Points of Reference: Choice Cuts, Wintry Mix

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,


Some words and meanings of import to me this week:

I love it when an exhibition looks pitch-perfect. It brings me great satisfaction as a preparator to execute a changeover with immaculate results. Galleries have an unspoken ambition to sustain a highly artificial state of perfection; it works best when you feel that no other visitors have been there, with their grubby hands or floor-scuffing feet. Coming from this mindset, I was startled by this:

great art, though, is rarely perfect.

(The fragment has lodged itself in my brain, orphaned from its source. I think it’s from the New Yorker, but having been out of town for much of the past four months, I’m working my way haphazardly through the backstock, and finding the source seems an impossible task.)

I’ve been mulling this over—what allows art to be imperfect, what things/activities ought to result in perfection (crafts? services?), and why I’d forgotten that art has this privilege of imperfection (perhaps seeing too much art in sales-oriented commercial spaces, internalizing the feeling that art should look expensive)?

I stumbled onto the website of Trapped in Suburbia, a fun design firm in the Netherlands, that had an exhibition about happiness.

You’d think that an exhibition about happiness would capture my attention. But their motto, pulled from a Chinese proverb (go figure) was what ultimately spoke to me:

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.

Fine, it’s an aphorism, and thus designed to impart wisdom with concision and rhythm that makes it seem profound. (For similar reasons, I find writing tweets unsatisfying.) It works for me in the context of a recent discussion I had about whether the relationship between what artists make and what artists make happen are equal or not. I think what artists make happen gains meaning through the shared experiences that artists make happen. The aphorism sort of mirrors what I mean to explain about the creative and aesthetic process: ideas without manifestation are intangible or intransient; objects can hold those ideas but remain inert without active attention; but by producing spaces/situations, possibilities and engagement, the ideas and objects take root in people’s minds and lives and experiences and memories. They live on in a larger way than personal experiences with objects.

From 2003 to 2011, Haim Steinbach led a seminar at the University of California San Diego called The Object Lesson. He instructed his students to chose an object—any object—and bring it to class every week. Over the course of the semester, they would consider these objects from every possible vantage point….

For ten weeks, three hours a week, they looked at the same fifteen objects. Again and again and again….

…students took turns responding to things they desired and despised on the table. Steinbach pressed them week after week: Is it a real object? An ideal object? A love object? A conceptual object? An object of desire? An actual object? A virtual object? An art object? While discussing the aggression of a piece of wood or the phallic quality of vampire teeth, students came to see how much the analysis hinged on their own projections and desires.

The Artist’s Institute, a Hunter College project, recently selected the work of Haim Steinbach for consideration. In doing so, they published a PDF with the above text and organized a show-and-tell. I love Steinbach’s class exercise, and am inspired to try it with like-minded artist-friends. I know what I would bring: a printed celebration ribbon from a party store.

This dovetails nicely with the proverb above—the meanings of objects take root in us when our own “projections and desires” fit with them. It’s like what differentiates a space from a place—the personal meanings that accrue (Yi-Fu Tuan).

Very short, very sweet stories and pics on imbuing objects with meanings/personal experiences. Reader’s photos of souvenirs at “What I Brought Home,” (NYT).

I’ve been trying to convey the complexity of happiness. Here is Zadie Smith distinguishing between joy and pleasure (thanks JKW):

Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

Zadie Smith, “Joy,” New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013



Our Times

From Joel Lovell, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” (NY Times, January 3, 2013):

Characterizing the absurdism and affect of our times:

You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

Saunders, on capitalism and work:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

On art and fiction:

The lesson he learned was the thing he sensed all those years ago in Sumatra, reading but not fully grasping Vonnegut. “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

Art and interpersonal relationships:

We were talking about the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities. … The universal human laws — need, love for the beloved, fear, hunger, periodic exaltation, the kindness that rises up naturally in the absence of fear/hunger/pain — are constant, predictable. . . . What a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.”

At the risk of hyperbole at the end of a story that began in a state of fairly high exaltation, I would say that this is precisely the effect that Saunders’s fiction has on you. It “softens the borders,” as he put it in one of our conversations. “Between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer.” It makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people. …

It’s hard to maintain, the softness. It’s an effort. That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”


Happiness Is… Research Note #15

This is what I think of as “the H-word problem”:

Happiness is commonly associated with simply being in a cheerful mood. Thus, making work about happiness can seem (at worst) simplistic, childish, thoughtless, naïve, privileged, trivial, and myopic.

Dig a little deeper, and happiness is complex, multifaceted, and subjective. So much so, that I think the works I’m making about happiness are quite modest. These projects hint only at elements of happiness, so elusive is happiness itself.

So it’s nice to read about the commitment to crafting tiny things. Jerry Seinfeld’s commitment to the quotidian, and his highly-disciplined pursuit of perfection are inspiring (see Jonah Weiner, “Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up,” New York Times, December 20, 2012).

After staying up late to finish a 96-square checkerboard flag (it doesn’t really evidence “the hand” that makes artists’ authorship obvious, and I imagine, will be read as a store-bought item by some viewers), I especially appreciated Seinfeld’s reflection that his work is to spend inordinate amounts of time on matters that most of us don’t think twice about. Even if the content does not strike viewers as especially consequential, the larger project is one of rigorous craftsmanship and dedication, which informs each gesture.


Happiness Is… Research Note #1

To wake up and know that the day is dedicated solely to art making is one of the greatest luxuries that residencies afford. In residence at Montalvo Arts Center.

To wake up and know that the day is dedicated solely to art making is one of the greatest luxuries that residencies afford.

I’m currently in residence at the lovely and pastoral Montalvo Arts Center, preparing for an exhibition called Happiness Is…, which opens in January at the Montalvo Project Space Gallery.

It’s a great opportunity for me because I’ve explored optimism and positive psychology in my work for many years. Yet the idea of making art that defines or instills happiness sets off red flags (and not of the exuberant variety) in my mind. It’s because happiness is a vague term, which has popular and common meanings.

I hope to acknowledge and grapple with happiness’ personal specificity, elusiveness, and complexity. 

I am working on four projects for the exhibition. They are related to happiness, but more specifically, are attempts to concern themselves with:

  • The numerous aspects or components of happiness, or happiness’ complexity;
  • Subjective well-being, positive psychology’s theoretical and research-based knowledge about happiness;
  • Purpose, perhaps a lifelong challenge and key component of happiness;
  • And finally, also, exuberance and sentiment, or in other words, pleasure.

While I’ll focus on production, I will also be reviewing my past research and conducting new research. As I go, I will post notes that seem worthy of sharing. Here’s the first one. It speaks to me because residencies are tremendous opportunities for artists, and Montalvo is especially lovely, and I’m feeling terribly grateful, humbled, and somewhat embarrassed by the riches afforded me.

We must appreciate our core self, who we really are, independent of our accomplishments; we must believe that we deserve to be happy; we must feel that we are worthy by virtue of our existence.

—Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier (2007)

optimism and setbacks, tony tasset sculptures

Happiness experienced by an entrepreneur over time. Michael Yap. Source:!/michaelryap

Happiness experienced by an entrepreneur over time. Michael Yap. Source:!/michaelryap

As Martin Seligman points out, the difference between optimists and pessimists is not that optimists do not suffer from setbacks, but that they optimists weather setbacks better.


Tony Tasset, Mood Sculpture, 2011, Fiberglass and paint, 90" x 18" diameter, Photos: courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago // Source:

Tony Tasset, Mood Sculpture, 2011, Fiberglass and paint, 90" x 18" diameter, Photos: courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago // Source:


Tony Tasset, Why Can't We All Just Get Along?, 2009, lambda print, 47" x 47". Source:

Tony Tasset, Why Can't We All Just Get Along?, 2009, lambda print, 47" x 47". Source:


Happy Happy Joy Joy

A few questions about the intersection of art, design, and psychology.

Do you like your data:
[ ] Cheeky?
[ ] Data-rich?

Do you like your psychology:
[ ] Positive
[ ] Negative
[ ] Empirical
[ ] Practical
[ ] Experimental
[ ] Applied

Do you like your holiday cards:
[ ] Amusing
[ ] Informative

Do you want your ideas to:
[ ] Reinforce your brand
[ ] Enhance understanding
[ ] Enrich experience

GOOD and OPEN's Mean Happiness data visualization.

GOOD and OPEN's Mean Happiness data visualization. April 6, 2010.

“Today I’m Feeling Turquoise,' Pentagram's holiday cards.

“Today I’m Feeling Turquoise,' Pentagram's holiday cards, pairing colors with moods.


Miracle Polish by Steven Milhauser

What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.

See why Millhauser’s my new favorite fablist—read the short story, “Miracle Polish,” by Steven Millhauser on


Happiness, and the difference between desire and satisfaction.
The cave; seeing things as they are or how you want them to be.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable)
mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable)