The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

“In an uncherished field…”

Rackstraw Downes, At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers, 1995

Rackstraw Downes, At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers, 1995

“In an uncherished field beyond a subdivision in the refinery town of Texas City, Texas, I got interested in four radio towers that collectively formed what is called a ‘directional signal’. I chose a vantage point at the corner of the field on the shoulder of an embanked road; it overlooked the confluence of two rainwater ditches running at right angles to each other along two borders of the field. To look down into the ditches and up at the immense spindly height of the towers, with their barely discernible guy wires, comprised a vertical span of a little more than 90 degrees. The canvas then, once the preliminary drawing was worked out ended up being nearly square, 46 by 48 inches. My notion of the right relationship between interior forms and spaces of a painting and its containing periphery is perfectly expressed by an early (circa 1562) Dutch image of a church painted on an L-shaped panel; the nave occupies the thick base of the L and the tower its slim shaft.  I refer to this as the ‘L-shaped church paradigm’.

Anonymous, The Sint Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel before the fire of 1538, N.D.

Anonymous, The Sint Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel before the fire of 1538, N.D.

Around this time I read that Ruskin had told his followers, ‘When I say go out and paint Nature, I do not mean a ditch.’ I thought, Thank you, John, because these ditches not only form a remarkable rectilinear grid of narrow incisions in the terrain that shoot dramatically off into space, but in this dead-flat, hurricane-prone, barely above sea level coastal country they are a crucial part of the functional system of levees, raised roads, and ‘Archimedes screw’-type pumping stations that, as with the reclaimed polders of Holland, is essential in making this land usable and inhabitable at all. Children play in these ditches, fishermen get bait out of them, and weeds flourish there unmolested. Alongside the embanked roadway in this painting run power and phone lines which (as we know) sag as they stretch from pole to pole; but if you stand close to them, as I did while working, and follow them with your eyes as they pass from left to right of you, they soar up in the air and arch over your head; their appearance contradicts what we know. Uncompromising empiricism may lead to paradoxes.

These extended spaces, then, that I was working with, and the way forms bulk in them, plus the effect of specific vantage point and bodily stance on one’s perception of them, began to present endlessly fascinating problems of depiction …

The question arises as to whether, if space appears to be curved, it is concave or convex. It may be both. The horizon wraps around you as a room contains you: it is concave. But suppose you are sitting in a room opposite the midpoint of a long wall; as your gaze follows the wall from either corner to the midpoint, the wall appears to swell toward you: it is convex. Frankly, though, these diagrams of space never interested me very much. The ‘truth’ of any one of them is contestable (and endlessly contested): they are, precisely diagrammatic, as well as systematic, theoretical, designed for general application. But I don’t find that I see systematically. I – we – have erratic, not to say subjective, reactions to size and scale; we do all kinds of things when looking: we shift our attention, turn and tilt, quickly or slowly, get interested in some things and uninterested in others. The process of looking – especially the process of looking while making a drawing or a painting – is far too alive and spasmodic to be rationalized.

Rackstraw Downes, Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main in Spring, 1997

Rackstraw Downes, Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main in Spring, 1997

To any diagram I prefer – and trust – the experience-based statement of Cézanne: ‘for progress toward realization there is only nature, and the eye is educated by contact with her. It becomes concentric by force of looking and working.’ Does Cézanne mean concentric to the viewer? Are we inside the sphere that Fouquet’s miniature implies and that Leonardo conceived in his notes? Certainly this is a manifesto in favor of committed empiricism. Eschewing theory and system, protocol and precedent, Cézanne wants to know only what he learns from the practice – his practice – of painting.”
(Rackstraw Downes, “Turning the Head in Empirical Space”, in Rackstraw Downes, Sanford Schwartz, et al. pp.129 – 143)

Video of Rackstraw Downes talking about his work.

