Impressions

Impressions: ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s @ Guggenheim NYC

Through January 7, 2015
ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s
Guggenheim Museum, NYC

 

Pulled in by the preview image of a swirling light-based installation, I visited this exhibition of experimental artists who emerged from post-war Europe. I’m surprised I hadn’t learned about these predecessors playing with light and kinetics prior. The show succeeds as a well-organized, beautifully displayed art historical survey with a concise amount of text and context. I especially admired the artists’ futurism and optimism.

The Guggenheim’s website features a smartly designed and scored exhibition site. An exhibition trailer shows additional works. Together, the two form a good substitute if you can’t make it to NYC. I’ve linked to the images there for your reference.

I found it rewarding to approach the works as art historical objects, and consider the works’ technical or mechanical accomplishments, the development of industrial materials, and the period of art history that was still very painting- and sculpture-oriented. For example, at least half of the artworks use two-dimensional, rectangular substrates, even when the artists were not interested in painting per se. These flat-ish works offer experiences that fluctuate between illusion and materiality. There’s a pleasant appropriateness to placing the earlier, more two-dimensional works in the lowest and narrowest part of the rotunda walkway, and the later, larger installation works in the higher and wider end of the ramp.

At first I was surprised that there were so many paintings and painting-like objects, but I enjoyed some real stunners: Walter LeBlanc’s painting-sculpture using twisted poly-vinyl strips (1965) made for high-impact Op-Art, and Lucio Fontana’s large slashed canvas Concetto spaziale, Attese (1959)—soft lighting heightened the matte paint and perfect slashes.

The inclusion of several works by Yves Klein, including a field of blue pigment, was a treat, as these works losing vibrancy and tactility in reproduction. I also wondered why Klein’s prints of women are seen more often; these monochromes possess more potency to me.

The kinetic sculptures of louvered glass by Heinz Mack [see the exhibition trailer at 3:00] dazzle, and I wavered in my critical reactions. Their shapes are content-free, geometric, and ultimately inoffensive, yet they represent an unique expression of the group’s interest in movement and vibration. It was also interesting to see the use of acrylic and think about the contemporaneous experiments by California Light and Space artists like Larry Bell and Robert Irwin.

Perhaps the most stunning display was the theatrical reinterpretation of the original ZERO exhibition held in a warehouse [see the exhibition trailer at 0:18]. Included was an effective Vibration painting/assemblage by Jésus Raphael Soto. As a fan of Fluxus associated artist Daniel Spoerri and his attempts to merge art and life, I was delighted to see that one of the most compelling works in the space—a kinetic, mirrored sculpture with three different scores on scrolls—was Spoerri’s, made with Jean Tinguely [see on the right of the trailer at 0:18]. Yet Auto-Theater was intended to spur action and participation, so while it was compelling to look at, viewing seems like an incomplete engagement, unfortunately. Similarly, Spoerri’s Variations on a Meal, by Noma Copley (1964), was probably remnants of an action that was the locus of the artwork, and not meant to be viewed as an autonomous art object. The wall texts for this work, and Jan Henderikse’s Bottle Wall (1962) alongside it, seemed to call for more context about the merging of art and life.

Many of the artists reclaimed the tools and experiences of warfare for positive acts of artistic creation, using unconventional media and techniques to create optical and sensorial artworks. Mack’s Light Grid in Space (1961-69) [see the exhibition trailer at 2:53], a series of long, twisted strips of chromed brass, is a reflective, proto-Cornelia Parker hanging installation that turns reflections a surreal 90º. Digging deeper, it’s inspired by “chaff”—metal strips dropped by warplanes to interfere with enemy radar. While attempts at transmogrification—of making something beautiful out of something as heinous as war—sometimes feel insubstantial, I believe the ZERO artists’ lived experiences of immense devastation imbue these actions with courage.

Otto Piene’s Light Ballet (1961) motorized-light installation is a transcendent, celestial experience. But it’s also lent gravity by the fact that Piene was inspired by watching nighttime aerial campaigns when he was tasked with anti-aircraft duties as a member of a youth corps.

A section was devoted to artists using fire and smoke for mark-making. Wielding a flamethrower post-war must have been shocking, yet the artists insisted on the positive.

Publications including ZERO magazines and an exuberant poster set in Futura were on view. Graphic design nerds will enjoy them. I could have seen more, but it seems that the Guggenheim exhibition was geared toward sensorial experiences with the works themselves, which is fine too.

The show culminates with a recreation of a late exhibition: a large installation of several light-based kinetic works. There’s something very sweet about a group of artists who’ve developed their interests both discreetly and collaboratively being exhibited in this setting with a unifying score. As Piene said:

teamwork is nonsense if it … rules out individuality or personal sensibility.”

Perhaps this fundamental autonomy is the basis for ZERO artists’ faith in the freedom and transformative power of art-making.

Standard
Values

What not to do at a phenomenological art installation

[CURMUDGEON WARNING: This is going to be an angry, misanthropic post. I try to be optimistic and share the positive, but all my efforts yesterday could not save my experience at James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim from being marred by other viewers.

Turrell is one of my favorite artists. He creates spaces for one-of-a-kind perceptual experiences and transcendence. I went to his exhibition to restore my faith in why I make art, to be freed from mundane constraints; so I cleared my schedule on a weekday morning to avoid crowds, and I cleared my head to be receptive. When I got there, I tried to block out other viewers’ inane conversations (first mentally and then physically by plugging my ears) and ignore their persistent, distracting photo-taking and mobile device addictions. I even conducted positive self-talk about personal boundaries and controlling my psychic energy(1). But it was all for nought. Having enough physical and psychic space to appreciate Turrell’s subtle installations was impossible.

As an artist, I need viewers. But as a viewer, especially for phenomenological installations like Turrell’s, I could do without 90% of them. I know most viewers have good intentions and, by dint of being at the museum, want to appreciate art, however, I could not help but feel how selfish and self-sabotaging many viewers were at the Guggenheim yesterday. What follows is ranting and conservative—for the positive, come back another time.]



What not to do at a phenomenological art installation:

  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden. It’s disrespectful to the artist and the institution. If those entities seem too abstract to you, at least use your self-control to not disregard and thereby disrespect the guards as fellow human beings. They didn’t make the rules but they bear the brunt of enforcing them, thousands of times a day, week after week, when the rules are clearly stated.(2) While many institutions allow picture taking, it’s a privilege, not a right. Furthermore, picture-taking forces guards to verbally enforce the rules, which further distracts other viewers from the art.
  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden and the host institution has posted plentiful pictures on their website. It’s especially selfish and pointless.
  • Take pictures or use a mobile device when viewing a finely-calibrated light installation that utilizes the entire space. You are inside the artwork. Just as you wouldn’t add paint to a painting, do not add your screen’s light to a light installation.
  • Take pictures of a phenomenological, durational exhibition, whose very intention is for viewers to be present, slow down, quiet the mind, and free oneself from contemporary distractions.(3)
  • Make shadow puppets, or let your children make shadow puppets, in the light installations. There are endless places to play with shadows in the world, but only a handful in which to view a Turrell installation. Behave yourself for the same reasons that you wouldn’t climb on a marble statue at the Met.
  • Take one of the highly coveted seats inside the installation to read a newspaper or use your mobile device. If it’s an emergency and you must use your device, excuse yourself to a lobby or hallway. If it’s not, stop sabotaging your own experiences and be present! Further, to pass your time not engaging the artwork is especially inconsiderate when there are over a hundred people waiting in line outside due to the installation’s limited capacity.
  • Start up a conversation about how too many people are talking to fully experience the installation, and carry it on, contributing to the problem.

1. From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow:

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

2. I probably saw over a hundred people taking pictures in the hour or so I was in Aten Reign, Turrell’s once-in-a-lifetime, site-specific installation in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda. Visitors blatantly felt that they did not have to follow the no-pictures rule—that their need to take a photo surpassed any of the artist or institution’s logic or any basic respect of the guard as a human being just doing his job.

This is how bias works: People understand that bias exists—but we believe that only other people are biased, whereas we think that we see things as they really are. The flaw, of course, is that if everyone else is biased, no one, including ourselves, is unbiased. In fact, we are all biased. (See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006).)

No photography means no photography. It doesn’t mean that other people can’t take photos.

3. Louis CK takes down mobile phone addictions beautifully on Conan: put down the device, be present, experience art, and let yourself experience real emotions.

Addictions erode self-control and the incredibly important characteristic of being able to delay gratification. The very definition of addiction is when people continue an automatic behavior out of desire, even as pleasure diminishes (see Paul Martin, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure). If feeding the addiction leads to selfish and self-sabotaging behaviors, self-regulation is in order. There’s a profound difference, anyway, between fleeting pleasures and lasting enjoyment.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Standard
Sights

get excited: turrell, deller

Image: James Turrell, Afrum (White), 1966, Projected light, Dimensions variable, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of Marc and Andrea Glimcher in honor of the appointment of Michael Govan as Chief Executive Officer and Wallis Annenberg Director and purchased with funds provided by David Bohnett and Tom Gregory through the 2008 Collectors Committee (M.2008.60) © James Turrell. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA. // lacma.org

Image: James Turrell, Afrum (White), 1966, Projected light, Dimensions variable, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of Marc and Andrea Glimcher in honor of the appointment of Michael Govan as Chief Executive Officer and Wallis Annenberg Director and purchased with funds provided by David Bohnett and Tom Gregory through the 2008 Collectors Committee (M.2008.60) © James Turrell. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA. // lacma.org

James Turrell: A Retrospective is coming this summer, to be exhibited concurrently at three museums! This is super exciting. I love Turrell’s phenomenological light installations. They are very difficult to install and exhibit. Not to be missed!

May 26, 2013–April 6, 2014
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

June 9–September 22, 2013
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

June 21–September 25, 2013
Guggenheim, NYC

Jeremy Deller, Joy in People banner (made by Ed Hall). Photographed in London, November 9, 2011, by Linda Nylind. // icaphila.org

Jeremy Deller, Joy in People banner (made by Ed Hall). Photographed in London, November 9, 2011, by Linda Nylind. // icaphila.org

Jeremy Deller’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London was a brilliant, daring move by curator Ralph Rugoff. I missed this show at the Philly ICA last fall (and it seems like NYC museums missed this opportunity). The show has continued on, however.

February 1–April 28, 2013
Jeremy Deller: Joy in People

Contemporary Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO.

More Deller: The Guardian picked Joy in People for the sixth Best Art Exhibitions of 2012. Deller will represent the UK at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Standard