Monday, March 31, 2008

Overheard on Metro-North

"Hey, Joe, you didn't get angry today."
"Well I don't get angry by myself. Something has to tick me off."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Impenetrable prose from the Whitney Biennial

Random quotes from the publicity information about the artists in the Whitney Biennial:

…It is the problematizing of expectations and formalisms through destruction and transformations that is the heart of the continuing project…. (Todd Alden on Mika Tajima/New Humans)
…invents puzzles out of non sequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial…inhabits those interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion… (Trinie Dalton on Amanda Ross-Ho)
...Thomson's inherently conversational practice both gamely Pop-ifies its often antiaesthetic historical precedents and resituates that generation's thought experiments in the social realm. (Suzanne Hudson on Mungo Thomson)
…features dozens of strips of junk mail spliced together and “stacked” in two zigzagging towers as if piled atop a desk: it is a conflation of art space and work space whose subtle allusion to the increasing corporatism of the art world is tempered by its intricate polychromatic delicacy…. (Lisa Turvey on Frances Stark)
... Bove's "settings" draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty, where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings." (Jeffrey Kastner on Carol Bove)
…creates space for the articulation of intention….(Suzanne Hudson on MK Guth)
…. This early work’s active impediment of a unified spectatorial vantage point has led the artist to investigate, in his words, “a variegated relationship between painting—a practice whose ossified discursive and speculative value I want to mark with its various economic and technical support systems—and the contradictions of discursive engagements that subsist largely outside the site of display, but which are value-producing sites nonetheless.”…. (Suzanne Hudson on Cheney Thompson)
…acknowledges the elusiveness of her practice in a conversation … “There is this great movie title for a film with Leonardo DiCaprio called Catch Me If You Can…about a con artist who always manages to escape. All artists are sort of like con artists.” (Suzanne Hudson on Fia Backstrom)

The Whitney Biennial is inconsequential except in how it isolates, as Jerry Saltz put it, “the current art school moment” (he would know, having visited more art schools than just about anybody)—and therefore the ways in which such schools are failing would-be artists. The very homogeneity of the show is a tip-off. Instead of aiding students in finding their singular voices and helping them to develop the methods that best put them across (here I’m not referring necessarily to traditional art techniques--although they are part of the mix--but whatever vehicle allows an artist to reach his or her fullest expression) schools rarely teach skills outside of the mouthing of terms and art references. Hence the emphasis on what Saltz termed “Home Depot displays.” Not that great art can’t be inspired by the local hardware store—Dan Flavin did a pretty good job of it—but in this case, easily available, cheap materials attached to lofty ideas are taking the place of mastery. I read once that more people graduate from art school each year than made up the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance. When schools stay in business by convincing everyone that by investing a couple of years and many thousands of dollars they can become an artist, there’s no room for true critical evaluation.

The most succinct summing up so far comes from an Associated Press review with no byline in the Baltimore Sun, which also notes the “unmistakable art school feel”:

New art, even the most seemingly inscrutable, has the job of engaging with the culture around it, moving and affecting it in some way. Showcasing work that rehashes common themes and styles seems an odd path for a biennial to take. When the mundane fancies itself novel, it becomes nothing more than slightly irritating.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Okay, more about the Whitney Biennial

“Mr. Michelangelo” in a comment below, requested that I analyze the reviews of the Whitney Biennial, and I'm never one to avoid a challenge. First, howver, I want to say that these are adept essays by critics I admire—my quibble is with the format. We live in a strange world of “balanced journalism,” an insidious concept to begin with because it’s utterly impossible and negates the value of considered opinion. Further, because journalists are called upon to give voice to “the other side”—every positive statement must have its naysayer—fringe groups or opinions that might otherwise go unnoticed are given undeserved respectability. Used as we are to this format in the news media, it’s crept into art criticism as well, so that the critic’s real opinion becomes lost in a sea of alternating positive and negative statements.

I first became conscious of this phenomenon two years ago when I read Jerry Saltz’s review in the Voice of the 2006 Biennial, where he starts off with “ ‘Day for Night’ is the liveliest, brainiest, most self-conscious Whitney Biennial I have ever seen,” while the next paragraph begins, “’Day for Night’ is filled with work I’m not interested in…..” –then switches gears with, “Nevertheless, the show is a compelling attempt to examine conceptual practices and political agency, consider art that is not about beauty,” etc. He talks some more about what he doesn’t like (“The show is not without problems…” “This brings us to an irksome feature of this show and many like it…”) before flipping back to, “A number of artists stand out….” so that by the time we finish we’ve completely forgotten that he’s writing about work he’s “not interested in.”

