WHAT IíVE BEEN UP TO
At this point (March 1999) my work is hanging in two places:
At Gallery House, 538 Ramona St., Palo Alto, CA. This is a two-person show with Gisele Haselbarth. Iíve got 13 of my biggest pieces in the show, including a movie projector and a couple of editors on display. Gisele has a very large triptych and some collagraphs, all of them abstract. She works with acrylic and collage materials, with large areas of repose setting off intricate activity and even textual material. There is a bold mastery in her work, and I admire her a great deal. She has moved from an expressionistic-representational style, her sailboat series, to work that is partaking of the efficacy of chance operations, especially in her very small works. Our work complements each other in terms of color and shape, and yet the contrast in media is striking. While I admire and am drawn to stretched canvas painting, I canít help feeling a further resonance in photo-based experimentalism, the mystery of engaging with a world outside oneself whose chemical nature augments the possibilities inherent in chance operations.
At Artisans Gallery, 78 E. Blithedale, Mill Valley, CA. This is a group show called "Digital Art 99". I donít do digital art, of course, but my son, Daniel Shulman-Means, has a whole web page of his abstract digital work athttp://ozonedesign.com/sin. So I asked Daniel how to use PhotoShop to transform one of my pieces. He imported the piece, and five minutes later had produced a work in which I could recognize only the barest vestiges of my piece. "You should learn to do this, Dad," said Daniel. "Itís easy." By this time I was no longer interested in learning how, but asked Daniel to transform another of my pieces. This time I took a more active role, making suggestions and giving direction. Daniel finished the work to my satisfaction, and told me that it was a failure. So I put both of our names on the piece he liked, put only my name on the one he didnít like, and submitted the two pieces along with a piece by Daniel called Dimension Leak to Artisans. They accepted both of the pieces with Danielís name, and rejected the piece with just my name. Not only that, but Danielís piece sold!
The Artisanís Gallery show is one of three juried group shows Iíve participated in this year. The Artisanís judges interpret "Digital" to mean anything produced using a computer, apparently, and much of the work represented seemed to me to be only slightly altered photography. I saw only two other totally abstract works at the show, by Ellen Tobe and Melanie Hofmann. Daniel was attracted to the work of Aaron Florez, who was awarded Best of Show for monochromatic photo-based ambiguous juxtapositions with an undeniably mysterious quality. However, it seems to me that the digital medium offers so many possibilities for the creation of new forms, spaces, and even colors, that it is selling the medium short to use it to simply alter photographs. But the greatest pitfall in the use of digital processes is that there are too many possibilities, that one can be overwhelmed if a certain conservatism is not brought to bear. But by and large, I find the Artisanís show more conservative overall than I expected it to be.
The show entitled "Abstract and Surrealist" at Danville Fine Arts was very eclectic, and seemed to lean more toward surrealism than toward abstraction. I wasnít clear what relationship between the two approaches the gallery was trying to draw. Outstanding for me were the two pieces by Steve Aubrey, 3-d lenticular biomorphic abstractions. This work can only be fully appreciated if the viewer is in motion, so that any view is only a partial view. While in my work the viewer is invited to project the perceptive consciousness into the work, in Aubreyís work the piece comes out and meets the viewer halfway. Between the Aubrey works was a hybrid of painting and sculpture by Haakon Faste. This consisted of a grid-oriented geometrical-abstract painting with a comparable grid superimposed on it but separated from it in space, so that the viewer felt inclined to find the best angle from which to view it, to "trim" the viewing. Also outstanding in the show were expressionistic abstract paintings by Alice Gillibert and Renee Fakhrai.
There is an interview with Steve Aubrey over my byline in the latest (March-May 1999) issue of studioNOTES magazine. The magazine is available from P. O. Box 502 in Benicia, CA 94510. The article will probably eventually be on their web page, athttp://webgalleries.com/studionotes. Mentioned at the end of the article is Steveís upcoming one-man show at Pacific Grove Art Center, Pacific Grove, CA (831-375-2208) opening May 21. I recommend it. Steveís work has to be seen.
GREENBERG, STELLA, AND FLATNESS
Last summer, preparatory for a trip to New York City, I picked up a copy of the British magazine Modern Painters, New York special issue (Spring 1998). I read the magazine on the airplane, and came across an interview which I found astonishing. Frank Stella was explaining how, after a career built on demolishing the basic tenets of Abstract Expressionism, he had come to realize that the paintings of Pollock and de Kooning represented a tradition of depth and possibility which he was now ready to embrace. Speaking of his own work of the Minimalist period in comparison to the work of Kandinsky, Stella said, "it still has a quality of facileness that isnít particularly flattering."
Speaking of Pollockís work, Stella said, "it just sings. Thereís a lot of space in it, and it vibrates...youíre overwhelmed by the feeling-the tactile and optical sensations being so rich and so straightforward and so simple..." And speaking of the relationship of the art object to the world at large, Stella said, "the idea of building the picture and creating space is that you create a habitable illusion. So thereís the possibility for the life in the object itself, and for you to live in it. These works...have a life of their own, and a life that you could enter into, and theyíre about as abstract and built as you can get. But they are still pictorial and optical...The movement of the painting and the gesture is indicative of being alive."
When I arrived in New York, I did something I could not have done here in the San Francisco Bay Area (or in Los Angeles). I went to the Knoedler Gallery and saw the latest work of Frank Stella in its palpable glory. In the near year since then, I have seen only one recent Stella work here, and that 10 years old.
Stella is important perhaps more for the journey his sensibility has taken than for his actual works themselves. The dominance of Abstract Expressionism as the preeminent genre of art from the end of WWII through the 1950s was, irrespective of its esthetic merit or even its real existence as a genre, a triumph of the proselytizing pressagentry of Clement Greenberg, the most influential critic of the Twentieth Century. And Greenberg took it into his head, for some obscure reason, that one of the hallmarks of modernist painting was the concept of flatness. Tom Wolfe has a lot of fun with this concept in the Painted Word. Ok, Wolfe is a bozo, but it is certainly arguable that Greenbergís emphasis on flatness is rigid, arbitrary, and unnecessary. Apparently flatness was deemed necessary in order to repudiate illusionism, which was necessary to the abandonment of representation and particularly of perspective. But to replace perspective with flatness was, at best, extreme.
Stella started his career repudiating illusionism most emphatically, stating that "What you see is what you see." The anti-illusionism of his black paintings with unpainted straight lines fit into an approach called "literalism." But then Stella began manifesting spatial characteristics in his work, although remaining stringently anti-illusionistic. First he built up the physical depth of his canvases, so that a third dimension had to be added when describing them. Then he built up his surfaces to several feet from the wall, still steadfastly insisting that the works were paintings and not sculpture. The works I saw at Knoedler were most definitely sculpture, since they were independent of the wall and were totally three-dimensional.
Stella addressed the problem somewhat differently in his writings. In the series of lectures delivered at Harvard and published as Working Space, Stella stated that the job of painting was to create space, and the failure of contemporary abstract painting was that it was inferior to the works of the Old Masters from the standpoint of space.
Ironically, some of the pioneers of abstract painting never repudiated the utilization of spatial concepts. Kandinsky spoke of certain colors as receding and others as coming forward. Hans Hoffmann spoke of the push-pull of colors and shapes, and their intrinsic space-creating tendencies. But both Kandinsky and Hoffmann were chided by Greenberg for their lack of immersion in cubism, which Greenberg considered to be the most important movement in modern art, even though it was never a movement into abstraction. Stella called for the reintroduction not only of space, but also of a complexity that would render abstract art worthy of persistent consideration. What he is arriving at now is the answer to the question: what comes after the end of art? And the answer is, you stop making history, and make some real art.
KANDINSKY AND WALDO
My last Kandinsky article provoked some unexpected and very gratifying feedback.
Steve Aubrey sent me this e-mail:
When I was painting, in my 20's, I got pretty glib in the realist/surrealist vein. It has taken me 30 years of looking and practice to get even mediocre as an Abstractionist. Even now it requires the help of a computer. You pondered on the back page about whether chance operations are just another tool available to the artist or a door to a new world. If chance were just another tool, the results would be limited to the scope of the artist's ability, he wielding the tool. The narrow scope of our poor ability would be quite a straitjacket for something as wild and endlessly creative as Chance. It is Chance, after all, that drives natural selection and produces the stupendous variety and beauty of living Nature. Many of us call this God. To drop our pretensions and be creatively guided by Chance, partnering with it, is a form of prayer. The deliciousness of the waking alpha state that Chance engenders in the Artist-Partner cannot be experienced by the didactic and the ego-driven, i.e., some of the very people who most vociferously attack Abstraction.
Marius Johnston e-mailed me and pointed me to a web page he had created just to refute my article. I was amazed when I accessed it, and you will be too.www.best.com/~mariusj/kandinsky/kindinsky.html. Or you can access my web page and link to Marius from there.
Marius devotes most of his web page to a presentation of two motifs, the rider and St. George, which he demonstrates were derived from other artists and persisted, in various forms, throughout Kandinskyís career. He quotes extensively from one book, Kandinsky in Munich by Peg Weiss. I havenít read this book, but Mariusí quotes remind me of a trend Iím seeing in such books as David Anfamís and Stephen C. Fosterís, which are trying to prove that Kline, Pollock, and de Kooning were all just realists who disguised their realistic motifs in willful obfuscation. Consequently the early, inferior figurative work of these masters is used to discredit the power and depth of their non-objective masterpieces. It is certainly possible to find recognizable motifs in even Kandinskyís densest and most dynamic abstract works, but it is also possible to find recognizable motifs in my work, which I guarantee I couldnít have put there even if I had wanted to. The point is that abstract works are about the dynamics of color, shape, light, space, and the temporal dynamic of experiencing the work. Finding recognizable forms in abstract work is just a diverting game, like Whereís Waldo, a diversion from the real power that the best abstract work offers.
Marius devotes a couple of sentences to the question of whether Kandinsky used chance operations in making art. Again relying on Weiss, he suggests that only in his woodcuts did Kandinsky do so, because of the resistant nature of the medium. Weiss and Marius see Kandinskyís work as basically all part of a coherent continuum. I see the works of his soft-edge, "heroic" period (1912-1913) as fundamentally separate from the rest of his output, revealing a density and complexity which suggest a kind of frenzy that is antithetical to the sober, conceptualizing intellectual portrayed by Marius.
Marius addresses himself to the question of the efficacy of chance operations by differentiating between "spontaneous gestures (accident)" and chance operations as random events. As he puts it, "There is a link between a spontaneous gesture and the person who made it. Whereas chance operations divorce the random event from the instigator." A good point, but perhaps missing my point. As computer artists constantly experience, the world of chance operations can be a powerful ally in the creation of work that is beyond the capabilities of the artist working alone. But chance operations arenít the same thing as randomness, because bounds are always imposed upon it, to a greater or lesser extent, by the artist.
My son, Daniel Shulman-Means, thinks Marius is right. Daniel canít understand why anyone would use arbitrariness in the painting of a picture, when the computer is so much better at it. Daniel seems to see painting as about control, and the computer as about possibility from an outside agency. Daniel believes that Kandinsky used the recurrent forms on purpose, while I tend to see them, if at all, as unconscious manifestations. The main point of Kandinskyís work was, as he put it, the "inner jolt" he felt creating.