A small but wondrous Alma Thomas retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem put me in mind of a desert plant that spends all year as an innocent cactus and then, in the middle of the night, blooms. Thomas, who died in 1978, at the age of eighty-six, was a junior-high-school art teacher in Washington, D.C., whose own paintings were modernist and sophisticated but of no special note until she retired from teaching, in 1960, and took up color-intensive abstraction. Her best acrylics and watercolors of loosely gridded, wristy daubs are among the most satisfying feats (and my personal favorites) of the Washington Color School, a group that included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and others associated with the prescriptive aesthetics of the critic Clement Greenberg: painting shorn of imagery, the illusion of depth, and rhetorical gesture. Wielding brushes, Thomas eschewed the group’s signal technique of working strictly with stains of liquid paint on raw canvas, proving it inessential to an ordered glory of plangent hues. She seemed to absorb in a gulp the mode’s ideas—rational means, hedonistic appeals—and to add, with no loss of formal integrity, a heterodox lyricism inspired by nature. The boldly experimental work of her last years suggests the alacrity of a young master, but it harvested the resources of a lifetime.
Thomas, who was African-American, was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her father was a businessman, her mother a dressmaker. She had three younger sisters. In 1907, the family moved to Washington and took a house in a prosperous neighborhood, in which she lived for the rest of her life. She concentrated on math in high school, and dreamed of becoming an architect. Unsurprisingly, given the time’s odds against her race and her sex, in 1914 she found herself teaching kindergarten. In 1921, she enrolled at Howard University as a home-economics student, but gravitated to the art department, newly founded by the black Impressionist painter James V. Herring, and became the school’s first graduate in fine arts. Later, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College and studied painting at American University, where she encountered Greenberg’s doctrines.
Though she initially hung back from a studio career, Thomas was active in Washington’s cultural circles, including a “little Paris salon” of black artists, in the late nineteen-forties, which was organized by the educator and artist Lois Mailou Jones. Thomas’s modern-art influences included Vassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse, especially after she saw a show of his paper cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1961. Recognition came slowly but steadily. When she became the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum, in 1972, she told the Times, “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there.” She added, “Look at me now.”
Thomas said that she was moved to paint abstractions after studying the shapes of a holly tree in her garden, and that she based her color harmonies on her flower beds—or on the way she imagined them looking from the air. Space exploration fascinated her. A painting of a disk in reds, oranges, and yellows is titled “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970)—a whimsy that seems meant to deflect any hint of mysticism. Thomas was not sentimental. Nor, after painting some semi-abstract, resonant oil sketches of the 1963 March on Washington, was she political. She said, in 1970, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” She did so with panache in such works as “Wind, Sunshine, and Flowers” (1968), which deploys touches of hot, warm, and drenchingly cool colors in vertical columns. Intervals of white canvas align here and there to form horizontally curving fissures: wind evoked with droll economy.
I met Julius Eastman in early 1981. We were both hired to be vocalists in a theatre piece by Jim Neu for which Hugh Levick was writing the music. At the first 10 a.m. rehearsal, Julius showed up in black leather and chains, drinking scotch! Julius, while externally outrageous and almost forbidding, was genuinely generous and warm, and not unkind. He was brutally honest, which doomed him (as well as many others) in a field which, if not dishonest, certainly is not forthcoming and can be surprisingly timid and conformist (and which has become increasingly so since that time).
In the fall of 1998, I was asked to teach a course in composition at Cal Arts for "real" instruments. I thought a really interesting approach would be to focus on music for multiples—pieces written for four or more of one instrument—and one piece for multiple cellos that I knew I wanted to include was Julius's The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc (Joan) for ten cellos. I had attended the premiere of it at The Kitchen in 1981, and I loved its energy and sound. Thus began an almost quixotic seven-year search for the music of Julius Eastman who died in 1990 and whose final years were a life spiraled out of control to the point where he was living in Tompkins Square Park. He'd been evicted from his apartment in the East Village—the sheriff having dumped his possessions onto the street. Julius made no effort to recover any of his music. Various friends, though, upon hearing of this, tried to salvage as much as they could. Most was probably lost.
One of the problems of writing about Julius is that it is difficult to state anything with certainty. A lot of the information out there, if not contradictory, has slightly different details. Julius Eastman (born in 1940) was a gay African-American composer of works that were minimal in form but maximal in effect, who had a life of minimal possessions combined with outrageous behavior. He was also an incredible performer (vocalist and pianist), best known for singing on the 1973 Grammy-nominated Nonesuch recording of Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King. Raised in Ithaca, New York, where from an early age he was a paid chorister, he started studying piano at fourteen and was playing Beethoven after only six months of lessons. He went to Ithaca College for a year, then transferred to Curtis as a piano major where he studied with Mieczyslaw Horzowski but soon switched to composition. Although best known as a vocalist, he never formally studied voice. While at Ithaca College, in the course of accompanying dance, he also took up choreography, and eventually choreographed dances to some of his compositions. In 1968 he moved to Buffalo where he was a member of the Creative Associates, which was under the leadership of Lukas Foss and later Morton Feldman. While in Buffalo, he performed and toured music by many of the most prominent contemporary composers, as well as had his own music performed. He eventually moved to New York City, where he was associated with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, then also led by Foss. Julius performed in jazz groups with his brother, Gerry, a guitarist and bass player in many jazz ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra. (The only work by Julius registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is as a lyricist, with his brother listed as composer.)
Looking over what has been written about him, I notice a number of misperceptions. For instance, Tom Johnson, who wrote so well about the New York Downtown scene for the Village Voice during the seventies and early eighties, wrote in 1976 that Julius was a performer discovering his voice as a composer by writing pieces that he could perform. However, Julius had been writing ensemble pieces that were widely admired before that time. Even though the pieces had quite a lot of performances, perhaps they hadn't been performed in New York, or Tom hadn't attended those concerts. I have a feeling that once Julius left Buffalo, he didn't have a ready group of musicians to perform his work any more, so he started to write pieces that he could perform. Indeed, a look at his list of compositions shows that his earliest pieces were for solo piano, and then, once he got to Buffalo, he wrote compositions for ensembles and/or instruments that he didn't play.
Another observation that I've made is that once he left Buffalo, the tone of the titles of his pieces started to change, from The Moon's Silent Modulation (1970) to If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich (1977), Evil Nigger (1979), etc. Not only had Julius left the protective and nurturing environment of Buffalo, but in New York the divisions between Uptown and Downtown were more evident, and Julius was caught between both worlds. He had a foot in both camps. He appeared with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and performed works by Hans Werner Henze and Peter Maxwell Davies. Meanwhile, he was also performing and/or conducting with Downtown composers such as Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, and Arthur Russell. Evan Lurie, who studied composition with Julius, told me that Julius insisted on clear penmanship when writing scores, the correct way to notate music, which materials to use, etc., while at the same time producing scores that could test the patience of a saint to figure out.
I didn't know Julius all that well, but I did have conversations with him about composers of that time, and he was dismissive of a lot of them. I think that what it boiled down to was integrity.
The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who died yesterday at the age of seventy-six, was simply one of the most original and influential directors in the history of cinema. He achieved something that few filmmakers ever have: he seemed to create a national identity with his own cinematic style. He was the first Iranian filmmaker who expanded the history of cinema not merely in a sociological sense but in an artistic one, and his tenacious, bold, restless originality—an inventive audacity that carried through to his two last features, made outside of Iran—focussed the attention of the world on the Iranian cinema and opened the Iranian cinema to other directors who have followed his path.
Art is born of a confluence of temperament and circumstances. It’s amazing that Kiarostami was able to work copiously and free-spiritedly within the rigid constraints imposed by the religious and political doctrines of the Iranian regime. Yet he also seemed to thrive on conflict, arising from his over-all sense of resistance to authority and defiance of norms, which he expressed subtly but decisively in dramatic action and in cinematic form. He was one of the greatest ironists and symbolists in the history of cinema, bringing out grand philosophical ideas and depicting independent-minded characters, while nonetheless apparently deferring to imposed conventions and expectations.
In the nineteen-seventies, Kiarostami made his earliest films under the auspices of the Kanun, or Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. They were didactic films, for and about young people. After the Islamic Revolution, he continued to make educational films, but a sense of his sly radicalism appears in the short film “Orderly or Disorderly,” from 1981, a sort of cinematic “Goofus and Gallant” of large groups, in which the orderly one appears terrifyingly dehumanized (and enforced by the authority of the police) and the disorderly appears lively and vital—but not without risks and conflicts. It’s also a reflexive film, in which each sequence is prefaced by a slate and a clap, as well as a film of passionate observation, expressing the sheer joy in seeing and filming the alluring details and large-scale patterns of daily life.
The first paradox of Kiarostami’s career is the clash between documentary and dramatic elements, between the observed and the imposed, between the discovered and the determined—and between the closed world of the movie shoot and the total one behind the camera. He worked mainly with non-actors whom he encountered on location, as in his 1987 feature “Where Is the Friend’s Home?,” the story of a schoolboy in the rural village of Koker who travels to another village to give a classmate a notebook, in the process defying parental authority, and other authorities as well. That region was devastated in 1990 by an earthquake; in the 1992 feature “Life and Nothing More,” Kiarostami dramatized his trip to Koker after the disaster to inquire about the movie’s young star, with an actor playing the director. One of the film’s key incidents is an encounter with a newlywed man who married his fiancée the day after the earthquake (they spend their first nights together in the shelter of ruins). Kiarostami followed that film with “Through the Olive Trees,” a story based on the life of the local mason who played the newlywed groom in “Life and Nothing More.” The director is a character, too, and he gets involved in the couple’s relationship. For that matter, the movie opens with an actor addressing the viewer, identifying himself as an actor playing a director who has come to Koker to choose an actress for a film.
Freddie Gray, the twenty-five-year-old black man whose death at the hands of Baltimore police touched off last spring’s urban rebellions, was arrested and beaten simply for making eye contact and running. It was a case not so much of “wrong place, wrong time” as “wrong person, wrong world.” So many neighborhoods like Gray’s resemble the creeping dystopia of Delany’s Bellona or Prince’s Minneapolis. Even more strongly than they did thirty years ago. Their residents are treated as if their skin color makes them unworthy to move and relate to the world as they please.
At the heart of uprisings like Baltimore aren’t just the indignities committed against those like Gray but the idea that people’s environments should belong to them, and that they deserve better than blight and brutality from the state.
Reenter the Purple One. In the days since his death it has come out that he secretly gave large sums of money to the family of Trayvon Martin after he was murdered by George Zimmerman. At the Grammys two months prior to Gray’s death, he had dropped a subtle hint: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” A radical Prince may never have been, but he was still a black man in America.
He also, by the time of Baltimore, had come to be regarded as a progenitor of Afrofuturism in music: Sun Ra, P-Funk, Alice Coltrane, Prince. The role his songs played in reimagining the black experience had already inspired the standard-bearer of Afrofuturism, Janelle Monae, to have him guest on her landmark album The Electric Lady.
When he released “Baltimore” — a song dedicated to Gray, Michael Brown, and the protesters — it was something of a convergence. Black rebellion had infused the soul and funk of two generations before. Prince was now reviving these sounds by once again paring them down. The song uses minimal instrumentation, and listeners find themselves weaving through subtle cracks of empty space, asking where they might fit. A crying guitar line, clockwork drums, and nouveau-gospel backup vocals subtly help them find their place.
The song dropped alongside an announcement that Prince would hold a “Rally 4 Peace” concert on May 10, 2015. The concert, powerful as it may have been for those in attendance, also bore the mark of another celebrity benefit, easily integrated back into mealy-mouthed notions of “tolerance” and “can’t we all get along?” Even the notion of a concert for “peace” while young people were doing battle with police in the city itself rang of equating the violence of oppressor and oppressed.
Prince himself was far less equivocal. “The system is broken,” he said in a press release. The lyrics in “Baltimore” strike a less confrontational tone, but one that leaves very little question of sides:
Nobody got in nobody’s way So I guess you could say it was a good day Least a little better than the day in Baltimore
Does anybody hear us pray For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? Peace is more than the absence of war
The spiritual and religious overtones are unmistakable here. So is the invitation to not just imagine something different, but to place yourself within that imagined world. It’s not the most remarkable of Prince’s songs, but it certainly holds enough in common with his signature methodology that it deserves to be remembered. It’s not something that can be reduced to funk or rock or R&B or neo-soul or any of its components. It’s various straws spun into something simply golden, ultimately human beyond restrictions.
Genres, like all boundaries, are fictions. They deserve to be erased.
When I met Daisuke Yokota for our interview in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, he said it was the earliest he'd been up in a while. It was already about 11:45 in the morning, and I wondered aloud whether he'd been working a late-night job. "Nope," he said. "Making work." Yokota has created a small image-making factory in his apartment, which he uses to create his haunting, distorted black-and-white images. Many Japanese photographers, led by Daido Moriyama, take black-and-white photographs with similarly strong, almost extreme contrast. At first glance, Yokota's photographs seem to fit neatly into this tradition. However, in talking with him, it’s clear that he hasn’t set out to copy this style because it looks cool. Instead, he’s been led there by electronic musicians like Aphex Twin, taking the musical ideas of echo, delay and reverb and applying them to photography. In practice, this means that to make the series "Back Yard" (featured in the gallery above), Yokota shot, developed, printed and re-photographed each image—not once, but about 10 times. That does seem like enough work to keep you up all through the night.
How did you make “Back Yard”?
At first I used a compact digital camera, and printed the image out. Then I photographed that image with a 6x7 film camera, using color film, even though the image is later black and white. I developed it at home, in a way so that imperfections or noise will appear—I make the water extra warm, or don’t agitate the film. Even before that, I let some light hit the film; I’m developing in my bathroom, so it’s not even a real darkroom, which helps, but I’ll hold a lighter up to the film, or whatever is around. I’m always experimenting—the goal is to not do it the same way twice. So then, to produce more and more variations in the final image, I re-photographed the image about ten times.
Ten times? You mean, you developed and printed and re-shot each image ten times?
Yeah, more or less. There’s no set number, but about that much. It’s not so much about realizing an image I had in my head from before, but finding something in the process. “Back Yard” was pretty simple, just that. “Site” was more complicated—taking digital photos of the same thing and combining them in Photoshop—that took a lot of time.
And re-photographing photos doesn’t take so much time?
I guess so, yeah.
Photoshop is not really about adding the noise then?
Doing that in Photoshop makes it look tampered with. Adding the noise with film, it looks natural.
In some of your other interviews, I see you’ve mentioned Aphex Twin and David Lynch as influences. Why is that?
There are two reasons. First, Aphex Twin has a lot of aliases, so his work is less about seeing his real name as some kind of symbol, and more about the songs themselves. There’s a sense that you can’t really see him, and this kind of confusion is interesting to me. Then, to speak about his music, there’s a lot of experimentation with delay, reverb and echo, which is playing with the way that you perceive time. Of course there’s no time in a photograph, but I thought about how to apply this kind of effect, or filter, to photography. I was definitely influenced by the idea of “ambience.” David Lynch is probably the same for me, in the way that he works with time and perception.
So how does all of this apply to your photographs?
If you look at music or film, there is time there. In other words, the work has a clear beginning and end, and in between, you shut out your daily life—you throw yourself into the work. There’s no element of duration to your experience of a photograph; it’s closer to an object. I felt that this was an extremely weak point of photography. So, I’m aware that photography can’t function in the same way as films or music, but I wonder whether it isn’t possible to create a way for photographs to carry time within them. When you’re going to sleep, you think about the stuff that happened to you that day, right? You might see some images, but they’re completely distant from what really happened—they’re hazy. You’re trying to recall something, and photography can also recall things in this way. Of course my photographs do function as some sort of record, but there’s no agreement between the photograph and my own recollection of what happened. The impression is completely different. I think using these effects of delay, reverb, and echo (in photographic terms, developing the film "badly" and so on) might be a way to alter the sensation of time in a visual way.
Jacob Robert Whibley creates collage-based works that foreground two histories, simultaneously: that of early modernist art, architecture and design, as well as that of the materials he uses. Russian Constructivism, the Bauhaus and de Stijl, and the artists affiliated with those movements – Wassily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian – come to mind when looking at Whibley’s work, but his collages do more than pay homage. Whibley skilfully, and with great sensitivity, exploits the pre-existing folds, tears, markings and discolouration of the vintage papers he uses, some dating back to the late-1800s. The result is work that manages to feel historical, contemporary and timeless all at once.
Based in Toronto, Jacob Whibley graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2005 and has been showing his work since 2007. His first solo exhibition in Europe took place in June 2014 at Bourouina Gallery in Berlin. In May, he was included in the group exhibition Space Squared at White Walls in San Francisco. He has also had solo exhibitions at the Wyatt Art Centre in Rochester, NY and at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Group exhibitions in Montreal, Los Angeles and Portland have featured his work, as well. He is represented by Narwhal Art Projects in Toronto.
Yes, that urinal - "an icon of twentieth-century art" (tate.org), "the loo that shook the world" (Independent). Reputedly Marcel Duchamp (Dada* hero) signed a mass produced urinal R.MUTT and, in a radical gesture in 1917, submitted it to an open exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, New York, under the title Fountain. It was rejected in what is now seen as a crucial turning point in art. Since then it has been celebrated (and castigated!) as the starting point for all the subsequent installation and conceptual artwork that dominates contemporary art today.
But, as a convincing article in this November’s Art Newspaper argues, Duchamp stole this iconic act from fabulous Dada poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
The evidence is pretty damning: two days before Fountain was rejected, Duchamp wrote to his sister (Dada artist Suzanne) to tell her that "one of my female friends, under the masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture."
It was not until decades later, in the late 50s/early 60s, that Duchamp, wanting to re-establish his position as an artist, started laying claim to Fountain. However he made a rather telling error: the supplier he says he got it from never stocked this particular urinal. The original was long lost but a photo survived (above) and Duchamp authorized his dealer to make copies that he authenticated and are now showcased in premier art museums around the world.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, however, has been lost from mainstream histories. Friend and colleague of Duchamp, she made Dada sculptures out of found objects and had a track record in plumbing as art – the sculpture entitled God (below) was an S-bend mounted on a wooden block.
Jane Heap, the editor of an influential journal, The Little Review, described the Baroness as "the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada" and published her poetry alongside the first appearance of James Joyce’s Ulyesses.
Born in Germany in 1874, Elsa acquired her title from her third marriage (to an impoverished aristocrat who deserted her) and pitched up (alone) in New York in the teens of the century, a fully formed avant-gardist. She was integral to the free verse movement and one of the New York Dada group that including Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia et al. She was outrageous, a kleptomaniac and proto punk challenging all codes of behavior, arrested for dressing in men’s clothes or not dressing at all (going about semi naked). One of the first performance artists she concocted and sported amazing costumes – tomato soup tins as a bra; hats of a bird cage (with bird) or a birthday cake complete with burning candles; tea-balls and cocktail spoons as jewelry. She shaved her head and lacquered it red, wore yellow face powder with black painted lips. She demanded equality in sexual agency and mused on ejaculation, orgasm, oral sex and impotence in her poetry which broke all boundaries of form as well as content.
Breaking the rules of gendered behaviour and totally uncompromising in her commitment to Dada, the Baroness was deeply threatening to the men in her circle. Just as I have argued in relation to Pauline Boty (Pop artist), I think that, as a woman, she perhaps presented a transgression too far: dying, poverty stricken, in Paris in 1927 she has been written out of the mainstream histories.
How different the story of 20th century culture would feel now if a woman had been acclaimed as an epoch shattering, free thinking, paradigm shifting creator.
But hang on. Scholars have been aware of the Duchamp’s letter since the 1980s! It’s in the news now because, although reprinting and praising the book in which the revelation is made, Museum of Modern Art (NY) has still refused to acknowledge Elsa’s role – as does Tate (check out Tate’s website account of Fountainno mention of Elsa!) And this deceit is the really shocking news. There is just too much is invested in the fiction of Duchamp’s heroic act. For a re-vision to be made acres of critical theory, art historical and curatorial analysis would, and should, be disrupted along with comfortable, (gendered) notions of genius and innovation,
Doubly transgressive in rejecting both their social role as women and all accepted notions of art they offer a radical, innovative take on the Modernist shake up of art. Artists like Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven need to be put back into the frame – foremothers of punk, riot grrls, pussy riot et al and inspiration to all women challenging the status quo.