The Intimate BoundlessnessMonday, October 21, 2019
This text was first published in the catalogue for the exhibition La invención concreta (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2013).
the center of the universe
in the opening scene of bela tarr's film werckmeister harmonies, the main character valuska enters a pub and is instantly greeted by a friend who says softly, "show us." as both men walk to the center of the pub, the friend shouts to the other patrons, "let's make some room for valuska to show us!" after the tables are pushed off to the side, valuska places his friend in the center of the empty room. "you are the sun," he says, "the sun doesn't move..."
valuska brings another man to the center of the room, telling him that he is the earth as he sets him into motion, following a circular path around the man who is the sun. watching the two men, valuska says, "we'll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand about immortality...all i ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness...where constancy...quietude...peace...and infinite emptiness reign...just imagine that in this infinite sonorous silence...everywhere is an impenetrable darkness...and how, at first, we don't notice the events we are witnessing..."
soon, another man is guided to the center of the room, and he begins to spin around the sun and earth as if he were following the orbit of the moon. the entire scene is a beautiful moment of choreography—humans performing the movements of planets, their synchronized motion reminiscent of those ancient wind-up children's toys of tin gears and swirling orbs called planetariums.
a few weeks ago i was standing in a museum, looking at willys de castro's 1961 objeto ativo, and as i moved around the object continuously as well as back and forth, i felt as if i were performing tarr's dance of the planets. after a few minutes of looking de castro's object provoked my body into motion, so that the viewer became active, rather than the object.
confronted with de castro's object, i continued to reflect upon valuska's words, and plucked a few that felt like connective tissue...allowing me to wonder if "boundlessness" was a quality not only reserved for universes, but for a sculpture as well. i thought about the potential of "silence" as more than a mute emptiness of refusal, offering generously a confrontation between two things without distraction. lastly, there is "noticing," that moment when a gaze arrives at the humility of the object—rather than its spectacle. "noticing" is proof that "silence" can be a framing device for focus.
as i continue along these lines, d.h. lawrence, in his short poem "the white horse," offers more:
the youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
they are so silent that they are in another world.
here, lawrence tells me that a conversation between two things does not always involve words, and that we (the sculpture and i), when confronted with each other, are attempting to build a new world through our mutual "noticing."
speaking of silence
all of willys de castro's works have an element of silence, present in both the humility of scale and use of materials.
when duchamp asked, "can works be made which are not 'of art'?," the answer is emphatically yes; but we are confronted and/or confounded in our attempts towards determining the requirements of art and non-art.
in the early days of ceramic tea cups in china, visual decisions were determined not by desire, but by situation and context. in the case of the use of a blue glaze for the interior of a teacup, the intention was not to see the lovely blue, but to use blue to shift the yellowy color of the tea back to green (which for some reason, was more palatable). while this was a decision rooted in "taste perception," other decisions outside of aesthetics might relate to labor or necessity, politics or ethical needs, cultural or scientific languages. rather than discussing what constitutes an object of art, we must acknowledge that a definition of art must consider that art is not only determined by what is made, but how it's made...or as richard serra said, it's how we do what we do that confers a meaning upon what we've done."
in de castro's case, the "how" becomes a monumental quality residing within a humble body of works; and upon close inspection, the surfaces of these objects evoke a feeling of necessity rather than technique—placing de castro's works within the contexts of some of the great makers of humble objects: forrest bess, richard tuttle, blinky palermo, alfredo volpi, al taylor, frederick hammersley, alfred wallis, and so on. what these artists share is an offering of objects with a high level of graphic invention, a presence of quiet (and solitude) and a scale and material presence of humility. they are objects that are generous to the mindful, yet tight-lipped to the rational.
