April 12, 2014

The Absence Of Evidence

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Short Circuit (aka Construction with J.J. Flag), c. 1958? photo: Rudy Burckhardt

Errol Morris's new film about Donald Rumsfeld has me thinking a lot lately in terms of the known unknown, and the unknown unknown. As I've tried to find the missing Jasper Johns flag painting that was in Robert Rauschenberg's 1955 combine Short Circuit I've kept running into another formulation which bridges the two: what we think we know.

It's not that the story of Short Circuit as it trickled down through history in footnotes and parentheticals and anecdotes was wrong, so much as incomplete. . And the elisions have shaped the widely accepted understanding of both artists' work. But it also prompts the question, "Who's 'we'?"

Because someone knows what happened to that flag painting. Someone's always known. It just wasn't me.

April 6, 2014

Art Of The Bush School

You go to war with the paintings you have, not the paintings you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Right now the paintings we have are by George W. Bush.

Why do they exist? Why are they being exhibited? How are they being used and discussed? Why do they matter?

The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy

I think the simplest answer for why George W. Bush started painting is because he has nothing else to do. Bush is toxic and unemployable as a political figure. He can't campaign for Republicans, can't talk on television about anything important, can't give speeches for money, can't write memoirs, can't travel to certain countries where he runs the hypothetical risk of getting arrested for war crimes. Painting is a harmless and respectable pursuit that offers an aura of cultured acceptability.


As he explained to Jay Leno, the idea of taking up painting comes from Bush's fantasy of being, or being compared to, Winston Churchill. Churchill painted. Of course, Hitler also painted. If painting makes Bush like Churchill, does it make him like Hitler, too? Is either association, when based on painting, more or less outrageous than the other? Painting becomes a rhetorical device, an uncritical excuse for likening Bush to Churchill. This has political ramifications that should not be ignored, yet they almost always are. That's the transformative power of painting.

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"I was sitting up here wondering how to kind of live life to the fullest," Bush told the History Channel, a sponsor of the GW Bush Center's exhibition, "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy." "That's the wonderful thing about painting. It's absolutely transporting," said Laura Bush.

Bush's painted portraits of world leaders he worked with are central to the premise of the show, which is that "personal diplomacy," i.e., personal friendships and relationships, are a transformative aspect of a successful foreign policy, i.e., Bush's foreign policy. Bush is personable and sensitive, which these other leaders felt, which enabled the achievements of his administration, these painted portraits show.

The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy

Is that too heavy for you? The paintings are the lone, personal expression in an exhibit that's otherwise nothing more than documentation of the systematic diplomatic ritual of documentation and exchange. They are flanked by "jumbos," large prints of photos taken by the official White House photographers, a format which lines the halls of the West Wing. Many portraits are accompanied by state-themed statuettes, books, and objets, the official gifts Bush received from his counterparts.

"But the paintings provide a personal insight that such artifacts cannot," wrote Dallas Morning News reporter Tom Benning, who toured the show with the artist:

As Bush walked through the exhibit, he stopped at each portrait to share not just an art critique, but a reflection.

He painted his dad, George H.W. Bush, in a "loving way," as a "gesture of compassion." He depicted Blair as a "good pal" with a "determined face." He focused on the Dalai Lama's lips to show his "gentle, sweet countenance."

He aimed for a "sympathetic portrait" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to highlight her sense of humor. He put a smile on former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to show that he's "just a fun guy."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "a little wary" and "suspicious about the future," reflecting his "enormously difficult job." Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "doesn't look real confident," a nod to his "fragile democracy."

"Eyes are very important," Bush said. "You can convey a feeling about somebody."

This is as good a time as any to point out that Bush painted his portraits, not just from photographs--a common enough practice as well as a long-established conceptual strategy, though I think only the former pertains here--but from the top search result on Google Images. Many photos were taken from the subject's Wikipedia entry. Bush based his paintings on the literally first-to-surface, easiest-to-find photos of his subjects.

