Review: Border Control: On the Edges of American Art

Tate Liverpool

Border Control: On the Edges of American Art, Tate Liverpool, 25-26 May 2017

Liverpool’s Merseybeat sound of the 1960s was influenced by American records brought in by the many US sailors arriving in the port each year.  The Atlantic ‘border’ between Liverpool and the USA was wide but porous. Tate Liverpool was a particularly appropriate place, therefore, for the ‘Border Control’ conference, sponsored by the Terra Foundation, one of whose grants funded 21 ‘In Focus’ projects on US artists. I was involved in writing for one of these, on the artist Sue Fuller, hence my interest in the conference. Fuller has been (wrongly, I think) labelled an ‘Op’ artist. There was plainly a tension in the period between ‘Happenings’ as (often) political art and abstract art. For me, Op art works are  ‘happenings’ on canvas, making abstract art accessible to more people than, say, Abstract Expressionism was: a quietly political act. Politics – national, personal and ‘art world’ – and performance were themes that repeatedly emerged in the course of the first day.

Still from Paul Sietsema’s Empire (2002). A first screening of the film accompanied the conference.

Alex Taylor (University of Pittsburgh, previously Tate’s Terra Foundation Research Fellow in American Art), introducing the event, noted that ‘Border Control’ now suggests President Trump’s planned wall between the USA and Mexico. Various Terra Foundation/Tate projects have addressed the relationship between the national and the international; the present creates its own myths but these draw on the past. Alex’s successor at Tate, Julia Bailey, outlined the conference programme, where the ‘borders’ to be considered would include those between countries, high and low art, craft and design, and art and politics.

Thursday’s keynote speaker, Philip Ursprung (ETH Zurich), addressed the physical manifestations of the political border, and artist Allan Kaprow’s responses to these. Urpsrung and Kaprow once travelled together from Mexico to the USA; at the border, the guard called Kaprow ‘citizen’, as if only US citizens were actually citizens of anywhere. This seems to foreshadow Trump’s current attitudes and Theresa May’s comments about ‘citizens of nowhere’. In 1970, Kaprow built Sweet Wall close to the Berlin Wall, using bricks held together only with bread and jam, and easily demolished. That must have seemed an easier feat than demolishing the real Berlin Wall, but in 1989 the whole thing came down remarkably easily.

Allan Kaprow’s Sweet Wall, Berlin.

Kaprow’s work, as much a performance as a material construction, seems to show that borders and barriers are often more solid in the mind than in physical reality. The ‘technocracy’ deplored by the historian Theodore Roszak was arguably extending its power via psychology as much as by material manifestations. As discussed by Monica Steinberg (University of Southern California), artists attempted to counter this in various ways. She described how Lovell Darling’s ‘uncivil obedience’, a barely legal campaign for the governorship of California, constituted a critique of the supposedly democratic process. Carolee Schneeman’s and Marta Manujin’s work in the early 1070s, as Catherine Spencer (University of St Andrews) noted, engaged with a countercultural opposition to the ‘technocracy’. Both wanted to disrupt the psychological borders between sexes, nationalities and classes, which Roszak argued helped to maintain society’s focus on the material and economic – like most political campaigns, as parodied by Darling. In the work of Hans Haacke, explored by John A. Tyson (National Gallery of Art), art-world politics collided with national politics. American aggression abroad and the Fondation Maeght’s cupidity, disguised as high-minded patronage, can both be seen as products of Roszak’s ‘technocracy’. Tyson argued that Haacke presented a boycott as performance, exposing the border between harsh political realities and the supposedly pure aestheticism of the art world.

Roy Lichtenstein appeared in two papers, in the context of class politics and aestheticism. Faye Gleisser (Indiana University) considered how the wealthy Sarabhai family awarded him, and other artists, residencies in their Le Corbusier-designed Indian villa, a patronage rarely mentioned in formal accounts of these artists’ work. Lichtenstein, like other Pop artists, needed the patronage of wealthy buyers. Anthony Grudin (University of Vermont) argued that a border was required between the ‘vulgarity’ of the commerce that provided much of their material, and the art they produced for upper-class patrons. Meanwhile, as Marina Moskowitz (University of Glasgow) and Edwin Pickstone (Glasgow School of Art) discussed, commerce could gain some ‘class’ by association with art: the Linotype Corporation was keen to promote type designer and illustrator Rudolph Ruzicka’s status as an artist – a status he had claimed in court at the age of fourteen. For him there was a firm (class) border between ‘art work’ and ‘industrial work’. He was paid more than a ‘designer’.

