Arts & DesignReviews

Fancy Is The Thread

R.H. Quaytman at MoCA

Choose a place to begin. Then slowly turn your body clockwise, shifting your feet underneath you, and, in making a circle, you will eventually return to your original starting point. Now imagine you’ve snapped a picture at various intervals during this 360-degree turn and laid them out in in the order they were taken. Viewed in a line and side-by-side these photos would create a distorted, flattened perspective of the surrounding landscape. What was a revolution in your experience would now be seen as a straight line with clear starting and end points. But this illusion of linear progression would be a lie, perpetrated by the very format in which it was presented. For, what would appear to be the beginning and end of this line of images would in fact be more akin to the points at which a circle closes. And what could now be seen from a single vantage would be the flattened view of a false and miraculous vista.

Two years ago, in the same space that housed R.H. Quaytman’s Morning: Chapter 30, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles had on display Andy Warhol’s Shadows, a 102-panel painting that lined the walls of the gallery in its entirety. Hung edge-to-edge, each painting features silkscreened images of a shadow from Warhol’s office printed over colored paint and applied to the canvas with a mop. Warhol thought of this work as site-specific with the number of panels shown expanding or contracting to fit the exhibiting gallery.[1] Repeated, the silkscreened photographs become frames in a filmic progression that might create a narrative that marks the space of the gallery. The abrupt jolts of garish color, the sporadic alternation of positive/negative space, and the gestural strokes of mopped paint fail to fully animate the surfaces, however, instead encircling the gallery in a jarring, flat repetition of virtually illegible abstraction. Despite their emptiness, the canvases contain latent readings of the categorical, nearly generic terms art, painting, and abstraction.

Quaytman makes explicit reference to these paintings in her 22-panel landscape painting that spans an entire wall at MoCA. Unlike Shadows, which hung in total surround and created a disjointed, broken progression, Quaytman’s multi-panel panorama paints what at first glance appears as a clear, linear visual narrative: the survey of land from a single perspective, the eyes moving left to right and back again. But this is a narrative whose physical dimensions are formed by the institutions and histories that compose its content. What appears as a straight line, one that mimics the general direction of foundational histories in art, is in fact a closed circle made to lie flat by the walls of the institution and bent to appear as a spectrum. The sky in Quatyman’s painting is of the dawn as the show’s title suggests and this morning light fades into darkness across the panels, then returns. It is a simple metaphor for time, where light from the rising sun represents the past and near total darkness the future. She positions the viewer, and herself as an artist, in the pose of the Angelus Novus, projecting out from the picture plane, able only to view the past.

This is the retrospective in reverse, an artist foregrounding the institutional histories at play to reveal an underlying dependency. And yet simultaneously the form of this type of critique is born from that same archive, down, even, to its material dimensions. Like the flattened circle that appears as a line, Quaytman’s show is the product of its format. It is a succinct depiction, as is her entire project, that the understanding of history is always an act of revision, a constant reinterpretation or reconfiguration of existing parts in relation. This is also the nature of the retrospective, which as an institutional operation seeks to place an artist within a broader historical conversation about the nature and value of artwork. When that artist’s work, however, carries embedded within it a structure that prefigures this type of historicizing, the retrospective begins to reveal its own embedded structure.

The exhibition space, designed by Quaytman, dictates that the sprawling, site-specific panorama is read initially from right-to-left in true retrospective format. This design first takes you across four of Quaytman’s paintings on the right-hand wall towards the multi-panel work. The panels appear to depict a series of reflective black walls emanating from a single vanishing point in the darkest frame of the work. Reflections of the paintings on the adjacent wall give the impression that these slick black barriers are extensions of the institution, penetrating the surface of the paintings. Following these walls into the pictorial space, moving towards the left, we find ourselves in a landscape composed of the rocky desert around Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photographs taken by Quaytman during a visit to Heizer’s work and screen-printed onto the surface, rise out of the flattened topography of colored gesso that composes the scene’s horizon line. What is real in these photographs, the trace of Quaytman’s lived experience of Double Negative, dissolves into the illustrated, eventually projecting out from the surface into the institution.

In an article titled Painter Hangs Own Painting[2], Warhol famously denied these paintings were works of art, describing them instead as disco décor in a reference to the music played at the opening, and lamented that “the reviews will be bad…but the reviews of the party will be terrific.” The valuable art is not on the walls, but rather within the space the paintings delineate as a party or opening, where what is bad is the abstract painting and what is terrific is the party. He not only relegates the object to merely a signifier of the word “art” Warhol also makes a clear statement against abstraction, cynically labeling it as pure scenery or backdrop for a social event that generates its purpose and value.

The words photograph and index could be added to the list of signifiers Shadows contains. Warhol uses a shadow and a photograph as markers for both time and space in an effort to bend abstraction back towards representation. But just as the works read on the whole as the non-specific nouns painting and art, the index created by a cast shadow and a photograph of that shadow make only generic reference to an equally non-specific time and place. In Shadows, abstraction’s supposed power to unburden the work from the chains of representation has not lead to the emancipation of art towards an essential truth. Instead it reduces the always-lingual image to a hollow signification that reifies the object as pure commodity and what remains is spectacle, the terrific party that celebrates the work’s distinction as art. This is the cynic’s paradise, where painting has a price but no value and where the objects labeled as art act as merely signifiers for the process by which they are nominated as such.

Warhol could be perhaps the most telling latent word in these paintings because if Shadows is the backdrop for the grander performance of nomination, then the central figure in such a performance would be the artist. But within Warhol’s system of mass production a single authorial agent is scrambled. Warhol’s imprint is found, however, outside the paintings, like a fingerprint, in the by line of his New York Magazine article. Painter Hangs Own Painting By Andy Warhol. The article reads as an explanatory text that fills in the missing language of the paintings. The jokey headline and “had the painting(s) hung at eye level…the kids helped me…” He tells the reader very plainly that the painter didn’t hang his own painting; he hung it, in the rope and gallows sense.

Shadows is painting in the abstract, “painting(s)” as a general linguistic category, and empty signifier. To hang painting, for Warhol, is to execute the illusion of abstract painting as an autonomous surface upon which an individual artist enacts some pre-language truth through form. He self-editorializes the work as a means of illustrating the relationship of the painting(s) (and by extension himself) to the purchasing institution, the public, the gallery space, the neighborhood, his friends, the kids at the gallery, the opening, other artists working abstractly, etc. The extreme banality and narcissism of Warhol’s writing beguile the simple elucidation of the work’s operational language. Shadows is widely panned as Warhol’s failed attempt at abstraction but when read through the New York Magazine article, the paintings register as an index of their own context as opposed to an autonomous object. Even in abstraction these paintings are in perpetual reference to, and derive their value and meaning from, a system based in language.

In 1970, 9 years before Warhol exhibited the first 83-panel version of Shadows, Michael Heizer completed work on two 30-foot wide, 50-foot deep trenches in the desert near Overton, Nevada. Positioned along the same sight line across a natural canyon, the trenches form Heizer’s work Double Negative. Always free and open to public, existing outside a traditional exhibition space, Heizer’s “hole in the ground” can often seem like the antithesis to Warhol’s commoditized hell. Like other minimalist artists interested in earthworks, Heizer sought to expand the boundaries of art through the linguistic and formal reduction to category. Double Negative, as a title, makes reference to the two sections of displaced rock that comprise the physical elements of the work as well as implementing the literary usage as an act of dual negation. Land art and minimalism often operate under this sort of negative system that identifies what is not landscape and what is not architecture to determine what is sculpture (Famously theorized by Rosalind Krauss in Sculpture in the Expanded Field). The formula of not+not=is can also be applied to a generalized view in minimalism that the negation of commodity status and a removal of formal representation would lead to an altered state in social relations. This is the believer’s paradise, the opposite end of the spectrum, where art has value, but no price and where what is labeled art is an autonomous experience of pure form.

In an un-ironic reenactment of manifest destiny, Heizer and Walter De Maria famously left New York City and headed west in 1968. A year later, Virgina Dwan, who also funded the work’s creation, purchased the parcel of land on which Heizer created his massive sculpture. After Heizer blocked the sale of the property in 1971, Dwan kept the work in her name until she donated it to MoCA thirteen years later. The museum has, for obvious reasons, never been able to show the work outside of photographic documentation and like many land works Double Negative is lauded for its ability to remain essentially outside the commercial art world. When it was donated, MoCA’s then-director Richard Koshalek was quoted in the LA Times as saying that the institution’s role would be to keep the public interested in such work and that Double Negative “set an important example.” Koshalek implies that the institution acquired Heizer’s work to protect the artistic values it represented, which can only be assumed to be those values of an anti-establishment ilk. This, however, belies a reciprocal relationship between the non-commercial and an institution’s historical impartiality. Where Double Negative is validated as a critical artwork, MoCA is validated as a critical institution operating outside the market.

Double Negative is an arts destination and its remoteness helps to mythologize its critical standing. Its seriousness as art is partially derived from its requirement that viewers make the journey to see it. But a journey that includes a hotel room in Las Vegas is, for most, more spectacle than pilgrimage. Like Warhol’s paintings, Heizer’s work functions on a linguistic principle of negation, offering what isn’t there as the work. This isn’t-there-ness also applies to its physical absence from the museum’s collection and to Heizer’s limitation of the photographic reproduction of the work. The not+not=is equation could be used again to understand Heizer’s sculpture as an attempt at critical distance through the formulation that what is not in the gallery plus what is not in the market equals what is art. The fan-boy innocence of this conception of artwork capitalizes on a market of ideas where exchange is hidden in donation tax credits and institutional sponsorship. It is in fact a near exact match to the operations at work in Warhol’s Shadows.

Without making the trip to view Double Negative, and I presume even after one does, a viewer’s experience of the work is predominately relegated to a limited selection of photographs documenting the site. And what those photographs picture, other than the American landscape, is something that isn’t there, a missing portion of land. Again what’s left is the index of an index, a photograph of a referent nominated by the artist as an artwork. As is the case with Shadows, Heizer’s work to reduce art to a categorical definition through abstraction does not unburden art from representation; it instead forces it to function as a constant reference to the mediation by which it is named art. The content of Double Negative is in what has been displaced, the rock from the earth, the work of art from the market, and the experience of art from the institution. What remains surrounding these displacements, however, is equally important, as indications of the work’s dependency on context.

Shadows (1979) and Double Negative (1969-70) are chronologically and in some ways ideologically opposed within the history of art. Where Warhol used the New York Magazine article to map his work’s context and illustrate the unavoidable inside-ness of art, Heizer used a series of absences to extract his work, in a failed attempt to position it outside of its surroundings. But both works operate along similar guiding principles. While Heizer’s sculpture can be seen as the never-there of an institution’s criticality and Warhol’s painting as the always-there of the museum’s relationship to the broader commercial world, Shadows and Double Negative are in fact, however, both only-ever-there. The size of Warhol’s 102-panel painting prevents it from being shown in any space other than a large institutional gallery despite the artist’s conception of it being site-specific. And Heizer’s work, while never making entry within the museum’s walls, is an asset marked as institutional just the same. A point made obvious by its listing on MoCA’s website along with their three Los Angeles locations as the fourth venue for the museum. Both works point outside of their respective mediums towards the channels of distribution and nomination that make their existence as art possible. Yet, historically speaking the figures cast by Warhol and Heizer are viewed as somewhat opposite in their approach. Each artist embodying what can be described as the quintessentially American and yawningly male tropes of the Cowboy and the Con Man, respectively.

In a vitrine across the room Quaytman has arranged pieces of her research over a floor plan for the exhibition space. The checklist for the show does not acknowledge this as a work, labeling it instead as Assorted Polaroids and ephemera Courtesy of the artist. What is depicted in the paintings, the false, near mythological spectrum that spans two grandiose male figures in the history of American art, is not represented in the vitrine and vice versa. Instead Quaytman offers personal snapshots used as source material for screen-prints along with small works, hand-written notes, and pages from a book about early American overshot weaving. These are the elements of an excluded history that extends out from Quaytman’s own personal experience to the broader histories of craft and women in the arts. If her panorama can be likened to a closed circle that features prominently two larger than life male figures in contemporary art history, then the vitrine represents that, which even in a moment of inclusion where a female painter is given access to the institution, is left un-nominated as art. Obscured or missing entirely, these are histories overshadowed by their derivative counterparts. Yet they do not exist outside the institution entirely; they are drawn in, as the checklist states, at the courtesy of the artist.

If I ever used a fact, I used it as a slender thread on which I strung the beads of fancy, and in the present work that process had to be reversed; fancy is the thread and the beads are facts.

-Eliza Calvert Hall, A Book of Hand Woven Coverlets


[1] The first iteration an 83-panel version was shown in 1979 at the Heiner Friedrich gallery in New York.

[2] Warhol, Andy, Painter Hangs Own Painting. New York Magazine, February 5, 1979

[3] Emphasis added.

[4] As recently as 2014, on the occasion of Shadows being shown at MoCA, LA Times critic Christopher Knight suggested this was Warhol’s attack on Abstract Expressionism a la Rauschenberg some 30 years too late.

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