while the intentions of such artists cannot be described as those of outsiders, their works certainly substantiate voices steeped in personal vision—and the experiences they offer push away from the center of art (as well as popular culture), veering towards the outer realms of alchemy. when ferreira gullar says that "art cannot be merely a rational activity...it is a phenomenon that requires creativity, intuition, fantasy... without those elements, it has no meaning," he seems to be evoking the silence in de castro's objeto ativos, where the determination of meaning is placed squarely upon the shoulders of the viewer—who must seek creatively and intuitively the magic within the silence of these graphic and physical situations.
i see de castro's entire body of work as a series of breadcrumbs scattered across a forest floor. for some, hundreds of tiny pieces of old stale bread is hardly worth noticing, while others are able to discover within a trail of detritus a path towards something not yet known. it is within this tension between the known and unknown that de castro's works generously offer their alchemical potential to their viewers. of course, with alchemy everything is already there for the making, but one must have the right point of view...
material presence / material presents
as i hold de castro's 1959 objeto ativo in my hand, its construction is full of surprises, and none more so than his decision to wrap the wooden object in paper—a if a sculpture wore a drawing as its clothes. de castro's paintings on canvas, as well as his objeto ativos, are rooted in their materiality and physical presence, and one cannot deny that his choices in relation to materials, colors, and patinas are specific to each individual work. in the 1959 piece, the materials that have been absorbed by the paper skin (ink, gouache, or maybe paint?), offer a dry, pasty surface—without any possibility of reflection. here, light is offered an opportunity to be absorbed, to rest between paper and wood, as if a whisper of warmth.
de castro's decision to use paper as a sculptural surface is unusual, inventive, and idiosyncratic—evoking jun'ichiro tanizaki's discussion of paper in his book about shadows:
paper, i understand, was invented by the chinese; but western paper is to us no more than something to be used, while the texture of chinese paper and japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose. even the same white could as well be one color for western paper and another for our own. western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. it gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.
active listening, active seeing
when installed on a wall, de castro's objects offer three visible sides—or three planes of active discovery. having spent all of last year performing john cage's 4'33" once a day, i am particularly susceptible to three movement works; and had i encountered one of de castro's wall-mounted objects in 2011, i would've used it as an instrument for a performance of 4'33"—looking and listening for 30 seconds to the left side, 143 seconds to the center, and 100 seconds to the right.
it is common for artists who work with sound to use the phrase "active listening," suggesting the potential of listening beyond the passive. of course, the same could apply to de castro's objeto ativos, because looking can also be active or passive—depending on the viewer's investment in a given visual situation. by using the term "active" in his titles, de castro asks more of us as viewers or listeners, to approach looking as an act of focus where the activity residing within the object is revealed slowly over time. this rigor of looking or listening suggests the story of abbot agatho, who in the fourth century carried a stone in his mouth for three years to learn to be silent, suggesting that the absurdity of a task does not diminish the value of the activity, nor what might be learned from it.
one of my greatest joys in learning about de castro's works was having the opportunity to examine them closely. standing in a museum and looking at an object is a formal activity, while holding an object in one's hand is an intimate activity. looking at the yellow plane of objeto ativo, 1959–60, i notice an edge, where blue and yellow meet, and because of the nature of wet paint and human hands the yellow edge has a slightly muddy, greenish cast. this edge reveals to me that willys and i could have been friends, because it is clear that on this edge he did not use tape—this edge tells me that de castro, like agnes martin, understood that human precision and mechanical precision have very different voices.
when i was a child, my mother was aghast at my penchant for crossing out words rather than erasing them. forty or so years later, i feel the necessity as an artist to acknowledge my mistakes, accidents, and imperfections... for it would be dishonest to suggest i never make bad decisions. imperfections are human qualities, emphasizing humility to both the maker and viewer. imperfection levels the playing field, allowing the artist and viewer to converse as equals, and in this muddy green i see willys de castro's work as being imbued with humanness.
in the realm of the poetic shelter
in 1960 lygia clark created a sculpture titled poetic shelter, and while i love the artwork, the title tends to work on me even more. a shelter is neither a home, nor a prison. it offers protection from rain on top, but might allow water to run over one's feet. in a shelter one is generally half inside and half out, protected from some elements and open to others. in this way, a shelter can be seen as a contradiction.
so what can a poetic shelter be? perhaps a situation that protects poetry from rationalization or academic reproach.
standing in central park, i see a small area of tall read and white flowers, suggesting to me the presence of de castro's 1961 red and white objeto ativo that i had seen in a museum a few days earlier. thinking about de castro's work while being surrounded by nature rather than culture, his approach to the making of art feels connected to francis ponge's approach to the making of poetry. both subvert tradition through subtlety... hiding bid ideas beneath humble veneers... both offer experiences that must be read via numverous "views"...and most importantly, both offer a deceptive feeling of happenstance which has been conceived and executed with an unbelievable level of focus and rigor.
when ponge says, "vegetable expression is written down once and for all. there's no way of retracting it; second thoughts are ruled out: revision is only by addenda," he could be speaking about de castro's work as much as he speaks of his own. making art and living life are continuums, and once a path has been taken, one can't help but continually find addendums along the way...
graphic notations and "unit structures"
de castro's tiny geometric works on paper are made up entirely of triangular forms. like architecture and music, these works are a series of similar units to form larger structure through various permutations. when i look at de castro's gouaches, i see not only a series of triangles arranged on a flat plane, but a relationship that has existed for centuries between color, shape, and sound. from the "illuminated" nature of some of the earliest musical manuscripts, to františek kupka and wassily kandinsky's interest in music, arnold schoenberg's interest in painting, and alexander scriabin's interest in color—the arrangement of musical notes and the arrangement of shapes and colors are in constant conversation. knowing that de castro worked with both graphics and music, it is no great stretch to see his small untitled gouaches not only in relation to abstract painting, but to the kinds of graphic notation explored by composers such as morton feldman, john cage, and cornelius cardew—allowing me to view de castro's small arrangements of forms and colors as scores, where the placement of triangular units suggest the placement of fingers on piano keys, and thus, eventually the sounding of notes...
cecil taylor, in the notes to his seminal 1966 recording unit structures, wrote that "form is possibility" —reminding me of the time i saw the graphic designer jack stauffacher trying to convince a room of groaning design students that "rules equal freedom." while no two men were ever further apart in their ways and works, both exploited limitations to provoke experimentation. for these men, as well as willys de castro, there can be no possibilities without form, just as there are no freedoms without rules.
the seventeenth-century philosopher pascal wrote in his pensees that "the last step that reason takes is to recognize that there is an infinity of things that lie beyond it," offering not only a perfect evocation of de castro's works, but a perfect user's manual on how to approach them.
 d.h. lawrence, “the white horse” (1933), in the sea and the honeycomb, ed. robert bly (boston: beacon press, 1971), 7.
 marcel duchamp, à l'infinitif / in the infinitive: a typotranslation by richard hamilton and ecke bonk of marcel duchamp's white box, trans. jackie matisse, richard hamilton, and ecke bonk (northend, uk: the typosophic society, 1999), 1.
 the discussion of the color blue in relation to tea cups was gleaned from kakuzo okakura, the book of tea (new York: kodansha international, 2005), 42.
 richard serra, interview with lizzie borden (1977), reprinted in richard serra, drawing: a retrospective (houston: menil collection and new haven: yale university press, 2011), 60.
 ferreira gullar in conversation with ariel jiménez (new york and caracas: fundación cisneros, 2012), 34.
 jun'ichiro tanizaki, in praise of shadows (1933), trans. thomas j. harper and edward g. seidensticker (new haven: leete's island books, 1977), 9.
 the incident of abbot agatho is taken from thomas merton, the wisdom of the desert (new york: new directions press, 1960), 30
 francis ponge, "flora and fauna," from le parti pris des choses, in idem, selected poems, ed. margaret guiton (winston-salem, NC: wake forest university press, 1984), 75.
 pascal, pensées, trans. h.f. stewart (new york: pantheon books, 1950), 31.