Monday, February 27, 2012

Josef Albers in America, Centre Pompidou

Josef Albers, Study of an Adobe, 1947

Like most studies on paper for works that will end up on canvas (or in Albers’ case, wood) these delicate, yet intense, paintings are like a magnifying glass on Albers’ painting process. In them we see his brush, his mind and his hand in motion, thinking, experimenting, discovering as he paints different colors next to each other, at times on top of each other, always overlapping, if only in the way that we perceive them. While some of these come very close to finished works, many of the oil on paper pieces in this small exhibition are still in the process of being composed, thus open to the possibilities of transformation. Although we think of Albers’ homages as close to some kind of mathematical perfection, these studies remind us that even in their oil on wood support versions, the simultaneous density and viscosity of paint, the indecision or uncertainty of the artist as his brush wanders over the edge of the colored square, testify to the very human, metaphysical, nature of the substance of painting.

Josef Albers, Color Study for Homage to the Square, Platinum
These small sketches and studies look backwards and forwards from their historical moment in time. In them we find all the lyricism and mysticism of Mondrian and Malevich before them, as well as the preoccupation with repetition, form, shape, colour and surface that dominated the canvases of the American Abstract Expressionists. Albers anticipates each of them, one at a time, and it doesn’t hurt that he taught and worked with a number of them at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It is not only the obsession with colour and the pursuit of abstraction, but the commitment to the relationship between painting and spectator, as it is expressed or determined through colour and its manipulation, that binds Albers to Rothko, to Johns, Reinhardt, and in still different ways to Barnett Newman and Donald Judd. Albers’ colors have the virtuosity of Rothko, and yet, in their dense texture —thanks mainly to the thick blotting paper that absorbs the oil—the paintings point towards Johns’ encaustics. And like Johns, although again, to meet very different ends, Albers scribbles on the support, and carves into the rich painted surface. And then when Albers writes all over the surface of the images, as if to calculate the mathematics of painting, I am reminded of Twombly with his scrawls and unfathomable measurements all over the canvas. And in their motion between depth and foreground, in their ambiguous confusion of inside and outside, the deception of vision, Albers' studies are connected to Richter’s early studies for film. Both in their reach throughout art history as well as in the dynamism of their aesthetic, Albers’ paintings are infinite.
Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1956
 As Heinz Liesbrock says in his contribution to the excellent catalogue that accompanies this exhibition at the Pompidou, even though Albers’ lifelong homage is to the square, these paintings have no interest in squares. They are all about colour: “its sensory richness, its endless manifestations, the illusions with which it deludes us.” (p. 35) The square is simply the form that enables Albers to give voice to color: it is, as Albers says, “the dish I serve my craziness about color in.” (p. 35). And then when Albers attaches the homages to the square together with the color studies, strips of colored paint moving from color to color in the rainbow, the square is easily seen as no more than a way of juxtaposing different colors: the square unlike any other form allows Albers  to watch the behavior and identity of color as it shifts, moves and does battle with the colors that surround it. 
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, undated
Of course, my favorites of the studies were those made in grey. For Albers, grey was important, grey was everything. When Albers taught color theory at Black Mountain and later at Yale his goal was to demonstrate how the perception of color depended on the form, size, quality, placement, and what he refers to as the pronouncement of that color. For Albers, the perception of all colors depends on what sits next to them, their intensity, the measure of their amount and shape, how they are connected to other colors. And so, Albers’ task as a teacher was to train his students’ eye to the variables and illusions of color as well as to give them a language with which to articulate these variables. And to teach this, Albers often used cutouts of grey paper, especially reproductions from magazines and newspapers. He asked his students to “produce so-called grey steps, grey scales, grey ladders” with their grey paper pieces.  Because, like so many other artists who know color to be the definition and identity of painting, grey captures the gradations between light and dark, without the subjective distractions so typical of other colors. In the studies for the grey Homage to the Square at the Pompidou Centre, all of the possibility and heterogeneity of grey, a color so often dismissed as a non-color, are illuminated in the Albers square. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New York - on the brink of nostalgia?

As I stood watching the N train chugging out of the station at 30th Av in Astoria, pulling with all its might, seemingly uncertain if it would make it to the other side of the Queensboro Bridge, I mused at how antiquated things in New York can be. When I lived in New York on the N & the R lines, they were better known as the “Never” and the “Rarely”. It’s not only the unpredictability of their timetable that makes the N & the R trains like relics of a bygone era. The stations themselves are filthy, the trains are so noisy that they put all conversation on pause when they arrive in the station, and they have given warm and dirty homes to the city’s rodent population. My favorite gesture that puts the MTA in the category of historical curiosity is when the conductor leans out of the window to check all are aboard. I can’t think of another subway system where there are no mirrors at the end of platforms. Even London's 19th century underground railway has updated to the twentieth century with approaching train information displayed on the platforms. When I think of the slick efficiency and relatively pleasant surroundings of the transit systems in Northern Europe, and of course, the twenty first century Asian cities, New York’s MTA seems quaint.
Late Night on the N train

New York is an early modern city that today knocks at the door of nostalgia. If the subway is the microcosm of the city we live in, then New York is a city firmly entrenched in a bygone century. The walls and passageways are filthy, gigantic rats feast on the delights that fall between tracks, and when the din of the service trains screech through the stations late at night I am reminded of the death train, passing as if to collect all the corpses that would otherwise be left to rot on the tracks at the end of each day. Today, the ticket booths look as though they mark the entrance to ghost towns: empty with a handwritten note in the window, alerting passengers that bags are liable to searching. This is of course a hangover from 9/11 that, over ten years later, serves as no more than an empty threat. The one gesture of twentieth century modernization are the LED letters that denote the line at the head, and the corresponding destinations on the side of the “newer” model trains. It is an archaic, alienating subterranean world that forgot to replace the outmoded with high technology.
"Old New York" St Mark's Church, 2nd Av

As the trains clank and chug below, above ground the streets are in a appalling state of disrepair. This is a common site at this end of the winter – dangerous with potholes and ruptures in the asphalt. Someone once told me the state of the streets was the accumulated result of a snowy winter. I now know they are the sign of tightening city budgets, thus forced neglect. This is a world that is growing old, and in places, falling apart.

Prince St
Unlike the great 21st century cities, New York doesn’t always change so much. It’s true that there’s a whole lot of high rises especially in midtown and along the west side of the island. And it’s true that on most street corners there is now either a massive bank, a Duane Reade, or a Starbucks where New York used to be narrow-aisled, individual stores that knew nothing about chains or expansive spaces. And it’s true that my old neighborhood in Alphabet city (which used to be edgy and, in parts, dangerous) is now brimming with designer-clothed NYU students. But today, there are many corners of New York that are just as they were when I lived there almost twenty years ago. When I went for a run around the streets of Astoria, for example, I noted one new bus shelter on Vernon Boulevard, and the odd new building between Queensboro Bridge and Dittmars Boulevard. For the most part, Astoria is just as it always was: individually owned stores, the familiar New York brownstones and about sixteen different nationalities in any ten square meter radius. And Astoria is not the only neighborhood in New York that has not subscribed to the imperative to renovate, to stay up-to-date.

7th Av at Dusk
I imagine all the New Yorkers who will disagree with me and plead for the everchanging face of their city. And I already hear their rebuttals, their declarations of the twenty-first century, avant-gardeness of places, spaces and customs that I cannot have access to because I am no longer a New Yorker.  Of course, they will know better than me who can only see the city from the outside. To some extent, I agree, it is, like every great city, New York is colored by the contradictions that give it its identity. Nevertheless, I hold onto the vision of an old, other-century New York filled with whiffs of melancholy that I met as I walked through the lower east side, Chinatown, along the Bowery, and through the East Village last week. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Damien Hirst, The Complete Spot Paintings, Gagosian Galleries

Damien Hirst

When I walked into Gagosian Gallery’s recently opened Paris space, one street back from the city’s most imposing of shopping stretch, the Champs Élysées, I felt as though I had come home. In the light drenched space, made brighter by the gallery’s clean white walls, I was surrounded by paintings. And they are paintings that, for me, demonstrate contemporary art at its most brilliant and exciting. Here, on the pulse of the tourist hub, a stone’s throw from the Élyssée Palace is the Paris episode of Damien Hirst’s global extravaganza: Damien Hirst, The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011. I am completely seduced at the same time as I fight for space inside these white walls filled with all the usual drama of a Hirst exhibition.
Installation View @ Gagosian
Everything about this exhibition and the worldwide extravaganza that is The Complete Spot Paintings could not be further from French if it tried. The paintings and the exhibition alike are loud, noisy, big, the Hirst ego in cahoots with the Gagosian ego create a ruckus the French would look askance at. And yet, The Complete Spot Paintings are about painting. Hirst has taken over all the Gagosian galleries around the world. So no matter which of the great cities you go to, Hirst will be there: New York, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Geneva.

