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When I sit down for breakfast with Paul Schimmel, he asks the first question, as if he’s conducting the interview and I’m the renowned curator who has recently joined up with one of the world’s three or four truly global, powerhouse galleries, and got the original owners to add my name to the shingle – Hauser Wirth & Schimmel – to boot. We’re at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, not far from the Norton Simon Museum or from where Schimmel lives, and once a regular breakfast spot for him and Richard Koshalek, most recently of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, but once Schimmel’s boss at LA MOCA. I’m in great company. So that question?
“What shows have you seen?”
I’m not surprised. Schimmel lives for making shows. He’s been doing it since the 1970s, before arriving at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) in 1978 from the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, where he was responsible for American Narrative/Story Art: 1967–77 (1977), which included John Baldessari, Eleanor Antin, William T. Wiley, Ed Ruscha and Allen Ruppersberg, among other artists of, as Schimmel describes them, the “narrative conceptualist” persuasion. That show travelled west, to UC Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and apparently Baldessari was there each step of the way. “John treated me like a curator,” Schimmel says. “[He] went to every venue and helped me to get the very best work.” And after a stint back in New York at the Institute of Fine Arts and a master’s degree, Schimmel said to his wife, “You watch. My first job will be in California.” That was Newport, where the museum’s holdings of postwar California art grew by a reported 300 percent during Schimmel’s tenure.
His second job in California? LA MOCA, which is where, from 1989 until the middle of last year, Schimmel not only mastered the craft of the substantial historical survey – his last show for the museum, which opened in October 2012, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962, is a case in point – but also shifted the artworld’s (to that point rather moribund) thinking on the history and value – intellectual, aesthetic, commercial – of postwar California art with Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–81 (2011), which tackled the prehistory of 1992’s Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s, in many ways that era’s and perhaps Schimmel’s career-defining exhibition (if such a narrowing of lens is possible).
Why California and why LA? For the art, and the artists. Within months of arriving at Newport, Schimmel met Mike Kelley. His reaction? “I was like, ‘Yes! Thank God I don’t have to figure out how to invent this person.’ This person is here. When you find someone in your own generation who embodies the same kinds of interests, well, I knew this was where I was going to be. And there was no question that doing work deeply committed to the region but with international implications was doable.” There’s little question that he did it, either. And there’s little question that he was able to do it because of his commitment to the community of artists that included Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy, and of course Kelley and others.
When I asked Schimmel whether he thought about quitting LA after MOCA’s board forced him out (presumably because he and then-new but now-former MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch didn’t mix well, but Schimmel wouldn’t say, and no one else is talking either), and following Kelley’s death in 2012, he said yes, he did. He considered New York, and Europe, but in the end he couldn’t leave, “not so much because of my own generation”, but because of the “younger artists, people like Mark Grotjahn and Thomas Houseago and Sterling Ruby and Laura Owens”, and because of that “languorous sense of community” that comes from a “place where you can both make something and show something”. “More than anything else,” Schimmel said, “it was that sense of being part of a community of younger artists who both believe in and appreciate their community and my place in it.”
Someone else appreciated Schimmel’s place in that community as well. A few days before we spoke, Schimmel opened Re-View: Onnasch Collection – a survey of Reinhard Onnasch’s nearly unparalleled collection of postwar art from the 1950s to the 1970s (including a number of important works by Edward Kienholz from 1960 to 61) – at Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly and Savile Row spaces in London. As Schimmel tells me, “Iwan [Wirth] was very clever. Long before I joined the staff,” – this is one of Schimmel’s great gifts: the ability to be modest and self-aggrandising at once – “he put together a list of four or five potential people to work on the show, which he’d been trying to do for a long time. My name was on the list without me knowing it, and Mrs Onnasch said – and I’d worked with the Onnasches on the Out of Actions show, and for the Rauschenberg Combines show, and for Hand-Painted Pop; so at three different times over the last 20 years I’d worked with them; I’m a known quantity – and Mrs Onnasch said, ‘Oh yes, that would be good, but I don’t think he would do it’. And Iwan says he looked at her and said, ‘Oh, you never know’.” Indeed you don’t, unless you’ve had the following exchange, as Schimmel told me:
I was opening Under the Big Black Sun and Iwan calls me and asks, “Paul, are you at the Geffen?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m going to be there in five minutes. I want to pick you up.” I said, “I’m in the middle of an installation.” And he says, “No, no, no. It’s just right in the neighbourhood. I want to show you something.” I said, “OK, the break’s at eleven. So pick me up at eleven.” He takes me three, four blocks away, and shows me just a beautiful warehouse space. And he says, “What do you think?” And I say, “I think it’s beautiful.” And says, “No, really, what do you think?” And I said, “Iwan, no. No. I’m not thinking about it.” He says, “OK, what do you think we could do here? What would make sense here?” I said, “Well, things should be very different than the kind of programme you would have in New York and there should be fewer things, bigger, richer, deeper; and don’t think about it in terms of how much stuff you can sell here as how much stuff can enter into Hauser & Wirth.” And he says, “Exactly.”
Of his new partner Schimmel says that, yes, “there is that sort of inscrutable quality of the Swiss, but it’s also combined with an overwhelming joy and enthusiasm for things. He’s sort of like a California kid”, but one who learned about California from Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy, figures who embody what Schimmel appreciates most about California artists, their fiercely independent and ambitious “can-do spirit”, which he traces back to Ed Kienholz himself, one of a generation of artists who were going to write their own history and “were going to control not just what you see but how you see it”.
“Ultimately”, Schimmel says, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel “was the only opportunity to make something from the ground up in Los Angeles, with a community of artists with whom I felt completely comfortable. And I believe it’s more than just the opportunities I’ll have as a curator, but also the opportunity to bring in what I think are still woefully undervalued players in the artworld, which are art historians and curators. There’s a bigger role for these people. Parties are nice; scholarship is the foundation. For me this is the great attraction. Ursula [Hauser] and Iwan have a real sense of the importance of serious scholarship – taking a more scientific and less a celebratory approach to the work.”
It’s not clear when or exactly where Hauser Wirth & Schimmel will open its doors. “Downtown is the focus,” Schimmel told me. He has a clear idea of what he wants. A compound of buildings, of different spaces, indoor and outdoor, that afford some creative restrictions rather than the ever-looming tabula rasa of a 4,000sqm warehouse-cum-kunsthalle, plus some amenities that will make it a destination. “LA is very a funny place,” Schimmel admits. “The classic Gertrude Stein line, ‘There is no there there’, really is true.” So it will be important that visitors to the new space will value the time and, as Schimmel says, “give it over”, because “if you put on a great show, tons of people will come”, But, he continued, “you have to make it rich enough and comfortable enough”, which most Angelenos know really distils down to two things – “Good parking. Good parking.”
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview.
Does the artworld have a celebrity problem? The new c-word has undoubtedly captured the attention of the gossips and scribblers. Everyone from friends (Christian Viveros-Fauné in Newsweek) to frenemies (Adam Lindemann inThe New York Observer) has either whined and griped or shucked and grinned about those loveable cardboard cutouts from the entertainment industry getting all the airtime in the auction rooms and at the opening parties.
Whether it’s Franco – yes, the Franco that’s gracing the pages of this rag – or Leo – yes, the Leo whose charity auction broke multiple sales records – the stars that fill stadiums and screens increasingly appear to be (or are getting noticed as) the buyers and sellers of note for very expensive works of contemporary art.
But why is that a problem? Celebrities have money, and presumably a few have taste, or at least good advisers. For example, Jay Z, much in the news of late for his music-video- masquerading-as-performance-art-piece Picasso Baby, works with Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who even the most cynical critics would have to accept as being something more than superficially knowledgeable about art. So the artworld’s newfound love and loathing of ‘the celebrity’ in its midst must have its roots in some other insecurity.
