Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Sculpture

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

November 18, 2014

The HBO documentary, “Banksy Does New York” reviews the anonymous British street artist’s month-long New York “residency” where, in October of 2013, he generated a new work every day for a month, in all five boroughs of the city. In a brief segment of the film, I discuss the artist’s engagement with the writings of Hannah Arendt. The text is part of a lecture, “Banksy: Completed,” in which I follow his clues to reveal the philosophical origins of his work, given in the past year at University of Southern California/Fullerton, the Berkshire Museum, and the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, UK.

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For Day 29 of his unsanctioned sojourn in New York, Banksy repurposed an original artwork, an overwrought pastoral oil painting purchased for $50 from a thrift store. With his painted addition of a solitary Nazi officer seated in contemplation on a bench, the scene of an autumn forest by a river with snowy mountains in the distance is transformed from kitsch Americana to Caspar David Friedrich-esque German Romanticism, the falling yellow leaves now signifying the decline of the Nazi regime as well as a warning, perhaps, of our own social and political decline. Scrawling his signature under that of the original artist, Banksy, on his website (which existed only for the duration of the “residency”), entitled the work "The banality of the banality of evil, oil on oil on canvas, 2013," and described it as "a thrift store painting vandalized then re-donated to the thrift store," with the intention that the proceeds go to the Brooklyn-based nonprofit that benefits homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. Housing Works auctioned it off and ultimately, after much bidding drama, netted at least $450,000.

On the Village Voice blog, writer Raillan Brooks no doubt Googled “the banality of evil” to discover that it was associated with Holocaust survivor and philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “theoretical reckoning of the Nazis' rise to power.” Brooks, concluded, however, that it more likely had “something to do with Banksy not really caring much about what he's actually saying”—when it’s clearly the theme that underlies all his subversive enterprises.

A Report on the Banality of Evil is the subtitle of Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness account of the Nazi criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was accused of engineering the extermination of European Jews. Writing originally in The New Yorker, Arendt expressed shock that Eichmann did not come across as a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” a man whose thinking was so conventional that he spoke only in clichés. This led Arendt to develop her thesis that beyond Hitler’s vile nature, it was the mediocrity of his functionaries, their unwillingness to think for themselves while attempting to fulfill their mundane needs and individual ambitions—hence their banality—that enabled the Nazi atrocities. Therefore Banksy’s title has to do with the original painting being itself a cliché, the work of a painter who is trying to please others rather than thinking for himself, and by inserting the Nazi officer, Banksy is adding a symbol of banality to banality, with his “oil on oil.”

While being tried as a war criminal, Eichmann insisted on his innocence: he never killed anyone or ordered that anyone be killed, nor did he have a grudge against Jews. He was a man eager to get ahead and his job, which he fulfilled efficiently, was to arrange for the transportation of Jewish prisoners to death camps. To do otherwise, he explained on the stand, would be to break the law at the time, and he was not a law-breaker. Their destination was not his responsibility. Upon hearing his sentence of death, Eichmann said, “I am convinced in the depths of my heart that I am being sentenced for the deeds of others.”

This concept is at the heart of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel, The Reader, later made into a film. One of two main characters, Hanna, is being tried for war crime, but she’s not an officer, nothing like it, simply a guard who never considers the possibility that she could defy orders and unlock the burning church in which most of her prisoners die. Like Eichmann, what’s chilling about Hanna is her ordinariness; she’s just doing her job. Arendt suggests that evil is more accidental than intentional, less a result of ideology and conviction than a by-product of petty ambition and the drive for personal security.

Expanding on Arendt’s thesis was Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological experiment that measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to inflict what they thought were electrical shocks on a hidden subject, an actor whose screams they could hear. Milgram concluded that, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.... (when) asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Commenting on this experiment, Banksy has noted, “Garments are symbols of authority and we have a powerful tendency to accept authority….Take the man out of the doctor's costume and his test subjects refuse to do it.”

Ironically, while railing against this failure of humans to question their environment, Banksy consciously uses it to his own ends. Not one to skulk around in a hoodie, as he appears in his 2011 film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” one of his methods for avoiding detection is to look as official as possible.  To “turn invisible” he recommends a high-vis vest, hardhat, clipboard, and business cards—not to speak of three stories of scaffolding under a CCTV camera.

