Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 4, 2009. Whose Independence?

I am haunted by the memory of two young men I met late at night in the hotel lobby in Austin on July 4. I was reading when a young guy sat down and began talking to me. He could not have been more than 18, easily as young as my freshman students. I can still see the glint in his eyes, so bright and alive that they bring tears to mine. I can still hear the clash of the ID around his neck as he crossed his arm across his chest. He was beautiful. He was polite, charming, innocent, and yet, deceptively self-aware. He was a young American who brought me face to face with a reality I knew existed, but which has never touched me quite so profoundly, a reality whose insidious erosion of human lives has never been so present to the very air that I breathe.

Jonathan was in military training at Fort Hood, on leave for the July 4 weekend. His friends had gone onto a club on 6th Street after the bar where they were in earlier had closed. Jonathan was carded and not let in. Too young to drink, yet on standby for duty in Afghanistan, he came back to the hotel to wait for his friends. He didn’t know when he was going to war, maybe a month, maybe a year. He was reflective, solemn, as he told me that his best friend, the guy who had introduced him to the Army, had committed suicide two weeks earlier. The friend was on leave for a week, back in Pennsylvania to get married, and Jonathan’s sister had called him to say his friend was found hanging from the rafters. Did Jonathan see it coming? How did he feel about it? I was full of questions for him, and all the time I had in mind that his friends were in a club partying, that it was July 4, a day of celebration. That he was a mere 18 years old.

I nevertheless asked him these questions and more: was he scared? what did his mother think? And his father? The words he spoke were not so interesting, more like rote responses he had learnt as a way of covering over the impossibility of understanding the profundity of what he was doing: “God wants me to fight for my country,” “My mother passed two years ago, and I know she will look after me,” “I don’t believe I am going to die”. “My father fought in Iraq, and so he is proud of me.” What touched me so deeply was the lack of conviction with which he quickly produced these stock responses. Jonathan’s quiet reflection, his somber tone, the fact that his conversation with me, a strange woman in a hotel lobby, had turned almost immediately to dying and death and danger. I thought of a young guy, Nick, about the same age who we had met at the Explosions in the Sky concert. Nick and my friend Sharon had talked about bands and vinyl, the theramin, feedback noises and the girl he was planning to tell that he loved. Sharon’s conversation with Nick was as it should be with a young adult finding his place in the world. My conversation with Jonathan was what I would expect to have with a man at the end of his life. This young man, expected to carry the burdens of someone who had lived a life that prepared him to deal with such troubles and traumas. But Jonathan was not yet old enough to get into a night club.

His friend came home, and he was older, louder, more confident. He was probably 22 or 23. His extra years had given him ways of protecting himself from the enormity of what he was being asked to do. He had been drinking, and was not really interested in the conversation I was having with Jonathan. But he showed me utmost respect, and politely answered my questions, engaged my conversation. This man was an engineer. “I build bridges. Ma’am.” he proudly and politely responded. I asked him if he designed the bridges – as I assumed was the job of an engineer — “No, ma’am. Bridges are already designed. I build them.” And he turned to Jonathan and explained that he wanted to look after him, he embraced him, lovingly, like a brother whose blood ran through his own veins. But it turned out that Jonathan’s job was on the frontlines, with a gun, on guard against enemy invasions while the bridge was being built. Jonathan would be the first in combat, more likely to die than his friend. And when he told me this, Jonathan looked down, his head in his hand, the eyes still glistening with youth, a mixture of hope and naievety. And behind his clear skin, and his youthful innocence, he was somewhere wise to the fact that he had no choice over his own future.

Was there any chance that they would not have to go to Afghanistan. “No ma’am. They’re sending more of us, not less. The war will go on. Ma’am. It will get worse, ma’am.” The older soldier replied matter of factly.

My heart became so heavy with the knowledge that these dear young men were in the service of a war of vengeance for a crime no one really knows who committed. And to do their service, they are being asked to age so well in advance of their years. In so many of the films I have seen, American soldiers are tough, and aggressive, they rape and kill out of vengeance, their language — in every sense of the word — is violent, it’s a language of survival. And in Jonathan and his comrade, I had the privilege of seeing who a soldier was before being subjected to the brutality of the battlefield.

