Prepositional Art

Raphael Rubenstein

Volumes of fiction and poetry, as well as specific poems and stories, often carry dedications, but we generally don’t consider them as central to the meaning of the texts, unless they are part of the title as in, to cite a pair of famous mid-20th century American poems, Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” or Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis.” It’s different with works of art, where the only way to signal a dedication (other than writing it out on the artwork itself, which sometimes happens) is to include it in the title of the work. And when you do that, it becomes immediately central to the meaning. It can’t be ignored or set aside as something mainly of interest to experts, as we tend to do with literary dedications.

The works in this portfolio of tributes, dedications and homages might be called “prepositional” because they are works that have been made for or dedicated to.  It is in the nature of prepositions to come before something (which is one reason traditional grammarians won’t let us end sentences with them). Thus, they are meant to make connections, to initiate relations, to tie together. This is what prepositional art does.

But what does it mean to dedicate a work to a specific person? Or to millions of people? Think of Blinky Palermo’s To the People of New York City (1976), a series of solid-color compositions on aluminum panels made by the German artist shortly after he left New York City, where he had lived for a number of years. It’s impossible to approach this work without wanting to read it as an expression of its extremely specific title. In other words, we can’t avoid looking for what links the artist and his work to “the people of New York City.” For a long time I thought of this title as a heartfelt acknowledgement of thanks, an expression of affection that Palermo felt for the inhabitants of his adopted home. Recently, however, David Reed (who elsewhere in this issue writes about the work of Ralph Humphrey) pointed out to me that Palermo’s work was not received particularly well in New York and that maybe the title was meant to be ironic. Another group dedication that has long lodged in my memory, but one that is far less specific, is Jonathan Lasker’s Painting for an Invisible Generation (1992). I’ve never been sure which generation the artist had in mind, but the directionality of the title has always influenced my reading of the painting. As with Palermo and Lasker, ambiguity also plays an important role in Philip Guston’s great painting Friend (to M.F.), 1978, his portrait of composer-writer Morton Feldman. Supposedly the painting shows the subject’s head turning away in a three-quarter pose because Feldman had expressed his disapproval of Guston’s turn from abstraction to figuration. When Guston was still making ostensibly “abstract” works he titled one painting To Fellini (1958) suggesting not only his admiration of the great Italian filmmaker but that Guston’s apparently non-referential abstractions may be imbued with narrative content.

It doesn’t take too much effort to figure out who the M.F. is in Guston’s picture, but sometimes artists can be more discreet in their dedications, which is the case with Shirley Jaffe’s F’s Picture (1968). This is a key work is Jaffe’s transition from a gestural to a geometric style, but until recently she never bothered to explain to reference. It turns out that the “F” of the title is Jean Fournier, the Paris art dealer who first showed Jaffe’s new kind of painting, despite the disapproval it garnered from many of Jaffe’s painter friends. At the other end of the spectrum from Jaffe’s quiet acknowledgment, and also distinctly removed from the ambiguity present in Palermo or Lasker, are works where the explicitness of a dedication takes on a powerful political quality. Two works that are exemplary in this way are Tania Bruguera’s Tribute to Ana Mendieta, and Nancy Spero’s Homage to Ana Mendieta (1991), both of which address the life and legacy of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1995). The former is an 11-year-long project in which Bruguera reenacted performances and recreated objects by Mendieta not only as a sign of artistic respect and indebtedness, but also to make Mendieta’s work available to an audience in Cuba, where expatriates like Mendieta were often marginalized by the official culture. Nancy Spero’s piece, whichalso involved the re-creation of one of Mendieta’s works, reflected Spero’s and Mendieta’s friendship (cut short by Mendieta’s tragic death) and their shared involvement with feminism.

Obviously, all of the artists included in this portfolio are concerned with such acts of dedication, but for several of them it is central to their creative process. Melvin Edwards, for instance, often names or alludes to specific individuals in his titles such as the great Negritude poet Léon-Gontran Damas or Afro-Cuban musician Chano Pozo. Chris Martin frequently declares the targets of his dedication by writing their names with a brush directly onto his paintings, often combining several names in a kind of magical litany (in one painting abstract painter Paul Feeley shares billing with George Harrison).  From the beginning of his career, Julian Schnabel has grounded his art in the act of paying tribute, honoring friends, lovers and heroes, often at epic scale (including a 1981 painting titled The Death of Blinky Palermo in the Tropics). Jack Whitten, especially of late, has offered many of his paintings as memorials to deceased artist friends. His 2013 exhibition at Alexander Gray in New York included works dedicated to Alan Shields and Alan Uglow, as well as Stephen Antonakos (whom he writes about here).

Some of the art in this portfolio points to relationships of incredible intimacy, such as Edwards’s sculpture in memory of his late wife Jayne Cortez or Carl Palazzolo’s tribute to his deceased friend Stephen Mueller. (There are also crosscurrents among some of these artists: as evidenced by a painting in Jack Whitten’s 2013 show titled  Nine Cosmic CD’s: for the Firespitter (Jayne Cortez).) Other works connect from a distance, summoning the presence (or absence) of legendary actors and musicians as when Susan Bee memorializes Ruby Dee or Chris Martin laments Amy Winehouse. Not surprisingly, other visual artists often serve as the inspiration, sometimes in the context of deep friendship (Schnabel and Cy Twombly), sometimes via missed connections (Jan Frank and John Chamberlain) and sometimes from pure visual affinity (Gwenn Thomas and Lee Krasner). It’s perhaps worth noting that in these last three instances the dedications also involve a bridging of generations. The dedicatory work can be a way for artists to speak to others from different eras.

Whatever the degrees of separation between artist and subject, to dedicate a painting or sculpture to someone is to make a performative statement. When Melvin Edwards titles his sculpture Poetry (for Jayne Cortez) he simultaneously tells us it is “for” Jayne Cortez and accomplishes that very action. By extension, the entire work becomes a kind of speech act, which means much more than making a connection between visual art and linguistic philosophy. To dedicate a work, as all the artists here have done, means nothing less than to state your belief in the power of art to act upon the world; those small words—to, for—turn out to have big implications.