Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick
in ‘Climb at your own risk’, Electa, Roma, 2007.
Recently, a book was published in the United States that discusses and reproduces presidential doodles.[i] The uxorious Rutherford Hayes drew portraits of his lovely wife; the athleticizing polio-victim FDR, a fisherman and builder of model ships, drew them as well; the prosaic Dwight Eisenhower drew the ordinary objects of the 1950s: pencils, tables, and nuclear weapons. Others are more interesting. The first president, farmer, mathematician and sacred cow, George Washington, methodically darkened alternating squares framing a page of paper. Some might say that this is the kind of doodling one would expect from the famously dull Washington: mindless, automatic, even, with no personal signature. On the other end of things, Richard Nixon, the most loathed of U.S. presidents (at least until recent events), is represented by an abstract, semi-geometric freehand form, a kind of fractured diamond shape with overtones of Vasarely. Was Nixon secretly a free spirit, longing to express his inner artistic impulses? Probably not: even this drawing is not so much free as typical, very like what so many of us would draw without thinking, rendering a primitive three-dimensional illusion. In fact, referring not to the form of his drawings but his own uptightness, Nixon described himself as “probably a square doodler.”
Claude Closky is not particularly square, but he is a doodler. The ballpoint pen drawings with which he covers pages and fills books strike at something central about art today, and even beyond art. The doodle, with its quality of the automatic gesture, its balance between paying and not paying attention, is a way of making art in the state that Walter Benjamin called distracted apperception. Benjamin was referring to the reception of art, not its production, and to the modern consumer’s experience of architecture and film in particular. But that consumer is also, as Benjamin remembered, a producer and so someone who would have, he believed, an active relation to his or her surroundings, as opposed to a contemplative one. Closky, similarly, makes work in a way that recalls the kind of attention people pay to videos, magazines, or advertisements in the course of everyday activity, or they way they scan through the net. As an artist he is intensely focused and productive, but he makes the focus of his activity something that we normally do in a distracted way; for example, photography for him is better represented by low-resolution cell-phone pictures rather than by high-definition studio work.
The presidential doodles suggest that even the most important men in the world, doing the most important tasks in the world, drift away into the least important. Closky’s pen drawings, with their quality of off-handedness, show the contemporary artist in a similar state of distraction (although for this group of people both their importance and the momentousness of their activities can be called into question). Much of the time, an artist at work may simply be wondering what to do next. Perhaps the best-known example of the use of this situation as a subject of art are the early films Bruce Nauman made out of the repetitious, time-killing actions done in the studio, ostensibly while waiting for the big idea to come. Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance), 1967-68, for instance, shows the artist moving methodically around a square marked in masking tape on the studio floor for the duration of the ten-minute film.
Like Nauman’s, Closky’s art doesn’t manifest idleness, but rather its opposite: constant, manic activity. The drawings, low-tech videos, magazine interventions, books, and web-sites that Closky makes can seem slight when set next to the high-production (and high-priced) art work of recent years—enormous, professionally fabricated sculptures, Hollywood-quality videos, and large-scale photographs, whose production values are accompanied by invocations of big issues: the history of art, the end of modernism, the state of geopolitics. Closky, in contrast, levels the playing field, treating the most mundane acts of artistic activity—the simplest kinds of marks, the most banal content, the most primitive activity, such as just gluing a picture cut from a magazine onto a piece of paper—with the seriousness of high-stakes art. From the art-making point of view, he is a radical democrat, like George Washington: taking a grid, for instance, he fills in some of the squares by simply darkening them or drawing little diagonal or vertical lines through them, demonstrating by the multiplicity of such pages how many more or less equivalent ways there are of doing this.
In the early 1990s, Closky made many works that emphasized endurance or completion, like the Used Sketch book of 1990, in which he filled a 200-page sketchbook with black scribbles made with a ballpoint pen. A work from the previous year exhausted the possible ways–sixteen–in which to fold a cardboard box. Both playing on the Conceptual art of the 1960s and 70s, like Sol LeWitt’s, that moved through mathematical possibilities for forms, and remembering Pop art’s concern with packaging, All the ways to close a cardboard box seems to obviate the intention of the artist as well as his hand (anyone, after all, can fold a box, and no one can do it any other way than those demonstrated here). Like the Conceptual artists, Closky addresses himself to the ideal and the absolute—embodied in the complete set of possible ways of performing a certain action–but, amusingly, he always places his absolutes in the realm of the quotidian.
Some of the early drawings reflect on the material reality of the drawing form itself, like an image of the corner of a sheet of paper (is it an indexical tracing or an iconic representation?), or a set of dashes designated by their caption as being at the top of the page. Often Closky plays on the inadequacy of representational imagery and the necessary role of supplementary information provided by titles, as in Cheveux bruns [Brown hair], 1996, a tangle of curving vertical black lines.
In many of the drawings, sculptures, and other projects of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Closky accepts the form of the grid, without the obvious resistance of irrational, non-geometric and therefore “personal” markings visible in drawings by artists like Eva Hesse. As with the box folding, the marks he makes are those suggested by the grid. The artist, like the presidential doodler, is not a privileged mark maker. On the other hand, Closky does have his “favorite square” in the sea of squares. In one of our favorite drawings, Carré préféré [Favorite square], 1993, Closky outlines in blue a single square on a sheet of graph paper. The work makes one laugh out loud: what could be more absurd than to prefer one square out of hundreds of identical squares, which in turn are identical to millions, billions, trillions on other identical sheets of paper? And yet he does (or we take it on faith that he does), faced with this particular sheet of paper. He also indicates his twenty favorite minutes in the day, using images from a digital watch (digital time being, like the grid, another leveler), and ranks a series of colors according to his preference. It’s like the scene in Buñuel’s Tristana, where the heroine insists that one must choose which column in a row of identical building elements is the favorite, or else abandon individuality. These personal preferences, whatever the degree of intention with which the artist actually invests them, inflect the absolute democracy of mass-produced, urban life with an absurd but still existent individual will.
Other drawings from the early 1990s go further towards the absurd, individualizing cultural forms or givens, like fitting a figure “8” with an extra set of curves. More recently, Closky gives voice to images he clips from magazine advertisements, creating handwritten captions or titles for each of them. A picture of a manically grinning butcher holding out a steak is captioned, “Le boucher nous offrait de la viande.” By spelling out the literal message implied by the image, he makes the bizarreness and false promise of the image apparent, and even poignant. Using the past tense in his label text positions the work in a personal history, giving it a certain sadness; were “we”—they–hungry? Poor? This personalization of the public and highlighting of the emotions latent in these ridiculous images reaches a brilliant peak in the book Mon Père [My Father] of 2002, which contextualizes ads with psychological captions. A photo of a handsome man feeding his little baby has a label, handwritten with—of course!—a ballpoint pen, reading, “C’est mon père qui me donnait le biberon.”
Closky’s drawings do not adhere to the programmatic nature of earlier Conceptual art; he feels free to make work that is mathematical or logical, work that expresses some minimum intention or personal expression, and drawings that are representational, not absolute or material, but almost whimsical. This lack of program or belief in a particular ideology marks Closky as a member of a generation of artists who, though steeped in appropriation and conceptual strategies, do not see them as absolutes. There are no rules for artists like Closky, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Maurizio Cattelan. Consequently, the problem of what to do looms larger for them than for the earlier generation of artists who had marked off the various impossibilities of modernism or postmodernism—illusion or originality, impurity or purity—so leaving a clearer path. Nauman already freed himself of the pressure to produce grand statements and masterful physical objects in order to discover that his mundane physical activities in the studio (like pacing back and forth) were of more interest than grand statements or physical objects. His work of the ’60s and ’70s belongs to a context that includes Conceptual art, Performance, the then new technology of videotape, and modern dance. The art of Closky and his peers belongs in a context defined both by newer technologies like the internet and digital animation, and by a focus on artists’ attitudes as much as on their art. Free to pick anything–any medium, any strategy, big or small, signature or otherwise, is permitted– the younger artists must find something. Under these circumstances, what is the artist to do?
Cattelan’s answer has been to make a character of himself as a kind of fool who has blundered into art and makes art works almost by accident. His first show in a New York gallery, in 1994, featured a donkey in an empty room with a chandelier; it was called Warning! Enter at Your Own Risk…[ii] The donkey recalled the dunce cap that poorly performing Italian school children (like Cattelan) were once made to wear– five days before the show opened, Cattelan couldn’t think of what to do, and the donkey was both an act of desperation and a representation of that predicament. Cattelan, like Closky with his “favorite square,” brilliantly plays dumb. Both artists also re-use images taken from popular magazines, Cattelan publishes Permanent Food, a magazine of images taken from other magazines, much like Magazines, the Closky catalogue.
One aspect of not knowing what to do is to address the thing being done; the other is to address the nature or identity of the “doer.” Cattelan has blurred or masked his identity by using surrogates both in live appearances and interviews, or collaging his responses to questions from published interviews with other artists, such as Ange Leccia. In the mid-1980s Closky found a solution to this problem in the group painting activity of the Frères Ripoulin, who painted expressive, figurative works in public places. Their activities at once cast off the demands of individual genius and produced art absorbed in mondaine leisure activity (disco décor, for instance) in line with the suggestion, embodied most notably in Andy Warhol’s practice, that the club scene was displacing the gallery/museum as a central reference point for those interested in art. The group of artists took its name (which also, in reverse slang, alludes to the word “pourri”) from the popular house paint brand, Ripolin, whose logo depicts three men in a line: the first man paints a wall, and the next two paint the back of the man in front of them.
When he gave up the group to return to individual work, Closky’s new position still implied an awareness of contemporary conditions, notably by treating his signature as a brand name, accompanied by an advertising campaign (“I love Closky”).[iii] Today, his brilliantly banal web-site constantly cycles through amusing misspellings of his name: “Caude Closki,” “Cleaude Clocky,” etc… Abandoning the idea that the artist is larger than society, that he can design the future, impose his will, does not mean he is nothing. In a 2002 interview, artist John Kelsey asks Closky, or rather asserts, “In your work you have a way of absenting yourself. There is no personal voice.” The artist, however, refuses this characterization of his relationship to his art: “On the contrary, my work is the expression of my will to make my life mine, by alternatively appropriating or keeping at a distance the models suggested in my environment, that is in the media. I have also made a few self portraits!” (Closky has an amusing project highlighting the struggle between interviewer and artist, in which he quotes assertions from articles on a particular artist, like Pierre Huyghe, and has the artist respond “yes” or “no.”)
All of these strategies— playing with the form of the artist’s interview, appropriation, doodling within the grid, the artist’s group, the name change, branding, playing with names—are responses to both the contemporary artist’s struggle to make his meaning rise to the level of public significance, and any individual’s struggle to find himself in the scale of modern life. Closky’s work acquires its public character in his use of the lo-tech: the pen scribble, the computer-generated scene, or the loop of synthetic quasi-music. Most people in the audience for these works have access to, and probably experience with these technologies (since its invention by Baron Bich in 1950 more than a hundred billion Bic pens have been manufactured). They are nothing special. Closky relates the early ballpoint pen drawings to his more recent work with computer animation, such as the assemblage of 20,000 sequences in Manège, which similarly stresses the lo-tech aspect of the contemporary technology of daily life, like the low-resolution imagery of video games and cell-phone movies. Despite his adoption of relatively recent technology—the ball-point, not the piece of charcoal is his drawing tool—Closky is thus a sort of primitivist.
This is a primitivism that does not pretend to discover the archaic sources of art, as early modernists did, but one that finds in doing the least possible, Warhol fashion, a position of strength in relation to the overwhelming mass of contemporary culture. In Closky’s words, “Le peu de moyens que je me suis autorisé pour réaliser mes premières pièces: dessins au stylo bille sur des feuilles A4, textes sur sorties laser standard, marquaient mon refus de séduire par la forme, la monumentalité, l’habileté, la production.” [iv] Generously and, again, democratically, he offers the same to the spectator: “Je propose toujours une porte de sortie au spectateur. Je ne veux pas le convaincre à tout prix.”[v] His means, and also his attitude, are low-resolution, or, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, “cool.”
Closky does not seek to penetrate below the level of social givens. He starts with cultural atoms, at least as represented by the simplest marks that can be made with ballpoint or computer. With this he finds in what one might call—without intending by the phrase any value judgment–the lowest common denominator of contemporary culture a solution to the problem of the contemporary artist working outside of medium and artistic tradition. The present installation applies this way of thinking and working to the museum.
Closky’s Manège offers a realization of the museum space in contemporary terms, in which the questionable hold of the images to be seen coexists with the compulsion to complete the circuit of the exhibition, as the sequence of video fragments drive the spectators’ movement around and around the room. The installation in the courtyard above resembles Allan Kaprow’s 1961 Yard, in which people were asked to climb on a mound of old tires in a courtyard while others threw pieces of paper down at them from the surrounding windows. But here people are not asked to do anything—in fact, they are warned that any activity will be at their own risk. If in relation to the Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s Closky’s work is less programmatic, his Happening is less ecstatic. The warning “Climb at your own risk” affixed to each of the stepladders in the museum courtyard literalizes a basic element of the modern and contemporary understanding of art: earlier notions of transcendence have lost centrality giving way to a not-quite-contradictory fusion of timeliness—relevance to other areas of cultural experience– and “edginess” or “risk.” The risk in Closky’s installation is, of course, less a physical one than that of feeling ridiculous climbing a short distance to nowhere. But whether they climb or not, visitors to this space (this is also true of those in the enclosed area immediately below) become performers of Closky’s work, objects of view to anyone looking out from the museum ’s interior windows. Closky has managed to make work that is both confined in the museum space and connected to non-art experience.
Such a setup suggests mockery, or the well-known category of institutional critique. But this is not Closky’s intention. Though there is certainly some irony inherent in the situations he has constructed, Closky makes no claim to unmask a false appearance. For one thing, beyond its formal and self-reflexive aspects, Manège deals with content beyond the condition of art, thanks to its materials, especially the video fragments. Despite the slightness and even the banality that may make these bits of information hard to see, they are loaded with meaning and reference, to money, sex, work, driving, shopping, and the rest of contemporary life. And, in close relation to the nature of its materials, the piece acknowledges and explores an aspect—indeed a central one—of the contemporary phase of development of the social practice of art.
Art no longer claims, as it did in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to move the larger culture forward, or even to accomplish the “aesthetic education” of the individual. At the same time, preservation of its special character and status requires it to be something other than entertainment. It has a special social location, but now without the built-in charismatic power of the past. Closky’s response to this situation has been to develop a way of working that recognizes the non-transcendence of art, its existence as an element of the “everyday life” to which it was once set in contrast. In its utilization of animation fragments, Manège does not, to use the well-known phrase, transcend the commonplace; it allows us to look at it—or not, it’s up to us—and see its content.
The room and the courtyard of the museum like the units of grid paper or the screens of video monitors are, after all, squares, square that the artist is privileged or obligated to fill in. If the modernist museum was traditionally a place of intent study and contemplation—absorption—now it is a temple of distraction. Claude Closky’s art provides neither glossy alibis for, nor cheap jokes about, the current condition of art and culture. Instead, he takes the state of affairs as seriously as the affairs of state that gives occasion to presidential doodles.
[i] Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, and Scrawls From the Oval Office (New York: Basic Books, 2006).