October 31, 2013

"Something flickered for a minute & then it vanished & was gone."

I’m sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking a black tea, listening to the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting for the Man” and thinking, “This is wrong.” It’s around 8:30 in the morning, 4 days after Lou Reed has died and I’m sober. Shouldn’t a proper memorial to Mr. Reed involve some kind of mind-altering agents and a more dangerous, or at least sketchy, environment with a punk band playing?

No, I'll do this straight. In fact, Lou would probably have preferred it this way. He was healthy of late (except for that liver complication) and was even a practitioner of t’ai chi. As unconventional and “against the tide” as Lou Reed was, I'm certain he would be more honored by my salute paid with clarity in lucid appreciation for who he was and what he gave us.

I’m not going to tear-up or bemoan the fact of Lou’s passing. And this won’t be another of those “great singer-songwriter” gush-pieces that have clogged my Facebook feed since Sunday. Forget for the moment that I’m an art professor as I tell you why punk couldn’t have existed without Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and why punk (or whatever passes for “punk” these days) may well and truly be threatened with extinction now that Lou’s dead.

First off, let’s not jump ahead to 1977, Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols in England. There’s no need to clutter up our sub-cultural critique with messy political theories or Guy Debord; we bow to those politico-subversive rock music scribes like Greil Marcus that tacked their manifestoes to the musicologists' wall.

What we’re speaking of here is American music, born of rhythm and blues, jook joints, Chicago blues, with a dollop of Elvis thrown in. Add some distorted guitar and intoxicants to yield an urban street-based rock outfit, "The Primitives." But if you have Lou Reed on vocals then you really have something unique. 

What we're speaking of here is the lazy insolence of Lou’s vocal quirks: the way he sings from a congested chest, barely irate, more bothered than pissed-off by the middle-crass class wars and covetous sins of the college students, office drones and suburban hipsters that hung at The Factory, Max’s and on those NYC streets in the late Sixties. A few years later, when Lou proudly declares “and me I’m in a rock & roll band” in "Sweet Jane" and lets out that little “A-hah!” - the inflection, the haughtiness, the air of disaffected, youthful disdain he paints with that simple half-grunted declaration had more significant influence on later developments of punk than a limo full of Iggy Pop, The Ramones or the New York Dolls. You may dismiss the Velvet Underground as “Andy’s experiment” or “avant” or even “junkie-rock” but the absence of Dionysian excess (peanut-buttered torsos), uniform code (black leather jackets) and make-up (mascara macho) made the glorious noise of VU a music of true grit-rock realities – heroin addiction, sado-masochism and, always, alienation.

Punk was never about stagecraft or stage diving, not about cross-dressing or fingernail polish. It was always about the attitude and attitude can't be rehearsed or art directed. There's the swagger of a six-foot man trying to walk in high-heel pumps and there's the swagger of Lou Reed and John Cale, the genius songwriters of VU, trudging NYC’s dirty boulevards. Confident of their manhood, they couldn’t care less if passersby thought them queer but they didn't flaunt that ambiguity either. That VU were able to pout and preen themselves into the hipster Factory throng surrounding Andy Warhol demonstrates that Lou and crew had nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and even better, only infamy to gain.

As for "commercial success," in their street clothes, with "the works" in their jackets and a poet at the helm, Velvet Underground never had a chance West of the Hudson, as Lou noted in the documentary, "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart.” But they did create a template for the scores of youth waiting in the wings, the very same generations that gave us American punk, then grunge and the ubiquitous "alt-indie." Lou and crew showed how it was done; to paraphrase VU guitarist Sterling Morrison, if you weren’t worried about being “successful” then you could pretty much "do whatever you wanted to do" with your music. And this turns out to be the only way it should be be done.

Iggy and the Stooges borrowed heavily from VU for their self-titled first album in 1969. This makes sense knowing that VU’s John Cale produced it. Listen to Cale’s original mix of “No Fun” (re-issued in 2005) and you can hear the architecture of the VU sound.

Next come the New York Dolls in '73, with Johnny Thunders’ sloppy guitar and David Johansen parroting Lou’s hoarse-throated bellow: “Personality Crisis,” indeed.

Finally in '76, Joey Ramone takes Lou’s sneering vocal and adds his pubescent whine, turning the street-tough attitude into a swizzle-mix of nerdy angst and ennui; play any track on the Ramones’ self-titled debut album and you get the gist – I’m partial to “Beat on the Brat.”

