Undernourishment and Eccentricity

“From 1965 on one sees a hyperbolic attempt on Nauman’s part to create forms never before seen, made of substances and colored in ways equally unknown. I do not quarrel with the aspiration; it is the very fiber of art. But the quest, though stated and perhaps even “felt” in these exalted terms, is equally arbitrary notwithstanding the fact that beween 1965 and 1967, Nauman came close to realizing such an ambition. The forms which Nauman took to making at the time were spindly affairs, loaflike and split into arching rails. They were of two kinds, soft and hard; the soft group were made of colored rubber latex and the hard cast in fiberglass. The works give off an aura of undernourishment and eccentricity. In many respects these “impoverished” works, supported directly by the wall and floor, anticipate many of the experiments associated with the rise of post-Minimalism—particularly the early rubber and neon work of Richard Serra—a history which I have attempted to write in my essays on Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Eva Hesse. I would be hard put not to acknowledge the seminal role played by Nauman’s untitled rubber, fiberglass, and neon works in redirecting the nature of artistic aspiration in the late ’60s.
In November 1966, Nauman figured prominently in an exhibition held in New York’s Fischbach Gallery called “Eccentric Abstraction,” which represented the real surfacing of this counter-Minimalist taste in the gallery context. Works by Keith Sonnier and Eva Hesse were included among others. The exhibition was organized and introduced by the critic Lucy Lippard, who undertook to clarify “an aspect of visceral identification that is hard to escape, an identification that psychologists have called ‘body ego’.” Lippard was referring to the capacity of the viewer to empathetically respond to unfamiliar forms in visceral terms. Yet the term “body ego” suggests another possibility—that a work may be the means, so to speak, whereby the artist employs his body or sections thereof, his lineaments, his personal possessions, or even his name, and in so doing transforms himself into a self-exploitable tool or the raw material of artistic presentation. He becomes, in a certain sense, his own objet trouvé—hence narcissistic. The term “body ego” certainly poses the possibility of this interpretation in Nauman’s work after 1967, although Lippard’s introduction was written on the basis of the earlier untitled fiberglass pieces, which she regarded as vehicles “unconcerned with conventional manipulation of forms in space and more involved with a perverse, sometimes bizarre expansion of the limits of art.” [Robert Pincus Witten on Bruce Nauman]

Bruce Nauman Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals 1966

Our bodies are necessary to the experience of any phenomenon. It is characteristic of Nauman’s work that he has always used his own body and its activities as both the subject and object of his pieces. He has made casts from it (Hand to MouthNeon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at 10 Inch Intervals, etc.) and manipulated it (in earlier performances using his body in relation to a T-bar or neon tube, as well as in the holograms). He has made video tapes of his own activities (Bouncing Balls in the Studio) and films of parts of his body being acted upon; Bouncing Balls and Black Balls are slow-motion films of Nauman’s testicles moving and being painted black. He has questioned, in various pieces, his behavior as an artist and his attitudes toward himself as such. He has contorted his body and face to the limits of physical action as well as representation. By making audiotapes of himself clapping, breathing, whispering and playing the violin, he has also explored a range of noises made and perceived by his own body.
This concern with physical self is not simple artistic egocentrism, but use of the body to transform intimate subjectivity into objective demonstration. Man is the perceiver and the perceived; he acts and is acted upon; he is the sensor and the sensed. His behavior constitutes a dialectical interchange with the world he occupies. Merleau-Ponty, in The Structure of Behavior, stresses that man is, in fact, his body, despite the essential ambiguity of its being at once lived from the inside and observed from the outside. Nauman has used himself in this way as a prototypical subject for the pieces. These works are meant, essentially, to be encountered privately by one person at a time. Where earlier the artist was the subject and object of recorded situations, now it is the spectator who becomes both the actor and observer of his own activity.” [Marcia Tucker on Bruce Nauman]

… the issue of language gained prominence during the sixties due to a number of historical and social reasons. One of them, mentioned only in passing, was the rise of media culture, resulting in a widespread interest in theories of communication, linguistic coding, cybernetics, and so on. In this new technocratic society, the very circulation and control of knowledge and information become central: language, in this regard, is not neutral but represents a potentially contestatory activity as well as a source of power. The speech-act, which approaches language as a social agent — as opposed to the semiotic sign, where language represents a formal system — provides a particularly productive model with which to account for the “game” that communication has become. The investigation of the speech-act by Nauman’s art may thus be viewed as a subtle form of sociocultural commentary based specifically within the conditions of historical experience.” [Janet Kraynak on Bruce Nauman]

