In the last month I’ve managed to see a number of fantastic art exhibitions, several in San Francisco and in the last few weeks two in Seattle.  This is the first of several posts covering these shows that I’ll post over the next couple of days.  While chronologically not the first show I will cover this post will be about Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78 at the Seattle Art Museum. I’d been looking forward to this show for a while thanks to some early advertising from SAM who rarely seem to have shows within my interest (20th and 21st century art for the most part with plenty of exceptions).  It promised to have quite a bit of my favorite artists as well as a artists I was unfamiliar with.  The show opened while I was away on my bicycle tour but I caught it the first weekend after my return.  The show turned out to be even more impressive then I had figured, extended well beyond SAMs holdings in getting a number of impressive loans and introducing me to several new artists that I was quite taken with.

The theme of the exhibit is Painting Under Attack which the exhibit organizer, Micheal Darling describes thus:

“For the artists in the show, painting had become a trap, and they devised numerous ways to escape the conventions and break the traditions that had been passed down to them over hundreds of years. This phenomenon occurred in all parts of the world, and the exhibition documents why artists felt compelled to shoot, rip, tear, burn, erase, nail, unzip and deconstruct painting in order to usher in a new way of thinking.”

This sort of exhibit is always interesting  in that it takes an idea and then searches for evidence to support it.  This of course can range from highly speculative in the case of artists who would speak rarely of their motivations, intents and processes to pretty direct from those artists whose published manifestos are an embodiment of your theory.  I’d say in general I accept his basic thesis but barring some of the specific manifesto writings I’d say most of it comes from the struggle that every great artist makes to find their own voice.  Working in the shadow of the western canon and the arising dominance of the New York School it doesn’t seem too much of a shock that conventions had to be pretty subverted in order to overcome them.  The aftermath of WWII with its unprecedented horrors certainly seems to be a catalyst for at least some of the first stages of this phenomenon and it is interesting that the artists that Darling begins with were both from countries (Italy and Japan) defeated in that war.

Shimamoto Shozo Work(holes), 1950
Shimamoto Shozo Work (holes), 1950

Shimamoto Shozo(Japan) whose Work (holes), 1950, is pictured above, along with Lucio Fontana (Italy) nearly simultaneously began tearing into their canvases a gesture that seemed to arise directly from the defeat and devastation of their countries.  I’d been at least passingly familiar with Fontana, but Shimamoto Shozo was new to me and it was the above work that really captivated me in the first room. A large painting its barren surface adorned with almost Twombly like scribblings seems to be more decayed than attacked.  This one seems to capture a sense of defeat and despair but also feels germane to the present day, a timeless work that applies beyond its immediate circumstances. The Fontana works with their increasingly elegant cuts seem much more of their time and place and dwindle as time goes by. The first room seemed to serve as an extract of Darlings thesis, covering more time and more themes. Along with the starting points of the Fontana and Shimamoto’s it included the Johns target that is the advertising image for the show which being an  iconic Johns was great to see in person. As one moved through the first three rooms there were several other works by Johns, around a half dozen in total.  As there is currently a show focusing exclusively on the use of the light bulb in Johns work going on at the Henry right now (more on that in another post) it is a good time to be a Johns fan in Seattle.

Robert Rauschenberg  Erased de Kooning, 1953
Robert Rauschenberg Erased de Kooning, 1953

The rooms were somewhat thematic after the introductory room, focusing first on destruction whose primary attraction to me was Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (pictured above).  I’ve long been a Rauschenberg fan and this of course was an important milestone in his career.  Being able to see it in person, how faint the remaining de Kooing is, the rather abused nature of the paper to be able to examine it as close as one wants was a heady experience. Other pieces in this room included another Johns (Untitled (Cut, Tear, Scrap, Erase.)) , two Yoko One piece’s one you could walk on (Painting to Be Stepped On), another you could hammer a nail into (Painting to Hammer a Nail). This later work had become a sort of patron bulletin board in that most patrons hammered in a piece of a paper they had written, or drawn on or was some sort of found object.  This event was rather celebrated amongst the local Seattle are art wags but for me it was a lot more indicative of the contemporary art.  While there is plenty of great contemporary art there really is an overabundance of that which is “art, because that is what artists do”. So much of this has little going for it: no ideas, no technique, no style, no engage. While an individual piece can survive without one or more of those, it has to have something.  Modern art critics have to engage with contemporary art and you often find them having to champion these artifacts of self-absorption, which I think is the case here. Yoko probably would find it a larf though.

Jasper Johns Canvas, 1956
Jasper Johns Canvas, 1956

The following room focused on works that questioned the whole artifice of a painting and its frame handing in galleries, mainly by focusing on the backs of paintings. There was a Lichtenstein of the back of a canvas done in his inimitable style, a picture of the back of a Warhol, a neon lit frame and most compellingly I thought the above Johns.  That small picture doesn’t capture the layers of gray ladled onto the back of this painting, obscuring everything but its dimensionality. In contrast to this black hole of grey is Richard Jackson’s SAM, wall painting, which looks as if the most vibrant pop art was created on canvases which where then pressed against the wall and moved around like a five year old finger painting. The canvases were then allowed to dry against the wall their final destination cemented where he placed them, their dusty yellow backs and stretchers contrasting with the bring colors strewn on the wall.  SAM has put out a video of the making of this intriguing and captivating piece which I’ll inline below.

There was a full room installation viewable from this room and the edge of another room, which was of newspapers and paint on the floor, which honestly did little for me. Then there was quite a few video works, most of which I was too burnt out to spend the time with. This is the first exhibit at SAM that I feel the need to return to, having been supersaturated by about half way through.  Two more pieces in the concluding room though, cleared my eyes and demanded a contemplation. One was the first of Rauschenberg’s combines a small little Untitled piece from 1954 that was more painting then sculpture which also included a squeezed out paint tube as part of it. The room this was in featured many paint tubes: run over by trains, in a series squeezed onto plastic and so on.  In the final room there was the most compelling Andy Warhol I’ve ever seen: Oxidation Painting 1978. This piece was twelve panels, each probably around 6″x6″ square that had been coated with a copper paint. Warhol and other Factory members then urinated on it, which led to the paint oxidizing in these intricate patterns. Conceived as the end of  the attack on painting (we have photorealism to look forward to in the next decade) I personally found the aesthetics of this piece to be far more interesting then the juvenilia. As someone who enjoys rust, decay and the futility of man’s creations against time this piece captured much of that essence. Below is an example of one of these, but not the one on view at SAM (I wasn’t able to find an image)

Andy Warhol Oxidation Painting, 1978
Andy Warhol Oxidation Painting, 1978

This was an impressive show with lots of great works and lots of pieces I was unfamiliar with, even from artists I knew fairly well. There is also a fantastic catalog, whose essays I’m still working through, but is well worth picking up for the images alone. I can’t seem to find a SAM online store, so perhaps in person is the only way to get it, which would be a pity (update 09.02.09:  you can now get the catalog at Amazon). The show also includes an audio tour, which I for one rarely indulge in, wanting to form my own opinions. However they did get Laurie Anderson to narrate it, which I have to admit is pretty cool. I’m going to try to visit this one again before it closes and perhaps I’ll see what Laurie has to say.  A preview of the audio tour can be heard here.  Anyway if in town, or coming to visit in the next few weeks, this show runs through September 7th and is must see in my opinion.

4 thoughts on “Recent Art Viewings 1: Target Practice at SAM

  1. you didn’t mention the yayoi kusama video! that was one of my favorites in the exhibit. she paints a dang lake! the whole thing was so trippy.

    my first impression was that the show was too obviously dialectical. painting/anti-painting -> new art. the ‘commentary on painting’ per se was pretty boring. My second viewing gave me a much more positive impression. the work functioned because it used painting as a starting place and moved forward from there. At least, that was how i was able to get something out of the work.

    I remember Johns said something about Duchamps’ work, that he liked it as art, how this was somehow a disservice to the “real aims” of the work, or something to that effect. My impression was similar, that if I considered the works as attacks on painting, as critical statements about art, i found them very dull (in general – baldessari’s work has always struck me as effective criticism in a visual medium). If i considered the works more as paintings, including formalistic considerations, I enjoyed them much more. This isn’t very surprising given my tastes (which tend toward gestural abstract paintings – richter, twombly, AbEx, etc).

    In particular, the richard jackson wall painting really annoyed me at first. It’s like, big woop, the paintings face the wall. The second time i saw it, was much more impressed. the scale of the painting, the way it integrates into the wall, the uneasy rectangle in the middle with no paint, and yes, the canvases facing the wall. I want to see the other side! it hit me much more the second time.


  2. Hey thanks for the very interesting comment. I definitely want to catch this exhibit again, there was a lot I failed to absorb. The video art particularly got short shrift as of course they force a time element. I did watch (most) of the one where a square room was painted a different color every day. And I really liked the one that was 80 slides of a tacky commercial painting. One of the things I’ll do if I return is watch the rest of the video pieces I skipped due to overload.

    I have to say I mostly agree about the dialectical nature of this exhibit, or any really. Some of these artists of course did directly lay out these “challenges to painting” in their manifestos, Fontana springs to mind. Artists like Johns I think one has to project a bit as he doesn’t tend to just hand you the answers. As I stated in the post I do think that for a lot of these artists this sort art arises out of a struggle to find their voice.

    I would say that I also tend to focus a lot more on how the paintings effect me, but I do tend to feel that the ideas an artist is working with affects how the work ends up. So that aspect is important for a certain kind of understanding and can perhaps turn around an initial impression. The Richard Jackson is kind of an example of this for me, I think I appreciate its gestures the most, in the main the color was a bit too much for me. But while I was there it did keep distracting me and eventually I spent enough time with it that I appreciated it more as a whole, considering things like it’s temporary nature (or perhaps not it turns out) which always appeals to me.

    Anyway a lot to think about in your post. Hopefully I’ll make it back to the show before it closes so perhaps I’ll post a followup.


  3. Robert, you’re probably ahead of me on this read, if not, check out Pictures Of Nothing, collected lectures of Kirk Varendoe on abstract art since Pollock.


  4. I actually do have that book Jesse, but so far have only flipped through it. After I finish the essays in the Target Practice book, I’ll start giving that a read. Good to hear further endorsements though, its one I bought based mainly on subject matter and a few reviews.


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