Moholy-Nagy (Part 1): In Memory of Beulah Seckinger

I’m sitting in a radiology room at Kaiser with my left hand resting on a square metal plate that I assume contains film. The x-ray tech twists my hand to the left then flicks off the overheads. A box of light floats over the wrist, a cross-hatched shadow dividing it into quadrants. Beneath the focused beam my hand turns sculptural, the gracefully curving chiaroscuro of a photogram, where light transforms ordinary objects into mysterious geometries.

László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram, 1926

I first encountered photograms in the pages of Vision in Motion, a 1949 textbook for the Institute of Design in Chicago. Its author, Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. In 1935, like many other Jewish artists, Moholy-Nagy emigrated to London, fleeing Hitler. In 1937 he moved to Chicago to head the New Bauhaus. When the school lost its funding, Moholy-Nagy opened his own School of Design in 1939, which was renamed the Institute of Design in 1944—and which I would attend for one semester in 1978, as a photography student.

I was 16 years old when my art history teacher, Beulah Seckinger, loaned me her battered copy of Vision in Motion. Like most 16-year-olds, I was looking for something to change my life. I already knew I wanted to be writer, a sophisticated and cutting edge writer, but I had little idea what that would look like. I knew in my bones there was an avant-garde literature out there, a writing comparable to the subversive alterity I relished in the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. “Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.” I wasn’t finding the radicalism I craved in my high school English classes or in the novels of bourgeois angst reviewed in the Chicago Tribune book section. At Brentano’s I purchased Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches, which I excitedly read without comprehension. Ginsberg—and the very existence of City Lights books—further convinced me that there was something out there I was missing, something vast. Finally, in Vision in Motion I received the creative heritage I’d been seeking. More importantly, Moholy-Nagy affirmed my adolescent certainty that artistic expression was the most important thing in the world:

It is unimaginable that, along with the economists, philosophers and politicians who advance suggestions for social changes, the most intuitive and responsive people in a society, namely, the artists, have no say. Tyranny and dictatorship, manifestos and decrees will not recast the mentality of the people. The unconscious but direct influence of art represents a better means of persuasion for conditioning people to a new society either by its projective or satiric-destructive means.


Five Questions: Walter Logue

Five questions to SFMOMA artists, staff, or guests. Walter Logue has worked at SFMOMA for 12 years as an operations technician.  Walter knows the building through and through and if things need doing, he’s there to make it happen.  (He also has the best gossip).  Walter is also a visual artist—you can see some of his work here and here.  He lives on Haight Street in San Francisco.

Walter Logue in the SFMOMA green room.

If you could steal any artwork in the world to have up in your home, what would it be?

Stealing’s a weird thing because you’re depriving other people of seeing it, but if I could have a single object, on one hand I’d like to have something old like an Albert Pinkham Ryder landscape, especially a seascape, or maybe an On Kawara box. Something contemplative. Or maybe a John McCracken leaning fiberglass piece. There’s a lot of stuff I could see living with forever.

What do you listen to while you work?

While I make artwork, lots of Velvet Underground, lots of classical music, lots of 1958-65 Jazz, particularly Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry. At work I just listen to whatever is playing wherever I am which is kind of interesting too.

Other than your phone or keys, what do you always carry with you?

At work, my radio, which I used to hate but now I love. And cigarettes. And my glasses and that’s about it.

What’s your favorite tool?

Probably a screw gun, because of the versatility of it.  It’s probably the thing I use the most. In terms of a physical object, I like awls for the way they look, and I like nail drivers, and I like 36-inch metal rulers with the cork on the back just as nice objects. I also like sawhorses, especially short ones.

What should I ask you?

What’s my favorite piece in the museum. It’s a tough one but probably the Bechtle Gran Torino painting in terms of what I like seeing a lot. When I first started working here I thought it was hideous and its slowly won me over to being a thing of transcendent power and beauty. I like it a lot. I like the Rothko painting too.

Stop the Presses! – Paul Clipson’s BUCKYS to Be Shown As Live Super-8 Performances Tonight!

One-man army Paul Clipson, stemming the tide of digital madness, is currently editing the first two BUCKYS to show in Super-8 tonight! Scheduled to be shown on video, the celebrated experimental celluloid filmmaker “just couldn’t take it anymore”, and sat down to the editing table to create true celluloid works of pieces originally edited and shown as Super-8 transferred to video. Come see the premieres of the first two BUCKYS on celluloid @ 7p.m. tonight at SFMOMA’s Wattis Theater, shown before Jacques Demy’s brilliant Model Shop. The filmmaker himself performs at the projector live in the center of the Wattis!

Three Heads, Six Arms

If you haven’t yet seen Shanghai-based artist Zhang Huan’s monumental new public sculpture, “Three Heads, Six Arms,” it is now on display at San Francisco’s Civic Center and is well worth a look. The piece will be on display through 2011.

(Shanghai is one of our 17  sister cities, not including Paris which, in what we believe must be a paean to non gender-specific, long-term civil/civic relationships, is characterized as a “partner city.” But we digress).

Three Heads, Six Arms by Zhang Huan. Photo copyright © by Bruce Damonte.

Three Heads, Six Arms by Zhang Huan. Photo copyright © by Bruce Damonte.

And a look at Mr. Zhang’s earlier, conceptual performance-based work is also well worth your time. Some of our favorites include To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997), a Dada-esque land art performance project. As Mr. Zhang describes it:

I invited about forty participants, recent migrants to the city who had come to work in Beijing from other parts of China. They were construction workers, fishermen and labourers, all from the bottom of society. They stood around in the pond and then I walked in it. At first, they stood in a line in the middle to separate the pond into two parts. Then they all walked freely, until the point of the performance arrived, which was to raise the water level. Then they stood still. In the Chinese tradition, fish is the symbol of sex while water is the source of life. This work expresses, in fact, one kind of understanding and explanation of water. That the water in the pond was raised one metre higher is an action of no avail.



And My New York (2002), where the artist donned an over-muscularized caricature of a bodybuilder, made from read meat. From the artist’s website:

Something may appear to be formidable, but I will question whether or not it truly is so powerful. Sometimes such things may be extremely fragile, like body builders who take drugs and push themselves beyond the limits of their training on a long term basis, until their heart cannot possibly bear such enormous stress.In this work I combine three symbols: migrant workers, doves, and body building. I interpret my New York through concerns of identity, through the Buddhist tradition of setting live animals free (to accumulate grace), and through man’s animal nature and machinelike qualities.

A body builder will build up strength over the course of decades, becoming formidable in this way. I, however, become Mr. Olympic Body Builder overnight.


My New York by Zhang Huan. Photo from the artist’s website.

You can watch the video of the dedication ceremony below. Translated comments from the artist begin at around 28:00 minutes.

More images and information about Zhang Huan’s wide-ranging and provocative practice are available on his website.

75 Reasons to Live: Raelle Myrick-Hodges on John Collier Jr.

Raelle Myrick-Hodges is the Artistic Director of Brava! for Women in the Arts. John Collier Jr on the SFMOMA website.


Conversation with Zachary Royer Scholz

Zachary Royer Scholz is one of the interesting young artists-who-write who have emerged on the local art scene in the past two or three years and who have added a great deal of optimism for folks like me. I was lucky enough to start to know Zach this year when he participated in my class on Art and the Invisible for SFMOMA’s Pickpocket Almanack, curated by Joseph del Pesco. After the last class a couple of weeks ago, Zach and I began a little exchange via e-mail about the ideas that the little group discussed that night. It had been a very warm, serious, open discussion that left everyone energized. It fulfilled, I suspect, the intention of del Pesco and Dominic Willsdon in launching the program—i.e., the initiation of processes that can lead to the creation of intellectual community. So it seems appropriate, in that spirit, at the end of my initial blogging period here, to share with the readers some of the work that my class did, and to offer the thoughts of Zach, who I think will be doing great work for the community in the years to come.

ZRS: I really enjoyed the Pickpocket course you put together.  The nature of these things seems to be that none of the events ever entirely fit the projected thread that links them, but still somehow work.  Your course, in mass, made amorphous, unexpected sense. Learning about swimming bats, urban bird populations, and the long history of Jews in China, were all fascinating in their own right, but together they sketched an expanded vision of the world, whose idiosyncratic quirkiness was fascinating exactly because it wasn’t controlled and was at times not what you even expected.

I liked the premise of the book you assigned (The City and The City, by China Miéville).  It was interesting how quickly in our discussion it became clear that, as strange as it seems to have one city layered on top of another, this actually occurs everywhere.  I talked about my own experience of this, living in the Mission, and others recounted similar experiences, but since that discussion I have become increasingly interested in the ways that this occurs without us realizing it is there.

I am reminded of a piece by the Danish artist Jens Haaning called “Turkish Jokes” which broadcasts jokes in Turkish over a loudspeaker in a square in central Oslo. Residents of the neighborhood who knew Turkish (there are many Turkish immigrants in Oslo) could be heard laughing at the recording. The piece created heightened visibility within the community of Turkish speakers, but more tellingly, made that community externally visible to the other residents of Oslo.

We can usually recognize our own, but we don’t always recognize when other people belong to a group that we don’t, particularly when there might be reasons they don’t want us to know. It is hard to know who is an IV drug user unless you have been one yourself or worked in a clinic or at a needle exchange.  The hackneyed term “gaydar” encapsulates the extrasensory nature of this kind of learned visibility, but its militaristic allusion wrongly positions it as the ability to detect difference, rather than sense similarity.

It is clear that there are communities, terrains, whole ecosystems that exist around us that we don’t see because we both don’t know how to see them and aren’t paying attention.  Who hasn’t had the experience of learning something new, a word perhaps, and suddenly finding it everywhere?  It is like it wasn’t there before and now it is, like it just popped into existence the moment we learned it, and in a sense it did. (more…)

Dan Flavin, The Diagonal of May 25, 1963

Dan Flavin, The Diagonal of May 25, 1963

Dan Flavin, The Diagonal of May 25, 1963, 1963 sculpture | blue fluorescent light © Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

75 Reasons to Live: Tony Labat on Howard Fried


More Tony. More on Howard Fried & Inside the Harlequin by Tanya Zimbardo here. You’ll be able to follow the 75 Reasons to Live talks by checking in here.

Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week

This week we have an example of two ways to see Sol Lewitt’s Steel Structure.   SFMOMA’s image:

Sol LeWitt, Steel Structure, 1975/1976;  © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

And our Flickr pic of the week from Doug Smith:

Cubism by Doug Smith

Doug says: “I find it intriguing that a medium (photography) can portray another medium (sculpture) in a whole new light/perspective.” Thanks Doug!

We choose the Flickr pictures of the week from anything tagged “SFMOMA”. You tag too!