Saturday, November 29, 2008

Downtown 81

I’ve never been one to indulge in nostalgia—never understood people who thought that the best music just happened to exist at the very moment they were in college—however, when Roberto got Downtown 81, from Netflix, I allowed myself to wallow just a bit. Especially after listening to the 9/2/08 NPR: All Songs Considered podcast (a good way to keep up if you’re past college age) entitled “The 80s: Were they really that bad?” Funny, I’ve never lived in a time when I thought the music was bad—and especially not the 80s—but then I didn’t listen to radio. Anyway, “Downtown 81” is an Andy Warhol-ish film written by an Andy Warhol-ish guy, Glenn O’Brien, and not so much a story as an excuse to follow the adorable Jean-Michel Basquiat around for a day. (Best line: “You can sleep in my car. It’s a Coupe de Ville.”) There’s an unintentional layer of unreality in that the voices sound dubbed—and that’s because they are dubbed, the original audio for the film having been lost long ago. However the best parts are the performance segments (see? It wasn’t the drugs; the music really was great): Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and James White and the Blacks (a.k.a. James Chance and the Contortions).

Here’s the trailer for the film (as it was recreated in 2000):

And the best Kid Creole video I found, from a concert in Cologne (the clip in the film is even better):

And sound, no visual, for James White/Chance (you gotta see him in the film):

In these over-stimulated times "Downtown 81" isn’t a film to watch, exactly, but—as Roberto suggested—have on while you’re doing something else. The one to sit down with, of course, is Julian Schnabel’s 1996 Basquiat, the only film I can think of (outside of High Fidelity) that captures the spirit of a time and place I lived in as I remember it.

Meanwhile the free-wheeling uninhibited nature of the music isn't totally confined to reminiscence but lives on in current bands such as The Rapture, whose exuberant live show is one of the best yet.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Catching up

No, I have not fallen down a rabbit hole, just swamped with work while fighting off the early winter blahs. I did attend some art-related events, though, one being David Cohen’s review panel at the National Academy Museum where, once a month (I’ll be on the one in March), he invites three critics to comment on current exhibitions. Like performance art, I regard most art panels as opportunities to catch up on my eye exercises but this one—with Mario Naves, Ana Finel Honigman, and Joe Fyfe, talking about current exhibitions by Sue Coe, Elizabeth Peyton, Lothar Baumgarten, and Ron Gorchov—was short, sweet, and engaging, with a question and answer session at the end where the audience members revealed themselves to be as knowledgeable and thoughtful as the panelists. Future review panels:

January 30, 2009: Ken Johnson, Elizabeth Schambelan, Joan Waltemath
February 20, 2009: Johanna Burton, Mark Stevens, Sarah Valdez
March 20, 2009: Michael Brenson, Carol Diehl, David Ebony
Aptil 24, 2009: Deborah Garwood, Blake Gopnik, Alexi Worth

All at 6:45 p.m. at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street ($5).

On the way I caught Jenny Holzer’s projections at the Guggenheim,.which illuminate the exterior of the building every Friday evening through December 31, 2008, with a special additional showing on New Year’s Eve:

And finally there was the opening at Mass MoCA for the Sol Lewitt retrospective of 105 wall drawings. I didn't take any pictures, but will have plenty of opportunity as it will be up for the next 25 years.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gallery confidential

Last week I donned yet another hat, that of art advisor, and took collectors from out of town on a daylong tour of galleries in Chelsea and Uptown—and into a world that seems completely unschooled in normal business practices. I was left with the feeling that if anyone sells any art at all it’s by accident, or because a collector wants something so much s/he is willing to overcome any obstacle to obtain it. I’m grateful to the galleries who treated us with warmth and professionalism—they do exist, and at least one will be rewarded with sales—but others were dysfunctional in the extreme, a situation of special concern to me as I’m also an artist with an interest in finding the next gallery to represent me. Highlights: waiting for more than 20 minutes while gallery assistants looked for someone who could give us a price (all the pieces in the exhibition were priced the same—$200,000). The impeccably dressed young woman who rattled off a canned speech about the artist’s political intentions for the work without regard to the glazed-over look of her audience. The gallery associate who referred to my clients as “You guys” and told us the price was “like $75,000.” The dealer who joked about the price of a painting and another who asked my clients how they felt about the elections. And finally, in a gallery rife with assistants, asking to see work by a particular artist and being told that anyone who could show it was “in a meeting.”

In addition, there seems to be a paucity of proper viewing areas. We saw paintings (priced in the tens of thousands) propped on blocks, held up by assistants, in their cartons (this after calling ahead), leaning against other paintings.

So if anyone wants to know why art fairs (and auctions) are overcoming galleries, it’s because at an art fair you can immediately see the work, the price is out in the open, and you can talk to someone who acts like a grown-up and who may actually know something. There was a time when galleries served a valuable purpose in developing artists’ careers while educating and advising collectors, and kudos to those who still take this role seriously. However the interface that used to be helpful is now often an impediment—as well as a missed opportunity.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Proud to be an American

Shepard Fairey for MoveOn

Growing up in the fifties in a family who Liked Ike, what it meant to be an American was clear to me. America’s history was my family’s history—our forbears came to this country to escape religious persecution in France and England, my Quaker ancestors overcame their pacifism to fight against slavery in the Civil War, my grandfather’s first cousin led the U.S. Naval forces during the Normandy invasion in World War II. Americans were the good guys, the liberators, defenders of human rights. When I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in my public school, there was a little stir in my childish heart, a pride that came of believing my country was different because the Constitution guaranteed basic freedoms of speech and religion, of being innocent until proven guilty, of one man [sic], one vote. Torture, racial and religious discrimination, a wide disparity between rich and poor, countries who invaded and occupied other countries, the use of mercenaries, large numbers of people in prison, blind nationalism, funny elections—these we associated with the totalitarian regimes America opposed, then characterized by the Russians and Nikita “I will bury you” Khrushchev. However I came of political age during the Vietnam War, and from then on became increasingly disillusioned as the distinctions became more and more blurred, until I found myself living in a world that more resembled them than us. Neither political party spoke for me, as neither took a firm stand against the Iraq war, against torture, against Guantanamo.

Until now. I didn’t realize how much it was getting to me. When I'd wake up in the morning, it was as if every day was gray. However since last Tuesday, the sun has been out. There’s warmth, possibility. My fellow Americans are my fellow Americans, not thoughtless automatons cowed by fear. I’m not on the outside but part of something huge. We did it together. We not only sent the Bush administration down the tubes, we elected a black president. How cool is that? And further, a thinking, literate, intelligent, poetic person who sees himself as accountable, who holds a press conference and actually solicits and answers questions from journalists. Who has such confidence that, at the Democratic Convention, he allowed his young daughters to go on international television miked and unscripted (a small detail, but I still haven’t gotten over it). I’m moved to tears now, and often, such as this morning when I read Frank Rich’s column.

But I realize this is just a beginning, that we are entering the “Reconstruction” phase. Last night a friend was asking herself how was it that she was so numb for eight years, why wasn’t she out battling? I asked myself the same thing. But I think a big reason was because we felt alone, that nothing we did could make a difference. Now that we know “We Can” there’s no limit to what else we can do. I’m going to start by pledging $20 a month to MoveOn, as I already do with The Hunger Project (they take it out of your bank or credit card account automatically every month, which I like—perhaps MoveOn will follow suit). It’s a small gesture, but meaningful if we all do it. Perhaps that’s the best lesson we’ve learned.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy Obama Day!

I can’t say it better than Michael Moore:

We may, just possibly, also see a time of refreshing openness, enlightenment and creativity. The arts and the artists will not be seen as the enemy. Perhaps art will be explored in order to discover the greater truths. When FDR was ushered in with his landslide in 1932, what followed was Frank Capra and Preston Sturgis, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange and Orson Welles. All week long I have been inundated with media asking me, "gee, Mike, what will you do now that Bush is gone?" Are they kidding? What will it be like to work and create in an environment that nurtures and supports film and the arts, science and invention, and the freedom to be whatever you want to be? Watch a thousand flowers bloom! We've entered a new era, and if I could sum up our collective first thought of this new era, it is this: Anything Is Possible.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

And the winner is.....

With three hours to go, today I was voter number 741 in a village where the average turnout is around 300-350. And this in Massachusetts, where a Democratic victory is virtually assured. I’m taking this as a good sign. Ours was a paper ballot, recorded by machine, quite a simple process, although there were a lot of boxes to tick off, including those for school board candidates and three propositions: 1) to abolish the state income tax [NO], 2) to decriminalize the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana [YES] and 3) to abolish dog racing [This is an issue on which I wish I were better informed, but I voted yes because I couldn’t think of one reason why dog racing should be necessary]. So there. Done. Now we wait.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Back from Berlin

I arrived home Friday night to a New York that was one giant Halloween party, with exceptionally warm weather that led to a certain sartorial minimalism; I’m guessing there’s not a single pair of fishnet hose left to buy in the city. By contrast Chelsea yesterday was like a ghost town. The galleries were manned by skeleton crews, and I wasn’t surprised when one dealer admitted to me that nothing was selling. In my overfilled inbox, however, was a press release from Sperone Westwater announcing their move in December to a nine-story, 20,000 SF. Norman Foster-designed gallery one block north of the New Museum on the Bowery, so someone’s optimistic.

