23 No. 6
publication of the International Sculpture Center
Beer, Art and Philosophy: A Memoir.
San Francisco: Crown Point Press, 2003.Introduction
by Thomas McEvilley. 223 pp. With illustrations by the author.
by Frank Cebulski
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The subtitle and
leading epigraph to Tom Marionis memoir, Beer, Art and Philosophy:
A Memoir is appropriately, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends
Is the Highest Form of Art. Those familiar with Marionis art
know immediately that this pronouncement is no idle statement of passing
humor, but a proven fact of his work itself, since his studio includes
a full bar where he meets every Wednesday with selected friends to drink
beer, converse, and create the highest form of art. (p. 27)
After being removed from his position as curator at the Richmond Art Center,
in Richmond, California, for his provocative and daring exhibitions, Marioni
founded in 1970 the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA) in San Francisco.
This museum became his lifes work for a decade.
Through the museum,
he tried to define Conceptual Art with words and demonstrations.
He is particularly concerned with defining California Conceptual Art,
as distinct and different from International Conceptual Art and New York/East
Coast Conceptual Art. The distinctions he makes and substantiates through
his works, and now in this memoir, are significant and clarifying. Italian
Conceptual Art of the 60s and 70s, for example, is all about
Arte Povera (poor art), whereas Germans usually define Conceptual Art
as a scientific principle. (p. 26). As an international movement
Conceptual Art took on different forms depending on its location.
In England, prehistoric earthworks and stone circles, like Stonehenge,
influenced the development of Land Art. In New York, Conceptual
Art meant Language Art, but a Language Art based on systems.
California, however, is like a separate country, where there
was no literary tradition except the Beat poets. This judgment,
of course, is not historically accurate, for it denies the clearly established
literary tradition of California writers of the 19th century and those
of the 1930s and 40s that included such recognized poets as Kenneth
Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and William Everson (Brother Antoninus), all writing
in San Francisco in the decade before the Beats. Conceptual Art in Los
Angeles, for Marioni, is influenced by the beach, the weather, Hollywood,
Mexico, and Japan. In San Francisco, the culture is European and
Chinese. And, Marioni declares, I am a product of that tradition.
The Museum of Conceptual
Art no longer exists. The social artwork, Café Society,
which he created in the 70s, included one of his best-known works,
The Art of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970).
This social artwork has now evolved into an artists club called
the Society of Independent Artists. One of Marionis most famous
conceptual works, of course, is his sound art piece (Piss Piece), where
after drinking several bottles of beer he climbed up a ladder and urinated
into a bucket (with his back to the audience, he notes), which produces
a sound of different tones and frequency as the bucket fills.
This art memoir is
also truly an interesting personal memoir, for Marioni starts with his
life as a child in Cincinnati in the 40s, tells us about his family
and friends, and brings us forward with him to the present. He recounts
many interesting coincidences in his life where his life touches famous
artists and architects early in his career, and then later he becomes
friends with them or creates works that are part of their workslike
his relationship with John Cage and Marcel Duchamp and his commissioned
sculpture for the Marin Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
These stories and the explanations and descriptions of his many conceptual
works of art and the circumstances surrounding their evolution and development,
create a text of engaging interest with important historical context and
writes in a simple style, with short epigrammatic sentences that by their
very simplicity produce the depth, texture and fabric of parable. His
subtle humor only lightly covers the seriousness of his intentions, however,
as when, for example, he criticizes museum curators he has known for the
incestuous nature of their cyclic nepotism. The drawings that accompany
the text graphically recall his works and add not only pictorial interest
to the book, but in fact become iconic depictions of the conceptual works
themselves, like sketchy records of remembered physical events.
This is an important
work for sculpture, for Marioni holds that the origin and impetus of Conceptual
Art resides not in pictorial art but in sculpture. His analysis of the
development and influence of Conceptual Art and its origins is indispensable
for a true comprehension of this important worldwide movement. The introduction
by Thomas McEvilley presents an aesthetic setting and background for the
memoir and puts an art historians perspective on Marionis
life and work. McEvilley views New York Conceptual Art as derived from
the idea of the sublime, a preoccupation of Abstract Expressionist painters
of the 40s that which became essentially a theological movement
based on the theory of Edmund Burke. To give Marioni his due, however,
he admits himself that the curator in him likes to talk about what
my objects mean to me, but that the mystery can disappear if things
are overexplained. Now when people ask him what he is working on,
he replies, Psychic sculpture. When they ask, What is
that? He says, It will come to you. (p. 186)
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