Unreal Nature

April 20, 2016

“Is This What You Want to See?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… “I don’t like voyeurs, people who don’t experience the experience, who view life from the outside.”

This is from the essay ‘Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe’ by Arthur C. Danto in Mapplethorpe (1992):

… It is interesting to contrast Mapplethorpe’s art with that of another artist of the period, one who found favor, even great favor, with the arbiters of photographic taste, namely Garry Winogrand. Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Janet Kardon, Mapplethorpe observed that his pictures were “the opposite of Garry Winogrand’s.” This is nowhere more apparent than in the albums each produced of photographs of women.

[line break added] Women are Beautiful was published by Winogrand in 1975. Some Women, by Mapplethorpe, was published posthumously in 1989, but was put together in consultation with his friend and colleague Dimitri Levas before his death. The difference between the visions of these two artists, made palpable in the two collections, lays bare a number of the basic variables of photography as an art.

Women are Beautiful shows anonymous women bent on private errands, crossing streets or striding down sidewalks, singly or in pairs, alone or as part of an urban crowd. It is an exceedingly personal book, even if, or perhaps because, the subjects are all perfect strangers to the artist, for it is dense with longing and what the viewer senses is a kind of sexual desperation.

[line break added] It may someday serve as a document of how women dressed in the Sixties; how they wore their hair and made up their faces, but it also documents the role they play for Winogrand as a photographer, his yearning for them. None of the subjects consented to being photographed. The camera caught them in mid-trajectory, and their expressions are uncomposed and natural, as the photographs themselves seem uncomposed and natural. … “Winogrand was uninterested in making pictures that he knew would succeed,” John Szarkowski wrote in evident admiration. “One might guess that in the last twenty years of his life, excepting his commercial work, he never made an exposure that he was confident would satisfy him.”

“In general, women disliked the book,” Szarkowski added, and it is not difficult to see why. Winogrand was as much interested in the tactics of getting the pictures as he was in the pictures he got. He may have been more interested in that. And for his own ends he violated a certain code of civility — the right of privacy. The women are fully clothed, but they are seen as female flesh. “He finally admitted,” Szarkowski observed, “that women impaired his critical faculties. He as an easy mark for the rhetoric of women’s bodies.” At the same time, the images are extremely aggressive toward the women for whom the artist hungers.

… The women in Mapplethorpe’s Some Women, by contrast, are not anonymous.

… The trust that was a morally and artistically indispensable component of these sessions is palpable in the images in Some Women that explicitly provoke. Lara Harris, for instance, bares one breast, underscoring its visibility with her lowered arm. And she stares out at the viewer, as if to say, “Is this what you want to see? Here, have a look.”


… The people in these photographs are demonstrating something they have allowed the artist to witness not as a voyeur, but as the agent through which the ordinarily hidden is revealed in art. the images are disclosures of sexual truth.

It might occur to someone that the formality of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of women is a metaphor for his detachment from women as sexual objects, in the way that Winogrand’s agitated approach is a metaphor for his own yearning. It is true that Mapplethorpe confessed to finding women unexciting as subjects, and this doubtless can be explained by the fact that they had ceased to engage him sexually. But the relationship Mapplethorpe entered into with his female subjects is not that different from the one entered into when his subjects were male …

… “Doing things to people who don’t want it done to them is not sexy to me. The people in my pictures were doing it because they wanted to. No one was forced into it. For me, S&M means sex and magic, not sadomasochism. It was all about trust.”

… It is this that finally sets him apart from photographers like Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson, or even Diane Arbus. With Arbus, one feels, over and over again, that she found ways of betraying the trust that permitted her to get the pictures we see. There is something vaguely exploitative about her work.

[line break added] Cartier-Bresson was primarily a stalker, an eye attached to a marvelous set of reflexes, which enabled him to pounce when reality disclosed something truly extraordinary — when reality opened up, one might say, with the speed of a shutter, to reveal a glimpse of some kind of underlying objective magic, or what his artistic peers designated surréalité. In order to do that, one feels, Cartier-Bresson had to make himself virtually invisible. He was almost metaphysically an outsider, and the men and women in his photographs don’t acknowledge that he is there.

Mapplethorpe was never outside the human reality of the photographic transaction. For him the transaction was a bond and presupposes a bond. That is what enabled him to produce some of the most shocking and indeed some of the most dangerous images in modern photography, or even in the history of art — for the kind of relationship he succeeded in realizing would have been unavailable before the invention of photography.

… In a sense, Mapplethorpe undertook to establish the kind of relationship with others that he had toward himself. His photographs in both cases were explorations and revelations and risks.

… At the same time it is important to stress that Mapplethorpe, even early on, had no illusions about the power of certain images to arouse sexual excitement, in contrast with the power of art to elicit whatever feelings of aesthetic transport it is alleged to be capable of arousing. His ambition was to create work that really was pornographic by the criteria of sexual excitement, and really was art. And it incorporated the “edge.”

… “I recorded it from the inside … I guess all photographers are in a sense voyeurs. But I don’t like voyeurs, people who don’t experience the experience, who view life from the outside.”

I don’t agree at all with what Danto has written about Winogrand or Arbus. Nevertheless, I am interested in the point he is using them to make about Mapplethorpe.




April 19, 2016

Something That Was Mine

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… “After all this time I’d finally got rid of all those influences and it was really me.”

This is from John Salt: The Complete Works, 1969-2006 by Linda Chase (2007):

… There is nothing didactic here, no lecture on materialism or ecological waste, but rather a meticulous evocation of visual and tactile detail. Aiming for the utmost in impersonal and objective translation of the photographic information, Salt draws and cuts elaborate stencils which he then paints, layer upon layer, with an airbrush.

[line break added] To view one of his paintings is to be struck simultaneously by the delicacy of the paint handling and the brashness of the subject matter. We can hardly relish the sight of the melancholy discards he portrays, yet they are oddly beautiful. … What results from his highly methodical and distancing approach is an uncanny verisimilitude that is at once impersonal and tender, edgy yet elegiac.

… [in 1969] Salt remained disenchanted with the work he had been doing. Years of study and experimentation, of visiting museums and galleries and perusing art-book images had left him feeling that everything he did referenced someone else. The honesty and immediacy he saw in the work of photographers like Friedlander and Winogrand continued to resonate.

[line break added] He wanted to embrace the same kind of unadorned factuality and vernacular imagery but on his own terms. At that point, he made a crucial decision. “I decided to eliminate all the stuff that wasn’t mine,” he said, “and stick to the photograph.” Instead of doing paintings inspired by photographs, he would replicate the photograph itself.

[line break added] “The photograph wipes out art history for you,” he observed in an early interview, adding that the adherence to the photographic information also prevented him from emphasizing one aspect of the image over another and thus distorting the image according to his feelings or preferences.

John Salt, A-OK Auto, 2002-03

[ … ]

“I wanted something that’s not art. … And at that time I realized that I had something that was mine. It may not be very good but it was original. After all this time I’d finally got rid of all those influences and it was really me.”

[ … ]

… One of the ironies inherent in the work of the Photorealists is that they seek a directness in relation to the visually experienced world through the use of secondary source material and that they achieve a heightened sense of reality by producing an illusion of an illusion. With the use of the photograph, the artist actually gains a double immediacy. The mechanical nature of the camera enables them to achieve the impartiality they seek, while at the same time imparting a compelling sense of the present moment. The medium of photography itself offers the apotheosis of the coexistence of opposing principles — the permanent and the instantaneous.




April 18, 2016

This Rider

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… this rider does not leave his post in the madness of the modern world, a world that offers such a plethora of ways to die.

This is from the essay ‘Symbol and the Miracle: Marini’s Miracolo at the Reichtstag’ by Peter-Klaus Schuster found in Marino Marini Miracolo edited by Cristina Inês Steinbräber (2007):

… “[M]y horse-and-rider sculptures are symbols for the apprehension that overcomes me when I consider my times. My horses become more and more restless and the riders less and less able to master them. The catastrophe that overcomes man and animal resembles that which destroyed Pompeii and Sodom. I am seeking to symbolize in this way the last phase of a waning myth, the myth of the individual, victorious hero, the ‘uomo di virtu’ of the humanists. I see my late works not as heroic but as tragic.”

[line break added] In surprising opposition to this decided pessimism, we find in Marini’s representations of the motif Miracolo — which is the source for all of his collapsing warriors and riders in mid-fall, fearing for their lives — that horse and rider remain inextricably united. The riders in depictions of the Miracolo, sitting on horseback in a perilous balance, are nevertheless able to counterbalance the elemental perturbation of their animals. This, precisely, is the visualized idea of their miracle.

[line break added] Both the horses whose forelegs buckle dramatically as well as those which rear up are unable to throw off their riders. Lithe as acrobats, bold as rodeo cowboys, or as if tied fast to the horse like circus riders, these riders withstand every jarring position on their horses. The creature’s ecstatic gesture of suffering becomes the counterpart to the extreme slanting position of the rider. Unable to control the animal’s irrational demeanor, human reason — taking the form of the rider — miraculously remains firmly seated on the horse’s back.

Through such unerring perseverance, almost a merging of the rider who is leaning far back into his horse as it pushes up into the sky like a wedge, Marino’s Miracolo in front of the Berlin Reichstag makes visible a miracle that is in diametrical opposition to the Saul / St-Paul-miracle of the Bible. According to the Biblical story, Saul, feared as a persecutor of Christians, was blinded on his way to Damascus by a vision of Christ and fell helplessly off his horse.

[line break added] Three days later, he miraculously regained his eyesight and began a life in the service of the Christian doctrine as the apostle Paul. With Marini, or so it seems, this miracle that inspires a change for the good plays no part. But even in the midst of the greatest catastrophe, even throughout the ongoing misfortune of this world as reflected in the rearing horse, man does not fall.

[line break added] Even if the rider’s helmet is already riddled with holes, even if his armor and body are torn open and have suffered damage, even if he seems burnt, contaminated with radiation or distorted into a phantasmal insect, this rider does not leave his post in the madness of the modern world, a world that offers such a plethora of ways to die.


Marini was … fascinated with acrobats all his life, regarding them as the melancholic symbol for the vagrancy and infirmity of human existence. Marini’s rider who is perpetually falling and yet never crashing to the ground, is as it were, an acrobatic, “teetering figure” …

The following is from ‘Marino Marini: Of Horses and Men’ by Sibylle Luig found in the same book:

… We find a further variation on the theme of horse and rider in the depiction of the jugglers. Erich Steingräber describes Marini’s fascination with this subject as follows: “The nomadic, rootless figures of traveling folk — dancers, acrobats, jugglers — were for Marini symbolic representations of our frailty and proximity to the abyss, of the balancing act of modern man, no longer rooted in an all-encompassing culture, who lives a ‘pluralistic’ life without a binding worldview; yet these figures at the same time express a primordial, still nomadic human existence, in rhythmic unison with the universe.”

[line break added] This confirms that the works on jugglers, dancers and acrobats do indeed have a tragic component. But more often than not, they posses a great lightness and buoyancy, perhaps expressing a longing for the assumed lightness of this form of existence.





April 17, 2016

His Dirt

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… here dwells a trove of memories and expectations, of insights and surprises that has hardly been mined to date.

This is from ‘Cy Twombly’ by Manfred de la Motte (1963) found in Writings on Cy Twombly edited by Nicola Del Roscio (2002):

… many readers may assume that this has gone too far and that Twombly has ensnared himself in some labyrinthine art situation that he has also abused. And opinions of this kind create the first contact and that is the right one: things start with astonishment. This too, is not new, this initiation rite as a stylistic device is known and tolerated everywhere — from gags in thrillers through to ads. In painting it is championed by the Surrealists.

[line break added] The initial astonishment repels in order to provoke a second, more exact look and marks the beginning of a fine network, which Twombly places over our heads to ensure we obey when we are given an over-large and unusual degree of freedom — something that is harder to deal with than orienting yourself in a refined order.

[line break added] The second glance that follows the initial astonishment hardly discerns an object to hold onto for support. And now people get angry, because among all the smears and sullies they find any amount of pornography — and that is the pinnacle of Twombly’s misdeeds — after all, they are not even painted clearly. Does this have to be? Could you not have … No, as these naughty scribbles are best suited to getting under your skin and preventing our eyes adjusting to the pattern with which we usually view art.

[line break added] And if Twombly becomes pushy with his dirt, then we are likewise warmed against penetrating deeper into that obscene world, seeing too much in it and interpreting too much into it. Otherwise, it is we who get clipped around the ears by what is only intimated and is completed by us as observing accomplices. And no one likes to get caught in a shameful act.

… Everything that could point to some systematic compositional endeavor is elided. What other painters introduce, Twombly eliminates. He makes sure that no well-arranged picture suddenly emerges from the scrawls and dirt. Seldom have we witnessed such an accomplished radical rejection of conventional techniques for producing pictures.

We have now investigated a few things that usually lead to the notion of “picture” and have had to accept that this does not work here. There are no delimited surfaces whose size is articulated; there is no color, no graphism, no composition, no emphasis or weighting in whose beauty we could tarry. All these concepts are discarded and clichés do not fit either.

So what to do?


… ticks and nervous habits forge an identity between passive reception and active grasping, prompting us to play with the cord while phoning or to scribble little figures and ornamented numbers on a piece of paper; quite undecipherable, and not meant as messages or news for someone, but freely, out of enjoyment and the instinctual wish to scribble and play, which is only important in the moment it occurs, not as a work to be viewed. This enjoyment of usually perfunctory lineaments, gestures, and steps may be far removed from “art,” but here dwells a trove of memories and expectations, of insights and surprises that has hardly been mined to date.

… The time taken to read it, which you are free to choose but is nevertheless predefined, corresponds roughly to what Stockhausen achieved with his Carré: a continuum of music where you can stop listening or start listening as you like, as what there is to listen to takes a backseat to the act of listening. And from this wealth of selective audio events the piece then arises, not as a whole, complete with beginning and end, but as a unity of what you experience, hear, or of the unheard-of.

[line break added] The composition or decomposition of this open form is what forms, not some pre-given shape. The more impudent and cheeky the individual part, the less it attracts attention, the more it emphasizes its character as a position and not as a detail of the composition. Reading time, or “experiential time” as the New Music buffs would have it, emerges from the temporal sequence of a specifically dynamic duration, which causes the viewer to experience “time” and “speed” instead of simply creating the illusion thereof with some brilliant rapidity.

… But “is that still art”? Art always starts where it quite justifiably ceases.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




April 16, 2016

Turned Off

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… The 500 million subsequent years have produced no new phyla …

Continuing through Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (1989):

… Why did life remain at stage 1 [prokaryotic cells and nothing else] for two-thirds of its history if complexity offers such benefits? Why did the origin of multicellular life proceed as a short pulse through three radically different faunas, rather than as a slow and continuous rise of complexity?

[ … ]

… most animals have no hard parts. In 1978, Schopf analyzed the potential for fossilization of an average modern marine fauna of the intertidal zone. He concluded that only 40 percent of genera could appear in the fossil record. Moreover, potential representation is strongly biased by habitat. About two-thirds of the sessile (immobile) creatures living on the sea floor might be preserved, as contrasted with only a quarter of the burrowing detritus feeders and mobile carnivores.

[line break added] Second, while the hard parts of some creatures — vertebrates and arthropods, for example — are rich in information and permit a good reconstruction of the basic function and anatomy of the entire animal, the simple roofs and coverings of other creatures tell us nearly nothing about their underlying organization. A worm tube or a snail shell implies very little about the organism inside, and in the absence of soft parts, biologists often confuse one for the other.

… Paleontologists have therefore sought and treasured soft-bodies faunas since the dawn of the profession. No pearl has greater price in the fossil record. Acknowledging the pioneering work of our German colleagues, we designate these faunas of extraordinary completeness and richness as Lagerstätten (literally “lode places,” or “mother loads” in freer translation). Lagerstätten are rare, but their contribution to our knowledge of life’s history is disproportionate to their frequency by orders of magnitude.

… Clearly, the Burgess pattern of stunning disparity in anatomical design is not characteristic of well-preserved fossil faunas in general. Rather, good preservation has permitted us to identify a particular and immensely puzzling aspect of the Cambrian explosion and its immediate aftermath. In a geological moment near the beginning of the Cambrian, nearly all modern phyla made their first appearance, along with an even greater array of anatomical experiments that did not survive very long thereafter.

[line break added] The 500 million subsequent years have produced no new phyla, only twists and turns upon established designs — even if some variations, like human consciousness, manage to impact the world in curious ways. What established the Burgess motor? What turned it off so quickly? What, if anything, favored the small set of surviving designs over other possibilities that flourished in the Burgess Shale? What is this pattern of decimation and stabilization trying to tell us about history and evolution?

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




April 15, 2016

Sun of Our Dreams

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:28 am

… I soak in it like a fish, I swallow it.

This first from the essay ‘November’ found in Knowing the East by Paul Claudel; translated by James Lawler (1900; 2004):

The sun sets on a day of peace and labor. And the men, women, and children, their mops of hair full of dust and straw, their faces and legs stained with earth, are still at work. Here, they are cutting the rice; there, they are gathering the sheaves; and just as the same scene is reproduced over and over on wallpaper, so on every side you see the great rectangular wooden vats with people face to face beating fistfuls of ears of corn against the walls. And already the plough begins to turn the clay. You smell the odor of grain, the perfume of harvest.

From the essay ‘Rain’:

By the two windows before me, and the two on my left and right, I see, I hear with both ears the rain coming down in torrents. I think it is a quarter past twelve. Around me, all is water and light. I dip my pen in the ink and enjoying the security of my interior aquatic prison like an insect in an air bubble, I write this poem.

From ‘The Moon’s Splendor’:

By this key that sets me free and opens the woolen door to my blindness; by this irresistible departure; by this mysterious gentleness that moves me; by this germinal meeting of my heart with the silent explosion of inexplicable answers, I understand that I am asleep, and wake.

