Saturday, February 16, 2013

The week in review

At the CAA: A lively, meaty panel on “Art Criticism and Social Media” chaired by Phyllis Tuchman, with Walter Robinson, Sarah Douglas, Lindsay Pollock, and Barry Schwabsky, where Walter Robinson tweeted throughout, looking up only to ask, “What was the question?”  (I thought it was a hilarious commentary on the topic, although some stuffier members of the audience got their knickers in a bunch about it)…Facebook was compared to a modern day equivalent of the Cedar Bar, but happily more egalitarian and less sexist…one questioner lamented that art criticism doesn’t pay, to which Barry Schwabsky commented that it is a counter to economic rationale, was never really a true profession but something people do because they can’t help themselves….another asked how she could get traffic to her “small blog.” The most prominent Facebooker in the audience generously suggested that she post it on his page (anything that gets attention he leaves it up, otherwise, he takes it down) and there was some discussion of tweets, etc. but no one mentioned CONTENT, which is the way things really happen. You can tweet until kingdom come, but if it’s not interesting, no one will read it, whereas if it is, you can be re-tweeted into history—which is the beauty of the Internet.

Again, in another panel, more talk about the “how” rather than the “why” or “what”—this is where I want to start screaming, in Donald Trump fashion, “CONTENT, CONTENT, CONTENT!”—but Lindsay Pollock did address the importance of editors. So much writing on the Web, even when pretty good, lacks cohesion and focus. The irony is that the content that's written with the most thought and care—that in art magazines—gets the least distribution and dies an early death if it’s not archived online.  

I walked past a booth flaking a “low residency PhD,” which tempted me for a moment, thinking how much fun it could be to go from no degree to a PhD and study theory and philosophy in an organized way, but immediately scotched the idea when I attempted another panel that opened with an incomprehensible presentation by a chaired Harvard professor, a specialist in African and African-American art who, among other flubs, could not correctly pronounce “Basquiat” or “Cote d’Ivoire” (“Bas-kee-yay” and “Coot Deever”—eek!).

The CAA job mill was humming, as usual, with interviewees scurrying about or sitting on the floor at the Hilton making last-minute touch-ups to their resumes, but—you read it here—I give the art school bubble another 10 years, maybe only five. With the move from professorships to low-paying adjunct positions, it’s unlikely students will put up with high tuition rates when the only jobs they can expect at graduation pay next-to-nothing and offer neither benefits nor security. At least there will be no need to complain anymore about the academization of art—the academies will simply kill themselves.

Beyond the Hilton there was art to see: speaking of Basquiat (that’s “Bas-kee-yat”), a humongous museum-style show at Gagosian, Suzan Frecon’s lovely Tantric-like studies at David Zwirner, the sumptuous Boetti embroideries at Gladstone, and a sign of progress at Gavin Brown where, at the artists’ request, there were NO press releases available. Hooray!

Suzan Frecon
for a large painting – (malachite color), 2007
Watercolor on old Indian ledger paper
Framed: 15 3/4 x 18 1/2 inches (40.01 x 46.99 cm)
Paper: 9 3/4 x 12 1/2 inches (24.8 x 31.8 cm)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On Wolfgang Laib, Ken Johnson, and pollen at MoMA

Art began with religion. Only recently in human history have allusions (other than cynical) to spirituality in art become an anathema among intellectuals.[1] It’s this prejudice that drives Ken Johnson’s peevish Times review of Wolfgang Laib’s installation in the atrium at MoMA—although where Johnson finds “a quasi-religious dimension” in a simple rectangle of sifted pollen is baffling.

But there’s more: “Don’t call the cleaning crew; that yellow spill is art,” shouts the headline, which most likely wasn’t written by Johnson, but a headline writer who, regardless, was inspired by his sentiment. Is it possible that a critic can still—in the 21st century—be made uncomfortable by art that doesn’t have a narrative, and is neither made with traditional artists’ materials nor hung on a wall?

