Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Turrell, Francis, Hockney

James Turrell: A Retrospective. Through April 6, 2014.
David Hockney: Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos, 2011. Through January 20, 2014.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
5905 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles; 323 857-6000
Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections. Through January 5, 2014.
Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E Union St, Pasadena, California; (626) 568-3665.
WE FINALLY MANAGED to catch the James Turrell show last week while we were in Los Angeles. We'd tried to see it in September, but discovered it was expensive, and you had to book a time. This time we were prepared: we booked a convenient hour for the visit, and bought a year's membership in LACMA, which got us in free — and will get us in free to other exhibitions over the next year.

I have to confess to mixed feelings about Turrell's work. I was fascinated, years ago, when someone described to me a piece he'd made for the legendary Baron Panza: a special telescope tracked the full moon, sending its image down a polished Lucite tube which split into four tubes, each leading to a disc in a rectangular network of discs in a ceiling, above which, in a dining room, a table stood, each of its polished Lucite legs carrying the image to the table's surface, where the four full moons then appeared as optical inlays in the glass surface. 

Astounding! A work of art worthy of Raymond Roussel. Of course I don't know if it ever actually existed; but it hardly matters; one can see it perfectly in one's mind. And it is just so that I "see" Turrell's magnum opus, Roden Crater, an ancient volcanic crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, where over the last thirty years or so the artist has been perfecting and installing a network of galleries, tunnels, windows and openings all of which are designed to mediate the viewer and the cosmos.

I visited Roden Crater a number of years ago, shortly after Turrell had bought it and begun the preliminary work of "perfecting" its contours. At the time this seemed to me a shame: one had only to walk to the rim, then down the pumicey surface of the extinct crater toward its center, to understand man's relationship to cosmos. The Arizona desert can have a magic reddish-ochre glow; the ineffable blue of the sky overhead becomes solid, forbidding, magisterial; and space, color, light, and one's physicality — one's posture and breathing — all merge into a contemplation and an awareness of infinite space, form, and weight. 

To finance his work Turrell took to making prints of his working drawings, and a number of them are on view in the LACMA exhibition. More importantly, he has made a number of installation pieces. I liked a number of the corner pieces, in which geometrical shapes seem to be projected onto the adjacent walls in a corner, their single, blinding color fields tricking the eye into seeing dimensionality that isn't really physically there.

Other pieces are huge expanses of a single color, generally unarticulated but in at least one case subtly  mottled. We sat on a bench to contemplate a few of them for several minutes: gradually you wear out your eye's receptors to that particular color, and it fades, going a curious lavender grey, but also lifting away from the plane it physically occupies and coming nearer the viewer.

There are two particularly important pieces here, but we skipped them: one involves entering a sphere in which one's completely shut off from external reality, as if in an MRI chamber, in order to be overwhelmed by Turrell's optical magic. This seemed just a bit too claustrophobic to us; besides,participation in it was sold out for the remainder of the exhibition.

The other was a large piece, a room really, which one enters in one's stocking feet, to contemplate light and color at the edge, it seems, of a yawning abyss which suggests the Cosmos itself. This does in fact work quite dramatically and viscerally, but we'd seen it at the Venice Biennale a couple of years ago, and didn't want to repeat the experience on this visit.

ALSO AT LACMA we were able to take in a a number of David Hockne'y's Cubist videos, odd films made with an array of eight or nine cameras mounted to a rack fixed to a car driven slowly through the English countryside Hockney's visited in the last few years to record the changing seasons — not only in video: also in paint, drawing, and printmaking.

If Turrell's work and vision seems touchingly Sublime-yet-innocent, Hockney's, to me, seems touchingly aspirational-for-historical-importance. Both artists seem consumed with staking a place in history, and being remembered for their discoveries and their work. Both are undoubtedly disciplined, gifted, and productive; but ultimately each seems to have been laboring at something that's obvious, that need only be mentioned for its conceptual effect to be made known. They remind me again of something Gertrude Stein once said: "If it can be done, why do it." Once the discovery is revealed, why repeat the demonstration.

Sam Francis, Sketch for Chase Manhattan Bank Mural [Study for Chase Mural]

[Untitled Sketch], 1959. Gouache on paper, 21 x 99 1/4 inches. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Gift of the artist and the Sam Francis Art Museum, Inc. 93.29. Artwork © Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

IN PASADENA WE SAW a retrospective of paintings by Sam Francis, and it was immediately obvious that he foreshadowed, in these canvases full of space and brilliant color, the effects Hockney and Turrell have worked at. But Francis was of an earlier generation, content merely to paint. He was introduced to painting as a therapy, while he was flat on his back for months at a time, suffering from spinal tuberculosis, looking at the white ceiling of a hospital room. I've always thought the threads of color streaking across his often otherwise empty canvases had something to do with the spots and threads you see behind your closed eyelids.

In Francis, as in Turrell, the effects of light and color seem internal as much as external; and when things really work — as they nearly always do in Turrell, but only perhaps half the time in these paintings of Francis's — internal and external merge. Or, perhaps, the distinction between them is transcended. In any case the viewer loses his sense of individuality; ego dissolves; the fact and awareness of one's individual being is dissolved in a sudden realization that it's the light and color that surround one that contains the energy and life in which, submerged, we're allowed to participate.

But Sam Francis was an Abstract Expressionist, and his best canvases have a darting, pulsing, almost violent energy that animates them with a muscularity quite lacking in Turrell and Hockney. One contemplates Hockney. and meditates in front of Turrell; one dances with Francis. There's nothing like looking at one of these big, vibrant paintings with one eye, quickly walking backward away from it at an angle, then crossing in front of it, always with the eye fixed on the painting. You're engaged by these things, they call and sing. To see the three exhibitions on adjacent days is a rare opportunity to experience an immense range of visual pleasure, but also to understand, intellectually, the inevitable 20th-century process leading from the art of painting to the art of pure light.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Et in Arcadia ego

WELL, JUST DOWN THE ROAD from Arcadia, in Monrovia. California, not Liberia, thank Hermes. We are here to see the fall season of A Noise Within, the repertory company whose plays we've attended for ten or twelve years now — convenient, since in four days we can see three plays.

Along the way of course we take in a few restaurant meals, which I describe at my other blog Eating Every Day; and a few museum shows — I'll get to the James Turrell and Sam Francis retrospectives in another post here.

First, though, the plays. Thursday night we saw Ferenc Molnár's The Guardsman (1910), a well-made play on the old theme of a man testing his wife's fidelity by flirting with her in disguise — a device made a tiny bit more probable since the husband is, after all, a professional actor.

This is material for farce, but in this production, translated by Frank Marcus, intelligently directged by Michael Michetti, and pointedly acted by Freddy Douglas (the Actor), Elyse Mirto (the Actress), and Robertson Dean (the Critic), the play made surprising reaches toward the speculative, sometimes philosophcal drama of a Pirandello. 

Douglas opened the play acting very broadly indeed, and I expected the play to be merely broad comedy. I was struck by the care and finesse that went into the dramatic curve of the performance, which moved effortlessly, seductively, toward a conclusion that leaves the audience and even, I think, the cast) quite up in the air, unresolved. Of course you don't see this play without thinking of the Mozart-da Ponte Così fan tutte, where the disguised-lover-testing-fidelity idea is actually doubled, and Don Antonio takes the role of Molnár's Critic (and the soubrette maid gets a much richer part).

Così, too, plays to mixed response. Beethoven famously though it too immoral to be allowed a production.  But the point of these plays is the equivocal nature of Ethics itself when brought to the service of Moralism. Any sting operation presents an ethical quandary, and the victim of any sting operation can plead Not-Quite-Proven simply by questioning the propriety of the enforcer having been deceitful himself. If virtue is its own reward — since to reward virtue is to bribe it — so to test virtue is to engage a procedure that inevitably punishes itself: any sting, growing out of deceit, can only falsify its own finding.

There's a second layer of complexity in The Guardsman, which is a play written for the theater. There, the other night, we saw actors play the role of actors who were playing roles; and tan ultimate question, actually investigaged aloud by the audience and cast in a talkback after the production, is, where does make-believe start, where does it stop? It's a serious squestion, because it raises the ultimate question of what Theater is, societally, for.

NEXT WE SAW a fine performance of Samuel Beckett's very hard play Endgame, with company co-artistic director Geoff Elliott directing and taking the lead role of Hamm; Jeremy Rabb as Clov, and Mitchell Edmonds and Jill Hill  in the garbage cans as Nagg and Nell.

I call it a hard play because itt is, well, stony, flinty. It's not difficult to understand. As Beckett once wrote, No symbols where none intended. Hamm is blind, old, decrepit, motionless in his chair, apparently dying. Clov tends to him, as one's life must attend to its approaching end. The play can seem almost unbearably bleak: hopelessness is often thought Beckett's chief subject. And indeed he wrote Endgame partly, I think, as an externalization, on the stage and in public, of the transactions in his three great novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, novels so reductive in spite of their length and so bleak in spite of their almost decoratively Baroque word-spinning that they were found very few readers.

Endgame lacks the popularity of Waiting for Godot, which is Chaplinesque in contrast to Endgame's Keatonism. But the language is superb. At the beginning of the performance I was concerned: Elliott seemed mannered, stilted. But the play proceeded just as The Guardsman had, moving from an opening — well, an opening gambit, I suppose — quickly into a middle game of great strength and intelligence and not a little grace. 

It's hard to find much to say about the play. I once loved Beckett's work, and nearly every poem, novel and play of his are still on the bookshelf in my study — way up high, since the books are arranged by author; so high as to be easily neglected. For a while Beckett seemed to have beome datedd, so logically does he proceed from the anxieties of World War II, the Bomb, Existentialism. Now, of course, in this century that threatens in so many ways to be even worse than the previous one, he demands our attention again. He's the Shakesperian Fool to today's demented despots. I wish I could see this Endgame again, and I wish our elected leaders and their assistants could be made to watch it over and over.

IWRITE THIS FRESH from seeing Noise Within's third play of the fall season, Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre — a play I'd never seen before. It's one of the four late Romances, with The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline (the last-named having been produced here last season). These plays extend Shakespeare's oeuvre out of the Elizabethan renaissance toward the Baroque; I think they look forward to Corneille (whose L'Illusion was produced here a year or so ago) and further, even, toward Gozzi, for example (whose Il re cervo was done here, as King Stag, quite a few seasons back).

At the talkback one of the first questions came from a man behind me who sounded a little out of sorts: Why have you chosen to perform this play? Pericles was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime, but has fallen into disfavor and has rarely been performed in my lifetime. The playwright is associated with his greatest hits: Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, perhaps As You Like It; A Midsummer Night's Dream; maybe Hamlet and Macbeth. Those are the Shakespeare the crowds want to see: but Shakespeare wants to be Shakespeare, and branch out, evolve, even though the result is in a direction seeminly at odds with the better-known corpus.

One objection to these late romances has been their unbelievability. They depend on sudden rages, incest, redemptions, coincidence, chance natural cataclysms. Pericles begins with a hero who discovers a father-daughter incestuous relationship, and who can believe that? Later, it shows a young virgin abducted and sold into sexual slavery, and who can believe that? Yet in recent years these stories have become commonplace. No matter how theatrical and arbitrary his plots — most of them stolen from sources much older, of course — Shakespeare seems unable to escape contemporary relevance.

Asked, after the play, how she would sum it up, the director said that she thinks of it as a man's journey toward grace. In spite of every calamity, Pericles finds resolution. Wife and daughter, each long thought dead, are returned to him. Perseverance is rewarded. 

  • A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. Pasadena, California
  • Thursday, November 21, 2013

    Robert Erickson: the quartets

    I HAVE BEEN remiss in not recording a few observations here about the four compositions for string quartet by Robert Erickson. I feel a little odd posting them, as I am definitely parti pris. I studied composition with Bob, a bit, back in the middle 1960s. I suspect I partly owed it to him that I was hired as music director at KPFA in 1964: he'd occupied the position ten years earlier, was on the KPFA Board of Directors for a few years, and chose my two predecessors in the position.

    Then, in the late 1980s, I wrote a biography of Erickson, with a survey of his music. Thinking Sound Music was published in 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press, and is still in print, now distributed in paperback, cloth, and as an e-book by Scarecrow Press. 

    Furthermore, the Del Sol Quartet, who have been commissioned to record all four works for New World Records, invited me to sit in on rehearsals for the performance they gave last Sunday in Berkeley. I can hardly pretend any objectivity in my response to that concert.

    But I've convinced myself that it would be unfair to Bob and the Quartet to withhold that response, so here it is. I thought they really got into the scores, found out how to make them their own, and put the pieces across far more persuasively than I would have believed possible. I've heard them played by other performers, and thought that performance powerful and interesting: but Del Sol went further, finding a logical and utterly musical progression from the earliest to the latest, connecting Erickson's quartet thinking to Berg and Schoenberg but more importantly to his own time as new musical values were being defined and developed by the avant garde.