 

It is therefore significant that Banksy’s Nazi officer is not depicted as an ogre, but a lover of nature, which makes him all the more normal and therefore frightening. In that context, Banksy’s entire crusade can be seen as one against what Arendt called a “failure to think” or, in other words, mediocrity and banality in all its forms.

The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages. As a precaution to ever committing major acts of evil it is our solemn duty never to do what we're told, this is the only way we can be sure.

--Banksy, Wall and Piece.

 

June 16, 2014
Photo: Dennis Kardon © 2014
 
There’s much that disturbs me about Kara Walker’s much-laudedand wildly popular installationat Brooklyn’s defunct Domino Sugar refinery, but I’ll start with its undeniable beauty. Made of sparkling white sugar, this gigantic, crouching sphinx-like figure, with curves like a Brancusi, looms like a symbol of purity in the vast darkness and decay of the factory’s interior. The sweet smell is overwhelming, and the piece itself is intended to degrade over time; when I was there, skeletal dark lines were beginning to form between the polystyrene blocks that form the core of the sculpture. Conceptually and figuratively, it’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly fulfills part of nonprofit Creative Time’s original mission to ”support the creation of innovative, site-specific, socially engaged works in the public realm, especially in vacant spaces of historical and architectural interest…while pushing artists beyond their normal boundaries.” [See note below]

 
So why does its beauty upset me? Because the installations’ sheer gorgeousness and spectacle serve as a distraction from the insidious agenda that makes a mockery of another part of Creative Time’s mission, to “foster social progress.”  I have long felt that Walker’s workin which blacks are portrayed as passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual dramadoesn’t invalidate, but rather reinforces the stereotypes whites have imposed on blacks to justify racism, and is entirely dependent on the gratuitous titillation that violence and sex inevitably engender, regardless of the context—or the race of the person who perpetrates them. Walker’s sphinx conflates two familiar white parodies of black women: the big-assed, sexually available Jezebel, with her vulva hanging out for the taking, and her opposite, the maternal, large-breasted but desexualized Mammy, who sublimates her own needs to fulfill those of her white charges.
 
Whites are discouraged from criticizing black artists, but white critics, curators, and collectors are free to ratify work that enrages many black intellectuals, whose protests are then dismissed as attempts at censorship. That Walker’s work is celebrated, even tolerated, tells a lot about the racism that’s still subtly endemic in the art world; it’s hard to imagine a “genius grant” being awarded to an artist, no matter how Jewish, whose specialty was caricatures of big-nosed Jews sucking Nazi dick.

 
Vulgar photos taken by visitors posing with the “sphinx” are all over Instagram, and castigated online by writers who are upset that the artwork is not being shown proper respect. Derived from minstrel shows where whites in blackface lampooned blacks, the caricatures Walker appropriates were created with the specific intention of provoking ridicule. Should we then be surprised when they succeed?

 
Roberta Smith in the Times writes that Walker “evokes the history of the sugar trade, its dependence on slavery and slavery’s particular degradation of women, while also illuminating the plagues of obesity and diabetes that keep so many American dreams unfulfilled.” Yet it can also be said that Walker is providing massive advertising for Domino Sugar, which donated the 80 tons that make up the sculpture. As a sponsor, the familiar Domino logo is prominently featured on a wall at the site as well as Creative Time’s website, and a Google search for ‘“Kara Walker” Domino’ garners over 88,000 links. Statements that speak of “history,” along with the fact that Walker’s images are based nostalgically on our antebellum past, present a view of slavery that locates it dangerously outside the present capitalist global economy—when it is still very much part of it.

 
While Creative Time’s website includes a compelling essay written by the narrator of a documentaryabout the forced and child labor that constitute modern slavery, it doesn’t name the mega-corporation that owns Central Romano, the plantation on which it was filmed: Flo-Sun, of which Domino is its best-known subsidiary. If the people at Creative Time, along with Walker, have seen this film—as indeed they must have in their research—I wonder how they feel about the ironic possibility that Walker’s sculpture might have been enabled by slave labor.

 
Pepe and Alfy Fanjul, who run Flo-Sun, inherited the sugar empire from their Cuban father. Dubbed“the Koch brothers of Southern Florida,” they‘re said to be friends and neighbors of the Kochswho, in comparison with the sugar barons, look like Mother Theresa clones.

