The Long Glance
In the lead-up to The Power Plant's Winter 2011–2012 group exhibition Coming After, we are pleased to present New York-based artist Jonathan VanDyke – one of the participating artists in the exhibition – as he reflects on his June 2011 performance at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Long Glance.
On June 3rd I turned my gaze away from Jackson Pollock’s 1952 painting Convergence after staring at it for forty hours. To enact The Long Glance, as I had titled my performance, I stood silently in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, eight hours a day for five days. I wanted to approach the painting in peak condition, and trained to stand at length with just incremental movement. By acting as a fixed counterpoint to an “action” painting, I intended, through my immobile body, to reorient the museum’s abstract expressionist galleries.
As manifestations of movement, Pollock’s drip paintings point back to the figure of Pollock; as our eyes follow a line, we are recreating the gesture of his body. When a line reaches the canvas’s edge, in the mind’s eye we carry it onward. The drip paintings activate the relationship between the eye and the body, while referring us to the space beyond the frame. Yet there’s something of a ruse in this: the painting was made with the canvas on the floor, Pollock circling it on all sides. Now it hangs on a wall with a proper top and bottom, despite its lack of an orientation in a true pictorial sense. Standing and looking at a Pollock drip painting, we can feel ourselves disoriented: what was once on the ground is now on the wall in front of us.
Turning towards something, we acknowledge its presence, while we simultaneously turn away from something else. When a work of art calls our attention, it guides our gaze. As we bend our necks to see the painted ceiling of a cathedral, we are meant to realize a celestial space. We are beckoned upwards, and thereby directed away from the ground, which is the space of all things “earthly”: copulation, excrement, and, at last, the corpse. By making his drip paintings on the ground, working with and not against gravity, Pollock returns our attention to the plane of the recumbent body.1
In my own work, I endeavour to orient the viewer to this space beneath our feet. A recent series of rectilinear, wall-mounted forms are constructed out of wood, textiles and metal. Breaking the surface of each sculpture is an aperture (sometimes a cast plastic tube, sometimes a simple hole) from which paint drips, staining the work’s surface before it drops to the ground below. As rivulets of colour spread slowly across the floor, their protracted flow interrupts one’s movement. I have noticed the pleasure received as people gather to look down and observe the paint accumulate.
Watching my sculptures perform their prolonged dripping, filling up the floor with a great mess of colour, I felt myself slowing down, mirroring their pace. I thought to place bodies among the sculptures. I hired actors to sit for a period of hours, without affect, while paint dripped on their heads and hands. I hired a woman to show up to my opening and stand quietly at the gallery’s entrance while paint dripped from her purse. At a certain point, I realized that if I were to direct actors as my subjects, then, by extension, I should also be willing to objectify myself. I would perform an action in which I would literally “stand my ground.”
For The Long Glance, I established a straightforward pretext: to position myself in a museum, looking at a work of art. Abstract expressionist painting has been described in transcendental terms, and I was resolved to gaze at an iconic modern work while employing the stance of one of Caspar David Friedrich’s awestruck figures. If I were to be a pilgrim, I would be the pilgrim famously described by sociologist Max Weber: the Protestant worker, his spiritual orientation – in which hard work is a visible manifestation of being “saved” – embedded in his labour, his labour embedded in the capitalist hierarchy.2 I would gaze at the painting as if it were my job. I circumscribed the performance by the forty-hour work week, which was standardized in the U.S. by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This framework pays homage to Buffalo as a Rust Belt city, whose cultural might, embodied by the Albright-Knox, was made possible by industrial-era wealth. The population of Buffalo began its long, slow drop in the 1950s, not long after Pollock finished his last great works – Convergence was made the same year as the celebrated Blue Poles of 1952 – and faced his own precipitous decline.
The act of standing recalls the stance of the factory floor, while my attentive stillness in front of a painting situates my “work” as uncommodifiable meditation. Nonetheless, looking is doing.3 Paolo Virno writes in his treatise on post-Fordist culture, The Grammar of the Multitude: “Thus, we could say that the ‘life of the mind’ becomes, in itself, public…,” clarifying the position of the worker, post-assembly line, who, networked and seated, is expected to generate wealth through mental labour.4 While Virno helps us to understand that the line between public and private has grown ever fainter – if not, by now, invisible – I was determined to make my action thoroughly public: visitors could come as close to me as they wished, and the entire event was live-streamed on the museum’s website (although I stipulated that the stream would only show me from behind). While what happened visibly during my performance – how I stood, who walked by, who stood with me in solidarity – is now a matter of recorded history, my thoughts over that period of time (call them “private”) remained unspoken.
