Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
The windows are intoxicating. They are a rescue team that airlifts me out of my own mental quagmire only to drown me in a flood of fake pearls and plastic icicles. They are so secure in their superficiality, so joyously transparent in their purpose that there is absolutely no way I can hate them. They are icons of consumer lust and highbrow vanity, visceral eyegasms that are meant to steal thoughts and replace them with ohh-want-want-look-if-only’s. They are demons or fairies or gods or whatever else can bewitch you by showing you what you want—what you need—who you could become, while stoically restricting their world to a tiny glass box you can never enter. I need them. Blatant frivolity is my palate-cleanser.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Sorry for the hiatus. I’ve been busy renovating, and moving into, a new apartment. After 26 years in the same place we moved 15 feet up -- to the second floor. I was able to take one day off, however, to see the Duchamp exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before it ended on November 29th. The occasion for the exhibition was the 40th anniversary of the public unveiling of Étant donnés, Duchamp’s strange, creepy even, tableau that he worked on in secret for the last twenty years of his life.
I’ve seen it about a dozen times over the years and it still shocks me. Off to the side of the gallery where the Arensberg Collection is housed, is a small room with a scruffy carpet (more on that later). Against the far wall is a brick arch enclosing an old wooden door with two peep holes, grubby from 40 years of people’s faces pressing against it. What you see through the holes is a larger hole ripped out of black material that exposes a very realistic three dimensional tableau of a beautiful naked woman sprawled on some wild brush, lying spread eagle, and holding a glowing gas lamp up in the air. In the background is a woodsy landscape (reminiscent to me of landscapes in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings, but not at all lyrical) with a realistically flowing waterfall -- all shown in bright daylight.
Her naked body, especially her vagina, is very much in your face, as it were! Whatever erotic feelings I had (she seems to be offering up her body) is much mitigated by the embarrassment of being a voyeur. How many works of art do that to you? The only one I can think of that came close was Courbet’s L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) exhibited last year in the Met’s Courbet retrospective, and that too was in a separate room off to the side. I suspect Duchamp was making a reference to this painting since the pose is very similar.
Courbet, Origin of the World, 1866
But, unlike the Courbet, Duchamp’s Étant donnés has a disconcerting, violent, undercurrent. The woman’s skin is mottled and bluish in places. Was she beaten? Is she dead? (Her skin looks more decayed than I remember -- has it changed over the years?) And her hairless vagina is deformed into two slits. Did someone do that to her?
So not only was I embarrassed looking at porn through a peep hole, and for being a voyeur, but I was made more uncomfortable because I was intruding on an intimate and disturbing mystery.
Traditional art is separate from, and different than, “real world” experiences; it’s in a frame, on a pedestal, behind the fourth wall, etc., i.e. it’s not real. One way to look at the history of modern art is a continual attempt to obtain for art the visceral power and presence of “real world” experience. Duchamp, more than any artist, explored the space between art and life. hence the significance of the carpet. I think it’s a device, like a frame, that separates Étant donnés from the larger gallery and eases the viewer’s entry into a meta-world mixture of art and life.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The “Cloisters” (An Allegory of Global Warming)
Rockefeller procured the Fuentiduena Apse, on loan from the dictator Franco’s Spain for 99 years. It was taken apart stone by stone, numbered and shipped Stateside to build a central part of a picturesque folly (The Cloisters) to house the oil baron turned philanthropist’s hoard of medieval art. It now sits on a promontory in one of the highest spots in uppermost Manhattan and the edifice is being rapidly eaten away by acid rain. Mid- Atlantic mugginess combined with car exhaust is doing a number on this church fragment, which came from Segovia, an arid region in Spain. The surface of its exterior roof- supporting corbels of saints and gargoyles is breaking down into calcium carbonate, as the polluted precipitation percolates out of the rough- hewn Spanish limestone. From coral unto stone unto dust shall it return. By the time the lease is up the shipping costs back to Spain should be greatly reduced.
So the oil (once thought medicinal and also sacred by Pennsylvanian Native Americans) that greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution and powered Ford’s combustion engine and auto-assembly lines, pays for an ancient chapel as supporting compensation to a Fascist dictator of a (then) devoutly Catholic country to recreate the Old in the New World. The spoils of European piety become a garden folly housing the Unicorn Tapestries on the Hudson. Ford’s motorcars exhaust emissions ultimately efface this conceit of conspicuous consumption: the mortification of the simulacra.
To partly atone for his sins (and to maintain a pristine fringe view of foliage from the Cloisters tower across the river to the top of the New Jersey Palisades) the philanthropist Rockefeller donated his land holdings there to become the Palisades Interstate Parkway, which brackets, ironically, a picturesque automobile drive up the Hudson towards West Point and Bear Mountain. I’ve often admired the neo- gothic stonework of the parkway’s over passes, build as directed by Craftsman- Style architects employing cadres of Depression Era WPA workers. In Rockefeller’s landscape issues of Commerce and Art, Global Warming and job creation are interlinked. Too bad the king couldn’t resist cornering that Unicorn, though. The allegory of purity despoiled in the tapestries says it all exquisitely.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Mary McDonnell’s recent show of paintings and drawings at James Graham and Sons defies easy description not because it is esoteric or abstract, not because it is automatic writing, and not because it isn’t some version or quotation of an art historical genre, it might be because the work is so credibly “there”. The show is entitled “Touch”. Manipulated gesture is inscribed upon subtly suppressed fields of chromatic paint layers that pulsate almost indiscernibly like veins beneath the skin. The human feel is evident, apotheosized and amplified, by her deployment of hand- made brushes and implements, often constructed large, and awkwardly vulnerable to registering irregular marks. Like the pathos telegraphing, ill -fitting shoes of the silent comedian, these touch go- betweens heighten our awareness of the grace of our own disheveled beings. In two large drawings on paper, one of which the artist painted with a broom dipped in India ink, the ragged horizontal gestures make a quizzically blank statement about vital nerve endings. These marks are also analogous to the windshield wiper trace of dune grass blades as they get whipped back and forth in place on the sand. The wonder at the mechanics of the mark making overtakes the natural phenomena itself, the gesture inscribing both the rooted plant and the capricious wind with uncanny symmetry.
The fineness of the artist’s multiply over- painted fields can be reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s sense of elegant microcosmic surfaces. The gestures inscribed upon them have a more culpable immediacy than those of Cy Twombly, which they sometimes come close to resembling. Some of the larger strokes can also bring to mind Gerhard Richter’s similarly implement- generated abstractions. McDonnell’s work doesn’t share Richter’s deep cynicism but instead exudes a base but not entirely un-romantic humanism. These works don’t suggest a libretto to the existential opera often conjured by abstract expressionist tendencies, nor do they invoke inhuman nature in their inevitable “there ness”. This work eludes these types of descriptions. These stylistic references don’t really get at what she’s doing with this work.
Experiencing McDonnell’s paintings can be unsettling in how they can objectify your own essence. One is reminded of the Ad Reinhardt cartoon in which a painting accusingly addressing a man looking quizzically at its abstract composition saying” And what do you represent?”
In McDonnell’s case, the artwork isn’t aggressively interrogating the viewer like the cartoon, or putting one in one’s place like Olympia’s disinterested gaze, or Pollock’s vastness. It’s neither nurture nor nature nagging you in her work but rather a cool, humane empathy that addresses with a complicit ,palpable emotion. These are gut -wringing machines brilliantly disguised as lyrical abstractions.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
That's the (relatively) objective part. But the reason it's taken me so long to get something posted about the event is that besides the standard cliches I just don't know what to say. The JC Studio Tour is (diction fails me)...weird.
I wrote an article for JCI on the first Art Fair to take place in Jersey City (in conjunction with the Tour), and it got me thinking--what exactly is the point? Most of the venues in this year's event were not artist studios, rather alternative exhibition spaces in people's houses, garages, or vacant condos. I didn't see one working studio during my rounds of 20 some stops, but because there weren't any descriptions about the venues I can't really be certain how many there actually were--and that's a huge problem.
Part of the reason why artists didn't open up their work spaces might be because there are few people who have dedicated studios--Jersey City doesn't have much in the way of artist buildings, and it's kind of awkward (though cool) to traipse through someone's house in order to get to the room in which they make art. It may also be that the Tour has gotten large enough to attract artists who don't live and/or work in Jersey City (I talked to artists from Hoboken and Bayonne) who import their work to vacant spaces. For whatever reason, there are fewer and fewer actual studios on the Tour and more and more alternative exhibition venues.
This isn't a bad thing, but, on a critical level it has led to growing pains. Studio Tours are generally community-centered events where artists demonstrate how they work to visitors who might not know that much about art in order to educate the public and replug culture into neighborhoods. The Gowanus (Brooklyn) Studio Tour is a great example--their mission: "to provide the public a unique opportunity to visit and engage one-on-one with working artists for the purpose of gaining a broader appreciation of the various types of visual art media", and that's what they do. The main focus of the event is not selling work, but selling the idea and passion of creation. It's like the "making of" feature on a dvd.
On the flipside, many artists who participate in the JC Studio Tour are looking to sell or get noticed, not necessarily to teach. That's why there aren't demonstrations and even people who have accessible studios don't often open them up; they prefer to put their work in shows where they have a better chance of being seen. The only problem is, the artists aren't selling much, and the non-artists aren't coming out in force.
The JC Studio Tour is in between and something's got to give. Artists don't know what to expect or how to publicize, and content-wise, just about anything goes--which has some bailing out (I'll expand on this later). Visitors have to shoot blind picking what to see, leaving people pleasantly surprised (at best) and disappointed (at worst). What is the Tour? What does it aspire to be? That's for ProArts and the City to decide, but I really hope these growing pains will ultimately lead to a more focused, purposeful, and ultimately successful event.
For the record, I think either approach (or even a mix) would be great--as long as the events were well-publicized and documented so people could actually make educated choices about what to see. And Hudson Reporter: either publish descriptions of show venues, minimize typos and listing errors (yikes), or move over and let someone else do it.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
I just got an email from the Jersey City Museum inviting me to tonight's preview of the "Jersey City Art Fair at the Beacon", an event apparently aimed at collectors who might be put off by the traditional studio tour slog from venue to venue (understandably- it's supposed to rain). Since this is the first real art fair in Jersey City (indoors at least) I'm curious how it's going to come off--especially because this is the only concrete PR I've read about it.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Joanne Greenbaum : Hollywood Squares
September 10-October 31, 2009
D’Amelio Terras Gallery 525 w 22nd St
There could be said to exist a school of eccentric abstraction in New York that would include artists like Carroll Dunham, Tom Noskowski, Amy Sillman, Jane Fine, and the late Elizabeth Murray. Much of the visual instincts of this loose cohort can be seen in Joanne Greenbaum’s work. On the surface it’s friendly, energetic, edgy, hip and savvy. Its colors drift toward the day glow palette of sharpie markers, so it also exudes a pop feel. Like Terry Winters’ work over the past decade there is also an awareness of computer generated repetition, or at least the semblance of the image as endlessly reproduced and lit from behind. There is also the quality that these images were once smaller and were blown up in size to exude an intimate extroversion, similar to Noskowski’s work.
Ms. Greenbaum’s paintings evolve out of an additive scaffold of drawing that often resembles the nervous marginalia of a student’s notebook, an unconscious construction of a tangeraity of lines that assemble into loci of space grid hysterics. Onto and across these structures she finds areas to block and slash paint in repetitive gestures that form either voids that single out the previously laid lines of the under-drawing, or form vaguely figurative ‘personages’ a la David Smith’s drawings or early Pollock. Her paintings in this show almost all share a ragged vortex that splays the compositions like spin art.
When looking at these works I thought for the thousandth time that painting no longer has to make great pictures. The authority of the static image has been so incessantly undermined by the increasing tolerance for sophisticated time- based media to the extent that painting no longer functions as a rock of facture in that slipstream or slip-deluge of visual gloss. Painting is nothing to hang your hat on anymore. So I was impressed at the sense of recognition and comfort I got from this show. Perhaps it is in the playful, offhand way in which the artist assembles her image. Maybe it has to do with the multiple layers of lines and thick paint, which erase and reveal the doodles cast large. I think it is also because there is a rich pathos in these paintings, which might reside in the simple guilty pleasure of witnessing a pathetic human reflexive attempt to manage the void. These paintings are like banana peels on the verge of nothingness. It is an equivocal response to an arcane existential longing for fixedness or certainty. These paintings are philosophically flaky in a serious way. -Tom McGlynn
Kara Walker, “American Primitive”
Brent Sikkema Gallery
530 W 22nd St NYC
through October 13
Kara Walker is a trip. I imagine that probably 75 per cent of the people encountering her work don’t get her wicked sense of humor. Her work has developed a unique sardonic tone which is underpinned in this show by fragmented diaristic musings in postmodern form and more “primitive” fabrications in paper, canvas, puppet show video and other low- tech presentations. She makes her points exquisitely vague and simultaneously, insistently, historically and politically specific. To use old-fashioned street vernacular, she’s,” doing the dozens” with her audience, pulling legs all over the place but playing as serious as sin. Slavery was a sin but misunderstanding this work to be just about that would be a worse one.
So how does one proceed to put forth a historical fact (morphed into customary emancipation narrative) like the subjugation of multiple generations of human beings in the form of a joke and expect to get away with it? The irony of this work doesn’t escape us. It chases after our suppressed mix of longing for retribution, resolution, absolution, and anger and stirs it up into a gleeful whirlwind. Has Walker ever used tornadoes in her work? Some of the word/drawings in this show have the gloomy yet charged palette of before/after the storm. On one amorphous composition I noted, she sloppily paints “Blathering on and on about her goddamed history and our place in it” The relationship of hers to ours is significant here. Does she mean her specific personal experience, inherited narratives attached to her, her ownership of these or rejection of them? Or maybe she wants to make light of “our” fatigue with this particular tack? One of the things I love about Walker as an artist is that she is so aware of the fallacies contained within her visual representations of the unrepresentable along with their critical reception or rejection over her career.
She includes large collaged paintings in this show, a form I hadn’t seen used by her before. Her trademark paper silhouettes are pasted to these messy, mostly white -washed canvases with bumps and erasures, texture and blankness. The seemed frieze like to me, but also crafty, like decoupaged pages from scrapbooks worked up to a somewhat monumental scale. Two small paper sculptures had the same crafty, not quite childlike effect.
In the back room of the gallery the artist presented a video based on a historic (19th century?) race riot intertwined with snatches of what looked like shadow puppet evocations of books like The Color Purple or Beloved. I really didn’t want to know the exact sources since Walker’s work looks the least attractive to me through this type of determinist lens. The video was scored with, to my ear, an ambiguously authentic ragtime melody, which I felt hit just the right note for this show.
melody, which I felt hit just the right note for this show.
Walker will be presenting a project characteristically titled The Painter is the colonizing entity. How do Paintings understand the concept of liberty? And who will teach them?
at the New Museum from September 25th.
Monday, August 31, 2009
Ron Arad "Loop Loom," 1992
From the MoMA website:
Among the most influential designers of our time, Ron Arad (Israeli, b. 1951) stands out for his daredevil curiosity about technology and materials and for the versatile nature of his work.
That may be true, but he’s 50-75 years behind sculptors.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Contrasting Franz West’s colorful welded aluminum sculpture to the nearby General Sherman sculpture, Johnson wrote: "Outdoor art isn’t what it used to be. Once it honored heroic individuals and upheld values that whole populations could embrace. Today, excepting memorials like the Vietnam veterans wall, outdoor art serves rather to divert, amuse and comfort. ...contemporary outdoor art tends to offer unobjectionable, mildly decorative or entertaining and relatively empty experiences."
1) I’m glad our culture no longer embraces the authoritarian and militaristic (not to say fascistic) values exhibited by the Sherman sculpture. Public monuments like this now seem pompous, grandiose, and even risible -- and that, imho, is a good thing.
2) Johnson writes: "The big problem for outdoor art is the absence of any consensus of values in our pluralistic, multicultural society." Well, to “divert, amuse and comfort” ARE some of the values our society shares. What’s wrong with that? Matisse showed great art can be decorative and pleasant; and Duchamp showed it can be playful and funny and still be profound. Why does art have to be somber and difficult to be taken seriously?
3) There’s a difference between public art and, for lack of a better term, “private” art -- art shown in art galleries and in people’s homes. Public art, I believe, should not offend. (Which is not the same as saying it should be “inoffensive,” meaning tame or innocuous).
I was put off by Richard Serra’s grandstanding over the removal of his Tilted Arc, the curving wall of steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet high placed in Federal Plaza in 1981. People who worked in the building hated it because the wall imposed itself on them while they were taking a break in the Plaza. This may have been what Serra wanted, but it shouldn’t surprise him that it wasn’t what they wanted. Serra’s response was provocative: "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people to decide." Serra’s stance was vociferously supported by the art world. And this is the crux of the whole matter: I agree with Serra when it comes to private art, but not if it’s in a public space.
4) The distinction between public and private gets complicated in the case of semi-public institutions like museums that take government subsidies but are not exactly public spaces. No one is forced to go to a museum or to an exhibition, whereas public art is foisted on unwilling people. And while people may not want their taxes to go to art they find objectionable, too bad -- everyone has something they object to in the budget (e.g. the F-22 airplane).
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I was attracted to it not only because of the beauty of the loose brushwork and glowing color, but I was also captivated by the strangeness of the subject: why is a little boy (I assume the child is a boy) alone with the dogs? The white dog seems protective of the boy and the nursing dog and pups. Why? The boy has his arm around the dog -- is he blind? He seems about to cry. What is he holding in his skirt? What’s with the burning city in the background? Why is the area around the nursing pups glowing? The nursing dog seems to be looking at us suspiciously. And look at the play of paws and feet: the white dog’s back right paw is touching the back right paw of the nursing dog, and the child's feet look like paws.
So what’s all this about? The only attempt at an interpretation I was able to find is that the boy represents Bacchus because there are grapes behind him, and he may be holding grapes in his apron. I think that explanation is pretty lame because it doesn’t explain the prominence or meaning of the dogs, the burning city in the background or why the boy is alone with the dogs. Also, Renaissance symbolism wasn’t so simple-minded.
In the Middle Ages, symbolism was very literal (e.g. a lily = purity, grapes = Bacchus), but in the Renaissance, symbols took on a more expressive and visceral quality. As a result, dogs became a more common subject in Renaissance painting because of their expressive possibilities. They could express a wide variety of things, some of them contradictory: a dog could be protective, faithful and loyal, or evil, promiscuous and unclean. The meaning is determined by the expressive manner in which it’s depicted: the posture of the dog, its facial expression, what it’s doing, etc. In the case of this painting the dogs express, in a very visceral way, protectiveness and nurturing.
So what’s this painting about? I haven’t found anything in Classical literature that might explain it, but I am far from an expert. Any suggestions out there? Jonah?
If the subject is from the Bible, the Apocryphal story of Tobias from The Book of Tobit is a possibility. Dogs are mentioned more than 40 times in the Bible, almost always negatively -- the Tobias story being a rare exception. Also, there may have been a personal reason for Titian’s interest in this subject. There are contemporary reports of Titian’s eyesight dimming at this time, probably from cataracts. A story about cured blindness might hold great appeal to him. And finally, because of its appeal to merchant families whose sons were often sent to do business in distant cities, Tobias and the Angel was a popular theme in fifteenth-century Florence and sixteenth-century Venice.
In any case it’s an entertaining story and worth considering. Here’s the story in summary: The righteous Israelite, Tobit, exiled to Nineveh after the destruction of Jerusalem, blind and nearing death, sends his son Tobias to collect money held for him in the far-away city of Media. Tobias is accompanied by a dog and a man who offers to aid and protect him on his journey who turns out to be the angel, Raphael (handy). Meanwhile, in Media, the beautiful Sarah is in despair because the demon of lust, Asmodeus, kills every man she marries on their wedding night, before the marriage can be consummated (seven in all -- she must have been REALLY beautiful). Along the way Tobias and Raphael are attacked by a large fish (honest -- I’m not making this up). Raphael instructs Tobias to keep parts of it. On arriving in Media Raphael tells Tobias he should marry the beautiful Sarah, and he instructs Tobias to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the murderous demon. After Tobias and Sarah marry (and successfully consummate it with no fatalities) they return to Ninevah where Raphael instructs Tobias how to use the fish’s gall to cure Tobias’s father, Tobit, of his blindness. Tobit, cured, sings a hymn of praise and then tells everyone to get out before God destroys Nineveh as prophesied. Tobias and Sarah return to Media where they live happily ever after. In the Renaissance, the story was usually depicted showing an adolescent boy with the Angel Raphael and a little dog at their feet:
But so far I haven’t accounted for the nursing pups, and especially the strange glow emanating from the nursing dog’s teats. I think, as we saw with the Veronese above, it’s possible there are multiple subjects and sources in this painting, which together form the ultimate meaning of the work. In one of his first major paintings, Titian combined the Tobias subject with a radiant Saint John The Baptist. I was not able to find a good image of this work, but it was described by Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance painter and architect who wrote biographies of the famous artists of his time. From Vasari's Lives of the Artists: Then in the year 1507, while the Emperor Maximilian was making war on the Venetians, Tiziano [i. e. Titian], according to his own account, painted an Angel Raphael with Tobias and a dog in the Church of S. Marziliano, with a distant landscape, where, in a little wood, S. John the Baptist is praying on his knees to Heaven, whence comes a radiance that illumines him... .
There’s something holy about the radiant glow around the nursing pups that recalled for me, and I don’t mean to be offensive, paintings of the Nativity. There’s a sense of leaving the burning city and the child going back to nature; and that it’s scary but nature (the dogs and grapes) will provide. I think it’s possible to read this painting as symbolizing, in a more visceral way than usual, the transition from the Old Testament -- the destruction of Jerusalem -- to a rebirth of sorts -- the New Testament.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
It’s a huge show, 57 paintings all together, 14 brought over from Italy. You probably don’t have to buy tickets in advance anymore (I walked right in), but you should hurry -- the show closes August 16th.
Seen by themselves Tintoretto and Veronese blow me away. I am dazzled by the bravura of their brushwork, especially Tintoretto’s, and the ambitiousness and complexity of their compositions. Then there is Titian -- the true master. He does all that with apparent effortlessness, a virtuosity that never intrudes on his subject. Tintoretto and Veronese, on the other hand, have a self-conscious affectedness, a desire to please and sometimes show off, to the detriment of their subject.
This can be seen in a comparison of two paintings in the exhibition: Titian’s and Veroneses's Venus with a Mirror. Veronese’s Venus is a staged pose, an impossible Exorcist-like turn of the head, whereas Titian’s Venus is serene and naturalistic, if idealized. Veronese’s Venus overtly looks at the viewer in the mirror whereas Titian is more subtle about it, as is his Venus’s reaction to the intrusion of someone entering the room (Titian? The viewer?). One gets the feeling Veronese is more interested in the play of undulating lines and the sensual textures of the drapery than capturing the erotic and tender moment. (Titian cared so much for this painting that it stayed in his studio until his death -- I’m not surprised.)
And speaking of erotic, Titian’s Danae, c.1544-46, has to be one of the greatest paintings ever made in that respect. It depicts the moment in the Greek myth when Zeus came to Danae in the form of golden rain, and impregnated her. Titian brilliantly captures Danae’s awe and receptivity to what’s happening to her. (It would be interesting to compare the way this subject is handled to depictions of the Visitation -- the Virgin Mary would never be allowed to relax and enjoy it.)
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
About ten days ago I suddenly decided to hop in a van with volunteers from the NOLA Preservation Society and drive to New Orleans. I had always wanted to see the city, and after the national attention given to P.1 and the fact that one of the magazines (ArtVoices) I write for is headquartered there, I couldn't resist the trip. The perks of freelance! Twenty-six hours and 1300 miles later I found myself working on a documentary, interviewing artists and cultural preservationists about the the evolving creative life of the city.
Surprisingly, when asked how the arts in NO have changed post-Katrina, most people said they've gotten better. It was like the city had taken a step back to examine what really made it unique, realized that it was music, art, and food, and actually took the steps needed to protect and infuse those industries with new life. In a city of 300,000 and growing (June 2009 census estimate), where you still see abandoned, condemned houses lining the streets, there are over 70 functioning galleries. Think about it. And this doesn't include those ubiquitous restaurant/cafe/bar/hotel crossover spaces. For reference, Jersey City has a population of about 242,000 (2007 census estimate) and 7 galleries (my count of spaces that are full-time, single use).
Yet what is striking about New Orleans is not only how similar it really is to Jersey City and Newark population-wise, but how close the three are demographically, and how many of the same problems they share. Sub-par schools, inadequate recreational activities for kids, high violent crime, economic inequality, undereducated populations--I won't launch into a play-by-play, but what New Orleans has done to try and address a lot of these issues is turn to culture. By recognizing the importance of the city's art and music people have begun to both preserve their own cultural heritage and turn it into a vehicle for community development.
Now, this is me we're talking about....so I can't say all the art I saw was stellar, all the non-profits well-functioning, and all the galleries beautifully curated, but what struck me about the local "arts scene" was that it was more of a way of life. Musicians and artists alike are nurtured, supported, and criticised by the community--their neighbors, their friends, (and their government)--not isolated in studios. I wasn't there long enough to experience the full-extent of this "phenomenon"--but artists from all over the country are flocking to NOLA just to be a part of it, and I'll definitely be back.
Compare as much as I like: Jersey City is not New Orleans. Culturally speaking it's not nearly as developed, communal, or unified, but I wonder: if Jersey City chose (and really committed) to build itself around one unique, marketable trait, what would it be? Not art. Not music. (Those have a hard enough time existing as it is) Not science or industry, not food....definitely not green-space. History's first high-rise suburb? Ouch (sorry, it just slipped out). Is there something I'm missing here? Some magnificent heritage that could become the backbone of a rebirth? Shout it out.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I thought Saltz's latest note is important enough to share with people who aren't his Facebook "Friends." (Am I alone in thinking it obnoxious for Facebook to refer to members as "Friends?"
June 29, 2009
Last week I met with MoMA’s Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Ann Temkin. We talked about the two week discussion (that took place on my Facebook Page) about the lack of representation of women artists on the fourth and fifth floors of the museum’s permanent collection (of work completed before 1970). Of the 135 artists installed on these floors only 19 are women, 6%. Temkin asked that this meeting be “off the record” but agreed that I would report on its perimeters and my impressions.
The meeting was cordial, relaxed, open, and serious. It began at 5:00PM and lasted a little under 90 minutes. It took place midweek at a bar in a midtown restaurant. I didn’t take notes on, or record the conversation. The restaurant was almost empty when we started; it was almost full when we left.
At no time was Temkin defensive, dismissive, or in the least hostile. She agreed with some points and was not shy about disagreeing with others. As I wrote many times in my FB posts, Temkin confirmed that she and every person at MoMA, from the Director on down, are well aware of the problem of the lack of representation by women artists on these floors. She stated at the outset that the museum is committed and determined to rectify this.
Temkin then took major issue with the focus and reasoning of my main argument about female representation at MoMA. She stated that concentrating only on the fourth and fifth floors of Painting & Sculpture, perpetuated and reinforced a flawed stereotype and prejudice about the history of modern art. Excluding drawing, design, printmaking, photography, etc. (areas where women are represented and made great contributions) reinforces an outmoded and strictly “masculinist” approach to art by privileging painting and sculpture.
