Entries tagged with “Modern Art”.


Marcel Duchamp Bicycle Wheel (1951, MoMA)
Marcel Duchamp
Bicycle Wheel (1951, MoMA)

“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives its final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.” – Marcel Duchamp

My Duchamp set on Flickr

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

From the moment I rounded a corner in the maze of galleries on the second floor of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art the above Rothko constantly pulled my eye toward it.  It was three rooms down, rooms filled with great art, but every time I’d look down the center of the galleries I catch a glimpse of No. 14 and be momentarily sucked in. When I finally did make it to that room, where the Rothko stands alone on one long wall I spent probably a good forty-five minutes sat in front lost in its depths.  I’ve managed to see maybe a dozen Rothko’s in person, at MoMA, the Met, SAM and other galleries and this one is without a doubt the most powerful one I have seen. Don’t get me wrong, MoMA in particular has some great Rothko’s but this one is just utterly captivating. Of course I haven’t been to the really large Rothko installations such as the Tate or the Rothko Chapel, so I expect to continue to be blown away by further examples of his work.

I spent three days in San Francisco at the end of my recent bicycle tour down the Pacific Coast and the one thing I really wanted to do was visit SFMoMA.  I did so on my first full day there, Saturday July 23rd, arriving at the gallery not long after it opened for the day. SFMoMA has a big entrance hall, which was hung with some huge art pieces that honestly left almost no impression. At the ticket booth I’d been almost unable to make out what the agent was saying due to some fault in the speaker system so I ended up with a pass to their special exhibits. These were both photography based and were initially of little interest to me. I went right to the second floor where their modern collection was.  The first room, to the right of the stairs up was setup with an exhibit “from the collection” entitled Matisse and Beyond which featured paintings by Matisse paired with later works which you could claim some influence. I enjoy Matisse’s work quite a bit, but I don’t recall being too blown away by anything in this little show.  The next room though featured a nice Calder, Lone Yellow (1961) hanging from the ceiling, one of the larger mobiles I’ve seen, which was gently rotating in the museum atmosphere.

Alexander Calder Lone Yellow, 1961

Alexander Calder Lone Yellow, 1961

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

It was in this room that I was first able to glimpse, three rooms down, the Rothko and as I worked my way around the pieces here (most of which I’ve forgotten) I’d constantly be distracted by it in the distance. The next room though commanded my complete attention as it featured a number of absolutely stunning pieces.  As you walk in you immediately see Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) on a pedestal in the center of the room. This is one of four authorized replicas that Duchamp commissioned by the artist in the 60s (the original was stolen) and seeing it in person is definitely witnessing a bit of history.  This piece, which so shocked the establishment in 1917, is I think the poster boy for so much of art to come.  Contemporary art today almost seems exclusively derived from the notion that “art is what artists do” which traces straight back to Duchamp’s readymades.  The improv music that I love so much also in many ways leads straight back to Duchamp, with its random radio grabs, found sounds and extraction of sound from everyday objects.

Equally entrancing in this room was a series of 12 Cornell boxes, including a shelf full of his Sand Box series which lay flat and feature scattered sand, often dyed blue, as part of the piece. I’ve long been a Cornell fan, in fact I can trace my appreciation of art to almost beginning with a set of Cornell boxes I saw in an exhibit in Chicago in the late ’80s, and this collection had some incredible instances of his art. The Sand Box pieces seemed a lot more indeterministic and impermanent like a Tibetan Sand Painting (though these are fixed I believe). The one (rather poorly) photographed below was the most striking to me, though the picture doesn’t do it justice.  Along with the boxes were a number of non boxed colleges that demonstrated more of his range then I think he is oft given credit for. All in all this collection of Cornell’s rather had it all: the nostalgic fragments of dreams, complicated constructions, and indeterminate abstractions.

Joseph Cornell Sand Box series

Joseph Cornell Sand Box series

The room after this contained the Rothko, which as I stated early captured the bulk of my attention in that room and is probably the piece I spent the most time with in the entire gallery.  There was also a nice Guston and Stella in this room (I think) , but most of it slips my mind, which is dominated by that Rothko. The next couple of rooms had Albers, Stella’s and one room was solely filled with large pieces by Clifford Still.  But a couple of rooms down had the next piece that truly captured me, what was by far the most amazing Rauschenberg I’ve seen to date, Collection from 1954. It always sort of boggles my mind that there are galleries that allow picture taking and I hadn’t really been aware of it in this gallery until the room with the Rothko. I’d rather surreptitiously grabbed the pics of the Cornell and the Duchamp but after a few more rooms I realized that people were indiscriminately taking pictures. So I spent a bit more time trying to get nice pics of a few of my favorite pieces. As I was framing Collection a tour group came though and the guide, after quipping that they’d wait for me to take my photo, led the group in a discussion of the piece.

