Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Duchamp updated

If anyone ever wanted proof that art is useful, here it is. Apparently this little fly, etched into the porcelain of the urinals at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, improves aim and thereby reduces spillage by 80%. More here. The choice of image is brilliant, the perfect target. Who, besides Albert Schweitzer, has ever looked at a fly without wanting to hit it?

And since we're on the subject, I'll share this poem. Written by a student for my Senior Seminar at Chicago's Columbia College where I did a term-long stint as a visiting artist in 2004, it's an ode to Duchamp's Fountain:

R. Mutt 1917
Commemoration of the family pet, perhaps?
This drain profane
on its back like an insect
Monsieur Duchamp detours
and shows us its other face.
The sensual curves of this prosaic pot
suggestive of the lowly bedpan
It is no throne, for there is no place to sit.
Vitreous porcelain
Taken for granted until celebrated
Public, yet removed and indestructible
We join at the communal well
to cleanse, to linger, to dream.
Baptism’s sacred font
to purify the sins of the masculine
He is reborn, revived, renewed
Flushing, gushing fluid
Springs forth the liquid
from one fountain to another
Man makes his way, and voids himself of a night’s refreshment.

--Carole Cantrell

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, as photographed by Alfred Steiglitz in 1917.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Art about art

Speaking as I was, earlier, about covers, this may be the ultimate. Jerky, handheld video with audio through my computer's so-so built-in speakers, it still clutches at the heart:

Prince covering Radiohead's "Creep" at Coachella last weekend [via BBP] Wish I'd been there. However in 2003, when son Matt wangled me a single ticket for Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" tour, I drove a couple of hours by myself to the Tweeter Center near Boston, spent at least another hour sitting in concert traffic so that I missed a good portion of the show, but got there in plenty of time to stand in the suffocating August heat and hear Thom Yorke unexpectedly sing "Creep." It was more than worth it.

Green architecture

Le mur vegetal, Musee du Quai Branly. (Photo: Julie Ardery)

I know I'm not supposed to like Jean Nouvel's Musee du Quai Branly just as I'm not supposed to like Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, but for different reasons. Still, I like both, for different reasons, and one of the best parts of the Musee du Quai Branly for me is the "vertical garden" on the facade of the section of the museum that houses staff offices and the way it provides a transition to the neighboring buildings. Now I find out that it's the work of one Patrick Blanc [via C-Monster] who specializes in putting greenery on the face of buildings. Here's my friend Einar Thorsteinn's contribution to the genre:

Iceland, 2006 (Photo: Carol Diehl)

More about vertical gardens in "Green Anchors" in the NY Times.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Olafur Eliasson: Reviews of the MoMA exhibition

Olafur Eliasson, Eye See You, 2006, lamp, installed in a window at Louis Vuitton 5th Avenue & 57th Street, NYC. (Photo: Carol Diehl)

“But I guess he's like James Turrell—you need to experience it to truly appreciate it, pictures and words just ain't gonna cut it.”

This from a comment on my last post about Olafur Eliasson, which made me think of my first post ever, almost a year ago, about how sometimes the knowledge we have about what to expect from art (or anything) can interfere with the actual experience. There I told about how, when I tried to shush up the guy sitting next to me in Turrell’s open-to-the-sky room at PS1 called Meeting (after Quaker meeting, a practice based on meditation), he corrected me by saying, “This piece isn’t about silence, it’s about light.”

In other words, sometimes we get so caught up in what we know about a particular artist’s intentions, or where s/he fits into art history, that we forget to rely on our senses.

So it happens that while one reviewer, Charlie Finch of ArtNet, complains bitterly that Eliasson’s work in his MoMA mid-career survey isn’t aesthetic enough (or at all), Holland Cotter in the NY Times ("Stand Still: A Spectacle Will Happen") suggests that it could be too aesthetic, questioning what he calls “the politics of enchantment.”

It appears that Finch couldn't move past an assessment of the purposefully mundane objects to the ambiance each creates, while Cotter seems fearful of being overly enthusiastic. He writes, for instance, Eliasson's work is “too intent on appealing to our appetite for passive sensation” as well as “intellectually stimulating” --which, if you can get both those things to happen at once, sounds pretty cool.

Referring to Eliasson's involvement with BMW , Cotter finds the work “too readily adaptable to corporate design”—an odd statement, in light of Eliasson's heightened awareness of his place in the consumer culture (see Madeleine Grynsztejn's essay, "(Y)Our Entanglements: Olafur Eliasson, the Museum, and Consumer Culture" in the exhibition catalogue), and I think part of Eliasson’s brilliance is in using corporate commissions to make anti-corporate statements. His 2006 light pieces, installed at Christmastime in the windows of 350 Louis Vuitton stores worldwide, utilized the same acrid color-draining yellow light that’s now in the hallways at MoMA. Entitled Eye See You, the lamps, like giant eyeballs, seemed to spotlight potential shoppers with the question “What are you doing shopping for luxury goods when people are suffering? (Eliasson, who has two adopted Ethiopian children, donated the proceeds to a fund he and his wife established to support relief initiatives in Ethiopia).

And somehow, taking a BMW hydrogen-powered race car, enshrouding it a shroud of steel mesh, mirror-coated stainless steel, and many layers of ice and titling it Your mobile expectations hardly seems to pander to its sponsor. (The piece, which was in the SFMOMA exhibition, didn't travel to New York.)

Olafur Eliasson, Your Mobile Expectations, 2007. (Photo: SFMOMA)

I'm with Peter Schjeldahl who wrote in The New Yorker: "Here's someone for whom beauty is normal. His character suggests both the mental discipline of a scientist with the emotional responsibility of a poet."

The MoMA exhibition is entitled Take your time…on purpose. And you can only experience Eliasson’s work fully by seeing the installations at both MoMA and PS1, only 15 minutes apart on the E and the V. And if, in between, you need sustenance, there’s the downscale and tasty Gaw Gai Thai Express at 23-06 Jackson Ave, LIC, across and a little down the street from PS1. I think it has an orange awning.

For reference:

Steve Psyllos, New York Arts, May 7, 2008

Peter Schjeldahl, "Uncluttered," The New Yorker, April 28, 2008

Holland Cotter, "Stand Still; A Spectacle Will Happen, The New York Times, April 18, 2008

Daniel Kunitz, "In Brilliant Color," The New York Sun, April 18, 2008.

Linda Yablonsky, "Don't Believe Your Eyes: Eliasson's Illusion Act at MoMA, P.S. 1," Bloomberg, April 18, 2008

Charlie Finch, "Fake it 'Til You Make It," Artnet

Cynthia Zarin, "Seeing Things," The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.

Carol Diehl, "Olafur Eliasson at Tanya Bonakdar" (review), Art in America, December, 2006.

Carol Diehl, "Northern Lights," Art in America (cover article), October, 2004.

Madeleine Grynsztjen et. al., Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson (exhibition catalog), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/ Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1968

[Clarity in art writing] is not something one ought to condescend or resort to, simply in the interest of communicating with the general public – it’s something any theorist or critic ought to be striving for at all times. It’s simply best practice as thinking.

This came as part of a long and pithy comment (which includes a 1992 quote from philosopher John Searle : "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself") from CAP on Parsing Martspeak below, and I'm posting it here to make sure it isn't overlooked, as it is at the crux of the entire debate. Reading it I realized that the reason I’m so invested in the subject is because this is the joy of writing about art for me. Some people play Sudoku, I try to figure out what makes Robert Irwin tick.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Parsing martspeak

Bruce Nauman, Double Poke in the Eye II, 1985, neon construction, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Mo.

My post "Impenetrable prose from the Whitney Biennial" clearly hit a nerve, whizzing around the Net in the last couple of weeks before bouncing out into the print media, the subject of “The Lost Art of Writing About Art” by Eric Gibson in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.

Interestingly, except for C-Monster, Tyler Green (who wrote “If I were a contemporary museum director and if I’d just read two weeks of posts about how curatorial writing about contemporary art is an embarrassment to the profession [which it is], I’d give potential hires a writing test”) and Richard Lacayo of TIME Magazine (who called such writing, “a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid to say in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at” for fear of getting it wrong), Gibson and most bloggers responded to my post on curatorial writing as an attack on art writing in general, with which they either agreed or disagreed. Infuriated by Lacayo's ironic call for a "ban"on certain overused terms, Catherine Spaeth, in a post entitled “Being at Ease With Difficulty” defended the academic tone by saying, “the blogger culture lends itself to an anti-intellectualism that has its way of raising its heads in a gang.”

The anti-intellectual label is easily hurled, as is the accusation that anyone who suggests that ideas might be rendered in a readable and understandable manner is somehow calling for a “dumbing down.”

So when Hrag Vartanian states, “If the ideas are complex it is because they often grapple with concepts that resist simplification,” I insist on distinguishing between "simplification" and "clarification." It is not necessary to simplify in order to clarify. Further, I'm suspicious of any idea that can’t be clarified.

Anyway, the issue at hand is not about difficult ideas being made simple, but simple ideas being made difficult.

What I’m calling for is not a “dumbing down” but a “smartening up.” I’m asking for readers of the fatuous phrases that litter artists’ statements, press releases, and museum text not to swallow them whole, but ask themselves: “What is this really saying?” “Does it make sense?” And more, “What does it have to do with the art at hand?”

