Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Art history via conversations
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
I was first introduced to Assaf Evron by a mutual friend at an art fair in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, he and I began a series of studio visits. Our relationship has become an ideal source of material for an essay about the collaborative nature of the relationship between artist and curator, because our discussions revolve around my insistence on visual coherence—what Assaf derisively refers to as “homogeneity”—and his vociferous defense of heterogeneity as an inherent and defining feature of his practice.
Over the course of a career that began in photojournalism, Assaf has worked in a variety of mediums (he defines himself as a photographer, despite my suggestion that his recent forays into the production of three-dimensional objects are indicative of a movement toward sculpture), developing a practice that is diverse, deeply intellectual, and heavily indebted to the philosophical tradition of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German-Jewish thinkers.
As an historian and a curator, I have a deep-seated (Assaf would argue pathological) need to synthesize, to locate the origins of ideas, to derive an underlying logic from seemingly disparate elements. Assaf and his work present a difficult project in this regard because over the years he has produced a broad spectrum of objects which defy my efforts to construct a cohesive, visual, artistic trajectory. Perhaps this is because his work involves a universe of ideas that range widely. His is an artistic project fueled by intellectual curiosity, which results in a constant experimentation with new forms, new materials, and new projects.
During our recent studio visits, Assaf and I discussed the following in relationship to his work: (List not complete)
I. How his work might be defined as regional? Was he, after living in Chicago for three years, a Midwestern artist?
II. Metaphors of seeing
III. Whether or not his status as an immigrant lent him, and his work, a sense of anxiety; what does it mean to create art without contextual cultural references?
IV. The existential notion of walking and Walter Benjamin musings about walking through the streets of Berlin
VI. Coincidence, philosophical intertwining, and the phenomenological connection between ideas and their manifestations
VII. Robert Smithson
VIII. The connection between functional aesthetics and philosophical foundations
IX. Aby Warburg and the anthropology of the American Southwest
X. Leopold Jessner, the little known but once-famed producer and director of German Expressionist theater
XI. The Hyatt hotel at O’Hare International Airport
While all of this is intellectually very productive, I inevitably leave our lengthy discussions feeling a rather pragmatic, almost palpable, desire to find a way to organize the material in front of me. How can I make a visual map of the work of Assaf Evron?
Recently, while looking through images Assaf has collected, we stopped to discuss Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I. The print, one of a trio of engraved masterworks he produced that year, depicts a winged personification of melancholy, the least desirable of the four humors identified by medieval philosophers. (Melancholy, a state caused by the buildup of black bile in the brain, was thought to be responsible for creativity as well as an inducement to insanity.) In its visual schematization of the artistic condition, Melencolia I is both a printmaking tour de force and an allegorical self-portrait of Dürer himself. On the right, Dürer’s woebegone proxy is surrounded by the symbols of geometry, the liberal art most closely associated with artistic creation. Oddly enough, many of these items—the arc, the polygon, the sphere, the star, and the stairs—are recurring themes in Assaf’s work. Was this one of those moments of philosophical coincidence (see item VI above) or had we stumbled upon a visual map? Here Assaf and I revisit his recent production by discussing different series of works and their relationships to Dürer’s engraving.
Assaf and I decide to work backward and begin at the end in the hope that we would discover the answers to some of my questions. Assaf’s two current projects investigate Leopold Jessner and Aby Warburg. In execution, both Jessner’s Stairs (2013–present) and Warburg(2013–present)—as the title of the former suggests—resemble literal or figurative staircases. A ladder features prominently in Dürer’s composition. For the purposes of this discussion, it will be our staircase.
In Melencolia I, the ladder is propped against the architectural structure (the exact type of structure is a matter of some debate in the existing literature on the subject) in front of which the downtrodden angel, the artist’s avatar, sits head in hand, extended beyond the limits of the image, surrounded by tools associated with carpentry. Some scholars suggest that the ladder symbolizes both the desire and inability to transcend the earthly realm, ergo the abandoned ladder represents the hope and the failure of the artistic enterprise; this painful realization casts a lugubrious pale over the assemblage. But what does the stairway mean to Assaf? What is it about this form that he finds appealing? Jessner and Warburg are spectral presences in these series, but is it the image (its formal properties) or the personas that inspire the objects themselves?
(Side note: Assaf is reluctant to give me firm dates of production for his series—facts which I insist upon clarifying for the purposes of these articles and for our work together. This is an ongoing argument.)
Aptly titled Jessner’s Stairs (2013), Assaf’s most recent work is a sculptural rendering of the stage set for Jessner’s 1920 production of Richard III. The miniature backdrop consists of a series of three sets of stairs, each one stacked upon the other and slightly smaller than the next, which in effect resembles a stepped pyramid akin to a Mesopotamian ziggurat. Assaf stumbled upon the image and the obscure figure of Jessner by happenstance in a book about Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin fished out of the garbage at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was an MFA student.
Jessner’s set has no walls, leaving the stage exposed, open like a blank canvas to the interplay of actors, objects, light, and surfaces. These are all properties of photography, a medium Assaf knows well and which he exploits as elements within his sculptural rendition of Jessner’s stage. The set is an interesting proposition, as its starkness seems to preclude the production of illusions—there is no place to hide—despite the fact that the successful theatrical enterprise relies on illusions and the suspension of disbelief in order to be credible and engaging. Perhaps, I suggest to Assaf, the attraction to Jessner is the link between his vision of theater and Assaf’s training in photography. Specifically, I suggest that, in a sense, photography has the same power as theater, namely the ability to create the suggestion of a narrative where one does not exist.
Assaf responds by saying that he was drawn to the way the image combined “monumentality, abstraction, and perspective.” Investigating its source led him to Jessner. This answer solved one of my questions about Assaf’s work: it is the image rather than the persona which drives the creation of objects—at least in this case.
This revelation prompted me to inquire,
Abigail Winograd Is it a coincidence that both Warburg and Jessner were prominent figures in the artistic and cultural milieu of Weimar Germany?
Assaf Evron The persona is an entry point. There is always a relationship between the visual and the persona. I want to know what they were trying to articulate. It is like the way Walter Benjamin articulated his vision of modernity through other individuals.
The second series we discuss shares a title with the photograph that inspired it. Like Jessner’s Stairs, Landscape with Ladder and Dog, Arizona, April, 1896 (2014) is executed in three-dimensions and relates to the work of another now deceased German-Jewish thinker. Again, I ask if there is a deliberate connection between the work and the prewar German intelligentsia. Assaf cautions me not to create direct parallels, since Warburg is only present in the work as a spiritual manifestation. Assaf has had a longstanding academic interest in Warburg and his intellectual comrades, including Erwin Panofsky. (It is interesting to note that Panofsky wrote, with Fritz Saxl, one of the most influential examinations of Melencolia I, published in 1923. His assessment of the work as a “spiritual self-portrait” remains the dominant explanation of the image, as well as the inspiration for this series of discussions.) Specifically, he often reflects on Warburg’s understanding of how images operate, that is, the image’s ability to activate other images and thereby create a web-like relationship among them.
This series began after Assaf found himself living in the United States and decided to revisit the famous lecture on the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, based on Warburg’s fieldwork in America, delivered at the Kreuzlingen Asylum, a psychiatric clinic. The talk was to serve as proof of Warburg’s reestablished sanity and therefore the basis for his release from said facility. In rereading the lecture, Assaf found himself drawn to the photographs accompanying the talk that Warburg took during the days spent doing research. These images of pots reminded Assaf of a set of stair stringers he came across years before at a Home Depot. Warburg was interested in the ways in which Italian Renaissance artists translated visual motifs from pagan cultures into their work. Assaf saw the same motif echoed in the stair stringers and was interested in how it had been transmitted to present-day Chicago. For the Pueblos, these were sacred images and objects. In Chicago, they become mass-produced home improvement tools. If it was the found image that inspired Jessner’s Stairs, the formal qualities of the stair stringer, an object to which Assaf felt a strange affinity years before, were activated by revisiting Warburg’s lecture and its accompanying photographs. In this instance, the visual form came first and was animated by the persona but in both series a photographic image has been translated into three-dimensional form.
