Left: Nari Ward, Blue Rung, 2008, wooden ladder, metal gate, shoe tips, plastic, zapper, blue pigment, 78 x 21 x 38". Installation view. Right: View of “30 Seconds Off an Inch.”
Naomi Beckwith is an assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She organized the exhibition “30 Seconds Off an Inch,” which explores the intersection of identity politics and dominant tendencies of the 1960s, from conceptual practices to Arte Povera. The show is on view until March 14.
I DON’T WANT TO BRAND something called “Black Conceptual Art.” It’s less a question about who produced the work than of the object’s material history. If you can get to that history, and if that can take you to a very specific place, culturally and racially, then that’s where you locate the blackness. It becomes a secondary discovery rather than a necessary attribute of the work itself.
“30 Seconds Off an Inch” does not look at the conceptualisms that followed Minimalism. Instead, it investigates the kind of art that asks the viewer to think about something beyond the sheer materiality of the object, beyond formalism and formal practice. The works ask you to wonder where the trash originated, for instance, and about the history of a specific cloth and clothing, or whether the work is appropriated. There is a history and a lineage to all the works in the show that lend themselves to conceptual thought beyond the objects.
The viewer should have a sense of recognition when walking through the exhibition. There is not a lot of tape around the objects—I want visitors to be able to put their noses up to the works. The objects in the show are not to be seen as metaphors, but very literally, and you don’t need an advanced degree in art history to read them.
Nari Ward’s Blue Rung, 2008, is a pivotal object in the show; it’s a work that is completely opaque. The only way to get into it is by engaging with its constitutive elements. It’s both a collage and a sculpture. It’s familiar, even though it looks like nothing he’s ever done. It was important to me to ask, How can a three-dimensional object be both abstract and speak to a specific cultural background?
More often than not, culturally specific institutions and artists identified as gender or ethnic “others” are asked to speak about and for political and social issues. Oddly, exhibitions and works are assumed to be political statements even above art and aesthetic objects.
The Studio Museum has done an interesting job probing how and where one can locate blackness. It’s become a place where you can ignore race, or foreground it, or set up a more complicated relationship between aesthetics and social questions of race and identity. This is when we are at our best, when we allow artists to challenge the viewers, with art that pulls us through conversations that question where race is located and its relationship to aesthetic history.
It is important for me as a curator to provide a space in exhibitions where those discourses can thrive. “30 Seconds,” as a project, takes no position about race and contemporary race relations, nor are the works expected to do so. The show examines practices and conceptual tools that allow for art to encompass and include politics as an attribute. My goal for this exhibition was to present works, many of them abstract, that ask viewers to locate the socius within the aesthetic and then think about what the social realm implies.
David Lynch is a renowned filmmaker, visual artist, and writer. Before making a career in film, he studied fine arts at the Corcoran School of Art, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A comprehensive solo exhibition of his paintings and photographs is currently on view at Griffin Gallery in Santa Monica, California, through December 12.
I LIKE IDEAS. THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS. So you get an idea, and sometimes you get an idea that you fall in love with, and that drives you. It’s all about the love of the idea––and ideas come for everything. Perhaps you get a “painting” idea and you’re totally fired up to go and paint that idea. Sometimes you get a “cinema” idea and you’re totally fired up to go do cinema. And sometimes you get a “musical” idea and you go and you work on that in the studio; it goes like that. With these paintings, I’m really interested in a story––not a long one. But the paintings have a story. There are things to look at, and hopefully you go out on a thought or a dream.
The massive jewel-box frames are inspired by an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work I saw at Marlborough Gallery in New York, I think in 1966, and I remember thinking, “Whoa. Oh my goodness, that is the way.” Because these new works are behind glass, in my mind I go in there. And I really, really love that. There is something magic about a stage. It’s very important. I am not happy with flat paintings anymore. I don’t know where it will go, but I am interested in more three-dimensional work.
The organic material in the work is a secret formula. Sometimes it’s a combination of things, but it’s something that helps me get that more three-dimensional look. Texture is another keyword. Texture is a magic thing, and I like organic phenomenon. I would say I Love—capital l—organic phenomenon.
