After moving to San Francisco in 1957, Bruce Conner became associated with the Beat movement artists, writers, and poets who abandoned the norms of American society. Influenced by Zen Buddhism and drug-induced experiences, the Beats used art to investigate new realms of thought. In this period marked by the insecurity and fear of the Cold War and McCarthyism, along with the catastrophic possibilities of the atomic bomb, Conner made artworks in a wide variety of media that attempt to explore the unknown forces behind life and death, a preoccupation that has remained steady throughout his career. In Untitled (1965-66), he subtly manifests these political and spiritual concerns behind an abstract veil of ambiguity and mystery.
This historical context also gives meaning to the duality between black and white in the drawing. The uncertainty that many felt during the 1960s could induce paranoia or exhilaration, and sometimes both simultaneously. A sense of motion prevails in Untitled, with the black shapes that seem to shift and roll across the page echoing ripples of change in an era marked by political and social upheaval. With such weighty concerns at the heart of Conners enterprise, it is no wonder that even his most abstract works are imbued with a delicate foreboding. While Conners black forms achieve fluidity through their folding and bending, they also become ubiquitous, engulfing the paper in mysterious blackness. In more conceptual terms, the black forms enclosing the white might symbolize death overcoming life, suggesting that even in sunshine, shadows always loom near.
While this fixation on the inevitability of death at first seems pessimistic, Conners representation of life through the drawings white space is not disheartening. As with the white in Conners star drawings, in which he drew black pen loops on white paper, steadily shrinking the whiteness into tiny points of light, the white fragments in Untitled prevail as pieces of hope that halt the spreading blackness.
Further, the organic black shapes create the illusion of movement in several directions, with the sketchier black forms traversing from the lower right corner towards the smaller, tighter forms in the upper left corner or vice versa. This ambiguity of direction, in addition to the mysterious meanings of the forms themselves, can put the viewer into a trance. In its correspondence between white and black and its shapes fluidity, the drawing becomes an object inspiring Zen meditation.
Later works by Bruce Conner demonstrate his persistent fascination with concepts of life and death, in addition to a continued exploration of trance-inducing and contemplative organic forms. Always concerned with artistic identity and integrity, Conner has done all that he could to derail public notice of his work he even submitted his own obituary to Whos Who in America. For Conner it seems that life and death are intricately related to the mystery of disappearance, and his own disappearance has been manifested through his official retirement from the art world in 1999. At sixty-five, a fitting retirement age for a man concerned with tweaking the sacred conventions of American society, Conner stopped making new works under his name, instead attributing recent works to his associates Anonymous, Anonymouse, Emily Feather, and Justin Kase. These artists make inkblot drawings of astonishing delicacy that explore the relationships between symmetry and chance, order and chaos; an inkblot drawing by Anonymous on view here invites comparisons to wood grains, exotic flowers, prehistoric creatures, or characters from an unknown language, while still carrying a subtext of psychological disorder and paranoia.
The inkblot drawings and Conners Untitled each reward close inspection and contemplation. They tow a fine line between mysticism and pragmatism, symbolically addressing matters of life and death through mysterious, meditative compositions, and ultimately providing sites of reconciliation for the anxious concerns of Conners generation.
Skidmore College, Class of 2007
Dan Fischer constructs photographic reality one small, hand-drawn square at a time. In his drawing, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Perfect Lovers), Fischer uses a grid to transpose a photograph of this pivotal 1980s sculpture to paper. By leaving traces of the grid visible after the image is complete, he provokes us to contemplate his painstaking and protracted process. The size of the grid, comparable to that of a snapshot, and the large white border direct our attention to the photograph of the clocks, rather than the clocks themselves. We lean in to inspect the details, looking longer and more attentively at the drawing than we might at its source photograph. This uncredited and often-published photograph is a record of the conceptual installation, Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in which two clocks tell the same time until the batteries expire, first in one clock, and then in the other. The metaphor of Gonzalez-Torress sculpture is direct and effective: the clocks represent the life and death of the artist and his partner, along with the many others who have also suffered from AIDS.
