Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
I have always believed that historical importance and financial value align over time. At any moment there are new fads and micro-markets (we can all point to artists who seem overvalued in relation to some of their peers) but it all comes out in the wash, eventually.
Take, for example, the market for the work of Andy Warhol. Despite his possibly unrivaled fame, for decades his greatest works sold for a tenth of those of equivalent quality by Jasper Johns. This can be explained in several ways, but I focus on just one here: Johns was an ideal of a great painter, while Warhol was the new—and not entirely welcome—reality. These artists can be seen as defining the two poles of Pop Art: that of mastery and that of mechanical reproduction (or, one artist whose work embodies the highest values of painting as we have always known it and another who forever redefined our very understanding of art).
It took decades for the market to see the brilliance (and, yes, also the great hand) of Warhol, whose art and reality so often threatened to unravel the systems within which art had historically been valued. The market did not catch up until 1998—11 years after the artist died—when Orange Marilyn (1964) sold for $17.3m.
Just because Warhol made paintings using silkscreens in a “Factory”; just because he made the most glib comments about art and work, and about money and success, it took the market a long time to understand that his paintings are paintings (and not as ubiquitous as their repetition might imply) and that Warhol was not only a great artist, but also a great maker.
There has been no greater artist since Andy Warhol than Andy Warhol. He changed what art is, who sees it, how we look at it (and at ourselves), and where it resides within culture. Andy redefined the very presence of fine art as well as how it functions commercially and societally. He fused this country’s greatest contribution to the history of art—popular culture—with fine art, forever repositioning both.
And so, articles focusing on the shaky state of the Warhol market have increasingly agitated me. Ironic, isn’t it, that the artist who redefined a work of art as a commodity within a system of commodities might potentially be downgraded by the very market he defined.
So thank heavens for the Whitney Museum’s Warhol retrospective, which opened this week (“Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back”, 12 November-31 March). This brilliant and incisive show, curated by the great and insightful Donna De Salvo, shows the breadth of Warhol’s genius. De Salvo presents us with her razor sharp selections, creating a precise path through Warhol’s work and allowing us to see and understand the importance of all of those brilliant moments—and how they added up to a lifetime of curiosity, invention and wisdom.
If you think you know Warhol, this exhibition makes clear that we are just beginning to understand how profound and relevant an artist he was, and continues to be. The work and the scope of its content, presence and viewpoints appears even more insightful today than it did 30 years ago, when he died, or 60 years ago when he first emerged as a fine artist.
The issues that were the obsessions of his life—politics, race, sexuality, desire, identity and mortality—are as central to the discourse of art and society today as they were to his work when he started to make it. While often camouflaged by irony, artifice, stardom and the unsettling arm of disconnection, Warhol’s work is more pertinent than ever. We should all take note.
There are so many wonderful experiences in this exhibition; I wanted to list a few.
Absent yet present
The show begins and ends with a “Camouflage” painting. The camouflage, which didn’t enter Warhol’s work until 1986, is a surrogate self-portrait of the artist; a way of being both present and unexposed—which was a leitmotif of Warhol’s life. As we come to learn through this retrospective, though, this was not simply a game of obfuscation played by Warhol, but more his keen understanding of the crisis of the self that defines human psychology in our times.
The first work you see upon entering the exhibition proper is Dance Diagram , [“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”] (1962), a painting displayed on the ground that “starts” one’s journey into Warhol’s world, by learning how to dance forward. It is a playful and rigorous work, reminding us that Warhol was more incisive about the formal content of art than he is given credit for.
The drawings! What a revelation! Here they are shown as we have never seen them before: not always through the rose-colored innocence of first love, as they are usually shown, but immersed in the endless cavalcade of life with grit, filth and unrequited desire.
We see not just the great shoe drawings or children’s books, the cake and clothing drawings we know so well, but also a man mainlining heroin displayed beside Amy Vanderbilt’s instructions on how to shuck oysters. We see a mother nursing a pet; a constipated woman; gloriously fetishized feet; femme-men; men loving each other. Some drawings seem to be celebrations of the unfinished. There are drawings of newspapers, and also the writing of the news—on controversial topics including politics, race and death. There is lots of sex. And then there are paintings of Dick Tracy and Superman which De Salvo so naturally connects to sexual desire in a way that is so evident but had until now been hidden in plain sight.
Riot of color
The show includes amazing paintings created as solo works, in pairs, or as part of a trio—as well as those on infinite roll. We are exposed to the moods of Warhol’s palette, from honey-colored race riots to electric chairs in purple and toxic, electrified green. The exhibition explodes with confrontational content beautifully portrayed, not a price tag lingering in the back of the mind.
Heads of state
Nixon and Mao (and McGovern).
Warhol’s 1975 paintings of drag queens, “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Never was a body of work so perfectly named, with dignity and decorum.
Sense of an ending
During the final dozen years of his life came Warhol’s great reinvention, during which he approached his subjects with more introspection and a greater sense of ennui: hammers and sickles, piss and death in the “Oxidation” series and skull paintings. During this time he painted society and the self; the here and the empty ever after.
There is, at the end of the exhibition, an enigmatic room about mortality, eternity and death containing a “Rorschach” painting at each end. Opposite one another on the remaining two walls are monumental works. One is of ever-repeating Mona Lisas in solarized white, fading into brushstrokes. The other is a camouflage pattern superimposed over a massive double Last Supper.
Having come of age as an artist when abstraction was at its height, Warhol once explained why he had turned instead to the graphic kind of representational painting that came to be known as Pop, and which was antithetical to the dynamic spirit of the individual of Abstraction Expressionism. He said—as much in confession as with irony—that he was not a good enough artist to paint like Franz Kline.
Yet in the final decade of his life, Warhol took on the mantle of his predecessors: the abstraction of Kline in his paintings of shadows; the gesture of Pollock with the so-called “Piss Paintings”; the cut-outs of Matisse in his camouflage canvasses, and in the haunting embrace of the tabula rasa that are the “Rorschach” works.
Each of these bodies of work is far from the supposed artifice that made Warhol famous. Indeed, they question the very essence of meaning, existence, life and death.
At the same time, Warhol had the last laugh—a brilliant and existential one—in coming to abstraction his way. Each of these seeming abstractions are rooted in imagery, that of photographs (shadows), received processes (oxidations) and forms (camouflage). They are anything but pure abstraction, and instead representations of abstraction, every one of them.
When future generations (quite possibly on other planets) retell the story of the human race in the second half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st, the exploration of space will surely constitute a major narrative thread.
It weaves not only in and out of global politics and advancements in all areas of technology (particularly warfare, environmentalism and communications) but also, importantly, through the poetic, imaginative consciousness of our species. As the artist Forrest Myers put it, “Darwinian evolution seemed to happen in fossil time, but seeing Man leave the Earth and step foot on the Moon was both instant and epic.”
This month, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base, California, carrying Trevor Paglen’s sculpture Orbital Reflector. The ambitious work will join the small but distinguished category of astronautical art—that is, art not about space or which pictures it, but which is actually designed to enter space and exist there either temporarily or permanently.
Orbital Reflector is a satellite the size of a shoebox which will be ejected from the rocket along with 70 other shoeboxes (known in the industry as CubeSats) about 350 miles above the Earth. Compressed carbon dioxide canisters will then inflate a 100ft-long balloon made from a shiny plastic similar to Mylar, which will—if all goes according to plan—serenely orbit the Earth for a scheduled two months.
Paglen’s intention is to create a satellite whose purpose is not to look down at Earth or to look further out into space, as with almost every other satellite ever made, but to be seen. An app will enable viewers standing anywhere on the globe to see, at dusk—a comet-like point of light progressing across the night sky.
As the Orbital Reflector website puts it, Paglen’s $1.3m project—organized in collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art—“could help to change the way we see our place in the world”. Indeed, this has arguable been an aim of all astronautical art. Here, we take a brief tour through some of the historical precedents for Paglen’s satellite.
Malevich’s fellow travelers
While the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler is thought to be the first person to imagine extraterrestrial travel in his 1608 novel Somnium, Kazimir Malevich was probably the first to conceive of a work of art designed to exist in space.
The Kiev-born Suprematist was obsessed with astronomy and the cosmos, and during his years living and teaching in Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus, (1919-1922), he was never without his pocket telescope.
In 1920 he published Suprematism: 34 Drawings, an astonishing illustrated text about his theories. It was here that he famously first used the Russian word “sputnik”, meaning “fellow traveler”, to describe man-made satellites. He also presented designs for such objects—termed planits—which were essentially floating space versions of his arkhitektons, constructions that could house the earthlings of the future in self-sustaining, hermetic utopian communities.
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Lost and found in the ocean of storms
While working with the organization Experiments in Art and Technology, founded by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman with engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, Forrest Myers came up with the idea of putting a work of art on the Moon. Apollo 11 had just landed on the Moon in July 1969, and Apollo 12 was already scheduled to lift off in November that same year.
The object comprised drawings by Myers and five other prominent artists: Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, David Novros, John Chamberlain and Claes Oldenburg. Each drawing—in Rauschenberg’s case, a single line; in Oldenburg’s, an abstraction of Mickey Mouse; in Warhol’s, weirdly, a scrawled cock and balls—was inscribed on a thin ceramic chip about an inch long.
Myers waited anxiously for final approval of the project from NASA. It never arrived. Instead, he persuaded an engineer working on Apollo 12 to surreptitiously insert the chip into a leg of the lunar lander. In the final hours before launch Myers received a telegram from the engineer: “You’re on. A-OK. All systems are go. John F.” As far as anyone knows, Moon Museum is still on the lander in the Ocean of Storms today.Back to Table of Contents
From a dinner party to outer space
The second work of art to go to the Moon was Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck’s aluminum sculpture Fallen Astronaut (1971). The piece remains mired in controversy, ironically in part because, in contrast to Moon Museum, it was approved by NASA.
Van Hoeydonck had long been inspired by the cosmos and by humankind’s recent explorations of its reaches. After meeting Apollo 15’s commander David Scott at a dinner party, the pair agreed, with the approval of NASA, to place one of Van Hoeydonck’s works on the Moon.
The piece needed to be small enough to fit into Scott’s personal effects, light, and resilient to extreme heat and cold. Van Hoeydonck designed and fabricated a 3.3in-tall abstract figure from solid aluminum, which he felt represented the future of the human species.
However, the crew had their own ideas, and dedicated the sculpture on the Moon, along with a small plaque, as a memorial to all the astronauts who had died in the race to the stars, titling it Fallen Astronaut. Van Hoeydonck was uncredited for a long time after the Apollo 15 mission, and remains dismayed by the misinterpretation of his work.Back to Table of Contents
The challenge for artists attempting to get their work into space is that on any mission, everything on the spacecraft must be an operational or scientific necessity. In 1976, however, NASA conceived of an initiative whereby unused cargo space on the space shuttle could be offered (at a price) to external agencies and individuals.
The scheme, wittily known as the Getaway Special (or GAS)—named after a cut-price flight from LAX to Hawaii—was similar to the arrangement that will enable Paglen to send his satellite payload on SpaceX’s rocket. All projects nevertheless had to be evaluated for their scientific, educational or technological worth.
Artist Ellery Kurtz and environmental psychologist Howard Wishnow founded the organization Vertical Horizons to explore the cultural enrichment of life in space. In 1986 their GAS proposal to send four of Kurtz’s oil paintings into Earth orbit was accepted by NASA, on the basis that their experiment would test the effects of space travel on traditional art media. Aboard the space shuttle Columbia, Kurtz’s oil paintings became the first to orbit the Earth.Back to Table of Contents
Everything and nothing
Artist Lowry Burgess also harbored ambitions to send a work of art into space but was determined that his project would not be mischaracterized as a scientific experiment. He intensively lobbied NASA to relax its criteria for inclusion on a space mission, and in 1989 his sculpture Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture became the first non-scientific payload launched by NASA.
Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture is a six-pound, five-inch cube of bronze-tinted transparent glass, symbolic, in Burgess’ words, of “everything and nothing”. Inside, a glass cube contained distilled samples from 18 rivers, lakes and water sources around the world, augmented with additional traces of every stable element in the periodic table. The cube stands for “everything”. Floating inside this cube is another, smaller one, a vacuum surrounded by exposed but blank photographic holograms—this is “nothing”.
After 90 orbits of the Earth the cube returned to Earth and is now displayed encased by petrified sycamore from the Grand Canyon, permanently floating in a magnetic field and sunk into a stone outcrop, in the grounds of the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Massachusetts.Back to Table of Contents
Dancing through space
The American-born, Swiss-based artist Arthur Woods was contracted to create a sculpture to be taken aboard the Russian space station Mir. In comparison to astronautical art precedents, the parameters set by the Russian Aviation and Space Agency were rather more generous: the resulting piece, Cosmic Dancer, weighs exactly 1kg in weight and measures 35cm x 35cm x 40cm—small enough to fit through the airlocks of the space station.
In many respects, Cosmic Dancer is a rather conventional non-objective sculpture. Made from square aluminum tubing, it is painted with a spatter effect reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, but which Woods has called Pointillist. Given its designation as a “non-gravitational space sculpture”, it has no top or bottom, no obvious right or wrong way up. The Russian cosmonauts allowed it to float freely in their living space and are documented on video “dancing” with the object.Back to Table of Contents
Spotted on Mars
As with earlier works of art that were permitted on space missions on the condition that they did double duty by being scientifically useful as well as aesthetically or conceptually interesting, Damien Hirst’s spot painting on the Beagle 2 Mars lander is actually a functional instrument disguised as art.
The director of the consortium which developed Beagle 2 was British scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, who described his role as “professor of PR” and “pop entrepreneur”. Hoping to raise publicity for the project and attract funders, he enlisted the pop band Blur to write a nine-note call signal, and commissioned Hirst to produce a painting that was also a visual calibration target for several on-board cameras and instruments.
The small aluminum plate was imprinted with color samples similar to the tones of the Martian terrain. In addition, Hirst added two discs of non-functional colors, green and blue, representing the Earth, and designated it an example of his well-known “Spot Painting” series.
Beagle 2 was scheduled to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003 but after successfully deploying from its orbiter lost contact and was never heard from again. It was considered lost until 2015, when a subsequent Mars mission discovered the lander on the planet’s surface.Back to Table of Contents
Trevor Paglen’s post-human art
Before Paglen’s long-held ambition to launch his own satellite became a reality, he was commissioned by public art organization Creative Time to develop an artifact designed to last billions of years. Mounted on the exterior of the EchoStar XVI communications satellite, The Last Pictures consists of a silicon disk in a gold casing with 100 images micro-etched into its surface. The images were chosen by Paglen in consultation with scientists, philosophers, anthropologists and artists as a record of the human race to be seen and interpreted so many years into the future that the human race may no longer exist.Back to Table of Contents
For several years I was an obituarist for a British newspaper. Depressing, people assumed. Far from it. The “dead desk” was a rather jolly affair—obituaries are celebrations of life rather than reports of coronaries and car crashes.
But my interest was more specific. I have long been fascinated by last hurrahs and final acts, those great last-minute bats for the boundary. So, this month, my column is dedicated to three volumes that celebrate the elegiac.
The great beyond
The American West has changed immeasurably over the past half a century. In Steve Fitch’s wonderful photographic survey Vanishing Vernacular: Western Landmarks we find a fading world of the hotels, diners, radio masts and cinemas dotted along the highways. In a similar vein to the city vistas of Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbot and – in particular – the studies of cooling towers by Bernd and Hiller Becher, Fitch produces a moving paean to the landmarks of yesteryear.
Photographing the hop kilns of Mendocino County during his college days opened his eyes to the impermanence of vernacular landscape. An obsession was born. “I travelled at a time when there was an interesting character to the roadside: a pre-franchise cornucopia of idiosyncratic motel signs, drive-in movie theaters, beautiful figurative and architectural neon, and crazy roadside establishments ranging from snake pits to dinosaur parks.” This is Americana of an imaginative kind.
The palette of these punctuations—signs created predominantly in the 1940s and 1950s—was intended to arrest motorists’ eyes. The colors of candy—red, turquoise, yellow, pink—emphasize the modest promises of small-scale establishments (“Heated pool, refrigerated apartments”, boasts La Mesita Lodge in Arizona). It was Abstract Expressionism for travelling salesmen and truck drivers.
Fitch shot these pictures over some four decades and notes, plaintively, that almost all of the unique signs in these pages have disappeared. But it is not just the signs that are vanishing: along with them go the various artisanal crafts—the signwriting, molding, neon work—that created them. And, more pertinently, the human interaction they represent.
And consider the redundant drive-in cinemas, with their buzz of engines and chatter, now replaced by streamed films on iPhones. As Fitch’s photographs illustrate, not all change is progress.
Vanishing Vernacular: Western Landmarks is published by George F Thompson Publishing
“I have sworn to myself to die painting,” remarked Cézanne. Of course, not all artists are afforded that opportunity, as historian Bernard Chambaz observes in The Last Painting: Final Works of the Great Masters, from Giotto to Twombly. Luca Signorelli fell off his scaffolding while inspecting his final altarpiece, but plenty of masters simply withered away. This remarkable book illustrates the full range of works produced in the final days of great talents. It is a bittersweet gallery.
Identifying a final work can be tricky. As Chambaz explains: “Sometimes debate amongst art historians and other experts can settle the matter, sometimes not. Such enigmas leave open the possibility of discovering wonderful stories along the way.”
Some of these last paintings are mournfully prescient. Corot depicted a monk playing a cello; Casper David Friedrich drew an owl sitting on a coffin. Van Gogh’s swansong is perhaps the most famous: a murder of crows flapping over a wheat field. (Although there’s no definitive evidence that this was his last work, it does make for a great story.) Bernard Buffet’s Storm in Brittany (1999) also depicted black crows, this time flying in over a stormy harbor in a scene worthy of Hitchcock.
Other endgames are bursting with life. Henri Rousseau’s Le Rêve (The Dream) (1910) features a jungle of verdant greens, a voluptuous woman reclining nude on a chaise longue and trees full of fruit and birds. Not long after painting this lush scene the unlucky Frenchman died of gangrene from a gash to his leg.
Chambaz has an extraordinary writing style, positioned midway between the macabre and the poetic, the torrid and the florid. It’s rather effective. Take his entry on Edvard Munch: “Munch began to decompose after 23 January 1944, in the generous earth of the Cemetery of Our Saviour, opposite the fjord, in the shade of birches and pines.” Such mitigated beauty runs through this fascinating volume.
The Last Painting: Final Works of the Great Masters, from Giotto to Twombly is published by ACC Art Books
Au revoir Duchamp?
Like fashion and sport, the field of contemporary art is awash with garbled half-baked commentary. Into this squall of contemperhooey, gallerist David Zwirner has provided a lifeboat of clarity. His eponymous boutique publishing house is dedicated to good-quality writing about the visual arts, and its latest publication, Duchamp’s Last Day, by artist and writer Donald Shambroom, is a fascinating addition to its list.
“In Paris, in the early afternoon of October 1, 1968, the last day of his life, Marcel Duchamp made a trip to the Vuibert bookshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain,” writes Shambroom, adding that the artist was “returning to the shop to gather materials he had ordered for a final playful assault on everyday experience”. What follows is both an account of Marcel Duchamp’s final hours in Paris—shopping, posting a letter, a touch of Left Bank strolling, seeing friends—and an existential art mystery.
That fateful evening Duchamp hosted a dinner for his partner-in-art Man Ray and their friend, the critic Robert Lebel. They ate pheasant, complained about ageing and reveled in morbid wordplay. Death seemed to be waiting in the wings. Duchamp “was being deflowered by mortality and loving it”, states Shambroom.
I won’t say what happens next—no spoilers here—but this curious, wonderfully written little book poses the question: “Can the lifetime collaboration of two artists be extended a few hours after one of them has died?” The debate—impossible to conclude—is gloriously Duchampian.
Duchamp’s Last Day is published by David Zwirner Books
In Must See
One of the oldest university colleges to be run by women, for women, Newnham College, Cambridge, was founded in 1871. It is one of only three remaining colleges at the university with an all-female intake.
This pioneering bastion of female learning has now blazed a new trail in public art by commissioning an exceptional and unorthodox piece of permanent sculpture for its new Dorothy Garrod Building (named after the Newnham-trained archaeologist who was the first woman to hold a professorial chair at either Oxford or Cambridge, the building has been designed by Walters & Cohen architects).
Beyond Thinking, by British artist Cathy de Monchaux, takes the form of a cast bronze, 35ft-tall tower of 21 open books. There is a small female figure embedded within the spine of each book, within a tangle of twisting vines—snaking plant forms which extend out over the pages, curling around the edges. It is unclear whether these veiny branches are subsuming or expelling the female forms that are carved into the cleft.
The figures themselves are freighted with ancient and modern associations. With their featureless faces, turbaned heads and draped bodies these 21 females could either be archaic goddesses or voluptuous, va-va-voom Hollywood divas. Despite their powerful presence there is a poignant fragility about their delicate shrouded shapes, spidery fingers and wrapped feet.
The sculpture is next to the porter’s lodge near the building’s main entrance and runs up its entire façade. From afar, the stacked column of repeated rectangular forms looks rhythmically textured and, up close, the intricacy of the detail is beguiling.
De Monchaux, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998, is known for her emotionally charged and viscerally suggestive sculpture. In this sculpture, which ostensibly depicts books and plants, there is a sensual fleshiness not commonly associated with monumental bronze sculpture.
The psychological charge of the sculpture is heightened by the ways in which its surfaces have been highlighted and burnished as if by repeated ritualistic rubbings—which both the artist and the college are keen to encourage people to do.
The dearth of female figures among Cambridge University’s art and monuments, and the proliferation of creepers and vines engulfing many of the city’s most ancient and traditionally male colleges are both factors that inform Beyond Thinking.
Another key inspiration was Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, which explores the social, political and financial conditions needed to promote women’s creativity. The seminal tract was itself based on two lectures Woolf delivered to the female students of Newnham and Girton College.
The need for women (and everyone else) to be allowed the freedom for their minds to wander and inspiration to appear is summed up in de Monchaux’s choice of title, which she describes as “that point in academic or creative thinking when you just can’t think anymore, but suddenly everything unexpectedly comes together”. In this most anti-monumental of contemporary monuments, it most certainly has.
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