The Land of Yes

The Ganges is rising, threatening the Holy City of Benares. The local Brahmins gather to see if they have the spiritual potency to save the revered temples. If among them, they had an act of truth, that would be power  enough to cause the waters to subside. They discover that indeed they have no such power, no act of truth. The town harlot comes into the meeting of the holy men and says, “Gentlemen, I have an act of truth.” And with that, the waters drained away. The town was saved.

“How have you gained this power, you the lowest among us?”  “It’s so simple,” she said. “I served all who came to me with the price.”

After my Woman’s Club talk, I came back to school with a confidence new to me. I had come to graduate school really believing in this art business and what I was motivated to accomplish, but I had lingering questions. Mostly I craved the self-assurance I’d need to go forward. But now that I’d found my physical voice, to speak it out loud, the only problem I had to solve was how to make a living at this aberrant life I’d chosen. The path was clear—just do your work, be discovered as the next great wunderkind, sell out your first one-man show, have a retrospective at a major museum, a piece of cake.

On the wings of this pivotal moment at the Women’s Club, a group of nine of us had trundled down from Madison to Chicago to feel the impact of what was going on out in the West. We all piled into the three rows of seats in Professor Jerry Johnson’s behemoth Plymouth Fury station wagon, mauve metal-flake as I recall, to be special guests at the opening of Wm. T. Wiley’s retrospective at the Chicago Art Institute. Wiley had been UW’s artist-in-residence the year before and was, at 35, having arrived at his first retrospective, the model for “how-it’s-done.” We were feeling pretty special to snag an invite to the after-party at a collector’s home. HC Westerman (Cliff) was the honored guest, along with Wiley. I was bouncing around trying to get the great Westerman’s attention when he said, swiping my gnat-self away, “Hey, Wiley, tell this hippie about where you live—he’d love it there.” I heard about a magical place called West Marin—salmon in the creek, tame deer, redwoods in the front yard—Eden. My Eden anyway. Three years later after a few dead-ends turns, crisscrossing the country looking for a place to settle, refugees really, from a bad idea—a commune if you can believe it, I found myself in Grace Zanollini’s Strout Realty office in Forest Knolls. The Strout Reality catalog, touted in the Whole Earth Catalogue as the wish-book for the back-to-the-land crowd, romanced country living as sure-fire happiness.

We’d zigged and zagged into California coming south on Highway 1, in a VW van of course, and into the San Geronimo Valley. Redwood trees, big parcels, ramshackle housing (= cheap)—I couldn’t imagine a more convivial spot. “I’m looking for a rental,” I told Grace. “Well, what do you do? An artist? You must know Bill Wiley.” I ’bout keeled over. The palace of my dreams was under my feet! I still get misty thinking of that moment of arrival….OK…OK… back to school in Wisconsin…

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Wm T. Wiley  Lame and Blind in Eden Watercolot

All of my Art Degree Zero bluster, in the last chapter, was well insulated by a brain fattened on French language theory, was shocked by seeing Wiley’s watercolors. One in particular called Lame and Blind in Eden stayed locked in my brain. I was 98%, in my mind anyway, an intellectual tough-guy who would never broach the idea of depiction—and a watercolor no less!  In my new media class (1970) I had proposed learning watercolor as a kind of DADA joke—to test good and bad, high and low, making something so cheezy, “so bad it’s good” a la Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. But here was a watercolor that tested everything and resisted my hot-headed snark. Mostly it tested me, it made my head swim with delight. It was just good to look at and puzzle out…the watercolor realm was for retirees and the uncommitted. Wasn’t it? This was the dawn of Political Correctness and you could be sharply judged for falling on the wrong side of transgression. “Sell out” could mean a double cross to the “movement” edging in from political action because you maybe weren’t thinking clearly or you weren’t a serious artist, true to your vision. But painting a watercolor for me was a Blague, like an art joke that had originated in Paris at the dawn of the Surrealist movement.

For my Contemporary Art History course, graduate students were to choose their own text and report on its relationship to the current art historical thrust. I chose The Structure of Art by Jack Burnham, an editor at ARTFORUM magazine whose previous book, Beyond Modern Sculpture concerned the rise of cybernetics in art history (which I thought was pretty cool in itself—I mean the idea of a self-regulating system could apply to art production as well as physics). Anyway, for the “Structure…” book, Burnham took you through the chorus of thinkers (mostly French) looking for a deep structure undergirding the strange phenomenon of Modernism. In 1972 it looked like the Modernist game of reduction might have played itself out, Art Degree Zero seemed to be a real thing. As I waded through Burnham’s almost purposefully super-dense opaque writing, I felt like I did get something important under my belt. He ended the book hopeful about the future of art if only we could find a way to bring artmaking back from the edges of thinking, back to take its place again as one aspect of human society’s main projects along with religion, science, agriculture, education, politics, medicine, technology. Art, in the last half-century, was scooted to the side of human interest (though museums were ramping up with tremendous corporate funding). Mostly the art spirit had been overwhelmed by the marketplace for art. Here I was, preparing for a life in the arts with a tenuous (at best) plan for how to make a living at it. The Wiley model was good for .001% of folks graduating with an MFA. Burnham closes his book with an essay on Stonehenge. Stonehenge was Art, Religion, Politics, Agriculture and Economics—the organizing energies for harnessing human activity. Where was the contemporary Stonehenge?

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The wringer of time has had her way, but much of this holds up. Last I heard Burnham was studying Kabbalah.

In my final paper, I wrote that the Art World needed a place where artists could make a living—a place where making, showing and distribution systems could thrive without the curatorial gatekeepers from the top down. The nodes of art and business and science and politics needed to join in a throwback to an earlier time before industrialization caused the pervasive alienation we are all well acquainted with. It was part of the Seventies DIY thrust so prevalent.  The “back-to-the-land movement”, counter-culture approved, found a place of inner excitement in my heart. I wanted what nowadays we call a distributed system, like blockchain, featured in cryptocurrencies. Bottom-up thinking. Farm to table comes to mind. The growing popularity of the Burning Man event is just this. On a featureless blank slate, un-curated, where any art can be installed, performed, displayed without approval. 90% is self-referential narcissism, but what finally comes across is the great human experiment in creative force and some of the most moving art I’ve ever seen. My business model would be self-regulating, self-funding and self-curated.

I come from an immigrant family of practical people where a professional degree was a staunch fortress against the winds of chaos. Of my 16 first cousins, nine are MD’s or lawyers. What possible good was an MFA? I struggled with this and yet the winds of what I really wanted to do were more relentlessly blowing me face -first into the creative life.

At the beginning of the 70’s, there was a vacuum sucking upwards from the top. We called it, back then, “the establishment” and it was well established in politics, economics, religion, the arts, food production and even cooking. It’s what the counterculture was countering. But still, these establishment folks were shaping the culture. I wrote about the need for a bottom-up system where artists would be supported by the Principal of The Land of Yes. I knew deep inside, that art was a strong human and ancient force ready to put her shoulder to the machinery of  “Change the World.” So in my paper for Art History class, I proposed a studio where any artist would be welcome to produce—mainly prints—and exhibit products to come into the marketplace. Maybe by force of numbers, the system could be un-skewed.

Printmaking has long been the way to “democratize” art making, but since to get top-of-the-line results the process was very labor intensive and costly, resulting in a further skew toward a top-down system. The prevailing skew for printmaking favored “the arrived and anointed” —those who already had a strong track record of sales. A gallerist would produce a print edition for an artist if that artist was already selling well. I tried my hand at being the artist-producer-distributor and made my living at it for a few years, but it was always a crap-shoot gamble. A very capital-heavy proposition. You had to print the entire edition of a minimum of 50 prints for descent ROI. Expensive! Inventory problems! My first litho sold well, the second did well also but the third was a dud (Even with a full-page ad in Art in America magazine), etc. etc. By 1985 I had given up trying. The Land of Yes became a pipe dream. Conceptually, it was the right idea.

Forward twenty years, 1992, and I was teaching a (materials and techniques painting) class at UCSC (Santa Cruz). A student brought in an IRIS digital print. It had continuous tone—the Holy Grail of fine-art color printing—I couldn’t stop looking at it. It wasn’t the image but the smoothness of color transitions. I want that!!!!! It was as though the fortune teller had laid out my cards for the next twenty years. Unbeknownst to me, concurrently, my son Noah ( a computer “early adopter”) had been working as a graphic designer for Georgetown U where he was finishing up a master’s degree in German Lit. Computer savvy was essential to what I wanted to do; Noah had it in spades. David Salgado the master printer who had helped me realize my lithography aspirations was to become the third partner. We wanted to legitimize digital printing in a traditional context. David had a long track record of willingness to experiment. In 1995 none of the other print studios in the Bay Area wanted to touch digital printing. At the time, a curator of the biggest print collection in California said, on a panel discussing this new phenomenon, “No digital so-called print will ever cross the threshold of this institution.” Huumph!. In the ad lingo of the time—”Can you hear me now?” My conceptual ideal. as I said, of integrating one small facet of art-making into the flow of  “Art, Religion, Politics, Agriculture, and Economics”—the organizing energies for harnessing human activity—was about to be realized. That curator’s comment sealed the deal on the politics piece. As far as the epigraph goes RE: Our mascot from Benares—this would be our logo: We would serve all who came and even help out with pricing.

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