I don’t think it’s about morals. When I watch a movie or TV show, for example, the interesting characters are not necessarily the ones that have personality flaws or act inconsistently. I don’t care whether they’re good or bad people. But I do like it when there is a perversion in them, some kind of inconsistency. Incoherency creates a compelling and complex character. That’s desire.

Schöneich: How important is gesture in this work? I’m thinking especially of the sections of Present Sore where a lip is pulled or an ear is touched or plugged.

Nashat: Capturing a body that is inanimate or frozen in action made sense in the 1990s when photography was concerned with creating tableaux vivants. But for me, the body in action is more interesting because it’s not just “on display” for the camera to get the best shot. It competes with the camera and forces it to find different strategies. It’s less mannered than a pose perhaps, and the formal and aesthetic gesture is not coming from what you look at but the way you look at it. When you invest the body with actions and gestures, you write a narrative for the body. You give it agency. I must say, though, that there are very active ways for the body to be passive—like a smoker or a sleeper, which are equally powerful images.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Schöneich: How did you film Present Sore? Tell us about the overlayering of images throughout the video.

Nashat: The layering was an accident that I ended up keeping. I have been relying on software bugs and my own technical mistakes a lot lately.

Leaver-Yap: Your work is so carefully choreographed and edited that it’s really interesting to hear about the importance of accident within your practice. Accident seems to me to be such a human quality, while being attentive to accident is something very digital—a quality of being watched or surveilled. I was struck by something Moyra Davey said to me about shooting video last year. Moyra shoots mostly analogue photographs, and now she shoots digital video. She told me she liked how “video hangs onto accident” in a way that is particular to the form. The digital captures physical vulnerabilities as much as it can augment or erase those very qualities in post-production. I was wondering if you could speak to the notion of error, mistake, and accident in your work a bit more?

Nashat: In Hustle in Hand, my editing program was interrupting the playback of my video. One frame from a completely different section of the video would intrude into the clips. I ended up keeping this glitch because it breaks the linear narrative of the timeline—it’s like a preview of the footage that is yet to come. In Present Sore, meanwhile, I brought the wrong resolution into the project, but then I decided to keep it as it complicates the view of the body. Capturing body limbs is such an ordinary image to do. You need these kinds of tricks to ramp up attention. Technological accidents are what make the work more vulnerable. If you keep them, you can of course normalize them, but I find it useful for them to remain as anomalies that serve the work.

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011. Courtesy of Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte.

Schöneich: Already in early works, like in Factor Green (2011), or in your exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, you investigated the meaning and the visual presence of the pedestal or plinth itself. At Portikus and the forthcoming Walker exhibition Question the Wall Itself, you present a series of sculptures—pedestal blocks—resting on chairs that you say are designed for them to “relax.”

Nashat: Yes, the pedestal is to the artwork what the foot is to the body. It provides the support that allows the artwork to stand and be on display. It’s like a pair of crutches. Present Sore toys with the fact that high-definition imagery being now at the service of “supporting” the body. It makes the pedestal obsolete. Chômage technique is a French term used when, say, a factory lays off its workers but maintains their salary. In a world of bodies shown in pixels, pedestals are a kind of “chômage technique”—they have no one to support anymore. In my installation, they can retire and enjoy the viewing of the bodies they once would have supported. The pedestal has always been an underdog, or in the service of something else. But in this configuration it as if it’s won the lottery and is off to retire in Florida.

Present Sore is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support from the Bentson Foundation, and Portikus, Frankfurt/Main.

Meredith Monk: 16 Millimeter Earrings and the Artist’s Body

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained […]

Installation view of one of the Meredith Monk galleries in the exhibition <em>Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones </em>, featuring elements from <em>16 Millimeter Earrings </em>(1966/1998)

Elements from 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966/1998), as installed in the 1998 Walker 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, remains the best definition of her work, as the artist often combines multiple performative elements in individual pieces. Her approach results in works that cannot be singularly defined as dance, theater, concert, or film works, but are instead a unique synthesis of artistic disciplines, most broadly described as simply “performance art.”

One of Monk’s earliest pieces is 16 Millimeter Earrings, created in 1966 and originally staged at the Judson Church in New York. The performance began with Monk seated facing away from her audience while playing the guitar and singing, then went on to combine vocal recordings, theatrical acting, and film projections, and finally ended with the burning of an effigy meant to represent the artist herself. 16 Millimeter Earrings incorporated physical props, such as a slinky and red crepe paper streamers, as well as less tangible components. Audible during the performance were partial recordings of the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves” as well as passages from The Function of the Orgasm, written by the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which argues for sexual liberation as a panacea for all ills, both physical and psychological. Reflecting on the work in 2010, Monk commented: “With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally… It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all… It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.”

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

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Nam June Paik: Television Has Attacked Us for a Lifetime

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video […]

Nam June Paik, 'TV Cello' (1971), video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971, video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video art,” and the point at which the television became both the subject and object of an artwork. Originally titled Symphony for 20 Rooms, Paik’s exhibition was considered a total environment, drawing on the spirit of Surrealism (a severed ox head greeted visitors in the first room, while in a bathroom a human mannequin lay submerged in a tub) and Fluxus (via treated instruments, such as “prepared pianos,” adapted by wedging objects between their strings). The exhibition also brought together an installation of 13 television sets, arranged either directly on the floor or stacked on top of one another. Each transmitted distorted live signals—some as stripes or wavy lines, others collaged so as to simultaneously show overlaid moving images.

Nam June Paik, 'Kuba-TV' (1963) seen as part of Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, Kuba-TV, 1963, seen as part of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

A number of TV sets on view required activation by the viewer. One television was connected to a microphone and transmitted a signal affected by the one’s voice. Another TV was attached to a pedal and would similarly show a distorted image if handled by an audience member. “Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now we fight back,” declared Paik, who conceived of the television as an object to be exploited, tinkered with, and ultimately humanized. As in his later works, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), Paik subverted the notion of the TV as a determined instrument of power. Instead, under his influence, television sets and the televisual became instruments for performance and play, either by invited performers, such as Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) or the active, participating viewer.

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage (1962), Offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist, Courtesy Walker Art Center

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage, 1962, offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist; courtesy Walker Art Center

A few months after Paik’s exhibition, German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998) opened Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage1 at Smolin Gallery in New York. Vostell presented a number of TVs placed on office furniture, each set to receive a slightly different, modified signal. Upon entering the exhibition, audience members received bottles of liquid, which they were encouraged to smear on wall-mounted LIFE magazine covers. For Vostell, the exhibition was a place of activity, where one could “participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening […] to eat art and to make art by eating.”2 Vostell had begun to orient his practice around the term “dé-collage” in 1954, upon spotting the word used in a newspaper to refer to an airplane crash. For the artist, “dé-collage” meant the inverse of collage—the erosion and destruction of an existing image, as opposed its formation through cumulative addition of multiple elements. Vostell applied the term to his engagement with televisions, which he incorporated into his work as early as 1958 in Theater in the Streets, a happening staged in Parisian public spaces. Throughout his practice, Vostell posited on the very materiality of the TV set, embedding these in concrete, arranging motorized TVs on broken glass, and “dé-collaging” live television signals.

Photograph of Wolf Vostell's 'TV Burying' (1963), © Peter Moore

Photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV Burying, 1963, © Peter Moore

While both Paik and Vostell employed the television as an object for performance, Vostell’s happenings emphasized destruction, a theme he believed it was his duty to reflect upon as an artist. Staged contemporaneously to his exhibition at Smolin Gallery, TV Burying was an event Vostell organized as part of the Yam Festival in New Jersey, which included actions by artists Dick Higgins (1938–1998), Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), and La Monte Young (b. 1935). In Vostell’s performance, televisions broadcasting live footage were attacked with custard pies, wrapped in barbed wire, and then carried in procession and buried in the ground. Part flagellation ritual, part crucifixion, TV Burying ceremoniously sacrificed the TV set before an audience.

Cover of Marshall McLuhan's first edition of 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man' (1964) published by McGraw-Hill

Cover of Marshall McLuhan’s first edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, published by McGraw-Hill

Paik and Vostell developed their 1963 exhibitions while Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) would have been writing and editing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published only a year later in 1964. The book includes McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” whereby “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”3 Paik and Vostell were among the first artists to critically engage with the television as an everyday object, stripping away its connotations as a prized possession or marker of class distinction. Slathered with concrete, upturned, or placed casually on the floor, their TVs are ordinary, part of everyday life. By turning televisions into playful instruments and modifying their signals, Paik and Vostell subverted the notion of the TV as a conduit for the passive reception of ideology. In their hands, televisions were controlled by human will and manipulated by the body. They rendered the viewer a participant and the television as subject to anyone’s influence, a medium for play and experimentation.

Notes

1 McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 9

2 Also referred to as TV Trouble or 6 TV Dé-coll/age in existing literature.

3 As can be seen on the exhibition preview card.

Walkaround Time: Photography of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

  When the stage lights go up in Walkaround Time (1968) the nine dancers are frozen, almost in mid-step as if they had been moving before the performance began. There’s something frozenly mechanical about this opening tableau, the cogs and gears of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass imagery (on which Jasper Johns’ décor was based) […]

James Klosty, Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Walkaround Time, 1968. Collection of the Walker Art Center. © James Klosty

 

When the stage lights go up in Walkaround Time (1968) the nine dancers are frozen, almost in mid-step as if they had been moving before the performance began. There’s something frozenly mechanical about this opening tableau, the cogs and gears of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass imagery (on which Jasper Johns’ décor was based) has, as the dancers themselves, momentarily ground to a halt. This is the moment photographer James Klosty captured in his 1968 photograph of the dance, a print of which is in the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.
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Zeitgeist Traps: Jack Whitten and Michael Goldberg

Three islands are observed from the air—the blue and white sea radiates outward from them as the underwater reefs surrounding the islands allow us to visually penetrate the clear water. Jack Whitten’s Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg (2009) is not a landscape, or a abstraction of the Greek Islands off Crete, where Whitten has spent […]

Jack Whitten, Zeitgeist Traps, For Michael Goldberg, Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg 2009 acrylic on canvas

Jack Whitten, Zeitgeist Traps, For Michael Goldberg, 2009 acrylic on canvas, collection of Jeff and Leslie Fischer                                                                                     

Three islands are observed from the air—the blue and white sea radiates outward from them as the underwater reefs surrounding the islands allow us to visually penetrate the clear water. Jack Whitten’s Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg (2009) is not a landscape, or a abstraction of the Greek Islands off Crete, where Whitten has spent every summer since 1968. Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg (2009), part of Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, isn’t a map; the work instead functions more as an abstract collaged homage to Michael Goldberg, an New York abstract expressionist with whom Whitten would have interacted after moving to New York in 1960. (more…)

Pop Virus: Shigeko Kubota and International Pop

International Pop exhibition view. the Walker Art Center.
Kubota 1989.262.1-.11_opened

Shigeko Kubota, Flux Medicine, 1966/1968. Collection of the Walker Art Center. © Shigeko Kubota/VAGA, New York, NY

On July 23, 2015 Shigeko Kubota—a seminal Japanese female figure in the international Fluxus collective—passed away. But it is not too late to take a dose of her Flux Medicine (1966/1968). The Walker’s extensive Fluxus collection includes Kubota’s iconic multiple of this title, comprising a plastic box with a label depicting a small white tablet with the word “FLUX” engraved on it. The contents are Kubota’s medicinal concoction: one white ball, one empty capsule, one Styrofoam disk, a clear bottle of unidentified liquid, an eye dropper, crushed eggshells, packages of Alka-Seltzer, Calcium-Lactate, and Neo-Synephrine, accompanied by a plastic tube and a needle for injection. Like most Fluxus multiples, Flux Medicine can be read as either an absurdist, apolitical gesture or a radical renegotiation of the role of the artist and art object in our commodity culture. This slippage between commerce, art, and life epitomized the zeitgeist in which artists from the 1960s and early 1970s were working, as exemplified in the exhibition International Pop (closing August 29). Kubota’s “Flux-formula” presents art that can be injected, an aesthetic “supplement” for transforming art—and  perhaps the role of the artist—into a consumable commodity. International Pop posits “Pop” as a pill—akin to Kubota’s Flux Medicine—that was being popped by artists across the globe.

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Modeling with Merce

For the past two weeks, eleven Minneapolis-based dancers have spent their days at the Walker Art Center playing dress-up in Merce Cunningham Dance Company costumes. Nearly a hundred costumes from more than fifty different dances were documented–forming a representative sample of the thousands of costumes in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection. The resulting images […]

Photo: Mary Coyne

Photo: Mary Coyne

For the past two weeks, eleven Minneapolis-based dancers have spent their days at the Walker Art Center playing dress-up in Merce Cunningham Dance Company costumes. Nearly a hundred costumes from more than fifty different dances were documented–forming a representative sample of the thousands of costumes in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection. The resulting images will soon be featured on the Walker’s Collections website.

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A Visit with Carmen Herrera

I recently had the pleasure of visiting artist Carmen Herrera at her home/studio in New York, where she has lived for the last 40 years. It was June 4, just a few days after she’d celebrated her 100th birthday (May 31) at a local restaurant with a small group of colleagues, family, and friends. While […]

HerreraViso

I recently had the pleasure of visiting artist Carmen Herrera at her home/studio in New York, where she has lived for the last 40 years. It was June 4, just a few days after she’d celebrated her 100th birthday (May 31) at a local restaurant with a small group of colleagues, family, and friends. While I regrettably had to miss the festivities, we shared tea and birthday cupcakes I’d brought her from Magnolia Bakery.