But don’t think I have a blanket acceptance of all that Lou wrote, recorded and played. He made mistakes, he faltered. He even took to wearing black nail polish, dyed his hair, etc. With the exceptions of Transformer (1972), Street Hassle (1978) and New York (1989), I’ll pass on everything else, including the “concept albums” Berlin (1973), Metal Machine Music (1975), Songs for Drella (1990), Magic and Loss (1992), and The Raven (2003). Much of Lou’s post-Velvet solo output caused critics to question his motives, believing he was flailing about to confuse and/or flip-off The Music Biz. That’s a fair assessment but I defend Lou’s right to “do whatever” because the sincerity of his solo efforts, maligned as their directions may have been, isn't my inquiry. My focus is how the lean, insolent sound of Lou's voice fronting the raw power of the Velvets' sound inspired multiple generations of bands.

Subsequently we witnessed legions of other fledging punkers who took a bit here and a bit there from that legendary Velvet Underground sound: Joy Division, The Replacements, Nirvana, The Vines, etc. Some of it is good, mind you, but let's be honest: without VU and Lou, how could we have gotten here?   

We only need to hear Lou Reed's inimitable, compressed snarl of “Up to Lexington, 1-2-5, feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive..I’m waiting for my man” to know what punk was. I can’t tell you what it will be now that Lou’s voice is gone. But I have hopes and I believe some of those thousands that are scooping up Lou Reed’s VU recordings right now like Halloween candy might go on to find a couple of like-minded misfits and cut a record.

October 28, 2013

Gallery Talk Addenda: Kelly's Folly Alreadymade

American painter Ellsworth Kelly remembers a visit he made in 1949 to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris where the windows “between the paintings” held more fascination for him than the art on display. He has cited that memory as the moment he decided to make “objects” instead of paintings:

“I made a drawing of the window and later in my studio I made what I considered my first object, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. From then on, painting, as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be painting/objects, unsigned, anonymous. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there, alreadymade, and I could take from everything.”(1)

Benjamin Buchloh has theorized that Kelly’s decision liberated him from the “historically available and the historically prohibited options for articulating aesthetic experience.” Accordingly, Kelly was able to envision a new practice that would transform painting from that which was “already defined” to something that was “alreadymade.” Painting as an “act of an emancipated subjectivity had vanished altogether” and the only viable option remaining for Kelly, with traditional figure/ground relationships and spiritual/transcendent color theories discredited, was “to activate the viewing space, or intensify spectatorial participation.”(2)

It is important to note that both Donald Judd and Frank Stella would also arrive at similar rejections of “relational painting” to focus on very direct methods of working. Judd wanted to eliminate what he called “the whole European tradition” based on “a priori systems” of rationalism, instead to make forms that did not “look like either order or disorder.” Stella, for his part, spoke of his desire to make “objects” that were “lean enough” to look at, to “see the whole idea without any confusion…what you see is what you see.”(3)

We can speculate that Kelly was about 10 years ahead of Judd and Stella in this new practice of “object-making.” Stella showed his first “black paintings” in 1959 and Judd’s paintings from that era (circa 1961) invoke vaguely geometric references while challenging the traditional protocol of viewer interaction with “specific objects” in architectural space.(4)

Further observation, and speculation prompted by Buchloh’s essay, has lead me to my theory that Kelly’s move toward “spectatorial participation” was solidified during his mid-1960’s work. For it was in regard of “Red, Yellow, Blue V” (1968), while preparing for a Friday Gallery Talk at the Hirshhorn Museum, that I experienced my own “spectatorial” revelation.

On a perpendicular, head-on approach to “Red, Yellow, Blue V” one is confronted with a three panel presentation of a trapezoid, with the left-side red panel of 89 inches in height, declining left-to-right through the yellow panel to the right-side blue panel, in a dimensional reduction of approximately 40 inches on the extreme right-side. The overall effect is one of a canvas receding from one's perception at the extreme right. This would seem to suggest Kelly’s contradiction of the flatness in painting that Clement Greenberg had rallied to support in his many essays during the 1960’s. Was Kelly staging a protest against Clem’s ideas of flatness by creating a perspectival illusion of three-dimensionality? If Kelly was truly creating objects, not illusions, then what am I looking at?

My revelation occurred when I walked to the right-hand side of the canvas, and in this gallery on the third floor of the Hirshhorn one approaches the actual corner of this particular gallery to achieve the most extreme right-hand vantage from which to view “Red, Yellow, Blue V.” The resultant visual effect I discovered is illustrated by my rather deskilled cell-phone capture reproduced below:

If we can recognize that Kelly’s vision of the alreadymade initiated his unique practice of object-making, leading to his use of flat, industrial color in shapes inspired by perceptual specificity but not relegated to mimeticism, then we might also hypothesize that his trajectory lead him to create situational pieces. “Red, Yellow, Blue V” is certainly a piece that encourages a viewer to move, to investigate different angles from which to regard its presentation. In doing so, one becomes distinctly aware that there are vantage points from which the panels appear to transition from a trapezoid to a rectangularity of form. This revelation rewards the participatory viewer with the discovery that shape, indeed perception itself, is variable to ones’ specific location relative to the painting.

