December 23, 2013

A Chelsea Minute

Four recent Chelsea shows demonstrate how two major art world players stick to the formula, how another’s legacy continues to strengthen and how a newcomer attempts to breathe new life into Duchamp’s best idea.

Richard Serra’s massive new installation at Gagosian Gallery continues his tried and true audience-friendly environments. Without a doubt, Serra’s huge, raw, rusted steel walls create a Disney-like art experience as one walks the undulating passageways that sometimes narrow to just enough room to allow single ectomorphs to squeeze through. This shared negotiation with other visitors is coupled with the impossibility of one comprehending the entire form of the room-scaled, gargantuan “sculptures.” Our perception of these forms is rendered incomplete, mysterious and theoretically infinite because of their huge size and Serra’s apparent negation of Minimal Art’s “gestalt” object keeps his recent work at least interesting.

Sophie Calle, on the other hand, ventures into pathos in her Paula Cooper show, Absence, a series that Calle began in 2006. Mining the “universally resonant” territory of death and the loss of a parent, Calle goes to obsessive but aesthetically pleasing lengths to document her mother’s passing using “photographic documentation, narrative texts, found imagery and personal iconography.”(1) Calle’s cunning in accessing the melancholy and anguish in her viewer is somewhat diminished by our knowledge of how easily emotions like pity and compassion can be coaxed.

Meanwhile, Brice Marden’s graphite drawings at Matthew Marks confirm his essential position as one of the chief architects of Minimalism. Marden’s dense, obdurate blacks and grays shift in and out of focus visually as one tries to adjust to their unfortunate presentation behind sheets of Plexiglas. Cerebrally brilliant, Marden’s reductive forms establish the Minimalist trope of “less is more,” perhaps even more courageously than Frank Stella’s “black stripe” paintings of some of the same years. Again, the aesthetic quality of these graphite planes, characterized as “luxurious surfaces” in the press release, threaten to distract us from Marden’s lean toughness and the then burgeoning theories of literal art, reductivism and the grid.

Up at Gladstone Gallery, young upstart Cyprien Gaillard dramatically stages an antiseptic construction graveyard in homage to Duchamp’s readymade, or more accurately the “altered readymade.” Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens is the title of this show and the backstory of where Gaillard lifted this phrase from is almost more ironic than the show itself.(2) Nestled in Gladstone’s 21st Street “white cube” are 15 or 16 excavation machine heads – the earth-moving shovels that scoop up dirt or remove rocks in construction work. Into the shovels’ holes, where the bucket would be attached to the arm of a Caterpillar or backhoe, Gaillard has inserted long cylinders of “yellow hued banded calcite, which, though mined by similar machinery through a process of destruction, now rests in perfect equilibrium in the grip of the sculpture – an essential part of the work.”(3)

Whether their “perfect equilibrium” counters these brutish readymades’ historical reference to that other shovel, the urinal or the bottle rack opens a debate on the merits of “new readymades” one hundred years after the fact.(4) Roberta Smith has taken the position that Gaillard’s shovel-heads have been “tamed by their isolation and by the rods of beautiful, fragile yellow onyx that run through the holes.”(5) Thus, Gaillard’s “alteration,” or more semantically and historically accurate, his “aid” to these readymades, transforms their “anesthesia” into more profound readings and that may or may not mesh with Duchamp’s original intentions:    
“A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these ‘readymades’ was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste – in fact a complete anesthesia.”(6)

Gaillard’s objects, physically and psychically, very certainly were chosen, as well as “aided” with the calcite cylinders, to convey new readings and meanings. To quote Smith’s review again: “The rods have a civilizing effect on the otherness of the shovels, like the gold ormolu with which Europeans decorated, and appropriated, Chinese porcelains.”
This in and of itself is not counter to Duchamp’s original idea:
“One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the ‘readymade.’ That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal. Sometimes I would add a graphic detail of presentation which in order to satisfy my craving for alliterations, would be called ‘readymade aided.’”(7) 

Gaillard’s calcite rods are that “graphic detail of presentation” which does indeed “carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions.” Moreover, his 21st Century grasp of the essence of the readymade is made robustly more effective in the prehistoric, scarified ambiance of this herd of shovelheads.  


IMAGE: Installation view of Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens at Gladstone, NYC; © Copyright Cyprien Gaillard and Gladstone Gallery.  


1. Quotes from Paula Cooper Gallery press release.  

3. Quotes from Gladstone Gallery press release. 

4. I will explore the "new readymades" in my curatorial survey, "Readymade at 100," for American University's Museum at Katzen Arts Center in November 2014.

5. Smith, Roberta. "Cyprien Gaillard: Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens," New York Times, November 14, 2013.

6. Duchamp, Marcel. "Apropos of Readymades," 1961.

7. Ibid.

December 8, 2013

Highs & Lows

Administrators Note: Last week I had interactions with two students that reflect on the extremes of being an arts educator. Amazingly, these two encounters occurred on the same day, within the span of one class meeting. In the following post, the names have been changed to protect the students’ privacy.

My teaching duties are coming to closure for the semester and I was monitoring my students and talking with them about their final projects in a classroom last week when I had an unexpected visitor. The door to the classroom was partially open and a large, young black man appeared there, stopping motionless for a moment. He had a quizzical expression on his face, as he seemed to be remembering something.
“I think . . . did you . . . have you ever taught art theory for University of Maryland, College Park?” he finally asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“I knew it! I took your class! It was great!”

“Thank you!” I said.

As I walked over to him to shake his hand, I said, “Forgive me if I don’t recall your name . . . but there were lots of students I taught at Maryland.”
“That’s okay . . . my name is Ode and you changed all our ideas about art in that class. I remember when you took a chair . . . ” He reached out and grabbed the back of a nearby chair, pulling it toward him. “And blew our minds explaining what that chair meant.”
“Ah, yes! ‘One and Three Chairs!’ You remember that?”
“Yes, yes! How could I forget?”
The young man had caught the attention of my students, I noticed, as some of them were listening and watching us. Ode saw this and turning, he addressed them now:
“If you ever have the chance, take Professor Boyd’s art theory class . . . it will change your life!”
“You’ve made my day, Ode!”
We chatted for a while longer and I learned Ode had finished his baccalaureate and gone on the take his MFA at Howard University. He was now teaching, as an adjunct at this college, too. We talked a bit about the role of an educator, the rewards and challenges of teaching. I recall telling Ode that making connections with students like him was “empowering” for me and kept me teaching all these years. But I also spoke about the “moments of despair” when the frustration of teaching became impossible and students’ personal lives interfered with their ability to engage the subject matter.

We parted after exchanging contact info and I returned to my class and the duties at hand. Later, about 15 minutes before class ended, a young black female student entered. She approached sheepishly and I could see that she had been crying.

“Well, hello, K. Did you finish your project?” I asked.

“I . . . couldn’t finish . . . it’s been a difficult week and I couldn’t . . . ” Her voice choked and she stopped speaking. She handed me a crumpled paper. “This is as much as I could get done.”

I motioned for her to sit down, that we would talk after class.

After the last student had left, K was still sitting there, waiting. I had looked over her project briefly and already knew it was hopeless. K had already told me of her personal situation at home, sharing the stress she was having with her immediate relatives and not being able to study or work on her school assignments.

I walked to where she sat and addressed her:

“I’m very sorry that you weren’t able to finish your project. I know that you’ve had a stressful semester and I wish things had been easier for you.”

At this, she broke down, bent her head into her hands that was now clutching a tissue and faint, wet, wrenching sobs were her only answer. Her pain was palpable and desperately real. She couldn’t even respond to me, instead, she slowly got up, collected her things, and left the room.

All I was left with was a sense of what this loss may have meant for her. Her hopes for this class and, undoubtedly, for all of her classes, were undone by these situations obviously within her control but out of her experience. The opportunities for a successful semester were now lost to her.

I imagine that most professions do have these kinds of extreme moments; moments of success and fulfillment, coupled with other moments of failure and loss. But to have these kinds of experiences occur within a couple of hours in one day was stunning. The act of teaching is a constantly evolving profession that strives to reach other people's hearts and minds with conveyable knowledge and a connection to life. It is a rewarding occupation, but it can also be draining. 

My brief encounter with a young man who took my theory class nearly 10 years ago reminded me of “why” I teach: to engage someone’s heart with the awe of existence and to excite someone’s mind with speculation and cognition. But there are those other pedagogic encounters, rife with despair not only for the student but for the teacher as well. It is during those losses that I have a keen understanding that knowledge, or our attempt at both knowing and conveying ideas, are resolutely vulnerable to the student’s real, on-going life. And this makes it clear to me that life, and knowledge itself, is both a relative and conditional experience. To continue teaching effectively, one must develop the ability to function in these polarizing and extreme moments of existence, to maintain humility in those rewards yet remain strong through these failings.    

IMAGE: "One and Three Chairs" (1965); wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair"; © Copyright 2013 Joseph Kosuth / Artists Rights Society (ARS).