Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


July 8, 2012

·           Gerhard Richter, S. with Child, 1995, Oil on canvas, 41 cm x 36 cm, Catalogue Raisonné: 827-2

             took a mental health hiatus from my blog, but now I’m back. [Also had to delete a previous post, where the foundation that represents the estate of the artist I rhapsodized about complained about the accuracy of the info I copied and pasted from the museum press release—and were also annoyed that I’d included a Wikipedia link they said contained wrong info. Huh? Seems it might be easier to edit Wikipedia than to ask me to remove the link but hey, as it’s my only complaint in 475 posts, I can handle it!].

Anyway, there’s nothing more likely to get me going than reading stupid stuff about art and artists—like this article, “Good Art, Bad People” by Charles McGrath in the Times, which cites examples to bolster the stereotypical idea that artists are more deranged than the rest of the population. I think articles like these are written so the authors can assuage their egos with the excuse, “I coulda been a contender if I weren’t so fucking nice.” Because we think about stuff so much (artists are, at their core, analytical, always wondering, “how could this be different?”) it’s possible we may be less likely than others to conform to superficial societal norms, but I refuse to make further generalizations (I remember someone once telling me that I couldn’t be a “real” artist because my studio was “too neat”—although there’d be no problem with that at the moment). I’ve known a lot of artists—yes, even great ones—some of whom were totally agreeable (no one is nicer than Ellsworth Kelly) and others who were utterly horrid. Like the rest of the population.

Can good people make good art? Or to make it a little harder: Can good people make great art? The answer here might seem to be equally self-evident. There are countless artists who seemingly lead decent, morally upstanding lives, who don’t beat their wives, slur the Jews, or even cheat on their taxes. There are many more of these, one wants to say, than of the other sort, the Wagners, Rimbauds, Byrons, et al., who are the exception rather than the rule. And yet the creation of truly great art requires a degree of concentration, commitment, dedication, and preoccupation — of selfishness, in a word — that sets that artist apart and makes him not an outlaw, exactly, but a law unto himself.

Great artists tend to live for their art more than for others. This is why the biographies of so many writers in the 20th century who were otherwise reasonably good people, or not monstrous certainly (think of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow, Yates, Agee, to take a few almost at random), are strewn with broken marriages and neglected or under-appreciated children.
Yadda, yadda, yadda. McGrath “wants to say” this is the case because an article about kind, generous, thoughtful, sober artists would be totally boring. Also, notice he may be a bit out of touch, as his famous examples are from the last-century or before, when divorce was difficult and alcohol flowed. These days, successful artists are more likely to be super-functional, careerist and businesslike, than dissolute. No one has time to be a drunk.
Meanwhile, if the image presented in the film, “Gerhard Richter Painting” is true, then the world’s most famous living painter is a real sweetie-pie, who has said, “I have painted my family so frequently because they are the ones who touch me the most.”

That’s a quote from the wall text at the recent Beaubourgretrospective, which I saw recently, and this is as good an excuse as any to post a few more. *

On classicism:

The classical is what holds me together.

It is that which gives me form.

It is the order that I do not have to attack.

It is something that tames my chaos or holds it together so that I can continue to exist, that was never a question for me, which is essential for life.

On chance:

Letting a thing come, rather than creating it.

On abstraction:

Horrible, gaudy sketches, sentimental things, functioning through the association of ideas, anachronistic, ambiguous, practically pseudo-psychodramatic and therefore unintelligible, without meaning or logic, if indeed there must be any.

I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no programme, no style, no direction. I like the indefinite, the boundless. I like continual uncertainty.

* Note: I’ve taken some editorial liberties with the rather clumsily translated English text, eliminating some excess “that”s and a “really” (hard to imagine Richter saying “really” in any language) and choosing “touch” (in the French translation, it was touchant) over “affect” as in his family being the ones who touched/affected him the most.

June 22, 2012

I’ve been back from Europe just over a week, but life’s intervening challenges have made it seem like three. Or maybe I was never there. Perhaps I just dreamed it. Regardless, I will share my hazy memories.

Ranting, as I have recently about museum buildings that are more about architectural hubris than art, it was a pleasure to revisit the Beaubourg for the Richter retrospective and see his work installed in an airy, non-linear context that included natural light and breathtaking views of Paris. See? It can be done. Ironically, one of the architects for the museum, which was built in 1977, was Renzo Piano, who's also responsible for the new, architect-centric Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. But at least, earlier in his career, Piano proved that artwork and architectural statement can happily coexist.

Gerhard Richter at the Centre Pompidou

Also I did go back to the Tate Modern to revisit the Oskar Fischinger installation and, gritting my teeth, walk through the Damien Hirstretrospective. I needn’t have gritted, as the exhibition was so overwhelmingly inconsequential, I couldn’t even get properly annoyed. The ride down in the escalator was terrific, though, as was the cream tea in the café.

The ecstatic ride from Damien Hirst to cream tea.

May 29, 2012
I’m in Barcelona where, for me, the highlight is the best hot chocolate in the world. Known as un suisin Catalan, this is smooth, barely liquid chocolate topped with an equal mound of whipped cream. These perfect opposites—hot and cold, black and white, dense and airy, bitter and sweet—come together in a delectable marriage on your tongue. “Like yin and yang,” says my friend, who won’t allow me to name the café because she doesn’t want it to become more overrun than it already is. Thus far, I’ve been there every day.

And so my love/hate relationship with contemporary art continues. After the previous post about my visit to Chicago, a Facebook friend wrote: “Strong feelings of ambivalence are an indication of deep involvement. Sounds like perhaps you need to choose more judiciously what to see?”

Yes, and no. I want to keep an open mind, and there’s nothing I like better than to have my prejudices overturned, as they were when I realized I liked (some of) Damien Hirst’s spots. I can’t help having opinions, so must constantly guard against turning into one of those loathsome people who spout about things they haven’t seen. However we should keep the question open until after my visit to the Hirst retrospective at the TateModern next week. One thing I know is that, after going to Barcelona’s SWAB fair on Saturday, in the interest of sanity, I should avoid art fairs altogether. At least I got to have a chocolate afterward.

Rather than “young,” the art at SWAB should have been billed as “immature”— adolescent scribbling like you wouldn’t believe. Or maybe you would. Luckily, however, as in Chicago, my inevitable tailspin was mitigated by later seeing spare, graceful, very grown up art, this time Rita McBride at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art(MACBA). While the MACBA building is another example, like the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, of harsh white walls and architectural hubris run amok (here that of Richard Meier), every exhibition I’ve seen at MACBA has been beautifully chosen and intelligently executed. Wait, I should say every recent exhibition I’ve seen, thereby excluding a gigantic show in 2005 devoted to Francis Alÿs, whose “diverse body of artwork that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics” (barf!) is a perfect example of what Jerry Saltz has accurately labeled and defined as “curator art.”

Richard Meier, Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art: Where's the art?

At least MACBA doesn’t have a café. Chicago’s Art Institute, given its monolithic isolation on Michigan Avenue, needs to offer sustenance to the hoards of attendees, but its food optionsclearly reflect its values. For the 1%, there’s the posh, reservations-only Terzo Piano upstairs, while downstairs the other 99% of us are relegated to the euphemistic “Museum Café,” really a cafeteria. Here the gastronomic choices (burger station, pizza station, and sandwiches entombed in plastic) are of food court quality and accompanied by endless petroleum products—despite being a location where no one would, or could, take meals away. I was appalled when I was there, but now visiting in Europe, I’m even more disgusted by our throwaway society. Clearly it was foolish of me to assume that a cultural institution would somehow be conscious of plastic being not only wasteful but unaesthetic (my chocolate, if served in a plastic cup, would not be nearly so tantalizing). I suddenly had the horrifying thought that for current generations of Americans, the concept of reusing crockery at all is likely to seem as antiquated as linen hankies.

Addressing my previous post, Ben F. comments, “The large white box and grand entrance are created to give a sense of permanence in the way banks used to be built. A sense that the bank would be here long after you are gone so that you could trust that your donations (of art/money) would be safe. The large space then needs to be fitted with art to scale.”

Again, silly me! I forgot that the main purpose of any institution is self-preservation, which means that the Art Institute’s primary concern is to secure the wherewithal that keeps it going. And there I was, thinking that it was about art!

May 27, 2012
I went to Chicago recently, and had a mini art crisis. One dark and stormy Sunday afternoon, blissed out after a morning of kundalini at Yoga in the Loop in the landmark Fine Arts Building, I crossed Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute to see Renzo Piano’s much-touted Modern Wing—and got all cranky.

First of all, while my press cards got me in free, unlike other museums where press are treated like members, I was sent to the regular ticket line, which shrank my allotted hour by more than half. Having only 20 minutes and being pretty familiar with Roy Lichtenstein and photographer Dawoud Bey, the subjects of special exhibitions, I took in the lobby/atrium, and headed upstairs to the galleries displaying the permanent collection—which is where I had my meltdown. OMG I’m SO bored with museums where there is some spectacular entrance, hallway, atrium (or stairway, in the case of Richard Meiers’s Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art) that serves as a showcase for the architect’s creative genius, his use of natural light and ability to spend millions of dollars, while the art is shunted off to be imprisoned in the same-old-same-old square white boxes with track lighting. Really, if I never see another piece of white-painted drywall again (such a lifeless material!) it will be too soon. I don’t know what the alternative is, but there’s gotta be another way. Perhaps if, instead of designing temples to their egos, architects were to think creatively about new ways art could be displayed, they might come up with something.

Renzo Piano, Modern Wing, Chicago Art Institute: Where is the art?

Anyway, featured in this particular white box on the second floor (Contemporary Art from 1960 to the Present) the walls were lined with deadpan portraits by Dutch photographer
Gehry Bandshell, Millennium Park, Chicago

Of course our Marxian friends will surely point out that last week, not far away from “The Bean,” as Chicagoans call the Kapoor, military-style police were bashing the heads of NATO protestors, and that both that action and the sculpture are expressions of the same mayoral power structure.** But does that mean they must be uniformly evil? The truth is that inspiring art makes people want to lead inspiring lives. Boredom achieves nothing.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004-8.
Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004-8, view from underneath.

 **While Mayor Richard Daley’s influence was key in the realization of the park, we have no reason to believe his police would have been more restrained than those of his successor, Rahm Emanuel, or that Emanuel does not see the value of the park.
May 14, 2012

·       Gerhard Richter, Clouds (Grey, 1969), oil on canvas, 150 cm x 200 cm.

I was starting to write a post about my trip to Chicago, but got distracted when I emailed to a friend that I was going to Paris soon to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Beaubourg and drawing show at the Louvre, and she sent me this, a rant about the commodification of his work by Reuters' Felix Salmon.

Richter’s paintings being commodities has nothing to do with Richter, the artist. Clearly this was not the artist’s decision, nor his intention. Contrary to what Salmon has to say, a majority of us in the “making” part of the art world think Richter is very important, someone with a tremendous influence (the fact that the film, “Gerhard Richter Painting” is still running, after two months, at Film Forum, is testimony to that). I, for one, am grateful to have a model, someone to look up to, who's still producing great work at 80 or whatever.

But here’s the thing: Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol aren’t just good artists, they’re important artists — among the most important of the 20th Century. They permanently changed the way we look at and think about art: what it is, what it can do, what it should look like. Richter’s no slouch on that front, but he’s not in their league, and never will be.

So how does a financial writer get to decide which artists are “important” and which aren’t? I don’t see Reuters asking me for financial analysis.

The writer’s assumptions are faulty on several counts. Just because Picasso and Warhol took longer to be recognized in the 20th century doesn't mean that's what's necessary to be an "important" artist in the 21st century, when communication is so much faster, when the cultural world is so much bigger and more savvy, and when (as a result of Picasso, Warhol, and Duchamp) “difficult” is easy, breaking rules (or looking as if you’re breaking rules) is the order of the day, and “meaningful” is much harder to come by. Given his times, which have been characterized by cynicism (think Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst) and any sincere attempt at beauty has been taboo, Richter is actually radical. In this climate, to be unabashedly conscious of painting's possible emotional content, to paint landscapes, family portraits, candles—anything that, in other hands, would be seen as sentimental—takes a lot of courage; not to speak of working in several different styles when most artists and galleries saw, and still see, developing a single "signature" as the only route to recognition (think BriceMarden).

