Means to an End: Steichen for Stehli

My essay on the photographs Edward Steichen made for the Stehli Silks Corporation appears in Osmos 5 (Winter 2015). An excerpt:

Edward Steichen, Sugar Cubes (for Stehli Silks)

Edward Steichen, “Fabric design for Stehli Silk No. 28 (sugar cubes)”

As it steamed across the Atlantic one day in 1926, the Isle de France was the site of a chance encounter. Ruzzie Green, at the time an illustrator and designer, was on his way to Europe, perhaps to the Swiss headquarters of the Stehli Silks Corporation, where he served as art director. On deck he chanced upon Edward Steichen, the artist whose pictures were revolutionizing fashion photography. The two struck up a conversation, and, in short order, a deal: Steichen would contribute designs to Stehli’s popular “Americana” line of fabrics. The fruits of their collaboration, when released to the public the following spring, would prove to be not only a commercial success, but they would also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends: celebrity, artistic abstraction, mass production and consumption, the creative appropriation of everyday consumer objects—in short, much of what we identify with modern American society and culture.

Green and Steichen’s meeting came at an auspicious moment. Historians of American culture, including Lizabeth Cohen and William Leach, have described the mid-1920s as an era of standardized production, mass consumption, corporate expansion, and increasingly influential advertising. America had emerged from the wreckage of World War I relatively unscathed and the stock market crash was still a few years away. Five-cent theaters featuring ethnic films were losing ground to the Hollywood system; mom-and-pop shops were being displaced by department stores and national chains. Recognizable brands were being promoted by familiar names and faces.

Stehli’s “Americana” line capitalized on these transformations, deploying celebrity name recognition to sell its mass-produced textiles. Green hired nearly one hundred prominent figures to create—or at least lend their names to—these patterns, which were sold by the yard for dressmaking and other domestic applications. Participants included Helen Wills, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, the cartoonist John Held, Jr., and the fashion desire Pierre Mourgue.

Green commissioned dozens of artists to create patterns for Stehli, but Steichen was the only photographers who contributed to the “Americana” line.

To read the rest, pick up Osmos 5 on newsstands or online via D.A.P.


“Our Poor Perishable World”

I wrote an essay on photographer Robert Adams, novelist Marilynne Robinson, and landscapes as sacred spaces that has been published in Issue Eight of The Common, a literary journal about “the modern sense of place.”

An excerpt:

Eden, unworthiness, ultimate judgment, grace: Adams’s is a biblical language of sin and possible redemption. Thinking of the Riverside picture in these terms, one can understand the blinding whiteness of the sun as a metaphor. Not only is it representative of our own destructiveness, suggesting that the further we push down the path of sprawl and development, the less of the current landscape’s beauty we’ll be able to see; it is also a symbol of our inability to comprehend what lies beyond this process—whether you believe that is more like heaven or hell. In Adams’s view, the landscape is sacred. And the quality of attention he gives to it is itself a form of prayer. At Yale, while I looked at hundreds of Adams’s beautiful photographs, beautiful even when they are records of humankind’s most wanton destruction, the treatment of landscape in an altogether different artist’s work came inexorably to mind.

The essay has been published online; read it by clicking this link.

Op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer

On November 18 I published an opinion piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Its subject, the use of cameras in public spaces, relates to my exhibition “Eyes on the Street” at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

How many times were you photographed or videotaped yesterday? The answer is likely higher than you think. In the last two decades, the rapidly decreasing cost of image-capture technology has meant a proliferation of cameras in both public and private spaces. At the same time, the widespread use of smartphones means most of us now carry a camera everywhere we go.

When a news story brings this proliferation to our attention, it’s often because a camera has captured something that, in the past, would likely have gone unrecorded. Think of the role cameras have played in bringing us information – instantaneously – about protests in far-off places like Hong Kong or the Middle East. Or how, closer to home, news of the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by cell-phone footage. When public spaces and cameras enter the news together, it is often at socially or politically contentious moments.

It is important to try to understand more fully the ways our lives are now intertwined with cameras.

To read the rest, click here.

“A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial”


Nir Evron, still from A Free Moment, 2011.

The first three ICP triennials were given titles that imparted their organizing themes: “Strangers,” in 2003, considered street photography and images of people unknown to us; “Ecotopia,” in 2007, was about environmental change; and “Dress Codes,” in 2010, examined fashion’s role in our lives. The title of this triennial, “A Different Kind of Order,” which includes 28 international artists (only eight of whom are women), brings to the fore the wholesale shifts that have upended photography during the ten-year span since the 2003 exhibition. What had been subtext is now the central focus, and there are nearly as many moving-image works as still photographs. The primary medium of several artists is not even lens-based.

No single theme emerges, despite the curators’ insistence that the apparent chaos of our moment is the titular “new kind of order.” What patterns the four curators discern feel kaleidoscopic, liable to sudden shifts, rather than stable and self-evident. Keywords defined in the catalogue’s introduction—“Analog,” “Collage,” “Community,” “Self-Publishing”—are hashtags as much as principles, and suitable for our transitional moment.

Viewers could trace their own through lines; I was repeatedly struck by the sense of accumulation translated by the artworks, and by the ways lenses are being used to capture and represent bodies under duress. The acquisitive impulse was manifested simply, as in Roy Arden’s rather dull Quicktime slideshow of thousands of images he has gathered from the Internet, and in the selection of photographs from Michael Schmelling’s project The Plan (2009), which documents the efforts of Disaster Masters, a New York company that counsels hoarders. The emphasis on bodies in particular places at particular times is expressed with haunting clarity in London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel’s photographs and video from his project Drowning World (2007–). What would have been full-length frontal portraits of flood victims in such places as Nigeria and Thailand are, sadly, converted into three-quarter or half-length portraits by the brackish waters that have risen up to their subjects’ knees, waist, or chest. The seven-minute video of people trying to go about their daily lives in these conditions is particularly poignant.

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

These two themes converge in some of the strongest contributions to the exhibition: Jim Goldberg’s Proof (2011), an affecting wall-length installation of contact prints depicting undocumented immigrants, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), a wall-size projected video of a woman’s hand swiping an iPad to scroll through images of bodies torn asunder by violence. The intimacy of the hand’s gesture is contradicted by the distancing effect of the screen (and that of the projection). It offers unvarnished proof of just how vulnerable our bodies are, while also reminding viewers that privilege—and our mass media—largely spare us the evidence of bodily harm.

If the exhibition felt like a grab bag, it nonetheless was stuffed with engaging works. Every inclusion that seemed weak or out of place—Huma Bhabha, Mishka Henner, Sohei Nishino, Elliott Hundley—was offset by revelations. The Israeli artist Nir Evron’s film A Free Moment (2011), presented here as a wall-size high-definition video projection, is at once rigorously structured and disorientingly unstable. Evron installed a dolly track inside the unfinished summer palace in Jerusalem begun in the 1960s by King Hussein of Jordan. The film begins with a commanding view over the city; the camera then pulls back along the track into the concrete shell of the building and begins rotating and panning in a 360-degree circle. Ground and sky are confused; detailed views of the concrete ceiling look like the surface of the moon; the film’s apparatus—the track, the camera—at times edge into the frame. Reminiscent of work by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis, A Free Moment is compulsively watchable. In its balance between order and disorder, Evron’s film is an elegant microcosm of the exhibition’s concerns.

Published in Art in America, September 2013. “A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” was on view from May 17–September 22, 2013.

“The Permanent Way” Brochure Essay

This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.

Famous Horse Shoe Curve, on Main Line P.R.R., ca. 1910. Collection of Luc Sante.

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.

Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”

The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.

That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.

The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”

Justine Kurland, Doyle, CA, 2007.

Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.

This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.

Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.

Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.

The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.

Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.

Jeff Brouws, Railroad Landscape #56, former Poughkeepsie and Eastern right-of-way as ingress to private hunting presere (abandoned 1938), MP 92, view south, Winter, McIntyre, New York, 2010.

James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.

Further Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977).

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [orig. 1964]).

Naef, Weston J. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975).

Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983).

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Interview: Carol Bove

Published as the cover story in Art in America, May 2012. For more information on Bove, contact Maccarone.

Detail of W.A., 2010, shells, steel, concrete, and bronze

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.

* * *

[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]

SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

* * *

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

Untitled, 2009, peacock feathers on linen

Richard Zacks, Island of Vice

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of Richard Zacks’s Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. The book is fun, though it has some limitations, as I tried to make clear:

Some of Zacks’s most entertaining passages chronicle Roosevelt’s after-midnight prowls along city streets, searching, often alongside a reporter for one of the city’s many dailies, for cops sleeping or drinking on the job. He would nearly pick a fight with those he found, then gleefully inform them just who they were arguing with and demand they appear at police headquarters early the next morning. Such episodes are retold with zest, and the book is unfailingly entertaining. Drawing upon courtroom and committee room minutes, as well as newspaper reports and his subjects’ voluminous correspondence, Zacks has crafted a popular narrative history of a pretty high order.

It enters a crowded field. There are not only many lengthy biographies of T.R., like the one by Edmund Morris, whose third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, arrived in late 2010, but also a steady flow of narrower studies, such as Hot Time in the Old Town (2010), about Roosevelt and the summer 1896 heat wave, or Honor in the Dust (2012), on Roosevelt’s place in American imperial expansion. Island of Vice dovetails with perennially popular studies of Gilded Age excess and crime, such as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City (2007). It’s easy to see how such a book was published, sitting as it does at a busy intersection on the map of publishers’ desires: the Roosevelts, New York City, sex, and crime.

What broader developments Zacks hopes to explain, or what lessons he wishes readers to draw, are somewhat harder to discern.

To read the rest of the review, click here. New York magazine ran a feature on the book devised with Zacks’s help. This nugget of service journalism asks the all-important question, “Do You Live in a Former Brothel?”

Interview: Liz Deschenes

Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.

Liz Deschenes, Tilt / Swing, #3B, 2009.

From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.

Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.

As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.

As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.

* * *

[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]

DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …

SHOLIS … that you can walk into!

DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.

SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?

DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.

SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?

DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.

“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941.

I reviewed the exhibition “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” on view at the International Center of Photography until September 2, for Capital New York. An excerpt:

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

To read the rest, click here.

“The Greatest Grid”

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).

Map of Property Belonging to C.C. Moore of Chelsea, 1835. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

An excerpt:

The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.

At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.

To read the rest, click here.

Alexander Gutke

This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Alexander Gutke (Fundação Caixa Geral de Depoósitos – Culturgest, 2011). For more information on the artist and images of his other works, visit his page on the Galerija Gregor Podnar website.

Exploded View, 2005. Installation view and detail images.

On September 26, 2003, the Eastman Kodak Company declared, in a press release, that it would stop making and selling slide projectors by the following June. “In recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies,” the announcement noted. Alternative, of course, was a code word for digital, and for many people the decision represented yet one more nail in the coffin of analogue technology. Yet, as art historian Pamela M. Lee observed soon afterward, “Given its ubiquity in both studio and art-historical pedagogy, the modern slide projector… has played more than a supporting role in the visual arts from its inception.” Thus Kodak’s decision prompted a brief spurt of commemorative activity, including “Slideshow,” an exhibition held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in early 2005. Though not consciously a response to the Kodak announcement, Alexander Gutke’s slide-projection pieces Exploded View (2005) and Lighthouse (2006) stand out amid the stream of artworks and texts that it occasioned for their rigor, their austere beauty, and the conceptual complexity embedded in their seemingly simple execution. Like the staple technique of the art history class, these two works offer what can be termed a “slide comparison.” But, rather than juxtapose two images, Gutke’s artworks place two ways of understanding analogue projection technology side by side: Exploded View examines what a projector is; Lighthouse demonstrates what a projector does.

