Monday, May 28, 2012

On Terrible, Beautiful Wings

One of the B-17s my uncle flew in, "Meat Hound," in 1943.
First published on May 29, 2006; edited May 28, 2012. 

Yesterday a B-17 flew over my head twice as I walked by the sea. The B-17 is a talisman in my life - what my father worked to protect from sudden storms that killed the young pilots still in Texas, what my uncle nearly died in as a navigator over Germany, the nexus of my family's experience of WWII. It still permeates Seattle, the strangely appealing and ominous bomber, the machine that made this town a city, an aircraft whose purpose was to place large amounts of high explosive on buildings and people, assembled by women and men, all to the great glory of life and democracy, I need to believe, and to darker purposes of power and property, I often fear.

The four-engine Boeing B-17 bomber is a symbol of my own safety, family history, beliefs and prosperity, and my own distant, romantic delusions about the nature of war.  13,000 were built in just a few years.  The B-17 looks democratic with its windows at each of the 10 positions, built to see and guard the whole sky. It is a tool of war.  Bury it in metaphors as you will, war is about inserting metal and fire into soft human bodies at high velocity.

But it's a good day to remember several stories: my father catching a ride to Chicago in the nose of a B-17, watching the world pass in the best view in the world, falling asleep and waking hours later in a deep fog, with the smokestacks of the city passing high - whoops - above his head.  He said it was the best view in the world, but he took a moment to strongly request a change in altitude to the pilot. On one of these trips, he saw Fats Waller live, and delighted in this astonishing period in American music.

He told me about the B-17s and P-51s parked in rows by the Frankfurt airport in 1946, all for sale somehow, $100 each or perhaps a box of good cigarettes, men buying them just for the fuel still in the wing tanks. He told me once that he knew a pilot who would pay $100,000 for any B-17 he could find in 1970, because it was the best platform for aerial photography.  It was, along with the P-51, his favorite plane.

A photo shows my father's arm holding the skull of a Japanese soldier burned out of a cave on Saipan a few months earlier. His friends are smiling - it is a post-war moment, so it is a cheerful, almost delirious moment. He was passing through the Pacific island, on a kind of flying hop around tour, an Army Air Force captain, a meteorologist working his way by air to the literally smoldering remains of Frankfurt Airport in early 1946. There is nothing but the joy at the death of an enemy, the death that meant peace.

He told me he knew many men who had been so competent, confident and capable in the war who simply wasted away in peace, or that particular peace we built-  the consumer peace. In a phrase common of the men I grew up around who fought in WWII, there was bitterness over the worship of the All-Mighty Dollar to which they returned.  These men at least, his friends, professors, humanists, scientists, artists, lawyers, writers, believed intensely in freedom, in the cause of the war: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Belief, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, the Four Freedoms Roosevelt articulated as the policy of the United States, as the counter to rising, endless, deliriously murderous fascism.  But they never meant to offer up their lives for the Almighty Dollar, for the most selfish forms of consumer capitalism. They had seen quite enough of unmitigated capitalism in the Depression.  They sacrificed for their country, particularly its safety and its promise.  America, my father believed, entered the great nations of history at the end, holding the Atomic Bomb as we did, and a fleet of Bombers to deliver it, and resisting temptation, and choosing imperfect humanity, decided not to conquer the world when we had overwhelming, unstoppable power. America proved itself the nation about something more than conquest.

His station in the Army Air Force in Dalhart, Texas primarily trained B-17 bomber crews. My father was a trained pilot, and wondered if he could fly one in an emergency, which was an excuse to fantasize a bit about flying one.  The crews called them ships.

Fleets were built - tens of thousands of bombers of many types. Formations of bombers stretching 1000 miles, involving 1500 aircraft, cycled like a conveyor belt from England to Occupied Europe, to Norway and France and Germany, first bombing military targets, then industries, and finally cities, simply cities, of human beings, often German ones, Germans with names like Bollenbach, who had collectively committed the capital sin of allowing to rise the most insatiably murderous government in human history, and for this collective sin, would die in their beds and at their tables crushed by bricks and beams, burned and concussed by airplanes built with spectacular ingenuity and skill, 20 a day, 5000 miles away, in Seattle, Washington.  In 1943, they were flown by men knowing that each mission, 6% -8% of the planes would fall; and each man faced 25 missions.

The crews, 10 to a plane, broke or allowed to be broken the Nazi war machine. And they destroyed  half a million people. (Conventional bombing raids in Japan, firestorm raids, killed 140,000 people in one attack on Tokyo, more than both atomic weapons. ) This war established the modern pattern: civilians die violently, more, often much more, than soldiers in war. The numbers put you into a calculus far more numbing and incomprehensible than the pleasant wonders, the vast stretches of time and space, of cosmology.

Yet I am pleased knowing that there are still twelve B-17s flying.  It thrills me to see one: the roar of those radial engines, the curvilinear form, the most natural arc of flight, this ship belongs in the air like no other.

My father served much of WWII in the U.S, and then was transferred to England. I know almost nothing about this critical period where he worked with the forecasters for the D-Day invasion, in what has been described as the most important weather forecast in history.  He told my mother that he missed that day when the decision to go or not was made.  But he was part of the science team- the best weather scientists in the world were there for months, trying to pin a date - and they threaded the needle with a correct and critical forecast upon which depended tens of thousands of lives and the fate of the war.

Like many men who didn't serve in combat, I think he felt keenly his exclusion from the shared physical risks of war.

He sacrificed still, like all families, like families of soldiers and dead civilian victims of war now.  His brother, my uncle Duane, was wounded horribly in air combat over Germany with 20mm cannon fire from a Nazi fighter striking his head, moments after he had removed his flak helmet. The energy of the round was spent, and it shattered into fragments.  It was an archetypical B-17 moment, war in the air, the ship struggling on three and then two engines, metal rattling and brittle cold air pouring through holes shredded in the fuselage, bodies bleeding less in the cold, his buddy literally holding his head together for the long hours home.  Approaching the coast, they had to toss everything to lighten the load, guns, radios, and unfortunately the emergency landing gear handle, which, as it turned out, they needed.. The Wahoo II landed safely back in England on one wheel, looping on the ground. 

The ambulance they called a meat wagon came as Duane was taken out of the plane, and the medics weren't going to take him in for treatment, until the pilot pulled a gun on them, a souvenir Luger no less, telling them to take him in or he'd blow their heads off.  Duane outlived my father, but paralyzed on one side.  But the sacrifice was in how Duane's spirit was in some ways wrecked by his permanent disability,  how in a falling out over this they spoke only every few years until their deaths in the 1980s. He didn't come to my father's funeral. I didn't go to Duane's. Duane I only met twice as an adult. This story is almost all I know about him, that and when they were kids in Nebraska, he had an unfortunate love of onion sandwiches.

I think something about that incident and certainly the military experience drove my father to Alaska, and in a way drove his first son, disconnected from a fairly large family, into the Green Berets in Vietnam. And Grant I do not really know now either. I do know that WWII nearly cured my father of respect for authority, and most desire to wear hats, except the brown beret he adopted later, which with his tweed jacket and turtleneck, horn-rimmed glass and goatee made him look like the Cool Jazz weatherman.  He was a respected weather scientist in his many years in Alaska, popular enough with the international pilots that he once pulled a favor and had a 747 turn around on the runway and come back to pick us up.  He became an artist as well, and defender of liberal and humanist values in the public sphere, values forged, quite consciously, by his experiences of WWII.

I know more, much more, about the B-17 than these other men in my own family, which the war both ennobled and broke apart through the instrument of the B-17, that beautiful bomber whose elegant, oddly humanistic design seems to have been the final echo of humanity in the military industrial complex that grew to maturity in that war. I know more, much more, about the B-17 than the Bollenbach family, and my ancestral history. That plane in some ways is the end and beginning of my family.

I hadn't thought until yesterday about the man in the German fighter who fired that 20mm cannon round which changed my family in these ways, how, in real war, all battle is equivalent, metal twisting and tearing flesh, metal emitted from an insane magic bag of ideologies to rationalize the destruction of human beings. He fired on a man named Bollenbach, which is also a small village in Pflaz-Rheinland. That pilot probably died that day, defending something real, the people he knew, and something spectacularly horrific. And the B-17 carried my uncle back to life, and men on the ground at the little airfield waited for its throaty roar, staring for their friends and comrades encapsulated in dark smoky dots against a buttermilk sky.

Now at this great remove from that injury, and the injuries my uncle and my father inflicted on our nation's enemies - before and since friends- I am safe and grateful and indulgent in my whims of work and play.  But a tiny dark hook of that war still touches me: what was my father's family?  My grandfather, a shadow, was hated for hitting my grandmother; my grandmother, a school principal, flickers as a formidable white haired presence in a handful of memories. I might have found out, but time had passed, and I did not. So much more clear in my living mind is the airplane, the B-17, its history, its symbology, an icon to me of horrendously flawed but ultimately substantive nobility, the Vargas girls on its sides marking it a war goddess, a Kali-mother dropping its horrific high-explosive children that by the path of total madness pushed the human race back to sanity.

Agnostic as the day is long, I have an answer for the Pope's question at Auschwitz on Thursday: where was God?  He was unknowing, stumbling, half-blind and blundering, like he always is, and seeking mostly to stay alive and keep his friends alive; that collected human consciousness we dully call God lived and worked in the Allied soldiers, the undergrounds, the millions paralyzed in fear, the victims of both the Nazis and the God's vengence we visited upon them, in dischordant momentary compassions among the Germans themselves, but most in the sum of all that resisted in any and every way industrial murder for madness and property.

And this vengeance flew too on terrible, beautiful wings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bollenbach of the Antarctic- Bits of a Polar Grant Proposal from 2007

With the kind and timely encouragement of C_______, I am developing a proposal to travel under grant from the National Science Foundation to the Anarctic as part of the artists and writers program.

I recently received an encouraging letter from the NSF in reply my letter excerpted below. (Reading above, notice how quickly the blood drains out of any sentence even vaguely connected to a grant application.)

I would be thrilled for the opportunity to travel to the Antarctic, particularly on science ship, and have been researching possibilities for several years.

My primary focus is oil painting. The Polar regions interest me for the scientific history involving artists (I think of Shackleton's artist sealing the seams of the James Caird boat for the almost suicidal voyage to South Georgia with his precious oil paints), the highly specific knowledge that traditional painting can bring to an understanding of color in a region, and the poetic collision of remote eternity of the Antarctic and the new fact of its transformation, an Icarus of a continent, moving too close to the sun.

Elders among the Inupiaq have noticed changes in the color of the Arctic skies. I would be very curious to see if this might be true in the Antarctic, which might require accurate paintings as a baseline. (Photography has limitations in the recording of accurately perceived color. ) That suggests subtleties of shift of color in the atmosphere - (and) some scientists have used studies paintings from periods around considerable volcanic activity -such as the 1883 Krakatoa eruption -to estimate atmospheric changes (Munch's Scream paintings may be an example of this).

I gained a lot of interest in the subject from my father, was a NOAA meteorologist for many years in Alaska, starting just after WWII. An amateur painter, he often noticed the particular qualities of light from Russian, Scandinavian and other Arctic painters shared around the world in the same latitude. In the days of hand drawn weather charts, he told me that the more beautiful the drawing of the isobars, the more accurate the weather predictions, and idea which has served me well in painting in the idea of specificity as a course towards both beauty and intellectual seriousness.

I recently developed three or four works based on polar themes, in this case they were specifically non-observational; the images of ice and highly specific colors and surfaces was an associative source for memories of a friend who was an Inupiaq dancer - specializing in modern dance forms, and on half-remembered stories of goddesses like Sedna. These few works served as a way to reprocess my experiences of Alaska, which unfortunately never allowed much travel in the Arctic.

Some ideas I've tossed around include:

A series of color studies of sea ice in oils.

It may prove important to collect an accurate record of color in the Antarctic. Aside from the superior sensitivity of the human eye to most technology, in terms of recording accurate perception, I spoke with an artists' material's expert who pointed out that oil is the best suitable cold-weather color sketch material.

Large paintings which accurately describe the coastal spaces of Antarctica.

Another limitation of photography is the inability to compress our experienced space into the frame of photograph. Painting from careful observation can be far more evocative of the human experience of presence in specific space, and small photos, as well as small paintings based on photos, have not captured the awe that such a landscape inspires. I can only project from my limited experiences in coastal Alaska, but paintings add a powerful feeling of "this is here, now." I'm hoping to experiment with latter studio projects approaching the scale of Anselm Keifer's recent work.

Large format photography.

Large format photography also offers possibilities- in particular, I had considered an idea of reproducing images from the classic period of polar exploration by setting up modern scientists and team members, as well as indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions, in the posed positions of the original photographs, an idea kicked around with the director at the Coast Guard Museum here in Seattle.

Site-Specific Polar Sculptures

This is just the germ of an idea, but I thought of a kind of warning buoy, spherical, sealed, and made of a bronze alloy, designed as a kind of self-contained weather station, ideally with the ability to self-power through photo-voltaic cells integrated into its surface, inscribed with designs and even poems related to exploration, warning, hubris, etc, which is positioned at the North Pole, and alerts when it gets immersed in open water. An Antarctic version would follow as a twin. Like the Japanese floats of my youth which washed up on the shores of Alaska, or the Nike Shoes riding ocean currents, this giant float would travel freely with sea-ice and water, in areas susceptible to the effects of warming.

It would be an art-science object - a working instrument and a kinetic, permanent sculpture, intended to be lost, and eventually rediscovered, in a year, or a thousand. Like the Voyager plate, it could describe ourselves to future civilizations; its very existence is a warning.

I would welcome ideas from our ingenious contributors on technical, conceptual and practical considerations. I've worked up the float ideas as art piece more, and will be bothering the oceanographers at UW here in Seattle who have developed an impressive new generation of buoys and current monitors. I would also like a web component (the idea just struck me of little sensors position indicators, in cartoon snowman form, saying "I'm melting!" on a website when they hit 1 degree C water. OK, that's a little silly.)

The first trip would be reconnoitering, working up to a return to deploy the artworks.

Science as a Subset of Art

From Ibn al-Haytham, the great Islamic scholar-scientist and inventor of the empirical study of optics (died aprox 1040 CE) and perhaps, modern empirical practice:
"Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough."
It's worth noting that he studied optics intently while in prison (for failing to invent impossible military technology), watching the movement of sunlight passing through his tiny window. This lead to a complete intellectual revolution, leapfrogging the ancients by cementing theory to observation and experimental practice.

Truth is an interesting and complicated idea itself. The empirical concept presumes the existence of universal truths, more universal than monotheistic religions, which tend to be very jealous with their access to what they consider to be truth. The evangelical ones seem to enjoy company so much they're willing to kill for it, but happily degrade any truth but their own.

One reason that Art still exists is that both religion and science have inadequately described and practiced human imagination and experience. As people, we are sensitive to phenomena - both real and imagined, and which dynamically change one other - as subtle as Art is capable of, which the gross summaries of aggregate systems and ideologies, ones as aspirational and effective as Science, and as apparently meaningful as religion, do not begin to describe.

I do not mean this to draw equivalency. I'm more arrogant than that. Not every culture has institutional religion, nor does every culture have an organized science practice (a more acidic wag than myself might suggest America is one of these.)

But all cultures have expressive art forms, in which personal and social meaning is seemingly built in the actual act of expressive construction. And the end product is in many ways less important than it's creation ( a wonderful example are the Tibetan sand paintings.) That "I" and "We" are making, pulling something real and frequently beautiful from the crushing vast emptiness, is after survival, social bonding, and sex the most essential and inevitable human act, and it is the one that to this day best defines the quality of humanity that is distinct from other animals.

It would be absurd to suggest that people had no meaningful appreciation of moral action or physical truth before the relatively recent phenomenon of monotheistic religion or, in historical terms, the shiny new toy of scientific method.

A defining, truly ancient essence of us it to make: art, music, things, designs, structures, systems, beer, even and maybe especially when we do not need to. That the structural cruelty of materialist capitalism - which really does raise the idolatry of the abstract concept of money above that of human beings - has beaten creativity out of everyone but specialists doesn't change this desire to make the imagined/observed, so common, so natural, so powerful in every child.

This rounds around to this: I think religion and science are both external, somewhat nationalized aspects of the more essential impulses of Art. As Carl Sagan pointed out, a Zen monastery is a highly evolved form of civilization - you don't require radio telescopes to qualify. And one might argue whether a Japanese Zen monastery is really a religious practice.

What I would argue here is that the strange persistent of Art is evidence that the nature of God, still less his/her/their existence, is far less important to human society than we tend to think, and that Science is a really a very late form of Art: it shares generally truth-seeking empirical practice that has been refined through many millenia to recently adding reducible and repeatable and theoretically universal methods. The phenomena of religion is a another creature, itself a social construction of Art, blended inevitably and usually horribly with politics and economic conquest. Science has left it, though only perhaps through its practical limits, to parent Art to probe and explain the inexhaustible nuances of individual being, a problem renewed and deepened with each and every new life.

One will naturally wish me to define art. I demur. All definitions truncated by written language are terribly, terribly, terribly inadequate. What does orange actually feel like, especially that orange in that Van Gogh? Which smells do the key of D minor recall? What were the spiritual views, maker of Venus of Willendorf, or did they just like big tits, or was it, more likely, a combination.

It is best described by observing and participating in its practice and its products, which is of course the same maddening unsatisfactory answer supplied with such blithe self-satisfaction by the religious. And which is precisely why I am forced to paint.

And so there is no summary/symbol of the amazing richness of human consciousness that is still the human consciousness. There is no single, wholly complete path to truth, and the road is rough. We can however, at least, commit to destroy with Reason those demonstrable, self-serving falsehoods upon which so much cruelty and misery is built. We can with it seek what universal truths there are to be had. Where Reason can no longer forge forward alone, Art can guide.

Hard-Core Art Facts. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fascinating and sobering, from Bureau of Labor Statistics on the Profession of Art. I especially love the definitions.

"Artists held about 221,900 jobs in 2008. About 60 percent were self-employed. Employment was distributed as follows:

Art directors 84,200
Multimedia artists and animators 79,000
Fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators 23,600
Craft artists 13,600
Artists and related workers, all other 21,500

For better or worse, artists are key culture producers. Noted: Lawyers held about 759,200 jobs in 2008. In other words, there are 33 attorneys for every fine artist.

Artists create art to communicate ideas, thoughts, or feelings. They use a variety of methods—painting, sculpting, or illustration—and an assortment of materials, including oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pencils, pen and ink, plaster, clay, and computers. Artists' works may be realistic, stylized, or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature, or events.

Fine artists typically display their work in museums, commercial art galleries, corporate collections, and private homes. Some of their artwork may be commissioned (done on request from clients), but most is sold by the artist or through private art galleries or dealers. The gallery and the artist predetermine how much each will earn from the sale. Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sale of their works. Most fine artists have at least one other job to support their art careers. Some work in museums or art galleries as fine-arts directors or as curators, planning and setting up art exhibits. A few artists work as art critics for newspapers or magazines or as consultants to foundations or institutional collectors. Other artists teach art classes or conduct workshops in schools or in their own studios. Some artists also hold full-time or part-time jobs unrelated to art and pursue fine art as a hobby or second career.

Usually, fine artists specialize in one or two art forms, such as painting, illustrating, sketching, sculpting, printmaking, and restoring. Painters, illustrators, cartoonists, and sketch artists work with two-dimensional art forms, using shading, perspective, and color to produce realistic scenes or abstractions.

Wheedling a Faculty Hiring Committee 2009


As a professional artist and painter with substantial university and community college teaching experience in painting, drawing, and design, and who believes Art is foundational element of successful post-secondary education in the contemporary cultural and economic environment, I feel that I am an excellent candidate for this position.

Coming originally from Alaska and understanding the challenges facing aspiring creative professionals outside of urban centers, I am a strong believer in the commitment to outstanding educational quality, public mission, and community role. In more rural environments, students often have fewer options- the role of a superior public university is enhanced: it is indispensable to their best futures. Having grown up around the University of Alaska, the immediate and lasting effect of an ambitious Art Department on the community was profound and indisputable.

It sounds dramatic, but our national future depends on our creative abilities, which depend in turn on superior and ambitious education in the Arts; colleges devoted to the broad community are the most critical institutions.

I am a strong believer in and advocate for public universities. Just recently, I turned down an unsolicited offer to teach with a corporate for profit-school because of their fraudulent practices with student marketing. This reminded me in very real terms that it is in our public college and university institutions, under political and budget assault now, that most American adults grow their knowledge and and build their opportunities, not simply as employees, but as citizens, as full and equal human beings with every right to a full flowering of ideas and culture and the right to build the world we all occupy.

In my classroom in foundations classes, we begin with visual grammar, working hard to master the variety of illusionistic effects, grounding solidly in observation, moving through proportion to perspective to color theory, but the goal is always open experimentation and expression. Traditional visual art rules, when taught to enhance visual discovery and experimentation, greatly widen rather than restrict expression, and art students who are well challenged respond enthusiastically and with growing confidence. I have been repeatedly amazed by what motivated students can accomplish.

Most of my classes move through an arc of challenge and skill-building toward inquisitive, almost science-like experimentation. The students final projects are always open, with critiques consistently pushing each student, no matter the level of skill they have reached, to recognize what has been accomplished, and what can be improved, and the method by which it can be improved. Refining this process has fed my recent interest in creativity as a subject, and I have developed some effective workshops on creativity.

Methods evolve and transform, but goal is eternal: the creation of outstanding art and design that drives human intellect and emotion and even spirit to new nuances and new heights. I work to instill in my students that Art is indispensable - and even inevitable - in knowing and making who we are.

Former students of mine have gone from high school to MFA programs at RISD, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Generally, they have not been privileged students, and here is where I feel the greatest accomplishment as an instructor.

I am proud to have received outstanding student reviews over the years, and want to not only perform minor creative miracles in the classroom - those “aha!” moments every good art instructor knows - but to become a dynamic part of the Art Department and the university as whole.

Wheedling a Gallery in London

June 23, 2009

F_____ Gallery
London, UK
I am a Seattle-based artist with a 2002 M.F.A. in painting from the University of Washington, and am exploring the possibility of exhibitions of my work in London, and would like information on your submission policies. I sell paintings primarily through the Seattle Art Museum Gallery and privately, and I teach at the college level in the Seattle area.

Modernist and gestural in appearance but rendered using objectivist techniques, the paintings fracture the image field into my competing and complementary aesthetic reactions to time, memory, and cognition of the moment: an ancient artist-to-model gaze, unapologetic, despairing and reverent, processing the expansive emotional and intellectual debris of a man simply seeing a woman.

I labor to be descriptive and evocative regardless of ideology, either political or critical. It often takes months to understand a small aspect of passing hour. In an over-dense visual culture which breeds emotional and intellectual indifference to mere images, I build on the human gaze, the consciousness guiding the hand and learning of the world by this act.

My paintings argue for the dynamic of vision, illusion, and intellectual curiosity explored within the act of painting. This idea of a still image as a description of the passage of time was famously used in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, which itself was based in early motion capture photography. In my work, the direction is reversed; where the futurists embraced technology, metal, speed, this work stuffs the 20th century into observational painting traditions; the notion of time employed is organic and human, photography rejected, the marks gestural and muscular but pushed back into pictorial space, the synthesis of mood, process and image elevated.

Art is a distillation of this passionate drive to both make and understand, more ambitious, putting out tendrils of sensing into the most delicate and fleeting of concepts and experience.

Your initial thoughts or advice would be most welcome; my website is at

Thanks for your consideration.

Jamie Bollenbach

Letter to Colleague / Lecture Ideas- Art and Politics in 2011

A while back, I was very glad to see your return to (art-making)- and your comment yesterday on Velasquez raised some interesting ideas about Art and politics, and I've got the germ of a humanities lecture/presentation forming. I would greatly value your thoughts on it.

In the news of course is Ai Wei Wei, the brilliant, uneven, and mostly apolitical Chinese avant-garde artist just recently held up as a model of muscular Chinese cultural leadership, and who is now in indefinite detention. Two years ago, a former soldier at Tienanmen took out his old photos and made paintings of them. These were not only suppressed, but nearly eradicated from the internet in spite of front page New York Times coverage. At the University of Washington, one of the Department Chairs (Zhi Linn) has been making traditional paintings based on hundreds of years of capital executions, as well as documenting Chinese labor in the United States - in Zhi's case, the extraordinary quality is essential to making the message much more emotionally resonant than the horrifying facts.

At a personal level, I noticed (the journey of several people from politics towards Art-making in various forms.) We haven't ceased to be political, but we have made Art-making an essential process of forming the substance, and dynamically expanding it, of our values. Critically, this is done in work that is not expressly political.

You may know Walter Benjamin's famous "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the art world's most overused defense of mass images and cultural production as, by their nature, liberating in the old Marxist sense. Somewhat ridiculously in retrospect, Warhol's diminished Duchampian work was identified- incorrectly I feel- with a general sense of liberation. The poetic and the humanistic, the work of the New York School painters in particular, began to be identified with privilege, while the massed, graphic, concept-heavy, ironic, anti-artisan, and propagandistic were identified with movements of liberation. To this day, in contemporary art, a huge contingent is contemptuous of traditional art values, taking a very unexamined view that the individuality, romantic, humanistic, poetic work is by nature intellectually unsophisticated and merely a commodity. This movement favors the conceptual, the anti-craft, the technological. This is driven by a historical association of the avant-garde with Marxism; its modern form is something of a politically disconnected art world creature. A visit to Target will tell both of Warhol's influence and his political vacuity.

But a strong counter-reaction has developed; oddly, as painting and drawing become less common as practice, they are becoming MORE valuable in the culture, and I would contend, (potentially) more threatening to many varieties of brutal oppression. And all without being expressly political.

The core of this idea becomes: political, religious, and scientific ideas are incomplete systems for forming coherent social values, and making social realities. Failed ideologies tend to become fundamentalist, and tend to crack in the face of unexpected pressure. Art, the most fundamental cultural impulse, defining better than any other activity what makes human beings human, is both an indispensable and inevitable system for building not only culture, but society as a whole, especially defined broadly, as distinct acts of creative execution in any form, from Las Meninas to motorcycle design.

Most especially, I am interested in how the act of art-making itself changes and deepens perception of life, and how this generates social norms in real society. Also, how this competes with commodified, or propagandistic, cultural production. ( Years ago at Reed, I read an excellent paper on the Beatles which contended that their love songs had a powerful and liberating social effect - In my view , his version of pop culture, humanizing, was the opposite of Warhol, which was literally fine art's version of wholly commodified culture.)

The arc I want to trace here is:

  • A) Art increasingly is regarded by scientists as the characteristic that most defines and distinguishes human beings.
  • B) How does Art make what we think of as us?
  • C) Expressive artworks, even by individuals doing non political work, are regarded as priority threats, requiring brutal suppression, by governments, religious, social, and economic organizations. Why?
  • D) Why would someone who has political influence and a potential career which can lead to substantial personal economic, social, and even spiritual rewards, move away from this toward the extreme uncertainty of art-making.
  • E) How does art-making, distinct from art-consuming, change one's thinking? (We can look to art There is interesting new neurology on creative thinking, for example, that sheds some light.)
  • G) What is the mechanism of social change leading from art-making? How does the visual experience exist as intellectual inquiry?
  • H) If Art is bigger than politics, what is the failure point of political thinking - what does it mask, and hinder?

What I have in mind is creating a one-hour lecture and brief presentation of my artwork - which is largely apolitical - but that links art-making and the resulting ideas with potentially profound political impacts. Ai Wei Wei is in prison for, it seems, making the inevitable conclusion and point of so many contemporary artists: so many structures of power are absurd, vain, cruel, greedy, and temporary.

Comment on The Millenials

Reading this and many other pieces- and speaking with people in their 20s, I get the horrible feeling that those who don't live in the middle of cities, or in the remaining community-oriented small towns, are losing their best biological opportunity (perhaps like foreign languages) to learn the complex language of real life social skills.

But let me say this: I think the up and coming generation may be among the best generally educated, social aware, least selfish, and community oriented in a long time. But there seems to be a broken spirit - a tremendous loss of animus and hope. The almost total domination of consumer/market culture, the push to replace the actual voice, actual sight, actual society, with technological simulations, (and not incidentally, the value of human labor), has begun to erode the dignity and value of human beings. 4-23-1

An old 2002 Review of My Graduate Thesis Show- By Art History Grads

Review of UW Graduate Thesis Show ; Grad Art History Students of Prof. Patricia Failing

Review of MFA Show, 2002 By Anonymous UW Art History Grad Student

Jamie Alan Andre Bollenbach has three oil paintings in the 2002 University of Washington MFA Exhibition at the Henry Art gallery. April in the Course of an Hour, Two before Windows, and Remnant of April, are large abstractions painted using painterly technique and rooted in art history. I will not aimlessly argue the content of this work which can never be concluded, but I will present the formal facts, those that can be pointed to. These formal facts give the viewer the tools to pursue the content of this work. Harold Rosenburg would examine Bollenbach’s work to determine if it is a result of “bad faith.” I know that Bollenbach, like any good artist, is concerned with making aesthetically appealing art.

Bollenbach’s thesis work belongs formalistically to early modernism. Like the work of Willem De Kooning, these three paintings are an evolution from cubism and impressionism and therefore have also evolved from the renaissance. Bollenbach is revealing the essential facts of his medium. Doing this is the act that primarily characterizes modernism as Hans Hoffman defined it (and is the Greenburg theory of modernism). But the works of Bollenbach clearly contain illusionist elements aas well as the essential elements of the act of painting. He is not reducing his work strictly to what is essential about painting and therefore his work is not truly modernist. Hofmann, justifiably the most modern and most notable abstract expressionist painter, “defied every norm of the art of painting.” Generally, “American-type” painters are best at making modern art by defying the norms of a medium, but this graduate is toying with breaking these norms while also maintaining the traditions of the illusions of three-dimensional space in his work.

The subject matter is each of these three pieces is, to varying degrees, semi-abstract and painterly in the treatment of brushstrokes. There is a tension between the abstracted nature of the subject matter, which appears to have been derived from the early modern and cubist exploration of viewing a subject from multiple perspectives simultaneously, and value contrast, perspective, and volume, all of which convey a sense of space in the composition. This tension is further extended by the painterly linear forms, which cut across the composition similar to the paint swashes that blur the sense of space in de Kooning’s work. Two Before Windows has lines from the center of each window that extend into the space perceived to be in front of the windows. One of the lines extends across the figure’s stomach.

Remnant of April is painted with perspective. The subject matter references interior architecture, and has linear and painterly lines that cut across the illusion of space. A fence-like image ins in the center of the piece and, although quite small,large field of rich light hues in the bottom fifth of the painting.

An array of colorful small brushstrokes and short squiggle-lines extend out from just above the center of the canvas in April in the Course of an Hour. The sense of space in this composition is articulated through the density of brush marks and interactions between bits and fields of color. The density of squiggle marks is concentrated at the area of divergences, and the bottom fourth of the painting is an arrangement of less packed, longer, vertical strokes. It is evident that the artist is concerned with achieving a dynamic composition, and is very intentional about the color relationships that contribute to this.

The richness of the colors in this painting gives it an engaging energy. The vibrancy of the colors resonates in an aesthetically powerful way. The subject matter of April in the Course of an Hour is uncertain, but the dynamic interaction of bits of color and the composition of density make this painting worth to spend time viewing. Bollenbach pays incredible attention to the effect that specific colors have next to one another, and this is evident in the pleasure taken in viewing the rich color of these paintings.

Two Before Windows conveys a clear sense of interior space with windows and curtains and a female figure standing in the room. The figure, presented naturalistically in proportions and perspective, demonstrates, again, the tension between the illusion and the obscurity that begins to reinforce the integrity of the picture plane. This is upheld by being true to the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The figure is painted a very dark but unnatural color that blends with the background coloring. The figure’s pelvis, hips and thighs, have a sense of being held up and would appear to be standing, but from the knee down, the figure dissipates into organic line-forms of color. The upper body of the figure is unarticulated, and the head, which is faintly visible, is floating above the torso. However, there is a sense that the mid-section of the figure is occupying space.

Formalistically, this work has a dynamic combination of organic painterly form and geometric and linear elements as well as an impressive resonance of color. All of these formal characteristics give Bollenbach’s work a powerful aesthetic appeal. Bollenbach does not maintain the integrity of the picture plain because there is illusion in his work. There is no mistake that what the viewer sees is a two-dimensional painting, but we are also presented with an interesting tension that insists that the view acknowledge a sense of three-dimension space.

My thanks to Prof. Pat Failing for securing permission for me to publish the work of this art history graduate student on my web. – J.B.

Lunch With a Proper Artist


It is always a welcome opportunity to cut through the cultural garbage with my former professor N-, a very successful painter who taught for decades and whose work is collected like free drinks at a heartbreak hotel. His work is keenly observational and yet almost wholly invented, a bit like the Yale artist William Bailey and his deceptively simple but deeply mysterious still lifes.

I particular appreciate his what you might call millennial perspective on visual art, art rolling in ribbons of rhyming cycles through history, far more coherent and conversational -over centuries- than the present fashion's interpretation, which assumes that context is so complex and powerful that art appears as a mere illustration of a certain ephemeral nexus of deterministic cultural factors. Well - duh. If I may be allowed (and I am) a caricature of contemporary art interpretation, it feels like there has been a long campaign among intellectuals to regard artists as globs of clay, their work wholly formed by cultural, economic and political circumstance, and that as that circumstance changes, their work cannot be understood except with a complete accounting of those circumstances. The implication is that the work has no particular value without historical interpretation.

Fine analysis, if you are getting paid for historical interpretation.

By contrast, N- reads art history as more of a dynamic conversation among artists living in different times, a multi-sided conversation until someone dies, and even then, there is an unending visual multi-lectic. I find myself much closer to this view - I start off every drawing class with the 70, 000 year old image from the Blombos cave in South Africa, which has soaked into compositional structures in my work. But the real point is in his phrase - artists speak to each other across centuries.

It's interesting that in such a technically skilled painter, he makes an absolute distinction between art and rendering, rendering, in my phrase, simply being the grammar of visual art, which like English grammar must be mastered but never confused for the end itself. It's fun hearing him on Bouguereau, the brilliant but endlessly cheesy villain representing the 19th century French Academy, sort of the Evil Empire compared to the liberating rebels of the Impressionists: N- points to the absolute technical genius: maybe the best in all of painting history in painting light on flesh, and in spite of this, it will never really be rehabilitated as high art. Yet even here, the Impressionists desperately wanted the validation of the academy, and the academicians were adopting techniques from the rebels; John Singer Sargent, the powerful American portraitist of the aristocracy, did impressionistic, cutting edge works of breathtaking gestural power and saturated color, while his portraits veered from obsequious money-makers to among the most brilliant.

What capitalizes art as Art is a serious philosophical ambition combined with the technical mastery and imagination to uncover and execute it. Far, far from a complete definition, but that element is true anywhere, at any point in history. Good work is rich, essentially inexhaustible in its viewing. There are any number of strategies to get there, but what makes artwork powerful, interesting and irreplaceable is incredibly fragile; a flat note in it's symphony can erase all that was done. This is why 90% of the stuff in the galleries lays there like a lump (worse, a pretentious lump) and even the greatest artists have piles of terrible work.

One of N-'s essential points is that the driving principles of effective artwork are remarkably simple, and they tie together artists as diverse as Andrew Goldsworthy (N- once essentially called this stuff Design 101 with sticks) and Damien Hirst (the half-a-cow in formaldehyde guy). The push and pull of attraction and repulsion, the conscious manipulation of spatiality, a practiced but straightforward understanding of color and line, an understanding of the difference between what is and what people see (there are no lines as such in nature, but we see lines everywhere, symbolic boundaries between intrinsic natures of things perceived.) People are fascinated, have always been fascinated, by the juxtaposition of geometric forms on organic forms, and vice versa. Simple, like the 12 musical notes. Infinitely complex, like arranging 12 musical notes.

It would be very easy to dismiss all this conservative; that would be a red herring. N- says"the avant-garde is a very crowded place," and in the contemporary art world, with a genuine and truly unprecedented flourishing of all art forms, in all kinds of media and all their intersections, enormous, grant-drunk, gate-keeping institutions are camped on that line like Star Wars fans in tailored grey Channel suits, waiting for the next new opening, and usually getting "Attack of the Clones" for their trouble. That's what you get for dismissing authorship as essential to art-making. Now the simpering Soho dandies will have to live with their BX Haus 211B art robots.

But N-'s last observation cut through. He just drove to Alaska last summer, primarily in the Interior around Fairbanks. What left the greatest impression on this landscape painter , the unreal majesty of Denali, the foraging grizzly bears, the mighty Yukon?

"I think those must be the fattest people I've ever seen."

"Art will cease to be political when reality ceases to be political."

April 12, 2011

"Art will cease to be political when reality ceases to be political."

- NYT Reader comment on the Ai Weiwei detention story in China. Not to say Art MUST be political. But as a social practice by many people, it will be, and a free practice is, we trust, it is vastly better.

Another interesting reader comment:

"(in the West) We don't call it "censorship;" instead we say something like "the market isn't interested/it won't make money....See Jeff Koons, and a long list of other trivial, highly marketable 'artists' who are not only accepted, but heavily promoted - precisely because while they may seem culturally outrageous, they are politically harmless. "

It may surprise you to learn of the huge commercial success of avant-garde art in China - but the arrest of Ai- a big deal- changes much. Art can be commercial, poetic, it can edgy, or political, or all of these. To the Chinese dictatorship, edgy is great: it gains prestige and business. (As it does here.) But political is a crime. This underscores the incredible potential and emptiness of much contemporary work.

The severe suppression of a painter's Chen Guang's work two years ago- his work on Tienanmen Square was not just censored but nearly eradicated from the Internet - while edgy performance and situationist styles flourished in China, suggested to me that painting what's in front of your nose with courage is still one of the most uncontrollable, powerful art forms.

And finally, I am deeply disappointed in the tone of all the commenters in the articles. None of these professors and curators of Asian Art and political affairs, stands up and says: China's arrest of Ai is wrong, it is meant to crush free thinking, it hurts both China's growing culture and international standing, and China must be pressured to release him. Several weakly imply it.

I tire greatly of balanced, reasonable deference to dictators.

Aspiring Artists and Puppies

2006 (essay response)

I brought Rilke up -a little lazily -because that confession in the night question is the still the key question to reassure the serious and challenge the art puppies nipping at the socks.

It's important to remember, as late stage capitalism threatens to make Blade Runner look like It's a Wonderful Life, that the urge to create is nearly universal among people, and the mere fact we channel it into shopping and commodified labor says nothing about our capabilities, only our vulnerabilities. (And as I write this in the cafe, there is literally a table of marketers next to me "trying to adopt the artistic mind-set process," underscoring non-profit organization "social networks'" "psychodemographics as opposed to demographics." And now the guy pretending to have the magic of artistic process just dropped the word the word "mindshare," and connected it to "community." I am restraining myself with some difficulty, imagining as I am the perfect "Clop" and tinkling sound my cracking the coffee cup over his head would make, not to mention the screaming. "We need to bring people together in real ways." Every second of this endless self-congratulatory greedy drivel is pushing me I ask myself: What Would Utah Phillips do? Probably whack them with that "sockful of puppy shit we call a culture.")

Art, - as profession and sublimity - is a special case of creativity, when it is pursued to an obsessive degree from a repeated impulse of individual necessity toward the exploration of the baroque permutation of truths observed and worked from within specific phenomena, often, in the case of painting and sculpture, by thinking within the phenomenology of material. Draw, write, compute, re-create -expand the envelope of what can be known and what is possible through explorative action, communicate it, and you've struck something that could be Art. Even Science may be a special case of Art - the same impulses drive it, the same obsessive observation, the same bringing of nothing into knowing. Art is freed of necessary function, but by giving up universal clarity, it is capable of attempting to track the whole impulse of the human mind at once.

But we all crave making. I wandered into the ceramics studio the other days and threw about 6 pots - satisfying, mediocre pots....a lot of people there, smart students otherwise, poking and pounding clay like six year olds. Something about it, ceramics at college, usually a stand in joke for misplaced pride in a lopsided ashtray, something about it that stands in for what people can't be anymore without being hobbyists: harmless, neuter, unmarketable, irrelevant.

So many people face an endless, dreamless bureaucratic life - and there so many gatekeepers to Art, of which I'm a minor one, so many reasons to wither at 19. (Kids these days: smart and meek and betrayed by our convenience, with their abilities to build and give less relevant to our markets that their manufactured desires.)

