Monday, March 12, 2012

Curmudgeon

Sometimes I think it’s my job to be the contrarian, although that hardly applies where Gerhard Richter is concerned. His work and philosophy have long inspired me, so it was a special pleasure to see Corinna Belz’s film, “Gerhard Richter Painting,” which confirmed everything I always wanted to believe about the artist. Belz has great understanding, both visual and intellectual, and strikes just the right note, which films about art hardly ever do. I won’t say more, because I’m most likely reviewing the film elsewhere, except to urge you to see it (even twice, as I did) at Film Forum, where it opens on Wednesday and runs through the 27th.


Also I learned, from watching Richter doing interviews in the film, how to answer impossible questions.  Which of his painting styles does he prefer? “It varies,” he says. What is his response to fame? “It varies.”  So helpful! Now when people ask me how much time I spend in the country or the city, I can say, “It varies.” Which do I enjoy most, painting or writing? “It varies.”

So now for the curmudgeon part—are you sitting down? Prepared for a terrible shock?  Okay, here goes…I am not a fan of Cindy Sherman. This is almost as huge as admitting I liked some of Damien Hirst’s spots, but I have always thought of Sherman’s work not as feminist, but anti-female, even mocking—clichés of women as established by the male world. Unlike the women I care about, her permutations are not warm, nurturing, sympathetic, or even sexual.  Would you choose any of them to be your best friend? I didn’t think so.

I may also be prejudiced because I 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 still strikes me as ageist, sexist, and just plain mean. (I’m plagiarizing myself here, as I wrote about this in an earlier post.)

Eleanor Antin, The King, 1972 (image from the Web)

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

And on, curmudgeonly, to Doug Wheeler’s sleeper show of the year, which had people braving the winter chill, lining up around the block to be admitted into the David Zwirner gallery, five at a time.  Before going further, I want to make it clear that I found the piece admirable, and waited to write about it because I didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s experience of it. If there’s a single form of art that has engaged me to the point of indefatigable research, it's this, “light and space” as it is called, the art of atmospheric environment, as exemplified by the work of Robert Irwin, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell—as well as Fred Sandback, whose work, though not directly involved with light, engages the viewer in similar ways.

One of the things that impressed me most about Olafur’s famous weather project at the Tate Modern, is how he gave thought to every aspect of the experience, from the pre-publicity and catalogue (neither of which contained images or descriptions of the work, to the length of its run (when asked by the museum to keep it up longer, he refused).  Through my study of his work I took on this hyper-criticality, which has contributed to my campaign against artist’s statements and museum wall text, as they often to serve to direct and limit how work is experienced. So, for instance, while I admire Turrell, I began to see his requirement that viewers remove their shoes and put on Tyvek booties before entering certain installations, as a not only part of the experience, but an unpleasant one—even a form of subjugation on the artist’s part, as they make you look stupid.

I also dislike having to circumvent black curtains or don headphones.

So for me, the Doug Wheeler experience began with Ken Johnson’s rave review in the Times, after which everyone was talking about it, then the happily chatty and anticipatory cue along West 19th Street, which began forming at least a half hour before the gallery opened. Once being allowed to enter the building, five at a time (throughout we were attended by a bevy of friendly, courteous gallery assistants, each more beautiful than the next), we were ushered into a room to wait our turn, sitting on wooden folding chairs (or in my case, a scarily wobbly shared bench next to the wall) arranged in a square so that we faced each other, as in Quaker meeting.

From there, again five at a time, we were invited leave our bags in a pile, take off our shoes and put on white booties similar to Turrell’s, which folded around our ankles like oversize institutional house slippers.

But then there was the space Wheeler created. With no evidence of floor, ceiling, or walls, it was like being suspended in air. When we went in, the slowly changing light was white. I tiptoed as far as I could go, stopping, as instructed, when the floor sloped up, and stood immersed, as if by fog.

My friend, Roberto, remarked that it was like being in heaven.

Photo: David Zwirner Gallery

Heaven, yes, but with refugees from an insane asylum, as everyone was moving slowly and their booties caused them to shuffle. The effect of the lighting was so much like that of seamless photography background paper that everyone looked like part of a fashion shoot, and thus highlighted became inadvertent performers.

Roberto and I became fascinated with a young woman in our midst who was shuffling about in a particularly distracted way. Everything about her was slack—her mouth hung slightly open, rumpled clothing fell loosely over her heavy frame, and her hair looked as if she just gotten out of bed—in marked contrast to the art students she came with and the fashionable gallerinas. Roberto dubbed her Sloppy Girl. “Meds,” he whispered to me. Who was she? What was she doing there? Was she going to be okay?

Ultimately Sloppy Girl is what we remember and still talk about—not, perhaps what the artist intended.

(Also note that the people in the publicity shot above, courtesy of the gallery, are NOT wearing booties.)

3 comments:

Ravenna Taylor said...

good post! By the way, I'm also resistent to donning headphones in galleries. Something unseemly about it, and too often they smell icky.

Joanne Mattera said...

Carol,
Thank you for giving voice to everything I feel about Sherman and her work. I'm no fan of the wealthy ladies with too much makeup and jewelry in real life, so I do get her point, but Sherman's versions were made by a young woman with no sympathy or understanding for a culture that is not kind to women, and less kind still to women past middle age. (If all those ladies have is looks, no wonder they are trying so hard.) I'm curious to see, now that Sherman is heading into the other side of middle age (born 1954), if she will continue to create her mockeries--indeed, if she will be able to. I will say that I'm interested to see what come next.

Kristine said...

Thank you so much for this post. Sometimes there is much ado about so little and the reverse is also true.