Exploded View appears to be a vivisection. Its eighty-one slides lay bare the innards of another Kodak Carousel projector. To create the work, Gutke had a technician slice apart a projector one slide bay at a time, a process that the artist documented in photographs. Each successive cut revealed more of the machine’s plastic, metal, and glass guts; each image projected onto the wall presents a different combination of wires, lenses, bulbs, small screws, and the body housing these elements. The images progress from representational to abstract and back again, as distinct elements of the projector’s body come into view and are diligently excised. (Since the carousel loops, the process never ends.) The precise articulation of the projector’s component parts calls to mind Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ultra-clear Neue Sachlichkeit-style photographs of industrial machines. Gutke’s images, tissue samples of an outmoded technology, could perhaps be used to reconstruct the machine.

Lighthouse substitutes lyricism for Exploded View’s quasi-scientific astringency, without lapsing into sentimentality. In this work, a rectangle of light is slowly rotated through 360 degrees, over the course of eighty-one slides. What begins as a flat plane of light resting on the surface of the wall seems to become an incision into the wall’s surface. At the carousel’s midpoint, the narrow sliver of light is ostensibly “perpendicular” to the wall onto which it is projected. As the slides progress, the “image” of light swings back into parallel alignment with the wall. Then the cycle is repeated. The work’s title evokes a tower erected by the coast, its searching beam of light aligning with the seafarer’s eyes once per revolution. But Lighthouse suggests other equally romantic interpretations. The light’s waxing and waning, for example, calls to mind charts of the lunar cycle.

Lighthouse, 2006. Installation view.

Exploded View and Lighthouse are attempts to find intrinsic content in a machine that is usually subservient to the images dropped into its bays. Gutke demonstrates how the projector can generate meaning on its own, without the assistance of Tintoretto paintings or technical diagrams or family photos slotted into its carousel. One way this can be interpreted is as a subtle rejoinder to the inexorability of the switch from analogue to digital projection technologies. The works remind viewers that something particular and distinctive is lost in the transition. What basically is this insistence on medium specificity, other than a protest against supersession? If the Kodak press release announced the “death” of the slide projector, then perhaps Exploded View is less like a vivisection and more like an autopsy. According to this view, having explored the projector’s guts and found something estimable, Lighthouse, with its “voided” image, becomes the scene of resurrection. The images have fled to some great beyond, but the autopsied machine returns to life and exhibits its essential dignity.

The way Gutke isolates particulars about his chosen medium to highlight their specific properties has an art-historical precedent in the experimental and conceptual artworks created in the 1960s and 1970s using film, slide projectors, and then-new video technologies. Exploded View and Lighthouse recall works by Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, and others. Lighthouse, in particular, through its tracing of a circle, brings to mind Robert Morris’s infrequently exhibited film installation Finch College Project (1969). For that work, Morris instructed cameraman Robert Fiore to film a crew of workers installing and de-installing a grid of mirrored squares and a gridded black-and-white photograph on the opposite walls of a room. Fiore set the camera on a turntable revolving at one revolution per minute, and the finished work was projected into the same space; the projection rotated around the now blank walls at the same speed. But, whereas Morris’s projection relied on filmic imagery to create a palimpsest of past and present, Gutke’s work deploys a contrived, though plausible, “function” of the slide projector to create a palimpsest of real and fictional space. Lighthouse and Exploded View are works in which the seemingly direct efforts made by the artist produce uncanny, manifold effects.

The slide projector’s historical antecedent is the magic lantern, which is generally thought to have been invented in the mid-seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaen Huygens. The relationship of this device to death and to haunting was noted early in the lantern’s history. A 1671 description of the lantern in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae was accompanied by illustrations depicting projections of a soul in purgatory and a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe. (Huygens’s device, used to entertain elites and royals, was called “the lantern of fright.”) The “phantasmagoria” magic lantern show would remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. Gutke’s focused explorations of the slide projector ostensibly remove the “magic” from this magic lantern–like technology. There certainly seems to be nothing hiding behind Exploded View. Yet something ineffable and entrancing remains.

One might contend that what lingers is mere nostalgia for an obsolescent technology, though it’s hard to see how these two artworks are nostalgic. Art historian T.J. Demos has observed that a slide projection, by “locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.” This observation is astute, but does not seem to account for the particular effect of Gutke’s two slide-projection works. It seems to me, rather, that the enduring power Gutke confers upon the humble Kodak projectors arises from a tension between finitude and infinitude. Gutke’s exploration seems to have reached a logical conclusion (and is therefore finite) yet in doing so it highlights something endless: the circular carousel’s loop. His incisive reduction of the slide projector to its barest essences—what it is, what it does—coexists with the recognition of the machine’s ability to imply ceaselessness. And it is precisely this sense of perpetuity that counters any fatalism about the death of the medium. At the moment of the slide projector’s ostensible “death,” Gutke has invested the humble contraption with a dignified sense of life.

On Bruce Hainley

My appreciation of the Los Angeles–based art critic Bruce Hainley has appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The publication of a slim collection of Hainley’s writing occasioned the essay. It is the fifth installment of Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s experimental periodical Pep Talk. Here’s an excerpt of my piece:

I became aware of Bruce Hainley’s writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine’s review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove’s Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review’s venom was poisonous and worked quickly: “The gimmick behind the project … was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous.” On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: “Yeah, right.” I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley’s indictment was thrilling.

Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic’s byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley’s occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley’s mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, “I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything.”

To read the rest, click here. To cut out the middleman and read Hainley’s writing, I suggest browsing the archives of Artforum and Frieze magazines, where he has published a large number of reviews and essays over the past fifteen years.

“Our Magic Hour”

Review of the 2011 Yokohama Triennale published online at Art Agenda on September 13, 2011. The exhibition remains on view until November 6, 2011.

Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006

Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006.

Organizing an international biennial or triennial exhibition is, in principle, a thankless task. Your two main audiences, locals unfamiliar with recent artistic developments and globe-hopping art citizens eager for new discoveries, have opposing needs and desires. Apportioning artworks among multiple venues, securing the funding to meet an outsized budget, and coordinating the corporate, political, and cultural bodies with a vested interest in your efforts all present significant challenges. Add to this, however, the widespread devastation of a three-fold tragedy—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant crisis—and one would have forgiven Yokohama Triennale 2011 artistic director Akiko Miki for walking away from her project. That she and her colleagues not only persevered but also managed to coordinate an impressive display of art spanning several centuries is, irrespective of one’s opinion of the show, worth commending.

This is the fourth edition of the triennale, and the first to make the Yokohama Museum of Art its primary venue. Titled “Our Magic Hour,” the show focused upon an ability to see the wonderful in the everyday that has long been popularly ascribed to artists. The magic invoked is not one of mysticism, but rather of the temporary suspension of disbelief: artists see things differently than you and me and can show us what that seeing feels like. Such a broad theme can encompass a wide variety of art, and, indeed, the show ranged from conceptually inflected video installations to ukiyo-e woodblock prints to ghost-themed movie posters.

The opening galleries engage a notion of wonder in a literal manner. The first artwork one encounters beyond the museum lobby is Aurélien Froment’s video Théâtre de poche (Pocket Theater) (2007), which depicts the artist performing a series of sleight-of-hand tricks against a black background. To either side of this gallery are minimal installations by James Lee Byars, Wilfredo Prieto, and Motohiro Tomii that invoke, with varying success, the viewer’s astonishment at the properties inherent in simple materials. Byars’s juxtaposition of five crystals and a silent performer conjures an atmosphere at once somber and strangely weightless. The works by Prieto and Tomii play with our notions of value by arranging humble materials—cubic zirconia, thumbtacks—such that they appear cherishable. However, the “trick” in Prieto’s circular floor arrangement, that one of the thousands of shiny objects really is a diamond, almost spoils the effect. Nonetheless, these rooms are a useful primer in seeing the way Miki and her artists would want us to, and the attentive viewer is rewarded in other galleries with hard-to-find surprises, such as Still White, Corridor (2011), an installation between two galleries for which Atsushi Saga has polished a wall to a subtle sheen.

In other rooms, however, these small didactic tricks seem overly simple or even somewhat manipulative. Take, for example, a number of mid-twentieth-century Surrealist paintings from the museum collection hung side-by-side early in the show. All of them depict stairways, and once one discovers this formal alliteration, the paintings’ other qualities recede into the background. (These canvases, like other works from the museum’s collection, are laboriously integrated into the Triennale. They would have been better served by being presented as a separate-but-related exhibition.) Elsewhere, a large room is given over to Massimo Bartolini’s whimsical sculpture Organi (2008), in which a series of pipes, arranged like scaffolding, have been transformed into musical pipes, with a small music box placed on the floor pushing its notes through them and out into the room. It is a remarkable feat of hare-brained ingenuity, and its placement in a roughly circular, high-ceiling room makes one think of chapels. But, just in case you hadn’t made the connection on your own, several large-scale collages of multicolored butterfly wings by Damien Hirst, shaped like stained-glass windows, line the wall on either side. Perhaps complaints about the literalism of these installations sound like the carping of a professional who believes in his own sophistication. On the other hand, one also hopes that curators can trust non-specialist viewers to appreciate such details without having them communicated so directly.

At the outset, however, I suggested that art-world insiders are forever in search of the new, and this edition of the Yokohama Triennale presented to me several revelations. Whether the decision to include a greater proportion of local (i.e., Japanese) artists than is typical for such exhibitions was conceptual or logistical, I was particularly happy to encounter work by Keiichi Tanaami, Ryosuke Imamura, and Taro Izumi, as well as from the Koichi Yumoto Collection. Tanaami’s contribution is a series of short nonnarrative animated videos created in the 1970s. Their bright colors, collaged aesthetic, and surrealistic content call to mind Western counterparts such as Terry Gilliam, creator of animated Monty Python sketches. Small details such as an envelope bearing a Soho address testify to Tanaami’s familiarity with the psychedelic art then popular in the United States (and elsewhere). Imamura’s ingenious sound-art hybrid installations are in the tradition of cross-disciplinary elder statesmen like Christian Marclay. And Izumi’s accumulation of everyday objects, placed on pedestals of varying heights that crowd several rooms in the BankART Studio NYK, a second venue, were delightfully strange and evocative. So, too, is the Yumoto Collection, of which only a small portion is on view. It focuses on yokai, or ghosts, and includes movie posters, toys, traditional paintings and prints, and other ephemera, offering a welcome peek into vernacular Japanese culture.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 2011.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 2011.

The three-level BankART Studio, a nearby waterfront building, housed large-scale works by a range of well-known international artists. Here the theme of wonderment was somewhat harder to discern, but a handful of works stood out. Foremost among them was Peter Coffin’s utterly strange and spellbinding untitled computer animation, which I now think of as “3F,” for “Fruit: The Final Frontier.” The video, which presents an endless, never-repeating pattern, depicts eighteen semitransparent images of fruit accelerating towards the viewer at a leisurely version of warp speed. The images, succulent and oddly haloed, were created with the help of a specialist in 3-D medical scanning. At the other end of the technical spectrum is Henrik Hakansson’s Fallen Forest (2006), a DIY version of the “living walls” of foliage currently in vogue with certain interior designers and architects. Hakansson’s vertical surface of greenery, however, comes from simply turning large-scale potted trees on their side and inserting them into industrial metal shelving. Spotlights give the object an additional charm.

