When I came back to thinking about making sculpture after a long layoff, I took a cue from the German Bauhaus school’s instructional guide (1919-1933). I was told, back in the heyday, the Bauhaus required that before making things, you first had to make your own tools—forging, carving, welding as a way to feel your way into art making. Bert Schmutzhardt, my instructor at the Corcoran School in DC, had actually been a student at the Bauhaus and had us making a couple of tools for working with wood and stone. Good lesson. All of the tools at AMP function to loosen the screws on ideas stemming from the study of Contemporary Art History—tools to look under the hood on the confusing ideas of Art of our age. I was having breakfast with a cousin, BS Yale, MD Columbia and a very well-regarded surgeon (obviously no slacker in the brains department) said to me once, “You know Picasso was a giant fraud.” Oopsie daisy…hope springs eternal he no longer feels this way, but it points to a crucial issue a guy like me is called to address. All the tools in the AMP box are pointed toward kindling a love for this thing we’ve marginalized, a thing, by all historical evidence, humans have been doing for at least 40,000 years.
The satisfaction of using a tool with even the smallest confidence, feels good because it’s so deep in our code. You can see vids of chimps sticking a twig into a termite warren and come out with termite-sicle, other chimps watching and imitating. In the Galapagos, one of the Darwin’s Finches (the Woodpecker Finch) does the same thing. Thrilled to have seen that live and in person. It’s like this with tools…when drawing, for example, especially if you have art and artistry at the front of your mind, you’ll often find yourself turning the pencil between your fingers as you draw, to find that just-right-edge — and that’s the point! Also you feel the texture of the paper as a proper tool itself. With more muscly tools like the sledge or even a fan rake it is the same thing; always finding the edge.
More philosphically you want to find the edge of an idea—where it holds up and where it doesn’t— same thing.
You want to see everything as a neophyte. You want to go everywhere, so drugs in the Sixties Era, naturally became a piece of the luggage. If you were a 60’s-era child, did you consider drugs as art-making tools? Pretty much. On the art path you’re hungry for experience of the world. You want to venture into the world, losing control of the given, to strike out into Terra Incognito — inspired by that Nietzschean idea of loading up the camel for a long journey, testing the world with your actions, testing theory. Like the exhibits at AMP, all birth themselves in this “theory before action” mode. My long-time understanding is that once an art work is started, if its true, it will fill itself in. The making of it becomes a self-generating feedback loop. Art Mind? You bet.
Psychedelic drugs offer a trip into the wilds of your personal unknowns, valuable for knocking you off your stance, for stepping into new worlds. After seeing the variously great and horrible effects of psychedelics, it was with a real amount of trepidation, I took LSD. Mucho peer pressure. “How can you call yourself an artist and not partake in the great experience of your age?” Once I had stepped into LSD space I found my fears were like the punchline of a joke—what I found was that a psychedelic trip is exactly like the art-making process, exactly—only the visions come lickety-split and are harder to track. Also in the studio you feel a kind of oneness with what you are working on. To my mind, an authentic mystical experience is that “oneness.” The work becomes part of your body and…where it comes from, is on my frequently-visited list of things I like to think about. Even so, you soon learn drugs are an “AS IF…” experience. Eventually, you settle in to making work, where the most robust tools for doing the work are right in your hands, in your eyes…forming as you make—whatever it turns out to be.
These tools in the AMP tool box work well to act as mental pry-bars to get thoughts like these into the light. At least get them started. I mean, we do call the place Art MIND Park, and… it is a park, a theme park of sorts; a theme park where the subject is art about art. Undo that safety harness and let your mind romp, go on ALL the rides. This ain’t Space Mountain, no gut wrenching thrills. ( So many amusement parks are for amusing the body with thrills and surprises.) AMP is an amusement park for your brain (Oh! Do you think the eyes and the brain are pieces of the same organ??? I do.)
OK, so back into the studio, I did begin with making tools. Problem was, there was JUST too much water under my bridge, too many ideas surging in like a Black Friday shoppers crush. Too many ideas, too full of metaphor. So first off, as I made a saw of forged and welded copper, attached to an old saw handle; it became an ancient unknowable device for sawing open history. My history. It should be said here, that I never have a pre-set idea about what I make. For example, the “tool” below was born from an attempt to show a friend how to weld copper, I did it just to show how to do it but the scraps lept into a lovely recognition of the following story.
Dead Sea Saw— Everyone needs one of these in the toolbox. It just looks like it may have been unearthed from the tool chest of the Essenes. Pliny the Elder, wrote about the poverty of the Essenes, “These men are despisers of riches.” This is also seen in their approach towards material necessities, such as clothing, “Nor do they allow of the change of garments, or of shoes, till be first torn to pieces, or worn out by time.” The Essenes practiced collective ownership and shared all their worldly possessions. So this saw was likely touched by generations until, worn and ravaged, it found its way to the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were packed away in their clay jars.
The Saw came to Art Mind Park on the back of a donkey after traveling the desert’s blinding whiteness down to the port city of Haifa, after visiting the Dead Sea, it accidently fell off the pack and dropped into a shallow pool at the sea’s edge. The trader retrieved it though the Dead Sea salt had turned the copper blade a peacock aqua color. Finally, it came to AMP via the Nigerian antiquities dealer, Mohammad Kieta who proffered many rare items to my father, Leon Lang. Leon, was primarily a collector of people as well as artworks. If a person showed initiative and enterprise they’d be brought into his circle of high value. They were fast friends. When Mohammad called to offer condolences at Leon’s passing, all I heard were his sobs. The Dead Sea-Saw just sawed open this story.
The Suzuki Jimi— & So, speaking of pry bars…I had been talking to Bill Wiley in the process of working on a book with him. The book was to be of a series of paintings Wiley had done extolling the adventures of an anvil. They were lovingly rendered watercolors of said anvil. Our conversation got around to talking about the tools in our lives—how they are quite alive really— even the inert mass of an anvil seems to carry an animated, sometimes comic character. There’s nothing like a cartoon clonk on the head from a dropped anvil to raise a hairy lump with circling tweeting birds to show how alive the material world is. Above my mantle I have this painting by Ian Huebert of a man carrying an anvil across an ice-bound river with ominous cracks spreading from his feet…and so I said…looking for that pryer…
“Can you give me some kind of story to open the information? A pry-bar, so to speak.” He said, “Sure, that reminds me of a time when talking to Bob Nelson, who when in turn, talking to Jimi Suzuki (both teachers at UC Davis), Nelson asked, “Hey Jimi, as a native Japanese speaker, how’d you get the name Jimi?” “Easy, when I was learning English, I came on the word, Jimi—to pry open—seemed like a good name.”
Cubist Saw— Etched on the blade are the formulae that gave rise to abstract thinking, coincidentally flowering at the incept of abstract art at the turn of the 19th Century. A mathematical symbol could contain so much information; all of this at the dawn of the Information Age.
Cubism leading to abstraction became a gamete seeking a mate, a mating of rigorous enlightenment logic with the improvisation of the poetic mind. The tumblers had clicked as they do sometimes, and we got WHEEE!!!!!!! “Look at me! ma!,” germinating our age, in a great union of these opposites. The picture of this saw is the picture of this marriage. As in the object, the marriage is the Saw seen..
Critic and novelist CP Snow at mid-century, gave a widely read lecture called The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution wherein he described the gulf of understanding between the Sciences and the Humanities. If you ask me, I think maybe he hadn’t seen Cezanne’s At the Water’s Edge. While in DC, I often looked at that painting at the National Gallery. It could have been painted by a theoretical physicist describing the way the world fizzes and jumps like atomic particles jumping quanta. Seeing everything at once, including the invisible forces of gravity.
So what is Cubism anyway? It’s my thought, that Cubism tried to relate to the world via seeing in the most elegant way possible; seeing without looking. Looking with your brain. The difference being the way math described the motion of the spheres and then began to take a poke at describing the invisible physical world in the universal language of MATHEMATICS. What time meant to space. If you understood math you could intelligently talk with anyone else who understood that language, from any nationality, from any religion. Eventually there came a pull towards reducing the world into these simple equations. Simple forms that were universal. That was the philosophical way of things in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, as the mathematical way of description triumphed. The log of art got whittled down to a toothpick as I ‘m fond of saying. The minimalists were striving for precision and economy just like, say, topologists were always on the hunt for elegant solutions for say, a Klein bottle—how can you turn a donut inside out?
These formulae on the saw describe 1) the equivalence of mass and energy, 2) the dispersal of a gas as an expression of entropy, 3)defining gravity’s areas of influence as a function of distance, and 4)most closely related to Cubism, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal. Cubism joined the world of art and science together, going from a polarity back into constituent parts and reassembled to find that the dance of meaning and metaphor as a worthy theme for studying the history of the Twentieth Century…The Cubist Saw is just the tool for the job.
Early on, there was, though, little free exchange between the world of painting and the theoretical models of nature, but as wider knowledge of science, spread, the sheers of “unity-as-a-preference,” cut through any division. Our sense of things a century ago, was shattered by both art and science. Seems like we’re getting used to the twin conundra of difficult arts and sciences. Here’s poet Wallace Stevens in This Solitude of Cataracts trying to sew up some of the pieces:
This Solitude of Cataracts
He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing
Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,
Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Monadnocks.
There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.
There was so much that was real that was not real at all.
He wanted to feel the same way over and over.
He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing. He wanted to walk beside it,
Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest
In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,
Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,
Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.
Mid-Century Saw— By mid-century (20th) we were steeped in the Space Age and the dawn of Nuclear Armageddon Dreamtime; terror was the buffet we were served: this wasn’t just an apotheosis of technology—it was deeply beautiful as well. 1957-58 was the International Geophysical Year offering to humanity a new way of seeing planet Earth. Something we’ve come to call Modernism broke through to become the general “look.” A look we came to call Mid-Century Modern.
This is the Mid-Century house built in 1957 where I grew up in Kankakee, IL. It was designed by Milton Schwartz. His designs are archived at The Art Institute of Chicago. Schwartz was just starting out in ’57 and my father’s business had burned to the ground. My folks hired Schwartz to do the design for the re-build of the business—and then this home.
My parents were small town but wide-vision people and I am so lucky for it. For building this home, they had no desire for something from the contractor’s usual bag of economies, they wanted a home of pure vision and got it. I would not be the artists I am today without having grown up in that space.
Seemed like there was a forward thrust to everything, that house, cars, shoes; and an unlikely optimism even in the face of the H-Bomb. The Japanese, Danish, Bauhaus sleek attention to materials was the prime design imperative of this house; a kind of museum-of-lovely-materials-to-look-at—walnut paneling, waxed and the polished blue stone floor treatment was transformed by the monthly waxing. The blue stone sidewalk made the outdoor, indoor living spaces unified. It was modest in size, a three bedroom, 2 1/2 bath split-level, but it felt very grand with ten-foot ceilings, expressing power even with that modest size. My father had a prime interest in expressing power, my mother an ongoing avidity for putting objects together in a pleasing way; a complimentary couple for bringing beauty to the world. They were determined not to become small-town kitschmeisters. My father kept a season box at Orchestra Hall in Chicago — we would drive through the monoculture of corn-fields into the “City” to visit the Art Institute, hear classical music and eat a French meal. From winning a contest to design the Christmas windows at Marshall Fields in Chicago as a high schooler to winning the grand prize at an International Flower show at MacCormac Place, my mother was a champion of how things should look. It was my good fortune to be under her influence. For 20-some years our household entertained exchange students from France and Italy, Japan and India, Iran and Sweden…the world came to us. They were an exemplary couple for the expression of Mid-Century Modern. To be an artist in our new world of prefunctory truth, it helped a lot to have grown up in this rich substrate.
Kukai’s Hand Saw—
A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes. All things change when we do. The first word, “Ah,” blossoms into all others. Each of them is true.
That’s the famous Zen poem of Kukai. Too obvious, you say? We say, “So what?” The point is there once was a guy named Kukai 774- 835 CE who brought writing to Japan as well as Zen Buddhism.
This saw seems a bit lightweight and jokey in intention with its helium-scented aphorism, however, cheesiness can dispel the highfalutin snobbery of a lot of Zen aphoristic ripples spreading across the pond of knowing. Kukai’s Hand Saw maybe just what you need to keep you building your spiritual practice.
Trungpa Crosscut— Good thing we’ve got our Trungpa Crosscut, ready to sever you from the sense you are smugly “with it.” The efficacy of meditation—a renewed sense of energy, deep internal visions, refreshed relaxation, can fill you with the sense that you are next in line to bring good news to the world. If it were all and only about the effects of spiritual practice it would fall into what I, among many, call Spiritual Materialism. A book about that theme — Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Tibetan Lama Chögyam Trungpa, was my companion for a while, and opened the idea of Spiritual Materialism. It was a time when spirituality had become a kind of competitive sport in the US. This is in the early 1970’s. The guru business was flourishing. A flood of spiritual teachers elbowing their way past each other to slurp up all the hungry souls longing for a connection to a “something more.” The truth— a lot of people were turning a dollar offering salvation from the alienation we were feeling—alienation from our core sense of being, that living in the heart of unfettered materialism brought about. Alienation was a very deep canyon to explore. Get out your Trungpa Crosscut all you spiritual strivers! It’ll do you a lot of good (BTW read that book, it’s a good’n.)
The Hammer of Civilization— Art Mind Park has a dual purpose as an art venue. 1) To use the world of visual delight to draw attention to a topic. Does it look good? Does it delight? Attention to what? 2) To offer connection from that delight via an understanding of biochemistry (really? patience y’all). Because we at AMP feel that it’s crucial to understand the basics of how the life force works. “It’s the economy, stupid.” We eat, we breathe, we metabolize. That’s the actual economy.
Many of the exhibits at AMP point to connection to the ancient relationship we have to Applied Biology. We call our AMP (sometimes…) The Institute of Advanced Visual Studies and Applied Biology. We are able to grow over half of whatever we eat. We have grown corn, wheat and beans as well as fruits and veggies galore. So, The Hammer of Civilization? What fomented civilization? Better, how did the husbandry of grain change the face of planet Earth? And…change the course of humanity’s relationship with nourishment.
When farming emerged 10,000 years ago, as a species we were no longer beholden to the hit or miss of the hunt, people settled down, cities rose up, armies were formed to protect the harvest and a royal class with a priesthood emerged. Every civilization has at its base the husbandry of grain. Corn and potatoes in the Americas, rice in East Asia, wheat and barley in the “fertile crescent”. The story of grain species co-evolving with humans is well documented.
In 2003-04 Judith and I were painting teachers in the Dordogne Region of France where we visited Véronique and Michel Guignard’s “Historic Garden.” They have created a series of discrete gardens where they have planted the cultivated products of a specific age. There is a Paleolithic garden of wild-occurring plants, the Neolithic garden of the first cultivars: garbanzos, barley, and wheat. As the garden moves through the ages you get more various modes of production and more various produce.
The Hammer of Civilization? Here at AMP we feel the slightest tap on the noggin from this hammer would go a long way to RE-minding that the “economy” is going on in every cell of our bodies, this is completely ancient and this is very real.
The Triple Mountain Hair Splitter— When dealing with art that needs explanation, the explanation may actually be the art…Geeze, I think maybe ’nuff said…
I call it The Triple Mountain Hair Splitter because of the domination of the flow of energy in the art world by Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Steinberg, the three great “mountains” of critical thinking about art of the mid-century. (Berg= mountain auf Deutsch) There was a funnel held by these guys, channeling what was passable as we approached that Zero point where all the experiments of modernism had shaved the glimmering juiciness of art down to a tooth pick. All that paring away at meaning to arrive at an ultimate something…and since New York was the navel of the art world, mid-century, the ultimate expression was a great NYC nothingness where real meaning happened, if at all, in ideas not stuff. The Hair Splitter was just the tool for the job.
The 3 mountains weren’t interested in a story, defying the long human history of narrative. This was essential modernist formalism. A confusion for all but a few of the “culturati”, of which I counted myself. I think the best way to talk about this whispy thinking is illustrated in turn by a story: I am teaching a summer class at UC Santa Cruz, eating in the cafeteria crowded with a group of the unstyled, unpolished, extreme academics. Wild hair, zero clothes-style, smudged glasses. I sit at a table crowded with these folks. Turns out I’d landed in a sea of Topologists, you know, Klein bottles, Möbius Strips—theoretical mathematicians. We strike up…What am I doing? Teaching painting. So I become the lone spokesperson for my tribe. “So tell us,” they ask, “What’s the deal with Andy Warhol?” The 3 mountains disdained Pop Art; they cared about essential forms, not about the flickering lights of celebrity. (The only Warhol I’ve coveted is a portrait of Joseph Beuys made from diamond dust).
Pop Art took it one step further—this non-meaning world extends into the nihilism of no meaning at all. Just a lot of joking around A.E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” You get this way having watched a landscape of advertising from cradle to grave. “Warhol pulling the wool over your eyes is part of the art. Accused of being a fraud? If you wanted to talk about life in the consumer age where celebrity is just another commodity like Brillo, how would YOU accomplish that? I think he did a pretty good job of holding the mirror.” That doesn’t make formalist art bad, or Warhol good. Or of little consequence though it is largely boring…you have to be pretty happy inside the walls of your own mind to actually like and appreciate formalist art, though the pinnacle of formalism, at the end of that artistic moment, the Viet Nam Memorial, is the most popular sculpture on the DC mall.”
The conversation with the math guys winds up with them confessing nothing they’ve come up with has ever had any money value. I toast them as fellow travelers in the fields of the useless.
Coming out in the beginning, as formalism. You are just an amorous pile of polygons. Your feelings don’t matter. The world could give a shit. What was required was disallowing story, just the thing itself. How can you justify that taking the meaning away is of utmost importance?
To leave the realm of formalist thinking meant prying yourself out of a sweaty brick chamber called “modern” and into the land of functioning with a real agenda, of finding out what lies ahead and out of the land of “brains before beauty” Once again…she points, calling the dog, “Look Rover, it’s Sally.” AND THE DOG LOOKS AT THE FINGER.
The Taoist AX—What is it that is so satisfying about balance? Just to graze along the edges of that idea is often enough. I wrote about this in the Tao of Karl Hess as adopting the premise of Taoism as the religion of “is you is, or is you ain’t, and even if you ain’t, you is.” The attraction to balance must be part of the human genome. Symmetry, right hand-left hand. The world contains balance in a most balanced way. Is you is, or is you ain’t? How is it used? This tool is too pretty to be a battle ax. But first, here’s how it was made: I dug up that chunk of rusted steel in the garden. “Gosh, look at that, a two-headed ax head.” It hung around in the scrap pile for a good while, until one day I stuck it on a piece of driftwood that had to have once-upon-a-time been the handle of something. Too wobbly, so walnut pegs were stuck in as stabilizers. The pegs were a part of a sculpture I had made and long-ago abandoned in Wisconsin. I made them from a walnut log I glimpsed sitting in a woodpile. I picked it out cause I recognized it as something valuable, and it is. As firewood it burns hot like any hardwood, plus the smoke is very fragrant. This walnut wood is valuable, prized for its workability and color. So, what’s money value to one guy becomes a pair of warm feet on a bone-crack night.
When all the parts were assembled they began to speak to me in a coherent way. To do this, the coherence that gives it such authority is that the uniform patina looks and feels authentically touched over a long period of time. The whole process of its making took just about 15 years.
Now, we can tell the story:
This is the story of balance. First, look to the sun. The sun is a thermo-nuclear furnace in a long lasting dynamic of the explosive out-thrusting of fusion energy crushed into form by the gravity of a ka-zillion atoms expressing their own gravity. Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr the physicist who gave us quantum mechanics, when choosing his coat of arms, put the Yin/Yang symbol front and center.
Bear Club Balancing Wand
Bear Club Balancing Wand—But check this out, the membranes of our cells self-align in a classic oil v. water dynamic. Both at once. The molecules making up the membrane are two-sided, one oily and one watery. Self-align is the concept here. The molecules of a membrane align in this oil/water orientation. Basically holding shape by this physical structure. Way way back lipid (fat) and aqueous (water) molecules lined up all by themselves cause that’s how oil and water do. You know this.
“Microscopic interaction between individual building blocks determines the behavior of the macroscopic whole.” So says Aeon, the online magazine of the Santa Fe Institute. This is a good example of natural balance.
What’s in your toolbox?