In the early 60’s an art-centric revolutionary zeitgeist was in the air. Whereas folks once needed massive canvasses and the culture of philosophical communities to craft their art, the cult of movements began to fade as nobody could agree on anything and the rise of the individual artist began. Again, this is wildly over-simplistic as it’s true some artists over the next few decades were still tied to certain art movements (Warhol and Lichtenstein, for example), but once art was stripped of its classic academic and economic requirements then all hell broke loose. Ideas became the currency of the time and how to express those ideas, the basic mathematics of art, separated the men/women from the boys/girls.
Ed banged out his first word paintings while visiting Paris as a young art student in 1961. Like Ono (whose work he most likely had never seen), Ruscha helped radicalize the larger world of art. He ditched the massive scale, removed classic imagery and also did a snappy little trick: He used text as an object. Ruscha took a single word and used the word’s accepted meaning to suggest how to paint it. Here’s 3 examples:
The use of word as interpretive object is mesmerizing. 1. It has inherent meaning 2. It’s meaning isn’t modified by the use of other words or sentences 3. It’s treated like a highly stylized still life. And per Ono, you have to read it in order to fully engage with it, plus it also has some groovy aesthetic qualities because, duh, it’s a painting.
And because it’s a painting that means we’re moving back into the realm of traditional fine art, though the concept of IDEA as primary inspiration seems to have trumped the greater reverence for paint, which by the way has been reduced to a kind of co-conspirator used to illuminate the artist’s thought process.
Of which, here’s a few examples of Art as Idea gone to hell. For starters, Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture:
Complete bastard, aren’t I? In truth I love most of Indiana’s work. It’s bold, evocative, determined and rendered in what still seems to be a fiercely modern sensibility. Kudos! But the LOVE sculpture? Indiana first used LO/VE in a poem back in 1958. One thing led to another then suddenly it’s Picasso’s dove all over again, which meant fine art somehow had Universal Meaning that everyone could enjoy. I always thought it was insipid. Why not WU/VU?
I don’t know where I’m going with this digression, so let’s get back to Indiana’s groovy single work paintings and ditch the LO/VE schtick, which by the way also became an official US Postage stamp in 1973. Like, you know, Norman Rockwell.
So here we go: Indiana built single word paintings done in a smart graphic style, then juxtaposed them against another. This in turn creates a fairly dynamic dialogue. Indiana could have put the words – meant to be side by side – on the same painting, but he separated the two changing their relationship and the viewer’s perception, in turn leading to a hell of a lot of questions re: word choice, all caps, 3 letters each, the relationship between what you eat and what kills you, colors and a whole list of things I’m probably not smart enough to identify. However, the truth behind the work is that “Eat” was the last word Indiana’s mother said before she died. Indiana also reflects on how the happiest moments of his childhood involved food-centric family reunions. So all the artsy associations above might very well be accurate, but the simpler story behind it is what resonates.
(Indiana was also a radical fellow with a beautifully evolved political sense of social justice and racial equality. I’ll get back to Indiana’s work of the mid-60’s once the conversation turns to art of the 70’s and 80’s, artists that in craft and spirit were closer to his point of view than his contemporaries Warhol and Lichtenstein.)
Speaking of permutations, oh my gosh let’s talk about Lawrence Weiner. Larry, if you will, began his art career using explosives to blow giant craters into the fields of California. A kind of de-installation event that I wish I’d thought of, wait, I did; I used to blow up plastic green army soliders while recreating the titanic battles of World War Two in my backyard as a kid back in the 70’s. Not the same thing, but guys and fire, you know? AWESOME.
That said, Weiner got famous for his text art, constructing a set of rules in 1968 called “Declaration of Intent”:
The artist may construct the piece.
The piece may be fabricated.
The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.
What happened to the pyromaniac? Weiner basically ripped off an entire conceptual movement, set it on a sun porch, torched all the love, wit and wild invention out of it, then sold it back to the consumer as an academic husk of frozen death. Remember, it was still the 1960’s and like Elvis ripping off Negro music in the 50’s, Weiner got onboard with what has already been established and codified it as if he’d just discovered the color blue. Weiner followed it up with a book called Statements back in 68′ that ‘described projects’. Again, Ono beat him to it by 13 years, nevermind Claes Oldenburg’s own brilliant drawings of sculptures that could never be built.
This folks marks the end of my interest in Lawrence Weiner. Honestly, beyond blowing shit up as a 19 yr old demolitions artist, I just can’t say that he added anything to the form other than an academic exploration of text, sigh, as art. Like eating Soylent Green all your life when everyone else around you has just discovered Asian fusion.
However, of SUPREME INTEREST is the amazing On Kawara!
Kawara, a young Japanese rake, began a series of Date Paintings beginning in 1966 that ened with his death in 2014. The paintings were profoundly simple as they consisted entirely of the date they were constructed. No stencils, just meticulous work documenting the day, sometimes collected with the NY Times to reflect the real world events of the moment. Like any artist, Kawara went through his phases in terms of size, font, quantity and color, but this in essence became the entirety of his oeuvre – documenting time and consciousness in the simplest terms possible.
In some respects Kawara, like Jackson Pollock, took a genre to its furthest extreme. Pollock’s work was the antithesis of Kawara, wild v. concise, imagination v. reality, yet both were beautifully meditative in their own quiet ways.