ROBERT ASHLEY was as much a writer, theatrical inventor, and video artist as a composer, but music was really at the core of his work. In Ashley’s compositions, pop music, Appalachian country, and jazz piano are never far away, combining with the experimental electronic music techniques developed over the decades since the 1960s.
He had a gift for collaboration, and the strength of much of his best work relied upon it. A thread of brilliant piano playing by “Blue” Gene Tyranny ran through much of his music, going back to the years of the Once Group in Ann Arbor in the ’60s. Collaborations with video artists Phil Makanna and John Sanborn contributed greatly to Music with Roots in the Aether (1976) and Perfect Lives (1978–83). Sound artists Paul DeMarinis and Peter Gordon made significant contributions to some of his pieces. The particular idiosyncratic performance personas of vocalists Jill Kroesen, Jackie Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, and others contributed to the unique character of his works featuring voices.
From Ashley’s early years, his outlook was marked by a fierce opposition to the status quo, a refusal to go along with what was considered normal and acceptable. Often, he startled audiences with radical, unexpected works. Once, in the ’60s, he remarked to his friends that if he performed a piece of music and, after five minutes, the entire audience hadn’t walked out, then he had failed. In a public discussion in Berlin in 2012, he referred back to that time in the ’60s when attitudes of defiance and opposition were widespread and expressed themselves in both political protest and the arts. He drew a parallel between political and artistic activism: Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat in the bus has a relationship to music/theater pieces by the Once Group, the Puppet People, the Living Theatre, the Judson Dance Theater, the Wooster Group, and the Sonic Arts Union.
With his impertinent, attitude-filled, Midwestern-tinged, gravelly voice, Ashley’s own performing persona evoked, at times, a half-crazed Southern evangelical preacher seeking converts in an old-time Appalachian meeting hall.
David Behrman is a composer based in New York.
But among the friends it’s just like we are right
next to each other all the time.
I can hear everything.
I can hear them singing.
I can hear them telling their stories to get the stories right.
You have to tell a story many times to get it right.
At first the parts don’t go together right.
It doesn’t say what a story is supposed to say.
So you have to keep practicing on it.
You have to get it right, so that it says
what you know it says, but it doesn’t say yet.
Move this part. Move that part.
Take out this part. Take out that part.
Remember something that wasn’t there when you started.
Add a little something here and there, maybe not even true,
to give it a little local color.
—Robert Ashley, Dust, 1998; lines 227-244
IN ROBERT ASHLEY’S OPERAS, the characters rant, chant, curse, and croon at the edges of the liminal; they tell other people’s stories as their own, sing stories in unison, interrogate each other, interrupt, and then back each other up. Ashley and his band are always singing, but they sometimes give the illusion that what they are doing is just some variety of speech. Illusion is the important part.
In Ashley’s vision of television opera (fully realized with the Channel Four production of Perfect Lives in 1983), the camera moves through what Ashley referred to as an “impossible landscape” opening onto an “intimate immensity” of spaces and temporalities for the seated viewer. We travel through imaginary landscapes that we could not otherwise pass through, and we reconstruct these landscapes in our imaginations as we receive them, allowing for a new manner of composing—not just stories, but music.
As John Cage wrote in Silence (1961):
My intention in putting the stories together in an unplanned way was to suggest that all things—stories, incidental sounds from the environment, and, by extension, beings—are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not over-simplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.
We can’t really say that nothing was ever “unplanned” in Ashley’s stories, but the notion that “all stories, sounds, and beings are related and part of the same complexity” is certainly a quality of Ashley’s work. Like Cage, Ashley was a master of structure. What may sound simple to the ear is based on intricate numeric and/or metric relationships that determine the breakdown of lines and the distribution of parts among singers. These same numeric structures often determine overall structures of the acts and even the templates for a piece’s visual elements.
