Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone
Anthony McCall: Notebooks and Conversations
(Lund Humphries, 2015)
During my brief and disastrous life in an art history PhD program, my professor was finishing a book on an artist who was also a friend of mine. After discussing her ideas I asked what the artist thought of the professor’s interpretations. “Oh, we’ve never met!” My naive “why not?” was met with something like, “What the artist has to say doesn’t affect what I think about it!” Fair enough, I guess. And such is the precarious status of the artist interview as a source of insight into the stuff artists make. Scholars, I was told, believe all they need can be found in the short distance between the object and their mind, a direct path aimed at avoiding the fetishized personality and oracle-like authority of “The Artist.”
Naturally, the interview has become a space for self-conscious fabrication. We are right to be suspicious of what people say—just as we are right to question the complex, often unconscious knot of ambitions and motivations that underly all human things. Art, as something made by humans for other humans, is one of them. Art history is another. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much imagination to get that lies, omissions, and misrepresentations are just as interesting and important as “truths” when it comes to understanding humanness. And besides, when they are good, interviews give you a sense of who the person is and some of the reasons why they might do certain things—almost never offering definitive answers.
This is why we should be so grateful when good collections of interviews with a single artist enter our world: multiple encounters brought side-by-side in a uniquely multifaceted model of an artist’s thought taking shape. The handsome volume Anthony McCall: Notebooks and Conversations is one exceptional recent example. It collects 10 years of conversations McCall had with Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone, who are themselves artists. This gives a special energy to the book, generated as it is by artists working out their ideas together—delighting and challenging each other. Some interviews took place at public events while others were in the privacy of their studios, adding depth to the various textures of exchange. These are illustrated by spreads from McCall’s notebooks, where he meticulously sketches algorithmic progressions of his solid-light forms in temporal sequence, with a pencil line that flows seamlessly between handwritten note, mathematical calculation, and linear description. By allowing the conversations to unfold amid notebooks, the book beautifully enacts the activity of thinking, perceiving, and feeling that is so crucial to McCall’s work.
McCall is a systematic thinker and maker. Since the late 1960s, his work has developed a greater sense of time and space through severely restrained formal means—primarily in his use of light and haze. This progression has not come in a straight line, but in a series of loops, as it continually re-examines aspects of prior work, seeing what new elements can be excavated from the old. McCall describes this in the way he keeps notebooks: “you have something called ‘brought forward’ in English bookkeeping, where the results of sums calculated earlier are brought into the present and incorporated into the current calculation. In a similar way I bring forward ideas from earlier notebooks into my current book. It can become quite a circular process.” He may bring ideas and shapes forward, but he never simply repeats—they always transformed his ever evolving concern, giving each new inflections.
In articulating the curves of his thought with Ellard and Johnstone, McCall navigates around personal topics, like a figure-skater avoiding imperfections in the ice. He keeps the dialogue focused tightly on his ideas and process, leaving no space for biography or emotional digression, though it is increasingly apparent that the bodily, the emotional, and the psychological are profoundly important aspects of his solid light works. McCall signals this himself by a change in titles, from the factual descriptions like “Line Describing a Cone” (1973) to the more corporeal “You and I, Horizontal”(2005) or “Coupling” (2009).
From all this you get a sense of McCall the man—an elegant, rigorous, committed English gentleman, which tells you something about the nature of his art, though you are hard pressed to say exactly what. Anthony McCall: Notebooks and Conversations is the kind of book that will increase in importance to students of art and art history over time, as the polemics and inter-personal dynamics that shaped our understanding of post-war American art evaporate and change; it is the kind of invaluable document that will help us access his artworks in their own terms far into the future.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.