Art: Concept and Practice
This is an opinion paper done in the first and last weeks of the class. It was, I am sure intended to show our growth in analysis and understanding of modes of art. When it regards Dan Flavin, I refuse to grow. My new understanding of analysis and movements of art did not budge my disdain. Regardless, the essay demonstrates critical thinking skills for its analysis, and civic engagement in its use of specialized terms for an art critical audience.
The Worst Artwork Ever
On May 25, 1963, relatively little happened. Paul Shinnick jumped 27 ft, 4 in. in the long jump, but was deprived of a world record by inattentive judges. Mike Meyers, actor and comedian, was born, though he was not yet famous. It was the day after Elmore James, internationally renowned bluesman, died. John F. Kennedy was still president, and If You Want to Be Happy by Jimmy Soul was on every pop radio station in the country. If you lived in Great Britain, you had the Beatles’ From Me to You in your ear. There is little in the historical record to interest one in May 25, 1963. In the art world, however, the day has special meaning in that it is the title of the worst artwork ever created. Having said that, I have to also say that there is a great deal of competition for that honor, including the enormous scabby band-aid on the side of All Children’s Hospital (officially titled It All Heals Up: For All Children’s Hospital by James Rosenquist.) May 25, 1963 (To Robert Rosenblum) wins the prize not by being more offensive or controversial than any of the others, but simply by being nothing at all.
The last time I visited the Guggenheim museum was in the Autumn of 2004. Among the New Acquisitions was a fluorescent light tube in a banal fixture simply leaning against a wall. It looked as though someone had paused in the act of installing a light in the gallery, but next to it was a sanctimonious card proclaiming it to be a Minimalist work of art by a forgettable, if presumptuous, artist whose name has been lost to the (b)annals of history. I was so offended that this piece of art was deemed worthy of display in such a prestigious institution that I walked alone to the very top floor and flicked several small origami swans off of the ledge in protest. As school tours in bright, competing primary colored t-shirts progressed up the spiraling galleries and wove across the lobby floor, I realized that the interaction of Guggenheim building and Guggenheim patron is far more interesting than much of what it houses. But that is not the issue at hand. It was in the process of trying to find the artwork in question that I came upon Dan Flavin. A Minimalist in the wild, swinging, and dangerous excesses of New York City in the early 1960’s, Flavin created a great many works of “art” involving fluorescent tubing in varying shades and generic fixtures that he picked up in his local hardware store in the Bronx. May 25, 1963 (To Robert Rosenblum) is such a piece. Though I am unsure what Robert Rosenblum, by all accounts a reputable critic and passionate proponent of the NYC art scene at the time, did to deserve such treatment, the artwork bears his name and a date of no repute at all.
The piece, as one can see in the included picture, is non-descript. It is a “cool white” tube in a generic fixture installed on a blank wall at an approximately 45 degree angle. It is no Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian, I assure you. If submitted to the WYSIWYG, or Structured Method, for looking at art, it comes up as blank as the wall behind it. As proof, here is the Structured Method analysis for May 25, 1963 (To Robert Rosenblum).
- What is the genre or type of artwork? It is Minimalist. Very, very minimal. It is neither landscape or portrait, but light source.
- What is the central subject matter? Judging by the piece itself, the subject material is a fluorescent light fixture. If one judges by the title, it is a Spring day in 1963 and Robert Rosenblum. Is the title the artwork? Is that possible?
- What is the setting? If one looks at the question of setting for this artwork as one looks at the setting of a diamond, the setting is the fixture in which the tube resides. Outside of that, the setting is a blank wall. It is set nowhere, or anywhere.
- What is the historical period? For this, at least, there is an easy answer. The period would be modern, as the date is inscribed in the title.
- What is the season or time of year? Again, the title saves this piece from complete obscurity. May is Spring in New York, though for the light from this rather dim bulb to be visible, it must be installed far enough away from natural light to make the season irrelevant.
- What is the time of day? It could be any time of day, for any natural light would be unwelcome competition. Perhaps this artwork could be installed in a broom closet for the convenience of the custodian.
