Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

September 22, 2012

Photo: Carol Diehl © 2012

One of the most interesting things about writing a review (as I am now of the current Gerhard Richter exhibition of new digital works at Marian Goodman), is seeing how other critics handle the same material. Here’s Karen Rosenberg in the Times:

“These works are not just anti-ideological (a Richter hallmark): they’re also antiseptic, more so, even, than the new sculpture, ‘6 standing glass panels’ that accompanies them.”

Rosenberg is entitled to find the works “antiseptic,” if that’s her take, but to make no further mention of the 9’ x 9’ x 9’ sculpture that’s at the core of the exhibition seems remiss.

Installed in the center of rear gallery at Goodman (and, to be accurate, entitled 6 Panes of Glass in a Rack) the work is essential—first in the architectural way it grounds the space, and secondly because of what happens when you look into it and through it, how it interacts with the images on the walls and the other people in the room. To view it as simply a steel rack with glass panels, is like seeing a Robert Irwinscrim piece as a length of fabric stretched from floor to ceiling, or a FredSandback as a geometric configuration made with yarn.

Perhaps people are now so used to art fairs, where the works are—by necessity—installed in a way that’s relatively arbitrary and seen as objects to be assessed rather than engaged with, they don’t consider that the artist may have had an intention for the entire exhibition, or that a sculpture may add up to more than its parts.

Maybe Richter should have provided an artist’s statement.
September 19, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
I love comments, even the one that said that artist statements are a fact of life, and I should get over it. I will not get over it, any more than Caitlin Moran should get over bikini waxes. (What do artist statements and bikini waxes have in common? Well they hit the culture at about the same time and represent industry influenceart school and pornin areas that should remain private, are  disagreeable to accomplish and anti-aesthetic.) At least we're getting people to think before they do it.

Joan says: I think it's really important for a student to be able to put into words what they are trying to come to terms with in their work. There's a time and place for it. Doing the work, working without trying to explain every move is important, stream of consciousness, allowing one thing to lead to another, etc. We all know that but then it is useful for a student to talk about what's going on and why, what motivates her, what she is trying to say, where it's coming from. Nonsense to think that a student shouldn't be verbalizing their struggles at different times as they work. As a graduate student I hated the idea of the thesis I had to write, a whole semester course no less. When the words came out of me "my work is my religion, my altar, my way to make an offering, et. etc." it changed me, it helped me understand something I had never thought or said before. Same with artists. Pretentious to think we can just go on and on making art and never talk about it, never say what it is we're trying to do, to get at, to find. Critics do it, why shouldn't artists at times speak about their work. And who wants to write artist statements, nobody does but....When I give a lecture I try to give it all I can. Tell what a piece may (because who knows in the end) be about for me. What I was trying to do or say. If I was GR I probably wouldn't have much to say either. He paints and things happen. Would that I could do just that. Sorry for the long entry. Not in the studio this morning with the muses.

No apologies, I’m grateful for the long entry! I also know that you are particularly adept, poetic even, at writing about your work and life. Whether this stems from nature or from having to do it in art school – or both—we may never know.  However I do know that had I been required to write about it when I was beginning to paint (at nearly 30) it would have killed it—like writing about sex. And like sex, I was in it for the pure pleasure, for the relief from thinking. This is also why I played the piano, and in my 20 years of classical training, I’m grateful no one insisted that I write about why I played, or the experience of playing, because it would have killed that too.

I was also a complete flop as a student, barely making it into college and then dropping out. Maybe this has something to do with it?

Yet I am a writer, as well as an artist, by profession, so I hear you asking, isn’t this a contradiction? Isn’t writing about thinking? Yes, but in a way it’s also about stoppingthinking. Stopping the thoughts that would be maddeningly insistent until given expression, containing them, focusing them, which means shooing away all thoughts that don’t contribute. My understanding of other people’s art comes from writing—essentially from observation. Being required to describe and translate the experience is the gateway to insight. I write because it’s a way of making myself stand still, really look in a way I wouldn’t otherwise. My understanding of my own art, however, has come from other people—critics, writers, artist friends—and is the only reason I can write about it now.

Of course I never would have thought about any of this if you hadn’t prompted me…and now you've gotten me to write a writer's statement!