Kelly’s move toward an understanding of the specifics of visual perception, first expressed in his Parisian folly of ’49, might be further evidence of Kelly’s impact on later developments in art. Particular research is needed in the hitherto unexplored relevance that Kelly’s shaped paintings may have had on Minimal artists, especially those later theories of perception as expressed by Robert Morris:

“The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision…one is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”(5)

IMAGES: Red, Yellow, Blue V (1968); collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; bottom image: extreme right-side POV, photo by MCB.


1. Quoted by John Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York, Abrams, 1974, 30.

2. Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. Ellsworth Kelly: Matrix, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2003

3. “Questions to Stella and Judd: Interview by Bruce Glaser” (L. Lippard, ed.), Art News, September, 1966.

4. Press release by The Menil Collection on the occasion of mounting “Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968,” curated by Thomas Kellein, co-organized by the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany.

5. Morris, Robert. "Notes on Sculpture, Part II," Artforum, October, 1966.

October 24, 2013


“In October of 1949, at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I noticed the large windows between the paintings interested me more than the art exhibited. I made a drawing of the window and later in my studio I made what I considered my first object, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. From then on, painting, as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be painting/objects, unsigned, anonymous. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there, alreadymade, and I could take from everything; it all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched planes, lines of a roadmap, the shape of a scarf on a woman's head, a fragment of Le Corbusier's Swiss Pavilion, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same, anything goes. At that time I wrote: 'Everything is beautiful but that which man tries intentionally to make beautiful.' The work of an ordinary bricklayer is more valid than the artwork of all but a very few artists."

- - Ellsworth Kelly (1974)

“It would thus be futile to prove that Kelly could not have known Mondrian's checkerboard paintings from 1919 as precedents for his own rigorous mapping of the pictorial surface. Or that Kelly could not have known Alexandr Rodchenko's Red Yellow Blue triptych from 1921 as a precedent for his own preoccupation with the primaries starting in 1951.
In 1949, painting appeared to Kelly as both always already defined and, paradoxically, as totally open..[..]..the radiant intelligence of his paintings originated first of all in his uncanny ability to figure these dialectical oppositions..[..]..between the historically available and the historically prohibited options for articulating aesthetic experience.
..the condition of painting as a mere object whose meaning and value are constituted only within the architectural and discursive framework of the museum..[..]..As much as abstraction had deconstructed the dialectics of figure and ground, most of these adventures still took place within the prescribed rectangularity of the support..[..]..they presume a universal subject, a neutral spectator, unchanging in his demands for painterly plenitude, conceiving of the object of painting (and of color in particular) as a perpetually renewable and available resource of sensuous (and substitutional) gratification. As though color, space, and line were trans-historical phenomena, lending themselves thereby to the most banal definition (and critique) of abstraction, namely that it provides the extraction of aesthetic pleasure at the cost of the disavowal of the actual conditions that govern experience and perception at large..[..]..Kelly's disenchanted abstraction had to retreat into those forms of painting and relief that negate access to spatial or chromatic plenitude through a radical re-conception of drawing, design, and color. Only then could his work respond to abstraction's increasingly debased deployment in commercial design culture, where the Utopian aspirations of the avant-garde had been conscripted into the rising cult of logo and product design, pressing every curve and color into the service of corporate identity and brand-name recognition.
Abstraction in 1951 gained its historical significance and credibility precisely to the degree that it succeeded in identifying the available options for abstraction and either continued along the lines that the avant-garde had formulated in the prewar period (e.g. techno-scientistic models, socialist-utopian models, spiritual-transcendental models) or recognized that none of these models were actually available any longer.
Abstract painting as a space and perceptual act of an emancipated subjectivity had vanished altogether, and that painting now could only aspire to perform acts of critical intervention within the ever expanding structures of institutional power.
What would it be like to imagine color as an operation in an interstitial space, as a game between oppositional conceptions of color?
What we seem to witness then is the death of a contemplative viewer engaged in the work's sensuous enchantment and the birth of the participatory spectator."

Excerpts from Ellsworth Kelly Matrix by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, published by Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2003.

IMAGE: Red, Yellow, Blue V (1968); collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.