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Is this meaningful in any way? If he had one, it would mean Bush's studio assistant is very, very lazy. But in all his discussion of it, Bush's painting practice appears to be a solitary one. He apparently did not tap the enormous archive of photos, taken by the professionals who followed him every day for eight years, which are contained in his giant library. Instead, it seems, he Googled the world leaders he made such impactful relationships with himself, and took the first straight-on headshot he saw.

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By outsourcing the editorial decisions about the source images to Google and Wikipedia, the rest of the paintings' decisions can be claimed by The Decider himself. The sources serve as an index of Bush's subjectivity, interpretations, and technique, only some of which is hinted at in his walkthrough. Maybe there's an audioguide? Whether they are successful artworks in critical or aesthetic terms is an entirely separate question. But it is disingenuous, dishonest, or delusional to claim Bush's paintings are not art.

They are the art of our time. The art of the 21st century. The art of the Bush Era and the Global War on Terror that made him famous. And for many who care deeply about art, that is very depressing. And damning. We yearn for art's relevance in our society, for art to have an impact on our culture. We want people to experience art and to feel it's important. Unfortunately, George Bush's paintings accomplish all those missions. They're the newsiest paintings to come along since George Zimmerman's eBay auction.

Bush and his paintings grab the media spotlight just as reporters are gaining traction in the years-long struggle to account for the criminality and deception of Bush & Cheney's CIA torture regime. The 6000+ page Senate report on the CIA, and the CIA's own equally damning first account of itself, plus its responses, plus vast amounts of documentation of torture practices, are slowly moving toward declassification. Leaks are starting to emerge. Official facts are starting to be documented. The practices that continue to poison US courts, treaties, military & foreign policy, and intelligence, are finally coming into sharper view--and the man responsible for it all is successfully fending off his reckoning with a paintbrush.

Ironically, there is even more important art buried within the Senate's trove of classified CIA documents. And as Bush was being interviewed by his daughter on NBC, these other artworks were still being actively suppressed. Jason Leopold and Al Jazeera reported that the Senate report contains detailed sketches of waterboarding by Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al Qaeda leader imprisoned at Guantanamo. He did not base his drawings on Google Images, but on his firsthand experience. As a "high-value detainee," Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times at a CIA black site in Afghanistan, with each interrogation session authorized and closely monitored from the White House.

Zubaydah produced ten drawings on yellow legal paper and index card-sized paper, detailing multiple torture techniques he was subjected to, Leopold reported in 2011. Since the CIA illegally destroyed its own waterboarding videotapes in 2005, these drawings may be the most powerful visual evidence of the torture regime we have left. In March Leopold also obtained and published Abu Zubaydah's diaries from before his capture, when he had been waterboarded and interrogated by Pakistani intelligence--without, it should be noted, yielding any true or useful intelligence. Which the CIA knew.

The point is, once again, art matters. Art has surfaced in the most dire circumstances, at a crucial moment in our society's history, produced by someone whose actions and moral standing confound our engagement with it. And culturally speaking, we don't care; we'd rather see Bush's folksy pictures from the internet. Every news story about Bush's paintings represents ten reports not filed about Bush's torture. In the art world, meanwhile, we'd rather not see it at all. Better to condemn and dismiss it quickly. Snark and move on. Stoke the indignance that keeps us and our practices unsullied. Ward off any engagement with cowering incantations of connoisseurship and facture.

This is how art appears in our society today. Art works, as they say, and this is what it does: it absolves and redeems and defuses and deflects. Ultimately, George Bush's paintings are important less for what they show, than for what they obscure. And the art world's critical structures seem unable or unwilling to meet the challenge posed by the art of the torture & terrorism school.

The Art of Leadership runs through June 3, 2014 [bushcenter.org]

I'm really stoked to contribute a top ten list to UbuWeb this month.

