Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Christian Marclay. Jerry Saltz

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

May 29, 2012
I’m in Barcelona where, for me, the highlight is the best hot chocolate in the world. Known as un suisin Catalan, this is smooth, barely liquid chocolate topped with an equal mound of whipped cream. These perfect opposites—hot and cold, black and white, dense and airy, bitter and sweet—come together in a delectable marriage on your tongue. “Like yin and yang,” says my friend, who won’t allow me to name the café because she doesn’t want it to become more overrun than it already is. Thus far, I’ve been there every day.

And so my love/hate relationship with contemporary art continues. After the previous post about my visit to Chicago, a Facebook friend wrote: “Strong feelings of ambivalence are an indication of deep involvement. Sounds like perhaps you need to choose more judiciously what to see?”

Yes, and no. I want to keep an open mind, and there’s nothing I like better than to have my prejudices overturned, as they were when I realized I liked (some of) Damien Hirst’s spots. I can’t help having opinions, so must constantly guard against turning into one of those loathsome people who spout about things they haven’t seen. However we should keep the question open until after my visit to the Hirst retrospective at the TateModern next week. One thing I know is that, after going to Barcelona’s SWAB fair on Saturday, in the interest of sanity, I should avoid art fairs altogether. At least I got to have a chocolate afterward.

Rather than “young,” the art at SWAB should have been billed as “immature”— adolescent scribbling like you wouldn’t believe. Or maybe you would. Luckily, however, as in Chicago, my inevitable tailspin was mitigated by later seeing spare, graceful, very grown up art, this time Rita McBride at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art(MACBA). While the MACBA building is another example, like the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, of harsh white walls and architectural hubris run amok (here that of Richard Meier), every exhibition I’ve seen at MACBA has been beautifully chosen and intelligently executed. Wait, I should say every recent exhibition I’ve seen, thereby excluding a gigantic show in 2005 devoted to Francis Alÿs, whose “diverse body of artwork that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics” (barf!) is a perfect example of what Jerry Saltz has accurately labeled and defined as “curator art.”

Richard Meier, Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art: Where's the art?

At least MACBA doesn’t have a café. Chicago’s Art Institute, given its monolithic isolation on Michigan Avenue, needs to offer sustenance to the hoards of attendees, but its food optionsclearly reflect its values. For the 1%, there’s the posh, reservations-only Terzo Piano upstairs, while downstairs the other 99% of us are relegated to the euphemistic “Museum Café,” really a cafeteria. Here the gastronomic choices (burger station, pizza station, and sandwiches entombed in plastic) are of food court quality and accompanied by endless petroleum products—despite being a location where no one would, or could, take meals away. I was appalled when I was there, but now visiting in Europe, I’m even more disgusted by our throwaway society. Clearly it was foolish of me to assume that a cultural institution would somehow be conscious of plastic being not only wasteful but unaesthetic (my chocolate, if served in a plastic cup, would not be nearly so tantalizing). I suddenly had the horrifying thought that for current generations of Americans, the concept of reusing crockery at all is likely to seem as antiquated as linen hankies.

Addressing my previous post, Ben F. comments, “The large white box and grand entrance are created to give a sense of permanence in the way banks used to be built. A sense that the bank would be here long after you are gone so that you could trust that your donations (of art/money) would be safe. The large space then needs to be fitted with art to scale.”

Again, silly me! I forgot that the main purpose of any institution is self-preservation, which means that the Art Institute’s primary concern is to secure the wherewithal that keeps it going. And there I was, thinking that it was about art!

February 19, 2011

By now, unless you’ve been vacationing in Tahiti, you know about—or have seen, judging by the lines—Christian Marclay’s video The Clock (at Paula Cooper Gallery, closing today), and that it’s a 24-hour compendium of thousands of clips from films of all kinds, having to do with time and, like a clock, matching real time.

I was concerned that The Clock’s extreme popularity might interfere with its status as high art—like those (most of whom hadn’t seen it) who clucked their tongues and referred to Olafur Eliasson’s weather project at the Tate Modern, which drew thousands, as “spectacle”. The s-word is right up there with other art world pejoratives like “decorative” and “entertainment.” God forbid we should enjoy ourselves.

However the response to The Clock was not only nearly unanimous, but effusively enthusiastic, which makes it an epic moment for art. The only person I’ve even heard of who had a measured reaction was critic Ken_Johnson who, after staying just a few minutes, wrote on Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page that it made him “agitated” but thought it could be a “brilliant gimmick carried out with great care.”

“Gimmick”—forgot that that one.

After taking up Saltz’s challenge (Saltz offered Johnson $25 an hour to view it for 2 ½ hours), Johnson wrote:

marclay's wit and cleverness are immense, and the execution is unimpeachably polished. philosophically there is plenty to talk about: real time vs. fictive time; time as a construct; modern, bureaucratically regimented, machine time and human freedom. the possibility of escaping time. time vs. eternity. but i have the feeling that the mandate to fill out 24 hours of clock time -- however impressively fulfilled -- produced something kind of impersonal. is it a work of soul stirring art, the product of a prophetic visionary? or an amazing stunt?

And oh yeah, another s-word: “stunt.”

My response was, if it’s a stunt, let’s have more! And impersonal? I found it anything but. Just as interesting as the experience of watching it was what happened after. Once when I was there, the gallery was closing for the day. Everyone knew it was going to close but stayed glued to their seats while 6:00 came, then 6:01…6:02...6:03. At 6:04 the gallery assistants came into the room and started moving about apologetically and gently turning up the lights, as if it was the end of yoga class and we were all still in savasana. Walking out into the brightness I heard one assistant ask another, “What time are you coming in tomorrow?” And she answered, “4:00” – not normally a weighty exchange, but in this context my sense of their lives took on extra dimension. Out on the street every sound—cars and trucks rushing by, distant sirens, splashing tires—was amplified, meaningful, portentous. On the bus, everyone was a star, or someone with a motive, but also people for whom I felt increased interest and empathy. I had things to do, places to go, but just wanted to walk the city; after focusing on time for several hours, time had become meaningless.


More…the issue of Art in America with my 2003 cover story on Marclay on the gallery desk made me feel especially connected…see this from the BBCread also Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz, David Cohen. and especially music critic Ben Ratliff, who noted that The Clock made “the minutes crawl and the hours fly.” Marclay is an absolute master of editing and continuity. At one point a clip from “Frankenstein,” which was written by Mary Shelley, segues into one from “Lolita,” with Shelley Winters. Coincidence? I don’t think so.