Anna Campbell Bliss . . . from page 1
Artists are suspicious of anyone who undertakes to tell their stories, and not without reason. A recent film about Anna Campbell Bliss, arguably the most significant artist to anchor her career in Salt Lake City, compares her life and career to Georgia O’Keeffe’s. Yet although she was born only forty years later, Bliss came of age in a very different century, with the result that they might as well have been born on two separate worlds. O’Keeffe was an easel painter, who made portable, visual copies of familiar objects and scenes, as painters had done for thousands of years. When Bliss was born, abstraction as pioneered by Kandinsky was already an accepted way of painting, but by the time she began making art even more traditional restrictions had fallen. Crafts like glass, wood, and textiles were gaining respectability, and it was taken for granted that these media would work particularly well when designed for, and installed in, architecture. In fact, stained glass can be seen as a kind of bridge from architecture to art for Bliss, and like her handling of anatomy, the way she approached glass says a lot about what to look for in her art.
Stained glass developed to complete gothic churches, some of the most elaborately ornamented structures ever built. But glass ended by transforming those buildings into filigree boxes that all but evaporate themselves in the service of ever-larger windows. Bliss departed radically from the dominant concept of stained glass as a backlit painting that challenges the building for our attention. Instead of thin sheets of glass, she chose thick slabs, giving the transparent material its own interior dimension and stony presence. Instead of drawing with thin lead lines, she settled on a substantial grid of identical, repeated openings, within and against which a simple pattern of colored shapes gradually shifts. Given the depth of the frames, the glass itself is often invisible, replaced by the glow of colored light falling on the structure holding it. By eliminating the narrative from traditional glazing, she restored a sense of balance between art and architecture. In Europe and elsewhere, contemporary artists paid lip service to the same ideal of collaboration, but few managed in the end to overcome their egos and actually serve the building.
The arrival of traditional crafts materials wasn’t the only thing happening in art during those years. The impact of what Walter Benjamin called ‘the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ initially marginalized, then undermined the legitimacy of individual works of art. Photographs, prints, and posters became democratic weapons against art’s being used as a token of wealth and privilege. Given her preference for the revelatory outer limits of concepts and categories, Bliss was led almost inevitably to explore how the means of mass production interact with mechanical forms of image making. As ways to design, computer plots and mathematical analyses are ready-made for reproduction. In “Going My Way” and “Jumping Koi at Lake Truchet,” she combines disparate scientific images in the same work, while in the ‘Math Studies’ she juxtaposes a whole range of discreet examples. In the Elements, poster-like abstractions recalling the Op-Art of Bridget Riley, she first hand-painted a richly textured background, then printed a geometric pattern over it. The printed element was generated by combining mathematical instructions in a computer that then carried them out without the artist’s interference.
Theory alone cannot guarantee results, but the Elements succeed beyond hypothetical expectations. The hand-painted backgrounds and printed grids suggest convoluted or tilted boundaries in compound interaction, netting and capturing between them essential knowledge about the interacting behavior of time and space. The resulting optical illusions achieve a level of credibility rarely seen since the waning of Baroque technique—no matter what credulous critics may have written about this or that ‘post-modern master.‘ Some contemporary viewers still believe that abstractions cannot also represent actual things. But as these works demonstrate, the real difference is that the world Bliss depicts becomes visible for the first time in these vividly imagined landscapes. Here energetic, charismatic space, color, surface, and illusion draw the eye from a distance. Up close, they decline to resolve into their constituent parts, but remain in a state of nervous flux, like water and sky dissolving into each other at the horizon, passing the truth back and forth between them like a secret they seem always on the verge of revealing.
If ever an artist and a venue were made for each other, it would be Bliss and the Leonardo, both emphasizing the encounter of science and technology with art. As anyone acquainted with the latest science, from cosmology to particle physics, can attest, many recent discoveries can only be grasped by recourse to aesthetics. Theories are ‘elegant,’ while experimenters look for beautiful patterns in their data. Metaphors are used to explain conclusions, but also to reach them first. Until the end of the year, Anna Campbell Bliss will fill a gallery of her own design with what she declines to call a retrospective, preferring a less linear description. She calls it a selection of episodes from her work and the life that produced it. Taking into account how much of the work of this essential Utah artist can only be seen by traveling to the places it was made to articulate, and considering what a poor substitute photographs make, it’s not something to miss.
Exhibition Review: Provo
Andy Warhol, Murakami, & the Cult of Cool
In the fall of 1965, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia hosted a retrospective of Andy Warhol’s work. Warhol having captured the attention of both the art world and popular culture, the exhibition drew a mob of over 4,000 people who clamored so tightly into the gallery that Sam Green, the museum’s director, felt it best to remove all of Warhol’s work from the walls. “It was,” according to Warhol, “fabulous! An art exhibition with no art!” But certainly, this was not entirely true. The artist himself was there, as was Edie Segwick, as the main attraction.
Flash forward to this year’s fall opening of the Freedman Family collection, Think Flat: The Art of Andy Warhol & Takashi Murakami, at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. As with ICA Philly forty-seven years ago, the BYUMOA Warhol exhibition opened with droves of people, capping out with an impressive 2,675 in attendance. Admirers crowded the basement galleries to celebrate Warhol, his iconic pop style and his contemporary Japanese counterpart, Takashi Murakami.
All of this attention begs critical analysis. In the recent late August edition of The New Republic, Jed Perl calls Warhol “wildly overrated,” asserting that “there is something comedic about [his] lofty reputation with art historians giving him the sort of attention once reserved for Poussin.” The article specifically focused on LA MOCA’s The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol exhibition, which recently closed. Perl’s main critique is that Warhol’s work has little influence on contemporary painting and felt that his contribution was unoriginal, asserting that others were investigating similar ideas “long before Warhol got to work with his silk screens.”
Yet where MOCA fails for Perl, BYUMOA succeeds. Think Flat puts Murakami’s Japanese anime-obsessed subculture in context with Warhol’s persistent superficiality, continual repeating patterns and his obsession with the cult of cool. Its walls lined with foil, a la Warhol’s factory, the exhibition is hung in conversational pairings: Warhol’s ten Marilyns face Murakami’s twelve prints of Mr. DOB, his Mickey Mouse-like anime figure, all titled, "And Then, And Then, And Then, And Then, And Then" (1996-2008); both artists paired with pop musicians to create album covers, such as the Rolling Stones, for Warhol and Kanye West, for Murakami, and BYU intermixes these various covers, along with their soundtracks, in the entry; and Murakami’s Louis Vuitton canvases hang close to Campbell soup cans.
What emerges are pieces, both by Murakami and by Warhol, that are empty, empty, empty of overt feeling and that blatantly reject meaning beyond consumerism, products and fame. They are flat. Flat for the sake of flatness and cool to the point of iciness. Warhol’s subject matter manifests an American obsession with stardom and Murakami consistently depicts Japanese cute, where childish fantasy and anime figurines are embraced with, what curator Jeff Lambson calls, “the same zeal as real celebrities.”
As for Perl’s critique of Warhol’s so-called “over-rated” place within the Pantheon of Artists, it seems an unfounded criticism. Warhol appropriates campy images of the Queen and Coca-cola, both of which he imbues, whether seemingly mundane or not, with celebrity status indifferently blurring the boundary between high and low art. This may seem, to some, an absurd investigation because Warhol’s critique of the highbrow art world has clearly been canonized. However, both Murakami and Warhol have built their careers through this dissolution and hierarchical disruption, and the art world has a long precedence of incorporating artists that critique it.
According to Murakami, “the gap between high and low cultures is now almost gone. In a literal sense, a ‘superflat’ culture has emerged.” This superflat culture is all around us, much more so now than in Warhol’s time and perhaps that is why his work still carries with it such excessive currency. Learning and culture, in the era of Wikipedia, is rhizomatic. YouTube, blogs, reality TV shows, social media, and twitter, are our new cultural landscape, where the everyday man and woman often receive their 15 minutes of fame. This Warholian flattening of visual hierarchy is re-enforced in the gallery where photo-booth pictures of the opening’s attendees hang alongside pricy artwork. Art patron becomes art product and her presence garners the lofty and coveted position of the museum wall.
Product is the keyword here. In the case of Murakami, his super-cute flower motif, seen in Killer Pink (2003), repeats not only on copyrighted stamped prints but also on campy gift shop items such as pillows, buttons, hand towels, stickers, key chains, and more. Produced in a factory assembly-line studio, called Kaikai Kiki, Co., Murakami imagines art as a consumer product, as a consumable product.
Murakami is selling us something, Warhol is selling us something, and what they are selling is the cult of cool. All of which brings us back to the jam-packed opening at BYUMOA. It is perhaps this central element in Warhol and Murakami that audiences and art world elite alike really buy into when they flock to the museum, visually consuming the art products they see.