Monday, February 27, 2006

Re-Framing the Supposed Elitist Response to Popular Commercial Art

My Seattle round-up is coming soon, but today I wanted to get out something that's been preoccupying my mind since The New York Times published its article on Scotland's number #1 selling contemporary artist:

[Jack] Vettriano is far and away Scotland's most successful contemporary painter. "The Singing Butler," his 1992 painting of an elegant couple dancing on a stormy beach, sold for nearly £750,000 (about $1.3 million at today's exchange rate) two years ago, the highest price ever paid for a Scottish painting at auction. The image has become ubiquitous on mugs, mouse pads, prints, posters and dish towels, outselling reproductions of masterworks like van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Monet's "Water Lilies."

Another painting, "Dance Me to the End of Love," is to come up for auction in Edinburgh on March 4. The estimated sale price is $300,000 to $500,000.

But critics tend either to ignore Mr. Vettriano or to swat him lazily away with the backs of their cultured hands. Among their objections are that "he can't paint; he just colors in" (Sandy Moffat, former head of painting at the Glasgow School of Art); that his work is "inoffensive enough" but "repetitive, limited and soulless" (Duncan Macmillan, art critic at The Scotsman); and that he is "a media creation" whose " 'popularity' rests on cheap commercial reproductions of his paintings" (Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art).
Sounds much like the critique of America's #1 selling contemporary artist, doesn't it? More than the "professional" critique, the popular defense of the work sounds like what we often hear this side of the pond as well:
[Vettriano's] much-cultivated status as the unappreciated outsider — "I don't get invited to their shindigs," he said of the Edinburgh art establishment — may irritate him, but it has also been a boon. Members of the public read the sneering commentary, Mr. Hewlett said, and think, "How dare this pompous prat lecture us about art?"

Admiring the sexy Vettrianos inside the Portland Gallery, Ms. Davison and her friend Sue Whittaker, 54, said they did not appreciate being told what was good and what wasn't.

"People might think, 'If I like these, I might not be very intelligent,' " Ms. Whittaker said.

Ms. Davison added, "But we know we are."
And so it goes, ad infinitum it seems, this resentment against the "pompous prats" who dare have an opinion that differs from that of somone's adoring public. Earlier in the article Ms. Davison noted:
"I find it exciting," said Ms. Davison, 57, admiring the paintings in the newly opened Vettriano Room at the Portland Gallery in Piccadilly. She was particularly taken with one that examines the smoldering erotic tension between a man in evening dress and a woman wearing a black slip, garter belt and red stilettos.

"It tells you a story," Ms. Davison said, "and you wonder what's going to happen next."
What's behind such resentment feels somewhat like a battle in the class war that dominates so much of American culture (and is certainly a big part of Great Britain's culture), but I think that's oversimplifying it somewhat, so I want to offer another read on the resentment. I don't know Ms. Whittaker or Ms. Davison from Eve, but to avoid an annoying round of pronoun dancing, let me use them as an example here.

It looks at first as if they are making a leap from disagreeing with a critique to assuming that said critic is suggesting they are not very intelligent (with suggestions of an inferiorty complex coming along for the ride). And I suppose they are making that leap, but what's actually happening outside their personal take on it involves two separate ideas they're conflating into an imagined insult.

What it boils down to is that IMO they are confusing how Vettriano's work sincerely makes them feel with "art appreciation" (in the sense of where that involves deciding whether art is good or bad). Now I don't doubt the sincerity of how this work makes them feel, but many things in their lives may make Ms. Whittaker or Davison feel as excited or warm as Vettirano's paintings do. Perhaps the laughter of a child, a brilliant sunset, the smell of musk, or whatever. None of these things are in and of themselves "art" though. The underlying assumption they're making is that because they like it, it must be good enough for the gallery/museum system that is designed to promote work into the history books. In other words, what they're asserting, ironically, is that their opinion is more important than that of the crticis who don't like the work. Second, no matter how much they truly "love" the work, that is irrelevant when considering whether it's good or bad art. There are criteria beyond emotional response that go into judgements about that.

For many folks that's a hard sell, I know. They really don't see why an emotional response is not enough in and of itself. If you can stand one more science parallel, I'll offer the story of a beloved doctor to illustrate why it's not. Imagine this doctor has served a community who trust him for years, even performed a "miracle" or two that's won him local fame and the hearts of his patients. In fact, he's a hero and they love him. Clearly he's an adequate health care provider. But when a team from the national health agency check in to review his practices for treating a series of illnesses (as they do every doctor in the region), what they discover is that this doctor's standard treatment for, say, diabetes, is actually putting his patients at a serious disadvantage. There are much better treatments that he's either unaware of or simply not using.

Now the doctor's patients consider him a hero, so it's not likely they'll take kindly to hearing the national agency team's assessment that he's a "bad" doctor, but the truth of the matter is he hasn't kept up with that latest advances and by perpetuating the treatments that have proven less effective, he's not worthy of the agency team's highest rating. It's certainly no reflection on the doctor's patients that they adore him even though the agency doesn't give him a good review, though. He's earned their adoration, just not the superior rating.

Of course, folks will argue that there are more objective measures for rating doctors than there are for rating artists, but it's fair to expect for both that not perpetuating inferior practices/ideas is a good benchmark (and we're right back at the pompous prat charges, I know, I know). Bottom line though is that it's not enough to love a person or work of art to make it "good." There are other criteria that come into it. If Ms. Whittaker or Davison wish to argue that Vettriano is good, they should discuss his work in those terms.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Clueless in Seattle

Bambino and I are heading to Seattle tomorrow for a quick trip with a trifold of excuses: celebrating our anniversary, visiting dear friends and collectors, and getting a snapshot of the gallery scene there. We are newbies to the scene, so we totally appreciate the awesome folks at Platform gallery who sent me a great list of what to see, and although it's probably more than enough, I'm insatiable and so seeking any additional ideas of how to pack in as much art as possible. Any and all suggestions are very welcome. Here's what's on our agenda thus far:

Other must-see venues or shows?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Painting a Collection" (or Collecting as Dialog) Open Thread

Quick administrative note: The next two weeks are shaping up to be such that bloggin will most likely be light. Because of how much work there is before we open the new space, the one feature here that requires the most research (the Artist of the Week) will resume after the PULSE fair.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Warhol is credited with saying (and I paraphrase): The most sincere form of art appreciation is writing a check. Of course Andy would think that---being an artist---but I'm not so sure that's as true today as it was when Andy offered it. The "art" of collecting has evolved since then, and writing a check doesn't seem as sincere in some ways as it had been. When I start to think about how it's changed, the parallel that keeps coming to mind is the practice of fishing. Collectors used to spend the time getting to know the work, the artist, the movement, etc., much as a person with his/her fishing pole had to learn what weight of the line is needed, what bait is best, and what conditions are most ideal to land that big one. Collecting for some folks today is more akin to trawling. Sure you have to toss out all that seaweed and release the occassional dolphin, but the sheer volume of your haul guarantees something in your net will be worth the effort.

I know that's not how dealers are supposed to talk, but if my reason for opening up shop was merely to move merchandise, I'd be selling digital cameras or iPods or whatever. What I love most about running a gallery is the dialog. That's why I was delighted to read the profile in the
NYTimes today of the Herberts:


When Anton and Annick Herbert began collecting art in this medieval Flemish city [Ghent, Belgium] more than 30 years ago, he was a textile machinery salesman and she worked in the fashion business. Now, as the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art devotes two-thirds of its space to showing what they have acquired, the Herberts still hardly fit the conventional profile of collectors.