I believe there are plenty of good poets - more than ever, I suspect, like good musicians and artists, but even the greatest mastery cannot much stir a world producing endless fountains of Product. Art exists when a hair goes to one side of a blade, and not the other, and it's intrinsic delicacy makes it extremely fragile. I think the kind of obsessively clean, minimalistic, cold and empty style which has dominated since Warhol is an embrace of delicate futility, where presenting the simple absence of social noise is considered sufficient to be artistic.

The aspirants have even less chance than the students or the masters, but they will be rewarded, oh so rewarded, for making the right purchase.

But those endless schools of would be poets and writers and artists and physicists (yes it must be said - physics and mathematics as philosophy is just as highly impractical a career choice) are coming from people who are taught that their fundamental abilities are completely replaceable, our communities are interchangeable, and their lives are best lived in constant worry, false certainty, and commodified desire. Who wouldn't want an alternative? Art seems like an out - so does music, so do sports-to act, to be human, to be individually recognized. Your disposable life at Best Buy isn't gonna cut it. Facing their disposability, interchangeability and their individual irrelevance before mass culture, why not try, try to be an artist, a rock star, a poet, a B-Ball god, an evangelist zombie, or Paris Hilton? If the society teaches you that your already reified labor is done more cheaply by even more anonymous people in even more anonymous places, if it cannot offer you a place, a reasonable sense of meaning and identity, what is your plan?

Today, you can even forget trying to go into single family farming in America. Finally, we're weeding out those lazy bastards and their gold-bricking economic inefficiencies.

But in the modern world, the outs are also are professionalized social roles, wholly capitalist creatures, and it's hardly a new observation that in non-industrial societies art, music, politics, poetry, games, hunting, gathering, making and spirituality were done by nearly all and share a particular quality of full expression and participation - and aside from endless centuries of poverty, uncertainty and iron-clad social roles, it's kind of appealing.

I'm not an anarchist (or AM I?) but all this techno-industrial candy, with all its promise, is not making us our best selves. Polls pointing to growing social isolation and expressions of intense American loneliness do not bode well.

Witness the absurd - and dangerous and historically recent - rise of fundamentalism in so many religions- which is partly, I think, a toxic reaction to the disease of social isolation. That disconnect is felt with particular intensity among young 2nd generation Muslims in Europe, and we're seeing the results.

But Americans are feeling a version of the same thing, good old-fashioned alienation with a new intensity from mass-culture, ubiquitous marketing, dissolution of community, and escalating economic insecurity. They turn to art, to religion, to fantasy, to truly impossible dreams of celebrity or riches.

Interesting, just Friday, I happened to walk into a bookstore on Capitol Hill and bought The White Goddess; perhaps pre-industrial societies were better at creating a sense of our meaning.
I don't say go back. I do say: look out.

Robert Hughes and What You Might Call Your Art There

Explain your bad art to this face.

Robert Hughes serious, hilarious and readable Time art critic for many years, has a new autobiography. (NYT) The Washington Post review is more to the point.

Comparing the careers of J. Seward Johnson Jr. and Jeff Koons, he once said, was like debating the merits of dog excrement versus cat excrement — although Mr. Hughes would never use a word as flat and unevocative as excrement.

Hughes wrote the definitive, argumentative, popularizing work on the rise of modernism, Shock of the New, with it's famous attacks on Brasila,( a critique I share) and Picasso's Guernica (as a triumph of style over substance, even of a Nazi air raid, an understandable critique I don't share) He has long been a welcome antidote to ever-higher piles of ideological garbage in art, a rejection of the primacy of the word.

But he is far more than a contrarian:

"Art, I now realized, was the symbolic discourse that truly reached into me -- though the art I had seen and come to know in Australia had only done this intermittently and weakly. It wasn't a question of confusing art with religion, or trying to make a religion out of art. As some people are tone-deaf, I was religion-deaf, and in fact I would have thought it a misuse, even a debasement, of a work of art to turn it into a mere ancillary, a signpost to some imagined, hoped-for, but illusory experience of God. But I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organized landscape a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me -- but that I had never received."

Fine Hughes quotes:

The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.

Lines, Molecules and Metaphors of Painting 2006

If you ever sat still long enough near me, you probably will have heard me talk about material and illusion and information and time as a source for painting. What's below is not news to anyone doing animation, or anyone pursuing mathematical topology modeling for a living, or probably anyone who's read Tufte's classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, except for the end result.

I was sketching a little graphic today, somewhat like one of these: {

Then I doubled it: {}

I then treated it in three dimensions, building this shape on the full xyz axis, on paper, sketching out the results, adding another, adding another. It builds into kind of "spin." When you spin it on one axis you get a solid shape, sort of a like a sphere with a brim. A two axis spin is even more interesting.

The process of drawing the spin of this {} fits neatly into a model of the operation of the natural progression of time on a line shape. I take a 2 dimensional shape and twirl it, and as I draw more positions of the shape in illusionistic 3-d space, the shape becomes a solid, each step adding more material, each illusion I add representing another step in the progression of time.

The idea is clearly fundamental to animation. But animation is also presented in a strip of time, for the purpose of presenting a direct illusion of reality - the still images with a series turns into the illusion of the passage of time. It's almost a primary application of digital imaging technology to do this precisely and cheaply.

What was beginning to be interesting to me here was sort of the reverse - the strip of time represented by the still image. The act of drawing the image involves time, adding each new {}, and the progression of one position of the {} to the next on the z axis IMPLIES and can only be the result of the passage of time. The still result, however, is an unmoving three dimensional solid, a 3-d shape almost exactly like an old metal float.

I backed up a little at this point. In a revelation for someone who last did calculus or ceramics 20 years ago, and never took topology, I re-realized that any line that was NOT straight, once spun through time, would create a three dimensional shape, a little like a Spirograph. If the line was straight you could get a flat circle by twirling it on the other axis.

Spin out any slight flaw in a line and you get a volume.

(About a year ago I got to play with a rapid prototyper and made a mathematical object that was the institial space between a regular stacking of spheres. This suggests a project of hand drawing straight lines, scanning the results, spinning them in Rhino or a similar program, and making the thin, irregular, semi cylindrical object on a prototyper. Or, save the $750,000 equipment costs and do it on a lathe. New prototypers are truly incredible.)

I can report that an interesting problem in formal topology was recently solved by a glass blower, something that really should not surprise you- material teaches when symbology stutters. But I'm going down this road for a different path - the irreducibly human: our perception of time passing, immediate past memory and anticipation of human presence, how nothing spins into something - a visual analogy to the popular summaries of string theory (see above on scraping through calculus) which suggest collisions of fields that twist and spin into stuff.

Painting can be the static image that is the spoor of these machinations, distinct, because it only forms through human consciousness and the twists and spins the body's action forms on material. In the act of painting is the static footprint in the mud of absence spinning into presence slowing into absence, and importanry to me, it occurs at the natural pace of human consciousness, which of course is a constantly evolving state, from a shade of blue to a Monkees riff to my arm itches to an irrational desire for twinkies.

The final analogy here was thinking of space-time spinning an empty volume into stuff, a mass of some kind. I suppose there are physicists who can tell me whether mass exists without time, but my suspicion is that mass without time would have no applicable meaning.

Allow me to leap to the metaphor of the molecule: and old definition of which is the smallest part of substance which has all the characteristics of that substance. Here is where I'm tying this together: a successful painting, or artwork of any kind, is a molecule of a much larger substance. In the case of painting, I'm using substance to mean the stuff of human experience (this is my metaphor and I can do what I want) - substance as a combination of material, the illusions the material creates, the physical object of the painting's relationships to all its spiritual, political, perceptual, personal implications, the way this wholly dependent on the human natural and cultural biases in perceiving those illusions.

A good painting -any good artwork - is something irreducibly "true," a single molecule of big stuff, containing what you need to know about that stuff, but unable to show the vastness of it's totality across time, distance, and human consciousness. A great work, say Brughels's 99 Netherlandish Proverbs, gives you untold volumes of information about time and experience not shown in the work, stories and smells and the plays of light and personality before the moment of the image and inevitable in the future. It is just as true of Rothko's color field paintings, which boil beautifully before your eyes, touching the spiritual impulse.

So an analogy of good art might be this: an illusionary process or object, cleaned of the extraneous, whose quality is proportional to the richness and penetration of all its implications. A single molecule of the big stuff.

Why illusionary? It has to be. Truth never reveals itself without a fight in the shadows.

Anselm Kiefer: When I was Four I Wanted to be Jesus

May 21, 2008

While looking for contacts with European artists about the B-17 project - I found this excellent interview with Anselm Kiefer by Sean O'Hagan, who more and more represents to me what art must be today.

His mentor was Joseph Beuys, who once famously explained art history to a dead rabbit in a three day gallery exhibition, and who later founded the German Green Party.

I am fond of artist interviews: art prose tends to be unreadable, either fawning, dry or cynical.

His show that toured through S.F. a couple years ago, the maddeningly ambitious, intelligent and emotional Heaven and Earth, is I think one of the great cultural works of contemporary art. It would have been easy for him to join the massed millions in the lightly ironic Pop Army, but he bucked every trend, progressive in politics, conservative of art's real power.

Below, O'Hagen describes paintings from my favorite series - monumental paintings of the open ocean - in Leviathan, a lead U-Boat hangs just above the sea. (One note here - I'm not sure that any artist's work looks worse on the internet than Kiefer's compared to its actual appearance. It will look muddy and scattered and unreadable in many of the images- this is emphatically NOT the case in person. )

Kiefer's sea is a huge, brooding ocean, grey-black, turbulent, thunderous. Up close, the crashing waves seem like solid ripples of congealed oil so thick are the layers of paint - and what looks like encrusted earth - that have been applied to the canvas. The paintings are so elemental, so humming with raw energy, that you can almost hear the ocean's roar in this big cavernous room. There are echoes, too, of other seascapes, of Turner, of course, and Courbet.
'Yes! Yes!' says Kiefer, nodding his head vigorously. 'You do the sea and Turner is there, always.' I ask him if, given his prodigious output, he discards many works along the way. 'Many, yes. But then I go over them. A painting is a conglomeration of failings. But, we can say this of life also.'
He laughs and then quickly turns serious again. 'The making of a painting,' he continues, 'is a reflection of your thought process but it also has a process of its own. Always, it is about somewhere I am trying to get to that I can never get to. This is the dilemma. But you also reach a place of transformation. The painting is transformed and you are transformed also. This is the exciting part.
Turner - that made me happy, it was my second thought looking at these pieces. The first was that it felt more like being on the sea that any painting I've ever seen .

In particular, he had delved deep into what it means to be German, and poked around in the open wounds from the War in order to find a path out of unimaginable horror, a horror which had to not just be confronted but engaged.

It is not a minor point that American artists must too regard our recent history with open eyes, and find a path to our best selves. We have an odder task than German artists. Americans would confront self-concept of heroism in that same, infinitely bloody war, and in present war. Superficially, that is easier.

But war by nature mixes heroism and brutality- the means which serve the hero and the villain were not greatly different. I read the account of one B-17 pilot who said, after much agonizing over the shift in targeting toward the destruction of cities, that there was one salvation for such horror: the promise of justice. (More on this later.) In war, metal flies at high velocity through flesh. Just war becomes a question of targeting, conduct, and the consequences of victory.

So we are at a place in American art where laughing along with Pop's facile appearance, saved in our intellectual seriousness at the last second by ironic distance, just isn't going to cut it. Social consequences driven by culture have become too important. I've seen enough Skate videos in museums, thanks, and false landscapes that show an untouched nature, endless recyclings of Warhol (who of course was about endless recyclings), wise but safe sayings by famous poets engraved on cement benches.

Pop imagery hides too much, it's obsessively clean edges that serve like candy coatings on shapes, obscuring their nature of the image, making art inter-changable, commodity-like, endlessly distancing. Kiefer cuts the weeds from the path: release the dialectic between thought and emotion.

Screwing Up Things is a Virtue: Death of Robert Rauschenberg

A leader in the first group of post-abstract expressionist artists who made American art leading in the world, along with Joseph Cornell, John Cage, Jasper Johns, and other artists whose names start with "J" rather than R, the great Robert Rauschenberg passes away.

His pieces were wildly uneven. Many are fantastic. Many don't work at all. This was necessary. It required failure, turning it into a distinct process, a word now so loaded among artists it's hard to see it's meaning clearly. Warhol was a johnny-come -lately to this group, and wrongly credited with the the revolutionary character that his elders actually deserved. Rauschenburg and the broader group was busy liberating all artists, and vastly expanding what American culture was, and what it taught the world.

From the New York Times.

The process — an improvisatory, counterintuitive way of doing things — was always what mattered most to him. “Screwing things up is a virtue,” he said when he was 74. “Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

This attitude also inclined him, as the painter Jack Tworkov once said, “to see beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art. " He “keeps asking the question — and it’s a terrific question philosophically, whether or not the results are great art,” Tworkov said, “and his asking it has influenced a whole generation of artists.”

But I think it's bigger than that - the achievements of the Post-War American artists in general, and you have to not only include but feature jazz music in this period, took a devastated world, and began to examine every assumption about what art and culture is. Facing the related eradication of faith in old forms of culture (these old forms had after all, done next to nothing at to halt the rise of fascism - a crime of realism that is still unforgiven), they broke everything to see what was inside.

The Post-War American artists left art and culture confused, faithless, desperate, arrogant, humbled, full of errors, innumerable failures, unquenchable bullshit, and created the most vibrant period of art-making in all of human history, which would be now. That has permutations throughout the society. They are not minor. The fearful perceive this evolution as a culture war.

Much is owed to the men and women who freed us from fascism. Much is owed to artists who freed and expanded our minds afterwards, and helped build some of the cultural power that, under the guidance of fear-mongers, we have been pissing away like cheap beer.

The Lost Path of Another Century 2006


Paintings like Klimpt's Adele Bloch Bauer, (which sold for over 500 million dollars _ are hugely overvalued, and enormously under-appreciated. This painting was radical without abandoning any of its classical power; it shamelessly revels in visual beauty, and like the related The Kiss, has no doubt lead thousands of female freshman art history majors to their doom.

What is so extraordinary is not only the power of the portrait, but the smoothness and clarity transition between decoration and description, geometric pattern and mimetic space, portraiture and abstract pattern transformation, color structure, material surface, the extremely subtle indication of real light and space (using GOLD - which is an amazing degree of control) all without losing the liveliness of Adele.

I bring this up because I am wondering if any artist living today is allowed to love the world enough to paint like this. People frothing over with sentiment can't paint like this, nor can cynical post-modernists, or careerist poseurs. To learn to do this now would require an almost impossible pedagogy: becoming an absolute master classical of painting without falling into reactionary neo-Renaissance spit-wadding (ala Odd Nerdrum); you would have to be on the cutting edge of what is possible to do with art, let alone paint, yet not be ossified. This painting could not have resulted from revivalism or what I like to call the fetish of oils, which utterly misses the point of painting. Painting as the substantive, exploratory poetry of fine art is not crafty exhibitionism in an arty space, as many half-vast urban weekly appletini-besotted art critics seem to think.

To paint like this you would not only master observational drawing and anatomy but highly advanced decorative patterning, and then simply using that as a source for a far freer integration of complex, abstract compositional design into the pictural space. Jackasses cannot paint like this.

There is no monkey-mimesis here at all; Klimpt's visual intellect is totally active in all areas, and much, much more ambitiously, in their integration. It's something like putting the remorseless accuracy of Thomas Eakins into the compositional world of Matisse, adding the portrait and surface abilities of Sargent. His brilliant student, Egon Schiele, (caution: a bit naughty) refined the anatomical darkness pushing at the edges here, suggesting the fragility of the soft skin on bones, a little whiff of death wrapping around the sex, femininity in delicacy, time eating at the moment. But in Klimt, the whole scene radiates life, brightly and darkly.

You have to get far beyond it's initial dazzle and prettiness to see what it really is: a confident apex of faith in painting's essential sophistication and power. Executing this visual approach (as opposed to simply copying it or aping its style) with a new sitter and scene would humble me; and like I say, I'm not at all sure it is in the capability of anyone living now. We're too skittish, too fast, trained either to squirrel-ish uncertainty or unearned confidence, the latter from too much trend and market, the former from the maddening blizzard of disconnected greedy images we call a visual culture. Klimt could trust his painting methodology in a way I'm not sure is still possible, and that changes what it is possible to paint.

But what would I know? I spent the last two weeks trying to paint imaginary clouds.

This painting is tremendously valuable - not $135 million, nothing is, although it occurs to me it might take a million or twa to train and educate someone from the age of 10 to learn how to paint in this style. But the darker point is that while this gooey painting subtly incorporates the lessons of what I'm going to go ahead and call early modernism (a Cezanne-like space, unleashed expressive content,active negotiation with abstract design that pushes against its visual illusions, and allusions, for that matter), contemporary artists don't really see like this anymore, and when they come close, relearning illusionistic painting, they tend to become either reactionary, or redefine their work as an advanced kind of conceptual art, lots of fairly thin symbols standing in for intellectual concepts that are essentially literary, linguistic, or even mathematical rather than visual, as if vision, to which the majority of our brain is devoted, is anti-intellectual. After Marcel Duchamp over-famously denigrated "mere retinal experience" as a way of liberating himself from the constraints of painting, I'm not sure art ever recovered fully.

Few complain about beautiful language in service of intellectual ideas, but the bitching over visual beauty toward the same end never stops, because of the unsupportable and somewhat unexamined dominance of the word within the visual arts. Strange that in the midst of unprecendented artistic production, to sit down and examine a beloved person with inexhaustible visual intelligence may be the lost path of another century.

Tiananmen and The Power of Painting (2009)

NYT- A former solider at Tiannamen Square, later turned performance artist, goes back and paints what he saw, death, destruction, murder of the unarmed, and in particular, a roughly hacked off ponytail.

When people stop panicking themselves into a censorous froth about painting, I'll know painting is dead. But this keeps happening, and because of the personal nature of it, always will. The Venice Biennial's entry from Iceland gets to the same problem in the turgid contemporary art world- a meta-piece supposedly about painting, that secretly, is actually painting. Unfortunately, the painting isn't very good. Surprise!

I note that even in the New York Times, there was oddly no link to the direct images, in either story. The even, seamless, machine glaze of photography that equates all images keeps you nice and safe.

In the meantime, please enjoy and be horrified by the paintings of Zhi Lin, one of my grad school profs at UW, who has some experience of those years, and turned the curiously French academic style of Maoist era art instruction against the Chinese government murder of its own citizens protesting peacefully for democracy; people who were killed by the thousands, probably, without, I might add, any real help or more than formal protest from Bush 41. They had put up a STATUE of liberty, for god's sake-this moment was also a nadir in American history.

Update: I can't find the paintings on Google, or Bing, for that matter. This has me worried. Is Google pleasuring China's dictators yet again?

I think what I will do from now on: whenever China's leadership makes noises about reasonableness and capitalism and the earth's climate and Tibet, I will take a fresh look at Zhi's paintings, such as this fine work, "Capital Executions in China: Decapitation."

Note too, his newer work on early Chinese immigration in the U.S.


This repost yesterday of the NY Times story on Chen Guang included the thought the they hadn't actually published the paintings in any detail- I also wrote the reporter and received an interesting reply. But today, I cannot find any images in Google- or Bing for that matter -of Chen Guang's paintings of the Tianamen massacre, only references to the story and that single, very limited photo of the artist smoking- like you do.

Text of Letter Accompanying "Julianna" Painting 2009

Dear T.,

An old tradition in artist's letters is the description of the painting to those who buy significant works. This is an email, which seems wrong. Ah well.

This particular work was begun in the late summer of 2005 and finished early this year. The model was a very striking, 20 year old , 5' 10" gothy girl named Julianna who was planning to go to college for art, given to artfully torn clothing; like a lot of women with this style, she'd had some rough family history but a good high school education on the Olympic Peninsula. As ever, a punk rockish style thrives in the smaller towns and burbs among the alienated - Julianna was captivated by Victorian dreams and darkly toned independent rock music. Answering an ad on Craig's list , she was new to art modeling; she was poised, bright, and a little coltish.

(Admittedly that's the opening paragraph to a bad novel. )

As I think of her now, the painting was begun in my studio with her standing and posing towards the window on an unusual day where the sun penetrated to the blank wall in the window in the building, creating strong yellowish light in the upper right hand corner and backlighting her, with violet shadows in the room and a very warm cast on her normally pale and clear skin. She was quick -witted, curious and funny, with a playful self-consciousness about her style, but without much shyness Physically, she was tall, and trim and imposing, but very feminine in her frame, not over exercised or tanned or even tattooed, which is almost unusual for a girl like this now; and she was given to dark eyeliner, which taste aside, does indeed make light eyes haunting. The eyes are somewhat obscured in a lot of these pieces because they can easily over-dominate a composition.

She worked at the outdoor crepe cafe under the Washington State and Convention Center, where, visiting her once at her invitation (she made a great crepe- which I still remember, like one does when handed delicious food by a beautiful woman, belgian ham, fresh herbs and grueyre) I noticed at least four 20ish guys clearly coming there to talk to her, hanging out on any available pretense, because, presumably, they all really appreciated a good crepe.

We had about four or five sessions for this piece. Like a lot of women models, her first thoughts in a pose were of photographic style poses- artificial, sudden stillness. These I mostly ignored, waiting for more natural movement, slow walks, natural stillness, falling asleep on the couch. Drawing and painting is the act of becoming aware of what you see, of intently feeding the visual memory. In these series of works, I'm feeding a specific moment, somewhat charged, into a memory to chase in paint, sometimes, like this piece, over the course of years. You would not recognize her in any normal way from seeing the piece, but in spite of feeding its studied abstractions spinning off the act of seeing her into my memory of this moment, this painting could only be Julianna. If she stood in front of it again, you would absolutely know it was her- in the piece you can find a very particular form in her nose and mouth that permits recognition, but the piece is far more about what you might call her visual broadcast over time, the way a woman in motion warps the space around her in the mind of a man seeing her.

There are three basic poses that settled out from the sessions embodied in the work- only two of which are clearly visible, in the middle and on the right. Unlike some others, this painting was a particularly difficult struggle because I had not develop the techniques for finishing it when I began it - the difficulty comes because the type of marking shapes I make- somewhat Arshille Gorky-like , figurative in nature, only partly fit what I was seeing, and ultimately proved tricky to integrate with the light, shadow that was also spinning through the space of the painting (which is my studio at 1148 NW Leary in Ballard, #22). It took well over two hundred hours to complete, with approximately 6 posing hours. Like a novel, it takes great time and reflection to begin to understand a moment.

She posed a bit more than I could pay her for, and she thanked me for kindness at a tough moment. This is painting is the record of that time. Julianna, the last I know, moved to Arizona in early 2006.

An Artist's Statement from 2010

These paintings developed from a figure drawing exercise where a model moves and new drawings at each movement are superimposed on the previous drawing. This idea of a still image as a description of the passage of time was famously used in Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which itself was based in early strobe photography.

In my work, the direction is reversed; where the early moderns were embracing technology, metal, speed, time and gunning for the future, this work stuffs 20th century gestural abstraction back into observational painting traditions; the notion of time employed is organic and human, photography bypassed, the marks muscular but pushed into pictorial space.

I often start with a model, drawing in charcoal for several hours, building representative shapes and colors. Over months, I work on top of the drawings, painting based on what I saw, remember, and anticipated. Although these works appear abstract, most represent specific aspects of real people: observed colors, forms and shapes, paying careful attention to integrating the disparate elements into a coherent whole- usually one that also implies a kind of re-generating landscape in which the figures exist.

To simply understand the physical, temporal, visual, and emotional presence of another person in the same room is a rich problem with no simple paradigm, and painting is well suited to juggling the different aspects of this inexhaustible complexity.

Pushing around the mud to chase the temporal and solidify the ephemeral, I embrace painting traditions, but painting is art to the extent that it continues to create art. This most ancient of media, almost a shelter in the blizzard of pop images, provides unique processes for the exploration of our nature as visual thinkers, as identities and cultures, as breathing, bleeding creatures struggling to be fully conscious of their time and place. My paintings argue that within the nexus of vision, material, illusion and the painting process itself is an irreplaceable process for understanding, in Gauguin’s phrase, where we come from, what we are, where are we go
ing – questions too beautiful for comfort.