Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


September 9, 2009
The art world keeps us perpetual children in that we never lose that “back-to-school” feeling as we look forward to September’s first openings with both dread and excitement. Do you have your clothes laid out?

Anne Truitt, Pith, 1969

This season, however, got an early start with Glenn Beck’s debut as an art critic, which would be hilarious if there weren’t those out there who take him seriously. But why do we need Glenn Beck when we have our own Charlie Finch, who approaches his subjects with similar breathy astonishment and twisted logic? Consider his passive-aggressive Artnet piece (entitled “Mother-in-law”) on the late Anne Truitt’s upcoming survey at the Hirshhorn, where he mixes grudging admiration for her work (“The Hirshhorn retrospective should vault her into a special pantheon of her own, one which she occupied in privacy during her own life and in public now that her work belongs to the world”), with obvious glee at finally having an opportunity to get back at the bitch.

Anne Truitt, Hardcastle, 1962

Not to speak of being sexist while pretending to be critical of those who were. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Finch starts out by saying, “She was the driest, most detached person I had yet encountered, so removed that she toasted us young newlyweds at our reception by remarking that ‘it is like watching them go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.’" Hmmm. Far from being detached and removed, it sounds as if Truitt was nothing but present and prescient, feeling as any parent might on the occasion of her daughter being married to this guy.

In true Glenn Beck-like fashion, the revengeful son-in-law randomly weaves together biographical non sequiturs to make Truitt sound like a nut job: “She was obsessed with Alexander the Great, kept a picture of her Indian guru, whom she had never met, on her kitchen wall, and, at one point, conspired with other powerful Washington wives to drug their husbands’ cocktails with LSD in order to end the Vietnam War, though this plot was probably never realized.” Oooh! A picture of a guru on her wall! That she’d never met! As for the LSD plot, I’d like to see it properly footnoted. And God help me if some future biographer ever finds out how many books I’ve read on Elizabeth I.

Or how, in the studio, “she was painstaking to a fault” (to a fault?) and that one sculpture “marks the beginning of a self-enforced calm” as if she was barely able to keep the lid on.

Anne Truitt, Bloomsday, 1962

Finch’s sexism can be found in the order of things: “In the politics of art, she had helped Morris Louis' widow unroll his canvases, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Kenneth Noland and was championed as an original by Clement Greenberg.” How differently these examples would read in reverse.

And here: “In addition to her large and adoring family, Anne was also the product of some especially fecund friends, in the thinking sense….” She was the product? Can you imagine saying that Donald Judd (or any male artist) was the product of his adoring family and, by implication, his obviously smarter friends? Or mentioning that he had helped unroll a peer’s canvases as a major life detail?

And finally there’s the insistence on tying the work with the personality and minimizing it by association with bits of biographical trivia as in “each is also a tribute to a specific relationship in her life” or that a certain sky-blue sculpture “represents a certain innocence and clothing color worn by the daughter I married” –this of a an artist who wrote in her memoir Daybook (published in 1982 and still in print) that it was “an essence rather than objects that held me, so I find it is only the abstract part of my experience that is real for me “(p.164) and that she wished “to set color free for its own sake” (p.89).

Loose biographical interpretation (which, in the art world, can sometimes be as fanciful as Beck’s diatribe) is cheap art criticism, the fall-back of critics and curators who don’t know any other way (how about observation?) to approach a work of art. For in the end what’s important is not how it got there, but what it is.

Anne Truitt in her Washington studio, 1962 (all images from
August 31, 2009

I know, I know, I’m still supposed to be on vacation, and for me vacation is all about reading. For several days, except for an occasional swim, I did nothing but sit in a lounge chair by the lake at my friend Amy’s summer cabin in New Hampshire and read. It was a book a day, choosing from the stack I’d brought as well as the plethora that have accumulated in the house over the years. Best was re-reading Michael Frayn’s brief novel The Trick of It (I provided a link, but the review is a spoiler), so gorgeously observant and funny that I, as a writer, was seething with envy. Worst was Anita Shreve’s plodding, lifeless Body Surfing, which I ultimately threw in the trash.

While, as a child, I considered school nothing more than an irritating interruption in my reading, I hated every book my teachers assigned—to this day cannot get through Moby Dick, and A Tale of Two Cities remains the only Dickens I don’t adore. That’s why this article from the Times, “The Future of Reading / A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like” was enough to get me away from my current book to write this post. It’s amazing that we’re in the year 2009 and the idea of allowing children to follow their interests is still revolutionary. I think the root of the problem is that we don’t trust children to be intelligent, to choose well for themselves, to be persistent, or to learn without adult assistance. And yet children are nothing but persistent—when they’re interested.

Of course the other thing I did as a child was draw and paint—and I hated that in school, too, where the teachers were always trying to get me to paint objects, instead of the “besigns” (as I called them) I preferred. And in 2009, I’m appalled to say, I can still walk into some college art classrooms and find still-life arrangements of dried up plants in dusty wine bottles, or pears on a plate, as one might have seen 100 years ago. Nature morte indeed.

Keeping in mind that the success of any endeavor is directly proportionate to the level of interest brought to it, when I taught Fundamentals of Painting at Bennington College (an institution that also encourages its faculty members to follow their interests), while we touched on abstraction, landscape, still-life and portraiture, with each I insisted that the students be in charge of their subject matter. I mean, really, wouldn’t you be more motivated depicting a friend, a family member, a lover or the guy with the curious face at the convenience store, than some model? And how do you know how far you can go with anything if you’re not bringing all you have to it? It’s also a way of marrying content with execution, as it should be, from the very beginning.

And…and…and…but enough! With that rant, my hiatus from my hiatus is over. Back to my book.
August 21, 2009
Unless overwhelmed by a sudden desire to post, Art Vent is on vacation for the next couple of weeks.
August 15, 2009
The other day, thrilling to the new Silversun Pickups while driving on the Mass Pike to Boston, I found myself wishing that I could get the same feeling from art—the exhilaration, the physical surge in the chest—that happens when I hear great music. Roberto and I were on our way to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to finally catch Shepard Fairey’s show, “Supply and Demand,” before its closing tomorrow. My attempts to attend the winter opening were foiled by the weather, the following months were filled with travel and constant precipitation, so now—rain or no rain—we were making the two–hour drive.

What did I expect? Well I was a big fan of Shepard Fairey’s graphic work, and I’ve always been captivated by the way graffiti and street art in general can add (as in this photo I recently took in Reykjavik) a layer of poetry to the gritty urban landscape.

As consultant, I was enamored enough to suggest Fairey to TIME for the 2007 “Person of the Year” cover of Putin (it ultimately ran on the inside, and he did a new image of Obama for 2008’s cover) and loved his iconic Obama poster, the way it captured the spirit of the man, the campaign and the times, and how simply beautiful it was. I also admired Fairey’s philosophy—in the ridiculous brouhaha over his appropriation of the AP image of Obama (exacerbated by a news media that insists on reproducing the AP photograph not as it originally appeared but as Fairey cropped it) hardly anyone has pointed out that Fairey never intended the image as a money-maker, but made it available for free on his Web site.

However I’d also read Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker review, where he described the work in the show as “formulaic,” “slick and resistible,” and Christopher Knight’s review in the LA Times that talked about Fairey’s “limited pictorial vocabulary.”

Therefore I was not prepared for Art with a capital A, or a rush similar to the one I’d just gotten from the Silversun Pickups—or to find that most everyone I talked to afterwards who’d seen the show shared my enthusiasm, including a museum administrator who put it in the top five of museum shows she’s seen…ever.

It was gorgeous.

Photographs cannot reproduce the nuance, depth and complexity of Fairey’s surfaces. Clearly his inspiration comes from the street—the way peeling posters can reveal chance fragments from earlier ones, or how signs painted on the sides of buildings often wear away to expose a jumble of previous messages—yet the result is elegant and sophisticated, as well as soft and sensual. Further, Fairey wrests all this texture and nuance from what every artist knows is the most hard-edged and unforgiving of media: silkscreen.

What I want from art is that perfect marriage of concept and execution, both so fully developed that, as viewers, we are aware of neither, but powerfully in the experience. Yet I hardly ever find it—so much of what is offered seems half-realized, as if the artist is afraid to take a stand, afraid to actually make something, afraid to commit him/her self fully to an image, an object. Execution is either overdone relative to the flimsiness of the idea, or too casually rendered, as if the idea in itself should be enough. I want to see work that holds up from afar but gives me something to look at up close. I want to see art that looks as if the artist cares.

