September 25, 2014

The collective conscience of this object

Arman’s accumulations of single things from the everyday belong to a general theme in the art of the mid- to late 1950s: paintings understood as objects. This identification is already complete with Jasper Johns’ Flags, created since 1954, where the common conceit is for the critic to wonder if it were a painting of a flag or indeed a flag itself. Within Arman’s more immediate circle, Yves Klein objectified color in the form of his trademark blue pure pigment (since 1956, often with a relief-like surface on his paintings and later in sponge sculptures). From 1957 on, Piero Manzoni created pictures in a white he described as colorless, whose composition was formed by folds in the fabric, hanging like crumpled sheets over the stretcher. During the same year, Klein’s brother-in-law, Günther Uecker from the group Zero, developed nail paintings (a technique he then also transferred to objects like furniture or musical instruments). And in 1958 Lucio Fontana started slashing his canvases, which for him meant part of a spatial concept where the gap offered a passage into another dimension, but which is usually received as an act of controlled violence against the holiest of holy art objects: the canvas.

This might not immediately appear as the proper context for Arman’s boxes of stuff, and yet the artist places himself within it when he writes: “Even in my volumetric compositions, my aim is always pictorial rather than sculptural. I want to see my proposals understood as involving the optics of a surface rather than a realization in three dimensions. On these surfaces the uniquely chosen element is a monotypic expression – although it is a plural one because of the number of objects – and therefore very close to the monochrome approaches of Yves Klein.” The work pictured above is Paradox of Time from 1961, and indeed on the most simple level it forces us to almost look at it like at a painting: we can see the collection of objects only though a single window-paned side of the otherwise closed wooden box. So as we watch the confined space from a fixed frontal perspective, the accumulation of old alarm clocks appears like an allover structure of similar forms, arranged in their container by chance and gravity without any attempt at hierarchization.

Let us follow Arman’s own declaration of intent some more (all of this is from “The Realism of Accumulations” published in the Zero magazine in 1961, by the way). The artist states that any object collected “is not chosen according to the criteria of dada or surrealism. The question is not one of removing an object from its utilitarian, industrial, or other underlying context, presenting it from a certain angle or slanting it so as to provide it with a meaning completely different from its own, such as: anthropomorphism, analogy, reminiscences, and so on.” Instead, Arman’s multiple image of the alarm clock restores the object to its own proper context in the interplay between close repetition and slight variation (the allover): “The obsessional and emphatic aspect of the multiplicity of an object renders it similar to an even granulation, an expression of the collective conscience of this same object.” (The opposite approach would be to try and find a perfect embodiment of an idea, for example by choosing a particularly exemplary alarm clock that signals its piercing shrill ring at first sight and therefore has perfect properties for symbolizing its cultural function.)

Arman had already addressed the subject of time more than once in his earliest accumulations from 1959. There the objects were still housed in small plexiglas boxes, much more like portable sculptures than single-view pictures. One of those collected cases of old pocket watches, another an accumulation of clock faces. Both pieces remain close to a collection of spare parts so the object does not fully develop a conscience… It is only with his Paradox of Time that Arman managed to breath sufficient life and character into the wound-down alarm clocks to suggest the previous lives of everyday objects before their presentation as an artwork.

Half a decade prior to Star Trek, the title does not yet allude to time travelers killing their own ancestors with unforeseeable (and therefore unrecordable) consequences (though not only in retrospect the idea already existed since the late 19th century). The Paradox of Time is a contradiction that we all know: we see time as a constant and use the watch as a tool for precise measuring. Yet depending on situation and occupation, individual time follows very variable speed lines, sometimes creeping along in utter boredom, sometimes hurtling forward like an express train (the standard image in explanations of relativity theory and time dilation). And indeed, for each and every clock in Arman’s work time also seems to pass at different speeds, marked by dents and traces of their history. The accumulation of time-measuring devices whose time has run out is like a classic memento mori, a vanitas still life of an object in quasi-cubist multiple perspective. But the clocks are not quite dead, they are in an in-between – their differences take on characters (not through anthropomorphism, but by them being so very clocklike), they create a composition of individually formed same objects to form a very alive work. And since they are being accumulated here for probably forever, it seems that somebody still has plans for them.

Arman says: “They’re awaiting their fate.”

Arman’s colleague Jean Tinguely, a fellow member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, also had found a time-themed programmatic paradox to propel his work of the period: he spoke of “static movement.” And it almost sounds as if he had Arman’s Paradox of Time in front of him when he proclaimed a changing art for changing times, when vanitas images would no longer be needed (this is from “Dynamo Tinguely” in the same 1961 Zero magazine): “Please, would you throw away your watches! At least toss aside the minutes and hours. Obviously we all realize that we are not everlasting. Our fear of death has inspired the creation of beautiful works of art. And this was a fine thing, too. We would so much like to own, think, or be something static, eternal, and permanent. However, our only eternal possession will be change.”

And on that hopeful note, Arman’s alarm clocks keep patiently awaiting their fate.

(Happily, we can check on some of their fate. The photo on top of the page is a recent one, and above here’s one from the Arman website, some couple of decades older. Not quite static, not quite moving, as you can see. Shake it like a kaleidoscope and get a slightly new composition each morning.

This is a somewhat slapdash translation of a piece that recently appeared, in German only, in a book on the Scharpff Collection, called Sammlung im Wandel. If you want proper stylistics or check the footnotes, you can actually read the original over on the publisher’s site. Just click forward a couple of pages here.)

September 13, 2014

Genius coasting

Wait, this is funny:

…and purposefully so, I’d argue. At the top is Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach from 1922. The women are usually identified as maenads, who make a habit of running around in bacchic frenzy, partying or tearing somebody limb from limb, and if you keep that in mind the painting might actually hold some sort of balance between frenetic energy and downright goofiness…that is, until you see the Dalí beneath that, which is Women Lying on the Beach from 1926. It must be a direct riposte, no? An after to Picasso’s before, there’s even a woman with a leg cramp! Hes pulling Pablos leg? Actually we know that Dalí had a color reproduction of the Two Women on his studio wall at the time, says Ian Gibson’s biography of the man (quoting the painter’s sister).

But Gibson doesn’t mention the Women on the Beach, and usually the influence of Picasso’s neo-classicist works on the younger painter is illustrated with a very related Dalí work, the much better known Figure on the Rocks, also from 1926. Here a single woman is glued to the rock in something close to a crucifixion pose, with overtones of Prometheus waiting for his eagle to return. She actually has one upstretched leg like the woman with the cramp, but here it’s rested on a sort of rocky pedestal. So indeed, one might approach this painting in proper terms and conclude that Dalí used Picasso’s sturdy neo-classicism to give the topic some weight…and yet, the Three Women stand more for what I like in early Dalí (I'm reacquainting myself with him for work, so I’m thumbing through the complete paintings and reading the biography), the way he comes to Paris just asking for trouble, taking over Tanguy’s complete shtick wholesale, or trademark elements of Arp or Ernst, somewhere between appropriation and poking his tongue out. This confrontative attitude in hindsight gets kind of lost through our knowledge of the myth-mongering to come. 

1926 is also the year that Dalí first met Picasso on an early trip to Paris. Here’s how he tells the story in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí: “When I arrived at Picasso’s studio I was as deeply moved and as full of respect as though I was having an audience with the Pope. ‘I have come to see you,’ I said, ‘before visiting the Louvre.’ ‘Quite right,’ he answered. I had brought a small painting, carefully packed; he looked at it for at least fifteen minutes, and made no comment whatsoever. After which we went up to the next storey, where for two hours Picasso showed me quantities of his paintings. He kept going back and forth, dragging out great canvases which he placed against the easel. Then he went to fetch others among an infinity of canvases stacked in rows against the wall. I could see that he was going to enormous trouble. At each new canvas he cast me a glance filled with a vivacity and an intelligence so violent that it made me tremble…”

