By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.
–Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” (1952)

There exists my action, regardless of whether or not it is secured.
–Kazuo Shiraga, “Action Only” (1955)

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Kazuo Shiraga
Challenging Mud (1955)

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Kazuo Shiraga
painting with his feet for Life magazine
at the Nishinomiya factory of Jiro Yoshihara (1956)

Shozo Gutai

Shōzō Shimamoto
making a painting by shattering bottles (1956)

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Murakami Saburō
Passing Through (1956)

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Kazuo Shiraga
Work II (1958)

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Shomei Tomatsu
Atomic Bomb Damage (1961)

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Kazuo Shiraga
Black Sky (1990)

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In our form of society, audience and understanding for advanced painting have been produced, both here and abroad, first of all by a tiny circle of poets, musicians, theoreticians, men of letters, who have sensed in their own work the presence of the new creative principle.

–Harold Rosenberg, “American Action Painters” (1952)

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Frank O’Hara
(1926 – 1966)


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Ali Foreman Kline

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

–Harold Rosenberg

Image  —  Posted: February 7, 2019 in Uncategorized

The Invention of Modern Fashion

Posted: February 7, 2019 in Uncategorized

Geometric precision, monochrome injected with primary colour, and a clear unity between form and function. Much of what establishes the well known aesthetic of Bauhaus design is as relevant and innovative today as it was almost a century ago. We are so used to seeing many of our interiors, wardrobes and everyday items echo the clutter-averse, streamlined and minimalistic style of Bauhaus, with the likes of CB2, Apple, Ikea and Muji quickly becoming established as the next generation of modernist design. In terms of clothing, Jason Wu, Art Director of Hugo Boss Womenswear has incorporated Bauhaus aesthetic in his designs since the Fall/Winter 2014 collection. Wu stated that Bauhaus is inscribed in the very DNA of the brand, and continues to be an ongoing inspiration behind his designs, combining the traditional and the innovative. Even the window displays for Boss’ recent Womenswear collection (Winter/Fall 2015) were inspired by the works of Bauhaus’ well known names – Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Hartwig.

First-Wave (European) Abstraction

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Wassily Kandinsky
Composition VII (1913)

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Kasimir Malevich
Suprematism (1917)

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Piet Mondrian
Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White: Nom II
1939

VS.

Second-Wave (American) Abstraction

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Arshile Gorky
The Leaf of The Artichoke Is An Owl (1941)

Pollock; Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Jackson Pollock
Autumn Rhythm (1950)

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Willem de Kooning
Two Women in The Country (1954)

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Franz Kline
Untitled (1957)

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Number 1 1948 Pollock

Number 1 (1948)

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Lavender Mist (1950)

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Blue Poles (1952)

The key to understanding Greenberg’s argument about cubism and collage is to center on one or two fundamental concepts – medium specificity and dialectical development.

By medium specificity we mean that each artistic medium, the physical material out of which art objects are produced, is by its very nature, capable of achieving effects which are possible for it alone. Just as science will argue that their are strict limits imposed by nature on what water or helium can and cannot do – each is only so elastic, or not elastic at all – so there are natural limits to what a given artistic medium can and cannot do. And the attempt to transgress these limits invariably produces confused and clunky objects whose principle aim is not to accept, explore and enjoy the specificity of the physical – according to the genuine potential it really contains – but rather to reject this world and instead attempt to escapes into a realm of fabricated fantasies – something which Marxists like Greenberg would call ideology. The proper direction of art in history, according to Greenberg, is not to follow any pre-established course (because this would smack to much of idealism’s theory of a transcendent Spirit guiding world history), but instead to investigate thoughtfully the capacities a various material mediums, and progressively to cleanse each of them of effects borrowed from other forms of art.

As for dialectical development, this is the idea that progress is inescapably linked to the conflict of opposing forces, and that in the struggle to defeat one another, each force will necessarily undergo a fundamental transformation and, in a moment of complete reversal, become the very opponent it at first wished to defeat.

