Friday, February 27, 2009


Now here’s a novel idea that recently cropped up in the Times—paying doctors to keep us healthy! When I was studying t’ai chi with Master Koo, he told us that in ancient China, people paid their doctors only when they were well. I’ve noticed that the biggest difference between holistic and conventional Western medicine is not so much the form of treatment but the fact that holistic practitioners ask questions and credit your knowledge of your own body. Accustomed to the former, I recently consulted a Lyme specialist at the Berkshire Medical Center and when I attempted to describe my symptoms she asked tersely, “Why are you telling me this?” I have a friend right now who’s being treated for sleep apnea, which I think is hilarious because his 30-year-old mattress is—literally—like trying to sleep on a pile of rocks. He’d rather get treatment (covered by insurance) than shell out for a new bed, although might feel obligated to if his doctor had asked him about it. Another friend was on Prozac, and when I inquired about his dietary habits, he told me he drank 12 cups of coffee a day. He thought it was normal. I also know someone who is getting disability, cannot work due to depression, yet his Dunkin’ Donut habit and addiction to diet Dr. Pepper have yet to be revealed to his doctor. Everyone always says that it’s hard to get people to make lifestyle changes. I bet that if doctors’ incomes depended on it, they’d figure out a way.

So, I began to think, in what other profession do we reward practitioners when they fail? Well, okay, maybe in the financial sector. But, unlike medicine, where they study sick people to try to figure out how to be healthy, at least in finance we don’t study the habits of poor people to learn out how to be rich.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Press release of the week

Roberts & Tilton is pleased to announce an exhibition of new work by Los Angeles-based artist Jeremy Everett. The large-scale sculptural installation, Opium Feast, is his largest and most ambitious exhibition to date. Jeremy Everett's populated composition of wax sculptures is as decadent as it is dead. The massive grotesque accumulations underline his interest in archaeological strata, Classical antiquity and the modern landscape of detritus, emotion and memory. Constructed entirely from wax and fragments of architectural ruin, the artist builds layers of vast fields of opium poppies-a substance that has been used for pain relief and ritual since Neolithic man. What is left is a landscape of the subconscious void. The physical body is lost, notions of being no longer pertain. Surrounded by compositions of opulence and portraits of sexual climax, buried in a still life of the Symphony Fantastique, the viewer is left hovering between fantasy and reality, fame and oblivion.
Beverages provided by Grolsch.


I was in Iceland all last night, in my dreams. Before going to sleep I watched Part II of Heima, the gorgeous Sigur Ros film (more like a long music video/travelogue) from 2007 (thanks to Roberto and NetFlix)—which I can’t believe I’d never seen, given how enamored I am of Sigur Ros and all things Icelandic. In 2004, on my way to an Olafur Eliasson exhibition in Oslo, I stopped for several days in Iceland for the sole purpose of driving alone in that surreal landscape while playing their music—which is so eerie and beautiful I can get weepy just listening to it on my iPod while riding Metro North. The idea may sound hokey, but it totally worked—except for when I was freaked out. My plan was to drive from Reykjavik up to Geyser, around the coast to Grindavik, and end up soaking in the milky, steaming mineral waters of the Blue Lagoon. I had a map that showed a road by the Arctic Sea, with numerous place names, which I assumed to be quaint little fishing villages. Instead the “road” turned out simply to be a driveway-like leveling of the gravel and the place names just that—places, perhaps inlets, someone had once named. I drove for hours in my rented Toyota (with its seemingly unlimited gas tank) without seeing any evidence of humans or habitation, the only road signs being those that said “Blindhead”—which meant that the narrow road I was on was about to go over a rise where I wouldn’t be able to see any vehicles that might be approaching from the other side. The prospect of a head-on collision was scary, but not as scary as it would have been if I’d actually seen another vehicle the whole time I was driving. I would come to the top of one of those hills, hoping to catch sight of a house, a barn, a fence—anything, off in the distance, a restaurant or gas station being too much to hope for—but each time there was only the endless empty ribbon of road, stretching on and on….

Somewhere in Iceland, 2004

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oh no! Not more about wall text...

Arthur Dove, Me and the Moon, 1937, wax and emulsion on canvas, 18 x 26", Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

As usual, the comments on this blog provide food for thought. Regarding my discussion of Cindy Sherman’s work in the post below, Lady Xoc writes, and it’s worth repeating:

…the hallmark of great art is generosity (the artists themselves may be self-involved sonsofbitches), but the work has to give something, make a vital connection with the souls of others….

And from Brian:

I disagree with your assessment of [museum] wall text. I enjoy making art, talking about art, and reading about art. Wall text is like bonus material on a DVD: while I can watch the movie without it, the behind-the-scenes footage adds to my experience! Of course a work should have the ability to stand on its own, but anything that can tell me what the artist is inspired by, thinking about, or interested in can only add to the conversation. Your statement that the "artist's intention holds little interest for me" is disappointing!

When a pianist is about to sit down and play Clair de Lune in concert, someone with a microphone doesn’t first come out on the stage and explain that Debussy was known as an Impressionist, that this work, the translation for which is “Moonlight,” may have been based on a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine, and that the arpeggios were meant to convey the “impression” of moonbeams illuminating a garden.

Although Debussy’s intention was to suggest moonlight, what if you, the listener, are inclined to think of waves of water, or silk rippling in the wind, or the music evokes an emotion or sensation you feel inside your body, or reminds you of a dream? Are these responses not valid? And would you be more or less likely to think of other ways of interpreting the music, once you’ve been told what it’s supposed to be about?

Also, why do we want to hear this piece again and again? Is it because Debussy was important in providing a link between romanticism and modern music, and the composer happened to be successful in his intention of making music that sounds like moonlight—or because it’s an exceptionally beautiful and expressive piece?

With music, any information about the artist and his/her intention is not an element in the performance but is available—or not—in the program; there’s no assumption that it’s essential to the enjoyment of the music. Why should visual art be any different? When placed on the same plane as the art itself, explanatory text assumes authority, becomes part of the experience, and narrows the lens through which it will be viewed.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Out with the old and....

Christmas lights, Great Barrington, MA, December 2008

"What the cynics fail to understand, is that the ground has shifted beneath them."--President Obama's inaugural address.

I started writing this a month ago, but was so bored I didn't finish, because it's just too boring to write about being bored. But truly, since returning from Berlin in November, I've not been able to get interested in art, which is a problem considering that it's not only my field, but too late in life to take up another profession--such as plumbing or neurobiology, or become a concert pianist after all. However either out of habit or false hope, I've continued to trudge around to museums and galleries looking for inspiration, not just to write about, but for my studio practice, which is in need of a reboot.

What first set me on the road to ennui was Cindy Sherman’s show at Metro Pictures. Part of my feeling of intellectual isolation comes from the fact that I’m the only person in the entire world who doesn’t think her work is the bee’s knees. To me, Sherman’s conceit is just too facile to sustain itself for long. I also 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 struck me as ageist, sexist, and just plain mean.
Eleanor Antin, The King, 1972 (image from the Web)

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

After that it was the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, a museum I want desperately to like, whose new building (and admission fee—$12 per person plus $11 or more for parking) sets off all kinds of expectations that, so far, have not been met by what’s inside. This time the main show was Tara Donovan, who makes installations with mass-produced disposable objects, such as plastic cups and toothpicks. I can see how the idea might be interesting (“Ooh, Honey, did you realize this is made of plastic straws?”) to someone who hasn’t taught a gazillion graduate students. In my experience, at least one third of the graduate population has latched onto similar ideas as a way of getting out of actually making something without having to spend much money or travel farther than the nearest convenience store (I wish I had a dollar for every piece of art I’ve seen made of black plastic garbage bags). Then there’s the text that suggests that because Donovan has figured out a way to make a cube out of metal sewing pins, she’s part of a lineage that includes Donald Judd—with whom she has about as much in common as Santa Claus.

Which brings me to one of my favorite subjects: wall text (some of my readers may already be aware of my promise to abolish it, along with artist statements, when I’m king). I’m clueless as to why such a small museum would give over any space to a permanent collection, but if they do, they’d better make sure it stands up to multiple viewings. This one threatens to become a Saatchi-esque time capsule, with texts that read like exercises one might be required to write in curator school. This, for instance, next to a painting that appears equally academically-driven:

Untitled continues Lucy McKenzie's exploration of latent meanings in design styles, expanding a detail from an advertising image she found on a condom vending machine of two robots amorously engaged. The scene is rendered in a Mondrian-esque style using geometric blocks and is rendered in faux marble to make the "ugly" scene appear more elegant. The work also includes two figures in shadow, as if in conversation while looking at the painting.

And back in New York, at the New Museum, while Elizabeth Peyton's paintings were charming, did they justify this curator's paean?

Where her earliest portraits can be compared to those of Dutch masters or Spanish painters in their quietude and focus on the aspect of a single subject in the center of the picture plane, beginning in the 2000s, Peyton's maturity as a painter is expressed in the increasing complexity of her compositions. In the history of portraiture, these later works can be more closely compared to figure compositions by Henri Matisse or Eduard Vuillard, both of whom integrated their human subjects with their static ones in dense surfaces of pattern and brilliant color.

But what finished me off was the Marlene Dumas painting exhibition at MoMA (through February 16th). As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker:

She has been favored by a fashion for sensationalized moral seriousness which explains the recent prestige of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud and of younger masters of sardonic melancholy, including Luc Tuymans of Antwerp, and Neo Rauch of Leipzig. Is this taste a self-flagellating compunction of the spendthrift rich? Surely no one would paint pictures as aggressively uningratiating as those of Dumas unless she meant them.
Well, I don't care whether she means it or not, the "artist's intention" holds little interest for me, only the result--which here, despite Schjeldahl's rhapsody over Dumas's brushwork, is heavy-handed and depressing. I’m not opposed to so-called “serious” subject matter, but a little nuance would be nice. Interestingly, in that same New Yorker, David Denby reviews the film “Revolutionary Road,” and while finding it “honorably and brutally unnerving,” suggests that it “may suffer…from the illusion that pain and art are the same thing.” He could have been writing about Dumas.
After that I was sure I never wanted to see any more art ever again.
Later I began to think that my reaction had to do with the sense that the art I was seeing was looking old, because--in case you haven’t noticed--we’re in the midst of a great cultural shift. And unlike generations in the past who experienced the massive change that came with the invention of the printing press or the rise of the Industrial Revolution, we know it, can feel and see it. It’s fast, so fast that when I was working with the art director on TIME’s Person of the Year, he noted that if we had commissioned a portrait of Obama in October, it wouldn’t be the one we’d want to run in December. And the Tom Friedman piece of December 23rd that I wanted to link to when I started writing this, Time to Re-Boot America now feels as if it was penned a year ago rather than just a month or so.
It’s a time of purging, of getting rid of what doesn’t work and replacing it with…well we don’t know. But it’s inevitable that art will change with it, old systems will be replaced with new ones, and that which doesn’t deliver, will fail.
And while I don't have a crystal ball, I'll make some predictions just because this is my blog and I can. I believe that in the future (which, the way things are going, could be next week) we’re going to be less fascinated with human dysfunction (a la Dumas and Sherman) and seek more art that inspires us, has substance, puts us in awe of human capability. I hope that we’ll also figure out another way of experiencing art that doesn’t involve rectangular rooms, white walls, and track lighting. I want art to engage and involve, be more than this static thing that we look at while standing on our feet (although I dislike so-called “interactive art" even more), but has to do with its context and, like music, is woven into the fabric of our lives. I believe the era of the individual genius is waning, and instead collaborative ventures (between individuals as well as disciplines) will come to the forefront. That means chucking the our current system of teaching visual art, which has hardly changed for centuries (okay, so we teach “media arts” now, it’s still a separate department) and move toward one that’s integrated with science, mathematics, agriculture, history, and technology, as well as the other arts.
I also believe people will always be fascinated with painting.
With these thoughts in mind, I went to Chelsea yet again, and this time saw two exhibitions that looked not only far from tired, but fresh and new. The irony is that one was done by an 80-year-old, Robert Irwin, and the other by Fred Sandback who, were he still alive, would be in his mid-sixties. Both installations are serene, sure, engaging and beautiful. Oh, did I mention beauty? Well I believe in beauty, and think it’s a human need, as important as fresh air and water. It's definitely due for a comeback.
Installation view of Robert Irwin's Red Drawing White Drawing Black Painting, on view at PaceWildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street, NYC through February 28, 2009. Photo by G.R. Christmas/Courtesy Pace Wildenstein, New York.

Installation view, Fred Sandback at David Zwirner, January-February 14, 2009. Photograph by Cathy Carver, Courtesy Zwirner & Worth.

These images , however, hardly convey the experience of being there, which is why Irwin, in the early days, refused to have his work photographed.
And Shepard Fairey is, for sure, of his/our time. Creator of the now iconic image of Obama that became so important to the campaign—as symbolic of our decade as Robert Indiana's Love was to the 60’s—the attention given him now is well-deserved. I knew about Fairey’s work through my son, Matt, and last year suggested to TIME that they commission him to do a portrait of the 2007 Person of the Year, Vladimir Putin, which ran on the inside of the magazine:

Vladimir Putin by Shepard Fairey for TIME, 2007

This year TIME invited Fairey to do another image of Obama (see video) for the cover, and it's every bit as strong as the first--and updated, more "now" than last year's poster. What I especially like about Fairey’s new fame--in this time of fallout from extreme greed--is that it stems from an image he gave away (which is why I think the current copyright flap won't hold water--as a picture-researcher friend, put it: "Since the poster/image took on a life of it's own, was 'used' by so many people without even Fairey's permission... how could one begin to determine a use fee?").

Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey for TIME, 2008

And now the ICA in Boston (so critized above) is on its way to redeeming itself in my eyes by being smart enough to mount the first museum survey of Fairey's work, which opens tomorrow and runs through August 16th.

Technical difficulties

Well I worked hours and hours on my newest entry, and it simply WILL NOT POST for reasons only Google Blogger knows. Please be patient....