28 July 2021

Christian Boltanski meets Joseph Beuys

I read a few days ago that Christian Boltanski had died. In reflecting on his oeuvre which I alway found more interesting than that of his collaborator and partner, Annette Messager, also much more compelling than most Conceptual Art I see around the world. I realised that he is an artist, and this seems so very different than just being a painter. Not to denigrate painters but it's  important to differentiate the widening gap between creators of such different sensibilities.

As a painter, I seem to just be riding my bicycle through the visual world of terra firma as Conceptual artists fly high above in Gulfstreams. Indeed, the gulf between these two worlds has grown. And though I may sound like I do not like Conceptual Art as whole, that is not at all the case. I am often as critical of it in the same way that I am critical of Painting being done now as well as everything else done in the past. To use one's critical sense is essential for being a creator. But its true that it's easy for me to criticise so much Conceptual Art today mainly because it is so prevalent everywhere. Basically there is so much more of it to criticise. 

Being so different than traditional Painting it engages different aspects of our senses. Painting has usually always been a visual experience, anecdotal at times, but also extremely cerebral even if cluttered with religious symbology. 

By the early 20th century, a new liberated and sophisticated mind had invited both the Dada and Surrealist movements into a cerebral celebration of what we now call Modern Art. But by now in just the first two decades of the 21 century, it has fragmented into a hundred different directions.

Without getting too far ahead of myself, I really just wanted to look at some images which I saw in the News about Christian Boltanski's obituary. These works are very striking, visually speaking, and I respond to them as a painter. Of course, there are visual but they are meant to express so much more than that, too. 

Boltanski used old, discarded clothing from everywhere, it seems, to create these giant installations. For me, they are extremely powerful, and I only wish that I could have seen them in their original settings, when and where they were exhibited. This one, just below is from a museum in Japan (Sakayoma), the one below it, is from the Grand Palais I think.

I love the simplicity of this last one especially, (just above). Formally speaking it is a circular pyramid, though I am sure there is a more technical name for it. This 'pile' of used clothing shaped together in the Grand Palais is a visual powder keg of ideas which cannot leave a viewer ambivalent. Yes, it is a statement, or message, of a kind, but also it's so much more. What I appreciate is that I am allowed me into this 'message' through a visual experience. It is at first and foremost, a visual experience; a celebration of something though I am still unsure of what exactly. It is not just a message (ambiguous as it may be). 

I did not finish art school so many years ago but back in the 1970's, it could hardly have mattered because Conceptual Art was only just taking off everywhere about then, at least in the popular art world. Joseph Beuys, who was certainly one of the very first Conceptual artists, had already claimed a large following in Avant-garde circles. But his work, for me, was too clinical, too Germanic, a sledge hammer of ideas, and just too hard for me to digest back when I was younger. That is why I find Christian Boltanski's pieces so interesting, so pleasing, perhaps. I am able to take in his large pieces through my senses, visually at first, and only then can I ruminate freely on their contextual message as (deliciously obscure as I find them). 

These installations certainly don't hit me over the head like Beuys, or so much Conceptual work being done at the moment. They don't rely solely upon a message, however clever or obscure. 

The problem is also, (as always) that throughout history, innovators originate the ideas of art only to be followed by the hordes of insipid students and academics who then create large bodies of work which lack the force and originality of the original innovators. And this is particularly true in Conceptual Art because so any schools in today's world crank out art students infected with so many of the same ideas. 

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