Saturday, May 10, 2014

what you see is what you see

The words are Frank Stella's -- one of the leading lights of American minimalism in the 60s and 70s.

The aphorism is stenciled on the wall in one of the current exhibitions at the Museo Tamayo -- entitled "Double Negative: from painting to object."  The exhibition has gathered works from some of the best American artists of that period: Carl Andre, Jo Baer, John Baldessari, Larry Bell, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, John McCraken, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, Robert Smithson, and, of course, Frank Stella.

It is quite the collection.  And I wish I could share some of their works.  But, probably for copyright purposes, photographs were prohibited.  It is also possible that photographs would reveal that the emperor is wearing only a g-string.

But, I am getting ahead of myself.

The one piece I did photograph, before the forces of art authority shamed me into compliance, is at the top of this post.  Stella's Sabra III (1967).

You probably know where I am going with this.  I am a fan of Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word.  His art criticism essay that takes American art in the 1970s to task for stripping the viewer's visual experience away in favor of pandering to the theories of art critics. 

The practical effect is that the words of critics on museum walls explaining what we are supposed to think made the viewer almost superficial to the artistic process.  Instead, of looking at the art, we naturally gravitate to the words on the wall.  In the process, the public is treated as a bunch of rubes.  "How could they possibly understand such lofty ideas?"

Here's an example.  Sol LeWitt's Floor Piece #4 fascinated me.  (The photograph is through the courtesy of the internet.)

It looks as if it may merely be a set of cubes.  It is.  But LeWitt has removed an internal section of the cubes to give an interesting kaleidoscope of shapes as the viewer walks around it.  I found it quite witty -- and cerebral.

To that extent.  I connected with the artist, but in a rather bothersome way.  He sums up well what many people find unnerving about conceptual art.  "Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than the eye or the emotions."   

So, I guess Stella is wrong.  What you see is not even the point.  According to LeWitt, we are pulled into some form of Cartesian vortex.  Here is what The Word tells us to think: "LeWitt examines the infinite spatial and linear configurations possible in the simple geometry of a cube.  The composition was generated by a mathematical formula."

Who talks like that?  But the division between the viewer and the artis's theory is right there.  It is a mathematical formula.  And if you don't know what it is, how can you, a mere viewer, appreciate the work for what it truly is?

John Baldessari takes it one step further by mocking traditional art appreciation in Composing on a Canvas (1966-1968).

I will confess that the approach is rather clever.  The canvas appears to gives us insight to art while mocking people who have the wrong concept of art.  It is a rather good example that plays into the hands of people who say they know what they like in art, but they cannot begin to provide any standards that would distinguish good art from bad.

I do not dislike contemporary art.  Despite what some artists and art critics have done to make it inaccessible to the general public, I find much it to be quite good -- and, often, witty.

But I had had enough.  (Not really, I also enjoyed a stroll through an exhibition of a Brazilian artist -- Jac Leirner.  "Functions of a Variable."  But I do not have time to talk about her interesting use of recycled items.  Such as, a giant room whose walls were covered with an international collection of plastic shopping bags.)

It was time for a visit to Chapultepec Castle.  We have been there together there before -- three years ago.  It has been the residence of Mexican presidents -- and a French-imposed emperor.  The presidents now live down the hill.  But it is a great museum these days.

Before I got there, though, I stopped at the Museo del Caracol -- dedicated to telling the story of Mexico's independence and its turbulent aftermath up to the Revolution.  Because it is on the way up the hill to the castle, I stopped in.

I now have a better appreciation for the logic behind the stained windows in European churches.  The windows were designed to relay the moral of Bible stories during a time when most congregants were illiterate, and when the Church prohibited those who could read from reading the Bible for themselves.

Most of the exhibits are dioramas of the great (and some not-so-great) moments of Mexican history.  Iturbide's coronation, for example.

Each of the exhibits is accompanied with a detailed description of the historical event and its importance.  The words, of course, are Spanish.  My grasp of Mexican history is far better than my understanding of the language in the country where I live.

So, I am effectively as illiterate as the church-goers in the Middle Ages.

That pulled me back to the works I had just left in the Tamayo Musuem.  In neither place did I really need an interpreter to tell me what was going on.  But it would have been nice to know the details of the history markers.

If you want accessible art, you should spend a day at the national history museum that was once the residence of the Mexican head of state.  Chapultepec Castle.  Following the Revolution, the great Mexican muralists were given leave to decorate the walls.

Juan O'Gorman has three major pieces.  Including, the inauguration of President Madero -- whose election deposed a dictator, and whose assassination set off another decade of turmoil for Mexico.

In the left corner, we can see a rather shameful act under way.  The American Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, hands the presidential sash to Victoriano Huerta, who would murder Madero and take the presidency for himself.

Justice being what it is, Huerta ended up dying in a Texas jail.

The most-acclaimed work, though, is by David Siquerios -- From the Porfiriato to the Revolution.

Siquerios is an interesting personality.  There is no doubt he was a great artist and that his art served his Stalinist politics.  But his life is fascinating enough to be a very good novel -- or movie.

The castle is filled with all sorts of interesting material from Mexico's history.  Several of the residential apartments have been re-furbished to give an idea what the place looked like during the residencies of Maximilian and Porfirio Diaz.

My favorite?  General Santa Anna's prosthetic leg.  For some reason, I am really fascinated with one of Mexico's great scoundrels -- and survivors.

At some point in the future, I may sort through my photographs to write some additional essays.  But, that will be another day. 

I am a bit tired right now after this busy day.  That bed is looking pretty good to me.

And, to that extent, Frank Stella is correct.  What I see is what I see.

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