♔ ONE ♛
Anyone obsessed with art plays this game: IF YOU COULD LIVE WITH ANY WORK OF ART EVER MADE, what would you choose? Just last week the artist Shawn Kuruneru and I had this conversation and we both agreed on this selection.
The next few iterations of the WAA List will focus on five historic artists, in no particular ranking, to personally answer this question. Included in each part will be selections of the artist's own words describing their work and practice.
Two criteria I use to consider art: a) it simply and subtly exposes a universal, often problematic and paradoxical, truth (in nature, beauty, art, materiality, humanity, perception, philosophy, etc.); and b) the excavation of this truth is elusive, transitional and/or essential to the artist it therefore remains their continued priority, allowing unlimited interpretations along a constant thread. This pursuit goes on no matter whatever validation – positive or negative – they receive.
The second point requires working with faith in the intangible, the inspirational and the unreliable; a rejection of security (or perhaps better stated the acceptance of "security" as a falsehood); a considered abandonment of things ubiquitous in our society today such as: fame, transacting, advertising, more is better, elitism, contorting to commercially influenced as well as peer and self interested criticism. All the while the artist still produces an object which, in order to be exposed in our world, to exist, must have, or eventually will be evaluated to have, a monetary value.
While the financial conversation isn't all that interesting, it does happen frequently enough - we need to survive and want to own (oftentimes needs and wants get confused): both require funding. I have no illusion that this topic of picking favorite art to live with is linked to ownership, though the exercise of thinking about the art is decidedly more important than possessing the objects, which after all, is only logistics. The possession of art is complicated as well. It can be argued that even if it resides in an individual's collection, they are ultimately entrusted as the guardians of the work, becoming a part of the object's history, not the other way around.
So...here it is, number one - a type of work that would inspire every day, morning and night: an Agnes Martin 72 x 72 inch painting (a grid from the 60's), in a large light-filled (UV protected of course) corner adjacent to a bright shaped canvas by Ellsworth Kelly (contender number two). So, while I am saving up the millions of dollars (this might take a while), I will share what fascinates me - the sense and motivation behind the work holding its true value.
Recently, I found myself winding up the ramp of the Guggenheim rotunda where Martin's paintings have been organized (mostly) chronologically. Her work exemplifies an honest sublimity and an imperfection of perception. What looks smooth, refined, precise from first glance, is full of moments of human "mistakes". Her work is bonded to formal concerns, and it is through her imposed limitations we get to be present to the painting's truths, somewhat flawed, simultaneously offering a "non-objective" experience. She might say, leaving us with an "inexhaustible" feeling. (See an explanation on this below in her own words.)
Her paintings' immediacy, the feeling that they exist beyond the scope of the art establishment, rooted in a larger desire to get to a core of human perception and consciousness, has always drawn me to them. The work goes beyond, "abstract", "geometric", "minimal" or any other unworthy classification that could be used on them. She explains her intentions rather clearly in the excerpts I transcribed from a compilation of audio recordings smartly put together on the Guggenheim website.
Included are snippets from Martin's entries in The Video Databank by Lynne Blumenthal and Kate Horsefield recorded in New Mexico, where Martin was living at the time, which are archived at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Also, there is a portion of the lecture Martin gave during her residency at Skowhegan in Maine.
Enjoy! And if you haven't seen the show at the Guggenheim you have until January 11th!
From The Video Data Bank:
"A lot of people will think that social understanding is […] going to lead us to the truth but it isn't, it is understanding of yourself. To make a beginning of that, you have to look at your mind and see what you are thinking about, because the truth is you are unconscious of your own thoughts, until you catch yourself. You can't be in an unconscious state and paint because what ever is in your mind, and not the subject matter, but the feeling you have related to that subject matter, is what you are going to paint. So the beginning is not actually painting, the beginning of painting is not you put down green and then you like pink, and then you put down pink, painting is not about that anymore than music is about this sound and that sound, it’s a whole thing, you know. It something that you can't resist putting on – representing – its something that drives you to expression, it's irresistible. "
"People are able to make the response to music very easily and very accurately, and I think it is the highest form of art because with 8 notes they express everything that we have ever experienced. To be an artist you look, you perceive, you recognize what is going through your mind and it is not ideas. Everything you feel and everything you see and every thing … your whole life goes through your mind, I have to recognize it and go with it. And really feel it."
