Nothing as Seductive

by Gisela Schmalz

The absence of presence is a tool of seduction. Used by artists it can boost their fame. It can also become quite dangerous – not for the audience, rather for the dealers or buyers who could lose money, but especially for the artists themselves. To withdraw their artwork or themselves from public view may lead to solitude, inner peace or premature death. However, in the case of Laurie Parsons it paved the way for a journey from rags to riches and half way back again. When the New York gallerist Lorence-Monk sent out the invitations for Laurie Parsons´ third solo exhibition in May 1990, the card listed only the gallery´s name and address. It did not indicate the artist´s name or the exhibition dates. Any potential viewer visiting the address on West Broadway that spring found the gallery empty. The gallery space was at least freshly painted.

  (Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962)

(Yves Klein, 1001 ballons bleus, 1957 / Reconstitution: 2007)

While Yves Klein had already presented an empty, white painted space in Paris in 1958 (known as “The Void”), Parsons went further. She not only erased all evidence of her non-exhibition from the invitation, she also eliminated it from her CV. The year before Parsons had installed her mixed media work “troubled,” consisting of items collected from the streets — a suitcase, a noose, a log, a coil of rope, charcoal and more — on the floor of the same gallery she later left empty. Years later, the 1959-born American artist explained why she decided to not present and to not be present in 1990. “I felt it essential that I consider the gallery itself, rather than continue to unquestioningly use it as a context. With its physical space and intricate social organization, it is as real, and as meaningful, as the artwork it houses and markets.” Although Laurie Parsons did reasonably well as an artist, she refused to understand the value of a career in the art world. When German collector Alfred Greisinger bought “troubled” she was bewildered at the large sum he paid for it. She confided in her friend Bob Nickas “Art must spread into other realms, into spirituality arid social giving” (sic., Artforum, 2003). This was no mere talk. Laurie Parsons left the art business to become a social worker, caring primarily for mentally disabled people. She also became a diary writer: since 1994 Parsons has collected words instead of objects and has no intention of publishing them.

Cady Noland´s collages, sculptures, installations deal with what she calls “The American Nightmare”. The 1956 born US-artist´s works expose how violence is woven into the structure of society. The artist uses stories and images of American celebrities to examine subjects such as masculinity, psychopathological behavior and torture. Beyond that she shows a high interest in sociology and social analysis.

(Cady Noland, 1989)

After Sotheby’s sold her work “Oozewald” (1989) for $ 6.6 million (then highest price paid for an artwork by a living woman) Noland “disavowed” another of her aluminum prints, “Cowboys Milking” (1990). Sotheby’s could not sell it at auction in 2012. After disavowing that work, Noland herself pulled away from the art world in 1999 and appears to have stopped making art ever since. Laurie Parsons´ and Cady Noland’s departures echo a comparable move made 30 years earlier by the German artist Charlotte Posenenske. Born in 1930, Posenenske worked with objects, produced paintings, paper works, and sculptures. A well-established artist in the 1960s, she decided to sell her works for only the cost of their materials. Additionally, she decided to manufacture no “individual pieces for individuals” (Art International, 1968), but rather in series and in unlimited editions in an attempt to discourage economic speculation. After 1968 on Posenenske no longer worked as an artist. She received a degree in sociology and devoted the rest of her life to social projects until her death in 1985.

There seems to be more to the departures of Posenenske, Parsons and Noland than their dissatisfaction with the art industry. It might be an indisposition towards a male dominated, ego and money driven system, a more general averseness or a personal anxiety that prompted them to leave. Whatever their motives where or are, their acts of vanishing are radical acts. They demonstrate reluctance to being put in a box with a price tag on it, and a resistance against designation and interpretation. Their retreats express a desire to be and to do something non-descript and non-describable, to be a private person and accomplish something more meaningful. The void they left behind (maybe the art market was a void before) is their ticket to freedom. Public nonexistence frees the artist and her work from the constraints of a material(istic) world and the responsibilities that come with it. It leads into something wide open.

Lutz Bacher, the 1943 born female American artist who disguises her gender, illustrated the lightness of emptiness via her work “The Celestial Handbook“ (2011). It consists of 85 framed pages, cut from a book by an amateur astronomer published in 1966. The black and white offset illustrations show comets, star clusters and other cosmic formations. One image is captioned with “Splendor of the Heavens”. All images show space, that, two-dimensional and framed, is in fact no space. While still being present, Bacher refuses to show herself publicly. Her male name is part of her concealing game.

What do artists add when they subtract their work or themselves from the art market? They cause rumors, which stirs up curiosity, which increases their market value. Available artworks by non-available artists are highly coveted. Hard to track artists like David Hammons and Trisha Donnelly are very successful artists. Prosperity doesn’t explain it. What did Christopher D’Arcangelo (1955-1979) achieve apart from his institutional critique? In the 1970s the New York-based artist annoyed authorities by his ad hoc performances such as chaining himself to the door of a museum hiding the key to the chain´s lock. The explanation for these acts could be found on the artist´s back. “When I state that I am an anarchist I must also state that I am not an anarchist to be in keeping with the (…) definition of anarchism.” D’Arcangelo´s actions and the statements written on his skin with the word anarchy stenciled upside down may seem playful, childlike. They weren´t. D’Arcangelo was dead serious. His contribution to a group exhibition in 1978 at “Artists Space” comprised “Four Texts for Artists Space”, four pages attached to the gallery´s walls with critical notes on the modus operandi of the gallery. The artist refused to have his name on any flyer or other promotional material, the invitation included. In 1979 Christopher D’Arcangelo committed suicide. The notion of absence from the artists´ space culminates in the self-effacement of the artist.

D’Arcangelo´s death remains unresolved. His father, renowned artist Allan D’Arcangelo tucked away all evidence of his son´s life and death until his own death in 1998. The short appearance and sudden disappearance of D’Arcangelo fuel speculation. His suicide might be read as an anarchic act of eliminating the artist – as the artist, by the artist. It could also be seen as his rebellion against an overbearing father figure. Not only D’Arcangelo had a parent in the arts. Cady Noland´s father is a painter; Laurie Parsons´ mother is a gallerist. Did these three not only rebuff their parents, but everything they signify? The various forms of their dematerialization could be reactions to patriarchy, authority and tradition in general. Parsons, Noland, D´Arcangelo and other “escape artists” seem to have fled the spotlight to evade the demands of a phallic presence and image cultivation. In evaporating they shifted the focus from themselves to their (non-)acts and the (non-)sense behind this immateriality. No artist. No work. Vacancy is also a kind of content. The phenomenon of a prominent figure who says “no” to a world of “yes” is appealing to the left-behind. They yearn for more of their “no”.

In “Tell Them I Said No” (Sternberg Press, 2017) the art critic Martin Herbert, investigates. His illuminating book includes essays on Laurie Parsons, Cady Noland, Christopher D’Arcangelo, Trisha Donnelly and others. Literature has its own blank spots, namely Ambrose Pierce, B. Traven, J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon.

Two films deal with the shape shifting of the artist. One is a musician, the other an actor. In the musical drama “I’m Not There” (2007) Bob Dylan is impersonated by six different actors. Each depicts a facet of the artist. “I’m Still Here” (2010) is a pseudo-documentary about an actor determined to retire. Joaquin Phoenix, played by Joaquin Phoenix, tells everyone he’d give up acting to pursue a career as a rapper. Everyone is baffled.

Artists come and go. An artist who wants to leave a noticeable void though has to have been there. He or she has to have been noticeable before the vanishing. The void is seductive.

Appeared in: Gisela Schmalz (2018): Nothing as Seductive. London: Picpus Press – Editors: Charles Asprey & Simon Grant. June 2018/Art Basel.

Recommended Citation: Schmalz, Gisela: “Nothing as Seductive” (2018). Gisela Schmalz.