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Ed Ruscha gets his Calvin Tompkins close-up

L.A. artist Ed Ruscha gets an in-depth profile by Calvin Tompkins in this week’s New Yorker. Tompkins is his usual thorough self, drawing connections between Los Angeles’s art history and Ruscha’s idiosyncratic, multi-media approach to making art. Tompkins lacks a point of view, though, which may be attributable to Ruscha’s evasive qualities. It’s a bit of a paradox to try to capture an artist whose defining characteristic is their ability to escape definition.

Ruscha, whose works can be cold and impersonal, has always been a hot personal influence on me. When I was a teenager, I fell in love with the painting he has at the Virginia Museum because it seemed to do something. It’s not a picture of something as much as it is a picture doing something.

It has  minimum of elements. Their relationship is tenuous and must be supplied by the viewer, which must happen over time and thus creates a kind of narrative experience of the picture. The pencil that’s repeated gets broken and even the smallest parts of the broken pencil are painted on canvas as if you are watching the pencil break. The word “Noise” can be connected to the sound of a pencil breaking or leafing through the Western comic book. It can also be connected to the unbroken pencil, which makes no sound.

That sound of no sound is what I always settle on. In the end, I hear the sounds that are happening in the gallery when I look at this painting. This can’t be experienced online, when a thousand things are vying for your attention.

That word – Noise – is brought in with such aplomb! The perspective renders the lettering into a space that the rest of the painting, which is painting as flat as a board, resists. I see this painting coming out of abstract expressionism’s insistence on the painting surface as a place for action but heading towards the post-modern insistence on art as something conditioned and prepared in our heads. Good stuff.

The reproduction kills the effect, but just so you know the piece:

Ed Ruscha, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western, 1963. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Ed Ruscha, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western,
1963. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

How to be an art star

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999.

Yesterday was the great panel discussion between Peter Plagens, Lilly Wei, and Miles Manning at Green Hill. Today they’ll be sitting in on Pecha Kucha presentations by North Carolina abstract artists (which I think I’m going to miss). Starts at 10am!

One of the funniest parts of last night was Peter Plagens’s step-by-step plan for taking over the art world — or at least become a famous artist. After saying that his advice to art graduates now is “Go to L.A.,” he ran down the Plagen plan:

1. Move to a major art center (which means Los Angeles or New York, says Plagens, because Chicago has “that school thing”)

2. Go to every opening and hang out with as many artists as you can

3. Work as an assistant for a major artist

4.  Do something big or controversial, like covering a building in tar or digging an enormous hole in the middle of something

5. Disappear for a year (this is the “counterintuitive part” of the plan)

6. Come back to the art world with marketable work that can sell

At this point everyone laughed and talked over each other.

Wei said “And if you’re a woman, just wait 50 years to be acknowledged.”

To which Manning rejoined, “Or divorce your husband like Louise Bourgeois.”

Louise Bourgeois’s own advice to young artists? “Tell your own story, and you will be interesting … Don’t get the green disease of envy. Don’t be fooled by success and money. Don’t let anything come between you and your work.”

Lee Krasner’s place among Irascibles

Photographer Nina Leen’s 1950 photograph of 18 American artists has become an icon of Abstract Expressionism and art history. All the big boys of New York mid-century modernism are there: Pollock, Rothko, Still, Motherwell, and de Kooning.

This generation has been lionized as a hard-drinking group of men who lived as hard as they painted. They came together to protest an exhibition at the Met that would ignore their work.

Irascibles' protest letter
Irascibles’ protest letter

One curious exception to this group of 18 has always bothered me: where was Lee Krasner? She has a tough-as-nails reputation and she was married to Jackson Pollock. Her paintings are great and she was one of the first artists in New York to work completely abstractly. If he could get in the photo, why not she?

There is one woman in the photograph, Hedda Sterne, and she is on record saying “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”

In a talk today at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, art historian/biographer Gail Levin helped shed a little light on this topic. According to Levin, who became pals with Krasner as a grad student in 1971 and even wound up moving to the Hamptons, it was Krasner who took the phone call from Barnett Newman when the photo was being organized. She passed the phone to Pollock and the rest is history.

So why didn’t Krasner get in? According to Levin, Krasner was bitter her whole life about not being included. There were 28 original signatories on the protest letter, so many relevant artists didn’t appear in the photo — Louise Bourgeois among them. Krasner’s name is not on the original protest letter, but she certainly had every right to belong in the group. So the fact that she passed the phone to Pollock doesn’t answer any questions.

Was she ever asked to participate? Did she ever ask to participate? Is this a case of self-censorship caused by a sexist environment?

A different story Levin told at the Weatherspoon might relate. When she was a child going to synagogue in Brooklyn, Lee Krasner hated the fact that men and women were separated. She had to sit in the upstairs gallery with all the women and girls while the men sat downstairs. When feminists in the 1970s organized separate shows for women, Krasner balked. Becoming a separate group left a bad taste in her mouth and reminded her of the separation that occurred in her childhood.

Could Krasner have restrained herself from joining the Irascibles out of a distaste for joining separate groups? After all, the group of 18 were explicitly setting themselves apart as different kind of artists.

Hedda Sterne, meanwhile, said being in the photograph was the worst thing that happened to her. She said she became known more for that photo than for the 40 years of art work she did afterwards and that her membership in that group defined her.

According to Krasner, the only reason Sterne was in the photo was because her gallerist Betty Parsons made it happen. This could be Krasner’s sour grapes because she had no such advocate, or it could also be a disapproval of how groups work in the first place.