- What is the Kairos of this piece? That is the question. How did this piece seize the moment and portray the unrest and vibrancy of the early sixties? It did not. The play of light and shadow is unremarkable. If it speaks to a need, it perhaps speaks only to Dan Flavin’s need to install some lighting in his studio or to get on the good side of his local hardware purveyor by buying a number of fixtures and bulbs.
Another test of an artwork, however, is not in what is visible to the uninitiated, but in basic symbolism as uncovered by Erwin Panofsky. Author of 1939’s “Studies in Iconology,” Panofsky gave us the tools to excavate meaning from even the most obtuse modern art. Or so we hope. An analysis of May 25, 1963 (To Robert Rosenblum) using Panofsky’s three-point system renders little more than the above exercise in “what you see is what you get.” For the first point, the primary/natural step, we find what we have already listed above. For the second point, the secondary/conventional step, there is little more. Fluorescent lighting was popularized in the 1930’s and was already commonplace by 1963. Robert Rosenberg, to whom the work is dedicated, has no known link to the artist. The third step, that of intrinsic meaning, is pure conjecture in this case. Perhaps Flavin’s work spoke to the lifeless and cruel nature of fluorescent lighting in factories and corporate workplaces. It is equally possible that he meant to glorify the common man by elevating such a pedestrian fixture to the level of art. Many of his titles include the names of radical poets and foreign political figures. Perhaps his work is meant to shed light into a dark time. What did he mean by choosing a “cool white” tube for Robert Rosenberg? Did he admire him as a cool white guy? Was he calling his academic work banal? As Flavin died in 1996, and it would seem that no one thought to ask him, there is no way to know.
The only way to give this work a fair read is to look at it in the context of his greater body of work. For the span of his career, Dan Flavin took joy in lighting up dark corners in a way that accentuated the darkness it exposed. His titles are personal paeans to artists, critics, and personal friends. In a hermeneutic viewing of the work, it is valuable to remember that the early ‘60’s was a time of wild experimentation in art. Andy Warhol’s Pop Art made soup cans and garish overprints of Marilyn Monroe into swoon-worthy creations. Peter Max took psychedelia to the outer limits in concert posters and guru prints. Painting resembled less and less it’s titular subjects. Mark Rothko’s color block paintings had become solidly respectable investments. As Flavin moved into the 70’s and 80’s, “high art” became more and more performative and idealistic and less a matter of skill or craft. His installations made sense for the time in that, in and of themselves, they are devoid of meaning. They are a janitor’s art, or at best, a stunted engineer. They are, however, with their titles, intended to evoke a sensation, to create a train of thought. In this, they succeed. And as that was the highest calling of art at the time, they cannot be said to be “bad art,” but then, neither could Duchamp’s “Fountain,” so the bar is not very high.
I maintain that Flavin’s greatest offense is that his work is inoffensive. It is still boring. It cannot be said, however that it says nothing and speaks to no one. At the time of its creation, it succeeded in bringing thought and emotion to its audience, sort of a latter-day cathedral experience for those so jaded by western culture that real cathedrals were no longer viewed with awe. Having been in the presence of Flavin’s creation “Untitled (to Helga and Carlo with respect and affection),” 1974, I can say with confidence that it is the first and only work of art to give me a headache. I therefore, after a great deal of thought, re-confer upon it the title of Worst Artwork Ever.
This video is a brief biography and analysis of the work of Kehinde Wiley, African American portraitist.
Art & Culture
This paper is a “Museum Report.” Though it is a long-standing requirement for the class, the demands of a pandemic changed the usual boundaries. Instead of requiring a visit to an actual museum, students were charged with exploring museums and collections online and delivering a report on a chosen object of art and its home. This paper demonstrates a knowledge of concepts of art analysis, practice, and media. It is an example of critical thinking in its gathering of materials, analysis, and use of terms. It also shows civic engagement by communicating with a discursive community not my own.