Laying Down a Couple of Tons of Lead

Richard Serra Belts 1966

“Different materials react to structure in different ways. Here you had a material, rubber, that if you hung it, it took on its own gravitational load. If you hung it in different ways, it would unfurl itself or droop or hang in different ways. Having been a painter, I thought, what if I just took one of Pollock’s paintings a painting that I really liked a lot, and I said, what if I tried to draw this Pollock three-dimensionally off the wall in strips of rubber? And every time a piece of rubber crossed another piece of rubber, I would fasten it together with a bent nail.
And I drew a lot of these and hung them from the wall one after the other. And they’re kind of perverse colors, off-ocher and off-pinks and off-blacks. And even though they may look lyrical now they were considered to be quite aggressive and quite abrupt, because there was nothing like that being shown at the time.
The neon light was not only to linearly describe what the piece was doing in another material, to give you a sense of, ‘oh, these pieces really are drawn in that simple way. I thought that would start the progression. This is where the first one goes, and the rest of them hang to the right of it.
I consider all edges and all volumes, a kind of drawing. The proportion of the room is a kind of drawing. I see the world as a drawing.” [MOMA retrospective on Richard Serra]

“I had looked at Pollock, especially in my last year at Yale, and there was a painting he did for Peggy Guggenheim, Mural (1943), that develops horizontally over nineteen feet as a series of vertical loops. It’s probably the beginning of serialization within abstraction, although no one saw it that way at the time; it also recalled the Mexican muralists. That interested me, and so when I began to use rubber I cut it into belts and hung them using Pollock’s painting as a subtext. The idea of hanging was influenced by Oldenburg, too—not by what he was making but by how he was using gravity as a force, as a forming device.” [Richard Serra in conversation with Hal Foster]

“The high-priest line of Minimalism includes Judd, and maybe Sol LeWitt more than Flavin. LeWitt’s work left me cold; it seemed too scripted. He gives you the prescription, you fill in the narrative, and LeWitt says he doesn’t care what it looks like. That seemed too didactic to me. When the Conceptualists were working on their manifesto at Max’s Kansas City, they asked me to join them, but I didn’t want any part of it. They said, “What’s your intention? We saw your House of Cards—do you think you’re making sculpture?” And I said, “If you want to propose definitions of sculpture, ‘specific objects’ or concepts, well, I don’t know right now.” So they called me a primitive, but then I thought they were a bunch of hall monitors. When I first splashed lead, one of them phoned up and told me I couldn’t do that—he had already thrown silver paint out his window against a brick wall. I said, “I don’t give a shit. I’m laying down a couple of tons of lead to cast off architecture.” They thought that language was going to supplant the perception of the object.” [Richard Serra in conversation with Hal Foster]

“So I took four lead plates— if you put the four of them together they weigh a ton—and dragged them up to my studio one at a time in the elevator. I thought by leaning them together and overlapping them at the top edge I could get them to free-stand, and when I did it looked like a house of cards. Even though it seemed it might collapse, in fact it stood up. You could see through it, look into it, walk around it, and I thought, “There’s no getting around it, this is sculpture.” Now, was it sculpture as sculpture had been heretofore known? No. But was I willing to stake my belief on what I was up to—on unattached lead plates propped against each other, weighing a ton, and always about to implode—to stake my belief on them being sculpture? Yes. Just as much as Andre was when he laid one brick after the other to make Lever (1966), and people yelled at him, “That’s not art.” The stakes were very serious and very high.” [Richard Serra in conversation with Hal Foster]

Presentness is Grace

“All sculptors have dreams of defying gravity. One of the inherent qualities about sculpture is its heaviness, its substance. There is an attraction in the dream of putting heavy pieces calmly up in the air and getting them to stay there. I have tried to do this, for example, in Month of May. But later I realized that if you can make the floor act as part of the sculpture and not just the base, then the pieces will float and move anyway. In Prairie, the tubing appears to float, just extending into the air. I would like to make sculptures that are more abstract. Sculpture of its nature is not as abstract as painting. The sculptor’s problem right now, I think, is to make sculpture more abstract than it has been before. In the last few years, sculpture became more anonymous in order to get away from the tyranny of materials. And the treatment and paint surface all gave it a blandness. Right now, I wonder if sculpture could gain impetus from more feeling for material, possibly for materials that haven’t much been associated with it—string or paper, for example. Making sculpture more abstract doesn’t necessarily take away its reality, its stuffiness.” [Anthony Caro in conversation with Phyllis Tuchman]

“Presentness is not a quality or attribute of an object (like its dimensions, color, shape, etc.) that is possessed by the object for as long as the object exists in the world. It is or was a concept that was pertinent at a particular moment of crisis in the history of art. At a time when the question could not be avoided of whether the art of painting (and of sculpture) had already ended, the “presentness” of the modernist work was achieved insofar as the work was able to “compel conviction” in the beholder. The power of an art work to convince the beholder of its aesthetic quality (measured against the standards established by works of the past the quality of which is not in doubt) is the same as the work’s power to convince the beholder (in the grip of the experience of viewing it) that this is a painting (or sculpture), rather than a literal object in the world like any other object. Modernism affirmed that the question of classification (“is it art”) is inseparable from the question of evaluation (“is it good art?”). Something counts as a painting or sculpture only to the extent that it compels conviction in its quality; apart from its capacity to convince, an object that is nominally or trivially art (e.g., by virtue of the fact that it is displayed in an art gallery) is not art at all. (It follows that objects made and displayed in the spirit of Dada, which rely on the irony of non-art announcing itself as “art” fail to raise the question they purport to ask.) And because the value of a thing is never secured once and for all – because there are no objective criteria that distinguish between a fraudulent work and the real thing – presentness achieved is always in danger of being lost as conviction lapses or dissipates, leaving in its place a mere object. In other words, presentness is always achieved under the pressure of “objecthood”, and the constancy of this pressure implies that the practice of modernism (whether that of the artist or a modernist critic like Michael Fried) invariably conveys a sense of moral urgency. While this sense of moral urgency is present in all of Fried’s critical writing, it acquired a quasi-religious apocalyptic tone in “Art and Objecthood”, as expressed in its final sentence: “Presentness is grace.” [Carl Kandutsch on Caro, Fried, and “Deep Body Blue”]

“Every change that I made, and indeed make, is to try and make my sculpture more real. I’ve said that before, and when you’ve said something before in interviews you wonder if it’s just a repeat performance. But no, it’s true. I didn’t want to go into abstraction, I didn’t want to be avant garde. I simply wanted to make sculpture that hit the solar plexus, sculpture that really expressed my feelings. Yes, I wanted a surprise from it, a charge from it. But I simply couldn’t see a way of doing that in a figurative way. I had tried. After I left Henry Moore I had looked at De Kooning and Dubuffet and Bacon. For several years, I felt I had to go in an expressionist direction. After a few years, it wore thin….
I believe that we need to keep pressing into the unknown. Like making something which may not even be art—because the like of it has never been seen before. And then you can’t talk about quality. As a critic, you can talk about quality, because you judge art which has already been made. Artists can’t. They can’t talk in these terms because they don’t know what the hell it is, they don’t know where the hell they are. If they do know these things, they’re only setting the seal on the past. Artists have to use their intelligence and have the conviction that their intent makes sense, then they’re forced to keep going that way. All those interesting questions you’ve asked are questions that come from the critic’s standpoint but the artist comes from somewhere else. Clem had it right when he said the Impressionists had no alternative, they had to go that way. The only thing open to any of us is to follow where our art is leading. The art is stronger than the artist. I think it’s pretentious to make art and say “how does that stand up to Donatello, or Michelangelo,” or you name it, Cycladic art… You can do that, if you wish, because you’re a critic, but I don’t think that we can or should do it.” [Anthony Caro in conversation with Russell Bingham]

Subjecthood in Disguise

Robert Morris Untitled 1978

“The resurgence of the human figure in much recent sculpture cannot be separated from a renewed attention to the idea of the subject. Although it is so commonplace as to go unnoticed, the idea of the artwork as a kind of subject in itself was one of the epochal inventions of modernity, crystallized in the radical shift in aesthetic theory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At that juncture, it was specifically tied to painting: For Hegel, sculpture was able to “create a unity between body and spirit,” but painting alone allowed in a more abstract “principle of subjectivity.” In recent years, scholars have extended this notion to make room for considerations of both the changing contemporary status of the subject and challenges to the notion of medium. Art historian Michael Lüthy and philosopher Christoph Menke, for example, argue that all artworks function as “figures of the subject.” In their continual negotiation between subject and medium, artworks dissolve such stable categories in a give-and-take that results in the medium assuming anthropomorphic qualities, while the subject in turn takes on the properties of a “quasi medium.”
This notion challenges the high-modernist idea of art as transcending subjectivity, most famously posed by Michael Fried in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” As is well known, Fried here both diagnosed and decried “a kind of latent or hidden . . . anthropomorphism” at the heart of Minimalist sculpture. Considered in this light, the objecthood in Fried’s essay could be interpreted quite differently — as subjecthood in disguise. Even the obdurate, industrially fabricated objects of Minimalism can, it turns out, be considered as quasi subjects. Consider how Fried compared the “obtrusiveness … even aggressiveness” of works by Donald Judd or Robert Morris to the feeling of “being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person.” One could say that it is the “behavior” of these works that he disliked: They reminded him of how it feels to be bothered by someone occupying the same literal space.” [Isabelle Graw on Art and Subjecthood]

“Whilst I think “space” in sculpture is important, it remains in my understanding something that is associated with figuration, because it is either directly related to the body, or at the very least has an architectural connection that is referenced outside of the sculpture itself, a part of an inevitable contextualisation. “Space” tends perhaps towards being in some way descriptive, and, as we have often seen, it gets worked in a linear fashion, articulating material from A to B. That might have been enough once, if we had not recently put so much pressure on what space might do or not do in relation to being fully abstract. Spatiality as an end-game now seems limited compared to what is possible with a free-flowing three-dimensionality that can come and go, back and forth, in an open and unlimited way, not reliant on either subject or context.
… These things are a matter of degree, and I don’t put down spatiality completely, but even with recent sculptures, those we have perhaps accidentally or inadvertently called “abstract” (or perhaps “abstractions”), there are, for example, many, many non-figurative, constructed sculptures (e.g. Caro, Smith etc., etc.) that occupy and define space without in the least addressing something fundamental to the potential weirdness/newness of their internal three-dimensional “relations”. “Spatial” can look very predictable and banal. “Three-dimensional” can now look very challenging. When repetitions and outside references, or flatness and design, are in the mix, the differences that abstract sculpture might address become rather lost.” [Robin Greenwood on Three Dimensionality]

Rachel Harrison Pablo Escobar 2010

Works that try to appear or act like quasi-subjects tend to suggest that they possess a certain degree of subjectivity – because it is subjectivity that designates a subject. With this in mind we have to differentiate between those works of art that explicitly try to appear like quasi-objects and thereby seem to claim something like subjectivity for themselves – I am thinking here of Isa Genzken or Rachel Harrison’s figurative assemblages – and those artists that seek to eliminate all traces of subjectivity from them like Frank Stella’s Black Paintings. While we all know that abolishing the artist’s hand, say from a silkscreen painting by Andy Warhol, doesn’t mean that the work will be cleaned of all residue of subjectivity – quite the contrary, the mechanical procedure will be considered as the artistic touch. I believe that it still makes a difference whether an artist opts for ways of eradicating traces of subjectivity or whether she encourages them. [Isabelle Graw When Objecthood Turns Into Subjecthood]

Time and Space Come Into Play

“I have talked about this before, about the consequences of moving sculpture off its pedestal. Traditional sculpture on a pedestal either depicts a person, a place, or an event, so there is always an allegiance to the theme of the representation. Once you take the work off the pedestal, it’s in the same behavioral space as the viewer walking around it. Once that happens, time and space come into play, in terms of how you experience the sculpture in relation to the context and the field and your bodily movement. That’s an enormous change, the only comparison that can be made in terms of the three-dimensional world, is probably in urbanism and architecture. Certain modernist works, for example, Giacometti’s Woman With Her Throat Cut anticipated the move of sculpture to the floor but as a general concept it didn’t take hold until the late ‘60s. As to whether artists are conscious of their inventions, that’s difficult to say, because art making is not a program but rather a process of self-discovery.” [Richard Serra in conversation with Phong Bui]

Jeff Koons New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers 1980-86

“My problem with the found object is that even though it immediately transformed the field of possibilities I always thought it didn’t lead to a great deal of invention. That said it is also undeniable that Duchamp’s readymade is considered one of the most important contributions to twentieth century art. It called into question any agreed upon criterion for artistic production. Duchamp’s ready-made was an attempt to transcend mass production by placing a mass produced object in isolation and conferring upon it the special status of a fetish. In its isolation the object was non relational, non referential and disconnected. The problem of the readymade is that it eliminates critical subjectivities by substituting the art of making for the art of selection. It is a mere transposition of an object into an art object by display. Much of contemporary art has been animated by Duchamp. Today the endless re-iteration of the ready-made dominates the market and accounts for a lot of insipid surrealism.” [Richard Serra in conversation with Phong Bui]

I think the great thing about Warhol was his cynical, critical banality of conversing with the media. Warhol’s provocation is lost now and has been replaced by a superficial simulation of banality; that is banality for banality’s sake where everybody’s in on the meta-joke. Only the meta-joke of art about art can become tiresome real quick. Cynicism has been replaced with sentimentality. The problem with a lot of work today is its predictability. Its only allusion is to something we already know; it reframes, or re-references the known over and over again. It can’t possibly give us the same kind of inventive diversity and fulfillment and complex evolution of the formal language of art that invention can provide. I find it interesting that there’s no post-modernism that doesn’t deal with re-representation. [Richard Serra in conversation with Phong Bui]

The Desire To See Something

“The main thing is to understand desire. The desire to possess, the desire to own or to control, the desire to interpret: they all make for bad art. I have observed this again and again in my life. When I desire to interpret or to own something, the picture is boring or bad. Only when I look without this possessive desire is there an understanding or a connection between myself and the subject. The camera is something that I put between myself and the subject; it is not a tool for possession or acquisition, but a recorder of what my mind sees.
Desire for beauty or for a person or for longing can, in itself, be a beautiful thing. The moment your art makes a claim to control, or claims sovereignty of interpretation, then it’s just ugly. But if you are genuinely interested in something, it is difficult to go wrong. Your art is only as interesting as your thoughts about the world. If you have a boring mind, if you’re not interested in the world, then you can’t see anything interesting in it. Your pictures would only talk about the desire to see something, without actually seeing it. I find science and news photography inspiring because the takers are really interested in what they’re looking at. They’re not interested in being seen to look at something, but they are interested in looking at something. That’s the danger of our time: that people are only interested in being seen as being interested. People taking pictures because they want to be seen taking pictures.” [Wolfgang Tillmans in conversation with Aimee Lin]

“In continental Europe there was this emerging scene of artists questioning the art object and the whole practice of exhibiting, and I think that’s why I was so well received there. They’d gone through the object-driven 1980s, and young artists were really not interested in that anymore; they were questioning why or how we exhibit at all and how objects can still be meaningful. My taking magazines seriously as a platform for my work as an artist came from that sense of urgency. The British scene hadn’t really had that wipe-out after the 1980s and was, with people like Damien Hirst, celebrating the object and production values. So there were different agendas in Britain and the rest of the art world. I remember in the summer of 1993 gallerists Gregorio Magnani and Daniel Buchholz invited a dozen artists and friends to a house in Tuscany with this idea that we would all spend time together to sit down and think about how things could progress, what art could look like in the future. It really was completely open, up for grabs. Nobody was selling anything, and there was a similar situation in New York and in Paris, where there were three independently published small art magazines, three circles of people at the magazines Documents, Bloc Notes, and Purple Prose, all asking the same question: how can meaningful art be made now? They all emerged in Paris at almost exactly the same time.” [Wolfgang Tillmans in conversation with Peter Halley]

Wolfgang Tillmans Mental Pictures #65 2001

“I want the pictures to be working in both directions. I accept that they speak about me, and yet at the same time, I want and expect them to function in terms of the viewer and their experience. With these abstract pictures, although the eye recognizes them as photographic rather than painted, the eye also tries to connect them to reality. There’s always this association machine working in the brain, and that is why it is important to me that they are actually photographic and not painted.
…There is this looking at the world as shapes and patterns and colors that have meaning, and you can’t deny the superficial because the superficial is what meets the eye. The content can never be disconnected from the surface, and this active interest in surface can never be disregarded from the good art that we admire.
… I was enlarging photocopies or photographs in three stages. But in my actual practice, I never zoom. I always have a single focallength lens, which forces me to change position. I see my practice as picturemaking. Whatever is available, I use. In the beginning, it was the photocopier. Then the camera seemed to be the best way to make pictures that talk about what is needed.” [Wolfgang Tillmans in conversation with Bob Nickas]

Disjointed, Emotionally and Physically Feral

“Art photographs are often described as having an “in-between” quality—the idea being that there are invisible moments between objects or events that a well-executed photo makes visible. But there’s nothing in-between about Woodman’s photography. She’s inside or out. The ambiguity of place is resolved by the photo’s internal drama. In one notable outdoor example, she’s entwined among, and gently resisting, a soft tangle of riverine cypress roots. In another, she’s playfully restrained by birch bark cupped around willingly surrendered arms. These are beautifully composed photos—perhaps too beautiful. They breathe a little too easily, and the tension feels whisked away before it’s allowed to settle in and simmer. Inside, though, the energy becomes more palpable and effectual. Woodman’s indoor shots invest the crises at hand with the uncompromising hardness of walls, corners, and floors. Placed in a decaying home, she becomes disjointed, emotionally and physically feral, and periodically restrained, crawling, lurching, spinning and leaping in response to something that her eyes, which very rarely meet ours, hunger to understand.” [James McWilliams on Francesca Woodman]

Taken between 1972 and 1981, Woodman’s photographs are almost all black-and-white and have a general softness of focus not often seen these days. They depict a world almost identical to the one captured by earlier generations of photographers, as if Woodman’s camera were a filter through which the neon clutter of contemporary life could not pass. Some of these images have the polished smoothness of Surrealist photographs, like those of Man Ray and Hans Bellmer, in which precisely-rendered objects are arranged so deliberately it seems the slightest movement would alter the meaning entirely. (Fluent in Italian, Woodman spent her junior year in Rome, where she paid frequent visits to the Libreria Maldoror, a bookshop-gallery that specialized in work about and by Surrealists, and which ultimately hosted her first small show.) She makes use of many Surrealist motifs, among them mirrors, gloves, birds, and bowls. Like Magritte, she often shrouds her subjects in white sheets…
But what accounts for the current wave of interest in Woodman? Why do young artists in particular consider her a “rock star,” as one photography professor puts it in The Woodmans? A note Woodman wrote on the edge of an early print perhaps provides a clue: “There is the paper and then there is the person.” Self-portraits, once a challenge, are now the easiest kind of image to produce. We just face our laptop and it snaps a picture or records a video. In this position, taking photographs feels exactly like not taking photographs, and being recorded is just like being: we sit back, or type, or wander away. We are increasingly unable to register the creation of an image as a particular, contingent event, and many of the pictures we see are as unmemorable as the circumstances in which they were created.” [Elizabeth Gumport on Francesca Woodman]

“Owing something perhaps to the early visual style of Man Ray and bearing interesting parallels with the oeuvre of self-portraitist Cindy Sherman, Woodman’s work is separated from that of her contemporaries by its “funny ha ha” melancholia and the constant sensation of some sinister undertone that runs through her photographic corpus. Many of these photographs from the 1970s and early 1980s feel as if they could be still shots from Michael Haneke’s superb 2009 film The White Ribbon: they have that same feeling of latent catastrophe and ongoing decay and possess the same ahistoricism, the sense of being somehow outside history.
In one of her Rhode Island photographs, Woodman experimented with the idea of sustained movement on a still camera (with a very long exposure) diluting the human form, much in the same way as Jacques-Henri Lartigue did in his early photographs. The resulting image is profoundly haunting: it shows a form in a terrifying frenzy, barely human in its abstraction, seemingly split in two. A much later work taken at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire shows Woodman with her hands bound in tree bark, as if somehow imprisoned by nature against her will.
Her use of surrealist motifs offers another side to Woodman’s work, in such playful, technically intriguing photographs like the self-portrait in which she appears half beyond and half within a large folding series of wooden window shutters, a hand leaning teasingly over the edge of the panelled wood.” [Lucian Robinson on Francesca Woodman]

Textual Speech and Cognitive Thinking

Andreas Gursky Bahrain I 2005

“A switch to digital photography in the early ’90s allowed Mr. Gursky to take large-format photographs and to manipulate the images in digital postproduction — by “pumping up the color sometimes or combining several different images in order to get this really even perspective, where you can see everything and details that aren’t available from just one perspective are suddenly made available to you,” Mr. Rugoff explained…
At the turn of the millennium, Mr. Gursky started digitally recomposing photographs to give them a look similar to abstract paintings. In his record-setting river view “Rhine II” (1999), for instance, the perfectly straight lines of green and gray recall abstract paintings by Barnett Newman or Kenneth Noland. Mr. Gursky edited out a power station that spoiled the composition.” [Farah Nayeri on Andreas Gursky]

Andreas Gursky 99 Cent 1999

“This globalised world of hyperbole, simultaneity and immediacy is omnipresent in Gursky’s work. In his images of frenetic stock exchange trading floors, factories, farms, shops and airports, he has documented the last 30 years of global capitalism. His photograph of a busy Italian port in Salerno I (1990) encapsulates a diagram of the global capitalist economic system almost in its entirety. Cranes continuously transfer candy-coloured containers of consumer goods to and from the colossal cargo ships ready to be distributed along their implied network of international trade routes. The foreground is carpeted with rows of vehicles awaiting transit while high-rise blocks of offices and housing glower in the background, fuelled by the economic activity visibly enacted in the foreground…
These images require a kind of ‘double vision’, a simultaneous engagement with the scale of the whole and the minutiae of individual detailsParis, Montparnasse (1993) presents the facade of a vast 18-storey slab block, stretching suggestively beyond the edge of the frame. From afar, the image speaks of mass housing, anonymity, dense urban inhabitation, a machine for living in. It is almost a monumental abstract Mondrian painting in itself. But within the building’s rigid Modernist structure, we are allowed an insight into hundreds of unique human lives: a snapshot into 750 frozen narratives.Walking along its 10-foot length, the eye picks out the bold interior design decisions, the hoarders, the shelves of books, bicycles and house plants.” [Eleanor Beaumont on Andreas Gursky]

“I see the essential commonality behind that which is depicted. The subject seems to be just a pretext for our interest in and concern with the way the world is constituted. The eye of the camera stands in for the position of the novice, who questions the world and who cannot construe things that are supposedly self-evident. I’m thinking here, for instance, of [your photograph of] the dismantled engine block carried by two men [2008]. Compared to the compositions of your masterworks, it looks almost unfinished, and yet it remains firmly fixed in my memory, in terms of what I was just talking about. In certain ways, it is perhaps paradoxical to want to say something about the way the world is constituted, while at the same time insisting on the visible in all its clarity and detail—an extension, so to speak, of textual speech and cognitive thinking. That probably sounds very theoretical and I’ve deviated rather from your questions, but ultimately it is also simply the pure joy of seeing and the fascination with it that constantly drives us to make new pictures…
I think that we have created an intrinsic visual system that believes in the possibility of depicting reality, and through it creating knowledge. We will probably never abandon this territory, and preserving this tradition doesn’t make any sense to the younger generation. Or they see very few possibilities in inheriting and developing it, because the field has already been ploughed and the whole subject has, as we so charmingly say in German, been gobbled up for breakfast. I completely agree that the younger generation have persuasively developed other approaches and have calmly disregarded concepts like authenticity. Concepts that, in certain ways, seem sacred to us. Wade Guyton comes to mind, who has broken new ground with his montage and destruction techniques and who bridges different disciplines convincingly. I think he is the big figure that the younger generation are identifying with at the moment. [Andreas Gursky in conversation with Jeff Wall

A Very Marcel Duchamp Sort of Way

“Oh, Robert was an artist. I mean, a lot of these things don’t matter with somebody like Robert, because he was a true artist. Some things magnify people or open up areas, but Robert always knew he was an artist. He wasn’t intimidated by technology or the lack of it. He was just more frustrated. He was very frustrated when we were young, because he was a visionary in a very Marcel Duchamp sort of way. He envisioned whole rooms, big installations, things he couldn’t realize because he didn’t have any money. It wasn’t that he had to be introduced to anything. Robert knew about photography. He had taken pictures before, with a 35 mm. But he wasn’t so interested in the darkroom process. He liked the Polaroid because it was fast. Then he was seduced by photography in general—but, again, because of its speed. He could access sculpture through photography. He loved sculpture.” [Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe]

“… to focus exclusively on the formal aspects of Mapplethorpe’s nudes would be like reading Playboy for the articles. To be fair, Mapplethorpe took great pains to get the contrast and balance of his work just right—he and his printer Tom Baril would sometimes spend days developing a single portrait. Even so, the images that resulted were plainly intended to shock gallery-goers with their content, bringing into the public sphere what otherwise happens behind closed doors. Some of the images still have this effect, but many others simply don’t pack the punch that they did 30 or 40 years ago. This puts the contemporary critic in a strange position. The tension between white-hot eroticism and cold perfection was central to the power of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, but today, coldness prevails. (His photographs of flowers, paired with nudes, were initially praised for their visceral, almost pornographic qualities; these days, the nudes seem like still lifes.)
It’s a mark of Mapplethorpe’s strengths and his limitations that you can’t really understand his work without knowing the context in which he worked. The 1980s was an era of frenzied homophobia disguised by the pompous term “Culture Wars”: On the floor of the Senate, Jesse Helms lambasted the National Endowment for the Arts for awarding grants to Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, of Piss Christ (1987) fame. In July 1989, four months after Mapplethorpe’s death, Helms sponsored a bill forbidding the NEA from funding any further work that featured—among many other things—homoeroticism, S&M, and “individuals engaged in sex acts.” It passed. [Jackson Arn on Robert Mapplethorpe]

“… elegance of this sort can be simply nostalgic or conservative, harking back to an arcadia of a more mannered and moneyed time—the usual boring voyeuristic yearning for class and privilege that has now become an industry. What differentiates Mapplethorpe’s work most forcefully from the smart sycophancy implicit in the notion of a “society” photographer is his pictures’ mirror world of intense, outlaw sexuality, one that partakes of the formal qualities of his portraits and flower photographs while rejecting the social context they imply. This too is a form of nostalgia, but one that yearns for ideals of the human body, of physical rather than social form. (It’s appropriate that the photograph on the cover of the show’s catalogue is Apollo, 1988, a closeup of a delicate marble statue of the Classical embodiment of male beauty.) As in Diane Arbus’ work, there is a sense of the photographer projecting his fantasies onto the world. Sometimes the unabashed fascination with physical beauty evidenced in his pictures, whether of black men, women body-builders, or a calla lily, can seem almost laughable in its intensity. But Mapplethorpe presents his subjects with such seriousness and virtuosic formal command that his work compels attention and respect.” [Charles Hagen on Robert Mapplethorpe]

The Intellectual Surplus Value

Cindy Sherman Untitled #193 1989

“Sherman’s work bloomed alongside, and was partly responsible for, photography’s entrée into museum, gallery, and critical circles. Painting and sculpture were no longer perceived by the art market and museums as the only legitimate modes of art production. Sherman insists, however, that she is not a photographer but, rather, an artist who uses photography. Critics and curators debated what it meant to “use photography” to make art, as opposed to making photographs as art, in the new discourse on the medium that engaged histories and referents other than the modernist history of photography. The work of postmodern photographers can be read as a tacit rejection of the ideals of modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams, a refusal of form in favor of content. Sherman and her contemporaries cared little about the perfect print or correct exposure; they were more interested in how vernacular pictures reverberated in their art, how photography shaped the world and raised issues about power and representation. These photographers were also creating work alongside the rising mode of fictional photography by artists like Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Jeff Wall, who were producing elaborately constructed tableaus and cinematically staged pictures. It was a groundbreaking era for photography, and Sherman’s work was at the center of this fertile and radical repositioning of the medium.” [Eva Respini on Cindy Shearman]

Cindy Sherman Untitled #173 1987

Isabelle Graw: If we assume that artworks, when circulating on the market, are seen both for their symbolic and their market value, and if we furthermore assume that the price of an artwork is arbitrary and differs from its symbolic importance, how would you describe the intellectual surplus value that your work generates and provides?
CS: I don’t think I can explain it, and I can only take your word that it’s true. I don’t analyze what I’m doing. I’ve read convincing interpretations of my work, and sometimes I’ve noticed something that I wasn’t aware of, but I think, at this point, people read into my work out of habit. Or I’m just very, very smart.
Peter Galassi: Has a critic or a curator ever asked you a question that led you to consider your work in a way you hadn’t expected?
CS: Early in my career, a critic said that I needed to “explain” the irony in my work, suggesting that I needed to add text next to the images to help people understand what I was trying to say. At first I was dismayed that I wasn’t making work with a clear enough message. That’s when I realized that that was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do—that I wasn’t responsible for a misinterpretation of my work, that there should be some ambiguity to it. They either got it, or they didn’t. [Interview Magazine on Cindy Sherman]

“I was getting disgusted with the attitude of art being so religious or sacred, so I wanted to make something that people could relate to without having to read a book about it beforehand,” she said. “So that anybody off the street could appreciate it, even if they couldn’t fully understand it; they could still get something out of it. That’s the reason why I wanted to imitate something out of the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it.” From the very beginning, Sherman eschewed theory in favor of pop culture, film, television, and magazines—inspirations that remain at the heart of her work….
For Sherman, performing for the camera was always undertaken in relation to the act of photographing: “Once I’m set up, the camera starts clicking, then I just start to move and watch how I move in the mirror. It’s not like I’m method acting or anything. I don’t feel that I am that person,” she has explained. “I may be thinking about a certain story or situation, but I don’t become her. There’s this distance. The image in the mirror becomes her—the image the camera gets on the film. And the one thing I’ve always known is that the camera lies.” Sherman acknowledges that we are conditioned by cinema and other media, and she uses these associations to steer her viewers in many narrative directions.” [Eva Respini on Cindy Shearman]