WHAT I'VE BEEN UP TO
At this point (late 1998), my pictures are hanging in two locations:
At San Francisco Production Group, 550 Bryant Street, San Francisco, CA, probably through the end of the year. This is a group show featuring eight pieces created expressly for Johnny Davis to hang in San Francisco, including a diptych that I'm especially fond of (I hated to have to cut the piece in half!) from what I think of as the "calligraphy" internegative (see the picture on the cover). The lab did a particularly fine job of color balancing on that one.
At Gallery House, 538 Ramona Street near University, Palo Alto, CA. I just joined this co-op gallery, and have eight framed pieces and six matted pieces there. The matted pieces were produced especially for the gallery, from two brand new internegatives, and are in my bin in the Graphics Corridor. I will have a show in the Graphics Corridor of the gallery in January, 1999, and will have a two-person show in the front of the gallery in March 1999. The organizer of that show is Giselle Haselbarth, who paints in both figurative and abstract styles. I am particularly impressed with Giselle's notecards, images of about 4" x 5" of astonishing delicacy and wealth of expressive range. I had two pieces in the gallery's recent figurative show, resulting from painting in 35mm slides instead of the 8mm and Super8 film I usually paint on. This was the first time I had blown up any of these slides. One of them is of a family gathering of relatives of mine whom I have no recollection of meeting. I painted the slides in a burst of insouciance, and was chagrined when my aunt informed me that she had only loaned them to me, and wanted them back. I think I took artistic license a bit far there. Anyway, Gallery House is in a lovely architectural treasure of a building-it's a treasure to be there.
Last month I guest edited the Newsletter of YLEM, an international organization of people who combine art and technology which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This came about because I attended a YLEM mailing at mixed media artist Eleanor Kent's house (she's also in the show at SFPG) and I saw some back issues of the Newsletter, each of which is guest edited by a different person. I mentioned to Eleanor that I would like to guest edit some time, and she told me that the current guest editor had flaked out, and that my services were required right then. So I got in touch with mixed media artist Marius Johnston, who produces the Newsletter, and told him I had some 20-year-old manuscripts in my basement from when I was editor of EAR Magazine. Marius was excited about the idea, especially since YLEM had never published a newsletter dealing with music. I was pleased with the way they layed the Newsletter out, and think it turned out well, but the nostalgia aspects of all of these pieces for my was quite an emotional experience. The pieces dealt with various aspects of improvisation in music, including Stanley Lunetta, who created computer-synthesizers that composed music perpetually, and
Richard Waters, who created acoustic instruments and then had to try to figure out how to play them. The material will probably eventually be on YLEM's web page, www.ylem.org. I still want to guest edit the YLEM Newsletter using new material about the use of chance operations in the visual arts, including computer generated- and -manipulated work. If you have a manuscript on this topic or know someone who does, please get in touch with me.
I'm featured in the latest (October-December 1998) issue of studioNOTES. This is a newsletter for artists published by Benny Shaboy in Benicia, CA. In addition to printing interviews with artists and pictures of their work, the newsletter polls artists to share their experience with such nuts-and-bolts issues as getting gallery representation and earning a living as an artist (what a concept). The newsletter also includes listings of showing opportunities. To get a copy of studioNOTES, contact Benny Shaboy at P.O Box 502, Benicia, CA 94510, 707-746-5516,e-mail email@example.com, web presence at http://webgalleries.com/studionotes.
SOME THOUGHTS ON IMPROVISATION
Improvisation is a collaboration.
Matter is entropic.
People are anti-entropic.
Where people and matter meet, creativity can ensue.
Artists try to express themselves.
What needs to be expressed is the collaboaration of people and matter.
In the YLEM Newsletter I guest edited, dealing with improvisation in music, I quoted jazz trombonist Wayne Wallace as saying "You can't play it on the gig if you haven't played it in the shed." I don't think that's really the way he said it, and I'm not sure why I translated his statement into the jazz vernacular, since it's possible that his point might get lost that way. A "gig" is a performance, and "shed" is a euphemism for a practice session. In other words, improvisation has to be rehearsed. (Like a comedian rehearsing his ad libs.) It's a concept I have some problems with, but I think Wayne was trying to counteract the conception that a jazz musician plays out of divine inspiration instead of hard work. Wes Montgomery was apparently often a victim of this conception, since he made what he did look so easy. In the liner notes to his Complete Riverside Sessions set, many respected guitarists point out that they can't play what Wes did, and Jim Hall quotes Wes as saying "I don't really practice. I sort of open up the case and throw some meat in." I love that image of the guitar as a wild beast.
In the 70s I ran into some musicians who were trying to play "Free Music," and I confess I committed some of it myself. I shouldn't speak as thought Free Music is over-the Rova Saxophone Quartet is still at it after 20 years. I just don't enjoy trying to listen to Free Music anymore. The concept, as I understood it, was that preconceived structures and rules are constricting, and consequently that better music could be made by throwing away these strictures. I didn't find this to be the case. The music I enjoy listening to adheres to the strictures, but the musicians push and tease the strictures in interesting ways.