This is the dilemma of full-time critics—they have to write about a lot of stuff, so they either have to like a lot of stuff or write about a lot of stuff they don’t like and in doing so they don’t want to come off as too dismissive, lest they get a reputation like Hilton Kramer’s.

This year, in “When Cool Turns Cold,” a thoughtful analysis of what he aptly calls “the Art School Biennial,” Saltz makes it almost to the end before falling into the trap saying, “On the upside, [the curators] Momin and Huldisch should be congratulated for mounting a thoughtful show that, while academic, is neither dogmatic…nor sprawling…nor sexist…” and concludes with an upswing, reaching for a “striking moment” or two when, earlier on, he already said it all: “There’s little that’s overtly sexual, shocking, angry, colorful, traditionally beautiful or decorative, almost no madness or chaos. The show doesn’t alchemically add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

Peter Schjeldahl starts off by calling this year’s Biennial “the most poetic I can remember” but gives an example of that only at the end, a work that “enchanted” him, while the in-between is filled with descriptions of things that didn’t, his detailed attention giving them more weight than they deserve. I must say he nails the Rachel Harrison experience, however, when he calls her, “the leading light of new sculpture…[who knows] precisely what she means—and you would too if you were just the littlest bit smarter than you are.”

Holland Cotter (who took no joy in the Armory building itself, calling it a “moldering pile”) does the flip-flip thus: “The 2008 edition is…an unglamorous, even prosaic affair, the installation plain and unfocused” with works that have “uncharismatic surfaces, complicated backstories,” followed by, “There are certainly dynamic elements” followed by, “But again, the overall tenor of the show is low-key…” and then “Hard-liner believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog. But if the show is heedless of traditional beauty, it is also firm in its faith in artists as thinkers and makers rather than production-line workers meeting market demands.”

However, I would posit that if Biennial artists were truly “thinkers and makers” their output would be more engaging. Also I want to point out to the world at large that we, as artists, seek “visual pleasure” not because we’re playing to the market but because we are, ahem, visual artists and therefore, not coincidentally, concerned with things visual.

The Biennial, if not beloved—in fact often called “the show you love to hate”—but which at least used to generate excitement, has been slowly losing gas to the point that it’s become so inconsequential that maybe next time these guys can forgo writing about it altogether and put their talents toward covering events that, pro or con, stir their souls.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The, um, Whitney Biennial

In my world the Whitney Biennial was such a non-event that I almost forgot to write about it. I went two weeks ago during a rainstorm and rushed through, intending to come back another time for a closer look. Unlike the recent Asian Contemporary Art Fair, which I assumed would be a quick take but where I ended up staying for three hours, nothing in the Biennial entreated me to linger. Instead it came off as gloomy, dated and stagnant, a littered graveyard of academic post-conceptual art. Further, the curatorial offerings as well as the Breuer-designed museum were completely upstaged by the newly renovated Armory at 67th and Park (site of Part II of the Biennial, admission free), where we arrived soaked to the skin. Hardly any art had yet been installed but we didn’t feel the lack as we wandered from room to room, our damp condition forgotten as we reveled in building’s opulence. Built in the late 1800s, the place is totally OTT—a fusion of too many styles and motifs to reference—but its creators, happily, weren’t cool enough to care. They put everything they had into creating an aesthetic experience—and for soldiers, yet. It made me realize how weary I am of cool, of irony, of scorn masquerading as art. I can still handle profundity (no danger of over-exposure there), but I want something to look at, something that gives me faith.

After wandering around, three of us flopped onto a couch in the Armory's vast entry hall. Huddling together for warmth we stayed nearly an hour, while I got up every so often to look at the one of the few completed pieces, Swiss artist Olaf Breuning’s army of thirty blinking, shining, noisy teapot/robot “soldiers” laid out on the floor in the room across from us. At once playful and pompous, it’s a baroque piece for a baroque setting, one that seamlessly marries 2008--or even the future--with the archaic ornamentation of the building. As with musical covers and appropriation (see the post below), it’s the inspired merging of similarities and opposites that makes an art installation succeed in a given space, as Breuning’s does here. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of the use of space with installation as yet another form of appropriation—or better yet, distant collaboration.

And I like what Breuning said in a video interview, that he "finds creativity through pleasure," a fairly radical statement for an artist these days. I know all too well that there are horrid things going on in the world, but we also need something to live for.


