December 30, 2009

How It's Done

Adminstrator's Note: The following project by William Brovelli is exemplary of how conceptual art might be purposefully extended to break new ground as "postconceptualism." With his address of both the idea of "choice" and the virtual "evaporation" of contextual definitions of art, Brovelli creates a work that is modest in scope yet bold in conception.

The idea is to encourage the spectator to purchase an item that will become the art object (À la readymade) This event is dedicated to the life and work of Ann T. Kenyon 1932-1994.
This (multiple space) solo exhibition is to take place within a 30 day period (Jan.1, 2010 –Jan.30, 2010) Location: all *Salvation Army locations.
The purchased (personalized) item as well as the exhibition card and documentation of the event (the receipt) becomes the art object. The artwork will not be recognized as such without all three elements in place. Through the act of selection and purchase, the buyer becomes the main player via aesthetic control in the realization of the art object. It must be understood that this project is less about the Readymade per se as it is about using the readymade as a vehicle that will enable greater control on the part of the spectator in terms of deciding what or even if the art object is going to be.
There will be no artist reception, signatures or any other interaction between artist and spectator(s) during the exhibition. Anytimeafter the 30 day exhibition period, participants may contact the artist for a free exhibition card that will validate the object. (Postage paid by artist.)

*Note: The artist only suggests purchasing the object from the Salvation Army store. Any object not purchased from a Salvation Army store and accompanied by a receipt that falls within the exhibition date, will be considered void in terms of its relation to this project and exhibition. The Salvation Army is not affiliated with the artist or this project."

Brovelli will be included, along with John James Anderson, Diane Blackwell, Reuben Breslar, Amber Landis, Cat Manolis, Meg Mitchell, Breht O'Hearn, Ken Weathersby and David Williams, in my second installment of "Postconceptualism" at University of Maryland's Stamp Gallery in March 2011.

December 21, 2009

Small Pond Blues

Last week-end a high-level art collector was ushered around Washington, D.C. by the Washington Project for the Arts to pick 12 artists who would join WPA’s other selected artists for their annual fund-raising auction. WPA had previously put a call out to member artists to respond if they wanted to have their name included in a group from which 36 artists’ names would be drawn at random. Those 36 artist’s studios would be visited by the collector in a 36-hour whirlwind of studio visits.

The event was well under the radar of the general public, that is until Jessica Dawson’s WAPO piece came out last Friday. In her piece Dawson quoted the collector, Mera Rubell of the well-regarded Rubell Collection in Miami, and her comments on the DC-area art scene have not been well received. Subsequently, there have been several discussion topics generated both about the 36-hour studio marathon and Rubell’s comments about DC on local artists’ Facebook pages and blogs. Rubell’s comments have sparked debate which ranges from why DC artists are so isolated to how DC can build an arts community along the lines of the perceived “professional” art scenes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.(1)

I am a WPA member but did not get involved in this project because I disagreed with its structure. First, you throw your name “in the hat” for a chance you might be randomly picked for an audience with Rubell. Then, if you were among the 36 artists “lucky” enough to be selected, you just hoped Rubell’s “taste” in art would include your own work. All this to achieve “validation” to be able to donate your work for the March 2010 WPA auction. This amounts to both luck and taste: random luck to get you picked and a “judgment of taste” to get you selected.(2)

One issue being discussed among local artists post-Rubell is competition: competition between artists to get shows and competition between galleries for art collector dollars. It is important to note that WPA's “36 Studios in 36 hours” was a raffle veiled as a putative “opportunity” to show. It was presented as a “chance” for a “break” to get your artwork shown. The fact is that jurors almost exclusively base selections, like Mera Rubell most certainly did, on what they “like,” rarely based on relevance to art history, theory, or a perceptible definition of art.

It is no secret to readers of this blog that I suspect that commerce muddies art production by tempting artists to succumb to art dealer pressure to provide “product.” This suspicion is not viewed favorably by those artists and dealers who already engage in said commerce. Nor is it a favored position among those on the “outside” who are still struggling to get in on “The Art Game.”

The general consensus in DC seems to be that the local art scene needs to develop an interrelated and reciprocal environment of artists, critics, dealers and collectors so we can function as an art “community.” Without being side-tracked by the possibility that the Internet may already have invalidated the idea of “local communities,” one might suppose that a small but influential coterie of artists, critics, dealers and collectors already exists – and if you’re “in” that circle, you know it.

The other aspect to the competition issue, perhaps subliminal, is that an increased competitiveness among artists and galleries has fundamentally resulted from the outset of pluralism in the visual arts. No one seems to want to admit that the trend toward a pluralist approach in visual arts (all “styles” currently “accepted” and marketed whether figurative, conceptual, time-based, or what have you) that has dominated the art world for the past 25 years has diverted the discourse about art’s definition. Thus, competition is not even about “art” but really about how dealers can match a “style” of work to some collector’s “taste.”

This is a more worthy focus for DC: why bother to “compete” with New York, LA and Chicago as a “community” of artists, critics, dealers and collectors if the critical, financial and media muscle is not here? Perhaps a more interesting approach would be to create an environment of support based on DC’s unique situation. We work in a city of multiple museums, foundations and institutions that could provide a stage for us to rigorously explore the idea of art’s definition, the possibilities for what art “does” and how culture is mutually beneficial to both its producers and its consumers. All this could occur within DC without worrying about commerce because we have the opportunity here to view art as a right not a privilege.

Yes, I am talking about “socialized” art, funded and supported by tax dollars with oversight by government and meaningful successes. We have nothing to lose.


1. It was disheartening to learn last week that there are no DC artists among the artists chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial which truly confirms DC's “small pond” stature in the art world.

2. I occasionally enter well-represented juried exhibitions like the Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize in Baltimore. In a juried show competition you gamble solely on the juror's “taste” because the competition requires only that you submit application materials, jpegs and entry fee - there is no random drawing involved.

December 17, 2009

Truitt & A Pithy Quibble

Without a doubt, the current Anne Truitt retrospective (“Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 3, 2010) will help solidify her reputation as a unique individualist who explored color within a “minimalist” framework. Truitt was often overshadowed by the dominant males of Minimal Art – Donald Judd, Tony Smith, Robert Morris and Carl Andre – and her work has been critically underserved to date. Even with Clement Greenberg solidly in her corner, Truitt’s monolithic wooden sculptures are not generally recognized as “key” works among the Minimalist canon. That may change with this retrospective’s exhaustive survey of her work. Truitt’s signature wood sculptures abound in this show and their assertion of form yielding to color is powerfully represented here.

A significant number of critics lump Truitt in with the “Washington Color School” instead of calling her a minimalist. Their theoretical connection of Truitt to Morris Louis and Ken Noland may be comprehensible in theory, yet harder to accept in a practical sense when approaching her sculpture. First, obviously – it’s sculpture; three-dimensional, floor-bound and (almost) exclusively vertical. But the clear demarcation between Truitt’s work and Washington’s colorists lies in its presence. As Greenberg noted in his essay, “Recentness of Sculpture”, her sculptures had “the look of non-art” and it was with Truitt that he discovered “how this look could confer an effect of presence.”(1)

Clem also got it right when he wrote that it was “hard to tell whether the success of Truitt’s best work was primarily sculptural or pictorial.”(2) I think this gets at the crux of a particular reading of minimalism that helps unpack Truitt’s work and explain why she’s considered a “closet” minimalist.

Minimal Art, especially as practiced by Judd and Morris, rejects the relational aspects of what they viewed as “European” ways of art making; part-to-part relationships within paintings or sculptures were rejected in favor of unitary forms and “specific objects.” As viewed by Michael Fried, their works dealt with “the nonrelational, the unitary, and the holistic.”(3) The minimalists’ creation of unitary forms like cubes or I-Beams was a result of their rejection of “part-to-part” composition. Furthermore, their belief in “wholeness” included unification of the object with its color; if there was color at all, it was generally primer gray or “rust.”

In Truitt we have a “sculptor” who happens to make three-dimensional “paintings.” Her use of her forms become similar to a painter’s use of supports, as her primary focus remains what can occur with color when it is applied to forms like hers:

“I realized that changes in color induced, or implied, changes in shape. That though color and structure retained individuality, they could join forces rather as independent melodies can combine into a harmonic whole. And that when I combined them in a particular way, they had a particular content.”(4)

It becomes abundantly clear then that Truitt’s exclusion from the patriarchal minimalists has to do with her preference for “metaphorical” color and the illusory relationships within the form of her work. Predominantly “boxes,” her preference for shifting the tonalities of her colors from plane to plane within a single structure focuses attention on the corners. Given the physics of light falling upon these geometric forms, the result is that corners more often than not appear to be fluctuating from three-dimensional to “two-dimensional.” Moreover, the actions of her hand-applied colors on those boxes often involves relationships between the changing colors on nearby, perpendicular planes that frequently produce more illusions; visual “trickery” of false depth, corners that appear to reverse and fold in on themselves.

