Monday, May 25, 2009

Younger than Jesus at the New Museum

It’s touchy when a member of one generation attempts to criticize the work of a younger one, and easy to assume that the oldsters don't get it because they’ve become out-of-touch fuddy-duddies—like those hoary old Abstract Expressionists who, with the exception of de Kooning, quit the Sidney Janis Gallery en masse after the first showing of Pop Art. However the difference is that historical youthful insurgencies represented a striking break from the past, where here the under-thirty-three-year-olds, at least as selected for the New Museum's "Younger than Jesus" survey, are making watered-down facsimiles of the work of their elders such as Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, and Jessica Stockholder (along with a living, breathing woman sleeping in a bed on the gallery floor, an idea that seems more than 50 years too late)—the result of overactive graduate programs worldwide that have caused so-called rebellion to become codified and unchanging for the last decade and more. The parlance is almost incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been indoctrinated, and those who are familiar with the buzzwords may not be willing to play the guessing game (or read the wall text) to find out what the experience is supposed to be about.

With few exceptions (the one for me being Cyprien Gaillard’s 30-minute video Desniansky Raion—fueled by the electro-pop music of Koudlam, it’s a hypnotic ballet of images of social devastation wreaked by public housing) much of "Younger than Jesus" looks like an extreme version of Show and Tell (if anyone does actually make something, it's with tongue implanted in cheek) which might not be surprising for an age-group raised on praise. As one of my graduate students at SVA put it, “Everything we did was put up on the refrigerator.” MFA programs have continued the praise game—or at least the encouragement game—because to discourage a student would be to cut off a significant source of revenue.

Clip from Cyprien Gaillard's Desniansky Raion

Through its music we know that this generation has verve, energy, and innovation to burn, coming up in the world at a time when technology has not only extended music-making capability, but liberated music distribution from the corporate stranglehold—while visual art remains filtered and controlled by institutions driven by agendas that have little to do with quality. The lowered bar and limited lens has to be discouraging to those twenty-something visual artists who have something new and valid to contribute (some of whom—like Kehinde Wiley—may, gasp, still take painting seriously). Historically art has tended to thrive when real estate prices are low (New York’s Downtown scene in the eighties, the more recent migration of artists to low-rent Berlin), so if we’re lucky, the economic downturn will result in increased opportunities for artists to take things into their own hands.

I’m not sure what—other than a sensationalist marketing tool—the reference to Jesus is all about, but another comparison might be “older than Artemisia Gentileschi” –who made this painting at 16:
Susanna and Her Elders (1610) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)


cjagers said...


Thank you for speaking up on this ... I think MANY people shrugged their shoulders at that show (for the reasons you elegantly describe) ... but felt pressure to like it because of the marketing blitz and Saltz' seeming blessing. And you did it in such an educational way, without being mean ... that is very important these days. Your fresh air continues to be appreciated.

CAP said...

As usual in these over-inclusive survey shows (even with an arbitrary age limit), it ends up saying more about the curators than any actual state of play in the art scene.

But the art world being what it is, critics refrain from dumping on the curators (unless it happens to be someone like Rob Storr, who we presume is fire-proof) and instead blame the artists. But this is to tacitly accept the selection!

These people do not represent recent developments, nor any plausible age demographic! As the curators readily admit, their selection was little more than an extended exercise in local networking.

Under-33 yr olds are not limited to this cosy social circle - much less recent developments in art. The show deserved to be slammed for laziness and simple-mindedness, but because its a pet like The New Museum, criticism is wrongly directed elsewhere.

CAP said...

See also here @ Art Review online.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks for this, CAP, I completely agree.

highlowbetween said...

Excellent Carol - on point.

Katharine Smith-Warren said...

I found you comments right on the mark and linked it on my blog plus sent the link to several friends.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks! Glad you agree.

Faris said...

This essay is completely spot on, and sadly why I almost never go to galleries in Los Angeles anymore. I hope this recession somehow forces young artists to abandon the endgames and make something that's important to them without the approval of gallery owners/critics/teachers/etc. It seems to me art schools (probably not on purpose) mandate a tone which young artists can adopt to insure making an impression on their teachers or on art dealers who lurk around the studio halls. I saw a lecture by David Salle years ago on Pictorialism and Presentationalism (or something to that effect), and I couldn't help but think young artists tend to focus too much on presentation and not enough on creation. Great post!