It’s worth noting that the disastrous events of March 11 not only affected the show’s production—making certain works logistically infeasible, say, or causing insurance rates to skyrocket. It also inspired some of the participating artists to devise new proposals as a direct response to the tragedy. The smartest of these is also one of the last visitors come across (if following the proscribed route through the venues). Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, known in the West for his haunting videos of men struggling to pull submerged rickshaws along the seabed, has here created a memorial video installation that also serves as a participatory public art project. Using GPS technology, Nguyen-Hatsushiba has plotted paths through Ho Chi Minh City, his current home, and Yokohama that, when drawn on a map, resemble cherry blossoms. Members of the public are invited to jog along the routes to metaphorically trace onto the surface of the earth these symbols of transience and renewal. The runs are themselves ephemeral and bring to mind the concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the pathos and impermanence of things. The artwork is moving but not maudlin, and at a moment when the labor of recovery means that permanent memorials are still far off on the horizon, it seems thoughtful and noninvasive. And, by virtue of the idiosyncratic paths that cut through the city like Situationist dérives, it also defamiliarizes Yokohama for its resident joggers, thereby involuntarily slotting them into the exhibition’s theme. One can imagine such a run, though tinged as it must be by the awareness of pain and suffering in the northeastern part of the country, as a magic hour indeed.

“Hiroshima Ground Zero”

Published at Art-Agenda on June 3, 2011. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view until August 28, 2011. To learn more, visit the museum’s website.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was momentarily “covered by a bluish-white glare.” [1] An atom bomb, the first to be dropped on a human population, had exploded 580 meters above the ground. A 4.4-square-mile section of the city center was more or less instantly flattened, and subsequent fires, which raged for more than eight hours, consumed much of what hadn’t been pulverized by the bomb’s concussive force. It is now estimated that nearly two-thirds of the approximately seventy-six thousand buildings in Hiroshima were completely destroyed or burned; approximately seventy thousand, or more than nine out of ten, were at least “half-destroyed/half-burned/slightly damaged.” Soot from the fires, along with dirt and mud, was swept up into the air by whirlwinds and returned to earth as highly toxic, sticky “black rain.” Those who happened to be within 1.2 kilometers of the detonation point (known as “air zero”) had only a fifty percent chance of surviving; any closer and the mortality rates jump to between eighty and one hundred percent. The city’s population that August is estimated to have been 340,000, and it is now believed that approximately 140,000 people died as a result of the bomb. These are the accepted facts about the devastation wrought in Hiroshima, ostensibly to bring the war with Japan, and thus World War II, to a close. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing an additional 80,000 people, and on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender.

We know what such explosions look like: a tall stem of smoke and debris, often several miles high, that disperses horizontally once it reaches sufficient altitude. While natural forces such as volcanic eruptions can cause these mushroom-shaped clouds, they are most closely associated with nuclear detonations. The United States government conducted hundreds of nuclear-bomb tests between 1945 and 1962, and images of the explosions have passed from the realm of scientific and military documentation into the broader culture. The mushroom cloud is the icon of the nuclear age.

It is much harder, however, to picture what the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like. This is not for lack of visual evidence. Japanese photographers catalogued the grim aftermath of concrete rubble and seared skin. A companion plane laden with photographic equipment, later dubbed Necessary Evil, accompanied the Enola Gay on the fateful mission that dropped the bomb. Hiroshima was targeted, at least in part, because its infrastructure presented a near-ideal environment in which to study the effects of the bomb, and after the attack President Truman duly sent members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) to Japan. A team of photographers made over 1,100 images, two-thirds of which were included in a secret three-volume report submitted to the government in 1947. Such images, however, despite occasionally appearing in books and other public venues, have not permeated Western consciousness. The presentation at the International Center of Photography of several dozen photographs from the USSBS archive is therefore a chance to become better acquainted with the fearsome power at human disposal.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Rooftop view of atomic destruction, looking southwest, Hiroshima. October 31, 1945.

These small, black-and-white pictures were taken with technical rather than aesthetic intent. The seven photographers were interested in the effects of the bomb on the built environment, and therefore few people appear in the images. Most of the photographs are portraits of commercial or civic buildings; so few residential structures, which were typically made of wood, survived that the photographers decided not to document them. Standing amid the rubble is the façade and dome of the city’s commercial exhibition hall. So, too, is the coal-distribution company headquarters, the front of which seems to have been punched into the ground. There are views of school buildings, banks, insurance company headquarters, and the interior of Hiroshima City Hall’s auditorium, barren save for fine layer of burned litter scattered across the main floor and balcony. Other photographs reverse the perspective, and provide dramatic context for the close-ups and interior views. To make them, the photographers ascended to upper-story windows or the roof of standing buildings and pointed the camera lens outward at the desolate landscape. Because Hiroshima lies on a large, flat plain, the photographers could see relatively far into the distance. The horizon line is the meeting point of two undifferentiated shades of gray: on the one hand, the mostly featureless sky, and on the other the uninterrupted expanse of dusty concrete and plaster that once was a great city. The “burned-over area,” as it was called, extends all the way to the horizon, and it is in these pictures that viewers can most clearly discern the scale of the devastation.

A map presented in the gallery allows viewers to reconstruct some of the scientific findings of the photographers. Reproduced from a USSBS report, it includes not only lines demarcating the physical extent of the devastation but also points indicating the location of the buildings depicted in the photographs. Those willing to correlate between the map and the photographs can discern, in an amateur fashion, some of the scientific results of the USSBS survey. For example, buildings closer to ground zero (the point directly beneath the detonation) were likely to suffer from collapsed roofs or other structural damage that indicates the downward pressure of the blast. Those farther away were subject to the horizontal force of the explosion as it spread outward: normally upright steel beams torque away from ground zero as if blown by a strong wind. Farther away still, tree trunks and telephone poles remain upright, but the former have been shorn of all their branches—testament to the fact that the irradiated earth from which they grow is itself no longer natural.

The most complex and haunting photographs in the show, however, depict “flash burns.” In one image, the shadow of a valve used to seal off a pipe is projected onto the metal surface of the container to which it is attached. Visual habit leads viewers to believe that this is the effect of a sunny day. The caption belies this commonsense response: “‘Shadow’ of a hand valve wheel on the painted wall of a gas storage tank; radiant heat instantly burned paint where the heat rays were not obstructed.” In effect, the nuclear blast—its “bluish white glare”—turned some objects in Hiroshima into light-sensitive surfaces, resulting in what might technically if uneasily be called photograms. I say uneasily because of another, altogether sadder image also included in the show. Here we see the surface of a road, on which is chalked an arrow labeled the direction of blast. Two somewhat shapeless discolorations stretch away from small points in the direction indicated. Once again the caption, its neutral language betraying the photograph’s scientific purpose, redirects our understanding of the image: “Flash-burn on asphalt on bridge 20, 3,500 feet south from [air zero]. Shadow was cast by a man.” Two small circles marked in chalk indicate the placement of the man’s feet; one is slightly in front of the other, as if he were mid-stride. The “shadow,” this photogram-within-a-photograph, is likely the only extant evidence that someone died on that spot.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. "Shadow of a hand valve wheel...." October 14 - November 26, 1945.

The terrible details disclosed by these photographs give ballast to the 2005 Japan Society exhibition “Little Boy,” curated by artist Takashi Murakami, which examined some of the artistic and cultural fallout of the 1945 attacks. (Its title came from the nickname of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.) The photographs included in this exhibition were originally meant to document the bomb’s effects and were used in the service of bettering civil defense architecture in the United States, yet seeing them in a public museum, shorn of their narrowly utilitarian purpose, allows them to serve other functions. These photographs can, for example, give specificity to debates over the proliferation and potential abuse of nuclear weapons, a prospect that will haunt us until the bombs’ abolition. And their presentation affords us an arena in which to sharpen the terms of debate about the contrary claims of secrecy and transparency upon violent government actions. Ditto the conversations about the necessity of such Necessary Evils, their moral and ethical implications. More than six decades have passed since we dropped the bomb, making this a politically safer exhibition for the museum to mount than its autumn 2004 show of Iraqi prison photographs from Abu Ghraib. “Hiroshima Ground Zero” is nonetheless in line with that earlier, daring curatorial effort, and reveals that temporal distance hardly depletes the shock of the images themselves.

[1] The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, trans. Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 21. Additional details about the bombing and its effects described in the text are drawn from this volume.

H.W. Brands, American Colossus

Published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2010. To see this review in context (subscriber-only), please click here.

Because we are still recovering from the most spectacular breakdown of corporate capitalism since the Great Depression, any study of that system’s rise to economic preeminence in America is inherently timely. What transformed our country from a land of yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans into the home of multinational corporations capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of workers? Was the American system of free enterprise foreordained? If not, what alternatives once existed, and who championed them? Historians can follow many paths in search of answers to these questions. Alfred Chandler, in his classic business history The Visible Hand (1977), focuses upon innovations in corporate structure and strategies. Sven Beckert, in The Monied Metropolis (2001), and Thomas Kessner, in Capital City (2003), reconstruct the bustling world of late-nineteenth-century New York, engine room of the capitalist transformation. Now H.W. Brands, a prolific chronicler of the American past, turns to the era of astonishing economic and social change these historians have examined. He brings to the task his gifts as a biographer (of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and as a popular historian (of the California gold rush and the Cold War). But while his briskly paced, accessible book features the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Pierpont Morgan, American Colossus is not a fine-grained history of the business revolution they wrought or its effects on American workers. It is instead a broad survey of the period that uses “the triumph of capitalism” as a loose interpretive framework.

Brands is a reliable, even-handed guide. He strings together scores of engaging set pieces that draw liberally from first-hand accounts of society’s upheavals. These include not only famous chroniclers like Henry Adams and Booker T. Washington but also more obscure figures like Gertrude Thomas, an Augusta woman whose family had to give up its slaves not long after General Sherman marched through Georgia, and Mary Antin, a Russian Jew who emigrated to Boston two decades later. Many of Brands’s tales, from the expansion of the nation’s railroad network and the strikes of 1877 to the populist revolts of the 1890s and Morgan’s two “bailouts” of a faltering U.S. financial system, stick close to his central focus: how in “accomplishing its revolution, capitalism threatened to eclipse American democracy.” (Politicians, as indicated by Brands’s portraits of Boss Tweed in New York, Congressman bribed by proponents of the Central Pacific railroad, and William McKinley in the White House, certainly helped.) Other vignettes, while required of a textbook survey of the era, seem less fundamental here, especially a chapter on the legal battles of the Jim Crow South and lengthy descriptions of actual battles fought between Indian tribes and an ever-expanding white populace. But while some threads are only partly woven into his narrative, Brands has a gift for explanation, and he describes even tricky economic subjects like bimetallism and protectionist tariffs lucidly.

Students of this period of American history may be frustrated by Brands’s book, which is neither a sharply defined reinterpretation nor a thorough synthesis of up-to-date scholarship. Such readers may profit more from Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation (2009) or Heather Cox Richardson’s West from Appomattox (2007). But as an introduction to the giddy corporate expansion and alarming financial panics of the age, as well as the demographic shifts and social tumult that accompanied them, American Colossus succeeds with panache.

