Monday, March 21, 2011

In The Affirmative

No development
No composition
No judgement
No invention
No re-invention
No struggle
No lacunae
No style
No skill
No signature

These redundancies are entirely positive in effect,
involving no effort of negation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


This entry is an attempt to clarify further some terms.

It seems important to appreciate that there are two different types of ‘invariance’ – one spatial, and one temporal.

Eadweard Muybridge
Vernal Falls, Valley of Yosemite, 1872
albumen print

Let’s focus first on constancy over time. How do we identify this in everyday life? We learn to distinguish the enduring state or identity of a thing from the flux of its surroundings. We ‘see’ permanence only in relation to mutability and change.

When Eadweard Muybridge photographs a waterfall in Yosemite his camera records the virtual volume of water occupied over the time interval of the exposure, generating a strange, ghostly image that is decidedly different from the way the waterfall would appear if seen with the naked eye. 

Thanks to photographers such as Muybridge, this type of blurring of the image has become a photographic convention for representing physical motion. We look at this photograph and we recognize the shape formed by the cascade of water as an ‘invariant’. But at the same time – even simultaneously – we see disturbance, flux and flow.

The recognition of temporal persistence is always a process of evaluating between what we see now, and some other moment in the past – one recalled from memory. Each fresh glimpse of anything is only recognizable to us when we can connect it mentally to ‘that’ thing, rather than ‘another’ thing. In other words, when we can say ‘I’ve seen that before’.

This is how we discriminate invariants over time. But identifying invariants over entities is different. To apprehend and acknowledge this we have to abstract a concept, or a standard, from a range of concrete percepts. When we are talking of invariants in this sense, we are really speaking about similarities.

In the case of artists such as On Karawa or Roman Opalka, viewers are invited to recognize instantly the recurring format, and to acknowledge the invariants over their extended series of paintings. 

But that's not all (and this is why the term 'seriality' is not wholly adequate on its own to describe this type of art practice). This is because in their art, spatial invariance is not there purely for the sake of mere appearance. It is to be seen as deriving from another, even more profound level of continuity, namely invariance over time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

La Monte Young

The American composer La Monte Young grew up in
a log cabin in Idaho listening to the howling of the wind.

Unlike the other minimalist composers with whom he is
often associated, Young's music does not evolve by means
of repetitive motifs. It lingers on sustained tones. In one of
his best known pieces, Composition 1960 No 7, the interval
of a fifth is "to be held for a long time". Harmonics hang
in the air while time is suspended in the drone.

"The Theatre of the Singular Event" and "The Theatre
of Eternal Music" were two of La Monte Young's inventions.
Melody disappears: for Young, influenced by Indian music
and philosophy, the singular is always a moment within
the unchanging, freedom a possibility of necessity.

"Once this so-called drone-state-of-mind is established,
the mind should be able to embark on very special
explorations and in new directions, because it will
always have a fixed point of reference to come back to,
to relate to; it could perhaps go further into more complex
types of refined relationships than it can in the ordinary state."

La Monte Young, Pandit Pran Nath, Marian Zazeela

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Artistic development

For perfectly good reasons, many artists prefer not to describe their work in terms of ‘artistic development’. They would explain that their practice is informed by conditions, or circumstances, or interests external to the realm of art, and that their work was always a response to a situation, or a certain agenda …or whatever. Arranging all their artworks chronologically – one after the other – would undoubtedly demonstrate ‘development’, but any signs of progression would probably tell you only of the shifting interests and commitments of the artist. As for the work itself, this might well display no formal or stylistic continuity at all. Hans Haacke would be a good example of this particular approach.

It is much more meaningful to speak of ‘artistic development’ when you are discussing a painter such as Piet Mondrian. Most scholars of his work stress that even though he reduces his painterly vocabulary to just the primaries, and although he insists on working simply with horizontal and vertical lines, it is still possible to speak of him refining and developing his work. Each canvas could be said to be an assimilation of lessons gleaned from a previous work, so that his art in its entirety demonstrates the overall advancement of his approach.

Barnett Newman occupies an interesting position in any discussion relating to artistic development. Every student of Abstract Expressionism knows the artist’s ‘conversion’ story as recounted by Tom Hess:

On his birthday, January 29, 1948, [Newman] prepared a small canvas with a surface of cadmium red dark, … and fixed a piece of tape down the center. Then he quickly smeared a coat of cadmium red light over the tape, to test the color. He looked at the picture for a long time. Indeed he studied it for some eight months. He had finished questing. 

Barnett Newman, Onement, I (1948) 
oil on canvas and oil on masking tape on canvas, 69.2 x 41.2 cm

He had found an essential form (we are let to believe) that he reiterated for the rest of his life: it consisted of a colour field, intersected by a ‘zip’. Newman’s ‘zip’ paintings are impressively diverse. However, in contrast to Mondrian, art historians have been very hesitant in claiming that they can identify ‘artistic development’ in his mature work. Instead, they have felt that the differences between the canvases do not relate to any synthesis of previous works, nor do they evidence any radical re-appraisal on his part of his initial ‘conversion’. In other words, the differences between canvases provides no substantial indication that he is encountering and solving artistic problems based on his previous experiences as a painter.

Art historians justify their reticence in speaking of serial development in relation to Newman by appealing to the artist’s own intentions. Newman was insistent that he commenced each work as though he had never before picked up a paint brush. For him, each fresh blank canvas had to be approached as if he were painting for the very first time. He never wanted to be understood as someone who merely illustrated a preconceived idea, or just worked up some pre-existing design.

His adamance is easily queried. All the same it would be a misrepresentation of Newman to suggest that simply because his work displayed little evidence of serial development he was repeating one single practice over the course of a lifetime. In his mind, he was reinventing himself with every painting he completed.

Unlike Newman, the artists associated with this project are clear what their next work will be like. It continues a trajectory they have already established. Their art does not demonstrate ‘artistic development’. It consists of variables within a set of preordained parameters.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hamish Fulton

How we read an artist's work is often the consequence
of where we place it, in which readily-available, art-historical
category. For instance, if we assign Hamish Fulton's work to
the plausible category of Land Art, a certain content comes to
the fore: the artist's environmental concerns, his ethic of minimal
intervention, the references to and respect for native cultures.

Things look a little different if we take Fulton to be a conceptual
artist having one idea - that a walk can be a work of art. In this
case, Fulton's different interests and concerns may be read as
discoveries yielded by this first intuition. The variety of forms
the work takes, the photographs, wall texts, books and notebooks
exist as documentation leading back to the fading and irrecoverable
experience of the walk.

Hamish Fulton began to make art from walking in the late 60s,
when minimal, conceptual and land art practices were still fluid
and interchangable, in a moment of possibility before attitudes
hardened into form.