The corruption and violation of America’s youth is on few people’s conscience. There are more urgent people to attend to: the dead, the physically wounded, the outwardly psychologically maimed, and of course, Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, at age 18, Jonathan is already witness to a trauma that he will spend years working through, that is, if he is one of the lucky ones who gets that opportunity. A part of me wanted to reach out to him, but I knew too that wasn’t why he had sat down next to me. As suddenly as he had introduced himself, the two got up and went out to smoke a cigarette. My task of listening and theirs of talking were done.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Marfa, TX - A Cross between Hudson, the Hamptons and Greenwich Village ... in the desert

I sat at the Food Shark this afternoon, a truck that rolls into town every lunchtime, eating my hummous, greek salad with balsamic vinagrette, and toasted pita chips. Beside me a woman fed on roasted egglant and fresh mozzarella cibatta with arugala, and saffron infused olive oil, her designer child climbing on the table, the swing band playing in the background, and save for the intense midday desert sun, I could have been in the Hamptons. The twenty-somethings slowly arrived up for their designer lunch, the guys in cut off chinos, the women in tank tops, sunglasses on their heads, Kate Spade wallets in hand, I could have been in the village.

The bookstore on the main street (no one in Marfa seems to know the names of any of the streets) is wonderful, stocking the New Yorker, Harpers, the New York Review of Books, and everything from Jodi Picoult to the Barnett Newman Catalogue Raisonné. Other hot spots around town that we frequented, included a restaurant with a Michelin Star chef, Frama’s, a coffee shop to rival Joe’s on Waverly at 6th Av, the Ballroom, a non-profit arts organization with NEA funded projects. And then, of course, there’s the Judd Foundation, the Chinati Foundation, and though not Marfa’s main drawcard, the Pizza Foundation, a tongue in cheek play on its highly reputed siblings. In this isolated community on the Mexican border, a former Army outpost, the alien art world has set up base. It’s a strange, incomprensible phenomenon that sees the art cognoscenti “belonging” to the 2000 odd inhabitants of Marfa. I hesitate to call them colonials because the colonization only extends along two streets of Marfa, albeit the crossroads at its center. Nevertheless, the prominence of white educated bourgeois urban Americans in Marfa is both charming and unsettling at the same time. Venturing from Paris France to prostate before Donald Judd’s estate, I could hardly be more than a tourist. We stayed at the Paisano — the hotel that accommodated the likes of James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Giant — ate at chic restaurants, dutifully paid homage to Donald Judd, gave the bookstore our business, parlayed with galleries owners, in short, we had “the” Marfa experience. I couldn’t help thinking there was another side to this town that we didn’t even glimpse. We were picked up by the Texas Highway Patrol for exceeding the speed limit by 8 miles, an event that made us wonder: don’t the locals get fed up with the high falutin’ art types that traipse through their city as though it is indeed, a cross between the Hamptons, Hudson and Greenwich Village?

Everyone we met was extremely friendly and welcoming. To be sure, striking up a conversation was very easy, to the point where it was sometimes difficult to get away, because the people were so friendly and open. After the abruptness of the Houstonians, and the “ma’am” this and “ma’am” that of central Texas, it was refreshing to find people ready to welcome outsiders with open arms. But that’s the problem, we weren’t outsiders

Marfa reminded me of a planet in a science fiction movie where the rational (in this case intellectual) world has discovered a land they must own, understand, dominate. Like an alien community in a sci-fi film, the alien life is not to be meddled with; they are left alone for fear of their difference. Apparently two thirds of Marfa’s population is of Mexican descent, the US border police also share this land, as do the farmers who have been there for generations. But the Mexicans weren’t eating at the Food Shark or the Pizza Foundation, we didn’t see the border guards lazing back in the courtyard of the Paisano, and neither were the farmers visiting art galleries or attending performances at the local bookstore or the Ballroom. Neither did we see Mexicans running the art galleries, even working in the hotels, or the kitchens of Michelin star restaurants in Marfa. I might be mistaken, but through my tourist glasses, the Marfa on the art traveler’s map is an island on an island in the middle of the desert, and it’s an island this group of locals seem to want to remain that way. For whatever takes place in their private lives, in their public identity, Marfans are proud of their outsider status on the inside.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Individuality in the Light, Donald Judd and The Chinati Foundation, Marfa

Today we made our long anticipated visit to the Chinati Foundation, an experience for which we drove 1000 miles. While the Chinati’s centerpiece, Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982-1986) installed in former artillery sheds, is a once in a lifetime experience, I found most of the works here underwhelming. I am not much of a fan of Minimalist art, and the Chinati didn’t really do much to change my mind. Overall, it was a disappointing experience, with a couple of exceptions.

The primary reason to make the pilgrimage out to Marfa in far West Texas is to experience the 100 Donald Judd sculptures in installation, and to watch them sing in the desert sunlight. Light, steel, architecture, and the order left over by a departed army come together in the row upon row of identically-sized (41 x 51 x 72 inches) aluminium boxes. Their glory lies in their dance with light as it beams through the windows, windows whose quartered frames echo the order and grid of the boxes. While each box is different — some are open to the sun, others turned away from it, some reflect, others refract the light of the sun and the desert outside — they are brought together in a rhythmical chorus of the light as it floods the former army barracks. Outside, the desert is expansive, powerful and resilient to the shifting of time as it is measured in light on the faces of these boxes.

Inspite of the thrill of experiencing Judd’s installation, the visit to Chinati is not without its frustrations. Access to the collection is only possible in a group with a tour guide. Like any guided tour, this means that time spent with the works is limited and impoverished. At any one time, there are about ten people in the room, and at all times, the guide was eagerly waiting on the doorstep of the building to lock the door and move on to the next one.

Our guide, a young art history student could have come straight from her other job as a New York City waitress. She was very pleasant, but had an attitude of being better than her customers. Like any good downtown NYC waitress, she gave the impression she was meant to be somewhere bigger and better. Sadly, her air of self-confidence was not matched by a knowledge of the works on display. As another young woman on our tour remarked, “the guide was no more than a human version of the title cards that are usually on display in a museum.” Given that the Chinati collection represents the privately-owned and commissioned works of a single artist, Donald Judd, it seems essential to give visitors some background information on why Judd chose and commissioned the works he did, what interested him in the works of, for example, John Wesley, works that otherwise seemed very out of place in what is supposed to be a Mecca to Minimalism? And how do Ilya Kabakov’s works which are infused with memory, nostalgia, politics, the USSR, and an effacement of the present, make sense in their new home of the Texan desert? A young man on my tour commented that the exhibitions would be better if he knew more about minimalism. But isn’t this the function of the gallery guide? To pique the curiosity of those who visit, to answer questions, and to give us things to tell our friends? Not our intern at Chinati. Despite her supercilious attitude, she clearly was uninformed about the subject matter and unable to answer questions.

For me, Minimalism is a complicated phenomenon and the works at Chinati complicate it even further. However, these complexities were not even hinted at by our tour guide’s one-dimensional introduction to each building. Even a basic conception of Minimalism would direct visitors towards the contradiction of the idiosyncratic choice of art works fashioned into a “performance” of Donald Judd’s vision of great art. Even Judd’s 100 untitled works with its aestheticization of steel through an interaction with the sun to produce an hallucinogenic experience is far from the paring down and removal of affect that was the motivation of the movement. Just this information would have made for a far richer and more memorable experience of Chinati.

Given the difficulties of viewing and understanding of the works on display, why would one want to come all the way out here to Marfa? Because the whole experience of art in the desert light is, as I say, a once in a lifetime opportunity. In addition, the uniqueness of the Chinati visit comes in its presentation of entire buildings filled with the work of one artist. The trashed cars of John Chamberlin, for example, take on a new dimension, and I began to have a new appreciation of works that I had always dismissed when a single one sat next to a painting in an art gallery. Together, like the Judd sculptures, they begin to chatter with the architecture, they speak to the sunlight and the desert, elements that give the works a new home, here at Marfa, with each other. That makes it special out here on the Mexican border, in a place that is, otherwise, nowhere. Ironically, of course, this interaction with and dependence on the world around it is, once again, antithetical to the goals of Minimalist Art. Perhaps though, this is not the point of Chinati, and it is quite simply, a satellite station on another planet, a station owned, produced and performed by a single great figure, the artist Donald Judd.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cy Twombly Untitled

Untitled, 1970, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

In the Cy Twombly Gallery of the Menil Collection, Houston, I sit, once again, surrounded This time it is the grey blackboard paintings from the late 60s and early 70s. The room is darker than the others; it is the only one not lit by the sun. Is this a conscious move on the part of the Menil, to emphasize the grey of the paintings? Does it mean these paintings are darker, less luminescent than the white-grounded, Rilke inspired images of water, the sea, and other natural phenomena? Perhaps it is Twombly himself who made the decision to display the blackboard paintings in artificial light? I know he was very involved in the exhibition of the works here at the Menil. They are not dark, but the lay of light on their surfaces is very different to that of the white-grounded works.

Untitled, 1969, Menil Collection, Houston

I had seen two grey paintings in the storage of the main collection across the road. It was difficult to see them: they were on racks, in storage, the lighting not ideal, the length of time I could spend with them was minimal. Nevertheless, I cannot forget them. Neither can I forget the comment of the young woman who accompanied me around the storeroom. “They are really spare”. On the contrary, they were, like all Twombly’s other paintings, filled, but perhaps not in the way that she would have expected. She was referring to the sparsity of white lines, of wax markings on the expansive grey canvas. But this sparsity of line only allowed for the richness of grey paint, its intricacies, its importance, Twombly’s love of grey paint, to be brought to the fore. The difference between the greys of the two Untitled works, from 1968 and 1969 respectively, in storage and those of the three on exhibition in the Twombly gallery is striking. The two in storage are almost white, luminescent, while those on display move towards black. The grey paint of Untitled 1968 and 1969 is intense, in places it is dragged across the canvas, with splashes and drips, layered, thick, in opposition to Rothko’s layers of paint made thin. And the Twombly’s in the gallery are anxiously filled with intense repetitive lines, scribbles, patterns in wax crayon, white paint. Grey becomes less a subject of painting and more like the support of the circular motions of Twombly’s hand as it reflects his mind in motion.

Untitled, 1967, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

On reflection Untitled, 1971, Untitled, 1970, Untitled, 1967 might, like Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor remember the rolling waves of the sea. Untitled 1970 sometimes reminds me of a storm: I could juxtapose it with one of J.M.W. Turner’s storms, also in grey. Alternatively, it might be a shipwreck, the wreck that might turn up the debris Twombly uses for his sculptures. This said, I prefer not to see them as representational or figurative in any way, even if this is how they are meant to be seen. Freed of the necessity of narrative, I am able to see that Untitled, 1970 is troubled, it expresses anguish, but perhaps it is merely executed with the left hand? Untitled, 1971 reminds me alternately of rain, of music, of doodles, but I prefer to see it as ethereal, ephemeral, and fleeting. Untitled, 1971 has a movement from the top left hand corner to the bottom right. In the same way that the triptych, Say Goodbye Catullus, gradually dissolves as it runs across and off the canvas, so does Untitled, 1971, the white lines disintegrating, both in the forms they create and their very definition. I am faced with the dilemma of how to describe them, hold onto them, if I do not narrativize these three grand canvases? I might liken their movement to that of light, beams of light. This can definitely be said of Untitled, 1967: the intense, firmly pressed white lines forming a beam as it travels and cuts through a pitch black night. At other times I watch the lines oscillate between doodles on piece of paper by the telephone, some kind of secret mathematical language, a script on its way to formation. I let my mind wander, mesmerized by what these circles, waves, pulsating white lines might mean, what they make me feel, what they represent.

Untitled, 1971, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

And as I let go even further, I find still stronger connections to Say Goodbye Catullus. The stopping and starting of all three resembles the hesitation, disappointment and disjucture of the triptych. Likewise, certain places on the canvas are darker, more intense, more deliberate than others, always for no apparent reason. There is also a continued sense of motion, of movement velocity, insanity, the desire to create order, logical patterns, the obsessiveness of patterns as they fade off into insignificance. And in true Twombly style, erasure is everywhere the central character of these canvases, an erasure made familiar by the fact that nothing is ever fully erased, just as no line, no stroke of paint is never fully realized. I don’t understand why the blackboard paintings are so often thought to be different from the rest of Twombly’s oeuvre when, afterall, there is so much continuity.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More is Less in Texas

I have spent so much time in the United States over the past fifteen years, and I feel such affinity with the nation and its people, that I have come to think of it as my adopted home. If my identity is attached to a geographical location, or if it is determined by the community to which I belong, then even if my blood and my passport are Australian, in spirit and in my daily life, I am American.

At least, this is what I thought until I came to Texas. As a foreigner, I have the luxury of choosing what, where and who America means to me. And it’s New York City in the first place, with San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC in reserve, and Syracuse, the Hudson Valley, and Burlington VT when all else fails. For years I have read about the real America, been cognizant of the Walmart world through TV, yet somehow ignored all those red states on the voting map: as if they don't belong to the America I hold so dear. Driving through Southern Texas over the past few days, I have begun to realize what people have tried to tell me again and again over the years: I have no idea.

As I sit here in the Best Western Hotel on the A90 at Del Rio, sequestered in my air conditioned hotel room, my designer handbag on the dresser, fruit, lowfat yoghurt and salad in the fridge, I can still smell, even taste the air of the Dairy Queen at Uvalde where I picked up a coffee this morning. Monday morning, 11am, there wasn’t a free booth in sight. And each booth was filled, and I mean filled, with four supersized Texans, eating supersized fried something from a plastic basket lined with greaseproof paper. The image, the smell and the taste of that fast food chain captures what for me is the most depressing and distressing aspect of Texas: carbohydrates and fried fat are the only things that bind these people together.

Granted, I have not been to Church since coming to Texas. I know the church is an important aspect of community life here – when we drove through Bracketville on the I90, population 1000, we saw no less than six churches – but fast food seems to be the only place that people come together in Texas. Despite being in Houston for five days, I never had a sense of the city as a whole. Downtown was a spectre of buildings clustered somewhere in the distance, an abstract image seen from my hotel window. I knew downtown was in the east, but that was the limit of my sense of direction and location in Houston. There was no point at which I had any sense of the city as a whole; it was an incoherent and abstract collection of shopping malls, freeways and a museum district. There was nothing to bind the city or its people together. It was such a shock to my European sensibility which is acquired from being able to walk around the city on the day of arrival and get a sense of its dimensions, its tone, its character. In Houston, the only form of spatial recognition came through the use of a map, and as far as I could see, there was no character.

This initial sense of alienation has ricocheted outwards since leaving Houston. Last night in Uvalde, the fast food chain after fast food chain on Main Street said it all – Wendys, McDonalds, Dairy Queen, Jack in the Box, and on and on and on. And at the end of the street, the last stop on the block before Main Street became the freeway … a Walmart superstore. I would like to be impervious to the geographical, social and emotional isolation of this world, but I can’t. I am still haunted by the sensory assault of this morning's trip to Dairy Queen.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cy Twombly, Menil Collection, Houston

I sit alone in the Cy Twombly gallery in Houston, surrounded by silence and beauty. I can’t remember the last time I had the privilege and luxury of being alone with such magnificent paintings, just me and the paintings. I sit opposite Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) 1994 . The colors are brilliant–blue, yellow, red, yellow —complicated, rendered uncertain by the black scrawls that erase them, rethink them. I am struck by the echoes of Rauschenberg in this painting, the Rauschenberg I saw two days ago, Gilder. I often get close to Twombly via Rauschenberg, but today I realize it makes no sense to compare them. Still, I see the lines, the loose brushstrokes of the artist at work, in the process of thinking, just as I had on Rauschenberg's canvas a couple of days ago. The strokes, the dissolution and disappointment of color as it bleeds, drips, runs off the edge of the canvas are so like Rauschenberg’s Gilder. But the laying bare of the artist at work on this canvas is for me, today, where the resonance with Rauschenberg ends.

Over dinner last night, Sharon and I talked about the movement, the drift of Twombly’s sculptures. She noted their sense of journey, reminding her of boats, and vessels. Our conversation prompted me to think of the paintings through a new lens. The sculptures are usually made of found pieces of wood. I remembered their fragility, the vulnerability of their material, their structure. This massive Untitled painting echoes that sense of floating, of movement off a canvas, where everything is ephemeral, on its way to inconsequence, the quest finding solace in its failure. It’s this sense of disappearance and disappointment that, today, overwhelmed me about Cy Twombly’s paintings.

A triptych that moves from right to left. How unusual. I remember Problem I, II, III in the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst, a triptych that moves from left to right, as we would read words in a book. But, this untitled triptych in Houston is different, entirely different: it is so enormous that I must physically walk its length, from right to left. The two side panels could not be more opposite. The right is replete with intense color, where paint melts, its tears streaking and staining the white face of the canvas. With the exception of the top right hand corner, the canvas is full — with emotive eruptions of anger, sadness, grief, love, with writing, and Twombly’s familiar scrawls. Poetry, “How you gaze beyond …” and I cannot decipher the rest. “… and yet there on the other shore under the dark gaze sun in your eyes you were there the other side the other dawn the other birth and yet there you were in the vast time by drop.” Again, it is the sea that inspires and holds the tension of this right panel. On the other side of the center panel, far at the other end of the gallery wall, on the other shore, the sun no longer shines in the eyes of the lost and lonely, calm and forgotten. Only a few wax scrawls remain, and an intense explosive flesh, white and pink painted gesture over which the light of the graphite inscription floats: “Shining white air trembling in white light reflected in the white flat sea”. All the color has dissolved, the intense emotion has dissipated, the color left, paint finally has fallen off the bottom of the canvas, where dissolution becomes a gesture of the resolution to the journey. This movement and disappearance speaks a narrative that doesn’t necessarily peter out, but one that no longer needs to be told. It reminds me of the tide as it comes up on the beachfront, and then leaves its trace when it goes back out to sea, with more important things to do and to say. And so, I, the viewer, in the end, am left with a sense of peace and serenity, as if I lie restfully in the white boat that takes me to the white light on the white sea. I drift.

On the journey to this blissful state of whiteness, as I walk the length of the painting, I am challenged by the familiar Twombly coagulations of thick paint, some bounded by black crayon, others resiliently, yet precariously, stuck to the canvas. There are scribbles and scrawls in crayon and graphite, reworked in grey paint, sometimes erased by the same flesh color that reaches stillness on the left hand side. And so, I have been on a journey: I have been carried along, I drifted with the boat, following the cry from one shore to the other, the demand of a painting, triptych in form, that drags me along its length. I have become the driftwood that Twombly finds lost at sea.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Robert Rauschenberg, Gilder, 1962 at the Menil

As a confirmed lover of everything grey, the Menil Collection down the street from the Rothko Chapel was like a dream come true. Even before we stepped inside the museum itself, everything around us was grey: the wooden bungalows in the tree lined street, and even the squirrels crowding around the door of the Twombly Gallery waiting for peanuts were grey grey grey. Renzo Piano’s building is grey, the carpet in the upstairs offices is grey and there is a surfeit of grey paintings on the walls.

Of the many discoveries of the day in grey was an unknown (for me) Robert Rauschenberg painting: Gilder, from 1962. Gilder is painted in an interstitial period in Rauschenberg’s career: historically it sits between the works in a single color – black, white, and later, red – and the better known combines of the sixties and seventies. And, like most things in grey, this interstitial status is translated into stasis, disinterest, and on the way to something else, not of great significance in and of itself. Works such as Gilder have not attracted the attention of better known ones. perhaps for this reason. Of course, they haven’t, they are executed in grey.

Gilder sits on a wall, appropriately, opposite Rauschenberg's flamboyant and loud Holiday Ruse (Night Shade), 1991, an enormous "acrylic and tarnishes on Aluminium", and one of Warhol’s grey screenprints, Little Race Riot, from 1962. Gilder’s place on the walls of the Menil reflects other aspects of its identity. Somewhere between painting and screenprint, Rauschenberg both paints and prints, as well as transfers photographs to canvas, and breaks the surface with his characteristic use of stencils and charcoal. The painting both looks back to the single color canvases because it is executed in a spectrum of greys, and it looks forward to the combines with its sense of collage, the introduction of the ordinary, newspapers, photographs, and other everyday objects onto the canvas – if only in two dimensional representation.

As such, occuppying this interstice between painting and combine, the work references Rauschenberg’s increasing interest in media of reproduction, mass cultural objects, the identity of the nation (the common reference to the USA is here executed through a stencil on a postage stamp). At the same time, it is tentative, a tentativity we see best in the loose strokes of the brush, scattered around the canvas. There is a slather of light grey paint that covers the bottom half of the right hand side of the canvas, and numerous instances of four or five connected strokes of paint, as though he is testing out the color and how it looks, making a swatch of the paint. It is as though something is being worked out on this canvas, something is not yet finished, the artist still unsure of where he is going. I wonder if this is indeed a characteristic of Rauschenberg’s paintings in general? Before the combines that is? Certainly, this tentativity is in stark contrast to the certitude, the force and power of Jasper Johns’ Voice in the next room. Rauschenberg drifts onto and away from this canvas, he is sometimes present, at others, the painting dissolves, as though he has forgotten it. It is as though he has moved on to other things, another phase in his career.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rothko Chapel, Houston

As the daylight streams in through the circular opening in the roof of the Rothko Chapel in suburban Houston, the glory of these works is developed when they build a relationship with the elements that touch them: a cloud passes over the Chapel, the room darkens as do the works, and they begin to absorb the fading light that touches them. At other times, when the diffuse light enlivens the space, the paintings react instantaneously: they reflect this light, as if rejoicing in its appearance through the clouds, the paintings’ surface becomes shiny. This process of oscillation between flatness and depth, between differing relations of surface and ground, in direct correspondence to the movement of the sun, the clouds, and presumably at night, the moon and the stars, inspires the magic and awe of Rothko’s paintings.

There is also the relationship that we, the spectators, develop with the paintings. We motion and behave towards them as though they are icons, in my case, journeying from across the Atlantic ocean, suffering flight delays, lost luggage, a missed meeting with my travel companion, to be before paintings that have the power to make the ardor of travel irrelevant. And yet, these 14 paintings, some in triptych formation, others peacefully alone on a wall, are not icons. These are paintings that can never be removed or distanced from our response to them. To sit on one of the cushions placed on the floor and meditate, would seem to me to ignore the mystery and revelation of the self which here comes from falling into the paintings. It wouldn’t seem appropriate. For the mystery and reverie, the discovery of self that is had before these masterworks is borne of our ongoing relationship to the paintings, in time, as we sit before them, contemplating their enormity, their magnitude. To take away the painting, to meditate and turn inwards, would be to shut down and shut off from the source of inspiration. Despite the books that line the entrance to the chapel — the Torah, the Koran, the Bible, works on Zen Buddhism, even the Course in Miracles — the chapel is not a place where we find God, or a spirit outside of ourselves. This is a world that we enter into and discover a spiritual place inside of ourselves, a place that exists only in its reflection of the canvas. It’s a spiritual experience that has painting and these paintings in particular at its center. And so, for me, the chapel is a shrine to painting, to the power of painting, its ability to show us a place in ourselves that we did not yet know existed.

How then do the paintings ensure that we do not drift away, so far into ourselves that we forget them? They pull us towards them, to a place where we see the weft and warp of the canvas, even as it has been worked over, again and again and again. The paint on a canvas is just glorious, breathtaking, mesmerizing, incredible. There is no superlative too great for the power, energy and excitement of these paintings. Though perhaps resisting hierarchies, my favorites, those I found most captivating, where paint becomes dynamic, as if exploding on a canvas, are those of the triptych at the North face of the chapel. The movement and velocity of paint on the canvas is more chaotic, more agitated than I have seen in any other Rothko painting. In violet, the energy is like that of an orchestra on its way to reaching the climax of a concerto. And yet, it carries none of the weight of an orchestra in full force: the paintings are so luminous, almost transparent, as if in the middle of a Brahms Kinderzenen. We know because we are familiar with Rothko’s process that he has worked this paint over and over again. The violet of the central panel is also surprising, it’s so unique in Rothko’s oeuvre, like nothing else I have seen on this scale. When we sit long enough with it, the center panel reflects a pool of maroon on the panel to its left – how did that happen? The violet paintings are unique because although different colors reveal themselves over time, the canvas is not composed of blocks of two or more different colors.

As I look around the room, I wonder how an artist can create so much movement, depth, life, emotion, in a single color field. On the south wall, a black on maroon painting has a black stripe across the top of the black section. Though I saw this painting recently in London, I hadn't noticed the stripe. And in another light, a different time of day, I might not notice it in Houston. A distinct black line running vertically, part way down the edge of another painting shows uncertainty, vulnerability, a rethinking, the covering over of an old thought, the addition of a new one. Their revelations are infinite, but my discovery of them has only just begun.