Dalí also doesn’t say anything, and this appears an indication that he’ll be worthy of the master. Picasso would remain a lifelong obsession: in the early 1930s, for example, Dalí pretended the two of them had collaborated on an etching, though, to quote Gibson, “without the knowledge of the older artist, Dalinian additions were made to a previous Picasso print [Three Bathers, we’re staying on the beach] and then a new engraving of their ‘collaboration’ was run off.” Or, in 1933, there was a double portrait of Picasso being Dalí made by Philippe Halsman, who often collaborated with the latter on elaborately staged photographs that cemented the myth of the mad genius (who levitated cats or exercised his moustache). One could easily characterize Dalí’s behavior as trollish (in the modern sense of the word), before they drifted into different camps politically, which led Dalí to attack Picasso as an anarchist, and Picasso to ignore the younger man altogether. Anyway, to come back to the initial pairing of paintings, I also found a little undated sketch, probably from that later period (I guess, since it is inscribed in English) of one of the Women at the Beach. And while the joke this time is a different one, note that again the motif is used for a joke: “Picasso’s Influence,” it says on top of the sheet. I need Picasso like I need a cramp in the foot.

The point of Dalí’s obsession was genius. Picasso was regarded as the officially approved undeniable genius as a force of nature, while Dalí had to work for/with the concept, receiving inspiration through the antennae of his moustache, defining and redefining his role (“the only difference between Dalí and a madman is, Dalí is not mad…”—by the way it takes him ten times as long to throw the punch line in the clips I’ve seen, often his humor gets lost in the delivery). Of course, his is also the much more tolerable concept of genius compared to standing around in underpants and projecting virility pointing a brush…but then again when I think of that Picassoan self-image, I have to think of the film The Mystery of Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot from 1956, where the protagonist bends gender every bit as subtly as his rival, the professed masturbator.

The mystery of the title (which is, in more absolute terms, the mystery of creation, which we are supposed to witness through the lens of Picasso’s effort) isn’t to be found anywhere in the film, unfortunately. It doesn’t help that this is, for my taste, the worst period for Picasso, in which he produced endless formal variations of his received themes (bullfighting, women with funnily constructed faces), and had not yet found the formal casualness of the late work, which allowed him to explore these and more private themes in more depth again. The circumstances of the making (the close camera eye, the unusual paints and picture ground used to make each brushstroke visible on film) also wouldn’t have helped. In the most interesting scene, the making of the movie itself is staged: Picasso sits at the canvas under a bright spotlight (think interrogation scenario) in the dark of the studio, and the director orders him to start and stop creating on command, as supposedly film is running short (it’s all a bit ridiculous, since obviously there are several cameras for the artist, the director, the painting being done, the meter counting the length of the film, etc.). In his willingness to please (though he’s very manly and professional about it), Picasso seems almost vulnerable…or does he seem vulnerable because the art is so pretty? He draws a bouquet of flowers, circumscribes it with a frilly fish, sort of turns that into a rooster, with lots of nice decor in it…

“Just stop at the black,” the director says. “Should I get the inks ready?” asks the artist. “Yes but quickly, we have two minutes left.” They turn to color and Picasso draws a silly head over the whole thing, interested only in how he can create, one thing after another, no matter what. Then time is running out again, and no aesthetic conclusion seems in sight, will we have to stop prematurely at what is not yet a satisfying image? No, Clouzot says he’s been cheating, there’s still more film left. You can do that to Picasso. If you keep him as an art slave tied to your bedpost, he will deliver every time.

Dalí describes him in his Secret Life: “Like a slave he is chained hand and foot by the chains of his own inventions.”

Picasso draws what is probably a picture of his genius, a smiling face and around it the dove that always keeps coming back carrying an olive branch from newfound territories. The artist has no need to question himself, surely he has no shame, and maybe it’s the purest form of genius, unhampered by any intentions.

It really doesn’t seem as if the actual point of the film were what the art looks like. Rather it is about the act, the flow of things as they take and retake shape. I thought it might make sense to distill the pure sounds of Picasso creating stuff. (Listen closely and you can hear the cars outside the window in the background. It’s quite a nice recording, much more open than the visually arranged horror movie laboratory darkness of the studio) So here is, for you to keep, the sound of genius coasting: