Reviewed By Maia Nichols
In order to detonate an artist, one must realize they are more galactic than any attempt to calcify them. On a patch of sunless turf, someone is maneuvering the institution of art, and all that it hinges on. In Martin Herbert’s Tell Them I Said No, gobs-cum-vestigial artworks are flipped upside down, each of them endpoints that annihilate any semblance of obedience.
While the strategy of disappearing is something of arts mainstay, the artists in Herbert’s book strut from the baby blue softcover, trailed by a series of issues tabled in contemporary art. These pivot around the Artist—you know the one—the artist who leans back, repulsed by the art establishment, and succeeds in being magnetized. Meanwhile, the Artist, miles away, looks at something else.
On page forty-three, handlers rearrange Charlotte Posenske’s Square Tube Series DW (1967) in black-and-white images. Men in suits huddle around industrial objects that split the room, like a runway, or a slide shaped ventilation pipe emerging from a blackened window. A man in long sleeved Lufthansa overalls carries one of the hollow galvanized steel objects over his head, gazing down, with a pipe in his mouth. The men are arranging the figures according to the weather and the number of viewers though each of the iterations of Posenske’s Vierkantrohre series bear protruding edges, so they can be bolted together and are open to unlimited configurations, and rendered unsaleable. At the time of this project in 1967, Posenske was already resistant to art’s capacity to find solutions for urgent social problems. She eventually moved onto a career in sociology, quitting art altogether in 1968, and refusing to show her work or attend exhibitions.
Herbert asks about how commentators—gallerists, curators, writers, collectors, and all the “others with something to gain,” — ask artists to be. Do they indefinitely fall short? Don’t cue flighty rhetorics. Across the maneuverings artists’ straddles, they surprise us because we find ourselves unprepared for the moonlit differences between their output and their hopes. The disturbance of a pre-storm sky, or accidental splashes, can’t fix anything alone.
Herbert has a certain way of staging himself, braced with words, to usher moving targets: “What York builds, despite being a deeply figurative painter, is closer to an abstraction, a scattered archipelago whose glowing islands one wants to bridge.” Images are folded into sentences. He fills us up on them, lavishly. “While she studied, she and her husband wrote guiding sentences in pencil on the white headboard of their bed, including one by Goethe.” Herbert calls out work that’s entirely predictable, reproducible. He is a fan of combinations, brunches, motels, that sort of thing. Lucid critiques are pending. Instead you find your plate full of Herbert’s big-hearted prose. It strives with the minimum effort for maximum effect. I found lightness in his language, which left enough faith to go around in those he writes about, maybe too in his readers.
Each essay confronts us in watermarked style. Faced with so much freedom, you make of the book what you want. Art that becomes a balm, bent on addressing urgent political problems, is taxing. Here salves are replaced by registers built on withdrawal more than openings. Herbert treats these artists’ lives earnestly. At times, the cup runs over, and though generous, celebrating tricks feels expired. The artists in this book are praised for how they receded from the spotlight and dropped out of the art world, in truth each dropout could only come after the years of getting far enough along to make anyone care that David Hammons, Trisha Donnely, Lutz Bacher, Agnes Martin, Charlotte Posenske and several others, would eventually turn away.
Variants on the essays on Martin and Albert York that were originally published in ArtReview stand out. We sense how these artists managed to shimmy past art’s restraints bashfully, to let us celebrate ditching out of shyness as much as revolt. Herbert lends each of these artists’ weight, imbuing the globular into pesky tinted smears, blank pages, and abandoned events. We feel the artists put themselves entirely into their work. York’s early paintings were slipped into brown paper bags and delivered by hand, later mailed in the same brown paper. One can imagine once the painting is removed, these might be vestigial, teeming with Geist, asking nothing of you, to be recycled. Or take, for instance, Agnes Martin, who wrote that it was only if her mind was empty enough that she could see it. What’s behind Martin’s horizontal and vertical lines is impossible to peg, but her ability to “couch delight”, as Herbert puts it, could only have come from years of self-isolation, schizophrenic episodes, and all that went into her life’s experiences.
The slow accretion of an artist’s fame is not the story this book tells, but their commitment is implicit in how the artists are presented. Herbert’s art picks, like starbursts, stand apart because of their two-step with selflessness, their carelessness for the scene and their trials with the outer world. Parts of them is left behind in their work, as sacrifices that let them appear disguised as nothing, performing for us the limits of art’s agency, its freedom.
Citing Lao Tzu’s famous epitaph: “a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step”—Herbert describes the recently deceased Stanley Brouwn, who used the Brouwn cubit, foot, step, to evade the space of art by assuming measurements and distances of his own. He’d suggest you used whatever distance is always on hand, the one in your head.
Without pushing the reader in a certain direction, Herbert’s essays combat what art is often built upon: attempting to gain an upper hand for oneself. Withdrawal is curiously generous. In the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art Journal, D’Arcangelo’s contribution was a blank spread. The reader could remove the pages, and do what they wanted with them, “install the page any place in the viewing space of LAICA, at any time and in anyway [sic] you want”. . In a proposal for the Van Abemuseum in Eindhoven, unfinished at the time of his unresolved suicide, he asked that the gallery spaces be left empty so that the public could bring in what they wanted.
In an academic conference in 1987 on the topic of evil, Cady Noland’s essay examined how society was built on distrust, a secret game, where psychopathic, single-minded personalities prey on and dominate the meek. Paraphrasing Columbia University professor Ethel Spector, she wrote: “The psychopath shares the societal sanctioned characteristic of the entrepreneurial male”. How to square away the boundaries of an artist’s freedom in a meeting with narcissists? To delineate records of movement in art, haziness’ infinity is useless. Describing Noland Herbert writes: “everything Noland uses, as one might note on a surface level from the steely continuity between barriers and chains and supermarket trolleys, turns out to be part of a totalizing; secretly controlling system, one lacking an outside.” If these artists do open space-time, it is parceled out, which allows them control of the reins.
The last essay is about Trisha Donnelly,—the book’s title is extracted from an email she wrote, replying months later to refuse an interview with Herbert about her 2014 exhibition at the Serpentine, London. In 2015, her show was up in Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles.
A large rectangular tarp blows up and down silently upon the skylight. Several perforations allow tiny dots of light to pass through. The right edge is the loosely affixed, so light cascades down into the room. It pours intermittently and abruptly echoing according to the wind.
A tilted rectangular projected image of a digital image, content undecipherable. A few rows of black chairs strung together crooning at you from the corner. Speakers on the floor emit lounge tunes, at set times on what feels like hours long loops. Next door, a pencil sketch, another projection. A cloudy blue sky swirls and recedes, contained within the shape of a rectangle with curved edges, positioned so it falls up and back.
In the first room, Donnely’s least decipherable work two photographs lurk away from the center of the walls, run towards the corner. The one looks like an outdoor landscape positioned sideways, but the hues leave it unclear. Next to it, a thick black curved mark stretches across another photo.
Viewer bathes in darkness, only intermittently finds relief in flashes of LA sunlight.There is no press release, no show map, no titles. It is hard to write about something that hasn’t been written about, calling something not yet born. This leaves room. The strongest efforts are the least obvious ones, that envelope the space.
If these artists share something, it is the need to take refuge in order for them to clear a space for a kind of brawl, on a canvas, in a sidewalk, a shop. The importance of solitude, the remove each of these artists required was one that offers up a chance to find them gone, replaced by objects, bottomless minutes, chronically self-critical. Plumbing a bull’s eye is fruitless in this purlieu, no alibis are needed. Tell Them I Said No is an analgesic.
Christopher D’Arcangelo, “LAICA as an Alternative to Museums,” Journal of Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (January 1977)
Martin Herbert, Tell Them I said No, Sternberg Press 2016
Agnes Martin “The Untroubled Mind” in Arne Glimcher, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (London: Phaidon Press, 2012) p. 218.
Martin Herbert. Tell Them I said No. Sternberg Press. 2016.