Reviews of the Whitney Biennial:

Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker

Jerry Saltz in New York

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

2 Marilyns

Guess which is which

Last month (2/28) New York magazine featured “Lindsay Lohan as Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Last Sitting,’” by the photographer of the original MM shoot, Bert Stern, and the March “Hollywood Issue” of Vanity Fair features a portfolio of photographs in which contemporary film stars reenact classic moments from various Hitchcock films. Do today’s stars have so little charisma on their own that they have to imitate? It’s hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe being interested in mimicking, say, Carole Lombard, or Grace Kelly wanting to pose as any star other than herself. The only effect these wooden facsimiles had on me was to make me long to see the originals—as well as ruminate on how much I hate art about art.

Or do I? It occurs to me that one of my favorite musical conceits is the cover. Often you more clearly see musicians’ true virtuosity when they take something that seems utterly perfect and untouchable in the original and make it completely their own, Probably my all-time favorite is Tori Amos’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I love how Ryan Adams transforms Oasis’s signature “Wonderwall” into a tender ballad, Madeleine Peyroux makes a torch song out of Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” and the way Elizabeth Cook countrifies the heck out of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”….this is a subject about which I could go on and on.

However while good musical covers can often seem like collaborations between greats, when it comes to visual art they tend to cancel each other out. Off hand, I can think of only a few examples of “art about art” that have ever blown me away. One was a series of Warhol paintings after de Chirico that I once saw at a Basel Art Fair and, of course, there’s Yves Klein’s “Venus de Milo” Most of the time, however, it sets up a comparison—with the viewer in the position of judge—where one side, usually the interpreter, inevitably loses. If you’re not as good as the artist you’re borrowing from or commenting on—David Salle appropriating Chardin, for instance, only makes us think about how much better a painter Chardin was—why bring attention to that? And if you’re better, why lower yourself with inferior material?

Well, yes, I did recently do a drawing/painting based a sculpture by Frank Stella, but then I get to contradict myself.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Politics makes strange bedfellows

Apparently the Emperor’s Club, recently made famous by the patronage of our newly ex-governor, Elliot Spitzer, offered contemporary art and investment services in addition to those of high-priced hookers. Now friends are writing to tell me I’m quoted on the art site. One hardly knows what to make of that distinction.

Don't miss Maggie Gallagher in the Post on the practice of wife-as-prop.

Friday, March 14, 2008


When the Richard Prince show closed at the Guggenheim after being up for four months, I solicited mini-reviews as comments, and didn’t get a single one. I did, however, receive at least 10 emails from people, mostly fellow artists, telling me that they didn’t see the exhibition because of disinterest or lack of time, which is disinterest in disguise because if they really wanted to see it they’d find the time. But the other unspoken reason has to be the entrance fee. Duh! Because I have a press card I just never think about it. The Guggenheim doesn't put their entrance fee on their Web site that I could find, but I think it’s $17. The Whitney is $15 and MoMA is $20. And again, if people really wanted to see something, they’d shell out whatever. However for an artist to keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on in the four major New York museums, not to speak of places like the Cooper-Hewitt ($8), the Jewish Museum ($12), the New Museum ($12) and the Brooklyn Museum ($8), it gets very pricey. The Met’s “suggested” fee is $20, which is nice—try making a "suggestion" to MoMA sometime. So the question then becomes, who are museums for? If a museum does not exist to stimulate the art of its time, what is its purpose?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The article in the March issue of Vanity Fair about the late Norman Mailer reminds me of how I used to see him out walking in Provincetown, where he lived in Cape Cod. He would not have remembered how once, following a reading at a progressive synagogue that met in my friend’s parent’s home in the Chicago suburbs, he settled on the couch next to my 16-year-old self and suggested that what I needed was to run away with an older man. Looking back on it, he was probably right.
"One of the things artists do is make the invisible visible"--artist Frances Whitehead, in an article in today's Times about the house she and her husband, James Elniski, built in Chicago.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I was perusing a subway map on the wall of the station at 28th and Broadway, trying to figure out which trains went to Borough Hall in Brooklyn, when a voice behind me asked, “Can I help you?” Huh? However he turned out not to be a crook, but a gentle little man wearing a red vest with MTA emblazoned on it. He told me I could take the R the whole way, and I was so overcome by this gesture of municipal solicitude that I thanked him as profusely as if he’d carried me there himself. You also have to understand, kiddies, that in my day the MTA made a special practice of keeping you from knowing where you were going; train lines were named with a dizzying array of letters and numbers (there was not only the R, but the RR), station attendants were surly, no maps were posted past the turnstiles nor were there directions inside the subway cars. When my train arrived, I floated through the doors in a haze of goodwill until the skeptical New Yorker in me kicked in and I began to wonder if this was part of a conspiracy by the MTA to butter us up for a fare raise.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

“Punk is not dead” scratched into stainless steel (in the ladies’ room at the Tate Modern) seems the perfect image for 2008 in England, where punk was born and has achieved an everlasting adolescence. However in this latest manifestation punk has gone mainstream—-not in London as much as the outlying cities such as Canterbury, where you’ll see flocks of 10-year-old girls on the High Street sporting cellophaned hair, skinny black jeans and studded belts. It could be the healthiest of trends in that it doesn’t require a Hollywood-ready face or shape, is hardly about labels or the consumption of designer items—just the opposite—and allows for a wide range of DIY self-expression. Plus, given the emphasis on recycled clothing, it can even be considered green. The students at the University College for the Creative Arts in Rochester have taken it up in a big way:

However the beauteous Abbie, a photography student, has gone even more retro—at least on the days I saw her—the question “what’s Abbie wearing today?” being one of general interest in an art college where students and teachers of fashion, architecture, and visual art share (in my mind, to creative advantage) the same physical workspace.

But as with the hip hop kids with their droopy, oversize pants (a style I wouldn’t miss if it disappeared forever) I think it’s fascinating that kids are wearing the clothes their parents might have worn and playing the music their parents might have listened to. Aretha-meets-Britney incarnation Amy Winehouse, whose music is everywhere and her misadventures in every tabloid, appeals to both generations, thereby completing the circle.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Things to know about England

The most important thing to know about England, bar none, is that while you can fly into the country with two carry-on items, you can leave with only one. A fact Continental did not tell me when I checked in for my return flight, which I only learned at the security gate. Unfortunately I had my computer with me, in a carry-on size suitcase, as well as a backpack containing my wallet, passport, lunch, iPod and other essentials. They said I could check my backpack and suitcase and just carry my computer on—-but that would mean I’d be checking my wallet, passport, etc. and also carrying my laptop on case-less, naked, which was clearly not a good idea. And put my good m0851 backpack through as luggage? No way! Fortunately downstairs there was a friendly kiosk willing to sell me a brand-new computer case I didn’t need for the equivalent of $70, into which I could cram my laptop and a few other items, and still have time to check my other stuff through.

The other thing to know is that to turn on any household appliance in England takes two separate actions. When I got up that first morning, in a house I’d never stayed in (one that my friends had just moved into, things still in boxes), in a neighborhood I didn’t know, Terry was already gone, having arisen early to go again to Heathrow (two hours drive) to retrieve his parents, who were arriving back after two months in South Africa. I had prepared for this eventuality by bringing food and tea, and patting myself on the back for such admirable forethought, looked forward to a shower and breakfast. It was not to happen. First of all, when I turned the knob on the stove, there was gas but no ignition. And no matches. And I couldn’t get the electric teakettle to work. And when I turned the shower thing on (I’m familiar with those little plastic boxes that provide infinite hot water on demand—-why don’t we have them?) no water came out.

Only after Terry returned many hours later, were these puzzles solved. To ignite the stove, he showed me, you have to turn on the burner, then push this teeny button way over on the left to ignite it. As for the teakettle, the problem was coordinating the off/on switch on the kettle (not clear) with the off/on switch on the outlet in the wall. That switch had two settings, one that you could push to reveal little letters that said “on” and one that made a red bar appear. To an American, or at least this one, “on” means, “hello, it’s on!” while red means it’s off. But noooo, “on” means “push here for on” and red means “it’s on.” Okay, then the shower. This one had even Terry, who had only taken baths in the house up to this point, stymied. In fact he’d been wondering what that pull string was for, hanging from the ceiling on the other side of the bathroom…

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Not afraid of red, yellow, and blue

I have to admit I’ve always loved artful graffiti. It proves to me that the human desire to make art is innate, a force of nature like the weeds that spring up even in the cracked walls and sidewalks of the inner city. This desolate concrete area under the Hayward Gallery in London, facing the Thames, has become the province of skateboarders (the day I was there even little guys, under the age of ten, with their mums) and is an example of graffiti in the right place at the right time. It makes me think that town planners, instead of trying to shoo away a phenomenon that’s more persistent than they are, could embrace it and end up with something quite beautiful.