 
In the Dominican Republic, the Fanjuls have been subject to repeated allegations of labor exploitation, particularly of undocumented Haitian migrant workers with little to no legal standing before Dominican government institutions. The U.S. Department of Labor includes sugar from the Dominican Republic—much of which comes from Fanjul-owned plantations or is imported to Fanjul-owned refineries—on its annual "List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor."Both a 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary [“The Price of Sugar,” narrated by Paul Newman, view here]and the 2007 film "The Sugar Babies," narrated by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat [author of the Creative Time essay] call attention to the working conditions of impoverished cane-cutters laboring at the Fanjuls' Central Romana. In the United States, meanwhile, opponents of U.S. agricultural subsidies and government protections have long criticized the Fanjuls for building their dominance in the domestic market on the backs of artificially inflated prices and the U.S. taxpayer…. more

 
Essential reading includes the 2001 Vanity Fair article, “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar,” which inspired the two documentaries, a CNN piece on how the Fanjuls could be the “First Family of Corporate Welfare,” and this on their strong-arm tactics with lawmakers, from Wikileaks.

 
You could spend days, as I did, reading about the moral and ethical transgressions of the Fanjuls, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does: In 2010, the Post’s Page Six reported that Pepe Fanjul’s executive assistant of 35 years is the ex-wife of former KKK leader David Duke, and the current wife of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard and member of the American Nazi Party. He now runs white-supremacist Web site StormFront.org. A company representative said, “While we may not agree with someone’s politics, we wouldn’t terminate them for that….We will not discriminate against anybody….”

 
One could also make an issue of the extensive advertising Walker is providing for another sponsor, Two Trees Management, owned by Creative Time board member Jed Walentas, who worked for Trump before taking over his father’s real estate business, and will have 1700 luxury apartments to sell in his massive waterfront development on the site (as well as 700 affordable units, the number bumped up under pressure from Mayor de Blasio). And then there’s the non-renewable polystyrene that went into this gigantic temporary work that, like Styrofoam, could take a million years to break down. However next to the question of how the 80 tons of Fanjul sugar were most likely sourced, these are mere quibbles.

 
So much for institutionalized protest—this is art packaged to look like radicalism while supporting capitalism at its worst.

 
Next: “Occupy!” (The Musical), brought to you by Citibank.

 
Photo: Carol Diehl (2014)
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Note:  I lifted this mission statement from Creative Time’s Wikipedia entry, well aware that it is not same statement that appears on their website. However having been Director of Public Relations (a somewhat hilarious title, given that I was the entire department) for Creative Time in the mid-80’s, when it was a pioneering organization and very true to its nonprofit status, these were the words I used to promote it and feel best represent the inspired vision of founder Anita Contini.

Related reading: The Flying Walentases (on the developers in NY Mag), Marina Budhos's Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links, and Nicholas Powers, Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit
 

September 11, 2013
In my previous post about James Turrell at the Guggenheim and  Robert Irwin’s re-installation of Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light, 1977 at the Whitney (June 27-Sept 1, 2013), I suggested that Irwin might have taken Marcel Breuer’s trapezoidal window as his starting point, given that the window’s narrow black frame appeared to share both color and dimension with his long horizontal bar and the painted black stripe that runs, also horizontally, around the walls. When I wrote to the museum for exact measurements, however, I was told “the curators are unaware of any correlation between the dim [frame] on the window and the width of the black stripe.” Knowing the precise observation inherent in Irwin's work, I decided to put the question to the artist himself. In doing so I gained insight into what Irwin was thinking when he first entered the Whitney gallery 35 years ago, and how the philosophy that drove that piece is still at play in his work today. The following is from a phone conversation on September 3, 2013.

Robert Irwin, Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light, 1977 (reinstalled). Photo: Vaughn Tan

CD: I wrote in my post that the window, whose black frame roughly matches the elements you added, appeared to be your starting point. Is that so?


RI: No. The first thing that struck me when I entered the room at the Whitney, was the black floor. Then there’s the ceiling, not handsome, but a factor, and the quality of the light from the window, the way it disintegrates over the length of the space. And, of course, the sheer size of the room – an empty room of that scale is something you don’t generally encounter in New York. The window is the architect’s revenge; the angles are a perfect perspective to the buildings across the street, and it has a pictorial element, which make’s it almost impossible to show a painting there. Most of the time they have to hide the window. The window is a detail, but not a principal one.


