Michael Corris: What will be the greatest challenge for artists during the next millennium?
Susan Sontag: The storage problem.
Notes for a Spectator
Storage Problem (2014) is a multi-panel work of pigment on aluminum prints.
The title refers to an ironical remark made by the essayist Susan Sontag when asked to identify the most pressing issue facing artists in the 21st century. The title may also refer to the way in which an accumulating body of work by an artist impresses itself on the artist’s current production of work. Each panel of Storage Problem is a montage of works that form a deranged ensemble of expressive resources including original and quoted texts, works by other artists, and fragments of my own, earlier works.
There is no canonical order to the arrangement of the individual elements of Storage Problem. As in some historical Conceptual Art, the viewer is given the freedom to complete the work by “reading in” what has been left out. The act of puzzling over the meaning of each panel, or group of panels, is the point of the work. The meaning of the work as a whole is generated by the interaction of its parts. In one sense, Storage Problem is a celebration of conversation and all that mutual understanding (and misunderstanding) entails.
In your initial approach to Storage Problem you may single out its aesthetic qualities, the dry wit of its texts, or try to figure out the significance of the order of the panels. Each of these approaches to Storage Problem is as valid as the next; none are mutually exclusive or contradictory.
Imagine each panel (or groups of panels) interacting with the other panels in a companionable way, like friends gathered in conversation. Some panels “speak” to the past and weave it into the conversation of the moment, others point to the future. Where the conversation comes to rest depends on you.
The main image of this work is a cartoon by Ad Reinhardt appearing in 1946 in a little magazine published by artists of the New York School. The cartoon depicts the artist as imprisoned by bad taste, bad politics, and too little money. The original has been altered through the addition of various primordial splotches of color and cartoony “bug eyes” to heighten the drama. The small image in the upper right corner — depicting an anatomically correct human heart — is the first monotype I produced, in 1989.
All is anarchy here as the various pages of “Oxford Hippie Convoy Alert” come undone. (See Panel 4 for the “classical”, ordered version.) The original text is garbled, reversed, inverted, and festooned with primordial splotches. The rave is on!
By 1976, the “Art & Language” group in New York had imploded. The photomontage on the lower half of this panel was constructed in 1977; it uses images sourced from the exhibition history of the group and a still from Fritz Lang’s classic crime film, “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933). The background includes an installation view of a 1976 exhibition by “Art & Language” mounted at John Weber Gallery, New York, and an image of the banner produced for the 1976 Venice Biennale. The dialogue is taken from Ad Reinhardt’s statement for Gustav Metzger’s 1966 “Destruction in Art” symposium, held in London. (See Panel 7.)
“Oxford Hippie Convoy Alert” was the alarming tabloid headline that was splashed throughout the newsagents of this eponymous British university town in the early 1990s. It seems that a massing of (possibly unwashed) teenagers and travellers was taking place in Oxfordshire on the farmland of an unsuspecting country gentleman. The headline inspired the title of a suite of letterpress prints, declaiming the sovereignty of the page and the classroom. One of the texts — beginning “those that can, do” — was taken verbatim from a scrawl that decorated a wall in the cubicle used by Ad Reinhardt, who was a Professor of Art at my alma mater, Brooklyn College.
David Böhm is a physicist, philosopher of science, and a devotee of dialogue. This panel pays hommage to his belief that dialogue in its purest, most salutary form is unending. The point of dialogue is the social gathering from which the dialogue springs. This runs counter to claims that dialogue is the handmaiden to negotiation and must therefore have an aim in mind even before the conversation has begun. Böhm rejects this idea, calling for a theory of dialogue that precludes consensus. The text in this panel is a hybrid of the ideas of Böhm and an actual remark made by Sigmund Freud. When asked about his terminal cancer of the jaw, Freud remarked, “It’s fatal, but not serious.” The image on the panel is adapted from my graphic short story chronicling the misadventures of an academic chair, “Wind of the Interim Position” (2013).
In 2005, I was commissioned to write a review of the Venice Biennale. I decided to write it in the style of Ad Reinhardt. That is, to ape the syntax of his well-known polemic against Abstract Expressionism, “12 Rules for a New Academy” (1953). My own 12 rules relate to the various artistic strategies that were on display at the Venice Biennale. These rules were formulated in the negative in homage to Reinhardt’s assertion that we can never know what something is, we can only know what it is not.
The configuration of my 12 rules takes the form of a three-by-three matrix, with one position unoccupied. The rules are not in numerical order, suggesting that they have been moved around and re-ordered for some unknown purpose. The remaining rules may be found on Panel 8.
The upper half of the panel is a colorized version of an illustration taken from a work of Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, titled “It’s Still Privileged Art”. That work is a graphic novel that tells the story of the challenging but rewarding relationship of an artist couple. In this scene, we see them participating in a meeting of the Conceptual Art group, “Art & Language”, circa 1976. (From 1971 – 1976, I was a member of “Art & Language”.) The dialogue indicated in the bottom half of the picture is taken from Ad Reinhardt’s statement for Gustav Metzger’s 1966 “Destruction in Art” symposium, held in London. Metzger is an artist famous for his paintings made by spraying acid on stretched nylon and also for having invented during the 1960s the colored-oil projected light show for rock concerts. (See also Panel 3.)
This is a companion piece to Panel 6, completing the “12 Rules” and going some distance beyond it. There are two additional rules indicated, designated as “14” and “50”. (The viewer is invited to “fill in” the rest!) The text for Rule 14 is based on a real event: the illness of a well-known artist who travelled to Dallas to deliver a series of public lectures, but wound up in the hospital to have his gall bladder removed! Rule 50 is an excerpt from the writings of Samuel Palmer, a contemporary of the British painter Turner. Palmer railed against the art establishment of his day; he never achieved the success of his more celebrated colleague Turner, and died an embittered man.
T. L. Shaw was an eccentric art critic active during the 1950s and 1960s who self-published a raft of polemics attacking the “Establishment”. Some of his ideas — that art should not be seen as immortal, and that boredom plays a role in our appreciation and judgment of art — are stunningly ahead of their time and parallel the writings of respected philosophers like John Dewey and artists like Ad Reinhardt. The phrase, “too many Parthenons” is taken from Shaw’s most fascinating work, “Don’t Get Taught Art This Way” (1967). The idea is that a steady diet of “great art” would be boring and tedious. In the early 1980s, I published a broadside titled, “X-Talk”; its single issue consisted of a poster-sized print, “Too Many Parthenons”. The elliptical and circular forms of the current panel represent various details of this composition, bubbling out through the iron bars of opinion.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Corris. All rights reserved.