Altered Ego: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on Stephen Kaltenbach.
Landing in New York's downtown art scene in 1967 after studying at the University of California, Davis, Kaltenbach found himself in the position of an anthropologist observing a foreign subculture. Weed, too, taught him an essential psychological remove, allowing him an analytic detachment from his new environment that crystallized and grew exponentially on mescaline and LSD. He forged a formative relationship with Lee Lozano, whose appetite for mind bending surpassed even his and whose radical "life-art" investigations catalyzed his conceptual development. Taking his adolescent contrarian instincts seriously, Kaltenbach followed what he called a protocol of opposites: Whenever he identified a structurally embedded social pattern of behavior among his artist peers, he would do the opposite.
Kaltenbach showed a genius for wrong choices and comically perverse moves. Instead of laboring to make a name for himself, he made work anonymously, such as the twelve Artforum ads that were virtually unidentifiable to the unprepared viewer as pieces (most provocatively recommended casting illusions as artistic strategy--TELL A LIE, START A RUMOR, PERPETRATE A HOAX, BUILD A REPUTATION, TEACH ART, SMOKE, TRIP). Against the idea that artists should exhibit only in galleries and museums, he committed "Street Works" in public, often unannounced, using graffiti stamps, stencils, sidewalk plaques, and disguises. Instead of showing work, he began hiding unidentified things in a (still ongoing) series of sealed "Time Capsules." Instead of possessively guarding his ideas out of competitive ambition like the young artists hustling around him, he became more and more interested in giving his ideas away, purposefully sharing information and spreading artistic possibilities as ways of exercising broad influence: what he called his Causal Art.
In retrospect, it seems that Kaltenbach was working his way toward the exit even as he was emerging. If everyone was determined to build a successful career, he was going to kill his. After three short but highly prolific and successful years as a seminal figure of the new Conceptual art, Kaltenbach left New York in 1970. He withdrew at the height of his ascension, opting out of all the attention he was increasingly getting in response to his participation in numerous now historic gallery shows (such as "9 at Leo Castelli" and "Earthworks" at Dwan Gallery, both in New York; and "May 19-June 19, 1969," organized by Seth Siegelaub at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia) as well as in the definitive museum exhibitions of the day, such as Harald Szeemann's "When Attitudes Become Form," Germano Celant's "Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art," and Kynaston McShine's "Information."
Kaltenbach silently announced his departure--his "Fade to White"--by cryptically contributing a blank index card in a blank envelope to Lucy Lippard's "955,000" exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1970. Then he dropped out. He was only thirty. He had already moved on beyond the art world by the time Cindy Nemser's extensive interview with him appeared in Artforum in November of that year. Sometimes to become a legend you have to cultivate obscurity. It helped that dropping out was in the hippie air. Lozano had already tested a temporary withdrawal from the art world in her General Strike Piece, 1969, and would soon go further for longer in Dropout Piece of the early '70s. And then there was Duchamp, Kaltenbach's hero, who had publicly quit art for chess nearly a half century earlier in a deceptive retirement that, by 1969, turned out to have been a decoy enabling him to do his work in private.
Kaltenbach's departure marked a rupture shot through with refusal and a defiance that critiqued the art establishment's self-perceived exceptionalism. In one sense, it was a sharp break with the life and reputation he had built: He dramatically designated the action "Kill My Career." He was punk minus the anger, if such a thing exists. But Kaltenbach's withdrawal to the margins was also a specific, premeditated art action integral to the development of his larger artistic project. Disappearing was a contiguous extension, a consistent if extreme escalation of forces already far advanced in his thinking. That a position at California State University, Sacramento, allowed him to continue what he termed Teach Art (the pedagogical branch of Causal Art, dedicated to spreading influence) was the least of it. By dropping out, Kaltenbach was beginning a new, much larger and more radical, life-size art action.
Kaltenbach reinvented himself as a regional artist making conservative, and frequently full-on kitsch, figurative sculpture and painting. At the same time, he secretly continued his conceptual practice in private, referring to the entire masked project as his Black Period. Publicly, he chose to work with populist, even embarrassingly sentimental subject matter in a decorative realist style that would appeal greatly to general audiences but make his peers in the contemporary art world gag. It was an irresistible move in the wrong direction, an inside joke he kept to himself. Only in recent years has he broken his decades-long silence on the matter, beginning to speak openly about the covert aspects of his practice to the small handful of inquiring researchers, like myself, who have personally sought him out.
