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.