Monday, October 31, 2016

The Art of Detroit in the Abstract

Detroit artist Rick Vian was asked to curate a show at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Detroit Abstraction." The show is on view until December 8.

* * * 
Jim Chatelain, And the Cries Behind the Door, 2015. (Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of the artists and Janice Charach Gallery.)
In his 1989 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies two legacies that have come down from the Enlightenment: scientific positivism and expressive individualism. The first, Taylor notes, deals with the universal—objectivity, rationality, and what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” The second deals with the particular—subjectivity, intuition, and generally embedded in a specific time and place.

In Western art, the division can be traced back to the Renaissance, to Leonardo di Vinci on the one hand, who thought of art as a branch of science, and Michelangelo Buonarroti on the other, who thought of art first and foremost as a means of artistic expression. Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin in his 1915 The Principles of Art History traces the fault line in the distinction between linear and painterly, what he terms the “absolute” clarity of pictorial representation in the Renaissance and the “relative” clarity of the Baroque.

Tracing the lineage further in both the representational and abstract in Western art, one can continue to parse out the distinction, between, to name just a few examples, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism, Constructivism and Dada, De Stijl and Surrealism.

Since the days of the Cass Corridor, Detroit art has traditionally been placed on the side of expressive individualism, arguably a response to the failure of the apparatus of mechanical reproduction, and the mass-industrial technocracy that oversaw it, to continue delivering the goods to the city and its residents. (As Taylor notes, the emergence of Romanticism in the mid-eighteenth century, and its championing of expressive individualism, is the obverse dialectic to the positivism of radical Enlightenment and its embodiment in the First Industrial Revolution.) That spirit is certainly there in the work of certain artists of the Cass Corridor generation such as Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Bradley Jones, Brenda Goodman, and Nancy Mitchnick. And indeed, the term “urban expressionism” was evoked at the time in the major statement of that period, the Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977.” But also at work at the same time were artists, such as Georg Ettl, Aris Koutrolis, Shelden Iden, David Barr, and Stanley Dolega, who could just as easily be placed on the other side of the line.

This exhibition of 41 artists demonstrates the diversity of approaches to abstract art in Detroit, from some of the earlier artists of the Cass Corridor generation to several emerging in the present day.
Curtis Rhodes, Copan/Yaddo Eccentric Flint, n.d. (Charcoal, oil bar, watercolor, colored chalk.)
True to form, the painters are generally, in a word, painterly, from Cass Corridor-generation artists Brenda Goodman, Jim Chatelain, and Allie McGhee to inheritors of that tradition, Gilda Snowden, Anita Bates, Curtis Rhodes, Nancy Thayer, et. al.
Lois Teicher, Endless, 2016. (Aluminum.)
The sculptors go against the traditional expressionist grain—Ray Katz, John Piet, Douglas Semivan, and Lois Teicher, for example—embracing the Constructivist impulse, a function of the industrial materials and processes with which they work. (Though the same is not true for Cass Corridor original Robert Sestok, who takes industrial castoffs and fashions them into a range of expressive forms.) However, even in this instance it can be argued that the use of an industrial aesthetic is not to accept its conditions completely, but to subvert them by directing their techniques to non-utilitarian ends.

The sculpture of Todd Erickson, whose bronze castings of bent and twisted tree branches are tours-de-force of foundry art, might seem out of place in this exhibition. Yet they make the point that all art is essentially abstraction, even in its most representational forms, as a signifier of a thing and not the thing itself. (An artwork is, of course, at the same its own reality as a thing in and of itself.)
Todd Erickson, Hold Free River, 2013. (Cast bronze.)
Besides painting and sculpture, “Detroit Abstraction” presents work by artists working in other media, such as ceramics, fiber, and assemblage, further demonstrating the diversity of work being created in the abstract vein in Detroit.

In all, this survey of recent work is evidence that the practice of abstract art in Detroit continues to be alive and well.

