Archive for the Artists in exile Category

 

The New York Times today reports on the goings-on at Governors Island, a 172-acre cultural refuge just 800 yards off the shore of a larger island of somewhat more cultural renown, Manhattan. The article describes how, over the past four years, as the Manhattan boom reached a peak and then turned quickly to bust, artists have begun a daytime habitation of the non-residential island. (Governors Island is described a quirky amalgam of empty Victorians, a high school, forts, parade grounds, ball fields, an artificial beach, and an “encircling promenade.”) It describes the happenings today as “ingrown and wildly experimental,” akin to an Art Wonderland.

 

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Governors Island was originally, before the 20th century, a military base. It has been managed through the years by the State of New York, the U.S. Army, and the Coast Guard, until it was finally was shuttered by the federal government in 1997. Thanks to the efforts of Leslie Koch, who runs the Trust for Governors Island, the island now is replete with such ongoing cultural whimsies at “artsy miniature golf, avant-garde theater and whimsical sculpture.” Its participants include “trapeze artists, bicyclists, conceptual artists, D.J.’s, musicians, dancers and dramatists,” and its attractions range from “a free miniature-golf course designed by an arts group, where fanciful stations allow players to take metaphorical potshots at a national missile defense shield or putt a ball in support of carbon-neutral footprints” to “outdoor dance performances in one of the island’s forts, a mock archaeological dig meant to play with ideas of the island’s past, an African film festival, outdoor Shakespeare,” an Art Fair, “and Civil War re-enactments.” So far, this season the island has attracted 250,000 curious gawkers, a sharp uptick from only a year ago.

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As you and I know, artists are like this. They’re opportunistic like bacteria (the good kind, you know, that helps you digest food and so on). When the economy, or political factors, or the standards of society blocks to them and many of the rest of us from doing what we most want to do, artists are among the only ones of us who will not rest until they find a place to rest. In the gutted sections of a gutted city, in the blown-out industrial areas of a postmodern city, even on an abandoned island — you can bet that artists will be among the first to begin looking for creative and sustainable ways to rebuild, reconfigure, restore, and recover.

Course, I don’t have to remind you what usually happens next; once the artists have brought a place back to life, once the culture of the formerly dead and dilapidated and all-but-destroyed parts of our society is restored, then come the moneyed interests, the developers, the scammer, skimmers, and other scabs who would never do the hard, dirty work and who capitalize on those who do. The article notes a “master plan” that outlines  “development zones,” phases of construction, and so on. And Ms. Koch herself makes no bones about using artists as a launching point for creating an “island culture,” even as her $12.5 million budget includes no money to pay artists or for programming. She talks, without apparent irony, about the island’s “brand” being “summer vacation with irony.”

Still, as this is the new feel-good CAFA, we’ll not be our usual cynical selves and just try to enjoy the whimsical, populist, free-ranging and free-spirited Art Wonderland that currently inhabits Governors Island. Then, when island development inevitably takes off, and the artists are shuffled off in the usual unceremonious fashion, we’ll go find the next Art Wonderland that artists create.

(Photos are courtesy the Figment Project)

The Two Coats of Paint blog posted a nice a piece on the Park Place Gallery, on the occasion of an exhibition, at the Blanton Museum, that takes retrospective look at the artists who helped establish the ground-breaking 1960s gallery.

One of the artists, Dean Fleming, was featured in several short posts last year on the Chronicle of Artistic Failure, as an artistic figure who’s long been forgotten by the mainstream art world.

Here’s an interesting passage from the press materials for the show at the Blanton Museum (quoted also by Two Coats…), which is called “Reimaging Space” [emphasis mine]:

Park Place artists were united by their multifaceted explorations of space. Their abstract paintings and sculptures, with dynamic geometric forms and color palettes, created optical tension, and were partially inspired by the architecture and energy of urban New York. The group regularly discussed the visionary theories of Buckminster Fuller, Space Age technologies, science fiction, and the psychology of expanded perception, and these ideas become essential to their work. Dean Fleming’s paintings of shifting, contradictory spaces were intended to transform viewers, provoking an expanded consciousness. Di Suvero’s allegiance was to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and his kinetic sculptures explored gravity and momentum in space.

By assembling a selection of major works not seen together since that era—as well as photographs and documents chronicling the group’s activities—this exhibition opens a new window on the art world of the 1960s. In doing so, it reveals the decade to have been a period of much richer artistic possibility than standard art histories suggest. According to Guest Curator Linda Dalrymple Henderson, ‘Reimagining Space’ is meant to ‘encourage new, more subtle readings of the 1960s and to direct attention to the superb Park Place artists who have not received the critical attention they deserve.’