    The First Quartet was composed in 1950, shortly after or perhaps partly during a composition seminar the 33-year-old composer had taken at UC Berkeley with Roger Sessions. It has always struck me as rebarbative, intellectual, a bit labored; clearly referring to Berg's Quartet Op. 1 but also to late Beethoven, full of imitation and  thematic transformations of small melodic motives. 

    The Second, composed at UC Berkeley six years later, when Erickson was briefly on the music faculty there, represents a big step forward but is still clearly in the academic modern style for the most part. Late in the piece, though, the first violin is given an extended solo clearly reaching toward a different kind of music. I was reminded, hearing Del Sol play this piece Sunday, that Beethoven similarly reaches toward a more transcendant kind of music in his late quartets. Erickson's Second Quartet doesn't do more than state the idea; he returns to earth after that solo. But each member of the Quartet relates as a highly individuated soloist to his or her part, connecting Erickson to Ives and, I think, in an odd way, Elliott Carter, while still integrating the independent and individual vision to the combined context of the four instruments. 

    In 1985, nearly twenty years later, Erickson returned to the medium in two final pieces for quartet, Solstice and Corfu. During those tweenty years he had explored writing virtuoso solo pieces, assembling tape-music scores, composing game structures, and further devloping his keen ear for both timbres and structural embodiments of sound. All that blossoms in these two final works for string quartet, which are rooted in drones, recurring tonal bases, octaves and fifthes, but which soar out of those roots in hypnotic melodic writing, melismatic and fanciful, often recalling Arabic music.

    Somehow the Del Sol Quartet made a logical and persuasive case for these four pieces presenting an integrated, connected statement, beginning with the mid-20th century fascination with the relationships of melodic motives and their manipulation, ending with late-20th-century iminimalism and mysticism. Two extraordinarily ethical disciplines combined to make this happen: Erickson's intelligence and creative discipline and Del Sol's attentive and very skilful adaptation of the music to their instruments. The dynamic range was huge, the rhythms and tempi exact and careful, the phrasing expressive. I was tremendously impressed, and look forward to the release next year of their recording.

    Friday, November 08, 2013

    Diebenkorn; Erickson

    Eastside Road, November 8, 2013—
    I PROMISED NOT to write this month, I know, but I'd be remiss not to mention two Bay Area events worth considering. Diebkorn collage

    The College of Marin is showing a beautifully installed little exhibition of a number of works on paper by Richard Diebenkorn, many of them previously not exhibited publicly: gouaches, drawings, and collages both abstract and figurative, mostly from the late 1950s and early 1960s but a few from later in his life. The work is absorbing, of course, and the gallery invites comfortable, relaxed, sustained viewing: plenty of natural light, room to step back, see several pieces at once, or step in for very close examination. I can't recommend this show highly enough.

    • College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery,
    835 College Avenue, Kentfield, California
    September 30 – November 14, 2013
    Gallery Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

    LAST NIGHT WE HEARD the Del Sol String Quartet play Robert Erickson's last quartet, Corfu, an expansive, eventful, ultimately very serene single-movement piece full of drones and hockets, Arabic melisma, Mahlerish introspection, and Erickson's own unique immersion in sounds. The quartet then discussed their view of the music, what it "means" to them and how they approach its performance; and they asked members of the audience to participate in the discussion.

    Also participating was the artist Kimetha Vanderveen, who showed a number of small panels painted in deeply glowing pastel colors whose surfaces were rubbed and layered, investing them with a contemplative energy inspired, as she told us, by Erickson's music.

    And then the Del Sol generously repeated their performance of Corfu, finding even more energy, more serenity in the work. Erickson would have been pleased with this performance, I know.

    This was at the Center for New Music, a casual storefront room with good acoustics right downtown in San Francisco (and close to a good casual eatery, Show Dogs). Best of all, though: the Del Sol is preparing all four of Erickson's quartets for recording, and will present all four in concert in Berkeley's Hillside Club in a couple of weeks. I can vouch for the considerable commitment they have to the music, the care with which they're preparing it, and the skill and musicality of their performance, and I wouldn't miss this concert. Beware the webpage linked here, which contains some misleading dates and misleadingly presented information: the correct location and dates are:

    • The Berkeley Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street, Berkeley, California; information: 510-845-1350;
    Sunday 17 November 2013 at 7:00pm