• The New Culture War

    Whitney Museum Kanders protests

    What to make of the intertwining controversies surrounding the Whitney Museum’s harbouring of (now former) trustee Warren B. Kanders and the (too-white) critical reception of its biennial exhibition? Are these just epiphenomena of the national derangement that goes by the name of Trump? Or are they tremors of something deeper, a shift in the plate tectonics of art and politics in the US? What is for sure is that we are in the midst of a new culture war, but one in which it’s unclear, as yet, who are the righteous and who are the reactionaries.

    Take the Kanders controversy: on one side stand the defenders of the museum – the Whitney in particular, but museums and cultural institutions in general – and what we can call the American model of museum funding, whereby a wealthy elite both ‘gives and gets’ substantial sums of money to their institutions of choice in return for social status and public recognition. The intent of such largesse, whether altruistic, aspirational or instrumentalised, is the stuff of society gossip. But from the perspective of the museum, that’s beside the point; the mission justifies the money.

    Once you’re in the business of drawing up a list of morally acceptable monetary sources, you’re either sliding down some slippery slope to the pecuniary inquisition or hazarding moral compromise and contradiction

    Upon realising that the money Kanders was giving to the Whitney was coming from his ownership of companies that produced, among other things, the tear gas used against migrant families and asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border on 25 November of last year, a large number of the staff at the Whitney signed a letter to the museum leadership ‘asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation’. The letter also demanded that the museum provide a ‘clear policy’ on ‘Trustee participation’, to which was added a nota bene asking, rhetorically, whether or not there was a ‘moral line’ to be drawn on such participation, before drawing that line at having museum staff ‘afflicted’ by trustees ‘whose work or actions are at odds with the museum’s mission’.

    Now, for the curious, I recommend reading the Whitney’s mission; it’s unclear how Kanders’s work or actions could be at odds with it. (You can find the museum’s mission statement on the publicly available Form 990 tax returns required of all nonprofit institutions in the US; oddly, it’s not reproduced on the museum’s website.) Nevertheless, the signatories of the letter raise the key question that most defenders of the museum have been asking: where is that moral line? What makes some money immoral and other money not? Money from guns? Not acceptable. But bulletproof vests? How about money from cigarettes? No. But what about electronic cigarettes? Real estate developers that gentrify but also build low-income housing? A fossil fuel company that also builds wind farms?

    Tear-gas canister manufactured by Safariland, from AR September 2019 Opinion Jonathan TD Neil
    Tear-gas canister manufactured by Safariland found at the Mexico-US border, on 26 November 2018. Photo: @VetsAboutFace / Twitter

    The strategy here is again rhetorical, for once you’re in the business of drawing up a list of morally acceptable monetary sources, you’re either sliding down some slippery slope to the pecuniary inquisition or hazarding moral compromise and contradiction. Which is why the ‘moral line’ question is really a false one. Answering it isn’t the point; all that matters is asking it. On the other side of this controversy, the future of the museum (the future of all arts and politics and, well, the future of the future itself) is tied up with the project or process of decolonisation.

    For some context, consider the op-ed that Olga Viso, the former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, published in The New York Times last spring. ‘Decolonizing the Art Museum: The Next Wave’ reckoned with a different controversy from a year prior concerning Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012), a sculpture that aggregated replicas of gallows that had been used in US state-sanctioned executions. The largest execution, of 38 Dakota men, had taken place in Minnesota in 1862. Scaffold was originally shown in Europe, where its lethal referents could be read abstractly. The Walker acquired the work in 2017 as a marquee piece for the museum’s sculpture garden, where the Dakota community in Minnesota could entertain no such abstractions. After considerable protests, negotiations and media campaigns, Scaffold was removed from the museum’s grounds and dismantled. In a further gesture of what Viso would identify as ‘empathy’, Durant transferred to the Dakota elders his intellectual property and moral rights to the work, at once a gift and, if not a destruction, then a disavowal of his art.

    Viso places this episode within a wider history of struggles by museum professionals, artists and activists since the 1980s to ‘expose’ the ‘power structures of white establishment culture, corporate America, and the federal government’. The art market is indicted as an additional ‘colonizing force’, such that today, according to Viso, there are ‘two incompatible art worlds: one committed to inclusion, artistic freedom and change, the other driven by money and entitlements’. (Incompatible? The last 200 years of artmaking would suggest the opposite.)

    Viso ends her piece with the following entreaty: ‘The next wave of decolonizing America’s art museums must succeed, because to lose our capacity for empathy in a democracy is not an option’. Viso is not wrong, but for the partisans of decolonisation, it’s not our ‘capacity’ for empathy that is central, but rather who is owed it. According to Decolonize This Place, one of the engines of activism at the centre of the Whitney protests, decolonisation is a ‘perspective’ that, properly deployed, recognises ‘that the settler-colony of the United States was founded on the theft of land, life, and labor over 400 years’, and thus decolonisation ‘necessitates’ the ‘abolition of prisons and police, borders and bosses, empires and oligarchs’, what is elsewhere identified as the ‘dynamics of contemporary racial capitalism’.

    If racial and ethnic identity are inextricable from the process of decolonisation, then the process should require that every player be so identified

    Though both Viso and Decolonize This Place position racial justice as crucial to the decolonial project, the latter is careful to point out that racial and ethnic identity cannot be taken as a proxy for a commitment to decolonisation. And yet race and identity remain, if not central, then at least priority categories for the ‘solidarity between struggles’ that Decolonize This Place describes as its ‘work’. Why else quote Xaviera Simmons’s 2 July call in the pages of The Art Newspaper for ‘whiteness’ to ‘undo itself’, a call that was meant to challenge how ‘white art critics’ had been ‘condescending and dismissive’ of the art in the Whitney Biennial? Simmons’s ‘undoing’ was echoed just a couple of days later, and more explicitly, in the pages of The New York Times by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, who, in ‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic’, decry that identity and state that the members of its persuasion ‘ought to step aside and make room for… writers of color’. (But wait. Wasn’t Holland Cotter’s review of the show glowing and justly sensitive to much of the art’s new politics of form? Wasn’t it Linda Yablonsky in The Art Newspaper and Nadje Sayej in The Guardian and Debra Solomon on WNYC who dismissed the show’s lack of radicality?)

    Nevertheless, if racial and ethnic identity are inextricable from the process of decolonisation, then the process should require that every player be so identified. Which means that, in response to Decolonize This Place’s question, ‘What are we willing to sacrifice?’, the uncomfortable but wholly accurate answer (but not the only one) would be: a rich Jew, who supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president, and whose business interests and place on the Whitney’s board of trustees had been reported back in 2015 – two biennials ago.

    And yet. I don’t believe that the partisans on either side of this controversy want to traffic in racial animus or cynical rhetoric, not the partisans of pragmatic reform (cleaner money, higher pay, more ‘inclusion, artistic freedom, and change’), nor the believers in the beloved community that will come after capitalism’s demise (after decolonisation, after ‘money and entitlements’, after Kanders). But racial animus and cynical rhetoric is what we have. Righteousness and reaction are what we’re feeding on. And there is shockingly little empathy to go around. 

    It’s a culture war. And everyone is losing. 

    Jonathan T.D. Neil is a contributing editor of ArtReview 

    Online exclusive published on 16 August 20019

  • The Art Gallery: a cut-throat business

    Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, 2007

    During the past few years we have seen a number of art market commentators raise the alarm over midlist art-gallery closures. (By ‘midlist’ I mean neither the megagalleries nor the scrappy newcomers, but the standard single-location shop with 15–20 artists on the roster and more than a few years in the trenches.) Economist Clare McAndrew and collector Alain Servais are just a few of the well-informed handwringers taking to their keyboards to call out the ‘threats’ to the gallery ecosystem coming from the ‘superstar’ and ‘winner-take-all’ artworld economics that favour the big, well-capitalised megagalleries. Market jeremiads all wag a finger at art fairs, which are indispensable sales and networking platforms that galleries can ill afford to do without, even as many galleries can barely afford to do with. And there are macroeconomic devils: income inequality, the disappearing middle-class art consumer, increasingly expensive real estate in the highly desirable global metropoles, to name just a few.

    That there is some sort of crisis or existential threat facing the contemporary art gallery and its business model smacks of histrionics, however. Changing collector tastes and habits, new technology and a truly global marketplace are all conspiring to create new opportunities as well as challenges for gallerists. Because this is business, though, the responses will necessarily fall on one or the other side of the cost (saving) versus revenue (generating) divide. And to date, most of the proposals have looked to the cost side of the ledger only.

    For example, the shared-services model, of which Vanessa Carlos’s Condo initiative is the most visible instance, is a cost-saving strategy. With Condo, galleries gain access to new-to-them but already existing markets of collectors and curators in other cities by partnering with host galleries who share their already-paid-for space and networks. The organisers claim that the cost savings allow galleries to take more risks in presenting more adventurous (read less market-friendly) art, which may be the case, but that’s an expected loss in revenue coupled with a cut in costs, leaving the ledger at status quo ante.

    David Zwirner’s proposal that megagalleries pay something akin to an art-fair ‘tax’ in order to subsidise less well capitalised galleries’ attendance at the fairs is also a cost-side strategy: higher costs for Zwirner (and Hauser & Wirth, and Pace, etc) equals lower costs for others (watch the video here). Never mind that art fairs such as Art Basel already utilise cost differentials to subsidise their special presentation sections (Art Basel in Basel will extend this progressive taxation system to the central Galleries section next June).

    One imagines that Zwirner’s proposal simply signalled to the fairs that they can and should be charging more for their prime booths. Zwirner’s cost-side proposal is the fair’s revenue opportunity. It will do nothing for most midlist galleries’ revenues and can only be positioned as a revenue-generating opportunity for first-time attendees whose presence would be made possible by the Zwirner tax.

    That there is some sort of crisis or existential threat facing the contemporary art gallery and its business model smacks of histrionics. Changing tastes, new technology and a truly global marketplace are all conspiring to create new opportunities as well as challenges

    There are other familiar but less well publicised cost-side strategies of which galleries have availed themselves, including costsharing for legal, accounting and logistics services that are duplicated across businesses and for which syndicates can exercise more sway in price negotiations. But cost-side strategies can only take a gallery business so far. Travel far enough down the path of cost-cutting and service-sharing and the signposts start pointing to ‘austerity’ and ‘precarity’ as much as they do to collaborative utopias and mythologies of the commons.

    Of course revenue isn’t easy to come by. And real solutions for how to generate more of it for galleries have been few and far between. One of the more creative proposals on this side of the ledger was suggested some time ago by Servais, who looked to professional sports, FIFA’s transfer-fee system in particular, as a model for how smaller galleries – the farm teams – who foster not-yet-superstar artists could be remunerated when those artists achieve superstar status and jump to a megagallery (presuming those farm-team galleries don’t already have silent, or not-so-silent, partnerships with the big players, as many do).

    Practically speaking, anyone familiar with the free-agency landscape of professional sports knows what those contracts look like: lengthy and costly; and anyone familiar with the primary market for visual art knows that it never met a contract that it didn’t roll its eyes at between handshakes. It’s a trust system, but more Eastern Promises than Airbnb.

    The pro-athlete comparison suffers from an even more serious conceptual error, however, which is that athletes are, at bottom, performers; they’re not paid-for products, as most artists, and all galleries, are. When an artist goes mega, they aren’t courted with multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts that just need signing. They’re courted with the promise – speculative though it may be – that their work will now be made available – as if it weren’t before – to a new class of collectors with a different kind of purchasing power. The medium is the merchandise, not how the artist makes it. Which also reveals the less lawyer-intensive method by which farm-team galleries may share in the riches: hold inventory. When an artist makes the jump, likewise do prices for their work. Everybody wins. It will be objected however that this requires capital. And indeed it does. It also points to the biggest blindspot of the gallery model today, the one that is holding back the evolution of the midlist gallery and ‘right-sizing’ the larger primary market ecosystem: consignments.

    The conventional practice by which an artist gives work to a gallery, which then sells it and keeps 50 percent of the revenue, may prove expedient for getting an exhibition-making operation up and running and attracting attention, but the economics of this model leave galleries at the mercy of just about every other player in game. If the gallery holds no inventory, it cannot benefit from increasing demand for its artists’ works, except by taking on further consignments at some future date. The metaphor of the artist/gallerist ‘marriage’ and the vaunted idea that gallerists ‘manage’ their artists’ careers to avoid mercenary market behaviours are really attempts to hedge the risk that those future consignments never materialise. In the interim, collectors are free to sell, and do, often against a gallery’s wishes. Rights of first refusal, sales contracts prohibiting resales, blacklists, all of these things are coercive behavioural practices symptomatic of a model in need of retooling.

    A number of gallerists I have spoken to have discussed building their own art funds, in essence third-party-backed inventory, in order to ‘compete’ with their collectors. Call it a ‘capital fund’. What comes with it is the return of the dealer model that launched the modern art market and that most of the best gallerists have always maintained. Jeffrey Deitch can afford to put on cutting-edge shows and take risks in the gallery, so the story goes, because he is dealing Impressionists out of the back office. Many a gallerist will tell you that it’s the secondary market that keeps the lights on and the staff paid.

    The conventional practice by which an artist gives work to a gallery, which then sells it, keeping half the revenue, may prove expedient for getting an exhibition-making operation up and running, but this leaves galleries at the mercy of just about every other player in the game

    So why not bring the secondary market closer to the primary, and disaggregate the exhibition function from the dealing function altogether? Love him or hate him, Stefan Simchowitz has built a successful business model around just this kind of strategy. The social media posturing, promotion and press coverage are brilliant marketing, for him and ‘his’ artists, but it’s not the core business, which is dealing, to put it plainly. For Simco, supporting artists means buying work. After that, gallery shows, production funds or institutional contacts and exhibitions arise as much out of self-interest as ‘support’ for the artist; and that’s OK, because each party’s interests are well aligned.

    Capitalisation and disaggregation point to a different industry that could prove useful to moving the contemporary art gallery’s business model away from consignments. A few weeks ago I moderated a discussion between an artist and a venture capitalist who had come together to discuss the cultures of art and tech and related matters. That conversation was illuminating for a host of reasons, but it was the parallels between the venture capital firm and the contemporary art gallery that struck me as salient. Midsize VC firms typically invest in about 20 ventures, with the full expectation that two, maybe three will carry the day and generate the desired returns. Most midlist galleries will recognise these numbers.

    Similarly, VC firms invest in founders. Building a new venture is undeniably a creative practice. The values of the VC firm will necessarily be reflected in the founders it chooses to fund and the visions in which it chooses to invest. VC firms, the good ones at least, understand this, and they are committed to funding the visions that stand a chance of creating transformative change. The best VCs want to see culture changed for the better. They are committed to the advancement of their fields, to making a difference that makes a difference. Replace ‘founder’ with ‘artist’ and ‘vision’ with ‘art’ in the above and you have a wholly unobjectionable description of what galleries think they do – except with galleries, it’s all venture and no capital.

    Capitalisation and disaggregation point to a different industry that could prove useful to moving the contemporary art gallery’s business model away from consignments

    There was one further attribute my VC interlocutor said was necessary for a founder to gain investment, and that was a plan. A founder’s vision, the strength of her ideas for how to make something new, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for attracting capital support. Founders also need to demonstrate that they know how – that they have the know-how – to get from idea to actuality. How many gallerists require their artists to have a plan for their work or careers? How many even hazard the question?

    Very few, because broaching such questions transgresses the still closely held belief in the ‘artist’ as an avant-garde figure, one who is of but not within the dominant mode of her society, and whose works stand in opposition to that society, or outrun it. At best the idea of an artist bearing a strategic plan smacks of crass ambition and professionalisation – that system of norms and mores by which we workers must abide but from which artists should be blessedly free. Professionalisation is the answer to the question, recently posed by the artist Martha Rosler, ‘Why are people being so nice?’ – ‘niceness’ being just one more neoliberal imperative that needs resisting.

    Were contemporary art galleries to follow the VC model, they would require of their artists a plan for how each creative practice would develop, who its audience would be, to which markets it might appeal and what institutional relationships would be important to develop or even necessary to the advancement of the work. Given such a plan, with its benchmarks for recognition and success – only in the artworld is there cynicism enough to denounce such values – a gallery would then invest in the work, by buying it. If, for whatever reason, the desired outcomes don’t materialise, the investment ends. Artist and gallery move on.

    What is more, now freed from being a de facto sales representative of one’s work, which the consignment model all but mandates, the artist can adopt whatever stance towards society she wishes (provided that stance is part of her plan). In this light, professionalisation, even the friction-free social intercourse subtended by our being ‘nice’ to one another, now appears, for the artist at least, as a feature of the consignment model’s minimise-risk, minimise-capital strategy, rather than as an unfortunate bug.

    I have no doubt that my proposal for what we might call a ‘venture gallery’ will be met with the requisite amount of disgust from an artworld establishment that – still, today – cannot stomach the language of investment and returns, of capital and risk. As the recent Banksy stunt demonstrates, the artworld loves nothing more than to hate the market, to laugh at its supposed humiliations. So what I have suggested here will be regarded as yet another gross overreach of market thinking into a precinct of value that must be defended from capital’s coercive march through our imaginations.

    To this I would simply state: galleries are businesses and always have been. This is their native discourse. If business is bad, change the conversation. 

    From the November 2018 issue of ArtReview

  • “Why now, man?” On Bruce Nauman at MoMA

    Bruce Nauman, Sex and Death by Murder and Suicide, 1985. Image courtesy of Emanuel Hoffman Foundation. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Why Nauman?

    For anyone familiar with Bruce Nauman and his well-established place in the history of contemporary art, the answer, ‘Because it’s Bruce Nauman’, will suffice. But what will follow, inevitably, are explanations that, since at least the 1990s, have begun to harden into doxa: ‘No other artist has so consistently defied the pull of a recognisable style’. ‘No other artist’s practice has tarried more with incoherence.’ ‘No other artist has moved so effortlessly between sculpture, film, video, performance, photography, installation, etc.’ ‘No other artist has so antagonised his audience.’ ‘No other artist has such important devotees.’ ‘No other artist has managed in art what Beckett managed in literature and theatre.’ ‘No other artist is so tricky.’ ‘No other artist is a cowboy.’ ‘No other artist is smarter.’ ‘No other artist…’

    None of these answer exactly ‘why Nauman?’ The artist, now in his seventies, is the subject of a third retrospective, his first in 20 years, and his second at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though this one opens at the Schaulager in Switzerland. Both this exhibition and Nauman’s previous retrospective were organised by onetime MoMA deputy director and now Rauschenberg Foundation executive director Kathy Halbreich, one of Nauman’s devotees. For Halbreich, the persistence of ‘disappearance’ as ‘act, concept, perceptual probe, magical deceit, working method, and metaphor’ in Nauman’s art is what distinguishes, or at least organises, this year’s retrospective. While preparing her show, this ‘oxymoronic’ appearance of disappearance, Halbreich writes in her introductory essay to the show’s catalogue, ‘surprised – really sideswiped me’, insofar as it offered a new means to understand Nauman’s notoriously difficult practice.

    ‘Disappearance’ is not Halbreich’s answer to the ‘why Nauman’ question, however. That answer is ‘freedom’. ‘Where freedom begins,’ she writes, ‘the absoluteness of truth disappears and becomes various.’ ‘Freedom demands canniness and care,’ she continues, ‘the developing of questions rather than acceptance of the often seductive deceits and prohibitions of authority. In encouraging the disappearance of certainty, Nauman may be the most political of artists after all.’

    One should read these words with great curiosity, because ‘politics’ is not something Nauman is known for. In fact, his ability to sidestep overt political content by bouncing around in the less well-illuminated corners of the human psyche – his own psyche, really – is, if not a signature of Nauman’s work, then at least one of its more abiding tropes. If there is a politics to Nauman’s work, it is not one legislated by the work itself, but by the times that have received it. For what Halbreich encapsulates in her statements on freedom is not so much a new reading of Nauman as an evolution of the reception of his work over the years, a reception which can be broken into three main phases: its postminimalist reception from the 1960s and early 70s, the traumatic reception of the 90s and its contemporary reception – a political one – offered up as a new read, a new lease, on Nauman’s relevance today. That these phases only mark periods of Nauman’s reception is important to note, as the work itself does not periodise so easily.

    The postminimalist reception of Nauman is the Nauman of process, performance and moving image. This is the Nauman of Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance) (1968) or Walk with Contraposto (1968), the artist’s iconic ‘studio’ works, in which, with only a 16mm film or video camera as audience, Nauman ‘did things’ in the studio, sensing that, at the moment when his peers, such as Robert Smithson, were leaving the studio to engage the dialectics of the outdoors, the studio was diminished – no longer sufficient, no longer necessary – and so open to new possibilities for practice, for actions taken without ends in sight. But this is also the moment of Nauman’s early fibreglass and polyester resin casts, works which were included in seminal exhibitions, such as Lucy Lippard’s 1966 Eccentric Abstraction show, a catalogue of challenges to the orthodoxies of Modernism that still hung heavy over the art of that time. Nauman’s work of the 1960s was understood and received squarely within these terms, as work that engaged process, duration and the body, with all its weight and dimension, its presence and obdurateness, its ‘thrownness’ – all things that modernist art sought to sublimate and that Minimalism (as well as Conceptual art, and much Pop art too) sought to sidestep.

    The Nauman of the 1990s, the traumatic Nauman, absorbs this postminimalist reception but expands it in order to make room for signs of subjective distress. This is the Nauman of psychic assault and battery, a vein that was tapped early with Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968), whose disembodied voice creepily exhorts its audience to do just that. It reaches an apex with Clown Torture (1987) and Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer) (1988), video installations in which the audience is again assaulted, but now by images of alien otherness (circus clowns, rats in a maze), subjected to harsh sounds (the torture victim’s pleas, rock’n’roll drums). Of the 1995 retrospective, in which most people encountered these works for the first time, Pamela Lee noted that Nauman’s ‘almost hysterical proliferation of artistic procedures’ suggests nothing so much as his ‘inability to master the self’s relation to the world’. What is trauma except failure by another name – failure to represent, failure to incorporate, failure to work through and to sublimate.

    Bruce Nauman, “Disappearing Acts,” MoMA. Installation view.

    The contemporary Nauman, the Nauman of 2018, might then be received as a champion of failure (the ‘pathos of failure’ is what Nauman’s work is about according to Yve-Alain Bois et al’s Art Since 1900). If his strategies and aesthetic never seem to cohere, nor has his work achieved any clear meaning. The reason for that, at least according to Halbreich, is that ‘Nauman generously delegates responsibility for creating meaning to us’. The importance of this statement should not be tied to its veracity (recall, Halbreich holds that Nauman’s work disappears the validity of truth) but to the artists, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, for whom such a transfer of responsibility was a foundational condition of possibility for their art.

    For Duchamp, the ‘creative act is not performed by the artist alone’, as it is the ‘spectator’ who, in ‘deciphering and interpreting [arts] inner qualifications… adds his contribution to the creative act’, even when that act entails nothing more than pointing at something, anything, extant in the world. Nauman’s Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001), a multichannel video installation showing Nauman’s New Mexico studio at night and the very little (though not nothing) that goes on there, makes this lineage explicit. Like Cage’s ‘silence,’ which is never nothing, so Nauman says this is my studio, my art. You be the judge of it. But you cannot deny it’s not nothing.

    The question, then, is what kind of freedom is born of this doubled negative? A challenge to orthodoxy? A disappearance of certainty? A failure of meaning? And if these beget freedom, what kind of freedom is it? What politics attends to it?

    Today, Nauman’s ‘pathos of failure’ has been domesticated by the tech industry, whose startup culture came to terms with its own anxieties by embracing the supposed benefits of creative self-destruction. The first FailCon, ‘a one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and designers to study their own and others’ failures’, took place nearly a decade ago. A common mantra around the Valley, ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’, was one of Stanford University’s most popular continuing education courses before it became a book, authored by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, in 2013. By the following year, New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose had enough material to diagnose startup culture’s new ‘failure fetish’. The slackers had been absorbed by the Googleplex.

    This would all have been quite amusing had not real politics in the United States gone dark. 2014 witnessed the emergence of new racial consciousness and street-level activism in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in New York City, at the hands of the police. The following year, Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between The World and Me, a quite beautiful, and tragic, exposition of how American history is written on the backs, and in the blood, of black bodies. Then, in 2016, we the people of the United States elected Donald J. Trump to the presidency, and what has followed has been nothing less than a kind of moral bloodshed. Truth and facts – the cornerstones of certainty, and so of action and amelioration – have been massacred by venal foot soldiers for the politics of cynicism.

    In 2018 we cannot afford, nor should we accept, the politics that Halbreich puts forward for Nauman. We cannot afford, nor should we accept, a freedom that is predicated upon the ‘disappearance of certainty’ or that cashiers the ‘absoluteness of truth’.

    The artist, choreographer and conceptualist Ralph Lemon doesn’t. Writing in the same catalogue, Lemon addresses the politics of Nauman’s 1968 video Wall-Floor Positions:

    Here was a particular projection of white-male autonomy taking place concurrently with the exigencies of the black civil rights movement, with this culturally defined lack of autonomy, creative and otherwise, and its resistance to organizational racism (The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in ’65 – a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.). I try to imagine a black body in an art studio, in the United States, in 1965, negotiating the inspired labor of positioning itself within the perfectly simple architectural confines of wall and floor. I cannot imagine it.

    Lemon does not seem uncertain. In 2003, Lemon staged a performance of Nauman’s movement from Wall-Floor Positions before a live audience at the Walker Art Center. There were two performers rather than just one, and both were black (one was Lemon). Two black bodies, alive, where once there had been only one white body, recorded.

    Bruce Nauman, Wall-Floor Positions, 1968. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Such an updating of Nauman’s work, an engaged and political reception of it, is generative of new certainties, of new absolute truths. It does point the finger of failure at Nauman, but as if to ask, rhetorically, ‘How could you have missed this?’ The answer to that question of course is freedom, the freedom that Nauman was privileged to enjoy in the 1960s as a young white artist, free to move about the country, and in this studio, as he wished. This freedom that was not, and is still not, shared by all. Nor is it a freedom that comes from a disappearance of certainty, but rather one that becomes explicit, one that appears, against the backdrop of its absence. This is called getting at, and down to, the truth. It’s also called enlightenment. If Nauman is relevant today, it’s because artists such as Ralph Lemon can make his work relevant, not just for us, or for Nauman himself, but for now.

    From the October 2018 issue of ArtReview.

  • On Jasper Johns at The Broad

    Jasper Johns, Bridge, 1997

    Jasper Johns, Something Resembling Truth’ at The Broad, Los Angeles; 10 February – 13 May

    Could Jasper Johns be the most strategic of conceptual painters working today? By strategic I mean the most calculated, the most perceptually acute and the most decisive, particularly at a moment when painting – one might say the enterprise of art in general – can’t decide on its purpose, save some weak sense that it’s locked in a game with its own history, one that still allows for cursory gestures at self-expression when not succumbing to decorative self-conscious formalism? On the evidence of Something Resembling Truth’ at The Broad, the only US venue for this thematic exhibition of Johns’s work (organised by London’s Royal Academy of Art), I’d wager that this is the case. And it takes a show such as the current one to demonstrate how Johns’s strategies – reticence, irony, quotation; they’ve gone by many labels – have all been marshalled towards the renewal of how it is that painting might come to mean anything at all.

    Let’s begin with Johns’s Catenary series (1997–2003), one of the artist’s most recent. These works have been nearly universally lauded since they first appeared in 2005 in the artist’s first solo exhibition with Matthew Marks (itself something of a strategic move given the painter’s long association with Leo Castelli). That’s where I first saw them, and I didn’t like them. There was something about the precarious awkwardness of the hinged slats that lean off the sides of many of the works, and the seeming hobby-store quality of the hanging strings, whose curves give the series its name, which didn’t seem either well designed or fully intended. These works just didn’t cohere, and most of Johns’s work had been nothing if not coherent, sometimes internally so (e.g. the Targets, 1955–), and sometimes in conspiracy with the viewer (The Critic Sees, 1961, or Painting with Two Balls, 1960).

    In a work such as Bridge (1997) that awkwardness remains, but the incoherence now reads more like a necessary feature of the work, as when the challenges of intellectual inquiry or research remain as yet unresolved. I’m sure this is what Johns is after: the venture of thinking, as it tarries over the rules of its own delicate physicality (the string, the slats), grounded, as it were, by the generic images of thought – the painted mimesis of the frame’s wood grain, the painted picture of a stellar galaxy, the symbol of the Big Dipper, the harlequin pattern, the word ‘BRIDGE’ – all different means and modes of representing, of disciplining the riot of the real and making something meaningful.

    Perhaps this search began in the mid-1980s, with Johns’s cycle The Seasons (1985–86), in which picturing this venture of thought required a detour through picturing something like a self – hard to commit to it being Johns’s self – through references to some of the artist’s earlier image strategies (flags, devices) as well as icons of philosophical thinking such as the Platonic forms, Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit diagram (the latter made famous by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s inquiry into ‘seeing as’ in the Philosophical Investigations, 1953) and Pliny’s origin story of the birth of painting as the tracing of a loved-one’s silhouette in shadow.

    It is quite possible that all of this is thrown into the work to throw us off the scent of its meaning – like cleverness that covers up a fear of hard thinking, or a wilful determination not to state what the work is about, which is what defines so many of Johns’s iconic image-strategies of the 1960s. But in light of the last 30 years, Johns’s work now seems defined, or rather challenged, by the prospect, the very real difficulty, of how making paintings – how making art – can be considered a means of making the obdurate stuff of the world, including such obdurate stuff as words and marks, meaningful.

    From the March 2018 Issue of ArtReview.

  • On Yevgeniya Baras at The Landing

    Yevgenia Baras, “Untitled,” 2016; The Landing, Los Angeles

    Yevgeniya Baras: Towards Something Standing Open; The Landing, Los Angeles; 27 January – 10 March

    I can’t decide if Yevgeniya Baras is playing a primitivist game or an outsider game in art. Her newest paintings, all untitled from 2016 and 2017, and all oil on burlap or canvas with occasional foreign elements, such as wood or glass or branches affixed to or embedded behind their surfaces, exhibit what is becoming something like a signature style: mixtures of both rich and muted hues, thick lines and scumbles, ambiguous symbols, figures and forms emerging from rough surfaces, resulting sometimes from paint, sometimes from the picture’s substrate, and modest canvas sizes, with most dimensions at 60cm or smaller.

    In the current series, many paintings bear quasi-Cyrillic text and lettering. This is new. In prior works, such as the ones Baras showed at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in New York in 2016, only one of the paintings (on my count) involved anything resembling such alphabetic incursions. But in the last two years the letters are more frequent, and more prominent, and the paintings conjure, at least for me, both the mysteries of peasant primitivism, and the Cubo-Futurism that animated the early experiments of the avant-garde in Russia.

    Whether Baras wants this is probably beside the point. In the first decades of the last century, text fragments and woodblock lubki were picked up by various Russian artists (Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich) as means to challenge the bourgeois naturalism that had dominated high art in the nineteenth century. The vagaries of text, and the mysticism of the indigenous ‘other’, pointed to hidden dimensions of meaning, deeper truths, that the modernising world was both concealing and uncovering. If art could channel these truths, could take a hammer to its calcified forms, then a new age, a new utopia, might dawn.

    I don’t believe Baras is after a new dawn. Such radicality is nothing if not foreclosed from artists of her generation (artists of any generation today, really). But one does sense that Baras is after those mysteries that were once easily associated with the earthy otherness of the rough-hewn and whatever was still out of step with the age. The thick weave and frayed edges of her burlap canvases suggest work and wear (not to mention impoverishment), while her diagrammatic forms and textual annotations are like muddy hieroglyphics meant to undo our contemporary imperative to produce anything instantly recognisable.

    It’s to Baras’s great credit, then, that she can produce paintings that appear wholly sincere and strategic at the same time. Baras does not come to her work decorated with anything like the outsider’s badges of autodidacticism and obsession. She was educated at London’s Slade and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she received a BA in fine art and psychology as well as an MS in education (graduating cum laude, no less). Her MFA is from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. One has to assume that anyone with those intellectual chops understands well the effects she is after – there can be no mystery there.

    From the March 2018 Issue of ArtReview.

  • A physics of gossip? On Jed Perl’s new biography of Alexander Calder

    Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years, 1898–1940, by Jed Perl; Alfred A. Knopf, $50/£35 (hardcover)

    One doesn’t make it five pages into Jed Perl’s new biography of Alexander Calder before getting something close to Perl’s theory of biography itself: ‘There is a physics of biography, one that involves the facts and how they are related to one another. And there is a metaphysics of biography, especially the biographies of creative spirits, that involves determining how the facts of the artist’s life somehow fuel the imaginative life.’ It’s a bit perplexing as to what Perl is after here. By ‘imaginative life’ are we meant to assume Perl means the artist’s work – presumably the most direct manifestation of the artist’s own imaginative efforts? Or is it meant to indicate something broader, a ‘sensibility’, say, that goes beyond the dry ‘physics’ of an artist’s life to get at something like the spirit of his time? Are we to learn something about Calder’s work by learning about Calder the man? Or are we to learn about the ‘age of Calder’?

    I’m not sure Perl is clear on the answer himself, or indeed if it’s a question he feels needs posing, at least on the evidence of Calder, The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898–1940, which remains, to use Perl’s own terms, at the level of biographical physics, and rarely rises to anything like a metaphysics, either about Calder or his age.

    Could this all be Calder’s own fault? Alexander ‘Sandy’ Calder is a curious giant in the menagerie of modern art. A figure at once immensely visible (what childhood of the past 50 years has not been introduced to, or produced, a variation on Calder’s greatest contribution to the history of art: the mobile?) and admired (by giants of modernism, eg Cocteau, Duchamp, Miró) and yet, oddly, without acolytes.

    Calder’s mobiles, his Cirque Calder (1926–31), even his wonderfully deft and economical wire works have not posed challenges for subsequent generations of artists. Not in the way that a Constantin Brancusi or an Alberto Giacometti remain artists with whom a young sculptor often must contend – or avoid. Calder’s greatest work, by contrast, requires acknowledgement, even admiration, but no one today is wrestling with it, or crediting it with opening up new horizons of artistic practice, or damning Calder for getting there first, or doing it better.

    Could it be that Calder the man just isn’t all that fascinating? Perl’s early chapters on the Calder family – on A. Stirling and Nanette, Calder’s very accomplished artist parents, and on the family’s moves from East Coast (Philadelphia) to West (Pasadena) and back (Croton-on-Hudson) following Stirling’s career – on Calder’s exposure to a wide range of top talents at the turn of the century and on Calder’s education at the Stevens Institute of Technology and at the Art Students League in New York, all combine into a dense portrait of a young artist who appears more or less at ease with the advancing artistic life that in many ways was destined to become his own.

    Then there’s Paris, where Calder falls in with the right crowd right away, makes important friends (Duchamp), gains recognition and all through the interwar years never sheds the impression that he is the big American boy, the ‘man cub’, a title that Calder’s father had given to one of his own early sculptural portraits of his son. Calder’s peers in the 1920s and 30s may have been fascinated by him, but on the page, in Perl’s hands, exactly what animates Calder and his own ‘imaginative life’ is difficult to parse. Mostly it sounds as if Calder was affable and enjoyable to be around, and though he certainly lived the life of a bohemian artist abroad (with a little beer money from dad to help things along), Calder’s life comes across as rather charmed: ‘On the boulevard Arago…,’ Perl writes, ‘Sandy and Louisa plunged back into the rounds of entertainment that had always characterized their life in Paris.’

    On the same page, Perl tells how Matisse and Duchamp show up one night, and that ‘it’s unclear, but Henry Miller may have also been among the group’. Unclear? With numerous statements of this sort salting the pages of Calder, one feels the need to ask Perl if there is a physics of gossip as well.

    From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview

  • Power in Black and White

    Daniel Joseph Martinez, “Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) or Overture con claque-Overture with Hired Audience Members,” 1993

    ‘It’s like Jet up in here’, ‘Black is in fashion now’, ‘We were eight years in power’: important excerpts from the intellectual discourse of blackness today.

    Four statements. Four judgements. Only the last one makes me uncomfortable. Why? Because it’s mine, and I am white – more specifically, I am (in no particular order) a highly-educated, white, male, heterosexual, professional educator and writer. There is another name for that: it’s ‘privileged’. Indeed I am: boarding school, Andover; college, Cornell; PhD, Columbia; job, most recently, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Director and Head of Global Business Development; side-hustle, ArtReview magazine.

    It doesn’t get much worse, or better, than that.

    The quotes come from three writers whom I admire deeply. The first is from a piece by Darryl Pinckney. The quote isn’t his, but one he relates from the curator Camille Brewer, whom Pinckney recalls running into on ‘Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem’ – a line that is meant to set the racial colour of the scene. It appeared in The New York Review of Books, where Pinckney published ‘The Trickster’s Art,’ a lovely review, primarily of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portrait show at the New Museum this past summer. Brewer is referring to the pages of Artforum, where advertisements for shows by black artists appear newly prevalent.

    The second quote is from Zadie Smith’s Harper’s Magazine review of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out (2017), a biting racial critique dressed up in the genre of a horror thriller, and Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2017), the portrait of the murdered Emmett Till which was at the centre of so much debate over race and cultural appropriation on the occasion of this past year’s Whitney Biennial. Again, the quote isn’t Smith’s, but is quoted by her, as what one character in Peele’s movie says to its hero, Chris, and which sums up the emotional alchemy of contemporary liberal white guilt. ‘In the liberal circles depicted in Get Out,’ Smith writes, ‘everything that was once reviled – our eyes, our skin, our backsides, our noses, our arms, our legs, our breasts, and of course our hair – is now openly envied and celebrated and aestheticized and deployed in secondary images to sell stuff.’ Hence why ‘black is in fashion now’.

    The final quote belongs to Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguably one of the most important writers in America today. We Were Eight Years in Power is the title of Coates’s just-published book, an excerpt of which appeared in The Atlantic under the title ‘The First White President’, a klieg-light illumination of the racism, both latent and manifest, that pervades the US electorate and, alleges Coates, our liberal intelligentsia. Indicting writers such as Mark Lilla, who declaim the Left’s multi-generational move to a ‘pseudo-politics’ of identity and the ‘self-regard’ it entails, Coates reaffirms, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, that ‘all politics are identity politics – except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom’, Coates’s name for the violent inheritance of racism the dividends of which whites have enjoyed since the founding of the Republic. Such is the power of whiteness.

    It is this whiteness which stands behind Kelley Walker’s exhibition Direct Drive at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis last year, and was the target of the boycotts and resignations that followed as responses to the inclusion of Walker’s image appropriations (his standard modus operandi) of photographs from the 1963 Birmingham campaigns for racial justice and covers of black lad-mag KING – images that, though made in 2006, were now appearing in a city where the senseless killing of Michael Brown at the hands of a white St. Louis police officer set off months of unrest and catalysed the Black Lives Matter movement. It is this whiteness stands behind painter Dana Schutz’s decision to depict the beaten and murdered Emmett Till in Open Casket (2016), and the calls from some artists and activists for this painting’s removal from the Whitney Biennial and the work’s destruction. It is this whiteness that also stands behind Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012), and the artist’s decision to give that sculpture, and his rights to it, to the Dakota elders for whom the work – which included a reproduction of a scaffold used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862 (to date the largest state-sponsored execution in US history) – represented one of the later episodes of an as yet unacknowledged genocide.

    Sam Durant, “Scaffold,” 2012, and protest. Photograph by Minneapolis Star Tribune / Zuma Press

    More than these recent episodes in the history of art’s institutional confrontation with the history and legacy of racially motivated injustice, we know this whiteness pervades the American cultural landscape, a signature of the origin of western (i.e. white) modernism and the modern world, a whiteness which, as Coates writes in his piece on Trump, ‘cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them’. It is a whiteness that pervades the art world, its museums, its galleries, its fairs and benefits and other self-congratulatory proceedings, behind which Coates’s tailwind – more like a tradewind – blows strong.

    If I stress ‘cultural landscape’ here it is not because I believe the categories of the economic or the political are somehow free of this whiteness – all evidence today is tragically and sadly to the contrary – but because it is in the arena of culture that racial identity is affirmed and adjudicated. This is not new. It is significant that the last noteworthy efflorescence of racial consciousness in the United States, at least as made current by the visual arts, was crystallised in and by the 1993 Whitney Biennial. It was then and there, in the exhibited work, but also explicitly in Thelma Golden’s catalogue essay ‘What’s White…?’, that ‘whiteness’ was identified, one might say diagnosed, as the condition to be metaphorically fought, like one does a cancer.

    At the time, though, the chosen weapon of treatment was ‘difference’, and the deployment of ‘difference’, in both theories and practices of cultural analysis and institutional engagement, would do the work of dismantling the ‘grand narrative’ of whiteness. Daniel Joseph Martinez put it plainly in his much-reproduced and discussed intervention which emblazoned the Whitney’s metal admissions tags with the phrase ‘I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white’ – titled: Museum Tags: Second Movement (overture); or, Overture con claque (Overture with Hired Audience Members) (1993) – and so interpolated equally their wearers and readers in a power dynamic of racial identification and difference.

    Though a host of theoretical writing coming out of Europe beginning in the late 1950s and 60s canonised and conceptualised difference by embedding it firmly within the history and discourse of decolonisation, difference in the United States in the early 1990s was a mechanism for challenging, first and foremost, whiteness, which Cornel West’s ‘The New Cultural Politics of Difference’ (1990) did the most to forcefully articulate. Given our current circumstances, however, it is useful to recall one of the less celebrated (or notorious) books by Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, which was published in this period (1995) and took up the prehistory of West’s ‘cultural politics of difference’ by tracking the discourse of American nativism to the 1920s. What Michaels demonstrated in the 1990s was that, in the 1920s, racial difference was being redescribed – in the progressive and not-so-progressive literature of the era – as cultural difference, and defended as such in the name of ‘pluralism’. At the same time, however, that pluralism, and the cultural differences it supported, could only be grounded upon a newly won commitment to identity. As Michaels writes in the first chapter of Our America:

    …although the move from racial identity to cultural identity appears to replace essentialist criteria of identity (who we are) with performative criteria (what we do), the commitment to pluralism requires in fact that the question of who we are continue to be understood as prior to questions about what we do. Since, in pluralism, what we do can be justified only by reference to who we are, we must, in pluralism, begin by affirming who we are; it is only once we know who we are that we will be able to tell what we should do; it is only when we know which race we are that we can tell which culture is ours.