I’m sure every painter has this, but there are fast and slow areas and a relationship between fast and slow. There are no rules, but there is this feel for how much fast goes with how much slow. I always say intuition—a feel—drives the boat––a feel. It doesn’t go, not in an intellectual way at all; it just goes because it feels correct that way. When it feels right, there is a burst of happiness and a burst of love. It’s incredible.
The “Figures” are part of a new series. There are things that are timeless, but these are really more people of today, in a way. I mean, people spat in medieval times, but there is something about spitting that people have more of in modern times, for me.
I like the painter Georg Baselitz, and he said that a gallery space is really supposed to be built for the paintings. So I think a lot of paintings end up being in places where the surroundings disturb the paintings. Some things putrefy the environment. I like minimal environments with little disturbance around the paintings.
Whenever you do anything, not whenever you do anything, but sometimes—when it gets magic—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so you don’t know what it will conjure in people. As soon as things get a little bit more abstract, the interpretations and the feelings while looking at the work greatly vary. Everyone that comes up in front of a thing gets a different thing, the more abstract it is.
Modern science now, quantum physics, has discovered the unified field at the base of all matter and anything that exists, anything that is a thing––so it’s at the base of all matter and of all mind. There it is, unity. It’s all throughout diversity and creation, but on the surface, we’re cut off from that deepest level––the unified field, ocean of consciousness. All meditation does is reestablish that contact. And once you reestablish the contact then you have the experience of that, not just the knowledge of that, but the experience. This experience is what is missing. When you experience the transcendent––the unified field—you unfold it; you start infusing it. With every experience, you infuse some of it. You grow consciousness. And it’s an “all-positive” level. There is no negativity there. It’s infinite unbounded bliss––intelligence, creativity, love, and energy––all there within every human being.
The singular artist Lynda Benglis is widely known for her poured-latex sculptures and fallen paintings of the 1960s, as well as her videos and gilt works. Here she speaks about an upcoming show at New York’s Cheim & Read Gallery, which opens on November 19, and her current retrospective at the Irish Museum of Art in Dublin, which will travel to four additional venues around the world.
THE IDEA FOR MY NEW WORKS came to me about ten years ago, when I was thinking about polyurethane foam and what else it could do. I wanted to draw with this texture and let the drawing become the form. I began making sphere after sphere in the studio, casting some of the pieces in bronze. Those shapes looked like helmets or brains. Since then, I’ve used the foam to make hemispheres and large egg forms and free-edge works that are wave- and torso-like.
These works relate to my earlier pour pieces, when I began to affix those to the wall directly. I would take the underpinning––the wire and the plastic––away from the form, then there would be kind of a wave coming out into space. Some works, like one at the Hayden Gallery at MIT in 1971, weighed about three hundred to four hundred pounds. The structural engineers there couldn’t figure out what happened––but it was cellular, and the crosshatching in the pours made the form very strong.
The exhibition at Cheim & Read is really about combining the complexity and simplicity of form. I’m interested in the gestalt; how we read surfaces through texture and form, and how the texture creates the forms, whether matte or shiny, and if the form has varied edges. Although the show is about simplification, it does open up a discussion about the illusion of matter. Conceptually, the works are about open-ended rather than closed systems, but they are deductive in terms of their materials.
I’ve always found my supplies through the yellow pages, and I made my contacts that way. In the ’70s, I would walk through Chinatown and get ideas. I’ve looked at a variety of imagery in a variety of contexts. For instance, I’m a scuba diver, and I became interested later in the underwater coral formations in the Pacific, then the Great Barrier Reef and the Indian Ocean. Trees, darkness, light, the beach, water––all this has informed my work.
There’s a connection, in a linear and textual sense, with my new work and the pieces in the retrospective. Originally, I wanted to make my own paintings and use my own format; I began with the wax. In the early to mid-’60s, I began to work in an unheated basement studio. It had electric plugs, and I used a heater and hot plate to melt my own wax and pigments. I defined works according to a human scale, and that’s been one consistent element in all my work. I’m a humanist first.
Another aspect that comes out in the retrospective is that I want the viewer to move around to interact with the forms. In the past twenty-five years, I’ve been producing fountains. I’ve always wanted to do them. In 1971, after several early installation pieces all over the country (including at the Kansas State University Museum, Vassar College, the Milwaukee Art Center, the Walker Art Center, and MIT), I didn’t want to make art in situ within a museum context. I felt like I couldn’t wear art on my sleeve and do installations anymore that were meant to be permanent in idea and form.
For the gardens at the Irish Museum of Art, I’ve made North South East West, which has four bronze cantilevers. They come together in the center, and a geyser of shooting water creates a column for five minutes! It’s like a spurting of a continuous volcanic eruption. It was amazing to see this idea that I’ve had since the early 1970s realized and to see the idea in motion, literally. I’ve always wanted to make a fountain that moves water in four different directions through the bronze elements.
The new work and the retrospective have reminded me of what it was like when I arrived in New York, at the height of the Pop movement. I remember that James Rosenquist was wearing paper suits to openings. At that time, I was interested in Frank Stella, Ralph Humphrey, and Barnett Newman, and I liked a few of the painters of my own age. Things seemed very doctrinaire, however, in terms of the way people were thinking about the “wheres” and “hows” of art. Critics were beginning to ask whether easel painting was dead, and so hundreds of people would show up at panel discussions on this issue. I can’t imagine that at this moment there could be that kind of intensity over such issues. But that’s how it was.
Left: Cover of Luc Sante’s Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905–1930 (2009). Right: A real-photo postcard with the caption “Texas,” n.d.
Luc Sante is a writer and critic. The author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990–2005 (2007), and several other books, he is also visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College. His latest effort, Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905–1930, is out now from Yeti Books.
MY COLLECTION OF REAL-PHOTO POSTCARDS is the result of a chance encounter on New York’s Astor Place, circa 1980, with a street peddler who had fished some forty cards out of the trash, ones that probably belonged to a man who had been at Vera Cruz in 1914 under General Pershing and brought back images of the event. I had never seen anything like them. I like old postcards, but these were actual photographs—printed in the darkroom, rather than lithographed—and it was immediately apparent they were unrehearsed history, unstaged and unposed.
I became immediately obsessed and quickly discovered that at the time you could find these photographs pretty easily, in junk stores and antique shops, and buy them for not much money—as little as a quarter or fifty cents. The range of things they depicted was exciting. I once claimed, and I don’t think I was wrong, that the only human activity I haven’t seen represented on a photo postcard is childbirth. I’ve seen just about everything else, including other bodily functions.
I’m a writer, of course, so everything in my world exists to be turned into a book. I began looking for the broadest range possible, the most marginal examples that were still beautiful photographs. Unlike many collectors, I like messy cards, ones that are damaged in such a way that the damage functions in concert with the image. I probably ended up with more disaster cards than anyone else—train wrecks, fires, floods.
The title I gave the book is more poetic than scientific and is meant to suggest several things. One is the grassroots, leaderless aspect to the postcards. Around 1900, small, portable Kodak cameras became widely available; in 1905, the postal rate for postcards was reduced to a penny; and rural free delivery was advancing at this time. All of a sudden, people everywhere were able to make and send these cards, and, strikingly, you get similar kinds of compositions being made simultaneously in Washington state and New Jersey. Second, I see them, in a nonacademic way, as a link in the chain that connects Civil War and government expedition photographers of the late nineteenth century to Walker Evans and his fellow Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s. Third, the popular documentary impulse these cards represent is similar to the “folk” music of the era, much of which was about news (think of songs about the Titanic or about railroad crashes and murder). The postcards and the music are not only about disseminating information but also about making something of it, meditating on important events.
In a way, I’m eager for somebody to pick a fight with me over the title; I’d love for discussion of real-photo postcards to become woven into other discussions of American photography. So far I’ve only had conversations about them with Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan Museum curator who is in charge of the Walker Evans archive and mounted the exhibition last year of Evans’s postcard collection. Interestingly, Evans’s collection contains no more than three or four photo postcards. Is it the anxiety of influence? Or is it due to the fact that photo postcards essentially went underground for seventy-five years, whereas photo-litho cards were touted and discussed? It’s worth figuring out.
