Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

April 9, 2012

I just finished writing my review for Art in America of the Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the Jewish Museum, The World Stage: Israel  (to be published sometime during the run of the show, which is on through July 29th).  I’ve been interested in Wiley’s work for some time, and in 2008, commissioned from him a portrait of Obama for the cover of TIME which, sadly, never ran.

However what I love about this exhibition is the totality of the experience: the paintings in the context of Wiley’s selection of examples of antique papercuts and textiles from the museum’s collection, and the grand, historic Fifth Avenue mansion that houses it. I began to think about how frustrated I’ve become with the white-box gallery format, so sterile and one-dimensional it rarely shows art to advantage—like staging a fashion show in a hospital. However, uncharacteristically, I don’t have an answer to the problem. Most “designed” museum exhibitions are even worse.  Like Jorge Pardo’s installation of Pre-Columbian art at LACMA, they always seem to be in competition with the art they’re showcasing. The Tod Williams and Billy Tsien design for the 2008 Louise Nevelson show, again at the Jewish Museum, stands out as the best I’ve seen. Probably I’ve never gotten over seeing a stunning Pop Art show, many years ago, in the baroque multi-balconied atrium of the Palazzo Grassiin Venice (including a 20-foot high Warhol Mao), where the contrast and interplay of old and new showed both to exciting advantage. That’s what happens here as Wiley’s hip-hop sensibility is set off against the cased antiques and the wood-paneled opulence of the museum’s interior.

Photos: Bradford Robotham/The Jewish Museum.

Doing my research I read “The Diaspora is Remixed,” Martha Schwendener’s review in The New York Times. As I remember, she’s written other pieces that didn’t raise my hackles (or you would have heard about it!). This one, however, is marked with surprising vitriol, as if there’s a subtext we’re not getting.

….the show raises some difficult questions. For instance, what is the position of the Ethiopian Jew in Israeli society? The gallery installation gives the impression of Jewish culture as a seamless visual narrative, slipping faultlessly from old Europe to modern-day Tel Aviv. It also posits, particularly in a video accompanying the paintings, Israel as a haven for persecuted Ethiopian Jews.

First, I question if it’s fair to critique an artist on the basis of the success or failure of his presumed intention, rather than on the work itself. Secondly, what is it about the “gallery installation” that gives the impression of Jewish culture as a seamless visual narrative? The fact that Wiley’s paintings are shown alongside works from the museum’s collection? If that’s what Schwendener is referring to, my understanding is that the antique objects are part of the exhibition because Wiley was inspired by such patterns and it provided an unusual opportunity for the museum to display them. To see it as an attempt to rewrite history is a stretch worthy of Fox News.

Also, in the video where Wiley’s subjects talk about their lives in Israel, it’s about not being fully accepted. As for Israel being a “haven,” maybe it is, all things being relative. Perhaps being discriminated against is better than being persecuted.  

By not mentioning the others, Schwendener gives the impression that Wiley has focused solely on Ethiopian Jews, when they’re only a third of his subjects. The rest are dark-skinned native-born Israelis and Arab Israelis—who, no one can say, have had an easy time of it. On the hand-carved frames Wiley designed for the Arab Israelis, inscribed in Hebrew, is Rodney King’s famous cry, “Why can’t we all get along?” The point made in the video is that hip-hop and reggae have brought these spurned groups together; the music scene is the “haven” where all are accepted.

Another question is why Mr. Wiley’s work focuses solely on young men, when many of the textiles on view were made by women, and, as the catalog informs us, one of the best-known Israelis of Ethiopian descent is a female singer named Hagit Yaso, who won last year’s edition of an Israeli show similar to “American Idol.”

My answer to that, which is the only answer to why any artist does anything, is because he wants to.  Why didn’t de Kooning paint men? Because he didn’t want to. (Has anyone even asked that question?) Are we obligated to be equal-opportunity artists, presenting society as society would prefer? However if it must be discussed, Wiley has explained that his initial impulse came from having seen, in his childhood, portraits in museums of men who didn’t look like him—which could have little to do with painting women, regardless of the fact that….

