July 8th, 2010 at 1:03 am
Visiting a temple of holy Minimalism
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Driving back from northern Vermont this week, I decided to take a detour and see Mass MoCA. I have never been there before, and after 11 years of its existence, I figured it was time to visit. North Adams is not far from where I grew up, and it was one of the stops along my father’s business routes.
It’s weird, going to these vast art venues. I always have inappropriate responses. I know I’m supposed to be immersed in the spectacle, and be grateful that such places exist. But my first impression was of great sadness. Here was a factory, a place where Americans had good jobs making things. It grew up as a textile printing factory, and then an electrical components manufacturer. At one time, more than 5000 people worked there. By the 1980s, Sprague Electronics had trouble competing with overseas factories – or so the official history reads. But the unwritten stories of failed American factories tend to be much more complex: new managements shutter facilities that don’t offer sufficient return on investment; militant unions demand pay scales that render whole regions uncompetitive, owners fail to reinvest in capital equipment; research and development is underfunded; mismanagement undercuts sales. And so good jobs vanish into thin air. The factory shut down in 1985. Mass MoCA is designed to reinvigorate the local economy, it’s true, but the museum represents the ongoing shift from production to consumption in the American economy. I couldn’t help thinking of all that loss as I strolled about Mass MoCA’s vast white halls, now so respectfully silent.
The big show on the first floor was by Petah Coyne. Coyne is famous for using stuffed animals and artificial flowers, along with wire, wax, and who knows what-all. In one large room, five or six large stuffed-bird & fake flower sculptures filled the space. The central device was birds being engulfed by flowers, which is an interesting image – poetic, contradictory, and ultimately inexplicable.
This is big-money art. These massive object/installations are destined for the highest levels of the international art marketplace. Coyne could not effectively make these constructions herself. She needs an atelier – a workshop, if you will – to make them. (I suspect she started out working alone, but she now has a crew of assistants. See http://ameliaishmael.com/read/articles/petah_coyne.html for a discussion about her fabrication methods.) Coyne runs a labor-based operation, even though the materials and techniques are not traditional to either sculpture or craft. Still, the objects are very physical and labor-intensive. The accumulation of thousands of waxy flowers or hundreds of layers of wire give Coyne’s work much of its power.
Physicality and labor-intensity. These are craft virtues, are they not? I discern precisely the same attributes in a Richard Scott Newman demi-lune table or a Pat Flynn nail brooch. So… when do Newman and Flynn get invited to the party?
Mass MoCA also has three floors of wall “drawings” by Sol Lewitt. Lewitt is valorized as the “father of conceptual art,” according to the lady giving the interpretive tour. This claim was made because Lewitt championed the idea that ideas should be the basis of art-making. His wall drawings actually consist of a carefully drafted set of instructions, so the artist’s hand can be removed entirely from the process. At Mass MoCA, the primacy of idea and the disengagement of the artist from actual fabrication are held up as great achievements of 20th-century art. Apparently, Minimalism still rules in North Adams.
Two qualities struck me about the Lewitt works. First, they were all very well made. They reminded me of nothing so much as a coloring book done by an extremely anal-retentive child. Super-sharp edges; perfectly uniform paint surfaces on the drywall; lines of precise widths. It was… craft! I got the impression that Lewitt was a distant god, and his worshippers express their devotion by drawing with great exactitude. So, I started thinking of making a really BAD Lewitt – bungling the dimensions, blurring the edges, working on a crappy old wall with screw holes and Victorian-era moldings. Funny how the presence of too much control just makes me want to fuck things up. (And I’m a control freak!!) But I was good – I didn’t touch anything, even though the temptation was severe. I put my thumbprint on an Ad Reinhardt painting once, but that’s another story…
Secondly, all the Lewitt drawings seen in repetition began to look decorative. Especially the later works, which are actually paintings, have festive colors and almost-psychedelic patterns. But even the early works started to look like very tasteful, very restrained wallpaper. I doubt that was his intention, but the effect was unmistakable. Hmm. Think of it: Sol Lewitt, decorative artist.
Oh, well. There I was at a temple of holy Minimalism, thinking irrelevant thoughts. I can’t help it.
To make matters worse, I didn’t even eat lunch in North Adams. No boost for the local economy from me. I drove on to Pitttsfield, and had a burger there.