Last Supper

If we can understand these two principles, it will become possible to understand what is at stake in Greenberg’s presentation of the development of cubist collage. Braque and Picasso, the initiators of Cubism, understood that painting, because of the very nature of the medium, was essentially the production of marks on a flat surface. Further, they understood that the production of marks on a flat surface necessary produced an effect of depth, that there was some kind of illusionist space which opened up behind the surface of the canvas. Painters, over the course of the centuries prior to Braque and Picasso, had become increasingly aware of the conflict between real superficiality and apparent depth, and had attempted to find ways to master that conflict, to create images in which the illusion of depth did not entirely overwhelm the reality of the painting’s surface. What we find in the work of the two Spanish painters in question is an especially acute awareness of the entirely arbitrary relation which, up to their own day, continued to exist between the surface up a painting and the illusion of depth which the marks on the painting created. This arbitrary relationship, according to these painters who worked in a way we might legitimately call quasi-scientific, needed to be converted into a necessary relationship.

The task that Braque and Picasso set for themselves, then, was to gain complete control of the disparity between surface and depth in painting. If a majority of the pieces known as cubist look randomly and hastily made, this is not because the artists were simply led by whimsy and made no attempt to produce serious art. On the contrary, they were taking their art extremely seriously. They were so serious in fact that they would not settle for any results which had been achieved previously in the work of other painters. Each new cubist painting and collages must be seen, then, as a experiment designed to discover something new about the very nature of painting and to direct that discovery toward the final production of a mode of painting wherein the illusion of depth and the fact of surface would be perfectly integrated, each presupposing and supporting the other. All the various innovations Greenberg describes in his essay, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution,” represent various attempt to establish this perfect fusion of surface and depth, and each new addition – adding text, wallpaper, sand, etc. to the canvas – show the resistances Braque and Picasso encountered in working toward a perfect synthesis of surface and depth, insofar as each solution opened up new problems.

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For all that the details may be complex, the fundamental achievement of Braque and Picasso should nevertheless be clear enough. Greenberg describes Picasso and Braque as discovering a way “dialectically” to “turn painting inside out.” If the flatness of painting was the result of its two-dimensional surface, and if depth was the illusion that forms existed on the other side of the flat surface of the painting, then the ultimate breakthrough in the history of Cubism was, for Greenberg, the moment when Picasso radically, in a moment of stunning reversal, pulled the three-dimensional illusionist space out from behind the surface of the canvas and set it directly in front of the viewer, while simultaneously thrusting the two-dimensional flatness of the painting’s surface into the background where the illusion of depth formerly had been.

The result is a kind of bas-relief effect, though one which is still painterly as opposed to sculptural, insofar as the figure made present to the viewer is not carved but rather positively built up, “constructed”, out of avowedly flat surfaces.

The piece which Greenberg identifies as marking this revolutionary transition from recessive to “processive” art is Picasso’s Guitar, of 1912. This piece not only marked a crucial insight for Picasso, but it also had a tremendous impact on artists from other countries, in particular Russia. Artists such as Vladimir Tatlin came to Paris specifically to meet Picasso and study his radical experiments in the production of a new form of sculpture called the “Counter-Relief,” because this sort of relief, instead excavating back through the picture plane to create an illusional space within which depicted objects were contained, instead built up objects against a solid and opaque background identical with real space.

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From this innovation came a fundamentally new way of considering the existence of objects in space. Objects where no longer material things which happened to occupy a pre-existing space which everyone could take for granted as being the same at all times and in all locations. Rather, space was not a natural reality so much as an effect which was constructed through very specific technical. It suddenly became possible for artists to believe, along with scientists living at this same time, that the world, or reality, was not simply something we had to accept as given and unalterable. Rather, the world, or reality, was something we now had the power actively and consciously to create for ourselves, according to our own needs. The attempt to apply the principles discovered by Braque and Picasso toward the solution of problems in everyday social life, toward the radical remaking of daily life, led to a powerfully influential, if short-lived, movement in the Soviet Union known as Constructivism.

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And it is precisely of Constructivism that Greenberg is thinking when, in his “The Plight of Culture” (1953), he calls for the revitalization of a sick society not through a conservative return to the Middle Ages (which T. S. Eliot suggested) but rather through a complete transformation of society into an unprecedented form through continued industrialization. Is is tempting here to think of all the problems which industry has created since Greenberg made his statement. Consider though that the devastation and pollution wrought be industry is industry of the old, capitalist order, a system run entirely in laissez-faire terms. Greenberg’s intention is not that capitalism – or the mirror image of it which emerged in the Stalinist Soviet Union – be given free reign to develop as massively as possible. Rather, Greenberg is envisioning a form of industry in which an integrated process of design and planning guide growth at every level. Here, Greenberg would have been thinking not of the Soviet Union so much as other European countries whose understanding of art had also been fundamentally altered by the pasted-paper revolution. In particular, Greenberg would have been thinking of the design school created in Dessau, Germany, know as the Bauhaus, as well as the school of visual art and practical design, centered in Holland around Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, known as De Stijl. Anyone wanting to take up a career in architecture, design or planning ought to become thoroughly acquainted with these are related movements in modern art history.

Bauhaus School

The effect of this permanent busyness is to leave us feeling that inactive states have no meaning or validity in themselves; that they exist only to be filled in with some content. Inactivity increasingly exists for us as the negative of our “real” lives of activity and purpose.

In some respects, impressively ahead of his time.

Industrial Revolution

Deep History

In recent decades, history as a discipline has increasingly portrayed humans as an exception in the story of life, as though all other life-forms were part of nature but humans somehow were not, or not quite. This book issues a profound and timely challenge to that implicit assumption and argues for an integration of deep and recorded human pasts. The challenge is profound, because it is at once methodological and philosophical, and it is timely in the way it resonates with concerns about our growing ecological footprint on the planet. This collaborative enterprise will appeal to students of human pasts in a variety of disciplines.

—Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference

In Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, a multi-disciplinary team of historians, archeologists, paleontologists, primatologists, and anthropologists takes up the challenge of incorporating the past six million or so years into the record of human history. Combining open minds with scholarly rigor, the authors use linguistics and genetics, trails of bones, shells and crafted objects, dietary traditions, and kinship rules to follow our footloose species out of Africa and around the globe, along the way dismantling barriers between disciplines that have outlived their usefulness.

—Sarah B. Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection

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This collection touches on a wide range of anthropological issues, including family and marriage, myths, and rites, the environment and its representation, and constraint and freedom. The essays encompass more than forty years of analysis and constrain arguments that are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago.

“Hardly a field remains untouched—sociobiology, linguistics, botany, genetics, psychiatry, esthetics, ecology, politics, neuroscience, education, morality, psychology. . . . It’s all breathtaking and alarming, some of it wonderful, some of it ridiculous. . . . At times the experience is exhilarating.”

—Richard A. Shweder, New York Times Book Review

The closest post-medieval culture has come to synthesizing the best of folk art, high art, and industrial design may well have been three different movements from the early decades of the 20th century. I believe this is what Greenberg was hoping for when he wrote The Plight of The Public, in 1953. Though he did not say it aloud. So, what happened to the Bauhaus (Germany), De Stijl (Netherlands), and Constructivism? The were essentially derailed by WWII. Many of the artists and designers associated with this school did find there way to America, where they tried to start again. Some of the most interesting work of the later 20th century does come out o experimental schools such as the New Bauhaus, the Illinois Institute of Design, and Black Mountain College. However, the work from these schools tended either to be quickly appropriated into nascent ‘designer’ culture, or to remain so stridently avant-garde that it never found their way into everyday life. In a word, International Socialism never became a reality, and experimental art and design were compelled either to be assimilated by Capitalism or remain on the run from it. While, simultaneously, serious art, such as that produced by the New York School, ascended into the heavens. More on that topic anon. For now, enjoy these brief videos.

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Readings For February 7th

Posted: February 5, 2019 in Readings

I mentioned the Leo Steinberg essay in class. I forget though that we’d want to discuss Harold Rosenberg first. Here are both. Let’s stick to the first for Thursday and save the second for next week. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

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Jackson Pollock Makes A Painting
(1951)

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Harold Rosenberg
(1906 – 1978)
“The American Actions Painters” (1952)

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Leo Steinberg
(1920 – 2011)
“Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public” (1962)

“The only solution for culture that I can conceive of under these [industrial] conditions is to shift its center of gravity away from leisure and place it squarely in the middle of work.”

–C. G., “The Plight of Culture”

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“The Shaping of Soviet Workers’ Leisure: Workers’ Clubs and Palaces of Culture in the 1930s”
Lewis H. Siegelbaum
International Labor and Working-Class History
No. 56, Gendered Labor (Fall, 1999), pp. 78-92

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Our culture, on its lower and popular levels, has plumbed abysses of vulgarity and falsehood unknown in the discoverable past.

–Clement Greenberg, “The Plight of Culture” (1953)

The Bauhaus, simply put, was a German school of art and design that opened in 1919 and closed in 1933. It was also very much more than that. It was the most influential and famous design school that has ever existed. It defined an epoch. It became the pre-eminent emblem of modern architecture and design. The name has become an adjective as well as a noun – Bauhaus style, Bauhaus look. And now it is coming up for the centenary of its founding, which shows both that what was called the “modern movement” is now part of history and that its influence is very much still around us.

ON APRIL 11, 1933, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe stepped off the tram in the Steglitz neighborhood in southwest Berlin, crossed a bridge and found that his place of work had been surrounded by the Gestapo. The Bauhaus, where he taught and served as the director, had occupied an old telephone factory building there since 1932. The school first opened in Weimar in 1919, as a place for uniting craftsmanship with the arts in the service of architecture; over time, it changed, becoming more about uniting art with industrial techniques. Once Mies took over the directorship in 1930, it became almost purely a school for architecture.

But this instability, even vagueness, of purpose helped propagate its influence. In just over a decade, it had become a byword for modernity in design, a symbol of a progressive age across the world, from New York to Calcutta. The Nazis perceived the Bauhaus to be, along with atonal music and Expressionist painting, yet another specimen of the globe-spanning Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy they sought to eliminate. They weren’t wrong to intuit a basic radicalism at the heart of the Bauhaus project: Uniting all of its multiple tendencies and impulses was an attempt to put art and architecture to use as social regeneration for the world’s working classes.

“Something for everyone!”
–Sarah Chang

Below is a promo for Sarah Chang’s performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved “The Four Seasons”. Have a look and a listen. I won’t even bother to ask whether this is Art or Kitsch. What I will ask you instead to consider is why it is so bad. Is this kitsch through and through, or is there actually something genuinely decent buried in all this?


As for the sonnets or poems to which Chang refers, they are the same poems which Greenberg calls “oratorical and frivolous literature of the 18th century,” in “Toward a Newer Laocoön” (1940).

Lessing in his Laocoön written in the 1760s, recognized the presence of a practical as well as a theoretical confusion of the arts. But he saw its ill effects exclusively in terms of literature, and his opinions on plastic art only exemplify the typical misconceptions of his age. He attacks the descriptive verses of poets like James Thomson as an invasion of the domain of landscape painting, but all he could find to say about painting’s invasion of poetry was to object to allegorical pictures which required an explanation, and to paintings like Titian’s “Prodigal Son”, which incorporate “two necessarily separate points of time in and and the same picture”. … It was not realistic imitation in itself that did the damage so much as realistic illusion in the service of sentimental and declamatory literature.

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The Seasons
by James Thompson
(1700 – 1748)
“Winter”


See! Winter comes, to rule the varied Year,
Sullen, and sad; with all his rising Train,
Vapours, and Clouds, and Storms: Be these my Theme,
These, that exalt the Soul to solemn Thought,
And heavenly musing. Welcome kindred Glooms!
Wish’d, wint’ry, Horrors, hail! — With frequent Foot,
Pleas’d, have I, in my cheerful Morn of Life,
When, nurs’d by careless Solitude, I liv’d,
And sung of Nature with unceasing Joy,
Pleas’d, have I wander’d thro’ your rough Domains;
Trod the pure, virgin, Snows, my self as pure:
Heard the Winds roar, and the big Torrent burst:
Or seen the deep, fermenting, Tempest brew’d,
In the red, evening, Sky. — Thus pass’d the Time,
Till, thro’ the opening Chambers of the South,
Look’d out the joyous Spring, look’d out, and smil’d.
THEE too, Inspirer of the toiling Swain!
Fair AUTUMN, yellow rob’d! I’ll sing of thee,
Of thy last, temper’d, Days, and sunny Calms;
When all the golden Hours are on the Wing,
Attending thy Retreat, and round thy Wain,
Slow-rolling, onward to the Southern Sky.

BEHOLD! the well-pois’d Hornet, hovering, hangs,
With quivering Pinions, in the genial Blaze;
Flys off, in airy Circles: then returns,
And hums, and dances to the beating Ray.

. . . (read more, if you can bear it.)

With respect to the painting of the same cultural moment, Greenberg passes a similarly harsh verdict: “The worst manifestations of literary and sentimental painting had already begun to appear in the painting of the late 18th century – especially in England, where a revival which produced some of the best English painting was equally efficacious in speeding up the process of degeneration.” To whom or what could Greenberg be referring here? I will wager that by ‘the best English painting’ he was referring to this (click the image).



William Hogarth
(1697 – 1764)
The Marriage Contract,
from the “Marriage a la Mode” series (1745)
Tate Gallery, London

To what abysses of vulgarity did Greenberg believe such painting inevitably lead? How about the Pre-Raphaelites? What you see below is, at least as far as Greenberg is concerned, just about as wretched as art can possibly get.

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Holman Hunt
“The Hireling Shepherd” (1852)
Oil on canvas – 30″ x 48″
Manchester City Art Galleries

More music for you!

A great deal of purism is the translation of an extreme solicitude, an anxiousness as to the fate of art, a concern for its identity. We must respect this. When the purist insists upon excluding “literature” and subject matter from plastic [visual] art, now and in the future, the most we can charge him with off-hand is an unhistorical attitude. It is quite easy to show that abstract art, like every other cultural phenomenon, reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live, and that there is nothing inside art itself, disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one direction or another. But it is not so easy to reject the purist’s assertion that the best contemporary plastic art is abstract. Here the purist does not have to support his position with metaphysical pretensions. And when he insists on doing so, those of us who admit the merits of abstract art without accepting its claims in full must offer our own explanation for its present supremacy.

– Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940)

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The great 20th-century art critic Clement Greenberg, in the passage above, is alluding to three of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. Each of these men wrote a manifesto (see and click the images below) in which he explained the nature, production and effect of abstract painting in emphatically spiritual terms. Greenberg eagerly asserts that the work these abstract artists have produced is indeed the very greatest of the day. However, he insists that, when it comes to these artists’ explanations of what they were actually up to when making their work, they are, sadly, completely mistaken. Rather than resorting to high ideals and spiritual principles, Greenberg insists that abstract art, like all art, must be explained exclusively in terms of the historical and material conditions under which is what produced, and that is must be appreciated in material, not spiritual, terms.

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A student in a class I recently taught thoughtfully expressed concern over the fact that Greenberg dismissed the school of painting known as Symbolism, which according to popular understanding, sought to achieve spiritual effects through a return to mythology and a world of pure illusion emancipated from our own. Greenberg exemplified Symbolist painting by referring to the work of Gustave Moreau. Elsewhere, however, Greenberg commended the music of the “symbolist” composer Claude Debussy for its “escape from literature”, its abstract purity.

Music, in flight from the undisciplined, bottomless sentimentality of the Romantics, was striving to describe and narrate (program music). That music at this point imitates literature would seem to spoil my thesis. But music imitates painting as much as it does poetry when it becomes representational, and besides, it seems to me that Debussy used the program [by which Greenberg means attempts to create the effect of stories and landscapes, as in say, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony] more as a pretext for experiment than as an end in itself. In the same way that the Impressionist painters were trying to get at the structure beneath the color, Debussy was trying to get at the ‘sound underneath the note’.”

In your own words, what do you think it is that Greenberg is hearing in pieces such as those below?

Monuments of The Cubist Struggle

Posted: February 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

Here are images to help you read the ‘pasted-paper’ essay by Clement Greenberg. Good luck!

–Clement Greenberg, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (1947)

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In 1910 Braque had already inserted a very graphic nail with a sharp cast shadow in a picture otherwise devoid of graphic definitions and cast shadows, Still-life with Violin and Palette, in order to interpose a kind of photographic space between the surface and the dimmer, fragile illusoriness of the Cubist space which the still-life itself – shown as a picture within a picture – inhabited.

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And something similar was obtained by the structural delineation of a loop of rope in the upper left margin of the Museum of Modern Art’s Man with a Guitar of 1911.

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In that same year Braque introduced capital letters and numbers stenciled in trompe-l’oeil in paintings whose motifs offered no realistic excuse for their presence. The intrusions, by their self-evident, extraneous and abrupt flatness, stopped the eye at the literal, physical surface of the canvas in the same way that the artist’s signature did; here it was no longer a questions of interposing a more vivid illusion of depth between surface and Cubist space, but one of specifying the very real flatness of the picture plan so that everything else shown on it would be pushed into illusioned space by force of contrast.

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It was toward the same end the Picasso and Braque began, in 1912, to mix sand and other foreign substance with their paint; the granular surface achieved thereby called direct attention to the tactile reality of the picture.

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A little later [Braque] made his first collage, Fruit Bowl, by pasting three strips of imitation wood-grain wallpaper to a sheet of drawing paper on which he then charcoaled a rather simplified Cubist still-life and some trompe-l’oeil letters. Cubist space had by this time become even shallower, and the actual picture surface had to be identified more emphatically than before if the illusion was to be detached from it.. Now the corporeal presence of the wallpaper pushed the lettering itself into illusioned depth by force of contrast. . . . The strips, the lettering, the charcoal lines and the white paper begin to change places in depth with one another, and a process is set up in which every part of the picture takes its turn in occupying every plane, whether real or imagined, in it. The imaginary planes are all parallel to the one another; their effective connection lies in their common relation to the surface; wherever a form on one plane slants or extends into another it immediately spring forward. The flatness of the surface permeates the illusion, and the illusion itself reasserts the flatness. The effect is to fuse the illusion with the picture plane without the derogation of either — in principle.

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Sometime in 1912 [Picasso] cut out and folded a piece of paper in the shape of a guitar and glued and fitted other pieces of paper and four taut strings to it. A sequence of flat surface on different planes in actual space was created to which there adhered only the hint of a pictorial surface. The originally affixed elements of collage had, in effect, been extruded from the picture plane — the sheet of drawing paper or the canvas — to make a bas-relief. But it was ‘constructed,’ not a sculpted, bas-relief, and it founded a new genre of sculpture. . . . Not for nothing did the sculptor constructor Julio Gonzalez call it the new art of ‘drawing’ in space.’

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Cubism, in the hands of its inventors achieved a new, exalted and transfigured kind of decoration by reconstructing the flat picture surface with the very means of its denial. They started started with the illusion and arrived at a quasi-abstract literalness.

With [Juan] Gris it was the reverse. As he himself explained, he started with flat and abstract shapes to which he then fitted recognizable three-dimensional images. . . . He used his pasted papers and trompe-l’oeil textures and lettering to assert flatness all right; but he almost always sealed the flatness inside the illusion of depth by placing images rendered with sculptural vividness on the nearest plane of the picture, and often on the rearmost plane too. . . . Instead of the seamless fusion of the decorative with the spacial structure of illusion which we get with the collages of the other two masters, there is an alternation, a collocation, of the decorative and the illusion and if their relationship ever goes beyond that, it is more liable to be one of confusion rather than fusion. Gris’s collages have their merits, but they have been over-praised.

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That point, as I see it, was to restore and exalt decoration by building it, by endowing self-confessedly flat configurations with a pictorial content, an autonomy like that hitherto obtained through illusion alone. Elements essentially decorative in themselves were used not to adorn but to identify, locate, construct; and in being so used, to create works of art in which decorativeness was transcended or transfigured in a monumental unity. Monumental, in fact, is the one word is choose to describe Cubism’s preeminent quality.

Land of The Free!

Posted: February 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

Nobody would think to police science and literature in America. That only happens in other countries.

Cold War–era FBI files on famous scientists, including Neil Armstrong, Isaac Asimov, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Alfred Kinsey, and Timothy Leary.

Armed with ignorance, misinformation, and unfounded suspicions, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover cast a suspicious eye on scientists in disciplines ranging from physics to sex research. If the Bureau surveilled writers because of what they believed (as documented in Writers Under Surveillance), it surveilled scientists because of what they knew. Such scientific ideals as the free exchange of information seemed dangerous when the Soviet Union and the United States regarded each other with mutual suspicion that seemed likely to lead to mutual destruction. Scientists Under Surveillance gathers FBI files on some of the most famous scientists in America, reproducing them in their original typewritten, teletyped, hand-annotated form.

FBI files on writers with dangerous ideas, including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin.

Writers are dangerous. They have ideas. The proclivity of writers for ideas drove the FBI to investigate many of them—to watch them, follow them, start files on them. Writers under Surveillance gathers some of these files, giving readers a surveillance-state perspective on writers including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Obtained with Freedom of Information Act requests by MuckRock, a nonprofit dedicated to freeing American history from the locked filing cabinets of government agencies, the files on these authors are surprisingly wide ranging; the investigations were as broad and varied as the authors’ own works. James Baldwin, for example, was so openly antagonistic to the state’s security apparatus that investigators followed his every move. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, was likely unaware that the Bureau had any interest in his work. (Bradbury was a target because an informant warned that science fiction was a Soviet plot to weaken American resolve.)

Once I was asked in class if Greenberg would consider dance, in particular modern dance, to be a viable form of art. I wouldn’t say he would hate all ‘arty’ dance, though I must confess I believe his opinion of it would be relatively low. Serious thought and criticism doesn’t really have much to say about dance until a moment slightly after the one we’ve arrived at in our readings. It is the Jackson expressionism of Jackson Pollock, often called Action Painting, which clears up a space for bodily performance. Now, it was Greenberg in fact who discovered Pollock. But what Greenberg valued in Pollock’s paintings were their material and formal qualities, not their expressivity.

Rather than dance, Greenberg declares that it was only music which was powerful enough to break literature’s hegemonic control of other forms of art. So, what would Greenberg think of the music below? Would he consider it Art or Kitsch? And, why? Does this music remind us of what we heard in the Debussy tracks I posted earlier? In what ways does the music of Debussy, or that of the Russian composers I posted a few days ago, compare and contrast with the work of these Viennese composers?

(Please let me know if listening to music like this is interesting and helpful to you. It takes me a while to get this up here, but I’m certainly willing to make the necessary effort if you want me to.)

I’m pretty sure The Beatles had a very clear sense of their own importance. Not only had their concerts become so wildly popular that their electrical instruments could no longer be heard above the deafening roar of the hysterically screaming crowds (more than anything else, a Beatles concert sounded like modern warfare), but John Lennon himself notorious declared The Beatles to be ‘more popular than Jesus’.

What interests me here is the response of students to a hypothetic Beatles performance on the rooftop of Apple Computers, as opposed the actual Beatles performs on the rooftop of Apple Records. Even a few years ago I might have expected that young persons would think The Beatles, arguably the greatest rock band of all time, could lend some legitimacy to a corporation like Apple. Now, however, students instead feel that a tech corporation could lend some legitimacy to The Beatles.

This leaves me to conclude that if The Beatles were in fact cooler than Jesus, Apple is now cooler than The Beatles. Meanwhile, Jesus has been quietly cancelled out of the equation.

What a brave new world this is!