I remember seeing Keanu Reeves walking the halls of Art Basel Miami Beach back before 2008 and thinking, ‘Who knew?’ Of course I wondered what he might be buying. To a certain extent this is what being a celebrity is about today. Sociologist Frank Furedi writes that ‘what is distinctive about today’s celebrities is that they are promoted as both special and utterly ordinary’.
That ordinariness – pictures of celebs at the beach (‘he’s got thinning hair’), having lunch (‘she’s not vegan!’), buying groceries (‘Twinkies?’) – cultivates an artificial intimacy, a feeling that we know them in the way that we know people with whom we have regular daily contact.
But to understand how this works in the artworld we have to recognise that the artworld is not like other professional worlds; it’s one entirely bound up with the social existence of its members. Evenings, weekends, vacations – times that other professionals normally spend away from ‘work’ – is often the most essential time for artworld professionals to be at work. When Keanu (of course we’re on a first-name basis; he’s a celebrity!) is at ABMB, he’s on his own time, buying or browsing; he’s doing it, presumably, for himself and his own pleasure.
But I’m there working: writing, teaching, consulting, etc. Keanu’s personal world and my professional world overlap, and because he’s so familiar, because we’re on a first-name basis (although he doesn’t know this), I’d like to know what he’s seen that he likes, or doesn’t. Which dealers, in his opinion, have good work, or don’t.
I want to know this in the same way that I want to know it from friends or colleagues or acquaintances that I run into at the fair. I respect their opinions enough to want to give five minutes of my time to hear them out. I don’t take what they say as gospel. I take it as being of interest – potentially. It’s a low bar, but it’s a bar nevertheless. And Keanu hurdles it because, again, he’s familiar. We’re artificially intimate.
What exactly do I respect here, then? It’s a kind of authority, the kind that comes with a familiarity with the intelligence, or lack thereof, of others. I listen to friends and colleagues and acquaintances because, over time, I have taken the measure of their intelligence. I accept that they speak with a certain authority.
And when they speak, they don’t always do it directly to me. Sometimes I read what they write, or see what they paint or watch them on a stage in front of an audience, and I measure. This is why I can respect the authorial intelligence of someone I’ve never met (Furedi, for example), because the catalogue of deeds or words is great enough to grant them the respect that I can honestly and responsibly judge they deserve.
If the artworld has a problem, then, it’s not with the celebrities themselves but with what they represent: the confusion of familiarity with authority. We cede authority to what we feel we know, and we feel we know it because it’s ever-present to us, online, onscreen, in the checkout aisle, ‘in the air’. The contrarian economist Tyler Cowen, in his new book Average Is Over, says that the next boom industry will be ‘marketing’. Which is what? The business of getting more of our attention more of the time; in other words, of making things familiar. Is there any wonder why celebrities of all stripes play such outsize roles in the marketing business? Marketing is a means to manufacture authority.
When the big celebrities, the ones that are famous as much for being famous as for anything else, move into your neighbourhood and start playing a bigger role in your world, you don’t have a celebrity problem, you have an authority problem. Contemporary art today, on the whole, doesn’t know how to authorise itself. It doesn’t know what values it subscribes to or what good it is for. Absent of its own authority, art must look elsewhere to be taken seriously, and increasingly it appears it wants to be nothing more than familiar.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview.
Alfonso Cuarón’s postapocalyptic Children of Men (2006) has something to tell us about the debate that is unfolding over the Detroit Institute of Arts’s collection and whether it should – ‘can’ is a question for a bankruptcy judge – be sold to help pay the city of Detroit’s creditors who include retired public employees, but also institutional investors such as hedge and pension funds that hold municipal bonds, as well as other financial stakeholders. And by this I mean that the film has something to say about the value of art, in both economic and other terms. Just what those ‘other’ terms are is the important question that Cuarón’s movie raises.
I’m not thinking of its broad apocalyptic conceit, which finds that all the world’s women have become barren, but just one of the less gruesome of the various descents into hell – suicide as social policy, internment camps for refugees of failed states, etc – that follow from it: the ‘Ark of the Arts’, an enterprise spearheaded by one well-placed culture-loving but apparently humanity-loathing official, Nigel, who has taken it upon himself to collect a lifeboat of masterpieces in the hope of sparing them, and the grand history they stand for, from the civil implosion underway.
No ash-heap of history, then, for Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or Michelangelo’s David (1501–4) or – in a smirking bid at speculation – Banksy’s stencilled image of two cops kissing. These feats of human creativity are deemed, by Nigel, to be greater than the populace that cannot be saved, and indeed is not being saved – is, in fact, protesting and rioting and bombing and being rounded up – just outside the Ark’s redoubt at London’s Battersea Power Station.
Nigel, who happens to be a cousin of the film’s hero, Theo, comes off as an aloof 1percent-er (the dress: venture-capitalist casual; the digs: Tate Modernist) whose kid is so plugged into some videogame as to appear autistic. But then this is the model of Nigel’s own disaffection, both with the decaying world around him and with his cousin’s request for ‘transit papers’ for a lover’s brother – a fictional pretext, but one still about the potential for human kindness and contact that we’re meant to take as anathema to the values embodied by the Ark and its pathetic inhabitants, human and aesthetic alike. Theo asks his cousin, “A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at this. What keeps you going?” Nigel responds, “You know what it is Theo? I just don’t think about it.”
‘Art’, here, is at once greater and lesser than humanity. Which it is depends on what side of the table one is sitting. On Nigel’s side, human suffering is small compared to the tragic grandeur of human achievement. Such feats are simply great, in principle, regardless of whether we’re around to experience them. Art does not exist ‘for us’; it exists ‘for itself ’. Nigel’s denial is consistent with what most of us want to think art is: if you believe in art’s transcendence, then you don’t – indeed you can’t – think about the ‘sad fucks’ who look at it.
On Theo’s side, there’s no point to it. Art is at best an epiphenomenon of human sociality, and when the latter is bent on burning itself to the ground, the former can only serve as fuel for the arsonist elect. Survival, not one’s own, but the promise of another’s – an improbable newborn’s in the film’s story – is the only kernel of humanity worth saving, because it’s the only real kernel of humanity at all, and the David looks at once preening and paltry in comparison.
In the debate over the DIA’s art collection, the Theos would want to see the art sold. Yes, some of the money would go to pay less-than-savoury financial institutions that hold the notes on Detroit’s debt (or insure it), but as much of it would go to the retired public employees – police, firefighters, teachers, etc – who depend upon the city for their income and healthcare: in other words, real people with real needs. Roughly 50 percent of Detroit’s debt, $9.2bn, is pension and associated obligations. And the collection could allegedly net upwards of $2bn all on its own. Recall that, in the film, Theo begins his quest out of self-interest – he wants to get paid – but he does come around in the end.
The Nigels want to see the art remain with the city and protected by the museum. Their arguments run from utilitarian (stripping the museum of its masterpieces, a Van Gogh self-portrait for example, would damage the museum’s ability to fully serve its public and attract visitors, which would no doubt contribute to, but more saliently would stand as a potent symbol of, the city’s irremediable destitution) to idealist – the collection was formed in the public ‘trust’, which is inviolable regardless of any constituency’s short- or even long-term interests.
And there are many arguments in between, most made in bad faith, to which the Theos and Nigels inevitably point in order to give their claims more purchase – eg, the unions have strong-armed pension contracts with little regard for the city’s fiscal health; pension-fund calculations have long overestimated return projections; bondholders assumed Detroit was too big to fail and expected a state or even federal bailout; globalisation is to blame for Detroit’s diminished tax base; a sale of the museum’s collection will flood the market and so tank it; etc.
But at bottom, the value that one ascribes to the art in question is either subordinate to the claims of the creditors – ie, is money – or it isn’t. And chances are, if you’re a creditor – not just in this scenario but in any – you’re a Theo; if you’re not, you’re a Nigel.