“It’s like a big, Rothkoesque painting displayed horizontally,” Johnson says, while giving no indication as to whether this is a good or bad thing. Maybe a Rothko’s okay, but something similar made with another material on the floor, is not? Or perhaps Rothko isn’t okay either. He did, after all, make paintings for a chapel.

We will never know because Johnson never establishes his point of critical departure. He doesn’t indicate, for instance, what previous works of Laib’s he’s seen, and how this one measures up. Nor does he compare Laib with others who have attempted to bring aspects of nature indoors, such as Robert Smithson, James Turrell, or Olafur Eliasson, a younger artist who might have been inspired by Laib to create his floors of lava stone or walls of Icelandic moss—not to speak of the minimal and color field painters, from Robert Ryman to Rothko, to Kazimir Malevich (his White on White of 1918 especially comes to mind[2]), who may have been an influence.

Instead Johnson chooses to find Laib “obviously much indebted” to Joseph Beuys, although the only “obvious” similarity is that Beuys was also a German who used another of Laib’s signature materials, beeswax; the narrative and strong socio-political agenda that’s overtly stated in Beuys is significantly lacking in Laib, who neither teaches, writes, nor lectures. Further, to link Laib with Beuys and Marina Abramovic as another “performance artist” cultivating a “cult of personality” is a bit far-fetched, as Beuys’s and Abramovic’s personal participation is intrinsic to their work whereas Laib’s “performance,” if you can call it that, consists of a three-minute video describing how the MoMA piece was made.

In the video, we see a gentle man who likes to spend time in nature. He is not sanctimonious, nor does he make any claims for his work. The most philosophical Laib gets is to say, “pollen is the beginning of life.” How this portrayal could produce such antagonism is mystifying. When Johnson writes, “I do not mean to doubt his sincerity; I am not calling him a charlatan,” of course he is implying exactly that. By referring to Laib’s “seeming modesty,” “carefully-groomed saintly charisma” and describing him as a canny, professional purveyor of New Age hokum,” Johnson wants us to believe that Laib is a huckster who figured out 40 years ago that the ticket to international art world fame and fortune would be to develop a self-effacing personality, live in a remote part of Germany and collect pollen. Canny indeed!

I am reminded of my mother who was so literal-minded that she would not have been able to see the poetics in a rectangle of pollen, and assumed that anyone who dressed or acted differently from those in her suburban milieu was showing off. And, yes, her frustration at not being able to see what others saw made her angry.

No one says that a critic has to like an artist’s work. However it’s his responsibility to his public to provide a heightened level of observation, place it in a cultural context, and from there evaluate whether or not it succeeds—as well as, hopefully, be a bit ahead of his audience.

Instead, Johnson may be lagging. Recently a petition was sent to The New York Times complaining of racist and sexist comments in two reviews, an action which, like the Times in its response, I found inappropriate. However it’s surprising to find such obliviousness and, here, an apparent lack of research[3], in the writing of a critic of his stature.

Perhaps meditation would help. Hardly an invention of the New Age, and far from the trance-inducing “altered state” Johnson supposes it to be, meditation requires being fully present and observing of one’s environment and thoughts. With practice the meditator learns to distinguish between reality and imagination, between what can be immediately perceived and what’s simply the mind scurrying about, assigning meaning and making assumptions.

Sometimes a field of pollen is just a field of pollen. Or at least it’s a good place to start.

[1] It makes me think that perhaps the artificial division between “folk art” and “fine art,” as recently discussed by Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, came about partly because “folk art” does not recognize this separation.

[2] Part of the MoMA collection, Malevich's painting can be seen in the museum’s current exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1926.”

[3] While his take might still be negative, I feel this would have been a very different story if the author had spent more time with it.  One factual quibble is that Johnson says Laib “gave up” his medical studies in 1974 when Laib did, indeed, complete his degree. It’s in the wall text.

More: A thoughtful review here, by artist Altoon Sultan, and another video.