Part of the answer is that Mr. Wiley has generally painted preening young men, and there is a strong homoerotic element in his work that is glossed over here.

Gasp, Wiley is gay! I don’t know who’s glossing it over, since he’s hardly in the closet. Is it mandatory to discuss in depth an artist’s sexual orientation at every turn?  (Or rather a “gay” artist’s orientation, since the same does not apply to straight artists.) Should the Jewish Museum, in their promotional material, be faulted for not making a bigger deal of it?

And finally….

Just as music critics have complained of hip-hop’s becoming a corporatized global commodity, Mr. Wiley can be accused of using it to neutralize differences and difficulties….And it is those very difficulties that we rely on art to broach.

[This when, a few paragraphs back, she writes, “the show raises some difficult questions.”]

Regardless, I never thought art had a responsibility (to whom?) to broach differences and difficulties. (I’m becoming more and more grateful that I’m an abstract painter.) Further, by highlighting the “disenfranchised” (Schwendener’s word, BTW) in a way that enables them to be seen and empowered as individuals, it would seem Wiley is doing just that. It’s not Wiley who is somehow using hip-hop to “neutralize”—i.e. make it seem as if differences don’t exist. His work celebrates a vibrant global community that does not recognize racial distinctions thereby, quite literally, neutralizing the differences—which can only be a good thing.

Everything Schwendener criticizes Wiley for avoiding, he seems to have provoked her into discussing. In other words, his art has made her think about and explore the very issues she is critiquing him for lacking—by her own criteria, Wiley has succeeded!

It seems that unless black artists approach their subject matter in a thoroughly predictable, heavy-handed and didactic manner, they’re not doing their job, are not “political” enough—and apparently poor Wiley has the double burden of not being gay enough either.

A gay black artist—especially one who gets involved with anything having to do with Israel—just can’t do anything right.

Note: The rumor that Wiley himself does not actually paint his paintings, that they’re farmed out to workers in China, is perpetuated by Schwendener when she says that they look “factory-produced.” In the interest of thoroughness, I called his gallery, who told me that although Wiley does, like many artists, have assistants who may help with the intricate backgrounds, but he alone is responsible for the central figures. Not that I care, one way or the other. They are beautifully painted and the marginally mass-produced look relates to the intention, like images on postage stamps, posters depicting African potentates—or covers of TIME Magazine. More about his process here.
April 1, 2012

My first thought was, this is all about teachers showing off.

You’d never catch me giving assignments like these, because I believe that the most important ingredient in any successful endeavor is INTEREST, and I’ve discovered that students are most interested in what they make up themselves. Therefore if such a thing were to occur in a class of mine, it would be because I encouraged the students to make up the assignments (why waste another opportunity to engage creativity?) and decide among themselves which to pursue.

While entertaining to read, none of the assignments made me want to stop what I was doing and try them—so, were I the student, my demonstration of “freedom and risk-taking” would be not to do them. Also, while they might have been of use in the 70s, in the current climate, where “cool” and wacky ideas are routinely used to bolster insubstantial art, I fear they could send the wrong message. I asked three friends (two teachers and one student) to comment:

