Implicit Politics: August Sander and the Fallacy of Objectivity

Published in Art21 Magazine, March 2017

Installation view,  Serialities , Hauser & Wirth New York, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Installation view, Serialities, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

By definition, objectivity defies romanticism. Despite this, curators and art historians have referred to the German photographer August Sander as an “objective romantic”. A selection of his portraits are featured as the heart of Serialities, a group exhibition currently on view at Hauser & Wirth’s new downtown location, on West 22nd Street in New York, that explores the conceptual use of repetition and seriality. The works are from the artist’s monumental project, People of the 20th Century, an exhaustive archive encompassing more than six hundred photographs taken between 1910 and the early 1950s.

Sander’s aim was to create a collective portrait of the German people, documenting all walks of life. in the course of his career, he established an unparalleled visual record of social stratification during a period of profound conflict—spanning the time from World War I to the rise and fall of the Nazi regime. Portraits were classified by Sander’s categories of professional or social criteria: “The Farmer,” “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” “The Artists,” “The City,” and “The Last People.” The press release for Serialities cites Sander’s “fascination with visual cataloging, taxonomies, and the implicit politics of connecting past and present.”

Installation view,  Serialities , Hauser & Wirth New York, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Installation view, Serialities, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

The August Sander Foundation promotes a compassionate undertone in the artist’s work, referring to his collection of portraits as an “equal and humanistic group” with romantic aims:

Despite reality being used as an elementary tool in photography, this does not mean that the reality depicted is what is represented by photography. Rather, the use of illustrations is an instrument which can convince us of the impossible being possible. It activates our ability to dream or to change our perception. ...By focusing on the individual person as a reference rather than the class status, gender or health, Sander has created a view of the world which we are still striving to fulfill.

In the front gallery of the exhibition, there is an equalizing effect conveyed by the series of thirty-six portraits, photographed by Sanders between 1911 and 1932. Installed in six sections, each featuring six images, there are simple distinctions made: women on the left side, men on the right. A portrait of a country bride with a crown of wildflowers hangs alongside that of a poised woman wearing a blazer and styled waves. There are obvious distinctions, yet the treatment of each sitter feels consistent in Sander’s documentary approach. It is the subsequent classification of the portraits that threatens their objectivity and creates a more conflicted document of their time. The Foundation has an extensive online resource for exploring the portfolios within People of the 20th Century; he categories reveal clearly subjective interpretations. The greatest concentration of portraits of women are relegated to a separate portfolio, despite the fact that “The Woman in Practical and Intellectual Occupation” group could easily have been integrated into the “Classes and Professions” category with their male counterparts. “The Last People” categorization is a sad indictment of the mentally ill and disabled.

Installation view,  Serialities , Hauser & Wirth New York, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Installation view, Serialities, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

These points are not meant to criticize the work; rather, they are acknowledgments of the fact that despite the consistent treatment of his subjects, Sander’s world does not translate as equal or humanistically balanced. Its inherent subjectivity is what gives it weight as an invaluable document of its time. The collection serves as photographic witness to a period when the Nazi party was gaining power, identifying categories that would later be persecuted. Sander’s work and personal life would also be greatly affected; many of his photographic plates were ruined and his studio destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid. Only after his death was eople of the 20th Century ealized as a published archive.

Years ago, I first studied August Sander’s oeuvre as part of an introductory class on the history of photography. At the time, I was a young art student, swaddled by San Francisco’s Leftist politics during the comparatively calm political climate of the George W. Bush presidency. But as I now revisit Sander’s work, I also recognize my own shifting subjectivity based on personal experience and a changing worldview. As we navigate our current time of political unrest and social upheaval, the concept of “implicit politics in connecting past and present” mentioned in the exhibition’s press release takes on a new dimension as I interpret these portraits and their categorizations with a more critical viewpoint. Sander’s work was not political by design, but it has become political by proxy.

August Sander,  Painter’s Wife (Helene Abelen) , c. 1926. Image courtesy of the August Sander Foundation.

August Sander, Painter’s Wife (Helene Abelen), c. 1926. Image courtesy of the August Sander Foundation.

The slow and methodical approach of Sander’s portraits appears in stark contrast to the contemporary flood of digital pictures and videos characterized by the ability for anyone to document anything at a moment’s notice. In a 2015 article, David Joselit explores the idea of the material witness in the case of Eric Garner and argues against the ideological promises of representation. The fallacy of the objective romantic returns as the harsh reality dawns that sometimes abundant documentation of blatant misconduct isn’t enough to convince a jury to convict the perpetrator.

In consideration of what the public needs now, reality is still an elementary tool in photography and Sander’s approach is still valuable in the form of an unwavering gaze focused on the individual. Yet this approach must be coupled with Joselit’s understanding that information is never pure. In one of the portraits featured in Sander’s collection, titled Painter’s Wife (Helene Abelen), a woman dressed in white harem pants paired with a button up shirt and tie prepares to strike a match as she holds a cigarette in her teeth. Her gaze is steady and fierce in a pose akin to a boxer in the ring. Taken in 1926 and filed under the subset of “The Elegant Woman” in Sander’s People of the 20th Century, his portrait illustrates a stance equally relevant in the present. A steady eye is the closest we can get to objectivity, fighting to document the truth of our time.

Devin Farrand, Ariel Herwitz and the Phenomenon of Gravitation

Ariel & Devin_Southwest Drive

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I visited the Hyde Park studios of Devin Farrand and Ariel Herwitz. Gathered at the kitchen table in their renovated warehouse on Southwest Drive, we talked about their practice and the evolution of the LA art scene since their arrival in 2011. Both artists have solo exhibitions opening in the city this fall (at Ibid Gallery and Ochi Projects, respectively), each revealing a distinctive sense of gravity. This natural force—one causing things to move towards each other—also befits the synergy of these two artists on the rise.

Farrand and Herwitz met while in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Both were in the Ceramics department, studying under Danish artist Anders Ruhwald and embracing the interdisciplinary approach of the Academy’s studio-based program. Taking a welcome break from the bitter Michigan winter during their second year, the department traveled to Los Angeles for a series of gallery and studio visits. It was the first trip to LA for both—he grew up in Oregon and she in Massachusetts—and Farrand “was sold on the lifestyle immediately.”1 Neither hesitates to mention the weather nor the fact that they were wearing flip-flops and shorts in January. Most importantly though, both were inspired by what was possible in terms of space. Visiting artists such as Mindy ShaperoAmanda Ross-Ho and Erik Frydenborg illustrated what was possible with enough distance. The trip would prove to be a good primer for the couple and ultimately, the catalyst for a west coast move after graduating that spring.

Installation View,   Ariel Herwitz: A Crack, A River, A Chasm, A Sliver  , Ochi Projects, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Ochi Projects.

Installation View, Ariel Herwitz: A Crack, A River, A Chasm, A Sliver, Ochi Projects, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Ochi Projects.

After securing a very part-time position (“maybe a day or two a week”) as a studio assistant, Farrand hit the road with a U-Haul. Putting everything into storage once he arrived in the city, he started working and sleeping in the back of his Honda Element, essentially living in the studio’s Culver City parking lot while he looked for spaces and learned to surf. It sounds romantic, more likely so in retrospect. Meanwhile, Herwitz spent the summer working in Boston, coming out to join Farrand after he secured a live/work space in Koreatown. The driving culture and the financial struggle hit her hard, but she also took solace in the landscape: “Devin would remind me to just get out and go to the beach. I’d drive to Malibu, watch the sunset and think, ‘ok – everything is ok.'” Soon, Herwitz would also land a position assisting a sculptor and both settled into their new rhythm of work and studio.

Fast-forward five years. Looking back, the couple recognizes how difficult it was at first to break into the LA art scene. The big art schools (CalArts, UCLA, USC) were tightly knit and relatively separate in terms of community, and they had not yet discovered many artist-run spaces—though Herwitz also recognizes that “maybe we just weren’t aware of what was happening on that level.” Farrand added, “We’re definitely a support team. When we moved here, we didn’t know many people. We would go to all of the openings but would mostly just talk to each other.” But the timing of their move would prove to be serendipitous in terms of changes on the near horizon, as both artists grew with a new wave of galleries and the shifting epicenter of a burgeoning scene.

Installation View,  Devin Farrand: Heft , Ibid Gallery, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Ibid Gallery.

Installation View, Devin Farrand: Heft, Ibid Gallery, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Ibid Gallery.

Soon there were more galleries popping up, the momentum was building, and people were keeping track in a different way. “It suddenly felt like there was so much happening, and [LA] became more open as a result,” Herwitz explained. Both artists were nominated for emerging artist grants from the Rema Hort Mann Foundation and subsequently started receiving more attention for their work. One of their early studio visits was with Simmy Swinder, who is now the Director of Ibid Gallery and also runs Four Six One Nine, a space dedicated to hosting visiting galleries and curators. But when they met, Swinder was working with a gallery that was closing and also “figuring stuff out.” They were coming up together, as it were. (I met Swinder during a visit to Ibid Gallery’s new DTLA space for a sneak peek before the September opening of Farrand’s exhibition, Heft. At the time, the 13,000 square foot space was still very much a construction zone with palpable feeling of both anxiety and excitement in the air; Ibid has since opened with a trio of exhibitions.) “It’s interesting to come back around,” Farrand noted, “and cool to see her at such a good place in her career.”

In the past year, both Herwitz and Farrand have left their positions assisting other artists in order to focus more intensely on their own studio practice. Such a shift was precipitated by the move from Koreatown to their current space in Hyde Park, an expansive warehouse space in need of major renovations. It was a leap, but they took on extra work building crates and frames to make the space pay off—while also attacking the renovations themselves. As Herwitz explained, “We couldn’t afford the space without the extra work, and we couldn’t do the extra work without the space… and we wanted to project how serious we were about our own work.” Amidst building walls and knocking out skylights, they were also planning a wedding—the couple married the summer of 2015.

Devin Farrand’s studio, Los Angeles , 2016. Image courtesy of the author.

Devin Farrand’s studio, Los Angeles, 2016. Image courtesy of the author.

Visiting both artists’ studios, there are clear distinctions between their materials and working styles. Rolls of fabric and large swatches of felt are scattered throughout Herwitz’s studio, core elements of her works that are hanging, bundled and wrapped in various configurations and stages of completion. A colorful hammock swings from the steel beams. Next door, a series of zinc-plated steel panels is interspersed with paintings on the walls, surrounding Farrand’s recent marble sculptures and raw steel tubes gathered for a future project. A welder’s jacket is artfully slung on a slender steel tank. As Farrand says lovingly, “I’m more on the clean side, and Ariel is more on the messy side.”

Listening to Farrand and Herwitz speak about their own and each other’s process, it’s clear that the artists provide vital support for each other both in terms of physical work and critical perspective. They champion each other’s work, but they also respect and appreciate what separates them. As Herwitz explains:

“I think that there could be some sort of competition but because our work is so different it’s just not a factor. One will have a studio visit, and they’ll get two-for-one if they want it. But because the work is different, they may well respond strongly to one person’s work and not the other’s. It’s good to get used to that, to feel good about what we’re doing individually.”

Ariel Herwitz’s studio, Los Angeles , 2016. Image courtesy of the author.

Ariel Herwitz’s studio, Los Angeles, 2016. Image courtesy of the author.

An element that runs strong in both of their work is a sense of materiality—a strength and shared language they attribute to studying at Cranbrook and the program’s strong connection to material. Farrand, exploring the intersection of manufacturing processes and the discovery of “crazy beautiful” Carrara marble, abstracts and streamlines in his own investigation of space and weight. Herwitz embraces the unique and, at times, unruly qualities of fibers and ceramics in works that reference our relationship to the body with their own latent energy.

Whereas Farrand creates a sense of gravity by way of carving and welding, Herwitz harnesses it with her movement of structure and material. Beyond their studio practice, the metaphor of such forces can also be applied to their trajectory of living and working together in Los Angeles. I admittedly take the liberties of a romantic here as I consider the elemental pull of the two drawn together and what attracts them to a place. In any case, gravity is what gives us weight.


1. All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from a conversation with the author in the artists’ Los Angeles studio on September 12, 2016.

Heft, a solo exhibition of Devin Farrand’s work, opened on September 25 and is currently on view at Ibid Gallery’s new location in Downtown LA. His work will also be featured in an upcoming group show at BBQLA.

A Crack, A River, A Chasm, A Sliver, a solo exhibition of Ariel Herwitz’s work, will be on view at Ochi Projects October 13-November 6. The artist will also be in residence at Bennington College in Vermont for the month of November, with a culminating show tentatively slated for November 29th.


Divine Wind: HK Zamani and The Reinvention of PØST

Gerald Giamportone Installation at PØST, 2016. Courtesy of HK Zamani.

Gerald Giamportone Installation at PØST, 2016. Courtesy of HK Zamani.

In the spring of 2012, I was living in Los Angeles and on the hunt for a studio space. Responding to an ad for a studio sublet downtown, I had the good fortune of connecting with artist and curator HK Zamani. Touring upstairs studios in the building he managed, I learned that the first floor also housed his own living space (shared with his partner, teacher/dancer/choreographer Emma Jürgensen) and a gallery on its front side. Zamani lightly spoke of artists and past exhibitions in the building, but it was only later that I became aware of the space’s deep and influential history spanning two decades.

In the late 1980s, Iranian-born artist HK Zamanithen known as Habib Kheradyar—moved into a studio building on East Seventh Place in Downtown Los Angeles. The area, often considered part of Skid Row, was gritty, industrial and nearly void of art venues. Still, Zamani recognized the potential of unused space in the building, negotiating with his landlord to rent and build out the downstairs area as a destination gallery. POST opened with its first exhibition, a group painting show titled Bumpy, in the fall of 1995.

In the decades since, the experimental venue and curatorial project has proven to be a powerful force of support for the art community in Los Angeles. Aptly named, in part, for a number of structural posts located in the gallery, PØST has also served as both support and marker in a myriad of ways. From thematic group shows to solo project spaces (including in the building’s elevator), the project has hosted hundreds of exhibitions over the years and generated considerable critical attention for featured artists with reviews in publications ranging from the LA Times to Art in America. Unbound by traditional ideas about selling and collecting art in the gallery setting, Zamani also introduced an annual fundraiser known as the $100 Show, splitting proceeds with artists in an effort to support both the space and its community.

HK Zamani.   Untitled #11  , 2015. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72″. Courtesy of the artist.

HK Zamani. Untitled #11, 2015. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72″. Courtesy of the artist.

HK Zamani is a well-respected artist in his own right, with an international exhibition record highlighting works in performance, painting, and sculpture. It makes sense that the genesis of POST was inspired by the desire to create a space with programming linked to a building that also housed his own studio. But beyond this, Zamani embraced PØST from the start as an experimental system. It has always been an organism in need ofas its mission statement reiteratesreconsideration, reinvention and growth. The history of the space is a testament to Zamani’s commitment; the arc of his own career reveals an artist who is equally dedicated to the thoughtful evolution of his own practice.

After ten years at POST, 2005 marked the beginning of a three-year hiatus from programming as the artist sought more time for his own interdisciplinary practice. It was during this time that he professionally adopted the name HK Zamani, symbolizing a new phase in his career. Returning to the project in 2008, he would make a similar gesture for PØST: the slash through the Ø designating its shift from past to present. The Erased Exhibit reopened the space that year with a curatorial action that “questioned everything in its proposal for a clean slate.” The works included in the show were painted white in a performative gesture by Zamani—giving birth to a series of “Kamikaze” (translated as “divine wind” in Japanese) shows that set the tone for a new era.

Kim Abeles Installation at PØST, 2016. Courtesy of HK Zamani.

Kim Abeles Installation at PØST, 2016. Courtesy of HK Zamani.

Zamani recognizes the profound influence that PØST has had on his own artistic practice. From 2008-2015, programming shifted to focus on one month of these Kamikaze Shows, in which thirty-one individual shows were staged for each day in the month of July. The yearly endurance effort also became a performance project; I witnessed these efforts firsthand the summer after I moved into the building. The buzz was constant as I watched a steady flow of artists and work move through the space each day to prepare for an opening every evening of the month, bolstered by a large community of artists and supporters that came to check out the work. Zamani was omnipresent: organizing, hosting, and personally documenting each exhibition before it came down. I also curated and featured work in one of the Kamikaze shows that July, personally feeling both the anxiety and excitement of coordinating a group of artists to mount and deinstall an exhibition in one day. It truly felt rooted in, as Zamani stated,”the idea of abandon and sacrifice, of making art and sharing it.”

In recent years, DTLA (as downtown Los Angeles is locally known) has been gentrifying at a dizzying pace, bringing a new wave of galleries, artist-run spaces and creative energy to an area that was once an art desert. Amidst this wave of development, PØST has recalibrated once again. Forced to move in 2015 due to rising rents, Zamani left the building after twenty-six years, and twenty years of PØST. “We’ve had to celebrate its twentieth anniversary with PØST Ghost, an imaginary exhibit,” he said.

Kamikazes at PØST, Summer 2012. Courtesy of the author.

Kamikazes at PØST, Summer 2012. Courtesy of the author.

But in keeping with the spirit of the project, Zamani also embraces this move as another opportunity for reinvention and growth. Coincidentally, plans were already underway to shift PØST to a non-profit model with fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas. A new space was secured in the historic Bendix Building located west of downtown. Zamani’s curatorial approach in this new phase is to “reintroduce active artists who have either intentionally removed themselves from the gallery system, or inadvertently have been outside of it.”

Earlier this year, the gallery presented its first exhibition in their new location featuring the work of Kim Abeles, whose last solo exhibition in Los Angeles was at Santa Monica Museum in 1993. Their current exhibition, featuring the work of Gerald Giamportone, touches upon themes of altered perception and changed identity by an artist who works with opposing concepts of temporality and timelessness. Now in its twenty-first year of programming, the gallery remains an organic support system that embraces similar concepts. Guided by HK Zamani’s introspective and innovative approach, PØST demonstrates its ability to keep moving with the shifting tides.

A solo exhibition of Gerald Giamportone’s work will be on display at PØST’s new Bendix Building location through October 1, 2016. Upcoming exhibitions include a curatorial project by Shagha Ariannia and a two-person show featuring Melvino Garretti and Joe Ray.

HK Zamani’s work is being featured in a solo exhibition entitled Past, Present, Future. at Long Beach City College, running from September 8 through October 6, 2016.


All The Colorful Lights: Liz Nielsen, Carolina Wheat and Elijah Wheat Showroom

Liz Nielsen.   Ring of Runes  , 2016. Analog Chromogenic Photo, Unique. Printed on FujiFlex. 39 7/16 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Danziger Gallery, SOCO Gallery.

Liz Nielsen. Ring of Runes, 2016. Analog Chromogenic Photo, Unique. Printed on FujiFlex. 39 7/16 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Danziger Gallery, SOCO Gallery.

Inside Liz Nielsen’s studio, my gaze floated across a large wall filled with chromogenic abstractions in various sizes. Amid the brightly colored totems and constructed landscapes, the Brooklyn-based photographer shared a bedtime story told by her mother when Nielsen was a little girl:

My mom used to sit with me before I fell asleep. I didn’t like the dark nor going to bed, so she made up these nice mental exercises for me to do. Instead of counting sheep, she would say, “Let’s go into the swimming pool and fill it up with all kinds of underwater colored lights,” and I would imagine us there together. It was calming.

Though it’s a lightly made reference, related threads to the story and its influence run through Nielsen’s life and work. The artist continues to establish her place in the tradition of cameraless photography, most recently illustrated in her solo exhibition with Danziger Gallery. Working in an analog color darkroom and replacing traditional negatives with hand-cut collages of colored gels, Nielsen exposes chromogenic paper to controlled light to create her distinctive abstractions. As she explains, “The final outcomes are preplanned with strong intention and formally composed, yet because I’m working with light, they always have some surprises. The light bleeds and spills and doesn’t want to be contained.” The concept of exposure and its transformative effects also has a more esoteric connection to Nielsen’s work as a gallerist and curator in a series of collaborative projects with her partner, Carolina Wheat. Their most recent project sheds light on the power of vulnerability.   

Elijah Wheat Showroom Logo, courtesy of EWS.

Elijah Wheat Showroom Logo, courtesy of EWS.

In 2008, Nielsen founded the Swimming Pool Project Space in Chicago. The original mission of the project, embodied in an intimate storefront gallery with a signature blue floor, was to inspire conversation and play in relation to art: a platform for the exchange of ideas, where emerging artists, curators, writers, and performers could meet and connect. Soon after, Nielsen and Wheat joined forces as collaborators and co-curators at the gallery known affectionately as “The Pool.” Over the course of a few years, the project hosted about thirty exhibitions and participated in a handful of art fairs, embracing an experimental approach: events included a dog-fashion show on a catwalk, an environmental Room-A-Loom installed for public weaving, and the Living Room exhibition, created in response to a single piece of furniture (specifically, a blue brocade sectional sofa from the 1970s). A job opportunity for Wheat brought the couple to New York in 2011, and both were soon balancing full-time jobs, raising a family, and art careers.

In early 2014, their lives tragically turned when their sixteen-year-old son Elijah took his life. Described as a fiercely independent and extremely charismatic force, Elijah also had a generous and playful spirit. He loved to laugh and bring people together. Skateboarding and video games were interests matched by his budding investigation of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. In addition, he was a talented violinist and dancer who could move effortlessly between Bach and hip-hop. Wheat shared that before he could even talk, Elijah would hum to music with perfect pitch. Busking at street festivals and in New York City subway stations, he loved to make people smile and feel relaxed with his dancing and music. With strong ideas about equality and justice formed at an early age, Wheat knew her son as a deeply empathetic soul who truly felt the weight of the world.

Elijah. Courtesy of Liz Nielsen. 

Elijah. Courtesy of Liz Nielsen. 

As Wheat and Nielsen tried to come to terms with their son’s passing, they discovered the true strength of their community. “We felt supported, lifted, completely carried by our friends. They held our broken hearts together for us,” said Nielsen. She spoke of those who went above and beyond: friends who “slept at our house, let us sleep at theirs, embraced us while we cried, opened their homes to us, fed us, and took some of the weight away.” Nielsen continued:

The empathy and generosity that we came to know from our group of friends is unparalleled by any other experience in our lives. Suicide is one of the most tragic ways to die and it is almost impossible to accept. Sometimes it feels like an accident and sometimes you can’t help but blame yourself for what you did or did not do. There are so many unanswered questions. It is so difficult to know that someone who you love so much didn’t know how much he was loved.
Alchemy   Exhibition, 2016. Courtesy of Elijah Wheat Showroom.

Alchemy Exhibition, 2016. Courtesy of Elijah Wheat Showroom.

The following year, in 2015, they established Elijah Wheat Showroom (EWS), to continue with a deeper sense of mission some of the ideas they explored in Chicago. Named after their late son, the gallery honors his spirit of “creative insight, righteous vision, and stylistic voice for trendsetting.” Combating the stigma of suicide and encouraging openness about a challenging topic, they also seek to keep Elijah’s name alive in a positive light. As Nielsen explained, “People say that you die two deaths: the first when your physical body dies and the second when someone utters your name for the last time. We want to keep Elijah’s spirit alive every day by saying his name over and over.”

EWS now thrives as a curatorial project that allows Nielsen and Wheat to be involved with community organizing while sharing political and artistic voices in varied settings. They are, in a sense, continuing to gather those colored lights. Programming at their Bushwick gallery is scheduled to resume in the fall of 2016, and they will be showcasing videos and paintings by Lauren Gregory at the Satellite Art Fair at Art Basel Miami in December. Meanwhile, their most recent exhibition, Transaction, was on view at the Knockdown Center in Queens through July 2016.

Transaction   Installation, 2016. Courtesy of the Knockdown Center and Elijah Wheat Showroom.

Transaction Installation, 2016. Courtesy of the Knockdown Center and Elijah Wheat Showroom.

Transaction features personal artifacts contributed by twenty-three artists and explores the energy of beloved objects from a personal landscape in a gallery setting. The unique installation of suspended objects at the Knockdown Center—a 50,000-square-foot former door factory—provides ample room for viewers to consider each object in a space that engenders reverence. None of the work is for sale; the value lies in the willingness of the artists to share and the viewers to contemplate in an alternative way.

The concept of the exhibition recalls a parting story about one of the prints on the wall of Nielsen’s studio:

That piece…I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somehow I left the negative on top of the paper—probably because electrons kept it there. So, when I sent the paper through the machine, I couldn’t find the negative, and I thought it fell on the floor. It is pitch black inside the color darkroom, so I really didn’t know where it was. I was paranoid because if you actually send something other than paper through the chemical tanks in the machine, it is likely to break or damage the processor. But the negative came out of the machine on top of the paper, and the image had still developed. Whether or not the piece is fixed is another story, but it seems to have held its color. In any case, this photograph is a personal one and not for sale. The image is a druid, a spiritual leader that one would follow. I imagine—I know—it is a manifestation of Elijah.
Elijah  . Courtesy of Liz Nielsen.

Elijah. Courtesy of Liz Nielsen.


Everyone Gets Lighter: On John Giorno, Ugo Rondinone, and the Gift of Exchange

John Giorno reads “Everyone Gets Lighter” (video stills). Credit: Rikrit Tiravanija. Courtesy of YouTube.

New Year’s Day brings a unique brand of church revival to the East Village. Since 1974, the first day of the year has also marked the return of The Poetry Project’s Annual Marathon Reading: a twelve-hour series of performances that the organization describes as “an avenging engine of resistance and eager vehicle of the nascent year.” The marathon serves as a core fundraiser for The Poetry Project, the celebrated nonprofit founded at St. Mark’s Church-in- the-Bowery in the summer of 1966. With a mission focused on the reading and writing of contemporary poetry, the Project also serves as a critical link in fostering dialogue and collaboration between poets and artists.

This year, attending the marathon for the first time, I watched poets, musicians, and performance artists present works ranging from political and reverent to awkward and hilarious. The schedule was packed with a steady flow of twelve to fifteen performances taking the stage every hour, creating a slightly chaotic, buzzing scene for audience and performers alike. I’d lost count as a poet stepped up to the mic, introducing his 2015 piece, “God is Man Made”. As he began to speak, I was drawn by his unique cadence, marked by large, expressive breaths, and the movements of his shoulders, legs, and gesticulating hands. He repeated certain lines three, maybe four, times in his rhythmic chant, and I was caught in the spell.

#JohnGiorno, 2016. Courtesy of Instagram.

The voice belonged to John Giorno, the multifaceted poet and artist with a career spanning five decades in New York. An important figure in the Factory art scene (he was Andy Warhol’s lover for a time and the subject of a number of his films, including the 1963 Sleep), he rose with the Beat Generation and gained recognition as a pioneer in performance poetry. A contemporary of many significant writers and artists from the 1960s, he also established Giorno Poetry Systems and the Dial-A- Poem project to publish and promote the work of others, such as William S. Burroughs, Patti Smith, and Laurie Anderson. The poet has since witnessed the radical transformation of the Bowery over five decades, as his living space and studio have expanded into a few lofts in one building located a stone’s throw from the New Museum.

While the poet was no stranger to the role of muse in the underground New York scene of the ’60s, arguably it was not until decades later that he would discover his greatest champion and collaborator. In 1997, Giorno met Ugo Rondinone, a Swiss mixed-media artist, twenty-eight years his junior. Rondinone approached the poet after one of his readings, inviting him to collaborate on a sound installation. The meeting would prove to be the genesis of an ongoing creative and romantic partnership. Last fall, the pair garnered much attention with the critically acclaimed retrospective of John Giorno’s life and work at the Palais de Tokyo, entitled UGO RONDINONE : I ♥ JOHN GIORNO.

Exhibition View, UGO RONDINONE : I ♥ JOHN GIORNO, Palais de Tokyo (10.21.2015 – 01.10.2016). Photo credit: André Morin Scott Kin. Courtesy of Palais de Tokyo.

For this exhibition, Giorno entrusted his partner to curate items from a detailed personal archive dating back to the 1960s and containing more than ten thousand items, making public much of this personal information for the first time. The show was conceived and organized by Rondinone with a personal and collective sentiment clearly outlined in the title: whether revisiting known pieces, revealing unknown gems from the archive, or introducing new works, the retrospective celebrated the varied oeuvre of an innovator known and loved as poet, performer, activist, and artist. Organizing the exhibition into eight chapters, Rondinone was tasked with presenting a different facet of Giorno’s expansive work in each.

Ugo Rondinone is an artist known for his wide-ranging use of materials, moving with ease from drawing and painting to massive sculptural installations. Text is woven into the work of both artists—in some cases, the same words. The titular phrase of the work, Everyone Gets Lighter, is spelled out in one of Rondinone’s large, rainbow-colored neon arc sculptures; a poem by Giorno shares the title. Thinking about the poet’s archive, personally curated over the course of fifty years, and his decision to release its contents in one fell swoop, one feels his words speak to the sort of renewal that comes with the experience of letting go.

Ugo Rondinone, Everyone Gets Lighter, 2004. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery.

Life is lots of presents,
and every single day you get
a big bunch of gifts
under a sparkling pine tree
hung with countless balls of colored lights;
piles of presents wrapped in fancy paper,
the red box with the green ribbon,
and the green one with the red ribbon,
and the blue one with silver,
and the white one with gold.
It’s not
what happens,
it’s how you
handle it.
You are in a water bubble human body,
on a private jet
in seemingly a god world,
a glass of champagne,
and a certain luminosity
and clarity,
skin of air,
a flat sea of white clouds below
and the vast dome of blue sky above,
and your mind is an iron nail in-between.
It’s not
what happens,
it’s how you
handle it.
Dead cat bounce,
the falling knife,
after endless shadow boxing
in your sleep,
fighting in your dreams
and knocking yourself out,
you realize everything is empty,
and appears as miraculous display,
all are in nature
the play of emptiness and clarity.
gets lighter
everyone gets
everyone is light.

Pia Camil. A Pot for a Latch, 2016. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo credit: Erin Sweeny.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked down the Bowery to check out Pia Camil’s installation, A Pot For A Latch, a work that conveys a similar sense of renewal in the lobby of the New Museum. My visit coincided with one of the show’s “exchange days,” when the public may participate in the ongoing creation of Camil’s piece by exchanging personal objects of significance for others in the installation. As the artist’s invitation explains, “The monetary value of these items is insignificant; their value lies instead in their richness of meaning and in the new life that they acquire on the grid within the Lobby Gallery.” As I listened to a few visitors gingerly offer their objects and stories to the exhibition’s curators, I was struck by the coincidence of Giorno’s building across the street and thought again of his archive on display and subsequent revival: everyone gets lighter; everyone is light.