Form vs. content

You can always analyze visual art in terms of content or appearance, its formal qualities. I would argue that it’s a game to separate them: they’re indissoluably linked. Everything in the material world around us has a narrative.

So to… classify visual art alone as the one medium that shouldn’t require any effort on behalf of anybody to ever understand it—you should just be able to look at it and walk away—as a pure sensation: that relegates it the level of… a roller coaster ride….Just shut your eyes and enjoy the ride.

I’m more in mind of saying, Open your eyes and enjoy the ride. Because it’s much more exciting if you are thinking and questioning, and you don’t know what it is, and it is full of questions and statements that you can’t possibly [grasp]. Because that is a truer reflection of just how extraordinary reality is than something that’s… neatly tied up in a bow… There, Look at that, Be at peace, Go home.

I’m more interested in something that leaves you asking all those questions like What is that? I don’t know what that is.

—Matthew Ritchie, Art:21 Structures


The last time I was in a museum bookstore, I noticed a DVD series called Art:21. This turned out to be a suite of documentaries on practitioners active in the first decade of this century, some of them mature artists like Richard Serra and James Turrell, others in mid-career like Sally Mann, still others that are rising talents and less well-known. It’s been running on PBS stations for a while, but I flat missed it, since I rarely watch broadcast. So I took a break from the line of Perry Mason episodes I’ve been going through and added the discs to my Netflix queue.

The films are selective and to the point. Each hour-long episode deals with four artists, about ten to fifteen minutes apiece. With a few exceptions, there are no voiceovers or interviewer questions: the films (carefully edited) allow the artists to tell their stories in their own words. Title cards superimposed on images of the work provide dates and a bit of context. Each episode carries a thematic title (“place,” “spirituality,” “identity, “consumption” from the first season), but the connection of each artist’s work to the theme is sometimes tenuous. Each episode is introduced by a framing segment, of highly variable quality; Laurie Anderson does a fine job introducing the series premiere, but a collaboration between Steve Martin and William Wegman is fluff.

What I find especially encouraging about the project is its selectivity—the refusal by the producers (Executive Director Susan Sollins and her staff) to pump out material just for the sake of making product. Each season consists of only four hours of programming, and the seasons are produced every other year. So, after eight years, we have sixteen hours of film covering 60-odd artists. I’m looking forward to watching it all.

More to see

Artomatic 2008 is more spacious and generally comfortable than its predecessor events, spanning nine floors of Capital Plaza I, none of them built out. It was quite pleasant to use the office tower to get a 360° look at the burgeoning neighborhood around the New York Avenue Metro station. The entire block between the station and the tower is a hole in the ground right now.

Added corporate sponsorship provided for waystations on most of the floors—a needed rest for most of us, because there is a lot to see. A surprising amount of photography (well, maybe not, digital imaging is inexpensive), almost all of it worth a look.

There were several opportunities to step into a booth for a special experience: a camera obscura, a panorama of a Norway mountaintop, a documentary video installation from Galicia in western Ukraine, a nature-themed corner from Joanna Cornell promoting the Neighborhood Ecological Stewardship Training program.

I stopped the longest for a suite of introspective, biomorphic abstractions by Gail Vollrath. I also enjoyed a flock of crows well-observed and sculpted by Janet Gohres.

A shining

Via ArtsJournal: Philip Kennicott produces an excellent piece about the art, science, theater, and politics of illuminating the monuments and other public buildings of the National Mall at night.

A recent revamp of the lighting of the Washington Monument, employing focusing technology used to light sports events, reduced the amount of wattage thrown on the structure as well as light pollution (what a lighting designer would call “spill”). Nevertheless, 24 kW goes into keeping the obelisk bright at night.

The structures on the Mall have a hierarchy that is replicated in the lighting scheme:

… as lighting designers who have worked on the Mall discover, that hierarchy is an informally acknowledged rule, not a written one.

Claude Engle, a lighting designer who has lit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the [East Building] of the National Gallery, remembers a significant change over the years that he has been working in Washington. In the 1970s, when he lit the new [East Building] of the gallery, he just did it by feel, by instinct.

“We decided—and that was just us—that it should be less bright, maybe 80 percent as bright, as the Capitol dome,” he says.

And silly restrictions on information “for security reasons” extend to lighting the Capitol dome:

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the architect of the Capitol, says that since 9/11, officials can’t even reveal what kind of light bulbs are used to light the structure.

“Any information regarding the current process for lighting the Dome,” she says by e-mail, “is security sensitive.”


Peter Schjeldahl recaps performance artist Chris Burden’s career for The New Yorker. I don’t know how long the link will stay alive, but check out this pithy definition:

In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities. Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements. It was a silly game, in the end. Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden, whose influence on conceptual and installational artists, to this day, is immeasurable.

Just the work

Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt has left us. From Michael Kimmelman’s obit:

To the sculptor Eva Hesse, he once wrote a letter while she was living in Germany and at a point when her work was at an impasse. “Stop it and just DO,” he advised her. “Try and tickle something inside you, your ‘weird humor.’ You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool.” He added: “You are not responsible for the world—you are only responsible for your work, so do it. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be.”

European vacation

Via, 50 works of art to see in one’s lifetime…. as chosen by readers of the Guardian.

The special—possibly exaggerated—place that western culture has given to art and artists since Michelangelo’s day means that if you love great art, you’re going to spend a lot of time in Florence, Rome and Spain. Yet the most beautiful work of art in Spain, the Alhambra, is a north African work. “The walls and indeed the floors and ceilings are covered in tesselating abstract weaves that do one’s head in,” wrote an admirer of the exquisite Islamic masterpiece.

Wow, I have a lot of travelling to do. I am eyeballs-familiar with most the work of the 20th century artists on the list—Pollock, Rothko, Serra, Johns—if not the specific pieces named. A trip to the Great Salt Lake to see Spiral Jetty is perhaps the only reason I have to visit Gilead—sorry, Utah. I did get to see Guernica before it went to Spain: I had a poster of it in high school. I had never heard of the Grünewald altarpiece until it was discussed as a source for Jasper Johns, so I’d like to see it, but I suspect I’ll be disappointed. One of the venues on the list, the Prado, home of Las Meninas, is near the top of my to-see-sometime list.