S TA R S ON THE GROUND WORKS BY JOHN TORREANO
C U R AT E D B Y M E L I S A C H R I S T
CURATOR’S REMARKS Melisa Christ
Las Vegas is a city of chance and change, but what are the odds that the painting T.V. Bulge (1969), by New York-based artist John Torreano would land at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art in the spring of 2019? This seminal work, exhibited at the Whitney Annual Exhibition exactly fifty years ago, would establish the foundation for the artist’s long and successful career. This early success would eventually lead to the commission of Ghost Gem Garden (1992), Torreano’s public sculpture installation on behalf of Clark County and McCarran International Airport. Among his best-known works of art, T.V. Bulge (1969) is a large-scale acrylic painting on canvas. This work illustrates Torreano’s early interest in using abstract techniques to invent an illusory experience for viewers. These ideas originated while Torreano was studying at Ohio State University with Hoyt L. Sherman; Sherman ran the visual perception laboratory—“the Flash Lab”— employing exercises centering around how the mind processes visual information. These experiences informed much of Torreano’s work both as an artist and art educator at New York University. In the late 1960s, Torreano began using dots to create the illusion of space, encouraging the viewer to consider the work from multiple positions, intending that no two
viewers would see the same thing. T.V. Bulge and Untitled (1969) are among the best examples of this early work. Dots of different colors and sizes strategically placed within abstract bands of color activate the viewer’s depth perception. The figural dots seem to wink out of sight as the viewer moves, causing the eye to shift into the painterly space of the ground, resulting in a figure-ground flip. In this way, the viewer becomes both an active participant and a subject of the artwork. Describing this phenomenon as “movement-oriented perception,” it would remain a consistent theme in Torreano’s work. T.V. Bulge communicates another recurring theme of Torreano’s work: contradistinction, which he describes as contrasting different qualities of different things. Similar to the figure-ground flip, Torreano presents the contrast between the illusion of space and the physical materiality of a large-scale canvas. Although the interior space is constructed by the artist as a three-dimensional illusion for the mind, it physically exists on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, illustrating Torreano’s idea of contradistinction. Las Vegans know Torreano from his public sculpture Ghost Gem Garden, installed at McCarran International Airport in 1992. Every year nearly fifty million travelers
pass by these giant gems on their way to Terminal 1. Torreano’s use of dots evolved, incorporating three-dimensional gemstones and eventually sculptural representations of gems. The Ghost Gems at McCarran are a grouping of giant gemstones constructed from metal tubing, partially enclosed with reflective glass panes. The alternating light reflections catch the viewer’s eye, changing the appearance of the gems as the viewer drives by. Looking deeper, the perception of the constructed weight of their material form is contrasted by the weightlessness of their transparency. Speaking on this work, Torreano explains that before the scientific understanding of space and stars, people thought of shiny objects as magical, relating it to holding the sun in one’s hand. From this perspective, every gem is a handheld star— or in the case of the Ghost Gems, stars on the ground. The works included in Stars on the Ground: Works by John Torreano, mark some of the most important facets of the artist’s long and successful career. How fitting that just a few blocks away from the Ghost Gem Garden installation, a visitor can find John Torreano’s T.V. Bulge and related works at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art.
T.V. Bulge, 1969 Acrylic on canvas 90.5 x 120 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of Mary and Weston Naef In Memory of Frances Marie and William David McNabola
JOHN TORREANO’S T. V. B U LG E : A RECOLLECTION Weston J. Naef, Curator Emeritus J. Paul Getty Museum
In June of 1969 I took a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and needed to find a place to live with my wife, Mary, who was trained as a sculptor. Our New York friends at that time were chiefly artists, not museum people, and we were steered to the district in Lower Manhattan south of Houston Street, where large, affordable spaces became available as small manufacturers and wholesale businesses relocated elsewhere. We secured a lease to the fourth floor at 96-98 Prince Street (commonly known as “98 Prince”), an 1870s building with an elegant cast iron façade. The Paula Cooper Gallery and an artist-commune that called itself “The Videofreex” were our neighbors, along with sculptor James Seawright and dancer Mimi Garrard. The rent for this raw 2,500 sq.ft space was $125.00 per month, low because the area was not zoned for residential use and because the tenant had to provide all improvements necessary for use as artist’s joint living-working space in a district intended by city planners for light industrial not residential use. The landlord provided just a single bathroom with one toilet and a wash basin served by cold water only. We added a hot water heater and enlarged the bathroom to accommodate a shower. Adjacent to the bathroom we
created an open kitchen with a stainless sink that was served by hot water from the newly created bathroom. The sink was set into a Formica-topped counter with cabinets above for food and dishes. We provided the stove, fridge and an island-cabinet clad in gray Formica. The cabinet was fabricated by an assistant to Richard Artschwager, who was known for his use of Formica as an art making material. We added partitions for a separate bedroom at the rear and a workspace adjacent to it. Despite the improvements the space resembled a campsite more than a typical uptown apartment like the ones occupied by my curatorial colleagues. Decorative unity was established by the Arts and Crafts-style furniture of Gustav Stickley that we acquired in a lucky find at the Jersey City Salvation Army store. A large round Stickley oak table was positioned near the center of the space. It seated eight people, half of who faced the Artschwager-inspired gray Formica cabinet, and half faced a huge empty white wall that called for a painting. We frequently visited the studios of artists who lived and worked nearby. In mid-1969 we dropped by the studio of John Torreano, who was a friend from the Ohio State University School of Art. We saw there his work-in-
progress, T.V. Bulge, and knew it was the right painting for the west wall at 98 Prince. We loved the fact that it was a landscape but not a literal one. We loved the fact that it referred to the sky but was not a â€œskyscape.â€? We loved the relationship between the figurative elements represented by marks on the canvas and the unprimed canvas that formed the background.
We loved the range of colors, some of which were derived from nature and others that were totally divorced from it. We loved that it was pure painting influenced by conceptual art. However, before being delivered to us the painting was selected for the Whitney Annual of American Painting for 1969. Before we took possession and installed T.V. Bulge at 98 Prince it would go to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it would be shown in the context of other new work. What a thrill it was to see it on view there over the year-end holidays. After three years residence at 98 Prince, in 1975 we moved a block or so away to 155 Wooster Street. We were so pleased with the visual relationship between
T.V. Bulge and the Artschwager-inspired cabinet (painting and “sculpture” in dialogue) that we moved the half-ton object to the new place. It was a statement deliberately in opposition to gold plated uptown taste. No consideration was given to replacing it with a more fashionable stone-topped cabinet, which would have been the line of least resistance. Nor did we want to replace the furniture of Gustav Stickley with something different because its uniform rectilinear simplicity complemented the works of our times that we collected. Over the fifteen or so years we lived in New York T.V. Bulge was continuously on view and there was never a thought that it should be replaced by something new. The quality of our life changed with the move to Wooster Street. The new space was almost twice the size of 98 Prince, which allowed shaping a clearly defined living room/gallery. T.V. Bulge provided the landscape background to the windowless heart of this space. By 1975 we had acquired more works of art by SoHo friends and neighbors, all bought directly from their studios. Among these, for example, were a Formica light-box by Boyd Mefferd, as well as a geometrically abstract painting by Scott Davis and a painterly-figurative painting by Gary Bower. We deliberately put abstract works in dialogue with
figurative ones, such as photographs by Chuck Close, Ralph Gibson and masters of nineteenth century landscape photography. Our goal was to create a dialogue between the aesthetics and methods of abstraction and the aesthetics and methods of realism. The Untitled painting by John Torreano that is now in the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art collection has a different story. In 1970 or 1971 my first cousin, Marie McNabola (1925-1996), visited us at 98 Prince and was introduced to the idea of living in a converted industrial space. She had recently relocated from Washington, D.C. to Boston and decided to take a lease on a loft-like space on Commercial Wharf. With an introduction from us, Marie visited John Torreano’s studio and decided to acquire a painting that would enliven the interior of her space, which had small windows and, despite its waterfront location, not much of a view. Torreano’s untitled painting provided her with a colorful interior landscape like T.V. Bulge did for the fourth floor of 98 Prince and 155 Wooster. Upon Marie’s death in 1996 the painting was inherited by her younger brother, William David McNabola (1941-2018), a math-driven engineer who lived in Las Vegas. The painting was donated to the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art by his estate. It has been an honor for Mary and I to be the stewards of these gifts.
T.V. Bulge installed at 98 Prince, home of Weston J. and Mary Naef. Hosting friend John Torreano. Picture (left to right): John, Robin, Mary, Weston J.
Untitled, 1969 Acrylic on canvas 81 x 70.5 inches Gift of the Estate of William David McNabola
Sweat Beads Drawing, 1969 Pencil on paper 18 x 24 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of the artist
Sweat Beads 2, 1969 Watercolor, pencil, and colored pencil on paper 18 x 24 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of the artist
T.V. Bulge Sketch, 1969 Pencil on paper 19 x 26 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of the artist
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN TORREANO & MELISA CHRIST You often describe your belief that art is transactional. Could you elaborate? We tend to think communication in art is a telegraphic process, ie., the artist has an idea expressed in their work of art; the viewer then looks at the artwork and decodes their idea. That is not how it really works. For example, a person will pass by many artworks before engaging with a particular artwork. The viewer determines if communication takes place, not the artist. The viewer is not a passive receiver of ideas. To offer a personal example: Whenever I am in Florence I always make a point to visit the Fra Angelico frescoes in the convent of San Marco. I do this because, from experience, I know that each time I visit those frescoes I will have a different insight. The paintings havenâ€™t changed, rather it is me the viewer that is different. In this way, art serves as a stimulus point (transactional terminal) for self-awareness. For me, the Fra Angelicos do this. They may not for someone else.
You have shown an incredible commitment to art education throughout your career. Do you have any advice that you gave your students at NYU that you could also pass along to students of art here at UNLV? I was fond of telling my students: Your job is not to make good art. It’s the critic’s job to say if it is any good or not. Instead, your job is to make sure your art is doing what you want it to do. If you are pushing your ideas and researching unknown possibilities, you are bound to feel insecure. Not quite knowing what you are doing is a byproduct of the process. How could it be otherwise? Getting lost creates insecurity. From my point of view, if you are not getting lost now and then, you are not doing your job. Can you talk about the use of gems in your work? People are naturally attracted to shiny objects, as they catch your eye when you move in relation to the object. Since the beginning of time, people have thought of shiny objects as magical. The sun is and was the source of everything and thus, with an object like a gem or diamond, you are actually seeing a reflection of the sun. From this comes the idea that “every gem is a handheld star.”
A Square, a Tear, and an Icoso, 1991 Acrylic and charcoal on paper 22.5 x 30 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of the artist
Tears and Squares, 1991 Acrylic and charcoal on paper 22.5 x 30 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of the artist
Diamond, Rosecut, and Icoso, 1991 Acrylic and charcoal on paper 22.5 x 30 inches Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection Gift of the artist
Ghost Gem Garden Installation views, 1992 McCarran International Airport Top and bottom photographs courtesy of John Torreano
Ghost Gem Garden Installation views, 2019 McCarran International Airport Top and bottom photographs courtesy of McCarran International Airport
BIOGRAPHY: JOHN TORREANO John Torreano is a nationally and internationally recognized artist with numerous exhibitions over his 50-year career. His oeuvre ranges from large-scale paintings and works on paper to glasswork and sculpture. Torreano began his education at Flint Community College in Flint, MI before moving on to earn a BFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, MI, and an MFA from Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. He has lived and worked in New York City for the past 50 years, and for the past 30-plus years served as a faculty member at New York University, and a distinguished visiting faculty member at many other institutions. His work has been recognized by numerous awards and fellowships. Torreano is perhaps best known for his concept of meaning based on a "multiplicity of pointsof-view," engaging the viewer as an integral part of the artwork. He achieves this effect through the deliberate placement of gemstones or reflective materials in his work, which serves to create the illusion of space.
ABOUT THE CURATOR Melisa Christ is a rising senior in the UNLV Department of Art’s Art History program and a curatorial intern at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art. After living and traveling internationally, she applies broader life experiences to the study of art. Her affinity for midcentury art and design provided the foundational interest for Torreano’s work, which grew into her first curation Stars on the Ground: Works by John Torreano. Christ’s research will join the Museum’s permanent collection files and support future scholarship of the history of art in Las Vegas. Stars on the Ground is the inaugural exhibition in the Barrick’s The Work Shop gallery.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art believes everyone deserves access to the arts. Located on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Barrick promotes a powerful awareness of the arts through programs of exhibitions, workshops, lectures, and community activities. Stars on the Ground has been funded, in part, by generous gifts from Weston J. and Mary Naef, and made possible by donations of the artworks by John Torreano, Weston J. and Mary Naef, and the estate of William David McNabola. The museum and curator would like to offer a special thanks to the following people for their support of this project. To John Torreano, for generously sharing his time and thoughts in personal interviews, and for his compelling artwork. To Weston J. Naef for sharing his memories with us through his essay contribution, and for providing additional photographs, ephemera, and invaluable curatorial mentorship. To Jerry Schefcik, for sharing his exhibition files and their wealth of information. To Patricia McRae Baley, for her assistance in digitizing analog images of the original Ghost Gem Garden process. To Chloe Bernardo, for the creative design vision that produced this beautiful catalog. To Assistant Professor Michael Fong and the UNLV Department of Art Design Lab for their support in the construction of this catalog. To R.C. Wonderly and the Makerspace for their exhibition support. And to the UNLV College of Fine Arts, and Dean Nancy J. Uscher for her leadership. All photographs by Checko Salgado
Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Alisha Kerlin Paige Bockman DK Sole LeiAnn Huddleston Javier Sanchez Chloe Bernardo Emmanuel MuĂąoz Melisa Christ Dan Hernandez
Designed by Chloe Bernardo
Stars on the Ground: Works by John Torreano | Curated by Melisa Christ December 5, 2019–January 11, 2020 Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, Uni...
Published on Jan 8, 2020
Stars on the Ground: Works by John Torreano | Curated by Melisa Christ December 5, 2019–January 11, 2020 Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, Uni...