Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Field Vision of Art

Malevich's Black Square

 A few weeks ago Daniel Davidson came into Bridgeport Coffee excited about a review he’d just read in Apollo, a British arts journal.  He didn’t agree with it – he was stimulated the way you are when you stumble across a clear articulation of something you know to be deeply wrong.  The essay described a new exhibition of Malevich’s Black Square, an avant-garde painting first shown in 1915.

The title is accurate: Black Square is the picture of a black square, painted inside a white one.  It is sometimes described the culmination of the European tradition that evolved from realistic pictures through ever more impressionistic depictions of light, geometric form and shifting perspective until it arrived at pure abstractions.  Malevich himself is said to have hoped that by breaking loose from representation of the material world, his painting pointed the way to a plane of ideals and utopian social possibilities.

In the century since then, the utopian social possibilities haven’t been realized, and some critics have wondered if abstract art hasn’t been less a culmination than a cul de sac, cluttered with empty shapes where anyone can project his own fantasies.  The review in Apollo was more optimistic; the author, Rye Dag Holmboe, describes some recent abstract art he believes show new directions for the genre.

Daniel is of the opinion that abstract art is really a dead end.  But it is a dead end he wrestled with himself for decades before he found a way out, and the review in Apollo has inspired him to describe it in his own essay.  Which he begins to compose at the coffee shop, in a journal with a black cloth binding and thick white pages, like Black Square with content.  It’s filled with carefully drawn text and illustrated with pictures cut from magazines and catalogs, some of them are from his own work; some of them have been cut apart and reassembled as inverted rectangles, a theme from his days as a systemic minimalist.

Davidson with his journal: Black Square inverted

Daniel was an art student in the 1960s.  Which has meant his career spanned the years when the modern world is sometimes said to have given way to a postmodern one.  In that formulation, the modern world was marked by progress and rational certainty, the people who lived in it were engaged in a common project to pull eternal truths out from the flux and chaos of everyday life. The postmodern one started as people lost confidence in the common project, settling into a world of relative truths.  They might still have the power to create significance, but they’d assemble it self-consciously, with doses of irony to show they knew they were making it up.  Daniel’s journals are a jumble of both.

On one page, he’s made a collage of events picked out from 1937, the year of his birth. The fascists bombed Guernica that year, Goering appeared on the cover of Look magazine, Stalin turned his paranoid gaze on his own inner circle. Howard Hughes flew across the continental United States in record time, Amelia Earhart was lost in the Pacific, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, its first full length animation feature, where innocence triumphs.

On another page, he’s summed up his life in a brief outline ordered around a series of spontaneous acts.    He remembers them as a series of breakthroughs, abrupt intrusions of insight that rupture the patient practice of everyday life.  Like the moment riding the El home from school one day when he decided he would race sailboats – he’d had no prior experience with sailing, but it’s an enthusiasm that stuck with him through his life.  He does not count the moment in 1957, as a young philosophy student walking back to the dorms when he renounced the afterlife, even though it was abrupt, because he was considering the question.  But he does count the moment in the army in 1962, stepping off the landing from the mess hall, when he knew he would be a painter.

He had studied commercial art at Lane Tech High School, but he describes his courses there as entirely separate from fine art; he says he learned to draw by cutting class, sketching from the street and wandering the galleries of the Chicago Art Institute. But then, when he decided to be a painter, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was the natural place to start. 

from Davidson's journal: 1937

At the time, abstract art was enjoying a re-florescence in New York, egged on by a clique of quarrelsome editors at Artforum magazine.  The intellectual artist Ad Reinhardt was working on his own series of nearly identical Black Paintings in homage to Black Square -- they occupied him for 13 years from 1954.  Holmboe says Reinhardt embraced Malevich’s metaphysics, his appeal to “oneness” and “unity,” but the utopian social goals seemed beyond art’s reach in the years after the war.

In Chicago, a new school of students was beginning to define themselves against New York and its so-called Artforum Mafia.  They took stylistic cues from commercial art, and they made images of people and objects – they were cartoonish, carnivalesque, with a bawdy, political edge. Some would come to be known for an art show they titled “Hairy Who?” after a critic they found particularly pretentious (as in, “Who the hell is Harry B?”)

Daniel defined himself against the Chicago school.  “I didn’t want to be a Hairy Who.”  He wanted to be a New York artist. He made a study of Artforum.  His idol was Frank Stella, known for his flat geometric stripes in bold colors with sharp lines -- they didn’t represent other objects but were objects themselves.  Describing their appeal, Daniel says they were vibrant, muscular, but also systematic. “Every year or so he’d change something up,” introduce the next logical step. “Which eventually led him into utter nonsense,” as Daniel recalls, “but that’s another thing.”

