Saturday, March 24, 2012

Greg Volk Sums Up History of Modern Art In Just Over An Hour

“Art not only shows what we think valuable but helps shape our appreciation” ~Frederick Church

Last Tuesday evening on the first day of spring a lecture hall at UMD was partially filled with students and local folks involved in the arts for the purpose of hearing a lecture by Gregory Volk, a journalist, independent curator and art critic whose numerous credits include writing about the arts for the influential magazine Art in America. Ken Bloom, director of the Tweed Museum, introduced Volk who began by saying he grew up near Schenectady, New York, and never expected to be involved with the visual arts.

The projector splayed a large B&W portrait of Emerson as Volk said that his biggest influence as a young journalism student was the essayist, poet and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leader of the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement. Emerson’s influence pervaded all the arts from Whitman to a whole array of painters who demonstrated a fascination with light and color.

Volk underscored that art making is a way of life utterly given to the exploration of passions. Emerson's essay “The Poet” declared that artists have a responsibility to go as far as they can go to find forms for saying what they need to say. In the essay, Emerson expresses the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country's virtues and vices. This may have been a primary influence toward the publication of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Art is the path … of the creator to his work.”

The quote that most profoundly touched Volk was Emerson’s statement, “I’ve become a transparent eyeball.”

“We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” ~Emerson

However, only a "few adults persons can see nature.” For most people seeing is superficial. (I think here of Picasso's statement, "It took me a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child.")

Volk mentioned painters like Moran, Beerstott and Frederick Church whose intense colors and landscapes gave rise to an American luminous movement. Massachusettes-born Fitz Henry Lane, was another shining light of Luminism. Later, Edward Hopper was influenced by this passion for light and illumination of subject matter and with a few deft strokes Volk provided a brief portrait of art history’s progression to Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Dan Flavin, Walt DeMario and Quaker artist James Turrell whose approach was not simply to paint sky but to create a work that was sky. Roni Horn, too, demonstrated the transparent eyeball at work.

Perhaps what made this especially fascinating was seeing how it contrasts and compares with the film series currently being shown on Saturday mornings at Zinema 2 here in downtown Duluth, brought to us by the good people of the Duluth Art Institute. (By following a single thread, the transparent eyeball theme, Volk very quickly accomplishes what Hughes endeavors to achieve with his eight part “Shock of the New” documentary.

Volk talked at length about the “spiral jetty” of Robert Smithson in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which he stated was filled with spiritual power. For Smithson it was a significant work, and Volk explained that our focus as artists should be on making a work that we “need to make no matter how unorthodox.”

He then went on to introduce us to four artists whom he considered extremely important and brilliant:

Katharina Grosse, who spills color in a manner that sheds all restrictions and asks, “Who says a work has to be permanent?”

Ragna Robertsdottir, who uses the turf and stone and lava fragments from her Icelandic homeland to create minimalist abstractions.

Ayse Erkmen, a Turkish artist who uses freight elevators, lights and “shipped ships” to cross new boundaries while provoking confusion and insecurity.

And finally, Roman Signer, inventive Swiss genius whose remote excursions into playfully temporary sculptures had no audience, no institutional support, and were as fleeting as a table flying out a window.

I haven’t time to set the links in place, but Google will help you find these artists in a relatively quick fashion.

What’s your dream? What’s holding you back?

See you in the future!


cjw said...

Thanks Ed, I would have loved to meet this guy. Your insight is helpful to recover from missing it in person

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the note. Maybe this is why I was there... to share it with a wider audience.

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