Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tintoretto's "Susanna and the Elders": Image vs. Text, Part II

Figure and Ground
We saw this painting at the De Young’s “Masters of Venice” show a few days ago; at 57” x 76 ¼,” it takes up most of one wall and is absolutely luminous.  It is the second of Tintoretto’s known versions of the story (the first is in the Louvre) but this is the one that … well, everyone swoons over. The Biblical story behind “Susanna and the Elders” begins with a habit: she frequents her husband’s gated orchard at the same time each day. The “elders” of the title know this, and arrive as she is deciding to take a bath; Tintoretto captures the moment before they see her and before she sees them. Susanna refuses their advances, for which they punish her by accusing her of adultery with an (unknown) young man; at the trial, their lies are discovered and the elders are killed.  Many painters give us the moment when Susanna becomes aware that the elders see her; Tintoretto shows the elders just getting into position.

Despite the many stories we could follow here -- Susanna’s chastity (in these times, faithfulness after marriage was just as important as virginity before, and the Susanna of this painting was often used as a model to follow), or the idea that “the truth will out”  -- but I would like to follow a line of argument about figure and ground, to see if we can’t tie it back to -- text.

Here is the painting with some lines I have added to trace the peculiarities of the ground:

Take a look at the whole picture, with these outlines; you can see that the painting does not really hang together. To begin with the farthest-away portion, framed in yellow: a beautiful, pastoral garden, with deer to the left, ducks floating in water to the right. This clearly suggests Eden, innocence, perhaps to give us the idea that nature empathizes with our heroine; the eye doesn’t linger there, however, because it moves on to the title characters, who, oddly, are really part of the ground and not figures in their own right. The elders, outlined in red, bookend the hedge. The elder to the right of the hedge is tucked into the dead center of the upper portion of the painting, something that escapes us at first, because he is mirrored by a statue to the right of the archway that leads back to yet another level of paradise.  He, and the un-articulated statue, are, essentially columns, supporting the arch.  Perhaps Tintoretto has done this to let us know that this elder will not present any real problems in the long run.  The second elder is curled into a space behind the hedge. If his robes were green, they would be a grassy hill. He cannot see Susanna yet, and as a non-actor, seems more ground than figure: he is given no shoulder-space and no real second arm, so he is, like the other elder, compromised, already.

Now look at the tree trunks behind Susanna, outlined in green; she could not possibly be leaning against them -- where are the roots?  What is the relation between the bath, a squared edge filled with water (not outlined) and the trees?  Another bit of ground is the vertical hedge: why does it appear to be wrapped in burlap, like a canvas in transit (did Tintoretto paint what was in the studio)? Why are the roses so evenly spaced? Why are there no breaks in the hedge, no pieces of light?

The strangest part, though, seems to me the ground that I have framed in blue, which is divided into at least two separate perspectival planes.  First, along the hedge, the ground rises in a triangle back to the elder and the pastoral distance; and the source of that perspective would be the elder at front left, if he were in position to see Susanna -- but he cannot see Susanna, and we can.  The ground inside my blue line is very difficult to read or reconstruct. It doesn’t make sense as real terra firma.  Even the ground that surrounds Susanna’s clothes and borders the pool in the front is dark and vague.  This makes no sense. Grass is easy to paint. Susanna is solid, but the ground she rests on is not. She is not sitting on dirt, or lovely little grasses and flowers, or a tree-root. Even the elder in the top center of the painting seems to be looking down, trying to find his footing… where can he step?  The ground cannot be visually understood, mapped, or defined. It comes at us, as if we were overhead, in an apparent anticipation of Cézanne’s tipped-up table (see below, from 1890-4, “Still Life with Apples”):

So the ground is tilted, almost as if we were standing over Susanna, or standing in front of her. Oh, that’s right – we are. There is a second carefully-constructed perspective that gives the audience a role. We are supposed to see Susanna nearly head-on.  David Rosand, in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, notes that, in this painting, the viewer is “a voyeur, but with even more privileged, and aesthetically sanctioned, access to the bathing body. Pictorial desire and sensual desire are conflated” (p. 181).  So, whether we “desire” to be or not, we are the elders, except, of course, that we are not in a position to harm Susanna, to save her, or even to breathe Susanna’s air. She is, for us, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, frozen in time: “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”  But the question remains, as Robert Hahn notes: “If the painting could make me feel I shouldn’t be looking at all, why was it painted, and why in this particular way?” (“Caught in the Act: Looking at Tintoretto’s Susanna,” Massachusetts Review, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2004-5, p. 635).

So, perhaps there are answers in the last bit of un-articulated ground, the mirror.  Why have we not seen more than a bit of satin and an hair-ornament reflected there?  Why is the mirror there at all? What sort of woman carries her comb, her powders, and her vanity-table mirror with her into an orchard?  She is not using it to apply make-up. Why is it there? I think the mirror is there so that Susanna has somewhere to look besides out at us.  She looks happily at her own reflection, a female Narcissus.  We are thus meant to be -- just like the elders -- voyeurs.  (It is worth noting that in the earlier version of “Susanna and the Elders,” Tintoretto shows her looking out  -- “as frankly as Manet’s Olympia,” Hahn says, p. 637).  Here, I think there is meant to be more innocence -- on her part -- and more guilt, on ours.

So is there anything in the figure that relates to, or is in marked contrast with, this uncertain ground?  Susanna, to begin with, is one solid piece of work.  I wrote in an earlier blog piece (11/30/2011) that “she is all we see.”  Sometimes, as would happen later with Rembrandt’s Saskia or Manet’s Victorine Meurent, an artist paints the same model in several different pictures. But Susanna is unique. Nude artists’ models were not readily available in sixteenth-century Venice, so Tintoretto often sketched from wax figures that he created, and he also drew “male nudes” and translated them later into “female figures” (Claus Virch, “A Study of Tintoretto After Michelangelo,” Department of Painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Susanna seems to have been modeled on a pretty hefty, almost manly, scale. Her arms and legs are muscular, and the one visible breast seems more male than female. Susanna’s strength and almost surreal calm make her seem sexually powerful, self-contained, as if she doesn’t need anyone else (rather like Matisse’s “Blue Nude – Souvenir de Biskra”).   The ground is terribly ambiguous, the main figure, a rock. Why?

Because of … Text
I think it all returns to text.  The ground is uncertain because it is an afterthought. The figure is certain because it obeyed the rules: all the naked ladies painted in Tintoretto’s time brought their texts with them, and so were guaranteed safe passage. They were goddesses or mythological or Biblical women.  They were not Venetians.  Griselda Pollock, in Differencing the Canon, writes that in this era, the genre of “the erotic female nude … was emerging … shifting the connotations of the female nude from its traditional iconographic association with truth towards its modern significance of (masculine) desire and its privileged visuality” (p. 105).  So Tintoretto has done well to choose Susanna -- for his viewers.   But what about the precise moment that he chooses?  She looks at her reflection in the mirror with apparent pleasure.  The elders are not yet completely on their marks.We look at her looking (as in this photo, below, from a New York Times review of an earlier Tintoretto show):

Why not choose another, later moment, as Anthony Van Dyck did, in 1621?

I think we can see why Tintoretto rejected this idea. Van Dyck’s Susanna is not calm, not a study in nude perfection, but a terrified young woman, confined in a small space with two men and three very large hands.  (His aim is very different, of course -- he is a devout Catholic and an emotional painter of religious works).  Van Dyck’s painting resembles a document: “Exhibit A.”  Tintoretto’s vision, in contrast, is so painterly, so light-filled, that it leaves us with just enough room to mock the elders.

Tintoretto wanted achievement: “il disegno di Michelangelo ed i colori di Tiziano” (the drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian) was written on the wall of his studio.  The shape, precise outlines, the delineation of the ground in this painting was unimportant to him. “Susanna” was painted in 1555-6, when he was 38, which would be young for an artist now, but in his time… he needed to get going.  “Tintoretto took up either techniques or subjects utilized by the older, more established artists in order both to challenge himself and present his talent” notes Dan Clanton (in The Good, The Bold, and The Beautiful, p. 123). Tintoretto wanted to set off that body. He wanted it to be the first and last thing anyone saw.  Robert Hahn asks, in all seriousness, a question he doesn’t exactly answer: “Is Susanna just another hot babe employed to strip for the bozos?” (p. 645).  And the answer is, in pursuit of text, just … maybe.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Subjective? Objective? How Critical is the Weight of Text? And who made those paintings, anyway?

Let's look at these two paintings one more time, and see if we can evaluate them in some objective way, before I reveal their origins (and... text).  This first painting:

The first thing that we would notice, objectively, is color. The blues and greens of the right-hand side of the painting are softened, made warmer, as they merge into the oranges and yellows of the central diagonal line.  There are some obvious brushstrokes, but most of the surface is soaked in color. The obvious application of paint comes with the dots in the upper right and some streaks of gestural paint in the crossed lines. The painting is layered; the crossed lines show traces of several layers of paint, as does the circular shape at bottom.  The collaged elements at center left could be embossed or simply wrinkled paper; from this photograph, it is hard to tell. They also provide layers, by themselves, but also because whatever these collaged papers might have depicted is wiped out entirely by added paint in varied colors.  The eye is drawn around the painting's surface by the color and the two crossed lines. Objectively, I think that is as much as we should say.

Now, for the second work under discussion:

This painting, too, is suffused with color, most of it warm reds and yellows. Here the complication is not added by large crossed lines, or blues and greens, but by a floating gray mass, a figure, of sorts, attached by the yellow lines that function as straps at its bottom. It stops the flow of color and this mass is what forces the eye around the painting; we find ourselves looking for the colors around it. There are three thin directional lines of paint, two in black (moving off the painting's edges) and one red (it follows the yellow "strap"). There are some brushstrokes here, in the red areas at top center and left, and in the black figure submerged under the gray mass, but the colors in this painting are mostly applied in broad, rough swathes.  The painting is layered, with the gray and black and gold figures at the center, and with the blue at top right, which is soft and soaked into the surface. Again, I think that's as much as we should say.

Now, just for your own pleasure, look at them each one more time. Which one do you like, subjectively? Both? Neither?

Here's the answer (spoiler alert!). The first painting above is mine, from about 1995. It is 9" x 12" and was painted in acrylic, with collaged magazine pages.  The second painting is a Gerhard Richter, called "Georg," from 1981, and it measures 78 3/4" square.  For the record, because the paintings are so similar, I had not seen a Richter until well after I painted the work at the top. Interesting, no?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hanging (on) the Ineffable: Is "Text" the Difference Between 'Fine Art" and "Stuff"?

André Malraux invented le musée imaginaire, where works could be seen “without walls,” pulled away from their art-historical categories and their countries (and, I am assuming, the world of money).  It is now possible to create that musée imaginaire in our thoughts and … online … and the musée we create keeps us alive.

But artists and their audiences still need to see art, really see it, the brushstrokes and nail holes and scrapings and chisel marks, to stand close to the canvas, to walk across the room, to see the scale of the work and see what the artist saw as the work was progressing.  

We began a visit through the quiet rooms of a series of art galleries in San Francisco. About five galleries into the day, happy, we stepped into a small space and saw a solo show with drawings, paintings, and tapestries.  I had some questions, as I found the art rather uneven and its reach overly ambitious: the drawings tended towards kitsch (many, however, were sold!), the monumental paintings were perfectly cold and accomplished, but the tapestries –-carefully done and brimming with color-- were gorgeous. (I did not write down the price at the time, but on another gallery’s website, a tapestry by this same artist, a wide brush on a variegated field, is selling for $9,800). The assistant drifted away, and the owner materialized.  The tapestries were contracted out to Belgian weavers, he said; the artist made preparatory drawings in some detail, and he began to elaborate.  My husband moved, as he often does, to clarify who we were; an artist, a poet, and not people who are buying.  The owner said “yes, but artists must support other artists.” We said that we were looking for inspiration; coming to galleries is a kind of support, something we can do, particularly where the prices given are in thousands of dollars.  “I have heat bills, light bills, just like you,” the owner said, bristling.

But his door had been open; the ability to look at art was -- without engraved invitation -- still on offer.  My husband said “We don’t have this kind of money … so we don’t buy art … we hang her stuff.”  That hung in the air for just a minute. And then, not really having listened, not really seeing us anymore, still apparently arguing for a sale, the owner said “this,” waving his arm at the pieces on the wall, “this is fine art … your work” he said, looking at me for the first time, “is just … stuff.” 

Now, maybe he was just using my husband’s term -- “her stuff”  -- and hadn’t just thrown out an insult.  (He hasn’t seen my “stuff,” after all, so how could he judge it?). Or, maybe, he meant it.  There it was, and couldn’t be un-said: my “stuff” vs. “fine art.” I can guess that he is enmeshed in a musée imaginaire of his own, not a nice musée, either, but a museum for the initiates only, a place where text and the explanation trump the actual art.  What he claimed for his art would “brand” it as “fine,” worthy of investment. Perhaps he would have been happier if he could display four bare walls -- and could claim that only a special coterie could see the brilliance of the works on show, a kind of gallery version of the emperor’s new clothes, “hanging,” as my husband said, “the ineffable.”

Is there such a thing as “fine art”?  The definitions run from the most inclusive (all the arts, such as dance and architecture), to a simple mention of the visual arts, to, most precisely, a painting that is “pure of discipline.”  Importantly, “fine art” generates money; if we look up the largest amounts of money paid for paintings, we can collect a list of artists, (in varying order, depending on the most recent auction): Jackson Pollock, Gustav Klimt, Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh (and even, in one list, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” once she is adjusted for inflation).  

We can try a discussion of contemporary “fine art,” then, to escape historical certainties: how can we distinguish, in the art of our own times, the “fine art” from the “stuff”?

A critical work, Picture Theory, by W.J.T. Mitchell, on image vs. text in the visual arts, claimed that “the text is an intrusion on the image …. the wall labels in museums take more of the spectator’s time than the image” (209). I think it may be that text is the problem.  We hear text from the gallery owners, pronouncing work as “collectible,” “unique” or (really, once): “world class.”  We read dozens of artist’s statements, that day in the galleries, and many, many résumés.  We hear “experts” like the gallery owner pronounce work “collectible” in (spoken) text. The more generous the text, it seemed, the higher the prices, the “finer” the art.  

Each résumé posted in the galleries that day offered sections delineating “Solo” or “Group” shows. Every added line meant, the artist must have thought, added future revenue.  (I was solicited recently via e-mail by a man from a small picturesque Italian town, to apply to be shown in his gallery; it seemed my response would guarantee my being shown. The “entry” fee was 200 euro -- about $256 at today’s exchange rate. It turns out that he does indeed show the work that artists ship to him, at their own expense, and at their own risk of the art’s being stopped at customs.  In truth, his is a tiny gallery -- looking a bit like a former one-bedroom apartment -- in a tiny town, and it was unclear just what advantage this might bring his artists.  People ship work to him … probably in pursuit of that additional résumé line … of text).  Each line of an artist’s bio is proof that someone, somewhere, has chosen this art as “fine.”  Fine, finer, finest, as the text piles up.