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

This I found pretty strange, he spent most of his time trying to get the participants to talke about what they see, what they feel which is I admit a way to engage the people in the piece. But it didn’t seem to really educate them much, or offer them any context for the piece. I sat there looking at this piece throughout that process and it kept my attention long after they had moved on, it was really a striking piece that rewards close attention. Finally escaping the Rauschenberg, there was some nice Johns including his iconic Flag (1958) and Land’s End (1963)  which stood in stark contrast to Flag what with its dark colors mostly blues with red/yellow/blue text written in it. The last couple of rooms on the second floor were more contemporary pieces none of which really captured much of my memory space. I was pretty saturated at this point and went for lunch after these last few rooms.

The special exhibits that I had paid extra for turned out to be: Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keefe Natural Affinities, which was paired photos and paintings from the same, or similar locals in New Mexico. I’m not really much into either artist so I merely did a survey oft his room, of which little stood out.  Adams I find too starkly realist in his photography and when he’d go more abstract (like in Foam, 1951 or Snow Sequence from the 30s) I felt the black and white photography distracting.  When creating abstracts with photography I think any artifice gets in the way be it forcing the palette in this way or the use of processing in development. The most effective abstract photos are archived solely through composition in my opinion. The other special exhibit was also photography in this case portraits:  Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004.  This had the largest crowds but was the least interesting to me. Mostly just portraits with no backgrounds of famous and ordinary people. For what they were they were striking but they don’t do much for me. However the collection did include some of his earliest work before he focuses purely on portraits and some of this were pretty fascinating.  Of his portraits he did take some of people that interested me: Merce Cunningham, Roy Lichenstein, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and a great sad picture of the old Groucho Marx.  All in all though I mostly just moved my way through this show, only spending a bit of extra time with the above mentioned portraits. One amusing note, is that I normally take notes in galleries on my iPhone but it was acting up so in this show I was using my Moleskin notebook. As I was jotting down some notes a guard came up to me and told me that pens weren’t allowed in the gallery and he gave me a pencil to use.  “Really?”  was all I could say but I took the pencil. Fortunately I was able to reset my iPhone and it was back in business but an odd deal you ask me.

Going up a floor I was at their contemporary art exhibit which they entitled Between art and Life Contemporary paintings and Sculpture. I was of course quite interested in this as I’m still trying to get my head around contemporary art.  Apart from a few pieces by 20th Century modernists who were still at work and still changing, such as Rauschenberg, I was as usual not that taken by the works on display.  Obviously with older pieces there has been a winnowing and selection process that come with time but I have to say of the vast amounts of contemporary art I’ve seen of late I’m rarely taken by much.  After all of the explorations of the mid 20th Century and the meaningless excesses of the 80s it seems that contemporary art now is somewhat at a loss. The interest of the public is gone, the big obvious areas of abstraction thoroughly mined, the natural areas of rebellion fully revolted arts today seem to either scrabble around the edges for an area to make their own or to simply retreat into the “Art is what I do” dead end. The best of those that I thought found a fruitful scrap of abstraction was Jim Hodges whose series of photographs  Even Here 1-12 (2008) of light on hardwood floors in an empty gallery was ghostly, beautiful and evocative (below picture not one of mine).

Jim Hodges  Even Here 1-12 (2008)

Jim Hodges Even Here 1-12 (2008)

The contemporary floor wended its way around to an indoor/outdoor sculpture garden which had a number of great pieces.  A nice Calder stable/mobile, Big Crinkly (1969), was the immediate attention capturing piece. Additionally there was a nice Barnett Newman Zim Zum I (1969 )- two W shaped prices if steel you can walk between that had a bit of the feeling of a small Serra.  The more recent piece by Mario Merz The Lens of Rotterdam (1988 ), a glass done with triangular rocks was interesting in that it was held together by clamps giving it a temporary or unfinished feel. The best piece in the indoor par was Louis Bourgeois’ The Nest (1994) a creepily interlocking steal spider like structure.

Louis Bourgeois The Nest 1994

Louis Bourgeois The Nest 1994

As I headed back down there was one final show I had skipped on the way up. This was an exhibit dedicated to Robert Frank’s The Americans, which I had skipped initially have just seen two photo oriented exhibits in a row.  I figured I’d run through and do a quick survey of this but in the end I got totally captivated and spent more time here then with any of the other photo shows.  It  began with his early pics some from America taken in the 40-50s which I found pretty uninteresting, they were b&w street scenes mostly. But once he finally got his concept and funding together for his epic road trips and took the pictures for his book documenting America I really got into it.  The quotes from Kerouac (who wrote the books preface) and his semi-candid photos seem to capture a genuine slice of America in the mid 50s with little of the distance, romance and distortion that dominates reflections on that era now.  The show had large prints of all of the prints from the book many of which I was familiar with from their place in popular culture now.  The Americans is back in print and you can buy an expanded version that more or less is this shows catalog. The final rooms were of Robert Frank’s work post this project, which was an immediate success, but which he never traded on. He went on to do abstract film and video work some of which repudiated and even destroyed some of this earlier work.

“…but maybe nothing is really true.” – Robert Frank

I left after this exhibit, overly stuff and saturated with art. As is always the case with these big museums I was totally overwhelmed and burnt out. I really should do them over a couple of days, but when traveling that is so rarely an option.  But I know that I’ll be back, to see what’s new but to delve deeper into their permanent collection.

Check out all of my photos from SFMoMA in this Flickr Set.

Jasper Johns Lightbulb, 1958

Jasper Johns Light Bulb, 1958

If Target Practice was a sprawling survey of thirty years of art around a specific theme, then Jasper Johns Lightbulb is almost its direct opposite with its laser tight focus on not only one artist but only one particular piece of imagery within that artists repertoire. That image of course is the light bulb; an artifact that Johns first sculpted in sculpt-metal in 1958 which he would go on to sculpt various versions of this piece as well as create numerous prints of it. Later he created a sculpture of a light bulb, its socket and a twist of wire all laid out as if baubles on a shelf. This was again the subject of numerous prints. In the early 70s on finding an “English Light bulb” with its distinctive “bayonet” style base he again made a sculpture of it in which it was displayed like a seashell. This was the subject for prints and paintings as were the other sculptures. His final works (so far anyway) involving the lightbulb are a return to his original lightbulb this time as prints.

Jasper Johns English Lightbulb 1970

Jasper Johns English Light Bulb 1970

This show originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and pulled together pieces from public and private collections from around the US.  Most impressive to me was the amount of proofs and pieces from Jasper Johns private holdings demonstrating that he was committed to this project.  Inexplicably the sculpture for English Light Bulb (pictured above) only appeared at two of the three museums that ran this show Seattle not being one of them. The fantastic catalog that accompanies this show does have a nice photograph of this piece as it does for each piece in the show. This catalog, unlike the Target Practice catalog, can be purchased online and I’d have to say would be a worthy purchase for the Johns fan. There are four short essays, informative but not overly speculative at the beginning of the book followed by sections for the sculptures and works on paper.  Each piece is give their own page with no other text or  images there. A nice presentation of these works.

Johns has a reputation of coldness (the “Iceman” of modern art) and remove with a Duchamp-ian use of appropriation and (as Target Practice hammered home) a constant questioning of painting.  He picks a common object, selected for its familiarity more than anything else and explore it over and over in a variety of formats: sculpture, painting, prints and so on. All this is well and good but I can’t say that’s what attracts me to the Johns pieces that I like so much. I find his use of these objects to be closer to how Keith Rowe uses the radio – its a “found object” that owes its conceptual basis to Duchamp, but the intention and use is definitively post-Duchamp.  Duchamp’s ready-mades are a commentary on art and being an artist (among other things, sure) whereas I think that Johns and Rowe use the notion of a found object as piece of something greater.  Johns doesn’t simply pick a ligh tbulb and display it, elevated to the status of art by his signature. Nor does Rowe turn on the radio and let it play as the piece in and of it self.  Its the insertion and manipulation of these objects into other contexts that is the key to their art I think.  It adds commentary and it charges the work with other meanings, but they in and of themselves are part of a greater whole.  At least this is how I see it.