I’d hoped that my ten days away just before the election would provide some much-needed respite from agonizing over it every single moment, but instead I found the Europeans equally obsessed. To judge by the amount of coverage the election is getting in the British press, you’d think it was a local event. And the international members of Olafur Eliasson’s staff, who I joined for lunch in his Berlin studio, were as up-to-date on Joe the Plumber and the price of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe as anyone. It feels as if the whole world is holding its breath.

There’s even a Web site started by three Icelanders, If the World Could Vote, which (as of this writing) has collected 666,246 symbolic votes from 210 countries: 578,461 (86.8%) for Obama, 87,780 (13.2%) for McCain. I’d feel better if the polls reflected a similar disparity.

Our purpose in going to Olafur’s studio was to shoot footage for a short documentary focusing on his collaboration with mathematician, architect, and all-around visionary Einar Thorsteinn, who previously worked with Buckminster Fuller and Linus Pauling. Olafur and Einar have been working together since they met in Iceland 12 years ago, when Olafur, then 29, was looking for someone to help him build a geodesic dome-type structure, and one project led to another. The two-hour shoot couldn’t have gone better. We had some anxiety when, in the morning, city workers suddenly appeared with deafeningly noisy equipment to spend several hours pounding gravel into the cobblestone courtyard outside, but miraculously they finished just as we were about begin. I barely had to refer to my list of prepared questions; Olafur and Einar addressed each point in order as methodically as if they’d been clued in by a secret spy (I believe in never sharing questions with interviewees in advance, lest I get a canned response).

Despite requests by collectors and institutions to buy individual models and even the whole, Olafur and Einar’s Model Room, much of which was at PS 1 for the MoMA show, has been reinstalled in the conference room of the new studio and spills out into the hallway, where it continues to grow and serve as inspiration for new projects. The attitude toward it is hardly precious—this is a workshop, Einar said—and he told us, while we were filming it, to feel free to move things around as we liked. While Terry and Erica were setting up, I had time to spend with these quirky geometric gems, which led me to think about the relationship between harmony and chaos and how, to be fully engaging, an artwork requires certain degrees of each. It was also energizing to be around the 30 or 40 members of Olafur’s busy team, who he sees as working with rather than for him, acknowledged co-creators, an attitude which results in a palpable enthusiasm all around. He also feeds them well. Every day the cook (working in the studio kitchen, which is not walled off, so that she’s part of the creative bustle around her) prepares a simple, healthy lunch—the day I was there it was pumpkin risotto with a green salad and great bread. The food is is laid out buffet style and eaten on long trestle tables in the cavernous dining area, which has walls and high ceilings faced with the remnants of beautiful old tiles and tall, arched windows. As well as making sure everyone gets proper nutrition, the communal meal has its practical reasons for being—no one wastes time going out for food, and it provides a daily opportunity for cross-communication that would be unlikely otherwise.

The 30,000 SF building, which the studio only recently moved in to, is a red brick fortress-like former brewery, and when Einar told me about it last year, referring to it as Olafur’s “castle in the center of Berlin,” I didn’t know that he was being so literal. The first floor is the kitchen, workshop and showroom (in the old studio, one worker told me, there was no room even to set things up and see how they looked), the second is the conference room and studio, and the top floor will house a school for 15-20 students (best described in this article from Frieze). There is a basement as well as a sub-basement, with more workshops and storage areas, some yet to be developed. One room houses a carpentry shop where much of the furniture and simple plywood shelving, which also serves as room dividers, was made. Ultimately Olafur is planning to build an apartment for himself and his family on the roof and the staff is gently agitating for a nursery (among them they have 20 small children, including Olafur’s two) and a gym.

That experience, coupled with a visit to Einar and Manuela’s home in the Berlin outskirts, a house which nearly bursts with the results of their combined creativity (the subject of the next Art Vent House Report), made me want to just come home and work. The best possible outcome.

I didn’t see much to mention in London, other than Frank Gehry’s pavilion at the Serpentine, which looked as if he’d handed the project over to an intern. Or perhaps it would have been better if he had. Terry deemed it “over-built and under-designed.” While the press release described it as “seemingly random,” I—a Gehry fan in general—couldn’t discern any over-arching concept, but saw it as an example of chaos that could have benefited from a little mediating harmony. I think we’ve had enough random for one century, thank you. While we were there an English girl and her Indian boy friend—art students, no doubt—were in the middle of an argument about their relationship when the guy became distracted and, looking over at the pavilion, muttered, “That thing is a pile of shit.”

I did, however, get to spend quality time with the Upholstery Eater and am pleased to report that she’s thriving despite (or maybe because of) her inherited proclivity.