Saturday, July 12, 2014

On and On Kawara


Painting is an atemporal art, and, as such, ill suited to documenting the passage of time.  Early Renaissance painters used a technique called multiple narrative, wherein one canvas contained depictions of a sequence of events.   A stunning example is Filippo Lippi's Feast of Herod, which depicts Salome dancing and receiving the head of John the Baptist.   Klimt and others captured time by juxtaposing different figures at different stages of life development, as Three Ages of Woman.  Futurists played with dynamism and simultaneity, simulating the appearance of objects in motion.   The ultimate painter of time, however, was On Kawara.   Kawara documented the temporal flow of his own life by producing numerous series of highly repetitive, bureaucratically ritualistic works that enumerated daily trivialities with a kind of mechanical cruelty.  Though starkly dispassionate in form, Kawara's work is a moving testament to human mortality.  His own life came to an end this week.

Born in Japan in 1933, Kawara's early artistic efforts were figurative drawings, which, like much art of the '50s (think of Bacon, Dubuffet, and Giacometti) reflect an existential malaise brought on by the tragedy of war.  

He would soon shift radically away from figurative work, and turn towards conceptualism, becoming one of its most important practitioners.  On January 4, 1966, he began the Today series, for which he is most known.  Kawara would painstakingly paint a date in a plain font on a uniformly colored canvas.  Each canvas depicted the date of it's own creation, using the language and format of whatever country Kawara happened to be visiting, or Esperanto in the case of languages that use non-Roman type.  If a painting was not completed on the date it began, Kawara would destroy it.  On the back of each paining, he would affix a newspaper from the same day, with headlines (hidden from view), that chronicle the events of the last half century.

The first Today painting is reproduced above, along with an exhibition view from 1970.  The installation reflects the compulsivity of Kawara's project.  Though often called poetic, the work is more striking for its uncompromising austerity.  The work would be oppressively solemn if it weren't for the Sisyphusian absurdity of the effort.  Kawara spent over half a century painting numbers on canvas.


Other explorations of time followed the Today series.  For example, Kawara was a pioneer of mail art, and would send postcards to friends, gallertists, and art writers documenting the precise time he woke up.  The examples below are addressed to two German curators and fellow conceptual artist, John Baldessari.  As the images indicate, Kawara was a globe trotter.  He lived in Japan, Mexico, Europe, and, for many years, New York.


Kawara also found other ways to document his activities.  In a piece called I Met, he listed all the people he met for the duration of the project. Each of many pages documents one day's encounters.  In a related work, called I Went, Kawara documented his movements throughout the day, using city maps.


In a more overtly political series, Kawara preserved things that he read, usually newspapers, with headlines describing the triumphs and tragedies of our time--all without commentary.


Kawara also produced enormous calendars (or "Journals") stretching back and forwards in time.  He added yellow dots on those days he was alive, and he used other colors to indicate whether he had completed a painting (or two) on each given day.  


These calendars can be described as meta-paintings, since they are about Kawara's own production of paintings.  Another meta-project is a series of color samples, corresponding to pigments used in his Today series.

Kawara's work is obsessively biographical, but also studiously impersonal.  He tells us when he woke up each day, and where he went, but not what he did, thought, or felt--the normal contents of a biography.  He also resisted being photographed (the image at the top is a rare exception).  Such inscrutability is a theme of another series, called Codes, in which he deploys cryptic symbol systems.  He includes a series of love letters in an indecipherable notation (below, left).


The Codes series also includes text of a French poem in Braille (above, right).  This is an excersize in incomprehension.  Kawara could understand neither Braille nor French, so the meaning of the poem remains hidden to him and to most viewers (assuming most "viewers" cannot read Braille, and fewer still would have an opportunity to touch the surface of the work).  Kawara's Braille piece remind us that, as a conceptual artist, he was not particularly concerned with retinal dimensions of art.  Everything is an idea, and the primary medium by which he delivered ideas was linguistic. 

At the same time, the visual confrontation with Kawara's work, especially the Today series, can be quite stirring.  The endless succession of dates testifies to our own impermanence.  There is also a dizzying sense of our own insignificance when measured against the fullness of time.  In a recent project, Kawara filled compendious volumes with neatly typed sequences of numbers corresponding to a million years, both past and future.  Kawara's choice of neutral typography and repetitive execution can be read as a commentary on the tedium or banality of existence.  Or as a comment on time's indifference.  Or as an injunction to fill our passing days with things that matter.


The theme of impermanence, or more exactly mortality, is focally featured on one of Kawara's most poignant series.  Over several years, Kawara sent telegrams to friends boasting "I am still alive."  As with his postcards, we don't learn about the content of his life, but about it's persistence.  Pure being, one might say.  


Kawara continued delivering this message of persistence through the internet.  He opened a Twitter account in 2009, and he began to post tweets saying "I AM STILL ALIVE."  These continued to appear daily without further comment or elaboration for years.  On the day of his death, another one of those ordinarily reassuring missives appeared, and then again the day after.  Another appeared today, two days after his death (below).  Kawara's Twitter posts were evidently machine generated; either that or he is communicating with us from the other side.   Either way, the message is true.  Kawara is here to stay.  His obsessive documentation of time's passage has left an enduring mark in the history art.



Friday, July 4, 2014

Dix in Stuttgart


Stuttgart is not known as a major destination on the global art map.  It cannot compare to Berlin among German art centers, nor even to Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, and Kassel.  Still, it deserves more recognition.  Among its masterpieces, the city hosts one of the most impressive collections of paintings by Otto Dix.  Dix moved to the area after he was ousted from his Dresden professorship by the Nazis.  His house has been made into a small museum, but the real treasures live at the Kunstmuseum, a cubical building with a glass exoskeleton and several floors of galleries showing modern and contemporary art.  Before Dix died, Stuttgart negotiated to be granted the right to purchase any of his works that come on the market.  They have used this privilege well, amassing a collection of paintings that represent the artist's remarkable career.


Dix was born in 1891 and was en route to becoming a significant expressionist painter when the First World War broke out.  At that time, his subjects were often tame, even bucolic, but his years on the front lines would change all that.  Dix enlisted in the army and eventually became an officer in a machine-gun battalion, fighting on both the Eastern front and in Flanders.  Dix earned promotions and a medal for valor, and he sustained five injuries before being discharged.  While at battle, he documented what he saw, and it wasn't pretty.  His drawings, paintings, and prints of the period are among of the most chilling artistic representations of the horrors of war (see example above).  They rank second, perhaps, to Goya's Disasters of War.



Dix's depictions of war brought him fame and notoriety.  In 1923 a Cologne museum purchased a large painting called The Trench (reproduced above), which was condemned as unpatriotic by conservative critics.  The museum director bowed under pressure, returning the work to Dix's dealer.  It subsequently disappeared and is presumed to have been destroyed along with some 250 other works by the Nazis.  Dix was undaunted by the scandal and proceeded to paint comparable scenes of anihilation.  Two examples, The War and Flanders appear below. The War closely resembles The Trench and was intended as a deliberate rebuttal to Dix's critics.  The dead soldier hanging at the top of the canvas alludes more explicitly to the Christ figure in Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece, universally recognized as one of the most important works in the history of German art.  I was lucky to see the other painting, Flanders, while visiting Stuttgart.  It was on display at the Kunsthalle Würth in nearby Schwäbish Hall, which I visited with a carload of art-loving philosophers.  The sky in that painting shows two phases: blood red and tranquil blue, as if Dix is reminding Germans that there are two paths to choose from when moving past the tragedies of the Western front.



In the years immediately after the war, Dix fell in with members of the Dada movement, and this is reflected in his work.  One painting in Stuttgart, Pragerstrasse (1920), bears this out.   with a composition that resembles the anarchy of a dada montage (think Heartfield or early Höch).  Dix even experiments with three-dimensional collage elements as revealed in the detail below.



Pragerstrasse also contains what would soon become a Dix staple: images of war veterans with missing limbs.  Another image of war veterans was prominently displayed in the famous International Dada Fair in Berlin, 1920 (pictured below--Dix's painting can be see on left, with Höch seated below).  It too is believed to have been destroyed.



The experience of war was traumatic for Dix.  He was haunted by nightmares and he returns again and again to military themes in his work.  He also acquired a more cynical view of civilian life.  He painted prostitutes, the poor, the aged, and the oblivious bourgeoisie.  Though coming from humble means, he was himself something of a dandy and an amateur dancer, who immersed himself in the Weimar Republic's hedonistic night life.  Here young people sought parties and pearls as an escape from ugly memories of the past.  This was also the jazz age and the age of women's suffrage.  Women dressed in androgynous clothing, cut their hair short, and pursued open lesbian relationships.  Dix presents this world as only an insider could.  The most impressive painting in Stuttgart--perhaps his best work--is a monumental tryptic called Metropolis (or Großstadt), pictured below.  I also reproduced his sketch for the work, which is not on display there.



Dix paints with eviscerating accuracy (see the zoomable version here).  His tryptic is full of contrasts and contradictions.  Poverty and decadence, gyrating dancers and bodies broken by war, youth and age, hope and despair.  The left panel shows (below) a dog barking at a disabled veteran, surrounded by prostitutes.  The center shows fashionably attired revelers dancing to a jazz band.  A stereotyped African American drummer might be an alter ego for Dix, as suggested by his superb self-portrait Beauty, in which he stands in front of a drummer and wears an American suit.  The right panel (below) shows another war victim, with head clasped in hand, seated helplessly below a parade of fashionistas.


It is easy to see this work as satyrical and unforgiving.  But Dix is something of a visual journalist.  His paintings, unlike those of his contemporary Georg Grosz, do not so much as pass judgment on their subjects but rather expose them, as artists had rarely done before.  Other modernists had painted beggars and sex workers, but often in a highly romanticized way.  Here humanity is laid bare, and these anonymous people, living on society's margins gain a kind of dignity in their ugliness.  They are given flesh and blood for the first time.


This journalistic approach to painting was called the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit).  Dix was one of its pioneers and arguably its best practitioner.  He also developed new methods of painting--or rather old methods, reverting to the use of tempera with oil washes, which had been used by renaissance masters.  For many European modernists, the interwar period marked a return to more traditional techniques, but that usually signaled nostalgia for classical order.  In Dix's hands, traditional methods are used to deliver a world of disorder.  One might liken his works to the Flemish primitives.  LIke van Eyck, Bouts, and the German-born Memling, his figures are distorted, thinner or fatter than prevailing norms, hunched, angular and awkward.  The Metropolis brings to mind Memling's 15th century St. John the Baptist triptychs.  Like Dix's masterpiece, there is fallen figure on the left; a main panel with a female figure centered beneath a rectangular form;  and a constellation of colorful images on the right, which receded upward into the distance.  There are also arched ceilings, marble columns, and a floor that slants downward inviting viewers in.


Allusions to older art can also be found in Dix's Three Wenches, a study in anatomical variation among prostitutes.  The twisting body of the standing figure pays homage to the Flemish primitives again, and it also forecasts recent work by John Currin, such as the Dane, depicted below.  The round woman on the right evokes a more ancient source: neolithic venus figures, such as the wonderful Venus of Hohle, which lives in Stuttgart.  I reproduced both below.



Like the Flemish primitives, Dix was also skilled at portraiture (see the comparison here).  Though trending towards caricature, his portraits are undoubtedly his kindest works.  Dix portrays art dealers, industrialists, doctors, journalists, and other Weimar personalities with loving detail and refreshing honesty.  Several of these can be found in Stuttgart.  The most renowned is his portrait of the dancer, Anita Berber.


A celebrity at the time, Berber was known for he nude perfomances, her erotic films, and her seduction of many prominent male and female residents of Berlin including, allegedly Marlene Dietrich.  Berber was also a substance abuser and she died of tuberculosis surrounded by morphine needles at the age of 29.  I included a photograph alongside the Dix painting for comparison.  One wouldn't call his portrayal flattering, and his color scheme emphasizes her identity as a femme fatale.  On the other hand, he saw her an an embodiment of the time, and captures her strength in a way that brings eminence to her salaciously configured physique.


Equally compelling are some Dix's family portraits.  He painted his three children with adoration, but without saccharine idealization.   Dix's eye for the odd is as evident here as elsewhere.  His children stare blankly and stand with fixed doll-like postures (see the Nelly detail above and compare it to the more expressive photo of her by Hugo Erfurth on the right).  Dix plays with the cliché of innocence.  The portrait of Urus below is at once untarnished and strange.   Will these plump, wide-eyed creatures devolve into the misshapen adults that populate Dix's multi-figure compositions?  Born after one violent conflict, these kids are heading unknowingly into another; they will see their world torn apart by war.



The question of destiny is also brought out poignantly by Dix's portrait of a newborn child.  He captures better than any other artist the creepy, worm-like form of the neonate.  The one from the Stuttgart collection (below) is the best of several versions he produced at the time.  I also included a study for the work, which shows the child emerging from womb.  The style evokes Dix's war series.  Nelly, who is depicted here, would become a writer and artist, before dying at 31, during a botched abortion.


Dix probably didn't forecast the hell that was coming, but his early paintings can be read as a desperate plea.  Dix knew the ravages of war, and he was also sensitive to societal forces that could lead back in that direction.  This dark trajectory presumably made itself even more apparent when the Nazi's ousted him from his Dresden post.  Dix was labelled a degenerate artist and his paintings were features in the degenerate art exhibitions that travelled around Germany.  A tribute to those artists is currently on display at the Neue Galerie in New York, which also mounted an excellent Dix show a few years ago.


The Nazi campaign against degenerate art came with a positive agenda as well.  Art would henceforth glorify the Third Reich.  Under these conditions, artists who wished to continue painting had to conform.  Dix's work took a dramatic turn.  His figurative works took on more classical proportions and traditional themes, including as Biblical stories.  There is a disturbing example at Stuttgart from 1934, called the Triumph of Death.  In the foreground a baby is tenderly rendered, with a intertwined couple on the right.  To the left, a German soldier stands, with the scythe of Death--who lurches across the top of the canvas--curling around his neck.  There is also a woman farming and a dismembered man, suggesting, again, two options for Germany.



In the years that followed, Dix also began painting landscapes.  These efforts seem benign at first, and they capitulate to State-sanctioned aesthetic conventions.  Yet, they are also subtly continuous with Dix's earlier work in that they remain grimly foreboding.  The style has changed, but the message is thinly veiled: bad things are coming.  One shows a snowy village with dark birds looming overhead.  Another shows an apocalyptic storm brewing over the spires of a city.  The latter painting looks unmistakably similar to some of the war paintings that Dix's early detractors had condemned as unpatriotic.


After the war, Dix continued to paint until his death in 1969.  The Stuttgart collection includes one post-war painting, a 1969 image of Christ, which typifies his later style: religious allegories executed in an expressionist style.  The influence of cubism can also be seen, and little is left of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which Dix had spearheaded.  I must say I dislike these later paintings, and I find the Christian iconography distressingly opaque. Still, they are interesting.  A very good sampling is now on display at a spectacular show, which I caught in Munich a couple months back.  The show compares Dix to Max Beckmann and traces their parallels throughout their long careers.  Rather than ending with the colorful Christ, let me close with a juxtaposition from the Munich show: Dix and Beckman each giving their own version of a nude model in an art studio.   I prefer Beckman in general to Dix (a story for another day), but Dix wins in this head-to-head comparison.


In Dix's painting, there is an empty easel, and through it we see a capsized dummy (perhaps an artist's tool for anatomical accuracy).  Behind the dummy sits a corpulent model, with a hand raised with graceful irony (or is it an ominous salute?).  The work can be read as an allegory for Dix's art: the idealization of the anatomic dummy is abandoned, and usurped by a real human being, who poses proudly with all her imperfections in plain view.  The model appears through the easel, as if to say that Dix's paintings are a transparent window into the world as it really is.  This is an exaggeration, of course, but Dix can be celebrated for presenting things with a kind of unflinching directness, which those who seek only beauty are bound to miss.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Modern Spirit: Hilma af Klint and the Origins of Abstraction


If you consult the art history books, you will probably learn that Kandinsky invented abstract painting, and that his innovation came around 1910.  Recently, the record has been corrected.  It is now recognized that Kandinsky has at least one predecessor: a Swedish clairvoyant named Hilma af Klint (pictured below).  "Clairvoyant?" you ask.  Yes; af Klint was preoccupied with spiritual pursuits and was believed, from childhood to possess mantic gifts.  Her paintings are an exercise in occult sybiology.  Though hardly devoid of meaning, many lack elements that would be recognized as representational.  They are, from a formal perspective, every bit as abstract as Kandinsky, and, I dare say, every bit as good.  Indeed, her sense of color, her bold compositions, and the ambitious scale of her canvasses, put her on a par with the giants of modernism, even if motivations were, by modern standards, backwards looking.


This has been a good season for unsung women in abstract art.  In Moscow, there was a recent exhibition of the Russian constructivist, Natalia Goncharova.  The Tate Modern has been hosting a small exhibition of the German Jewish minimalist sculptor, Charlotte Posenenske.  MoMA mounted a large tribute to Lygia Clark, the Brazilian op artist.  Hilma af Klint is sharing the spotlight.  An impressive retrospective, first mounted in Stockholm, has brought some of her 1,000 works into public view.  I was lucky to catch the show at Denmark's Louisiana Museum.



Af Klint's obscurity was not entirely the fault of a male-chauvinist art world.  Born in Sweden in 1862, af Klint was able to attend art school, a privilege denied to women elsewhere in Europe.  Throughout her life, she painted and sold conventional landscapes and nature paintings (above).  Her abstractions, however, were part of her spiritual practice.  The lovely example below is called Tree of Knowledge, a reference to her beliefs about spiritual enlightenment.  Such paintings were not intended for public viewing.  Af Klint claimed to paint in a state of higher consciousness, channeling the spirit world.  The paintings are imbued with supernatural significance, which, by her own estimation, the world was not ready to understand.  When she died in 1944, her will stipulated that her work not be exhibited for 20 years.  The work was donated to Stockholm museum that mounted the current retrospective--a gift that they politely refused.  Only recently, has the art world come to recognize her genius.

Af Klint has a life-long preoccupation with the spirit world.  In 1896, she and a group of women (called The Five) formed a group that conducted seances and studied supernatural phenomena.  A popular preoccupation at the time, they were under the influence of Helena Blavatsky, the Russian proponent of Theosophy.  Famed spiritualist, Rudolf Steiner had been secretary to the society, but, after a falling out with it's leadership, started a group of his own, under the label Antrophosophy.   Af Klint eventually learned of Steiner's work, which set the stage for a meeting in 1908.  The year before, Klint had completed a massive cycle of abstractions.   She arranged to show these to Steiner, but he summarily dismissed them, denying her capacity for higher states of consciousness.  A few years later, Steiner began to produce "blackboard paintings" (below) -- his own effort at spiritually inspired abstractions.


Af Klint's forrays into abstract actually began well before 1907.  As early as 1904, she was making abstract sketches and also engaging in automatic writing and automatic drawing--techniques that the surrealists would re-invent 20 years later.   Some of these early efforts are on display in the show (below).


The exhibition also includes some of af Klint's notebooks.  These contain notes, automatic writing, drawings, and studies for paintings (above).   It would be thrilling to thumb through these.  The pages on display lie somewhere between the outpourings of a religious zealot and the systematic experiments of an aesthetic savant.  In either case, we see af Klint's mind at work here, and we can get a sense of how she arrived at her formidable larger works.


The first room of the exhibit sets the stage with some series of abstract drawings (above).  Though wonderful in their own right, these can hardly prepare the viewer for the monumental paintings that would soon follow.


Some of these paintings are recognizably representational.  Consider the figurative example above: here a Christ-like yellow man crouched, as if bound for sacrifice across from a blue-haired maiden hoisting up an elaborate red heart.  Between them, emerge four androgynous green figures, symmetrically arranged.  This might reference the process of incarnation by which spiritual beings are given living bodies for life on the terrestrial earth.  Aesthetically, the image evokes symbolist and nouveau painters, like Ferdinand Hodler, though the super-saturated palette might fit more naturally in an exhibition of fauves.


There is also a series of works which are cryptically labelled with the word Evolution (in Swedish).  Modern viewers will think of Darwin, but both Theosophists and Anthrophosophists developed evolutionary theories to rival natural selection and the idea of primitive origins.  Steiner claimed that humans evolved from a spirit world, and that early human societies lived in a dream-like state, fully aware of supernatural forces.  Over time, we evolved the capacity for abstract and logical thought, relegating dreams to nighttime slumber.  We are now en route, according to Steiner, to rediscover the hidden powers from which we have become alienated.  Af Klint's painting above depicts a black dog in some kind magical communion with its etherial white double--perhaps indicating that canines too can look forward to re-ascending into the spirit world.


Though intriguing, these representational paintings only gesture toward the abstract elements that would dominate af Klint's spiritual works for decades to come.  The next example (above) is a jaw-dropping abstraction, which holds up to best modern masters.  A blue field is filled by concentric circles, two crosses and networks of lines, which evoke astronomical diagrams.  Perhaps it is a cosmic map.  It is known that af Klint pursued spiritual journeys to the astral plane.


The next examples (above) are twice as large; at 10 feet, they tower above viewers, creating a fanciful environment, that is at once chaotic and serene.  Painted in 1907, one wonders how these works remained hidden for half a century.  Here we can see af Klints' iconography in full glory: circles, spirals, swirls, and floral forms fill each canvas, pressing against the borders like celestial bodies awaiting a big bang.  Af Klint's palette is remarkable as well.  Cobalts and aquamarines, rusty oranges, egg yellows.


There is also a liberal use of pink (as in the example above).  This came as a welcome comparison to the museums other headline exhibition: a retrospective of Philip Guston.  Though like Guston in palette, af Klint's pink paintings have an opposite sensibility: lyrical rather than clumsy, etherial rather than earthy.


Comparisons to other later artists are often impossible to resist.  The link to Kandinsky has already been mentioned: both artists were driven to pure abstraction by their spiritual orientation.  Af Klint also portends Matisse with fields of solid color and graceful linearity.  There are also excursions into more formal abstraction, which anticipate the Russian avant garde as well as color field painters, such as Albers.  Examples of circles and squares are shown below and above.


Sometimes the parallels to other artists are almost eerie.  One of af Klint's paintings (below left) looks almost identical to a Klee painted a decade later (below right).


Klee also comes to mind when viewing the formal abstractions below.  These works predate the Swiss master's more geometric works.  It is as if af Klint could see where European art was going even though she herself operated in isolation from the avant garde.


In looking at this body of work, only a fraction of which is on display, we see an artist who was not only ahead of the curve with respect to abstract painting.  Af Klint also seems to have anticipated many of the most prominent movements in modern art.  In her paintings, we find parallels with the aforementioned modernists, as well as bauhaus, de stil, and minimalism -- not to mention Brion Gysin and psychedelic painters of the 1960s.  With respect to art, af Klint really does appear to be clairvoyant.

 

This leaves us with a final question.  While we are correcting our art history books, should we name Hilma af Klint the mother of abstract painting?  Is she, in fact, the first?  Here the answer may turn out to be negative.  In addition to centuries of decorative art, which is often abstract, there is one important predecessor to af Klint in the 19th century.  Indeed, af Klint was preceded by another spiritualist: Georgiana Houghton, who was born in the Canary Islands in 1814.  As early as the 1860s, she was running seances and producing abstract drawings that were designed to represent supernatural forces.  An example, called Glory Be to God is reproduced above.  Somewhat like a futurist painting, Houghton's image resembles the hypnogogic trailing one might experience while entering into a trance.  To the right, we can also see one of the many photos that Houghton produced, allegedly showing a ghost.   Clearly doctored, one wonders whether such Victorian occultists were all charlatans.  Helena Blavatsky was derided as a fraud and opinions divide about Rudolf Steiner.  When looking at af Klint's opus, it is hard not to believe that she was earnest in her convictions.  She seems to have recognized her own talent, and by her death in 1944, she probably understood that she had much to contribute to the world of painting.  But she held out, claiming that the world was not ready for the messages in her work.  Evidently, we are still not ready for her spiritual insights, but, with regard to her artistic innovations, it is fair to say that af Klint's time has come.