Monday 1 June 2020

Christo and Koch

Hearing of the death of Christo – the artist who got famous by wrapping up very very big things, up to and including stretches of coastline – set my mind wandering back to Kenneth Koch's 'The Artist', a poem published in 1962 that foresaw much of what was to come in the art world, from Claes Oldenberg's gigantic Pop Art forms to Conceptual Art, by way of Land Art, Earthworks, site-specific environmental installations, etc.
The poem begins with the somewhat megalomaniac artist bidding  farewell to one of his works:

'Ah well, I abandon you, cherrywood smokestack,
Near the entrance to this old green park!...'

Soon he is looking back fondly to one his early works –

'I often think Play was my best work.
It is an open field with a few boards in it.
Children are allowed to come and play in Play
By permission of the Cleveland Museum.'

Next he makes steel cigarettes for the Indianopolis Museum, but then he really gets going with Bee

'Bee will be a sixty-yards-long covering for the elevator shaft opening in the foundry sub-basement
Near my home. So far it's white sailcloth with streams of golden paint evenly spaced out
With a small blue pond at one end, and around it orange and green flowers...'

But this project is soon dwarfed by the next one. A newspaper reports  –

'The Magician of Cincinnati is now ready for human use. They are twenty-five tremendous stone staircases, each over six hundred feet high, which will be placed in the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky. All the boats coming down the Ohio River will presumably be smashed up against the immense statues, which are the most recent work of the creator of Flowers, Bee, Play, Again and Human Use...'

The artist picks up the story –

'May 16th. With what an intense joy I watched the installation of The Magician of Cincinnati today, in the Ohio River, where it belongs, and which is so much part of my original scheme ...
May 17th. I feel suddenly freed from life – not so much as if my work were going to change, but as though I had at last seen what I had so long been prevented (perhaps I prevented myself!) from seeing: that there is too much for me to do. Somehow this enables me to relax, to breathe easily...'

The poem ends with the artist confronting his greatest creative challenge –

'June 3rd. It doesn't seem possible – the Pacific Ocean! I have ordered sixteen million tons of blue paint. Waiting anxiously for it to arrive. How would grass be as a substitute? Cement?'

Indeed. Why not? What limits can there possibly be to Art?

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