Unreal Nature

September 2, 2014

A Single Mood

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

Dubuffet … speaks for but a single mood inside a single period of that age.

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of Jean Dubuffet and Jackson Pollock’ (1947) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

Dubuffet is obviously, as every fleck of paint on his canvases shows, an erudite painter, and no more a primitive than Klee. Like the latter, whose influence he is one of the few Frenchmen to feel, he paints the primitive and the childlike at a remove, portraying it, so to speak, from the heights of culture, and as a state of mind, not a way of art.

In his earlier paintings, those of 1943 and 1944, Dubuffet tries to find an equivalent in color for the “primitivist” reduction to which he subjects his drawing. These pictures are in flat, thin, high, unmodulated tones. But they do not work, they falsify the artist’s sensibility and experience; this elementary spectrum is not sincere; and none of the pictures of t his period are truly successful. In contrast to the directness and richness obtained by Matisse and Miró when they take lessons in chromaticism from barbaric or children’s art, the result is impoverished, giving us to suspect frustrated talent at the most.

The tonality of Dubuffet’s 1945 and 1946 pictures is a radical departure. There is a sudden scaling down to blacks, browns, grays, and dirty whites, with pinkish, lavender, or bluish overtones running in and out like glazes. The pigment is mixed with tar, asphalt, or gravel and laid on thickly, roughly, and, apparently, with plenty of varnish. The drawing remains more or less the same in principle, but now the lines are scored or scratched into the paint as if with a stick. The result is, on the whole, original and profound.

Jean Dubuffet, Apartment Houses, London, 1946

… Three or four more pictures on the level of Promeneuse au Parapluie [which I can't find for this post; sorry!] would suffice almost of themselves to make Dubuffet one of the major painters of the twentieth century. This, even though his art still suffers under the limitations of being too essentially personal — which is a limitation it shares with Klee’s. Where Picasso, Matisse, and even Mondrian speak for a whole age, Dubuffet still speaks for but a single mood inside a single period of that age.

Jean Dubuffet, Inhabited Landscape, 1946




September 1, 2014

Poles Apart

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

This is from Defining Moments in Art: Over a Century of the Artists, Exhibitions, People, Artworks, and Events that Rocked the World, general editor Mike Evans. The book features items sequentially, starting in 1863 and ending in 2008. I am selecting items from back-to-front (starting in 2007) because I enjoy going from recent to distant more than the reverse:

Key Artist Jeff Wall produces his first backlit photo-transparency; Date 1977; Why It’s Key Wall is a unique “appropriationist” photo artist.


… Many of his images are updated adaptations of well-known painting from the art history canon by Velázquez, Hokusai, and Eduard Manet, while others were inspired by literary sources such as the writings of Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, and Ralph Ellison. Wall’s use of an advertising gimmick [the light box] to promote his “high culture” source material was a brilliantly subversive way of combining mass media with intellectual culture.

Key Artist Walter De Maria completes Lighting Field; Date 1977; Why It’s Key Responsible for one of the most important works of Land Art ever created.

Walter De Maria, Lightning Field

… Viewers often report that seeing Lightning Field during dusk or dawn, when the slanting rays of the sun illuminate the poles in a sequence, is a nearly divine experience. But the work’s title refers to the rare moments when it becomes truly spectacular as the poles act as conduits for lightning during thunderstorms.


Key Artist Christo and Jeanne-Claude complete the Running Fence project; Date 1975; Why It’s Key The first project by the partnership as “American” artists — he gained citizenship in 1973 following many years of being “stateless” after illegally escaping Communist Bulgaria.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence

… The artists still decline all grants, foundation money, and commissions — they also refuse all volunteer help or commercial involvement. Christo and Jeanne-Claude always pay the entire cost of the artworks themselves.

Since 1964, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have lived at the same address in the United States (for the first three years they were illegal aliens) … . The couple earn all their money through the sale of [the] preparatory studies [from their public projects], early works from the 1950s and 1960s and original lithographs on other subjects.

Key Artist Duane Hanson, major retrospective tours the United States; Date 1976; Why It’s Key Important Hyperrealist sculptor.

Duane Hanson, Woman with Dog, 1977

… Whether or not most gallery-goers wanted to admit it, encountering a disarmingly realistic couple of typical tacky, middle-aged tourists, or a lug with a beer in his hand and his big belly exposed, or a junkie nodding off against a wall, was not shocking because the figures were fake, but also because it is so rare to see those demographics in an art gallery in the first place.

Duane Hanson, Woman Eating Synthetic Material, 1971

Last week’s post from this book is here.




August 31, 2014

This Contact

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… This contact is beyond the work, at its limit, in a sense beyond art: but without art, it would not take place.

Continuing through — and concluding — the essay ‘The Sublime Offering’ in A Finite Thinking by Jean-Luc Nancy (2003):

… Sublime imagination touches the limit, and this touch lets it feel “its own powerlessness.” If presentation takes place above all in the realm of the sensible — to present is to render sensible — sublime imagination is always involved in presentation insofar as this imagination is sensible. But here sensibility no longer comprises the perception of a figure but rather the arrival at the limit. More precisely, sensibility is here to be situated in the imagination’s sentiment of itself when it touches its limit. The imagination feels itself passing to the limit.

… The sublime is that through which the beautiful touches us and not that through which it pleases us. [ ... ] The sublime is in the contact of the work, not in its form. This contact is beyond the work, at its limit, in a sense beyond art: but without art, it would not take place. The sublime is — that art should be [soit] exposed and offered.

… Kant speaks of “the simplicity which does not yet know how to dissimulate”; he calls it “naïveté,” and the laughter or rather the smile in the face of this naïveté (which one must not confuse, he insists, with the rustic simplicity of the one who doesn’t know how to live) possesses something of the sublime. However, “to represent naïveté in a poetic character is certainly a possible and beautiful art, but a rare one.”

Would he characterize this extremely rare art as being henceforth a telos of art? There is in the offering something of the “naïve” in Kant’s sense. There is sometimes, in today’s art, something of the offering understood in this way. Let us say: something of a childhood (doubtless nothing new about this but a more strongly marked accent). The childlike art no longer inhabits the heights or the depths as did the sublime but simply touches the limit, without any disarticulating excess, without “sublime” exaltation, but also without puerility or silliness. It is a powerful but delicate vibration, difficult, continuous, acute, offered upon the surfaces of canvasses, screens, music, dance, and writing. Mondrian spoke, apropos of jazz and “neo-plasticism,” of “the joy and the seriousness which are simultaneously lacking in the bloodless culture of form.” In what art offers today to its future, there is a certain kind of serenity (Mondrian’s word). It is neither reconciliation nor immobility nor peaceful beauty, but it is not sublime (self-)laceration either, assuming the sublime is supposed to involve (self-)laceration. The offering renounces (self-)laceration, excessive tension, and sublime spasms and syncopations. But it does not renounce infinite tension and distance, striving and respect, and the always renewed suspension that gives art its rhythm like a sacred inauguration and interruption. It simply lets them be offered to us.

My most recent previous post from Nancy’s ‘Sublime’ essay is here.




August 30, 2014

The Gathering Up

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… held within the spell of the experience the experience grows steady …

… It is a thing external and eternal, the potentiality of experience waiting to be realized.

This is from the essay ‘Poetry, Structure, and Tradition’ found in The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976):

… Where and in what way does the poem or work of art exist? What is its mode and locus of existence? It is obvious that the poem is not simply in the text, in the closed book. Hamlet as an experience, in fact, is neither in the text, nor, for that matter, on the stage. It can exist as an experience only in the experience of some person, some reader or member of the audience. But there are difficulties in this statement, and not merely the difficulty that the experience of each reader is different, and different at each separate reading, and that some of these experiences, no doubt, are quite far removed from others. There is another difficulty, and one whose resolution will perhaps resolve the difficulty which has just been stated. Hamlet is not in the immediate experience of a member of the audience as he is seeing or reading the play. If it were we could never think or speak of the play as a whole.

… The play is rather the experience of having experienced the play. It is the result of a reconstruction in memory and a summing up in judgment after the play is over.

… So I know a poem or play thoroughly when the beginning, middle, and end are comprehended in one synthetic act of recollection, and that synthetic act of recollection is the play.

That is, one leaves the theater or lays down his book, lights a cigarette, and held within the spell of the experience the experience grows steady; it seems to come together. This is the unity of the work.

… It is the process by which each one of us sums up and unifies his life, so far as it can be unified. It is the process by which each constructs his personality. In this precise analogy may be located the moral, or as we now say the emotional or educational, importance of literature: it is an exercise in the recollection, the gathering up, of the elements of personality and in their ordering. And it is moreover true that the kinds of material which we notice, select, and emphasize in this process, together with the principles of order which we elicit from or impose on this material, are — in our society at least — largely derived from the art we favor.

But, though the process here described is not in general peculiar to poetry, there is a feature in the experience of poetry and of similar systems of propositions that is peculiar to it. It is that the object of experience in that case remains steady. In the case of our autobiography, for example, the experience does not remain steady unless we have formulated it and reduced it to a system of propositions. If we sit musing on our past the events shift with the transition of feeling. What was important a moment ago recedes and what was excluded as irrelevant grows large. Images and judgments waver and transform themselves into others, structures dissolve, as in our memory of a dream.

But it is different with a poem. Our experience there derives from and refers to an object that stays steady and persists. The text remains. Our experience is subject to verification and correction, and hence it has an element of externality in it. Furthermore, since it is the peculiar nature of a composition that the experiencing of the work may be repeated, and that we may be assured that this experience refers to the same work as did our previous experience, there is an element not only of externality in each experience, but also of stability, or of what may be called eternality. So in the cumulative re-experience of a given composition, except insofar as habituation (“That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat”) deadens the impact, we may hope to come nearer and nearer to the norm of that experience which is ideally implicit in the work. It is the ideal implicit norm of, for example, Hamlet that enables us to say that we have seen Hamlet five times, though one of the performances was “hardly Hamlet!” The ideal implicit norm is the structure of the work; it is the congeries of principles of order that determines the work; it is the work itself. It is a thing external and eternal, the potentiality of experience waiting to be realized. It is the poem.




August 29, 2014

The Focus of the Mind Can Change

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… Everything looks very busy to me.

This is from an ‘artist’s statement’ in Sixteen Americans (1959) from Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, edited by Kirk Varnedoe and compiled by Christel Hollevoet (1996):

… At every point in nature there is something to see. My work contains similar possibilities for the changing of focus of the eye.

Three academic ideas which have been of interest to me are what a teacher of mine (speaking of Cézanne and Cubism) called “the rotating point of view” (Larry Rivers recently pointed to a black rectangle, two or three feet away from where he had been looking in a painting, and said ” … like there’s something happening over there, too.”); Marcel Duchamp’s suggestion “to reach the Impossibility of sufficient visual memory to transfer from one like object to another the memory imprint”; and Leonardo’s idea (“Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines …” ) that the boundary of a body is neither a part of the enclosed body nor a part of the surrounding atmosphere.

Generally, I am opposed to painting which is concerned with conceptions of simplicity. Everything looks very busy to me.

Jasper Johns, Diver, 1962-63 [image from MoMA]

The following, from the same book, is from the Johns‘ text accompanying the artist’s cover illustration to Asahi Magazine in October, 1966:

An equation of object and space.

(to locate this ambiguity?)
The focus of the eye, the focus of the mind, can change.
The price of this entertainment —
the work becomes beautiful.

The painting remains indifferent.




August 28, 2014

Incorrigibly Plural

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… There are only impure realities that participate with each other in refractive processes.

This is from the Preface to Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality by John Mullarkey (2009):

… I have always believed that it would be much more rewarding to make films than practice philosophy. Indeed, I have written philosophy books mostly in order to compensate for the fact that nobody would let me make films (I won’t bore you with the details). Yet, my retreat to philosophy was not on account of some vague likeness with cinematic storytelling, but because both film and philosophy share a relation with something far grander: reality itself.

… André Malreaux famously said that what is important in the artwork is precisely what cannot be said, whilst Jean Cocteau proclaimed that ‘an artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.’*

… Only through philosophy does art come into complete self-knowledge. When it comes to modernist aesthetics at least, art needs philosophy more than philosophy needs art.

… Moving pictures move us because movement is what is Real. Commensurately, there is no essential or ‘Ideal’ film wherein either a particular technology or aesthetic form would render it absolutely Real (‘great or true’ film art). Rather, at any one time, there is only a provisional selection of film examples (and film scenes) that converge on one point — what film ‘really is’ — from a certain frame of reference. This point of convergence is only virtual, however, being visible to the pertinent frame of reference alone (with its selection of films and mode of consumption). … The convergence of cinema is virtual as it tends towards a single point, and actual as it diverges away from one.

… What lies beneath, however, is not a fixed essence but a shifting process. What film converges on, with its various inheritances from the other arts and its increasingly convoluted technology, is not a singular reality but diverging plural realities.

… ‘Reality’ too is a process to participate in. Once we have accepted this, we can forego the myth of a pure cinema that would correspond with, capture or reflect a fixed reality. There are only impure realities that participate with each other in refractive processes.

… There is a ‘drunkenness of things being various,’ consequently, that allows us to find something valuable both in cinema’s convergence on a diverging reality and in philosophy’s lack of essence as it refracts itself through new non-philosophies. The world is ‘incorrigibly plural,’ and if film has a power, if it ‘captures’ reality, it is not by mirroring something static, but by being a part of something moving. Indeed, replacing the optics of static reflection with an alternative optics, that of mobile refraction, we’ll find, will be one way of depicting this convergence on reality-as-process.

… Gilles Deleuze is surely right in saying, at the conclusion of his Cinema books, that the question ‘what is cinema?’ must lead us to the question ‘what is philosophy?’ for philosophy’s film-envy was bound to turn back on itself eventually.

[*I know he's trying to point out the non-verbal-ness of visual art, but it still seems a bit unkind of Cocteau to equate artists with plants.]




August 27, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Confrontation without communication is threatening.

This is from Symbols: Public and Private by Raymond Firth (1973):

… Encounter of a physical kind may take place without … social relationship — as by two persons rubbing shoulders in a bus. They recognize the physical presence of each other, but the encounter is not socially acceptable; they do not speak; the existence of each is not incorporated into the social universe of the other. It needs some exchange of signs, as by a word or a nod, to create a social relationship. [ ... ] What is of prime relevance is the establishment or perpetuation of a social relationship, the recognition of the other person as a social entity, a personal element in a common social situation. This is [also] indicated by reverse behavior, what used to be called ‘cutting’ a person who is already known but found objectionable — the refusal of a greeting to him on passing him in the street or meeting him in society. This refusal is a tacit denial of him as a social entity in what would normally be a shared situation.

… In ordinary social intercourse formality may be enhanced when the person to be signalized in greeting is previously unknown to the signalizer. I myself have observed a simple form of this in travel in the United States. When two men previously unknown to each other are seated side by side in an airplane on a long trip, informal social relationships of an elementary order may be established in getting to and from seats, remarks about the weather, etc. But after casual exchanges may come formal identification. ‘I’m James Brown,’ says one man, extending his hand, whereupon the other normally follows suit with his own name and handclasp. Search may be made for further points of contact — home town, business, common acquaintance. But [though] presumably gratifying, this is not of primary relevance. What is of main significance is the act of identification, which has been sealed by the clasp of hands. Indeed, once the name has been uttered the hand gesture is almost automatic; as an experiment, one may disconcert such a casual acquaintance by uttering one’s name but withholding the hand movement. Yet in materialist terms the act is almost meaningless — the men are seated side by side, have already talked and could continue to talk; they will probably never meet again; neither wants anything of the other except his temporary companionship, which is already available. The name given may even have been false. But what matters is that some name has been given, and some personal manual contact made.

[ ... ]

… A primary object of much greeting or parting activity is to attract the attention of the other party — by directed glance or out-thrust hand if close by or by oscillation of the hand (waving) if at a distance. By focusing attention on the personality of each participant a sign is given that further communication is desired. A second theme is that of identification. The people concerned are differentiated as persons entering or continuing individually the social relationship. One function of much greeting and parting behavior is in providing a framework within which individuals can identify one another as preliminary to further action. A third theme is that of reduction fo uncertainty or anxiety in social contact, particularly between persons who are not previously known to one another. Confrontation without communication is threatening. Even the most casual greeting gesture tends to remove an element of uncertainty from the encounter. To nod or say a brief word to a stranger is more than a token of friendliness; it puts him in a social context, within which further communicative action can follow. Salutation at parting serves in parallel fashion to put a definite point to the departure, to establish the severance as a social and not merely a physical fact — not leaving the relationship hanging in the air, so to speak, as an unresolved issue.

… despite the moral sanctions in vogue for carrying out the ‘correct’ behavior it is remarkable how easily such patterns have altered. The more elaborate formal procedures of many African and Asian societies … have tended to be abandoned in modern times as familiarity with Western patterns has spread and as Western economic, educational and religious institutions have affected traditional status alignments. I would put status considerations at the core of the symbolism of greeting and parting rituals.

My most recent previous post from Firth’s book is here.




August 26, 2014

Denoted Instead of Embodied

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:34 am

… Instead of dissolving his emotion into the abstract elements of style … and renouncing any part of feeling that his style cannot order and unify, [he] localizes the excess emotion — the emotion that his artistic means is not yet large or strong enough to digest — in gestures … that have no relation to the premises upon which the rest of the picture has been built.

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of the Jane Street Group and Rufino Tamayo‘ (1947) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… [Tamayo's] painting, while of the highest seriousness and awareness, and compounded of the best ingredients in the way of paint quality, format, and even inventiveness, fails to come off except in isolated single pictures. Thus a Tamayo “problem” arises. Though Picasso’s massive example has formed his design and dictated his brush-handling, Tamayo’s originality is beyond question, especially on the score of color, over which he has thrown a typically hot, dark Mexican cast. And he remains always an interesting and seemingly powerful painter. But interest is not enough, and power is only relative, and the appearance of it can be obtained sometimes at the cost of its substance.

Woman with Pineapple, 1941 [image from WikiArt]

I believe Tamayo’s error to be the same as that made so frequently by Picasso since 1930 — an error which seems to have been established as a canon by the latest generation of French painters. That error consists in pursuing expressiveness and emotional emphasis beyond the coherence of style. It has led Tamayo and the younger French into an academic trap: emotion is not only expressed, it is illustrated. That is, it is denoted, instead of being embodied. Instead of dissolving his emotion into the abstract elements of style — which is what the old masters and Delacroix did just as much as the cubists — and renouncing any part of feeling that his style cannot order and unify, Tamayo, like Picasso in his weaker moments, localizes the excess emotion — the emotion that his artistic means is not yet large or strong enough to digest — in gestures, the grimace on a face, the swelling of a leg, in anatomical distortions that have no relation to the premises upon which the rest of the picture has been built. This amounts in the last analysis to an attempt to avoid the problems of plastic unity by appealing directly, in a different language from that of painting, to the spectator’s susceptibility to literature, which includes stage effects.

Ninos jugando con fuego, 1947 [image from WikiArt]

If Tamayo were not as good a painter as he is, one would not bother to point all this out. But since he is such a good painter, at least in potentiality, one not only points all this out — one also concludes that if so good a painter can make so crude a mistake, then painting in general has lost confidence in itself. In the face of current events painting feels, apparently, that it must be more than itself: it must be epic poetry, it must be theater, it must be rhetoric, it must be an atomic bomb, it must be the Rights of Man.




August 25, 2014

In the Guise

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:35 am

This is from Defining Moments in Art: Over a Century of the Artists, Exhibitions, People, Artworks, and Events that Rocked the World, general editor Mike Evans. The book features items sequentially, starting in 1863 and ending in 2008. I am selecting items from back-to-front (starting in 2007) because I enjoy going from recent to distant more than the reverse:

Key Artist Paula Rego begins Girl and Dog series; Date 1986; Why It’s Key The Girl and Dog series marked Rego at mid-career, but moving into her most productive phase to become one of the most influential woman artists of her time.

from the Girl and Dog series

… In the 1980s Rego began to develop a narrative, representational approach. She was inspired by text and illustration, and began studying the work of artists like Beatrix Potter, and political caricatures from the past, such as Hogarth and Gilray.

Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1994 [image from WikiArt]

Key Artist Jonathan Borofsky initiates his Hammering Man sculptures; Date 1985; Why It’s Key these are his most famous works.

… They feature a lanky silhouette figure with his head lowered, striking a piece of metal with a hammer held in the hand of a perpetually moving arm. The image holds multiple meanings: the archetypal manual laborer, the model citizen, and the artist himself as a constant worker. They are installed in various cities across the world, with the tallest in Seoul, Korea, at 72 feet, which was constructed in 2002.

Jonathan Borofsky, Hammering Man

Key Artist Rufino Tamayo opens the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum; Date 1981; Why It’s Key One of the first artists to adopt the “Mixografia” technique.

… Unlike many or his contemporaries, who used their artwork as a means of communicating a political agenda, Tamayo was only interested in depicting the everyday lives of his fellow countrymen. Consequently he was branded a traitor and shunned by his peers. Feeling oppressed and resented, Tamayo moved to New York in 1926.

by Rufino Tamayo

Tamayo was one of the pioneers of the “Mixografia” technique producing three-dimensional, textured artwork on handmade paper. His fame and recognition grew during his stay in New York, where he completed some of his finest pieces.

by Rufino Tamayo

Key Artist Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #15; Date 1978; Why It’s Key Part of the series that made Sherman famous.

… In Untitled Film Stills, Sherman posed for a series of publicity stills from 1950s and 1960s B-grade movies. In these images she presents herself in the guise of various stereotypes of femininity — louche, glamorous, downtrodden, smouldering, innocent or the embodiment of another stock characteristic.

Untitled Film Still #15

Her ability to perfectly represent these often incompatible qualities demonstrated that identity, and particularly gender identity, is a mutable and essentially cultural construct, not an innate fact. Feminists and other theorists loved Sherman for her ability to illustrate these ideas, but the real impact of her art is its unfailing power to stimulate discussion while also stirring emotions.

Untitled Film Still #7




August 24, 2014

These Dispersed and Tarnished Flashes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… love is always present and never recognized in anything that we name “love.”

I will return to ‘The Sublime Offering’ next week. Today I feel like taking a bit from ‘Shattered Love’ instead. Both essays are found in A Finite Thinking by Jean-Luc Nancy (2003):

… the words of love, as is well known, sparsely miserably repeat their one declaration, which is always the same, always already suspected of lacking love because it declares it. Or else this declaration always carries the promise of revealing itself as the unique incarnation, the unique and certain, if derisory manifestation of the love it declares. The discourse might well have nothing more to say or to describe than this communal indigence, these dispersed and tarnished flashes of an all-too-familiar love.

[ ... ]

… We will have to stop thinking in terms of possibility and impossibility. We will have to maintain that love is always present and never recognized in anything that we name “love.” We will have to admit that the rendezvous, our rendezvous with love, takes place not once, but in an indefinite number of times and that it is never “love” that is at the rendezvous, or unique and universal love (Catholic love), or nomadic and multiple loves, but another presence or another movement of love. Or rather, another love presence or another love movement that we in fact touch or that touches us, but that is not the “love” we were expecting.

Last week’s post from Nancy’s ‘The Sublime Offering’ (to which I will return next week), is here.




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