Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Loving and hating art in Barcelona

I’m in Barcelona where, for me, the highlight is the best hot chocolate in the world. Known as un suis in Catalan, this is smooth, barely liquid chocolate topped with an equal mound of whipped cream. These perfect opposites—hot and cold, black and white, dense and airy, bitter and sweet—come together in a delectable marriage on your tongue. “Like yin and yang,” says my friend, who won’t allow me to name the café because she doesn’t want it to become more overrun than it already is. Thus far, I’ve been there every day.

And so my love/hate relationship with contemporary art continues. After the previous post about my visit to Chicago, a Facebook friend wrote: “Strong feelings of ambivalence are an indication of deep involvement. Sounds like perhaps you need to choose more judiciously what to see?”

Yes, and no. I want to keep an open mind, and there’s nothing I like better than to have my prejudices overturned, as they were when I realized I liked (some of) Damien Hirst’s spots. I can’t help having opinions, so must constantly guard against turning into one of those loathsome people who spout about things they haven’t seen. However we should keep the question open until after my visit to the Hirst retrospective at the TateModern next week. One thing I know is that, after going to Barcelona’s SWAB fair on Saturday, in the interest of sanity, I should avoid art fairs altogether. At least I got to have a chocolate afterward.

Rather than “young,” the art at SWAB should have been billed as “immature”— adolescent scribbling like you wouldn’t believe. Or maybe you would. Luckily, however, as in Chicago, my inevitable tailspin was mitigated by later seeing spare, graceful, very grown up art, this time Rita McBride at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). While the MACBA building is another example, like the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, of harsh white walls and architectural hubris run amok (here that of Richard Meier), every exhibition I’ve seen at MACBA has been beautifully chosen and intelligently executed. Wait, I should say every recent exhibition I’ve seen, thereby excluding a gigantic show in 2005 devoted to Francis Alÿs, whose “diverse body of artwork that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics” (barf!) is a perfect example of what Jerry Saltz has accurately labeled and defined as “curator art.”

Richard Meier, Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art: Where's the art?

At least MACBA doesn’t have a café. Chicago’s Art Institute, given its monolithic isolation on Michigan Avenue, needs to offer sustenance to the hoards of attendees, but its food options clearly reflect its values. For the 1%, there’s the posh, reservations-only Terzo Piano upstairs, while downstairs the other 99% of us are relegated to the euphemistic “Museum Café,” really a cafeteria. Here the gastronomic choices (burger station, pizza station, and sandwiches entombed in plastic) are of food court quality and accompanied by endless petroleum products—despite being a location where no one would, or could, take meals away. I was appalled when I was there, but now visiting in Europe, I’m even more disgusted by our throwaway society. Clearly it was foolish of me to assume that a cultural institution would somehow be conscious of plastic being not only wasteful but unaesthetic (my chocolate, if served in a plastic cup, would not be nearly so tantalizing). I suddenly had the horrifying thought that for current generations of Americans, the concept of reusing crockery at all is likely to seem as antiquated as linen hankies.

Addressing my previous post, Ben F. comments, “The large white box and grand entrance are created to give a sense of permanence in the way banks used to be built. A sense that the bank would be here long after you are gone so that you could trust that your donations (of art/money) would be safe. The large space then needs to be fitted with art to scale.”

Again, silly me! I forgot that the main purpose of any institution is self-preservation, which means that the Art Institute’s primary concern is to secure the wherewithal that keeps it going. And there I was, thinking that it was about art!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Art: I love it, I hate it....

I went to Chicago recently, and had a mini art crisis. One dark and stormy Sunday afternoon, blissed out after a morning of kundalini at Yoga in the Loop in the landmark Fine Arts Building, I crossed Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute to see Renzo Piano’s much-touted Modern Wing—and got all cranky.

First of all, while my press cards got me in free, unlike other museums where press are treated like members, I was sent to the regular ticket line, which shrank my allotted hour by more than half. Having only 20 minutes and being pretty familiar with Roy Lichtenstein and photographer Dawoud Bey, the subjects of special exhibitions, I took in the lobby/atrium, and headed upstairs to the galleries displaying the permanent collection—which is where I had my meltdown. OMG I’m SO bored with museums where there is some spectacular entrance, hallway, atrium (or stairway, in the case of Richard Meiers’s Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art) that serves as a showcase for the architect’s creative genius, his use of natural light and ability to spend millions of dollars, while the art is shunted off to be imprisoned in the same-old-same-old square white boxes with track lighting. Really, if I never see another piece of white-painted drywall again (such a lifeless material!) it will be too soon. I don’t know what the alternative is, but there’s gotta be another way. Perhaps if, instead of designing temples to their egos, architects were to think creatively about new ways art could be displayed, they might come up with something.

Renzo Piano, Modern Wing, Chicago Art Institute: Where is the art?

Anyway, featured in this particular white box on the second floor (Contemporary Art from 1960 to the Present) the walls were lined with deadpan portraits by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, whose fame (soon to have a Guggenheim retrospective) I’ve never understood. Really, I’d rather look at drywall. There was more to the exhibition, but what it was I can no longer remember, because as my eyes darted from object to object, searching for something satisfying to look at, I became more and more upset as I realized that my life was clearly worthless because I’d chosen to devote it to a field in which I had absolutely no interest. Even the next gallery with its exquisite de Koonings and Pollocks failed to console me, as they represented a glorious past now lost.  And if I, a presumed professional, am alienated, what must these dazed-looking tourists feel like, who not only spent time waiting in line but actual money ($18 apiece) to get in? “I just think I don’t know enough,” is what a perfectly intelligent friend said to me. Is this the purpose of museums and art? To make people feel bad about themselves?

My sense is that curators, now that theirs is a career rather than a calling, are so deep inside the justifications embedded in their field that they can no longer view them impartially, and have not learned how to trust their own intuition. This is a field that that took seriously, and obviously still does, Michael Fried’s derisive term, “theatrical,” for art that acknowledges the possibility of a viewer response or experience (we can still hear Fried spitting as he wrote the word),* along with the Marxian theorists who feared that “spectacle” (like the gladiator fights in Rome) would distract the masses from the circumstances of their daily misery.

When I walked outside (or rather ran out screaming), the driving rain had broken. Buying more time by deciding to take a taxi back rather than the bus, I explored Millennium Park with its glorious spring plantings, full of flower scents and bird sounds that felt happily out of place in midst of the city. The Frank Gehry band shell, which Chicago friends tell me functions wonderfully as a site for concerts in the summer, made a dramatic frame for nearby skyscrapers and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (2004-8) was teeming with people, an example (like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial,1982) of how a pure, seriously minimal work of art can serve as a catalyst for meaningful engagement, and that it’s possible for good art and public appreciation to go hand in hand. Whew! No need to sign up for the aptitude test just yet.

Gehry Bandshell, Millennium Park, Chicago

Of course our Marxian friends will surely point out that last week, not far away from “The Bean,” as Chicagoans call the Kapoor, military-style police were bashing the heads of NATO protestors, and that both that action and the sculpture are expressions of the same mayoral power structure.** But does that mean they must be uniformly evil? The truth is that inspiring art makes people want to lead inspiring lives. Boredom achieves nothing.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004-8.
Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004-8, view from underneath.

 **While Mayor Richard Daley’s influence was key in the realization of the park, we have no reason to believe his police would have been more restrained than those of his successor, Rahm Emanuel, or that Emanuel does not see the value of the park.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Richter, commodity? Or more...

·       Gerhard Richter, Clouds (Grey, 1969), oil on canvas, 150 cm x 200 cm.

I was starting to write a post about my trip to Chicago, but got distracted when I emailed to a friend that I was going to Paris soon to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Beaubourg and drawing show at the Louvre, and she sent me this, a rant about the commodification of his work by Reuters' Felix Salmon.

Richter’s paintings being commodities has nothing to do with Richter, the artist. Clearly this was not the artist’s decision, nor his intention. Contrary to what Salmon has to say, a majority of us in the “making” part of the art world think Richter is very important, someone with a tremendous influence (the fact that the film, “Gerhard Richter Painting” is still running, after two months, at Film Forum, is testimony to that). I, for one, am grateful to have a model, someone to look up to, who's still producing great work at 80 or whatever.

But here’s the thing: Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol aren’t just good artists, they’re important artists — among the most important of the 20th Century. They permanently changed the way we look at and think about art: what it is, what it can do, what it should look like. Richter’s no slouch on that front, but he’s not in their league, and never will be.

So how does a financial writer get to decide which artists are “important” and which aren’t? I don’t see Reuters asking me for financial analysis.

The writer’s assumptions are faulty on several counts. Just because Picasso and Warhol took longer to be recognized in the 20th century doesn't mean that's what's necessary to be an "important" artist in the 21st century, when communication is so much faster, when the cultural world is so much bigger and more savvy, and when (as a result of Picasso, Warhol, and Duchamp) “difficult” is easy, breaking rules (or looking as if you’re breaking rules) is the order of the day, and “meaningful” is much harder to come by. Given his times, which have been characterized by cynicism (think Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst) and any sincere attempt at beauty has been taboo, Richter is actually radical. In this climate, to be unabashedly conscious of painting's possible emotional content, to paint landscapes, family portraits, candles—anything that, in other hands, would be seen as sentimental—takes a lot of courage; not to speak of working in several different styles when most artists and galleries saw, and still see, developing a single "signature" as the only route to recognition (think BriceMarden).

Further, his dealer is not Gagosian, who might automatically be assumed to be promoting commodification but Richter, since the beginning, has been represented by Marian Goodman, who has always demonstrated enormous restraint, and for whom the art always comes first. 

So Richter makes a lot of paintings; let us not forget that it’s his passion, and he can afford to indulge it. The writer’s own examples, Picasso and Warhol, proved that it’s possible to be both prolific and “important.”

It's easy to bash success. But sometimes there's a reason for that success.

So what if collectors are having a feeding frenzy. I think/hope/pray that we're coming into a time when the spirituality in art (and, dare I say, b-b-b-beauty?) will again be celebrated, and Richter is leading the way.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


The Art Section asked me to write about being both an artist and a writer.  It’s something people often are curious about, and not so easy to address because I know of no other way to be; having two modes of expression is as natural for me as having two arms or two legs. And I don’t think it’s all that unusual. The artists I know vary widely, from those whose entire creative energy goes into their work to the point that they pay little attention to what they wear or what their house looks like, to John Kelly, who’s been called an “aesthetic octopus” because of his mastery of the performing arts (singing, dancing, choreography and acting) as well as drawing, painting, and writing. Some people need to concentrate, others are fed by diversity; both traits can make for good artists.
            I think about art all the time, and writing is my way of exploring those ideas and making them into something useful. For me, having thoughts and not applying them would be like living in a house stuffed floor-to-ceiling with balls of yarn and never knitting anything. Writing allows me to root around in my mind and surprise myself with what’s there. I find ideas I never knew I had, and following their thread takes me to places I never expected to be—to the point that I often crack myself up. If I didn’t write I wouldn’t know just how absurd, funny, and contradictory life really is.
            Writing also allows me to root around in the minds of other artists, ask them questions and try to find out what makes them tick—as part of my lifelong (if futile) attempt to discover how art comes about. It’s a privilege to be so affected by someone like, say, Robert Irwin, who was my biggest influence early on, and later to meet him, watch him work, and be able to sit down with him and ask him anything I want. That I then have to boil the information down and explain it to other people in the plainest possible terms gives me the push I need to truly metabolize what I’ve learned. It’s the same when I write reviews. On my own, I’d never take the time to analyze art so thoroughly—my attention span is short; writing keeps me on track. Even so, I could never be a full-time art critic because I just don’t see enough, on a regular basis, to inspire me. When I do find something to write about, I’m as excited as the artist who’s being written about—because ultimately it’s about what I can learn to feed my own work.
            So if I write to discover the ideas in my head, I paint or draw to reveal the pictures that are tucked away in its wordless nooks and crannies. I love the process because it really is a “thoughtless” activity in the best sense of the word, where my only resource is my intuition and ability to visualize what might come next. It’s not a meditation because in meditation, while practicing to detach from thoughts, you’re still aware of their never-ending stream. When it’s working, making art is about being part of a beautiful flow, like dance or sex, where each action satisfies one possibility while suggesting another—and where any attempt at thinking, analyzing, or judging, just screws it up. Assessment has to be reserved for later, sometimes much later. While I’m writing, I have a clear sense of whether it’s good or not. With art, I could change my mind a million times; whether I think I’m the best or worst artist in the world has a lot to do with how much sleep I’ve gotten or what I had for breakfast,.
            The other question I’m asked is, “which is more difficult, writing or making art?” Quite definitely, it’s making art, because with writing, the language has already been created and comes with recognized objective standards. With visual art, especially abstract art, nothing is given; we must make up our own language and communicate on totally subjective terms—which is, of course, it’s beauty and challenge.

Carol Diehl, Untitled (so far), 2012