DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt

2014/02/23

Creating a Masterpiece: Frank Moore

Frank Moore, 2011 photo by Sasha Cagen, cropped

Frank Moore, 2011 photo by Michael LaBash, cropped

One of my mentors, the California-based writer and performance artist Frank Moore, died last October at the age of 67. Frank was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to walk or talk, but he was determined to break out of his own isolation. Once he had done that, he kept on going in that direction, which led him to create a kind of initiatory performance art aimed at dissolving the artificial barriers between people, and between individuals and their own creative power. (Frank tells his own story in the classic autobiography Art of a Shaman.) I first encountered Frank’s writings in the MIT-published journal of performance studies TDR: The Drama Review, and in 1989 was privileged to experience “Journey to Lila”, one of his all-night participatory shamanic erotic ritual performances at Franklin Furnace in New York.

Frank Moore and his Chero Company at Franklin Furnace, NYC, 1989, photo by Eric Kroll

Frank Moore and his Chero Company at Franklin Furnace, NYC, 1989, photo by Eric Kroll

“Journey to Lila” was an eight-hour series of experiences, by turns silly, sexy, disconcerting, frightening, ridiculous, liberating, playful, warm, and bonding. By the end of it most of the audience was undressed and playing with each other like naked children. While some moments of it could be challenging, I never felt that I or anyone was unsafe or coerced or being exploited or laughed at.

When the World Wide Web came along in the mid-1990’s, I discovered that Frank Moore was a pioneer in using that new communication medium, with his extensive “Web of All Possibilities“. I was able to reconnect with him and his tribal extended family, got to know Frank personally, and participated in several other Frank Moore performance events over the years (I’m in the left background in the photo below). The first artwork I ever put on the web was on the Featured Artists section of Frank’s website. I consider Frank a mentor and one of the few genuine geniuses I have been privileged to know.

Frank Moore's "Free Tribal Hot Skin Passion Music/Dance Jam",  Surf Reality, New York City, 2002, photo by Michael LaBash

Frank Moore’s “Free Tribal Hot Skin Passion Music/Dance Jam”,
Surf Reality, New York City, 2002, photo by Michael LaBash

I’ve seen a lot of great performances and experienced many immersive theatrical events, but nothing has had such an enduring transformative effect on me as Frank Moore’s “Journey to Lila”. It came along at a pivotal moment in my life, and it opened my mind. I had recently moved to New York and was trying to figure out how to live my life as an artist. I was fascinated by magic and was reading about things like Tantra and alchemy, but magic remained a sort of abstraction for me. I had thought of it more as a subject matter for art, as symbolism or as fantasy, only pointing towards mystical truth. Frank showed me that magic can be the operational technique of art, that it is a completely practical approach to transforming reality or creating freedom, and that its materials can be utterly humble (a cup of water, a roll of aluminum foil, a Sonny and Cher song) and its actions very simple.

Frank Moore and dancers in the "Outrageous Beauty Revue", 1987, photographer unknown

Frank Moore and dancers in the “Outrageous Beauty Revue”, Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1987, photographer unknown

Ever since, I have understood that people deeply desire freedom, that they want to live in a world of love and joy, and that if you invite people to play with you in such a world, many of them will. It has nothing to do with the harsh things our society uses to drive and motivate people – fear, envy, guilt, competition. The magical way is the way of a pure heart – which, in Frank’s case, provides the perfect complement to a dirty mind. Frank showed me a wild but gentle way of freedom, and I still try to follow it in my own artistic career and in my own life.

Americans always talk about Freedom and Liberty as our great values, but everybody has different ideas about what these words mean. I grew up in the American West, where the icon of freedom is the lone gunslinger, and where a common notion of personal liberty understands it as autonomy, or as having your own turf where no one else can meddle, protecting yourself and your family or community with fences and guns, and if you’re rich, with dollars and lawyers. Of course, everyone needs a place to feel at home, and fiercely defending that is important, but to really feel free, to have the kind of freedom you need to make art, to make love, to nurture people, requires trust and connection, not autonomy but interdependence. That is the kind of freedom Frank Moore wanted to foster.