When Kenny Goldsmith invited me to submit a list, I first tried to come up with some new, revealing, conceptual strategy for generating it. I thought of the top ten most viewed items, and then the ten least viewed. But then I learned that Ubu doesn't keep logs. I thought of the ten largest files, but then figured it'd just be the longest movies, and big whoop. I thought of a top ten list of top ten lists. And when I worried that I would just be mirroring some taste or trend, I thought of identifying the ten items most frequently included in other peoples' lists. Several more ideas were patiently disabused out of me, and I began running through my chance operations options.

Then I realized I'd already begun making my list, starting back in 2002, when I linked to ubu.com from my blog for the first time. Ubu at that point was still quite mysterious, and much smaller--mostly ancient and arcane concrete poetry reprints I frankly hadn't heard of. But I kept coming back. A huge collection of video and audio appeared, Kenneth Goldsmith came out from behind the curtain, seeming much older and august in my mind than he turned out to be--I imagined he was a survivor of this lost underground scene, not an explorer.

Anyway, I assembled my list from twelve years links here at greg.org, highlights from my life with UbuWeb. They're roughly chronological which has become an indispensable collaborator, not just a source of discovery and inspiration.

monument.greg.org is now live.

I thought it'd take five minutes. hah. If I'd known how much time all the pdfs were gonna take, I would've just 'shopped a screenshot instead.

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March 30, 2014

On's Location

So I did as I was told this morning, and clicked:

on_kawara_location_1965_vanabbemuseum.jpg

And now I'm confused. So I googled:

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And now I'm even more confused. The painting is from Joseph Kosuth, but it's by On Kawara. It's titled Location, 1965, one of his earliest canvases still in existence. It's one which predates, but obviously prefigures, his Today series, which began in 1966.

Only it's not a series. And its coordinates, in the middle of the Sahara desert in eastern Algeria, don't indicate where it was painted. It happens to be called the Grand Erg Oriental, the Great Eastern Sand Sea. But as a location it's so utterly remote and barren, it's more like a noplace than a someplace.

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Title, 1965, collection nga.gov, image via

So what is it, and why? I have no idea. At first I thought it might have some highly political resonance like another of Kawara's early paintings, Title, also 1965, the magenta triptych that seems like a protest against American military involvement in Vietnam.

Algeria had been the site of a devastating and anti-colonialist war against France, the aftermath of which continued well into 1965. Kawara moved to Paris from Mexico in 1962, just as France was losing, and hundreds of thousands of Franco-Algerian refugees began pouring into the country.

Kawara's not one to explain his art, though, or talk or write about it at all. In fact June 1965 was the last time he discussed his work publicly, in an interview with Bijutsu Techo critic Homma Masayoshi. I'm trying to scare up Homma's text from some Japanese library stack, but otherwise, who knows?

Well, maybe Joseph Kosuth does. Kosuth donated the atypical Kawara painting to the Van Abbemuseum in 1980 with the tagline, "in memory of Fernand Spillemaeckers," his Belgian dealer who passed away in 1978. Spillemaeckers was instrumental in introducing conceptual art to Belgium, and he gave Kosuth a show in 1975. I imagine he was instrumental in Kosuth's Text/Context billboard exhibition, which kicked off in Europe at the van Abbemuseum.

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Art as Idea as Idea, 1968, collection vanabbemuseum.nl

Or maybe Kosuth threw the Kawara in for free after Spillemaeckers sold the van Abbemuseum a half dozen formally similar Kosuths in 1977-78, including five Art as Idea as Idea photostats from 1968, and the ink-on-glass series One and Nine A Description, from 1965.

Location hasn't been shown much, or written about almost at all. It was reproduced in the catalogue for GNS [Global Navigation System], a 2003 collective show at the Palais de Tokyo. According to their blog, the organizers had proposed a project to Kawara, who rejected it, but allowed them to include Location. [So it's not that Kawara doesn't talk about his work; he just doesn't talk about it with you.]

And of course, it will be included in The Part In The Story, an exhibition curated by Heman Chong and Samuel Saelemakers, which opens at Witte de With in May. If they're tweeting about it with this much lead time, maybe this is finally our chance to find out what's going on with this Kawara painting.

The Part In The Story Where A Part Becomes A Part Of Something Else opens May 22 at Witte de With [wdw.nl]

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I don't know what's going on here. This image was the intro for a Yahoo News slideshow yesterday on Russia's annexation of Crimea, and so it doesn't have any caption or credit line.

At first I thought it was just a graphic of the Ukrainian and Russian flags, but looking a bit longer, I started to wonder why it had these irregular, dingy, textured spots on it. Which would be odd for a CG graphic, but normal for a photograph.

But then what's it a picture of? A wall? A carpet? Is this a detail from a giant flag mural somewhere? Did someone make a flag-themed rug for some international event? Which people have been walking all over like some geopolitically conflicted Rudolf Stingel installation?

Anyway, the obvious solution now is to make such an installation. I can see a whole series of flag carpets, coming soon to a regionally appropriate biennial near you.

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Usually the Internet solves mysteries by yielding definitive information. Sometimes it makes it worse, though, and more confusing. Tumblr, I'm lookin' at you.

Artist/artist book hero Dave Dyment emailed the other day, wondering what I thought about the source of 10 Rules For Students And Teachers From John Cage, which was famously on the wall at Merce Cunningham's studio for years, and which has been circulating online in various photocopied and scanned forms.

Except for Rule 10, which is a quote from Cage's book SILENCE, Dave didn't think it really sounded like Cage, and I certainly agree. And he'd never been able to find the other texts in Cage's published works. So who might have written it, if not Cage? And if he didn't write it, how did it get attributed to Cage, while it was hanging on the wall of Cage's longtime partner's studio?

In 2012, Brain Picking had said that despite what everyone thought about Cage, 10 Rules' actual author was everyone's favorite serigraphicist nun, Sister Corita Kent.

Which was funny, because in 2010, blogger Keri Smith wrote about 10 Rules because she'd heard exactly the opposite: that despite what everyone had heard about Sister Corita, those rules were actually written by John Cage. And one source of that information was none other than Laura Kuhn, of the John Cage Trust.

Smith's post attracted some seriously high quality comments in 2010-12, including students of students of Sister Corita who remembered the Rules; and scholars of dancers who remembered the flyers. Then in June 2012, Jill Bell quoted "Richard Crawford who was in on the creation of 'The Rules'." Crawford was a student of Sister Corita's in 1967-68, and says she gave the class the assignment to come up with a list of rules one night, and then to design and print them up. Cage's quote was contributed by one of the students.

Which, even if it's definitive, still doesn't explain how they got to Cage, and to Merce with Cage's name. The Rules circulated among Kent's students and school. They were included in the 1986 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, with Cage's name in parentheses following Rule 10. Whether Kent sent the Rules to Cage before this, or after, or Cage found them and posted them, or a Merce dancer found them, they were connected to Cage and had a resonant presence in Cunningham's and Cage's community. If the last two years have uncovered any additional history from the MCDC side, I haven't seen it, but I'd love to.

2012: 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent [brainpickings.org]
2010: You Know I Love A Good Mystery [kerismith]

Holy smokes, who knew that Rhonda Lieberman had the complete works of Thorstein Veblen in that Celine bag, and that she's not afraid to swing it?

After years of quiet one-eyebrow-raised reportage from the art world circuit, Lieberman has published a blistering takedown of neo-Gilded-Age collecting in, of course, The Baffler. And yet somehow, she seems to manage to leave most [non-Crystal] bridges unburned. No small feat.

I was ready to storm the ramparts, when I was caught by this paragraph:

Bernie Madoff's prized piece of office art was a four-foot sculpture of a screw that he frequently dusted off himself (he, like Donald Trump and scores of other plutocrats, is a notorious neat freak). A defense lawyer pleaded for the valued object to be photoshopped out of court documents, lest it be prejudicial to members of the jury. When Madoff's Ponzi scheme went bust, J. Ezra Merkin, whose feeder funds supplied Madoff with investors, was no longer Mastering the Universe quite so comfortably. So he sold his stunning batch of Rothkos for $310 million. Whenever I see a Rothko I think of Madoff, and how the afterlife of modern art is now yoked to the pissing matches performed by the big swinging dicks of Wall Street.
Merkin's Rothko firesale in the earliest days of the Madoff scandal, I know. But this screw is new to me. Let's learn more.

