Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Technology and Art

“Bird in the Wood #2” was painted in 1964 by Walter Darby Bannard, before he quit minimalist painting. Currently it hangs high on a wall of the Portland Museum of Art opposite Frank Stella’s “Eskimo Curlew”, done in 1976. Besides the bird titles, I believe they share a common method of development. In the Stella, three of the shapes are enlarged tracings of draftsman’s templates — French curves. The shapes are not used as draftsmen or technical illustrators would use them, to create smooth complex curves out of ellipses, hyperbolas, and parabolas. They’re simply traced, in whole. The Bannard painting is three abutting shapes on a large flat field, or one shape segmented into three. I am almost certain that Bannard came up with his design by tracing around a protractor. The outer shape on two sides is the inner tracing of a protractor. Like Stella, he didn’t use the tool as it was intended; he simply traced a piece of it.

If I’m correct about “Bird in the Wood #2”, Stella and Bannard both used technical illustration tools in non-technical ways. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the shapes. There are really interesting things you can do with the templates if you use them as they’re intended. Stella and Bannard just picked up what was lying around, and traced them.

In 1966, Bannard wrote an article for Artforum, “Color, Paint, and Present-Day Painting” [Artforum, Vol. 4, (April 1966) pp. 35 - 37.]. This may be as close as Bannard ever got in his writing to anything technical. After describing the Munsell color system, Bannard says he has his paint mixed at a commercial paint store.

“Bird in the Wood #2” shows that at least Bannard owned a protractor, though he apparently didn’t care to use it as it’s intended. Sometime between 1965 and 1980 Bannard changed styles, and was able to put his technical drawing tools away for good. Based on his paintings and a few of his articles, I’d guess Bannard was averse to things technical.

In 1968, Bannard slammed Jack Burnham in Art Forum for Burnham’s article in a previous issue, “Systems Aesthetics”.

Bannard says:

“What’s wrong is expressed by the notion that pervades every sentence: there’s a good new modern revolutionary systems esthetic way to make art and it is beating the dickens out of the bad old outmoded establishment formalist way to make art.” [See Letter to the Editor (1968). Artforum, Vol. 7, (November, 1968) p. 4.]

In 1969, Bannard reviewed Burnham’s book, Beyond Modern Sculpture.

Bannard says:

“Every page exudes the notion that certain forms, materials and processes guarantee art quality and conversely certain other forms, materials and processes guarantee artistic failure, that old methods and materials are no longer suitable for good art and that good sculpture from now on must consist only of the particular materials, organizations, couplings, successions, formal variety, arrangements and appearances described in Beyond Modern Sculpture.” [See “Beyond Modern Sculpture” by Jack Burnham (1969), in Artforum, Vol. 7, (May 1969) pp. 70 - 71.]

Donald Judd also slammed Burnham. [See Judd, “Complaints: part I”, (1975) Complete Writings. Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, ISBN-10: 0919616429. ISBN-13: 978-0919616424. Page 198.]

Judd wrote:

“A good example of baloney and of silly futurism is this:

[quoting Burnham] ‘The shifting psychology of sculpture invention closely parallels the inversion taking place between technics and man: as the craftsman slowly withdraws his personal feelings from the constructed object, the object gradually gains its independence from its human maker; in time it seeks a life of its own through self-reproduction.’ (Burnham’s italics.)

[back to Judd.] “I dislike very much this sort of sloppy correlation of such highly different activities as science and art, the careless and general history and the mystical projection of the future.”

James Croak summarized 20th century art history in these four words: “Duchamp won, Picasso lost.” (I'm sure Picasso cried all the way to the bank.) In my very limited little art world, Jack Burnham also won, and Walter Darby Bannard lost. I'm almost certainly in the minority on this, but not necessarily alone. See “All Systems Go: Recovering Jack Burnham’s ‘Systems Aesthetics’”, by Luke Skrebowski, Tate Papers Spring 2006.

For forty years Bannard has pressed his case. See: “Artbroken: What Art Is and How We Stopped Making It”, a talk prepared for the Foundations in Art: Theory & Education (FATE) 2007 Conference, Milwaukee. In this speech, Bannard says: “When we, as artists, make our art dependent on ideas or things or theories or fashions or moral lessons or ‘truth’, or any nonvisual external, we do not enrich it, we cut it off from the deep internal sources that nourish it.”

I thoroughly enjoy reading this speech, but I disagree with that last statement, and I also find a lot of truth in Burnham’s “Systems Aesthetics”. Here’s my art, dependent on mathematical ideas, and definitely on nonvisual, external systems — programming, computers, the web. It’s most definitely not cut it off from deep internal sources, since it is also based ultimately on the grid. I use math and programming simply, paraphrasing Bannard, to do something new to make my art better. (See Bannard, Monster of Irony (1990), New York Times, October 14, 1990.)

I think Burnham is winning in that there is a lot of systems theory art around and it still shows the greatest potential to me; but I also think, and I suppose Bannard would agree, that the quality of art that has come out of systems aesthetics is usually bad. Systems aesthetics could have flourished if its practitioners were not so full of what Bannard calls “the intimidating jargon, blustering self-importance and beguiling mystique of the theories and so called ‘issues’ that are thrown, like so much trash, onto the path that art must take.”

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