• In Conversation with Christina Quarles

    Below is the full, edited transcript of a conversation I conducted with the artist Christina Quarles in April of 2023, prior to the openings of her shows Come in from an Endless Place, at Hauser & Wirth Menorca (which closes on 29 October), and Collapsed Time, at the Hamburger Banhoff, Berlin (which closed this month on 17 September).

    Christina Quarles, Rain Again, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 77 1/4 x 96 1/4 inc.

    Neil: You stated once that when you moved to painting from drawing, that language was replaced by pattern. Can you elaborate on that?

    Quarles: When I was first moved into painting in grad school, I just went ahead and wrote on the canvases alongside the imagery that I was working with. All the things that I loved about text were the way that it flattened a plane, literally, and that it is also a reference to something that isn’t there. It was a way of creating this common ground, something like a shared understanding, that was also really specific to the individual reading it. So much of my work is about the way that you read an image and the way that an image unfolds with meaning, based on how we’re sort of trained and taught to read an image. I think that there’s just an inevitable desire when you see a visual image to understand it, and to find answers quickly. We don’t trust ourselves to live with the visual image. So if there’s text, most people will go to the text to answer the image because it’s scary to be in that place of not understanding. Since I wasn’t using the text as a caption for the narrative or for a conclusion about the image, I found that it was like putting in a few red herrings, and that felt unnecessarily misleading – to be like, here’s text on the bottom right-hand corner with an image above it and the two do not have anything to do with one another. That’s rude! So when I took out the language, I found that I still needed something. Also there is this element in my paintings of having areas where the paint will just be a linear and it won’t be filled in. So to anchor that as a decision, feeling finished, as a set of choices, text was that anchor for me. When I removed the text, I found that the anchor was missing. I wanted something that could anchor the work in that shared language that you could hook into, but which was also open-ended. So I looked for patterns that are that sort of a reference: something that you’ve maybe seen in art history, but maybe it’s actually from television and maybe it’s television referencing art history. So it still has that iterative quality.

    N: Is it important that it remains a two-dimensional flattening?

    Q: Yes, the flattening is part of it. In many ways the idea of pattern and planes in my work could replace the way that I think about language. It is a more two-dimensional reference to something that you have to complete in your memory. I always try to find, whether it’s language or imagery, moments of punning and double meaning. That’s important to me.

    N: Is this why the bodies that are depicted are pushed to the brink of legibility? There’s a push and pull of recognizability, areas where that legibility is distinct and then breaks down.

    Q: Exactly. I’m interested in having moments of legibility that are immediately apparent and then other contextual clues within the painting that undermine that first reading. That legibility breaks down not because there’s a lack of information, but because there’s too much information that contradicts itself. That’s always the standpoint I have: away from the idea of a lack and into the idea of excess.

    N: It becomes more like signal and noise versus figure and ground.

    Q: Exactly. I find that question of legibility to be central to my practice.

    N: You have said that you like Adobe Illustrator because of the ability to scale infinitely: the vector image versus the bitmap. A lot of the work has either a kind of architectural element that defines a space or there are the 2D planes that have been rotated into space that lay out a zone in the canvas. How do you conceive of the scale and space of your paintings?

    Q: I think of the composition of the figures in architecture within the painting to exist fully within that canvas space. It’s sort of like outside of the painting none of the elements of the painting exist. Even though I’m referencing moments of architecture or pattern or imagery that I have seen, whether it’s high moments of architecture and art or these very low or mass forms of culture. The figures also come from the sustained practice of figure drawing with live models. But when I come to the painting, all of that is just used as snippets of memory that get filtered through the process of making the painting. Scale is very much determined by the edge of the canvas. There are constants of scale which relate purely to my scale of making. I just did this huge installation for the show in Berlin; it’s like a 40-foot-wide painting. But even that, the scale of the figures, the scale of the pattern, it’s the same. What changes is the way that it is read in the context of a room. The way I think about the scale of painting is really related to my physical scale and the figures within it. They’re interacting with objects and the environment that relates to their scale. It’s because they are more in this embodied state of experiencing the world. Sometimes we have, whether it’s an awareness of our own body or the spaces that we’re in, moments when the scale of things are unnoticed or unseen because we seamlessly move through the scale of our world. And then there are other times when there really is a misfit between how we fit into our environments or how our environments fit into us. It’s like, when you become really aware, you’re like, “oh, I’m in a seat that’s too small for me,” or “I’m in a couch that’s making my body sink too much.” So it’s how to represent those moments of moving through a world that is taken as a given. We take architectural spaces as a given, but they’re actually decisions that were made, representations of how a body would move through them. What does it mean when your body doesn’t quite work in that space. There is a distortion of scale within the figuration. It’s more how you feel your body. How if there’s a part of your body that’s in pain, for example, it distorts the scale of your perception. It’s more a sense of perceived scale. But it’s always related to the physical limitations of my wingspan. Which is why the computer and bringing in the digital is something that I like. It’s a way of working more in that psychic space without having it always be interpreted via my own body.