This was not the first time Kaltenbach had created a fictional artist persona. He had made several "Life Dramas" while in New York, experimenting with his identity and reputation in an Andy Kaufman-esque manner avant la lettre by temporarily becoming various made-up artists, generally of a comically peripheral, provincial type. The first "Life Drama," 1968, was a kind of unannounced comedy in which Kaltenbach decided to become a painter of couch paintings, modeling the work of his assumed persona on the insipid still lifes and generic portraits he encountered in the art gallery of the Lord & Taylor department store. Framing his actions in terms of a twisted deadpan pursuit of Minimalism, he set out to make "minimally good" paintings. Apparently, they weren't bad (or good) enough, and Lord & Taylor rejected the paintings he submitted for a show. In his second "Life Drama," Kaltenbach secretly invented an alter ego: Clyde Dillon, a conservative abstract sculptor making the kind of work that fills your average, run-of-the-mill upscale bourgeois gallery, like those clustered in wealthy, aging neighborhoods from Manhattan's Upper East Side to La Jolla, California. Always the amateur anthropologist, Kaltenbach brilliantly parsed the opposed registers of the various parallel art worlds that coexist within our culture without intersecting or even acknowledging each other. Though Dillon's early bronzes from 1968 inadvertently ended up in the dump in Scarsdale, New York, evidence of his brief existence is--allegedly--preserved for posterity in one of Kaltenbach's "Time Capsules" in the special collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The escalating scope of these early "Life Dramas" called for a drastic expansion in scale and intensification of commitment: In leaving New York, Kaltenbach actually and sincerely had to become the regional artist he invented for himself, not act out a temporary role as before. He was going for real, lived transformation. Fiction had to congeal into reality--and so it did. Since 1970, he has become a celebrated regional artist, well known in Sacramento for many prominent public sculptures such as A Time to Cast Away Stones, 1998--a large fountain in front of the Sacramento Convention Center strewn with drowning fragments of antique sculpture. His enormous tour-de-force painting Portrait of My Father, 1972-79--which directly targets the lay art-loving public (specifically, he says, his mother and anyone "who would never take mescaline")--remains a crowd favorite at Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum, a work especially popular, he notes, with "kids and elderly people."
The idea behind this transformation was to carry out a "Life Drama" so big and astonishingly expansive over time that it could not be seen in its entirety from any given point. It was huge, operating on a different scale over and beyond everything else--a kind of transcendence. You'd have to step back too far to grasp the work's vastness, which is now so thoroughly enmeshed with the artist's lifestyle, career, and personality as to evade normative perception. Kaltenbach calls what he has done during the Black Period The Elephant Project, 1970-, so named for its dizzying size and protracted, ongoing life span (forty years and counting). He has also described it as minimally Minimal, maximalist, or (my favorite) "going for Baroque." The work is so utterly convincing and faithfully carried out--like flawless Method acting or a one-to-one scale model--that it is basically imperceptible as art and suggests that being "of art" may be beside the point. The project acutely risks nonrecognition, defying our expectations of what is necessary to make a piece perceptible as a piece.
Ultimately, Kaltenbach conceived The Elephant Project as an elaborate strategy to target art historians down the road and give them something to discover and play with. He orchestrated his life as a mystery for us to solve. Concealment and unknowability lie at the core of his oeuvre. (Indeed, over the course of The Elephant Project, Kaltenbach has, he tells me, produced a large body of still secret works.) In this cultural moment of overexposure and rampant image proliferation, his practice offers the private thrill of invisibility, imagined possibilities, and leaps of faith. Much of his production has gone undocumented into the world--including the underlying conceptual claim of The Elephant Project itself--magnifying the role that unverifiable memory, anecdote, rumor, legend, and oral accounts must play in constructing (his) history. Kaltenbach's art, which resides in the intangible private logic of daydreams and the mental turnons of ideas, takes the radical chance of escaping history altogether. He is just as interested in exposing the contingency, misinformation, loss of knowledge, permanent doubt, and (as Lozano would say) infofiction that determine how art history gets written--its mechanisms and limits--as he is intent on being institutionalized within it. The flip side of his transformation into a "regional artist" has been his emergence as a "forgotten" or "outsider artist" and--as of late--a rediscovered one. All in good time and according to plan.
SARAH LEHRER-GRAIWER IS A WRITER BASED IN LOS ANGELES.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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