In an email, Janice Gewirtz, a reader of the Wall Street Journal, thanks me for my criticism of what she coined the “Emperor’s New Biennial” and says, further, “These overblown installations say nothing cogent about the subjects they ostensibly tackle. Rather, they reference ‘pop culture,’ or ‘sexuality,’ or even the notorious ‘fluid communication structures’ (whatever that is) as buzzwords.”

Exactly. That's what I was referring to in my posts here and here about Doris Salcedo’s crack in the floor of London’s Tate Modern, which is billed as “addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.” Sometimes a crack is just a crack.

Idly Googling “artspeak” the other day (procrastination is a wonderful thing), I came across an essay by John Haber, written in 1997, where he nails the origin of this language:

…am I imagining it, or do they blend together—the gallery press release and a parody of management jargon?…. It may have its roots in academia, where scholars hope to share their hesitant insights with students and peers. It may look back to art journals, where critics fumble for words to describe works of art rich in emotions and ideas. However, that is not where artspeak begins, and complaints about it hide its origins all too well.

Worse comes to worse, academics will trip up on their own humanity. Worse comes to worse, they will stumble on insights as unfamiliar and unpronounceable as art itself. Artspeak really starts sometime later, when critical clichés pass through the gallery system and into the marketing departments of major museums, eager for a larger public and bigger institutional gifts.

Promoting art is business,
big business, and money talks. I call its language martspeak.

So perhaps now that it’s been defined for us--the language of two industries, academia and the art market, who have joined together for their mutual economic benefit--when we see it, we'll more easily recognize martspeak for what it is.

Haber continues:

Words never contain a work of art. Words can, though, encourage its reconstruction. They can create small openings in the walls that already exist, so that others may begin to look—and to see….

Art asks one to enter into a broken conversation, a half-overheard dialog between the work and the world. Newcomers to art distrust that demand. Most, often, too they would never know how to begin. A critic’s job is to break the ice.”

Something that all of us who write about art—be it our own or that of others—would be wise to remember.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Olafur Eliasson

“The rainbow I see is not the rainbow you see”—Olafur Eliasson.

My rants about museum wall text and artists' statements come from a strong belief, derived initially from my study of Robert Irwin and his work, in the experience of art being unmediated and individual--that art which truly fulfills its purpose as art, requires no explanation. Olafur Eliasson, who I have also written about extensively, follows in Irwin’s footsteps and takes it one step further, viewing everything--from the publicity around an exhibition and the expectations it raises, to whatever personal interactions occur in the museum as well as the physical situation itself (including temperature, sound, and the presence of other people)--as contributing to the experience of the art. As he said yesterday at the press preview for his mid-career survey, which opens Sunday at MoMA and PS1: “I don’t want to interpret the work for you. My interpretation is not your interpretation.”

His pieces are not accompanied by wall text.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hope for change

Obama poster by Shepard Fairey

The pundits are so worried that we have. at last, a presidential candidate whom a large number of people actually admire. It must be a Communist plot.
You can read Meghan Daum's entire idiotic LA Times article about Shepard Fairey's Obama poster (really, I didn't know David Brooks wrote for the LA Times under an assumed name) or just cut to Bill Gusky's sensible response.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Snartorialist

The Sartorialist, who I check in with daily, has a hard row to hoe. He takes a picture like this one, yesterday, and in the comments someone complains that the dress is "wrinkled” (hey, he’s a street photographer; people actually stand up and sit down in these clothes) and “gaps at the bust” (cutely, I think). My own brush with fashion fame came several years ago. On one of the most horrid hot humid days ever in New York, I was on Fifth Avenue with my Chinese paper parasol when a man with a camera ran up and snapped it in my face. I said, nastily, “You can’t do that” and he said, just as nastily, “I wasn’t taking a picture of you, I was taking a picture of Tiffany’s window behind you.” I got about three more blocks before realizing that he was Bill Cunningham from the Times and when I got home, wrote him a short apology, saying that I mistook him for a rude tourist from Iowa. I forgot about it completely until several Sundays later when I was meeting a friend who had with her a copy of the Times—and there I was, in a layout about parasols, snarling under mine. That week I received a print of the picture in the mail and a note from Cunningham who wrote, “It’s the tourists from Iowa who are the polite ones. I was undone by the sight of you with your parasol” –more gracious than I deserved. The picture is somewhere in the gazillion boxes that are still unpacked after my move of a year and a half ago—when I unearth it (if they still have blogs then) I'll post it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

In her hilarious (because it’s so true) post of yesterday, “Extremism! The horror!” Pretty Lady admits to “sympathetic ties to all manner of extremists.” But c’mon, we all have our limits. I’m waiting for the day when she meets someone who thinks Damien Hirst is the greatest artist of our time.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Overheard in Chelsea

Man on cell phone: "I like China for you, but I also like the idea of....."

