Marvellous Monstrosity

Are the roles of artist and writer compatible?

Poor artists. Poor art critics. We’re always pitted against one another in the public arena, duking it out for the heavyweight title of Champion of the Art World. Even our best blows only seal our fate: the bell will ring and up we’ll jump to shuffle on the mat again. In part, it’s an undignified fight for who means more or who generates more meaning. (Who generates more money is no contest at all.)

There has always been an idea that the roles of artist and writer should be kept separate from one another. To wear both hats was seen as taboo or, at least, a sharp no-no. ‘One cannot be a master in two fields, so the artist/critic is portrayed as a dabbler,’ wrote Mike Kelley of this traditional division of labour in his 2001 essay ‘Artist/Critic?’, ‘and if one does happen to be a good writer, then the presumption is that he or she must be a bad artist.’ Kelley isn’t altogether right in this assessment: the art world has long made way for the hyphenated writer-artist or artist-writer, and some of the greatest texts on art have been written by those who create it too. Our ideas about modernity, speed and the stakes involved in creative activity are informed, at least in part, by Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909) and other critical writings. Hollis Frampton shifted the way in which we understood how a moving image could bend and shape time not only through his films but through his essays, too. Dan Graham’s self-reflecting texts, Kelley’s essays on abjection, George Kuchar’s musings on the ‘cinematic cess-pool’, Adrian Piper’s art criticism and her philosophical writings – in the business of thinking, shared by artists and writers alike, some ideas beg to be expressed in material, others in language, still others need to bounce between. Whether via ink or paint, marble or paper, encapsulating a thought can sometimes feel like sticking a pushpin through mercury: for a fleeting moment, you take pleasure in the illusion of having captured a solid something. Then, its shape shifts and it slips away.

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Rainer Ganahl, Basic Arabic, Study Sheet, 2014, pencil on paper, 30 x 23 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Rainer Ganahl, 
Basic Arabic, Study Sheet, 2014, pencil on paper, 30 x 23 cm. Courtesy: the artist with special thanks to Paper Monument, New York

What I’ve always admired about Donald Judd is how he wore both hats with ease and assuredness. A new collection, titled simply Donald Judd Writings (2016, copublished by the Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books), is a brick-shaped, 1,000-page volume which makes clear that, for Judd, writing wasn’t merely a platform, a place to spew opinions or assert a legacy: it was also a practice and a process by which he questioned, consumed and digested the world. Gathered together are texts ranging from 1958, written while he was a graduate student at New York’s Columbia University, to 1993, the year before his death. Alongside seminal and much-anthologized essays, such as ‘Specific Objects’ (1965), and his sharp critical appraisals of artists – including Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain and Jackson Pollock – are previously unpublished notes, the product of Judd’s near-daily writing habit – and, as such, a more intimate account of the artist’s busy, ravenous mind.

‘13 December 1986
Art should be new.
Art should be made with the widest knowledge possible.
Art should concern what you really know.’1

Judd was, by all accounts, an insatiable reader – so often the fuel for a prolific writer – amassing a library of around 13,000 books at his home in Marfa, Texas. He was after knowledge, never confusing it with information, and one of the pleasures of his texts is how they perform the act of thinking – muscular, supple – even when his views appear firm and unbending. Anyone familiar with Judd’s nuts-and-bolts voice knows the artist wasn’t shy or diplo- matic about his ideas. He wrote with the no-nonsense tone of a Western hero: Sheriff Judd, the straight shooter who delivered his opinions at point-blank range.

‘The quality of new art has been declining for 15 years,’ began one of his best-known texts, ‘A Long Discussion not about Master-Pieces but Why there Are so few of Them: Part I’ (1984). ‘There are some probable reasons for this, but none which finally explain the fundamental fact of why [...] Despite all that’s wrong in this society, it’s the responsibility of the new artists to occur.’2 What is art and who is making it and what is the role of the artist: over and over, his asking was, at least in part, the answer. Throughout this collection, one reads Judd wrestling – with the world, with himself, with meaning:

‘November 1986
A definition of art finally occurred to me. Art is everything at once. Insofar as it is less than that it is less art. In visual art the wholeness is visual. Aspects which are not visual are subtractions from the whole.’3

Iconoclasts ironically possess some of the most reverential minds and, in the case of art, they’re often its most devout believers and protectors. Who would bother to overthrow that which they didn’t believe to be powerful or necessary? If Judd’s reputation as an artist is branded these days as ‘the mini- malist with the mostest’ – a bad boy who eventually became the steely, angular, good old boy – his texts rewrite and complicate his contributions, revealing him to be a generative thinker whose most potent, even progressive, ideas have yet to be realized.