The Art of Rick Vian in Retrospect

Detroit artist Rick Vian was invited to mount a retrospective show of his work at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Rick Vian: Keeping a Wet Edge." The show was on view in late fall 2016.

* * *

Among the famous quotes of influential artist and teacher Hans Hofmann is: “I bring the landscape home with me.” Nature is the origin of art, Hofmann maintains, as articulated in the connection between the world-as-experienced and its expression in even the most abstract forms of line, shape, and color. The phenomenology of perception—the embodied process of seeing, its translation from retina through the brain to the hand, and from there onto canvas—is the foundation of Rick Vian’s evolution as artist.

Perception, as the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty notes, is an interactive process. As much as the mind is a receptor of visual phenomena, it is at the same time the organizer of it. Through his observations over the four-plus decades of his career as an artist, Vian has discerned patterns—in particular as he notes in his personal statement—of “networks that underlie and organize perception, and are inherent in the structure of the world we perceive.”

Rick Vian, The Vastness, 1977. Oil on canvas (All images courtesy of the artist.)
This is evident from the very beginning in works of the 1970s, such as those of the “Ellipses” and “Grid Projections” series and more obviously in the “Grid Landscapes.” In each case, the grid, rooted as it were in Vian’s observation of the growth and intertwining of tree limbs, provides an underlying structure from which patterns, shapes, and colors emerge, keyed to source inspiration in water, sky, and fauna.

How structures derived from nature find their way into the built environment can be seen in the series of abstract works completed in 1990s, many inspired by Vian’s experience as a commercial painter in industrial facilities. Spectator Sox (1999) uses colors derived from industrial code conventions for signifying things such as danger, safety hazards, and boundary demarcations, conventions that in many cases have been derived from the study of human psychology.

Spectactor Sox, 1999.
Vian has noted that he has embraced abstraction to allow for freedom of expression but that it needs to be grounded in visual reality. As part of maintaining that connection over the past twenty years, Vian has executed a number of highly representational paintings of the natural environs of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These paintings are highly finished and accomplished works of art in and of themselves that also serve as phenomenological investigations into nature that inform the more abstract works especially of the last decade. (It should also be noted that however “realistic” the representational paintings seem to be, they are in fact constructions with the sky observed on one day often appearing in a painting of a tree observed on another.)
Gigantess, 2004.
In these mature paintings of the 2000s, Vian most fully realizes Hofmann’s aesthetic notion of nature embodied in the artist’s very being. “The Gitche Gumee” series inspired by the sublime force of Lake Superior and landscape-derived paintings such as the magisterial Poplar Trees in Fall (2013) and Sky in the Water II (2015) are tours-de-force of the painter’s art.

Through a lifetime of observation, reflection, and response, Rick Vian has given us new ways of seeing and understanding the world. 

Poplar Trees in Fall, 2013.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate?

Jeff Goldfarb, editor of The New School for Social Research's online journal  Public Seminar, asked me to do a post on Bob Dylan receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. I could think of better people around The New School to do this, for example, computer whiz/philosopher Michael Quirk or my MA thesis advisor Jim Miller, who was an original contributor to Rolling Stone magazine and the former pop critic for Newsweek. But I did have a meeting get cancelled on Thursday afternoon, so I was able to bat something out. Below is the text of the post with a couple of edits now that the deadline has passed:
* * *

I can’t say that I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. I may have been born just a little too late to have been caught up in the folk craze, though I do remember singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” along with “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer” during chorus in elementary school. I get his significance as a cultural producer and have my share of Dylan, of course. Some of it is on vinyl, some on CD, covering all periods from the early “protest” stuff to the mid- and late-1960s electric period and onto more recent back-to-the-roots material with Love and Theft being a particular favorite. (There are also those I should have but don't, like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.) I was surprised, though not unpleasantly, to get the news of Robert Allen Zimmerman receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

