Saturday, June 28, 2008

A crater formed by a one-ton bomb, or an acre of bluebonnets

Visiting somewhere like Orsanmichele in Florence, we are grateful for the opportunity to see the combined talents of artists like Donatello, Nanni de Banco and Ghiberti, who were each commissioned to provide sculptures for the site. Land art nearly had a special place of this kind: the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. If things had gone differently in 1966-7, the airport could now have had pioneering Earthworks by Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. Here’s how Robert Smithson described the project at the time:

‘The object of this proposal is to “program” the landscape and define the limits of the air terminal site in a new way. Such a project would set a precedent and create an original approach to the esthetics of airport landscaping. All these works will be close to ground level (the highest being 3 feet). Robert Smithson and Robert Morris will build forms that will be visible to aircraft as they take off and land. Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre will provide works that will deal with the “sub-site,” and exist as underground landmarks.’

The story of the airport project is told in Suzaan Boettger’s book Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties. Walther Prokosch, an architect with the Manhattan firm T.A.M.S., had heard Smithson give a talk in June 1966, in which he described the city as a “crystalline network”, an idea similar to the modular design being developed for the airport by T.A.M.S. Smithson was taken on as a consultant and began thinking about the kind of sculpture necessary for an airport. First there could be ‘aerial art’ – large, flat, low lying works placed between the runways and building and visible from the air. Second, there were works inside the terminal but linked to the sites outside – these interior works were ‘non-sites’. Smithson’s proposals include Aerial Map – Proposal for Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport (1967), an obvious pre-cursor to Spiral Jetty. In June 1967 he published ‘Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site’ in Artforum, but that same month funding for Smithson via T.A.M.S. from the airport board ceased and the project never came to fruition.

For his contribution, Robert Morris created a Model and Cross-Section for Project in Earth and Sod (1966). It is a neat, minimal elevated disk, depicting an outdoor sculpture which clearly pre-figures later Earthworks, although not the work pursued in the late sixties by Morris himself, like the pile of soil and industrial detritus made for the EARTH WORKS show two years later.

Carl Andre’s proposal was a crater 12 inches deep and 144 inches in diameter, created by an explosive charge ‘detonated by the sculptor, Carl Andre.’ Smithson published the proposal (with echoes of Vietnam and flower power) as: ‘A crater formed by a one-ton bomb dropped from 10,000 feet, or, An acre of bluebonnets (state flower of Texas)’.

Sol LeWitt proposed to Smithson a kind of anti-monument: ‘encase a six-inch wooden cube containing something in an eighteen inch cement cube and bury it someplace on The Tract. The precise spot would not be designated...’ There is some irony to this given the monumental scale of later Earthworks and the increasing importance of land art sites for cultural tourism. The airport lost its chance to host this early work by Sol LeWitt, but it naturally now has a public art programme, including a piece by LeWitt.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Forest of Fontainebleau

Here's a movie quote you'll remember...
"Well, all right, why is life worth living? That's a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um, for me... oh, I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... and Willie Mays, and... the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and... Louis Armstrong's recording of 'Potatohead Blues'... Swedish movies, naturally... 'Sentimental Education' by Flaubert... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne... the crabs at Sam Wo's... Tracy's face..."

Among many reasons why Woody Allen might consider L'Éducation sentimentale one of the things that make life worthwhile are Flaubert's beautiful, precise descriptions of people, things and places. Douglas Parmée has listed some of the landscapes Flaubert includes: Nogent (dull and domesticated), Auteuil (pretty but with a touch of autumn melancholy) and various views of The Seine, which 'flows through throughout the novel, sometimes beautiful but indifferent, sometimes charmingly delicate.' However, the most striking example in the book is the extended sequence describing a brief time of happiness for Frédéric and Rosanette in the Forest of Fontainebleau. According to Parmée it 'has all the immediacy of notes taken on the spot: solemnity and exhilaration, painterly chiaroscuro with cinematic long shots and close-ups, lurking danger (monstrous rocks, smells of decay, leafless branches in midsummer), the delicacy of gossamer and butterflies, glittering water and greenery of every shade, sun and sudden showers, hills and valleys, low bushes and towering trees...' This extract from the French text describes the effect of light on the forest trees:
'La lumière, à de certaines places éclairant la lisière du bois, laissait les fonds dans l'ombre ; ou bien, atténuée sur les premiers plans par une sorte de crépuscule, elle étalait dans les lointains des vapeurs violettes, une clarté blanche. Au milieu du jour, le soleil, tombant d'aplomb sur les larges verdures, les éclaboussait, suspendait des gouttes argentines à la pointe des branches, rayait le gazon de traînées d'émeraudes, jetait des taches d'or sur les couches de feuilles mortes ; en se renversant la tête, on apercevait le ciel, entre les cimes des arbres. Quelques-uns, d'une altitude démesurée, avaient des airs de patriarches et d'empereurs, ou, se touchant par le bout, formaient avec leurs longs fûts comme des arcs de triomphe ; d'autres, poussés dès le bas obliquement, semblaient des colonnes près de tomber.

Cette foule de grosses lignes verticales s'entrouvrait. Alors, d'énormes flots verts se déroulaient en bosselages inégaux jusqu'à la surface des vallées où s'avançait la croupe d'autres collines dominant des plaines blondes, qui finissaient par se perdre dans une pâleur indécise.'

And here's a depiction of the forest trees by one of Woody Allen's favourite artists...

Paul Cézanne, The Forest of Fountainebleau, 1879-82

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 20, 2008

Whiling Away the Summer

This is a detail from Whiling Away the Summer (1679) a handscroll by Wu Li (1632-1718). What an enticing image of scholarly retreat! As the Met's curators say, 'there is a dreamlike quality about the painting: birds, trees, bamboo, mist, and even rocks dance joyously around the hermit-scholar, who sits quietly reading in his idyllic domain.' Wu Li wrote that he had painted this landscape 'one clear morning after a rainfall, sitting alone in his studio thinking of an absent friend'.

This work is labelled 'Landscape as Self-Portrait' in the Met's exhibition How to Read Chinese Paintings. Some other highlights:
  • Scholar Viewing a Waterfall by Ma Yuan (act. ca. 1190–1225) where the "one corner" composition contrasts the solidity of rocks and trees, to the misty emptiness beyond the falls. It is similar to Watching the Deer by a Pine-Shaded Stream, which I referred to in an earlier post.
  • Twin Pines, Level Distance by the artist-calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), a landscape which one might describe as having been written... Zhao advocated different writing styles for different landscape elements - unmodulated seal script for trees, 'flying white' cursive script for rocks.
  • Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank by Liang Kai (act. 1st half C13) in which the inaccessibility of the distant landscape is emphasised by a massive overhanging cliff, partially obstructing the poet's view.
  • Old Trees, Level Distance by Guo Xi (c 1000-90), a misty 'landscape of emotion' according to the Met, who quote from the impressively titled treatise Guo Xi wrote, Linquan gaozhi (Lofty Ambitions in Forests and Streams): 'after the outlines are made clear by dark ink strokes, use ink wash mixed with blue to retrace these outlines repeatedly so that, even if the ink outlines are clear, they appear always as if they had just come out of the mist and dew.'

Monday, June 16, 2008


Here's an extract from the interview Robert Smithson gave to Paul Cummings in 1972:

"CUMMINGS: Would you like to say something about your visit with William Carlos Williams?
SMITHSON: Yes. Well, this took place I think in either 1958 or 1959. William Carlos Williams was going to do an Introduction for Irving Layton's book of poems. So I went out to Rutherford with Irving Layton... He talked a lot about Allen Ginsberg coming out at all hours of the night, and having to spring poets out there. Allen Ginsberg comes from Paterson, New Jersey. I guess the Paterson area is where I had a lot of my contact with quarries and I think that is somewhat embedded in my psyche. As a kid I used to go and prowl around all those quarries. And of course, they figured strongly in Paterson. When I read the poems I was interested in that, especially this one part of Paterson where it showed all the strata levels under Paterson. Sort of proto-conceptual art, you might say. Later on I wrote an article for Artforum on Passaic which is a city on the Passaic River south of Paterson. In a way I think it reflects that whole area. Williams did have a sense of that kind of New Jersey landscape."

The strata levels section Smithson is referring to comes towards the end of Paterson Book Three (1949). Williams included an extract from William Nelson's History of the City of Paterson which lists the materials found at various depths when an artesian well was bored at the Passaic Rolling Mill, Paterson. At an initial depth of 65 feet there was "Red sandstone, fine". Then we encounter mostly shale and sandstone at other depths until we reach 2,100 feet down: "Shaly sandstone". The most interesting part of this vertical, one-dimensional landscape seems to occur around 1,170-1,370 feet, with some selenite, pyrites and quicksand. Williams also quoted the conclusion that beyond 2,100 feet there was no point in further digging as water would be unfit for use. This text is juxtaposed in Paterson with extracts from a letter by Ezra Pound exhorting Williams to do more reading, e.g. Golding's Ovid and "all the Gk tragedies" (Pound's canon of good writing as literary historical strata to dig down into...)

