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ART : Citizen Tannen : New Orleans’ Robert Tannen is committed to erasing the distinctions between artist and viewer, high and low, public and private

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Nobody has to tell us not to touch the art when we walk into a museum or gallery. Those instructions are built into the art itself and into the way it is presented, and an aura of restricted access is one of the distinguishing characteristics of high art.

New Orleans artist Robert Tannen has always hated that. “If you’re feeling, ‘No, you can’t mess with my blocks,’ there’s a good chance what you’re doing is self-indulgent,” Tannen declares about the art-making process.

The subject of “Citizen Artist,” an exhibition on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through March 28, Tannen is a mostly unknown quantity in Los Angeles--as well as in the international art world. This could be due in part to the fact that New Orleans’ art scene has never been acknowledged by the mainstream art world as a particularly viable one.

But beyond that, Tannen is a case unto himself. Described as a “visionary outsider” by Adolfo V. Nodal, general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and curator of the show, Tannen’s sensibility is, in fact, too wide ranging for that or any label.

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At 56, this maverick jack-of-all-trades has worked as an architect and sculptor, an urban and rural planner and an environmental activist.

He has built bridges, designed plans for water conservation, disaster recovery, housing and transportation, and devised creative approaches to land use and waste management.

He has also overseen historic preservation projects, done site-specific installations and conceptual artworks, and staged performance pieces.

A compulsive scavenger, Tannen’s been tinkering in his back yard for the past 30 years with found trash, driftwood and stone, which he fashions into whimsical assemblages inflected with surreal humor.

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One of Tannen’s enduring interests is fish--in fact he once created an entire show around that theme. Included in the Santa Monice show is the sculpture “Crucifish,” containing a cast of a tarpon attached to a crucifix, about which Tannen said: “Fish are a major cultural symbol of Louisiana, and a primary food source as well. Combining that with the predominant Catholicism of the region creates an interesting play on the role of Jesus and his relationship to fishing.”

Says Tannen’s friend, artist Peter Halley: “To see this man at work in New Orleans, discoursing on the wealth of subjects on which he is an expert, is to be convinced that this is what real creative life is about.”

Tannen’s art, like his approach to urban planning, is profoundly populist and is rooted in the optimistic idea that creative solutions to social problems can be easily found if we introduce an element of poetry and play into our approach to such things. Tannen also firmly believes that art is for everyone, not just the schooled few.

“Like watching television, art should be something the majority of people participate in, and the success of my work is measured entirely in terms of the extent to which others engage in it,” says the artist, whose warmth and easy charm no doubt help open the doors to the many different worlds he frequents. “This stuff is designed to be changed by the viewer, and I intend that people screw around with it.”

Tannen proved as good as his word at the recent opening of his show. Despite the pouring rain, a huge crowd turned out for the event, which featured Louisiana food prepared by a chef friend of the artist who had flown in to cook for the day. As for the art on view, though some adult viewers initially found it a bit puzzling, the children in attendance loved it.

Included in the show is an Oriental rug littered with wooden building blocks shaped like shotgun houses--the predominant form of low-income housing in the South. Tannen says he’s attracted to the shape because “it’s the atom of the molecule of the house.”

Children are free to play with the blocks, and to race in and out of a pyramid of larger tin shotgun forms stacked a few feet away. They climb up and down a sculpture made of concrete blocks and dance around a grand piano rigged with several cheap boom boxes, each blasting a different piece of New Orleans music (the tunes are amazingly in sync).

“I can’t imagine Tannen ever making anything intended to be seen on a pedestal--his work is emotional, accessible and meant to be used,” says architect Frank O. Gehry, who is also a Tannen friend.

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Around the corner from the boom-box piano is a large table covered with the shells of dozens of oysters personally consumed by the artist, and hanging overhead is a string of abalone shells--a piece Tannen has titled “The World’s Largest Pearl Necklace.”

Plans for a reclamation project for the Colorado River are haphazardly affixed to one wall, while adjoining walls are lined with shelves crammed with old bottles and jars stuffed with various odds and ends from Tannen’s life.

The show makes perfectly clear where the artist stands on the debate over high versus low in art.

“Why are some things in museums and others laying around in back yards?” he asks. “Those are arbitrary decisions, and I don’t make that distinction--an oyster shell is as important to me as any fine object. I store my materials in my yard--in fact, that’s where I find many of my materials--and I’ve never worked in a studio. The idea of going into a sanctified space and creating a masterpiece doesn’t appeal to me because it’s self-important and doesn’t engage with what’s going on around you. That precious approach causes you to lose touch with the world.

“Artists have traditionally chosen to work in that solitary way because they feel that broad engagement dilutes their ego and their ideas. They seem to think their ideas must be contained and controlled as to how they’re perceived and experienced by others. This solitary-artist thing is a very Western, capitalistic notion that revolves around the idea of having a patent on something and protecting it.”

Tannen’s commitment to erasing the distinction between artist and viewer, high and low, public and private, and the haves and have-nots played a key role in Al Nodal’s decision to bring Tannen’s work to L.A.

“The ideas Tannen is working with became critically important to Los Angeles on April 29th,” says Nodal, who’s been friends with the artist since 1988, when he spent a year working in New Orleans. “At this point it’s still hard to understand his work, and even in New Orleans, which is a city of eccentrics, he’s seen as a major eccentric. But actually, he’s just a little bit ahead of the rest of us, and I think the brilliance of his ideas will become clear as the problems facing this country become increasingly pressing.”

Tannen himself confesses to being a bit surprised at how well his ideas, which are often quite fanciful, have been received by various American burgs.

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“My sensibility is often a problem in the world of urban planning because that’s a realm where you’re expected to do less rather than more, but much to my amazement I’ve been making a living as a consultant for 30 years,” says the artist, who has worked with everyone from Bill Clinton to R. Buckminster Fuller.

“I guess I get the jobs because I’m willing to take on difficult problems whose solutions aren’t readily obvious. The ideas I come up with are sometimes creative and sometimes they aren’t--I’ve done some pretty awful stuff,” Tannen confides with a laugh. “But I keep getting paid to do this.”

One of the remarkable things about Tannen is that the idea of failure seems to cause him no discomfort whatsoever.

“People are often looking over their shoulders worried about their place in the pecking order, but Tannen doesn’t do that,” Gehry says. “Approval doesn’t seem to be important to him.”

Tannen’s independent mind-set and wide-ranging interests began at an early age and were nurtured by a childhood that was oddly privileged.

“I guess you could say I had a liberal, cultured upbringing,” says Tannen, who was born in Brooklyn in 1937, the eldest in a family of three children raised in Coney Island.

“My father had a rare-book store (Biblio & Tannen) in the East Village where the New York School of artists hung out, so I grew up surrounded by the Action painters of the ‘50s. It was exciting, but I wasn’t attracted to that world, because I was interested in exploring new territory and that meant leaving New York and going other places.

“My father had an adventurous mind in relation to books, but he didn’t go out and do things--he was more scholarly. I was never scholarly and always wanted to fool around with stuff and not just be a spectator because I don’t trust just looking. Looking is very passive and isn’t as broadly based as other forms of participation.

“As a child, I was interested in lots of different things and was particularly big on John James Audubon. I loved that he excelled in so many areas--he was a combination artist, scientist, explorer, woodsman and adventurer. After high school, I enrolled at the Pratt Institute, where it was possible to study a real mix of things rather than concentrate on just one area, and I studied philosophy, industrial design and urban planning. It never crossed my mind I was moving toward being an artist--I was just trying to get as broad a base of understanding of things as possible.”

Schooled, married and a father by 1967, Tannen lit out for new territory and settled in New Orleans, where he raised his three children by his first wife (Tannen’s present wife, Jeanne Nathan, is an assistant to New York Mayor David N. Dinkins and splits her time between New York and New Orleans).

“I was attracted to the South by the mix of peoples and cultures there and by the way the various currents of culture blend--the separation between music, food, literature and architecture isn’t so crisp there,” he says. “I also like that it’s smaller scale and more personable--you can touch culture in the South, whereas in the North it’s illusive because of size and complexity. I find a small Southern town much more poetic than a Yankee town because in the South you can get at the subtleties more easily.”

Though Tannen loves the South and dismisses the international creative community centered in New York as “self-indulgent and self-promotional,” he continues to maintain strong ties to the art world.

He cites sculptor Constantin Brancusi as the most important influence on his work--"he was the artist of the 20th Century who made the connection between art, engineering, science and architecture"--and has close friendships with several fine artists.

Tannen says that “object making and the idea of permanence central to the art object have no meaning for me,” yet he keeps abreast of what’s happening in the art world and mentions Mary Miss and Chris Burden as artists currently making compelling work.

In his interest in the relationship between form and space, Tannen has much in common with those artists; the thing that separates him from the world of galleries and museums is the scope of the projects he tackles.

“I’m always doing several things at once, and I enjoy working that way,” he says. “At the moment, I’m trying to get the major rivers of this country, most of which are seriously threatened, to be designated national parks. A river is a complex animal that should be dealt with as an organic whole, and though pieces of them are often protected, nobody has ever dealt with entire rivers as total natural phenomena.

“I’m also working on some riverfront plans for New Orleans and trying to put together a theme park related to the real culture of the city, rather than that synthetic Disney culture typical of theme parks. We want music to be central to this theme park and hope to put the park in this neighborhood called Tremay where all the musicians in marching bands come from. And I’m also working on a bridge.”

Bridges are a favorite subject for Tannen, who views them as sculpture taken to a glorious extreme.

“I’ve always loved bridges and remember watching them build the big Verrazano Bridge in New York Harbor,” he recalls.

“That bridge was designed by a brilliant engineer named Othmar H. Ammann who was also responsible for the George Washington Bridge and the Triborough Bridge. Here’s a man whose creative sensibility has had a tremendous impact on the people of New York City and yet he’s totally unknown--he’s just an engineer.

“I worked for eight years on a bridge over the Mississippi River--I’m probably the only artist who’s ever been able to finesse running a bridge project.”

“I must admit, I really didn’t have the background for it, because it was a very complicated project and I pretty much learned how to do it as I went along. As to how I managed to get the job? I didn’t tell anybody I was an artist,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper.


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