Jasper Johns English Lightbulb, 1970
Jasper Johns Light Bulb, 1970

I’ve appreciated Johns for a while now, but only recently have I become especially taken with a number of his works. It has been a project of my own that led me to this wider exploration of his works.  This project has been exploring the notion of “gray” in music and has led to a series of pieces that I qualify as such. These pieces are all paired with color photographs that I have taken that also express this palette.  Its an interesting musical notion, one that became of interest to me in context of live recordings of silence, as Cage of course pointed out there really is no silence the music continues when the musicians aren’t playing.  In recordings, unless there is something else going on, the “silence” takes on this characteristic that I tend to think of as “gray”.  For this project I’ve been trying to abstract this grayness to capture this essence of silence, but through sound.  As I always do when I’m exploring ideas such as this I look at how others have expressed this notions which led me to Johns. Gray is a constant in Johns work, from the sculpt-metal of these early sculptures, to his prints and paintings.  The expressive qualities of his grays I find captivating and his gray on gray pieces suck in my eye in a similar fashion as solid black painting might.  I spent quite some time at this exhibition lost in the swirls of gray that form the background of many of the prints and the neutral seeming surfaces of the sculptures.  Some of the most captivating were black paint on film whose surface and transparency led to a rich dark gray that seemed to have incredible depth.  As I usually do in a gallery I was listening to music on my iPod and in this case I listened to the current pieces in my Gray Sequence and quite enjoyed the correlations.

In the last month I’ve managed to see a number of fantastic art exhibitions, several in San Francisco and in the last few weeks two in Seattle.  This is the first of several posts covering these shows that I’ll post over the next couple of days.  While chronologically not the first show I will cover this post will be about Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78 at the Seattle Art Museum. I’d been looking forward to this show for a while thanks to some early advertising from SAM who rarely seem to have shows within my interest (20th and 21st century art for the most part with plenty of exceptions).  It promised to have quite a bit of my favorite artists as well as a artists I was unfamiliar with.  The show opened while I was away on my bicycle tour but I caught it the first weekend after my return.  The show turned out to be even more impressive then I had figured, extended well beyond SAMs holdings in getting a number of impressive loans and introducing me to several new artists that I was quite taken with.

The theme of the exhibit is Painting Under Attack which the exhibit organizer, Micheal Darling describes thus:

“For the artists in the show, painting had become a trap, and they devised numerous ways to escape the conventions and break the traditions that had been passed down to them over hundreds of years. This phenomenon occurred in all parts of the world, and the exhibition documents why artists felt compelled to shoot, rip, tear, burn, erase, nail, unzip and deconstruct painting in order to usher in a new way of thinking.”

This sort of exhibit is always interesting  in that it takes an idea and then searches for evidence to support it.  This of course can range from highly speculative in the case of artists who would speak rarely of their motivations, intents and processes to pretty direct from those artists whose published manifestos are an embodiment of your theory.  I’d say in general I accept his basic thesis but barring some of the specific manifesto writings I’d say most of it comes from the struggle that every great artist makes to find their own voice.  Working in the shadow of the western canon and the arising dominance of the New York School it doesn’t seem too much of a shock that conventions had to be pretty subverted in order to overcome them.  The aftermath of WWII with its unprecedented horrors certainly seems to be a catalyst for at least some of the first stages of this phenomenon and it is interesting that the artists that Darling begins with were both from countries (Italy and Japan) defeated in that war.

Shimamoto Shozo Work(holes), 1950

Shimamoto Shozo Work (holes), 1950

Shimamoto Shozo(Japan) whose Work (holes), 1950, is pictured above, along with Lucio Fontana (Italy) nearly simultaneously began tearing into their canvases a gesture that seemed to arise directly from the defeat and devastation of their countries.  I’d been at least passingly familiar with Fontana, but Shimamoto Shozo was new to me and it was the above work that really captivated me in the first room. A large painting its barren surface adorned with almost Twombly like scribblings seems to be more decayed than attacked.  This one seems to capture a sense of defeat and despair but also feels germane to the present day, a timeless work that applies beyond its immediate circumstances. The Fontana works with their increasingly elegant cuts seem much more of their time and place and dwindle as time goes by. The first room seemed to serve as an extract of Darlings thesis, covering more time and more themes. Along with the starting points of the Fontana and Shimamoto’s it included the Johns target that is the advertising image for the show which being an  iconic Johns was great to see in person. As one moved through the first three rooms there were several other works by Johns, around a half dozen in total.  As there is currently a show focusing exclusively on the use of the light bulb in Johns work going on at the Henry right now (more on that in another post) it is a good time to be a Johns fan in Seattle.

Robert Rauschenberg  Erased de Kooning, 1953

Robert Rauschenberg Erased de Kooning, 1953

The rooms were somewhat thematic after the introductory room, focusing first on destruction whose primary attraction to me was Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (pictured above).  I’ve long been a Rauschenberg fan and this of course was an important milestone in his career.  Being able to see it in person, how faint the remaining de Kooing is, the rather abused nature of the paper to be able to examine it as close as one wants was a heady experience. Other pieces in this room included another Johns (Untitled (Cut, Tear, Scrap, Erase.)) , two Yoko One piece’s one you could walk on (Painting to Be Stepped On), another you could hammer a nail into (Painting to Hammer a Nail). This later work had become a sort of patron bulletin board in that most patrons hammered in a piece of a paper they had written, or drawn on or was some sort of found object.  This event was rather celebrated amongst the local Seattle are art wags but for me it was a lot more indicative of the contemporary art.  While there is plenty of great contemporary art there really is an overabundance of that which is “art, because that is what artists do”. So much of this has little going for it: no ideas, no technique, no style, no engage. While an individual piece can survive without one or more of those, it has to have something.  Modern art critics have to engage with contemporary art and you often find them having to champion these artifacts of self-absorption, which I think is the case here. Yoko probably would find it a larf though.

Jasper Johns Canvas, 1956

Jasper Johns Canvas, 1956

The following room focused on works that questioned the whole artifice of a painting and its frame handing in galleries, mainly by focusing on the backs of paintings. There was a Lichtenstein of the back of a canvas done in his inimitable style, a picture of the back of a Warhol, a neon lit frame and most compellingly I thought the above Johns.  That small picture doesn’t capture the layers of gray ladled onto the back of this painting, obscuring everything but its dimensionality. In contrast to this black hole of grey is Richard Jackson’s SAM, wall painting, which looks as if the most vibrant pop art was created on canvases which where then pressed against the wall and moved around like a five year old finger painting. The canvases were then allowed to dry against the wall their final destination cemented where he placed them, their dusty yellow backs and stretchers contrasting with the bring colors strewn on the wall.  SAM has put out a video of the making of this intriguing and captivating piece which I’ll inline below.


There was a full room installation viewable from this room and the edge of another room, which was of newspapers and paint on the floor, which honestly did little for me. Then there was quite a few video works, most of which I was too burnt out to spend the time with. This is the first exhibit at SAM that I feel the need to return to, having been supersaturated by about half way through.  Two more pieces in the concluding room though, cleared my eyes and demanded a contemplation. One was the first of Rauschenberg’s combines a small little Untitled piece from 1954 that was more painting then sculpture which also included a squeezed out paint tube as part of it. The room this was in featured many paint tubes: run over by trains, in a series squeezed onto plastic and so on.  In the final room there was the most compelling Andy Warhol I’ve ever seen: Oxidation Painting 1978. This piece was twelve panels, each probably around 6″x6″ square that had been coated with a copper paint. Warhol and other Factory members then urinated on it, which led to the paint oxidizing in these intricate patterns. Conceived as the end of  the attack on painting (we have photorealism to look forward to in the next decade) I personally found the aesthetics of this piece to be far more interesting then the juvenilia. As someone who enjoys rust, decay and the futility of man’s creations against time this piece captured much of that essence. Below is an example of one of these, but not the one on view at SAM (I wasn’t able to find an image)

Andy Warhol Oxidation Painting, 1978

Andy Warhol Oxidation Painting, 1978

This was an impressive show with lots of great works and lots of pieces I was unfamiliar with, even from artists I knew fairly well. There is also a fantastic catalog, whose essays I’m still working through, but is well worth picking up for the images alone. I can’t seem to find a SAM online store, so perhaps in person is the only way to get it, which would be a pity (update 09.02.09:  you can now get the catalog at Amazon). The show also includes an audio tour, which I for one rarely indulge in, wanting to form my own opinions. However they did get Laurie Anderson to narrate it, which I have to admit is pretty cool. I’m going to try to visit this one again before it closes and perhaps I’ll see what Laurie has to say.  A preview of the audio tour can be heard here.  Anyway if in town, or coming to visit in the next few weeks, this show runs through September 7th and is must see in my opinion.