"Anger and all passions are not real. They are, what I call, the exhaustible. All the exhaustible things, like anger, how quickly it passes, even the sense of seeing beauty is a very exhaustible thing, seeing with your eye. If you see something that looks very very beautiful, but if you kept your eye on that and looked and looked and looked the beauty would disappear from it. Because the eye is exhaustible. But then the inexhaustible is there within the mind, and the beauty that you see within the mind, it really never disappears. Now, the inexhaustible they go on forever, that’s reality. They go on without change. But anything that is exhaustible, is not real. We start out with high hopes because people taught us that just around the corner is happiness and contentment and all you have to do is be good and try hard. When you find out you can be just as good as you possibly can be, I mean, and you try as hard as you possibly can try. And you still have, the same old thing, you have failures and successes, no? Some things fail and other things succeed. But then you get quite desperate, you know, and you think I am gonna work and work and I am not going to have any failures, right? But then you find out the failures are inevitable. That you cannot possibly, none of us, you can't even draw a straight line, you know that. And you can't have things, and you can't have all days in which you are sunny and good natured, and everything like that. And you can't be sweet to people, and you can't please people, either. Well that is the development. The development is of oneself."
From Martin's lecture at Skowhegan:
"[As artists...] We contemplate reality with a sense of beauty as though it were perfect. We are also able to contemplate non-objective beauty. I am very anxious for you to understand what I mean by non-objective experiences. Say that you went blind, its very depressing but you know, you would still have a very exciting emotional life, that is a non-objective experience. Everything is contemplated in the mind, without meditation, we make a very complicated response. Just to look at a floating branch evokes very complicated objective and non-objective responses. The artist must slow all this down mentally. It is this mental experience that makes the representation of beauty possible.
"The part of the mind in which we experience the perfection of beauty is not the intellect. The intellect is the part of the mind that calculates, compares, associates, classifies and decides according the facts. It is very different from the other part of the mind, where we simply wonder what to do and the answer comes to us with out any evidence. And if we sincerely want to do a difficult thing we call the answer inspiration. Alone and in silence, the mind rises up from worldly concerns to considerations of the truth about life.
"The truth about life is not spiritual, it is the truth about this life. It is the real answer to our zest for living and our faith in life. It is also the best condition of mind for inspiration. Zest for living and faith in life are non-objective experiences, as is happiness. You may feel all of these with out a material cause. We can wake up happy for no reason and be full of zest with out thinking of anything. I want to urge you to an awareness of such feelings. And I want to urge you to go in search of yourself. You have been thoroughly conditioned since the day you were born. So it is hard to find out what you think, but it is possible. By questioning your own mind, it is possible to have absolutely original thoughts. To have absolutely original point of view. What you want to find out is what you want and what you do not want. When you give up what you do not want you take a move forward in life.
"Your conditioning has taught you to identify with others, their emotions and their needs. I urge you to look to yourself. In our convention, it is particularly difficult for women but still it has to be done. The purpose of life is to know your true unconditioned self. In the middle of a work of art, an artist often feels that he is failing, and he starts interfering with his inspiration. That is a mistake...THE mistake. It is best to push on through. Such works frequently turn out to be the best. To fail is a very ordinary experience for an artist. To fail and fail and still go on marks his character. Most people cannot bear to fail even once. They think of security."
Listen to the entire collection of interviews and excerpts here. You will not be sorry.
I'd love to hear the works at the top of your wishlist, send me an email! Tell me what artists inspire you. And...
...coming soon, in part two, how Ellsworth Kelly inspires. Interesting to note, Martin and Kelly both lived in the old sailmaking lofts at Coenties Slip (as did a number of other artists including Robert Indiana and Lenore Tawney) near the East River in New York City during the 1960's. It was there that they became friends.