Tuesday, October 20, 2009

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty

I was teaching a class in contemporary art for UC Extension, and John was teaching a drawing class down the hall. In those days the classes were held in the La Jolla Museum and the students were a mix of high school teachers and servicemen working for credentials and returning housewives and retired professionals just interested in art. The classes were a couple hours long with a short break in the middle, when John and I would meet in the hall. One day I broke early and walked over to his room to get him. John was sitting in the front, looking out the window, while the students were copying a piece of plumbing sitting on the desk.
"John," I said, "they're cross-hatching the shadows!"
"Yeah'" he said, "they like to cross-hatch. It feels professional." - David Antin from Eight Stories for John Baldessari

A new book on the hugely influential artist John Baldessari published for his retrospective at LACMA, Pure Beauty is one of my favorites of the year. Baldessari, an artist who has used a wealth of mediums including photography, is a prolific source, challenging our perceptions of painting, photography, video and text. Playful and slyly profound, his works address mass culture and how we digest the images that surround us and what they convey.

In some ways his art is one that wants to appeal to everyone but its deadpan straight-forwardness often confounds the viewer and we stumble over his creations, questioning their intent. He is one that challenges us to really look and perceive, accepting what might be considered humor, yet not being stunted by its presence.

It was his disregard of traditional representation, attempting to talk to the audience literally in a language they could relate to, that led Baldessari to create many of his well known text paintings. One called Subject Matter (again painted by the local sign painter) is lettering on a light green background, "Subject Matter Look at the subject as if you have never seen it before. Examine it from every side. Draw its outline with your eyes or in the air with your hands. And saturate yourself with it." This very painting with its sobering text might be hanging on a wall next to different artist's painting and yet another a few feet away. What are the parameters for examination? Within the single canvas? Or taking in, almost cinematically, all of the works, including: the wall, the moulding, the doorway, the window and what is seen outside. This extension of perception led to many of his later works which combined multiple images, often in separate frames and taking up large on gallery and museum walls.

As Lawrence Weiner once wrote of Baldessari, "John...understands that art is based on the relationships between human beings and that we, as Americans, understand our relationship to the world through various media. We think of any unknown situation in terms of something we've seen at the movies...John is dealing with the archetypal consciousness of what media represent, using the material that affects daily life."

Pure Beauty covers Baldessari's entire career and includes nine substantial essays from various writers. Illustrated by hundreds of plates and handsomely designed using different paper stock for text and image, Pure Beauty has quickly become one of my picks for Books of the Year for 2009. It was co-published by LACMA, Delmonico and Prestel.

On the way back from an opening in Los Angeles, Elly and I were sleepy and stopped for gas in San Juan Capistrano. It was late, the road was empty, and I was doing 65 or 70 in my two-hundred dollar, 1950 Chrysler Imperial with the wire wheels and electric powered windows. It was a gusty night and we could feel the mountain winds buffeting the car, and as we drove, the black hood rose slowly, floated up and over the windshield and disappeared behind us before I could stop the car or turn around. We went back to look for it the next day somewhere south of San Clemente. But it was gone. The only thing to do was find another one in a junkyard in Chula Vista. That's when I found out there was a place called National City. - David Antin from Eight Stories for John Baldessari

Trapped in the proverbial vacuum of Southern California's National City, John Baldessari discovered a way to accept the void, the cultural isolation, the boredom and estrangement. He made a series of snapshots, sometimes from a moving car, sometimes from the hip, of life in National City - pictures of street corners, various storefronts, suburban homes, car dealerships - everything he saw as "the real situation." These he would use photo emulsion to apply them to canvas and as a finishing touch, hired a sign painter to paint a caption, usually the location, in a straight-forward and matter of fact style. These photo-texts pieces he created starting in 1966 would lead him to ceremoniously cremate all of his previous works in his possession on July 24, 1970.

A book I picked up at Artbook Cologne earlier this year from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego called John Baldessari: National City (1996) features most of this work plus newly realized pieces created when Baldessari revisited sites in his former hometown.

These works raise questions about image and text in similar ways to Ed Ruscha's self-published artist books of the time. One reads Twenty-six Gasoline Stations and then peruses photos of gasoline stations but all the while we are looking for more, questioning the simplicity. When Baldessari has his picture taken standing in front of a palm tree in a suburban neighborhood, then has his sign painter caption the photo "Wrong," we stumble for a moment. Is he questioning rules of photography? The palm tree sprouts from the head of the figure, breaking a conventional rule - do not photograph people so things appear to be growing out of the subject's head. When he directs us to look at an "Econ-O-Wash" at 14th and Highland do we accept the image or are we distrustful of the artist. Is this conceptual art? On first viewing, the images seem funny and according to Joseph Kosuth, the use of comic irony fell into pop art, and he once implied, "conceptual art could not be funny." So in essence, Baldessari (according to Kosuth) was doing everything "wrong." Why are these canvases sized 59 x 45? So they could fit inside the artist's van.

As a book, John Baldessari: National City, is not a great object but to have these works in a single volume at an affordable price is the draw. Along with eight essays by various authors, the plates are reproduced in color and works from the series not included in the exhibition are shown in duotone as well.
Look for this one before it gets too pricey.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rome + Klein by William Klein

"I compare Rome, once again, to an artist's studio, not that of the elegant artist, who, like ours, dreams of success and plays a role, but that of an old artist with messy hair who in his time had a streak of genius and who now squabbles with shopkeepers." -Hippolyte Taine

In 1956 while Federico Fellini was in Paris for the premier of I Vitelloni, he received a phone call from a young William Klein who asked to meet and show him his recently published book Life is Good & Good for You in New York. Upon meeting the following day, Fellini mentioned already owning the Italian edition which he said he liked and kept by his bed. According to Klein, within minutes he was invited to become an assistant to Fellini on his latest project, The Nights of Cabiria. His job was to photograph during the casting and document the prospective whores and pimps, black marketeers, hoods, and other "scroungy characters" needed for the film. Finances were delayed and Klein was free for eight weeks to roam the streets looking for his own take on the city, sometimes accompanied by Fellini, Alberto Morovia and other avant-garde writers and artists. Klein's Rome: The City and Its People was published in 1959 and Aperture has just released a new 50th anniversary edition as two books housed in a special PVC slipcase.

Like his reworking of his classic book on New York from 1995 (Marval), Rome + Klein is not a direct facsimile reprint of the original. He has left much of the graphic design by the wayside in favor of full bleed images and inclusion of additional photos that did not appear in the original. As Klein has said of his revisitation of the New York work, "The first book was about graphic design, the second is about photography" - the same approach holds true here.

Klein's Rome, the original, is the only of his "city" books which I do not own so direct comparison is not possible but what I gather is that most of the additional material included in this new edition is from his various fashion assignments shot in the streets with his usual flare for mixing the staged with the unpredictable. Klein has written of the fashion pictures, "I found it hard to take seriously, and the photos were mostly private jokes." What is not a joke is that within eight weeks Klein literally blitzed the city and produced one of his better books in such a short time.

Appropriately not as vertiginous as the New York work, Klein keeps a quick visual pace even among Rome's seemingly sluggish citizens. Rome + Klein opens with a photo of the guard to the famous Cinecitta film studios relaxed next to sculpture of Greco-Roman wrestlers, his rounded stomach more akin to the bulbous fenders of the nearby Vespa scooter than the marbled muscles of his arm-locked ancestors. Klein shoves his Leica and trademark wide lens into the crowds while they walk, eat and play while also making more static (albeit visually loud) portraits of his artist friends that acted sometimes as his guides.

In one, on invitation from Fellini to meet up with Vittorio De Sica, Klein gets a bonus appearance by Roberto Rossellini and a crowded portrait of three of the greatest film-makers is made, but Klein's image is not one of star struck glamour, he photographs them as if they were anonymous figures found on any street corner.

After a brief introduction about the "why and how" the work came into being, the first book is all photographs whose flow is only interrupted by the chapter divisions which make up the six parts. The second book is a thinner volume of Klein's captions and extended texts from a variety of authors along with design elements that playfully litter the margins. It is within these writings that one discovers Klein's own texts are as entertaining and smart as his photographs. For anyo
ne who has read the Manhadoes essay or captions from the booklet attached to Life is Good... will know, Klein is extremely funny and writes in a style that puts the free verse of some of the Beats to shame. I find it curious that his texts are never mentioned at all in regard to his books since their strength is so apparent.

As books, Rome + Klein are well conceived and beautifully produced. I like the split of the two books into photographs and captions, certainly the sma
ller caption book may invite people to actually read his texts which in a combined volume would have been a task due to the larger size and weight. The PVC slipcase is printed with the same colorful jacket image that graced the original. My only critique is that Klein has been employing the same typography and layout for several titles now and the graphic elements lack the former surprise and playful irreverence.

Klein has been recognized as one of the major talents of the twentieth century, not only as a photographer but as a film
-maker as well. He challenged each medium he tackled from painting to photography to graphic design and I would add, even writing. This work, unlike his work from his hometown of New York, was unplanned and the fruit of a chance meeting. In the words of praise from Fellini, "Rome is a movie, and Klein did it."

Note: Aperture is having a Benefit and Auction on November 2nd. Click here for more information.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Making the Photographic Book Workshop

A quick reminder that the weekend after next is another great opportunity to dust off those workprints and start shaping a book with Ken Schles and Jeffrey Ladd:

Making the Photographic Book: A Weekend Workshop.

With instant publishing and printing on demand, limited edition monographs and coffee table tomes, the era of the photographic book has arrived. Do you have the makings of a great book? Where does one start? During this intensive two-day workshop we will work with you to mold your book idea into a credible shape as you give it form. We will view and discuss classic photographic book concepts and guide you through critiques on editing and sequencing while exploring the practicalities of putting a book dummy together.

October 24 - 25 (Saturday and Sunday) from 10 am - 5 pm.

This workshop will be held in Manhattan:
526 West 26th Street, Suite 507, NY, NY 10001 (btwn 10th and 11th Avenues; see map).

This class will be taught jointly by Ken Schles and Jeffrey Ladd.

Prerequisite: This workshop is for someone who already has a series of images (20-30) no larger than 8x10 (preferably smaller) that they want to work with. These images will form the basis of your “book.” This "hands on" class does not require computers or knowledge of page layout programs.

Cost: $425.00.

To reserve a spot for this class, please email us at: psworkshops[at]me.com

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jet Master by Idan Hayosh, Corina Künzli and Salome Schmuki

About twelve years ago I found two, one foot by three foot "circuit camera" panoramic photographs in the basement of my grandparent's home. They were made by E.O. Goldbeck and my grandfather appears left of center in full military dress. One of the prints shows the soldiers with hats on, the second, hats off. Goldbeck, besides being one of the best known of all users of circuit cameras, had a service which photographed military regiments for over thirty years. Some of his photos ordered thousands of people into one image.

The book from Kodoji press Jet Master by Idan Hayosh, Corina Künzli and Salome Schmuki explores the overt order and hidden orders of group portraits and military weaponry.

Jet Master is an artist collaboration which started with Idan Hayosh's fascination with images which were made to sell military hardware. Fighter planes sit on tarmac surrounded by the various bombs, missiles, and payloads they can carry. The order of the weaponry is frighteningly similar to any formal group portrait wether from high school, sports team or commercial business.

The construction of the book is a collaboration between Hayosh and two graphic designers Corina Kü
nzli and Salome Schmuki. They classified and arranged the images with a strategy in mind that both emphasizes their similarity but also hidden patterns.

The way the weaponry is represented shows a strategic effort to seduce. The symmetry of line and scale is easy for the viewer to accept - it appeals with child-like fascination. They present incredible force but with little thought to the actual destruction that could be unleashed. Just like sex can sell anything, the same psychological manipulation is in effect. With the inclusion of historical photos covering many decades, one realizes that this type of manipulation has been thought about (and apparently successful) for a long time.

Kodoji Press, headed by Winfried Heininger, publish well thought out and attractive books and Jet Master is no exception. It comes in two editions, one in 900 English copies and 200 in Hebrew.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Henry Frank: Father, Photographer

Robert Frank's father Henry sold radios and record players, designed furniture, and also in his spare time during family outings - snapped photographs with a stereo camera. A new title from Steidl brings together 47 of his images in Henry Frank: Father, Photographer.

Robert's influence early on has been cited in photographers like Gotthard Schuh, Jakob Tuggener and Walker Evans but looking through this small collection, the earliest seeds might be found long before his conscious decision to pick up a camera. Henry Frank pointed his camera at his family as would be expected, but also made images that seem to be early precursors to his sons a few decades later. One, of a grouping of men being lifted into the air by balloons, might remind some of Frank's image of the Macy's parade featured in Black, White and Things.

Robert in the afterword describes his father as a bon vivant and the sense of the pursuit of a good life is evident in his photographs. He photographs on joyous occasions loaded with small details that lock the pictures into the old world. Like Lartigue, the photos describe the weekend pleasures of families escaping into the grandeur of the countryside, the pride of owning an automobile, and portraits of family, friends and their pets.

Henry Frank: Father, Photographer is a small book and keeps its design to the classic feel of an album. It does not present the photographs as stereo images but as single frames and the plates show the roughness of the original images with faded edges and muddled tonalities. It is a modest book, perfectly fitting with the intimacy of the photos.

Skeptics might say that these are interesting to a wider audience mostly because they are in relation to Robert Frank. I see them as a collection worthy of their own merit, perhaps not great art, but certainly better than the average dad on a family outing - one who turned out to be a role model for a son's greater ambition.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The New York Artbook Fair at MoMA's PS.1

This past weekend had me preoccupied with the Printed Matter New York Artbook Fair held at PS1 in Queens NY. For anyone living in the area who hasn't been, it is a great chance to see more books than one can possibly take in within one weekend. Still I saw some stuff that had me wanting to
rethink my recent personal moratorium I placed on book buying.

The events started Thursday evening with a preview and after-party at Deitch Projects. The after-party seemed to be mostly long lines of thirsty and hungry hipsters waiting for free beer and dollar-fifty empanadas. Art was on the walls and floor but no one seemed interested in much beyond the complimentary Tom Sachs screwdriver (a real Stanley).

Germany was present with a booth run by Markus and Schaden.co
m along with the Marks of Honor project run by Nina Poppe and Verena Loewenhaupt. Look for Markus's Le Brea Matrix project in the near future. Oliver Sieber and Katja Stuke from the Dusseldorf-based Bohm/Kobayashi press also had ten years of their own artist book projects for offer, plus a new book by the NY photographer Ted Partin, Who are you this time?

The Foil booth from Japan had a signing with Rinko Kawauchi. Jason Fulford and Leanne Shapton of J+L had a few limited edition's of their books including a great portfolio by Landmasses and Railways author Bertrand Flueret. Mike Slack and Trisha Gabriel of The Ice Plant shared a booth with A-Jump and Ron Jude was present to sign several of his books. Mike Slack's new book Pyramids is fresh off the presses and will see some coverage here soon.

When Boredon Strikes author Joachim Schmid had a whole slew of his Blurb books of appropriated photos and no one seemed to mind. In fact, most readers seemed to enjoy his work so his unneeded bodyguards and team of lawyers were left to wander the Richard Prince exhibition of art books and posters.

Winfried Heininger and Kodoji press had a few fine books with a Jules Spinatsch retrospective, Jet Master (a collaboration by Salome Schmuki, Idan Hayosh and Corina Kunzli) and title on the student movement of Mexico in 1968. The Errata Editions books distributor DAP had Steidl's new Ed Ruscha limited edition (350 copies) On the Road for perusal. At 10,000 dollars and full of original c prints, the white gloves were necessary. They couldn't spare a review copy.

One of my favorite rooms was for the
Arnhem based graphic design and typography school Werkplaats Typografie (Their website is fuckin nuts!). My single purchase of the whole fair was of a fine book of silkscreen 'make ready' sheets compiled by Hans Gremmen for 20 dollars. The poster/prints were discarded sheets found in the studio of Paul Wyber. I will give this book some coverage later.

Many rooms featured self-published artist books which is the main thrust of Printed Matter's concern. Paul Schiek of TBW had a table as did representatives of NY's Center for Book Arts. Thurston Moore and Ecstatic Peace! Library, his new publishing venture had a couple books - one a book of Morre's poems and another of an extended interview with Vito Acconci. Both will be distributed by DAP.

On the ground floor, many rare book dealers had great stuff of limited affordability. Harper Levine of Harper's Books has been digging deep with the Japanese books and had many titles I haven't ever seen before. Gordon of Anartist had a full wall of goodies and his usual bins of rare ephemera and catalogs.

