A Review of
From Head to Hand:
Art and the Manual.
David Levi Strauss.
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2010.
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Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
It’s hard to describe exactly the scope of David Levi Strauss’ new book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual; it begins where I might expect, with several essays narrating the physical materialization of ideas in the work of hands-on, process-oriented artists. Continuing through this book, though, the focus broadens to include larger social contexts, the cultural tradition of art, and artists and writers influential for Strauss as a writer. Very early on, anyway, Strauss introduces “making things by hand” as a radical act in our disconnected age, in that “it puts human beings in a direct, rather than hidden, relation to labor” (2); stated more broadly, “ ‘to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden’ ” (159) is the translation ‘from head to hand’ by which all human art is performed. The Word becoming Flesh is an irresistible metaphor (and partially the subject of the final chapter), an ultimate creative act by which separations such as mind and body and spirit become much more fluid. Human work, then, that deals directly with the transformation of materials, and specifically visual or textual art, is also bound up in the reciprocal process between ideas and materials.
Essays on sculptors Martin Puryear, Ursula von Ryndigsvard, Raoul Hauge, Joseph Beuys, Reg Davidson and Jim Hart, and Cecilia Vicuña open the first two sections of From Head to Hand, and in many ways stand out in my reading: these essays deal directly with the physical process of giving shape to content, and the material ramifications of that artifact in the world. Granted, von Ryndigsvard’s cut and carved cedar structures have maintained a strong material presence in my mind since standing next to one twice my height and inhaling all that cut cedar, and Beuys occupies an outstanding reference for anyone asking art to take account for itself, and then move into the neighborhood. Strauss clearly loves these sculptures as well, and what is more, his essays engage with the work in ways that treat ideas, process, and object as reciprocal, relational acts. For example, von Ryndigsvard “is alert to the indwelling potency of organic materials, but insists that they be transformed through work” (18). Likewise, “Beuys viewed art as the understanding of labor in the process of creation, and thought of this creative labor as an essential part of human life – for all people, not just artists. he believed that if this labor could be better understood and applied socially, it could transform the world” (34). This essay, “Beuys in Ireland,” comes on the occasion of a planting of 7,000 oak trees in Ireland, continuing Beuys’ project begun in 1982, planting 7,000 oaks in Kassel, Germany.
All of the other sculptors contribute other aspects to the process of making: Hague “causes us to slow down and look” (30); Davidson “is involved in the transformation of substance within a context” (46); and “[Donald] Lipski’s art is particularly well suited to contemporary postindustrial society…transforming glut into spare elegance” (80).
Paintings and drawings also show up here, Ron Gorchov, Raquel Rabinovich, and section IV contains four essays about Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, practicing lifetimes of “a thoroughly implicated art” not “separated from the rest of life,’ and married for 50 years. “Both pursued the representation of power in a way that opened a space for resistance, a fissure of possibility in the public imaginary” (99).
I mentioned up front that the scope of From Head to Hand seems somewhat unwieldy, and it is somewhere in the final section that the difficulty arises, focusing here more on writers than visual artists. While treating language as another physical embodiment with many of the same concerns as visual art, I found several of these essays (and a conversation) to take on a more theoretical tone than is the case with the clarity in the essays on visual art; I am also, however, willing to attribute some of this to my own inclination and experience to the visual arts.
Strauss’ essays tend to be clear, impassioned, and enjoyable to read, as he sounds as full of wonder with the materializing of ideas into objects as any artist. From Head to Hand treats work, process, and context as essential marks for describing an art of connections, and of correspondence.