Make it new? Conversations about abstract art at The Clark

I visited The Clark in Williamstown, MA this past Saturday. The reason for the visit was a symposium featuring artists talk about the current exhibition of abstract art at The Clark titled Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975. I didn’t get a chance to see the exhibition but I was happy to walk through the gorgeous new addition by Tadao Ando and enjoy three stimulating conversations.

The symposium brought together distinguished artists and writers to share and reflect on their thoughts about abstract art and the history of abstract art as represented in the exhibition. For this blog post I just wanted to highlight some of the discussion that I found interesting and show some examples of the artists’ work.

Conversation #1: Poet and critic Vincent Katz and artist Brice Marden

In this discussion a couple themes emerged that were carried through the other conversations – the issue of titles for abstract works, and the idea of creating “difficult” art. When it comes to naming work, Marden said he was more romantic about it than some. The Ab Ex ethos would be more inclined to simply name the piece “Untitled” or a number.

Brice Marden, Study for the Muses (Hydra Version), 1991-1997

Marden elaborated on the tension between abstract art and realism that he experienced in the 1960s. He described it as a battle over which style of art was more valid and described himself as a “vehement abstractionist.” In the end the battle was lost, since abstract and realist art are both considered valid today. Or as other artists commented, today we have a hybridity of styles, form, and content.

When Katz pushed Marden to explain “vehement abstractionist” Marden responded by saying that it had to do with how much the artist led the viewer and that realism does it by providing a convenient reference. He explained that it used to be that Norman Rockwell was the devil, and now no one gets too riled up about Norman Rockwell. Using Jasper Johns “Target” as an example, Marden went on to explain that one of the main concerns for abstract artists in the ’60s was the question “What’s real?”. Focusing on the divide between real and purely abstract, Marden commented that illusionism had no place in abstract art. He pointed out that in abstract expressionism the little things matter a lot: if there are overlapping planes, the exact positioning of the lines, etc. Today, in contrast, it is hard to tell what matters.

Conversation #2: Artists Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon:

Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon in conversation at The Clark on Sept. 6, 2014.

Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon in conversation at The Clark on Sept. 6, 2014.

Kim and Ligon exchanged friendly banter as they discussed works of art that particularly appealed to them. These included selections by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt (poorly reproduced above), and On Kawara. The artists also brought and talked about examples of their own work.

Both artists talked about where they begin works of art – for Ligon it was text, for Kim it seemed to be visual experiences found in daily life mixed with a desire to create abstract color-focused paintings. Ligon talked about choosing texts and how he uses text to get to abstraction, that the words become difficult to read, but they are still meaningful, and that ultimately they drive many decisions about how the work will turn out.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (Conclusion), 2004

Kim talked about the titles of his works, his undergraduate education as an English major when he studied 19th century poetry and aspired to be a poet, as well as visits to the Rothko Chapel, and how “time is so strange…in general.” I found it incredibly helpful to hear Kim talk about his process in creating his paintings of the night sky as seen from the city. He explained some of his doubts in creating the works and how input from other artists like Ligon really affect his decisions.

Conversation #3: Artists Amy Sillman and Thomas Eggerer

Both artists are currently faculty at Bard. Since Eggerer hails from Germany, his perspective on the abstract expressionists was very interesting and very different from the American artists. The Germans it seems find the machismo and expressiveness of ab ex a little embarrassing. Instead of looking towards De Kooning or Pollock for leadership or inspiration, the German artists Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter led the way. In this conversation I learned more about Eggerer’s work than Sillman’s, but got the impression from her probing and easy way of talking that Sillman is probably an amazing teacher.

Thomas Eggerer, The Privilege of the Roof, 2004

Eggerer declared himself “more than just a happy figure painter,” and Sillman admitted, “I’m rather hostile toward pictures.” The fact that both are looking at and creating art from two different perspectives and attitudes was very clear, but also made for an entertaining dialogue.

With the artists featured in these discussions we got to see the relationship between abstract and realist art as it exists today – not completely at odds, but firmly rooted in separate genealogies. Overall an interesting symposium that made me think and laugh a bit. The weather was stormy throughout the day but on the way home to Fitchburg, my mom and I saw an amazing full rainbow. Here’s a pic of one from Chicopee, MA.

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Fitchburg Art Museum

This was my first visit to the Fitchburg Art Museum in a long time. I grew up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and remember visiting the museum on class trips and for art studio classes. It was the first museum that I spent much time at. I also completed a summer internship at the museum during my undergraduate years. It is a small museum with an encyclopedic look at art history. The galleries on the first  floor consist of Asian art, South American art, Greek and Roman art, and then in a separate space Egyptian art. Much of the art is on loan from the Sackler Museum in Washington D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the the Harvard affiliated Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Dancing Ganesha, India, 900-1000 AD, sandstone, Fitchburg Art Museum. Photograph by Tad Suiter.

Dancing Ganesha, India, 900-1000 AD, sandstone, Fitchburg Art Museum. Photograph by Tad Suiter.

Also on the first floor is the Community Gallery – a hallway space reserved for art created by students. The current exhibit consisted of papier-mâché dogs designed to reflect the art of famous artists. My favorite was the Jim Dine dog by Daphne Wong.  Each work also featured an artists statement and in Wong’s we learn that her inspiration was Dine’s Valentine paintings and Five Feet of Colorful Tools. I like the mix of hearts, pastels, and tools.

Upstairs, the main exhibition was Jeffu Warmouth: NO MORE FUNNY STUFF.

Dueling Banjo and exhibit text for Jeffu Warmouth show. Photo by Tad Suiter.

Dueling Banjo and exhibit text for Jeffu Warmouth show. Photo by Tad Suiter.

The show closed on 6/1 and if the day before it closed was any judge of attendance there might have been a couple people that got out to see it on its last day. Warmouth is an artist from New England who teaches at Fitchburg State College. Much of the work here was video and installation based. Some highlights for me included an installation of competing fast food chains “JeffuBurger” and “JFC”. At JeffuBurger I ordered the Massachusetts burger which consisted of a meat patty shaped like the state, topped with baked beans, cranberry sauce, and Boston creme. I then got to watch Jeffu take a bite.

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JeffuBurger – Massachusetts burger

Taking up a whole wall was a grocery store installation of boxes and cans, each with a custom label featuring a pun or abstract idea. There was much to read and look at here, and even later I find enjoyment in ones that I missed at first.

Jeffu Warmouth groceries

Jeffu Warmouth groceries

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Jeffu Warmouth groceries

Most all of the labels for the exhibit and throughout the museum were available in English and Spanish which I thought was interesting and a sign that the museum is trying to accommodate and engage with the Spanish-speaking demographic in Fitchburg. The museum worked with a class at Fitchburg State to create some interactives. My husband Tad enjoyed stretching his sketching skills.

The next gallery featured all video installations. A couple were video game influenced. My favorite was a set up of four TV monitors each with a Jeffu face in them. They would randomly start screaming.

The last room we went in was showing videos created by Jeffu. They were short films featuring vegetable (and some fruit) puppetry. These were funny and reminded me of the Food Party videos Thu Tran does on YouTube.

After leaving the Jeffu exhibit we checked out the photography exhibition “Building a Collection: Photography at the Fitchburg Art Museum.” This exhibit included some spectacular photographs including images by Harold Edgerton, Kenro Izu, Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles Sheeler’s camera case.

Overall, definitely a fun museum experience with a wide array of art from different cultures and time periods. I didn’t talk about the Egyptian art much in this post, but there were a few interactives we really enjoyed. These included a royal thrown that visitors are encouraged to sit on and a chance to interview for a job in Ancient Egypt. Also there were many painted panels of ancient tombs by Joseph Lindon Smith that were interesting. We flew through the African art which is located sort of awkwardly on a sky bridge that connects the two main buildings. I’m looking forward to see what comes next for the Fitchburg Art Museum.