Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thinking about Art Aging : Open Thread

In his somewhat mixed review of Gabriel Orozco's current solo exhibition at MoMA, Holland Cotter echoes something that's been brought up here with regards to work that incorporates ready-made components or relies on installation-based gestures (a staple of Orozco's practice):
Gestures tend to lose some of their energy when they’re repeated. The shoebox is in the MoMA survey, it’s the first thing you see in the galleries. The dirty ball is there too. So are the yogurt lids, nailed to partition walls. But they feel archival.
I saw this show, and a few of these works feel more archival than others to me, but as Mr. Cotter goes on to note, "No one’s to blame; this is the way certain art operates in time." But this idea of art operating in time is something I've been thinking about, in three parts, no less.

First was the fascinating discussion I had had with conservator Elizabeth Estabrook in doing research for
my book (it makes the perfect Christmas gift :-)) in which she noted how it was as wrong in restoring a painting from the 1940's to make it look like it was brand new as it was for a plastic surgeon to try to make a 65 year old look like they're 20. Even if you pull off a miraculous illusion, there remain tell-tale signs that something isn't quite right. Elizabeth noted that a work of art should look its age.

Secondly, I recently attended the opening at PPOW of the fabulous exhibition of work by the late Martin Wong. The indefatigable James Kalm was there too, and we had a lovely conversation about Martin (who James had known) and how his work looks positively prescient in light of much of the work being created today. When Martin was making it, James told me, many of his friends thought it was too "out there." Today however it looks like something you might expect in any emerging art gallery.

Except, and thirdly, Martin's canvases (most from the late 70s up through the mid eighties) have that patina of age about them. Personally, I love that's comforting in many ways, none the less of which is the associations I make between it and work that belongs in museums, but it does serve like a set of crows feet on an otherwise smooth complexion to suggest, as Bambino reminds me often (transliteration intentional), that "you're not a fresh chicken anymore."

So art do humans...what's the issue? As my father (now 70) says, getting old sure beats the alternative. As opposed to people, however, it's better when art that has that certain patina has been declared historically important. Otherwise it's potentially dumpster bound.

And so Gabriel's shoebox (which was first exhibited at the 1993 Venice Biennale) is presented again, out of context this time, but with a stamp of historical relevance, so we get to see it. Or not, as the case may be. The opening we attended was so crowded, I missed the shoebox. Which is too bad. I do love to see how works have aged.

Consider this an open thread on the ramifications of artwork aging.

Labels: aging, art appreciation, art viewing


Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Yes, artworks age. Viewing the Mondrians recently for the umpteenth time at MoMA, I was (as always) taken aback by the cracks in his pristine compositions. Surely he overpainted to get a smooth surface, but over time all those different layers did different things in response to even the controlled atmosphere of the museum, and many sections are now crazed--surely the exact opposite oif what he intended. Presumably the museum's conservators have stabilized those areas.

Jasper Johns's early encaustic paintings are beautifully in one piece, again because the museum conservators have stabilized them.

But what happens to the work then never makes it into museums? It either falls apart in the studio, or in the personal collections of the people who have acquired it. When that happens and the collectors come knocking on the gallery door, who's responsible--dealer, artist, or the collector him/herself, who might have maintained the work in less-than-archival conditions?

Not to sound like a fogey here, but art students are not learning about the materials they use. That's going to translate into a lot of early aging. All that great DIY stuff we're seeing in the emerging galleries is going to need a lot of outside help down the road.

12/17/2009 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

it's a secret plot perpetrated by conservators to ensure steady business, I suspect :-)

12/17/2009 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

I'd like to second Joanne's point - I think a great number of artists are taught to think like artists (my simplistic way of saying they learn the mental disciplines required to tame and channel their creativity), but many aren't learning the craft of their medium (I know "craft" may be a dirty word in fine arts, but what else to call understanding the limits and properties of the materials in the medium one uses?).

I recall seeing some Rothko works where the paint was obviously changing in color. That was the first time I saw something that had aged so quickly compared to some older works using very traditional materials.

I think you can cut *some* slack when the medium is new, or standards are constantly changing (video art: Film, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, Hard Drive, etc), sometimes media that are well understood are subject to, for the lack of a better phrase, mistakes due to inexperience.

12/17/2009 01:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i also love thinking about how art ages outside the museum. how it gets lived with, against, around and over. think the vogels with boxes of art under the bed and over the aquarium.

12/17/2009 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Ursula said...

I love this topic. I've often thought that the need to preserve art stems from our culture's fear of aging and death. Here's a blog post I wrote about it a while ago. All art must die...eventually

12/17/2009 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Sean Capone said...

Work also seems very dated when it's imbricated all-too-conceptually in the time and space of its creation. I'm not sure how great or new I would have thought the shoebox and yogurt lids to be even in their original inception. Cheers for Holland to avoid saying the obvious: these works looked inane at the MoMA show. But the box could have been any box--the gesture felt dated and no amount of restoration can dust off a concept.