Review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters

My brief review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters (Yale) appears in the fall issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Click here (and scroll down) to read it. “[Goldberger] is suitably temperate while discussing the balance of ‘aesthetic ambition’ and ‘social purpose,’ exterior form and interior space, architecture’s effects on our emotions and on our intellect, the importance of place and time, and the architect’s responsibility to both the design he is crafting and the context it will enter.” Though Goldberger’s book arrived in stores a few weeks ago, I’ve yet to find much other review coverage, a fact that may be due in part to the preponderance of discussion concerning Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which is published in the same series. I’ll update this post with links to any coverage I come across. In the meantime, Goldberger’s personal website offers a fairly extensive archive of his writings on architecture from the past decade.

Art Education Questionnaire

My copies of Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited and introduced by Steven Henry Madoff, arrived with today’s mail. Here is part of jacket copy: “Art School brings together more than thirty leading international artists and art educators to reconsider the practices of art education in academic, practical, ethical, and philosophical terms.” Among the contributors are Thierry de Duve, Boris Groys, Robert Storr, Raqs Media Collective, Charles Esche, Ann Lauterbach, Ute Meta Bauer, and Daniel Birnbaum. Madoff invited me to formulate a questionnaire concerning art education and circulate it among prominent artists. The respondents, who discuss their experiences as both students and teachers, are Ann Hamilton, Dana Schutz, Fred Wilson, Guillermo Kuitca, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Matthew Higgs, Mike Kelley, Paul Chan, Paul Ramírez-Jonas, Piero Golia, Shirin Neshat, and Thomas Bayrle. Madoff_art_school_coverMy introduction and a selection of the artists’ answers are below. For more information on the book, visit its page on the MIT Press website.

Questionnaire Introduction

Some of the twelve prominent contemporary artists chosen to respond to this survey received fine art training in university and art school settings; one studied chemical engineering, and another studied in a workshop setting outside the bounds of academic institutions. Nearly all have, at some point, taught art themselves. With so diverse a group—whose practices, it should be said, are also varied—the lessons to be drawn from their answers are not clear-cut. Nevertheless, several broad themes emerged. First, most of those surveyed agree that you have to learn the rules in order to break them. Whether our respondents felt that M.F.A. programs should be organized by discipline, some grounding in technique seems a necessary prerequisite to the free exploration that these programs should ideally encourage. Second, in looking back at their own educations, many felt that additional study of the liberal arts or humanities would have served them well in their careers as artists. Third, the interviewees were less concerned about the effects of the art market on art education than one might expect, given the hand-writing tone of many articles and essays on the topic. Fourth, and perhaps most important, nearly all agreed that no matter how much time one spends housed in institutions, the lessons that nourish an ongoing, sustainable career can come from anywhere—and that anywhere is often outside academic settings. This may be allied to the first observation. Beyond the specifics of discipline, medium, or technique to be gleaned from professors in art school, what young artists might benefit from most is the time, space, and gentle guidance necessary to be receptive to such unpredictable lessons—to learn a way of seeing that does not occlude any avenues for inspiration or growth. This assertion may be a commonplace, but whether art schools can make a space for this—or, perhaps more accurately, whether professors and students can carve this space out from institutional demands—may be one of the defining questions that such institutions face.

Selected Questions and Answers

In art school, did you learn how to sustain yourself as an artist, both creatively and professionally? Did you feel prepared to be an artist when you graduated?

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: I learned how to make art, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep up with what “professional” means, except that I’ve noticed that regardless of fashion, it consistently involves personality rather than argument to an extraordinary degree.

Ann Hamilton: I don’t know whether I felt prepared; I think I was all too aware of the holes in my knowledge and in my inability to be articulate about my work. I was, like everyone graduating, overwhelmed by the prospect of balancing the making of work and making a living. Actually, I don’t think that has changed too much—it’s not a challenge that goes away. But what I did feel prepared for was having a studio practice; I knew what that meant to me. I knew that my studio was in the books I was reading and in the flea markets and junk stores I visited. I knew I liked to look at objects and that the forms I created came as a process of response to a situation. I was just coming to understand, as I graduated, that a studio is a state of mind and not a physical location.

Mike Kelley: There was no art market when I was in school. Being a professional artist at that time was an ideological position. I showed, I traveled, I lectured, but I did not make money from these activities. I considered myself a professional artist and was trained to be one, and I functioned as one within that world. But if professionalism is defined by economic success—well, that’s just not what it meant at the time. There is, of course, a far different attitude about this now. I do feel that my graduate experience prepared me for the art world as it existed at that time. It made me aware that art was an international phenomenon and that I could network within it. For example, as a performance artist, I knew where I could perform—and I did.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Did your art school give you any sense of having an ethical commitment to the community that it was located in?

Paul Chan: No. Where I was, in downtown Chicago, you actually didn’t want to be a part of the very local community. The neighborhood where I lived, with other art students, outside downtown, gave us more of a sense of participation. We started a gallery in Pilsen, on the South Side. This is a complicated question, but the school itself did not instill in us this sense of commitment. Then again, I never really plugged in to what the school would offer that would give me that chance.

Paul Ramirez-Jonas: In a general sense, no. In a limited sense, some of my teachers thought that art should be a critique of the art world and the use of art as a commodity. My formative experiences regarding ethics, community, and politics took place as an undergraduate—outside the field of art. Although I was shy to get involved, my friends in university were extremely active in politics, environmental issues, etc. Even in high school (in Honduras), one had to complete a year of civic service to receive a diploma. It all added up to a series of examples of the importance of action, not just talk. In comparison, my experience in art school was shockingly disengaged. This contrast between university and art school reflects my current experiences as a faculty member. I can’t help but think that this situation relates to my answer to the first question [about the most valuable lesson learned in art school].

With hindsight, would you do it the same way if you had the choice? If not, how would you have gone about your education as an artist?

Shirin Neshat: If I had a chance to repeat my education, I would take some time off between undergraduate and graduate school. My rather unproductive years in graduate school were mostly due to the fact that I wasn’t intellectually prepared to be an artist, and mostly I was never able to place myself as an Iranian within Euro-centric art history. Today I firmly believe that my return to art was provoked by the way in which I immersed myself in life experiences, encountered certain individuals and institutions, and lived in particular political environments that helped to shape and develop my art.

In fact, after I graduated from school, I became artistically inactive for nearly ten years, until the moment when I felt emotionally and intellectually motivated. I generally feel that young artists should be cautious not to get too trapped in a vacuum, where their imaginations look mainly to their intuitions as the source, as opposed to knowledge and experiences that can only be gained outside of school boundaries.

Piero Golia: I think that by never going to school, I never came out of school. I wouldn’t change that at all. In a way, because I never graduated from art school, I’m still not done. It’s easy to see today how students don’t go to school to learn but rather to receive the stamp that says “I’m an artist.” And if you pay $40,000 a year to go to school, you really expect that stamp to get you in to a lot of places. That’s one of the big dangers of the art school system in America. If you go to law school, you come out a lawyer: I can take the bar, I can go to court and argue a case. But when you graduate from art school, you are not necessarily an artist. It’s not enough just to attend, whether for a week or for years and years.

By not having a degree, I will never be able to tell people, “I am an artist,” in an officially sanctioned way. So no, I don’t regret anything. Well, I regret everything, but that has to do with Catholicism and a whole host of other issues. I regret everything, but I’m proud of everything too.

Tacita Dean

Published in Paper Monument issue one, September 2007.

There is no establishing shot. Kodak begins with an image of four elegantly curved metal ducts, from which extend cables sheathed in accordion-fold sleeves. The film unfurls from there.

Ribbons of semitransparent blue film stock scroll left-to-right, fluttering like small waves or sheaves of wheat buffeted by wind. Men in white jumpsuits—part scientist, part mechanic—inhabit futuristic rooms, ensuring the smooth operation of the machinery that surrounds them. Black-and-white shots are punctuated with richly hued color images: blushes of pink, cobalt blue, receding lines of red fluorescent tubes like contrasting stitching on dark fabric. Rolls of film stock unspool and then coil around giant drums. At one point, test paper interrupts the smooth run of pinkish celluloid through the machines, blocking out the light that had passed so gracefully through the mutable stock . . .

* * *

In recent years, Tacita Dean has reduced her investigations to their most potent essence. The films made five to ten years ago—featuring lighthouses, dilapidated buildings, sunsets, antiquated or outsized military listening devices, or the city of Berlin seen from the rotating restaurant on top of its infamous TV tower—gave way first to simpler portraits of artists and writers and, finally, in Kodak, to a meditation on the material conditions of the double-sprocketed 16mm film stock she prizes so highly.

Yet Kodak does not impart a coherent sense of the processes involved in creating this cherished material. It is more ethnographic field recording than preservationist instruction sheet. Despite the objectivity implicit in the medium, the film’s insistent abstract compositions and other close-ups impair one’s ability to understand precisely what one is looking at. Important details—the factory’s location in Chalôn-sur-Soane, France; its role as one of the few producers of 16mm film stock; the crucial fact that it was soon to close forever—are only revealed through outside reading. While the film’s gradual crescendo and decrescendo of activity seems meant to narrate one day in the life of the factory, the document is not very documentary. Atmosphere reigns.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

The nostalgia that gives rise to a meditation like Kodak has recently been given an extensive theoretical workout. Philosophers and critics from Avishai Margalit, Paul Ricoeur, and Andreas Huyssen to David Gross, Svetlana Boym, and Clive James have examined collective remembering. But there is nothing systematic, acutely penetrating, or overtly philosophical about Kodak. Dean chooses to show rather than to tell, and her film’s lyricism provides a sensuous counterpoint to the tenor of these writers’ investigations. With its sharp, deep focus and pools of luscious color, Kodak is a convincing if imperfect advertisement for the disappearing medium’s capabilities.

Perhaps the closest correlative to Kodak’s intended elegiac tenderness is to be found in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops I-IV (2003). The five-hour audio composition was created with analog, reel-to-reel tapes that were never to be played again. Finding a trove of personal recordings made in the early ’80s, Basinski discovered that oxidization had set upon the tapes, and that as he created a digital copy of their contents, the corrosion, run across the magnetic tape heads of the player, ruined the originals. A faltering digital echo of the original material, which warbles and is compromised by patches of static and complete silence, is all that remains. Each playback is a performance of the sound source’s obliteration.

Dean only allows her films to be presented publicly in their original formats, and, just as the available reserve of her preferred film stock is now disappearing, so too will her films finally disintegrate, despite attempts at preservation. Dean’s ideally attentive audience members are likely to be haunted by this finality.

Noir et Blanc, a 16mm black-and-white film also presented at the Guggenheim, literalizes this sense of reaching an endpoint: The four-and-a-half-minute, fully abstract variation on Kodak‘s theme was created using the few remaining rolls of double-sprocketed black-and-white film the artist could source. There are now apparently none left in the world. This prompts the question: Where does Dean go from here?

* * *

Kodak‘s penultimate scene, depicting the broken furniture, unkempt wires, mangled signs, and trash-strewn surfaces of the abandoned film-packaging section of the plant, is more harshly lit, such that Kodak abruptly takes on the heavy-industry-in-ruins aesthetic of post-apocalyptic cinema. Lulled by the found, abstract beauty of the film’s first thirty-five minutes, the sudden melodrama of the factory’s disassembly comes as a surprise. Is this meant to provoke indignation over the eclipse of Dean’s preferred medium? Are we meant to intervene?

But nostalgia is more paralyzing than stirring, a kind of sentimental amber encasing the objects of its adoration. In Kodak, film is both the amber and the fossilized specimen. One could wish that, faced with the prospect of making the final film on this stock, an artist would simply aim for the most achingly perfect creation the medium allows, confident that its beauty was argument enough against its extinction.

