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A Contemplative Act in February 2016

From April to August 2014, I wrote a series of posts (notes) on the topic of Contemplative Studio Practice. They can be found on this website under No PicturesThe notes were the beginning of thinking, discussing and looking at artists work that I felt was part of a category and form that has a rich history in the making of American Modernism as well as an influence in Relational Aesthetics. It was an effort to clarify for myself what thread I could identify that would “fit” or describe a particular type of approach to working in the studio. This thread was about ways of being. It results in a form of work that requires the audience to pay attention in a way(s) that is focused on perception.

As I wrote about this loosely framed reality – artists in mind were Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, John Cage – artists who were known for engaging in the study of contemplative practice as a medium for their work. Discussions with other artists resulted – it seemed this practice was what some of us were engaged in –  it was not really discussed as a form. That in itself is interesting because contemplative studio practice is born from a very specific form.

My investigation continued – as a root of trying to understand this approach to making work I found, of course, numerous random writings (that will be updated regularly in the bibliography on the blog) that if added together do point to some specifics of form. In 2015 I was looking at artists who I felt were creating this form of work -whether they were identifying with or engaging in it specifically or not – one of the artists of interest to a number of us was Agnes Martin  – if not for her work – for her approach or perhaps both. Joseph Campbell was another inspiration and in some cases the artists’ own spiritual traditions were also an influence.

All of this added up to a group of 6 artists whose work I admired – Jennifer Davey, Doug Erion, Amy Reckley, Mara Tegethoff, Andrew Svedlow, and Sue Hammond West. I wanted to see their work in one place in combination with discussions about the topic of contemplative studio practice. I hoped to move this discussion forward. I was hoping to identify this form and add it to the art discourse that Marcia Tucker acknowledged many years ago, in her essay No Title, was not tolerant of this “taboo” topic in the art world.

A Contemplative Act opens on February 5th in Fort Collins, CO.  The exhibition will point to various approaches that will help to define Contemplative Studio Practice. The exhibition will certainly not be definitive; but I do hope it will illuminate ideas of studio practice that have long been left unformulated.

Below is a brief list of benchmarks that can be related to contemplative practice that lead from the birth of Modernism to where we are in 2016. Without going into great detail, the dates are related to the momentum that was building around Zen teaching in the US from the Mid 1800’s on.  D.T. Suzuki who was instrumental in bringing Zen to the US was born in 1870 the birth of the Modern Era and died in 1966 which was the beginning of the Post Modern movement. Suzuki is instrumental in many artists’ awareness of Zen thought and practice. As many know – some of the most well known artists of the time knew Suzuki’s work and/or were attending his classes and lectures at Columbia in the 1950’s. This was a time that American Modernists were intensely exploring the role of time and space from an eastern perspective.

  • 1844  Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Translates the Lotus Sutra into English for a copy of Emerson’s The Dial
  • International revival of Buddhism in the 1880’s
  • Suzuki attends the 1893 world Parliament of Religions, Chicago
  • Introduction of Zen Buddhism in American Universities in 1951, and taught at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957.

These events among others allowed for artists working at that time; Cage, Kelly, Martin, O’Keeffe, and numerous other Modern artists, to begin to think differently about the approach they were taking to their work. With that came an understanding of how their life and more specifically their perceptions impacted what they were making.

Any belief system is under scrutiny in the arts – particularly that which is perceived as “of a spiritual realm” – however, it is often forgotten that it was Kandinsky and af Klint who were leading the way in areas of perception and abstraction in the early 1900’s both in Europe and with their influence in the U.S. – along with Arthur Wesley Dow. Ideas about perception and approach to making work permeated the “new thinking” of the time.

A tradition of contemplative studio practice has held, often unspoken, a strong influence in the world of the art for over 100 years. This approach to making work is specific. It is time for it to be formulated and discussed within the larger discourse of art in the 21st Century.