One s
eller had a 100 dollar copy of the American Bricolage catalog from the Sperone Westwater gallery. This is a handmade book (with duct tape) made by Todd Alden with Chris Burden, Tim Hawkinson, Richard Wentworth and others which I had seen a year ago and has been on my list of wants since. Even though 100 bucks is a fairly good price, I passed on it and it remains on my list.

This fair was great but for whatever reason PS1 throws off my internal compass so I kept discovering rooms of tables that I hadn't seen during the first days. Luckily, I did stumble upon the William Kentridge cut-outs pasted to the walls of a stairwell. If only the James Turrell room was open, but, that isn't a book so I guess I saw most everything else that was worthwhile.
Cheers to Printed Matter until next year.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Proud Flesh by Sally Mann

When Sally Mann released her book At Twelve in the late-1980s the art world was rife with artists concerned with exploring the body politic and empowering female roles in society. While much of their work fell into the conceptual camp with Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger - Mann's work sat somewhere between older traditional description and the politics of the day, and for me, represents an important stepping stone between the two. Mann's politics, although strongly present in her pictures, never threw out the baby with the bath water - she was also making complete photographs that were complimented by their politics and not replaced by them.

Mann has photographed her family for decades, but mostly her children have been the focus. These motherly gazes combine warm maternal attention and equal amounts of free spirit where both photographer and subject are exploring their roles as collaborators. Oddly, Mann's husband, Larry Mann, has not appeared in many of the images beyond playing a supporting role from the margins. Now after six years of work and with the release of her newest book Proud Flesh, Larry is present and it is the children who have receded into the shadows.

Proud Flesh is for me an emotionally exhausting work about withering. It has elements of 19th century clinical photography done with absolute loving care for the subject. Its factual surface is quickly replaced by metaphor and the haze of imperfection from the wet-plate collodion negatives she employs. In a few of the images, due to the choice of striped bedding on which the figure lays, we might be looking at a historical photograph take from Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen. With Larry's thin and seemingly weak legs dangling over the edge of a wooden cot, the soiled bedding following the contour of his legs, it is difficult for me to see this image without this harsh historical reference. The following image in the book, he is turned into a martyr - arms out stretched - the sheet underneath him now sharply crinkled like a bed of straw (or an imagined crown of thorns).

The surface texture plays such a strong role in these photos much of the seduction of these photos comes from the beauty of those imperfections. At times they can be nauseating, for their liquid streaks ooze over the images of aged flesh keeping viscera and bodily fluids as a second metaphoric subject. On the cover image, the disturbed collodion emulsion leaves a pattern which seems to be both looking at, and looking inside, the torso standing before the camera. Like Lee Friedlander's shadow self-portrait (see the cover of Like a One-eyed Cat) where his organs are replaced with a jumble of rocks and his head is filled with straw, Mann's image turns Larry's insides into a mix of man and machine - collodion cogs and gears. This is the most wishful, as it portrays the strongest sense of life and the perhaps even the possibility of escaping its mortality. He stands at table's edge with a steadying hand and a closed fist.

The most remarkable image for me appears as plate 20 and is captioned Time and the Bell (2008). Like the aforementioned cover image, this is an ideal as Mann has turned her husband's head and shoulders into a profile bust of marble - the washed out light tones give way to a few angular shapes of rich shadow. It could be a still life of artifacts from an artists work space, a table and a sculptural work in progress. The surprise of the photographic description, which is present in most of the photos in Proud Flesh, is so complex and engaging for me it is difficult to not have it outshine all of the rest.

Proud Flesh is beautifully printed and its large format scale is perfect for the subject. Essentially a companion piece to her last Gagosian Gallery book of collodion portraits of blurred and out of focus faces, it is elegant and well designed. The sole detractor for me is Mann's titling of the images which thankfully only appear at the end of the book on a caption page. Speak, Memory (2008); Xerxes Wept (2004); Tender Mercies (2007); The Beautiful Lie (2007); Pull Down Thy Vanity (2006); Each Single Angel (2005); The Nature of Loneliness (2008); Harness of Necessity (2008); Was Ever Love (2009; The Quality of Affection (2006). They try at wit and profundity - references galore - but their presence is heavy handed and an undeserving addition to the work. I'll manage to keep my attention affixed to the photographs which are eerily beautiful, poignant and perhaps some of her most personal and revealing to date.