Daniel developed his portfolio and “plotted and schemed” his way into Yale, because Yale fed directly into the New York arts scene.  After earning his MFA from Yale in 1968, he took a teaching job so he wouldn’t be beholden to the gallery system.  He taught printmaking, drawing and painting at Alfred University in Upstate New York from 1968 to 1982.

He began working on a series of inverted rectangles, working with 4 by 8 pieces of Masonite.  He painted them, cut them apart and turned them inside out. He showed them at New York’s OK Harris Gallery in 1975.  Though the whole time, he was working on another kind of project.

As a student at Yale he had taken a course in Chinese painting.  It was a tradition entirely outside the logical path he’d learned in European painting, it started from calligraphy, and elaborated on the quality of the brush stroke.  On the side, he started doing his own brush stroke paintings, working with a graphite powder so fine it would billow each time you dipped the brush in it.  He says the results were beautiful, but he wasn’t sure where to go with it. “It wouldn’t fly in New York.”

from Davidson's journal: a pictorial summary of his career

In an article for the New Yorker called “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Janet Malcolm would describe an about face at Artforum made with the arrival of Ingrid Sischy as editor on the eve of 1980.  The writers of the 1960s and 70s had faith in art as a coherent project that followed the history of western painting to its end.  Progress meant being pulled forward by a necessary pursuit of the next new thing – there was a logical path, a ladder, there was no looking back.  As Sischy described “that particular avant-garde” to Malcolm: “Its rule was that painting was dead, it was just decadent picture making, the regressive act, and all one could do was produce heroic works of abstraction, accompanied by a great deal of terminology.”

The old writers and editors shared a common education in art history, philosophy and aesthetics.  They defended art’s aloofness from the compromised values of the bourgeois world.  Art didn’t need a “social mission,” its mission was encompassed in the intense aesthetic encounter you’d either experienced, or had not.  Their resistance targeted the commoditization of art, by which they meant subservience to a gallery system that levered the artistic aura for outrageous profits.

The first thing Ingrid Sischy did on her arrival at Artforum was scrap the issue underway and pull out an issue of entirely new art in 2 weeks. From that first issue forward, the whole tone of the magazine changed.  The editorial content was less erudite and more irreverent, more inclusive, even socially conscious.  Malcolm’s article describes a terrific fight over an exhibit showing African Art alongside Modernist abstractions after one of Sischy’s writers criticized it for taking the African Art from out of its ritual context, and pressing it into the service of a Western project.

Under Sischy, Artforum covered European artists, and painters of figures and objects; painters who would treat art history less like a ladder, and more like a trunk of dress up clothes in the attic; painters whose pictures alluded to power dynamics very much of this world, and who also participated with relish in a gallery system that made them fabulously rich over night.

Barbara Rose was one of Artforum’s old avant-garde.  She had been married to Frank Stella in the 60s.  She told Malcolm about having everybody over for parties “and there would be raging arguments.”  But they were arguments among intellectuals who cared deeply about the same issues and who spoke the same language. “You had a sense of not being isolated. You were talking to other people.  It might be only 5 people, but you were talking to somebody, and you knew who you were talking to.”

The small group created a “consensus of educated people,” they gave a sense of coherence to the magazine, and to the culture.  “There wasn’t this horrible leveling where everything is as important as everything else.  There was a sense of hierarchy of values.”

Duchamp and Mondrian in one of Davidson's Meta-Paintings

The lost consensus of educated people sounds like a complaint that old elites have probably always made about the new generation that fails to recognize their own importance.  But in the 1980s and 90s it enjoyed a wider resonance.  In 1987, the year after Malcolm’s article appeared in The New Yorker, Allan Bloom would publish his book The Closing of the American Mind, detailing the decline of the classic liberal education, deeply experienced, that prepares a leadership class that knows how to think.  And his book was a bestseller.

Its popular appeal might be evidence less of the real value of high culture than of the particular dilemma of its time.  In 1990, David Harvey published The Condition of Postmodernity.  In it he argues that a new round of acceleration of the world economy has been accompanied by a new kind of cultural change.  The two spheres have long been linked by processes of creative destruction – with new business models, new products, new fashions, new developments in art, and new urban plans burning down the old ones and building on their ashes, over and over again.  That dynamic has been underway since the earliest days of capitalism; freedom from tradition and its superstitions has been one of the core values of modernity.

In the decades after the war, creative destruction only accelerated.  Information and transport kept moving faster, the world got smaller, and smaller.  And as those changes accelerated, the cultural landscape got noisier.  By the 1970s, it wasn’t just a matter of more change, faster.  The rate of acceleration was so dramatic that modernity surpassed itself, there was a qualitative break.  It ricocheted through the arts and popular culture; it ruined that project where creative destruction had a purpose, which was to keep the way clear for rational progress toward universal, or at least widely understood ideals.

