Friday, February 6, 2009

Out with the old and....

Christmas lights, Great Barrington, MA, December 2008

"What the cynics fail to understand, is that the ground has shifted beneath them."--President Obama's inaugural address.

I started writing this a month ago, but was so bored I didn't finish, because it's just too boring to write about being bored. But truly, since returning from Berlin in November, I've not been able to get interested in art, which is a problem considering that it's not only my field, but too late in life to take up another profession--such as plumbing or neurobiology, or become a concert pianist after all. However either out of habit or false hope, I've continued to trudge around to museums and galleries looking for inspiration, not just to write about, but for my studio practice, which is in need of a reboot.

What first set me on the road to ennui was Cindy Sherman’s show at Metro Pictures. Part of my feeling of intellectual isolation comes from the fact that I’m the only person in the entire world who doesn’t think her work is the bee’s knees. To me, Sherman’s conceit is just too facile to sustain itself for long. I also remember how, just before Sherman made her film stills in the seventies, Eleanor Antin was transforming herself in photographs in ways that were more haunting, funny, varied and complex—as well as more human. Where Antin was clearly on a quest for self-knowledge, Sherman’s portraits come off as unflattering commentary on the aspirations and ways of life of others, especially in this series, which struck me as ageist, sexist, and just plain mean.
Eleanor Antin, The King, 1972 (image from the Web)

Eleanor Antin, The Angel of Mercy (Florence Nightingale), Myself-1854, 1977 (Image from the Web)

After that it was the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, a museum I want desperately to like, whose new building (and admission fee—$12 per person plus $11 or more for parking) sets off all kinds of expectations that, so far, have not been met by what’s inside. This time the main show was Tara Donovan, who makes installations with mass-produced disposable objects, such as plastic cups and toothpicks. I can see how the idea might be interesting (“Ooh, Honey, did you realize this is made of plastic straws?”) to someone who hasn’t taught a gazillion graduate students. In my experience, at least one third of the graduate population has latched onto similar ideas as a way of getting out of actually making something without having to spend much money or travel farther than the nearest convenience store (I wish I had a dollar for every piece of art I’ve seen made of black plastic garbage bags). Then there’s the text that suggests that because Donovan has figured out a way to make a cube out of metal sewing pins, she’s part of a lineage that includes Donald Judd—with whom she has about as much in common as Santa Claus.

Which brings me to one of my favorite subjects: wall text (some of my readers may already be aware of my promise to abolish it, along with artist statements, when I’m king). I’m clueless as to why such a small museum would give over any space to a permanent collection, but if they do, they’d better make sure it stands up to multiple viewings. This one threatens to become a Saatchi-esque time capsule, with texts that read like exercises one might be required to write in curator school. This, for instance, next to a painting that appears equally academically-driven:

Untitled continues Lucy McKenzie's exploration of latent meanings in design styles, expanding a detail from an advertising image she found on a condom vending machine of two robots amorously engaged. The scene is rendered in a Mondrian-esque style using geometric blocks and is rendered in faux marble to make the "ugly" scene appear more elegant. The work also includes two figures in shadow, as if in conversation while looking at the painting.

And back in New York, at the New Museum, while Elizabeth Peyton's paintings were charming, did they justify this curator's paean?

Where her earliest portraits can be compared to those of Dutch masters or Spanish painters in their quietude and focus on the aspect of a single subject in the center of the picture plane, beginning in the 2000s, Peyton's maturity as a painter is expressed in the increasing complexity of her compositions. In the history of portraiture, these later works can be more closely compared to figure compositions by Henri Matisse or Eduard Vuillard, both of whom integrated their human subjects with their static ones in dense surfaces of pattern and brilliant color.

But what finished me off was the Marlene Dumas painting exhibition at MoMA (through February 16th). As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker:

She has been favored by a fashion for sensationalized moral seriousness which explains the recent prestige of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud and of younger masters of sardonic melancholy, including Luc Tuymans of Antwerp, and Neo Rauch of Leipzig. Is this taste a self-flagellating compunction of the spendthrift rich? Surely no one would paint pictures as aggressively uningratiating as those of Dumas unless she meant them.
Well, I don't care whether she means it or not, the "artist's intention" holds little interest for me, only the result--which here, despite Schjeldahl's rhapsody over Dumas's brushwork, is heavy-handed and depressing. I’m not opposed to so-called “serious” subject matter, but a little nuance would be nice. Interestingly, in that same New Yorker, David Denby reviews the film “Revolutionary Road,” and while finding it “honorably and brutally unnerving,” suggests that it “may suffer…from the illusion that pain and art are the same thing.” He could have been writing about Dumas.
After that I was sure I never wanted to see any more art ever again.
Later I began to think that my reaction had to do with the sense that the art I was seeing was looking old, because--in case you haven’t noticed--we’re in the midst of a great cultural shift. And unlike generations in the past who experienced the massive change that came with the invention of the printing press or the rise of the Industrial Revolution, we know it, can feel and see it. It’s fast, so fast that when I was working with the art director on TIME’s Person of the Year, he noted that if we had commissioned a portrait of Obama in October, it wouldn’t be the one we’d want to run in December. And the Tom Friedman piece of December 23rd that I wanted to link to when I started writing this, Time to Re-Boot America now feels as if it was penned a year ago rather than just a month or so.
It’s a time of purging, of getting rid of what doesn’t work and replacing it with…well we don’t know. But it’s inevitable that art will change with it, old systems will be replaced with new ones, and that which doesn’t deliver, will fail.
And while I don't have a crystal ball, I'll make some predictions just because this is my blog and I can. I believe that in the future (which, the way things are going, could be next week) we’re going to be less fascinated with human dysfunction (a la Dumas and Sherman) and seek more art that inspires us, has substance, puts us in awe of human capability. I hope that we’ll also figure out another way of experiencing art that doesn’t involve rectangular rooms, white walls, and track lighting. I want art to engage and involve, be more than this static thing that we look at while standing on our feet (although I dislike so-called “interactive art" even more), but has to do with its context and, like music, is woven into the fabric of our lives. I believe the era of the individual genius is waning, and instead collaborative ventures (between individuals as well as disciplines) will come to the forefront. That means chucking the our current system of teaching visual art, which has hardly changed for centuries (okay, so we teach “media arts” now, it’s still a separate department) and move toward one that’s integrated with science, mathematics, agriculture, history, and technology, as well as the other arts.
I also believe people will always be fascinated with painting.
With these thoughts in mind, I went to Chelsea yet again, and this time saw two exhibitions that looked not only far from tired, but fresh and new. The irony is that one was done by an 80-year-old, Robert Irwin, and the other by Fred Sandback who, were he still alive, would be in his mid-sixties. Both installations are serene, sure, engaging and beautiful. Oh, did I mention beauty? Well I believe in beauty, and think it’s a human need, as important as fresh air and water. It's definitely due for a comeback.
Installation view of Robert Irwin's Red Drawing White Drawing Black Painting, on view at PaceWildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street, NYC through February 28, 2009. Photo by G.R. Christmas/Courtesy Pace Wildenstein, New York.

Installation view, Fred Sandback at David Zwirner, January-February 14, 2009. Photograph by Cathy Carver, Courtesy Zwirner & Worth.

These images , however, hardly convey the experience of being there, which is why Irwin, in the early days, refused to have his work photographed.
And Shepard Fairey is, for sure, of his/our time. Creator of the now iconic image of Obama that became so important to the campaign—as symbolic of our decade as Robert Indiana's Love was to the 60’s—the attention given him now is well-deserved. I knew about Fairey’s work through my son, Matt, and last year suggested to TIME that they commission him to do a portrait of the 2007 Person of the Year, Vladimir Putin, which ran on the inside of the magazine:

Vladimir Putin by Shepard Fairey for TIME, 2007

This year TIME invited Fairey to do another image of Obama (see video) for the cover, and it's every bit as strong as the first--and updated, more "now" than last year's poster. What I especially like about Fairey’s new fame--in this time of fallout from extreme greed--is that it stems from an image he gave away (which is why I think the current copyright flap won't hold water--as a picture-researcher friend, put it: "Since the poster/image took on a life of it's own, was 'used' by so many people without even Fairey's permission... how could one begin to determine a use fee?").

Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey for TIME, 2008

And now the ICA in Boston (so critized above) is on its way to redeeming itself in my eyes by being smart enough to mount the first museum survey of Fairey's work, which opens tomorrow and runs through August 16th.


Anonymous said...

I can readily identify with what you are saying. There is so much art being produced today and what is selected to be shown is often overhyped and vapid. The new Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver has abolished wall text and it is very refreshing. It respects the viewer by suggesting that they should come to their own conclusions about what they see and not be told. The artists are asked to suggest or can contribute some books, dvds, and other things to a shelf in the library where you can see what interests them.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your assessment of wall text. I enjoy making art, talking about art, and reading about art. Wall text is like bonus material on a DVD: while I can watch the movie without it, the behind-the-scenes footage adds to my experience! Of course a work should have the ability to stand on its own, but anything that can tell me what the artist is inspired by, thinking about, or interested in can only add to the conversation. Your statement that the "artist's intention holds little interest for me" is disappointing!


Anonymous said...

Fairey Use

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you, Brian, for your comment. For more background, I'd be delighted if you'd read some of my other posts under the labels "Art rhetoric" and "Artists statements" and then tell me what you think.

On the surface, it would seem that more information would be a good thing. However it has increasingly become a stand-in for the art, a justification, a way of pumping it up to give substance to work that is lacking.

For visitors to a museum, the wall text becomes the lens through which they view the work. Once you've read the opinion of an "expert", it's hard to see things any other way. I'm heartened to learn from Katharine that the MCA in Denver is taking another approach.

I'd like to see a situation where visitors could contribute their own opinions, so they could see how variously a work can be interpreted, and realize that their reaction, however ingenuous, could be valid.

I'm for methods of education that encourage people to see for themselves, that increases their awareness. For me, art is about experience, not information.

It is the same with the artist's "intention," which is a story that exists outside the work of art and again, is often used to give meaning to work that lacks it. I believe art should be able to stand on its own without such explication.

LXV said...

Dear Carol,
Sorry you are feeling so poorly about the art world this winter. Sounds as though you need a real blast of beauty. As you are also a musician, I'm sure you have plenty of resources, but may I suggest: put on a recording of Rosenkavelier and bask in the sublime caterwaul of the last act. Those fabulous harmonies and voice crossings of the three women...

I'm with you on the Cindy Sherman. I saw this new work and had also recently seen a whole slew of old ones at a LACMA retro. Her work leaves me cold and sad. To me, the hallmark of great art is generosity (the artists themselves may be self-involved sonsoabitches), but the work has to give something, to make a vital connection with the souls of others, and hers does not. They have an aggravating "look at me quality" (of which the apparent crudenesses figure largely as a stylistic device) but it is a rather leaden brand of social comment which ultimately, bores me silly.

You had me falling out of my chair at: " that suggests that because Donovan has figured out a way to make a cube out of metal sewing pins, she’s part of a lineage that includes Donald Judd—with whom she has about as much in common as Santa Claus." Thanks for a good belly-laugh. I wrote a whole lot more, but I'll end up putting it in my blog because it got too rambly for your Comments column

Rob said...

You make some good points and I am sure the global economic meltdown should help resolve your malaise about modern art. Big money has probably had a negative impact the creative process. Artists need to make a living but when money is being thrown around for uninspired work, it is easy for artist to do what people want rather than what inspires them. How many animals did Damien Hirst stick in a tank of formaldehyde? Once, maybe twice, it is art, after that it is just an artist making a living off a feeding frenzy. Looking at some recent art you get the feeling that some artist really don't respect their collectors. Not that I blame them for making a buck but with less money out there, it should refocus where the inspiration comes from.

deb said...

just wanted to share that I have never understood the raving over Sherman either...

and as an art maker I hate writing statements, who cares what I thought, you (the viewer) will reinterpret it anyway

Ebriel said...

Great post as always, Carol. You're a thoughtful lens into the NYC artworld for those of us who live elsewhere.

(Some of your commentary on this one inspired a post from me: )

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