Think Piece

In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg obtained a drawing from Willem de Kooning, erased it, and presented the blank paper in a gilded frame titled Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.

“I wanted to create a work of art by [erasing],” he said. “Using my own work wasn’t satisfactory. … I realized that it had to be something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the most logical person for that was de Kooning.”

Rauschenberg said de Kooning was annoyed at first by the request, but “would not have wanted to hinder me in my work, if that’s what I wanted to do.” But he chose a particularly dark drawing in charcoal, ink, pencil, and crayon, saying, “We might as well make it harder for you.”

A Beautiful Belt

Completed in 1997, German artist Jo Niemeyer’s 20 Steps Around the Globe installed 20 high-grade steel columns on a great circle around the earth, establishing the distances between them using the golden ratio φ, 1.61803398875.

The first poles, shown here, were erected in Finnish Lapland, north of the polar circle. The first two were placed 0.458 meters apart; the third was placed 0.458 × φ = 0.741 meters beyond the second; and so on, marching off in a beeline toward the horizon. The first 12 poles are in Finland; the 13th and 14th in Norway; the 15th, 16th, and 17th in Russia; the 18th in China; and the 19th in Australia. The 20th coincides with the first back in Finland.

In this way the project models the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence, tailoring them to our planet. Niemeyer calls it “an interdisciplinary expedition into the secrets of the power of limits.”

Paper Chase

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Image: Flickr

Neil Dawson’s Horizons invites a double-take — what appears to be a discarded piece of paper is actually a sculpture of welded steel 10 meters high.

Commissioned in 1994, it occupies the highest hilltop in businessman Alan Gibbs’ private art park in New Zealand.

Shadow Play

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute art professor Larry Kagan “hides” two-dimensional images in seemingly chaotic three-dimensional sculptures. The images are revealed when light is applied from the right angle.

“The shadows are a condensation of something that exists in more dimensions,” he says. “Behind them, there can be an awful lot going on.”

A few more playful sculptures from Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda:

Self-Destroying Art

Jean Tinguely presented Homage to New York in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and three television crews watched as the machine played a piano, produced an abstract painting, and inflated a weather balloon, then set itself afire. Tinguely summoned a firefighter to extinguish the blaze and then finished the destruction with an ax.

He followed this up with Study for the End of the World No. 2, a sculpture assembled from odds and ends collected from Las Vegas scrapyards and blown up in the Nevada desert to invoke the testing of atomic bombs:

As a comment on the ephemeral nature of text, in 1992 William Gibson wrote a 300-line poem titled Agrippa (a book of the dead) and published it on a 3.5″ floppy disk in a book of art by abstract painter Dennis Ashbaugh. The disk was programmed to encrypt itself after a single use, and the book’s pages were chemically treated to fade on exposure to light. Ironically, the text was pirated at its first performance and is now extensively archived at the UCSB English department.

A New Collectible

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1961 Italian artist Piero Manzoni offered art buyers 90 tins of his own excrement, signed and numbered, each sold by weight at gold’s daily market price.

That would have been a good investment. A tin that would have cost $37 in 1961 was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $67,000 in 1991 — outperforming gold more than seventyfold.

The Ghost House

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Architect Robert Venturi got a tricky assignment in 1976: The National Park Service wanted to commemorate Ben Franklin’s residence in Philadelphia, but Franklin’s house had been demolished in 1812 and no record of its appearance had survived.

“There were fire insurance descriptions and archaeological remains of the house, so you could tell the exact configuration of the walls, and there were letters about the house exchanged between Franklin and his wife while he was in London and the house was in construction,” Venturi said. “But, with so little visual information, the Park Service was pretty easily persuaded not to try to reproduce the house.”

He solved the problem with a “ghost house” outlining the dimensions of the original house with a steel armature. “The aim was to create a delightful open place in the center of the dense texture of the city,” he said. “So the courtyard became a pleasant neighborhood amenity for people who live there, as well as for tourists.”

Object Lessons

oldenburg good humor monument

In 1965, sculptor Claes Oldenburg proposed building a colossal Good Humor bar on Park Avenue in Manhattan. All the traffic would have to be routed through a bite in the bar’s corner.

He also proposed replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan and the Washington Monument with a pair of scissors.

The fan, he said, would guarantee workers in lower Manhattan a “steady breeze.” “You can also think of the Fan as a sort of substitute image of America. The suggestion is probably there but I haven’t drawn a conclusion.”

Fixer-Upper

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In 1766, French draughtsman Charles-Louis Clérisseau painted a room in the Trinità dei Monti convent in Rome to resemble a ruin, complete with a fallen ceiling and broken walls. A table was disguised as a damaged cornice, a desk as a shattered sarcophagus, and the kennel of the monks’ dog became a toppled urn.

“Building ruins in Rome might seem a waste of effort,” writes Robert Harbison in The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable, “but the point was that one could comfortably inhabit this one, getting all the beauty of disorder without the inconvenience.”