The experience was profoundly disorienting.  Rose and Bloom, and all the people who might not be part of their circles, but who took a little comfort in knowing they were there, weren’t just practicing the usual complaint about an old elite’s loss of prestige.  They felt the loss of purpose.  They had no tools for navigating a culture where there is no center, no outer boundaries, and maybe no instruments for navigating a sure course, just a lot of individuals wandering around in the wilderness with lots of freedom on their hands. And a media machine for doling out distraction and fame in small doses.

At least that’s the idea of a “postmodern” condition.

from Davidson's journal: Nietsche and Kandinsky in a boat stuffed with fireworks

Before he studied art, Daniel studied philosophy.  As an abstract artist, he saw himself as an aesthetic engineer, he would take a simple thing and work his way through all the permutations of it.  “It was my way of being creative, of imagining stuff.”

At first, like a good modernist, he thought there was something behind the abstractions.  But even in art school he felt stirrings of doubt.  Even Frank Stella used to tell people that his paintings were just what they appeared to be.  The more you looked behind all the theorizing, Daniels says, “it all turned to dust.” He found an alternative in Chinese landscape painting early on, but that was just another tradition, it wasn’t a satisfying answer.  He would alternate back and forth between abstract geometries and calligraphic techniques, “from one visual idea to its opposite,” for 40 years.

In the late 1990s, he went back to get a second MFA at UIC’s Electronic Visualization Lab, where he practiced systemic minimalism in a new medium, but the new medium wore on him, he missed the painterly technique.   He says he left Chicago for awhile to get away from digital art.

He set up a studio in Silver City, New Mexico in 2003.  And it was there, in the desert state where he first decided to be a painter, that he launched a series of 60 paintings that he considers his third spontaneous action. It wasn’t instantaneous, like the others, it was spontaneous in the sense it was not planned, it seemed to come from some mysterious ground that he’d prepared without knowing how – it was the synthesis he’d been striving to realize his whole career.

The paintings were inspired by the I Ching, the Book of Change, an ancient Chinese divination text.  The I Ching composed of a series of trigrams and hexagrams – each one representing permutations of 3, or 6, solid and broken lines.  Each has accumulated layers of numeric and symbolic associations over the centuries.  Ancient commentaries describe the Book of Change as a microcosm, a sort of element table of a universe in flux.

Daniel had run across it in the 1970s, it had interested him as an ancient example of a binary logic system.  He painted out the hexagrams on 64 large sheets of paper, but he didn’t go deeper than that.  He brought the 64 sheets out in Silver City for a gallery exhibit.  He was disappointed in the gallery scene in Silver City, he says no one sold any paintings there, they just hung them on the wall and made money selling merchandise.  But it did get him started thinking about the I Ching

And he thought by painting, starting with abstract paintings of the hexagrams themselves, then adding his own layers of associations.  He painted the hexagrams for heaven and earth using birds of the sky, land and water; he depicted each of the hexagrams with the “mountain” trigram in them, using expressions in human hands.  He did more than a dozen paintings that worked his way through phases of art history, their accomplishments and limitations, all using correspondences with the 8 trigrams as a frame.

Daniel isn’t particularly impressed with the I Ching as a divination text – he doesn’t believe it will tell you the future.  But he does believe that if you go to it with a real question, something you want answered, you will find an answer.  He says it brought him back to representative art, in fact it brought him back to figure painting.  The experience was tremendously liberating.  It’s like, having found himself set loose in a trackless desert, he managed to map the world on a frame of trigrams, so he could navigate it.

Davidon's Birds of the Earth

What got Daniel going about that Apollo article was the idea that abstract art might still have further to go.  In his experience, it has been a dead end of what he calls “target vision” – the obsession with chasing the Next New Thing in art. He thinks artists would do better to try to achieve a “field vision” instead -- a wide angle view of the world.

In his essay, he proposes a schema for achieving a field vision that does not reference the I Ching.  He calls it the triangulation of art.  He says art history can be analyzed into 3 primary styles: the mimetic art of the western figure painting; the calligraphic art of the Chinese landscape, and pure abstractions of the Islamic tradition.  He says any painting can be placed somewhere within that triangle, either as a pure example of one of the primary styles or as some mixture of them.

Realizing that, understanding the map, makes all styles available, it frees the artist to paint poly-stylistically.  At least that’s what it did for him.  In his own art, he has become absorbed in “meta-painting” – painting about painting, often literally pictures placing famous artists together in an almost allegorical way.

After 7 years at New Mexico, Daniel returned to Chicago.  He moved to Bridgeport in 2012.  In Bridgeport, he lives in the middle of a burbling local art scene.  He inhabits a studio in one of the Zhou Brothers buildings on Morgan Street.  But he still describes his arrival here as almost accidental, he says he can’t remember how he found this particular place.  He doesn’t feel he can identify with what the artists around him are doing, or that they recognize the value of his work.  But that doesn’t particularly concern him either.  He says no one can help you make art.  It’s finding the field vision that’s vital.

notes from Davidson's journal