 

 

“If you are going to spend your life …”

From Felix in Exile, 1994

From Felix in Exile, 1994

“If you are going to spend your life making objects, or drawings, that have come from within you but that are left outside and that continue to exist, there has to be some part of yourself that fundamentally needs this externalization of the self, needs it psychically. Otherwise there’s no reason to be doing this strange activity. So there’s a question about where that comes from, about what the motivating sense of inadequacy is that it has to buttress itself with so many … either walls of paper in one sense or proofs of existence in another. You have to look back and see, not just empty time but also the pieces of paper on which you can trace back and find a root. It’s like Hansel and Gretel. You feel you’ve got to leave those breadcrumbs if you’re ever to find the way back home – home being who you are or knowing who you are. If you’re an artist, more than anyone else, a biography entails a biography of exhibitions, of works, with a date for every work. A retrospective exhibition is like a root march, if it’s done chronologically. At its heart lies some fundamental insufficiency which ensures that it is not enough for someone to look at you as an artist and say, ‘you are who you are and that’s enough’. You say in response, ‘No, you need to look at the work’. That’s why for a lot of artists, certainly for me, although I am getting better at it, criticism of the work is so annihilating. It’s not just a matter of ‘Oh, they don’t like the picture, that’s a pity’. If the work is not acknowledged, then you don’t exist. It’s felt – I’m sure that anybody who is involved with work that is from them but has to have external form, feels this. So when you ask, ‘Who is the target and who is shouting?’ one will always have to go back to ask those deep questions about that primal lack which makes you feel you exist only after you have made work.”
(William Kentridge, That Which is Not Drawn, 75-76)

Watch William Kentridge’s Video Automatic Writing

 

Robert Storr on Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989

The interpretive maze that has grown up around Richter’s oeuvre has at times distracted viewers from the fact that the pictorial maze he has built within that critical outer structure is made not merely of pictures – images subject to the kind of semiotic analysis that would treat them all as essentially the same regardless of their material presence – but of paintings whose meanings can be grasped, if fleetingly and with difficulty, by the fully alert senses in tandem with an agile, rather than dogma-bound, mind. Furthermore, one would have hoped, a dozen years after the 1980’s, that even the most hard-line opponents of painting’s resurgence would concede that there is little left to gain and perhaps something of significance to be lost by continuing to use painting as a rhetorical whipping boy. Painting is no longer the dominant medium it once was. There is no urgent need to topple it from its pedestal when other practices have begun to crowd painting on an equal, or nearly equal footing. Moreover, the new art forms championed at its expense have begun to show their age and accumulate the burdens that come with tradition in any medium. And, insofar as special political and social status was accorded those art forms because they were ignored by the market or otherwise escaped the corrupting effects of commodity capitalism, which had supposedly compromised painting beyond redemption, recent expansion and diversification of the market have deprived them of that virtue.
Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, p.18, 2002

Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970

Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970

For more on Gerhard Richter: Gerhard Richter; Artsy.net

Narrative

Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

Joe Cowan aged 9, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

This summer I have been working on a project that has got me thinking a lot about narrative, and more specifically the ways in which words and pictures fit together, or don’t.

My work has flirted with narrative over the years, but recently I have been trying to keep it out of my paintings. I think the reason I have been trying avoid it is that I have been seeking to pare the paintings back to their basic elements: image, paint, scale. Narrative is a complicating factor. It is very easy to imply narrative with images, almost impossible to avoid it, in fact. But I have wanted to keep my paintings operating in a zone that doesn’t depend on story telling for their effect.

Rack, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

Rack, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

This new project, Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, is a collaboration with my wife, Paula Jean Cowan. We are putting it together as a website which will eventually have several chapters. The work is based on the biography of Paula’s paternal grandfather, who was sent to Canada from England as a British “home” child. Because his life overlapped many of the major historical events in the twentieth century it is an opportunity to explore that history on a cultural and personal level, in both words and pictures.

Albert County Shiretown, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Albert County Shiretown, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Home is a kind of illustrated story that slowly winds around one of the central events of Joe’s life, being sent across the Atlantic Ocean as a nine year old indentured servant. Because of the circumstances of his arrival in Canada and his own natural reticence, Joe’s biography has been largely unknown, even to his own family. In this context explicit narrative in the form of text, historical fact and archival images, is indispensable to the work. In some ways the work is also a way for my wife and I to narrate our own life together while exploring some of the “back story” of family history.

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (hair & spider), 2011

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (hair & spider), 2011

An earlier body of work that we created together,  May it Always Be, also had a narrative dimension, but it was more cryptic and less historically specific. It was a kind of call and response, an improvising play, but was definitely rooted in telling each other stories about our own life together.

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (whale & cloud), 2011

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (whale & cloud), 2011

The new project demanded its own visual form, which in the end resembles a slide show. One of the challenges of the project is to combine words and pictures in a way that allows each to have its say without making the other redundant. Since the narrative is non-fiction, it made a certain amount of sense to present it in a kind of lecture format. The difficulty, but also the pay-off of this approach, is to allow quite mundane facts and events to begin to produce a metaphorical resonance.

Whereas the paintings I have been making in the last couple of years have been very deliberately introspective, working on a common project with someone I love brings a perspective that is oriented towards others. This communal orientation is reinforced by a narrative approach. Home is about trying to find a place in the world in the face of continuing uprootedness, both physical and emotional. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are a way of plotting the outlines of that place.

Bennett House, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2011

Bennett House, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Evidence and Absence

Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

I have been thinking a lot about photography lately: the field of photography, the way different artists use photographs and the ways it has worked in my own practice. I have also been revisiting some of my favourites, such as Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, and Stephen Shore.

Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973

Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973

The photography I am interested in tends to have a certain kind of relationship to the documentary tradition. The term “documentary” implies a photograph that is based on fact or offers itself as proof. This in turn is premised on the camera as a mechanical recording device, which provides information and suggests an objective image of reality. Each of these artists takes the documentary idea and puts pressure on it from various directions, but the photos always point to the photographer standing in front of this subject, in these conditions at this specific moment.

Roy Arden, Landfill, Richmond, BC, 1991

Roy Arden, Landfill, Richmond, BC, 1991

The other thing that is shared by these artists is a relationship to vernacular or “popular” uses of photography, such as family snapshots, postcards, and scenic views of landscapes.  For me, it is the ordinary, homemade quality of the vernacular that is important, it’s flatfooted presentation of the everyday.

Ed Ruscha, Beeline Gas, Holbrook, Arizona (from the book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations), 1963

Ed Ruscha, Beeline Gas, Holbrook, Arizona (from the book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations), 1963

Although I make paintings, they are always based on a photographic source. The reason for this has to do with the photograph’s status as evidence of a subject’s existence. Whatever is in the image has at one point been aligned with the camera’s lens, its skin of reflected light inscribed on photosensitive film or encoded on a memory card. Additionally, the camera records what is in front of it more or less evenly, without regard to hierarchies of social or cultural importance.

Benjamin Down, Mt. Robson, Jasper National Park

Benjamin Down, Spences Bridge BC

However, an image written with light also, inevitably refers to an absence. Since a photograph fragments time into infra-thin slices, whatever is pictured in the photograph is no more, its moment passed by as soon as the shutter is released. The nostalgia of family albums, for instance, derives from the gap between the proof that the world was like this once, and the aching silence of its irretrievability. The memorializing function of photographs has to do with the tension between its status as a document and the temporal displacement of its subject.

Theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen asserts:

Photography is privileged within modern culture because, unlike other systems of representation, the camera does more than just see the world; it is also touched by it. Photographs are designated as indexical signs, images produced as a consequence of being directly affected by the objects to which they refer. It is as if those objects have reached out and impressed themselves on the surface of the photograph, leaving their own visual imprint, as faithful to the contour of the original object as a death mask is to the newly departed. On this basis, photographs are able to parade themselves as the world’s own chemical fingerprints, nature’s poignant rendition of herself as memento mori. And it is surely this combination of the haptic and the visual, this entanglement of both touch and sight, that makes photography so compelling as a medium. (Each Wild Idea, p.61, MIT Press, 2001)

Benjamin Down, At Dominic's Cabin, Stone Creek BC

Benjamin Down, At Dominic’s Cabin, Stone Creek BC

Photography’s capacity to function as evidence, its status as indexical trace, its ability to conjure an absent subject, and its amenable relationship to the commonplace, are what draws me to its images. The paintings in what I consider to be my first mature work are based on photographs taken by my father, Benjamin Down. These tokens of ordinary life fill a binder of slide sleeves in my studio and several small boxes in my mother’s home. In these images he is the absent term, they are the trace of his looking as much as they are the trace of what is being looked at.

Benjamin Down, Trapping Lake, BC

Benjamin Down, Trapping Lake, BC

The resonance I feel with these images is likely based in my personal experience and a longing for the absent figure of the photographer. Nevertheless, they continue to act as a guiding presence in my practice and a reminder to me of why I began making art in the first place.

Benjamin Down, Self-portrait

Benjamin Down, Self-portrait

Window, Brick, Wall, Field

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

There are various ways of creating space in a painting such as linear perspective, diminishing size, and occlusion. In the Renaissance tradition, these systems were used to turn the surface of the painting into a ‘window’ or transparent plane through which viewers could perceive the illusion of depth; a space that receded from this plane to a distant horizon which implied a boundless pictorial realm.

Painters that we today consider modernist, took this space apart and turned it inside out, slowly compressing the illusion of a space ‘behind’ the window of the picture plane until it was co-extensive with the literal surface of the painting. The most extreme examples of this tendency are monochromes – paintings that have either done away with most of the markers of illusionistic space or reduced them to such subtle nuances and variation that they are barely visible.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Monochrome paintings tend to be “non-objective” (i.e. not deriving from a preexisting source in the objective world) and so they occupy actual space, like sculpture, rather than presenting a pictorial illusion of space. However, there are differences in the way different monochrome paintings engage actual space. The sixties and seventies produced many painters for whom this was an issue, and I have found it useful to compare four that have had a particular impact on my thinking about painting.

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

In my previous post I wrote about Robert Ryman’s white paintings, which he refers to as ‘realist’, in the sense that they are real objects and not illusionistic pictures of a ‘real’ subject or using naturalistic techniques. Instead, he uses a combination of material elements: paint simply as a material, the support and its specific relationship to the wall, the context of actual light falling on the surface. The experience of these elements together is the content of his work. They sit on the wall with the subtle obstinance of a brick.

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella’s early paintings used monochrome palettes (e.g. the “black” or “aluminum” paintings) and industrial paint to reinforce the literal qualities of the painting surface. This reductive strategy was summed up with his pithy statement, “what you see is what you see”, a deflation of the expressionist rhetoric of the earlier generation of New York School painting. The stripes in these early pieces were a reiteration of the framing edge of the painting, emphasizing their lack of pictorial depth. As the edges of the paintings became more convoluted (the so-called shaped canvases) and the stretcher frames deeper (sometimes 4 – 6 inches) they became more like objects or impassive adjuncts to the wall.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt was a contemporary of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and was at first seen to be allied with the colour field wing of post-war American abstraction. However, his view of art was deeply ascetic, and he claimed that his black monochromes were “simply the last paintings that could be painted”. His vision was that of a monk seeking perfection through endless repetition of form. It was also aligned in many ways with the “end of painting” strain of modernism that I referred to in an earlier post.

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 - 75

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 – 75

Brice Marden’s monochromes seem to align more closely to the objective world. The colours, the proportions, the waxy skins of the paintings all have correlates in concrete reality. So, even though they also have the object quality of other monochromes, they also reveal more traditional, symbolic layers of meaning.

All four of these painters have been very important to my work and my thinking over the years, even though they are in many ways conceptually incompatible with each other. They highlight for me the fundamental differences that accrue in the meaning of a work through different conceptions of how it functions spatially, even when they have superficially similar visual qualities. The reduction in these works represent both a minimum threshold of what might be construed as a painting, and an opening onto an expansive field of possibilities.

Anti-gravity

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

I have always been attracted to paintings that seem to ask basic questions about their own functions or conditions. Not in the sense of a closed self-reference, but as an exploration of what paint does in a given situation. For instance, how does one get a painting or object on a wall?

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman’s work has been very instrumental in this regard and the book Used Paint, by Susan P. Hudson, has allowed me to re-visit some of my early interests in these questions. The idea of used paint implies that the material has been transferred from one resting place to another, but not necessarily “transformed”.

When I was an undergraduate I had an extended critique with four of my advisors (ranging in their own practice from material formalist to psychological expressionist) about how my work (abstract, spray-paint on mylar) related or didn’t relate to the wall. My solution was to velcro the “skins” of paint to masonite boards spray-painted with contrasting colours, which acted as frames. These were attached to the wall by screws that were hidden by the mylar.

These frames were subject to much debate about how bad a solution they were. Not debate actually – it was clear that the solution was bad, merely the degree and the corrective were debated. After that grueling two hours I never made assumptions about the wall and painting again.

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

On the other hand, it is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating these issues. A friend of mine snorted when I told him about the critique. He asked, “did you try anti-gravity?”

An interesting video on Robert Ryman:
http://www.art21.org/videos/segment-robert-ryman-in-paradox

A Letter to Ross Feld by Philip Guston

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

I think that because of teaching – having a ‘career’ – being in the ‘real’ world, with dopey minds, who can only ‘argue for more’ or ‘bargain for less’ as you say – that this makes it easier for me to become infected with the linear thinking found in universities – and  elsewhere too. I begin to wobble – wonder if I am reaching for the invisible too much – and in tottering like this, I am prone to settle for ‘less’. And luckily for me, ‘less’ sticks in my stomach like a sour thing until my ‘ideal’, that I’ve always had but lose momentarily (could be that one should – needs – to have it slip away – in order to regain it) the ‘shimmering’ – ‘the dazzling gift’. I think you are writing about the generous law that exists in art. A law which can never be given but only found anew each time in the making of the work. It is a law, too, which allows your forms (characters) to spin away, take off, as if they have their own lives to lead – unexpected too – as if you cannot completely control it all. I wonder why we seek this generous law, as I call it. For we do not know how it governs – and under what special conditions it comes into being. I don’t think we are permitted to know other than temporarily. A disappearance act. The only problem is how to keep away from the minds that close in and itch (God knows why) to define it.
(Philip Guston in a letter to Ross Feld, Nov. 13, 1978, Guston in Time: remembering Philip Guston, p. 149)

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979

Consolation

Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948

Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling subject matter … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue. (Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter)

This statement by Matisse is one that I misunderstood for a long time. As Jack Flam explains, “[t]his often-quoted sentence tends to give the impression that Matisse desired from painting merely relaxation or entertainment – in short that his ideals were somewhat superficial” (Flam, Matisse on Art, p.35). This supposed superficiality is what has always made me uncomfortable as I didn’t understand what was at stake for Matisse in making his work.

Flam continues:

It is important to realize, however, that this statement is more an explanation, and perhaps defense, of his limited range of subject matter than an expression of simple-minded optimism. (Moreover, it is very likely that when he wrote this he had in mind his new patron, the Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin, whose recent life had been filled with tragedy and who sought consolation by what he called ‘living in’ the pictures he acquired from Matisse.) Matisse is not advocating an art of superficial decoration or entertainment, but stating his belief in art as a medium for the elevation of the spirit above and beyond, yet rooted in the experience of, everyday life.

Nietzsche said that without music, life would be a mistake. I take this to mean not that life is merely enriched by music but that it is the only acceptable recompense for the burdens of living. The consolation that Nietzsche finds in music or Shchukin in Matisse’s paintings is the sense of wonder and unity that is at the core of aesthetic experience.

For me, the sensory overload and drive to consumption in contemporary society dulls the capacity for this sense of wonder – it is literally anaesthetic. The aspect of Matisse’s work that I had overlooked is that it was made in the face of constant struggle, in defiance of a modern world gone mad with two world wars and on a trajectory that was almost wholly independent of avant-garde trends. It was an attempt to make visible and available for experience the dynamic order of the universe.

In the text for his book, Jazz, Matisse writes: “A new picture must be a unique thing, a birth bringing to the human spirit a new figure in the representation of the world. The artist must summon all of his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty in order to shatter the old clichés that come so easily to hand while working, which can suffocate the little flower that does not come, ever, in the way one expects.” (Matisse on Art, p.173)

It is difficult nowadays to talk about an ambition for “art as a medium for the elevation of the spirit above and beyond, yet rooted in the experience of, everyday life”. It is thought of as an outmoded metaphysics, a pretension of so-called high culture to think that work could function this way. It is more legitimate to talk about art as a mode of critique or deconstruction or cultural strategy. I believe it is or can be all of these things, but they are byproducts of an activity that is aimed at something else: a means of coming to terms with the brokenness of life.

One of the reasons for my renewed interest in Matisse is the seriousness of his aspirations and the formal ruthlessness and cunning that he brought to bear on his work. Another is the sense that his work seems to have functioned not as a retreat from the world, but as his way of meeting its implacable enmity with a precarious sort of radiance.

Matisse’s work has resonated with me, particularly in the last two years, because my own aim has shifted towards an attempt to understand the contingency and vulnerability of our existence. My recent work has been made with the realization that everything crumbles, breaks down, dissolves, and that the small times, the brief moments of pleasure and contentment give way, recede, erode. Not all at once in a dramatic, sweeping action, but bit by bit, scraping and grinding down until you realize that you often feel barely alive.

blooms, 2012

blooms, 2012

The rubble and potholes and ditches are sometimes offset by blooms, but they are brief. When I was trying to write an artist statement for the Whale and Star workshop in Miami, I at one point resorted to poetry – an embarrassing turn and luckily I didn’t read it in the group. But even if it is bad poetry, it summed up the feeling behind the images in the work:

when I am broken
my consolation is in new leaves

The words broken, consolation and new were key. The little boy who is experiencing the world for the first time, whose joys and sorrows seem so immediate and full, is my consolation. And maybe making this work is also a sort of consolation, inadequate though it is.

snow hill, 2013

snow hill, 2013

Paintings of these small things, these routine places, and minor moments feel right to me. They aren’t great paintings, and maybe not even good paintings, but they do feel like they are directly related to my life and how I am in the world.

Interesting

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 - 2004

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 – 2004

One often hears it said, not only of a poem, a novel, or a picture, but even of a musical work, that it is interesting. What does this mean? To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning and experience certain pleasure in the process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader, to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, hinders this infection by distracting him. And therefore the interest of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression … Many conditions must be fulfilled to enable a man to produce a real work of art. It is necessary that he should stand on the level of the highest life-conception of his time, that he should experience feeling, and have desire and capacity to transmit it, and that he should moreover have a talent for some one of the forms of art. It is very seldom that all these conditions necessary for the production of true art are combined. But in order to produce unceasingly – aided by the customary methods of borrowing, imitating, introducing effects and interesting – counterfeits of art which pass for art in our society and are well paid for, it is only necessary to have a talent for some branch of art, and this is very often met with. By talent I mean ability: in literary art the ability to express one’s thoughts and impressions easily and to notice and remember characteristic details; in graphic arts to distinguish and remember lines, forms and colours; in music to distinguish the intervals and to remember and transmit the sequence of sounds.
(Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, pp. 189 – 190)

A work need only be interesting. (Donald Judd, Specific Objects)

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

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