Up All Night With Frank Lloyd Wright

“Architects may come
Architects may go
and never change your point of view.
When I run dry
I stop awhile
and think of you.”*

Once, back in the day, I came home from work on a Friday evening and put that Simon & Garfunkel song on. Then, I hit the repeat button. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” played all weekend, non-stop, until I had to go to work on Monday. Even while I slept.

Such was my life under the spell of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The mark of genius. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “symbol” (the red square) and his signature on the corner of one of his Drawings. “The color red is invincible. It is the color not only of blood-it is the color of creation. It is the only life-giving color in nature…1” Click any photo for full size.

I guess I hoped that playing this unique song from “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with it’s unusual marriage of Brazilian rhythm and a string quartet under the ethereal vocals, would lend a different perspective on Wright and his work.

In the years after my father passed, Wright, became an all encompassing figure to me, something I didn’t realize until a German Architect I was dating pointed it out to me. She might have been (W)right. Looking back, though, I think it was the discovery of, and the falling in to, the seemingly bottomless pit of creativity that was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the enigma and charisma of the man, his ideas and his accomplishments (including the countless buildings he designed that were never built, or that were built and since lost). This passion took many forms in my life at the time. Along the way, I learned that the man was a great Artist in other ways beyond Architecture- as a draughtsman and, in my opinion, as a writer. His writings often marry Art & Architecture and philosophy. He was, also, something of a “teacher,” or model, later in his life at his Taliesen Fellowship. His “teaching” seems to have greatly influenced some, and left others unhappy. Beyond all of this work, his personal life? Well…as I’ve said previously about others…is not for me to judge. My interest in is the Art, his creative ideas and the work.

Speaking of teaching & learning…Just outside MoMA’s show, in “The People’s Study,” the public was invited to create and experiment with a range of materials, including blocks, which Wright, himself, created with as a child. Along the windows, they were invited to design their own “Broadacre City,” Wright’s concept for urban/suburban development.

MoMA’s show, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is a major event, honoring two major events.  First, it opened on June 12th, four days after Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday. Second, it marks the joint acquisition by MoMA and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library of Columbia University of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives. It’s a fascinating show, though, of course, it’s a mere sliver of the massive Archive that will keep scholars busy for decades Some of the early fruits of their labors were on view, particularly in short videos on display in each gallery where curators spoke of some of the highlights they’ve found so far. Parts of Wright’s Archives have been known to me through earlier shows at MoMA and the Guggenheim, and through books, most notably “In His Renderings,” the final volume of  the landmark 12 volume box set published by A.D.A Edita Tokyo in 1984, right in the middle of my Wright obsession2. The 200 drawings “In His Renderings” included made the case for Wright’s drawings being works of Art in themselves, and a good many of them are in MoMA’s show, which totals about 450 items. Indeed, they are right at home on the walls of the great museum.

The show is made up of galleries devoted to individual projects and galleries devoted to aspects of his work. Of course, given his career lasted over 60 years, only selected Wright projects are here and they range from key buildings, like the “Imperial Hotel,” 1923, to some much less well known, like his design for the “Rosenwald School” “for Negro Children,” 1928, as it was labelled, as well as galleries devoted to Wright’s Ornamentation (an almost completely lost art in today’s Architecture), Urban projects, the role of landscaping in his projects, and built, and (mostly) unbuilt projects for NYC. There is also a gallery showing 2 rare videos of Frank Lloyd Wright- one an infamous interview with Mike Wallace in 1957, the other an appearance on the game show, “What’s My Line.” The long central, first gallery includes a range of Drawings, many masterpieces- both as Architecture and as Artworks, from a wide range of periods of Wright’s career, including the “Winslow House,” 1893, “Unity Temple,” 1908, “Fallingwater,”1935, and the “Marin County Civic Center,” which opened in 1962.

Frank Lloyd Wright seen at the end of the first gallery as he’s interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1957, at age 90. Still sharp as a tack.

When Wright burst on the scene, after leaving his employer & mentor, the great Louis Sullivan3, the “Father of the Skyscraper,” (who he held in such high esteem, he referred to him as “Lieber Meister,” German for “Dear Master”), and began his own practice, there was no such thing as a truly “American” style of Architecture.

Louis Sullivan’s “Bayard-Condict Building,” 1898, on Bleecker & Crosby Streets, his only NYC building, was one of the first steel skeleton skyscrapers in NYC. As the columns between the windows rise, they lead to the parapet decorated with angels.

Even half-hidden by scaffolding the genius of Louis Sullivan’s ornament is impossible to miss, here on the entrance.

While Henry Hobson Richardson and Sullivan (both a bit under appreciated today), had taken steps towards creating an American style, Wright completed it with the introduction of his Prairie Style in the first decade of the 20th Century, like the “Unity Temple,” 1908, in Oak Park, IL, below.

Rendering of “Unity Temple,” Oak Park, IL, 1908, which still stands, an example of his “Prairie Style,” with it’s low, land-hugging profile. Wright, who’s church was “Nature,” went on to design churches for many religions.

Off the central gallery, the first side gallery is devoted to Wright’s “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Incredibly, it was dedicated on September 1, 1923, the very day of the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake that killed 100,000 people and leveled almost every other structure in Tokyo, except for Wright’s Masterpiece, which he had designed to withstand such an event. Instant world-wide fame followed. The genius in it’s floating concrete foundation below was also abundant in the superhuman amount of creativity above it.

“Imperial Hotel,” 1923, cross section.

Wright designed the furniture, the windows, the lamps, the dishes- all of it. He created a massive building that was one unified composition from top to bottom, down to the smallest detail. I couldn’t get over it. Yet, the “Imperial Hotel,” was far from the only building he did this for. No other Wright structure has captured my fascination, and awe, more than the “Imperial Hotel” (which is saying something), perhaps because, though it was gigantic, so little of it remains- even in photographs, film or books (An amazing online collection of photos and relics of the “Imperial Hotel” I’ve seen is to be found here.). What is left teases the viewer to imagine the rest. I’ve tried to imagine walking around in it…what that must have looked like and felt like. It withstood what Nature (Wright capitalized it, since he said it was his “religion,” my inspiration for capitalizing “Art,” “Music,” “Painting,”etc.) threw at it, and World War II, but it couldn’t withstand the rising value of Tokyo real estate leading to it’s tragic demolition in 1958 after standing for a mere 45 years! The facade was saved and reconstructed at Japan’s Meiji Mura Outdoor Architectural Museum, a few pieces of furniture are in The Met (which also has one of the Urns that was out in front of the entrance), and other items are in collections elsewhere.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s First Symphony. The “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Imagine designing this, AND all the furniture, dishes, windows, lamps, and on an on. For my money, one of mankind’s supreme creative achievements. It’s so large it extends off the frame from across the street. Part of the entrance is barely visible to the right, center.

Fragments of the “Imperial Hotel.”  The two side chairs are on loan from The Met. The dishes are reproductions.

Wright’s other huge early masterpiece was Chicago’s “Midway Gardens,” 1914, an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex in the Hyde Park section. Again, Wright designed all of it, and once again, almost nothing remains. Either one of these two buildings would have been enough to secure his name, and his legend. “Midway Gardens” stood for FIFTEEN years. The loss of both is a cultural tragedy that will echo on through centuries to come.

Like a vision of the past through a misty glass. Rendering of “Midway Gardens,” 1913, Chicago. Another early lost masterpiece.

Represented in MoMA’s show by this “Block for Midway Gardens,” 1914. Remnants of it are extremely rare. Photos of, and more about “Midway Gardens” can be found here. (Scroll down.)

Gone forever was the chance for young Artists & Architects to experience and be directly influenced by them the way you only can from seeing Architecture, or Art, in person. Wright’s buildings require your presence in their space to fully appreciate them. He was fond of low corridors giving way to large open spaces, and this is just one of the experiences you can’t get from a book. Speaking of books, after one of my visits, I wandered into MoMA’s bookstore. A young couple next to me picked up a book on Wright and one said, “What did he build? Oh! He did the Guggenheim.” I thought everyone knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was. I don’t know if they went up to see the show or not, but I decided then and there to write this Post.

After these early masterpieces, Wright’s style evolved from the Prairie style, through the Mayan and Japanese influence seen in the “Imperial Hotel” and a number of houses he designed at the time, to his “Usonian”style of the mid-1930’s, to buildings beyond style, like the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” “Fallingwater,” and eventually, The “Guggenheim Museum.” They would all fall under the umbrella of “Organic Architecture.” The “Usonian” houses began around 1936, and have a style which brings these houses even closer to the land than the “Prairie Style” houses, being almost universally a single storey, while featuring simpler materials, which, Wright believed, would make them more affordable. Though more “popularly priced”, he still designed all the furniture for them as well, and the chair I once owned came from a “Usonain” house. These “Usonian” houses, along with his “Broadacre City,” were part of his vision for urban and suburban landscape design, called “Usonia,” as in “U.S.-onia.”

Rendering of the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” 1936. It’s innovations are everywhere from the dendriform columns in the great workspace that rise from 9 inch bases to 15 foot “lily-pad” tops (see below), to the design of the furniture to expedite cleaning, to the use of glass tubes to block out the “urban blight” outside while creating a soft light inside. A sideshow of Photos of this incredibly beautiful building are here.

No one believed Wright’s slender columns for the Johnson Wax HQ could support enough weight to be practical. So, he staged this demonstration and piled 60 TONS on top of one! Photographer unknown. 81 years later? They’re still standing tall.

The later masterpieces while unique to themselves, still remain true to Wright’s core beliefs. Herbert F. Johnson, president of the S.C. Johnson Company hired Wright to build his company’s corporate headquarters in 1936 in Racine, Wisconsin. The resulting landmark, above, is a sheer wonder- a cathedral of capitalism. Though they encountered some problems, Mr. Johnson was so pleased with Wright that he contracted him to build a research tower on the property and then to design a large house for himself, known as “Wingspread.”

Within the year, he, also, created what may be the most famous private house ever built. “Fallingwater,” for Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann’s department store.

Rendering of “Fallingwater,” 1935. Legend has it that Wright had put nothing on paper though his client, Edgar Kaufman, was on his way from the airport to see the design of his house. Wright had it all in his head and put it down on paper in time for Mr. Kaufman’s arrival. This is probably not that Drawing.

Perhaps nowhere in Art is there greater harmony of Art & Nature than there is in “Fallingwater,” which may make it Wright’s ultimate expression of his “Organic Architecture.” In it, the Artist strives to achieve the ultimate- create something worthy of a spectacular natural site, a work that seems to grow out of it, and be integral to it. Mr. Kaufmann was expecting the house to be sited across from the waterfall so he could enjoy looking at it. Instead, Wright put the house directly on top of it, centering the living room on a rock the family liked to picnic on.

As a result of all of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that later in his career he spoke defiantly about the Architects of the new “International Style,” with their bland, impersonal boxes of steel and glass, that are about as far from “Nature” as anything could be. Here in NYC, as in many other places, a casual look around reveals they’re already dated, and many (most? All?) are plain eyesores. One thing MoMA’s show reinforces is that Wright’s work has a way of not going out of fashion. Perhaps it’s because it’s so tightly integrated with it’s surroundings- with nature. It also helps that most of what he built and remains is out in nature, i.e. not in a City. Then again, perhaps it’s because his endless, unique, creativity serves to constantly inspire. Like the song says. For myself, my now long-standing passion for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright leaves me wondering if he is not the greatest Architect who ever lived. I’m lucky. I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Art or Artists. But if I did? That’s one statement I might actually make. Now, I’m content wondering.

“The tree that escaped the forest.” Like a tree, it looks different from every angle. Originally designed for Astor Place in Manhattan, after it was rejected, it was redesigned and became the only “skyscraper” Wright built during his lifetime, the “Price Tower” in, you guessed it- Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Speaking of “not being in the City,” though Wright has only one building in NYC, that’s not because he didn’t try. Though he loathed cities, particularly this one, he did. He designed many structures that he wanted to have built here but he was shot down by the powers that be every single time4! Only when he had a client powerful enough to push through his project did the Guggenheim get built. MoMA’s show serves as a reminder of this nightmare as it shows us some of the projects he envisioned for the City, along with an in-depth look at the Guggenheim’s coming to be. It, therefore, serves to remind us that the travails of that other brilliant Architect named “Frank,”…Gehry, has had getting projects built here are nothing new. To date. Mr. Gehry, who has tried to get countless plans built that would have transformed the City, to date has only two. Between Wright & Gehry? Ohhhh…the City we should have had.

Rendering of the “New York Sports Pavilion,” for Belmont Park, 1956 , another of the countless structures Wright designed for Manhattan that were never built.

As his only NYC building, the Guggenheim Museum it is still able to inspire with it’s incredibly bold vision almost 60 years on. It echoes the trees across 5th Avenue in Central Park as a way of bringing a hint of Nature across the street into the City. But, lesser known is the building as we see it now went through quite a metamorphosis on the way. Take a look at this-

The Guggenheim Museum underwent extensive design modifications between this model and the finished building. Looking at it from the 5th Avenue side, very little is the same besides the ramp/rotunda (though here it’s located on the East 89th Street corner, instead of the East 88th Street corner, to the right, as it was built), and the lower overhanging floor. Everything else is different.

This detail fascinates me. It shows Wright’s rarely seen original design for the roof, most notably the skylight over the famous rotunda. The variously sized circles make much more sense to the overall composition than the grid that’s up there now, since so much of the composition involves circles (right down to circles being etched on the sidewalk out front). Of course, the Guggenheim chose to ignore all of this when they put a square building behind it. I wonder why this design was not used. Nor were the surrounding small domes.

The rotunda is now on the right in this rendering, done to demonstrate how it would look in pink. Yes…pink! Still, along with the final color, so much about the building remained to be finalized even here.

The Guggenheim didn’t follow through on all of Wright’s ideas when completing the building (which may, or may not explain the current skylight). So, perhaps, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the Guggenheim was altered in the early 1990’s, terribly in my opinion. I was actively involved in trying to prevent it, and the modification of the Breuer Whitney Museum (now, unmodified, it’s The Met Breuer). To that end, in June, 1987, my letter was published in the New York Times-

My letter in the NY Times Op-Ed page opposing the & Guggenheim & Whitney modifications, June, 1987. I love the very fitting drawing they added.

“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long.”*

Today, are there ANY Architects who are also designing the dishes, rugs, windows, lamps & furniture for their buildings on a regular basis? Having owned an original Frank Lloyd Wright chair I can attest to both the ingenuity of the design (though “impractical” most people who saw it said, it’s 3 legs required you to sit with both feet on the floor, or fall off. Wright teaching proper posture), and to the fact that it was in itself a miniature work of Architecture. When I thought of Wright, I thought of Brahms, Mahler or Anton Bruckner (all of whom were alive during Wright’s lifetime) or his beloved Bach & Beethoven. Wright was building symphonies in the physical world. The extraordinary attention to detail in his work- down to even designing the napkin rings at “Midway Gardens,” is something akin to the musical structure of any of those Composer’s compositions, where every note plays a role in the whole. Wright creates a unified physical structure that is hard to find in any other Architect’s work- before or after. Music was the only analogy I could think of for what he had done. At least for me. I think he may have agreed- music was always central to him, particularly chamber music, which he would have weekly performances of at his Taliesin homes. It was hard for me to understand my fascination & obsession with all things Frank Lloyd Wright until I realized what he was doing was creating buildings the way Bach, Mahler or Bruckner created “edifices in sound.” Wright loved music and the connection is something that needs closer study.

Like Picasso, or Miles Davis, he was not one to stay in the same place for long. They are the only two other 20th Century Masters who had multiple unique “periods.” Wright’s style continually evolved, but it were always true to his principles- using nature as the supreme guide, building in harmony with the site, and building “organically.”

Approaching age 90, Wright unveiled one of his most daring ideas yet- “The Illinois,” perhaps better known as the “Mile High Skyscraper,” because that’s what it was- a mile tall. A number of Drawings related to it were on view at MoMA, five about 8 feet high each.

8 foot tall rendering of “The Illinois,” 1956. Wright’s “Mile High Skyscraper.” Designed to be made of concrete, some doubt it’s feasibility. It would have been FOUR times the height of the Empire State Building!

Interestingly, in one Drawing, the “Mile High” shares the sheet with extensive text. The curator’s video in the gallery says this drawing is his second “Autobiography,” to the book of that title. On it, Wright pays tribute to his influences, and proceeds to list some of his accomplishments. As a result, it’s perhaps the most fascinating drawing in the show. It’s something of a testament. It’s hard for me to look at the “Burj Khalifa” in Dubai and not think it’s Architect, Adrian Smith of S.O.M., owes a serious debt to “The Illinois.” It’s “only” 2,722 feet tall, though, half of the proposed height of “The Illinois.”

Wright’s “salutations,” list of accomplishments, and building stats on the top half of another 8 foot tall drawing of the “Mile High.”

One striking thing about Frank Lloyd Wright is that at the time of his death on April 9, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright was exactly half as old as his country. (He was 91, the country was 182 years old.) Remarkable. When Wright started in Architecture, working for Joseph Silsbee in 1872, he did so in a Chicago that was still digging out from the Great Fire the previous year. There were no skyscrapers until his “Lieber Meister” Sullivan began to create them 20 years later. When he passed away in 1959, one of his final masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum was about to open. Much had changed in the 87 years between. But, given that he stayed true to his core belief in “Organic Architecture,” (“building as nature builds,” he said), I’m not sure that Wright changed all that much as much as he evolved. As a result, in the final analysis, he showed us that his idea was infinitely pliable, and that creativity and imagination had a central role in it, something that seemed to go out of Architecture, increasingly, during that same period. While some of his greatest works are gone, his Archives contain an enormous wealth of materials that can bear witness to them, and the thousand or so projects he undertook (about 400 or so still stand). It was a lot for one life- even one that lasted 91 years.

Frank Lloyd Wright during the “Mike Wallace Interview,” 1957, near the age of 90, two years before he passed away.

“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
I can’t believe your song is gone so soon
I barely learned the tune
So soon, so soon”*

As I left this show, filled with that same, familiar, head-shaking amazement, I was reminded of a quote of Wright’s- “The scientist has marched in and taken the place of the poet. But one day somebody will find the solution to the problems of the world and remember, it will be a poet, not a scientist5.” Whether the world will listen to the next poet is a question that remains to be answered. In the meantime, with regard to this poet, there is much still to learn.

“Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is my NoteWorthy Show for September.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” by Paul Simon, which is, also, something of his farewell to Art Garfunkel as Garfunkel was about to leave to go to Mexico to shoot “Catch 22,” which marked the end of Simon & Garfunkel. Garfunkel majored in Architecture at Columbia, admired Wright, and suggested to Simon that he write a song about the Architect. Published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

On The Fence, #14,” the Stair way to Heaven Edition.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. Kliment Timiriazev
  2. Eight of the other eleven volumes are monographs dedicated to period of Wright’s career, the remaining 3 volumes contain preliminary studies, which I assume are part of his Archives. These books were the only way most of us could see these pieces of the Archives, except for occasional shows, until now.
  3. Controversy still surrounds whether he left or was fired by Sullivan for taking freelance commissions on the side.
  4. To read this very sorry tale, in detail, I highly recommend the book “Man About Town,” by Herbert Muschamp, who details Wright’s plans for Manhattan and efforts to overcome the powers that be. i.e Robert Moses.
  5.  As quoted in “The Star,” 1959, and “Morrow’s International Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations,” 1982, by Jonathon Green.

