Winter 2015
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V. INTERVIEWS

Shaina Larrivee on Noguchi’s Catalogue Raisonné

Isamu Noguchi by Kazumi Kurigami, 1988

Isamu Noguchi by Kazumi Kurigami, 1988

Artist Isamu Noguchi embraced the ideas of Modernism, believing in the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment with the aid of new industry and technology. But he was also concerned with preserving centuries old traditions of art and craft of Japan, where he lived as a child, and of the countries he traveled throughout his life. His work, equally, crossed several disciplines and was often collaborative, and while his progressive social ambitions prescribed his versatility as an artist, his evolving interest in materials and material expression made him a prolific one. He is the author of over 3,000 works encompassing sculpture, drawings, architectural spaces, stage sets, and manufactured designs. Hence the residual challenges inherent to The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, Queens.

In 1985, at the age of 81, Noguchi opened his own foundation and museum to preserve and display ephemera of his process and his work. He had established his studio in Long Island City on the current premise over twenty years earlier, in 1961. Clearly he was ahead of his time since the neighbourhood has evolved into a hub of cultural institutions, including, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, MoMA QNS, and the Sculpture Center and Socrates Sculpture Park. Today, housed in a converted factory, connected to a building and interior garden of Noguchi’s design, the Museum exhibits installations originally designed by the artist, alongside new exhibitions that contextualise his work contemporarily in its ten galleries.

The Noguchi Foundation shares the 27,000 square-foot space of the Museum and uses an adjacent facility for research, documentation, and storage. Because Noguchi was so prolific, the Foundation’s research is still, in part, dedicated to deciphering what is a “Noguchi” from the unattributed sculptures, furniture and industrial designs, and preparatory materials like pencil sketches and plaster moulds that surfaces on the present, cohesive layer of his known history. While a high percentage of Noguchi’s works were public commissions, such as sculptural gardens and parks, or sculpture that quickly entered museum and private collections, some works, such as industrial and furniture designs have gone unattributed until recently. This has been one of the rewards of the Foundation’s work: discovering artworks lost within private collections or utilitarian objects that have been scattered around the world, stored away, or lingering on the shelves of vintage stores, considered as obsolete.

A Life’s Work
Noguchi’s highly recognisable civic works and public gardens include his UNESCO Garden of Peace in Paris, The California Scenario, in Costa Mesa, California, and the Sunken Garden at Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York City. These works, involving a large amount of paving with cut and natural stone, are like footprints on the environment, juxtaposed with their surroundings. His other highly public works were theatre sets, of which he made over 30, primarily for the iconic choreographers including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Noguchi’s most ubiquitous industrial designs are traditional paper-lanterns produced by the historic manufacturer Akari. A rarer industrial design, which belongs to the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, is his ultra-modern, sleek baby monitor for Zenith electronics, the Radio Nurse. Some of these works were ephemera – theatre sets, for example, could not be preserved, and many examples of his mass-produced designs, such as his wooden rocking stool, were used casually, as Noguchi wanted, but discarded after becoming worn, the value never realised in the secondary market. The Foundation only recently discovered the Measured Time clock, which it included in the Museum’s exhibition “Isamu Noguchi, Patent Holder: Designing the World of Tomorrow” (June 4 – January 4, 2015).

Noguchi's sunken garden at One Chase Manhattan Bank, 1946; Photo: Sam Falk

Noguchi’s sunken garden at One Chase Manhattan Bank, 1946; Photo: Sam Falk

An American, born in Los Angeles to Leonie Gilmour, a writer, and a Japanese father, the poet Yonejiro Noguchi, Noguchi lived his young life in Japan. At the age of 13, he returned to the U.S. to attend school in Indiana and went onto study medicine at Columbia University in New York City. While there, his mother encouraged him to pursue sculpture, and sculpting busts became his mainstay financially. In 1927, he travelled to Paris on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, where he met Constantin Brancusi, who became his mentor for several years. Noguchi left for Paris in April, 1930, to travel widely for the next three decades (until founding the Noguchi Museum in Queens). He left Paris on the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping first in Peking, where he learned brush painting from Qi Baisi, then he traveled to Kyoto, to study pottery with Uno Jinmatsu. In the 1940s, Noguchi’s home base was his studio in New York City, on MacDougal Alley, where he started producing his iconic, interlocking furniture designs. In 1961, Noguchi moved, aforementioned, to Queens, into a small brick building across the street from what is now the Museum.

Although Noguchi’s studio is currently used for museum offices, the original design is still intact, with movable Soji screens, skylights, a soaking tub, a loftlike sleeping space, and Akari lamps hanging from the ceiling. Likewise in keeping with Japanese tradition, the 24,000 square-foot museum, originally a photo-engraving factory, is marked from the outside only by a discrete sign, and one enters through a simple glass side door. Inside there is no coat room, and the galleries are in plain view from the entrance. Through the museum, one finds that guards are few and far between. Visitors are given ample space to view Noguchi’s carved and polished stone and marble sculpture, welded steel assemblages, sketches, models, and drawings for industrial designs and sets, from all angles, in privacy. Tête-à-tête encounters  between visitor and artwork are provided wondrously, over and over again, as one walks through the Museum.

The Catalogue Raisonné
In addition to preserving Noguchi’s work, the Foundation has the task of constructing the Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné, the first comprehensive record of the artist’s life and work. The last book written with this ambition is The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, 1924–1979: A Catalogue, by Nancy Grove and Dianne Botnick, published in 1980, years before the artist’s death in 1988 – fruitful years of production. The catalogue raisonné is a digital publication under construction now by direction Managing Editor, Shaina Larrivee. Because research and writing to a conclusive point was estimated a long, 10-year schedule, the Foundation, ingeniously, decided to present the catalogue online as a work in progress. Today, anyone may visit the Museum’s website and utilise the catalogue extant, which includes complete entries for artworks, exhibitions, and literature where research has been finalized, as well as “research pending” entries for anticipated content. I interviewed Larrivee on the Foundation’s progressive approach to publishing and its inner workings which allow the Museum to fulfill Noguchi’s vision as he outlined.

Area 1 of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

Area 2 of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

AK: When I started preparing for the interview, I read over the Museum’s recommended reading list. At the top, you have Noguchi’s autobiography, which he wrote in 1968 when he was 64 years old, and the book on the Museum which he wrote in 1987, just before his death. Do you know what compelled Noguchi to write an autobiography at that time?

SL: I imagine that the vast majority of artists have about the same regard for documenting history as Noguchi did – he was of course concerned with his legacy, but felt very strongly that time spent trying to remember and organize the past took time away from his sculpture. Even so, what he did manage to do for his own legacy has made a huge impact. The autobiography is a great example. He actually began with the idea of a monograph in 1957. His publishers, though, encouraged a first-person narrative, so it grew into a “visual autobiography” that was primarily a huge selection of photographs of his work, and after a long series of proposals, revisions, and rewritings, it was published by Harper & Row in 1968. So even though Noguchi had no interest in spending his time on his own past, we ended up with not just the book, but also the complete remnants of his work toward the publication.

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on the island of Shikoku, Japan

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on the island of Shikoku, Japan

The Noguchi Museum’s archives hold thousands of photographs he collected of his own work, exhibitions, and studios. And, to a certain extent, his notes left over from trying to recollect all the works he had made up to that point became the basis for the first catalogue raisonné of his sculpture, published in 1980. These remain some of the most incredible resources we have for understanding his practice, and would alone be a treasure for the catalogue raisonné research. But of course, in addition to the autobiography, Noguchi left behind and intact his entire personal collection and its context.

AK: Was he concerned with his legacy at that point? I’m curious about when and how the idea for the Museum came to him.

SL: The Museum was certainly a legacy project as well, but one that perhaps grew more naturally out of circumstance. Noguchi had a huge collection of his own work. He has established his New York studio in Long Island City in 1961, and, running out of space, purchased a larger building across the street in 1974. It was first used as storage and office space, but by 1980, he was planning to renovate and open the spaces to the public. The Noguchi Museum as it is today is not only the preservation of his collection and wishes for its display, but is also dedicated to preserving and sharing his legacy, through programs that include the catalogue raisonné project.

Proposal for Adele Levy Playground in New York City's Riverside Park, 1960-1966

Proposal for Adele Levy Playground in New York City’s Riverside Park, 1960-1966

AK: Noguchi worked with many artists and architects throughout his career and developed close friendships with several that spanned over 50 years. He met Martha Graham, for instance, in his twenties when she commissioned him to make two portrait busts, and then went on to make some 20 set designs for her major performances over the following 30 years. He had a similar collaborative friendship with Buckminster Fuller, creating sculpture in dialogue with his engineering and architectural designs. I wonder who was helping Noguchi on his large scale projects, behind the scenes, and how he went about production. Was most of the fabrication happening here at his Long Island studio?

SL: If you just focus on the collaborations in Noguchi’s practice, it can start to seem like he lived a completely charmed life – the range of intersections with the incredible figures of the twentieth century is really staggering. Maybe it’s most surprising to those of us who did not know him personally, and did not get to know what was always described as a mesmeric personality. But it’s clearly not just that he attracted fascinating people – he also seemed to thrive on and seek out collaboration. Martha Graham and Buckmister Fuller were some of his early, but by no means earliest group of influential friends and colleagues. He famously studied under the reclusive Constantin Brancusi, and Chinese calligrapher Qi Baishi; he did costumes and a sets for Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and Ruth Page; Berenice Abbott, Rudy Burckhardt, André Kertész and Eliot Elisofon took photograph of his work and studios. As he grew to be involved in large-scale projects, it was a combination of his own drive and connections that pushed ideas forward. He worked many times with Gordon Bunshaft from Skidmore, Owing & Merrill on a range of projects, and with architects including Edward Durrell Stone, Wallace K. Harrison, Kenzo Tange, Marcel Breuer, Yoshiro Taniguchi, and Louis Kahn. Some projects were his original ideas or proposals, and in some cases he was brought on by others. By the 1970s, he was working consistently on large-scale projects and traveling constantly from site to site, splitting his time at studios in New York, Italy, and Japan. Shoji Sadao, an architectural partner of Buckminster Fuller’s, became an instrumental collaborator, who headed Noguchi’s foundation for many years, and most recently wrote an incredible first-hand account of Noguchi and Bucky’s friendship, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends. This book and Amy Wolf’s exhibition catalogue, “On Becoming an Artist,” are wonderful accounts of this life of intersections.

Sky Mirror, 1970

Sky Mirror, 1970

AK: Since Noguchi was so prolific and his work crossed between so many different disciplines – sculpture, ceramics, theatre, industrial design, and architecture, putting together a definitive catalogue raisonné must require an incredible amount of research and intuition. You must be living and breathing Noguchi.

SL: I realize that since this type of work is specialist’s realm, focusing on the microcosm of one person, it may seem very limiting. In fact, it’s actually an incredibly expansive process of gleaning the most specific facts about an individual, their work, time and environment. There are these wonderful moments in research when it feels like you’ve come across the beginning of a path, and you have to make a decision to stay focused on the direction you have been heading, or follow some new fascinating question that may not lead to an easy answer. For those who love research, I think this is what we thrive on. With much bias, I would say that Noguchi, specifically, is an absorbing subject and he did more than enough in his lifetime to sustain what feels like a never-ending collection of discoveries. For the catalogue raisonné, our work involves documenting to the fullest extent more than 2,500 objects and spaces, plus hundreds of works on paper and models. To make sure of even the most essential information – titles, dates, material, provenance – we spend much time with Noguchi’s biography and very personal remnants of his life: photographs, letters to and from friends, notes back and forth with his galleries, accountant, fabricators. But it’s not overwhelming. Instead it feels like each piece, even a random line from a letter or blurry spot of a photo, can add to an ever-growing picture of this full and prolific life.

Isamu Noguchi in his studio by Andre Kertesz, 1940

Isamu Noguchi in his studio by Andre Kertesz, 1940

AK: What are some of your best resources for verifying or fleshing out the facts?

SL: This project could be seen as a combination of two major efforts, primarily the editing of existing research, and to a slightly lesser extent, new research. The catalogue raisonné is incredibly fortunate to be building upon more than 30 years of research into Noguchi’s life and work, starting with The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, by Nancy Grove and Dianne Botnick (Garland 1980), which was the first major accounting of Noguchi’s sculptures, collections, exhibition and bibliography. Research on that publication took place 1978-1979, and while Noguchi lived for nearly another 10 (incredibly prolific) years, the Grove/Botnick publication became the foundation for the continual cataloguing of his work by studio assistants, and later the foundation.

The most tremendous resource we currently have is the artist’s archives, housed by the Museum. Correspondence with his galleries, fabricators, accountant, and collaborators helps document the history of hundreds of works. And Noguchi’s huge collection of photographs was his own best document of his work, and a continual resource for us. Certainly, some lost and undocumented works have been located over the years since 1980, and a huge number of drawings and working models not included in the book were documented by the estate after Noguchi’s death in December 1988. But by and large his work is considered fairly well documented, making our effort more of a verification and editing task. What the catalogue raisonné ultimately aims to do is update the public account of Noguchi’s practice to include works made or found since 1980, and to provide a fully comprehensive accounting of each work, including for the first time artwork provenance, exhibition history, and bibliography.

AK: The catalogue is online as a work in progress, which I think is a really beautiful effort by the museum. The old photographs of his work make his life and career both more tangible and illusive. I wish I could walk through some of his early exhibitions such as his 1930 exhibition “Fifteen Heads” at Marie Sterner Gallery in New York. The missing information makes me excited for what you will hopefully find to complete the book.

SL: Publishing online in the format we have developed has been a wonderful way to conduct our work. The initial idea behind publishing digitally was that, since Noguchi’s work is so interdisciplinary and diverse, it would be too limiting to try to separate his practice into a set of static volumes. You should be able to approach his life from any angle, and sort and shift information based on any one of dozens of factors. What we did not initially expect from the digital approach, but grew quickly to appreciate, was how publishing online could affect accessibility and even work flow. Instead of spending years collecting research for a one-time print publication, we can make public what is learned much quicker, and not work toward a specific end-date or even a finite level of “complete.” Catalogue raisonné research is always at odds with the notion of completeness anyways, since the very process of research invariable leads to more information.

Area 3 of the museum

Area 3 of the museum

SHAINA LARRIVEE is the Managing Editor of The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. It’s mission is to advance the understanding and appreciation of Isamu Noguchi’s art and legacy. The broad scope of Isamu Noguchi’s artistic interests and his creation of a Museum devoted to encouraging the enjoyment and contemplation of these same interests provides us with the challenge to protect and further the legacy of his vision.

Peter Shire on Economy and Design

The view from Peter Shire's Echo Park home; Photo: Will Nettles

The view from Peter Shire’s Echo Park home; Photo: Will Nettles

In the 1960s, when many other artists went to Venice to rent studios after graduating from Chouinard, Peter Shire stayed in Echo Park, the winding, intricate neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles where he grew up. Along Echo Park Avenue, which connects his current home and studio, houses are close-set and yards, divided by cypress and lattice walls, are dense with Saguaro and fruit trees serving as scaffolding for hanging herbs, vegetables, and vining flowers. In a similar way, Shire’s studio is a series of open, gabled sheds and garages and built-out rooms with tools and sculpture secured to walls and suspended from beams. In the recesses, brightly colored, lacquered flat files store his sketchbooks and drawings—the beginnings of every three dimensional work—and larger, fleshed out compositions diagraming his ideas about process, tools, and engineering.

Shire’s studio as an organic construction is an expression of his work that has evolved over time, and having stayed in one place, he can tell a myriad of stories about his neighborhood, other creative and industrious satellites like Venice and Burbank, and further-out destinations like Yosemite, where he made excursions as a kid. Unsurprisingly, his work is influenced by the mechanics of cars and motorcycles, considering the driving culture of L.A. When he was a teenager, he started riding and working on motorcycles with “a guy down the street” named Dean Lanza, around the same time he started producing metal sculptures. The ceramic movement of the ’60s in Southern California initiated by artists like Peter Voulkos and John Mason also influenced Shire, and he found work at a local pottery manufacturer, Franciscan, while he was at Chouinard. In 1979, Shire left California temporarily for Milan by invitation of Ettore Sottsass to work with several architects and artists who would form the Memphis group in 1981. There, with George Sowden, Matteo Thun, and Marco Zanini, he continued to build upon his body of work, all the time breaching the categories of sculpture, craft, and industrial and furniture design.

The Frank Glass and Grace E. Simon Memorial at Angel's Point, 1992; Photo: Lori Bucci

The Frank Glass and Grace E. Simon Memorial at Angel’s Point, 1992; Photo: Lori Bucci

When Shire returned to LA, he began producing large-scale public sculpture. Today, Shire’s work can be found throughout the city in West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Malibu, Venice, and of course near his home. Elysian Park nearby is crowned with his memorial to Frank Glass and Grace E. Simon, “City on the Hill” (1992), at his highest point. The sculpture which reflects the downtown skyline below, like most of his work, appears to be an assemblage of architectural parts—posts and lintels, trusses, and spheres—at inappropriate scales, freely rotated, balanced, and welded together. Each part is its own color, thereby articulating the irrational construction of the whole. These formal and color rules apply to the design and painting of his teapots, for which he is most widely known; however, he also paints figuratively on clay, such as for his series of portraits and city narratives on tile, and some of his utilitarian tableware is washed and spattered with glazes in reference to the paintings of Sam Francis. Shire’s public art can also be found in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tokyo, and his work, frequently exhibited in California, belongs to the permanent collections of LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others.

