Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Fork in the Road; The Razor's Edge

I ran into a couple of artists yesterday. One in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Same thing. Frustrated about their careers. Leon Polk Smith liked to say that if he had to he would pay money to be an artist. The fact is, every artist does pay. They invest money in studio space and supplies that they will never get back.

Stay close to the source. You find God in nature and in life, not in churches. The same is true of art. You have to stay close to the light. Every second an artist spends worrying or obsessing about their career the farther they get from the light. The world is filled with temptations to take the wrong fork at every turn. We compare, we score, we want more. It may be natural, but it's the wrong fork. It is simple math. You do the work. Without the work you have nothing. With the work you have everything that matters. The rest is crap, and it lures us with promises that are static illusions. Visions of grandeur, visions of glory. False evidence that we matter somehow.

Those two artists I ran into are gifted. Art is a gift. For giving. I just wanted to slap them. SHUDDUP! STOPPIT! Quit wasting your time and mine talking about stupid shit. If they could only hear themselves. Sure, they do another kind of math. The exposure game. The more exposure they get, the more chance they have of making it. Never happen. You can't force life. All you get is resistance. Be grateful for what you have if indeed you have some time during the day when you can do the work.

Sharing your work is a blessing as well. It is part of the process. Find ways to do it, but don't be pushy. Let the horse drink when it feels like it, all you can do is get it there. Better to make sure the water is good, clean, pure, drinkable, worth drinking and so on.

That's the deal. The razor's edge. It is not only sharp for a reason, we are supposed to keep it sharp. Every minute. And every choice we are faced with, every dilemma, every spot we find ourselves in, we are challenged to do the right thing, make the right turn, make the right choice, by ourselves, the best we can, with the best tools we have, and our best judgment, and our biggest heart.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


The information age is over. We got the information and it is us. Too much info. Now we must face the new age. The Age of Agenda. Machiavelli would be horrified, ironically. There is such a thing as too much of even a good thing.

Where does this put us? The Age of Agenda means everyone has an angle. Not to be confused with the Age of Enlightenment, when everyone had an angel whether they liked it or not. Agenda is by definition secret. It is redundant to identify it as such. Some are just more or less secret than others. Gone is the Age of Innocence. This is the opposite age. On the other side of the wheel.

Yes, we could call it the Age of Politics. Same thing. Everyone has a blog. Everyone has an agenda. Nothing, NOTHING, is what it seems. 1984, but just twenty years too late. The Age of Paranoia? That too. Topsy-turvy. I can't wait for the movie about two gay men who cheat on each other and have secret lives as married men with children and are too ashamed to admit to it. Won't that be fun. Maybe I should contact an agent.

Cheating. That is what Agenda is about. One thing out front and another in back. The new beast with two backs. Cheating on oneself and everyone else. It is everywhere. We celebrate it. It's like gravity. Been there all along, but now everybody's doing it. I love the one about the pretty teacher having sex with one of her students.

WOW! That poor 14 year old boy. He's only the hero and envy of every adolescent boy past and present. And they are calling him the victim! We are talking about a thousand over-lapping agenda and no one can see the forest for the trees! Are the comics having a field day? Fox News and every other station is wringing their hands over this one. The only bad news here is that this kid's paradise on earth has turned to shit. For that I am sorry. The end of innocence is not what they were doing together but what everyone else has made of it.

Are our leaders at least partly to blame. Absolutely. Especially the bushy one we have now. I normally identify the agenda thing as the hump. You know, someone's trying to hump you. Everyone is trying to hump everyone these days, and I'm not talking about that teacher and her student. I'm talking about that hump that is about domination. It's like the Republican Agenda. Is there anyone these guys aren't trying to hump? The public, the environment, the animal kingdom, the world, God!

This is the Year of the Dog. It is kicking off the Age of THE HUMP, appropriately enough. Although I think it really started in the Year of the Rooster. So what can you do? You watch out! You lie down with dogs you get up with flees, and you probably got humped in the process. Don't close your eyes and hope it will go away. This is the gauntlet. Keeping your eyes open is the only chance you have. See things plainly. It is not a question of whether someone has an agenda, it is just a question of what it is and what it is going to cost you. The next question is, can you pay the piper? The bushy one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

NEOAB: Settled Abstraction

Before getting into the abstraction of the last twenty-five years, NEOAB, or neoabstraction, I would like to rant a little about another one of those negative ideas that get passed down unchecked, along the line that having a mind of your own or doing what you feel like are bad things. IMPRESSIONABLE. You know, how very impressionable he or she is, and how sad. Like this is a bad thing. That a person is moved by something or someone. Too sensitive. Too willing to listen. To consider trying something different, outside one's normal sphere of experience. It falls in the same camp as INFLUENCED. These are in direct conflict with the other two I just mentioned. If you have a mind of your own and do what you feel like, you are probably less impressionable and less likely to be influenced. Nonetheless, the idea that one could or would be influenced by forces outside oneself is not even worth discussing. We are nothing if not a lump of clay shaped by the world around us. But the idea that being unimpressionable would be considered a virtue is mind-boggling. That being easily impressed is a sign of bad character, that being influenced is a sign of weakness or perhaps a lack of character. The real question should be about which forces we allow to make an impression on us, and whether we are influenced by positive or negative energy.

One of the absolute worst things one can say about an artist is that they are heavily influenced. It is downright mean and practically indefensible. There is not an artist alive who has not been heavily influenced. The greatest artists were probably the most influenced. I just heard a story about the great Miles Davis, whose wife turned him on to rock and roll and Hendrix, and how it changed his life and his music. De kooning, Pollock, David Smith, Rauschenberg and everyone else, were influenced by Picasso, who made no secret of his influences and took it a step further by acknowledging that they were self-conscious influences, that he didn't borrow, he stole. Nevertheless, the worst thing you can still say about an artist is that they are influenced, period.

Consider the people in this world upon whom nothing makes an impression. The unimpressionable. The unmovable. By anything, especially the unprescribed, the unique. Things like children, nature, animals, art, music, literature, etc. Two things: first, what a shame; second, STOP making a virtue of the affliction.

Because if you are going to get anything out of this life you must allow yourself to be touched. The hope is in nature, in love, and in art. Let them make an impression.

Now on to NEOAB.

The very first Modern abstractionists were an absolute lot. Malevich. Mondrian. There were hard line, hard edge for a reason. They were trying to be clear about a new language. They were starting out with building blocks. Lego. The work had a graphic quality because the language came from a graphic place. The inspiration which shaped their images came from places like design and topography. They were not interested in the wilder or even more nuanced side of the language because it served no purpose. Rational clarity was imperative if this new language was to survive. It was no different than the kind of rigid severity required by the Pilgrims to survive their first few winters in the New World. You don't take any chances.

The abstract expressionist began by literally breaking down the hard line of such clarity in favor of exploring a more irrational, personal, emotional, poetic, gestural and fluid expression. They were influenced by impressionism, collage, calligraphy, and the can of worms that was opened by the world of psychology. They wanted to go down that rabbit hole and see what they could find. Dreams, the unconscious, the emotions, these were the stuff of the first generation of Abstract Expressionism, and they crossed the line. If you want an almost instructional example of this, look at the early work of De kooning. Everyone talks about the dissolve of the figure/ground relationship in these works, but one could more easily make a case for the break down of rational abstraction. De kooning would find an edge, cross it, find it again, cross it, again and again. He would do it until he had broken it down as much as he could and still have a painting/composition/picture.

NEOAB is not another generation of abstractionists exploring the language. That is over. NEOAB is the first and following generations of artists who accept abstraction as settled law. Indeed, if the abstract expressionists were frontiersman, NEOAB are the settlers who are building a life on ground those artists before them broke. Is there any virtue in being one of these settlers? Probably not. Virtue doesn't enter into it. NEOAB are not heroes like the original abstractionists. Those guys were giants, no question about it. I would never question that or try to diminish what they accomplished. Never. I have only respect and awe for them. Those of us who follow behind them have a different set of challenges, like keeping the curiosity, the wondering of it moving. It is NOT about refinement. It is instead about doing what it takes to expand. In some ways it could be considered a significant challenge. Like the war in Iraq, it is a question of winning the peace. It is also not about preserving abstraction. While we don't want to lose it, that is a job for historians, not artists. No, it is literally about settling it. Reinventing and reinvigorating it. Bringing new meaning to the language, new testimonials, new visions, new poetry. More than keeping it alive, bringing it new life. It is an evolution. Abstraction is evolving and will keep evolving.

Who are some of these artists? Joan Snyder. Bill Jensen. Jonathan Lasker. Jennifer Reeves. Thomas Nozkowski. Elizabeth Murray. Howard Hodgkins. Jessica Stockholder. Porfirio DiDonna. Richard Tuttle. Have they been around? Yes. Have they been doing this for a while? Yes. Is it settled abstraction. Yes. Is it good. Yes.

So what's the point? Dead End? Beating a dead horse. Scratching the same ground? No. Scratching the surface is more like it. Each of these artists brings their own vision to the language, like jazz, or even english. Since abstraction is indeed evolving, these artists bring that vision to the larger collective that is abstraction. Define abstraction. Well, that's another blog.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Love&Art on Bow Street

I think we are all well aware of what the dangers of individualism are. We hear them all the time. We get beat up by them all the time. We have cautionary tells to guide us, or better, keep us in line. In line. That's the thing. And that is what this is about.

The group, that is any group, family, institution, community, town, government, peer, company, workers, partiers, you name it: the group, they will you tell you that first and foremost the individual "just does what he or she feels like doing(without regard for the group), that he or she is SELFISH.

Most of us accept this as gospel. We might even accept it with shame: "Yes, I am selfish."

We might go a step further and live with that shame and accept that we are bad and that we might never change.

What gets lost in all of this, and I'm probably cutting to this too soon, but feel compelled, is that no one ever questions the group's selfishness. SELFISH. The group is, let's face it, selfish on a LARGE scale, but because it wields the power of the group, it goes unchallenged and unchecked. The only example we have in our entire culture of the negative and selfish nature of the group is when we speak of adolescents and "peer pressure." When we say those words everyone knows what I'm talking about. "Peer pressure" is the most frightening pair of words in the mind/life of a parent. Maybe as scary as the word "war." Scarier.

So if the idea of the group being selfish seems like some paranoid ridiculousness to you, think "peer pressure" and go from there. Think of all the billions of selfish and destructive things the "group" has come up with (individuals don't make war, for example, groups do.) Some of them are the most ridiculous things one could ever imagine. Let's make everyone take two years of say, algebra, so that they can become well versed in the practice of mathematical equations; and then let's make it critical to their future in life that they get it, and if they don't let's relegate them to low-paying jobs in the service industry because, yes, we've made mathematical equations the bar that will decide who moves on and who doesn't. Now tell me how many people you know use algebra in their lives EVER. It tells you what group has selfishly imposed itself on everyone else, and did exactly what it felt like doing.

Where am I going with this? Art. Art has always been tarred as selfish. A selfish act by the selfish individual. Decadent. It does nothing for the team. Useless. The word art has never crossed this president's mind or lips. It serves no purpose in the military industrial complex that is this administration's sole agenda. Art is the voice and will of the individual. The only one, by the way, who will say that the emperor is not wearing a stitch.  It is also easier for the group to justify any means to survive. Any means. It can lie with many mouths. In fact, I don't think we can count on the group for the truth. Too much at stake. The truth is the domain of the individual. Now don't get me wrong. The group does good. It is a given, it is a necessity, it is a reality. Group and individual, individual and group. They gotta get along.

But the group is an entity, guilty of the same things individuals are, just in larger numbers. Every individual has to be able to fend off the group in a given situation, just like with peer pressure. It might be about conforming to group expectations or group thinking. It might be about performing for the group expectations and group thinking. Many so-called individuals only represent and mouth group expectations and thinking. There was a time not that long ago, for example, when women and minorities were expected to think and act according to the dominant group's expectations and thinking.

Every young person that considers a life of art is bound to be greeted with a great deal of opposition from every quarter. Some of these greetings will attempt to attack their personal character for the choice they are making. Do I think that it is selfish to be an artist? Obviously the selfishness of the group does nothing to justify selfishness in the individual. What I do think is that we each have a life and that it belongs to us, no matter how much we might owe any group. If a life of art is an individual's choice, then who can argue with that? Art contributes to many peoples lives. I won't say everyone's. That would seem to be enough, however. It takes all kinds to make the world go round. Breadmakers, bridgebuilders, bankers, baseball players, and yes, bass players. We have room for it all. No accusations or recriminations. Go fourth and multiply is fine if you like math, but waxing poetic can outshine the stars.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

No Illusions

I was at Bow Street today, my wife's art exhibition space in Cambridge, and a man came in with a bit of an agenda, and that's ok. He did take the time to look at the paintings first and that was good. At first he didn't have anything to say except that only one of them was signed, which was true. It was a print. Anyway, at some point he expressed the concern that young people go into the arts with some kind of illusion about what it's going to be like and then they are disappointed. I had to stop him right there. Since when has our culture ever painted a pretty picture of what's in store if you choose to be an artist? NEVER. You might as well be deciding to grow up and be a heroin addict. From the very beginning all we get are pictures of pain and alcoholism and degradation. Warning after warning. Parents, teachers, college counselors, movies, magazines, etc. SO MUCH SO that I think people choose a life of art very often because that is what they want. Not the art, but the lifestyle of struggle and alienation. There actually could be some disappointment there if you don't achieve that dramatic result. Heaven forbid that an artist should live a happy and fulfilling life. Who would care? It would seem completely antithetical and inauthentic. The man said a lot of other "stupid" things along the same lines, but he wasn't stupid. He just repeated the same garbage that passes for knowledge of the way the arts work or the world works. Cliches, of course.

On another note I was again surprised to find someone going on about the professionalism of curators and museums and the like. I used to have the same reaction to my art history teachers who went on about their theories all the while oblivious to the fact that some human being somewhere actually bothered to think and feel and make the things that historians and museums make their livelihood from. Without the artist they would be in real estate. But you would never know it. There must be some deep-seated resentment there. It makes them keep trying to put the cart before the horse.

By the same token I had a friend of mine declare the other day that people were FINALLY starting to recognize his work, as though he deserved it somehow, as though his genius and the recognition of it was well past due( he once referred to his work as "the cause!"). This is just as crazy. He always gets himself in trouble. Expecting too much from people because of some psychotic notion that he is a great artist, dammit. He promptly alienated the woman, who was kind enough to show his work, because he made too much of the group show she would be putting him in that was months away. He dragged in a lot of paintings and didn't like the works she chose, instead wanting her to take more important and major works. Maybe she should have just gotten rid of everyone else's work and just shown his. He is the great artist afterall and these other people were just pretenders. Needless to say she finally told him to take a hike. He was outraged by her negativity. Afterall, who needs that? We can all relate to this, of course. God knows I've embarrassed myself on ocassion over the years with some arrogance in the face of a dealer.

On the other hand last summer I had a dealer beg me to let her show my work. I wasn't interested, but I wanted to honor her interest; not wanting to reject her outright the way dealers are of course quick to do with artists. In front of my friends she expressed her interests and even frustration. I never asked for anything, and even warned her that she had her hands full. I liked her. I didn't like her artists at all, which is unusual, since I am pretty easy to please most of the time. Shlocky comes to mind. Anyway, I insisted we keep things on a friendly level and left it at that. A few weeks ago I received an email from her telling me she was sorry but she couldn't show my work! Wow! What are you going to do? Amazing, of course, since I had never asked for the honor. Nevertheless I got a rejection. So there you have it!