Granted, we have to admire the maverick quality of Truitt but it is clear that her work has been critically positioned over the years as lacking the “toughness” associated with the minimalists' “boys club” of Judd, Morris, Andre, et al. That, too, may soon change. As Kristen Hileman notes in printed materials accompanying the Truitt show, “We are currently in a scholarly moment that welcomes a re-evaluation of the past and acknowledges the interplay between an artist's output and his or her individual experience.” Our appreciation of Truitt lies in her conflation of painterly sensibilities within an obdurate and “scary” structure.(5) And, indeed, there is one series of Truitt’s works on exhibit that scared me, albeit, for different reasons.

The “Pith” series is a group of canvas swatches that Truitt painted thickly with black pigment. The canvas pieces have frayed edges and irregular shapes and are encased in typical museum cases with the pieces laid horizontally. By some accounts, the “Pith” works were to be hung vertically on a wall like paintings.(6) In fact, with their gestural and impasto brushwork, and in their horizontal address, they seem to speak now of Pollock and his choreographed “action painting,” rather than how Truitt may have envisioned them. There is some speculation that the frayed edges of “Pith” pieces may relate to that fuzzy “cut” on the “throat” of “Nicea.” Whether a curatorial decision or an estate preference, the decision to lay “Pith” flat is apparently something other than what the artist had in mind.

Image: Installation view of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” showing “Pith” piece in the foreground; Photograph © Copyright by Lee Stalsworth.


1. Greenberg, Clement. “Recentness of Sculpture,” reprinted in Minimal Art: a critical anthology (G. Battcock: ed.), Berkeley, 1995, 185.

2. Ibid., 185.

3. Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago, 1998, 156.

4. Meyer, James. “Grand allusion: James Meyer talks with Anne Truitt,” ArtForum, May 2002.

5. In her 2002 conversation with James Meyer, Truitt talks about how Greenberg found her work “difficult” and that he visited again until he finally “saw it.” She recounts how when Greenberg first saw Hardcastle he “backed away from it and said, ‘Scares the shit out of me.’

6. In conversation with a Hirshhorn guide, I discovered that photographer John Gossage has recalled Truitt intended that “Pith” works were to be hung.

December 10, 2009

Bellwether (or not)

Hans Haacke’s work has investigated the extent to which cultural production intersects with political necessity. As the saying goes, “All art is political,” but only if we provide the exterior context needed to establish the relevance of a work’s politics. Without a contextual “reading” an artwork’s political intent may remain obscured or “cloudy.” Moreover, the supplemental political context of particular works of art begin to lose their impact and wane over the years, as the prevailing conditions or “climate” of their original insertion into the social order suffer the “fog” of the past.

Such is the case with many of Haacke’s works. How important are Reaganomics to us today? Does the average Westerner truly “understand” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Similarly, our disdain for slumlords is off-set by our comprehension that the economic realities of this country are built on “opportunity.” Thus, we realize that the rich can dabble in the arts and also indulge in baser aspects of greed.

Perhaps this is why Haacke did not mention his infamous “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971” in the Phillips Collection's “Conversations with Artists” last night. The particular details of those “fraudulent practices” of one financial firm in the ownership of various tenement apartment buildings in Harlem and the Lower East Side are possibly less relevant to us 38 years later. The 146 photographs were accompanied by texts describing the locations and the financial transactions behind the ownership of the pictured buildings. As recently as 1997, this work by Haacke was described as exposing a “guilty” Harry Shapolsky who was “well protected by influential friends” and that his “fraudulent practices” were overlooked by a “judicial system” that was “exceedingly forgiving.”(1)

“Shapolsky et al” is often cited as exemplary of “institutional critique” and its photo-text presentation has come to encapsulate this “academic discipline.”(2) But how can we care about this work now? In my lectures about “Shapolsky et al” I “explain” the work with supplemental information about its supposition that the “rich” are not nice people. There is also the art world gossip that this work was the reason for Haacke’s canceled Guggenheim solo show.(3)

The implication that the nature of wealth involves power is always topical. However, artworks that focus on this reality remain episodic and their “survival” as “art history” is dependent upon additional information provided by critics, curators, educators and (dare I say it?) those institutions that “manage” our consciousness.(4)

Haacke’s current exhibition at X Initiative perhaps sidesteps those issues of wealth and power to coalesce as a kind of mini-retrospective with a couple of bonuses – literally: there are giant fans with the word “Bonus” flashing on and off above them. These fans, coupled with all the windows on the fourth floor space (which used to be one of Dia’s buildings) wide open, generate an aggressively uncomfortable viewing space. Haacke gleefully referred to it as the “most adverse conditions for display of art.”

In a humorous nod to the hostile environment, Haacke has set up two devices on a table: a hygrothermograph measuring and recording the temperature and relative humidity of the space, plus a barograph recording barometric pressure.

“Whether or not” this was a subtle dig at Dia or any of that institution’s agendas, hidden or otherwise, is difficult to say. Haacke does acknowledge the metaphoric potentialities of his work.(5) Thus, one could speculate that the presentation of art that has been called “difficult” (institutional critique, systems art) in an unpleasant ambiance might yield some interesting metaphors: “cold” art as misunderstood, or its commercial denial.

Regardless, one might also conjecture that the current work of Haacke bears less resemblance to his past works of explicit critique and controversy. The Haacke of today has been marginalized to the point that he may no longer be a bellwether of conceptualism. Without the artist himself “re-contextualizing” his past and “explaining” his present position in art history, we will have to remain content to bundle up and submit to the torture.

Image: An installation shot of “Weather, or not” (2009); © Copyright by Hans Haacke. Photograph:


2. Haacke’s characterization of institutional critique, as he admitted in Q&A that he had “kind of practiced it early on” but there is a “danger that it becomes an academic discipline.”

3. “Famously, Haacke’s refusal to withdraw the piece from his solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, led to the exhibition being cancelled. Haacke’s career has, of course, been undergirded by a heroic narrative of institutional neglect and censorship that continues to nourish his credibility as a political artist.” From Frieze Magazine, Issue 106, April 2007.

4. “Consciousness is […] a battleground of conflicting interests. Correspondingly, the products of consciousness represent interests and interpretations of the world that are potentially at odds with each other. The products of the means of production, like those means themselves, are not neutral.” From Haacke’s essay, “Museums, Managers of Consciousness” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (Peter Selz, Kristine Stiles, editors), University of California Press, 1996, 877.

5. Haacke went to some length explaining the symbolism of his portrait of Reagan placed opposite an enlarged 35mm frame of Polish protestors represented the conflict between the “opposing” mediums of painting and photography.

December 1, 2009

Critical Fragments: Narrative

“[…] the image no longer contains the terms of its past – understood as the terms of the problem to which it is seen to be a response. Rather, both the past and the problem are felt to reside outside it, and access to them can only be achieved by a long chain of explanation which characteristically takes the form of narrative.”(1)

Rosalind Krauss wrote these words about Frank Stella and his decision to work in series in 1971. By that time Stella’s best work was possibly behind him as he abandoned his flat series to move into shaped canvasses and the “Protractor” series. Krauss’s focus on Stella’s paintings became a measure of how the then-as-yet-unnamed “postmodern” painting might proceed and how it would deal with its position in art history. Her visionary grasp of the simple fact that any “meaning” attributed to a work of art comes from “outside it” is doubly impressive in retrospect. Moreover, her thoughts prompt further reflection concerning another take on the idea of “narrative” itself, particularly with respect to the painting’s “frame”.

The narrative of cinema unfolds within the frame of a camera lens. A diegesis, or fictional world, takes place inside that rectangular space that is the “look” of the camera.(2) Everything that we “see” is bounded by that framing device. Cinematic “meaning” is expressed through the diegesis which follows a narrative arc to a determinate end.

Film directors often articulate their vision through obsessive concern with every object and actor within the camera’s frame. This auteur of cinematic narrative (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Welles, Fellini) truly relies on the framing device of the camera to represent their “vision.” In this regard, these directors are often compared with old master painters in their ability to exact such power from each square foot of celluloid.

Photographic narrative is not diegetic. Indeed, it cannot be, given that a unique photograph is but a “moment” and does not follow the sequencing of film. As a result, photographic “meaning” is often supplemented by textuality exterior to the photograph. Narrative readings of photographs are thus suspect as any “story” presumed from a photograph requires interpretive textual embellishment from without.

Historically, narrative interpretations of photography were based on established traditions of how paintings were interpreted; relating part to part within the frame to deduce a story. Figures, settings, events were usually of mythic or historic importance and meant to impart knowledge to the populace, many of which were illiterate. Readings of photography have been misinformed by this relational logic. After painting had fully renounced realism by the start of the 20th Century, these relational elements became formalist. Yet modernist painting still relied on the idea of part-to-part relationships to emphasize the modern artists’ new concerns with formal elements over realism.

Narrative in abstract painting has nothing to do with a “story.” Certainly there are arguments that relationships happen between the formal elements of a painting that “tell” a story, i.e., this line relates to that line, this color balances that color. But these have become less and less important since the emphasis placed on the frame.

Narrative in abstract painting has less to do with the formal elements than it has with the frame. The frame defines the time; shows us how to look, where to begin. Narrative painting can address this linearity only through the frame.

Like the humble march of words in a sentence, moving inexorably to an ending and coherence, linear movement within a painting’s frame is yet another way to approach the narrative. Unlike cinema, photography or realist painting, abstract painting must convey the temporality of its linear process through tactility and the measurably perceptible. Without “looks” or “story,” abstract painting constructs an altogether different version of the narrative that neither deals with its status as an object nor rejects it.


1. Krauss, Rosalind. “Problems of Criticism, X: Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” Artforum, November 1971, 69.

2. An idea expressed about still photography in Victor Burgin’s essay “Looking at Photographs” and about cinematography in Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Burgin suggests four “looks” of the photograph while Mulvey prefers three.

November 14, 2009

At Stake

In 1977 I set some small wood stakes in the front yard of the house I rented on Mariposa Street near downtown Los Angeles and stretched yellow twine between them, forming two large X’s on either side of the walkway leading up to our front door. The piece was called I Stake A Claim In LA and had the supplemental component of a want-ad I ran in the Los Angeles Times for the duration of the week the piece existed.

As initial announcement of my arrival in Los Angeles, the stake piece served as my address of Southern California conceptual art and my figurative insertion into its history. Here in the city of John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Keinholz, I felt there might be possibilities to explore. What was "at stake” in LA was my cross-country move from St. Louis and my intellectual engagement with those forces of time-based, informational, ephemeral, process-driven work emanating from LA's concrete wasteland of movie stars and endless cars.

I Stake A Claim In LA bears the mythology of prospecting, gambling for a “strike,” working with available resources to tap infinite wealth. There was guerilla-based, outlaw consciousness at work here, ignoring what was permissible in art and expected of tenants. It was downbeat, off-the-tracks and under the radar; I expected no real notice from either the “art press” or the neighborhood locals who strolled by those two yellow-twine X’s. What was important to me was to fashion an anonymous marker that would distinguish my “site” as a theoretical positioning of my practice. The time had come for me to “be” in LA and this was the coming-out ritual.

My time in LA ran twenty years. Before those years came to an end, I wrote bout how obscurism creates “aart,” did street performances “dangerously ventur[ing] into heavy traffic,” played punk rock, founded an alternative art space, toured with Nina Hagen and taught film noir and “Outlaw Culture” at the Pasadena Art Center.

Every minute of my years there I was aware of my position in LA’s “alternative” art community being measured. My understanding of the broader aspects of my contributions as “cultural producer” now rests on that obscure, marginalized, yet recorded history.

This marks the 32nd year of my involvement with conceptual art, music and art theory. For the remainder of 2009, I will post a series of documents, works and texts as a record of my first conceptual works of '77-'79. These posts will serve two purposes. First, to foreground my continuing art practice and future direction in visuality. Additionally, I want to acknowledge and honor my past so as to better comprehend the depth of my personal commitment to this history.

Images: “I Stake A Claim In LA” (1977); twine and wood stakes; 40 feet square; destroyed; © Copyright 1977-2009 by Mark Cameron Boyd.

November 7, 2009


I am new to art and the theory of art and reading your Theory Now blog is a big help. I'm also reading Tom Wolfe's ‘The Painted Word’ and Kirk Varnedoe's ‘Pictures of Nothing.’ Both of these books are interesting and illuminating. I recently watched a documentary about Chuck Close, which was fantastic. I have a question for you, regarding a comment Chuck Close made in the film. He said Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz ‘kicked the door open for the kind of intelligent figuration...’ What does he mean by ‘intelligent figuration?’ It sounds impressive and interesting, but what does it mean? ‘Intelligent figuration.’

Thank you for your time.

Curtis [D. Thomson]”

Hello Curtis,
Many thanks for your kind words and welcome to my blog. I want to respond to your query on “intelligent figuration” in this post. I have done this before and it might initiate further discussion on the topic with other readers.

I thought about your question related to Chuck Close and “intelligent figuration” and searched YouTube for the documentary. Although I could not find film or video, I did find the conversation Close had with Isca Greenfield-Sanders on January 17, 2006. I think it important to give the context in which the phrase was used before I speculate on its “meaning” or pursue any critical thoughts about it.

Greenfield-Sanders is also an artist and they were discussing the use of photographs as sources of “information” for their paintings. Greenfield-Sanders stated that photography “gets you to a point very quickly” and Close said:

“I don’t know why everyone doesn’t work from a photograph because it gives you a way to make shapes you have never made before, use colors you have never used before, make edges that you haven’t dreamed of. I remember Philip Pearlstein wrote in the New York Times years ago ‘I get my highs from using my eyes’ which was an indictment of people who worked from photographs. And in essence he was saying that if you worked from photographs that you weren’t looking. If you are working from life you are seeing and if you are working from photographs you are just mindlessly copying. I thought, so, if you are looking at a photograph you aren’t looking? What shuts down? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”(1)

Greenfield-Sanders replied that “paintings that got painted before I was painting allowed my work to short hand those changes in attitude without having to restate the givens.” And then Close said:

“For me, people who kicked open the door that I breezed right through were trying to make intelligent, modernist figuration instead of going back and breathing new life into nineteenth century notions of figuration. It was really important, absolutely critical. I think as a matter of fact that one could make the case that modernist painting is entirely what it is because of the invention of photography. If you think about photography in the 1940’s, it was black and white. Painting immediately became much more colorful. Early on, photography was static because of the long exposure times so everything in painting began to move and shift -- and we got futurism and two views from cubism. Photography was incredibly detailed so the impressionists broke up everything in view. In a way, photography drove painting each step of the way. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that there became an antagonism between photography and painting -- although painters were the first people to embrace photography.”

When we understand that they were discussing photography and its use as a “tool” for painting it affects our understanding of Close’s comment on “intelligent, modernist figuration.” Clearly, he does not believe Pearlstein “kicked open the door” as Close views Pearlstein’s comment as “an indictment of people who worked from photographs.” Pearlstein prefers to use his own visual perception to paint, not photographs.

Close does not mention Alex Katz in the Greenfield-Sanders conversation; perhaps you are confusing it with another interview or documentary. Close does mention Warhol briefly as someone “making paintings with silk screens that were one gesture, one squeegee stroke.” It seems logical that Close considers Warhol to be innovative or his silk screens to be “intelligent” because they appear to deny traditional methodologies of painting. However, I do not view Warhol’s work as “intelligent” figurative painting; Warhol is really an expanded yet shallower version of Duchampian ideas.

Recently, I have been reading David Carrier’s excellent book, Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism. In Carrier’s consideration of Krauss, he refers to her break from Clement Greenberg’s belief that modernist painting began with Manet. Krauss felt that “modernism began with Rodin” because his sculpture did not “present a visual narrative.”(2) Sculpture prior to Rodin represented the expressiveness of the figure through the physicality of the material and conveyed a sense of narrative. Krauss has pointed out that Rodin did not relate the exterior appearance of the figure to its anatomical “inner structure” and, thus, he “produced an art intensely hostile to rationalism.”(3)

This denial of narrative in relation to figurative representation by Rodin is theorized by Krauss as the advent of modernism. I believe her theory can be brought to bear on a discussion of Close and this idea of “intelligent figuration.” One of the reasons I think Close uses photography as a source material or “information” to paint from is the possibilities it offers him to achieve what he has referred to as an “abstract reading of space.” Ironic as this sounds, Close is able to make “abstract” paintings by working from photographs. His method is much discussed in other conversations which I found on-line and have to do with his ability to represent a realistic image through careful construction of seemingly abstract paint marks that, when viewed from afar, “read” as figurative:

“I wanted to deal in a non-relational way with the imagery. Like, we know the space of the head because we know heads […] I wanted to arrive at a potentially abstract reading of space, independent from the iconography due to the visual clues.”(4)

I believe this is why Close’s use of photography can be thought of as “intelligent figuration.” Close has “breezed right through” those doors opened up by Rodin by denying the inherent narrative within a photographic image. Close uses the raw information of the photograph to work within a gridding system to construct a non-narrative image. It is simply a process but it has “intelligence” because of the freedom now allowed in figurative painting. Paintings generated by photography do not have to be “representational” but can instead be “read” as information systems.


Image: Lucas (1986 - 1987) and detail of eye; oil and pencil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art; © Copyright by Chuck Close.

1. This and the second quote are taken from “A Conversation, Chuck Close and Isca Greenfield-Sanders” on Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ web site.

2. Carrier, David. Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism, Westport, 2002, 34.

3. Krauss, Rosalind. Passages in Modern Sculpture, New York, 1977, 9.

4. Inside New York’s Art World Chuck Close, 1978.

November 5, 2009

Remember the 5th

"Protesters calling for Parliamentary reform in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal are using Guy Fawkes day today to float an effigy up the Thames to the Houses of Parliament.

The campaigners are setting off from an East London wharf pulling a 10ft high duck house to dock at the Palace of Westminster while they claim MPs are busy plotting to overturn Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations on claiming for mortgages and employing relatives."

Source: East London Advertiser; 05 November 2009.

October 20, 2009

Critic Wags the Dog

In a rather superficial critique of conceptual art, Denis Dutton cites Damien Hirst in his recent New York Times op-ed piece and uses Hirst’s medicine cabinets to draw a distinction between the “technical skill” of representational art and the “lack of craftsmanship” in contemporary conceptual art. The implication being that conceptual art that demonstrates little more than “skill in playing inventively with ideas” has less aesthetic “value” than a traditional art of “painstakingly developed artistic technique.”(1)

Dutton bemoans the continued adulation of “conceptual artists” like Hirst and was dreading an Oct. 16th Christie’s sale of “Post-War and Contemporary Art” that featured Hirst’s medicine cabinet on the auctioneer’s block.

Glancing through the various lots that were sold last week-end at Christie’s yielded interesting bits of news: several Richard Prince “photos” (appropriated) did not sell; while Vanessa Beecroft is still getting $17,000 USD for her ancient “VB-35” soft-core prints. Meanwhile, it helps to be dead, as usual: Martin Kippenberger selling from $1.7 to $3.7 million USD; Jorg Immendorf at $99,000; Jack Goldstein at $80,000.

So we can say that some of the “conceptualists” at least have an exchange value if not an aesthetic one. The Hirst cabinet, by the way, subsequently sold for $187,627.

In his opinion piece, Dutton expresses distaste for the “tradition of conceptual art” that is “admire(d) not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept.” Yet rather than critique the truly “creative” ideas born of 1960s conceptualism, Dutton focuses on a couple of contemporary sham purveyors (Hirst and Jeff Koons) who bungled one of the better “ideas” in the Duchampian oeuvre – appropriation.(2)

Instead of discussing any of the resilient and potent theories and ideas inherent in conceptual art, Dutton seems content to go after the one methodology initiated by Duchamp that metamorphosed throughout the 20th Century to become photo-appropriation (see Prince and Sherrie Levine) or worse still, second-tier copyists (see almost all of the yBa's).

Appropriation is a tough theory; difficult to apprehend and hard to teach. The general public often reacts negatively to works that are “borrowed” because of a knee-jerk response to art that is obviously not “original.” It’s a fair point and instigates impassioned debates on authenticity, simulacra and the authorial imperative that was so ingrained in visual art before Duchamp.(3)

Clearly though, Dutton’s intent was to draw readers in with a superficial attack on a "tricky" idea of conceptualism so he could meander off on his real topic: to speculate on whether prehistoric hand-axes were possibly the first works of art since their blades indicate they were unused. I will not pursue the logic of Dutton’s assumption that disuse equates with preciousness and, thus, that those axes are artworks. What I will do is point out some other ideas that came out of conceptualism that he missed and that continue as strong work by the best postconceptual artists.

Conceptual art questioned the traditional role of the art object as the conveyer of meaning. By exploring the elusive “art object” and its contested importance as a precious, well-crafted thing, conceptual art (and postconceptualism) accomplished its subsequent “dematerialization.” Art “objects” began to be “made” from impermanent materials (string, dirt, inert gases). Artists documented ephemeral experiences occurring in specific places over specific durations of time (spatio-temporality). Information became “art” and the “form” an object took was the result of a process. Conceptualists also made work that was participatory and incorporated the actions of others and even the viewing public.

But these ideas are harder to critique so Dutton went after the easy mark, appropriation. He does not seem to fully comprehend appropriation as a “concept” either, because he mistakenly includes Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” in his attack – Kosuth photographs the objects himself at the site where the object and its dictionary definition will sit.

Undoubtedly, the kind of weak attack Dutton mounted in the New York Times surfaces periodically about contemporary art that is challenging, and certainly the most challenging art these days bears an allegiance to conceptualism. Those visual theories and ideas that were originally posited by some artists of the 1960’s approached significant new ways of dealing with visuality. It is my belief that there are still a few who are extending these ideas to continue its impact as postconceptualism.


1. This and all subsequent quotes by Dutton are from “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?”

2. The only reason I show Hirst’s shark and Koons’s vacuum to my theory students is to emphasize the debt they both owe Duchamp.

3. I have posted frequently on appropriation here and my students have written about it, too. However, my response to Dutton’s piece – indeed, to any attack on conceptual art – is to remind all and sundry that there are more ideas in conceptualism than shopping at the hardware store.

October 16, 2009

1 or 2 Images

"Most artists only have one or two good images in them. Maybe four. My images come from a process - they are created by the process. The images are unimportant - the process is.

Unfortunately, artists who become successful at it try to make it a career - this means that their images eventually degrade, or weaken. Like Stella. Or Kosuth. Or Bob Morris. Find some other way to survive - teach - play music - but after the best images come, it's time to quit."

Notebook entry on 12/25/08.

October 7, 2009

Curatorial Missteps

Poor judgment in curatorial practice abounds but occasionally an error in curatorial decision-making becomes so glaringly obvious that it must be pointed out so that other curators can avoid the same mistake. Such is the case with the Chicago Art Institute’s poor choice of situating Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture” video installation 20 feet from Robert Ryman’s “The Elliott Room (Charter Series)” and sharing Gallery 295B in the Modern Wing.

The Rymans are gorgeous “oils” in his characteristic fetish whites on anodized aluminum panels, some as large as eight feet. The installation itself is clearly about one’s perceptual encounter with the panels; experiencing the pristine and exacting beauty of minimal art. Presumably a viewer could spend some quality time with these panels as the Art Institute has thoughtfully provided a large bench squarely in the center of the Ryman room.

This is where I seated myself in a recent visit to the Art Institute, to commune a bit with the Rymans. However, it was immediately apparent that my visual interaction with the wide expanse of luscious whites would not be peaceful, for the audio cacophony of Nauman’s “Clown Torture” spills over into the Ryman space. And when I say “spill” I do not mean just a trickle of sound.

“Clown Torture” is a disturbing work by any estimation, consisting of six channels running Nauman’s video:
The monitors play four narrative sequences in perpetual loops, each chronicling an absurd misadventure of a clown, who is played to brilliant effect by the actor Walter Stevens. According to the artist, distinctions may be made among the clown protagonists; one is the “Emmett Kelly dumb clown; one is the old French Baroque clown; one is a sort of traditional polka-dot, red-haired, oversized show clown; and one is a jester.” In “No, No, No, No (Walter),” the clown incessantly screams “No!” while jumping, kicking, or lying down; in “Clown with Goldfish,” he struggles to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling with the handle of a broom; in “Clown with Water Bucket,” he repeatedly opens a door that is booby-trapped with a bucket of water, which falls on his head; and finally, in “Pete and Repeat,” he succumbs to the terror of a seemingly inescapable nursery rhyme: “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat.”

