Collier Carson & Carley Gramson
What makes a prestigious museum such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum so exciting is the ability to see the greatest artistic and cultural productions of an artist, a genre, and an era. These “prototype” artworks – works that are an exemplary of their type and that serve as a defining work for an artist or era – can create rich and complex conversations with the surrounding artworks as they represent the most defining moments in an artist’s’ career.
Nam Jun Paik’s video installations that we saw at the SAAM encapsulate the intention of the CCTP program. The two large scale works that we saw show us that art can be multimedia, chaotic, and still be valuable and appreciated as a work of high art. In Electronic Highway, Paik’s use light, video, and audio engage the senses in a way that is both overwhelming and anxiety provoking as well as beautiful, dramatic, and thoughtful. Paik expertly captures the tensions and juxtaposing emotions that are apart of our highly technologized and media driven world today. Paik’s work suggests that the infrastructure of superhighways that cover our country in a vast web of communications and connections do not only connect us through concrete, but also through art and media. “The superhighways offered everyone freedom” (Smithsonian).
Rauschenberg’s Reservoir, like Paik’s Superhighway, is an artwork that redefines our understanding of what constitutes art and what mediums and materials are acceptable and can be incorporated so as to communicate a particular idea. Also like Superhighway, Reservoir is a prototype, in this case for art which can be made out of everyday items. The artworks that surround Reservoir engage in a similar dialogue: for example, in the corner just to the right of Rauschenberg’s Reservoir there is an installation of a woman surrounded by found objects and everyday objects. Unlike the Rauschenberg, this piece is more literal, each object represented is acting as it would if the object were found in the world. Meanwhile, across the room there is another installation piece that is a large draped colorful canvas. This object in this piece (the canvas) is casually suspended from the ceiling, not arranged in a way that a canvas would usually be used for. Rauschenberg’s experimental approach to the production of art and his reevaluation of what his identity as an artist entailed is visible in Reservoir. Rauschenberg dismissed the notion that the brushstroke stands as a representation of the artist’s presence within the artwork. Rauschenberg rejected the approach to art of the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Hans Hofmann, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still; artists whose own prototypical works are included in the exhibition across the hall from Rauschenberg’s Reservoir.
This rejection of the paintery brushstroke as the authentic mark of the artist on the canvas was explored in a radically different manner in the case of Gene Davis and the other minimalist artists beginning in the 1960s. Agnes Martin is perhaps a prototypical artist to represent this shift: she was also considered a ‘minimalist’ painter, yet unlike some other artists who utilized geometric shapes at the time, Martin embraced the small flaws within her works as explorations of the personal and spiritual. Gene Davis felt that he could engage the viewer and communicate his ideas to the viewer and to the time more generally using simple but incredibly intense color and form. Davis later wrote: “During the sixties I wanted an intensity of color that almost hurt… Maybe the times called for it. It seemed to feel right… to have color that leaped right off the wall.” Davis was interested in exploring the seemingly impossible Hard line aesthetic with a “paint by eye” motto. Technically all of the stripes are uniform in shape– hard lines separating them. However, Davis’ use of color causes slight chaos; I found my eyes were having issues focusing on a given point.
How does the role of the viewer change in this shift from a work like Paik’s Superhighway to Rauschenberg’s Reservoir to Mitchell’s Landscape 2 to Davis’s minimalist stripes? What contexts do we need to know for understanding the meaning and significance of these various techniques? Unless you are researching the piece, there is probably no way you could be aware of the contexts associated with said piece. I know we have discussed this before– when creating a work of art, the artist can put their personal meaning into it, but once the art is displayed the ball is in the viewers court at this point. It is up to the viewer of the art to imply their own meaning upon the work. Davis’s work leads us to question: What are the effects of scale, color, and juxtapositions in his artworks? Barthes refers to the simplest ingredients of an ‘image’, “the reader would perceive only lines, forms, and colors” (p.157-8). I think this is interesting because Davis’ line work is a literal example of what Barthes is talking about. However, the work still leaves an impression due to its large scale (at times) and the use of these three ingredients. The bright colors that jump off of the wall contrast with the uniformity of the stripes. While looking at the paintings I felt conflicted by a sense of order and disorder.
Despite the privilege of viewing prototypical works of an art historical moment and the networks of understanding that prototypical works – more so than less acclaimed works – can afford the viewer as he/she reflects on an exhibition, we might still consider what is potentially missed. An artist’s career – even those artists who worked for a short period of time or were selective and meticulous in the production and dissemination of their works – is a complex and expansive system. In reducing an artist to a series of prototypical works that encapsulate his/her career, we run the risk of misunderstanding the artist’s intentions or oversimplifying the breadth of value and significance in the artworks. For this reason, I found Gene Davis’s retrospective a great complement to the selection from permanent collection: the retrospective offered a more diachronic method, while the exhibition a more synchronic method. Both are too simple to capture the complexities of the nodes and networks of meaning and understanding that these artworks contain embedded within the materiality of their surface, but these two methods taken together can begin to capture the greater image.
Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 32–51. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.
In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.
David Hopkins, “Robert Rauschenberg.” in After Modern Art: 1945-2000. Oxford University Press, 2000.