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One Year, One Year Later

August 1, 2009

For this solo exhibition, the artist presents seven through eighteen from an ongoing series. The paintings give visual form to the artist’s memory of observing and recording the color of a hydrangea flower as it bloomed, decayed and disintegrated from the summer of 2000 through the spring of 2001.

Exhibition catalogue: The Experience of Experience with essay by Mary Jane Jacob


John Dewey would have admired Marie Krane Bergman’s art. More than one hundred years ago this fellow Hyde Parker set a foundation for understanding the causal nature of art; what causes it to arise in the artist and, hence be created; what causes it to effect the viewer and, thus be recreated; and how art’s relation to life constitutes one of the great, sustained narratives in human history. No small stuff. Dewey—in some ways more clearly, directly, and straightforwardly than other before and after him—placed art in a prominent position within culture and in his arguments made his case that art was necessary for the well-being and advancement of society. Dewey’s words continue to be the bedrock, the place to which we oft-return in the contested terrain of art in America.

In the work of Marie Krane Bergman, Dewey would have found full expression of his central position that art at its best is grounded in the experience of things in the world, outside the world of art; that art crystallizes these experiences in order to communicate and be experienced by others; and that in doing so, art reveals new meanings that find relation to others’ life experiences. Thus, a work of art lives. Coming out of and affording experience then, an exhibition of Bergman’s art is the experience of experience. In her work a transformation occurs both materially in the making of the work and personally in the viewer.

Art and the Artist

Dewey felt that in the process of making art, the artist is transformed. This is a necessary element and one that Marie Krane Bergman has taken decisive, conscious steps to achieve. Dewey believed that the language of art, at its best, was an expression beyond ego, emanating from yet surpassing the individuality of the author’s personal experience. He spoke against the narrow path of self-expression for its own sake, and here his early study of Buddhist philosophy served him well. So, too, this tradition aided other artists of the last century and no more influential was John Cage for whom, critic Kay Larson said: “self-expression was something like a fascist attempt at domination of the ‘Other,’ the audience.” Citing Cage, she writes:

“[Most people are] convinced that music is a vehicle for pushing the ideas of one person out of his head into somebody else’s head…. What it does is bolster up the ego. It is in the ego, as in a home, that those feelings and ideas take place. The moment you focus on them, you focus on the ego, and you separate it from the rest of Creation. So then a very interesting sound might occur, but the ego wouldn’t even hear it because it didn’t fit its notion of likes and dislikes, its ideas and feelings.”

Bergman was fortunate to come under the tutelage of another eminent figure in art, Ed Paschke. Not unlike Cage, though the work of this formidable painter—bold, brash, high-colored personifications of lowlife and art world divas—could not have been more different, Paschke advocated working from a place beyond ego. It would be a mistake to make, and keep making, what you feel comfortable with, are at “home” with (as Cage put it); it’s an art-world trap. Bergman says of Paschke, “[h]e encouraged his students to cultivate an egoless art. If you’re making art to serve your ego or a commercial market, he’d warn, you’ll stay within the confines of what you think is good, what you think others will think is good, or what your ego desires.” So he cautioned students to apply their skills through other means of employment, reserving the studio as a free space.

Paschke, an artist in the figurative tradition, also employed academic training exercises to arrive at egoless art, having his students do countless self-portraits in different, experimental ways that broke apart self-representation and necessitated them to depart from a level of self-consciousness and comfort about the way they looked. “One of my favorites,” recalls Bergman, “was the evil self-portrait as a way of not getting hung-up on presenting yourself handsomely; you’d present yourself evilly.” The goal was clear to her: “to get us to a creative or intuitive place.”

In an art world defined by “who did it,” it was a challenge to Marie Krane Bergman as a nascent artist to think about art beyond author. Even in the works of Cage, who succeeded in opening himself up to sound beyond the expected, he is evidently the name attached to the work, and even these radical scores have garnered the mystique of the maker. For Bergman, one vehicle was to work with a generic form—dots on a canvas, or black dots on white walls—but these early paintings elicited an autobiographical read: obsession. “So the problem was how to get obsessiveness out, how to make it clear that my hand wasn’t important—but that the human hand was paramount—that any and every hand was important.”

What next emerged while still in graduate school was a method of working that involved others. Group making in art had many intermittent histories in the 20th century.  While the modern world ushered in the era of the individual in society and in art, with emphasis on personal psyche and persona, group dynamics punctured and probed the presumed isolation and independent status of the artist. Some artists banded together to investigate ideas or actualize manifestos; others found themselves associated by shared concerns or styles as critics grouped them. Yet, others still sought to pry art loose by taking on a collective, anonymous, or pseudonym identity, and in this action, the Dada vehicle of the exquisite corpse might be seen as one perfect solution. By the 1970s artists formed groups to press political and social agendas in the art world or world-at-large. This extended into the multicultural eighties and took another turn by the nineties as social, site, performative, and interdisciplinary work led to a dramatic increase in, even omnipresence of, collective or collaborative ways of working.

Marie Krane Bergman’s approach partakes of the 20th-century Dadaist impulse to remove the single hand, as well the desire of the collective zeitgeist of her time to remove the single name. Thus, the moniker Cream Co. was born. But Bergman’s process overrides both these historical references as she sets out a program or mode of operation in which the application of paint is both carried out and critiqued by others, and here we might turn to Dewey’s thought that: “The process is art and its product, no matter at what stage it be taken, is a work of art.” Bergman has said:

Working with others was always around a very specific conversation about painting. I came to believe that there was no such thing as the non-collaborative artwork—that it is always a product of a conversation. All artworks are the product of a conversation. It wasn’t until 2003 that I started to understand that what made Cream Co. interesting wasn’t that it was different, but that it was the same as all art practices. We were making transparent what was true for all art—the connectedness among us is the true author of art. The paintings picture the connectedness among us. Indeed, the connectedness among us is in all paintings. Cream Co. paintings aim to make connectedness transparent, as opposed to keeping it opaque or hidden.

The organic way in which conversation unfolds, moving between persons, and stretching over time, picking up where we left off, helps to explain why Bergman sees in her way of working with others “a complete connectedness that reveals itself slowly.” In return, this envelopes others in the process, as Leah Finch of Cream Co. says, “it’s the relationship that I have with the people, especially Marie, that keeps me going back—the rapport that has been built up over time.”

Cream Co. is only possible because there are others, like Finch, who understand and appreciate the aim of actualizing an egoless art.

Yet even still, paradoxically, there are individual hands at work. For Finch, she reveals, “My intentions are to do my absolute very best all the time; I want the best work only to be out in the world. So even though I would never make this work on my own, there’s an expression of my personal values about what good craft is and what dedication and patience can look like. It is not about carrying out a directive or prescription; it is more like a recipe, the taste varies in the making. And in this process, conversation contributes to the outcome: “like a meal made with love,” as Finch says, “which is going to taste better than a meal made with anger. In intangible ways, my intentions or others’ intentions make it into the paintings.” So the paintings are dependent on a shared discourse and ongoing dialogue. “There’s something about my talents and Marie’s talents that come together,” reflects Finch. “In Cream Co. the paintings are richer by the interaction of a group not all equal. Yet the paintings would not be as good had there not been so many people involved over time. It’s hard to say who does what anymore because we’ve been together for so long.”

Art and Ethics

In her path to take self out of art, Bergman pursued in her own way what Paschke evoked as a “day-job,” by studying law after college. Ethics was her forte in law school and in practice, at a time when ethics was coming to the forefront in the legal field. “That was my passion as a lawyer,” she remarked. We see a reapplication of her skill in critical analysis as she keenly engages in formative conversations toward the development of each individual work. And while law as a line of work was a clear art strategy to Bergman, enabling her to put funds in reserve for a tenyear plan for art school and studio practice, there are greater, not so much accidental as intuitive relationships between art and ethics.

When we find a life’s work—be it art, law, or other—we come in touch with and give definition to our ethos that carries with it both our interests and the ways we make meaning. With its Greek root a clue, from ethos grows ethics,12 and because both ethos and ethics stand at the core of who we are, there is a lot at stake. “A typical characteristic of ethically motivated action is that it does not take the route of least resistance or minimal effort. Without conflict, meaning deteriorates; without pain, meaning cannot be created,” Vaden and Hannula have written. Dewey brings this notion of conflict into the very concept of being the artist and the artist’s role in society. Beginning with an understanding that “[l]ife grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance,” and that with this “there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life…. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension.”

This movement from instability to stability through periods of disruption and conflict is, according to this philosopher, at once “essential to living” and “akin to the esthetic.”Dewey wrote: The rhythm of loss of integration with environment and recovery of union not only persists in man but becomes conscious with him…. With the realization, material of reflection is incorporated into objects as their meaning. Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total… In the process of living, attainment of a period of equilibrium is at the same time the initiation of a new relation to the environment, one that brings with it potency of new adjustments to be made through struggle.

And this cycle continues fruitfully, because “[t]he time of consummation is also one of beginning anew.” But to make anew is to work through that uncomfortable place, and grapple with conflict, as one seeks to move toward resolution. Yet this process, too, cultivates greater consciousness, and in Bergman’s case this effects the mind of the individual (hers and each maker’s), the collective consciousness of the group (Cream Co.) and, as we will see, the viewer’s perception (the audience). Cream Co. enacts this conflictual creative process through critical dialogue among a group of invested and attuned persons each with individual points of view. Hence, each work is the product of a specific conversation, and in undertaking this process, Bergman brings artmaking together with ethics. This is not in the sense of fairness, but in the way that Vaden and Hannula speak when they write: “Ethics as an intellectual field grows out of the ethos and the embodied skills the ethos constitutes. Ultimately this might involve making qualified and justified statements in a theoretical context. The intellectual discursive sphere might even involve influencing other people, even trying to influence them in systematic ways that are grounded in the use of language and arguments.” So it is not just matter of communicating with those who are employed by Cream Co. about how to make works, it is about finding a shared space, having a conversation, occupying a third space that neither Bergman, nor Finch, nor others can achieve alone.

Finch recognizes that her approach, if viewed alone, is opposite to Bergman, but “together we can come from both sides. This provides a more permeable model.” Here Bergman (trained in philosophy and law) and Finch (trained in art and semiotics) become ideal sparing partners.

Marie: When Leah joined us at the end of 2000 she took it upon herself to make paintings she called “research and development paintings.” I didn’t ask her to make these paintings or to do “research and development.” Indeed I had other ideas about what she should do. She said: “I think at some point in the future you will be curious to see how these paintings will operate.” I gave her a green light to lead “research and development” and she started setting criteria for many aspects of the work that were different than the criteria that I was setting.

Leah: There are times when Marie’s response to my predictions of failure will be, “Oh, I have to see it.” Although I’m absolutely convinced before anything begins, that something is not going to work, I’ll let her embark down a dead end. Other times, she will want to change the direction of a painting midstream, which I hate because I’m faithful to the original idea; I argue for riding with an idea from the beginning until the end. Marie’s much more like, “Well, let’s just do something a little differently. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of the painting.”

Marie: Well, of course, Leah objects to my impulsive ideas because she is strict and she walks the straight and narrow from the inception of a painting through until the end. I get lost in the world of possible meanings.

Leah: There’s an acknowledgment, the theoretical possibility, that Marie will always get the final say, but I can sway her—it just takes a good argument of why we should go one way instead of another. Fading back suits me just fine because I know that I’m influential; she trusts me and I can make important things happen.

While trust is essential to make such a process work, what is important here is that through the struggle or conflict of bringing into relation two points of view—two ethos—the potential for creating something that communicates to others and from which others can make meaning multiplies. That, of course, was the real goal of the egoless art Paschke advocated, too: not only for the artist to grow and change, but also, in doing so, for the art to open itself out to its audience. Like Paschke, for Dewey, art needs to catapult from the level of individual solo artist-genius to the idea of self, propelled by the fact that the intent of all art is to create experience for others. And perhaps this is the mission of painting above all media, for surely painting is a great humanist medium, endured by the thousands to speak to us over millennia.

For art to succeed it must speak to others. But what to say to other people? Bergman carries with her the memory of not being able to articulate herself sufficiently as a child due to a speech impediment. In one way, we might imagine this leading to her choice of genre, as from an early age she preferred to communicate visually over orally. But in another sense, it contributed to her ethos since art, at its essence, is about communication with others, and creating a work of art is about making a third, shared space with the viewer—and unusually in Bergman’s case, with her co-makers.

Art and Time

Setting out to do so, the artist comes face-to-face with the difficulty of trying to say something new. For Bergman: I feel regarding art, like I did when I was a kid regarding everything. I feel like there is so much that I don’t know. I yearn to understand art history because I came to and continue to believe in what one could call the avant-garde: that it is important not to remake what has already been made and that an artist is in a privileged position—and with that privilege comes the responsibility of understanding the whole of art. I believe that one’s art should acknowledge, in fact does acknowledge for better or worse, one’s understanding of all art that has come before.

At the same time, the importance of trying to say something, even when faced with the impossibility of saying anything, compels me. What’s important is the attempt to connect, to utter without presuming the possibility of communicating. In large measure, what the paintings are about is the relentless desire to represent when faced with the impossibility of representation. The paintings constantly raise the question: “Is representation possible?” Bergman’s solution was to be as actual and specific as possible, and for Bergman, there was nothing more real yet elusive than time in all “its concrete yet infinite presence.” So how to represent our experience of time passing?

On Kawara is a particularly apt example of what this might mean in contemporary practice, best known for his Today Series of date paintings (begun January 4, 1966); they simply state in black and white the date and year on which they were made. To represent time, he focuses on the barest actuality of daily life. He has said that time is not found in the re-finding of events, but in the metronomic regularity with which the works and the days succeed each other. The continuity of ritual exorcises the discontinuity of existence. He seeks to create works that encompass his life day-to-day for what it is and no more. He sends friends and acquaintances postcards rubber-stamped “I got up at”; he keeps daily records of what he has read, whom he has met, and where he has gone, compiling books devoted exclusively to each activity. Unhindered by biography, viewers can integrate the artist’s experiences into their own, invest the works with their own memories. Not unlike the process that Cream Co. has developed, On Kawara’s program is exacting (with attention to the selection of brushes and canvases, preparation of the ground, painting) and executed with care and concentration. If a meditation on a moment in time is not completed by midnight, the work is destroyed. Taking ego out of his own life’s representation, he offers viewers a moment of contemplation about their own finite lifespan against the backdrop of seemingly temporal infinity.

For Marie Krane Bergman, the keeper of time is held in the color of a flower. It is her clock. I started looking at the petals of a tulip that I’d grown, and I chased the color over the course of five days. I’ve watched a blue flower decay for ten years. I’ve studied hydrangeas on a shrub come and go year in and year out and I remember what the blooms looked like the first time I saw them in September of 1997 and what the blooms looked like as they faded into December. I can, in my mind’s eye, imagine these times, these particular times and each painting clearly presents a particular time or passage of time, a deciduous sense of time or a particular day, like the first day. Only painting could present these ideas; I couldn’t do it with photographs. I don’t intend to represent the flower decaying; this I could do with a camera. I intend to represent the memory of seeing/being in a particular moment in time. Watching a flower decay or a shrub bloom again every year is simply a way to see time. The essential goal of the project is to make paintings that present what time looks like and operate like clocks for the future, by enabling a viewer to measure his or her relationship to the world.

With each species she chooses, the migration of color over time varies. To perceive takes close, attentive watching; to capture this phenomena in paint takes masterful mixing and in the Cream Co. operation, only Bergman makes the color. “The color is extremely specific and particularly important to me when it’s unnamable,” she has said, for example: “blue, four years later, is at first glance simply the absence of blue; a closer look reveals that it is a color that is blue and yellow and red, heading towards neither blue nor yellow nor red; blue four years later is neither blue nor red nor yellow, but all of those colors, at the same time.”

Flowers are used as a reference point by Dewey in the first chapter of his masterwork treatise, Art as Experience , to demonstrate the relation of art to life. “It is commonplace,” he wrote, “that we cannot direct, save accidentally, the growth and flowering of plants, however lovely and enjoyed, without understanding their causal conditions. It should be just a commonplace that esthetic understanding—as distinct from sheer personal enjoyment—must start with the soil, air, and light out of which things esthetically admirable arise.”21 For Marie Krane Bergman, Leah Finch, and some others with whom they have worked, their art education was theory-rich and from that Bergman and Finch have a rich analytical background. This has had its benefits; certainly it gives a platform for discussion during production, but it can also evaporate the life from the work. Simply put by Finch: “At a certain point, I get really bored with art theory.” Dewey took exception to “theories which isolate art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experiencing,” and conversely claimed that, “a philosophy of art is sterilized unless it makes us aware of the function of art in relation to other modes of experience.” Experience is the necessary element above all: of flowers, of color, of paint, of panels, of time—both time seen and time invested in making, so that others can see and experience. For Dewey, “[i]n order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man….” So for a work to emerge as art, it needs a real foundation—a foundation in the real—and this Bergman compounds: finding it in its natural state of flowers as a gardener, in the raw materiality of art supplies as a craftsperson, and in the poetry of time as an artist-philosopher.

For Bergman, the paintings become real, too, as “portraits of the presence of people over time.” From On Kawara back to Dewey, we find accord: one does “not exist in a time which externally [surrounds] him, but time [is] at the heart of his existence” ; “[t]emporal seriality is the very essence, then, of the human individual.” But as always with Dewey, such statements about human nature find greater meaning in art, so art “is not only the disclosure of the individuality of the artist but is also the manifestation of individuality.” Bergman makes this leap from individual self to individuals by multiplying the number of persons involved in the overall operation of Cream Co.; she also embodies a real, intimate, yet not biographical sense of individuality via the presence of the person who has executed a given panel.

Each painting is comprised of hundreds of small marks, laid down according to a predetermined system devised by Bergman, Finch, or others. This is a lengthy process—it takes time—it’s timemarking. Bergman notes, referring again to her memories as an attorney and keeping timesheets, that in the context of Cream Co. the paintings also operate as “timesheets and records of economic exchange.” Yet in spite of—in fact because of— their consistency, they also serve as a benchmark or standard by which we can perceive more essential differences. So, as Bergman considers:

The marks can be read as presence, exact feeling, and exact history. One can read the length of time somebody was there, how he or she was feeling, what time of day they worked; one can imagine everything. The marks can operate like breath. Occasionally, people take a long breath, but mostly it’s a march of time through being. The markers evidence presence and are about being present–the presence of a person and having that become completely and nakedly seeable. Each mark is a mark of a person, made one at a time. There was somebody there. The paintings also can image real yet abstract (un-image-able) ideas like truthfulness, perseverance, and the fullness of nothingness.

It is this embodied presence of the maker in the mark, and the presence of the experience of Bergman in the color of the painting that gives the work its presence. It is the experience of this presence, too, that enables a work to open up to others making meaning. “Esthetic experience is always more than esthetic. In it a body of matters and meanings, not in themselves esthetic, become esthetic as they enter into an ordered rhythmic movement toward consummation…The material of esthetic experience in being human—human in connection with the nature of which it is a part—is social.” For Bergman the social begins with the nature of sharing experience in the making, and then with the audience.

Art and Audience

Taking in of a work by the viewer is itself a creative act. Duchamp, while a great believer in the intuition of the artist in the determining the outcome of the artwork, saw this as only part of the process. Thus, in Duchamp’s terms, it is critical to make work that attracts the viewer, crosses from the artist’s experience to that of others because only then does the work do the job intended. He said:

This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter…in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal art coefficient contained in the work. In other works, the personal art coefficient is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation: through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

Likewise for Dewey, Duchamp’s contemporary: “Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art.” Moreover, he said: “We understand it in the degree in which we make it a part of our own attitudes, not just by collective information concerning the conditions under which it was produced. We accomplish this result when…we install ourselves in modes of apprehending nature that at first are strange to us. To some degree we become artists ourselves as we undertake this integration, and, by bringing it to pass, our own experience is reoriented….This insensible melting is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude.”

Bergman carries on this idea—one not so much an art tradition as an essential philosophical belief in the nature of art: “Cream Co. paintings propose the possibility that with specificity, a thing can operate as a fluid representation that a viewer can use to make meaning. The essential goal of Cream Co.’s artistic practice is to raise questions about the ways we use art (and things) to make meaning out of life.”

As one example of emergent meaning, that is, meaning revealed in the open process of art’s creation by the artist or recreation with the viewer, Leah Finch speaks of her experience in making a work called The Phoenix :

In the process of making this work, it was just the monumental pomegranate painting, but once it was made, I called it The Phoenix. This put a layer of meaning onto it that it didn’t have before. The phoenix is a mythological bird that lives a very long time, has magical properties, and then when its life cycle is over, it bursts into flames and then it rebirths itself from the ashes. The image of the phoenix also has connotations about the passage of time and the cycles of the seasons; it’s a heavily Christian symbol. It was obvious to me once it was done. This painting moves from black at the bottom, the beginning of the painting, to red at the top—it rises out of ashes. It’s the pomegranate color, but the color moved backwards from the charred pomegranate to the red pomegranate in real life. It was going from death to birth—from Marie’s experiment, back into being the actual fruit. There are other smaller paintings that go backwards from the color of decay to the color of a fresh flower, which is the opposite process of other paintings we’ve made that go from blossom, to dead-on-the-bush, to a year later after it’s dead. The Phoenix shows the cycle backwards. So the title: The Phoenix matched the painting perfectly. The title matched the significance of being a pomegranate, too: a seasonal object in Greek mythology. Making meaning happens in the process of making and taking in the work. This is what Marie Krane Bergman makes transparent in uncommon ways, facilitated by the organic process of the Cream Co. studio in which participants, like Finch, shift organically, fluidly, necessarily, productively from artist to spectator (to use Duchamp’s word). In this making-and-looking process, continually primed by conversation and indebted to long threads of connection, meaning simultaneously becomes embedded and expanded.

Meanings are not the same for everyone.32 Meaning once achieved is not final, concluded. Meanings have their own time and with time are open to revision, reconsideration, and renewal. Experience comes from experience, and art is especially adept in possessing the potential for us to find greater meaning because a work of art “directly liberates subsequent action and makes it more fruitful in a creation of more meanings and more perceptions.” And this sense of recreation through meaning continues and unfolds in ways not pre-determined or limited. Advancing forward, we can attain a greater consciousness or awareness that allows us to draw in experience—and re-experience it. Here again we return to these words: “The process is art and its product, no matter at what stage it be taken, is a work of art.”

Art is an ideal means for its cultivation of consciousness. This is why Dewey found it so important, discussed and positioned it in the world of ideas, and employed it in a vision of a fully functioning society. And in this, it is the work’s power to elicit experience in others—not the object itself—to which we must look, for “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience.” In her process, Marie Krane Bergman employs the means of painting but what she makes is the potential for meaning.