This Summer In “The Era of Rauschenberg”

Everyone thought it was a joke, the gallery owner included, in it’s debut in Rome. Now, the respected reviewer of a show of work by a 28 year old Artist at it’s second stop at the Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy, called it a “psychological mess.” But, he wasn’t done. After continuing in biting terms, the reviewer concluded that the work should be “thrown into the Arno (River).” Shortly thereafter, the Artist sent the reviewer a note that read, “I took your advice.” Saving five or six works to bring home to NYC, he threw the rest, discreetly, into the Arno, finding a spot where he wouldn’t be caught in the act, and doing so in a manner to prevent their re-surfacing1.

The Artist’s photos of his hanging works called “Feticci personal,” or “Personal fetishes,” displayed in his shows in Rome & Florence. One, left, shown hung on a bust. 9 of them shown hanging in a park, right. They seem to have disappeared since. Click any photo to view it full size.

His story continued…as the esteemed Calvin Tomkins tells it…

So branded an “Enfant Terrible,” “he had come back with two wicker trunks and five dollars in cash, and for a while that spring and summer he lived on the far edge of poverty. He found a loft on Fulton Street, near the fish market, a big attic space with twenty-foot ceilings but no heat or running water; the rent was fifteen dollars a month, but he talked the landlord into letting him have it for ten. A hose and bucket in the backyard served as his basin, and he bathed at friend’s apartments, sometimes surreptitiously, asking to use the bathroom and taking a lightning shower at the same time. His food budget was 15 cents a day, usually spent at Riker’s cafeteria, and supplemented by bananas he picked up on the United Fruit Company’s docks. Living that far downtown, he saw few other artists. Most of the New York artists lived in Greenwich Village then, or further uptown, and he could rarely afford the subway fare (still only a dime) to socialize.2” Shortly after, his NYC Dealer was not overly enthused about his latest paintings, so she dropped him.

So…You say you wanna be an Artist? Somehow, as bad as things got, he persevered when few would have.

44 years later, in 1997, his work filled Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum Building, spilled over to fill the Guggenheim Soho (it’s final show ever), the Ace Gallery downtown, and numerous other satellite shows in galleries around town simultaneously, in what was to my eyes at the time, and my mind since, a monumental and utterly overwhelming Retrospective, an effect not unlike seeing the incomparable Picasso Retrospective, which filled all of  MoMA in 1980, or the Rothko show at the Whitney in 1998. 64 years A.A. (After Arno), as I type, his work fills MoMA’s 4th floor (until September 17). No less than Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s just happens to fill the 3rd floor. Be careful walking by MoMA. With that much American creativity on view, the building might just levitate.

The entrance on MoMA’s 4th Floor.

Speaking about his achievement, Artist, and former partner, Jasper Johns once said he “was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso3.” In the Catalog for that Guggenheim Retrospective, Charles F. Stuckey wrote-

“Globally speaking artists and their audiences have been living since around 1950 in what might well be called the Rauschenberg Era (his cap). As we look toward the culture of the next millennium, our vantage is from atop his shoulders4.”

Wait. Stop the march of time for one second. WHO has an “Era?”

Michelangelo and Leonardo share the Renaissance, with Raphael, Titian and a host of other “Old Masters.” Rembrandt & Vermeer are part of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century that includes literally hundreds of Artists still fondly considered almost 400 years on. The Impressionists were a group. So were the Surrealists and the first generation Abstract Expressionists (though Rothko had his own name for it). Perhaps Picasso (who, early on, shared Cubism with Braque and Juan Gris) comes closest, especially in recent times. Well, Picasso is Picasso.

How did Robert Rauschenberg get from being told to throw his work into the Arno, to having an “Era” that’s lasted 50 years (to 2000), and may well still be going on, even though he passed away in 2008? This, and other questions, were foremost on my mind, during the first of 17 visits to MoMA’s 250 work retrospective, “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” and half as many to the 4 satellite shows around town, in this “Summer of Rauschenberg,” as I saw a writer call it. The other questions included- Does the show finally make the “case” for his later work? Does it finally make one for him as a major Photographer? First, putting off a look at the other shows, let’s take a look at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Outside, on the entrance wall, Photos of Rauschenberg & his friends, seen above, reinforce the message that the show features his interactions, mutual influence and collaboration with his friends, many of who happened to be brilliantly talented Artists, themselves. This is the view immediately inside those Star Trekian automatic sliding glass doors. Beam me up, Bobby.

Partial installation view of the first gallery.”Untitled (Double Rauschenberg),” c.1950, Monoprint; Exposed blueprint paper, a collaboration with Sue Weil, center, “White Painting (Seven Panel),” 1951, left and “Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, right, examples of the two bodies of work that were to come shortly after, once Rauschenberg had decided to become a Painter, not a Photographer. The “White Paintings” would inspire John Cage. Of the “Black Paintings, which had newspaper collaged on them, painted over with black paint, he said- “I was interested in getting complexity without their revealing much. In the fact that there is much to see but not much showing. I wanted to show that a painting could have the dignity of not calling attention to itself, that it could only be seen if you really looked at it5.”

“Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, Oil and newspaper on canvas, affixed to screen door.

The first room contains his earliest work (unlike the 1977 Rauschenberg Retrospective, which came to MoMA, and started with his newest work). On either side of the door, and facing it, are 3 of the Blueprint images he created with Artist, and future ex-wife, Sue Weil in 1950 & 51. They were as attention getting then as they are now, garnering the couple a 3 page spread in Life Magazine in April, 1951, in which they demonstrated their process. To the right, a wall of his early Photographs are collected, mostly done in his days at Black Mountain College, including two that were the first works by Rauschenberg to be acquired by MoMA, in 1952, six years before it would acquire anything else by the Artist.

To the right of the door, a wall of early Photographs, and the Blueprint, “Sue,” c.1950, make it easy to see why he had a hard time deciding whether to be a Photographer or a Painter. I’m not entirely sure he ever truly chose one.

To the left are his earliest non-photographic works, including his earliest surviving painting, “22 The Lily White,” c.1950, one of very few survivors from his very first show at Betty Parsons Gallery in May, 1951.

“22 The Lily White,” c.1950, Oil and graphite on canvas. The earliest surviving Rauschenberg Painting. The red star mimics those galleries put near sold items. This one didn’t sell. Perhaps viewers thought it had already been sold.

“Untitled,” 1952, Mirrors and objects in Coca-Cola box. The shape of things to come..Perhaps his first effort at blurring the lines between Painting & Sculpture he would revisit in his “Combines.” Believe it or not, at this point, he had not seen the boxes of Joseph Cornell.

Behind the pillar displaying “Double Rauschenberg,” is a Seven Panel White Painting, left, and 3 of the Black Paintings, one shown above, which came next. In the center of the space is a vitrine containing, among other artifacts, the original “score” for John Cage’s infamous “4’33,” which the “White Paintings,” which Cage was a vocal, and poetic, admirer of, were one of the inspirations for.

The most avant-garde piece of “music” ever “written”. The manuscript John Cage’s “4’33” 1952-53,, partly inspired by Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The cover is seen, left, and the actual “score,” right. Go ahead. Try it at home.

The first “performance” of Cage’s “4’33” consisted of pianist David Tudor walking on stage and sitting at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Then, he got up and walked off. It’s hard to imagine a more “avant-garde” piece of “music.” Rauschenberg’s exploration of the possibilities of materials, beyond painting, now took center stage in his work. “He thought of his work as a collaboration with materials, as he put it. He was not interested in expressing his own personality through art- ‘I feel it ought to be be much better than that,6‘”

“Dirt Painting (For John Cage),” 1953, Dirt and mold in wood box. “Painting” doesn’t get more avant-garde than this (or, his “White Paintings.”). More on this subject later.

More of the second gallery showing “Elemental Sculptures,” “Scatole Personali” 0r “Personal Boxes,” both on pedestals, the “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” right, another “White Painting,” “Tiznit,” 1953, Oil on canvas, by Cy Twombly, left corner, and the “Automobile Tire Print,” with John Cage,” 1953, in the back.

At this point, he went to Italy with Cy Twombly, culminating with the shows mentioned at the beginning, after which he returned to NYC. He decided to commence a series of Paintings using red, because white, and then black “impressed  a lot of people as aggressive, ugly, and full of the anger of negation. So, Rauschenberg “thought he had better find out whether there was any truth to these charges. He would test his own motives by turning from black and white to red, for him almost aggressive, the most difficult, the least austere color in the spectrum. [7, “Off the Wall,” P.78]” These are featured in the 3rd gallery, which includes some of his most well-known and influential works.

“Charlene,” 1954, a “Combine Painting,” and the last “Red Painting,” “Bed,” and “Rebus,” both 1955, left to right, with a column of 3 “Untitled drawings,” 1954 by Cy Twombly in between.

On the facing wall is “Minutiae,” 1954, a Combine, created as a set for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which Rauschenberg served as set, costume and lighting designer for at the time.

Something happened to Robert Rauschenberg in 1954. A number of writers have tried to explain exactly what it was. I’m not sure I understand. Whatever it was, it led to a breakthrough. He started adding more to his collages, anything was game, he said, as in “Bed,” 1955, which uses an old comforter since he had run out of canvas. Then, Red went out and was replaced with the the more neutral tones seen in “Rebus,” 1955. He had been including newspapers in his works going back to the Black Paintings, in 1951-2. At some point, around this time, he also began including photographs- found images from magazines and newspapers, etc.7 As time went on, however, he started incorporating large found objects, including an Angora goat and a Bald eagle, which, of course, grab your attention before you get to any of the details the works also include. “Among Friends,” is a very rare chance to see the two famous works that feature them, “Monogram” and “Canyon,” together. 8

Reinventing Painting, Sculpture & Drawing. “Monogram,” 1955/59 on loan from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, front, with “Gift for Apollo,” 1959, right, “Winter Pool,”left, both 1959, and “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, on the far wall. Some of the most revolutionary Art of the past 60 years.

“Canyon,” 1959, Combine. One of the masterpieces of post WW2 Art. Rauschenberg on the Ganymede myth, with a Bald Eagle standing in for Jupiter’s Eagle, and fascinating to compare with Rembrandt’s “Abduction of Ganymede,” 1635, down to the inclusion of Rauschenberg’s Photograph of his son Christopher, on the left.

“Canyon,” 1959, is my personal favorite among his Combines (the word denotes a work that is a “Combination” of Painting and Sculpture, or as Jasper Johns said, “It’s painting playing the game of sculpture9.”) The controversial American Bald eagle’s very strange “pose,” standing on the sides of an open cardboard box, notwithstanding. It audaciously revisits the Ganymede myth, as he was doing in the Dante Illustrations (bringing a contemporary interpretation to an ancient tale) and, creating something of his own mythology, enhanced by the presence of a Rauschenberg Photo of his young son, Christopher (now a Photographer and head of the Rauschenberg Foundation), and including the cardboard box, which would become a staple Rauschenberg material (from the days before acid-free papers, adding to the conservator’s nightmare this works is). It takes the concept he realized in his “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” one step further, into a 3-D Combine. 58 years later, it’s still a thrilling, unique experience, that’s every bit as audacious as it must have been in 1959.

As they hadn’t in Italy in 1953, a sizable amount of the viewing public still didn’t take Rauschenberg seriously by the late 1950’s, and the Combines actually served to reinforce that. Standing near “Monogram” for 15 minutes on 3 different occasions, I noted the immediate reaction of at least 75% of viewers were smiles, or outright laughs. I don’t know what they wound up thinking of it after taking a closer look. Increasingly “troubled10”  by this reaction 60 years ago, in 1958, he decided to illustrate Dante’s “Inferno.” To do so would require nearly 3 years. The resulting series of “34 Illustrations,” displayed at the Leo Castelli Gallery in December, 1960, finally served to alter the public, and critical, perception of Rauschenberg. The complete series lines the back wall of this gallery, where they loom as something of a “spiritual center.” For me, their Artistic importance in his entire oeuvre cannot be overstated- so much of what was to follow can be seen in them. Including his use of Photographs, now as independent elements, standing in for many of the characters in the “Inferno,” in Rauschenberg’s unique, contemporary imaging of the story. I take a closer look at them in the “Highlights” Post, following.

The Combines and Combine Paintings lead us to a “central” gallery containing his classic Silkscreen Paintings of 1962-64, and “Oracle,” a five-part found object assemblage integrated with technology that he created with engineer Billy Klüver and 4 others between 1962-5. Rauschenberg discovered silkscreening during a 1962 visit to the studio of Andy Warhol, who had been working with the technique since 1961. Silkscreening provided the answer he had long sought- how to transfer images to canvas in good resolution. His Transfer drawing technique only taking him part of the way (though he would continue to use it when he felt it was needed through the years).

“Oracle,” 1962-65,a five-part assemblage, with wireless microphone system, concealed radios & speakers, washtub with running water, surrounded by 10 of his groundbreaking Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64

His silkscreens look nothing like Warhol’s, as can be seen below. Especially early on, Warhol took a single image and replicates it and/or varies it, using a grid. While Rauschenberg may repeat the same image up to 4 times in a work (usually varying it), he never allows it to become the central “point” of the work.

Warhol’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family),” 1962, Silkscreen on canvas, along side Rauschenberg’s early Silkscreen Painting, “Crocus,” 1962

Rauschenberg’s insatiable creativity led him to move forward, so the period he made these Silkscreen Paintings lasted only from 1962-64. Though he used Abstract Expressionist techniques (his work is characterized by his use of everything & all techniques), they complete his moving beyond the style of Abstract Expressionism, something he began working towards doing in the early 1950’s, to Painting wholly in his own style, and along the way, freeing Art to move on. While these works include some of his own Photographs, the featured images are, primarily still found images. As such, as great as they are, they are another step, an important one, to what his work would eventually become.

“Persimmon,” 1964, Oil and silkscreen on canvas. There’s much to say about this revolutionary work, but notice the mirror in Ruben’s Venus, which I’ll get to. Interestingly, Ruben’s Venus appears in a number of the silkscreen paintings, and curator Roni Feinstein noted they seem to be a female counterpart to JFK, who appears many times.

After becoming the first American to ever win the grand prize in Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, he would soon largely stop painting and turn his focus to performances, and the marrying of Art & Technology.

Scaling the heights of Art. Rauschenberg performing in his “Elgin Tie,” in 1964 in Stockholm. From the Hardcover edition of the show’s excellent catalog.

The latter took place in both stand alone works, and in performances, particularly “9 Evenings,” which is marvelously explored here11, and includes Rauschenberg’s contribution, “Open Score.” The massive “Mud Muse,” which I’ve seen described as an experience akin to a visit to Yellowstone, is one stand alone work that is certainly popular with younger viewers. A monumental feat of installation considering the work holds 8,000 pounds of “listening” Bentonite mud,  with embedded sensors that cause the mud to react with the music being played on the control unit nearby. On loan from the Moderna Museet, Sweden, it’s one of the most ambitious and technologically complex works Rauschenberg ever made, and is making it’s first NYC appearance since Rauschenberg completed it here in 1971.

Now, I’ve seen everything. “Mud Muse,” 1968-71, 8,000 pounds of Bentonite mixed with water, in action.

From there, the show moves through his “Cardboards” (sculptures made from found cardboard boxes), the famous “Son Aqua (Venetian),” 1973, with it’s water filled bathtub, and works inspired by trips to India, before getting to the penultimate, large gallery of later works.

“Sor Aqua (Venetian),” 1973, Water-filled bathtub, rope, metal, wood and glass jug. Rauschenberg continued to use found objects, like these, his entire career, even after he could afford traditional supplies. “Gifts from the Street,” he called them. After a while of looking at this, it hit me- There’s no drain in the bathtub. Maybe that’s why it’s owner threw it out, to become a Rauschenberg found object. A guard told me he called the metal on wood structure above, “The Angel.”

The large gallery of later works includes”Hiccups,” 1978, the horizontal rows, left & right, joined by zippers,”Glacial Decoy,” the collaboration with Trisha Brown (black and white photos, left), “Triathlon,” 2005, from “Scenarios,” the color painting, left of center, the latest work here, and “For A Friend And Crazy Kat (Spread),” 1976, along with a few examples from his “Gluts” series of found metal objects & signs. I will long wonder about what was omitted from this gallery.

The large gallery of later work, above, includes a very wide range of pieces that attest to some of the incredibly wide range of materials and styles Rauschenberg worked in. It highlights the fact that he continued to use found materials even when he could well afford art store materials. This was one of his ways of bringing “life” into his work, which he felt was essential in Art. Though not nearly as well known as the earlier periods of his work, there are a number of major works on view here, too. To my eyes, “Mirthday Man,” from his “Anagrams” series, Inkjet dye and pigment transfer on polylaminate (center, on the wall in the photo below), created on the Artist’s 72nd Birthday, in 1997, is one. “Booster,” a print from 1967, to it’s right, is as well.

“Urban Katydid, (Glut),” 1987, Riveted street signs on stainless steel,, front, “Mirthday Man,” 1997, Inkjet dye & pigment transfer created on his 72nd Birthday, center, and “Booster,” 1967, Lithograph & screen print, right, end the gallery of late works. The latter two feature almost life size X-rays of Rauschenberg. Both are among his major works in my opinion.

Partially seen in the last gallery photo, on the back wall to the left, and below, are black & white photos that form the backdrop for Rauschenberg’s collaboration with the late Trisha Brown called “Glacial Decoy,” 1979, in an installation by Charles Atlas, who worked with Rauschenberg. The piece comes closest to showing Rauschenberg’s later Photography, cleverly getting 620 examples of it in the show, though the images move one space from left to right every 4 seconds. The smaller color screen hanging in front shows video of a performance of the work from 2009 at BAM. All the way around, this is a terrific work, though if you want to focus on the Photos, you have 16 seconds to ponder each one before it disappears. The performance is, also, amazing. The installation? I’m not so sure. Sitting directly in front of the transparent hanging color screen, it’s a bit hard to make out everything that’s going on onstage since the large black and white photos on the back wall shine through. Though they are in the same sequence as they  are in the background of the performance, they’re in a different scale and so it serves to make it hard to see the screen. The resulting effect is somewhat strange. I found it better to see, standing quite a bit off to the side, as below.

“Glacial Decoy,” 1979, with 620 Photographs that scroll from left to right in 4 second segments & costumes by Rauschenberg, choreography by Trisha Brown. Interestingly installed by Charles Atlas, who worked with Rauschenberg.

The view directly in front of “Glacial Decoy.” The background of the on-screen performance is synched to the large Photos on the back wall, but they’re in a different scale, and they are both moving to the right every 4 seconds.

As with his fondness for found objects and Photography, Rauschenberg continued to refine and develop his techniques from the beginning to the end, as we see in “Holiday Ruse (Night Shade),” 1991, a captivating work, which has a look that seems to harken back to his “Black Paintings” (like “Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, shown near the beginning), bringing them full-circle, with black images layered under black paint requiring a very close look to make them out.

“Holiday Ruse (Night Shade),” 1991, Screenprint chemical-resistant varnish, water and Aluma-Black

Also noteworthy, among the “Gluts,” works made of found street signs and other metal objects, “Mercury Zero Summer (Glut),” 1987, an electric fan with metal “wing,” an ecology-themed work, stood out. Finally, “Triathlon (Scenario)” 2005, Inkjet pigment transfer on polylaminate, from one of his final series, “Scenarios,” immediately “looks different,” than all that’s come before, with each of it’s Photos given their own place, and not being layered as earlier, with added prominence intriguingly given to white space, the overall effect is striking. Finally, Photos, in stunning clarity, stand to speak on their own as “characters” in the whole. The three images of the hand with the sphere, left, remind me of the repeated/slightly altered birds in “Overdrive,” and other Silkscreen Paintings, and masterfully unify the composition horizontally. Interestingly, since his right (Painting & Photographing) hand had been paralyzed in a stroke a few years earlier, and he could no longer take Photos, he had to, again, use the Photos of others (possibly under his direction at times), as he had done when he first started to use Photos, in the 1950’s.

