September 29, 2005

Critic Examines Meaning of Art

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Doris von Drathen, an independent art critic and historian, sought to explain the essence of contemporary art, without categorization or classification, last night during her lecture, “How to See More Than a Black Square.”

“Our professor told us this was a must-see lecture,” said Lizzy Schneider ’08, a student in Art 161: Photography I.

Before the lecture began, Prof. Roberto G. Bertoia, art, said he expected a “scintillating and stimulating intellectual lecture.”

Black squares – painted by artists from Malevich to Reinhardt – have been interpreted by critics as keystones of abstract art, von Drathen said.

In her lecture, she offered an alternative to this view by presenting a slide of a 1617 black square by Robert Flood. Flood had inscribed a Latin phrase describing infinity along its edge. This finding supports von Drathen’s idea that black squares, or any image easily labeled abstract – such as a simple horizontal line – actually has many layers of meaning.

She presented two slides, Gerhard Richter’s 1988 “Dead” and a 1521 detailed, human drawing of Christ, to give an emotional and representative foundation to Richter’s 1980 20 meter red-and-yellow, thickly-brushed horizontal line. This is typically labeled an abstract image.

The gruesome deaths depicted in “Dead” and the 1521 drawing and the form of the subjects – people in profile, horizontal, flat on their back – can be distilled into a horizontal line, like Richter’s 1980 red-and-yellow one.

This process makes Richter’s 20 meter line a “container of imagery,” von Drathen said.

“She’s urging us to return to the essence of art,” said Meredith Nickie grad, referencing von Drathen’s desire to examine art without labels like “abstract,” “minimalist,” or “suprematist.”

Von Drathen sees the excessive classification of art and artists as a product of commerce and the art market. On visits to artists’ studios and during interviews with the artists, she has found that artists do not create their work according to the tenets of a certain movement.

“Their art is about life, death, infinity,” von Drathen said.

Continuing her critique on consumerism, she said she believes that the more catalogs and publications on an artist, the more muddled the true essence of their art.

In the spring 2005 semester, von Drathen was the first joint hire of the art and architecture departments in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She recently published Vortex of Silence, a series of essays on contemporary influential artists.

Von Drathen will be in Ithaca for three weeks. She plans to conduct a workshop further exploring the central ideas of her lecture.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Contributor