Sunday, July 4, 2010

Rocket's Red Glare

by Drew Martin

The summer that I remember first and foremost is 1976: America's bicentennial. I was seven years old. In my mind, everything was painted red, white and blue and the evening stars were replaced by constantly exploding fireworks. July seemed like one never-ending block party at which I must have spent hours sitting curbside on a neighbor's lush, green lawn watching the paper boys doing tricks on their skateboards, purchased with the money they made from their routes.

Despite being born on the other side of the world, fireworks seem totally American. Francis Scott Key's The Star-Spangled Banner merges the visual effects of the British bombardment of the War of 1812 and the stars of the American flag with the colorful dandelion flak we will be watching across the nation tonight.

It is an odd, warlike aesthetic since fireworks are the brilliant offspring of gunpowder, which was invented during the Jin Dynasty in the 12th century and was used for various explosive weapons against the invading Mongols. Gunpowder, or black powder, is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate. To a chemist the bombastic spectacle looks like this:

10 KNO3 + 3 S + 8 C → 2 K2CO3 + 3 K2SO4 + 6 CO2 + 5 N2

The powder's charcoal component makes it seem like a natural fit for artists, but all of its possibilities weren't explored until Cai Guo-Qiang developed a prominent artistic career out of it. Born in China in 1957, and now based in New York, Cai uses gunpowder with a jazzy, Jackson Pollock sense; letting the spontaneity of the medium chance the final look. Sometimes, however, his control is delicate and literal, as in his Tree With Yellow Blossoms, pictured above. Though his work may often come across as having too much of a traditional narrative, the unique medium is metaphoric for Cai.

"Why is it important to make these violent explosions beautiful?"

Cai answers these questions he asks himself simply by using such a loaded material for art, and, for that matter, using his own physical energy for something good. In this sense, the message is that humans are a lot like gunpowder.

Fireworks, from kissing scenes in the television shows of my childhood to the KA-BOOM! explosive graphics in comics have established themselves as iconic America.

One of my favorite and earliest images of fireworks by an American artist is by the New England born, expatriate, and before-his-time, James McNeill Whistler, in his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. For 1875, it is an amazing step into abstract art.

In Still Looking: Essays on American Art, the author John Updike writes about the controversy of this painting, which even turned into an 1878 lawsuit for libel against the English art critic, John Ruskin who had made a snobbish comment that Falling Rocket was "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

In the Ruskin trial Whistler testified:

"By using the word 'nocturne' I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first."

Updike commented on the Nocturne series 117 years later:

"...though Whistler does approach their extremity of abstraction; part of our pleasure lies in recognizing bridges and buildings in the mist, and in sensing the damp riverine silence, the glimmering metropolitan presence."