I met Dean Fleming in the summer of 2005. Driving through the Sangre de Christo mountains about 40 miles south of Pueblo, I realized the weather in Colorado in August is about a perfect you’ll ever fine. Heartbreakingly beautiful. The sky is a pearlescent blue ocean hanging over the sage green ocean-bottom valleys and the distant coral-reef mountains. On each side of the Huerfano valley, the landscape rises up into scrubby chaparral then disappears into rocky murky mountaintops.

Dean Fleming first discovered this region in 1966. At the time, he was feeling increasingly stifled in New York. “Art was a profession,” he said, “like playing football. You get together a resume and a portfolio. You work to get the critics to do a review… The structure of the profession was not something I ever worked at. I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. In New York, there’s a lot of pressure to repeat yourself and do the same thing. In New York I was the ‘parallelogram’ painter, which I thought sucked beyond belief. I didn’t want anything to do with that. I wanted to do what I felt like.”

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 Dean Fleming, “Untitled,” 1965

 

Fleming took a get-out-of-New York trip to California in 1966 with composer Steve Reich and painter John Baldwin. On the way, they stopped Ignacio, Colorado, to catch a Native American Sundance. “I found it magical,” said Fleming. In a letter to New York gallery owner Paula Cooper in July 1966, he wrote:

Dear Paula,

Excellent mustanging across country spending 4 days with the Colorado Utes sun dancing, basking in stars & Rocky Mountain blaze of sun, cleansing chunks of Manhattan funk & generally changing. Steve playing tapes, John the trumpet & me giving out books & buttons, we Johnny Appleseeded culture across the land…

Fleming’s suggestion that he was changing was revealing. It was difficult for him to adjust again to SoHo when he returned: “When I went back to New York, ” he said, “to my loft on Broom Street, I had a dream that I was supposed to be in the country, surrounded by friends. That was the impetus to come back to Colorado.”

In 1965, some artists, filmmakers, and philosophical types from Lawrence, Kansas had started—in Trinidad, Colorado—what would become known as the first rural “hippy commune,” Drop City. The founders of Drop City had hope to continue working on an art concept—Drop Art—they had developed earlier at the University of Kansas. Drop Art was informed by the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow and the work of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and R. Buckminster Fuller—a professor and inventor who pondered questions related what would later become known as the “sustainability” movement. (Fleming knew “Bucky” Fuller, as he called him. In fact, he learned to make the geodesic dome that is his Libre Commune studio/home from him.)

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The Ultimate Painting ,” by Drop Artists, 1966, acrylic on panel, 60″ x 60″

Fleming first stopped at Drop City with a few friends for a short stay, coming to think of the place as a “touch chaotic.” “They had this open-door policy thing that was untenable,” he explained. “Artists need their own space to think and get work done. They were doomed for failure.” (Drop City was abandoned by its residents in 1970.)

After a few months, Fleming and his group discovered a plot of acreage on a mountainside near Gardner, Colorado. Somehow they scraped up the money to purchase it ($6000), and thus began the Libre Community, a continuously existing commune that has expanded and contracted through the years—with various artist microcommunities popping up then fading away. Amazingly, the commune still exists today, forty years after its founding.

“It’s a funny mix here,” said Fleming, who these days possesses deeply lined face and a long mane of white hair. “There have always been Native American practitioners, Buddhists, wine drinkers, pot smokers. Theater artists. Photographers. Artists. Everyone, each in their own area. Some of the groups overlap. But for me, it’s always just been a great place to work.”

Fleming’s life as a working artist in Colorado has been long and rich—even removed as it’s been from mainstream currents. “I don’t have a lot of money. I never have. But if I have a place to stay, it works out.” Still, like anyone, he seems to have his share of regrets. “I worry about not having health insurance,” he said several times over the course of my stay.

Fleming still paints every morning, first thing—”even when I’m traveling,” he said. Behind his geodesic studio, a good-sized shack holds a large cache of paintings reveals the results of this fifty years of effort. He is pensive about his legacy as he shows this trove to me. “My situation (as an obscure artist) is deliberate. It doesn’t matter in the long run if people like my work or not. I seek a place always where the painting takes over. I’d hope the observer would have that experience, but that’s very individual. It’s the nature of people to like a different painting for different reasons. I think of painting as being a mirror for people—where they’re at.”