Further, his dealer is not Gagosian, who might automatically be assumed to be promoting commodification but Richter, since the beginning, has been represented by Marian Goodman, who has always demonstrated enormous restraint, and for whom the art always comes first. 

So Richter makes a lot of paintings; let us not forget that it’s his passion, and he can afford to indulge it. The writer’s own examples, Picasso and Warhol, proved that it’s possible to be both prolific and “important.”

It's easy to bash success. But sometimes there's a reason for that success.

So what if collectors are having a feeding frenzy. I think/hope/pray that we're coming into a time when the spirituality in art (and, dare I say, b-b-b-beauty?) will again be celebrated, and Richter is leading the way.

May 5, 2012

The Art Sectionasked me to write about being both an artist and a writer.  It’s something people often are curious about, and not so easy to address because I know of no other way to be; having two modes of expression is as natural for me as having two arms or two legs. And I don’t think it’s all that unusual. The artists I know vary widely, from those whose entire creative energy goes into their work to the point that they pay little attention to what they wear or what their house looks like, to John Kelly, who’s been called an “aesthetic octopus” because of his mastery of the performing arts (singing, dancing, choreography and acting) as well as drawing, painting, and writing. Some people need to concentrate, others are fed by diversity; both traits can make for good artists.

            I think about art all the time, and writing is my way of exploring those ideas and making them into something useful. For me, having thoughts and not applying them would be like living in a house stuffed floor-to-ceiling with balls of yarn and never knitting anything. Writing allows me to root around in my mind and surprise myself with what’s there. I find ideas I never knew I had, and following their thread takes me to places I never expected to be—to the point that I often crack myself up. If I didn’t write I wouldn’t know just how absurd, funny, and contradictory life really is.

            Writing also allows me to root around in the minds of other artists, ask them questions and try to find out what makes them tick—as part of my lifelong (if futile) attempt to discover how art comes about. It’s a privilege to be so affected by someone like, say, Robert Irwin, who was my biggest influence early on, and later to meet him, watch him work, and be able to sit down with him and ask him anything I want. That I then have to boil the information down and explain it to other people in the plainest possible terms gives me the push I need to truly metabolize what I’ve learned. It’s the same when I write reviews. On my own, I’d never take the time to analyze art so thoroughly—my attention span is short; writing keeps me on track. Even so, I could never be a full-time art critic because I just don’t see enough, on a regular basis, to inspire me. When I do find something to write about, I’m as excited as the artist who’s being written about—because ultimately it’s about what I can learn to feed my own work.

            So if I write to discover the ideas in my head, I paint or draw to reveal the pictures that are tucked away in its wordless nooks and crannies. I love the process because it really is a “thoughtless” activity in the best sense of the word, where my only resource is my intuition and ability to visualize what might come next. It’s not a meditation because in meditation, while practicing to detach from thoughts, you’re still aware of their never-ending stream. When it’s working, making art is about being part of a beautiful flow, like dance or sex, where each action satisfies one possibility while suggesting another—and where any attempt at thinking, analyzing, or judging, just screws it up. Assessment has to be reserved for later, sometimes much later. While I’m writing, I have a clear sense of whether it’s good or not. With art, I could change my mind a million times; whether I think I’m the best or worst artist in the world has a lot to do with how much sleep I’ve gotten or what I had for breakfast,.

            The other question I’m asked is, “which is more difficult, writing or making art?” Quite definitely, it’s making art, because with writing, the language has already been created and comes with recognized objective standards. With visual art, especially abstract art, nothing is given; we must make up our own language and communicate on totally subjective terms—which is, of course, it’s beauty and challenge.

Carol Diehl, Untitled (so far), 2012
April 26, 2012
Charles Atlas, Painting by Numbers, 2011, video (Photo: Carol Diehl)

When I first saw the impressively wall-size my experiencewith the de Koonings at MoMA) these pieces, upon extended viewing, became more repetitious and tedious. How could that be? Video and film, just by being able to incorporate movement, should be more interesting than, say (for comparison, given the scale) a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. And it can happen: Nam June Paik, who started the whole video phenom, was a master of surprise. Christian Marclay’s film smorgsbords can keep you transfixed for, well, 24 hours.

But then not all that looks new, is new. On his Facebook page, British artist Alasdair Duncan, who I met when he was installing his exhibition at  Stephanie Theodore in Bushwick, posted examples of abstract animation that offer some historical perspective. Enjoy! And thank you, Alasdaire.

Len Lye, “Trade Tattoo,” 1932, made in association with the British General :
Post Office:

Len Lye, “Color Flight,” 1937, also made in association with the British General Post Office.

More Len Lye hereand here.

John Whitney, “Catalog,”1961

John Whitney, “Matrix III,” 1972

April 15, 2012
At first I wasn’t going to write this post because it seemed too personal. But then I couldn’t justify the difference between reading my poetry to 150 people at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, as I used to, and putting it on the Web. Anyway, this came up because of the week-long kundalini yoga workshop I just finished at Kripalu, along with another 3-day course just a couple of weeks ago. I love kundalini because it works on energetic alignment as well as physical; when I do it, I feel as if I’m straightening out my brain.

In the workshop our teacher showed the TED video by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, describing her stroke and the experience of coming close to death (note: it’s inspiring, not depressing, otherwise I wouldn’t share it; I’m not into depressing).  I had a similar experience—without the stroke part—and hearing it so aptly described and close to my own, was startling. I’d also never heard right and left brain function defined precisely this way: that the right brain thinks in pictures and is about the collective, while the left brain is linear, wants to name things, and is concerned with establishing an individual sense of self. I used to owe it to my lack of formal higher education—and that could be part of it—but now I also understand that from going to the other side and coming back, where everything is new again, I developed the peculiar ability (which both helps and hinders me) to stand outside a thing or situation and see it without the names or the layers of meaning society has given it. I can still often look at humans and view them as an alien might coming across them for the first time—and believe me, compared to other animals (I think it’s the lack of body hair with the thatch on top), they ‘re completely weird and funky-looking.

I also realize now why I’m so ardent about letting art speak for itself, about allowing for the possibility of emotional response rather than always having to define it or give information that makes it seem rational. This is why I rail against the museum wall texts and idiotic artist’s statements that become the lenses through which art is viewed. Art, like music, is a language without words, and the way it invokes sensation is mysterious and inscrutable. I’ve chosen to be an abstract artist because it’s an investigation into making something that’s essentially unknowable, where the possibilities of interpretation are boundless.

But then I’m also a writer, which gives the lie to it all, as I go about creating defined situations in order to promote undefined ones. Life is a paradox.


They say write about what you know
Well I know
about death

I have felt death’s
icy numbness
creeping up my legs
toward my heart

I have seen faces
hovering over me
as I am pumped full
of the
of strangers

I have felt my body
into a pillar of

Don’t scream, the doctor said

I have wished for death and prayed for life
to a god I didn’t believe in
but promised
I would
If I lived

I have known an aloneness beyond description
before descending
into unpeopled blackness

And I have wakened
to the cruel bright whiteness
of a recovery room

too loud, too alive
with voices
the clatter of metal against metal

My husband, noting I am conscious
fills me in on current events
He and Willy had been talking about it
In the car on the way to the hospital
and now he is giving me
an update

And I’m feeling guilty
because I’m alive
and I don’t believe
in God

After two weeks I go home
everything is strange
I feel like an immigrant
newly arrived
who happens to speak the language
but doesn’t know the customs
and no one I meet
has been where I’m from

So now I know about death
but I’m no longer afraid
I believe in a god
And I’m not married anymore.

Copyright © 1994, Carol Diehl

Carol Diehl, Alexandra, 2011, pastel and pencil on board, 9' x 12".