What have we learned today? Assaf often refers to his process as generative. It occurred to me that this layering of meaning produced by the image, the research, and the persona is the generative process Assaf describes. However, the act of translation from structure (object) to photograph (of object) to sculpture (Assaf’s object) seems to be just as important as the relationship between photography, architecture, and sculpture. If Dürer’s ladder symbolizes the hope and failure of the artistic endeavor, Assaf’s ladder (the stairs) implies a kind of hypothetical architecture—imagined, malleable spaces which combine the illusory nature of the photograph, the physicality of sculpture, and the monumentality of architecture.
My first few studio visits with Assaf took place in his home. Recently displaced from his studio at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he had transferred its contents to his living room. I was immediately intrigued by two series of photographs. The first struck me as having a rather disco aesthetic, as the lighting effect replicated the interior of a nightclub circa 1973. The second group of photographs consisted of deeply saturated monochromes of what appeared to be a polygon. Inquiring about both sets of work, Assaf launched into a discussion of Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance polymath who penned the first treatise on linear perspective, and “America’s curious obsession with technology.” This seemed a rather odd combination. He mentioned these two items successively while walking toward the back of the house. He returned carrying an enormous rhomboid object that he promptly deposited at my feet. He said, “it is a three-dimensional representation of a color space.”
Let’s pause here for a moment and return to Dürer. In 1435, the Renaissance polymath Alberti published the treatise Della pittura (“On Painting”) in which he detailed the application of the theory of single-point or focused perspective, a theory of vision whose discovery is commonly attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi, a fellow Florentine architect. (As it happens, Brunelleschi failed to write down his findings and it was Alberti who described the method for translating the volumes and proportions of the natural world onto two-dimensional surfaces.) Dürer owned a copy of Alberti’s tome and was actively engaged in perspectival experiments, a fact to which his engravings attest. (Giorgio Vasari mentions an invention of Alberti’s which sounds like it might be a camera obscura. This is another point on which Assaf and I differ as he insists that Alberti was not an inventor. I mention it here because if it is true that Alberti did build something like a camera obscura then it is another possible instance of philosophical intertwining, as Dürer sometimes included renderings of perspective machines in his work. Historical vagaries, possibly, but worth mentioning.) Why this lengthy digression? Perspective and the mechanics of vision are important here. The rhombus (the most enigmatic of the objects contained in the engraving) and the star: There is some evidence to suggest that the ray of light illuminating the background is a comet which the artist witnessed and then wrote about in his notebooks; alternatively it could be read as a sign of Saturn, the deity associated with melancholy. Both relate to scientific discoveries about vision, which abounded in the Renaissance and with which Dürer actively engaged. The multiple angles of the rhombus and the single point of light focus the viewer’s eye on various points within the image.
Three important questions to ask Assaf:
1. What is a color space?
2. What does Alberti have to do with it?
3. How is America’s “curious obsession with technology” a factor?
AE First, a color space is a mathematical algorithm that relates colors to numbers. It encompasses the range or spectrum of possible colors that can be articulated by it and by the device. It is represented as a three-dimensional graphic virtual object.
AW Second, like the previous series you and I have discussed, these two are also linked to a persona. This time the intellectual figure is Alberti, whose work you studied as a philosophy student at university.
The third is slightly more complex and in order to understand it, a fairly thorough discussion of each series may come in handy. The Color Spaces, which exist in both sculptural and photographic iterations, came out of Assaf’s experience as an art student. According to him, color spaces were an omnipresent topic of discussion in his classes on digital printing. Ever the antipositivist, Assaf decided to take the color space off the computer and thus out of the theoretical space. He made a topographical model of a color space on the computer and divided it into 100 layers. Each layer was then hand drawn, and cut out of MDF, glued to the next, sanded, and epoxied. The result was a surprisingly heavy polygon. Once the sculpture was complete, Assaf was drawn to its tendency to look new from every angle. It was, he said, “always revealing and hiding itself at the same time.” This multifaceted character brings Alberti and photography back into the picture. Assaf decided to photograph the color spaces in order to capture these multiple vantage points from a single perspective. The resulting images were scanned and printed using a computer—meaning they are not really photographs, but digital prints on photo paper which were then taken into the dark room and exposed to various kinds of light, producing a monochrome portrait of the color space. Here again, there is a complex translation occurring in the work from computer-generated model (color space) to handmade object (sculpture) to computer image (scanned photograph) to two-dimensional image (photochemical print).
The second series of photographs was started after a friend suggested Assaf explore an X-Box Kinect. Assaf refers to these works as oblique space photographs (hearkening back again to Alberti). The Kinect projects infrared light beams around the room and the resulting projection is photographed using an infrared camera. The resulting images are a dazzling shade of purple awash in light. Assaf has named this series Visual Pyramid after Alberti because it is an actualization of Alberti’s theory. Each point of light is the end of a beam of infrared light that the Kinect uses to map space and movement—the very process Alberti described for accurately translating the physical world into art. They are, I suggest, infrared still lifes. Assaf stops me. He prefers the literal Hebrew translation—”silent lives,” a term also used by Giorgio Di Chirico in his memoirs. Once again, the work involves an act of translation, in this instance from projection to image.
Unlike the previous projects we have discussed in which picture transforms into sculpture, the photographs in the series Assaf is currently working on translate mathematical or technological visions into two dimensions. He is trying to capture the pervasive nature of these technologies (digital images rely on color spaces and video gaming systems are everywhere) and the way in which they manifest Alberti’s theories of painting in photographs. Therefore he says that despite their expression via photographic processes they are, in fact, metaphors of painting.
A slender rainbow graces the background of Dürer’s print, rising out of the water, framing the star, and then disappearing behind the horizon line. For some reason, my research reveals little about this feature of Melencolia I, so I contact my friend Dr. Catharine Ingersoll, an expert on Northern Renaissance art and Dürer. She tells me the meaning of the rainbow, like all the rest of the elements in the image, is nebulous. When I asked what exactly she means, Catharine replied,
“Well, it is about as open to interpretation as the rest of the print is…which means ultimately we have no idea. But the fact that it appears on the horizon by the star may suggest some kind of ‘calm after the storm’ situation, perhaps an indication that melancholy may be intermittently punctuated by periods of peacefulness and happiness. A lot of the other objects in the print have been much more concretely tied to notions of artistic genius and the burdens of creative intelligence, but the rainbow remains pretty enigmatic. At a purely functional level, it is another opportunity for him to display his ability to convey atmospheric effects in the engraved medium.”
I find this revelation slightly troubling, but Assaf is overjoyed. He views this as confirmation that he is right and I am wrong.
While a student at the SAIC, Assaf exhibited his own Rainbow. His version is screen printed on Plexiglas and held aloft by a cinematic photographic grip. The piece was a great success, in that it became an instant Facebook and Instagram phenomenon. My initial response to seeing both the sculpture and the photographs was confusion. What on earth, I asked, did this have in common with Warburg, Panofsky, or Alberti? Assaf explained that he was trying to establish the structure of possibility for a photograph.
On a functional level, the sculpture (if we can call it that) produces the conditions for a photograph; it is a frame and a window, it is an object which directs movements and dictates actions.
