An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on Aperture.org. In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to aperture.org/blog. Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on Artforum.com.

Interview: Carol Bove

Published as the cover story in Art in America, May 2012. For more information on Bove, contact Maccarone.

Detail of W.A., 2010, shells, steel, concrete, and bronze

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.

* * *

[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]

SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

* * *

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

Untitled, 2009, peacock feathers on linen

Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

Interview: Liz Deschenes

Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.

Liz Deschenes, Tilt / Swing, #3B, 2009.

From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.

Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.

As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.

As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.

* * *

[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]

DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …

SHOLIS … that you can walk into!

DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.

SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?

DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.

SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?

DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.

“We Don’t Go ‘Gazing’ At Art”

Although Ingrid Rowland’s thoughtfully critical review of Hans Belting’s Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science is not available in full online, it contains a small disquisition on a topic of interest to theorists of and writers on contemporary art. The relevant excerpt:

Belting’s arguments suffer particular damage in English translation because they hinge so directly on the word almost always rendered as “gaze.” In academic English for the past three decades or so, “gaze” has conjured up a whole series of associations that originate with Jacques Lacan and his ideas about the way that sight shapes thought (or “scopic regimes,” which sounds only slightly less outré in French than it does in English). To our collective misfortune, “gaze” and “the gaze” entered the Anglophone vocabulary through a translator’s effort to find the right English word to match Lacan’s “regard.” But “gaze” is not that word. Lacan’s regard meant an incisive look that has nothing whatsoever to do with gazing. “Gaze,” like “berserk,” is one of the marvelous Scandinavian contributions to the English vocabulary for mental derangement. It means an unfocused, mindless kind of looking, the kind of stupefied contemplation that brings to mind operative lovers doting on miniature portraits of the beloved, the rapt stare that Narcissus showered upon his own reflection, and stargazers turned upward obsessively to the heavens in the minds of their unappreciative contemporaries. A gaze is, indeed, the exact opposite of a pointed and precise regard, or an equally pointed and precise German Blick. Translators of Chinese and japanese have usually used the word “view” for this kind of intelligent looking—a much more appropriate description of the activity at hand, as our own English usage proves: we say “point of view” and “viewer,” rather than “point of gaze” and “gazer,” because gazing never focuses on a point, and we don’t go “gazing” at art, or “gazing for” someone, we go “looking.” Tellingly, Belting drops the misleading term for his own discussion of Al-Hazen’s optics and speaks of “seeing” and “glancing.”

By now, however, one translator’s unhappy choice in rending Lacan has become the byword for two generations of English-speaking scholars who would classify themselves as “critical” and “theoretical” while accepting, uncritically and with utter lack of theoretical sophistication, a grossly misleading term for one of their fundamental concepts.

For the rest of Rowland’s review, see the December 29 issue of The New Republic.

“Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph”

While in Chicago last week, I visited the exhibition “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-77” at the Art Institute. It’s a remarkable show. Although its argument about the role of Conceptual Art in bringing the photography “definitively into the mainstream of contemporary art” is debatable, it succeeds in several other arenas: first, as an exhibition of conceptually oriented objects that is neither dry nor didactic; second, as a sketch of the precedents available to the artists included in Douglas Eklund’s 2009 exhibition “The Pictures Generation”; third, as an eloquent testimonial to the importance of southern and eastern European art to the histories of Conceptualism (a reclamation project spurred on a decade ago by Jane Farer’s wonderful “Global Conceptualism” exhibition). “Light Years,” curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, is on view in Chicago until March 11, and I highly recommend it. The catalogue, too, is well done, and available for more than forty percent off at Amazon. For those who can’t visit, Witkovsky published a reconsideration of photographic abstraction in the March 2010 Artforum, the text of which is available here.

Alexander Gutke

This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Alexander Gutke (Fundação Caixa Geral de Depoósitos – Culturgest, 2011). For more information on the artist and images of his other works, visit his page on the Galerija Gregor Podnar website.

Exploded View, 2005. Installation view and detail images.

On September 26, 2003, the Eastman Kodak Company declared, in a press release, that it would stop making and selling slide projectors by the following June. “In recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies,” the announcement noted. Alternative, of course, was a code word for digital, and for many people the decision represented yet one more nail in the coffin of analogue technology. Yet, as art historian Pamela M. Lee observed soon afterward, “Given its ubiquity in both studio and art-historical pedagogy, the modern slide projector… has played more than a supporting role in the visual arts from its inception.” Thus Kodak’s decision prompted a brief spurt of commemorative activity, including “Slideshow,” an exhibition held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in early 2005. Though not consciously a response to the Kodak announcement, Alexander Gutke’s slide-projection pieces Exploded View (2005) and Lighthouse (2006) stand out amid the stream of artworks and texts that it occasioned for their rigor, their austere beauty, and the conceptual complexity embedded in their seemingly simple execution. Like the staple technique of the art history class, these two works offer what can be termed a “slide comparison.” But, rather than juxtapose two images, Gutke’s artworks place two ways of understanding analogue projection technology side by side: Exploded View examines what a projector is; Lighthouse demonstrates what a projector does.

Exploded View appears to be a vivisection. Its eighty-one slides lay bare the innards of another Kodak Carousel projector. To create the work, Gutke had a technician slice apart a projector one slide bay at a time, a process that the artist documented in photographs. Each successive cut revealed more of the machine’s plastic, metal, and glass guts; each image projected onto the wall presents a different combination of wires, lenses, bulbs, small screws, and the body housing these elements. The images progress from representational to abstract and back again, as distinct elements of the projector’s body come into view and are diligently excised. (Since the carousel loops, the process never ends.) The precise articulation of the projector’s component parts calls to mind Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ultra-clear Neue Sachlichkeit-style photographs of industrial machines. Gutke’s images, tissue samples of an outmoded technology, could perhaps be used to reconstruct the machine.

Lighthouse substitutes lyricism for Exploded View’s quasi-scientific astringency, without lapsing into sentimentality. In this work, a rectangle of light is slowly rotated through 360 degrees, over the course of eighty-one slides. What begins as a flat plane of light resting on the surface of the wall seems to become an incision into the wall’s surface. At the carousel’s midpoint, the narrow sliver of light is ostensibly “perpendicular” to the wall onto which it is projected. As the slides progress, the “image” of light swings back into parallel alignment with the wall. Then the cycle is repeated. The work’s title evokes a tower erected by the coast, its searching beam of light aligning with the seafarer’s eyes once per revolution. But Lighthouse suggests other equally romantic interpretations. The light’s waxing and waning, for example, calls to mind charts of the lunar cycle.

Lighthouse, 2006. Installation view.

Exploded View and Lighthouse are attempts to find intrinsic content in a machine that is usually subservient to the images dropped into its bays. Gutke demonstrates how the projector can generate meaning on its own, without the assistance of Tintoretto paintings or technical diagrams or family photos slotted into its carousel. One way this can be interpreted is as a subtle rejoinder to the inexorability of the switch from analogue to digital projection technologies. The works remind viewers that something particular and distinctive is lost in the transition. What basically is this insistence on medium specificity, other than a protest against supersession? If the Kodak press release announced the “death” of the slide projector, then perhaps Exploded View is less like a vivisection and more like an autopsy. According to this view, having explored the projector’s guts and found something estimable, Lighthouse, with its “voided” image, becomes the scene of resurrection. The images have fled to some great beyond, but the autopsied machine returns to life and exhibits its essential dignity.

The way Gutke isolates particulars about his chosen medium to highlight their specific properties has an art-historical precedent in the experimental and conceptual artworks created in the 1960s and 1970s using film, slide projectors, and then-new video technologies. Exploded View and Lighthouse recall works by Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, and others. Lighthouse, in particular, through its tracing of a circle, brings to mind Robert Morris’s infrequently exhibited film installation Finch College Project (1969). For that work, Morris instructed cameraman Robert Fiore to film a crew of workers installing and de-installing a grid of mirrored squares and a gridded black-and-white photograph on the opposite walls of a room. Fiore set the camera on a turntable revolving at one revolution per minute, and the finished work was projected into the same space; the projection rotated around the now blank walls at the same speed. But, whereas Morris’s projection relied on filmic imagery to create a palimpsest of past and present, Gutke’s work deploys a contrived, though plausible, “function” of the slide projector to create a palimpsest of real and fictional space. Lighthouse and Exploded View are works in which the seemingly direct efforts made by the artist produce uncanny, manifold effects.

The slide projector’s historical antecedent is the magic lantern, which is generally thought to have been invented in the mid-seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaen Huygens. The relationship of this device to death and to haunting was noted early in the lantern’s history. A 1671 description of the lantern in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae was accompanied by illustrations depicting projections of a soul in purgatory and a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe. (Huygens’s device, used to entertain elites and royals, was called “the lantern of fright.”) The “phantasmagoria” magic lantern show would remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. Gutke’s focused explorations of the slide projector ostensibly remove the “magic” from this magic lantern–like technology. There certainly seems to be nothing hiding behind Exploded View. Yet something ineffable and entrancing remains.

One might contend that what lingers is mere nostalgia for an obsolescent technology, though it’s hard to see how these two artworks are nostalgic. Art historian T.J. Demos has observed that a slide projection, by “locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.” This observation is astute, but does not seem to account for the particular effect of Gutke’s two slide-projection works. It seems to me, rather, that the enduring power Gutke confers upon the humble Kodak projectors arises from a tension between finitude and infinitude. Gutke’s exploration seems to have reached a logical conclusion (and is therefore finite) yet in doing so it highlights something endless: the circular carousel’s loop. His incisive reduction of the slide projector to its barest essences—what it is, what it does—coexists with the recognition of the machine’s ability to imply ceaselessness. And it is precisely this sense of perpetuity that counters any fatalism about the death of the medium. At the moment of the slide projector’s ostensible “death,” Gutke has invested the humble contraption with a dignified sense of life.

On Bruce Hainley

My appreciation of the Los Angeles–based art critic Bruce Hainley has appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The publication of a slim collection of Hainley’s writing occasioned the essay. It is the fifth installment of Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s experimental periodical Pep Talk. Here’s an excerpt of my piece:

I became aware of Bruce Hainley’s writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine’s review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove’s Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review’s venom was poisonous and worked quickly: “The gimmick behind the project … was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous.” On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: “Yeah, right.” I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley’s indictment was thrilling.

Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic’s byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley’s occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley’s mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, “I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything.”

To read the rest, click here. To cut out the middleman and read Hainley’s writing, I suggest browsing the archives of Artforum and Frieze magazines, where he has published a large number of reviews and essays over the past fifteen years.

“Our Magic Hour”

Review of the 2011 Yokohama Triennale published online at Art Agenda on September 13, 2011. The exhibition remains on view until November 6, 2011.

Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006

Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006.

Organizing an international biennial or triennial exhibition is, in principle, a thankless task. Your two main audiences, locals unfamiliar with recent artistic developments and globe-hopping art citizens eager for new discoveries, have opposing needs and desires. Apportioning artworks among multiple venues, securing the funding to meet an outsized budget, and coordinating the corporate, political, and cultural bodies with a vested interest in your efforts all present significant challenges. Add to this, however, the widespread devastation of a three-fold tragedy—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant crisis—and one would have forgiven Yokohama Triennale 2011 artistic director Akiko Miki for walking away from her project. That she and her colleagues not only persevered but also managed to coordinate an impressive display of art spanning several centuries is, irrespective of one’s opinion of the show, worth commending.

This is the fourth edition of the triennale, and the first to make the Yokohama Museum of Art its primary venue. Titled “Our Magic Hour,” the show focused upon an ability to see the wonderful in the everyday that has long been popularly ascribed to artists. The magic invoked is not one of mysticism, but rather of the temporary suspension of disbelief: artists see things differently than you and me and can show us what that seeing feels like. Such a broad theme can encompass a wide variety of art, and, indeed, the show ranged from conceptually inflected video installations to ukiyo-e woodblock prints to ghost-themed movie posters.

The opening galleries engage a notion of wonder in a literal manner. The first artwork one encounters beyond the museum lobby is Aurélien Froment’s video Théâtre de poche (Pocket Theater) (2007), which depicts the artist performing a series of sleight-of-hand tricks against a black background. To either side of this gallery are minimal installations by James Lee Byars, Wilfredo Prieto, and Motohiro Tomii that invoke, with varying success, the viewer’s astonishment at the properties inherent in simple materials. Byars’s juxtaposition of five crystals and a silent performer conjures an atmosphere at once somber and strangely weightless. The works by Prieto and Tomii play with our notions of value by arranging humble materials—cubic zirconia, thumbtacks—such that they appear cherishable. However, the “trick” in Prieto’s circular floor arrangement, that one of the thousands of shiny objects really is a diamond, almost spoils the effect. Nonetheless, these rooms are a useful primer in seeing the way Miki and her artists would want us to, and the attentive viewer is rewarded in other galleries with hard-to-find surprises, such as Still White, Corridor (2011), an installation between two galleries for which Atsushi Saga has polished a wall to a subtle sheen.

In other rooms, however, these small didactic tricks seem overly simple or even somewhat manipulative. Take, for example, a number of mid-twentieth-century Surrealist paintings from the museum collection hung side-by-side early in the show. All of them depict stairways, and once one discovers this formal alliteration, the paintings’ other qualities recede into the background. (These canvases, like other works from the museum’s collection, are laboriously integrated into the Triennale. They would have been better served by being presented as a separate-but-related exhibition.) Elsewhere, a large room is given over to Massimo Bartolini’s whimsical sculpture Organi (2008), in which a series of pipes, arranged like scaffolding, have been transformed into musical pipes, with a small music box placed on the floor pushing its notes through them and out into the room. It is a remarkable feat of hare-brained ingenuity, and its placement in a roughly circular, high-ceiling room makes one think of chapels. But, just in case you hadn’t made the connection on your own, several large-scale collages of multicolored butterfly wings by Damien Hirst, shaped like stained-glass windows, line the wall on either side. Perhaps complaints about the literalism of these installations sound like the carping of a professional who believes in his own sophistication. On the other hand, one also hopes that curators can trust non-specialist viewers to appreciate such details without having them communicated so directly.

At the outset, however, I suggested that art-world insiders are forever in search of the new, and this edition of the Yokohama Triennale presented to me several revelations. Whether the decision to include a greater proportion of local (i.e., Japanese) artists than is typical for such exhibitions was conceptual or logistical, I was particularly happy to encounter work by Keiichi Tanaami, Ryosuke Imamura, and Taro Izumi, as well as from the Koichi Yumoto Collection. Tanaami’s contribution is a series of short nonnarrative animated videos created in the 1970s. Their bright colors, collaged aesthetic, and surrealistic content call to mind Western counterparts such as Terry Gilliam, creator of animated Monty Python sketches. Small details such as an envelope bearing a Soho address testify to Tanaami’s familiarity with the psychedelic art then popular in the United States (and elsewhere). Imamura’s ingenious sound-art hybrid installations are in the tradition of cross-disciplinary elder statesmen like Christian Marclay. And Izumi’s accumulation of everyday objects, placed on pedestals of varying heights that crowd several rooms in the BankART Studio NYK, a second venue, were delightfully strange and evocative. So, too, is the Yumoto Collection, of which only a small portion is on view. It focuses on yokai, or ghosts, and includes movie posters, toys, traditional paintings and prints, and other ephemera, offering a welcome peek into vernacular Japanese culture.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 2011.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 2011.

The three-level BankART Studio, a nearby waterfront building, housed large-scale works by a range of well-known international artists. Here the theme of wonderment was somewhat harder to discern, but a handful of works stood out. Foremost among them was Peter Coffin’s utterly strange and spellbinding untitled computer animation, which I now think of as “3F,” for “Fruit: The Final Frontier.” The video, which presents an endless, never-repeating pattern, depicts eighteen semitransparent images of fruit accelerating towards the viewer at a leisurely version of warp speed. The images, succulent and oddly haloed, were created with the help of a specialist in 3-D medical scanning. At the other end of the technical spectrum is Henrik Hakansson’s Fallen Forest (2006), a DIY version of the “living walls” of foliage currently in vogue with certain interior designers and architects. Hakansson’s vertical surface of greenery, however, comes from simply turning large-scale potted trees on their side and inserting them into industrial metal shelving. Spotlights give the object an additional charm.

It’s worth noting that the disastrous events of March 11 not only affected the show’s production—making certain works logistically infeasible, say, or causing insurance rates to skyrocket. It also inspired some of the participating artists to devise new proposals as a direct response to the tragedy. The smartest of these is also one of the last visitors come across (if following the proscribed route through the venues). Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, known in the West for his haunting videos of men struggling to pull submerged rickshaws along the seabed, has here created a memorial video installation that also serves as a participatory public art project. Using GPS technology, Nguyen-Hatsushiba has plotted paths through Ho Chi Minh City, his current home, and Yokohama that, when drawn on a map, resemble cherry blossoms. Members of the public are invited to jog along the routes to metaphorically trace onto the surface of the earth these symbols of transience and renewal. The runs are themselves ephemeral and bring to mind the concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the pathos and impermanence of things. The artwork is moving but not maudlin, and at a moment when the labor of recovery means that permanent memorials are still far off on the horizon, it seems thoughtful and noninvasive. And, by virtue of the idiosyncratic paths that cut through the city like Situationist dérives, it also defamiliarizes Yokohama for its resident joggers, thereby involuntarily slotting them into the exhibition’s theme. One can imagine such a run, though tinged as it must be by the awareness of pain and suffering in the northeastern part of the country, as a magic hour indeed.

Essay in “Taking Aim”

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its Artist in the Marketplace program, the Bronx Museum has published Taking AIM: The Business of Being an Artist Today. The book, edited by Marysol Nieves, features essays by and interviews with figures who play numerous roles in the art world, among them artist, dealer, curator, art advisor, collector, art fair director, and foundation executive. I contributed an essay to the section devoted to critics; it appears alongside a survey of five other critics–slash–art historians conducted by Raphael Rubinstein. In my text, I use reviews of the annual Artist in the Marketplace exhibitions published in the New York Times to trace recent developments in art and the art world, including the fluctuations of the market, the ethnic diversity of artists, and the rise of the MFA program. Below is an excerpt. Related exhibitions, “Taking AIM” and “Bronx Calling,” are on view at the museum from June 26 through September 5.

Those who created the Artist in the Marketplace program recognized important, and relatively new, aspects of the art world in 1980: its increasing complexity and the differentiation of roles within it. Successful artists based in New York would henceforth have to negotiate not only with dealers, the small coterie that had been their professional face for decades, but also with curators, lawyers, critics, and others. To run a studio, the program’s founders suggested, required management skills that until roughly that time one could mostly avoid having. The title of the program, and particularly the use of the word “marketplace,” acknowledged another new reality. Despite the rapid proliferation of “arts professionals,” power, however one wished to define it, was increasingly concentrated in the abstract space of the “marketplace”—a space into which only a few people could see clearly. The definition of artistic success had been channeled into a narrower frame: market acceptance. Artist in the Marketplace aimed to demystify both developments. It would introduce emerging artists to the dense thicket of people they would have to engage and it would explain many of the ground rules for that engagement.

Critics sensitive to such systemic changes recorded them in print, though their tone was not often one of such pragmatic adjustment. Rather, they lamented the flight of power from their hands. Peter Schjeldahl inaugurated his column in the Village Voice in 1981, only one year after AIM’s founding. His opening salvo explained the ascendant dynamic with typical flair: “Such purposeful power as critics used to have disappeared with the time lag between the appearance of something new and its acceptance, a transition dealers manage now seemingly in a matter of hours. The art-worldly function of critics has become largely ceremonial: after-dinner speakers at the victory party. Thus critics tend to dig in their heels.” [1] Indeed they did, and in subsequent decades critical handwringing became its own art form, as evidenced in the contentious collections The Crisis of Criticism (1998) and Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (2006). [2] Though each participant in these debates offered a different answer to the question of what is to be done, a majority voiced Schjeldahl’s concern that the elevation of artists to canonical status was no longer a slow, thoughtful process in which critics actively participated. What was to become of connoisseurship and taste?

Such rhetoric, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. The glory days, for which the height of Clement Greenberg’s career in the 1950s and early 1960s is shorthand, were not always glorious. And the downward trajectory these critics lament hasn’t been a slide into complete irrelevance: Artists still seek thoughtful critical responses to their work; being selected for the cover of an art magazine remains an important career milestone; and critics are, after all, still invited to speak with AIM participants each year. One ironic result of this (at times overwrought) concern with supersession was that some critics unselfconsciously followed the dictates against which they railed. As one critic phrased it in a review of a group exhibition in 1987, “Few if any of these artists have yet staked out a personal territory. Partly, it is a matter of youth but mostly it has to do with the press’s view of artists as athletes and its compulsion to beat the bushes for ever younger champions.” [3] By seeking to ensure their own influence upon art, at least some writers felt they ended up playing the game by the marketplace’s rules.

The mild mea culpa offered by this writer was published in a review of the 1987 AIM exhibition. Tracing the developments outlined above through reviews of AIM exhibitions is difficult; The New York Times has been the only consistent venue for interpretation of these shows. (This fact in itself prompts useful thoughts about what is considered the proper object of traditional forms of art criticism.) The sample size is not only small—limited to a handful of the paper’s staff critics—but also atypical. Unlike trade magazines such as Artforum, Frieze, and Art in America, which often feature writing by congenital worriers who contribute to books on the state of art criticism, the Times has a mass audience. Its writers must demystify the arcana of contemporary art objects—in a manner akin to the AIM program’s mandate to explain the social milieu that surrounds those objects.

While one can’t precisely diagnose the health of art criticism through these reviews, reading thirty years’ worth of them does offer interesting lessons about the possibilities and limitations of the form. It quickly becomes apparent that AIM program exhibitions are a kind of Rorschach blot. The shows are large and include work in a range of artistic media. The artists are represented by only one or two objects and are often unknown to the writer. Times critics therefore have neither the ability nor the space to engage with any individual artist or object in depth. In many instances, they use the cross-disciplinary “representativeness” of the exhibition, as well as the selectivity of the AIM program, to make grand pronouncements about the state of art.

[...]

What remains unexplored in these texts is the unique structure of the AIM program itself. The newspaper review must adhere closely to the objects readers will encounter upon a visit to the gallery, and the trade magazine editor often won’t consider nonthematic group exhibitions of young artists worth analyzing in her pages. Yet these annual summertime presentations are not regular group shows; they are the culmination of an intensive, months-long educational and social process. Should the AIM program’s distinctive structure—and its effects, if any, upon the objects presented in the gallery—be analyzed critically? This is where a more broadly conceived criticism should step in. The singular nature of the AIM program calls out for equally idiosyncratic examination; critics should feel encouraged to explore the boundaries of the review format. The changing media environment that we are currently navigating—especially the proliferation of new distribution technologies—may provide opportunities for such efforts. What would it mean for a critic to “embed” with an AIM cohort for some time prior to reviewing the exhibition? Or to discuss the maturation process itself? The newspaper review remains an important rite of passage for young artists; it allows them to see how the ambiguousness and richness of their work is distilled by the mind of an astute viewer, and it introduces them to a wider audience than they might otherwise have found. But during the past thirty years, both criticism and the marketplace have undergone fundamental changes. Marking the anniversary of Artist in the Marketplace provides an opportunity to rethink the ways in which critics evaluate the capstone exhibitions. Doing so thoughtfully could provide benefits to both artists and critics.

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 63.

[2] Maurice Berger, ed., The Crisis of Criticism (New York: The New Press, 1998).

[3] Raphael Rubenstein, ed., Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (Lenox, Mass.: Hard Press Editions, 2006).

Sara VanDerBeek

Published in Aperture 202, Spring 2011.

 

Sara VanDerBeek, A Composition for Detroit, 2009. Installation view, MoMA, New York.

 

Sara VanDerBeek’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2009 exhibition was A Composition for Detroit, a quartet of photographs made that year. Like the photographs she had been exhibiting for the previous half decade, it is made up of images of images: each panel depicts a geometric scaffold, erected against a dark backdrop in the artist’s studio, to which she affixed reproductions of other photographs, including ones by Walker Evans and Leonard Freed. Unlike her earlier works, however, A Composition for Detroit also includes images VanDerBeek herself shot while visiting Motor City. Some of these component parts are in the background, obscured by the scaffolding or a painted pane of glass hung on it; others are depicted whole. VanDerBeek has said that the idea for the work came from a bank of broken windows she saw in Detroit, and the blank spaces in her composition—both within and across the four panels—deftly evoke that inspiration and give the work a syncopated rhythm. A Composition for Detroit is a threnody for a place laid low by the mid-century flight of manufacturing and its middle-class tax base, a place now grappling with the additional traumas of the current economic recession. With its inclusion of careworn photographic reproductions and its spacing across multiple panels, the work is also, more broadly, a meditation on time and entropy.

The photographs for which VanDerBeek first became known were, like the piece exhibited at MoMA, created in the studio with techniques borrowed from sculpture and collage. Most feature a single, somewhat rickety construction, laden with both photographic reproductions and talismanic objects—feathers, necklaces and chains, ribbons, and the like. The pictures are themselves invocations, calling forth the spirits of modernist precursors, from Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Calder to László Moholy-Nagy and Max Ernst; of classical cultures and historical figures; and of the artist’s father, the experimental filmmaker and artist Stan VanDerBeek, for whom the canny juxtaposition of images was second nature. Sara VanDerBeek brought together items ripped from the pages of art-history surveys and mass-market magazines or extracted from her father’s archive or from her own collections, placing them in exquisite if somewhat precious arrangements that she bathed in dramatic light. The resulting photographs, with evocative titles like A Different Kind of Idol, Ziggurat, and Mrs. Washington’s Bedroom (all 2006), are long on atmosphere and rich in allusions: each fragment is a keyhole into another world. Everything is suspended within shallow, anonymous spaces. These images, while possessing the qualities of a dream, are also commentaries on the erosion of boundaries in today’s media environment and on the instantaneous retrieval of historical information made possible by modern technology. They present history as image, or as a palimpsest of images. VanDerBeek makes calculated use of light, shadow, color, and the boundaries of the picture plane. Yet the prints are unusual in a distinct way. Each image is a one-to-one-scale replica of its subject: that is, a tabletop arrangement of twenty-by-sixteen inches results in a print of approximately the same dimensions. Each photograph is not only an index of something that once existed in the world; it is a direct copy of that worldly presence.

Having developed a unique pictorial language, VanDerBeek spent several years honing it, a process that first entailed the stripping away of extraneous elements and later the near total exclusion of photographic reproductions. The busily referential works she exhibited in 2006 gave way to a series of increasingly spare compositions, such as Eclipse I (2008). In that image, two photographic reproductions of ancient sculptural figures are affixed to a vertical, white-painted wooden pole. Also affixed to it is a thin metal ring from which emanates a series of string “rays” (likely the source of the work’s title). Subtle details animate the composition, reminding viewers that they are looking at a sculpture in space, not a flat image composed on a screen: one of the classical reproductions is affixed to the side of the pole and one to its front face; the entire arrangement is not perpendicular to the lens but slightly off-kilter; the “rays” slice diagonally downward, while the shadows the construction projects onto the white backdrop canter off in the opposite direction. After (2009) achieves a similar complexity without recourse to other images, relying instead on the play of angles and simple washes of paint over plastic and glass for incident.

 

Sara VanDerBeek, Caryatid, 2010.

In more recent works, color too has been drained from the image—VanDerBeek shoots with color film but prints in black and white. Caryatid (2010) is one example of this technique. A column of six cast-plaster forms rests on a sun-dappled wooden floor between two windows. The light streaming through them washes out the upper corners of the composition, leaving an inverted T to offset the thin vertical presence in the center of the image. Mirrors resting on the floor reflect VanDerBeek’s caryatid, hinting at Brancusian endlessness. Such a simple figure seems to aim for the impassiveness and iconicity of an architectural column or a totem pole, yet the handmade quality of VanDerBeek’s construction remains evident. Here is something stark and timeless, yet expressive of an individual maker.

VanDerBeek’s series of reductive gestures approaches an endpoint with images like Treme (2010). Two blocky forms, white over blue, rest against a neutral gray and white background; they too are cast in plaster, and have been painted in simple vertical washes. Despite its reticent minimalism and its genesis within the walls of VanDerBeek’s studio, the picture has a real-world referent: its juxtaposition of colors mimics the stairway outside an abandoned modernist schoolhouse the artist encountered in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

Treme is part of To Think of Time, the three-part suite of new photographs (all 2010) comprising VanDerBeek’s first solo exhibition in a museum, presented last autumn at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In advance of that show, VanDerBeek returned to the field, this time visiting two new sites that lend themselves to meditations on past and present: New Orleans, which was then about to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Baltimore, the artist’s hometown. The locations symbolize VanDerBeek’s attempt (begun with the work created after her foray to Detroit) to examine how both private and public memories are encoded in the physical environments we inhabit. Inspired by the observational acuity and sensitivity of Walt Whitman, from whom two of the exhibition’s photographic arrangements draw their titles (Song of Myself and Sleepers), the roughly three dozen small-scale images present fragments, whether captured in the field or constructed in VanDerBeek’s Brooklyn studio. In the image Treme School Window, one windowpane opens to reveal a metaphorical black hole at the center of the composition. Another, Baltimore Window, depicts an antique leaded window, exhumed from dusty seclusion in the basement of the artist’s childhood home, resting in a slot carved into a rectangular block of plaster; a narrow shaft of light cuts through the window and falls directly behind it onto the wall.

 

Sara VanDerBeek, Baltimore Window, 2010.

Such resonant images, gathered into a halting frieze around the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, were punctuated by nearly abstract photographs of building foundations in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. The concrete slabs carry evidence of the houses they supported, such as rust-caked holes into which rebar once slotted, and the scraps and gouges left behind by the storm. As VanDerBeek told exhibition curator Tina Kukielski, “I felt when looking down upon them for the first time that these foundations retained in their surfaces the entire history of our civilization. They reminded me of early pictographs, and with their pale fragments of color and texture, they echoed the images of fractured frescoes or ancient Greek and Roman art.” The works’ grayscale tones are joined by hints of dusky blue or sunrise pink, indicative of the natural light in which all the images, whether shot inside or outside the studio, were made. The light itself is a subtle indicator of time’s passage. Reading the installation from left to right, the amount of light in each image gradually rises and then dissipates. It would be easy to extrapolate from this sunrise-to-sunset narrative a tragic tale of decay: urban infrastructure enters into terminal decline, its only remaining function to bear noble witness to the lives lived in its midst. But to do so would be to neglect an idea that the generative, studio-based half of VanDerBeek’s work speaks to: around the corner there is always a new dawn.

Luc Sante on “The Last Newspaper”

Several years ago, when Robert Silvers spoke at 192 Books, the New York Review of Books editor was asked what subject he felt was the most difficult to write about. “Contemporary art” was his answer, and he said that he was hoping to cover more recent art in the pages of his journal. While I haven’t seen much that qualifies as discussion of contemporary art from the likes of Sanford Schwartz, Luc Sante visits the New Museum exhibition “The Last Newspaper” and reports back for the NYRBlog. He doesn’t like what he finds: “For all that numerous artists and curators genuinely believe themselves to be engaged, the art world is too rich, too hermetic, and too pleased with itself to have any more rapport with what is happening ‘on the street’ than did the art establishment Hans Haacke and cohorts were trying to overturn circa 1968. But then, in taking on the lame-duck medium that is the newspaper, the show is even further insulated from actuality.”

Nathan Carter

Published in Artforum, November 2010. For more information about and additional images of the exhibition, click here.

Nathan Carter, WILLIAMSBURG BROOKLYN PUBLIC HOUSING PROJECT CONCEALED SWINDEN CALL AND RESPONSE, 2010, steel, aluminum, acrylic and enamel paint, dimensions variable

This was a restrained exhibition. Of course, when speaking of Nathan Carter’s willfully eccentric, vibrant sculptures, restrained is a relative term. The flags, legible icons, and letterforms for which he is known, as well as the overt references he has made to maps, racetracks, soccer teams, and communications systems, have been mostly purged from his newest works. The unwieldy ham-radio-chatter titles have likewise been trimmed. In fact, having spent the past decade as a ventriloquist who made the modernist visual language of Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, and Joan Miró speak to contemporary issues—networking, long-range communication, globalization—Carter now seems content to focus on form and to experiment with new materials. And he does so with considerable success: The seven sculptures presented here evince a knack for balancing abstract shapes and bright colors in a manner that seems both spontaneous and masterfully assured.

In these works, Carter incorporates trash lifted from the streets of Brooklyn, affixing broken taillight covers, bottle caps, corks, wood, Plexiglas, and the like to steel armatures and often suspending the abstract fields of colorful shapes a few inches from the gallery walls. Sometimes these found objects are arranged loosely, as in BROOKLYN STREET TREASURES FROM NEW UTRECHT AVENUE… (all works 2010), which appears windblown, as if its pieces were scuttling from right to left. Elsewhere, they are given a tighter formation, as in two roughly six-foot-diameter “radar reflectors,” one multicolored and one painted white, that hung in front of a baby blue wall. These assemblages resolve as perfectly as composed two-dimensional images; not a Gatorade cap or a shard of Plexiglas is out of place. A freestanding work, VERONICA VEX FREE FOR ALL RADIO HOUR…, is visible in the round and not as successful. The geometric shapes painted onto and objects hanging from its two vertical supports are too small, too fussy, for its overall scale; the sculpture packs none of the iconic punch of the others arranged around the gallery walls. The largest work in the exhibition, WILLIAMSBURG BROOKLYN HOUSING PROJECT…, by contrast, is also the most promising. Here Carter’s shapes are affixed to thin steel poles, which extend from the wall at various distances, creating a shallow space not unlike a stage. The effect is heightened by several freestanding shapes, actors amid this roughly geometric stage set, and by three additional steel wires, painted black, two of which float atop the composition like a theatrical curtain. The sculpture insists, like nearly all the others presented here, on a frontal view. Yet the varied distance of each piece from the wall at least implies movement in three directions, and nominally creates a field through which one can move.

To casual viewers, the informality of these works may mask the confidence required to make them. Labor was an obvious element of Carter’s earlier sculptures, especially his densely tangled, painted-wood reliefs. The equipoise achieved here, however, appears more slapdash, as if making the works were a matter simply of sticking scraps into place. Yet these lean, smart, formal exercises confirm Carter’s place in the company of talented artists, from Tony Feher to Evan Holloway to Jason Meadows, who, in their alchemical gestures, impart to simple, undistinguished objects a second life.

Installation view, Casey Kaplan Gallery, 2010

Installation view, Casey Kaplan Gallery, 2010

Pied La Biche

This summer I caught World Cup fever, which has morphed into an obsession with European soccer. I’ve been watching a game or two a week, as well as watching highlights from dozens of others and reading blogs and newspapers’ sports sections. There are a handful of intersections between the sport and contemporary art—another of my interests—most notably Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film Zidane: A 21st-century Portrait. Now I’ve come across Pied La Biche, an artists’ collective that has riffed on soccer several times. Their video Refait re-creates, on the streets of Villeurbanne, France, the final fifteen minutes of the 1982 World Cup match between France and Spain. The group has also realized artist Asger Jorn’s 1964 proposal for a three-sided football match, which was played in Vénissieux, France, in October 2009 during the Lyon Biennale. Learn more about the group at their French-language website. (Via soccer blog From a Left Wing. Also, if you’re wondering, I’m rooting for Arsenal.)

Thomas Struth

Published on Artforum.com on May 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For the exhibition press release and a selection of images, click here.

Thomas Struth, Grazing-Incidence-Spectometer Max Planck IPP, Garching, 2010, color photograph, 46 7/8 x 58 1/4".

In this exhibition of new large-scale color photographs, Thomas Struth discloses realms largely hidden from public view: experimental science and high-tech industry. Struth’s images do not offer a comprehensive representation of how the plants and laboratories he portrays actually function. Nor, for that matter, can we understand from viewing the photos how the industries depicted therein—pharmaceutical production, space exploration, physics research, offshore drilling—are integrated in a globalized market. But the claustrophobic images of wires, tubes, and rarefied machinery reveal something else altogether: Beneath the rhetoric of continual discovery and behind the millions of dollars given over to such research lies a surprisingly fragile, patched-together infrastructure. Tubes are fastened together with blue tape; pipes are hastily enclosed in crumbling insulation or torn bubble wrap; the rubber casings on various machines reveal cracks. In a way, Struth’s dispassionate, analytic photographic style is more imperviously machinelike than the physical plants themselves.

These images are also remarkable as compositions. The show’s largest photographs pull one’s eyes deep into the background at the center of the image. In Space Shuttle Endeavour Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, USA, 2008, the tiled underside of the shuttle blocks a view of the full height of the hangar in which it sits; a phalanx of scaffolding and ladders, scattered beneath it in a V-shape, creates a passageway that points to the shuttle’s nose and beyond. Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007, achieves a similar effect. Rusting steel chains stretch back from the immediate foreground to the enormous four-legged rig they help anchor. Most of the other photographs, however, are insistently frontal. That they are reminiscent of the series “Paradise,” images of verdant forests that Struth first photographed more than a decade ago, ingeniously reminds viewers that a strict division between the natural and the artificial is overly simplistic.

“Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place”

Published in Artforum, May 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the International Center of Photography in New York until May 9. For more information, click here.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Lachine Canal), 1954, black-and-white photograph

We’re drawn to the past for countless reasons and revisit it in myriad ways, but analytic, interrogative approaches to what has come before us predominate in today’s art world. Even nostalgia itself is codified and anatomized: Witness, for example, how the phenomenon of “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for life in the former East Germany, has been cross-examined in exhibitions and essays. In this context, “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place” is refreshing for the ways in which guest curator David Deitcher has woven his own biography and hometown memories into a sophisticated appreciation of his subject. The exhibition is an exercise in neither formalist connoisseurship nor rote history. Sampling a little-known body of photographs created by Stone in the 1950s and ‘60s, under his own name and that of his Mark One Studio, the show deftly evokes what mid-twentieth-century Montreal looked like from a gay man’s point of view.

The bifurcation of authorship is the first hint of the social, cultural, and legal divisions that marked gay life in that time and place. As himself, Stone produced street views of the city’s historic downtown; admiring portraits of sailors, stevedores, Boy Scots, and others; and images of recreation, whether swimmers in and around the Lachine Canal or young men playing ice hockey. Sober depictions of newsstands and granaries contribute to a useful understanding of Montreal as a working city tied to its waterways. On the other hand, Stone’s Mark One Studio, established in 1953 in the basement of the home he shared with his mother and sister, produced “beefcake”—erotic images of male bodybuilders in scant attire that, passing under the sign of either art or sport, were distributed as small-scale bundles of prints or in magazines with titles like Physique Illustrated and Ahoy. These images, here presented in a vitrine, reorient the viewer’s impression of Stone’s more or less innocuous black-and-white photographs, as do the reproductions of homophobic newspaper articles from the era.

One notices, first, how Stone’s Montreal is almost entirely out-of-doors, as if in acknowledgment of the constraints placed upon gay men who wished to congregate in residential or commercial venues. Likewise, as Deitcher notes in his catalogue essay, the pictures seem taken “on the sly”: The photographs are shot from odd vantage points, and dynamic compositions lend several of them a superficial resemblance to vertiginous shots of ‘20s Paris by modernist masters such as Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson. The historical interest of Stone’s pictures rests in these subtle hints of gay life being carried out by necessity in the interstices of the dominant culture. Yet Deitcher, a gay man who grew up in Montreal during the era of the pictures on view, chooses to explain as well the personal interest Stone’s work holds for him. In doing so, the frisson of desire is rendered central in images that might otherwise be primarily understood as illustrations for an argument about injustice. Untitled (Torso), 1963, for instance, which depicts the sculpted bare chest of a man standing behind a tree trunk, his head obscured by the bark, is not merely a record of the use of parks as trysting locations. It is exhibited on a wall that contextualizes it historically, with a photograph of a sign that reads PERSONS OF GOOD EDUCATION AND MORALS ARE INVITED TO THIS PARK and the reproduction of a newspaper story that describes homosexuals’ “mincing gait.” But, especially as framed by Deitcher’s tales of his fugitive interactions with beefcake pictures as a teen, Untitled (Torso) also retains its original, mildly illicit heat.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Steve by Mark-One), 1964, black-and-white photograph

Eirik Johnson, “Sawdust Mountain”

Published on Artforum.com on April 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For more information about the exhibition and related book, click here.

Eirik Jonson, Below the Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwah River, Washington, 2008, color photograph, 50 x 40"

Wandering, Pac-Man-like, along Manhattan’s street grid on a sunny afternoon, it’s easy to romanticize the Pacific Northwest: air heavy with moisture, smeary gray sky, carpet of deep green foliage on every nearby hillside. Such pastoral imaginings are obviously deficient, not least because human traces so rarely intrude upon them. A recent spate of creative work, however, emphasizes more complex negotiations between people and this corner of the national landscape. There is, for example, the dreary, anonymous Portland depicted in Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, or musician Phil Elverum’s emotionally freighted relationship with Mt. Erie in rural Washington State. Photographer Eirik Johnson’s series “Sawdust Mountain,” 2005–2009, the subject of this exhibition and a related book, depicts sites located somewhere between a colorless urban fringe and a mystical rural retreat: Nature predominates, but it is heavily worked. Shot over four years in Washington, Oregon, and northern California, the series concentrates on logging and fishing. Johnson’s lucidness about environmental despoliation and economic finitude manifests itself most clearly in pictures taken from elevated vantage points, which allow viewers to see how landscape is constructed. This distance is nicely counterbalanced by the intimacy of Johnson’s portraits, which betray sympathy both for his human subjects—hatchery employees, ecologists doing fieldwork, independent shopkeepers—and for the region in which he was raised.

The overall narrative is of decline and germinating hope for renewal. This point is made explicit in Johnson’s juxtaposition of photographs depicting a stack of logs in a multinational company’s sort yard and a nursery of western larch seedlings. It’s visible as well in the rust-stained, dilapidated former Masonic lodge now rehabilitated as The Sweater Store, South Bend, Washington, 2005. It may not be much, this picture seems to say, but it’s a living. The building itself is centered in the frame and depicted frontally, echoing Walker Evans’s churches and storefronts. Other images play with reflections in windows; stagger objects from foreground to background; or present pictures within pictures. The influence of older photographers, from Carleton Watkins to Robert Adams to Joel Sternfeld, can be detected in these works. But no forebear dominates, and Johnson’s vision of a Pacific Northwest resilient in the face of difficulty is clearly articulated and entirely his own.

Mitch Epstein, American Power, Take Two

Last December I wrote a brief review of Mitch Epstein’s remarkable new book American Power (Steidl). The photographic series it presents was also meant to be presented in public, and a few days ago Pentagram, the design company, announced the launch of the American Power website, located at WhatIsAmericanPower.com. Epstein’s images have been placed on twenty-three billboards in Columbus and Cincinnati with the URL superimposed upon them. Viewers (and website visitors who haven’t seen the billboards) are encouraged to answer the titular question, and the responses are being folded in to the site to create “an immersive context for the project’s content and … a public forum about notions of power and energy in America today.”

Albert C. Barnes Before His Gallery

Earlier this week I read Nathaniel Peffer’s New Schools for Older Students (1926), part of a series of books about adult education in the United States produced for the Carnegie Corporation. Other titles in the series, published from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, address the university extension movement, chautauquas and lyceums, correspondence schools, and public libraries. New Schools for Older Students fills in the interstitial spaces of the picture, bringing together a miscellaneous sampling of institutions and endeavors that fostered learning for its own sake—what Peffer calls “cultural education.”

Each of the report’s seven sections encompasses a type of adult-education effort, with individual examples; the fifth focuses on “Corporation Educational Programs.” Peffer discusses courses conducted by the American Institute of Banking, the Standard Oil Company, and Westinghouse Electric, the latter of which enrolled roughly 5,000 of its employees in East Pittsburgh. The offerings of these companies are relatively straightforward, in that they mostly focus upon teaching employees skills they can use to get ahead in their careers at the company. Such initiatives conform to what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called “welfare capitalist” policies, which sought, in the wake of labor unrest and shop-floor organizing during the 1910s, to redirect incipient working-class solidarity into an attachment to the company.

Albert C. Barnes

Albert C. Barnes

“One unique venture should be noticed,” Peffer continues, “not because it has a general application to this field but because it is an interesting example of what may be done under special conditions. The Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia is the educational outgrowth of the A.C. Barnes Company, manufacturing chemists., but it is primarily the product of a unique personality…” So begins his introduction to an aspect of Albert C. Barnes’s educational efforts of which I was previously unaware. There is, of course, the famous art gallery Barnes set up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, home (for a little while longer, at least) to his spectacular, idiosyncratic—and idiosyncratically presented—collection of artworks, many of them modernist masterpieces. But even while he was amassing this amazing ensemble of paintings, sculptures, and other objects, Barnes was working (with John Dewey and others) to provide educational opportunities for the workers who manufactured Argyrol, the antimicrobial drug that made him immensely wealthy. Here is part of Peffer’s description of what went on, which I offer without further comment beyond a recommendation that you bear in mind when it was published.

His fortune was made in a few years and, as he says, having no interest in wealth or commercial success per se, he took advantage of his position to give free play to his ideas. His business absorbs little of his own time and not all the time of his employees. Philosophy, psychology and art share the attention and the time both of himself and his employees.

The plant is a study group or club as much as an industry. There are about twenty employees. The men are all Negroes; no white man has ever held a job there. The women, about equal in number, are all white. There is not much work to do; in summer there is non at all, as the materials used in the preparations manufactured by the company cannot be handled in hot weather. Finding, then, that all the work that needed to be done could be finished in five or six hours a day, while the customary workday was eight hours, Dr. Barnes asked himself what to do with the remaining hours. The answer came naturally out of his own inclinations: study. So they began to study. Continue reading

“Joe Deal: New Work”

Published in Aperture 199, Summer 2010. “Joe Deal: New Work” was presented at the RISD Museum of Art, Providence, September 4, 2009–January 3, 2010. A version of the show is on view at Robert Mann Gallery, New York, until May 8, and will then travel to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, June 5–August 1, 2010. Deal’s West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains is published by the Center for American Places.

Joe Deal, Flint Hills, 2006, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Joe Deal, Flint Hills, 2006, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

It is not hard to see how the Great Plains might have driven early American pioneers to agoraphobic distraction. Photographer Joe Deal hails from this empty region, and after several decades cataloging the interaction of people and landscape, often in the farther American West, he has returned here for his new series West and West. At first glance these square-format black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of which were installed close together in one room of this exhibition, appear relatively characterless, their uniform horizon line encircling the space. But, like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ostensibly simple photographs of open seas, upon closer inspection Deal’s images reveal a landscape full of incident. The land is threaded with streams, or is interrupted occasionally by a knotty rock formation. Small hills calve and fold. A random tree punctuates one scene like an exclamation mark.

Deal has compared the camera’s imposition of a frame on this environment to the mechanical act performed by surveyors. Yet early rationalist grids—such as Thomas Jefferson’s proposed division of the land west of the Appalachians, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act—caused speculators to disregard the landscape’s variety. Deal’s camera, by contrast, lovingly catalogs its diversity. The startling incongruity from picture to picture is highlighted by a trio of images hung close to one another in the show: Wash, Red Hills (2007), in which a shall natural depression reveals stratified layers of rock; Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains (2005), in which thin clouds hover just above a featureless black expanse; and Flint Hills (2006), which is strewn with lunar-looking rocks. The tension Deal achieves between strict regularity and variety, between grid and ground, is in large measure the source of these photographs’ power.

On another level, the minimalist compositions of West and West—each print is perfectly bisected by the horizon line—comment on what constitutes “landscape” to the human eye. A swipe of sky and swipe of ground: it’s as simple a definition as an artist can deploy. That Deal may have such abstract questions of representation in mind is underscored by the pictures from another recent series, Kars and Pseudokarst, installed in a second room. In this project, which takes its name from the two often indistinguishable types of caves it depicts, Deal has chosen to shoot both from the inside and the outside of the caves, resulting in two very different types of prints. When he peers in, the allover compositions give the impression that the cave mouths, whether dusty and rocky or fringed with green, allow passage through the surface of the print, literalizing the cliché about representational pictures being a “window onto a world.” Even more striking is the sensation, felt when looking at the images taken from within the caves’ dark interiors, that one is positioned inside a camera lens as it admits the light of day. In these two series, Deal, an integral part of the New Topographics cohort, subtracts the signs of humankind’s incurions into the “natural” landscape, which he is well known for recording. Yet he does not sacrifice the complexity of his meditations upon that landscape—upon not only the land itself, but also his particular means of representing it.

Joe Deal, Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains, 2005, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Joe Deal, Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains, 2005, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Anne Collier

Published in Artforum, April 2010. For additional images and information about the exhibition, click here.

Anne Collier is an exceedingly patient artist, revisiting key themes again and again to refine the delicate balance between what she has termed her “forensic aesthetics” and her photographs’ “psychological or emotive” content. This exhibition, her first full-scale one-person show in New York, came after more than a dozen other solo presentations, including a small backroom debut at this venue in early 2008 that offers several illuminating points of comparison. A 2007 image of a self-help book inviting its readers to outline individual goals found its corollary in First Person 1–4, 2009, a four-part photograph of a book offering “your personality profile checklist.” A photograph of a poster depicting a sunset (Studio Sunset, 2007) included in the earlier exhibition morphed, in this show, into Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009, a picture of hands holding open a book to reveal a very similar image. Each work Collier makes achieves specific effects, yet so uniform and seemingly transparent is her photographic technique, so coherent her taste, and so structurally sound the conceptual scaffolding that underpins her images that viewers seem to admire or dismiss her art in equal measure. Such a neat bifurcation is perhaps testament to the balance, suggested above, that she achieves with each picture. Yet because her photographs appear so thoroughly premeditated, it can be easy for naysayers and proponents alike never to really think about them.

Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009.

Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009.

I like Collier’s photographs, and I believe that, as is true of much that is elegant and stoic at once, they reward effort. Her artistic process, by which she captures vernacular objects in an antiseptic “commercial” style, is reliable and flawless. Her subject matter, too, is consistent, with album covers, posters, eyes, cameras, self-help literature, and media depictions of women figuring repeatedly. The earlier Kern show included an image of Tim Buckley’s LP Happy Sad, while this one presents an image of an album cover by the Smiths that itself reproduces a still from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. As these examples suggest, Collier’s photographs are satisfyingly clever, while their inviolable stylistic consistency dramatizes the fact that one’s criteria for judgment are generally a matter of intuition. The lyric or romantic imagery in the photographs, meanwhile, is chosen in part to invoke sentimental, private associations in the viewer, thus rendering dispassionate discrimination impossible. To assess this body of work, one must think concretely not only about the images but about what one brings to them.

Such concerns arise alongside pressing questions that emerge from the artist’s approach to her medium. For Collier, our understanding of photography is conditioned by its everyday use, as well as by the odd process through which we invest impersonal, commercial items such as books or record sleeves with the highly personal meanings she so ably induces. Likewise, she explores the complicated weave of presentation and concealment that inheres in the use of a camera—which is a machine—for personal expression: Witness May/June 2009 (Cindy Sherman, Mark Seliger), 2009, which appropriates a media image of an artist known for camouflaging herself, or Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009, in which Collier’s own eye gazes out at the viewer from a print submerged in developer. This latter image, visually stark and conceptually compacted, dry as can be yet possessing a surprising vulnerability, underscores just how much value Collier extracts from the seemingly narrow territory she has chosen to explore.

Anne Collier, Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009.

Anne Collier, Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009.

Anne Collier, Studio Sunset, 2007.

Anne Collier, Studio Sunset, 2007.

John Vachon and the FSA

I just enjoyed John Vachon’s charming memoir of being introduced to photography by Roy Striker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration and amasser of 250,000 images of America taken between 1935 and 1944. (Those who have access to the Harper’s online archive can read the September 1973 piece here.) After working for Stryker for some time, Vachon writes, “one day I told Stryker I thought there were many scenes around Washington that should be photographed for his files. ‘Why don’t you borrow a camera and give it a try?’ he answered. And I did not hear the portentous bells tolling.” So began the first of a widening circle of trips out into the country, which he says allowed “a last look at America as it used to be.” Vachon went on to photograph for three more decades; small selections of his photographs can be found here, here, and here. (The last set was made in Puerto Rico the year he wrote his essay about Stryker.) In 2003, the University of California Press published a book, John Vachon’s America, that combines his FSA photographs with his writings—letters and journal entries, mostly—from the era.

Roger Ballen, “Boarding House”

Published in Artforum, February 2010. For additional images and information about the exhibition, see this page on the Gagosian Gallery website or visit the artist’s website. A book of photographs from this series is published by Phaidon.

Roger Ballen, Boarding House, 2008

No photographic, or even artistic, category quite encompasses the complicated, engrossing, and at times unsettling images in South Africa–based artist Roger Ballen’s new series “Boarding House,” 2003–2008, several dozen images from which made up this large exhibition. Though the artworks are consistently square-format black-and-white photographic prints, they represent a combination of photography, theatrical performance, drawings, and sculpture. The images were made in collaboration with the residents of a Johannesburg warehouse that, from Ballen’s description, seems like a miniature shantytown—a warren of tiny rooms that for decades has been its own ecosystem. There, some of society’s marginalized figures (a few labor in nearby mines, although many are entirely destitute) scratch out an existence of minimal comfort, their small dwellings divided not by solid walls but by rugs, sheet metal, and other provisional materials.

What differentiates these pictures from the portraits Ballen made in the early to mid-1990s and his two most recent series, published in book form as Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005), is that he has reversed the priority given to his human and nonhuman subjects. Whereas those earlier photographs depicted men, women, and children in contorted poses and faintly repulsive scenarios that simultaneously elicited and rebuffed the viewer’s empathy, in “Boarding House” there are few actual subjects with which to identify. The already claustrophobic, airless interiors of the building have been further flattened by Ballen’s bright flash, and in the shallow compositional field that results one finds not whole bodies but parts: feet dangling into one picture from the top of the frame; hands reaching up from the bottom of another; noses and lips and eyes partially visible behind fabric panels or other obscuring devices. These human fragments are now just one more element in Ballen’s macabre theater. What has come to the forefront are animals (snakes, tarantulas, ducks, pigs, puppies, kittens); tangles of wire and other detritus, such as children’s toys; and, most prominently, the expressive, somewhat crude figurative drawings on the otherwise bare rear walls of these grimy dioramas. It is in creating these sometimes dense scribbles and human outlines, along with selecting sculptural props to appear in the compositions, that the boarding house residents participate actively in Ballen’s project.

The oddness and seeming cruelty of Ballen’s earlier work, in which the subjects often appeared to perform their abjection for the camera, has been elevated here to a more abstract, poetic plane—one that may be all the crueler for the artist’s ability to aestheticize, and therefore mask, real destitution. Nonetheless, Ballen is a talented dramaturge, and throughout the series he maintains a disturbingly exquisite tension between he squalor and dissolution he depicts and a formal control that highlights the constructedness of each scenario, its collaborative, semifictional nature. In this equipoise, “documentary” realism becomes somewhat unreal. Unlike his earlier work, there is nothing specifically South African about the images in this series: The artist intends these miniature blasted landscapes to represent a psychological state dwelling somewhere within all of us. His descriptive precision, image to image, makes that claim to universality more plausible than most made by artists. One can imagine the rips and tears in the fabric hangings as psychological or emotional wounds, or the doors that lead only farther into the boarding house, never out, as reflective of the labyrinthine pathways of thought. Whether one proves able to relate to the bleak mental landscape of these astringent, absorbing compositions is another matter.

Roger Ballen, Scavenging, 2004

Roger Ballen, Squawk, 2005

“Dance with Camera”

Published in Aperture 198, spring 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia until March 21, and then travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where it will be on view from August 7 to October 17. See also this post on a wonderful Hilary Harris film included in the exhibition.

Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007, still from a silent 16-mm film.

Many variables structure the exchange between cameras and dancers, including whether the lens captures a still image or motion, whether the camera itself is static or moving, whether the performers acknowledge the camera’s presence, and whether the camera aims for a synoptic overview or fragmented details. The small first gallery of “Dance with Camera,” an exhibition and screening program organized by Jenelle Porter for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, includes work that vary these characteristics like reels in a slot machine. In the process they offer a succinct introduction to the show’s catholic approach to its subject. Elegantly composed photographs by Christopher Williams and Kelly Nipper suggest the passage of time from mobile and fixed vantage points, respectively. A video of Eleanor Antin’s ungainly attempts to assume ballet poses for a male photographer belies the elegance of his pictures of her, which hang on the wall nearby. Mike Kelley’s static eight-and-a-half-minute video of two dancers performing on a laboratory-like stage set seems like unmanned CCTV footage. In contrast, Charles Atlas’s Fractions I (1977) alternates black-and-white and color footage of Merce Cunningham’s company dancing a work that was intended to be recorded: as each camera tracks the performers, it passes before monitors displaying what other cameras are recording, creating a kind of picture-within-a-picture.

Round the corner into the museum’s main spaces and Cunningham himself appears, in another Atlas recording (included in a “video kiosk” highlighting inspirations for the show) and in a 2007 film by Tacita Dean in which he gives a majestically reserved performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. Yet “Dance with Camera” is by no means limited to artists recording professional dancers. A pair of recent videos by Oliver Herring document the stout painter Joyce Pensanto acting out choreographic fantasies with younger male partners. Two generations earlier, Bruce Nauman tapped his way around a square marked off on his studio floor, and Bruce Conner captured Toni Basil’s delirious gyrations against a black backdrop, a piece that rhymes nicely with Joachim Koester’s 2007 film Tarantism, in which a group of young men and women convulse uncontrollably in a similarly featureless environment. In his 2007 film Untitled (Agon), Elad Lassry deployed suggestions outlined in Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to position his cameras for the documentation of the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry’s film is one of the few included here to offer not only exquisite compositions but also, with its close-up views of the dancers’ faces in between performances, some sense of just who is in front of the camera.

The plethora of filmic components in this presentation inevitably creates minor problems, such as sound bleed and distractions in one’s peripheral vision. But unlike many surveys that rely on time-based media, “Dance with Camera” is admirably well programmed with works that are varied in their approach but of relatively short duration. A two-hour visit neither exhausts a viewer’s patience nor leaves one with the sinking feeling of having missed great swaths of what was on offer. The exhibition successfully presents dance as a profitable frame of reference through which to understand anew collaboration, narrative propulsion, the body, and other topics artists wrestle with today.

Installation view. From left: Tacita Dean, Merce (Manchester), 2007; Elad Lassry, Untitled (Agon), 2007. Photo: Aaron Igler.

Two other notes: First, the catalogue for the exhibition, designed by Conny Purtill of the Purtill Family Business, is wonderfully put together. Not only does it feature an impressive (and impressively long) essay by Porter, but it includes choice reprints that span several decades. These texts reflect upon both specific artworks in the exhibition and the general issues it raises. It’s a lovely object, one well worth having in your library if the issues addressed by the exhibition interest you. Second, as my interest in photography grows it has been a pleasure to contribute to Aperture, and this issue includes a plethora of articles I’m looking forward to reading, including Geoffrey Batch’s review of “The Pictures Generation,” Tim Davis’s review of the new “New Topographics” exhibition, and my talented friend Alan Gilbert’s essay on Walid Raad’s art.

“Contemporary Extracts” from October

My friends Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle, two-thirds of the editorial team behind e-flux journal, have printed excerpts from October‘s recent questionnaire about the “lightness of being” that seemingly characterizes contemporary art. “I have arranged the extracts with an eye to connections that exist between them,” Hal Foster, who devised the questions, writes. “My purpose here is simply to suggest the state of the debate on ‘the contemporary’ in my part of the world today.” The last time October sent out such a questionnaire, asking in what ways “artists, academics, and cultural institutions” responded to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the answers were both insightful and revealing. Responses to the new survey by Grant Kester, Miwon Kwon, Richard Meyer, Pamela Lee, Tim Griffin, Rachel Haidu, and others can be found here. (Link to e-flux journal originally via Greg Allen.)

Jason Dodge

Published in Artforum, January 2010. To see more images from the exhibition, and to download its press release, click here.

Jason Dodge, Seven Homing Pigeons..., detail, 2009.

Jason Dodge, Seven Homing Pigeons..., detail, 2009.

From Trisha Donnelly to Jonathan Monk to Simon Starling, Casey Kaplan Gallery represents a number of artists whose conceptually inflected artwork constructs or relies upon narrative scaffolding. So, too, does Jason Dodge’s slow-burn art. His sixth exhibition at this gallery was visually unprepossessing but upon reflection revealed engaging emotional and psychological complexities. Take, for example, in order of imagined altitude / an astronomer, a meteorologist, an ornithologist, a geologist, and a civil engineer, cut pockets from their trousers (all works 2009). One would be hard-pressed to know, without the title, what to make of the small pile of pieces of fabric resting on a pedestal. The idiosyncratic professional hierarchy suggested by the arrangement, funny on its own, is buttressed by knowledge of Above the Weather, 2007, an earlier work (not in this show) for which Dodge commissioned a Polish woman to knit a length of yarn equivalent to the distance from the surface of the earth to the height at which one is “above the weather.” Together, these sculptures manifest Dodge’s sky-gazing Romantic conflation of science and poetry, perhaps akin to that of the enthusiastic amateurs Richard Holmes describes in his appropriately titled recent book The Age of Wonder (2008).

As evidenced in the rest of this exhibition, for Dodge, poetry most often takes precedence. That was the show’s chief strength and its primary liability. As flat-footed works such as light and glove or sleeping bag / air / a tenor recorder suggest, it can be exceedingly difficult to communicate to viewers the ineffable meanings that cling to demure arrangements of everyday objects. Your moveable and un-moveable parts / a broken furnace removed from house, and a box / that carried a new furnace demonstrates the limit of this methodology at its other extreme. The objects Dodge selected—a broken furnace and the box of its replacement—suggest rich connections to both a city’s arterial infrastructure systems and to the lives once and soon to be literally warmed by the furnace. It is his self-conscious intervention into this arrangement, two small pieces of pink paper on which the word VIOLINS is written, that comes off as affected and twee. A current (electric) / through / (A) tuning fork / and light achieves a better balance. No more than a lightbulb whose long electrical cord has been sliced open to allow the copper wiring to be soldered to the ends of a tuning fork, the sculpture prompts koanlike questions such as, What is the sound of light?

The strongest artwork in the exhibition alone proved the value of Dodge’s explorations at the edge of sentimentality. (Its descriptive title is too long to reproduce here.) To make the work, Dodge typed a woman’s full married name, divided into syllables, on n arrow strips of paper that he affixed to the legs of homing pigeons, which returned to Berlin from Kraków, Poland. He did the same for the woman’s maiden name, though this time the pigeons carried the paper slips from western Ohio to New York. Her Germanic maiden name, Eleanor M. Edelmann, hints at a personal history that might likewise have included an emigration from Kraków or Berlin to the United States. A missing syllable in her maiden name—what happened to that pigeon?—underscores the extreme uncertainty of any such flight. These conceptually linked journeys can also be tied to the risky, speculative process of artmaking itself. By installing the framed slips of paper on opposing walls, Dodge summoned a poignant affective charge that even the most detached viewer would have difficulty not feeling.

Jason Dodge, In Order of Imagined Altitude..., 2009.

Jason Dodge, In Order of Imagined Altitude..., 2009.

Some Favorite Books Published in 2009

The editors of Frieze magazine invited me to write about some of my favorite books published this year. My response was paired with that of Amit Chaudhuri and is published in issue 128 (January-February 2010). To see the piece in context, and to read Chaudhuri’s list of the year’s literary highlights, click here. Of the books I mention, the only one I reviewed was by Steve Nicholls; read that review by clicking here.

My reading last year was a whiplash affair; I caromed between books on contemporary art and books on American history. Among my favourites were Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper), which expands upon the insights of his first book, No Place of Grace (1981). Whereas that earlier volume cast a series of late-19th-century anti-modern prophets as unwittingly complicit in the arrival of therapeutic consumer culture, in his new book Lears views the period as a cauldron of proactive revitalization. This search for new spiritual and physical beginnings led, he persuasively suggests, to unintended consequences – not least to martial ambition and America’s arrival on the world stage as an imperialist power.

Later in the summer, I enjoyed my friend Suzanne Hudson’s study Robert Ryman (MIT Press), subtitled ‘Used Paint’. The book not only shrewdly frames Ryman’s practice as a pragmatic ‘open inquiry’ made up of constituent parts (primer, paint, support, edge, wall) but also includes a brief and fascinating discussion of Victor D’Amico, an unknown-to-me pioneering art educator who worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the 1930s to the ’60s. Another book from MIT will no doubt prove of enduring value: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s Institutional Critique, an anthology of artists’ writings that follows their collection of artists’ writings on Conceptual art published in 2000. That the new anthology opens with a 1966 essay by Wiesław Borowski, Hanna Ptsazkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and that it interpolates early contributions from South America with more familiar texts by the likes of Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke and Allan Kaprow, indicates the editors’ attention to the art-historical shifts of the last decade. Institutional Critique will certainly be worked into the syllabuses of many graduate art history courses. Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, the latest 750-page brick in the multi-volume ‘Oxford History of the United States’ published by Oxford University Press, should likewise find its way onto the reading lists of US history surveys. My admiration for both Wood’s earlier books on the American Revolution and the OUP series is widely shared (by, for example, Pulitzer Prize committee members). Though I’ve only dipped into Empire of Liberty it seems as well-crafted a narrative and as talented a synthesis of recent scholarship as one would expect.

But of all the reading I did last year, nothing sticks out in my mind as brightly as does a hilarious brief passage in scientist and documentary filmmaker Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press). To depict nature’s bounty, Nicholls scrutinizes the copious written descriptions left behind by the first European explorers of North America. The abundance and vitality of flora and fauna worked both to the advantage of such adventurers and, as indicated by the words of one hunter in the Carolinas, occasionally to frustrating disadvantage: ‘We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.’

Mitch Epstein, American Power

Published on Bookforum.com on December 14, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. To see additional images from the series, click here. To read more about the project, click here and here to read interviews with Epstein and here to read an article published in the New York Times last October.

Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury.Epstein_cover American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.

I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Robert Kinmont

Published in Artforum, December 2009. For more information about and to see additional images of Kinmont’s work, click here.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

For those who arrived in the art world during the past three decades, Robert Kinmont was known, if at all, through the photograph of him performing a cliff’s-edge handstand reproduced in Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. That picture is part of Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands, 1969, which also finds him upended in desert grasslands and in a shallow river. The work is emblematic of the small but potent body of sculptures, photographs, and performances Kinmont created in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which were also on view in this exhibition, his first solo show in thirty-eight years. He stopped making art in 1975, initially taking care of his children so that his wife could finish a cookbook, and later studying Buddhism and working as a carpenter. In 2005 he picked up where he had left off. Sculptures of hollowed-out logs, one filled with peacock feathers, made in 1973, and one, from 2007, filled with dirt and children’s toys, point to continuity. But two other recent log sculptures—filled, respectively, with “fear” and the “sound of sawing”—suggest a change took place after all during his Zen-inflected intermission.

In both a literal and an abstract sense, an intimate connection to the northern California landscape marks Kinmont’s practice. Besides the hollowed-out logs, the show included Weed Container, 1964, a small, glass-framed box holding a collection of weeds; Wait, Wait, Wait, Grasp, 2008, a round cake made of walnut husks that was formed by their decomposition after they were collected in a plastic bucket; Hidden Meaning, 2006, a piece of willow that Kinmont whittled so that its two forked forms are joined only at their end points; and Willow Loop, 1972/2005, a delicate willow rod that Kinmont has formed into a circle by inserting one end into the other. My Favorite Dirt Roads, 1969/2009, a suite of sixteen deadpan black-and-white photographs and a framed text piece bearing the title, contains no organic material but nonetheless discloses an easy familiarity with a region that, without markets, might be impenetrable to outsiders. (In a recent interview, Kinmont speaks fondly and at length of the memories associated with just one of these roads.)

The amateurish aesthetic, the serial presentation, and especially the subtle traces of absurdist humor in works like My Favorite Dirt Roads and 8 Natural Handstands bring to mind roughly contemporaneous camera-based explorations by Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman. Similarly, some of Kinmont’s sculptures suggest the work of post-Minimalist or process-oriented artists. Source Support, 1970-73, in which four wooden legs each support two crossbeams, would collapse were it not for the joints swelling with water seeping into the wood from copper funnels. In a roundabout way this structural clarity and precariousness evokes Richard Serra’s “prop” sculptures while simultaneously prompting a unique kind of mindfulness—one must, after all, keep the work hydrated.

Corollaries for Kinmont’s recent output in today’s art world may be harder to find. Yet the artist’s infusion of late-’60s and early-’70s artistic strategies with a Buddhist concentration on the fullness of immediate experience seems more promising than most of today’s aesthetic and political rehashings of that earlier era. And, of course, unlike many of those now trading in nostalgia, Kinmont was actually there.

Ben Davis On Reactions to Conceptual Art

Prompted by an article in The Guardian and an op-ed in the New York Times, Ben Davis considers why people hate “conceptual” art: “What people actually mean by ‘conceptual art’ here is art that is not valued on the basis of its real, intrinsic merits, but because of the ideas around it. ‘Conceptual’ is conflated with an ‘anything goes’ mentality, the sense that esthetic values have been compromised by shallow commercial permissiveness.” To read the rest, click here. (Link via Mira Schor.)

Jochen Lempert at Culturgest, Lisbon

Published in Aperture 197 (Winter 2009).

Oiseaux - Vögel, 1997/1999.

Oiseaux - Vögel, 1997/1999.

Seen one at a time, Jochen Lempert’s black-and-white photographs of the natural world and its inhabitants do not make great claims upon a viewer. Some have artless compositions; others seem out of focus or to have no subject at all. Encountered in aggregate, however, as in Field Work, the first major survey of Lempert’s photographs presented outside his native Germany, they possess a quietly mesmeric force. This exhibition, organized by Miguel Wandschneider, was an unforeseen revelation. Its scores of images, printed at modest scale on thick paper that the artist allows to warp slightly as it dries, were presented unframed, either singly or in rows and grids according to subject. These arrangements collapsed the distinctions between documentary naturalism and lyrical Conceptualism, the two contemporary photographic genres into which one is tempted to slot Lempert’s work. That Lempert’s silver-gelatin prints look more like charcoal drawings than they do conventional photographs further accentuates the artist’s singular achievement.

Lempert trained as a biologist before embarking upon his work as a photographer in the early 1990s, and the scientist’s rigorous avidity was one of this exhibition’s leitmotifs. He pursues his (mostly avian) subjects intently, finding them both in the field—whether urban or rural—and in the natural history museum. One series of images, each printed smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper, depicts lone cormorants moving gracefully through various urban environments: one is silhouetted against the sky between an imposing skyscraper façade and the delicate filigree of tree branches; another hovers just above a river’s surface at the bottom of a picture dominated by an apartment tower and a bridge. Still others register the concentric ripples set off by the birds’ feet as they flap across unknown waterways, evoking Adam Fuss’s tranquil studies of splashes. Several other series, arrayed in grids, depict the heads and beaks of various taxidermy specimens in a uniform style, calling to mind not only the presentations in natural-history museums but also Richard Prince’s collections of women extracted from advertisements and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial censuses.

A vein of romanticism counterbalanced these quasi-scientific investigations—and not every photograph has as its subject a bird or birds. One series, A Voyage on the North Sea (2007), includes six images of roiling waves cropped so that each presents the same horizon line. The quixotic nature of the endeavor—how could one document the sea in a systematic manner?—belies the uniformity of the presentation. In another gallery, five pictures of “photosynthesis”—lovely images of sunlight streaming through trees—were juxtaposed with a photographs of fire: depictions of the production of energy were neatly counterbalanced with depictions of its consumption. Lempert’s most abstruse and poetic collection of images, Symmetry and Architecture of the Body (1997-2005), was presented in the final gallery. Here one encountered photographs of coral, a flamingo, the back of a man’s head, a goat, a goose, and a tattoo of a bat on a woman’s shoulder, among other subjects. Rendered in the same unselfconscious style as many of the other photographs included here, the esoteric links between these images—they cohered visually but the logic of the juxtapositions remained elusive—further stressed what had become increasingly apparent as one moved through the show. Far from being mere “nature studies,” Lempert’s photographs are evidence of an artistic sensibility compelled to wrest order from circumstance, and, through the tight control of progression, variation, focus, scale, and exposure, to make of this order something enchanting.

Sharon Core at the Gallery at Hermès

The last time I wrote about Sharon Core’s photographs I reviewed an exhibition of prints from her series “Early American,” which is based on the still life compositions of the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century painter Raphaelle Peale. New photographs from that series are now on view, of all places, in the Gallery at Hermès on Madison Avenue and 62nd Street. To see images of the new works and read an interview with Core, see this post on The Moment, the NYT’s style blog. She says: “As for the process, it’s really a means to an end—to create an illusive representation of another time. The photographs are completely traditional, involving no digital media whatsoever, so I am staging the ‘reality’ of an early-19th-century painting in terms of lighting, subject matter and scale. This requires a lot of planning in advance of the moment of exposure.” The exhibition remains on view until December 11.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916

Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Artforum.com. Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

Nota Bene: Two New Editing Projects

Two books on which I worked as editor and/or copyeditor have just been published. The first is Produce, Distribute, Discuss, Repeat, an anthology of essays and one interview that concerns Anton Vidokle’s artistic practice. It is the eighteenth book in the Lukas & Sternberg series from Sternberg Press. I wrote a preface for the collection; among the contributors are Liam Gillick, Martha Rosler, Boris Groys, and Maria Lind. More information about the title can be found here. The second title is the catalogue accompanying Rosalind Nashashibi’s recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which opens November 13 at the Bergen Kunsthall in Bergen, Norway. The book contains an interview with Nashashibi and short texts by the artist, as well as essays by Dieter Roelstraete and Martin Herbert. For more information, click here. Shameless plug: I am available as a freelance editor and copyeditor for art publications. See my “about” page further information.

Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience

Published in Frieze 127 (November-December 2009). To see the review in context (website registration required), click here.

Charlotte Klonk
Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000
Yale University Press, 2009 ($75)

Thirty years ago, artist and writer Brian O’Doherty revealed some of the political and economic implications of the ‘white cube’. It is, we now acknowledge, anything but a neutral container. While O’Doherty’s polemic holds up well, it doesn’t address at length how such design features as coloured walls, wainscotting and decorative furnishings were slowly excised from the typical gallery environment. Art historian Charlotte Klonk’s limited but engaging study Spaces of Experience traces just this history. Ranging idiosyncratically across the last two centuries, she examines the influence of colour theorists, psychologists, businessmen and artists on the design decisions undertaken by museum directors in Europe and the USA. Klonk shows how changing theories of perception and individuality, as well as evolving attitudes toward gallery visitors, were at the centre of some surprisingly intense debates about how to present art.

Klonk_Spaces_of_ExperienceThe gallery designs of the 19th century were shaped primarily by scientific theories: Goethe’s discussion of colour had museum directors calibrating their walls to match the dominant hues in their painting collections; later, in the 1890s, Wilhelm Wundt’s stimulation experiments prompted a scramble to eliminate ‘sameness’ in gallery architecture. Such scientific considerations were intertwined with social and political questions. Were spectators to be treated as a liberal body politic that could learn, in galleries, the art of citizenship? Or were they individuals seeking intimate, emotionally charged encounters with masterpieces?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the latter view came to dominate, leading to rapid changes in display strategies: art works were given more breathing room; period details and furniture were removed; patterned papers and colour were banished from the walls. This story, as Klonk tells it, is almost exclusively German, populated by figures such as the gallery directors Wilhelm von Bode, who was inspired by collectors’ homes, and Ludwig Justi, who hung canvases extremely low down and (radically!) in a single row.

But with the ascent of a Weimar ‘culture of pure exteriority’, in which functionalist shop window displays contributed to the spectacle of the street, the main tenets of gallery display changed once again. Klonk’s book excels in tracing this evacuation of distinctiveness, though it also takes on a polemical tone. It is clear that she admires Bauhaus-era designs for ‘collective experience’, such as those by Herbert Bayer, Friedrich Kiesler, El Lissitzky and others. It is equally obvious that she laments how quickly they were neutered and co-opted, especially by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and his corporate-minded board members at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Somewhat perfunctory discussions of Documenta, artists’ installations and recent ‘starchitect’-designed museums bring Klonk’s history up to the present. But she believes, rightly I think, that such developments ‘represented no deviation from entrenched modes of viewing, no challenge to individual contemplation, and certainly no departure from the idea of the spectator as consumer’ made popular in mid-20th-century New York. Despite this, Klonk is not despondent; it is precisely by unearthing earlier models that emphasized the gallery as ‘a space of public interaction and communication’ that we may finally be able to reconstitute it as a space in which to explore ‘issues relating to human social interaction’. Spaces of Experience is a useful first step in this recovery effort.

Rachel Harrison at Bard College

A few weeks ago I traveled to Bard College in order to see (and then write about) Rachel Harrison’s exhibition “Consider the Lobster.” My response, which is not a review but rather a brief meditation on the structure of the exhibition, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the European art magazine Kaleidoscope. I focus on Harrison’s reconstitution of earlier installations-cum-exhibitions, and the subsequent tensions concerning the autonomy of the artworks that comprise them, as well as on Harrison’s playful deployment of “walls.” For a closer look at the actual contents of the exhibition, please see Whitney Museum curator Elisabeth Sussman’s excellent review in the November issue of Artforum. The piece is available online here. Sussman writes: “Harrison’s brilliant and witty use of this particular object is typical of her strategy of exploiting the readymade to imbue her work with the attributes of modern life, whether bizarre or well ordered. Like the lobster, Harrison is a scavenger, rooting in the waste bin of our material lives.” Harrison’s exhibition remains on view until December 20.

Tacita Dean Interview

My friend and former colleague David Velasco has interviewed Tacita Dean, one of my favorite working artists, about her new film Craneway Event, which premieres next week as part of PERFORMA 09. (If you haven’t looked yet at the PERFORMA calendar, you should—there are many outstanding events on the docket.) Dean has worked with Cunningham before, producing a series of six 16-mm films that I discussed when they were presented at Dia Beacon last year. Now she has filmed the rehearsals for a Cunningham “event” that took place in a former Ford factory in northern California; the still reproduced on the Artforum website looks amazing. Here is some of Dean’s description: “Merce told me I didn’t have to be faithful to the chronology of the dance, which was very liberating but, in the end, I was quite faithful. The Event had three stages on which the dancers dance simultaneously, so as a viewer you never have a composite view, which is the same in my film: no single perspective. The actual Event is always broken up.”

New Afterall Website

To mark its tenth anniversary, Afterall magazine has launched a redesigned version of its website. It’s an exceedingly attractive design (by a company called At Work), and as part of the celebration the editors have made available the entire contents of its twenty-one previous issues. Joshua Decter’s long essay on “art and the cultural contradictions of urban regeneration, social justice, and sustainability,” from the current issue, is also available. (The organization also publishes books and online-only articles.) Two pieces I have written for the publication, on Rachel Harrison (in issue 11, 2005) and on an exhibition at the Guggenheim (online-only, 2009) can be found there as well.

Hilary Harris, Nine Variations on a Dance Theme

Last Wednesday I traveled to Philadelphia to see the exhibition “Dance with Camera,” on view through March 21 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. My review will arrive on newsstands several months from now, but in the meantime I wanted to share my newfound enthusiasm for Hilary Harris, a now little-known documentary filmmaker whose exquisite short film Nine Variations on a Dance Theme (1966) is included in the show. Harris’s thirteen-minute film of dancer Bettie de Jong dissects a short composition she performs nine times. With each iteration, he films her in a different style, revealing new details—such as the way her muscles quiver as she holds a difficult pose—that add up to a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a human body in motion. For further description of the film (and stills), see this post in the “Films I Love” series on the blog Only the Cinema. To watch Nine Variations, as well as three other shorts by Harris, including Organism, his celebrated portrait of New York City, click here.

Thomas Chambers Exhibition Now in NYC

“Thomas Chambers (1808-1869): American Marine and Landscape Painter” opened this week at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and I highly recommend a visit. (I saw the exhibition last year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was curated by Kathleen A. Foster, director of that museum’s Center for American Art.) Don’t just take my word for it, however. Here’s Roberta Smith, writing in today’s New York Times: Chambers “aimed to please. His images are like chorus lines singing and dancing their hearts out, ever so slightly off-key and out of step. Every part contributes vocally and vigorously to the whole. The trilling patterns of ocean waves, rounded trees or riverside hedgerows; the sharp-edged mountains and shorelines, overemphatic clouds, glossy rivers and almost lurid sunsets — they all lock arms, and do a little more than their bit. The slight awkwardness amplifies. You see them perform and you see their performance, gaining a greater understanding of the visual appetite by having it thoroughly satisfied.” For more, see my interview with Foster, which was published earlier this year. The show remains on view through March 7, 2010.

Peter Hujar

Published on Artforum.com on September 25, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view at Matthew Marks Gallery until October 24, 2009.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Some of the pictures in this exhibition were published a decade ago in Doubletake magazine; most have never been exhibited. They were made from 1956 to 1958, while Peter Hujar was in his early twenties, and most depict children at play in homes for the developmentally disabled in Southbury, Connecticut, and Florence, Italy. Neither sentimental nor aggressive, these small black-and-white images possess the empathy and compositional rigor we associate with Hujar’s unruffled portrait work of the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, some, like Boy Rubbing His Eye, Southbury, 1957, and Girl Sucking Her Thumb, Florence, 1958, prefigure poses he would later favor: The children lie on their sides, each poking into the frame from its right-hand edge, both of them aware of the camera but obviously in their own worlds. Other photographs, like Children on a Slide, Southbury and Playground, Southbury, both 1957, have a kinetic dynamism that captures something of the children’s vitality while acknowledging that they are damaged. Hujar recognizes in each child an essential human dignity that, I think, would escape most of us, with our cultural biases and reflexive attunement to difference. (This openness would serve him well in later decades as he photographed the eccentric figures of the downtown demimonde.) In a gaggle of Italian children crowding around a swing set, watched over by a nun, one boy seems more severely disfigured. With arms and legs akimbo and head sharply cocked, he is visually separated from his playmates by being the only one dressed in dark clothing. And yet it is characteristic of this striking, humane body of work that it is his gaze that finds its way directly to Hujar’s lens.

Related reading: A wonderful essay on Hujar’s work by Vicki Goldberg that was published in the New York Times in 2000.

Art Education Questionnaire

My copies of Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited and introduced by Steven Henry Madoff, arrived with today’s mail. Here is part of jacket copy: “Art School brings together more than thirty leading international artists and art educators to reconsider the practices of art education in academic, practical, ethical, and philosophical terms.” Among the contributors are Thierry de Duve, Boris Groys, Robert Storr, Raqs Media Collective, Charles Esche, Ann Lauterbach, Ute Meta Bauer, and Daniel Birnbaum. Madoff invited me to formulate a questionnaire concerning art education and circulate it among prominent artists. The respondents, who discuss their experiences as both students and teachers, are Ann Hamilton, Dana Schutz, Fred Wilson, Guillermo Kuitca, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Matthew Higgs, Mike Kelley, Paul Chan, Paul Ramírez-Jonas, Piero Golia, Shirin Neshat, and Thomas Bayrle. Madoff_art_school_coverMy introduction and a selection of the artists’ answers are below. For more information on the book, visit its page on the MIT Press website.

Questionnaire Introduction

Some of the twelve prominent contemporary artists chosen to respond to this survey received fine art training in university and art school settings; one studied chemical engineering, and another studied in a workshop setting outside the bounds of academic institutions. Nearly all have, at some point, taught art themselves. With so diverse a group—whose practices, it should be said, are also varied—the lessons to be drawn from their answers are not clear-cut. Nevertheless, several broad themes emerged. First, most of those surveyed agree that you have to learn the rules in order to break them. Whether our respondents felt that M.F.A. programs should be organized by discipline, some grounding in technique seems a necessary prerequisite to the free exploration that these programs should ideally encourage. Second, in looking back at their own educations, many felt that additional study of the liberal arts or humanities would have served them well in their careers as artists. Third, the interviewees were less concerned about the effects of the art market on art education than one might expect, given the hand-writing tone of many articles and essays on the topic. Fourth, and perhaps most important, nearly all agreed that no matter how much time one spends housed in institutions, the lessons that nourish an ongoing, sustainable career can come from anywhere—and that anywhere is often outside academic settings. This may be allied to the first observation. Beyond the specifics of discipline, medium, or technique to be gleaned from professors in art school, what young artists might benefit from most is the time, space, and gentle guidance necessary to be receptive to such unpredictable lessons—to learn a way of seeing that does not occlude any avenues for inspiration or growth. This assertion may be a commonplace, but whether art schools can make a space for this—or, perhaps more accurately, whether professors and students can carve this space out from institutional demands—may be one of the defining questions that such institutions face.

Selected Questions and Answers

In art school, did you learn how to sustain yourself as an artist, both creatively and professionally? Did you feel prepared to be an artist when you graduated?

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: I learned how to make art, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep up with what “professional” means, except that I’ve noticed that regardless of fashion, it consistently involves personality rather than argument to an extraordinary degree.

Ann Hamilton: I don’t know whether I felt prepared; I think I was all too aware of the holes in my knowledge and in my inability to be articulate about my work. I was, like everyone graduating, overwhelmed by the prospect of balancing the making of work and making a living. Actually, I don’t think that has changed too much—it’s not a challenge that goes away. But what I did feel prepared for was having a studio practice; I knew what that meant to me. I knew that my studio was in the books I was reading and in the flea markets and junk stores I visited. I knew I liked to look at objects and that the forms I created came as a process of response to a situation. I was just coming to understand, as I graduated, that a studio is a state of mind and not a physical location.

Mike Kelley: There was no art market when I was in school. Being a professional artist at that time was an ideological position. I showed, I traveled, I lectured, but I did not make money from these activities. I considered myself a professional artist and was trained to be one, and I functioned as one within that world. But if professionalism is defined by economic success—well, that’s just not what it meant at the time. There is, of course, a far different attitude about this now. I do feel that my graduate experience prepared me for the art world as it existed at that time. It made me aware that art was an international phenomenon and that I could network within it. For example, as a performance artist, I knew where I could perform—and I did.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Did your art school give you any sense of having an ethical commitment to the community that it was located in?

Paul Chan: No. Where I was, in downtown Chicago, you actually didn’t want to be a part of the very local community. The neighborhood where I lived, with other art students, outside downtown, gave us more of a sense of participation. We started a gallery in Pilsen, on the South Side. This is a complicated question, but the school itself did not instill in us this sense of commitment. Then again, I never really plugged in to what the school would offer that would give me that chance.

Paul Ramirez-Jonas: In a general sense, no. In a limited sense, some of my teachers thought that art should be a critique of the art world and the use of art as a commodity. My formative experiences regarding ethics, community, and politics took place as an undergraduate—outside the field of art. Although I was shy to get involved, my friends in university were extremely active in politics, environmental issues, etc. Even in high school (in Honduras), one had to complete a year of civic service to receive a diploma. It all added up to a series of examples of the importance of action, not just talk. In comparison, my experience in art school was shockingly disengaged. This contrast between university and art school reflects my current experiences as a faculty member. I can’t help but think that this situation relates to my answer to the first question [about the most valuable lesson learned in art school].

With hindsight, would you do it the same way if you had the choice? If not, how would you have gone about your education as an artist?

Shirin Neshat: If I had a chance to repeat my education, I would take some time off between undergraduate and graduate school. My rather unproductive years in graduate school were mostly due to the fact that I wasn’t intellectually prepared to be an artist, and mostly I was never able to place myself as an Iranian within Euro-centric art history. Today I firmly believe that my return to art was provoked by the way in which I immersed myself in life experiences, encountered certain individuals and institutions, and lived in particular political environments that helped to shape and develop my art.

In fact, after I graduated from school, I became artistically inactive for nearly ten years, until the moment when I felt emotionally and intellectually motivated. I generally feel that young artists should be cautious not to get too trapped in a vacuum, where their imaginations look mainly to their intuitions as the source, as opposed to knowledge and experiences that can only be gained outside of school boundaries.

Piero Golia: I think that by never going to school, I never came out of school. I wouldn’t change that at all. In a way, because I never graduated from art school, I’m still not done. It’s easy to see today how students don’t go to school to learn but rather to receive the stamp that says “I’m an artist.” And if you pay $40,000 a year to go to school, you really expect that stamp to get you in to a lot of places. That’s one of the big dangers of the art school system in America. If you go to law school, you come out a lawyer: I can take the bar, I can go to court and argue a case. But when you graduate from art school, you are not necessarily an artist. It’s not enough just to attend, whether for a week or for years and years.

By not having a degree, I will never be able to tell people, “I am an artist,” in an officially sanctioned way. So no, I don’t regret anything. Well, I regret everything, but that has to do with Catholicism and a whole host of other issues. I regret everything, but I’m proud of everything too.

Troy Brauntuch

Published on Artforum.com on September 23, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. Troy Brauntuch’s exhibition remains on view at Friedrich Petzel Gallery until October 17.

Troy Brauntuch, White Light Study, 1979, paper, newsprint, photostats, cardboard, tape

Troy Brauntuch, White Light Study, 1979, paper, newsprint, photostats, cardboard, tape

This exhibition presents a three-decade sampling of Troy Brauntuch’s art, including a preponderance of small sketches, notes, and other source materials for his larger paintings and drawings. A narrow color palette and the artist’s casual blending of news photographs with personal snapshots certainly effaces distinctions between “public” and “private” imagery. But for all the talk of Brauntuch and his “Pictures generation” cohorts disinterestedly unthreading our media cocoon, it’s hard not to notice a powerful current of feeling swirling beneath these placid surfaces. It pulls in both directions. On a long wall, one finds images of mangled airplane cockpits and a woman extracted from rubble juxtaposed with depictions of the artist’s cat and a young Mickey Rourke draped in sunlight. Nearby, there is a handwritten note describing the tragic wartime plight of a bear: It died in the Sarajevo Zoo when autumn shook loose the canopy of leaves protecting the brave zookeepers who risked sniper fire to feed it. The tight crop of Boys Head, 1979, a small color print, renders the image ambiguous. Is it a boy, perhaps a wrestler, in the full flower of youth, or a piece of broken classical statuary ravaged by time and on the return journey to dust? The small-scale drama of attraction and repulsion is perfectly pitched in a 1987 photograph in which a pair of tall church windows, perhaps inlaid with images granting hope to the lost, are plunged into deep shadow. They look like open graves. A lesson about life seems to lurk in here somewhere, one that critic Daniel Mendelsohn recently found expressed in a Tennessee Williams stage direction: “How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.”

Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recent and widely available, so I thought I’d post it to the site.

This month New York City celebrates the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in the waters of the river that now bears his name. Only five weeks earlier, the French explorer and trader Samuel Champlain, aiming to expand his pelt trade, fought a decisive battle against Mohawk tribesmen alongside the lake that now bears his name. That same year, the Dutch set up their first permanent trading post in Asia at the west end of the island of Java. By 1609, in other words, commerce was knitting together the entire world. What united the English captain, the French explorer, and the Dutch republicans? All were seeking China’s access to fabled riches. “Europe and China are the two poles of the magnetic field of interconnection” historian Timothy Brook describes in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.

vermeer's_hatThis idiosyncratic and entertaining history uses five paintings by Johannes Vermeer and two additional artifacts to explore this global trade. Small details in the canvases—the officer’s hat in Officer and Laughing Girl, the globe resting on a cabinet in the background of The Geographer, the silver coins about to be weighed in Woman Holding a Balance—act as “doors,” in Brook’s phrasing, that open onto the seventeenth century, an age of worldwide mobility and social “improvisation” driven by the trade in porcelain, tobacco, silver, and other products. This was the first era in which isolation was exceedingly difficult, as the Chinese would learn: The globe had become “an unbroken surface on which there was no place that could not be reached, no place that was not implied by every other place.”

The officer’s hat, for example, is impressively elaborate, with a broad brim surely made from the fur of beaver pelts (as opposed to less stiff wool felt). But by 1657, the approximate date of Vermeer’s painting, the European beaver population had been decimated, so it’s fair to assume the material for the officer’s prized possession had been slaughtered and skinned in what is now Canada. In explaining how this pelt ended up in a Delft drawing room, Brook offers a sharp précis of the early Canadian beaver trade that focuses on Champlain and the “ladder” of tribal alliances that brought him westward and into contact with foes like the Mohawks. So, too, the silver coins in Woman Holding a Balance lead Brook on a journey across the world. First noting that Vermeer’s depiction of money-counting is positive, possibly reflecting a new “ethic of accumulation,” Brook goes on to describe the silver boom town of Potosí in Peru and the complicated networks of exchange by which hundreds of tons of its natural resource ended up China. Among his many vignettes Brook highlights the ways in which standardized currencies were changing the conditions for trade and explains the interdependence of Spanish settlers and Chinese workers in the trading outpost in Manila (even after a massive battle that led to the decimation of this Chinese population).

Why did so much silver end up in China, making it a “tomb of European moneys”? At the time, there were few European goods that the Chinese didn’t already make for themselves, often of a higher quality and at a lower price than what the Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch could offer. So the European traders exchanged the raw material they were extracting from new-world colonies for porcelain, spices, textiles, and tea. It was a massive trade: Approximately three million pieces of porcelain arrived in Holland in the fifty years after the first boatload (which was captured from the Portuguese) docked in 1602.

Brook describes in great detail the cultural exchanges that attended this bartering. He suggests that these sustained interactions not only required accommodations from each party but also actively fostered what historian Fernando Ortiz called transculturation, the process “by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved.” Brook, a historian of China whose specialty is the Ming dynasty that came to an end during this period, seems to be an advocate of openness to this process. He consistently details the ways China tried to fend off Western influences, from tobacco to Christianity, while noting the advantages gained by the Dutch, such as sole trading rights with Japan, by virtue of their monomaniacal desire for trade and profit.

Much goes unexplored in Brook’s discussion, including the political conditions that gave rise to this global trade and the newly invented corporate structures that underlay it. Yet his synthesis of material drawn from autobiographies, the writings of other historians, ledger books, and, of course, Vermeer’s paintings, is sophisticated and expertly told. Brook describes China as the great lure that “haunted the seventeenth-century world,” and shows how desire for its riches opened the first lines of global interconnection that mark the world in which we live today.

Tauba Auerbach

Published as “Random Rules” in Chaos, a catalogue accompanying Tauba Auerbach’s exhibition “Here and Now/And Nowhere” at Deitch Projects, New York, September 3–October 17, 2009. The book also features essays by Will Bradley and Chris Jennings.

In 1961, meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered the sensitive dependence on initial conditions now popularly known as the “butterfly effect” while attempting to simulate the weather through computer modeling. The year before, French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot revealed that seemingly unpredictable fluctuations in the price of cotton conformed to larger sequences, and that these cycles held true no matter the scale at which he analyzed them: curves for daily price changes and curves for monthly price changes matched perfectly. Lorenz and Mandelbrot’s observations, along with the work of other pioneering researchers, quickly cohered into the study of what is now called “deterministic chaos”—a subset of the larger field of chaos theory. Contrary to the connotations the word chaos carries in the nonscientific mind, chaos theory is in fact devoted to discovering organized systems, albeit ones for which the organizing principle is difficult to discern. As research in this field has progressed, an increasing number of physical processes have been shown to conform to chaotic patterns.

Another term used to describe phenomena that seem complex and unrelated yet submit to physical laws is “self-organized criticality.” It is said that something about the intrinsic dynamics of such phenomena—the way they organize themselves—allows them to achieve the critical point at which they radically change their behavior; they don’t need an outside prompt to undergo a drastic metamorphosis. The quintessential example of self-organized criticality is the pile of sand that spontaneously forms an avalanche once a certain unpredictable number of grains is dropped onto it. Tsunamis, forest fires, and the water dripping from a kitchen faucet are all characterized by self-organized criticality, and can in some way be accounted for by mathematical models. But however great a swath of the world we are able to fit into discernible patterns, the desire to find truly random phenomena, events that cannot be explained by formulas, persists.

Installation view, Deitch Projects, New York.

Installation view, Deitch Projects, New York.

This broad impetus animates many of Tauba Auerbach’s recent artworks. Auerbach has expanded her range of inquiry from an early focus on the semiotics of written language; now she frequently devises small-scale experiments in unpredictability to be carried out in the studio. She carefully designs criteria for these operations, disciplines the variables under her control (most of which are identified with artistic subjectivity), and then carries her investigations to their logical conclusions. That the resultant artworks do not always match up to the expected results—what should be truly random often in fact follows chaotic patterns—raises fascinating questions about chance, circumstance, and intention.

The most direct and seemingly rudimentary of these experiments involved making hundreds of photographs of television static. Friends and colleagues in the fields of science and mathematics had suggested to Auerbach that the cosmic background radiation rendered on television as static might be one of the few sources of true randomness. Yet in making her photographs, Auerbach quickly discovered patterns: coronas of bright light; concentrations of shadow; striations of color; and, most surprisingly, arrangements that closely resemble her earlier “50/50” series of black-and-white drawings. But if static is a depiction of radio energy that the television draws out of the air and tries to turn into an image, are these patterns simply the result of the mind’s own attempt to discern an image where there is only “background”? Or is the imperfect nature of Auerbach’s process itself the source of the repetitions she discovered? How could she be confident, for example, that there was no signal intermixed with the noise? Though her concern is primarily experimental and her inspiration scientific, these photographs enter into dialogue with such chance-based Conceptual photographic series as John Baldessari’s attempts, in the early 1970s, to discover with a camera patterns formed by red balls he tossed into the air. More obliquely, the distance between Auerbach’s avowed intent and the resultant images brings to mind similar gaps in many of Douglas Huebler’s “Variable” photographs, such as his ten-image “documentation” of birdcalls he heard while walking in Central Park in 1969. (It is as difficult to observe static systematically as it is to create a visual record of sounds.) Like these precedents, Auerbach’s photographs, despite their empirical bent, possess an affective charge. Some of that power may be rooted in the fact that analog television has just been succeeded by its digital replacement, depriving us of our most common window onto the cosmic radiation that surrounds us—and therefore onto randomness itself.

Tauba Auerbach, Shatter III, 2009, acrylic and glass on panel

Tauba Auerbach, Shatter III, 2009, acrylic and glass on panel

The questions of perceptual bias and methodological rigor that haunt Auerbach’s recent photographs are also inscribed in her new paintings depicting shattered glass. To make these works, Auerbach places large glass panes on top of a panel and covers them with a sheet of cardboard. She is unable to see the fractures created when she strikes them—ostensibly creating random designs in the glass’s surface. Removing the glass fragments one at a time, she fills in the area beneath each shard with a uniform gradient that ranges from black to white. Like her earlier “50/50” series, these images contain a perfect balance of light and dark tones, though their highly irregular, bulbous forms hint at the inexact nature of Auerbach’s process: working by hand, she may apply the gradients imprecisely or may accidentally skip over a cell altogether. But, as Mandelbrot’s price studies and scientific investigations of natural phenomena remind us, even the seemingly unexpected can be governed by rules. Were Auerbach to continue the series indefinitely, it is safe to assume that errors distorting the compositions in one manner would be countered by others that redress the imbalance.

There is an indeterminate territory where chance and intention meet; Tauba Auerbach’s newest artworks navigate this domain and benefit from the ambiguity. Recent research fascinatingly suggests that these gray zones extend to gray matter: the human brain itself appears to occasionally move toward the edge of anarchy. “In the 1990s, it emerged that the brain generates random noise, and hence cannot be described by deterministic chaos. When neuroscientists incorporated this randomness into their models, they found that it created systems on the border between order and disorder” [1]—an instance of self-organized criticality, notes science journalist David Robson. In the last few years, researchers in the United States, Germany, and England have confirmed that “neural avalanches” follow patterns that likewise describe mountain avalanches, and have speculated that inhabiting the boundary between order and disorder is what makes the brain so adaptable. One wonders, unscientifically, whether there is a connection between the brain’s inability to create true randomness and human inability to perceive it in the world. Auerbach is particularly fascinated by scientific research that pushes toward unexpected convergences, and the artworks she creates evoke speculative thought that, in a quest for synthesis, borders on the mystical or spiritual—and effaces the distinctions between science and art.

September Artforum now online

Selected articles from the September issue of Artforum have been posted to the magazine’s website (of which I am Editor at Large). I haven’t read the entire issue, but among the pieces that are available I can recommend Barry Schwabsky’s article on Richard Hell, Joshua Kit Clayton’s eccentric and sometimes funny top ten list, and the “1000 Words” interview with Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken, who is not only a talented visual artist but also a commercially successful novelist and a genuinely nice guy. One of the exhibitions I’m most looking forward to this autumn is the Roni Horn survey arriving at the Whitney on November 6, so I was happy, too, to encounter Mignon Nixon’s thoughtful review of its presentation at Tate Modern. For more information about the issue and quotations from the articles, click here to see the magazine’s e-flux advertisement.

Charles Saatchi Laments the Early Death of…

Scott Burton? Who would’ve guessed that the advertising magnate–collector–dealer famous for supporting YBA artists early in their careers would wish for more minimalist chairs carved from rocks? “Forgive my tackiness, but my favourite dead-artist-who-could-have-been-a-contender was Scott Burton. He did get a bit of recognition in the late 1970s with his quirky take on furniture as sculpture, and vice versa, and with his ‘rock chairs’ formed by two sheer cuts into a boulder. Today he seems largely forgotten, except by a handful of fans who were around at the time, and it’s quite rare to see him in surveys of key American artists. But that’s what he was.” More in “30 Things About Art and Life,” an interview published in last weekend’s Observer.

Mark Lewis in Canadian Art

The summer issue of Canadian Art features a cover story on artist Mark Lewis, a very talented filmmaker who is currently representing Canada at the Venice Biennale. “Lewis works with film as if it were a sculptural material,” writes Nancy Tousley. “He demonstrates its inherent difference from other kinds of picture-making and shows how it works. [...] Lewis courts the impression of reality to show it off as an invention, to show to a spectator what he has seen, to revive the surprise and wonder experienced by the audiences of early film.” Beginning September 8, the art gallery at the University of Toronto will present the three films Lewis created for the Venice pavilion, and on the next day the Art Gallery of Ontario opens the exhibition “Beautiful Fictions,” which includes three other Lewis films. I reviewed an exhibition Lewis presented in New York four years ago, and the artist maintains a very useful website with low-res versions of his films and related information.

Florian Slotawa

Published in Artforum, September 2009.

Florian Slotawa, Besitzarbeit XII, 2009, installation view, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.

Florian Slotawa, Besitzarbeit XII, 2009, installation view, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.

Since 1996, German artist Florian Slotawa has created “Besitzarbeiten” (Property Works), a series of sculptural installations comprising various functional objects removed from his Berlin apartment and meticulously arranged in a gallery setting. The newest, Besitzarbeit XII, 2009, is the sole artwork in this exhibition, Slotawa’s first solo outing in New York. Created at a rate of about one per year, the “Besitzarbeiten” can be seen as a baseline, or control group, for his artistic practice, in which the primary gestures—designation, reorganization, juxtaposition, contextualization—are immaterial and the resultant artworks are increasingly diverse. In this sense, introducing New York audiences to Slotawa’s work with a sculpture from this series seems reasonable. The result, though, is also fairly insipid. Given the artist’s ability to respond inventively to specific exhibition sites—demonstrated last year at Arthouse in Austin, Texas, where Slotawa’s architectural intervention cannily revealed the building’s previous uses—it is unfortunate that the show, in one of the city’s most architecturally unique artistic venues, doesn’t take greater advantage of its setting.

Instead, the arrangement of objects stacked near one end of a long, narrow gallery determinedly mimics the compositional motifs of Piet Mondrian’s “Pier and Ocean” paintings, created in 1914 and 1915. The “artist’s household inventory,” as the wall label describes it, is here formed into a sturdy tower of domestic items including a roll of carpet, a steel shelving unit, a Bosch WFF 1401 washing machine, a kitchen sink, an armchair, a door with a dead bolt, and a wood dining table, among other objects. These materials, unaltered save for their extraction from the residential setting they normally inhabit, are balanced in a compact arrangement whose solids and voids do indeed recall the array of horizontal and vertical marks in the Mondrian paintings. (This fact is confirmed by the letter-size printouts of images of five such canvases taped to the wall in an adjacent room.) It is marginally more rewarding, however, to consider the conceptual, rather than the formal, precedents for Besitzarbeit XII.

Foremost among this work’s progenitors are Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Robert Smithson’s “non-site” sculptures. Slotawa’s consumer goods and household accoutrements are returned to his apartment after each exhibition, highlighting the artist’s power of arbitrary designation-as-art first employed by Duchamp nearly a central ago; the washing machine, for example, oscillates between receptacle for dirty clothes and artwork at the artist’s whim. Likewise, the presence of these objects in the gallery implies a partially emptied apartment in Berlin. Whereas Smithson effaced the distinction between “natural” and built environments with his importation into the gallery of sand, rocks, and other debris from the wilds of New Jersey, Slotawa’s series effaces the distinctions between private and public and between an artist’s home life and studio practice. (It is striking how different Slotawa’s series feels from its intellectual kin, Haus u r [House u r], 1985–, Gregor Schneider’s ongoing dark, psychologically fraught exploration of the domestic sphere.) These considerations, as well as the peekaboo relationship of each individual “Besitzarbeit” object to the art world and the art market are perhaps the most distinctive and intellectually fruitful aspects of this series of installations. In other recent works, including his 2008 solo exhibition at Sies + Höke in Düsseldorf, it appears that Slotawa was able to effect a palpable tension between the exhibited objects and their context. Here, unfortunately, the lack of engagement with the site’s unique history and physical characteristics does a disservice to the engaging conceptual concerns of Slotawa’s practice.

The exhibition is on view until September 14, 2009. For more information, click here.

Dan Graham—A Dissenting View

“In contrast to the [Whitney's Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Lawrence Weiner exhibitions], each of which I walked out of having discovered an even richer and deeper oeuvre than the one I already admired, ‘Dan Graham: Beyond’ left me disillusioned,” writes Barry Schwabsky in The Nation. “Much of the exhibition feels like an anthology of illustrations of what a certain ‘we’ found interesting in the late ’60s. [ ... ] Graham started out not as an artist but as a 22-year-old wunderkind gallery owner [...] The downside of his curatorial flair may be reflected in the fact that every issue he took up as an artist was developed more lucidly and with greater intensity by one or another of his contemporaries.” To read the rest, which also discusses the current exhibitions at the X Initiative, click here.

“The Quick and the Dead”

I’m disappointed that I probably will not make it to Minneapolis to see “The Quick and the Dead,” an exhibition organized by my friend Peter Eleey for the Walker Art Center. Steven Stern reviews the exhibition in the September issue of Frieze. “At the most basic level, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, which includes 53 artists, is a show about Conceptual art, but it doesn’t feel much like a Conceptual art show. Willfully eclectic, gorgeously eerie and unabashedly theatrical, its perspective and tone seems more indebted to science fiction than to art history. [...] While the show’s mise-en-scene works primarily to create a mood, there is also an argument being pressed: a compelling push-back against a reductive ‘art-about-art’ reading of the Conceptual turn. In the familiar art historical story, idea-based work is essentially the culmination of a successive 20th-century dematerialization of the object or ‘some endgame of modernism’, as Eleey writes in the catalogue. ‘The Quick and the Dead’ reconceives this retreat from form as, paradoxically, a kind of enlargement of scope, reaching beyond the merely physical world to travel in an expanded realm.” Walker blogger Julie Caniglia interviewed Eleey about the exhibition here; and Eleey also created four short videos about artworks in the show, which can be viewed here and here. For those like me who cannot make it to Minneapolis, the show’s handsome catalogue contains a smart combination of commissioned essays and reprints.

New Design Observer Site; Change Observer Launches

For those of you who check Design Observer on occasion, now would be a good time to do so: The site has just re-launched with a new design and additional content, including Change Observer and Places. The former is a blog that “looks at social innovation through the lens of design,” and includes an essay on national design policy by Bradford McKee and a dialogue between Kurt Anderson and Douglas Rushkoff about the subjects of their new books. The latter, for now, features selected content from the archives of the journal Places, which was published from 1983 to 2009. It will eventually house a reborn, online-only journal of the same name, edited by Nancy Levinson.

How Artists Must Dress

My acquaintance Roger White, a painter and coeditor of Paper Monument,  on how artists must dress: “Artists must first of all distinguish themselves from members of the adjacent professional classes typically present at art world events: dealers, critics, curators, and caterers. They must second of all take care not to look like artists. This double negation founds the generative logic of artists’ fashion.” More at n+1‘s website.

“New York: Branching Out”

Christian Holstad, Mt. Rushmore, 2003.

Christian Holstad, Mt. Rushmore, 2003.

My essay “New York: Branching Out” is included in The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Catalogue Raisonné, just published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It focuses on developments in the New York art world from 2003 to 2005, the years in which the drawings collection was compiled, and begins this way:

In physics, the law of conservation of energy holds that the total amount of energy in any isolated system remains constant. Since energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only change from one form to another or move between bodies. For several decades after World War II, this law seemed to hold for the New York art world as well: as new developments sprouted in one corner of the city or another, already established artistic precincts would typically begin a slow fade. Fifty-seventh Street, then Soho and the East Village, then Chelsea. Now it seems this rule of either/r has been replaced by one of both/and. Behemoth Chelsea has given up no ground in the last five years as the lower end of the West Village and, with increasing visibility, the Lower East Side have sprouted their own conclaves of galleries.

As the long, steady climb out of the valley created by the last art market crash kicked into high gear during the years The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection was being put together—2003 to 2005—the city’s art world no longer remained, in any sense of the term, an isolated system.

The essay goes on to discuss the art world’s convergence with other artistic disciplines, artists’ collectives and  collaborative projects, the influence of non-profit galleries, and the revived careers of artists who had worked in (relative) obscurity for several decades. It ends with a plea for a more organic connection between the city itself and the art made here:

Looking back on these years spent traversing the sidewalks, what remains most difficult to discern, oddly enough, are the points of intersection between the art made in New York and the city itself. In this period, New York has rebounded from the tremendous disaster of September 11, 2001. We have cauterized the wound, though bureaucratic fumbling allows the site to fester, and have advanced along the path, which we began traveling after our near bankruptcy in the late 1970s, to becoming a stable, efficiently managed, “civilized” metropolis. New York’s physical infrastructure, not only in Manhattan but also increasingly in the outer boroughs, has begun to cleave to a vaguely modern, clean, corporate aesthetic. Enough time has passed that physical attacks are no longer at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds; in fact, the city seems largely impervious to incitements of ay kind. Its shift to a postindustrial economy is nearly complete, and the invisible information-economy power that coursed up and down its avenues from 2001 to 2008 necessarily shaped the types of social activities that flourished in its public spaces. The New York art scene, similarly flush and also oriented toward a world stage, seems to have unintentionally mirrored these developments. In both arenas, we have traded spontaneity for stability and safety, and local detail for international legibility. Art’s grandest recent interventions into New York’s public space, and therefore its greatest inroads into public consciousness—Christo and Jeanne Claude’s installation The Gates in Central Park, Jeff Koons’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, Jenny Holzer’s projections on the facade of the New York Public Library, Olafur Eliasson’s East River waterfalls—have been spectacular gestures literally and conceptually underwritten by the same forces transforming the city. Many of the art community’s smaller gestures, exhibited in proliferating antiseptic spaces, could conceivably have been made anywhere. That more of this art is good, and made by a more diverse range of artists, is certainly true. But the art world is large enough, and art history capacious enough, to allow its denizens in New York to dissociate themselves from their immediate physical context. Paradoxically, then, despite the infusion of interest from other creative disciplines, in another sense the New York art world’s boundaries seem less porous than ever. Such claims, though indicative of implicitly held opinions, can hopefully be separated from value judgments. They are made simply so that one chronicler of a portion of this art can advance a hope for what is made in the immediate future: that it partake of, respond to, and complement what diversity and vitality remains in this city.

Sol LeWitt, A Photograph of Mid-Manhattan with the Area between The Plaza, Ansonia, Biltmore and Carlyle Hotels Removed (R 770), 1978.

Sol LeWitt, A Photograph of Mid-Manhattan with the Area between The Plaza, Ansonia, Biltmore and Carlyle Hotels Removed (R 770), 1978.

Alongside my commentary there are essays on art and artists in Los Angeles by Jan Tumlir, in Cologne and Düsseldorf by Manfred Hermes, in Berlin by Isabelle Graw, in London and Glasgow by my friend Martin Herbert, and an examination of the drawing materials found in the collection by Scott Gerson. The book is one of two to accompany the exhibition “Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection,” on view at the Museum until January 4, 2010.

Map: Lost Art of New York

The weblog 16 Miles of String has created a new project that may prove fascinating: a Google Map “documenting the sites of performances, studios, public art installations, residences, and galleries that once existed in New York and now do not.” The list is a little thin at the moment, but they site’s proprietors are seeking suggestions and will update the map once a week. Click here for the introduction to the project and here to see the map in full on Google’s site.

“Well, I was the last one to jump off the house.”

Artist Mike Bouchet describes watching his large-scale sculpture created for the Venice Biennale sink in the city’s waterways: “Once it starts to go… I was surprised, kind of shocked. But then it’s kind of like, Wow, what do I do? You have to start looking at it; I look at it sideways. How is it going? And then … well, I was the last one to jump off the house. I can understand now why you don’t see a lot more houses like this floating.” Watch it happen in this AFP-produced video on YouTube. (Via BldgBlog and FlavorWire.)

“One of Those Superbly Poised Triads”

Michael J. Lewis on William H. Pierson, Lane Faison, and Whitney Stoddard, the art historians largely responsible for the so-called Williams Art Mafia, in The New Criterion: “Such were the three very different personalities that comprised the uncommonly effective collaboration of the “Holy Trinity”: a courtly aesthete, a hearty athlete-scholar, and a quiet painter. [...] It is ultimately wrong to see Faison, Pierson, and Stoddard as mere connoisseurs, blithely indifferent to the place of art in the history of ideas. [...] But while they were deeply curious about the social and political ramifications of art, they also believed that students needed to be exposed to it first in visual terms, and in sustained, concentrated fashion, until they had a thorough and intimate grasp of its formal properties.” Click here to read more.

Ry Rocklen

Published in Artforum, summer 2009.

Ry Rocklen, installation view, Marc Jancou Contemporary, New York, 2009

Ry Rocklen, installation view, Marc Jancou Contemporary, New York, 2009

Los Angeles artist Ry Rocklen’s fascination with the “soul residue” of discarded objects leads him to create sculptures that, while not anthropomorphic, possess many human qualities: tenderness, a complicated history, resilience despite apparent fragility. “Good Heavens,” the artist’s first exhibition in New York since the 2008 Whitney Biennial, emphasized that the seemingly childlike or quasi-mystical lens through which he views the world’s detritus is conjoined with a talent for drawing out and communicating the essential dignity in whatever catches his eye. Yet his alchemical transformations—a better word may be resuscitations—sidestep the conceptual concerns of many other artists who deploy ready-made objects in their work; one doesn’t sense Rocklen is too interested in the theoretical issues raised by Duchamp and his heirs. Instead, the affective power granted his sculptures by their art-world context seems to be, in his view, an extension of his scavenged items’ own intrinsic nobility.

In the gallery’s main room, triangular tiles, made from a claylike material and covered with grids of pennies, were laid over much of the floor, giving the gallery a burnished copper glow. Three hexagonal openings in the arrangement served as negative-space pedestals for freestanding sculptures. On the Fourth Day (all works 2009) is a limp, folded-over mattress encased in resin and pin-striped with iridescent purple tiles. Rocklen has stated that the mattress was found on day four of his hunt in Los Angeles alleys, but given the tiles’ winking reflections, the title also calls to mind the Book of Genesis: On the fourth day, God created lights in the firmament. “We are all in the gutter,” as Oscar Wilde once observed, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” Unbrella is a ripped-up patio umbrella coated in cornflower-blue epoxy putty and jammed into the seat of a wooden chair. The sculpture possesses the least formal allure of those presented here, and its reliance on a titular pun (reminiscent of Rocklen’s earlier works) seemed somewhat out of place. A third work, Siren, transforms a threadbare window curtain, anchored on a thin metal base and stiffened with epoxy putty, into a wavy, midnight-blue fence or hedgerow, its tattered ends reaching skyward. Rocklen has also driven hundreds of silver- and copper-colored tacks through the amterial, and the reflections captured in their small circular heads animate the work. Siren’s magnetism is potent yet oddly difficult to explain.

Rocklen’s role as an object healer stems from his interest in diverse notions of health and spirituality, two interrelated themes that underpin other works in the show. On the walls surrounding the aforementioned freestanding sculptures hung a series of nine “Magic Number Ponchos,” linen garments backed with pastel-colored cotton. These works each make consistent use of one number: Not only is Magic Number Poncho (Three Threes) cut so that it has three sides, but the runic design on its chest is made from joining together three numeral 3s. Similarly treated is the octagonal poncho with a flowerlike emblem created from eight 8s. As in some of the artist’s earlier solo shows, a braided rope was strung along the top of the wall like a frieze. Here it wound its way up a stairwell to a mezzanine gallery, where one discovered that from it hung a tondo painting of a pie-chart design in Miami-bright colors. Based on “health medallions” Rocklen once made with elementary-school art students, the piece, in its unusual presentation, also recalls the Thai tradition of wrapping strings around buildings for protection. As with Rocklen’s own faith in the castoffs he uses for his sculptures, the works included here require a certain suspension of disbelief by the viewer. For those willing to grant it, the rewards were many.

Steve McQueen’s Giardini

My severest disappointment in not attending this year’s Venice Biennale is missing the premiere of Steve McQueen’s new film Giardini. McQueen, to my mind one of the best artists of his generation, shot the half-hour-long film in the public garden that houses the national pavilions used during the Biennale. What he depicts, though, is the period of their disuse, those misty February days in which the miniature monuments are boarded up, dogs wander through the moist grass, and a woman pushing a shopping cart daily scatters bread to a fleet of birds. This description, of course, is derived only from seeing excerpts (in this video interview with the artist) and stills, and from reading about the film. (David Hudson has a media round-up at The Daily.)

Steve McQueen, still from Giardini, 2009

Steve McQueen, still from Giardini, 2009

Though it appears already to be a favorite among people who broadcast their immediate opinions to the world, perhaps McQueen’s film will be accused of being merely “charming.” (After the engaged, ongoing installation Queen and Country and the lacerating feature film Hunger, of course, I think McQueen has earned the right to a moment of “mere” aesthetic revelry.) But for those coming in to the British Pavilion out of the social imbroglio that is the Biennale’s preview, Giardini’s attentiveness to the small beauties of a timeless, hushed city might feel like a rebuke. Why travel to Venice in early June, when the city abounds with tourists and professional colleagues, when the opposite end of the calendar offers such tranquil beauty (and weather that better suits a romantic temperament)? Why rush about in a four-day frenzy, seeing hundreds of rooms full of art, when the slow roving over one small patch of land turns up such graces?

Reading about McQueen’s film prompted me to pull off the shelf Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, a lovely small book about wintertime Venice. I read it not long after my own first visit to the city, in August of 2003. (I avoided the art crowd, but not the tourists.) The film still above brought to mind this passage from very early in the book: “The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost.” Here is another, unrelated passage that I marked at the time:

In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

Herb & Dorothy

Published as “Collecting Class” on Artforum.com on June 1, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Artist Lawrence Weirner in Herb & Dorothy.

Artist Lawrence Weiner in Herb & Dorothy.

“Every culture needs its Vogels,” says Lawrence Weiner near the end of the documentary Herb and Dorothy (2008). “They’re friend collectors, not collector collectors,” clarifies another artist. Not long after they purchased a small, untitled sculpture by John Chamberlain in 1962, the pint-size duo recognized that what they were buying was better than what they themselves were making as “wannabe artists.” So they lived frugally on her librarian’s salary, bought art with his earnings at the post office, and spent all their time in artists’ studios, galleries, and museums.

The Vogels aren’t chatty subjects, so first-time director Megumi Sasaki interviews a cavalcade of those they’ve collected over the years, including Sylvia Plimack and Robert Mangold, Chuck Close, Robert Barry, Lynda Benglis, and Richard Tuttle. All testify to the intensity of Herb’s looking and his insatiability, and to Dorothy’s sensible handling of finances—the couple always worked on the installment plan and rarely missed a payment. Their rules? The work had to be affordable, and it had to fit into their rent-controlled Manhattan one-bedroom apartment. By the time the National Gallery of Art, as a gesture of courtship, trucked everything to DC to be inventoried, the art crammed into that space filled five full-size moving vans.

It’s clear from the film’s structure and its B-roll footage that Sasaki isn’t familiar with the art world, so art-savvy audiences who know the Vogels’ story will focus on piquant details: Dorothy kept a small Carl Andre copper sculpture in a chocolate box; the couple made weekly phone calls to the artists they were close with; they often paid in cash and left with their purchases tucked under their arms. Yet fascinating stories lurk just beneath the surface. One answers the first question invariably asked by journalists: “How could they afford to be major collectors on government salaries?” In the ’60s, when no one else was buying art by young Minimal and Conceptual artists, the Vogels supported them with their (relatively inexpensive) purchases. After the market drove prices up, it seems, artists supported the Vogels, discounting their work to civil-servant prices. This is acknowledged implicitly when, during a visit to James Siena’s studio, everyone decorously agrees to discuss prices off-camera, and it’s acknowledged explicitly in a comment Dorothy makes: “The collection was built on the generosity of artists.”

In an age of speculative purchases via JPEG image, the rapport such generosity implies is cause for nostalgia. And, of course, it paid off. The Vogels understood themselves as caretakers of the art they owned, conscientiously draping their framed, light-sensitive drawings with blankets and then, in 1992, donating several thousand works to the National Gallery. The museum, to thank them, set up an annuity to supplement their retirement income. What have they done with it? Bought more art, of course.

Herb and Dorothy opens June 5 at Cinema Village in New York and July 10 at Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles. Click here to visit the film’s website.

Interview: Damon Rich

In late 2008, Damon Rich, an artist, designer, and founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), presented an exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the possible relationships between finance and buildings. That exhibition will be reprised as Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center at the Queens Museum of Art in New York from May 31 to September 27. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on May 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center began as a broad proposal for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT about risk, and in particular about the rise of risk management as a form of planning. In the past fifteen to twenty years, it seems like planning focused on concrete visions or goals has given way to planning that catalogues the risks to which one is vulnerable—with the goal of preserving and expanding the status quo. This is a bit abstract; for me, focusing on finance and architecture brought the proposal back to earth. How does the notion of financial risk affect the built environment?

Though I trained as an architect, I’m drawn to things that touch architecture but are not buildings. My two previous exhibition projects produced by CUP at the Storefront for Art and Architecture were about building codes (how political demands rendered in laws are expressed in the built environment) and about urban renewal (how ideology is revealed in the distorted use of past policies to justify present actions).

I want to take apart the notion of technical expertise in a democratic context. My exhibitions function as a kind of case study or experiment; each begins with a group of investigators who know little about the subject at hand, acting as stand-ins for the general public. MIT has the number-one-rated urban planning program in the country; it also has a fairly new Center for Real Estate; and, of course, it has the management school, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians. I spoke with many of these experts, attended meetings, visited archives—and from these materials put together an exhibition. While exhibitions are just about the least cost-effective way to organize people politically, for me they contain a set of potentials that the initiatives of a mission-driven nonprofit organization like CUP—mainly school programs and community workshops—often do not. A nonprofit has to be disciplined by measurable outcomes, but an exhibition is a chance to stage a more open-ended encounter in three dimensions, to use abstraction to recontextualize imminent realities.

Another privilege of exhibiting in a gallery or museum is the luxury to say that in examining so complex a topic—which engages real estate brokers, architects, federal regulators, economists, and, of course, the public—you don’t have to subordinate everything to clarity and immediate action. You can dwell on the innumerable internal fissures and contradictions that bear on political contests. Often when I tell people I’m doing a project about foreclosures, financial justice, and housing, they say, “That’s really great!” But I don’t think people should assume an exhibition about foreclosures is inherently good; I hope to encourage engagement and skepticism through the practice of representation.

Every single piece in the show tries to use a specific visual strategy to stage a relationship with the audience. For example, one of the most basic and central ideas to finance is the interest rate. The relationship an interest rate instantiates between a borrower and a lender is an abstract thing, and it’s discussed in a naturalized manner—the interest rate goes up, the interest rate goes down, like the temperature. Yet national mortgage interest rates are nothing but an index of a social relationship between borrowers and lenders. So I built a forty-foot-long plywood barrier that’s cut in the shape of the prime rate; one can see, at about 1980, when the interest rate shoots up, because the barrier itself shoots up to about thirteen feet in height. The mute graph you see on the nightly news hopefully becomes visible and legible in a new way, as containing stories of political and social relationships. Another piece is a series of sixty-six photographs of houses in the Detroit metropolitan area, arranged on metal stands in their actual geographic relationships: One can walk among them and understand housing outcomes: dilapidated neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit; big, brand-new houses in outlying Lyon Township in the western suburbs. I hope it causes people to question what produced this differentiated set of buildings.

The series of public programs is an important part of the show and will feature people who know far more about redlining than I do, even after all the research. Redlining is a visual fiction, a metaphor cleverly crafted to mobilize people into political action. In fact, it is so effective that people today use it in all kinds of ways to stand for the inequities of capitalism—in financing, city services, insurance, even Internet service. But it’s also a slippery concept, as is another that is often used today, “disinvestment.” Both have great explanatory power, but you can’t ever really point to them in action. It’s important to understand these concepts and how they have functioned historically in order to better grapple with the messy process of making change.

—As told to Brian Sholis

The Obamas, black artists, and abstraction

Responding to this May 22 Wall Street Journal article about the artworks the Obamas are choosing for the White House, Time‘s Richard Lacayo suggests they consider African-American abstract artist Norman Lewis, who was included in last year’s traveling “Action/Abstraction” exhibition. Greg Allen suggests Barkley Hendricks, “the art world’s longest-time-coming overnight sensation.” Those interested in the issues surrounding black artists and abstraction may also want to keep an eye out for articles and lectures by University of Chicago art historian Darby English, who is currently at work on a book about the subject (for which he received a 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation Writers’ Grant).

Fritz Goro, Science Photographer

“Fritz Goro was the longtime science photographer for LIFE magazine. He covered the Manhattan Project, including shooting at the original Ground Zero. His image of a fetus in an artificial womb inspired Kubrick’s 2001. He crafted photo-simulations of x-ray diffraction and created elaborate graphics in-camera using multiple exposures, lenses and focal depths to depict atomic structure. Much of America’s 20th century image of science was either made or influenced by Goro.” More, with images and links, from Greg.org.

On Reading Aloud, Inaccurately

A recent New York Times editorial by Verlyn Klinkenborg offers “Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud” and suggests that “the way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient. But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language.” As an antidote to professional audio book readers, I suggest artist Paul Chan’s sixteen hours’ worth of amateur recordings of texts by William James, Susan Sontag, Martin Heidegger, Lao Zi, Samuel Beckett, and others.

“A very tall order”

“Even though the idea of originality has been dissected and pulverized by so-called postmodern artists, they are still expected do so in an original way. In the end, I think sincerity and integrity are the primary value in art, and these result from making something as good as you can make it so that it reflects your ideas, interests, and your passions as clearly as possible. That is a very tall order, but it’s more about drive than talent. If an artist can do this—in whatever medium—he or she can achieve some degree of originality.” An interview with art critic Roberta Smith in the Brooklyn Rail.

Michael Gross, Rogues’ Gallery

Published on Frieze.com, May 8, 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Michael Gross
Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum
New York: Broadway Books, 560 pages. $29.95.

In September 2007, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened ‘The Age of Rembrandt’, an exhibition presenting the museum’s entire collection of Dutch paintings made between 1600 and 1800. Included alongside Rembrandt were such acknowledged masters as Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer (of whose 35 known paintings the museum owns five). But rather than arrange the canvases by date of creation or by genre, the curator somewhat controversially chose to display the paintings in the order in which they entered the museum’s collection. The first gallery featured part of the fabled ‘1871 Purchase’, made the year after the museum’s founding, and subsequent galleries highlighted individual bequests, such as the one made by Benjamin Altman in 1913. Donors’ names, in block letters, hovered high on the wall above many of the works.

gross_rogues_gallery_coverMichael Gross’s Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, published this week by Broadway, follows a similar logic. Rather than pay close attention to the merits of individual exhibitions or examine the public’s perception of the institution, Gross revels in the internecine squabbling among Met directors, board members, curators and New York City officials over the growth, acquisitions and public orientation of the museum. The book, akin to a 500-page Vanity Fair article, is an unabashedly unofficial history – Gross makes much of being denied official access to the museum’s archives and its employees, as Calvin Tomkins enjoyed for his history Merchants and Masterpieces (1970). Nonetheless, in its own way, Rogues’ Gallery is synoptic, ranging from the Met’s early days as ‘a firetrap with shellacked floors and walls covered with red billiard cloth’ to the questions facing the institution today as it adjusts to a new director, Thomas P. Campbell, after being led for 30 years by Philippe de Montebello. It quickly becomes clear that Gross’s large cast of characters is not only squabbling over the institution itself; many are also jockeying for position among New York’s social elite. Indeed, Gross’s last book, 740 Park(2005), which looked inside the eponymous Manhattan co-op building, gives him a very particular take on the goings-on less than a mile away at 1000 Fifth Avenue. He believes we live in ‘a world where behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime’, and, whether a reader feels Gross is animated by reportorial skepticism or something more akin to antipathy, there’s no doubt he’s out to find dirt.

Gross wields considerable journalistic skills in that effort, easily debunking Montebello’s disingenuous (if entirely unexceptional) assertion, reprinted on the book’s dust jacket, that ‘The museum has no secrets’. From the trumped-up war-hero claims and dodgy antiquities excavations of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, appointed the museum’s first director in 1879, to the soap opera–like marital intrigues and inheritance disputations that accompanied many of the greatest donations and gifts of art to the institution in the past half-century, Gross is a meticulous storyteller, and Rogues’ Gallery is an entertaining romp. Each of his six chapters focuses on a different key figure or figures, from Cesnola to J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Robert Moses, Thomas Hoving, and Jane and Annette Engelhard (the latter known today as Annette de la Renta). Within this framework, Gross ranges widely – each chapter includes dozens of players.

Moses, in particular, is an inspired lens through which to view the museum at midcentury. Granted an ex-officio board seat as Commissioner of Parks, the power broker used the city’s annual appropriation of funds to cover the Met’s operating costs as a lever to try, among other efforts, seating a woman on the boys’-club board. Also strong is Gross’s patient reconstruction of the quasi-familial relationship between the elderly Rockefeller and the young medieval curator (and later museum director) James Rorimer. ‘Junior’ and Rorimer spent decades slowly piecing together the land, building and collection that make up The Cloisters, all the while swatting away a pesky (if talented) artist, George Grey Barnard, who owned neighbouring land, was at work on a commission for Junior’s family estate, and was involved in the export of French treasures. Likewise, those who have followed newspaper accounts of the recent disputes over the Met’s antiquities, including the Euphronios krater, will learn something new.

For an art-world audience, Gross is most fascinating when he keeps within the museum’s orbit. When he floats out into the realm of high-society gossip, anonymously quoting the former lovers or neighbours of his protagonists, one’s interest wanes – yet it seems this is precisely when Gross himself becomes most intrigued by his material. The story picks up noticeably once he is able to gab with still-living subjects (or with those willing to dish about them). Hoving, who was director of the museum from 1967 to 1977 and who has published his own memoir, Making the Mummies Dance (1994), is an inveterate talker and one of Gross’s obvious favorites. (Montebello, who is Hoving’s temperamental opposite and who denied Gross the access he wanted, is treated distinctly uncharitably.) One result of these authorial preferences are the long stretches in the second half of the book in which well-known but marginal-to-the-story figures like Kirk Douglas and Katharine Hepburn make cameos, or others in which the reader encounters passages such as this: ‘Late in 1954, Leigh got a Mexican divorce from her husband, the son of the gossip columnist Suzy, and immediately married Portago. It didn’t last, in large part because he was still married to Carroll, so after he got Leigh pregnant, he hightailed it to Paris and reconciled with his first (and legally only) wife.’ While I haven’t included full names, sentences like these are somewhat bewildering even in context.

The larger tension underlying the myriad instances of backbiting and legal wrangling recounted in Rogues’ Gallery is between institutional elitism and democratic impulses. Should the Met emphasize conservative values, upholding aesthetic and institutional tradition even in the face of charges of exclusivity? Or should the doors be thrown open to the masses and the collection admit relatively new (and as yet unconsecrated) artworks by living artists? One virtue of Tomkins’s earlier book, largely missing from Gross’s study, is the extent to which the museum’s late-19th-century founders were vexed by this very question, and the emphasis they thus placed on the museum’s educational mission. After reading Rogues’ Gallery, it’s fair to think that, thanks to the efforts of Francis Henry Taylor, director of the museum from 1940 to 1955, and Hoving, the museum will never return to the insulated stance of its earliest decades. The difficulty, of course, is preventing the slide into exhibitions of Star Wars memorabilia. Montebello reconciled populist tendencies with scholarly standards, honouring obligations to both the art-world community and the public. While Gross’s chronicle of competing egos and the millions of dollars they control doesn’t capture the essence of the institution’s public value, it nonetheless renders vivid just how difficult it must be to maintain that balance.

Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and Michael Wolf, The Transparent City

Published in Print, April 2009.

The Destruction of Lower Manhattan
Danny Lyon
New York: Powerhouse, 160 pages. $50.

The Transparent City
Michael Wolf
New York: Aperture, 112 pages. $60.

In late 1966, after years spent drifting across the United States and documenting civil rights protesters, outlaws, and motorcyclists, the photographer Danny Lyon returned home to New York and settled in a loft downtown.

Surrounded by condemned buildings and not yet eager for more human subjects, Lyon set out to document the broad swaths of downtown being razed for two major infrastructure projects: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Side and the World Trade Center on the West Side. The resulting photographs, reprinted here from a 1969 volume, are solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings standing sentinel; the men responsible for bringing those structures down; and, in interior scenes, the marvelous accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. The nearly empty street scenes, in particular, recall Charles Marville’s documentation of condemned quarters in 1850s Paris (before Baron Haussmann forever altered that city) or Richard Nickel’s 1960s photographs of Louis Sullivan–designed buildings in Chicago. Lyon’s images resonate anew at a moment (after the attacks of September 11) when New York is once again attempting to resuscitate its downtown environs.

If downtown New York seems to be at the end of its tether in Lyon’s photographs, the spectacular views of todays’ Chicgao Loop captured by Michael Wolf depict a city in robust health. What predominates is the sense of activity: Thousands of miniature dramas of work and leisure play out behind steel-and-glass facades. From his perches on rooftops and in tall parking structures, Wolf’s telephoto lens tucks hints of these lives into the vertiginous, nearly disorienting compositions that admit neither sky nor ground. Best may be a nighttime scene in which a man with a telephoto lens “shoots back” from a giant flat-screen TV.

Mark Ruwedel, “Westward the Course of Empire”

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Published in Artforum, April 2009. To see additional images from the exhibition, as well as read the press release, click here. Last summer, Yale University Press published a book of Ruwedel’s photographic series, with an essay by Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. It is a remarkable book; I recommend it.

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there were 35,085 miles of operable railroad track in the United States. Eight years later that number had doubled. Midway between these dates, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the rails of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was near this site that photographer Mark Ruwedel was inspired to begin his series “Westward the Course of Empire,” 1994–2007. This exhibition brought together seventy-five of the small black-and-white photographs, which document the railroad lines, now abandoned, that knit together our country (and Canada) in an unprecedented wave of industrial ambition and governmental largesse. For centuries to come we will be untangling the ramifications of the historical process he charts.

Ruwedel is keenly aware of the palimpsest of physical interventions and imaginative representations that have altered both the landscape of North America’s western half and our perceptions of it. Anyone who depicts these arid plains and craggy mountains today necessarily enters into dialogue with a legion of antecedents, from late-nineteenth-century geographic-survey photographers to Earthworks artists who fanned out across the West a century later; from environmental pioneers like naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams to contemporary writers like John McPhee; and from atomic scientists seeking uninhabited test sites to real-estate developers hoping to turn ranchland into exurban subdivisions. Ruwedel’s carefully composed images, made with a large-format camera, bear traces of this complex legacy. In the foreground of Deep Creek #2, 1999, for example, a gate in a barbed-wire fence carries United States Air Force signs warning visitors to keep out and identifying the flat territory as a bombing and gunnery range. The lone wooden railroad tie in Carson and Colorado #6, 1997, is complemented by at least seven enormous upturned satellite dishes visible in the background.

The photographs also enter into dialogue with visual strategies familiar to viewers of contemporary art. Ruwedel’s installation of the photographs in small grids by type (tunnel mouths, cuts through rock formations, trestle bridges) recalls Bernd and Hilla Becher’s rigidly sorted documentation of heavy industry. So many straight lines proceeding toward the horizon, denuded first of vegetation and, decades later, of the wooden ties and steel rails themselves, bring to mind the photographic record of Richard Long’s walks in the landscape.

Despite these connections to other practices, Ruwedel’s photographs, with their magnificent placid compositions and unexpected details, encourage one to savor their intrinsic allure. In San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003, a trestle bridge spans the mouth of a canyon like a dark spiderweb. The tunnel entrance in Columbia and Western #21, 2000, seems like a portal to another world. The concrete pylons depicted in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #30, 2005, stand like an industrial-era Stonehenge in an otherwise empty landscape. Other photographs emphasize how nature has reclaimed some lost ground, subsuming humankind’s hubristic gestures within an inexorable vegetal creep. The give-and-take between man and nature will continue for as long as we persist. “Westward the Course of Empire” is an uncommonly sensitive survey of the evidential traces of that relationship’s recent history and a formidable aesthetic statement.

Three Events for the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition

The New Museum has posted information about the three events I have organized to accompany “Younger Than Jesus,” the museum’s forthcoming survey of fifty artists under the age of thirty-three. Those events are:

Then and Now: Redefining Generations” – Saturday, April 18, 3 PM
Artists Carroll Dunham, Joan Jonas, and Mira Schor discuss the sense of generational consciousness at the outset of their careers and today. How did artistic generations cohere several decades ago? Does being part of a particular generation mean the same meaning at the outset of an artist’s career as it does after one is established? How does writing or teaching undermine or reinforce the sense of belonging to a particular artistic generation?

Networked Equality: Technology and Access” – Saturday, May 30, 3 PM
Networked Equality is a conversation about the promises and limitations of technology, at home and abroad, with Ethan Zuckerman and Farei Chideya. To what extent is the Internet truly “global”? What steps can be taken to ensure those who do not speak English will have equal access to the Internet’s information? In the United States, how does class structure one’s relationship to the Internet? How does unfamiliarity with the Internet disadvantage individuals in today’s society?

Who Are Our Peers? A Conversation Across Creative Disciplines” – Saturday, June 13, 3 PM
Rob Giampietro, Marco Roth, and Astra Taylor discuss generational coherence, generational self-consciousness, peer networks, and other themes related to the exhibition The Generational: Younger Than Jesus. Do the definitions of “youth,” “emerging,” and other terms used in the contemporary art world translate to the worlds of graphic design, literary criticism, and independent filmmaking?

I will moderate all three discussions. For more information on the participants, click the title of the event to be taken to its page on the museum’s website.

“Whither Curatorial Studies?”

“Curatorial studies programs feed students into art museums, non-profit or university art centers, and commercial art galleries…. Working as a curator generally means intersecting with at least one of these art display institutions, whether or not the curatorial work is independent or salaried. Though these sites have different masters, different ‘employers’ so to speak, the non-profit and museum worlds in particular share certain professional similarities. Yet curatorial studies programs don’t seem designed to educate students about the expectations of these institutions.” Eva Diaz at the Art World Salon.

Department stores and modern art at the turn of the last century

I’ve just finished William Leach’s 1993 book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which “tells the story of a fundamental transformation in the culture and economy of America—the rise of mass-market consumerism and the attendant shift to a society ‘preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this.’” It is very good at tracing how networks of mutual support arose between big business and institutions (education and government in particular). What I did not expect to find was the following bit of information about the reception of modern art in the United States. While my radar sets off alarms about the categorical nature of its first sentence, the rest is fascinating:

It was in the department stores, not in the museums, that modern art and American art found their first true patrons. The pastel paintings of John La Farge, one of America’s most original colorists, appeared in the show windows and picture galleries of Marshall Field’s in 1902. Field’s conducted its “Hooser Salon,” a picture gallery for young artists from Indiana and Illinois. In 1910 Theodore Dreiser, in walks about Philadelphia, saw in Wanamaker’s a Fauve-style mural in four panels, depicting scenes from Parisian life, by the American Anne Estelle Rice. Hung above the first-floor elevator, it “suggested” to Dreiser “a sense of life and beauty.” “The light,” he raved, “the space, the daring, the force, the raw reds, greens, blues, mauves, whites, yellows!” (Rice, an artist trained in Paris at the Academy of Art, founded by Rodman Wanamaker, was to become one of Dreiser’s many female lovers.)

The Gimbel brothers, inspired by the Armory Show of 1913, became among the most ardent supporters of modern art, buying up Cézannes, Picassos, and Braques, and displaying them in their store galleries in Cincinnati, New York, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Five years later Carson, Pirie, Scott in Chicago exhibited the work of Americans Henri Bellows, William Glackens, and John Sloan in its new galleries on the fifth floor, as well as the paintings of the Taos Society of Artists of New Mexico.

John Wanamaker, the man most apt to advertise his stores as “public institutions,” was, not surprisingly, also the most innovative merchant of all in his display of art. He deplored the way museums jumbled pictures together “on the walls, destroying the effect of the finest things,” and month after month, to sustain customer interest, he rotated pieces in his personal collection from the store “studio” in Philadelphia—a Constable here, a Reynolds there, to say nothing of a Titian or a Turner, a Wanamaker favorite—to his New York store and back again. (Of the “moderns,” Wanamaker admired Manet the most.) He applied what he called the “new display principles,” setting a standard later followed by museum curators. He wanted to make art “breathe” by giving it plenty of space on the walls, as if it were to be sold. “What is not for sale,” he said, “is still for sale.” “Everything that is lovely, everything that is worthwhile needs the eyes of the merchant … to show it off to best advantage.”

I wonder what it must have been like for a housewife from Cleveland to come across, in 1916, a painting by Cézanne or Braques in her local department store. I also wonder to what extent such display strategies are acknowledged in a book like Bruce Altshuler’s recent Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History, Volume I: 1963–1959. Anyway, one thread of Leach’s book that may be interesting to readers of this site discusses the evolving relationship between curators at the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History and department store owners, industrial designers, and trade associations during the first decades of the last century.

UPDATE, 2/24: Alex Farquharson reviews Salon to Biennial in the current issue of Frieze magazine, and offers this summation and, in a parenthetical aside, a relevant detail:

The aim of Salon to Biennial is to offer direct access to archives normally consulted by professionals only: the bulk of its material consists of installation shots, reproductions of catalogues and publicity material, statements by its organizers and several reviews (ranging from the sympathetic to the vituperative). Consequently, Altshuler’s words – consistently insightful and measured – are restricted to the essentials (some readers will wish Altshuler had given himself more interpretative licence). Beginning 42 years – but only three exhibitions – before The Avant-Garde in ExhibitionSalon to Biennial is essentially a 20th-century narrative whose way is paved by ‘Salon des Réfusés’, the Impressionists’ break with the official Salon in 1863. Volume Onewisely leaves the reader on the brink of the 1960s, with ‘The New American Painting’ (1959) – Abstract Expressionism’s (and New York’s) supposed triumph over Europe – acting as a cliff-hanger.

More often than not, exhibitions are selected for the central role they played in ushering in key avant-garde tendencies, even if the original circumstances were touchingly modest (we learn that ‘The First Brücke Exhibition’ was held in a Dresden lighting shop, for example).

The article is available online to registered users of the magazine’s website.

79,936 AD – 80,495 AD

On Kawara, "One Million Years," installation view, David Zwirner Gallery, New York, 2009

Last Saturday, Valentine’s Day, I celebrated with my fiancée in a somewhat unconventional manner: For a little more than an hour, we read numbers aloud, from 79,936 to 80,495, in a small recording studio. We did so as part of artist On Kawara’s decades-long ongoing project One Million Years, which was being presented at David Zwirner Gallery. From the gallery’s description:

One Million Years is a monumental 20-volume collection, comprised of One Million Years [Past], created in 1969 and containing the years 998,031 B.C. through 1969 A.D., and One Million Years [Future], created in 1981 and containing the years 1996 A.D. to 1,001,995 A.D. Together these volumes make up 2,000,000 years. The subtitle for One Million Years [Past] is “For all those who have lived and died.” The subtitle for One Million Years [Future] is “For the last one.” Documenting the passage of chronological time, each leather hardbound volume  contains 2,068 photocopied pages. The size of each volume is 12 ¼ x 10 x 3 ¼ inches and weighs 8 lbs. 12 editions of [Past] were produced from 1970 to 1971, and 12 editions of [Future] from 1981 to 1998.

Since 1993, invited guests, in pairs, have been recording an audio version of the artwork that is later presented on CDs. Julia and I were the final participants in the first live recording of a public reading; prior to our session, four pairs a day had read, five days a week, for four weeks.

Kawara is perhaps best known for his “date paintings,” which is the colloquial name given to his “Today” series, begun in 1966. Each work in the series must be completed by midnight on the date it is started, and depicts the date (in white text on variously colored monochrome backgrounds) in the language and grammatical conventions of the country in which it is made. Each is made by hand, and accompanied by a cardboard box in which the painting rests when not on display; often a clipping from the day’s newspaper lines the interior of the box. I am a fan of Kawara’s art in general, and this series in particular, and have profited from the temporary suspension of the present afforded by viewing exhibitions of these paintings. Despite their specificity—JANUARY 25, 1966; 9.JULI 1976; 27 MAI 1993—I usually feel mildly unmoored from time’s ceaseless regularity as I contemplate them. The mental effort of reconciling the present to the past causes my sense of both to dilate and contract.

Somewhat to my surprise, then, while recording our allotted numbers I didn’t think much about the past, the future, or the passage of time. (At one point, though, I began to imagine what certain animals might look like after 78,000 years of additional evolution.) For the first half hour the predominant feeling, because the recording took place in the semi-public environment of an art gallery, was a performer’s self-consciousness. We were sitting in front of a large window and could see everyone who came into the gallery as clearly as they could see (and hear) us. It was less difficult than I had suspected to keep track of our place in the black binders full of pages printed with miniscule rows of numbers, and after a few minutes I began confidently acknowledging those on the other side of the glass by nodding my head. I waved at small children and at the many friends who trooped through the space in the final hours before the exhibition closed.

After a while, the experience shifted and became more intimate. My performance was for Julia. She was reading even numbers and I was reading odd numbers. Though in my concentration on the dates for which I was responsible I neglected to listen to the particular numbers she was reading, I was deeply aware of the sound of her voice  in my ear and of her physical presence at my side. The call-and-response became tinged, very subtly, with erotic feeling.

Being enclosed in an intimate space and on view to the public became a metaphor for the bond we share, and to which we had made a lifelong commitment just one week before. It didn’t feel like us against the world, but rather us in the world, indivisibly together. All too common are the tragic events in life that make you aware of the bonds that connect you to friends and lovers. Rarer are the happy occasions in which relationships are instantiated. I am grateful to On Kawara for inadvertently providing one to me.

“theanyspacewhatever”

Published on Afterall.org on February 5, 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Some claim that art historians and curators, like fashion designers in search of fresh inspiration, pillage the past chronologically. And because such fascinations, whether critical or sartorial, expend themselves quickly—it takes less than a decade to assess an earlier decade—the gap between present and past seems ever narrower. After the canonization of the Pictures generation and the recent upsurge of interest in the art of the 1980s (witness, for example, Artforum‘s issues of March and April 2003 or the 2006–2007 exhibition “The 80s: A Topology” at the Museu Serralves in Portugal), attempts to categorize and historicize the art of the ’90s are undoubtedly near.

With “theanyspacewhatever,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector took one of the first shaky steps toward imposing a historical structure upon the seemingly untameable aesthetic proliferation of the decade just past. The exhibition’s ten artists—Philippe Parreno, Angela Bulloch, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller, Maurizio Cattelan, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Douglas Gordon—were all participants in “Moral Maze,” a 1995 exhibition organized by Gillick and Parreno for Le Consortium in Djion, as well as in French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1996 exhibition “Traffic,” held at the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux. They were also, in varying ways, associated with relational aesthetics, the term Bourriaud coined two years later in his book of the same name. Despite Bourriaud’s expansive definition—”a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space”—some of these artists, of course, felt the term fit them like a corset. Their discomfort surely increased during the ensuing decade, as “relational aesthetics” was applied to nearly any artistic gesture, however unsubtle, that actively engaged viewer-participants—as if relational art was something to be subcontracted by museum education and programming departments. In “theanyspacewhatever” catalogue, Spector herself makes a point of distancing her show’s thesis from Bourriaud’s overarching framework. The exhibition’s fascination ultimately owed less to the artworks it included than to this particular effort.

anyspacewhatever_parreno

The regal glitz of Parreno’s all-white, message-free theater marquee, which hung above the museum’s entrance, was something of a red herring because there were few such iconic objects within. Spector instead emphasized the artists’ shared interest in expanding the definition of an exhibition. Indeed, the strongest contributions to the show were ephemeral, invisible, or to be experienced outside of the Guggenheim. Among them were Gonzalez-Foerster’s opening-weekend performance NY. 2022, a collaboration with the musician Ari Benjamin in which theatrical vignettes were performed to live music by an orchestra whose members slowly exited one-by-one; Parreno’s audio guide for the exhibition, in which world-champion memorizer Boris Konrad recited information about artworks and artists included in the show without the aid of the written materials he had scanned only once; and Huyghe’s book of iron-on patches depicting the museum’s interior and exterior spaces, available in the museum’s gift shop. Such interventions as Parreno and Huyghe’s creatively tweaked ossified museum conventions, a necessary effort at any cultural moment.

Yet however important it may be to think beyond the traditional exhibition, “theanyspacewhatever” foregrounded the way such thinking can also create an attenuated experience for museum visitors. For example, Höller’s inspired contribution to the show, a miniature hotel room on rotating platforms, provided a singular encounter for only the few individuals wealthy or connected enough to secure a night’s stay. Those visiting during regular hours were left with an inherently frustrating imaginative exercise while looking at Höller’s unexceptional objects. There was likewise little reason to engage with Gillick’s S-shaped benches or hanging stainless steel signage, the latter of which conflated institutional, theoretical, and vaguely poetic language to describe aspects of the exhibition or the building (“RIRKRIT FILM YOURSELF,” “CUCKOO SANCTUARY,” “VARIED ADMISSIONS,” “EXTERIOR INFORMATION,” read some). Gillick also contributed the show’s title, lifted from Gilles Deleuze; the “any-space-whatever” was the late French philosopher’s term for the peculiar brand of space created when disparate, but equally anonymous, film scenes are seamlessly cut together.

anyspacewhatever_holler

In the exhibition’s less successful works, the “activation of the social” that Spector champions necessarily rubbed against the behaviorally chastening environment of the institution, with its explicit and implicit rules and conventions. This friction is useful as a test of institutional flexibility in the face of radically new (and often difficult to categorize) art practices. It also prods those practices themselves, which are—until their presentation in a museum context—often sequestered within a realm of mutually recognized specialized knowledge that can stunt their broader effectiveness. Still, interesting as these considerations are, the particular experience of visiting this show was less rewarding.

There were other encumbrances. “theanyspacewhatever” aimed to make sense of what Spector sees as a shift away from mimetic representation that characterized the art of the mid-’90s, yet it used artworks almost exclusively created during the past two years to illustrate this point. The result was not the first United States survey of the mid-’90s relational/social/non-mimetic moment—which, since this moment occurred largely in European kunsthalles and museums, would have benefited American audiences—yet neither was it a coherent snapshot of any trend now taking place. Since the artists were first corraled, their individual practices necessarily diverged. Though they occasionally collaborate and, as Spector notes, their affiliation is still “grounded in friendship,” their interests are perhaps not as closely aligned as they once were. Originally invited to collectively formulate a scenario for the exhibition, it seems the ten artists met the prospect of erecting a monument to their past selves using current artworks with a profound ambivalence, a feeling everywhere apparent along the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp.

Irrespective of how one feels about these artists, their contribution to recent developments in art is incontrovertible. (To be clear, I myself am sympathetic to the art’s ends, skeptical of many of the means employed by the artists, largely disappointed by the art’s effects and suspicious of the ongoing credibility afforded several of them despite this gap between rhetoric and accomplishment.) Wresting control over the narrative of their contribution from Bourriaud’s catchy, all-pervasive and decreasingly meaningful shorthand is an appealing challenge—one Gillick, in particular, has set for himself in his own writings on maintaining “critical relationships to society.” But any attempts to do so in a museum environment will require more clearly delineated countervailing principles than this muddled exhibition offered. Instead, “theanyspacewhatever” made clear that the insertion of these practices into accepted art history will require a more thoughtful consideration of how they function outside the contemporary art world’s cocoon of benign acceptance.

Tiffany & Co. Heraldry Department

One of the books I read for class this week was Sven Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896. It’s a brisk, well-written account of, as its subtitle indicates, the development of a self-conscious upper class in New York during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Beckert, now a professor at Harvard, was a doctoral student at Columbia, and one can sense the influence of his dissertation adviser Eric Foner in this book. (Make of that what you will; I offer the comment solely to help locate it for those familiar with the historiography of the period.) Though it is primarily an economic and political history, it also incorporates some commentary on the upper-class culture of the period. As always with a good work of scholarship, an odd, telling detail or two will stick out of such a book like a coin gleaming on the sidewalk. In The Monied Metropolis, two examples of the excesses of New York’s bourgeoisie caught my eye.

The first follows from a quote from William Graham Sumner, an influential Yale professor and free-market advocate: “It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes. . . . On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact.” Beckert then adds the following piquant example:

As if to prove these observers right, bourgeois New Yorkers themselves enacted these class lines: Starting in 1898, annual Christmas feedings for the poor in Madison Square Garden attracted the rich and powerful, who would sit in the galleries and private boxes staring down at the city’s lower sorts (a full 20,000 of them) who ate below them.

A few pages later, discussing bourgeois New Yorkers’ attempts to appropriate European aristocratic culture, Beckert notes that “Tiffany & Co. opened a heraldry department in the 1870s to design coats of arms.” While a quick Lexis-Nexis search didn’t net anything about the annual event at Madison Square Garden, I am fascinated by the idea of Tiffany-designed fake heraldry, and suspect my friends Stuart and David, who run the organization Dexter Sinister, would be, too. Interestingly, an internet search led me to the website of the American Heraldry Society, which contains a page detailing the artistic creativity of the various coats of arms adopted by Congress throughout the nineteenth century. The last example included is The Tiffany Seal Emblazonment, designed by James Horton Whitehouse—perfect name!—in 1885. Here is the description:

In 1881, with the centennial of Independence having just passed and that of the adoption of the great seal just around the corner, a wave of public interest in the seal and arms, combined with the worn condition of the existing dies, led the Department of State to make inquiries about contracting for a new engraving of the great seal. In 1883, the New York firm of jewelers, Tiffany & Company, was selected for the job, and turned to its chief designer, James Horton Whitehouse, to prepare the drawings. Meanwhile, however, the department official in charge of the seal had contacted a number of luminaries in a variety of fields for advice on the design. These included the country’s leading botanist (for advice on the olive branch), an eminent professor of art history at Harvard, the same college’s librarian, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the well-known author Edward Everett Hale, and the two most prominent American heraldists of the day, William H. Whitmore and William S. Appleton of the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Committee on Heraldry. The “experts” debated virtually every component of the design: Should the arrows be conventional barbed arrows or stone-headed arrows in the American Indian style? Should an American olive or European olive branch be used? Should the eagle be portrayed heraldically or naturalistically? Should the tips of the wings be pointed up or down? How many feathers should be in its tail?

With all this debate, it’s a miracle that Whitehouse ever finished the job, let alone that he produced the beautifully executed emblazonment that has graced the great seal ever since. In fact, he may have done the job too well. Combined with a spirit of bureaucratic standardization that characterized the late 19th and early 20th centuries–it was the era in which numerous state legislatures fixed the design of state arms according to fixed models–the artistic quality of the Tiffany rendering soon drove almost all other emblazonments out of official use. Whitehouse’s staid, dignified, but static eagle, drove the fierce birds off of the Army’s regimental colors and the Navy’s Presidential flag. When federal agencies whose seals featured the national arms had the dies re-cut, they almost invariably directed that the new dies match the rendering of the arms on the great seal. Indeed, ever since 1885, whenever the Department of State has needed to replace a worn-out seal, it has mandated that the replacement replicate the Tiffany design almost exactly. The only change, almost imperceptible, was the addition of tiny dots indicating the color gold among the rays of the glory in the crest, introduced in the die produced by Max Zeitler of Bailey, Banks and Biddle in 1904. Since then, the production of a new great seal has involved no artistic creativity, while the production of other items on which the arms are traditionally used, from uniform cap badges to passport covers, has been little more than a cookie cutter operation. In the process, a vibrant heritage of heraldic artistry has been sadly lost.

A small image of Whitehouse’s design is available at the link above. I would love to see some examples of the Tiffany heraldry department’s work for prominent New York families, and wonder how easily one might be able to extrapolate information about the period and its elites’ aspirations from such visual material.

Notebook: Interview with Kathleen A. Foster

My interview with Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art and director of the Center of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has been published on Artforum.com. Over the course of two decades, Foster has researched the life and art of Thomas Chambers, a mid-nineteenth-century American painter who specialized in marine paintings and landscapes. Her exhibition of his work, “Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter, 1808–1869,” was on view last autumn at the Philadelphia Museum, and opens this Sunday at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York. It will subsequently travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Perhaps because of its future presentation in New York, the Times didn’t review the exhibition while it was in Philadelphia. Edward Sozanski, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s art critic, did, as did Sanford Schwartz, in the New York Review of Books, who had this to say:

We are left with a painter who may have chosen, because he saw a ready, paying audience for it, to work in a kind of flat, unillusionistic, decorative style—or who was simply unable to paint or draw, like his brother George in England, in a more “lifelike” or realistic way. Whatever his motivations, Chambers’s sense of space, shape, and color, far from becoming dim or anemic over time, probably seems more robust and delicious today than in his own day. At the very least, his gleaming, Technicolor world will make a few would-be painters among viewers think that maybe they can finally take a stab at it.

With his inflamed coppery skies, distant lavender-touched mountain ranges, parakeet-green waterfalls, countless ways of showing white-capped waves, and dark forests highlighted with patches of orangy-red and ivory-white, Chambers’s pictures can flood your senses with the excitement of carnival color and intuitive brushwork. Mountains loom, pathways dip and rise, clouds dance across the sky, and the sails of his ships billow (or crumble in images of naval warfare) according to, it seems, some impetuous sense of design. Even his largest pictures, which are some four feet wide (most are in the vicinity of two and a half feet wide), have about them the spirit of sketches that have been worked up. We look at bold, clear-cut areas of light and dark, seemingly thrown into place with a rhythmic assurance.

Foster wrote the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, which is co-published by the Philadelphia Museum and Yale University Press.

Luigi Ghirri, “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It”

Published in Artforum, February 2009. To learn more about the book that accompanied this exhibition, click here.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

This was Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s first New York solo exhibition in over seven years, and coincided with Aperture’s publication of the first English-language monograph dedicated to the artist. Ghirri, who worked consistently from the early 1970s until his death in 1992, should be better known in the United States, not only on the merits of his intelligent, subtly mischievous color photographs but also because American audiences will find in these images the traits they cherish in their own canonical figures from the era. They will detect, for instance, similarities to prints by chance-oriented Conceptual provocateurs like John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler and Southern color masters like William Eggleston and William Christenberry. Yet there’s no mistaking that Ghirri was an Italian photographer. His landscapes’ flat, white sunlight and washed-out palette of stone, sand, and sky; his obvious love for the cities and people of Emilia-Romagna; and his metaphysical concern with the constructed reality of the image locate him indelibly within Italy as both place and art-historical precedent.

Ghirri’s constant probing of the distinction between “reality” and “artifice” came through forcefully in this exhibition of some one hundred pictures, most of which date from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The images whimsically conflate people and objects with painted backdrops (one series is revealingly titled Topography-Iconography,” 1978–92); or depict mirrors and windows that create compositions the camera dutifully records, but to which the eye and mind acclimate only with time; or upend expectations about scale; and occasionally employ darkroom sleight of hand. “My duty is to see with clarity,” Ghirri once wrote, and what his clarity communicates, with consummate humor, grace, and rigor, is that things are not always what they seem—and that this can be a source of unceasing wonder.

To this end, the exhibition included photographs of map details of the Atlantic Ocean and constellations in the night sky; cafeteria diners in front of a park scene printed on wallpaper; a bland institutional interior with a rolling, grid-partitioned mirror reflecting a man on a weight-lifting bench; tourists roaming like Gullivers through a miniature copy of Venice’s Piazza San Marco; and a self-portrait taken in the reflection of a Parisian shop window that also depicts, mysteriously, an oval mirror (and what it reflects) where the camera lens should be. Parma, 1985, is an interior view of a grand hall in an anonymous Italian palazzo that shows, head-on, a dark wood confessional. What is initially simple becomes increasingly strange: On the wall behind the booth is a peeling image of Corinthian columns receding into an even grander “hall”; to the left is part of a large, empty, golden painting frame that partly overlaps with the frame of a high window, which is itself the source of an oblong glimmer of light cast onto the floor.

The inclusion, in a blue-painted room-within-a-room, of Ghirri’s portraits of the studios kept by architect and theorist Aldo Rossi and painter Giorgio Morandi, both made between 1989 and 1990, highlighted the modern order underpinning Ghirri’s postmodern playfulness. That tension is evident in nearly all of the photographs included here. American viewers of this exhibition who came thinking of their own artistic forebears might have departed wondering about the protean artist’s Italian contemporaries, like Italo Calvino, creator of uncompromisingly ordered yet fantastical fictional words, and the Memphis Group, designers of brightly colored furniture and products with a heretical bent. It is a testament to Ghirri’s talent that he fits comfortably in both American and Italian contexts.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Lecia Dole-Recio

Published on Artforum.com on January 20, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.), 2008.

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.), 2008.

Few lines align with the edges of the compositions in Lecia Dole-Recio’s new works. Nearly five years after her busy cut-and-paste collages of vellum, paper, and gouache were presented in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, this exhibition, the artist’s first New York solo show, presents eight pieces that maintain an equivalent sense of dynamism despite having far more subdued surfaces. In Untitled (prpl.rd.orng.lnn.) (all works 2008), large blocks of bright red, rendered in acrylic, angle across the linen canvas, their edges picked out with contrasting strokes in orange; in Untitled (blk.lns.bl.lnn.), broad swaths of azure, cut diagonally by slashes of black, float against a green background like linens out to dry. Dole-Recio now often works with stencils, a fact readily apparent in Untitled (red.cppr.lnn.), in which long, thin rectangles in copper, gray, purple, and white overlap atop haphazardly applied pinks that range from cherry blossom to near crimson. These forms appear to be enlarged versions of the rectangular cutouts in several small works on paper, which, with their off-kilter circles and rectangles sliced into or composed of cardboard and then painted, serve as links to the works presented at the Whitney. But if those earlier collages fetishized each of the artist’s choices, and their cuts perhaps symbolized the precedents she was excising from the history of formalist modernism, a glorious new canvas like Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.) gives evidence of the ways in which Dole-Recio, now more confident, deploys her chosen vocabulary. An explosion of stenciled curves in gray, dark green, black, and safety-alert orange wells up from the bottom of the painting like fireworks or a peacock’s plumage and is loosely coordinated with similar semicircles visible beneath a golden ground. In this work, as throughout the show, order and disorder are held in captivating balance.

Notebook: Lecia Dole-Recio review

Lecia Dole-Recio, Detail from <i>Untitled (blk.wht.crvs.cnvs.)</i>, 2008, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 62 x 59"

Lecia Dole-Recio, Detail from Untitled (blk.wht.crvs.cnvs.), 2008, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 62 x 59"

My review of Lecia Dole-Recio’s new exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery, on view until February 7, has just been published on Artforum.com. Images of the show’s artworks are available on the gallery website; the artist also has an exhibition on view right now in Los Angeles, at Richard Telles Fine Art, where you can see more images of her art and read her bio. When Dole-Recio participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, I wrote a brief catalogue essay describing her work that is now available on my website. My friend Michael Ned Holte, whose writing I referenced in my recent review of Sharon Lockhart’s new film, has also written about Dole-Recio; his February 2006 review of her last Los Angeles gallery exhibition is available here.

UPDATE, 1/22: Christopher Knight reviews the exhibition at Richard Telles for the Los Angeles Times.

Notebook: New Sharon Lockhart film

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD, 83 minutes.

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD, 83 minutes.

My review of Sharon Lockhart’s new film Lunch Break (2008), which will be presented this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, has just been published on Artforum.com. In a nod to the detailed “notebook” posts Caleb Crain publishes at his (consistently excellent) blog, which offer notes and background information on his essays and reviews, I’ll try here to present some context for my comments on the film. What follows will make more sense if you click on the phrase “my review” at the outset of this post and read it first.

The first thing that should be taken into consideration is that Lunch Break is part of a larger project that includes another, shorter film, titled Exit (2008), and several series of photographs. In order to write this review, I watched the two films but did not have access to images of the photographs.

The second thing to note is that my review is based on watching a DVD copy of the film at home, and that very few people who endeavor to see Lunch Break—whether in a cinema setting, as at Sundance, or in a gallery—will see it as I did. When the film was premiered recently, at Secession in Vienna, it was housed in a custom-designed hallway-like cinema created by the Los Angeles–based architecture firm Escher GuneWardena. Click here to see installation views from and read about that exhibition. Lockhart has collaborated with this firm on the design of past installations, examples of which can be found at the firm’s website.

In preparation for writing, I re-read several reviews of and essays about Lockhart’s work. One that is available online was written by my friend Michael Ned Holte on the occasion of Lockhart’s last film-and-photograph project, Pine Flat (2005). His essay can be found here. Pine Flat was generally well-received, and I enjoyed it both in a gallery environment (at Barbara Gladstone in New York) and in a cinema setting (at the Museum of Modern Art). For a dissenting view, read this review by Jerry Saltz, which was originally published in the Village Voice.

In my review of Lunch Break, I mention recent films by Tacita Dean, Mark Lewis, and James Benning. A web-quality clip of Dean’s film Kodak (2006) is available online at Ubu.com. [Thanks to Martin Herbert for pointing out the link.] A handful of stills, however, are available at Kultureflash. James Quandt discussed the film in a November 2006 review of Dean’s exhibition at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland, and I wrote about the film, which I saw at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007, in the premiere issue of the magazine Paper Monument. Lewis’s film Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002) is available (in a web-quality version) at his personal website. I saw that film in an exhibition at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies circa 2002 or 2003, and later reviewed Lewis’s first New York solo show for Artforum. Lastly, I saw James Benning’s RR (2007) at a New York Film Festival press screening and other recent films of his at a screening last September at Dia Beacon, where the filmmaker also spoke before an audience with curator Lynne Cooke. There is an avalanche of commentary on this film available online, much of it capably rounded up by David Hudson at GreenCine Daily, his former blog. Cinema Scope magazine has also made available online a long interview with Benning.

Lastly, the film is a study of the workers at the Bath Iron Works, in Bath, Maine. The company website is located here, but even more information about it, including a list of the ships it has built (primarily for the US Navy), is available at this Wikipedia page.

I’m unsure where and when Lockhart’s recent series will appear in New York, but I’ll update this post whenever I find out.

Sharon Lockart, Lunch Break

Published as “Parts and Labor” on Artforum.com on January 15, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Lockhart’s latest films depict employees at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. Lunch Break (2008), the longer of the two, is notable first for the artist’s decision to set the camera in motion, something she has not done in any of her previous films. (Exit [2008], a related, forty-one-minute study of repetition and difference that depicts workers leaving the facility on five consecutive days, maintains a fixed camera position.) In a long, uninterrupted tracking shot, the camera in Lunch Break traverses at midday what appears to be the spinal cord of the shipyard—a long, uninterrupted passageway—as several dozen employees eat, read the newspaper, and talk in small groups. Most of the workers (all but one are men) do not engage with the camera, perhaps a result of the fact that, as with Pine Flat (2005), Lockhart’s study of children in a small California town, the artist spent considerable time conducting quasi-ethnographic research to familiarize herself with the “community” of shipbuilders, electricians, welders, and pipefitters before capturing it on film.

Sharon Lockhart, still from Lunch Break, 2008.

Sharon Lockhart, still from Lunch Break, 2008.

Though the camera moved, the footage it gathered has been slowed down dramatically: Six minutes pass before the first figure is beyond the frame, and another seven elapse before the camera reaches the next trio of relaxing employees. As it progresses, every detail of the claustrophobically hemmed-in environment is revealed in sharp focus: dented garbage cans and putty-colored lockers, some adorned with stickers; olive-green tool chests and brightly colored plastic coolers; gauges that cling to pipes stretching from floor to ceiling; and tubes and hoses that extend every which way, all beneath drab, uniform fluorescent light. The dilatory pace emphasizes the sheer amount of material (and visual detail) packed in to this place, and highlights how successfully 35-mm film can capture that plenitude. But the unhurriedness also imparts a monumental solemnity to each of the workers’ gestures, which can undercut the film’s tight structure in both negative and positive ways. A man sitting to the left of the aisle with a water bottle in hand, momentarily looking at the floor, becomes, when slowed down, a despondent ruminator seemingly lifted from one of Bill Viola’s histrionic video installations. On the other hand, when, midway through the film, another man reaching above the lockers pulls a bag of popcorn out of an unseen microwave, the humor of his banal action deflates the portentousness that can cloud such snail-paced scrutiny.

Lockhart’s deadpan gaze, it should be noted, is in fact far removed from Viola’s schmaltzy recent work. Lunch Break is more closely related to films such as Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006), a poker-faced threnody that memorializes the last days in the factory in France where Dean’s preferred film stock was made, or Mark Lewis’s Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002), in which the camera glides seamlessly along an elevated walkway through a south London housing project, capturing children at play on the sidewalks below. All three infuse sharply delineated formal parameters with content extraneous to that structure. (As Michael Ned Holte has noted elsewhere, Lockhart does not make strictly structuralist films; the same can be said about Dean and Lewis’s rigorous work.) Lunch Break is described as part of Lockhart’s new series “about the present state of US labor,” but the film discloses little concerning this ambitious remit. (For example, nowhere is it explained that the Bath Iron Workers’ labor is put to very particular ends: The company is part of the General Dynamics conglomerate and a major supplier of destroyers to the US Navy.) The employees’ idleness might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which our economy has ground to a halt, but Lockhart remains a better portraitist and formalist than analyst or polemicist.

The same can be said of James Benning, who is perhaps the single greatest influence on Lockhart’s moving-image corpus and who edited Lunch Break and helped supervise its sound. (For example, RR [2007], his wondrous latest film, is diminished somewhat by its didactic sound track selections.) He has, with composer Becky Allen, given Lunch Break a deep, consistent, ambient industrial drone (similar to Dean’s Kodak) that is punctuated occasionally by the clang of metal against metal. Snippets of conversation and, at one point, a Led Zeppelin song bubble up to the surface of the mix as the camera passes by plausible sources for the sounds. The disjunction between edited sounds seemingly played at normal speed and a slowed-down image helps articulate the constructed nature of Lockhart’s elegant, if seemingly transitional, film.

Rodney McMillian

Published in Artforum, January 2009.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

“The challenge of the next half century,” said Lyndon B. Johnson at the University of Michigan in 1964, “is whether we have the wisdom to use [our] wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” Los Angeles–based artist Rodney McMillian, who in recent years has delivered Johnson’s famous “Great Society” speech at numerous art venues, might argue that the past fifty years have not lived up to the former president’s hopeful vision. McMillian’s art has, without seeming merely didactic, patiently explored the social fissures—in particular, those along racial and economic lines—that still rend our “great” society. At the Kitchen, the artist presented an installation (inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road) that drew on the power of sacred architecture to elevate his secular concerns. On their own, the paintings, sculptures, and photographs may seem somewhat abstract, largely divorced from current events. Considered in the context of McMillian’s earlier artworks, however, they become a forceful, plangent lament for the degrading inequities many in America still encounter every day.

Five mural-size, bannerlike paintings hung on the walls of the gallery; interspersed among them were columns of framed black-and-white photographs, found at flea markets and antique stores, depicting anonymous individuals and couples young and old. At the center of the space rested a dirty old rug and an armchair, both doused with red paint, beneath a six-pointed canopy made of white paper and tape. A pile of Internet printouts of nursey-rhyme lyrics (“John Brown Had a Little Soldier,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep”)—intoned by an actor during a performance at the show’s opening reception—was laid on the chair. The unstretched paintings depict part of a brick house, tree branches, and what may be interpreted (somewhat liberally) as a figure being torn apart; all are awash in scarlet. A fourth canvas is an abstract agglomeration of red, white, and black paint that resembles viscera. The title of Edmund Wilson’s study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, came immediately to mind while I looked at these works, as did painter Barnaby Furnas’s enormous crimson floods. (The installation as a whole also evoked Robert Gober’s sober 2005 exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery.)

In McMillian’s 2006 exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles, eighteen cardboard-and-duct-tape “minimalist objects,” made to look like coffins, were arranged haphazardly throughout the space. These works foregrounded precisely what our government was at the time taking great pains to obscure—images of dead American soldiers. By deploying at the Kitchen a spatial arrangement that imbued the gallery with a sacred aura, McMillian even more powerfully dredged up the violence that has underpinned American history and offered an ironic counterpoint to the rhetoric of hope embodied by Johnson’s space (and those of today’s politicians). Whereas McCarthy, in his book, looks forward, McMillian plays the role of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, pushed forward while looking back upon a landscape of ruins.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

In the elated afterglow of Barack Obama’s election on November 4, during which time I first viewed the exhibition, the disenchantment and anxiety that characterize McMillian’s installation risked seeming anachronistic. But as that moment passes and we enter more fully into our own historical crisis, we will come to depend increasingly on eloquent, historically aware interpreters of our tumultuous era. In the introduction to his book, Wilson asked, “Has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861–1865 in which so many people were so articulate?” We are not as fortunate in today’s culture of distraction. Yet McMillian, with this exhibition, proves he is among the artists to whom we should look.

Rene Daalder, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader

Published as “Lost, Not Found” on Artforum.com on December 3, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

The Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader arrived in California in the late 1960s, created a small, potent body of lyric artworks, and then was lost at sea in 1975. He has received increasing attention in recent years, yet he remains a mystery. Rene Daalder’s documentary, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader (2007), is a useful if pedestrian addition to the spate of exhibitions and publications honoring the artist, and its flaws highlight why we may never come close to understanding Ader’s fateful decision to sail across the Atlantic in the Ocean Wave (a twelve-and-a-half-foot sailboat).

First and foremost, the romance of Ader’s disappearance has seduced Daalder into inserting himself more forcefully into the narrative than his association with Ader would seem to invite. (The already brief sixty-six-minute documentary would be half as long if it focused solely on its ostensible subject.) Second, most of the interviewees—Mary Sue Ader-Anderson, the artist’s widow; Ader’s classmates and students; younger artists influenced by his work—offer little insight into his practice or legacy; only artist Tacita Dean, who made a film about the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who also died at sea, speaks eloquently about Ader’s importance to younger practitioners. The film likewise neglects to situate Ader fully within his artistic context, references to Chris Burden and “macho” American artists notwithstanding.

The documentary, created at the behest of Ader-Andersen, dutifully traces the artist’s early life in the Netherlands, his passage to the United States as the only crew member on a sailboat from Morocco, his student days and marriage (and, irritatingly, Daalder’s simultaneous B-movie work in Hollywood), the travails of his short career, and, of course, In Search of the Miraculous, the three-part artwork of which his solo voyage across the sea was one part. With only this biographical material as ballast, it seems inevitable that Daalder would posit Ader’s early life as the greatest influence on his art, and indeed a children’s book written by his mother and an impromptu bicycle journey to Jerusalem taken by his pastor father are, to the filmmaker, what animated Ader’s practice and ill-fated final adventure.

It is no doubt difficult to see past Ader’s untimely disappearance to the milieu in which he worked while alive, and the temptation to see Ader’s entire career as inexorably leading to In Search of the Miraculous must be great. But working with the full support of Ader-Andersen and the artist’s estate, one would expect that Daalder could have come up with more. He presents some previously unseen footage, and the DVD edition possesses the unequivocal benefit of including several of Ader’s film works on a second disc. As it stands, though, should another filmmaker ever gain equal access to the artist’s archives, colleagues, and artistic inheritors, much remains to be explored.

Rene Daalder’s Here Is Always Somewhere Else

Not long after I moved to New York in 2001, I was hired by a gallery on far west Twenty-second Street. At the time the curator (and now Greene Naftali Gallery director) Jay Sanders and the artist Richard Aldrich were working on the same block, and we comprised an unofficial Bas Jan Ader fan club. We passed photocopies of essays about him back and forth like contraband and eagerly discussing the finer points of his art and its interpretation. In the intervening years Ader has been definitively taken up by the art world at large. (I recognize, of course, that that process was well under way when I first discovered his work.) In 2005, as part of PERFORMA, Jay organized a screening of Rene Daalder’s then in-progress documentary about the artist. Unfortunately I missed the event, but that film, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader, was completed last year and has now been released on DVD. Unfortunately it is rather disappointing, as my review (just published on Artforum.com) makes fairly clear, though its faults are instructive. It was tempting to go on at length about Ader in this review, but eventually I decided that this wasn’t the appropriate venue. I still harbor the desire, somewhere deep down, to write at length about Ader’s work—or, rather, Ader’s work itself and the experience of encountering it directly after imbibing the myth that now surrounds him.

Interview: William Chapman Sharpe

William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950. To get a sense of what Sharpe attempts in the volume, click here to read the book’s description and here to read the introduction (warning: PDF link), which Princeton University Press has made available via its website. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 27, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve spent my entire professional life engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.

Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.

It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called “nocturnes”) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.

But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flâneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flâneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century the flâneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.

The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flashlit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.

In the book’s epilogue I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude upon this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Michael Wolf

The Asia- and Europe-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago, “Transparent City,” goes on view this week at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just published by Aperture. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

The experience of photographing in America was not much different from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn’t sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid I’d feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport. It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later, the deal was done.

I had thought about working in New York, in part because I’ve worked so long with what I call “architecture of density” in Hong Kong. But there are logistic problems in New York that don’t arise in Chicago. In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they’re more loosely structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr and printed out every photo of the city’s downtown Loop, then drew red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.

I began my series “Architecture of Density” by photographing close-ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s downtown high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.

It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance the faraway with the up close.

I don’t consider these works portraits; I’m not doing a portrait of Chicago. In fact, the city’s characteristics don’t really figure into my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge’s rooms are in the corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Sharon Core at Yancey Richardson Gallery

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg, 2007, color photograph, 17 x 23".

Over the weekend my review of Sharon Core’s new exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery was published on Artforum.com. It begins: “What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition ‘Early American’ that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions.” The title of her exhibition references her use of early American painter Raphaelle Peale’s still-life paintings as sources. In browsing catalogues, monographic studies, and journal articles about Peale while preparing the review, I came across one book that seems particularly interesting: Alexander Nemerov’s The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812–1824 (University of California Press, 2001). Core’s exhibition remains on view until December 6; for a selection of images that are larger than the ones available on the gallery website, please visit this post on the The Moment, the T style magazine blog.

Sharon Core, “Early American”

Published on Artforum.com on November 9, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition “Early American” that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions. Core’s muse for this body of work, the early American painter Raphaelle Peale, is smartly chosen. In the past two decades, scholarship about the hundred-odd still lifes he created in Philadelphia between 1812 and 1824 has elucidated their strangeness, a fact that gives an added edge to the ten small-scale photographs presented here. As with her earlier series, Core’s pictures are approximations of a painted precedent once removed: Instead of working from Peale’s canvases, which, like Thiebaud’s, reside in museums scattered around the world, Core has re-created with uncanny accuracy color reproductions of his compositions found in books. In some works, she has left behind the strict mimesis of her Thiebaud series in an attempt to “inhabit” Peale’s prephotographic visual imagination. There is a palpable tension between the uncomplicated attractiveness of the luscious, softly lit, exacting images—of watermelons and day lilies, of bruised and rotting apples in a porcelain basket, of a dimpled ostrich egg and strawberries—and the elaborate means by which they were created. Not only did Core have to source the antique bowls, plates, and utensils that appear in the photographs, but she also needed to secure (and, one suspects, artificially age, prune, and otherwise prepare) the produce that takes center stage, as well as arrange her quarry and light it meticulously. The gracefulness of the resultant images masks—but only barely—her efforts, and the hall-of-mirrors instability they instigate.

Joel Sternfeld, “Oxbow Archive”

Published in Artforum, November 2008. To see images from the exhibition, click here.

In a passage in his journal dated February 5, 1855, Henry David Thoreau asserted, “In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or characters of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” The thirteen large-scale color photographs in this exhibition chronicle the weather and the characters of the day in and around a single meadow in Northampton, Massachusetts, from July 29, 2005, to April 20, 2007. The site, famously depicted in a heroic Thomas Cole landscape that was painted in 1836 and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is characterized by a small loop of water (called an oxbow) that juts out from the Connecticut River. It encircles a series of meadows, and similarly flat land extends away from the river’s outer banks.

At this site Joel Sternfeld has catalogued, with Thoreauvian attention to detail, the variety and bounty of what the photographs’ titles identify as the East Meadows. In these images, one glimpses the twisting silhouettes of denuded trees framed against a pink-gray March sky; a horizontal expanse of melting late-winter snow placidly reflecting the clouds massed above it; steam rising off puddles of water as the Earth, in spring, returns to life; and the tracks of truck wheels rolling off into the distance, bathed in an orange summer glow. Cole described the view from nearby Mount Holyoke as the “grandest prospect in North America,” but Sternfeld observes this place with an unsentimental eye. And, unlike his series “American Prospects,” 1978–86, which deliberately charts human incursions into the landscape, these photographs see Sternfeld largely ignoring the greatest of such intrusions—nowhere, for example, does one find Interstate 91, which runs north-south across the oxbow. (In a related catalogue, however, additional images depicting abandoned campsites, roads cutting through cornfields, and more truck tracks appear.) In this sense, the photographs in “Oxbow Archive” continue the placidity that characterized “Sweet Earth,” the series, mostly made in the mid-’90s, depicting American utopian communes that Sternfeld exhibited at this gallery in fall 2005.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

To see this cycle of days and seasons unfolding ninety miles west of Boston would chasten any urbanite; while Thoreau and his peers were intimately familiar with this landscape and its intervals of growth and decay, many people today would be hard-pressed to identify its plant species. That such knowledge is now alien to a large share of the population highlights the disconnect between humans and their environment that is causing problems far greater than can be understood in two years’ study of one small patch of land. One at a time, these pictures prompt humility before nature’s variegated plenitude. In aggregate, as they chart how and when the seasons change, they bear witness to inexorable forces that will fundamentally alter such patterns in the future.

This is not to suggest such concerns prompted Sternfeld’s photographic journal, though by including the word archive in his title one is given some license to think so. It is, however, to state that the vocation of careful attention evidenced by these works prompted one viewer to attempt such diligent watchfulness of the world around him. The pictures themselves, with their flat, thin, dispersed northern light and their carefully considered compositions, are arresting, and function well both within Sternfeld’s oeuvre and as their own aesthetic statement.

Interview: Sara VanDerBeek

Artist Sara VanDerBeek, who, with her brother, Johannes VanDerBeek, and Anya Kielar, owns Guild & Greyshkul gallery, is the daughter of experimental filmmaker and animator Stan VanDerBeek, who died in 1984. Guild & Greyshkul presents an exhibition of Stan VanDerBeek’s work from September 13 to October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on September 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

The process of organizing our father’s estate and putting together this exhibition has been intensely emotional and very exciting for both Johannes and me. When he passed away in 1984, only a few months after an initial diagnosis of cancer, there were no instructions regarding how his artworks should be cared for or organized. Everything was piled up in his office, and it was eventually split up among various family members. Only recently, as the administrative aspects of handling the estate have become too difficult for our mother, and as our father’s first wife asked us to handle the artworks in her possession, have we realized the scope of what he kept. It turns out that much of what went into making the films and multimedia installations remains extant, but not much has been done to organize it. We spread everything out in the empty gallery this summer and began to piece it together, a process made difficult by the fact that sometimes only photographic documentation remains to guide us in reconstructing moving-image and three-dimensional artworks. To that end, I describe some of these works as “approximations.”

Johannes and I initially decided to present an overview of our father’s career, but now that we’ve installed the exhibition, we realize that it focuses on his involvement with language—in particular his desire to create a means of universal communication using images. There are many early works, from the 1950s and early ’60s, some of which an audience familiar with his work might not know. The show includes a twelve-part series of paintings from around 1956 that combines small images with words and seems to us to mark the beginning of his experimentation with animation. With certain works like the fax mural and Violence Sonata [1969], the show touches on his experiments with then-new technologies, which occurred with increasing frequency from the late ’60s until his death, but which we realized could constitute another show in itself.

One challenge is presenting this work in a gallery context. While he was collegial with a wide range of people—from scientists and computer programmers at places like MIT and Bell Labs to artists like Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine, who is the main performer in a film we’re exhibiting—he remained most closely involved with the experimental-film, -media, and -animation communities. He never worked with a commercial art gallery during his lifetime, and the majority of the items he chose for his CV were performances, screenings, multimedia events, and residencies. This is, like everything else, a problem compounded by the facts that we’re his children and that we have very different ideas about how to present the work than he might have had. Finding that balance has been both a challenge and a pleasure.

Some decisions were easier than others. For example, we’re presenting a whole wall of collages, most of which our father signed and dated, which indicates to us that despite the fact that he used them in animations, they are themselves finished artworks. Making his animations was such a time- and work-intensive process that I can’t imagine many such collages survived, and he would want to present the ones that did, whether as artworks or as concrete documentation of that process. Something I really enjoy about seeing these works together with the films is the shift in scale: They are all quite small, especially in comparison with how large the images become when projected onto a wall.

All this, of course, bears on my own art. Earlier this summer, I went away from New York and came up with an idea for a large multipart photographic work. When I returned and was laying out one of my father’s fax murals, I realized that the gathering of different framed images that I had imagined must have been directly influenced by him. The re-presentation of images from his archive that I had done in earlier photographs of mine also crops up in his work: He not only used found imagery but reappropriated images from his earlier work in later pieces. Symbols and themes—hammers that hit people on the head in comical ways, forks flying through the air and poking people in the eye, using images of eyes to direct viewers’ attention—recur through his films.

We hope that the way we’ve organized the exhibition will allow artists working today to connect with our father’s practice. He was also an incredible writer, and we’re presenting some of that material, along with drawings, on tables in the gallery. His utopian desires—the Movie-Drome [1963–65], the fact that he lived for some time on a piece of land owned by an artists’ cooperative—and his wry take on contemporary politics seem particularly relevant today.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Nicole Eisenman

During the past fifteen years, New York–based artist Nicole Eisenman has created a self-aware and psychologically probing body of work that includes installations, animations, drawings, and, with increasing focus, paintings. “Coping,” an exhibition of new paintings and monoprints, opens today at Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin and will remain on view until October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on September 6, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I made the paintings in this exhibition throughout the past year, gravitating, as I often do, to particular images (both found and imagined). I put them in drawings and then on canvas, initially working on one at a time and then on several at once. When selecting paintings for the show and thinking about them as a group, I realized that they are all somewhat depressed or depressing and that what ties them together is their embodiment of different notions of coping. The world can be a depressing place these days. I don’t think I’m depressed—though I did experience something akin to a midlife crisis recently—but the state of the world, and my opinion of it, necessarily filters into the work.

The earliest painting in the show is Coping; it depicts people trudging through muck in a town setting, which directly preceded a revelation I had in the studio that it was time to try painting interiors. That in turn led to the canvas that depicts me in a therapist’s office. But the epiphany about painting interior spaces was less about the subject matter than it was about my need to push myself formally. I frequently paint vague outdoor scenes, like Coping or The Fagend, in which the figures are placed in an artificial, tableaulike environment. If you take the figures out of The Fagend, it’s just a big bunch of abstract blocks with patterns on them. I liked that aspect and wanted to pursue it further. To do so, I debated taking the figures out of these canvases, but I couldn’t. I’m not ready—and don’t want—to make that jump.

In a way, I couldn’t do it because I don’t know how else to make paintings. What would I pull from? If the figures aren’t included, these constructed worlds seem entirely removed from reality and rather self-indulgent. You need the figure—or, rather, I need the figure. Not necessarily for narrative, as the work ends up being as much about feeling or atmosphere as a particular story. The atmosphere of this show is one of sadness. Sadness arises from particular circumstances, but it can move from the mind into the body, from something focused into something more general—a lethargy, that pit in your stomach. I hope there is a connection between the movement of an intense emotion as it infiltrates the body, becoming less legible if no less present, and the dissolving of the figures in my works into patches of abstraction. (Perhaps viewers will be able to tell I’ve been looking at Edvard Munch and the Impressionists lately.) This is particularly true of the thirty prints in the exhibition depicting people “crying,” where washes of ink run down and obscure their faces.

In a way, the whole show is a collection of faces. When visitors walk into the gallery, they encounter the thirty prints and then Brooklyn Biergarten II, a very busy scene—a painting of heads that are locked in space because their bodies lie on top of one another. Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life. There’s a whole genre of paintings, particularly French ones, of people eating and drinking, and the beer garden seems to be the equivalent, for certain residents of twenty-first-century Brooklyn, of the grand public promenades and social spaces of the nineteenth century. It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked-up place and about our culture’s obsession with happiness. The paintings in this show hopefully present something of a ballast to that obsession. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.

As told to Brian Sholis

“Lucky Number Seven,” SITE Santa Fe Biennial

Published in Artforum, September 2008. To view the exhibition’s website, click here.

In lieu of a single theme, curator Lance M. Fung laid out several structuring principles for the seventh SITE Santa Fe Biennial, titled “Lucky Number Seven”: The participating artists would be winnowed from recommendations made by widely dispersed art-world professionals; they would visit Santa Fe well before the exhibition and respond to the environs with newly commissioned work; and all materials, where possible, would be recycled after the exhibition had closed. (Additionally, the artists could exhibit anywhere in the city, but those who opted to show in SITE’s warehouselike space would have to content with a sharp-angled ramp—designed for the show by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—that cuts through the galleries.) These open-ended prescriptions, and in particular the assurance that nothing would be for sale at a later date, held out the possibility of great experimentation; in theory, all the artists could have collaborated to create one artwork. Some engaged with these novel precepts productively, while others retreated to familiar methodologies. The result is a very uneven exhibition.

sitesantafe_installation_view_1

Studio Azzurro, Fourth Ladder, 2008.

Much of the art relies heavily on models of artmaking familiar to those who have experienced site-specific projects, including documentary-style video, audience participation, and research documentation. The Fourth Ladder (all works 2008), a two-part video installation presented in SITE’s building by the Italian collective Studio Azzurro, is one example of this tendency and essentially serves as a computer-enhanced, idiosyncratic tourist guidebook. The piece consists of an interactive video projection depicting local citizens who, ascending a long ramp, recite directions to nearby locations of personal significance when visitors “pause” them by touching the wall. Shown on an adjacent wall, a second video combines interviews with some of the same subjects with footage of the sites they discuss. Kaeru/T, one of Hiroshi Fuji’s two saccharine contributions, hangs above visitors’ heads at the Museum of International Folk Art. It is made of donated toys that have been creatively recombined in collaboration with local children. Like Studio Azzurro’s installation, Kaeru/T‘s earnest engagement with a portion of the local population comes across as flat-footed, akin to a neat after-school craft project.

Part of Luchezar Boyadjiev’s Off-SITE(s) deploys whiteboards around town on which passersby can write their own responses to the biennial. But his presentation at SITE itself, part of the same artwork, proves somewhat cannier. Boyadjiev has affixed to the wall seventy-seven ten-dollar bills, each labeled with a name drawn from the phone book; visitors who prove themselves one of the chosen can claim their money and read a message Boyadjiev has written on the wall beneath their bill. Interestingly, because Santa Fe is so small, the piece has a viral effect—visitors identify and inform friends of their selection. Of the artists who engage with the domineering intervention by Williams and Tsien, Piero Golia does so most forcefully: He has cut the ramp short about twelve feet. After signing a waiver, visitors can leap from the edge onto stunt landing pads arranged on the floor below.

Two installations provide more unconventional riffs on the show’s site-specific mandate. A1 Southwest Stone, by Australian artist Nick Mangan, is located at a former stone-supply yard and consists of a realistic but entirely contrived archaeological dig. Accompanied by newspaper notices aiming to recall, for research purposes, stone that had been purchased from the shop, the work’s three-tiered excavation beds refer perhaps too neatly to the foundational layers (indigenous, Mexican, and Spanish) of local culture. But the installation should nonetheless be credited for being sited in an off-the-art-path residential neighborhood. The other, The Abduction by French duo Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni, creatively redeploys clichés about New Mexican culture—namely, that it is dominated by Roswell alien-abduction stories and schlocky “Wild West” art. The work consists of a bronze sculpture of a family on a horse bolting downhill—given to the artists by a tourist-friendly Canyon Road gallery—that has been melted and reconfigured to depict the subjects deposited back on earth after a visit to the mothership. It is displayed as it would be at its usual location—in a gray-carpeted room on a spotlighted, rotating pedestal—alongside a photograph of its original incarnation. After the exhibition, the sculpture will be melted down again and returned to its original design. Many artists seem to have approached this exhibition by attempting to graft a few site-specific characteristics onto their usual practice, or by jettisoning tried-and-tested tactics altogether in an embrace of the curatorial mandate. By engaging with Santa Fe’s culture instead of didactically interacting with its citizens or merely rehearsing its history, Giraud and Siboni’s wry sculptural intervention both stays true to their conceptually oriented practice and surpasses the rest of the show.

Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, The Abduction, 2008.

Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, The Abduction, 2008.

Interview: Roger Hiorns

British artist Roger Hiorns is known for deploying salt, industrial-strength disinfectants, and, most consistently, copper sulfate crystals in his sculptures. A solo exhibition of new work opens next week at Corvi-Mora in London. It is timed to coincide with Seizure, a new, large-scale installation commissioned by Artangel and presented at 151–189 Harper Road, London, September 3–November 2. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on August 28, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, installation view, London, 2008

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, installation view, London, 2008

We didn’t have any expectations for the site of Seizure when we began looking, and in fact we traversed every single borough of London in search of a suitable building to host the installation. It’s quite eye-opening to do that kind of research. At the time we were looking, the city was in the midst of its housing and property-development boom, which has now completely dissipated; London has become a different place quite quickly. What we eventually found was a very isolated, stand-alone, uninhabited small housing block from the 1970s. Its aspiration as a building has always been quite limited; it was mostly bedsits. In a way, I’m accentuating the last period of its use. The few buildings we found during our search were mostly social housing of this type, which are themselves another part of London’s history that is now being eclipsed. Interestingly, though, the building is right in the heart of the city; it’s in a pocket of isolation in the center of London, incredibly urban and yet very quiet.

Once we found the location, the production itself was conceptual: I wanted to introduce a material that was anathema to the building itself. Crystallization is always, for me, a kind of claiming—I say “claiming” because the process is so amplified here as to be a kind of obfuscation of the building. I’ve encouraged an alien aesthetic, one quite contrary to its vaguely modernist history (with its roots in Le Corbusier’s designs). The building has a certain sort of governing rationality; by introducing these crystals, I’ve introduced some irrationality. The process also allows me to remove myself from the equation; crystallization is an autogenesis, and its results are an auto-aesthetic. I get to become an objective viewer of my own processes, at least to the extent possible. It’s a psychological position to take, to try and obsolete myself within my own realm of activity.

To that end, it has been very interesting to observe the people with whom I’ve worked on this project. I’ve tried to understand the way they work and what their expectations are. Watching them meet this profound ambiguity—my detachment from my own artmaking process—has been fascinating. I don’t anticipate any artwork to be made. I just put structures into place, and something comes into existence. Will it actually happen? Will there be a failure because of contamination? I’m not going to be helpful and say what it’s going to look like. I prefer the massive loss of control.

The project itself has two phases. There is the site at present, with its crystallization taking place behind closed doors. It’s an unrelenting process, which has a certain purity, but not one I can predict. The second phase is to open the doors and tamper with that process—to fuck it up. People will enter into this crystallized environment—well, possibly crystallized, as we don’t know what kind of landscape will appear within the building—and their entry is part of its destruction. The viewer always has a role to play in my work.

How people will respond to the environment, how they will read it, is completely up to them. I don’t want to evoke a particular type of space; I don’t intend for this crystalline environment to seem spiritual or theatrical. I would probably call myself a kind of atheist in this respect: Processes are always for me a kind of compulsion, a psychological need, and not a spiritual yearning. I’m curious about one’s relationship to objects and to one’s own surroundings, rather than being interested in building superstitious links to the outside world. I’ve created an unnatural system to which one must respond; the thing is actually just the sum of its parts. That sum might lead toward something deemed transcendent, but that’s happening within you.

As told to Brian Sholis

Tacita Dean

Published on Artforum.com on August 12, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Much of Tacita Dean’s recent work in film has been portraiture, and her scrupulous attention has brought forth a range of engrossing characters, many of them older men. Poet and translator Michael Hamburger gave Dean a chatty tour of his apple orchard and storerooms in a film exhibited in London last year. In this exhibition, dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham is seated, and silent, in his nearly empty studio. Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33″ with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008, the unwieldy title of the installation, conveys everything and nothing about the films projected onto screens scattered throughout Dia:Beacon’s colonnaded lower level. In static, one-take shots, Cunningham, on Carlson’s cues, looks to his right, or straight ahead, or rests his chin on one hand to mark the three movements of his longtime partner’s infamous score. The simplicity and directness of the choreography, like that of the filmmaking, belie the affective power of the homage. Like the beatific quietude of artist Mario Merz in Dean’s sun-dappled 2002 film, Cunningham’s calmness makes him a repository for viewers’ assumptions; one can’t help but imagine the experiences and emotions compressed into his stony performance. The downward tug of melancholic sentiment, one of Dean’s trademarks, seems at odds with the principle of chance operations that guided Cage and Cunningham—and, for that matter, Bruce Nauman’s multichannel Cagean exercise that was on view until recently in this space. But the tension is remarkable.

Interview: Eleanor Antin

For nearly four decades, San Diego–based artist Eleanor Antin has provocatively engaged histories real and imagined through photographs, performances, films, videos, writings, and drawings. Since 2001, she has completed three series of allegorical photographs based on Roman life: “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Roman Allegories,” and “Helen’s Odyssey.” A survey that focuses on these works, titled “Historical Takes,” is on view through November 2 at the San Diego Museum of Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on July 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

All my life I have had a passion for ancient Greece, since reading Bulfinch’s Mythology as a kid. At the time I first read it, I wished that I could live in ancient Greece. But then, later, when I found out how badly they treated women, I kind of cheated and just shifted my allegiance to ancient Rome, where women had some rights and might even have lived interesting lives. One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad. There is always something autobiographical in my work, and when I made the connection between where I live now and my first love, I jumped on it.

“The Last Days of Pompeii” provokes an immediate response, since the story has entered the poetic imagination of Western culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to use contemporary people in my own Southern California and pass them off as more or less believable Romans. Stylistically, I used the image structures of nineteenth-century French and English salon painting, which had flattered colonial Europe by depicting it as the new Rome. “Roman Allegories,” which I did next, is, I think, less accessible—perhaps because allegory, despite its rich history in premodern art, is not part of contemporary culture. Only recently have artists become interested again in telling stories. (Allegory is, of course, related to representation, and for some time, representation was anathema to an art world that glorified abstraction.) Whereas my Pompeii depicted everyday Roman life, in this series, I highlighted theatricality and explored a number of commedia dell’arte archetypes and their shifting relationships to one another. I believe this series was more complex. I was going through a bad time in my life, so there’s a darkness that pervades the images that I think adds to their mystery. (In fact, a skeleton that I’ve kept in my studio for decades makes a few cocky appearances in some of the photographs.) These photographs work like a hall of mirrors. I like to think of them as defective narratives that can be made whole by looking deeper into them for layers of meaning, for more stories. “Helen’s Odyssey,” which I just completed last year, is a kind of amusing riff on the male epic. Helen is always vilified as a seductress and both admired for her beauty and feared for her power—yet however she’s interpreted, her place in our historical fantasy has always been legitimized, written, or painted by men. I wanted to humanize this woman, to find her beneath the covering of stories that obscures her to us.

Looking at all three series together, as I’m now able to do, I find even more connections between them —psychological, political, philosophical—than I had previously suspected. When I was working, I moved both intuitively and intellectually. But perhaps I couldn’t realize how deeply each series flowed into the next. Looking at the images now, I think, Wow! I didn’t waste the last eight years. This exhibition reveals that my three series constitute a complex single invention that was worth the effort after all.

The works themselves blend pathos and comedy, or comedy and tragedy. This may be due in part to the influence of my mother, who worked in Europe on the Yiddish stage—and we all know the Yiddish theatrical and literary tradition: “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.” Comedy and tragedy go together; I could never separate them. We’re on the edge of the abyss at every moment, and it doesn’t make sense for an art world to be entirely too committed to one mode of expression or the other. We live both all the time.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Joan Jonas

As part of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and titled “Revolutions—Forms that Turn,” artist Joan Jonas will present Reading Dante, 2008. A performance will take place at 11 AM and 6 PM on June 22 at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 21, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve known about Dante’s Divine Comedy for what seems like all my life, but I never read it before last summer. A few years ago, an artist described to me Dante’s own life, and it made me think about how fascinating it might be to work with his magnificent text. I began with the Inferno last summer, which I eventually read three times. The Paradiso, which is more difficult, I’ve read once. Fragments from both are incorporated into this performance and installation.

In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them. The portions of the Inferno I’m particularly attracted to are the most abstract, or philosophical; I quote a fraction of the text and have been helped greatly by a wonderful book, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses. I think Hilda Doolittle, who wrote the poem “Helen in Egypt” (which I’ve also used recently), thought similarly, although she incorporated much more quotidian experience. The everyday is how I relate to these broader issues; I try to translate these visions according to my vantage point on the present moment. The medieval era of Dante and the first half of the twentieth century of Warburg were both periods of extraordinary change, and I think the same can be said of today.

Reading Dante is composed of footage shot in four locations, although two are intercut so there are three “scenes.” One of the sites is in Canada, where I go in the summer. There, in a wooded setting, I perform as different characters, and I work with children. Another location is New York. I redeploy nighttime footage shot in the 1970s in the city streets with Pat Steir. We had a cameraman, and we improvised with my long metal cones and a hoop. A strange man joined us, and you can see him, too. This footage in particular, with steam billowing from pipes, steps everywhere, and dark vistas up canyonlike avenues, seems appropriate to the Inferno. The third location, a kind of circular modernist ruin surrounding a lava field, is in Mexico City, near the university. The artist Carlos Amorales told me about the location, and I filmed his wife, Galia, performing there. This footage is intercut with a shadow play I conducted in a church during a workshop in Italy. Obviously I’m translating Dante into my own eccentric, very personal visual language; I’m not attempting to illustrate the text.

Earlier this spring in London, I presented a related piece titled Infernal Paradise; for this, I played the footage I just described across five screens, while a monitor displayed video documentation of a reading at Orchard, in New York, for which I asked friends, including children, to recite portions of Dante’s text. It was a way of invoking Dante’s vernacular in the forms of the everyday speech I hear daily in New York. I’ve made a new edit for Sydney, and there will only be two screens. Also, I learned from a workshop in Barcelona last autumn that I should not say the words themselves during the performance, so I’ve recorded my voice. In my yearlong preparation for the Sydney performance, most of my time has been spent thinking about such questions of form and structure and how they relate to this amazing content.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: William Cordova

Earlier this year, William Cordova, whose artwork frequently references human rights struggles, organized two exhibitions for Ingalls & Associates in Miami. One, titled “Casa de Carton,” features an intergenerational range of contemporary artists, and the other, “Up Against the Wall,” the photographs of journalist Ilka Hartmann. Both exhibitions will open at Branch Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, June 20. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 18, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Two years ago, while doing research into commonalities across various radical groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I gradually realized that many of the documentary photographs I was encountering were taken by one woman: Ilka Hartmann. She was one of very few photographers who had covered such a range of activist groups—anti–Vietnam War protestors, Black Panther members, migrant workers—and she began doing so long before it was a common practice. When I discovered that she lived only an hour’s drive away from another place at which I would be an artist in residence, I resolved to meet her.

She was incredibly generous with her knowledge about that time period and offered background information on a large portion of her archive; from her, I learned about photographers like Ducho Dennis (of the Black Panther Party) and Hiram Maristany (of the Young Lords). This information is important to the exhibition; I’ve made sure to include materials that explain how her photographs were initially used and other contextualizing ephemera. Doing so hopefully slows down the way the visual information—her pictures, in this case—is disseminated, and how quickly and carelessly such images can be consumed in the fine-art world. I don’t want her images to become the bastard children of a generation or of a movement; it is important they do not become T-shirt-ready, like a photograph of Che Guevara.

Having earlier done an installation in a storefront in Durham, I was somewhat familiar with the city’s past and knew of a number of radical organizations in North Carolina, including the Lumbee tribe, which is still seeking full recognition from the US government, and a Black Panther branch in Winston-Salem. As with the presentation in Miami, I hope that visitors will connect the photographs—and, for that matter, the works in “Casa de Carton”—to the social history of the environment around them. In the past forty years, Durham has seen some extreme social conditions; once the “Black Wall Street,” it has since fallen on harder times. Even if such changes aren’t addressed by the mainstream media, they remain present in the daily lives of those who reside there. Presenting Hartmann’s photographs is an attempt to reactivate acknowledgment of these facts, to make visible aspects of the landscape that are invisible.

As told to Brian Sholis

Brian Jungen

Published in Artforum, June 2008.

What separates true artistic development from mere rehashing? At what point should we expect established artists to move beyond the ideas that brought them their initial success? Brian Jungen’s second solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery prompted these and related questions. For nearly a decade, Jungen, a member of the indigenous Dane-Zaa Nation of Northern British Columbia, has explored the intersection of traditional cultures and first-world consumer economies. His breakout exhibition, at Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver in 1999, featured the first of a series of sculptures made by pulling apart Air Jordan tennis shoes and restitching them into semblances of the Haida masks created by the aboriginal populations of Canada’s northwest coast. In the intervening years, Jungen has fashioned, out of golf bags, sculptures that recall totem poles; carved baseball bats to look like “talking sticks” (used by aboriginal tribes to designate the right to speak in meetings); and created a twenty-foot-tall tepee from the leather used to upholster sofas. Some artists focus exclusively upon a narrow set of concerns but manage to find nuanced and varied expressions of them. Jungen, though formally creative, seems to be on intellectual autopilot.

Many of Jungen’s fastidiously tailored objects possess an iconic power, and for someone so dedicated to sculpture, he is a canny crafter of images. He has been credited with scrutinizing the inequitable balance of power between the traditional and the new, acknowledging the adaptive reuse of commercial goods by those subject to the influence of mass culture, and allegorizing the substitution of tribal ritual with the ceremonial competition of modern sports. Also apparent is Jungen’s desire to inscribe his objects with the additional value accorded the handmade, and that doing so with anonymously produced materials is for him a political gesture.

Brian Jungen, Blanket no. 4, 2008.

Brian Jungen, Blanket no. 4, 2008.

These themes were taken up once again in this show in six “blankets” made from disassembled professional football and basketball jerseys. Woven into patterns that riff on tribal-style designs, the color combinations of familiar teams could be recognized—the navy and orange of the Chicago Bears, for example—and, by looking closely at the garments’ labels, one could discern the uniforms used in others. Some feature a tessellating pattern of players’ numbers; others are more abstract. When Jungen embarked on this path ten years ago, it could be argued, consciousness of the truly global reach of western popular culture and consumer goods was less widespread. Now that he has created all the accoutrements necessary to outfit a First Nations tourist village, it seems time for Jungen to aim for more than juxtaposition.

Dragonfly, 2008, a red five-gallon plastic jerry can of the type used for holding gasoline, incised with a delicate pattern of dragonflies, underscores the point. Here again, the work alludes to larger forces and wider issues, among them the problem of gass huffing on reservations, and the simultaneously and ironic lack of easy access to gasoline on First Nations land, despite the rich oil reserves that lie beneath them. At present, Canada’s economy is in part buoyed by the oil sands beneath Alberta’s soil, and the race to lay claim to oil in the Arctic Circle has ensnared Russia, Norway, the United States, and Canada in a geopolitical turf war. Yet this topic, despite Jungen’s effort, remains ripe for critical investigation.

Interview: Brian O’Doherty

On May 20, after thirty-six years of presenting his art under the name Patrick Ireland, the Irish artist Brian O’Doherty reclaimed his birth name with the symbolic burial of his alter ego in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on May 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

When the British shot down thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in the city of Derry in January 1972, I was in New York. I thought, What the hell can I do? I decided that if I changed my name to Patrick Ireland and signed my works by that name alone, it would be a provocation, a statement. Every time I exhibited, it would give me an opportunity to tell people why I had taken the name. It was a gesture of solidarity with the nationalist side in the low-grade civil war that was then beginning in Northern Ireland. When young boys, especially young country boys from Ireland, went to work in Britain, they were called Paddies, which is half affectionate and half contemptuous. I decided to make it a name of dignity and substance.

The name was not universally cheered; the most vigorous criticism came from those in Ireland itself, charging me with presumptuousness. The endeavor was certainly an expatriate’s gesture. Nonetheless, in my Name Change performance in Dublin that year, I said I would sign my work by that name until the British military left Northern Ireland and all citizens were granted their civil rights. When that happened, it would mark the end of Patrick Ireland, the end of what could be called my political gesture of no great political sophistication. Not long after Name Change, Lee Krasner said to me, “You will never get your name back.” But with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, I began to hope I might reclaim my birth name. Now that the “evolution,” as they call it, has taken place, and both Sinn Fein and the IRA are represented in Parliament, I am astonished to be able to lay the name Patrick Ireland to rest.

The initial Name Change performance had a limited number of viewers, because all of them had to sign as witnesses. By contrast, the burial of Patrick Ireland was relatively open, insofar as the death mask created by artist Charlie Simmonds, encased in its own coffin, was exhibited in one of the museum’s galleries for two days next to documentation of the earlier performance. The coffin, carried by six young artists, was taken in a procession to a beautiful grave site overlooking a formal garden on the north side of the museum, where Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum and a former minister, performed a brief secular ceremony. Five poems chosen or written specifically for the occasion were recited in their original languages—English, French, German, Spanish, Irish—and the artist Alannah O’Kelly performed the traditional keening, an Irish cry of grief. Her performance was nearly frightening, very primal. At that point, I tossed a spadeful of clay into the grave, unveiled the groundstone that will permanently mark the location, and tossed in the stocking mask I first wore in the 1972 performance. Joyous music broke forth, and we had a feast.

I’ll miss Patrick in some ways. I got very used to him. If you take the notion of naming seriously, as I do, a change like this sends a shudder through your core; subtle, perhaps attitudinal, but nonetheless visceral shifts take place. Nonetheless, I give up the name joyfully. I’m delighted that Brian O’Doherty is reborn after thirty-six years.

As told to Brian Sholis

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?”

Published on Artforum.com on May 23, 2008.

For the 2006 Whitney Biennial, artist Urs Fischer knocked large holes in two gallery walls; last year, he tore through the floor and dug deep into the earth beneath Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. The latter seemed an endgame gesture in this brief trajectory, but here he has raised the stakes by punching through the normally invisible wall sealing off a venue’s past from its present. (Michael Asher’s recent installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is another example of this potentially fruitful trend.) The Swiss artist commissioned the photographer Ellen Page Wilson to document Tony Shafrazi’s previous group show—artworks, walls, air ducts, security guards—then created seamless, to-scale trompe l’oeil wallpaper from the images. This evidential trace of the gallery’s last exhibition is now the ground against which nearly two dozen artworks, selected by Fischer and Brown and which at some point were in Shafrazi’s inventory, cagily rest.

Installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

Installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

Walking through the show is an uncanny delight: Like an autofocus lens unable to locate its subject, one’s mind and eyes strive to unscramble the artworks actually present from those that are verisimilar copies. A 1943 portrait by Francis Picabia is centered on the image of a Donald Baechler painting of a dandy and some beach balls; on an adjacent wall, Malcolm Morley’s Age of Catastrophe, 1976, a large painting, seems planted in the middle of an even larger Keith Haring. Richard Prince’s photograph Spiritual America, 1983, and Sue Williams’s painting Dessert, 1990, each partially obscure the image of a Basquiat canvas. Matters are further complicated. The Lawrence Weiner wall text and the wallpaper Basquiat beneath it seem to keep switching places. Lily van der Stokker’s two brightly colored wall paintings squeeze into the interstitial space between the wallpaper and the other artworks, in the process acquiring a conceptual grounding that belies their whimsy.

While the included artworks, in a white cube, would make for an odd group show, in this bizarro world harmonies arise. (Who would’ve thought a large late-1970s sculpture by Robert Morris, with its ungainly pipes and warped planes of plastic, mirror, and copper, was redeemable for today’s tastes?) A surge of affinities chastens typical attempts at neat categorization; nothing stays in its place. As one pads across Rudolf Stingel’s carpet installation, the rush of Rob Pruitt’s corny homemade waterfall tickles the ears like so much chatter between these clashing artworks. The recognition dawns that Fischer and Brown have concocted a surprisingly subtle meditation on the many lives of artworks, and its presentation in a secondary-market gallery owned by a man once arrested for defiling Picasso’s Guernica—as depicted on the exhibition’s announcement poster—raises similar questions about the many lives of those of us who engage with them. That such canny, simple gestures seem so refreshing is a gentle rebuke to the ossified conventions to which we all unthinkingly subscribe.

Matthew Buckingham

Published in Artforum, May 2008.

“Someone with historical sense sees reality differently: in four dimensions,” notes historian Gordon S. Wood. “If it is self-identity that we want, then history deepens and complicates that identity by showing us how it has developed through time.” Artist Matthew Buckingham clearly possesses this historical sense, and his nuanced understanding of time has informed a decade’s worth of installations that use time-based media (film, video, and slide projection) to imaginatively conflate past and present. Buckingham’s alignments of story and image, whether anchored in dry historical fact or conjured from evocative fragments, are palimpsests that instruct and entertain, expanding viewers’ sense of identity. This exhibition featured two recent installations, one of which ranks with A Man of the Crowd, 2003, as among the artist’s best to date.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

False Future, 2007, resurrects the little-known life story of Louis Le Prince, the French inventory who is now credited with discovering how to record motion pictures onto film several years before the better-known Lumière brothers. The narrator of Buckingham’s ten-minute 16-mm film, speaking in French subtitled in English, describes Le Prince’s late-1880s experiments with recording technology and relates his mysterious disappearance from a Dijon-Paris train in September 1890, just prior to a trip to the United States on which he was to promote his camera. Among the items discovered after his vanishing was a twenty-frame (one-second) fragment of footage shot at the Leeds Bridge in England in October 1888. Buckingham’s film was shot from the same spot, and depicts pedestrians and white double-decker buses—substitutes for the horse-drawn carriages and strollers in Le Prince’s fragment—crossing the bridge in slanting late-afternoon light. The image, projected onto a white sheet strung diagonally across the middle of the gallery, likewise echoes the work of the earlier inventor, who is said to have tested his films at night in his Leeds workshop in a similar manner.

As the work’s title implies, however, Buckingham is not interested solely in an act of historical exhumation, but also in what can be imagined of an alternative protohistory of cinema. What if Le Prince had survived, and his camera gone on to document the Dreyfus affair, or the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, or the anomalous nine-inch snowfall in New Orleans in February 1895? Such questions, posed by the narrator, are rhetorical, but images inevitably arise in the mind. The enormity of such a possibility is brought home by the end of the narrative, which offers close analysis of what is depicted in Le Prince’s fragment. Noting the number of buggies, men tipping their haits to acknowledge friends, and other stray details, the sound track instructs the viewer in how to look at the seemingly simple image Buckingham has recorded just before the film loops and begins again.

Everything I Need, 2007, a two-screen video projection on view in another room, presents an autobiographical narrative by the pioneering psychologist, writer, and early advocate of gay and lesbian rights, Charlotte Wolff, whose life in Germany and England spanned revolutionary changes in social attitudes toward women and homosexuals. The installation juxtaposes images of a 1970s-era commercial airplane interior with reminiscences occasioned in part by Wolff’s return to Berlin, in 1978, to speak to a new generation of feminist and lesbian activists. While the installation engages in a dialectical playo f image and text similar to that of False Future (and, for that matter, much of Buckingham’s corpus), it doesn’t manage to provoke that work’s tantalizing sense of latent possibility.

Interview: Anthony Huberman

Published as “Parallel Worlds” in Artforum, May 2008.

Curators at contemporary art institutions must not only engage with the question of how best to distill today’s broad realm of artistic activity but also ensure that their solution pleases a bifurcated audience: the general public and the art experts; the local community and the biennial-hoppers. Founded in 1980 to bring art to the city’s downtown, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has navigated this situation adroitly, particularly since reopening in a new, larger building in 2003. Director Paul Ha has overseen a mix of solo surveys (William Pope.L, Alexander Ross, Janaina Tschäpe), group exhibitions (African artists working outside Africa, women artists engaged with identity), and project shows with younger practitioners; located in a city more than half of whose population is black, the museum has featured numerous African and African-American artists. Four years ago, the Contemporary—which has no permanent collection—launched the Great Rivers Biennial, which gives awards and exhibition opportunities to local artists; the institution also sponsors community initiatives such as citywide open-studio events and a visiting critic and curator series.

Now, a year after Anthony Huberman left the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to join the Contemporary as chief curator, the institution is inaugurating a completely overhauled program. What marks this endeavor as unique is its attempt to address the two-audience dilemma explicitly, by placing exhibitions and programs in collagelike juxtaposition rather than subsuming them within a seamless projection of the museum’s identity. Huberman, who was also a curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and SculptureCenter, both in New york, has divided the exhibition plan into two streams that operate at different speeds. A gallery just inside the museum’s entrance, newly christened the Front Room, will present “independent voices from around the world” in a rapid-fire and improvised series of exhibitions, performances, screenings, and events; it has already featured seven shows in three months. “The Front Room should be flexible, responsive,” explains Huberman. “I want to be able to see something in Chelsea and present it in Saint Louis the very next month.” Earlier this year, while the Great Rivers Biennial featured three local artists chosen by a jury of curators from around the country, an array of other regional endeavors were given carte blanche in the Front Room: White Flag Projects, an alternative space in the city’s Grove neighborhood, allowed visitors to be photographed while being slapped; Snowflake/Citystock, an arts venue and design shop, installed a fitness center for artists; Maps Contemporary Art Space, located in nearby Belleville, Illinois, presented four-day-long previews of its upcoming solo exhibitions; and Apop Records, a local independent record shop, created a merchandise booth featuring “oddities from the fringes of underground culture.”

This month, Huberman’s plan for the main galleries launches with an exhibition of work by John Armleder and Olivier Mosset, eminent Swiss artists who are less known in the United States (where Mosset now lives). The duo will present a jointly conceived exhibition blending old and new artworks; at the outset of the show, the Front Room will feature artists affiliated with Cinema Zero, a collective that takes its logo from Mosset’s signature motif, the circle. Huberman intends artist pairings to form a basic structure for the bigger exhibitions, although the ways in which the participants relate to one another will vary: For example, there might be two unrelated solo shows, as in the autumn 2008 presentations of single-channel videos by Aïda Ruilova (curated by Ha) and artworks by Lutz Bacher (curated by Huberman), or a two-artist exhibition with a curatorial conceit.

The key, according to Huberman, is adjacency: “Not a equals b, but a alongside b,” he says. “I want the institution to be characterized by its lightness of touch, by its ability to encourage associative links among what’s on view, and then by its willingness to stand aside and let attention shine upon the artists.” He emphasizes that repeat visits to the exhibitions in the main galleries will nearly always offer new experiences, by virtue of their changing relationship with what’s in the Front Room.

Rules are, of course, made to be broken, and in a little more than a year Huberman plans to present a larger group exhibition. But by that time, he hopes that the structure conceit of artist-focused “pairs and parallels” will have become a kind of calling card for the museum, one that distinguishes it in the minds of art-world denizens and fits neatly into the visual-art landscape of Saint Louis: The city boasts an encyclopedia institution, the Saint Louis Art Museum; a privately funded blue-chip museum, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts; a university gallery, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University; and numerous smaller artist-run spaces of the kind featured in the inaugural Front Room presentations. Taking its place among them, the Contemporary is positioning itself as a kunsthalle that is relevant to both local and larger audiences.

Poussin: Two writers, two ledes

A week or so ago, The New Republic published Jed Perl’s review of the Nicolas Poussin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now T.J. Clark has written a review, for the London Review of Books, of that exhibition and the simultaneous Gustave Courbet retrospective. Both are worth reading, and both have rapturous ledes. Here’s Perl:

“Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes us deeper into the inexhaustibly complex relationship between nature and culture than any other exhibition I have ever seen. When Nicolas Poussin sets men and women amid vast landscapes, he is reflecting on our experience of the natural world, and nobody has more beautifully woven together sensation and imagination, instinct and intelligence, freedom and design. There is a curiously pungent juxtaposition of naturalistic immediacy and pictorial artifice in Poussin’s landscapes, whether he is representing a darkly luxuriant tree, a placid lake, a cloud-strewn sky, an elegantly designed city, or a handsome Ovidian hero. Somehow, the immediacy and the artifice reinforce each other. The paintings are finally about our struggles to understand what we feel, to objectify the subjectivity of our experience. Poussin’s admirers will not be surprised to see this seventeenth-century artist who is often pigeonholed as a chilly classicist re-framed as something of a romantic. What most people are going to be unprepared for is the big-heartedness of his vision as it is revealed in this epochal show.

Here’s Clark:

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, the whole madness of painting seems to pass in front of your eyes. It felt that way to me in New York this spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two great exhibitions – one exploring Nicolas Poussin’s role in the invention of the genre we call ‘landscape’, the other an endless, stupendous retrospective of Gustave Courbet – are happening a few corridors apart. I stumbled to and fro between them day after day, elated and disoriented. They sum up so much – too much – of what painting in Europe was capable of, and they embed that achievement so palpably in a certain history. Behind the glistening meadows and the huntsmen in the snow one catches the smell of autocracy and public burnings, of permanent warfare and bankers with impeccable taste.

Clark, of course, is the author of The Sight of Death, a book-length “experiment in art writing” about two paintings by Poussin. The Poussin exhibition remains on view until May 11, and the Courbet retrospective comes down May 18. For more information, click here.

Al Taylor

Published in Artforum, April 2008. To learn more about and view images from the exhibition, click here.

Al Taylor’s recent exhibition at Zwirner & Wirth focused on the creative efflorescence that resulted from the late artist’s decision in 1984 to take a break from painting. The gallery presented a well-edited selection of three-dimensional “constructions” and works on paper made by Taylor between 1985 and 1990, for which the artist employed an improvisational process in an attempt to elide the borders between the two mediums. These wall-based constructions (Taylor disavowed the term sculpture) confront viewers with a diverse array of visual feints, bringing together humble materials to provide a workout for the eyes.

6 – 8 – 9, 1988, which features five irregularly painted black-and-white wooden rings attached to the top and bottom of a brass dowel that emerges from a wooden board affixed to the wall, provides a joyously destabilizing visual experience. This is due in part to the tangle of shadows that it projects onto the wall around it—an important feature of many of the constructions shown here—which combines with the hoops to bring to mind magicians’ linking rings or a cartoon-like psychedelic swirl. 6 – 8 – 9 implies movement, and indeed one prominent characteristic of Taylor’s arrangements is their arrested kineticism, as if each piece were but a provisional way station on the road from one form to another.

Al Taylor, 6 - 8 - 9, 1988.

Al Taylor, 6 - 8 - 9, 1988.

Cobbled together from recycled scraps that Taylor reclaimed from stage sets he had designed, or simply from detritus picked up off the streets of New York, these constructions replace the macho, torch-wielding hubris of David Smith’s “drawings in space” with something funkier, more intimate, almost libidinal. They are seriously seductive. Witness Layson a Stick, 1989, in which two jointed broomsticks, jutting out fro the wall, are draped with yellow and green plastic leis, or Untitled: (Bra), 1987, a composition assembled from wood, Formica, and painted broomsticks that looks more like a seatless stool seen from below, legs splayed. Both were accompanied in the exhibition by related drawings, which, contrary to expectation, were made after the sculptures; Taylor’s attempt to frustrate conventional sculptural thinking (he reported thought of his sculptures and drawings as aspects of the same project) was paired with an equally counterintuitive approach to his works on paper.

As is the case with many talented artists, Taylor was out of step with his moment. In the context of neo-expressionist and neo-geo painting, other artists’ practices driven by nascent forms of institutional critique, or any of the movements typically associated with the middle and late 1980s, Taylor’s haphazard formalism, his scrounged supplies, and his love of optical trickery must have seemed willfully anachronistic. But Taylor’s modus operandi now seems prescient: The works included in this show would dovetail nicely with those by younger artists in “Unmonumental,” the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey of recent assemblage, sculpture, and collage.

Two of the more rewarding constructions on view here served as bookends to the exhibition: Untitled (Latin Study), 1985, the first work one encountered upon entering the gallery, and Calligraphy Support, 1987–88, which hung in its final room. The former, several wooden slats mounted on particleboard projecting from the wall to create a three-dimensional spiral, and the latter, which looks like an elongated, rickety architectural model, both show that Taylor did not fully excise painting from his practice when he embarked upon this rewarding path. In Latin Study, applied washes of black and white enamel paint help give the work, from certain viewpoints, an artificial flatness. Something similar, but more complex, is achieved in Calligraphy Support, in which paint is applied to different sides of the work’s thin, vertically oriented wooden slats, such that moving from side to side creates an animated peek a boo effect, these dark slashes coalescing in ever-shifting compositions.

Daan van Golden

Published on Artforum.com on March 31, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Art historian Svetlana Alpers’s observation about golden-age painters, that “it is hard to trace stylistic development, as we are trained to call it, in the work of Dutch artists,” applies to reclusive septuagenarian artist Daan van Golden. This exhibition, his first US solo presentation despite his being greatly esteemed in Europe, surveys canvases made in the last fifteen years but is representative of an extremely focused practice that has lasted over four decades. In 1963, while in Japan, the artist abandoned Abstract Expressionist painting in favor of the meticulous rendition of patterns found in the world, such as on textiles or wrapping paper. Like his late-seventeenth-century forebears, his worshipful fidelity to observed reality admits little mechanical innovation. But the spoils he translates to canvas have expanded to include other artworks, a decision that adds a complex metaphysical dimension to his single-color silhouettes crisply outlined against white grounds. The paintings, tantalizingly aloof, hover between acknowledged artistic strategies. They are committed to neither Pop art nor appropriation nor Conceptual art, but rather only to mirroring fragments of the world.

Daan van Golden, installation view, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008.

Daan van Golden, installation view, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008.

One must calibrate minute variations across multiple works, and this elegantly installed show, organized by Anne Pontégnie, generously facilitates that process. On a long wall opposite the gallery’s entrance, four cadmium-red-on-white depictions of a berries-and-leaves pattern vary not only in size but also in perspectival distance, such that the images range from an allover field emphasizing the pattern’s repetition to a zoomed-in, nearly abstract accretion of organic shapes. Like rotating the lenses on a microscope, glancing from work to work discloses new information about van Golden’s source material. In a side room, Study H. M., 2004, isolates a bird from a canvas by Henri Matisse. On returning to the gallery’s main room, one is immediately confronted by the same image on a negligibly larger canvas, this time a white silhouette isolated against baby blue. (The artist allows himself to paint up to four iterations of the exact same painting, further complicating the already blurry distinction between real and copy hinted at here.) Other works depict a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti and details of Jackson Pollock paintings, and two photographs hint at a parallel practice that has commanded van Golden’s attention equally, sometimes to the exclusion of his superb, already unhurried painting output.

“Shaker Design: Out of This World”

Published on Artforum.com on March 24, 2008.

It is important to keep in mind that there is nothing purely decorative about the furniture, gift drawings, and retail products in this large survey of Shaker design at Bard College’s New York outpost for studies in the decorative arts, design, and culture. The objects created for use within Shaker communities, which at one point numbered nineteen and ranged from Maine to Kentucky, hew to the precepts of their religious devotion, in particular the aspiration to honesty, utility, and order. Those items created for “the World’s people,” the denomination’s catch-all term for anyone outside its communities, betray a savvy knowledge of what would possess commercial appeal. This latter point is particularly important to the exhibition’s organizer, Jean M. Burks, who aims to highlight links between members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing and wider American society, countering stereotypical notions of the Shakers as intentionally and thoroughly segregated.

Among the exemplary furniture presented in a ground-floor gallery are an enormous cherry-and-pine double trustees’ desk (used by family members responsible for dealings with the World) and a slender, comparatively small trestle table. Like classical civilizations, which come to mind now largely tethered to images of white marble artifacts, the Shaker world was not the stripped-down domain we imagine, but rather a polychrome environment. To that end, the gallery floor is painted yellow, a color common in Shaker rooms, and a few pieces bear other original hues. A second-floor gallery hosts a number of gift drawings, manifestations of divine revelation (often in the form of communications from past generations) that encompass decorative patterns; calligraphic text; and assemblies of doves of peace, trees, clocks, fruit, and musical instruments. (New Yorkers more familiar with modern art than nineteenth-century religious artifacts might recall the Drawing Center’s 2005 exhibition “3 x Abstraction.”) Although the exhibition does not present Hannah Cohoon’s Tree of Life, 1854, perhaps the movement’s most iconic image, it does include her A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples for the Ministry, 1846, a touching ink-and-watercolor drawing of fourteen apples arranged within the schematic outline of a basket. Another room teems with commercial products, from toothache pellets and sachets of cabbage seeds to “screwballs” (table-clamped pincushions) and oval-shaped boxes. For context, the exhibition presents early-nineteenth-century American Fancy furniture and objects, which the Shakers rejected because of their ornate designs, and examples of modern Scandinavian furniture and contemporary designs (by Roy McMakin and Antonio Citterio, among others) inspired by Shaker objects. A full slate of public programs further ensures that this exhibition is the most important New York presentation of Shaker design since the Whitney Museum’s 1986 survey.

“Photographic Testimonies”

Published as “Photographic Testimonies” in Print, February 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Inside North Korea
Mark Edward Harris
San Francisco: Chronicle, 192 pp., $35

Welcome to Pyongyang
Charlie Crane
London: Chris Boot, 144 pp., $35

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
Edited by Leora Kahn; photographs by Lynsey Addario, Colin Finlay, Kadir van Lohuizen, and Ron Haviv
Brooklyn: Powerhouse, 136 pp., $45

Pictures Without Borders
Steve Horn
Stockport, England: Dewi Lewis, 133 pp., $30

Since the American Civil War, photography has played a central role in crafting narratives about conflicts and disasters, whether domestic or international, natural or man-made. As photographic technology has changed, so has our shrewdness in interpreting these documents, allowing for a seemingly limitless range of interactions among photographers, subjects, photographs, and viewers. To browse a stack of photo books containing images of repressively choreographed social life, famine, and war—in this instance, in North Korea, the Darfur region of western Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, respectively—is to travel down myriad avenues of interpretation. Each book and every page requires a complicated recalibration of expectation and response.

Two recent books, Inside North Korea and Welcome to Pyongyang, offer tightly circumscribed glimpses of life inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as the nation is officially known). Both books contain introductory texts—the first by the owner of a tour-package company that specializes in travel to North Korea, the second by a University of Chicago historian—that acknowledge the limitations placed upon the photographers, an admission borne out in the images themselves. It is these texts (and the photo captions) that distinguish the books from one another. Nicholas Bonner’s introduction to Welcome is written in the voice of a man who wants to continue doing business with the regime that has allowed him to produce the book, and its captions come from North Korean tour guides. Bruce Cumings’s foreword and the anonymous captions that accompany Inside are comparatively neutral and candid.

The photographs themselves are all but interchangeable: long, symmetrical gazes down wide, nearly empty avenues; upward-sweeping views of oversize monuments; and mostly full-length formal portraits of model citizens in uniforms and traditional dress. Charlie Crane’s photographs in Welcome are more formal, reproduced at a higher quality, and feature a greater number of building interiors. The photos by Mark Edward Harris, as the broader geographic scope of his book title indicates, range across more of the country—and also benefit from views of North Korea taken from across the border with China (to the north) and South Korea (across the Korean Demilitarized Zone).

In both cases, the “inside” to which Harris’s title refers is strikingly quite literal: The photographs were taken inside North Korea, yet in almost no way do they document the interior lives of North Koreans. There is no visible rapport between the photographers and their human subjects; one must look closely in order to see around the cheerful façade—so buoyantly replicated in Welcome—erected by Kim Jong-Il’s phalanx of minders and statistics-spewing guides.

By contrast, unremitting pain characterizes the pictures in Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, edited by Leora Kahn for the nonprofit organization Proof: Media for Social Justice. The volume presents the work of eight acclaimed photojournalists and the beseeching testimony of aid agency workers, noted writers, and a handful of celebrities; proceeds from its sales will be donated to Amnesty International and the Genocide Intervention Network. If the chilly formalism of the North Korea pictures testifies to the Dear Leader’s control over his population and his country’s visitors, the presence of so many emaciated, fly-ridden bodies mere inches from the camera lenses indicates that whatever order once held in this arid African plateau has now irredeemably collapsed. Yet the photographic depiction of even the most lawless, unprecedented situation adheres to decades-old visual convention: a regular alternation of somber black-and-white and vividly colored pictures; a preponderance of children and the elderly; stark outlines of malnourished, brittle bodies graphically contrasted with sand and dirt; and long lines of displaced people stretching into the distance.

As Susan Sontag noted in the 2002 New Yorker article that formed the basis for her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock.” Indeed, each photograph in this volume presents fresh indignities, whether of those suffering under Janjaweed attacks or of those whose minds have been so warped as to perpetrate this mass extinction of ethnic rebel groups. But, Sontag continued, such photographs “don’t help us much to understand.” This perhaps explains the instructional tone of the included texts—the piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof contains bullet points—which function as funnels for the outrage sure to rise in one’s chest while browsing these images. (Looking more closely, one finds small outrages about the book itself: For example, while denouncing in its pages the fact that China sells military aircraft, grenades, guns, and ammunition to those perpetrating this atrocity, the back cover notes that the volume was printed and bound in that country.) One question recurred while looking over this volume: Can photographers—perhaps in conjunction with book or editorial designers—portray a profound humanitarian crisis in such a way as to convey its specificity, and in so doing induce in viewers not passive horror but inspiration for specific action? Can such images do away with their written explication?

In Pictures Without Borders, photographer Steve Horn’s book about Bosnia, Horn unintentionally reveals one method of visual narration that makes superfluous such textual appendages: before-and-after documentation. In 1970, Horn traveled throughout what was then called Yugoslavia, documenting life in small cities and out in the countryside. The black-and-white photographs, originally undertaken as an art project, are the most formally varied and therefore the most visually engaging among all those surveyed here. Twenty-five years later, after seeing the place names of the sites he visited in news accounts of the Bosnian War, Horn decided to return to the region and reconnect, if possible, with the subjects of his earlier photographs. Needless to say—the book was published, after all—he does, and Pictures Without Borders is chock-full of Horn’s diary entries and testimonies of those he met a second time. The text is as sentimental as one would imagine, and, though one is glad for everyone involved, it detracts from the nonverbal message about the ravages of time—on a place, its buildings, and its people—that the camera delivers.

Kris Martin

Published in Artforum, February 2008.

Kris Martin, installation view, P.S. 1, New York, 2007.

Kris Martin, installation view, P.S. 1, New York, 2007.

The work in Belgian artist Kris Martin’s New York solo debut engages quietly but directly with fundamental issues: death, entropy, the ravages of time. In a period characterized by a loss of faith in artists’ ability to communicate fundamental truths, Martin’s unswerving devotion to such grand topics is striking. His ambition also makes the success or failure of individual works relatively easy to quantify: Each tends either to resonate with the clarity of a tuning fork or else miss its mark entirely, ending up seeming garishly sentimental, even trite. Curator Neville Wakefield’s astute, compact selection of compelling sculptures and comparatively less engaging works on paper was installed elegantly in an institution not known for sensitive exhibition design, allowing each object ample space.

The work in the first gallery illustrated the strengths and pitfalls of Martin’s approach. On one wall hung Mandi III, 2003, a scale replica of a train-station signboard, its all-black placards cycling intermittently but conveying no information. With its intimation of futility, of departures and arrivals endlessly deferred, the work triggers a sobering unease; one imagines its staccato clacking as the unrelenting tick of a clock. Nearby were Golden Spike, 2005, a two-inch, eighteen-carat gold nail driven into the floor, its gleaming head virtually indistinguishable from its surroundings, and Plate with milk, 2005. The former work is too precious not only in its choice of materials, but also in its hide-and-seek placement; the latter seems little more than an arbitrary paean to Wolfgang Laib and the charms of pet ownership. Yet such missteps were rare here, and the logic of Mandi III and Golden Spike—that a simple, Conceptual art–inflected transfiguration of an everyday object can dramatically alter its meaning–underpinned several other sculptures in the show.

Vase, 2005, for example, is a seven-foot-tall replica of a Ming dynasty vase that, per the artist’s instructions, must be smashed and reassembled prior to being displayed. This process, repeated each time the work goes on view, is entropic, as attested by its hundreds of fragments, held together by plainly visible daubs of yellowing glue, which no longer fit together seamlessly. (This dust-to-dust aesthetic brought to mind Yoko Ono’s April 2006 performance at a memorial for Nam June Paik, during which she distributed 450 pieces of a similar vase and urged visitors to promise to think of the late artist.) In another room, 100 Years, 2004, a small steel sphere, rested on the floor, seeming to absorb the room’s energy like a black hole. Like Roni Horn’s subtly asyemmtrical “asphere” sculptures, 100 Years is not exactly what it seems: It is supposed to suffer “corrosive self-destruction” in 2104, a fact that charges it with questions about permanence-not only the type to worry art conservators, but also about how artworks and artists pass into history.

Mandi VIII, 2006, a plaster replica of the famous classical statue Laocoön and His Sons with the serpents removed from the composition, furthered this line of inquiry. Here, the material transformation (from durable marble to delicate plaster) and the erasure of a key element of the Greek myth comments on our endless capacity for forgetting. Also seeming to make a classical allusion, Mandi XV, 2007, a nearly twenty-two-foot-long sword that lay diagonally across the floor of another gallery, summoned the cautionary anecdote of Damocles. Imagining such an outsize blade dangling over one’s head—or, perhaps, over a head of state—was a final reminder in a stringent, demanding, but by no means bleak exhibition that everything shall pass.

Kris Martin, Mandi XI, 2007.

Kris Martin, Mandi XI, 2007.

Ryan Gander

Published as “The Storyteller” in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Ryan Gander’s exhibition “Heralded as the New Black.” The exhibition premiered at the IKON Gallery, Brimingham, and traveled to the South London Gallery and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. For more information, click here.

“I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum.” – Louise Glück, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”

“Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” – Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art”

“You should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Ian Gander, the artist’s father

Conceptual art is an open-ended gambit. Unlike the drive toward flatness that fueled the development of much modernist painting, which foretold its own end once pure depthlessness had been achieved, Conceptual art is most often underpinned by processes, by ways of seeing and thinking. As such, the term is by no means limited to the philosophical-linguistic explorations of Joseph Kosuth, the rule-based structures and permutations of Sol LeWitt, or any of the dry, seemingly abstract investigations promulgated by early avatars of the movement. Instead, Conceptual art embodies an approach to the world—or, better yet, extracts a core sample from the vast inventory of worldly experience, holding it up to new light.

Because nearly all art made today must in some way grapple with modernism—which, like capitalism, may never end—the core samples Conceptual artists draw out often incorporate aspects of the modernist legacy. This heritage necessarily comes down to us fragmented, incomplete. Glück, in the essay from which the epigraph quoted above is taken, continues: “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.”

London-based artist Ryan Gander’s artworks frequently engage with this weighty aesthetic and ideological inheritance: architecture, typographic design, utopian city planning, other artists’ works, language, and the artist’s studio have all appeared in some form or another in his art. It may seem a small-stakes operation to make art that is, broadly, about other art or about artmaking, and for many artists working today, the air indeed seems pretty thin. Yet Gander doesn’t simply tease out the nuances of chair designs or bemoan the failure of this or that manifesto to correctly prophecy the present. Instead he frequently manages to inhabit or reanimate fragments of this tradition, offering not rote, judgmental commentary on what has past but rather a meditation on the conditions that brought such objects and ideals into being. He hovers in the gaps that have opened up between then and now, pointing out the static that interferes with any understanding of the context in which something was first created. As one critic phrased it, Gander offers “allegorical resurrection[s] of cultural ruins.” But by granting autonomy to these ruins—they are not mere illustrations of some thesis—his artworks avoid forfeiting the power of which Glück speaks.

The curator Douglas Fogle has claimed that at heart Gander is a sculptor; another curator, Bart van der Heiden, has posited photography as Gander’s core practice. I’d like to propose a quite different source for his alchemical ability to transmute received ideas and forms into compelling artworks: storytelling. Gander’s narratives blow life into modernism’s dying embers, reigniting the utopian striving and the restless, playful curiosity about the world that were indivisible from the creation of so much modernist art, architecture, and design but are now mostly lost to us. (Many artists working now, some of whom were included in a recent exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsterein titled “Formalism: Modern Art Today,” engage the form but not the spirit of the forebears to which they lay claim. At its least developed, this neo-modernism—forgive the term—is mere style, elegant yet vacuous.) The narrative impulse likewise ties together Gander’s quite varied artistic output: film installations, sculptures, sound pieces, drawings, a children’s book, public art, a television series pilot, lectures—even an invented word, slipped discreetly into the English language.

* * *

Storytelling is most clearly discerned in The Boy Who Always Looked Up (2003), a forty-eight-page children’s book that Gander wrote and illustrated. It whimsically narrates the life of Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger, in particular the construction of his thirty-two-story Trellick Tower. That Brutalist building, a public housing structure completed in 1972, is situated across the street from the Victorian house of Tom, the story’s narrator, who meets Goldfinger when several architects visit the site during construction. The friendship between Tom and the architect leads to the addition of basement doorways that act as portals to a utopian world symbolized by a paper model for the building. Gander’s mix of fact and fantasy contrasts not only the viewpoints of child and architect, but also the architect’s earnest intentions and the somewhat grim reality of the building itself. (Like many high-rise public housing buildings in England and the United States, Trellick Tower was for many years beset with crime and in a state of general disrepair.) The juxtapositions lead to a host of questions about the efficacy of such projects: Did Goldfinger’s aspirations—and, by extension, those of architects who created similar projects—founder in the face of decidedly non-idealistic residents? Is such aspiration childlike, or even misguided, in its naïveté? Can architecture effect social change?

This kind of storytelling is quite different from “back stories,” the information some artists share as a kind of legend or key to understanding the perplexing, hermetic objects they choose to exhibit. Whereas those tip-offs function to limit interpretation—“Oh, this accumulation of plastic tubes and women’s high heels is about unequal access to water,” or some such—Gander’s artworks consistently open outward. Another work in the same series as the children’s book is Bauhaus Revisited (2003), a re-creation of a chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1924 such that the shape of each piece indicates what moves it can make. Hartwig’s set, meant to eliminate the barrier to entry that kept beginners from understanding the complex game, was designed to be mass produced. Gander’s version, however, is necessarily a one-off and sunders any attempt at playing: It was carved from rare African zebrawood, the marbleized patterning of which makes it impossible to distinguish the two traditional “sides” or “teams” of the game. The gesture can be seen several ways: as an acknowledgment of the removal of such populist-friendly designs as Hartwig’s to the rarefied world of museum collections; as a Dadaist prank liberating the game from the constraints of applicable rules; or as a completion of the pieces’ migration from representation (of knights, bishops, etc.) to pure abstraction.

Both of these artworks are part of the series “An Incomplete History of Ideas” (2002–2006), a body of work that also, in another piece, deployed designer and socialist William Morris’s shambolic book of utopian socialism News from Nowhere. What unites these variegated touchstones is embodied in the word incomplete: Not only did each object end up operating much differently from how it was intended, but myriad new possibilities arise when they’re considered in relation to one another.  As Gander wrote about one work in the series, a novel meant to be written by fifteen separate authors then shopped by the artist to literary agents under a pen name, “I don’t know if it will be a good story. I’m just providing the possibility, the condition for things to happen.”

“An Incomplete History of Ideas” functions associatively, joining together fragments with a logic whose qualities as a fixative may in the end only be known to the artist. This has been Gander’s modus operandi since his time at the Rijksakedemie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, where he first presented his Loose Association lecture, a performance piece with which he has been closely identified ever since. Taking the form of a narrated Power Point slide show, the talk plausibly strings together seemingly offhand observations about a comically wide range of subjects, from “desire lines” to Captain Birdseye, from his late great aunt Deva to Klingons, and from Panopticon theorizer Jeremy Bentham to his late grandfather’s collection of QSL cards, which ham-radio and CB operators mail to each other to acknowledge that they’ve spoken over the airwaves. Like the children’s-book story of Ernö Goldfinger’s life, these talks blend fact and fiction, trading on the authority automatically accorded a lecture to grant provisional “truth” status to urban myths. (Bear in mind the lesson imparted to the artist by his father, quoted at the outset of this essay.) It’s slippery territory, but as Gander has noted, “The ability to find a logic in associating ideas isn’t for the lazy.”

That assertion was published in a catalogue of Gander’s Association Photographs (2005), which are intimately related to the Loose Association lectures. The series, comprising eighteen images, depicts carefully plotted arrangements of the 105 “personally significant” items that the artist collected over a two-year period. Each item—from self-evident objects like newspaper articles and a packet of salt to inscrutable inclusions like blank sheets of carbon paper—is annotated by a museum-style wall label that is itself depicted in the photograph. Printed at the same scale as the sections of wall they depict, these flatly lit compositions are what one critic called a “conceptual trompe l’oeil.” Each item contained therein is, likewise, potentially a starting point for an entirely new strand of Gander’s work. This possibility is confirmed by a closer look at image number seventeen. The photograph depicts an artwork by the artist Aurélien Froment consisting of an agenda for the year 2030, a date Gander recycled into the title of his 2005 Store Gallery exhibition “Somewhere Between 1886 and 2030.” (In a sound piece included in the show, Froment discusses his own artwork.) On either side of the agenda are a promotional sheet for an Eames chair on an “Eiffel Tower” base, a picture of two billboards for British Telecom that incorporate giant Post-It Notes, and a small sketch of the Eiffel Tower on another (normal-size) Post-It Note, all three of which the artist, at the time of this writing, is working into a stand-alone artwork.

But photograph number seventeen, titled What kind of a world, also depicts, in its lower-left-hand corner, a sketch on graph paper of “how best to annotate this work.” (This sketch itself is annotated in the depicted wall label; it is listed as number 105, the last in the series of evocative objects.) If Gander’s associative artworks are akin to strolls or rambles in a park, in which a succession of sense impressions cohere instinctually rather than by some force of reasoning, the idea behind the inclusion of such a sketch in the finished photograph is so tightly wound as to be a perfect circle. Loops, tautologies, and knots are the opposite of Gander’s more fanciful linkages, and function as counterbalances to the meandering side of his output. Perhaps the tightest spring he has wound is the word he invented, mitim. Not only is it an palindrome, but when set in capital letters in many sans-serif typefaces it is also visually symmetrical, a “physical palindrome.” Mitim means “a mythical word newly introduced into history as if it had always been there”—it is what it means. In a text published in the design journal Dot Dot Dot, Gander explained at length the difficulties he faces with regard to instigating and increasing its circulation, which must stem in part from this self-reflexive circumscription.

It’s worth noting here that the most significant element of our inheritance from modernism in the arts may be artistic self-consciousness about the characteristics (and limitations) of a given medium. Painters made paintings about painting; novelists wrote books that called attention to their construction. (In this vein, in 2001 Gander restaged the image from a Serge Gainsbourg album cover to investigate the pictorial information taken in by three different types of camera, presenting the results side-by-side.) Gander’s ceaseless and playful inquisitiveness is particularly fertile in this regard: Each aspect of his studio practice is fit to be pried apart and examined in the same way an engineer might investigate a watch or a computer programmer might probe a handheld gadget. This is not limited to individual gestures or artworks: The aforementioned sound piece, including in his 2005 exhibition at Store Gallery, narrated not only Froment’s 2030 agenda and details about the artworks that were included in the show, but also those ideas for artworks that Gander had considered for inclusion but ultimately discarded. The strategy once again functions in a manner quite opposed to museum-display convention, in which an Acoustiguide sound track anchors an exhibition visitor with concrete details about given works. In Somewhere Between, the sound track serves to pick apart the viewer’s assumptions while at the same time lead her to imaginatively create objects that are not present (or, in one case, is only present on the show’s invitation card).

In three recent video installations Gander has deployed his penchant for creating coiled and free-ranging structures at the same time. The balance between these modes is slightly different in each. Two, both titled Is this guilt in you too, possess a centrifugal force, moving outward from a central visual motif or situation; the third, titled Ghostwriter Subtext, features figures well known in the art world and is more centripetal.

The young girl narrating Is this guilt in you too (The study of a car in a field) (2005), which was made by Gander for presentation at the 2005 Art Basel art fair, has not only seen the video, but is in the process of seeing it at the same time as the viewer of the finished piece. “The voice”—meaning hers—“… makes it seem like somebody has already seen this.” At one point in the audio commentary about the minute-long digital video, she narrates what one watches like a play-by-play announcer. She describes the slow fade from black to white, the snowy field that comes into view, the stand of trees and powder-dusted mountains in the background, the four-door sedan idling in the midst of the scene, and the bluish shadow it casts on the ground nearby. If this were the extent of the girl’s commentary on the looped video, the work could be seen as ironically self-conscious, a humorous addition to the mass of artworks, films, theater productions, and novels that reflexively acknowledge the fact of their fabrication. But her quote continues: “…and they know what you’re watching, and they sort of know everything about it.” Prompted by an interlocutor we cannot hear, she presses onward, discussing the clip’s relationship to music videos and driving video games; analyzing its real-world verisimilitude; offering psychological speculations about the kind of person who could have ended up in a situation like the one onscreen; prognosticating about what could happen next; guessing what kinds of feelings it might arouse in the viewer; selecting a suitable sound track for it. Perhaps most importantly and humorously, she explains where it is to be exhibited—“An art fair, in Basel”—and spells out what art fairs are: “[They are] the art world. Lots of galleries are there, like streets. And it’s full of people walking around.” Encountering this video installation at Art Basel must have been uncanny. How often do artworks speak back to you? And of those, how many speak of the encounter you’re in the midst having? If the tradition of self-conscious artworks stretches back well beyond twentieth-century modernism (think of Velazquez’s Las Meninas), it remains rare even today that an artwork is endowed with something more akin to artificial intelligence.

To encounter it at a nonprofit venue, as I did at Artists Space in New York in late 2005, is to understand how the video, already complete and therefore somewhat out of the artist’s hands, continues to subtly chart its movement through the world. An attendant, slightly dissonant frisson inheres in the experience, forcing one to think not only about the conditions of the particular exhibition you are attending, but also about its previous incarnation as an artwork made for an entirely different venue. To imagine its resonance in an art-fair setting encourages one to think more critically about the contingent, ever-evolving relationship between an artwork and its public. It brings to mind a striking question: Just what causes the guilt referred to in the title? With everything but an answer coming from the artwork itself, one’s response, as with all of Gander’s works, must be an individual act of negotiation. To traffic in such thought-provocation without retreating into abstraction or mystical ambiguity is rare. The study of a car in a field is a video koan, the value of which does not reside solely in the stress of meditation upon the considerable questions it generates, but also in the image itself, which is, despite its utter anonymity, prepossessing.

Is this guilt in you too (Cinema verso) (2006) charts the story of two characters, one living in New York City, the other in upstate New York. Both are experiencing sensory lapses: In the city, the man is slowly going blind, and is trying to find the best route to his daughter’s school given his deteriorating sight. Upstate, the unnamed character is experiencing what might be described as a kind of snow blindness, a whiteout not unlike that which was depicted in The study of a car in a field. With numerous such links between them, Gander has suggested that study may be seen as a kind of trailer for cinema verso. But whereas the earlier installation disentangled its audio and video tracks, but let gallery-goers experience them simultaneously, Cinema verso goes one step further. Viewers enter into a situation analogous to those experienced by the two protagonists, as it quickly becomes apparent that one is viewing the reverse side—verso—of a semi-opaque projection screen, through which distinct images become bleary washes of moving color. (This fact is confirmed by peeking around the edge of the screen at an empty auditorium.) The audio track is likewise faint, as it emanates from a directional speaker placed in a corner near to the screen. If you wish to hear the sound track, you must stand beneath the speaker and therefore cannot see the screen clearly; conversely, if you can see the video, its sound is unavailable. The installation anatomizes sensory experience, causing an empathic connection with the video’s hampered protagonists and forcing an imaginative reconstruction of its constituent parts, which will necessarily be different for each viewer.

Ghostwriter Subtext – (Notes on Speaking and Learning) (2006) furthers this theme, adding an intriguing subtext: the installation itself admits a divisive, revealing ambivalence. It is a two-channel work, the main screen depicting an interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the architect Rem Koolhaas conducted by a ghostwriter that Gander has hired. Obrist and Koolhaas are sitting inside the Serpentine Gallery’s temporary pavilion in London, which had, shortly before the shooting of Gander’s video, been the site of a twenty-four-hour “interview marathon” conducted by the duo. The unnamed ghostwriter, for whom extracting information is key to his trade, turns the tables on these prolific interrogators. In a manner similar to Cinema verso Gander has severed image and sound: Though the audio plays sequentially and is audible throughout the installation, Obrist and Koolhaas are only depicted at moments only when they are not speaking; as soon as their lips part to emit speech, the image cuts away to one of the other two listeners. (Interestingly, this decision gives the images the rhythm of conversation, alternately dawdling and accelerated.) A second, blank screen presents the transcript of a conversation between Gander and a friend as subtitles. Whereas Cinema verso allowed one behind the screen, this conversation, in which Gander wonders about the effectiveness of the installation as a whole, prods at the seamless surface one expects an artwork exhibited in public to possess. (In this manner it returns to probing of The story of a car in a field.) Given the deft play with truth that Gander has exhibited throughout his career, it’s perhaps too simple to assume that the dialogue flashing across the bottom of the screen is in any way confessional. But it doesn’t appear to be a conceit, and the possibility—of an anxious artwork, infallible as humans are—is appealing.

* * *

Gander is a latter-day modernist operating in the expanded field—high culture and low—brought into the realm of fine-art discourse by postmodernism. As he says himself: “I don’t see the difference between [the artist] Jonathan Monk’s work, the colour red, Star Wars the movie, or a piece of cardboard.” As the combination of technological development and increasingly available specialized labor has allowed artists to slalom across disciplines heretofore barricaded by the need for training, one comes to identify a certain class of practitioners less by style than by outlook. Other artists, such as the collaborative duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, for whom Gander has expressed admiration, or Maurizio Cattelan, deploy a similar (and potent) combination of self-reflexiveness and humor. What makes Gander’s practice unique is the frequency with which he turns this playful deliberation—it is calculation without cynicism—on himself, offering up to viewers an opportunity to inhabit his world rather than a position paper to ingest. That such an impressive variety of stories has been for several years the result of this curious process is all the more laudable. The last words should go to Gander himself: “I make better work when I’m just entwined with all the amazing stuff we’re all drenched in every day—just by happening to be alive—than when I am aware I’m ‘making art’. It’s that simple.”

Steve McQueen

Published on Artforum.con on October 22, 2007.

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend, 2007, which premiered at this year’s Venice Biennale and is currently on view at the Renaissance Society, charts a return of the repressed: Capitalist economies may have moved into an “information age,” but this seventeen-minute 35-mm film proves that their machinations still make demands on the earth and on the laborers who work it. Gravesend lyrically (if abstractly) shows that, whereas nineteenth-century colonial powers sought diamonds and other traditional resources, our current appetite is for coltan, a dull black mineral used in capacitors, which are vital components in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronics. What is to be inferred from the gorgeously composed, monumentally scaled high-definition projection is that greed for this material has contributed to the political instability and the military occupation of the Congo, an area that has seen uninterrupted conflict since well before its 1960 liberation from Belgian rule. Juxtaposing an animated fly-by of the Congo River with footage of workers sifting through dark earth and robots processing the procured material in a pristine, brightly lit laboratory, the film’s disjunctions allegorize the very real economic, social, and physical distance this material traverses as it moves from the third to the first world. Its final sequence, a time-lapse shot of a sun setting behind smokestacks, brings everything full circle, rendering visual a scene described at the outset of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unexploded, 2007, shown on a nearby monitor, is a minute-long film documenting the damage wrought by an unexploded bomb that fell on a building in Basra, Iraq. It unexpectedly calls to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, 1975, which makes the viewer squeamish about drawing aesthetic connections in the face of real-world violence.

McQueen has two concurrent exhibitions in London. At the Imperial War Museum is Queen and Country, 2007, his much-discussed and critically acclaimed response to the war in Iraq. Commissioned by the museum and the Manchester International Festival, the work’s simple sculptural form—a cabinet with sliding drawers that contain mock-ups of stamp sheets bearing images, overlaid with a silhouette of the queen’s profile, of each British soldier who has died in the conflict and whose family agreed to participate—achieves the potent sobriety of other recent war memorials without lapsing into the abstraction that has marked most of them since the unveiling of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. The installation also contains a large painting by John Singer Sargent that dramatizes the distance between soldiers’ sacrifice and the barely interrupted nature of citizen life, a disconnect that has grown only wider in the ninety years since the canvas was painted.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

At Thomas Dane Gallery, McQueen presents a new 16-mm film, Running Thunder, 2007. A horse with a somewhat distended belly lies on its side, its glassy, lifeless black eye pointed directly at the camera lens. It is an image of such transfixing stillness that only the point at which the film loops, returning to the scene the sunlight that has imperceptibly faded over the course of ten minutes, reminds one that time has not paused on the animal’s behalf. The fallen beast calls to mind the beatific donkey in Robert Bresson’s classic film Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and the quintessentially British canvases of late-eighteenth-century painter George Stubbs. Seen in the context of Unexploded and Queen and Country, one can’t help but think of this fallen beast as a foil to the heroism the animal’s presence in art frequently implies. McQueen’s seductive yet unflinching examinations of the complex, often contradictory impulses of our present moment are nearly unmatched and to be both savored and contemplated.

Interview: Matthew Higgs

Published as “Talking About Communication” in the Metro Times (Detroit), October 3, 2007. To see the interview in context, click here.

“In New York,” says Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of the city’s not-for-profit gallery White Columns, “someone who organizes an exhibition can rely on a certain bedrock experience, and, extending from that, a conditioned response.” The prolific curator, artist, and writer was in his windowless, record-and-art filled office at the southernmost reaches of Chelsea, discussing Words Fail Me, the group exhibition he’s organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “We’re so familiar with Jack Pierson’s sculptures made of found signage that we’ve even seen them parodied in the Barney’s shop window. One of the fascinating things about Detroit is that the work of many of these artists is being seen locally for the first time. It certainly changed how I view a lot of the work in the show, and some of the inclusions were influenced by my visits to the city, which looks very similar to the area in which I grew up in the north of England.”

Words Fail Me, the second exhibition to be organized specifically for the museum by an outside curator, includes 16 artists and artist groups, from Tauba Auerbach, a San Francisco–based artist in her mid-20s, to Peter Fischli and David Weiss, eminent Swiss artists who have represented their country at the Venice Biennale and been the subject of several career surveys, most recently at London’s Tate Modern. What unites the disparate text-based artworks—videos, a neon piece, a nearly invisible sculpture made of pushpins, piles of posters free for the taking, a mural-size wall painting, a laser— is their engagement with the world outside of art. These “vernacular manifestations of language,” as Higgs calls them, range from Pierson and Ron Terada’s use of commercial signage to Carl Pope, Jr.’s riffing on the visual conventions of fly-posting and pamphleteering. “Others,” Higgs continues, “play off real-world entanglements of the use of language, the way that language manifests itself socially in public space.”

What results is “not a survey of art and language, or a survey of works that include language in them. It’s more about a cumulative mood, something that is a little more emotive. One can sense a melancholic acceptance of our present circumstances.” Is that where the exhibition’s title comes in? “Yes, to a degree. It seems that we’re at a point where language seems insufficient, or it isn’t enough by itself, however hard one might try to articulate an idea. There is always a potential for it to be misunderstood or misread.”

The works in Words Fail Me address imperfect communication, often by means of deliberate ambiguity. New York artist Siobhan Liddell’s contribution, “Weakness as strength” (2007), consists of those three words spelled out in clear pushpins on a 24-foot-long white wall. One at first sees a blank surface; only gradually does the message distinguish itself from the background; it will take longer still for each viewer to determine what the message means to him or her. Elsewhere, Jonathan Monk’s “Laser Piece Number VI (Nostalgic for the Future)” (2006) is precisely what the title indicates: A laser that spells out the phrase on the wall. Who provides the speaking voice for this work? Is the speaker nostalgic for an actual future, or for an era when the future seemed to be a bright prospect? Many of the works in the exhibition will prompt such questions; Fischli and Weiss’s piece, a slide projection they have exhibited around the world but reconfigured specifically for this show, consists of nothing but questions, a kind of philosophical graffiti projected from slides onto the walls.

Perhaps one of the most relevant interrogations comes from artist Kay Rosen, a longtime resident of nearby Gary, Ind. “Blurred” (2005) consists of the titular word rendered in eight-foot-tall blocky letters running across the corner where two walls meet. “Blu” is in bright blue; the central “r” is in purple; “red” is, of course, in red. A few years back, University of Michigan professors created U.S. maps that indicated that most of the country is politically neither red nor blue, and it’s to Rosen’s credit that her work counters reductive red state–blue state notions of our electoral affinities without seeming hectoring. As Rosen said in an interview about another recent work of hers, it is “coincidental and amazing that in this word structure corroborates meaning.” Rosen, who Higgs cites as influential to his thinking about Words Fail Me and to his own art practice, consistently discovers such felicities.

Also noteworthy is the art work created for the exhibition by London-based artist Jeremy Deller. “Folk Song (detail)” (2007) consists of three piles of posters, free for the taking, printed with an excerpt of a traditional English folk song about patriotism, nationhood and an individual’s relationship to those concepts. The central pile presents the lyrics in English, rendered in the typeface used on the London Underground; to the right they are printed in Arabic; to the left they have been translated into Hebrew. Higgs elaborates: “These letterforms — if we don’t read Arabic or Hebrew — are continually politicized. For example, the Arabic font stops being an elegant, illegible calligraphy and becomes something else instead.”

The ways text is incorporated into visual art can be plotted on a spectrum, defined on one end by description and on the other by what one might call counter-description. In the former, text functions as a caption, directly translating, substituting for, or providing additional information about an image; in the latter, language opens the image up to new interpretations (think of René Magritte’s canonical painting “The Treachery of Images” — aka, “This Is Not a Pipe). The majority of Words Fail Me tends toward the latter end of the spectrum, which will prove a boon to viewers worried about facing down dryly conceptual art works —Joseph Kosuth’s canonical Photostats definitions of words like “Abstract” or “Chair” do not figure into the show. “Each one of the works does something quite different formally, physically and experientially … on top of what it’s up to idea-wise or conceptually,” Higgs notes. “In a way, they have a theatrical presence.”

This is especially true of Pierson’s work, Dead (1996). Installed on a freestanding wall facing the entrance to the museum, “it’s the first work you see when you come in. It has such a visceral punch. Instead of the welcome mat you get an image of closure.” Beyond the sculpture, Higgs has installed a series of freestanding walls that divide the large rooms of the former Cadillac dealership into more manageable spaces, which adds to the theatricality.

“I wanted the show to have a complicated group of artists — early, mid-career and established — and to have no hierarchy in the way the work is presented in the space. It’s about your perambulation through the space” and coming up with your own aggregate conversation. If the show is a success, that conversation should reach far beyond MOCAD’s walls.

Babette Mangolte

Published in Artforum, October 2007.

For more than three decades filmmaker Babette Mangolte has documented, in still and moving images, the performances of artists and dancers, from her early chronicling of the work of Yvonne Rainer to her recording of Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2005. Considering that she is esteemed as a director of splintered, nonnarrative, highly subjective experimental films and of equally exploratory documentaries (about Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket, for example), it is a wonder that this was Mangolte’s first US solo exhibition. Forty-five black-and-white photographs, most from the mid-to-late ’70s, inhabited a room, a hallway, and an office in this apartment gallery.

Yvonner Rainer, Cape Cod, 1972, one of the earliest images in this show, is a head shot of the choreographer facing away from the camera. Rainer’s dark bob sways in a slight breeze, wisps of cloud scud across the sky, and a small patch of distant land is discernible over her right shoulder. It is a striking image that refuses to conform to he conventions of portraiture. The photograph was commissioned by the editors of Avalanche magazine, a bible of postminimalism and Conceptual art, for a cover story on the dancer, yet for reasons left unexplained was never used—an exclusion that resonates with Mangolte’s own marginalization in the canon of 1970s art. Hung nearby was a production still, titled Roof, 1974, from Mangolte’s film What Maisie Knew (1975) that reprises the pose. Here, Rainer stands, again facing away from the viewer, on a rooftop alongside seven other figures, who outline a rectangle as they face each other.

These are two among several photographs populated by legends of the downtown scene, from Philip Glass to Trisha Brown, Simone Forti to Robert Whitman. Richard Serra, crowned by an eccentric shock of hair, stares down the lens. Many images show bodies in motion across the clearing made by an audience hunkered on the floor; all the shots are gracefully composed and highly evocative of their milieus. Mangolte, whose photographs have often been included in museum surveys of performance art and dance, is here shown once again to have played a major role in determining how we visualize the period, her modest reputation as an artist in her own right notwithstanding.

Babette Mangolte, Roof, 1974.

Babette Mangolte, Roof, 1974.

The exhibition also included “Composite Buildings,” 1978, a series of collages using multiple photographs depicting the same building or streetscape. These works, exhibited individually or in small groups, evidence Mangolte’s preoccupation with the artistic concerns prevalent in the late ’70s: seriality, logical permutation, documentary candor, the infrastructure of the urban environment, even metatextual commentary, as in a picture of “Composite Buildings” photographs scattered on the artist’s P.S. 1 studio floor. By seamlessly hinging two prints of a photo of one loft building; by running side by side minutely varied double portraits of the Western Union Building’s façade, sometimes creating an urban herringbone pattern; and by adjusting slightly the frame of her picture of some Canal Street buildings, Mangolte cleverly confuses positive and negative space, undermines the stolidity of the squat brick structures, and generally presents as strange that which is familiar.

As such, the appeal of these images is great, even without taking into consideration the nostalgia induced by looking at buildings that are no longer extant in a newly moneyed Tribeca. This cannily staged exhibition, presenting first a context in which to place the artist, then an introductory taste of her work, whetted the appetite for further material from this longtime downtown denizen.

Shirana Shahbazi

Published on Artforum.com, September 27, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

This exhibition is the largest US presentation of Zurich-based Iranian artist Shirana Shahbazi’s photographs to date. It is an assembly of archetypes, offering still lifes, portraits, and landscapes rendered with a formal clarity that corresponds to received notions of Swiss precision or bracingly crisp Alpine air. The photographs, taken together, evoke the lyricism that suffuses Roe Ethridge’s landscape pictures and the variations-on-a-theme investigative depth associated with Christopher Williams. Whereas the cases made for the conceptual underpinnings of those two artists’ work are, respectively, plausible and sturdy, it can be frustrating to try teasing meaning from Shahbazi’s constellation of images. One wishes that the relationships between photographic archetypes, printing techniques, and the subjects’ geographic origins were more clearly articulated. (One vanitas wall painting, executed by an anonymous team of Iranian artists after a photograph by Shahbazi, seems not only out of place but also late to the game: Francis Alÿs, among others, has handed off work to local artisans to greater effect.) But what images: Black-and-white prints of butterflies; a fully abstract gradation, from pink to white, soft as cotton candy; an orange-pink orchid set against an azure backdrop; a flat Texas landscape where the depth of field stretches seemingly to the horizon: Like diamonds, each offers a glittering specificity. In years past, her photographs were both smaller and framed; Shahbazi is one of few artists whose work benefits from the increased scale to which success has allowed her access, as this ravishing if imperfect exhibition indicates.

Sharon Hayes in midtown

At half past noon on Monday, the artist Sharon Hayes emerged from the UBS tower on Sixth Avenue (between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets), microphone stand and small amplifier in hand. She set them down on the sidewalk and, without preamble, began speaking the text of an anonymous love letter, catching and holding the eyes of passersby willing to meet her gaze. She spoke plainly, addressing a “you” seemingly far away, perhaps in the Middle East. The letter’s tone was melancholic and its details were specific to our moment, addressing not only the war, but also the steam-pipe explosion in Manhattan and other recent events; it began by mentioning the arrival of autumn. Fifteen or so people stood at the curb listening and watching; by the time she had recited the six- or eight-minute letter three times, seamlessly blending the end of one recitation with the beginning of the next, another ten office employees had stopped to take the measure of her action. The insertion of private woe into the impersonal environment resounded in me and—somewhat unexpectedly—brought to mind the Maximilian Colby song “Balance,” which combined an anonymous woman’s recording of Judy Grahn’s epic poem “A Woman Is Talking to Death” (1974) with a long, brooding hardcore song. (The mid-‘90s hardcore band is now so obscure it is difficult to learn about it online, much less hear its music.)

The performance, titled Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love?, is part of Art in General’s twenty-fifth-anniversary exhibition, at the UBS Art Gallery. Hayes repeated it at 12:30 PM each day this week, each time reciting a different letter. Phrases recur, including “I am so much yours I am no longer myself,” and the sign-off, “… I choose my words carefully, and I say to you goodbye.” The dominant sentiment remains longing: “Why can’t you be my country?” the narrator asks at one point, encapsulating Hayes’s fusion of personal anguish and political circumstance. As the week progressed, repeat viewers could begin to stitch together a narrative: The two lovers had once been together in New York; the absent partner’s family demanded that she leave the United States; the left-behind partner offered to leave, too, but was rebuffed; now they communicate primarily by letter, with distress and bewilderment as the communicative motifs.

Who is the author of these letters? Each speculation colors the interpretation of the performance. Is it Hayes herself, and is this public “respeaking” (to use the artist’s term for her earlier performances) as harrowing for her now as it was when it was happening? (And is it an ongoing correspondence?) Is the narrator fictive, making Hayes’s story a mirror held up to the audience of office workers on their lunch break, expressing collective emotions otherwise unacknowledged publicly? Small details continually overturn one’s conclusions without breaking the spell of the performance. On Thursday, in mentioning a political protest in Washington, DC, the letter’s author mentions wanting to “tell the fucking President to call off the National Guard.” The phrase could as easily have been uttered in 1967 as in 2007.

That so profound a resonance can be achieved through such simple means is testament to Hayes’s talent. She has for several years been “respeaking” historical texts and creating other performances that commingle the private and the public; for further reference, see this May 2006 Artforum profile of the artist, written by Julia Bryan-Wilson. Everything Else Has Failed… will stay with me for a long time.

Tacita Dean

Published in Paper Monument issue one, September 2007.

There is no establishing shot. Kodak begins with an image of four elegantly curved metal ducts, from which extend cables sheathed in accordion-fold sleeves. The film unfurls from there.

Ribbons of semitransparent blue film stock scroll left-to-right, fluttering like small waves or sheaves of wheat buffeted by wind. Men in white jumpsuits—part scientist, part mechanic—inhabit futuristic rooms, ensuring the smooth operation of the machinery that surrounds them. Black-and-white shots are punctuated with richly hued color images: blushes of pink, cobalt blue, receding lines of red fluorescent tubes like contrasting stitching on dark fabric. Rolls of film stock unspool and then coil around giant drums. At one point, test paper interrupts the smooth run of pinkish celluloid through the machines, blocking out the light that had passed so gracefully through the mutable stock . . .

* * *

In recent years, Tacita Dean has reduced her investigations to their most potent essence. The films made five to ten years ago—featuring lighthouses, dilapidated buildings, sunsets, antiquated or outsized military listening devices, or the city of Berlin seen from the rotating restaurant on top of its infamous TV tower—gave way first to simpler portraits of artists and writers and, finally, in Kodak, to a meditation on the material conditions of the double-sprocketed 16mm film stock she prizes so highly.

Yet Kodak does not impart a coherent sense of the processes involved in creating this cherished material. It is more ethnographic field recording than preservationist instruction sheet. Despite the objectivity implicit in the medium, the film’s insistent abstract compositions and other close-ups impair one’s ability to understand precisely what one is looking at. Important details—the factory’s location in Chalôn-sur-Soane, France; its role as one of the few producers of 16mm film stock; the crucial fact that it was soon to close forever—are only revealed through outside reading. While the film’s gradual crescendo and decrescendo of activity seems meant to narrate one day in the life of the factory, the document is not very documentary. Atmosphere reigns.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

The nostalgia that gives rise to a meditation like Kodak has recently been given an extensive theoretical workout. Philosophers and critics from Avishai Margalit, Paul Ricoeur, and Andreas Huyssen to David Gross, Svetlana Boym, and Clive James have examined collective remembering. But there is nothing systematic, acutely penetrating, or overtly philosophical about Kodak. Dean chooses to show rather than to tell, and her film’s lyricism provides a sensuous counterpoint to the tenor of these writers’ investigations. With its sharp, deep focus and pools of luscious color, Kodak is a convincing if imperfect advertisement for the disappearing medium’s capabilities.

Perhaps the closest correlative to Kodak’s intended elegiac tenderness is to be found in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops I-IV (2003). The five-hour audio composition was created with analog, reel-to-reel tapes that were never to be played again. Finding a trove of personal recordings made in the early ’80s, Basinski discovered that oxidization had set upon the tapes, and that as he created a digital copy of their contents, the corrosion, run across the magnetic tape heads of the player, ruined the originals. A faltering digital echo of the original material, which warbles and is compromised by patches of static and complete silence, is all that remains. Each playback is a performance of the sound source’s obliteration.

Dean only allows her films to be presented publicly in their original formats, and, just as the available reserve of her preferred film stock is now disappearing, so too will her films finally disintegrate, despite attempts at preservation. Dean’s ideally attentive audience members are likely to be haunted by this finality.

Noir et Blanc, a 16mm black-and-white film also presented at the Guggenheim, literalizes this sense of reaching an endpoint: The four-and-a-half-minute, fully abstract variation on Kodak‘s theme was created using the few remaining rolls of double-sprocketed black-and-white film the artist could source. There are now apparently none left in the world. This prompts the question: Where does Dean go from here?

* * *

Kodak‘s penultimate scene, depicting the broken furniture, unkempt wires, mangled signs, and trash-strewn surfaces of the abandoned film-packaging section of the plant, is more harshly lit, such that Kodak abruptly takes on the heavy-industry-in-ruins aesthetic of post-apocalyptic cinema. Lulled by the found, abstract beauty of the film’s first thirty-five minutes, the sudden melodrama of the factory’s disassembly comes as a surprise. Is this meant to provoke indignation over the eclipse of Dean’s preferred medium? Are we meant to intervene?

But nostalgia is more paralyzing than stirring, a kind of sentimental amber encasing the objects of its adoration. In Kodak, film is both the amber and the fossilized specimen. One could wish that, faced with the prospect of making the final film on this stock, an artist would simply aim for the most achingly perfect creation the medium allows, confident that its beauty was argument enough against its extinction.

* * *

The workers move with practiced precision, fulfilling their duties calmly. Only one Kodak logo appears—as a patch on the jumpsuit of an employee, reversed by reflection. Two of them wrap a roll of newly produced film in protective plastic sheeting, expertly taping down the excess material before moving it with a hydraulic lift to a staging ground. Upon completing their shifts, they are seen in silhouette at the end of a dimly lit long hallway as they prepare to exit the building.

Ricci Albenda

Published in Artforum, September 2007.

Ricci Albenda’s bifurcated practice encompasses architectural interventions and paintings of brightly colored words set against neutral grounds. His last solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery featured six of these text paintings, which, while attractive enough, have limited appeal beyond a simple linguistic and chromatic playfulness. In this show, however, the artist revisited the other aspect of his practice and successfully expanded it.

Ricci Albenda, Panoramic Portal to Another Dimension (Deanna), 2007.

Ricci Albenda, Panoramic Portal to Another Dimension (Deanna), 2007.

Panoramic Portal to Another Dimension (Deanna) (all works 2007) is a seamless distortion of the gallery’s north wall in wood, plaster, and white acrylic paint. At first glance it offers up a knotty horizontal band at the point where two undulating curves meet. But look closer, and the installation—a 540-degree panorama of the gallery’s architecture—oscillates between something one sees into (corridors whose rectangular walls have bowed) and something one simply sees (perhaps a candlestick resting on a cushion). Most of Albenda’s earlier interventions are sculptural rather than truly architectural: Small protrusions bulge from or are carved into the wall, the excisions occasionally accompanied by a “positive” form suspended from the ceiling to compliment the “negative” seemingly removed from the surface. Here, by enlarging the scale and making the work flush with the gallery’s architecture, the artist induces a more immersive, quasi-psychedelic push-pull effect without forsaking his typical visual restraint.

A video titled Panning Annex was projected onto the opposite wall. A digital variation on the trompe l’oeil murals Albenda created for the Museum of Modern Art in 2001 and the Hyatt Center in Chicago in 2005, it consists of a slowly rotating virtual “annex” that, like Panoramic Portal, seamlessly fills the surface on which it is presented. From time to time, this perambulatory space pauses briefly—notably when the perspective of the projection’s align with the walls to either side of it. At one moment it appears to depict a rectangular room; at another the two walls recede to a single vanishing point. These junctures offer viewers a chance to reconcile their expectation of a flat, vertical surface with the shifting tableau that they encounter—fleeting respite from the queasy spatial instability that characterizes the exhibition as a whole. In this work Albenda inherits the mantle of Dan Graham’s 1970s experiments with mirrors and live video feeds, employing fairly rudimentary techniques to orchestrate a complicated interplay of real and virtual space.

Albenda’s exhibition required viewers to constantly recalibrate their relationship to objects around them, as the artworks seemed also to be in the process of refashioning themselves. The effect was of a phenomenological fun house-but one contrived without resort to the digital gimmickry that some argue characterizes, for example, “blob” architecture. In Albenda’s work, space is a fluid, dynamic construct. Still, both Panoramic Portal and Panning Annex are experienced frontally. Moving from this diorama-like presentation to a wraparound environment would seem to be Albenda’s logical next step.

“Reinvesting Criticism”

Published in Fillip issue six, summer 2007.

A problem: The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger; the 2002 October roundtable on “The Crisis in Criticism”; Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice, edited by Raphael Rubinstein; and, in truth, this essay. What is to be made of contemporary writers—myself included—who lament the “helplessness” of contemporary criticism in the face of the current hyperinflated market, echoing sentiments expressed repeatedly since the dawn of the last century? A fact: Critics neither have much authority nor wield much power in today’s art world, no matter how you parse any of the terms in that statement. What is to be done? At best, the critic’s position (closer to the consumption than the production end of the art experience) and experience affords her more of a bird’s-eye view of the art-world whirl than many people get. If a critic is patient (and lucky), that social distance will help her translate on-the-ground experience with artworks to slightly broader, quasi-sociological insight. Pair those translations with opinion, sharp description, and a clear style—and temper the desire to fret about the infrequency with which they come together—and the writer can do the calling justice.

* * *

Power is a contested and shifting phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, in the minds of most in the art world, it is an abstract concept. See Art Review magazine’s annual “Power 100” list for a perfect example of how power can be calculated arbitrarily. (These lists are much discussed, as when the critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz appeared in the 2006 edition, even if not taken too seriously.) What remains undefined in lists like these, which proliferate in a strong market, is as important as what is chronicled (primarily money). Who has nominated those on the list? Over whom is the power described held? How is it exercised? What is obscured when power is considered this way is that influence, like affluence, can lead to a pathological disconnect from not only the rest of the world, but also from one’s own needs, abilities, and—perhaps most importantly—limits.

One simple way of defining power is by equating it with opportunity. I have been fortunate enough in the last few years to be offered an increasing number of chances to expound upon some of my favorite artists and topics, which has offered me the chance to shape the dialogue surrounding artworks I have experienced. When efforts are rewarded in such a way, the moment arrives when these demands and opportunities outstrip the ability to use them fully, to honor them by taking them seriously. (It should be noted that this argument assumes that critics can turn down assignments they are not interested in or capable of fulfilling, a luxury that admittedly few have.) Yet the temptation to hold on to assignments—to always say “yes”—is very strong. Alongside every offer comes the realization that it is not being offered to someone else and that, should you turn it down, karma (or reputation) will cause these chances to pass you by in the future. By acknowledging that resources and opportunities (and the power and authority they generate, especially as one reaches are a greater number of people through more influential channels) are finite, one almost immediately enters a hoarding mindset.

But it is precisely the recognition of this finitude that should encourage everyone to be mindful of his or her own limitations. If one is fortunate enough to cross the line and have a surfeit of opportunity, one should become hyper-conscious of one’s limitations and concomitantly try to (for lack of a better term) spread the wealth. There is a simple, greater-good logic that underpins this statement: With no guarantee that what you or I do will be of cultural and/or historical significance, it behooves us to foster others’ attempts to achieve similar goals. Artist and activist collectives offer one model for this kind of group engagement, but, if undertaken widely, this communitarian activity need not be regimented into something so clearly defined. It simply stands to reason that if one hundred people are attempting more or less the same project—in this case responding to, imposing patterns upon, and generally making sense of the broad realm of contemporary art—the chances are exponentially greater that one or a few individuals will succeed than if one person, however capable, forges ahead alone.

Evolutionary biologists would consider this resource sharing a kind of efficiency theory. (It also sounds somewhat like the technophile’s push for freedom-of-information or something quasi-Marxist, which it isn’t necessarily meant to be.) But species reproduction is, strictly speaking, an unconscious action. Applying an “efficiency theory” to human affairs implies a conscious suppression of that hoarding impulse, a subjugation of our own pettiness in favor of creating a stronger community—both better able to achieve its goals and more tightly bound together in its attempts to do so. The goal is to turn self-interest into what philosophers and economists call enlightened self-interest. As the short-story writer George Saunders said in a recent interview: “The thing is, we all have both of those motivations within us, every second that we’re writing. So it’s an ongoing, lifelong battle to write for the right reasons.”

How can power be given a more concrete definition, and how can that definition allow us to re-connect with our community? For writers about visual art I propose as one possible solution a semantic shift, a redefinition of “work” from one’s output to the process by which it is created. Writers should live by the creed of verbs, not nouns; “I write about art” replaces “I’m an art critic.” As the editors of n+1, a relatively new literary journal, put it when discussing Leon Wieseltier’s choice of The Moral Responsibility to Be Intelligent as the title of a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays: “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. [In this title] an attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them.” In this new conception of work, the writer’s efforts, if undertaken with enough consideration, become engaged in an ongoing process, one that furthers argument rather than stamps it out with the final word on a given subject.

* * *

Recently, Ellen Hetzel, who pens book reviews, is the coauthor of the unfortunately named “Book Babes” column, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, publicly asked a question writers on art also ask themselves: “Is a reviewer someone of lesser distinction than a critic—i.e. the equivalent of the untenured professor?” This was published on a website, and many people responded, almost all of them parsing definitions and heroically claiming the status of one or self-effacingly copping to merely being the other. (In case it isn’t clear, critics are the heroes and reviewers mere journeymen, guns-for-hire.) Hetzel opted to not enter the fray herself, instead retreating to the security of dictionary definitions: “Whenever people start defining terms, I try to ignore them—and rush for my Webster’s. According to the New World version, a reviewer is ‘a person who reviews, esp. one who reviews books, plays etc. as for a newspaper.’ A critic, meanwhile, is ‘a person who forms and expresses judgments of people or things according to certain standards or values, and/or such a person whose profession is to write or broadcast such judgments of books, music, paintings, sculpture, plays, motion pictures, television, etc., as for a newspaper.’ Well, the venues look pretty similar, and I’d contend that it’s hair-splitting to suggest much difference.”

It is hair-splitting. But what is rarely acknowledged in this discussion—which, it should be stated, can be useful but is always of secondary importance—is the amount of self-regard necessary to even engage in a lengthy consideration of this problem. Titles (critic, reviewer, whatever) are socially derived, bestowed by others: A community must agree that one has demonstrated a particular skill sufficient to earn a moniker. One doesn’t become an electrician or a chef by declaration, and so it is with those who write. Of course, I admit to having spent many hours doing precisely what I am agitating against, lamenting my reviews and comparing them, unfavorably, to the “criticism” of art historian Thomas Crow or the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn or the historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt or the literary critic John Bayley, or … well, you get the idea. Consider this a mea culpa. The critic-versus-reviewer binary now seems to me invalid in at least two ways. First, as Hetzel and others have rightly noted, the difference is so slight that one can hardly discern it and so subjective that even if one saw it clearly, another interested party might simply disagree with the terms—and be right herself. All written responses to cultural stimuli are, if undertaken in good faith, equally worth consideration, no matter their author; it happens often that a well-written 150-word blurb offers more insight than a bloated 1,500-word essay. Second, and perhaps more dramatically, for me the terms are themselves suspect, especially “critic,” with the shiver of impassive authority it sends down the spines of those subject to her judgments.

Focusing on verbs—to review, to write criticism—flattens out, to the extent possible, the hierarchy implicit in the relationship between reviewers/critics and readers, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical and instructive role switching. This emphasis on verbs likewise creates a situation in which one must apply oneself fully to each task; there are no titles or laurels to rest on. If anything, success raises expectation and makes its recapitulation more difficult: Page through Arnold Rampersand’s new biography of Ralph Ellison, who never followed Invisible Man with a second novel, for a painful illustration of the disastrous, paralyzing effects of early accomplishment. I will use myself as another, extremely modest example. In the past four years I have published several hundred pieces of writing about art, but having done so neither guarantees that what I write next will be mind opening, authoritative—or even factually correct. (Although I edit for a living, I certainly rely on editors and fact-checkers when writing.) Nor does it grant me intrinsic authority in the field of art criticism over anyone reading this, much less in the art world at large. In fact, it’s probable you have never before encountered my name. This text and the ideas in it must stand on their own, a truth simultaneously chastening and exhilarating.

“It’s the critic’s job to make an evidentiary and rhetorical argument; and the reader’s freedom to reject it. One’s power lasts only within the space of the review: that is its frail beauty,” notes the literary critic James Wood. If there is a greater example than Wood of a writer working in English today who understands this fact and consequently puts everything he has into each text, I have yet to find him. The power he describes is bifurcated, applying first to the writer and then to the reader. For the writer, creating a strong, clear argument has a tonic effect, energizing in its re-affirmation of the value of what one has chosen to do. Second, the end result can reshape the experience of the reader (or viewer or listener) who comes into contact with said text and can discern the effort marshaled in its creation. In both writer and reader, honest creation begets—at its best—further creation. The initial act clears a space for reflection, reconsideration, and dialogue, each of which potentially leads to the furthering its aims.

This is by no means a call for heroic action. Yet by suturing together many small gestures, each undertaken earnestly, much can be achieved. For many, I suspect this is a simple point, but perhaps made more valuable by virtue of how infrequently it is foregrounded in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary art criticism. Katy Siegel is right to point out (paradoxically, in the volume edited by Rubinstein) that the perceived and widely commented upon “crisis” is no more than a lament about the waning of the critic’s “social importance and contingent personal dignity.” Fundamental questions about the nature of art (and by extension the nature of life), posed by an ever-increasing number of artists, remain to be answered. By working assiduously, with humility and patience and cooperation, we may finally be up to the task of answering them.

Matias Faldbakken

Essay for the book Matias Faldbakken: Not Made Visible (JRP Ringier, 2007).

You can draw a zigzag line across history and the arts, highlighting negation as a force of change by connecting, for example, Martin Luther to Bartleby the Scrivener to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing to Lee Lozano to the World Social Forum. Negation is normally considered the act of denial or the absence of something extant or positive. But another sentiment seems truer to me: Negation is a positive force. It is a tool, a resource to be exploited, and a way to strategically counterbalance the status quo. No can be a nuanced term: The refusal to work under given conditions implies the desire and need to change or replace them, a process that can take myriad forms. Matias Faldbakken has written, “If Eskimos have two hundred ways of saying ‘snow,’ I want a million ways to say ‘no.’” Negation is a quicksilver agent, difficult to identify, harder yet to pin down. Opposition is never stark. Here are thumbnail sketches of three ways to say “no,” as outlined or embodied by Maurice Blanchot, Joseph A. Schumpeter, and Henry David Thoreau, an admittedly idiosyncratic pantheon. Only 999,997 to go . . .

* * *

“Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt. It confirms itself as it disparages itself.” From this premise, outlined near the beginning of his essay “Literature and the Right to Death,” the French writer Maurice Blanchot swerved toward definitions of literature and of the writer—and hence of art and of the artist—that in their embodiment of paradox, they forward a radical affirmation: Everything is possible immediately. The writer must “destroy language in its present form and create it in another form, denying books as he forms a book out of what other books are not,” Blanchot stated. This negation is a license to freedom: The freedom to imagine worlds that do not exist and to make everything within them instantly available.

This opportunity is itself hounded by ambiguity; by allowing himself the freedom to depict the unrealizable, the writer limits his ability to create the conditions for his emancipation. He “ruins action, not because he deals with what is unreal but because he makes all of reality available to us.” Yet his writing is “the world, grasped and realized in its entirety by the global negation of all individual realities contained in it, therefore, at its highest level, it re-creates the lucidity-in-lack-of-control and the openness of total revolution. Every boundary dissolves. The French critic and novelist Julien Gracq touched on this in his Reading Writing, where he extolled the prose of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and François-René de Chateaubriand for their “exquisitely negative values; in the various ways [their work] thwarts expectation at every moment, in the largely open register of its breakdowns.”

Unexpectedly, it is Damien Hirst, with his book title I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, that gives voice to this freedom intrinsic to art. Extract Hirst’s monomaniacal ego from the statement—assume the art object is speaking for itself&8212;and one has a prescription for effective and affecting art. Operating everywhere and nowhere, relatable both to the masses and to the individual, with immediacy and foresight, an artwork has the power not only to negate but also to supersede current conditions. It hovers above us, suffused with all of our contradictory urges and desires.

* * *

Joseph Schumpeter, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theorists of capitalism, coined a term that remains with us today: creative destruction. It is “the essential fact about capitalism,” in the economist’s words. “It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” In essence, this concept suggests that nothing is permanent: Everything—every business and business practice, in Schumpeter’s case—will be negated in time by insurrectionary forces. Fusing two essentially opposite terms, the term expresses capitalism’s dependence on “innovation, human drama, and sheer havoc,” as Schumpeter biographer Thomas K. McCraw phrased it. Today, as globalization seems to lock capitalism into place as the central, inalienable fact of contemporary life for an ever-growing number of peoples, the instability cited can be understood as a seam or loophole. It is a manner by which one—or, more likely, a group—may introduce broader, more structural changes to a highly regimented system.

I cling to the belief that art—indeed, art informed by modernist principles—can act as an agent for this kind of “massive change” (to use the designer Bruce Mau’s term). The commensurability of “creative destruction” and the modernist dictum “make it new” remains striking. Both terms create a temporal continuum and both prioritize that which is at that continuum’s leading edge. Whereas the innovation intrinsic to capitalism is ethically and morally neutral—if one imagines it solely as a process, and does not consider intention or its societal effects—modernism in the arts was (and remains) conditioned by teleological thinking: The movement has an endpoint, a goal. As the twentieth century taught us in so many ways, any guiding intelligence, when deployed at so large a scale, is likely to be, at best, benign in its coerciveness and, at worst, malevolent and ultimately catastrophic.

This is not to advocate for mindless transformation for its own sake, nor for passivity in the face of that which one hopes to change. But creative destruction gives a measure of hope in the face of despair. Now more than ever, art production is inextricably bound up with the machinations of capitalism, and urban wealth—ostensibly the primary endower of artists—is in fact displacing them. Given this, some comfort comes from the knowledge that resistance to the status quo will be abetted by impermanence, one of the status quo’s essential qualities.

* * *

“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau, who by all accounts—including his own, in his numerous journals—was a rather misunderstood social figure. Today he might be disdained as a loner, but as the late poet William Bronk related in his essay collection The Brother in Elysium: By following the dictates of his own conscience Thoreau was accepted by his neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, if misunderstood “for the little differences and a certain strangeness that they felt between them and him.” Bronk, who spent most of his life in small-town, upstate New York, was sympathetic to the great Transcendentalist and was able to appreciate what Thoreau gave us—a searching, often lyrical account of himself and his immediate environment as both were affected by the rapidly changing society, all in exchange for his abandonment of most social conventions of the time.

Thoreau’s predilection for silence, his eschewal of idle chatter, and his avoidance of large gatherings of men stemmed from a peculiar (to contemporary sensibility) definition of friendship: It is not, as Bronk phrased it, a “mutual assistance league,” but rather an appeal to our best estimation of each other. One solicits neighbors for assistance and one turns to friends for sustenance that is deeper and that requires nothing more than insistence on the integrity of each partner’s individual nature, “specific for each other beyond any power of word or deed to change,” in Bronk’s words. Indeed, as Thoreau himself put it, “It is not words which I wish to hear or to utter but relations that I seek to stand in.”

These relations are a far cry from, for example, relational aesthetics, in which fleeting connections among culturally and economically homogenous groups are celebrated (often uncritically) as heralding a new social paradigm. Indeed, words (and certainly workshops) are not necessary to Thoreau’s conception of friendship—fellow feeling suffices. What would it mean to “opt out,” on his terms, today? While risking the disapprobation of colleagues—or worse yet, their indifference—there remains much to be gained by turning away from such thin relations. By turning inward, at a moment when so much artistic production is unavoidably linked with its social manipulation, one could stopper the slow diffusion of one’s creative faculties, thus making viable a kind of self-understanding that may otherwise never be achieved. Many artists, however, in choosing such self-reliance, will discover that the “new value” they acquire by doing so is of limited interest. But after time, some will be rewarded for their efforts and, more importantly, their creative output will enrich the lives of those that follow. (No one may know this better than Bronk, whose essay on Thoreau, written in the mid-1940s, was not deemed publishable until 1980.)

Let the last words come from Bronk: “In silence [man] prepares for speech; in solitude for society. And so in like manner, the truest society always approaches nearer to solitude, and the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.” Furthermore, “Silence is the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and expressed, which the meanness of our actions and the interpretations put upon them threatens to conceal. Yet all actuality is to be referred to it and valued accordingly as it includes or suggests it. Nothing is worth saying, nothing is worth doing except as a foil for the waves of silence to break against.”

Diary Entry: Roni Horn

Published as “Bottled Water” on Artforum.com on May 14, 2007.

STYKKISHÖLMUR, ICELAND—Certain artists and writers mark a location with an indelible stamp. Venice, for example, is often filtered through the eyes of Turner, Mann, Ruskin, and the poet Joseph Brodsky. After a two-day journey to Iceland to catch the opening of “My Oz,” Roni Horn’s survey exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum, and a site-specific project by the artist in Stykkishólmur commissioned by Artangel, no image of the country will form in my mind without an accompanying picture of Horn’s art. The reverse is true, too. Indeed, much of Horn’s work discloses itself in the context of this variegated, severe landscape.

Horn has been visiting the island since the ’70s, and barely five minutes after my Friday-morning arrival in Reykjavík, I learned that my hotel was where she photographed Dead Owl, 1997, her well-known diptych of snow-white birds; bizarrely, the building is a veritable zoo for taxidermic animals. After a tour of town, I joined the artist’s sister Ona Lindquist, collector and MoMA board member Kathy Fuld, Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot, and curators James Rondeau, Donna De Salvo, Frances Morris, and Linda Norden on a chartered ferry to Videy Island, a mile or so out into the placid Faxaflói Bay. We wandered the uninhabited rock searching for Afangar, an easy-to-miss, “very De Maria” (by consensus) Richard Serra sculpture, comprising pairs of basalt columns driven into the hills so that their tops are a uniform height above sea level.

That evening, we admired the museum’s tightly curated, exactingly installed overview of Horn’s oeuvre. A new, two-part sculpture made up of large, physically improbable amber glass blocks anchored two adjacent rooms on the first floor; opaque from the side, transparent from above, the bottoms of their interiors are miniature topographies. Upstairs, a new series of restrained but striking portraits of a single woman formed a staccato horizon line around the walls of another gallery. Dinner—with artist Tacita Dean and her irrepressible son, Rufus; Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson; Payot; and a little over one hundred other of Horn’s friends and collaborators—was held on a catamaran that made another loop around the bay. It was still daylight after the meal, and those revelers not suffering jet lag barhopped until an hour traditionally reserved for breakfast.

The landscape’s otherworldliness wasn’t impressed on us until the next morning, when the group clambered aboard three buses headed north to the Library of Water. The green adorning the steep mountain faces and reflected in the silvery sea disappeared gradually, only to be replaced by lumpy black lava fields and patches of snow. We stopped at a hotel near a location used by Jules Verne in Journey to the Center of the Earth and decamped for lunch and short hikes. At the meal, Artangel codirector James Lingwood offered some brief, sincere remarks, describing his joy at first coming across Horn’s photo books (one included images of a glacier visible from the hotel) and, paraphrasing Keats’s epitaph, suggesting that Horn is an artist whose name is “writ in water.”

The Library of Water is situated at the highest point in Stykkishólmur, a village of twelve hundred, and looks out over the sea in two directions. Between last August and earlier this year, Horn and her collaborators extracted ice from twenty-four glaciers around Iceland, storing the results in liquid form inside glass columns scattered through the building. Preserving these disappearing glaciers (yet paradoxically not in their natural state) is a deliberate—and deliberately provocative—act. Other collaborators recorded locals’ weather testimonials, words from which are embedded—in Icelandic and in English—in the rubber floor. (They are also collected in a book and on a website.) An apartment was also built into the design for a writer in residence. Artangel secured a twenty-five-year lease, and the entire building is to be given over to the community. (The work’s optical effect mirrors its social intent: The surrounding landscape is drawn into the building, captured by each transparent totem.) “My authorship is done,” Horn said, with characteristic directness.

On Saturday night, to a subdued crowd of sock-footed guests, inaugural writer in residence Gudrún Eva Minervudóttir read from her newest novel. Horn followed with a fifteen-minute excerpt from her text Saying Water, its repetitions achieving an incantatory grace. In Horn’s cosmology, landscape is weather is a face is water is words. Each is but a sounding board for the measure of experience. William James, chafing at language’s inability to convey experience, once wrote, “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, a feeling of cold.” His adjectives are apt, and Horn aims for similar flexibility in her work, to better record our encounters with the land and one another.

We broke for dinner at a nearby restaurant that has the kind of rustic charm one pays for through the nose in New York, then returned for a performance by the singer-songwriter Ólöf Arnalds, who recently joined the Icelandic indie-electronica band Múm. She sang Irish folk songs, country standards, and her own compositions, while playing her charango, an eight-string guitar whose body is made from an armadillo’s shell. The Icelandic lyrics’ incomprehensibility didn’t make the performance any less moving. Thousands of miles from the capital cities most of us call home, with the sun dropping into the ocean behind us, one couldn’t help but marvel at how Horn has created a space for scrutinizing the relationship between viewer and view, between feeling and fact.

Agnes Denes

Published in Artforum, May 2007.

Agnes Denes is perhaps best known for planting a two-acre wheat field at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1982, during the development of Battery Park City. An iconic photograph of the artist—waist-deep in golden sheaves, skyscrapers looming nearby—appears in many surveys of environmental art. But this work, of seemingly simple generosity (Denes harvested one thousand pounds of the crop that August and planted it around the globe), was pointedly titled Wheatfield—A Confrontation, and can be understood as one of the first occasions on which Denes worked on a scale large enough and in a public location central enough to suit her outsize ambition. The intervention represented, in the artist’s words, nothing less than “food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns.”

By the time the Public Art Fund commissioned Wheatfield, Denes had been creating drawings that married Conceptual art to philosophy, mathematics, and science for fifteen years. Two dozen drawings, alongside documentation of Wheatfield and a more recent, long-term environmental intervention in Finland, were included in this exhibition, the artist’s first solo show in New York since a touring retrospective of her public projects arrived at the Chelsea Art Museum in late 2004. Dating from 1970 to 2006 but primarily created in the late ’70s and in 1980, the works on paper often feature abstract shapes centered on white or graph-paper grounds. Their precision betrays a fiercely analytic mind and a steady hand; their refinement highlights a conventional wisdom in the non-artistic disciplines her practice engages: The best solution to a problem is the most elegant.

Arguably the loveliest drawing in the exhibition was Colorburst: The Egg (longitude lines), 1980, in which variously hued ribbons of watercolor nestle side by side, bounded by meridian lines—drawn in ink on an overlaid sheet of clear acetate—that demarcate an egg shape not much larger than those found at a grocery store. The equipoise between seemingly freeform and rule-bound marks is splendid; the delicate colors worthy of Faberge. Yet Denes would disdain a purely formal interpretation of her drawings, even when they succeed so well at pleasing the eye. For example, other, similarly shaped drawings—not included here—are meant as studies for utopian, self-contained urban dwellings.

One series, “Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections,” predominated. In these drawings, which project mathematical forms—the cube, the dodecahedron, the torus—onto representations of the world, Conceptual rigor rubs against the myriad imperfections of the spatial environment we inhabit, and the friction highlights the contingency of how we understand space. These playfully idiosyncratic maps, Denes’s unrelenting seriousness notwithstanding, exhibit a dry humor: Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections-The Hot Dog, 1976, for example, shows an Earth that has improbably morphed into the shape of a hot dog.

Perhaps entering the territory of so many other disciplines made Denes’s position somewhat marginal in the contemporary art world. Likewise her shift, in the early ’80s, into the realm of public, environmental art can be said to have uprooted Denes from the gallery system that feeds mainstream art institutions. Yet without impinging upon other artists’ signature styles, the works exhibited here furthered many artistic concerns prevalent in the late ’70s; Denes was entirely of her moment. Given that her current concern with the environment is one we all share (or ought to), the exhibition left one hoping her will soon re-enter mainstream circulation.

Liz Deschenes

Published on Artforum.com on April 16, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

In contrast to the haphazard chic that characterizes neighboring art spaces and boutiques, nearly everything about this one-year-old Lower East Side gallery is rigorously composed, from its visual identity to its intriguing program of contemporary and historical exhibitions, avant-garde film screenings, and lectures on urban issues. This exhibition—Liz Deschenes’s first big New York outing since a delightful, restrained three-person show at Andrew Kreps in 2003—dovetails with the downtown venue’s consistent presentation of (for lack of a better term) brainy formalism.

For several years, Deschenes has teased apart the photographic process in compelling ways, mixing and matching its steps in an attempt to explain the camera’s magic without diminishing it and to remind viewers of the viral proliferation of screens in contemporary life. Here, seven new large-scale prints exploit the differences between the mechanical lens and the human eye, deploying moiré patterns to understated yet visually entrancing effect. (An earlier diptych, also included, illustrates an aspect of the dye-transfer process.) To create the works, Deschenes places perforated paper against a window and captures its image on an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white negative, then duplicates the negative and superimposes two copies in an enlarger; a slight but deliberate misalignment creates the disorienting allover patterns that result. No two are alike; no system governs the misregistration. Deschenes has likewise printed the images in color, which adds subtle washes—typically of blue and green—that seem like the hallucinatory side effects of looking too hard. One can feel one’s eyes striving to accommodate these (nonreferential) images, to ascertain what is figure and what is ground as the fields of white dots blur and snap into focus. Apprehending their detail is a physical, temporally expansive, rewarding event.

Kevin Zucker

Published in Artforum, April 2007.

Between Kevin Zucker’s May 2001 debut at LFL Gallery and his second solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in September 2003, his finely crafted paintings seemed to be everywhere. The artist created ambitious conceptual frameworks for his canvases, often having to do with the mistranslations inherent in the visual representation of objects, but their ubiquity and easy-to-swallow imagery—banal, derelict institutional interiors; limply decorative parlor rooms; and still lifes, all leached of color—produced a disconnect between the rhetoric surrounding his practice and its visual impact. This exhibition, titled “Search Within Results,” heralded the two elements’ unification. In attempting to represent the ways in which we archive information today, Zucker created a sequence of busy, fragmented compositions featuring images gathered largely from the Web’s nether regions. These were accompanied by fourteen small drawings and, for the first time in his career, photographs (depicting casual arrangements of the items found in three universities’ still-life prop storage closets).

What remains of the earlier work is the artist’s fastidious process—and its resultant sobriety. To create the medium- to large-scale paintings exhibited here, Zucker first draws a composition using CAD software, then transfers the image onto the work’s surface (employing a process that leaves patchy imperfections) and paints and sands the canvas after applying the image. To make the two paintings here, Red, Yellow, Blue (error type 108) and CMYK (error type 25) (both 2006), Zucker applied acrylic paste to sheets of plastic and transferred the computer-generated images onto the resultant surface. He then cut out the fragments and stuck them to the surface of the paintings, further shattering the cohesion of what he was ostensibly rendering. The result is smooth, uninflected surfaces in which the various steps taken to create them are individually intelligible (or, less charitably, disconnected).

Kevin Zucker, CMYK (error type 25), 2006.

Kevin Zucker, CMYK (error type 25), 2006.

All five paintings depict industrial metal shelving units, perhaps an attempt to symbolize the intangible archives that house our contemporary image bank (and increasingly bolster human memory). In one of these works, 404 Not Found, 2006, the shelves are arranged in inward-facing circles, an allusion, maybe, to feedback loops; elsewhere they form long rows that recede toward a vanishing point, indicating their endlessness, or are torn into fragments, perhaps a metaphor for the piecemeal way in which much of our information now comes to us. (The drawings depict similar shelves laden with images drawn from a Google image search for the word “tragedy.” One doesn’t realize the pathos of the phrase “Results 1-83 of about 110,000″ until one considers attempting to re-create each of those 110,000 images.)

CMYK (error type 25) was the most splintered composition on view. Its dozens of pieces, each printed with an image of shelves, are overpainted with a wash in wide, smoky brushstrokes and a series of broken rectangles in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the inks used in the four-color printing process. Narrow slices of unprimed canvas run between these pieces like a street grid, calling to mind Gerhard Richter’s ash-gray cityscapes; the patches of bright color echo Mondrian. Gallery stablemate Benjamin Edwards, who often depicts streams of digital information interwoven with the built environment, is likewise contiguous with this tradition. But whereas the urban environment is a clear reference point for Mondrian and Edwards, in Zucker’s canvases, the agora is entirely virtual, endlessly proliferating, and, to use artist and catalogue essayist Daniel Lefcourt’s apt term, “anaesthetic.” There is no there there.

To communicate this complex gambit visually is a considerable step forward for an artist who, a few short years ago, made paintings that felt merely decorative. It’s possible that Zucker sees the literal display of fragmentation in “Search Within Results” as a concession to those who weren’t able or willing to divine the complexities he built into those earlier works. But the clarification is welcome.

Sabine Hornig

Published in Artforum, March 2007.

A room on a stage is typically missing one side, the virtual “fourth wall” through which the audience peers; the rooms depicted in the photographs Sabine Hornig included in this show are, unexpectedly, absent two sides. In each of the photos on view, the street-facing window of a Berlin storefront (there are two images of one of these storefronts and a third of another) is presented at roughly two-thirds scale, the casement marking the edges of the otherwise unframed image. The second missing division is more unsettling. In two shots, the floor has been demolished; in the third, behind the small rectangular gaps in a metal roll gate, one discovers that the rear wall has been dismantled, giving onto a view of a courtyard.

All three pictures slot neatly into a practice that has seen Hornig exploit the peculiarities of visual perception—in particular the eye’s comprehension of reflectiveness and slight changes in scale—to blur the boundaries between architecture, sculpture, and photography. But whereas the quirks of Hornig’s earlier images could be accounted for through patient looking, here the interference between what one expects and what one encounters is a result of what was photographed, not how it was captured. Fenster ohne Boden (Window with No Floor) I and II (all works 2006), hung on perpendicular walls in an otherwise empty room, are also an essay in the passage of time. The gray northern daylight illuminating the first image’s composition gives way to a darker picture seemingly taken in the evning; likewise, the trees reflected in the window shed their foliage from one photograph to the next.

Two sculptures were situated in the gallery’s larger room. Blechhütte (Tin Hut) is a narrow steel box, slightly shorter than six feet tall. A rectangular steel armature extends from one open end, framing a truck-windshield-size panel of glass. It evokes, obliquely, a bus stop shelter, a form Hornig used more directly for a 2001 sculpture, Bus Stop, also exhibited at this gallery. Everything about the object is slightly off: The box is too small to enter; the glass panel, on which is printed a thin vertical slice of an image, is too large to function as a door; deep inside the structures lightless interior, a small triangular ledge might imply seating were it not for a similar piece wedged a few inches below the ceiling. Stifling functionality, Blechhütte seems instead to embody the oft-recited claim that “all art is quite useless.”

Sabine Hornig, Landscape, 2006.

Sabine Hornig, Landscape, 2006.

That particular line belongs to Oscar Wilde, who prefaced it by announcing, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” Landscape, a five-panel steel-and-Plexiglas folding screen adorned with a photographic transparency depicting a landfill, is worthy of such admiration. It too repeals utility; the semitransparent image does not obstruct sight. Its ostensible message, reminding viewers of the proximity of luxury (the elegant folding screen) and waste, is banal when expressed didactically. Landscape, however, embodies its lesson in an interestingly literal manner. As one circumnavigates the sculpture, the panels—set at varying angles to one another—are reflected in the Plexiglas like phantom limbs. The object visually proliferates, and so does its image of waste. In this sparsely installed exhibition, more economical than Hornig’s previous three Bonakdar shows, one was tempted to view this lesson in relation to today’s art market, the many inessential objects it accommodates mere kindling on a pyre.

Scott Short

Published on Artforum.com on February 8, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Scott Short, installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2007.

Scott Short, installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2007.

Like a concept album or a marvel of structural engineering, this exhibition is greater than the sum of its parts; each canvas ineluctably reinforces all of the others. Elegantly installed in the Renaissance Society’s double-height galleries, it comprises a decade’s output by painter Scott Short, who has spent the majority of this time doggedly fleshing out a single, restrictive concept. The artist makes successive black-and-white photocopies of unmarked sheets of colored construction paper, until the final image—removed from the original by hundreds of generations and chosen for its visual properties—is an abstract field of marks. This image is then projected onto canvas and meticulously copied in oil paint. Some will feel impatient simply reading that description. But taken whole, this extreme constraint provides relative bounty: Spatters are arranged in divergent compositions—black on white or white on black, depending on their density and one’s inclination—and buttressed by the paradoxical dualities embedded in the artist’s process. The paintings are both abstract and pedantically representational; are made mechanically and, painstakingly, by hand; are black-and-white but generate cognitive friction with titles like Untitled (yellow) and Untitled (red). A few earlier “portraits” are thick, swirling scrawls of black paint that blot out any attempt at identification. To arrive at his working process, a frozen inversion of Abstract Expressionism’s messy heat, Short has likewise obliterated the traditional habits of a “painterly” practice. That these canvases still work precisely as paintings is evidence of the fundamental stability of his method.

Melanie Schiff

Published on Artforum.com on January 4, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Since her solo debut at this gallery, photographer Melanie Schiff has moved out of the studio and into the world, trading fussily arranged, evenly lit still lifes for more casual, serendipitous compositions of everyday objects. These photos are hymns to natural light, and the presence of rainbows, beer cans, and a Neil Young LP cover tempts one to characterize her gaze as a stoner’s glassy-eyed fixation. In Emergency, 2006, the sun, modulated by a porch screen, is a marble-size fireball resting atop a bottle of Jack Daniels. In another photograph, a single beam slices through a compact-disc jewel case, splitting into faint prisms that descend upon dull gray carpet. A third shows a green beer bottle balanced at the tip of a canoe, lit from within by two crisscrossed glow sticks; their angle continues the lines made by the edges of the thin-metal boat and is also found in the X composed of two arrows jutting from disused beer cans in a nearby picture. With sixteen photos and one unexpected (if not unwelcome) foray into video, the exhibition is a tad overhung, but even the oddball images—of the artist making Spit Rainbow, 2006, next to a backyard lemon tree, or a tapestry of drug bags plastered to a cracked window—add to the show’s drowsy-afternoon allure.

Helen Mirra

Published in Artforum, January 2007.

According to the press release for “Break Camp” (Helen Mirra’s second solo exhibition at Peter Freeman, Inc.), the artist’s practice “involves no power tools.” It’s a prosaic statement that nonetheless hints at two important aspects of Mirra’s reticent art, elucidating her devotion to the handmade while also suggesting her political conscience (she’s not on to wield power aggressively). Both of these qualities are often rendered subservient to form in critical interpretations of her exquisitely crafted works.

For those familiar with the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based artist’s modest oeuvre, this exhibition, which features sculptures made as she was about to “break camp” and return to the US from a yearlong residency in Berlin, will seem true to form. Viewers less accustomed to Mirra’s aesthetic might stop short upon encountering the eight ankle-height wood-and-pinecone sculptures spread across the floor of the gallery’s small main room. Like the wall-based sculptures that comprised the greater part of her last exhibition here, these low-slung compositions are made of planks from shipping pallets, this time mostly picked up on the streets around her Berlin studio. The weathered gray-brown timer bears evidence of its industrial past; the pinecones that nestle against it, taken from the nearby Grunewald forest, perhaps represent the opposite force, the pure potential embodied in their reproductive function.

Helen Mirra, Sarton, 2006.

Helen Mirra, Sarton, 2006.

At first glance, the sculptures are difficult to differentiate from one another. Up close, however, each reveals individual characteristics: Unirondack (all works 2006) is comprised of two squat stacks supporting a number of other wood pieces and a handful of cones, while Bartók is long and toothy, like one of Donald Judd’s lengthy, squared-off wall reliefs set on the floor. Star Route No. 5, partly brushed with the gray-green milk paint that featured prominently in Mirra’s last New York show, shields dozens of cones between its two horizontal slabs, one cut industrially and somewhat haphazardly, the other by the artist’s exacting handsaw.

These juxtapositions prompt consideration of the ends to which we direct elements of the natural environment, and the means by which we do so. A sense of time evoked by the past and (arrested) future lives of the materials calls to mind an early, atypically poetic 1967 Richard Serra sculpture, shown at this gallery in 2004, that features fifteen partially burned white candles spaced evenly along a wooden beam resting on the floor. And, as is almost always the case with Mirra’s works, those on view here evoke (through their titles) a peculiar mix of historical figures: not only the composer Béla Bartók, but also the prominent nineteenth-century American pacificist Adin Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the writer May Sarton. But whereas earlier exhibitions possessed a kind of intellectual site-specificity—works evoking Chicagoans John Dewey and Jane Addams made around the time that the artist lived in that city, for example—the relation of this constellation of influences to the site where she produced these sculptures remains oblique. The delicate equilibrium between place and conceptual underpinning seems slightly out of true.

A smaller room contains three of the narrow, hand-sewn cotton bands on which Mirra types a “subjective” index of books’ contents, a format she has previously used to offer veiled, self-reflexive investigations of her artistic process. Backbone, Crosshairs, and Downed, however, all drawn from a book about deer hunting, seem fixated on communicating content (BREASTBONE, 99 BUCKSAW, 128 BULLET ACTION, 37-8 reads part of Backbone). One upshot of balancing such bleak material with formal restraint is an emotional resonance—here, pathos—otherwise rare in Mirra’s cerebral oeuvre. The concerns about nonhuman life and the environment expressed in this exhibition are rarely addressed in contemporary art, and few artists are as well equipped to voice them as Mirra. But this newfound partisan clarity is not yet fully reconciled with the richly allusive ambiguity of her best works.

Vincent Kaufmann, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry

Published in Bookforum, December 2006/January 2007.

Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry
Vincent Kaufmann, translated by Robert Bononno
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 370 pages. $30.

Biography is an implicit rebuke to autobiography, especially if the subject is a man who was obsessed with publicly calibrating his relation to the world and for whom the “need for clandestinity . . . was almost a question of taste.” Yet Vincent Kaufmann, professor of French literature at the University of St. Gallen and author of a study of twentiety-century avant-garde movements in poetry, has scoured Guy Debord’s writings and films—and the thicket of exegetical, frequently partisan scholarship they have inspired—to produce a compelling if necessarily incomplete portrait of the man, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry, newly translated into English by Robert Bononno. “Necessarily incomplete” is the operative phrase: Debord used the long-gestating ideas lodged in the prescient, totalizing critique of La Société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) as a kind of handbook for evading the magnetic pull of all institutions—media, state, culture, even friendship—in the name of ultimate personal freedom. The extremity of his stance is polarizing—one is either drawn to the figure of the romantic, solitary artist or repulsed by his narcissism—and it shapes the biographical gaze; one can watch it seduce Kaufmann as he proceeds chronologically through the provocateur’s life.

kaufmann_debord_cover“In the final analysis, we are differentiated only by our works,” announces an anonymous voice in Hurlements en faveur du Sade (Howls for Sade, 1952), a film more famous for what it doesn’t do (put an image onscreen; have any sound track for its final twenty-four minutes) than what it does. It was Debord’s barbaric yawp over the roofs of staid French culture, marking, along with the formation of the Lettrist International, the period of 1951 to 1953, which Debord spent in the Paris quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and which Kaufmann posits as the anni mirabilis to which Debord would return, melancholically, for the rest of his life. It didn’t take long for him to look back; Debord’s Mémoires, composed entirely of text appropriated from potboilers, comic books, newspapers, and other material and constructed in collaboration with the Dutch artist Asger Jorn, was first “published” (distributed for free to friends in what Debord considered a form of potlatch) only five years later, when the author was merely twenty-seven.

By that time, Debord had formed the Situationist International, the group with which he remains most closely identified, though Kaufmann claims—following Anselm Jappe, whose 1993 Italian biography appeared in English in 1999—the identification should point in the other direction: The SI “should be considered, in every sense of the term, as the work . . . of Debord alone.” The fifteen-year history of the group was divided into two main phases by the expulsion, in 1960, of the remaining visual-artist members, among them the Dutch architect Constant Nieuwenhuys, and the subsequent consolidation of the group’s lucid, compelling rhetoric, which became a lever to be deployed “situationally” by anyone engaged in revolutionary activity.

The theoretical gambit was picked up most widely during the raucous events of May 1968, a watershed moment in postwar France to which Kaufmann devotes twenty pages, parsing the historical record in an attempt to locate Deboard and his dozen cohorts. He finds them everywhere and nowhere, “more important to the ‘culture’” of the time and place than any other organization but attempting to deliver a revolution “without a signature.” (Its members shuttled messages back and forth between workers at various factories—like stylish Paul Reveres—more often than they fought in the streets alongside students, of whom Debord had quickly tired.

Having seen the Situationist virus infect the population, and then having seen society recover from the delirium tremens caused by a temporary rupture of the spectacle, Debord, with ultimate fidelity to his own proclamations, disbanded the SI in 1971 and retreated into exile and relative silence until his suicide in 1994, a period spent with his partner, Alice Becker-Ho, in Italy, Spain, and the French countryside. He continued to launch films, including La Société du spectacle (1973) and In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), at the monolith, aiming for pulverizing effect, and, later, books, such as the slim, elegant, and notably unexhaustive two-volume autobiography Panégyrique, the first part of which appeared in 1989. Yet for all their style, Kaufmann rightly notes, each victory—including a defamation lawsuit won after a newspaper speculated about Debord’s connection to European terrorist groups initially suspected of the murder of his friend Gérard Lebovici—must have proved hollow to a man yearning for the communitarian spirit that infused his early years in a Paris made extinct by the tide of modernization.

“The characteristic of the biography of famous men is that they wanted to be famous,” wrote Eugène Ionesco in 1935. Debord, who believed that “all representation is treason,” became famous despite his best efforts. At its worst, this volume offers an uninspired rehash of Debord’s words, leaching them of the fluidity of their famously classical style. At his best, for roughly the last hundred pages of the book, Kaufmann inches toward impassioned writing, offering an inspired rereading of material rendered stagnant by fealty to received critical opinion, including a close look at Debord’s relationship with Henri Lefebvre that cuts through other, hagiographic interpretations. Along with his trenchant analyses of society, Debord’s legacy may rest on the fact that one can’t help but be borne along on this enthusiasm.

Introduction to The Uncertain States of America Reader

The Uncertain States of America Reader, published by Sternberg Press in late 2006, is an anthology of essays about and of interest to contemporary artists. The book was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name, which was presented at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, among other venues. I coedited the book with Noah Horowitz, and coauthored this introduction with him. For more information, view the publisher’s website.

This Reader, a companion volume to the “Uncertain States of America” exhibition catalogue, began last year when the curators met with artists in their studios. What were the artists reading? What articles, books, reviews—and, we soon discovered, cartoons, cookbooks, memoirs and film scripts—were influencing their practices? A comprehensive survey of these curiosities was not included in the earlier exhibition catalogue. It remained, pace Obrist, an “Unrealized Project.”

untitledInvited one year later by the curatorial team to construct such a list, we began by surveying the artists in the show and using their recommendations, many of which are included at the reading list at the back of this book, as a starting point for the selection of texts presented here. What follows is a synthesis of their nominations and our own research into significant recent writings both by American artists and about artistic practice and cultural politics in the United States today. Keeping with the theme of this exhibition, emphasis has been placed on identifying “young,” “emerging” writers, though salient pieces by a comparatively older generation and by those who reside outside of America are also included.

We hope that the following selections introduce some new writing and writers and shine a fresh light on more familiar passages. Equally we hope that this book’s reception reaches beyond those audiences who experience the exhibition first hand, and that it becomes a conduit of knowledge beyond the immediate exhibition-going public.

The present volume is not a “portrait of the exhibition’s artists in text” (an early, and mightily optimistic, vision). Nor is it a top-down survey of all that is novel and noteworthy in today’s art world. Cognizant of this exhibition’s ambitious modus operandi, to represent “a ‘new’ vision in American contemporary art,” we realize, of course, that some may view this publication as nothing but such a list, a currency-enhancing invocation of already-prevalent curatorial/critical interests. And we understand that such a publication indelibly sanctifies its content, that it operates as a value filter or, as Isabelle Graw observes in these pages, a “‘sound bite’ in order to underline claims for art historical importance or theoretical erudition.” Yet it is our underlying hope that this Reader belies such a roll-call of erudite endorsements, and that its contents engage audiences in unanticipated and fundamentally informative manners.

It is commonplace to note that contemporary art is swaddled in a haze of words, and it is futile to attempt a synoptic overview of art discourse, so we drew simple boundaries beyond which our inquiry would not trespass, several of them congruent with those set by the “Uncertain States of America” exhibition. The two most binding examples: each piece of writing included here has been published since 2000, and each discusses contemporary art, aesthetics, politics or the amorphous and expansive zone where these three concerns overlap. Selecting texts thus became a game, albeit one burdened by methodological complications. How to accommodate writings both by artists in “Uncertain States of America” and others critical of their programmes, or, for that matter, the very presuppositions of such a traveling group show? What, we contemplated, could be an appropriate framework to muster comprehensiveness in the face of mind-boggling pluralism and attendant information overload? How to play the game? One artist’s advice proved invaluable: “Don’t be an authority. And don’t apologize for not being an authority.” So we aimed for an eclectic sampling of material by writers—art historians, journalists, critics, artists, philosophers and a graphic designer/lawyer—whose contributions, we felt, gained from their placement alongside one another and from being set in relief against the project as a whole.

* * *

In recent years, many have noted the fashionableness of art that addresses its broader social context. The translation of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics into English in 2002 and the ongoing debate about this set of essays is one prominent example of this tendency. Others pertain to the intensification of discussion about the Internet’s (virtual) social power and the agency of extra-gallery/museum practices, the latter of which inspired “The Interventionists,” an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson and presented at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2004. What has perhaps changed since the re-election later that autumn of George W. Bush is the zeroing in of (primarily European) interest in American art and artists. One could cite “Uncertain States of America,” “USA Today” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “This Is America: Visions of the American Dream” at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, and even “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial (curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Europeans now ensconced in American institutions), as evidence of this trend.

This is undoubtedly a moment marked by a serious interest in the actions America is taking on the world stage—actions that have been described as cause for “grave concern.” We do not attempt to authoritatively engage these concerns here, but we do think that this sampling of discourse by and about a country’s visual artists leads to insights about its politics and society not gained elsewhere. Many of the artists in this exhibition, of course, would be quick to disavow explicitly political readings of their work, preferring, as Kori Newkirk recently stated during a panel discussion at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, to “seduce first.” He continued: “‘Political’ content can [simply] come in through the side door or window.” The art world’s definition of the term “political” remains fuzzy (as Pamela M. Lee rightly notes of its definition of “globalisation” as well), but, on occasion, this thinking-through-form counters the obfuscation that now stands for contemporary American political discourse. At the very least, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in the United States now, and it occasions some inspired debate. The present Reader, released on the occasion of the exhibition “Uncertain States of America” at the Serpentine Gallery, will be followed by an expanded selection of texts published by Sternberg Press this autumn. We hope that these books serve not only as valuable compendiums of recent writing about contemporary art, but also as inspiration to seek further understanding of these “Uncertain States.”

* * *

We would like to thank Julia Peyton-Jones, Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran and Hans Ulrich Obrist for inviting us to undertake this project and for being instrumental in its realization; Caroline Schneider of Sternberg Press for ably seeing the book into print; the artists for their consistently trenchant criticisms of and honest responses to it; all of the authors and publications who granted reprint permission; and David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey of Dexter Sinister for their grace under pressure. Likewise we wish to thank Greg Allen, Eric C. Banks, Christopher Bedford, Tom Eccles, Bettina Funcke, Liam Gillick, Rachel Harrison, Michael Ned Holte, Gareth James, Miriam Katz, Elizabeth Linden, Molly Nesbit, Lauren O’Neill-Butler, Amie Robinson, Scott Rothkopf and David Velasco for their thoughtful contributions to the dialogue that produced this book.

Susie Linfield on “why photography critics hate photography”

In the September/October issue of Boston Review, Susie Linfield, a longtime contributor to the magazine and the associate director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at NYU, has published a provocative essay on “why photography critics hate photographs.” If you’re willing to accept her central conceit—that Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and, especially, Bertolt Brecht influenced late-twentieth-century photography critics’ understanding of the medium and its effects—it is an elegantly turned exposure of the limitations of writings on photography by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and John Berger as well as a humane call for a more syncretic approach to picture interpretation, one that allows for warmth and emotion. A few quotes:

[Contemporary photography] critics view emotional responses . . . not as something to be experienced and understood, but, rather, to be vigilantly guarded against: to these writers, criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment.

[ . . . ]

These critics denied that a scintilla of autonomy—for either photographer or viewer—was possible; denied, that is, that the photographer could ever offer, or the viewer could ever find, even a moment of surprise, originality, or insight through looking at a photograph.

[ . . . ]

A greater problem, for Brecht and his followers, is what photographs succeed in doing, which is to offer an immediate, emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of [the world].

[ . . . ]

[Contemporary photography critics] don’t need to spend such ferocious energy distancing us from images. In doing so, they have made it easy for us to deconstruct photographs but difficult to see them.

My only quibble, interestingly, is with the one passage in which she analyzes specific photographs. In discussing images reprinted in Witness Iraq: A War Journal February–April 2003, Linfield, perhaps somewhat bravely, admits to the frustration caused by an image of “helpless” women, in chadors, grieving for a son apparently killed when a bomb was dropped on an outdoor market in Baghdad in late March 2003. Linfield instead praises two Iraq War photographs that, perhaps by coincidence, feature children; one in which a Marine coddles a young girl whose arm is bleeding, and one that depicts a hooded detainee cradling his young son behind barbed wire. She praises the contradictory interpretations that naturally arise from these atypical war images; their irresolvable nature—Who is helping whom? Who is guilty? What forces put these children in these situations?—necessitates an open-ended (and open-minded) search for meaning.

It seems problematic that Linfield should offer commentary on the political situation of the women depicted in the first photograph at the same time that she praises a very different type of picture as being better able to evoke complex responses, both thoughtful and emotional. However admirable it is for Linfield to admit a controversial reaction to the image in question, hazarding commentary on the women’s political situation—“I doubt that such sorrows can even begin to abate until the women in the cemetery take off their veils . . . and enter into the modern world to begin making modern politics”—is compromised by her very own analysis of the flaws that thread through the picture’s aesthetic elegance and stark portrayal of grief.

The reason I bring this up is because there is a small hurdle that I wish Linfield had surpassed in the essay. She goes on to call for more images that “suggest—though do not explain—the strange incongruities of the Iraq war,” but neglects to account for the fact that these pictures are necessarily few and far between, and that to be properly equipped to respond to the floodtide of photographs in the world (or even those coming from this particular conflict) one must engage many of the “compromised” (my word, not hers) images, one of which caused such dubitable reactions even in someone with so keen an intelligence as Linfield obviously possesses. Is coming “to the photograph as full human beings” possible when the photograph in question is, by the standard expressed in her essay, somehow incomplete?

Related: Linfield on photographing cruelty, which I have not read, and on Sebald et al., which I read and enjoyed.

“Criticism and the Arts” panel (a longish report)

Given past experience with panel discussions, and common assumptions one brings to them, I didn’t have the highest hopes for one titled “Criticism and the Arts,” held last night at Hunter College. It featured Joan Acocella (of the New Yorker, Greil Marcus (author, most recently, of The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, Alex Ross (of the New Yorker and the weblog and forthcoming book The Rest Is Noise), and Mark Stevens (of New York magazine), four eminent critics one must respect no matter one’s opinion of their opinions. Thankfully, the panel was moderated adroitly by Wendy Lesser (of the Threepenny Review), and the brisk pace—two questions from Lesser to all four panelists; two more questions thrown open to them generally; three or four questions from the audience—engaged until the end, when it was “time for wine and fizzy water, so you’ll feel this is more of a conversation than an opportunity for us to talk at you.”

I found it somewhat surprising that I generally agreed with what all four critics said, though whether that surprise is rooted in disappointment that I’m affected by the same factors that influence their work (and no longer am independent firebrand, however self-styled) or pride that I can claim similar methodological concerns remains to be determined. Acocella came off as the seen-it-all chronicler (an aside: I’ve been particularly taken with her recent writing on books, notably this introduction to Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity; Ross the obsessive stylist and last-ditch proselytizer for an increasingly marginalized art form; Marcus the storyteller who sneaks autobiography into each ruminative, “mystical” association; and Stevens the skeptic—both about the use of an institutional “we” and attendant overidentification with one’s platform and an art market seemingly out of control. There were few insights about criticism in the abstract, but plenty about these writers’ practice.

Continue reading

Yang Fudong

Published on Artforum.com on September 14, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Those who have seen this Chinese artist’s earlier films will find familiar imagery scattered throughout No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006: a freeze-frame tableau in which seven young men and women, dressed in a haberdasher’s finest, look outward from a rocky outcrop; boats slowly drifting across placid waters; lush, unpopulated landscapes dominated by mountains. This eleven-minute black-and-white work, which premiered last spring at Parasol Unit in London, is Fudong’s inaugural foray into multichannel presentation. A viewer’s slightly antic attempt to take in images from eight screens, here hung in a seamless semicircle, marginally diminishes the arrested-moment quality that characterizes all his films—it’s plain he trained as a painter—but Fudong aids the viewer by occasionally letting objects slide from one screen to the next or by nestling similar images side by side (ants threading through rivulets of bark; men hiking a narrow path up a hill). Like all of Fudong’s work, the narrative is loosely structured, favoring centripetal forces over linear paths. Here, glamorous young men and women are slowly pulled together as, alone or in pairs and quartets, they wend their way toward the eponymous bridge to catch a last glimpse of winter snow; the rabbits, parrots, and stubborn goats on leashes that accompany them hint at the dandyish excess of a bygone era. Some women make their way, in heels, along flat boulders set in a babbling brook; others wear suits and painted mustaches. A man in a trilby puffs contemplatively on a pipe while being conveyed across open water. Not much of significance transpires, but in a film this beautiful, this suffused with atmosphere, not much needs to.

A few words

I had the pleasure of speaking to a fairly large audience at Parsons today. Here is one paragraph from my talk:

Instead, one should live by the creed of verbs—to review, to write criticism, to make art—rather than nouns. I have taken recently to saying that I “write about art” rather than “I’m an art critic.” Doing so flattens out the implicit hierarchies lodged in the terms, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical—and instructive—role switching. Doing so likewise creates a situation in which one must apply oneself fully to each task, because there are no laurels to rest on. I have published several hundred pieces of writing about art in the past three and a half years, but having done so neither guarantees that what I write next will be mind-opening, authoritative, or even factually correct—alongside working as an editor, I work with and rely on editors, too—nor does it grant me intrinsic authority over any of you in the field of “art criticism,” much less in the art world at large. Perfect evidence of this lies in the fact that it’s quite possible that some of you, even knowing that I was coming to speak today, have never read anything that I have written.

I also spoke about understanding one’s own limits and not presuming to take up more resources (in the art world, that is) than one can properly use and maintaining a sense of community in the face of all kinds of forces that would tear them apart. It seemed to go over well. Here’s a quote that I was inspired by as I was planning the talk:

What with the fairs and the steroidal explosion of Chelsea, it’s no wonder that even the New York Times realizes that the current model of success for many artists is monetary. Can the interest in [Lee] Lozano be anything but the flip side of this coin? It’s up to us to heed Lozano’s cautionary quip, “Win first don’t last.” But the oxymoronic “Win last don’t care” is worth taking to heart as well. In the face of an autocratic regime bent on totalizing knowledge and war, many feminists have called for explorations of failure—as the only viable form of practice under today’s political and market conditions. Lozano offers a model not of failure per se but of a very particular form of achievement, in which when you win last and don’t care, you are capable of become a tool that transforms the rules of the game. — Helen Molesworth, from a review of “Lee Lozano,” Artforum, September 2006

The Uncertain States of America Reader

(Detail view of cover of mock-up made by designers)

As I publish this entry the Serpentine Gallery is celebrating the opening of “Uncertain States of America,” curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. As I mentioned in a parenthetical aside in this entry in June, I was asked by the three of them as well as Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones to edit an anthology of recent writing about contemporary art, politics, and the current cultural climate in the United States. The first of two editions of that volume, called The Uncertain States of America Reader, is being released tonight to coincide with the exhibition. (A second, expanded version will be published later this autumn by Sternberg Press.) This edition contains seventeen texts, is designed (by my friends Stuart and David of Dexter Sinister) to feel like an academic reader, and can be obtained now at the Serpentine Gallery, soon at the Walther König bookshop, and, a little bit later, in a few other locations around Europe for an intentionally low price—£6, I think. (The Sternberg Press version will be more widely distributed.)

Quickly realizing the scope of the project after I was initially invited to undertake it, I asked Noah Horowitz, who was hired by the Serpentine as an exhibition organizer and is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, to coedit the anthology with me. Here is a brief excerpt from our coauthored introduction, which is available in full at BrianSholis.com:

In recent years, many have noted the fashionableness of art that addresses its broader social context. The translation of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics into English in 2002 and the ongoing debate about this set of essays is one prominent example of this tendency. Others pertain to the intensification of discussion about the Internet’s (virtual) social power and the agency of extra-gallery/museum practices, the latter of which inspired “The Interventionists,” an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson and presented at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2004. What has perhaps changed since the re-election later that autumn of George W. Bush is the zeroing in of (primarily European) interest in American art and artists. One could cite “Uncertain States of America,” “USA Today” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “This Is America: Visions of the American Dream” at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, and even “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial (curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Europeans now ensconced in American institutions), as evidence of this trend.

This is undoubtedly a moment marked by a serious interest in the actions America is taking on the world stage—actions that have been described as cause for “grave concern.” We do not attempt to authoritatively engage these concerns here, but we do think that this sampling of discourse by and about a country’s visual artists leads to insights about its politics and society not gained elsewhere. [ . . . ] At the very least, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in the United States now, and it occasions some inspired debate.

(Table of contents of mock-up made by designers)

This edition of the book reprints the following texts:

“From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” by Andrea Fraser

“Eric Buell, Art Mover” in John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, eds., Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs

“Boundary Issues: The Art World Under the Sign of Globalism” by Pamela M. Lee

“Itinerant Artists” by Miwon Kwon (excerpt from One Place After Another)

“Tent Community: On Art Fair Art” by Jack Bankowsky

“American Mutt Barks in the Yard” by David Barringer (excerpt)

“Was ist Los?” by Seth Price

“When Procedures Become Market Tools,” Johanna Burton and Isabelle Graw in conversation

“New Live Queer Art” by Matt Wolf

“Renigged” by Hamza Walker

“Sublime Humility” by Paul Chan

“When Thought Becomes Crime” by the Critical Art Ensemble

“Startling and Effective: Writing Art and Politics After 9/11″ by Alan Gilbert

“The State, Spectacle, and September 11″ by Retort (excerpt from Afflicted Powers)

“Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib” by Dora Apel

“Notes from New York” by Molly Nesbit

Trisha Donnelly, 2006

Also from our introduction: “The present volume is not a ‘portrait of the exhibition’s artists in text’ (an early, and mightily optimistic, vision). Nor is it a top-down survey of all that is novel and noteworthy in today’s art world. Cognisant of this exhibition’s ambitious modus operandi, to represent ‘a “new” vision in American contemporary art,’ we realize, of course, that some may view this publication as nothing but such a list, a currency-enhancing invocation of already-prevalent curatorial/critical interests. And we understand that such a publication indelibly sanctifies its content, that it operates as a value filter or, as Isabelle Graw observes in these pages, a ‘“sound bite” in order to underline claims for art historical importance or theoretical erudition’. Yet it is our underlying hope that this Reader belies such a roll-call of erudite endorsements, and that its contents engage audiences in unanticipated and fundamentally informative manners.”

So, I hope that if your travels take you to London or wherever else this volume may be sold, you’ll consider looking it over and purchasing a copy. I’ll be sure to post a notice when the expanded version is available later this autumn.

UPDATE, 9/12: Adrian Searle reviews the exhibition in the Guardian:

The overall tenor is sophisticated, charmless, disaffected and at times deliberately damaged. The collision of artists and works is also often incomprehensible. The pile-up of stuff might be, in part, collaborative, but the effect is merely wearying, a sub-Kippenberger-ish turn-off. [ . . . ] But does any of this tell us very much about America? To coincide with the exhibition, the Serpentine is publishing The Uncertain States of America Reader, a number of recent essays on art theory, the art market, 9/11, Abu Ghraib and the war on terror.

But the book has more heft than most of the art in the show. In the end there’s too much here that is silly, opaque and, to be honest, immature. How seriously should we take Uncertain States of America?

Well, at least he says something nice about the book, if you consider “heft” a good quality in a reader. Phew.

Kay Rosen answers a question

At the invitation of Matthew Higgs, I submitted a question—one of twenty, each submitted by a different person—to the artist Kay Rosen, whose last New York exhibition I reviewed in the September 2005 Artforum. It was for one of his “20 Questions” projects, and the Indiana-based artist’s answers have been printed in a small book published by Yvon Lambert Gallery to accompany her new exhibition, which opens a week from today. It was surprisingly difficult to come up with just one question, and so I ended up choosing one that weighed heavily on my mind at the time:

BRIAN SHOLIS: What do we do when language fails?

KAY ROSEN: My work has always attempted to demonstrate that language doesn’t fail, that readers, viewers, and listeners can construct meaning out of the most meager fragments. In a 1990 essay I discussed the issue of how to rescue language from a collapsed system (which I had devised through blocking out huge chunks of letters). “In the absence of a linguistic system, meaning appears to be thwarted and blocked, but the pieces actually attempt to function as re-signifiers of meaning rather than as de-signifiers. Instead of hampering reading, they intend to redirect it, forcing the viewers through another non-linguistic process of ‘reading.’” In the new sparsely populated work Exterior, Interior, one might approach the four letters E ER R in both a linguistic and non-linguistic way. Through the title or through their powers of observation and deduction, viewers might conclude that it has something to do with inside and outside and how coincidental and amazing it is that in this word structure corroborates meaning. That in EXTERIOR there is an exterior E-R and an interior E-R, that both are the same except for their location, and that the word is a construction that contains aspects of other physical constructions, like buildings and bodies.

Thomas Zipp

Published in Artforum, September 2006.

Installation view, Harris Lieberman, New York, 2006.

Installation view, Harris Lieberman, New York, 2006.

Thomas Zipp could never be called unambitious: The Berlin-based artist’s first major solo gallery show in New York, at Harris Liebermann, not only coincided with his second solo exhibition in Los Angeles, and with a room-size installation at the Berlin Biennale, but also tackled some complex subject matter. Zipp frequently interweaves aspects of art history, philosophy, and science. Here, in a show that comprised paintings, works on paper, and a sculptural installation, he sought out the residual value of early-twentieth-century Utopian thought in a nuclear age (nuclear war being the “Uranlicht” ["Uranium Light"] of the exhibition’s title). Given the scope and gravity of these concerns, Zipp sensibly, and adroitly, dispensed with didactic literalism in favor of suggestive indirectness.

All alone high up on a large wall near the gallery entrance, Harris (all works 2006), a letter-size mixed-media drawing depicting Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who orchestrated the Allied saturation bombing of Germany during WWII (and who is the great uncle of one of the gallery’s owners), served as the historical anchor for Zipp’s imaginative multimedia explorations. Other small drawings feature formal portraits of a rogues’ gallery of anonymous, well-heeled men and skeletons, all of whose eyes are variously punctured by nails and tacks (like victims of a voodoo ritual) or covered with coins (as if in preparation for the afterlife). Some also spout empty speech bubbles. Several large paintings, two propped up on leg-like wooden poles, depict imaginary plants sprouting out of denuded, postapocalyptic landscapes. In the gallery’s main room, a handmade organ—featuring on-off switches and volume dimmers in place of keys—stood sentinel with a small army of boxy black speakers. Those adventurous enough to play the instrument were treated to a grating mixture of synthesized sounds that, given the context, evoked air-raid sirens. (In fact, one of the speakers houses a repurposed GDR siren.) The late-Rothko palette—sooty grays, earthy browns, burnt ochre, eggplant, claret, and black—connected these otherwise disparate works and contributed to the exhibition’s doleful atmosphere.

Zipp’s syncretic approach to history, in which seemingly incompatible figures and events are brought together in the service of a romantic vision, evokes the work of Anselm Kiefer, though the younger artist generates meaning through constellations of objects rather than through the hubristic appropriation of real, cosmic constellations. The exhibition checklist demonstrated this accumulative strategy, as seemingly random groupings of objects—two mixed-media drawings and a painting; the organ sculpture, a drawing, and a wall text—constituted individual artworks; in Uranlicht drawn lines escaping one man’s mouth stretch onto a nearby canvas. Some might consider this interdependence a weakness, an indicator of discrete works’ inability to stand alone, but here it seemed a smart way to acknowledge that no single work could tell the whole story.

Despite the variety of mediums deployed in this exhibition, Zipp is primarily a painter, with a wan aesthetic that calls to mind the dour imaginings of Luc Tuymans. The netlike grids that arc across several of the canvases might be metaphorical representations of the way in which the artist’s reverence for modernist aesthetics undergirds his weighty archival investigations. (This is sometimes literally the case, as in an installation, presented last year at Art Basel Miami Beach, comprising small canvases and framed drawings hung atop a blown-up black-and-white reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting.) In this show, Zipp put forth a strong case for this holistic approach, deftly blending formalist concerns and the lessons of history while avoiding the bombast that often characterizes proponents of only one or the other.

“Uncertain States of America” at Bard (2 of 2) (warning: long post)

(The audience five minutes before the panel began.)

On Saturday afternoon I participated in a panel discussion at the opening of “Uncertain States of America” (see pictures two posts below), along with Yean Fee Quay, head of the exhibition department at the Reykjavik Art Museum (a future venue for the show), P.S. 1’s Bob Nickas, the Whitney’s Chrissie Iles, independent curator Molly Nesbit, and Trevor Smith, a curator at the New Museum. I was the youngest person on the dais by a fair margin; many more people whose work I respect sat in the audience; everyone offered pointed criticism and spirited defenses, and expressed themselves rather candidly—at least more so than at any other panel discussion I have participated in. I spoke third, after Iles and Nesbit, and was a little too nervous to phrase my thoughts very well. So this is a (hopefully) more coherent recapitulation of what I said.

The exhibition’s title has undeniable rhetorical force, and it’s probably fair to say that by substituting the word “uncertain” for “united,” a majority of those visiting the show will expect it to include artworks that comment explicitly on political or social-justice issues—to explicate the ambiguity, disunity, and precariousness implied by the title. While some artworks do elucidate aspects of this “complicated, fucked-up moment” (to use Nickas’s words), most do so obliquely, if at all. As Kori Newkirk stated during the artists’ panel that preceded our discussion, “I want my work to seduce first. The ‘political’ content can come in through the side door or window.” Tom Eccles’s elegant installation of the exhibition at Bard emphasizes this seductiveness. The suavity of the presentation and assuredness of the artists’ works—admirable traits in almost any exhibition—here suppress the uncertainty promised in the title and the political turn outlined in the rhetoric surrounding the show. There is a noticeable disconnect between what one expects and what one sees.

Instead, the uncertainty seems to be built into the curatorial process. European curators, no matter how familiar with America and American artists, will inevitably miss or misunderstand shades of complexity in art made here—and in its relationship to broader issues in American culture. (This runs both ways, as exemplified by the insipid, frequently diagrammatic politics in “The American Effect,” Larry Rinder’s 2003 exhibition.) Additionally, Birnbaum admitted at the panel that he and his cocurators, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Gunnar Kvaran, chose “artists, not artworks,” and that much of the work on view was created specifically for the show—always a gamble.

The exhibition, as it moves from venue to venue, will “evolve” organically, with new works substituted for those already shown, new artists added, an ongoing series of performances and discussions, and additional publications (one of which I will help compile). The curators and artists spoke of the potential for future collaborations—and of the development of an “Uncertain States” community—as the exhibition lumbers from museum to museum. Considering that the exhibition itself cannot conceivably represent America, or even American art, it may be that this extra-art activity holds the greatest potential for “political” content, to create relationships that could have a potentially transformative effect on the communities visited by the show and in the communities in which the artists live and work. The forty-two artists (and artist teams) in Bard’s presentation are smart, dedicated, and good at what they do (no matter one’s opinion of their work); pairing them with the infrastructure of Bard College and the museum opens a very broad, if short-lived, horizon of possibility. Rodney McMillan’s re-presentation of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech, which was originally delivered at the University of Michigan’s May 1964 commencement ceremony, to my mind best fulfilled this potential among the art on view, and the implications of the performance will surely stick in my mind for some time to come. But for me, meeting some of the exhibition’s artists and initiating what will hopefully be long and fruitful discussions with them may in the long run hold greater value. If the extra-art activity that spins off from the exhibition fulfills the mandate generated by the show’s title and supporting rhetoric, and the show doesn’t, where does this leave the exhibition?

Lastly, I want to clarify an initial statement, given in response to a question from Birnbaum. When I said that including artists from “second-tier” American cities (Miami, Minneapolis, Portland) inevitably draws them out of their communities and into the globalized network of the art-world’s metropolitan centers, I was not rendering judgment, but simply stating plain fact. By virtue of the imprimatur granted their work by their inclusion in this exhibition, these artists will inevitably gain momentum that will bring them toward New York, Los Angeles, London, etc. A question that I think is worth asking: What does this do to the autonomy and sense of community in the cities from which these artists come? To attempt an answer is obviously beyond the curators’ responsibility—they need not make reparations to these art communities for plucking individuals from them—but what (if anything) can be done to ensure the continued flourishing of the art scene in, say, Houston? Is there anything that can be instituted systematically to ensure that the traffic in artistic talent heads two ways?

UPDATE (7/7): Roberta Smith reviews the exhibition in today’s Times.

“On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag”

Published on Artforum.com on June 21, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Susan Sontag, relentlessly curious, roamed widely across the cultural landscape, the specificity of her writing compensating for her occasional lack of specialist knowledge. This jewel-box exhibition, which draws its title from her thin, seminal book first published in 1977, acknowledges her contribution to our understanding of photography by pairing quotes drawn from her essays with clumps of photographs exhumed from the Metropolitan’s far-reaching collection. Encompassing portraits, street scenes, war photography, political propaganda, and travel snapshots, the pictures on view—spanning 150 years—interlace anonymous works with canonical images while maintaining an intimate sense of scale. Curator Mia Fineman serves both image and text well by leaving loose the connections between them—allusion should always supersede didacticism—and, in doing so, refreshes our understanding of both. (Those turned off by the playfulness of “AngloMania,” on view elsewhere in the museum, should appreciate this exhibition’s gentler revisions.) Peter Hujar’s cool 1975 portrait of Sontag, which catches her in thoughtful repose, greets the visitor at the entrance; forty-odd pictures later, Annie Liebovitz gives us Sontag as a shadowy, faraway figure, dwarfed by the walls of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. It’s a bit of a trick, but it works, and one leaves this exhibition hoping that Sontag’s words won’t likewise slip into the distance.

Mary Weatherford

Published on Artforum.com on June 19, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

The three midsize canvases in this Los Angeles–based artist’s exhibition, each a slightly different view of the same rocky outcrop, would be of little interest were they not so well executed; instead, they argue convincingly for the value of painting directly from life. Each skillfully fuses two currently unfashionable artistic traditions: Look at them from a few feet away, and the compositions are reminiscent of the kind of by-the-sea plein air painting that Courbet and Monet practiced in Normandy circa 1870; zoom in on almost any part of a canvas, and your field of vision is filled with a harmonious, semiabstract chromatic reverie that evokes early-twentieth-century practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic, from Sonia Delaunay and Franz Marc to Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella. Rendered in flashe, a vinyl-based paint that doesn’t lose the intensity of its color when diluted with water (as Weatherford has done here), these works register changes in sunlight upon the rock formation by altering the composition’s dominant hue: apparition, 2006, is reddish pink; after Hodler, 2006, is reddish orange; shadow, 2005, is bluish green. These colors have been applied with diaphanous, mostly vertical, soft-edged brushstrokes, and the shimmering effect grants the hulking mass dreamlike airiness and grace.

Luisa Lambri

Published in Artforum, summer 2006. For additional images from and information about the exhibition, click here.

Luisa Lambri, Untitled (Barragan House, #35), 2005

Luisa Lambri, Untitled (Barragan House, #35), 2005

For her New York solo debut, Italian photographer Luisa Lambri presented a four-year minisurvey consisting of just seventeen photographs, and the restrained selection underscored the importance of editing to her practice. Lambri spends considerable time in each of the modernist buildings—primarily private residences—that she photographs, taking hundreds of pictures. Yet only a few of these are ever printed and exhibited, and they are not conventional architectural photographs in the vein of, say, Julius Shulman’s glamorous images of Case Study Houses or Candida Höfer’s typological surveys of magnificent interiors (both of which would otherwise seem obvious precedents here). Lambri’s idiosyncratic documents, often depicting individual windows or glass-curtain walls, are more somatic than panoramic, attending closely to the phenomenology of the built environment. Most architectural photographs posit the viewer as disembodied voyeur, but Lambri’s images place the body in space. Her pictures register her slight shifts in position as well as subtle changes in light, and both characteristics give her grouped images a sense of the passage of time in a manner that recalls Jan Dibbets’s “Interior Light” studies.

The main gallery featured images of Luis Barragan’s Casa Barragan (1947), Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art (1966), and Konstantin Melnikov’s Melnikov House (1927), although only architecture buffs would recognize these buildings in Lambri’s shots. All six pictures of Barragan’s Mexico City home, taken in 2005, focus on one window, which is covered by a wooden shutter divided into four cabinet-like doors. Lambri treats this window like a camera lens, opening the doors to varying degrees in order to admit different amounts of light. In four pictures, a prolonged exposure blanches the image, and the light surges between the cracks with an otherworldly radiance. The possible permutations are seemingly infinite, and endlessly rewarding. In the other two, the surrounding wall reasserts its solidity, framing a garden view that incorporates some pink flowers, the only bright color in the exhibition.

Three photographs of a single window at the Melnikov House offer a similar opportunity for back-and-forth comparison. Here, however, the light remains more or less consistent, and it is Lambri’s movement—identified by a point of view that shifts slightly with each shot—that becomes apparent. Two diagonal wooden sashes crisscross the elongated hexagonal opening and fragment the picture’s composition into rectangles, trapezoids, and triangles that interlock like puzzle pieces. Nearby, a single image of a window at the Whitney Museum, taken at a slightly oblique angle to the wall, likewise emphasizes the complexities of the iconic, off-kilter aperture, with its deeply recessed, irregular trapezoidal windowpane, which angles away from the building instead of lying flush with the facade. Picture plane, gallery wall, window, and the gridded exterior of the building across the street create a series of optical twists and turns that slow the eye’s movement around the photographic space.

Three pictures of Edward Durell Stone’s Mandel House (1934), hung in a smaller room, created a spatially complex tableau reminiscent of Sabine Hornig’s photographs and sculptural installations. The images depict what looks like a twin-chambered dressing room in which two mirrors—one circular, one rectangular—rest against opposing walls while a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a door spans the distance between them. The elegant photographs, which were here arranged like stand-ins for the mirrors and window, were taken from different oblique angles and amplify the disorientation caused by the room’s intricate play of light and reflections. One must work conscientiously to stitch together an understanding of the three-dimensional space fractured by this photographic hall of mirrors, but doing so offers one of this exhibition’s many pleasures.

DIY Art Project #2

1) Determine the dates of the four major art fairs—the Armory Show, Art Basel, Frieze, and Art Basel Miami Beach—in a given year.

2) Determine the dates exactly opposite those of the fairs.

3) Go to the “right place at the wrong time”—Basel in the winter, London in the spring, Miami in the summer, and New York in the autumn—and organize art-related events, especially ones that make the art market their theme or that would not normally find a place in the market.

4) Skip the fairs themselves.

A sneak peek at Olafur Eliasson’s “Light Lab”

While in Frankfurt this weekend, I had the pleasure of taking a tour of the new Portikus building, designed by architect Christoph Mäckler. One highlight was an up-close peek at Olafur Eliasson’s “Light Lab” installation, the first of a series of twelve. The work has made the building an instant icon—I saw countless tourists posing on the banks of the river with its orange neon arc in the background. Here’s a sneak peek at how simple are the means by which Eliasson makes this commanding image.

Barbara Probst

Published in Artforum, May 2006.

Barbara Probst,  Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545, 8 Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., 2000

Barbara Probst, Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545, 8 Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., 2000

On January 7, 2000, at 10:37 PM, Munich- and New York-based photographer Barbara Probst first employed a technique that remains unique among contemporary artists. Using a remote-control device, she simultaneously triggered the shutters of twelve cameras strategically positioned around a New York City rooftop, and the resultant set of poster-size prints, in which Probst, her cameras and tripods, and the noirish urban scene all figure equally as subjects, anchored her last solo show at Murray Guy in 2004. The Rashomon-like multiplicity of perspectives synthetically prolongs the cameras’ “decisive moment,” and this clash of temporal registers was the exhibition’s most salient quality. For this exhibition, consisting of eleven photographs constituting four artworks, Probst added emotional nuance and referential complexity to that first multipart “exposure.”

Exposure #36: Studio Munich, 09.26.05., 2:34 p.m., a five-part work that alternates black-and-white and color prints, unsettles one’s sense not only of time but also of space. Viewing the photographs sequentially, one initially assumes that the young woman in a red sweater, her hands held up near the right side of her head, is standing outside, in or near a park. The second image, shot from behind the woman, exposes the artifice implied by inclusion of the word “studio” in the title: Here one sees, behind a camera on a tripod, the contours of a room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The third frame peels back yet another layer of the construction, revealing the greenery in the background of the first picture to be no more than a studio backdrop. The fourth shot plunges one back into a conceivably “realistic” space (the grain of the photograph merges seamlessly with that of the backdrop), once again giving the impression that the woman is outside, this time on a street in New York’s Chinatown. The final photograph is a close-up of the woman’s face.

But of course one doesn’t view these images consecutively. Instead, the successive revelations encourage the eye to Ping-Pong between the prints, picking out details overlooked on first pass. One gradually assembles a mental model of the depicted scene, pairing each camera with the images it has captured. But there remains an estranging detail, noticeable only because of the enlargements’ imposing size: The presence of a young boy lying on the studio floor, his head and an arm visible in the bottom-right corner of the third print. This returns one to the background of the first print: The park scene is naggingly familiar because it was lifted from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). (Exposure #37: N.Y.C. 249 W 34th Street, 11.07.05, 1:13 p.m., with its fashionably dressed, supine protagonist ogled by a plethora of lenses, evokes the studio scenes in that film, but to different effect.) Probst’s deconstruction of the photograph’s veracity—which, in these multi-panel works, evokes cinematic precedents in both atmosphere and presentation—literally encompasses a fragment of a classic film on the same subject.

The other photographs in the show, all diptychs, hint at the complexities, temporal and otherwise, lodged in Exposure #36. These photographs evoke Christopher Williams’s photographic deconstructions and Eadweard Muybridge’s time-lapse studies. But Probst’s fruitful investigation of photography’s characteristics (and the operations of human memory) distinguishes her from both precursors and peers.

Cady Noland, “approximately”

This seems like a very bad idea, and one that will be very short-lived if Cady Noland responds to this exhibition the way she has to exhibitions that include artworks she actually made.

Cady Noland Approximately
Sculptures and Editions, 1984-1999

Conceived by Triple Candie, made in collaboration with Taylor Davis, Rudy Shepherd, and two other artists

This exhibition is the first survey ever devoted to Cady Noland’s oeuvre. It consists of objects made by Triple Candie and four artists that are based on sculpture and editions by Cady Noland that date from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s. The works were recreated from images found on the Internet and in exhibition catalogues. Though an attempt was made to replicate the original artworks as faithfully as possible, they are not reproductions. They are approximations that have been handicapped by practical limitations (e.g. lack of money and technical expertise; insufficient information about scale, materials, or color; the obsolescence of certain ready-made components; and a limited time-frame). By deliberately falling short of its target, the exhibition is meant to incite the public’s desire and curiosity to experience the real thing, which remains frustratingly elusive.

[. . .]

“Cady Noland Approximately” was conceived of conjointly with—and is meant to serve as a complement to—the exhibition “David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective” that was presented at Triple Candie in February/March 2006. There are a number of important similarities between the two artists. Both are evasive figures whose art has been highly influential on younger artists. Both artists tightly control access to their work. Both have expressed dissatisfaction with the art world and have operated outside of it, on their own terms, albeit in different ways. The Hammons exhibition consisted of photocopies and computer printouts from existing reproductions; this exhibition consists of three-dimensional objects that are made from information gleaned from existing reproductions but which are not exact replicas. In comparing the two exhibitions, one question that arises is: “Which of the two compromised forms of replication is closer to the real thing?”

“Cady Noland Approximately” was made in collaboration with four artists: Taylor Davis, Rudy Shepherd, and two others who asked to not be named. None of the objects in the exhibition are individually authored. Cady Noland was not consulted, or notified, about this exhibition. She lives and works in New York City.

(It should be noted that I wrote and distributed an essay titled “Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland,” also without consulting her prior to its publication.)

Far be it from me to police what a gallery chooses to exhibit, but it seems to me that making an exhibition-of-photocopied-reproductions-as-homage in the spirit of one artist—an exhibition that leads even the Times to wonder if the artist is involved—is one thing. It is far different, and less malicious, than re-creating the artworks of an elusive artist, no matter how poorly and with how much transparency. As someone said last night at dinner, “This show cannot even begin to look like a Cady Noland show. Cady has very specific reasons for installing her objects the way she does; the relationships between them are of equal importance to the sculptures themselves. This cannot be re-created by others’ hands.” Hammons is enigmatic, and his relationship to exhibitions and the market can be seen, in some way, as part of his oeuvre; Noland’s relationship with the art world is much closer to a categorical “no.” In my mind, the differences between those stances outweigh the similarities described above.

It’s telling that two of the four artists enlisted to re-create these works insist on their own anonymity. If these aren’t Cady Noland sculptures, and those responsible for creating them aren’t willing to claim them as something else (à la Sturtevant, or some such), then what are they? As much as I would love to see a Cady Noland exhibition, this is the wrong way to go about it, and the wrong way to “incite the public’s desire and curiosity to experience the real thing.” That desire is already present, at least among cognoscenti. We need instead to stoke Noland’s desire to collaborate with a gallery or institution on an exhibition of her own work. This gesture harms that effort.

UPDATE (5/17): A few weeks ago, Edward Winkleman posted an entry on his blog about this topic, and several commenters took me to task for the remarks above; last Friday, Ken Johnson weighed in on the show in the New York Times (“The show might be seen as a chance to think about an oeuvre that . . . remains pertinent to what young artists . . . . Unfortunately, it is easier to see it as an attention-seeking stunt. No one who values Ms. Noland’s work is going to care about seeing inexact substitutes, and no serious critical judgments about her art should be based on such ersatz objects.”); and now Jerry Saltz has his say in the Village Voice (“The ideas are interesting and the organizers’ hearts are in the right place, yet the show falls flat.”).

The Life Aquatic with Matthew Barney


Still from Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9.

There is little new to be said about Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, which was released a few weeks ago and is now screening at the IFC Center in the West Village. There were, of course, reviews in all of the major media outlets—the New York Times and the Village Voice, among many others—as well as numerous posts on blogs. (Girish’s comments were among the earliest and remain among the most well thought out.) As is to be expected, there is little impartial commentary; like all extremely ambitious artists, Matthew Barney seems only to draw fulsome praise or withering criticism, and the film, loaded with visual cues referencing the Cremaster series with which he made his name, will convert few critics and dissuade few fans. Overwrought pageantry and meticulously observed ritual, a fetishist’s appreciation of elaborate costuming, and all manner of viscous semiliquid materials figure prominently.

I enjoyed the film. A few brief comments:

- I agree with those who criticize Barney’s editing skills, as the film seems like an endless succession of eight- to ten-second takes; were it not for the Björk’s evocative soundtrack, there would be even less narrative thrust than can now be discerned. The film’s action hovers somewhere between nonnarrative and narrative states, and it suffers some for it.

- While there are plenty of striking moments, there is no single image in Drawing Restraint 9 as beautiful as individual scenes in his Cremaster films. (I’m thinking specifically of the use of the Chrysler building as a maypole in Cremaster 3 or the scene in which Barney jumps off a bridge into the Danube in Cremaster 5.)

- The ending seems tacked on, as if Barney had extra visual material—the kabuki clown, the woman vomiting pearls into the sea, etc.—that he wanted to include but couldn’t otherwise fit.

- Some commentators have glossed the reference to Douglas MacArthur in the beginning of the film, but I’m surprised that none yet have reached back to Matthew C. Perry, the original “Occidental Guest.” I know that the coincidence of their first names is just that, but it is a suggestive one nonetheless.

“Utopia Station” at Princeton, Pamela M. Lee on the World Social Forum, and Slavoj Zizek in the LRB

On Thursday, March 30, I ventured down to Princeton’s campus for the latter half of “Utopia Station,” a two-day seminar devoted to the concept of free speech. As the press release had it: “We meet to examine this question and to move it.” I was interested in how this program of “talks, screenings, messages and images” would function in two ways. First, as part of a larger, two-year project at Princeton focusing on the study of utopia and dystopia in history, and second, as part of the larger “Utopia Station” project, which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and which has manifested itself variously since then.

Molly Nesbit, who is the ostensible ringleader of the project (despite the fact that it was conceived with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and a host of other artists, curators, and critics), emceed the affair. Her first words were aimed at disarming potential critics, specifically the capital-H Historians in the house who have been treated to eighteen months’ worth of serious academic papers on the topics at hand, and emphasized the experimental (if not quite provisional) nature of the mixed-media presentations on that day’s docket. The program itself was impressive, but almost from the start technical difficulties plagued the presenters and unexpected absences shortened the proceedings. Princeton’s computers did not play some of the artists’ DVDs properly: We saw only half of a video by Tiravanija and Philippe Parreno, and what footage we did see was punctuated by glitches and moments without sound. Obrist had left after Wednesday’s presentation, and neither Immanuel Wallerstein nor Martha Rosler could attend; Nesbit read short notes from all three. The dwindling audience murmured.

And yet there were rousing presentations. Liam Gillick, who was on stage with Carolee Schneeman and Rirkrit Tiravanija at the outset of the afternoon, outlined in eleven succinct points many problems with using the words “free” and “speech” in this context. (Unfortunately he read too quickly and there was no opportunity to discuss what he said.) A twenty-minute phone call to Michael Hardt, in Seattle, was illuminating, as the critic and theorist outlined his collaborative working process with Antonio Negri as well as the contours of the project now holding the duo’s attention. (A subsequent, pre-planned call to Negri was met with an answering machine.) Edouard Glissant delivered a rather poetic paper envisioning one particular type of utopia, translated on the fly from the French by a young woman who would have benefited from having more time to prepare her words. At the end of the evening, and with the help of an audience member’s laptop, we were treated to two short videos by Thomas Bayrle and a preview of the third part of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest film cycle.

If judged on the terms it set out for itself, the second day of “Utopia Station” was not a success. Several speakers referred to the marathon discussions sparked by the first day’s presentations; Thursday was marked by its lack of interaction. Although I did not talk to any Princeton historians in attendance, it seemed to me that the attempt to shoehorn this presentation into the wider seminar mostly served to point out the deficiencies in “Utopia Station.” Having not attended the opening of “Utopia Station” in Venice three years ago, I was unable to ascertain fully the relationship of Thursday’s presentation to the original, though being at Princeton was certainly more intriguing—despite the imperfections—than my encounter with the rather inert remnants of the original on site in Venice two months after the Biennale opened.

Three years on from its initial viewing, there’s little more to be milked from the same cast of characters discussing (more or less) the same topics. But the connections that can be fostered by its drawing power are many. Despite my disappointment with the outcome of this “Utopia Station” event, the day trip was salvaged by an encounter with Bayrle and his wife on the train ride back to New York. He offered further thoughts on the films we saw, and on the works now on view at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and clearly warmed to having four young interlocuters—teaching for twenty-odd years at the Stadelschule in Frankfurt has not dimmed his passion for pedagogical discourse. It was a great conversation . . . one that I wish would have taken place in the auditorium at Princeton.

* * *

At one point Molly Nesbit mentioned hearing Michael Hardt speak at Porto Alegre, which was a reference to a presentation he gave at the World Social Forum when it was held in that Brazilian town. Pamela M. Lee has an article on the WSF in the current Artforum. From that article:

Arguably, the relative merit of the WSF’s activities is measured less by the concrete implementation of policy than by the kinds of relationships the gatherings produce—a proposition that would seem to raise the question, How might this other world look? What role, in other words, would the visual in general (and art more conditionally) play in the WSF’s production and facilitation of a “world process”?

And later:

Indeed, what drew the greatest share of attention at the opening rally and elsewhere were not so much the classic signifiers of revolutionary politics, which fell just this side of perfunctory or routinized, but the circulation of media itself. In countless occasions that mimed something of the feedback-loop logic of the old Sony Porta-Pak, one saw participants videotaping, filming, or photographing other participants who, in turn, were doing exactly the same thing. This was a kind of global mirroring process in which capturing the act of mediation—whether the ad hoc TV stations scattered around the forum’s dispersed sites or the live projections in the more heavily subscribed sessions—seemed the most vital form of representation of all. What was at stake seemed not so much a clearly consolidated image of this media (that would be CNN territory, after all), but rather a sense of its potential mobility.

Slavoj Zizek has an article on a related topic, though his is not refracted through the lens of art. “Nobody has to be vile,” excoriates the “liberal communists” who have imported values championed at the World Social Forum (held this year in Caracas, Venezuela) to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, specifically Bill Gates and George Soros. To wit:

Some of them, at least, moved to Davos. The tone of the Davos meetings is now predominantly set by the group of entrepreneurs who ironically refer to themselves as ‘liberal communists’ and who no longer accept the opposition between Davos and Porto Alegre: their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc). There is no need for Porto Alegre: instead, Davos can become Porto Davos.

And later:

According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. As for the opposition between ‘smart’ and ‘non-smart’, outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today.

Sze Tsung Leong

Published on Artforum.com on April 12, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong’s gorgeous, abundantly detailed, medium- to large-size photographs of Chinese cities undergoing cataclysmic change fuse Edward Burtynsky’s synoptic aerial views, Elger Esser’s blanched palette, and the patient attentiveness evident in underappreciated Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s mid-’80s “Architectural Apocalypse” photographs. The works included here, from “History Images,” an ongoing series begun four years ago (and exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2004), were taken in Beijing and Pingyao, Xinjiekou and Xiamen, yet each tells roughly the same story, in which a rush to transform society—whether during the mid-century socialist revolution or more recent capitalist expansion—inevitably and irrevocably transforms the landscape. Low-slung, tile-roofed, imperial-era houses give way to drab, mid-rise, concrete apartment blocks, which are in turn supplanted by more-or-less shiny skyscrapers bearing corporate logos—sometimes all in the same picture. The nostalgic tint of the series title, which evinces a preservationist documentary impulse, is offset by Leong’s eminently rational compositions, in which new structures encircle old, or radiate outward symmetrically like a Rorschach blot. Two pictures in a second room lift the veil shrouding this hyperdevelopment: One depicts a construction site, curiously devoid of the machinery necessary to erect a tall building, in which workers stand in holes dug for concrete pylons; another shows horses, certainly anachronistic workers in an urban environment, carting trash bags on rickety wooden carts. Their inclusion adds an important counterpoint to the exhibition’s deceptively seductive force, reminding us that individual lives play out both in the crumbling shacks and behind the steel-and-glass façades.

Rambling through the fairs (with an emphasis on the “rambling”)

I have passed through the feelings that usually arrive on the Monday after an art-fair weekend–slight nausea, horror concerning who saw you do the things you can’t remember doing, bewilderment at how such a confluence of events came to be in the first place–and am now back to thinking somewhat clearly about what I saw and experienced over the weekend. (Recovery takes longer after the fair weekend in Miami, which is in every way so wildly unlike my everyday life in New York.) After ten hours on the Armory Show floor on Thursday, the result of which was posted here, I visited the LA Art Fair on Friday, and Scope and Pulse on Saturday.

My personal reactions to the Armory Show differ slightly from those of others I reported at artforum.com. While I too noticed the “missing center,” so to speak, the fair remains by far the best in the city. There were plenty of artworks I was glad to see—and that I might not have seen at all were it not for the fair—and, in most cases, the booths were more sensitively installed than those at the other fairs. The Armory Show suffered, as usual, from its location on Piers 90 and 92, which is uniquely inhospitable to trade shows; “lounges” mid-way down the corridors, like the one sponsored by Artforum, do little to temper the feeling that one’s journey will never end. The feeling is akin to trying to reach Gate 116 at Newark Airport, only without the moving walkways. The fair managers’ decision to decrease the number of galleries is admirable, but the resultant reconfiguration (such as moving some exhibitors upstairs into the former lounge area) definitely requires tweaking.

The Armory Show’s organizers were likewise smart to recognize that public (and collector) interest in art fairs is not a zero-sum game, and to support the presence of the other, “satellite” fairs, such as the three I visited and DiVA, which I missed. In conversation with various dealers, artists, critics, and curators over the weekend, I floated a test-balloon theory that stated the Armory Show is past its prime, and is now on the gradual downward slope that Art Chicago recently tumbled down at an alarming rate. I suggested a “shelf life” of approximately ten years for most fairs. Everyone seemed to think that the Armory Show is stronger now than Art Chicago ever was, and that the lure of New York would itself sustain a fair in a way that traveling to Chicago, say, or Cologne, never would.

So everyone seems to be in agreement that the Armory Show is fine, for now . . .

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The 2006 Whitney Biennial

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Left: A detail view of the Peace Tower rising from the Whitney’s below-grade courtyard. Right: A fourth-floor installation view of Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled (After Sam) (2005-06) and Urs Fischer’s Untitled (branches) (2005), looking through Fischer’s The Intelligence of Flowers (2003-06).

“Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial, opened last week, and, as usual, it has generated plenty of commentary. Here is a selection: Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times; Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice; Linda Yablonsky on Bloomberg’s wires; Lance Esplund in The Sun; Ben Davis on Artnet; Kriston Capps at Eye Level; Mia Fineman at Slate; James Wagner on his eponymous weblog (images here); my own comments—emphatically not a review—here, which were followed up by my colleague Michael Wang here.

None of this covers, of course, the peripheral considerations, which include Joao Ribas’s interview with the curators at ArtInfo, Biennial artist Momus describing his first performance in the galleries, and Holland Cotter’s article in Sunday’s Times about collective art practices. Or Siva Vaidhyanathan’s blog post that includes a link to his essay included in the exhibition catalog.

Then, of course, there is the discussion one has on the phone, in elevators, over dinner, at other openings. “The Europeans they chose don’t do a good job of showing how Europe is culturally distinct from the US.” “The ideas that have most occupied my thinking about art in the last year are not represented in the show.” “The show was really powerful; I left depressed.” “This is the worst biennial I’ve seen in a long time.” ;Being at the opening was like crossing a list of art-world people I don’t want to see with the stars of my iTunes playlist.” “The Momus performance made me want to stab myself in the eye.” “The fourth floor is boring.” “The fourth floor is the best.” “The second floor looks like ‘Greater New York’— and I don’t mean that as a compliment.” “They should make the Biennial smaller, only fifteen artists.”

A big show like this can’t help but be a mirror in which a critic ratifies his or her own personal taste, seeking out familiar names and favored styles. My own initial response conforms: I prefer the fourth-floor installation, with its measured pace, subdued air, and formalist and conceptual concerns. It seemed to me like a proper museum exhibition, one in which the potential for curatorial argument exists; the third and second floors seem too much like an unfiltered smorgasbord. What disappoints me most thus far is ease with which the radical, collective practices touted by the curators (and discussed by Cotter in his Times article) are subsumed into the greater exhibition. The same goes for Toni Burlap, Iles’s and Vergne’s fictional curator, whose presence is little (if at all) felt in the galleries. (Another disappointment: The catalogue costs $50, so I won’t soon be able to tell if these ideas receive greater prominence there.) But I get the feeling that if one has a few hours to spend with the plethora of film and video projects, there are many rewards to be gleaned. As I revisit the exhibition and attempt to discover them, I will post my thoughts here.

Felix Schramm

Published in Artforum, March 2006. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

German artist Felix Schramm’s New York solo debut comprised primarily a single gallery-filling sculpture. Comber, 2005, was an impressive feat of intentional disarray. Set into—and seemingly bursting forth from—a raised platform, a lowered ceiling, and a specially built wall that slightly constricted the dimensions of the main room, it featured a structural armature made from splintered two-by-fours mostly covered by ripped sheets of painted drywall. These walls, jutting out at sharp angles, formed seductive, visually balanced planes of blue, orange, and gray that nicely counterbalanced the violence of the mangled materials themselves. Resting on just a few points, the work seemed simultaneously colossal and delicate, as if one false move might bring the whole thing crashing down.

This was a site-specific sculpture that overwhelmed its site. One couldn’t fully move around, much less through, the rough-and-tumble construction, a restriction that undermined the complexitiy of one’s relationship to the work. Because the viewer was forced to experience it from one side and one side only, Comber‘s muscular ’70s sculptural idiom—think of Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural fragments infused with the implicit menace of Richard Serra’s prop pieces—was nullified, essentially presented as a diorama. (Flatten out Schramm’s three-dimensional expanses of color and the result might look like a Cubist collage.) That this work, which made high drama of devastating the white cube, is nonetheless contained in this way significantly undercut what could have been a viscerally unsettling experience.

Beyond its title, derived from the term for continuously breaking waves, the work offered no narrative thrust or external references. To its credit, Comber‘s thorough abstractness left the door open to imaginative rumination on the precariousness of shelter, the untamable violence of nature (earthquakes, hurricanes), and destruction’s potential as a creative force. This kind of painting-sculpture-architecture hybrid (which nonetheless refuses the label of “installation”) is increasingly common, and one can imagine Schramm’s piece, which is perhaps three parts sculpture, one part architecture, and one part painting, as a counterpoint to the work of Brooklyn-based artist Lisa Sigal, who emphasizes painting above the other two media in her own site-specific interventions. Earlier precedents stretch from Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau to John Chamberlain. And the work also owes something to deconstructivist architectural projects like Daniel Libeskind’s proposed extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or Coop Himme(l)blau’s UFA Cinema Center in Dresden.

Clues to Comber‘s making were on view in the gallery’s entrance space and office, where a series of fifteen letter-size drawings and a wall-mounted maquette emphasized that this was the product of much compositional deliberation. Some of these contained material shopping lists; a greater number presented schematic renderings of broken drywall panels surrounded by mathematical equations and other notes. The tension between our knowledge of the piece as premeditated and our experience of it as seemingly wrought by arbitrary, uncontrollable forces—whether genuinely natural or the “spontaneous” work of the artist—was a smart corollary to the equipoise between stasis and (implied) motion in Comber itself.

Schramm’s earlier large-scale sculptures—similar in form and in their use of Home Depot materials—seemed to have a less antagonistic relationship to the spaces in which they were shown, offering the viewer an opportunity to perambulate (and therefore more fully understand their complexity). Here, the integration with the surrounding architectural did not seem fully resolved: After several generations of artistic incursions into the formerly sacred white cube, simply crashing through the walls with bravado may not be enough. This exhibition proved that Schramm possesses an intuitive feel for materials and a keen formal eye, but has yet to reveal his conceptual underpinnings with clarity.

John Stezaker

Published on Artforum.com on February 8, 2006. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

John Stezaker, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005

John Stezaker, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005

One could easily recommend any of the small, sharply focused exhibitions now on view at White Columns; my favorite is John Stezaker’s show in one of the gallery’s “White Rooms.” Despite a thirty-five year exhibition history in London, where he lives and works, this is the artist’s New York solo debut. It features only eleven diminutive, near-seamless collages, yet reveals Stezaker’s wit and acuity; his “image fascination,” to use his preferred term, comes across as a preternatural ability to divine visual concordances across disparate source material. The “Film Portraits” on view appropriate hand-tinted headshots of mid-century silver screen luminaries, juxtaposing two smooth-skinned faces to create a perfectly formed hybrid. The best of these, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005, uses an off-center female-silhouette-shaped cutout to reveal the male half of a male-female composite, triangulating the implied relationship by introducing a third “character.” (The length of this description misrepresents the pleasingly intuitive economy of the artist’s gesture.) Three “Incisions,” each of which is marked by a V-shaped cut that stretches vertically across almost the entire work, are methodologically similar, but use elements—the shadow made by a crouching boy, a low-lying building in the distance—drawn from more varied sources to stitch together the image torn asunder by the cut. Many younger artists, from Angus Fairhurst to Christian Holstad, have adopted Stezaker’s technique, but they rarely achieve the balance of whimsy and fastidiousness that these works so casually display.

A good idea takes root a second time


Top: Zoe Leonard, Tree, 1997. Two installation views at Paula Cooper Gallery. (Photo: ArtSeenSoho.com) Bottom: Anya Gallacio, One Art, 2006. Installation view at SculptureCenter. (Photo: G. Paul Burnett/the New York Times)

Though the exhibition took place before I came to New York, images of Zoe Leonard’s 1997 show at Paula Cooper’s gallery have left an indelible impression on my mind. Now London-based artist Anya Gallacio has recapitulated the idea (albeit on a larger scale) in an exhibition that just opened at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. One can’t assume that Gallacio knew of Leonard’s work before conceiving her own, but the resemblance is even more uncanny than those “copies” that do raise hackles among art world cognoscenti, which makes it all the more surprising that neither Ken Johnson, in his otherwise thoughtful review of Gallacio’s exhibition in today’s Times, nor the SculptureCenter employee I spoke with last Friday knew of Leonard’s project. I’ll admit that Leonard is known more for her photographs than her sculptures, but has this (seemingly spectacular) ’97 sculpture sunk from collective memory? (Holland Cotter did mention in in two Times “Art Guide” columns in September of that year.) It would seem to me a shame, as it has always held a prominent place on my “shows I wish I had seen” list.

Sergej Jensen

Published in Artforum, January 2006. To learn more about the exhibition, click here.

Sergej Jensen, installation view, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, 2005

Sergej Jensen, installation view, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, 2005

Berlin-based artist Sergej Jensen’s works will disappoint viewers looking for visual bombast, but by avoiding heroic painterly gestures (and frequently even forsaking the use of paint) Jensen has nevertheless become one of the most interesting painters working today. His works are mostly medium-size panels of unprimed stretched canvas, linen, or wool, daubed with chlorine, bleach, and dye and/or adorned with bits of fabric. Jensen’s compositions would seem unresolved or even incomplete were it not for their intuitive elegance: That he often minimizes the physical work necessary to produce his paintings belies the mental effort it takes to create such apparently slapdash beauty. For his New York solo debut, Jensen even outsourced some of the labor to his mother.

Paint or no paint, however, the show was emphatically titled “Paintings,” and Jensen’s use of found materials, his low-key, washy palette, and his attempts to downplay his own role in the creative process all have a painterly pedigree: One might cite Michael Krebber, Rosemarie Trockel, Richard Tuttle, Blinky Palermo, or Sigmar Polke as precedents. The show’s subtitle, “I come from the computer,” printed three times on a letter-size piece of paper taped to a wall near the entrance, acted both as a biographical key (Jensen’s mother is a retired computer programmer) and, in its self-effacement, a declaration of principle.

Two works hanging near the gallery entrance nicely encapsulate many of Jensen’s key concerns. Untitled (Binary One) and Untitled (Binary Zero) (all works 2005) feature bills in various currencies (arrayed in the vertical bar and vertically oriented rectangle implied by the titles) affixed to two different types of raw canvas. (The checklist identifies the medium as “money on canvas,” perhaps a jab at the status of painting in an overheated market.) Here, economy (as in finance) is crossed with the economy of Jensen’s gesture. It is easy to envision these bills as creatively repurposed remnants of international travel and to imagine Jensen making money by selling it. The bills themselves are arranged visually, and the color combinations are surprisingly appealing, rescuing the works from being mere illustrations of an idea.

Some canvases in the show, such as one covered with pink-and-white star-shaped patches or two works made of dyed burlap, miss their mark and seem to have neither a clear animating impulse nor enough visual allure to distract us from the lack thereof. But when Jensen strikes the right balance and appeals to both eye and mind, he comes up with works like Untitled, in which a pale stain on an unaltered bolt of fabric becomes a motif repeated in five horizontal bands a ghostly conflation of Christopher Wool’s allover decorative patterning and Agnes Martin’s ethereal horizon lines. Wool is also a touchstone for Silver Laser Flowers, which uses four fragments of a floral-print fabric found on the artist’s last trip to New York; Jensen has affixed them to canvas like remnants unearthed at an archaeological dig, leaving the viewer to complete the pattern around them. These works, like the “Binary” paintings, encourage an appreciation of the finished object and a consideration of how it came into being. The most recent work in the show is made from the offcut residua of its companions in the gallery. The environmentalist mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle,” enlivened by the element of chance, describes not only this painting, but also Jensen’s humble yet expansive practice as a whole.

Harry Callahan

Published on Artforum.com on December 14, 2005. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Had Richard Prince organized this show, he would’ve called it “Twenty Women Looking in Every Direction.” But Harry Callahan, an acclaimed though under-exhibited photographer perhaps best known for loving, often experimental portraits of his wife Eleanor, was out on the streets of Chicago in 1950, and this series, titled “Women Lost in Thought,” presages Garry Winogrand’s sidewalk snaps as much as it does Prince’s postmodern Conceptualism. To take these extreme close-ups of women out for a stroll, Callahan had to push the technological limits of his equipment (choosing a too-high shutter speed for the film he was using) and devise idiosyncratic shooting techniques (pre-focusing the camera and hoping his subjects were the proper distance from the lens). It’s hard not to view these women, completely isolated from their surroundings, as early examples of then-emerging theories about urban anomie; they could be the wives left behind in the morning by William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man.” They look alternately sullen, animated, and impassive, and the frisson of violence implied by the odd, sometimes harsh cropping adds yet more psychological portent to pictures whose fascination is belied by their seeming simplicity.

Dana Schutz

Published in Parkett issue 75.

Dana Schutz, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey, 2002

Dana Schutz, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey, 2002

No work in Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz’s first three exhibitions could have prepared viewers for Presentation (2005), which was first exhibited earlier this year in “Greater New York 2005″ at P.S. 1. (It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and the museum was so eager to exhibit it in the permanent collection galleries that they removed it from the walls of their outer-borough affiliate several weeks before the end of the exhibition.) The painting was, to my mind, one of the best works in the exhibition, nearly unmatched in its ambition. Beyond scale—at approximately ten by fourteen feet, it was the largest work Schutz had created to date—it was also the most complicated canvas she had ever attempted.

Her first solo show, “Frank From Observation,” was held just three years ago. Frank, who looked surprisingly like the comedian Chris Elliott with a sunburn and long, stringy hair, was described by the artist as the last name on Earth—a fact that made him “the last subject” and her “the last painter.” This construct allowed her to paint pretty much anything she wanted: Frank as a Proboscis Monkey (2002); Frank as a Reclining Nude (2002); even images in which her companion doesn’t appear at all. Her freedom came from the pair’s isolation: no one else could doubt the veracity of what she depicted; the imagined world was complete with two inhabitants.

The majority of the canvases in “Self-Eaters and the People Who Love Them” and “Panic,” her next two solo exhibitions, depicted individual “self-eaters,” humanlike creatures that find nourishment by ingesting their own body parts (which they then regenerate), who seem to be citizens of an unseen community that one can imagine inhabiting a deserted island or remote jungle. In these mostly easel-scale paintings, which often teeter on the thin line between representation and abstraction, Schutz’s imagined world boasted a greater population if not yet the greater complexity (social and, for that matter, compositional) inherent to depicting human interaction.

As if Schutz had spun a top and set these lives in motion, her paintings during this time depicted small but ever-widening circles of activity, and the contours of her world began to show. But recalling the title of Schutz’s first exhibition, we are reminded that her works are imagined but paradoxically also observed. Even when she comprised one-half of the imagined world’s population, a quasi-clinical remove allowed us to believe she was looking at this fictional place through a screen or window, coolly contemplating the scenes before her. As the critic Jed Perl wrote recently of the lesser-known American painter Mary Lyons, Schutz’s works were “a realist account of surrealist possibility.” (1)

Whereas the works in “Self-Eaters” and “Panic” depict individuals or small groups of people in acid hues, Presentation includes a teeming mass of faces worthy of comparison to James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888). These people, ostensibly the self-eaters whose self-sufficiency had previously kept them apart, sport the grave looks of those summoned for an important declaration; “Panic” indeed.

Before them lies a mutant body, bones broken and limbs ripped asunder, on a simple examination table (constructed from a slab of wood) that hovers over a similarly sized hole in the ground. In the front row of the crowd, nestled close to the edge of this table, ruddy-faced congregants stare, whisper among themselves, and cover their noses and mouths. One woman, in what looks like surgeon’s scrubs and gloves, slices into an elephantine hand held up by a rudimentary sling; it is twice as large as her head.

The chimera’s eyes are open: Is this a biopsy or an autopsy? Is this examination the precursor to a burial? Or is it an exhumation? The figure appears to have an intravenous tube emerging from its left arm, but it is not hooked up to any equipment or medicine, and beyond that the painting’s details are ambiguous. What has happened such that everyone, previously enjoying idyllic seclusion as they fashioned new body parts for themselves, has congregated here? The difference in size between members of the crowd and the object of their undivided attention is notable. Perhaps this limp figure, created from a thicket of yellow, orange, pink, and red brushstrokes, is a foreign visitor, à la Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Dana Schutz, Presentation, 2005

Dana Schutz, Presentation, 2005

A second type of painterly observation informs this painting. Presentation‘s table-in-front, crowd-behind composition strikingly recalls Thomas Eakins’s surgery-ward canvas The Agnew Clinic (1889), while its bright color scheme might be described as a synthetic amplification of the colors found in Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, which are also alluded to by the bright flowers at the lower corners of Schutz’s work. Large exhibitions dedicated to Eakins and Gauguin were on view simultaneously at the Metropolitan Museum from June to October 2002, and Schutz fuses by painterly alchemy these two influences, certainly among others, to make something distinctly her own. It is not a criticism to say that Schutz is a canny expositor of art history, obviously unafraid of borrowing liberal samples from earlier masterpieces to lend a charge to her own paintings. (Her painting Party [2004] distinctly echoes Philip Guston’s infamous portrait of a phlebitic Richard Nixon, titled San Clemente [1975], which was itself on view at the Metropolitan during the autumn and winter of 2003-04.)

The grandeur of Presentation bears out Schutz’s decision to transparently invoke such well-known artworks, and the painting does not suffer much by comparison. Perl, in the essay quoted above, notes that, “if painters are good enough, they can convince us of the importance of any subject.” Standing before Schutz’s wall-size canvas, the viewer can easily project herself into the pictorial space, thereby furthering our empathy with the scene it depicts and the fascination it holds; we come to see, like those small faces receding into the background, the importance of the event at hand. The ambiguity of Presentation‘s action begins to approach the open-endedness of everyday life. So far it is Schutz’s greatest work in the realm of (wholly imagined) observation.

* * *

If Presentation literally lays out its subject for the viewer, pushing up against the glass of Schutz’s window onto her imagined world, the subjects of many of her newest works, exhibited in September at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, come from the our side of the real/invented divide. Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo, religious (and other) fanatics, and corporate titans all make appearances in these canvases. While visiting Schutz’s Brooklyn studio last August, I asked whether her progress from imagination to reality could be chalked up to a newfound confidence. She demurred, but whatever the impetus for this progression, it appears with (only a little bit of) hindsight perfectly logical.

The Autopsy of Michael Jackson (2005), included in the Berlin exhibition, is a kind of real-world mirror image of Presentation. In this canvas, which is five by nine feet, the King of Pop’s cadaver lies naked on an operating table, his feet, attached to too-long legs, pointing in the opposite direction of the figure in Presentation. With his pallid, blotchy, yellow-green skin, his neutered genitals (little more than a collection of slightly darker brushstrokes), his jowls pulled toward the tabletop by gravity, and his torso marked by a significant Y-shaped scar, the singer looks simultaneously withered and strangely childlike. Jackson is separated both from his public image and from his legions of adoring fans, and in his isolation one can see the toll wrought upon his body. Schutz peers behind the facade—aviator sunglasses with silver lenses, caked make-up, maneuvers calculated by public relations managers, devotees outside the courtroom—to elucidate the pathos evoked when society places anyone on that high a pedestal. It arouses feelings for Jackson most likely not felt for a very long time.

The film critic David Denby wrote recently that for filmmakers, “to be a good fantasist one first has to be a good realist.” (2) If we extrapolate his comment to other art forms, Schutz’s paintings are proof that his maxim cuts both ways, as there is something distinct about her depictions of real-world subjects that she might not otherwise have discovered without first inventing her own universe. The question I put to Schutz about confidence implied that she would necessarily be leaving behind her fantastical worlds in favor of first-hand accounts of the real world. I had neglected to consider other canvases then in her studio, and to realize that the strength of a painting like The Autopsy of Michael Jackson relies significantly on the acuity of the artist’s observations—of the “spinning tops” she has repeatedly set in motion-perfected over the years.

Too few critics make the distinction between work that is good and work that matters beyond the terms it sets for itself. Likewise few artists make art that fits both criteria. As the two strands of her art mutually reinforce one another, Schutz’s observations, rendered with pleasurable abandon in the wildest of colors, will come to matter very much indeed.

(1) Perl, Jed. “Formalism and Its Discontents.” The New Republic, September 12, 2005, p. 33.

(2) Denby, David. “The Moviegoer.” The New Yorker, September 12, 2005, p. 9.

Ryan Gander

Published in Artforum, December 2005.

Both works in London-based artist Ryan Gander’s New York debut make productive use of a disconnect between sound and image. In The First Grand National, 2003, a small monitor facing the wall illuminates an empty, black-carpeted room. A color-bar test pattern on the screen casts a gently moving rainbow on the wall as an elderly Englishwoman holds forth on various methods of high-speed typing, perfume, and, predominantly, the BBC Radio 4 programming—plays, the news, the shipping forecast, Women’s Hour—that is her daily companion. A quaver in her voice, buttressed by our understanding that her preferred links to the outside world are showing their age as much as she is, gives the oration an elegiac tone. (Likewise the Grand National, England’s premier horse race, is one of only ten sporting events guaranteed live broadcast on network television, itself a dying technology now mostly replaced by satellite transmission.)

Gander, whose heterogeneous practice includes sound works, videos, posters, text pieces, photographs, and site-specific installations, and whose methodology sometimes seems more like that of an art director than an artist, doesn’t often use his formidable talents to provoke an emotional response. But by pairing The First Grand National‘s narration with an unconnected abstract image—as opposed to, say, a scene of a little old lady in her rundown flat—Gander encourages us to pay greater attention to her words and, by extension, to empathize with her plight.

Previously, Gander has created works that thematize their own production or the manner in which they are exhibited. In one example, Brown Corduroy Lounge, 2001, he presented a sequence of photographs inspired by a Serge Gainsbourg album cover, each taken with a different format camera (35 mm, 6 x 6 cm, and 6 x 7 cm), to show the varying amounts of visual information captured by each. The sound track of his 2005 installation at STORE in London described in detail the physical properties of the space itself.

Is this guilt in you too (The study of a car in a field), 2005, is in the same vein as the latter work. It is a video installation enclosed in a room slightly larger than the one housing The First Grand National, but with white walls and an ivory-color carpet. Originally created for Annet Gelink Gallery’s Art Statements booth at last summer’s Art Basel fair, the visual component of the piece is a minute-long video loop in which, after a fade from black to white, an airborne camera zooms in from above on a car idling in the middle of a snowy field near a stand of trees. But there are no tire tracks, and everything seems a bit too perfect. By placing the projector behind the wall, Gander makes his video loop an equally “impossible” apparition.

A ten-to-fifteen-minute audio track performs a pas de deux with this repeating scene, as an intelligent young girl responds to verbal prompts we cannot hear. She describes what we are seeing in real time, speculating on how the car got there; explains that “it’s going to be shown in the art fair, in Basel” and what exactly an art fair is; ruminates on whether or not the image is “real” before deciding it is digitally constructed; and even selects a track from a CD as part of a potential musical sound track for the video. As in Gander’s earlier pieces, everything is interrogated. The young girl’s gloss punctures the seamlessness of the artwork, but none of its power to fascinate slips through the cracks.

Richard Wright

Published in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (Phaidon), 2005.

“The most important thing about the work is that it is destroyed,” says Glasgow-based artist Richard Wright about his gouache wall paintings, improvised on site and covered over at the end of each exhibition. His mostly abstract works, which often occupy very little of the given wall space, are representational in an unexpected sense: Rather than depicting a scene or object found elsewhere or pulled from his imagination, Wright’s works “represent” the frequently idiosyncratic character of the site (a room’s proportions or its décor) and the contingencies of the work’s creation (the exhibition context or the artist’s mood). Wright achieves maximum effect through frequently minimal interventions by combining his intuitive sense of color, form, and placement with a deep knowledge of the histories of art, architecture, and ornamentation. He oscillates primarily between marks that allude to familiar Gothic, Rococo, and modernist forms, frequently fusing them with the graphic hallmarks of subcultures. Reading between the lines (sometimes literally), viewers discover motifs reminiscent of tattoo design or biker-jacket decoration, scientific symbols, religious iconography, and ornamental patterning. Wright deliberately chooses “available” forms—ones he feels are divested of cultural content by virtue of their familiarity—and, with precision and a concentration bordering on what he calls the “ecstatic,” imbues them with a new (and temporary) agency.

Wright maintains that architecture is subjective—an accumulation of encounters and observations rather than something that can be mapped out analytically with floor plans and elevations—and his paintings become a commemoration (in one critic’s words) of his pas de deux with the exhibition space. For a gallery visitor, the surprise encounter with an out-of-the-way work, the significant optical transformations a painting undergoes from different points of view, and the attendant awareness of one’s movement through space all foreground the negotiation inherent in viewing works of art. Context is inextricably linked to the artwork and the space between paintings becomes as important as the works themselves. (Perhaps an echo of some Minimalists’ preoccupation with phenomenology can be found here.) The viewer’s memory also performs a commemorative operation when considering the best of Wright’s works, as she remembers not just the graphic punch of each painting but also the details of her engagement with them.

Situating Wright’s practice can be difficult, as his art frequently takes contentious positions and registers numerous tensions. It attempts to slip free of the art market’s grasp by remaining resolutely impermanent, making its destruction a precondition of its creation. It sits uneasily outside any genealogies of wall painting, which one critic divided into “mural” (Sol LeWitt, Simon Patterson, etc.) and “wallpaper” (Robert Barry, Michael Craig-Martin, etc.) camps. It can be difficult to reconcile the laboriousness of Wright’s process with the ephemerality of the final product. Yet the work’s thought-provoking ambiguities do not mask the pleasure of beholding one of Wright’s paintings, both in discovering how it alters your relationship to a space and in knowing that the transformation is evanescent, a product of the very moment of the encounter.

Kay Rosen

Published in Artforum, September 2005.

Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2004

Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2004

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Kay Rosen’s text-based art requires precisely this kind of doublethink, as almost all of the sly arrangements of words she has been making for the last twenty-five years reward concerted attention by revealing double and triple entendres. The “Aha!” moments often pack an emotional or political punch, but are always leavened by the artist’s sense of humor.

Trained as a linguist, Rosen has become a kind of visual rhetorician, manipulating words—via juxtaposition, scale, and color—in order to highlight their inherent fluidity and its complex implications. This exhibition, which featured one large wall painting and a selection of recent small-scale drawings and paintings, inaugurated Gray Kapernekas Gallery’s program and was the artist’s first New York solo exhibition in three years.

The mental gymnastics required to decode the wall painting, which dates from 2004 and covered a full wall of the small gallery, are perhaps the most strenuous of all those demanded by this show. Here, a seemingly random collection of Rosen’s favored blocky, sans-serif letters—PNUUMLDE—appear in alternating shades of charcoal and slate gray and in varying sizes (the smaller middle letters forming a valley between two outer peaks). Swing your eyes back and forth, though, reading from the outside in, and you eventually arrive at the painting’s title: Pendulum.

Formally, Pendulum echoes Big Talk, 1985, an early billboard exhibited in Chicago whose two words—JUMBO MUMBO—were stacked one atop the other and could be read from left to right or, as suggested by the alternating color scheme, by moving one’s eyes up and down from word to word. This back-and-forth motion is an apt metaphor for the state of heightened awareness one achieves when attempting to reconcile the “opposed ideas” in any of Rosen’s works. It also relates to the political implications that can be found in both pieces: The early billboard references the city’s bloviating politicians who earned Chicago the epithet the “Windy City,” and the later painting (given the artist’s known sensitivity to such matters), the metronomic swing from Bush to Clinton to Bush.

Recently, University of Michigan professors created US maps that prove most of the country is politically neither red nor blue, but rather violet, countering reductive notions of our electoral affinities. Rosen’s Blurred, 2004, is a perfect distillation of this condition: The letters BLU are drawn in blue colored pencil, and RED in red; in the middle, there is a lone purple R. To her credit, Rosen uses language to show rather than tell, and Blurred expresses not generalization but oft-overlooked specificity.

The other works in the exhibition offer smaller, more personal epiphanies. In Bluish, 2002, a cerulean I stands surrounded by rosy letters spelling BLUSH, while in Your Eyes Say Yes, 2004, the initial E in the word EYES is rendered in a lighter shade than its neighbors. Rosen sidesteps accusations of creating one-liners by treating language visually, supplementing its normal task of signification to reveal, through the smallest of interventions, an infinitely varied and playful world.

Banks Violette

Banks Violette, untitled, 2005

Banks Violette, untitled, 2005

New Yorkers are uniquely positioned to assess the recent development of Banks Violette’s art. While his star is everywhere on the rise, it is already incandescent in this town, evidenced by his recent omnipresence in group exhibitions and the commission he received from the Whitney for his first-ever solo museum exhibition. The artworks he has exhibited in New York—sculptures, drawings, paintings, and installations comprised of works from more than one of his preferred mediums—have, with amazing consistency and increasingly eloquent concision, probed the fluid borders of the American cultural psyche. Violette understands that fictional worlds—the private, personal fantasies engendered by, for example, adolescent subcultures or obsessive music fandom—can and have pierced the fabric of reality, often horrifically. He works like a cultural forensic pathologist, tracing backward from these punctums—the ritualised murder of a teenage girl in Arroyo Grande, California, in 1995; the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain; a plethora of suicides that have occurred in his hometown of Ithaca, New York—to elucidate the corrosive influences that lead to such denouements. As is pointed out by the curator Shamim Momin in her catalog essay, Violette does this not by offering didactic lessons—’Kids, don’t listen to Nirvana, or else …’—but by accumulating peripheral details from which meaning is accrued. This ‘content’ is wedded to a material repertoire and formal vocabulary redolent of minimalist and postminimalist influences, and a reductive color palette that rarely wavers from black, white, and the gleaming silver of steel.

Violette’s untitled sculptural installation at the Whitney, which consists of the wood-beam framework of a ruined church cast in salt and set upon a low plinth of black epoxy-covered panels, and which is accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Norwegian musician Snorre Ruch, is too large for the first-floor gallery in which it is housed, forcing upon the viewer a constant, somewhat menacing proximity. This adds to the theatricality implied by the plinth’s formal affinities with a typical rock club stage, the black-painted walls, and the dramatic lighting. It is an altogether enveloping environment, implicating even an idle or distracted viewer as a participant in its showiness. The interaction of the soundtrack and its environment metaphorically transubstantiates Ruch’s ninety-eight minutes of ‘white noise,’ which oscillates between a low bass rumble that evokes wind and a blender’s whirl of processed guitars, into ‘the white stuff,’ thereby placing this church in a wintry Norwegian landscape. (And, by extension, into the tradition of Romantic landscape paintings.)

But this is a distinctly dystopian sublime. In the early 1990s, Ruch, the leader of a band called Blackthorn, was party to a series of church burnings and at least one murder allegedly perpetrated by other members of the Black Metal community, most notably Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grisnackh) of the band Burzum; Ruch has only recently been released from jail. An image of the Fantoft church, the first to be burned, in June 1992, appeared on the cover of a Burzum EP titled Aske (Ashes) that was recorded only two months later, in August. This record cover could very well be the loaded image Violette is working from, in a sense extruding the ruin depicted in the photograph into three dimensions.

I can’t help but see this installation as a step away from the trend that most excited me in Violette’s recent works. The move toward total visual abstraction—an arc that can be traced from Twin-Screen (american murder anthem) (2003) to Untitled (Black Screen) (2004) to untitled (disappear) (2004), for example—forced the viewer to embark upon an imaginative reconstruction of events ever more glancingly depicted. The latter work is nothing more than four black epoxy panels fitted together, in a two-by-two arrangement, and supported by a steel framework. It was exhibited opposite anthem (to future suicide) (2004), which consists of five horizontal bars of bright white fluorescent bulbs arranged in decreasing widths as they approach the floor. The formal austerity of these works—a mute onyx mirror and a synthetic sunset—suppresses the ‘content,’ just like the culture at large does, and the tension was palpable, the effect haunting.

By contrast, the Whitney installation seems more like an illustration, a version of ashen and bloody events somewhat sanitised by Violette’s visual translation. Perhaps he felt what the novelist Michael Cunningham, writing in an altogether different context, described as ‘the fundamental human obligation to try to do at least a little more than one is technically able to,’ and attempted to make available to viewers too much information from a source too far removed from our own experience. That Violette has failed, albeit only by the high standards set by his own recent installations, does little to reduce the nobleness of the effort.

Carl Andre, Cuts and Donald Judd, Complete Writings

Published as “Paint by Letters” in the New York Press, June 29 – July 5, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

CUTS: Texts 1959-2004
Carl Andre (ed. James Meyer)
MIT Press, $45, 352 pages

COMPLETE WRITINGS 1959-1975
Donald Judd
Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, $55, 240 pages

“Criticism is pretty much after the fact,” wrote Donald Judd in 1962. “Frank Stella’s paintings are one of the recent facts.” Some time later, Carl Andre wrote, “THEORY IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE / PROPHECY RESHAPES EXPERIENCE / SMITHSON IS A PROPHET.”

This is not simply advocacy work on behalf of friends. In the 60s, as art historian James Meyer points out in the introduction to a newly published collection of Andre’s writings, artists increasingly picked up the pen—to contextualize their work and to refute the claims of an ever-growing cadre of professional critics, whether overly literary or dryly theoretical. They often wrote, paradoxically, to insist on the primacy of the art viewing experience. Foremost among these artist-writers was Judd, who, along with Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, published regularly in monthly art magazines. Andre, though less visible to the public, was no less active as a writer: he frequently contributed to exhibition catalogs, and has created over the last 45 years a vast corpus of taped and written interviews, correspondence, and, above all, poetry.

Meyer has picked his way nimbly across Andre’s “heap of language” (to borrow a phrase from Smithson), producing a handy volume that nestles texts from different decades together, and is arranged, like an encyclopedia, by subject. This emphasizes the consistency (detractors would call it repetition or limitation) of Andre’s concerns. Meyer notes that, “Andre disavowed being a prose writer…he wrote only as much as was needed,” and, “aspire[d] to the epigrammatic.”

Indeed, the prose entries, which range in length from one sentence to several pages, are distinct for their (poetic) compression. His sentences are short and emphatic, often missing the words that serve as connective tissue in more mellifluous writing: in a letter to Sol LeWitt dated 1970, Andre more or less does away with periods altogether, stringing together a series of ideas about the artist’s position in capitalist society with dashes serving as pauses for breath. His style occasionally borders on the harangue—as when he takes shots at Conceptual and performance art—but the refreshing directness of his voice and his occasional (if unintentional) humor mitigate any annoyance.

But it is Andre’s poetry—along with the prose selections offering his thoughts on poetry—that is the highlight of this book. Much of what is included has never before been published. Meyer devotes half of his introduction to this work, highlighting Andre’s emphasis on the particular (the word) over the whole (the sentence), an exegesis that also indirectly illuminates Andre’s sculpture. Both practices—poem-making and object-making—are materialist, in the sense that Andre’s ultimate fidelity to copper, zinc, words, wood, and steel is an attempt to negate all meaning and symbolism; to treat “matter as matter.” His refusal to solder together steel plates or bind words together into sentences is a celebration of what is already there, albeit with the caveat that each of these things is man-made. “I try to discover my visions in the conditions of the world,” he writes. This is best exemplified by the sheets reproduced from Andre’s longhand or typewritten originals. They present either a singular, essential arrangement—with Green (1960), you can’t imagine the words laid out in any other manner—or show Andre cycling methodically through permutations, as in Sol LeWitt (2000).

Judd’s prose shares Andre’s concision—a Carveresque minimalism from two minimalists who disavowed the term as applied to their art—but his collected writings make for a very different book. The majority of this volume is given over to his monthly reviews and previews for Arts magazine, written between 1959 and 1965. These pieces are often declamatory and occasionally hectoring or dismissive, but always worth reading. There is no better written record of contemporary art shown in New York galleries during this period, a fact that makes this collection invaluable even before considering the relationship of these texts to Judd’s art, which is arguably the most important body of sculpture created in the second half of the twentieth century. The book has been out of print for years, and while $55 is too expensive for a paperback with black-and-white reproductions, I’ve seen 1975 first edition copies for sale online for as much as $1,000, so the press is to be commended for bringing these valuable texts back into circulation.

These days it can be argued that market intelligence—the consensus of dealers, curators, and collectors—has supplanted the critical intelligence epitomized by Judd and Andre’s written work, and by the efflorescence of written discourse four decades ago. The near concurrent publication of these two volumes offers a challenge to artists, and critics, working now to rejuvenate that great cultural conversation.

Joan Mitchell

Published on Artforum.com on June 10, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Cheim & Read, 2005

Installation view, Cheim & Read, 2005

The highlight of the Whitney’s intermittently brilliant 2002 Joan Mitchell retrospective was the second gallery, where six paintings from the late ’50s and early ’60s were installed. Each was a cacophonous swirl of oils that you could easily imagine freeing itself from the canvas and surrounding you like a cocoon. This new exhibition, titled “Frémicourt Paintings” after the Parisian street in which Mitchell’s studio was located, presents over a dozen works made between 1960 and 1962 that possess the same vibrancy, urgency, and energy. The paint is applied liberally and with varied means (brushes, palette knives, pours, and fingers). The not-quite-allover compositions often radiate outward, like bursts of fireworks, from a dark mass near the center of the canvas. The net result definitely looks like the work of an American in Paris: Brash first-generation Abstract Expressionism married to the color palette of late Matisse and the scrambled surfaces of Dubuffet or Jean Paul Riopelle, her longtime companion. Mitchell would continue to make extraordinary paintings until the end of her life, but never again with the consistency exemplified by this exhibition.

Mark Lewis

Published in Artforum, May 2005. For more information, visit the artist’s website.

London-based artist Mark Lewis distills complex ruminations—on film as a medium; on the social and economic character of specific places; on the relationship between observer and observed—into deceptively simple films that marry Hollywood’s high-end production values to Andy Warhol’s dazed gaze. These reflexive works—unedited, often silent, and never more than ten minutes long—usually pair an isolated cinematic or technical convention with some sort of outwardly unexceptional activity. In the three 35-mm films (transferred to DVD) in this exhibition (Lewis’s first solo outing in New York), the artist employs a slow zoom, a slower pan, and a static shot, respectively, to document scenes in Toronto and Algonquin Park, in eastern Ontario.

The majority of Algonquin Park: September, 2001, consists of a static view of a grove of evergreens on an island seen across a mist-covered lake. The heroic scale (each projection is approximately ten by fifteen feet), promontory viewpoint, and lack of movement give the work the aura of a Hudson River School canvas. Yet Lewis soon undermines this impression of a static structure by reintroducing film’s inherent temporal dimension: A canoe, propelled by two figures, emerges from the mist and slowly moves from right to left across the water’s surface. Before it reaches the left-hand edge of the frame, the film ends abruptly and the loop begins again. Algonquin Park: Early March, 2002, achieves an even greater sense of destabilization, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our cognitive abilities by pitting the eye against the mind. The film opens with a pure white screen that appears to be the sky, an intuition confirmed by the appearance of two treetops that eventually pierce the bottom edge of the frame. As they push slowly upward, it appears that Lewis is panning downward, until another stand of trees appears from the upper right as if floating in the sky. Finally it becomes clear that the two belong to the same visual field, and we realize that Lewis has not been panning but rather zooming out from a snow-covered patch of frozen lake. The last, blandly pretty shot is of a group of skaters gliding across a rectangular section of ice. Again, almost as soon as we understand what has transpired, the film stops and begins again.

Thus it seems that nothing should be taken for granted in these two pastoral scenes, which is precisely why the seemingly innocuous Off Leash, 2004, is odd to the point of being uncanny. A straight description of the action couldn’t be simpler: The roughly four-minute film depicts people, seen from above through bare tree branches, playing with their dogs in what appears to be the “off-leash” section of a park. But small details belie the apparent realism of what at first appears to be a happened-upon scene. The vantage point seems impossible, the mechanically smooth panning complicates our natural tendency to equate the camera and the human eye, and the fact that no one on screen acknowledges that the camera must be mounted on a crane (they are actors hired by Lewis) introduces an unavoidable staginess. The overall effect is akin to the famous “Hitchcock zoom,” used in Vertigo (1958), wherein the camera’s role in the construction of an image is temporarily made visible. (The tree, acting as a screen through which we view the scene, is an instance of this mediation in the film itself.) Mainstream narrative cinema strives to hide these effects; without sacrificing beauty, Lewis’s absorbing films about film successfully update the critical engagement that characterized ’60s Structuralism and regain some of the wonderment of the Lumière Brothers’ early-twentieth-century vignettes.

Rachel Harrison

Published in Afterall issue 11.

The forward thrust of modernist ambition, which despite many counter- and cross-currents, birthed a more-or-less linear progression of artistic movements during much of the twentieth century — Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism, Conceptual art, Post-Minimalism, to name a few — finally began to give way in the 1990s. (The simultaneity of Pop and Minimalism may have been the first chink in the armour, so to speak.) It may be too soon to analyse fully the pressures that caused these fissures, but at least two will figure in any detailed analysis. For lack of better terms, let’s call them awareness and omnivorousness.

‘Awareness’ is tied to the art world’s slightly belated acknowledgement of the rise of cultural studies that swept through university humanities departments in the late 1970s and 80s. As increasing numbers of non-Western voices were accorded legitimacy, uniform History became multifaceted ‘histories’. By the mid-1990s, when this near-seismic shift hit the art world, its cosmopolitan centres — New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin — began looking farther afield for artistic talent, resulting in major exhibitions of young artists from China, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By 1999 the all-inclusive ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s- 1980s’ toured major museums across the United States. Some observers, wary of exoticism for its own sake, interpret this interest in ‘the periphery’ as, at best, a condescending token gesture, and, at worst, a kind of cultural neo-colonialism. But regardless of one’s opinion of the phenomena, the trend continues: witness ‘Inverted Utopias’ on view last summer at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the inclusion of some of that show’s Latin-American artists in the inaugural collection display at the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art in New York. This geographic expansion of the art world roughly coincided with an upsurge in the art market, an ascension from the ‘crash’ of the early 1990s, that has yet to abate; it now more-or-less ingests omnivorously — i.e. supports — all formal and conceptual strategies. Peter Schjeldahl, writing recently in The New Yorker, sketched the outline of a similar trajectory, describing the current art world as a ‘sluggish mishmash’. (1)

The qualifying word in Schjedahl’s phrase is a point for debate, but ‘mishmash’ is a succinct description of what one sees these days on any trip to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, London’s East End or Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Every artist seems to have a narrow specialty: in an afternoon spent visiting galleries, one might find performance artists who foreground identity politics, painters who stick to a haughty, cool formalism and photographers with a knack for illustrating the complexities of contemporary life. Yet somehow, in this ‘anything goes’ environment, no one knew quite what to make of Rachel Harrison, who in the mid-1990s pinpointed the essence of this promiscuity by taking the wide view. Given the critical response to some of her recent exhibitions, it can be said that some people still don’t know.

In reality, it couldn’t have been simpler: she placed the two greatest legacies of early 1960s art — the moment when the first rumbles of a cracking in the modernist telos were heard — into a dialectical relationship simply by sticking one onto the other. Pop art’s incorporation of photography into other mediums (mostly painting) and the reductive forms of Minimalist sculpture were, and still are, deep veins of gold for artists mining recent art history for inspiration. That she successfully combines the two, and refuses to reduce avenues of interpretation by presenting the resultant combinations didactically, hints at the breadth of Harrison’s inquiry and ambition. To her credit, her forced pairs — Minimalism and Pop Art, sculpture and photography, sculpture and ‘display’, volumetric space and representational space, the handmade and the readymade, form and meaning — coexist without canceling each other out. Neither do they add up to something greater, though her works are often great. They simply are.

There are intellectual rewards to be gleaned from engaging with her sculptures and installations, but the onus for finding them is placed squarely on the viewer; Harrison shows rather than tells. This refusal to identify her strategies can be described as a blank affect, and it subsequently leads to difficulty in untangling the meaning of particular elements in her works. But it is not the same as being uncaring. Her rough-hewn forms made of cast-off wood, pieces of drywall, styrofoam or plaster, often painted over, give off an improvised air that is misleading; each formal gesture is intentional. Likewise, the seeming indiscriminate inclusion of found photographs (often of celebrities) — photographs the artist has taken — kitsch figurines or consumer objects is a false front, as these decisions are equally carefully wrought. Every element in Harrison’s work signifies something, but repeated gestures — affixing photographs to her sculptures, treating the sculpture as a pedestal or display stand — rarely communicate the same thing twice. Her stance is akin to a conversation partner who mostly stays quiet, leaving us to fill the void with babble. Because a viewer must devise meaning from scratch as she approaches each work, looking becomes a constitutive act, and we often end up seeing what we want to see. Continue reading

Jim Lambie

Published on Artforum.com on April 27, 2005. To see the review in context, click here; for more information, click here.

After seeing several Jim Lambie exhibitions conceived as installations—”Paradise Garage” in Venice in 2003, “Mental Oyster” in New York last year—it’s a pleasure to once again be reminded of his proficiency as a sculptor, a maker of oddly enchanting objects. The five discrete works in this small show give us Lambie the nonchalant appropriator and glam formalist. Whether or not the sculptures incorporate direct musical references—Sweet Exorcist (all works 2005), an oversized psychedelic God’s eye, includes a 12″ record at its center—one can’t help but see sonically. He even works like a DJ: The small wooden cubes covered in aluminum tape affixed to the black-tape-covered jeans in Blacktronic are a remix of the mirror shards decorating handbags and pleather pants at Anton Kern last year. Split Endz (wig mix) is a Swiss cheese minimalist cube painted pink; the glittering belts that festoon the holes excised from its upper reaches could have been taken from the Friday night visitors to the local discotheque. The mirrors and glitter and the colorful paint (applied liberally) make the case for Lambie as a Kandinsky (or synesthete Nabokov) for the DJ-and-mash-up generation.

Rob Fischer

Published on Artforum.com on February 25, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

In his first solo show with this gallery, Minnesota native Rob Fischer presents wonderful sculptures, pretty good painted photographs, and just-OK paintings that all up the ante on his peculiar blend of high plains anomie and rural ecology. He combines the whiteout alienation of Fargo with the psychological dislocation of Bruce Nauman’s early corridor sculptures. Fischer calls his version of those freestanding drywall pressure chambers “chapters,” and they are simultaneously linked and bisected (at head height) by a copper pipe carrying the water that feeds the “cultivated swamp” of Summery (Goodyear Ecology), 2004–05. The “rural ecology” comes to the fore not only in the tall grasses that accompany that work’s non-site tire-track transposition or Greenhouse No. 4 (Repetitive Cycles), 2004-05, but also in his predilection for recycling. Tucked into the corner of the room is Abstract Sculpture, 2004-05, which contains elements of the large glass-walled dumpster he exhibited at last year’s Whitney Biennial; near the front door is an upended, hand-made dumpster that, last summer, was similarly lined in glass and sat, diagonally, at Mary Goldman Gallery in Los Angeles. Now, rusty and fitted with mirrors, it greets viewers with fragmented pictures of themselves and is the proscenium arch through which you must pass to enter Fischer’s world, which is at once entropic and creatively regenerative.

Diary entry: “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition”

Published as “Red Alert” on Artforum.com on February 3, 2005. To see the diary entry in context, click here.

BERLIN—”We are here to view an art exhibition. We are here for art, not politics,” Klaus Biesenbach said emphatically during his opening remarks at last Friday’s private reception for “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition,” the new show at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW). Featuring over fifty artists, “Regarding Terror” bestirs the ghosts of the Red Army Faction, the group of Marxist-Maoist terrorists who hoped to destabilize the West German government and kick off the revolution via a series of targeted arsons, kidnappings, bombings, and shootings that began in 1968 and crescendoed in the ’70s. Given that the RAF is as politically loaded a subject as you could think of, and that the debates surrounding the show turn precisely on the difficulties of drawing the line between art and politics, Biesenbach’s claim seemed wishful at best—particularly since the next speaker to take the floor was former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, not exactly a regular on the Berlin openings circuit. Decrying what he sees as the German citizenry’s unwillingness to confront thorny social issues, Baum, at any rate, seemed to have politics very much on his mind.

“Regarding Terror”—organized by former KW director Biesenbach, KW curator Ellen Blumenstein, and Felix Ensslin, a playwright and son of RAF member Gudrun Ensslin—was three years in the making. It was originally slated to open in November 2003 but was delayed when an early exhibition proposal leaked out to the press the previous summer, causing an outcry about “legitimizing” and “aestheticizing” terrorism. RAF victims’ families sent an open letter of protest to the government, and wide public support sprang up around the idea that the show should not receive federal funding unless the curators promised to heed the families’ concerns and plan their presentation accordingly. Rather than accept federal support—and the conditions that were sure to come with it—the curators returned almost half of their initial grant and proceeded to fund “Regarding Terror” with private money, most of it raised through an eleventh-hour eBay art auction. This rudimentary outline occludes many of the details of the curators’ grueling struggle to ensure that the spotlight focused on the exhibition instead of the minefield of RAF historiography, the politics of show planning, or Ensslin’s personal connection to the subject matter. As Ensslin said to me, the curators had to walk a fine line: “We were attacked from the left for being too statist and from the right for glorifying terror.”

On Thursday, Blumenstein and Ensslin toured the show with successive waves of journalists both German and foreign; feuilletons (including a caustic essay in Die Zeit by RAF member Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl, who noted that “like the three letters S-E-X. . . R-A-F sells.”) were published in every major media outlet; and all week even taxi drivers offered up opinions on the proceedings: One artist told me that her cabbie, noticing her copy of the exhibition catalog, launched into a rant about how Andreas Baader was a good-for-nothing kid who would not have turned to terrorism if he wasn’t so “bored.”

The exhibition somehow manages to hold its own in the midst of this fray—it comes across as neither explicitly didactic nor too aestheticized. This balance is achieved in part because the works—by a group of artists including Beuys, Kippenberger, Richter, and Polke as well as members of a younger generation like Michaela Miese and Johannes Wohnseifer—focus on media representations of the RAF. Thus the terms of the debate are subtly shifted from the group itself to what a wall text calls its “media echo.” (This will inevitably be used as a criticism; almost without exception, the brownish-yellow of faded newspapers and the black-and-white of news photos predominate.) The RAF was savvy about self-presentation, and it is difficult to overestimate the power of their polarizing presence in the ’70s. One visitor at the private view, a music critic pursuing a doctorate on the subject of mourning, said, “For any German between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-nine, the most prominent images from childhood are those of the RAF.” Another recalled seeing “Wanted” posters featuring members of the gang in every post office when he was growing up. The weight of history is palpable in the exhibition, which sprawls through the entire museum and into a nearby church. Several younger artists admitted to being intimidated by the context and unsure as to whether their creations would pass muster as ruminations on a subject that has launched dozens of dissertations and documentaries.

That the opening coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz only added to the gravity of the proceedings. So many people showed up for the Saturday-night opening that they had to close the doors to the museum for a while and the police arrived to control the crowd. But for the most part the receptions were not boisterous affairs, mostly taking place in an apartment on the museum’s premises and attended by a mix of artists, curators, journalists, politicians, and historians. All the members of this diverse crowd seemed eager to espouse their own theories about the RAF, the controversy surrounding the show, and the place of both in the German imagination. One Berlin gallery director summed up a common sentiment, expressing doubt about the quality of art chosen primarily for its subject matter but emphasizing the show’s importance and her need to visit multiple times in order to fully absorb it. As Ensslin said one night at dinner, “I don’t know how this show will affect the discourse surrounding the RAF. My only hope is that it does, and that people take into account these artistic positions in the future.” Since the media attention is unlikely to die down soon—the museum is still fielding daily calls from television producers and magazine editors—it is safe to say that his wish will be granted.

Louise Lawler

Published in Untitled Magazine.

Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Louise Lawler would be the first to admit that an exhibition of her work is a product of forces beyond her control. For twenty-five years, most often with the aid of a camera, she has demonstrated that an artwork on the wall in front of a viewer—hers included—is a nodal point in a dense network of social and financial coordinates. With a matter-of-fact tone, Lawler’s editorial slant (to use Robert Storr’s phrase) has illuminated the tendrils of that network as they reach outward from art objects across both time and space. This is perhaps why her exhibitions have often been installations—’Arrangements of Pictures,’ as she terms them—that lay bare the contingencies of an artwork’s ‘uniqueness’ and the authorial stamp that deems it so. ‘Looking Forward,’ Lawler’s first solo exhibition since her appropriately titled mid-career survey ‘Louise Lawler and Others,’ held this summer at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, comprises many of her trademark gestures: the photographs depict other artworks in contexts unfamiliar to a casual art viewer (being handled, in transit, behind closed doors); multiple prints from a given photographic edition are on view simultaneously; the arrangement is not uniform (some works hang close to the floor while, elsewhere, spot-lit expanses of wall were devoid of their pictures). These signals, along with Lawler’s noted self-effacement and occasionally disarming sense of humor, can make it difficult for viewers and critics to see beyond the well-rehearsed tropes, mostly intellectual, that surround her work: that it is an act of ‘institutional critique,’ that it illustrates Walter Benjamin’s maxim about the loss of an artwork’s aura in an age of mechanical reproduction, that Lawler in effect exercises the powers of the collector in her meticulous acquisition of images of collections.

The photographs, shot on location at the ArtBasel and ArtBasel Miami Beach art fairs, the Museum of Modern Art, Christie’s auction house, and elsewhere, work admirably as transmitters of this intellectual content. But something comes through on a different wavelength in this exhibition, a parallel signal that, in harmony with the cerebral meaning of her pictures, amplifies what Lawler calls the ‘poignancy’ of her images. Several of the photographs in the two larger galleries feature artworks that depict bodies; in the flux of transition, those bodies experience upheaval or are torn asunder. Take, for instance, down (2002/2004), which portrays the mannequin used in John Millers’ sculpture Mannequin Love (2002) lying in pieces amid bubble wrap on the floor; Nude (2002/2003), which features Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966) lying unceremoniously on its side during the de-installation of the painter’s MoMA retrospective; and 2 Heads (2004), which shows Richter’s Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (1971) seen from the side in a packing crate, minus their pedestals. Lawler outlines for us how the artworks lose their aura in another way, as a kind of violence (rooted in neglect) is visited upon them when not on display. As impassive as her eye may be, it’s hard not to imagine that Lawler laments the loss. This thread is most complicated and explicit in Big (2002/2003), a photograph of Maurizio Cattelan’s caricature sculpture of Picasso lying decapitated on the floor of an art fair booth; behind it, on the wall, is a Thomas Struth photograph of museum visitors admiring a classical statue, also headless. Lawler’s mastery of form comes into play: the decapitated body stretches from the left edge of the frame, as if Lawler’s crop had sliced off its head, while the audience viewing her photograph ostensibly becomes a mirror image of the one in the Struth picture. The photograph implicates all of us—Lawler included—in the confluence of events that led to the scene her lens found.

In this view, the austerity of Lawler’s vision becomes a kind of defense mechanism, as the work’s conceptual and formal rigor offsets a latent emotional content. As Jack Bankowsky asks in a recent essay, aptly playing on two of the artist’s titles: Does Louise Lawler make you cry? It is possible to retroactively apply this contrapuntal reading to Lawler’s output, bringing forth a richer understanding of her practice. It may have taken two decades and a survey exhibition, but, having caught up to Lawler, we are all now ‘Looking Forward’ at what is to come.

Spencer Finch

Published on Artforum.com on October 27, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Spencer Finch has pursued the boundaries of perception doggedly and imaginatively for the better part of a decade, and his longstanding interest in transposition (often involving installations in which he recreates the qualities of natural light found at a culturally or historically charged site) is paired in this show with examples of text-to-image translation. Without downplaying his emphasis on bright light and brighter color, Finch predicates several works here on an eclectic group of texts: an excerpt from Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a passage from Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, a 16th-century proto-haiku by Arakida Moritake, and a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. He applies Nabokov’s synesthetic theory of the alphabet to a section of Heisenberg’s tract, representing it in a thirty-six-panel mural-scale rainbow of watercolor dots, each corresponding to a particular letter. Stare for too long and the splotches dilate, approximating the look of the ten watercolors, hung on the opposite wall, that Finch made by copying images of butterflies glimpsed via his peripheral vision. (Nabokov was a lepidopterist as well as a synaesthete.) Finch uses photography only rarely, but the best work in the show is an unassuming series of seven small pictures, taken from the same vantage point seven minutes apart, cataloging a windowpane’s shift from transparency (the landscape outside) to reflective opacity (a simple interior) at dusk.

David Wojnarowicz

Published on Artforum.com on October 25, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Like the two slim poetry volumes Rimbaud published by age 20, David Wojnarowicz’s “Rimbaud in New York” photos, shot in his early twenties, are a fully realized aesthetic statement. The forty-four small black-and-white photographs in this show (accompanied by a selection of the artist’s journals) depict an anonymous young man outfitted with a simple paper mask bearing the visage of Arthur Rimbaud, adrift in a New York no longer extant. Mostly alone, he wanders through derelict buildings, the Meatpacking District, the subway, and other liminal sites. In some ways, the photos, shot during 1978 and 1979 and first exhibited in 1990, could be considered the inverse of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977-80. Whereas Sherman constructed elaborate scenarios but rarely masked her face—we almost always know it’s her—Wojnarowicz fully obscures his protagonist’s identity. To this day, we do not know if the artist is the (or is the only) flâneur depicted. Likewise the cinematic, imaginary space Sherman conjured counters the peripheral yet nonetheless very real locations (Hudson River piers, Coney Island) portrayed in Wojnarowicz’s pictures. Perhaps inevitably, time has added a filmic sheen to the drugs, sex, and graffiti of the rough-and-tumble 1970s New York seen here. For a fuller understanding of the era as Wojnarowicz saw it, an exhibition of his later works incorporating text is on view at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea through November 13.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy

Published in the catalogue accompanying the short-lived exhibition “Terminal Five.” To read more about the exhibition, click here and here.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Every Anvil (detail), 2001

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Every Anvil (detail), 2001

From a billboard detergent advertisement to the weather forecast on the morning radio, from the menu at a favorite restaurant to snippets of conversation overheard in line at the DMV, we constantly process, sort, and decide how to store information. Archives are necessarily formed—all the weather forecasts in the past week, for example—and, in real time, we splice bits of them together to form private narratives that give shape to experience. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, collaborators since 1996 and based in Brooklyn, have for the past eight years often used digital technology as a proxy for this process, exploring concepts of narrative, repetition, archiving, the database, and the influence of media in our everyday lives. The technology they deploy—in obsessively edited videos, on websites, in live events, or in sculptural installations—with its underlying code of ones and zeros, is a metaphor for our mental systems of classification. Wisely the McCoys use it as a means rather than an end. Without becoming didactic or losing visual appeal, their art perceptively exposes the strict organization by which we cope with a glut of information.

Soft Rains (2003), exhibited at FACT, Liverpool, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao, and at Postmasters Gallery in New York, treads on our mental library of cinematic images by using digital technology to stitch together hackneyed narratives lifted from countless genre flicks. Seven tabletop sculptures on pedestals of varying height, each a miniature film set made by hand and populated with figures ordered from a German model railroad manufacturer, become settings we have little trouble recognizing: there’s the David Lynch chilller and James Bond thriller, a Fellini classic, a noirish lounge scene, and an artsy indie film featuring a warehouse loft-slash-studio. Our omniscient eye peers down at these lifeless scenes through a phalanx of small video cameras and lights on flexible metal arms, each precisely pointed to a specific part of the (non-)action. An earlier exhibition of some of this work had a working title of “Robot Films,” and indeed the McCoys cede the directorial “Action!” and “Cut!” to a computer, which in real-time feeds the cameras’ motionless views through a program that composes an endlessly reorganizing “film” made of roughly minute-long fragments, each containing six to ten shots. The slivers of would-be narrative, aided by a score partly taken from actual films and partly composed for the work, lose none of their cinematic magic from this concession. Instead, despite presenting the mechanics of creation (the sculptural film sets and their attendant cameras) and the product (the resultant “film”) in the same place, Soft Rains encourages a double suspension of disbelief that leaves the viewer to focus on either the deft craftsmanship of the former or the emotional tug of the latter.

The McCoys’ use of live video can be seen as a nod to the pervasive use of the medium by artists in the late 1960s, when it often was accompanied by a performative element. In Soft Rains, it is the viewer that engages in a kind of performance, willingly bridging (in both directions) the distance between the temporal, two-dimensional presentation of the filmic image on screen and the static, three-dimensional presentation of the tabletop sculptures. Another way to put it is that viewers can enjoy trying to pair the on-screen scenes with the cameras from which they come.

The construction of quasi-narrative in Soft Rains is a clever foil to the deconstruction of the artists’ “Every” series (2001-2002). Working with images from the 1970s TV show Starsky and Hutch, episodes of the original Star Trek series,1940s- and 1950s-era Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, movies set in Las Vegas, and 1970s East-meets-West style Kung Fu films, the McCoys create classification systems for narrative material. They reorganize the linear progression of already-produced narrative into the atemporal spread of databases. For example, Every Anvil (2001) creates a taxonomy of cartoon violence: the artists sorted through hours of early Looney Tunes footage and meticulously re-arranged it by type. The work takes the form of an open suitcase hanging on the wall with a small video monitor and a VideoCD player set inside. Nearby is a shelf loaded with CD’s containing the results of their effort, labeled “EVERY HAMMER AND HATCHET,” “EVERY MEAN DOG,” “EVERY POISONING,” and so on. The viewer is encouraged to play a CD at random, and each contains nothing more than a cascade of clips showing whatever the label describes.

Every Shot, Every Episode (2001), the first in the series and which takes the same physical form, slices the twenty episodes of Starsky and Hutch aired between 1975 and 1977 into over 10,000 individual shots spread across almost 300 CD’s. The categories are looser, ranging across visual cues, individual characters, or plot twists (“EVERY ZOOM IN,” “EVERY YELLOW VOLKSWAGEN,” “EVERY BLUE,” “EVERY MOAN OF PAIN”), but the result is the same: the predictable plot mechanisms (rising action, climax, denouement) are dismantled and the connections between events are made obscure. The process unveils the clichés and repetition inherent in their formulaic sources: Wile E. Coyote will never catch the Road Runner, Starsky and Hutch will always bust the bad guys. The artists write that the material they use “employ[s] formulas or archetypes of human behavior…and constitute many of our earliest experiences with narrative.” The heart of these works is their turning that narrative into list or database form.

What that reveals, in the case of Every Anvil, was succinctly outlined by the writer Jim Supanick: “The dogged persistence in facing falling safes, every stick of dynamite, every anvil…the slapstick quality that kids tap into shows itself as Sisyphean repetition to the adult viewers who make the mistake of looking too closely…[reminding] us of the masochism ingrained in our own everyday lives.” Every Shot, Every Episode may be a bit more benign, given our distanced, ironic appreciation of the source material, but the conceptual (and literal) shake-up is a potent way of reimagining the overly familiar. As Jennifer puts it: “It’s a strategy for looking at narrative in a different way. Maybe more from the point of view of the maker or the production process rather than the spectator.”

The McCoys’ extensive involvement with reorganizing available footage led naturally to a desire for more active re-creation. For The Kiss and Horror Chase (both 2002), the artists, instead of working with the original material, completely restaged scenes from Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, respectively. The artists leave their place as editors to temporarily become both spectators—Body Heat and Evil Dead 2 are among their favorite films—and directors. Horror Chase, filmed on a Brooklyn soundstage inside a 1,000 square foot set constructed by the artists, is a one-shot horror picture. The camera stalks actor Adrian Latourelle (playing the Bruce Campbell role in the original film), who runs in fear down a hallway and into a bedroom, crashes through a door into a living room, runs past the kitchen into a bathroom and then a closet, dashes down a mist-filled hallway, and finally ends up back in the kitchen. The camera winds up exactly where it began, making for a forty-five second seamless loop that, in the final artwork, is manipulated to run fast, slow, and backwards according to a computer algorithm that randomizes its playback. Rather than working with the entire film, the McCoys show the chase scene—in this case the actor is trying to avoid an evil force that eventually possesses him—as the essence of the horror genre. The Kiss is an endless prolongation of the climactic moment in every romance film (though specifically taken from Body Heat), seen again through a computer program from random angles and at random speeds. Both films expand the issues raised by the “Every” works: as Timothy Druckrey writes, “In differentiating the original and its perverse double, the production takes the flash-back into the realm of the fetishistic…[it] is a kind of classic in limbo—part re-creation, part parody, part hijack, part homage.”

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, still from Horror Chase, 2002

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, still from Horror Chase, 2002

The same descriptors can be applied to Soft Rains and especially Our Second Date (2004), which again adds a personal variation to the proceedings. The work is another tabletop sculpture attended to by robotic cameras, but this time it recreates on one platform both the set (taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend) and the screen (the Parisian movie theater the artists visited to watch that film on their second date.) Soft Rains collapses the space of film—its creation and reception—into one room; Our Second Date reduces it even further. Like the steel suitcases that contain Every Anvil or Every Shot, Every Episode, the interplay of creation, transmission, and reception in Our Second Date reveals a world every bit as rich and complex as our own.

Mark Handforth

Published in the catalogue accompanying the short-lived exhibition “Terminal Five.” To read more about the exhibition, click here and here.

Mark Handforth, installation view, 2004 Whitney Biennial

Mark Handforth, installation view, 2004 Whitney Biennial

Mark Handforth possesses the increasingly rare ability to make sculptures that engage the eye, the body, and the mind. With an incisive wit and visual sophistication, the Miami-based artist pairs the handmade with appropriated everyday objects, making subtle alternations and juxtapositions to reference modernist design, Minimalist sculpture, street subcultures, and roadside Americana. To great effect, Handforth plays representation against abstraction, the rough against the refined, and art history against itself. He frequently exhibits multiple works at once, making installations of casual associativeness that, as 2004 Whitney Biennial curator Debra Singer notes, “suggest a constant state of flux—a process of being rearranged, constructed, and dismantled all at once.” This was literally true of earlier works, such as Not from where I’m standing, exhibited at the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996. That installation comprised a tower of industrial scaffolding that acted as a screen on which an ever-changing array of objects were installed or hung. More recently, that sense of flux occurs in the mind, as the viewer becomes progressively more cognizant of the multiple quotations implanted in each work. However, it is no small feat that, unlike Simon Starling, whose highly conceptual work inevitably requires careful explication, Handforth never loses sight of the value of aesthetic pleasure. He delights in a narrow range of materials—exotic woods, industrially fabricated metals, fluorescent lights covered by colored gels, multicolored candles—that are deployed to very specific effect. The result is an art that, as Singer writes, is “equal parts suburban alienation and modernist transcendence.”

Given Handforth’s consistent engagement with Minimalist sculpture—no matter that only some of his works resemble Minimalist objects—it can be rewarding to examine part of his oeuvre through the dominant lens by which that earlier generation was viewed: phenomenology. A recent Artforum article by art historian James Meyer posits that for many contemporary sculptors a relationship to the spectacularly sized gallery space has replaced a direct engagement with the viewer’s body. At the tail end of a half-century genealogy of this transition, Meyer cites Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses and the sculptors who have filled Tate Modern’s grand Turbine Hall as artists for whom “…an aesthetic of size…has subsumed a Minimalist concept of scale.” Yet Handforth’s art is an exception to this trend, with many of his works splitting the difference between the two poles while falling outside of Meyer’s chronological spectrum. As physical objects, Miami Kiosk (1998) and DiamondBrite (2004) can be placed somewhere between the somatic works of Sol LeWitt, Walter De Maria, and others in Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in 1966 and the oversized sculptures by Tony Smith, Ronald Bladen, and Barnett Newman in Scale as Content at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1967: they’re big enough to seem awkwardly stuffed into the gallery space yet not so large as to fully alienate a viewing body. (In fact, the exact opposite of alienation occasionally happens: one widely circulated picture of Miami Kiosk features children playing on top of it.) It is conceivable that Handforth really performed a David-versus-Goliath showdown with the highway sign—just as fellow Biennial artist Wade Guyton wrestled with Marcel Breuer chairs—to make DiamondBrite, generating its torqued form by hand. Handforth’s objects privilege neither viewer nor gallery space, thereby completing the Minimalist task of making the viewer physically aware not only of the object, but the space in which it resides.

Yet Handforth slyly embeds too many quotations in his works for us to rely on formal analysis alone. He draws from high and low sources: the graceful curves of Freebird (2000) call to mind Alexander Calder’s mobiles, but the title comes from Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band from the artist’s adopted home of Florida. Likewise the sculpture is made from the streetlamps found all across the country, but the artist’s longstanding interest in modernist interior design connects this work to Achille Castiglioni’s canonic 1962 Arco Floor Lamp (itself a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection). Even the simplest of Handforth’s objects, arrangements of fluorescent tubes distributed across a wall, open an arena of complicated interpretation. Perhaps more than any other modern artist, Dan Flavin laid singular and lasting claim to his chosen medium, and it takes bravura to rush into this hallowed territory. Even more so considering the decorative end to which Handforth has deployed the material: one work presented the Union Jack across a gallery wall and several others Jesus’ cross. Representation, however frought with its own meaning, is slipped into the work. (Another way to put it: he takes representation off the cross on which modernist abstraction had tried to nail it.) Handforth brings Flavin’s ephemeral transcendence (and his latent, secular spirituality) back to Earth: the enlightening glow of an expansive empire, represented by its flag, and Jesus’ beatific, radiant presence are invoked by humble, commercially available materials.

Lest we picture the artist solely as a postmodern ironist, Handforth also notes that fluorescent tubes provide a lovely, mood-setting light, and it’s worth noting a romantic thread that runs through his practice. Its most succinct embodiment came in the form of a public artwork in Basel, Switzerland, for which the artist found graffiti and duplicated it in blue neon beneath a bridge: Claudia I love you kind of; 11:25pm. A humble turn on Jenny Holzer’s gnomic pronouncements, the sculpture, perhaps as fragile as the original message was transitory, reflected frustrations of the heart in the churning waters. Another work, exhibited in the courtyard of Galleria Franco Noero in Turin, outfitted a Vespa scooter with nozzles that emitted a fine, cooling film of water. The scooter’s headlights, left on, created rainbows in the surrounding air. The artwork references the omnipresence of the scooters on Turin’s streets as well as the final scene in the Who’s Quadrophenia (1979), which features the teenage lead apparently driving toward suicide on the foggy seaside cliffs near Brighton. As the critic Tim Griffin notes, “Handforth’s sculpture is romantic but never quite leaves reality behind, laden as it is with sociological content.” Another Vespa is one of many objects—among them a parking meter, fire hydrant, and a length of pipe (dedicated to the artist Jack Smith)—that Handforth has covered in wax devotional candles. They drip a spectrum of color, making concrete the accretion of time and suggesting that Handforth prays at an altar dedicated to beauty found in the everyday.

Mark Handforth, Vespa, 2001

Mark Handforth, Vespa, 2001

The site-specificity of the Turin Vespa was again evident in Lamppost (2003), a sculpture commissioned by the Public Art Fund for Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park. A forty-five foot long industrial streetlight, it is bent in two places and laid awkwardly on the ground, its yellow sodium bulbs replaced by red lamps. The work updates Claes Oldenburg’s public proposal sensibility without seeming as much of an intervention: Lamppost countered the muteness of other modernist public sculpture, retaining its functionality by lighting the plaza at night with an amber glow.

Handforth’s reappropriations betray an interest in the failures and creative reuses of other artists’ grand gestures. He delights in the public outcry over a Carl Andre sculpture made of 120 bricks and tells the story of a Richard Serra sculpture sited publicly in London that, comprising four massive slabs leaning one on another, has a center closed off to public eyes: its interior space has become an outhouse for the city’s transients. Coming from Handforth, the tale has an insouciance that adds frisson to his own art. To quote Griffin: “Handforth looks for ‘sculpture’ that already exists amid the cultural wreckage,” and he’s smart enough to know that his art may meet the same fate. (An acknowledgement through which the Romantic can once again slip in.) Handforth writes: “At the end of it, all you have is a work and what that work does, where it sits in the world, and what is ultimately … affected by it and through it…. [My objects] exist in the world on the world’s terms.”

Helen Mirra

Published in Untitled Magazine. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

Helen Mirra, Third clover, Third acorn, Third smoldering, Third gap, Grounded third, all works 2003

Helen Mirra, Third clover, Third acorn, Third smoldering, Third gap, Grounded third, all works 2003

Over the last five years, Chicago-based artist Helen Mirra has established herself as one of the foremost practitioners of what Benjamin Buchloch once called “dense minimalism.” Her art is in synch with the formal qualities of 1960s Minimalist forebears yet inverts the ‘muteness’ of those artists’ works—with their resolute push of meaning outward onto the environment and viewer—by her use of materials and processes which load each of her objects with internal value. Mirra imbues her forms with notions of handicraft and labor, landscape, the body, and language; what results are restrained, formally elegant, and highly allusive fabric sculptures, drawings, text works, and films. They reward extended deliberation by acting as a prism through which to comprehend abstract concepts and disparate inferences. Skywreck (2001) is a telling example: it is an unfolded polyhedral form, with 110 triangular patches of fabric laid on the floor, each richly hand-dyed with indigo ink. The work folds together references to Dr. Bonner (inventor of the eponymous soap) and Paul Celan, R. Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion maps and geodesic domes, and Carl Andre’s sculpture Mons Veneris (1975). Occasionally the complexity (or obscurity) of her allusion is too tough a nut to crack, as in the abstruse philosophical references—here rendered in two languages as disjointed concrete poetry—of her recent typewriter ink-on-cotton works, but for the most part Mirra ably weds form and content. Her spare works are suffused with but not weighted down by their symbolic meaning.

For her first solo exhibition in New York since a 2002 Whitney Museum installation, Mirra reinterpreted 65 Instants, an artwork that debuted this past winter at the Berkeley Art Museum. At that museum, sixty-five wooden planks made of reclaimed shipping pallets—each cut to the length from Mirra’s elbow to fingertip and to the width of her hand, then laboriously painted varying shades of green-gray with milk paint—were arranged in an unbroken row around the gallery walls. The uniform arrangement, which called to mind the horizon line between sea and sky not far from the site of the exhibition, suppressed concerns with the presentation and instead allowed for other aspects of the work—notably process and material—to resonate. The title 65 Instants refers to a Buddhist concept of time wherein sixty-five instants (only discernable through heightened attentiveness) occur every moment. Mirra’s symbiotically monastic, laborious process was symbolically significant: she extended those instants, making one work a day for just over two months, thereby turning her studio practice into a semi-sacred ritual. Nature’s imperfections, time’s markings, and the inability of human hands to exactly recreate their own gestures lead to a pleasurable variation from work to work. The planks ranged within a narrow palette of greens and grays; the putty that filled holes and cracks was in different locations on each; the wood’s grain ran in different directions; and the natural warp of each pallet gave each a slightly different relationship to the wall.

Reconfiguring the installation and placing it in another context necessarily altered part of the work’s meaning. Not all sixty-five planks were shown in New York, breaking the evenness of the West Coast presentation; here, individual planks and groups were spread around the room, interspersed with horizontally oriented thin cotton strips dyed with watercolor and imprinted with typewritten words. The proximity to her language works highlighted another aspect of 65 Instants. Almost all of the planks have a two-word title, ‘third’ being one of them (a reference to Pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce’s concept of ‘thirdness’, analogous to the Buddhist concept of the middle way). Strung together, titles like Third clover, Third acorn, Third smoldering, Third gap, Grounded third (2003) or Marsh, Sentient third, Beneficial third, Relational third, Non-thought third (2003) have an incantatory repetitiveness. On the wall, the horizontal space between each plank assumes importance—not unlike the vertical space between units of a Donald Judd stack or the pause for breath in speech—and the staccato placement read as a visual Morse code. A third type of work, a small rectangle of knitted undyed wool approximately the same size as the planks and laid on a ledge between two windows in the gallery, connected this exhibition to the fabric pieces that thread through her career. Yet it seemed unnecessary given the conceptual rigor of her new project. In light of Mirra’s repeated use of specific materials from one exhibition to the next—a bench the artist installed at the Whitney two years ago was made of wooden pallets—perhaps it is less anomalous than harbinger of what is to come.

Christine Hill

Published in issue one of Work magazine, fall 2004.

It’s by design that Brooklyn-based Christine Hill is seated behind a desk in the accompanying photo. An unusual theme among contemporary artists, “work” is both subject and object of Hill’s multifaceted practice. Over the past dozen years, she has assumed the role of receptionist, shopkeeper, rock star, street cleaner, lecturer, tour guide, television talk show host, and—all along the way—archivist, pursuing a defiantly individualist path through an art world that hasn’t always known what to make of her.

Since 1996, Hill’s efforts have taken place under the rubric of Volksboutique, which started in East Berlin as a secondhand shop-slash-social space and now operates as an “organizational venture,” incorporated in Germany and New York State. What unites these disparate activities, along with the Volksboutique name, is a disciplined, self-sufficient, and hands-on approach: the artist is involved in all aspects of her productions, no matter the scale. She is a rigorous organizer, assiduous recycler, and unfaltering performer. She is also meticulous about aesthetics, and has developed a mix of 1950s American corporate optimism (“Make the most of what you’ve got!” reads one poster) and 1970s East German industrial functionality, both curiously filtered through a DIY sensibility whose implements include lots of rubber stamps and antiquated machinery.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, conceptual artists dematerialized the art object—to borrow the phrase coined by Lucy Lippard, who has also written about Hill—and Volksboutique is a significant furthering of that investigation, wherein the “work” is not only a noun (the object), but also a verb (the act of making). For Hill, the two are as inseparable as “life” and “art,” and gallery visitors will almost invariably find Hill working full-time in her exhibition spaces, preparing for her next project while the current one is on view. Such was the case with “Home Office,” her autumn 2003 solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. The central objects of the exhibition were Portable Office Prototypes: a collection of five custom-designed faux-antique steamer trunks, each outfitted with the accoutrements necessary for Hill to execute different tasks (reception, accounting, public relations, production, and management) in her one-woman enterprise. Appropriate outfits, desk accessories, and nametags accompanied each persona. She conducted business in the front room while exhibition documentation and an array of models for future projects filled the other. My first meeting with the artist (as Christine E. Hill, office manager) was at this desk; appropriately, I had an appointment.

Santiago Cucullu

Published in a brochure accompanying the artist’s solo exhibition in the Hammer Projects series at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. For more information and images, click here.

Installation view, Hammer Museum, 2004

Installation view, Hammer Museum, 2004

Milwaukee-based Argentinean artist Santiago Cucullu chooses historically marginalized figures and events (often from his homeland’s anarchist movement) as the subject of his works, which include large wall drawings made of contact paper, watercolors, and sculptures. Cucullu’s references to figures such as anarchist and pamphlet printer Severino di Giovanni, Giovanni’s compatriots Alejandro and Paulino Scarfo, their Spanish forefather Fermin Salvochea, and the historian Osvaldo Bayer inflect a typical chronology of revolutionary fervor and protest, usually traced in straight lines from France, Russia, and Italy to the United States and back to Europe. Similar to the southward glance of “Beyond Geometry”—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition dedicated to reductive modernist art—which brought South American Concrete Art, Argentine Arte Madí, and Brazilian Neo-Concretism into dialogue with contemporaneous North American and European art movements, Cucullu performs a resuscitation. The artist marries biographical details from these largely forgotten lives with places and people recollected from his own, creating composite visual storyboards that mix references to high and low culture, range across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and freely jumble the contemporary with the historical.

Cucullu’s mural-scale drawing for the Hammer Museum is perhaps his most ambitious and freewheeling contact paper work to date. Its source imagery is almost comically disparate: some comes from the archives of the Federación Libertaria de Argentina (FLA), an anarchist library in Buenos Aires; other parts reference a drawing the artist made while in school (and subsequently lost) that depicted a pair of Doc Martens with the imagined name Dusty Springfield Rhoades written across the top; and other fragments allude to Dusty Rhoades, a real-life reporter from Springfield, Illinois, whose name the artist came across coincidentally while listening to a radio report about a police officer dismissed from her force. Cucullu presents everything as a tangle of images on a nearly flat picture plane, which can lead almost to the point of visual abstraction—making it hard to see the trees for the forest, so to speak—but also calls to mind pre-Renaissance religious paintings, which often set down multiple narratives in a single space on a single canvas. Continuing the analogy, Cucullu’s multiple works rendering scenes from the life of Severino di Giovanni, who died in a shootout with police in Buenos Aires on February 1, 1931, can be viewed as a secular rendering of the Stations of the Cross. Inasmuch as Cucullu’s mostly forgotten events and minor characters, in being rescued from the dustbin of history, are elevated to the point of being inscribed directly onto the walls of our institutions dedicated to preserving culture, we might even link his art to the tradition of history painting, substituting police shootouts for extravagant feasts and grand battles.

In a contemporary reading, a viewer can look at the nonhierarchical relationship among segments of Cucullu’s murals as analogous to the equality of anarchist utopian vision, or as representations of the disarmingly random way in which we come across pockets of information in everyday life. And while not quite random, Cucullu’s artistic process definitely incorporates an element of chance. Drawing on pictures from an archive organized by an idiosyncratic system of narrative association, he rarely knows how the finished artwork will look when he begins affixing the contact paper to the wall. (An act that itself mimics the protestor’s wheat-pasting of propaganda posters around the city.) His material—no different from what you’d find in a hardware store and use to line the kitchen cabinets or a set of shelves—comes in a limited range of colors. He arranges a random and roughly geometric pattern of swatches on the wall before outlining and coloring in the negative space of his image in white; the whitened segments are then excised with an X-acto knife, leaving an elegantly composed multicolored cutout ready to be glued to the gallery wall. This process splits the difference between Arturo Herrera, a New York-based artist whose poster cutouts have graceful curves and random colors derived from found material, and Richard Wright, a Glasgow-based artist who almost exclusively paints abstract patterns directly onto the wall. Cucullu nonetheless maintains an improvisational freedom that Herrera and Wright don’t allow themselves, sometimes capriciously combining more than a dozen individual images to create a single artwork. His compositional choices, often made on-site while installing, add a performative element to an art form that already engages in a sophisticated flirtation with traditions of drawing and painting.

Cucullu’s untitled wall work for the 2004 Whitney Biennial is a recent example. The “back story” for this mural includes references to Schlaraffenland (“Land of the Idle”), an imaginary country of leisure and gluttonous luxury concocted by Germans at the turn of the sixteenth century; Severini and the Scarfos, the Argentinean anarchists; and modernist architecture in Argentina and Japan. Utopia—whether imagined, protested for, or laid out in concrete and glass—is the linchpin linking these images. The connection may not belong entirely to Cucullu, however, as many Germans, some no doubt familiar with the Schlaraffenland ideal—it’s the subject of a 1566 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, now in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich—immigrated to Argentina during the first decades of the last century. The pull of utopias, whether entirely fanciful or potentially realizable, has brought people to South America since the first stories of El Dorado, the fabled “City of Gold,” circulated hundreds of years ago (coincidentally within two years of Hans Sachs’s popular satire of Schlaraffenland in Germany). Severini left Italy for Argentina in 1927 to escape the Fascists and start afresh. Cucullu’s artworks integrate this history without becoming didactic or losing their visual appeal, locating it within a matrix that also includes references to the rapper Eazy-E, the 1979 film The Warriors, and countless other cultural touchstones that have their own appeal in our day. It’s a natural human tendency to anthropomorphize abstraction, to look for representations of ourselves in that which doesn’t readily divulge its secrets. Cucullu’s art, made with a sleight-of-hand that turns ordinary materials into spectacular constructions filled to the brim with content waiting to be “unpacked,” consistently rewards this kind of extended looking.

David Altmejd

Published in Flash Art, May 2004.

David Altmejd, Untitled (Dark), 2001

David Altmejd, Untitled (Dark), 2001

New York artist David Altmejd’s grotesque sculptures, usually comprised of heads or other fragments of monster bodies, directly engage the repressed underside of our imagination and incongruously mix the things we dare not consciously consider with a certain sense of cheap glamour. His recent works, accumulations of small, sparkling found elements surrounding an incomplete werewolf body, spring from an intuitive process that serves as metaphor for peering into this realm of the unspoken. Altmejd rarely knows how a work will look when it is finished: he is an obsessive conjurer, bringing implausible sculptures into being as if he was in a trance or channeling spirits through the Ouija board. Often grouped with “new Gothic” artists, his use of the werewolf as horror movie clic