We were accompanied by Carmen’s longtime friend and neighbor, the painter Tony Bechara, a passionate champion of Herrera’s art since the 1990s and the man the artist’s late husband, Jesse Loewenthal, entrusted with preserving and promoting Herrera’s art. Although based in New York on and off since the mid-1950s and working in close proximity to American painters Leon Polk Smith (a friend) and Barnett Newman, Herrera and her art remained in relative obscurity until 1998. That year, New York’s El Museo del Barrio, where Bechara served on the board, organized a small exhibition of black-and-white paintings from the 1950s. Shortly thereafter, prescient collectors Agnes Gund and Ella Cisneros began to acquire and exhibit Herrera’s paintings. The story of Herrera selling her first painting in 2004 at age 89 has been the subject of innumerable stories and profiles since then, including a recent article focused on elder women artists who found recognition later in their careers (published in the New York TimesT Magazine this spring).

The centenarian’s career is now markedly on the rise. Subject of a new documentary, The 100 Years Show by film director Alison Klayman (premiered at Toronto’s Hotdocs festival this April), Hererra’s career will be highlighted in a survey exhibition, organized by Dana Miller, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016. Represented by the Lisson Gallery in London since 2012, Herrera’s works are now in the collections of the Walker Art Center, the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern in London, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

I was first introduced to Carmen Herrera in the mid-2000s through Ella Cisneros, the Miami-based collector and founder of CIFO Foundation, on whose curatorial advisory counsel I sat at the time. It was in Ella’s foundation office that a painting by Herrera caught my eye. Shortly thereafter I arranged the first of several visits to the painter’s studio, and in 2007 I acquired a painting directly from the artist for the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where I was the director. The Hirshhorn’s Rondo (Blue and Yellow) (1965) is a circular painting—one of a handful of tondos from the period with characteristically crisp flowing lines that define volumes of geometry and space in perfect counterbalance. I installed the painting in the Hirshhorn’s collection galleries in the company of other American painters of the 1950s and ’60s, including Ellsworth Kelly, with whom her works have strong association. Indeed both artists spent their formative years in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Paris, each maintaining a commitment to hard-edge abstraction at a time when other American artists were exploring the more gestural approaches of Abstract Expressionism. Upon returning to New York in the mid-1950s, Ellsworth Kelly and his paintings took some time to capture the art world’s imagination, while Herrera found little or no support as a woman in an art world less hospitable to female artists. It was a revelation to see Herrera’s canvas hanging in the Hirshhorn’s galleries in dialogue so fluidly with an unacknowledged peer.

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1971 Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, October 16, 2014 – September 11, 2016 Galleries 4, 5, 6.  Installation views from Gallery 5, October 15, 2014.

Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (1971), as installed in Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections

Shortly after arriving at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, I similarly sought to bring one of Herrera’s impressive structuras (structures) into the collection. I thought that one of the artist’s painted wood constructions would forge a powerful dialogue with the minimalist paintings and sculptures that are core to the Walker’s collection of abstract and minimalist works of the 1960s. In 2010, Untitled (1971) entered the Walker’s collection along with three related works on paper from 1966. The freestanding blue construction is currently featured in the Walker’s Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, where it  is installed in the company of Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, as well as British painter Bridget Riley, where it equally commands the galleries.

First conceived in 1966, Herrera realized the Walker’s blue structura in 1971 with the support of the Cintas Foundation, a Cuban American private philanthropic foundation that supports Cuban artists living and working in the US since the late 1950s. With this modest grant, Herrera found a carpenter to help her produce a group of wall- and floor-bound works in relief, including the Walker’s Untitled (1971). The funds also allowed her to help a family member leave Cuba in the years immediately following the Cuban Revolution. Affixed to the floor, the piece is comprised of two separate hollow wood-framed panels. The top panel sits on top of the bottom panel and swivels forward ever so slightly. When lit with gallery lights from above, the top panel casts a defining shadow across the bottom panel to give it its signature shape and form. While Herrera intended to make complementary pieces in red and green based on the related drawings in the Walker’s collection, only the blue structure was realized. More recently Herrera fabricated the red structure based on the Walker’s drawing and may realize others.

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1966

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1966

While in New York I also visited the Whitney Museum and was delighted to see Carmen Herrera featured in the museum’s opening installation with a large painting from 1959, which recently entered the Whitney’s collection. This work is one of Herrera’s signature “green and white” paintings that have been a staple of her career. Installed next to Ellsworth Kelly, this striking juxtaposition reinforces Herrera’s pioneering import in the history of American abstract painting and affirms that her reinsertion in the history of this art is now complete.

At age 100, Herrera doesn’t quite know what to make of all the recent attention, which at once seems gratifying and enervating. The recognition is long overdue for an artist who has never wavered in her practice or commitment to her vision, which has remained consistent for more than 70 years. To this day, Herrera continues to make a painting at her window each and every morning, working with her assistant Manuel to scale up her drawings into larger canvases. As she expressed during my visit, “This is when everything is most clear.”

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