Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Use it or lose it

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it -- Adage

After a much-needed blog break, the urge to vent finally overcame me after a recent visit to MoMA, where I went looking for inspiration (isn’t that the only reason artists visit museums?) and ended up feeling cranky and alienated. Has it finally happened, I wondered, that I’ve turned into the old fogey who doesn’t get the new art? Well I may definitely be an old fogey, but if I’m cranky it’s not because the art is so new, but because it’s so old. What really got me was the “environmental and participatory sound installation” in the MoMA atrium, “a monumental, voluminous construction made of soft, white, translucent material that hangs from ceiling to floor and takes the shape of an elliptical labyrinth.” I immediately thought of the piece by Àngels Ribé that I saw in Barcelona this summer (cited in an earlier post), a monumental, voluminous construction made of transparent PVC that hung from ceiling to floor and took the shape of an elliptical labyrinth—which Ribé first made 42 years ago when the MoMA artist, a Brazilian named Carlito Carvalhosa, was eight years old.

But wait…the MoMA piece has a “sound” aspect: “a system of microphones hangs from various heights and records the day’s ambient noise, which is played back the following day through several speakers” something that might seem interesting when described in wall text or a press release, but in real life makes zero impact. The first time I experienced anything like that was at Chicago’s N.A.M.E. Gallery circa 1973 when a local artist recorded the sound occurring in one part of the gallery and played it back in another. I didn’t know about Bruce Nauman at the time, but I’m guessing he was beginning to work with sound then too—when Carvalhosa would have been twelve.

The global art world is flooded with hothouse conceptual art much like this, which Jerry Saltz recently coined the “International School of Silly Art.” Born in institutions, and exhibited in institutions, mechanical and denatured, it has the look but not the guts of its predecessors. Neither building on a tradition nor reacting to one, it exists in a vacuum—a rehashing of history without being part of it.

On the other hand, as I’ve pointed out before, the music of the same generation is alive and well and living in this century. Young musicians have absorbed the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, synthesized it and made it their own. Also to make music you can’t just say you’re a musician but must learn an actual skill, and I fervently believe that the honing of a skill—a practice (a word Peter Schjeldahl hates when applied to visual art, but I like because it implies necessary repetition)—slows down the creative process and allows the time and space for idiosyncrasy to emerge.

This is why Marina Abramović’The Artist is Present was completely effective, where the recreations of the older pieces that accompanied it were not. Everything Abramović did the past, all her experience—her “practice”—added up to a personal presence that filled the room, something a stand-in who lacked the artist’s peculiar self-training could never approximate, especially when the thrill and risk of doing it for the first time was gone. (It’s curious that Abramović, whose work involves self-awareness, didn’t get this distinction).

But, hmm, maybe the über-liberals of the art world are just following a societal trend that includes the Republicans, who rewrite history every day without batting an eye. If we can do something lame and make everyone believe it’s new, important and exciting, why work harder?

I’m not arguing for new or old, but the development of ideas and forms—any idea, any form—that takes art beyond the mundane, is something I think about the next day and am eager to revisit. Saltz again, in a 2008 interview, challenged artists to make something that seems “to put off more energy than might have gone into making it. A good Pollock,” he continued, “is like the burning bush: It burns but doesn’t burn out. You don’t use it up.”

Up until October 8th at Meulensteen in Chelsea  (formerly Max Protetch) are the small acrylic paintings on metal of Ann Pibal who, while just five years Carvalhosa’s senior, has clearly thoroughly studied and digested the history of a nearly century-old form—geometric abstraction—to create work that's  fresh and of its timewhich is just what we want: art that doesn’t replicate history, but makes it.

Satisfaction is rare, but it does happen.

Ann Pibal, MNGO, 2010, acrylic on aluminum, 12 1/2 x 17 3/4", courtesy of the artist and Meulensteen, NY.

Ann Pibal, SPTR, 2010, acrylic on aluminum, 11 1/4 x 15 3/4", courtesy of the artist and Meulensteen, NY.

5 comments:

Brenda Goodman said...

carol - such a great article. i so much agree with you. in the 60's when i was in art school we just drew thumb-nail still-lifes for 6 months before we were allowed to pick up a paint brush and months and months of just using earth colors before using color. it took 11 years before a personal language emerged in my painting. practice. so many young artists try so hard for something unique and original like a week after they start making art that there is no room to give birth to anything interesting.

James Lourie said...

Thank you thank you thank you. You said it, I didn't. :-)

Carole said...

Well said. Thank you.

sean greene said...

So glad to read this. Makes me feel like my feet are back on the ground, instead of feeling like I just don't get it.
> Thank YOU!!!

Kenney Mencher said...

In grad school there was a beautiful young woman who was looking through slides in the slide library. She was a teaching assistant for studio, I was one for art history. I started my rap, "That's pretty cool that you're using art historical examples for your drawing class."

She replied, "Yeah, but I don't like to show them too much stuff too often. If they know to much about the past, I feel like that other painters imagery will influence them too much and they'll repeat it."

I decided not to ask her out.