Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Lights! Lights!"

I took attendance at the first meeting of my class, and then we left on a small field trip from our Boylston Street classroom down to the Mills Gallery in the South End. Our mission was to see the Turner Prize Winning Work No. 227 by Martin Creed.

Anybody who reads the Globe or keeps up on the Arts scene should know already that Work No. 227 is subtitled: The Lights Going on and Off.

And the piece of art is just that. You can read about it more in one of the many articles, but the photo to the right (the original installation at the Tate in the UK,) should give you all you need to know.

I had gone into the gallery on the weekend before class to scope it out. I walked slowly through the empty gallery as the lights switched on and off. My wife stood by the entrance, perhaps wondering if blogging, combined with all of the research I had been doing for the class, had finally fried my brain.

As the song goes, "I felt noooothing." Not exactly, there is a strange effect where you find yourself trying to anticipate the switch. You are almost always wrong.

The class and I returned to talk about the "art" and what they felt about the exhibit, if anything.
I felt it was a good introduction to the course and the strange intersection of the arts with critics, audiences and society.

One of my students, when were talking about the worth, (if any,) of what we had just seen, said, "Well that's the Fifty Thousand Dollar Question, right?"

How right he was! Though he was just a little off. It is really the thirty thousand dollar question, as in Martin Creed won the Turner Prize of $30,000 dollars in 2001 for this work. He received the award from the Material Matriarch herself at the ceremony in 2002. Looks here as if Creed was getting the "kiss." Hope it turns out better for him than it did for Britney.

In 1913, a show opened at the Armory in New York City, and part of its purpose was to provide a a venue for artists to exhibit outside of the museum and major gallery system. Also, the Armory exhibit was being used as a way to showcase some of the newer painters and movements from Europe, as well as present some of the contemporary work of established European masters. The show was important for several reasons, but one of the more overlooked aspects of the show's success was the amazing way the creators played the public relations game.

Walter Kuhn, one the more prominent forces behind the show utilized his significant skills at promotion to build the show into a much anticipated event. Everything from the poster for the show, (the flag of the United States Revolution,) to the Sunday feature supplements in the New York Times profiling the artists was calculated for maximum exposure.

In one feature, readers were treated to a photo and a profile of the Duchamp brothers, a family of avant gard artists hanging around the yard.

The show opened with about thirteen galleries featuring works of Cezanne, Gaugin and the works of the more experimental cubists. You can take a virtual tour of the Armory Show at this excellent site here.

As the site mentions, despite all the work that was being shown, everything centered on Gallery I. In particular, one painting in Gallery I.

Marcel Duchamp of the avant gard Duchamps created a national frenzy over his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2. ( At Right. ) The critics were either gushing or groaning, with one calling the painting "An explosion in a shingle factory."

Numerous parodies followed, everything from Chuck Jones' Nude Duck Descending a Staircase to my favorite, a cartoon depicting a mob of surging transit riders fighting their way down to the subway. "The Rude Descending a Staircase," the caption reads.

Although the general public response was satirical, there is not doubt that the moment in art history had a lasting effect on our culture. The Cubist/Futurist paintings sold. In fact, Nude Descending a Staircase sold, sight unseen, for a lot of money. Department stores quickly, very quickly adapted the "cubist" look. And we still see it today.

But, as the culture quickly adopted Cubism, Marcel Duchamp quickly abandoned it. For those who thought his Nude was shocking or a fraud, I wonder what they thought of some of the work that followed closely on its shingled heels.

His "Readymades" (examples left) were the grandparents of Martin Creed's Work No 227. One masterpiece of this period is a snow shovel.Duchamp was quoted as resenting the old phrase "dumb as a painter," and it appeared that he wished to show his cleverness. But the question must be put to him as to whether he thought the inverse of "dumb as a painter" is "smart as a guy who labels a urinal 'fountain'?"

Currently the shovel is at Yale, the toilet is in a private collection and that bicycle wheel is actually a replica. Which reminds me, the Globe had an excellent Letter to the Editor regarding Creed's Work No. 227. The letter writer asked several great questions:

  • "For how much is the work insured?"
  • "If a thief breaks into the Mills Gallery, how much of the work must he steal to say that he has the original?"
  • "If the Mills Gallery burns down, is the masterpiece lost?

Perhaps the New Critierion said it best when doing a retrospective of the famouse Duchamp fracas:

Indeed, to place the artist who painted the Nude Descending a Staircase in the company of Braque and Picasso, never mind Matisse and Léger, is to define him as a minor figure. In the Paris avant-garde of the period before the First World War, Duchamp did not rank at all.

Only in America was he mistaken to be a major representative of the modernism that had been created by talents more robust than his. The truth is, the sensation which the Nude caused in New York in 1913 was more a reflection of our provincialism than of Duchamp’s originality. Yet who can doubt that the entire career of the Duchamp who is now so admired, so solemnly studied and so widely emulated—the Duchamp ofThe Large Glass, the “Readymades,” and the enigmatic notes and clues that accompany them—was determined by this early episode in mistaken identity? For that episode and the publicity it generated placed upon Duchamp’s every subsequent artistic effort an obligation to come up with something that would prove to be equally provocative and controversial.


Today, nearly eighty years after Duchamp perpetrated this bluff on the New York art world, his anti-art legacy fills our museums and in some other quarters, too— the academy and the media—commands an esteem that is often greater than any enjoyed by works of art created by more traditional means. All of which is a reminder, if we still need one, that the conventions of this anti-art legacy have themselves now come to constitute an academy of sorts.


Novel said...

Ah, but I love the Duchamp and the lights going on and off just sounds silly (though I have not seen it). There is something to be said for putting paint on canvas at all. I have trouble with Rothko as well. Is it really just then a question of taste (not as in good or bad taste)?

Thomas Garvey said...

Good post, Art - particularly the takedown of Duchamp and his readymades (you're really working that New Criterion subscription!). I think the best thing to do about the Creed exhibit, however, is simply to complain to the BCA about it. The Mills has been "the gap" at the BCA for far too long - I used to blame curator Laura Donaldson for this, but she was let go last spring, and now I believe there's a "visual arts manager" handing the space out to more "diverse" curators. If anything, however, the Creed show is a step down from the already-low Donaldson standard. In the end, Creed is just a friendly careerist without any new ideas; it's up to the arts establishment to stop rewarding people like him with shows and acclaim. And they won't do that unless the public makes more noise.

Art said...

Hi Novel,

I like the cubist nudes of Duchamp as well.

And there is something about the lights going on and off that is just plain silly, (in a good way.)

When my class first arrived at the gallery, the very first response was laughter. Everybody laughed.

I think Thomas Garvey said it best, Creed is a good-natured and "friendly careerist."

My post was more to show that this is really nothing new, except for, possibly, the idea that there is no object.

The one quote of Creed's that interested me, out of all that I read, was his statement that there is too much clutter in the world and that making another painting or another sculpture just adds to the clutter of the world. He said that Work No: 227 was his attempt to get as close as he could to nothing, but still having something.

But this tells me a lot about him. I do not, for instance, consider great works of art, or even great design, clutter. I suddenly envisioned Creed as a Professional Organizer who is consulting with Museums on how to clean up their space and get a better flow to the areas.

In a very, very short lived television series, starring a Post Seinfeld Michael Richards, there was an episode in which his private detective got into a cult of "minimilization." Slowly he started minimilizing his life to the point where he didn't even have a desk at work.