For a disabled person like Frank, dependency is obvious and it’s impossible to believe in the delusion of autonomy. Frank had to gather helpers around him, and he would never have been able to do all he did without the support of his larger community and his intimate tribal group, which, at the end included Mikee, Linda, Erika, Alexi and Corey. Any tribute to Frank is also a tribute to Frank’s people.

Frank was a rebel of the underground, and his use of sexuality and messiness and a deliberately crude aesthetic helped to keep him in that place below the radar where magic can be safe. I am sure that many people were transformed by his work as I was, and that the seeds he sowed will be producing nourishing fruit far into the future.

Frank Moore communicating with his head pointer, U. C. Berkeley, 1984, photo by Mary Sullivan

Frank Moore communicating with his head pointer, U. C. Berkeley, 1984, photo by Mary Sullivan

Frank Moore’s publishing company, Inter-Relations, just put out a posthumous collection of Frank’s writings called Frankly Speaking. It’s full of great stuff, but I’d like to share here a brief piece that gets at something profound about the creative process, wisdom that is often neglected by teachers. Since many of my readers are artists or art students, this should serve as a good introduction to Frank Moore’s way. I’ve interspersed the text with some of my own doodle-like abstract watercolor sketches, not as illustrations of Frank’s essay but just as my tribute to Frank Moore, examples of my own attempts to work with the kind of freedom Frank is talking about here.

Pedestrian Surge, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Pedestrian Surge, 2014, by Fred Hatt

CREATING A MASTERPIECE, by Frank Moore, published in Lummox Journal, March 2000, included in Frankly Speaking: A Collection of Essays, Writings & Rants by Frank Moore, 2014, published by Inter-Relations

An artist starts, let’s say, a painting with a set idea of what he is going to paint. Sooner or later he makes a “mistake” – a color or a line which doesn’t fit in the original idea – which “ruins” the painting. When this happens most people give up, thinking that they are not cut out to be artists, and withdraw back into the common existence. Others try to pretend that they didn’t make the mistake, that the color or line isn’t there on the canvas. They go on painting as before. When they are done, they have painted the shadow of what they wanted. Morevoer, this shadow is covered with a haze. Others keep starting over whenever they make mistakes, not accepting any mistakes. They are rewarded for their endurance with the perfect copy of the thought form which they had held for all this time. They are rewarded by what they think they want to create. Their thought form has been brought down into the material plane. The creation is perfect. But it is not a masterpiece. It is perfect within the limitations placed around it by the rigidness of the artist. The work is perfect, but not free.

Wetlands, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Wetlands, 2014, by Fred Hatt

A masterpiece is perfect and free. The master artist paints an adventure in color, words, or notes. What others see as mistakes, he sees as challenges, boxes out of which he has worked as the basis on which he creates a totally new, fresh pattern. These challenges, boxes, keystones, keep appearing as he works, demanding the artist’s flexibility. If the artist looks back, trying to hold on to what he thought the painting was or would be, he gets trapped in a box out of which he must battle or be turned into a rigid, bitter pillar of salt. The artist has to keep his whole attention on the swirling colors in front of him in order to be the creator.

Burning Bush, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Burning Bush, 2014, by Fred Hatt

To create a masterpiece, the artist has to use and risk every bit of himself. But he also has to create with God, for God is the one who creates what most people call mistakes, and that the master artists sees as his tools and materials. God does not create for the artist. God just provides the tools, the guiding bumps. It is up to the artist’s free will whether he creates or gets dragged down by the weight of the tools. When the artist is creating, he feels no weight.

Growth Spurt, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Growth Spurt, 2014, by Fred Hatt

The most important masterpiece is a lifetime. This is a statement of hard fact. Creating a masterpiece in every day living is governed by the same rules as creating a masterpiece in paint, but much harder because the artist is also the canvas. In every period of time, in every land, there are a few masterpieces of art and writing. But a masterpiece lifetime is much rarer.

Orb, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Orb, 2014, by Fred Hatt

“Creating a Masterpiece” is on pages 64-65 of Frankly Speaking: A Collection of Essays, Writings & Rants by Frank Moore.

Photos of Frank Moore and his performances were found on the web. Clicking on the photos will take you to the sites where I found the photos.

2013/12/09

Vowels

Barefoot, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Barefoot, 2013, by Fred Hatt

This post is an experiment. Some of my recent abstract watercolors, landscape sketches, and doodles have been randomly interspersed between the lines of Arthur Rimbaud’s synesthetic 1872 sonnet “Voyelles”. The original French poem and English translation by Oliver Bernard were copied from this site (where the fourteen-line sonnet is followed by a four-line “envoi” which is not included here below or in most versions of this poem I could find online). Oliver Bernard’s version is a prose translation, striving for the clearest expression of the sense of the original while sacrificing meter and musicality. If this version is too flat for you, check out Canadian poet Christian Bök’s fascinating version of “Voyelles”, translated five different ways.

These paintings were not inspired by this poem, and they have been sequenced randomly to avoid any specific reference to the colors or images mentioned in Rimbaud’s verses. When I draw or paint abstractly, I disengage my mind as much as possible from discursive thought and allow subconscious impulses to express themselves in the movement of the brush and the liquid medium. Imagery never drives the painting – any images are projections of the imagination, like the forms seen in Rorschach blots. I am trying to allow impulses of movement to arise from below the surface of awareness, as in my practice of Authentic Movement, described in this post. Perhaps this way of going fishing in the unconscious has something in common with the methods of a proto-surrealist poet like Rimbaud. Perhaps some accidental resonances may arise from the interleaving of sketches and lines of verse.  If not, please enjoy my humble doodles and Rimbaud’s delirious words separately!

Extinct Animals, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Extinct Animals, 2013, by Fred Hatt

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,

Pastries, 201e, by Fred Hatt

Pastries, 201e, by Fred Hatt

Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:

I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:

Ego,m 2013, by Fred Hatt

Ego,m 2013, by Fred Hatt

A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes

A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies

fredhatt-2013-autumn-wind

Autumn Wind, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Which buzz around cruel smells,

Plant Spirit, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Plant Spirit, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Golfes d’ombre ; E, candeur des vapeurs et des tentes,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,

Path of Light, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Path of Light, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles;

Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;

Pink Flowering Tree, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Pink Flowering Tree, 2013, by Fred Hatt

I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles

I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips

Electrical Storm, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Electrical Storm, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;

In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

Land Forms, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Land Forms, 2013, by Fred Hatt

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,

Aromatic Tree, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Aromatic Tree, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides

The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows

Mane, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Mane, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

Green and Blue, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Green and Blue, 2013, by Fred Hatt

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,

Coral, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Coral, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Silence traversés des Mondes et des Anges:

Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:

Bosom, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Bosom, 2013, by Fred Hatt

— O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!

O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

Tracks, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Tracks, 2013, by Fred Hatt

I recently discovered the work of the comics artist Julian Peters. One of his specialites is illustrating poetry, including work by Poe, Keats and Eliot. He has a really beautiful comic of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre”/”The Drunken Boat” – click on the appropriate title to see it in either English or French.

Color pieces in my post are watercolor paintings except “Green and Blue”, which is drawn with aquarelle crayons and blended with water. Black and white pieces are drawn with Tombow brush markers. “Mane” and “Tracks” are 11″ x 14″ (28 x 35.6 cm), “Ego” is 8.5″ x 11″ (21.6 x 28 cm), and all others are 5.5″ x 8.5″ (14 x 21.6 cm).

2010/11/22

Flanking Figures

Filed under: Art History,Collections of Images — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 17:06

Far Side of the Moon with Flanking Figures, 2010, by Fred Hatt

I made these two large reclining nudes, each one 48″ x 30″, with the idea that they would be flanking figures, a human frame for some significant object or image.  They could be on either side of a mirror or a portrait or a proscenium stage.  They could be facing center or away from center.  For me these figures have a lunar quality, so here I have used them to bracket an image of the far side of the moon.

[Tangent:  The far side of the moon was a complete mystery before the era of space flight, as the moon always turns the same face towards Earth, and of course people imagined that it hid alien civilizations or other exotic marvels.  Even now this distant hemisphere is unfamiliar to most of us.  The far side of the moon is mountainous and heavily pocked with craters, and lacks the great “seas” or mare that give the near face the dark patches that we see as the man in the moon, the rabbit, or whatever it is supposed to resemble.  The face that is turned away can be a symbol of the unseen aspect of things.  Here is an interactive map of both sides of the moon, and here’s the source for the moon map used in the illustration at the top of this post.]

Allegorical flanking figures of this sort are a fusty old iconographic tradition.  The ones I had in mind were the figures of Dawn and Dusk on the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, designed and sculpted by Michelangelo.  The chapel also features a similar idealized portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, accompanied by figures called Night and Day.  These nudes, named as embodiments of cycles of nature and shown reclining at the feet of the enthroned noblemen, exalt their central figures by portraying them as masters over Nature itself.  Those Medicis were as self-aggrandizing as Trump!

Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, c. 1530, by Michelangelo

This kind of arrangement of human images embodying abstract concepts became a standard trope in public art.  Here are the figures over the entrance to the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, by sculptor F.W. Pomeroy.  In the middle is the Recording Angel, lurking under a hood and looking far more intimidating than most of the court stenographers I’ve seen.  On the left is Fortitude, with a sword, and on the right, Truth, with a mirror.

Allegorical Figures, Old Bailey Central Criminal Court, London, 1907, sculptures by F. W. Pomeroy

Allegorical flanking figures became such a cliché in the depiction of official power that they are a frequent feature of the engraved headings of stock certificates, such as this one for Shell Oil, Inc.

Shell Oil Company stock certificate engraving, 1975

The tradition probably originates with Medieval Heraldry.  A coat of arms often shows a shield with symbolic emblems or colors, held up on either side by what some cultures would call power animals, such as Great Britain’s lion and unicorn.  Here’s a lovely new variation on the theme, the official coat of arms of Nunavut, the Inuit province of Northern Canada.  The symbolic animals are the caribou and the narwhal.

Coat of Arms of the Province of Nunavut, Canada

Christian religious painting also frequently includes figures flanking a central personage.  The sidekicks may be angels, saints, or the donor who funded the artwork.  It naturally occurs in crucifixions, in which Jesus is often shown between the two crucified thieves, as in this Mantegna painting.

Crucifixion, 1459, by Andrea Mantegna

Raphael omitted the thieves, but framed Jesus between two angels, representations of the sun and moon, and one kneeling and one standing figure on each side.  Clearly the idea here is to convey the centrality of the Christ.

Crucifixion, 1503. by Raphael

I can’t tell you why I was drawn to such a thoroughly old-fashioned figurative motif.  I suppose applying my loose and energetic style to neoclassical subject matter seemed an interesting variation on improvised compositions and experimental process.  Here are some closer looks at these two drawings.  The models are Yuko and Jeremiah.  Let me know if you have anything that needs to be exalted by being displayed in between allegorical figures!

Waning Moon, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Waxing Moon, 2010, by Fred Hatt

My works shown here are aquarelle drawings on black paper, each 48″ high by 30″ wide.  All the other images were found on the web, and clicking on the images will take you to the sites where I found them.

2010/06/06

Ohno: Oh Yes

Filed under: Homage: Performers — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 23:47

Kazuo Ohno, photo by Guido Harari, date unknown

Kazuo Ohno, a seminal figure in the butoh dance movement and one of the great creative spirits of our time, passed away June 1, 2010, at the age of 103.

I saw Ohno perform in 1996 at the Japan Society in New York.  In an essay posted on my first website, I wrote, ” I will never forget seeing Kazuo Ohno dance at the age of 90, light as a feather, radiating love, a whole audience embraced in his heart.  Love was a palpable force in his performance.”  I have never seen another live artist who created such an aura.  I felt that the hearts of those sitting around me in the auditorium were opening up, and that a kind of love filled with both sadness and joy was circulating through the theater.

The soulful singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, whose album The Crying Light is dedicated to Ohno, said, “In performance I watched him cast a circle of light upon the stage, and step into that circle, and reveal the dreams and reveries of his heart. He seemed to dance in the eye of something mysterious and creative; with every gesture he embodied the child and the feminine divine.”

