Saturday, June 28, 2008

Foxes and hounds

[Via] Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly likes to distinguish between what he calls “Patriots” and “Pinheads”. “Pinheads” must be in short supply, because last week he decided Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin was one because of a reference to a fox on one of his songs, which O’Reilly sees as one of many “cheap shots” Coldplay regularly takes at the Fox Broadcasting Company. The lyric:

It was a long and dark December
When the banks became cathedrals
And the fox became God

O’Reilly appears not to know that the word “fox” also refers to a canine animal who lives in the wild and is part of the mythology of almost every culture.

In my Animal Speak reference, I found this: Probably the fox’s cleverest hunting technique is ‘charming’ [where] the fox is seen near a prey, performing various antics. It will leap and jump and roll and chase itself, so that it charms the prey’s attention. While performing the fox draws closer and closer without its prey realizing, as it is caught up in [the fox’s] seemingly non-threatening antics. Then at the right moment, the fox leaps and captures its prey.

This fox, however, looks as if it’s just having fun:


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Commenting on the commenters

James Turrell's Roden Crater

Thanks to “Pretty Lady,” “Spatula,” and CAP for comments on my last Whitney post that are worthy of being posts in themselves. While, CAP, I was perhaps too casual in saying “anything can be art,” I actually do believe that, at this point in time, anything someone makes or designates can be (note I said can be, not should be) considered art, and that recognizing this was a necessary step to get us away from the painting-on-a-wall, sculpture-on-a-pedestal mindset that pervaded the first half of the 20th century. I do not agree with “Spatula” that “we have gone too far in deconstruction” since I’m one who delights in art that uses an economy of means (Irwin, Turrell, Eliasson, and a moment of silence in a Sigur Ros concert) to achieve great ends.

However along with deconstruction, we lost our ability to discern. We went rollicking off in the other direction, making deconstruction an excuse for sloppy thinking, sloppy execution, sloppy everything. And I lay much of the blame for this on the proliferation of art schools who profit by making everybody think art is easier than it is, who in order to exist, need the majority of students to come away with a positive experience. I remember a final graduate crit at SVA, when I said to a student about her sculpture, “There’s a lifetime of work to be mined from this”—thinking that I was giving her my highest praise—and she burst into tears because to her mind, she was finished. This was it. What, she’d have to do more?

However I believe the resounding failure of the Whitney Biennial marks the beginning of the end of a too-long era. It goes along with the political scene. We want substance. As with the Iraq war, SUVs, and Froot Loops, we’re not inclined to think something is good for us just because the powers that be say it’s so. I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve seen more good art in the past six months than in the last ten years put together—and that we’re having these conversations. Before when I saw stuff like Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates or the Whitney’s publicity I thought that I was the only one who thought it was ridiculous. It’s a relief to learn that I’m not alone.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Koons and Shafrazi

Installation view, "Who's Afraid of Jasper Johns," at Tony Shafrazi Gallery.

I’m catching up on my reading, plowing through the magazines that accumulate on my kitchen counter (I swear they reproduce overnight—I come down in the morning to find ten magazines where there was only one the night before). Not to be missed is Peter Schjeldahl’s summing up of Jeff Koons in The New Yorker (June 9 & 16) on the occasion of Koons’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which begins, “There’s something nightmarish about Jeff Koons” and ends with “We might wish for a better artist to manifest our time, but that would amount to wanting a better time” yet acknowledges the “material mastery, conceptual perfect pitch, and idealistic beauty of the objects on display in Chicago.” Yup, sometimes Koons fakes it and other times he makes it. Schjeldahl doesn’t make sense of the Koons phenomenon, as if anyone could, but for the first time I found myself reading about Koons while nodding my head in agreement.

Then there’s Jerry Saltz’s review in New York (June 25) of the Gavin Brown/Urs Fischer conceived “group show” entitled “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns” at Tony Shafrazi Gallery (through July 12th), a mishmash of authenticity, appropriation and reproduction that Roberta Smith called “demonically aerobic to brain and eye” and Saltz wrote is “like some mad replicating vision machine, or a walk-in Louise Lawler” that was intended to “set art free from the context of the white box.” I’m as weary of the “white box” as anyone, but I don’t find the tag sale aesthetic of “Who’s Afraid,” where every image seems to cancel out every other image, a viable replacement. Howard Halle, in Time Out, called it a “deeply cynical meditation on the deeply cynical nature of the contemporary art world.” To me it felt toxic, was toxic—given the out-gassing fumes from Ron Pruitt’s plastic bag “waterfall” and Rudolf Stingel’s new but visitor-smudged white wall-to-wall carpeting—an environment to be exited as soon as possible.

The back-story is much more interesting. I mean if you were to write a novel about a guy who sprays paint on Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA and then goes on to fame and fortune as purveyor of graffiti-based art, it would be just too cheesy. It’s a story that I've always felt revealed the rotten core of the art world. But to bring it up-to-date, here’s Shafrazi, 34 years later, at the after-party for ”Who’s Afraid,” being presented with a birthday cake that’s a giant replica of the Guernica.

Saltz writes: Brown climbed atop a table and, amid much yelling, toasted Shafrazi. He then thrust a cake decorator filled with red icing into Shafrazi’s hands. As the crowd screamed, Brown implored, “Write, Tony, Write!” Shafrazi started moving the device over the cake. Slowly he wrote the words I AM SORRY. Time stood still. It was like an angel of redemption had entered the room to take away Shafrazi’s guilt. The room went silent. I was shocked. The Shafrazi began writing again. He wrote one more word: NOT! It was like the Sopranos finale. Just as you thought everything was going to change, everything became more of what it already was.

And that sums up the exhibition: something that purports to be new and different but is really just more of the same old.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gifts from the Whitney Biennial, continued

"Anonymous" comments about the video that spoofs Biennialist artist Fritz Haeg in my last post: "Oh, it's actually a response to this video... now tell me this is not funny... THIS IS THE REAL ONE!"

Anonymous is so right, it's almost word-for-word. But you have to grit your teeth to watch it.

And "Spatula", commenting on Haeg's Animal Estates admittedly treads on the “dangerous terrain of discourse” in wondering how it can be construed as art, but I will take it on. My definition of “art”—since Duchamp made sure that it can be anything, which to my mind, was a necessary step—is something where execution and idea merge so completely that we’re unaware of either and taken to a place beyond words. That’s what music does for me (thank you, Jose Gonzalez, who I saw at the Iron Horse in Northampton last night) and that’s what I want art to do. That’s what I get from Olafur Eliasson’s endeavors: a place of new experience. Indescribable. Therefore, when I see something that sends my thought processes away from the piece at hand, when instead of being immersed in it I'm congratulating myself for having been so precocious as to realize—even in Mrs. Egbert's first grade— that it was stupid to go around in a group pretending to be squirrels, then it’s not art.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Whitney Biennial: The gift that keeps on giving

The Whitney Biennial is now over, but clearly there's no limit to the fun we can still have with it. Reader Judi Collins sent this, The Cat Condos Project by The Infinity Lab:

which was inspired by this (after a brief commercial):

Do share your thoughts.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Correctly politically incorrect

We’ve already established that Anthony Lane in The New Yorker took everything waaay too seriously in Sex and the City, thinking of it more, perhaps, as a documentary about four women than a farce. Lane is horrified by their political incorrectness, as in what may have been the funniest line in the film, which he describes as “Miranda’s outburst as she hunts for an apartment in a mainly Chinese district” where she says “White guy with baby! Let’s follow him!” He follows with the comment, “So that’s what drives these people: Aryan real estate”—although you’d have to be pretty cloistered in your own Aryan ivory tower not to know that the “Chinese district” is called Chinatown.

I’m all for political incorrectness if it’s an agent for social change which, strangely, “Sex” is, in the way the film emphasizes real values behind a façade of exaggerated consumerism. But I guess there will always be people who have trouble making the distinction.

A case for distinction was made the summer before last in Berkshire County, the third bluest in the nation, when filmmaker Mickey Friedman became annoyed that the drivers whizzing past him to shop at the most politically correct grocery store ever, the Berkshire Coop Market, weren’t joining him in his weekly protest against the Iraq war in front of Great Barrington’s town hall. That they might honk to show that they agreed just made it worse. He complained to his friend, Rudi Bach, who suggested that perhaps Mickey and his signs had become part of the scenery, and promised to do something about it.

The following weekend as Mickey was taking up his lonely post, he saw another protest forming across the street, a group dressed in combat fatigues holding American flags and beautifully lettered signs with slogans such as “Screw Peace,” “Gandhi was a Wimp,” “Peace is for Losers,” “God Supports US, not Them,” and my personal favorite, "It's Our Oil." Rudi and his friends took vigorous abuse from the pro-peace ranks, who gave them the finger or yelled from the windows of their Subarus and Volvos, but within a few weeks Mickey had all the company he wanted.

In the end, a returning soldier took offense at the counter-protest and introduced himself to Mickey, who ultimately made a film about his experience: Spc. John Flynn’s War in Iraq.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


This picture is from my steamy bike ride this morning. And if you're a newcomer to my blog, you may want to read my post from last summer, about a time when my experience with poppies went beyond the visual.

Photo: Carol Diehl, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

Sex and the City, Part II

I wasn’t going to write about Hillary or elaborate on my Sex and the City “review” below (brevity, as well as cleanliness, is next to godliness in my book) until a friend forwarded me this Judith Warner blog post, and I realized that my credentials as a feminist were in question because I didn’t vote for Hillary and I liked “Sex and the City.”

Warner: Is it a coincidence that the bubbling idiocy of “Sex and the City,” the movie, exploded upon the cultural scene at the exact same time Hillary’s campaign imploded? Literally, of course, it is. Figuratively, I’m not so sure, And before I set off an avalanche of emails explaining why Hillary deserved to lose, I want to make one point clear: I am not talking about the outcome of her candidacy—mistakes were made, and she faced a formidable opponent in Barack Obama—but rather about the climate in which her campaign was conducted. The zeitgeist in which Hillary floundered and “Sex” is now flourishing.

Warner bolsters her view by providing a link to an inflammatory video montage of footage, mostly from Fox News, of both men and women making crude, stupid, sexist remarks. Believe me, I’m not saying that sexism has been eradicated. But isn’t this what we expect from Fox? And isn’t it more indicative of the right-wing mentality than bias among Democratic voters? Instead I agree with Ariana Huffington, who wrote about Clinton’s campaign as a “historic triumph” for women, and Gail Collins, in the Times, who reiterated the theme saying:

Nobody is ever again going to question whether it’s possible for a woman to go toe-to-toe with the toughest male candidate in a race for president of the United States. Or whether a woman could be strong enough to serve as commander-in-chief.

What surprised me about the campaign was not how endemic the sexism was, but how little gender had to do with it. Clinton lost, and only by a small margin, to a black man whose name is only one consonant away from one we associate with terrorism. She lost because Barack Obama ran a tighter campaign, showed the courage of his convictions, and was better at reading the mood of an electorate that was weary of polarizing politics. But in spite of that, I’m convinced that if Clinton hadn’t made the fatal mistake of voting for the Iraq war, she’d be the Democratic contender right now.

But back to Warner who goes after “Sex and the City” (not without a little male-bashing in her description of Charlotte’s husband as an “adoring troglodyte…so short, so bald”) and concludes:

“Sex and the City” is the perfect movie for our allegedly ever-so-promising post-feminist era, when “angry” is out and Restalyne is in, and virtually all our country’s most powerful women look younger now than they did 20 years ago. Oh lighten up, I can hear you say. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Earnestness is so unattractive in a woman.

Funny, I was going to say that. How did she know? Perhaps because inappropriate earnestness, the inability to get a joke, isn’t attractive in anyone. I mean—tell me if I’m missing something huge here—I thought “Sex and the City” was a satire. For all the talk of Labels with a capital L, those fantastical over-the-top clothes were designed by Patricia Field, whose boutique I remember from the East Village in the Eighties where she used outfit drag queens. And how can you take seriously a story in which the love interest is called Mr. Big? C’mon, is that not hilarious?

So, far from the paean to consumerism the hyper-serious commenters on Warner’s blog thought the film was (if many of them actually saw it, which I doubt), I got the opposite message—such as, don’t get so involved in your wedding plans that you forget about the guy. But the film could just have easily been about Forgiveness—there was a lot of that going on—and, of course, let’s not leave out Loyalty. And what how about how women in their forties and even—gasp!—fifties can hang out, be lusty, and have fun?