OK, that was fast, here it is:

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Government Exhibit 1000-81, document 447-1, 2008 photo of Bernard Madoff's office showing [r to l] a Beanie Baby in a tiny Wassily chair; Claes Oldenburg'sSoft Screw, 1976; Henri Matisse's Tete de Femme, 1952; and plates III & VI of Roy Lichtenstein's Bull Profile Series, 1973

The court case is for a group of former Madoff employees, and last September federal prosecutors and defense attorneys debated the meaning of the sculpture, its symbolic embodiment of the firm's "lad culture," and its implications for the alleged accomplices' case:

The screw sculpture appeared in photos of Madoff's desk, and a witness would testify that it was removed during an SEC on-site examination in 2005, prosecutors said. But defense lawyers argued that it was unfair to link a possible symbol of ripping off investors to their clients.

"The issue with this screw is that there is a secondary meaning that the government is going to try to implant with the jury, that it was a kind of inside joke... that was known to some of the defendants here," said Eric Breslin, the lawyer to Madoff account manager Joann Crupi.

That quote is from Newsday, quoted in a lengthier discussion at Above the Law about the implications of the judge's unusual order that evidence be Photoshopped before being introduced. I'm still trying to find the redacted image.

Anyway, the sculpture, as you might guess, is by Claes Oldenburg. It's called Soft Screw, from a 1976 Gemini G.E.L. edition in cast black urethane on a mahogany base. Madoff's example is signed 15/24. There were also three artist proofs, one special proof, and three publisher's proofs.

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In documenting the "crime scene," government investigators have inadvertently made their own Louise Lawler photo. The Lichtensteins remind me of an actual Lawler, Arranged by Donald Marron, Susand Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber, 1982 [above], which was in the Met's Pictures Generation exhibition in 2009. The self-satisfied wall text accompanying that Lawler bugged me because of how it privileged museums as interpreters of meaning.

Lawler's work is so fascinating precisely because it explores the life [sic] of art outside of the white-glove, white cube of the museum, and it gains power from the unexpected resonance between the autumnal colors of a Pollock and the Limoges; between a Lichtenstein print and a fax machine. It should be a reminder of what gets lost when art's only presumed destiny is to end up in a museum.
And really, is there a greater reminder of loss than Bernie Madoff? Let's consider the meaning of a giant, soft screw in the office of a legendary investment manager who everyone he worked with quietly knew was a running a decades-long con. Or the undiluted symbolism of Lichtenstein & Picasso bulls in the collection of the former chairman of NASDAQ. Or Jasper Johns numbers prints 0-9 and Twombly's graffito abstractions in a firm with an entire floor dedicated to forging a paper trail for its non-existent transactions.

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Madoff's edition of Lichtenstein's Bull Profile Series, 1973, is #31/100, btw. image: USG Exhibit 1000-79

Maybe it's here in the offices and conference rooms of the financial industry where art functions best: as abstractions of the predatory system it's embedded in; as markers of cultural refinement in a ruthless boiler room of capitalism; as a spoonful of aesthetic sugar to make the banking go down.

And nothing says art commodification quite like the large-edition prints Madoff favored. Most of the three dozen or so name brand artworks decorating Madoff's office were made in editions of 75, 100, 150, even 250 and 300. And soon you'll be able to invest yourself, because it will all be for sale. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Services (BLMIS)'s art and furniture at Sotheby's. Though originally planned for last fall, I just spoke with Sotheby's, and the Madoff hoard, such as it is, will be included in the prints sale this May.

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another example exhibited

Which gets me wondering: would it be possible to capture and preserve the Madoffian implications of these works as they are wrung through the art market? Can we flag these specific examples of these prints as Collection Bernard Madoff forever, and see how they perform going forward? Not just in terms of the market, but in their critical dialogue, their meaning? Can Madoff's example, 4/24, of Ellsworth Kelly's Colored Paper Image XIV (Yellow Curve), 1976, mean something different than ed. 22/24, above, which Susan Sheehan Gallery just brought to the Armory show? And can ed. 15/24 be forever known as Bernard Madoff's Soft Screw?

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Bunch of Asparagus, 1880, Edouard Manet, collection Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, image: cabbagegames

In his Project 74, Hans Haacke pieced together the ownership history of a little Manet painting, Bunch of Asparagus, from the German-Jewish artist whose work had been banned by the Nazis, to the ex-Nazi banker who headed the committee which bought the work for the the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. Can we not do the same thing prospectively, writing Madoff into the history of each of his artworks as they go back into circulation? I think we can.

UPDATE Wow, these screws are so screwed. Art conservation researcher Joy Bloser emails that around 2007, various examples of Oldenburg's Soft Screw started melting. Or to put it another way, THEY STARTED MELTING. The urethane began an irreversible process of depolymerization, reverting to a liquid. The bendy tip of the screw usually starts dripping away. Here's one image of a drippy screw; here's an album of several more screws from the edition. What an incredible mess. Apparently, urethane reversion is exacerbated by inconsistent mixing; or exposure to light, heat, or moisture. When screws became discolored, some gallerists apparently recommended collectors just polish them up with Armor-All. Bernard Madoff insisting on dusting his own Soft Screw may be one of the most prudent, conservation-minded decisions he ever made.

Hoard d'Oeuvres [thebaffler via Giovanni Garcia-Fenech]
Bernie Madoff's Giant Screw: Is Photoshop A Proper Rule 403 Remedy? [abovethelaw]
Madoff Office Furniture, Art to be Sold at Auction [wsj]
Exhibit A: Property from BLMIS, the 8-page list of Bernard Madoff's artworks [PDF, published by WSJ at documentcloud.org, backup copy here at greg.org]

I don't want to pick on Ruth Graham, just the opposite. I have had "Word Theft," her Poetry Foundation essay on plagiarism open in my tabs for two months because the relentlessly negative framing of the issue is so representative of the way text copying or reuse is discussed practically everywhere.

Graham focuses on a particular type and context and history of plagiarism: the republishing of poetry. Most of the cases she describes involve less-established poets rewriting or adding to poems published by someone else. They often happen across borders or continents, with poems transplanted from one national/regional ecosystem to another, from one tiny journal to another. Invariably, the original writer is not credited or notified when her work is reused.

Here is how Graham tries to explain these plagiarists' sins, starting with a set-up from Ira LIghtman, a British poet who became a sort of plagiarism vigilante last year, unearthing unauthorized copying and notifying the victims:

"I don't see them all as these sinister, plotting, Machiavellian characters," he said. "I see it as a corruption. And we're all vulnerable to corruption." He suggests that transgressors retreat to self-publishing for a few years, prove themselves honest, and then return to the fold.

If plagiarists are not sinister and Machiavellian, then why do they do it? This question gets asked every time there's a fresh revelation of plagiarism, whether it's in the literary world, journalism, or academia. There's never a satisfying answer, but there are at least lots of guesses, often somewhat at odds with each other: laziness or panic, narcissism or low self-esteem, ambition or deliberate self-sabotage.

First, I love this notion of a self-publishing wilderness these sinners are supposed to wander. But it's really the professed bafflement at the copyists' motives. It is apparently impossible, ever, for the poetic imagination to muster even a non-pathological explanation for copying or reuse, much less a sympathetic one. And if the poetry universe were ever to come into contact with a constructive or affirmative explanation, a defense, a championing of plagiarism, I'm sure it would annihilate in a flash of crackling heat.