Why does the artworld hate the art market today? For most, the fear and loathing begins and ends with the major auctions, which means the modern and contemporary art auctions that are held by the two (sometimes three, if you count Phillips) ‘big houses’.
Yes, the accelerated art fair circuit makes many wince, but for sheer numbers, try this on: since the beginning of the year, the New York and London sales of these categories at Sotheby’s and Christie’s have seen more than $2.1 billion change hands – that is, assuming everyone pays up.
It’s not the best-kept secret that an exceedingly small fraction of the big houses’ clientele accounts for about 90 percent of that business. So when The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or Barron’s or Forbesruns articles with (hopeful?) headlines such as ‘Stocks Tanked, Will the Art Market Follow?’, what they’re reporting on are the activities of, in relative terms, a handful of players.
And when critics such as Blake Gopnik call out the ‘contemporary art bubble’ and bloggers such as Felix Salmon say that ‘prices’ fetched at the big sales are ‘quantitatively completely bonkers’, they are also, by extension, talking about the activities and tastes of a small but very monied minority.
Ironically, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and ‘We are the 99%’, that minority has found it has an ‘image’ problem. The entirety of the last US presidential election was contended on it. We know this, but we pay attention to the numbers anyway, mostly because we can’t help taking them as an indication of the health of the market more broadly.
Just as we don’t really want the stock market to ‘tank’, we don’t really like entertaining the question of what happens when the rich stop buying art, because if the rich stop buying art, that means the rest of us have probably stopped buying other things, such as vacations or houses, and everything that goes with them.
Deep down we know that the art market is a trickle-down economy. When it’s good at the top it can be either good or bad down the line; but when it’s bad at the top, it’s only bad all the way down. We’re nostalgic for the days (though few of us were alive to see them) when collecting was an acceptable and accessible middle-class pastime, when well-read shrinks and doctors and lawyers were buying what they liked from the small coterie of artists and dealers that simply were the artworld. It was middle-class art at middle-class prices for middle-class people with middle-class taste.
But who out there is really banging the drum for middle-class art, which sounds as wince-worthy as the middle-class art fairs at which arriviste dealers wouldn’t want to be caught dead selling it? What artist today would echo Matisse in wanting his work thought of like an armchair for the tired businessman?
Middle-class pricing in today’s parlance means ‘young’ or ‘emerging’ or ‘experimental’ or ‘alternative’. The pitch is that this work won’t stay middle-class or doesn’t even want to be. It has aspirations to importance and recognition, though preferably not merely posterity’s. Only being ‘elite’ or ‘other’ will do.
None of this accords with middle-class taste, which is aspirational as well, but the importance and recognition it values are mostly seen in the mirror, when the trappings of one’s self and surroundings look something like what one sees in the checkout magazines and on TV. (This is different than proposing that they are or could be the same, which is the hypothetical that Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) entertainingly plays out.)
Call it kitsch if you like, but given the recent recuperations of that term, not-even-kitsch would be closer to the mark. Either way, its dominant value remains consumerist, which both art and the middle-class have always been.
Hatred of the market, then, is really just a symptom of this unbearability of not really being middle class, which is to say of being middle class and not believing it, but also of not really being ‘elite’ or ‘other’ either. About the market, members of those two groups either don’t worry or don’t care.
This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of ArtReview.
Re-Production, a group show of work by Arthur Ou, Marc Handelman, and Peter Rostovsky, is the third in a series of exhibitions mounted at P! (“p” exclamation) that have looked to update the conversation on art and simulation. Ou’s black and white photographs, Double Light Leak 1 and Double Light Leak 2 (both 2010), take mechanical applications of paint – from a spray can and airbrush – as analogons of photography’s own shadow castings. Marc Handelman, easily one of the best and smartest painters working today, offers Extrusion/Drift (2013), a large work that could easily be mistaken for a slab of marble, were it not for a reveal at the work’s left edge, which shows both the unpainted primed canvas and the layer of retroreflective screen glass that gives the work its opalescence.
The connotations of luxury and illusion here are rich indeed, and this is where Peter Rostovsky comes in. He wants to toss a brick through the art market’s cathedral windows – that is, through the semi-transparent glazing of market orthodoxy that casts all art in the light of originals and copies, fetishises the unique, and throws vast sums of money at securing scarcity as an elite privilege. Rostovsky’s work to this point has taken the craft of painting as a given, while the images it presents, and the culture that encodes them, have been his subject of inquiry. In the wake of the Occupy movements, however, Rostovsky seems to have arrived at a conclusion that those images can no longer be separated from what paintings actually are: products, with a limited audience – not the 99%.
So no more ‘original’ paintings. Instead, Rostovsky has taken to ‘painting’ in Photoshop with the use of a Wacom tablet. Witness Night Blossoms (2012), a vase of flowers as seen through night-vision goggles (or a Matrix filter on Instagram, if there is such a thing). The image file is free to download. In the gallery, the works – there are two identical iterations – appear as Duratrans transparencies in custom-made LED lightboxes, and the edition of these, just like a download, is unlimited.
The philosophy behind the approach, essentially mass distribution minus kitsch, is presented in a dialogue that Rostovsky wrote to accompany the exhibition. In it there is much debate about the value of art versus the value of our experience of it, but the key moment comes when Rostovsky’s avatar asks, ‘Did your record sleeves not function like art? Weren’t they holy shrines that you studied and revered and that connected you to a community? They weren’t limited edition.’ As a demonstration, Rostovsky includes New Order’s 1983 LP Power, Corruption & Lies, whose sleeve art, designed by Peter Saville, reproduces Henri Fantin-Latour’s A Basket of Roses.
It would be a compelling model were it not for one thing: a dependency upon that cascade of neurotransmission we call adolescence. We’re all fetishists at fifteen. Continuing to be so throughout our lives breeds the kind of covetousness that begat 2008, and Occupy, in the first place.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of ArtReview.
David Diao, Auction Record, (2011)
One imagines David Diao’s not-quite retrospective at Postmasters, the gallery’s last in its Chelsea space, accompanied by a catalogue essay titled ‘Painting and the Task of Melancholy’. Academic types, of which Diao is one, will recognize that title as a play on art historian Yves-Alain Bois’s now canonic 1986 essay, where ‘mourning’ stands in place of ‘melancholy’ and in which painting’s ‘death’, of that of it as a coherent medium, has been assumed. Those same types will go racking their heads for Freud’s distinction between the two concepts—hint: in mourning, one works through the loss of something; in melancholy, one fails to work through this loss because one doesn’t know, is not conscious of, what it is that was really lost. In mourning we grieve, but we get over it, by working through the grief; in melancholy, we can’t work through it, so we circle it, over and over and over again.
Diao has been active since the late sixties, when he gained recognition for the kind of rigorous procedural abstraction that Robert Ryman (a hero of Bois’s) had staked out earlier in the decade. But Barnett Newman is the artist’s hero, and here homage is paid by the recent Spine 1 (2013), a screen print of the cracked spine of a Newman catalogue that has been in the artist’s personal library for decades—it runs down the center of the painting’s large acrylic field just like one of Newman’s zips. Newman appears again in Twice Hammered (2011), where one finds the reproduction of Diao’s earlier Barnett Newman: The Paintings (1990; for which Diao presents all of Newman’s paintings at small scale and reduced to the shapes of their canvases) next to that work’s accompanying catalogue entry from a May 2005 Christie’s Hong Kong 20th Century Chinese and Asian Contemporary Art sale. The work was estimated at $40,000-60,000 (HKD) and ‘hammered’ down at $7000, at least that is what is penciled in on the page. ‘Ouch’, one thinks, but then remembers the exchange rate; and in 2005, $7000 USD would net one roughly $54,500 HKD, well within the estimate, and so, depending upon your perspective, either a tragedy or a steal.