George Segal – The Costume Party
The sculpture The Costume Party (1965-72, mixed media: painted plaster, wood, glass, photo, helmet, boots. 72 x 144 x 108 inches) was created in a long, sporadic, creative process over the course of seven years. It is a striking figurative work, composed of six intensely colored standing figures. It was the color of the figures and their rhythmic placement that caught my attention as I explored the Guggenheim Museum Collection online. As the museum site tells us, when George Segal started the piece in 1965, the characters in this strangely narrative work were the first he had ever produced fully in color (Costume). By the time the work was complete in 1972, this was no longer the case. In an interview, Segal describes the evolution of the piece. He says that he changed colors and added and stripped away costume attributes many times over this piece’s formative period. Based on an actual, if somewhat surrealistic, Halloween party, Segal describes his artistic process as grabbing “friend after friend” and compelling them to become part of his “crazy Halloween party” by costuming them and casting them in plaster (Wylde Ryce). As the Vietnam War ground on, Segal continued to make art questioning and glorifying the mystery of the person and the balance “between the ethical and the religious in American life” (Yoskowitz 468). Combining strong color, texture, and equally strong design, Segal memorialized the tension and the surreal mood of that moment in time in his seminal work of art, The Costume Party .
The Guggenheim Museum in New York City where this piece is housed is a flagship of international modern art collections. When I visited in 2005, I found much within its graceful walls to challenge the mind and expand the senses, not the least of which was the building itself. With our country on lockdown, we must make do with virtually exploring the collections of the world via the Internet. Through Google tours, Twitter and Instagram, and museum websites, many of our world’s treasures are more within our reach than at any time in history. Of the many on-line museums I perused, I found the organization and presentation at the Guggenheim to be the simplest and most elegant. It echoes the simplicity and elegance of the actual Museum’s layout. The online collection is easy to navigate, search, or simply explore. It was in exploring the extensive permanent collection that the bright colors, human scale, and intriguing layout of the Costume Party, caught my attention.
The first and most easily recognized character in this Pop Art powerhouse is a representation of Bottom the Weaver from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. At nearly six feet tall and entirely chroma blue, the head of an ass sits perched atop a robed, presumably male, body with arms crossed. The drape falls stiffly from his shoulders to the floor. Small crescent slits serve for eyes as it stares down a collection of other more recognizably human figures. Directly confronting the blue Bottom is a red male, characterized by Segal in his December 1978 PBS interview as his “transformational Superman” (Wylde Ryce). Instead of his emblematic “S,” this ubermensch wears a large, gold framed self-portrait on a chain but lacks the original strap-on phallus stolen during an exhibition in the 1970s. Next to the red figure but not engaging with the large blue figure is Pussy Galore of Bond movie fame. A charcoal black female, she wears kitten heels and a white motorcycle helmet with a glass face shield. She appears occupied with a prone couple who are reclining together on cushions on the floor. Colorless in glaring white, they are Antony and Cleopatra, another pair of Shakespearean characters. The last and only seated character is a yellow woman perched on a stool. She is Cat Woman, deprived of her original mask of fur and feathers. She seems disengaged from the others, possibly even meditative. Arranged over an approximately eight foot by eleven-foot field, this artwork is not of an heroic scale, but instead, life-sized. As the masked characters are all cast directly from life, the work evokes an emotional impression of a strange, colorful costume party.
Color plays a paramount role in the evocative power of this piece as it punctuates the frame in human-sized swaths. Using the strongest and most intense hues, Segal set each character into a unique role by virtue of its color. Much of Segal’s color theory was based on his own intuition and on the book of the Lakota Sioux, Black Elk Speaks, which Segal was reading at the time (The Costume Party). He proclaimed himself “astounded at the power of color… to induce a state close to hallucination” (Wyld Ryce). In the Lakota Medicine Wheel on which this was based, the cardinal directions are represented as Red, Black, Yellow, and White. Blue represents the “Sky Beings” that, in Black Elk’s narrative, are the adversary. Red, Segal’s Superman, represents personal growth and power. Black, Pussy Galore, is traditionally feminine and representational of the earth and of introspective night. She interacts with her opposite, or White, here embodied in the doomed lovers Anthony and Cleopatra. White is connected with life after death. Lastly, Cat Woman as Yellow is seated separately, calm and meditative. Yellow, the color of light, represents wisdom, the Sun, and the power of understanding to reveal things for what they are. (Lakota Medicine Wheel) This wisdom and sight were a precious commodity for a spiritual seeker and artist like Segal.
Texture also plays a part in the visual and spatial feel of the piece. Segal began casting figures in plaster bandages in 1961(Zilinski). Unlike casting plaster, plaster bandages have a gauzy texture that comes through in this piece. It obscures fine features and details. Seams where the bandages were laid over one another are readily visible and combine with the texture of the textiles worn by or enveloping each character. Further obscuring the small details in this piece is the thick coating of paint. The impasto is heavy, but brushstrokes are not visible. Paint may have been poured to give a seamless effect. The visual texture of the paint is dull and absorbent of light. The white figures are the only ones that seem reflective. The inconsistent texture created by thick paint and gauzy plaster gives the piece an unfinished feel that lends to a sense that the piece is still in-process and the characters, though static, are still in motion. Knowing the length of time it took for Segal to declare this work complete, the viewer must wonder if the effect is an intentional one meant to invite the viewer into the surreal world of this piece as a co-creator.
The strong design typified by balance, unity, and rhythm are also of interest. Its asymmetry is obviously intended to lend to the narrative that pits the blue Bottom character against the rest of the party. Composed of strong uprights in intense hues arrayed before a puddle of white, the tension in the piece is palpable. The unity of form and materials also presents a strong visual. The unfinished texture, strong colors, and distinct postures all lend to the gestalt of the piece. That gestalt is reinforced in the rhythmic positioning of the figures. Placed in a descending arc in height and spacing, the figures visually coil down from the powerful blue into the prone, limp white. Metaphysically, the viewer is spiraling with Segal from the blue Sky Beings through the cycle of life into the white purity of the afterlife with Antony and Cleopatra.
All of these elements of art and design skillfully reveal the actual context, content, and purpose of the work. George Segal was considered a pioneer of Pop Art, a member of the movement made famous by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein, however, Segal wanted to make work that was “closely related to personal experience and human values” (Zilinski). Describing himself as a member of the Proletariat, he expressed a desire to restrict his art to the quotidian, workaday world and not to deal with what he called “elegant topics” favored by other Pop artists (Zilinski). His content was ordinary human beings, occasionally in extraordinary situations.
Viewed in a hermeneutic sense, the context of this narrative work is not subtle. Steeped in Freud, Jung, and the anti-Vietnam War feeling and activism of the day, Segal created a mythic story from his Halloween party. Bottom, a risible authority figure and literal and metaphorical ass, is confronted by Segal himself as Superman. All of the other figures are arrayed behind him as parts of his personality. His feminine side is black. His meditative wisdom is yellow. His subconscious is white. All parts support him in his undertaking. In Black Elk Speaks, a book that influenced Segal at the time, Black Elk slays the blue Sky Being in his vision and saves his community from drought (Black Elk, 7). Is it possible that with this work George Segal subconsciously sought to save his own proletarian community from the ass of authority and its attendant spiritual drought?
The story presented by Segal’s work The Costume Party is compelling and shows the artist to be a creator of disturbing, narrative art that speaks powerfully of its place in time. Though Segal is not representative of his genre as Pop Art, he is nonetheless an excellent representative of the gestalt of his era. By using the strongest colors, visibly rough textures, and design elements such as rhythm, unity, and balance, Segal presents a moment in time that captures the surrealism and tension of American life during the drug culture of the Vietnam War and civil unrest of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Elk, Black, et al. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
“The Costume Party.” Guggenheim, Guggenheim Museum, 14 May 2020, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/27913.
“Lakota Medicine Wheel.” Lakota Medicine Wheel – Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center, St. Joseph’s Indian School, aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8592.
“Wyld Ryce.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 27 Dec. 1978, http://www.pbs.org/video/segal-on-the-costume-party-17124/.
Yoskowitz ,Robert. “OUT IN FRONT: THREE APPROACHES TO THE PUBLIC SCULPTURE OF GEORGE SEGAL.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 73, no. 3, 2012, pp. 463–479. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.25290/prinunivlibrchro.73.3.0463. Accessed 29 May 2020.
Zilinski, Elizabeth. “The Life and Art of George Segal: The George and Helen Segal Foundation: About: Biography.” The Life and Art of George Segal | The George and Helen Segal Foundation | About | Biography, The Segal Foundation, 2013, segalfoundation.org/about_bio.html.
This may have been my favorite elective outside of my major. Not only did I learn a great deal about a uniquely American form of music, I listened to many hours of jazz music. This is my Global Citizens Writing Requirement Paper. For this paper, I was asked to write a review of a musical artist who united jazz with some form of contemporary world music. Again, it shows critical thinking and civic engagement in my ability to step outside my own metier, learn new terms and concepts, and effectively communicate using them.
The union of jazz and traditional Cuban percussion is a natural marriage. The rhythms of Africa flow through the bodies and histories of both forms of music. They share a family resemblance born out of field hollers, work songs, and even older musical DNA. Alberto Rodriguez, a Cuban jazz musician, is the perfect choice to represent jazz in this international pairing. As the child of a Cuban pop singer, he grew up steeped in the music of the island, playing with his father’s orchestra at night as he studied Eurocentric classical music at the Instituto Superior de Arte and the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán during the day. At 23, his style was described by jazz critic Andrea Cantor as “a melding of Bill Evans, Kenny Werner, Fred Hersch, even touches of Thelonious Monk in conception if not execution, hints here and there of his Cuban heritage… as if Chopin had spent time in Havana.” (Cantor) His creative partner on this album is Pedrito Martinez, also a native of Havana, but of a very different Havana that that of Rodriguez’ youth. Martinez’ musical upbringing was considerably less traditional. On the streets of Havana, he learned the “deeply rooted percussion and vocal styles of Afro-Cuban and folkloric music.” (Alfredo Rodriguez Band) Winner of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Afro-Latin Hand Drum Competition, his accomplishments and his music show that he does not suffer for his lack of formal education. Martinez and Rodriguez’ collaboration, Duologue, released February 1st, 2019, carries the hallmarks of both traditional Latin percussion and of modern bebop jazz.
The first track on Duologue immediately shows the ease with which these two musicians converge toward a common musical thread. “Africa” shows Rodriguez’ fascination with the richly varied sounds of Benín, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and other African countries. He says, “I try to bring them into my world… to transform those rhythms into something melodic…” (Alfredo Rodriguez Band) The track also allows Martinez to showcase the African roots of his style of batá drumming. It was Martinez’ stated intention to “express the notion that although both artists were born in Cuba, their history and heritage always points back to Africa.” (Alfredo Rodriguez Band) This collaboration is a truly fascinating combination of jazz and Cuban music that not only expands both genres but distills them both back to a common ancestor.
The bebop jazz chops of Duologue are readily apparent. As he did in previous albums, such as Tocororo (2016), The Little Dream (2018), and Invasion Parade (2014), Rodriguez shows his mastery of the form. When arranging for himself or playing with other young international jazz luminaries like Ibrahim Maalouf, Ibeyi, or his current musical partner, Mr. Martinez, he leaves room for wide-ranging and inventive improvised solos. His musical sense of humor is never far from the surface as evident on tracks like “Thriller” and “Super Mario Brothers 3.” That hallmark of jazz, the ability to take a popular song or phrase and expand on it into a full composition, is apparent, not only in humorous tracks like the above, but on more traditional contrafacts like “Chan Chan,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and “Besame Mucho.” His syncopated rhythms, varying tempos, and virtuosic soloing give these pieces new life as jazz recordings. This is an album that belongs in both jazz and Afro-Latino collections. This pairing with Martinez showcases the call and response that is integral to both styles of music, adding the moving Caribbean rhythms borne out in both Martinez’ drumming and Rodriguez’ percussive piano. There are even transcendently funky moments on Duologue that bring to mind Weather Report’s 1985 gem, Sportin’ Life.
