sperone westwater, new york
16 September - 1 November 2008
Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice begins with a single nine-and-a-half-minute scene. In this long, continuous shot, a young boy, mute, helps his father plant a tree in a desolate landscape. While his father, Alexander, works, he tells his son the story of a monk who spent an entire lifetime beginning each day with a walk up the side of a mountain, to carry water to a dead tree. At the monk’s death, the tree burst to life.1 The meaning of the story, as Alexander expresses to his silent son, is that it was not the water that brought the tree to life, but rather the faithful day-in, day-out ritual of bringing the water. The content of the bucket was not important; it was the act of blind devotion, the seemingly desolate and meaningless commitment to a practice, that saved the tree. For Tarkovsky, the artist must make work like the monk carried water—not hoping for meaning or redemption in any one painting, but rather trusting that through the day-in, day-out devotion of the studio, something else emerges that is greater that the sum of the parts.
Tarkovsky’s signature, excruciatingly long camera shots are intimately entwined with his philosophical grounding in a profound respect for time as the medium from which artists sculpt meaning.2
If human experience is unique because we are self-aware, it means that we are aware of ourselves as alive, as possessing being. Being, in turn, is knowable only within the possibility of not being. We are alive because we are not dead. There is an argument that holds that all artists, in one way or another, make art as a means of hedging death. You can imagine, then, the collective horror of painters when it was announced in the middle of the last century that painting was dead, that painting had lost out to time, that time had moved on, that art had moved beyond painting, that painting had run out of time.
Roman Opalka must have seen the future, must have seen it coming. In 1965, he began the “millennium project,” repositioning himself in front of time by painting it. His work since then has consisted of a virtual single painting, made up of an indefinite number of canvasses upon which he is attempting to paint all the numbers from one to infinity in minute numerals running across the surface of each canvas from the upper left to the bottom right. As each canvas is filled, another one picks up where the last one ends so that there are no individual paintings, but rather an expanding though indefinite series of details of the meta-painting. Yet despite the fact that formalist, minimalist, and conceptual vocabularies are regularly invoked when his work is discussed, Opalka’s work is in many ways a reaction against those very formalist, minimalist, and conceptual arguments that tried to pressure content out of painting in the first place. His work transcends such “content” by eliminating what conceptualism and minimalism had attacked in their purges to drive content out of art: specificity. Opalka’s single meta- painting is about nothing and everything at the same time. Opalka and his work as an artist will finish at the same moment: the millennium project will be completed only at the moment of Opalka’s death.
So Opalka saw the future, and will beat criticism to the finish line. It makes one wonder if Giorgio Morandi saw the future too. If he did not, then how did he become a super-hero of both modernism and post-modernism? Was it by sheer accident? His practice, like Opalka’s, also consisted of just a single painting, faithfully articulated day after day, painting after painting. He defeated time (and Rosalind Krauss in the same stroke3) by sculpting originality out of repetition so that a perfect natura morta, a unitary, universal, and essential Morandi, resolves in the imagination as a summa of the many. Morandi’s infinite, single, and invincible natura morta accrues from the individually vulnerable hundreds.
Yet even if this is true, I am reminded of Norman Bryson’s forceful argument that for art history to be honest (or at the very least effective), it must avoid the hubris of assuming that an artist’s goal or that the “problem” of art is singular or static.4 I might be right, that Morandi’s work derives its power from the many, but are we sure that Morandi saw his project as a singular one? In one sense, it is an extremely important issue for art history, and Bryson is right to give us pause. On the other hand, however, evidence can overwhelm even the most articulate artist. Like Opalka’s, Morandi’s work survives time precisely because it is made of time.
Assuming I am correct and that Morandi’s power comes not from any individual masterpiece but from endless articulations of a singular idea, then like the sacred icons of Andrei Rubliov, a lamentation by Gesualdo, or a cantus by Arvo Pärt, any originality attributed to Josef Albers is likewise derived not from invention, but from a tantric repetition of a singular idea, endlessly expressed. There is nothing in any individual Albers painting that announces “signature.” There is no individuated moment, no precession or arc of career. His work is devotional, each work an homage. And though his lifetime of experimentation in color and color relationships is widely and deeply appreciated, examination of a single work will tell you almost nothing about Albers unless you know something about the larger project. Like DNA, each minute part can only tell us something about a species that we are already familiar with.
Even the cold of science, the flatness of fact and data, the plain recitation of information, can produce a kind of surprising spirituality. Indeed, mantras, psalms, sutras and surah, methodically recited without expression or embellishment, draw their power not from the artistry of the speaker, but from the simple fact of their recitation. This is why acolytes strain to empty themselves, to remove any signature of voice from the recitation or the chant, to disappear in the chant, liberating the verse from the chains of the unique and specific. And so, like a Benedictine, On Kawara recites the days as if they were the Office of the Hours—unembellished, direct, and selfless. In the faith of this repetition (non- religious faith, pointedly), something else begins to happen and there is leftover sum. Strangely, this is Kant’s definition of the sublime, but stranger still, the aggregation of Kawara’s practice, like Albers’s, like Morandi’s, like Opalka’s, is its own aesthetic. It is an aesthetic that floats on the waves of time, the contemplation of an ascetic painting of dates.
But let’s slow down. We are in danger of sinking into the romantic.
Andrew Grassie began a series of “recordings” as a way of breaking an impasse in his own art-making, an impasse due in part to believing in painting at a time when not many did. Leaving Saint Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, facing the void, he discovered an end-run to the tyranny of content by copying his own earlier work at 1:1, in oil, stroke by stroke. In making forgeries of his own paintings, the content of his painting (or at least its importance) instantly evaporated and only the practice of painting itself remained. This way of working evolved, and soon he was painting droll recordings of the spaces and places of the art world itself—gallery offices, storage areas, empty exhibition spaces, and fictional installations. Meaning and the responsibility implied by content were deferred and the pogroms of art school criticism rendered flaccid, Greenberg and his progeny included. Yet even while it was a cleverly discursive tactic, Grassie nevertheless remained bound to Albers, Opalka, Morandi, and Kawara in a shared faith in a practice of meditative repetition.
In this factual, plain commitment to painting, each of these artists finds a refuge from the nagging demands of content. Each, in his own way, carries water.
Steven Holmes is Curator of The Cartin Collection
1 Andrei Tarkovsky, Time Within Time: The Diaries, 1970–1986, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair (London: Faber and Faber, 1994).
2 The title of this exhibition derives from Tarkvosky’s book on the cinema, Sculpting in Time, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair (London: Faber and Faber, 1986).
3 Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths,” October 18, Fall 1982: pp. 151– 170.
4 Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).