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.
When Elvis Mitchell, the well-known film critic and, since 2011, curator of the indie film series, Film Independent, at LACMA, took the stage on March 25th to introduce Ryan Trecartin’s four new ‘movies’, he stressed that ‘movies’ are indeed what Trecartin makes, not ‘films’ or ‘videos’, which terms conjure musty art house repertory theaters or white-box galleries turned into black-box screening rooms. No, Trecartin makes ‘movies’, which are meant to be seen on the big screen, and with big sound.
So what the audience was treated to on that Tuesday night, a back-to-back screening of Junior War, Comma Boat, CENTER JENNY, and Item Falls (all 2013), we were being told, was something like seeing rare charismatic megafauna in its natural habitat. It was as if Trecartin’s work had finally arrived at the place, Tinseltown, and the apparatus, an actual movie theater, to which it had always belonged or, rather, from which it had issued in the first place. (There is some banal truth to this: in 2010 Trecartin relocated his studio to Burbank, where most of the new work was produced.)
Then, for the next 139 minutes, the audience was subject to an audio-visual ballistics test of which Paul Sharits, he of near seizure-inducing avant-garde films from the 1970s, would be proud.
There is nothing wrong with such eye/ear/mind assaults in themselves, and anyone familiar with Trecartin’s previous work would have been well prepared for his latest offerings, which debuted last year at the Venice Biennale in their own ‘sculptural theaters’, the installation-cum-set-pieces that Trecartin produces with his long-time artistic collaborator Lizzie Fitch. Though the movies are integral to those set pieces, these ‘sculptural theaters’ are not integral to the movies, which theatrical screenings, such as this one at LACMA and a similar one last December at BAM, in Brooklyn, demonstrate. And as is well-known, Trecartin also makes his ‘movies’ available on Vimeo, which is why it was all the more strange for Mitchell to claim the movie theater as the natural environment for Trecartin’s work.
Let me state this plainly: it’s not.
Junior War is a key here. Whereas Comma Boat, CENTER JENNY, and Item Fallsshare sets and players to explore what one could only loosely call ‘themes’ – doubling, belonging, identity, self-aggrandizement, social positioning; but then plastic pint cups, Beyoncé, and body paint might also qualify – Junior War is composed from footage that Trecartin shot in 1999 while still in high school, and its theme, in short, is belligerence – the kind that comes from being young, drunk, and stoned, surrounded by friends, and in possession of an uncomfortably fat cache of hormones, bad judgment, and cars.
Using a night-vision video camera, Trecartin captured his friends – and this is just a random sampling – drinking, smoking, playing drinking games, running around the woods, running from cops, smashing mailboxes, smashing televisions, stealing ornamental lawn sculptures, smashing ornamental lawn sculptures, getting pulled over by cops, hiding in basements, riding in the backs of trucks, sleeping in cars, and saying some humorous but never intelligent things. Even at this early stage, Trecartin’s style of in-your-face camera work is evident. When edited with his signature attention to pacing and masterful use of the jump cut, the result is a frenetic and anxious picture of kids getting up to stupid shit.
You are nervous for them. Their behavior is of course typical, a brief puncturing of the suburban familial authority that, like wet wool, chafes and weighs you down yet keeps you warm. What will happen to them when they leave? What kind of prelude will this be?
Just why the ‘we’re-gonna-fuck-shit-up’ impulse is so prevalent in late-teen life is a question, thankfully, that Junior War doesn’t seek to answer. That kind of moral or didactic image making is miles away on cable television somewhere, or deep in a pile of indie film festival submissions. This footage was made in the age of the Internet, but before the advent of social media or YouTube. The computer screen is its home turf. It’s footage that isn’t meant to be ‘screened’; it’s meant to be shared, in the old sense – that is, to be viewed by its participants, to be laughed over and cringed at, and then left in the shoebox that lives in the back of a series of closets – dormitory, shared apartment, first solo pad, house – until old classmates are awkwardly reunited and it is brought back out to be laughed over and cringed at once more.
So if Trecartin’s works are indeed ‘movies’ as Mitchell claimed they are, then they are of a special domestic variety, the kind of ‘home movie’ that only the kids make, the ones in which they don’t so much act as ‘act out’, for themselves, for their friends, and for no one in particular. Junior War, though far from Trecartin’s first work, is something like his ur-movie then, a kernel of raw affect and energy around which all of his other work, in all of its ornamented, camped-up absurdity, orbits, and to which one wishes it could find a way to return.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…