It occurs to me that there are two reasons why, for Assaf, the rainbow serves as a metaphor for our relationship to the physical world. First, the rainbow is an optical and meteorological phenomenon caused by the refraction and reflection of light and photography is a medium similarly reliant on the refraction and reflection of light. Because a rainbow is an optical phenomenon it is not an object. It cannot be approached. Any relationship of a body to a rainbow is thus an illusion just like the illusory physical and photographic relationship to Assaf’s Rainbow. Second, the structure of the piece creates a relationship to the architectural environment. Like Jessner’s Stairs, Rainbow combines the illusory nature of the photograph, the physicality of sculpture, and the monumentality of architecture. Additionally, Rainbow, like the Color Spaces and the “silent lifes” (Visual Pyramid after Alberti), is engaged with theories and histories of the visual. Eureka! A pattern!
In 1929, the German-Jewish writer Franz Hessel published Spazieren in Berlin (Walking in Berlin). Walter Benjamin, his compatriot and collaborator—the pair teamed up to translate Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in Paris in the late 1920s—was heavily influenced by Hessel’s portraits of modern urban life. It was Hessel’s work that inspired Benjamin’s own autobiographical reminiscences of his childhood in Imperial Berlin and it was in his review of Hessel’s book that Benjamin described his experience of walking through the streets of Paris unable to hear the echo of his feet (Benjamin’s metaphorical description of the uncanny dislocation of the immigrant experience). This intellectual exchange between Hessel and Benjamin has become a frequent topic of discussion between Assaf and me. Why? Because Benjamin’s notion of walking as a metaphor for the existential quandary of the foreigner is the most appropriate description Assaf has found for his own experience of life in America. He is also drawn to the idea that information and experience are embedded in the spaces we inhabit.
Embedded or cryptic knowledge is the foundation of Dürer’s print but it is given visual form by way of a gnomon magic square—a 4-by-4 cm. grid in which the numerals in each corner section have the same sum—located above the angel’s head. In Melencolia I, the magic number is thirty-four and, just for fun, the numbers fifteen and fourteen at the bottom center of the numeral grid also indicate the date of the engraving (1514). As with the rest of the print, much has been made over the years of the square and its potential meaning. A quick search reveals the following title, “The Magic Square in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I: Metaphysical Symbol or Mathematical Pastime?” published by Klaus D. Hansen in the journal Renaissance and Medieval Studies in 2009. We could get into some specifics, that is, whether or not the square is meant to be a talisman of Jupiter who could counter the effects of Saturn’s influence but I am not going to spend much time on the meaning of the square. For now it will suffice it to say the implication and revelation of secret knowledge is central to Assaf’s practice, just as it was to Dürer.
To illustrate that point, Assaf and I discussed some of his photographic work on my last visit. I should point out here that despite my insistence on following a chronology (of sorts), things have started to circle back and we began to discuss work that Assaf is currently making, as well as those from the recent past. This is a battle I have chosen to forfeit.
In any case, we discuss:
Formally, Barcodes and Cockroaches have a lot in common. They are quasi-monochromatic photographs (like the silent lifes and the color space photographs) but in these two series red is the dominant color. In each, the color is incidental as Assaf did not select it. However, the color is significant in that it creates, in both cases, the possibility of viewing. Red light also signifies hidden processes, dark rooms, and (rather crudely) prostitution. During our conversation, I realize that I convey to Assaf that my initial reading of Cockroaches is entirely confounded by his explanation. In viewing that image, my immediate impulse was to discuss the photograph as a vanitas that is reinforced by the abject nature of the subjects (bugs). Assaf assures me that my reading is correct; however, the initial appeal of the image was, in both instances, the presence of particular kind of light.
How does this relate to Decorative Flakes? Like Cockroaches and Barcodes, for Assaf, the decorative flakes signify hidden knowledge. He had been using these decorative flakes since I met him. He was fascinated by the use of something synthetic to create the look of something natural, describing this to me on my last visit in two ways.
AE They are essentially decorative but they are also connected to optics. These flakes are used as camouflage. If we used this to make a floor it would hide dirt. It would always look clean so in that way it is also about optics, ways of seeing, and the truth value of the material. To me this is a little like a homeopathic remedy, it is a dilution of a dilution of a dilution. We have gone from granite, to terrazzo, to linoleum, and finally to decorative flakes (see the diagram below). It isn’t real. It only has power or authenticity if you believe in it.
The inclusion of the gnomon square in Melencolia I exposes Dürer’s playful side. As a whole the print presents a series of riddles, intellectual games that are both revealing and confusing, but the square in its infinite numeric possibilities encapsulates the enigmatic gamesmanship of the artistic enterprise. This process of exposure and concealment is also at work for Assaf, though here infrared light and decorative flakes stand in for the gnomon square. In more practical terms, Assaf’s interest in optics and visuality underpins the photographic work he has executed in the past three years in just the kind of thematic continuity I had originally set out to discover. One riddle solved.
Of Dürer’s expansive and masterful oeuvre, Melencolia I is simultaneously the most studied and least understood of his works. The eminent Polish art historian Wojciech Bałus noted, “Despite the efforts undertaken by some generations of investigators, Melencolia I remains an enigma: no one has succeeded in arranging the figures and objects depicted here in a coherent whole.” This is a somewhat disheartening revelation given my hope that the engraving might serve as a guide to unlocking a riddle I am attempting to answer though it only reinforces what I have previously learned from my friend Catherine.
Building tools feature prominently in Dürer’s print; amidst a variety of enigmatic objects, the ground at the angel’s feet is littered with tools generally used for carpentry. On my last visit with Assaf, we discuss two more series, both of which extend from his interest in architecture and geometry: two photographic series inspired by the city of Chicago and minimalism. Assaf has discussed his work in terms of a regional aesthetic. This is something I did not really understand until our conversation.
The first is a diptych; photographs taken in the lobby of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building at 2400 Lakeview. Mies, as he is affectionately known in Chicago, arrived in the city in 1937 fleeing conflict in Germany. He was appointed the head of the school of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. During his thirty-one years in the city, he erected a number of iconic buildings. One symphony of right angles, steel, and glass is 2400 Lakeview. The building has been featured prominently in many photographs celebrating its industrial precision. Yet, Assaf’s photographs at the Lakeview Apartments are of the lobby floor. More precisely, he photographed the carpeting in the entryway provisionally positioned at a 45-degree angle to the door; a moment of cognitive and aesthetic dissonance which, according to Assaf, “undermines the spirit of Mies’s entire enterprise.”
The second series are photographs of the interior of another Chicago landmark, the Art Institute of Chicago. These photos, like Mies, uncover incidental geometries. And unlike most of Assaf’s photographic work, they are digitally manipulated. He photographed the bronze nameplates on which museum trustees and donors are memorialized. After removing the names using Photoshop, the plates, though slightly irregular in size, are perfectly rectangular. The plaques have been rendered mute and transformed into a perfect modernist grid.
AE When I inquire about the influence of modernism, I am drawn to the logic and musicality of minimalism and the way in which these works adhere to a set of conditions that create a set of phenomenological possibilities.
Assaf and I sit down and discuss his relationship to architecture. In our last meeting, we agreed that his interest in optics draws together many of the series of have discussed. We talk about just how his interest in architecture, specifically monumentality, informs the rest of his practice. The investigations driving Jessner’s Stairs, Rainbow, Landscape with Ladder and Dog, Arizona, April, 1896, Mies, and the photographs from the Art Institute all concern a relationship to the built environment. As a group, these works bring together layers of information into a structure or image. Amongst the tools scattered throughout Dürer’s print is a clamp that peeks from beneath the angel’s skirts. It is, perhaps, the ideal metaphor for Assaf’s project. I see now, after all this, the thematic coherence of Assaf’s project. There is a theoretical voice which binds them all together, even if they seem visually distinct. I can curate Assaf’s exhibition now.
Abigail Winograd is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin and a Research Associate at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby