Josiah McElheny on Josef Albers

Josiah McElheny is a great contemporary artist and thinker. His latest contribution to Artforum elegantly sums up some of my thoughts about art experiences; that art, too, is a visual as well as cognitive experience.

Surprisingly, though, [Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color] is not really a pedagogical treatise on the modernist use of color. Instead, it is an argument against color systems of all types: It proposes a practice of looking at and working with color that understands it to be constantly in flux. The reader, attentively going back and forth between text and image, is confronted by disturbingly mutable visual and cognitive experience, by the deep instability of color….

[Albers wrote:] “By giving up preference for harmony, we accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance.

…”[P]references and dislikes—as in life so with color—usually result from prejudices, from lack of experience and insight.”

…[Albers] argues that perception is contextual; he wants to encourage ‘thinking in situations.’ When he says that ‘interaction’ can be restated as ‘interdependence,’ he implies that what color is is defined by where, when, and how it is—otherwise it is relegated to the abstract, symbolic, theoretical….

In our active, physical engagement with [Alber’s color] tests, we are made aware of the slippery nature of looking—even identifying simple difference is fraught—an experience recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games.

—Josiah McElheny, “The Spectrum of Possibility.” Book review of Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color: New Complete Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Artforum. April 2010. p. 55.

Art & Development

Artist Tauba Auerbach on the natural bases of grids

A COMMON CRITICAL READING of the grid casts it as the essential symbol of technology and human contrivance—the signal structure of modernism—cold, impersonal, and famously called “anti-natural” by Rosalind Krauss in her 1978 essay “Grids.” In my view, however, the grid could not be closer to nature; it is the direct and rebellious offspring of gravity. The first relationship between the grid and gravity is one of accordance. By pulling perpendicular to the surface of the earth, gravity installs the right angle as a cardinal feature of our physical world. Perpendicular relationships are naturally recurrent and omnipresent. A basic grid is an accretion of these relationships, intersections of horizontal and vertical lines—like those formed by a liquid’s surface drawn level by gravity and the path of a falling object, respectively: Materials succumbing to the force create x- and y-axes.

The second relationship is one that weds rebellion and submission, a fleeting union, as the rebellions are only ever temporarily successful. A tree most efficiently resists the force of gravity by growing straight upward—at a ninety-degree angle to the horizon. The vertical charge of life is in fact the act of fleeing an inevitable state of horizontality, death. The leveling force of gravity literally ages us, drawing us down until we cannot go down any farther. Here gravity and its opposition trace the axes.

The third relationship is one in which the grid itself is the opposition to gravity. In this broader case, the definition of grid should be expanded, as it is in Grid Index, to include tilings—coverings of the plane in which there is no excess of space or overlap between constituent shapes. The entropic event of ice melting, for instance, sets geometric tiling against gravity’s pull toward decay and disorder, taking the gridded (albeit inconsistent) crystalline structure and rendering it an amorphous molecular soup. Similarly, but in the reverse order, crystal structures grow more consistently and easily in zero gravity—even forming in unlikely substances like plasmas—without their entropic enemy. If gravity is a protagonist in the plot of entropy, then the order of the grid is its natural and valiant, although doomed, antagonist.

—Tauba Auerbach, “Out of Order” Book review of Grid Index by Cartsen Nicolai (Berlin: Gestalten, 2009), Artforum, 2010
[To see the article, visit, register or log-in, and search for Auerbach.]

Art & Development, Research

heart NY

Like: H&FJ, type designers extraordinaire

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones are lecturing at Cooper Union next Tuesday night. If only I lived in New York…

H&FJ are among the country’s best and most influential living type designers. Years ago, I parlayed my art skills into illustration and graphic design; in the past year or two, I’ve focused my attention on typography — thanks to books by Robert Bringhurst and Ellen Lupton. I think you can see the effect on both my design and art work.

I admire H&FJ for the consistency of the excellence of their output, which is always considered and gimmick-free. Their type families are remarkably thorough and usable; they manage to both timeless and modern. I know my praises sound like platitudes, but you can see their skill with the ubiquity of the typeface Gotham. More recently, Archer has been catching my eye with more regularity. It’s cute, fresh and a little cheeky.

LIKE: Conceptualism and Identity Art, neither compromised

I DON’T WANT TO BRAND something called “Black Conceptual Art.” It’s less a question about who produced the work than of the object’s material history. If you can get to that history, and if that can take you to a very specific place, culturally and racially, then that’s where you locate the blackness. It becomes a secondary discovery rather than a necessary attribute of the work itself.

“30 Seconds Off an Inch” does not look at the conceptualisms that followed Minimalism. Instead, it investigates the kind of art that asks the viewer to think about something beyond the sheer materiality of the object, beyond formalism and formal practice. The works ask you to wonder where the trash originated, for instance, and about the history of a specific cloth and clothing, or whether the work is appropriated. There is a history and a lineage to all the works in the show that lend themselves to conceptual thought beyond the objects.