I can appreciate the absurdity, the unhinged madness of Nauman’s work. Certainly it is as much a perceptual experience, albeit a more disturbing one, as the Ryman room just around the corner. But why would the curators place these works in such close proximity to one another? Surely they had a trial run with the Nauman video to check and establish sound levels and video quality. Wouldn’t someone, even an intern, have noted then that the sound from the Nauman installation, which the museum describes as “an assault on viewers’ aural and visual perception,” invades and disrupts the ostensibly contemplative experience of the Ryman paintings in the next room?

Surely it was not the intention of the Art Institute for my contemplation of the Rymans to have the unintentional “soundtrack” of Walter Stevens screaming at the top of his lungs, “No, no, no!”

But then again, stranger things have occurred in museums of late. Perhaps the curators were after some kind of ironic intervention to mock the idea of “contemplation.” If they wanted to pair the subdued minimalist beauty of the Rymans with distracting noise they should have rented storefront space down on Wabash under “The El.” There the viewer’s appreciation of those Ryman “whites” would have been as effectively destroyed by the randomly thundering rattle of the train overhead.

September 27, 2009


In typically focused and detailed analyses, the 2009 Stone Summer Theory Institute wrapped its final day of closed seminars with Jim Elkins leading us through both “The Concept of the MFA” and “The Concept of the PhD in Studio Art.” His introductory summation of existing Master of Fine Arts models (aptly and ironically referred to as a “terminal degree” in studio art) was that the same influences of the “First Year Program” were mutually historic sources for the MFA – the “Academy,” subjectivity, rudiments, 2D-3D, Bauhaus, etc. Evidential documents such as the 1977 College of Art Association definition of “Standards for the MFA” reinforce that fact with wording that “the profession demands from the recipient of the MFA a certifiable level of technical proficiency and the ability to make art.” The 2009 CAA document also refers to a “mastery of medium.”(1)

The ensuing discussions touched again on the issue of “skills.” Jonathan Dronsfield, Director of Postgraduate Studies in Fine Art at University of Reading (Great Britain), spoke to the necessity of “project-based curricula.” As the acquisition of skills is (obviously) not tied to the MFA as a way to “pass on” skills, Dronsfield insists that “skills” would be about what is best for bringing visual projects to fruition.

Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, offered his view that “skill is a language – the discipline embodies a type of thinking. Painting is not producing this or that – you are thinking in a very practical way. When you talk about ‘de-skilling’ it’s not to abolish it.”

The conversation moved on to issues of student-professor relationships. Marta Edling, Senior Research Fellow in Education, Culture and Media at Uppsala University (Sweden), recounted Howard Singerman’s observations(2) about how student-professor interactions involve an identification process and that they can be cruel, and also argued that they are “gendered.” Marta had shared a clip from You Tube where Getrud Sandqvist of the Malmo Art Academy discusses the policy of the school and was an example of the kind of argument Marta had in mind.

Jonathan pointed out that this situation is “patriarchal as such, that is regardless of whether the professor is a man or a woman.”

Marta: “Yes – and this situation can be negative.”

Stephan: “The second part of that is professors say ‘We have to mistreat the student so that he will react to us – first, the moment of admiration [of student for the professor], then the ‘hammering’ – to provoke the moment that student begins to fight.”

Jim: “This contradicts the ‘Academy model’ of a ‘master-student’ relationship.”

The oppositional definitions of “deskilling” are capable of obtaining at least two results. On the one hand, if an art student’s skills are perceived as problematic, i.e., “Academic” (with a capital “A”), then the responsible professors are charged with de-emphasizing that nature, to “abolish” the skill set associated with an older model to foster access of contemporary media and practices. On the other hand as Stephan expressed, “de-skilling” might be better approached with a view to understanding the potentialities of the “language” of visuality. That is, how students might be encouraged to use (or not use) skills such as drawing or painting to embody their individual “expressions” or “ideas” within the visual language. I believe this can be referenced to Stephan’s earlier comment that “technique constructs identity” and to which I suggest the addition of the word “helps” to clarify the position: technique helps construct the identity of an artist through its use, dis-use or abuse.(3)

In the latter part of the day, after five days of closed seminars, we were finally able to address the concept of PhDs in studio art. Jim’s topic introduction expressed his hope that we would particularly address the relationships of the dissertation and “research” to the artwork, and vice versa. Mention was made of Victor Burgin’s essay which was in the preparatory readings for SSTI, “Thoughts On ‘Research’ Degrees in Visual Arts Departments.” Burgin says there is already a history of research in art programs in agreement with acknowledged definitions of research as “scientific or scholarly investigation.”(4)

Jim wanted to know whether these words make a difference. Do we need to define what “research” is in studio-based PhD practice? There was general agreement among the faculty and fellows that PhD art programs have been re-defining research to make it independent of “the Sciences.”

Christopher Frayling views this as a “thorny” issue “where the thinking is, so to speak, embodied in the artifact, where the goal is not primarily communicable knowledge in the sense of verbal communication, but in the sense of visual or iconic or imagistic communication.”(5)

Perhaps then, as Jim suggests, PhDs in studio art might involve research within its embodiment of “New Knowledge.”(6) However, as he has previously written, “[...] for most studio artists, the operative words research and new knowledge are an awkward fit. These [new, proposed PhD] programs deserve better: they deserve a language that is at once full, capable, accurate, and not borrowed from other disciplines.”(7)

James Elkins, Professor of Theory and Criticism, Visual and Critical Studies, New Art Journalism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
Frances Whitehead, Professor, Department of Sculpture; founder of Knowledge Lab (KLab) at SAIC
Christopher Frayling, Former Rector of Royal College of Art, London
Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, Rector of Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria
Roy Sorensen, Professor of Philosophy, Washington University, St. Louis.

Hilde Van Gelder, Associate Professor, Art History Department, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Ciarán Benson, School of Psychology, University College Dublin
Frank Vigneron, Associate Professor, Fine Arts Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Barbara Jaffee, Associate Professor of Art History; Faculty Associate, Center for Women’s Studies; Faculty Associate, Museum Studies; Northern Illinois University
Doug Harvey, professional artist, critic, curator, educator in Los Angeles
Miguel González Virgin, Chairman, Digital Art and New Media Business Program, Centro de Estudios de Diseño de Monterrey, Mexico
Daniel Palmer, Senior Lecturer, Department of Theory, Faculty of Art and Design, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Marta Edling, Senior Research Fellow in Education, Culture and Media at Uppsala University, Sweden
William Marotti, Department of History, UCLA
Jonathan Dronsfield, Director of Postgraduate Studies in Fine Art at University of Reading, Great Britain
Christopher Csikszentmihályi, Director, Computing Culture Group and Director, Center for Future Civic Media, MIT
Areti Adamopoulou, Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Plastic Arts and the Sciences of Art, University of Ioannina, Greece
Ann Sobiech Munson, Assistant Professor, Architecture/Art and Design and Director, Core Design Program, Iowa State University
P. Elaine Sharpe, PhD Candidate (ABD), Media Philosophy, European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland and Course Director at York University, Toronto
Saul Ostrow, Environmental Chair, Visual Arts and Technologies and Head of Painting, Cleveland Institute of Art

Elena Ubeda Fernandez, Fulbright/MICINN/FECYT Postdoctoral Research Scholar, SAIC
Keith Brown, Department of Art Education, SAIC
Mark Cameron Boyd, Professor of Art Theory, Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington, D.C.
Fernando Uhia, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Columbia

Andrew Blackley
Rebecca Gordon

Kristi McGuire
Linlin Chen

Howard and Donna Stone, Chicago.

Image: Harold Washington Library, Chicago; cell-phone photograph by MCB; © copyright 2009.

1. It was suggested that “these are effectively empty documents.” In response to a query of whether the CAA documents actually “have teeth” with accreditation boards such as NASAD, the apparent answer was no. “[The MFA] is a license to practice.”

2. See Singerman's “Toward a Theory of the MFA” in Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, Berkeley, 1999, 187-213.

3. It may prove helpful for further definitions of “de-skilling” if we include an analysis of the critical evaluation of conceptual artists of the 1960’s whose photographs were viewed as “de-skilled.” These artists use photography only to document work that was often time-based or situational and therefore not “embodied.” Thus, in critically evaluating these photographic documents after the fact, theorists suggest that the de-skilled “look” of those photos projected a lackadaisical approach and disdain for photographic “technique” that affected the reception of conceptual art.

4. Burgin, Victor. “Thoughts On ‘Research’ Degrees in Visual Arts Departments” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (James Elkins, ed.), Washington, DC, 2009, 72.

5. Frayling, Christopher. “Research in Art and Design,” Royal College of Art Research Papers Vol. 1, No. 1, 1993-94, London, 5.