Artists do talk about “when” to stop entering juried shows (competitions where a juror, or panel, selects the work); there is a discussion online now about this dilemma.  A juried show is better than an open show, everyone agrees, but not as fine, of course, as a solo show.  “Fine art” rears its ugly little head again here, I think. Even given their comparative lack of text-clout, I find juried shows invigorating -- I am delighted when my work (oops, “stuff”) is accepted.  What if Jasper Johns or Julie Mehretu entered a juried show?  Wouldn’t that be fabulous?  But they don’t need the text.; they have solo shows, retrospectives, which are, of course, the ultimate “text.”

An artist’s text on a résumé also includes work and schooling. We recently saw the paintings of a young man who works with a famous Bay area painter; he sets up the big guy’s canvases and paints, answers his phone, replies to letters.  This assistant’s work was selling briskly at a “fine art” price. The young man’s paintings?  “Fine.” Exact replicas of his boss’s work.  The text was winning, for the moment.

Then there is the art-school portion of the bio. Every artist in the galleries in downtown San Francisco mentioned an MFA.  I think that the classes in fine arts can teach materials, set-up, drying times, archival processes … but then, by the time one is in graduate school, one knows all of that.  I think that, most importantly, graduate school in the visual arts provides contacts, a.k.a., text: more lines for jobs, more lines for prizes.

(Two small asides about text:  First, I found a reference to an artist named Housep Pushman (1877-1966) whose work was terribly successful in his time -- consistently sold-out shows -- and his work is lovely and careful (see, below, his “Pushman Book, Number 555”):

But he is all but forgotten, now, and his work sells for a fraction of that of his contemporaries.  Did someone erase his text? Second, on text and success: I read that the Oscar committee is getting so many documentary submissions that they have decided to exclude any documentary for 2013 that has not had a review in The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times.  Now that’s some serious -- mandated -- text).

Suppose we got rid of all the text. Suppose we were presented with just the thing itself.  Would we know “fine art” when we saw it? Would we be able to construct a musée imaginaire that is no fairy tale?

This is the big question, for me.  Is “fine art” any more than endless, but very articulate, text?  Imagine two paintings on a wall. One was painted by an artist without much text, the other by an artist with considerable text. But you are not told which one is which.  Here they are:

The problem we face involves the very definition of “text” as I am using it, i.e., fame, marketability, etc. We know in advance the text that attaches to the famous painter.  The question is, however, can we say whether one is “better” without resorting to merely intuitive judgments?  The vocabulary of the subjective judgment of art is well known—“balance, beauty, maturity, energy, etc.”  But, the question here is whether we can we determine “objective” characterizations of both paintings that will allow us to say with certainty that one is better/worse than the other?  Are there facts about either painting that go to the question of their quality as art, as fine art, as “finer” art?  Or is it all really only a question of text?

The judgment whether one piece of art is superior to another is always entirely subjective.  It doesn’t change anything, either, that that subjectivity be enshrined in a culture of judgment, such as art criticism, or whatever.  If we now construct a musée imaginaire,  which of these two works would we enshrine?  Which do you think carries the weight of heavy text behind it?  Tell me what you think … and I will let you know which is which ... in a couple of days.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Faithful to the Process": A Review of Richard Serra Drawing

(The Retrospective has been at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York, and is, for a few more days, at SFMOMA and will soon move to the Menil Collection in Houston)

You might feel you know Richard Serra’s work, having walked through two curving walls of one of his steel sculptures.  This is "Band," now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

You may feel, too, that you know and understand the limits of drawing, a concept so basic that most artist’s dictionaries don’t bother to define it. My painter friend says “marks on paper, perhaps,” or “lines, generally in a single color by pen or pencil,” or “maybe a work on its own, or a study for something greater.” A drawing by Raphael is not so different in kind from a drawing by Jasper Johns (who, by the way, has collected Serra’s work; the “Gutter Corner Splash” lines of thrown-lead works in this show are a gift from Johns).  I think of a Nicolas de Stael show we saw years ago, a show of drawings that I thought re-energized the possibilities: a border around the central room of a New York gallery, abstract lines of varied colors on paper torn from notebooks.  

None of this will help you find an immediate kinship with Richard Serra’s work in this show, however: you will not want to wander into any of these rooms unaware. Serra attempts to do with drawing (using paintstick on paper or linen) what he once did with sculpture: to disconcert, to undermine, to bother, to change, to move the goalposts and remove the pedestal -- permanently.  The drawing is neither an architectural plan for sculpting nor a framed bit of abstract gesture. Because it is not anything you have seen before, it may, indeed, infuriate you. In an interview with Charlie Rose (charlierose.com, dated April 21, 2011), Serra says that the intention of these drawings is “to create a volume of space within the architectural volume of the space that is different in kind.”  So, the space inside each museum room is going to have to matter, because the drawings are meant, like the sculptures, to disrupt where we had been walking. As we move, we see a different light, a different angle on each room.  Serra wants to avoid drawing an object, to avoid representing: “I draw interval or I draw space.”  He isn’t using a Rapidograph or an HB pencil or a marker; “artists make up their own tools and make up their own procedures,” Serra tells Rose., and so he melted paintsticks together into bricks, creating a wall of drawing that will be difficult to crack.

The reviews I have read come mostly from the show’s installation at the Metropolitan, and the remarks are – generally – reverential.  Walter Robinson wrote, in “Richard Serra: The Met Goes Modern” (artnet.com), that “Serra is our most powerful formalist, as everyone knows.”  [If we need a gloss on the word “formalism,” we can go to the Tate Museum, where they tell us that the word means that “the most important aspect of a work is its form … the qualities of colour, form, line and composition” (tate.org.uk)].  Serra said (to Charlie Rose): “I don’t draw image.” If it is possible to do it, he seems to want to draw … form. And the critics seem pleased; they have their language at the ready. Robinson calls the drawings “elemental things” and says they “easily command their galleries.”  Jane Panetta, writing of the piece “Taraval Beach,” says that it “dominates and dramatically alters the gallery it inhabits …. [it] seems to become space” (Art in America, June 16, 2011).  David Hansen, writing in The London Review of Books (Vol. 33, No. 13,  30 June 2011), is a little more helpful, though he, too, rhapsodizes, bringing in Edmund Burke and Kant: “faced with the grandeur of the Sublime you can no longer think, let alone act, only be.”  How is that helpful? you may ask. But, wait, other notations of Hansen’s do help: he explains that some of the drawings are textured like “combed animal pelt, or a hairy tweed, or like the squeegee drag and blur found in Gerhard Richter’s abstract canvases …. [or] sugary black molasses with faint traces of bootprints … [or] maps, reptile skin, leaves.”  (At last, a description! This is what they look like – because, for some reason, photographers allowed to take pictures of these works only capture them head-on, where they look flat and black. Un-textured).  So we begin to see a little, perhaps, a little of what it might be like to stand in front of one of these pieces. But, overall, the reviews can feel far too distanced, a kind of unquestioning admiration for “our most powerful formalist.”  Only Roberta Smith, in an otherwise very positive review, acknowledge a weakness or two, such as: “the work can sometimes seem at once meager and histrionic” or “[it]can present empty echoes of traditional authoritative formats” (The New York Times, April 14, 2011).  So what of the work itself … what is it like to be THERE?

My reflections on Serra’s drawing break neatly into two segments (which correspond precisely to my two visits to this show at SFMOMA).  If I had to give a title to my first response, it might be Gertrude Stein’s “If the artist knows exactly what he is going to do and more importantly how it will be done and what it will become then there really is no use in doing it since there will be nothing new in it” (How to Write, xiv). This is the strain of thought I lapsed into after seeing the show for the first time.  I mainly saw -- and remembered -- only the huge black presences called “Abstract Slavery,” “Taraval Beach” (below),  “Pacific Judson Murphy,”  “Blank” and “Union.”   

My reaction to all these works was direct, visceral and angry. Why continue on past the first experiment?  One piece, I thought, would have been enough, a single exploration on this scale, a single try at covering a large surface with a tool that was originally designed to add notations on steel or highlight a line of painting with texture or color.  Once finished, move on: simple.

Two of these pieces,  “Blank” (from 1978, paintstick on Belgian linen) and “Union,” (from 2011, also paintstick) are installed as massive “walls” opposite one another. Two rooms, two sets of black drawings, two sets of white walls, each time.   The other three drawings are also wall-sized, but each is given its own space.  These five, their massive scale, came together for me only in terms of how much space they wasted. These works in particular seemed to repeat a single formula: rub, rub more, rub again, repeat, cover the surface entirely as if covering a schoolyard with asphalt, hang with staples.  The drawings did not seem, to me, to contain the power of Serra’s sculptures, nor did they live up to the elegiac language of many of their critics. Why were they there … except that they were signed “Serra.”

I should pause here and note that I always believed that abstract art revealed the truth of its making; I believed that I could tell when an artist was invested and when s/he was simply going through the motions. I felt supported in this because I had seen an interview with Robert Motherwell, who said (in my rough paraphrase), “I have made many paintings that are failures, but none that are lies.” I felt I could smell lies. And these five drawings, and perhaps one or two others, in this show, seemed to me … lies.  These were not sketches, revealing the coming sculpture; these were … simply … big.  And monotone.  And yet -- I love the erased de Kooning by Rauschenberg (now at SFMOMA; see the video explanation of that process here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGRNQER16Do&feature=related) and his all-white series. I have seen Ryman’s and Pousette-Dart’s white paintings.  I have read Yazmina Reza’s Art.  I like the fact that Agnes Martin traces horizontal lines across a five- or six-foot canvas, over and over again.  I like Gertrude Stein, who says, in “Portraits and Repetitions,” that “I continued to do what I was doing in Making of Americans.  I was doing what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous succession of the statement of what that person was until I had not many things but one thing.”

What?  Many repetitions make one thing?  Wait, that’s … what’s happening here.  On Belgian linen.  Wait. Wait. I don’t like not liking something that seems so obviously, on the face of it, the art I should love: a departure from the art before it, a Herculean effort, a non-narrative but still thoughtful attempt at form and substance, “not many things but one thing.”   So I went back.

The title, if I had to give one, of this second visit to SFMOMA would come from Serra himself, from his interview with Rose: in discussing his “Untitled (14-part roller drawing),” made in 1973 at Gemini Press in Los Angeles, Serra created “a very serial proposition … [I was] just paying attention … I could care less about what it looks like. I’m just staying faithful to the process.”  Three things: first, the point of the work at SFMOMA is that it is “serial,” it is “process,” and the artist remains “faithful” to the initial proposition. These works are records of an encounter with scale and material. Serra clearly feels he is still working with these, a straight line from 1969 through to 2011.  I have no trouble with this claim at all. Second, he was “paying attention,” Serra says, and this would be, for me, the thing I needed to find visible, somewhere. Third: yes, “new work will seem ugly” to its first audience, Picasso said once, because it is working through something difficult; Cubism and the Demoiselles were ugly once (then, Picasso said, the imitators come along and make pretty versions).  The exhibition offers up ugly moments, certainly: the drawings can seem like discarded, well-worn rubber, the paper is stapled to the walls, and the oil from the paintsticks makes a yellow stain around the edges of some pieces.  The black paint sucks the air out of some rooms, and the unrelieved raised furrows seem endless and unrelenting in the larger pieces.  Pretty is not the point; the point is power.  Even Hansen, the critic who wrote about the Sublime in relation to this work, concludes his review with: “But don’t try to get too close. Make no mistake, Serra is a tough guy, a front-end-loader philosopher, a ‘don’t give a damn’ democrat. While he is happy to share his hard-labour, hard-nut ontological confidence, he doesn’t solicit your vote. Sublime indifference, that’s what it is.”  Besides making Serra into a combination of Sam Spade, Willem de Kooning and Nietzsche, Hansen makes a good point.  One characteristic of the work is that it stands alone, like death. It doesn’t care what you think.  But art, like death, needs a considered response.

So, what of my concern about whether or not Serra was “paying attention,” whether he was, in my old notions of measuring art, telling some kind of “truth”?  As I walked through the show this second time, I understood the serial, the process, the labour, the confidence, the ugly exposure of the oily edges, the staples, the rubbery surfaces.  But -- does it seem to be “real,” this work, in the way the sculptures are “real”? 

The five pieces I most disliked on my first visit grow a little more receptive on a second go-round.  Coming near to the surfaces of these massive pieces makes it possible to see all the textures that Hansen mentioned.  “Texture and illusion,” my husband said. There are moments of Richter, there is a kind of vertical parade of harsh markings, the light comes and goes into ridges and valleys just as it does over a hillside, and is trapped or reflected without reference to the viewer, unrelievedly. I still find these pieces difficult because they seem to simply begin and end (I would assume that is the point) without a focal point, any carved-out edge, without any relief at all from its “dark declivities” (a Yeatsian phrase from his poem “Parting”).  No relief is also the point.  Drawings, Serra said to Charlie Rose, are “the subtext of how an artist thinks.”  So, yes, we have that “subtext,” textualized in paint, here.  Perhaps I object to the perfection of the unforgiving, unrelenting surface.

Other works that this I found myself far more inclined to love, on second viewing, involve not the perfection of those first five pieces, but a kind of imperfection that comes from the spaces that Serra creates on the ground, the linens or papers. These spaces appear between or around the form or figure and provide some breathing room, a way for the audience to enter in (as Serra said he wants us to).  Barbara Rose writes “Serra is not interested in the mixing of light and shadow but in the absolute differentiation of the two” (exhibition catalogue, page 43). One of the earliest pieces where this “differentiation” occurs is “Untitled,” from 1972-3, a dark black horizontal triangle, with a smudged ground; this is more attuned to traditional figure-ground drawing, of course, and so it seems a bit friendlier. Here is a detail:

 There are three works from 1989, each composed of paintstick on two jointed pieces of paper; all of these appear to be responses to the removal and destruction of Serra’s “Tilted Arc” in that same year.  The titles are “The U.S. Government Destroys Art,” “The U.S. Courts are Partial to Government,” and “No Mandatory Patriotism.”  They are all in one large space, each displaying two black forms that collide with or incline towards one another, and they all make use of negative space and seem light, weightless, despite their layers of paint.  Another group that seem to me to be describing space through line and form, one of Serra’s aims, is the trio from 2001 and 2002, all on one wall, of “Vico,” “September” and, below, “Black Tracks” :

The works called “Solid 1,” “Solid 11” and  “Solid 13” contain an off-square central shape that reaches nearly to the edge of the (handmade) paper, and in that edge is, for me, the payoff: droplets, Pollock-ian lines, smudges, oily smears.  Where the work tapers off and the viewer can then see the body of the work more clearly, that edge, is what I love here.  “A Drawing in Five Parts” from 2005 is composed of five drawings, each with (sideways) arched lines, again with splashes and drips at the edges and thicker and thinner applications of paint.  These are the imperfect ones, the ones I have come to see are the record of the process, the artist’s hand, the true thing.

Serra may have said it best (he’s a pretty articulate Sam Spade):  “I think in order to see a work, it has to generate a sensation that engages you with what you’re looking at.  Otherwise, you’ll dismiss it. Otherwise it’s like other things.  There has to be some factor of engagement, some emotional connection – something has to get you to the point where you’re aware of your reaction, your emotion, where you analyze the content of your perception. Only then will you become conscious of what you’re looking at “ (catalogue, p. 77).  My old friend Kent Jacobson was right: never trust your first impression.  Always go back, look, repeat, think, look, repeat. And then you might get it, sublimely indifferent though it may be.