Friday, July 29, 2005

Shopping for Art (or "The Tale of the Gallerina")

Greg Allen points us to this amusing interview with Deborah Needleman, the editor in chief of the newly launched Domino magazine (whose tag line is "The shopping magazine for your home.") The new publication plans on including a monthly feature about buying art. Cool, no?

Well, decide for yourself:
Art is another form of shopping,” Ms. Needleman said by phone July 25. “It’s not like buying a toaster oven, but it’s not that different, either.”

Ms. Needleman said that her magazine’s monthly arts coverage will aim to “demystify” art in the same way the magazine makes home decorating simple.

“I feel like the art world tries to maintain this mystique,” she said. “It’s particularly apparent when you go into a Chelsea gallery and there’s this big lie they’re propagating, like they’re pretending they’re not selling stuff. They make you feel bad for just looking. Those gallerinas are there, but I don’t know what they’re there for.”
Now I know there are people who will get pissed off by this, but if you don't see a big difference between a painting in my gallery and a toaster oven, I'm not about to sell you that painting. Seriously, you can buy one from somewhere else. Toasters are interchangeable. The work I'm selling is not.

It's not about mystique. I'll spend hours explaining an artwork to an interested collector (regardless of whether they're just starting out or have a major collection), but I'll expect that person to put in some effort to understand. If they're not interested in "getting" it, I don't want them to have the work. That's a service to them and my artist.

I don't have gallerinas (love that term, actually), but I understand why some of them are hard as nails. If a gallery goer knows what they're looking for, or is genuinely interested in learning about the work, they'll get past the gallerina and on to the director or someone who can help them, with no problem. If all they want to do is vent about how much they hate contemporary art (and it's stunning how many people interested in that will punish themselves by going to galleries), the gallerinas develop the necessary skills to respond accordingly.

I know how snobbish that sounds, but think about this for a moment. Artwork is an incredibly personal expression. The artist is risking a tremendous, very public rejection by putting up an exhibition of work they've often literally put their heart and soul into. The gallery is similarly invested in the work, feeling very strongly about it (one day, I'll do the math for you, and show just how much faith a gallery must have in an artist to justify the overhead for an exhibition). With all that vunerability, freaks who stroll in and sniff around as if choosing a toater oven are threatening. Seriously. It's one thing to stand there and see the work rejected by a viewer because they don't like it (the artist and gallery are fully prepared for that), but because it's all very personal, it's something else altogether to be rejected by someone who thinks they're in Macy's. After that happens enough times, even the most generously hearted gallerina develops a jaded shell (and perhaps fangs).

One more note: this is a photo of Ms. Needleman. I provide this image as a service so that should she stop by your gallery, you can help her find the toaster department (or perhaps take a few moments to explain why she might rethink her position). And with that, I'm off to get some much needed caffiene.

UPDATE: Full up on caffiene now. In re-reading this, I realize this line is a bit of a tease: "If a gallery goer knows what they're looking for, or is genuinely interested in learning about the work, they'll get past the gallerina and on to the director or someone who can help them, with no problem." Galleries are intimidating, mostly because the work costs so much, and the assumption is you have to be able to afford something to deserve the gallery staff's time. Although it's not a good idea to make up questions about the art just to feel like you're getting special attention, there's no gallery in the world where you can't ask for assistance/information. Believe me, I've asked in spaces it would take me 60 years' salary to afford something.

Someone will almost always be at the desk or in the office. Feel free to approach them and/or poke your head in and ask "Hello, can I ask you a few questions about this painting[/photo/video, etc.]?" Ignore any sense you may get that they're sizing you up and judging you by how you're dressed. Some of the biggest collectors in the world run around looking like hobos (don't ask for names).

You may catch them at a point when they are genuinely in the middle of something they can't stop doing (like anywhere), but don't let that put you off. Ask when might be a better time. Suggest you're gonna go to another nearby gallery (this will peak their interest), and that you'll be back. When they finally turn their attention to you, ask your questions. If you're not in the buying mood, tell them thank you and move on. It's really that simple.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Rise and Fall(?) of the Independent Curator

This topic is way too complex to do justice in one blog post.
So I'll start with some basic thoughts and try to flesh them out
in an ongoing series.

If you check the "about" section of my gallery's website, you'll see me listed as a former independent curator. While technically that's true (I was curating independently), that label is used in the art world to describe a pool of people with an incredibly broad spectrum of experience and expertise. I was most certainly at the shallow end of that pool before I opened my space, but what I was doing was getting good press and with that came remarkable opportunities. Even back then, though, I realized what critics were saying was true: far too many independent curators (especially those working with emerging artists) were upstaging their artists. Independent curators were becoming the stars (think Okwui Enwezor [and in particular, think of how many artists in Documenta 11 you associate with that exhibition MORE than you associate him with it] and you'll get what this means).

Don't get me wrong though, independent curators work their asses off and are out there "in the trenches" so to speak. Like no one else in the industry, they are in the studios, in the classrooms, even in the libraries piecing it all together. Here's a pretty good article discussing what independent curators do and why galleries, museums and international institutions are hiring these independent experts:

When Peter Doroshenko became the founding director of the Institute of Visual Arts in Milwaukee, working with independent curators was a matter of necessity. How else could he attract--- or afford ---to bring in curators with their fingers on the pulse of the global contemporary art scene?


These reasons and more ---including, not insignificantly, that this expertise comes at fairly low rates---have whittled away at the notion that curators fit within museums as cozily as tenured professors fit into universities. In fact, Paul Schimmel, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said at a symposium that recent developments had "blown apart" the standard American definition of what a curator is.

"The most important change in curatorial practice today," he said, is "the role of the independent curator---a kind of journeyman curator or wandering global nomad" who does not have the shell of a museum for protection.

According to Amada Cruz, the director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, curators often function like producers these days. As the mix of talents that are required to make a successful show have changed, curators are no longer judged solely by their scholarly background. Possibilities have opened for movement between fields.

The problem with this rise in prominence, as will happen in any field, is that increasingly many of the exhibitions independent curators offer are more about illustrating their own vision than that of the artists they include. This is not a new critique, and, well, like most things these days, it's already been absorbed and turned around within the very field it's critiquing. Note this statement from 2007 Venice Biennale curator Robert Storr in an Australian newspaper recently. He's describing how he's working toward that exhibition:

"And at this stage I don't know what I'll find. I'm interested in the visual arts, I'm interested in what artists do, and I'm interested in how they arrive at their ideas rather than how they illustrate mine."
Twenty-five years ago that statement would have seemed so obvious as to make Storr seem a bit dim for offering it. Today, however, it's cutting edge.

But does this represent the end of the curator-as-rock-star, or is it simply a refocusing on what curators were supposed to be doing all along? Is even that true? Is there a certain task independent curators are supposed to be doing, or is it for each curator to define?

As I noted above, this topic is rather complex, but it's one close to my heart, so expect to find more about this as time goes on. For now, let me applaud Storr for the statement he made.

The image I'll use to identify this series (the field of eyes above) is from the Independent Curators International website. UPDATE: Dennis Christie (of Chelsea's DCKT and the awesome blog I Get My Show on the Road) identified the image as "a work by Nicholas Kersulis that is included in the ICI exhibition "100 Artists See God". Thanks Dennis!.

Safety Announcement

Brief break for politics, well, sort of. Friend of mine in London sent this photo of a sign on the Underground:

It reads:


Please do not run on the platforms or concourses. Especially if you are carrying a rucksack, wearing a big coat, or look a bit foreign. This notice is for your own safety.

Thank you.

These are the days you don't know whether to laugh or cry at it all.

UPDATE: Reader henry points to this image which rather convincingly suggests this is indeed a fake. You can read through the comments for my thoughts about that. In the end, though, it's still sadly funny.

Art Blogs You Should Know

Forbes Magazine listed their favorite artblogs, and I'm happy to see that many of them are already on my blog roll, including Modern Art Notes (the indispensable art blog, IMO), Gallery Hopper (surely the most elegant art blog), and the ArtForum Diary (Scene and Herd, although it's a fun read, it's not actually a blog, IMO). I look forward to getting to know the others.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Judging Value in Art

A feature story in today's New York Times prompted me to rethink a topic I spend a great deal of time on...judging value in art. That phrase though, perhaps requires a bit of explanation. What I mean exactly is: Which criteria should be used to determine which artists we celebrate and whose work we enshrine in the limited space of our cultural institutions or pages of our art history texts?

Take the case of Constantino Brumidi. The Times offers a well-crafted piece on the effort to elevate Brumidi's stature in America's annals of art history. He's the Italian-born muralist responsible for a great deal of the work in the Capitol in Washington, DC, but, as the Times article notes:

Brumidi was ignored, the victim of ethnocentrism and snobbery. Though he became a citizen in 1857 (he signed a fresco "C. Brumidi Artist-Citizen of the U.S."), American-born artists cast him as a foreigner and resented his painting Capitol murals. In a few decades, with the rise of modernism, critics would look down their noses at Brumidi's brand of representational art.

When he died, penniless and alone, in 1880, there wasn't even enough money to bury him; his ex-wife agreed to have him interred in her family plot, and the grave went without a marker until 1951.

"He was reviled in what passed as art literature, in the history books," Dr. {Francis V.] O'Connor [an independent art historian who is writing a book on American mural painting] said, "with the result that everyone thought the Capitol was filled with bad art."
I experienced a see-saw of reponses to this as I read. My first thought was that anyone painting to please his patrons rather than him/herself is providing them with Craft, not Art, but then realized that I have no idea what input the government had on the images Brumidi decided on. Perhaps he painted exactly what he wanted to (although I still doubt it).

Then I thought his visual vocabulary was fossilized. His contemporaries were shedding the shackles of the neo-classical themes he offered up (with what strike me as sychophantic, rather hackneyed twists, no less), and the best way to honor the young nation he adopted as his new home was to give it art that looked toward the future, not the past. But then, of course, that would have stuck out like a sore thumb in Washington DC, conflicted absurdly with the Capitol's architecture, and been widely misunderstood by most Americans, even if Brumidi had had any interst in it.

Finally, I thought how could someone paint the square footage he did and keep it interesting and fresh for himself (one criterion I'm convinced is important, because it shows) unless he was being truly inventive (i.e., and not just regurgitating new combinations of tried and true vocabulary). Here, I discovered, I didn't perhaps give the man his due. After years of having hacks cover up his best work in "restorations," finally someone decided to see what was underneath for real:

Ill-conceived attempts at restoration only worsened Brumidi's reputation, said Barbara A. Wolanin, the curator of the Capitol and the author of "Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol." As the walls and ceilings of the Capitol grew dark and dingy with age, Brumidi's work was painted over in colors that matched the grunge. When Dr. Wolanin began her job as curator in 1985, she said, "I wasn't really convinced Brumidi was that good."

Two prominent Italian art conservators, experts in Raphael and Michelangelo, helped change her mind. The pair were hired shortly after Dr. Wolanin's arrival to consult on a project to clean and conserve the frescoes in the canopy of the Rotunda. "They could kind of see through the overpaint and the dirt," Dr. Wolanin said. "Seeing major conservators of Michelangelo get excited about Brumidi made me think that maybe we Americans ought to get excited too."
Of course the counter argument is that the opinion of major conservators of Michelangelo getting excited is probably further evidence that Brumidi wasn't giving the young nation very forward-looking art, but then there's this:

Ms. Cunningham-Adams took her scalpel to them, carefully chipping away layer after layer of dried and hardened paint to reveal work whose light, airy feel had been long lost to time.

"Every single inch is a discovery," she said. "A new color, a new detail. We uncovered feathers on birds that you could see, or little tiny insects on leaves that had been painted over. I think the importance of the recovery is bringing back people's understanding of the very high quality of this incredible artistic treasure."

So my question then becomes: is "very high quality" a criterion we should use in determining what art we celebrate? Should the fact that Brumidi's original offerings were apparently exhilarating be enough that we recognize his achievements? It's a tricky question, I know...doesn't quality of "art" include innovation? If all he's done is made a masterful copy of what others struggled to invent, is that enough?

Or is it much simplier than that? Are there different criteria for different efforts? I mean, there's no escaping that Brumidi was commissioned to decorate a building. Should we measure his achievement against other such efforts and not against those of artists with no such constraints? I'm not sure. But then, if I had the answers to such questions, I'd be making a fortune off selling them.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Artist of the Week 07/25/05

Bob and Roberta Smith makes paradoxical work in a variety of media. It's paradoxical because many of his individual pieces strike you as anarchistic and perhaps one-liners, but taken as a whole they reflect a rich, rather reassuring exploration. He's perhaps best known for his word paintings and performances, but, in the first exhibition of his I saw, the stand-out pieces were the tossable fake cold cuts and meat pies...are you lost yet?

Let's back up. "Bob and Roberta Smith" is the psuedonym of British artist Patrick Brill (which sounds like a fake art name as well, to me, but...). He chose "Bob Smith" as his art name (reportedly
as a rebuke to Julian Snabel) because it sounded "unglamourous," and when he first started out he worked as a duo with his sister Roberta (not sure if that was her real name), but she later dropped out, and he kept the name. For art world insiders, this odd double name is doubly intriguing, as Roberta Smith is also the name of one of the world's most powerful art critics (for The New York Times).

Bob and Roberta Smith (hereafter known as "Smith" for my sanity's sake) is currently represented by the awesome Hales Gallery in London (although the last exhibition I saw of Smith's in London was with Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, in which, among other cultural heroes he quite throughougly lamblasted, I somewhat recall a button that read, more or less, "Will any of the Beatles Make it to 64?" ).

Smith is the quinitessential artist making disparaging art about the art world. Even his most harsh sentiments, though, seem tinged with a bitter-sweet sense of why artists are important. At his last exhibition at Pierogi in Williamsburg (reportedly the neighborhood with more artists per capita than any other in the world), he had visitors sign the following:

And he had a dumpster parked outside the gallery where artists could dump their work and, one assumes, aspirations. Called an "art amnesty," Smith encouraged locals to

This piece more or less says it all:

Smith's own website is like a curiosity shop itself. One of my favorite pieces on it is this BBC-hosted interactive piece called "Speak Bob" where you can compose your own word (?)/phrases (?) in Smith's made-up language. It's totally absurd and hilarious, just like most of his other projects.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Activism's Easy...Art is Hard

Former president of South Africa Nelson Mandella is embroiled in an art scandal, involving his own art no less. Well, perhaps "art" should be contained in quotes here.

I'm not being snobbish. The case centers on a series of lithographs that Mandella originally agreed to lend his name and reportedly his hand to (although there are indications that he had significant help) in order to raise money for two of his charities: the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. But how much his handiwork is involved in the prints is not the controversy (Hirst, Koons, etc. etc. anyone?). Rather, how the sales of the prints were being handled (mishandled) has led Mandella to sue his long-time confidant and lawyer Ismael Ayob and the publisher of the prints, Ross Calder.

In a nutshell, Mandella claims prints are being sold that bear forged signatures. With the works going for up to $10,000 a pop (with editions of 500, plus 50 artists proofs), that's some serious money. Mandella's new lawyer, George Bizos, claims up to $6 million is unaccounted for and the charities have yet to see any money at all.

The lithographs are based on simple drawings or collages of a photograph of the prison Mandella was incarcerated in, plus some added hand-drawn elements. The
Art Newspaper noted:

The South African publisher admits that Mr Mandela was “tutored” by Varenka Paschke, the granddaughter of Apartheid Prime Minister P.W. Botha, who ultimately released Mr Mandela from prison in 1990. An examination of the prints suggests a professional hand at work: the colouring is bold and freely applied. Most amateur artists would have done the job more neatly, by adding the colour right up to the edges of the black outlines, although this would have been less effective.
The South African online news site suggests the case might emerge as essentially a "he said - he said" affair, with Mandella misunderstanding the deal he had signed, but arguably everything about it being legal. The SA courts are sorting it out.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

New Addiction

[geek] I just can't stop playing with the new Google Earth tool. Name this city:

OK, so the picture's not very clear here, but you can zoom in, like you're flying (that's Berlin).

Name this city:

OK, that's an easy one.

It takes a few minutes to download and install, but once you have it, it's like popcorn. The way you can zoom out, fly across an ocean, and zoom into your next search result is (letting my inner 13-year-old speak here) like totally awesome!

You can see road names, local banks, museums, bars, movie theaters, etc. etc. etc. You really gotta try this thing. [/geek]

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The George Eastman House and International Center of Photography have joined forces to offer an impressive online library of photography, apparently free to the public, called Images by artists who still seek royalties for them are posted in small sizes, but high-res copies are available for images in the public domain. UPDATE: The site seems to be down intermittently. The NYTimes noted article below is most likely driving more people to it than it can handle...try again later.

According to the NY Times, the site's still in its beta phase, but it will include over 200,000 images when complete in 2006. A good number of the photographs are by the giants of the medium, as well, including Eugene Atget, Harry Callahan, Julia Margaret Cameron, Cornell Capa, Robert Capa, "Chim" [David Seymour], Alvin Langdon Coburn, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Andreas Feininger, Francis Frith, Lewis Wickes Hine, Gordon Parks, Jacob Riis, Fazal Sheikh, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Stieglitz, Doris Ulmann, James Vanderzee, Roman Vishniac, Bruce Weber, Weegee, Gary Winogrand, etc.

Poke around in it...the search results are a bit clunky at the moment, but they welcome comments, so hopefully it will be easier to navigate when they launch the final version.
A Cornell Capa photograph of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy campaigning in Manhattan in 1960.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Artist of the Week 07/19/05

This week, I'm breaking the pattern of discussing "underappreciated" artists to discuss one who's getting a good deal of attention, but may not yet be a household name outside the inner art world.

Dana Schutz is one of the art world's latest rising stars. As such, despite being an incredibly nice person (or so I'm told...I haven't met her yet), she's the target of a great deal of criticism among other artists. Most of this criticism strikes me as feeding from jealousy (Dana makes paintings, you either like them or you don't, but even if you don't, the only conceivable rationale for making a federal case out of how much you don't like them would be that you're jealous of her success).

I'm still learning to appreciate Dana's work myself, and I like that about it. Work that's instantly accessible generally bores me after a few viewings, and I'm always excited to see one of Dana's pieces in an exhibition. I don't always like them, but I like to see them.

Despite my current on-the-fence position about her work, I found myself defending it recently to two friends who were very upset by it. We stood before a giant piece of hers in a public collection and I explained what I found exhilarating about it, what I found masterful about it, and why I can accept (until my own epiphany) that others much more experienced in judging art than I am are absolutely nuts about it. My friends walked away shaking their heads unconvinced (I'm perhaps not the best person to try and convince them though). Here's a piece like the one we were discussing (but it wasn't this one):

Dana Schutz, Civil Planning, 2004, Oil on canvas, 114” x 168”

Represented in New York by Zach Feuer Gallery, Dana's work feeds from incredibly rich and fascinating narratives. In the exhibition that proved her breakaway show, "Frank from Observation," she created a series of paintings around the premise that she and "Frank" were the last two people on the earth. As she noted in the press release "The man is the last subject and the last audience and, because the man isn't making any paintings, I am the last painter." Here's one of the works from that exhibition (the one at the top is from this show as well):

Dana Schutz Frank on a Rock, 2002, Oil on canvas, 66" x 47"

In her next solo exhibition at the gallery she constructed a world of "people with the unusual ability to devour themselves." As the press release for that exhibition noted, Schutz employs humor and wit to lighten the otherwise rather perverse subject matter. Consider this piece:

Dana Schutz, Mulch, 2004, Oil on canvas, 22” x 28”

The arm's sharp angle as the hand grabs the dismembered leg and the flattened placement of the eyes (both references to Picasso?) are so over the top, you can't help but enjoy them (in an early teen's appreciation for things that gross you out sort of way). And, in what's perhaps an indication of her growing awareness that she's carving out her own place, Schutz is referencing art history even more grandly in a piece she finished for the "Greater New York" exhibition. Seen below, the massive painting references perhaps Ensor and Rembrandt, and indicates a growing security about what she's doing:

Dana Schutz, Presentation, 2005, Oil on canvas, 120" x 168"

Again, I find that I like some of Dana's paintings better than others, but I'm never less than thrilled to find one. I like the idea that I have time to discover the work and that an artist as young as her (born 1976) has years left in which to amaze the rest of us.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Short Break

I'll be in DC for about 4 days (sans laptop), visiting friends, and (from what the weather reports suggest) stewing in my own perspiration. Any suggestions for "can't miss" exhibitions in the vicinity would be greatly appreciated.

If you're in New York, let me plug the exhibition curated by my friends Andrew Clarkin and Simon Pittuck of London's Keith Talent Gallery. Titled "This Drawing is Ribbed for Her Pleasure," the exhibition is at Cynthia Broan's amazing new space on 29th Street in Chelsea. There are some great new, er, talents in the exhibition (I was particularly taken with the works by Paul Peden and Adam Gillam), so be sure to stop in if you're in the 'hood.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

My Favorite List

It's lame, I know, but in the way others get excited about the 100 Richest People or the 50 Most Beautiful People lists published every year, I can't wait to see ArtNews' summer round-up of The World's 200 Top Collectors. Well, it's out again, and there are some nice surprises in it.

Mind you, I only have a passing interest in anyone who doesn't collector contemporary art, but it's fun to see who's been added or cut. I was very pleased to see one of my favorite collectors join the list this time, as well as see some of those who've been there hold their spots. There's a few I've been pulling for, but, alas, they'll still have to wait (it does make me wonder how much lobbying goes into this...anyone know the process?). Now if ArtNews would just publish their mobile phone numbers. ;-)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

L.A. Is on Fire!

The Los Angeles art world has been working its ass off to establish itself as a destination, and it's finally paying off. Los Angeles is hot, hot, hot!

A few years ago I did a round of studio visits in Culver City (with artists in UCLA's MFA painting program) and got the sense that the museums were teaming up with the universities and galleries in an all-out effort to work together the way said entities do in New York and London. What started as a buzz about the newer galleries opening up in Chinatown had already begun to draw dealers from along the West Coast to L.A. (Peres Projects and Lizabeth Oliveria, for example, both moved from San Francisco). Now it's drawing gallerists from New York; Q.E.D. (no website yet), KantorFeuer, and MC (no website yet) galleries are all indications that even New York dealers see room to grow there (here's a good overall list of the galleries in L.A.).

In the spirit of neighborhoods like SoHo and Williamsburg, which opened galleries where the artists were, Los Angeles' newest destination for galleries seems to be Culver City. Here's a map from Lizabeth Oliveria's website showing who's now located there (and I know of a few others new spaces who aren't on this map, like
D.E.N. and Western Project):

But all the galleries in the world would not have changed L.A.'s second-tier status had another important change not taken place. L.A. grads and soon-to-be grads are becoming as hot as any of the prodigies at Columbia or Yale. Sure, we've always had stars emerge from Cal-Arts, UCLA or Art Center, but nowhere near in the volume we're seeing them fly out of those institutions now. Today's International Herald Tribune picks up a great article about this first published in The New York Times over 4th of July weekend (during which time I was blissfully unaware on a beach, so forgive me if this is old news):

The rise of the California art schools has been several decades in the making. Ever since Ed Ruscha drove a black Ford from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend Chouinard (now CalArts), the schools have drawn major talent. But it wasn't until the late 1980s, when the artists Chris Burden, Nancy Rubins, Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy had all joined the faculty at UCLA, that the city's leading programs began to ignite national interest.

Today, it's hard to imagine the local art scene without the schools. "Most every gallery in L.A. has some recent M.F.A. grads," said Martin, the Santa Monica dealer.

Even blue-chip galleries like L.A. Louver, which represents David Hockney, have been getting in on the action; it just opened "Rogue Wave," a survey of emerging and midcareer Los Angeles artists that runs through Sept. 3. Of the 19 artists in the show, 14 earned Master of Fine Arts degrees at local schools, including the installation artist Karl Haendel (UCLA) and the painters Tomory Dodge and Violet Hopkins (both CalArts).

The article's full of quotes and notes about how the white hot art market is driving part of this frenzy, but as much as the institutions there suggest they're aware of the dangers of accelerating careers prematurely...

"I've seen premature arrogance, and I've seen premature disillusionment," said Thomas Lawson, dean of the School of Art at CalArts.

"Students may get instant gratification from having early gallery shows, but the art market is a very cruel and impersonal thing. It's very easy to find yourself dropped by that market. If you're dropped before the age of 25, it can be devastating."

...a good friend of mine who signed up for UCLA's MFA program specifically because they had promised her she would be free to experiment, said a high-up administrator in the department insisted she be working toward her first solo show in an L.A. gallery. When she called them on it, reminding them why she went there, she was told, more or less, "That's just what we tell prospective students." My friend's currently working happily in a quite place in Europe, away from that sort of pressure.

Of course, being in New York, where galleries are gonna have to start scouting the local high schools to outdo ourselves, I have little room to talk (and I'll admit to a bit of jealousy that L.A.'s getting all this attention), but eventually the corrections will come, and it's best for everyone to keep in mind why they make or deal in art in the first place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The MoMA that Never Was

There was a long-running joke about England's now-defunct satire magazine Punch that went "It's not as funny as it used to be; it never was." That same idea has been applied to other humor institutions that are generally considered to be of high quality, but which on any given day cannot live up to our collected memories of their greatest hits (think "Saturday Night Live," The Onion, etc. and you get what that means).

A similarly romanticized, but ultimately false nostalgia has been gaining ground with regard to the recently renovated Museum of Modern Art. A wave of criticism met its grand reopening and has hardly abetted since then. One critic who's been particularly harsh and IMO rather pointless in being so has been's Charlie Finch (btw, Walter, new design might take some getting used to, but I appreciate the effort).

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing invested in the new and improved MoMA. I just like criticism to be a bit more universally applicable, self-aware, and focused than Finch's notes on MoMA have been. In at least three columns (1, 2, 3) , Finch has blasted MoMA for what boils down to selling its soul to the rich (The OC Art Blog noted this recently as well). One can only assume that it's not wealth itself Finch finds offensive, but the wealth of the particular persons involved in this case, as he has no problem sucking up to other wealthy folks in the art world.

But that's perhaps a bit harsh on my part. In general, Charlie's made good observations about how the balance has shifted over the past 5 years to where super-rich collectors (or just movers and shakers--it's euphemistic to call some of them "collectors"), who may or may not know much about art, are changing the rules, not to mentions the standards at institutions. Still, this message gets watered down and thus becomes dismissable when he loses focus and begins bemoaning the loss of an era that really never was. Take this passage from his latest smackdown of MoMA (titled "The Hollow Museum"):

We were sitting in the Museum of Modern Art garden last week with a curator friend from Hamburg trying to assimilate the new Museum of Modern Art, and failing.

"One still can't get used to Monet's Water Lilies as wallpaper for cocktail parties," we remarked.

"I was always so inspired by the old Water Lilies sitting room," Catarina replied. "It was meditative. It energized me before I returned to the streets of New York."
This is a frivolous, eventually meaningless, cheap shot. There is nothing inherent about Water Lilies that demanded the previous installation. Perhaps as many people thought it failed in that old location as were "so inspired" by it. I found the old installation, off by itself, usually with an overbearing guard hovering threateningly, a wholly forced attempt. And personally, I find the POV from the balcony of the piece as it's newly installed a good way to see/explain one of Monet's major accomplishments in it. That sort of distance wasn't possible in the old installation. Finch goes on:

"It's the height of arrogance," we continued, "to install Rodin's Balzac and Newman's Broken Obelisk indoors like trophies of the rich."
One could say this about a whole slew of works in any museum though (not to mention pieces installed in hallways, along staircases, etc.). Here's a bigger image of the space Charlie's moaning about; you can see the Water Lilies from the angle I mentioned above and the Obelisk. Yes, there's something grand about Newman's piece in the open air, but the old sculpture court it was installed in (seen here) didn't let it stretch as far upward as it does in the atrium now. The nearby buildings seemed to push it down and oppress it a bit.

This sort of selected nitpicking takes on its own brand of arrogance and, again, weakens Finch's overall critique. With all due respect, I get the sense Finch wants MoMA to fossilize. Consider this nugget:

The problem with wishing for the demise of these wealthy cheeseballs is that they've rigged everything to take us down with them. Destroying the intimacy, respect for art, sense of adventure and grand amateurism of MoMA should damn them to hell forever.
MoMA could not stand still, despite how much Charlie felt comfortable with the intimacy of the old space. For as many disappointments I found in the new installation at MoMA, I found just as many pleasant surprises (this gallery, in particular, I found exhilarating). And I think its "sense of adventure" has been totally rejuvinated by the new approach. If there's a single message the new building carries, it would have to be "anticipate the future." That would seem, above all else, the best way to respect the mission of the museum. Come up to speed Charlie, the future's fine, and the MoMA you think you're missing never really existed.

UPDATE: Tyler Green agrees that Finch's anti-MoMA rants are silly and points to some better thought-out critiques, but disagrees with me about the Minimalism gallery linked to above being one of the new MoMA's better moments.
But c'mon EW, that gallery you love is a horrid mish-mash, jigsaw-puzzle curating at its most simplistic.

It's a bit of a leap from my noting I was pleasantly surprised in finding the installation exhilarating to noting that I "love" that gallery, but I did point it out, so fair enough to call me on it. I guess it was the first time Minimalism had been so instantly activated by an installation for me. I toured the new MoMA with someone for whom Modern art is one big question mark, and I found that installation made it easy to quickly summarize some of the accomplishments of Minimalism. Perhaps I'm putting too much emphasis on accessibility (and surely what works for the neophite will frustrate or bore the better acquainted), but MoMA is to my mind, first and foremost, about education (actually to their mind as well; it's in their mission statement: "Founded in 1929 as an educational institution"), so, again, I found that gallery exhilarating.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Artist of the Week 07/11/05

Dominic McGill has a great deal on his mind. The source material for his sculptures and drawings is no less than the whole of Western politics over the past century. And as daunting a task as commenting on all that may sound, Dominic continues to find spectacular ways to show us not only all we've been through, but also all we didn't even realize we had forgotten.

Consider his latest show-stopper, Project for a New American Century (2004, graphite on paper, 80 inches x 65 are a few details). This massive, two-sided curving piece, more of an environment that envelopes you in spots than the two dimensional plane we normally think of with "drawings," takes as its subject late 20th century history, starting with the bombing of Hiroshima and ending with a path into the woods. In between are images and text referencing everything from Sputnik to Sid Vicious, race riots to the Jonestown Massacre, Watergate, Chernobyl, Zionism, Halliburton, and on and on and on. As the New York Times put it, "Mr. McGill's erudite chronicle does more than line up facts. It knits them together so that cause-and-effect relationships between historical developments across the world become clear."

Born in England, but living in New York now, Dominic (represented by Derek Eller Gallery) seems an unlikely personality for such work. He's clearly brilliant and knows his politics, but he's such an easy going sort and great to party with (we got to know him and his lovely wife Penelope in Madrid a few years ago). In talking with him, there's no hint of the angry young man you'd expect to find behind such work.

The first piece I saw by Dominic (that I knew was by him...I had seen other work, but not known it was his) was this sculpture:

Dominic McGill, Dead End World in Favor of the Domesticated Poodle (Detail), 2002, mixed media, 8' x 4' x 30"

At the time, it prompted a bit of a political awakening for me. The ferocity of the landscaped pooch matching (if not topping) that of the "wild" wolf shook me out of my complacent pocket of ideas about civilization and violence (here's another view of the same piece). Who is that creature...the pampered pet turned vicious? In all seriousness, this piece launched a whole new line of thinking for me about everything from who I am to what I'm capable of doing (not that I see myself as a poodle, mind you, just that I always assumed I was a nonviolent person by nature, rather than I'm not so sure).

The piece by Dominic I had seen before this, but not connected the name to the work, was this sculpture:

Dominic McGill, Model for a Death Wish Generation, 2002, mixed media, 86" diameter

A full scale replica of the hydrogen bomb, its insides have been replaced with a seascape diorama. The painted concave upper section has a brilliant blue sky. The bottom section holds a minature replica of the Bikini Islands, which were vaporized by US testing of nuclear bombs. (As Bob Hope once said of the operations there, "As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn't been touched by the war and blew it to hell.") A review in Art in America, described the piece this way:
A translucent plastic surface covers the lower section and displays a mesmerizing three-dimensional panorama of Bikini Island. Flanked by painted coral reefs in a shallow aquamarine lagoon of real water, the idyllic sandy beaches are marred by charred tree trunks and a detonation crater alluding to the devastating nuclear tests from which this island has never recovered. The water is intermittently disturbed by sprays of steam and wavelike patterns caused by the vibrations of rhythmic humming sounds emanating from speakers hidden below the surface.
To be honest, this piece is a bit heavy handed for me. It doesn't hold the subtle punch to the psyche the poodle piece does. With the Project for a New American Century piece, though, Dominic demonstrated that he's no where near through commenting yet, and his critique is only getting stronger. Keep your eyes on this one.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Right of First Refusals

In an article somewhat sensationally titled "Are Contemporary Dealers too Powerful?," Art Newspaper examines the controversial "trend" for art dealers to sell work only on the condition that collectors give the dealer first dibs at buying it back should the collector decide to resale the art.

Peter R. Stern, an art lawyer at the New York firm McLaughlin & Stern, LLP, says that a dealer’s exclusive right to repurchase “is largely intended for galleries to obtain a percentage of any resale proceeds”. Often, a gallery may give the artist a share of the proceeds, he says, adding that, “In my experience, the clauses are most often used by dealers in representing highly sought-after artists where demand exceeds supply”.
Some may object that the buy-back provision distorts the market for works by any particular artist.

With a right of first refusal, buyers “can’t get the best price for the work on resale because they only have one place to sell it—back to the dealer”, says John R. Cahill, an art lawyer with the firm Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman LLP, New York.

The issue is actually much more mundane than the article's title or any of the lawyers' quoted concerns would suggest. In a nutshell, dealers want two things out of right of first refusal agreements: 1) to ensure their artists' prices rise at a pace that doesn't harm their careers and 2) to ensure their artists receive a percentage of the appreciation price in any resale.

What the first concern boils down to is illustrated by the example of speculators hearing that an artist's reputation is rising and buying up some of their work with the hopes of turning it around quickly and making a profit at auction. Why this is potentially a bad thing for the artist is that "buzz" doesn't always translate in the secondary market, and artists have seen their work rushed to auction where it does very poorly, thereby undoing the price advances all the speculation had artifically spurred and significantly hurting their careers.

The second concern boils down to plain fairness. Unlike writers or actors (etc.) who can receive residuals for their work for the rest of their lives, visual artists currently get screwed royally after their work sells the first time. Only those who are reselling it see any profit from the advances in that artist's career. Dealers, as the artists' primary advocates, are seeking ways to ensure that resold work, particularly at seriously appreciated prices, profits the creator of said work as well. Right of first refusal contracts enable dealers to cut the artists in.

One dealer notorious for not selling work without the right of first refusal clauses in the terms of the sale is Chelsea's Andrea Rosen (who, until Gagosian snagged him, represented John Currin [see image above]). Andrea indicated recently that she's finding an absolutist approach to including such clauses may not be the best thing for all artists, but she stands firmly behind the concept in general:

I have used these clauses on every invoice since I opened the gallery in 1990”, says Andrea Rosen, of Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, adding that the provision applies to any artist she represents. In the 1980s, an unspoken taboo existed against collectors reselling contemporary art, Ms Rosen says, and even now, dealers may refuse to deal with a collector who has resold a work by an artist the dealer represents. Instead, Mr Rosen says, the right of first refusal spells out her expectations that “if a collector wants to resell a work, they’ll bring it back to the gallery. I never anticipate that this would be disadvantageous to them”, she adds.
California already has a law that protects artists (the California civil code 986 [Resale Royalty Act Code]), which states: "Whenever a work of fine art is sold and the seller resides in California or the sale takes place in California, the seller or the seller's agent shall pay to the artist of such work of fine art or to such artist's agent 5 percent of the amount of such sale." Until such time as other states have similar laws (including most importantly New York), dealers will need right of first refusal clauses and other tools to ensure their artists get what they deserve.

I think we'll be hearing much more of this in years to come.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


A most impressive response to the bombings is coming from Britain, but that shouldn't be a surprise. Resolve, stoicism, aplomb, and humor abound...just what we expect and exactly why we adore them. From friends I've heard the pubs are packed, folks are shopping in Central London, and to quote one friend, "earliest suggestions (not entirely serious) were to blame the French...." The unflappable Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, has issued a statement so strong and human it deserves to be among our most cherished texts. Here's a snippet:

Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.

What a fucking City!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A Thousand Words (Just not "Genocide")

When our posterity looks back from the safety of their history classes, it will surely be one of the greatest shames of our time. Ten years after the world stood by and watched the Interahamwe openly slaughter nearly one million Rwandan Tutsis, our leaders have still not found a way to reconcile our declared responsibility to stop genocide with the fear of being dragged into unpopular "local" conflicts. No one wants another Black Hawk Down situation, and let's face it, it certainly looks as if there's a huge degree of racism involved ("Oh, it's just So-n-So's killing So-n-so's"), so governments have their spokespeople perform the most ludicrous verbal contortions to avoid having to say the "G" word and thereby commit themselves to step in and stop the murders.

All of this has come up repeatedly recently because of the enduring crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. The leaders of the nations in the UN Security Council can agree time and again to talk about how awful it is that nearly 200,000 people have been starved to death or murdered in a conflict that has all the hallmarks of an organized attempt at committing genocide, but they just can't bring themselves to call it that. Calling it genocide means they'll have to stop it.

In the face of this cowardice, there's evidence that not only are the crimes that comprise genocide being commited in Sudan, but also that the Sudanese government, despite its claims to the contrary, is participating in the conflict. What evidence? The drawings of children:

From today's New York Times

Human Rights Watch workers gave crayons and paper to children in seven refugee camps along Darfur's border with Chad to keep them occupied as they interviewed their parents about the ethnic violence and starvation that has engulfed hundreds of villages in Darfur, said a Human Rights Watch researcher, Dr. Annie Sparrow.

"When I first started collecting them they were so shocking," Dr. Sparrow said of the drawings. "It's not just that the children are scarred and traumatized by awful atrocities but the way they're devising this unique visual vocabulary that corroborates all the testimony we've taken from adults.

"These are not generic guns that a 10-year-old boy would draw but guns they've actually seen," said Dr. Sparrow, who is a pediatrician. "I sat down with a weapons expert who identified what the weapons were."

Dr. Sparrow also contends that the details in the drawings provide more evidence of the involvement of the Sudan government.

"The government of Sudan has repeatedly denied being involved in the crisis, but the janjaweed only have guns and horse and camels," she said. "It's the government of Sudan that has the weapons of war."

Of course it's possible the children were drawing helicopters from memory in other contexts (movies or whatever), but most of the imagery in the collected drawings is pretty specific to this conflict:

But judge for yourself. An exhibition of these drawings, all by children aged 8 to 17, is touring. "The Smallest Witnesses: The Conflict in Darfur Through Children's Eyes," will be on display through September 6 at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University (7 East 10th Street) (although the center doesn't yet have this exhibition on their website). It will then travel to Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Hamburg and Munich.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Artist of the Week 07/05/05

It's a grotesque reference in one sense, but the fastest Pop culture entry point into one body of Beth Campbell's work might be the Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler Movie First 50 Dates, in which Barrymore's character has no short-term memory. In fact, each day she wakes up after an accident, her memory is reset to zero and she thinks it's the day the accident takes place. She cannot remember anything that happened the day before in real time, and so she goes through the same routine each day--eats at the same diner, has the same conversations (and her friends and family play along to not frighten her).

Sandler's character, who has fallen in love with her, must make her fall in love with him somehow all over again every day. Each day he tries to vary this or that part of the ritual, hoping to find the best avenue toward getting to the point she realizes she loves him too, so they have more quality time together, and he's not wasting the whole day convincing her she's his girlfriend. Sometimes his variations on the ritual are effective, but sometimes they backfire and lead to further complications. There are so many variables to account for.

Beth Campbell, Potential Future Based On Present Circumstances, 1999, Graphite on paper

This concept of multiple, very different futures based on the smallest of chance variations is explored in the body of work Beth Campbell is perhaps best known for. Represented in New York by Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, Beth works in installation, video, sculpture, etc, but it's her large-scale chart drawings that first grabbed everyone's attention. In each of these she imagines all the possible ramifications of rather mundane everyday decisions. Each of these drawings is titled "My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances." Village Voice critic, Jerry Saltz described one this way:

[Each] looks like an elaborate root system with every capillary captioned. This one tracks the various paths Campbell imagines her life taking after "discovering that I have a few gray hairs." She boomerangs between "Feeling like I am no longer responsible to live up to sexual expectations," "Telling my boyfriend what I need," "Our sex life grows and grows" and "Go into hiding."
Here's a close-up of one:

Beth Campbell, My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances (1/12/05), 2005, ink on paper, 50" x 38.5" (detail)

One of Beth's chart drawings actually begins with her deciding to attend an opening at my gallery to meet Dave Eggers (but alas, he didn't show).

I've known Beth for years but I keep discovering just how remarkably smart she is and the awesome depth of her work (she's also a total pleasure to hang out with and talk to). At the last Art Basel in Miami Beach, she exhibited an installation titled Never Ending Continuity Error (see first image above), in which you stared through a "mirror" (an empty frame actually) at what critic Charlie Finch termed "the slowly disintegrating repeated utilitarian objects in a series of bathroom sinks." It was a total scene-stealing piece that had everybody raving. It was reminscent of Beth's first major installation at Roebling Hall in 2000 (where she made two exact versions (and one cannot overstate how exact) of a woman's bedroom. Again, from Saltz:

From trash in baskets to clothes piled in corners to butts in ashtrays, everything was arranged precisely the same in both rooms. It was an ego-atomizing, walk-in episode of The Twilight Zone by way of Robert Rauschenberg's duplicate 1957 paintings Factum I and Factum II -- an obsessive-compulsive's own private nightmare.

Beth Campbell, Same as Me, 2002, installation view at Roebling Hall

But Beth's most compelling piece to date (for me anyway) is the three-channel video "Same as Me," which she exhibited at her last exhibition at Roebling Hall. And, because 1) I'm a bit pressed for time today and 2) it's what he's paid for, here's Saltz once more:

The video, in spite of being choppy and redundant (cuts are crude; there's a lot of aimless walking), is perversely effective. In three side-by-side projections we see Campbell going through identical motions. Dressed in different clothes and seen in different locations (studio, office, national park, the streets of a German town), she wakes up, rubs her eyes, rolls over, looks at the clock, gets out of bed, showers, eats, gets in a car, goes to work, walks around and so forth until the end of the day. Rather than the endless variation of her drawings, Same as Me echoes the mind-boggling replication of the bedrooms, presenting a world with no variation whatsoever.

We all have habits, specific ways we like to do things, and we all become conscious of the sameness of these movements, and might even take pleasure in that sameness. In Same as Me Campbell pushes her habits into an unbendingly disciplined, maniacally choreographed dance of everyday life. In the process, she all but disappears as an individual. Writing about systemic art, Lucy Lippard suggested that "aggressive vacuity can establish tremendous intimacy." This is the vacuous drama Campbell goes for and gets so well. She seems hollow and mechanical, but the exactness of her motions lets us know she's in every move, which glues us to her all the more.

And one final close-up image:

Beth remains one of those artists who I can't wait to see what she does next.