Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Me and them

Facebook friend Todd Kelly shared this link, which should be “required reading” (ha-ha, it’s about anti-authoritarianism) for everyone: Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill.

Reading it makes me grateful that I wasn’t born into the current culture, where the child I was would not survive. Nor, probably, would Steve Jobs—or at least that’s the impression I get from reading his biography.

And I like the term—“anti-authoritarian”—better than being called, as I was, a “problem,” and definitely an “underachiever.” This from the memoir I will most likely never publish:

School and I did not get along. After I learned to read I had absolutely no use for it. I had to go, so I did, but it didn’t have anything to do with me. It was like watching a play, but one that lasted far too long and wasn’t all that entertaining; the characters were predictable and there was no action. Only rarely, did anything happen, like the day Dick Santee’s garter snake collection escaped from his shirt pockets, or when the paraffin we were melting with crayons to make Christmas candles erupted into a pillar of flame, leaving a permanent red stain on the bulletin board. I was able to get by with a minimum of effort because, until sixth grade, we had hardly any homework. Only the Catholic kids who went to St. Joe’s had homework. I’d see them getting off the bus in the afternoons, wearing drab uniforms and dragging beat-up brown leather briefcases the size of small suitcases that caused them to walk lopsided, and when I found out what the briefcases were for, I began to think my mother might have a point about Catholicism after all.

In sixth grade, however, our teacher, Mr. Hampton, known as “Hamp,” made it his mission to see that I paid attention, and I resented his intrusion into my personal space. As far as I was concerned, staring out the window, doodling in my note pad, and slouching down in my seat to read the book I had hidden in the slot in the desk, were boring, but not nearly as boring as the major exports of Latvia, or whatever it was they were studying. I don’t know because I wasn’t there.

Actually one day Hamp got so mad at me for reading that he grabbed my book and threw it against the blackboard.

I really only like school when I’m teaching, which has become more problematic as I don’t have a degree (having taught four years in an accredited undergraduate institution and ten years in an accredited graduate institution are no longer acceptable credentials).  And while I know plenty of people who have managed to maintain their intellectual and personal freedom while existing within the system, in some cases even gaming the system so that it works for them, it does seem strange that we would require of potential innovators (because that’s what artists are) and those who teach them, proof of their ability to jump through authoritarian hoops. 
Image by Banksy, of course.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Decisions, decisions

James Rosenquist, I Love You with My Ford, 1961. Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 3/4 inches x 7 feet 9 1/2 inches. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

A friend, who had just sold some work, called from Europe the other day to ask me which mind-bogglingly expensive camera she should buy. She’s not a photographer, per se, but a conceptual artist who uses photography, and the question was—digital or analog? You may be wondering why she’d seek advice from me, who knows squat about photography, but she knew that wouldn’t keep me from having an opinion—which, of course, I did. I asked her to describe the qualities of each, and when she was finished, told her unequivocally that she should buy the analog Hasselblad. It was easy. Describing the Hasselblad she was animated, talking about dense blacks and whites, crispness, and Ansel Adams; when it came to digital not only was her voice flat, she even said, “I hate digital images.” But, she told me, everyone else—artists and professional photographers alike—had weighed in on the side of digital, saying that printing would be expensive and difficult with analog, and besides, no one uses it anymore. “So what?” I said, “It’s clear you want the Hasselblad, and you can only make great art if you love your instrument and are excited about what you can do with it.”

Meanwhile another friend, a student at a high-profile art college, reports being pushed toward installation, video, and performance, when all he wants to do is paint.

The problem with gearing everything toward what’s hot, what’s happening NOW, is that it’s NOW—when, hopefully, we’re making the art of the future. And while we can’t predict the future, we do know one thing: it won’t be anything like NOW.

So what do we have to go on? Fortunately, we’ve been created with the perfect internal barometer: our gut. Are we excited? Are we not excited? It will always tell us—unless, of course, we’ve been programmed to let our heads overrule its messages.

I interviewed James Rosenquist many years ago, who told me that when he was coming up it was all about Abstract Expressionism, and he could see that by the time he got good at it, it would be over. So he turned to what he knew best: sign painting. Was anyone else doing sign painting? No. Did he have any idea that anyone would be interested? No. But he was, and that was key.

Well, right now, THE THING is information-based art. Coupled with a sneering disdain for the visual, it’s been THE THING with curators and academicians for many years—at least as pervasive as AbEx was in Rosenquist’s student days. And while I don’t know that the next THING will be painting or analog photography, I don’t know that it won’t be, either.

However I DO know that in the hands of my two friends, painting and analog photography won't look anything like they did back in the day.


Today I got an email from my friend with the subject “No words.” The message:

Got it yesterday as planned!

She also send the link to this, from 2001, which I’d never seen, a French production by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Another statement about statements

I’ve said before that when I'm king, the first thing I’ll do is abolish artist’s statements—which will make me very popular in the kingdom, as I’ve never met anyone who likes them. What I want to know is, how does something no one likes continue not only to persist, but become increasingly unintelligible and ridiculous? The form is only about 15 years old, and how it evolved and took root in the culture would be a (semi) interesting study.

However since I’m not king yet, and schools, galleries, and curators seem to require them (in fact graduate students complain that their teachers often put more emphasis on the quality of the statement than the artwork) I am pleased to provide a formula that’s been very successful for the artist I stole it from, and you can then use the time you would have spent on your statement to work in the studio:

My work emerges in the interdisciplinary space of art, -----------, and social practice. After leaving behind my formal training as a ---------- and relocating to ----------- (note: you MUST relocate. Jesus couldn’t work miracles in his hometown either) I have created a diverse body of artwork that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics. Employing a broad range of media from ------ to ------ to ------ these works examine the tension between politics and poetics, individual action and impotence.  I reconfigure time, making reference to the concept of --------, originating from the work of Charles Baudelaire and developed by Walter Benjamin (you may substitute Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard or Lacan for either of these).  Cyclical repetition and return also inform the character of my movements and mythology, contrasting geological and technological time through land-based and social practices that examine individual memory and collective mythology.

Notice that the artist left out a few essential terms, such as “gender,” “social identity,” and “the body.” So that all artist’s statements from now on don’t look exactly alike (you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, not that anyone would notice) it’s your job to insert them in a creative way; just don’t spend more than five minutes doing it.
Of course after I wrote this, I realized that eliminating any kind of written accompaniment to an artwork would restrict creativity unduly, so I’ve decided to modify my ruling to allow statements if they fulfill the following requirements:

Are fun to read.

Shed no light whatsoever on the meaning and experience of, or impetus for, the artwork.

I liked my friend, Colin Brant's statement for his 2011 exhibition at the Bennington Museum, where he wrote:

My approach is one in which reverence and skepticism coexist naturally. I like to imagine the possibility of a world in which men and women in their underwear read poetry by a reflecting pool, looked on by deer and birds.

If Colin's paintings don’t fit the description of “land-based poetics,” I don’t know what does. But as for "reconfiguring time," well, only God can do that.

Colin Brant
Colin Brant

Sunday, February 12, 2012


This is the question I’ll be putting to the panel I'm moderating on The State of Contemporary Art, Wednesday at the National Academy Museum (6:30 p.m., 1083 Fifth Avenue @ 89th Street). 


Michael Hall, Director of Exhibitor Relations for The Armory Show

Paul Laster, Blog Editor of, editor of, a contributing editor at and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.

Rachel Wolff, freelance art writer, editor, and critic, and contributor to New York Magazine.

Just as we've gone from being “citizens” to “consumers” and “patients” to “clients,” the “art world” has turned into the “art market” and the playground of the 1%. Globalization, chain galleries and ever-expanding museums, an excess of art fairs, “gallerists” touting artists like hedge funds, and art schools churning out MFAs whose only function seems to be teaching more MFAs, are all part of the "corporate-ization" and institutionalization of the art world. So the question is, can art sustain itself as the true non-verbal expression of our times, something that takes us to a higher plane, increases our aesthetic awareness, and serves, as Tolstoy said, "to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations"-- when money is the primary concern?

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Spot on, spot off

Out, damned spot! – Lady Macbeth

I was walking along 24th Street in the bitter wind, wondering if it was necessary to write any more about Damien Hirst’s blasted spots, and if I really needed to see even one of the shows. But there I was at Gagosian’s door, and it seemed silly not to go in, so I did and….a terrible thing happened. Are you ready? I’m about to admit something that could ruin my credibility forever: I liked them. Okay, to be completely candid, I didn’t just like them, I loved them. Especially the humungous gallery with the big, big spots and the smaller room with the paintings where the spots are formed into vibrating circles. The color, movement, and exuberance reminded me of Matisse and made me want to dance (by now you’re wondering, what is she taking, and where can I get some?). It was such a relief to have an experience of art that wasn’t complicated by a lot of tacked-on personal or intellectual bullshit, but was simply happy. Especially since I’d just come from the Bill Jensen painting show at Cheim & Read, which was over-the-top depressing. The mantra in the art world seems to be “if you can’t make it good, make it grim.” And I thought how, in the current context, the most radical thing an artist can do is create art that causes to people feel good, that makes them, as Tolstoy said, “love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.“ The art world seems to equate happy with sappy. And there’s a reason for this – happy art is extremely hard to make, which is why hardly anyone even attempts it. But here it was, in the Gagosian gallery of all places, suddenly transformed into  a joyous, celebratory oasis in the middle of cold, heartless Chelsea.

The next day I visited the Madison Avenue permutation. To get there I had to walk past a shop selling Hirst "spot" effluvia, whose giant windows looking onto the street revealed a lone, rather dazed-looking customer. It reminded me of those stores that used to be ubiquitous on Madison and in SoHo (do they still exist?) that specialized in knock-off Dali, Chagall, Miro, and Picasso prints. And upstairs, well, it was a total bore. I trudged from room to room and floor to floor, marveling at the ridiculousness of the over-abundance of guards, until I realized that this was one of those situations that could cause someone not to want to steal the things, God knows, but I could see how, in that compressed, airless environment with all that repetition, a person—maybe even me—could go berserk and act out. Happily, I was able to contain myself. Back on the street the chilly breeze was refreshing, and I walked toward the subway thinking, what a load of crap! I hate those fuckin’ spots!