Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

March 22, 2013

After I wrote in a recent post about how, in the mid-eighties, seeing Basquiat's work caused me to stop exhibiting my paintings, a Facebook friend responded:  " ...too bad, but understandable. You shouldn't have stopped, Carol." 

Maybe, but I had to.

Looking back, I know I absolutely could not have worked out what I did if I’d stayed in the ring. I needed to abandon all other considerations, all other expectations.  Success gets a bad rap these days but in its right place, I’m all for it. The success I had early on was the encouragement I needed to define myself as an artist. Success can often make you bigger and better, as you rise to occasions, meet expectations, and surprise yourself by going beyond them. It made me an artist. But then there came a time when the only way to get at the nub of what I was doing was to give it all up, even actively work against any possibility of outside interest. With no one watching, I had complete freedom to fail—or maybe “flail” is a better word. That 10-year period of working undercover culminated in the journal paintings, and another significant burst of public activity that lasted several years. The final paintings in that series, exhibited at Gary Snyder in 2002, represented the apex of more than 30 years of work. Afterward, having developed them as far as they could go, I needed to regroup, start from zero. This meant withdrawing again, as I felt unable to “find myself” or evolve as an artist in public. I'm not saying this is true for everyone, just what was true for me, and not a path I'd necessarily recommend, as it can be rather uncomfortable. It has helped that writing, an activity I see entirely as "research" for my painting, has enabled me to stay in the general conversation, whether my painting is or not. And believe me, all this is clear only in retrospect; I had no idea what I was doing at the time or why. It was simply what I had to do to keep my process interesting to me, to keep it alive and myself engaged. And right now I’m more engaged than ever. I’m also confident that I’ve finally learned enough about myself and my process that I can sustain it in or out of the public eye.

Carol Diehl,  Resolutions (Blue Quad), 2002, oil on canvas, 96" x 82".

Carol Diehl, untitled (as yet), 2013, graphite and ink on paper, 12" x 16".
March 15, 2013

Exactly 37 years ago, on the Ides of March, I moved from Chicago to New York to work as John Coplans’ assistant at Artforum. At the CAA convention in Chicago a couple of months before, manning the booth for The New Art Examiner, I met Coplans and asked him to let me know if he heard of a job in New York. Mind you, I had no intention of moving anywhere; I said it because I wanted to appear worldlier than my young, green, Midwestern self. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be someone who would actually say things like that. 

So when Coplans called and offered me the job I was stunned. He also gave me only three days to decide and ten days to get myself there. My children were in Chicago, living with my husband—how could I leave? But my artist friends were insistent. At the time Artforum was the sun that rose and set on the art world; it was like being invited to Oz by the Wizard himself. A creature of the suburbs and married at 19, I didn't know New York, had never been to the museums and galleries I’d read about, so decided that if I could find a place to stay, I’d go for a couple of months and treat it like a work/study program. Coplans could always find another assistant.

When I called Spanish artist Àngels Ribé, who’d spent time in Chicago, and asked if she knew of an apartment, she said she was looking for a roommate. It seemed meant to be—except Àngels lived on the Bowery. My friend, Barry Holden, had visited her there, so I asked him, “Aren’t there like bums and stuff on the Bowery?” “Oh no,” he said, “it’s been gentrified. There are galleries and boutiques all up and down.” (This was 1976.)

My friends who worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art packed my stereo system like art and I took it on the plane with me, along with my suitcases (those were the days!). When the taxi dropped me off in front of 331 Bowery, Àngels didn’t answer my ring, and as I waited, my boxes attracted the curiosity of the denizens of the street who surrounded me. I looked around for the galleries and boutiques but didn’t see any. Maybe they were on the next block. I tried to drag my belongings into the ground-floor shop but the owner wasn’t having it. Could I use the door that entered into the hallway? “It doesn’t work,” he said, “hasn’t since the fire.” When was the fire? “Last Thursday.”

Finally Àngels came bouncing down the street in the company of one of (I found out later) a string of handsome boy friends, and they helped me take my things upstairs. The next day, having stepped over a drunk on the floor of our foyer, I took the subway to the Artforum offices on Madison Avenue. When later I asked Coplans why he gave me so little time to make the move, he said, “I knew if I gave you more, you wouldn’t come.” And when, after having searched the Bowery from one end to the other, I asked Barry about the galleries and boutiques, he said, “I knew if I told you the truth, you wouldn’t go.”

JOHN COPLANS, Self portrait, (SP 8 88), Front Hand Pinched,1988, photograph, ed. 12, circa 52x64cm

March 9, 2013

Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold), 1981
Acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas
50 x 50 inches  (127 x 127 cm)
© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, ARS, New York 2013

Every year at this time my friend, Terry Perk, comes from England with his students from the University for the Creative Arts and I take them on a gallery tour of Chelsea. Last year the art was so bad I was embarrassed for New York. This year it was a feast, although really, the Basquiats alone would have made the trip worthwhile. Terry says they don’t really know Basquiat in England; there have been no major shows, and the printed images give no indication of their power.

Basquiat had a formidable effect on my life – to the point that in the mid-1980s I stopped painting and withdrew from the gallery I was about to join. I envied the freedom in his work and hated what I saw as orderliness and constraint in mine. I thought, “If I can’t do that, why bother?” My absence from the studio lasted only a few months, but I would not show for another ten years, which was how long it took me to learn to appreciate what was, if uncomfortably, indelibly mine. My method was to make paintings so personal that no one would be interested in exhibiting them. Proof of this is that my first painting from that time, All the Numbers in My Head includes my Social Security number and my AmEx number. I had used writing in my paintings since 1976, but often it was obscured. Now, since I was sure no one was going to see them, I could be more revealing. Eventually they turned into paintings derived from my journals that were ultimately shown at the same gallery I'd been talking to ten years before – although that was pure coincidence since, in the interim, the gallery had a complete change of personnel. Seeing the Basquiats today, those spooky Boettis down the street—preceded by the work of Suzan Frecon and the late Alan Uglow, artists with whom I’ve had connections in the past—is almost too much to process. All of those exhibitions I’ve now been to several times, each visit more satisfying than the next, as well as the transfixing video by Ragnar Kjartansson at Luhring Augustine, with whom my relationship is, at least as yet, uncomplicated.

Carol Diehl, January1997
Oil on canvas, 36" x 36"

To see:

John Byam / Edlin / 134 Tenth Ave. / thru 3/16

Alan Uglow organized by Bob Nickas / Zwirner / 519 W 19 / thru 3/23

Suzan Frecon / Zwirner / 525 W 19 /

Matthew Weinstein; Elger Esser / Sonnabend / 536 W 22 /

Alighiero Boetti / Gladstone / 515 W 24 /

Ragnar Kjartansson / Luhring Augustine / 531 W 24 / thru 3/18

Andrew Masullo / Boone / 541 W 24 / thru 4/27

Jean-Michel Basquiat / Gagosian / 555 W 24 / thru 4/6

Thomas Nozkowski / Pace / 508 W 25 / thru 3/23

Thomas Nozkowski (drawings) / Pace / 511 W 25

Anthony McCall; James White / Kelly / 475 Tenth Avenue @ 36

March 2, 2013

The Alighiero e Boetti exhibition is at Gladstone Gallery until March 23rd, and I have been twice. My life has been full of so many unexplainable synchronistic events that I don’t know why I should be surprised when another crops up, but my relationship to this artist is one of the spookiest. As I wrote previously, I didn’t know Boetti’s work until my dealer at the time, Frank del Deo of Hirshl & Adler, pointed out that some of my paintings were nearly identical to his. This was in 1995; Boetti died in 1994. Of course I looked up his work, and—yikes!—it was like looking at myself. The configuration, the colors, the stylized letters were the same—the only difference was that the Boettis were embroidered and mine were painted. Okay, it could just be those few paintings, but the more I learned about Boetti, the more similarities I found. At the recent MoMA retrospective, for instance, I discovered that he had employed the same way of writing script over script to obscure it that I had, and that he made works with round Avery press-on labels – which I have drawers full. The physical proportion of all of our work is nearly the same. Even the pieces I didn’t do anything like feel familiar, like something I could have done had I followed the thread. This time at Gladstone I found walls full of small pieces that echo a moment in my life when I made small square gridded paintings with friends’ names as gifts….every time I see a piece of his, it’s a shock, like unexpectedly catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror. And what does it all mean? Absolutely nothing. That’s the weirdest part.

Carol Diehl, Journal of a Year, 1995, oil on canvas, one panel of four, each 80" x 48"

OGGI VENTICINQUESIMO GIORNO OTTAVO MESE DELL ANNO MILLE NOVE 100 OTTANTOTTO ALL AMATO PANTHEON INCONTRI E SCONTRI (1988), embroidery on fabric; 40 1/2 x 43 1/2 inches (102.9 x 110.5 cm). Courtesy Gladstone Gallery. 
February 16, 2013

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 Brownwhere, 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)
February 6, 2013

Art began with religion. Only recently in human history have allusions (other than cynical) to spirituality in art become an anathema among, by artist Altoon Sultan, and another video.

January 22, 2013

Thinking about, as we were, satisfying uses of MoMA’s Atrium, Wolfgang Laib’s large piece, Pollen from Hazelnut, with its lovely wispy edges, was installed today (up through March 11th). Although it was put on the calendar over a year ago, it comes at the right psychological moment: the perfect antidote to Martha Rosler’s garage sale (see below), it’s a harbinger of spring at winter’s darkest moment, embodying a spirit of optimism many people feel about 2013. No photos from MoMA are yet available, but at least the iPhone captures the glow. (You can read my cover story on Laib's work, Art in America, 2001, here.)

January 15, 2013

Happy 2013! I haven’t thought of a thing to Vent about after a month of mental housecleaning in the form of daily kundalini yoga and meditation at Golden Bridge Yogain L.A. Then last night, a friend told me about a friend of hers, a filmmaker who, frightened of giving a museum talk, discovered beta-blockers—and what my friend, who hadn’t heard about them, considered an exciting breakthrough, I saw as a missed opportunity.

So the filmmaker took the beta-blockers, and what she gained was a successful museum talk, which is now over, and the knowledge that if she has a problem, she can take a pill. But what if she’d seen it as a challenge she could train for and conquer? She might have gained confidence and skills she could draw on for the rest of her life.

(I see curators stumbling through presentations, and I think, get a coach! This is part of your job, why not get good at it? In fact the museums would benefit if they regarded this as an integral part of job training.)

My friend, Hugeutte, was 52 when she decided to overcome her lifelong fear of driving a car. The driving teacher warned her that few first-timers over 30 can become good drivers, but was willing to give her a test drive. Huguette performed well on the test drive, took lessons, and later said, “I know I’ll be a better painter for having learned to drive.”

I have no problem speaking in public—in fact I love it—but it was not always thus. My first experience was when I was 24, working on a political campaign and being interviewed by telephone for a radio show, which resulted in what seemed like an eternity, but was no doubt only seconds of terrifying dead time. I remember watching my co-workers in the office with their ears to the radio listening to.…nothing. And while I later became a slam poet who, a friend said, only needed a stage, microphone, and an audience of 200 to feel entirely comfortable, I did harbor a secret public performance phobia: the piano.

I started playing when I was five and in the middle of my first recital at seven or eight – I remember a white hall and a big black shiny grand piano – I went blank. My teacher had to run and get the music, and I was mortified. Despite 20 more years of rigorous classical training, only my neighbors* knew I could play. My teacher, Lili Simon, who studied at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest with Bartok (his picture was next to the piano), used to pile her family and neighbors onto the couch in the living room when I played, but it was hopeless. Then 15 years ago, a friend who knew of my secret ability, asked me to play at her wedding—an utterly horrific suggestion, which I immediately refused. Fortunately, however, by that time I had done enough personal growth work to recognize that the fear was a signal that, if I was to continue to grow, I had to do it. Eek! Valerie Dillon, a concert pianist turned art dealer who lived nearby in SoHo, offered me a key to her loft and daily use of her Steinway grand. “The only antidote to stage fright,” she said, “is practice.” I played an hour a day for at least six weeks until that Chopin mazurka and two pieces by Bach felt as if they were part of my DNA. Needless to say the wedding went off smoothly, but was almost an anti-climax, because by that time I could have done it in my sleep.

But all this is trifling compared to my friend, Wylie Goodman, who took a leave from her job with the New York City Parks Department and is now completing a six-month bicycling and Couchsurfingtour of Asia on her own. Do you think there was no fear there? I saw her just before she left, after months of training and preparation, when the reality hit her and she asked, “Am I out of my fucking mind?”

This is one of my favorite Wylie anecdotes from Facebook:

(November 12, 2012) And now for today's feel-good story: two 11 or 12-year-old boys started biking alongside me, as kids often do here, yelling "hello" or "where are you from?" when one started singing, "Hey, sexy lady!" I did a double take, stopped riding, called out, "wait!" – and pulled out my iPhone with its downloaded "Gangnam Style" song. We all smiled and started doing the move. At that moment, I felt like the coolest 48-year-old white lady in Vietnam.

Wylie, saying goodbye to bicycle #1, January 10, 2013 in Cambodia

* As young marrieds, my ex-husband and I used to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto (he on the trumpet, me playing the orchestral part on the piano) in our Evanston courtyard apartment. One day I ran into one of my neighbors who said, “I thought of you the other night. We went to the Chicago Symphony and they performed the Haydn Trumpet Concerto—it was great, except they left out the part where he yells at her about the time.”