Posts Tagged ‘visual art’

I first saw a substantial exhibition of Jim Turrell’s work in the late 1980’s at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. I became an obsessive fan of his work on that day.

I remember vividly the piece that turned me into a Turrell follower. I walked down a darkened hallway and turned to my right. A couple of people were standing in a room but otherwise I was alone. At the far end of the room was what looked like a glowing painting whose color shifted from red to blue across the length of the panel. I could not see any lighting that would explain the intense glow of the painting. Perhaps it was painted on a translucent plastic sheet and backlit. I did not know.

When the other visitors left the room I sat down on the floor against the rear wall and in silence I experienced the “painting”. After perhaps 5 minutes, I was unable to determine exactly what I was looking at. So, I approached it. The closer I got to the piece the more confused I was about what I was seeing. I walked up, within inches, of the piece and reached toward it. To my surprise, I was able to place my hand within the space of the piece and to realize that it was neither a canvas nor a translucent panel. This was not a painting at all. It was a cutout in the wall, lit from within the open space by a set of florescent tubes. My senses said it was solid; reality said it was nothing but light.

This was not a “well-lit” piece, it was a well-lit “nothing”. It was nothing become something through a sophisticated use of geometry, light, and perception. And… the material substance of the piece, its medium, was neither geometry nor light alone. It’s “medium” was the interplay of light and perception, the interplay of stimulus and neural response. It’s medium could not even exist were it not for light, vision, and neuroscience. At its most base level the piece could not exist without billions upon billions of bio-chemical synaptic conductance changes. That can be said of almost anything, but in this case, without that brain activity, the piece would have been, seriously, nothing. That was the late 1980s.

Fast forward to July 2013. Nearly 25 years have passed since that day I first experienced Jim Turrell. In the interim the magnum opus, Rodin Crater, has moved many tons of Earth closer to Turrell’s ultimate vision. His fame has grown exponentially. One no longer has the privilege of simply walking directly up to his pieces and placing a hand within. In fact, unless one forks over $25.00 per visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his work is rarely even accessible.

It is the general inability to see collections of Turrell’s work that makes the LACMA show so significant. You might gather that I’m disappointed at the museum’s elitist view of the show whereby they have priced a lot of visitors out of the market and financially prohibited many would be Turrell enthusiasts from even seeing his work. Then again, I’m that free market capitalist dude that keeps saying we should just let the market work, so I’m being my own sort of elitist jerk for complaining. If the market will bear $25.00, so be it. But, for what it’s worth I think it does Turrell and the museum a disservice by charging what they do.

Let’s set aside the $75 that it cost for me and my 2 companions to get in. We did it. We saw the show. So, free market economics says that if I think the price is a problem we are part of it. Onward.

The LACMA Turrell Retrospective consists of 14 spaces and a “contraption”. The latter is a full body immersive experience that is booked solid for the rest of 2013, no doubt by patrons to whom $25.00 is the least of their worries. So, I did not get to see it. The 14 spaces are prints, 2 projections, a series of holograms, several spaces and corner constructions, a video and documentary exhibit on Turrell’s Skyspaces, models, and a documentary and photographic exhibit on Rodin Crater. All in all, it was a comprehensive show that provides a fabulous introduction to every aspect of Turrell’s ouerve.

Since I began by commenting on a light-painting, it should not be a surprise that my 2 personal favorite pieces are “Raemer, Pink, White” of 1969 and the 1992 piece “St. Elmo’s Breath”. Both of these pieces are similar in that they blur the distinction between physicality and evanescence. One must spend time with these works. When you do, they are powerfully emotional. Unfortunately, and I must say that I found this truly rude, the show was so busy that after 5 minutes of viewing pieces who’s signage specifically says to view for “5 minutes MINIMUM”, the security guards kicked us out of one of these spaces to make room for the waiting visitors. So, gone are the days of the 80s when I could “sit with a Turrell” for the time necessary to gain a full emotional response.

In my second part of this post I will describe much more of Turrell’s aesthetic and what I like about it. For now, let me just say that LACMA has staged a breathtaking overview of  Turrell’s work; one that demonstrates the breath of his art, the depth of his mind, and his devotion to showing us how to more intensely, more lovingly, perceive our world. Even at $25.00 per person it’s a must see show!


Mark Rothko was born in 1903 in Dvinsk, in the province of Vitebsk, in Russia (This is actually now in Latvia) but spent his school years, beginning in 1913 and ending at our very own Lincoln High School, here in Portland Oregon. He was also an early member of our Jewish Community here and was an active participant at the Jewish Community Center. Rothko left Portland to attend Yale (which he found too “WASPish” and racist) and, though he left that school after a couple of years he chose to stay back east and not to return to Portland. It is in New York (where else?) that he established himself, partly at the New School, partly just because that was the largest center of American art (though as a California kid I always want to dispute that). He became one of the greatest and most celebrated painters of the 20th century and one of my own personal favorite artists.

The great painter died in February of 1970 but February of 2012 brings him back to Portland in spirit. Because Rothko is one of my favorite artists, because we share a connection to the Portland “art scene”, because I will soon have the opportunity to meet his family, and because (to my mind) the Portland Art museum’s upcoming Rothko Retrospective is one of the most significant modern art events in the Pacific Northwest, I will be blogging about Rothko on several occasions over the next month, or so.

Here is some of what you can look forward to. (1) I’ll discuss my opinions about the role of Nietzsche’s philosophy in Rothko’s work. (2) I’ll try to make my case, to my friends who don’t like 20th century abstraction, about why I love Rothko and why that love is consistent with my personal philosophy of art. (3) I’ll share my experiences at Rothko Chapel in Houston and the personal significance of having taken my young nieces and nephews (now, long since grown) to experience that space. (4) I’ll share my upcoming  experience when I am blessed with the chance to meet the Rothko family. (5) I’ll tell you about the experience of spending an extended time sitting alone in DC with Duncan Philips collection of Rothko paintings. (6) I’ll likely ramble on (and probably not always accurately) about aesthetics, spirituality, color theory, and space. (7) I’ll tell you what I think when I see the PAM show. And, (8) God only know what else will pop up. One thing that I won’t discuss is what happened on February 25th, 1970. That is  the domain of psychologists (of which I am surely not one), philosophers (of which you all know I am a rank amateur), and those who knew Mr. Rothko personally (sadly, not me).

I was 10 years old when Mark Rothko died. But, I have deep acquaintance with his work through my art school education, the luck of having Rothko Chapel in my wife’s home town, and the shared love that my aunt Joey and uncle Mel have for his work [Oh yeah Aunt Joey… Item number 9 will probably discuss why Rothko’s work is powerful enough to make an art lover cry 🙂 ]. For those reasons and others, Mark Rothko is a great influence on me. In the upcoming posts, I hope to help you understand why.

Stay tuned!

Bill Viola is among the leading video artists in the world. Some would say he is “arguably THE leading” video artist but I simply can’t accept the word “arguably”. When one thinks of video art, perhaps Nam June Paik, or Ed Emshwiller, or Kit Galloway, or Dan Sandin may come to mind. Paik may even be a contender, or even the winner, as best known among them. But to my mind, the work of no one who has ever touched a video camera can compare with the magnitude of the work of Bill Viola. Bill’s work is unique within the discipline of video art. Sometimes the pieces that Bill has created in the last decade or two are referred to as “moving paintings”. To my knowledge, no one creates anything like Bill’s work and no one uses video in a manner so emotive and so painterly. For this reason, I am more than mildly excited that Bill is not only among the 2011 Praemium Imperiale Laureates, but is the Praemium Imperiale Laureate in PAINTING!

Bill Viola’s work has been shown on virtually every continent. He has received awards from  institutions as diverse as art institutes and MIT. But leave it to Japan, where the aesthetics of emotion, subtlety, and sensitivity in art are most respected, to finally recognize the true underpinning of his work – Bill Viola is a PAINTER!

I first met Bill Viola in 1979 or 1980 thanks to the CalArts School of Film and Video and to Mr. “Expanded Cinema” himself, Gene Youngblood. Before any of us had color TVs (okay, a slight exaggeration, but only just) Gene was predicting the future of the moving image and the eventual merging of media technologies. Gene wasn’t always exactly correct, but he certainly was closer than almost anyone else. He predicted that we’d all one day have cable (or satellite) television and that it and computers would one day merge. He really is an amazing man. Besides, how many people do I know who actually knew (well) both Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand! But, I digress. My point is simply that Gene knew, back in the 1970’s, that Bill Viola would lead that pack. That is why Gene would regularly invite Bill to speak in his classes, and to show his work. To this very day, Bill’s video “Hatsu Yume” is my favorite of his earlier pieces; not because it is visually stunning (which it is), or because it is brilliantly communicative (which it is), or because he got to do it on a quite impressive grant from Sony (which he did), but because I remember sitting on the floor in class watching Bill spend inordinate minutes adjusting the television on which we were to watch the tape. Like everything about Bill Viola, it had to be both technically and visually perfect.

I never gave up on following the work of Bill Viola. I saw it in museums and I remember one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen in an LA art museum in the 80’s. I remember the first time I was transfixed by “He Weeps for You” and the first time I sat in “The Room for Saint John of the Cross“. But nothing prepared me for the visual experience that finally turned Bill from my “favorite video artist” to my favorite artist in any medium. That experience came at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles where Bill showed the body of work collectively known as “The Passions“. It was at that show where I learned that video could be so emotional and so passionate that it’s impossible to avoid tears. It was at that show where I saw that video could be quintessentially painterly. And, it was at that show where I experienced my favorite of his pieces, and my favorite work of visual art: the “Five Angels for the Millenium“. In fact, On February 17, 2003, I posted this (which I can’t believe is still there!) to the Getty Center Website: “I was in awe. I’ve seen every piece of Viola’s since the 70’s when he’d come to lecture at Gene Youngblood’s video art classes. When I saw The Greeting I thought that Viola had reached the zenith of his career. But I was wrong. Silent Mountain still resonates in me many days after seeing it. And if Silent Mountain resonates, then I don’t even know what to call the feeling that Five Angels for the Millennium left me with! Transcendence maybe. The joy of knowing that man can be uplifted. Needless to say, I love this show.” To this day, I stand by that reaction.

So I have to share just one more non sequitur. I had very little time to see the Getty show in 2003. I got to the center at exactly the time that the show was to open,  on the first day of the show. The bad news is that they were opening the show 2 hours late because the first 2 hours were devoted to a press tour. The good news, and amazing blessing, is that when I told someone in the gift shop that I’d studied with Bill, she took me up to the gallery and let me in to the press event.  Yes, I had only 2 hours to see the show. But much of those 2 hours was spent getting a private tour with Bill. So, perhaps those 5 angels like me as much as I liked them!

Now, all of these stories bring me back to my original motivation for writing this post. The work of Bill Viola has been a part of my personal aesthetic for most of my adult life. I’m sure that he has no idea who I am. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the pride I take in recognizing his genius over 30 years ago; the joy I take in watching the body of work that I respected back then grow into one of the most visually amazing bodies of work in western art culture; and the growth that I, myself, have received from studying with Bill, following his work, and making the moving image and Bill’s “moving Paintings” a part of my own process of self-examination and my understanding of aesthetics, emotion, and the world.

Congratulations Bill!