I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?
– Barnet Newman, The Sublime Is Now, 1948
At a time when concern for a ‘socially engaged art practice’ seems to have come to dominate discussions about contemporary art and its audiences, Afterall number 2 serves as a kind of mild palliative. This third issue covers the work of five artists whose activities, while certainly recognising the contribution of the audience, do so more as a group of perceptive individuals rather than as a constituency to be represented or served. Indeed, perception – as in the initial encounter with a work of art – is emphasised by the five artists in terms that come close to Newman’s notion (via Kant and Burke) of the sublime as unbeautiful and a measure of the inexpressible exaltation of our relationship to the phenomenal world.
The sublime has traditionally been associated with romanticism, as an emotion invested with both terror and wonder simultaneously. In The Sublime and the Avant Garde (1989), Jean-François Lyotard proposes to ask the question whether it is possible ‘to find an alternative to the sublime which is not romantic’. We might interpret his task as accepting a challenge offered by those experiences that fall outside rational and measurable encounters with daily life, but he seeks to locate the sublime in the here and now, in the little narratives of art that resist any overarching claim to truth. By doing so, he understands the sublime as both an everyday phenomenon and an absolute presence, differing radically from everything outwith itself. Furthermore, as Jan Bäcklund writes, ‘there no longer exists something which stands in opposition to the absolute since for both Newman and Lyotard the sublime has no dimension in height, or expansion in volume, or increase in weight, but can equally be considered infinitesimal as well as infinite, and should be considered infinitesimal as well as infinite, and both present and absent at the same time’. 01
This idea of a dual nature for the sublime is borne out by the essays and images in this issue, where small stories and actions take on great presence. Just as great physical gestures are defined by simple temporal acts of the weather or the position of the viewer. The five artists featured in this issue are Julie Becker, Peter Doig, Olafur Eliasson, Isa Genzken and Walter De Maria. They were not chosen because they make any coherent statement but we hope that the drift of the journal encourages cross-referencing and thoughts about their mutual interests, De Maria is the oldest of the artists, whose work spans the period from late modernism to the current flux. The essay by Jeffrey Kastner explores three works in detail while a fellow artist, Graham Gussin, listens to the Ocean Music and thinks about De Maria’s influence on his own practice. Olafur Eliasson awkwardly and self-consciously conforms to certain ideas about the landscape art of northern Europe and Gertrud Sandqvist suggests how we might look at his work in connection to this tradition. Andreas Spiegl offers a theatrical analysis of his work, an approach that will be picked up in our next issue. Isa Genzken is less well known in the English-speaking art world, although a significant amount of her work has been made in response to the city of New York. Like Eliasson and De Maria, she works in both public and gallery sites, seeing them as different but integral parts of her practice. The texts by Christiane Schneider and David Bussel examine each of these aspects in turn. From Genzken to Julie Becker is a big step, but in her assertion of the importance of research and a certain obsessiveness in the production of the models and videos, as well as an underlying romantic streak, there can be an interesting dialogue, as shown in the texts by Peter Wollen and Markus Muller. Finally, Afterall’s first canvas painter is Peter Doig. The difficulty of painting and the impossibility of capturing the fleeting moment of sublime realisation are his subject. In the texts by Daniel Richter and Johanne Sloane, the sublime is hardly mentioned while the quotidian is paramount in the depiction of landscape subjects from ski invested, snow covered mountainsides to urban rainbows. Yet the meteorological subjects, and there constant presence in the work of that most sublime of painters, Caspar David Friedrich, are a persistent reminder of the historic vocation of painting to transport the viewer to some unimaginable field of dreams.
The desire to reach towards something in contrast the everyday reality, can be found in all the artists work – in De Maria’s field, in Becker’s helicopter, in Doig’s rainbows, in Genzken’s images of ultra-urbanism and, perhaps most factually in Eliasson’s double sunset. Here are works that try to tame an unbending reality by naming it, copying it or reducing it. Their lack of success in this endeavour is, of course, part of the initial inspiration. Light will not be told what to do, nor will cityscapes or mountains. The desire to do so, however, is at the route of certain human aspirations, manifestations of our collective will and fear in the face of the unknown. Understanding may be out of reach, but the value of Eliasson’s human-made sun or De Maria’s Earth Room is in the attempt rather than the perception of failure. It touches something quite hidden but strong within our contemporary human psyche.
The two longer essays reflect on the relationship between nature and culture from different moments in the history of post-1945 modernism. Alex Comfort’s 1946 essay ‘Art and Social Responsibility’ was written at the height of World War II. It suggests romanticism as both a social and metaphysical position for an artist in response to the barbarism of war. ‘The romantic has only two basic certainties – the certainty of irresoluble conflict which cannot be won but must be continued, and the certainty that there exists between all human beings who are involved in this conflict an indefeasible responsibility to one another.’ Comfort’s text is imbued with an awareness of the mass death and barbarism close at hand and his profound sense of human fragility in the face of the world jumps off every page. Our contemporary distance from such fundamental questions is reflected on by Shep Steiner in his essay about the weather. Using meteorology as a trope to examine works from Tiepolo to the present day, Steiner conjures up a picture of the weather as a rhetorical mechanism for artists to consider predictability, insecurity and the possibility of change.
As we were going to press, the sad news of Alex Comfort’s death was announced. We had already planned to re-publish his insightful text, but it now becomes a posthumous acknowledgement of his wide contributions not only to art history but to social change and sexual liberation.
At a time when concern for a ‘socially engaged art practice’ seems to have come to dominate discussions about contemporary art and its audiences, Afterall number 2 serves as a kind of mild palliative…