I personally have been rooting for Thomas Pynchon to get the nod, though somehow I don’t think he would be begrudge The Bard, as he’s often been called, for acing him out. For one thing there’s the fact that Pynchon was friends with Richard Farina who hung with Dylan in the early days, married the sister of his one-time squeeze Joan Baez, and was one of the four figures profiled in David Hajdu's bestseller Positively 4th Street. Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Farina who died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, the same year Dylan survived his. (Read Pynchon's appreciation of Farina here.) For another there is the fact that Pynchon no doubt would acknowledge Dylan's significance, not only to the 1960s counterculture whose failed utopia he has lamented in novels from Gravity's Rainbow on down, but to the world at large.

Dylan legitimized being hip, more so than the Beats who came before him or the Beatles who came after. By the time I entered undergraduate school in the 1970s, English professors talked in terms of Dylan's "poetry" whereas other pop icons had to settle for mere "lyrics." Indeed, Dylan's best songs dig deeply into America's social imaginary (the love) and refashion it for contemporary mass-market consumption on a global scale (the theft).

As with any major prize, there has been no dearth of controversy since the announcement broke. There's the matter of personal taste (again for me Pynchon; for others Phillip Roth, and so on.). But for readers of Public Seminar, more significant conversations are bound up with notions of culture, especially in terms of "Culture" with a capital "C." And the reactions in that regard were immediate, pro and con, typically along the lines of cultural hierarchies that continue to be resilient even in these days of supposed cultural omnivorism.

I'm on the side of the omnivores, understanding culture in the most pluralistic sense. Clifford Geertz once defined culture as "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." Bob Dylan is a storyteller par excellence. And that's at the root of literature from the epics of the ancient rhapsodes (from the Greek meaning literally "to sew songs together") to their postmodern inheritor Dimitri Lyacos.

* * *
Update October 17, 2016: Public Seminar did run a piece by Michael Quirk. It's a good one on the the flap over Dylan's Nobel as a form of "category anxiety." There's another one by Zachary Sunderman, also good.

* * *
Update June 9, 2017: Dylan recorded his Nobel Lecture and sent it to the Nobel Foundation, which published it on the internet. In the months since the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I have thought a lot about Dylan, listening to the music and watching the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. Any ambivalence in my original post for Public Seminar has been eliminated. Watch it below.

Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971, by Jonas Mekas

Back in the day when I was an aspiring young artist, one of my bibles was a well-worn copy (gotten at the late-great independent bookstore Paperbacks Unlimited) of Movie Journal, a collection of columns by filmmaker/impresario Jonas Mekas that had originally appeared in the Village Voice from 1959 to 1971, trumpeting the rise of something called a "new American cinema." The working-class suburb northeast of Detroit where I grew up was hardly a hot bed of avant-garde culture, and Mekas's compendium of rants and raves introduced me to a creative  world I could only imagine via the descriptions he provided. The roll call of names—Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Barbara Rubin, Carolee Schneeman, and dozens of others—was an elite group of underground luminaries to search out and from which to learn, not an easy task in the days before VCRs and DVDs, much less YouTube and Vimeo. First published in 1972 and long out of print, Movie Journal has now been reissued by Columbia University Press in a second edition with a forward by director Peter Bogdanovich, an introductory essay by Logos managing editor Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, and a new afterword by the author.

Mekas, who has taught film classes at The New School, is one of the true seminal figures of modern American cinema. In addition to creating some 75 experimental films over the past six decades, Mekas, along with his brother Adolphas, founded the pioneering magazine Film Culture in 1954. He also co-founded the nonprofit Film-Makers Cooperative distribution service in 1962, and perhaps most significant the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, one of the largest and most important collections of avant-garde film in the world, currently housed at 32 Second Avenue in Manhattan's East Village. He has also written poetry in his native Lithuanian and published several of his personal journals and diaries.

Mekas began writing for the Voice when in November of 1958 he went to the alt-weekly's Associate Editor Jerry Talmer (who also created the OBIE Award) to ask why there wasn't a regular movie column. According to the story Mekas tells in the original introduction to Movie Journal, Talmer said, "Why don't you do one?" And so Mekas handed his first piece in the next day.

Original cover of Movie Journal.
The first entry in the book is from two months later, February 4, 1959, titled "Call for a Derangement of Cinematic Sense." In it, Mekas proposes "breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema," and exhorts a new generation of filmmakers to be "completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically!" From the beginning, Mekas made no bones about his agenda to advocate in the most passionate way possible for the cadre of emerging filmmakers of the time who were upsetting conventions in terms of subject matter, narrative form, and cinematic technique.

He was among the first to champion groundbreaking indie-film director John Cassavettes, as well as the extreme cinema verite of Andy Warhol, whose pathbreaking films, such Eat (1963), Empire (1964), and Taylor Mead's Ass (1965), are said to have been inspired by a 1962 performance of Trio with Strings by composer LaMonte Young, which the legendary pop artist had attended in Mekas's company. One of Warhol's earliest films, the 1963 Sleep, featuring poet John Giorno (the artist's lover at the time) nude and asleep on a couch for five and a half hours, was originally suppposed to be set to music by Young. Mekas presented the film, which he called "monumental," at Gramercy Arts Theater in January 1964, theoretically a fundraising event that attracted all of nine people, two of whom left after the first hour. Mekas wrote about the screening and chided the audience's response to it in his column of January 30, 1964.

In the afterword to the new edition, Mekas congratulates himself, at age 93 and with 50 years of hindsight, on the overall soundness of his critical judgement. And by and large he is right. Time and again the filmmakers he praised have come to be regarded as masters of the cinematic avant-garde, which he termed "poetic" cinema to differentiate it from the conventional Hollywood narrative form. This is not to say that Mekas was unilaterally against traditional film—he writes incisively and admiringly about many of Hollywood's top directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, and Vincent Minelli, among others. His beef was more with the studio system that "created an image in the minds of people that cinema is only entertainment and business" (as opposed to art) than those creative spirits who were caught up in its web.

The highly personal, expressive style Mekas brought to his Movie Journal columns is perfectly suited to the poetic form of cinema he set out to champion. In a column from September 19, 1963 titled "The Function of Film Criticism," he notes: "The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies. That's what my rambling is all about, nothing more." And one might add, nothing less. The directness of Mekas's prose reads as fresh today as when it was first written. It is a marked contrast to Smulewicz-Zucker's introduction to the second edition, which is more academic, assiduously annotated, and seeks to position Mekas in the history of the American avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century. The essay is an important contribution nonetheless that also addresses Mekas's significance as a filmmaker and poet in addition to establishing his critical bona fides. Dive into the main text first, then read Smulewicz-Zucker's introduction for the broader context.

In an entry from September 23, 1965, Mekas offers a one-sentence take down of what in his estimation prominent film critic Pauline Kael lost, as her most famous book title has it, at the movies: "her taste for cinema." Jonas Mekas, on the other hand, found his in the pages of Movie Journal, and he helped countless others, including me, find it as well, lo those many years ago. With this new edition, another generation now has that opportunity.

Below: Jonas Mekas, The Brig, 1963. (Black & white 16mm film, 2:17.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview with Sarah Thornton

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing sociologist Sarah Thornton, whose book Seven Days in Art World was named one of the best art books of 2008 by The New York Times. The interview was conducted in November as part of the Detroit Institute of Arts Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art Annual Meeting. The interview covered Thornton's follow-up to Seven Days in the Art World, 33 Artists in Three Acts. I recently came across a video of the interview and share it below for those who weren't able to attend. It was a great experience, and I thank the DIA and especially former Associate Curator of Contemporary Art (now at the Denver Museum) Becky Hart for the opportunity. I also thank Sarah for the opportunity to work with her.