defining contemporary art?

7 August 2011 § Leave a comment

Since I purport to comment on contemporary art I thought it might be useful to post some sort of definition. In an attempt to find any sort of consensus I stumbled across an excellent blog called ART CANON whose tag line is art genres, groups, movements and styles, art critics, historians, philosophers and theorists (Not sure who Jacques Ranciere is, or want a definition Neo Geo? Then this is the site for you!) Here is their entry which takes from Tate and Wiki:

Term loosely used to denote art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature. In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term contemporary art varies. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. [Tate]

Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time or art produced since World War II. The definition of the word contemporary would support the first view, but museums of contemporary art commonly define their collections as consisting of art produced since World War II. [wikipedia]

Not clear, so perhaps the biggest contemporary art gallery in London – Saatchi – has a good definition? Nope – they don’t even bother. The Tate is the next and it calls itself ‘Modern’ (as many contemporary art galleries do), and if you want to get more confused try the auction houses. Sothebys Contemporary department includes work from ‘the early abstract expressionists to the present day’. Since the term had also been sometimes used in the 1920’s one assumes they refer to the American movement of the mid 1940’s. Christies Contemporary Art is ‘dedicated to art created after 1970…  focusing on the various artistic movements of this time, from Minimalism and Conceptualism…Bonhams do not have a definition and nowadays tend to hold ‘Modern and Contemporary’ sales. None of them help clarify matters by chucking in occasional pre-war works, by Picasso for example, in to their Contemporary sales.

Contemporary art is most normally taken as starting after the end of the modernist period (in which I’d include the abstract expressionists) so I thought a look at writings on post-modernism might help. Post-modernism is also hard to pin down but usually is considered as a movement including most, but all, Contemporary art – and, as the name suggests, succeeding modernism. In Wikipedia’s definition it contradicts its previous entry (quoted by ART CANON above) by now placing the start of Contemporary art as 1950. To confuse matters further some thinkers and philosophers feel that modernism has not ended, or that post-modernism is actually just a part of modernism – but I won’t go in to that!

Mark Tansey - Modern Postmodern

It is generally accepted however that by 1960, amongst many other influences, the Assemblage art of Robert Rauschenberg, the Fluxus movement and the Pop art of, for example, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton had at least laid the foundations of what we would now call contemporary art. It is in the end probably impossible to define exactly where modernism ‘died’ – so let’s just settle for somewhere between 1950 and 1980. 

In general the main problem lies with using social science to define art history – can the start and end of ‘modernism’ ever be defined? Can anything ever come after post-modernism (or contemporary art)? Would we not be better off just sticking to the ‘isms’ and movements like cubism and Pop art, which have clear styles, aims, practitioners and so on? And so for a definition of contemporary art, I will leave that as a trap for others!

So, does that help? I thought not, but it is nevertheless good to see that – as is often the case in the art world – there is no definitive answer. The moral perhaps is if you want to hold an opinion, or like a work that is ‘unpopular’ – then why the h*ll not!

Homework for tonight:

Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 344 pp. ISBN: 13-978-0-226-76431-3.
E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Phaidon, 1960 386 pp, ISBN: 0-7148-1756-2
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, 125 pp. ISBN-10: 2840660601
Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984, 210 pp. ISBN: 0-674-63126-9

sound of silence

15 October 2010 § Leave a comment

I am not a big fan of Christmas. It is a big excuse for business and media to assault our eyes and ears every moment of the day – with promotions, sales, ‘opportunities’. The worst of the lot is the buzz around the possible Christmas ‘Number One’. Yawn. So here is a campaign that I can thoroughly approve of. A few minutes of silence could be at the top of the charts this Christmas with a big Facebook promotion having been started in favour of John Cage’s famous 4’33”. The American composer wrote Four Thirty-Three (as he said it) in 1952 for any instrument, or combination of instruments, the score instructing the performer not to play throughout the three movements of the piece.

Contrary to common belief, it is not however silence that Cage is actually giving us during these 273 seconds. The piece was instead written to highlight the ambient noise –  the ultimate extension of his Zen Buddhism beliefs and his work in experimental music. He wanted to show that it was possible to make music not only with instruments, but also using sound.

Robert Rauschenberg

 Interestingly Cage himself has said that his primary inspiration came from the visual arts with Robert Rauschenberg‘s White Paintings of 1950. As with 4’33” it was not the work itself but the external aspects that were most important – in this case the changing light that fell on to these ‘blank canvases’. Their importance is further indicated by the fact that they actually hung above the stage during the very first performance of the piece at Black Mountain College.

Here is the full orchestral version of Cage’s 4’33” as performed in the Barbican:

This is what Cage said about its first performance in New York:

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

Cage was based at Black Mountain College where his he began teaching at his legendary New School classes. Hugely influential his students included for example pioneers of performance art Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, and Al Hansen. His influence was felt far and wide – would minimalism and fluxus have happened without him? Cage regarded 4’33” as his most important piece of work and these 273 seconds of  ‘silence’ have helped shape the visual arts (not even mentioning other arts) ever since.

Going farther space/absence is a big theme in modern and post-modern art – from Malevich‘s Suprematist Composition White on White  to Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off. It is far to big to touch on now – but please take a look at previous posts that very briefly touched on some aspects with air in art and air in art – postscript.

boring conferences and boring art

8 October 2010 § Leave a comment

I could not resist posting details of an upcoming conference. Entitled Boring 2010 it is being organised by James Ward - a DVD distribution manager from Kingston upon Thames. Upon hearing that the London Interesting conference – one of a series on obscure esoteric topics – was being cancelled James decided to go ahead and organise his own somewhat less interesting one. 

Being touted as the world’s least interesting conference is however one very good way to make everyone stand up and take note. The Independent for example decided that it was actually so interesting that it set aside two whole pages of the 7 October 2010 issue to report the earth-shattering event. Of subjects reported to be featured this year my personal favourite is on the history of dust, with the reasons for draws in cricket coming in a close second, although to be fair Mr Ward actually aims to put forward the topics as sounding boring but actually that ‘turn out to be really interesting’.

It made me think that one of the artists featured at yesterday’s suitably mediocre private view of Transmission at the Haunch of Venison would be an appropriate candidate for the Boring conference. Katie Paterson was trying rather too hard to be very dull – one of her works for example was a slide archive of the history of darkness over the ages; a box full of black transparencies. Paterson has broadcast the sounds of a melting glacier, mapped all the dead stars, custom-made a light bulb to simulate the experience of moonlight, and buried a nano-sized grain of sand within the Sahara desert. She also laser-beamed the Moonlight Sonata to the moon and back and played the resulting melody back to us. Broken and occasionally distorted it was a rather touching and emotional record of time, distance and loss. Damn it – she was actually quite interesting in the end.

Picking over mind-numbingly dull subjects or the seemingly unimportant minutiae of  life has always of course provided rich pickings for many artists. In no particular order and without much thought, time or deep analysis (that would be way too dull of course) here are a few artists that it occurs to me have looked at the plain, boring or mundane and, at least in their minds, made it a little more interesting.

Duchamp (of course he gets a mention again usual) took the ordinary – a urinal, shoe rack, shovel or phial of air, and told us it was art. Malevich meanwhile reduced representation to a plain black, red or white canvas – his ‘zero of form’ , a reduction of representation to the absolute minimum. Many other later artists have created similar monochromes for differing reasons, for example for Robert Rauschenberg with Erased De Kooning it was the symbolic erasure of what the previous drawing represented that was interesting. Yves Klein, being French, used his own home-made blue for his quite interesting monchromes and took over a New York gallery in order to leave it empty (Le Vide). The minimalists reduced everything to the simplest forms to expose the essential – Carl Andre’s infamous Tate ‘pile of bricks’ (Equivalent VIII) perhaps being one example which proved too dull for many.

John Cage’s 4′33″ of course created another big 1950’s landmark for ‘nothingness’ in art – a period of ‘silence’ where a solo pianist played asolutely nothing at all. Warhol was of course a master of repetition and the mundane – eight hours of someone sleeping, in the 1964 film Sleep, probably the most provocatively boring, whilst the pinnacle of his musical dullness was with the band Velvet Underground playing The Nothing Song whilst people did nothing much on film.

In the sixties Fluxus artists like Kaprow and, of course, Lennon (happy birthday) and Ono inspired by the Dadaists held happenings where nothing in particular actually really  happened or arranged gatherings where the actual act meeting was the art. Ed Ruscha produced photobooks featuring, for example, seemingly random gasoline stations or parking lots. From this period onwards there is almost too much to mention. Many photographers, like Nan Goldin, have recorded the most mundane aspects of peoples lives – and private lives. Gerhard Richter created paintings that were devoid of any colour, copying mundane photographs or composed of random sweeps of paint. Richard Long walked up and down making marks, Bruce Nauman walked in circles and filmed it or made casts of empty and uninteresting spaces,  Joseph Beuys did nothing much at all. Perhaps the ultimate boredom in art prize might go to Martin Creed who won the Turner Prize with a light turning on and off in an empty room.

As far as all of this dull, nothingness goes a lot of people have found it exceedingly interesting. There is actually much more to nothing than there first appears. Any artists will for example know that it is often best to draw the ‘spaces’ of ‘nothing’ than the object itself. Books have been written on it, galleries stuffed with it an even the Pompidou last year ‘filled’ a floor with empty rooms for a retrospective of ‘nothing’. I will quickly conclude, before I get too boring, with some very appropriate Tom Lubbock comments on the Pompidou show from The Independent last year:

Having arrived at emptiness, fill her up again – with meanings. Sometimes the emphasis is on absence, on contemplating nothingness. Sometimes it’s on noticing what you might have overlooked. Perhaps you should notice all the gallery background noises you ignore. Perhaps you should see that art has its environment, which crucially conditions our experience of it. Or perhaps you should be looking at the only exhibits that remain in your empty gallery – yourselves. The empties are always going to be full of something. The art consists of working out what.

Perhaps I will go to Boring 2010 after all….

ten great artist album covers

13 August 2010 § Leave a comment

Howard Finster – Little Creatures

My recent blogs on outsider art led me to recall the wonderful Howard Finster whose work was used for the Talking Heads Little Creatures  cover (he also had works used by TH and REM for Reckoning). Other covers then sprung to mind and I suddenly came over all nostalgic. I wonder if we all realised how much our latent artistic sensibities were inspired by the cover art that was surreptitiously brought into lives via this 12″x12″ piece of card?  The result is this brief, totally random and very incomplete post on some of my favourite ‘real’ cover art! 

To briefly elaborate I should say that I do not regard any colourful design put on an abum cover as ‘art’. I plan to here look at work created specifically by established artists or their appropriated artworks used for covers. I know that many would argue that a lot of album covers have become ‘works of art’ and achieved some sort of iconic position, but how much is the art, how much the band and their popularity?  London Calling by the Clash would spring to mind a perfect example of an iconic cover, but not ‘art’. The designer Ray Lowry, despite being an excellent cartoonist was actually a poor artist!

Let me pick the obvious ones first! Andy Warhol’s covers for the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones are unforgettable. The Velvet’s banana cover says everything so effortlessly – the provocative little tag says ‘peel slowly and see’. Behind is a pink banana. With usual Warhol genuis the pared-down design makes a grand statement. Provocative, rude and erect, it is a big FU to the world.

The Stones’ Andy Warhol cover is of course Sticky Fingers - with its real zip. Aparantly at a NY party in 1969 Warhol casually mentioned to Mick Jagger that it would be amusing to have a real zipper on an album cover. The cover shrewdly moved the Stones away from their devil/evil thing and into a provocative sexual mode. Banned in some countries and stores, the album also debuted the famous logo: a caricature of Jagger’s lips and tongue.

Peter Blake’s cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great piece of pop art (fortuitously allied with one of the greatest albums and the best band). What it is not is collage. It is actually a  staged photograph including life-size cardboard cut-outs, props – and the Beatles of course. It does not therefore exist as a ‘work of art’ other than possibly as the original photograph. Should it be in my list under my ‘rules’? Marginal, but in it is! Blake by the way also did Paul Weller’s Stanley Road cover amongst others, but none fitted with Blake’s significance as a ‘pop’ artist.

Robert Rauschenberg is not someone who springs to mind as a someone who would be involved with albums, but David Byrne of Talking Heads (again) persuaded him to create an artists edition of the Talking Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues. Actually the art is the LP rather than cover and was issued in a limited 50,000 copies complete with spinning plexidiscs and layered images. Showing Rauschenberg’s interest in collaged objects the coloured discs included photographs of bedrooms, number plates and car bumpers. It resembles his 1967 work Revolver, with similar motorised discs set in a concrete base with a motor to spin the prints. It’s interaction with the public matches Rauschenberg’s aim to work in the area between life and art.

Mike Kelley included music, performance and poetry within his art practice, being a member of the avaant-garde band Destroy All Monsters. In addition, as a long-time collaborator with with the band Sonic Youth, he designed the cover art for Dirty. It feature one of his disturbing stuffed animals – imaginary childhood toys that represent both repressed memories and hidden adult perversions.

Patti Smith’s 1975 album Horses is often cited as one of the top records of all time, an early influence of punk rock. It is certainly helped by the great cover shot by the NY photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is an intimate, androgynous portrait of Smith against her (their) Chelsea Hotel apartment wall. Vulnerable yet  defiant it is one a many great images that Mapplethorpe took of Smith – another was used on the 1987 Dream of  Life.

Another great American photographer, Robert Frank, was commissioned by the Stones for their 1972 album Exile on Main Street. The cover is photograph of various circus freaks, is not a collage but a 1950 photo of a tattoo parlour wall somewhere on Route 66. The comparison to the notorious Stones – jet-setting tax exiles, cocaine-fueled satyrs and perpetual outsiders – is clear. To emphasise the point the back cover has an identical layout with his photos of the Stones themselves, shot on the seedy Main Street, LA.

The wonderful Hiroshi Sugimoto has provided the photograph for U2’s recent, and mediocre, No Line On The Horizon. Sadly U2 ruined the image by adding a strange ‘equals sign’ over its heart, but I have illustrated it without! These are zen-like images for contemplation, representing time and pondering existence. In his own words: ‘Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing’. Pity it is U2!

For my final image I have picked The Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace album cover from 1969. It is actually Yves Klein’s Blue. Lennon and Ono added a single cloud: “John and I were being very artsy at that point in our lives. By us putting a cloud there it suddenly became the real sky – and the real world – as opposed to perfection.” Bless ‘em!

Brilliant covers – but with insufficient ‘art’ pedigree – that I have not included, but wished that I could, include Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes, Led Zep’s Houses of the Holy, It’s a Beautiful Day, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, Blind Faith and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. More? Please send me your thoughts!

If you liked this post please make a comment or like it. If you like the blog please subscribe for regular updates (top right of page). Many thanks! akuta

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