Thursday, October 23, 2008

England is different

Erica, who has come with me on this trip to England, is of the opinion that Art Vent should be about art and not silly penis jokes. But I couldn't resist posting this photo from my walk today.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Yesterday I drove my “Obamamobile” as a friend calls it—blue car + bumper sticker + magnet—to Boston and back, as well as a bit around Waltham and Framingham, and was surprised to note hardly any—actually no—other sign that there’s a major heated political campaign going on. Maybe no one bothers because Massachusetts is considered a foregone conclusion. However here in the Berkshires—the third bluest county in the nation after Manhattan and Brooklyn—we take every opportunity to show support.

And I’m off to Europe early Tuesday morning for almost two weeks—to England and then Berlin to work (with Terry Perk and Erica Spizz) on a short film about Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn’s collaborative process, funded by the University for the Creative Arts in the U.K. I don’t know if the trip will prompt more posts, fewer posts, or no posts, so bear with me. Cheerio!

Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn, details from The Model Room, as installed at PS 1 last spring,.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Critic etiquette

Mark Tambella, Maduros, 2008, oil on linen, 28" x 32", part of his exhibition at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, November 6-30.

When Roberto invited me over for dinner the other night, he mentioned that our friend, Mark, had hung his paintings in the studio in anticipation of a visit from his dealer—and that he’d asked Roberto to pass on the message that I was simply coming to dinner, and not expected to say anything about the work. I'd not been concerned, but appreciated Mark’s remarkable sensitivity to any possible discomfort. (That said, I liked the paintings, and found myself naturally drawn to spend time with them).

People often ask me if being a critic is socially difficult, if it leads to awkwardness with other artists, but it’s not nearly as complicated as they imagine. Most artists and dealers are normal and pleasant. It tends to be the unaccustomed gallery goers (such as the artist’s parents), who ask the dreaded question, “So what do you think?”—unaware of how complicated it would be for me—work, actually—to give a candid answer.

Only once has someone asked me outright to review a show, and especially because this is an experienced artist and someone I considered an old friend, I was astonished—not the least because I hadn’t even seen the work, nor any of his work for some time. Did he really believe that’s how review subjects are chosen, on the basis of friendship? (Or maybe they are, and I’m the one who’s naïve. Regardless, it’s not my m.o.) And what about that friendship? Was it really one after all? Further, even if it was something I was inclined to write about, by asking he created a conflict of interest that made it impossible.

Then there’s the oft-expressed belief that review choices are driven by advertising, yet this is something I’ve never observed in my years of working for Art in America, ARTnews, and Artforum. While editors will suggest specific shows they’d like to see covered—usually because they think they’re interesting, or provide a certain diversity—I’ve never felt any pressure to write, or write positively, about any artist or gallery. In fact the opposite—I’ve had ideas turned down because the gallery had recently gotten a string of reviews and the magazine didn’t want to be seen as favoring it. Once I was paid $25 (by a publication I no longer write for) to go to an advertiser’s gallery and sign my name in the book—an action I didn't feel at all compromised by—but that’s the extent of it. Sorry, I have no juicy tales to tell.

Writing about art is a labor of love—there’s no chance of buying a McMansion with the proceeds—I do it because it’s my way of expanding my understanding of art, a process that feeds my own work in the studio. Therefore, my only question when deciding what or what not to write about is: how much can I learn from analyzing this work?

So, then, how does an artist get the critic’s attention? —this is one of the inevitable questions graduate students ask when I lecture, whether or not my subject touches on the business of art. I tell them it’s no different from the way an actor becomes noted by a drama critic: by doing a great job. There's a lot of art out there, a lot of art. To get anyone's attention whatever it is has to be pretty special. In the end everything comes down to the work, which will speak for itself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's your money

Photo: courtesy Time Magazine

When I got an email on Monday with a video about John McCain’s complicity in the Savings and Loan crisis, it was like seeing a ghost. The Savings and Loan crisis? If you weren’t of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, chances are you never heard of it—and not because it was a small event. One of the biggest financial meltdowns this country has experienced, involving wrongdoing by Republican and Democratic congressmen alike and requiring a multi-billion dollar “bailout” comparable to the current one, the S & L crisis slipped through a black hole in history, never to be mentioned in the news nor brought up in political campaigns (ever hear of Neil Bush, brother of Jeb and George W? I didn’t think so)—until now. I’ve always been acutely aware of its absence, because I was present at the exact moment the story died.

It was January, 1991, and I was working (as I occasionally still do) as a consultant at TIME. The magazine has a history of commissioning gallery artists to create its covers, and my job has been to match artist with subject—such as Christo, whose globe wrapped in plastic and twine, we commissioned for “The Planet of the Year” in 1989. This time it was the S & L crisis, and the story, which up to that point had never been the subject of a cover feature in a major news magazine, had been building for several years. When I asked the art director at the time, Rudy Hoglund, why this massive issue hadn’t yet been addressed in this way, he said, rightly or not, that he thought it was because it was almost too complicated to be adequately explained in a mere article. But now we were doing it, and I tapped New York artist Barton Benes, who had made many pieces with genuine paper money, to create the cover image: a gold-plated meat grinder with sheets of money going in one end and shredded money coming out the other. The headline was “It’s your money.”

Like all the artists we've worked with, Barton was thrilled at the opportunity, and as we sat going over the details in Rudy’s corner office on the 24th floor of the Time-Life Building, he asked, “Is there any reason this cover wouldn’t run?”—and Rudy, being somewhat facetious in order to underscore its importance, said, “Only if there’s a war.”

Well there was a war, and as U.S. forces bombed Baghdad, the cover of the next week’s issue featured the face of Saddam Hussein. The S & L story appeared in the back, as a three-part “Special Report: Crisis in Banking” in the Business section. Barton’s artwork was relegated to the storeroom, and after that it was as if the S & L debacle, which we’re probably still paying for, never happened.

No one has ever been able to convince me that the two incidents were not related.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Monday morning

You know you’re going bats from being inside too long when you find yourself taking pictures of your back porch floor. This cold is into its sixth day, and along with trying to avoid watching the vice-presidential debates, I’ve washed every launderable item in the house, and when not dozing in bed, have been noodling around on the Web. What have I learned? Well, I spent a couple of profitable hours perusing and copying various computer tips from over 800 commenters on David Pogue’s New York Times blog. I also found out that the reason I lost weight this week might not be because my cold zapped my appetite, but because I wasn’t thinking. According to the Times, thinking, solving problems, causes us to eat 25% more than if we were just sitting around doing nothing (but does thinking also burn calories? This question was not addressed). Even though it was one of those studies with a sample size of only 14 subjects that makes you wonder how anyone would have the chutzpah to publish it, it’s clearly accurate: I’ve been downstairs to the refrigerator three times just since starting to write this. I also read a piece by Michael Kimmelman about an adult education school in England that seemed to be written simply as an excuse to cite another study—this time with only12 subjects—which sought to prove that pain can mitigated by beauty. The finding was a “reduced response to pain when the subject looked at the beautiful [rather than a selection of “ugly”] paintings.” Hardly a surprise to those of us who spend time pounding the pavements of Chelsea and are therefore familiar with the ratio of foot pain to good and bad art.

It makes me wonder why our culture so resolutely refuses to acknowledge that, like clean air, water, and food, beauty is a human need (and I’d even go even further to say that it is —along with chocolate, or as perhaps exemplified by chocolate—a reason for existence). Society does, however, recognize its importance in a backwards way because the first thing it does to punish criminals is deprive them of beauty. The public would scream if anyone attempted to paint prison walls yellow—or for that matter, nursery school walls gray. Jails would not be jails if they looked like Versailles and inmates were served French food by cute guys in knee-length pants. But rather than admit the obvious, we have this oxymoron of an Italian academic trying to prove the efficacy of beauty by inflicting pain on his subjects (who now may flinch every time they see a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night). Assessing all of this has caused me to take Arthur Danto’s thought-provoking The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art off the shelf again—a sign that I must be getting better—but I’m afraid to start re-reading it because it could make me fat.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Watching the debates, sort of

In the olden days, people didn’t know much about events outside their particular village, and I think it’s too much to ask of the human brain to have to take in every horrific, or even semi-horrific thing that happens on the globe. Therefore it behooves us to moderate our intake of news carefully—especially a sensitive flower like me, and one who has a cold yet. So I gave a lot of thought to how I might keep up with last night’s debate while avoiding emotional overload. In the end I chose not to watch, but read the blow-by-blow blog posts on Daily Kos and when it was over called Deedee in Chicago, banking on the knowledge that we have agreed on absolutely everything since we were 14, to find out what we thought of it all. Having established its relative safety, this morning I watched it on my new iPhone over breakfast, and discovered that if the protagonists are teeny weeny, as they must be on an iPhone screen, current events are much more palatable. It helped, of course, that I already knew that Biden acquitted himself admirably, and that Palin, while proving that she could be coached for a debate, was still appalling (what was with all that winking? And “Joe Six-pack” is going to help solve the economic crisis? Was she trying for the alcoholic vote?) My favorite line of the evening, however, came not from the debaters but a commenter on Daily Kos, one Walt Starr, who wrote: “Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008