Roy Lichtenstein in Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1967)

Artists might look to museums as latter-day patrons but from the 1930s MoMA, like a Renaissance prince doing good works, pioneered art therapy among the public and later, war veterans. As Suzanne Hudson (University of Southern California) explained, Philip Johnson’s extension had two floors of classrooms and studios, blurring the boundary between the professional artist and the amateur, and even between the sexes, as male veterans were taught the traditionally female craft of basket-weaving. This raised a particularly interesting question: was there an implication that disabled veterans were somehow themselves ‘feminised’ by their injuries? One attender commented that patronage is under-discussed in relation to modern art. Alex Taylor pointed out that the GI Bill had funded the work done at MoMA. The issue for ‘who pays for what’ is often something that goes unaddressed, not only in the art world.

The Berlin Wall, the object of Kaprow’s critique, was a product of the Second World War. Cecile Whiting’s (University of California, Irvine) Friday keynote built on these discussions, addressing the effect of the War on perceptions of geography and distance. Whereas the Mercator projection world map places Hawaii and Japan at opposite sides, the bombing of Pearl Harbour reminded Americans of Japan’s proximity. Globes became far more popular with the public. Looking down onto a globe from above the North Pole showed that Berlin was a lot closer to the USA than it looked on the Mercator projection.

Leading regionalist artists, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood now addressed the wider, national and international implications of the war. Wood’s Bundles for Britain poster of 1940 showed Britons being bombed while Benton’s Invasion of 1942 showed the USA itself being invaded by fascists. As Whiting showed, national borders no longer seemed fixed and secure: technology had shrunk the globe.

This post-war, smaller planet affected both the work artists produced and the way they made it. In Vija Celmin’s Untitled (Desert/Galaxy), Fiona Curran (Royal College of Art) argued, there is a specific relationship between sky, rapidly filling with satellite technology, and the land. Celmin’s square of ‘Desert’ sand contrasts with the unified ‘Blue Marble’ image of Earth promoted by NASA’s, often commercialised, photography. Curran highlighted its emphasis on one small plot on the Earth’s surface. Joan Mitchell, dubbed an ‘apatride’ by John Ashbery, claimed to feel like a foreigner everywhere but, as Matthew Holman (University College London) explained, was very particular about naming her paintings after specific places or people. The work of these artists seems to have resisted the technocracy’s tendency to homogenise experience.

Perhaps another apatride was Sam Francis, who, as Elizabeth Buhe (Institute of Fine Arts, NYU) explained, believed that the individual is always at the centre of space and time, equidistant from East and West. He flew round the world, working on paintings in different locations. Both Mitchell and Francis worked at the border between abstraction and figuration.

Throughout these papers there were echoes of Roszak’s opposition to the technocracy and to a society that measured value only in monetary terms. The importance of individual experience, in a specific place, time, and psychological situation, as opposed to being a mere component in an overarching technocratic political system, was for me a strong theme that emerged from a conference described by Cecile Whiting as one of the best she had attended. The papers showed how art can engage with and be engaged by the political, as in the work of Haacke, Kaprow, Schneeman, Darling and others, but also how ostensibly ‘unpolitical’ or ‘apolitical’ figures such as Lichtenstein and Ruzicka are inevitably enmeshed in the politics of patronage, commerce and class.

Frances Follin

Frances Follin is an editor and writer based in London. She holds BSc, BA and PhD degrees from the University of London, her PhD being on the early, ‘Op art’ , work of Bridget Riley, published by Thames and Hudson as Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and the Sixties. Most recently, Frances has written a short essay on American artist Sue Fuller, due to be published online this year by Tate as part of its ‘In Focus’ project on the artist, funded by the Terra Foundation. She also recently co-curated the exhibition ‘Seurat to Riley: The art of perception’ at Compton Verney (8 July – 1 October 2017).

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About Frances Follin

Frances Follin is an editor and writer based in London. She holds BSc, BA and PhD degrees from the University of London, her PhD being on the early, ‘Op art’ , work of Bridget Riley, published by Thames and Hudson as Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and the Sixties. Most recently, Frances has written a short essay on American artist Sue Fuller, due to be published online this year by Tate as part of its ‘In Focus’ project on the artist, funded by the Terra Foundation. She also recently co-curated the exhibition ‘Seurat to Riley: The art of perception’ at Compton Verney (8 July – 1 October 2017).
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