* * *

The workers move with practiced precision, fulfilling their duties calmly. Only one Kodak logo appears—as a patch on the jumpsuit of an employee, reversed by reflection. Two of them wrap a roll of newly produced film in protective plastic sheeting, expertly taping down the excess material before moving it with a hydraulic lift to a staging ground. Upon completing their shifts, they are seen in silhouette at the end of a dimly lit long hallway as they prepare to exit the building.

“Reinvesting Criticism”

Published in Fillip issue six, summer 2007.

A problem: The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger; the 2002 October roundtable on “The Crisis in Criticism”; Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice, edited by Raphael Rubinstein; and, in truth, this essay. What is to be made of contemporary writers—myself included—who lament the “helplessness” of contemporary criticism in the face of the current hyperinflated market, echoing sentiments expressed repeatedly since the dawn of the last century? A fact: Critics neither have much authority nor wield much power in today’s art world, no matter how you parse any of the terms in that statement. What is to be done? At best, the critic’s position (closer to the consumption than the production end of the art experience) and experience affords her more of a bird’s-eye view of the art-world whirl than many people get. If a critic is patient (and lucky), that social distance will help her translate on-the-ground experience with artworks to slightly broader, quasi-sociological insight. Pair those translations with opinion, sharp description, and a clear style—and temper the desire to fret about the infrequency with which they come together—and the writer can do the calling justice.

* * *

Power is a contested and shifting phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, in the minds of most in the art world, it is an abstract concept. See Art Review magazine’s annual “Power 100” list for a perfect example of how power can be calculated arbitrarily. (These lists are much discussed, as when the critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz appeared in the 2006 edition, even if not taken too seriously.) What remains undefined in lists like these, which proliferate in a strong market, is as important as what is chronicled (primarily money). Who has nominated those on the list? Over whom is the power described held? How is it exercised? What is obscured when power is considered this way is that influence, like affluence, can lead to a pathological disconnect from not only the rest of the world, but also from one’s own needs, abilities, and—perhaps most importantly—limits.

One simple way of defining power is by equating it with opportunity. I have been fortunate enough in the last few years to be offered an increasing number of chances to expound upon some of my favorite artists and topics, which has offered me the chance to shape the dialogue surrounding artworks I have experienced. When efforts are rewarded in such a way, the moment arrives when these demands and opportunities outstrip the ability to use them fully, to honor them by taking them seriously. (It should be noted that this argument assumes that critics can turn down assignments they are not interested in or capable of fulfilling, a luxury that admittedly few have.) Yet the temptation to hold on to assignments—to always say “yes”—is very strong. Alongside every offer comes the realization that it is not being offered to someone else and that, should you turn it down, karma (or reputation) will cause these chances to pass you by in the future. By acknowledging that resources and opportunities (and the power and authority they generate, especially as one reaches are a greater number of people through more influential channels) are finite, one almost immediately enters a hoarding mindset.

But it is precisely the recognition of this finitude that should encourage everyone to be mindful of his or her own limitations. If one is fortunate enough to cross the line and have a surfeit of opportunity, one should become hyper-conscious of one’s limitations and concomitantly try to (for lack of a better term) spread the wealth. There is a simple, greater-good logic that underpins this statement: With no guarantee that what you or I do will be of cultural and/or historical significance, it behooves us to foster others’ attempts to achieve similar goals. Artist and activist collectives offer one model for this kind of group engagement, but, if undertaken widely, this communitarian activity need not be regimented into something so clearly defined. It simply stands to reason that if one hundred people are attempting more or less the same project—in this case responding to, imposing patterns upon, and generally making sense of the broad realm of contemporary art—the chances are exponentially greater that one or a few individuals will succeed than if one person, however capable, forges ahead alone.

Evolutionary biologists would consider this resource sharing a kind of efficiency theory. (It also sounds somewhat like the technophile’s push for freedom-of-information or something quasi-Marxist, which it isn’t necessarily meant to be.) But species reproduction is, strictly speaking, an unconscious action. Applying an “efficiency theory” to human affairs implies a conscious suppression of that hoarding impulse, a subjugation of our own pettiness in favor of creating a stronger community—both better able to achieve its goals and more tightly bound together in its attempts to do so. The goal is to turn self-interest into what philosophers and economists call enlightened self-interest. As the short-story writer George Saunders said in a recent interview: “The thing is, we all have both of those motivations within us, every second that we’re writing. So it’s an ongoing, lifelong battle to write for the right reasons.”

How can power be given a more concrete definition, and how can that definition allow us to re-connect with our community? For writers about visual art I propose as one possible solution a semantic shift, a redefinition of “work” from one’s output to the process by which it is created. Writers should live by the creed of verbs, not nouns; “I write about art” replaces “I’m an art critic.” As the editors of n+1, a relatively new literary journal, put it when discussing Leon Wieseltier’s choice of The Moral Responsibility to Be Intelligent as the title of a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays: “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. [In this title] an attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them.” In this new conception of work, the writer’s efforts, if undertaken with enough consideration, become engaged in an ongoing process, one that furthers argument rather than stamps it out with the final word on a given subject.

* * *

Recently, Ellen Hetzel, who pens book reviews, is the coauthor of the unfortunately named “Book Babes” column, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, publicly asked a question writers on art also ask themselves: “Is a reviewer someone of lesser distinction than a critic—i.e. the equivalent of the untenured professor?” This was published on a website, and many people responded, almost all of them parsing definitions and heroically claiming the status of one or self-effacingly copping to merely being the other. (In case it isn’t clear, critics are the heroes and reviewers mere journeymen, guns-for-hire.) Hetzel opted to not enter the fray herself, instead retreating to the security of dictionary definitions: “Whenever people start defining terms, I try to ignore them—and rush for my Webster’s. According to the New World version, a reviewer is ‘a person who reviews, esp. one who reviews books, plays etc. as for a newspaper.’ A critic, meanwhile, is ‘a person who forms and expresses judgments of people or things according to certain standards or values, and/or such a person whose profession is to write or broadcast such judgments of books, music, paintings, sculpture, plays, motion pictures, television, etc., as for a newspaper.’ Well, the venues look pretty similar, and I’d contend that it’s hair-splitting to suggest much difference.”

It is hair-splitting. But what is rarely acknowledged in this discussion—which, it should be stated, can be useful but is always of secondary importance—is the amount of self-regard necessary to even engage in a lengthy consideration of this problem. Titles (critic, reviewer, whatever) are socially derived, bestowed by others: A community must agree that one has demonstrated a particular skill sufficient to earn a moniker. One doesn’t become an electrician or a chef by declaration, and so it is with those who write. Of course, I admit to having spent many hours doing precisely what I am agitating against, lamenting my reviews and comparing them, unfavorably, to the “criticism” of art historian Thomas Crow or the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn or the historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt or the literary critic John Bayley, or … well, you get the idea. Consider this a mea culpa. The critic-versus-reviewer binary now seems to me invalid in at least two ways. First, as Hetzel and others have rightly noted, the difference is so slight that one can hardly discern it and so subjective that even if one saw it clearly, another interested party might simply disagree with the terms—and be right herself. All written responses to cultural stimuli are, if undertaken in good faith, equally worth consideration, no matter their author; it happens often that a well-written 150-word blurb offers more insight than a bloated 1,500-word essay. Second, and perhaps more dramatically, for me the terms are themselves suspect, especially “critic,” with the shiver of impassive authority it sends down the spines of those subject to her judgments.

Focusing on verbs—to review, to write criticism—flattens out, to the extent possible, the hierarchy implicit in the relationship between reviewers/critics and readers, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical and instructive role switching. This emphasis on verbs likewise creates a situation in which one must apply oneself fully to each task; there are no titles or laurels to rest on. If anything, success raises expectation and makes its recapitulation more difficult: Page through Arnold Rampersand’s new biography of Ralph Ellison, who never followed Invisible Man with a second novel, for a painful illustration of the disastrous, paralyzing effects of early accomplishment. I will use myself as another, extremely modest example. In the past four years I have published several hundred pieces of writing about art, but having done so neither guarantees that what I write next will be mind opening, authoritative—or even factually correct. (Although I edit for a living, I certainly rely on editors and fact-checkers when writing.) Nor does it grant me intrinsic authority in the field of art criticism over anyone reading this, much less in the art world at large. In fact, it’s probable you have never before encountered my name. This text and the ideas in it must stand on their own, a truth simultaneously chastening and exhilarating.

“It’s the critic’s job to make an evidentiary and rhetorical argument; and the reader’s freedom to reject it. One’s power lasts only within the space of the review: that is its frail beauty,” notes the literary critic James Wood. If there is a greater example than Wood of a writer working in English today who understands this fact and consequently puts everything he has into each text, I have yet to find him. The power he describes is bifurcated, applying first to the writer and then to the reader. For the writer, creating a strong, clear argument has a tonic effect, energizing in its re-affirmation of the value of what one has chosen to do. Second, the end result can reshape the experience of the reader (or viewer or listener) who comes into contact with said text and can discern the effort marshaled in its creation. In both writer and reader, honest creation begets—at its best—further creation. The initial act clears a space for reflection, reconsideration, and dialogue, each of which potentially leads to the furthering its aims.

This is by no means a call for heroic action. Yet by suturing together many small gestures, each undertaken earnestly, much can be achieved. For many, I suspect this is a simple point, but perhaps made more valuable by virtue of how infrequently it is foregrounded in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary art criticism. Katy Siegel is right to point out (paradoxically, in the volume edited by Rubinstein) that the perceived and widely commented upon “crisis” is no more than a lament about the waning of the critic’s “social importance and contingent personal dignity.” Fundamental questions about the nature of art (and by extension the nature of life), posed by an ever-increasing number of artists, remain to be answered. By working assiduously, with humility and patience and cooperation, we may finally be up to the task of answering them.

Carl Andre, Cuts and Donald Judd, Complete Writings

Published as “Paint by Letters” in the New York Press, June 29 – July 5, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

CUTS: Texts 1959-2004
Carl Andre (ed. James Meyer)
MIT Press, $45, 352 pages

Donald Judd
Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, $55, 240 pages

“Criticism is pretty much after the fact,” wrote Donald Judd in 1962. “Frank Stella’s paintings are one of the recent facts.” Some time later, Carl Andre wrote, “THEORY IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE / PROPHECY RESHAPES EXPERIENCE / SMITHSON IS A PROPHET.”

This is not simply advocacy work on behalf of friends. In the 60s, as art historian James Meyer points out in the introduction to a newly published collection of Andre’s writings, artists increasingly picked up the pen—to contextualize their work and to refute the claims of an ever-growing cadre of professional critics, whether overly literary or dryly theoretical. They often wrote, paradoxically, to insist on the primacy of the art viewing experience. Foremost among these artist-writers was Judd, who, along with Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, published regularly in monthly art magazines. Andre, though less visible to the public, was no less active as a writer: he frequently contributed to exhibition catalogs, and has created over the last 45 years a vast corpus of taped and written interviews, correspondence, and, above all, poetry.

Meyer has picked his way nimbly across Andre’s “heap of language” (to borrow a phrase from Smithson), producing a handy volume that nestles texts from different decades together, and is arranged, like an encyclopedia, by subject. This emphasizes the consistency (detractors would call it repetition or limitation) of Andre’s concerns. Meyer notes that, “Andre disavowed being a prose writer…he wrote only as much as was needed,” and, “aspire[d] to the epigrammatic.”

