We don’t discuss inspiration openly anymore. Inspiration is much like the word “beauty.” We use it among ourselves, in the studio, and most have an inherent sense of what it means, but we don’t discuss it – you won’t find an Artforum piece on inspiration, you won’t see a symposium on inspiration. I admit thinking about inspiration is at times difficult for me. For instance, I remember studying Brice Marden in depth, with all the commentary about modernism, surface, and the painting support only to go to Marden’s artist lecture to hear “The Olives!! How wonderful they were, as I looked on them that day in Greece.”
Well, that’s fine. I am sure the olives were wonderful. However, the tension I had inside me during that particular artist lecture was that the olive comment explained everything and nothing. On one hand, it suggests the inherent mystery that makes art fascinating, the chains of meaning that lead an artist into unexpected territory. On the other hand, the olive comment seemed a bit of a cop-out, a dodge – “Back off, man, I’m an artist.”
The same tension inhabits Oranges and Sardines
, Gary Garrell’s latest curatorial knockout at the Hammer, a show in which I had great interest – the poem where the show gets its title (Why I am not a Painter
by Frank O’Hara) is the same source for the title of this blog. The show is so packed with great painting I could barely stand it, but the mystery at the show’s heart, that place from which art springs, is where the show moves past a casual musing into something breathtaking, a reassertion of inspiration and studio shop talk as a legitimate way of thinking about art.
Garrell’s show acknowledges that this territory remains complicated. We know, for instance, that Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen are good friends, show with the same galleries, and have impacted each other’s work so it should be field day to have Wool himself choose his favorite Oehlen and put the work next to his own. But in pouring over these wonderful canvases, what do we really find out? We’ve enjoyed the odd abstractions of Mary Heilmann and it is wonderful to find her work next to other strange eccentric art works by Bacon, Nauman, and Beuys, but what do we discover? Mark Grotjahn has put forth a statement on modernist painting over the years that we suspected came from a cadre of great artists – how fun it is to find him choosing Reinhardt, Kusama, Albers, McLaughlin, and Mondrian. Well, that makes sense, we say, but where is the meat? What can be said other than that makes sense?
I guess it is the details that matter, how Wool and Oehlen make similar use of depth and gestural marks, how a little Hockney pool splash talks to a Heilmann’s paint drip, how Amy Sillman’s apparently random choice of Forrest Bess doesn’t seem that out of place when thinking about Sillman’s work, uncritical weird mysticism and all. Charline Von Heyl, known for slashing color and vivid bursts of energy, likes things moody and dark. Who knew? Grotjahn’s irreverence comes across not in a dramatic way, but merely
through how he places his signature on a work – seeing the gaudy yellow signature next to the canvases of Albers and Reinhardt is like hearing catty laughter in a monastery.Oranges and Sardines
is full of these small pleasures, little associations that take you places, much like O’Hara’s orange took him where he didn’t think he would go. But the show is also about doubt, about how shaky being an artist can be, how hard for an artist to justify their decisions in rational language or easy diagrams.
However, the subject of the show is what I found ultimately the most fascinating. Think about it, a show that invites six contemporary artists to curate their influences into a space after artist biography and discussion of influences and inspiration has been on decline in art historical and critical writing for the last thirty years. At a moment where art schools still offer (at least ten years past its prime) The Death of Author
as a text as canonical as a contemporary art Iliad
, the Hammer museum gives us an unashamed look at inspiration and how artists form themselves and their work. When the Getty Research Institute puts out a book of essays entitled The Life and the Work
, a clumsy attempt to encapsulate the hornet’s nest of controversy over art and biography, Garrells gives us a show about the personal relationship between an artist’s work with history and those works which came before it. In a time of critical detachment and the ongoing attempts to put as many catchphrases and slogans between us and artwork, here’s a little humanity.
Inspiration and influence, we find, is a shadowy world where there is a fertile ground for speculation but little room for definite answers. Inspiration is not a clean one to one correspondence – it is not the clichéd Eureka moment, it is not (at least for us mortals) the hot ember burning Isaiah’s lips. Instead, it is shop talk, it is friendships and debates, it is having another artist make you want to be better in your work. In this protean “creation on the fly” world, it is hard to directly say who influenced who or how an outcome came about.
O’Hara’s poem is very articulate on the matter. How, for instance, does O’Hara in the poem move from thinking about oranges to 12 poems, none of which mention oranges at all? How does Mike Goldberg move from thinking about Sardines to a painting without visual reference to sardines? Why does O’Hara call the poems Oranges
and Goldberg call the painting Sardines?
And then there’s the poem’s casual gait, its chatty nature, its contentment with “leaving it at that.” There is a suggestion that artists are just fine with such zaniness -- it’s okay, leave the explanation to the geeks and when they make their explanations, well, there’s no need to fret about those either. There’s maybe even a touch of Ad Reinhardt in there: "Only a bad artist thinks he has a good idea. A good artist does not need anything."
The contentment with inspiration found in the poem can be extended to the Hammer show, except now inspiration is not put forth with a Cedar Tavern swagger but instead with smart acknowledgement. Garrells wants to show us the beautiful heat at the bottom of artistic creation, and this contentment with inspiration comes across as astonishing and fresh, aggressive in its values and in its outright longing for stories and connections and relationships.
Maybe that’s why O’Hara goes through the trouble of assigning so many labels in his poem, each label increasingly unsure of itself? “I am not a painter. I am a poet,” he says. Then at the end, he reminds us again, “I am a real poet.” The truth of the matter is, as demonstrated in his poem as well as Garrell’s show, it doesn’t really matter whether or not O’Hara is a painter or poet or even an artist – what he produces makes him what he is, and that production, difficult to tie down, is what matters, what moves us, what constantly changes in front of our eyes.
The Olives!! How wonderful they were, as I looked on them that day in Greece. How terrible Orange is and life!