We look upon the world
to see ourselves in the brief moment that we are of the earth
a small fern in a crevice of the cliff face
The first retrospective of Lee Ufan (1936) in America was at the Guggenheim Museum (June 24–September 28, 2011). During the exhibition Alexandra Munroe, who organized Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, invited me to read two of the artist-philosopher’s texts to a small audience that was seated among the paintings and sculptures. One of the texts that I chose to read was in the form of a letter addressed “To Mr. F. Stella – On Excessive Painting” (1987), which Lee wrote after seeing an exhibition of Stella in Japan:
Dear Mr. Frank Stella,
When I looked at your paintings in “The Tenth Anniversary Exhibition/PAINTING 1977–1987” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka (October 3–December 6, 1987), I saw the tragedy of excessive desire. You have put too many things into them, creating a condition of total saturation that makes your work suffocating. You might say that if something is not sexy it is not art. It may be sexy for a hungry mentality that seeks to conquer everything. However, all I can see in this saturated mass is a corpulent body that is insupportable, combined with indifferent gestures of seduction.
Later on, Lee wrote:
This “artwork” is grounded in the conventional conditions of painting just by virtue of the fact that it is nailed to the wall and observed from the front. But rather than being “dynamic,” the word you use, it has the unbecoming appearance of an over-weight America. This flamboyant, violent work is not based on the fundamental issues of painting. It is nothing but raw desire, forcefully stuck to the wall, a preposterous bluff expressing desires of self-realization and expression with the methods of painting.
I was reminded of this letter and of Lee Ufan’s importance to a group of younger Japanese artists, all of whom were born during World War II, when I went to see Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-Ha at the Gladstone Gallery (530 West 21st Street — June 22–August 3, 2012). Virtually unknown in America, this group of artists all emerged during the late 1960s, a decade marked by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the student revolt in Paris and the various movements in Japan against solidifying ties with the west and the United States.
Mika Yoshitake curated this significant exhibition in collaboration with the Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe. A beautifully illustrated catalogue with a highly informative and useful essay by Yoshitake accompanies the exhibition. Although there was only a desk copy of the catalogue for me to look through when I first went to see the show, I was told that more copies would be available shortly.
(I will write about the entire exhibition only after I am able to read the catalogue.)
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Lee Ufan’s letter to Stella underscores his ongoing critique of Western aesthetics, which began with the specific objects we associate with Minimalism. Whereas Minimalism, at least as Stella codified it, emphasizes the material presence of an object isolated from the passage of time, the artists associated with Mono-ha were interested in what happened between things, in the dynamics of their relationship as well as in change. Thus, for all the visual affinities between a Western-made object and those made by the Mono-ha artists, these connections have to do with appearance — they are morphological and, at best, superficial.
* * *
Roughly translated, Mono-ha means “school of things.” The name is misleading because the artists are interested in the relationship between things, rather than in things themselves. Although their work seems to have affinities with Minimalism, Process Art, Conceptual Art and Earth Art, it would be imperious to subjugate it to a Western aesthetic. Instead of recognizing similarities, it occurred to me that it was more necessary and useful to address the differences. That was the secondary reason that I kept returning to Nobuo Sekine’s two-part sculpture, “Phase of Nothingness–Water” (1969/2012), the first being its quietly compelling invitation to contemplate the relationship between stillness (black lacquered steel containers) and change (water).
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In 1968, Nobuo Sekine made “Phase — Mother Earth” by digging a 6’ x 8’ cylindrical hole in Suma Rikyu Park in Kobe. The displaced dirt was shaped into a cylinder that would presumably fit exactly into the open hole. Hearing about Sekine’s piece, Lee Ufan met the younger artist and soon wrote about what he had done. Lee had studied the philosophy of Lao-Tse and Chuang-Tsu in Korea. After moving to Japan in 1956, he studied modern Western philosophy. Lee admired Sekine’s work and ideas, whilst Sekine found in Lee an artist-philosopher who could theorize his art and views.
Lee Ufan’s recognition of Sekine’s “Phase — Mother Earth” as a corporeal encounter rather than a visual one is both a critique of the purely optical, western tradition as well as a development in his insight into a larger, philosophical understanding of art and its relationship to change.
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This is how Yoshitake wrote about “Phase – Mother Earth” in her catalog essay for the Gladstone exhibition:
By utilizing the earth as both a means and an end, Sekine demonstrated the inseparable relationship between material, process, and site, revealing a flux that is analogous to the fluctuations of daily life and a stasis that is analogous to death.
This way of understanding and experiencing art runs completely counter to the detached western notion that art is just what it is; that, as Stella famously said in 1964, “What you see is what you see.” Clement Greenberg theorized that the highest art had no content, that it was only about its status as a pure optical experience. It is this legacy of bodily denial that continues to influence how art is made, seen, and written about.
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Initially, I thought that Sekine’s two-part sculpture, “Phase of Nothingness–Water” (1969/2012) was two separate sculptures. When I learned from the exhibition list that it was a single work made of two distinct, seemingly self-contained pieces, I had to reconsider my experience.
It was two distinct things, which I could not make into one, and this duality underscores the use of two materials, steel and water. One part is a black lacquered steel cylinder filled with water, while the other is a black lacquered, steel rectangle filled with water. The cylinder reminded me of a cistern, while the rectangle brought to mind a trough. High overhead, the air conditioning unit blew cold air into the room, with the breeze slightly ruffling the water’s surfaces in both parts. The lights in the ceiling were reflected in the black water.
The reflection of the ceiling lights in the water’s ruffling movement evoked clouds passing overhead. I was reminded of lines from the British TV show Doctor Who:
“Water is patient … Water just waits. It wears down the cliff tops, the mountains, the whole of the world. Water always wins.”
Manmade, the steel containers hold water (nature), which will outlast them. Unless you put yourself in the right (and awkward) position, you are not likely to see your reflection, which underscores your unavoidable absence. At the same time, seeing your reflection in the water underscores your transitory nature.
Sekine acknowledges change, mortality, and absence. As Lee recognized at the outset of the younger artist’s career, the viewer has a corporeal encounter with works such as “Phase — Mother Earth” and “Phase of Nothingness — Water.” In both works, the materials acknowledge what Yoshitake calls “fluctuation” and “stillness.”
There is nothing ironic about Sekine’s work, no Sturm und Drang. The piece doesn’t emphasize its fabricated nature. In fact, the two parts bump up against the realm of functionality but never slide across the border. It isn’t about the thing itself, but about the relationship of the manmade to nature.
There is something very straightforward about “Phase of Nothingness–Water,” and yet our experience isn’t literal. We can see it factually as two containers filed with water and say that’s all there is to it, but that would mean that we’ve used Western aesthetic standards to vanquish it. The problem is whether we can experience it as it was meant to be or not. And if we are able to do so, does that mean that the dominant method of looking at and understanding art would lose its grip on us?
* * *
At some point, while looking at “Phase of Nothingness–Water,” I began thinking about another steel container filled with liquid, “Ink Box” (1986) by Charles Ray. “Ink Box” is a glossy black cube that stands three feet high and is filled to the brim with viscous black printer’s ink. The barely perceptible difference between the sculpture’s steel walls and the surface of the similarly colored printer’s ink makes the viewer’s encounter with it into a visual one. By filling the box with an opaque substance, ink, Ray wittily undermines Stella’s terse credo, “What you see is what you see.” But is it enough to undermine a moribund aesthetic if, by emphasizing the visual, you are at the same time paying homage to it?
Made before Ray turned his attention to over-sized, anatomically correct mannequins and life-sized recreations of a toy fire truck and a farmer on his tractor, “Ink Box” embraces a creepiness that is found in nearly all of his subsequent work. At the core of the creepiness is Ray’s use of formalism’s optical legacy as a kind of camouflage for his helpless rage.
In the later works, with their scale altered to such an extreme degree while remaining completely faithful to the original form, the farmer’s face becomes perverse and even monstrous, and the fire truck toy becomes a symbol of financial power and social impotence (the artist can pay to fabricate the fire truck, but he can’t put out any fire). But doesn’t the social impotence reflect the formal legacy of Greenberg/Stella, the emptying out of content? There is no space for reflection in Ray’s work, no acknowledgement of time passing. All is still and perfect.
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Back in 1998, while he was writing for the Village Voice, Peter Schjeldahl saw what Ray was up to:
Passive aggression, raised to heights of the sublime, may be Ray’s ruling artistic principle. From what looks like a glossy black cube but is a box filled with ink, through seductive mannequins that each have one thing stunningly “wrong” about them, we confront elegant, deadpan fabrications that flip wild switches in our minds.
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I suppose it is the deadpan aspect of American art that troubles me, particularly when it involves expensive fabrication costs. This seems to be another form of camouflage, a way of making impotent anger synonymous with the seductiveness of meticulous fabrication — glossy on the outside, but icky on the inside.
Ray’s box looks solid, but it isn’t. It is an elaborate practical joke. I remember someone gleefully telling me that a woman had gotten ink on her fur coat during the opening of his mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (June 4–Aug 30, 1998). It seemed that if you could figure out how to bite the hand that feeds you, you were then a successful artist.
Sekine’s containers are filled with water, which looks black but isn’t. We see a constantly changing world reflected in the surface. They invite us to “see ourselves in the brief moment that we are of the earth.” Ray’s box is filled with black printer’s ink, its oily substance incompatible with the limpidity of the water. It looks solid but it isn’t, which is why it is so perfectly American in every way.
Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha continues at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery (530 W 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until August 3.