In the June afternoon I walked through—at least three times—“DESTROY THE PICTURE: PAINTING THE VOID, 1949-1962,” an exhibition at Los Angeles’s MOCA. The show was great. Afterward, I tentatively wandered into the rotating permanent collection on display, not wanting to violate the head-space the show at thrust me into. My boyfriend Dean & I had extra time before the museum closed, and I wasn’t ready to get back into the car just yet. So I walked, quickly, hardly glancing at what lined the walls. Most of what I saw was either already familiar or failed to pique my interest. But then I stopped. I entered a room, hallowed by the oddly-too-dim fluorescent lights, and spotted something on the wall opposite me, carrying a subterranean glow, as if a cavern filled with phosphorescent life. I tentatively approached the piece, read the placard to the left:
I surveyed the piece: Dark, earthy colors (explained, now, by the materials). A large triangle, indicative of a pyramid. Sections fragmented. A tiny detail, in gold leaf, an absented map, diagram, something esoteric. I stared at this detail, obsessed over it. Three X’s positioned over a winding path. What it meant, I had no idea, but I was fascinated.
I immediately forgot about the DESTROY THE PICTURE show, newly obsessed. I called my boyfriend over and asked if he had heard of Orr, but, despite his mass of knowledge regarding California artists, he had not. I took out my phone and snapped a photograph of the placard with the information, then one of the detail that my eyes were repeatedly drawn to. I didn’t snap a photograph of the entire piece, assuming I could easily find the image, and more details, online. This, unfortunately, was not the case.
I had a friend who was a regular at the bar in Northern Illinois that I quickly became a regular at as well. He told me once, being a musician, that there are two kinds of music: Music that makes you want to go home and write and record music, and music that doesn’t. His preference was for the former. Eric Orr’s art makes me want to do so much—it’s not just that the art makes me want to make art, it’s that the art makes me want to constantly waver upon the precipice before the void, violently rocking back and forth, constantly threatening to push myself into the unknown.
There is a surprisingly derth of information on Eric Orr and his art available on the internet. A few reviews of his public art, auction listings, gallery holdings. I wanted something else after my experience at MOCA. I wanted to experience what I felt faced with the work all over again.
A couple of catalogs, a few artist books. All hopelessly out of print, fetching prices of over $100 on the used-book market. Luckily one, ostensibly as artist book, can be held via the magic of inter-library loan. I requested it, and two weeks later when I picked it up at the Mission branch of the SFPL, I went home, read it. I felt what I knew I needed to feel again.
It’s title is misleading: Eric Orr: A Twenty-year Survey [exhibition: April 14-May 12, 1984].
With such a title I expected a simple monograph; a catalog of works present in a retrospective, maybe some brief biographical information, a list of shows. Instead, I found something brilliant. A series of images of the work included in the retrospective, yes, but beyond that, an abundance of writing by Orr himself, adjoined by a brilliant piece by Orr’s friend, the art critic/theorist Thomas McEvilley. The book offers a fantastically controlled biographical history, high-lighting important moments, such as brushes with death, experiencing the impossible. Orr’s work seems to extend beyond his object-based art, beyond his uncannily constructed environments, into the book. His work seems to be as much about this specific mysticism, this hunting of the void, as anything else. And this, precisely this, is what I want out of art.
I’d desperately like to get my hands on (though can certainly not afford the $370 I’d need to purchase the cheapest copy available online) ZERO MASS: The Art of Eric Orr, a collaboration between Orr & his friends, including the aforementioned Thomas McEvilley & artist James Lee Byars. The book comes in a slipcase with a sculptural object, “The Sphere of Generosity” by Byars himself. Page 15 carries Orr’s blood (a material he used often in his work). Monochromatic red paper pages made by Yoshio Ikezaki of LA, fabricated using kozo fibers and a powdered mummy’s skull, fill out another section. I don’t even need to know anything else to know that this book carries a secret, a force.
Orr came to be known mostly for his public sculptural work, often involving consistently flowing water accompanied by flames. There are lists of his public works online, though I’ve not had the time to try to see how many are still standing in LA. I’d assume some of them are, and I’d love to feel their power. I’d love to go to Venice in the early 70s and see where Orr had traced the shadows of objects and monuments, so as to feel their presence even when they are visibly absent.
What I’d like most is to experience any of his environments. I’d like to sit inside the sphere at the center of a giant Tesla coil, the force of nature striking around me. I’d like to walk into “Zero Mass” and lose all sense of perception, to feel the physical space of nothingness. I’d like to experience the anechoic chamber that bears the light of the sun, following its path to always penetrate the hold.
I’d like to know what it feels like to cover a plate of glass with your blood, trace the shape of your friend’s shadow onto it, ship the glass to Egypt, and bury it in alignment with a pyramid and the stars. These are rituals as much as they are “art works.” And in my mind there should always be very little difference between the two categories.
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I recently had the opportunity to see a 40 minute video work, Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Work of Eric Orr. The video was made by Eric Orr’s daughter, Elizabeth Orr, also an artist in her own right. The video offers a biographical portrait of Orr as told orally by his friends and fellow travelers. Jumping around his life, the video document creates a portrait of a man who enjoyed life and lived exactly how he wanted to, working exactly how he wanted to, loving everyone around him. The video, in response, functions as a love letter to Orr itself; a love letter from his daughter, a love letter from all of his friends.
Orr died in 1998, and with him, perhaps, a force of curiosity, of exploration. The world lost a man who never stopped hunting the void. Someone who interrogated the real and often refused it. Of course, I make these proclamations based on minor contingencies: an encounter with a charged “painting,” the viewing of a 40 minute documentary, the engagement of a thought through a book. What could I say if my interactions were more involved? Probably something even more impossible.