Monday, January 28, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love John Currin

This week in The New Yorker (January 28, 2008) Calvin Tomkins writes about John Currin and his pornographic paintings, a new group to be exhibited in London at the Sadie Coles gallery in March. It made me think of Currin’s show around this time last year at Gagosian uptown, which I went to see only at the last minute. While many people I respect, including Peter Schjeldahl, have long thought that Currin is an important artist, I never got it. When once, in conversation, Schjeldahl mentioned how much he admired Currin’s technical ability, I began wonder have we, in the art world, such low expectations that ability comes as a surprise? In the field of illustration it’s a given—you can’t get in the door without it—and to compound the problem for me, Currin’s style has always seemed uncomfortably close to that of illustrator C.F. Payne who, having worked for TIME and Rolling Stone, is now doing the back covers of Reader’s Digest and threatening to turn into the Norman Rockwell of our time.

I believe execution is only one component of painting, and important only to the degree that it supports the content. God knows, painters with great technical ability have been using it in the service of poor image choices since the beginning of painting. Ideally, in painting or any form of art, execution and concept should merge so completely that we’re no longer aware of either; we’re not thinking, “How did he do that?” or “What a cool idea!” but are one with an experience that goes beyond words, beyond thinking.

Therefore Currin’s technique didn’t interest me because his content didn’t interest me; I found it cynical, mannered, and soul-less in the extreme. And when I read that this most recent show was “long on pornography,” getting on the Lex to see it began to seem even more like an effort not worth undertaking. Am I anti-porn? Not necessarily, although it’s not an active part of my life, and whatever prurient interest it may once have held has been dulled by the sheer amount of it in galleries. That, plus the waves of porn-derived art that seem to hit, every few years, the schools in which I occasionally teach, have left me pretty porn-ed out. I feel about porn the way I do about Christmas music, which is that over-exposure has rendered me incapable of mustering any response whatsoever.

So the Currin exhibition had three strikes against it—besides being Currin, it was uptown and pornographic—until I read a short panegyric by Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, accompanied by a tiny reproduction of a straight-forward portrait of the artist’s young son, one of two such paintings in the exhibition, which Schjeldahl described simply as “ravishing.” It was enough to get me on the subway.

And it was worth it. The two small paintings, interspersed inexplicably among graphically sexual ones (since I don’t believe in psychoanalyzing artists or attempting to guess their intentions, I’m not going to comment on this bizarre aspect of the exhibition), were painted with all the attention and tenderness of Chardin, and indescribably beautiful. Taking up the challenge in the artists’ adage that the hardest subjects to paint are sunsets and babies, Currin’s skill enabled him to avoid the obvious trap of sentimentality; far from sappy, these paintings are lovingly observed and alive with all of the aching delight of parenthood. They were enough to make me swallow my words and admit to myself (and now, finally, to Schjeldahl) that Currin is, or rather can be, a wonderful painter.
Time changes things in weird ways, so now the truly radical act is to paint something close to your heart—in this case, your infant son. I’m reminded of a conversation between Gerhard Richter and Rob Storr, the curator of Richter’s 2002 exhibition at MoMA, as it was recorded in Art in America:

RS: There is another body of work which is perhaps more surprising than the landscapes in certain ways—the paintings you made in 1995 of your wife and young child. These are very unexpected paintings.

GR: Maybe because there are so many of them.

RS: Both the number and the subject.

GR: The subject? Because there are children in the painting?

RS: Yes

GR: I can’t quite understand why this should be so extraordinary.

RS: It’s unexpected because it seems very private.

GR: Very private, yes. The only difference is that I have become more shameless. I am not as ashamed anymore, and I am not afraid anymore. My fears have abated somewhat. I don’t feel as if I have to behave properly. Somehow I finally understood that I am allowed to do what I want.

I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and start painting their kids—that would be awful. But I am saying that forms of art other than those recognized by the academicized avant garde may still be relevant, and that there are more possibilities for content than that derived from the media, a trend that has gone on at least twenty-five years too long. It just happens that I’m reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and came across a quote from composer Morton Feldman who said something like, “What looks radical may be conservative and what seems conservative may be radical” (I’ve lost the exact reference and will correct it when I find it). And this paragraph (p.354):

“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” wrote the French poet Charles Peguy in 1910. Morton Feldman, the maverick modernist who loved Sibelius, applied this epigram to twentieth century music, describing how grandiose ideas are made ordinary with the passage of time and become fodder for a power struggle among ideologues and pedants. “Unfortunately for most people who pursue art, ideas become their opium,” Feldman said, “There’s no security to be one’s self.”

Overheard at the Vermont Studio Center

One poet to another: "It's as if Mary Oliver has an epiphany every time she walks out the door...."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

475 Kent

The gestapo tactics that are being used against artists in New York are inexcusable (and, sadly, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in Brooklyn) all while Mayor Bloomberg looks the other way. Complete coverage on Edward Winkleman's blog.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bad technology day

How do I love my iPod? Let me count the ways. And I’m grateful for my GPS, too. Even though its performance is uneven, I cannot forget that it has extracted me more than once from driving hell (otherwise known as Boston). But yesterday they both let me down. At the same time. It was a long drive through the frozen tundra of upper Vermont to the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) in Johnson, which is even north of Burlington, if that’s possible, when my iPod began playing music from a band I swear I’ve never heard (lyrics: “Shut your mouth. Shut your mouth. Put your head back in the clouds and shut your mouth”—sound familiar to anyone?), while the readout said something else entirely. It was supposedly on shuffle and it would say it was playing, say, Air or Kasabian, when it was really just this one band, and not a great one at that. I might have written before about the time my iPod insisted on playing nothing but Oasis, the entire repertoire, until it got a grip on itself and went back to normal, but to think that a machine could share one of my obsessions only made me feel more affectionately toward it. This new quirk, however, just seemed perverse. Especially since, at the same time, my GPS, which had successfully gotten me through the twists and turns of Rutland, was now telling me in no uncertain terms to STAY RIGHT, TURN RIGHT!!! on Route 109 when I thought I should keep going on Route 100. Really, having a GPS is like being married (“I SAID TURN RIGHT, DAMMIT!”) except it doesn’t get upset if I stop at a red light I could have gotten through on the yellow, or choose a parking spot that’s not the absolute closest one to where we’re going. Anyway, I was 99% certain I was headed in the right direction—the analog technology I consulted (a map) confirmed it, plus my car has a built-in compass, plus I’d been there before—but nagging doubt stayed with me as I put fifty plus miles between me and Route 109, fifty plus miles of winding mountain roads, icy uninhabited flats and signs that said things like, “Moose crossing next 8 miles.” I went through the town of “Irasville” (surely I’d remember that name if I’d been there before, wouldn’t I?), and past The Church of the Crucified One (now there’s a place that could use a corporate sponsored name-change). Not to speak of a chocolate shop that turned out to be an outlet for “seconds” and “over-runs”—I’m addicted to chocolate, but not that addicted. It was only when I went through Stowe, and Route 100 met Route 15 at a restaurant called “Wok ‘n Roll,” (which I did remember), that I knew I was home free. Meanwhile my iPod…well, I haven’t turned it on yet this morning but I’m hoping it’s come to its senses.

Sculptor Judith Shea, who I know from when we were Senior Critics at Penn together, gave the lecture here at VSC last night and I give mine tonight. The temperature on this sunny morning is –5 degrees, and since the kitchen is out of herbal tea, I’m drinking simply hot water, the way the Chinese do, and it’s an extremely effective warmer-upper. Tomorrow I begin five days of studio visits, every half hour or so, from 8:30 to noon.

Judith Shea, Icon, 2003-4, wood and bronze, 62 x 16 x 13". Photo by ruy sanchez blanco.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fame game

For a MySpace story with a happier ending, see son Matt's account in Black Book of one girl's whoosh from Savannah art student to the glam life with David LaChapelle.

Name game

I just read the piece in The New Yorker (January 21, 2008) about the 13-year-old who committed suicide after her neighbors made up a phony MySpace identity with which to harass her. It’s a truly horrifying story, and I hope I’m in no way belittling the tragedy when I confess that one of the things that sticks in my mind is the families lived on Waterford Crystal Drive. A residential street named after a product. Is this yet another trend that has completely passed me by? While I live in places with numbered streets or names such as Prospect, Grove, and Elm, are there people out there living the high life on Gucci Bag Place while their poorer neighbors stick it out in Ben-Gay Alley? Could be—after all, were we paying attention when our stadiums and arenas, which used to bear the names of notables and presidents, assumed corporate monikers? That was around the time the word “consumer” replaced “citizen” in the parlance and “patients” became “clients”—which should have told us something. (“Sleet” also became “ice pellets” in official weather jargon, and I’m not sure how this plays into the corporate scheme of things except that “ice pellets” sounds a lot scarier, and being frightened of the weather supposedly generates business for the news industry.) This street-naming trend, however, could have advantages for people who presently have less than attractive addresses, like my friend who lives on Cronk Road, a name that real estate brokers see as a deficit. There are a lot of dogs on Cronk Road, so maybe they could get it changed—with, no doubt, a subsidy for repaving—to, say, Purina Parkway. That has a certain ring, don’t you think?

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Bowery, in memoriam

The New Museum, 235 Bowery

When, in 1976, John Coplans, then the editor of Artforum, asked me to come to New York and be his assistant, my Chicago artist friends acted as if I’d been invited to Oz by the Wizard himself. It was completely inadvertent. I met John at the CAA convention in Chicago, where I was representing The New Art Examiner, and said, “If you ever hear of a job in New York, let me know.” I’d never thought of moving, and even at that moment it didn’t occur to me as a possibility; the words came out of my mouth, true, but probably because I wanted to see what it felt like to say it, and to give the impression of someone who might actually do such a thing, someone much older and more worldly than me. So two weeks later when John called and offered me the job I was completely unprepared, but with my friends egging me on, I called Angels Ribe, an artist from Barcelona who had lived for a time in Chicago, and asked if she knew of a place where I could live. When she said she was looking for a roommate, it seemed ordained. Except that Angels lived on the Bowery. I vaguely remembered the Bowery from one of my few previous trips to New York and asked Barry Holden, who had just come back from visiting Angels, “Aren’t there like bums and stuff there?” “Oh no,” Barry said, “the Bowery’s been gentrified. There are galleries and boutiques all up and down.”

Needless to say it was a bit of a shock when I got out of the taxi from the airport and there were no galleries and boutiques to be seen, and for several months after I assumed they were on a part of the Bowery I hadn’t been to yet. But I adjusted the way humans can--even girls from the suburbs--to armies of cockroaches and stepping over drunken bodies in the foyer. Do I miss it? What? Do I miss the stench, the filth, the crime, and the pathetic display of humanity I saw every day? No. Would I want my kids to live that way? Hardly. However there was something exhilarating about living on that gritty frontier of Manhattan: we felt courageous, like pioneers, we were in it together, and it was home. That last fact was cinched for me only a few days after I moved, when I was walking down Bowery carrying my portfolio and passed two bums, one of whom nudged the other and said, “She’s an artist.” Hardly anyone in Chicago, employed or otherwise, knew what that was.
Photo is by Christopher Dawson, from the New Museum website

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Topping my list of favorite end-of-the year lists is Henri Art Magazine’s compilation of the five biggest art world evils, which you can see by clicking here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The transition year

Now that we’re into 2008, I’m thinking about how son Matt, a culture critic, has suggested that 2007 was really the first year of the 21st century—much in the way 1964, with the advent of the Beatles and protests against the Vietnam War, was the true start of the Sixties, as we know it.

2007 was the year when certain key issues that had previously been on the fringes entered mass consciousness: when it became generally agreed that Bush & Co. are whack and the war in Iraq is a disaster, that universal health care is a necessity rather than a subversive idea, that the pharmaceutical companies don’t have our best interests at heart, and finally, and maybe too late, that what’s happening in the environment is something to be taken seriously. Mass market phenoms such as The Secret and The Da Vinci Code indicate a new hunger for spiritual meaning and a general mistrust of the status quo. 2007 marked the year the Internet became embedded in every area of modern life: corporate publishing now has to compete with blogs, and Radiohead’s much promulgated decision to release their new album on the Internet was no small event. With the demise of the music industry, music is better than ever—because the Internet has taken information and art out of the gatekeeper’s hands and now the audience is calling the shots.

Except in the world of visual art, which seems to have gone backwards, and where everything looks like a retread. 2007 marked the complete takeover of the money people, the year that auctions and art fairs prevailed over gallery exhibitions, the year after which you really can’t get in the door without an MFA. The gatekeepers are everywhere and more powerful than ever. There has to be something new out there, roiling beneath the surface, but what is it? And would we recognize it if we saw it?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Many paths to art

Doing research for a catalog essay, I came across this interesting bit of art history from the days when you didn’t need thousands of dollars for an MFA to join the ranks of the art world:

Before he was a painter, Robert Ryman was a jazz musician who studied music in his native Nashville and played in an army reserve band during the Korean War. He moved to New York in 1952 to study with jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. To support himself, Ryman took odd jobs, one of them as a guard at MoMA, and in 1953, during his first year there, started painting. In 1955 Ryman made what he considers his earliest professional work, a largely monochromatic piece entitled Orange Painting, and his first exhibition was a staff show at MoMA. Other employees, with whom he became friends. were Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold, and Dan Flavin.

I also learned that Flavin, who previously studied for the priesthood, began making sketches for sculptures incorporating lights during another stint as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History, and that Jackson Pollock once manned the turnstile at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which later became the Guggenheim.

Forget grad school, this guard thing sounds pretty hot--maybe all that's necessary to come up with ideas for great art is to be exposed to a bunch of it while having a lot of time on your hands.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


The bad news is that I'm dealing with frozen pipes (note that's plural) in my newly renovated house, the good news is that I'm not flipped out--flipped out being, as Scott says, so 2007.

Friday, January 4, 2008


My hope for the New Year is that in 2008 people will give up saying “Take care” as a form of farewell. May it fall into permanent disuse. Really, even “Have a nice day,” which we used to hate for its insipidity, is beginning to look pretty good. And while we’re at it, let’s also get rid of the word “safe” in our goodbyes, as in “Have a safe trip.” Someone once said that to me as I prepared to drive from Great Barrington to Housatonic, a “trip” of six miles, which I think is more like a jaunt, but nobody says, “Have a safe jaunt.” At holiday time the food coop printed HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY THANKSGIVING on the bottom of each and every receipt. What’s unsafe about Thanksgiving? Are they afraid that we’re all going choke on turkey bones? Or that proximity to neurotic relatives will cause mental illness? “Drive carefully” bugs me too. I see myself gleefully making a U-turn at 80 across the median strip on the Mass Pike and then thinking, “Oh shit! I forgot to drive carefully. If only someone had reminded me...”

We’re the safest society that has ever lived, but the Culture of Fear invades even our homes, with reminders of impending doom everywhere—on each and every window screen in my house, is an unremovable (believe me, I’ve tried) label that says, in English and Spanish: WARNING: SCREEN WILL NOT KEEP CHILD FROM FALLING OUT WINDOW. Do I really want to think about the untimely demise of small beings every time I go to look outside? My hair dryer comes with a tag marked DO NOT REMOVE! that not only says WARN CHILDREN OF THE RISK OF DEATH BY ELECTRIC SHOCK! but adds that I must refrain—duh!—from using it while bathing.


I’d end this post by exhorting you to do something risky—RUN! Don’t walk!—but since I’d be courting lawsuits if I did, I’ll simply sign off with: peace, so long, take it easy, have fun, cheers, see you later, Godspeed, sayonara, toodle-loo…and wherever you’re going, I hope you have a rollicking trip and a totally awesome day.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

"Susana" AKA "The Devil and the Flesh"

On Christmas Day we watched a couple of old movies, one being “All Fall Down” a 1962 William Inge screenplay with a devastatingly attractive 25-year-old Warren Beatty (“man enough to attract a dozen women…not man enough to be faithful to one”), in which a desperate Eva Saint Marie drives off a cliff because he refuses to acknowledge her pregnancy. And "Susana," an early (1952) Bunuel, filmed in Mexico, where a “bad girl,” escapes from a reformatory (in high heels, which makes for some tough going in the mud), is taken in by a wealthy ranch family and wreaks havoc, seducing the son, father, and trusty foreman before being caught and again incarcerated—thereby ensuring that the ranch family lives happily ever after, the men totally exonerated because they’re men, of course, and could hardly be expected to restrain themselves in the face of blonde temptation.

It made me realize that the times we live in are not so bad after all, that we’ve made a lot progress, and have much to be grateful for. I think about how, when my ex-husband entered Evanston Township High School in suburban Chicago at the end of the fifties, there were separate swimming pools for black and white students. How, when I married at nineteen and moved to New Haven in the sixties, selling any form of birth control—condoms, prescription diaphragms and pills, whatever—was illegal in the state of Connecticut. How, in the seventies, a vice president of the company that published Art in America used to think it was fun to stop me at the elevators, feel my back to see if I was wearing a bra, and snap it if I was—and I had to be polite to him or risk losing my job.

I think about how the words “meditation,” “yoga,” “acupuncture,” and even “massage” (except in conjunction with “parlor”) were not part of the vernacular.

I think about how I spent Christmas, 2007, at the home of openly gay men, one of whom has health insurance as a result of his partner’s employee benefits. How thrilled my friend, Laurie, a single mom, is with her adopted Mexican son, and even if he’d come to her the Warren Beatty way, everyone would be happy for her because she's happy. How I can go to a club or restaurant now—even in France, as of today, January 1st—without being overcome by cigarette smoke. I can’t even remember life before the Internet, but I do remember what a drag it was to have to take film to be developed; what am I supposed to do with those boxes of old negatives, anyway? And slides…oh my god…as artists we have been relieved of a terrible burden.

Of course there’s more to do. But now we know it, whereas back in the fifties and early sixties, no one had a clue—and any discomfort, at least in my parents’ social set, could be drowned in WASP alcoholism, socially sanctioned as long as the highballs didn’t start before 5:00.

So in this worst and best of times, let’s make a list of our blessings, and welcome 2008 with optimism, an open heart, and a willingness to make life even better…

Happy New Year!