The Art Itself: Abstraction – Again

See what you think about the painting I’m viewing while I write this. 

         Untitled 90    acrylic on canvas    48 x 72 inches    2002    

Why I love this and Tunson’s other abstracts is beyond an analysis of the push-pull of the composition, the palette, the painterly layers, and so on. Sure, all these elements come into play as reasons I love the work, but the effect is more than these or any other parts. It’s the collective whole that engages me and other lovers of abstraction: the sheer beauty, the energy, the mystery.

This is not to say that abstraction is the only genre I respect, admire, and appreciate. Figuration, of course, can be exquisite. Consider this Tunson still life:

       Five Lemons        acrylic on canvas    36 x 48 inches    2009

I daresay that no figures could be more precisely and beautifully executed than the lemons in this painting. The exactness of all the imagery and perfect choice of backdrop in which they are placed could not be bettered by any artist of any place or any time.

Frankly, it’s my reaction to this painting and others that forces me to question my general preference for abstraction. Of course, there’s no law against valuing two genres equally; but, when push comes to shove and I have to choose what to view every single day, I usually select a work of abstraction. 

I no longer wonder why my eye favors the non-objective – at least for now. I know it’s related to the reason I don’t enjoy seeing a production of Hamlet. Once an object or character inhabits a specific identity, the game is over. The Hamlet on stage is not my Hamlet. My Hamlet speaks directly to me and to no one else. We are in each other’s head. 

Tunson’s abstract work is equally personal: It speaks to me in a way that cannot be adequately translated, explained, justified, or understood by anyone else. My experience with the painting is as multi-layered as the paint that Tunson applied to it. The piece is amorphous, eternally fresh. The game is never over.

The Art Itself: Refusal to Show

There comes a time – or many a time – when an artist needs to decline invitations to show his work. At least that’s true for Floyd D. Tunson.

 Fans are free with their advice to “get the work out there.” They mean well; they love the art. But they don’t necessarily understand that the “there” might not be as important to the artist as the time he needs to work or even to contemplate his work.

 What does it take, you might ask, for the artist simply to prepare the work to be picked up and loaded onto a van? Easier said than done. First of all, because Tunson usually works in large scale and has hundreds of pieces in storage that have to be moved before he can even get to the desired piece, the physical labor is daunting. Theoretically, he could hire someone to help with this task, but he’s always done all aspects of his work by himself, and having someone else involved feels to him almost like a violation of privacy.

 Another reason to decline an opportunity is that the artist is uncertain about whether pieces from different periods of his career are how he was to be represented at a given time. The context, the timing might not be right.

 Then there’s the issue of whether the venue is significant enough to bring him any career benefit, whether critical or financial. If odds are that nothing important will occur, he would be wasting time, effort, and emotional energy that could be spent in the studio.  

 I’ve offended some local gallerists who have begged me to persuade Tunson to exhibit in their spaces, and I have had to decline. Over the years I’ve learned that if he doesn’t want to show his work at a certain place or at a certain time, that’s the way it’s supposed to be because only the artist himself knows what does or does not feel right. He, after all, is concerned about making the art, and he feels guilty and resentful about abandoning it even momentarily to jump on just any chance to show it.

It’s this authenticity that motivates me to assist Tunson however I can. For him, the only thing that matters is the art itself.

 

The Art Itself: Politics and Esthetics

If you read my post of April 19, 2016 (“Terrible Beauty”), you know I deplore the notion that art should, by definition, be safe. The assumption that it should always cheer us up has a paradoxical implication: 1) that art is sheer escapism; it’s irrelevant, and big subjects like injustice and human suffering are just a waste of paint 2) that art is too powerful to trust: It’s dangerous.

As much as I want to dismiss these extremes, I must acknowledge that, In a loose sense, Tunson’s work does both. The sheer beauty of his abstracts invites us to escape the horror in the objective world; his political work can be interpreted as a call to action, an invitation to disturb the universe.

Besides the content itself, one element of the political work that intrigues me is the variety of esthetic approaches Tunson applies to his subject. Instances abound, including in these series: Raw Deal, Endangered, Remix, Universal Bunnies. But nowhere is his versatility clearer than in these two works:

Still Angry   acrylic/canvas   48 x 60 inches   2006

Let’s Talk about Race  acrylic/canvas72 x 48 inches   2014

In his non-objective painting Still Angry, the title and the palette say it all. In “Let’s Talk about Race,” each image is a story in itself, and when you mix old magazine ads, Boondocks cartoons, and a scene Tunson witnessed on January 20, 1992, in Denver, when the KKK protested the celebration Dr. King’s birthday, you get a world that has never been safe for some folks.

When, then, Tunson illuminates the hazards that some people on this troubled planet confront every single day, he does so with esthetic approaches as complex and varied as the injustices that send him to the studio.

This youtube video documents the Denver event:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hm0J8RgRAo4

 

The Art Itself: Abstraction

In my previous post, I said what I really want to write about is the art itself. A significant part of “art itself” is the viewer’s reading of it. When people tell me they love Tunson’s abstract paintings, I often wonder if they see what I see in a piece. Do they detect differences in different periods? Do they see Tunson’s evolution as an abstract painter?

Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that every writer has basically one story to tell. In a sense, this is true of Tunson’s art in that it’s recursive. But when he returns to the abstract genre every few years, it is not to the exact same place.

If you’re curious about the evolution of Tunson’s “one story,” then play along with me. Below are works from three decades. Study them and identify what you think is their chronology.

 

Did you get it right? The top piece (Untitled 122) was completed in 2011; the middle (Untitled 95), in 2002; the bottom (Untitled 58), 1987. If you view the pieces in reverse order, you might assume that the compositions become simpler, more condensed, less intricate. But are these observations complete, accurate, or telling? You might assume that Tunson’s most recent work will resemble the style of Untitled 122. Take a look at the piece below. Where, in the chronology do you think it belongs?

I know where it fits, but if you want to know, you’ll just have to ask me.

The Journey: What is it?

 

            An artist’s representative…hmm, what exactly does that mean? What’s the job description? You’re not a gallery, not a museum, not an actual studio assistant – so, then, what are you? I don’t know the correct answer. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I just know what I did do and what I do now. So, for whatever it’s worth, here’s what I remember about the gradual and chaotic evolution of this journey to represent Floyd D. Tunson.

I have a degree in English, not in marketing, let alone in art. My early introduction to art, in fact, was a bit odd. In my little Ozark hometown, there was one art teacher in the high school. She was a retired WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and a formidable presence. Besides being scared of her, I had no artistic talent, so I avoided her. My first high school boyfriend, however, became her protégé, and she managed to get him into the Pratt Institute. Once he left for Brooklyn, that was that. My vicarious experience with art was over – except for one thing that influences me to this day – The New Yorker. How this town of 12,000 people supported a newsstand that sold this publication is a mystery. All I know is that I read the book, theater, and art reviews every month, even though I hardly comprehended their meanings. Now, I’m terrified that Peter Schjeldahl will die before I do. Anyway, this was the fortuitous beginning of my journey.

The first little task I took on to help Tunson was to submit slide portfolios for various competitions and for gallery representation. Remember this was the late ‘70s, when slides where the standard way to document artwork. I was so naïve then that I assumed if the work was wonderful, the most reputable galleries in NYC would immediately beg to represent him. And when I finally learned how to create labels on the computer, I thought this was a big step toward creating a professional image… oh, so long, long ago.

As naïve as I was about working for an artist, I did understand one thing: that I needed to know, absolutely know, that my appreciation for Tunson’s work was not just based on my own taste, my own limited perspective, my love of the wabi sabi effect he created in much of his work. I needed to know if and how his work fit with other artists working in similar modes and with art history in general.  I needed to see, for instance, one of his abstracts and one of Gerhard Richter’s abstracts juxtaposed. Sure, Richter and other abstract expressionists might paint as well as Tunson, but is their work in the same genre any better? 

     Untitled 112      acrylic on canvas     84 x 120 inches     2004

Year after year, then, I viewed a lot of art everywhere I traveled, I read about art, and I learned as much about Tunson’s art as he would reveal. Some artists like to talk about their work: Tunson does not. His stance is that the work is there to view, so view it, bring something of your own experience to it, and – for god’s sake – do not ask what it “means.”

You can imagine the delicate dance this journey has been to learn everything I want to know about Tunson’s work so that I can represent him with accuracy, integrity, and wisdom.

So, if your heart is set on helping an artist, my advice, again, is that despite the artist’s reluctance to talk his or her work, learn everything you can about the work and have a good idea of how your artist and other reputable artists can be compared and contrasted. Although knowing everything I can about Tunson’s work is a difficult part of my mission, I am lucky in one respect: I have Tunson’s trust. Annoyed with my questions as he might be, he knows that when I ask a question, I ask it because I’m serving his interests, and I need an answer.

 

 

The Journey Begins

The Journey Begins

 

            If you’ve read my previous posting, you’ll know a bit about my views on art and, inferentially, on the work of Floyd D. Tunson. This is not, of course, the whole story, but is anything ever the whole story?  In this and subsequent posts, I hope to shed a beam of light on my journey representing Tunson and, in turn, be of help to anyone else considering a similar adventure. I know several men and women who, not artists themselves, keenly appreciate great art and sympathize with artists’ reluctance and emotional inability to toot their own horns. These folks simply want to help. Their motives are pure.

 

Sure, hundreds of books and articles are available with all kinds of advice about marketing strategies, copyrights, and so on. And, sure, much of this information is necessary and helpful to an artist’s rep. What these publications do not and cannot explain, however, is how to authentically represent an artist by reflecting him in the way you conduct the business of his work, by indulging all the eccentricities that he, like all human beings have and are entitled to. All I know is what I’ve experienced, so perspectives I share are simply how things have worked or not worked for me. So if you want to consider my experience to be advice, so be it.

 

Only you can decide if your journey with your artist is a fool’s errand or one of the richest, more meaningful challenges life can offer. Or both.

 

My journey began in the late 1970s when I visited Tunson’s studio for the first time and saw a collage that captured my heart. Old Man Comforts reminded me of the dignified gentlemen I had seen in the Missouri Ozarks, where I grew up. Like Mr. Williams, the elderly gentlemen I knew would never be seen in public in denim or khaki. Their suits were shiny with wear, but spotless. They, unlike many people today, differentiated between private and public domains. What one wore, said, or did in private was not necessarily appropriate public behavior. Now and again, I run into an elderly gentleman at Safeway who wears, I do not lie, his pajamas. On one hand, I think it’s refreshing that someone wants to be comfortable and doesn’t care anything about what anybody thinks. On the other hand, this casualness makes me respect Mr. Williams all the more for donning his public self when he took his daily walk in the Denver neighborhood where Tunson grew up.

 

Perhaps you can see why I had to buy this piece. It wasn’t only the subject matter I admired; it was the composition, the strategic placement of the pieces and the choice the artist made to include just enough details to make the imagery particular to Mr. Williams, but still universal.

 

This, then, was the beginning of my forty-year association with Floyd D. Tunson – Mr. Williams and his Old Man Comforts. After many subsequent studio visits, I continued to get a certain feeling about the work, all of it – painting, photography, mixed media, sculpture, watercolor – it was a feeling I have no words for, but I suppose mysterious, mystical, bold, surprising, puzzling, beautiful will have to do. It was the “Tunson touch.” I loved it all and knew that I had to learn more about it.

 

So, if you want to interpret my experience as advice, it is this: View as much of the artist’s work as you possibly can, and if you’re emotionally and intellectually captivated by everything you see, then that’s the reason to do all you can to help him or her achieve the critical recognition and the financial comfort you think that artist deserves.

 

A caveat, though: Viewing the work is not as easy as it sounds. In my case, it was and remains a mountain to climb. Tunson has four storage rooms filled floor to ceiling with large-scale paintings, sculpture, mixed media, and a miscellany of objects he might include in an art piece… sometime. Because there’s no space to walk in and slide out, say, a painting, dozens of pieces have to be laboriously removed before a given piece can be accessed. Even after forty years, there are a few pieces I have yet to view.  Now, every time he has to pull out a piece way in the back, I totally understand his moans and groans.

 

Anyway, you get the idea: See as much of the artist’s work as possible and assume this could take multiple viewings. By all means, photograph each piece and write down the medium, dimensions, and year completed. You will need all this info for the inventory and for creating profiles for marketing the work. Be grateful you can use a phone camera for the photos. Until recent years, photographing Tunson’s work was an arduous task. I didn’t – couldn’t – even attempt to photograph it. He would set up his studio with the proper lighting and photograph each piece when it was completed. The result was film that had to be sent to a photo lab to be processed into slides. Then the slides had to be labeled and inserted into sleeves in a binder. This laborious and tedious documentation process is one task that wealthy artists would assign to a studio assistant. For several years, these slides were the only inventory format he or I used to keep track of his work. Eventually, I created a spreadsheet for this purpose. Before the advent of digital cameras and certainly the iphone, my inventory contained no visuals of the art. I made notes to identify the piece, weird little descriptors like “has a yellow curved shape in the lower right corner.” Eventually, I added digital images to the spreadsheet. Just last year, I transferred all the inventory images and information to a software called “artworkarchive.com.”

 

This process of familiarizing oneself with an artist’s work is messy, inchoate, and frustrating for the artist and the rep; however, every aspect of working with an artist is messy, inchoate, and frustrating. I have come to expect it, and I just deal with it, sometimes better than at other times.

 

 

Terrible Beauty

By Wylene Carol

            When I heard, “I don’t want to see something that upsets me, I want to see something peaceful, something tranquil,” you could see my face in the Edvard Munch’s The Scream. And when the speaker happened to be a museum volunteer, I wanted to scream LOUD and launch an attack. This was my experience at a recent dinner party. Unaware that I represent an artist whose canon includes politically charged work, this person launched his own attack – this one against artists who “have the audacity to think that museums should show work that makes everyone uncomfortable and angry and miserable. People don’t want to be hit over the head with everything they don’t want to think about; they want to see something pleasant” – as if engaging the mind could not be a pleasant experience.

When it comes to discomfiting art, I can think of no better way to express its significance than does Barbara Kingsolver in her novel The Lacuna. In a conversation between the protagonist writer (Harrison Shepherd) and his typist (Mrs. Brown), Shepherd confesses that he’s a writer of meadows and buttercups, but Mrs. Brown argues for expressing ugly truths:

            Mrs. Brown: If you’re standing in the manure pile, it’s somebody’s job to mention the stink.

            Shepherd: Well, suppose the artist’s job is just to keep everyone amused? Maybe get their minds off the stink, by calling it a meadow. Where’s the harm?

            Mrs. Brown: Nobody will climb out of the pile. There’s the harm. They’ll keep where they are, deep to the knees in dung, trying to outdo each other remarking on the buttercups. (page 337, paperback version 2009)

Consider, for instance, the “pile of dung” that Floyd D. Tunson illuminates in his painting Rape.

Rape
acrylic/canvas  
2010
60 x 84 inches   
 

However, given the tragic subject matter of, say, Rape, perhaps T.S. Eliot is right: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” When all the news is bad, anyone can reach a saturation point. But why must that saturation point occur in a museum? Why can’t it arrive during the nauseating repetitions of sound-bites on CNN? The point is that saturation is no justification for that volunteer’s wanting the institution to be nothing more than an amusement park, a la-la land for patrons who want a social experience more than an engagement with art.

But saturation is not always the issue. Sometimes it’s simply ignorance about what’s going on in the world that renders engagement impossible. This was not the case, however, when Rape was exhibited at a local museum. Always eavesdropping when a patron stands in front of a Tunson work, I overheard a couple’s conversation:

                       She: Oh, my god, what a stunning piece! I know it’s a strange thing to say, but it’s…well, beautiful.

            He: Yeah, I know what you mean. But, I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t see any rape going on in the painting.

            She: Let’s just look a minute. Isn’t that a Tintin character down there?

            He: I think it is. Yeah, it is. Why would he put a storybook character is in this painting? What does it have to do with rape?

            She: Well, think about it: There’s more than one kind of rape – you know, the rape that always occurs in war, and rape when one country robs another of its resources.

            He: You’re right. Maybe that’s what Tintin is about – something to do with colonialism…

Their conversation continued for at least fifteen minutes: The more they looked, the more they saw, and they seemed to be finding great pleasure in looking and questioning and sharing observations. Then I knew that this couple could appreciate the concept of Yeats’ term “a terrible beauty.” The exquisite execution of the terribleness of the subject seems to be an oxymoron, but is not. It’s a coherent, unified view of the world that is understood by people capable of holding two contradictory positions in the mind simultaneously and acknowledging that, that’s simply the way it is, that truth, executed by the hands of an imaginative and skilled artist, is beauty. This is how film fans react to the elegantly choreographed scenes of brutality, such as the killing of Bonnie and Clyde in the movie of that name and the bus wreck in Frida. It’s what readers can say about Karl Shapiro’s Auto Wreck – that the poem is a perfectly executed description of the aftermath of a car crash. It’s akin, to what the physicists at Los Alamos might have felt when they saw the mushroom cloud that validated their work – that it was beautiful.

But back to the dinner party. Out of courtesy to the host, I abstained from attacking the premise of the museum volunteer. But it was negligent of me not to invite that volunteer for coffee one day so we could discuss art at a different time in a different context, after my boiling blood had cooled. After I forced a saccharin smile from the inner scream and said my thank you, I thought, all the way home, about how our society can be a victim of its own comfort because, sooner or later, in one way or another, denial will catch up to us and we will rue that day. John Dewey’s haunting words articulate the point precisely: “As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.” Great artists can offer us a hand to rise from the dung heap.

 

 

 

Actions Speak Louder

By Wylene Carol


“Oh, my god!” – usually the first words out of the mouths of my potential clients when I show a piece of Floyd D. Tunson’s art. It’s a genuine, spontaneous response – but ambiguous – and not the primal and involuntary reaction expressed by the body, especially by facial expressions. Even though viewers don’t necessarily know it themselves at that very moment, I know immediately whether they’ll likely buy that painting. These visceral reactions are anything but intellectual: They’re a reflexive response to the jolting of the senses, a la e.e. cummings, in Poem 28, on the chemistry of attraction:

                   since feeling is first

                   who pays any attention

                   to the syntax of things

                   will never wholly kiss you….

But whether the viewer’s demeanor translates to kisses or curses, it is, nonetheless, the expression of an esthetic experience.

No doubt a psychiatrist or a neuroscientist could analyze the hell out of this communication between the art piece and the viewer – you know, who’s motivated and affected by what and why. But I’m not a shrink, and I’m interested in simply observing viewers’ reactions to a specific painting, photograph, or sculpture. In my efforts over many years to understand the nature of this experience, I often return to John Dewey’s Art as Experience, published first in 1934. Each time I thumb through this book, I spot a sentence or two that just nails it. Consider this Dewey declaration: “…it cannot be asserted too strongly that what is not immediate is not esthetic.” (p. 119). Indeed, the feeling comes first.

Since selling Tunson’s art is what I do, I’m especially intrigued by what a “like” is all about (Spare me, please, the meaningless Facebook “likes”). We all know the story that goes like this:

         “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” 

         “Yes, Madam, and so does a cow.”

Well, being somewhat of an art bigot, I like to quote this little dialogue from time to time, but one thing it says to me is that a potential buyer probably needs to view an art piece more than once to know whether his esthetic experience is one of lust or of lust and love. If the initial reaction to the piece is positive, I can then shed some light on its history and on the artist, but I know that that none of my intellectualizing and pontificating about a piece is likely to influence a viewer’s gut response to it because the feeling that comes first is the actual esthetic experience. Whether a “like” or “dislike” is sustained over time and changes with the viewer’s life experiences – well, that’s quite another matter.

Just for fun, look at this painting by Floyd D. Tunson and see what feeling comes to you first. If you try to study, analyze, praise, or defend, the game is over, so don’t do that. Just look.

         One reason contemporary art is such a challenge to even talk about – let alone accurately describe, thoughtfully analyze, and meaningfully evaluate – is, of course, that it’s all over the place. This post-modern version of “doing your own thing” is, at best, the freedom (and even responsibility?) for each artist to follow his unique creative impulses; at worst it’s “permission” to be stupid, i.e., to be trite, silly, and exploitative. Because the internet allows anyone, everyone to show off his work or simply “show off,” it’s no surprise that artists themselves are struggling with the dialectic between commerce and pure art. And it’s certainly no wonder that galleries, museums, cities, and collectors are confused about what is worth their attention and their limited resources. How is anyone to really know which artists or which works will stand the test of time? And, in this world of instant-everything, is time-testing is any longer relevant? Does it matter if an artist creates one or two great works but cannot sustain that level, let alone grow artistically, over time?

But I state the obvious. These dilemmas are hardly breaking news: Institutions face them every day. Nonetheless, if the visual arts are to become and remain vital for all segments of the population, I think they merit interrogation from many perspectives, one of which is that of the infrequent but sincere buyer of art.

As the representative for Floyd D. Tunson for nearly forty years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with clients with discretionary income but not necessarily enormous wealth who seek and truly appreciate guidance about buying a piece of art. When they approach me about a possible purchase, they often say, in effect, “I really love it, but I don’t know if I should buy it. It’s pricey.” Here’s what I tell them:

“Yes, indeed, this piece is pricey. If buying it would never feel good to you because it’s too much of a sacrifice, then you should not buy it. Blank walls are beautiful: They’re open invitations to something interesting. But obviously this piece spoke to you for a reason. Now that you’re here viewing it, you might ask yourself the following:

         •What drew me to the piece?

         •Is it complex enough to probably capture my interest and enrich my life day after day, week after week, year after year?

         •What is the artist’s history?

         •How would I feel if someone else acquired this piece while I was in the process of considering it?

         • Am I interested in this piece, at least in part, as an investment? (Please say no. There is no guarantee it will appreciate. If you want it, buy it for what it brings to your intellectual, esthetic, and emotional life.)”

This approach is just one to help the client sort out his feelings, to know, say, if the kiss was just a peck on the cheek or if it was a juicy, full-mouth, irresistible invitation for more.