    N: Do you think of every painting as an attempt to look at or develop this sense of perceived embodied experience?

    Q: It’s also just the feeling of that disconnect, and at other times the harmonious experience of your sense of self moving through the world. I think of this idea kind of like code switching: how you are constantly aware of how your sense of self is shifting in your environment. It’s always this sort of play between occupying space versus being occupied by space; what it means to be a person that can occupy space and what it means to be a person that is occupied by space.

    N: Space not as neutral but always coded.

    Q: I don’t really adhere to this idea of neutrality. I think that everything has a presence. It’s just there are certain states of being where you’re not having to be aware of that presence because it is catered to how you move through the world.

    N: Do you meditate?

    Q: I don’t! I think it’s probably because, in the studio, if I have a real painting day, not a day that’s sort of truncated by a million meetings and things, but just a full painting day, that is what I imagine a meditative practice would be like — that moment of being in the present, which I find does not happen elsewhere in my life. Actually, it does happen a little bit now that I have a baby; it’s another time when you’re kind of like very in the moment — well, we haven’t really childproofed our home!

    N: In the past when you’ve said your work is about what it’s like to “live in a body” — this is a curious way of putting it, because it does imply a kind of inherent dualism. That there’s the container, and that there is something else, whether that’s the mind or spirit or soul. But I don’t get the sense that you believe that, right? You’re not a mind/body dualist. In fact, I’d argue your work is an attempt to demonstrate the irrelevance or the illogic of that dualism. Embodiment is a process or a practice. Like painting is a practice, and one can be more or less attuned to it. This is where we come to how you adapt or find yourself adapting to spaces or communities that you either do or don’t line up with, which is where the conversations about race and gender usually come in. But once you’re past those initial categories, there is a more universal problem, this problem of embodiment.

    Q: Those ideas of race or gender, all identity categories, they are the product of that problem, which is more universal. I think that it’s easy to function in the framework of a duality or of a binary, and I fall into that trap a lot myself, even with the language and ways that I discuss my work. But I do think that one of the reasons why I make art is because I can express these ideas through the art.

    N: I think a lot of conversations over the last five to ten years have confused what it means to recognize another subject with what it means to identify a subject and so to identify with some category of identity. Recognition just doesn’t get discussed quite as often, because it’s very easy to go to representation as the the logic of what we’re supposed to be paying attention to – what position, race, gender, sexuality, or politics are being represented. Though race and gender or sexuality are almost always mentioned in the context of your work, I think what’s interesting is that the perceptual and cognitive demands of the viewer have more to do with some process of recognition, of something becoming legible, and cognizable, rather than merely identifiable. Your figures appear as prior to any given representational category. They are pushing the boundaries of recognition, not representation. Would you agree?

    Q: I think that’s a different way of phrasing this idea if “living in a body” versus looking at a body. Living in a body is more like that recognition rather than that externalized or internalized representation. Recognition is actually going past that sort of facade of representation. That idea of representation, it still creates this dynamic that others, and it still creates a dynamic that maintains the current power structure. Because it ignores the fact that if you can easily move through the world, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t still moving through a bunch of systems that were designed to organize how you have to move within them. There are people who have not had to question their identity as much, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t a whole host of assumptions being made about them. So yes, pushing the limits of recognition while still having elements that you can easily latch onto — pattern is one and figuration is a huge one; we try to find a figure in almost anything. I’ve always felt like the figure is a foil in the paintings to talk about humanity, but using the figure just as an entry point.

    N: “Surrealism” is a word that has been used to situate your work, but I think most people toss that off with an idea that your figures might look like some of the figures they have seen in surrealist photographs or painting. Less noted is how surrealism was often an attempt to undo certain categories of thought, to break free from social constraint, or societal convention or convention in general, bourgeois subjectivity and sexual mores or what have you. There is an echo here of your trying to overcome the categorical, to unlock a way of thinking about embodiment that isn’t categorical. That uses painting and figuration, and the space of the canvas, to think up new rules of the game, rather than playing some existing game.

    Q: Where I always come from is having lived through certain identity categories that I find do exist beyond categorization, like primarily with my racial identity, and experiencing the isolation and difficulty of that position. There is this theoretical ideal of breaking down categorization that I find to be not actually livable, sustainable, or just the way we function as humans in this stage of our evolution. I think that the call for breaking down categories is one that works really well in theory, but not in practice. Being somebody that is multiracial in a system that fundamentally is not designed for that and can’t reconcile the disconnect between looking white while also identifying as a person of color – that’s just too incongruous. And I find it just leads to a great deal of alienation. Ultimately it creates this sense of not having a sense of self in a social context. Social context only undermines my sense of self. I only feel othered by camaraderie. Maybe it is more like what you’re saying, the idea of recognition is what is needed more than representation.

    I’ve actually found that whenever I do studio visits with grad students, one of the things I often will share with them is that we have this idea that in our art, that if we are too personal or too specific, too individual with what we work with in our practice, it’s going to be selfish and nobody will relate to it. So we try to be more general to appeal to more people and not feel so self-centered. And it’s whenever those general moves are made that it feels actually completely superficial and hard to access as work. I found that for my own work and for other people’s work that I’ve really been able to connect with; it’s because of tapping into this personal and individual experience that then I’m able to, I don’t know, it somehow unlocks the ability to trust.

    N: At the Hamburger Banhoff show, who is the person that you would most love to see in that set of galleries looking at your work?

    Q: I don’t know! It’s such a crazy question. In the last few years I had a conversation with Maggie Nelson and that was so cool. It’s just hard to say. I can’t answer that. It’s impossible. I mean, because…

    N: Doesn’t have to be just one person.

    Q: Well then, it’s just cool to have people spend time with your work period. I always really like talking with the security guards because they’re the ones that get to watch everyone watching. One told me that there were bunch of queer teens spending like an hour looking at my paintings. That’s really cool to me. There are obviously really impressive thinkers – it would be cool to see what Judith Butler would think of the work. Right? Let’s see what she’s got to say.

    N: So Judith Butler and Wendy Brown come to the Hamburger Banhoff…

    Q: Let’s get them there!

    N: And get into an argument about this question of figuration and performance in front of your work….

    Q: Yes! Okay. There you go. Let’s do it. You got the the connect? I think it’d be interesting to see people who have tackled this question in different ways, specifically with race and identity. For instance, Adrian Piper — it’d be cool to see what things she would say about my work. Because again, these questions aren’t static, so to think about people who are still alive who have really put forward ideas about something that isn’t static and is still changing. You get known for the moment that you first became very successful and how you discussed things. And there’s an idea that therefore you need to be held to that static standard. Most people that are able to think [like Piper] are not static people.

    N: I imagine Piper would have very interesting things to say.

    Q: For sure.

    N: But also, on the evidence, the work actually really exceeds that initial discussion.

    Q: Yes, I try to be honest with myself with that too, that these were the things that made me ask these questions when I was 15. And they were the questions that continued to propel my practice when I went to grad school. Absolutely. And even today. But we all have this adolescence of discovery. You have to start with this more adolescent way of thinking. At the end of the day I make painting. So it’s still the language I use, but I would hope I would have an ability to evolve and change. I appreciate the questions that you’ve brought forward because I think that certain types of artists get asked questions about identity all day long, and then it’s kind of like, “well, can we have a formal discussion or a historical discussion about this work?” Then other artists don’t get asked about their identity at all, and it’s like, “well, can we actually talk about their identity?” I think that would be really interesting to think more about, about their relationship to masculinity, to whiteness. That is interesting. It’s in the work. Both types of artists get shortchanged. The public gets shortchanged. It’s not that one is better than the other. It’s that one only happens with one type of artist.

    A portion of this interview was published by ArtReview Magazine as “Christina Quarles: Existing Beyond Categorization,” on May 30, 2023.

  • Refusing to look: On not seeing Cy Twombly

    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2007. Acrylic and pencil on wood panel, in artist’s frame, 104 3/4 x 79 x 2 1/2 inches. Collection of Bill Bell. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Courtesy Gagosian.

    Cy Twombly: Making Past Present
    The Getty Museum, August 2–October 30, 2022 / MFA Boston, January 14–May 7, 2023
    Cy Twombly
    Gagosian, Beverly Hills, September 15—December 17, 2022

    There are two ways of thinking about what “making past present” means in the context of Cy Twombly’s half-century as a major figure in the history of modern and contemporary art. The first is how the MFA Boston and Getty Museum mean it, which is that Twombly’s fascination with classical antiquity is what informed and energized his artistic practice from start to finish. To understand Twombly is to understand how his immersion in the fragments and fascinations of Greek and Roman culture made his work a living conduit to the “enduring” forms, figures, and stories of the ancient world. If Twombly is “about” something, this is what it is.

    The second way of thinking about it may seem more banal but is nevertheless inescapable if one cares to look closely. It is this: What makes a Twombly a Twombly, and not something else, is the presence of specific kinds of repetitions and returns. One might take that as a dismissal, but it is not. Twombly was not the first artist to hit upon a “style” and then to stick with it. But Twombly’s great feat was to acknowledge this condition, accept it sincerely, and embrace it strategically—which ultimately looked a lot like disavowing it (one could be forgiven for thinking that Twombly eschewed style itself). Nevertheless, if the great rallying cry of modernism was “Make it new!” Twombly replied more humbly, in the decadent yet waning days of the modernist moment, “Yes. Let’s make it new. Again.”

    Just consider one of the artist’s late “Gaeta” works: Untitled (2007, on view at Gagosian). It’s a “signature” Twombly to be sure. One’s first impression is of eight massive and overlapping crimson loops, painted in a backhanded motion (for a righthander, from left to right) against a cadmium yellow field. These are the same gestures that Twombly had isolated and began using systematically in the so-called “blackboard” works of the mid-1960s. In the “Gaeta” there appear to be at least two “starts,” both beginning in the lower third of the painting at the left edge, and two “ends,” one that stops against the right edge of the canvas just above the picture’s lower-right corner, and the other that travels that edge and stops just before entering the top quadrant of the painting. These pairs attest to the fact that there are two sets of strokes. Which one follows the other doesn’t matter. What matters is that there are two.

    Now look past those strokes, and what one finds is in fact two paintings, two episodes of charging the brush with crimson paint and going in for those big signature gestures that announce that this (to echo Richard Wollheim) is “painting as an art.” That first episode is painted over but not out. Even the roughly cursived “Gaeta” that signs the piece is written twice, once on top of the yellow wash (at top, just off center) and once below it (closer to the left edge, and lower). And note how certain strokes of that cursive lettering are themselves repeated: the cross of the “t”, the body and tail of the “a.” This is a work that is about temporal repetition: one could say it “thematizes” the act of doing something again, like making a mark, or painting. In more colloquial terms, it’s a rep, not a copy.

    The exhibition at Gagosian is dedicated to this second way of thinking about “making past present.” Of course, it helps that a healthy majority of the works are dated between 2002 and 2006, and thus are from the last decade of the artist’s career (Twombly died in 2011). But it is only from this vantage point that one can begin to see how repetition and returns remain conscious formal strategies rather than accidental elements of a style, or worse, cringe confirmation of an artist becoming his own cover band by endlessly repeating the old catalogue of hits.

    The best examples of this come, understandably, out of specific pairings, such as two large crimson-on-beige acrylics from 2006 (both Untitled), in which the loops from the “blackboard” and later “Gaeta” paintings are repeatedly worked out across three distinct horizontal bands. That the repetitions and returns could be separated by long stretches of time is made clear by a pair of collage-drawings made of shredded paper, acrylic, wax, crayon, and pencil which are formally and structurally similar yet separated by more than a decade (both Untitled, but 1992 and 2003).

    The campaign of red and blue crayon drawings on handmade paper from 2003 (all Untitled) could be offered up to belabor the point, as could Untitled I-VI (Green Painting) from 2002–2003, a suite of six large canvases of billiard green and thick, almost thrown-on white. But these works hazard a different read, which it is important to head off. By mid 1966, when Twombly’s repeating loops first appear as both form and content in his work, to call them examples of “seriality” would have been one way of gathering them into the avant-garde of that moment. But seriality—either via Donald Judd’s “one thing after another,” or Sol Lewitt’s “systems,” or Steve Reich’s scores—was a strategy designed to overcome time, to break it open and expand it, to make it spatial. Seriality was the dialectical backside of modernism’s desire for simultaneity, for the “all-at-once.” This is not what Twombly’s art was about, not in 1966 and not in 2006.

    To put it probably too plainly, then, time mattered to Twombly. Every drip, every scrawl, every script is a mark that embeds and encodes time, that indicates a start and a finish, and often in Twombly’s case, a start again. Furthermore, on the evidence of the work, Twombly painted and drew this way self-consciously, even self-awarely. No other painters made time the medium of their practice in the way that Twombly did.

    Time is also the reason Twombly’s sculptures don’t quite measure up. The time that he could see embedded in the antiquities he collected could not be made again, or made anew in three dimensions in quite the way that time could be embedded in his paintings and drawings. The sculptures cannot embody a “then” and “now” (and an “again”) except by way of representation or analogy. They work via the implication of certain forms or shapes or objects with particular histories. Too much of Twombly’s sculpture models, in the simplistic, scaled-down sense used in architecture, the built forms of the ancient Mediterranean world.

    In contrast, time is definitely inscribed in the fragments Twombly collected. The “fragment” itself is a temporal idea, an artifact of an event that speaks to a “whole” that is no longer. This is why the photographs of Twombly’s collections, with his arrangements of these objects in the enfilade of his apartment in Rome, are so much more satisfying than seeing the objects themselves, or at least similar ones from the Getty’s collections, juxtaposed with Twombly’s work. Every photograph is itself also a fragment, and as I have been arguing, the repetition, the fragment of a fragment in this case, is what makes a Twombly a Twombly, and so made his collecting and selecting of artifacts an integral part of his practice.

    Now, there is a more well-known story about Twombly that goes something like this: after Jackson Pollock, artists (but not all) were challenged by what it meant to wield a brush in the act of putting paint to canvas. By translating the Surrealists’ automatic writing into so many dripped and dribbled rivulets of paint, Pollock had once and for all (or once again?) freed the artist’s gesture from the work of picturing, or “representing,” and made it supposedly a direct link to the artist’s unencumbered, expressive self.

    Some artists, such as Allan Kaprow, drew the conclusion from this that all art going forward would be nothing but gestures, nothing but “happenings” (as his and others’ activities would come to be known). Other artists, Jasper Johns for example, accepted that art could henceforth only be picturing: if there was an act or gesture, it would either be inscrutable, or also, itself, pictured, which is to say taken, or targeted, or cast—an act caught in the act, if you will.

    Then there was Twombly, who took the artist’s gesture, newly freed (again) from its service to description, as an opportunity to regress. If you want the unconscious, Twombly seemed to say, if you want pure expression, I’ll give it to you, in the markings of a child, or a vandal. Not so much back to basics, but back to beginnings, to a primordial drive to establish, for oneself as much as for others, that one exists and exerts oneself by making a mark. To start, this will look like a defacement, the outcome of aggression, or a demand for recognition. But it will evolve into other kinds of gestures that bear significance: writing most of all.

    It’s a cliché by now to quibble over whether what Twombly was doing was “graffiti.” The crux of that debate has to do not with what Twombly’s marks meant but how they carried their meaning. Were they, on the one hand, referential and reverential, an expression of the artist’s mind and his great and abiding admiration for, say, the feats of Apollo (1975), or the figure of Venus (1975), or her double Aphrodite Anadyomene (1975; again in 1979)? Not really graffiti then, but, as the artist put it to Sir Nicholas Serota in 2007, something “more lyrical” and poetic, an evocation of the Classical past through the names of its players. This is how the organizers of Making Past Present understand how Twombly’s marks mean.

    Cy Twombly, Venus, 1975. Oil stick, oil paint, graphite, and paper collage on paper, 59 1/16 × 52 9/16 inches. Collection Cy Twombly Foundation © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo: Mimmo Capone.

    Moments later in that same conversation, however, Twombly says, with regard to an early painting, which he also calls “beautiful,” that, yes, “it’s graffiti, but it’s something else, too.” And so if it is graffiti, that means it’s important to accept what kind of mark that is. Graffiti is performative and invasive (some would say “violent”). One doesn’t “interpret” graffiti, like some lyric poem. One simply gets it, is hit by it. Twombly may have wanted to avoid associations with the toilet—Serota: “So does it irritate you when people talk about graffiti in relation to your work?” Twombly: “Yeah, I don’t think of graffiti and I don’t think of toilets”—but we know Twombly’s kind of mark led precisely in that direction. Witness Olympia (1957) and The Italians (1961) with their commode-appropriate scrawls. Twombly just wanted the “something else, too.”

    The point here is that Twombly’s work engages both the lyric and the low. The way to keep these simultaneously in play is never to consider one primary over the other. However, each is already a supplement, additional to the other. The challenge is to find a way of working that instantiates this dualism and makes it an animating factor of the work—a way of working, not merely representing. And this is what Twombly’s signature doubling and defacing marks make possible.

    What is more, as Twombly’s most distinguished admirer Roland Barthes put it, “the essence of graffiti is to be found in neither the inscription nor the message. The essence of graffiti is the wall, the background, the tabletop. The background, the support, has a full existence of its own as an object that already has had a life of its own, and this is why whatever is scribbled across it always comes as an enigmatic supplement.” That Twombly showed some self-awareness about this “essence” can be seen in Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) (1977; at The Getty), in which Twombly decomposes the graffiti mark, or “graphism” (to use another term favored by Barthes) by pulling it apart from its ground.

    Cy Twombly, Plato (A Painting in Two Parts), 1977. Part 1. Oil paint on canvas. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

    One “part” of Plato is pure painted background, cheekily presented as a large panel of what appears to be an ever-so-lightly-clouded blue sky—the cliché of a “backdrop” if ever there was one, like what one might find in a discount photo studio. The other “part” is a white page on which is written, in Twombly’s large clumsy capitals, “PLATO,” followed in smaller lettering by “PhAEDRUS,” “SYMPOSIUM,” and “REPUBLIC”: a short list of the named philosopher’s major works, all of which question, it would seem important to note, whether “truth” can ever arise through rhetoric, poetry, or art—whether it can ever arise, that is, through representation.

    Cy Twombly, Plato (A Painting in Two Parts), 1977. Part 2. Oil paint on canvas. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

    This is the Twombly that the MFA Boston and Getty Museum cannot admit, the Twombly for whom the past will not be made present without challenging how that presentation is made.

    Witness Christine Kondoleon (the George D. and Maro Kehrakis Chair of the Art of Ancient Greece and Rome at the MFA Boston), for whom Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) “sets forth [Twombly’s] own choices as an artist” as, on the one hand, “landscape painter” (now that would be a dismissal!) and on the other hand, as an artist committed to the “enlisting of texts” (as if these were the only options on offer). If he is a landscape painter, according to Kondoleon, then Twombly’s blue sky “recalls” nothing as much as those same skies “in Poussin’s paintings of staged classical myths—and also the color of the sky in Raphael’s frescoes at the Vatican.” If he is a writer, then Twombly’s names “trigger an intellectual exercise” that pose “for us” the “rigors of philosophy.” What Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) “does accomplish,” Kondoleon concludes, “is to suggest the immensity both of the heavens and the world of learning.”

    Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) is not a work of “immensity” by any measure; it’s a work of pique. Twombly was capable of the grand gesture, of course. The “Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves” series from 2009 is a testament to this, as are the artist’s massive “Blossom” works from a couple of years earlier. But in 1977, Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) is yet another return on Twombly’s part: an opportunity to get back to beginnings by questioning (again) the rudiments of representation and our philosophies of it. What, after all, could be less referential than a picture of the sky? In seeing the selectively historical precedents of Poussin and Raphael, in seeing the “heavens” and the “world of learning,” one simply fails to see Twombly at all.

    If I have returned to this point again it is to do two things. First, it is to keep kinship with the subject at hand, with Twombly’s incessant repetitions and returns, which are the things that most make his art what it is, his “signature” capacity to make the kind of mark that decries authorship in the same measure that it declares it, and to make time the measure of his art. Second, it is to challenge the no doubt well-meaning, but to my mind misguided, attempt to situate Twombly’s importance today in his works’ capacity to transmit the classical past to our present. The last thing we might want for Twombly’s legacy is for it to stand at once as an elegy of itself and of a desire for the “Classics,” which today are regarded by many as irrelevant (at best) and reactionary (at worst), but whose lessons remain a necessary resource for the ills of our polity.

    In an age when the capacity for the artist’s mark to carry meaning is in deep need of new thinking, and in which many contemporary artists are doing this thinking in and through “painting,” Twombly would seem to offer a nearly infinite resource, if we care to look. If all we do is see through his work to the ancients, then we lose sight of what makes Twombly necessary for seeing today.

    This piece first appeared in the November 2022 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

  • It’s Enough Just To Have No More MAGA

    A second Trump presidency would have ended the American experiment, and the exceptionalism in which I am guilty of believing

    As of this writing, which is one week after election day 2020 in the United States, more than 71.5 million people have voted for Donald J. Trump. That is 8.5 million more votes than Trump received in 2016, just about the population of New York City. It’s the second largest vote tally (one behind Joe Biden’s) in US history.

    In California, Trump took one third of the vote. California is a big state, and Trump’s third of it was around 5 million votes. In LA County, where I live, roughly one out of every four votes, more than 1 million, went to Trump – that’s larger than the population of San Francisco. It’s also 300,000 more than Trump received in 2016.

    I keep these numbers in mind when I think about Joe Biden’s victory, for which I am thankful. A second Trump presidency would have ended the American experiment, and the exceptionalism in which I am guilty of believing – of which most Americans are guilty. What is clear to me, however, is that there has been no repudiation of Trump, or Trumpism, as I and many on the left had hoped for. Very much unlike Trump, the numbers don’t lie. We cannot now lie to ourselves.

    Courtesy Flickr; Creative Commons

    Though I have only lived in Los Angeles for four years, I’ve read enough (Joan Didion, Kevin Starr, Eve Babitz, Mike Davis, and more Didion) to know that California’s deep blue politics is mostly skin deep. Subdermally it is oily with contradictions and complexities.

    One need only turn to California’s 2020 ballot measures, those exercises in direct democracy by which the people have their say on everything from constitutional amendments to voter-initiated referendums, for an effective political exfoliant.

    Six months after the killing of George Floyd and the most significant racial justice awakening in the US in three generations, and amidst broad demands that businesses and institutions, notably museums, hire and promote nonwhite people into leadership and other power positions, California’s electorate voted down a proposition (Prop 16) that would have allowed considerations of race in applications for public education and for government employment and contracts.

    Californians also said no to rent-control, corporate and commercial real-estate tax increases, and making ‘app-based’ ride services, i.e. Uber and Lyft, treat their drivers as employees, with all the benefits (health care and retirement) and liabilities (loss of control over working hours) that this entails. But Californians also said yes to granting felons full voting rights upon completion of their prison terms, expanded consumer privacy regulations, and a $5.5 billion bond offering for stem cell and other medical research.

    None of these measures reached past a 60% majority. That rung was only grasped by a measure that would have instituted stricter parole and sentencing for certain criminal misdemeanors and felonies (which failed) and one that would have subjected dialysis clinics to stricter regulation (also failed). In every other case the spreads were less than 20%, often much less, and nowhere near the 31% by which Biden won the state.

    The lesson here may be a banal one. There is no monolithic political culture, even amongst the so-called California coastal elite. California voted (barely) in favor of criminal justice reforms; it voted (barely) in favor of science funding; it voted (barely) against greater commercial regulations; it voted (barely) against race-based hiring and admissions practices.

    If I had to hazard the very likely off, or even off-putting, interpretation of these results, I would say that California is hewing to some loose or weakly held liberal individualism. It’s holding that individual agency in both work and politics matters. And that this agency must be taken seriously in the public arena – which is the arena of culture, which is the arena of art – rather than belittled as so easily overdetermined by either reductive caricatures of identity or the monied forces of persuasion – or mere regional contingency, which is why holding that “California” is holding to anything at all is, by my own logic, a stupid way of putting it.

    Courtesy Flickr; Creative Commons

    In January, Joe Biden, a seventy-seven-year-old Democrat from the state of Delaware with a four-decade career in the US Senate and two terms as Vice President of the United States under his belt will take the oath of office as President. Joining him in this endeavour will be Kamala Harris, a Californian (born 1964, Oakland) and Senator from the Golden State. Prior to her senatorial term Harris served as Attorney General of California and as San Francisco’s District Attorney. In both cases she was the first woman to do so. On 20 January, Harris will become the first woman to serve as Vice President of the United States.

    Kamala ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. When she first entered the race, I remember saying to my wife, ‘I think she’s going to win – she’s smart, she’s a cop, she’s Black, she’s South Asian, she’s young, and she’s got… style’. Kamala Harris was my early pick, my favourite. And then, like so many others, as I watched the race unfold, I grew disenchanted – too much of that oily contradiction, too much of that oily complexity. When it was time to vote in the Democratic primary election, Harris wasn’t even on the ticket. She’d ended her campaign three months earlier. But she endorsed Joe Biden. Did I mention that Harris is smart?

    I don’t expect amazing things from Biden and Harris. This wasn’t an election of ‘hope’, of ‘yes we can’, of ‘we are the future we have been waiting for’, or any of the other vacant slogans; it’s enough just to have no more MAGA; it’s enough to know that this old man and this middle-aged woman, possessors of august accomplishments and chequered records, are competent and capable – the white blood cells of the American immune system.

    11 November 2020 artreview.com Link

  • ‘Heritage and Debt’ Review – Contemporary Art and the Geopolitics of Globalization

    What David Joselit offers in Heritage and Debt (2020) is a convincing description of the global and historical dynamics that produced ‘contemporary art’ as something distinct from what preceded it. For most observers of art and its history today, that question would be answered with some combination of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘modernism’, which is not incorrect. But on Joselit’s account, that answer is both woefully incomplete and politically compromised.

    Prior to 1989, the global economic order was divided into a hierarchy (as the West saw it) of three different worlds: the advanced capitalist economies of the first, the socialist economies of the second and the developing economies of the third. Joselit’s first innovation is to identify each of these worlds with its own aesthetic ‘idiom’: a ‘modern/postmodern’ idiom for the first world, a ‘realist/mass cultural’ idiom for the second world and a ‘popular/indigenous’ idiom for the third. The first world valued its own idiom above the others, whose products it collected, or dismissed, as artefacts, decoration or kitsch.

    As a second innovation, Joselit proposes a ‘deregulation of images’ paralleling the economic deregulation that began in the West during the late 1970s, accelerated during the 1980s and went global after 1991 with the Soviet Union’s collapse and China’s rise. Joselit’s deregulation entailed postcolonial practices of indigenous artists, socialist realism from China and the USSR, and underground art from Soviet bloc countries and South America claiming equal status with first-world fine art, in both exhibitions and sales.

    What Joselit calls the ensuing ‘recalibration’ of aesthetic value and recognition is conducted through the marshalling of ‘heritage’: inherited cultural resources and properties that are available not just to those within a specific culture but to everyone. Importantly, Joselit describes ‘heritage’ as a ‘set of living traditions’ whose ‘invocations’ do not ‘inherently possess a specific political valence, either conservative or progressive’, but whose ‘potential lies in the negotiation… between heritage and perceived debts to “one’s own” cultures and those of others’. When cultural heritage is ‘synchronized’ in and with the present through strategies of ‘appropriation’, ‘pastiche’, ‘reframing’ and ‘curation’ – all definitive strategies of global contemporary artistic practice – it leads either to art’s ‘financialization’ (bad) or to new forms of ‘authorization’ (good). Either way, the dynamic of idiomatic deregulation and the synchronization of cultural heritage in the present is what produces the phenomenon, and our period, of ‘global contemporary art’.

    This is surely right. As history it integrates and coordinates the geopolitics of ‘globalization’ with diverse practices: Joselit includes close readings of Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Shahzia Sikander and Raqs Media Collective, among others. As theory it does for the ‘cultural logic’ of contemporary art what Fredric Jameson did for postmodernism. But as an ethics and politics of art practice and history it is less convincing.

    Putting aside Joselit’s hyperbolic demonisation of the market and art’s financialisation, his prescription for ‘art’s progressive politics’ ultimately turns on one favoured concept, ‘authorization’, which is too capacious to do the job meant for it: progressively minded subjects must ‘authorize’ themselves; every artwork must itself be ‘authorized’; the ‘meaning’ of images is determined by the ‘social and geopolitical conditions’ under which they are ‘authorized’ to appear; aesthetic strategies are ‘differently authorized in different parts of the world’, and so forth.

    When Joselit does explicitly state what he means by ‘authorization’, he calls it ‘a provisional situational seizure of a quantum of meaning as legitimately one’s own’ (my emphasis). One could be forgiven for thinking Joselit was talking here about Twitter or Instagram rather than laying out the programme for a ‘responsible history of global contemporary art’. The question of course is, ‘Who decides what’s legitimate, and how?’ But this goes unaddressed in Joselit’s account. ‘Legitimacy’ is a problem not just for art history and criticism. It is the crisis faced by the global north today, politically (with neoliberal democracy threatened from both right and left), socially (with the reckoning of racism and colonisation) and economically (with the rise of authoritarian capitalism). But perhaps these are questions for Joselit’s next book.

    Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization by David Joselit, published by MIT (October Books)

    Book Review 08 October 2020 ArtReview

  • The New Culture War

    Whitney Museum Kanders protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Online exclusive published on 16 August 20019

  • The Art Gallery: a cut-throat business

    Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the November 2018 issue of ArtReview

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

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

    Why Nauman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the October 2018 issue of ArtReview.

  • On Jasper Johns at The Broad

    Jasper Johns, Bridge, 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the March 2018 Issue of ArtReview.

  • On Yevgeniya Baras at The Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the March 2018 Issue of ArtReview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview

  • Power in Black and White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview.

  • Should we lament the demise of the midlist gallery?


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview

  • Goodbye to all that: three futures for the artworld


    Guangzhou skyline

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

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

    First published in the May 2016 issue of ArtReview



  • Yuri Ancarani at The Hammer Museum


    Yuri Ancarani, Il Capo [still] (2010)

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

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

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

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

    Published in ArtReview, January-February, 2015

  • Frank Stella at Marianne Boesky


    Frank Stella, Puffed Star II (2014)

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

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

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

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

    Published in ArtReview, January-February, 2015

  • Tara Donovan at Pace


    Tara Donovan, Untitled (2014)

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

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

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

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

    Published in ArtReview, September 2014.

  • Leigh Ledare at Mitchell-Innes & Nash


    Leigh Ledare, Double Bind (2010/2012)

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

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

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

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

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

    Published in ArtReview, Summer 2014.

  • Elliott Hundley at Regen Projects


    Elliott Hundley, It Will End (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

    Published in ArtReview, Summer 2014.