“L’artista è la controfigura per il filosofo”

(“The artist is the stuntman for the philosopher”–G. Baruchello)

The issue of what is happening when we look at an artwork, and how to talk about the dynamic between the making of an artwork, the artwork itself, and viewing, is something I have thought about a great deal and will write about. In deciding how to begin I realized that, at least on this topic, a little background on why this matters to my work, in more than a philosophical sense, might be useful.

Several years ago I went through a pretty thorough evaluation of where I was with painting. The examination was triggered by some moving events during the prior year. I had become interested in visual art and begun painting because art seemed to me a boundless vessel for working with the widest variety of human interests—a thing that could accept whatever one put into it and that one could never exhaust. I had, however, begun to feel that the events and concerns that were of highest import to me were alien to the paintings I was doing, which was not acceptable. Pushing paint around aimlessly, without deeper impetus or aim, did not interest me.

As a result I decided to halt painting, perhaps completely, while I looked into how, or whether, painting could do what I asked of it. If art, or painting, was not fulfilling the obligation that I had for it, if I was not fulfilling my obligation to it, it was better to leave it behind and search elsewhere for that fulfillment. It wasn’t clear to me where I would end up—as an activist, in a day job of some sort, law school, in a monastery, back in the studio—but I was content to leave it open for as long as it took to arrive at an organic decision. While sanguine, I was not going to return to the studio unless I was able to find a way to make the work and activity relevant to the things I cared about most. I found that my identity as an artist was not important to me, and told Amy at the time that the only thing I wasn’t ready to give up was breathing.

It took about three months, and the intervention of a transformative retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work on paper, to resolve, and of course it did so in an unforeseen way. Soon after seeing the exhibition the subliminal started oozing up from between the cracks. I found myself scribbling on scraps of paper, doodling over my notes. Externally, the more I considered it, the more the whole question looked twofold. On one side was a problem of the language we use to describe what happens when we make and look at art. Words like “expression,” “content,” “meaning” and even “medium” conjured, explicitly or implicitly, some kind of transfer of information, for which I could find no justification in the dynamic between artist/artwork/viewer, and which is completely outside of the way we understand art in our moment, for good reasons. On the other side was the presumption of any correlation between what the artist does and what the viewer takes away. If one dispensed with that, lots of problems went with it, though others appeared.

What finally presented itself was an equilibrium between impossibility and new possibility. The above points indicated that what I had been seeking could not be done. On the other side of the balance, however, these seemingly negative conclusions had opened up a lot of new space. If there were contradictions embedded in going back to work, these contradictions seemed capable of bearing some unfamiliar fruit.

Coda

1) Article on David Hammons in Alexandria. I will never forget a walk through Harlem he took us on years ago, at the behest of Stanley Whitney. Among other things that day, he helped me pay attention to the artifacts and interactions of public spaces with the same devotion I was giving to visual phenomena. You’ll find the same acuity and precision in this article.

2) Judit Reigl at Janos Gat. Some very tough paintings from the 1960s. Sort of like the love child of Umberto Boccioni and Clyfford Still, if you can imagine anything that irascible not self-destructing on impact.

3) Dona Nelson’s painting at Thomas Erben. A complex, though-provoking and lovely painting. She uses the back of the canvas in a resolved and innovative way that opens into notions of duality. Very daring. Dona always has one foot on a banana peel and the other on a skateboard. (As of posting, the Thomas Erben website is not updated, but the exhibition runs through 1 February.)