Matt Freedman (Penn): It's funny how fast that review went viral. Touched a nerve I guess.  Even before it ran my friend Cathy in Paris sent me the link. Then Friday morning I was having a studio visit and the visitor brought it up, noting that the "make all your clothes into art" assignment would be most unfortunate if you were wearing an outfit you really liked. My initial reaction was like yours, teachers showing off—art school as performance piece. On the other hand, the list of contributing artists contains some really good people and several great teachers I’ve worked with myself, so the project deserves some default respect on sheer talent alone.  Also, I have some skin in the game, since the graduate drawing seminar I teach tiptoes close to assignments that verge on the utterly conceptual. Not to mention that I've always loved the Thek list and used it a lot. Two things, though.  First, as my mother the kindergarten teacher points out, it’s control of the classroom, whether for six-year-olds or grad students, which determines whether learning happens or not. In that sense, the idea of the “school-in-the-book,” though appealing, is the problem, if it suggests just another shortcut to something…let’s call it, for our own amusement “enlightened art making.”  I’ve seen seemingly dopey assignments yield wonderful work and great breakthroughs, and conceptually tight, innovative assignments produce boring, conservative responses. The difference (besides dumb luck!) is how the class is run, and also what particular thing turns the student onto something new.  Breakthroughs usually happen not because of an assignment, but when teacher and student line up perfectly for a moment and something useful is communicated between them.  In Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, a number of artists comment on their best learning moments. They were all, as I recall, about those passing watershed moments as opposed to the assignments they were given. Those I remember working best for me:  an undergraduate TA in a life drawing class showing me how to move my arm loosely, an ancient professor getting down on his hands and knees and cutting out a piece of his office carpeting for me to use in a (failed) casting experiment.  Both events were notably non-intellectual demonstrations of freedom and risk taking. It's a coercive and hierarchical environment, art school, in which we try to teach the very opposite.  The paradox is the problem, the challenge, the game and the reward. More to the point, the best assignments, when you do offer them, offer solvable but challenging problems that are geared toward the student, rather than depersonalized demonstrations of the creativity, progressive thinking and/or sheer cleverness of the teacher. That said, perhaps taking off all my clothes in the middle of my graduate studio would have been a great liberating experience that would have accelerated my development by ten years, or at least ramped up my social life for a moment.  

Mike Glier (Williams): Most of the assignments listed here develop creativity by encouraging students to challenge convention and engage in divergent thinking, and are useful for beginning classes in which students are reluctant to take risks. They’re fun and help to bring a world of possibilities into the classroom. But an equally important part of teaching art is the discussion of the artwork after it is made. Here, critical skills are developed through some very old-fashioned methods, like learning to observe closely, acquiring the language of visual analysis, memorizing the history of art, reading and applying theory, composing logical arguments and perfecting the art of oral presentation. First-rate art education supports invention by inviting the unexpected, the inchoate and the improbable into the tank, but once these slippery, silvery things enter, they’re held in a net of observation, contemplation and analysis to be sorted, then cooked, assembled, garnished and presented with a dash of confidence and a drizzle of doubt. 

Nikolas Freberg (Cooper Union): Generally when I'm assigned prompts as a student, such as the ones mentioned in the article, my first inclination is to jump off the nearest high building. Usually I stop myself because I know that the 4-hour-long critique of my dead body would be way too ironic and obvious in an art school setting where students seem to think that their lives depend upon a project that took the whole of 2 weeks to complete.  Assignments like those mentioned in the article are basically what drive any "conceptually-oriented" art school, the result being that you get ONE kind of student who just happens to be even more irreverent than the prompt itself and may actually succeed in, say, designing an enclosure for Robin Williams made out of Q-tips, and everyone gets a brief moment of "isn't that clever" and then you go get coffee. The reality is that said student doesn't even want to be an artist, thinks that any form of drawing or painting is too obvious, and will probably end up working in construction when their "noise" band fails to go viral.

Keith Haring, Untitled (Exploding Head), 1983

March 28, 2012


What Car Buyers Want

To the Editor:

Again, Detroit gets it wrong. Rather than acting on the societal message that cars are no longer seen as fashion accessories, General Motors, by focusing on surface, is trying to entice young consumers into just that.

Instead, the automobile industry should follow Apple, Ikea and Uniqlo, which have married function, form and cost to come up with products that appeal to all age groups.

Forget the outrageous colors, which Apple eschews. What young people need and want — what everyone needs and wants — is an inexpensive, super-efficient car that’s a pleasure to look at and drive, like an iPod on wheels.

  Housatonic, Mass., March 26, 2012

March 22, 2012

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Issac Asimov, from a column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)

When this image went around on Facebook a while ago, it annoyed me; unattributed as it was (you know how I feel about that!), I guessed (no doubt correctly) that it was created by an artist using PhotoShop to mine the cultural divide.

However a friend, who works at the Berkshire Museum, recently sent me a link to an online publication, The Curator, and the essay,  “On the validity of the Vogel collection” by one Sarina Higginswho declares: “I do believe that the Vogel collection is a fraud.” Higgins supports her thesis with shadowy photos of  “a few geometrical lines drawn on paper with colored pencils, a triangle of steel in the corner of the baseboards, a series of pieces of notebook paper with a few drops of watercolor paint” taken with a point-and-shoot camera.

On its “About” page, The Curator denies being a religious publication (which means it is, or there would be no reason to deny it).

Instead, like its parent organization, IAM (International Arts Movement), the publication says it’s geared toward “people of faith” with a desire to create “the world as it ought to be”—a world that clearly does not include the Vogel collection, Marina Abramovic or, by extension, most modern art from Malevich on.

The Curator also explicitly claims “no singular affinity toward ‘highbrow’ art or ‘pop’ culture.”

About the same time, I read “Haven,” a wonderfully subtle short story by Alice Munro in The New Yorker (March 5, 2012), about a teenage girl and her physician uncle, whose antipathy toward classical music causes a breach in the family:

            “Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do this?”

            I said no, and it was the truth. I had never known them to go to a concert, though they were in favor of concerts in general.

            “See? They’ve got too much sense, your parents. Too much sense to join all these people who are fussing and clapping and carrying on, like it’s just the wonder of the world. You know the kind of people I mean? They’re lying. A load of horse manure. All in the hope of appearing high class.  Or more likely, giving in to their wives’ hope to appear high class. Remember that when you get out into the world, O.K.?

It all makes me think that the differences between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, may be more than political, even a matter of neurology, as some have suggested. Or it could simply be that there are people who thrive on nuance, ambiguity, complexity and paradox, while others are fearful of anything, including art (and possibly democracy), which poses questions to which there are no concrete answers.

I offer no solutions.

March 12, 2012
Sometimes I think it’s my job to be the contrarian, although that hardly applies where Gerhard Richter is concerned. His work and philosophy have long inspired me, so it was a special pleasure to see Corinna Belz’s film, “Gerhard Richter Painting,” which confirmed everything I always wanted to believe about the artist. Belz has great understanding, both visual and intellectual, and strikes just the right note, which films about art hardly ever do. I won’t say more, because I’m most likely reviewing the film elsewhere, except to urge you to see it (even twice, as I did) at Film Forum, where it opens on Wednesday and runs through the 27th.

Also I learned, from watching Richter doing interviews in the film, how to answer impossible questions.  Which of his painting styles does he prefer? “It varies,” he says. What is his response to fame? “It varies.”  So helpful! Now when people ask me how much time I spend in the country or the city, I can say, “It varies.” Which do I enjoy most, painting or writing? “It varies.”

So now for the curmudgeon part—are you sitting down? Prepared for a terrible shock?  Okay, here goes…I am not a fan of Cindy Sherman. This is almost as huge as admitting I liked some of Damien Hirst’s spots, but I have always thought of Sherman’s work not as feminist, but anti-female, even mocking—clichés of women as established by the male world. Unlike the women I care about, her permutations are not warm, nurturing, sympathetic, or even sexual.  Would you choose any of them to be your best friend? I didn’t think so.

I may also be prejudiced because I remember how, just before Sherman made her film stills in the seventies, Eleanor Antin was transforming herself in photographs in ways that were more haunting, funny, varied and complex—as well as more human. Where Antin was clearly on a quest for self-knowledge, Sherman’s portraits come off as unflattering commentary on the aspirations and ways of life of others--especially in this series, which still strikes me as ageist, sexist, and just plain mean. (I’m plagiarizing myself here, as I wrote about this in an earlier post.)

Eleanor Antin, The King, 1972 (image from the Web)

Eleanor Antin, The Angel of Mercy (Florence Nightingale), Myself-1854, 1977 (Image from the Web)

And on, curmudgeonly, to Doug Wheeler’s sleeper show of the year, which had people braving the winter chill, lining up around the block to be admitted into the David Zwirner gallery, five at a time.  Before going further, I want to make it clear that I found the piece admirable, and waited to write about it because I didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s experience of it. If there’s a single form of art that has engaged me to the point of indefatigable research, it's this, “light and space” as it is called, the art of atmospheric environment, as exemplified by the work of Robert Irwin, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell—as well as Fred Sandback, whose work, though not directly involved with light, engages the viewer in similar ways.

One of the things that impressed me most about Olafur’s famous weather project at the Tate Modern, is how he gave thought to every aspect of the experience, from the pre-publicity and catalogue (neither of which contained images or descriptions of the work, to the length of its run (when asked by the museum to keep it up longer, he refused).  Through my study of his work I took on this hyper-criticality, which has contributed to my campaign against artist’s statements and museum wall text, as they often to serve to direct and limit how work is experienced. So, for instance, while I admire Turrell, I began to see his requirement that viewers remove their shoes and put on Tyvek booties before entering certain installations, as a not only part of the experience, but an unpleasant one—even a form of subjugation on the artist’s part, as they make you look stupid.

I also dislike having to circumvent black curtains or don headphones.

So for me, the Doug Wheeler experience began with Ken Johnson’s rave review in the Times, after which everyone was talking about it, then the happily chatty and anticipatory cue along West 19thStreet, which began forming at least a half hour before the gallery opened. Once being allowed to enter the building, five at a time (throughout we were attended by a bevy of friendly, courteous gallery assistants, each more beautiful than the next), we were ushered into a room to wait our turn, sitting on wooden folding chairs (or in my case, a scarily wobbly shared bench next to the wall) arranged in a square so that we faced each other, as in Quaker meeting.

From there, again five at a time, we were invited leave our bags in a pile, take off our shoes and put on white booties similar to Turrell’s, which folded around our ankles like oversize institutional house slippers.

But then there was the space Wheeler created. With no evidence of floor, ceiling, or walls, it was like being suspended in air. When we went in, the slowly changing light was white. I tiptoed as far as I could go, stopping, as instructed, when the floor sloped up, and stood immersed, as if by fog.

My friend, Roberto, remarked that it was like being in heaven.

Photo: David Zwirner Gallery

Heaven, yes, but with refugees from an insane asylum, as everyone was moving slowly and their booties caused them to shuffle. The effect of the lighting was so much like that of seamless photography background paper that everyone looked like part of a fashion shoot, and thus highlighted became inadvertent performers.

Roberto and I became fascinated with a young woman in our midst who was shuffling about in a particularly distracted way. Everything about her was slack—her mouth hung slightly open, rumpled clothing fell loosely over her heavy frame, and her hair looked as if she just gotten out of bed—in marked contrast to the art students she came with and the fashionable gallerinas. Roberto dubbed her Sloppy Girl. “Meds,” he whispered to me. Who was she? What was she doing there? Was she going to be okay?

Ultimately Sloppy Girl is what we remember and still talk about—not, perhaps what the artist intended.

(Also note that the people in the publicity shot above, courtesy of the gallery, are NOT wearing booties.)
March 2, 2012

In the interest of raising the bar on artists statements, I've decided to post all I come across that fulfill my basic parameters, which you will remember are:

An artist’s statement should be fun to read, and shed no light whatsoever on the intention, content, or experience of the work.

Therefore this from Barbara Barg, who I know from the poetry world:

Barg was the first being born out of formless chaos. For billions of years, Barg grew in a cosmic egg, working ceaselessly to create order by separating her clear yang from her turbid yin. The clear became the egg white, the turbid the yolk. 

After incubating for billions of years, Barg hatched from the egg and laid down to rest. Her breath became the wind, her voice the thunder. Her left eye became the sun, her right eye the moon. Her limbs and trunk became the mountain ranges. Her blood became the rivers, her flesh the fertile soil. Her hair became the stars and the Milky Way, her fur the trees and forests. Her teeth and bones became metals and minerals. The marrow of her bones became jade and pearls. Her sweat became the rain and the dew. And when the wind blew, the fleas on her fur became fish and animals. Then, feeling well-rested, she got up and wrote some poems.

So now that we’ve gotten artist’s statements out of the way, let me vent a bit on another prose genre—the interview—which I’ve always considered a low form of journalism. Andy Warhol made interviews famous, but he loved vacuity, and that’s fine when one celeb is asking questions of another and no one is pretending to be a writer or even serious. In art magazines, however, interviews often come across as a legitimized excuse for the writer to get out of actually writing something, or even doing their homework (“Where did you grow up?”), with little more insight than we’d get from a press release. I remember starting to read one interview with an artist whose work I was not familiar with, where the first question was, “How does it feel to be back in New York?” Needless to say, I turned the page.

However I love being proved wrong. Recently I read an interview that showed me that the format can be used to generate more insight than a straight article ever could. Coincidentally it happens to be by son, Matt, with David Lynch—in Interviewmagazine.
February 29, 2012
Facebook friend
Image by Banksy, of course.
February 26, 2012

James Rosenquist, I Love You with My Ford, 1961. Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 3/4 inches x 7 feet 9 1/2 inches. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

A friend, who had just sold some work, called from Europe the other day to ask me which mind-bogglingly expensive camera she should buy. She’s not a photographer, per se, but a conceptual artist who uses photography, and the question was—digital or analog? You may be wondering why she’d seek advice from me, who knows squat about photography, but she knew that wouldn’t keep me from having an opinion—which, of course, I did. I asked her to describe the qualities of each, and when she was finished, told her unequivocally that she should buy the analog Hasselblad. It was easy. Describing the Hasselblad she was animated, talking about dense blacks and whites, crispness, and Ansel Adams; when it came to digital not only was her voice flat, she even said, “I hate digital images.” But, she told me, everyone else—artists and professional photographers alike—had weighed in on the side of digital, saying that printing would be expensive and difficult with analog, and besides, no one uses it anymore. “So what?” I said, “It’s clear you want the Hasselblad, and you can only make great art if you love your instrument and are excited about what you can do with it.”

Meanwhile another friend, a student at a high-profile art college, reports being pushed toward installation, video, and performance, when all he wants to do is paint.

The problem with gearing everything toward what’s hot, what’s happening NOW, is that it’s NOW—when, hopefully, we’re making the art of the future. And while we can’t predict the future, we do know one thing: it won’t be anything like NOW.

So what do we have to go on? Fortunately, we’ve been created with the perfect internal barometer: our gut. Are we excited? Are we not excited? It will always tell us—unless, of course, we’ve been programmed to let our heads overrule its messages.

I interviewed James Rosenquist many years ago, who told me that when he was coming up it was all about Abstract Expressionism, and he could see that by the time he got good at it, it would be over. So he turned to what he knew best: sign painting. Was anyone else doing sign painting? No. Did he have any idea that anyone would be interested? No. But he was, and that was key.

Well, right now, THE THING is information-based art. Coupled with a sneering disdain for the visual, it’s been THE THING with curators and academicians for many years—at least as pervasive as AbEx was in Rosenquist’s student days. And while I don’t know that the next THING will be painting or analog photography, I don’t know that it won’t be, either.

However I DO know that in the hands of my two friends, painting and analog photography won't look anything like they did back in the day.


Today I got an email from my friend with the subject “No words.” The message:

Got it yesterday as planned!

She also send the link to this, from 2001, which I’d never seen, a French production by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson: