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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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 ofArtReview.
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.