As I was unable to attend the LACMA trip on 11/5, I am choosing to reflect upon Ai Weiwei’s He Xie, an installation that was part of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit “According to what?”, from April to August of 2014. “According to What” featured a diversity of important works than span Weiwei’s career, from his Coat Hanger portrait of Marcel Duchamp during his membership of the 1980s New York Avant-gard collective “Stars”, to his appropriated and painted over collection of Neolithic vases from the Han dynasty that reflected upon themes of collective memory and historical knowledge.
While it is difficult to remain complacent in the face of any of Weiwei’s interdisciplinary works, saturated with questions of representation, autonomy, freedom, and the roles of art in the social, political and cultural domains, I was particularly moved by the 3,200 porcelain crabs of his installation, He Xie. In the presence of this piece, I found the awe-inspiring scope elicited the gravity of the piece’s concept equally that was equally if not more immense. The installation is a type of residue or homage of a performance art conducted in 2010 in reaction to the ambiguous destruction of Weiwei’s new studio at the hands of the Chinese government. Weiwei openly invited all citizens via twitter to attend his “Shanghai River Crab Banquet” as a good-bye party for the studio. Similar to the word play of the panda project, the mandarin word for River Crab “hexie” is a homonym with the word “harmonious”. Due to China’s overuse of the word “harmony” to describe its filtering endeavors, “harmony” has become a synonym with “censorship” to the online community. Weiwei was promptly put on house-arrest hours before the gathering for threats of “subversion,” but the banquet continued regardless. Weiwei created not only a precedent to continue fighting for freedom of expression in the face of rebellion but also a platform for everyday citizens to do the same.
While the performance piece and resulting installation was born out of a circumstance specific to China, censorship is an issue that threatens the entire world. Experiencing the installation in walking distance from my home was a reminder of this universality and the potential art has through an artist arguably the most prolific, multitalented and revolutionary of the contemporary area to create multifaceted modes of social discourse that transcend national and geographic barriers as well as the conventional boundaries of medium.
Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire: 18, composed in 1912, reflects many of the avant-garde tenets of the Abstractionist and Expressionist movements flourishing simultaneously. Pierrot Lunaire operated around Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, a method in which lyrics were not intended to be sung but through different pitches assume a speech-melody. This approach was inspired by Schoenberg’s dedication to defying conventional norms around the art world (such as melody, tonality, etc.) that he posited disguised an essential truth through surface-level representation. In considering the visual works of Kandinsky or poetic works by Gertrude Steins, we can see similar strains of prioritizing the raw art-form, whether through language or paint, rather than the mediums representative potential. Kandinsky explicates this intention with the belief that “every work comes into being in the same way as the cosmos-by means of catastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophony of the various instruments that symphony we call the music spheres.” While Kandinsky was figuratively applying a musical vocabulary to art in the aggregate, Schoenberg’s atonal works that deliberately defied all orthodox standards in order to depict a reality that transcended the material world.
In considering the relationship between Schoenberg’s composition and Giraud’s poetry from which it was inspired, there initially seems to be very little in common. Whereas Giraud’s Moonfleck and Serenade both maintain a somewhat absurdist comical timbre as they tell stories of fumbling men, when set to Schoenberg’s score these works postured towards a more somber and dramatic story. In part, this may be that without speaking German I was more engaged with Schoenberg’s music than the Sprechstimme lyrics. Nevertheless, I believe this disconnect is consistent with the tenets of expressionism that relies on a notion of raw communication independent from the material boundaries of language and representational structures. As such, it stands to reason that Schoenberg is classified within the Expressionist movements given that no historical classification enjoys perfect consistency. Schoenberg’s rigid series of irregular rules used to shatter the popular music principles perhaps makes him hypocritical for denouncing tonal and melodic rules. Why is that his set of rules were more conducive to communicating divine psychic states than those which he replaced? His challenging of the popular music world expressed a desire to transform the status quo however the outlandish and difficult experience of hearing his works coupled with its exclusive accessibility poses questions regarding Schoenberg’s ultimate agenda as well as what drove his followers’ support.
 Wasily Kandinsky quoted in Daniel Albright, “Abstractionism,” in Putting Modernism Together: Literature, Music, and Painting 1872-1927, 130.
Upon visiting the Special Collections archive, I was most drawn to Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic journal, Camera Work. Stieglitz is remembered by his critical role in promoting photography as an art form on par with painting and other conventionally accepted mediums in addition to his function in organizing and reorganizing artistic platforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s avante-garde art scene. Camera Work was a journal Stieglitz began in 1903 in order to carve out a visual space exclusively by and for photographers during a time in which photography was both less common and valued more for its scientific function.
