I admit to being surprised when the theoretical equipment I received in graduate school came to be of little use when I started to go to art studios. All the names I found so sexy in graduate school were politely waved aside or simply not mentioned: no Saussure, no Foucault, no Bataille, no Barthes, no de Man, no Derrida, and subsequently, no Rancière and no Badiou. It was not that these thinkers were irrelevant; actually, many of the artists I visited had rigorously engaged with and had been influenced by theoretical thinking in the past. However, instead of being able to enter into a shared set of theoretical concepts with artists, I found artists running out ahead of me, attempting to solve unusual problems that I did not know even existed, problems taken from anywhere and everywhere.
I listened to Charles Ray as he compared movement through a Donald Judd sculpture to how light registers across the manifold of a Greek low-relief panel, and, subsequently, how the comparison impacts his thinking of how to represent his nephews in sculpture. Steve Roden described performing John Cage’s “4’33” throughout the course of his day, and how, instead of Freud and Foucault, it was Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that boosted his love of making and thinking about art. Julian Hoeber shared his admiration for Shaker furniture and the similarities between roadside mystery spots and the international trajectory of Op-art, and Sharon Lockhart spoke reverently of Noa Eshkol’s dance and the challenges of finding out how best to record the small community in Israel dedicated to its memory.
Like many of the theorists, the artists were working from looking, enacting the joy of discovering disjointed phenomena in the world and trying to make sense of it. It was their joy in the studio to have you look along with them. If the studio visit was successful, your mutual looking could lead to mutual thinking.
However, it was here that the friction between the studio and the notion of discussing theory started to emerge. For me, thinking usually manifested itself in writing, whereas for the artist, it manifested itself in whatever medium they need to best convey their reporting. My thinking seemed caught up in a discourse that linked mediums in art to institutions in society, the natural tendency to put one narrow idea of progress in art (of each medium engaged in a matter of progress to from youth to maturity to decline) alongside the unraveling of institutions in general that was the bread and butter of art writing’s interaction with theory.
Artists seem under no obligation to think of art that way. It wasn’t about art’s relationship to the structures of society. Instead, it was smaller than that, it was about phenomena in the world rising in the artists’ experience and the need to convey those strange occurrences. It seemed to hit the wrong note to tell artists that what they were doing may illustrate one of Foucault’s points or that they may be expressing an idea from Walter Benjamin. Though what they are doing was able to be described by a theoretical structure, it was more important to the artist and the discussion was often more fruitful if I allowed them to direct me, in their own personal embodied way, to how they come to their strange interests. Art as looking was their path to knowledge. Looking was thinking.
With Sharon Lockhart, for example, I thought I wanted to discuss the development of the medium of photography and how she was expanding it in the age of video to produce a portrait that could exist in time. To me, what she was doing spoke to the condition of the reproduced image and how those images are distributed in contemporary life (all basic talking points beat to death over the last 30 years and completely boring). Much to my pleasant surprise, however, just listening to Lockhart describe getting to know the world of Noa Eshkol and how she wanted to be as true as possible to the ethic of life and the dignity of those dancers, simply led my mind in a different direction, a direction where, guided by mutual looking with Lockhart, I looked for my own best mediums for expression.
I came to care about how the rhythms of Noa Eshkol’s dance reminded me of Tolstoy’s chapter from Anna Karenina, “Mowing,” and how Tolstoy had the character Levin embody the belief that the repetition of manual labor led to a feeling of grace. Unlike when I read the same passage in high school, merely overcome by the beauty of the language and enamored with the idea of work as spiritual destiny, through Lockhart’s eyes the passage came alive again. Eshkol’s dancers, who have to work so hard for years, if not decades, seemed like they were reaching a similar idea of grace, yet they were far away from the normal avenues of life, far from any pattern that I am usually engaged in. Lockhart’s portrayal of the dance and the people caught up in the dance made me think that maybe David Foster Wallace was onto something when he considered the fleeting, hard to achieve moments in professional tennis to be the most perfect description of the union of body and mind (and subsequently that this could be grace), and, subsequently, how Foster Wallace was ultimately disappointed when he couldn’t find that same grace achievable in the daily life of a IRS auditor in The Pale King. I wondered if Eshkol, herself, was ever disappointed, whether or not her strange model for living worked in a way that Foster Wallace’s wasn’t able to.
I was astonished at how looking at a body of work concerning an obscure group of dancers in Israel could lead to sustained multiple concussions of thinking across a variety a subjects. Surely, most of these issues would have come up had Lockhart given me a copy of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, but that wouldn’t have been art, that wouldn’t have had the excitement of achieving thinking through the phenomenon of looking. Maybe now, in a world where theory has made us see institutions for the messy human things that they are, the artist has found a way to live, dwelling in the excitement of connectivity, able to use any tool or any medium to follow their curiosity. In such a world, it is little wonder that artists have something better to talk about in studios than philosophical tectonics.
Ed Schad's writing has been included in Art Review, Frieze, Modern Painters, Flash Art, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His blog www.icallitORANGES.blogspot.com contains most of his writing and will re-boot with a new design later this year. Ed is also Assistant Curator at The Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles and is working hard towards the 2015 opening of The Broad, a new contemporary art museum in downtown Los Angeles.