Sunday, December 12, 2021

On art writing--yesterday and today

The other day, during a studio visit, the discussion turned to the sad state of art criticism, and I had to admit that my enthusiasm for writing about art for any venue has waned—and this has to do with a change in the attitudes of editors and, I guess, publishers, where the trust and freedom (as well as resources) allowed to writers in earlier times no longer exists. Consider that in the ‘90s, writing for Art and Antiques, I could just go interview an artist who interested me and see what happened, make it into something, a story not necessarily tied to a particular event. Or I’d have an idea, like ask four artists how they happened on the singular artistic vehicles that defined their work—Nam June Paik, James Rosenquist, Louise Nevelson, George Segal—and just go for it. Later, I wrote for Art In America where, in 1999, with an agreement but no particular deadline, I could follow Robert Irwin around for the whole year it took to grasp and distill his philosophy into a cover story that Jenny Moore of the Chinati Foundation told me not long ago she uses to introduce visitors to his work. Then, in 2004, there was another fabulous six months visiting Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin and seeing as much of his work as possible in England, Iceland, Norway, and Germany (mostly paid for by the magazine)—following his ground-breaking installation at the Tate Modern that put the artist and the museum on the map. This was long before Olafur had any survey exhibitions, and given that his work consisted of one-offs that could only be evaluated in person, a comprehensive article could not be written otherwise. Now, it’s not only financial restrictions that intervene. An article must be scheduled for a particular issue, but to get even that far, you must submit a proposal outlining in advance what you’re planning to say. Well, I don’t write to express what I already think. I write to find out what I think. So f*ck it. The following is a piece I did on Louise Bourgeois for Art and Antiques in 1995, which started in a serendipitous way. Louise hated interviews, so the minute I arrived with my tape recorder, she tried to put me off by saying I should get a particular book about her that included a number of quotations and come back and ask her about them. In one of the more satisfying moments of my writing life, I sat down, unzipped my backpack, and pulling out the list of quotes I’d prepared in just that way, asked, “Shall we begin?” After that we were friends, and the article became a true collaboration. MEMORY AND MEANING: LOUISE BOURGEOIS REFLECTS ON YESTERDAY AND TODAY

Friday, March 12, 2021

ARTSPEAK, continued

Among the objections to my “Artspeak” piece (leading to it being posted here and on Facebook on 3/1) instead of the art publication for which it was intended) was that I spent too much time “going after” Adriana Varejão’s corrupt ex-husband, Bernardo Paz, who built a pavilion for the Gagosian artist’s work in his art park, and that his “financial malfeasance has little to do with how the muddying of the language marketing the work helps sell it.” I was told that more than “one sentence” about it would “read to others as mean or vindictive.”

Let’s not be too hard on the venal, okay?
And we wonder why the art world is the way it is. And why the world is the way it is.
Could I be the only one who sees irony in the fact that this shady monied background supported an artist who describes her art using the language of the “woke” as if to represent the oppressed classes? (i.e. her work being based, as the press release states, on “hybridity,” “decolonizing subjectivities” “mythic pluralism,” and “transnational exchange”).
Meanwhile, I came across this riveting Bloomberg article from 2018, which begins by telling how, after 9/11, Paz rushed to NYC as the Twin Towers were burning to take advantage of the horror and chaos to buy art on the cheap, only part of an account of financial audacity that boggles the mind. The guy rivals Trump in his cheek but has better taste in art, which is what has redeemed him thus far.
In my piece I quote a 2020 ARTnews article reporting that Paz was acquitted of money laundering charges, with his lawyer saying that it’s unlikely the government would appeal given that “the laundering occurred through a criminal organization that wasn’t part of Brazilian law until 2013, and the alleged wrongdoing happened some six years prior” —to which the lawyer adds, “Justice was done.” And I’m worried about artspeak?

Bernardo Paz, 2016.

Friday, March 5, 2021

ARTSPEAK: Who needs it?

