Guggenheim and Darkness

© 2007 Jeff Lynch

Seeing is Not Always Believing!

You saw it first as some kind of a giant packing case. But you saw it as suspended just above the floor and as soon as I saw the thing this boxy wooden packing case thing I knew instinctively that if I gave it a little shove that it would move a little. So I did push it and the great thing swayed laterally a little, on its four large diameter steel hawsers which tacked it to the roof. A doorway was cut into the box which was suspended at about fifty or sixty centimetres above floor level. That meant if you stepped over the doorsill you again walked on the floor inside ‘the box.’ I did so and then I invited Pixel Green to do the same. As soon as I had moved inside the now slightly swaying room or ‘box’ I felt afraid. But I wasn’t as scared as Pixel who immediately pronounced that she felt a little dizzy or faint and sought the door again. I call her DB short for dizzy blonde, so that was likely to put me into a good kind of humour. But I could see the problem as well as she could feel it. The place did give you the creeps and that’s for sure. We were at the 1940’s to now exhibition of The Guggenheim Collection. The box that we had ventured into had been fashioned by one Bruce Nauman whom I notice was born in the same year as myself which just happens to be 1941, the year of Pearl Harbour. I see that the artist was still alive at the time of the publication of the National Gallery of Victoria’s rather expensive catalogue. The work is entitled Floating Room (light Outside Dark Inside) and it was created in 1972.  

Safety, the longing for our own safety and fear for our own well being, is I think at the heart of this hanging room constructed from plasterboard and wood. Like the fear of flying it has implications for us outside the actual viewing of the object. That is the manner that one may look at an airplane, or at least I do and I usually manage to see a beautifully designed object. For they are most often wonderfully designed, along the Bahaus concepts. That is the concept of form follows function. An aircraft is usually a joy to look at but as soon as we are ‘trapped’ inside one and we know that it is soon about to lift us off the ground our relationship with the plane changes even before the fact of the lift off. The ‘box’ affected the both of us, although we both had accepted the implicated invitation to step inside the room. It was indeed dark inside and light outside to reverse Bruce’s title. Both Pixel and I were slightly overwhelmed by our feelings and it is quite difficult to point the finger at the reasons for our feelings too. However it is the very first instalment or work of art that I remember when I come to think of the Guggenheim Collection shown at our National Gallery throughout the late winter and the spring of 2007.

I have always keened to Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings. I liked ‘WHAM’ the minute that I first laid my eyes on it in 1967 in the Old Tate Gallery. I still do like the piece a lot. But then I was always an aficionado of comics. We collected comics when we were boys. We swapped them and we cherished them as sources of popular entertainment only equalled perhaps by the cinema. I also loved to draw fighter planes, usually sabre jets or Russian MIG’s copied from the American war comics which came to Australia during the Korean war. Roy Lichenstein must have felt the same way and perhaps he too had been a comics fan as.  But I have no means of knowing if this is so at all but he used so many common comic book drawing techniques to create a lot of his works. And they nearly always work for me. How about you?  The main representative work here at this exhibition, was a work created one year later than when I was first in The Old Tate Gallery. From 1968 ‘Preparedness’ speaks to me of many fascist or communist monumental artworks, a little reminiscent of Fernand Legere’s rather ‘work ethic’ type of paintings from an earlier period of time. There was a second work entitled ‘IN’ here as well which I was familiar with. But I do not think that it denoted ‘in like Flynn or anything akin to that.’ This works is possibly a celebration of Roy’s love of typography. Even his Bendal dot effort entitled ‘WHAM ‘piece has those very words wham most lovingly spaced and characterized in this painting. In is a remembrance of a shop sign in New York, but it is given a three dimensionality which does not normally belong to any ordinary shop sign. From 1962 it is six years earlier than the Tate Gallery ‘WHAM’ work.    

I wonder if you might be interested in back tracking into MS Guggenheim’s past to discover more or less exactly what her connections with the coming of abstraction as a force in twentieth century art. For starters Peggy Guggenheim who was not a bad looking sheila when she was a younger woman(say when she lived in Paris before the Second World War, when she made the vow to buy a painting a day).Hey I wonder is she ever kept up to her vow. Eventually she was married to the Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Going by his photographs Max was not such a bad looking guy either at that. Ernst had a long association with Dada art earlier on and he also knew nearly all the artists who were associated with Surrealism and managed to go even beyond surrealism in his later years.

Ernst had started working in Cologne after his demobilization after the Great War. Here he was dedicated to the Dada movement and he founded what he called “The Dada conspiracy of the Rhineland.’ William S. Rubin says of him in his fine book on Surrealism. ‘In the extraordinary variety of his styles and techniques, he is to Dada and Surrealism what Picasso is to twentieth –century art as a whole. I must say that I have to agree with William. S. Rubin with that statement too. Max Ernst is not represented in this showing but he is mentioned in due course in the elaborate and expensive catalogue.

The year 1937 was the big one in this context would you believe? Both the Fascists and the Communists were busily strutting their stuff in a huge way. The German pavilion at the exhibition was designed by Albert Speer and the Russian one by Boris Iofan and it was topped by Very Mukhina’s sculpture of a ‘Worker and a Collective Farm Woman.’ Fascinatingly enough the Spanish pavilion contained Picasso’s ‘Guernica. Presumably the Republicans must have been still in control of this politically biased material at this stage. This was very big stuff indeed. Peggy Guggenheim had been advised to go along to the Paris Exposition and she did just that. At approximately the same time the Nazis in all their supreme arrogance and profound ignorance held their infamous Degenerate Art exhibition which was sent all around wider Germany. The list of these ‘banned artists’ is most enlightening and many of these artists were soon to have their works hung in The Guggenheim Gallery.

Here are some of the names of the degenerates for they are in essence the heart of the Guggenheim experience. They were a polyglot lot as well. Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Oscar Kokoschka, Kurt Switters and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy.

Let me return to St Kilda Road and the exhibition once again. Jackson Pollock has two works in this show. This is only right for Peggy Guggenheim was both a friend and a well intended sponsor and benefactor of this iconic man from the Middle West. One work is a figurative work from 1943 to 1945, and the other piece is a drip- style type of work from 1949. Pollock received monies from Guggenheim and also an interest free loan for his new quarters where he found the space to attack much larger canvases than previously. Of course as is well known he began to favour working on these canvases on the floor. People say that Pollock had been most impressed with Navajo sand paintings and favoured the horizontal position for painting because of this Native American Indian influence. I cannot say whether or no this might be so.

Pollock is a fine example of just how much a sensitive and well heeled benefactor may be able to alter or improve an artist’s work. If Jackson Pollock had not have had a newer and far larger studio to move into after his marriage, it is arguable that things may have worked out a lot differently. The studio was a direct benefit from Guggenheim’s money, and the space there allowed Jackson to experiment along the lines of the Navajo sand paintings he had so admired. But of course Jackson was mainly interested in painting and not sand at all. It was the arguably (the) space available which sent him to the floor to work. This finally led to the late works such as the wonderful ‘Blue Poles 11 in our National Gallery in Canberra which Gough Whitlam in his infinite wisdom, brought to our shores.   

It is very hard of course to select a few more pieces or works from the prolific collection on St Kilda Road in Melbourne town. Some of the works scared me quite a lot. I do not speak of the small and swinging room from 1972 by Paul Nauman now. Oh that was quite bad enough too, but there were pieces which troubled my poor mind even further. The most Hitchcockian, and Psycho- like vision of Gregory Crewdson from the years 2001 to 2008 is a worry to me. The chromogenic print (laser exposure) before me, ‘Untitled’ (from the Twilight series) shows humans in a setting, which the catalogue rightly states is just out of our reach. By that I interpret that to mean that the vision we have is for the main incomprehensible to us. Although the photo like scene does conjure up many troubling thoughts and fears in my mind. And immediately I think of the Hollywood film titled ‘Psycho. I begin to wonder straight away if after just more than 40 years Crewdson’s ‘Untitled’ work might be influenced at all by the still powerful and interesting film. Of course I quickly reach for a film catalogue in my library for the solution to this. Mr Hitchcock’s film ‘Psycho’ was made I the year 1960 and this piece is a most recent creation.

Let me try to examine the scene before our eyes then. We are perforce made to enter into quite a large room. The room is lit three ceiling lamps, two standard lamps, a (possible) porch light just beyond the doorway and the light which gently streams in through both the window and the door. We could guess that it is either just after dawn or at twilight. The Untitled work is from a series called Twilight and we make up our minds from that I guess. So in theory the large room is well lit and yet this is not the case at all. Large parts of the room, the floor space, and most of the ceiling are in a great deal of darkness. Darkness peeps through in so many other ways as well.

We see three people seated at a table. Or are we seeing that at all?  The two male figures look remarkably alike and of course they could possibly be twins. Or maybe they are two versions of the very same person. And how you ask could this be then? Well anything an artist can show you can seem to be what he wants you to know or conversely, what he wishes to be obscure to you. Perhaps he only meant us to see the same person wearing different clothes. The two men look at each other in a most antagonistic manner and the female at the far side of the table seems depressed or removed at what is going on. None of the three figures is eating anything. Also it would seem that none of the three people have as yet observed the naked woman who seems to have stepped through the door of the house marked number eleven. In fact the word ‘seems’ is all the go when we attempt to analyse this rather depressing American scene. The naked woman, who is much older than the three seated figures, is trailing flowers and debris over the floor as she goes. She holds a flower in her left hand; she is heavy busted with quite long hair, and her eyes are cast down to the carpeted floor.

It should also be noted that there is a place setting for another soul at the dinner table. We are looking at the back of an empty chair on the near side of the dining table. The clock on the wall seems to tell us that the time is twenty past seven. This certainly fits in with Crewdson’s naming of his works as ‘the twilight series.’ There are portraits of the naked woman up on the far wall and we do not have any evidence as to the relationship between the naked woman (the mother) at the doorway, and the three folks at table. Is this ‘visitor’ the mother of the seated people? Is she alive or one of the walking dead? Are we looking at a ménage a trios being visited by a person accusing them? Are the three figures siblings and is it only a coincidence that they do not seem to take any notice of the naked woman. This composition scares me a lot. I cannot tell you exactly why it does. All I know is that it makes me ask too many questions and in reality they are rather unsettling questions that I do not ever want to know the answers to. Really I would rather I had not been confronted with the whole matter. But isn’t one of the roles of art to unsettle us then? Yes I know that to be true but I do not always have to like what it may do to me do I?

And now finally a word on Op Art and what it’s antecedents. Artists have always been interested in optical illusions. The ancient Greeks understood optical illusions and used their art to correct what the eye perceives in their buildings particularly in the lines of their notable temples. Many fine movie directors have toyed with what the lens of the camera may be made to deceive the eye and we can see illusions in those wagon wheels which appear to spin backwards in the Western movies of yore, and other similar phenomenon.

The fine painter Rene Magritte was quite an expert at using optical illusions and went further into anticipating what the brain might make of such matters as well. Ancient  

Seagoers such as the Polynesian sailors in their most beautiful and double hulled canoes knew of the visions of green tinges above the seas where there was an island far away from their actual ability to see one. A pink tinge in the lower sky might denote the presence of a coral atoll and so on. In addition we are all familiar, particularly in Australia, with heat hazes and shimmering visions of ‘water’ to be seen in the distance which we come to call mirages. Now in due time, Claude Monet began to realize that the eye perceived that shadows were not as the artists of old had come to know them. He began to break shadows up into components of the spectrum of light and thus he included reds, pinks, purples and the like into his shadows in the paintings. When he began to exaggerate what he had started to paint, he started a unique form of vision. Then he began to force the viewer to stand back further from his canvases and to use one’s both eyes at a distance to mingle the individual colours which he had laid down side by side for that very purpose.

And it seems inevitable to me, that over time, a school of artists might be created to dedicate themselves to optical illusionism. It happened that this school arose in the sixties and just after that period in the Twentieth Century. Victor Vasarely’s Cheyt-M was showing at this Guggenheim collection. He normally plays diabolical tricks with our vision and he has done no less with this work from 1972. He has varied the size of the colour graduated cubes on the canvas so that a swell seems to occur in the centre of the work or is that swell in fact a recession for the eye can create a pulse which is not there. And thus Victor causes many viewers to feel the sensation of vertigo. It can create actual physical sensations to the viewer which are quite separate from either emotional reactions or the other aesthetic feelings about the standard or the ‘rightness ‘of a work of art. I like these games with my eye and can also remember as a young man seeing the dress fabrics of the late sixties up to the mid to late seventies where optical illusion type of patterns, were all the vogue at the time. Chicks could look so slick in them and some of these fabrics were simply sensational. And is it ‘Art’ then? Actually I have no real opinion on the matter, and frankly dear I don’t give a damn. 

Jeff Lynch, West Brunswick, September 2007.


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