At first as she said this my heart sank. Of course she’s right. I answered that it is MoMA above all art institutions that reinforces and maintains this separation between the disciplines. Although it is growing more common to see mediums being mixed at MoMA (August Sander now hangs in the gallery in P & S devoted to the German Neue Sachlichkeit), MoMA established and still exhibits the disciplines more-or-less separately and not equally. There is far more square footage situated far more centrally and prominently for P & S than any of the other disciplines. I said it would be fantastic to see the collapse of MoMA’s artificial barriers between the disciplines (“MoMA tear down this wall!”), but suspected that this wouldn’t be in the cards any time soon. In addition, MoMA’s collection of painting and sculpture is preeminent; it is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Therefore it is on these two crucial floors that the so-called “official story” of Modernism is represented. This is MoMA’s boon and its bane.
This brought us back to the main issue. Temkin stated that work by women artists has been rotated into the collection over the course of the last two years, and that the FB protestors and I were not taking this into account. I acknowledged this but said that even with these substitutions and changes the percentage of women artists on these floors did not rise, and that these adjustments weren’t enough. (If you count the works of art, rather than artists, the figure drops to four percent women.) Temkin then said that talking about the collection primarily in terms of numbers obscures larger important changes. She cited the current installation of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture at the entrance of the fourth floor. The Bourgeois sculpture is being given pride-of-place, the space on this floor that Cezanne has long enjoyed on the fifth floor. Bourgeois is being presented as a touchstone figure. I conceded that it was true that by only counting the number of women artists does not reflect structural changes. Still, this didn’t seem like a solution.
I stated that the problem behind the problem of the lack of women on these floors is the 875 million dollar (almost criminal) failure on the part of those who built the new museum to provide enough space for this crucial portion of the institution (let alone other departments). Until the space can be substantially increased the museum is in a terrible double bind: It has to display its extraordinary collection and at the same time allow modernism to live, and not calcify in a masterpiece-by-masterpiece
What to do? Temkin talked convincingly about how important it was to change the perception of these two floors, away from being seen as permanent to fluid installations of reappraisal and experimentation. She said that unlike all the previous decades the museum intends to alter these two floors on a more regular basis. Even “important work” might temporarily be de-installed. This would open up the story, expand it, and allow the focus of the collection to continually shift. Temkin suggested that whole rooms could be dismantled and all new work put on view. When I asked for an example she talked about de-installing the monographic gallery of Joseph Beuys and replacing it with a gallery devoted to late-1960s artists Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse.
MoMA desperately needs this to play with its collection. However, Temkin’s example perpetuates yet another problem plaguing MoMA. Beuys, Nauman, and Hesse are all bona fide top-dogs; the A-list as art history. I love them all but curators have to take more chances and not just default to the same artists. Other artists were working at extremely high levels in the late 1960s. It would be amazing to see that MoMA gallery with any combination of H.C. Westermann, Jay De Feo, Jess, Yvonne Rainer, Benny Andrews, Dorothy Iannone, Jim Nutt, Bruce Conner, Vija Celmins, Barclay Hendricks, Adrian Piper, Ken Price, or Martin Ramirez. And let’s not forget that Picasso was one of the best artists of the 1960s (or that Henry Darger was in the process of working on his epic masterpiece). MoMA could hang an entire floor with only the late work of artists. This would show that art is about 30-year careers not just 30-month careers.
This brought us to what for me was an emotional turning point in the conversation. We began talking about so-called “institutional time.” I said that institutional time, as she described it, was “glacial” and “too slow” to address the serious problems plaguing MoMA. Temkin talked about how every change at MoMA has implications and repercussions and that over time even small changes and minor adjustments make significant differences. “Art is long” she seemed to say. My reaction was that, time is short. I said that I believed that if enough isn’t done soon, the changes MoMA is talking about will come about when MoMA and Modernism have come to be seen as retrograde and the museum is seen as stuck in the mud.
I then brought up the possibility of a much larger change, the re-installation of the entire fourth floor. Temkin said that she has been seriously studying this for some time. She is considering having the entire floor devoted to one stylistic post-war period. This seemed hopeful. Then she added that this sort of plan could be implemented in three or four years. I complained, “Why not sooner?” After hearing her thoughts about considerations having to do with loans, schedules, restorations, etc., I said again that while I thought that revamping whole floors was a fantastic idea, the time was now.
We looked at each for a while, then at our watches. We left the bar and shared a cab uptown. We talked about summer plans and recent travels. We got out and said a friendly goodbye.
As I opened my umbrella and walked away I thought about how extraordinary this meeting was. Past MoMA curators of Painting and Sculpture would never have met with a critic who started a kerfuffle on Facebook (or anywhere else). I thought about how absolutely open and aware Temkin was of the situation. Then I thought about how she sees her responsibility as opposed to the way I see it. She is trying to do the best for MoMA, its history, audiences, and art. She is taking a long view. I value these things. I love MoMA. But I also see the situation as dire and deteriorating. And we had barely even discussed the thing that got all of this started; how to dramatically raise the percentage of women artists exhibited on these tow floors and not have it be about tokenism or quotas. To me, MoMA is becoming like a madman who thinks he is King; it is telling a story that by now only it believes.
As I walked through the rain I thought about how much I admired Temkin but that the problems at MoMA are so vast and inter-connected that if any change is to come it will likely come slowly, by piecemeal, and incrementally. The irreparable space limitation, a mindset still guided my mediums, the problem of exhibiting mainly well-know names, the issue of having so few women; each of these is gigantic in itself. Each will take time and effort to correct. When I think about how this museum built too small during the richest period in the history of the world I grow furious and morose.
As the rain started coming down harder I realized that despite Temkin’s valiant efforts, and the museum’s dedication to alter its course, that we can no longer look to institutions like this for change. Institutions have different responsibilities, mindsets, priorities, pocketbooks, histories, and internal clocks. They’re big, slow, and institutional. Change is going to have to come from all over and be done by everyone.
This is already beginning to happen. Locally, so many New York galleries have been doing such a tremendous job over the last decade (ditto out of town museums). The same day I met with Temkin I saw a wonderful show at Casey Kaplan Gallery in Chelsea about Russian-Georgian Modernism. A young Swiss curator, unable to get this work out of Georgia, mounted a show of catalogs, reproductions, Xeroxes, texts, and films. There was fantastic art by artists I’d never heard of, artists who it would be spectacular to see integrated into MoMA’s installation. At Kaplan (more than at MoMA) modernism breathed anew. The same thing happened this season when mega-mogul/puppet-master Larry Gagosian mounted two tremendous historical shows; one of late Picasso (that attracted over 100,000 people!), the other, a sprawling survey of Piero Manzoni. Carol Greene, Gavin Brown, Guild & Greyshkul, Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone, 303, Paula Cooper, and many other gallerists have done the same. The depth of the pockets is all very different between these galleries but the results have been thrilling.
In the meantime a new generation of a museum-going public and artists may be about to not see art they might otherwise benefit from. As MoMA tries to adjust all of its other problems it’s unclear how the woman issue will play out. As long as this is the case, as long as half the story is not told, more people will turn away from MoMA or see it merely as suffocating. I believe this is already beginning to happen. Artist Cheryl Donegan recently remarked, “Modernism should not be seen as Biblical; it should be seen as Talmudic.” Meaning the bible is static. Talmudic tradition (which is more Wikipedia than Encyclopedia) involves thousands of people making comments in the margins, debating issues and ideas, shaping tradition, changing it, and keeping it alive.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I have mixed feelings about government support for the arts. I think it’s a good thing for government, and thereby society, to give legitimacy to the arts -- to acknowledge they are worthy of support. And I have personally gained from NEA and NJSCA grants -- always nice. But it’s important to remember that government and the arts have different agendas, and they frequently conflict with each other.
Charles Garabedian, a friend from my Los Angeles days, and someone I believe to be one of the most vital living artists, once told me that artists are the last of the rear guard -- we’re some of the only ones left who believe quality is the most important thing. Government, on the other hand, has pressure to be democratic, to be accessible, middlebrow, conventional, mainstream, inoffensive; whereas art can be challenging, difficult, outrageous and obscure and thereby seen to be elitist. Government has an interest in supporting the status quo and the powerful, hence most support will inevitably go the large institutions and certainly not to controversial or even difficult or obscure art. Of course there are governments and periods that are more or less enlightened and brave, but this is the general tendency.
Check out the 2009 NEA grants to the visual arts to see how cautious the NEA has become. If it was just a matter of the government not funding cutting-edge art it wouldn’t be so bad. Artists (and art galleries) have other means of support, however limited, and anyway, artists have always found a way to continue making their art without government support. But museums are another matter. After the Corcoran Gallery came under attack and cancelled a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989 because it was mildly controversial, and after Giuliani threatened the funding of the Brooklyn Museum over its 1999 “Sensation” exhibition, and after many similar “culture wars,” one wonders how much self-censorship is taking place in order for museums to keep their funding. Worse, museums are watering down their programs in an attempt to be more popular and “accessible.” The Dallas Museum had belly-dancing demonstrations during a recent King Tut exhibition for God sake. It sounds fun and democratic and all, but what has that to do with the art? It’s not like belly-dancing offered an insight into Egyptian art of that period; it was just to attract people to the museum.
The government wants quantity for their funding, not necessarily quality. In the early seventies in Los Angeles, when I was just emerging as an artist, I was invited to a docents “New Talent Awards” ceremony that made a profound impression on me. Maurice Tuchman, then curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a smart guy who curated some major exhibitions -- someone who should have known better -- was giving out the awards in the back yard of a beautiful house in Beverly Hills. Tuchman, a Freddie Prinze look-alike, kept calling this a “gala affair,” and he introduced the artists like they were art stars, the docents gushing over them. Alex Smith snuck out, and the rest of the award winners stood cringing with humiliation. I realized then that whatever meaning the work had, however tough it was was, in the eyes of these bright and sincere docents, the meaning would be vitiated into something cool or trendy or, ech -- gala.
Closer to the here and now is the example of the Jersey City studio tour. For most of its history it was artist-run, and artists had an interest in keeping the quality high: they want to be seen in a professional context with other good artists, and people who might be interested in buying art won’t come if there’s not a large proportion of good art to see. Over the years, probably because of volunteer artists burning out, the government took over. The city had an interest in being popular and “democratic,” which in this context meant letting in hobbyists, children’s art, clowns with balloons, etc. And, in Jersey City, it also meant a lot of political advertising for the mayor. All understandable, even fun and righteous perhaps, but not the same thing as a professional artists studio tour.
I don’t begrudge anyone or any institution getting government support, but if they’re going to dance with the devil, I hope they keep their distance.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
The other surprising thing is how many group shows there are now. Usually group shows take place in languid days of July when dealers let their director or assistant director curate a show, or the galleries test the market for artists they’re thinking of representing. Why there are so many now -- and so many really good ones -- I can’t explain. It can’t be the money because group shows hardly ever do as well as solo shows; and most of the time dealers have to split commissions on the work they do sell. It’s okay with me because I love summer group shows. I get a chance to see new artists and sometimes get a clue to future trends.
The Lower East Side:
The Smith-Stewart (53 Stanton Street) website says: Smith-Stewart will be closed for an extended summer (May 1-Aug. 31) and will re-open in a new space in September. Stay tuned.... but the gallery, according to its neighbors, is closed. On the other hand, after a long build-out, Michali Fine Art (45 Orchard Street) finally opened. Not a good trade-off I’m afraid. Judging from the bad lighting, chaotic installations, awkward space and general ineptness, Michali Fine Arts is a pretty amateurish operation. And, finally, Museum 52 moved to the other side of Houston, to 2 E. 2nd Street (and Bowery). I haven’t had a chance to check out the new space because it’s a bit out of the way, but more galleries are moving north of Houston (Zurcher Studio a few months ago).
Guild & Greyshkul (28 Wooster Street ), founded by three enthusiastic young artists, Anya Kielar, Sara VanDerBeek, and Johannes VanDerBeek in September 2003, was the biggest loss.
Courtesy of Succession Zürn, Berlin. © Brinkman & Bose Publisher, Berlin)
Nevertheless, some really good shows are currently in SoHo. One of them is at The Drawing Center 35 Wooster Street). It's a major show of disturbing drawings by Unica Zurn done from the 1950’s until her suicide in 1970. She is known mainly as a writer associated with the Surrealists who suffered from a series of mental crises. The work is sometimes too painful to bear. Another good show is “Black & White Works,” Ronald Feldman (31 Mercer Street). This puts together work by thirty artists associated with the gallery since it was founded in 1971. And an impressive group it is, among them: Eleanor Antin, Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, Leon Golub, Komar & Melamid, Roxy Paine, Andy Warhol and Hannah Wilke.
The main closings I’m aware of are: Bellwether (134 Tenth Ave.), and Cohan & Leslie (138 10th Ave), both on the same unlucky block; and the Charles Cowles Gallery (537 W. 24th). There are probably more, and there certainly are plenty of rumors (see: http://howsmydealing.blogspot.com/). But even if I’m missing a few, that’s not bad considering how many galleries are in Chelsea now.
Sadder for me is the closing of two of my favorite gallery shows of the year: “Pablo Picasso Mosqueteros” at Gagosian (of course!) and Sophie Calle at Paula Cooper, practically next door to each other.
I came up with a great new routine for beginning a Chelsea gallery tour. I first check out Sperone Westwater (415 W. 13th), then have some great coffee (maybe with a little something) at Ninth Street Espresso in the Chelsea Market (it's near the middle of the market), then get on the beginning of the High Line and walk to the end at 20th Street. I might back-track a block or two to pick up a few galleries, but Chelsea pretty much begins at 20th Street. I guess it can be done in reverse, ending in the Meatpacking district, but I’ll want more than coffee at the end of a day in Chelsea!
The biggest surprise for me was how many great shows are here currently. With about 40 galleries in the LES and more than 300 in Chelsea, I tend to forget about 57th Street. Big mistake! Tibor De Nagy (724 Fifth Ave. at 57th) has a museum-quality exhibition of Larry Rivers paintings from the 1950’s and early 60’s. I’m no fan of Rivers, but I forgot how strong that early work is. I think he had his head turned by Pop Art, and, as a result, his work took on an off-putting commercial illustrator tone. But this work has all the raw painterliness of late Abstract Expressionism without the tired mannerism of 10th Street Painting. It’ll be up until July 31st, and this show alone is worth the trip -- but there’s a lot more. In the same building is “Trees” at D. C. Moore -- thirty artists, spanning 150 years of interpretations of trees. Especially interesting was an early small painting by Alex Katz (I tend to prefer his small work which ironically I find more energetic than his big paintings), a 1964 Fairfeild Porter, and a knock-out large watercolor by Charles Burchfield.
Marian Goodman (24 West 57th) is showing Yang Fudong’s hard-to-take video of wild dogs fighting for survival, and a visual assault of an installation in their front gallery. Yang Fudong is apparently one of China’s best known young artists, and, as unpleasant as this experience was, it’s powerful stuff. In the same building, by way of relief, is “Abstract Expressionism: Further Evidence” at Michael Rosenfeld (24 W. 57th) which has, among other major works, four large paintings from the 1950’s by Milton Resnick, Joan Mitchell, Hans Hoffman and Jack Tworkov.
The Fuller building was a disappointment, but across the street, Pace (32 E. 57th) has a show of Tim Hawkinson. I loved his huge shows at Ace Gallery and the Whitney, and I liked this show too, but I think his droll act is starting to wear a bit thin.
I’m afraid I’ve been negligent here. I missed what was probably a great show of Alice Neel’s nudes of the 1930’s at Zwirner & Wirth (32 E. 69th), but I saw John Chamberlain’s early work at L & M Arts (45 E. 78th). The car parts sculptures were no big deal (seen one...), but they have a few of his foam rubber pieces, and those really pushed the boundary of sculpture.
And the omnipresent Gagosian had an unpublicized, offhand show of figurative work by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol. Gago is such a show-off!
Only two galleries closed, or appear to have closed, but TWO galleries opened! Slate Gallery (136 Wythe) and Black and White Gallery (483 Driggs) don’t have current shows, and unless they’re on some kind of hiatus (it happens!), they’re gone. There was a rumor that Black and White was going to share a space with Bellwether, but Bellwether is definitely out of business; and there's another rumor that they are going non-profit -- but don’t they all say that? Let’s hope for the best because they are both really good galleries.
The two new galleries are Gita Rosa (19 Hope Street) and Fleetwing Gallery (111 Grand Street). Actually Gita Rosa is re-opening -- they were on hiatus for a few months traveling (see -- it happens). Fleetwing is new, however, and there may be others -- I haven’t really done extensive research.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I was walking back through the heart of the "arts district" after a conversation with the owners of the new JA Project gallery on Marin, when I came upon this peculiar installation of public art. You see garbage-filled evidence of lazy shoppers? I see a wry comment about condo-induced creative blight. Too bad it's just reality.