The viewer should have a sense of recognition when walking through the exhibition. There is not a lot of tape around the objects—I want visitors to be able to put their noses up to the works. The objects in the show are not to be seen as metaphors, but very literally, and you don’t need an advanced degree in art history to read them.

—Naomi Beckwith, “500 Words,” Artforum, 11/25/2009

Beckwith is the assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she organized “the exhibition ’30 Seconds Off an Inch,’ which explores the intersection of identity politics and dominant tendencies of the 1960s, from conceptual practices to Arte Povera.”

Wowee. I like this. It’s plain language on how to look at conceptual art, and how material can have content relating to identity. It challenges the ideas that conceptual art is too élite to be easily appreciated or too hermetic to have meaningful content, and that art relates to identity has to be populist/symbolist/representational. Well done.

LIKE: studio

This morning, in my dream, I found myself in a bare room: white walls, unpainted wood floors. I was sitting at cheap melamine dinette table. To my left was a the kind of kitchen you’d find in economy apartments — cream colored, with a small fridge and low fluorescent tubes. A cutout in the wall from which a cook might engage guests while attending the electric stovetop. But ahead of me was an expansive room, maybe 75 feet long. One side was all old industrial windows. The space was empty, unlit and dusty. It was my studio, and the sense of potential surged in me. It was so much space that I could work on a project, walk away from it, start a new project, and so on, for a long time before running out of space. I wouldn’t have to re-organize whenever I changed projects. To the side of the kitchen, I found a walk-in closet: my painting and flat work storage. The place was a bit drafty and quiet, but I was overjoyed. I was in New York. My job was to make art. The studio was mine.



In “Manchester United,” Kate Sutton writes up the big-name art events in the Manchester International Festival on Unfortunately it was in Scene and Herd, the mag’s gossip column/photos-of-beautiful-people section.

MIF sounds phenomenal — few cities are brave enough to host a festival of new visual arts and performance commissions of that scale. It’s nice to see coverage of the Marina Abramovich-curated exhibition at the Whitworth and Jeremy Deller’s populist-meets-conceptualist Procession, though Sutton overlooked local and emerging artists, and their varied and experimental MIF initiative, Contemporary Art Manchester.

I could have done without the author’s dishy commentary. She punctuates her reportage with snarky asides, as well as needless and predictable snooty (and classist) jabs at Mancunians at large. The “unity” conjured in the title contrasts sharply with her cynical dismissal of the very publics who host these events–and her as an art-tourist.

Art & Development, Values

Points of Reference

eclipse installation by Pavel Buchler
Pavel Büchler’ Eclipse at Max Wigram Gallery (London)
I love this simple but thoughtful installation.

Maureen Dowd recently remarked in the New York Times that Barack Obama’s election somehow signified that Americans are post-race. What a tremendously privileged point-of-view to take. Artist Kerry James Marshall doesn’t think we’re post-race, and neither do I. Cheers to SFMOMA for commissioning Marshall, and the two for pulling no punches.

I really appreciated Philip Tinari’s “OPENINGS: CHU YUN” in this month’s Artforum as well. It takes a lot of confidence — more than I’m naturally disposed of — to make works that are authentically minimal at the risk of seeming slight. As Tinari puts it, there’s

something subversive… about making works that were barely works.

Visit Chu Yun’s website. I really love the Constellation installation.

Paul Morrison’s exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery is pretty good. I enjoyed the giant 75′ wide b/w hard-edged mural, which combines source images from 19th-century-style engraving and 20th-century cartoons (I think I saw some Smurfs’ flowers?). I don’t think the shifts in scale is as dark or menacing as the curatorial statement suggests, however. And while I appreciate the white-on-white high-relief picture of dandelions, which is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, I also found the white-gold-and-black-acrylic-on-canvas paintings to slip too easily into collectible luxury items. As I learn more about gold and how, like diamonds, its mining and refinement is inseparable from issues of colonialism, inequality and environmentalism, I can’t see how Morrison justifies his use of gold leaf. Terry Gross’ interview with Brook Larmer on “The Real Price of Gold” is elucidating (Fresh Air, January 8, 2009).

Tomorrow, there’ll be a march on Washington against the use of coal. Writing from Manchester — a city spawned by the Industrial Revolution, whose skies were literally blackened by coal smoke, but has since embraced everything green — coal seems like such a 19th-century phenomenon, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s still a necessity today. Stranger still is how the myth of “clean coal” can persist in America today, despite a relatively educated populous.

Podcast of Joseph Kosuth’s Meet the Artist lecture at the Hirshhorn Museum. I’ve found this podcast series extremely inconsistent, with some poor audio quality of in-gallery recordings. But Kosuth excells in providing a smart, well-prepared lecture about his work and Conceptual Art. Cheers for artists talking with precision about art!

The work of two Mancunian conceptually-oriented object-makers:
Nick Crowe
Ian Rawlinson
and their work as a collaborative team