(This was originally found at
(“Nairy Baghramian and Phyllida Barlow,” Phyllida Barlow. This was originally found at

by Brenda Haroutunian, edited by Yamuna Haroutunian

Bomb magazine presents an irresistible email conversation between sculptors Phyllida Barlow and Vincent Fecteau in its 2014 winter edition.  Barlow’s ideas are rich and carefully considered.  She is theatrical and engaging.  Fecteau’s ideas are at once soulful and practical.  The notion of comparison irritates them both.  Yet, it’s a theme that they refer to again and again.  The format of the article is predicated upon comparison.  The two artists are featured side by side in an exchange that is friendly yet deeply inquisitive.

The irony stares at me as I read the conversation.  Barlow is a gifted thinker and a master of discrimination.  She separates familiar form from invented form and then points to differences in how each is made and understood.  While the former is borrowed from reality, the latter refers to the process of setting the form free of its origins through creative action.  In turn, the category informs viewer response.  A sculpture employing familiar form resembles something (a mountain possibly) that we easily recognize and identify with while invented form stirs the viewer’s will and imagination towards discovery.

(originally found at
(“Installation view of works in the 2013 Carnegie International, Pittburgh, PA,” Vincent Fecteau. This was originally found at

“I’ve often fantasized about making a form that would be so incomprehensible that it couldn’t actually be seen.” —Vincent Fecteau

While Barlow makes thoughtful discriminations about the seen world, Fecteau speaks of transcending it.  The exchange between the two artists is loose and friendly, yet there is a remarkable difference in tone and content.  Reading the article, I sense that Fecteau has considered the predicament of the human soul at some length. He doesn’t speak of notions of abstraction and representation that govern his process.  Instead, he writes of an obsession with the invisible, with meaning beneath the surface, of comprehension that is not reduced to analysis.

If Barlow’s ideas stand in stark contrast to Fecteau’s, both (for different reasons) long for abstract form free of familiar reference.  He speaks of making the invisible visible, of representing psychological states and so on.  Barlow speaks of form that inspires discovery and the unexpected.  The shallow comparison of a sculpture to its natural form irritates her.

“I long for the shape to break free, and for a shape or form that cannot be likened to anything to emerge.” – Phyllida Barlow

Groan.  As illuminating as the conversation is, it nevertheless has its dry, dogmatic moments. Barlow with her strong mind analyzes these two categories to the binary extreme.  I find myself in quicksand and the earth is slurping around me.  I ask, what does nothing look like?  Fortunately, Fecteau’s pragmatism speaks well to Barlow’s analysis when he points to the unforgiving nature of either/or categories.  I am on dry land again.  Fecteau goes on to suggest that our humanity may refuse an artificial distinction between abstract and representative form void of human touch.  If the form does not conform to an object that we identify with, it nevertheless points to something in our experience that we do identify with.

While comparison is a drab concept, it helps us make sense of our world.  It provides us with a means to measure the value of things.  It reveals surprises and contradictions. Certainly, there is risk involved, for example, in propping a sacred object up against another object for the sole purpose of visual analysis.  But here both artists have given implicit consent in allowing Bomb to publish this conversation, in which they are compared one against the other. In dialogue with Fecteau, Barlow appears to be not only an artist who is richly informed about sculpture, but also as a human being interested in intimacy, in uncovering secrets.  Fecteau, emerges as not just a starry-eyed visionary, but also a pragmatist capable of navigating rough terrain.  The two together are more than the sum of their parts.

(“installation view of “untitled: 11 awnings, 2013, Des Moines Arts Center, Des Moines, IA. Phyllida Barlow. This was originally found at







The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (originally found   Ilyia Kabakov. 1985
The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment
(originally found Ilyia Kabakov. 1985

Kabakov is an irresistible character despite his invisibility.  He creates imaginary characters and narrates whimsical tales.  For example, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985) refers to a hero who plans a mission to catapult himself into outer space.  The imaginary dreamer builds a makeshift slingshot and hurls himself into deep space through a hole in the roof.  The cosmonaut floats entranced through the universe never to return.

The winter Olympics open in Sochi this week in what will likely be a proud moment for the Russian Federation.  The pageantry should evoke a splendid vision of Russian history.  Kabakov’s art is relevant to this history. The cosmonaut’s aspirations are an individualized version of the Soviet Union’s fierce desire to be the first to send a man into outer space.  In recent exhibitions, he has asked tough questions about how to construct an honest account of historical events.

Looking forward to Sochi, I am aware of old biases aimed at the “evil empire” of my youth. The Cold War prism is clouded and caked with dirt.  The old tension between the two nations is palpable.  Once again, I’m suspicious of the insidious Russian propaganda machine.

This is not new.  Kabakov was conflicted about his experience with the authoritarian regime though for different reasons.  He had not wanted to leave his country, but he needed to exhibit his art.  It was an exasperating proposition under a repressive state.  When the artist left, he exhibited his work on the world’s stage and was soon recognized as a superstar within the international art world.

Let us reconsider The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment for a moment.  If it reflects the artist’s disarming imagination, it also speaks of his turmoil.  Kabakov first created the installation in the studio of his Moscow apartment.  Later it was recreated for European and American audiences. In either instance, bright posters of happy Soviets plastered on the walls of makeshift studios clash with the dreary atmosphere of the communal apartment.  The slingshot is shabby. The displaced inhabitant blasts himself through a hole in the roof.  This is bitter commentary.

Did Kabakov dream of a personal utopia?  Or, of escaping Soviet dystopia?  Furthermore, why does he speak in the third person?

Kabakov's portrait by roman mensing  (originally found at
Kabakov’s portrait by roman mensing
(originally found at

In an article in the January edition of Art in America entitled “Becoming Kabakov,” Margarita Tupitsyn explores the artist’s identity as he slides from one imaginary character to another.  Remarkably, she points to personal authorship in recent work.  In 2013, the artist returned to Russia to exhibit his own art.

Utopia and Reality?” is critical of state controlled art establishments that tell their artists what to make.  While The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment addressed political repression, in recent installations, Kabakov has rejected authoritarian government control as well as collective authorship.  He has done so in the first person.

Furthermore, the question mark in the title points to unresolved problems. Should Social Realism be included in textbooks? What is the appropriate response to blatant propaganda and bad art?  What about Stalin?  Should Russia memorialize evil men?

Kabakov seems unsure of the answers.  There is a sense of longing in his commentary for a stable, coherent art establishment, for scholarship that critically analyzes Russian art.  But Russia is presently dizzy with revision.  It is still projecting an image of itself that is not true to life.  It is a period of assessment and time is needed before some of the answers to these daunting questions fall into place.

I suspect that the events in Sochi will be moving at the same time that I am suspicious of Russia.  The Edward Snowden incident highlights the current tension that exists between the two nations.  Snowden has compromised the security of the United States.  The Russian Federation has offered asylum to an enemy within.

Then again, Snowden has exposed the United States as a super snoop. The United States apparently has been keeping an eye on all of us as well as the rest of the world.  While we are suspicious of others, they too are suspicious of us.  It seems that while we strive to invent our own utopia, we experience dystopia in our everyday existence. This binary is riddled with tension. Nevertheless, Kabakov has navigated this tension and seems to suggest that truth to life clarifies history.


originally found at
(originally found at

Marcel Duchamp saw that art and politics mixed poorly.  His observations continue to provide a valuable point of view for examining definitions of art and the artist within the contemporary art world.

In a choice between an inbred state establishment and a dubious mix of rebellious, independent artists, Duchamp sided with the artists.  The Beaux-Arts Academy with its state jury was the most powerful, tightly controlled, cultural establishment in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.  Reform was inevitable, and he knew it.

The artist had a gift for examining reality from different angles.  At CSULB, Professor Karen Kleinfelder recalled that Duchamp watched the fluid visuals of a chess game in progress.  The artist was very competitive.  He would not make a game winning play if it disrupted the pleasing way that the pieces looked on the square chessboard.  Duchamp had a practiced eye.  He recognized art.

The Salon des Independants formed in reaction to the state’s abuse of power.  Artists alone would determine what qualified as art.  The artist was welcome to submit their work as long as they paid the entrance fee of ten francs.   If Duchamp sided with French artists furious at despotic jury evaluations favoring the state, he saw imperfection in the independents’ solution.

When, for example, Duchamp entered Fountain in the 1917 Salon des Independants, it was rejected.  Duchamp had selected a porcelain urinal and signed it “R. Mutt.”  The independents’ committee raised its prissy eyebrows at the submission.  They were scandalized.  The artist’s choice was a guiding principle of the Salon des Independents.  Duchamp acted accordingly.  In 1917 the Salon broke its rules by rejecting work that met its definition of art.

Consider Fountain for a moment in aesthetic terms apart from its initial function. The elegant line, symmetrical shape, exquisite marble (a material that sculptors have appreciated throughout history) conspired in a way that met traditional definitions of beauty.  Duchamp chose an aesthetically pleasing object and boldly pronounced it art.

(originally found at Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.)
Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. (originally found at

Forty-odd years later Duchamp’s choice was finally validated with replicas admitted to museum collections across the globe.  In the January edition of ARTFORUM, Thierry de Duve in “Why Was Modernism Born in France?” argues that if the 60s vanguard ratified the artist’s decision, they nevertheless miscalculated its terms when they concluded that if anything could be art, then anyone could be an artist.

The author draws Duchamp’s 1917 commentary away from the notion invented by the 60s vanguard by emphasizing that the artist worked within the parameters of the art establishment of the day.  By contrast, the 60s looked forward to a place where anyone could be an artist.  It projected into an area that could not be seen.  Duchamp’s message said nothing about the status of the artist within a utopian culture.  The nature of the Salon’s so-called independence from the state was the point of interest.

De Duve offers a worthwhile examination of the difference between the European and American art worlds.  While the French have always had an – often tired — system in place, American artists haven’t known rigid government control.

Then again, American artists are not respected in contemporary culture.  Art is considered inferior to disciplines that value logical thinking.  Artists are not rocket scientists. They need no formal education, nor a degree.  A portfolio is a sole requirement.

In the current economic climate, however, art has become dispensable within a federal system eager to cut spending.  A lack of rigor hasn’t served the American art establishment as it has struggled for credibility.

President Obama advocated funding the arts during the 2012 campaign.  The chances of funding in the current political climate are slim to none.  Never mind that educators represented by the National Education Association have found that art education correlates to student achievement.  Playing an instrument reinforces math skills. Memorizing a script improves language arts comprehension.  It states that analyzing a painting enriches critical thinking skills.  It’s that simple.

In the United States, the burden is on art alone to survive.  It must consider itself from every angle.  It needs practiced eyes.  Cavalier definitions of the artist will not help us gain respectability.  The artist must be qualified to determine what is and isn’t art.  It’s a daunting task.  There is no consensus when it comes to definitions of art.  Nevertheless, we must think through these problems.

If Duchamp sided with the revolt, he was equivocal about the Salon des Independents. A flawed institution displaced an imperfect system.   Moreover, the artists themselves were often mediocre with the exception of the Impressionists, 

De Duve recalls that Duchamp advocated allowing the aristocracy into the brave new world of independents, even if it meant fishing them out of the gutter.  Duchamp had mixed feelings about the aristocracy.  Andre Breton and others within his circle wrote about the Duchamp’s sense of refinement.  They saw that he didn’t wear berets or conform to cheap artist caricatures.  Duchamp was preoccupied with art.

By not funding the arts, we cheat ourselves in our imperfect democracy.  Human beings should have a right to discover their creative potential.  Creating a vital art community requires the participation of our better selves.