Reflecting the collection's standing in the contemporary art world, the show's opening this month in Barcelona, Spain, attracted leading European museum directors and gallery owners, as well as many artists whose works the Herberts have bought. Yet they have never sought public attention and have exhibited part of their collection only twice before, in 1984 and 2000.

Further, they are not rich. True, they are also not poor, but they neither inherited nor earned a fortune. Rather, they worked to buy art. And since they acquired works by experimental artists they befriended who had not yet gained fame, they were able to build up a collection tightly focused on artists of their own generation.

"I've always said it's very bad for a collector to be rich, because he can buy anything; he can buy badly," Mr. Herbert, 67, said in an interview in the loft of the converted factory here where he and his wife are usually surrounded by their collection. "I don't think you need to spend huge amounts of money. The challenge is to achieve high results with little spending."
Of course I'm not meaning to suggest that, in comparison, all of today's younger collectors are less sincere; the Herberts were able to amass a good portion of their collection when collecting was easier. Today those collectors who wait until they have befriened an artist who has not yet gained fame won't be able to afford the work if it's as good as most works in the Herberts' collection. But there's something that rings so true in the Herberts' approach that I can't help but wish there was a way to inject more of the dialog into the overall process. And yes, that does seem to mean slowing it down:


"It's a slow process," Mr. Herbert said. "Every year, two or three times, we discuss what the collection should be and what it should not be. Finally, we decided that if we have Mike Kelley, we absolutely need Baldessari. We also make an imaginary collection, 10 or 15 artists who are not in our collection but in our head. Then you see Sigmar Polke in it."

Unsurprisingly, then, they also see collecting as an art. "That's what Duchamp said," Mr. Herbert said later over lunch, "You can 'paint a collection' together by choosing your works and bringing them into a context. We try to do that, and I think that in Barcelona you see a kind of vision of a whole."

In the current art market, though, they feel like loners. "We think that today the art world is too art-fair-minded, too money-minded, too market-minded," Mr. Herbert said.
Indeed that's a increasingly common complaint these days. Still, with the market as hot as it is, how can the budding collector with a modest budget and not too much free time slow down the process and increase the opportunities to engage in a dialog? If slowing everything down doesn't seem realistic, perhaps a more direct route is the ticket. Here are three quick ideas:

Open Studio tours: Whether at a local art school or some artist studio district, such tours are generally organized to offer quick surveys of lots of studios (and possibly tip you off to emerging trends), as well as an opportunity to engage the artists you find intriguing in a quick and painless conversation and see where that leads. Depending on where you live, you can probably learn where and when such tours are available through a local arts council or school. UPDATE: As Mr. Gursky rightly notes, open studios of undergraduate artists should be understood in the context that what you're seeing is often very different work from what this artist will be doing by the time they tuck that MFA under their belt. I think you can still enjoy undergraduate open studio tours (and possibly find work you love), but keep this in mind.


Private Studio tours: Many younger collectors don't know that your friendly neighborhood art dealer is often very happy to take you to the studios of his/her artists. It can take a while to organize, so ask well in advance, but if the open studio tour seems too unstructured, a guided tour might be for you. There generally will be an assumption that you're looking to buy if you request studio visits, but that's easy enough to clarify if you're just starting to look (just mention that you like to take your time).

Blogs: OK, so you've already figured out that you can read about the art world and see images on blogs and add to the conversation, but why not start your own (Blogger.com is free!!)? I'm not sure you won't attract a good deal of artists who are very sure their work is perfect for your collection despite all evidence to the contrary, but if you post images of your recent acquisitions and write about what interests you, eventually (through the magic of google and links) you might start up conversations with artists whose work you love but wouldn't have found otherwise.

Feel free to offer other ideas for how collectors without tons of free time or cash can engage in a deeper dialog with artists they like...but note: suggesting they just call you and come to your studio isn't exactly what I'm looking for here ;-)

UPDATE: Very happy to see that a collector in Indiana has run with the idea of bringing the dialog about his collection to a wider audience. Show him some love.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Art Scam?

So the other day I got an email from an artist I trust warning about a scam that's targeting young artists. I'm not sure whether the confidence artist/s are scamming to get artwork and then not pay for it or are somehow getting money from the artists (the adage about a stone and blood comes to mind, but I digress), but I read the email too quickly, can't find it now, and don't recall the details.

Anyway, today one of our artists forwarded an email that went:

Hello,

Compliments, I am Mrs. Mercy Roth from the U.K. I found your email address on Artist's Directory; I also viewed your online gallery and found different artworks of beautiful interests. I am pleased to let you know that you are very creative and I like your artworks. I would like to purchase your artworks of price ranges of 1,000 to 1,500 ranges only because i would also like to beautify our new apartment with your artworks. So please get back to me with your artworks available for sale either in a text file document or in a JPEG IMAGE.

Waiting for your response.

The wording struck me as odd (not authored by someone whose first language is English), and I told the artist I thought this might be the same scam, but to be sure I'd forward some jpegs and see what their response was. Well, in doing so I accidentally sent the same email I sent my artist (which started "think this is a scam") to "Mrs. Mercy Roth from the U.K." who, un-insulted and undaunted, replied:


Hello,

Kindly mail me the available artworks in a jpeg image with their prices of the price range i want so that i can chose the artworks i want. Kindly get back to me with your contact name and home address where to send cashier's cheques to for the billing of the artworks that I will chose. I have an impromptu travel to kenya to supervise our new house work project over there. So please work with my shipping agent and i will soon inform my busineess partners and shipping agent about you and your works.

I will be expecting your mail.
So this has all the hallmarks of a scam, none the least of which is the request for the artist's home address (at least I'm assuming she thought I was the artist responding with a suggestion to send jpgs) rather than the gallery address, mention of a forthcoming cashier's check, and the business partners who will contact you.

Now I guess I should be encouraged that even con artists feel emerging art is worth such elaborate efforts, but I'm curious if others have more info about Mrs. Mercy Roth and her under-decorated apartment in the UK.

UPDATE: Well, there seems to be enough information here to confirm that emails like this should set off alarm bells and at the very least get folks to withold any personal contact until confirmation of the interest seems more secure. Thanks to everyone for sharing your experiences. In response to this post, I received an email from a gallery employee (who asked to remain anonymous) that outlines really well how this works {I've changed a few names here to maintain the anonymity}:
The scam you note on your blog is one we were subjected to but from a different person. Ours was from a hotel in {Europe}. They ask for j-pegs, then say they want pieces. You bill them and they send too much money. When you tell them they've overpaid they tell you to send the extra to their shipper to cover those costs. Their check will bounce but their hope is that you send the shipper money (they requested a cashiers check) before you find out their check has bounced. I was suspicious so I sent no money to see if the check cleared. Once I informed them that the check bounced I never heard from them again. What made the deal seem like it might be real was that they said they were buying for a resort hotel in {Europe} that had just opened, I went to the hotel's website and the hotel apparently exists. I assume the scammers are just using the hotel's site or the scam is run by someone who works at the hotel. The check they sent us was drawn from the {American City} branch of a {South American} bank. We never reported this since it seems untraceable.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Countdown to Grand Opening

This past Wednesday, the gallery gang took an evening off to celebrate our new location right before the really really really intense weeks preceding our grand opening. After a quick tour of the new digs, we posed for a photo in the beautifully cobble-stoned 27th Street:

Friends and family (from left to right): Jane Harris, Leslie Brack, Helen Kor, Theodor (in stroller), Christopher Johnson, Anne Spurgeon (peeking out), Joe Fig, Trevor Wentworth, Alois Kronschläger, yours truly (peeking out), Thomas Lendvai, Iris Roberts, Chris Dorland, Rosemarie Fiore, and Michael Ferris. Not seen here, Nancy Baker, Jennifer Dalton, Nicholas Gaffney, Kate Gilmore, Andy Yoder, Max Carlos Martinez, and Joshua Stern

We then headed over to the Chelsea Piers for some bowling and pizza and perhaps a beer or two or (and later some number of Margaritas at Tequila's of which I've lost count, which explains the delay in posting this, but...).


Despite my Mid-Western upbringing and previous bragging about my prowress on the lanes, I and everyone else participating had our collective asses trounced by the deceptively laid-back Leslie Brack, who scored a 180.


Yes, there's a noticable lack of actual bowling in this shot, but most of us did at least get the shoes. From left: the adorable "Bambino" (in argyle sweater), Leslie Brack, Jennifer Dalton's back, Christopher Johnson, Amanda Church, Alois Kronschläger, and Rosemarie Fiore (seated).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Blake and the Bottomfeeders

There's a tale of greed and vulgarity in the NYTimes today that's almost epic in its turpitude. It's the tale of a series of brilliant watercolor illustrations and the darkest of human motivations. It began in a dusty old bookstore in Scotland and would wind its way via villians most vile to the auction block of that Gotham chopshop we call Sotheby's. From the Times:

The discovery was pure serendipity: nosing around in a dusty bookshop in Scotland on a spring day five years ago, a pair of British booksellers stumbled upon a weathered red leather case engraved with the words "Designs for Blair's Grave." Opening it, they found 19 Romantic yet macabre watercolors — depicting angels, sarcophagi, moonlit graveyards, arm-linked spirits — rendered in a subtle range of grays, black and pastels.

Five years, one lawsuit and an export battle later, the watercolors —illustrations created in 1805 by the poet and artist William Blake for a 1743 poem — are being heralded by scholars as the most important Blake discovery in a century.

Yet to the consternation of many experts, all 19 are headed for auction this spring at Sotheby's in New York, which plans to break up the set and sell them on May 2 for a projected $12 million to $17.5 million. Estimated prices of the watercolors, each mounted on a 13-by-10-inch backing, range from $180,000 to $260,000 for the inscribed title page to $1 million to $1.5 million for the most intricate and compelling scenes.

From the browsing booksellers who realized the strange pictures they found might be valuable, to the bookstore who was then suddenly very interested in the works they had neglected after it turned out the customers they let pay to have them appraised were right, to the London art dealer who snuck in ahead of the Tate and bought the drawings just to turn around and then charge double for them, these watercolors seem to corrupt everyone who comes into contact with them. She, the London art dealer, Libby Howie, virtually comes across as Smeagol from The Lord of the Rings in this account:

"From the moment I saw them, I was completely obsessed," she said. "In British drawings you never get these kinds of discoveries."

Ms. Howie said she bought them from the booksellers with the help of a group of investors for whom she has "a responsibility to get the best price."

Sir Nicholas, the Tate director, said he believed that Ms. Howie had paid £4.9 million ($7.7 million) for them. "She simply snuck in and bought them," he said. At the time, he added, it was his understanding that she was buying them for a private collector who wished to take them abroad.

After Howie doubled the price, though, the Tate, who had been trying to raise the money before, could no longer afford them. So Howie decided to break up the set and maximize the return on her investment, and Sotheby's was only too happy to help her. You can almost hear the echoing cackles of evil laughter behind her lame justification:
"One would always be happier to see them together," Ms. Howie said. "But in the end I think it's best to let people choose what they most like."

[Emotional outburst: One would be happier to see them together, would one? Then lower the price you diabolical freak! There's a museum with the staff and expertise to take excellent care of these wonderous works willing to pay what had been a fair and honest price for them....]

What's being lost here, of course, is an opportunity for scholars to easily study the set (well, all but the one that Yale already received years ago from Paul Mellon...how he came by that one is a mystery, but...). What's most disturbing about the unfortunate fate of this series is the idea that it went from sitting neglected in a dusty bookstore to having a group of investors and their staggeringly greedy ring-leader pay lip service to the idea that they're concerned where it ends up. I mean, Sotheby's at least doesn't pretend they're interested in anything more than profit here.

It's stories like this that make me want to take a shower when I think about the business I'm in.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Two Notes: One Sort of Early, One Rather Late

Note ONE: Getting around the Gallery Ghetto

Through the wonders of hit counters, a while ago I discovered a new online guide through the maze of galleries in that jungle called Chelsea. Upon discovering chelseaartgalleries.com I was pretty amazed at the sheer quantity of data this site was accumulating and organizing in very helpful ways. Not only were they organizing the galleries by street (which mirrors the way I gallery hop), but they listed all the galleries' artists, their staff, next-door neighbors, recent and upcoming exhibitions, reviews, and even which art fairs they have been or will be in. Morever, they have this amazing "Gallery Tour" tool that you can use to chart your course for any given trip to the hood (no more illegible notes on napkins, wahoo!!). And they've done it in an extraordinarily easy-to-navigate way. I've worked on developing the information architecture for large portal-esque sites, and I can tell theirs must be very well thought out.

OK, so I've indicated before I've worked on websites with focus groups and such, and the publisher of this new site had read that on my blog and emailed me with some flattering words about the blog and an invitation to offer feedback on his site. I am truly impressed by the effort so I wrote back with some comments and suggestions, a few of which they've implemented. Long story short: if you're new to gallery hopping, this is an amazing resource. It could use more (any) images of actual art and I think their recommendations for reading and featured artists need a clear POV (i.e., who's making these choices...what are their credentials?), but they've indicated they are interested in possibly offering feeds from blogs in addition to news, which could make it a good central location to get your up-to-the-minute news and gossip, as well as gallery info. There is the potential for it to try to be too many things for too many people, but as it stands now, the site is a welcome addition to the online resources designed to help you get around the gallery ghetto.

Note TWO: Don't Read Him

Although I've made some comments on Edna's site and had a few email chats with various folks engaged in the Charlie Finch debate that's raging across the art blogosphere, I've been quiet here. I've felt my blood boil from time to time while reading Charlie's columns on artnet. He's a rather rude pundit, to put it bluntly. On a few occassions, when he peppered his prose with rather nasty anti-gay statements, I considered taking him to task, but then cooled down a bit and went back and re-read what he was writing with a more open mind. OK, so it was generally still offensive, but the exercise didn't kill me.

Now I'm sure I'm going to get myself in trouble here, because I seem to be in the minority of art bloggers in thinking it's terribly wrong to call for artnet.com to fire Charlie (I consider libel, blatant falsehoods, and open calls for violence sackable offenses, but short of those, I support freedom of expression...even for bigots and blowhards...and more than just freedom of expression, I very, very strongly believe in a dialog...an exchange of ideas, even highly emotional and politically incorrect ones...such exchanges are vital to progress IMO). I will admit that having culled through Charlie's old columns last night I can attest that it's an appalling collection of horrendously sexist text, and so I'm happy to see his public is finally beating him up over it, but there's a very simple way to avoid being offended by him...don't be his public...don't read him.