It is exactly this question of worth and value—not just what Diao’s paintings are worth on the market (see Sales, 1991, which catalogues the artist’s auction record), nor how they are valued by one of the art world’s reigning investment banks (see Double Rejection 1 (MoMA Boardroom), 2012, which reproduces a work that no longer hangs in the museum’s innermost sanctum), but also how the artist conceives of his own value in relationship to the history he himself values (see Salon 2, 2011, which juxtaposes a photograph of Diao reclining in a Barcelona chair at Philip Johnson’s Glass House with one of Philip Johnson himself, Andy Warhol, Robert A. M. Stern, and others in that same exact spot)—that is at the center of Diao’s practice as a painter. One would even say he circles it, over and over and over. Melancholics of this order are sometimes tough to bear. But after a time—forty years, say—their endurance can only be called heroic.
From ArtReview May 2013
Julian Schnabel, The Patients and the Doctors, 1978; installation at Oko, 2013
It’s hard to divorce Julian Schnabel from context. Indeed context is both the curse and blessing that has come to define the artist’s work and career over the last 35 years. That barrel chest! That hair! Those pajamas! Celeb friends! Montauk! West Village palazzo! Great films! Mary Boone! That hair! Those paintings… Here the exclamation tends to either the terrible or the wonderful, but rarely anything in between.
What was it about those paintings that made them so infamous at that moment in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s when, as so many artists and their critics have noted, the tectonic plates of culture (pun intended) felt like they were cracking up to swallow whole the gains (or losses) of the prior 20 years, not to mention the historical memory of the pre-Second World War avant-gardes? Wasn’t painting dead? Hadn’t its inherent humanism and its private language of subjective investment been shown to be obsolete if not morally bankrupt? And who is this asshole with the hair that isn’t reading Craig Owens and getting in line like everyone else?
A few decades on and this language of critique does feel, for better or worse, like it has run out of steam. What better time then to put up some of those notorious early paintings, direct from The Painter’s private collection. And who better to organise the affair than Alison Gingeras, house curator to Amalia Dayan and Daniella Luxembourg’s uptown shop, which has underwritten the East Village storefront, Oko, where one work from each of Schnabel’s early series – St Sebastian – Born in 1951 (1975-9); The Patients and the Doctors (1978); Mutant King (1981); Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet (1980) – is on view in two-week stints. Context strikes again.
But oh, that painting! Dumb luck – or, because the rhetoric matters in such cases, ‘divine providence’ – gave to us to see The Patients and the Doctors, one of the notorious plate paintings that Schnabel exhibited in his first solo show at Mary Boone’s Soho space in 1979. It’s big. So big in Oko’s little space that, like some aesthetic bear hug, you can’t break away from it. Surprisingly, though, it’s less gestural, less expressionist and muscular than all of the history book deflations would have one believe. Breaking the plates and placing all of those ceramic shards must have been a chore. The archaeological implications are not unwarranted, but this is backyard archaeology, the way a twelve-year-old might do it (didn’t you want to play with something called ‘Bondo’ when you were a kid?). The figures are more drawn than painted, clumsily sketched in over the work’s jagged 3-D surface, as if St. Sebastian’s body from the prior painting had been jettisoned but the scars retained. And, finally, that play between two-dimensions and three, specifically where one of those figures overlaps the work’s two major levels, is facile.
And yet, there’s all that context, equally embedded in this painting’s surface, equally part of its work, be it blessing or curse.
Published in ArtReview, April 2013
Hilary Berseth, Programmed Hive #7 (2008)
Drawing and sculpture share an inherent affinity, which on first glance has to do with their capacities for capturing space and holding it. Julio González synthesised this affinity in a single, and singular, practice. Artists such as Richard Serra cold roll it. Hilary Berseth is peeling back a fold of that affinity, perhaps by de-synthesising, or decomposing it, and showing us new distillations and combinations, and how such an affinity may not be ‘elective’ after all. The electrochemical sculptures, in which copper and nickel grow tumorous organo-crystalline forms at their edges, hook sculpture’s hard, dead materials – in Berseth’s hands: metal, plaster, concrete – back up to its élan vital. Think Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1923) for an age whose main metaphor is no longer the machine but the network, the lattice, and their infinite complexities. There is order in this chaos, however, as witnessed in Berseth’s early Programmed Hives (2008), wherein honeycombs are built – by the bees no less! – into complex geometries, at once regular and irregular. Berseth’s drawings would then almost seem to belong to another artist entirely, until one takes note of their own complex aggregations: the image of a stairwell overlaid with one of a retina, replete with the halo of its optic disc (that is presumably doing the viewing); another of a diorama overlaid by the view one would see from its side of things. And then there are the mathematical models: perfect renderings in graphite on paper that are then backed by steel plating and mounted in three dimensions—model and copy in one. ‘To draw in space,’ is how Gonzalez described ‘this new art’ forged from ‘points in the infinite’ (he was speaking of stellar constellations). Berseth knows what he means.
Published in ArtReview, March 2013
Terry Smith’s credentials when it comes to thinking anything that comes after the modifier ‘contemporary’ are second to none. With a number of articles in heavy-hitting, establishment journals, and a suite of books that he has either authored or edited, Smith has, of late, staked good claim to being the foremost surveyor of our contemporaneity, at least as it appears within the territories, occupied and otherwise, of visual art.
When Smith turns his mind to ‘thinking contemporary curating’, then, as he has in this inaugural volume for Independent Curators International’s new series, Perspectives in Curating, interested parties – foremost curators – but really anyone with a curiosity about contemporaneity itself, or in Smith’s take on it, would do well to pay attention. After all, ‘curating’, whatever this might be, however it might be thought, is a staple practice of what we might as well call the ‘cultural logic’ of contemporaneity. The past thirty years have seen increasing emphasis and pressure placed on the practice and language of curating, and the past ten have pushed this practice and language to the point of oblivion. So Smith’s asking ‘What is contemporary curatorial thought?’ belies more than just a desire to survey the state of curating today (which, it should be said, Smith does masterfully); it is an attempt on Smith’s part to theorize ‘contemporaneity’ itself.
The problem is, as much as he might like to be, Smith is not emerging as the thinker who will do for ‘contemporaneity’ what Frederic Jameson did for ‘postmodernism’ (or ‘modernism’ for that matter). It’s not enough for Smith to peg his favoured concept as the ‘the multiple and various ways of being in time today, contemporaneously’, however quasi-Heideggarian this may sound.
Smith is better as an historian of contemporary art – that is, to say it again, as a ‘surveyor’. In that role, he has gamely named three major ‘currents’ in the art of the recent past: ‘remodernist, retro-sensationalist, and spectacularist’ (aka Anglo-American or auction-house contemporary) art is one, the art of ‘transnational transitionality’ (aka post-colonial biennial art) is another, and the rise of a ‘small-scale, interactive, DIY art’ (basically everything else) is the last. Take them or leave them, these are useful ways of apprehending the expanding, unruly garden of contemporary artistic practice. And because this is a book on curtaing, each of these currents gets its patron curator: Kirk Vernadoe, Okwui Enwezor, and Nicolas Bourriaud (though Smith never addresses how ‘relational aesthetics’, a favorite of both currents one and two, lines-up with the DIY phenomenon that comprises current three). Smith’s ultimate point here is to note that what these curators (and the many others he mentions) do comes ‘before’ what critics and historians (like him) do. Curators present art, and give that presentation some kind of ‘shape’ through which the art can come to be understood, and then judged, categorized, and periodized by others.
Yet all of the ways that Smith understands the practice of art and curating, let alone of writing history and criticism, either confuse the period of ‘contemporaneity’ with its temporality or disregard it altogether. It’s as if one can ‘think [the] contemporary’ or ‘think curating’ but can’t think the two together. For example, when Smith offers this nicely reduced way of describing what curating should do, which is ‘to find the figure that is inherent in that which is to be exhibited, a configuration that will shape the flow of movement through the exhibition, a pathway that will carry the spectator’s experience, until we reach the reconfiguration – the exhibitionary act – that, in doing these things, opens art to be seen,’ what makes this act of curating particularly, or even definitively, ‘contemporary’? And when Smith distills his curatorial prescriptions into the following slogans: ‘Exhibit art’s work. Renounce reticence. Curate reflexively. Build research capacity. Articulate curatorial thinking. Archive the achievements. Reinvent exhibition formats. Turn the exhibitionary complex. Proliferate alternative exhibitionary venues. Activate infrastructure. Embrace spectatorship. Curate contemporaneity in art and society – past, present, and to come – critically,’ he begs the very question of contemporaneity (as period? as temporality?) that is meant to ground his slogans, indeed his book, deep within the stakes of curatorial thought itself.
Published in ArtReview, January/February 2013
Diana Thater, Chernobyl (2010); installation, David Zwirner Gallery, 2012
‘Postapocalyptic’ deserves retirement. It’s had a long, hard-working life, and yet still doesn’t complain when it’s called up to pull the deadweight of descriptive laziness and capitulations to cliché. Take your pick of the ruined, the abandoned, the murdered land, but apocalypse will never make a genuine appearance on earth. As a concept, it’s total. Whereas our human imaginations are merely regional: we kill ourselves by the square foot, never all at once. Which is why nothing comes after the end.
Diana Thater’s Chernobyl (2010), installed in David Zwirner’s easternmost gallery space on one of the many Sandy-ravaged strips of West Chelsea, reminds us just how limited our imaginations are. Filmed in the ‘exclusion zone’, a 30-kilometre no-man’s-land that rings the 1986 meltdown site, Thater’s video reveals a remarkably vibrant sanctuary, filled with plants and animals, all undoubtedly irradiated, yet all very much alive after a generation or two or three. Centred on the wreckage of an old theatre in Pripyat, the company town whose onetime residents managed and cared for the reactor, Thater’s installation recreates the geometries of the theatre’s walls and gives us a panoramic loop that changes like Chernobyl’s diminished seasons.
The point of Thater’s piece is not to draw us once again into the depths of self-hatred whenever the subject of nuclear power and its ecological disasters are broached (though it does that too). Instead, its designs are on time itself, and the fact that it doesn’t ‘pass’ (another cliché) but is ‘lived’ and lived in. The zone around Chernobyl is occupied by much wildlife, including, amazingly, horses, specifically Przewalskis, the last surviving subspecies of wild horses, which were introduced to the area because only there could they exist relatively undisturbed by humans. There are people too. Mortuary workers who care for the remains of the dead – actually, only half-dead – nuclear hulk and its burial ground.
‘Half-dead’ may not be right either. Plutonium-239 decays at a rate of 50 percent every 24,000 years. That’s a stability no human civilisation can hope to achieve (the Holocene itself only dates to about a 21 percent drawdown of the isotope). The cesium in the ground, which was meant to disappear after only 60 years, looks to be taking five times longer. These are historical scales and geological scales, both human and inhuman, and Thater’s video implicates them in their invisibility, just as a shot of the moon rising over a statue of Lenin in the video’s opening sequence implicates the ideology – equally invisible – that has irradiated us all.
Published in ArtReview, January/February 2013
1961: Lem’s Solaris; 1962: Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; 1963: Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; 1965: Herbert’s Dune; 1966: Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; 1967: Zelazny’s Lord of Light; 1968: Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; 1969: Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness…
The 1960s were a golden age for science fiction, though as the list above would indicate, it was a a bit more golden for men than for women. Le Guin was, and is, the rare pathbreaker, in the literature and in thought. The Left Hand of Darkness was not feminist SF. It did, and does, what we expect of all great literature, and that’s to pry our minds free of convention. That Le Guin did this via the invention of an androgyne race won it the feminist label, but we can see now that it was an early stab at the kind of hybridity that Donna Haraway would flesh out 15 years later.
Kiki Kogelnik (who passed away in 1997) deserves a big place in this discussion. An émigré on the run from Vienna at the moment, in 1964, when Actionism set up its mud-and-blood-wrestling matches as vehicles of sociosexual liberation, Kogelnik took up in New York and quickly fell in with the Pop set – primarily Lichtenstein, and Oldenburg, whose early love for goopy objects echoed the Actionists’s love of bodily fluids. But the image reigned in New York, and so Kogelnik’s images, of bodies mostly, were rendered flat and graphic, yet always still with an inside, and always as something more or less than human.
Using medical stamps of heads (in profile, or head-on with chins raised to emphasise the throat), legs and women’s torsos, and silhouettes of figures made from spraypainting over the edges of cutouts, Kogelnik, like Warhol, mechanised and automated the otherwise authorial, indexical trace. If Warhol wanted to be a machine, Kogelnik wanted to be a robot, a different kind of incorporation entirely. Her works on paper, such as Robots (1966) or Untitled (Robots) (c. 1967), show cut-and-quartered bodies getting wired together as if coming off an outer world assembly line. The paintings Outer Space (1964) and Atmospheric Drag on Satellite (1965) show what the dream life of such beings might be.
Kogelnik’s greatest affinity might be with Paul Thek, whose Technological Reliquaries from the mid-1960s exhibit similar obsessions with impossible bodily hybridities and a kind of cyborg mindedness. But Kogelnik’s work is less disaster-laden, less anxiety-ridden and allegorical with regard to sexuality. The figure in The Human Touch (c. 1965), whose head is disjointed from its body and perfectly circular, is ecstatic, a secular St Teresa for our robotic age – it’s a label that could apply to Kogelnik as well.
Upcoming in ArtReview‘s December 2012 issue.
Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari’s techno-aesthetic ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is the latest in a line of near-eccentric (as near as the general conservatism of New York’s museums can muster) New Museum exhibitions that take on big themes with big numbers and only limited respect for convention – Ostalgia (2011), After Nature (2009), Unmonumental (2008) being the others. But with Ghosts in the Machine, a show ostensibly about the ‘dream-like life’ that we share with our technology, it is exhibition making itself more than any rapturous engagement with our ever-evolving machine age that is on display.
The phrase ‘dream-like life’ belongs to (the currently modish) Richard Hamilton, whose exhibition Man, Machine and Motion from 1955 is both an inspiration and has been recreated here. A large lattice bearing archival images of humans on the move – in the air, through the water, over ground – and the bits of technical apparatus they have used to help them on their way, Hamilton’s installation offers an early example of the archive fever that gripped his own Independent Group and other artists of the early post-Second World War period, most notably J.G. Ballard, who is represented here by a suite of early spreads from Ambit magazine.
Gioni and Carrion-Murayari pay homage to other more and less well known curatorial forays into the always uneasy marriage of art and technology: Bruno Munari and Umberto Eco’s Olivetti-sponsored Arte Programmata (1962); William Seitz’s The Responsive Eye (1965, MoMA); Willoughby Sharp’s Kinetic and Programmed Art (1966, RISD; parts of which have been recreated for Ghosts…); K.G. Pontus Hultén’s The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968, MoMA); Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity (1968, ICA); Maurice Tuchman’s Art and Technology (1970, LACMA); and Harald Szeemann’s Bachelor Machines (1975–7, various locations).
In this field, Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–5), installed on the museum’s fifth floor, looks less like an experiment in ‘expanded cinema’ and more like an early lesson in moving-image curating. But where, one wonders, is Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Waldhauer and Robert Whitman’s E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), launched via the art and engineering collaborations of 9 Evenings (1966)? Perhaps given E.A.T.’s tepid reception, both at the time and in more recent histories of the period, Gioni and Carrion-Murayari didn’t want to diminish the cred of their idols.