Then there’s Anthony Lane in The New Yorker who complains about, of all things, too much schmaltz. He also doesn’t understand how Miranda, a lawyer, can drop everything and to fly to Mexico to support her friend (hello, it’s a fantasy, all right, but hardly one that’s “posing as a slice of modern life” any more than Sasha Baron Cohen expected us to believe Borat was really from Kazakhstan). Lane gets into a twitch about the little dog who humps everything—and he’s right, it was awful, which is just what was so great about it. But why would a hetero guy over forty, who admits he “never was sure how funny the TV series was meant to be” take on the film in the first place? It seems Lane violated his maxim of “Whenever possible, see the film in the company of ordinary beings” and went to a critics’ screening, where he took notes on every instance of political incorrectness (he had to write fast). He should have seen it with some gay friends and instead of rushing home to transcribe those notes, spent the rest of the evening driving around with the top down, listening to the Scissor Sisters.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sex and the City

I hated every minute of it. I think it's one of the best movies I've ever seen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I hardly ever recall my dreams, but when I do they’re almost always the same. Except for the ones where I’m in a public place without my clothes, or suddenly remember I have a kitten or baby I’ve forgotten to take care of (they’re always okay, I just feel this terrible guilt), all of my dreams are travel dreams where I can’t get somewhere, can’t find my luggage, etc. I thought when that dream finally came true that I wouldn’t have it anymore but that didn’t happen (yes, I really was in the airport outside Reykjavik at 6:30 a.m., unable to find Einar’s phone number or my luggage, running across the tundra after the only bus of the day that was leaving without me…). In last night’s dream I was lurching from car to car on a futuristic train trying to find my luggage, clutching a gigantic zip-lock plastic bag stuffed with hundreds of tiny bottles of toiletries to my chest. The “stewardesses,” all in a gaggle talking about their dates of the night before, were no help. At one point I found myself walking through the empty observation car as we were passing Niagara Falls and next to the rushing water was a giant screen duplicating the scene, as if it were a rock concert. All of this was no doubt triggered by reading an article in an old (April 28) TIME magazine, about Richard Branson and his revolutionary plans for Virgin Airlines (where I’m a regular), one of which is to end the “Sisyphean tyranny of the cart” by offering choices (which you pay for, of course) from a computer screen, brought to you whenever you want. Wow, I think, what a great idea, until I realize that if I did get that plastic-wrapped $12 turkey sandwich, most likely it wouldn’t be appetizing enough to eat, so what to do with it? Perhaps use it as a neck support as I nap, hoping I won’t dream.

P.S. The Iceland story ended happily. Einar, sensing something was up, rang me, I found my luggage, and the beautiful blond bus dispatcher took it upon herself to arrange for a driver to take me to Einar’s outpost, about 25 minutes away (cost: $16)—where breakfast was waiting. It was almost worth it to find out how caring people could be to a stranded stranger in a far-flung place.

Photo: Carol Diehl, Iceland 2006

Monday, June 2, 2008

John Weber, continued

Robert C. Morgan wrote this in response to Lucio Pozzi’s letter (in my last post):

It has been said that [John] exhibited works by Hans Haacke six times before anything sold, and nearly the same for Daniel Buren. Such loyalty to noncommercial artists is unheard of in today clamoring marketplace, but much to John's credit that he was willing to stand by these highly acclaimed artists….His loyalty to those he believed in was central to his character.

John was a kind of old-style European gallerist, who understood connoisseurship and the value of art apart from money. While one might argue that in the end, this may not have worked in his favor, one cannot deny his strength of character, his core of understanding art through feeling, and his sincerity in championing artists he believed in, many of whom transformed the history of contemporary art.

It’s sad that someone who had such an influence should have been forgotten at the end of his life. When John curated the local show I was in, it seemed to me that some of the people associated with the gallery were clueless about his contribution, treating him like just some old guy. Yet we would never have understood the value of the artists Weber promoted had he not gathered them in one place and been so steadfast in his support. Critics such as Rosenberg and Greenberg are alive in the histories, but the role of art dealers in forming what we know as contemporary art goes largely unrecorded. John was among those who had a talent for spotting art that might otherwise been overlooked and were willing to nurture it until the rest of the world took notice.

Here’s Roberta Smith’s respectful obit and Charlie Finch’s boorish one. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in-between.