An analogy to this conceptual conflict might translate in the visual arts into the controversy over whether an abstract painter should work from sketches. But the structures in music take the place of representation and perspective in painting. For most of its history, abstraction was geometric. However, in painting, the throwing off of strictures seems to produce some wonderful art. I think this is because in improvised music, you have the musical structures and the personalities of the other musicians to interact with. In abstract painting, you're interacting instead with materials, which are inherently creative. Somehow I picked up the concept that Kandinsky spoke of a "will to form of matter," but I can't find the reference anywhere. It's true that if you slap some tube color on a blank canvas, the material may seem a bit resistant. But once you start letting the materials take their head, putting together media that don't mix and letting them have at it, you've got a creative collaboration going. There has to be an element of control involved, of course. I ran across an article by a German filmmaker who lets his film be attacked by the elements until it disintegrates. I'm not interested in taking the creative process quite that far, so I wash the acetone and bleach off my film before complete destruction takes place.
I recently ran across a quote from Nicolas de Stael, a wonderful French abstract painter who committed suicide in the 50s, and whose work now hangs in my bathroom, "One never paints what one sees or thinks one sees; one paints, under stress of a thousand vibrations, the shock received." I remember stumbling over the quote in the early 60s, when abstract art reined supreme, and that was a hegemony I could live with.
I'm reminded of two artists who found improvisation problematical. Gil Evans wrote jazz arrangements of such intricacy and complexity for Miles Davis that he was given a lucrative contract by Verve Records, which he couldn't fulfill. Instead, he organized a band in which all of the musicians improvised. It was a let-down. Mark Rothko burst into a free improvisation in the late 40's, and released an uncharacteristic energy and play. He backed away into a misty, dreamy, meditative style. I prefer his improvisations.
Kandinsky's art sorts itself logically into phases. To see a work of Kandinsky's, if you know his work at all, is to automatically classify it into a phase, whatever other perceptual activity may be going on. It is less definite exactly how many phases Kandinsky went through, or exactly when they took place chronologically. I tend to see Kandinsky's work as falling into three phases, but many critics break it down into as many as five. According to this conception, the first phase would be early works which were romantically figurative. Then comes the Blue Rider phase, an expressionistic approach tending toward abstraction. This was the phase Kandinsky was in when he wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and it was a fully realized style which he could have maintained productively for the rest of his life.
The next phase of Kandinsky's work is my favorite, and I think of it as the "free" or "soft-edge" abstraction approach. Line is subordinated to mass, in fact it becomes a kind of mass, and shapes overlap each other and interact in complex ways. The surface of the canvas is relatively dense, as it was in the Blue Rider phase. The color is more subtle and varied in range than in the Blue Rider phase, as though reflecting a more mature sensibility. The Blue Rider canvases tend to stress movement from on part of the picture to anther, while the free abstractions tend toward explosions in different parts of the canvas, leading to a motion in and out of the picture plane, the kind of push-pull Hans Hoffmann talked about. These works are the most satisfying and rewarding of all of Kandinsky's output, and they represent the shortest of his phases.
The following phase can be characterized as the geometrical abstraction or "hard-edge" phase. Line now encloses shape, and the shapes tend to be codified into less complex forms. The color tends toward primaries, and its expressive range is more limited than in the soft-edged abstractions. There are empty spaces in the canvas, especially toward the edges. There is less going on in the pictures, as though Kandinsky was moving away from complexity toward simplicity, a move which does not get my support. It is said that Kandinsky was moving from the Dionysian aspects of the soft-edged abstractions to the Appollonian aspects of the hard-edged works, becoming less hedonistic and more classical. Unfortunately, Kandinsky's other important theoretical work, Point and Line to Plane, was written in the midst of the hard-edged phase. I haven't found a statement by Kandinsky that explains why he felt the need to move from the soft-edged to the hard-edged abstractions. The transition took place while Kandinsky was moving from his life and work in post-revolutionary Russia, with his clashes with Malevich and the Constructivists, and his tenure at the Bauhaus, including his friendship with Klee. During this period he doesn't seem to have run into any free spirits who would have encouraged him to stay with soft-edged abstraction. At point in time, most abstract painters were deep into squares and circles.
The last phase is sometimes characterized as biomorphic abstraction. Kandinsky was in Paris at this point, driven there by the Nazis, but he was never accepted by the French and didn't seem to have many friends among them. Nonetheless, there is a suggestion of Miro in these shapes which suggest amoebas and paramecia. There is again a feeling that the shapes have been moving about the canvas and the painting is a snapshot of their ongoing activity. There are also suggestions of Tanguy and Masson, both of whom were loosely associated with Surrealism, as was Miro. If Kandinsky had been able to buddy up to Breton, he might have achieved recognition sooner.
Kandinsky's soft-edged abstractions are unique for their time, existing in isolation until the abstract-expressionists, who were not influenced by him, created a climate in which his work could be appreciated. Two questions arise: why did Kandinsky stop painting this way, and why didn't anybody else paint that way until nearly fifty years later? Perhaps the two questions answer each other.