Ed, you say you like the patina of aged works. Does this tie into a feeling of reassurance we want to have about looking at precious things? On the one hand, that patina provides a certain psychic connection to the artist as he occupied his particular point in time and space. If the work is subjective (a portrait or scene from life) this is even more so. But this is all really selective--the original Roman statues were apparently painted in garish hues, why haven't these been 'properly' restored?

Here's a terrific passage from an interview with Christian Boltanski, who deals with these issues more than anybody:

"What I have been trying to to escape the idea of the relic. When the Tate Gallery bought 'Dead Swiss on Shelves with White Cotton'..the curator mentioned that the cotton would go yellow in a few years, so I told him that he could change it. He said the photos would fade, so I told him that's OK, there are always more dead Swiss--I don't care which ones you use. Moreover, even the shelves were not going to fit, as they had been made for a different room! And the curator asked, well what did we buy?"

He goes on to make a distinction between "cultures of objects (us--the Western world) and cultures of knowledge". Our fixation on the relics are signposts along our narrative of progress. For other cultures, the object, building or totem is just a symbol of another story or skill that has is as reverent as the 'original' (like the temple architecture in Japan).

In some ways I'm defending conceptualist gestures and in others not. Oroszco's work doesn't age because so much of it is DOA to start with.

12/17/2009 05:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Joanne, that's why I think that the best way to experience a Mondrian is to replicate it. There should be a paint-by-number version. It would not be the original but you could get an essence of it.

I don't think art should be so fetichistic and about the "original object". Any process is imitable to some degree.

Cedric C

12/17/2009 05:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this age of the digital image, I think the notion of an original is changing in subtle ways. Of course the importance of a physical object will always persist in art, but there is a broader expereince of art which occurs in a very different context (internet, jpeg, criticism etc).

Interestingly, I think this emergence of the digital image will force us to reconsider and redefine the meaning of the physical and material object. Perhaps it is more important or less important; or maybe now it can be viewed as merely one facet of the fascinating continuum of the art experience.

Whatever the case, conservation will continue to become of the most pressing issues within the art world (especially with collectors continuing to commodify art). Great art will most likely remain on life support long after it has reached a reasoonable expiration date. The gesture of perpetuating the life of an object is both romatic and futile, but it is a cultural imperitive to preserve what has been recorded as culturally relevant.


12/18/2009 12:10:00 AM  
Blogger Mery Lynn said...

As for archival materials, our sense of Greek sculpture is based on the marble, not the paint which wore off.

When I look at Medieval works, what I see is that someone cared passionately about this piece, enough to save and preserve it. Knowing that makes me appreciate the work even more.

Turner used fugitive colors, rendering his wildness tame with time and oxidation. Are they less magnificent because of that?

12/18/2009 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Something from 1993 is "old"? Uh oh.

12/18/2009 03:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People seem to be in more of a hurry to throw out the old to make way for the new. The subtext of the comparison noted above between conservation and face lifts seems to be 'don't even bother trying, we all know you're too old to compete'.

12/18/2009 10:01:00 PM  
Blogger Belvoir said...

One of my very best teachers and favorite people ever was Emilio Cruz, the painter. Just a marvellous guy, he enraptured us with his stories at Parsons in the late 80's.

He told us one horror story: that paintings he had done in the 1960's were crumbling to pastel dust in collectors' homes. I can't recall if he used some experimental binder, or none at all, but wow that stayed with me. Emilio was nonplussed though, then he'd move on to telling us what a fake friend Sontag was. God, he was hugely entertaining. Love him, and RIP.

One series of work makes me think a lot about art and time: those vaccuum cleaners that Jeff Koons entombed untouched in the early 80's. They were scoffed at when they debuted for their banality. But as time goes on, they fascinate me for their foreignness in time, their sheer 1981 ugliness: beige, with logos of rust and yellow, squarish and deeply unsexy devices. The era in which they were manufactured is still deeply unstylish right now- we love midcentury modern, etc. I just find something spooky in their plexiglassed cells: they haven't changed, but the world- and myself- certainly has. Those vacuum cleaners take on a certain imperiousness to me, funny as that sounds. I will crumble to dust some day but they are going to be around on their pedastals, their hard ugly plastic laughs at my mortal flesh . It's only the time that has passed that has given these works that resonance, and I think that will only grow and accelerate for these pieces. Time gives them meaning, and even shades of emotion- their passè style is a sort of melancholy.

Very happy holidays to you and Bambino, Ed. So appreciate your sharing your thoughts here, a must read. Smarts, art, and heart.

12/20/2009 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger Gay Fay Kelly said...

A work of art should have a long and happy life in a good home. Then it should die. A few cultural icons deserve suspended animation. (Who saw 'La Grande Jatte" before it was entombed behind all that plexiglass? Looks like the best reproduction of the painting around, doesn't it?) But collections are full of pieces that need to have the plug pulled. Just like people, at some point we need to let go and make room for the young.

1/10/2010 01:23:00 PM  

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