Damien Hirst, Cupric Nitrate, 2007
If I describe them, or even just look at images in reproduction, there is very little to get excited about. But in the flesh, these different sized canvases filled with different sized, and varied numbers of spots, some falling off the canvas, some tightly regulated by its edges, each spot otherwise apparently identical to the next, are extraordinary. Each canvas is apparently identical to the next, but in time, it emerges that each has a different personality, a personality formed not only by the colour of the spots, but by the colours in juxtaposition, by their density on the canvas, by the size and distribution of the spots. And so, as the spots are all about control, order, containment and regulation, everything is subtended by unpredictability, chaos even.
Damien Hirst, 1-Bromododecane, 1996

In concert, Hirst’s spot paintings reveal themselves as being about everything and its opposite. They are about painting, because they are painting reduced to its most fundamental property: colour. They are about painting because they are no more and no less than the interactions of colour on a canvas. And yet, painting is effaced in the mechanical-like production of perfect spots. Of course, the spots were not always perfect but as Hirst himself admits, they have become more and more perfect as the years pass and his assistants come to “manufacture” them.
Damien Hirst, Morphine Sulphate, 1993
Hirst is the Warhol of our day. He may be without wig and without parties, but he is artistically, and conceptually, the descendent of Warhol. Like Warhol Hirst openly admits that he does not make the paintings himself. That’s just the point. The conception may be his, but the actual putting of paint on canvas is done by his assistants. For Hirst, reproduction is not a problem, it is the very fabric of art. And for Hirst, art is defined by repetition, endless, limitless repetition in its simultaneous imitation and critique of the market forces that make it possible.
Damien Hirst, DL-P-Chlorophenylalanine Methyl Ester, 1998
I have always associated Hirst with Thatcher and the end of the 1980s. I have always thought of his work in the same breath as that of Peter Greenaway. And if I think of Greenaway and colour, I think of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and her Lover, a seering critique of Thatcherism made in 1989. There is something about the impossible perfection of the spots, their being framed by the white canvas, and then at times, testing the edge of the canvas by running along its edges from which I infer that inside every neatly packaged and ordered universe, chaos will reign. Like the few examples in which the spots fall off the canvas, the paintings  reach beyond into the world to throw light on the structures that frame, the breaking away from the systems, the logic, the classifications that spots, random or contrived, are subject to.
Damien Hirst, Zirconyl Chloride, 2008

Each page of the small booklet that accompanies the exhibition, is headed by a quote from Hirst. On the page devoted to the Beverly Hills Gagosian, Hirst is quoted as saying “The grid structure allows no emotion.” This is, in many ways true: the paintings are coloured spots effaced of the gesture of the human hand, otherwise known as the brushstroke. But there are other levels that pulsate with emotion. For us, the viewers, as much as to be surrounded by Hirst’s spotted canvases is to be seduced by them it is also extremely difficult to stay focused for longer than a few seconds. As we start to find patterns, look for repetitions of the colours, at a distance, the spots in repetition blind us, like op art, producing a persistence of vision. The works perform an iconoclasm in its most insistent form when they ask us to turn away to avoid nausea. And the feeling of confrontation is all made worse by the blinding white walls of Gagosian, the same walls that had offered me an oasis of luminescence in the middle of Paris.
Damien Hirst, Spot Painting, 1986

I must say, even though I am excited that Gagosian has expanded its empire to Paris, and excited to have seen and experienced at least one chapter of The Complete Spot Paintings, I left not only blinded by spots dancing on pristine white canvases, but filled with “Gagosian envy.” I couldn’t help wondering if the other cities got better examples of the spots? Madison Avenue had some of the earlier canvases with dripping spots on slightly yellowing backgrounds, London exhibited the odd shaped canvases and the single spot painting, and Los Angeles the series of spots. Then again, like all good Capitalist institutions, I guess this is the intention: to lure me into a world tour of Damien Hirst’s spots.  

All Images c. Damien Hirst/Science Ltd., 2012
Photography Prudence Cuming Associates