6. See Frayling’s ideas on the “contributions to knowledge” issue and my speculation on what that might entail here.

7. Elkins, James. “On Beyond Research and New Knowledge” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, Washington, DC, 2009, 116.

September 23, 2009


On day two of the Stone Summer Theory Institute conference, Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen gave his presentation on art education in Europe and the “Bologna Accords.” The Bologna process is a endeavor to unify art education curricula in Europe, to gain consensus among all of the European countries on what comprises education in the visual arts.

In his detailed analysis, Stephan pointed out some of the major issues of the Bologna process. For instance, art degrees should be uniform throughout Europe. Currently there is little comparative relationships between colleges; French BA's are three years, other countries’ are four, etc.

Not surprisingly, some European art schools have resisted the process, saying art training should be individualized, without modules, or courses, or even rules. Just complete freedom – no theory – and no professors telling you what to do. The skeptics say: “We need to keep an open space – it is impossible to compare student A to student B!”

To establish a standard educational norm in Europe, qualifications of Bachelors degrees under the Bologna process have been focused on “artistic practice,” “judgment” and “social context.” Stephan then shared his ideas of what these qualifications should be and they are much different:

First, artists must learn to work alone but also in collaboration with a team. Second, they should learn how to work with the public, i.e., be able to change their personal standpoint to meet the public’s expectations. Third, artists must be trained to reflect upon and be able to evaluate both their own artwork as well as the works of others. Lastly, artists would learn how to be “inventive in a systemic way” through both practices and methods.

One of the resources that Stephan has drawn from is Thierry de Duve and his infamous “When Form Has Become Attitude – and Beyond.” De Duve’s scheme develops a “trilogy” that explicates the history of art education something this: First, the “Academic” model of teaching art concentrated on talent, métier (technique) and imitation. Later, the Bauhaus School’s initiative decides art education is about creativity, medium and invention. The implication that these oppositional strategies merely reject the other’s contentions is both chronologically and ideologically clear.

I have a particular fondness for this Duve essay as I have taught it in my advanced theory classes for a few years now. I began introducing it to Corcoran College of Art + Design undergraduates as a way to begin a dialogue about their perceptions and thoughts on “how” they were being taught art. But the best part of the essay as pedagogical tool for me was its revelation that the final methodology of the “triology” Duve proposed, heavily influenced by continental theory of the 1970’s, would also function surreptitiously as a way to introduce some of the ideas associated with postmodernism; those three categories Duve used as evidence of the new plot in art education, i.e., attitude, practice and deconstruction.

To paraphrase Stephan’s remarks from my notes from today: practice denotes an abstraction from the object, from “form” and is a result of dematerialization. Instead of creativity, Duve’s “attitude” is a product of social conditions. It re-thinks the role of the artist.

In the discussion that followed, Jim Elkins expressed his feeling that Duve’s “third” module's categories were polemic, that Duve has admitted this, and that the use of these “magic words” like “creativity” are in need of more explanation. Christopher Frayling supports the inherent possibilities of an “attitude” that can be analytical or a sociological concept. His preferred categories: “Normative, critical and expressive.”

As Stephan concluded, “We [artists] are trained to research ourselves.”

Image: Renzo Piano's Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

September 20, 2009

Stone Summer Theory Institute: 1

Later today, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor James Elkins will give a lecture on “What Do Artists Know?” and launch a week of discourse concerning the imminent (some say over-due) arrival of “studio-based” doctorates in the United States. Prof. Elkins’ talk is first on the agenda for the 2009 Stone Summer Theory Institute conference; seven days of seminars, lectures and round-tables, featuring Sir Christopher Frayling, expert on PhD research and author of a frequently cited essay on “research into, through and for art and design,” and Roy Sorensen, professor of philosophy at Washington University.(1)

I am here because I occasionally reference Prof. Elkins’ scholarship in my essays and admire his critical writing. I discovered SSTI last year; the 2008 conference topic was “What is an Image?” and featured a diverse selection of seminars and readings. When I learned that this year’s conference topic was going to be “What Do Artists Know?” I decided that I must attend.(2)

Ostensibly, the conference will busy itself with debate over the necessity of such advanced degrees in studio arts. The MFA has long been the terminal degree for practicing artists – those who make art – in the United States. Doctorates are traditionally given here for art history and though there are some art schools and universities where PhD’s in studio art are possible (Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond and UC San Diego, for example) studio-based doctorates are rare stateside. Not so in Great Britain, where PhD’s in studio art have been around since 1976.(3)

To begin a conference on the efficacy of PhD’s in studio art with a lecture on “what we know” is an interesting tack. Granted, we want to educate artists thoroughly in both practice and theory yet it seems as if graduate-level programs in studio art suffer from a paucity of actual research. The possibility of extensive and continued research in one’s field (studio-based practice) would hopefully provide the doctoral-candidate with the ability to use that research to expand our knowledge about art (studio-based theory).

Assuming the SSTI conference attendees and faculty can agree on what “knowledge” is then we may move on to how to structure proposed studio-based doctorate programs. However, I expect that the entrenched animosity towards the perceived threat of studio PhD’s will surface quickly, if not today then probably at tomorrow’s roundtable.

The idea of a PhD in studio art is threatening to some art educators. Various reasons have been cited: it’s an unnecessary “waste of time” for artists to extend their study; art students “can barely write a short Masters thesis” let alone a “50,000 word dissertation” and artists don’t do “research like scientists.”(4) But Prof. Elkins feels that we better get ready for it because “it is best to try to understand something that is coming.”(5)

One viewpoint that caught my eye already in the readings was a point Sir Christopher made that the results of one’s doctoral research should “make a recognisable (sic) and communicable contribution to knowledge and understanding in the field of study concerned.”(6)

It occurs to me that this has the undeniable potential to invigorate debate over studio-based doctorates in a number of ways. If we allow that studio-based doctoral candidates might actually extend the knowledge about art then there is a real possibility the practice of art might be lifted from its current marginalized social position. Artists with PhD’s would be perceived as leaders in their field, inaugurating new ground in visuality and discovering “new piece(s) of information.”(7)

Studio-based research would have both practical and theoretical components and it would actually have a measurable and quantifiable goal of making contributions in art that would be unique. This would make advocacy of studio-based doctorates essential, not just for what it is that we “know” but for what it is that we “do.”

Image: School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


1. Prof. Elkins has provided the SSTI participants with extensive readings in preparation for this week’s conference - 900 pages worth. I will be quoting from various selections from those readings during my week in Chicago but am not able to share the SSTI links with readers of this blog. Prof. Elkins has said “do not disseminate this list: most of this material is copyrighted, and is available here only for the private use of the Seminar.”

2. I applied for and received a faculty development grant from Corcoran College of Art + Design where I have taught art theory since 2004. With their generosity and support, I am attending this year’s SSTI.

3. See Judith Mottram’s essay “Researching Research in Art and Design” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (James Elkins, ed.), Washington, DC, 2009, 3-30.

4. Elkins, James. Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, Washington, DC, 2009, viii.

5. Ibid., ix.

6. Frayling, Christopher. “Research in and through the arts: what’s the problem?” (Conference at Guildhall School, London), SSTI documents, 2009, 13.

7. Op. cit.

September 10, 2009

Critical Fragments: Autonomy

“Instead of assuming responsibility for culture in concert with the producers of culture, the state and its political functionaries, citing a strained culture budget, have delegated that responsibility to an antiquated patronage system (which, to make things worse, is often confused with sponsoring). Offensive or aggressive art-sponsoring campaigns, which bring tax benefits, offer a cost-effective means of exploiting artistic production to which many institutions and artists now find themselves compelled to resort. […] My concern relates rather to the fact that we need to identify the circumstances that surround this situation and to make the complex relationships involved transparent to students engaged in art studies, in order to encourage reflection about the circumstances in which we operate under the influence of such developments.”(1)

Artistic autonomy, hard-won since the nineteenth century, has undergone continual erosion in recent years. With the advent of these art-sponsorships, museums have partnered, at times covertly, with international conglomerates to mount large-scale exhibitions. The idealism of the Modernist era - artists free to succumb to their “inward gaze,” to take “ownership” of their work, to make art for themselves, not Church or State – has disintegrated rapidly as artists of the postmodern era have formed uneasy alliances with the capitalist enterprise.

This enterprise itself is an ironic confluence of disparate power structures, all operating under the vague mission of cultural “production” and “education.” Bourdieu’s take on this is well-documented as evidence that culture is “not a democratizing force, and individual artistic expression is condemned to play a part in the field of artistic production in terms of buyers, sellers and critics.”(2)

Thus, autonomy becomes another critical element for practicing artists to re-consider. In essence, we do have permission and freedom to explore whatever we want, to engage in a wide and ever-expanding range of practices made even more accessible with our “pluralistic” fascination.

The nature of autonomy in the arts suggests that artists have such freedoms. Yet as art is wholly enmeshed within the “art world” and art-making involves “product,” it is easy to see that we can never be free of the art world’s context, i.e., buying, selling, sponsoring artworks.(3)

Perhaps a pedestrian alternative, one that smacks of that dreaded project called Socialism, can be one possibility for re-gaining true autonomy within the realm of art practice. As artists generally and almost universally make objects, why not create a league or union of art-workers that trade objects for services? Many within the art community hold second jobs; often highly-skilled and professional jobs that provide specific services in dentistry, construction or software design. These artist-service providers could trade their skills for artworks. Art collectors could also be invited to join this league as collector-barterers, offering their skills and services in exchange for works of art. As this network of artist-barterers is paired with equivalent collector-barterers then artworks might be traded for services needed.

This admittedly would not free us entirely from the “commodity” world of the art market, but it may prove to be a fruitful way for artists to “make a living” without having to “match” their work to a commercial gallery. Freeing one’s production from the necessity for establishing its “exchange value” may be the only way to regain true autonomy.


1. Bauer, Ute Meta. “Education, Information, Entertainment,” Current Approaches on Higher Artistic Education, Vienna, 2001, 34-35.

2. Grenfell, Michael; and Hardy, Cheryl. Art Rules: Pierre Bourdieu and the Visual Arts, Oxford, 2007, 177.

3. Ibid.

September 5, 2009

Derivation & Originality

Administrator's note: Earlier this week a young artist sent me some images of recent work and asked if I would critique them. My reply was not brief as I spent some time viewing the images and considering my thoughts about them. I share it here because it does provoke an interesting possibility for further discussion about those old puzzles of "originality" and "derivative work."

Without revealing too much about the artist or the nature of the work, I can safely tell you that the artwork critiqued is text-based. More to the point, text is both "subject matter" and/or "content." Still, to be discrete I have substituted certain words within brackets (like [words]) and eliminated two short phrases by inserting [...] to maintain complete anonymity. Even without knowing who the artist is or specifics about the art I believe readers can access the gist of my argument. Indeed, by removing these critical thoughts and questions from the exacting particulars of a specific critique, to place them in an abstracted context, we might delve into a deeper inquiry of what it means to be "original."

"Interesting work! I'm honored that you are showing it to me and seek my critique. [...] In any case, I'm happy to share some thoughts. I believe I know you well enough to feel you can take frank criticism - so here it is:

First, I hesitate to tell you this but you should go here: [URL link to well-known artist's web-site.]

I realize there are differences between your work and [the artist, who works similarly] but one must be aware of what's occurred before, particularly with specific actions that [use similar materials]. Why? Because actions that appear similar to other artists' work 'in the canon' may either be mistakenly critiqued along similar lines or worse are termed as 'derivative.'

My text work has been judged as derivative by one DC gallery director and although I know he was off the mark it lead me to realize that we're subject to superficial perceptions by those who 'know too much.' Which is perhaps where my own view of your actions with text comes from: I might know too much, have seen too much, or otherwise project my own subjective associations on your work with 'what has come before.'

That said, I have some questions for you. I'm curious as to how you came to the decision to create [work like this]. What are your intentions? Is this, again, 'play' with the abstraction of [...] language? What are the relationships with the [foreign] language that are revealed in these actions? The placement of your [text] in the one installation seemed arbitrary to me: Was there an attempt to block one's access to the space? If so, why? What other methods could generate the same action(s)?

Finally, I think that works you placed out-of-doors will be unfortunately overlooked. Their fragility in the 'big, wide world' makes them seem somewhat trivial; passersby will miss them. Also, the [works arranged like bouquets] become 'precious' objects and I think it lessens their impact.

I'll be going to Chicago for a conference on PhD programs in art practice later this month and will miss various [...] functions. But let me know your thoughts. I hope to see you later this Fall.

All the best,

August 16, 2009

Thrill Value

“Whether and under what conditions a thing is useful to me, whether and under what conditions it is a good, whether and under what conditions it is an economic good, whether and under what conditions it possesses value for me and how large the measure of this value is for me, whether and under what conditions an economic exchange of goods will take place between two economizing individuals, and the limits within which a price can be established if an exchange does occur—these and many other matters are fully as independent of my will as any law of chemistry is of the will of the practicing chemist. […] For economic theory is concerned, not with practical rules for economic activity, but with the conditions under which men engage in provident activity directed to the satisfaction of their needs.”(1)

Without engaging the endless, age-old debate concerning subjective values, it recently became remarkably evident to me that the relative exchange value of art is directly proportional to one’s investment of time. That this insight came to me while standing on-line for a “thrill ride” in Hersheypark is significant for the fact that I began to reflect on the actual amount of time that I would “own” the thrill that I had “purchased.” As Menger says, both the use value and the exchange value of this thrill that I “needed” to experience were “independent of my will.” However, what struck me as unique about the experience was its relationship to art.

The thrill of a rollercoaster ride is comparable to the accessible and repeatable experience one has with art, whether through the contemplative viewing of an object, or interaction with an installation, or watching a performance. The intangibility of the “art” itself is always exterior to the object, installation or performance as the thrill value of art is momentary and ephemeral.

The thrill is repeatable because each time you stand in front of a painting you can again access the experience.(2) The thrill of a rollercoaster is also repeatable, of course, and another point of comparison can be drawn to the “economic activity” of art collecting. If time is money, then art collectors do indeed exchange their time for art, not only as a quantifiable amount of money traded for the art but time as well (hopefully) invested in learning about the art they decide to buy.

The investment of time one stands on line to access that rollercoaster thrill is also an “economic activity” and it may certainly be noteworthy that it is disproportional to the measurable moment of that thrill.(3) Amusement park planners shrewdly separate the money exchange for park entrance ostensibly to distract one from comparing time invested with actual thrill value.

On a final note, it has been said that the thrills offered up by rollercoasters approach the sublime in that we know that this experience is of no physical danger to us. This is why people flock to horror films. Notwithstanding the engineering expertise and safety design of amusement park “thrill rides,” there is the very real danger that one might die during the experience. Far from being a sublime experience then, like looking at the vast, dark night sky studded with millions of stars, the thrill of a rollercoaster ride is equivalent to a simple yet measurable economic exchange. Like art, it is a provident activity that gives temporary respite from mortality as we seek the thrill value to access experiences outside of our quotidian lives.

Image: Thrill seekers ride through one of several inverted loops of "Fahrenheit" in Hersheypark, PA; photograph © copyright 2009 by MCB.

1. Menger, Carl. “Principles of Economics”, (Dingwall, J., Hoselitz, B.F., trans.), New York, 1950, 50.

2. Performance art and time-based works escape these criteria somewhat as they are not “objects” per se; are not static.

3. Patrons at Hersheypark sometimes wait 1 hour and 30 minutes to ride the “Fahrenheit” rollercoaster which runs about 45 seconds.

July 24, 2009

Punk Memorial

Conceptual Art Idea #29:

Two battery-powered CD players buried under separate dirt piles; one playing loop of The Ramones' "Beat On The Brat"(1975) & one playing loop of Sex Pistols' "EMI"(1978). (For Sam Durant.)

July 7, 2009

One Blogger to Another

“Hello!? I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce myself.? I am a blogger and I have recently started a new blog called "Concerning Art".? Its focus is on the arts in their many forms; visual arts, film, literature, etc., as well as being sort of a Los Angeles centric blog, simply due to the fact that I live and work in LA.? I am an aspiring writer and hopefully art history grad student whose always been interested in viewing art and popular culture for an analytical perspective.? I was looking at your blog and was very impressed with its layout and content, as well as its visual appeal.? Please do take a look at my blog, and if you like what you see I would be very happy to do a link exchange with you.? If you do decide to exchange links please also be sure to send me the exact url address you would like me to link to, meaning your blog(s) &/or your website.? Also, if you like my writing style and would like me to quest on your blog or if you would like me to do a blog post about your art/projects I would be happy to oblige.? I should let you know that I'm very new to the art of blogging and if I have committed some sort of faux pas please forgive me.? I do hope you like my writing and hope that I'll be hearing back from you soon.? Thank you in advance.

Blog Address:?


Hello Martina,

Many thanks for your kind words and welcome to the undetermined world of art blogging. I say “undetermined” because at this early stage in your art blogging experience it is imperative for you to understand we do not yet know what it is that art blogs are supposed to do or write about, or what, if any, “style” they should emulate, or what function they can provide to the larger (read “Real”) art world.

I should mention that when I first began Theory Now in 2005 it never occurred to me that it would eventually embody much more than a personal outlet for my opinions. As you have no doubt noted, my infrequent but regular posts (apparently I average a new post every 10 days) do significantly convey my subjective views on art theory and practice. However, I take pride in the fact that Theory Now is rare among art blogs in its academic approach to art theory and practice. I believe that regular readers of this blog are distinctly aware of its unique character and understand that what I post here are essentially essays. Being essays, I generally provide footnotes and citations concerning the topics that I address and with which it has always been my hope that the reader may continue their individual approach to further explorations.

Having said all that, I urge you to carefully consider the role that your writing might play in the virtual world of Internet art blogging. I offer only my own suggestions here, for it is your blog after all, but there are two points that I want to touch upon.

Art criticism is currently in a crisis of sorts. To put it bluntly, we have drifted into ennui and egalitarianism with the pluralist vision that was launched about 25 years ago in the art world. It is difficult to find many art critics (much less art bloggers) willing to state a position that surmounts those “judgments of taste” that prevail in today’s critical views. Therefore, I challenge you to take a stand but voice your opinions within the strength of the critical hierarchy that exists. Obviously, this will require a little outside reading and education, and should you embark upon that art history trajectory you will be well-fortified with texts of criticism and theory. This is what is missing from the art bloggers: an awareness of where art has been and what has been established about art within art criticism.

If you choose not to write critically about art but merely wish to document what you see that interests you, what others are making or doing, then at least take the time to provide context. Again, this will involve some research, reading and looking, but is absolutely essential, yet mostly neglected, in order to rise above the “studied ignorance” that is currently evident in both art practice and art criticism.

I would be glad to link to Concerning Art and wish you good luck. You may link to this URL: Please also visit my artwork site at and link to it as well.

I congratulate you on beginning your art writing endeavor and hope my words provide some direction if not inspiration.


June 30, 2009

Critical Fragments: Documentation

“Since the mid-1960s, conceptual artists have denied any interest in photography per se. To hear the artists tell it, photography was only useful or interesting to them insofar as it was instrumental in conveying or recording their ideas. Time and again artists describe the photographs themselves as either brute information or uninflected documentation.”(1)

As ironic as it was necessary, the photographic archiving of conceptual art provides a test case for documentation as a separate and relevant critical issue. When conceptual artists began to consider what it is that artists do, their consequential investigations lead to exercises in information theory and epistemology, measurements and statistics, actions and situations. All this knowledge produced “documents” that embodied the art but not the “art” itself. This premise would become a conceptual dictum of such pervasive and evidentiary power that few academic overviews of conceptual art do much more than re-state this mantra of “art is the idea not the object.”

Within its limited aesthetic, object production was a low priority for conceptual artists. However, some conceptualists realized that other than following Fluxist maneuvers of indexical, momentary events that may or may not be witnessed, their documentation of staged actions and situations would be easily photographed to provide documentation. This gave rise to a term known in art theory as “de-skilled” photography. This early photographic documentation of conceptual art, without aesthetic pretense or intention, has been lifted from its down-played status through an elegant sleight-of-hand by museums and curatorial practice. Museums have manipulated these conceptual art photographic documents as “fine art” in their own right, and represent it through accepted formalist language previously established in the appreciation of “high art” photography.

In a cobbled-together exhibition currently at the Whitney Museum, we see the “greatest hits” of “Photoconceptualism” as represented in work by Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Dan Graham and others. Apparently the curators propose that these photos yield a double-appreciation as photographs that may be superficially pleasing as objects as well as manifesting a concept. Matta-Clark, Smithson and Bochner can be eliminated from such a theory, as their photos clearly represent first order documentation of other work, i.e., a “cut,” a “Mirror Displacement” and a book about photography.(2)

Nauman and Graham fare better as “photoconceptualism” since their work really has little to do with formalistic issues such as framing or tonality. Graham’s selection, in fact, has been excised from his well-known “Homes For America” and loses all potency of context. Nauman’s multiple examples either visually document his fascination with pun (“Waxing Hot”) or dead-pan actions (“Burning Small Fires”). They provide an expanded methodology of “documentation” as we simultaneously view them as conveyance of the idea and address how documentation may function critically and not aesthetically.

Image: “Burning Small Fires” (1968); artist book; © Copyright 2006-2009 Bruce Nauman / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.


1. Soutter, Lucy. “The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography”, Afterimage, March-April, 1999.

2. Charming as it is, the questionable inclusion of Bochner’s book demonstrates the curatorial haste of this show; notes about photography by famous people are not exactly photographs: “Bochner’s handwritten quotes on the power of photography are attributed to such indisputable sources as Marcel Proust, Mao Tse-tung, Marcel Duchamp, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. It turns out that Bochner has made up three of the quotes, although he never reveals which ones.” “Persuasive Images: Selected Works from the Art Collections at the University at Albany”, University Art Museum, Albany, 2000, 12.

June 20, 2009

Critical Fragments: Anonymity

“In all respects the traditional artist devotes himself to the good of the work to be done. The operation is a rite, the celebrant neither intentionally nor even consciously expressing himself … [W]orks of traditional art, whether Christian, Oriental or folk art, are hardly ever signed: the artist is anonymous, or if a name has survived, we know little or nothing of the man. This is true as much for literary as for plastic artifacts. In traditional arts it is never Who said? but only What was said?”(1)

The necessity of establishing a relationship between an artist and artwork became significantly more focused when paintings became portable. The advent of easel painting signaled the beginning of artworks traded as a commodity that was readily identifiable with an artist. Thus, the identification of individual artists with an artwork recognizable by a subjective style helped solidify the ready exchange of paintings.

Clearly the seduction of fame stoked the exchange value of art. Coomaraswamy notwithstanding, we would be unworthy lovers of art if we were not able to rattle off names of major artists by gazing mere seconds at the referent paintings or sculptures.

Like many institutions during the 1970s, the art world was given a brutal critique. Having undergone over one hundred years of excessively focused attention on the mystique of the artist - whose guise was often paired conveniently with “movements” by critics, i.e., Fauvist, Impressionist, Bohemian – it was understandable that young practitioners took a dim view of the commercial aspects of art marketing. These conceptual artists eliminated the making of objects as their concepts began to designate what medium or form would become the carrier or conveyor of the idea.

It is remarkable to consider now that conceptual art was once persona non grata in the commercial art world. Eventually, with increased critical support through essays and lectures by art theorists (and artists themselves – a welcome attitudinal change from the AB-Ex position of “the work speaks for itself”) commercial galleries would acquiesce to critical pressure and begin showing these text-based works, de-skilled photographs and sometimes even anti-aesthetic objects.

The possible use of anonymity as an additional way to address issues of fame as a capitalist construct was side-stepped by most conceptualists; given the opportunity to pair their name with a gallery was a nice substitution for having a recognizable “style.”

One artist in particular who purposely sabotaged his “stardom” was Christopher D’Arcangelo. In the late 1970s, D’Arcangelo used “utilitarian carpentry” as his art practice, making “works” characterized by the “input of labor and materials rather than by any phenomenal aspect they might possess.”(2) In “Thirty Days Work”, D’Arcangelo built an anonymous wood stud and sheetrock wall for a 1979 show at 84 West Broadway, New York. This otherwise nondescript wall was not identified as his.(3)

The practice of making art ought to bear no allegiance to one’s subjective ego. In its emphasis of concept over object, conceptual art may have re-introduced this egalitarian fascination with anonymity. What better way to heighten the theoretical focus than to eliminate the putative “self” behind the work. The conception then becomes more an ethereal thought that floats in the minds of both artist and viewers; “artworks” as ideas that launch discourse through intellection.

Image: “A Brief History of Art”; from Suicide Blonde.

1. Coomaraswamy, Ananda. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, New York, 1956, 39-40.

2. Crow, Thomas. “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art” in Art After conceptual Art (A. Alberro, S. Buchmann: eds.), Vienna, 2006, 62.

3. Ibid., 62 [D’Arcangelo’s willful anonymity was earlier evidenced by his “contribution” to a 1978 exhibition at Artist’s Space where he merely removed his name from the installation, catalogue and from all publicity about the show.]