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James H. Miller

Paths Untrodden: ‘Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit’

Minow WhiteShortly after World War II, Minor White (1908-1976)—a photographer of some repute before the war—was in New York, freshly discharged from the Army intelligence corps, and speaking to Alfred Stieglitz in Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. In an often-quoted exchange between the two men, White, who felt the war had sapped some of his former verve, asked Stieglitz whether he could still take photographs. “Well, have you ever been in love?” Stieglitz said. White answered yes, and the elder artist explained, “Then you can be a photographer.” The conversation had a profound effect upon White. Indeed, whatever the immediate subject—the swirling figure of a tree trunk, the geological minutia of shoreline rocks—White’s photographs seem exceptionally intimate. Unknown to many at the time, however, was that as a gay man of that era, White struggled his entire life with love. Later, he would say his photographs were merely “reflecting the loneliness, the frustrations, the search for intimacy without embarrassment, and not much more. I am merely letting the camera visualize my inner-wishes—a lazy way of working.” It was Stieglitz who used to say, “When I photograph, I make love,” but that may have been far more true of White.

Still, the photographer was correct to note elsewhere that “Sexual expression is only the foundation on which the cathedral is built.” So much is clear from the work reproduced in Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit (Getty Publications, 200 pages), which accompanies the current retrospective that opened July 8 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (It’s the first big retrospective of White’s work since 1989, and runs till October 9.) An unblinking, no-frills biographical essay by Paul Martineau, an associate curator of photography at the Getty, lucidly surveys White’s career as an artist, educator, and co-founding editor of Aperture. While he presents judicious commentary throughout the book, Martineau generally lets White’s life and work speak for themselves. He reveals White as an extremely lonely individual; a student of Catholicism, Christian mysticism, and Zen Buddhism; and an eccentric proto-hippie with, according to one photographer, “the persona of a guru,” who was worshiped by his pupils as a creative visionary. White was, writes Martineau, somebody who “believed that photography would help him to balance his natural tendency for introspection with his need to be engaged in the world.”

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Displaced, Disconnected: ‘Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere’ at Kadist

(photo by Jeff Warrin, courtesy of Kadist Art Foundation)

(photo by Jeff Warrin, courtesy of Kadist Art Foundation)

San Francisco has long been thought of as the great exception, to use historian Carey McWilliams’ phrase. Located at the far western edge of America, it was also a cultural and political frontier, a very last urban refuge from the rest of the country. In “The Poetic City That Was,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled San Francisco, circa 1951, as “an island, which wasn’t necessarily part of the United States…like Athens at the height of Greek culture.” He woke up 50 years later to find his friends being evicted from their homes, himself priced out of his apartment and art studio. The poet lamented how “Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place … And I was on the street.” (This, it should be noted, written well over a decade ago.) To be on the street meant nothing less than to be a man without a country, to have no frontier to escape to, no New World. Thus Louis Simpson’s poem “Lines Written Near San Francisco” likewise concludes, “the banks thrive and the realtors/Rejoice—they have their America.” Many feel they have lost, or are fast losing, this little vestige of theirs, with evictions on the rise in San Francisco and the culture fundamentally changed.

That sense of loss, that erosion of what Ferlinghetti called a unique sense of place, is reflected in the title of Brazilian artist Marcelo Cidade’s incisive new work Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere at the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco’s Mission District, which he completed while in residency there. Cidade specializes in conducting critical interventions in the urban environment; he feeds upon the structural logic of cities and cultivates the art of the accidental, particularly in his hometown of São Paulo, a megalopolis well-acquainted with grim social inequality and insufficient affordable housing (hence the disappointment with, and direct opposition to the World Cup and its huge price tag). Not surprisingly, Cidade’s street-level tactics have their origins in skateboarding and graffiti. From such vantage points, he was able to diagnose the social and structural problems confronting São Paulo; and now he has brought those same tactics to San Francisco.

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Not an Immortal Art: Will Rogan/Matrix 253 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum

Still from Will Rogan's "Erase" (2014); video, silent; 8:10 min.; courtesy the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Laurel Gitlen, New York.

Still from Will Rogan’s “Erase” (2014); video, silent; 8:10 min.; courtesy the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Laurel Gitlen, New York.

Will Rogan’s solo show at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM)—his first ever at a museum—includes two identical photographs titled Scout’s Ruler (2013). Deadpan, black-and-white, literal, the pieces are characteristic of Conceptual Art photography from the mid to late-1960s, when artists used cameras for strictly “objective” documentation, to convey only “factual” information. (Think Joseph Kosuth’s very literal photographs of shovels, chairs, lamps, and hammers.) But the one-foot ruler in Rogan’s photographs is not an impersonal object: It was created by the artist’s daughter, Scout, who has written the numerals 1-12 in reverse order. That subjective aura raises many questions about time, the show’s central theme. How can we “objectively” measure, or document, or even understand time? What “facts” or “information” can be shared about time, mortality, or dying? Or, to borrow from a poem by Franz Wright:

How does one go
about dying?
Who on earth
is going to teach me—
The world
is filled with people
who have never died.

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The Truth About Harmony: Gordon’s ‘It Only Happens All of the Time’ at YBCA

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon's "IWYTWMTWYTWM (I Want You To Want Me To Want You To Want Me)," 2014, courtesy the artist

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s “IWYTWMTWYTWM (I Want You To Want Me To Want You To Want Me),” 2014, courtesy the artist

In one of the finest supermarket scenes in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), the narrator, Jack Gladney, walks with his daughter past the exotic fruit bins where he suddenly becomes aware of the sounds of the space, the confusion: “I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and the coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

“Dissonance,” Theodor Adorno famously remarked, “is the truth about harmony.” In DeLillo’s novel, listening, as distinct from something purely passive, reveals the dissonance that consumer America (“Kleenex Softique, Kleenex Softique,” “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it”) obfuscates and conceals. DeLillo points to sound as that which manipulates and controls spaces and information. (As Hannah Arendt might have said, totalitarianism was the bastard child of modern technologies such as the microphone, the loudspeaker, and the radio.) It’s little wonder, then, that dissonance has become a favorite instrument in popular political demonstrations. In 2010, Cambridge University students used speakers to blast noise into the Vice Chancellor’s office in protest of budgetary spending cuts. More recently, in Kiev, thousands of protestors created uproar outside Parliament by pounding on oil drum containers and lampposts. Officialdom, however, is no stranger to the uses of dissonance either. Noise grenades were used on protestors in Kiev, for example; and “white noise torture,” first documented in the 1970s, when twelve suspected IRA terrorists were subjected to hissing sounds, is still rather common.

Los Angeles- and Oakland-based sculptor and sound artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s small multimedia show It Only Happens All of the Time (March 7-June 15, 2014) at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is a modest but no less engrossing display of work that addresses the tactical and violent implications of sound, its potential to both connect and alienate people, and its effects on space and the physical body. As Ceci Moss, assistant curator of visual arts at YBCA, observes, “Her practice…is an exercise in dissonance.” This is true; dissonance, at least, as Adorno understood it. Gordon consistently shows that harmony, in the realm of culture or politics, is distortion and subterfuge. It Only Happens All of the Time, which is an installment in YBCA’s program on technology called “Control” (curated by Moss), recalls the artist’s installation at the Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland last year. Gordon fixed transducers to the windows of the gallery and filtered sound from Frank H. Ogawa Plaza into the gallery. She blurred interior and exterior space, shifted visitors’ orientations, and nodded, it seemed, to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that took place in the plaza in 2011. For Gordon, both to listen and not listen is potentially dangerous; what you do not hear is equally as important as what you do.

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