Monday, April 27, 2009

By Any Other Name

Up until recently I only knew of James Lee Byars (1932-1997) as someone who had dated a friend of mine. One degree of separation was not enough to tell me anything about the man as an artist, but I met him – so to speak - in February in the company of Joseph Beuys, and now he pops up everywhere. He’s in the New York Cool show at Bowdoin College with a couple of works on paper that don’t really do much, out of context as they are, but there’s a stronger message in a video produced by the Kunstmuseum in Bern. The show there will travel to the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art this Fall. (I hope I’m right about that – the Internet is so often deceiving about dates.) Byars always had more cred in Europe than in this country, but his ball of roses is exquisite, his gold room is stunning, and, given the ephemeralness of his performances, the sight of 100 little children running around in gold capes (“little points of light” according to the curator, Susanne Friedli) has a certain poignancy. The gold room reminds me of another artist whose work deals with spirituality and ephemerality: Montien Boonma. Boonma (1953-2000) was a Thai artist whose “House of Hope,” made of beads, invokes the walking Buddha and freedom from fear. We're invited to step inside. And I wonder as I wander why beauty triggers thoughts of ephemerality and vice versa. Is beauty always fleeting?

Writing for the Telegraph, Richard Dorment has this to say about the ball of roses. “In Rose Table Perfect, first made in 1989, a ball made out of 3,333 red roses sits on the gallery floor. On the opening night when the flowers were fresh, the sight and the scent must have been overpowering. When I saw it last week, the roses had died and the dark orb was the colour of coagulated blood. Simple as it is, in this one piece Byars sums up in purest form his awareness that beauty is inseparable from death and decay.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Way Cool Art

Just as I’m reading Thomas Crow’s The Rise of the Sixties, I learned Saturday that there’s a great new show called New York Cool at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. As everyone knows by now, the Sixties actually began in the Fifties, and there’s a painting by Adolph Gottlieb, Circular, from 1960, that’s light years more alive than its catalog reproduction would have one believe. The same can be said for Helen Frankenthaler’s Seaside with Dunes, from 1962, and for Yayoi Kusama’s No. Red A, 1960. One of the hallmarks of Sixties art was that it was cooler and less personal than the Abstract Expressionism that preceded it, but these three paintings, while not announcing their makers’ egos, are anything but cool. Red’s a hot color. Oil’s a hot medium. And these three paintings have both.

New York Cool, the catalog, for the show which traveled from New York University, has reproductions of all the artworks plus a number of essays I’m looking forward to reading when I finish Crow’s book, which is an easy read and a good introduction to the period and its artists. Crow gives us a time line beginning in 1954, when Rauschenberg began his Combine series, also the year Matisse died. The next year, James Dean was fatally injured when he crashed his Porsche, and the year after that, Jackson Pollock ran his car into a tree and Johnny Cash recorded I Walk the Line. Hard to imagine now that these beginnings and endings happened within a mere 11 years of the end of World War II, an event that seems locked in another time and place. Strange too how art remains fresh and the rest of history gets all musty.

There is a theory that no space-time continuum exists, and that events are making themselves as they happen, only to disappear moments later. What this means for art, I have no idea.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Prickly Aesthetics

Three pincushion cacti lived with me in New York, and in an effort to maintain the vibe, I’ve got a couple of new ones here. The cactus on the dining room table is sort of endearing, if that’s possible. However, I don’t want to test it by reaching out to touch it. The one on my work desk is different. It looks like a lot of tiny green fluted pincushions grafted together. This is a different aesthetic, which brings me to an online chat I’ve been having recently on whether aesthetics can fail. Is this cactus a failure? I don’t think so, because I maintain that aesthetics as a branch of philosophy or a set of principles, according to which a prickly artist or a pincushion cactus might operate, exists a priori and cannot be altered. Can an artist deliberately fail in his/her attempts at aesthetic renderings? Again, I don’t think so. The ontology behind the impulse to fail ensures that failing to succeed is to have succeeded.

There is a related issue, which is whether one can deliberately make something ugly. This requires a narrow definition of aesthetics as beautiful or pleasing, and in this case the answer is yes, one can make something that most people would agree is ugly (failed). Roses are thought to be more pleasing than cactus, a Vermeer painting more pleasing than a Manzoni can of crap. Personally, I like both roses and cactus, and expanded definitions.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Three Ways of Being Small

I'm remembering three memorable productions I saw recently. One was Mabou Mines DollHouse, an adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, at Saint Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo. The set was scaled down to the male actors, who were midgets. The women were tall, but spoke with tiny voices and Norwegian accents. On Mabou Mines web page, we read that Director Lee Breuer "turns Ibsen*s mythic feminist anthem on its head by physicalizing the equation of Power and Scale. Torvald, Rank and Krogstad, (the men), are all played by actors whose heights range from 40 to 53 inches. Nora and Kristine are tall and Helene, the maid, is a full 6 feet. Nothing dramatizes Ibsen's patriarchal point more clearly than the image of these little men dominating and commanding women one and a half times their size in a playhouse size doll house." The stuff of bad dreams that night for me and my friends, you betcha.

Second production: The Awaji Puppet Theater Company presented a group of traditional plays at the Japan Society. This was Bunraku, where all the puppets, which are 3 feet tall, are manipulated by three men dressed entirely in black, who somehow see through or in spite of the full hoods they wear. The men represent the shadow side of a world in which the puppets, who do not speak, through masks that do not move, are reality.

Third: Laurie Anderson is currently at Location One in Soho, through May 2. But Laurie is only a few inches high, seated in an armchair in a corner of a darkened room. Her dog is with her. They are 3-D projections of the real thing, and after you've been in the room for a while and your eyes have become accustomed to the dark and you hear Laurie tell her story, it dawns on you that you are a giant, looking down at her from your great height (in my case, 5'2"), and that you represent the terror that comes from the air, the vultures circling, the planes, as in "here come the planes, they're American planes, made in America." From the Air, as the installation is titled, is about disembodiment, hers and yours.