Ashley’s musical structures are perceptible to the listener and when we catch on to them, they can make us aware of relationships outside of our mind and make prescient our relationship to our own listening through the listening of others. We discover new ways of listening alongside as we engage with his operas. If we, as performers, listeners, or readers, sit together and read his words from a book or a score, we can get even closer to the workings of the songs in ways that a lot of other music—or experiences of reading together for that matter—cannot.
Music reminds us that what enters our memory comes from another’s memory. There is no thought without memory. All thoughts are a kind of remembering in some way, and music is the way that we can tell a lot of stories—sometimes all at the same time—and transplant these stories into the minds of others. We may not be able to tell back the story of any of Ashley’s operas but we can sing whole phrases and get stuck on the beauty of the differences in the way the words sound to us after hearing him sing them.
Ashley believed that music wasn’t fundamentally about sound, but about the presence of people. As a practice in being present, it is a truly remarkable sensorial opening to the world. Music is a way of being together, a way of thinking, a way of telling stories, a way of remembering, and a way of passing things on. Music and speech can produce ways of being in time and outside of time with one another.
Being in time is where our voices and our stories are in harmony with each other. Being outside of time can occur while we are still in time. It happens when the rhythmic patterns produced by the voices or the musical accompaniment produce drones or circular times that make the stories seem to lift off the page, bringing us into the memories of the singers and the listeners simultaneously. That is Bob’s great gift to us. He asks us to imagine another way of being together and gives us a new way of remembering what we thought we already knew.
Alex Waterman is an artist and musician based in New York.
Terry Adkins, Aviarium, 2014, steel, brass, aluminum, silver, dimensions variable. Installation view.
“I’VE GIVEN UP on that shit. I could care less.” Terry Adkins would say this to me whenever we caught up with one another. “That shit” had to do with his experience of the art world. He did not entirely mean it, of course, but he meant it enough. When things started to change for him in terms of the metrics of art-world success, such as invitations to important art-museum exhibitions, he would say to me, “It doesn’t change me a bit. I could still care less about all that shit.”
Terry was an artist who held steadfast to an idealism of art that could never be corroded by the business of the art world. He found a space for this idealism by working as a professor of fine arts in the school of design at the University of Pennsylvania for the last fourteen years of his life. There, he would both inspire and draw inspiration from the many students he taught. It was a particular mission of his to challenge the status quo and give voice to those marked by difference and disadvantage in the world. In a 2006 interview with Dana Roc, he explained:
I use figures in history whose contributions to society are either under known, under appreciated, or just not given the stature that I believe they should have in society. . . . I would do a body of abstract works that relate to the topic at hand. In the past they have been Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, John Coltrane, Ralph Ellison and W. E. B. Dubois, and others whose worldview I find similar to my own. My quest is to use abstract means, to educate the public about these figures through ways that are not image based or narrative based but to challenge them to think abstractly in relating to the stories of the lives of the people concerned.
A great deal of Terry’s time was spent in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for the lessons he could learn from its extensive collection. To ask questions of the many objects on display, as he did, is to politicize their past, present, and even future existence. He saw in the museum an allegory of all that is admirable and abhorrent about the history of humankind.
While Terry’s art always began from his particular subject position as an African American man, born and raised in the segregated South, he was well aware of the entrapment of fixed notions of identity. In a 2011 interview in Bomb, he stated: “Black artists who don’t care to deal with the subject matter that is posited in image and arrested at the surface of race are usually rendered more invisible.” While African and African American sources were part of the many different elements in his art, they were transformed from their original function, full of flux and movement, and never regurgitative. Materials in the hands of Terry became so much more than their materiality. They became meditations on the processes by which stories are transformed into history.
Terry attuned the facticity of objects with the aqueous and aleatory qualities of music. This integration could be seen as something at odds with a culture so intent on the fixity of categories. The result was remarkably synesthetic, taking the viewer to a place that was at once ethereal and resolutely of this world. One of his last works, Aviarium, created for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, is composed of variously sized cymbals ringing on aluminum rods that jut out of the wall near the ceiling of the exhibition space. The work hovers silently above the viewer. The result is a visually arresting embodiment of musicality, its form reminiscent of trumpets and bugles harkening a clarion call for a reconciliation of all that divides us, including art.
