A Review of “Star Wars and Modernism: An Artist Commentary”

A work by Robert Morris from the 1960s (above) and a space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 (bottom)

This past Thursday at the Philoctetes Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, sculptor John Powers presented several excerpts of his ambitious project “Star Wars and Modernism: An Artist Commentary.” Accompanied by composer R. Luke Dubois, who scored the project, and Columbia Art History fellow and Triple Canopy senior editor Colby Chamberlain, who provided editorial assistance, the project is an original and provocative look at Star Wars (1977) not merely as a Hollywood blockbuster and mythic narrative, but as an art object.

This art object, Powers informs us with his skillful voice-over, must be viewed as a film, “made by a specific group of people, at a specific time in history.” This is Powers’ jumping off point and he makes no bones about Star Wars’ service as a metaphor: the war in the title is the Vietnam War, and the evil Empire is indeed America.

Extending beyond the film’s mere metaphoric qualities, Powers intends for the viewer to regard Star Wars as engaging in a dialogue with modernist art practices, specifically Minimalism, as well as the artists, critics and even the political climate of the era in which the film was made.

Compositionally, Powers constructs his projects as a series of chapters (Introduction, Film as Object, and the cleverly named Spiral Jedi) that mimic the scenes and chapters of the original film. Employing a dual-channel effect, Powers splices scenes of the original film above still shots of minimalist art and architecture, narrations of seminal art history tracts, and photographs of a wide variety of artists and critics. Finally, Powers asks us to view George Lucas’ Star Wars as a willful misinterpretation of perhaps the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In many ways, Powers’ project is unfit for review due to the sheer amount of material and research he has compressed; a proper review would require several parts. I fear that ignoring even one of those tangents might compromise the review as a whole, but this is leavened by the fact that Powers screened only three of 14 episodes during the event — the project is as yet incomplete. I should also add that I am very familiar with the source material and though a bit younger than Powers the film too was always in “the background of my life,” as Powers said during the presentation.

I had always accepted the mainstream view of Star Wars as mythic mass-entertainment so it was at first jarring to be exposed to a countervailing view that Star Wars functioned, for Lucas and the team of people he surrounded himself with, as a critique of 60s and 70s America, Cold War politics, and modernist art. What other reaction can one have when a singular piece of childhood nostalgia and influence is held up to severe critical telemetry?

Casting Star Wars Modernism

This discomfort does not interfere with the enjoyment of the film though. Powers skillfully employs humor that lightens the mood even as he goes about the dirty business of equating Darth Vader with the image of the “ugly American,” and Nixon-era paranoia with the activities of the Galactic Empire. In fact, one of the funniest moments arrives when Powers casts critic Clement Greenberg, high-priest of Abstract Expressionism and prominent critic of Minimalism (he called it “pedestrian”), as the Emperor (with corresponding visual cue), Greenberg’s intellectual heir Michael Fried as Darth Vader, the Minimalist artist Robert Morris as Obi Wan Kenobi, and Robert Smithson as Luke Skywalker. Donald Judd is “just a droid, probably C3P0.”

2001: A Space Odyssey (above) and Star Wars (below)

The heart of the film, he says, is not in illuminating Lucas’ left-wing critique of America and the Cold War, though that seems to be a prevalent concept that is never far from Powers’ reading of the film. In fact, the heart of the film is how Star Wars and its artistic predecessor 2001, engage with and react to Minimalism. Whereas Kubrick’s film loyally respected Minimalism’s precepts: its repetitious forms, its symmetry, its “lack of traces of process, abstractness, general wholeness” as Powers says quoting from a 1967 essay by artist Robert Morris, who was a leader of the Minimalist movement, Lucas flaunted these conventions. Instead of replicating the coolness and severity of Minimalism, he assigned Minimalist Art to represent the Empire, specifically in the construction, design and overall aesthetic of its Star Destroyers, the uniforms of its Stormtroopers, the monolithic Darth Vader (its chief gangster), and of course, the Death Star. At the same time, Lucas employed a separate palette and aesthetic to the Rebels and the Jedi. Minimalism is white, black and gray, clean, orderly; everything in its right place. The Rebel Alliance and their Jedi brethren are dirty and unkempt; their ships are aging and rusty, the palette of their wardrobes range from tans and yellows to greens, the color of earth not Le Corbusier.

The way that Powers discusses Lucas’ work as an engagement with Kubrick is fascinating as well. From Powers’ initial essay in Triple Canopy, “Star Wars: A New Heap,” which presaged the more ambitious presentation:

Kubrick’s 2001 environments were cohesive and balanced, informed by architectural theory and late-60s aesthetics … By contrast, Lucas willfully mashed together minimalism, modernism, and NASA design. Two visual rhetorics are at war on-screen: The first is that of an industrial superpower; the second is that of a rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches.

There is a certain kind of glee at seeing an image of the Death Star placed next to stills of 70s architecture (aerial photos of the World Trade Center’s construction almost exactly mimics the look of the Death Star’s reconstruction in Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi with its craggy outcroppings and fractured spires). This glee comes from the immediate understanding that Lucas was indeed engaging not only with historical myth and narrative constructions but with contemporary art and politics.

It is hard not to hear oneself say, “but of course” during Powers’ discussion of Kubrick’s obtuse black monolith in 2001. He refers to 2001 as a supreme piece of Minimalist art. Furthermore, Kubrick’s black monolith, when interspersed with images of Darth Vader’s first appearance in Star Wars: A New Hope, a giant, hulking figure in black blotting out the serene whiteness of Princess Leia’s Blockade Runner, and New York’s United Nation’s building, only solidifies the obviousness of both Lucas and Kubrick’s allusions.

Darth Vader

But here is also the problem with Powers’ work. In his conflation, the “rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches” in short “The Irrascibles” are the Jedi. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning are at once the faces of Abstract Expressionism, which Powers likens to “the force.” Their work, on the other hand, made possible a certain “benevolent propaganda” to be used by sinister cold warriors like Greenberg, the statesman and politician Nelson Rockefeller, and MOMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, as examples of American superiority in the arts, as well as politics and economics. An audience member brought up this contradiction, citing Clement Greenberg’s lifelong Communist sympathies (which he never recanted), and asked Powers how Greenberg could be cast as a Sith, an astute point which Powers clearly expects. He knows the contradiction is there, and though he parried the question by explaining that he was referencing the writings of Max Kozloff, and furthermore that he was forced into at least some generalizations by his project, the point remains. To this writer, this is the reason first to see the film and then to engage in what is sure to be a long and heated, yet entertaining, debate. In short, Powers has a triumph on his hand, one that even without viewing in its entirety I know I’ll return to again and again.

Lastly, I cannot, in good faith, sign off without mentioning R. Luke Dubois’ powerful score which, like Powers editorial and even Lucas-like editorial style, engaged the original Star Wars score by John Williams, while mashing it up with the minimalist style of Phillip Glass. It is the perfect music for Powers’ splendid project.

For more information on John Powers and his ideas, please visit his blog Star Wars Modern.

And here is the introductory clip from Powers’ YouTube channel.

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