Art history aside, the visual culture this book presents has been, up until the past twenty years, generally neglected. This may be due in part to the fact that little documentation of this stuff was available. Alongside broader trends in visual education and more general generational changes, one development that has made a huge difference is the introduction of the scanner. If you examine photo books made before 2000 or so, the look of them was very unsatisfying. With scanners, you can incorporate the grit and the grain alongside the broad compositional outline of photographic images.
Scanners have allowed us to see anew entire collections of movie posters, say, or grocery-store awning paintings, all of which are as important as any other kind of documentation we may have about life in earlier times. It was just very difficult to reproduce these things before the scanner. Despite the recent inundation of “visual culture” studies, I think we’re really only at the beginning stages of a vast exploration of the popular visual culture created over the past few centuries.
To mark the thirtieth year of the Berkeley Art Museum’s MATRIX program for contemporary art, Prem Krishnamurthy and Adam Michaels of the design studio Project Projects have created a new book with documentation and ephemera from each of the series’ 229 past exhibitions, together with a set of commissioned interviews. This 560-page catalogue, which Krishnamurthy discusses here, will launch November 6 at the museum. Project Projects is currently working on the 2010 Whitney Biennial catalogue, a research project on East German designer Klaus Wittkugel, and editing and designing the Inventory Books series with Princeton Architectural Press.
IN JANUARY 2008, Adam and I made our first trip to Berkeley to discuss the book and get a broad sense of the MATRIX program. We spent several days with current MATRIX curator Elizabeth Thomas in the archives, randomly pulling exhibition files as a cross section of the program history. It was important to begin without preconceived notions of what we might find. After several days in the archive, we had an initial sense of what materials were available, how the program had developed since 1978, as well as distinct moments where transitions occurred.
The MATRIX archive suggests how making exhibitions has changed over the past thirty years. Early shows were organized quickly and had scant documentation––perhaps just a couple slides or black-and-white images. On the other hand, there was often extensive correspondence between the curators and artists. As we reached the late ’90s, shows were planned further in advance and had better digital documentation of the installations; however, most correspondence consisted of bits of printed e-mails regarding logistical issues. In the book, these shift in modes of organization, communication, and documentation are subtly apparent.
The project was a close collaboration with Elizabeth. Early on, we decided to take a comprehensive approach and represent every past MATRIX exhibition in the book. We wanted to avoid a retrospective recurating of the history of MATRIX; instead, we were inclusive to allow the program’s diversity to speak for itself. The book design uses a flexible, modular system that allots each exhibition from one to four pages, depending on the materials available. Newly commissioned interviews between curators and artists were slotted in to expand on the discussion of specific exhibitions.
In spring 2008, we developed a preliminary design proposal; that summer, we returned to Berkeley and went through all the exhibition folders together to pull initial selections for the book. Then, the museum staff scanned and prepared the materials for us. We had around one hundred gigabytes to wade through, a digital archive on an entire spool of DVDs! It was far more material than we could ever use in a single book, but it gave us a basis for presenting each exhibition.
We also sought to communicate our experience of discovery while browsing the archive. For example, we opened a James Lee Byars exhibition folder and found these beautiful letters to the curator written in white ink on black paper. One had gold dust in it, and another unfolded to over four feet long. Other files contained research notes and budgets, which were telling records of the curatorial process. In addition, we came across ephemera such as invitations, flyers, and press clippings. We designed the book as if laying these disparate things on a table––by spreading them out and seeing their overlaps, shifting objects from the front to the back––to enable varied relationships and narratives to emerge.
The MATRIX program has consistently implemented a standard format for exhibition brochures: 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches. Since the program’s inception, a sheet with an essay and checklist has accompanied each show. Initially, these were black-and-white, typeset on a typewriter, and three-hole punched for collation in a custom binder. Since the late ’90s, they’ve been printed in color and designed digitally, but they still maintain the same standard size. Therefore, it seemed natural to us that the book’s format would respond directly to this size; it is exactly one inch larger than the brochures on both dimensions. The first four pages of the book introduce MATRIX’s mission by reprinting the original pamphlet by museum director James Elliott (who brought the MATRIX program and brochure format to Berkeley from the Wadsworth Atheneum) at 100 percent scale. Thereafter, the covers for each exhibition brochure are reproduced as thumbnails at a uniform size; flipping through the book, you can get a quick sense of both the past thirty years of MATRIX and concurrent changes in design and technology.
The book itself is a MATRIX project, included in the book under the number MATRIX 229. For us, it was important to consider it not just as a documentary catalogue but as an active project. MATRIX 229 is an exhibition––in a compact, traveling form––conceived with self-reflexivity about context, materials, and means. This approach is specific to the MATRIX project, as well as indicative of Project Projects’ practice in general.
The Mumbai-based artist Nikhil Chopra challenges the boundaries of drawing, photography, theater, sculpture, new-media, and live-art practices. In conjunction with Performa and his solo exhibition at the New Museum, on view until February 14, Chopra will perform as the Victorian draughtsman Yog Raj Chitrakar at the museum November 4–8.
I CAME ACROSS a lot of photographs of early British imperial photography and Indian dignitaries dressed in regalia when I was studying for my master's at Ohio State University. I thought I could adorn myself and play this part. It began as a fun, nonacademic project. I decided to dress up as a fictitious persona and sit still as if I were posing for a photograph. That moment was a bit of an epiphany. I quickly realized that I was walking a line among painting, photography, theater, and sculpture. My thesis at Ohio State University then developed into a performance piece involving the character Sir Raja and an enormous tableau vivant–style setup of a dining table that resembled a Flemish still life.
When I moved back to India, I was invited by the Khoj International Artist Association, an experimental nonprofit artist-run space in Delhi, to partake in a performance-art residency. I was also teaching at the time at an art school in Bombay. I found myself talking to art students about drawing and began to make connections between drawing and its performative aspect. I felt like I needed to boil it down. My grandfather came to mind: He was a hobby landscape painter who painted romantic vistas of Kashmir that hung on our walls, and I’ve been seeing them for as long as I can remember. It became urgent to think about the role of being the documenter, landscape painter, of the romantic, by thinking back to traditional ways of making.
Nikhil Chopra performs at Khoj International Artists Workshop, 2008 (1 of 2)
I developed the character Yog Raj Chitrakar at this residency. It’s interesting how these performances become about where I am, my own personal history, and how that collides with the present, contemporary landscape or cityscape. It is presumptuous, but I want to take the audience to a place they do not encounter every day. Hopefully there’s a chance for me to create the space for a transformation.
I use various strategies of separation in the performance, one being the vow of silence. Yog Raj Chitrakar never advertently communicates with the audience. So there is a tension, the viewer can come up very close to him and his dinner plate, but there’s a sense of restraint as an audience member to look at this act of eating. I think I create that through objectifying myself, making myself into a picture as opposed to a human being who is inviting people to come and sit at the table and eat with me. But I hope you salivate when I put a roast chicken or roast goose in my mouth, with gravy and potatoes.
Nikhil Chopra performs at Khoj International Artists Workshop, 2008 (2 of 2)
The audience are a major aspect of the performance, but they are not the end of the performance. The act of performing involves the conditions and circumstances that I put myself in as well. If you arrive at the performance following a quiet moment after which I didn’t have an audience, I’ve already invested so much in that quiet silent moment. It adds a melancholy to the work, a pathetic, perhaps ironic, tongue-in-cheek element. You realize he’s sleeping there all night. You see an unmade bed or a half-eaten breakfast. So the audience might create their own story. I walk into the performance with a clear sense of what I need to go through and I list it out: Eat, sleep, drink, draw, stand, wash, bathe, but there are gaps in between those tasks. In those gaps is where the performance becomes spontaneous.
The need for this work is expressed in an Indian context, and it is a call for artists in India to think about performance as a serious practice. There are questions about how the market plays a role, and the fetishized art object, inflated prices of artists working in traditional media. There has been a longing for “What next?” in the art scene in India. I’ve been asking that question as well.