I just now found an online archive of artist’s statements. It’s important to note how the most interesting ones are by older artists reflecting the wisdom gained through a lifetime of art making. I never said artists shouldn’t write or speak about their work, just that it should be voluntary. If your inner being calls upon you to write something, do it! If it enhances the experience of your work, do it! However, the requirement that all artists accompany their work with a statement is not only very recent, it’s as absurd as requiring writers to provide illustrations with their texts. Or maybe that’s next. 
September 13, 2012

Nothing could bother me more than the way a thing goes dead once it has been said. 
Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them (1936).

Suddenly the crisp cool air of fall is upon us, and everyone in my inbox seems to be panicked about artist’s statements—although why anyone would choose to turn to me for such advice is baffling, as I‘m famous for wanting to abolish them.

One ex-student wrote that it’s the scariest thing he’s ever undertaken—but I’m not sure if the scary part is writing the statement, or showing it to me. Another fears that his teaching job depends on his treatment of the subject, now an integral part of any college art program. I tell another friend not to write one because he’s too well known and ask, “Would Picasso write an artist’s statement?”

The biggest reason I hate artist’s statements is because I’ve hardly ever read one that enhanced the art experience; most of the time they turn me off—or make me laugh at their earnestness and foolish rhetoric. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard arts professionals say, “I was interested until I read the artist’s statement.”

The other reason (or maybe it’s the same) is because what makes art ART is its ability to communicate without words—at its best it’s a distillation of life experience in visual form that has more to do with the emotions than the intellect. The way art works is, or should be, mysterious and ineffable. Break it down into nuts and bolts (description, influences, techniques, biographical trivia, etc.) and its effect dissipates. There’s a reason magicians don’t give away their secrets; artists shouldn’t either.

Words make things concrete when what we want is fluidity. I worry that this insistence on being able to articulate every step of their development makes students “think” when they should be “intuiting,” causing them to distrust what they can’t explain. When a teacher asks, “Why did you do that?” answering, “Because I wanted to” will not get you to the head of the class.

Gerhard Richtercan get away with saying, “I can’t verbalize what I am working on” * because he’s Gerhard Richter. It’s also why he’s Gerhard Richter. His writing doesn’t deal with descriptions or reasons for what he’s doing, rather the impossibility inherent in the endeavor. Agnes Martin also:

I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect — completely removed in fact — even as we ourselves are. (from Writings).

Not only are we expected to put words to the wordless, artists, whose lifestyles are generally hermetic, are also expected to speak articulately about their work in public—however few do it well. I will never take Dana Schutz seriously after hearing her give a talk (I won’t dignify it by calling it a “lecture”) where every word was preceded by “kinda” or “sorta” which made it a kinda terrible sorta talk—you’d think an MFA at Columbia woulda ironed those kinda things out, wouldn’t you sorta agree? Same with Matthew Ritchie, but for different reasons. 
I think about my friend, Fred Sandback, who simply refused to do either. When I asked him to speak at Bennington he said, “I don’t have anything to say.”

But here’s the Catch-22, which is that if you don’t write something down, someday, at a gallery somewhere, an intern is going to write a REALLY STUPID press release about your work. The message here is, be in control of your publicity and, if necessary, hire a ghostwriter or a coach. Whatever you put out there has to be the best it can be. Your art deserves it.

August 25, 2012

David Sipress in The New Yorker

If Reuters financial writer Felix Salmon can engage in art criticism I feel qualified to comment on a major but under-reported trend contributing to our lackluster economy: NO ONE WANTS TO PAY FOR LABOR. Corporate profits are at their highest, wages are at their lowest. If we can get away with it, we want people to work for next to nothing, or for free. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe if you work, if you're making a contribution to another person’s income, you should be paid commensurately.

I’ve read endless articles about how Walmartdoesn’t pay a living wage, forcing employees to apply for food stamps, with universities following suit in their use of adjuncts. A friend in England works in an America designer outlet store that brings in over £400,000 a week (that’s $600,000 to you and me) where the ten or so employees make just over minimum wage. Et cetera, et cetera. What about the art world?

Now that it’s almost fall, my in-box is littered with “opportunities” for people with “excellent writing and editing skills” who are proficient in basic HTML, Excel, Quickbooks and PhotoShop to work as interns without compensation—for artists, bloggers, and galleries who are presumably profiting (or intending to profit) from their enterprises.

Now I’m a really interesting person with lots of life experience; a younger person could learn a lot just by being around me and participating in what I do—perhaps more than they could learn in school.  There’s a ton of work that needs to be done here that someone else could do and I, like many artists, am not exactly rolling in dough. Nevertheless, if someone’s going to put in hours toward my wellbeing, doing what I tell them to do, I feel honor-bound to pay them—especially if it’s QuickBooks, for god’s sake.

Since I doubt that my colleagues advertising for interns are in the Tea Party camp, I'm wondering how being a socially compassionate liberal fits with taking advantage of a climate that presumes people should work for free. Just wondering.

August 18, 2012

I received this remembrance of Herb Vogel by email from Lucio Pozzi. The Vogels, who I’d known for some time, introduced me to Lucio back in the early 90’s, when I ran into them all having lunch at Jerry’s Restaurant in SoHo. Since then Lucio has been a friend and important figure in my life. In 2008 I posted Lucio's memories of art dealer John Weber, along with this watercolor, one of my favorites:

Lucio Pozzi, Barbardos, 11 January 1972, watercolor on paper, 11.5 x 23.1"

For a few years I lived under a giant skylight in a windowless, basement level, nineteenth century former police truck repair garage on Mulberry Street. There, the city was far away. I slept on a convertible couch or, during my daughter's visiting nights, she on the bed and I on a futon on the floor.

>     Certain summer afternoons Herbie would ring my bell, unannounced. He was wearing checkered shorts, an old pair of sandals and a light non-descript shirt. Despite his having undergone skin cancer surgery a few times on his face, he never wore a hat. With his left hand he would carry a translucent plastic bag full of water in which swam a few rare fishes picked up in the store a block away from me. With his right he held a large paper shopping bag containing a couple of wrapped rectangular works of art. The Uptown subway stop was around the corner.

>     He knew he had to wait for me to run up the ramp to open the door. The familiarity of our greetings were as precious as the years of our friendship and collaboration. No hugs, shouts or laughter, just a glass of water, and the tangible pleasure of sitting around the worktable, plain talk about family and then words about the art of other artists and mine. When theoretical considerations would arise, Herbie was very quick in situating them in simple words in the history of contemporary discourse. Nothing escaped his passionate attention.

>     It was hopeless on my part to ask whom the works in the bag were by or to see them. Only once he showed me a half-dozen drawings by Joseph Beuys he was particularly proud of having secured.

>     On my walls he could see the many ventures I was engaged in - perhaps on the left a large oil painting containing human figures, in the center some plywood geometric polychrome acrylic cutouts, to the right a photograph mounted on tinted canvas. On a nearby table there could have been a landscape watercolor and a dotted gouache texture on paper.

>     His quick eye wandered in the space while chatting, like a fox exploring the night. He would then have me open the flat files of recent works on paper. When a group attracted his attention he took it all. Occasionally he also chose a small piece on canvas or on wood.

>     Sometimes I disagreed about the relevance or quality of what he chose. His respect for the artist had him listen with grace, but we often ended up by his taking what he wanted and me adding what I preferred. Now that the works he had selected are shown to me by the museums that acquired them, I am stunned by how his eye and mind saw beyond my perception of my own work. I would say he was always right. As evening approached he would exit wearing a faint smile, that of a cat who had just savored a good fish meal. And I was left energized.

>     The art would have to fit the shopping bag, or if too large I would deliver it at home. On those occasions he and Dorothy either offered me an Entenmann's cake and tea or, especially after walking had become difficult for Herbie, I would be invited at the diner across the street. He was very particular about food. Never salad, no wine, yes to chopped chicken liver and ice cream.

>     Often Dorothy also came to the studio, but on those occasions the visit would be arranged ahead of time. We would dine in my neighborhood. Dorothy shared with her husband a fastidious concern for the correct handling of the artworks. She also is extremely thorough in cataloguing the collection. While looking at art, her comments would be drier than his, always very pragmatic, to the point, no flattery, few words being better than many. The discussions preceding their final agreement on what was being seen enhanced the conversations.--Lucio Pozzi

Photo via Washington Post

August 13, 2012

A few days ago I was cranky and didn’t know why. Then, during an impromptu Skype studio visit with Terry in England, he observed that the structure in my paintings is fading into the background and the gesture is becoming dominant. How scary is that?  Very scary, it turns out. I realize that I always trusted the structure to carry the “meaning” in my intentionally “meaningless” work (are you still with me?) and the gesture was the lively little cheerleading team that gave it edge and life. Thirty years pass this way—happily, I might add—until I wake up to find that the gesture is parading about as the main character and, to make it worse, I’m all too aware that “gesture” is simply a euphemism for “scribbles.”  Now I happen to love my scribbles; I think they’re some of the best scribbles out there.  But they’re scribbles.  Is it possible that anyone else could love them as much as I do?

About the same time I run into Molly Howitt in the parking lot at the Co-op. Molly was a ceramics student when I was teaching painting at Bennington, and I made it a point to collect as much of her output as possible—paying her for some, but not being above poking around in the reject pile outside the studio for others.  I remember once fighting with another faculty member over who was going to buy the bowl we were supposed to be critiquing—I won, and still love it.  Molly has been doing a million other things since, all worthy, but no ceramics. When I bring this up for the 100th time (I can be annoying), Molly says, “I loved the process, it’s just that I wasn’t doing anything special.”

And true; her work was very simple. However it had an elegance that distinguished it from all other handmade pots, most of which look, to me (apologies, ceramicists out there!) excruciatingly alike.  Molly brightened when I told her this; maybe she’ll actually do it.

Then I went home to my scribbles, appreciating for the first time, how much courage it must have taken to be Cy Twombly

Carol Diehl, Althaea, 2012, ink & pencil on panel, 12" x 14" 

August 5, 2012

Swingeing London by Richard Hamilton, 1968-9, showing Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in the back of a police car. © Estate of Richard Hamilton.

Other than making my own, it’s nearly impossible for me to care about art in August. This is when nature is at it’s fullest, and very hard to compete with. Besides, it’s too hot. I mean, who the fuck cares? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these days, the best art comes out of cities like Berlin, New York, and London—as opposed to Paris and Rome—places where you need art to improve on things. Places where, if you didn’t have art, you might go crazy. In the recent documentary, Gerhard Richter calls Cologne, where he lives, an ugly city.  But maybe he needs that. Maybe Cologne is the perfect foil.

It’s never too hot for gossip and controversy, however, and right now L.A.’s MOCA is providing us with a steady stream of both. Today the L.A. Times published an articlein defense of Director Jeffrey Deitch, who recently fired—or allowed the Board of Trustees to fire—long-time curator Paul Schimmel resulting in great art world sturm und drang (see post below as well). Unfortunately, the “defenders” quoted in the article are hardly financially disinterested: Aaron Rose, who co-curated “Art in the Streets” at MOCA with Deitch, and Shepard Fairey, who has been hired by Deitch to create a graphic identity for the museum. Under those circumstances, what can they be expected to say? That Deitch is full of shit?

This article and, really, everything that’s been written about the situation, makes it sound as if the issues are (blah blah, I’m so tired of it) celebrity-driven “pop” culture, intended to introduce a “new” audience and bring in crowds, versus “serious” programming, which is, ipso facto, “old culture,” for aficionados only, and crushingly boring. Yet there is a middle ground, as exemplified by the Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou, which somehow manage to attract the world's largest audiences for contemporary art, without sacrificing rigor. And MoMA is packed.

On Deitch-as-curator, my feelings are mixed. By all accounts, “Art in the Streets” was great and I'm sorry it didn't travel to the Brooklyn Museum, as planned. Nor do I have an aversion to the idea of a disco-themed exhibition, done properly. I’m also a big fan of Shepard Fairey, and if I could hire him to create my graphic identity, I would. But to choose to mount not only a Dennis Hopper exhibition, but a James Dean theme show, curated by James Franco, while cancelling mid-stream those of Jack Goldstein and Richard Hamilton—two historic but under-recognized artists whose work would fit perfectly into the MOCA agenda—seems unconscionable. Oh, and did I mention the upcoming Jeff Koonsretrospective? Now there’s an artist who needs more attention….

However, none of this means anything. Deitch was hired to be a director, not curator, and the real reason he should go is that he’s proved to be a terrible manager. This whole debacle is a P.R. nightmare of his making. Basically, a director’s job is to create good will and faith in the museum, inside and out, in addition to raising the money to keep it going. It is important that donors feel confident that the museum is being run well, is going to last, and that they‘re not contributing to a vanity project of the principle donor, in this case, Eli Broad. It would seem now that the only direction the museum can take to regain credibility and confidence is to dump Deitch, tell Broad to step back, hire a strong director, and start fresh.

July 18, 2012

After ranting about the Art Institute of Chicago’s restaurant choices: the reservations-only, pretentiously-named Terzo Piano, which provides “signature cuisine” for the 1%, or the downstairs Museum Café, with pizza, burgers, and plastic dinnerware for the rest of us plebes, I was pleased to read this quote, in The New Yorker’s recent profileof Tate Modern director Nick Serota:  “We did a survey of about forty artists before we began….We thought that if we could make spaces in which artists liked to show their work, then the public would also respond to them—we wanted spaces that the public would feel comfortable in. For example, it was a very deliberate decision to make this [the café] a good restaurant, but not a high-end one.”

Meanwhile all of the artist members—John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger, and Ed Ruscha—of the board of directors at L.A.’s MOCA have quit.

“To live with my conscience, I just had to do it." Baldessari said in an interview Thursday after emailing his decision to MOCA. He said his reasons include the recent ouster of respected chief curator Paul Schimmel and news this week that the pop-cultural slant the museum has taken under director Jeffrey Deitch will continue with an exhibition on discomusic's influence on art and culture.

“When I heard about that disco show I had to read it twice. At first I thought 'this is a joke' but I realized, no, this is serious. That just reaffirmed my decision.

“That disco show” refers to an upcoming exhibition—no date yet set—that will examine the supposed cultural impact of discomusic on art, fashion and music. It will be co-curated (who is the other curator? Deitch?) by James Murphy of the band, LCD Soundsystem, which broke up last year at the peak of its massive success because, Murphy said, "It was living a life that nobody would live forever."

Although I’ve been a huge LCD Soundsystem fan and will probably regret for the rest of my life not having seen them live, I want to point out that James Murphy was in grammar school during the disco era while, to borrow a phrase from one of LCD’s best songs, I was there.

I was there and disco was not anything artists were interested in. In fact, it was a pejorative word. Disco was AM radio, the boroughs, and secretaries on their nights off, when we were into punk, New Wave, ska, and funk. Studio 54, Warhol and Bianca, was stuff we read about in the Post gossip columns, and besides, Warhol was old by then, in his middle 40s, a veritable éminence grise—while we had CBGB, Danceteria, Area (where the theme changed every month), the Pyramid, 8BC and, in its marvelous decrepitude, the World. No one had any desire to go above 14th Street or wear a polyester suit. My record collection didn’t include Donna Summer, Barry White, the Bee Gees or the Jacksons but James Brown, George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, Blondie, the Velvet Underground, the English Beat, the Sex  Pistols, the Clash, and the Dead Kennedys. I loved “Saturday Night Fever” but it didn’t have anything to do with me. I put on the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” to get myself up and out the door to work.

It was also a time when artists and writers called the shots in the art world—not businessmen.

My concern about the disco show isn’t the pop culture aspect, but that it could end up being a simplification rather than a clarification of history, a glamorized, homogenized, Mad Men-esque perspective of a complex time.  We have only Deitch’s track record so far to go on: by all accounts his 2011 “Art in the Streets” was the show of the year (that I didn’t see it is another big regret, as Street Art is a major interest of mine), while his current James Dean exhibition, curated by James Franco, as well as his first venture, photographs by Dennis Hopper, seem to have been critical flops. And the now infamous Marina Abramovic performance/dinner, was simply appalling.

A bigger issue, however, is the way the firing (framed as a “resignation”) of Paul Schimmel was handled—by the head of the board of directors, yet—and that it may signal the complete takeover of museums, like everything else, by self-interested moneymen (be sure to read more here). It also seems as if the artist members of the board were left in the dark, which alone would be reason to quit.  

Of course if the director curates, the museum doesn’t have to pay a curator—which is a good thing, because Deitch and Broad will have a hard time finding a decent curator who will work for them after this.

At the same time, it’s important to be open to change, and who knows? Maybe the disco show will be great.

It makes me think of other famous art world walkouts like (I wasn’t there) when Sidney Janis introduced Pop Art with his international “New Realists” exhibition (among the 54 artists shown: Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Richard Lindner, Wayne Thiebaud, Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Tom Wesselmann, George Segal, Yves Klein, Arman,  and Christo) prompting a dramatic exodus from the gallery by AbExer’s Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell (only de Kooning stayed on).

And when I came from Chicago to work at Artforum in 1976, smoke was still hovering from the Lynda Benglis scandal, over an ad for which she posed nude with a gold-plated dildo, an event that caused Contributing Editors Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson to quit and three others, Lawrence Alloway, Max Kozloff, Joseph Masheck, to write a letter to the editor, then John Coplans, protesting this “object of extreme vulgarity”—which just looks funny now.

I refuse to make predictions. Back in the day, an acquaintance from Australia told me about a band called the Bee Gees, who were “really great” and I said, “With a stupid name like that, they won’t get anywhere.” 

Update 7/22/12: Another POV here. 7/23/12 Roberta Smith on the debacle here. Even more here. This is almost as good as Downton Abbey. And now Rob Storr weighs in.