Wanderlust: fifty years of artistic journeying
Lorenz image courtesy of the artist, photo by Nick Ostness; Pfahl image courtesy of the artist and Nina Freudenheim Gallery; Alys image courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London; Baldessari image courtesy of John Baldessari Studio
In early October 1969, a stylishly dressed man stepped out of his Christopher Street apartment and onto the streets of Manhattan. Spotting another man on foot, he began following him almost at random, until the second man entered a private space where he could no longer be pursued. This was repeated the following day, and each day thereafter for most of the month.
This isn’t a passage from a mystery novel; it’s a description of a work of art titled Following Piece. The stalker is internationally artist Vito Acconci (who died earlier this year), and the work ranks among the most celebrated of the twentieth century. The fact that it’s firmly ensconced in art history texts attests to its enduring importance. But it was only one of many public art actions that took place that October as part of Street Works IV, a three-week series sponsored by the Architectural League of New York. This was a time when vital new elements were expanding the artist’s periodic table. Conceptual art, performance, land art, and body art, often in mix-and-match combinations, lured artists outside their studios and into various modes of artistic journeying.
This was not as great a leap from previous art forms as it may seem. In the 1940s, abstract expressionists introduced the idea that painting was an action, and the completed object was not the art, but a record of the art. Building on that, Alan Kaprow put forward the notion that all actions performed with artistic intent were, in fact, art. A revolution was born. In Following Piece, Acconci subjects himself to certain parameters in order to examine issues of public and private space, time, and the human body.
There was one obvious drawback to this emerging art form. Unlike painting or sculpture, there was little to show after the action was completed. Perhaps not coincidently, photography was then emerging as a dominant art medium, and consumer video would soon follow. Acconci made written notes and diagrams of his daily surveillance walks, and a photographer faux-documented them afterward. These were the objects to be exhibited.
This brings us to Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967–2017, an extensive exhibition now on view at two locations: University at Buffalo Art Gallery and UB Anderson Gallery. Curator Rachel Adams has assembled an impressive collection covering fifty years of work by artists who venture out into the world—often on foot. The show’s title comes from the book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit. Humans walk for many purposeful reasons. We march symbolically as protest or for charity. We walk for introspection and reflection, or entertainment. We are certainly the only animals that walk for art.
John Baldessari and George Nicolaidis. California Map Project Part I: California
Wanderlust is not an exhibition to breeze through. Much of it involves text and time-based work on video, and a good deal of the documentation is not particularly visually gratifying. There are notable exceptions: Janine Antoni’s mesmerizing Touch video-documents the artist walking a tightrope aligned with the horizon of the sapphire blue sea. The video’s graceful simplicity belies its complex staging, as well as Antoni’s arduous training. Another work of stunning beauty is Gyre, by Marie Lorenz, a site-specific installation that takes full advantage of the North Campus gallery’s two-story Lightwell. Some readers will recall Lorenz’s video installation at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in which she documents her journeys around New York City’s waterways. Gyre comprises 1,200 suspended silver items cast from rubbish collected on those excursions.
The beauty in most of the exhibition is the often disarming simplicity of the concepts expressed. Richard Long’s Line Made by Walking, is elegantly spare in its visual form, but the idea of repeatedly tramping a precise column in the grass until a visible path forms—echoing the ancient Peruvian Nazca Lines—is what’s most intriguing. Ana Mendieta’s Silueta, documented in color photographs, displays some of the many ways in which the artist introduces the silhouette of her body into the earth. These actions, carried out during Mendieta’s solitary travels throughout Mexico, speak of ritual, loss, and spirituality.
Francis Alÿs, Paradox Of Praxis 1 (sometimes doing something leads to nothing) Mexico City, 1997
Francis Alÿs’ Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing is a droll five-minute video of the artist engaged in the Sisyphean task of pushing a block of ice around Mexico City until it wears down and finally melts into a puddle. The irony is that the artist starts with an object and through his effort ends with nothing, a reversal of the usual art process and an elbow to the ribs of minimalists. Another ironic nod to minimalism, though likely unintentional, is land artist Nancy Holt’s Trail Markers. These color inkjet prints document painted orange circles on lichen-covered rocks and fences that mark the trails of England’s Dartmoor Park. The twenty images denote Holt’s passage along an established path and through time. But the orange dots read like archly placed minimalist paintings.
Buffalo-based John Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes are a bit out of step with the walking theme, but no less welcome. Pfahl fastens tape or string to natural elements in diverse landscapes and positions his camera so the taut lines produce identical zig-zag configurations in each picture. Here the landscape is altered in the service of the photographic product, but the artist journeys nevertheless. You could argue that John Baldessari also performs his act with the end product in mind. Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) is self-explanatory, and the resulting photographs reflect Baldessari’s signature deadpan humor.
John Pfahl, Volcano Lightning, Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii
A number of artists address social issues of one sort or another. The art group Blue Republic makes ephemeral paintings with water on seaside rocks that reference a variety of societal threats. Political or environmental messages come from the Fallen Fruit collective, Mary Ellen Strom, and Buffalo-based artists Roberley Bell and Millie Chen, among others. Chen’s work, seen previously at the Albright-Knox, benefits here from more incisive and less didactic wall text. Mary Mattingly is represented by several documentary images and a massive bundle of objects of the sort she drags around public places to address various topical issues.
There are many familiar and less-familiar names here, like Kaprow, Rosemarie Castoro, Kenneth Josephson, Efat Natan, OHO, Gabriel Orozco, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Pope.L, Nevin Aladag, and numerous others worthy of consideration. The exhibition includes Kim Beck’s bewildering arrow skywriting performed earlier in Buffalo and now reproduced on billboards around the city. See the show, and allow plenty of time to wander through both locations.
Artist and educator Bruce Adams writes regularly for Spree, including his weekly online column, Long Story Short.