Normally when you walk into the room you take a check—the first responsibility of perception is to keep from being killed—so you check coordinates, rapidly. But I did something at the Whitney that doesn’t stand out, which was paint the wall opposite the window a shade that’s considerably brighter than the other walls—if you were to turn a light on in the room at night, you’d see that it was about 65% gray. So when you come in, you know that something’s not quite right, but only subliminally.


The situation was an opportunity to make a statement about the idea of “conditional” —as well as how, and in what way, the conditional acts in world.


What do you mean by “conditional”?


Instead of being in the studio and conceiving things, the artist isolated in the frame, the idea is that the perceiver can deal with the world itself and make all kinds of value judgments, engage the cognitive self to make decisions in the world. I was intrigued by the idea that rather than creating a metaphor, an artist can function directly in the world….


…and eliminate the “frame,” which includes wall text, labels—all the paraphernalia that designates a thing as “art” and separates it from life.


Yes, in my very first show at MoMA, with Jenny Licht back in 1970, they put a label on the wall and I hired someone to come in and take it off. So when you walked into the room you had to go through the process of asking yourself  “Is this thing finished? Is it intended?”


It’s about using the same elements in the museum and the outside world, making something, but not really making anything, just pointing it out. If we take the history of modern art as a question, does “making” equal “art”? Is it necessary to make something or can it be about operating in the world as it is? I just took it one step farther.


The one thing that distinguishes each of my students from the other is an individual sensibility; my job as a teacher is to help them find that key element, and develop it. So I come to a situation and add to that existing dialogue from what’s at the core of my being an artist.


I’m not a landscape designer, but made a garden at the Getty. The same with the design of the Dia:Beacon. I am not an architect.




Getty Garden. iPhone photograph. f/2.8. Copyright (c) Joanne Mason 2011.

I recently had a conversation with an artist, and when I told him you designed the Dia:Beacon, he said, “But there’s nothing there. He didn’t really do anything to it.” He meant that your signature wasn’t on it. I thought you’d like that.


When I consider a space, I don’t have to bring to it other kinds of abstract rationale.

The Dia doesn’t act as a piece of art. When architects design museums, they are creating major pieces of sculpture. In the beginning, they have pure intentions, but when it becomes big business, they start to act as if they’re artists. It’s unethical to build a building that doesn’t function.


So getting back to the Whitney, it can’t be coincidence that the frame around the window matches the bar and painted stripe.


No, of course not. The window is definitely an element in the vocabulary. And there are only a few others in that space: the floor, the disintegration of light over the space, the ceiling. Of those the disintegration of the light was probably the most appealing aspect for me. The light is a subject that goes through this amazing exercise before your eyes, which the scrim then multiplies...sometimes opaque, sometimes transparent.


It’s interesting that your show coincided with Turrell’s at the Guggenheim – both involving space, light, iconic architecture….


But it’s not fair to compare Turrell’s current work with something I did 35 years ago—35 years is a long time in a life. And when I did it, it was like I threw a rock in a pond and there were no ripples. Now it’s a cause célèbre; it just took that amount of time to get back to me. The same with a column I made in 1971, that's just now found a home in the San Diego Federal Courthouse.



I can understand why, though. At the exhibition I saw at Chicago’s MCA in 1975, you did two pieces: the scrim wedge and one that was simply—to my mind at the time—a black bar running around the floor. I was hugely affected by the scrim piece, but it was too early in my life as an artist for me to understand the other. Now I would get it in a flash. Maybe people are just catching up.


Robert Irwin, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1975.

Further reading: Carol Diehl, "Robert Irwin: Doors of Perception," Art in America, December, 1999.


August 26, 2013

Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch you add in other places.

—John Ruskin


The work promotes a state of contemplation in a communal viewing space, rekindling the museum’s founding identity as a “temple of spirit”—Guggenheim Museum press release for James Turrell’s Aten Reign, on view through September 25, 2013.


For the past several weeks I’ve been trying to make sense of my profound underwhelm with James Turrell’s otherwise much-touted light extravaganza at the Guggenheim. I love the Guggenheim; the architecture makes any reason to go there a special event, and now one of my most-admired artists has filled the atrium with a giant hollow cone of light and color which, ovoid and tiered like a wedding cake, floats over a seating area like a flying saucer. Gently diffused by the cone’s scrim-like fabric, LED lights gradually shift from one gradated color to another, while muted natural light filters in through the skylight. What’s not to like?


It should be right up my alley. Turrell’s permanent installation at MoMA/PS1, Meeting (1986) is at the top of my ten best list. In addition, I’ve spent a good part of my professional life writing about Robert Irwinand Olafur Eliasson, who work with perception and light in similar ways. I also have a special affinity with Turrell because I, too, come from Quaker stock and have been a practicing Quaker. Meditation and contemplation are important parts of my life.


However, seated in the atrium at the press preview, instead of going into rapture, I began thinking about Eliasson’s circular 360°Room(s) for all Colors of similarly changing hues. There visitors are highlighted participants, lit like fashion models against a seamless background, where here they appeared to have little relationship with the piece that hovered above them.  I also thought about how, in those Eliasson pieces, you can walk right up to the “wall,” which seems to have no substance but that of color, and practically put your nose in it—while the entire experience Turrell has created at the Guggenheim is “up there.” Not significantly related to the scale of my body, it felt separate from me, which meant I didn’t have the desired heightened awareness of my place in it—I was not, to employ the overused phrase, “seeing myself seeing”—any more than I would at a fireworks display. In every work of art the “here” and “there” are important aspects; to be fully satisfying, I want even a painting to tell me something up close as well as from a distance. In an installation, it’s even more important, because if my situation as a visitor isn’t fully developed, I don’t feel a connection with whatever else is going on.



Olafur Eliasson. 360° room for all colours. 2002. Stainless steel, projection foil, fluorescent lights, wood, and control unit, 126 x 321 x 321" (320 x 815.3 x 815.3 cm). Private collection. Installation view at Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © 2008 Olafur Eliasson


The most important aspect, however, of “seeing ourselves seeing” is that our perception is challenged to the point that we no longer trust our normal visual clues. This produces a particular state of self-consciousness that merges with the work—and at this, Turrell has been a master. In his Skyscapes, like the one at PS1, the sky becomes a “thing” you feel you could almost touch, with the result that you find yourself simultaneously questioning it and yourself. And looking at one of his early, simple corner light projections, your brain processes it as a cube with actual mass, even though you know it isn’t.  Nothing like that happens at the Guggenheim; while it’s beautiful, even stunning, there’s no mystery. What you see is what you get—an indication that the line between art and lighting design (which has become extremely sophisticated through the influence of artists) is now very, very thin.



James Turrell, Meeting(1986) MoMA/PS1. Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011


“He’s an orchestrator of experience,” Chuck Close has said of Turrell—but what makes up that experience? Where does it start and stop? Does it begin when you hear about it from a friend, or read a review? Those are things the artist can’t control, but he can influence what happens from the minute you walk through the door.


And what’s that like? My friend, David, a hospital administrator who made the mistake of visiting the Guggenheim with his out-of-town family on a weekend, described it as…“Horrible. Like Disneyland. There were 4-5 lines squeezed into the walled-off lobby, and you’re trying to get in line and bumping into everyone…and once you get your ticket and come into the atrium you’re trying to look up but can’t because there are so many people. It was pretty, but hardly transcendent. The architecture was all covered up and you could have been anywhere. And then, still bumping into people, you walked up the walled-off ramp, which felt like a missed [artistic] opportunity, to stand in more lines. Not that we were looking to be entertained, but we were looking for $20 worth of something.”


Another friend said the guards were ordering people around, telling them to get off the floor if they tried to lay on it….”It’s not their fault,” he said, “They were only doing their job, but it could have been managed better.”


So how much of that has to do with Turrell? I think it all does.


Much to the annoyance of painting students when I refuse to overlook a warped stretcher (the perpetual question being, “Is this intentional?”), I have always contended that everything that falls into my experience is part of the piece—a view that has fueled my no-doubt tedious bloggy diatribes against artists’ statements, wall text, audio tours, black-out curtains, headphones, etc. 


I was irritated when, a few years ago, I found that entrance to a Turrell installation, required shedding my shoes and donning floppy Tyvek protective booties. While surely an over-reaction on the part of one who’s invested too much in her fashion statement, I interpreted this as a power play on the part of the artist (“Really? Part of your piece is to make me look ridiculous?”).


So yes, in my book, the queues, crowd control, and the need for crowd control are all part of it.  This is, after all, the same museum that, in 2010, featured relational aesthetics guru, Tino Seghal, whose piece involved engaging visitors in conversation. After that and many similar, such as Martha Rosler’s garage sale and Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, both recently at MoMA, it would be arbitrary to insist that personal interactions are significant in one circumstance, but not in another.


Eliasson (who was largely inspired by Robert Irwin, also my biggest influence, and now both have shaped my thinking) was aware of this responsibility on the part of the artist back in 2003, when he configured his monumental weather project at the Tate Modern. Approaching the institution as a whole, part of his preparation involved talking to members of each of the museum’s departments to discuss how their roles would impact his project.


 Olafur Eliasson, weather project (2003), Tate Modern


Eliasson also configured something that could handle the crowds it brought—which raises a related question: what is the artist’s accountability to the social situation his work is creating and/or occupying? For defenders of Richard Serra’s threatening Tilted Arc, which after much controversy, was ultimately removed from a busy office plaza, the answer was “None.” But much has gone on since 1989, with artists now more aware of, and willing to embrace, the public nature of their work. If relational aesthetics has had a positive impact, it has been to highlight the artist’s role in configuring the entire art experience.


Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)

All of this casts doubt on the decision to turn Frank Lloyd Wright’s soaring masterpiece into a confined area that requires limited entrance—and attempt to create a relatively intimate space in a public institution whose most basic function is to accommodate large numbers of people. Another power play perhaps?


I like to think of “generosity” in terms of public sculpture/installation, as a measure of the number of ways a work may fulfill the artist’s intention to successfully affect his audience. For example, few works are more “generous” than Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Installed in 2006 and nicknamed “The Bean” for its shape, this giant organic structure of highly polished stainless steel is engaging day and night, from afar, up close, and even underneath, involves light, reflection, and movement, and is as affective in the presence of crowds as it would be in solitude.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), Chicago.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), video: Carol Diehl (2012).

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6) View from underneath. Video: Carol Diehl (2012).

This is not to say that art has to be popular or even pleasing, but that it fulfills its purpose on every level. Therefore, if the intention of a piece was about the frustration of not being able to see it, say, then the question of its success would be, was everyone sufficiently frustrated?

Frustration and contemplation, however, do not go together.


Meanwhile, the frustration at the Guggenheim continues even after one leaves the atrium and attempts to see Turrell’s earlier works by joining the crowds to ascend the museum’s curving ramps, now claustrophobic tunnels with “walls” of opaque white fabric that block any view of the atrium. As students know, one of the first questions one asks when evaluating any sculpture is, does it perform equally well from all sides, or does it have a “dead zone?” This is something sculptors like Mark de Suvero and Richard Serra have obviously given a lot of thought to—as did the ancient Greeks. And especially now that sculpture engages the scale and dynamics of architecture, just as with personal interactions, it seems arbitrary to insist that we shouldn’t take the outside of Turrell’s cone into consideration as an integral part of the piece—it was, as my friend, David, put it, a “missed opportunity.”


Unattributed, possibly a Roman copy from the Greek
Opaque white scrim along ramps, blocking views across the rotunda
Photo by

Jenny Holzer, 
ROBERT IRWIN: SCRIM VEIL—BLACK RECTANGLE—NATURAL LIGHT, WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK (1977)
JUNE 27–SEPT 1, 2013 Photo: Carol Diehl 2013

PART II Robert Irwin on "Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light (1977)" recently at the Whitney

Further reading:

Roberta Smith on Turrell "New Light Fixture for Famous Rotunda"  and Irwin "Ineffable Emptiness: From Dawn to Dusk"

Gabrielle Selz "Considering Perception: Robert Irwin and James Turrell": a look at their shared history.

Lee Rosenbaum: "Turrell's Skyspace Obscures the Sky"

Blake Gopnik: "Has the Sage Turrell Sold Out?"

July 27, 2013
I just got an email from the Park Avenue Armory that Paul McCarthy’s installation is over August 4th. And not a moment too soon!


Debauchery seems so old fashioned, so last century, that McCarthy’s attempt to shove it down our throats (haha) with this massive installation seems almost quaint. There was a time when it might have been helpful to goose us (there I go again) out of our inhibitions, but we were liberated decades ago. We had the 60s, 70s, and 80s, “Satyricon,” “Last Tango,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and that Japanese film where the guy cuts off his penis—not to speak of Acconci masturbating under a platform and Mapplethorpe, whose S&M photos are now classics. With the exception of the New York Post and a few mouthpieces on the Christian Right we are, as a culture, un-shockable—and even those starched shirts are probably not really shocked, but simply using it as another weapon in their power play. In an era where Internet porn of every flavor is available 24/7, we need more debauchery like we need another film about cars blowing up.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled, c. 1973 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.  Used by permission.

Further, it’s easy to be depraved—just as it’s easier to be sloppy than scrupulous, disgusting than poetic. The irony is that McCarthy, whose work is a reaction to super-scrubbed, sexually-repressed Disney productions, is not more artful than his stimulus. Like Disney, he insists on controlling the entire experience, leaving no room for the imagination.


Compare McCarthy’s heavy-handed interpretation with Judy Fox’s Snow White (2007), whose simple representation of a adolescent girl in all of her nakedness and vulnerability is actually more disturbing.



Judy Fox, Snow White, 2007, terra cotta, casein, 8.5 x 58 x 25 inches


Not to speak of her dwarfs--here Sloth (2007), not a character you'd like to find yourself in a dark corner with:



Judy Fox, Sloth2007 terra cotta and casein, 21 x 16 x 16.5 inches


I was thinking that the most responsive audience for McCarthy’s piece would be the seventh-grade boys who won’t be allowed in, which led me to wonder what would happen if you got a bunch of those boys, gave them an unlimited budget, and told them to be as gross as they wanted. Now that might be interesting. It might even be funny.


*****
Jerry Saltz on the McCarthy exhibition here.

May 23, 2013
Matt Freedman, Dead Man's Hand, epoxy and cards, 2013.

I’ve started writing this post a million times, but there’s no good way to begin. Okay, there’s an exhibition at Studio 10 in Bushwick by my beloved friend, Matt Freedman, who’s been strenuously treated for a rare form of cancer since the fall. The show, in Matt’s ironic, funny, touching, and self-deprecating way, is about his experience, and although heartbreaking, it’s not depressing. It’s just Matt, and art. Not art meant for the walls of the 1%, not art to further a career, not art meant to make a pithy statement about the human condition or to show off craft, but art made because Matt is an artist and this is how he processes the events of his life. If you want to know what art really is, this is it.


The title of the exhibition is “The Devil Tricked Me,” and indeed we could say the devil tricked all of us who know Matt, who has not a mean bone in his body. In the more than 20 years I’ve known him, I can’t remember hearing him say anything against anyone. Wickedly smart and without a shred of guile (two characteristics that often don’t go together), Matt's conversation tends toward humorous, gently ironic observation—as does his writing and art—and here he is observing himself face-to-face with mortality and his heroic attempts to thwart it. The 13 objects, all depicting folk admonitions of bad luck—broken mirrors, “three on a match,” stepping on a crack in the sidewalk—were made, for obvious reasons, without a lot of attention to craft. Yet nothing could be more heart wrenching than Matt’s pile of open and slightly crushed umbrellas, those fragile objects made to protect us that can so often fail. And the rainbow-colored ladder, which we must walk under, could be a stairway to heaven or, as I prefer to think of it, a way out, the escape route back to normal life.



Along with the exhibition are reproductions, for sale, of the journal with sketches Matt made during his extreme treatment. Again, I can only read a little bit each day, but it’s a way of keeping Matt in my thoughts. As his friends, we won’t let the devil trick us—having Matt in our lives is some of the best luck we’ll ever have. We love you, Matt!

Update: And here, a detailed and eloquent review of the show by Thomas Mitchell.




May 29, 2012
I’m in Barcelona where, for me, the highlight is the best hot chocolate in the world. Known as un suisin 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 optionsclearly 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!

May 27, 2012
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
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.

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