An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on Aperture.org. In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to aperture.org/blog. Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on Artforum.com.

Barney Kulok

Published on Artforum.com on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.

Barney Kulok, Untitled (Cobble Constellation), 2011

The austere geometry and muscular presence of architect Louis Kahn’s late designs infuses the photographs Barney Kulok has taken of the Four Freedoms Park. In this exhibition, however, one won’t find conventional documentation of the park’s allée of linden trees, its open granite “room” at Roosevelt Island’s southern tip, or its bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt created by Jo Davidson. Kulok, who was granted access last year to the construction site, has instead brought back chiaroscuro fragments—moody gelatin silver prints that demonstrate remarkable tonal range and control but explain little about the late master’s final design. As often as not, Kulok seems simply to be photographing whatever was resting at his feet. The results, however, are quietly thrilling.

In addition to distilling something of Kahn’s design principles, these twenty-three images also demonstrate that Kulok has deeply internalized the legacy of Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculpture. One can walk through the gallery’s two rooms assigning to individual photographs entries from Richard Serra’s 1967–68 Verb List. “To scatter”: Untitled (Cobble Constellation) (all works cited, 2011) depicts a chance array of loose granite paving blocks resting atop those already laid in neat rows. “To suspend”: Untitled (Improvised Plumb Line), an image of a dangling brick, isolated against a dark, pockmarked wall. “To heap”: Untitled (Joint Filler), a pile of the eponymous material that exhibits such sharp contrasts between light and dark as to seem unreal, like a Photoshop tweak or a darkroom mistake. Others, with their bent wires and bits of stone and wood and earth, call to mind Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, or Carl Andre. The photographs’ charcoal-rubbed wooden frames give them a solidity, an objectness, that further aligns them with this sculptural precedent—and with Kahn’s resolutely tactile architecture. Visitors’ experiences of the park will undoubtedly range widely. For viewers of these images, Kulok has expanded that range still further, and tapped into something elemental that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

“Jill Freedman: Street Cops, 1978-81″

Published on Artforum.com on October 13, 2011. The exhibition is on view at Higher Pictures, New York, from September 15 to October 29, 2011.

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

When photographer Jill Freedman embedded with the New York City Police Department’s Ninth and Midtown South Precincts in 1978, the city was just past its postwar nadir. Three years earlier, in the eyes of Daily News editors, President Gerald Ford had told the struggling metropolis to “drop dead.” The summer of 1977 had been marked by the tragic denouement of the Son of Sam killing spree, as well as rioting and looting under cover of the July blackout. In a city troubled by crimes both petty and spectacular, Freedman sought to counter the largely negative opinion of cops on the beat, to humanize the men and women behind the badge.

The officers with whom she cruised for three years were certainly busy: The Ninth Precinct covers the East Village, where junkies lay strung out in buildings burned for the insurance money and then abandoned, while Midtown South incorporated the hustling and vice of Times Square. There is a man Stabbed Twice in the Guts, 1980, and one Caught in the Act, 1978, while trying to boost a turntable, and one who tried to score a Free Lunch, 1979, by skipping out on his restaurant bill. Through it all, Freedman’s blue-shirts handle their duties with a sense of humor. They know that George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981, and that this little boy in the cruiser is Always Running Away, 1979. Several of Freedman’s images match this humor with visual wit, as with the Partners, 1978, who are hopping a cinder-block wall with symmetrically outstretched legs, or the Street Cops, 1978, belly to belly in a cramped hallway, one holding his pistol while the other clasps a stogie.

Viewed today, after more than two decades of zero-tolerance “broken windows” policing and in the midst of overreaction to #OccupyWallStreet protesters, the humanity and self-awareness Freedman identifies in her subjects is all the more remarkable. She deftly captured a moment unlike our own in several ways. While I wouldn’t trade the safety of today’s city for its late-1970s incarnation, I do wish today’s officers, many of whom are high-strung and alienated from the communities they patrol, would learn from their predecessors’ relative good will.

Small Change, 1979

Small Change, 1979

“The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75″

Published on Artforum.com on October 4, 2011. The exhibition was on view at Third Streaming, New York, from September 8 to October 15, 2011.

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

During the past fifteen years, scholars have dramatically revised our understanding of the American civil rights and Black Power movements, proposing answers to questions such as: When did each begin and end? What traits, if any, do they share? What is the relative importance of acknowledged leaders and lesser-known participants? Historians including Charles Payne, Martha Biondi, Thomas Sugrue, and Peniel Joseph have crafted nuanced portraits of both movements’ protest dynamics and the merits of the gains each made. The visual record of the era, however, has not been given an equivalent boost, which makes the recent discovery of hours of documentary footage captured by Swedish television journalists all the more special. That material has been transformed into The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), the feature-length documentary on which this exhibition of film stills, related footage, and ephemera is based.

The images selected for stills focus primarily on Black Power leaders. We see Angela Davis as a glamorous antihero, two dour officers at her elbows; Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael coolly addressing unseen gatherings; and Kathleen Cleaver next to a typewriter, taking a break from crafting revolution’s message to pensively drag on a cigarette. A small monitor displaying unused film footage contrasts this hero worship with images of children carousing in unkempt streets, cops cruising down sweltering avenues, and little boys in suits marching out of a school building.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, a precedent for the Swedish investigation of American social problems. Economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, permanently inflected the conversation on civil rights and was even cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. While The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t aspire to the same influence, it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the body of evidence documenting a turbulent period in our recent past, one whose meaning is still up for revaluation.

Interview: Susie Linfield

My brief interview with Susie Linfield, director of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, has been published online at Artforum.com. She discusses her remarkable new book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, which is just out from the University of Chicago Press. An excerpt from the book’s first chapter—which tries to answer the question Why do photography critics hate photography?—is available online at the publisher’s site. A second excerpt, from her chapter on photographs depicting the Holocaust, is available online at Tablet Magazine. Here is an excerpt from our interview, which is published in “as told to” format:

On the one hand, the depiction of atrocities and of physical suffering is today much, much more explicit than it was seventy-five years ago. I use James Nachtwey’s images from the past few decades as an example. If you compare his photographs to those of say, Robert Capa or David “Chim” Seymour, you can see how photography today is far more graphic; it gets much closer to physical agony than it once did. There are several reasons for that. But one of the things that makes looking at such images especially difficult today is that we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence. Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.

To read the rest, click here.

Thomas Struth

Published on Artforum.com on May 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For the exhibition press release and a selection of images, click here.

Thomas Struth, Grazing-Incidence-Spectometer Max Planck IPP, Garching, 2010, color photograph, 46 7/8 x 58 1/4".

In this exhibition of new large-scale color photographs, Thomas Struth discloses realms largely hidden from public view: experimental science and high-tech industry. Struth’s images do not offer a comprehensive representation of how the plants and laboratories he portrays actually function. Nor, for that matter, can we understand from viewing the photos how the industries depicted therein—pharmaceutical production, space exploration, physics research, offshore drilling—are integrated in a globalized market. But the claustrophobic images of wires, tubes, and rarefied machinery reveal something else altogether: Beneath the rhetoric of continual discovery and behind the millions of dollars given over to such research lies a surprisingly fragile, patched-together infrastructure. Tubes are fastened together with blue tape; pipes are hastily enclosed in crumbling insulation or torn bubble wrap; the rubber casings on various machines reveal cracks. In a way, Struth’s dispassionate, analytic photographic style is more imperviously machinelike than the physical plants themselves.

These images are also remarkable as compositions. The show’s largest photographs pull one’s eyes deep into the background at the center of the image. In Space Shuttle Endeavour Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, USA, 2008, the tiled underside of the shuttle blocks a view of the full height of the hangar in which it sits; a phalanx of scaffolding and ladders, scattered beneath it in a V-shape, creates a passageway that points to the shuttle’s nose and beyond. Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007, achieves a similar effect. Rusting steel chains stretch back from the immediate foreground to the enormous four-legged rig they help anchor. Most of the other photographs, however, are insistently frontal. That they are reminiscent of the series “Paradise,” images of verdant forests that Struth first photographed more than a decade ago, ingeniously reminds viewers that a strict division between the natural and the artificial is overly simplistic.

Eirik Johnson, “Sawdust Mountain”

Published on Artforum.com on April 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For more information about the exhibition and related book, click here.

Eirik Jonson, Below the Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwah River, Washington, 2008, color photograph, 50 x 40"

Wandering, Pac-Man-like, along Manhattan’s street grid on a sunny afternoon, it’s easy to romanticize the Pacific Northwest: air heavy with moisture, smeary gray sky, carpet of deep green foliage on every nearby hillside. Such pastoral imaginings are obviously deficient, not least because human traces so rarely intrude upon them. A recent spate of creative work, however, emphasizes more complex negotiations between people and this corner of the national landscape. There is, for example, the dreary, anonymous Portland depicted in Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, or musician Phil Elverum’s emotionally freighted relationship with Mt. Erie in rural Washington State. Photographer Eirik Johnson’s series “Sawdust Mountain,” 2005–2009, the subject of this exhibition and a related book, depicts sites located somewhere between a colorless urban fringe and a mystical rural retreat: Nature predominates, but it is heavily worked. Shot over four years in Washington, Oregon, and northern California, the series concentrates on logging and fishing. Johnson’s lucidness about environmental despoliation and economic finitude manifests itself most clearly in pictures taken from elevated vantage points, which allow viewers to see how landscape is constructed. This distance is nicely counterbalanced by the intimacy of Johnson’s portraits, which betray sympathy both for his human subjects—hatchery employees, ecologists doing fieldwork, independent shopkeepers—and for the region in which he was raised.

The overall narrative is of decline and germinating hope for renewal. This point is made explicit in Johnson’s juxtaposition of photographs depicting a stack of logs in a multinational company’s sort yard and a nursery of western larch seedlings. It’s visible as well in the rust-stained, dilapidated former Masonic lodge now rehabilitated as The Sweater Store, South Bend, Washington, 2005. It may not be much, this picture seems to say, but it’s a living. The building itself is centered in the frame and depicted frontally, echoing Walker Evans’s churches and storefronts. Other images play with reflections in windows; stagger objects from foreground to background; or present pictures within pictures. The influence of older photographers, from Carleton Watkins to Robert Adams to Joel Sternfeld, can be detected in these works. But no forebear dominates, and Johnson’s vision of a Pacific Northwest resilient in the face of difficulty is clearly articulated and entirely his own.

Michael Ned Holte on James Benning’s Ruhr

I’m jealous of my friend Michael Ned Holte, a talented art critic and film enthusiast, for he has seen James Benning’s Ruhr (2009), the filmmaker’s newest work and first foray into high-definition video. Thankfully, he has also written about it, for Artforum.com, and in the process has offered a thoughtful meditation on some of the differences between digital and celluloid images. It’s “not simply the difference between the ‘purity’ or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD is in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.” Ruhr receives its US premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles on January 11. To read the rest of Holte’s piece, click here.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916

Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Artforum.com. Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

Peter Hujar

Published on Artforum.com on September 25, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view at Matthew Marks Gallery until October 24, 2009.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Some of the pictures in this exhibition were published a decade ago in Doubletake magazine; most have never been exhibited. They were made from 1956 to 1958, while Peter Hujar was in his early twenties, and most depict children at play in homes for the developmentally disabled in Southbury, Connecticut, and Florence, Italy. Neither sentimental nor aggressive, these small black-and-white images possess the empathy and compositional rigor we associate with Hujar’s unruffled portrait work of the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, some, like Boy Rubbing His Eye, Southbury, 1957, and Girl Sucking Her Thumb, Florence, 1958, prefigure poses he would later favor: The children lie on their sides, each poking into the frame from its right-hand edge, both of them aware of the camera but obviously in their own worlds. Other photographs, like Children on a Slide, Southbury and Playground, Southbury, both 1957, have a kinetic dynamism that captures something of the children’s vitality while acknowledging that they are damaged. Hujar recognizes in each child an essential human dignity that, I think, would escape most of us, with our cultural biases and reflexive attunement to difference. (This openness would serve him well in later decades as he photographed the eccentric figures of the downtown demimonde.) In a gaggle of Italian children crowding around a swing set, watched over by a nun, one boy seems more severely disfigured. With arms and legs akimbo and head sharply cocked, he is visually separated from his playmates by being the only one dressed in dark clothing. And yet it is characteristic of this striking, humane body of work that it is his gaze that finds its way directly to Hujar’s lens.

Related reading: A wonderful essay on Hujar’s work by Vicki Goldberg that was published in the New York Times in 2000.

Troy Brauntuch

Published on Artforum.com on September 23, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. Troy Brauntuch’s exhibition remains on view at Friedrich Petzel Gallery until October 17.

Troy Brauntuch, White Light Study, 1979, paper, newsprint, photostats, cardboard, tape

Troy Brauntuch, White Light Study, 1979, paper, newsprint, photostats, cardboard, tape

This exhibition presents a three-decade sampling of Troy Brauntuch’s art, including a preponderance of small sketches, notes, and other source materials for his larger paintings and drawings. A narrow color palette and the artist’s casual blending of news photographs with personal snapshots certainly effaces distinctions between “public” and “private” imagery. But for all the talk of Brauntuch and his “Pictures generation” cohorts disinterestedly unthreading our media cocoon, it’s hard not to notice a powerful current of feeling swirling beneath these placid surfaces. It pulls in both directions. On a long wall, one finds images of mangled airplane cockpits and a woman extracted from rubble juxtaposed with depictions of the artist’s cat and a young Mickey Rourke draped in sunlight. Nearby, there is a handwritten note describing the tragic wartime plight of a bear: It died in the Sarajevo Zoo when autumn shook loose the canopy of leaves protecting the brave zookeepers who risked sniper fire to feed it. The tight crop of Boys Head, 1979, a small color print, renders the image ambiguous. Is it a boy, perhaps a wrestler, in the full flower of youth, or a piece of broken classical statuary ravaged by time and on the return journey to dust? The small-scale drama of attraction and repulsion is perfectly pitched in a 1987 photograph in which a pair of tall church windows, perhaps inlaid with images granting hope to the lost, are plunged into deep shadow. They look like open graves. A lesson about life seems to lurk in here somewhere, one that critic Daniel Mendelsohn recently found expressed in a Tennessee Williams stage direction: “How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.”

Al Reinert, For All Mankind

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Published as “Step Children” on Artforum.com on July 12, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was an act of hubris: When he spoke, the country’s astronauts had logged only twenty minutes in outer space. Billions of dollars and a little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped off a lunar module nicknamed Eagle and pronounced the occasion “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Live television images beamed back to Earth’s surface transfixed the nation, momentarily stitching together a public torn apart by the Vietnam War, violent inner-city unrest, campus protests, and much else besides. The achievement seemed not only a victory in the country’s war-by-any-means-but-war with the Soviet Union—the USSR’s own unmanned lunar explorer crashed into the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were there, asleep in their landing module—but also to augur a grand age of space exploration and scientific breakthroughs. Yet the last human to set foot on our moon’s pockmarked surface, Eugene Cernan, did so less than five years later, at the end of 1972.

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission offers an opportunity for reconsideration of the Apollo program; even Aldrin has gotten into the act, publishing Magnificent Desolation, his second memoir. Criterion has contributed to the effort by releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray Al Reinert’s magnificent 1989 documentary For All Mankind. To make the film, Reinert, a journalist with no prior filmmaking experience, trolled through millions of feet of official Apollo 16-mm footage, then combined his selections with audio recordings extracted from hundreds of hours of interviews with astronauts. The lunar missions are collapsed into one epic journey, from pre-flight training to command module splashdown, narrated in the southern drawls and flat Midwestern accents of the men who rocketed out of Earth’s orbit.

The figures onscreen and those recounting their experiences are never properly identified, a decision that aims to emphasize the communal nature of the entire lunar enterprise. This directorial sleight-of-hand ensures that the focus remains on the images, which cannot be matched by the descriptions offered by those who captured them. But it also effaces the huge effort required to make the footage possible. Not only were there ten Apollo missions prior to Armstrong’s fateful steps, but also hundreds of men and women who worked at the command center in Houston, and thousands more that dedicated millions of hours of labor to create, ex nihilo, the physical infrastructure necessary to get Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s ash-colored surface. For All Mankind, then, is hampered by its narrow focus. But what magnificent footage it presents! There is the slow-motion infernal blaze of engines propelling rockets into the air and the still uncanny sight of flashlights, slices of bread, and other everyday items floating languidly in zero gravity. There is the Earth seen from a distance and rising above the moon’s horizon, an image that helped spark a nascent environmental movement; there are the astronauts themselves, snow-white Michelin men bouncing and stumbling giddily across the knobby, lifeless gray expanse.

Many people, reflecting on the dubious Cold War inspiration for NASA, or lamenting its ratio of cost to demonstrable benefit, or chastising the always malfunctioning, dangerous shuttles that arrived in Apollo’s wake, will use this anniversary to criticize the entire enterprise. Their claims are often legitimate. But the velvet blank amplitude of outer space, the backdrop for most of the film, reminds viewers of one Apollo program legacy still to be puzzled out. The inky, airless expanse that is so palpable a presence in For All Mankind is an indication of the deep ontological shift represented by traveling so far into the unknown. Irrespective of politics or science, forty years later, the mind still stutters when trying to grasp precisely what it means to have been to the moon and back.

For more information on For All Mankind, click here to visit the Criterion Collection’s website. To read Caryn James’s 1990 New York Times review of the film, click here. To read a 1973 essay by Al Reinert on the space center in Houston, Texas, click here (free registration required).

Interview: Michael Sorkin

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.

Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.

Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.

As told to Brian Sholis

Herb & Dorothy

Published as “Collecting Class” on Artforum.com on June 1, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Artist Lawrence Weirner in Herb & Dorothy.

Artist Lawrence Weiner in Herb & Dorothy.

“Every culture needs its Vogels,” says Lawrence Weiner near the end of the documentary Herb and Dorothy (2008). “They’re friend collectors, not collector collectors,” clarifies another artist. Not long after they purchased a small, untitled sculpture by John Chamberlain in 1962, the pint-size duo recognized that what they were buying was better than what they themselves were making as “wannabe artists.” So they lived frugally on her librarian’s salary, bought art with his earnings at the post office, and spent all their time in artists’ studios, galleries, and museums.

The Vogels aren’t chatty subjects, so first-time director Megumi Sasaki interviews a cavalcade of those they’ve collected over the years, including Sylvia Plimack and Robert Mangold, Chuck Close, Robert Barry, Lynda Benglis, and Richard Tuttle. All testify to the intensity of Herb’s looking and his insatiability, and to Dorothy’s sensible handling of finances—the couple always worked on the installment plan and rarely missed a payment. Their rules? The work had to be affordable, and it had to fit into their rent-controlled Manhattan one-bedroom apartment. By the time the National Gallery of Art, as a gesture of courtship, trucked everything to DC to be inventoried, the art crammed into that space filled five full-size moving vans.

It’s clear from the film’s structure and its B-roll footage that Sasaki isn’t familiar with the art world, so art-savvy audiences who know the Vogels’ story will focus on piquant details: Dorothy kept a small Carl Andre copper sculpture in a chocolate box; the couple made weekly phone calls to the artists they were close with; they often paid in cash and left with their purchases tucked under their arms. Yet fascinating stories lurk just beneath the surface. One answers the first question invariably asked by journalists: “How could they afford to be major collectors on government salaries?” In the ’60s, when no one else was buying art by young Minimal and Conceptual artists, the Vogels supported them with their (relatively inexpensive) purchases. After the market drove prices up, it seems, artists supported the Vogels, discounting their work to civil-servant prices. This is acknowledged implicitly when, during a visit to James Siena’s studio, everyone decorously agrees to discuss prices off-camera, and it’s acknowledged explicitly in a comment Dorothy makes: “The collection was built on the generosity of artists.”

In an age of speculative purchases via JPEG image, the rapport such generosity implies is cause for nostalgia. And, of course, it paid off. The Vogels understood themselves as caretakers of the art they owned, conscientiously draping their framed, light-sensitive drawings with blankets and then, in 1992, donating several thousand works to the National Gallery. The museum, to thank them, set up an annuity to supplement their retirement income. What have they done with it? Bought more art, of course.

Herb and Dorothy opens June 5 at Cinema Village in New York and July 10 at Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles. Click here to visit the film’s website.

Interview: Damon Rich

In late 2008, Damon Rich, an artist, designer, and founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), presented an exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the possible relationships between finance and buildings. That exhibition will be reprised as Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center at the Queens Museum of Art in New York from May 31 to September 27. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on May 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center began as a broad proposal for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT about risk, and in particular about the rise of risk management as a form of planning. In the past fifteen to twenty years, it seems like planning focused on concrete visions or goals has given way to planning that catalogues the risks to which one is vulnerable—with the goal of preserving and expanding the status quo. This is a bit abstract; for me, focusing on finance and architecture brought the proposal back to earth. How does the notion of financial risk affect the built environment?

Though I trained as an architect, I’m drawn to things that touch architecture but are not buildings. My two previous exhibition projects produced by CUP at the Storefront for Art and Architecture were about building codes (how political demands rendered in laws are expressed in the built environment) and about urban renewal (how ideology is revealed in the distorted use of past policies to justify present actions).

I want to take apart the notion of technical expertise in a democratic context. My exhibitions function as a kind of case study or experiment; each begins with a group of investigators who know little about the subject at hand, acting as stand-ins for the general public. MIT has the number-one-rated urban planning program in the country; it also has a fairly new Center for Real Estate; and, of course, it has the management school, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians. I spoke with many of these experts, attended meetings, visited archives—and from these materials put together an exhibition. While exhibitions are just about the least cost-effective way to organize people politically, for me they contain a set of potentials that the initiatives of a mission-driven nonprofit organization like CUP—mainly school programs and community workshops—often do not. A nonprofit has to be disciplined by measurable outcomes, but an exhibition is a chance to stage a more open-ended encounter in three dimensions, to use abstraction to recontextualize imminent realities.

Another privilege of exhibiting in a gallery or museum is the luxury to say that in examining so complex a topic—which engages real estate brokers, architects, federal regulators, economists, and, of course, the public—you don’t have to subordinate everything to clarity and immediate action. You can dwell on the innumerable internal fissures and contradictions that bear on political contests. Often when I tell people I’m doing a project about foreclosures, financial justice, and housing, they say, “That’s really great!” But I don’t think people should assume an exhibition about foreclosures is inherently good; I hope to encourage engagement and skepticism through the practice of representation.

Every single piece in the show tries to use a specific visual strategy to stage a relationship with the audience. For example, one of the most basic and central ideas to finance is the interest rate. The relationship an interest rate instantiates between a borrower and a lender is an abstract thing, and it’s discussed in a naturalized manner—the interest rate goes up, the interest rate goes down, like the temperature. Yet national mortgage interest rates are nothing but an index of a social relationship between borrowers and lenders. So I built a forty-foot-long plywood barrier that’s cut in the shape of the prime rate; one can see, at about 1980, when the interest rate shoots up, because the barrier itself shoots up to about thirteen feet in height. The mute graph you see on the nightly news hopefully becomes visible and legible in a new way, as containing stories of political and social relationships. Another piece is a series of sixty-six photographs of houses in the Detroit metropolitan area, arranged on metal stands in their actual geographic relationships: One can walk among them and understand housing outcomes: dilapidated neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit; big, brand-new houses in outlying Lyon Township in the western suburbs. I hope it causes people to question what produced this differentiated set of buildings.

The series of public programs is an important part of the show and will feature people who know far more about redlining than I do, even after all the research. Redlining is a visual fiction, a metaphor cleverly crafted to mobilize people into political action. In fact, it is so effective that people today use it in all kinds of ways to stand for the inequities of capitalism—in financing, city services, insurance, even Internet service. But it’s also a slippery concept, as is another that is often used today, “disinvestment.” Both have great explanatory power, but you can’t ever really point to them in action. It’s important to understand these concepts and how they have functioned historically in order to better grapple with the messy process of making change.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Malls R Us

Published as “It’s a Mall World” on Artforum.com March 18, 2009. Here is a YouTube link to the film’s trailer.

A shopping mall is “a place where idealism, passion, and greed can come together, all under one roof,” intones the voice-over narrator near the outset of Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky’s Malls R Us (2008), her latest work. The seventy-eight-minute documentary chronicles what these feelings provoke in a diverse cast of characters: megalomaniacal ambition in real estate developers, utopian fantasies of behavior engineering in corporate architects, slightly smug moralizing in critics of consumerism, and rousing antimall activism in environmentalists and labor activists. Klodawsky’s cameras alight on one luxury megadevelopment after another. Some are still in the making, whether being built by hundreds of workmen or existing solely in artists’ renderings; some are gleaming and overrun with glassy-eyed shoppers; a few older examples are kept alive by a handful of lingering tenants, like patients in a terminal ward. The film suggests that the geographic trend in mall development is toward the Middle East, India, and Asia. It also suggests that the lifespan of these projects, despite the billions of dollars and the thousands of hours of labor that go into them, is approximately thirty years.

Helene Klodawsky, still from Malls R Us, 2008.

Helene Klodawsky, still from Malls R Us, 2008.

Though Malls R Us dexterously balances seduction and repulsion, it’s not necessarily due to Klodawsky’s attempts at neutrality. One senses that her fascination is morbid and her intent exhortative, not least in a scene in which Canadian developer Rubin Stahl is caught, in an outsize sporting-goods chain store he hopes will anchor his new project, holding an automatic weapon that an off-camera store employee informs him is “meant for humans.” Yikes! The moment precedes a crescendo of crosscuts that juxtapose starkly the cross purposes of Stahl; Eric Kuhne, a London-based American architect at work on a million-square-foot project in Dubai; and Vikram Soni, an Indian environmental activist attempting to halt a development that will trample the Delhi Ridge Wilderness Preserve.

Nonetheless, at the end of the film there remains something to the claim made at the outset that the mall is a kind of sacred place. This is partly because of the lovely cinematography of François Dagenais, with whom Klodawsky worked on her 2005 film No More Tears Sister, about a Sri Lankan human rights activist. His images of privileged, contented young women among the seventy thousand trees planted on the roof of an Osaka megamall and of the dramatic, angular spaces enclosed with glass in Jon Jerde’s Zlote Tarasy (Golden Terraces) development in Warsaw evoke a Pavlovian response in the viewer. One almost doesn’t begrudge the young Japanese mother who blithely announces, “To be around people with the same background makes me feel at ease.”

What undergirds this ongoing romance with shopping malls, even among those whose critical faculties lead them to acknowledge the enormous fiscal, social, and environmental costs of building and maintaining them? Jerde and the writer Ray Bradbury suspect it has something to do with the mall’s ability to foster community as the downtown promenades in small American cities once did. Aurelie, a makeup-counter salesgirl at Forum des Halles in Paris, believes it’s because the shopping mall is a place where people are gratified to be on display. The elderly women who stride purposefully around a near-empty mall in Middle America, unable to imagine what they’ll do if it closes, benefit from the consistency it affords their exercise routine. One of this film’s virtues is Klodawsky’s ability, despite her own inclinations, to let viewers empathize—to some degree—with each of these positions.

Lecia Dole-Recio

Published on Artforum.com on January 20, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.), 2008.

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.), 2008.

Few lines align with the edges of the compositions in Lecia Dole-Recio’s new works. Nearly five years after her busy cut-and-paste collages of vellum, paper, and gouache were presented in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, this exhibition, the artist’s first New York solo show, presents eight pieces that maintain an equivalent sense of dynamism despite having far more subdued surfaces. In Untitled (prpl.rd.orng.lnn.) (all works 2008), large blocks of bright red, rendered in acrylic, angle across the linen canvas, their edges picked out with contrasting strokes in orange; in Untitled (blk.lns.bl.lnn.), broad swaths of azure, cut diagonally by slashes of black, float against a green background like linens out to dry. Dole-Recio now often works with stencils, a fact readily apparent in Untitled (red.cppr.lnn.), in which long, thin rectangles in copper, gray, purple, and white overlap atop haphazardly applied pinks that range from cherry blossom to near crimson. These forms appear to be enlarged versions of the rectangular cutouts in several small works on paper, which, with their off-kilter circles and rectangles sliced into or composed of cardboard and then painted, serve as links to the works presented at the Whitney. But if those earlier collages fetishized each of the artist’s choices, and their cuts perhaps symbolized the precedents she was excising from the history of formalist modernism, a glorious new canvas like Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.) gives evidence of the ways in which Dole-Recio, now more confident, deploys her chosen vocabulary. An explosion of stenciled curves in gray, dark green, black, and safety-alert orange wells up from the bottom of the painting like fireworks or a peacock’s plumage and is loosely coordinated with similar semicircles visible beneath a golden ground. In this work, as throughout the show, order and disorder are held in captivating balance.

Sharon Lockart, Lunch Break

Published as “Parts and Labor” on Artforum.com on January 15, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Lockhart’s latest films depict employees at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. Lunch Break (2008), the longer of the two, is notable first for the artist’s decision to set the camera in motion, something she has not done in any of her previous films. (Exit [2008], a related, forty-one-minute study of repetition and difference that depicts workers leaving the facility on five consecutive days, maintains a fixed camera position.) In a long, uninterrupted tracking shot, the camera in Lunch Break traverses at midday what appears to be the spinal cord of the shipyard—a long, uninterrupted passageway—as several dozen employees eat, read the newspaper, and talk in small groups. Most of the workers (all but one are men) do not engage with the camera, perhaps a result of the fact that, as with Pine Flat (2005), Lockhart’s study of children in a small California town, the artist spent considerable time conducting quasi-ethnographic research to familiarize herself with the “community” of shipbuilders, electricians, welders, and pipefitters before capturing it on film.

Sharon Lockhart, still from Lunch Break, 2008.

Sharon Lockhart, still from Lunch Break, 2008.

Though the camera moved, the footage it gathered has been slowed down dramatically: Six minutes pass before the first figure is beyond the frame, and another seven elapse before the camera reaches the next trio of relaxing employees. As it progresses, every detail of the claustrophobically hemmed-in environment is revealed in sharp focus: dented garbage cans and putty-colored lockers, some adorned with stickers; olive-green tool chests and brightly colored plastic coolers; gauges that cling to pipes stretching from floor to ceiling; and tubes and hoses that extend every which way, all beneath drab, uniform fluorescent light. The dilatory pace emphasizes the sheer amount of material (and visual detail) packed in to this place, and highlights how successfully 35-mm film can capture that plenitude. But the unhurriedness also imparts a monumental solemnity to each of the workers’ gestures, which can undercut the film’s tight structure in both negative and positive ways. A man sitting to the left of the aisle with a water bottle in hand, momentarily looking at the floor, becomes, when slowed down, a despondent ruminator seemingly lifted from one of Bill Viola’s histrionic video installations. On the other hand, when, midway through the film, another man reaching above the lockers pulls a bag of popcorn out of an unseen microwave, the humor of his banal action deflates the portentousness that can cloud such snail-paced scrutiny.

Lockhart’s deadpan gaze, it should be noted, is in fact far removed from Viola’s schmaltzy recent work. Lunch Break is more closely related to films such as Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006), a poker-faced threnody that memorializes the last days in the factory in France where Dean’s preferred film stock was made, or Mark Lewis’s Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002), in which the camera glides seamlessly along an elevated walkway through a south London housing project, capturing children at play on the sidewalks below. All three infuse sharply delineated formal parameters with content extraneous to that structure. (As Michael Ned Holte has noted elsewhere, Lockhart does not make strictly structuralist films; the same can be said about Dean and Lewis’s rigorous work.) Lunch Break is described as part of Lockhart’s new series “about the present state of US labor,” but the film discloses little concerning this ambitious remit. (For example, nowhere is it explained that the Bath Iron Workers’ labor is put to very particular ends: The company is part of the General Dynamics conglomerate and a major supplier of destroyers to the US Navy.) The employees’ idleness might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which our economy has ground to a halt, but Lockhart remains a better portraitist and formalist than analyst or polemicist.

The same can be said of James Benning, who is perhaps the single greatest influence on Lockhart’s moving-image corpus and who edited Lunch Break and helped supervise its sound. (For example, RR [2007], his wondrous latest film, is diminished somewhat by its didactic sound track selections.) He has, with composer Becky Allen, given Lunch Break a deep, consistent, ambient industrial drone (similar to Dean’s Kodak) that is punctuated occasionally by the clang of metal against metal. Snippets of conversation and, at one point, a Led Zeppelin song bubble up to the surface of the mix as the camera passes by plausible sources for the sounds. The disjunction between edited sounds seemingly played at normal speed and a slowed-down image helps articulate the constructed nature of Lockhart’s elegant, if seemingly transitional, film.

Rene Daalder, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader

Published as “Lost, Not Found” on Artforum.com on December 3, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

The Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader arrived in California in the late 1960s, created a small, potent body of lyric artworks, and then was lost at sea in 1975. He has received increasing attention in recent years, yet he remains a mystery. Rene Daalder’s documentary, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader (2007), is a useful if pedestrian addition to the spate of exhibitions and publications honoring the artist, and its flaws highlight why we may never come close to understanding Ader’s fateful decision to sail across the Atlantic in the Ocean Wave (a twelve-and-a-half-foot sailboat).

First and foremost, the romance of Ader’s disappearance has seduced Daalder into inserting himself more forcefully into the narrative than his association with Ader would seem to invite. (The already brief sixty-six-minute documentary would be half as long if it focused solely on its ostensible subject.) Second, most of the interviewees—Mary Sue Ader-Anderson, the artist’s widow; Ader’s classmates and students; younger artists influenced by his work—offer little insight into his practice or legacy; only artist Tacita Dean, who made a film about the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who also died at sea, speaks eloquently about Ader’s importance to younger practitioners. The film likewise neglects to situate Ader fully within his artistic context, references to Chris Burden and “macho” American artists notwithstanding.

The documentary, created at the behest of Ader-Andersen, dutifully traces the artist’s early life in the Netherlands, his passage to the United States as the only crew member on a sailboat from Morocco, his student days and marriage (and, irritatingly, Daalder’s simultaneous B-movie work in Hollywood), the travails of his short career, and, of course, In Search of the Miraculous, the three-part artwork of which his solo voyage across the sea was one part. With only this biographical material as ballast, it seems inevitable that Daalder would posit Ader’s early life as the greatest influence on his art, and indeed a children’s book written by his mother and an impromptu bicycle journey to Jerusalem taken by his pastor father are, to the filmmaker, what animated Ader’s practice and ill-fated final adventure.

It is no doubt difficult to see past Ader’s untimely disappearance to the milieu in which he worked while alive, and the temptation to see Ader’s entire career as inexorably leading to In Search of the Miraculous must be great. But working with the full support of Ader-Andersen and the artist’s estate, one would expect that Daalder could have come up with more. He presents some previously unseen footage, and the DVD edition possesses the unequivocal benefit of including several of Ader’s film works on a second disc. As it stands, though, should another filmmaker ever gain equal access to the artist’s archives, colleagues, and artistic inheritors, much remains to be explored.

Interview: William Chapman Sharpe

William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950. To get a sense of what Sharpe attempts in the volume, click here to read the book’s description and here to read the introduction (warning: PDF link), which Princeton University Press has made available via its website. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 27, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve spent my entire professional life engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.

Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.

It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called “nocturnes”) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.

But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flâneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flâneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century the flâneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.

The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flashlit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.

In the book’s epilogue I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude upon this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Michael Wolf

The Asia- and Europe-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago, “Transparent City,” goes on view this week at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just published by Aperture. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

The experience of photographing in America was not much different from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn’t sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid I’d feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport. It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later, the deal was done.

I had thought about working in New York, in part because I’ve worked so long with what I call “architecture of density” in Hong Kong. But there are logistic problems in New York that don’t arise in Chicago. In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they’re more loosely structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr and printed out every photo of the city’s downtown Loop, then drew red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.

I began my series “Architecture of Density” by photographing close-ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s downtown high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.

It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance the faraway with the up close.

I don’t consider these works portraits; I’m not doing a portrait of Chicago. In fact, the city’s characteristics don’t really figure into my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge’s rooms are in the corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Sharon Core, “Early American”

Published on Artforum.com on November 9, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition “Early American” that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions. Core’s muse for this body of work, the early American painter Raphaelle Peale, is smartly chosen. In the past two decades, scholarship about the hundred-odd still lifes he created in Philadelphia between 1812 and 1824 has elucidated their strangeness, a fact that gives an added edge to the ten small-scale photographs presented here. As with her earlier series, Core’s pictures are approximations of a painted precedent once removed: Instead of working from Peale’s canvases, which, like Thiebaud’s, reside in museums scattered around the world, Core has re-created with uncanny accuracy color reproductions of his compositions found in books. In some works, she has left behind the strict mimesis of her Thiebaud series in an attempt to “inhabit” Peale’s prephotographic visual imagination. There is a palpable tension between the uncomplicated attractiveness of the luscious, softly lit, exacting images—of watermelons and day lilies, of bruised and rotting apples in a porcelain basket, of a dimpled ostrich egg and strawberries—and the elaborate means by which they were created. Not only did Core have to source the antique bowls, plates, and utensils that appear in the photographs, but she also needed to secure (and, one suspects, artificially age, prune, and otherwise prepare) the produce that takes center stage, as well as arrange her quarry and light it meticulously. The gracefulness of the resultant images masks—but only barely—her efforts, and the hall-of-mirrors instability they instigate.

Interview: Lance Hammer

Director Lance Hammer’s debut feature film, Ballast, won awards for dramatic directing and excellence in cinematography at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It opened on October 1, 2008, at Film Forum in New York and on October 17 in selected theaters nationwide. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on October 1, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Prior to making Ballast, I wrote another feature script that was called Alluvial. It was a Delta story as well, and my first attempt to write a story in the place I had grown to love. I shot short scenes excerpted from the script in order to raise financing, and that loosely cohesive presentation was akin to a short. It taught me two things. First, that Alluvial was not the story I wanted to tell. I loved the Delta region so much that I tried to speak with too much specificity about the place; the work proved to be too obvious for my taste. The second lesson was technical—I received my education as a filmmaker working on Alluvial. I didn’t go to film school; I was an architect by training. Exploring the mechanics of filmmaking—working with lights, using a dolly—gave me the confidence to discover that I actually hated them and could abandon them when I made Ballast. And I did; in Ballast, I had a completely different approach to recording both images and sound. What the two have in common, though, is the fact that they deal with mortality. Freud said he thought everything was about sex and only eventually discovered it was all about death.

I’m of the belief that if you can use one note to communicate something, why use three? One note resonating over the space where three notes should have occurred has more power, and that is how I now would approach any work. It appears particularly suited to the Mississippi Delta, where the pace of life is so different from New York or Los Angeles. More than anything else, I tried in Ballast to communicate with as much accuracy as possible what it feels like to be in the Delta during winter. Narrative was always secondary to that. In fact, I don’t like dialogue in films—or, rather, it’s tough to do really well. I’m not the Coen brothers; I don’t think I can write as well as they can. I’m much more interested in image, sound, and conveying tone, communicating something uncommunicable. Music and language would intrude on what is uncommunicable about the Delta.

I understand that to some extent this is an aesthetic construct, but I also believe that one’s personal aesthetic is a reflection of one’s life experience. I believe that life is very difficult—which has been my experience, certainly. I value persistence and think that one of the only avenues of hope in the darkest moments of life comes when you are making art. I’ve struggled with a sense of futility—not least with trying to get films off the ground. But nothing dims my strong desire to make them, and in a sense, the writing of the script for Ballast manifested hope. I think the story reflects this.

The interesting thing, then, was to give up on following the script closely once we were shooting. I’m a control freak; I confess to that readily, and I was expecting problems with not giving my actors dialogue to follow. But I wanted to bring real people’s words to the project and to watch those words be elevated and hopefully transformed through the process of filming them. In the rehearsal process, when I first saw that happen, I knew nearly immediately that there was a lot of power in giving parameters or instructions and letting the actors respond. I provided skeletons; they provided living tissue. When I saw them do that, there were magic moments for me. I admit to having no authorship and am satisfied by that as an artist. I realized I was incapable of doing what I wanted to do alone. The actors, and also Lol Crowley, my cinematographer, completed the work. It was a joy to behold.

When we were done shooting, I spent two years cutting the film. I tried everything—every iteration of every scene. I tried to turn my intellect off and use my intuition. The geese at the opening of the film, for example: I was unconsciously aware of a desire to start from chaos, to have a reflection of that in the form itself, and then have a slow progress toward stability. I’d like to say it was a conscious way of thinking about the film, but it was actually a filmmaker friend, Chris Gorak, who suggested I open with that shot. In a way, though, broad questions about intentionality are unanswerable.

Now that the film is done and has been seen by audiences, I can understand why people have grouped it with other recent films as offering a kind of “new American realism” or an “American regionalism.” I’ve seen Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, and it is certainly a joy to watch. There are affinities between the works—a reverence for subtlety, an appreciation of the power of small and ambiguous moments. But as much as anything else, perhaps this is a reaction to Hollywood. Speaking only for myself, I had a difficult time existing in the Hollywood system toward the end of my time there because I can’t stand its dominant narrative forms. The assumption in Hollywood is that audiences are stupid or need to have everything hammered into their heads. I think art is ambiguous. If we were still in the days when you could sell a film and make a lot of money for it, then perhaps that would tempt me. But for now I have nothing to lose. The only thing to be gained is from making something I can believe in.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Sara VanDerBeek

Artist Sara VanDerBeek, who, with her brother, Johannes VanDerBeek, and Anya Kielar, owns Guild & Greyshkul gallery, is the daughter of experimental filmmaker and animator Stan VanDerBeek, who died in 1984. Guild & Greyshkul presents an exhibition of Stan VanDerBeek’s work from September 13 to October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on September 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

The process of organizing our father’s estate and putting together this exhibition has been intensely emotional and very exciting for both Johannes and me. When he passed away in 1984, only a few months after an initial diagnosis of cancer, there were no instructions regarding how his artworks should be cared for or organized. Everything was piled up in his office, and it was eventually split up among various family members. Only recently, as the administrative aspects of handling the estate have become too difficult for our mother, and as our father’s first wife asked us to handle the artworks in her possession, have we realized the scope of what he kept. It turns out that much of what went into making the films and multimedia installations remains extant, but not much has been done to organize it. We spread everything out in the empty gallery this summer and began to piece it together, a process made difficult by the fact that sometimes only photographic documentation remains to guide us in reconstructing moving-image and three-dimensional artworks. To that end, I describe some of these works as “approximations.”

Johannes and I initially decided to present an overview of our father’s career, but now that we’ve installed the exhibition, we realize that it focuses on his involvement with language—in particular his desire to create a means of universal communication using images. There are many early works, from the 1950s and early ’60s, some of which an audience familiar with his work might not know. The show includes a twelve-part series of paintings from around 1956 that combines small images with words and seems to us to mark the beginning of his experimentation with animation. With certain works like the fax mural and Violence Sonata [1969], the show touches on his experiments with then-new technologies, which occurred with increasing frequency from the late ’60s until his death, but which we realized could constitute another show in itself.

One challenge is presenting this work in a gallery context. While he was collegial with a wide range of people—from scientists and computer programmers at places like MIT and Bell Labs to artists like Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine, who is the main performer in a film we’re exhibiting—he remained most closely involved with the experimental-film, -media, and -animation communities. He never worked with a commercial art gallery during his lifetime, and the majority of the items he chose for his CV were performances, screenings, multimedia events, and residencies. This is, like everything else, a problem compounded by the facts that we’re his children and that we have very different ideas about how to present the work than he might have had. Finding that balance has been both a challenge and a pleasure.

Some decisions were easier than others. For example, we’re presenting a whole wall of collages, most of which our father signed and dated, which indicates to us that despite the fact that he used them in animations, they are themselves finished artworks. Making his animations was such a time- and work-intensive process that I can’t imagine many such collages survived, and he would want to present the ones that did, whether as artworks or as concrete documentation of that process. Something I really enjoy about seeing these works together with the films is the shift in scale: They are all quite small, especially in comparison with how large the images become when projected onto a wall.

All this, of course, bears on my own art. Earlier this summer, I went away from New York and came up with an idea for a large multipart photographic work. When I returned and was laying out one of my father’s fax murals, I realized that the gathering of different framed images that I had imagined must have been directly influenced by him. The re-presentation of images from his archive that I had done in earlier photographs of mine also crops up in his work: He not only used found imagery but reappropriated images from his earlier work in later pieces. Symbols and themes—hammers that hit people on the head in comical ways, forks flying through the air and poking people in the eye, using images of eyes to direct viewers’ attention—recur through his films.

We hope that the way we’ve organized the exhibition will allow artists working today to connect with our father’s practice. He was also an incredible writer, and we’re presenting some of that material, along with drawings, on tables in the gallery. His utopian desires—the Movie-Drome [1963–65], the fact that he lived for some time on a piece of land owned by an artists’ cooperative—and his wry take on contemporary politics seem particularly relevant today.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Nicole Eisenman

During the past fifteen years, New York–based artist Nicole Eisenman has created a self-aware and psychologically probing body of work that includes installations, animations, drawings, and, with increasing focus, paintings. “Coping,” an exhibition of new paintings and monoprints, opens today at Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin and will remain on view until October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on September 6, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I made the paintings in this exhibition throughout the past year, gravitating, as I often do, to particular images (both found and imagined). I put them in drawings and then on canvas, initially working on one at a time and then on several at once. When selecting paintings for the show and thinking about them as a group, I realized that they are all somewhat depressed or depressing and that what ties them together is their embodiment of different notions of coping. The world can be a depressing place these days. I don’t think I’m depressed—though I did experience something akin to a midlife crisis recently—but the state of the world, and my opinion of it, necessarily filters into the work.

The earliest painting in the show is Coping; it depicts people trudging through muck in a town setting, which directly preceded a revelation I had in the studio that it was time to try painting interiors. That in turn led to the canvas that depicts me in a therapist’s office. But the epiphany about painting interior spaces was less about the subject matter than it was about my need to push myself formally. I frequently paint vague outdoor scenes, like Coping or The Fagend, in which the figures are placed in an artificial, tableaulike environment. If you take the figures out of The Fagend, it’s just a big bunch of abstract blocks with patterns on them. I liked that aspect and wanted to pursue it further. To do so, I debated taking the figures out of these canvases, but I couldn’t. I’m not ready—and don’t want—to make that jump.

In a way, I couldn’t do it because I don’t know how else to make paintings. What would I pull from? If the figures aren’t included, these constructed worlds seem entirely removed from reality and rather self-indulgent. You need the figure—or, rather, I need the figure. Not necessarily for narrative, as the work ends up being as much about feeling or atmosphere as a particular story. The atmosphere of this show is one of sadness. Sadness arises from particular circumstances, but it can move from the mind into the body, from something focused into something more general—a lethargy, that pit in your stomach. I hope there is a connection between the movement of an intense emotion as it infiltrates the body, becoming less legible if no less present, and the dissolving of the figures in my works into patches of abstraction. (Perhaps viewers will be able to tell I’ve been looking at Edvard Munch and the Impressionists lately.) This is particularly true of the thirty prints in the exhibition depicting people “crying,” where washes of ink run down and obscure their faces.

In a way, the whole show is a collection of faces. When visitors walk into the gallery, they encounter the thirty prints and then Brooklyn Biergarten II, a very busy scene—a painting of heads that are locked in space because their bodies lie on top of one another. Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life. There’s a whole genre of paintings, particularly French ones, of people eating and drinking, and the beer garden seems to be the equivalent, for certain residents of twenty-first-century Brooklyn, of the grand public promenades and social spaces of the nineteenth century. It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked-up place and about our culture’s obsession with happiness. The paintings in this show hopefully present something of a ballast to that obsession. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Roger Hiorns

British artist Roger Hiorns is known for deploying salt, industrial-strength disinfectants, and, most consistently, copper sulfate crystals in his sculptures. A solo exhibition of new work opens next week at Corvi-Mora in London. It is timed to coincide with Seizure, a new, large-scale installation commissioned by Artangel and presented at 151–189 Harper Road, London, September 3–November 2. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on August 28, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, installation view, London, 2008

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, installation view, London, 2008

We didn’t have any expectations for the site of Seizure when we began looking, and in fact we traversed every single borough of London in search of a suitable building to host the installation. It’s quite eye-opening to do that kind of research. At the time we were looking, the city was in the midst of its housing and property-development boom, which has now completely dissipated; London has become a different place quite quickly. What we eventually found was a very isolated, stand-alone, uninhabited small housing block from the 1970s. Its aspiration as a building has always been quite limited; it was mostly bedsits. In a way, I’m accentuating the last period of its use. The few buildings we found during our search were mostly social housing of this type, which are themselves another part of London’s history that is now being eclipsed. Interestingly, though, the building is right in the heart of the city; it’s in a pocket of isolation in the center of London, incredibly urban and yet very quiet.

Once we found the location, the production itself was conceptual: I wanted to introduce a material that was anathema to the building itself. Crystallization is always, for me, a kind of claiming—I say “claiming” because the process is so amplified here as to be a kind of obfuscation of the building. I’ve encouraged an alien aesthetic, one quite contrary to its vaguely modernist history (with its roots in Le Corbusier’s designs). The building has a certain sort of governing rationality; by introducing these crystals, I’ve introduced some irrationality. The process also allows me to remove myself from the equation; crystallization is an autogenesis, and its results are an auto-aesthetic. I get to become an objective viewer of my own processes, at least to the extent possible. It’s a psychological position to take, to try and obsolete myself within my own realm of activity.

To that end, it has been very interesting to observe the people with whom I’ve worked on this project. I’ve tried to understand the way they work and what their expectations are. Watching them meet this profound ambiguity—my detachment from my own artmaking process—has been fascinating. I don’t anticipate any artwork to be made. I just put structures into place, and something comes into existence. Will it actually happen? Will there be a failure because of contamination? I’m not going to be helpful and say what it’s going to look like. I prefer the massive loss of control.

The project itself has two phases. There is the site at present, with its crystallization taking place behind closed doors. It’s an unrelenting process, which has a certain purity, but not one I can predict. The second phase is to open the doors and tamper with that process—to fuck it up. People will enter into this crystallized environment—well, possibly crystallized, as we don’t know what kind of landscape will appear within the building—and their entry is part of its destruction. The viewer always has a role to play in my work.

How people will respond to the environment, how they will read it, is completely up to them. I don’t want to evoke a particular type of space; I don’t intend for this crystalline environment to seem spiritual or theatrical. I would probably call myself a kind of atheist in this respect: Processes are always for me a kind of compulsion, a psychological need, and not a spiritual yearning. I’m curious about one’s relationship to objects and to one’s own surroundings, rather than being interested in building superstitious links to the outside world. I’ve created an unnatural system to which one must respond; the thing is actually just the sum of its parts. That sum might lead toward something deemed transcendent, but that’s happening within you.

As told to Brian Sholis

Tacita Dean

Published on Artforum.com on August 12, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Much of Tacita Dean’s recent work in film has been portraiture, and her scrupulous attention has brought forth a range of engrossing characters, many of them older men. Poet and translator Michael Hamburger gave Dean a chatty tour of his apple orchard and storerooms in a film exhibited in London last year. In this exhibition, dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham is seated, and silent, in his nearly empty studio. Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33″ with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008, the unwieldy title of the installation, conveys everything and nothing about the films projected onto screens scattered throughout Dia:Beacon’s colonnaded lower level. In static, one-take shots, Cunningham, on Carlson’s cues, looks to his right, or straight ahead, or rests his chin on one hand to mark the three movements of his longtime partner’s infamous score. The simplicity and directness of the choreography, like that of the filmmaking, belie the affective power of the homage. Like the beatific quietude of artist Mario Merz in Dean’s sun-dappled 2002 film, Cunningham’s calmness makes him a repository for viewers’ assumptions; one can’t help but imagine the experiences and emotions compressed into his stony performance. The downward tug of melancholic sentiment, one of Dean’s trademarks, seems at odds with the principle of chance operations that guided Cage and Cunningham—and, for that matter, Bruce Nauman’s multichannel Cagean exercise that was on view until recently in this space. But the tension is remarkable.

Interview: Lawrence English

For over a decade, Lawrence English—a Brisbane, Australia–based musician, record-label owner, installation artist, and festival organizer—has served as a nodal point in the international network of experimental musicians and sound artists. His label, Room 40, has released more than fifty records by musicians from four continents, and he is increasingly busy as a record producer. Kiri No Oto, a new album of solo material that blends field and studio recordings, is available from Touch Music. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on August 9, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Lawrence English performing live

Lawrence English performing live

The idea for Kiri No Oto gestated for about three years and finally came together last winter on a train ride from Berlin to Krakow. While gazing out the window through the early-morning mist, I realized that if you look through fog, you must focus on either one element in the landscape or the landscape as a whole; you can bring into relief one object or none at all. The fog interferes, and in creating the record, I tried to translate that visual effect into sound. A listener can attempt to absorb the sound mass or decide to focus in an effort to better connect with a particular frequency spectrum or texture.

I tried to achieve this complexity through the use of harmonic distortion. There are two kinds: First, there are mathematical relationships within a harmonic system that one can look at and exploit, and then there is a simultaneously looser and more conceptual version, in which you create a series of harmonically related elements that move in and out of sync with one another. Both create different types of clouds, or sound masses, that, properly manipulated, can signify a particular kind of experience. The great challenge in making a recording and sending it out into the world is that each person who experiences it does so in a different way. In fact, I just played the record for a friend from Germany, who said, “I understand this music so well because you’re from Australia.” He “heard” the broad swaths of sky visible here; of course, I made the album, in part, while thinking about his country.

That’s one of the great things and one of the limitations about sound as art: It’s not as encoded, as broadly sociologically constructed, as are visual objects. With only little more than a century of recorded audio, sound artists and their audiences haven’t consolidated the codes and languages for relating the experience of it as fully as have visual artists. This is in some way analogous to the situation of sound art within the institutional landscape in Australia, where there has been only one exhibition that could be considered a sound-art show. (There is a heritage—albeit a relativity short one—of this type of exhibition in the United States and Europe.) Therefore, a lot of the activity here still takes place in private gallery and performance spaces and more informally within the arts communities.

Visual cues often play a role in my work, and one of the first catalysts for the development of this record was Kiri [Mist], a short 1971 film by Hagiwara Sakumi in which a gentle scrim of white mist slowly dissolves to reveal a mountain in the distance. A later visit to Oamaru, in New Zealand, consolidated the idea of masking and visual distortion as central to this album as a whole. While no one who listens to the record will necessarily think about Hagiwara’s film or about Oamaru (which manifests itself in the final track), the transcription of visual or embodied experience into the auditory realm is important. The record, itself a condensed version of my experience, opens out into the listener’s world and creates new experiences of its own.

In a way, I’ve replicated that process in the recent live shows in which I’ve performed this material. I use no visuals; the venue is almost entirely dark. But since I’m playing through quadraphonic and sometimes octophonic sound systems, I’m able to fill the space with sound, condense it down to one small object (the snare drum, which I use alongside an oscillator and a speaker), and then expand it once again.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Eleanor Antin

For nearly four decades, San Diego–based artist Eleanor Antin has provocatively engaged histories real and imagined through photographs, performances, films, videos, writings, and drawings. Since 2001, she has completed three series of allegorical photographs based on Roman life: “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Roman Allegories,” and “Helen’s Odyssey.” A survey that focuses on these works, titled “Historical Takes,” is on view through November 2 at the San Diego Museum of Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on July 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

All my life I have had a passion for ancient Greece, since reading Bulfinch’s Mythology as a kid. At the time I first read it, I wished that I could live in ancient Greece. But then, later, when I found out how badly they treated women, I kind of cheated and just shifted my allegiance to ancient Rome, where women had some rights and might even have lived interesting lives. One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad. There is always something autobiographical in my work, and when I made the connection between where I live now and my first love, I jumped on it.

“The Last Days of Pompeii” provokes an immediate response, since the story has entered the poetic imagination of Western culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to use contemporary people in my own Southern California and pass them off as more or less believable Romans. Stylistically, I used the image structures of nineteenth-century French and English salon painting, which had flattered colonial Europe by depicting it as the new Rome. “Roman Allegories,” which I did next, is, I think, less accessible—perhaps because allegory, despite its rich history in premodern art, is not part of contemporary culture. Only recently have artists become interested again in telling stories. (Allegory is, of course, related to representation, and for some time, representation was anathema to an art world that glorified abstraction.) Whereas my Pompeii depicted everyday Roman life, in this series, I highlighted theatricality and explored a number of commedia dell’arte archetypes and their shifting relationships to one another. I believe this series was more complex. I was going through a bad time in my life, so there’s a darkness that pervades the images that I think adds to their mystery. (In fact, a skeleton that I’ve kept in my studio for decades makes a few cocky appearances in some of the photographs.) These photographs work like a hall of mirrors. I like to think of them as defective narratives that can be made whole by looking deeper into them for layers of meaning, for more stories. “Helen’s Odyssey,” which I just completed last year, is a kind of amusing riff on the male epic. Helen is always vilified as a seductress and both admired for her beauty and feared for her power—yet however she’s interpreted, her place in our historical fantasy has always been legitimized, written, or painted by men. I wanted to humanize this woman, to find her beneath the covering of stories that obscures her to us.

Looking at all three series together, as I’m now able to do, I find even more connections between them —psychological, political, philosophical—than I had previously suspected. When I was working, I moved both intuitively and intellectually. But perhaps I couldn’t realize how deeply each series flowed into the next. Looking at the images now, I think, Wow! I didn’t waste the last eight years. This exhibition reveals that my three series constitute a complex single invention that was worth the effort after all.

The works themselves blend pathos and comedy, or comedy and tragedy. This may be due in part to the influence of my mother, who worked in Europe on the Yiddish stage—and we all know the Yiddish theatrical and literary tradition: “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.” Comedy and tragedy go together; I could never separate them. We’re on the edge of the abyss at every moment, and it doesn’t make sense for an art world to be entirely too committed to one mode of expression or the other. We live both all the time.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Robert Pogue Harrison

Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University, is a literary scholar and translator whose interests include the Italian lyric, Dante, Renaissance humanism, and phenomenology. The University of Chicago Press has just published Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on July 25, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Several years ago, when I was invited to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of gardens by contemporary artists, I had no intention to embark on a book on the garden. After writing a twenty- or twenty-five-page essay, though, I realized I had only scratched the surface of the topic; there was a rich cultural history waiting to be told. In a way, I could almost use the metaphor of the gardener going into the ground as a way to describe my own research. One thing I discovered is that gardens are the places where appearances draw attention to themselves as appearances. What appears in many gardens is put into relief in a way not dissimilar from how many artworks put into relief their own phenomenality. Gardens, like art, invite us to take the time to learn how to see them; they offer an education in ways of seeing.

In retrospect, I see that this book has enough in common with my two earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, to constitute a trilogy. All three can be seen as a sustained reflection on the humic foundations of culture. In the case of Forests, however, I had undertaken a more comprehensive history, moving through the epochs from ancient to contemporary. I wanted to avoid repeating that strategy with Gardens; I didn’t want this book to be a history, but more of a reflection or meditation—hence the subtitle. An essay evokes the sense of essaying, of trying to look at something thoughtfully but from a nonexhaustive point of view.

This created a number of problems about what to include and exclude. Since no one methodological principle seemed more justifiable than another, I felt free to wander. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know; I wasn’t just going over old ground. Two of the big heroes of the book were not well known to me before: Karel Capek and Epicurus. I lingered on Epicurus in chapter 7 because I found his philosophy has extraordinary relevance for our own times. I think our age is ripe for a creative rediscovery of Epicureanism.

In the book, I suggest that Epicurus’s garden was a place where human and social virtues, trampled on by the so-called real world, could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances. The arts can play a similar role today, I believe, especially when considered in light of the broad reduction of a three-dimensional world to two-dimensional forms, the impoverishment of the real through media technologies and new forms of virtuality. While certain forms of contemporary art make interesting use of those technologies, my belief is that one of the most important vocations of art in our age is to restore to reality its full-bodiedness. You can call this a rehumanization, a cultivation of the human in the midst of dark times.

The conversation of philosophy, or exchange of ideas, idealized or exalted by Plato, Epicurus, and others, remains, for me, one of the richest sources of human happiness. Writing—and criticism—can be understood as a prelude or preamble to the conviviality of that conversation. The fact that so much of it took place in gardens is not by chance. Conversation, philosophy, friendship, conviviality, serenity of mind—these are virtues that call for a sustained, almost daily cultivation of the self and its community. The garden for me is also a figure for this kind of cultivation—of taking into one’s care something that is not one’s self and being responsible for others and for the earth. The gardener does this in a way that is symbolic for many other human activities.

Gardening, like art, can counter the frenzy of our age, which is characterized by an aggravated consumerism that entails as its necessary correlate endless production and endless productivity. The daily turbulence that today’s capitalist economy requires militates against the sanctuaries of repose that I discuss throughout the book, of which gardens are typically a figure. My last chapter is titled “The Paradox of the Age.” The paradox is that, while the system is in a complete frenzy, what seems to be driving it is a desire to re-create a passive Edenic condition in which all the fruits of the earth will be provided for without care, labor, or pain—as if we could be consumer enjoyers of endless bounty. But the stories and myths that have come down to us through the ages, and which I treat in my book, tell us that the true source of human happiness is not consumption but cultivation, is not passive gratification but the assumption of active responsibility. That is why it’s all the more important to revisit the myth of Eden and to relearn its lesson, which I take to be the lesson of care. In my reading, the Eden story tells us that we needed to get out of that sterile, deathless environment in order to realize our human potential as mothers, fathers, husbandmen, statesmen, artists, friends, and caretakers of the earth.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Joan Jonas

As part of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and titled “Revolutions—Forms that Turn,” artist Joan Jonas will present Reading Dante, 2008. A performance will take place at 11 AM and 6 PM on June 22 at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 21, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve known about Dante’s Divine Comedy for what seems like all my life, but I never read it before last summer. A few years ago, an artist described to me Dante’s own life, and it made me think about how fascinating it might be to work with his magnificent text. I began with the Inferno last summer, which I eventually read three times. The Paradiso, which is more difficult, I’ve read once. Fragments from both are incorporated into this performance and installation.

In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them. The portions of the Inferno I’m particularly attracted to are the most abstract, or philosophical; I quote a fraction of the text and have been helped greatly by a wonderful book, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses. I think Hilda Doolittle, who wrote the poem “Helen in Egypt” (which I’ve also used recently), thought similarly, although she incorporated much more quotidian experience. The everyday is how I relate to these broader issues; I try to translate these visions according to my vantage point on the present moment. The medieval era of Dante and the first half of the twentieth century of Warburg were both periods of extraordinary change, and I think the same can be said of today.

Reading Dante is composed of footage shot in four locations, although two are intercut so there are three “scenes.” One of the sites is in Canada, where I go in the summer. There, in a wooded setting, I perform as different characters, and I work with children. Another location is New York. I redeploy nighttime footage shot in the 1970s in the city streets with Pat Steir. We had a cameraman, and we improvised with my long metal cones and a hoop. A strange man joined us, and you can see him, too. This footage in particular, with steam billowing from pipes, steps everywhere, and dark vistas up canyonlike avenues, seems appropriate to the Inferno. The third location, a kind of circular modernist ruin surrounding a lava field, is in Mexico City, near the university. The artist Carlos Amorales told me about the location, and I filmed his wife, Galia, performing there. This footage is intercut with a shadow play I conducted in a church during a workshop in Italy. Obviously I’m translating Dante into my own eccentric, very personal visual language; I’m not attempting to illustrate the text.

Earlier this spring in London, I presented a related piece titled Infernal Paradise; for this, I played the footage I just described across five screens, while a monitor displayed video documentation of a reading at Orchard, in New York, for which I asked friends, including children, to recite portions of Dante’s text. It was a way of invoking Dante’s vernacular in the forms of the everyday speech I hear daily in New York. I’ve made a new edit for Sydney, and there will only be two screens. Also, I learned from a workshop in Barcelona last autumn that I should not say the words themselves during the performance, so I’ve recorded my voice. In my yearlong preparation for the Sydney performance, most of my time has been spent thinking about such questions of form and structure and how they relate to this amazing content.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: William Cordova

Earlier this year, William Cordova, whose artwork frequently references human rights struggles, organized two exhibitions for Ingalls & Associates in Miami. One, titled “Casa de Carton,” features an intergenerational range of contemporary artists, and the other, “Up Against the Wall,” the photographs of journalist Ilka Hartmann. Both exhibitions will open at Branch Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, June 20. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 18, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Two years ago, while doing research into commonalities across various radical groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I gradually realized that many of the documentary photographs I was encountering were taken by one woman: Ilka Hartmann. She was one of very few photographers who had covered such a range of activist groups—anti–Vietnam War protestors, Black Panther members, migrant workers—and she began doing so long before it was a common practice. When I discovered that she lived only an hour’s drive away from another place at which I would be an artist in residence, I resolved to meet her.

She was incredibly generous with her knowledge about that time period and offered background information on a large portion of her archive; from her, I learned about photographers like Ducho Dennis (of the Black Panther Party) and Hiram Maristany (of the Young Lords). This information is important to the exhibition; I’ve made sure to include materials that explain how her photographs were initially used and other contextualizing ephemera. Doing so hopefully slows down the way the visual information—her pictures, in this case—is disseminated, and how quickly and carelessly such images can be consumed in the fine-art world. I don’t want her images to become the bastard children of a generation or of a movement; it is important they do not become T-shirt-ready, like a photograph of Che Guevara.

Having earlier done an installation in a storefront in Durham, I was somewhat familiar with the city’s past and knew of a number of radical organizations in North Carolina, including the Lumbee tribe, which is still seeking full recognition from the US government, and a Black Panther branch in Winston-Salem. As with the presentation in Miami, I hope that visitors will connect the photographs—and, for that matter, the works in “Casa de Carton”—to the social history of the environment around them. In the past forty years, Durham has seen some extreme social conditions; once the “Black Wall Street,” it has since fallen on harder times. Even if such changes aren’t addressed by the mainstream media, they remain present in the daily lives of those who reside there. Presenting Hartmann’s photographs is an attempt to reactivate acknowledgment of these facts, to make visible aspects of the landscape that are invisible.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Brian O’Doherty

On May 20, after thirty-six years of presenting his art under the name Patrick Ireland, the Irish artist Brian O’Doherty reclaimed his birth name with the symbolic burial of his alter ego in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on May 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

When the British shot down thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in the city of Derry in January 1972, I was in New York. I thought, What the hell can I do? I decided that if I changed my name to Patrick Ireland and signed my works by that name alone, it would be a provocation, a statement. Every time I exhibited, it would give me an opportunity to tell people why I had taken the name. It was a gesture of solidarity with the nationalist side in the low-grade civil war that was then beginning in Northern Ireland. When young boys, especially young country boys from Ireland, went to work in Britain, they were called Paddies, which is half affectionate and half contemptuous. I decided to make it a name of dignity and substance.

The name was not universally cheered; the most vigorous criticism came from those in Ireland itself, charging me with presumptuousness. The endeavor was certainly an expatriate’s gesture. Nonetheless, in my Name Change performance in Dublin that year, I said I would sign my work by that name until the British military left Northern Ireland and all citizens were granted their civil rights. When that happened, it would mark the end of Patrick Ireland, the end of what could be called my political gesture of no great political sophistication. Not long after Name Change, Lee Krasner said to me, “You will never get your name back.” But with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, I began to hope I might reclaim my birth name. Now that the “evolution,” as they call it, has taken place, and both Sinn Fein and the IRA are represented in Parliament, I am astonished to be able to lay the name Patrick Ireland to rest.

The initial Name Change performance had a limited number of viewers, because all of them had to sign as witnesses. By contrast, the burial of Patrick Ireland was relatively open, insofar as the death mask created by artist Charlie Simmonds, encased in its own coffin, was exhibited in one of the museum’s galleries for two days next to documentation of the earlier performance. The coffin, carried by six young artists, was taken in a procession to a beautiful grave site overlooking a formal garden on the north side of the museum, where Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum and a former minister, performed a brief secular ceremony. Five poems chosen or written specifically for the occasion were recited in their original languages—English, French, German, Spanish, Irish—and the artist Alannah O’Kelly performed the traditional keening, an Irish cry of grief. Her performance was nearly frightening, very primal. At that point, I tossed a spadeful of clay into the grave, unveiled the groundstone that will permanently mark the location, and tossed in the stocking mask I first wore in the 1972 performance. Joyous music broke forth, and we had a feast.

I’ll miss Patrick in some ways. I got very used to him. If you take the notion of naming seriously, as I do, a change like this sends a shudder through your core; subtle, perhaps attitudinal, but nonetheless visceral shifts take place. Nonetheless, I give up the name joyfully. I’m delighted that Brian O’Doherty is reborn after thirty-six years.

As told to Brian Sholis

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?”

Published on Artforum.com on May 23, 2008.

For the 2006 Whitney Biennial, artist Urs Fischer knocked large holes in two gallery walls; last year, he tore through the floor and dug deep into the earth beneath Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. The latter seemed an endgame gesture in this brief trajectory, but here he has raised the stakes by punching through the normally invisible wall sealing off a venue’s past from its present. (Michael Asher’s recent installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is another example of this potentially fruitful trend.) The Swiss artist commissioned the photographer Ellen Page Wilson to document Tony Shafrazi’s previous group show—artworks, walls, air ducts, security guards—then created seamless, to-scale trompe l’oeil wallpaper from the images. This evidential trace of the gallery’s last exhibition is now the ground against which nearly two dozen artworks, selected by Fischer and Brown and which at some point were in Shafrazi’s inventory, cagily rest.

Installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

Installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

Walking through the show is an uncanny delight: Like an autofocus lens unable to locate its subject, one’s mind and eyes strive to unscramble the artworks actually present from those that are verisimilar copies. A 1943 portrait by Francis Picabia is centered on the image of a Donald Baechler painting of a dandy and some beach balls; on an adjacent wall, Malcolm Morley’s Age of Catastrophe, 1976, a large painting, seems planted in the middle of an even larger Keith Haring. Richard Prince’s photograph Spiritual America, 1983, and Sue Williams’s painting Dessert, 1990, each partially obscure the image of a Basquiat canvas. Matters are further complicated. The Lawrence Weiner wall text and the wallpaper Basquiat beneath it seem to keep switching places. Lily van der Stokker’s two brightly colored wall paintings squeeze into the interstitial space between the wallpaper and the other artworks, in the process acquiring a conceptual grounding that belies their whimsy.

While the included artworks, in a white cube, would make for an odd group show, in this bizarro world harmonies arise. (Who would’ve thought a large late-1970s sculpture by Robert Morris, with its ungainly pipes and warped planes of plastic, mirror, and copper, was redeemable for today’s tastes?) A surge of affinities chastens typical attempts at neat categorization; nothing stays in its place. As one pads across Rudolf Stingel’s carpet installation, the rush of Rob Pruitt’s corny homemade waterfall tickles the ears like so much chatter between these clashing artworks. The recognition dawns that Fischer and Brown have concocted a surprisingly subtle meditation on the many lives of artworks, and its presentation in a secondary-market gallery owned by a man once arrested for defiling Picasso’s Guernica—as depicted on the exhibition’s announcement poster—raises similar questions about the many lives of those of us who engage with them. That such canny, simple gestures seem so refreshing is a gentle rebuke to the ossified conventions to which we all unthinkingly subscribe.

Daan van Golden

Published on Artforum.com on March 31, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Art historian Svetlana Alpers’s observation about golden-age painters, that “it is hard to trace stylistic development, as we are trained to call it, in the work of Dutch artists,” applies to reclusive septuagenarian artist Daan van Golden. This exhibition, his first US solo presentation despite his being greatly esteemed in Europe, surveys canvases made in the last fifteen years but is representative of an extremely focused practice that has lasted over four decades. In 1963, while in Japan, the artist abandoned Abstract Expressionist painting in favor of the meticulous rendition of patterns found in the world, such as on textiles or wrapping paper. Like his late-seventeenth-century forebears, his worshipful fidelity to observed reality admits little mechanical innovation. But the spoils he translates to canvas have expanded to include other artworks, a decision that adds a complex metaphysical dimension to his single-color silhouettes crisply outlined against white grounds. The paintings, tantalizingly aloof, hover between acknowledged artistic strategies. They are committed to neither Pop art nor appropriation nor Conceptual art, but rather only to mirroring fragments of the world.

Daan van Golden, installation view, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008.

Daan van Golden, installation view, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008.

One must calibrate minute variations across multiple works, and this elegantly installed show, organized by Anne Pontégnie, generously facilitates that process. On a long wall opposite the gallery’s entrance, four cadmium-red-on-white depictions of a berries-and-leaves pattern vary not only in size but also in perspectival distance, such that the images range from an allover field emphasizing the pattern’s repetition to a zoomed-in, nearly abstract accretion of organic shapes. Like rotating the lenses on a microscope, glancing from work to work discloses new information about van Golden’s source material. In a side room, Study H. M., 2004, isolates a bird from a canvas by Henri Matisse. On returning to the gallery’s main room, one is immediately confronted by the same image on a negligibly larger canvas, this time a white silhouette isolated against baby blue. (The artist allows himself to paint up to four iterations of the exact same painting, further complicating the already blurry distinction between real and copy hinted at here.) Other works depict a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti and details of Jackson Pollock paintings, and two photographs hint at a parallel practice that has commanded van Golden’s attention equally, sometimes to the exclusion of his superb, already unhurried painting output.

“Shaker Design: Out of This World”

Published on Artforum.com on March 24, 2008.

It is important to keep in mind that there is nothing purely decorative about the furniture, gift drawings, and retail products in this large survey of Shaker design at Bard College’s New York outpost for studies in the decorative arts, design, and culture. The objects created for use within Shaker communities, which at one point numbered nineteen and ranged from Maine to Kentucky, hew to the precepts of their religious devotion, in particular the aspiration to honesty, utility, and order. Those items created for “the World’s people,” the denomination’s catch-all term for anyone outside its communities, betray a savvy knowledge of what would possess commercial appeal. This latter point is particularly important to the exhibition’s organizer, Jean M. Burks, who aims to highlight links between members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing and wider American society, countering stereotypical notions of the Shakers as intentionally and thoroughly segregated.

Among the exemplary furniture presented in a ground-floor gallery are an enormous cherry-and-pine double trustees’ desk (used by family members responsible for dealings with the World) and a slender, comparatively small trestle table. Like classical civilizations, which come to mind now largely tethered to images of white marble artifacts, the Shaker world was not the stripped-down domain we imagine, but rather a polychrome environment. To that end, the gallery floor is painted yellow, a color common in Shaker rooms, and a few pieces bear other original hues. A second-floor gallery hosts a number of gift drawings, manifestations of divine revelation (often in the form of communications from past generations) that encompass decorative patterns; calligraphic text; and assemblies of doves of peace, trees, clocks, fruit, and musical instruments. (New Yorkers more familiar with modern art than nineteenth-century religious artifacts might recall the Drawing Center’s 2005 exhibition “3 x Abstraction.”) Although the exhibition does not present Hannah Cohoon’s Tree of Life, 1854, perhaps the movement’s most iconic image, it does include her A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples for the Ministry, 1846, a touching ink-and-watercolor drawing of fourteen apples arranged within the schematic outline of a basket. Another room teems with commercial products, from toothache pellets and sachets of cabbage seeds to “screwballs” (table-clamped pincushions) and oval-shaped boxes. For context, the exhibition presents early-nineteenth-century American Fancy furniture and objects, which the Shakers rejected because of their ornate designs, and examples of modern Scandinavian furniture and contemporary designs (by Roy McMakin and Antonio Citterio, among others) inspired by Shaker objects. A full slate of public programs further ensures that this exhibition is the most important New York presentation of Shaker design since the Whitney Museum’s 1986 survey.

Steve McQueen

Published on Artforum.con on October 22, 2007.

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend, 2007, which premiered at this year’s Venice Biennale and is currently on view at the Renaissance Society, charts a return of the repressed: Capitalist economies may have moved into an “information age,” but this seventeen-minute 35-mm film proves that their machinations still make demands on the earth and on the laborers who work it. Gravesend lyrically (if abstractly) shows that, whereas nineteenth-century colonial powers sought diamonds and other traditional resources, our current appetite is for coltan, a dull black mineral used in capacitors, which are vital components in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronics. What is to be inferred from the gorgeously composed, monumentally scaled high-definition projection is that greed for this material has contributed to the political instability and the military occupation of the Congo, an area that has seen uninterrupted conflict since well before its 1960 liberation from Belgian rule. Juxtaposing an animated fly-by of the Congo River with footage of workers sifting through dark earth and robots processing the procured material in a pristine, brightly lit laboratory, the film’s disjunctions allegorize the very real economic, social, and physical distance this material traverses as it moves from the third to the first world. Its final sequence, a time-lapse shot of a sun setting behind smokestacks, brings everything full circle, rendering visual a scene described at the outset of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unexploded, 2007, shown on a nearby monitor, is a minute-long film documenting the damage wrought by an unexploded bomb that fell on a building in Basra, Iraq. It unexpectedly calls to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, 1975, which makes the viewer squeamish about drawing aesthetic connections in the face of real-world violence.

McQueen has two concurrent exhibitions in London. At the Imperial War Museum is Queen and Country, 2007, his much-discussed and critically acclaimed response to the war in Iraq. Commissioned by the museum and the Manchester International Festival, the work’s simple sculptural form—a cabinet with sliding drawers that contain mock-ups of stamp sheets bearing images, overlaid with a silhouette of the queen’s profile, of each British soldier who has died in the conflict and whose family agreed to participate—achieves the potent sobriety of other recent war memorials without lapsing into the abstraction that has marked most of them since the unveiling of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. The installation also contains a large painting by John Singer Sargent that dramatizes the distance between soldiers’ sacrifice and the barely interrupted nature of citizen life, a disconnect that has grown only wider in the ninety years since the canvas was painted.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

At Thomas Dane Gallery, McQueen presents a new 16-mm film, Running Thunder, 2007. A horse with a somewhat distended belly lies on its side, its glassy, lifeless black eye pointed directly at the camera lens. It is an image of such transfixing stillness that only the point at which the film loops, returning to the scene the sunlight that has imperceptibly faded over the course of ten minutes, reminds one that time has not paused on the animal’s behalf. The fallen beast calls to mind the beatific donkey in Robert Bresson’s classic film Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and the quintessentially British canvases of late-eighteenth-century painter George Stubbs. Seen in the context of Unexploded and Queen and Country, one can’t help but think of this fallen beast as a foil to the heroism the animal’s presence in art frequently implies. McQueen’s seductive yet unflinching examinations of the complex, often contradictory impulses of our present moment are nearly unmatched and to be both savored and contemplated.

Shirana Shahbazi

Published on Artforum.com, September 27, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

This exhibition is the largest US presentation of Zurich-based Iranian artist Shirana Shahbazi’s photographs to date. It is an assembly of archetypes, offering still lifes, portraits, and landscapes rendered with a formal clarity that corresponds to received notions of Swiss precision or bracingly crisp Alpine air. The photographs, taken together, evoke the lyricism that suffuses Roe Ethridge’s landscape pictures and the variations-on-a-theme investigative depth associated with Christopher Williams. Whereas the cases made for the conceptual underpinnings of those two artists’ work are, respectively, plausible and sturdy, it can be frustrating to try teasing meaning from Shahbazi’s constellation of images. One wishes that the relationships between photographic archetypes, printing techniques, and the subjects’ geographic origins were more clearly articulated. (One vanitas wall painting, executed by an anonymous team of Iranian artists after a photograph by Shahbazi, seems not only out of place but also late to the game: Francis Alÿs, among others, has handed off work to local artisans to greater effect.) But what images: Black-and-white prints of butterflies; a fully abstract gradation, from pink to white, soft as cotton candy; an orange-pink orchid set against an azure backdrop; a flat Texas landscape where the depth of field stretches seemingly to the horizon: Like diamonds, each offers a glittering specificity. In years past, her photographs were both smaller and framed; Shahbazi is one of few artists whose work benefits from the increased scale to which success has allowed her access, as this ravishing if imperfect exhibition indicates.

Diary Entry: Roni Horn

Published as “Bottled Water” on Artforum.com on May 14, 2007.

STYKKISHÖLMUR, ICELAND—Certain artists and writers mark a location with an indelible stamp. Venice, for example, is often filtered through the eyes of Turner, Mann, Ruskin, and the poet Joseph Brodsky. After a two-day journey to Iceland to catch the opening of “My Oz,” Roni Horn’s survey exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum, and a site-specific project by the artist in Stykkishólmur commissioned by Artangel, no image of the country will form in my mind without an accompanying picture of Horn’s art. The reverse is true, too. Indeed, much of Horn’s work discloses itself in the context of this variegated, severe landscape.

Horn has been visiting the island since the ’70s, and barely five minutes after my Friday-morning arrival in Reykjavík, I learned that my hotel was where she photographed Dead Owl, 1997, her well-known diptych of snow-white birds; bizarrely, the building is a veritable zoo for taxidermic animals. After a tour of town, I joined the artist’s sister Ona Lindquist, collector and MoMA board member Kathy Fuld, Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot, and curators James Rondeau, Donna De Salvo, Frances Morris, and Linda Norden on a chartered ferry to Videy Island, a mile or so out into the placid Faxaflói Bay. We wandered the uninhabited rock searching for Afangar, an easy-to-miss, “very De Maria” (by consensus) Richard Serra sculpture, comprising pairs of basalt columns driven into the hills so that their tops are a uniform height above sea level.

That evening, we admired the museum’s tightly curated, exactingly installed overview of Horn’s oeuvre. A new, two-part sculpture made up of large, physically improbable amber glass blocks anchored two adjacent rooms on the first floor; opaque from the side, transparent from above, the bottoms of their interiors are miniature topographies. Upstairs, a new series of restrained but striking portraits of a single woman formed a staccato horizon line around the walls of another gallery. Dinner—with artist Tacita Dean and her irrepressible son, Rufus; Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson; Payot; and a little over one hundred other of Horn’s friends and collaborators—was held on a catamaran that made another loop around the bay. It was still daylight after the meal, and those revelers not suffering jet lag barhopped until an hour traditionally reserved for breakfast.

The landscape’s otherworldliness wasn’t impressed on us until the next morning, when the group clambered aboard three buses headed north to the Library of Water. The green adorning the steep mountain faces and reflected in the silvery sea disappeared gradually, only to be replaced by lumpy black lava fields and patches of snow. We stopped at a hotel near a location used by Jules Verne in Journey to the Center of the Earth and decamped for lunch and short hikes. At the meal, Artangel codirector James Lingwood offered some brief, sincere remarks, describing his joy at first coming across Horn’s photo books (one included images of a glacier visible from the hotel) and, paraphrasing Keats’s epitaph, suggesting that Horn is an artist whose name is “writ in water.”

The Library of Water is situated at the highest point in Stykkishólmur, a village of twelve hundred, and looks out over the sea in two directions. Between last August and earlier this year, Horn and her collaborators extracted ice from twenty-four glaciers around Iceland, storing the results in liquid form inside glass columns scattered through the building. Preserving these disappearing glaciers (yet paradoxically not in their natural state) is a deliberate—and deliberately provocative—act. Other collaborators recorded locals’ weather testimonials, words from which are embedded—in Icelandic and in English—in the rubber floor. (They are also collected in a book and on a website.) An apartment was also built into the design for a writer in residence. Artangel secured a twenty-five-year lease, and the entire building is to be given over to the community. (The work’s optical effect mirrors its social intent: The surrounding landscape is drawn into the building, captured by each transparent totem.) “My authorship is done,” Horn said, with characteristic directness.

On Saturday night, to a subdued crowd of sock-footed guests, inaugural writer in residence Gudrún Eva Minervudóttir read from her newest novel. Horn followed with a fifteen-minute excerpt from her text Saying Water, its repetitions achieving an incantatory grace. In Horn’s cosmology, landscape is weather is a face is water is words. Each is but a sounding board for the measure of experience. William James, chafing at language’s inability to convey experience, once wrote, “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, a feeling of cold.” His adjectives are apt, and Horn aims for similar flexibility in her work, to better record our encounters with the land and one another.

We broke for dinner at a nearby restaurant that has the kind of rustic charm one pays for through the nose in New York, then returned for a performance by the singer-songwriter Ólöf Arnalds, who recently joined the Icelandic indie-electronica band Múm. She sang Irish folk songs, country standards, and her own compositions, while playing her charango, an eight-string guitar whose body is made from an armadillo’s shell. The Icelandic lyrics’ incomprehensibility didn’t make the performance any less moving. Thousands of miles from the capital cities most of us call home, with the sun dropping into the ocean behind us, one couldn’t help but marvel at how Horn has created a space for scrutinizing the relationship between viewer and view, between feeling and fact.

Liz Deschenes

Published on Artforum.com on April 16, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

In contrast to the haphazard chic that characterizes neighboring art spaces and boutiques, nearly everything about this one-year-old Lower East Side gallery is rigorously composed, from its visual identity to its intriguing program of contemporary and historical exhibitions, avant-garde film screenings, and lectures on urban issues. This exhibition—Liz Deschenes’s first big New York outing since a delightful, restrained three-person show at Andrew Kreps in 2003—dovetails with the downtown venue’s consistent presentation of (for lack of a better term) brainy formalism.

For several years, Deschenes has teased apart the photographic process in compelling ways, mixing and matching its steps in an attempt to explain the camera’s magic without diminishing it and to remind viewers of the viral proliferation of screens in contemporary life. Here, seven new large-scale prints exploit the differences between the mechanical lens and the human eye, deploying moiré patterns to understated yet visually entrancing effect. (An earlier diptych, also included, illustrates an aspect of the dye-transfer process.) To create the works, Deschenes places perforated paper against a window and captures its image on an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white negative, then duplicates the negative and superimposes two copies in an enlarger; a slight but deliberate misalignment creates the disorienting allover patterns that result. No two are alike; no system governs the misregistration. Deschenes has likewise printed the images in color, which adds subtle washes—typically of blue and green—that seem like the hallucinatory side effects of looking too hard. One can feel one’s eyes striving to accommodate these (nonreferential) images, to ascertain what is figure and what is ground as the fields of white dots blur and snap into focus. Apprehending their detail is a physical, temporally expansive, rewarding event.

Scott Short

Published on Artforum.com on February 8, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Scott Short, installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2007.

Scott Short, installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2007.

Like a concept album or a marvel of structural engineering, this exhibition is greater than the sum of its parts; each canvas ineluctably reinforces all of the others. Elegantly installed in the Renaissance Society’s double-height galleries, it comprises a decade’s output by painter Scott Short, who has spent the majority of this time doggedly fleshing out a single, restrictive concept. The artist makes successive black-and-white photocopies of unmarked sheets of colored construction paper, until the final image—removed from the original by hundreds of generations and chosen for its visual properties—is an abstract field of marks. This image is then projected onto canvas and meticulously copied in oil paint. Some will feel impatient simply reading that description. But taken whole, this extreme constraint provides relative bounty: Spatters are arranged in divergent compositions—black on white or white on black, depending on their density and one’s inclination—and buttressed by the paradoxical dualities embedded in the artist’s process. The paintings are both abstract and pedantically representational; are made mechanically and, painstakingly, by hand; are black-and-white but generate cognitive friction with titles like Untitled (yellow) and Untitled (red). A few earlier “portraits” are thick, swirling scrawls of black paint that blot out any attempt at identification. To arrive at his working process, a frozen inversion of Abstract Expressionism’s messy heat, Short has likewise obliterated the traditional habits of a “painterly” practice. That these canvases still work precisely as paintings is evidence of the fundamental stability of his method.

Melanie Schiff

Published on Artforum.com on January 4, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Since her solo debut at this gallery, photographer Melanie Schiff has moved out of the studio and into the world, trading fussily arranged, evenly lit still lifes for more casual, serendipitous compositions of everyday objects. These photos are hymns to natural light, and the presence of rainbows, beer cans, and a Neil Young LP cover tempts one to characterize her gaze as a stoner’s glassy-eyed fixation. In Emergency, 2006, the sun, modulated by a porch screen, is a marble-size fireball resting atop a bottle of Jack Daniels. In another photograph, a single beam slices through a compact-disc jewel case, splitting into faint prisms that descend upon dull gray carpet. A third shows a green beer bottle balanced at the tip of a canoe, lit from within by two crisscrossed glow sticks; their angle continues the lines made by the edges of the thin-metal boat and is also found in the X composed of two arrows jutting from disused beer cans in a nearby picture. With sixteen photos and one unexpected (if not unwelcome) foray into video, the exhibition is a tad overhung, but even the oddball images—of the artist making Spit Rainbow, 2006, next to a backyard lemon tree, or a tapestry of drug bags plastered to a cracked window—add to the show’s drowsy-afternoon allure.

Yang Fudong

Published on Artforum.com on September 14, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Those who have seen this Chinese artist’s earlier films will find familiar imagery scattered throughout No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006: a freeze-frame tableau in which seven young men and women, dressed in a haberdasher’s finest, look outward from a rocky outcrop; boats slowly drifting across placid waters; lush, unpopulated landscapes dominated by mountains. This eleven-minute black-and-white work, which premiered last spring at Parasol Unit in London, is Fudong’s inaugural foray into multichannel presentation. A viewer’s slightly antic attempt to take in images from eight screens, here hung in a seamless semicircle, marginally diminishes the arrested-moment quality that characterizes all his films—it’s plain he trained as a painter—but Fudong aids the viewer by occasionally letting objects slide from one screen to the next or by nestling similar images side by side (ants threading through rivulets of bark; men hiking a narrow path up a hill). Like all of Fudong’s work, the narrative is loosely structured, favoring centripetal forces over linear paths. Here, glamorous young men and women are slowly pulled together as, alone or in pairs and quartets, they wend their way toward the eponymous bridge to catch a last glimpse of winter snow; the rabbits, parrots, and stubborn goats on leashes that accompany them hint at the dandyish excess of a bygone era. Some women make their way, in heels, along flat boulders set in a babbling brook; others wear suits and painted mustaches. A man in a trilby puffs contemplatively on a pipe while being conveyed across open water. Not much of significance transpires, but in a film this beautiful, this suffused with atmosphere, not much needs to.

“On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag”

Published on Artforum.com on June 21, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Susan Sontag, relentlessly curious, roamed widely across the cultural landscape, the specificity of her writing compensating for her occasional lack of specialist knowledge. This jewel-box exhibition, which draws its title from her thin, seminal book first published in 1977, acknowledges her contribution to our understanding of photography by pairing quotes drawn from her essays with clumps of photographs exhumed from the Metropolitan’s far-reaching collection. Encompassing portraits, street scenes, war photography, political propaganda, and travel snapshots, the pictures on view—spanning 150 years—interlace anonymous works with canonical images while maintaining an intimate sense of scale. Curator Mia Fineman serves both image and text well by leaving loose the connections between them—allusion should always supersede didacticism—and, in doing so, refreshes our understanding of both. (Those turned off by the playfulness of “AngloMania,” on view elsewhere in the museum, should appreciate this exhibition’s gentler revisions.) Peter Hujar’s cool 1975 portrait of Sontag, which catches her in thoughtful repose, greets the visitor at the entrance; forty-odd pictures later, Annie Liebovitz gives us Sontag as a shadowy, faraway figure, dwarfed by the walls of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. It’s a bit of a trick, but it works, and one leaves this exhibition hoping that Sontag’s words won’t likewise slip into the distance.

Mary Weatherford

Published on Artforum.com on June 19, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

The three midsize canvases in this Los Angeles–based artist’s exhibition, each a slightly different view of the same rocky outcrop, would be of little interest were they not so well executed; instead, they argue convincingly for the value of painting directly from life. Each skillfully fuses two currently unfashionable artistic traditions: Look at them from a few feet away, and the compositions are reminiscent of the kind of by-the-sea plein air painting that Courbet and Monet practiced in Normandy circa 1870; zoom in on almost any part of a canvas, and your field of vision is filled with a harmonious, semiabstract chromatic reverie that evokes early-twentieth-century practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic, from Sonia Delaunay and Franz Marc to Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella. Rendered in flashe, a vinyl-based paint that doesn’t lose the intensity of its color when diluted with water (as Weatherford has done here), these works register changes in sunlight upon the rock formation by altering the composition’s dominant hue: apparition, 2006, is reddish pink; after Hodler, 2006, is reddish orange; shadow, 2005, is bluish green. These colors have been applied with diaphanous, mostly vertical, soft-edged brushstrokes, and the shimmering effect grants the hulking mass dreamlike airiness and grace.

Sze Tsung Leong

Published on Artforum.com on April 12, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong’s gorgeous, abundantly detailed, medium- to large-size photographs of Chinese cities undergoing cataclysmic change fuse Edward Burtynsky’s synoptic aerial views, Elger Esser’s blanched palette, and the patient attentiveness evident in underappreciated Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s mid-’80s “Architectural Apocalypse” photographs. The works included here, from “History Images,” an ongoing series begun four years ago (and exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2004), were taken in Beijing and Pingyao, Xinjiekou and Xiamen, yet each tells roughly the same story, in which a rush to transform society—whether during the mid-century socialist revolution or more recent capitalist expansion—inevitably and irrevocably transforms the landscape. Low-slung, tile-roofed, imperial-era houses give way to drab, mid-rise, concrete apartment blocks, which are in turn supplanted by more-or-less shiny skyscrapers bearing corporate logos—sometimes all in the same picture. The nostalgic tint of the series title, which evinces a preservationist documentary impulse, is offset by Leong’s eminently rational compositions, in which new structures encircle old, or radiate outward symmetrically like a Rorschach blot. Two pictures in a second room lift the veil shrouding this hyperdevelopment: One depicts a construction site, curiously devoid of the machinery necessary to erect a tall building, in which workers stand in holes dug for concrete pylons; another shows horses, certainly anachronistic workers in an urban environment, carting trash bags on rickety wooden carts. Their inclusion adds an important counterpoint to the exhibition’s deceptively seductive force, reminding us that individual lives play out both in the crumbling shacks and behind the steel-and-glass façades.

John Stezaker

Published on Artforum.com on February 8, 2006. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

John Stezaker, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005

John Stezaker, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005

One could easily recommend any of the small, sharply focused exhibitions now on view at White Columns; my favorite is John Stezaker’s show in one of the gallery’s “White Rooms.” Despite a thirty-five year exhibition history in London, where he lives and works, this is the artist’s New York solo debut. It features only eleven diminutive, near-seamless collages, yet reveals Stezaker’s wit and acuity; his “image fascination,” to use his preferred term, comes across as a preternatural ability to divine visual concordances across disparate source material. The “Film Portraits” on view appropriate hand-tinted headshots of mid-century silver screen luminaries, juxtaposing two smooth-skinned faces to create a perfectly formed hybrid. The best of these, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005, uses an off-center female-silhouette-shaped cutout to reveal the male half of a male-female composite, triangulating the implied relationship by introducing a third “character.” (The length of this description misrepresents the pleasingly intuitive economy of the artist’s gesture.) Three “Incisions,” each of which is marked by a V-shaped cut that stretches vertically across almost the entire work, are methodologically similar, but use elements—the shadow made by a crouching boy, a low-lying building in the distance—drawn from more varied sources to stitch together the image torn asunder by the cut. Many younger artists, from Angus Fairhurst to Christian Holstad, have adopted Stezaker’s technique, but they rarely achieve the balance of whimsy and fastidiousness that these works so casually display.

Harry Callahan

Published on Artforum.com on December 14, 2005. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Had Richard Prince organized this show, he would’ve called it “Twenty Women Looking in Every Direction.” But Harry Callahan, an acclaimed though under-exhibited photographer perhaps best known for loving, often experimental portraits of his wife Eleanor, was out on the streets of Chicago in 1950, and this series, titled “Women Lost in Thought,” presages Garry Winogrand’s sidewalk snaps as much as it does Prince’s postmodern Conceptualism. To take these extreme close-ups of women out for a stroll, Callahan had to push the technological limits of his equipment (choosing a too-high shutter speed for the film he was using) and devise idiosyncratic shooting techniques (pre-focusing the camera and hoping his subjects were the proper distance from the lens). It’s hard not to view these women, completely isolated from their surroundings, as early examples of then-emerging theories about urban anomie; they could be the wives left behind in the morning by William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man.” They look alternately sullen, animated, and impassive, and the frisson of violence implied by the odd, sometimes harsh cropping adds yet more psychological portent to pictures whose fascination is belied by their seeming simplicity.

Joan Mitchell

Published on Artforum.com on June 10, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Cheim & Read, 2005

Installation view, Cheim & Read, 2005

The highlight of the Whitney’s intermittently brilliant 2002 Joan Mitchell retrospective was the second gallery, where six paintings from the late ’50s and early ’60s were installed. Each was a cacophonous swirl of oils that you could easily imagine freeing itself from the canvas and surrounding you like a cocoon. This new exhibition, titled “Frémicourt Paintings” after the Parisian street in which Mitchell’s studio was located, presents over a dozen works made between 1960 and 1962 that possess the same vibrancy, urgency, and energy. The paint is applied liberally and with varied means (brushes, palette knives, pours, and fingers). The not-quite-allover compositions often radiate outward, like bursts of fireworks, from a dark mass near the center of the canvas. The net result definitely looks like the work of an American in Paris: Brash first-generation Abstract Expressionism married to the color palette of late Matisse and the scrambled surfaces of Dubuffet or Jean Paul Riopelle, her longtime companion. Mitchell would continue to make extraordinary paintings until the end of her life, but never again with the consistency exemplified by this exhibition.

Jim Lambie

Published on Artforum.com on April 27, 2005. To see the review in context, click here; for more information, click here.

After seeing several Jim Lambie exhibitions conceived as installations—”Paradise Garage” in Venice in 2003, “Mental Oyster” in New York last year—it’s a pleasure to once again be reminded of his proficiency as a sculptor, a maker of oddly enchanting objects. The five discrete works in this small show give us Lambie the nonchalant appropriator and glam formalist. Whether or not the sculptures incorporate direct musical references—Sweet Exorcist (all works 2005), an oversized psychedelic God’s eye, includes a 12″ record at its center—one can’t help but see sonically. He even works like a DJ: The small wooden cubes covered in aluminum tape affixed to the black-tape-covered jeans in Blacktronic are a remix of the mirror shards decorating handbags and pleather pants at Anton Kern last year. Split Endz (wig mix) is a Swiss cheese minimalist cube painted pink; the glittering belts that festoon the holes excised from its upper reaches could have been taken from the Friday night visitors to the local discotheque. The mirrors and glitter and the colorful paint (applied liberally) make the case for Lambie as a Kandinsky (or synesthete Nabokov) for the DJ-and-mash-up generation.

Rob Fischer

Published on Artforum.com on February 25, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

In his first solo show with this gallery, Minnesota native Rob Fischer presents wonderful sculptures, pretty good painted photographs, and just-OK paintings that all up the ante on his peculiar blend of high plains anomie and rural ecology. He combines the whiteout alienation of Fargo with the psychological dislocation of Bruce Nauman’s early corridor sculptures. Fischer calls his version of those freestanding drywall pressure chambers “chapters,” and they are simultaneously linked and bisected (at head height) by a copper pipe carrying the water that feeds the “cultivated swamp” of Summery (Goodyear Ecology), 2004–05. The “rural ecology” comes to the fore not only in the tall grasses that accompany that work’s non-site tire-track transposition or Greenhouse No. 4 (Repetitive Cycles), 2004-05, but also in his predilection for recycling. Tucked into the corner of the room is Abstract Sculpture, 2004-05, which contains elements of the large glass-walled dumpster he exhibited at last year’s Whitney Biennial; near the front door is an upended, hand-made dumpster that, last summer, was similarly lined in glass and sat, diagonally, at Mary Goldman Gallery in Los Angeles. Now, rusty and fitted with mirrors, it greets viewers with fragmented pictures of themselves and is the proscenium arch through which you must pass to enter Fischer’s world, which is at once entropic and creatively regenerative.

Diary entry: “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition”

Published as “Red Alert” on Artforum.com on February 3, 2005. To see the diary entry in context, click here.

BERLIN—”We are here to view an art exhibition. We are here for art, not politics,” Klaus Biesenbach said emphatically during his opening remarks at last Friday’s private reception for “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition,” the new show at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW). Featuring over fifty artists, “Regarding Terror” bestirs the ghosts of the Red Army Faction, the group of Marxist-Maoist terrorists who hoped to destabilize the West German government and kick off the revolution via a series of targeted arsons, kidnappings, bombings, and shootings that began in 1968 and crescendoed in the ’70s. Given that the RAF is as politically loaded a subject as you could think of, and that the debates surrounding the show turn precisely on the difficulties of drawing the line between art and politics, Biesenbach’s claim seemed wishful at best—particularly since the next speaker to take the floor was former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, not exactly a regular on the Berlin openings circuit. Decrying what he sees as the German citizenry’s unwillingness to confront thorny social issues, Baum, at any rate, seemed to have politics very much on his mind.

“Regarding Terror”—organized by former KW director Biesenbach, KW curator Ellen Blumenstein, and Felix Ensslin, a playwright and son of RAF member Gudrun Ensslin—was three years in the making. It was originally slated to open in November 2003 but was delayed when an early exhibition proposal leaked out to the press the previous summer, causing an outcry about “legitimizing” and “aestheticizing” terrorism. RAF victims’ families sent an open letter of protest to the government, and wide public support sprang up around the idea that the show should not receive federal funding unless the curators promised to heed the families’ concerns and plan their presentation accordingly. Rather than accept federal support—and the conditions that were sure to come with it—the curators returned almost half of their initial grant and proceeded to fund “Regarding Terror” with private money, most of it raised through an eleventh-hour eBay art auction. This rudimentary outline occludes many of the details of the curators’ grueling struggle to ensure that the spotlight focused on the exhibition instead of the minefield of RAF historiography, the politics of show planning, or Ensslin’s personal connection to the subject matter. As Ensslin said to me, the curators had to walk a fine line: “We were attacked from the left for being too statist and from the right for glorifying terror.”

On Thursday, Blumenstein and Ensslin toured the show with successive waves of journalists both German and foreign; feuilletons (including a caustic essay in Die Zeit by RAF member Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl, who noted that “like the three letters S-E-X. . . R-A-F sells.”) were published in every major media outlet; and all week even taxi drivers offered up opinions on the proceedings: One artist told me that her cabbie, noticing her copy of the exhibition catalog, launched into a rant about how Andreas Baader was a good-for-nothing kid who would not have turned to terrorism if he wasn’t so “bored.”

The exhibition somehow manages to hold its own in the midst of this fray—it comes across as neither explicitly didactic nor too aestheticized. This balance is achieved in part because the works—by a group of artists including Beuys, Kippenberger, Richter, and Polke as well as members of a younger generation like Michaela Miese and Johannes Wohnseifer—focus on media representations of the RAF. Thus the terms of the debate are subtly shifted from the group itself to what a wall text calls its “media echo.” (This will inevitably be used as a criticism; almost without exception, the brownish-yellow of faded newspapers and the black-and-white of news photos predominate.) The RAF was savvy about self-presentation, and it is difficult to overestimate the power of their polarizing presence in the ’70s. One visitor at the private view, a music critic pursuing a doctorate on the subject of mourning, said, “For any German between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-nine, the most prominent images from childhood are those of the RAF.” Another recalled seeing “Wanted” posters featuring members of the gang in every post office when he was growing up. The weight of history is palpable in the exhibition, which sprawls through the entire museum and into a nearby church. Several younger artists admitted to being intimidated by the context and unsure as to whether their creations would pass muster as ruminations on a subject that has launched dozens of dissertations and documentaries.

That the opening coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz only added to the gravity of the proceedings. So many people showed up for the Saturday-night opening that they had to close the doors to the museum for a while and the police arrived to control the crowd. But for the most part the receptions were not boisterous affairs, mostly taking place in an apartment on the museum’s premises and attended by a mix of artists, curators, journalists, politicians, and historians. All the members of this diverse crowd seemed eager to espouse their own theories about the RAF, the controversy surrounding the show, and the place of both in the German imagination. One Berlin gallery director summed up a common sentiment, expressing doubt about the quality of art chosen primarily for its subject matter but emphasizing the show’s importance and her need to visit multiple times in order to fully absorb it. As Ensslin said one night at dinner, “I don’t know how this show will affect the discourse surrounding the RAF. My only hope is that it does, and that people take into account these artistic positions in the future.” Since the media attention is unlikely to die down soon—the museum is still fielding daily calls from television producers and magazine editors—it is safe to say that his wish will be granted.

Spencer Finch

Published on Artforum.com on October 27, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Spencer Finch has pursued the boundaries of perception doggedly and imaginatively for the better part of a decade, and his longstanding interest in transposition (often involving installations in which he recreates the qualities of natural light found at a culturally or historically charged site) is paired in this show with examples of text-to-image translation. Without downplaying his emphasis on bright light and brighter color, Finch predicates several works here on an eclectic group of texts: an excerpt from Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a passage from Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, a 16th-century proto-haiku by Arakida Moritake, and a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. He applies Nabokov’s synesthetic theory of the alphabet to a section of Heisenberg’s tract, representing it in a thirty-six-panel mural-scale rainbow of watercolor dots, each corresponding to a particular letter. Stare for too long and the splotches dilate, approximating the look of the ten watercolors, hung on the opposite wall, that Finch made by copying images of butterflies glimpsed via his peripheral vision. (Nabokov was a lepidopterist as well as a synaesthete.) Finch uses photography only rarely, but the best work in the show is an unassuming series of seven small pictures, taken from the same vantage point seven minutes apart, cataloging a windowpane’s shift from transparency (the landscape outside) to reflective opacity (a simple interior) at dusk.

David Wojnarowicz

Published on Artforum.com on October 25, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Like the two slim poetry volumes Rimbaud published by age 20, David Wojnarowicz’s “Rimbaud in New York” photos, shot in his early twenties, are a fully realized aesthetic statement. The forty-four small black-and-white photographs in this show (accompanied by a selection of the artist’s journals) depict an anonymous young man outfitted with a simple paper mask bearing the visage of Arthur Rimbaud, adrift in a New York no longer extant. Mostly alone, he wanders through derelict buildings, the Meatpacking District, the subway, and other liminal sites. In some ways, the photos, shot during 1978 and 1979 and first exhibited in 1990, could be considered the inverse of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977-80. Whereas Sherman constructed elaborate scenarios but rarely masked her face—we almost always know it’s her—Wojnarowicz fully obscures his protagonist’s identity. To this day, we do not know if the artist is the (or is the only) flâneur depicted. Likewise the cinematic, imaginary space Sherman conjured counters the peripheral yet nonetheless very real locations (Hudson River piers, Coney Island) portrayed in Wojnarowicz’s pictures. Perhaps inevitably, time has added a filmic sheen to the drugs, sex, and graffiti of the rough-and-tumble 1970s New York seen here. For a fuller understanding of the era as Wojnarowicz saw it, an exhibition of his later works incorporating text is on view at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea through November 13.

Matthew Buckingham

Published on Artforum.com on November 25, 2003. To see the review in context, click here.

Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd, 2003, is a formally elegant, conceptually rich 16 mm film installation that mimics the structure of Edgar Allan Poe’s similarly titled short story of 1840. Poe’s London is now contemporary Vienna; Buckingham’s camera tracks a young man obsessively trailing a slightly shabby older fellow through the city streets. The camera itself, ducking behind a tree or column as if to avoid being seen, unaccountably yet delightfully becomes a third protagonist. The noirish black-and-white film, shot in dramatic natural light, is projected through a small hole in the wall that separates the gallery from the office and onto a semitransparent two-way mirror in the middle of the room. The result is a set of twin projections—often rigorously symmetrical—“bookending” an almost empty gallery. Viewers are brought into the space of the film as their own reflections on the mirror mingle with the images of pursuer and pursued. Like Buckingham’s other works, A Man of the Crowd is filled with subtle cultural references. The nameless protagonists lead the camera down a street traveled by Orson Welles in The Third Man and through arcades described in Walter Benjamin’s book-length study. Poe’s story is central to much scholarship on the flaneur, including Benjamin’s; and Buckingham’s film is both an engaging visual corollary to this written corpus and a deftly realized project of its own.