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Shannon Elber, Electric Comma One, 2013, Epson print on paper, 1 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London with special thanks to Paper Monument, New York

Shannon Elber, Electric Comma One, 2013, Epson print on paper, 1 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London with special thanks to Paper Monument, New York

But he was then and this is now. Published in autumn 2016, Paper Monument’s Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 claims to be the first collection to take the temperature (or, more accurately, a temperature) of texts by artist-writers in this millennium. Editor Jennifer Liese declares in her introduction that the volume considers ‘writing’ as a verb rather than a noun, rerouting the reader’s attention to practice and not product.4 It’s a generous framework, though a tad thorny in its implied critical deferral to effort over achievement – an ‘everybody wins’ trophy in the guise of editorial principle. Perhaps the tradition of artists’ deskilling does have a spurious, indulgent side, after all? Or maybe that’s just me, the critic, talking. Writing, like the art of the new millennium, certainly doesn’t need to lower its standards of practice.

Readers can ignore that prompt, however, because the collection contains 75 dynamic, engaging texts – including essays, diaries, blogs, tweets, scripts and more – by artist-writers ranging in age from boomers to millennials and hailing from disparate parts of the globe. No one will find all the contributions equally interesting, rigorous or productive. It is also far too soon to have the long view of these texts, to know how they will stand the test of time. Nonetheless, the book is, at the very least, nicely divisive: a quarrelsome chorus of voices that are most engaging when they are at their most obstreperous.

The years between 2000 and 2015 mark a time in which the world took on new velocities. A Wiki-whirled view of events: there was 9/11 and the subsequent destruction the US wrought upon the Middle East in retaliation. The internet boomed, bringing with it new platforms for communication (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube); information was cheap, and so meaning cheapened. Those who spent more time on desktop computers or mobile phones were declared ‘social’, though they were decreasingly so in body. (One resonance, presumably, for the book’s title, Social Medium.) From Bill to Bush to Barack – the US economy soared and crashed, though the one percent profited no matter the mood of the market. Counterforces, such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, blossomed and continue to push back. And art, like US democracy, became, to some extent, a party for rampant capitalism.

One of the pleasures of Judd's texts is how they perform the act of thinking - muscular, supply - even when his views appear firm and unbending.

Some of the artist-writers in Social Medium explicitly think through contemporary events and conditions: ‘How can we make speech free again in a context where critique and freedom of expression are always already in the process of being recuperated by capital?’ asks John Kelsey, a member of cultural producers-slash-irritants Bernadette Corporation and Reena Spaulings, in his essay ‘Escape from Discussion Island’ (2009). ‘One possibility is to never stop.’5 Rasheed Araaeen, in ‘Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century’ (2008), encourages humility and custodianship of the world, and urges us to take environmental action: ‘[art] should focus on what is there in life, to enhance not only its own creative potential but also the collective life of Earth’s inhabitants.’6 One of the many declaratives in Tania Bruguera’s impassioned ‘Manifesto on Artists’ Rights’ (2012) simply reminds her audience: ‘Artistic expression is a space to challenge meanings, to defy what is imaginable. This is what, as time goes by, is recognized as culture.’7

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Donald Judd Writings, 2016, publication cover. Courtesy: Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books, New York

Donald Judd Writings, 2016, publication cover. Courtesy: Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books, New York

Other artists carve out a more personal space in which the self may roam, observe, think and proclaim itself. The freewheeling of Jimmie Durham’s mind is almost palpable as he ponders words versus objects: ‘But writing! What an invention! What a marvellous monstrosity!’8 There is the richness of Moyra Davey’s memory bank as she meditates on the colour maroon, the chaotic cadence of Ryan Trecartin’s transcript for ‘The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S)’ (2009–10), and the lens sharpened by Glenn Ligon’s recollections of his Uncle Tossy, through which the artist looks at the work of the great David Hammons (‘Black Light: David Hammons and the Poetics of Emptiness’, 2004). Elsewhere are the history of the world as woven into Qiu Zhijie’s autobiography, ‘Why I Do Ink Painting’ (2014), and Coco Fusco’s shattering of the lie of ‘post-racial’ culture in ‘Still In the Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians 20 Years Later’ (2012). The distinct textures of these individual voices together produce a larger portrait – not of a collective, but of art with a capital A: some- thing far from prescription or cohesion, unable to be contained, requiring the work and words of many.

One of my favourite texts is Pope.L’s ‘**DeaR “Young” Artist’ (2006), in which he addresses a fictional, aspiring artist who asks: ‘Is it possible to maintain one’s integrity and freedom of thought and still participate in the art world?’9 Pope.L replies in the affirmative, but tells the young artist that a life in art, real art, ‘is A beautiful trubling choice that seems choice-less on the won hand and on the otheR An infinity of possibilities swiRling’. In these spare few words, he gives you the whole picture. 

1 Donald Judd Writings, Judd Foundation & David Zwirner Books, New York, 2016, p. 447
2 ibid p. 353
3 ibid p. 444
4 Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015, ed. Jennifer Liese, Paper Monument, New York, 2016, p. 6
5 ibid p. 71
6 ibid p. 187
7 ibid p. 94
8 ibid p. 40
9 ibid p. 297

Donald Judd Writings (2016) is published by the Judd Foundation & David Zwirner Books, New York. Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 (2016), edited by Jennifer Liese, is published by Paper Monument, New York. Main image: Donald Judd photographed in 101 Spring Street, New York, 1972. Courtesy: © Judd Foundation, New York; photograph: Paul Katz

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017

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