That the most affecting work in Ghosts isn’t a conventional ‘artwork’ at all, either official or outsider, but an unattributed reconstruction of the malign sentencing apparatus from Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1919) that was specially produced for Szeemann’s Bachelor Machines show, goes to the high level of curatorial self-regard at work here. But it also speaks to the trouble with the genre of the ‘art and technology’ exhibition in general, which is the fact that it is a genre, like genre fiction, SF or fantasy in particular. No matter how philosophically pungent the ideas or how contorted the manipulations of form, the art has to stand or fall on its own, which is why Ghosts… remains more curiosity than show.
SPACE PROGRAM (2007-2012), which the artist Tom Sachs and his studio first introduced at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, serves as a kind of magnum opus of the DIY and tinker-type workshopping of iconic examples of architecture, design and engineering that Sachs has made his own since the early 1990s. In that 2007 iteration, Sachs ‘sent’ astronauts—both women—to the moon via an armory of mock-NASA equipment, such as landers and life support systems and other bits of apparatus more or less connected to the project of exploring Earth’s only natural satellite—an example of ‘more’ would be the life-sized recreation of NASA’s Apollo 11 Lunar Module (2007); an example of ‘less’ would be the NASA Champagne Fridge (2007) and the store of Jack Daniels and Marlboroughs that were on hand as the astronauts’ dietary staples. This May and June, in conjunction with Creative Time and The Park Avenue Armory, Sachs and his team are doing it again, only this time the astronauts are heading to Mars.
Tom Sachs, SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, Park Avenue Armory, 2012
Anyone who visited Sachs’s studio prior to the Mars mission this spring took their turn at the ID Station (2010), which produced for them and for the studio a photo ID, replete with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) logo. Other than one’s name, the ID required giving two other pieces of information, which consisted of answers to two questions: “Have you seen 10 Bullets”? And “Have you seen COLOR”?
10 Bullets (2010) and Color (2011) are the first two films of a trilogy (the tentative title of the third is Materials and Methods) that Sachs has produced in conjunction with assistants John Ferguson and Van Neistat. At bottom, they are instructional films for people who work, or want to work, in Sachs’s studio. The lesson of 10 Bullets is how to ‘work to Code’. Indeed, the ten bullets, as in bullet points (illustrated in the film as hand-drawn rounds of ammunition) comprise ‘the Code’ itself, which instructs one to do such things as ‘keep a list’ (bullet seven); to use the phrase ‘I understand’ (bullet five) when confirming instructions; to ‘sacrifice to Leatherface’ (bullet nine), i.e. to pay a fine into a lock box adorned by a figurine of the villain of the cult horror flick A Texas Chainsaw Massacre when failing to adhere to the studio’s safety or security procedures—that is, when failing to ‘work to Code’; to always ‘work to Code’ (bullet one) because ‘creativity is the enemy’ (Sachs’s own credo); and to ‘always be Knolling’ (bullet eight). If you don’t know what Knolling is, watch the film.
Color follows 10 Bullets’ lead. Its purpose is to indoctrinate viewers into the studio’s highly standardized color palette, which is based upon the the many found objects and images and repurposed materials that have made their way into the studio’s work over the years. So, for example, the studio’s white is drawn from, among other things, copy paper white, foamcore white, and Tyvek-suit white, which, in terms of paint, translates to Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White or Krylon Glossy White; the studio’s yellow is McDonald’s Golden Arches yellow (Golden Acrylics C.P. Cadmium Yellow Medium #1130-6 Series 7) or Kodak film packaging yellow (Golden Acrylics Diarylide Yellow 1147-6 Series 6); blue is Gulf Porsche blue, Tiffany blue, or New York Police Department barricade blue (according to the studio, the NASA logo’s PMS 286 blue is ‘dopey’, so the studio instead uses Benjamin Moore Impervex Latex High Gloss Metal and Wood Enamel Classic Navy 309 35); and purple…well purple is ‘forbidden, purple is punishable by death, there is never an excuse for the colour purple’.
The tone, as one might guess, is mock-serious, though with an emphasis on the second half of that hyphenation. The authority of the studio, of the ‘Code’ and its colour palette, are at every point affirmed without equivocation. The sense one gets is that there is an ‘inside’ to the studio, a Code that is not easily cracked from the outside. More than merely a workplace, it’s a commitment, both to a way of working and to an aesthetic, to a way of working as an aesthetic. In the face of all the attention that gets paid to ‘post-studio’ art practices, Ten Bullets and Color unabashedly attest to the power and importance of the studio itself, but the studio understood as the embodiment of a rigorous system and social rationale, one in which the words ‘creativity is the enemy’ can be willingly embraced because everyone (who knows how to work to Code) understands that individual creativity, in the form of the impromptu choice, the undisciplined decision, is indeed the enemy of collective creation.
It is with this perspective in mind that we might see how Sachs’s SPACE PROGRAM, in both its Lunar and Martian iterations, can be understood as both self-reflexive and allegorical of the studio as well. It is self-reflexive insofar as what the SPACE PROGRAM reproduces, in its simulations of all of those highly choreographed yet quotidian routines that receive such fanfare when they are broadcast live (on TV) and later dramatized (in books and movies)—from donning space suits and eating dinner to collecting rock and soil samples (which consisted, in LA, of drilling into and digging up Gagosian’s highly polished concrete floor)—is the seamless functioning of the studio, the assigning, monitoring, and carrying out of operations on a check list (bullet seven!) by people—and this is important—not just with training and expertise to perform those operations but who are also individually committed to, and so hold themselves responsible for, seeing them through. The many ‘stations’ of the Mars mission, from the RBR: Red Beans and Rice Station (2011) to the HNDS: Hot Nuts Delivery System (2011), to the Biology Lab (2011; which is growing poppies for a Martian heroin harvest), to the Bike Station (2011-2012) and Repair Station (2006-2010) are just so many reflections of the ‘sacred space’ (bullet two!) of the studio—the ‘shop, office, welding booth, bunker, and kitchen’—so soberly detailed in 10 Bullets.
The SPACE PROGRAM is allegorical because if it represents anything at all, it is this idea of commitment to a goal, this fidelity to a shared aim, to a target as distinct from a telos. Let me explain: Early in his book Targets of Opportunity (2005), Samuel Weber builds on a ‘terminological distinction’, first addressed by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, between two senses of ‘end’: telos and skopos. Where telos is understood as the ‘fulfilment of an action or process’, skopos is the ‘target that one has in one’s sights and at which one takes aim; it is the goal presently and clearly offered to an intention…Skopos is the draw of the bow, telos, life and death.’ The metaphorical reach of skopos is important here, connecting as it does the implicit violence of targeting with the technological projection of our conscious attention (‘intentionality’, in the language of the philosophical phenomenology in which Nancy was schooled). ‘Skopos is already, tendentially, the tele-scope’, Weber writes, ‘since “the one who aims” is also “the one who surveys.” To survey, in this sense, is to command at a distance.’
However else we want to characterize research missions that land men on the moon and rovers on Mars, we must recognize that even our limited ‘surveys’ of these other worlds are bound up with a ballistic sort of ‘scopic’ knowledge that traces its genealogy according to Nancy’s metaphorical ‘draw of the bow’. What else is Curiosity, the Mars rover that is currently hurtling through space towards its target at 12,000 miles per hour, than the tip of the arrow? Why else would the engineers on the Entry, Decent, and Landing (EDL) team at JPL, for which Sachs designed the mission patch and served as the unofficial artist in residence, refer to these three final phases of Curiosity’s flight as ‘Six Minutes of Terror’? (Those six minutes will unfold in real time this coming August when Curiosity hits the Martian atmosphere.) Or for that matter, what possible reason would the astronauts on the SPACE PROGRAM lunar mission in 2007 have for securing their landing site with DIY shotguns (Lem: ATF: MSA: Shotgun , 12 gauge, Breech-loading, handmade, 2007)? And why would the astronauts on the Mars mission need a mortar (Mortar, 2011)?
Because everywhere in Sachs’s work, targets abound. Despite betraying some boyhood fascinations with militarized gear, and beyond all of its tongue-in-cheek fetishising of the arch seriousness of the military-industrial-academic-research complex, Sachs’s SPACE PROGRAM is just this targeting writ large—not quite as large as NASA or JPL and the ‘general intellect’ of which they are the cutting edge, but large enough to stand for it, to represent it, allegorically as it were.
The one bit of ‘equipment’ that stands out in this respect, both because of what it stands for and how out of place it is within the panoply of stations destined for Mars, is the Tea House (2011-12), a full-scale building (Sachs’s first ever since abandoning architecture to become an artist) designed to accommodate traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The form of that ceremony (exactingly detailed, as with all of the SPACE PROGRAM’s procedures, in a set of accompanying instructions) distils the PROGRAM’s and the studio’s targeting ethos. For as ritualized as the choreography of the tea ceremony may be, it is a dance that depends entirely upon subtle yet instrumental moments of feedback between host and guest(s). Every action—the quarter-clockwise turn of the tea bowl, the laying down of the tea scoop (bullet eight: always be Knolling!)—is also a cue for some subsequent action, such that all the players in the ceremony are highly attuned to and tracking—targeting—one another. They are bound together in a collective project, and the ceremony, the ritual, the Code does the binding. It is in this sense that the tea ceremony—like the SPACE PROGRAM; like the studio—is not teleological. The point is not to fulfil it, to get to its end. It is scopic. The point is to see, to survey, to attend, to target—to always, always, work to Code.
This piece is from the summer 2012 issue of ArtReview.
‘Hunt for serial rapist’. ‘Jet bomb plotter jailed’. ‘Man, 81, dies in blaze’. ‘Teen gunman caged’. ‘Pair accused of boys torture’. ‘Royal gay sex blackmail plot’. ‘Evil woman stalker jailed’. ‘Mum killed tot with pills’. ‘Junkie murderer attacked 100-year-old woman’. ‘Bullied girl, 15, stabbed in head’. ‘Sex beast attacks woman in her home’. ‘Man died after sex act “went wrong”‘. ‘Cricket coach strangler mystery’. ‘Woman missing on date is dead’. ‘Drugs batch laced with glass’. ‘Hackney girl killed by heroin’. ‘Elderly die alone: shock figures’. ‘Play portrays Jesus as drunk womaniser’. ‘Man goes mising [sic] at shopping centre’.
One could—and indeed Gilbert & George’s new London Pictures, 262 of the pair’s signature multi-panelled prints, these reproducing London tabloid newspaper posters, do—go on. But why? Because of their self-professed love for and obsession with East London, the city and the area that the two have made their home and workplace since emerging from St. Martin’s College in the late-60s? Because we, the innocent audience, keepers of our own dark urges and perversions, need to be confronted with this textual cataloguing of human cruelty and pain? Because the poetics of the tabloid headline just haven’t been given their due? Because isn’t life just misery, and it’s oh so nice to be reminded that it’s likely more miserable for someone else, like that Hackney girl, or that Cricket coach, or Jesus?
Gilbert and George, Girl, from The London Pictures, 2011
With no offense to London, what Gilbert & George’s London Pictures are is tiresome at best and cynical at worst. After a career predicated upon needling the soft flesh of perceived social refinement, including aping the latter with their own arch politesse, what the pair have served up is one giant finger wag (Tssk Tssk!). The London Pictures no more make art out of the abyss of humanity, which the artists claim could always be found right outside their Spitalfields’ studio door, than Glenn Beck makes programming aimed mobilizing the global Left. Like Beck, though, Gilbert & George have perfected the camera-ready glower; and in these pictures, it’s made all the more goofily sinister by what looks like too much television makeup and the pair’s overly whitened–i.e. bloodless–eyes. In the past, the artists’ self-portraits were gestures at their own implication within the great social carnival; within the London pictures, they look like spectres of self-righteousness.
What are we to take away from it all? From the murders and rapes and hangings and stabbings and beatings and burglaries, from the boys and girls and men and women and drunks and thugs and playboys and police? Is this London? Is this humanity? No doubt it is. Then how should one respond? Exactly as one is expected to when confronted with the gruesome headline or shocking tabloid poster. Utter “What the fuck?”, and move on.
From the Summer 2012 issue of ArtReview.
Brice Marden’s ‘new paintings’ – one series of compositions in oil and graphite on fragmented slabs of marble and another series of nine modestly sized monochrome canvases – are not so much paintings as exercises, the kind of thing (good) painters do when trying to shake out old habits and awaken some dormant muscles. In the case of the monochromes, Marden is doing memory work.Marden painted the nine canvases that make up the Ru Ware Project (2007–12), each one a subtly differentiated shade of grey or blue or beige, from his memory of the glazing on this rare Song Dynasty pottery, an exhibition of which he saw in Taipei in 2007. In the case of the marble works, Marden is testing his mettle against grounds that are already rich with incident.
Brice Marden, Years 2, 2011; Matthew Marks Gallery
But how can a painter compete with marble? Since antiquity at least, imitating it has been the challenge. The tromp l’oeil vistas that once dissolved the villa walls of Pompeii offer good examples of the way the spider-veined stone could be conjured from wet plaster and pigment. The latter was cheap compared to the former, hence the patron’s motivation and the painter’s challenge. Yes, the Ancient Greeks painted their marble statues and temples. But when the stone proved decorative enough on its own, they let it be, just as Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe would some 2,000 years later.
It was in the 1980s that Marden, then sojourning in Greece, first decided to substitute canvas for fragments of marble slab. With washes of thinned-out oil, and sometimes thicker linear applications, he turned his painting practice into a conversation with the history of carbonate flow and crystallisation that is revealed in any cross-sectioned bit of the rock. Think of it as painting jump-started by geology. It brings to mind what Gilles Deleuze once wrote about the painter’s task being one of excavation, of getting through the layers upon layers of historical precedent that exist in every so-called blank canvas. In other words, no canvas, just like no page, is ever truly blank.
Marden’s works from the 1980s, and now this new series, put one in mind of some idyllic art school, a class held in a sun-drenched courtyard with plaster casts and stone fragments laying about. There are the students, taking up their shards of marble for a session on learning to speak the language of liquid materials, the underlying lesson being that, at large enough time scales, stone is liquid too. The task of the day is to mix the two, stone and paint, with their respective times, in order to feel out their balance. And there is Marden, pacing the yard, watching the young time-travellers work. The camera pulls back now, through a window that looks out onto the courtyard, and inside we see a shaded room, where the teacher’s own few but successful mixtures line the walls.
From the summer 2012 issue of ArtReview.
John Kessler, The Blue Period (2007/2011); installation view, Salon 94 Bowery
That The Blue Period (2007/2011) was first shown at the old Arndt & Partner (now just Arndt) in Berlin in 2007, and then at Art Basel in 2008, and has now arrived at Salon 94 Bowery in New York in 2012 is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was apparently ‘zee Germans’ in 2007 who were still buying up all of those toxic subprime-mortgage-backed securities that Goldman Sachs and others were packaging and selling, and so it was ‘zee Germans’ who were giving that much more altitude to the global financial balloon whose basket was carrying, as we found out, not the most diversified portfolio of neoliberal wealth creation the world had ever seen, but a huge pile of shit.
Blue period indeed…
Read the rest at ArtReview and Neil_Kessler_AR_April.
Michael Snow, The Viewing of Six New Works (2012); Installation view, Jack Shainman
All of the work in Michael Snow’s In the Way – some older, such as Exchange (1985), an early holographic work of a man mugging for the camera, and La Ferme (1998), a blown-up and recut filmstrip of cows in a field; and one newer, In the Way (2011), a floor-bound projection of a video shot off the back of a truck, showing a rough and muddy road passing beneath our feet – deals in some way with the shallow space just on the other side of the lens- and light-derived frame. But it is the newest work, The Viewing of Six New Works(2012), that takes this shallow space to its extreme and also animates, literally, what we might well call the ‘geometry of touch’.
The Viewing of Six New Works is an installation of seven looped video projections (one work consists of two projections), each of which features a different-coloured and -sized rectangle that moves against a black-screen background and intersects an invisible frame that is both internal to the projector’s own and commensurate with its coloured partner. (Just imagine the dream life of Ellsworth Kelly and you’re halfway there.) Every so often we get a glimpse of one of the rectangles aligning itself in its frame, but all the real action is contained by the rotations and translations of the rectangles within and ‘behind’ the frames, which at once hide and reveal the rectangles’ edges (now parallel, now skewed) and corners (now present, now absent).
However, to accept that what one actually witnesses are the movements of rectangles ‘behind’ their frames is to accept too easily this metaphorical language of real space: there is no ‘frame’ to speak of until it is intersected and so revealed – or better, actualised – by the movement of colour across the screen. And that colour itself only ever appears as a rectangle as much as it appears as a parallelogram or as some other irregular figure brought about by this actualisation of framing edge by the mobile colour field. The animation is self-consciously two-dimensional; it’s a speciation machine for inhabitants of flatland…
Read the rest at ArtReview.
Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, O Século (The Century), 2011
…is by Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, and it is called O Século (The Century) (2011). It’s a video, roughly ten-minutes long, and it shows a sun-raked, empty street, the kind you find at the edges or in the industrial zones of cities. Marcelle and Machado’s camera overlooks the street as if from a perch on an adjacent wall, so that what we see is only pavement, gutter, curb, sidewalk and a wall opposite the camera, all of which runs the length of the frame. The top of the wall is outside that frame, but we know that it is lined with concertina wire, because we can see its shadow on the sidewalk below. There are sewer drains, just left of center.
Then the action begins. From the right side of the frame, all manner of things are chucked into the scene: chairs, oil drums, car tires, slatted crates, hard hats, bicycle wheels, fluorescent light bulbs (these last are particularly satisfying to watch, given how they often disintegrate with a great “POP” when breaking against the rest of the junk). Sometimes chunks of dried dirt that must have been stuck to one or another of the things vaporize into puffs of brown smoke when landing in the scrum.
The delivery is rapid-fire and comes from a number of different positions off to the right. It builds quickly into a steady barrage, waxes and wanes a bit, and then begins to trail off, presumably as the hurlers begin to tire and their ammunition runs out. At one point, the scene gets enveloped in white smoke, as if some larger collapse has occurred off screen. Then it dissipates, and a final few things (some more fluorescent light bulbs, luckily) are thrown at and onto the pile.
It all takes about five minutes, at which point the video transitions back to the empty street, but now mirror-reversed. The volleys begin again, the junk is hurled, but it is comes from the left. Junk, smoke, smashing bulbs, it’s all there.
O Século is a powerful distillation of the kind of ballistics that have become so familiar to us in the age of filmed, televised, and streaming conflict. It would be a mistake to romanticize the action though. The resistance fighter, the demonstrator and the protestor are here, but so too is the rioter, the looter, the vandal. The act of throwing something about which one cares only that it hit its mark and do its damage, to person or property—or that it be seen to harbor this intention; so many times such throws are complete in and of themselves as acts, regardless of whether they hit anything at all—is a pure act of aggression.
This does not mean, however, that it is not historical. As Marcelle and Machado’s title suggests, this act belongs to a period, and which period is given by what is thrown. The light bulbs, the bicycle wheels, the hard hats, the oil drums, these are products of the Twentieth Century, as is their visibility as items in an arsenal of impromptu urban battles. That O Século was made in this, the twenty-first century, gives it a necessary ambiguity too. Will it memorialize the century just past? Or is it prophetic for the century that has just begun?
As a work of art it is undoubtedly a product the 1900s. Its formal rigor (the empty street is composed like a color field painting—think Kenneth Noland), its fixed-camera performance (a form that traces its genealogy back through Bruce Nauman to the films of Edison and the Lumieres), its dependence on gravity and accumulative spread (Jackson Pollock, Barry Le Va), its quotidian character (Duchamp), its mid-point mirror reversal (a hallmark of 1960s structural and materialist filmmaking), and so much more anchor O Século in twentieth-century art’s incessant, sometimes obsessive, concern with form.
In contrast to most everything else at The Ungovernables, which is almost singularly concerned with content, with what all this work is about and with what it all means, work which is in many cases seemingly wholly unaware of or willfully amnesiac about the art of the recent past, as if to suggest that its simply having been made is justification enough for our attending to it—in contrast to all of this, O Século is exceptional.
Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, still from whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2011
The question of why Kazimir Malevich, painter of the Black Square (1914–5), inventor of Suprematism, plowhead of Russian Modernism and sacrifice of the Soviet avant-garde, turned, or rather returned, during the 1930s, to painting odd, faceless, geometricised peasants has yet to be answered fully or forcefully. That this self-proclaimed ‘commissar of space’, who had once enlisted himself with Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh – the ‘men of the future’ (budetliane) – in a battle to gain ‘victory over the sun’, retreated to the precincts of indigenous mysticism and donned the vestments of religion (Malevich’s final self-portrait, from 1933, shows the artist as church father) troubles any mind that desires the genuine venture of thought, be it artistic, scientific or intellectual breakthrough, to open onto the promise of some future free from the shackles of the present, let alone the past. And yet perhaps what Malevich was grappling with during the 1930s was not so much the past as a different conception of the future, and how one could get there.
Malevich, the good modernist, had a time problem, and at its root was film. Caught out by Sergei Eisenstein’s and Dziga Vertov’s masterworks of the 1920s, and with them the rise of filmic and photographic montage as the inevitable visual language of the revolution, Malevich’s commitment to painting could only appear quaint at best and counterrevolutionary at worst. Art historian Margarita Tupitsyn has argued convincingly however that even by 1920 Malevich had begun thinking filmically. In the small booklet Suprematism: 34 Drawings, published that year, Malevich projected one abstract sketch after another within, or rather upon, a drawn frame. Like a film, Malevich saw this work as ‘one piece, with no visible joints’ – he called it a ‘suprematist apparatus’. ‘It was a mechanism’, Tupitsyn says, ‘meant to operate without its inventor.’
Like their previous two films, 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004), a dilation of the moment depicted in Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), and The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007), which dramatises the suspension of time pictured in that painting (by Rubens) and its cognates (by David), the latest film by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation (her ever evolving studio of collaborators), whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2011), which completes the trilogy, nods in the direction of another painting – Malevich’s Composition: White on White (1918). And it, too, is a mechanism that operates without its inventor…
 See Margarita Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with Fundação Centro Cultural de Belém, 2002), 25.
Barbara Kruger, “Untitled” (Money makes money), 2011
Cognitive dissonance. It’s a cliché by now, a toss-off term used to explain (or to keep from explaining) all sorts of contradictions, hypocrisies, moral and ethical failings, feats of self-loathing, etc. It has become a standard operating principle, the kernel of cynical reason, the delivery mechanism of mental detachment.
And we love it. We can’t get enough of it. Harmony is for hippie losers. Dissonance is complex, difficult, dangerous; it’s Heidegger in six-inch heels at a rifle range. It’s why we love family-guy politicians and the prostitutes they pay for dirty sex. It’s why we adore the billionaire record producers that rail against the 1% down at Occupy Wall Street. It’s why campus police (at UC Irvine) use pepper spray against peaceful student demonstrators, and why a customer (at Wal-Mart) uses pepper spray against her fellow Black-Friday shoppers. It’s why we believe in too-big-to-fail. And yes, it’s why we love Art Basel Miami Beach…
Read the rest at Art Agenda.