But is it art? Session 3

In session 1 and session 2 of this series on contemporary art, taught by Dr. Patricia Briggs, from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, we met in a library, and she showed us slides and talked about the progression of contemporary art. For this last session, we met at the Walker Art Center for a tour of selected pieces. Dr. Briggs said she was going to show us her favorite pieces; we had an hour, saw a lot, and only touched the surface of the museum.

The galleries that we visited are organized sequentially, earlier styles first. The first piece she showed us was a Hans Hoffman, which I had admired before, but not retained the artist’s name — I loomed a different piece of his. She again said that he was a mature artist at his best, an abstract expressionist. His shapes show relationship, foreground, background, are sculptural, alive, and not flat; exciting and dynamic paintings about painting.

Clifford Still was next, another abstract expressionist, this piece was darker, more gothic, but also about shape and color and pure painting.

Then Rothko, another pure painter. He uses a couple of tones, careful brushstrokes. There’s a hazy fuzziness, an ephemeral quality, floating shapes, hovering, misty — representing the unrepresentable.

The next room was Alternative Modernism, the action, performance paintings. Not about controlled reason in the previous room, not about discipline. The first painting here was by Shirago Kazuo. He painted with his foot?!

Then an explosive poured painting by Herman Nitsch, done on burlap.

Progressing to the next gallery, there was a piece in the center of the floor called Direction. It’s an elongated triangle of granite, smooth, but not polished. A small compass is on the top near the wide end — north does not match with the pointing of the arrow of the granite. It speaks of nature, the primitiveness of the sedentary rock (layers visible on the edges), found objects (compass), and is like poetry, showing space, direction, and time.

End of painting pieces were in the next room. There is a white canvas with a vertical slash. A white canvas torn in the middle. Paintings as objects.

The next gallery has a piece by Yves Klein. There’s a shallow pool that’s bright blue on the inside, and then blue body prints of nude women on the paper on the wall. At the opening, he had the blue pool and blank paper on the wall. His models created the prints at the opening.

There is a cabinet of Fluxus artists, something she didn’t cover in the other two sessions. This is ephemeral art, seeing beauty in the world around you, noticing small things, art to the people, not in museums, art you participate in. Things like mail art. One was a postcard, and the writing on it is something like, “Your thumb on the side of this card is the realization of my intention.” Another is a small plastic container, like a film canister, with a bean in it. It is labelled, “Empty out the bean, put the cylinder to your ear. Listen to the sea.”

We stopped next at a painting by Chris Ofil, a contemporary artist. He’s African American, and went to Africa and came back inspired — and with elephant dung. The painting is rich, bright colors, with a lot of black contrasts, geometric and psychedelic patterns, small photographs of faces, speaking to hip hop culture, language of the street. There are rows of small dots — Dr. Briggs said it looked like beadwork. Beadwork! In the center of the painting is a piece of elephant dung with an eye painted on it. Instead of hanging on the wall, the painting is resting against the wall, on feet of elephant dung.

Dr. Briggs stopped next at a piece by Richard Prince, this pure, flat, gray painting, with a shape at the top. There is currently an exhibit by him on display at the Walker, that we didn’t have time to see. He’s known as doing art incorporating the Marlboro Man, masculine art. She said she understands and likes this piece more now, after having seen the exhibition. She said to think of the painting as half painting, half car — the shape looks like the hood of a car.

One of the stranger pieces is next. It’s a small child’s resin chair, sitting over a drain, with a box of facial tissue on the seat of the chair with a cover over the box with flowers on a black background. This is by Robert Gober, who makes a lot of things with drains in the them. It’s to make you wonder what’s down there, to think about the building. And the interest of the piece is the placement of the drain, chair, and kleenex.

David Weiss and Peter Fischli’s Wurst series is next, amusing photographs of posed vignettes with processed meats. Dr. Briggs described a piece of theirs that she had seen that was a rotating turntable with a plastic cup anchored to it. Next to the turntable was a flashlight, turned on, and she said there was a really interesting play of light on the wall as the cup moved through the beam of light.

Katherine Fritsch has a series of 4 objects placed in different cases in the room. Poison bottle. Snake. Gold ball. Silver ball. Dr. Briggs thought of them as Platonic objects, outside of narrative, making you consider of what these pieces bring to mind. Her response was fairly tales.

Mary Esch’s Riding Hood studies (drawings) were adjacent. Not the sweet Disney version!

Julie Mehretu’s painting is a huge abstract piece with lines and action. She’s interested in showing power, colonialization, history and the history of painting, globalization, migration, immigration. There is layering, with graphic designer-like marks showing direction of movement through the underlaying plans that look architectural and like city plans. This is about exploration, not self-expression.

The final piece was Carl Andre’s Slope. It’s a black sidewalk coming part-way out into the room at an angle to the wall. This is art you become part of, and Dr. Briggs said she had an epiphany when she first stood on it. This is art with a different relationship to the public. It’s reductive, not simple.

After the tour was over, I asked Dr. Briggs to point out the location of the James Turrell piece, Sky Pesher, that is installed in the new portion of the sculpture garden (yet to be installed, except for this piece). She had talked about him in session 2; he’s a light artist, working with natural light. It will be the end anchor of the new garden. This is as it looks when you’re approaching it.

As you walk in, this is what you see. This is concrete, black concrete for the seating area, white painted area above, with artificial uplights above the black of the concrete. The seats are heated, and there is drainage under the edge of the bench. To give you a sense of scale, a seated adult’s head is between 1/3 and 1/2 to the top of the black. This is a square room, so there are benches on all sides, including both sides of the entrance.

Looking up, to the top of the bench and the opening to the sky. There is no visible profile of the opening, it looks like a frame to the sky.

Looking up, seeing the gradation of blue.

Part of the Gehry addition of the Walker in the sunset.

And finally, the iconic piece of the existing sculpture garden, seen on many postcards for Minneapolis, Spoonbridge and Cherry, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. There is a fountain in the stem of the cherry.

Leave a Reply