And yet. And yet, Graham's own historical set-up notes that Coleridge was "an inveterate thief," and Hart Crane "borrowed heavily from a lesser-known" contemporary. Literary outlaw Laurence Sterne's success with Tristram Shandy is an historical disgrace, according to Graham's telling, but frankly, despite her scolding, the novel comes out sounding kind of awesome.

Again and again, it strikes me that the pieces are there to assemble a clearer, more productive view of plagiarism, but people are too blinded by the pain, the hurt, the effrontery of it all.

Is there a way to pick this dynamic apart, though, and look at its constituent elements? Cultural norms and expectations of each field differ. People may not know them, or they may ignore or reject them, or they may challenge them. This matters. I think the direction of reuse matters: up, down, or across? So does the perceived tenure or seniority or insiderness of the parties, or conversely, their tenure-seeking, amateurism, or marginality. The utility of publication for a career, or a brand. The effects of not being credited, not "getting one's due," recognition in a field where recognition is almost the only compensation available.

Is there a way to even have a conversation about plagiarism where it's not a priori evil? How would that go? How would it be if poets whose work was reused or reworked thought it was great, not offensive? What if complete internalization and adoption of a poem by a reader was considered the highest praise and achievement, not an insult? What if Google or whatever obviated any presumption of undetectable reuse, and everybody came to expect that sources or similarities were always only a search away? What if, when it came to expecting or demanding credit, poets took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference?

Word Theft, by Ruth Graham [poetryfoundation.org]

Last summer I wondered about finding and visiting Walter de Maria's Las Vegas Piece, three miles of trench bulldozed into the Nevada desert in 1969. [Technically, I wrote about the Center For Land Use Interpretation's account of leading curator Miwon Kwon's graduate seminar on a hunt for Las Vegas Piece, and about how the artist prepped people for visiting the piece, and about just recreating the damn thing already, we have the technology! Did you know Sturtevant worked on plans to make a double of Double Negative? On the ravine on the Mormon Mesa right next to Michael Heizer's fresh original? Holy smokes, people, read Bruce Hainley's book. But that's another post.]

Yes, the piece is supposedly lost, and now de Maria is, too. And so all we're left with is his description of Las Vegas Piece from his 1972 oral history interview with Paul Cumming.

But no, there is another. The late curator Jan van der Marck wrote about visiting Las Vegas Piece in the catalogue for an exhibition of "instruction Drawings" from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman collection at the Bergen (NO) Kunstverein in 2001. van der Marck was a founding curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and was involved in organizing artists' response to the police violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention. But that's another post, too. Here's van der Marck's crazy story of what amounts to an Earth Art junket: [with paragraph breaks added for the internet]:

Earth art turned into a personal experience for me in February 1970 when Virginia Dwan invited me and a few German art writers and museum directors to join her and the artists Michael Heizer and alter De Maria on a quick inspection of some new works in the Nevada Desert. From the Las Vegas airport our small band traveled ninety-five miles in north-northeastern direction on unpaved roads, in the back of Heizer's pickup truck.

That afternoon was going to be devoted to De Maria's Las Vegas Piece, which he would describe to us only as "an extensive linear work on a flat valley floor." An hour before sundown we arrived at our destination and were gripped by the stillness of the landscape. Before us stretched a freshly dug, eight-foot deep ditch in the sage brush-covered desert soil, in the distance loomed the purplish mesas.

We had to lower ourselves into the bulldozed trench, which wind and erosion already had given a natural look, and we were to start walking. Other trenches would branch of, the artist warned us, and choices had to be made, but it would not take us long before the layout could be deduced from the turns with which we were faced. The first man or woman able to draw a mental map was encouraged to shout and would be declared the winner. And, by the way, De Maria added, 'don't go the full three miles, because if you do, you are not much of a mathematician!" The configuration we were to discover for ourselves in the least amount of steps was a one-mile incision into the landscape meeting another one-mile incision at a right angles [sic]. At the midpoint of each one-mile stretch a set of half-mile ditches branched off, meeting each other at a right angle and forming a perfect square. Walter De Maria's Las Vegas Piece, long reclaimed by the desert and inaccurately described in the literature, was seen by a hand-full [sic] of people.

Yes, let's take things in order. First, the hilarious image of Michael Heizer blazing down a dirt road in BF Nevada with a truckload of German museum directors. This is a thing that happened.

Next, "declared the winner"? De Maria apparently positioned the experience of his piece as a game and a competition, a mathematical mystery that visitors were supposed to calculate with their bodies and draw in their heads. What is that about? And anyway, who is going to judge this competition? If a curator cracks an earth art mystery in the desert, and no one's within a mile of them to hear it, do they make a sound?

There's a big point I'll get to, but let's jump to the end, where van der Marck calls out [in the footnotes] Carol Hall's 1983 paper "Environmental Artists: Sources & Directions" for an inaccurate description of Las Vegas Piece. Well, my diagram above would need correcting, too. According to van der Marck, the two mile-long lines in Las Vegas Piece met, and each was bisected by a half-mile trench, which met in turn to form the square. Which would look more like a right angle bracket, like this:

demaria_las_vegas_piece_revised.jpg

But the artist himself needs correcting, too. Because the diagram I drew was based on de Maria's explanation to Cumming. And the biggest difference of all, of course, is that de Maria told Cumming the trench was "about a foot deep, two feet deep and about eight feet wide." Yet van der Marck said it was eight feet deep and that they had to lower themselves into it. This is a non-trivial difference. If it was the former, then visitors would be in constant sight of the surrounding landscape and each other. If it's the latter, they're completely cut off. From everything. All they have is the view along the trench, and the darkening sky. It's the difference between a meditative labyrinth path, and an actual FPS-style labyrinth.

Also, if De Maria's piece was really eight feet deep, it would relate more directly to Heizer's nearby Double Negative--and it would still almost certainly be visible, or at least findable.

And now the fact that as august a scholar as Miwon Kwon relied on as ambiguous a guide as CLUI tells me that no one actually knows what the deal is with Las Vegas Piece. Except, perhaps Virginia Dwan.

UPDATE: Indeed. Virginia Dwan donated her gallery's archives to the Smithsonian, but they are currently closed for processing. According to Margaret Iversen's 2007 book on post-Freudianism, Dwan told Charles Stuckey in an 1984 interview that De Maria forbade any photographs or documentation of Las Vegas Piece, partly to abjure the work's commodification.

demaria_las_vegas_piece_aerial_bw.jpg

Yet an unsourced, undated aerial photo reproduced on this French webpage seems to depict Las Vegas Piece. The scale is about right. And when I flipped it 180-degrees, the geographic features look like they match the area just to the right/east of the map marker above. But what are we actually seeing? Isn't that top line a road? And there's a diagonal line. Yet if they're not Las Vegas Piece, who would take this picture here, and why? If it's really credible, I'd guess that the photo was the source of CLUI's coordinates, identified by the same method I just did: by eyeballing.

When Dwan accompanied Calvin Tomkins on a visit to Las Vegas Piece in 1976, they followed a map De Maria made, but never located the work itself. This despite Dwan's having visited the site before. Lawrence Alloway made it, though, for his October 1976 Artforum article, "Site Inspection." [Both accounts are only online as excerpts in Iriz Amizlev's 1999 dissertation, "Land Art: Layers of Memory," from the Universite de Montreal. (pdf). Amizlev also ID's Carlos Huber of Kunsthalle Basel and John Weber in the back seat of Heizer's pickup.]

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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Standard Operating Procedure
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CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
Canal Zone Richard Prince
YES RASTA 2:The Appeals Court
Decision, plus the Court's
Complete Illustrated Appendix (2013)
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"Exhibition Space"
Mar 20 - May 8 @apexart, NYC


HELP/LESS Curated by Chris Habib
Printed Matter, NYC
Summer 2012
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Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
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"Richteriana," Postmasters Gallery, NYC

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Canal Zone Richard
Prince YES RASTA:
Selected Court Documents
from Cariou v. Prince (2011)
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