“Triathlon (Scenarios),” 2005, from 3 years before his passing is the latest work in the show.

The show concludes with a room dedicated to R.O.C.I., the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, “a tangible expression of Rauschenberg’s long-term commitment to human rights and to the freedom of artistic expression,12,” a self-funded collaboration with Artists in 10 countries that Rauschenberg was extremely dedicated to, even mortgaging his homes, and selling his vaunted Art collection to fund. Rauschenberg took the term “action painting,” first coined to describe the technique of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, and others, literally. For him, it meant ethical action, as well. Thist took many forms during his career. As Barbara Rose said about him, he was “among the last artists to believe that art can change the world.13

The final gallery contains 12 Posters for R.O.C.I.- the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, 1985-91, along with 3 videos shot in Mexico, Cuba and China. 10 countries are represented here.

Though work by Rauschenberg has been in 152 shows at the Museum, only ONCE before has MoMA presented a retrospective of his work- FORTY years ago, in 1977. That show originated at the National Collection of Fine Arts (associated with the Smithsonian) and was curated by it’s Walter Hopps. “Among Friends,” is co-produced by MoMA and the Tate Modern, London, where it appeared under the title “Robert Rauschenberg.” So, this is the FIRST large show devoted to Rauschenberg that MoMA has been credited with creating. In fact, of those 152 shows I mentioned, only 4 had his name in the title- this is number five14. For someone so important and influential, I find this most puzzling. In fact, it’s only been fairly recently that MoMA has begun to fill in some of the substantial gaps in their Rauschenberg holdings, acquiring “Rebus,” one of his most important Combine Paintings, “Canyon,” in 2012, one of the most important Combines, and the now classic Silkscreen Painting, “Overdrive,” 1963, (seen in far left in the photo of the Silkscreen Paintings with “Oracle,” above) in 2013.

“Rebus,” 1955, Combine painting. The info label says it’s a “promised gift,” but Calvin Tomkins says MoMA paid 30 million dollars for it. (“Off the Wall,” P.282) This would be most interesting as MoMA’s Alfred Barr was offered “Rebus” in 1963 but he declined. (ibid.).

My reaction to “Among Friends” was tinged with a bit of disappointment- Though the early galleries, up through the “Mud Muse”/’9 Evenings,” 1965, are extraordinary. Stories abounded of curators bringing in “people who were there” to recreate how works had been originally displayed, complimenting major loans, like “Charlene,” “Monogram,” among many more. After 1965, I felt the show “thinned out.” The huge, penultimate gallery of his late works (a period I believe is very under-appreciated), left me wondering why it had so much empty space. In fact, I can’t quite recall seeing anything like it in a major show. Part of the reason is “Among Friends” attempts to integrate larger videos of performances right in the show, as opposed to having separate rooms for them (as MoMA did with “Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” last year). The spot chosen for “Glacial Decoy’s” installation left a large corner completely dark and empty. As nice as it is to see all of “Hiccups,” 1978, a beautiful work consisting of 97 solvent transfers (an “update of his “Transfer Technique”) on paper panels held together by zippers, so it can be endlessly rearranged. (Rauschenberg may have employed his monter, Dora, to attach the zippers, David White told me.) Taking up the better part of 2 long walls, I was left feeling that space could have been put to better use, and “Hiccups” displayed in another manner, as it has been in the past.

Another view of the later works gallery shows a lot of open floor space, and on the middle right, behind Charles Atlas hanging video screen for “Glacial Decoy,” which is in the center of the room, a dark, empty corner. An interesting installation, I’m not sure was entirely successful, but should it have been mounted elsewhere?

Rauschenberg, perhaps more than any other Artist, established what it was to be an American Artist around the world, continually going seemingly everywhere, beginning in the early 1950’s, but his travel during his later years is not mentioned in the later works gallery, including his trip to China in 1982, where he collaborated with local paper makers, and others, the trip resulting in a typically large creative output, entirely absent here. That’s one example. The travel thread is picked up in the next, and final, R.O.C.I. gallery.

Whereas the show to this point had been chronological, this room is a bit all over the map, with works ranging from 1967-2005 on view. With the only large placard, the show uses to give context, next to “Mirthday Man,” one of the last works in the show all the way on the other side of the gallery, visitors here were left a bit hanging about what was going on in Rauschenberg’s Art and the path it’s development was taking, which it’s non-chronological display didn’t help. It’s a bit of a shame. While what’s included in this gallery may serve to pique the interest of viewers to investigate it further, the overall result, I feel, is a “sketch” of what the Artist created, achieved and accomplished in this period. The result is the show feels like it progressively winds down in the later galleries, and ends on somewhat “quiet” notes. A chance to shine new light on Rauschenberg’s late period was, I feel, missed. It should be noted that, not unlike Picasso, Rauschenberg’s later works have been largely overlooked by the Art world to this point, save for a few gallery shows (including this one I wrote about in 2015)15. (Though, they have not been overlooked by Artists.) So, the other possibility is, of course, that the show’s curators do not feel the rest of his later work is important enough to be here.

With the catalog for the 1997 Guggenheim Retrospective, one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, listing 480 items, almost double the amount here, I prefer to think of this show as an “overview,” being as it wonderfully selects key works from key periods through 1965. With an Artist as prolific as Rauschenberg was (Calvin Tomkins says he created over 6,000 works by 2005, not counting multiples), it’s probably not likely a full retrospective is even possible. But? I would LOVE for someone to try!

Still, “Among Friends” is, caveats aside, important in it’s own right because it does include so many works created at key moments in his career, and because it shines a light on the importance to his work, and accomplishment, of collaboration- with other Artists, Engineers & Performers, and with the materials he was working with16 It also allows a very rare chance to see, and experience, rarely seen works involving technology (collaborations with engineers), putting “Oracle,” “Mud Muse,” and “9 Evenings” front and center, each one a major feat of museum installation. Alas, it, also leaves, until another day, a complete assessment of both his late period and his Photography (i.e. the body of Photographs he created). Regardless of what isn’t here, a careful examination of what does comprise the 250 works in “Among Friends” reveals there is no doubt whatsoever that this is an important show, a major event in Rauschenberg scholarship and appreciation, and one of the best shows of 2017.

In the early 2000’s, Rauschenberg suffered a stroke which paralyzed his right (Painting & Photography) arm. Nonetheless, he continued creating, having others take the photos, and signing his works, with difficulty, with his left hand, as here, on “Triathlon,” 2005, from “Scenarios,” one of his last series.

Speaking of friends and collaborators, another question lingers with me- As “Among Friends” beautifully details, Rauschenberg was friends early on with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Morton Feldman, among others, who were among the most avant-garde creators of the 20th Century. HOW was it possible that Robert Rauschenberg, alone among them, escaped the “avant-garde ghetto” to achieve both fame and fortune, while holding on to his integrity? I well remember when avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez was named Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic, succeeding no less than Leonard Bernstein, and how audiences voted with their feet and voices in displeasure when he performed a modern & contemporary work, as you can plainly hear on recordings of the Philharmonic broadcasts at the time. Rauschenberg, as I mentioned earlier, was actually an inspiration for the most avant-garde work of music ever “written”- John Cage’s “4’33,” 65 years later, Cage is highly respected, but, still his music is sparsely performed. Among his other friends, Morton Feldman (a major composer who remains under-known, and who Rauschenberg gave his first public performance at one of his early shows), is a cult figure who shows signs of becoming more. Even Pierre Boulez, who passed last year, is, mostly, remembered for creating the most “definitive” body of recordings of 20th Century music we have thus far, while his own music is still sparsely performed. Meanwhile…during all of this, Robert Rauschenberg had, or has, an “Era,” and had a long career that was marked with a good deal of success, however you’d care to define it, including financial. Given the “edginess” of much of his work, a fair percentage of it’s components coming from the trash, and not art supply stores, I find it absolutely remarkable.

How was Rauschenberg able to avoid the “Avant-garde ghetto?” Walking through the show, I think it is possible to “experience” the answer. As “Among Friends” highlights, collaboration may well have been key to his success. Beyond collaborating with so many gifted Artists, across realms, and collaborating with his materials, as Calvin Tomkins said- “All his work, Rauschenberg increasingly felt, was a form of collaboration with materials. He wanted to work with them, rather than to have them work for him17.”

There is more. One of his most famous quotes is “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in the gap between the two)18.” That gap also includes life being lived now…i.e. the viewer’s experience.

Have a seat. (No, Don’t!) Rauschenberg understood that his ultimate collaboration was with his viewers. He continually strove to bring them in to his works. “Pilgrim,” 1960, Combine Painting.

Rauschenberg’s most important collaboration may be with his viewers. He never forgot the experience of the viewer, something, it seems to me, most other avant-gardists of the period seemed to ignore, if not take a polar opposite approach to. Therein may lie the key. As one of them, John Cage, himself, wrote in “Silence,” “The real purpose of art was not the creation of masterpieces for the delectation of an elite class, but rather a perpetual process of discovery, which everyone could participate19.” It seems to me that this, as much as anything else, was at the heart of Rauschenberg’s approach during his entire career. As he said, “I don’t want a painting to be just an expression of my personality. I feel it ought to be much better than that20.” What’s “better than that?” He said that he wanted to create a situation  “in which there was as much room for the viewer as for the artist21.” This collaboration  takes an exceedingly wide range of forms. The “White Paintings” were intended to allow the shadows of viewers, and the atmosphere of the room to be “reflected” on their surfaces. Numerous other works, from  “Charlene,” in 1954, right through the late “Gluts” have reflective mirrors or surfaces that reflect whatever is in front to it, even the viewer themselves. This goes way back to the mirrors in the upper left corner of “Untitled,” 1952, pictured early on. And, in “Persimmon,” Ruben’s Venus holds a mirror so she can look out at us, though her back is turned.  Once you look for ways that Rauschenberg includes the viewer in his work, you’ll see it more and more- throughout his career. Like that welcoming chair in “Pilgrim,” 1960, above. But, don’t really sit in it. You know…

Another thing that becomes apparent- The more work of Robert Rauschenberg’s I look at, one thing strikes me above all others- While I loathe comparisons of anyone creative, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Artist with a better “eye” than Robert Rauschenberg. “I have a peculiar kind of focus,” he once told an interviewer. “I tend to see everything in sight22.” He was, also, one of the most creative people I’ve ever  come across. He broke all the rules, and used that eye to create his own world out of ours.

Collaboration with his viewers, itself, led to more. Some of those viewers became Artists, themselves. From what I see in the shows I attend, and have attended, particularly over the past 15 years, I would say we are still in the “Rauschenberg Era.” His influence is all around. “Bob is the wind, blowing through the art world for almost a century now, pollinating everything,” Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery said in the BBC Documentary “Robert Rauschenberg: Pop Art Pioneer.”

Regardless whether you think we are still in the “Rauschenberg Era,” or not, one thing strikes me as undeniable- Nearly 10 years after his 2008 passing, the full assessment of the achievement of Robert Rauschenberg is no where near finished. “Among Friends” is another piece, one that will be long rememeberd, towards that end.

*- The soundtrack for this Post is “Moon Rocks,” by Talking Heads, from “Speaking in Tongues,” 1983, which Robert Rauschenberg did the artwork for the limited edition release of, seen below. Another classic collaboration. NASA invited Rauschenberg to witness the launch of Apollo 11, in July, 1969.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Cover for the limited edition of Talking Heads’ “Speaking in Tongues.” No, it wasn’t in “Among Friends,” but it is in my collection.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” is my NoteWorthy Show for August. 

This is the first part of my 3 Part Series that looks at the NYC Shows during this “Summer of Rauschenberg.” Part Two features highlights from MoMA’s show, and is below this one, here. Part Three looks at the 4 “satellite” shows around town, and follows Part Two, here.

A second Post, which follows below, looks at highlights from “Among Friends.” Between the satellite shows- “Robert Rauschenberg: Rookery Mounds,” and “Selected Series from the 60s & 70s,” at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl Gallery, “Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects, “Robert Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art, and “Susan Weil” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, there were, also, many highlights.  The third Post, further below, focuses on them. 

“On The Fence, #10, The Rausch-and-Bird Edition.” (Sorry, Bob.)

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. The story in this section is excerpted and paraphrased from Robert Rauschenberg’s work, “Autobiography,” and from Calvin Tomkins’ excellent biography of Robert Rauschenberg, “Off The Wall,” 2005, P. 72-4.
  2. “Off the Wall,” P.76
  3. Paul Schimmel “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” P.9
  4. Charles F. Stuckey in “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective,” Guggenheim Museum, 1997, P. 31
  5. Tomkins “Off The Wall,” P.65
  6. Calvin Tomkins- “Master of Invention,” New Yorker Oct 13, 1997 P.92
  7. the Combine, “Untitled,” ca.1954, not in the show is the earliest work I’ve seen this in so far.
  8. MoMA had a chance to acquire “Monogram” early on, but Alfred Barr passed, fearing it might harbor vermin, among other reasons. “Off the Wall,” P. 282.
  9.  Everything In Sight,” Calvin Tomkins New Yorker May 23, 2005
  10. “Off the Wall,” P.143
  11. and it’s also wonderfully displayed in “Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects
  12. raushcenbergfoundation.org
  13. Barbara Rose “Rauschenberg,” P.4
  14. Two of the those featured the “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” as a set, in 1966 and 1988, the other featured his work “Soundings,” in 1969.
  15. To this point, the best overview of the later period works I’ve seen is in the Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, one of the greatest exhibition catalogs- for any show, ever produced. The caveat to that is that when it was published in 1997, he would still work for a further 11 years.
  16. Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, P.36-7.
  17. Tomkins in “Off The Wall,” P.79
  18. Rauschenberg’s statement in “16 Americans,” MoMA Exhibition Catalog, 1959
  19. “Off The Wall,” P.62
  20. “Off The Wall,” P.66
  21. “Off the Wall,” P.xv
  22. “Dore Ashton, Art News, Summer, 1958, quoted in “Off The Wall,” P.8

Highlights From Rauschenberg At MoMA

They flew in from all over for this one. Click any image for full size.

With upwards of 300 works by Robert Rauschenberg on view over 4 shows of his work, and a show of work by early collaborator and ex-wife, Susan Weil, there was too much that lingers in the mind to fit into one Post. My overview of MoMA’s “Among Friends” is above (here). Part 3, below (or here), looks at the 4 “satellite” shows going on around town. This Post will feature some works that struck me as important, both in terms of Art, and in terms of Rauschenberg’s Art, at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” at MoMA.

“Helado Negro,” with Roberto Carlos Lange, and…? outside in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden on August 31 are hoping there’s no lightning. No, Rauschenberg didn’t design those costumes. I headed upstairs to see what he did create after taking this.

Even on my 17th trip to the show, as with most great Art, I saw something new, and wondered how I missed it before. I’ll explain below. Apparently, I’m not the only one this happens to. In 1961, John Cage wrote this about looking at Rauschenberg. “Over and over again I’ve found it impossible to memorize Rauschenberg’s paintings. I keep asking, “Have you changed it?’ And then noticing while I’m looking it changes1.” His friend, Marcel Duchamp, once said about Paintings- “A painting had an active life of about 30 years; after that it died- visually, emotionally and spiritually2.” Try as I might, I don’t see that at all in Rauschenberg’s work. While I do see an evolution of styles, over the years,  a good deal of it looks like it could have been made this past month. Also, Mr. Rauschenberg’s career not only lasted over 60 years, he was one of the most prolific Artists of our time. Not having seen everything he did, it’s a given that some/many works I previously hadn’t known will seem revelatory. I can’t remember ever feeling, “That’s dated.” Discovery was the joy of these 5 shows for me (and, in looking at Art, in general). And, it was also a very rare chance to see works housed in distant collections, galleries and museums. Still, it was very hard to narrow down the works to those in this Post.

“Sue.”

“Sue,” ca.1950, with Susan Weil, Exposed blueprint paper. The first work in the show, it continuously captivated viewers, as it has for over 65 years. Created with his first collaborator, later his wife and mother of his son, Christopher, and eventually his ex-wife. Early on, they used blueprint paper to create one of a kind works, where the subject would lie on the paper, while the Artist moved over them with a lamp exposing the paper and recording the image. The pair then moved to the bathroom they shared with others to fix the image in the shower. Unique and beautiful, it’s an early example of Rauschenberg’s love of found objects, as they got the paper for free because it came from rolls that had been partially exposed. The works quickly found an audience, being the subject of a 1951 Life magazine photo spread detailing their process, and even resulting in their inclusion in a 1951 MoMA show called “Abstraction in Photography.” Rauschenberg went on to passionately explore Photography, and Painting, before deciding to be a Painter. Susan Weil is still creating and her show at Sundaram Tagore Gallery this summer will be part of the next Post.

“Monogram.” Fascinating. From any angle.

“Monogram,” 1955-59, seen at MoMA, from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Ok. It’s famous. Everyone’s seen Photos of it. Seeing it in person is an entirely different animal. An animal that’s rarely seen on this side of the pond. It was last seen here 12 years ago at The Met’s excellent 2005 “Rauschenberg Combines” show. What made it even more special was it being displayed at MoMA near two survivors of the earlier “states” of the work, as Rauschenberg tried to find the ideal composition in which to incorporate the Angora goat he bought from a second hand store for 35 dollars. He put 15 dollars down on it, and according to Calvin Tomkins, intended “to go back and pay the balance, one day3.” The chance to imagine “Rhyme,” 1956, and the central panel of “Summerstorm,” 1959, as part of the work shows he made the right choice, though both are interesting on their own- particularly the inclusion of an image of animals at pasture near the top of that center panel of “Summerstorm.”

“Rhyme,” 1956, Combine Painting. In the first state of “Monogram,” the goat was mounted right above the red circle. At that point, there was another part of it that extended higher from there.

“Summerstorm,” 1959. Originally, in the second state of Monogram, it’s centerl panel stood in back of the Goat. Later, it was reworked and became a part of this. Yes, that’s a zipper in the middle of the right side.

On my 17th visit I finally noticed this! Near the top of “Summerstorm’s” central panel, there’s a small image of animals grazing. Rauschenberg went from grazing animals in the second state of “Monogram,” to his Angora goat “grazing” on Art in the final work.

Then, I used this rare opportunity to study the Combine Painting the goat is mounted on, which is hard to do from photos of it in most books. Each angle of the base reveals new details- the sleeve of a white shirt, to the left of the Goat’s head, a heel from a shoe, part of signs that just can’t quite be pieced together into a word, images of a man looking up, astronauts (a new thing in the world beyond science fiction in 1959), and three small human footprints.

So, how does it feel to be an icon of Modern & Contemporary art? Rauschenberg added the paint on the face to cover damage.

Rolling down his sleeves and walking the high wire of Art. The view of the left front corner as seen from the left side.

View of the center back. Interesting placement of that tennis ball, right under the rump of the Goat, where it can be “read” as leaving a comment on Art. Also notice the two helmeted figures to the right that could possibly be astronauts.

Another thing about seeing “Monogram” in MoMA- It’s hard not to wonder about the possible influence Picasso’s famous “She-Goat” may have had on it. Created in 1950, out of found materials, it appeared in the May, 1953 Magazine of Art, which makes it possible Rauschenberg could have seen it. Also coincidentally, one of the two bronze casts Picasso subsequently made of it were acquired by MoMA in 1959, the year Rauschenberg decided to mount his on top of the Combine Painting it rests on to this day.

Pregnant with possibilities. Picasso’s (expectant) “She-Goat,” 1950, cast 1952 as seen outside in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Picasso’s original, coincidentally, was made of found objects, and now grazes in the Musee Picasso.

Ok. What does it “mean?” The goat was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians, where the horns represented Gods & Goddesses, while also symbolizing fertility. In mythology the he-goat was Pan. The goat became the symbol of satanism. Take your pick there. “Animal energy” people say that the goat represents independence, stubbornness, a wild nature, and sexuality4. This last resonates with me. While I don’t know what was on Rauschenberg’s mind when he created it, reading what I have about his personality, journey and perseverance, the “independence” and “stubbornness” parts fit. The “wild nature” fits Rauschenberg’s work to this point as he broke every law of Painting, Sculpture, and Art he could. Beyond that, the best comments on “Monogram” I’ve seen thus far comes from critic Jerry Saltz who said, “Allegorically, Rauschenberg is a bull in the china shop of art history, a satyr squeezing through the eye of an esthetic/erotic needle. In early Christian art goats symbolized the damned. This is exactly what Rauschenberg was as a gay/bisexual man and an artist, at the time. “Monogram” is Rauschenberg’s credo, a line drawn in the psychic sands of American sexual and cultural values. It is a love letter, a death threat, and a ransom note. It is Rauschenberg carving his monogram into art history5.” As for that “eye of the needle,” the famous tire, Mary Lynn Kotz, a Rauschenberg biographer, points out that the tire is made of rubber, which is made from crude oil, which Port Arthur, Texas, where Rauschenberg was born and raised, was known for6. (If you’re wondering about Rauschenberg’s use of taxidermied animals in his work, he speaks about it here.) Finally, on page 17 of Rauschenberg’s book “Photos In +  Out City Limits New York C.” there’s a photo of what could be an East Village, or Lower East Side bar (given the beer sign in the window). Gina Guy of the Rauschenberg Foundation told me that “Bob didn’t title Photographs, he simply located them,” so this one is “titled”  “New York City,” and was taken in 1981. Intriguingly, it includes a fire hydrant with a tire wrapped around it.

“34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, seen at MoMA. For me, these are the key works in his Artistic evolution. Besides the new ground they break on their own, I believe it’s possible to see in them much of what came after in his work. Though Dante’s “Divine Comedy” has been illustrated by many Artists down through the centuries (including Gustave Dore, Botticelli and Salvador Dali), Rauschenberg was the first to stage the 14th century classic in modern times. Here, he begins to incorporate Photographs culled from magazines and newspapers, not in collage, but by using the “Transfer Drawing” technique he had developed a few years earlier on a trip to Cuba. It’s a technique where an image is soaked with lighter fluid, placed face down on a piece of Strathmore 14.5 x 11.5 inch Drawing paper, and then rubbed with an empty ballpoint pen, which enabled him to get a shadowy copy of the Photo on to his paper, that he then enhanced using a variety of techniques. Rauschenberg described the end results as “Combine Drawings7.”He created them because he was feeling “increasingly troubled by those who saw his work as a joke8.” “The problem when I started the Dante illustrations was to see if I was working abstractly (previously) because I couldn’t work any other way or whether I was doing it by choice,” the artist explained to Dorothy Gees Seckler. “So I insisted on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject where it meant that I’ve have to be involved in symbolism… Well, I spent 2 1/2 years deciding that, yes, I could do that9.”

Rauschenberg’s “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, Transfer drawing on paper, foreshadow much of what was to come. They are rarely seen as a group.

What he created was a way of bringing Dante’s tale of a man “midway in the journey of our life,” into the 20th century, using images he found in newspapers and magazines. They include contemporary figures, (including JFK and Adlai Stevenson), current events, and possibly, gay love. Rauschenberg cloistered himself for the better part of 3 years studying John Ciardi’s “Inferno” translation, communing with the muse, and crafting his remarkable, unique “Illustrations.” The entire set being on view was a highlight of “Among Friends10.” In the gallery where they were displayed, as I showed in the last Post, they were accompanied by other works with mythological references, including “Canyon.”

The narrator, Dante himself, is represented by a man with just a towel wrapped around his waist, which Rauschenberg found in an ad in Sports Illustrated for golf clubs. The narrator was 35. Rauschenberg turned 35 on October 22, 1960.

“34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, Canto II: The Descent, 1958, Transfer drawing on paper. Our hero, Dante, is at the top, slightly to the right, with a towel around his waist. Interestingly, many of the Illustrations are done in three sections, giving a feeling of being on a journey, and a reminder of the three levels of the afterlife, each given a volume in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” “The Inferno,” being Volume 1..

Halfway through, he began to struggle with certain aspects of Dante’s narration. He decided he needed to work away from the distractions of NYC in the isolation he found in a storage room on Treasure Island, Florida, where he spent 6 months completing the set. “I was so irritated by his morality-the self-righteousness, the self-appointed conscience imposing guilt on old friends. He was the hero and the author….I wanted to show Dante the character in the story, and that forced me into isolation11.” Particularly troublesome for the Artist was reading Cantos XIV and XV, where Dante and his guide, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, encounter the Sodomites in Hell. Among them was an old teacher of Virgil. Virgil responds by taking it personally. “His (Dante’s) morality I treat objectively- the self-righteousness, the self appointed conscience imposing guilt on old friends. He was the author, the hero, and the man who made the world described. He ran into his teacher, and couldn’t imagine what he was doing in hell: It might not have bothered Dante, but it bothered me12.” Rauschenberg found a powerful way of expressing his feelings about this in his Illustration for Canto XIV.

“34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, Canto XIV That’s Rauschenberg’s foot traced in red, possibly indicating solidarity with the Sodomites who are condemned to wander hell eternally on burning sands.

In December, 1960, the set debuted at Leo Castelli Gallery, and their reaction served to, finally, establish Rauschenberg’s reputation as a serious Artist. Subsequently, Alfred Barr steered their acquisition by MoMA through an “anonymous” donation, that Calvin Tomkins says came from an architect undergoing a divorce in 1963. Seeing them now, their effect is akin to looking at glimpses of events unfolding through a misty glass, which perfectly fits the distance of 600+ years from the original. Rauschenberg makes the story contemporary, and it’s hard not to think that he might have identified with the central character being “midway in the journey of our life,” though the search for “autobiographical references” in it would be, it seems to me, largely conjecture. Subsequently, he continued to search for new and better ways to get these Photographs, and then his own Photographs, on to canvas, beginning with his Silkscreen Paintings in 1962, and through much of his subsequent career, eventually leading to his use of digital processing of images with computers in his series, “Anagrams,” through his final works.

“Ace,” 1962, Combine Painting. There are some objects attached to the painting, but, unlike in the Combines,  they don’t dominate it.

“Ace,” 1962, Combine painting. After doing Combines for 8 years, Rauschenberg, not surprisingly, felt the urge to move on. As Calvin Tomkins put it, “his methods had become too familiar to him13.” On loan from Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, “Ace” may be his Painted masterpiece. It’s certainly his most painterly work in the show, it also stands apart, first, for it’s size (108 x 240 inches, or 20 feet long), and because it was done right before the Silkscreen Paintings took him in a completely different direction. It, apparently, relates to the dancer Steve Paxton, his partner at the time, “Ace” being Mr. Paxton’s nickname. Though, it also includes some collaged elements, most notably cardboard, here he largely leaves the elements of Combine Painting behind.

The far left panel feels all about motion, told with Abstract Expressionistic/action brushstrokes and drips. That “R” on the bottom is a long way from the “auschenberg,” the rest of his “signature,” in the far right panel.

Still, almost all of the left-hand 4 panels have the feel of motion, yes, like a dancer in any one of a variety of movements, before we reach the 5th and right hand panel, which seems entirely without motion. Interestingly, it does feature a torso-like cardboard box, a material that would become more prominent in his work. That’s one interpretation. Take from it, as with everything else he created, what you will. In spite of the fact that as Roy Lichtenstein said, “the Combines marked the end of Abstract Expressionism and the return to the subject14,” Rauschenberg continued to use AbEx techniques throughout his career, consistent with his physical, “action” based manner of working.

“Mirthday Man, (Anagram, A Pun), 1997, features an x-ray of Rauschenberg done 30 years before, which he called a “self-portrait of inner man.”

“I was the ‘charlatan’ of the art world. Then, when I had enough work amassed,
I became a ‘satirist’ – a tricky word – of the art world, then ‘fine artist’,
but who could live with it? And now, ‘We like your old things better’.”  Robert Rauschenberg, 197215

Not me.

“Mirthday Man [Anagram (A Pun)],” 1997, Inkjet dye and pigment transfer on polylaminate. (There’s that “transfer” word, again.) Rauschenberg’s later works are the most overlooked part of his career, in my opinion. Maybe it’s because he was so prolific (Calvin Tomkins estimated he had created 6,000 works by 2005, not including multiples16), or maybe it’s because some critics seemed to feel he ran out of ideas earlier on and stopped paying attention. Whatever the reason, the feeling seems to reach into Museums. In New York, it’s rare to see a later Rauschenberg on view in a museum. I think this will all change. To my eyes, his later works are among his most beautiful. While he still loves to finesse an image, and modify it in countless ways, he’s finally perfected getting Photographs into his works in excellent color & resolution-when he wants them that way. He began using Apple Macintosh computers circa 1991 or 1992, back in the day when they were still called “Macintosh.” He was an early adaptor of using digital technology with photographs, though the results of his earlier processes shows that he was getting some of the same layering and modification effects that many Artists now achieve in Photoshop, etc. back in the late 1950’s. In fact, what many Artists do today in Photoshop, etc. looks to me like what Rauschenberg was doing years before digital Photo manipulation. It’s interesting that in his very late work (like the series “Scenarios,”(an example from which I showed last time, and “Runts,” 2005-08) the photos are left entirely on their own to dialogue with each other. “Mirthday Man,” from his “Anagram, A Pun series, (which I wrote about here), is a masterpiece of his later period. Created on a single day, the Artist’s 72 birthday in 1997, it’s images occupy their own spaces and are not layered. While he “modifies” them, the clarity of the base image still shines through. Because they seem scraped or cut up and used in sections, they have a collaged look. Slightly to the left of center is a full x-ray of Rauschenberg’s body from 30 years earlier. (It’s the common denominator with “Booster,” 1967, which hangs adjacent to it in the large later works gallery.) The images seem impossibly random, and white space is also beginning to come in. The front of an NYC Firetruck (taken near his studio on Lafayette Street), a spoked wheel and an umbrellas (images he’s used frequently), sports jerseys (with a lot of 9’s, 2’s, and 1’s. I looked long and hard, but I couldn’t make out his birthday out of these numbers- 10/22), Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (near the upper right corner. Strangely faded here, it’s an image he also used in “Rebus,” 1955. The Botticelli is as close as I got to a “birth day” reference…so far! Since most of them are Photographs he took, perhaps the work is a bit of a personal scrapbook, looking back on an extraordinarily eventful & productive 71 years in a way that looks like the way memory often works- in fragments. Whereas he called the x-ray a “self-portrait of inner man,” the rest of the composition is something akin to a portrait of where that man has been, seen in seemingly random moments in dream-like fragments.

He would still have 10 more birthdays to show us the inner man, and everything he saw outside of himself.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “I’m Looking Through You,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

Thanks to Gina Guy & David White, of the Rauschenberg Foundation, for their assistance.

Oh! One final work…by request. It was in the show, but it’s not by Rauschenberg…

“Bob Rauschenberg in Birdo,” 1973, by Oyvind Fahlstrom. Per MoMA- “In this work, Fahlstrom affectionately reimagined Rauschenberg’s name in “Birdo,” a language he invented based on American bird sounds….”

I wonder who could have requested it…

On the Fence #11, Among (Feathered) Friends” Edition

This is Part 2 of my 3 Part series on the shows in this “Summer of Rauschenberg.” Part 1 is above this Part (or here). Part 3, which looks at the 4 “satellite” shows going on around town is below this one, here

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” in “Silence.” You can hear him read it here.
  2. Calvin Tomkins “Off The Wall,” P. 116
  3. Calvin Tomkins “Off the Wall,” P.124
  4. http://wildspeak.com/animalenergies/goat.html
  5. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/saltz1-11-06.asp
  6.  https://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/audio/rausch-ritch2.html
  7. Glenn Lowry in “Robert Rauschenberg: 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” MoMA P.7
  8. “Off the Wall,” P.143
  9. Quoted in “Robert Rauschenberg: 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” MoMA P.9
  10. It’s, apparently, a big deal even to MoMA, itself, who released a limited edition complete set of prints of them in 500 copies for as many dollars, in honor. Unfortunately, as nice as the limited edition is, comparing it’s prints to the real thing reveals the extremely subtle colors of the originals to be slightly off in the prints to my eyes.
  11. “Off the Wall, P.146
  12. Calvin Tomkins Archives at MoMA.
  13. “Off the Wall,” P. 181
  14. https://www.villagevoice.com/2006/01/03/still-rabble-rousing/
  15. Independent Obituary, 5/14/2008.
  16. “Off the Wall,” P.283

Rauschenberg Around Town: Found Objects

This is the third, and final, part of my series on the “Summer of Rauschenberg”- 5 shows related to Robert Rauschenberg from May though September 30.

Being New York, of course 250 pieces by Robert Rauschenberg on view at MoMA’s “Among Friends” (which I wrote about in Part 1 and Part 2) wasn’t going to be enough for many. Guilty. To the rescue came 4 satellite shows that provided a chance to see more, and even explore lesser known genres of the Artist’s prolific output. With “Among Friends,” they combined to create a fuller, if still not complete, picture of Rauschenberg’s accomplishment. The shows were (in no particular order)-

-“Robert Rauschenberg: Rookery Mounds,” and “Selected Series from the 60s & 70s,” at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl Gallery,
-“Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects,
-“Robert Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art, and
-“Susan Weil: Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery (Susan Weill was Rauschenberg’s first collaborator, and later his wife & mother of their son, Christopher. Divorced a few years later, she has continued her Art career to this day.)

Among these, too, highlights were plentiful. At Chelsea’s Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl, it was more like a revelation.

Rauschenberg at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl. Click any image to see it full size.

As I’ve said in Part 1, I’ve been obsessed with Rauschenberg’s Photography, and was a bit disappointed it wasn’t given a more thorough assessment at Moma’s “Among Friends,” and so I continued to explore it’s progression as part of his work in the other shows. “Rookery Mounds,” a series from 1979, turned out to be as close as I got to a breakthrough.

5 of the 11 lithographs comprising Rauschenberg’s “Rookery Mounds” series, 1979. This was the first time the complete set has been on view since their debut at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1979

Rauschenberg finally started using his own Photographs, exclusively, in his collaboration with Trisha Brown, “Glacial Decoy,” 1979,  (which was on view at MoMA’s “Among Friends,” as I mentioned, and showed in Part 1 of this series. In that work, 620 Rauschenberg Photographs were displayed by themselves as the background for the dancers in a constantly changing series of 4 Photos). He subsequently used Photographs from the body of them he created for “Glacial Decoy” in the series “Glacial Decoy Series Etchings” and “Glacial Decoy Series Lithographs.” He also used them in the series “Rookery Mounds,”1979, a gorgeous and very important series of 11 prints. These 3 series have a completely different look and feel, to me, from all that has come before. The Photos are shown pretty much on their own in groups, with minimal layering, and, apparently, no surface scraping, washes or other modifications, (besides tinting), and no painting over. They beg the question- “WHY didn’t he do this before?” It took a lawsuit for “borrowing” a Photograph by someone else, without permission, to get Rauschenberg, one of the most under-rated Photographers I can think of, to FINALLY feature his own Photographs in his work.

Hallejulah!

In “Rookery Mounds,” they are displayed in the most wonderful combination of wildly disparate images, that somehow…magically work together.

“Level,” left, “Steel Arbor,” right. Both, 1979, Lithographs from “Rookery Mounds”

After looking at so much of his earlier work, the difference is immediately apparent, and startling. In these three series there is a new “clarity” that is different from most of what’s come before, and strikes me as (the beginning of) a new plateau where his Photographs, in higher resolution than ever,  allow him unprecedented image clarity, when he wants it (as here, and in the “Scenarios,” 2002-06, and “Runts,” 2007, series, at the end of his career), and, with layering, painting, and other modifications in the “Anagrams,” 1995-97, “Anagrams (A Pun),” 1997, and “Arcadian Retreats,” 1996, series, which I wrote about in 2015. Other series, like the “Waterworks,” 1992-95, straddle the line between modified/unmodified images. After watching his use of images progress from his Black Mountain Photographs in the late 1940’s, to the Blueprints and the mid-1950’s Combines and Combine Paintings, to the Dante Illustration transfer drawings through the Silkscreen Paintings, it feels like he finally found what he had been seeking all along. Am I saying these are “better” than works containing the Photos of others? No. I don’t believe in those kinds of comparisons. I’m saying that it feels the “Glacial Decoy” graphic works represent a new style of presentation in his work that is different from what came before, which usually used (more) layering, and I find it to be equally as valid, and to my eyes, perhaps even more beautiful. Those who feel that Rauschenberg ran out of ideas at some point may want to take a look at these.

“”Rookery Mounds-Crystal,” left and “”Rookery Mounds-Masthead,” right. Both, 1979, Lithographs from “Rookery Mounds”

Given recent events, one of them, “Level,” shown above, struck me as ironically prescient…38 years later.

This could have been a real front page a few weeks ago. Detail of “Level.” It’s ironic that Rauschenberg put this image of water engulfing wood poles on the cover of the Fort Meyers News-Press, as Hurricane Irma, unfortunately, put much of the area under water. Rauschenberg’s studio & home complex on nearby Captiva Island, managed to escape major damage, I’m told.

Why at least one of these weren’t at MoMA in “Among Friends,” is a question I can’t answer. For the rest of his career he would use his own Photographs, until a stroke denied him the use of his right (Photographing & Painting) arm in the early 2000’s, requiring him to have others take Photos for him. “Rookery Mounds” is a shining example of why I feel his later work, AND his Photography, are under-appreciated. Rauschenberg was not only the master of the found object in the 2nd half of the century, he was also a master of capturing what I call the “found moment” in his Photographs. Most importantly, the “Glacial Decoy” project rekindled Rauschenberg’s love of Photography. In the late 1940’s he had agonized about whether to be a Painter of a Photographer. He chose to be a Painter. Now? He’d never look back. His “found moments,” and “found objects” would be central to his work for the rest of his career.

“Rookery Mounds- Gray Garden,” left, and “Rookery Mounds-Night Tork,” both 1979, right

Along with “Rookery Mounds,” two other rooms featured other works from the 60’s and 70’s, and the discoveries continued. These include a number of Rauschenberg’s work in corrugated cardboard in a series he called “Cardbirds,” 1971, along side a series of pieces that LOOK every bit like cardboard but are, in fact, made of clay- the “Tampa Clay Pieces 1-4,” 1972-3.

No, this is not made of cardboard . “Tampa Clay Piece 1,” 1972-3, Fired clay with screen printed decal and soil patina.

Then there was a set of lithographs- supplementary plates for the deluxe edition of the “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” from 1964. Completely entrhalled by the Dante set, as I wrote about in both prior installments of this series, seeing these darker, black & white works, added new dimensions to them. They share so much with both the Dante pieces, and also with his Screenprint Paintings, also from 1964. JFK appears here as well, among a number of contemporaries, which serves to really act as a bridge between two major series in Rauschenberg’s career.

“Ark,” from the deluxe edition of “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1964,

And, there was this-

“Bellini,” #4, 1988, Intaglio in 7 colors on Arches paper. Giovanni Bellini’s “Allegory of Vanitas,” c.1490 completely restaged.