    What this meant in the 1920s was that being ‘American’ would no longer be equivalent to being a citizen and would now require being a part of (adopting, or assimilating to) American culture. At the same time, however, that American culture was itself being redescribed in terms of race, – in terms, that is, of whiteness. This is the logic of nativism, and it is a logic that is at work again today.

    Hence my discomfort. Not only because to be white and to make a statement regarding blackness is to draw upon the reserve of whiteness (Coates’s ‘bloody heirloom’) that I have inherited and which has long enjoyed and wielded a violent power in the US and around the globe – but especially in the US. But also because today, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the politics and violent legacies of racism that pushed him into office (Trump’s immigration bans echo the racially motivated 1924 Immigration Act, which also set immigration limits based on national origin); in the wake of a newly visible and emboldened white nationalism (and its Nazi enthusiasts, another artefact of the 1920s); in the wake of a newly amplified nativist rhetoric about ‘America First’ and ‘real America’ and ‘real Americans’ (all of which echo the political rhetoric of the 1920s); my own commitment to pluralism necessitates, on this logic, the affirmation of my own whiteness (see above), a cultural identity that, as much as I might wish it, cannot be disarticulated from the whiteness that stands behind Donald Trump; just as much as it stands behind the recent episodes of racial politics involving Dana Schutz, Kelley Walker and Sam Durant; just as much, one must add, as it stands behind the art world itself.

    Must one jettison a commitment to pluralism, then? – to the cultural politics of difference? This is the way pointed to by Mark Lilla, by Michaels, and others, who argue for an end to cultural politics tout court and its replacement with the politics of ‘citizenship’ (Lilla) or ‘class’ (Michaels). There is comfort here, in the strength of the argument, in the unyielding logic, but I fear that a commitment to the politics of citizenship or class will compromise a set of aesthetic commitments that I don’t want to give up, commitments to the work of, for example, Kara Walker, Leslie Hewitt, Shinique Smith, Rashid Johnson, Rico Gatson or Adam Pendleton, artists who, like the authors mentioned above, I admire and whose work exceeds the ‘rising tide’ politics of citizenship and class; whose work also points to a way through or past the power of whiteness, by pointing to the power of blackness, to its histories and figures and forms, which, at least in the US, is redefining American culture as something other than white.

    From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview.

  • Should we lament the demise of the midlist gallery?

     

    Should we lament the demise of the midlist gallery? (I offer no criteria for definition here, only the presumption that readers of this magazine will immediately understand what I mean by ‘midlist’.) We should (lament, that is), but only if we believe that the spate of recent gallery closures, so breathlessly covered by the arts media, is a function of some ethical change in the marketplace. Note I say ethical here and not structural, because a structural change, which we may well be witnessing too, would have less to do with the agency of individuals in the marketplace than with external factors – such as technology, or demographics – which is to say, with history, and history isn’t ethical; it simply happens.

    So an ethical change in the marketplace would entail some shift in how we believe things ought to be. The recent open letter written by Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, on the occasion of the closing of Freymond-Guth Fine Arts in Basel, Switzerland, at the end of this past summer, is a signal example of how an ethical change – we could also call it an ‘excuse’ – is blamed for a failed business venture.

    In his letter, Freymond-Guth decries the ‘alienation’ produced by the ‘ever growing demand’ of ‘global participation, production, and competition’. This is the ‘commercial reality’ that Freymond-Guth admits he failed to confront, allowing his decisions instead to be guided by an ‘idealistic vision’ ‘based on the belief in the value of sensation and reflection, a belief in creation and contextualization, a belief in collaboration and community’. If we can accept that such values are not incompatible with commercial reality (in fact, on the evidence, one must accept it; for every failed Freymond-Guth there are a number of midlist galleries successfully managing their affairs), then we are left to ask: should they have been?

    One answer points to an ethics of the collectorate, essentially an ethics of the art consumer: how she should and should not conduct herself, what kinds of conversations she should have and what kinds of inquiries she should make (she should talk about intersectionalism, or how artists today are confronting the facts of migration; she should not talk about return on investment). Let’s call this buy-side ethics.

    Another answer points to sell-side ethics. The most well known ethical commitment on this side is ‘pay your artists’ (whose payments are often first to be missed when cash flow is strained; always a good sign that closure is around the corner). Less well known are all of those other ethical commitments that come with running a good business: honouring agreements; paying your bills and debts, and maintaining cash flow; serving well your customers, clients and partners; and reinvesting some of whatever might be left over into the people and infrastructure that ensure one can continue to do all of these things more than once, and maybe even do them better.

    JUST LOOK AROUND: NOT EVERY MID-LIST GALLERY AROUND THE WORLD IS CLOSING – IT’S JUST WORK

    ‘Serving well your customers, clients, and partners’ may be justifiably called out as vague: what, after all, does it mean to serve these people well? The easiest answer is: ask them. What do your artists want and need? What do your collectors want and need? What do curators or critics or other advocates that are important to your business want and need? Then ask yourself how well can you balance the wants and needs of all these people with the mission of your business? Doing all of this may be difficult, but the doing is not mysterious, nor is it impossible – just look around; not every mid-list gallery around the world is closing – it’s just work.

    Not balancing the needs of customers, clients and partners with the needs of one’s business lies at the core of why midlist galleries fail. This balancing act is commercial reality, and it does not, or, to use the ethical voice, should not oppose the values of ‘reflection’ and ‘creation’ and ‘community’ that, though ‘idealist’, may and often do serve the interests of commercial success.

    When one digs a little deeper into stories of midlist closures, one rarely finds true buy-side ethical failures. Sales cycles can ebb and flow. It may seem like ‘someone turned the faucet off’ or that there’s a ‘lack of connoisseurship’, two excuses offered by Lisa Cooley when she closed her gallery on New York City’s Lower East Side (and both buy-side excuses), but more often than not it’s the sell-side that got out of balance, which can easily happen when gallerists decide to hire hip designers to kit out a few thousand new square feet of gallery space.

    To paraphrase Harold Geneen, the only ethical failure in business is to run out of cash. Don’t lament the midlist closures that blame the buyers or the market. It’s just bad business.

    From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview

  • Goodbye to all that: three futures for the artworld

     

    Guangzhou skyline

    We have all become futurologists in our own way. The dominance of what some call ‘neoliberal rationality’ has forced us into a condition of perpetual speculation in which every decision must be a strategic one about ‘future returns’. When major life choices – Children or No? College or no? Rent or own? – are framed in terms of ROI (often must be framed in these terms) we are all condemned to fourth-dimensional magical thinking. So what does the future hold for the artworld? Here I offer three conjectures, more like the view through three lenses – geographical, technological, ideological – on a single future world, where what we understand as ‘art’ may be transformed beyond recognition.

    1. China will be the global capital of the artworld. The history of capitalist centres has been a westward march (Europe to the US to Asia), and there’s nothing to suggest it will stop. China may have stumbled recently, but a national history going back more than 2,00o years, staggering demographics (1.3 billion people, four times the US population) and a rapidly ascending GDP all point to a Chinese century (or more) to come. The recent dictatorial entrenchments of Xi Jinping are a hiccough in China’s inevitable liberalisation. And as its middle class grows and begins to consume its own massive outputs, the ‘creative economy’ will grow with it and soon come to dominate. In particular, Shanghai and Guangzhou will have their own artistic cultures and identities, with Guangzhou as the site of avant-garde discourse and practice. These will be joined by Seoul, Manila, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City as major centres for art production and consumption. These cities’ art and design schools, both independents and offshoots of major commercial media, entertainment, and technology companies, will grow and thrive and will attract established international talent. An artist born in 2050 in the United States or Europe will travel to Asia to be close to these new scenes and markets. Because of the prestige of their museums and universities, New York and London will remain important centres, but like Paris, they will largely stand as artefacts of a prior era. Their current brightness will be eclipsed by the vibrancy of the northern hemisphere Pacific Rim cities. Strategically positioned as the biggest and fastest growing port city in the US, Los Angeles will grow to dominate the US art scene by 2050, drawing talent from around the world and money from real estate, technology, media and entertainment.
    1. All art will be intellectual property. Advances in display technology, 3D printing and molecular dynamics will combine to make anything replicable anywhere. Multiple ‘rich surfaces’ in one’s home, apartment, office and studio will offer access to motion- and still-picture imagery at a density and texture indistinguishable from so-called real life. VR technology will be housed in contact lenses and clothing, giving users access to information-suffused enhanced realities and entertainments, but more than this, it will increase opportunities for distributed collectivities to gather and mobilise – think of it as a merging of Twitter and teleportation. In this altered setting, all analogue artistic activity, whether static or dynamic (object-based, performative, participatory, etc.) will be a precursor to capturing, distributing and licensing digital code. Art galleries and museums will continue to house analogue stuff, but audiences will approach this material the way they do artifacts of the entertainment industry and sports, as so many props and costumes associated with the ‘making of’ a discursive object (eg. an abstract ‘painting’, a tournament ‘series’). Like popular music today, most art production will be distributed, with bits of code being captured or written and then bought, sold or shared within and between both professional and informal networks of makers. All of this content – also indistinguishable from ‘virtual spaces’ of gathering – will come with restrictions on access. By 2065, ‘art galleries’ will more closely resemble production companies with extensive legal and digital security investments than they will places that ‘show artists’. The growth and success of public art organisations at present offer the seeds of the new enterprise. Digital rights management will be the backbone of elite social cachet (DRM = ESC).
    1. Individualism will be eclipsed by inclusionism. The history of capitalist expansion has largely been congruent with the rise of the ideology of individualism in the West – that independence, self-reliance and self-legislation are moral first principles. By the time in 1987 that Margaret Thatcher uttered her infamous claim that ‘there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’, however, the reign of individualism was already waning. China’s quick emergence as an economic superpower not only splits capitalism from its filiation with liberal democracy but introduces values of conformism and emulation that have a deeper history there than do current Communist Party dictates and will prove a better fit for emerging global capitalist arrangements. Mass and niche consumer movements are only the first phase of this new inclusionism, which holds ‘belonging’ as moral first principle. The move from individualism to inclusionism will render irrelevant the romantic ideal of the individual ‘artist’, which continues to underpin the artworld’s political economy. In its place will appear various and shifting bands of USPs (unique selling points – formerly known as ‘talents’) that will aggregate to concretise access to content and digital licensing. The more such ‘bands’ to which an ‘artist’ belongs over time, the greater her elite social cachet (and so earning potential). Difference will still be promoted but will result in the production of similarities, which will be rewarded. How ‘alike’ one is will determine how well ‘liked’ and shared and recognised one is across distributed networks of association – ‘inclusions’ as they will be called. We will all commit to more inclusions. Authenticity will become irrelevant, though honesty won’t. Inclusionist culture, artistic and otherwise, will replace ‘elite’ culture (the end of ESC!): where the former grows the region with the largest number of overlapping spheres of a four-dimensional Venn diagram; the latter shrinks it. Everyone will be included.

    First published in the May 2016 issue of ArtReview

     

     

  • Yuri Ancarani at The Hammer Museum

    Image_001

    Yuri Ancarani, Il Capo [still] (2010)

    Few people outside of film circles in the United States will be familiar with Yuri Ancarani’s work, and one hopes this series of short films, which is being screened continuously at the Hammer Museum, will remedy that fact. Rather than showing Ancarani’s works intermittently as part of a regular schedule and larger lineup, which museum film programs are wont to do, the Hammer has three of his best works, Il Capo (2010), Piattaforma Luna (2011) and Da Vinci (2012), a trilogy that the artist calls La Malattia del Ferro (The Disease of Iron), on continuous view in a single side-gallery appointed with comfortable beanbag seating that suggests one should get comfortable. And indeed one should.

    Ancarani, born in Ravenna and living and working in Milan, has been showing his work in art exhibitions for more than a decade, but since 2009 his films have been making the festival rounds, and awards have been stacking up. Spend just a little time with Il Capo and one understands why. This film is ‘about’ the operations of a Carrara marble quarry and the grizzly but sad-eyed foreman who directs the excavators that break off enormous, impossibly geometric slabs of the rock. The soundtrack consists only of the hacking roars of the excavators’ engines and the piercing clanks of metal on metal and loud knocks of metal on stone, all punctuated by moments of seeming near silence when the foreman surveys the cuts just made. In one sequence, he stands in front of a wall of marble, which an excavator gradually takes down from behind and below to reveal the mountain quarry’s opposite slope, dusted white with what look like grains of light.

    Piattaforma Luna goes from the extreme environment of the quarry to the no less extreme containment of a deep-sea mining operation, where Ancarani’s camera is trained on a group of divers who move around their cramped, pressurized quarters with careful deliberation. The only sound here comes from the constant hum of the rig’s environmental controls and the occasional squawk of the divers’ voices, rendered comically high-pitched from the mix of helium in the air they need to breathe at such depths. Da Vinci opts for even more claustrophobia as it records the actions of a da Vinci Surgical System – a robotic platform that doctors use to keep major surgeries minimally invasive – at work inside a patient’s body.

    Ancarani is not afraid of the still camera and the centered shot. This formal language, combined with his favoring of ambient, synched sound and far-from-equilibrium environments, gives the trilogy its signature definition. If Il Capo remains king here, though, it’s only because the beauty and the violence of that film is less contained than in the other two. The vastness of its geological scale, of its brute industry, is more palpable than the fluid dynamics of Piattaforma Luna or the invisible electronics of Da Vinci. Yet, because this is a trilogy, one needs to recognize how the technological refinement of ‘excavation’, for which the films together serve as a kind of allegory, is not really, or not only, progress – these scenes and their actors are all contemporaries – but a kind of repression as well. The deeper we go into the interior of the earth or the body to excise or extract the things we need or want – or, in the case of Da Vinci, the things we don’t want – the less of us we are apt or able to see.

    Published in ArtReview, January-February, 2015

  • Frank Stella at Marianne Boesky

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    Frank Stella, Puffed Star II (2014)

    What should we make of Puffed Star II (2014)? Well, for one, it’s big: almost six metres high and wide. It’s shiny too: pure polished aluminium. And it’s regularly geometric: a 20-pointed, equal-sided star with protuberant – ‘puffed’ – planes. If it hadn’t been made by Frank Stella, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Koons had turned his attention to Christmas- tree decorations. That might be good for Koons, but it’s not for Stella. In all fairness to Jeff, he would never allow chipped tips or misaligned facets to make it into the public eye (Puffed Star has both). In all fairness to Frank, he likely could care less; merchandise has never been his thing.

    But then what is his thing here? Puffed Star II is juxtaposed with a similarly sized work from nearly 20 years ago, Fishkill (1995), whose geometries are as far from regular as one might get. A car wreck of cast stainless steel, Fishkill shows how Stella embraced digital modeling and manufacture early, but only as part of a sustained attack on the formal coherence that had dictated his earliest painting series and which Puffed Star II resumes.

    The tension between regular geometries and irregularity is taken up more singularly in K.150 (2014), a ‘tabletop’ sculpture of digitally printed ABS, a thermoplastic that is a staple of the rapid-prototyping industry. K.150 delights in the sectioning and intersectioning of regular three-dimensional forms: Stella’s newfound star form is present, twice, one in Irish green and the other in cyan. Both have been sliced by the digital knife and merged with a series of circular springs, apparently a favorite form for CAD jockeys in training. All of this is held up by a folded, polka-dotted plane, which returns the work, at least rhetorically, to the problem of relief, with which Stella has con- tended in one form or another for decades. As if to push the point home, K.150 is placed next to Creutzwald(1992), a duo of earlier mangled steel constructions, one compact, the other winglike, situated on a low base.

    These pairings are unsubtle to say the least, but that’s a complaint about curating, about the logic of selection, not the logic of the work. Stella deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the new pieces, and here the comparisons to the earlier work are helpful, at least as heuristics. Because what the new works speak to is the kind of techno-utopia that has largely been confined to screens, both film and computer, but which is coming to the civilian sphere in the form of MakerBot and other 3D printers, the capacities of which K.150 is just an advanced example. If the historical works in this show speak to the apocalyptic obdurateness of heavy metal, then Puffed Star II and K.150 speak to the formal promiscuity of our plastic future, which will be big on shape, but lack weight, let alone substance. The works are there, and yet their being there, or here – their being at all – seems inconsequential. That, this, is what the world of 3D printing promises, and Stella has been ahead of his time before.

    Published in ArtReview, January-February, 2015

  • Tara Donovan at Pace

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    Tara Donovan, Untitled (2014)

    Tara Donovan’s recent work does not hold up to the promise of what she was making a decade ago. The two large sculptures (both untitled, both 2014) occupying one of Pace’s 25th Street galleries are impressive feats of labour, and like much of Donovan’s sculpture, they are remarkably mimetic evocations of organic forms, in these cases a monumental profusion of quartz or salt crystals and a series of towering stalag- mites. And that’s the problem: these sculptures have been made largely to look like the outcomes of certain kinds of physical processes or conditions, while the process or condition that is actually on display – and which the sculptures in some sense must be about because they broadcast it through their accumulation of identical (in the case of the stalagmites) or similar (in the case of the crystals) units of construction (styrene index cards in the case of the stalagmites; acrylic rods in the case of the crystals) – is the repetitive labour expended in producing them.

    Anyone familiar with Donovan’s work of the last 15 years will recognize the signature decision-making: find a mass-produced unit, one with little, if any, cultural specificity – no plastic water bottles or Coke cans here – and then find a way to combine that unit with itself to achieve an unexpected yet familiar form. In the best cases, what was unexpected were the capacities of the units to combine of their own accord, as with Donovan’s Untitled (Toothpicks) and Untitled (Pins) (both 2004), where static friction between the units themselves when massed into a cubic form was enough to hold them in place. And then there were effects that the combined units sometimes produced, as with Haze (2003), an ineffable surface built from translucent plastic drinking straws stacked perpendicular to the wall. What these works demonstrated was that, with a deep sensitivity to material potentials, quantitative changes can produce qualitative transformations, that differences in degree can become differences in kind, that, in short, more is different.

    Not so with the new work, where the equation is nothing more than quantity is quality. The more labour on display (and the bigger the thing gets) the more valuable the thing becomes. The striking mimesis of natural forms is presumably what then qualifies it as ‘art’, but it also interrupts our recognition of the material potential that is actually at work in the work: all of that repetitive, unskilled labour. That stacks of index cards can be made to look like stalagmites is a testament to Donovan’s feeling for novelty. That this is the only feeling issuing from her new work, though, is unfortunate, especially at a time when questions of work and labour are more pressing than ever.

    One doesn’t want to say that labour is what Donovan more self-consciously needs to make her work about; in its present state, and on the evidence of these two new works, it cannot but be about it, and how Donovan chooses to address this labour and the ends that it serves must be accounted for. Making it look natural, and so somehow neutral, is no accounting at all.

    Published in ArtReview, September 2014.

  • Leigh Ledare at Mitchell-Innes & Nash

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    Leigh Ledare, Double Bind (2010/2012)

    Artists curious to understand what ‘commitment’ means in the practice, let alone the discourse, of the visual arts, would be wise to pay close attention to the work of Leigh Ledare, because no other young artist I’m aware of approaches artmaking with as much honesty as he does. But of course such words of praise demand defence.

    This is easily mounted with the resources of the two projects presented at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Neither body of work, Double Bind (2010/2012) or An Invitation (2012), is brand new, though this is the first time that either has been given a public airing in New York (Double Bind was shown in LA in 2012, and reviewed in these pages by Andrew Berardini; An Invitation has never before been shown in the US).

    Both projects involve Ledare personally. For Double Bind, he spent time photographing his ex-wife during a short sojourn in a cabin in upstate New York. He then arranged for her and her new husband, also a photographer, to undertake a similar sojourn and photographic campaign at the same cabin. The results are juxtaposed against one another and clippings from old print magazines (from porno to fashion to culture). With An Invitation, Ledare accepted a commission from a European high-society couple to make erotic photographs of the wife (who is some 20 years her husband’s junior) over the course of one week in July 2011. A set of these pictures were kept by the couple, but as per their agreement, Ledare kept a set for himself and produced a series of screenprints that show the pictures, with the wife’s face redacted, juxtaposed against the front page of The New York Times from the days of the shoot.

    There is much to be said about the language of photography in both cases, about questions of power, both statutory and otherwise (a redacted version of the contract and confidentiality agreement that subtends An Invitation is also on view, for example), and about the kinds of subjects that photographs and photographic imagery produce or interpolate. But in these projects – as well as others that Ledare has pursued, such as, perhaps most significantly, Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2008), a portrait of the fraught, Oedipal relationship that Ledare shares with his mother – there is always a palpable feeling of risk.

    Ledare hazards what we cheaply call ‘difficult situations’, not by staging them but by getting into them. His aim isn’t transparency, however, but complication – at the affective rather than intellectual level. Ledare does work as much inside of photographic theory as practice, yet without his work becoming either esoteric or didactic, as so much contemporary conceptual photographic work does today. Perhaps this is because the central paradox of photography – this image is there, fixed; but its meaning can never be – serves Ledare as an amplifier of the many vulnerabilities – his own, those of his subjects, ours – that we all try to keep from public view.

    Published in ArtReview, Summer 2014.

  • Elliott Hundley at Regen Projects

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    Elliott Hundley, It Will End (2014)

    Since 2006 or 2007, just after he earned his MFA from UCLA and began to gain serious institutional recognition – Eden’s Edge at LA’s Hammer Museum; Unmonumental at the New Museum, New York; The Shapes of Space (all 2007) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York – Elliott Hundley has relied heavily on straight pins as a kind of signature material. Those pins have held together, precariously and variably, accumulations of all kinds of flinty detritus, from photo cutouts to Styrofoam insulation, and this work walked a fine line between painting, collage, relief and sculpture, though Hundley made singular moves into each of these genres as well.

    His new work is more self-consciously painting and sculpture. The pins are mostly still there, of course – what would a contemporary artist be without a signature material standing in for style? – but the precarity is not. Instead, Hundley has toned down the manic accumulations in order to more earnestly address composition, which has the best works coming out as straightforward, considered, compelling abstractions – and lacking pins! – such as Silent Factory (all work 2014), which channels the palette of a Frankenthaler while weaving in the feel of Rauschenberg’s Canto series (1958–60). It Will End is another good example, tipping as it does over into the anamorphic dreamscape of some lesser-known science-fiction set designer.

    The confidence manifest in these paintings is matched in the ribbonlike meshes of a series that Hundley calls Scaffold. Perched above rough-hewn wooden ladders, these works are composed of lengths of heavy-gauge bronze wire held in near parallel by solders of the artist’s signature straight pins. Like some latter-day ‘cold structures’ of a Karl Ioganson, the Scaffold works are constructivist in their simplicity and transparency, yet resolutely bourgeois in their aesthetic – one wishes Hundley would have made these with something other than the pins, which, even as ‘found objects’, remain too closely identified with his self-legislating and self-marketing ‘I’.

    One also wishes he had left behind the two biggest works in the show, Destroyer and The Hesitant Hour, both large, four-paneled tableaus that rely too heavily on staged photographic portraits. The images are clumsy, and for all their supposed theatricality, the works come off as quick and amateurish. They play at being big, but bear none of the balance of the abstractions.

    ‘When in doubt, keep working it’ is not a mantra Hundley should stick to. Whether the unevenness here is a fault of his needing to fill a big space or just a lack of self-critical judgement in the studio doesn’t really matter. The modestly scaled but hugely effective abstract paintings and sculptures are enough to keep one wanting to see more.

    Published in ArtReview, Summer 2014.

  • Michel Majerus at Matthew Marks

    Michel Majerus, o.T. (69), 1994

    Anxiety is the emotion one might most associate with Michel Majerus’s work, both when thinking about the artist’s too-short career and when confronted with the array of works that Matthew Marks has mounted across three spaces, the largest-ever showing of Majerus’s art in the US.

    Majerus, Luxembourg-born and Berlin-based, died in a plane crash in 2002 at the age of thirty-five. According to his biggest supporter, the Moderna Museet’s Daniel Birnbaum, by the mid-1990s Majerus was the most ‘contemporary’ artist he knew. That assessment comes in part from a familiarity with Majerus’s omnivorous approach to imagery and the apparent ease with which he was able to discard debates over painting that had consumed the previous decade and generation. Mournful or melancholic? Critical or complicit? Once the stuff of shouting matches in museum lecture halls, such questions about painting’s remit must have been hard to hear under the thump of techno beats in Berlin after 1989, when the wall fell, history ended and we all became contemporary.

    Whether you take your end-times thinking in the original Hegelian or prefer the lighter, more easily readable neoliberal version that Francis Fukayama began to peddle at the dawn of the 1990s, the period between 1989 and 1995 was indeed anxiety ridden. The only two works in the Matthew Marks show that date from this period, SOMEBODY WANTS TO BUY ALL YOUR PAINTINGS! (1994) and o.T. (69) (1994) betray a cheeky paranoia, not just about the market (‘Who wants to buy my paintings?’) but about art history: both works appropriate pieces that Warhol made in between 1985 and 1986 – end-time works in themselves (Warhol died in 1987) – and o.T. (69) includes nods to Anselm Kiefer and “The World-Ash”; so, back to Hegel and the ‘end of history’ via Wagner. Is it any wonder that we needed raves the early 1990s?

    But then it is easy to get stuck in the web of Majerus’s links: ‘Is that from Super Mario Bros.?’ ‘Is that late De Kooning or camouflage?’ ‘That looks like Ruscha’s OOF but in inverted colours and crappily done.’ ‘Whose face is that next to Tron?’ By the time of the browser wars of the mid-1990s, the tech business and the economy were beginning their boom, so no one was thinking too hard about the answers.

    Given all the cribbing and quotation and the speed with which it all appeared (Majerus produced something like 1,500 works during his short career), what’s obvious to note, at least, as many have, in retrospect, is that Majerus brought the promiscuity of the Internet’s image culture to bear on his artistic work in a manner that few artists have. What’s also important to note, as few have, is that Majerus relied heavily on scale – going big, very big – to give his work weight. Many works’ dimensions go over two metres, the effect of which is to inflate their contents to foreign proportions. It’s a quintessential pop manoeuvre. Warhol introduced it. Rosenquist probably perfected it. In Majerus’s hands it’s symptomatic of a tenuous touch, a need to get across to and, perhaps, connect with, or touch, an audience that is being blown ever further away from painting, and itself.

    Published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview.

  • New York Juggernaut

    The Whitney Museum’s new home under construction, 2013; Timothy Schenck

    New York is on the verge. It’s calamitous. Culture. Economy. Society. The old triumvirate isn’t getting along. They’re faking it, retreating to the corners of a too small apartment of a too-new condo building in an area of the city that didn’t know it had been signed up for the neoliberal remodel. There is anger, and resentment. There have been betrayals, born of disrespect. Just listen to Spike Lee at Pratt Institute this past February, speaking here of the historically black neighborhoods of New York City:

    ‘You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it any more because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not – he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!… You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.’

    Is there hope? After 12 years of Bloomberg, and eight years of Giuliani before that, it’s the age of Mayor Bill de Blasio. A Democrat. A liberal. A man of and for the people, who comes to office armed with a mixed-race family. Not a billionaire. Not a Republican. Someone who has stacked his administration with organisers and activists rather than MBA technocrats. According to a Quinnipiac poll from March of this year, 65 percent of New Yorkers are optimistic about the future with de Blasio as opposed to the 29 percent who aren’t. But when asked if their lives over the next four years will be better, worse or unchanged under the de Blasio administration, the greatest number, 38 percent, believe it will be business as usual.

    And so the Great Gentrification rolls on, a juggernaut on a double-diamond slope. Apartments in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, once one of New York’s ‘toughest’ neighborhoods, now go for north of $1 million. Art people I know – critics, teachers, dealers, artists, all white – are moving to Harlem. ‘Great bones’ is how the real estate crowd unironically describes what these neighborhoods offer, as if the flesh and blood should be overlooked. Bushwick is now East Williamsburg. Williamsburg, one stop out of Manhattan along the L train, is now just an extension of Manhattan’s East Side. As is Long Island City. A couple I know are selling their apartment near Columbia University and beating it out of the city… for Singapore.

    The visual arts have long been at the tip of the gentrifying plough. Newly minted MFAs and aspiring outcasts often look to such outlands for inexpensive studio and living spaces. But the speed of the speculators has picked up, and the established communities are pushing from the other direction. At a recent panel on the ‘Studio in Crisis’, Brooklyn deputy borough president Diana Reyna noted that ‘once speculators see an artist, they think: there goes the neighborhood. [Artists are] seen as the enemy in our neighborhoods, and that has to change.’ Greater community engagement might be the solution. Reyna offered the example of NURTUREArt, a Bushwick-based nonprofit that has engaged the local schools. But for individual artists, New York’s economic imperatives seem to leave less and less time for anything other than wage earning and rest. Meanwhile, the speculators lie in wait.

    The Great Gentrification isn’t only centrifugal – that is, it reaches inward too, into even the most hallowed of cultural precincts.

    ‘Once upon a time the Museum of Modern Art was a home away from home for anybody who cared about modern art. Now it’s a fucking department store.’

    ‘This bland and banal scheme possesses all the presence and panache of a commercial parking garage entry.’

    ‘Somewhere inside me, I heard myself saying my good-byes to MoMA. I thought, I have seen the best modern museum of my generation destroyed by madness.’

    That’s Jed Perl (New Republic), Martin Filler (The New York Review of Books) and Jerry Saltz (New York magazine) on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for MoMA’s expansion into the lot currently occupied by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s 2001 building for the American Folk Art Museum, which is getting the wrecking ball. Never before in my recollection has a single proposal for a cultural product, in this case a design for a museum extension that puts an emphasis on public-facing – aka visible to the street – performance and contemporary art spaces, elicited such a ferocious and, more importantly, unified chorus of histrionic opprobrium. ‘Department store!’ ‘Parking garage!’ ‘Madness!’ To the barricades. Yes, Mr Lee, ‘You have to come with respect. There’s a code.’ If you are middle-aged and white, there’s art.

    And artists. Currently sitting on a bank of the Hudson River in Chelsea lies Tony Tasset’s Artists Monument (2014), an offsite project of the 2014 Whitney Biennial (and not far from the construction site of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano building – a different kind of ‘there goes the neighborhood’ event). Etched with 392,486 names of modern and contemporary artists, from the established to the emerging to the middling, all arrayed on technicolour panels (no black, no white, no brown), Tasset’s shipping container of pseudo-recognition gestures at equality, even collectivity. Congratulations, artists, you have made it to New York, at least in name.

    Collectivity is not what Tasset’s Monument is to, however. It’s to individualism. I suspect artists will arrive like pilgrims to Mecca, and will begin their circumnavigations, but always alone, or perhaps in pairs, searching for their names, for that mark of recognition that establishes them as what they have chosen to be. Those who can’t make the journey will ask for pictures. “Look! Here you are, on the same panel as ________!” There is no class called ‘artist’ though. There is no shared project, no modernist utopia nor fidelity to some ‘evental’ eruption of the new in the offing. Which is why just as many will likely avoid the Monument, repulsed by their shared polarities.

    It is an interesting number nevertheless: 392,486. According to the 2014 European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) Art Market Report, it’s almost the exact midpoint between the world’s population of high-net-worth (roughly 600,000) and ultra-high-net-worth (roughly 200,000) individuals. It’s the latter, those with more than $30 million in ‘liquid’ assets, who buy the most expensive art and account for the greatest share of the estimated $60 billion market, but the HNWIs, those with $10m, contribute their share too. According to Knight Frank’s Global Cities Survey, which ranks the world’s cities according to how hospitable they are to the global rich, New York, right now second place to London in the overall rankings (but first for ‘economic activity’), will gain the overall top spot by 2024, increasing its numbers of UHNWIs, currently about 3,000, by about 30 percent.

    That’s $114b in wealth in ten years’ time calling New York City home. Add to that the HNWI’s roughly $12 billion on the next rung down the ladder and you have the makings of a trickle-down city where money flows easily at the very top but largely evaporates by the time it reaches anything below the second or third percentile of earners.

    In the artworld, this translates into big dollars spent at the big November and May auctions, and at the top galleries, especially those that don’t feel the need to vie for the top spot in this magazine’s yearly rankings – that is, the Goodmans, the Gladstones, the Coopers, the Marks – because they’re confident the money will be there when all is said and done. It’s the structural causality behind Christopher D’Amelio closing his gallery and partnering with David Zwirner, and behind Jessie Washburne-Harris and Michael Lieberman closing their gallery (which represented Karl Haendel and Matt Saunders) and joining, respectively, Metro Pictures and Marianne Boesky. ‘Patrimonial capitalism’ is what the economist Thomas Piketty calls it. In New York City, it’s the wellspring of the Great Gentrification.

    Against this backdrop, gallery movements (Gagosian to the Lower East Side!), new professional affiliations (former Christie’s Contem-porary Art honcho Amy Cappellazzo to partner with uber adviser Allan Schwartzman!) and academic migrations (David Joselit ditches Yale for the Graduate Center at City University!) are just the rosy epiphenomena (can you hear Frank Sinatra? “New York, Neew Yooooork!”) of a wave – fast, hard, high – on which we are all being driven towards an unknown shore. Will New York’s artworld shatter against the gilded rocks of speculation and status? Or will its formidable ranks of artists, dealers, directors and thinkers manage to surf this inevitable swell in a demonstration of fitness, talent and guts that is worthy of this most improbable of places?

    Once upon a time it was regular custom for New York parents to give their children an extra wad of small bills to carry in their pockets when they went off to school. It was called mugger money, the informal fee one paid to walk the streets between ‘nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight’ and sometime soon after the end of the David Dinkins administration (1993). Kids in those days were adults, worldly in ways that only ten frightening blocks could test.

    The Great Gentrification has done away with such quaint scenes, for which leisurely art walks on the avenue were backdrops. Everyone has gone to their corners, including Culture, Economy and Society. One almost wants to look to the western horizon, to whisper the words attributed to the great educator and publisher Horace Greeley: ‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.’ And yet…

    Excuse me, how does it go, Mr Lee? Oh, that’s right: ‘Get the fuck outta here!’

    This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview.

  • An empassioned debate takes a turn for the worse.

     

    The flap that erupted after the collector and entrepreneur Stefan Simchowitz was identified as Public Enemy No 1 in Katya Kazakina’s article about ‘art flippers’ (that species of collector who buys and sells quickly in search of profits) on Bloomberg.com this past February took a dark turn at the beginning of April, and it should make us pause a moment and rethink the stakes involved in our arguments about art, money, markets and value. But first, the turn itself:

    On 3 April, Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor published a short roundup of recent commentary by Andrew Goldstein, whose interview with Simchowitz on Artspace.com is what originally goaded critic Jerry Saltz to pen a takedown of Simchowitz over atNew York Magazine’s Vulture blog, and Kenny Schachter to defend Simchowitz in theNew York Observer’s Gallerist blog by showing how his speculative dealing strategies are just the latest in a long line of such activities that reaches back to Duchamp.

    In this regard the content of Maneker’s post was benign enough – it merely pointed to some choice quotes from Schachter and Goldstein – but it ran under the title of ‘L’Affaire Simchowitz’, which one must assume was meant to raise the spectre of the Dreyfus affair and anti-Semitism, though whose anti-Semitism exactly it would be hard to say.

    Then a day later Simchowitz himself posted to his Facebook page a quote that linked to the Wikipedia entry for Werner Sombart, a German economist who, in 1911, published a book titled The Jews and Modern Capitalism. The quote itself didn’t come from that entry, but from the one for ‘Economic Antisemitism’, where it is written that ‘Werner Sombart concluded that the perceptions of cheating or dishonesty were simply a manifestation of Christian frustration at innovative commercial practices of Jews, which were contrary to custom and tradition of the Christian merchants, but were otherwise ethical.’ Simchowitz writes that the quote and link were sent to him by a friend who wished to remain anonymous, but he nevertheless felt compelled to post it under his own name and so to spread the insinuation that other forces, anti-Semitic ones, are in play.

    Never mind that Sombart is speaking of Christian merchants’ attitudes in the early modern era, or that what he actually concludes is that if you look ‘through the catalogue of “sins” laid at the door of the Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries, you will find nothing in it that the trader of today does not regard as right and proper, nothing that is not taken as a matter of course in every business’. Sombart’s work, it’s worth pointing out, was in large part a response to Max Weber’s better-known The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), and it sought to position Judaism as a positive guiding force in the development of modern economic liberalism. ‘Throughout the centuries,’ Sombart writes, ‘the Jews championed the cause of individual liberty in economic activities against the dominating views of the time.’

    Now, the implications are clear: the slights that Simchowitz suffered after espousing his ‘disruptive’ views on the art marketplace (galleries are monopolies that are dragging artists down, money is the best publicity, and so on) are driven by an unspoken anti-Semitism that pervades critics’ opposition to that marketplace in their orthodox commitment to art’s pursuit of the good and the true and the beautiful. And if Sombart’s work is meant to license an expansion of this logic, then any moves to hamper (neo)liberal economic activity may themselves be viewed as having anti-Semitism – however unconscious, however unspoken – as their animating force.

    The insinuations are gross, and the implications contradictory, when not outright stupid (Communism was a Jewish conspiracy too, after all). Simchowitz may have been inelegant in the way he promoted his interests and enthusiasms for profiting off the work of up-and-coming artists, and he is too confident in his own success (as many newly minted millionaires often are), but he’s an advocate of art and artists in his own way, and there must be a place for him and his ideas in the discussion of art’s value both in and out of the marketplace. Trot out hackneyed and false paranoias, however, and you trivialise and cheapen that discussion before it can truly begin.

    This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview. 

  • Ryan Trecartin: Four New Movies

    Ryan Trecartin, Junior War, 2013

    When Elvis Mitchell, the well-known film critic and, since 2011, curator of the indie film series, Film Independent, at LACMA, took the stage on March 25th to introduce Ryan Trecartin’s four new ‘movies’, he stressed that ‘movies’ are indeed what Trecartin makes, not ‘films’ or ‘videos’, which terms conjure musty art house repertory theaters or white-box galleries turned into black-box screening rooms. No, Trecartin makes ‘movies’, which are meant to be seen on the big screen, and with big sound.

    So what the audience was treated to on that Tuesday night, a back-to-back screening of Junior WarComma BoatCENTER JENNY, and Item Falls (all 2013), we were being told, was something like seeing rare charismatic megafauna in its natural habitat. It was as if Trecartin’s work had finally arrived at the place, Tinseltown, and the apparatus, an actual movie theater, to which it had always belonged or, rather, from which it had issued in the first place. (There is some banal truth to this: in 2010 Trecartin relocated his studio to Burbank, where most of the new work was produced.)

    Then, for the next 139 minutes, the audience was subject to an audio-visual ballistics test of which Paul Sharits, he of near seizure-inducing avant-garde films from the 1970s, would be proud.

    There is nothing wrong with such eye/ear/mind assaults in themselves, and anyone familiar with Trecartin’s previous work would have been well prepared for his latest offerings, which debuted last year at the Venice Biennale in their own ‘sculptural theaters’, the installation-cum-set-pieces that Trecartin produces with his long-time artistic collaborator Lizzie Fitch. Though the movies are integral to those set pieces, these ‘sculptural theaters’ are not integral to the movies, which theatrical screenings, such as this one at LACMA and a similar one last December at BAM, in Brooklyn, demonstrate. And as is well-known, Trecartin also makes his ‘movies’ available on Vimeo, which is why it was all the more strange for Mitchell to claim the movie theater as the natural environment for Trecartin’s work.

    Let me state this plainly: it’s not.

    Junior War is a key here. Whereas Comma BoatCENTER JENNY, and Item Fallsshare sets and players to explore what one could only loosely call ‘themes’ – doubling, belonging, identity, self-aggrandizement, social positioning; but then plastic pint cups, Beyoncé, and body paint might also qualify – Junior War is composed from footage that Trecartin shot in 1999 while still in high school, and its theme, in short, is belligerence – the kind that comes from being young, drunk, and stoned, surrounded by friends, and in possession of an uncomfortably fat cache of hormones, bad judgment, and cars.

    Using a night-vision video camera, Trecartin captured his friends – and this is just a random sampling – drinking, smoking, playing drinking games, running around the woods, running from cops, smashing mailboxes, smashing televisions, stealing ornamental lawn sculptures, smashing ornamental lawn sculptures, getting pulled over by cops, hiding in basements, riding in the backs of trucks, sleeping in cars, and saying some humorous but never intelligent things. Even at this early stage, Trecartin’s style of in-your-face camera work is evident. When edited with his signature attention to pacing and masterful use of the jump cut, the result is a frenetic and anxious picture of kids getting up to stupid shit.

    You are nervous for them. Their behavior is of course typical, a brief puncturing of the suburban familial authority that, like wet wool, chafes and weighs you down yet keeps you warm. What will happen to them when they leave? What kind of prelude will this be?

    Just why the ‘we’re-gonna-fuck-shit-up’ impulse is so prevalent in late-teen life is a question, thankfully, that Junior War doesn’t seek to answer. That kind of moral or didactic image making is miles away on cable television somewhere, or deep in a pile of indie film festival submissions. This footage was made in the age of the Internet, but before the advent of social media or YouTube. The computer screen is its home turf. It’s footage that isn’t meant to be ‘screened’; it’s meant to be shared, in the old sense – that is, to be viewed by its participants, to be laughed over and cringed at, and then left in the shoebox that lives in the back of a series of closets – dormitory, shared apartment, first solo pad, house – until old classmates are awkwardly reunited and it is brought back out to be laughed over and cringed at once more.

    So if Trecartin’s works are indeed ‘movies’ as Mitchell claimed they are, then they are of a special domestic variety, the kind of ‘home movie’ that only the kids make, the ones in which they don’t so much act as ‘act out’, for themselves, for their friends, and for no one in particular. Junior War, though far from Trecartin’s first work, is something like his ur-movie then, a kernel of raw affect and energy around which all of his other work, in all of its ornamented, camped-up absurdity, orbits, and to which one wishes it could find a way to return.

    Published on artreview.com, 1 April, 2014