Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Frank Stella

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

March 19, 2008
Guess which is which

Last month (2/28) New York magazine featured “Lindsay Lohan as Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Last Sitting,’” by the photographer of the original MM shoot, Bert Stern, and the March “Hollywood Issue” of Vanity Fair features a portfolio of photographs in which contemporary film stars reenact classic moments from various Hitchcock films. Do today’s stars have so little charisma on their own that they have to imitate? It’s hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe being interested in mimicking, say, Carole Lombard, or Grace Kelly wanting to pose as any star other than herself. The only effect these wooden facsimiles had on me was to make me long to see the originals—as well as ruminate on how much I hate art about art.

Or do I? It occurs to me that one of my favorite musical conceits is the cover. Often you more clearly see musicians’ true virtuosity when they take something that seems utterly perfect and untouchable in the original and make it completely their own, Probably my all-time favorite is Tori Amos’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I love how Ryan Adams transforms Oasis’s signature “Wonderwall” into a tender ballad, Madeleine Peyroux makes a torch song out of Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” and the way Elizabeth Cook countrifies the heck out of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”….this is a subject about which I could go on and on.

However while good musical covers can often seem like collaborations between greats, when it comes to visual art they tend to cancel each other out. Off hand, I can think of only a few examples of “art about art” that have ever blown me away. One was a series of Warhol paintings after de Chirico that I once saw at a Basel Art Fair and, of course, there’s Yves Klein’s “Venus de Milo” Most of the time, however, it sets up a comparison—with the viewer in the position of judge—where one side, usually the interpreter, inevitably loses. If you’re not as good as the artist you’re borrowing from or commenting on—David Salle appropriating Chardin, for instance, only makes us think about how much better a painter Chardin was—why bring attention to that? And if you’re better, why lower yourself with inferior material?

Well, yes, I did recently do a drawing/painting based a sculpture by Frank Stella, but then I get to contradict myself.
August 12, 2007
A month or so ago I was painting in the manner of Gerhard Richter. Now I find myself laboriously drawing a Frank Stella as the basis for a painting. I’m surprised at this recent tendency of mine, because I’ve always loathed art about art, thinking it was way too art world-y self-referential in the most pretentious way (as if being art world-y self-referential could be anything but pretentious). Besides, if you’re an artist and your work is better than the artist you’re referencing you’re dragging yourself down, and if that artist’s work is better than yours (think David Salle aping Chardin) the result will be an unfavorable comparison. Also I’m always ranting about wanting to see original—as in “not borrowed”—imagery in art. Nevertheless, I’m having fun—I think of it as collaborating with Frank—although I’m sure it’s taking me much longer to do this drawing than it did for Stella to make the sculpture. And I suppose if Stella can base a part of his oeuvre on a dog toy (see Does Frank Stella have a dog? May), I can base a painting on a Stella that’s based on a dog toy. We’re getting very derivative here.
May 17, 2007
I received the invitation to Frank Stella's new exhibition at the Paul Kasmin Gallery (up through July 6th) and noted a marked resemblance between elements in his sculptures and the toy my neighbor's dogs left in the yard: