Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
©The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc
If, after the Orozco show, you want to indulge your senses in a retrograde manner, hop on over to the same place we first saw those Dannon lids, the Marian Goodman Gallery, and wallow in Gerhard Richter’s gorgeous scraped abstractions, up through January 9th.
Then there’s Jerry Saltz’s review in New York (June 25) of the Gavin Brown/Urs Fischer conceived “group show” entitled “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns” at Tony Shafrazi Gallery (through July 12th), a mishmash of authenticity, appropriation and reproduction that Roberta Smith called “demonically aerobic to brain and eye” and Saltz wrote is “like some mad replicating vision machine, or a walk-in Louise Lawler” that was intended to “set art free from the context of the white box.” I’m as weary of the “white box” as anyone, but I don’t find the tag sale aesthetic of “Who’s Afraid,” where every image seems to cancel out every other image, a viable replacement. Howard Halle, in Time Out, called it a “deeply cynical meditation on the deeply cynical nature of the contemporary art world.” To me it felt toxic, was toxic—given the out-gassing fumes from Ron Pruitt’s plastic bag “waterfall” and Rudolf Stingel’s new but visitor-smudged white wall-to-wall carpeting—an environment to be exited as soon as possible.
The back-story is much more interesting. I mean if you were to write a novel about a guy who sprays paint on Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA and then goes on to fame and fortune as purveyor of graffiti-based art, it would be just too cheesy. It’s a story that I've always felt revealed the rotten core of the art world. But to bring it up-to-date, here’s Shafrazi, 34 years later, at the after-party for ”Who’s Afraid,” being presented with a birthday cake that’s a giant replica of the Guernica.
Saltz writes: Brown climbed atop a table and, amid much yelling, toasted Shafrazi. He then thrust a cake decorator filled with red icing into Shafrazi’s hands. As the crowd screamed, Brown implored, “Write, Tony, Write!” Shafrazi started moving the device over the cake. Slowly he wrote the words I AM SORRY. Time stood still. It was like an angel of redemption had entered the room to take away Shafrazi’s guilt. The room went silent. I was shocked. The Shafrazi began writing again. He wrote one more word: NOT! It was like the Sopranos finale. Just as you thought everything was going to change, everything became more of what it already was.
And that sums up the exhibition: something that purports to be new and different but is really just more of the same old.
I first became conscious of this phenomenon two years ago when I read Jerry Saltz’s review in the Voice of the 2006 Biennial, where he starts off with “ ‘Day for Night’ is the liveliest, brainiest, most self-conscious Whitney Biennial I have ever seen,” while the next paragraph begins, “’Day for Night’ is filled with work I’m not interested in…..” –then switches gears with, “Nevertheless, the show is a compelling attempt to examine conceptual practices and political agency, consider art that is not about beauty,” etc. He talks some more about what he doesn’t like (“The show is not without problems…” “This brings us to an irksome feature of this show and many like it…”) before flipping back to, “A number of artists stand out….” so that by the time we finish we’ve completely forgotten that he’s writing about work he’s “not interested in.”
This is the dilemma of full-time critics—they have to write about a lot of stuff, so they either have to like a lot of stuff or write about a lot of stuff they don’t like and in doing so they don’t want to come off as too dismissive, lest they get a reputation like Hilton Kramer’s.
This year, in “When Cool Turns Cold,” a thoughtful analysis of what he aptly calls “the Art School Biennial,” Saltz makes it almost to the end before falling into the trap saying, “On the upside, [the curators] Momin and Huldisch should be congratulated for mounting a thoughtful show that, while academic, is neither dogmatic…nor sprawling…nor sexist…” and concludes with an upswing, reaching for a “striking moment” or two when, earlier on, he already said it all: “There’s little that’s overtly sexual, shocking, angry, colorful, traditionally beautiful or decorative, almost no madness or chaos. The show doesn’t alchemically add up to more than the sum of its parts.”
Peter Schjeldahl starts off by calling this year’s Biennial “the most poetic I can remember” but gives an example of that only at the end, a work that “enchanted” him, while the in-between is filled with descriptions of things that didn’t, his detailed attention giving them more weight than they deserve. I must say he nails the Rachel Harrison experience, however, when he calls her, “the leading light of new sculpture…[who knows] precisely what she means—and you would too if you were just the littlest bit smarter than you are.”