When I approached Shire about an interview, I wrote to him primarily about how I have been noticing a new demand for the handmade, or at least the look of the handmade, indicated by the prevalence of ceramics in museums and for retail. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, ended the year with a retrospective of Ken Price’s sculptures and drawings, and ceramic studios have cropped up in gentrified areas of Brooklyn, which is surprising as the cost of equipment like wheels and kilns is so high. I was wondering if, to some degree, the ideas of Memphis are being re-expressed today, or if only the aesthetic seems fresh to collectors. I also told him that I was reintroducing myself to LA via Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, and footage of the Hell’s Angels, since I knew vaguely of his interest in motorcycles. As it turns out, Shire’s work has been informed by his pastime of rebuilding motors, and he attributes a good amount of his understanding of metal fabrication and prototyping to working on cars and bikes. I asked him to talk about his proclivity to use clay and metal and his sculptural production versus everyday wares, such as his lower-cost Echo Park Pottery, in consideration of the changing economy since the beginning of his career.

Hourglass Teapot, 1984

Hourglass Teapot, 1984

AK: I wrote to you earlier about the growing demand for the handmade, which is hard to make sense of in light of the recession. People who can’t afford a middle class lifestyle are seeking out one-of-a-kind and designer goods with the same energy as the upper class. What was happening in the ’60s when ceramic art was gaining momentum here?

PS: There are cycles as you are pointing out, and these cycles unearth social signifiers of what you got and how you communicate—by clothing, by jewelry, by facial hair. Of course, the big one here in Los Angeles is plastic surgery. I saw this gal on a bike path, and she looked like a fish, like a Garibaldi. Do you know what a Garibaldi is? I think it’s like a giant goldfish that floats around Catalina Island, with pop-eyes and big lips. But people who have plastic surgery walk around and say to each other, ”You look good!” It’s something else to have. The handmade may be a sort of social equalizer.

I got into a couple of nice, let’s say, active discussions with George Sowden years ago, but I never really understood he’s such a working class hero. He’s six or seven years older than me, and he was in the middle of Carnaby Street in London in the ’60s. Being British, he was much more class structure attuned than I was when we met and dedicated to the idea of Bauhausian industrial integrity being trickling down to the masses.

AK: How did you interpret what has happening in New York in the ’60s, when Warhol was turning advertising into art and creating celebrities of middle class kids?

PS: The ’60s moment is hard to define. Artists out here in LA were doing similar things to Warhol: highly-finished multiples. I’m thinking principally of Larry Bell. It’s a different kind of multiple.

AK: When exactly were you at Chouinard?

PS: Between ’66 and ’70.

AK: And you’ve always lived in California? I know you moved back into your parent’s house about three years ago.

PS: People always ask what it’s like to live in your parent’s house. There are a few ghosts. I didn’t leave home until I really had to, until I really could, because the most difficult part of becoming a working artist is surviving those first years. I lived at home every time a girlfriend kicked me out. It was, “Here I am, I’m back!”

AK: But it’s always different—now your studio backs up onto a Pilates studio.

PS: We have two exercise salons in front of us. I keep my hipster credentials. How do these things happen? Thinking about jobs and the nature of jobs… there are all of these young people attending classes during what used to be regular working hours. The Indian culture of monks and yogis trying to attain enlightenment was based on a stagnant economy. When you talk about pilgrimages and spiritual ascension—these are guys that raised their families, and whatever it was that they were doing to make a living, they would stop and go for a walk, thereby making room for the young guys to take over their jobs. To all these guys doing yoga, the response was, get a job, buddy! When you started those pilgrimages, you get rid of everything you own and take some clothes from a big heap, and you walk sixteen hours a day. Now we have white kids chanting in front of me.

Clearly, the economic structure is changing. I went to see a movie and had oysters afterwards at place in Silverlake, and it was fifty bucks! What happened to three dollars at the diner? Have you heard the term ‘rolled’? Basically, it’s jargon for being fucked without a kiss. Five oysters and some fried corn balls? What’s that?

In the 1930s, my parents were organizing on the ideals of Communism. People believed in systems of government then. Now we know the systems are just as goofy as the administrators. So this is the deal: in the last thirty to forty years, we’ve been talking about lifestyle; before we talked about quality of life. When we talk about these restaurants like the oyster bar or anywhere the food is organic and farm raised and we’re told the farmers sing to the vegetables, basically, we don’t know what we’re paying for. Even though it’s kind of chicer, the quality isn’t necessarily there.

With this renewed interest in the handmade, hopefully there will be winnowing down of objects per household. You go into Walmart and you can have twenty lawn chairs and a BBQ, but it all falls apart. At Chouinard, there was this flamboyant guy, Scott Runion, who was in a dance troupe called the Cockettes. I remember one day at the student lounge, he walked in, threw himself into the air, twirled around three times, and landed cross-legged on the sofa. He later died in a pool house in a terrible fire–God knows what was going on there—and was mentioned in a John Water’s movie as a memorial. So he was that kind of guy, and I trusted him. His comment to me was, “I’d rather have one good cloth coat than a number of average quality leather coats.” What’s it gonna be? Twenty pieces from Walmart? We have so much stuff, we don’t know what to do with it, and our storage is costing more than what’s in it.

Finding Your Inner Chair Skateboarder, 2007

Finding Your Inner Chair Skateboarder, 2007

AK: You’ve been surviving as an artist since you were a student, and you’ve been working in a variety of mediums since then. Over the years, has the changing economy affected your production and what you’re interested in making? Is there interplay between what you want to make and what people want?

PS: In the ’80s and even into the ’90s, the middle class and what we might call the slightly-higher-than-middle class were welcomed or allowed, rather, into the art world. My interest in objects quickly got transferred into sculpture, which was part of the economic throw of the ’60s. I was born in 1947, the apex of the post-war Baby Boom, and there were intense sociological factors in my generation’s upbringing which still resonate today. The Depression formed our parents’ fears and the advent of a war that nailed down the end of the Depression provided them a sense of security. So instead of social programs, the government wanted to continue investing in war manufacturing.

In the ’40s, Avery Brundage, an ambassador to somewhere, came back to Washington after several years abroad, and he couldn’t recognize it because there were no social programs. Everything was military. This is part of the foundation of our current economic strategy involving all these pocket wars. It’s not just about oil; it’s about manufacturing and jobs. One of my friends who is about ten years older than me, said, “You’ll never have what we have.” We expected to buy a house, change our car every year, and send our kids to college. Now we consider moving out of the house as a career move or life achievement.

AK: Is that why your generation rebelled in the ’60s—expectations?

PS: Expectations are oppressive. You were talking about William S. Burroughs. You know, the Hell’s Angels became known when Irving Penn did a story on them for Life Magazine. They were mostly average, working class guys. I had two big Hell’s Angels experiences: the first was in ’55 when my family was driving to Yosemite. Cars were much different then. You could see around the motor—you had to, to be able to look at it and work on it. Now we can go 90 miles per hour in a Toyota Carola and it’s smooth and fabulous, and they drive indefinitely. Back then, you had to work on your car at over 100,000 miles. People did what you call top-end jobs, short blocks, and long blocks. Do you know what a short block is? Basically, a short block is when you buy a rebuilt motor and put your own top on. You took your car to the mechanic, and that’s what he did. There were services, and there still are, especially for Toyotas because they’re so immense, but now you change your valves at 300,000 miles.

A Dean Lanza Harley Davidson

A Dean Lanza Harley Davidson

So there we are, going through the Mohave Desert with no air conditioning—nobody had air conditioning, unless you had a Cadillac with those swamp coolers. Have you seen those? They look like big old tubes on the outside of the cars. Now they’re what Cholos like to have on their low-riders. They’re an accessory. It’s really weird, that sort of reverse working class elegance. You see it in low-riders and hot rods. It’s a sort of uselessness.

The hippies became known almost overnight during the Summer of Love, when they got their big write up in the New York Times. They really only lasted a year, because their publicity killed them, didn’t it? Originally, they were a bunch of slackers—university drop outs or middle class kids we’d now call trustafarians—a little bit entitled, a little bit ironic. They only entered into politics when the economy generated that freedom. Industrialism provided for new types of jobs. So here we were as a group of kids that A. expected people to be honest and B. to be able to say, “You’re lying,” and not be assassinated, which is what we forget about the ’50s—the character assassination via red-baiting and other methods. It was awful.

AK: Can you go back to your Hell’s Angels stories? I’m still wondering what happened in Yosemite.

PS: Right, so there we were going through the desert, and there’s a group of thirty or forty Hell’s Angels—really quite something, kind of Gaga with their jackets, and the guy who was clearly the leader was wearing some kind of Nazi or Kaiser helmet with a spike—there’s your social signifier. Every time we’d go through a small desert town, like Lone Pine, he would stand up on his motorcycle. They were in-your-face tough guys, bad boys. One of the great comments about hoodlums of any kind is, “If you don’t have any possibilities in life, what could be better than scaring some middle class guy who’s walking towards you on the street?” It was funny because their bikes were so terrible, they’d have to get off at every little town and have a beer just to recover from the vibration of the previous thirty miles. So we would keep passing them, and we’d keep seeing this guy doing this maneuver on his bike.

Then, there was meeting a guy at a little shop around the corner from here, a guy named Dean Lanza who used to paint motorcycles, some of which became props in movies. Everything goes into this protraction of uselessness. They were clearly dangerous if nothing else. Why would you make the geometry of a motorcycle intractable by extended forks and so forth? All of it continually was about absurdity.

So we came along after Mario Savio and Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, when hippies had sort of morphed into Willie Nelson—working class, red neck guys who carried buck knives on their belts. What a weird cross-up! But long hair was still a signifier that got you pulled over by the police.

AK: When you came out of school what were you producing?

PS: I was intrigued by what would now be called conceptual. The teapots morphed into sculptural vehicles that talked about the possibility not the actuality. A lot of that was the furniture with George Sowden and Ettore Sottsass.

Hollywood Table designed for Memphis, 1983

Hollywood Table designed for Memphis, 1983

AK: Were you aware of what they were doing while you were in school?

PS: I was aware of them in school but didn’t know it. I was enamored with Domus magazine, which didn’t have an ad in it and every photograph was immaculate, though I couldn’t read any of it. I didn’t know what the devil it was about. Then I went to Italy and hung out at Ettore’s office, and he had this little area behind an accordion door, his archive, and I saw all this stuff that I had seen in the magazine! It was like this mother fucker imagined me.

AK: I was wondering what initially attracted you to Italian design. Did you see it as an alternative to American design? Somehow more sophisticated?

PS: Americans are coming from a different landmass, with a much different history. I’ll refer back to something my dad said to me once, “Industry and commerciality have no power and no soul and they are looking to things that do.” When they find it, they vampire-ize it. Ettore was counter culture, as well, and an absurdist in his own way. Overall, Memphis was a reaction to Bauhaus design. The Italian bourgeoisie was not immune to shooting itself in the foot. The chrome and leather thing had gotten out of hand, too.

AK: In the way that American design was getting out of get out of hand, would you say that had already happened in Italy?

PS: I wouldn’t say it happened here until now. We’ve got the Eameses, but there are a whole lot of other people we don’t know because they never became name brand. Something happens that continues to ask the question I think you asked: what are things worth, and why am I making this? I am constantly asking, what is this thing, and what is its worth in the spectrum of the world? There is this drive to create absurd things. When I was 20-something and 30-something, we were talking to people in this group, these people in Venice, and I mean Venice here in LA, and the idea was we should make really practical things. It’s like the difference in car design and production. You see the prototype and you go, wow! Then you see the product, and you go, what happened? Sometimes I try to make exciting things, and then I think, maybe I’ll just put a new top on the engine. Sometimes you have to go with what you know.

AK: It’s worth it to create the absurd, and it’s worth it to make the everyday. I’m sure it could get frustrating just working on teapots.

PS: We are interested in the exceptional. We are not interested in the mundane. It’s hard to say if there are more people interested or there are more people in general. If Eames is the name brand, maybe that’s a good thing. It’s a question I constantly fight with.

I was reading Juxtapose magazine which started as a counter culture magazine. Do you know my brother, Billy, runs a gallery called La Luz de Jesus in Silver Lake? It was considered the primary purveyor of low-brow or folk art, but Billy basically ran out of artists. What happened to that old guy making windmills in the middle of nowhere that are just so cool you can’t stand it? Juxtapose has changed—they ran out of people making stuff. The article I read was on this woman making cakes, so crafting has become a substitute for art and political action.

AK: This goes back to the hippies becoming politically active. What are the politics of the handmade?

PS: Some of them were just total slackers.

AK: It seems that now if someone is politically aware, their knowledge is still just niche. They might read aggressively about a particular social issue, health care reform, for example, but that’s all one person can manage.

PS: It’s hard to read about everything. We are inundated with minutia. There’s no big picture. How does it interlock? It does not not interlock. Our ideas about military manufacturing are symptomatic of the situation.

AK: It’s hard to piece the news together, so we lack an integrated world view, and maybe it’s impossible to create or operate a system without one.

PS: The real problem is probably dealt by the handful of people running corporations. The truth is more fantastic. We saw the oligarchy in the ’50s slander people. So people pulled back and took their political activity into other realms—food, for example. The trouble is that we have this vision of America as told by Jimmy Stewart, Frank Kapan, and Gary Cooper that everyone comes around, instead these CEOs and politicians are actually horrible people, but what are you going to do?

AK: Do you feel that you are representing an ideal way of life as a working artist? The model of your life, designing and building by hand, seems so important right now. In the midst of all this information that exists in giant servers, you’re able to focus on making real things, and you open your doors to your community as an employer and to sell your work directly.

PS: With in this orbit, there’s control. Some part of that goes out as a message about a way to live which may be felt by the community. There’s also a frustration for me, these things are about quality, but basically, we are a bunch of hedonists.

AK: Maybe true. Down the street, there’s a new cafe selling great five dollar coffee, but I think you’re really doing something different here.

PS: It is bizarre how, despite all of these subtractions from quality of life, we live longer, maybe not better, but longer. We as middle class kids—I’m assuming you’re middle class—have some discernment, and we have to look critically at whatever we are consuming and how it’s delivered. When you think about the diner in the ’20s and ’30s… people didn’t have a lot. You didn’t expect to die with anything. It was an even exchange: you took this to live and gave this to live. There wasn’t the industrial infrastructure we have today, which leads to so much error. We might be paying for delivery more than anything.

Purple Mexican Bauhaus Biscuit on a Raft, 1977

Purple Mexican Bauhaus Biscuit on a Raft, 1977

When I finished school, people had a different kind of leisure time. Everybody was renting those little places in Venice as studios. Everybody being twenty people or so. I looked around there, and Adrian Saxe let me rent a studio in Westlake near 1st Street and Beverly Boulevard, then he helped me get a job at a pottery shop called Franciscan. Part of the initial fantasy was being a working potter. Stoneware was in fashion. Being a form of studio potter was romantic, but it didn’t look like it was the future. It wasn’t where the high-end was.

AK: Would you say the interest in pottery during the ’60s and ’70s faded out at any point? Right now, Artnews is coming out with an article on the rise of ceramics. There have been several retrospective exhibitions at the major museums this year—Ken Price at the Met, for example, and Arlene Shechet at Sikkema Jenkins.

PS: What you’re talking about is snobbery. Besides the finish-fetish stuff, the one thing New York didn’t have that California did was ceramics and that gave us a certain authenticity.

AK: People want unique objects, and it’s affordable sculpture.

PS: It’s got a lot of atavistic qualities—earth, wind, fire.

AK: It’s also gaining some prestige in contemporary art because some painters have been using it profusely. It’s becoming associated with painting, or it’s a medium painters love.

PS: Visitors to clay.

AK: Throwing a pot is a very wonderful, soothing experience, but there has been a flood of art pottery that sells for $200 to $300 in stores.

PS: Well, I’ve been doing that for thirty years! Are we talking about dilettantes? We’re talking about price structure. In the ’60s, Peter Voulkos was showing that, if it’s art, it’s a thousand dollars, but if it’s a cup, it’s fifty cents. We went through a period of what was called the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages, and it was step backward, it had a lot to do with the nature of landmass and the feudal economy… talk about minutia. Why can’t this be easy?

AK: I know I’m not making it easy. We don’t have to go back to the beginning of time.

PS: Do you know about the guild structure? You had your substrates of apprentice, journey men, and maestro. That was the fortress, the studio. Now the art world is broken down to such a degree that qualification isn’t clear. We have artists that make ceramics by punching a slab of clay. You know, babies like to look at their shit. So we need to bring in the ideas of the craft movement of the ’60s, which was the biggest step backwards since the Middle Ages.

I’ve learned one thing and that’s anything worth making will cut you to the chase. Anything people have always needed is worth making industrially—furniture, clothing, food—and the things they now really need like cars, phones, with the designer maker. Anything industrially made can be made inexpensively. Production cost is a tiny fragment of retail. Dealer prep is a racquet and look at the degree of advertising. It’s all built into the price so the guys at the top are making record profits.

AK: So your fantasy is that people can buy necessities at a fair price?

PS: No, but that’s a nice one! My fantasy is that people are trying to say, what’s left for me? Because we’ve already decided that economics is the exchange of goods and services, which means that you and I have a relationship. I milked a cow, and you bought the milk, and in return you wove a blanket that keeps me warm and so on. You don’t need pots—plastic works better, sorry! And if you don’t like plastic, you can get an industrial made pot from Ikea. Jesus, their pasta bowls are very chic and only three dollars, and they’re real clay—and not only are they real clay, they’ve been on a boat. How much did that cost to make, three cents? That’s what we’re up against. We could go on and complain about bureaucratic structures. I look at homeless people, and I think to myself, “I understand. You’ve eliminated a lot of paperwork for yourself.”

AK: And updating, in terms of technology, which is put upon us. Money is almost completely abstract. It’s certainly invisible. I haven’t felt very comfortable with that since 2008. Who isn’t one step away from losing their home?

PS: The minute I got out high school, I grew a beard because the administration wouldn’t allow us to grow beards in my era. I really did get harassed. I rode a motorcycle and got over fifty tickets by the time I was 20, because I got pulled over all the time. The upshot of it was, one day when I started doing metalwork—in the 80s when I started doing it, most of the industry was in Burbank—it was early and the factory wasn’t open so I went to a little coffee shop with a counter to wait, and there was a guy sitting there, a real archetype redneck, and he turns to me, clearly wanting to talk, and I thought, here it comes, expecting an angry declamation pointed at me, but he said all he needed was one financial blow, and he would be on the streets. It was the complete opposite from what I expected. That’s what I’m talking about. You go, wait a minute, this whole thing could unravel. Our comfortable lives can go up in smoke. But that’s the difference between this recession and the last, and I think it’s the computer.

AK: I read a lot of Heidegger in architecture school so sometimes I feel like a Luddite, but my take on technology is that some is great, some is bad. Sometimes you the feeling you’re making, when you can observe the transfer of energy from your body through the tool to the design.

Anchorage Teapot, 1982

Anchorage Teapot, 1982

PS: It asks the question, “What qualifies as handmade?” How do we define handmade? How involved to we need to be? Tools are part of production. Do you know what a mill is?

AK: I used a CNC mill as an architecture student.

PS: Calder is great because he talked about how his sculptures were influenced by what he saw as a kid growing up in Connecticut—the early industrial machines running off water power. Factories had a shaft with pulleys in the center that ran all of the machines of the water wheel. One of those machines was a mill, the key piece in the Industrial Revolution, which is what you saw in school although yours probably just looked like a box. It’s basically a motor that holds a tool with an x,y coordinate. A computer now controls the coordinates and changes the tools for you if you want.

AK: Do you think you could get into working with plastics and 3D printing?

PS: Why not? One of the reasons why I started and stuck to ceramics was the ease of prototyping. At one point I had three garages full of rejected parts that I loved but couldn’t use because they weren’t exactly right for the project.

AK: Do you prototype your metals?

PS: They are unique in that sense. We got into a debate with the French tax export because they had to classify me, and either they were going to tax me on everything I’d ever made or we could call it all prototypes. In sculpture, technically anything under an edition of seven is a one-off. You could make arguments all over the place. Even for cars, sometimes one is a lemon…. unless it’s a Ferrari.

AK: So you were working on motorcycles when you started working with metal?

PS: The motorcycles were key in visualizing metal. We were working on them, because we had to, to make them run. One of the guys I worked with was a Cockney who had moved to Sunland, which is where all the meth houses were. Anyway, Doug Stead was his name. He was fantastic.

Truck Plate, 1999

Truck Plate, 1999

We were rebuilding the motor on a Norton that I had, and he said we need a gauge, which was called “top-dead-center”—that means when the piston is top, dead, and center, you set the points. Then he said he didn’t know where the tool was and started rummaging around the garage. Then he said… we’ll get a nail and the cellophane from a cigarette package. So he set the darn thing with a nail.

AK: That’s one definition of an artist. The artist makes his tools.

PS: That’s what we used to say in school: The master doesn’t choose his brush. He’s master of any brush. But anyway, it started on the first kick. Unbelievable.

 

PETER SHIRE has exhibited his work in numerous solo shows in galleries and museums nationally and internationally in New York, Los Angeles, Milan, Paris, and Tokyo. Recent solo exhibitions include: Peter Shire: Tea for Two Hundred at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (2013); Practically Absurd: Art & Design by Peter Shire at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art (2013); and Peter Shire: Chairs at Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica (2007). In 2013, Shire’s work was also included in Made in Space at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York and David Kordansky Gallery’s Grapevine in Los Angeles. His work belongs to the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Seattle Museum of Art, among others.

A Conversation with Duane Michals

Duane Michals by Abe Frajndlich, 2001

Duane Michals by Abe Frajndlich, 2001

Duane Michals does not have a studio (and never has) but instead works out of a mellow, furnished, basement library connected to his home, that also serves as a viewing room, archive, and place to meet strangers like me and talk. Attached to the large room one enters lined with books are several storage rooms that disappear into darkness and a florescent laundry, where he pulled me in to read over the sound of the washer at the end of the conversation. The rest of the time we sat across from each other in the main room between stacks of supplies and photographs in two Mies Van der Rohe chairs we struggled together to name. His partner of fifty three years, Fred Goree, was an architect, he explained, pointing to the chairs when we sat down. The situation of everything, the repose of the space and us talking, was what I expected from what I knew of Michals but was still utterly refreshing considering his success, his long career, and the pretentiousness that is out there, which he defined right away to contrast his way of life, way of working, and what he strives to achieve.

Michals was born in 1932 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and began to study art at a young age at the Carnegie Museum of Art in nearby Pittsburgh, a city which has become a particular source of meaning for him over the years. He returns often searching for memories, musing on its idiosyncrasies, and mythifying his familial history through his photography and writing. This year, he made a small book of precise, dexterous rhymes, titled “A Pittsburgh Poem” as a kind of homage to its presence and character, which he gave me as soon as we sat down. The book represents Michals in a key way: Books and literature are as important to him as inspiration and expression as photography and painting. Since the beginning of his career as a photographer in the late-50s, Michals’ has also lived as a writer, producing lyrical texts that are both romantic and sardonic, revelatory and pointed. He reads and revitalizes the work of Proust, Joyce, Cavafy, and Borges, as much as he admires Magritte, Balthus, Picabia, and Picasso.

Essentially, photography serves Michals as a platform and surface to penetrate—a limit to expand if not dissolve. Since the 60s, Michals has been staging scenes to photograph, often using multiple exposures, and creating sequences (several photographs arranged linearly on one sheet) to express and explore the nature of time, mortality, memory, and experience. Onto photographs, Michals adds references to his life and past and other works of art and artists’ lives in hand-written titles, captions, and stories, and he often juxtaposes his photographs with chapter-long rhymes and prose in carefully designed books. He also has been oil painting on his photographs since the 80s, and now, he is painting on tintypes (19th-century collodion prints on lacquered iron) and employing found materials as framing devices and in collages. Michals’ current exhibition, “The Painted Photograph” (March 21 – April 27, 2013), at DC Moore Gallery in New York, highlights his new paintings which reference Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism through loose, fine-line wire frames and scatterings of geometric shapes. I tried to focus our talk on his taste in literature and these new paintings, but Michals graciously deviated, to talk about much more, including how he has evolved as an artist and his understanding of time, reality, and the enigma that is life:

I Remember Pittsburgh, 1982

I Remember Pittsburgh, 1982

AK: Thank you for having me here today. I would like to start the conversation by explaining the journal which you know nothing about. The writing is meant to be accessible—readable and fact-based, rather than theoretical and critical, and I try to write on art that is equally humane, for lack of a better word. It has to pertain to people, to culture in the grandeur scheme of things. It can’t only be self-reflexive. Does that make sense? The design of the journal corresponds to these ideas, as well. It will be printed at the end of the year as a book. I thought you may like to know this, because when I went to DC Moore to see a preview of the exhibition before the opening, the director you’ve been working with, Priscilla Caldwell, talked mostly about your preference for small-scale work over what you call the “museum photograph”. I see a connection there, and you’ve made so many books yourself.

DM: That does make sense. Everything I do is based on the one-to-one experience with things. I like journals, I like books, I like intimacy. I’m not into the 21st century. I’m a big fan of James Joyce, and I just found this little book which was a facsimile of a notebook he kept when he was in Trieste, Italy, teaching English and became enchanted with a teenage girl, 14 or 15 years old, whom he was tutoring. The notes were for a project that was never realized, but that’s even better to me—his raw phrases reveal the way he thinks. I want to know how people think. That’s what gets me excited. I just did a little book about Pittsburgh, which is my Dublin. As Joyce loved Dublin, I have a peculiar passion for Pittsburgh. It’s irrational and idiosyncratic, but I embrace it.

I hate large photographs. I say that we are now in the era of the “museum photograph”—enlarged photographs designed specifically for museums. They’re not photographs anymore, they’re expensive commodities that can only fit in museums or hedge fund managers’ apartments. Of course, it’s because America is all about bigger and better and more expensive. I just overheard a photographer say his work “holds the wall so well.” It’s appalling—and yes, there’s a land mine of art world jargon we have to be careful not to fall into.

AK: I understand what you mean about large works being created to fill large museums and galleries, which really doesn’t make sense since those spaces are often almost hostile, but do you prefer some museums more than others? How did you feel about MoMA when you had your solo show there?

DM: My favorite museum is the Morgan Library, and I like the Frick. My show at MoMA was 100 years ago. That was in 1970, and I was just starting out. It was an entirely different museum. The Steichen Galleries were about the size of this room. Now, when you walk into MoMA, it’s total confusion. It’s like walking into the lobby in the Hong Kong Hilton—it’s 630 thousand-plus-square-feet! I really don’t understand what happened, what thinking went into the design. An institution can get so huge that it becomes a like factory. So I love the Morgan Library and I love the Frick, in part because of the scale of work and the intimacy between the work and the viewer they support.

AK: When you were working as graphic designer were you concerned with how what you made was experienced? How did you view your commercial work in relation to your non-commissioned or personal photography and pursuits?

DM: Graphic design was something separate from my personal work, but I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to integrate all of my interests or instincts over time. Some kids are called naturals. Some have instincts for sports, some have instincts for mathematics, and some have aesthetic instincts, which is what I think I had. I took drawing classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and that sort of thing, but I loved books and magazines so I came to New York to get involved in graphic design and publishing. In high school, I was the editor of the school newspaper. It all came into focus when I went to Russia. I was 26 at the time, and then two years later, at 28, I officially became a photographer. Over the years, I’ve been able to call upon all of my instincts, my instincts for design, photography, writing, and now painting.

AK: Did you feel like a pioneer when you started writing on your photographs?

DM: No, I became a photographer without having gone to photo school. I wasn’t taught that Ansel Adams was what it should be. I didn’t learn all of that, so I changed the paradigm, without necessarily knowing it, to suit me. I always say that you are either defined by the medium or the medium defines you. Most people are first defined by the medium, then they have to unlearn what they’ve been taught—which is sometimes impossible.

Why Did He Burn the Letter?, 1980

Why Did He Burn the Letter?, 1980

AK: You also broke into new territory in the 80s by painting on your photographs. What made you start painting, and how did you start painting on tintypes?

DM: I’m an atheist and I believe in evolution, and I evolved to this point. I had been painting on photographs in the 80s, because I felt that was a space that nobody had investigated, and I also need to prove to myself that I could paint properly. I did that with the three peaches [in "Why Did He Burn the Letter?"], and I was so thrilled, but that petered out, and I always thought I would return to that when I was older. Now, I’m older, and I am back into it. A couple years ago, I started working with objects and found things, then I had a tintype and thought I would paint on it. I like the history of the tintype—it was an easy and very popular way for people to photograph, and I like the idea of reinventing it by layering it with a reference to another period in time. Cubism is one of my favorite periods because it came about so suddenly. There was Impressionism, then Cezanne came along, and almost immediately representation was abandoned by the avant-garde. I began to dig in to that, and now I’m developing my own vocabulary in relationship to the photograph. Everything about the tintype suits me. I like the scale, the shape of the brush, I like seeing the mistakes, the touch of the oils on the cold patina of the surface.

AK: There are a few layers to your new paintings. You have the tintypes and the oils, and you’re giving titles to the paintings that reference literary characters and people from author’s lives, as well as people in your own life. It’s almost as if you are connecting moments in time or erasing time, rather then telling a story, sequentially, as you’ve done in earlier works.

Guermantes Way, 2012; Photo: DC Moore Gallery

Guermantes Way, 2012; Photo: DC Moore Gallery

DM: I just finished a few works I’m very happy with. One is of two young girls I’m calling “Margaret and Eleanor”. My mother is Margaret and my aunt is Eleanor, and it reminds me of them when they were young girls. Another is called “Nora Barnacle” who was Joyce’s wife, and another is “Lucia”, his daughter. But besides Joyce, my favorite writer is Borges. He is the type of writer you can go back to again and again and again. “A New Refutation of Time” is terrific because I’m interested in time, not just as a vehicle to the past as Proust considered it—other titles reference “In Search of Lost Time” and “The Guermantes Way”—but the fundamental nature of it. That is what Borges was questioning and what I’m questioning.

Have you read Henri Bergson? I like his idea of Élan vital (the force that he saw as driving evolution) and his idea of Durée. I describe it like this: We both agree that this now. But actually this is really now. No, this is really now. The moment you say now, it’s not now. There is no now, because now is always in the past. I was born now, I went to the army now, we’re talking now, and now it’s now, and guess when I am going to die? I’m going to die now. Our lives are just one moment which we experience as a duration, but if you examine it, time is not there. Now is a sliver of time that can never be experienced, and I think death is that sliver, it’s falling between the cracks.

AK: What I like about the sequences is the missing information, too. In comparison to film, the sequences are distilled stories and the viewer is left to fill-in more information. They are open to multiple interpretations. I just read an interview with Steven Soderbergh. In it, he says he’s leaving film and picking-up painting and that your sequences are a major inspiration.

DM: I live very quietly. Although I love New York, I don’t go to parties. My opening was wonderful, but it was my opening and I had to go. I don’t like events with more than six or eight people. So when I hear about that, I am so surprised because I’m not in that domain. I’m not a celebrity photographer or a Cindy Sherman.

Photographs describe exquisitely, but unless the photographer brings insight into the photograph, it’s mere description. Take a picture of you: you have all the looks of a stylish woman of the time but looking at you, I wouldn’t know that you had studied architecture or all the other interesting things about you. This is why I began to do sequences, to expand the decisive moment of photography. I wanted to know what happened the moment before and the moment after, so I simply extended the decisive moment to the decisive moments. So then I had four photographs instead of one. I began to write on photographs for the same reason, because I was frustrated. Again, looking at you, I want to express more. How do I express myself? It’s not about the photograph or the medium, it’s about atmosphere. But you can’t express what atmosphere is, because it’s ambiguous. Photography may allow for an ambiguity that film does not, and I suppose that this is what is exciting to Soderbergh.

Chance Meeting, 1970

Chance Meeting, 1970

AK: I have one last question. In an interview I saw of you with Barbaralee Diamonstein for Visions and Images in the 80s, you talked quite a bit about Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, and I wonder if you go to literature and painting because Buddhism doesn’t explain everything for you.

DM: No, I go to Buddhism because of literature and painting ((laughs))! I also did an interview in the 80s for Bomb magazine, they recently republished it, and I realized a lot of the things I was concerned about then, I’m not concerned about now. I’m in a different position, or my reference is different. I think life is like a kaleidoscope: every decade you turn the kaleidoscope, and all the pieces rearrange themselves into a new configuration, so the configuration of my 80s is different than what it was in my 70s, 60s, and 30s and 40s. There’s a wonderful quote by De Chirico, or he said something to the effect of, “What else is there to contemplate but the enigma?” Buddhism contemplates the enigma, whereas most religions are simply political institutions designed to perpetuate themselves.

Untitled, from the series The Indomitable Spirit, 1989

Untitled, from the series The Indomitable Spirit, 1989

Now, I love De Chirico’s question, because that’s all there is. Everything else has fallen apart for me. All of the social and institutional structures that define reality: the church, hetero-sexuality, and all of the assumptions you make about yourself when you’re young have fallen away. Most people don’t change very much, but as you mature, if you mature, you begin to drop-off and you begin to let go, and at this point, I feel very naked.

I think that all of that, our consensus of reality, acts as a scrim. You know when you turn a light on a scrim on a stage? You look at a scrim on stage and you see a house on a field, then it’s lit from behind, and you can begin to see through it. For me, reality is like a scrim, and now I’m beginning to see through the scrim to the lights, to the mystery behind it.

AK: Does that happen through your work or through your thinking and everyday living?

DM: I don’t separate my work from my life. I hate when I hear, “I do my work on Saturdays.” That’s not me. I don’t go to a studio to do my work. I carry my work in my head. The photograph is just the tip of the iceberg. Producing is mentally digesting and eliminating, and by the time you make something, you’ve already done all the hard work.  I am the process, and I express myself constantly, which is like constant liberation. I am more free now than I have ever been in my whole life, and every day I become more and more free. Of course, included in that is the freedom to fail, and I’m not in a race against anyone.

AK: Thank you so much for your time, Duane. I think we are at a good stopping point, though I hate to conclude.

DM: Thank you. It was my pleasure. Come with me, and I’ll read a short chapter of “Photo folies” for you. I think you’ll find it very relevant.

—Ashley Booth Klein

 

DUANE MICHALS has exhibited internationally at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1970), the George Eastman House, Easthampton (1971), Odakyu Museum, Tokyo (1991), the International Center of Photography, New York (2005), the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Thessaloniki, Greece (2008), and Scavi Scaligeri, Verona, Italy (2008). The Carnegie Museum of Art will host a major retrospective of his work in 2014. Michals work belongs to numerous permanent collections including The Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, among others.

Publications include Sequences (Doubleday & Co., 1970), Homage to Cavafy (Addison House, 1978), A Visit with Magritte (Matrix, 1981), Sleep and Dream (Lustrum Press, 1984), Duane Michals Photographs/Sequences/Texts 1958-1984 (Modern Art Oxford, England, 1984), Now Becoming Then (Twin Palms, 1990), Eros & Thanatos (Twin Palms, 1992), The Essential Duane Michals (Little, Brown & Company, 1997), Questions without Answers (Twin Palms, 2001), The House I Once Called Home (Enitharmony Editions, 2003), Foto Follies (Steidl, 2006), and A Pittsburgh Poem (High Street House Books, 2013).

Judith Tannenbaum on the Work of Lynda Benglis

Leaded Moss Knot, 1992

Leaded Moss Knot, 1992

In The New York Times review of “Lynda Benglis”, a traveling retrospective of 40 years of the artist’s work at the New Museum, Benglis is introduced as the artist who one-upped Jackson Pollock’s action paintings in the 1960s. Describing her as a second generation abstract expressionist or next level Pollock helps portray Benglis as a painter, which she does consider herself first and foremost, but not how very differently and extensively she works in other mediums as a sculptor and performance artist. In contrast to Pollock, Benglis is compelled more by a flagrant rebelliousness against mainstream ideas about who an artist should be, which has proven to be highly provisional in terms of her art-making and the way she has negotiated her career. The artist, at 71 now, enjoys a sprawling existence in and outside of the contemporary art world, testing and manipulating materials as a painter and sculptor in home/studios in New York City and East Hampton, the high desert outside Santa Fe, Kastelorizo, Greece, and Ahmedabad, India.

Since the beginning of her career, Benglis has successively experimented with a wide variety of materials, from the 1960s to 80s, for example: wax, latex, polyurethane foam, phosphorescent pigment, bronze, aluminum; and in the 1990s and 2000s: paper, glass, ceramics, and stainless steel. Concurrently, she has produced videos, Polaroids, and other media interventions, including several works in collaboration with Robert Morris, documenting her process and involving staged photography as pointed critiques on sexual identity, power, and other gender-related issues. Benglis is sensitive to the materials she uses; meaning, to exploit a material’s properties, she will not only temper its chemistry, but will respond to the natural proclivities of it to flow, stretch, bend, harden, and generally become. Her twisted sculptures in clay are perfect examples of her responsiveness to materiality, or in other words, her ability to create new forms with a difficult material. Ceramics require a multitude of steps involving a precise amount of mixing, painting, and cooking, which Benglis has mastered over the last 20 years. The heavy, counterbalanced loops and arches of her ceramics are not necessarily what clay wants to do, but what she makes it do.

I had several questions regarding Benglis’ retrospective and her ceramic works which Judith Tannenbaum, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, who helped organize “Lynda Benglis”, generously agreed to answer:

Phantom, 1971

Phantom, 1971

AK: It must have been difficult for the curators to decide what work to include and what to omit in the retrospective. I understand there was an initial decision to focus on Benglis’ formal work rather than her video and photography. I suppose from then on, the challenge was to choose a sampling of works from each of the materials she has used to represent her most significant contributions to painting and sculpture. Are there any works that you wish had been included but weren’t?

JT: The exhibition was initiated by the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin but curators from four other venues—Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), Le Consortium (Dijon), RISD Museum (Providence), and New Museum (New York)—chose a core group of objects that traveled to all of the museums. It was difficult to decide because Benglis’ work has been so prolific and diverse, but at the same time there was consensus among the curators, while also considering the limitations of space and budget. All of the venues except Dijon presented examples of Benglis’ video, photography, and printed ephemera, but the selections varied from museum to museum. RISD and the New Museum (as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which was added to the tour after New York) were fortunate to include “Phantom”, the only one of six multi-part poured polyurethane foam installations Benglis made in 1971 to survive. In spite of complex technical requirements, additional shipping, and conservation, I felt it was very important to include this large glow-in-the-dark sculpture, which became the show-stopper for visitors. I also thought that Benglis’ glass and ceramics should be given more attention as well as her video and photography. It was gratifying to be able to add a number of these works at RISD.

AK: Would you say that over the course of her career, Benglis has moved away from synthetic materials in favor of traditional ones? She continues to use foam, of course, but it seems that the bulk of her work in recent years is composed of metals, ceramics, glass, and paper. I also have a clip of her saying that she could only create six of the poured polyurethane installations—that though she was commissioned to produce more, she couldn’t force herself to continue pushing herself in an area she felt she had fully explored. Do traditional materials provide her an opportunity to go deeper into process, in that, she can also play-off of traditional ways of making?

Anagma 5, 1995

Anagma 5, 1995

JT: I don’t think I’d make a distinction. Early on she did experiment with a number of materials that had not been associated with fine art—pouring latex or foam on the floor, and applying glitter onto plaster and cotton bunting for example. But she was also making those amazing lozenge-shaped paintings built up with layers and layers of wax, a material that goes back to the encaustic artworks of ancient Egypt. The important thing is how Benglis takes advantage of the particular qualities of a material to create work that is distinctly her own. There’s almost always a sense of immediacy and tactility no matter what the object is made of.

AK: Where did Benglis learn ceramics and is she interested in a particular tradition?

JT: Benglis took ceramics classes (as well as painting and philosophy) when she was at Newcomb College, which was the women’s school associated with Tulane University in New Orleans. Newcomb, in fact, is very well known for Arts and Crafts pottery produced there in the early 20th century. But I don’t know what Benglis’ ceramics looked like then—if she made functional vessels on the wheel or more purely sculptural forms. Most of the ceramics she made in the 1990s were based on extruded tubes of clay that she twisted and manipulated into coiled forms before applying colored glaze. The pliability and hands-on quality of clay seems perfect for her—the way it can either slump over or rise up and defy gravity. One can think back to the series of metallic knots she did in the 70s, but with clay the connection between gesture and form is even more immediate.

AK: In the late 1990s, Benglis created an outdoor work, titled “Migrating Pedimarks”, inspired by her experience of an earthquake in Marseille, in which she saw roof tiles cascade into the sea. She described the process as akin to “drawing” with cut slabs of clay—she had assistants hand her pieces of clay which she threw onto a form and cast in bonze. How often does Benglis work on-site or site-specifically now?

JT: Since the 80s, Benglis has created several permanent works for particular locations including a very large textile for the Atlanta airport, and “Chimera”, a monumental carved brick elephantine form and double-headed snake that wraps around a tree in Ahmedabad. More recently, she has focused on outdoor fountains, an interest that goes back to a commission for the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans in 1984. Reviving that arching wavelike form, Benglis installed a large four-part bronze fountain, “North South East West”, in the gardens of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, when her retrospective opened there in 2009. It will remain there for ten years.

Migrating Pedmarks, 1998

Migrating Pedmarks, 1998

AK: Recently there has been a revival of performance art and rather obstreperous installation art, (I am referring to “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” at MoMA, “Maurizio Cattelan: All” at the Guggenheim, and “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty” and “Carsten Höller: Experience” at the New Museum) which makes me think that Benglis’ recent works are rebellious in the way that her neon latex and DayGlo foam installations were in the 60s and 70s, and neither are her new works “un-monumental” as in the 2008 exhibition at the New Museum—they are lasting. Does Benglis still have an agenda to subvert current trends in the art world, or would you say her work now is simply a means of personal exploration?

Zita, from the Sparkle Knot series, 1972

Zita, from the Sparkle Knot series, 1972

JT: I agree that in her early years Benglis consciously challenged existing traditions—subverting them or taking them in a new direction. Just the idea of using color so prodigiously in the late-60s and 70s when minimalism and conceptualism took center stage can be considered an act of rebellion. And her preference for glitter in the “Sparkle Knot” series must have been viewed as purely decorative and feminine—not to be taken seriously. I titled my essay “Lynda Benglis: Clandestine Performer” for the book published by Les Presses du Reél in conjunction with the retrospective because, to me, the act of performing underlies almost all of her work. Her early work may have been ahead of its time in that respect, and perhaps it is now in sync with what’s going on. There has always been a remarkably open and uninhibited quality to her work—nothing is hidden or obscured.

AK: Lastly, can you try to describe how Benglis is inspired by nature and the different environments and cultures in which she immerses herself?

JT: Nature and culture are huge issues that are impossible to do justice to here; but perhaps a few examples will be helpful: The poured foam installations cantilevered out from the wall like “Phantom” suggest waterfalls as well as natural formations such as caves and grottos and must acknowledge the force of gravity. Recent cast resin half spheres and egglike forms seem to glow from within. In contrast, pleated metal fans and more complex wall reliefs from the 80s and early-90s recall the folds of drapery characteristic of Greek caryatids and other ancient sculpture. A number of mermaid-like plaster forms covered in sumptuous gold leaf from the late-70s have titles with Greek references—Siren, Minos, Knossos—underscoring her family heritage. As you mentioned at the outset of this interview, Benglis lives in several places and travels extensively. Her intellectual acuity joined with unedited spontaneity and intuition produces a combination that allows her to absorb the experiences of different cultures and serves her well both in art and in life.

—Ashley Booth Klein

 

JUDITH TANNENBAUM was named The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum’s first curator of contemporary art in 2000. In 2002, she became the Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art, the Museum’s first endowed position, which she held until 2013. She recently relocated to Philadelphia but continues her connection to RISD as Adjunct Curator.

Tannenbaum has organized numerous exhibitions focusing on painting, sculpture, video, and interdisciplinary work–with a particular interest in connections between visual art and performance and relationships among fine art, craft, and design. Exhibitions and publications for RISD include Painting Air: Spencer Finch (2012); Lynda Benglis (2010); Styrofoam (2008); Beth Lipman: After You’re Gone (2008); Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the Present (2006); Betty Woodman: Il Giardino dipinto (2005); Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Diaspora (2004); On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists (2003); and Jim Isermann: Logic Rules (2000).

From 1986 to 2000, Tannenbaum served variously as curator, associate director, and interim director at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Pauline Vermare on the Early Work of Christer Strömholm

Tanger, Marocko, 1951 by Christer Stromholm

Tanger, Marocko, 1951 by Christer Stromholm

Pauline Vermare is a Curatorial Assistant at the International Center for Photography (ICP) and last year organized “Les Amies de Place Blanche” by Christer Strömholm, a ground breaking exhibition for the photographer whose work had never before been shown in a museum in the United States. While well-known and celebrated in his native Sweden, Strömholm (1918-2002) remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States despite his wide influence on both European and American photography. Perhaps this is due to the highly individualistic nature of his work, which transformed over his long career. Strömholm photographed an array of scenes and subjects with subtlety and restraint—never did he impose himself on what he captured with his camera a characteristic style, and so it is hard to say what makes a Strömholm photograph. Certainly his compositions are stark and his symbolism clear and strong, but these are fairly discursive, general observations.

Strömholm’s early photographs of vagabond children, abandoned objects, haunted cemeteries, and prison-like carnivals of the 1940s gave way rather suddenly to intimate, seductive portraiture of a group of lovers and friends whom he befriended when he settled in Paris in the 1950s. He photographed these marginal characters, a melange of glamorous but bohemian transsexuals, in every aspect of their lives. These are the photographs of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” (Girlfriends of Place Blanche), originally published in a book in 1983 and reissued last year commensurate with the ICP’s exhibition. Following the production of this series, Strömholm returned to Sweden to continue developing his ideas from the early 1950s in new work and to teach at Stockholm University for several years, until retiring and then dividing his time between Sweden and Provence where he kept a country home.

Here are my questions concerning Strömholm’s early work leading up to “Les Amies,” its reception then and now, and Vermare’s rich and insightful answers which place this work within the story of his personal life:

Saint Marie de la Mer, France, 1948

Saint Marie de la Mer, France, 1948

AK: I am curious about Strömholm’s work prior to “Les Amies” and what he discovered from the photographs he made until settling in Paris. Do you know what compelled him to leave Stockholm and how he started photographing the Girls?

PV: Christer Strömholm had quite a dark and rough life before he became a photographer in the 1940’s: his parents divorced when he was very young, his father committed suicide when he was 16, he engaged against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, then fought during the Second World War in Norway. Death was always close. It is impossible to know if by nature Christer Strömholm was attracted to dark subjects, but surely what life brought to him at a very early age must have had a strong impact on him, and on his art. In the beautiful documentary that his son Joakim made about him, “Close your eyes and see,” Christer comes across as an extremely intelligent man, and inherently drawn to the margins—the fine line between life and death. When he met the girls of Place Blanche by chance in Paris in the late 1950’s, he met his equals: people who were fighting, misfits who were managing to find light in the roughness of their lives. It was actually the first time that Christer was able to take photographs of (facing, really) living beings. From then on, he took more and more portraits and became one of the greatest portraitists of his time, creating iconographic images of artists and Paris proper.

AK: What initially drew me to Strömholm’s work was the content of his early street photographs of abandoned objects and uninhabited spaces—the dog’s leash, the grave, the cemetery. Do you believe that the simplicity and straight-forwardness of these photographs initially caused his work to be overlooked? When did he begin to receive recognition?

Montmartre, 1949

Montmartre, 1949

PV: It is hard to tell, perhaps Christer was only experimenting with his camera at the time, for his own sake, not really trying to be known, just like Cartier-Bresson in the 1930’s. His early work was more of a metaphysical wandering. And then he met these girls. Indeed many photographers and art critics discovered Christer Strömholm in the 1980’s, when “Vännerna från Place Blanche” came out in Sweden. It quickly sold out and became a cult classic at the time. It is almost as if “Les Amies” had brought Christer (back to) life, and with it, the recognition from his peers.

AK: It seems that he was shooting only with available light from the beginning of his career. How did his theory on light develop?

PV: It is indeed very interesting. Strömholm was working with day light, street lights, car lights, neon lights.… Working with what was available in order not to disturb the natural order of things, or the subjects–dead or alive. No violent artifact. This was one of his mottos and one of the main lessons he taught his students. One might argue that it had something to do with the light he grew up with in Sweden—or the lack of it most of the year, which you learn to live with and see with. And perhaps it also had to do with his eye, which was really that of a painter. In fact, in many of his photographs, especially his portraits in the dark hotel rooms of Place Blanche, you can see that he uses light like a Renaissance master, composing with an incredible subtlety. The available light is where the beauty and the authenticity of his pictures lie.

AK: Can you explain his relationship to the artists in Paris (Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, etc) whom he was portraying while a student at the Beaux Arts? Was Strömholm searching for a subject matter at this time?

PV: Yes, absolutely, interesting subject matter, but also looking for pocket money and friends! He developed strong relationships with some of the artists he photographed then, spending a lot of time with them and their circle of friends. He introduced some of the Girls to them, too. It was also a nice way for him to make a living in a more conventional way: a story like “Les Amies” was a personal one, from which he would not make money. On the other hand, his portraits of artists would sell to the magazines very easily.

AK: Was Strömholm influenced by Robert Frank? It seems that not only does “Les Amies” tell a story of survival in the way of Frank’s “The American,” but that both photographers shared a similar preference for sharper contrasts and harder edges over the softer, more tonal photography running its course through Europe. They seem to me unique in their pursuit of a harder edged truth.

PV: Many people see Brassaï’s “Paris by Night” in “Les Amies,” while others see Ed van der Elsken’s “Love on the Left Bank.” There is definitely a similar form of melancholy in “Les Américains” (first published in France by Delpire in 1958, exactly when Christer met the Girls), and a break in the conventional form of photography—darker, and somewhat closer to a movie, especially the New Wave (somehow his photograph “Little Christer,” and the overall atmosphere in “Les Amies,” remind me of “Les 400 Coups” by Truffaut). But who knows whether Christer knew or loved Frank’s work then? In a way I think Strömholm was far more involved in his subjects than Frank was: Strömholm spent years with the Girls, developed very strong human ties with them. Today Nana and Jacky, two of his favorite subjects, attend all of his openings and talk about Christer with deep friendship and emotion. It is a very different approach, all in all, a more personal one, closer to Nan Goldin’s, really.

Place Blanche

Place Blanche

AK: Why is it that Strömholm’s work was not shown in an American museum until last year and what compelled you to organize the exhibition, was it the reissuing of the book or was the book a product of the exhibition?

PV: It is a good question as Christer’s work had been widely exhibited in Europe, especially in France and Spain, over the past twenty years. The publication, a bilingual (French/English) reprint of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” in 2011 by Aman Iman Publishing, definitely helped bring this master work across the Atlantic. Paris Photo 2011 was also a key event during which our Chief Curator, Brian Wallis, met with the people of Galerie Vu, who represent Strömholm in France, and also with Nana and Jacky, two of the main protagonists of “Les Amies de Place Blanche.” He was deeply impressed by the strength of this body of work, and decided that ICP should absolutely show it. I had the immense privilege of being asked to organize it. So, I suppose there needed to be momentum. 2012 was definitely the Strömholm year, with this show in the US and all over the world, including a major retrospective in his native Sweden, at Fotografiska, now traveling throughout Europe. The essay had never been shown by itself before the ICP show, and it made an extremely strong impression on the American public. I think it was really a coup, and a fantastic one.

Strömholm’s retrospective is currently on view at C/O Berlin, and his work is also presented at the Kicken Gallery, Berlin.

—Ashley Booth Klein

 

PAULINE VERMARE grew up in France, Japan, and Hong Kong. In 2001, after earning a Masters of International Relations at Sciences Po, Paris, she joined the Paris bureau of Magnum Photos. In 2002, she started working for the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, where she worked until 2009 with Agnes Sire on the production of the catalogues and exhibitions. In February 2009, she moved to New York to work on the Cartier-Bresson retrospective curated by Peter Galassi at MoMA. In May 2010, she joined the Capa archive at ICP to work on “The Mexican Suitcase” with Curator Cynthia Young. She recently finished organizing a Chim (David Seymour) retrospective, which opened in January, 2013, and is now preparing the exhibition “Capa in Color”, which will open next year.