Sunday, May 17, 2015

Life & Work

If Opalka’s paintings are to be considered as Details of a single work and Kawara’s date paintings can be similarly understood, then the sense of a separate art object is loosened, in spite of the stand-alone, highly-crafted aspects of the two series.

The status of the art object is further undermined if the separate manifestations are part of an ongoing work, an opus, which is virtually inseparable from the course and conduct of a life. The individual paintings become evidence of a life, in and out of art, in which the act of painting is central but only indicative.

Opalka’s insistence on the photographic self-portraits which accompany the paintings and Kawara’s equal insistence on avoiding photography are both tactics for binding art to life, for the one in the other, for art as life or life as art. In Opalka’s case, the art is accompanied by an inevitable mortality that the photographs document. While numbers are untroubled by time, this is far from the case for the artist who paints numbers.

For Kawara, the absence of a photograph of the artist perhaps suggests the ineffability of experience, of a life that stretches beyond any and every self-image. The inclusion of newspapers behind the paintings is an indication that art and life take place in a world, in a political, historical and cultural context. While individual date paintings indicate a day in a life, when any number of date paintings are placed together, paintings and artist and world are inextricably entwined.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

regula et vita

In his study of monasticism, The Highest Poverty, Giorgio Agamben identifies this phenomenon as an attempt to bring together a rule and a life, regula et vita, to a point at which they are indistinguishable. “What is a rule, if it seems to be mixed up with life without remainder ? And what is a human life, if it can no longer be distinguished from the rule ?”

This distinction, and near conjunction, might be useful for our purpose here. For just as the bringing together of rule and life was only imperfectly realised in monasticism, so the artists we discuss will lean to one side of the distinction or another. While Buren, Charlton and Toroni might be said to adhere to a rule as artists, there seems little or no impingement of the rule on life. For them, art is seen as a separate matter from personal history or comportment. For Kawara and Opalka, there is a closer conformity between art and life, and between a discipline in art and a form of life.

In both the religious and artistic context, a third term mediates between rule and life, the term work.  The monastics conform not only to a life of work and prayer, but this joint life is itself a work, an opus dei. For artists, of course, work is the making of art, and the art is specifically referred to as a work. The artists mentioned here might have the distinction of being the first to conceive of a work as a single practice, an opus, a life-long undertaking or discipline.

Although commitment to a single art practice has always been rare and is increasingly so, the bringing together of art and life, such as we see in Kawara and Opalka, brings their example closer to a contemporary concern for a practice of the everyday, for art to reach into and transform the quality of contemporary life. While artists are far from monastic (although communitarian ethics are much in evidence), a strong element in contemporary art does aspire to a practice of art in life, towards an infusion of one into the other, that might be “without remainder”.

Giotto, St Francis preaches to the birds, 
Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Sunday, May 3, 2015

versions of infinity

In the Bosco di San Francesco, at Assisi, there is a work by Michelangelo Pistoletto, named Terzo Paradiso, a grove of olive trees set out in a variation on the sign for infinity. Visitors are invited to participate in the work by walking on the path through the grove, thereby duplicating or tracing the expanded infinity sign.

Different as it is in form and intention, this work by Pistoletto offers an alternative notion of infinity to the one pursued for so long by Roman Opalka. Pistoletto’s infinity is available by means of its sign, and may be realised, however briefly, in following its course. For him, infinity is not an aspiration but a space of possibility. The visitor who walks attentively along the path may enter a different condition. Pistoletto’s olive grove is a device for accessing a paradisal renewal of creative possibility.

In contrast, Opalka’s numbers move towards an infinity that never arrives, a purely numerical, and therefore impossible, infinity. In his long working life, he never got any nearer to the infinite than in making his first canvas. Of course, this is something of which Opalka was perfectly aware. His life’s work may be seen as one long momento mori, within which the distance between achievement and mortality could be kept constantly in view. The numbers 1 and 5607249 are the most poignant in his work.

Where is the place of the viewer in this enterprise ? We can watch Opalka’s steadfastness, hopefully with sympathy. We can understand, from the start, the heroic nature of the work, with its built-in certainty of failure. For us too, it can function as a reminder of mortality, a great chastening example. But we remain onlookers at a remarkable endeavour.

This sense of spectatorship is confirmed by the aesthetic qualities of the Detail paintings, the beautiful flow of marks across the canvas, perhaps a legacy of abstract expressionism, or tachism, or lettrism, in what is essentially a conceptual art. The distance here is not that between infinity and mortality but between the skilled artist and the unskilled viewer. Or one might perceive a distance between the rigour of the concept and an inherited mode of  execution.

The generosity of Terzo Paradiso is that Pistoletto encourages us to participate in the work more directly. We become co-creators. Along the course of the path among the olives, we walk in paradise. To the two connected circles of infinity, Pistoletto has added a third circle, the three standing for nature, for culture, and for a sustainable balance between them. This to-be-achieved balance is the third paradise. Perhaps for Pistoletto infinity itself needs augmentation, by meaning and participation.  

Opalka’s course is one of acceptance – acceptance of the task at hand, acceptance of mortality. Freedom, or any possible happiness, is to be found within the condition of things, in faithfulness to the task and in denial of any possible freedom outside of the task or outside of mortality and the given. To activate Terzo Paradiso, you follow the olive path round an expanded infinity, and then you step away from it, into your own freedom.