Mar 24, 2010

The Crux of Minimalism


Hal Foster, in his chapter “The Crux of Minimalism” in The Return of the Real, positions Minimalism as both the crowning apogee of Modernism and also the break from it. According to Foster, Minimalism completes Modernism only to exceed it. He writes:

“We arrive, then, at this equation: minimalism breaks with late modernism through a partial reprise of the historical avant-garde, specifically its disruption of the formal categories of institutional art. To understand minimalism – that is, to understand its significance for advanced art since its time – both parts of this equation must be grasped at once.” (Foster, Return of the Real, p54)

Foster recognizes some of the complexities and contradictions in Minimalism (particularly the extent to which Minimalism claims both phenomenological and epistemological traits). He also warns of anachronistic interpretations. Nonetheless, he draws on a series of binary oppositions to show how Minimamalism is a break from the Modernist ideals championed by Clement Greenberg.

I found myself analyzing Foster's text in terms of these binary oppositions. I wrote down all the pairings I could find. Looking at the list, I thought others might find it useful:

Greenbergian Modernism Minimalism
“Expansive” and “vanguard” (Greenberg) “Reductive” and “retardaire” (Greenberg)
Participated in cultural regressions of Reagan-Bush era Opened up a new field of art
Apparent freedoms Apparent restrictions
Transcendental space of modernism Immanence of Dada readymade or constructivist relief
Anthropomorphic images and gestures Presence of objects
Siteless realm, standing apart on a pedestal or as pure art Repositioned among objects and redefined in terms of place
Safe, sovereign space of formal art The here and now
Surface Site
Topographical mapping of the properties of a medium Perceptual consequences of a particular intervention
Essential qualities of art “Extraneous effects” (Greenberg)
An ideological model of meaning and of consciousness Called “reductive” and “idealist” but complicates the purity of conception with the contingency of perception
Formal essence and categorical being Perceptual conditions and conventional limits of art
Private meaning and subject Public meaning and subject
Mental space of idealism conception Physical interface with actual world
Strictly spatial, entirely present, grasped in a single glance, a transcendental moment of grace Concern with time and reception, and the temporality of perception.
Illusionist Literal readings
Objects set in relation to one another Nonhierarchical ordering of objects to “take relationships out of the work and make them a function of space, light and the viewer’s field of vision” (Morris)
Structural linguistics Phenomenology (but with a structural underpinning)
I express I perceive
Categorical imperatives, historicist tendencies “linear history has unraveled somewhat” (Judd)
Objective painting Not painting, but a creation of objects
Quality – judged by reference to the canon of Old Masters and great Moderns Interest - provoked by testing aesthetic categories and transgressing set forms
Normative criticism and aesthetic refinement Epistemelogical disruption, aesthetic play
Artist as existential creator and formal critic, with access to transcendental sublime Death or the author, birth of the viewer
Aims to defeat or suspend objecthood Aims to discover objecthood as such
Discover the essence Transgress the limits (there is no way you can frame it)
Formal autonomy You just have to experience it
Sublime “instantaneousness” “which at every moment is wholly manifest”, individual “grace” (Fried) “theatrical”, “as it happens it merely is” , “the negation of art”, only literalism (Fried)
An act of faith and devotion that compess conviction (Fried) Avant-gardist atheism (Fried)
Autonomy, belief, conviction, a secret substitute for religion (Fried) Saps, disrupts, corrupts autonomy, belief, conviction (Fried)
Self critical objectivity Specific objects
Modernist autonomy based in formalism and disciplines Literalism, gestalt, perception, situation
Old New
Purify art of life Sublate art into life
Preserve Transform
Posits aesthetic norms and normative examination Posits functional analysis: investigation of the social and institutional
Normative Experimental
Refinement Redefinition
Secure a transcendental conviction in art Undertake immanent testing of discursive rules and institutional regulations
Seek the essential Reveal the conditional
Compel conviction Cast doubt

Mar 21, 2010

Diaries of a Young Artist


Dear Diary,

Do you remember I once read Letters to a Young Artist? A great book. It contains twenty three letters by established artists, written in response to a letter from a fictional "young artist" asking for advice. The young artist's letter is not published, so the task of reconstructing it is left to the reader. This makes reading Letters a treasure hunt. The effect is reinforced by the letters themselves, which contain moments of frankness and intimacy, nuggets offered by the older artists to their younger selves. The resulting mixture of personal history, practical advice, and considered reflection make this a classic small book.

When I finished Letters, I wrote on my blog that "I would really love to find a book that contains text by artists before they become established." When I saw the sequel, Diaries of a Young Artist, I eagerly purchased it.

I was disappointed.

The second book is far less compelling that the first. It is well written, but the book fell flat. There were few "take homes." It would be easy to argue this is because younger artists have less to say than established artists, but I don't accept this. I think the editors got it wrong.

For Diaries, the editors asked the younger artists to contribute "dear diary" entries - and there's the nub. Many of the artists take the project literally, and write about their daily routines. Consequently, where first book was polemic, the second is prosaic. The trips to cafes, openings, and the doctors office are all very well, and many of the artists write enjoyably. Terrence Koh's entry is hilarious, or offensive, take your pick. But there are far fewer of the reflective and intimate moments found in Letters. The "dear diary" form is too open ended. It did not challenge the artists enough to address specific issues or to reflect on what art is or what it is to be an artist.

Another issue is that the diary form is exhausted by the web, which, with thousands of free art blogs, does diaristic better and cheaper, with video too. A book of diary entries must to do additional work to establish value - but this book contains no additional essays or information, not even bios of the artists or pictures of their work (far more significant in this book than the first, since the included artists are not yet household names).

And a third issue with the diary form. In Letters I believed the established artists wrote in order to help younger artists. It was a generous gesture, so I approached the book sympathetically. But publishing diary entries hints at self promotion more than altruism. There is nothing wrong with this (it is certainly one reason I blog). But it alters how I respond to the book. It sets a higher bar. I found myself more cynical. I expected to get my fifteen dollars worth.

I was primed for disappointment.

I finished the book blaming the editors. I wish they had instead reversed their original project: why not arrange for an established artist to write to younger artists, perhaps telling a story or two and relating issues from their career, and asking the younger artist to propose alternatives, or dream what a career in art could be. The same artists presented in this volume would, I am certain, have responded very differently to this call. The editors, distracted by treasure, forgot the treasure hunt.

Mar 12, 2010

Chus Martinez


"The best aerobics for the brain is to see exhibitions" - Chus Martinez

Today: a presentation at CCA by Chus Martinez, currently chief curator of Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), previously the director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein. The talk was refreshingly rich and cerebral. In contrast to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, a fan of randomness who claimed curating is like being a traffic director, Martinez rooted her museum curating in the conceptual, saying at one point "the museum can only be about one thing: research." For Martinez, curatorial research is a vehicle for revisiting the near past, not for nostalgic purposes, but rather to bring it to the present and ask how it can move us now.

To expand this idea, Martinez turned to philosophy, starting with a YouTube clip of Heidegger from 1969, discussing the future of thought:

"No one knows what the fate of thinking will look like. In a lecture in Paris in 1964, which I did not give myself but was presented in a French translation, I spoke under the title: "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking." I thus make a *distinction* between philosophy, that is metaphysics, and thinking as I understand it. The thinking that I contrast with philosophy in this lecture—which is principally done by an attempt to clarify the essence of the Greek "aletheia" (unhiddenness) — this thinking is, compared to metaphysical thinking, much simpler than philosophy, but precisely because of its simplicity it is much more difficult to carry out. And it calls for new care with language, not the invention of new terms, as I once thought, but a return to the primordial content of our own language, which is, however, constantly in the process of dying off.

A coming thinker, who will perhaps be faced with the task of really taking over this thinking that I am attempting to *prepare,* will have to obey a sentence Heinrich von Kleist once wrote, and that reads "I step back before one who is not yet here, and bow, a millennium before him, to his spirit." - Heidegger

Martinez said we are still trapped in the logic of dialectical thought. The dominant notion of culture remains Adorno's, wherein culture is understood in negative terms as a dialectical defense against the market and capitalism. Click. In this mindset, culture is whatever is antagonistic towards the market, and the museum acts as a shelter, protecting culture from the market.

Taking up Heidegger's quest, Martinez asked how we can move beyond dialectical logic. "What is this future of thinking? How does it work? What do we want with all that?"

One offering is relational art. In an insightful analysis, Martinez noted that the arrival of relational art, identified in Bourriaud's book Relational Aesthetics, was not an accident: relational art arose as a response to the fall of communism. Click. We cannot separate relational art of the 1990's from the collapse of the Berlin wall since, in the post-communist era, artists sought a less negative model of culture, one that embraced participation, a kind of enthusiasm, "a new happiness in a landscape of grayness," "lets do it together."

Martinez again raised Heidegger's challenge: how do we move beyond this enthusiasm, to a future of thinking?

She cited as one inspiration Deleuze's last book, Pure Immanence (see review). Martinez noted that traditional philosophies based on the transcendent produce a divide: Some objects are so powerful that they overwhelm thought, producing only experience. Click. With other less powerful objects, thought is superimposed on the object, but transcendent to it - Martinez referred to this as the October syndrome. Deleuze offers a third possibility, pure immanence - not thinking about (i.e. superimposing thought on an object) but thinking through an object.

Deleuze's theory aims to be an empiricist's riposte to rationalism and idealism. Deleuze argues that underlying rational thought there is a plane of immanence that unifies concept and experience. But Pure Immanence is evasive and incomplete. Click. What does it mean to "think through", for example?

Martinez offered imagination as a way to formulate the conduit between object and thought. Martinez distinguished imagination from fantasy. Where fantasy is static, like a frozen image that you hold in your head, imagination is active. It is speculative.

Martinez she said a freaky question is: can you imagine talking about love but using a technical language, not the language of love? Can you superimpose a logic within another logic? With this, Martinez turned to writing. She claimed writing is an immanence exercise. Fiction, she said, empowers imagination, it is an expanding act. She told the story a studio visit she had with an artist who mentioned having written a novel. This spiraled into a project (a project, she noted, not an exhibition) where she collected novels by over 200 artists and presented the collection in a reading room at MACBA. Click. Click. These novels are not published literature and therefore become something else - a "power weapon" to open a space for speculation. Someone asked "who reads them?" Martinez said "nobody," but quickly countered that she had read all the books in the collection.


As an artist, I found it curious to hear an art curator linger on writing. For a while it blotted out everything else, distracted as I was trying to grok how a collection of fiction which nobody reads could be the future of thought. Where does this leave art?

Later, revisiting (to use Martinez's word), I thought about the ground that was covered. What Martinez presented was a well-rehearsed theoretical track from the Frankfurt school - Adorno and Heidegger - to Deleuze. As Martinez noted, these are not new ideas.

Click. What was much less rehearsed in Martinez's talk was her use of media. Throughout the hour, Martinez showed images, sometimes pausing on one image for a long time, other times flicking through several images quickly, almost casually. Sometimes the images synchronized with what she was saying, other times not. On occasion she looked at an image and explained what the image showed. Other times not. At one point she opened a PowerPoint deck with 150 slides and started clicking through the images. "Powerpoint slides all look the same" she said, shuttling through ten images of past shows. "This was our John Cage retrospective."

And on Heidegger, Martinez showed an 8 minute video in German with no English subtitles. Afterwards, she pointed out that she knew the words by heart, but wanted to read them to us - so she opened a Word document and read the English translation. In a short moment, then, a YouTube clip; Martinez's citation of her memory of the text; a Word document showing an English translation of the text; and her performance of the Word document out loud.

This was new for me. Curators often have a reverential attitude towards images, and are more casual towards words. Martinez was the opposite. She signaled that media images are not the art, could never be the art. Media and memory fold together in complex ways that cannot be trusted. Language is more reliable.

I left with two questions.

First, although Martinez argued for expanded thought, I felt in many ways her presentation remained hermetic, focusing on the French and German thinkers who appear in all art curricula. To expand thought, isn't it now time to move to the diaspora of thought beyond the tradition of the European? I wondered about cognitive philosophy, particularly recent research on embodied cognition, or tribal thinking, as powerfully articulated by Donna Haraway.

Second, although Martinez flirted briefly with pure immanence, her presentation was fundamentally an epistemological enquiry - her central question was "what about the future of thought?" She stressed the individual thinker, and talked about alternative logics. But why thought, logic, language? What about the ways that art performs as phenomenological, ontological and communitarian activities? These today seem far more significant, yet remain less represented than epistemologies of art.

At one point, Martinez said "The best aerobics for the brain is to see exhibitions." I think this sums it up. It is not enough to see slides of exhibitions in a lecture hall, to hear words or see images. Media produces alienation. Instead, we must carry our brains (literally, not only our minds) to the exhibition itself. Doing so produces aerobics, a group body-brain activity. The importance of community and body were implicit throughout Martinez's talk, but rarely foregrounded.