In the romanticized story told about Pollock’s generation, the rebel artist operates on his own schedule and in tune with his free will, while the leisure class views art precisely when it is not working. Albright-Knox staff told me that they left open the live feed of my performance over the course of their workday, such that my looking (“He’s still there!”) was embedded into their computer screen, our conjoined gaze lined up with Pollock’s painting. In my own seeing, I reclaimed the outer reaches of my vision. I never turned my head away from the painting, and so as museum visitors passed around me, I sought out their shadowy form in the far periphery of my sight, and, in so doing, began to understand how inordinately frontal my vision has become through time spent staring at a computer screen.
With its ubiquitous hard surfaces, the museum is something of an echo chamber, and as an aural experience, the performance was as much an assault as the cacophonous lines found in Convergence itself. For the many museum patrons who passed behind me, I could only imagine their form through their sound (or even smell), and over time I learned to identify specific security guards and staff members by their cadence or, in one case, a jingling of keys repeated with percussive regularity. As large groups moved through the galleries, I began to draw on all my senses to piece together a map of their movements, and it struck me that people never made their way through the gallery in straight lines, but rather their movements contained that same looping, curving acceleration and deceleration, proximity and distance, that is expressed by Pollock’s dance around the canvas.
The audience’s association with Pollock’s process – made awkwardly public by Hans Namuth’s 1951 film of the artist at work in his East Hampton studio – persists. I observed an occasional viewer pantomime the act of dripping as she stood in front of the painting. This reconstitution of Pollock’s action brings the viewer closer to the work, but the preservation of the legend of Pollock as “bad boy” points elsewhere. A man speaking to an elderly tour group loudly introduced the painting with the pronouncement that, “Pollock loved three things: women, booze, and fast cars,” as if explaining away Pollock’s behaviour might make his work more palatable, or at least strangely exotic: the museum as zoo.
Yet was I indulging a desire to line up my own (queer, stolid) figure with the body of Pollock? I titled my piece The Long Glance in homage to the slightly extended eye contact that two men use to signal their desire for one another. In gay culture, this gaze (sometimes occasioning, even now, a whiff of danger) anticipates the commingling of two bodies, and I intended, through my seemingly endless glance, to ask whether staring at an object can reach a level of inappropriateness.5 The gay body has made much of marginalized spaces – the public restroom, the fringes of the park – and if queerness can liberate space, I hope we will occupy the museum in ever more confounding ways.6
Standing there, I was struck by the degree to which the museum is hermetically conditioned: the temperature and humidity steady, the light measured and controlled, the space made pest-free, the status of the object and the slightest movement carefully recorded, the art work protected from human touch by guards (in this case, my body included; I was referred to as a “living sculpture” and assigned a wall label). During one of my 2,400 minutes, I noticed a fly buzzing into the gallery, its movements as frenetic as the painting’s marks, as jittery as I was still. It landed on the painting and slowly crawled up its surface, making a habitat of an object to which I would devote more seeing time than any other person, yet whose surface I will never physically touch.
1. I am reminded of the verse of Walt Whitman, who wrote of the Earth that, “It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions /…It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor…” “This Compost,” Leaves of Grass (1892 edition), 297.
2. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958).
3. Among others, Jacques Rancière has written at length about the contemporary observer. In The Emancipated Spectator he notes: “Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed.” (New York: Verso, 2009), 17.
4. Paolo Virno, The Grammar of the Multitude (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 37.
5. I owe a debt here to the book Queer Phenomenology by Sarah Ahmed, where she notes that, “Queer objects might take us to the very limits of social gathering… to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering.” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 24.
6. For a lengthy study of how gay men have inhabited public spaces, see Laud Humphries, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1970), 14.
Jonathan VanDyke is an artist based in New York. He received an MFA in Sculpture from Bard College in 2005, and has exhibited in New York and internationally. His solo performance The Long Glance appeared at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo in June 2011. He will mount new performances later this year as part of Performa and at The Power Plant.