Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Car Buyers Want
To the Editor:
Again, Detroit gets it wrong. Rather than acting on the societal message that cars are no longer seen as fashion accessories, General Motors, by focusing on surface, is trying to entice young consumers into just that.
Instead, the automobile industry should follow Apple, Ikea and Uniqlo, which have married function, form and cost to come up with products that appeal to all age groups.
Forget the outrageous colors, which Apple eschews. What young people need and want — what everyone needs and wants — is an inexpensive, super-efficient car that’s a pleasure to look at and drive, like an iPod on wheels.
  Housatonic, Mass., March 26, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

From the Devil's workshop

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Issac Asimov, from a column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)

When this image went around on Facebook a while ago, it annoyed me; unattributed as it was (you know how I feel about that!), I guessed (no doubt correctly) that it was created by an artist using PhotoShop to mine the cultural divide.

However a friend, who works at the Berkshire Museum, recently sent me a link to an online publication, The Curator, and the essay,  “On the validity of the Vogel collection” by one Sarina Higgins who declares: “I do believe that the Vogel collection is a fraud.” Higgins supports her thesis with shadowy photos of  “a few geometrical lines drawn on paper with colored pencils, a triangle of steel in the corner of the baseboards, a series of pieces of notebook paper with a few drops of watercolor paint” taken with a point-and-shoot camera.

On its “About” page, The Curator denies being a religious publication (which means it is, or there would be no reason to deny it).

Instead, like its parent organization, IAM (International Arts Movement), the publication says it’s geared toward “people of faith” with a desire to create “the world as it ought to be”—a world that clearly does not include the Vogel collection, Marina Abramovic or, by extension, most modern art from Malevich on.

The Curator also explicitly claims “no singular affinity toward ‘highbrow’ art or ‘pop’ culture.”

About the same time, I read “Haven,” a wonderfully subtle short story by Alice Munro in The New Yorker (March 5, 2012), about a teenage girl and her physician uncle, whose antipathy toward classical music causes a breach in the family:

            “Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do this?”
            I said no, and it was the truth. I had never known them to go to a concert, though they were in favor of concerts in general.
            “See? They’ve got too much sense, your parents. Too much sense to join all these people who are fussing and clapping and carrying on, like it’s just the wonder of the world. You know the kind of people I mean? They’re lying. A load of horse manure. All in the hope of appearing high class.  Or more likely, giving in to their wives’ hope to appear high class. Remember that when you get out into the world, O.K.?

It all makes me think that the differences between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, may be more than political, even a matter of neurology, as some have suggested. Or it could simply be that there are people who thrive on nuance, ambiguity, complexity and paradox, while others are fearful of anything, including art (and possibly democracy), which poses questions to which there are no concrete answers.

I offer no solutions.

Monday, March 12, 2012


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.)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Statements and interviews....

In the interest of raising the bar on artists statements, I've decided to post all I come across that fulfill my basic parameters, which you will remember are:

An artist’s statement should be fun to read, and shed no light whatsoever on the intention, content, or experience of the work.

Therefore this from Barbara Barg, who I know from the poetry world:

Barg was the first being born out of formless chaos. For billions of years, Barg grew in a cosmic egg, working ceaselessly to create order by separating her clear yang from her turbid yin. The clear became the egg white, the turbid the yolk. 

After incubating for billions of years, Barg hatched from the egg and laid down to rest. Her breath became the wind, her voice the thunder. Her left eye became the sun, her right eye the moon. Her limbs and trunk became the mountain ranges. Her blood became the rivers, her flesh the fertile soil. Her hair became the stars and the Milky Way, her fur the trees and forests. Her teeth and bones became metals and minerals. The marrow of her bones became jade and pearls. Her sweat became the rain and the dew. And when the wind blew, the fleas on her fur became fish and animals. Then, feeling well-rested, she got up and wrote some poems.

So now that we’ve gotten artist’s statements out of the way, let me vent a bit on another prose genre—the interview—which I’ve always considered a low form of journalism. Andy Warhol made interviews famous, but he loved vacuity, and that’s fine when one celeb is asking questions of another and no one is pretending to be a writer or even serious. In art magazines, however, interviews often come across as a legitimized excuse for the writer to get out of actually writing something, or even doing their homework (“Where did you grow up?”), with little more insight than we’d get from a press release. I remember starting to read one interview with an artist whose work I was not familiar with, where the first question was, “How does it feel to be back in New York?” Needless to say, I turned the page.

However I love being proved wrong. Recently I read an interview that showed me that the format can be used to generate more insight than a straight article ever could. Coincidentally it happens to be by son, Matt, with David Lynch—in Interview magazine.