Ken Lum is an artist based in Philadelphia.
Terry Adkins during his performance, The Last Trumpet, at the Performa Biennial 2013.
THE FIRST TIME I saw Terry Adkins perform live was at Third Streaming, an experimental space with an interdisciplinary focus in New York. It was May 2012, and we had gathered for the premiere of the Lone Wolf Recital Corps’s Atum (Honey from a Flower Named Blue). Terry founded the Corps in Zurich in 1986 as a changeable, nomadic performance group, and this evening it featured a choice quartet—Charles Gaines, Kamau Amu Patton, Cavassa Nickens, and of course Terry himself. After the performance, as was our ritual, most of us gathered around the precarious table in the compressed space that is Third Streaming’s kitchen to engage in lengthy and superfluous cogitations about art and life.
While I had met Terry before, we hadn’t yet had an extensive conversation, and I recall being immediately struck by his voice. His tongue texture was slippery with the South, flipping words from his lips in a lazy, staccato cadence, intensely dense yet stretched like wisps of cirrus clouds floating on elongated, silky vowels. We were a generation apart, but this Southern voice became one of many correlations between Terry and me that we identified that day. I learned that Terry, like me, was a consequence of the American South: He was from Washington, DC, and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia; I was born in Atlanta, reared in South Carolina. I recognized Terry’s voice because it was the voice of a generation of Southern black men. It evoked my father’s and uncle’s aural registers: a piquant sonic range that derives from having, generations ago, adopted/adapted a vocabulary that was not our own, and making do with it by making it do. “His very words are action words,” as Zora Neale Hurston describes it in “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934). “Everything illustrated . . . [He] thinks in hieroglyphics.”
That evening in May, Terry volleyed questions at me. These questions were litmus tests, ways of pinning down where I stood on issues he cared most about: whose work inspired my own, what my thoughts were on representation in art by black artists, and so on. He then advised I read an essay he’d published in the Journal of Black Studies in 2004 titled “Notes on the Precious Few A.D.”
The truth is I did not read Terry’s essay until I was asked to do this unthinkable thing, to reflect on his life and work. I learned of his untimely passing on the afternoon of February 8 as I was leaving the memorial service for José Esteban Muñoz, a mentor and visionary professor in performance studies at New York University, also gone too soon. In the context of this double loss, Terry’s eloquent essay on the “precious few” was a revelation. In it, Terry traces his personal experiences with the artist and teacher Aaron Douglas while Terry was a student at Fisk University from 1971–75, describing the institution’s profound camaraderie. He elucidated, in his poetic style, a distinction between the generation of black abstract artists who preceded him, and who significantly influenced his art, including Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, Alvin Loving, David Hammons, Jack Whitten, and Martin Puryear. He also discussed those artists whom he considered his peers: They were “the precious few” because they had survived, having avoided the Vietnam War since they were too young to enlist or be drafted and who were determined to become professional artists. Terry’s recollections of Professor Douglas uncannily resemble comments about Terry himself by myriad black artists, especially men. Terry’s personal outreach toward and generous mentorship of black artists is legendary; in fact, I would be hard pressed to think of one black male artist I know to whom Terry did not extend some semblance of support or brutally honest opinion.
“I am from the school of the Miles Davis how-dare-you-ism,” Terry wrote, “that deals with the principles of what Afro-Atlantic culture is, not through the appearance of it in images, but through the principles that guide it that are a very high order of abstract thinking.” He gave us an original elaboration of blackness in abstraction, that jagged harmony, that craggy expression of feelings that posits radiant possibilities. It is blackness as an aesthetic sensibility and also, equally, a technique of being in the world. It is what Hurston, in describing black spirituals, called “glorious individualistic flights that make up their own songs.”
In Terry’s hands and voice, blackness in abstraction is an alluring, evocative journey in which beauty and affect transcend the bounds of form. What truly mattered was what Terry called “potential disclosure,” and what I want to describe is the peculiar alchemy that occurs when concepts as varied as Eastern philosophical systems and black American cultural traditions and multimedia convocations of video, text, sculpture, and/or music coalesce, becoming the highly affective experiences he called “Recitals.” Terry’s wizardry brought these seemingly incommensurate elements into a sustained and inconclusive dialogue, one that grips the beholder because each ingredient in his art supersedes its individual qualities when taken collectively, as a whole.
“My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be, and sculpture as ethereal as music is,” Terry remarked. “It’s kind of challenging to make both of those pursuits do what they are normally not able to do.” My recollection is that this was the final point of recognition between us that night around the kitchen table; it was somehow instinctively known, yet up until that moment had not been directly discussed. We shared a deep, abiding commitment to abstraction and transdisciplinary or post–medium specific art that is undeniably ensconced in the aura of blackness.
This expedition of Terry’s—and I believe, at a meta level, that he was an explorer of ideas, people, objects, places, archives, repertoires, and boundaries—comes full circle in his performance Sacred Order of Twilight Brothers, which I am grateful to have curated for the Performa 13 biennial. Terry performed it the evening of November 18, 2013, with the Lone Wolf Recital Corps members Vincent Chancey, Marshall Sealy, Dick Griffin, and Kiane Zawadi. Audiences were smitten by Terry and the musicians’ indelible performance, which featured colossal eighteen-foot-tall horns he invented and which he called Arkaphones. All except Zawadi had played the instrumental sculptures during their premiere in 1996 at the Whitney Museum’s Philip Morris branch; now, nearly twenty years later, Terry’s work Aviarium, 2014, is included in the Whitney Biennial. The 1996 recital was dedicated to Terry’s father, Robert Hamilton Adkins, who had passed shortly before the performance. The 2013 rendition was the first time these magical instruments had been showcased in New York since the Whitney concert. Two days later, Terry played the saxophone as part of his dear friend Clifford Owens’s resonant and evocative Dad, one in a series of performances I also curated at Third Streaming, as part of Owens’s Five Days Worth.
Terry said of the Arkaphones, “I made them on the scale at which I thought angels would play them. . . . And so the Arkaphones actually represented the horns of the first four angels of the Last Judgment.” I am certain the angels blared magnificently on that fateful day we lost Terry, coming for to carry him home.
Adrienne Edwards is associate curator at Performa and a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.
Nancy Holt in Galisteo, NM, March 2008. Photo: Alena Williams.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO while making a research trip to New Mexico, I visited one of Nancy Holt’s meditation sessions in Santa Fe. Meditation for her was not merely idle contemplation, but an alertness to the smallest details in a single “granule of time.” The sound of silence was deafening to me, but she could shut it all out. I think the periods Holt spent on her own, building her work, photographing it, are what prepared her to ignore the world and burrow down into her life in the nearby village of Galisteo. She had a talent for closing things down in order to open perception. Her “Locators,” 1972–2012, series concentrated the world down to the smallest detail, and her “Buried Poems,” 1969–71, were like a perceptual vortex: Across the multiple pages in the booklets she prepared for their recipients were a series of maps—the first starting with a general view of the world, and gradually, with each turning of the page, the images would zero in on a burial site, shuttling down to an individually selected location. Perhaps in her mind she was turning over that concept—plumbed in Kees Boeke’s 1968 book Cosmic View and Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 film Powers of Ten—of how in a single granule of matter one might see the universe.
Holt’s attention to sensory phenomena was not just about perception as such, but apperception. Turning inward. Discerning differences. Drowning out the noise, the extraneous. After a certain point, she even shut out much of the external interest in her own work. Yet the year 2010 marked a number of new exhibitions, projects, and traveling, and by then she was, in fact, eager to have a record. Looking back, there was a certain kind of urgency that kicked in long after I first contacted her in 2004, enabling us to push through the “Sightlines,” 2010–13, exhibition tour I curated and its accompanying publication. Then, three years after the opening of the first venue in New York—and the same year that the final presentation closed in Utah—came the bewildering leukemia diagnosis. Imperceptible small bits of matter were proliferating within her, and very little could be done to intervene. It was a disruption of the body on such an infinitesimal scale, but when I first visited her in the hospital, she was ebullient, truly captivated by the altered perspective her diagnosis tendered (a couple of her works—Revolve, 1977, and Ransacked, 1980—had explored death in an intensive way). We all wanted to know how much time was left, but there she was prospecting time, drawing out forty-eight hours into four deeply meaningful months of intense work and preparation.
Throughout those weeks Holt spent in New York, she spoke a lot about the novel she was reading, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), which I just completed reading before sitting down to write these lines. For all the obvious reasons this book might have interested her—its vivid depiction of the American West, Utah’s expansive salt flats, a woman’s engagement with speed on the open road—she was drawn most to the language, a kind of eroticism overlain onto that place “out there,” and the recognition of that very desert landscape that wraps up around her past and the future of so many others. “Out there” is not simply a physical space, but a mental state that harmonized one’s urban existence, its discursive networks, and the slower moments one takes out on one’s own. Famously, Holt camped out in Utah’s Great Basin Desert in her VW van for days when making, and later photographing, her iconic Sun Tunnels, 1973–76. In 1978, she made a solo cross-country trip on Interstate 80 while returning to New York City from Salt Lake City; solitary, traveling through time—she recorded an audiotape, called U.S. 80 SOLO, 1979, pointing out sites of interest along the way.
In reading the novel, which was gifted to me by a friend shortly after Holt’s passing on February 8, I was searching for her. One early sequence coincided with my understanding of how she chose to move in the world: “The salt did not feel like road. . . . I felt alert to every granule of time. Each granule was time, the single pertinent image, the other movement-images, before and after, lost unconsidered.” This was the kind of alertness her works instill. Her practice of Buddhist meditation began later in life, but when she discovered it, it addressed many themes she had already been probing in her life and work. Intrinsic to the exhilaration one feels at the salt flats is the way its dazzling, white surface clears perception of clutter and interruptive details. Holt herself was very strong and resilient, and indeed, calm persistence up to this point had been the key to understanding, even accessing, her work. She had a deeply analytical mind, which probed into complex systems with an incisive sensitivity. Part of her resolve was knowing that life will persist and that life was complex—it needed to be partaken of and drawn out over time.
Nancy Holt, July 1967. Photo: Barbara Schwartz.
Holt’s voice still remains one of the most enduring aspects about her. Endless conversation with friends were her greatest education and was how she found her own artistic voice—that steady, tempered timbre so often captured in voiceover in her early films and videotapes. She was interested in how words might be put to use to introduce things in the world. One sees this in her concrete poems, and her audio tours of landscapes, galleries, and interiors, and her love of T. S. Eliot’s and Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her own assembly of words aurally and visually transformed the viewer’s engagement with the environment from accidental encounter to consummate awareness. Though Holt was never one for expounding on philosophical texts, there were people whose work she read—French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, and environmental activist Edward Abbey—who informed her own thinking and moving in the world; as well as those she admired—artists Eva Hesse and Ian Wilson, among others; and those with whom she collaborated, including scores of artists, filmmakers, astrophysicists, stonemasons, engineers, architects, urban planners, public-art administrators, contractors, and laborers.
A visit to the New Jersey Pine Barrens in early October of last year, the weekend after her keynote lecture at Princeton, was our last trip together. Back in 1974, Holt went out into this landscape to shoot sequences for her 16-mm film Pine Barrens (1975). In a structuralist manner, she would shoot entire hundred-foot rolls of film of that vast space without interruption, and then head back to New York to get them developed. Even today, the landscape itself is remarkably varied and full of unexpected plants and creeping, growing things, roads that become trails and then dead-end into brush after fifteen minutes of rambling. This is why reproducible media are so central to understanding her practice—it’s about the way time inscribes its path into and outwards from the body, thought patterns, and physiological rhythms. Our small group only spent a single—amazingly efficient—afternoon in and among the pines, but we could have stayed for days. Our peregrinations included a slight detour, stopping off at Batsto Village along Route 542 near the Green Bank Inn, the local watering hole where Holt recorded music for the film. Known since the late-eighteenth century for its ironworks until demand petered out in the mid-nineteenth century, the old town of Batsto is a relic of clustered, wooden architecture—the Piggery, Woodhouse, Carriage House, Horse Stable, Threshing Barn, Gristmill, the Sawmill. Wandering though the mills, she wanted us to get a picture of the big stone wheel still in good shape, which no doubt had been used for grinding grain.
I wrote her once last year, after visiting the prime meridian and the museums at the old Royal Observatory in Greenwich for some private research. I was there because I loved the old timekeepers, the English clockmaker John Harrison’s inventions for navigation. Holt’s work, too, was like a clockwork. A timekeeper out of minimalist forms. Amid the myriad science displays was a meteorite nearly 4,500,000,000 years old. She once embedded such an object in her own sculpture, but her interest in stones was an enthrallment with astronomical time—the endurance of places like Stonehenge, ancient burial sites, extraterrestrial objects—all the universe’s detritus that finds its way to the earth’s surface and becomes shaped by it. On a biological level, so many things determine our daily rhythms, but the sun is one of the most elemental characteristics of planetary existence—and was one of the structural elements of Holt’s practice. Made of heavy, solid industrial materials, her sculptures were meant not only to mark cyclical time, but also to withstand it. Her love of things that persist through time could also be traced in her collection of postcards—lighthouses, graveyards, standing stones, roadways, and aqueducts, the sun framed in famous arches—alongside her stereoscopic images of the Niagara Falls, the great cataract she began filming in 1975 (a project she never completed). In her response to my note, she wanted to know about my life, what was going on, what progress had been made; this curiosity, much like her work, will endure.
Alena J. Williams is an art historian and curator based in Berlin.
Sturtevant in 2012. Photo: Paul Hansen.
AS I MOURN the passing of the most provocative artist that I have been privileged to work with, Sturtevant, I would like to consider all the ways her vision has shaped the field of art as we know it. I first encountered Sturtevant when I was still a teenager; visiting a friend’s parent’s house I saw what I believed to be Warhol and Lichtenstein paintings, and I told my hosts as much. Being precocious and proud of my art knowledge, the identification of these works was, in my eyes, a momentous achievement. When my friend’s father, the critic Douglas Davis said, “Oh no kid, those are paintings of paintings,” I was both frustrated and a little appalled that anyone would dare to do this. When other artists like Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine started working on similar turf ten years later, I knew that the experience of seeing a repeated artwork was something I had encountered before, but the memory was vague and dreamlike, and I could not put a name to it.
In the mid-1980s I became director of White Columns, and the collector Eugene Schwartz came to me and said that I needed to put on a show in the space for an artist named Sturtevant who had been left out of the dialogue and needed to be seen again. For me it was an aha moment that connected me to the memory of what I saw in the Davis’s loft at the legendary address 80 Wooster Street.
My first meeting with Sturtevant was not exactly auspicious. She walked in with Gene and Doug Davis, who had been called upon to be the critical voice of the show. She walked right past me and said “Gene, you said this was a big space—it’s tiny.” Gene’s response was, “Elaine, I didn’t say it was big space, I said it was an important space.” At that point there was a tremendous amount of interest in Sturtevant, as there is in so many artists who have taken voluntary hiatuses from showing their work. She had existed as a rumor among artists for so long. The show was small, featuring, among other works, one of her Joseph Beuys repetitions that involved a large quantity of fat—along with felt and copper—on the floor, much to the delight of the neighborhood ants, which ran in a solid line to the piece throughout the run of the show. I learned then that she had done a very unlikely exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, under the leadership of the legendary Jim Harithas, which had been entirely made of works of Beuys; since the museum had never shown a work by Beuys before, the audience was left quite puzzled.
When I was exhibitions curator at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, I had the opportunity to bring Sturtevant’s Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt exhibition to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Once again a new audience had to deal with Sturtevant’s philosophy-based investigations of relationships, origin, and originality. The high point of the show, for me, was staging a Sturtevant repetition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Go-go Dancing Platform). Felix had been a close friend, and along with Sturtevant, one of the few artists with whom I’ve worked closely who I knew to be fundamentally shifting the paradigms of art. When it came time to find go-go dancers, I learned that we could not afford real ones; instead we would need to use local artists who wanted to play go-go dancers for Sturtevant.
Over the years, I came to really enjoy her well-earned reputation for being almost too scary to engage during the Q&A portion of her public lectures. She was a known quantity in Cambridge, MA, as she had taught at both Harvard and MIT and seemed the perfect artist practitioner for that uniquely intellectual environment.
I had grown close enough at this point to know that her curt and crabby answers were really a way of pushing the audience to ask deeper, more complex questions about their relationship to visual culture. I would often volunteer to pose the questions that the audience wanted to ask but was too afraid to. She was frequently asked whether her choice to appropriate the work of only male artists was in fact a radical feminist gesture—I once heard her respond, “You have to be dead from the neck up to even ask that question.”
During her talk at MIT, I risked a question that she might have shot down similarly harshly. In her early days, her best-known repetitions were of Warhol, Johns, and Rauschenberg. Then, after her decade off, she chose to repeat Keith Haring, Robert Gober, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres for her most prominent exhibitions. So I raised my hand and said, “Sturtevant, it occurs to me that your repetitions of cultural objects have focused primarily on gay male artists with exception to Stella, Lichtenstein, and Keifer. This seems to be a consistent enough choice that it needs to be discussed. Is it that gay men, by choosing to stand next to other gay men’s bodies in life and love, are already manifesting a repetition?” She looked genuinely taken aback and said, “I’m not sure that’s right but it’s not a stupid question.” From Sturtevant, that is high praise indeed. I will miss her.
Bill Arning is the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
More reflections on Sturtevant will appear in the print edition of Artforum.
HE HAD BEEN UNABLE to paint for several years after a stroke from which he never fully recovered, but he was still dreaming of a late oeuvre, when on December 5, 2013, his sixty-first birthday, Günther Förg died at his home in Freiburg im Breisgau. In retrospect, the title of an exhibition he presented at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, in 1998 can stand as a sort of leitmotif of his art as well as his life: “What’s self-evident to others is a problem for us.” The phrase is lifted from the Diary of a Journey through the Austrian Alps, a lieder cycle by the Viennese-born composer Ernst Krenek, who later emigrated to the US. As a painter, Förg was among the executors of the idea of the white cube and the shaped canvas, although he always remained faithful to the rectangle. His friend Martin Kippenberger, for whom the problems of Minimal and Conceptual art were yet other opportunities for irony, sometimes called him conservative: Förg delved into these problems and made them personal.
Back when he was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1973–79), he riled his fellow students by producing a monochrome gray picture every week, an apt reflection of the fact that he lived in a dorm room and had no studio to himself. Later on, he brusquely snubbed his teacher, the painter Karl Fred Dahmen, saying he would no longer paint, playing chess and table tennis instead. After graduating, as the new postmodernist painting took off around him, Förg initially chose a very different path. An admirer as well as a sharp-eyed critic of Gerhard Richter and Blinky Palermo, he created monochrome wall paintings. He also chose an unusual medium for himself: architectural photography. More specifically, he focused on a paradoxical subject—rationalist and Futurist buildings from the Mussolini years. The images he created were painting in an extended sense, produced outside the artist’s studio, enlarged and printed by a photo laboratory, framed and glazed by a frame-maker.
Förg had to work on the side as a house painter to pay for such professionalism. And when, after 1984, his lead pictures brought him unimagined success (“I’ve covered America in lead”), it was important to him to emphasize the economy of his art. He continued to work like a house painter, now in a space at the Basel headquarters of Möbeltrans, an art-logistics specialist, where his pictures could be packed up and shipped directly after he finished them. The structures of his bronze reliefs were similarly created right at the foundry. It was not until the 1990s that he made pictures on canvases, and even then he worked on cotton duck rather than painter’s canvas. His grid and window paintings took inspiration from Munch to bring a new dynamic quality to his art, as well as an expressivity he subsequently exorcised in the dot pictures. Some critics and artists maligned his work as haphazard, protesting that he was producing altogether too much, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Call it the Apollonian versus the Dionysian: the discourse of a rational and contemporary perspective on abstract painting, combined with a world of mysterious and enigmatic depth, roiled by memories and the powerful and immediate allure of painting. In his unerring instinct for colors and proportions, he easily eclipsed the painters of his generation.
That’s the Günther Förg I mourn. He could be a real asshole. He’d come to openings to pick fights with certain people, calling art “disgusting,” women “sluts,” and men “faggots.” He’d drink too much red wine, upsetting glasses and making a mess, crawling beneath dinner tables or clambering atop them, and later he’d fall asleep in a chair. During the day, however, he was gracious and exceptionally generous; he knew a great deal about painting and its techniques, about architecture and literature. In the 1980s, he got on some people’s bad side by allegedly expressing right-wing extremist views. I was with him at a bar in Kassel in 1990 when he stood on a table to sing the “Internationale”—on the eve of German reunification, that was an expression of his deeply rooted personal anarchy. The Günther Förg I mourn has left us a magnificent oeuvre, shrouded in melancholy and driven by an overarching idea that many of us have yet to understand.
Veit Loers is an art historian and curator.
Günther Förg, Untitled, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 114 x 157 1/2”.
GÜNTHER FÖRG is no longer with us. I first met him in Stuttgart during the preparations for the exhibition “Europa 79,” which I helped to organize. He was a young, shy, rather quiet artist, and, after having looked at the exhibition space, he immediately proposed to do a wall painting. After the other curators and I agreed, he quickly and precisely moved toward its completion.
A friendship was born, which led to our unforgettable first trip to New York, where he introduced me to his heroes, above all Barnett Newman.
Günther showed me many new things. He opened my eyes to the architecture of Italian Rationalism. Both of us shared a fascination for Ezra Pound’s Cantos. He craved the light and color in Italy. His photographs of Casa Malaparte, which we visited with friends, were inspired by Jean-Luc Godard, whom he admired. And indeed, Munich, where Förg studied, was not far from Lake Como, Rome, or Capri. The gray, dull Germany of the 1970s depressed him. His legendary monochromatic paintings from his years at the academy can also be understood politically.
Günther had a strong impact in my gallery in Cologne. Besides showing his work in numerous major solo exhibitions, he created a permanent wall painting for the staircase and designed catalogues, furniture, as well as the stationery.
In his last retrospective, in 2011, at my gallery in Berlin, Günther showed an impressive selection of paintings and large-sized photographs. From this exhibition I remember most of all his very last painting from 2009. He over-painted a colorful dabbed piece, almost exclusively gray on gray, which reminds of his years at the academy. Gray paintings have emerged repeatedly in his work over the years, but this piece is particularly impressive in its calm and dignity. A masterpiece.
Without doubt, Günther Förg’s radicalness shook up the very idea of painting. At the age of sixty-one, one of the most generous and talented artists passed away. I am honored to have been allowed to accompany his career from the beginning.
Max Hetzler is an art dealer based in Berlin.