Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Text is Evil, Text is Good: "Image vs. Text," Part Three

Antoni Tapies’s work is difficult to find outside of New York, Barcelona and other cities in Europe; and yet, he is a well-known, influential, and powerful figure in the art world. Why is no-one here  mourning him as they did Twombly, Frankenthaler, and Rauschenberg?  

I have been suggesting (see posts from January 20 and 31) that text -- the long CV, the degrees, the artist’s statement, the wall labels, the gallery’s own press releases -- defines what we then see as “fine art.”  What is said, that is, becomes more crucial than what we see, which seems to me the wrong way around.  In its way, I have been saying, text is … evil.  It reinforces the power of writing and speech over the line and the color and the form of art.

But there may be room for text to be a force for good, to actually help us catch up to what we should see and know. Tapies is one such case. His text could be very helpful (he’s got it -- just consult any biography or obituary for his full story, his honors, his influence) but it is running a bit behind.  We Americans, for whatever reasons, just have not been paying attention to his bio; so, in the absence of knowing his text, we have to fall back on what we should fall back on-- our own sight.  And yet here, on the West Coast, his work can only be seen (at least in public collections) at MOCA in Los Angeles, and the Serge Sorokko Gallery in San Francisco where, yesterday, there were two Tapies etchings on the wall. Here is a photograph of one of the etchings from 1985, from the gallery’s website, named “Llull-Tapies (1038)” – and yes, those are handprints:

 Tapies -- even in death -- eludes Americans living outside of New York. It could be that he doesn’t lend himself easily to text, to being easily categorized. He lived in New York for a time, tried surrealism, and then developed his own voice in a body of work that includes etchings, paintings, and constructs (sculptures, but not quite sculptures, Rauschenbergian, really).  He is fearless with materials, and his paintings and etchings (I haven’t seen the sculptures except in photos) seem to me to open up blank areas of the canvas or paper or to build up the work outwards to the viewer.  Tapies said of his process that “As I go along with my work I formulate my thought, and from this struggle between what I want and the reality of the material -- from this tension – is born an equilibrium.”  The works have great power, even when -- as in the case of these etchings -- they are small, 14” x 20”.  Tapies’s closest artistic relative is probably Cy Twombly, but he is less about color than Twombly (there are fewer bravura flashes) and Tapies seems more interested in clusters of material and in scattered, but somehow overlapping, forms.  We stood for a long time in front of the etchings, talking with the poised and friendly gallery assistant about Tapies, Barcelona, and being in the presence of art.  Later that morning, we ran into three men visiting from Barcelona (looking for good Chinese food) and talked to them about Tapies and the headlines about him in Spanish papers.  They were well aware of his-- text.

Why is Tapies so unfamiliar to us? I would have said that he has pretty formidable text. Maybe it is not the right sort, and that is the reason for his (relative) obscurity. Can we suggest that text, when it is working for the artist, when it is the right sort, narrows the field and provides the necessary codes for entry?  How else (I can hear judges who work with residencies and competitions say) can we be certain this artist is, well, one of us?  My husband cites poetry competitions that ask for degrees and prizes awarded, up front; there is no blind reading.  How else would we know?  But I would argue that text doesn’t guarantee anything, and it does narrow the field.  Don’t we want to see all the horses run?  Tapies said his artistic goals were clear: “the artist has to make the viewer understand that his world is much too narrow; he has to open up to new perspectives.”  Stand in front of a painting and ask yourself about … image … and open when the image moves you to. That’s all we ask.  I think that Tapies has text that works for “good” for him in Europe, but works for “evil” here.  It’s a draw.

Finally, in our explorations, there was no more Barcelona or Tapies to be had, and we began to try out new places.  The “stuff” vs. “fine art” divide (see January 20 entry) concerns us, still, when we walk into a gallery … will we even be welcome?  As non-buyers?  And then we were met with unbelievable kindness … and it made me think of Wallace Stevens … all we need is “one thing”:

If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm …
One thing, remaining, infallible, would be
Enough! Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart …
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed
                        --from “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

“One thing.” We were only looking to feel a little more at ease in an art world that sometimes seems too absorbed in … text. We walked into the Meyerovich Gallery that shows, as a matter of course, Picasso, Matisse, Motherwell, Frankenthaler, and Frank Stella.  I had seen the postcards in the lobby and felt I needed to see Stella and Frankenthaler; it had been a long time.  We told the gallery owner that we were an artist and a poet, and that we were looking for inspiration … and were not able to buy. Alex Meyerovich did not seem at all perturbed. The gallery was quiet, and so he talked to us freely about meeting his artists, knowing their families, and then he pulled long, smooth storage walls out to reveal a Stella here, a Frankenthaler there, another Stella (“which did you like better?” he asked). Meyerovich obviously loves and understands art and his artists. A sold Motherwell rested on one wall; we discussed the merits of Elizabeth Murray and Frank Stella (Stella wins, for him, but I have the hope that someday, their canvases will merge).  These were fine Stellas (go to the gallery itself or to his lush website to see them): big, bright, layered paintings embedded with collages and drawings.  So here was a case of “good” text: Stella met all the demands of his considerable reputation.  I can still see these paintings in my mind, which is pretty much my test for good work; it follows me around.  If I were buying, I thought, I would buy these.  

And then a smaller triptych caught our attention, by a local artist named Matt Phillips, who works mostly in monotypes. Here is a similar one from Meyerovich Gallery’s website, called “Traveling Along,” from 2009, a collage/monotype measuring 15” x 22”:

Phillips may not have quite as much text as the other artists in the room, but he didn’t need it, because his very strong work won the gallery owner’s confidence, which was followed by a place on his walls. Phillips is known in other places, of course, but very few images can hold their own in the midst of abundant good text like Motherwell’s, Frankenthaler’s, Stella’s … The image was “a thing affirmed,” as Stevens says.  Matt Phillips was a welcome discovery -- as was the generosity of the gallery owner.  This was a case of text and image … where image won every time.

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