I had left a dark opaque night at the four windows and now, coming out on the verandah, I see the whole length and breadth of space flooded with your light, sun of our dreams.

From ‘Here and There’:

… At Shizuoka, in the Rinsaiji temple, I saw a landscape made of colored dust. It had been put under glass for fear a breath of air might blow it away.

From ‘Hours in the Garden’:

There are people whose eyes alone are sensitive to light; and what for most of them is the sun but a cost-free lantern by whose light each comfortably carries out the work of his or her particular estate, the writer with his pen, the farmer with his ox? But I absorb light with my eyes and ears, and my mouth and nose, and all the pores of my skin. I soak in it like a fish, I swallow it.

Finally, from ‘The Spring’:

The crow, focusing one eye on me like a clockmaster on his watch, would see me, a precise miniature being, my walking stick held like a dart in my hand, advancing along the narrow path with an exact movement of my legs. The landscape within the circle of enclosing mountains is as flat as a pan. On my right and left the vast activity of the harvest is underway; the earth is being shorn like a lamb. I fight for the width of the path and my footing on it with the endless line of workers going to the fields, their billhooks at their waists, and with those returning, bent like scales under their loaded double baskets, their forms both round and square marrying the symbols of earth and sky.

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




April 14, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… What had come to be rare … was the concept of meditating on nature with … patience and care …

This is from The Garden n the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place by Scott MacDonald (2001):

… That viewers have been trained, and have trained themselves, to feel that landscape is not a legitimate subject for even a ten-minute film, experience provides us a measure of how different our sensibilities are from those of art lovers of a previous century. Indeed, when I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they’ve just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic, “Nothing!”

… While most audiences of Fog Line see, at most, only a foggy green landscape — what they define as “Nothing!” — the film offers a good bit more to the patient, discerning eye, both compositionally and as an experience in time. What one sees and can identify in Fog Line depends on the relative thickness of the fog, which gradually clears but does not disappear .

[line break added] At the beginning of the film, the image is virtually abstract — a milky green rectangle — and this abstraction is emphasized by the fact that Gottheim provides no pre-image credits. During approximately the first third of Fog Line, the only motion is the very slight clearing of the fog, most noticeable in the center of the image where several shapes gradually become identifiable as trees.

[line break added] This tiny alteration is enough to reveal, after a minute or so, that the milky green space is in fact a landscape trisected horizontally by several high-tension wires (hence the word “Line” in the title, which is not “Fogline” but suggests two separate categories of image). The viewer’s gradual identification of the image as a landscape provides the film’s easiest metaphor: as the fog clears in the image, enabling viewers to identify the scene, they are no longer “in a fog” about what they are seeing, at least on a literal level.

Once the simple identification is made, however, most first-time viewers, assuming the cinematic riddle has been solved, “space out” and as a result, do not see a variety of other minimal, but quite suggestive, developments. The most “dramatic” of these begins approximately a third of the way through the film and is confined to the lower third of the frame (between the bottom wires and the lower frame-line): two horses walk slowly through the image, entering from the lower right to graze their way across the field between the camera and the trees in the center of the composition, and exit the image on the left.

[line break added] In those instances when audiences have assured me that they’ve seen “Nothing!” during Fog Line, my follow-up question — “How many of you saw the horses?” –is generally greeted with disbelief and consternation. Because of the relatively low-light conditions in which Gottheim filmed the scene, the Fog Line imagery is rather grainy, and as a result the tiny, distant horses are just barely visible. Nevertheless, once the identification is made, the presence of the horses is perfectly obvious, as all viewers grudgingly admit during rescreenings of the film.

[line break added] The widespread failure to see the horse during the first screening reveals not only the viewers’ inability to see anything of interest in a “landscape film” but also their further refusal to consider the filmmaker as the designer of the image. In fact, Gottheim’s particular composition of the foggy space of countryside was determined by the regular movements of horses through this space every morning. Gottheim had studied the scene for months and filmed it more than once.

… If the movement of the horses through the image defines the middle third of Fog Line, the continued gradual clearing of the fog, especially in the space between the upper wires and the upper frame-line, defines the final third which is punctuated by a bird flying through the image from left to right above the wires — a happy accident during the filming, as it echoes and balances the movement of the horses.

[line break added] Of course, those who have failed to see the horses are even less likely to notice the quick flight of the bird through the space. As the fog in the upper third of the composition thins, a faint circular shape becomes more evident just above the upper wires, to the left of center. Some viewers assume it is the sun beginning to break through.

… As the title suggests, the wires are central to Gottheim’s thinking about the scene he depicts.

… The perspectival impossibility of the Fog Line scene, evident in the comparative size of the horses and the trees, is a function of Gottheim’s decision to film with a telephoto lens, a camera technology that allows for deeper penetration into space but at the cost of flattening perspective and fictionalizing the spatial relationships within the frame.

[line break added] To the extent that we do see and measure the scene before us in Fog Line, we realize that we are seeing not Nature but photography’s transformation of it — a realization confirmed by the circular brownish dot, which indeed is not the sun but a smudge on the lens that Gottheim was fully aware of as he shot.

… As Fog Line makes clear, all that remains of an earlier concept of untouched wilderness and of the ideal, pastoral “middle state” is an illusion. “Nature,” or course, is still here, but it functions entirely within those technological systems developed to exploit it, including the “system” of motion picture production (of which 16mm, “avant-garde” filmmaking is a “trickle down” development).

[ … ]

… I have not commented on the most frequent objection viewers make to my argument that Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign are worth watching and thinking seriously about: that the amount of energy and skill necessary to make the films was minimal, especially compared to what goes into “real” movies and “real” art — an effort so minimal, in fact, as to be nearly an insult. All Gottheim had to do to make his film was to buy (or borrow) a camera, walk outside his home, mount the camera on a tripod, compose the image, and turn the camera on and off.

… As the privileged beneficiaries of an already accomplished industrial revolution, Gottheim and Murphy automatically inherited access to the movie camera and its attendant apparatus and, therefore, the opportunity to make landscape imagery almost at will. What had come to be rare — as rare perhaps as the ability to paint well had been a century before — was the concept of meditating on nature with the patience and care demanded by Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign.




April 13, 2016

Additive Innovation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:34 am

… Acceptance or rejection of the canonical forms stems from an individual artist’s relation to them.

… those artists … recognized the claim to negation put forward by the readymades, but realized that they could ignore it if they wished …

This is from a symposium’s keynote address made by Jeff Wall about Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (home of that work) in 2009. To understand the following, it’s necessary that you already know what the Étant donnés is; if you don’t, try the Wikipedia description:

… I began to see Duchamp’s relation to the canonical forms of art and the métiers associated with them as a major question. This was probably because by 1973 I had not been able to make any viable work of art for more than three years. Looking back, I feel that I was in the midst of a private project of negation of autonomous art — my own art — and I was aware that that was not going well.

[line break added] I had grown up in love with works of art, and the sense of obligation to participate in a movement or tendency aimed at invalidating the form of those works had become painful to me. I must have developed an aversion to the readymades for their purported role in setting this process in motion and making it necessary for me to subject myself to it.

[line break added] That frustrated and immobilized me at the time, but I feel it also gave me the means to think differently about the achievement of the readymade. By October 1973 I had lost any confidence I might have previously had in the militant avant-garde critique of autonomous art, and in the claims put forward by the most radical alternatives, those of reductive conceptual art.

… we dispense with the myth about his [Duchamp’s] having transcended the need to be an artist. We assume that he did not retire from that need but withdrew because of the unexpected consequences of his own creativity in the previous period. In that light, the period between 1923 and 1946 becomes one in which he struggles to come to terms with his own ambivalence — the alienation from the canonical tradition and his inability to renounce anything about it.

The readymades show us what it is like not to want to be an artist in the canonical sense, and what kind of artworks will be made outside that framework. Why would one not want to be an artist in the canonical sense? The conventional answer is that the tradition is dead, brought to its end by technological modernization and the decline of bourgeois culture.

[line break added] But this answer was never convincing — neither of these developments implies anything necessary about the viability of either the canonical forms and métiers or the alternatives brought forward since 1910. The avant-garde doctrine about the progress of art and the obsolescence of certain forms of art has disintegrated.

[line break added] There are no strictly social, political, or cultural-historical grounds for declaring the obsolescence of any art form or medium. The canonical forms are not invalidated by later developments and newer forms and they remain viable for those who desire to contribute something to them and who are able to do so. Acceptance or rejection of the canonical forms stems from an individual artist’s relation to them.

… Call it talent, skill, genius — it adds up to the same thing: there are capacities that an individual must possess, without necessarily being able to account for his or her possession of them, if they are to make a defining contribution to any of these forms. Those who do not possess those capacities, or who possess them in lesser degree, will struggle with the standards and will always be to some extent dissatisfied with their own achievements. The canonical forms are, in this light, a misfortune for most of those who are drawn to the arts. The majority of artists will always be obliged to judge their own work, and see it judged by others, according to standards they cannot satisfy, or can satisfy only to varying, lesser, degrees.

It is in this sense that Duchamp became a hero to everyone who has been offended and humiliated by the nature of the canonical forms.

Étant donnés is the dropping of the second shoe in the dialectic of the presence and absence and then again presence of the masterwork both in Duchamp’s oeuvre and the discourse of the validity of the canon in Western art. In it, all the terms under which both readymade and Large Glass established their negative legitimacy are reversed. The completion of the second masterwork is then a proof that there can be a second masterwork under the unpromising negative conditions of 1923.

… the completion of Étant donnés constitutes a “regime change.” In making this work, Duchamp was at once being completely original and at the same time following in the footsteps of all those artists who, as I said earlier, recognized the claim to negation put forward by the readymades, but realized that they could ignore it if they wished and continue to make “works.”

[line break added] The readymade is revealed as having added an infinite number of objects to the category to which the etiquette “art” could not be denied, but it was not able to subtract any existing object or class of objects from claiming the same label. The extreme reductivism carried out by the conceptual artists of 1969 was probably the final attempt to find a firm ground for the negative version.

[line break added] But, quickly, the valence changed, and in just a few years the readymade is transformed into the catalyst for the inclusion of any and every object or situation in the category “art,” as a “positive” and “additive” innovation rather than the “negative” and “subtractive” one it appeared to be in the period from 1920 to 1970. The new condition is often called “postconceptual.”




April 12, 2016

A Camera Doesn’t Have Ideas

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… the eye tends to focus either on the reflection or on the interior, but both can be painted with equal emphasis.

This is from John Canaday’s introduction to Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape (1978):

… Super-realism eschews suggestion and depends on exact statement, a simple credo that needs to be better understood by painters who do not recognize that “exact statement” involves more than sharp definition. Relative tonalities (that is, degrees of light and dark) and relative color intensities must be more accurately observed and reproduced, or more consistently modified, in super-realism than in any other form of painting if a detailed reproduction of the visual world is to hold together as a work of art.

… New York is our century’s generic city just as Paris and London were those of the nineteenth. Painters have tended to divide New York’s complicated entity into two contrasting aspects — the city’s driving, inexorable force epitomized in John Marin’s semiabstract expressionistic interpretations, where the skyscapes of lower Manhattan explode with energy; and the secluded crannies painted by Edward Hopper, where shelter from the city’s dehumanizing assault may be found at the price of loneliness.

[line break added] It must be significant in some way that the concept of New York as a glorious Frankenstein’s monster with a life of its own, independent of the people who built it, has been best expressed by abstract devices, while the fate of these people has been told in terms of humanistic realism.

Estes’s New York does not fit well into either division, but can be related to both. Reality and reflections of reality become all but indistinguishable from one another, until reality becomes a kind of fantasy in spite of rigidly explicit factual details. Looking into one of Estes’s store windows we can hardly tell what is in front of us and what is reflected from behind us.

[line break added] We are at the center of an environment where our own reality becomes questionable. Undeniably we are present; our position is defined by the exactness of the perspective; we are standing at a point where normally our image would occur somewhere in the galaxy of reflections, but we are ignored as if atomized.


… We are fascinated by his revelation of the world around us.

The following is from an edited conversation in September of 1977 between Richard Estes and John Arthur:

[ … ]

Arthur: The one you’re working on now (Downtown) is certainly a very complicated spatial composition. In other paintings, such as the façades with reflections in the glass, the space is layered and it’s difficult to get a fix on the space. The reflection in the glass doubles the space. We see not only inside the picture plane but also what occurs in front of the picture plane or façade. Because of that, they differ from the traditional receding planes. The space in those paintings is fragmented, but much deeper than Cubist space. Of course, Canaletto never had those plate-glass windows to play with.

Estes: In reality, you don’t get that either because the eye tends to focus either on the reflection or on the interior, but both can be painted with equal emphasis.

[ … ]

Estes: … I took a lot of photographs of people on the street — just wandered around New York photographing people — and I began to notice a lot of other things happening. You know how it is with a 35mm camera and 36 exposures; I was just snapping pictures. If anyone had shown me in 1965 what I would be painting in 1967 I wouldn’t have believed it. I was just walking around the city photographing things, and that was what was there. It wasn’t that I thought about it or planned it.

[ … ]

Estes: … what I’m trying to paint is not something different, but something more like the place I’ve photographed. Somehow the paint and the intensity of color emphasize the light and do things to build up form that a photograph does not do. In that way the painting is superior to the photograph. I think that for figures it would be better not to use photographs. There’s far more information if you have the person sitting there. You really don’t know what a person looks like from a photograph.

[line break added] The reason I take a lot of photographs is to make up for the fact that one photograph really doesn’t give me all the information I need. Also, the camera is like one eye and it really deals only with values. And painting is trickery, because you can make people respond by guiding their eyes around the picture. The photograph doesn’t do that because a camera doesn’t have ideas.

[ … ]

Estes: … in a way, people don’t see things until they’re shown. A lot of people have said they never noticed any of this until they saw my paintings. They’ve lived in New York all their lives and it’s always been there, but people simply didn’t see it because their eyes were not attuned to it. People found the Impressionist paintings very shocking when they first saw them because the color wasn’t what they were accustomed to seeing. Now, with color photography, we find that the Impressionists were absolutely right. But at that time the public was walking around in a brown haze.

[ … ]

Estes: And yet many of the critics dismissed realism more than twenty years ago. They decided that there wasn’t anything left to paint realistically, therefore it was the end of the line. It’s not that there wasn’t any more left to paint; it was simply that they didn’t have the imagination to see that there was a lot.

[ … ]

Arthur: But don’t you ever reach a point, after spending months on a painting, of looking at it and saying, “My God, is it really worth this much effort?” Aren’t there paintings that you get bored with before they’re finished?

Estes: Actually, it’s been my experience that the paintings I’ve hated working on the most and have gotten the most bored with, really feeling were terrible while working on them, have ended up being my best paintings. The ones that I’ve had a real enthusiasm for, a real feel for, I thought they were masterpieces at the time but realize they are duds six months later.




April 11, 2016

The Flower and the Root

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… It is at once the flower and the root, that of others is the flower only, and the plucked flower.

This is from the essay ‘Rodin’s Partial Figures’ by Daniel Rosenfeld found in Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession (2001):

… He complained to his first biographer, Truman Bartlett, in 1889 that his contemporaries from the Ecole “study nature to make it Greek, and copy the latter because they think it ideal,” whereas, he asserts, “Greek sculpture” (like his own work) ” … is warm, strong, firm, simple, true to nature and full of power. It is life itself.” Le style académique, on the other hand, presenting a noteworthy antithesis to Rodin’s ambitions and achievement, was defined by the Dictionnaire de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts, with characteristic rhetorical excess, as:

the protest of the regulated imagination against imagination without rules, an art inspired, but also [an art] of conviction and scrupulousness, [an art] which stands in opposition to carelessness and negligence; a return to antiquity, which finds moral beauty in physical beauty; a means of transporting [our] spirit through the aid of art into superior spheres of grandeur, purity and the ideal.

Rodin’s persistent refusal, with a few notable exceptions, to conform even remotely to these accepted standards was a fundamental cause for complaint among conservative critics, leveled against his oeuvre well into the twentieth century. Progressive-minded critics, on the other hand, identified Rodin’s departures from these standards — whether revealed in his exploitation of the fragment, the non-finito details of his execution, or the considerations of almost any version of his sculpture as the potential component of a new and separate work — as the basis for its unprecedented modernity and social relevance.

… In a contemporary article, Rodin made a comment on the nature of “finish” in his work that provides a fairly accurate description of his views and the implications of this exhibition. Interviewed for the prestigious English-language Art Journal, he explained:

There is no finish possible in a work of art, since it is Nature and Nature knows no finish, being infinite: therefore one stops at some stage or another, where one has put into one’s work all one sees, all one has sought for, all one cares to put or all one particularly wants, but one could really go on forever and see more to do.

… The superiority of Rodin’s method, Adrien Farge wrote, was that it “opens a vast landscape to the imagination,” and Camille Mauclair characterized the “indefinite continuation” of the work as its most singular characteristic. Among these myriad examples, we might cite the observations of Arthur Symons, the distinguished British art historian and critic. The art of Rodin, he wrote:

competes with nature rather than with the art of other sculptors. Other sculptors turn life into sculpture, he turns sculpture into life. His clay is part of the substance of the earth, and the earth still clings about it as it comes up and lives. It is at once the flower and the root, that of others is the flower only, and the plucked flower. The link with the earth, which we find in the unhewn masses of rock from which is finest creations of pure form can never quite free themselves, is the secret of his deepest force. It links his creations to nature’s, in a single fashion of growth.

Rodin’s exploration of the partial figure, his persistent acknowledgment of raw material in every medium and state of his oeuvre, his uses of fragmentation, and the suggestion of his work’s seemingly endless potential for transformation, seem not to have been so much an affirmation of sculpture’s abstraction per se, as they were counterpoints that be played against the organic rhythms of his modeling and his figures’ animation.

Marsyas (Torso of Falling Man), c. 1882-89




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