Recently, I posted to Facebook this artists’ statement in the Gagosian Gallery’s February 17th press release about sculptor/painter Adriana Varejão:
"My work is always in the territory of hybridity. All of my content is built in terms of decolonizing subjectivities, because it deals with countless cultural references, not only from official history, but also from many other hidden or obscured histories that lie at the margins."
As anyone who has read my blog or Facebook posts is aware, I’ve long crusaded against artspeak to the point that a few years ago, in the Guggenheim Museum, railing obviously all too audibly to a friend about the wall text, a woman near me asked, “Are you Carol Diehl?” But this press release was over the top—and the more than 100 comments on my post let me know I was not alone in my reaction.
The gallery, however, must have realized that more explanation was needed, so they extrapolated:
"Varejão’s rich and diverse oeuvre embodies the mythic pluralism of Brazilian identity and the complex social, cultural, and aesthetic interactions that created it. Based in Rio de Janeiro, Varejão draws upon a potent visual legacy informed by the stories of colonialism and transnational exchange to create a confluence of forms that exposes the multivalent nature of representation, history, and memory."
The release includes a portrait of the very photogenic Varejão, her eyes gazing up soulfully into the camera as she reclines in her studio on a leather couch adorned with accidental/intentional paint handprints, surrounded by the detritus of art-making, randomly positioned to indicate the busy workplace of a serious artist whose work is worth a lot of money—and indeed, as her Wikipedia page informs us, she holds the auction record for a Brazilian artist with a $1.8 million sale in 2011. The release included no image of her painting because it is from a new and yet unseen series that will be revealed…dum-de-dum-dum… a week hence on the Gagosian website and available for sale for 48 hours only—accompanied by a short film featuring a time-lapse sequence documenting the making of the support for a tile painting, “the first time the artist has ever revealed her working process to the public eye.”
The suspense is killing me.
Meanwhile, research reveals a backstory. Varejão used to be married to one Bernardo Paz, a Brazilian art collector (ARTnews “Top 200”), mining magnate, and creator of the Instituto Imhotim, a nature preserve that contains one of the largest outdoor art centers in Latin America, featuring art by internationally celebrated artists and a pavilion dedicated to Varejão’s work. In 2017, Paz was sentenced to jail for nine years and three months for money laundering related to the institute. Later, Frieze reports, other allegations about Paz’s business practices came forth, including claims of violating environmental law and use of child labor in his charcoal production business, causing him to ultimately resign from the Imhotim’s board and cede ownership of important works. In February, 2020, ARTnews reported that Paz was acquitted of the money-laundering charges and although the government can still appeal, Paz’s lawyer said it was unlikely they would, given that “the laundering occurred through a criminal organization wasn’t part of Brazilian law until 2013, and the alleged wrongdoing happened some six years prior.”
But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yes, confounding statements, which are particularly mystifying when coming from Gagosian, who can afford the best writers in the world. However artist David Levine, who has studied the artspeak phenomenon, suggests in the Guardian that it could have a commercial application: “The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work, the more you can keep the value high."
Ah, so chances are Gagosian’s use of artspeak is intentional, just another means of protecting a work’s monetary value—and perhaps increasing it by sounding politically current and “woke” (anything that includes the words “colonialism” or “pluralism”) while vending an artist who is clearly not of the underclass, and promoting transactions in an unregulated market that functions to exacerbate income disparity.
Artspeak has been around a long time, but it now seems particularly egregious, yet another fiction thrown at us as truth in an era where we are drowning in a tsunami of hype and propaganda. If anything qualifies as “fake news,” this press release is it. I recall Adam Curtis’s prescient 2016 film, “HyperNormalisation,” the title a term coined by a Russian professor of anthropology, Alexei Yurchak, who emigrated to the United States. In his 2006 book, "Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More," Yurchak wrote about the paradoxes of Soviet life in the 1970s and 1980s when, although it was clear that the system was failing, no one could conceive of an alternative, and therefore went along with the status quo. Eventually the fakeness became accepted as real—hence hypernormalisation.
Today’s hazy mental climate of illusion and delusion requires that we keep critically observant while constantly asking ourselves, what is reality? – even as it seems to slip further from our grasp. However, should it be of some comfort, one thing is absolutely certain: if and when reality does decide to present itself, it will not come shrouded in a cloak of decolonized subjectivity and hybridity.


Note: Adam Curtis's film, Hypernormalisation can be watched on YouTube here.

Photo: Adriana Varejão in her studio, courtesy of Gagoisan Gallery.

Carol Diehl (c) 2021

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Banksy and the Art Market: The Downside of Anonymity


Being anonymous has its perks (not getting arrested for vandalism, for instance) but also its complications. For Banksy, it means that there are exhibitions in his name all over the world, raking in no doubt millions of dollars, in which he has no part—hustlers exhibiting work borrowed from collectors, charging up to $49 for admission, while putting up banners with his name on it along the city streets. Banksy has no control over what’s exhibited or how it’s exhibited—nor can he claim any of the income or confirm that the work is indeed genuine. Recently I met a Banksy fan in his 80s, who was going on rapturously about a Banksy exhibition he saw in Amsterdam; I didn’t have the heart to tell him Banksy had nothing to do with it. And in Israel I met a Palestinian artist who was annoyed that Banksy would put on an exhibition in Tel Aviv just as he was opening his hotel in Palestinian Bethlehem, to whom I had to explain that the two weren’t related.

Nor do journalists get it, as in the Euronews coverage of a current 4 ½ month exhibition in Lisbon that read: “The anonymous artist includes his distinctive stencilling technique, sculptors [sic], videos and photographs. This exhibition has already been to Moscow and Madrid attracting more than 600,000 people.”

But no doubt the worst is having one’s work “interpreted” by a “curator” as in, “He is a messenger, he is not somebody who can solve anything, he is not somebody who has the power to solve a problem, he is just showing us the problem, he is a messenger that gives us the message of guys. We have to stop somehow and think about it and then do something about it."  Oh geez.

Even Forbes (which repeats the myth of Banksy’s supposed $20M net worth as if it were fact) seems to find a contradiction in Banksy’s deprecation of the auction market—as when, after three of his works sold in the six figures, Banksy posted a cartoon of an auctioneer selling a framed canvas painted with the words” I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit,” which was in line with his recent painting-shredding caper at Sotheby’s. Few outside the art world (I guess, including Forbes) understand that artists themselves don’t gain when work is sold at auction—but everything is sold on consignment by previous owners, who get all the profit. And while some insist Banksy gains because it inflates the value of the artworks he does sell…well, that might be true if he actually sold stuff. However, since 2008 Banksy has had no commercial gallery representation and has not made anything for the market except some prints for charity. Currently the only way you can buy a Banksy, is to be a guest of his Bethlehem hotel where the tiny bookstore sells unlimited edition prints and small sculptures in the $150-$300 range. Bring your suitcase! And then pray they get through the checkpoint at the wall going back into Israel…but that’s another story.

Banksy, in his website , is clear, listing exhibitions in 19 countries as “Fake” adding : Banksy is NOT on Facebook, Twitter or represented by Steve Lazarides [his former dealer and one of the “fake” exhibition organizers] or any other commercial gallery.”
Pledge to the Kickstarter campaign for my book-in-progress, Banksy: Completed, to be published by The MIT Press in late 2020. Find it here.

Sunday, June 16, 2019


I got the idea to write my book-in-progress, "Banksy: Completed," through conversations on Facebook (thanks, Jerry Saltz!), where I felt the anonymous street artist's work deserved to be taken more seriously by the art world. Therefore, "Banksy: Completed" will be the first in-depth investigation into the significance of his work--published, I'm thrilled to say, by The MIT Press. But since there are no big advances in the academic publishing world--in fact, my contract actually obligates me to expenses--I must fundraise to make it happen.PLEASE JOIN ME! No donation too small (even $1--small pledges increase the number of backers) or too large! Become part of the project as it unfolds and among the first to see BANKSY: COMPLETED when it's published. And please share far and wide!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Another Kehinde Wiley portrait of Obama

The recent official portrait is not the first of Obama by Kehinde Wiley. I’ve always been a fan of the artist, so working at TIME as a consultant on the covers, when it was clear that Obama would be the 2008 Person of the Year, Wiley was at the top of my list. He was ultimately edged out by Shepard Fairey, whose iconic Obama poster made him the logical first choice. In those golden days of TIME, we often commissioned several artists for a single cover—in case, for one reason or another, something didn’t work out. The original artworks of those that did run were ultimately donated to the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, where Wiley’s most recent portrait will also end up.