by Kara Q. Smith
I don’t know why I felt so driven to point this out, but I think it’s funny that Pat Steir is in a show with Tom Marioni at Crown Point Press.
It’s an exhibition with beautiful, if unlikely balance. Tom Marioni’s most recent color drypoint prints are minimal yet expressive. The movement of Marioni’s marks accentuates the expressive aquatint colorscapes of Pat Steir. Together, you can tell the works are full of intention and I can find forms within the conceptual formlessness. Comparing Marioni’s Drawing a Line to Steir’s Mountain in Rain both 2012, one notices the difference in texture, in process.
The truth is, it’s not funny in the oft-typed “ROFL” or “LMAO” expression that Marioni and Steir have been paired. It’s a sneering kind of funny, the kind that leads to a less-ironic, more-liminal state of exploration and questioning of my desire to create a dialogue between the trajectories of these two artists.
I first met Tom Marioni when he was invited to speak in one of my graduate school classes. He talked about his philosophies and his practice and left us all to wonder how to get invited to his Beer with Friends salon. Then he tried to sell us his most recent book; it’s not unusual for dedicated Bay Area artists to be historicizing themselves, trying to leave their mark on their own terms, even thirty years later.
Marioni’s Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art, 1970, is veritably the artist’s most famous work, a reiterative performance of yuck-yuck conceptualism (a varietal of stand-up comedy) that Marioni gets asked to do again and again. The whole affair with its own developed aesthetic is described more or less clearly in the title: beer, friends, calling it art. Some say it presages Relational Aesthetics, as Marioni is locally revered for establishing a conceptually based social art practice. His Museum of Conceptual Art provided a forum for this new form of “sculpture” and demanded respect as an artistic practice.
Nonetheless, free Pacifico has drawn generations of patrons thirsty literally for cold beer and conceptually for the distinguished honor of connecting with Marioni’s circle. Encountering his two dimensional work at Crown Point Press thus helped create a new dialogue for me with the breadth of his practice and his particular brew of conceptualism.
Tom Marioni, Drawing a Line, 2012, drypoint with plate tarnish printed in sepia and black; Courtesy of the artist and Crown Point Press
I have never met Pat Steir, nor was I admittedly that familiar with her work before seeing this exhibition. Viewing her emphatic prints next to Marioni’s lines, I could almost sense the East Coast/West Coast upbringings. In an interview with Steir on Crown Point’s website, she emphasizes her disagreement with Tom Marioni when he states that painting cannot be conceptual, as among other things, Pat Steir considers herself a conceptual painter.
“Nobody was listening or is listening now.”
I hear you, Pat.
If someone used the dregs from all the empty beer bottles that result from the hundreds of Beer with Friends sessions Marioni has held as paint, would that be conceptual?
In a recently published round table discussion Marioni states, “But there were fewer women artists in Conceptual Art than there were male artists because painting is not a part of Conceptual Art, and most women are painters. Conceptual art is free to work in any medium except painting.”
Last year, Liz Glass and I had an opportunity to interview Carolee Schneeman. In our discussion, we discussed her never receiving any timely recognition for the conceptual work she was doing. Just the other day, I listened to a recent interview with Martha Wilson where she said she knew Carolee Schneeman was working contemporaneously to her but no one mentioned her.
“A true artist has no sex,” says Marioni.
The problem with this statement is that identification is really important for a lot of artists who don’t have access to certain opportunities based on their gender or gender identity. For those who have had no place in the discourse of say, conceptual art though their work is slowly working its way up the discursive ladder—a prime example being Carolee Schneeman. Denying every artist of their sex, which can also include self-identified gender, is assuming a position of power and speaking already from a place of privilege.
Pat Steir, Mountain in Rain, 2012, color direct gravure printed on gampi paper chine colle; Courtesy the Artist and Crown Point Press
Before we wrap this up, let me reemphasize: the exhibition is lovely. The prints are nice and I favor Steir’s use of color and Marioni’s use of distinctive marks and varied surfaces.
Tom Marioni will continue to push his books in classrooms to promote his long-heralded definition of conceptual art and he will continue to keep his legacy of drinking beer with “sexless” artists he deems worthy and Pat Steir will continue trying to establish her voice as a conceptual female painter.
Maybe that is the nature of conceptualism. Perhaps these artists are drawing a line between letting some academic-art-world characterization define their practice and self-regulating their own philosophies, which is certainly noteworthy. But if that’s true and we can state our own philosophies, then I’m sure I don’t want Marioni telling women what they can or can’t do or to tell artists anywhere what the rules for art are: no matter how high the form of art, no matter how cold or free is the beer.
—Kara Q. Smith
(Image on top right: Pat Steir, Sunlight on Water II, 1996 , Color aquatint reversal with drypoint and soap ground aquatint, 35-1/2 x 35-1/2"; Courtesy Crown Point Press)