Monthly Archives: January 2013

New York

An Existential Survival Kit

First Work Set (1963–69)

First Work Set (1963–69)

This past Friday, the Museum of Modern Art presented a demonstration of First Work Set (1963–69) by Franz Erhard Walther. The piece is a collection of canvas bundles, suggestive of army tents or boat rigging, complete with an over sized life vest. The bundles are labeled with simple directives or descriptions such as “for two people,” or  “standard object.”  But as I looked carefully, I noticed that one is labeled “to forget” and another, more ominously, “to understand brutality.” What knowledge could be wrapped up in that deceptively simple package?

This is early “relational” art, in the best sense of the word. Franz was among the artists in the sixties who pioneered our current trend for art that examines the space between individuals or art that is “activated” by an interaction with the viewer. For some of the elements, the rules of engagement are clearly determined by the piece’s shape—such as the cloth covered masonite that hung from the neck of two intimately connected strangers (an early forebear of Liz Nurenberg’s wearable sculptures for two), or the long strip with a forearm shaped pocket—but some of the canvas shapes are more ambiguous, requiring invention from the viewer/audience.

The need for invention, and the viewer interactions that arose out of the demonstration exemplified why this kind of work is important–it jostles the brain, makes people feel a little silly, and presents very simple suggestions for seeing the world differently.

Though not technically a drawing ( a work on paper), this piece was in the Recent Acquisitions in Drawings exhibit because it is accompanied by a lengthy series of sketches. These pieces work symbiotically with the canvas objects, serving as a guide for use and a record of “the inner view” of the work–as Franz noted, “what happens within the person who experiences the piece, cannot be recorded by a camera.” The drawings were visually interesting and playful, giving an insight into Franz’s inner logic and mental meanderings.

For many artists the definition of drawing is less about the materials used and more about the intention: a drawing is an idea, an impetus in its most direct or basic form, or the process of seeing clearly. I have heard artist’s refer to a sound drawing, or been shown a drawing made of hair. By this definition, Franz’s canvas pieces were themselves drawings: activities for seeing clearly the elements of sculpture; actions that revealed their internal logic with no frills attached.

At the end of the two hour demonstration I approached the artist and asked him about the brutality bundle. He gave me an enigmatic smile but brushed my question aside saying that it “marked a moment in time” but really had nothing to do with the piece. I felt deflated, but not totally surprised–what sort of explanation or intimate revelation was I imagining I would receive during the rushed, post-performance hub-bub?

Since the performance, I find myself inventing canvas-bound scenarios which could potentially reveal the meaning of human cruelty, the mechanics of love or how to forget unwanted pain. And I try to imagine the circumstances of the brutality bundle’s creation. Did Franz experience brutality personally or was he at a safely contemplative distance? Is the sculpture dangerous? Or is the brutality totally abstracted? The art continues unfolding in my head, though the objects themselves are back somewhere in MoMA’s vast vaults.

This circling of thoughts, this potential for poetry, and possibility for answers that will always be just out of reach– that in itself is a survival kit.

Los Angeles

Arts Matter: The best of the rest from 2012

To wrap up 2012 and bound into 2013 without any baggage, here, in mostly chronological order, are the interesting images I have collected over the year, of art works that I experienced but didn’t end up writing about at the time.

I attended a heartening number of solid shows at artist-run spaces. Among the highlights were Liz Nurenberg‘s wearable sculptures and MUC‘s Carnival of Insecurities. Both these art events grabbed me with their honest embrace of dysfunction and their humorous yet earnest solutions.

THEEVERYMANY (Marc Fornes) Y/Struc/Surf 2010

THEEVERYMANY (Marc Fornes) Y/Struc/Surf 2010

This piece in the Centre Pompiduo represents a growing field of applying computer programming and generative processes to art and design. Flashy design technology probably won’t remain that interesting or cutting edge for long, but Everymany is leading the field in visually impressive directions.
Ahmed Mater, Magnetism. (c) Ahmed Mater and the Trustees of the British Museum

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism.
(c) Ahmed Mater and the Trustees of the British Museum

Part of the British Museum’s Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, an exhibition which explored the history of the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ahmed Mater’s striking sculpture of iron filings surrounding a small magnet, eloquently captured the collective energy and awe of not only the hajj, but of belonging to the Islamic faith.
Exploring Liz Glynn's "Anonymous Needs and Desires," part of her installation at the Hammer Biennial.

Exploring Liz Glynn’s “Anonymous Needs and Desires,” part of her installation at the Hammer Biennial.

Liz Glynn’s installation at the Hammer’s Made in LA biennial, balanced visual pleasure with a science museum’s hands-on exploration. It was smart but approachable, grounded in current events but nuanced and open ended, without the unpleasant aftertaste of a political diatribe.


The LA public bus emblazoned with Barbara Kruger’s words makes me happy every time I see it; not only is it a splash of visual excitement when stuck in traffic, but it also proclaims loudly the importance of education in eradicating prejudice, encouraging empathy, developing self-confidence and building a healthy society. This is the first bus in the LA Fund’s year-long Arts Matter campaign, hoping to raise $1.5 million for arts education.  Yes, apparently the greater metropolis and our city’s politicians need reminding that the arts matter, as absurd as that may seem to me.

In addition to the success of Arts Matter, I have some other art related wishes for 2013, just in case the universe is listening.

To interview Wangechi Mutu. Her December show at Susan Vielmetter Gallery used collage to powerful effect. One piece very specifically referred to traditional African masks and rituals, and I hesitate to interpret the piece myself–a conversation with the artist is the obvious solution.

To see a really great painting show. One that delights, inspires and moves me, or stirs something that I don’t understand. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

A trip to either Amsterdam or Accra. I’m always itching to travel and see new work, but there are particularly exciting things happening in these cities. On a more achievable scale, while on the east coast this spring I hope to visit Amalia Pica’s show in Boston, this exhibition at Princeton and squeeze in the current Picasso exhibition at the Guggenheim.

A Fantastic Heliotherapy logo. Any graphic designers looking to trade skills?

Some clarity. I started this blog at the beginning of 2012 with the tentative sense that I had some things to say and didn’t want to wait until someone asked my opinion. I am still figuring out if this counts as criticism, what is interesting to readers and where to point my nose. Your feedback is truly appreciated.

With that, into 2013 we go!