Fun with words

Now Benign Girl has matched fashion visuals with my selection of quotes from the Whitney Biennial p.r. --an example of true blogospherical collaboration:

...Thomson's inherently conversational practice both gamely Pop-ifies its often antiaesthetic historical precedents and resituates that generation's thought experiments in the social realm. (Suzanne Hudson on Mungo Thomson)

... Bove's "settings" draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty, where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings." (Jeffrey Kastner on Carol Bove)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Reality check

Whenever you find yourself thinking that the art world is actually important, check in with Joel and family on his blog, Life of a Farm:

Impenetrable prose, continued

The dialogue goes on in the comments on Catherine Spaeth’s post entitled "Being at Ease with Difficulty" where she takes issue with what she calls TIME critic Richard Lacayo’s (see yesterday's post) "call for censorship" :

Short of requiring by law that all wall texts be written in haiku—try cramming “problematize” into that little compartment—I’m not sure what can be done about this….Here might be a modest way to start. Let whoever edits museum catalogues—does anyone edit them?—ban just these five words, which are arranged into rhetorical daisy chains in every other catalogue I see.

1. Interrogates
2. Problematizes
3. References (as a verb)
4. Transgressive
5. Inverts

To those I would add “juxtaposition” and “informed” as in “his work is informed by…”

You are free to add your own.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

On his TIME magazine blog, culture critic Richard Lacayo writes this in response to my Tuesday post, which he found “funny/depressing”:

Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful? Why is it so clogged with the decrepit formulations of academic artspeak? Why does so much of it sound like it was written by an anxious schoolkid delivering a labored term paper?

My first assumption is that there’s a generation of curators who went to college and grad school in the 1980s and ‘90s, when the congested language of Deconstruction, Critical Studies and so on still seemed important, intrepid, and even a little glamorous. I get the impression that even if a budding art writer wasn’t fully committed to those lines of inquiry, the incredibly turgid writing they produced infected the academy in all directions.

But the industrial strength rhetoric of so much museum writing is also, I suspect, a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid to simply say out loud and in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at.
What if they get it wrong? Better to fall back on clichés that stand in for thought without furthering it.

Finally bad writing is just insider talk. It’s not directed to the public at all, but pitched to the coterie of other curators and academics who use jargon to signal to one another their initiation into the world of…jargon.

Read complete article

Richard Lacayo in TIME on the Whitney Biennial

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Trippy as the Whitney's prose is (see 3/28 post), I’m beginning to see that it opens up interesting linguistic possibilities in terms of new words or uses—such as as “Pop-ifies,” which seems to mean “makes like Pop art.” Now if you were to apply the ending to other art movements, such as Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism (Minimal-ifies? Minimalism-ifies?) it could get a little clunky—however I can see its literary applications. For instance, when we were talking about style at our art blogger’s panel at the Red Dot Fair on Sunday, Edward Winkleman said that a publication, having seen his blog, asked him to write something for them and then complained that it was too “bloggy.” Perhaps he should have Whitnified it a bit, just as the Whitney’s essays might have been improved with a little blogification.

Then there’s “spectatorial”--as in a “unified spectatorial vantage point” which I take to mean a “unified spectator vantage point” but with better clothes. However my absolute favorite is “problematizing” for which I can see myriad uses in the vernacular, and is certainly more concise than “making mountains out of mole hills.” You could say, “I had to leave the meeting because of all the problematizing that was going on” and everyone would know exactly what you meant. And don’t we all know people who are problematizers and never had a word for it? Or maybe I’ve just been in that interstitial space between understanding and confusion far too long.

It's all Chinese...really.

Painting by Su Xinping, courtesy Stux Gallery. I used this in an earlier post and don't know if it's a Chinese guy going up or a white guy going down, but it seems to illustrate the moment.

"Holy shit," son Matt writes in an email this morning, "this New York Times piece by Roger Cohen ['It's the end of the era of the white man'] so captures what I experienced in China." As well as what I felt after hearing about his trip, perusing Chinese art in Chelsea, visiting the Asian Art Fair, and doing research on Chinese artists for TIME. So when I read David Brook's column in December about how the Chinese with their dictatorship can't possible compete with us culturally and creatively I thought, "You ninny, it's already over." And here we are in the academic bubble that is our art world, rehashing ideas that were invented by white guys over almost half a century ago. Pul-lease.