Indeed, the prose entries, which range in length from one sentence to several pages, are distinct for their (poetic) compression. His sentences are short and emphatic, often missing the words that serve as connective tissue in more mellifluous writing: in a letter to Sol LeWitt dated 1970, Andre more or less does away with periods altogether, stringing together a series of ideas about the artist’s position in capitalist society with dashes serving as pauses for breath. His style occasionally borders on the harangue—as when he takes shots at Conceptual and performance art—but the refreshing directness of his voice and his occasional (if unintentional) humor mitigate any annoyance.

But it is Andre’s poetry—along with the prose selections offering his thoughts on poetry—that is the highlight of this book. Much of what is included has never before been published. Meyer devotes half of his introduction to this work, highlighting Andre’s emphasis on the particular (the word) over the whole (the sentence), an exegesis that also indirectly illuminates Andre’s sculpture. Both practices—poem-making and object-making—are materialist, in the sense that Andre’s ultimate fidelity to copper, zinc, words, wood, and steel is an attempt to negate all meaning and symbolism; to treat “matter as matter.” His refusal to solder together steel plates or bind words together into sentences is a celebration of what is already there, albeit with the caveat that each of these things is man-made. “I try to discover my visions in the conditions of the world,” he writes. This is best exemplified by the sheets reproduced from Andre’s longhand or typewritten originals. They present either a singular, essential arrangement—with Green (1960), you can’t imagine the words laid out in any other manner—or show Andre cycling methodically through permutations, as in Sol LeWitt (2000).

Judd’s prose shares Andre’s concision—a Carveresque minimalism from two minimalists who disavowed the term as applied to their art—but his collected writings make for a very different book. The majority of this volume is given over to his monthly reviews and previews for Arts magazine, written between 1959 and 1965. These pieces are often declamatory and occasionally hectoring or dismissive, but always worth reading. There is no better written record of contemporary art shown in New York galleries during this period, a fact that makes this collection invaluable even before considering the relationship of these texts to Judd’s art, which is arguably the most important body of sculpture created in the second half of the twentieth century. The book has been out of print for years, and while $55 is too expensive for a paperback with black-and-white reproductions, I’ve seen 1975 first edition copies for sale online for as much as $1,000, so the press is to be commended for bringing these valuable texts back into circulation.

These days it can be argued that market intelligence—the consensus of dealers, curators, and collectors—has supplanted the critical intelligence epitomized by Judd and Andre’s written work, and by the efflorescence of written discourse four decades ago. The near concurrent publication of these two volumes offers a challenge to artists, and critics, working now to rejuvenate that great cultural conversation.

Christine Hill

Published in issue one of Work magazine, fall 2004.

It’s by design that Brooklyn-based Christine Hill is seated behind a desk in the accompanying photo. An unusual theme among contemporary artists, “work” is both subject and object of Hill’s multifaceted practice. Over the past dozen years, she has assumed the role of receptionist, shopkeeper, rock star, street cleaner, lecturer, tour guide, television talk show host, and—all along the way—archivist, pursuing a defiantly individualist path through an art world that hasn’t always known what to make of her.

Since 1996, Hill’s efforts have taken place under the rubric of Volksboutique, which started in East Berlin as a secondhand shop-slash-social space and now operates as an “organizational venture,” incorporated in Germany and New York State. What unites these disparate activities, along with the Volksboutique name, is a disciplined, self-sufficient, and hands-on approach: the artist is involved in all aspects of her productions, no matter the scale. She is a rigorous organizer, assiduous recycler, and unfaltering performer. She is also meticulous about aesthetics, and has developed a mix of 1950s American corporate optimism (“Make the most of what you’ve got!” reads one poster) and 1970s East German industrial functionality, both curiously filtered through a DIY sensibility whose implements include lots of rubber stamps and antiquated machinery.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, conceptual artists dematerialized the art object—to borrow the phrase coined by Lucy Lippard, who has also written about Hill—and Volksboutique is a significant furthering of that investigation, wherein the “work” is not only a noun (the object), but also a verb (the act of making). For Hill, the two are as inseparable as “life” and “art,” and gallery visitors will almost invariably find Hill working full-time in her exhibition spaces, preparing for her next project while the current one is on view. Such was the case with “Home Office,” her autumn 2003 solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. The central objects of the exhibition were Portable Office Prototypes: a collection of five custom-designed faux-antique steamer trunks, each outfitted with the accoutrements necessary for Hill to execute different tasks (reception, accounting, public relations, production, and management) in her one-woman enterprise. Appropriate outfits, desk accessories, and nametags accompanied each persona. She conducted business in the front room while exhibition documentation and an array of models for future projects filled the other. My first meeting with the artist (as Christine E. Hill, office manager) was at this desk; appropriately, I had an appointment.

David Altmejd

Published in Flash Art, May 2004.

David Altmejd, Untitled (Dark), 2001

David Altmejd, Untitled (Dark), 2001

New York artist David Altmejd’s grotesque sculptures, usually comprised of heads or other fragments of monster bodies, directly engage the repressed underside of our imagination and incongruously mix the things we dare not consciously consider with a certain sense of cheap glamour. His recent works, accumulations of small, sparkling found elements surrounding an incomplete werewolf body, spring from an intuitive process that serves as metaphor for peering into this realm of the unspoken. Altmejd rarely knows how a work will look when it is finished: he is an obsessive conjurer, bringing implausible sculptures into being as if he was in a trance or channeling spirits through the Ouija board. Often grouped with “new Gothic” artists, his use of the werewolf as horror movie cliché touchstone instead of, say, the knife-wielding serial killer, is telling. His is a morbid, Victorian-era take on the heinous (typified by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein): the sculptures are absent any explicit violence, preferring the dread of the unknown or otherworldly to a forensic analysis of cruelty. It’s easy to imagine Altmejd’s monsters as protagonists in a cryptic narrative, yet Altmejd does not intentionally set any in motion. Instead, his creative energies are invested in the object itself—the artist likens his practice to process art—and the rest is left to the viewer. The sculptures are specimens laid out for us to examine, and they are dark, exquisitely beautiful (often employing eye-pleasing colors and seductive materials), compulsive, meticulously detailed without being fussy or perfectionist, shiny, and just a little bit sick. The intensely appealing layer of crystals, glitter, rhinestones, jewelry, and other materials that seem to spring up organically from the plaster heads defers the horror of beholding such monstrosities. Altmejd highlights the tension between the need to avert our eyes and to take in every gruesome detail; his bringing together of opposite worlds—the horrific and the glamorous—suggests that the distance between them may reside in our perceptions alone.

The monsters are frequently integrated into table-like pedestals that recall mid-century furniture or modernist sculptures: they present horizontal surfaces at different heights, often have mirrored elements, and, importantly, allow for a theatricalized placement of the heads. He carves boxes and tunnels out of these structures, placing a head in a form-fitting hall of mirrors that distorts perception. The gesture calls to mind Robert Smithson’s use of the material in the service of his exploration of entropy. Yet unlike in Smithson’s work, Altmejd’s structures seem sound (his 2002 New York solo exhibition was titled “Clear Structures for a New Generation”): it is the body, and vision, that inevitably decay.

This entropy is a metamorphosis from one state to another, and the critic Andrea K. Scott has perceptively noted the central role transformation plays in Altmejd’s work: we can all call to mind films in which a character morphs from human to werewolf. His werewolves sprout crystals (liquid gone solid). But beyond the obvious transitions, Altmejd understands that the process of decay carries within it the promise of growth and his objects arrest the moment where the former becomes the latter. Their energy is not kinetic, but potential, and lies dormant until activated by the presence of a viewer. When peering closely at the details of Altmejd’s decapitated and decaying hand-crafted heads, it is difficult to shake the uncanny sensation that the werewolf eye may blink at any moment, springing to life like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

His most recent works combine the werewolf heads with equally hideous bodies, rendered slightly smaller than life size and often with deformed or missing limbs. For Young Men with Revolution on their Minds, an installation at the recent Istanbul Biennial that comes to the Whitney Biennial this spring, mirrored boxes were not only carved out of and protruding from the pedestal, but also from the body itself, exposing bones that traverse Altmejd’s otherwise empty mirrored cubes. Words were scribbled on these bones—he is fascinated by the idea of a body, and particularly its bones, as a tabula rasa for language—and in the infinite reflections of this space, Altmejd introduced communication as another element subject to distortion and decay. Surrounding the decomposing corpse and two additional heads was a mélange of inorganic found objects: toy birds, jewels, stacked cubes and pointed stalagmites made from transparent plastic, silver chains, crystals, and glitter, all lit from below. This perishing body became the site of ever more new growth and activity, a duality that The Old Sculptor and The Sculptor’s Oldest Son (both 2003) amplify. Exhibited at group shows in New York, both works feature birds, connected via thin chains, tugging at the lifeless forms in an attempt to rouse activity. But the bodies are too far gone for that—The Sculptor’s Oldest Son is missing an arm, a leg, and everything but the bones of his other leg—and life moves on to the next cycle. The Old Sculptor sprouts flowers: Chelsea is built on landfill, and one can easily imagine these works sinking back into the muck beneath the galleries to literally push up daises. The works would rest together, just blocks apart, like kin at a graveyard family plot.

An atypical recent project suggests a much more direct and psychologically complex notion of family than that evoked by The Old Sculptor and his oldest son. Sarah Altmejd, 2003, is a double sculptural portrait of the artist’s sister first presented at Galerie SKOL in the artist’s hometown of Montreal. The invitation card showed a snapshot of Sarah and the press release detailed David’s love for her. Entering the small back room of the gallery, however, the viewer encountered adoration gone astray: one sculpture depicted her with three-quarters of her face missing, as if the flesh had been consumed by acid, and the other showed a lifeless head sprouting crystals. Like references to self and child in his other titles, Altmejd’s turn from unknown figures to rendering a specific person intensifies the creep factor.

David Altmejd, The Lovers, 2004

David Altmejd, The Lovers, 2004

So does encountering Altmejd’s work outside the confines of the gallery environment. His proposal for the Public Art Fund’s “Art in the Park” portion of this year’s Whitney Biennial places two heads—one white, one black, both shockingly overscaled—beside an out-of-the-way path near the middle of Central Park. Even though we know it to be man-made, Central Park represents nature creeping back onto the island, disordering our order and interrupting our street grid, offering not only sites for Sunday relaxation but overnight home to all manner of illicit activities. It is anything but the sanctified space of the white cube. That his work should end up there seems strangely appropriate, yet coming across these heads while all alone on a crisp early Spring evening will certainly unsettle the nerves. Altmejd’s earlier works, laid flat on their pedestals in varying states of decay, are available for close scrutiny like the monster felled by a hero’s sword. Not so the works to be placed in Central Park. Like a mad scientist, having brought these unnatural creatures into being, Altmejd is now busy picking them apart and setting them loose in the environment.

Doug Aitken

Published in English and Japanese in Paper Sky issue 11.

For the past twelve years, Los Angeles-based Doug Aitken, now in his mid-30s, has made a string of seductively beautiful single- and multi-channel video installations along with films, installations, photographs, sound works, collages, and artist’s books. The varied output is indicative of his complete comfort with the image world: Aitken’s work has taken him to varied locations on five continents. Each time he returns to the studio with footage he begins an editing process that results in a fully resolved artwork loaded with memorable, refined images of the world in motion. Beginning with the completion of inflection, his first video, in 1992, Aitken has exhibited his work at film festivals and art exhibitions around the globe.

Doug Aitken, new skin, 2002

Doug Aitken, new skin, 2002

“I live in an image world. I store images,” begins the female narrator of new skin (2002), a recent four-channel video installation by Aitken. Projected into the corners made by two interlocking elliptical screens, new skin tells the story of a young woman, facing the loss of her eyesight, who endeavors somewhat frantically to mentally catalogue as many images as possible. She sits alone in a loft, chain-smoking cigarettes while flipping through magazines and books. The narrative is driven by interspersed shots of a digital clock counting down: as it moves closer to zero, the pace quickens. The characters and objects that make up her everyday life are gradually blacked out, isolating her in a constrained space on the screen. Near the end, the woman stands before a mirror, reaching toward her reflection in an attempt to physically capture the image disappearing in front of her face. The video image disappears into blackness and we hear the mirror crash to the floor.

Throughout the 1990s, Aitken’s largely non-narrative installations were preoccupied with notions of the landscape, speed, and our relationship to both. monsoon (1995) explored the left-behind tropical setting of Jonestown, Guyana, the site of a 1978 mass suicide; diamond sea (1997) rendered visible the hidden landscape of two diamond mines in Africa; and into the sun (1999) linked the culture of Bollywood to the streets of its birth in Bombay. Since electric earth (1999), an eight-screen installation shown at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and the 2000 Whitney Biennial, Aitken has gradually left behind the specifics of landscape to focus on the characters who inhabit them and the mechanics of viewers’ perception.

Technological progress not only changes the materials and objects we interact with in everyday life; it also alters our notions of speed, space, and time. Aitken amplifies these changes with his work and highlights our constant need for recalibration. The perambulatory nighttime journey in electric earth, set in Los Angeles, presents the sole character as almost mystically in tune with his surroundings, a condition to which the Aitken seems to aspire. “I see my artwork as challenging my way of living, allowing me to move at a constantly changing speed.” Pushing the human body and the mind’s ability to process information to find the moment when “what’s around you fuses with the work you’re making”fascinates him.

Doug Aitken, interiors, 2003

Doug Aitken, interiors, 2003

The peripatetic artist may very well have hit that point with the simultaneous presentation a year ago of three new video installations. new skin was accompanied at 303 Gallery in New York by on (2002), a three-channel work, while interiors (2002) debuted at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Whereas new skin eschewed identification with place in favor of outlining the protagonist’s internal monologue, on can be seen as a culmination of the place-specific, non-narrative strand of his artmaking. Both new skin and on are beguiling, but each seems to lack the component that is the strength of the other.

The varied components of Aitken’s visual exploration were only—yet masterfully—tied together by interiors (2002), a three-screen installation that traveled to Austria and London after its stateside debut. In Philadelphia, visitors entered a large room filled by a cross-shaped space delineated by walls made of semitransparent scrims and one open end. Four short videos, each with its own soundtrack, were projected one at a time in varying combinations on the three scrims located at the end of each stem of the “cross.” Each of the four scenarios featured a different character: a helicopter factory employee, a Japanese auctioneer, a young female handball player, and Andre Benjamin of the hip-hop duo Outkast. Each scene begins with a quiet moment of reflection on their immediate environment, situating the activity to come. Then the action takes off: as each character’s activity increases in intensity, the viewer’s eyes bounce back and forth from screen to screen, unable to take it all in. The coordination in tempo and sound of all three visible scenarios gradually becomes apparent as each protagonist reaches a heightened state of concentration. The factory employee sands a painted helicopter before erupting into tap dancing; the auctioneer practices his delivery at increasing speed and volume; the pace of the handball player’s game picks up; and, after wandering L.A. in silence, Andre Benjamin bursts into rap.

Their internal focus is so extreme—a state that is likely paralleled by Aitken working methods in the studio—that all else falls away both on screen and off. Visitors bathe in the glow of images and are surrounded by the rhythmic crescendo of the soundtrack. It is at this moment we undergo Aitken’s fusion of body and environment, glimpsing the fruit of his effort to fuse image with sound and life with work. We come off the high with the characters as Aitken introduces a peaceful coda to each scenario that reintegrates protagonist with surroundings. And the loop begins again.

Aitken notes that after the completion of these video installations, the past twelve months have emphasized “aggressive experimentation. This year has been an attempt to step back, to not make fully resolved work.” Whether that involves tweaking further his masterful understanding of architectural video installations or tackling new mediums, traveling the world or staying at home in L.A., it will seem like a distillation of Aitken’s restless eye and of our current moment.

Cady Noland

Published as “Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland,” a one-off photocopied fanzine, in an edition of 250 copies.



Written in 1987 and presented in Atlanta at an academic conference on evil, Cady Noland’s Towards a Metalanguage of Evil outlines in detail the power politics inherent to the relationship between a psychopath and his victim, or ‘mark.’ In fifteen named sections, the disquisition ranges across a variety of references from the television shows Dynasty and Dallas to Hemingway and Hitchcock; from Erving Goffman and Emile Durkheim to Little Red Riding Hood and Antonioni’s Blow-Up. In the process the essay, which veers from academic appraisal of key sociology texts to scenarios that could have been lifted from her life as an artist, delineates the territory in which Noland would work for approximately ten years, before effectively removing herself from the art circuit in the late 1990s.

The essay posits a model of social activity as a vicious game of lies, deception, and coldness, with X, a person who exhibits psychopathic characteristics, and Y, X’s victim, as constants. Despite the site of its initial presentation, the paper refuses to stick to an academic tone and theoretical subject matter. It is a constellation of fragments, each held together by pop- or academic-culture references and anchored in the concept of psychopathology. Yet X and Y are never grounded in real-world examples, and it is therefore tempting to assume that one stands for Cady Noland herself and the other for the celebrity and tabloid cultures she interrogates in her work. But rather than directly insert her into either role, it may be more useful to simply keep the essay in mind while considering her work. Her sculptures and installations can be viewed as a visual corollary to several concepts outlined within the text: several works derive their names from the essay itself.

By issuing a prescriptive manifesto of sorts, it is easy to connect Noland’s art to that of Minimalists such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, all prolific writers as well as sculptors. Formal connections are also present, from her use of industrial materials to her deployment of increasingly reductive visual forms over the course of her career. But her art refuses the muteness of Minimalist works. Noland’s Minimalism, if it can be called that, is instead rooted in an economy of gesture: each installation is specifically calibrated to produce maximum effect on the viewer; no object is out of place and each contributes to the greater whole; as Robert Nickas has noted, she finds meaning in material and language.[1] (Another key difference is that hers was a finish fetish with its sleeves rolled up; the cold silver steel comes from tough, pre-fabricated objects instead of delicate custom-made forms.) The flooding of minimal forms with associative meaning places her works squarely within the realm explored by the Postminimal generation of American sculptors whose work blossomed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These artists, such as Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Mike Kelley, also imbued minimalism with meaning, but theirs was often lyrical or personal. Noland’s life seems resolutely separate from her art: T.S. Eliot’s dictum that “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates” would likely meet with her approval. Despite presenting less intimate concerns than her peers—this deliberate removal of self from work perhaps prefigures her later attempt to remove her art from the art world—formal links to other artists of the period can be discerned. For example, Noland’s early “Trashed Mailbox” works, collections of pre-fabricated objects (including a mailbox) corralled by a gridded steel basket that looks like an industrial dish rack, parallel works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in which the artist sold an empty box to a collector and then slowly filled it with personal mementos via mail. At the other end of her career, Noland’s Untitled, 1997-98, a sculpture of a metal pipe standing vertically at the center of a whitewall tire, resonates with Gober’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary pierced by a culvert, the central image of his 1997 installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. These artists’ gaze often turned inward; Noland’s eye is unblinkingly focused on the oddities and perversities of the outside world.


During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Noland’s art could not be misattributed to an artist living outside the United States: her sculptures and installations—accumulations of metal pipe, geriatric walkers, American flags, police paraphernalia, automobile accessories, chain-link fencing, Budweiser cans, and other industrially-fabricated objects—disclose an obsession with and canny understanding of the seamy underside of lower-middle class white American culture. “Pathology” is a term often used in the discussion of her art, and during this period her eye acted as surgeon or scientist, dissecting the body of American social interaction and extracting the toxins within. At the beginning of her essay, Noland reiterates a theory, attributed to Columbia University professor Ethel Spector Person, that states the activity of a psychopath is similar to socially sanctioned characteristics of entrepreneurial males. Boundaries are only crossed by the psychopath’s amplification of that behavior; likewise Noland’s “curio collection of dramatic ordinariness and casual catastrophies”[2] amplifies meaning. Her art made visible the psychopathology of American culture.

Part of this process occurs through divorcing objects from their natural setting. Noland brings some items in from outside—chain-link fences, gallows, mailboxes, and barbecues—and moves others from the domestic environment to the gallery space. This dissociation heightens the communicative ability of each individual object; each is viewed on its own terms. In Our American Cousin, 1989, the accoutrements of summertime festivities—a grill, Budweiser cans, hamburger buns—seem oddly out of place, an unnaturalness heightened by their juxtaposition with a folding bed frame snapped shut around a car bumper, a pair of handcuffs, and a red, white, and blue USA 1 decorative license plate. The narrative built from each element’s associations, like that offered by Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, is disjointed and open-ended. Our American Cousin mixes genial backyard relaxation with implicit violence; a commercially available patriotism with the decay of the body alluded to by geriatric walkers; the taint of alcoholism with the restraint of police forces; or, most literally, the horror of automobile accidents with the enveloping security of the bedroom.

Around this time Noland also worked with images that wove together American history, pop culture, and violence. She silkscreened book pages—one from a history of the Colt firearms company, another one from an account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth—and wire service images of Patty Hearst and Lee Harvey Oswald onto aluminum panels. These were either propped up in the center of a gallery space or leaned against its walls. It is somewhat ironic that perhaps the most often reproduced artwork of her oeuvre, Oozewald, 1989, appropriates the infamous image of Lee Harvey Oswald doubling over after being shot by Jack Ruby: the artwork’s popularity perpetuates the image’s infamy. The metal onto which this picture has been silkscreened is also metaphorically shot: Noland has excised several circular “bullet holes” from Oswald’s face, heart, and midsection. In an apposite reminder of where the action, the image, and its appropriation takes place, Oswald oozes not blood but the red of an American flag.

Noland’s repeated use of Patty Hearst imagery parallels another late 1980s use of ‘radical chic’ imagery in contemporary art: Gerhard Richter’s meditation on the Baader-Meinhof gang in the fifteen-painting cycle October 18, 1977. There are several coincidences: Richter created his paintings in 1988 while Noland began her sculptures in 1989; Ulrike Meinhof left a career as a journalist to go underground as an activist/terrorist and Patty Hearst is heiress to the publishing fortune that bears her name. But the key similarity is in both works’ ambiguity: neither Noland nor Richter comment directly on the content of their images, instead relying on the efficacy of what they picture. (When considering their power, it is worth noting that the pictures will long outlive the people in them.) Robert Storr has written that Richter’s paintings “speak from a confusion that more accurately defined the reality of the situation than any view that presupposed an unclouded perspective.”[3] Stated intentions cut off avenues of interpretation, especially when working with culturally loaded imagery. Noland and Richter’s silence regarding their artworks allow a profusion of connotations to blossom. It is also important to remember that Germany’s relationship to the Baader-Meinhof gang is different from America’s relationship to Patty Hearst. As Storr notes, when Richter first exhibited this suite of paintings, German citizens were still making sense of more than a decade’s worth of terrorist attacks; Richter was prodding a wound not yet healed. Response to Noland’s works seems to have been much less conflicted. We have relegated Hearst to a position of historical anomaly as we move on to the actions of other celebrities and outlaws. This transformation is also central to Noland’s practice: she is concerned with both the conditions that give rise to these images and, ultimately, their transience.


The text of Towards a Metalanguage of Evil was re-edited and given three-dimensional form on the occasion of Documenta IX in 1992. Noland’s installation was placed in the underground parking garage at the Friedrichsplatz—site of the Museum Fridericianum, a central Documenta venue—in Kassel, Germany. Here, Noland cast her eye further than with previous installations, incorporating not only discrete objects and appropriated images, but also elements of the site itself and works by other artists. The installation ran along fifty meters of concrete wall between the pedestrian entrance and the vehicular access ramp, and in it

…documentary photographs from newspaper [reports] are mixed up with work by other New York artists and materials lying around for electric systems that still have to be installed. Escape route markings and monochrome canvases, small wall elements between massive concrete supports, barriers and graffiti, markers stuck on the floor next to patches of petrol and oil—boundaries between what is staged and what is already there become blurred. Old traces and newly laid tracks can no longer be clearly distinguished.[4]

The objects are once again unsettled. The empty, overturned, and wrecked passenger van—the first object seen by viewers in a passing car—was set upon a symbolic sculptural base made of wooden pallets. Several blown-up sections of the text—Noland silkscreened the essay onto aluminum panels and included them in the installation—are partially obscured by loosely wrapped transparent plastic sheeting of the kind often used to store artworks. The lamps illuminating the installation brightly light from below part of another car, as if a mechanic was at work. The entire installation seems provisional or still under construction, abandoned or frozen.

Roland Nachtigaller, in the exhibition catalogue, points out the absence of the body amidst this detritus. Indeed, although everything included is in some way man-made, the lack of a living presence speaks to our dissociation from what we have produced. Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, sometimes discussed as a precursor to Cady Noland’s work, succinctly illustrated this schism while allowing it to reside safely in the past. The violence in Towards a Metalanguage of Evil is both past- and future-tense; it has either already been enacted upon the bodies depicted in its imagery or is waiting to be activated by bodies that enter its space. (The entire work was cordoned off by red and white striped caution tape.) The potential for pain is discomfiting and is a product of the openness with which Noland approaches her work.

Noland transcended the specifically American context of her earlier work to present an artwork rooted in time but not place: the installation is characteristic of an image-saturated late modern moment and culturally relevant to an international audience. The violence depicted in this work permeates the air like a fine mist, subtle yet ever-present, mirroring the way contemporary culture is suffused with suffering, destruction, and confusion. Noland’s prowess lies in her ability to artistically arrange everyday reality to highlight that which we might not otherwise want to see.


There is a pendular theory of historical progression which states that each swing from one endpoint to the other occurs in a decreasing amount of time. The conditions that gave rise to the Nixon-era late 1960s and early 1970s mined by Cady Noland’s art were coming back into view while she made her work twenty years later. Now, a dozen years after her installation at Documenta IX, and faced as we are with an unpopular war on foreign soil, Michael Jackson’s pending court battle, and countless other abnormal scenarios, it seems that the pendulum has once again come full swing. (Think also of Unknown Quantity, the widely discussed exhibition Paul Virilio curated recently for the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.)

Noland has removed herself from the art world but one cannot help but wonder what she makes of the present moment. The last section of her essay is titled “Time Mechanisms: Rushing and Stalling,” and states:

There are times when X sees that the configuration of elements—be they persons, objects, or events, are in a pattern of environment hostile to the development of his program. X has two choices in this case: he may vacate the situation, or he can wait until a shift occurs which makes the environment more adaptable to his plan.[5]

Perhaps she is stalling and will one day choose to exhibit her work. As we move further from the time of its creation and exhibition, and as her influence proliferates among a generation of young artists eager to plumb the underside of contemporary culture, it becomes increasingly important to not let her significant achievement slip from memory.


1. Nickas, Robert. “Cady Noland: Publyck Sculpture,” MONO: Oliver Mosset, Cady Noland. Zurich: migros museum für gegenwartskunst, 1999. Unpaginated.
2. Nachtigäller, Roland. “In the Garage of Meaning,” Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, Edition Cantz, Stuttgart, Germany, 1992. p. 46.
3. Storr, Robert. “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting,” Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002. p. 76.
4. Nachtigäller, p. 46.
5. Noland, Cady. “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, p. 22.

Interview: Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset

Published in the first issue of Ten Verses, a now-defunct online magazine I edited in 2002–2003.

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have collaborated since 1995. Their art fuses the legacy of 1960s and 1970s institutional critique with sexual and identity politics. In their Powerless Structures, often taking the form of sculptural installations, the “white cube” of the gallery space has been sunk into the ground, suspended from the ceiling, reproduced at ninety per cent scale, and opened up to other artists. Many of these works have actually been situated outside of the gallery or institution altogether, such as their Cruising Pavilion / Powerless Structures, Fig. 55, 1998. A park in Aarhus, Denmark, became the site of a gay cruising pavilion; its form mimicking the architecture of galleries while mixing private with public and bringing before visitors the activities that are often conducted in parks, however surreptitiously. I spoke with the artists via e-mail during May 2003.

Brian Sholis: Your decision to move to Berlin was a conscious one, and it coincided with the city’s emergence as a contemporary art center. What prompted the move and why did you decide on Berlin over cities like London, Paris, or New York?

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset: Well, first of all we have always been a bit lazy; Berlin was right next to Copenhagen (only 375 kilometers), where we used to live. Working as visual artists and also being a gay couple, the context of the Scandinavian art scene had become a bit claustrophobic for us. It was not exactly as liberated there as it might appear from an outsider’s perspective, especially not if you, as a gay man, had to do your stuff within the very macho-dominated art scene of the post 1980’s Denmark. There were few progressive art institutions and we began to know them all a bit too well. So we were looking for some new inspiration and energy, some new challenges. Rents and living costs were extremely inexpensive in Berlin around 1997 when we first moved to the city. Berlin Mitte was still a total shithole, full of squat houses, illegal clubs and small alternative galleries. Nobody really had a clue about how the city would develop or what it would turn into; the entire urban structure was chaotic and open-ended. It was quite a relief when we first arrived here from the hyper-organized Scandinavian society, where anyone thinks that the world is about to go under if the bus is five minutes late.

In 1999, we had a residency in New York and were seriously considering staying there—we made so many fantastic friends—but today we are quite happy that we decided to move back to Berlin. The Berlin scene seems more concentrated on content and dialogue than the scene in New York. The artists here support each other in a different way; it’s not so competitive. Somehow the art community in Berlin has kept its innocence whereas it can be hard to find a gallery show in Chelsea that is not just a “wrap-to-go” kind of show.

BJS: The flourishing contemporary art scene in Berlin mimics a structural transformation of the city unparalleled since post-WWII reconstruction efforts. How has the changing cityscape affected your artistic practice? How do power dynamics in the city of Berlin affect your thinking about the Powerless Structures?

ME & ID: The title of our ongoing series of works Powerless Structures is derived from our misreading Foucault. He speaks about how the structures themselves can impose no power—only the way we deal with them. The structures as such only reflect the public opinion and any structure could in fact at any point be altered or interchanged with a new set of structures. As a new or rather re-born capital, Berlin was undergoing a transition that gave the city a specific dynamic: it was probably triggered by a general confusion among the decision-makers since no one really knew what to do with a city that had doubled in size overnight. It was as if the regular control mechanisms had broken down. Even today the city planning is rather out of control in both good and in bad ways. Many temporary spaces have made important contributions to the cultural landscape here; venues open, close, and move to other locations all the time. These nomadic tendencies have certainly had an impact on our work and on our ideas of a more flexible public infrastructure.

BJS: In an earlier interview with Daniel Birnbaum, Michael, you stressed the importance of close communication with other people involved in your projects the need to have an interest in the specific exhibition place/community. Miwon Kwon has recently argued that notions of site-specificity have expanded from a sedentary model (physically site-specific artwork completely bound to its exhibition space) to a nomadic one wherein the artists’ expertise becomes a mobilizable force placed in exhibition spaces across the globe. As your practice becomes more well-known and as you travel further and more often to exhibit, how do you manage to develop/maintain ties to the quite specific communities and locales in which you show? If this proves too difficult, what do you think will replace these concerns?

ME & ID: In those cases where we do something site-related or when we do a project related to the local socio-cultural conditions, our personal contact to the community—which we may address or incorporate—is still highly important for us. Of course, it adds up to many research trips each year and we are not spending much time at home, but compared to when we first started working, we now have a much better setup in Berlin. We have some absolutely fantastic assistants that we collaborate with in our studio. This leaves us with the ability to concentrate more on the “software” part of our production and less on logistics and practical matters.

We resist ending up in situations where we just fly in, dump our art project, and fly out again the following day without having any impression of the city, the venue, or the larger context that frames our exhibition. It simply doesn’t make any sense for our working method. We keep in contact with a lot of the people with whom we have collaborated in our projects: the team of local female curators taking care of our gallery set up at Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana; the woman who lives above the Massimo de Carlo gallery in Milan; and some of the guys we just included in our project “Paris Diaries” in Paris. We consider this communication the fun part of the whole process, not an extra burden.

Doing more shows gives us the option of saying no to invitations if the conditions are not right, if there is a lack of communication or seriousness, if preparation and planning time turns out to be far too short, etc. Somehow we are still some fucking amateurs as we are driven mostly by our desire and curiosity. The difference between artists who did site-specific works in the 1970’s and today’s artists is not that big. Artists’ practices have always been mobile and artists have always been nomadic, but both the increased interest in this field and many practical factors (such as a faster access to information through the internet, cheaper air fares—and last but not least—a bigger economy in the art scene) makes it possible for us and most of our colleagues to operate with more flexibility and within a larger radius.

BJS: Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant write in “Sex in Public” that acts not commonly recognized as part of sexual culture (paying taxes, investing for the future, owning anything ‘his’ and ‘hers’, running for president) disperse “heterosexual privilege as a tacit but central organizing index of social membership.” They argue: “…the space of sexual culture has become obnoxiously cramped from doing the work of maintaining a normal metaculture.” It seems that the Powerless Structures can be read as attempting to “open up” space in public for queer cultures and other “nonstandard intimacies.” To what extent was this effort conscious, and, now that you have moved beyond the Powerless Structures, is opening up this space still an important part of your practice?

ME & ID: Almost all public architecture and city planning is based on totally outdated, Victorian nuclear family values. (Even for the average nuclear family of the new millennium.) Rigid public spaces in which all signs of diverse cultural inheritance or sexual backgrounds are erased do not function as common platforms anymore. They appear as void-spaces that only exist through the sub-cultural layers added to them, by their unintended use by different populations’ more-or-less hidden activities.

Because today most Western societies are comprised of multiple minority groups and communities, the meaning of “mainstream” has radically changed. The problem is that the urban landscape hasn’t kept up with this development. The standardized architecture that we experience in schools, hospitals, prisons, public squares, and parks—:as well as in most contemporary museums—reflects a moral codex, a lifestyle, and a demography that are not longer present. To challenge such structures—and the perception of public space as something that can be shaped like a neutral or objective entity in society—is an essential part of our practice.

Our Powerless Structures became at a certain point too much of a brand, a label or a formula by which the work could be quickly decoded and read. So we decided to title our projects in a different way. However, the topics that interest us remain the same.