The arc of Ohno’s career was far from the norm.  Coming from a fisherman’s family in Japan’s far north, he attended an athletic college.  As a student he saw an electrifying performance by the dancer Antonia Mercé, known as “La Argentina“.  Deeply moved, Ohno knew he had found his muse, but he had at the time no dance training, and it would take him many years to be able to pay tribute to her with his own performance.  He was drafted into the army and spent nine years at the front.  He presented his first public dance performance at the age of 43.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ohno was a major collaborator of avant-garde performance artist and choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata.  Hijikata’s work evolved from raw, radical provocation to a sophisticated choreographic vocabulary based not on external forms but on internal images and sensations.

In 1977, fifty years after the encounter with his muse, Ohno created the solo performance “Admiring La Argentina“, directed by Hijikata.  This dance moved audiences around the world, and suddenly in his seventies Ohno had a new career as a solo performer and a new status as a master of soul expression.

Japanese Poster for "Admiring La Argentina", 1977, photographer unknown

As a dancer, Ohno’s approach was to embody the essence of human feelings, not to act out a story or explore a concept.  When he was interviewed at the Japan Society in 1996, in connection with the performance I saw, he was asked what kind of response he hopes to get from the audience.  He said the thing he doesn’t like to hear from an audience member is that they “got it”.  “How could they ‘get it’?” he asked, “I don’t get it.”

There’s a description of a class taught by Ohno at his studio in the 1988 book Butoh:  Shades of Darkness, by Jean Viala and Nourit Masson-Sekine:  “[Ohno] doesn’t ‘teach’.  He nourishes; he guides; he provokes; he inspires. . . He assigns a subject for improvisation.  The ‘dead body’ is a theme he often suggests.  ‘What could be the life of that which is dead?  It is this impossibility which we must create.’  He explains that for his dance, we must not try to control the body, but to let the soul breathe life into the flesh.  He adds:  ‘Be free!  Let go!’  Being free is not doing what we want or what we think.  On the contrary, it means being liberated from thought and will.  It means allowing life to blossom within.” (p. 55)

Kazuo Ohno, photo by Ethan Hoffman, p. 46 from "Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul"

The 1987 photography book (in which the image above appears) Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul includes these extracts from Ohno’s writing, “The Dead Begin to Run”:  “Superimposed on the story of the cosmos, man’s story unfolds.  Within this cosmological superimposition emerges the path that leads from birth through maturity to death.  The Butoh costume is like throwing the cosmos onto one’s shoulders.  And for Butoh, while the costume covers the body, it is the body that is the costume of the soul.

“A fetus walked along a snow-covered path.  It cleared a path by spreading its clothes upon the snow after removing them one by one as in a secret cosmic ceremony.  Then it peeled off its skin and laid that upon the path.  A whirlwind of snow surrounded it, but the fetus continued, wrapped in this whirlwind.  The white bones danced, enveloped by an immaculate cloak.  This dance of the fetus, which moved along as if carried by the whirlwind of snow, seemed to be transparent.

“In life there is, without a doubt, something beyond the brashness of youth which bursts like summer light.  There is something between life and death.  This part of ourselves is like the wreck of an abandoned car; if we fix it, it could start up again.” (p. 36)

Kazuo Ohno in "The Dead Sea", photo by Nourit Masson-Sekine, 1985. “The dead start running…” p. 51 from "Butoh: Shades of Darkness"

Perhaps Ohno had to wait for the ravages of age before his body could express this transcendence.  I see many performances by young dancers with powerful, trained bodies.  But to see Ohno’s small, frail and aged body move was to see divine grace manifesting in the only way it can, through mortal, vulnerable, transient living matter.

From a young age, Ohno had been devoted to the Christian faith.  While his beliefs and their part in his art are barely discussed in any writing I have read by or about Ohno, I see in his work an expression of the Christian theme of divine cosmic spirit entering into bodily form to experience passion, love, sacrifice, suffering and death.  This is not just the story of Jesus, as Ohno shows us, but the story of all embodied creatures.  And this embodiment is not, as some would have it, the debasement of the spirit, but its exaltation.

 

The video above, showing Ohno improvising in his studio, is dated 2000, but I don’t know the source.  If anyone can identify what this is from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.  The images used in this post were all found on the web, and clicking on the pictures links back to their sources.  Where the scans I found on the web match illustrations in books I own, I have also noted where they appear in those printed sources in the captions.

2010/03/23

Drawing as Theater / Presence as Provocation: Kentridge and Abramovic at MoMA

Rest Energy, photo of a 1980 performance by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, photo from Galleria Lia Rumma

The Museum of Modern Art in New York currently hosts retrospectives of two idiosyncratic and uncompromising living artists, Yugoslavian born Marina Abramovic and South African William Kentridge.  The two artists could hardly be more different from each other, but each has followed the path of art as something deeply personal and necessary.

Marina Abramovic emerged as a performance artist in the 1970’s.  Using her own body as her medium, she explored the power of living presence in ritual acts of vulnerability and endurance.  Her earliest works were so raw and risky they still shock – for example, in Rhythm 2 (1974), she took drugs that caused seizures, convulsions and catatonia.  But then in the 70’s everyone was experimenting with drugs – she just did it in front of an audience.

In 1976 she began a twelve year collaboration with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen).  The work they did together achieved a kind of spiritual and aesthetic clarity that has not been surpassed, even as this kind of work has entered the mainstream with David Blaine‘s well-publicized acts of endurance.  In “Rest Energy”, pictured at the top of the post, Abramovic and Ulay lean apart, their weight suspended by the tension of a bowstring with an arrow aimed at Abramovic’s heart.

Abramovic and Ulay traveled continuously, living in an old Citroen van (the van is in the MoMA exhibit), fully devoting their lives to their artistic experiment.  A statement they wrote at the time (1975) reads:

ART VITAL

no fixed living-place
permanent movement
direct contact
local relation
self-selection
passing limitations
taking risks
mobile energy
no rehearsals
no predicted end
no repetition
extended vulnerability
exposure to chance
primary reactions

Abramovic and Ulay parted ways in 1988.  Much of Abramovic’s solo work from the 90’s looks to me more strident and more self-conscious about making “statements”, but in her most recent work she seems to be rediscovering the power of simplicity.

The Abramovic retrospective at MoMA includes documentation of a great many of these performances that tested the limits of the mind and body and the relationship between artist and audience.  It also includes living “reperformers”, re-enacting several of the most well-known actions.  The one that has been most widely discussed is Imponderabilia, originally performed by Abramovic and Ulay in 1977.  A naked male and female stand impassively facing each other in a narrow doorway, through which museumgoers may pass only by squeezing sideways between the pair.

Abramovic has long argued that performance art must be kept alive by reperformance, and in her 2005 show at the Guggenheim Museum she herself reperformed a number of seminal performance works originally done decades ago by such artists as Joseph Beuys and Valie Export.  It is undeniable that the MoMA show is more interesting with live bodies interspersed among the old documentation, but the change of context has surely altered the effect of the pieces.  It is not just that what were once radical experiments are now enshrined in the most institutional of museums.  The original pieces were radically minimalist – highly clarified simple happenings in isolation, usually presented in blank gallery spaces.  The MoMA exhibit is like a crowded menagerie of acts and images, with a steady flow of tourists trying to see it all before their feet give out or the kids start crying or they have to meet someone for dinner.

The title of the Abramovic show at MoMA is The Artist Is Present, and it is with her own simple presence that she makes the strongest statement and the deepest impression in this show.  In the great atrium of the Museum, throughout the public hours while her exhibit is open, the 63-year-old artist sits silently at a table, while museumgoers are invited to sit directly across from her.  She sits all day, and will do so for 77 days.  This is about as radically minimal as performance can get.  She is not doing anything sensational, really not doing anything at all.  But if you’ve tried to sit still for even an hour you know it becomes incredibly grueling.  You can often see the pain in her face as she holds steady eye contact with an endless stream of museum visitors, some of whom sit for moments, and some for hours.  It is an act of extreme endurance, but also, in a way, an act of extreme generosity, giving herself to her audience in direct human presence.  Observe for a while and you’ll see suffering, defiance, confrontation, resignation, engagement, boredom and bliss – the full range of the human condition living and breathing there before us.  Amazingly, her simple presence fills up the gigantic atrium space more than any of the monumental pieces of art I’ve seen there over the years.

On the opening day, her former collaborator, Ulay, showed up at the table for an unexpected tearful reunion:

Ulay and Marina Abramovic, March, 2010, photo by Scott Rudd for MoMA

Just off the Atrium is the entrance to another immersive exhibit, William Kentridge:  Five Themes.  Timed to coincide with Kentridge’s multimedia staging of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story) at the Metropolitan Opera, this retrospective shows Kentridge’s drawings, prints, animated films, theatrical designs, optical experiments and even animatronic puppets as a diverse but highly unified body of work that spans media and obliterates the traditional line dividing graphic art and theatrical storytelling.

Kentridge became widely known in the 1990’s for his 9 Drawings for Projection (1989-2003), a series of richly evocative short animated films, made by drawing, erasing and redrawing large charcoal sketches on paper.  Originally shown one at a time in galleries in conjuction with exhibits of the final-stage charcoal drawings, the series of films hangs loosely together as a single ongoing story.  They tell of an industrialist, Soho Eckstein, his wife, and her lover, the bohemian Felix Teitlebaum, who is always depicted naked.  Eckstein and Teitlebaum are opposites in a way, but both recognizably resemble Kentridge.  The story in 9 Drawings plays out across the backdrop of the upheavals of South Africa in the late apartheid and early post-apartheid eras, but the films aren’t straightforwardly political.  Instead they’re personal and poetic.  The erasures and redrawing of the filmmaking technique, the transformations of the elemental and mechanical imagery, the ebb and flow of the lives of the characters, and the shifting sands of cultural change are all of a piece, an era of life experience distilled into a cinematic dream.  I get the impression that the transformations of the drawings are not preconceived, but exploratory.

Drawing from “Felix in Exile”, 1994, one of “9 Drawings for Projection” by William Kentridge

The museum show is arranged not chronologically or by media, but thematically.  The 9 Drawings and other films are projected at monumental size, with the real drawings, also quite large, nearby, allowing one to experience the images in both their forms, as mutable projections and as the tactile reality of smudgy charcoal on heavily worked paper.

Kentridge is an obsessive drawer and mark-maker.  One room in the MoMA show surrounds us with multiple projections showing him drawing, tearing paper, pouring ink, etc., often in reverse.  Other rooms are filled with projections, drawings and objects based around designs for his recent operatic productions, Mozart’s Magic Flute and Shostakovich’s The Nose.  There is almost too much to take in, a barrage of images and ideas, nearly all in bold black and white, with a rough, handmade texture.  Throughout the exhibit there are many recurring images, including water and bathing, mechanically walking figures, birds and  rhinoceroses, the industrialized landscape, Alfred Jarry’s corrupt king Ubu, and especially Kentridge’s own heavyset self-image.

Kentridge’s work is not colorful, and while it is bold, it is not simplistic.  It is gray and ambiguous and conflicted.   It draws upon the angular dynamism of early-20th-century avant-garde design, but the boldness is more than anything else the magnified theatrical gesture of the human form.  This is the closest contemporary work I know to the great etchings of Goya, the Caprichos and the Disasters of War.  For Kentridge the act of drawing is theatrical, improvisational and demonstrative, and theater is a graphic art where shadows and lines convey ideas and feelings.

Drawing for II Sole 24 Ore (World Walking), 2007, by William Kentridge; Charcoal, gouache, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, Marion Goodman Gallery

I’ll close with a quote from the Phaidon Monograph, William Kentridge, by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev et al, that reveals something about his open-ended creative process:

“Drawing for me is about fluidity.  There may be a vague sense of what you’re going to draw but things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what you know.  So drawing is a testing of ideas; a slow-motion version of thought.  It does not arrive instantly like a photograph. The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning.  What ends in clarity does not begin that way.”

Marina Abramovic:  The Artist Is Present, organized by Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large, The Museum of Modern Art, and Director, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, is on view through May 31, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

William Kentridge:  Five Themes, originally organized for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art by Mark Rosenthal, is on view through May 17, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Images in this post link back to the sites where I found them.

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