I know that sounds rather simple of me, but I mean it sincerely. Before starting this blog, I spent a great deal of my time writing for the wonderful pan-partisan political blog Obsidian Wings. With a commitement to offering a true spectrum of political thought, the site has writers on the far left, central left, middle, central right and far right. As time went on, the majority of the readership tended to be central or far left, so to balance it out we invited a controversial, stauchly right writer to join the group. In the beginning, each thread to his posts was a firestorm, and the readership consumed untold megabytes insisting that we, the moderators, kick him out. They told us they didn't appreciate coming to site (which had authors' names at the end of each post) and being surprised that any given text they were reading might be offensive to them. Eventually the moderators came to a compromise and agreed to make each author put a byline at the top of their entries so that readers could see who a post was by and just skip the ones by those writers they knew would upset them. It worked. That rightwing writer still gets plenty of angry comments, but at least the readers have only themselves to blame if they're upset. More importantly, many of his most vocal opponents have grudingly admitted over time that they have learned from him.

Now it's totally possible that there's nothing Charlie Finch can teach that's worth learning. I'm not suggesting anyone should subject themselves to his repugnant laspes in taste or manners just to glean some nugget of insight. Quite the contrary...Don't like Charlie Finch? Don't read him. But I do feel strongly that a spectrum of opinion is important in all fields. More than that, I feel very strongly that even the offensive have a right to their voice. Suggesting that artnet.com shouldn't have such a voice, ever, is backdoor censorship to me. Write blistering critiques of his abusive prose...email and complain to the editor...email and complain to the advertisers on the site, but stop short of insisting he be fired...that's a very serious slippery slope. Especially when it's so easy to just not read him.

UPDATE: A fellow blogger has emailed a group of art bloggers to point out that in addition to how objectionable Charlie's article on Natalie Frank is, another issue he deserves to be taken to task over (and artnet.com as well) is that Charlie owns Natalie's work. This blogger suggests that praising her work in such a context (without disclosing his ownership) is a conflict of interest. I hesitate to weigh in definitively on that (I own pieces by several of the "Artist of the Week" artists I've highlighted and haven't disclosed that each time), but I do think given the readership of artnet.com, Charlie should have noted this detail.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why Can't More Artists Paint Like Andrews? (or, Philip Hensher Goes Off the Deep End)

British journalist, critic and author Philip Hensher has raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that the art market needs a good old-fashioned "devastating crash" to fix what ails it. Actually, he suggests the market needs a crash in order to fix what ails art. From the Guardian:

The monstrous figures now being achieved are all very well, but in the end they are anti-art, based largely on ideas of what will hold its value best. It not only fetishises art beyond all reason, but effectively shifts art back into the private realm, since no museum can justify paying such prices. It also damagingly squashes one of the most vital factors in the development of taste, superficial trends and fashions, by insisting that all signed art is potentially good, because - look at the index - it outperforms any other investment. A small but devastating crash would, in the long run, do the world of good.
Lord knows, I hate to dispel such a passionate rant, but, alas, someone has to do the heavy lifting here since Hensher apparently didn't take the time in between polishing his hyperbole to check his logic (or his bias). Let's look a bit more closely at Mr. Hensher's thesis:
When even the most monstrous works of art cost millions, it's time for a price crash
Philip Hensher
The great London auction houses have been having rather a good week. One of Chaim Soutine's celebrated paintings of a flayed beef carcass sold at Christie's for £7.8m. At the same house, later in the week, two Francis Bacons went for around £5m each. Down the road, at Sotheby's, a private collection of Edvard Munch exceeded predictions dramatically. Eight of Fred Olsen's Munchs proved very strong; one - a perfectly hideous Summer Day - went for £6.2m. A major Gauguin went for £12.3m at the same sale. Later in the week, Lucian Freud's well-known portrait of Bruce Bernard fetched £3.5m. Perhaps more tellingly, Sotheby's sold an Anthony Caro steel sculpture on the same evening for £1.3m. That may now sound like small change. But it's worth pointing out that the previous auction-house record for an Anthony Caro, an artist with a huge international reputation and a long-running career, was £77,675.
OK, so from the title and this cherry-picking of works from different auctions (and different auction houses, no less) it's clear Hensher feels that now that even "monstrous" art (e.g., Soutines, Bacons, Munchs) are doing well at auction, clearly the market is out of control. It's fair enough that he, personally, may not like such works, but a quick browse through the auction records demonstrates that he could have chosen any number of perfectly pleasant works to illustrate the point that the market is historically strong. But why waste the opportunity to bloviate against art you resent when it's simple enough to disguise your prose as a commentary on the market? Think I'm overstating my case? Read on...
Of course, this is not a universal phenomenon. It was surprising to learn that, at one of these extraordinary events, a painter as splendid and celebrated as Michael Andrews broke a record for his work at the relatively modest amount of £176,000.

OK, so what Philip Hensher doesn't mention here is that he wrote on Michael Andrews in an issue of Modern Painters (Vol 15 no 2). Still, its' clear enough that he resents the fact that "monstrous" works by Soutine or Bacon earn so much more than so those by his favorite artists. Further, what the Guardian article also doesn't tell you, but Hensher's bio does, is that he wrote his doctorate at Cambridge on 18th Century English painting, suggesting he's not exactly an unbiased judge of contemporary art.

Now, here's the thing. I don't necessarily disagree that the market could use a correction (I shudder at the thought that it would affect my business, but I do understand enough to know it's a bit over-active at the moment), but I really can't endorse the sort of lapse in logic whereby one concludes that because works he finds unappealling are doing well that a "devastating crash" is the remedy. I mean it's not like artists are going to conclude they should return to pastoral landscapes and the like anytime soon, even if a crash comes to pass.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Artist of the Week 02/13/06

One of the first associations I make when I think of Minimalism is simple geometry---squares, cubes, grids, cylanders, etc., what Rosalind Krauss termed "an immediate, legible geometry" (Passages, New York, 1977 pg. 57). The "actual materials, actual colors and actual space" guidelines of the movement are immediately, to my mind, about wood, glass, brick and steel, signifying only the perfectly symmetrical objects they form. But that's a historical view of Minimalism, and perhaps not an absolute one. What's "immediate" or "legible" to one generation can be virtually remedial to the next as technology and other forces speed up our capacity for "seeing" more complex forms (there's a whole essay in here somewhere, but I'll save it for another time).

I had these thoughts come to mind while considering the work of New York-based artist Sharon Louden...well, while reading the
press release for her current solo exhibition at the Neuberger Museum:

Though her work is highly abstract and minimal, it has tremendous impact. “The question of how it is made arises time and time again, as does a vivid discussion of the many currents in the work—the psychological, sexual, and formal,” notes Dede Young, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Neuberger Museum of Art, and curator of the show. Louden’s lines project an attitude that can be enigmatic and often humorous, expressing a personal, internal dialogue that ranges in tone from serious and tense to surprising and entertaining. Her minimal expression has a maximal impact.
Yes, OK, so there's a difference between "Miminalist" and "minimal," but I read it as the "Minimalist" the first time and that got me to thinking about Sharon's work in relation to that of Stella or Judd or Flavin, etc., and whether they had missed something about how immediate and legible the shapes are in Sharon's work (at least to a generation that devours increasingly complicated shapes and textures in its architecture, music, and films). Sharon (disclaimer: who, with her husband, Jazz musician Vinson Valega, are good friends of the family) has a very organic vocabulary (consider these works:)...


Sharon Louden, The Lingering, 2004, Gel medium, acrylic, and watercolor on wood panel, 35" x 30" (image from
Numark Gallery's artnet.com page).


Sharon Louden, Flaps, Watercolor and gel medium on clear mylar 25" x 25" (image from Metaphor Contemporary Art gallery website).

...but is known for sculptures and installations that adhere to Minimalism's "actual materials, actual colors and actual space guidelines" for the most part and defy simple symbolic readings (see image at top of installation at
Numark Gallery, who Sharon works with in Washington,DC...she was recently picked up by Oliver Kamm 5BE Gallery, here in New York as well).

OK, so perhaps I'm stretching a bit here, but that's because Sharon's work is difficult to describe...it's mostly experiential. As the
Art in America reivew of her 2004 exhibition at Anthony Grant gallery put it, she has a "propensity for the enigmatic gesture" but (you'll see why I keep coming back to this idea of a updated take on Minimalism) also noted that her works are "small triumphs of material being." Here's one of her earlier installations:


Sharon Louden, Fans, 2000-2001, Stockinette, aluminum wire, glue; dimensions variable. Shown here as a part of "Boomerang: Collectors Choice" at Exit Art, New York, NY; November 9, 2001-January 12, 2002. Image from
artist's website).

The Neuberger exhibition includes Sharon's recent animation works, representing a new body that she's been working toward for years. She's quoted in the museums's press release explaining, “For years, I’ve wanted to express my forms and gestures in animation, and I’ve thought about and observed line in motion. The medium [animation] is demanding. Once you make something move, it immediately develops a personality. There’s a linear progression in developing these forms, which become quite personal.” Here's a still from one:


Sharon Louden, Footprints, 2006, Animated film still (Image from Neuberger Museum of Art website).


Frustratingly, the blizzard worked to make it imposible for me to get to Sharon's opening at the Neuberger this past weekend, but now that it's already melting, I encourage you all to make it up there and see this survey of this gorgeous, accomplished work.

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

Blizzard has us holed up inside, we're both online, the cabin fever is building, but I startled poor bambino when I hooted in response to this headline:
Cheney Accidentally Shoots Fellow Hunter
Yup...this is the man we're trusting to keep us safe from the terrorists...well I, for one, will sleep much better now.


Friday, February 10, 2006

Barry Munitz, Out at Getty

Modern Art Notes' Tyler Green's got the scoop on the today's big art news, posting an internal email to staff explaining that Getty Trust CEO Barry Munitz was exiting stage left, very quickly, with no severance and actually agreeing to pay back $250,000 to the trust. Now I'm no expert on the ins and outs of the controversy, and it's always a fool's game to convict someone in the court of public opinion, but these certainly don't sound like the actions of a clear conscience. From the Los Angeles Times:

Barry Munitz abruptly ended his controversial eight-year tenure as head of the J. Paul Getty Trust on Thursday, agreeing to resolve "any continuing disputes" by paying the Getty $250,000 and giving up severance pay and benefits that would have exceeded $1.2 million.

Munitz admitted no wrongdoing, and the trust did not specify the issues underlying his resignation. But the decision came after more than a year of relentless controversy at the Getty, much of which has centered on Munitz's leadership.

As Tyler notes, modestly downplaying his own part in reporting this story, The LA Times has been beating the drum about Munitz for quite some time. Now, if only we could get that crew to cover the White House and Congress.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

We've Been Talkin' 'Bout Jackson, Ever Since the Fire Went Out

So there's a part of me that really wants the Matter's Pollocks to be real. It's romantic, this notion that hidden in someone's attic or closet are these long-forgotten works by an art world legend. I don't have any dog in this race at all mind you...I admire, but don't personally like, Pollock's work. But it makes for great drama.

That is, until some killjoy with a
fractal geometry computer program comes along.
A physicist who is broadly experienced in using computers to identify consistent patterns in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock has determined that half a dozen small paintings recently discovered and claimed by their owner to be original Pollocks do not exhibit the same patterns.

The analysis showed that the techniques in this painting, found in 2003 by man whose parents were friends of Pollock, differ from those in the top work. The finding, by Richard P. Taylor, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, does not prove that Pollock did not paint the works, among a cache of 24 paintings found in 2003 in Wainscott, N.Y., by Alex Matter, whose father, Herbert, and mother, Mercedes, were friends of Pollock. But it casts serious doubt on their authenticity, even as Alex Matter is planning for a major exhibition of the paintings this year. And the finding could deepen a dispute among a once-unified group of Pollock scholars who have disagreed publicly over the works' origins.
In case you haven't been following this story, Alex Matter has been organizing an exhibition of the paintings, with an eye toward cashing in, of course. So he has quite a bit invested in the art-buying public believing these were indeed painted by Jackson. He used to have images of some of the works on his website, http://www.pollockexhibit.com/, but all you can see on that site now are responses to The New York Times article and counter arguments by Matter's expert, Dr. Ellen G. Landau, who has a fairly public battle raging with her ex-colleague, Eugene V. Thaw (an art dealer who once worked with Dr. Landau on the Pollock foundation's authentication board), who thinks they're fakes. The essence of Matter's rebuttal is that the technology is problematic, or at least not conclusive:

Fractal Analysis is still a very new and contested field in art authentication and is but a small part of a much broader range of technical investigations.
Now it's easy to suggest "Of course, they're gonna say that...they want to sell these paintings...blah..blah...blah." But they're not the only ones questioning the relevance of the fractal geometry study. The supersmart Quantum of Wantum tribe offer a trifold of concerns with Taylor's study (if you're like me and not familiar with some of these terms, you'll have to read the whole thing on their site, where they kindly link to definitions):

The first question is the validity of the assumption (I assume it’s an assumption) of the scale-free nature of his measurements. In particular, I’ll mention Cosma Shalizi’s Notebook on Power Laws and All That, which should be required reading around here (and in many parts of the web). Note his note at the end,

If I had, oh, let’s say fifty dollars for every time I’ve seen a slide (or a preprint) where one of us makes a log-log plot of their data, and then reports as the exponent of a new power law the slope they got from doing a least-squares linear fit, I’d at least not grumble. If my colleagues had gone to statistics textbooks and looked up how to estimate the parameters of a Pareto distribution, I’d be a happier man. If any of them had actually tested the hypothesis that they had a power law against alternatives like stretched exponentials, or even log-normals, I’d think the millennium was at hand.

So I don’t know if Taylor has done any of that or not, but there’s no sign in either the NYT or the Nature correspondence. So I’d consider that my First Concern.

I think the second concern here is, even if the assumption of a Power Law is correct, how good a classifier is the power-law exponent? This is more of a statistical question, and it’s one that I don’t see any of the newspaper journalists asking (and Taylor doesn’t appear to volunteer it? I can’t tell; maybe it just didn’t make it into print.) In other words, how well does this statistical process work on all the new Pollocks? On all the old Pollocks? How often can it tell apart different painters? What about different painters with the same style? (That is, different drip-painters.) In fact, even another quick Google search on this brings up evidence that other people are asking the same questions, and that the answers might not always be positive. You could probably find more on this, on your own. So that’s my Second Concern.

And then there’s the Third Concern, which is how I think this stuff is (or appears to be) covered in the press? Taylor’s not the only guy doing this general kind of work; how about getting a comment from another mathematically-astute forensic-art mathematician, when you write an article like this? .... Or even just a professional
statistician
. I’m not asking that every journalist have also been a math-major — but if it’s not your area of expertise, at least find someone for whom it is? In general, I think issues like this (even asking questions about the power, specificity, and applicability of these kinds of statistical techniques would be nice) are (a) important, and (b) woefully neglected.

OK, so even Taylor willingly admits that the study is inconclusive:

"Certainly my pattern analysis shouldn't be taken in isolation but should be integrated with all the known facts — including provenance, visual inspection and materials analysis," he said.
but I think all this fuss was totally unnecessary. All I needed to know the one painting, at least, was made by Pollock was to look at it. It's clearly a self-portrait:



You don't see it?

Look to the leftside of the canvas. Here, I'll highlight it for you.


Why it's the spitting image of the man...and if that's not all the evidence anyone would need, well....

Yes, please consider this an open thread.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How Do You Solve a Problem Like MoMAtrium?

Tyler Green has thrown out an intriguing challenge to bloggers.:

MoMA's atrium is the most unfortunate, wasted bit of museum space since I.M. Pei brought triangulation into museum architecture. The MoMA atrium turns paintings into specks of color that squatting on tundra. It turns Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk into a mere meeting place, lowering it to the level of the Stan Musial statue outside St. Louis' Busch Stadium.

True, MoMA has had some successes in the space: Robert Rauschenberg's Rebus had a commanding presence in the atrium, so too the current Cy Twombly. But that's not exactly a great batting average. (Doh!)

So what should MoMA do with the space? Bloggers: Suggest. I'll keep an eye out for blogged ideas and in a few days I'll link to the best suggestions,
as well as present my idea for the space.
OK, so you heard the MAN. What should MoMA do about the space?

I know it's currently integral to the visitor navigation between floors and such, but I'd love to see it sealed off. Totally. Make it a huge air-tight aquarium, viewable through the many windows and balconies and let Damien Hirst float a thousand dead sharks and other fish in it.

Don't think he wouldn't.

apologies in advance for shamelessly lifting the MoMa photo above from Allen Little's blog.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Two Quick Lists (Open Thread)

Pressed for time today, unfortunately, but wanted to share two quick lists. The first was published by artprice.com, who tabulated the top 10 selling artists (how else would you rank them, eh?) of 2005. Only one of them is not dead. Only one of them is not white. And so shamefully we need a new word for "shameful," not even one of them is a woman. I'll excerpt their commentary to leave what I found the most interesting...you can read the rest at the link above.

List I:

The Top 10 artists grossed USD 576 million in 2005, compared to USD 393 million in 2003, a figure that represents 13.6% of the total art auction market. Unusually, a contemporary artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and an old master, Canaletto, were among the top sellers. The top three names however are unchanged...

1- Pablo PICASSO (1881-1973): USD 153,174,166

2- Andy WARHOL (1928-1987): USD 86,681,869
Warhol continues his inexorable rise. His work gained another 21% in value over the year.

3- Claude MONET (1840-1926): USD 61,541,732
As we said last year, the market for Claude Monet’s work is progressively drying up. Only 22 Monets changed hands in 2005, compared to 26 in 2004, and while his prices may be rising again, the historical scarcity of work led to a 24% fall in his total sales, and cost him a place in the rankings.

4- Antonio Canal CANALETTO (1697-1768): USD 55,473,710
This was the year’s big surprise. Seeded 239 in 2004, the Venetian master leapt up the rankings to number 4 with a string of million-plus sales in two frenetic days at auction in London on July 6 and 7.

5-
Mark ROTHKO (1903-1970): USD 41,556,341

6-
Marc CHAGALL (1887-1985): USD 36,592,410
Chagall makes it back into the Top 10 on the back of a 25% increase in sales volume over 2005 compared with the previous year. His rank owes much to his prolific output.

7- Willem KOONING de (1904-1997): USD 36,581,311

8-
Fernand LÉGER (1881-1955): USD 35,701,947

9-
Jean-Michel BASQUIAT (1960-1988): USD 35,630,019
Jean-Michel Basquiat is the world’s biggest-selling contemporary artist at auction, and retains his place in the Top 10 after twelve sales for over a million dollars in twelve months.

10- Lucian FREUD (1922): USD 33,725,319

The other list was inspired by Michael Kimmelman's article on the Danish cartoons in the Times. Kimmelman is the man I've recently begun to think of as the "boy in the bubble" critic (see this report on Tyler's site of his inexplicable dis against the Carnegie International...I attended that ceremony, and he was otherwise a charming MC, but that elistist New York-centric swipe made my jaw drop to my lap...the Carnegie International is consistently among the very best of American surveys, bar none).

Today, though, he pissed me off with an observation that suggests he doesn't read the blogs (which is insulting enough) or that he doesn't consider them part of the "art world" proper (which, if the case, seems remarkably short-sighted, but...). In an otherwise thoughtful, if oddly late, opinion on the art-related issues surrounding the protests over the cartoons, Mr. Kimmelman today offers the following:


As is so often the case in the culture wars, choosing sides can be exasperating. Modern artists and their promoters forever pander to a like-minded audience by goading obvious targets, hoping to incite reactions that pass for political point-scoring. The twist in the Danish case is only that a conservative paper provoked Muslims. One may be excused for wondering whether the silence of the art world has something to do with the discomfort of staking a position where neither party offers the sanctuary of political correctness.

Er...um...silence?

List II:

Again, I'm very pressed for time today, but this quick list was assembled in mere moments. Far from being silent on the issue, in some quarters at least, the art world is positively roaring about the cartoons and what they mean for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The fact that it took the chief art critic at the city's largest daily paper this long to weigh in suggests other traditional media are also simply editing their opinions. Either way, it was an odd charge to make. Consider this an open thread (although if you wish to take up the issue of the cartoons again, might I suggest this pre-existing thread).

UPDATE: Now that I've had some coffee, I see I may have misread Mr. Kimmelman's article. It seems he may be criticizing the art world for not provoking Muslims before the Danish paper did, or at least for not discussing the broader issue of the clash of cultures. If that was his intent, it wasn't made very clearly, but it would make my critique a bit off the mark.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Artists Who Don't Learn Their Art History Are Doomed to Repeat It

One of the possibly unforseen consequences of the astronomical and seemingly limitless increases in the cost of a college education in this country is that students are beginning to act like the consumers that institutions of higher learning are treating them as. This may be partially due to the trickle down from continuing education programs, where "students" are generally adults who've already been working as professionals in their fields but need to brush up or branch out (i.e., parents of the college students), but I think it's also due to the growing sophistication of the American consumer culture. Either way, college students are demanding much more for their money, especially with regards to textbooks and other expensive "learning tools." Feedback to the publishers and suppliers of such materials (disclaimer: which I'm privvy to on a regular basis) is increasingly demanding, with more and more students making crystal clear what they expect for their money.

I can't help but feel that this has contributed to the pending changes in art history textbooks many publishers are implementing or considering. Alexandra Peers offers the following overview in
ArtNews:

College art-history textbooks are undergoing an extreme makeover. Publishers and editors, stung by criticism that they have lost touch with their young readership and driven by market forces that may have little to do with fresh artistic scholarship, are literally rewriting art history—more often and more aggressively than ever before.

Recent revisions of major textbooks as well as those still in the works give greater historical significance to a long list of subjects from Islamic sculpture to pre-Columbian art to photography to video. And forget art for art’s sake: the editors of the twelfth edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, a 1,179-page tome that came out last year, said that they sought to include the intended purpose of every work of art featured, the physical environment for which it was made, its historical context, and even the patron who commissioned it.
Of course this reflects a philosophical tussle as well as a consumer-culture one (i.e., boiled down neatly in the article as a question of "Is 'contextual analysis' the new 'deconstructivism'?"), and the article goes on to critique the leading textbooks and outline the debate (which I hope to address in another post), but the following caught my eye:

To consider these problems, the College Art Association (CAA) is about to begin an assessment of as many as 40 or more textbooks. In a break with tradition, some will be reviewed by a student as well as by a scholar. The project, which will be announced this month at the group’s conference in Boston, is already creating a buzz and is likely to raise eyebrows—and hackles. [emphasis mine]
I find this a bit alarming actually. I realize that student feedback is sought when developing textbooks of various disciplines (especially with an eye toward page layout, organization, writing style, etc.), and perhaps that's the limit of what's being proposed for review here, but the way this was written, it suggests to me that because students are demanding more value for their money (and let's face, textbooks are expensive), that is being misinterpreted/misaddressed as if students already know what they should taught.

Today, professors say, Art History 101 is a popular class, filled with students, mostly female, who think that newer media, outsider art, and their own cultures are underrepresented in their texts. These students tend to know less about history and classical mythology than the students of Janson’s era, and they are telling their professors that they feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of material they have to memorize.

“The standard textbooks do not begin to address our needs,” says [College Art Association president Larry Silver]. Despite the reprintings and the minor changes to the canon, “the art-history survey text has remained virtually unchanged for half a century or more. In the meantime, students who take art history have become increasingly diverse—with interests more engaged with gender or social issues than a generation ago—and they have wider backgrounds.” At Penn, the art-history survey class has been reworked to include not only painting and sculpture but prints, maps, photography, and cinema, “to highlight the rise of a public sphere of visual culture, culminating with TV and the Internet,” Silver says.

Some schools, such as Columbia and Wesleyan, have thrown out art-history textbooks altogether. Other schools still use them, although they find them seriously lacking. “Over the past 12 years, we have worked with, and been dissatisfied with, almost all of the major survey texts—we flood our students with too many places, titles, subjects, and dates,” says [David Levine, of Southern Connecticut State University].
I suspect I'll get myself into trouble with this, but I offer it sincerely: the canon is not as irrelevant or arbitrarily valuable as this suggests. Don't get me wrong...I'm not underestimating students (they have every right to tailor their education to their personal needs and goals...that's why schools have electives), it's just that I think the primary objection by students ("too many places, titles, subjects, and dates") is being misunderstood by both students and instructors.

Stay with me here...

When faced with criticism about how inaccessible contemporary art can be, I often argue that fine art is parallel to science: it's a highly complicated discipline that demands a certain investment to understand. I argue that whereas the average art viewer feels qualified to dismiss work that seems too heady as worthless because they don't understand the vocabulary or subtlties of it, that same viewer would most likely accept that they can't understand the details of quantum physics or neurobiology and not feel that makes those disciplines "elitist." Further, I argue that many of the best artists are just as brilliant, if not more so, than our top scientists...that they research their explorations so thoroughly they're THE expert in the field.

Based on that opinion, however, I can't accept that artists can do without learning the fundamentals of art history any more than I can the notion that a general internist can do without learning the fundamentals of anatomy. In fact, I think that's a very useful parallel for how to move forward in teaching art history in this age where (and rightly so) what's taught needs to expand beyond the traditional dead-white-man-focused canon.

There's a film or TV show (can't recall right now) where a med student is frustrated because he "just doesn't get" anatomy. He's an analytical sort and there's no rhyme or reason that he can use to grasp what the concepts are. His mentor tells him he's going about it all wrong: anatomy is not a conceptual subject...it's a matter of memorization. Passing anatomy class takes a mindnumbing degree of repetition and regurgitation, but it's a very valuable tool. To be a doctor, one simply must memorize the parts of the body and their categories...it's an essential vocabulary.

The Western canon (like other canons) is simply that, as well: a vocabulary. It's something one learns, tucks under one's belt, and then moves on. But it serves as a tool for communicating to others...the whole notion behind visual art in the first place. Art students who don't learn these vocabularies are less likely to be able to speak the languages necessary to 1) advance the dialog or 2) demonstrate that what they're offering hadn't already been served up.

Now, I don't think the revisions in the textbooks being discussed evidence any particular disagreement with that position, but I can see signs already that younger artists are leaning away from the memorization of the canons and using politics as an excuse when the real reason is how overwhelming it has become the way it's taught. I can't believe that they can't appreciate the achievements of the artists who came before them or how a good grounding in their vocabularies will serve their own art. (Just because artist X offends one's contemporary worldview politically, doesn't mean his/her innovation isn't a good trick to keep in one's bag.) What's needed is a new way to teach the canon (more like anatomy is taught), not an abandonment of it.

Oh, I've heard the argument that all that "stuff" is more stiffling than helpful (I've never felt that's anything more than an excuse for a lack of time or attention, but...), but the real danger here is not that artists will be overburdened with ideas and images while they're in college, but rather that at some point in the not-too-distant future some young artist is going to pat him/herself on the back for the astonishing "leap forward" they've made by placing a store-bought urinal on a pedestal.

Consider this a painted bulls-eye on my forehead...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Artist of the Week 02/06/06

The division of painting into the broad categories of "abstract" vs. "representational" has always been a bit murky for me. Oh, I can categorize and file away any work as such if pressed, but the designations are somewhat false IMO because they're not natural in a way. Long before anyone ever put paint to canvas, people were "seeing" shapes of things in abstract fields, like clouds or clusters of stars. I do this constantly. Even when faced with a wall of monochromatic tiles like, say, those surrounding my bathtub (where I'll allow myself the ultimate luxury of a soak now and then), the smudge on one tile will combine with the crack in another to eventually take shape in my semi-conscious imagination and form the headlight and tire of a box-shaped car, or whatever. My point is we naturally look for recognizable objects within otherwise abstract fields.

Well, most of us, that is. Some of us do it the other way around. Like German painter Cornelius Völker. Represented in Munich, and now New York, by the excellent GrimmRosenfeld gallery (image above from their website), Cornelius starts with an object or two and explores their potential for revealing insights about abstraction. This following painting demonstrates much better than I can explain what that means:


Cornelius Volker, Hände (Hands), 2002, Oil on canvas, 160 x 240 cm (image from Theodor Lindner website).

IN what's perhaps one of the clearest descriptions of an artist exploration I've ever read, the following passage from a GrimmRosenfeld press release explains further:

Völker's pictures, despite what is represented in them, are about the medium of painting itself. He is more interested in the way paint depicts rather than the way it can be made to narrate or conjure relatedness to history or nature. His preference for mundane subjects allows a disconnect from figuration in order to experiment with the physicality of paint, and the way that it is manipulated by an artist's hand. In the same manner as Wayne Thiebaud or David Hockney employ the vocabulary of painting for a simplified representation, Völker uses simplified representation to discuss the vocabulary of painting.

Völker's understanding of this relationship-material, gesture-provides us an entrée into his unique, simultaneous utilization of figuration and abstraction. Intelligent modeling of bodies breaks into exquisite, abstracted bursts of color and back again. In Völker's Hands series, painted skirts become more than simply paintings of skirts: instead they are vivid, dynamic abstractions placed where a skirt would be.

I have some mutual friends with Cornelius and have had the pleasure of socializing with him from time to time. Movie star handsome and always impecabbly dressed, he's as smart and pleasant a person as you're ever likely to meet, and despite the way everyone in our circles raves about his work, he's modest and gracious and seemingly always calm. The fireworks, apparently, he saves for the inner workings of his paintings, like this earlier one:


Cornelius Völker, Puttiklatsch, 1997, Oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm (Image from GrimmRosenfeld website.)

Again, whoever's writing the press releases at GrimmRosenfeld deserves a raise. I can't imagine anyone improving on this further explanation from another:

[Cornelius'] work is dominated by the idea to lead the medium painting back to itself. It is the awareness, that the media, which [with] the painter works, will always produce only painting. That leads Völker to push the substantial connection between material and subject to the point, where they seem to merge, but actually it categorical divides them. At this the color transforms itself through its materiality in the painted object and reproduces it in the substantial texture and dimensions.The more we surrender ourselves to the pictures, the more we will swim in the painter guided stream of colors, which comes close to real figures to de-realize them at the same moment. We find ourselves oscillating between realizing and de-realizing, between formation and decomposition to get back in the end to the colors, generating this whole process.The dispute with abstraction leads Völker to assemble abstract passages in a figurative context.

It's a cliche, I know, but there remain few things more impressive for me than an artwork's ability to get the viewer to look at his/her world in a new way. Cornelius accomplishes that again and again in the most charming of ways. Here are two more recent images:


Cornelius Völker, Frisur, 2005, Oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm (Image from Galerie Detterer website)



Cornelius Völker, Hund 2 (dog 2), Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm(Image from Theodor LIndner website)

IMPULSE

Quick plug to note we're very excited to be debuting a major new work by gallery artist Jennifer Dalton in the IMPULSE section of the upcoming PULSE New York art fair, March 10-13, 2006. Hosted in one of my favorite NYC locations, the 69th Regiment Armory (at Lexington Ave and 26th Street), home to the legendary 1913 Armory Show, PULSE has positioned itself as a bridge between the established and alternative art fairs. There's a lot happening in New York that week, but be sure to make time to come by and see Jen's new piece...it's simply brilliant.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Our Collective Cultural Heritage

Well the big news in the art world this morning is the surprise decision by the Met to reverse course after 30 years and agree to return their prized 2,500-year-old Greek vase, the envy of antiquities freaks everywhere, the "Euphronios krater." That's a photo of it to the right...isn't it simply sublime? New York is surely going to miss it. But at least we'll be able to sleep better, our politically correct consciences clear, knowing it's back in the land from whence it came: Greece.

No...wait...reading the article in the Times more carefully, I see that it's not being returned to Greece, but rather to Italy.

Hmmmm....now that's confusing. From the Times:

The massive krater, a vessel once used to mix wine and water, was painted by Euphronios, one of the most important Greek vase painters. The krater, painted in the red-figured style, depicts the Greek god Hermes directing Sleep and Death as they carry a son of Zeus for burial.
So a vessel painted by one of the most important Greek vase painters is being claimed as belonging in Italy...er...uh...

OK, so I'm being silly, there's strong evidence that the vase was looted from a tomb near Rome, and it's fair to assume that the Roman Etruscan who owned it bought it fair and square, but I want to highlight why I think there's a bit of farce involved in such disputes. Again, from the Times:

[Malcolm Bell, a University of Virginia archaeologist,] and other archaeologists have concluded that the [silver pieces the Met is also returning with the vase] form a single set looted from a third century B.C. house at the site. "I hope very much that when the silver set returns, it does so in its entirety," Mr. Bell said yesterday by telephone from Sicily, calling the Met's proposal a turning point.

He and others stressed the importance of reconnecting ancient objects to the settings in which they were used and found.

"The Euphronios krater was dug up from a tomb," said Giuseppe Proietti, a senior official in charge of cultural heritage for the Italian government. "Alone on exhibit it is aesthetically beautiful, but alongside other materials from a burial site it becomes something more. It's like reading just one page of a book. You will never experience the same pleasure derived from reading the entire novel." [emphasis mine]

My objection here is to this demarcation point, the place where it was found and assumed used (for all we know that vase was looted from somewhere else and hidden in this house). I mean, why stop where it was found? Why not return the vase to Greece? Euphronios lived and worked in Athens, not Rome. Athens has museums. The idea that the context of the collector's world is somehow more important than the context of the artist's world seems an odd one.

At a certain point, you have to begin to bring into such decisions the fact that humans migrate and have for our entire existence on this planet. By moving around constantly we share a collective cultural heritage. I'm not aruging that the Met should get to keep the vase...if it came to them through what were clearly illegal means when they acquired it, they should have to give it up. But the idea that Italy has some moral high ground here to stand on seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Just sayin...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Danish Cartoons

On the heels of our conversation about the scrapping of a public sculpture in Venice and Berlin for fear it would offend Muslims, supposed "outrage" is spreading across the Muslim world over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in unflattering ways. From the accounts I've read it indeed seems the outrage at least began a bit manufactured (i.e., why would it become as heated as it did so immediately only in the same Palestinian cities where the newly elected Hamas party needs some breathing room to sort out how to set up its new, responsible government and yet still save face with its hardliners...nothing like a red meat distraction to buy you time), but unless squashed fairly quickly the anger will most likely morph into real widespread outrage (unscrupulous politicians looking for any wedge issue to advance their personal agendas being the hallmark of our age).

The cartoons (see one example above) were first published by a Danish newspaper as a test of whether the current political climate was impacting the freedom of press Denmark has enjoyed with regards to cartoon artists' willingness to address the tensions openly. The "test" was rather sophmoric in my opinion (here, let me flick your ear again and again and see if you mind), but the principle is an important one. (UPDATE: Please see more fully informed history by Art Soldier in comments.)

It looks now, that militants in Gaza are threatening to kidnap any Europeans they can find (even searching for them in hotels and neighborhoods) and other Muslim countries are now joining in the protest, that the Europeans will risk serious consequences to the unlucky who get found in the wrong place at the wrong time unless they apologize. This is a wholly unfortunate situation IMO, but in the end an apology, regardless of how unwarranted, is indeed the lesser of the two evils.

Just yesterday I was applauding the European papers who reprinted the cartoons in a show of solidarity with the Danes (and prompting one German news agency to proclaim "we have the right to blaspheme"). I couldn't agree more. And although I realize the sensible thing to conclude in this situation is that standing on principle when there are very clear direct threats is moronic, I can't help but think there's an opportunity here to span the gulf between the two cultures.

But the issue is complicated. As FoxNews (yes, I read them sometimes...how else am I supposed to know what the GOP's talking points are?) pointed out, "Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet to prevent idolatry." OK, so it would be very wrong for the editor of a newspaper or the instructor in an art class to force a Muslim artist to render Mohammed's image, but to suggest that should apply also to nonMuslims is more than a bit misguided. I'll join the European papers in spirit and state here and now, that I will not be blackmailed or threatened into abiding by someone else's religious laws. Full stop. Get used to it. Hell, I only abide by a handful of my own religion's laws. I pointed to a video the other day that made fun of Jesus, and I consider it my right to make fun of Mohammed as well. It's called freedom: give it a go.

Now of course, it's not good to intentionally provoke other people by cruelly mocking their religion, but by threatening to kidnap Westerners in response, these Palestinian fools are only reinforcing the perceptions they want the Western papers to apologize, in part, for promoting.

Here's an idea. Hamas needs to demonstrate to the West that they should be taken seriously. Why not seize upon this issue, calm down the nutjobs donning ski masks and searching Hiltons for tourists, and set an example for all to see that while cultural differences do indeed exist, diplomacy is the way to address them, not violence? In that way, everyone can come out of this pointing in a positive direction.

UPDATE: Someone in the comments objected to my making any recommendations to Hamas. You can read my response in the comments, but let me add here that it's just one idea, meant to suggest constructive thinking is what we need now, not more of the same pulling back into our respective corners and letting the hatred continue to spread.