On 30 June, Optics & Structure: Works by Kazys Varnelis, 1966-1976 opens at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania. This show, which runs through mid August and which I am curating, surveys the key decade when my father developed his distinctive approach to painting and experimented with constructions in space.
During this period Varnelis explored the possibilities of light and shadow in monochromatic canvases rigorously divided into geometric shapes inscribed with smooth gradients of shadow. These works are the mature product of Varnelis’s experimentation with acrylic paint on canvas to explore the interplay of flatness and depth, the illusion of concave and convex surfaces and the production of striking optical phenomena.
Living in Chicago and sympathetic to the Miesian architecture then being built in the city, the artist intended these paintings to be exhibited in large, modern spaces, notably art galleries, museums, and public buildings, with plenty of room for the works to be seen both in isolation and in juxtaposition.
Displaying some fifty-six paintings from the collections of the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum as well as some little seen works now in the Ellex Collection, this exhibit marks the first time that a significant number of these works will be shown together in the sort of setting they were designed for since the small number shown in the “Three Agendas” exhibit in Vilnius, Budapest and Tampere twenty years ago and the first time that the majority of Varnelis’s classic works will be exhibited in one exhibit space since his 1974 one-man show at the Milwaukee Art Center.
Accompanying the exhibit of Varnelis’s paintings will be reproductions of the artist’s experiments in space (constructions or sculptures), a reconstruction of a three-dimensional model that the artist built to show how his work might appear in the “documenta 6” exhibition, as well as documentary material demonstrating how Varnelis, along with the curators and architects of his day, thought about exhibiting his work.
It’s a chilly, rainy Monday, the kind you might have in Western Ireland, not in Northern New Jersey, and since it’s not yet June I feel justified in having a fire in my Morso insert while I listen to synthesizer music on the stereo. The cat just settled down, half on the couch, half on my left arm. With my typing somewhat disabled by an aging feline seeking warmth, maybe I’ll even try blogging again.
It’s been nineteen years since I started blogging, twelve since I switched to Drupal, four since I became completely frustrated with Drupal and decided it was time to move on. I still haven’t. I don’t blog much anymore and when I do, I talk about how I don’t blog much anymore. I mention these dates sometimes and I make plans to update the site, slow plans.
In the meantime, I thought I’d update anyone who wandered by here as to what I am up to these days.
I’m on extended sabbatical, perhaps a permanent one, having all but retired from academia. You can read about it in my post on the academy, but the crux of it is that like Drupal, the academy became too complex, too slow, too bloated, too bogged down in internal administrative trivia to notice that it had become irrelevant. I doubt any of this will change soon either. The smartest friends I have in the academy want nothing to do with administrative roles. Such positions lead to little more than overwork, frustration, and bad health. If you’re lucky enough to shape a school with a vision, you’ll find it undone when the university introduces a new round of budget cuts.
But this sickness is deeper, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. In my last years of full time teaching, starting around 2012, I began noticing that the quality of students was dropping off precipitously. In the space of a couple of years, top students vanished and even passable students became rare. Students increasingly demanded praise for work that should not have received a passing grade. First students lost the ability to write essays with thesis sentences, now even basic literacy is in question. Instead of making an effort, students complained. It was bizarre, disheartening. Oddly, every faculty member that I have spoken to about this agrees. Although I still see remarkable efforts in some places—notably NJIT where I have seen some of the best work done in recent years—student work seems to be collapsing irregardless of institution and, judging from my conversations with other faculty, irregardless of field. In casual conversations with professors in fields from the design fields to chemistry to law to English, it seems that something bad is happening in universities. The most widely held theory seems to be that students are so addicted to social media that they can’t think for themselves anymore, but something is causing a collapse. Much as I’d like to believe that I could make a difference, the bad taste left in my mouth by the last studio I taught means that I need to stay on sabbatical for a while longer, maybe for good.
Instead, I have been doing a lot of planting lately. This site on the first Watchung Mountain was terraced in the 1980s then over the years the sort of plants one sees everywhere—euonymous, berberis, forsythia, pachysandra, and other invasive species—had been planted in an attempt to make the terrain conform more with traditional ideas of what a suburban yard should be. This spring we have begun undoing this in order to create a more sustainable landscape.
I am well aware that planting native plants won’t restore an ecosystem destroyed a hundred and fifty years ago, but at least it can lead to a more sustainable condition that won’t require me to water it frequently, nurse it along, or be concerned about what will happen during major storms. It’s meditative to work in the garden—although not perhaps so much when I brought twelve tons of soil down a flight of stairs wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow—and centers me. It’s a small legacy, the individual act of one family in an era of climate change and mass extinction.
As I do this, I have some big, public projects under way as well. This year is the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth and the 50th anniversary of my birth and with that in mind I am working on a show on the essential, late modern period in my father’s work, e.g. 1967-1977 that will open at the National Art Gallery in Vilnius one month from now, on June 30. Afterwards, I think it’ll be time to edit a book on that period of my father’s work and produce book on ten years of work at the Netlab. And in the meantime, I’ll be seeking venues for my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and independently.
Half centuries are a funny thing. My father operated a church interior design studio between the late 1940s and early 1960s when Vatican II and dwindling churchgoing led him to conclude that this project was over. At 50 he started teaching—oddly he is called “the Professor” in Lithuania even though he taught full time for only ten years and I taught full time for twenty years—and pursued his vision of modern art. This lasted a good ten years before he got burned out again, this time by the fashion system of art, and moved to Western Massachusetts where he established a gallery of his own works in a nearly ruined Berkshire cottage.
With my half century mark looming ahead of me, I’m curiously optimistic about the body of work I am refining at present. Like a garden, it’s a matter of planting in the right place and tending to things as they mature. Maybe when my landscaping here has reached a state I am happy with I’ll buy a property somewhere upstate with a large barn and start installing my art in it. It’d be an interesting project.