Paterson covers many subjects - art, poetry, love, religion, economics... However it starts in the New Jersey landscape: an image of the city lying like a man with his head near the Paterson Falls. Williams quotes his dictum, no ideas but in things, and then describes the view: 'From above, higher than the spires, higher / even than the office towers, from the oozy fields / abandoned to grey beds of dead grass, / black sumac, withered weed-stalks, / mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves - / the river comes pouring in above the city / and crashes from the edge of the gorge / in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists...' You can hear Williams read these lines here.

In another 1972 interview, with Gianni Pettena, Robert Smithson said "I like landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is sort of interesting to take on the persona of a geologic agent where man actually becomes part of that process rather than overcoming it - rather than overcoming the natural processes of challenging the situation. you just go along with it, and there can be a kind of building that takes place this way. I did an article once, on Passaic, New jersey, a kind of rotting industrial town where they were building a highway along the river. It was somewhat devastated. In a way, this article I wrote on Passaic could be conceived as a kind of appendix to William Carlos Williams' poem Paterson. It comes out of that kind of New Jersey ambience where everything is chewed up. New Jersey like a kind of destroyed California, a derelict California."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Toward Albuquerque

While I was in Chelsea (see last post) I popped into the new Chelsea Art Museum. I was practically the only person there - you have to pay to get in whereas all the other galleries are free... I was drawn by the rather ostentatiously titled exhibition Oh ChiGyun: Defining Landscape.

These days landscape painters often seem to need some means of justifying the pursuit of what may seem an exhausted art form. I've remarked here before, how a novel technique may be one way through this problem, and in Oh Chigyun's case the most distinctive element is his method of applying paint by hand. As the CAM site says: 'Some of the things that distinguish Oh ChiGyun's approach to painting are his strong yet sensitive palette, pictures that are highly textured from pigment being amply applied to their surfaces, and his use of other support material other than canvas including found and discarded doors and windows. But the most unique aspect of Oh ChiGyun's art is his technique in which he applies paint to his pictures directly with his hands rather than by brush. Oh ChiGyun's idiosyncratic métier creates an immediacy and intimacy between imagination, subject matter, and artistic execution.'

In addition to his methods, there is the artist's cross-cultural background, coming from South Korea and painting American landscapes. Does this give his paintings a unique flavour, or is this just background information in comparison to the artist's personal vision? A brief essay on the Oh Chigyuan (오치균) website certainly suggests that his art is a fusion of Asian and Western influences. I find his paintings of small details of the urban scene like doorways or rail tracks more impressive than his cityscapes. However, his light effects can be quite startling and simple views of the highway, like Toward Albuquerque (2004), stay in the memory.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A lake at Essen

I had to go to New York last week and once work was over I took myself over to Chelsea to look round the galleries. Matthew Marks has a Katharina Fritsch exhibition (it finishes tomorrow) in which her sculptures are displayed against silkscreen landscapes. For example, there are images of a lake at Essen and rocks in Franken. The White Cube had a similar exhibition in 2006 in which 'Fritsch created a site-specific installation, transforming the exhibition space into a municipal park, or at least the memory of a park that she frequented as a child in the town of Essen. To create these mental landscapes Fritsch created works from postcards sent to her by her grandfather in the 1970s and 80s. These romanticized scenes are set within the industrial landscape of the Ruhr district, referred to by the artist as her 'heimat' or homeland. Transferred onto large, individually silk-screened panels, the single-colour matt painted surface is the result of a meticulous and extremely precise handcrafted printing process that appears deceptively simple. Each panel depicts the scene in a single colour, as if the other colours in the spectrum have faded, over time, by the bleaching of the sun to leave a trace, or a melancholic memory as if viewing the picturesque scene at twilight.'

Landscapes in old postcards inevitably have a sense of poignancy and ghostly nostalgia but there's no reason to suppose contemporary artists can't avoid cliche and make use of them in various interesting ways. Tacita Dean, for example, has pursued a similar approach in works like Crowhurst (2006) - see below (photography is allowed at MOMA!) The MOMA site says that 'a series in which Dean painted out the backgrounds of old postcards depicting trees led her to her own photographs of famous or ancient trees in her native England.' Jonathan Jones has described one of these trees as appearing to 'bulge out of its setting and press forward into the empty air of the gallery, as if the rotten, grey hulk of a graveyard tree she has found in a postcard were reaching towards you on the sticks that prop it up, tapping you on the shoulder, telling its tale. Dean has brushed white gouache, an opaque watercolour, over huge areas of an enlarged black and white photograph to create this bizarre effect. The tree, isolated, stands proud - a solitary survivor, an aged outcast, a watcher over the dead. In terms of its emotional and intellectual impact, this a truly monumental work, and yet this is just a piece of paper pinned to the wall.'

Tacita Dean, Crowhurst, 2006
photographed at MOMA, New York