Down in SoHo, a gem of a show featured rarely seen pieces in a well known but little studied genre of Rauschenberg’s work- Show Posters. Todd Alden and Alden Projects presented a fascinating array of Posters by Rauschenberg, and Artists in his “Early Network,” including Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, in a show of the same title. The Posters include both unique designs and designs adopted from existing works, or Photographs. Little known is that Rauschenberg created show Posters, continuously, for most of his career. A very nice selection of them from 1959-72, along with an incredible selection of ephemera from the “9 Evenings” theatrical collaboration between Artists and Bell Labs engineers in 1966 was on view. Shows of Rauschenberg’s Posters haven’t happened often after they were included in the 1977 Rauschenberg show that Walter Hopps curated for the National Collection of Fine Arts, which travelled to MoMA.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects. Installation view. Left are Posters for shows by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg from the early 1960’s.

Especially memorable were two wonderful Posters by Rauschenberg for his 2nd week of November, 1961 show at Leo Castelli and his first retrospective in 1963 at the Jewish Museum, curated by Alan Solomon. Both are revelations. The 1961 Castelli Poster is particularly brilliant.- wonderfully making sly reference to Rauschenberg’s love of the found object.

Poster for Leo Castelli’s November, 1961 show, showing folds which was the way it came. Photo courtesy of Alden Projects.

What could be more Rauschenberg then to see the announcement for the show, and it’s title, among a pile of debris, where they, too, become “found objects”- like his materials? Not to mention it’s also a great Photograph, and appears as such in the book, “Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949-62 1, though it was, no doubt, taken with the intention of being used for show publicity.

The Jewish Museum piece is both historically important, being for the first ever Rauschenberg Retrospective (the Artist was all of 37), a major event being the first such show at the museum. It was followed by a similar show for Jasper Johns, who also created a wonderful “Flag” Poster which is included in the show, the next year.

Rauschenberg’s rare Poster for his now legendary Retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1963 features a work unique to this Poster, and the accompanying lithograph..

An audacious work. Rauschenberg was in the middle of his Silkscreen Paintings period, yet this work seems to me to have even more rawness than they do. His handwriting has an edgy look, too. Speaking of “edgy,” stylistically, it presages “punk” rock posters by 13 years.  The lettering of his name on the top reminds me a bit of the “game” he played with his name in signing “Ace,” 1962, with the R separated from the “auschenberg” by 3 entire panels (see Part 2). Here he moves the “G,” and mirrors the first “R,” leaving “auschenber” looking a bit stranded. The mirroring of the “R” could be seen as mimicking his fondness for including mirrors of various kinds in his works. Given the historical importance of this show- the first retrospective of his work, in 1963, only 10 years after the Arno River incident I led off Part 1 of this series about, and the first retrospective presented at the Jewish Museum, it’s a remarkable piece all around. The only familiar image from the Silkscreen series Rauchenberg brought with him to this Poster appears to be the partially filled glass of water, which could be a reference to the fact that at the time, the Artist was only 37 and had been creating for about 13-15 years. He would go on to create for another 45 years. The glass of his career was barely 1/3 full by that point.

Prophetic. Rauschenberg “Art & Technology” Letterhead, from around the time of “9 Evenings” (1966), an epic series of theatrical collaborations between Artists & Bell Lab engineers at the 26th Street Armory. Rauschenberg’s piece was the infamous “Open Score” tennis match, used technologically enhanced rackets that controlled the lights in the Armory. One of the two players was Artist Frank Stella. “Open Score” may be seen here. Photo courtesy of Alden Projects.

Over at “Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art in Chelsea, this large work served to be another example of Rauschenberg bringing the viewer into his work, something he does often, as I pointed out in Part 1. In this case, not only is there a chair as there is in “Pilgrim,” 1960, which I wrote about in Part 1, by 1990, Rauschenberg has become fascinated with reflective/shiny metallic surfaces, which, as seen below, reflect (mirror) whatever is in front of them, bringing the room, and the viewer into the work (and making Photographing it challenging).

“Pegasits, from ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works),” 1990, Screenprint, wax, polished steel with painted wood chair. 8 feet by 6 feet.

“Susan Weil: Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery. The first collaborator of Robert Rauschenberg, as was beautifully shown at MoMA’s “Among Friends,” where Susan Weil is Rauschenberg’s collaborator, and subject, of their large blueprint piece, “Sue,” ca. 1950, (which I showed near the beginning of Part 2 of this series), married Rauschenberg in the summer of 1950. They had a child, Christopher, now the head of the Rauschenberg Foundation, but separated almost a year later, and divorced in 1953, though they remained close after separating. Sharing much of the same Art education background with Rauschenberg, including both going to Black Mountain College beginning in 1948, her Art career had a solid foundation. So, it’s no surprise that she has continued creating, now, for almost 60 years. Their romantic relationship now looks like a small part of her long career.

So, what has she been up to since? A selection of her work from 1972 to date was on view at Sundaram Tagore Gallery this past June, into July, though it was heavily slanted to newer work, with 12 of the 24 pieces on view being from 2016-17.

“Susan Weil: Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery Installation view.

A number of recurring themes were included. Hands- seen in “Leftovers,” below, which extrapolates the hands from da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” and “Percept Prespect,” shows three views of a cupped hand in the shape of  triangles, with each succeeding one receding into space/getting closer to the wall. The effect is akin to falling into the open palm, complete with a sense of space within the work. Trees were, also, the subject of a few works. Her work often has a sculptural element to it, as if it is coming out from the wall to meet the viewer. Many of the works reveal a fondness for using unusual materials and taking images apart. Also on view was a vitrine containing a selection from her journals, which she has been keeping all along.

Susan Weil, “Percept Prespect,” 2015-16, Inkjet print mounted on paper mounted on Dibond, Each shape is set at different receding distances from the wall, large to small.

Susan Weil, “Leftovers,” 2015, Digital printing on acrylic sheeting and painted aluminum.

Coming full circle. As she had begun doing with Rauschenberg in the late 1940’s Susan Weil has continued making Blueprints. Here, “Penumbrella,” 2009, Blueprint. Umbrellas, also, appear frequently in Rauschenberg.

It might be tempting to look for Rauschenberg in her work, but that would be doing both of them a disservice. Susan Weil was “there at the beginning,” and they collaborated for a good many of both of their formative Artistic years. Personally, though there may be some “intriguing echoes” in her work, I don’t see anything more to it than that. She has continually stood on her own and followed her own path, and it was a rare pleasure to see such an interesting overview of her accomplishments.

In thinking about the “sum” effect (sorry) of these 5 shows, the name Man Ray came to mind. They have quite a few things in common. They both worked in an extremely wide range of mediums and broke boundaries in every one. Both had Artistic friends who were associated with various Art “movements,” yet they, themselves, remained beyond category. Both have areas of their achievement that is under-known. Yet, in all the research I did Ray’s name never came up as an influence, or, in fact, was never mentioned in the Rauschenberg interviews I’ve seen, though Man Ray only died in 1976. Of course, some have compared Rauschenberg to Picasso, also because of that wide range of mediums, and because of how innovative both were. While Rauschenberg saw Picasso’s work early on in Paris, and wanted to meet him, I don’t know if he ever did. Rauschenberg strikes me as an Artist who, primarily, especially early on, was living in the moment, perhaps as influenced by his creative friends (including older friends/acquaintances who were Abstract Expressionists) as by Art history (some of his works from the mid-1950’s on feature pieces of masterpieces from the past, like “Bellini #4, 1988, shown earlier, though there is more visual evidence to say that more recent Art history may have been an influence on him- as something to break away from, while he adapted some of it’s techniques). Though Man Ray worked in many mediums, and is, perhaps, best known for his Photographs, he, like Rauschenberg, considered himself a Painter. In 1961, Ray said this about Photography and Painting- “I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence2.” It’s hard not to see Rauschenberg in that, too..

Mind the gap. Say “Goodbye” to “the Summer of Rauschenberg.”

“Now I’m standing in a doorway with my overcoat on
It really feels like summer’s gone”*

Making 25 trips to these shows from June 1, though their closing on September 30th, these Posts could well be titled “What I Did This Summer.” Taken as a whole, I think these 5 shows could be summed up in one word- “Surprise.” One of the magical things about looking at a Rauschenberg is that you never really see all of it. Certain parts of it speak to you one time, something else the next. It looks different…new to you, each time you see it. Then, there are the works you’ve never seen, since he was so prolific for so long, that surprise you for being unfamiliar. On my first visit, and on my 25th visit there were surprises- new details that altered my thinking about a work, new connections with other works, recent or past, and, new possibilities from them for the future.

I’m not alone in seeing those “new possibilities.” Right now? I can’t think of another Artist who is more influential on other Artists based on what I see in shows these days than Robert Rauschenberg. Not even Picasso.

As the elevator doors closed on my final visit to a Rauschenberg related show this summer, as shown above, I was reminded of his quote from the 1959 MoMA catalog for the show “16 Americans,” “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in the gap between the two).” In that “gap” is where I spent my summer.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Summer’s Gone,” as recorded by The Kinks. Words & Music by Ray Davies, publisher unknown. R.I.P.-Tom Petty.

Thanks to Gina Guy & David White, of the Rauschenberg Foundation, for their assistance

On the Fence,” #12, The Mind the Canyon” Edition. (The Postscript to this episode follows, below.)

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  1. as item 109 on Page 217
  2. Undated interview, circa 1970s; published in Man Ray: Photographer, 1981.

Rauschenbird Postscript

“On The Fence, #13,” the Sail on Silverbirds Edition.* Continued from “On The Fence, #12,” here (scroll to the bottom). (In response to queries…Yes. The fence’s railing was recently painted silver. )

*-“Sail on silver bird…” is a paraphrase of “Sail on silver girl” from the Soundtrack for this Post- “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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Rod Penner’s Neighborhood

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”*

In 1927, the Painter & Photographer Charles Steeler spent six weeks Photographing the 2,000 acre Ford Rouge plant in Detroit on assignment for an ad agency1. So taken by what he had seen there, over the next 9 years, he produced a series of Paintings of the plant based on the Photos he took. While both his Photos and his Paintings are now seen as classics, that’s perhaps the closest an Artist has come to creating a series of Paintings of a small neighborhood as seen at the same time. Now, the Artist Rod Penner tells me he has completed one such series. “Mr. Penner’s Neighborhood” (with apologies to Fred “Mr.” Rogers) of choice for his series of 2015-17 Paintings is San Saba, Texas, a town of about 3,000, an hour north of Austin, as seen in the source material he collected in various mediums (plural- they consist of more than Photographs he told me), during a trip he took there early one winter Saturday morning. To date, they had numbered 10 Paintings, 9 of which were shown at “Rod Penner,” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery, NYC in May2, (which I wrote about here and here. My follow-up “Q & A” with Rod Penner is here.)

“San Saba Butane,” 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 15 inches. Photo courtesy Rod Penner and Ameringer McEnery & Yohe. The first work in Rod Penner’s “San Saba Series,” and was not in the AMY show. Comparing this to the smaller work with the same title, I wrote about here, is endlessly fascinating. Click any to enlarge.

The tenth, (actually, the first to be completed in 2015), above, gives us a view of “San Saba Butane” seen from the side, which contrasts with the smaller painting of the same title that captivated me at the show where San Saba Butane is seen from the front. This perspective makes it part of a neighborhood, and not seem to be an island. A neighborhood where the other buildings seem to be in better condition, and most likely still in use. Here, it still looks like a relic, just a relic that is part of a large community, something we don’t often think of relics being. Interestingly for me, the lone car is stopped at a light, the only time this occurs in the San Saba series, as if symbolizing time standing still here.

The new 11th, and final, painting in his series is, interestingly, entitled “Welcome to San Saba.” I quickly moved past the irony of ending a series with a work that would seem to indicate it was the first work in the series to look at this photo of it.

The 11th and final work in Rod Penner’s San Saba Series, “Welcome to San Saba,” 2017, Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 15 inches. Photo by Rod Penner. Courtesy of the Artist and Ameringer McEnery Yohe.

Ah…G & R Grocery (cut off on the right), The Station (dead ahead, left of center)…some familiar sights from their own works in the show…the familiar damp streets… Yet? Much was new to me.  Take the mural on the yellowish wall seen facing us to the right of center, for instance. During the run of the show, I looked long and hard at the miniature version of that mural alongside the G & R in it’s 5 x 7 1/2 inch painting at Ameringer, below, where it is seen at a sharp angle, trying, in vain, to see what it depicted.

Flashback. “G & R Grocery,” 2016, 5 x 7 1/2 inches, as seen in the Ameringer show in May.

Seeing it now, face on, is “another part of the puzzle.” It’s a picture in a picture that adds a surreal element to this work, especially because we can’t really see all of the storefronts along the side of “Welcome to San Saba,” and so it seems to ask the question “Is THIS San Saba? Or, is what’s in the mural San Saba?” Well, I hear that hunting is second only to pecans as a business in San Saba, so? They both are. Maybe that’s why the deer in the mural has that “in the headlights” look, which mimics the distant car with it’s headlights on coming down the street. While we’re busy pondering all of that, one thing’s for sure, besides that car, there’s not a heck of a lot going on.

The perspective giving us this view strikes me as brilliantly subtle. We’re not exactly in the street, or on the curb. We’re not looking exactly straight down the sidewalk, or really, right down the street. Only the mural is seen whole, balanced by the facade of “The Station,” across the street in the distance. The pavement is masterfully done, as usual. It’s astounding, really. Right down to the varying degrees of wetness, and that horizontal crack breaking things up. While we’re admiring Mr. Penner’s technique, other visual pleasures include what can be seen of the facades of the stores seen in perspective, the peeling paint on the mural wall, and of course, the “Penneresque” skies, as I call them, this one different from some of the rest because it’s lacks any hint of the sun breaking through, or being covered up, as in the larger SS Butane. The bare tree on the left marvelously balances the piece, and is, like everything else, wonderfully done.

Flashback #2. “View of San Saba,” 2017, 5 x 7 1/2 inches. Looking down the same street as “Welcome to San Saba,” which takes place halfway up the road on the right, as seen at Ameringer in May.

Finally, there are the many festive lights, including those that run along the top of all the buildings, reinforcing that it’s the holiday season, which adds more poignancy for the viewer. The lack of people and cars, except for the distant one approaching makes this feel more haunting to me than “View of San Saba,” above, possibly because we’re not in the middle of the street now, and we’re right among the buildings. Odd for that time of year, there’s almost no activity, no one is shopping, doing errands, etc., save for the headlights of the car approaching in the distance.

It’s more than a terrific Painting. It’s a worthy end to a compelling, unique series.

As importantly, the more I looked at it, the more I realized it was effecting some of my thoughts about the rest of the series, and making me see “more” in them. As I mentioned last time, this series presents different views of much of the same small neighborhood in each succeeding work, with each angle presenting new information, and giving a new perspective. A subtly engrossing concept that adds another layer to the already meditative nature of his work, which takes us from pondering individual scenes to assessing the larger community, seen in the first, and last two works in the series. Assessing them, I’m reminded that I paid so little mention to the “Holiday” aspects I just mentioned that, also, recur in some of these works- “Yard Inflatables,” and “The Station,” as seen at Ameringer, (a pic of “The Station” I Posted previously). This combined with the universal absence of people, the often darkening skies lends a sense of isolation, even lonelieness that feels (to me, at least) akin to that in Hopper. But, that is the real joy of looking, and seeing what they say to you. Your results may differ.

It’s the holidays in the neighborhood. Rod Penner, “Yard Inflatables,” 2016, 6 x 6 inches, seen at Ameringer.

“Yard Inflatables” is, also, a charming example of Mr. Penner’s subtle humor. Something that also appears, in somewhat subtler form, in “Welcome to San Saba,” possibly in the title, itself. Mr. Penner, who describes himself as “an avid hunter, big on wildlife management and conservation,” also had to tell  me (because I’d never have guessed) the mural is a bit of a jab at some of his  some of his anti-hunting friends, and sent this photo of the actual mural along. I’m sure most residents disagree, but I like his version of it much better.

“Welcome to San Saba” Mural. Photo by, and courtesy of, Rod Penner. Interestingly different perspective than seen in the Painting.

The photo of the mural also puts yet another nail in the coffin of what’s called “photorealism,” something that has less and less to do with Mr. Penner’s work the more I see of it. Just compare it to the mural in the painting. So, if Rod Penner is not a “photorealist,” what is he? He’s an Artist. It’s becoming apparent to me that he is directly in the line of “American Realists”3 that goes all the way back to Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), and extends up through George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), the Hudson River School (including Thomas Cole 1801-1848 and Sanford Gifford 1823-1880),  Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), and yes, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood are among others included by many). Not a bad “neighborhood” to be in. Speaking of those “neighbors,” I find myself wishing the whole series had gone to a museum, like the Whitney, where it would look wonderful along side their Hoppers and Sheelers, while showing that tradition is alive and well in 2017.

Rod Penner’s “San Saba Series,” strikes me as walking that line between intimacy and distance. Standing in front of someone’s house, especially at Christmas, has an intimacy to it that it probably wouldn’t have seen at any other time of the year. The owners are “letting us in” a little bit into who they are through their decorations. So is the town with it’s “public” holiday decorations, seen in the streets of “The Station” and “Welcome to San Saba.” Yet, there is an undeniable distance and an almost foreboding sense of isolation that’s reinforced by the ever-present, slightly ominous “Penneresque” skies. Works like the smaller “San Saba Butane” are not at all welcoming. Even if you were to venture inside the crumbling building, you wouldn’t really “be” anywhere. “View of San Saba,” above, the next to last work Mr. Penner completed, is also not welcoming. We may be risking our lives standing in the middle of that street for long with our backs turned. In “Welcome to San Saba, some lights are on, but nobody’s out. It’s a bit reminiscent of those old western movies when the bad guys come to town and everyone’s hunkered down indoors.

As the 9 Paintings at Ameringer McEnery Yohe sold, I now feel lucky to have been able to see that many of them in one place, since their “interaction” adds so much, as I’ve tried to show, and since who knows when that might happen again. Walking through these 11 Paintings, in my mind now, “Mr. Penner’s Neighborhood” still fascinates me and still makes me look deeper. I guess I’ve become a neighbor.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” by Fred M. (“Mr.”) Rogers.

On The Fence, #9, The Sitting Ducks” Edition

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  1. Some may be seen here.
  2. The show’s site is here.
  3. With all due respect to great Realists the world over.

On Buying Art

For NighthawkNYC’s 2nd Anniversary, I decided to share some thoughts based on my experiences buying Art over 3+ decades. I hope they’re useful. My thank yous for year 2 appear at the end. 

Everyone should have something that speaks to them on their walls or in their space.

It could be something personal, something from your past, or, it could be a piece of Art. If you find both lacking in your space(s), I hope you’ll think about changing that and seeing what it adds to your life. If you choose something personal? You’re on your own. If you would like to try a piece of Art? I’d like to share my experiences and thoughts about it with you, for whatever they’re worth.

Todd Hido “Untitled #7910,” from “House Hunting,” 2012, seen at AIPAD, as I mentioned, here. It only took me 2 trips to see it to buy it. It’s me, right? Click to enlarge.

Of course, you could make something yourself. Most people take photos, so it might be worthwhile to get them all together and go through them and see if you have one you’d like to print and display. Or, you could create something from scratch- a Drawing, a Painting, a Sculpture, or…? While almost no one is a brilliant Artist right away, if you’re determined to create something that speaks to you and you feel proud enough of to display? With a bit of work, you might surprise yourself with the results. But, if you decide to buy something, there are some things to consider. Since I don’t know how much readers might be looking to spend on Art, I’m going to take the big picture view of it, to include as many cases as possible. If you haven’t bought Art before, it’s probably something you don’t want to rush right in to. While there could be a virtually endless amount to learn if you want to do this on a “serious” level, there are some essential things to keep in mind when you’re starting out that I think also apply to those with experience buying Art.

Of course, setting an amount you’re comfortable spending of your budget is essential. It’s too easy to spend over your means on Art and that might well mean having to sell it quickly, usually at a loss. I’ll call this budgeted amount “$X” since it varies by person. Once that amount has been determined, over many years, there’s one thing I’ve learned that, as far as I’m concerned, comes closest to being THE #1 “Rule” for buying Art-

ONLY BUY WHAT YOU LOVE.

Buying only what you love establishes your philosophical approach to buying Art. There’s a number of reasons I recommend this approach, most importantly the long term satisfaction with your purchase. If you love something, you’re going to enjoy it more than something you don’t, right?

Should I buy it? Umm…What is it? Is it Art? I think it’s actually an air vent for the 8th Ave Subway under it until some clever fellow decided to try to sell it for a cool 1.2 million. Maybe he was kidding? Well? I’ve been known to laugh at asking prices, too.

Of course, any time you spend more than a few hundred dollars on something, the investment aspect of it comes into play. Before you buy, look at comparable examples of the Artist’s work and see what they have sold for and when. After you buy the work, you should continue to do this- how often is up to you. But, in terms of buying Art purely because of what it’s value may be in the future? That’s an unknown. NO ONE knows what’s going to happen to Art prices in 5 years, or 50 years, or 200 years. Therefore, this can’t be your main reason for buying Art. Plain and simply, buying Art primarily for investment purposes is nothing but a crap shoot. The Art market has gone up and down during my lifetime, something that those who have only been in it for the past decade of rising prices can’t imagine. IF, heavens forbid, the Art market tanks, again…No. Not “IF.” WHEN the Art market tanks, again, and the piece you own becomes worth less than you paid for it, you can still get real value from it by enjoying it, IF you love it.

“Cos I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love.”*

They’re a bit more “bullish” on the “Art market” than I am.

I say “When the Art market tanks, again,” because the historical data shows that it’s VERY likely to happen. Sooner, rather than later. NOTHING goes up for ever- not even NYC real estate. Across the board, Art prices are as high right now as they’ve ever been. I look long, hard and generally fruitlessly to find any Artist who is “undervalued” today, and that includes many Artists who are not even in major museum collections yet. Is this sustainable? Very possibly not. Will prices go higher? Maybe. Will they go A LOT higher? I’m not convinced. I’ll put it this way- Right now, in my opinion, in general, there is far more risk that prices will go down than there is the chance they will go a lot higher (an increase of 40%, or more).

As strange as this might sound to say, I also believe that the Art market going through a substantial downturn might not be a bad thing all the way around. Yes, there will be a ton of pain. Many Art galleries and some institutions will no longer be with us, and many jobs will be lost. Many Artists will turn to other fields of endeavors. I may not have anything left to write about. None of these things are good, and I don’t want any of them to happen. Yet, it might also return some semblance of sanity to the Art market. If the investors are out of Art, only Art lovers will be left.

Ok. So now that I’ve gotten the negativity out of the way (i.e. the risk), let’s get back to why you want to buy Art- because you love Art. In the end? I think that people will always love Art. Some/many/most of them will want to have some in their spaces. Those are the people I’m talking to here. If you buy Art you love? Your risk is less than someone who buys it as an investment. As an Art lover, the good news is that even now you don’t have to spend a fortune to buy Art. There is Art for sale at every price imaginable. Set a budget and you’re good to go.

Whether you should, or shouldn’t buy something will rarely be this easy to know.

If you’re buying Art today, or in the future, here are a few things to keep in mind-

First, educate yourself as much as you can about the Artist, the piece, the medium it’s created in (Is it a Painting? A Drawing? A Limited Edition Print? Or…what?). Does it appear in any book on the Artist? If so, what does the author say about it (description, dimensions, year created, size, etc.). Does all of this match the piece you’re considering? If so, this is good, but it may not completely close the question of authenticity, forgery, or being “right” I’ll get to in a moment. The second part is to educate yourself on the Artist’s “market”- what is their work selling for. Selling for. Not what people are asking for it. What are people actually paying for it. People are free to ask whatever they want for it (like our friend with the air vent, above). But? ANYthing is ONLY worth what someone is willing to pay for it. How do you find all of this, and more, out? You have to dig.

Going up to dig. Once a week I climb these stairs to The Strand’s Art Book Dept on the 2nd floor. More often if I’m really stumped.

Second, is it genuine? This is a very sticky question that, unfortunately, rears it’s head in almost every Art transaction- or, it should. I will say that it seems to me that forgers seem to focus on Artists who have a certain status, and a well-paying market, but you never know. Pieces that are “not right” in some meaningful way (they’re damaged, repaired, mis-identified, stolen, “sketchy” is some other way, etc.) are more common in my experience. You want to know you’re getting what you paid for. What does the Artist’s genuine signature look like? What are the telltale signs of his or her style, and on and on. Is it an original (one of a kind) piece, or is it a limited edition? If it’s a one of a kind- is it signed, dated or titled? Does it appear in the Artist’s Catalogue Raisonne, or other authoritative guide? If it’s a Limited Edition- How many copies are in the edition, how many “Artist’s Proofs” are there, and what was the Artist’s involvement in making the print, are some of what I’d need to know. You may never get to be expert enough to replace the opinion of a real expert but it’s your money and you should know as much as you can about what you’re buying. I stay away from pieces that are not signed by the Artist. Why? Though they are, generally, (much) cheaper, I want to have that connection, and it means less chance of a forgery or an unauthorized edition. I also stay away from prints that are “open editions,” because, in theory, additional prints can be created indefinitely, and the larger number there is of anything out there, the less valuable it generally is1.

I KNOW this Raymond Pettibon Owl sketch & signature are genuine because he drew them right in front of me. “Obtained directly from the Artist,” is, also, the best provenance there is, though the hardest to get.

Third- What condition is it in? You may need an expert’s opinion on this, and you should get one if the work is over 50 years old or you’re spending substantial money on it, but you should look it, and whatever supporting documentation the seller has for it, over carefully yourself. If he doesn’t have it? That’s likely a deal breaker. I think you want to get in the habit of getting complete documentation for the Art you buy which may include a receipt, the provenance, a letter of authenticity from an expert or someone personally involved with the Artist, a condition report, etc. Learning the terms of, and some of the ins and outs of the various mediums (Oil Painting, Acrylic Painting, Watercolor Painting, Drawing, etc) will help you and help you understand what the experts tell you. Old paintings may have been subject to restoration, cleaning, or even additional painting added to it by others, and these are very sticky waters for any Art buyer- even museums2. If you’re buying a piece that is already framed, it is possible the frame is hiding damage that could materially effect the value. At some price level, it becomes imperative the work be examined unframed, and the seller may, or may not, be willing to do this.

Pettibon, again. Very rare among Artists, his work is pretty easy to examine unframed at his shows, but any buyer of it should immediately take it to a framer. A view of part of the final room of “A Pen of All Works,” at the New Museum, includes work he created right on the wall itself!

Fourth- Who am I buying this from? What is their background and area of specialty & expertise, and is this Artist in that area? What is their connection to this piece, and to the Artist? Do they represent the Artist, or their estate? What is the provenance of the piece? I will not buy a piece without a known provenance, and ask it be spelled out in writing by the seller. Why? Whoever buys this piece from you will ask you for it, and it helps assure me the work is not stolen. How knowledgable is the seller about this specific work, and it’s condition? Anyone who knowingly withholds information about damage or something “not right” with a piece is not ethical, and shouldn’t be in business. But? They’re out there. It’s happened to me. They’ll claim they “missed it,” so? Buyer beware. What’s the return policy if something turns out to not be “right?” Ideally. you want to buy from someone who stands behind what they’re selling and what they’re saying about it. There are an unlimited number of people and places selling Art these days. I’m not going to recommend any one. (Oh, and for the record, no one sponsors me). However, I will say that I think if you’re buying Art for the first time, go and look at it in person. Buying Art online that you’ve never seen in person is hard for an experienced Art buyer, very hard for an inexperienced one. For one thing you can’t get the full effect of the piece, in my opinion, from a photo, and you can’t assess things like condition and damage anywhere near properly enough from one. Terms vary by seller. Look over them closely before you commit to buying anything from anyone. Learn to develop your own terms- what you require and what you won’t accept regarding payment, paperwork, returns & refunds, authenticity, condition, etc. If you see something that doesn’t sound reasonable, or is against your terms, walk away. Keep in mind that where limited edition prints are concerned there’s a chance you can find the same item being sold by someone else, especially if it’s less than 10-15 years old.

Almost every window in this Photo is of an Art gallery on West 26th Street, which is full of them from 10th to 11th Avenues, as are many of the adjoining Chelsea streets.

It’s vital to get out there and look. Books and the internet can provide information, but there’s still no substitute for seeing Art in person, as I said, especially when you are forming your tates. Even if nothing is being offered for sale (as in a museum show), you’ll learn something every time you look. See what’s being shown and how your feel about it. Gradually, your tastes will come into focus. Wait until you get “that feeling.” You know- like when you fell in love. If you don’t? Keep looking, enjoy what you see, and learn about it. Another thing that’s become apparent to me is that I like Art that says something different to me every time I look at it (as I’ve mentioned in prior Posts). This has become an essential element I need to have in anything I actually buy because I’m going to be looking at it a lot for, hopefully, a long time. While I have never bought a piece I didn’t love, as in other types of “love,” I find it’s the piece you can’t live without that may be the piece to buy. Keyword- may be. Obviously, many other things are more important to life than Art- Shelter, food, health, and those things effecting survival come way before one gets to the point of considering buying Art. Art adds to and enhances life. But, no one ever died from not having Art, as far as I know. (Though, some people who live without Art may not be living!) So? Wait until you find a work that gets inside of you and won’t let go.

Looking is hard work. Quick- What do you see? A rabbit facing right, or a duck facing left? From Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” as reprinted in Errol Morris‘ superb “Believing Is Seeing,” which I recommend to everyone who looks at Art.

Fifth- What other expenses am I going to incur buying this piece? Tax, shipping, framing and insurance are the most usual ones. Packing and appraisal (which you may need for insurance if the value rises above what you paid) may be others.

Professional Art handlers and movers may be needed to handle large, heavy, delicate or unusually sized pieces, like these seen here during an installation earlier this year at Metro Pictures. Doing it yourself may risk damaging it. Damage= lower value.

Deinstalling Richard Serra’s “For John Cage” series at Gagosian last year. Hopefully your needs won’t be this involved.

Also, once you buy a work, you are then responsible for “curating” it- keeping it in as good condition as you bought it to maintain it’s value. If you are considering having a work framed? Go to an established pro who regularly does work for museum and gallery shows. I only use City Frame, in NYC. I have used many other framers and since I don’t believe in being negative here, I’ll simply say, call Corinne Takasaki at City Frame if you want something framed. They’re the best I’ve found. No. I don’t get a cut from them for saying that. If you’re buying a work on paper that is from before the days of acid-free paper be aware that you’re going to have yellowing to deal with over time going forward. Consult an expert about what this might entail before buying it.

The first stage of framing at City Frame. A photo about to be measured.

Sixth- So, if you’ve bought what you love? Hang it and enjoy looking at it each time it comes into your view. If, after time has passed, you’ve decided to part with it? Selling is a subject for a whole other Post (or 10). I will say this, though- In general, it takes time to sell Art for what it’s worth. I mention it now because it’s something to keep in mind. BEFORE you buy something. You should ask yourself- IF, and when I decide to sell this, what are my options? One thing many people fail to realize is that new & largely unknown Artists have one market- the dealer who represents them. Most likely, you are buying their work from them. When it’s time to sell it? They may well be your only option. They know the Artist’s market and his/her existing collectors. They’re going to take a piece of the sale price to do so. How much varies by dealer, but it’s something to keep in mind. Auction houses may not accept the work of Artists who don’t have a proven track record of sales. You can search for this online and it’s something you should do before you buy a work that costs more than $X (unless you’re prepared to lose this money). I applaud people who buy the work of “under-known” Artists because they love their work. You are helping that Artist survive, and make more Art. I’ve been able to actually buy Art directly from the Artist, which you might be able to do before they sign with a gallery to represent them and handle their sales. It adds a personal element that’s hard to forget, and hard to equal.

Christie’s, Rockefeller Center. The big auction houses rarely sell the work of Artists who aren’t “established.” On the other hand, living Artists don’t get a percentage of re-sales of their work at auction (though most auction houses get paid by both the buyer and the seller). Look! They have their own flag (center)!

ALL of this being said, you don’t need to spend a fortune on a piece of Art! Art is available at almost any price you can mention. Just remember everything I’ve said above still applies, and that buying even relatively inexpensive Art may require some of the additional expenses I mentioned earlier, or others I didn’t. Everything I’ve said is based on my own experiences over the past 30 some years. I make no “warranty.” This is by no means meant to be “advice” or a “complete guide.” In my opinion, there is no such thing.

It’s a good thing I don’t have one of those stencils.

Another thing I’ve learned from looking at a lot of Art is that I will never own 99.99% of all the Art out there in the world. I’ve come to terms with that. Sure, I want to take Hopper’s “Nighthawks” home and hang it here, though that’s incredibly selfish. Yes, I see things every time I look that I think about buying (with varying degrees of seriousness). But? That’s ok. I’ve learned to use shows as another room in my home. It’s like if I go to a show often it’s a bit like living with the work on display, which is kind of fun-and? It’s as close as I’ll ever get to really doing that.

I still walk around this show in my mind. “Nasreen Mohamedi” at The Met Breuer, 2016

25 visits was easier than getting one of these home. Ai Weiwei at Lisson Gallery, 2016

Another important consideration in buying Art that you love is timing. As I’ve mentioned, I believe the Art Market is (at, or) near a peak in value. As a result it becomes extremely hard to find Art that is “undervalued.” Far more Art is “overvalued,” in my opinion. Of course, there is no way for anyone to really know what Art is going to speak to, and be valued by, future generations. We can only make assumptions. One of those is- “If it’s spoken to people for x hundred years, why won’t it continue to do so?” Another is, “They’re not making any more Vermeer’s.” So, yes, supply and demand is always the key element. And that brings me to a final point. While “Contemporary Art” has a certain “sex appeal” that comes with being new, as I touched on earlier, most new Artists don’t have an established market. This is very, very risky, in my opinion for anyone buying their work for more than $X, which, apparently, many people are doing. It seems to me that most people, especially those new to buying Art, would be better off buying the work of Artists with (long) track records, which also allow a wider ranger of selling avenues, if/when the need arrises.

Henry Taylor & Deana Lawson shown together at this year’s Whitney Biennial, where they were among the “stars.” Being included, means it’s too late now to “get in at the bottom,” on either, but it’s still no guarantee either will “make it,” and their prices will rise substantially the next 20 years, since both are still in “mid-career.” Therein lies the rub, and the risk, in buying the work of good Artists who are beginning to “make it.” Are you now paying for the quality of their work, or it’s future price potential? At least the Artists get paid.

Going back to the Master of Delft, it’s hard for us to realize that Vermeer lived in obscurity after his death for many, many decades (like Van Gogh lived during his entire life).

Yes, that really is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at MoMA, or as close as I could get to it. I often wonder what Vincent would have made of his incredible popularity now.

It’s quite possible “another Vermeer” is out there waiting to be discovered right now. Carmen Herrera, who’s now 102 years young(!), had only one major show (in 1984) before being given a solo show at the Whitney Museum LAST YEAR (2016)!

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight” at the Whitney Museum, January, 2016.

With all the Art that’s been created in just the past, say, 300 years, I think it’s a virtual certainty that someone major has gone over looked. So? If you get good at this, you go to see enough Art, know what to look for, and you have your eyes open? Who knows what you might find!

But? Don’t buy it if you don’t love it.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, of The Beatles, published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Two Years! This Post marks the Second Anniversary of NighthawkNYC.com. I can’t let it pass without saying “Thanks!,” first to Sv for pushing me to start it, to kitty for research assistance above and beyond the beyond this past year, to all the fine people I’ve met who work in the galleries and museums I haunt who have answered questions, shared insights, helped, and especially for putting up with “him, again,” to all the Artists who have spoken with me this year, and everyone who has taken the time to check out the 150 Posts I’ve done so far. Thank you! Oh! And I almost forgot- to my two fine feathered friends, aka “The Birdies” of “On The Fence.” For those who have wondered “What the heck?”  They represent the random voices I hear commenting at shows, though, unfortunately, only I am to blame for what comes out of their mouths. Don’t worry- No actual Birdies were harmed in the making of that series. But? Their picture has sure taken a beating!

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

 

  1. I’m not speaking further about buying Photographs in this Post. From what I’ve seen, and learned, this year, that is a whole other topic.
  2. If you want to get an idea of HOW sticky it can get, or you want to see how world-class experts work, check out the Rembrandt Research Project’s controversial findings on all of the Master’s Paintings, here. Well, the ones they accept as being by the Master, himself.

On The Beatles…and Sgt. Pepper’s 50th

Today, June 18th, is Sir Paul McCartney’s 75th Birthday. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul, and many more!

When it came out 50 years ago, on June 1, 1967, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was nothing less than the biggest tsunami in popular Music since, well…”Meet The Beatles.” A defining moment in modern music, splitting musical time into before, and after, it’s aftershocks have been so all-encompassing, it’s hard to listen to most of what’s come after and not hear some of it’s influence.

Though Traffic, the Beach Boys, The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (who’s seismic “Are You Experienced?,” the first album I ever bought, was released on May 12, some 19 days before “Sgt. Pepper’s”) were doing wonderously creative things with expanding the boundaries of rock, nothing else sounded anything like it, really. It cut across genres and audiences. No matter what they had listened to before, everyone listened to it when it came out1. When you think about that, it’s downright amazing given how experimental, even avant garde, quite a bit of it was. “Avant garde” and “experimental” is almost always a ticket to popular failure. Producer Sir George Martin was behind some of it- both technically (managing the recording, and facilitating the Beatles’ ideas ), and musically (doing the string and brass arrangements). Drugs, the expansive cultural, spiritual and musical explorations of The Beatles, themselves, were the rest of it. Still, in spite of all the changes going on, personally, and in the music, the whole thing hung together perfectly- from the opening background noises to the final backward voices, ending the unprecedented, all too real/all too surreal “A Day In The Life.”

It was a product of the moment, becoming the soundtrack for the “Summer of Love,” one that, also, took music a big step forward, and showed us the future.

Sir Paul McCartney performing at Yankee Stadium, July 2011, on his original Hofner “Beatle Bass,” one of the most historic musical instruments in the world. He actually remains under-appreciated as a musician, as are some of his projects, like “The Fireman.” Click any image to see it full sized.

The “concept album” had truly arrived (with all due respect to “In the Wee Small Hours,” by Frank Sinatra, 1955, a staple over here at the NHNYC.com offices, “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, released May, 1966, and a few others). As a result, to this day, when you put it on, I think it should be listened to it all the way through.

Now, with the release of the new 50th Anniversary “Deluxe Edition” Box Set, things are getting complicated. So, I need to specify what I mean by “it”- Listen to the 13 songs on the original album all the way through. Which brings me to what I feel is a little bit of a problem. The new “Deluxe Edition” is NOT (I feel) the best way to experience Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time. With all due respect to Giles Martin, who has (partially) remixed Sgt. Pepper’s for the Deluxe Edition, mixing his version from the original 4 track tapes. See footnote 2 for more details on this2 After a listen to the new mix, I prefer to stick with the original mix.

Giles’ Dad, Sir George Martin, was one of the greatest Producers in the history of recorded Music. You could make a very strong case and say he’s The Greatest, but I don’t believe comparing creativity, or creative people. In any event, his mix ain’t broke. Don’t “fix” it. I don’t think the “sonic upgrade” of the new stereo mix is that big to sacrifice something that was an integral part of the finished album, like this part of George Martin’s contribution was3. It was something he created WITH The Beatles. You’re dealing with master tapes that were recorded in 1967. There’s only so much that can be done to “improve them” sonically, and those come with tradeoffs-

Questionably “better” sound quality vs. losing some of the original experience, and, most importantly, the Artist’s intentions.

Sir Paul performs “Something,” on a Ukulele given to him by George Harrison.

Frankly, for those reasons, I prefer to stick with original mixes of just about every album ever made, and as reissues pile up, they get harder to find- you have to know what you’re looking for4. As a producer? I wouldn’t want anyone else messing around with my mix, and I was no Sir George Martin. “Technological advances” are a mixed blessing, bringing good and bad. Just ask anyone who prefers Lp’s to CD’s. (I’m not saying I do.)

Finally, the Deluxe Edition comes with a lot of extras. There are a seemingly infinite number of Beatles’ outtakes that have circulated among fans and traders over the years, and while many of them are fascinating, if you haven’t heard the original album, wait until you have it memorized before listening to them. The “Making of” Doc, included with the Deluxe Edition, sounds fascinating. I’m sure the book is good, too. All in all? It sounds like a supplement to having the original recording. NOT a replacement for it.

“Hey, Sir Paul! What do you think of the new Sgt. Pepper’s Mix?”

In all of this, I have not seen any mention of the involvement of Sir Paul and Ringo (who were directly involved with the original, of course, with due respect to Yoko and the Harrisons) in it. And, I haven’t been able to find out what Sir Paul thinks about the new mix. His website has him only commenting on the passage of time re: “Sgt. Pepper’s” 50th, but I found this comment critical-

“It’s crazy to think that 50 years later we are looking back on this project with such fondness and a little bit of amazement at how four guys, a great producer and his engineers could make such a lasting piece of art.”

I think that tells you all you need to know. He includes Sir George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, as part of the creative team5.

“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go.”*

I believe the integrity of all of their work should be respected, and preserved.

But? With the passing of time, there’s no way I’m going to win that fight. There’s too much money aligned on the other side in reissuing records- just beware of anyone who tells you it’s “new & improved.” This, unfortunately, goes on in Art, too. After Artists pass away, increasingly their estates are continuing to issue/reissue their work. I have very mixed feelings about this. I’ll go to Photo shows and see “recent prints” that just aren’t up to the level of the quality of prints made by the Artist during their lifetime. This hurts the Artist’s reputation, in my opinion. In music, we now stand at the precipice of whatever will be done regarding Prince’s unreleased Mt. Everest of material. If you don’t think that’s going to materially impact his legacy, think again. Quick- How many albums did Jimi Hendrix release during his lifetime6? I feel for any new listener to his music faced with the dauntless task of looking through the list of COUNTLESS albums with his name on them, which are STILL being released 47 years after his death, and trying to find them.

The message in all of this? Buyer beware. Luckily? After 50 years? Most people already have “Sgt. Pepper’s.” So? On the 50th Anniversary (month) of it’s release put it on and give it a listen. All the way through. It’s an Album. Remember them?

Many since have tried. There’s still nothing like it.

Finally? When all else has been said…Think about this for one minute…

How HARD is it to connect with even one person who becomes special in your life? I still marvel that The Beatles FOUND each other!

Never in the whole history of Western Music (1200 a.d. to 1900) have two musical Geniuses collaborated before (as far as I know).

J.S. Bach was too busy raising 10 sons (each of whom became a noted, or great, composer), writing, rehearsing AND performing a new cantata each week, performing his regular church duties, and writing the rest of his incomparable music to collaborate with Handel. Mozart and Beethoven? Never happened. Brahms and Schumann? Nope. Brahms and MRS. Clara Schumann…? Romance doesn’t count. This is a 20th Century phenomenon. George & Ira Gershwin…Bernstein & Sondheim…Miles Davis & John Coltrane…Miles & Wayne Shorter…My list may be different than your’s. Here you have John Lennon & Paul McCartney, two of the very greatest songwriters in the history of Music. Alongside them? George Harrison, no slouch (and continually under-rated) himself. Heck…Who WOULDN’T be “under-rated” next to those two? I often wonder what George must have felt (from time to time? often?). On the one hand he had people wanting a “better lead guitarist,” his friend, Eric Clapton, perhaps, to replace him in The Beatles. On the other hand, he was lucky to get 1 or 2 songs on each Beatles album, NO MATTER how good his songs were! (Witness the then unheard of THREE Lp set he released soon after The Beatles split, “All Things Must Pass.” Talk about being “pent up!” “Within You, Without You,” was his song on “Sgt. Pepper’s.”) But? He was the “perfect” guitarist for The Beatles, as Ringo was the “perfect” drummer for them. That the four of them found each other?

It’s miraculous, in my book.

If you don’t think so? Point out to me the LAST time this happened in any of the Arts.

The Beatles were a gift from the Universe.

*- Soundtrack for this is “Fixing A Hole,” by Lennon & McCartney, from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

On The Fence,#8, The Birds & The Bees-tles” Edition.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1. Myself included, and I wasn’t into The Beatles until “Strawberry Fields Forever” was released, on February 13, 1967, as a single, presaging “Sgt. Pepper’s”
  2. Sgt. Pepper’s was recorded on 4 tracks, which is astounding when you think about that today. In 1995, my version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was recorded on 48 tracks. The Beatles would fill up 3 of the 4 tracks, then mix those down to the open 4th track. Then they’d repeat the process until they had filled all four tracks (I’m simplifying. There was more “bouncing” of tracks to open up other tracks involved.), the resulting tape was then mixed down to a final, stereo two track Master, which is what the records were made from- both in Stereo, and yes, in Mono. Both of those have been reissued, in the “Complete” Stereo and Mono Boxsets, and I prefer them, at the moment, among the recent incarnations of The Beatles albums.
  3. Giles Martin also did a 5.1 mix. You’re on you’re own there, since his dad didn’t do one, as far as I know. I have not heard it as yet.
  4. For example- Try finding the original mixes of Miles Davis’ Columbia albums, some of the greatest and most important music of the century, on CD. It’s hard. Early, now rare, Japanese import CD’s had them. Most likely you have to go back to the Lp’s for them, but make sure they’re vintage.
  5.  They did a Q&A with him about Sgt. Pepper’s BEFORE the Deluxe Edition was announced, here. Also, Pepper’s recording engineer Geoff Emerick said he “hadn’t heard it”, the new mix, in an interview
  6. The answer is 3 studio Lp’s- “Are You Experienced?,””Axis:Bold as Love”, and “Electric Ladyland,” and 3 live albums- the other 2 of which, besides “Band of Gypsys,” I’m not sure how much he had to do with.

Rod Penner: Brilliance, Under Cloudy Skies

“Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe is my NoteWorthy Show for May.

“Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear”*

It turns out to have been more than worth the wait. The chance discovery of Rod Penner’s rarely seen work in April, 2016, left me eager to see more of it for the past year. Finally, that chance came. Yes, I wrote about this show’s opening, and my first impressions of it, a while back, when I was also lucky to meet Mr. Penner. Having returned to see the 9 remarkable Paintings that made up “Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through May 26 (his first NYC show since 2013) a number of times after the April 27 opening, I realized I needed to also revisit it here because these are works that do not reveal all their secrets at first glance, and also because so little has been written about the work of Rod Penner, basically, three pieces by John Seed. Given the amazing & consistently high quality of his work, and the fact that he’s been a successful Painter for over 25 years, who’s shows routinely sell out (8 of these 9 were sold before the show opened), that’s hard to believe. This show is a great chance to get a closer look, as it represents most of the work he’s created in the past year, and because the works are related, they form a “series.” When I asked the Artist about this, he told me-

“This show is a first for me in the sense that it is a series of paintings based on photos taken on a single morning of a single town. Most of the locations are in and around the town square of San Saba, TX, and when viewed together they form a more comprehensive “portrait”, both of the town itself, and my personal experiences in this place. That being said, each painting is also meant to stand on its own.”

San Saba is about an hour north of Austin, almost smack dab in the middle of Texas. The resulting works are at once intricate and sublte, so deep, so brilliantly conceived and almost miraculously executed, I now have a feeling they will be revealing their “secrets” indefinitely.

“View of San Saba,”also 5 x 7 1/2 INCHES. The “center” of Rod Penner’s painted “neighborhood.”All works by Rod Penner, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, unless specified, seen at “Rod Penner,” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe. Click any image to see it full size and better see the detail.

When I met Mr. Penner, he spoke about the newest work in the show, “View of San Saba.” So new, it wasn’t completed in time to appear in the show’s catalog, the first book ever published on Rod Penner (and available from Ameringer McEnery Yohe, as I write this). It’s a work that a quick glance fails. I wondered about the empty spaces in the foreground, left and right. Why is there so much of it in a work that’s supposed to be a “view” of a town? It scrunches the actual town into a narrow band that accounts for maybe one third of the Painting. These empty spaces along the sides give us a sense of perspective, a sense of space that is, after all, a trade mark of Texas, I hear, which would be missing if Rod Penner had cropped the view closer to the “BUY PECANS HERE” sign, and which would also give the sign an importance he, apparently, didn’t want it to have. The feeling would be completely different. Also, doing this “sets a stage” for the rest of the composition, something Mr. Penner seems fond of doing.

And? It turns out the foreground is an extraordinarily interesting part of the work. Ok, that’s coming from a die hard Manhattanite, a true connoisseur of pavement, street, curbs, and sidewalks, someone who never sees grass. Mr. Penner told me that as the work neared completion, he became unhappy with the pavement to the front left, so he redid it. Take that, everyone who thinks he’s a so-called “photorealist,” or “hyper-realist,” someone who paints exactly and only what’s in a reference photo. First, there’s a very unusual (in real life) crack that runs directly down the very middle of the street, which serves to draw us further and further into the painting.

Detail of the pavement in the foreground, larger than actual size, reveals almost endless details, down to the reflection of the back of the Stop sign in the puddle. Interestingly, every Stop sign in these works is seen from the back. Even in reflection.

It’s an old street. The curbs are worn, where they are still there. The pavement has been patched. Well, some of it has. Water pools in holes that still need to be. Yet, for the most part, the concrete is holding together. After all these years. After all these cars, trucks, people, and whatever else travels on the roads of San Saba, Texas have passed over them. Yes. You can still get there from here.

Beyond the technical tour de force of skill on view in this, and in everything in this show, more importantly, every centimeter of it drips with character.

The skies always seem to be ominous. Sometimes a small patch of sun is fighting to make it’s way through. Maybe it will. Maybe rain is on the way. (I call theses skies “Penneresque” now when I see one). Just as long as it’s not a tornado, right? The old County Court is still standing. You can see it’s tower to the left, in the first Photo up top. Interestingly, it’s not quite as tall as the phone pole1

When I look at the finished work, the feeling of isolation, life lived, the present time, and time past (as in the patched pavement to the right in the front), and the feeling of being an outsider is reminiscent of that in works by Edward Hopper or Charles Sheeler, but not specific works. Though he has a foot in Art History, Rod Penner is an original.

But we aren’t in San Saba. We aren’t in Texas. We’re 1,744 miles away by car or 1,513 miles as the crow flies at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery on West 22nd Street in Manhattan, NYC. An entirely different world, right? We’re not even looking at Photographs, which seems to be a reaction of some who only see these works online in, yes, Photographs, and have trouble believing someone can really paint THIS well. We’re looking at Paintings. VERY small Paintings that are either 5 by 7 1/2 inches, or 6 by 6 inches each! Acrylics on canvas. In creating these works at paperback book size, I don’t believe the purpose was to show off his extraordinary skill (which happens as a byproduct). The size brings an intimacy that makes the viewer look closely to see, and once you start looking, you’ll see more and more, which can turn the experience into something of a meditation.

“View of San Saba” is installed on one of 3 walls where the paintings look out, and on to each other. Therein lies an additional element that becomes apparent when seen together. As Mr. Penner said, each work stands alone. Yet being at this show one can’t help noticing that there’s, also, a “little world” in these 9 Paintings that comes together in “View of San Saba.” Taken as a whole, this gives a feeling of walking around a small neighborhood (typically New York comment, right?), and based on “View of San Saba,” it is walkable. No less than 5 of the buildings featured in the 8 other works here reappear in it, making it something of a centerpiece of this “series” for me.  I constructed these maps to show what I mean,

Installation View of “Rod Penner” @ Ameringer, McEnery & Yohe shows it’s a small neighborhood. The lines connect 5 individual works with “View of San Saba,” far right, where the same buildings are seen, again.

“Map” of “View of San Saba” showing the location of the 5 Buildings also shown in their own Paintings, which follows. The numbers are from the order they appear in the show, as seen in the prior Photo.

So, yes, as I said, “you can still get there from here,” if you walk straight down the street, following that center crack. Along the right, first, “Buy Pecans Here,” is the subject (and title) of a closer view of the same structure, below. Then, on it’s corner, and across the street on the right is G&R Grocery, which is seen in no less than two other works here- “G&R Grocery,” and “Armadillo Country.” And finally, a few blocks almost dead ahead (slightly left) is the building in “The Station.” Here are the five Paintings in question. There could be much to be said about each.

#1 in the “Map” above, “G & R Grocery,” 2016, 5 x 7 1/2 inches. That reminds me. G&R is also the home of Texas’ famous “Bill’s Season All,” as the sign says. I have to remember that when I need to reorder it.

NYC’s & Texas’ finest in the NighthawkNYC kitchen.

#2- “Buy Pecans Here,” 5 x 7 1/2 inches

#3 “The Station,” 6 x 6 inches. It’s foreground pavement endlessly enthralls me.

#5 “Armadillo Country” 5 x 7 1/2 inches

#4 does get a section to itself. My personal favorite among all of these works (not an easy call) is one I find endlessly fascinating, on a number of levels- “San Saba Butane.” All 6 by 6 inches of it. The right rear side of it is, also, #4 in the Map, above.

#4- “San Saba Butane,” 6 x 6 inches. Depending on the device you’re using, this photo may be close to the actual size of the Painting.

On one level, you could look at it and think about hard times, about a business that stood for a long time, carrying the hopes and dreams of it’s owner, until it finally moved elsewhere, or went under. There’s no indication of which here. What there is, it seems to me, is a masterpiece of realism in which abstract and realistic elements are weaved together so seamlessly, they achieve an almost perfect balance, each supporting the other. After all, when we see the world, our eyes see things that are abstract as well as “real” (be they reflections in windows or water, and on and on- they are everywhere once you look for them). It’a all based on a rectangular box seen at an angle that provides the basis of everything else that Mr Penner hangs on it or adds to it, and around it. One time I looked at this and thought “It’s a Robert Rauschenberg meets Anselm Kiefer structure under a “Penneresque” sky, as I named them last time, maybe with a hint of John Zurier in it, and with Lucian Freud pavement. Another time, I fancied that the historic “Battle of San Saba Butane” had been fought here, leaving Texas another monument, akin to the Alamo. But, alas, history records no such battle (as far as I know). There is, instead, a completely peaceful stillness to the building, though it’s surrounded by turbulent skies and pavement that appears almost liquified in places. To get to it’s door, you have to cross the rough, wet road in the foreground before arriving on the slightly surer footing of the (wet) pavement, and then to the “safety” of the awning, only to find the building it’s attached to is just an empty shell, and not a real “destination.” This “having to cross questionable or unstable ground in the foreground to get to the heart of the work” is present in many of Rod Penner’s works. It takes the eye on a journey, and makes it work to get to the core of the composition.

This section is about 3 inches tall by 6 inches wide in the Painting, shown here larger than actual size (once you click on it). Even the wear and tear on the sign’s lettering is brilliantly rendered.

Whatever struggle took place here, even the struggle of day to day business survival is over, and all is quiet in the building. In all it’s brilliantly rendered dilapidated glory, it’s still standing. Though it says “San Saba” on it, if you took the lettering off (but please don’t) this is another scene that can be seen in any state in the USA. It’s a part of the lifecycle of a business- the part where one has ended and a new one may begin. In that sense, it could also stand for life & death. It’s a tombstone for the business that was once here, and all the memories and history that went with it. It’s also a space where something new can begin. It’s real and surreal, intimate and repelling, liquid, solid and air, a place that it wouldn’t seem could possibly exist, somehow, except for that sign- “San Saba Butane” anchors the scene to earthen reality. I wondered about that sign at first, in my first Post, then thought- “No. It’s probably a real name. No one could make that up, right?”

One look at “San Saba Butane” in comparison to how it appears on the extreme left of “View of San Saba” and you realize that there’s no building behind it now! The Artist, himself, pointed this out to me. The whole right side of “San Saba Butane” shows a different view than what’s behind it in “View of San Saba.”

Detail of the right side of “San Saba Butane”

Detail of the left side of “View of San Saba”

Mr. Penner said, “In San Saba Butane, I removed the building you see in View of San Saba. The area right of the station needed to be opened up some… too claustrophobic… in order to allow the eye more room to wander. The stop sign and hydrant are the same ones you see in “View of San Saba.” That sound you heard was a hammer putting the final nail in the coffin of “photorealism” in regards to the work of Rod Penner.

Well? If this is a real place? I don’t care one bit what it “really” looks like. I don’t want to know. Well, I do know this- As much as I dislike qualitatively comparing creative work. I can’t put it any other way- I can’t think of a better Painting I’ve seen in the past year than “San Saba Butane.”

The next one is right up there, too.

“Commie’s Tacos,” 5 x 7 1/2 inches.

“Why did we stop here?,” I can hear someone in the backseat saying.

After all, we’re stopped in the middle of the road. “The light’s red up ahead,” might be one reply. “Not much to see here,” might be the new complaint. Hmmm…..The longer I look at this, the more I disagree.

First, there’s the skill involved in depicting this in all of 5 by 7 1/2 inches of canvas.

The same Painting, “Commie’s Taco’s,” seen from only 6 feet away.

When I looked closely at this one, I marveled at the detail on the two buildings to the left of center. The more I looked at this, the more I see. Every last clapboard is perfectly rendered, but all of it has character. Check out the bands on the back of the Stop sign, and on and on…

Detail of about 2 and 1/2 inches of the left side seen with a zoom lens.

To the right is a tan building, with a Spanish Tile roof, which would be fitting for a business with the name of Commie’s Tacos, the work’s name-sake, which is painted at an angle, and cut off making me wonder if Commie would ever want to buy this work and display it in his/her’s fine establishment, since it’s not even showing the whole restaurant. In fact, we wouldn’t know what the name of it was if it wasn’t the work’s title!

Commie’s, itself, in about 2 inches, with incredibly detailed concrete.

Then, I stared straight ahead, down that beckoning road you see in the first photo, which is what the composition seems to want. The looming street seems a bit more uneven, a bit rougher, than the fairly level ground we’re on now, judging from the masterfully rendered pavement.

Detail of about 4 inches of the foreground. Mr. Penner frequently puts pavement right in the front of his work, which is both daring and serves to set the stage. It’s a stage so well executed it looks real, and used. Notice the wide variety of surfaces.

We’ll pass trash cans, Yield signs and the ever present telephone poles. Further on, past the white house, it’s hard to say what we’ll encounter, well, before that vehicle with it’s headlights on. If we were standing on either of those corners, maybe we’d think that vehicle was coming for us. But, in the middle of the intersection? All bets are off. It’s hard to tell if Commie’s is even open for business. As in every work here, no one else is around.

As a result? There are none of the distractions people in a painting bring. None of the drama. Uh oh. Speaking of drama…

On the Fence, #6- Crow-No-Lisa”

Same with Commie’s. It’s painted at an angle and chopped off which serves to reduce it’s power and importance. The import, seems to me, to be in the feeling of place- of being here, now. Imagine for a moment what it must feel like to be a new resident to this street, seeing it for the first time, (as most viewers of this work are), and seeing the place you’ll now call home? What would living here be like? The residents are already connected to each other by wires, but you’re not. Would you be welcome? There’s rain on the ground, as there is in a number of these works, but the skies seem to be clearing. Keywords- seem to be. It looks to be a very typical street in a small town in Texas, in or near San Saba, but it could be almost anywhere. This scene could be in just about any one of the 49 states not named Hawaii.

Robert Frost talked about taking the road less traveled, “and that made all the difference.” What would he make of this road? Would he take it? Situated here, as we are, the answer isn’t clear, but if we are going down that side street, we’re in the wrong lane of traffic. Unless, we’re across the street at the other corner, waiting at a Stop sign there. Or, maybe it’s a scene seen in passing, or while stuck at a light to the left or right. One of those things we see for a minute, just long enough to wonder what’s down there? What it’s like down that street?

Seen from a normal distance, “Commie’s Tacos,” in it’s double frame.

Or? You could consider it a mediation on what once was on the corner, perhaps a house you grew up, that’s now gone. The level of detail enhances the “realism” of the work, and so, enhances the viewer’s ability to “experience” whatever he or she thinks and feels when they see it. Beyond the date the painting was done, we don’t know when this scene takes place (as we don’t in any of the works on view). It could be today, last year or 30 years ago. As such, it, and all the works here, are “portraits” of a place that’s beyond time and place. A place frozen in time that portrays an equally frozen moment that, the closer you look at it, you see “more” in. It raises more and more questions, or maybe even reminds you of a place and time, and brings back it’s feelings. Seeing this on the wall at Ameringer, in it’s interesting double frame, it’s a portal into a distant place that somehow doesn’t feel all that far away. A place somehow “known.”

Ameringer McEnery Yohe, 525 West 22nd Street, NYC, seen during the run of the show, appropriately, from the middle of the street, with wet pavement, under “Penner-esque” skies, that I hear came all the way from Texas.

I don’t know how the 2,783 residents of San Saba (in 2014) feel about these paintings, if they’ve seen them. More than likely, they prefer Mr. Penner paint other locations in their fine community. As someone who’s never been to Texas, when I look at them, as I’ve said, except for a sign here or there, I see places that could exist elsewhere. So, while they’re based on actual places in and around San Saba, as Mr. Penner said, they strike me as much as depicting America- places and things that could be seen anywhere in the country. I’m sure San Saba is a very different place than NYC is in a lot of ways. When I look at these Paintings? Not entirely different.

(My subsequent Q&A with Rod Penner is hereMy experience at this show’s opening and my initial impressions of it are here.)

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Here Comes The Sun,” by George Harrison from “Abbey Road” by The Beatles.

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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1.  Old Mother Pecan, one of the most unique trees in the world (I love trees), is still standing, too (thought not seen), not all that far away, 200 years later! Important for a place that calls itself the “Pecan capital of the world.”

Raymond Pettibon’s Burning Bush

“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” at The New Museum featured a multi-faceted lobby Mural by the Artist that touched on long time themes, and added a few messages. Click any photo to enlarge.

High above, to the left of center, the Artist painted these words…

“I have been rewriting ‘that modern novel’
I spoke of to you…On th’ whole it is a failure, I think,
tho nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself…iyt is a simple story, simply told. And yet iyt hath no name.”

This show fills THREE FLOORS of a quite prestigious Manhattan Museum. Please define “failure,” Raymond. Unless, you’re pulling our leyg…again?

“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” a Retrospective that also marked his first major NYC Museum show, closed at the New Museum on April 16. I was there almost to last call, drynking in as much as I could, though I was past being intoxxxicated on the 800 Drawings, fliers, album covers, ’zines, Artist’s Books and his films the Museum displayed over those 3 full floors1, plus the fascinating, multifaceted mural he did in the lobby, seen above, and below.

“Beyond it lays everything tht mattered.” That tells you right off how the Artist feels about this, the logo he designed for the legendary band HE named Black Flag, that featured his brother, Greg (who also founded SST Records, who sell Pettibon’s work to this day, without ever mentioning his name). The period it represents really is such a small part of his, now, 40 years of work. It’s (also) the #1 tattoo in the land, here painted on the Museum’s elevator doors. Still on the outs with his brother, he says he rarely draws it any more, so this time, he added very small text above each bar, which reads-“Doors nor windows.””Beyond it lays everything tht mattered.””He isn’t under there, he’s in the woods.” and “The last sentence is somewhat obscured to me.” from left bar to right.

Homage to classic NYC Baseball. Another part of the mural (all since painted over) showed Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, waving a huge bat, and the Yankee star, Whitey Ford, right, in individual Drawings, not in action against each other.

It might be a while before you see this in a Museum, again. That elevator goes to THREE floors filled with Pettibon. Some “failure.”

Installation View of the 4th floor of “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen Of All Work,” at the New Museum, seen on it’s closing day, April 16. In the center is a room with work the Artist created for this show inside.

Barely, had I had time for this buzzz to peak when lo and behold…Here comes A-NOTHER Raymond Pettibon show, “TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHORT T,” at David Zwirner, 19th Street, with NINETY-NINE more, recent works, only a couple of which were in “A Pen…”(they were part of the lobby mural, tacked to the wall)! And? These 99 works were being shown in the very space where Raymond Pettibon had created them. Whoa! So, unless I completely overdose on Pettibon first, you might, as I’ve opted to do three pieces- because I think his work is that important and timely- one on each show, and a third piece that looks at the place Raymond Pettibon’s Art is now. Since the David Zwirner show, where I met Raymond Petitibon on April 29, still has some time to run before it closes on June 24, I’ll start with “A Pen of All Work,” my “NoteWorthy” show for April, before the trail grows cold on it, though for you lucky folks near Maastricht (correctly spelled), the Netherlands, it just reopened at Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum, on June 2, with 700 works, where it will run through October 29. 2

“Try everything, Do everything, Render everything,” Ink on paper, date unknown. And? He proceeds to do just that…

Mr. Pettibon is somewhat unique in the Art world because of the way he got here, achieving legendary status through his work for bands before he got a Gallery to represent him. So? The Art world is not as familiar with the early work, while his early fans may not be as familiar with what he’s done lately (though, of course, he has many fans who have been with him the whole way, too). I’ll try to show a mix of work here, while trying to give a sense of what this remarkable show was like.

I have to think back to the Picasso Retrospective which filled ALL of the old MoMA in 1980 to recall a show of comparable size. Still, if there was a common theme to be found it was that “his entire body of work is very much a confrontation against ideologies,” to quote Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s Artistic Director, on the excellent audio guide. Whatever you’ve got? Pettibon will confront it, and given how much confronting he’s done, everyone involved did a superb job of installing it, organizing all of these works by themes.

Timeless. Unfortunately. “No Title (Fight for freedom!),” 1981(!), Pen and ink on paper

The 2nd floor mostly focused on Pettibon, himself, looking at his early work with an eye on how he created his own “alternate media” in the form fliers, zines, record covers, Artist’s books, films & videos, et al, and how he goes about his craft, including samples from the archive he uses as source material, and to draw inspiration from on a daily basis.

A bit of Pettibon’s never before seen archive of source material includes Iwo Jima, Giuliani, and 9/11.

Also on 2, along with a good part of his past, part of Pettibon’s current legacy was on view in full effect, as seen below. He forged his own way of getting his work seen, first on fliers, then on record covers, zines, Artist’s Books, and then added film and video, all before finding acceptance in the Art world, something he says was delayed by 10 years due to his association with punk. A visit to stores like New York’s Printed Matter feels like visiting the work of many of the “children” of Raymond Pettibon, as his example has been, and is being, followed by countless Artists, Photographers, Musicians and Writers right now. Including thiys one. Though, perhaps not the first Artist to work in any of those media, his methods, and his path, remain most influential.

I had to cross the Framers Union picket line to see this show, who were on strike because Pettibon prefers to tack his work to the walls with straight pins. With 800 works in this show? That’s a LOT of lost work for framers. Ok…I’m kidding. I’m pulling your leyg now. Looking at this photo, you can see how very far Pettibon’s work has come. In the glass case are GORGEOUS copies of his (now rare) early gig fliers that were posted with no thought of posterity in the late 1970s. Behind them, on the wall are 2 tacked up drawings, and one painting(!), left, next to 13 framed drawings of no less than the Manson family. Out of the 20,000 Drawings Pettibon has done, only a small percent have been framed. With the prices being paid for his work? I’d bet that just about every piece that is tacked to the wall here is being seen that way for the last time. Framers? Get ready.

Also on the 2nd floor is the American premier of the virtually complete original art for his first book, “Captive Chains,” 1978, an homage to comic books/Texas Chainsaw Massacre/ Betty Page that is laced with S&M imagery as well as first rate drawings, different in style than what most of his fans may be familiar with. Pettibon has been quick to downplay/under-play/denigrayte his self-taught Drawing skills- including these! “Captive Chains” begs to differ. Sorry! No faylure here. These are both terrific, and now classic. Perhaps most interesting, a number of it’s pages are full page drawings with no text, something almost never seen in Pettibon’s work since. In fact, it seems to me his career has followed the trajectory of his work being more about image primacy early on to now when text and language have come more and more to the forefront. One indication of this is that many drawings lie unfinished in his studio at any given time while they await the inspiration of texts to complete them. Sometimes for years.

The complete original art for “Captive Chains,” 1978. 68, ink on paper Drawings seen in the USA for the first time, and yes, they’re tacked to the wall.

One page. Ugh…I’m sorry. Putting a tack in this is like putting one in my hand.

Pettibon is fond of recycling old characters from the comics and television, including Batman, Superman, Gumby and the obscure side-kick character, Vavoom. While Batman and Superman are famous, Gumby, a long time personal favorite, is in eclipse. A claymation character created by Art Clokey3, he was able to walk into books and live in them, as well as visit other times in history. Vavoom was a side kick on the Felix the Cat cartoon show, a character, who’s only vocalization was, literally, an earth shattering shout out of his own name. Both Gumby and Vavoom are alter egos of Pettibon, and stand-ins for the Artist. Very interesting choices, to say the least.

The old cartoon side-kick, Vavoom (seen here in “No Title (A beautiful, actual…),” 1987 ink on paper, only able to say his own name is an interesting alter ego for an Artist who is so intensely literate.

…so is Gumby. “No Title (I borrow My…),” 1990, Acrylic on board.

In a long, rear gallery on the 2nd floor, was an amazing selection of Pettibon’s superb Baseball Drawings.  Along with surfing, the Artist’s passion for Baseball is lifelong. As with his other work, unless you’re a Baseball Stat expert, like he may well be, it takes some digging to begin to understand why Pettibon is choosing to depict a certain player at a certain point in his career. (More on this in my Post on the Zwirner show.) While his early punk work continues to gets so much attention, other areas of his work live in neglect. If there’a another Baseball Artist in Pettibon’s league? I don’t know of him/her.

Against the world. “No Title (1.12 Bob Gibson),” 2015, Pen, ink, pencil, acrylic on paper. “1.12” was Bob Gibson’s E.R.A. in 1968, when he won 22 games and lost 9. His St. Louis Cardinals lost in Game 7 of that year’s World Series. Could anything better capture his intimidating presence than this?

The 3rd floor sees Pettibon looking at the various “tribes,” and subcultures in recent American history- surfers, hippies, punks, the Manson family, and musicians.

Even The Beatles “get Pettibon-ed,” to coin a phrase, about who is the “largest” member. “No Title (Few know this…),” 2015, Ink on paper. Pettibon continually revisits history (usually, American), often years later, as here. In the 2000’s, he began addressing events closer to “real time,” like the War in Iraq. One thing I haven’t figured out yet? His work’s “penis obsession.”

His Surfer and Wave works strike me as living at the center of his work, the heart of it. Beyond punk, Manson, religion, politics, war- all the rest of it. Here’s a world Pettibon knows intimately having grown up near the water in Malibu, where he indeed surfed, though, as he told Dennis Cooper in “Raymond Pettibon,” (Phaidon), “I don’t surf much any more, but I grew up with it. I was never a card-carrying surfer.” Usually, he depicts a solitary man in the middle of a gigantic wave, testing himself against nature, symbolically against the world, against the nature of things, against chance, and against himself. As his 2005 work, ”Man stands as in the center of Nature, his fraction of time encircled by eternity…”, which wasn’t in this show, sums up perfectly. At moments like those, the “truths” that present themselves (or rather, that Pettibon presents) are often zen-like koans- they’re ineffable. They can’t be distilled further. All but the tiny place where board meets water is out of his control. How long will the ride last? Will he survive? Be maimed? What goes through the mind while it does, and at times like those? It’s not just a man’s game, either. He shows us girls and women surfing, sometimes topless.

Monumental. “No Title (As to me…),” 2015, Pen ink, watercolor, acrylic on paper 55″ x 113″. Another of his large Surfer Drawings sold for 1.5 million dollars in 2013, “failing” to reach four times the high estimate.

“No Title (Don’t complicate…),” 1987, Ink and gouache on paper, 24″ x 18″, MoMA. If I could choose one work of his? This might be it…at the moment. You styll have 300 other Pettibons, MoMA.

The 4th floor sees Pettibon’s extensive, long-running, devastating and ever-timely political and war works, along with works relating to the power of media. Brace yourself- Pettibon doesn’t play favorites. Democrats and republicans come in for just about equal poundings- from JFK through Obama. It culminates, and the show concludes, with an inner gallery of work Pettibon created for “A Pen of All Work.”

Twas ever thus. “No Title (You’re supposed to read the green first, Congressman Ford),” 1976, Red, blue pencil on paper.  An early work about Gerald Ford by “R. Ginn.” The name “Pettibon” comes from his dad.

The layout of the 4th floor is interesting in the choice of having the most timely, most controversial and most “explosive” work including pieces regarding Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Donald Trump (one from the 1980’s, and one from the 2016 campaign) and atomic explosions….

“No Title (“End the war…),” 2007, Pen, ink, gouache on paper, 30″ x 22,” left, seen with “No Title ( The war, now…),” 2008, Pen, ink, gouache,  acrylic on paper. Don’t worry. There was a whole wall about JFK, and yes, Obama got “Pettibon-ed,” as well.

A wall of work on religion, another ongoing theme.

surrounding an inner space, where the feeling is, surprisingly, both personal and intimate, it felt to me. Inside, the Artist pays homage to his mom, talks about his craft, and, apparently, nature, life, some of his wishes at this stage of his life (he turns 60 on June 16), all in works created for this room, and some on it’s walls.

The show includes some treasures. His mother, 95 as of last December, saved some of his childhood drawings from the 1960’s and 19 of them were on view that Pettibon has now added texts to! Pettibon pays homage to his Mom in a wonderful, Artful, way in this final gallery, which brings the show full circle.

Inside the final room on 4, containing works Pettibon did especially for iyt includes this version of Whistler’s “Composition in Black and Grey, the Artist’s Mother,” an homage to his own Mother, now 95, who he has says has always been his biggest fan, at times his only fan. The feeling this room gave felt like walking around in his head at the moment. He added the writing above it because, he thought, Whistler’s Mother looks like Mary Baker Eddy.

So…Moms? Hold on to your kids drawings!

A view of another part of the final room.

 

“No Title (Pinned to the Earth),” 2017, Ink on paper. In the final room, birds are featured since their feathers are used for quills- drawing instruments. Uh-oh. Someone else wants to chime in on this one…

“On The Fence, #5, Picking-A-Petite-Bone”

Painted on the wall of the final room.

PHEW. Some “failure!” It sounds HUGE, and it was, but it was a mere pittance (4%!) of the over 20,000 Drawings Mr. Gioni says Pettibon has created to date. And counting. He’s already added at least the 99 drawings in the David Zwirner show to the total. And? The one he did for me there.

“No Title (When I see…),” 2006. Pen, ink, collage on paper. Pettibon has been doing collages since around this time, and says one may include up to 70 drawings. As if his work wasn’t cryptic enough!

Beyond that, in a show that contains work that goes back to the 1970’s, it’s fascinating that nothing here feels “dated,” and virtually all of it holds up. Over 800 of any works is a pretty good indication of quality, even out of a body of 20,000. I’m still looking for a “bad” Pettibon.

“No Title …(Do you really believe…),” 2006, Pen and ink on paper.

After spending some weeks with these works, and Pettibon’s work in general, I find Mr. Gioni sums up the mystery of “understanding” Pettibon’s work the best I’ve found so far when he says on the audio guide, speaking of his political works, but I think it’s valuable to keep in mind, regardless of subject- “Pettibon plays with a variety of voices, in this case a cacophony of voices. The texts that are inscribed in the works of Pettibon are rarely a direct confessional expression of the Artist’s opinion, and they are instead a collection of what could be defined as the collective unconscious…” Proof of this is that we learn very little about the Artist, himself, from his work. Unless he comes out and tells us, directly, in interviews, and even then? Watch out for his “tall tales!” The point of the work is not personal (about the Artist, himself). It’s more about self, than “himself.”

“My Heart Tells Me (Self Portrait),” 1990, Ink on paper.

Personally? I felt like I was seeing the work of 800 Mensa members.  If you want to know why he is a major, and in my opinion, crucially important, Artist of our time, the “Pen,” and a pretty nice one, called the New Museum held your your answer. A wall card says the show’s title comes from a poem by Lord Byron. Ok. Another way to look at it is that the New Museums truly was A “Pen” (as in an enclosure) of All (well, A LOT) of his Work “that matters,” as he painted in the lobby.

“No Title …(Good prose is…),” 2013, has been turned into a styling Tote Bag by MZ Wallace, proceeds go, appropriately, to the New York Public Library.

I must also say that I feel that this show was a huge coup for the New Museum. As far as I’m concerned, this is the show that takes the New Museum to the next level. “Big 4” Museums? That sound you hear is someone breathing down your necks in contemporary Art. As for Mr. Pettibon, himself? I wonder. This show could have been held at MoMA (who, according to their site own over 300 of his works, on say, the whole 6th floor) or  it could have filled The Met Breuer (The Met lists 3 of his works online). Either would have, most likely, given him quite a bit more exposure, which might be critical given the timely nature of his work. I would love to know if either was ever an option, and why they passed if they were. Raymond Pettibon’s time is (still) now. Maybe MORE now than ever. Still, all of that having been said, I’m glad that it happened at all! I mean no disrespect to the New Museum. On the contrary, I heartily applaud them on doing such a superb job, on all accounts. Bravo! While I won’t compare qualitatively, “A Pen of All Work” will be one very hard show to top in NYC in 2017. Meanwhile, his Art continues to find favor elsewhere around the world. If you are anywhere near Maastricht, the Netherlands before October 29, don’t miss iyt! Raymond Pettibon also has a show about to open at the excellent Garage in Moscow, Russia. But? Sadly, this one is over.

“And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row.”*

When I left “A Pen of All Work” as the show closed that last time, I walked out on to the Bowery, the erstwhile “Skid Row,” or “Desolation Row,”(hence, this Post’s Soundtrack), where C.B.G.B. used to stand a few hundred feet away, back in the day before gentrifucation. Yes, punk is long gone, but Raymond Pettibon’s “failed modern novel” gets more and more attention than ever, now worldwide. Pondering all of this, I felt that Pettibon seemed to be akin to a modern day biblical, or zen, prophet- complete with his own burning bush, wandering in the desert, speaking in tongues.

800 works in, I’m listening harder than ever.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan, from the classic “Highway 61 Revisited,” and published by Bob Dylan Music Co.

Special thanks to kitty, who’s research assistance made thiys Post possible.

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  1. 800 pieces, per the show’s audio guide, which you can still access, as I write this, here.
  2. Update- July 20- You can read my Post on “TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHORT T” here.
  3. (who passed in 2010. I wonder what he thought of these…