Starting with his appearance at the JoJazz competition in 2003 and subsequent selection to perform at the Montreux Jazz Fest, Rodriguez’ ascent has been meteoric. After meeting and being asked to work with Quincy Jones and forming his first eponymous trio, he defected to the U.S. in 2009. Since then he has appeared at SXSW, Monterey Jazz Fest, Newport Jazz Fest, and a dozen others all over this world. As a musician, Rodriguez’ discography shows the flexibility required of an international jazz musician. From his first album, Sounds of Space, he consistently explores the edges of his musical habitat. Sounds of Space, produced by Quincy Jones,is his homage not to science fiction, but to the spaces and sounds he himself inhabits. His playing is quick, passionate, and intuitive. At times it slows to a tentative, even meditative drag, only to pick up the tempo with astounding speed. Since his first album he has only matured. His second album, Invasion Parade, his first musical interaction with Pedrito Martinez, offers a little more of the island and music that he left behind. Tracks like “El Güïje,” in which he collaborates with Martinez and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, sparkle with Latin jazz sounds in a traditional bebop setting of small ensemble, speedy tempo changes, percussive piano, and inventive soloing. Jabbing at chords behind the soloists on “A Santa Barbara,” his comping is fierce. Other tracks are deeply funky with a spacey synthesized feel that suddenly phases in and out of and over a traditional Cuban melody line. Later albums, Tocororo and The Little Dream are perhaps less brutal but equally virtuosic. Duologue, his current offering, is an openly joyful and even humorous paean to the music of his natal shores and that of his chosen home.
Named by JazzIz magazine as an “Artist to Watch in 2019” (Zimmerman), Alberto Rodriguez is a young artist who has already demonstrated a great deal of growth and maturity in the seven years since his debut release. He is as at home on the recently released world single “Amor de Invierno” with Los Acerek as he is on stage with jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, Patti Austin, and Wayne Shorter. His collaborations with Pedrito Martinez and other traditional Cuban musicians have only added to his already prodigious jazz style. Though Latin jazz is by no means a new jazz form, Rodriguez and Martinez have taken it in new and compelling directions.
All of Rodriguez’ music, except for Sounds of Space, is available for listening at Google Music. His complete discography is available for purchase at Mack Avenue Records’ website as well as iTunes and Amazon.
Sounds of Space, 2012, Mack Avenue Records
Piano, Melodica – Alfredo Rodríguez
Bass – Gaston Joya
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet – Ernesto Vega
Drums – Francisco Mela, Michael Olivera
Flute, Oboe, French Horn, Bassoon – Santa Cecila Quartet
Soprano Saxophone – Ernesto Vega
Executive-Producer – Quincy Jones
The Invasion Parade, 2014, Mack Avenue Records
Piano, Synthesizer [Minimoog Voyager], Electronics, Percussion – Alfredo Rodríguez Acoustic Bass – Peter Slavov Jr.
Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone – Roman Filiu
Baritone Saxophone – Billy Carrion
Drums, Percussion – Henry Cole
Flute – Javier Portal
Vocals, Acoustic Bass – Esperanza Spalding (tracks: 3, 7)
Vocals, Percussion – Pedrito Martinez (tracks: 1, 3, 7, 9)
Tocororo, 2016, Mack Avenue Records
(No other information available)
Piano – Alfredo Rodriquez
Producer – Quincy Jones
Guests – Ibeyi, Richard Bona, Antonio Lizana, Ibrahim Maalouf, Ganavya
The Little Dream, 2018, Mack Avenue Records
Producer, Piano, Vocals – Alfredo Rodríguez
Producer – Quincy Jones
Drums, Percussion – Michael Olivera
Guitar, Electric Bass – Munir Hossn
Duologue, 2019, Mack Avenue Records
Piano, Keyboards, Vocals – Alfredo Rodriguez
Percussion, Vocals – Pedrito Martinez
Producers – Quincy Jones, Pedrito Martinez, Alfredo Rodriguez
Work Cited Accessed
“About.” Alfredo Rodriguez Music. http://www.alfredomusic.com/band. 21 Dec. 2019.
Cantor, Andrea. “Alfredo Rodriguez.”Jazz Police.
https://www.mackavenue.com/store/mac1064, accessed 21 Dec. 2019.
Zimmerman, Brian. “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. JazzIz, 31 Jan. 2019,
https://www.jazziz.com/the-shape-of-jazz-to-come-artists-to-watch-in-2019/, accessed 21 Dec. 2019.