Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Panel Discussions

By Charles Kessler

In the last two days I attended two panel discussions: one of the worst I've ever seen, Cindy Sherman, Circle of Influence at the Museum of Modern Art on March 26th (sorry, no link because the MoMA website apparently doesn't archive past events) and on March 27th one of the best, A Conversation with the Curators: American Vanguards at the New York Studio School.

The MoMA panel was made up of artists (George Condo, Kalup Linzy, Elizabeth Peyton, and Collier Schorr) who were supposed to discuss, to quote the program, “Cindy Sherman's influence on contemporary art practice, including issues such as feminism and identity.” Condo was first and he presented a muddled and vague talk, mainly about his own work. The little he said about Sherman’s influence amounted to noting they were of the same generation. And then the panel went downhill from even that low.

Elizabeth Payton showed about 30 slides of her own boring portraits and said literally NOTHING! She didn't even identify the portraits. NOTHING -- BUPKIS! Next came Kalup Linzy who’s known for performances where he takes on roles of different characters (sort of like Sherman, right?), but all he did was sing Cyndi Lauper's “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (I kid you not) and show a few slides of his work. Last came Collier Schorr who showed a mildly interesting video made up mostly of pictures of adolescent boys. That was it! The discussion that followed made no sense even though the moderator, exhibition curator Eva Respini, posed interesting questions.

Okay, I admit I’ve been to worse, but this was the freakin’ Museum of Modern Art, for God's sake. Wouldn’t you expect better? ... Jaw dropping!

The New York Studio School panel, on the other hand, far exceeded my (very high) expectations. For one thing, the panel was made up of some of the top art historians of 20th-century American art: William Agee, Irving Sandler and Karen Wilkin.

The main topic of the evening was the exhibition American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927-1942 on view until April 29, 2012 at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY. (It was co-curated by all of them, but Agee and Sandler both agreed that Wilkin was the main curator.)

Here were three art historians with a masterful knowledge of the period. They not only supported their arguments with an impressive body of facts, but they gave you a deep understanding of how rich and complicated this period was. I loved that they kept interrupting each other (Sandler had trouble getting a word in) and enthusiastically and passionately arguing about such things as:
  • the “Americanness” of the work these artists did in the 1930’s (Agee: the exuberance and inventiveness definitely made it American; Sandler: no, they were still “disciples,” and even their mature work, in the 1940‘s, was New York art, not “American.” But they all agreed that being American and making American-type art was important to all of them);
  • the relationship of the artists to the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group (too dogmatic for them) and Surrealism (they liked Miro-type abstract surrealism but not the Dali-type -- although Stuart Davis claimed to reject both);
  • and the influence of the too-little known artist John Graham (they all agreed it was huge and that Graham was ”the glue that held them all together”).
Here are some of Graham's paintings that are in the exhibition:
John Graham, The White Pipe, 1930, oil on canvas mounted on board, 12 ½ x 17 inches (Grey Art Gallery, New York University).
John Graham, Blue Still Life, 1931, oil on canvas, 25 ⅝ x 36 inches (The Phillips Collection).
John Graham, Seated Woman, c.1942, oil on canvas, 48 x 35 ½ inches.
Christina Kee, the moderator, did an excellent job of reigning in these strong personalities and asking them fruitful questions. And unlike almost every other panel discussion I've been to, the questions from the audience were mostly good ones; and even the ones that weren’t were changed into good ones by the answers. All in all an exhilarating experience.

I love this city!!

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