Monday, November 30, 2015

Eye-Popping Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Green Blue Red, 1963, 67.5 x 90 inches

Here's an excerpt from the curator's notes on this piece, which resides at the The Broad contemporary art museum in LA:
Green Blue Red abstains from the balance and harmony of traditional painting and reflects an impulse to build a surface of visual tension out of the contrasts of color and shape and the containment of an edge. Kelly’s works of this period depict the jarring difference between colors and the unusual placement of shapes, energizing the visual experience and creating a disorienting optical effect. The green rectangle and blue oval are vibrant and foreign against the red background. Kelly does not construct balance or resolve; he creates compositions that are alive in their idiosyncrasies.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Surfer Girl": A Timeless Masterpiece

So serene, so measured, so lovely. The boys make their way through Brian Wilson's stately stair-step melody like they've got all the time in the world. I guess they didn't. Two of the Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl, are dead now. But I would bet that when the remaining Beach Boys gather to sing this, they feel young again. Or maybe not young, but like ageless residents of the Tower of Song.

Just a thought: Why don't more (any?) jazz and classical musicians create orchestral arrangements of Beach Boys / Brian Wilson classics. I could hear a lush arrangement of "Surfer Girl" with endless variations -- composed and improvised -- spinning off the main melodic motif.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

New To Me: Frank Owen


Frank Owen, Bend Series: Spirit Sail, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 40 × 50 in.

The great thing about having strong interests is that there is always something new to learn. Your passion could be model trains, rock climbing, mechanical engineering, quilting, dog breeding: It doesn't matter; all are equally rich. Case in point: I've been following and learning about the visual arts for more than 30 years, yet somehow I had never heard of the painter of abstracts Frank Owen, whose profile was at one time high enough to have brought him into association with the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli. Readers of Art & Argument might recall that I really love expressive minimalism, as practiced, for example, by Judith Trepp. But dense, exuberant work like Owens' can be a real delight. They are like Rauschenbergs without the concrete pop-culture imagery.

I encountered him just last week in an engaging interview conducted by the artist Alexi Worth (also new to me) at the first-rate arts website The Brooklyn Rail. I find that articles, reviews, and interviews conducted by fellow artists are frequently more accessible than pieces written by professional critics, who might be tempted to prove their MFA bona fides with dense post-modern mannerisms. One reason for the relative accessibility, at least for me, is that artist peers often like to talk about process and technique. Here's a great example excerpted from the Owen-Worth interview. Note: the images shown in this blog post are from Owens' current show at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in NYC.
Rail: Could you describe your current process? How do your paintings get made?
Owen: I’m a laminator. I begin by making abstract collage elements on coated paper. I’ve taken to calling them “skins.” I make dozens more than I’ll ever use.

Rail: Hundreds of them. And they’re all different. Stripes, painterly lariats, glyphs, plaids, and these new folded ones, which look like X-rays of paper airplanes. They’re demonstrations of the incredible variety of things that can happen with paint. Your artisanal ingenuity seems to be pretty limitless.

Owen: I’m a child of the acrylic age. I was talking to Mark Golden [of Golden Acrylic Paints], a few weeks ago and he asked me to conduct a workshop. But I borrowed a line from Barnett Newman: “Artists have secrets because they have earned them.”

Rail: But maybe we can talk about one fairly simple example: the striped skins. Some of them are almost barcode patterns in color. They are made with customized squeegies. I am looking at a whole bucket of those squeegies. I imagine a young painter could make a pretty interesting d├ębut show—by just borrowing that bucket.

Owen: The squeegies are notched in various ways. And as you run a notched squeegee across wet paint, you can hold it straight, or you can shimmy it. And then I have new squeegees that are flexible—a whole different set of possibilities. I’ve always been a big believer in tools. Rail: Once you have enough skins, what happens? Owen: I begin to peel them off the poly, and I place them, compose them. But the whole process is front-to-back. It’s the opposite of the conventional way of layering an image. The first skins I lay down will appear as the front layer of the painting.

Rail: So in a sense you are working both backwards and blind. You can’t really see what you are doing.

Owen: I have to rely on my memory. I always say that when I get Alzheimer’s my paintings are going to get really interesting. But yes, it’s true, the paintings are ninety percent complete before I actually see them. Sometimes when that happens, there’s a moment of triumph, sometimes gut-sinking dismay.
Frank Owen, Bend Series: Spirit Sail, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 40 × 50 in.

Frank Owen, Bend Series: Ring, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 40 × 50 in.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What's So Bad About Quiet Desperation?

Thoreau identified this condition of "most men," and Pink Floyd famously seconded it on their masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. They say it like it's a bad thing! It looks to me like unless you are Oprah there are going to be some compromises and a fair amount of slogging involved in creating a good life. No, Neil, it's not better to burn out than fade away.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

an e. e. cummings poem

love is the every only god

who spoke this earth so glad and big
even a thing all small and sad
man,may his mighty briefness dig

for love beginning means return
seas who could sing so deep and strong

one queerying wave will whitely yearn
from each last shore and home come young

so truly perfectly the skies
by merciful love whispered were,
completes its brightness with your eyes

any illimitable star

From "50 Poems" (1939)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Correct" and "Incorrect" Religion

Look, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Phelps, he of Westboro Baptist Church fame, are both Christians. One is an exemplar of humanity, the other an ignorant hate-monger. We might not like Phelps and his kind, but he's got his Bible verses. So arguing from scripture about what is or isn't the "correct" interpretation of a religious tradition is a non-starter. Nor is it effective or advisable to argue about God's intention or what God wills. As long as you're a human being, you can't know. You can make a guess or even pray for guidance, but the ball is still in your court.

So we need to argue from extra-scriptural sources, namely life itself and our judgments gained from our experiences. It's up to us to say what we want to emphasize in a religion and what we want to jettison. Here are a couple standards to start with. First, if your religion tells you to kill in God's name, it's wrong. I don't care what the scripture says. Second, if your religion makes it more rather than less difficult to deal with peacefully-expressed differences of faith, culture, and ideology, then on that score it's wrong.

To a fundamentalist, these propositions are anathema. But a lot of non-fundamentalist or non-fanatical believers also have a hard time with this, even when the conclusions they are drawing about their religion are not hateful or vile, of the type we see with ISIS. I guess that some of these are people that worry about offending God's will, and thus the attempt to argue from scripture about what God intends. Moderate to conservative religious believers must learn to acknowledge that it is okay, even good, for us as human beings to make conscious judgments about our religions in the name of greater peace, harmony, and well-being for humanity.

Actually, let me amend my argument, and quote some scripture. "By their fruits you will know them." When a religion enriches the world, and brings people closer into brotherhood, those fruits are keepers. So no, ISIS hasn't "hijacked" Islam, but they practice a form that has no place in our world.

UPDATE: 11-22-15

This article by Graeme Wood in the Atlantic is a must-read for understanding the religious beliefs of ISIS. Among many other things it discusses how they are an end-times, apocalyptic cult, which, by the way, is a characteristic of many American Christians.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Cat Consciousness, and Ours

I had to get a CAT scan the other day, so naturally I wanted tell our cat, Andy, about it. And I said to him -- and I swear I didn't use a silly baby talk voice -- that since he was a cat I thought he would want to know about it, even though he doesn't have any idea what most human stuff is all about.

Then I had a little epiphany. It struck me that his not knowing didn't mean anything at all. It's not like his intelligence is lacking because felines aren't as developed as humans. Sure, he has what we recognize as intelligence, as in being clever about how he begs for food, or how he plays. But I'm not talking about that. I mean that his conscious is complete in itself and is not an inferior version of human or higher consciousness.

If I recall Aboriginal cosmology correctly, they believe that each creature or species undergoes a dream journey until it reaches the point where it needs to be in the manifest world. We all have our place, our role, and it's not a hierarchy. I don't know how this fits with evolution, etc., and I'm not putting forth a scientific theory. But that's just the way it seemed to me for a brief instant as I looked into Andy's cat eyes.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Thomas Struth Photos: People at Museums


UPDATED: 11-14-15. Ray Davies has a song called "Art Lover" (or something like that) wherein the main character goes to art museums mostly for the opportunity to scope out chicks. That's not what Thomas Struth is up to. I'm reminded of some Gursky photos where random arrangements of figures seen from a distance seem to take on the character of composition. First, with these images, it's cool how the "actual" humans and the sculpted and painted humans become coequal. But what I really like is that the arrangements of people are random and not random. After all, the people are arranging themselves in response to hangings and sculptures that were meticulously placed. And then they arrange themselves according to which works are most instinctively attractive to viewers. And there's always the matter of making a viewing strategy that takes into account your tolerance for crowds. No one is controlling the people per se but there most certainly are conditions and parameters in place.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wait. Tom Wolfe Resigned?

Every time there's a racial incident or conflict everyone weighs in without knowing what really happened. Each incident serves as a litmus test or a Rorschach test or a loyalty test, or some kind of a test, with everyone reverting to their default positions within seconds of learning about the situation in question.

Lots of noise gets generated fast. Which must be why no one, as far as I can tell, has noted the literary irony at the heart of the most recent flap -- which is that the name of the University of Missouri president who was just forced to resign, Tim Wolfe, is just one small vowel away from that of Tom Wolfe, the influential writer who became famous by satirizing racial conflicts and liberal politics of the exact sort we see playing out in Columbia. Charles Dickens himself couldn't have invented a name so apt.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Retire This Reaction Shot

You know the one I mean. You've seen it over and over in commercials, TV shows, and movies. A white person is acting a bit strange and they cut over to a black person -- usually a middle aged woman -- who makes a face like "That white person is crazy." They're not amused but disapproving. I guess the object of the joke is supposed to be the white person. But I don't see how it flatters the black person. Their look is exactly the same every time, and they never speak. I guess I'm saying it's a lazy stereotype. Please stop.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A November Hike

Beaver pond at the base of Mt. Watatic

It was good early-November light during my hike Thursday in the low mountains of central Massachusetts, up near the New Hampshire border. The light was clear but diffuse, sometimes filtered through thin high clouds that never threatened. Most of the leaves were down, but the ones that remained did the trick just fine. They were mostly past their peak colors and edging toward brown, but many still maintained some copper and gold tones. There weren't many of them still hanging, so when a mild breeze blew through, so few fell that you could actually count them. Others, still bright yellow, clung to the thin springy branches of young trees just five or six feet high, and were displayed against the background of various browns like the elements of a Calder mobile. When you passed through the evergreen forest the rocks were mossy green like the air itself seemed to be. And the trail was cushiony with the build up of slowly decaying needles collected for who knows how many years. At the top it wasn't quite clear enough to see the buildings of Boston some 30 or 40 miles away, but that was okay. We could see far enough.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Kerouac: Mexico City Blues

119th CHORUS

Self be your lantern,
         Self be your guide --
              Thus spake Tathagata
                 Warning of radios
                    That would come
                       Some day
                          And make people
                             Listen to automatic
                                 Words of others

and the general flash of noises,
forgetting self, not-self --
Forgetting the secret …

    Up on high in the mountains so high
       the high magic priests are
               swabbing in the deck
                   of broken rib torsos
                       cracked in the rack
                     tryin to figure yr way
                     outa the calamity of dust and
                     eternity, buz, you better
                     get on back to your kind
                                     b o a t

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Heaven Just Got Hipper

Jazz singer par excellence Mark Murphy died last week at the age of 83. Some singers edge over into jazz, like Sinatra and Tony Bennett, but Murphy was jazz through and through. He was a master of improvisation, but, as the clip here demonstrates, he could be true to the song as written while putting the jazz feeling into every note. Notice how he shaped and attacked notes with clear intention. Here's a nice obit in The Nation. Farewell, Mark Murphy. Heaven just got hipper.

UPDATE: 11-7-15
Murphy was also a master of vocalese, the art of setting lyrics to legendary jazz solos and tunes. He wrote words for many jazz standards, and the words were really pretty good. And of course performed his vocalese tracks with aplomb.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Atheist Meets God In Heaven

James Balla cloud painting, 2012

Let's say an atheist dies and discovers with surprise and maybe chagrin there's actually an afterlife. Perhaps he is greeted by St. Peter outside the gates of heaven, which we know from countless cartoons is how it goes. No, let's dispense with Peter, since one of God's qualities is that He is omnipresent. So greeting each arrival personally is something that's right in His wheelhouse. What happens then? I think that God must be as developed as a reasonably mature adult human. That being the case, God would say something like,
"Look, I know you got this whole God and afterlife thing wrong, but I have to admit that your point of view makes some sense. Plus I admire your gumption for sticking with it in the face of a lot of criticism and censure. So, job well done! Come on in. You will see that we have a wing for atheists, agnostics, and Buddhists, and so on. You're free to hang out there, but you are also encouraged to mingle with everyone else. Frankly, the music is often best in the Christian area. Bach is performing there later today. Or now I mean, since time doesn't exist here."