Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


December 15, 2012
The author, working up an appetite

I just can't get into the radical masquerade that the art world is.

That’s a Martha Rosler’s garage sale at MoMA. This week I’ll reinforce my curmudgeon status with a non-response to Ann Hamilton’s installation in the vast Parade Hall at the Park Avenue Armory. Like Rosler, Hamilton is somewhat sanctified, protected by an aura of profundity she has cultivated, or has been cultivated for her, over the years.

I won’t describe the installation – this is not a review – except to say that it concerns a long white curtain that bisects the space, wooden swings on chains that cause the curtain panels to move when visitors swing on them, live white doves incarcerated in wicker basket/cages stacked on a table where a man and a woman attired in feathered capes are reading something, and packages twee-ly wrapped with brown paper and twine scattered here and there, containing speakers that emit voices. The real star is the room.

Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Oh I know, I could have made more of an effort. I could have listened more closely to the readings and relayed voices (were they the same?). I could have spent more time on the swings. I could have tried to figure out how the newsprint broadsheet of fuzzy photographs contributes to the whole.

Or I could go to lunch.

No doubt I'll be roundly criticized for dismissing something I haven’t fully explored—except I believe it’s the artist’s responsibility to engage me, not the other way around. I have no compunction about putting down a book halfway through, and if, in the middle of a play or concert, I find myself doing eye exercises or worrying about my bills, I don’t blame myself. I don’t underestimate the power of really great art to sweep me away. I think about how I once had a massive migraine that miraculously disappeared during a performance of Taming of the Shrew in Central Park with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep. Or the time my boy friend and I had a colossal fight on the way to see an early Cirque du Soleil, and went home in love. I could go on and on…Christian Marclay’s The Clock (which I finally left after 2 ½ hours only because I had to pee), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s genius Pandemonium at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at the Tate Modern (in an even more humungous space)....concerts by Sigur Ros…yes, such experiences are few and far between, but why lower the bar? Why should I spend my time trying to figure out what an artist is trying to convey, when I could be eating a splendid lamb tagine at Café Mogador?

As my friend, Roberto, observed so accurately in the taxi on our way downtown: I’m fatigued by the expectation of the system that I’ll play along completely.

I also don’t think that birds should have to suffer for art, any more than I should.

December 7, 2012
From Martha Rosler's Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA

When is radical art not radical? When it’s a Meta-Monumental Garage Saleat MoMA. No one, including me, wants to get on Martha Rosler’s case, because her intentions are so good. She’s a feminist who’s against war and into exposing the falsities of the gallery/museum system—nothing I wouldn’t whole-heartedly agree with. Except, instead of satisfying an “enduring taste for subversion” (see the New Yorker article), Rosler’s MoMA venture (November 17-30) was just another case of bullshit masquerading as art. “Subversion” would be if I got a cart and attempted to sell used T-shirts on the sidewalk in front of MoMA or, God forbid, in the lobby—an event that would immediately reveal just how tolerant the museum really is of purveyors of second-hand shit on their premises. The only reason Rosler gets to sell stuff at MoMA and Joe Schmo doesn’t, is because she knows how to navigate the museum system—and by doing so blatantly exposes herself as a player in the exclusive milieu she’s made a career of railing against.

“The Garage Sale [says the MoMA press release]…implicates visitors in face-to-face transactions within a secondary, informal cash economy—just like [my italics] garage sales held outside a museum setting.” You gotta be kidding. Rosler’s Garage Sale was as much like a real garage sale as Lindsay Lohan is like Elizabeth Taylor. First of all, it was stylized and artificial – from the giant American flag on the wall to the tags, cutesy signs, and arrangements of goods that were clearly the work of an artist pretending to have a garage sale (for instance if someone bought something that was tacked to the wall, they had to wait until the event was over to collect it, so as not to disturb the display). Further, it was in a museum and the visitors who paid $25 to experience it did not look like people who would normally consider incorporating second-hand items into their lives – in other words, they were slumming.

I get pissed off when the art world plays at – and therefore mocks – the lives of others, especially “suburbia” and the now mythical “middle class.”  If I see one more arty photograph of a supposedly anonymous ranch house I’ll scream. 

However buying and selling second hand-items—i.e. “junk” – is what some people do for a living. They know where to find the stuff, how to price and sell it. It’s how they get by.

Others are forced to sell their belongings in order to raise cash to pay the mortgage or next month’s rent. As for the buyers, there are people out there who wear second-hand clothing not for a lark, but because it’s only way they can afford to cover their backs.

But garage sales as the iconic activity of the suburban not-desperate are about excess, accumulations of stuff that have to be regularly purged.

Therefore, to invite members of the elite to paw through over-priced discarded items seemed remarkably insensitive, not the least because of its timing—immediately following Hurricane Sandy, when the belongings of so many were reduced to just such piles, only logged with water.

But, it was pointed out to me, this exhibition was planned years ago. So what? It’s conceptual art. If Warner Brothers can remake scenes from a multimillion-dollar film in the wake of a theater shooting, why can’t art, especially conceptual art, respond to the times? As I suggested below, Rosler could have donated everything and left the atrium empty, as the hurricane left so many homes empty.

Again, I’m really tired of accumulations of detritus in all its forms pretending to be art, like Karen Kilimnik or Song Dong, the Chinese artist who laid out his mother’s possessions at MoMA in 2009 and recently at London’s Barbicon. Could we please just make something for a change? Or at the very least, attempt to transform it, as Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt does so beautifully in his work, now at MoMA/PS1.

There's nothing about "institutional critique" that a great work of art doesn't do better.    Toward that end, Olafur Eliasson's swinging fan in MoMA's atrium said it all.

Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator, 1997: Photo by C-Monster
November 18, 2012

Crescent moon over New York, 11/17/12

Yesterday I saw the final performance of The Tempest, a new opera by British composer Thomas Adès at the Met. The synchronicity was not lost on me that last year Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, about Gandhi and peaceful protest, coincided with the height of Occupy Wall Street, while this, about a hurricane, came in the wake of Sandy. I suggest we look carefully at what the Met has scheduled for next year.

Before heading Uptown, over lunch I read Randy Kennedy’s article in the Times about Martha Rosler’s upcoming Garage Sale in the MoMA atrium, which will be just that—a garage sale. It’s my rule never to conjecture (at least in public) about something I haven’t seen, but just this once I’m compelled to ask: “What can I expect to get from this experience that will make it worth my while?”  


Because the reason I go see art or music, or the occasional sports event for that matter, is not to be entertained (I’m enough entertainment for myself on my own), but to experience human endeavor at its peak. I often find that in comparison with other fields—anyother fields—the art world accepts too much that’s half-realized, half-executed or both. It’s not that I’m opposed to conceptual art (hey, one of my best friends is a conceptual artist!) or, after experiencing the tour de force that was Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, even “relational aesthetics.”  But a garage sale in that MoMA space? I wonder how many people could be inveigled into buying tickets for a pickup basketball game at Madison Square Garden?


Not that The Tempestis the best opera ever written—far from it. The abbreviated libretto—what’s left after you eviscerate the wit, drama, and rich language from the original—is like Shakespeare on cue cards. The only funny line comes when the shipwrecked nobles first see Caliban and cry, “A monster! A local!” The music is similarly ho-hum, with no emotional peaks and valleys or urgency; Prospero, as a character, isn’t developed enough to rate even an anguished aria. Yet, OMG, there’s so much wondrous stuff to see: people struggling against the sea, appearing and disappearing through slits in rippling fabric onto which a roiling ocean is projected; a lithe, bejeweled Ariel who makes sounds in an impossibly high register while gamboling in the treetops with the moves of a gymnast; sinewy dancers, opulent costumes, exquisite lighting and sets that never once make you question why a room with baroque balconies should happen to be on a desert island. Not to speak of Isabel Leonard as the innocently voluptuous Miranda, who steals the stage just by being on it.

So back to.…oh, yeah, a garage sale at MoMA. I guess now that I’ve written about it, it’s essential that I see it. But after this could we please have a moratorium on art that depends on accumulations of detritus? I’m so over it. 

Note: As pointed out in the comments, the timing of this exhibition, when so many have lost so much, is extremely unfortunate. I recommend that the whole be donated to Sandy victims and the empty atrium space be seen as a hurricane memorial. If art were truly conceptual, it would be flexible in this way.

November 13, 2012

Today I read in The Guardian that Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford Universitythinks mankind could be getting dumber:

In two articlespublished in the journal Trends in Genetics, the scientist lays out what might be called a speculative theory of human intelligence. It is, he admits, an idea that needs testing, and one that he would happily see proved wrong.

 At the heart of Crabtree's thinking is a simple idea. In the past, when our ancestors (and those who failed to become our ancestors) faced the harsh realities of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the punishment for stupidity was more often than not death. And so, Crabtree argues, enormous evolutionary pressure bore down on early humans, selecting out the dimwits, and raising the intellect of the survivors' descendants. But not so today.

To which I add, “No kidding!” The first example of this would be scientists, like the above, who only believe in empirical data—i.e. test results—when, if they’d just open their eyes, they’d see the evidence all around them. Now I’m not just talking about Donna, the North Dakota resident now infamous on Facebook, who called in to a radio stationto suggest that deer-crossing signs be moved to less trafficked areasalthough  I’m willing to bet that Donna is employed and has an actual job somewhere, no doubt in customer service.
Instead, show me a test group bigger than the 58,899,127 million people who voted in the Presidential election for a candidate who demonstrated on national television that he didn’t know where Iraq was. Forget reproductive rights, economics, gun control, missing tax returns, and Paul Ryan’s suits—this is a man who could not geographically locate one of the most diplomatically important countries in the world. What were those voters thinking? Were they just going on trust that there would be someone on his staff who did know where Iraq was?

And now the big news following the election is that the head of the CIA has stepped down because an illicit affair has come to light—yes, folks, you heard it right—the head of the CIA could not keep his own affair secret! Is that not proof enough?

However, while it’s not fashionable to bash him at the moment, it’s obvious that all of our ills—the economy, two major wars, George Bush, everything—stems from Bill Clinton’s un-smart decision not to keep his pants zipped while an intern was in the room. You can bet that if, a couple thousand years ago, he was the chief of a tribe somewhere and saw a rhino coming at him, he’d have the sense to run away.

November 12, 2012

Jim Kempner Fine Art, corner 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue, 11/9/12.

I never want to post unless I have something to say – and now what I have to say is that I have nothing to say. The posts I prepared the week before and the week before last—before the hurricane and the election—now seem irrelevant, like documents of another era. I mean, do we really care anymore if Wade Guyton’s work can be considered “painting” or not? (Actually I never did care.) The New York art world, its galleries and artists hard hit by Sandy, is unmoored, floating in a sea of garbage with no certain future.  Much as I railed against its excesses, smugness and stupidities, without Chelsea up and running, I feel unplugged.

            Jake, a former art student and Chelsea art handler turned Berkshire butcher said, “Maybe this is the shakeup the art world needed.” And it’s true, whenever the art world gets a shake, something new appears.

            Friday in Chelsea I found only one gallery open—Von Lintel, which was untouched by the storm. When I asked Von Lintel what this meant for the future of Chelsea as an art center, he said it was over long before the storm, with landlords asking $60,000 a month for 5,000 s.f. of ground floor space. He said art dealers, including himself, are considering moving to the Lower East Side, but Hudson of Feature, Inc. tells me there isn’t that much available real estate left there, and that the spaces are small. Now that people have finally figured out that it’s only two subway stops away, my guess is that Long Island City is next.

            You know how, when you’ve been on a long-distance train, you can wake in the night and feel as if you’re still on it? That’s how I feel about the election; I’m still caught up in it, even though it’s over. What did I do before? I can’t even remember, but I know I wasn’t combing the Internet every five minutes. And then there’s the disconnect of being in SoHo elbow-to-elbow with manic shoppers (where do they all come from?), while not that far away, people are struggling just to stay warm and alive in the wake of the storm.

            I think I’m traumatized by numbers: those $60,000-a-month rents, or that a person would have $70 million dollars laying around to contribute to a political campaign—and that it’s legal. But what really boggles my mind (this is old news, but I’m still getting over it) is that someone would fork over $120,000 million for a piece of cardboard, one of several versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I know, that sounds heretical; I’m supposed to believe in the power of art, but there’s a limit.

* * *

Two terrific articles on The Scream by Jerry Saltz and Blake Gopnik, and Jon Stewart on Karl Rove and Fox News’s meltdown, in case you can’t get enough.

And this painting by Jules de Balincourt at Salon 94, just because I like it:

  • Jules de Balincourt, Illuminated, 2012
  • Oil, oil stick, spray paint, and acrylic on canvas
  • 96 × 96 inches (244 × 244 cm)
    October 13, 2012

    Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1982
     ©The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc

    Jerry Saltzon Facebook, yesterday:

    We now have this enormous top-heavy operational apparatus… a hundred art fairs and international biennials, galleries growing larger as artists work in smaller spaces, skyrocketing prices during a worldwide economic contraction. The art world’s reflexes are shot; its systems so predetermined that they’re driving us; we’re no longer driving them. The system is less susceptible to paradox, discovery, ambiguity, and all the exquisite deviations and orphic oddness that brought us to art in the first place.

    ….The system may be too big NOT to fail. It is telling us what we already know: A crystal is cracked. It is time for mutinies, forging new topographies and plotting other courses."

    Artists are famous for pioneering new territory, making places like SoHo, TriBeCa, Williamsburg, etc. so attractive that they’re driven out by the moneyed interests. However now it’s bigger than that; while we were sleeping, they co-opted the entire art world and made it one big hedge fund. 

    In Chicago last week, a collector friend asked me what’s going on in art, what’s good, what’s happening, and I couldn’t begin to answer him. What’s good? From whose point of view? Mine? Gagosian’s? Sotheby’s? And does it matter? The machine that is the art world is going to run regardless of whether I, Saltz, or anyone who really thinks about art, finds it important. As in current politics, the truth is meaningless and history never happened. So what if another artist did the same thing better yesterday or ten years ago, or is doing it better now in some loft in Cleveland. Like everything else, when things become corporatized, the emphasis changes; it’s no longer about building a better mousetrap, but how many mousetraps can we sell?

    Back in the day, the value of contemporary art was determined by an intangible, but nonetheless fairly reliable, aesthetic consensus of artists, writers, inspired dealers, curators, and collectors crazy enough to spend money on the art they loved—with no prospect of a return, as the secondary market was reserved for dead artists. Now value is determined by how long you can keep the ball (or “spot” in the case of Damien Hirst) in the air. Other than generators of product, artists aren’t part of the game. Nor are critics, whose insistence on analyzing and qualifying is beginning to appear superfluous at best, and at worst, downright annoying.

    How great is the divide? Example: Richard Prince’s work sells for millions, yet not one artist of my acquaintance cared enough to see his 2007 Guggenheim retrospective (I did, but only because my press pass got me in for free), and Peter Schjeldahl wrote of him: “An adept of juvenile sarcasm, like Prince, is well advised not to invite comparisons with grownups.”

    Often compared to the tulip craze that took over Holland in the 1600s, one wonders if the speculative art bubble will burst once investors find it's filled with hot air, when the tide turns from Hirst, Prince and Koons to….? (Whatever happened to those Chinese artists who were so hot a few years ago?) Even the seemingly grounded market in Warhols could be upset when the Andy Warhol Foundation (whose Creative Capital grant is supporting this blog) disperses its collection.

    What could unravel even sooner is the art school pyramid. For a couple of decades, students have been willing to take on loans of $20,000 to $30,000 a year to get a degree that would supposedly net them a tenure track teaching position worth upwards of $50,000 a year. Now, however, that 75% of those jobs are being filled by adjuncts making an average of $2700 per course, with many, like Walmart employees, having to rely on food stamps, it seems unlikely that academia will maintain its appeal for long.    

    Meanwhile, what’s an artist to do? Saltz says it: mutiny, forge other topographies, plot other courses…in other words, make history once again. Think the Salon des Refuses, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, New York’s Downtown Scenein the 80s….This is not the first time artists have had to take things into their own hands—and they will. 

    An addendum, following the comments of friends on Facebook, some of whom found merit in Prince and Koons, although I'm glad to say no one defended Hirst. That, however, is not the point. While I have no interest in Prince, I do like some Koons, and I adore Richter, who is a daily inspiration and, for me, completely deserving of his fame. However, outside of seminal historic pieces, to assess ANY work of art, even Richter’s, at millions of dollars, or even a million, is to indulge in pure speculation. No longer engaged in questions of artistic merit, every institution, from museums to art magazines, is swept up in this wild game of chance being played out by people with too much money. There were probably some pretty gorgeous tulips during the tulip craze, which is no doubt what set the whole thing off, but what happened ultimately had nothing to do with tulips.
    October 10, 2012

    Oskar Fischinger, 4 images

    Yesterday a new website called, hyped as a Pandora for art lovers, was announced in the Times. Only time will tell if this is a boon or expensive misuse of the Internet. The distinctions that make art great are subtle; for instance, I like art that still keeps me guessing even after I’ve seen it a million times. How does a computer find a “genome” for that?

    It also assumes that the medium is the first leveler so, for example, if I “like” Christian Marclay, I must therefore “like” video as a medium, which is SO not the case, just as I would never type “Iron and Wine” into Pandora because I would then find myself listening to (eek!) folk music.

    Further, the best and worst thing about visual art is that it often doesn’t come through on the computer screen; you have to be there, in front of it, to get the impact. A great example of this is the current digital work of Gerhard Richter I’ve been going on about, which has a lot of zing in person but looks deadly on Marian Goodman’s website. Isn’t this the ultimate irony? A digital product that doesn’t translate in digital? Surprise!—scale actually means something! And just as “silence” was a “sound” to John Cage, surface is meaningful even when it’s flat.

    So will the artists who succeed in the future make work with an eye to computer reproduction OR, unlike sex, will visual art continue to be, like food, one of the few experiences where actual contact remains essential?

    Oddly enough, however, the explosion of information on the Internet hasn’t extended fully to art. For starters, neither Art in America nor Artforum has an online archive. No wonder art students don’t seem to know anything about what’s gone on in the last 20-30 years—there’s no place for them to find out about it unless they go to a brick and mortar library, which is not how they’re used to doing research.  And why should they have to? In the past there were online resources, at least for recent articles, but they’ve disappeared.  Some angel should take this on.

    Also surprisingly, museums, even more than private galleries, are woefully stingy with online information for both visitors and writers.  If they’re not going to allow photography, which is the rule at almost all museums except MoMA,then the least they could do is provide images online so visitors can refer back to what they saw, people who haven’t attended the exhibition can see what they’re missing, and when the exhibition is over, there’s an online archive.

    Museums could also put the wall text online—why not? It’s hardly an expensive proposition. I was recently apprehended by guards at the Whitney for taking photos of the text panels (I’m not kidding!) for Oskar Fischinger(click here to see the sum total of the online info about it) but kept snapping away because I had a review to write and that was the only way to get the information, at least in a timely manner. Of course I could email the Press Office and wait to see if they’d send me a PDF, but why make it so difficult?—not only for press, but for the public. These aren’t state secrets, but information that’s in their best interest to share.

    As for check lists of everything in museum exhibitions, including titles, dates, sizes, etc. – these appear to be things of the past. I requested one from the Art Institute of Chicagobut gave up after a flurry of emails—“press release” being the only language they speak.

    Back in the olden days I’d be sent a thick packet that included check lists, complete bios and Xeroxes of previous reviews and catalog essays, as well as slides (remember them?) covering the bulk of the exhibition I was writing about. Now I’m referred to the website where even the press area, which requires special access, offers only a modicum of images and the lonely press release, which is often too cursory to be helpful. The Fischinger press release didn’t even make mention of the music, by Varese and Cage, which accompanies the films. That information is simply not available online, although the Tate Modern, which showed the piece in the spring, at least offers background information on Fischinger, at Tate etc.  I will happily consult with any museum that wants to improve their online and press offerings! Just ask!

    October 1, 2012

    Gerhard Richter, 1024 Colours (1974), enamel on canvas, 96 cm x 96 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 356-1

    Karen Rosenberg in her review: 

    What’s important to know here is that it [Gerhard Richter’s process of digitally deconstructing an image one of his scraped paintings] eventually produces a field of thin colored bands, which Richter then prints, slices, and rearranges manually (as you might shuffle cards) and re-photographs.

    NOT so. The first part of the process, the digital deconstruction, might be random (although not entirely, as he is working with an image he created after all, and has also devised the system), but the last part is not. It has been documented that Richter very carefully composed these pieces, saying that otherwise they’d look like wallpaper.

    Critics—even when they get their facts right – often do not understand how “chance” (Richter commentator Benjamin Buchloh’s word, when he’s not saying “aleatory”) plays into the making of a work of art, and they make much more of it than artists do. When you read Buchloh, it’s almost as if he interprets this aspect of Richter’s work as indicating that Richter doesn’t care, is not emotionally involved in the outcome and has no formal concerns – when the opposite is the case.

    Artists, however, know that “chance,”  “accidental,” and even “aleatory” events are an essential part of their process, and consciously or unconsciously build in opportunities for them to happen. If we didn’t, if we could control everything to the point that we knew exactly how it would turn out, there would be no point in doing it; why undertake the experiment if you know from the outset what will happen? It often seems as if critics don’t understand that ours is a process of investigation that involves more than the simple making of things. That’s why I prefer the word “random” over Buchloh’s “chance” (“random” is about eliminating definite aim, while “chance” sounds like dumb luck) – but even more apt would be “unexpected.” We make art because it keeps us in a constant state of surprise—for better or worse. When we use intuition instead of logic, when we allow for the unexpected, trust the unexpected, it becomes a collaboration with unseen forces. I could be crucified in the art world for saying this, but it often feels like prayer.