The particular copy in the archive’s collection however is dated from 1914, therefore eleven years older than the birth of the first issue. The journal’s minimal form, clear attention to precise details, and high publication quality for its time offer insight towards Stieglitz visual and ethical sensibility, as he was notoriously responsible for a perfectionist oversight of all aspects of Camera Work’s publication process. The individual images of landscapes, portraits, and infrastructure are as effective in conveying momentary snapshots as the collective body is in conveying a snapshot of early photography’s place in the modern art world. The photographs point to the immediacy valued in modern art that seeks to deviate from realism’s obsession with the past and time consuming practice of extraordinary detail. However, Camera Work engages in this dialogue with its elaborate hand-drawn letters and crisp binding that required the same type of time consuming craftsmanship. As such, Stieglitz’ journal seems to effectively establish its respected place among painterly work of its time while also creating a tension between these conventional standards given that Camera Work’s was birthed out of Stieglitz’s effort to create new channels for artistic curation and appreciation (much like the Salon des Refusés).
Being in the presence of this artifact solidifies Camera Work’s societal intent and Stieglitz perfectionist reputation. Having the opportunity to physically observe and touch the photos that had to be adhered (not digitally printed) to each page of each issue garnered a new type of respect far greater than if I had simply viewed these images digitally. Given Stieglitz involvement in the publication, I believe being in the physical presence of the journal was necessary for understanding and honoring the journal’s sheer novelty and intent.
Pablo Picasso painted “The Sculptor” (1931) between what art historians have posthumously identified as his Neoclassicist period and his Surrealist period. In addition to its date, this classification is supported by the painting’s focus on sculpture, a theme critical to neoclassicism, and its fantastical composition grounded in Picasso’s own vocabulary of shapes and hue, a marker of surrealism. Upon first impression, my eye was drawn to the top right corner which in isolation appears as two men’s faces locked in a seemingly sensual embrace. As my eye travels from the sculptor’s form to the also seemingly-erotic female bust, I am able to form a more complete understanding of the painting’s narrative; each unique geometrical shape relies on those that surround it to relay a coherent story despite objective confusion. Unlike Picasso’s Blue and Rose period, “The Sculptor” uses a more saturated and varied color palette. The paint is not mixed extensively but consists predominantly of primary colors situated next to their complements. Furthermore, the painting includes spaces left intentionally white, a practice fundamentally outside of the status quo in Europe’s formal art sphere during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries.
The surreal composition and unmixed color palette that rely on an interaction between painting and viewer to complete its narrative rather than on extraordinary attention to realist detail reflect similar effects of impressionist work. Like Monet and Van Gogh’s deliberate application of hues side by side rather than combined pre application, or most exemplary the pointillism techniques used by Georges Seurat, the palette used in “The Sculptor” derives significance from the viewer’s eye’s absorption of each hue as a whole. However, unlike the geometrical vagueness of Monet’s impressionist works, the Cubist methods applied in this painting offer a more concrete description of how shapes sit in relation to one and other. The same confusion regarding where the forms end and environment begins exists in Picasso’s cubist dissolution of physical boundaries, however the clear geometrical classifications point to the cerebral quality of “The Sculptor” as opposed to the more observant nature of impressionist works. The use of contour outlines demands recognition of these figures existence. However, it is clear that their existence lies in the artist’s perception of “some transcendental version or Platonic form of a thing” (Baudelaire), rather than in their objective structures rendered by light, as in impressionism, or analytical accuracy, as in realism.
As the artist responsible for creating the first work deemed impressionist, Monet’s oil painting “Haystacks (Sunset)” painting imbues many of the tenets central to impressionism. The medium in itself speaks to a deviation from the status quo of realism given that oil paint was traditionally used as the primary agent of rendering nature in the most technically accurate manner possible. Inversely, Haystacks (Sunset) features oil paint that has been applied with visible brush strokes and unmixed pigments such that the viewer’s eyes are left to do the mixing. This intimate experience between viewer and artwork also points to the painting’s immediacy; given the viewer’s active role, the painting as observed by viewers only exists within the time increment in which it is being perceived. The color palette is primarily muted so the crimson pigments used in the haystack appear the most saturated. While the eye is typically drawn to more saturated tones, the detail applied to the haystack is equal to if not less than the amount attention paid to the background. As such, the eye tends to reside on the haystack last as an obtrusive object-seeming shape in a cooler and mellow environment. Furthermore, the eye understands foreground, mid ground, and background by the colors’ values and hues, in addition to the dispersal of paint strokes, rather than through recognition of spatiality based on preconceived understanding of perspective. The seemingly smooth but objectively unblended transition between the darker green and yellow hues in the foreground to the muted pinks, oranges, and blues of the mid and background inform the composition’s arrangement. As the composition recedes into the background, Monet’s seemingly thinner brushstrokes and decline in diversity of hues utilized work to convey a more homogenous space, unlike the grass-seeming texture in the foreground that contains a variety of blues, greens, grays, and purples, likely conveying the haystack’s shadow. Finally, Monet’s choice of subject seems to pay homage to the manmade aspect of agrarian lifestyles as he paints the haystack in the same romantic style used in the naturally occurring environment behind the haystack- a style that has become iconic in impressionist painting’s idyllic landscapes. The haystack’s deviation in hue from the landscape but more or less consistency in saturation imply a type of simpatico or even seamless relationship between manmade infrastructure and nature, a motif common among impressionist artists entering the industrial era.