Thursday, January 22, 2009

Defending MoMA acquistions on New York Magazine

Richard Tuttle, Letters (The Twenty-Six Series). 1966, collection MoMA

As part of the discussion on "Manhattan Mega Storage" on the New York Magazine website, another blogger voiced the following sentiment:

I never understood how a museum of modern art could ignore its holdings and collect market driven contemporary art as if its mission statement has a reality clause that required it to hew to the directives of concentrated capital.

Is that all art is? The high water mark of money, a stain on the wall? The MOMA is counterfeiting it's authority and selling shares in a mirage.
I felt compelled to offer the following defense of the museum acquisition process:

Many paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc. in MoMA's permanent collection were acquired when they were still "market driven contemporary art" themselves, closer to the moment of their actual creation. That's how museums function. They attempt to be prescient, ahead of the curve. They cannot always afford to buy after there is a consensus on the art historical value of a work.

If you would allow me to rephrase "the directives of concentrated capital" as the decisions of a board of trustees, it's obvious that money talks loudly in the acquisition process. Museums often collect work through the agency of their trustees, who might serve on committees, make outright gifts, fund shows, etc. The links between money, power and art philanthropy are a given. The hope is that these trustees are not there merely to aggrandize their own private holdings, or to consolidate their power, but in a genuine mission to improve the institution on whose board they serve.

It is not a perfect arrangement. But barring the complete public funding of museums, which would then have to answer to politicians and government arts administrators, and which is unlikely in the USA for many reasons, the private sector is where museums find their capital and their structure. Private citizens are corruptible, whatever their social, financial class, and some will take advantage of any situation. But I prefer to consider "the high water mark of money" as a positive good, as a means by which arts institutions can divert capital from its usual tributaries (in banking, investment, real estate) and have it flow into the aesthetic arena.

Richard Tuttle,
Lable #13-16, 2004-5

Times and tastes do change. At a benefit dinner last night for the Brodsky Center For Innovative Editions at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which honored artist Richard Tuttle (among others), I had occasion to remark that, while the uproar concerning a show of Tuttle at the Whitney in 1975 was enough to get curator Marcia Tucker fired, the importance of his post-minimal gesture, his amazing subtlety of material and structure, is just about axiomatic today. There are now hundreds of artists following his footsteps. But thirty years ago, his work could provoke scandal.

Tuttle enjoyed another retrospective at the Whitney in 2005, thirty years after skeptics panned his first outing. This second show was viewed in some quarters as a necessary corrective, and received coverage on these very pages.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

MoMA: Artist's Choice, Deep Storage, and the Curatorial Prerogative

Here is my response to Jerry Saltz's recent article Manhattan Mega Storage, in which MoMA's initiative of artist-curated exhibitions, drawn from the permanent collection, is posited as an aesthetic solution for museums during our challenging economic times. My comment also appears on the New York Magazine website.

This is the twentieth year of Artist’s Choice at MoMA, in which certain noteworthy practitioners are periodically chosen to organize an exhibition around a theme of their own device, with all work drawn from that august institution's unparalleled holdings from its various departments: Painting, Sculpture, Drawing, Photography, Film, Design and now Media. It started in 1989, when Kirk Varnedoe invited Scott Burton, maker of benches and plinths, who responded with an exhibition of Brancusi’s bases as sculpture in its own right. Subsequent exhibitions were organized by Ellsworth Kelly (1990), Chuck Close (1991), John Baldessari (1994), Elizabeth Murray (1995), Mona Hatoum (2004), Stephen Sondheim (2005), and Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (2006). The latter was widely perceived as a consolation prize for their not getting the commission to build MoMA, and resulted in Perception Restrained, an exercise in institutional critique which archly proposed a model for the museum as an inaccessible, departmentalized vault for art.

"Rebus", the current exhibition organized by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, is only the ninth in the Artist's Choice series, which
remains positioned as a fairly rare occurrence, similar to the conferring of a knighthood. To be chosen is MoMA's bestowal of a singular honor.

Scheduling more shows organized by artists and drawn from the permanent collection, as Mr. Saltz suggests, would confer greater frequency on Artist’s Choice and dilute its current quality of encomium. This could still be an aesthetically resonant and economically expedient solution, placing more of the museum's deep storage on display while avoiding costly procurements, the shipping and insuring of work from elsewhere. But it could also lessen the role of MoMA's self-important curatorial staff. Recruiting artists to organize shows tends to make professional curators redundant and therefore expendable. For their part, the curators might understandably recoil in great horror from such an initiative, in much the same fashion that a literal reading of Jonathan Swift's essay, A Modest Proposal, scandalized readers in 1729.

It was Swift's satirical conceit to deal with famine and deprivation in Ireland by selling the children of the poor for the dining pleasure of the well-to-do: a horrifyingly elegant but impossible solution.
As MoMA feels the pinch, sacrificing some of its curators to the common good might also seem useful and prudent. The logical extrapolation of Mr Saltz's thesis could encourage just such a development. But don't expect these worthy ladies and gentlemen to give up their positions, their perks, their travel, their precious entitlement, even their daily bread, without a very loud squawk.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew Wyeth Dead at 91: Obits in New York Magazine, New York Times

Christina's World, 1948

The American realist painter Andrew Wyeth died on Friday, January 16, 2009. Here is my comment on Jerry Saltz's obit in New York Magazine, which is also available as a comment on their website.

I enjoy Saltz's concise analysis of Christina's World: "a one-painting version of conservative surrealism, a painting with what felt like American values, but that was riddled with mystery and something unknowable." But this single work marks Wyeth's entire inroad into the consciousness of the art elite, the exception that proves his beyond-the-pale status among the cognoscenti, the gatekeepers and the hierophants of high modernist usage.

Norman Rockwell is a similar case, as is LeRoy Neiman. Both found support in the writing of a brash, entertaining, salt-of-the-earth critic like Dave Hickey. Rockwell's traveling retrospective even made a pit stop at the Guggenheim in 2001 during the Age of Krens, but that doesn't prove much: so did Armani and The Art of the Motorcycle.

Will Wyeth eventually enjoy his shining moment of historical revision? Hard to say. The haute art world, where Saltz and other art critics live and write, tends to reject popular, figurative artists such as Wyeth like the plague. Wyeth is sneered at for being facile, illustrative, conformist, naive and theoretically barren, because Christina's World somehow lived in its own severe and separate world, seemingly clueless to post-War theories of abstraction and the simultaneous development of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline etc. Wyeth never wanted to rub shoulders with the AbEx hepcats at the Cedar Bar.

But deep in the pit of the avant garde stomach is also a gnawing fear that Joe Sixpack doesn't give a damn for their rarefied, effete mileu, rather choosing to embrace the overwhelming preponderance of coffee table book images and magazine covers by Wyeth, Rockwell et. al. While the elite will never admit this insecurity, artists like Wyeth threaten their delicate status quo, not through revolutionary daring nor by contesting any theoretical points, but by his innate conservatism, his attention to craft and detail, his marginal and dignified (but some might say trite) rural verities, and by his ability to be understood by a large swath of the general, uninformed public. It is Wyeth's lowest common denominator status that stirs up a potent combination of fear and loathing.

Here are excerpts from Michael Kimmelman's obit in the New York Times:

Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art, a reclusive linchpin in a colorful family dynasty of artists whose precise realist views of hardscrabble rural life became icons of national culture and sparked endless debates about the nature of modern art, died Friday at his home in Chadds Ford, Pa. He was 91...

Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.

Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject, so that arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories.

Art critics mostly heaped abuse on his work, saying he gave realism a bad name. Supporters said he spoke to the silent majority who jammed his exhibitions. “In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,” one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality”...

Nonetheless, the perception of Wyeth’s art as an alternative to abstraction accounted for a good portion of its enduring popularity during the mid-years of the last century. Added to this was his personality: self-theatricalizing (his biographer, Richard Meryman, described him as a “self-promoter” and a “closet showman”), Wyeth was not a bohemian, or at least he behaved contrary to the cliché of the bohemian artist. He was also a vocal patriot, which endeared him to some quarters during the Cold War and dovetailed with a general sense that his art evoked a mythic rural past embedded in the American psyche. “America’s absolutely it,” he once said...

In later years, the press noted when he voted for Nixon and Reagan, not because he was a particularly outspoken partisan in his political views but because he differed in those views from other artists who were very outspoken at the time. Bucking the liberal art establishment, and making a fortune in the process, allowed him to play familiar American roles: the reactionary anti-establishmentarian and the free-thinking individualist who at the same time represented the vox populi. A favorite saying of his was: “What you have to do is break all the rules.” And as bohemianism itself became institutionalized, Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservatives’ paradoxical idea of cultural disobedience through traditional behavior...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Robert Indiana: Where there's LOVE there's HOPE

Robert Indiana's stainless steel sculpture HOPE (2008) will be unveiled at Jim Kempner Fine Art in Chelsea on Thursday January 15, 2009 at 2:30 pm, just in time for the inauguration of President Elect Barack Obama.

Everyone knows Indiana's iconic LOVE sculptures, graphics and paintings. The image was first created for a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964 and later included on an eight-cent United States Postal Service stamp in 1973. (A moment of silence, please, for when eight cents was enough to get a letter delivered).

Sculptural versions of the image have been installed at numerous American and international locations, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1977, spelling out "Ahava" (Love) in Hebrew letters.

To coin a new wrinkle on an old saw, where there's LOVE there's (eventually) HOPE, as described in a gallery press release.
Jim Kempner Fine Art is pleased to present HOPE, Pop artist Robert Indiana’s follow up ... to his classic LOVE ... This six foot stainless steel HOPE had its debut in front of the Democratic National Convention in Denver last August under high security and was closed to the public; this will be the sculpture’s first open to public viewing... HOPE was the subject of over [a billion] Internet hits, was syndicated internationally with keynote appearances in the Washington Post, USA Today and The Miami Herald and featured in Art In America. The exhibit will also include variations of the HOPE image on canvas and on paper.

In gestation for over a decade, HOPE was brought to fruition to help elect Barack Obama and raised over $500,000 for the Obama campaign. It was used effectively as a visible tool in such important states as Pennsylvania [where a LOVE sculpture presides over Philadelphia], Indiana, Denver, Virginia and Maine ...

As part of the Inaugural Hope Exhibition, a special performance entitled HOPE: AMERICAN DREAMERS has been conceived and choreographed by Teresa Smith. This short work is a piece of what will be a major work with sets and costumes by Robert Indiana, music by Will I AM, a film by Kevin Chapados and spoken word by various artists.
A graphic in "patriotic" red, white and blue is also for sale.

There are obvious similarities between LOVE and HOPE, each based on a four letter word, rendered all in serifed CAPS and stacked in two horizontal rows, with an oblique "O" in the upper right and an "E" anchoring it just below. Not to be a curmudgeon, but I seem to recall another slogan from the Obama campaign, "Change", which might have presented Indiana with a whole New Deal of six letters. One can only imagine what he might have made of it. Would it be CHANGE we can believe in? Here's a quick mock up of one possibility.



Thursday, January 01, 2009

Performance Power Grab, and MoMA Gets a Sehgal

On reading Erica Orden's "Collecting Smoke" text in New York Magazine examining MoMA's upcoming two year performance art initiative, which includes a Marina Abramovic retrospective and the acquisition of Tino Sehgal's The Kiss, all under the direction of the very enterprising Klaus Biesenbach, I felt compelled to jot down a couple of thoughts. A version of the text below also appears as a comment under my pseudonym on the New York Magazine site.

Klaus Biesenbach and Glenn Lowry, 2004

Tino Sehgal was selected for the German pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, was shortlisted for the Hugo Boss Prize, and has been a darling of a small but influential coterie of international jet setting curators of which Biesenbach counts himself a particularly ambitious member. So it is not surprising to see MoMA finally buy one of the "constructed situations" pieces, following the lead of the Tate and the Walker. To paraphrase another Sehgal work, "This Is Not New", especially for a curator eager to establish his bonafides over an entire realm of artmaking.

Kathy Halbreich, longtime director of the Walker, has come to MoMA as Associate Director, but particularly to oversee contemporary. It will be interesting to see how she and Biesenbach rub shoulders, share power and responsibilities and juggle egos. This performance initiative is possibly his art world realpolitik of closing the Sehgal gap with Halbreich, so that she cannot fully "make it hers". Curators are a territorial lot, very jealous of their prerogatives and precedents. I just love the mention of those endless, all night "private workshops", undoubtedly presided over by Biesenbach in full institutional regalia, as a thinly disguised and piss elegant power grab. Of course he will happily tell us that "People just do not leave," so enthused are they with HIS project. What would the art world be without its divas?

It is part of an ever burgeoning career which was solidified in October 2006 when a new department, "Media", was created at MoMA with him as its Chief Curator, particularly to "focus on contemporary art that reflects recent and current artistic practice, including moving image installations, exhibitions, and presentations of sound- and time-based works that are made for and presented in a gallery setting."

As far as "acquiring this kind of art - and doing it soon. After all, the first generation of performance artists appeared 40 years ago", one of the challenges of acquiring performance based work is the presence of the physical body of the artist. Paintings and sculptures, as objects, can easily outlive their creators. Performance is ephemeral, and while it can be captured in video and photography (except for Sehgal, who does not allow any photo documentation, as well as no catalog, written receipts or instructions), the artists themselves are not getting any younger. Including a retrospective of Marina Abramovic is just about axiomatic in this regard. I might have preferred some attention to Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke.

Here is an incidental posting on Sehgal from months ago, which indicates how his art cozies right up to institutional regard and reward, and in fact seems cleverly designed for just this purpose: