Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
However along with deconstruction, we lost our ability to discern. We went rollicking off in the other direction, making deconstruction an excuse for sloppy thinking, sloppy execution, sloppy everything. And I lay much of the blame for this on the proliferation of art schools who profit by making everybody think art is easier than it is, who in order to exist, need the majority of students to come away with a positive experience. I remember a final graduate crit at SVA, when I said to a student about her sculpture, “There’s a lifetime of work to be mined from this”—thinking that I was giving her my highest praise—and she burst into tears because to her mind, she was finished. This was it. What, she’d have to do more?
However I believe the resounding failure of the Whitney Biennial marks the beginning of the end of a too-long era. It goes along with the political scene. We want substance. As with the Iraq war, SUVs, and Froot Loops, we’re not inclined to think something is good for us just because the powers that be say it’s so. I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve seen more good art in the past six months than in the last ten years put together—and that we’re having these conversations. Before when I saw stuff like Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates or the Whitney’s publicity I thought that I was the only one who thought it was ridiculous. It’s a relief to learn that I’m not alone.
Anonymous is so right, it's almost word-for-word. But you have to grit your teeth to watch it.
And "Spatula", commenting on Haeg's Animal Estates admittedly treads on the “dangerous terrain of discourse” in wondering how it can be construed as art, but I will take it on. My definition of “art”—since Duchamp made sure that it can be anything, which to my mind, was a necessary step—is something where execution and idea merge so completely that we’re unaware of either and taken to a place beyond words. That’s what music does for me (thank you, Jose Gonzalez, who I saw at the Iron Horse in Northampton last night) and that’s what I want art to do. That’s what I get from Olafur Eliasson’s endeavors: a place of new experience. Indescribable. Therefore, when I see something that sends my thought processes away from the piece at hand, when instead of being immersed in it I'm congratulating myself for having been so precocious as to realize—even in Mrs. Egbert's first grade— that it was stupid to go around in a group pretending to be squirrels, then it’s not art.
His pieces are not accompanied by wall text.
The level of rigor Einar contributes to Olafur's work was what I found lacking in the wire sculptures in Antony Gormley’s recent show at Sean Kelly (up through December 1st). I want to like Gormley’s work because I’ve never forgotten the first piece I saw of his in 1991--entitled Field, it consisted of 35,000 handmade clay figures assembled on the gallery floor, all of whom seemed to be beseeching me. With overtones of war and poverty—even though those issues weren’t addressed directly, or perhaps because they weren’t—it was quite moving.
One reason the market has taken over, in the opinions of Deitch and others, is that critics and museum curators no longer clarify and define the main currents in recent art. In the nineteen-fifties, when hardly anybody was buying contemporary art, a handful of influential critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and one or two others) told us which artists mattered. The sixties changed that. Pop art, minimalist art, and a host of other developments caught the critics off guard, and for a decade or more the artists filled the critic’s role; Leo Castelli and other leading dealers made decisions mainly by listening to artists. Increasingly, though, auction houses, with their slick marketing techniques, were becoming the primary arbiters of quality. “I know a lot of collectors who look to the auction catalogues to define contemporary art today,” Deitch said recently. “The museums are not really articulating this in a coherent way. The market provides the structure, and when you ask who are the major artists, it’s basically, “What are the prices?”….
…A few weeks ago, over dinner in New York, I asked Deitch if he though that contemporary art was good enough to justify the astonishing prices being paid for it. “But that’s a question I wanted to ask you!” he said.
Here Tomkins truly drops the ball. Of course Deitch thinks this is a Golden Age, comparable to “the sixties, the forties, or the years around 1910” but what does Tomkins think? He never tells us, which makes him complicit in the whole scenario. Here is one of the best art writers of our time, who’s observed the scene for nearly fifty years, and he’s holding back? Why? Is it to keep the favor of his sources? Why has what we really think become such a desperately held secret?
Olafur, I predict, is on his way to establishing himself as a household name, and when the show travels to the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 in April, and later the Dallas Museum of Art, I’ll be curious to see how he handles the media blitz that’s sure to follow. Up until now, he’s managed to remain aloof and keep the emphasis focused on the art—with the exception of Cynthia Zarin’s profile in The New Yorker (November 13, 2006--not yet available online).
Zarin is a New Yorker staff writer, and it seemed as if she didn’t have a sufficient art background and did little research, depending almost entirely on her interviews for information. A friend’s comment was “When you’re an expert, you always find something wrong” but I disagree. I mean, this is The New Yorker, which I expect to query the experts or, at the very least, read what’s been written about the subject. Because I thought of The New Yorker as a standard, discovering that it was fallible was a crisis of faith, like that moment in childhood when you first discover your parents could be wrong. The worst part was that this jumble of mis-emphasis and misinformation was held together with a gloss of the sharp and engaging writing for which The New Yorker is justly renowned, but which I now see as simply style. For instance Zarin absolutely nailed it when she described Olafur as having, “the slightly crumpled look of a shop teacher at a progressive school” but treated the work itself as nothing more than a by-product of his personality.
This was the gist of my letter to the magazine, which was not published:
To the editor:
Because I feel the magazine and its readers are capable of looking at issues in depth, I was sorry that the profile by Cynthia Zarin about the artist Olafur Eliasson concentrated on his personality and process rather than the art and the philosophy behind it—and without sufficient description of the art, you have no idea why such attention is being given to it. It is especially necessary in the case of Eliasson’s work because, since most of his work is temporary and not reproducible, the number of people who have actually seen it is small.
Zarin mentions Eliasson’s relationship to the artists “Robert Irwin and James Turrell and the idea of ‘seeing yourself seeing’” but does not explain this concept or describe how it plays out in the actual work. Later she notes that Eliasson was “deeply affected by the work of the phenomenologist philosophers, especially Edmund Husserl—with their emphasis on the individual experience of reality—and by Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees—without going into any greater detail or telling us what it was about the Wechsler book that so affected Eliasson. The questions Eliasson is seen asking himself are presented more as musings than essential to an overarching philosophical inquiry.
In discussing Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern, Zarin does not mention how, in the wake of its extraordinary success, the Tate wanted to extend its run and Eliasson refused—an act that, given the artist’s consuming interest in the context of art, including that which comes before and after its installation—can be considered as much a part of the piece as its mist, mirrors, and light.
Zarin makes a case for differentiating Eliasson from his predecessors Irwin and Turrell by stating that, “Like them, he is interested in light, to which he adds a preoccupation with what he calls ‘the intersection of nature, science, and human perception.’” She goes on to say that “unlike those artists, who tend to draw the viewer’s attention to natural phenomena—Turrell’s ‘sky spaces, for example, showcase the open sky—Eliasson consistently uses mechanical artifice to create his effects….” This is absolutely not true. The work of Irwin and Turrell pioneered this “intersection of nature, science, and human perception,” making it possible for Eliasson to expand upon it, which Eliasson fully acknowledges. Further, Irwin and Turrell have done plenty of work using only mechanical means (the effect of light on scrim, to name just one example), just as Eliasson is equally involved in working with natural phenomena—as seen in a later paragraph where he says, “I want to plant flowering trees around the pool. For one week in May the petals will drop and cover the water.”
In an art world short on meaningful dialogue, where personality and process often masquerade as art, the subject of Olafur Eliasson and his work offers a unique opportunity to marry the personal with the profound and present a significant discussion on the nature of art. Since I’m sure it will be a long while before Eliasson’s work is again discussed so thoroughly in these pages, I regret that the opportunity was missed.
How can you write about Robert Irwin and not be aware of his scrim pieces? Or, for that matter, about Eliasson and not know he'd turned rivers green? I could have gone on, to comment on how Zarin says, “Eliasson invites comparison to Buckminster Fuller, with whom he shares an interest in the aesthetics and the utility of mathematic forms,” without saying where this influence comes from: his collaboration with Einar Thorsteinn, who was Fuller’s protégé. Although the stamp of Einar’s geometry is visible throughout Olafur’s work and they frequently share exhibition credit, Einar was not available for an interview when Zarin visited the studio...so he goes unmentioned? Not that Einar minded; he often says he likes “being famous for not being famous.” But it skews the picture to leave him out of an article that’s almost entirely about Olafur’s collaborative process.
There’s more but I’ll stop. If the article had been written by Calvin Tomkins (author of Duchamp, one of the best art biographies ever) or Peter Schjeldahl (who doesn’t write profiles, but if he did…) I’d be jealous. But that’s how I want to feel when I read The New Yorker.
There. At least I’ve gotten this one off my chest, where it’s been sitting since November. Too bad I didn’t have a blog then, so I could have responded in the moment. And to read a spot-on critique of another New Yorker article (on Paul McCartney, who seems to be showing up in all of my posts, and I haven’t even heard his new album), along with a riveting exchange with its author, go to http://restrictedview.blogspot.com/2007/06/you-wont-see-me.html.