Blum and Poe
Through February 20th
I felt it was an important moment last year when Dan Graham’s pavilions roughly occupied, a few months later, the same space at MOCA as Louise Bourgeois’ cells. The space, for me, still quivers with the lessons of that interaction. With Graham’s anonymous, cold spaces, I felt how the raw details of a physical encounter with a space determines movement and grounds and dictates human behavior. With Bourgeois, I learned how the memory of space that’s been touched and lived in perhaps is equally important in behavior. It’s the clinical contextualization of Duchamp’s Urinal counter-posed with the soiled teddies of Mike Kelley. The world means something, but something quite different with us in it.
I experienced another two pronged art encounter recently, this time positioned between Blum and Poe’s old and new spaces, and between the young sculptor Matt Johnson and Lee Ufan. In 2006, Johnson placed a rock in the old gallery, and I still don’t have any idea whether the rock was found or sculpted. Neither would surprise me and the distinction in this case is not important. What is important is that at the time, after seeing Johnson’s car muffler Pieta, his sand crab, and his magic eye painting, with all the cheekiness that these works brought along with them, the rock smiled at me. Not only did it smile at me, it smirked. The rock was personified, and I thought the rock was kind of a punk.
Now in 2010, Ufan too has rocks in Blum and Poe, this time the new space, but they do not smirk. Actually the rocks stay rocks and the pieces of metal in the gallery stay metal. Moving forward, the paint stays paint and the canvas, canvas. Ufan is present in the work, but not as a wit or as a guide for materials into metaphor. Instead, something quite different from Johnson, Graham, or Bourgeois is occurring. Ufan is not cold like Graham and his goal is not to point out the impact of Bureaucrats on public spaces, and yet, he is not speaking of trauma and its impact on a spatial relationship like Bourgeois. One has to think that he believes in the impact of space and things, but that there is a more basic and fundamental relationship being elucidated, underneath personal history, underneath politics, and all joking aside.
What this means is quite old and quite different from what we are used to in the United States, and I hate that I am only coming upon Ufan now, even though he’s been working since the 1960s. Ufan is difficult to position in the larger cultural fabric we find in the
I don’t think that Ufan would disagree with most of these statements, for his work definitely is about conditions and about the human relationship to the conditions of the world. However, we must account for several things in Ufan’s work that seem to lie outside of ideologies and positions, concepts like weight, distance, direction, and speed, all physical concepts that affect rocks and mountains and water as much as they effect us. That Ufan can think about these concepts with painting is extraordinary and that he can do it without some morbid fantasy of the “world without us” is even more impressive.
Ufan the painter, in his rituals and in his approach to painting, makes the painting process as “real” as walking, swimming, or any other physical activity in the world. Note, for instance, how you are drawn, along with Ufan, into the density and weight of his large individual brushstrokes, the way your body and your eye move at the same time, almost like Richard Serra’s steel impacts your movement through its inner spaces. Notice also how the primal register of “heaviness” maps from Ufan’s rocks onto his steel onto you and how you find yourself in a position as an object in relation to other objects, but importantly, also as an object capable to acknowledging this relationship. Finally, let your eyes and body flicker and quicken according to the speed of Ufan’s brushstrokes in his line and dot paintings, and how the exhaustion of paint on the brush (it’s running out) can mimic the real time movement of your eyes and body. I speculate (call me crazy) that the careful viewer might feel a shudder of the transience of material, their own material even, a whisper of the reality of death.
Ufan is so different from his American contemporaries. For instance, there is so spatially to consider, as when we face the immersive scapes of Barnet Newman yet Ufan’s canvas register more like objects and less like a mirage, his brush strokes are less like fissures in a mist and more like weighty accretions on a surface. Also, Ufan’s is not a game of calibrated, material experiments intent on causing materials to register like materials, like Frank Stella’s “I wanted to get the paint out of the can and onto the canvas” paintings. Instead, Ufan’s paint, as in his Line and Point paintings, start dense and fade into nothing, asserting themselves with a new full brush and then drying out, intent on showing us the ritual of painting. Stella has nothing to do with ritual -- he was more into draining Ab Ex of its wailing and grinding of teeth, trading expression for reality but not a very poetic one. Now that we’ve said ritual, however, perhaps we can bring in the comparison of Robert Ryman, who pragmatically used materials as materials, exhausting possibilities, and another person that likes the ritual of painting. But again with Ufan, the comparison falls short of the mark. Often, Ryman’s strokes feel simply like paint, pulled free from composition, applied by a human but it doesn’t really matter whether or not they were applied by a human.
With Ufan, it is easy to see the validity of the art experience, how it is physically grounded in the reality of things and how we, as humans, are tied and part of this reality. The lack of ideology does not bother me -- in fact it comforting to know that the things in the world in a sense impact out involvement with them but do not ultimately depend on our involvement with them. It is great to know that painting – so often belittled for its inability to think about such things – can be part of this truth. Our involvement with reality, it should be noted however, does not come as a loss of some sort of primal purity, but as an extended truth. We used to be more attuned to art’s capacity to present such primal thoughts, we believed in its material and metaphorical capacity to do so.
For instance, in his classic essay, when Leo Steinberg spoke of Picasso’s skulls as having weight, we knew what that meant visually and metaphorically, that the physical weight of the paint, in a sense, lessened the skull as a metaphor and asserted it more as a reality, and thus too our comfort with skulls unraveled as well, moving from the skull of Adam at the base of the Crucifixion (the skull rooted in the promise of new life or new covenant) and more towards the painful reality of things “case closed,” the things that receive “weight” not from the promise of eternal life but from the finality of death. There is a flavor of this thought in the work of Ufan.