Packed with complexity and contradiction as well as humor, Fairey’s work does all these things. We stay with his messages about money, power and war because they are embedded in a richness of visual detail, the sumptuous mélange of influences (Russian Constructivism, Middle Eastern art, Pop Art, official engravings such as paper money and stamps, advertising, to name a few) that adds up to his very singular style.

It felt like a feast.

Afterwards we gave the permanent collection a run-through, but following Fairey everything seemed tepid and flat. Then, after a delicious lunch on the windy outdoor terrace overlooking the Charles, we went through the exhibition again. I attempted to get a press kit, images for this blog and to present for reviews, and to find out if the show is traveling, but was told that the administrative, curatorial and press staff were all on vacation that Thursday afternoon and photographs, even by press, were prohibited. (Photography prohibited? In a Shepard Fairey exhibition? )

We’d intended to augment our Boston visit with a stop at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum and some fabulous seafood dinner, but decided instead to just get back in the car and drive home.

We were full.

All Shepard Fairey images borrowed from the Web, by necessity.

Silverson Pickups' "Panic Switch"
August 9, 2009
Carrots from my garden:

This morning on my bike ride, I watched as a little white dog, no humans present, herded about 100 big woolly sheep and a bunch of lambs to a more verdant part of the pasture where they immediately chowed down, each contributing to a steady, contented crunching sound that was audible even over the crickets. If the makers of white noise machines wanted to add another comforting sound to their repertoire
(ocean waves, bubbling brook, rain, country evening, etc.) , they could include that of munching sheep. This one looks as if she's never seen an iPhone:

August 8, 2009

Yesterday was son Matt’s birthday and on October 16th, he and Michelle Nishikawa will be married at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. This is their account of the proposal, which I lifted from the wedding Web site:

When Michelle and Matt got engaged, well, let's just say it was a surprise... To her, that is. Here's how it all went down:

It was June 20th, one day before Michelle's birthday. Michelle was feeling haggard, coming back from her gastronomic pilgrimage to El Bulli, having made a 16-hour journey from Barcelona. Of course, that's when Matt decided to pop the "big question." He put on a dark suit paired with his Royal Elastics hightops, went to LAX's International Terminal and stood alongside the limo drivers holding signs emblazoned with the names of clients that they were picking up. Matt was also holding a sign; however, his sign read "Michelle!!! Will you MARRY ME?"

A woman saw Matt holding the sign, ran up to him and said "Yes!"

Michelle, meanwhile, saw Matt through the glass doors leading out from U.S. Customs, and was puzzled by his wardrobe. When, pushing a heavy luggage cart, Michelle finally exited, she saw the sign and promptly went into shock. Overcoming her initial puzzlement that her boyfriend was now a limo driver and the fact that she probably needed an Altoid, she rushed up to Matt and said "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Both began to cry. One strange man repeatedly told Michelle to stop crying, while another kind stranger helpfully pointed out she was turning red. At this point, Matt informed camera-shy Michelle that the proceedings were being caught on video: he had enlisted the couple's good friend Richard to be videographer, although Rich got excited and hit pause instead of record when Michelle first saw the sign. Rich did, however, get his wits together by the time Matt got down on his knees and officially asked Michelle to marry him, slipping a gleaming ring on her finger to an uproarious ovation from the surrounding crowd (except for the one mean lady who was mad that Michelle was blocking her way to the crosswalk).

The ring was my grandfather Carroll A. Haines's diamond pinky ring, which he's wearing in the photo below, taken by my father. It fits Michelle perfectly.

August 5, 2009

The rain has given us a break for the past two days—was threatened for today, but hasn’t happened so far—and now we have mosquitoes the size of helicopters. Last night in the garden, taking out the pea vines and replacing them with zucchini plants, an entire fleet landed on my ear. Even though I’ve sprayed it with so much Benadryl the afflicted organ is now stuck to my head, the urge to scratch it takes up nearly all my attention. With what little brain space I have left over, I will attempt to write a little about L.A., where the sun was out all the time and there were NO MOSQUITOES.

I said I didn’t want to go see art (“I’m here to see you”) but son Matt insisted and anyone who knows Matt knows that when he insists, it’s futile to protest. Besides he was right, as he usually is.

Our first stop was
Oh, and the chilled soup I got at the museum cafe in the courtyard. You can try this at home: beet puree mixed with watermelon juice and a touch of finely chopped mint. Perfect!