17 August 2014

A little parable

Zeno of Elea was a very smart man who confounded many, many smart philosophers and mathematicians. If you had listened to him, he almost certainly would have convinced you, if you’re one to value a theory over experience, that if you stand over there and he shoots an arrow at you, that the arrow, because it will always have to traverse half the distance between the bow and your head, and then half again, in an infinite regression, will never arrive. And had you submitted to a demonstration, you might have had a final instant of cognizance with which to reevaluate your priorities.

18 April 2014


Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard ©Bracha Ettinger, 2005

I never met Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, though I would have loved to. A friend of mine studied with him at the graduate program at UC Irvine and told me a few winning stories. One was from a party, where Lyotard arrived in splendid style, sporting a Colombo-worthy trench coat, a surgically-attached Galois, and two bottles of bourbon—one for the party and one for himself.

Lyotard’s writing is remarkable to me in that despite its pessimistic mien, a side effect of examining politics and the state of culture, the backbone of his work is human compassion. You don’t get that impression from very many other contemporary theorists, despite that being––by inference––the purpose of the undertaking. Maybe the work is just too bleak.

Another person whose work has been important to me, Robert Irwin, I met very briefly at an opening for one of his shows at the (woefully) now-defunct Dia Foundation galleries in New York. I had glimpsed him in the galleries but departed, and was already in the car to leave when I abruptly asked Amy to wait for a moment and ran back in. He was chatting with a small group inside the installation and I butted in, quickly thanked him for his work, and skittered out.
Robert Irwin
, Excursus: Homage to the Square3 1998. 
Installed at the Dia Center for the Arts 
©Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society, New York
While in graduate school at the Tyler School of Art, Raphael Rubinstein gave a talk on the paintings of Norman Bluhm, whom I had never heard of. That was a good day. Not long after that I went to Ace Gallery in Tribeca with a couple fellow grad students and asked if they had any of Bluhm's paintings that we could see. The dealer, perhaps bemused by my cheek, led us into a back room and showed us some ecstatic, gargantuan pieces, just off the truck and leaning against the walls. That was an even better day. A year or so later Stanley Whitney was in my studio and noticed some reproductions of Bluhm’s work on the wall and said I should go visit him up in Vermont. I replied that I thought people moved to Vermont to get away from people like me. Bluhm died the next year, and I regretted never at least sending him a letter. His wife invited Amy and I up to visit his studio a few years ago to see his paintings there. That was a phenomenal day.
Untitled, 1978, acrylic and pastel on paper mounted on canvas. Photo Jareld Melberg Gallery

Because he was gone before I knew who he was, I couldn’t thank my all-time blues favorite, Hound Dog Taylor, who played with irresistible energy. One summer I occasionally saw Brewer Phillips––Hound Dog’s right hand man, who could tear off an incendiary lead himself––high-kicking at Maxwell Street market in Chicago on Sunday mornings in the 80s. His group played across the street from us (I was one of the roving band of roustabouts who backed Little Pat Rushing there over the years), and I should have gone over on a break and said hello at some point but didn’t. Phillips died in 1999.

Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, Ann Arbor Blues Festival, 1974

It may seem trite, and humility is too often viewed as a pitiful defect these days, but I feel an obligation to thank people who have done great work that is important to me. They might not know otherwise, and that’s a worse consequence than making an ass of myself. 
"The life of a writer is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward." --Jorge Luis Borges
Though nearby in spirit (and also geographically for some periods, in southern California), I don’t think Irwin and Lyotard ever met, but they would have had a few things to talk about. Irwin’s examinations of perception, and his analysis that between raw perception and recognition (of a traffic sign, for instance) we lose both information and engagement, led him to put experience at the center of his work, renounce painting along with presumptions of content, and create art and spaces that are perceptually both precise and ambiguous.

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue (installation view), 2006-07
 polyurethane paint over lacquer on aircraft honeycomb aluminum
 24 panels: 132 1/2 x 96 1/2 inches (3.4 x 2.4 m) each; 12 panels:
132 1/2 x 48 1/4 inches (3.4 x 1.2 m) each; overall installation dimensions variable
Photography by Philipp Scholz Rittermann
 ©Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society, New York
Irwin’s work keeps the viewer in a kind of suspension; it’s often hard to resolve what you are seeing easily, or there may be a jarringly dislocating visual experience that sharpens your awareness of the moment. I have always felt because of this that his work has an essentially ethical foundation; I don’t think Irwin would agree but in any case it’s a topic for another time. (I actually think all art has an ethical foundation in terms of what is assumed when you decide to engage the creative process, though I don’t mean that in the moralizing, prescriptive way that makes some people go DEFCON 2, simply that ethics is a natural, intrinsic aspect of living and begins with your relationship to yourself. But that's a topic for another day too.)
For Lyotard, in essays such as “After the Sublime, the State of Aesthetics” and “Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable,” in The Inhuman, the suspension of resolution is equally important, though for somewhat different reasons. Reviewing Kant’s analysis of the sublime, Lyotard focuses on a moment out of time that happens when we are presented with a perception that does not correspond with the forms and structures that fit our prior experience––like the timbre of a strange musical instrument––or in the case of the sublime overwhelms them––like an immense and terrifying storm. If you've ever seen the sky turn green, you'll know what I mean.

More broadly the essays take on the state of aesthetics and its place within the contemporary political/technological milieu. In the book, he is despondent about art’s chances in the face of these forces, but preserves hope for a practice of art that persists by inhabiting the gaps of both society and perception, and creating a different kind of avant-garde (maybe more of a philosophical/artistic resistance) by working outside the cultural demands placed on it by not just the capitalistic but also the academic establishment. It’s an unusual position. And a very useful one.



This album cover is from Amy’s collection. She purchased it at a rummage sale years ago; it was released in 1953. We pulled it off the shelf awhile back and realized that the painting is by Robert Irwin. He is described on the back cover as a young up-and-comer. I guess so. There is also a quote from the artist: He likes Chet Baker because he always leaves something essential out. 1953. It’s a fine album, too.

14 March 2014

Ed Clark, body and mind

Ed Clark’s recent show at Tilton Gallery, entitled “Big Bang,” was full of resonant and rapturous paintings.

Paris, 2009
Acrylic on canvas
73 1/2 x 54 1/2 inches

Untitled, 2005
Acrylic on canvas
53 1/4 x 66 inches

Untitled, 2009
Acrylic on canvas
81 x 64 1/2 inches

 detail Untitled, 2009

Clark, now in his mid-80s, paints using brooms on raw canvas laid on the floor.

(Part 2 of that documentary is here.)

Consideration of the role of the body in making and interpreting art is nothing new, but as discoveries in neuroscience deepen our understanding of how we perceive and think, they provide an opportunity to reconsider the relationships between art, body and mind. No one I’ve read describes them more succinctly than Siri Hustvedt in her appreciation of the work of choreographer Pina Bausch. Reviewing Wim Wender’s 3-D documentary of Bausch and her company, Hustvedt says:

In their 2007 paper “Motion, Emotion, and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience,” David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese discuss the neurobiology of looking at art as “embodied simulation.” Simply put, when we watch dancers or look at a painting or read a novel, we activate mirror systems in our brains. Although this activation remains below our awareness, it nevertheless allows us to participate in the aesthetic, emotive action of what we are looking at. As Freedberg and Gallese articulate it: “Spectators precognitively grasp emotions that are either explicitly shown or implicitly suggested by works of art.” In her acceptance speech when she won the Kyoto Prize in 2007, Bausch said, “For I always know exactly what I am looking for, but I know it with my intuition and not with my head.” Indeed, many artists work this way, even artists whose medium is words. There is always a preverbal, physiological, rhythmic, motoric ground that precedes language and informs it.
Because of her interest in neuroscience, Hustvedt has collaborated with the neurobiologist Antonio Damasio (author of Descartes' Error), who has been doing groundbreaking work that is dramatically expanding our knowledge of the human brain, the most complex object we have so far encountered in the universe (think about that). Part of Damasio’s work demonstrates how the body participates in thought, via the constant and vital electrical and chemical feedback loops between nerves, organs, glands and the brain. The body doesn’t add an adjunct function; it is a component of mind.

The volumes of information the body provides––how gravity impacts every movement, what it will feel like to lift that dictionary, likely sensations of an impending collision––are no less integrated into thought than brain-centric notions of philosophy or doctrine. The intellect is both visceral and cerebral. A painter or viewer can either recognize or ignore that.

As our blood labours to beget
 Spirits, as like souls as it can; 
Because such fingers need to knit
 That subtle knot, which makes us man;

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
 To affections and to faculties
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
 Else a great prince in prison lies.

To our bodies turn we then, that so
 Weak men on love reveal’d may look; 
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
 But yet the body is his book.

from “The Extasie,” by John Donne

Clark’s paintings, sometimes sinuous, sometimes explosive, are rich with take-no-prisoners color and physical empathy. 

New Orleans Series #5, 2012
Acrylic on canvas
76 x 51 1/4 inches
detail New Orleans Series #5

They are generous; they are catalysts. Like the best abstract works, they put you in touch with something specific, non-didactic and unsayable by other means, and then empty you into a delta of thought and feeling. After that you’re on your own.

30 July 2013

El Anatsui

We went to see the marvelous El Anatsui show at the Brooklyn Museum a couple months ago. The exhibition closes on 18 August so I thought it a good time to share some photos. I was also listening to a TED talk by Murray Gell-Mann this afternoon, as well as an interview he did with my friend, the brilliant and charming Mary-Charlotte Domandi at KSFR in Santa Fe, which raised a connection with El Anatsui's work.

Gell-Mann is very interested in beauty in physics, and he talked about emergence––an instance where a quality is evident in something that is not contained in its constituent parts, like consciousness from brain chemistry and physiology, or wetness from the right combination of hydrogen and oxygen. It's kind of magical in that the emergent quality in most cases could in no way be inferred by looking at the ingredients it springs from.

Created from the most modest means––bottle caps, foil wrappers, and similar detritus––the first impression of emergence in El Anatsui's work could be the bald economic conversion of wringing beauty from bar waste. It continues as you confront the staggering scale of the work made with minute elements. Beyond that are multiple associative threads: atomic, natural phenomena, fabric and pattern, complexity through repetition of simple components, the ephemeral, transcendence.

If you can stop in your efforts will be rewarded.

31 March 2013

Circle of Fifths

This is my most recent group of paintings. For the benefit of anyone not familiar with music theory, the circle of fifths refers to phenomenon in music where given a key, such as C, the next key in the circle, G, differs from C by only one note, and so on to D, A, E, etc., around the circle of all 12 keys until you return to C.

I decided to name the series so because I worked them largely simultaneously, moving from painting to painting in the same session, so there are corresponding similarities. The paintings are shown more or less in the order they were completed.

All the paintings are 24 in. x 24 in., oil, oil impasto and metallic paint on canvas.

Circle of Fifths: C 
Circle of Fifths: G

Circle of Fifths: D
Circle of Fifths: A

Circle of Fifths: E
Circle of Fifths: B

Circle of Fifths: F-sharp
Circle of Fifths: C-sharp

Circle of Fifths: A-flat
Circle of Fifths: E-flat

Circle of Fifths: B-flat

Circle of Fifths: F

07 April 2012

New stuff

20 June, oil, acrylic, metallic paint on canvas over panel, 48 in. x 84 in. (122 cm x 203 cm)

Some images and details of new work on my website