Holland Cotter (who took no joy in the Armory building itself, calling it a “moldering pile”) does the flip-flip thus: “The 2008 edition is…an unglamorous, even prosaic affair, the installation plain and unfocused” with works that have “uncharismatic surfaces, complicated backstories,” followed by, “There are certainly dynamic elements” followed by, “But again, the overall tenor of the show is low-key…” and then “Hard-liner believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog. But if the show is heedless of traditional beauty, it is also firm in its faith in artists as thinkers and makers rather than production-line workers meeting market demands.”
However, I would posit that if Biennial artists were truly “thinkers and makers” their output would be more engaging. Also I want to point out to the world at large that we, as artists, seek “visual pleasure” not because we’re playing to the market but because we are, ahem, visual artists and therefore, not coincidentally, concerned with things visual.
The Biennial, if not beloved—in fact often called “the show you love to hate”—but which at least used to generate excitement, has been slowly losing gas to the point that it’s become so inconsequential that maybe next time these guys can forgo writing about it altogether and put their talents toward covering events that, pro or con, stir their souls.
I believe execution is only one component of painting, and important only to the degree that it supports the content. God knows, painters with great technical ability have been using it in the service of poor image choices since the beginning of painting. Ideally, in painting or any form of art, execution and concept should merge so completely that we’re no longer aware of either; we’re not thinking, “How did he do that?” or “What a cool idea!” but are one with an experience that goes beyond words, beyond thinking.
Therefore Currin’s technique didn’t interest me because his content didn’t interest me; I found it cynical, mannered, and soul-less in the extreme. And when I read that this most recent show was “long on pornography,” getting on the Lex to see it began to seem even more like an effort not worth undertaking. Am I anti-porn? Not necessarily, although it’s not an active part of my life, and whatever prurient interest it may once have held has been dulled by the sheer amount of it in galleries. That, plus the waves of porn-derived art that seem to hit, every few years, the schools in which I occasionally teach, have left me pretty porn-ed out. I feel about porn the way I do about Christmas music, which is that over-exposure has rendered me incapable of mustering any response whatsoever.
So the Currin exhibition had three strikes against it—besides being Currin, it was uptown and pornographic—until I read a short panegyric by Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, accompanied by a tiny reproduction of a straight-forward portrait of the artist’s young son, one of two such paintings in the exhibition, which Schjeldahl described simply as “ravishing.” It was enough to get me on the subway.
And it was worth it. The two small paintings, interspersed inexplicably among graphically sexual ones (since I don’t believe in psychoanalyzing artists or attempting to guess their intentions, I’m not going to comment on this bizarre aspect of the exhibition), were painted with all the attention and tenderness of Chardin, and indescribably beautiful. Taking up the challenge in the artists’ adage that the hardest subjects to paint are sunsets and babies, Currin’s skill enabled him to avoid the obvious trap of sentimentality; far from sappy, these paintings are lovingly observed and alive with all of the aching delight of parenthood. They were enough to make me swallow my words and admit to myself (and now, finally, to Schjeldahl) that Currin is, or rather can be, a wonderful painter.
RS: There is another body of work which is perhaps more surprising than the landscapes in certain ways—the paintings you made in 1995 of your wife and young child. These are very unexpected paintings.
GR: Maybe because there are so many of them.
RS: Both the number and the subject.
GR: The subject? Because there are children in the painting?
GR: I can’t quite understand why this should be so extraordinary.
RS: It’s unexpected because it seems very private.
GR: Very private, yes. The only difference is that I have become more shameless. I am not as ashamed anymore, and I am not afraid anymore. My fears have abated somewhat. I don’t feel as if I have to behave properly. Somehow I finally understood that I am allowed to do what I want.
I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and start painting their kids—that would be awful. But I am saying that forms of art other than those recognized by the academicized avant garde may still be relevant, and that there are more possibilities for content than that derived from the media, a trend that has gone on at least twenty-five years too long. It just happens that I’m reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and came across a quote from composer Morton Feldman who said something like, “What looks radical may be conservative and what seems conservative may be radical” (I’ve lost the exact reference and will correct it when I find it). And this paragraph (p.354):