August 25

My gallery faxed the review of my last show that just came out in AiA. It freshened the air around here even though it was not all praise. As someone who writes reviews for the same publication, I can pick out the slightly-not-true facts right away, like where (Hi Stephen!) he says that I paint really big or really small. Also, the most eye-catching painting has already been described like a cartoon several times, and for that reason alone I have grown to dislike that painting. I thought it was a generous and positive review even though it concluded at the end that I was “pulling my punches”. Roberta Smith, similarly, wrote that my use of other painters formats felt cautious to her.

It is odd to read this stuff because the work comes out of an attitude that foregrounds the process over the “image”. A few years ago I had studio visitors that would talk about the tall verticals and wonder about the “Newman reference”, and I would explain that the work came about from the limitations of the materials, i.e. the burlap came five feet wide, so if I wanted to go a greater distance, I had to piece it together, and one day decided to place another material in the gap between the finished edges. Someone who came on a studio visit a few years earlier, an artist, surprisingly, asked me where I saw the work going. I said, in all honesty, “Nowhere, I like it here.”

What I read from these comments is an assumption that there is something I am trying to do, or to get to, that there is an original image that I am striving for, when all I am trying to do is please myself. The work is, firstly, about the pleasure of the materials, and then about how the materials behave when I interact with them. Then there is the pleasure of solving the problem that the situations create. “Oliveros Night” the painting with the black felt stripe and the painted blue washy vertical, was redone three times. This means that I had to prepare the burlap with primer, go through the gluing of the felt stripe and the unstretching and restretching and then put the painted stripe on. Twice it was too heavy, and the third time it worked. But the painting does not communicate effort, which is part of the point.

But making art is communication, and it’s a dialogue, including a dialogue with critics, and this has changed the work, mostly making it more demonstrative. This AiA review has me rethinking the past months work, now the stuff I unstretched and rolled up seems better than the more recent work. I don’t think one is aware of what art they are influenced by. I keep hearing about Tuttle and Burri, and I have hardly ever spent any time looking at their work or thinking about it. This may be because their ideas were so familiar, or so ready for me to take that there was no need for investigation and my unconscious just swallowed it whole at first glance.

I went to visit the Swiss artist Roman Signer this morning at is house in St. Gallen; this was an appointment that was switched around and delayed through most of the summer. He is from Appenzell, on the other side of the mountain, and has now lived here for many years. He is about seventy, but comes off as a younger man. He is known, world-renowned at this point, as a sculptor who performs actions involving explosions, or other natural forces, like surges of water or air, or combustion. He also uses simple mechanical devices and tools, or recreational equipment in new, odd ways. I read that he had a job early in life in a pressure-cooker factory, when one gets to know the work this fact becomes more and more amusing.

Many of the actions, such as a piece where he sits in a kayak and is towed by a car on a dry road as the bottom of the kayak is scraped away, is recorded on short 8mm films. Or there are photographic series or objects. Since his youth he was interested in explosions. I asked him if he liked the smell of gunpowder, he said yes, and I mentioned the allure of the smell when I first experienced it as a small boy, he said, “Yes, elemental.” That was a word he liked to use in relation to his work. He took me to his workroom, which was in a large building attached behind his larger, b├╝rgermeister-like house. He showed me a room full of sculptures, and said, “Well. This is all I have, it’s not very much, and much the work is out in exhibitions…”

In one corner of the long, low-ceilinged space was a collapsible mountain-climbers tent that was in tatters from an explosion, this is a “Ruin” of an action, he explained. I told him that it made me think of the Romantic trope of the ruin in the landscape, and how being that a lot of his work takes place out of doors, it made oblique references to the Romantic tradition. There was something of a language barrier, and he said, “No. I am not a “land” artist, I just use the land as my workroom sometimes.” There was a beautiful piece on the floor with a long iron pipe that had triangular legs welded on it, that was used, when filled with gunpowder, to shoot a black umbrella through a black briefcase, which was placed in front of the pipe.

Then he would say, ‘Well, that’s all” and then would take me to another part of the building and show me something else. One windowless room had a bucket full of sand suspended over an umbrella that would spin and sift the sand evenly around its perimeter. Nearby, was an old-fashioned weight reduction machine with a belt one places around one’s waist. He used the machine in an action where he put the belt on and as the machine moved his hips he would try to hit a can placed across the room with a pistol. There were circles with numbers highlighting the bullet holes on either side of the bright metal can.

In another storeroom, near a workroom with a long table filled neatly placed tools, Signer showed me a deep freeze refrigerator, like the bottom half of a full-sized one. He tells me a story about when a few years ago he heard that a huge snowfall was coming. He brought the freezer outside, and lifted the lid and it snowed into the freezer. With the lid lifted, one peers down and sees the drifts of snow still preserved. He said that it was in a museum exhibition, a large refrigerator truck came to get the piece, that the temperature inside was -20 Centigrade, and it was quickly taken from the truck and plugged in to the gallery space. Then he said that the museum wanted to insure the sculpture for 20,000 Swiss francs, and Signer said, “That was very clever, but it cannot be replaced, it’s just snow.”

He showed me some of his catalogues that he had bound with metal bands and then placed an explosion cap inside. The eruption on the surface of the book, he said, was like a volcano. I asked him if he liked visiting volcanoes, and named some that he had, including Stromboli and a number of others, including one in Japan. Then I asked him if he had read Susan Sontag’s novel, the “Volcano Lover” and we talked about what a good book it was and how surprising that it came from her.

Then he took me on the concrete deck above the studio that served as a large patio for the residential part of the house and showed me his “participant” piece, where two hoses filled with water were connected to a pair of rubber boots mounted on a metal stand. Signer stood on the two hoses about 10 feet away from the boots and lifted his feet on and off of the two hoses, causing the boots to swing back and forth in a walking motion. Long spurts of water came from the heels of the boots, propelling them forward. I was admiring the piece as I was also looking over at the cab of a ski lift set nearby a large boulder, and looked over to the buildings across the way that formed a kind of tall amphitheatre that looked onto his patio.

As he walked me downstairs, he stopped and said ‘Oh, I must show you where I keep my explosives.” And he opened a door and I looked at a five-foot high pea green safe with a no smoking sticker on it. As we went out onto the street there was a black Jaguar parked in front of the entrance. We talked a few more minutes. I mentioned something about not having the language and missing a lot of middle-European irony and he said, “It’s subtle.” Then, “This is not my car, I only have a bicycle; and I have one of those three-wheeled cars from Italy, do you know them?”

August 24. I went to Lucerne again to see the Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba exhibition that is my next feature article for AiA. It was a sunny day and this time I took a towel and my bathing suit. My appointment with the curator wasn’t until 4 pm so I got on a local bus that ran out of town along the perimeter of the lake. First we went through lots of hedges and coffee-sipping patios and luxury goods shops and large private houses overlooking the lake. Switzerland is oppressively comfortable. Its suicide rate by means of firearms is second in rank, per capita, to the US.

The mountains behind were quite dramatic, though it was hazy or the air was dirty, like everywhere else on the planet. I got off the bus after it seemed close to a place that corresponded to the beach on a map I had glanced at, but it turned out to be the lakefront patio of a hotel across the road, charming enough, with a line of old twisted trees and no one about, except at the snack bar. There was lounge jazz coming from the speakers hidden in the trees, otherwise, how would I know that I was relaxing, without recreational music blasting at me as I looked at the water?

Moving on down the road I took some twisty paths leading up and down through fields and trees, but I came up against gates to private lake front houses that continually blocked egress to the water. I finally came back to the road and headed further along to the Hotel Hermitage that had a large lawn leading down to a marina and ferry dock. I came down a flower-lined walk past the outdoor dining area nonchalantly, thanking myself for remembering to wear my seersucker jacket, I always seemed to get treated a little better when wearing it, and noticed a boat shed over the left. I surreptitiously climbed a fence, quickly changed into my broad-checked Ralph Lauren bathing trunks under a tree next to the shed and dove in the lake. It was lovely, cool and clear, and I could swim out to a floating raft not far off. No one was in the water as I moved about, staring at the distant sailboats and surrounding peaks. After about fifteen minutes of this I came back to shore, quickly changed and went up the path to the bus stop. My head was clear as I met Susanne Neubauer, the curator of the exhibition.

We had a coffee in the area above the museum level, the eighth floor of this steel, glass, iron and mechanism-heavy architectural statement and Ms. Neubauer explained how the museum likes to feature career surveys of young, promising artists, and it is hard to find ones that can fill up the series of large rooms that constitute the temporary galleries of the space. Someone that does films and projections can cover a lot of space, she said. This was a great, unguarded way to talk about her choices, which of the past shows, in the painting category, included the redoubtable Anton Henning. When I told her of my interest in Josephsohn, she said she was surprised because these days everyone seems only interested in what’s new. Well. There it is, the sign of the times.

Walking through the exhibition again we discussed the show as I took copious, useful notes. Jun had done a fill-the room-with-a-bunch-of-the-same-stuff installation of chrome globes and replicas of consumer objects on the ceiling, but it was a very standard experience. Jun is a very good artist but was simply hitting the marks here, I thought. He had done two small magic lanterns that spun around showing shadows of the earth’s landmasses along with projections of moving imagery of boats on the Mekong that was a lovely piece. Mostly, I have to admit, I just liked walking through the show with Susanne Neubauer, who I had to make a conscious effort not to stand too close to.

On my way back to St. Gallen, I got off the train in Zurich, to attend the opening of that city’s art season. This Friday night segment of it took place in a converted brewery building that had four floors of galleries and the Migros Museum of Contemporary art,
Migros being one of the wondrous Swiss supermarket chains that has helped put extra weight on me this summer. I didn’t particularly like anything in the building but felt generous enough towards the general ambience. At de Pury and Luxembourg there was Jimmie Durham exhibition, which was mostly theatrical, as he was an artist that comes from a performance background. The most striking piece was a Volkswagen beetle with a boulder that looked like it had fallen on it. The white cube is just what it is; there is no way around it. This is very old news to just about every artist but me.

Though the gallery space as a phenomenon and frame was first exhaustively isolated by Brian O’Doherty, in his famous series of Artforum essays, the consciousness of context has to be given to Duchamp, who seems to me to be the Frank Sinatra of art. Sinatra famously said that as a singer his voice wasn’t his instrument, the microphone was his instrument. The singer, like the artist, like the actor, has entered the age of amplification. This new arena demands elegance, the ability to choose the defining gesture, nuance, figure, intonation, absence, etc. Any honest art teacher is obligated to tell his or her students that the gallery space, extrapolated to elsewhere, virtual space, the larger culture, etc. is their canvas. My attraction to Josephsohn came in part because of his definition of traditional sculpture as something with limited expressive possibilities. But, of course in his hands, that was not the case. I am attracted to abstract painting for similar reasons, its limitations. The same way that television sitcoms are interesting, there is specific form that can be only broken out of at one’s peril, it mostly needs the proscenium and the laugh track. I saw one in Cambodia about four years ago, with a family sitting around on the floor of a traditional aboveground grass hut. They looked like they were insulting each other and there was a laugh track. The Cambodians around me in the restaurant, where the television was, seemed to love it. This is a roundabout way of stating why I cannot work without the traditional rectangular stretcher.

I ran into Bruno Jakob, an artist I knew from New York, and Pham Ngoc Duong, whom I had spent time with in Hanoi almost a year ago now, at the beginning of this year away. He was with his French wife and had an exhibition across the street. After I found the show, I pressed the gallerist to look up my Vietnam writing that was available online. I took the train back, and it as the end of a long day, where I had happily made up my mind about a lot of things. I wasn’t going to go to Berlin, or Kassel for Documenta, or Munster for the important sculpture exhibition, or Venice for the Biennale. It would cost a bunch of money that I would rather hold on to than waste it rushing breathlessly, taking trains full of backpackers drinking beer and staying in strange B&B’s, to look at more contemporary art.

I have spent good part of the year writing about the art of others and I wanted to continue to follow the rather confusing path my present work is creating for me and I want to go swimming as many afternoons as possible. I was going to return to NYC a week early, on the 10 of September, two days after St. Gallens’ Museumnacht, where I will participate with an open studio. There are still opportunities to see things in Switzerland and I may still go to Geneva or somewhere else, but enough already with the traveling. Germany can wait.


James Erikson said...

Hi Joe,

I have a question about something you wrote in that great article on James Bishop in Art in America last month. I'm trying to understand some things about my own work and I know I've been anti-repetition my whole life whether or not my work shows that. If you feel like it and have a chance can you expand on this from your article?:

"The Paris-based painter Jerome Boutterin once characterized for me the difference between American and French painters as a contrast between the industrial and the artisanal. Americans, he observed, tend to define painting through production, and an artist's comprehension of painting is proven through repeated variations. French artists concentrate on how a painting is crafted and on the manner in which one goes about beginning. The French "artisanal" inclination has clearly influenced Bishop's oil paintings on canvas, judging by the three shown in Chicago."

I get the American part but I'm trying to understand the part about French artists' paintings being artisanal as opposed to industrial. Maybe I'm too American to figure it out myself. But I really want to understand for my own sake.

Thanks for your time (if you could just email me directly I'd appreciate it.)

James Erikson said...


My email address is