When the installation is represented in two-dimensions, the clocks stand still, frozen at 6:07:55. By appropriating this photograph, Fischer draws attention to the often overlooked phenomena of engaging with photographic reproductions of work rather than the original work. The photograph is incapable of fully documenting the conceptual piece, and yet it becomes the entire piece in the minds of many. The photograph of Untitled (Perfect Lovers) has been reproduced numerous times in art publications. Most viewers experience this identifying photograph rather than directly encountering the clock couple in a gallery space.
Fischer's body of work displays the art and artists that have been popularized in the art world and canonized by art history. Perhaps the two most familiar images Fischer has appropriated are of Jackson Pollack standing before one of his abstract expressionist paintings, and of Marcel Duchamp's infamous Fountain. Dan Fischer's drawings show reverence towards the art and artists he appreciates and, at the same time, they pose an important question: do you determine the art that you like, or are you shown what to like? Fischer's work is both a celebration of art history, and a critique of how art history represents, defines, and affords value to art and artists.
Fischer's process requires intense labor, and is like a devotional act to the artists he appreciates most. The tenderness with which Fischer makes his drawings of these art icons is immediately clear; it imbues whatever images he copies with a liveliness and depth of nuance uncommon to photography. As we can see with Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Perfect Lovers), Fischer's drawings are veritable monuments, in their most recognizable form, to specific artworks and artists. Fischer's hard work and intense focus compels us to look closer, and think about the ways the photographic representation of the sculpture influences how, and what, we think about Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his work. We begin to examine the vehicles that relay and create information, rather than uncritically accepting the information placed before us.
Skidmore College, Class of 2006
Robert Gober is an artist best known for his seemingly commonplace sculptures and installations that often employ familiar objects and imagery to produce enigmatic scenes or situations. Gober relies on common visual cues—such as ordinary household objects, for the most part, along with representations of parts of human body parts—to produce a rhetorical language of images that not only conveys aspects of his own personality and experiences, but also attempts to reveal greater truths about the human condition. Gober's work inspires questions; a viewer before this drawing might ask, just what does a drain mean? What role does a drain serve? What about a barred window? How are these images related? What narratives do they expose? Though the images and objects Gober presents can recall universal meanings or impressions, those meanings refuse to stay fixed; instead, the specific relationships between familiar things are made strange.
Untitled, a drawing in graphite from 1993, depicts a circular drain, seen at a slightly oblique perspective, and a view of a square, barred window. The window, set into a heavy, thick wall and drawn from below, lets light into the composition, but it is surrounded by dark, sketchy marks that identify the outlines of a half drawn, ambiguous room. Though their meanings are not readily apparent, the images in Untitled feel weighty in significance. Barred windows are usually filled with negative connotations, often suggesting some form of entrapment, fear, guilt, hopelessness, or isolation. This barred window may represent keeping something enclosed, trapped on the inside, or it might present something on the outside, struggling to be let in. As viewers, it is not clear whether we are inside a room looking out or outside the room looking in, and the ambiguity of the scene may suggest feelings of alienation. As a gay man who grew up in a Catholic home and was deeply affected by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Gober may be expressing his own feelings of entrapment within this drawing. For Gober, the barred window may signify fear, guilt, loneliness, and keeping feelings locked up, with no chance for escape.
The drain below is also a curious image, for, like the window, it presents a barrier: we cannot see what lies beneath. It suggests never-ending darkness, leading to a place unknown, yet again like the window, it is an opening. The drain lets fluids in, taking them on an unknown journey. In form, the drain looks open for reception, but the cross-shaped form within which itself could be an allusion to Gober's Catholic upbringing—keeps larger objects out, making the drain more solid and less permeable. Still, the drain seems more accommodating and receptive than the grated window, whose surrounding chaotic darkness makes it appear somewhat solid and forbidding. Suggestions of penetration, whether frustrated or otherwise, along with the implied movement of fluids, make Untitled resonate on a sexual level. The drain and window could resemble male and female parts, the drain representing an obvious connection to the female and the barred window a more enigmatic relationship to the male. In creating works that provoke emotions about sexuality, Gober could be providing a response to his religion and sexuality, and to societal constraints.
Sinks and drains have been a large part of Gober's visual repertoire since the 1980s. Indeed, the body of work that first brought Robert Gober to critical attention in 1983 was a series hand-sculpted sinks devoid of either drains or faucets. A show at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1989 marked the debut in his work of pewter casts of drains embedded into gallery walls, but Gober did not combine sinks with drains until he began work for his 1992 installation at the Dia Center for the Arts, the project that this drawing is related to. The Dia installation—which, like Untitled, dealt with issues of entrapment and escape, and confusion between inside and outside environments—was the first time that Gober presented sinks that were fully functional, even to the point of beautiful excess. The installation was an all-encompassing experience, with eight sinks channeling abundantly flowing water, an elaborate forest scene painted over every inch of the gallery, and barred prison windows set high in the walls. Covered in a lush outdoor scene, the painted walls conveyed a sense of freedom associated with the outdoors, which was immediately disjointed by the inclusion of barred windows, creating an unsettling yet seductive space. Through his installations, sculptures, and drawings, Robert Gober continues to rework these thoughts and emotions. He blurs the lines between bodies and objects, interior and exterior spaces, entrapment and freedom, and ultimately raises the question, from what, exactly, are we trying to escape?
Skidmore College, Class of 2008
Nancy Grossman began making large-scale collages based on her daily activities and personal journals in 1973. Undertaken as an alternative to sculpture, her primary medium, Grossman began this series of collages while living alone in Florence, Italy, where she often went days without speaking to anyone. Her diary collages arose out of this isolation. While their subjects may be mundane, these diary collages express a sense of agency and motion. They portray a composite of daily lived experience both interior and exterior and in this sense they provide not only a portrait of Grossman's activities, but also an excavation of the self.
Collage as a process exists in counterpoint to the object-based hierarchies of modernist sculpture, and it boasts a long history of incorporating the ordinary into the realm of art. Grossman's act of making art out of things typically viewed as dull, routine, or meaningless can be seen as progressive. In light of the social movements in 1970s America, it is not surprising that Grossman's collages might grapple with similar ideas, including a de-mythologizing of the feminine mystique, the role of women within society and art, and the dissolution of certain barriers between low and high culture.
In Tough Life Diary (1973), Grossman splices and abstracts the language of her interior life, cataloguing details to create a rhythm, unity, and structure not only for her own thoughts and lived experiences, but also for the collage itself. The frenetic, disparate amalgamation of these snippets speaks to the uncertainty and disorder of life, yet with meticulous, deliberate organization and creativity, Grossman has created a balanced, harmonious artwork that unifies its many smaller components. This balance suggests a possible order to the often-confusing aspects of ones life as a whole.
While some of the writing and sketches are decipherable, Grossman has blacked over or scratched out the majority of the scraps that compose Tough Life Diary. This play with visibility acknowledges the process of living as well as creating art, suggesting that while what is hidden may be necessary to achieve a deeper understanding of self, the specific content of these small pieces is ultimately unimportant.
By drawing on extremely personal, mundane material, such as jotted telephone numbers, reminders, and doodles, Grossman explores the boundaries between life and art, and the personal and the public. Initially, Grossman hesitated to experiment with collage, fearing that using already existing objects would limit her creative direction and control. Yet she found that objects contain their own energy that informs not only the artistic process, but also the final product, imbuing the collage with a rich depth of history and meaning beyond what the artist herself could have prescribed.
Skidmore College, Class of 2007
Gradually but determinedly avoid being present at all official or public uptown functions or gatherings related to the art world in order to pursue investigation of total personal & public revolution. Exhibit in public only pieces which further sharing of ideas & information related to total personal & public revolution.
— Lee Lozano, from General Strike Piece (1969) 1
Written in a notebook in 1969, Lee Lozanos statement marks the beginning of the end of her short-lived time in the public eye. Lozano participated in New York City's art scene and produced collectible work for just eight years before performing the General Strike Piece. Pursuing total revolution, she withdrew from the commercial art business and began creating performance and conceptual pieces that defied commodification. Her most confounding piece began in 1971 when she abruptly and definitively stopped speaking to women. In the same year, Lozano performed Drop Out Piece, her calculated departure from New York City and the art world at large. The work was successful on its own terms; it seemed she managed to erase her own name from art historical records. Only recently, some years after her death, has the art world begun to remember Lee Lozano, now dedicating numerous uptown functions to her work.
In the 2004 exhibition Drawn From Life, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center displayed the largest collection of Lozano's drawings and paintings ever shown. Since then, much discussion has revolved around her body of work depicting the contents of a well stocked toolbox. The bold, direct, and sometimes furious representations of screwdrivers, wrenches, vise grips, and hammers have been described by some critics as sexually suggestive. In the context of Lozano's life and work, her sexually imbued tools critique dominant social and institutional systems of the sixties. The drawing Untitled (Be This Occasionally) (1964) was made years before Lozano's more radical performances, yet even then its wrench was assembling what would take shape in the artists later provocations.
In this drawing, the deftness of Lozano's stroke and intensity of her process commands attention. The thick graphite lines infuse the form with emotion and energy, and yet the drawing is more matter-of-fact than expressionistic. Rendered with economy, accuracy, and directness, it describes the object but refrains from excess detail. The tool disregards the papers size, as its hefty handle extends off the corner of the paper. The effect of viewing the drawing is immediate; we feel the volume, hardness, and heaviness of the enormous wrench as it pushes into our viewing space. Three words in script hover at the top of the paper. To whom is she speaking? What exactly is this that we should be? What are we to make of this cryptic message? Perhaps she instructs herself to bridge the separation between art and life.
Lozano's drawing may even provide visual instructions for revolutionizing the social categories establishing identity. To challenge entrenched social systems Lozano must adopt the qualities traditionally reserved for men, as represented by the wrench. The object is perceived as masculine symbolizing power, strength, action, and authority. It loosens and tightens, dismantles and builds. In her performance pieces, Lozano became what the wrench represents. She lived the ideas expressed in the drawing and challenged the socially constructed roles of artist and woman. In a radical stance, she perceived interaction with women to be a futile method of subverting gender expectations and inequality. By choosing to speak only to men, Lozano attempted to appropriate the power that men exercised in a patriarchal society. Lozano wanted to be art. Within her personal rebellion, she chose her life as her artistic medium.
Skidmore College, Class of 2006
Sylvia Plimack Mangold's spare, exacting depiction of an interior space pushes the boundaries of minimalism by making the details of its subject powerfully immediate. The inclusion of these details hints at what lies beyond the tightly controlled scope of the drawing. For over twenty-five years, Sylvia Plimack Mangold has produced compelling, realistic renderings of her immediate environment, including the floors and walls of her studio, giving expression to the intimate reality of daily experience. The narrow, focused expanse represented in 22 1/2 Inches of Floorboard (1974) creates an evocative, subtle landscape of the ordinary, which Mangold herself acknowledges in a 1977 journal entry:
I went from landscape to
floors with mirrors to
rulers with floors to
rulers with paint
and at moments I think I will go
back to the landscape which for me
has become the floor.
As the entry chronicles, Mangold's early drawings of floorboards (c. 1965) evolved over time, adding images of light on floors and later incorporating mirrors. Mangold introduced rulers into her drawings in 1974, and subsequently included doorways. This progression indicates her developing interest not only in accurate representation, but also in spatial interactions within a drawing, and between the outside viewers actual space and the images internal realm. Mangold's emphasis on light also suggests a dialogue between what she depicts and what lies outside the picture, such as unseen light sources or other parts of the room.
Mangold's reductive, exclusive subject and perspective offer a new understanding of representation. Her drawings strike a balance between the abstract minimalism of the 1960s, evoked through the formal grids of floorboards and blank wall, and more traditional, figurative modes of representation. Conceptual issues of space also arise in 22 1/2 Inches of Floorboard, where the narrow pictorial focus breaks down the spatial boundaries between image and viewer, and the depictions literalness raises important questions about the relationship between subjects and images. Furthermore, Mangold's exclusion of objects and her unusual portrayal of light—not radiating from a clearly depicted light source but seemingly emanating from the paint itself—indicate her wish to convey something other than an accurate representation of her interior space.
Mangold's inclusion of a ruler in 22 1/2 Inches of Floorboard seeks to authenticate the constructed world of the drawing. The ruler shows that the tight focus of the drawing is indeed honest because it proves her space is presented in its actual size. The ruler both validates the representation and pokes fun at formal realism. In revealing the drawings literal accuracy, the ruler begins to dissolve the viewers removal from the artwork.
Some have suggested that Mangold's work offers a feminist critique of the boundaries of the traditionally feminine domestic space. If so, the drawings fixed perspective exposes the suffocating restrictions imposed upon women, and the ruler measures, both objectively and metaphorically, the exact dimensions of these limitations—an area confined to less than two feet. Quantifying this restricted interior space—an emblem of female experience—sharpens the desire for everything lying beyond those limits.
Skidmore College, Class of 2007
Hermann Nitsch, an Austrian performance artist whose career began in the 1950s, is certainly not a stranger to controversy. Deeply influenced by mythology, philosophy, psychology, religion, and ritual, Nitsch created his notorious Orgies Mystery Theater in 1957. Staged at a castle in the countryside since 1971, Orgies Mystery Theater events are ritualistic art performances involving bacchanalian revelry, mock crucifixions, and blood-drenched animal sacrifices. These works have earned the condemnation of the Catholic Church, have been shut down by Austrian authorities, and Nitsch himself has been arrested for his unorthodox practices, particularly his questionable appropriation of Christian imagery and gratuitous use of animal blood in his performances and paintings. Born in Vienna in 1938, Nitsch was a primary founder, along with fellow artists Otto Mül, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, of Viennese Actionism, a mid-twentieth-century art movement that sought to violate social taboos regarding life and death, bodily functions and sexuality, and religion and ritual. To these concerns Nitsch adds his own fascination with Aristotelian philosophy, Catholic liturgy, Freudian psychology, and Greek mythology, and attempts, through two-dimensional work and performance, to release darker inner thoughts in cathartic celebration.
In comparison to his live performances, Nitsch's drawing, Untitled (The Architecture of the O.M. Theater), is quite contained, framed with his own outline to control the chaos of twisting shapes. The drawing is multi-layered, with sinuous, rounded shapes beneath, and linear, map-like blue lines on top. Indeed, the curved, winding, and twisting forms resemble intestines or other internal organs. Nitsch does not model the interior of these shapes, however, to render them more three-dimensional—his bulbous, globular forms remain graphic and flat. These intestine-like shapes might represent his documented interest in human anatomy, perhaps suggesting the body purging waste or engaging in sensual pleasures.
A small cross, again with its own frame, assumes prominence at the center of Untitled (The Architecture of the O. M. Theater), thanks to the radiating lines that forcefully contain the shapes beneath. This odd image looks almost like a living gift, with organic parts moving around inside, tied not with a bow, but with a ribbon pulled taut from the cruciform shape at the center. The cross is obviously the focus of the image, and as a symbol it resonates on a number of different levels. It recalls the sacrifice of one man for the sake of many—the story of Christ—but it can also symbolize the corpus, or the architecture of the human body. In the latter sense, then, Untitled (The Architecture of the O.M. Theater) becomes a two-dimensional representation of the concept of the body as a temple. Regarding Nitsch's work in that way sheds new light on his gore-filled performances—the Orgies Mystery Theater is contained within the body, and the body, however bloodied or degraded, should be considered holy.
Nitsch believes society confines our thoughts regarding spirituality, sex, the body, and death, dictating that they must not be openly acknowledged. His work offers a direct challenge to those taboos, and his religiously inspired actions counteract the confines of culture and the mind. Religion, of course, plays a major role in Nitsch's performances, particularly the often-visceral character of Catholic liturgy and the rich mythology of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine and ecstatic transformation. These two traditions, though certainly very different, may not be as contradictory as they seem. According to Nitsch, religion and ritual convey the idea that the mind must be liberated and its innate connection to the body embraced.
Skidmore College, Class of 2008
From 1987 to 1991, Jim Shaw created a series of approximately 170 paintings, prints, objects, and drawings in which he depicted life from the perspective of Billy, a late sixties adolescent whom many consider Shaw's alter ego. Throughout the works in this series, collectively titled My Mirage, Shaw chronicles Billy's anxieties, fears, and obsessions, all of which occur under the blanket of American pop culture from the 1960s and 1970s. Conceived as a potential book, My Mirage is loosely organized into five chapters that track Billy's eventful youth, following him as childhood concerns give way to adolescent angst, and tracing his indoctrination with the mythology of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Later Billy's nave searches for transcendence get him sucked into a sham of a cult; he finally escapes, only to become a born-again televangelist, saving souls with the lyrics to Jesus Christ Superstar.
Billy's Other Drawing (1991) seems to be situated chronologically on the brink between childhood and adolescence, when sexual curiosity is all-encompassing and thoroughly bewildering. While one might assume that candor and innocence fill the thoughts of youth and consider the simple form of the main figure in Billy's Other Drawing as a reflection of a child's mind, close inspection of Shaw's piece reveals this is not the case. Through a seemingly innocent drawing, Shaw portrays a young boys mind where complex emotions and confusion intermingle.
In My Mirage Shaw uses a wide variety of youth-culture inflected genres and styles, from surrealism to underground comics, to tell Billy's story, highlighting the characters ever-changing attitudes and situations. At first glance, Billy's Other Drawing reads as a primitive outline of a man against a background of puzzling scribbles. As the scribbles come into focus, a complex, overlapping cacophony of people emerges. The outline of an unknown man floats in space in the foreground; unaffected by gravity, his two-dimensionality enhances his mysterious existence. With this nonsensical flat, expressionless figure among a mass of disembodied male faces and musclebound torsos, also hovering in space, Shaw suggests some of the obsessions that swarm within Billy's subconscious mind.
Billy's Other Drawing invites the viewer to analyze its imagery through the context of psychology, with its central figure suggesting matters of sexuality. Shaw outlines this somewhat androgynous body without a hint of musculature, but emphasizes the figures genitals, making them stand out from the rest of the body. The prominence of the figures genitals, along with the club-like, phallic object in his right hand, indicates the sexual curiosity that exists in Billy's subconscious. Likewise, the jumbled maze of Herculean bodies, comic book superheroes, and movie star faces in the background parallels Billy's ambiguous and confused feelings about sexuality. Insecurity also plays a role in the composition, with the thin, limp arms of the caveman-like figure in stark contrast to the beefcake men that populate the background—and possibly Billy's fantasies. In this sense, the mysterious central figure of the drawing could relate to the often-uneven changes that adolescent bodies go through.
Billy's Other Drawing also serves as Shaw's commentary on American society. The inclusion of beautiful, though truncated, male bodies in the drawing suggests not only Billy's, but also society's, ambiguous feelings toward sexuality, and particularly toward men as sexual objects. Moreover, the two-dimensionality of the figure in the drawing, emphasized by its lighter color, conjures a sense of shallowness and superficiality. The figure has no concrete facial or bodily details; it is hollow, with a sea of faces and scribbles overlapping into the space that defines the figures body. Awash in American pop culture images and frozen in a dance-like movement, this man is a product of his culture. The forces that surround him shape his identity, and the masses in the background share his fate.
The background details of Billy's Other Drawing lose themselves in the clutter of imagery reminiscent of a psychedelic experience, with floating faces and figures not anchored in reality. As Shaw delves into the subconscious, exploring the tangle of Billy's youthful preoccupations, he steps into different psychic realms. Billy's Other Drawing marks a logical progression toward Shaw's drawings of the situations, objects, and characters that he encounters in his own dreams, a series that he continues to pursue to this day.
Skidmore College, Class of 2007