By Lecia Bushak, REA Intern
Are words objective? Is language effective in transmitting thoughts and ideas… or is it just as ephemeral as the thoughts that support it? These are questions that Mel Bochner has explored in his art for the past 40+ years. After receiving a BFA from Carnegie Mellon, he studied Philosophy at Northwestern and later taught Art History at SVA, as well as served as adjunct professor at Yale University. He is the kind of guy who exemplifies the artist as both writer and philosopher, and whom you might expect to see with a Thesaurus under his arm (you’ll see why below).
Bochner is one of the most influential Conceptual artists to emerge from the 1960s. Analytics, seriality, numbers, and language suddenly came to the forefront of art-making during this time. Minimal works that emphasized the logical, philosophical, and mathematical rather than sensual perception, beauty, and aesthetic pleasure became the ideal form of art. Bochner explores such arenas in his work–but what differentiates him from most Conceptual artists is his emphasis on color and visual affect. These things are usually shed from Conceptual or Minimal works to enhance the importance of the idea rather than aesthetics. But Bochner is able to smartly tie the two together.
In her review of the show for Art in America, Eleanor Heartney wrote: “In Bochner’s work, perception constantly trumps idea, reaffirming the artist’s belief that the sensuous is an essential element in even the most conceptual art.”
Bochner seems to be drilling into the heart of what words mean and how they erect our perceptions of ideas/feelings, our relationships with other people, and society. In Portrait of Eva Hesse, Bochner used words to construct the portrait of fellow artist and sculptor Eva Hesse. He chose to center the piece around the word “wrap,” referring to the rounded objects often comprising her sculptural work. The words circling the center are all synonyms of “wrap,” constructing a verbal–yet visual–“portrait” of her. Each word brings to mind a different concept, idea, or feeling–and we link them in some way to Hesse and/or her work. Each word is a new perspective, a lens through which we try to define her as a person–yet no one word can fully and accurately encapsulate her person as a whole.
Perhaps Bochner’s fascination with language in art stems from his experience writing for art publications in order to support himself in New York City when he first moved there in 1967. Back then, artists didn’t write about their work or other artists; fine art and writing were two completely separate disciplines. Bringing writing into art and vice versa was considered an impure meddling of the arts, so Bochner was criticized by other artists for “turning to the dark side” and producing art reviews, criticisms, and philosophical/conceptual texts. Now, however, it’s quite normal and actually expected of artists to write–about their work, about other art, and about ideas in general. Bochner was one of the first to begin that tradition.
This leads us to what many consider his “manifesto”–Language is Not Transparent, 1970. Direct and straightforward, Bochner declares language as being ephemeral, subjective and often inaccurate when it comes to communicating or portraying thoughts and ideas. Yet even in this earlier piece, Bochner is drawn to an aesthetic approach–the graffiti-esque scrawl on the black block of paint, the paint drips that lead the eye down to the floor, etc. Where purists might find a problem with mixing aesthetics and concept, Bochner proves that doing so can actually be quite successful.
Catherine Wagley on the Art:21 blog writes: “[L]anguage isn’t transparent and, if it ever brings you to meaning, it takes a lot of detours on the way.”
I find his later works even more appealing than his earlier works, simply because of my guilty pleasure of staring at pretty colors. His concepts remain just as strong in his later days, as he continues to explore words and their synonyms, but also brings color into the picture: How does color affect the meaning of the word and also our perception of it? He complicates his original concept by bringing in aspects that both attend to the senses and the intellect (we might have gotten bored rather quickly if he had stuck to the Conceptualist dogma of stark aesthetics).
The later works, on top of being both conceptually provocative and aesthetically pleasing, play with my mood and emotions as well. The words themselves, such as in Irascible (above) and No (below), somehow pointedly “get” to a certain part of me that’s not quite rational, but which has certainly felt all of those things before: whether it’s listless, crabby, or just plain old “blah.” Somehow, comparing and contrasting the synonyms for a certain feeling like “lazy” or “irritable” intrigues both my brain and my emotions. For an artwork to be strong in all three (often conflicting) areas of aesthetics, concepts and emotions, it is, in my mind, a successful piece.
Detailed, painstaking, strangely liberating. These terms have often been used to describe Sol LeWitt’s large drawings and paintings that span entire walls in some of the most well-known museums in the world. LeWitt came up with the concept behind the work, then employed hundreds of working artists, art students and art historians to execute them–allowing his works to be subject to new and unexpected changes throughout the process.
In this way, “each instantiation, each iteration, is a new interpretation, as is a new performance of a musical score” (Dia: Beacon, Riggio Galleries).
A New York Times article written after LeWitt’s death stated, “…Mr. LeWitt gently reminded everybody that architects are called artists — good architects, anyway — even though they don’t lay their own bricks, just as composers write music that other people play but are still musical artists. Mr. LeWitt, by his methods, permitted other people to participate in the creative process, to become artists themselves.”
LeWitt offers a refreshing approach to art, especially in some of his personal writing. In a letter to fellow artist Eva Hesse, LeWitt wrote: “Stop it and just DO. Try and tickle something inside you, your ‘weird humor.’ You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool… You are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work, so do it. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be.”
LeWitt started out as a graphic designer for the architect I.M. Pei, and later drew on this background to form his signature solid-colored, flat painting and drawing style. Many of his earlier works were devoid of colors; later he switched to adding more colors and curves to his pieces in the 1980’s. People questioned why the stark conceptualist suddenly switched, and he responded, “Why not?”
“A life in art is an unimaginable and unpredictable experience” (Sol LeWitt).
REA stumbled upon the artwork of Gwyneth Leech in the Flatiron building, where she creates beautiful drawings on paper coffee cups and hangs them from the ceiling. We were so impressed and inspired by her work, that we decided to shoot a quick film and interview her for our “REA APPROVED” blog. Check out the video here.
Stefan Sagmeister is one of the most well-known living graphic designers, currently based in New York and running his own small design agency. Sagmeister is a hybrid of designer and fine artist, rooted in the belief that graphic design can be just as powerful as a painting: “You can have an art experience in front of a Rembrandt… or in front of a piece of graphic design,” he said.
Sagmeister is famous for his photo-based work and typography. He often uses found objects to create typography, many of which can be found in his book“Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.”
If you’re stuck on a project, Sagmeister suggests going to a busy cafe or restaurant and bringing only a piece of paper and pencil (a technique he picked up from film director Steven Soderbergh). Sitting there by yourself with nothing to do will automatically “shame” you into writing or drawing to look busy.
Censoring yourself, or assuming that a client won’t approve your idea, is “stifling.” Sagmeister also believes that taking a year-long sabbatical every 5 years is essential to the design–or any work–process. After doing a lecture at Cranbrook Academy, Sagmeister noticed the graduate students there experimenting with design — and realized he should experiment as well, for one “year without clients.” Sagmeister believes design is more than just selling work… It can educate, tell stories, and create an artistic experience.
During his TED talk, Sagmeister shared several tips on how he keeps his ideas fresh during the design process:
– Thinking about ideas and content freely – with the deadline far away.
– Working without interruption on a single project
– Using a wide variety of tools and techniques
– Traveling to new places
He also shared his list of things he has learned in his life:
– Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.
– Helping other people helps me.
– Organizing a charity group is surprisingly easy.
– Over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted.
– Money does not make me happy.
– Traveling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life.
– Assuming is stifling.
– Keeping a diary supports my personal development.
– Trying to look good limits my life.
– Worrying solves nothing.
– Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
– Having guts always works out for me.
REA Designer Ashley Lee writes about 2 unlikely musicians who inspire her – both have survived hardships in their lives, yet harbor great talent. Read more below and watch the videos to listen to their music.
On June 6, 2011, a shy 22-year-old in a plaid shirt stood onstage during the auditions for “Korea’s Got Talent.” He introduced himself as a manual laborer who had made a living selling gum and energy drinks for ten years; then moved both the judges and the audience during an exceptional performance of “Nella Fantasia.” As the audience learned more about his background and rough childhood, the more they cheered for him.
Here’s his story: Choi was abandoned in an orphanage at age three. He ran away from the abusive orphanage when he was five years old and lived on the streets alone, sleeping on stairs and in toilets. At age 8, he began delivering milk and newspapers in addition to working as a laborer to survive.
“Do you enjoy singing?” the Korea’s Got Talent judge asked him after his performance. Sung Bong Choi replied, “Rather then say ‘I sing because I enjoy it’, I like singing because it was the first thing I liked after living like a day-fly … I don’t sing that well but when I sing I become a different person.”
If this guy can still be passionate about something after his hard life, then so can we. Watch these videos of him singing:
Though coming from a completely different background, Denver-based Dred Scott is perhaps equally inspiring.
For 16 years, Scott has been performing on the streets of Denver—the same streets he calls his home. “I’ve lived everywhere from on the streets to in jails and prisons. I’ve done some things that I’m not that proud of at all. I’ve had a pretty hard road and everything,” Scott told CBS News.
Scott, whose real name is David Adebonojo, was born to Harvard and Yale-educated parents. He jumped around from boarding school in Nigeria to community college in Sacramento, California—then fell out of line with his parents’ plans for him when he was arrested for selling LSD at a Grateful Dead concert in the 1980s. Since then, he’s been homeless but sober, and playing music on the 16th Street Mall.
Local musician Tyler Ward happened to walk past Scott making music on the street and was impressed by the sound of Scott’s soulful, bluesy sound—a moment that neither will forget.
Ward told CBS News, “I was walking to my car and, all of a sudden, heard this voice from the corner of the street, and I was like, ‘What is that?’ And I walked over there. I stood there for about 20 minutes and I listened to Dred play music.”
Ward then gave Scott a chance by offering to shoot a video for his music website, which receives up to 700,000 hits per day. Since then, Scott’s cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” has received over 600,000 views, with one viewer commenting, “He’s way better than Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga combined.”
Ward said, “When you see someone with great talent who’s kind of living on the streets, you’re just kind of like, what can you do to help instead of just giving him a buck or two? Let’s see if you can really change his life, and that, to me, it’s rewarding.”
Here’s a video of Scott performing “Purple Rain”: