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.


Curtis Faville said...

I feel the same way about Stein's remark--as applied to her own work--as I do about Silliman's. Both writers repeat(ed) themselves in work after work, as if the demonstration were an accretion of genius, instead of the repetitive inanity it can become.

I've always thought of Hockney as a "decorative" artist--not an innovator. I like his faux-cubist photographic collages, which either are a key to his straight painting, or a road out of his first style. His work is very pleasant, and it's become moreso, as the "Gay" themes have receded and the wider array of subjects have come to dominate.

Francis is technically an Abstract Expressionist, but again, I see his work as more decoration than exploration. His ONE BIG IDEA--the big red and blue bubbles--was ingenious, but certainly didn't deserve the slavish replication of the last third of his career. Whenever I see another of them, I'm initially excited, then my interest wanes (again) as I see it's just the same idea. Maybe a little like Jim Dine and his hearts and bathrobes.

One idea does not a career make, but most artists end up repeating themselves. it's a career necessity in our capitalist world. Once upon a time, it was religion.

Turrell too has this one idea--to make spacial installations for astronomical meditation. He could have made one building with viewing slots, and moved on. Instead, he's turned his whole career into a single obsessive project. Boring.

Charles Shere said...

Much to think about here. One day I must write about Repetition, Absorption, and Meditation. Off the top of my head, for the present, I think a problem arises from concentrating on the products of the activity — Stein's or Silliman's or Turrell's — to the point that we're distracted from their process. The significance of their activity is not the detritus it leaves behind, but the whole of the individual, the mind, the consciousness that it develops — in them, and in us, their audience.

Curtis Faville said...

The idea of repetition is complicated.

If a reader, or a viewer, sees only one example of an artist or writer's work, that might not matter. If I'd only read Tender Buttons, or Silliman's Ketjak, I'd have a very "intrigued" response. Reading Tjanting and The Age of Huts, afterwards, however, or Geography and Plays, allows me to see how the work has developed (or not). A "style" must not be allowed to overshadow each separate expression of an artist's vision.

There's always a danger in getting stuck in a familiar groove. Almost all the great Modernist and Post-Modernist artists have a familiar "look" which is like their signature. Rarely do you see one whose career shows real change and challenge.

This is one reason why Duchamp interests us. He saw the progression of his career as a series of transformative revelations, and finally change became the ironic joke of his thinking. His only mistake was in thinking that what he had done had universal application, that he had "done away with painting" simply by abandoning it himself. One writer's or artist's insight rarely, if ever, creates a convulsive change in the culture.

Charles Shere said...

As I said, there's a lot here, and one day I must confront it at some length. For now,

1) Seems to me there's a lot of distance between Tender Buttons and the plays in Geography and Plays. I'll have to deal with Silliman later; I've been wanting to do that for a long time. (We were neighbors years ago, and I'm fond of him personally.)

2) Can't agree with yr second paragraph. In fact I think it applies to Postmoderns but not Moderns, perhaps defining the difference.

3) Have you a source indicating that DUchamp thought his work had universal application? I'd like to see it…

4) For a long time I've been haunted by Peter Yates's discussion of any ["creative artist's] "idiom, content, and style," as set out in his book
Twentieth Century Music (Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 40-41). It's too long to go into here, and it's far from clear in any case. But it suggests that repetition, in the sense you seem to be using, as for example in the corpus of Stein's work, is in fact a continuum within which the artist's content, subject matter, and style develop. In his argument, style cannot possibly "overshadow each separate expression of an artist's vision," because it is precisely the result of the repeated expression.

He writes, for example: "The subject, not yet married to content, grows within the composer as an irritant, putting him to work; his manner of disposing of it will be his style for that work or that period… Style follows content, the outward sign of the composer's growing inner consistency; the achieved consistency of the artist extrudes the idiomatic consistency of his style. Together they evolve."

But this is turning into another blog post.

Curtis Faville said...

In capitalist culture, the commoditization of an artist's work involves an interaction between its presumed "audience" and the aesthetic choices an artist makes.

The branding of an artistic product involves its reliable valuation. The temptation to fulfill the public's taste is often irresistible. Those for whom the market is less important than an underground critical reputation may still feel the same temptation.

I'm inclined to think that writers and artists need to believe in the value of what they are doing. It's risky to abandon a worthy effort, in favor of different possibilities. In the Modernist paradigm, novelty is supposed to guide an artist's program. It's not merely building better vacuum cleaners, but building a machine that may not even have a practical purpose. It may mean abandoning the idea of machines altogether, if you see what I mean.

Eliot didn't exactly "abandon" exploration of form after The Waste Land. It may be that it was the best he could do, that he had no more big revolutionary formal ideas. A willingness to acknowledge that one's search has been unsuccessful has become a de-facto admission of failure. So writers and artists keep producing more versions of an early discovery, and may become trapped, counterfeiting themselves. A great artist like Picasso may churn out cheap pots and pitchers (as he did, towards the end of his life), just to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

There's the ideal of consistency, and the ideal of uniqueness. Each work needn't be completely unique; neither should it be just another replica. Originality may be applied to an artist's whole career, or to separate works. Wallace Stevens's work is very original, but all of a piece; yet there was little "development" over his career. He was still writing the same poem in 1950 that he'd been essaying in 1920.

What's the difference between a variation and a new birth? I don't have the answer.