Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who's Afraid of Tyler Green?

Part I : What is an art blog?

A blog is a "web log," an online diary. One person's or a group of people's published thoughts about things that interest them. Some have advertising, but few (if any) actually charge the public to read them, so essentially, they're free. They're also fast. Blogs rush to print like no other medium, because they don't have traditional publishing editing processes to slow them down (this is not necessarily always a good thing) and because, well, technologically they can.

An "art blog" is the online diary of someone whose general topic of discussion is art. These run the gamut from those publishing thoughtful, lengthy
essays to those publishing basically only images.

People visit art blogs, first and foremost, because they're interested in learning things they won't find in other resources, especially things that are time sensitive. Moreover, people visit art blogs to "take the pulse" of the art-blog-reading community on issues and developing stories. For the insta-commentary, so to speak.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, blogs are a virtual community, a place where people from around the world can "meet up" and share ideas, learn of news or gossip, or debate the issues. This inexpensive, easily accessible bridging of location for like-minded folks is the true gift of blogs. It's democratic like nothing else out there.

Part II: What is an art blog not?

Art blogs are not a replacement for other existing art-related media. This is a common misconception among people (even among those who read or write blogs). Rather, IMHO, blogs are a supplement to the other media, often serving as a 24/7 online ombudsman, if you will.

Art blogs are not the first place I go to for in-depth criticism. I tend to seek out traditional media, where I know the editing process is still in use, for that. That's not to say that sometimes the most brilliant critique of something doesn't appear on a blog (it can, and does), but that because the raison d'etre for the traditional media that focus on art criticism is to provide a consistently high-quality level of critique, and because they usually provide a wide range of opinions from a wide range of writers, reading them provides a good idea of where the overall critique is at a given time, as opposed to the opinions of one individual.

Part III: Who's Afraid of Tyler Green?

I drag you through this exercise in the painfully obvious in response to a post on Tyler Green's blog responding to a swipe that Peter Plagens took at him in an article about the current state of art criticism:

[Tyler writes:] I think one of the most masturbatory discussions in the art world is about whether art criticism is dead. (Translation: Is anyone reading me?)

In this month's Art in America, former Newsweek critic Peter Plagens broadens that discussion by looking at what's up in the newspaper and magazine worlds. Most of his analysis seemed pretty in-touch, but I respectfully disagree with him on this paragraph:

"Exceptions [to reader disinterest in art critics] exist -- as with the lead critics for a few of the major dailies -- but they don't abound. More and more people in the audience for contemporary art would rather read Tyler Green snark somebody in his blog, Modern Art Notes, than ponder the considered judgment of Michael Kimmelman on a MoMA retrospective. Many art writers have either added unpaid blogging to their activities or been squeezed into it from want of other, traditional outlets -- for which many bloggers don't have enough writerly inclination or discipline, anyway. Each of those art bloggers has a following of fans and other bloggers, and each of those bloggers has... and so on. A growing form of art criticism consists of posting links to other people's criticism, which consists of posting links... and so on."
Tyler can (and does) easily take care of himself in response to this cheapshot, but I can't help but feel Plagens' condescending comments about art blogs stem from misunderstanding what they are (hence the explanation above) and a bit of jealousy at the attention they're currently getting (i.e., art blogs are hot at the moment, but like any new toy, they'll find themselves left behind for the cool newer thing at some point down the road [in fact, there are signs that the major political blogs are already losing their audiences]).

I read both Tyler (who's simply the best art blogger out there, bar none) and Kimmelman. I don't see that as big a challenge as Plagens seems to suggest it is either. Really, who are these hordes of short-attention-spanned art criticism readers Plagens speaks of? In fact, he actually contradicts himself by suggesting it's a sign of intellectual laziness that bloggers post links to others' criticism. Psst...Peter...that means they actually read said criticism before they blogged about it. More than that, if the initial critic isn't flattered that someone thought enough about their critique to open up a forum to discuss it, then why are they writing in the first place?

Critics more interested in traditional media than blogs should not feel threatened by blogs' current popularity. Art readers will follow what's excellent (the number of bloggers who stepped away from their computers to read Jonathan Lethem's extraordinary, but lengthy, essay in Harper's this month is proof).

Finally, and I say this with respect, if there's a downturn in readership of traditional media-based criticism, perhaps it's not evidence of the laziness of the readers as much as it the laziness of the critics who aren't doing the work it takes to spark the imagination of their readers (again, see note on Lethem). Art readers (including blog readers) only want good writing. No, scratch that.... Art readers long for good writing. If you publish it, they will read.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Looking for Fairness in the Age of Art Fairs

Charlie Finch offers a succinct look at one of the uglier realities of the contemporary art market in his latest post. I have to confess to having had to read it three times to see how his argument was pieced together, but eventually I think I got it.

Essentially he's focused on the way hedge-fund-type collecting (large holdings by one collector of one artist's work that permits manipulation of prices outside the normal, more transparent, market model, and usually results in flipping the work for profit at the expense of everyone else concerned) has created two distinct markets:

Why are works by Marlene Dumas worth millions and those by the stylistically similar Chuck Connelly worth next to nothing? Because surplus capital in the hands of a small group of moneyed types decrees it so, by fiat. Disparities between surplus capital and "normal" market behavior...create two distinct "markets." The high-end market just described is the seeking of surplus capital for true value, which lands on a work of art, because that work of art is perceived as unique, often in a highly arbitrary manner that disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.
I think Charlie offers a good chunk of food for thought there, but I'm not at all convinced this is as new as he seems to suggest. Later he notes:

Nobody wishes to strike gold, because they already have gold: what these collectors want is status and cachet and, let’s face it, more gold. Greed is good. But art suffers in this context, because it functions solely as an economic and social marker, always subject to immediate obsolescence, should economic realities change.
Looking past the first contradictory statement (i.e., that nobody wants new gold, because they already have it, but "let's face it," they want more gold), I feel that Charlie's insistence that "art suffers" when it functions as "an economic and social marker" ignores art history. In fact, I'd say the opposite is true. Art thrives when it functions as an economic and social marker. As do artists. That very function is what helped artists rise from "mere" guildsmen to celebrities during the Renaissance. Moreover, that very function today has made it possible for contemporary artists to find more of the sort of budgets for projects that were previously only granted them by the limited numbers of kings and popes.

What I think Charlie means by "suffers" here is that the opportunities for talented, yet not-selected-by-the-hedge-fund-collectors, artists are not equal to the opportunities for the blessed few hand-picked "stars" (surely the work of each hasn't been altered by the choice...history can still swap their respective statuses...the latter simply won't get rich from their art in their 30s). Indeed, his argument seems to boil down to the idea that if there was not as much money in the market, and artists were elevated to celebrity status based on the praise of critics (like Mr. Finch, for example) instead of less-educated collectors, then all would be right with the art market.

I'm not sure I agree.

I do agree the current state of things isn't fair to "stylistically similar" artists, but the notion that it ever has been fair ignores history as well. Fate has always favored certain folks over others...that's life (critics have their favorites, too). Further, in his article, Charlie notes how "In the 1960s, when Ethel and Robert Scull cornered the market in Pop Art, they were regarded initially as social climbers and soon after as visionaries." Perhaps a few of today's hedge fund manager/collectors will be regarded as visionaries some day as well.

What I think we're seeing isn't some new threat to the world prefered by the pure art lover, but simply a higher concentration of a particular unpleasantness that's always been part of the art world. But, in my opinion, that's balanced out by a higher concentration of working artists, more commercial galleries, more alternative art spaces, more museums, more critics, more art publications, more curators, and more collectors than ever before as well (in other words, the population of the world has more than doubled since the Sculls started's shouldn't be unexpected that excess across the board would be the result).

Finally, anyone who cringes to see the latest hedge-fund-created art star get a major exhibition can always turn their attention instead to any number of truly excellent exhibitions at one of the growing number of alternative spaces. Oh, yeah, but if you do that you might miss the caviar at the posh opening.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Children of Men

We saw Alfonso Cuarón’s harrowing thriller, Children of Men, last night, and although I was thoroughly engrossed (OK, so I spent a good 10th of the film with my hands partially covering my eyes, unable to deal with the potentiality of the storyline), I find myself this morning unable to reconnect to it emotionally. Perhaps it's just not one of those films that will stay with me, but, I suspect, it's probably one of those films that will haunt my dreams for many years to come and at the moment my mind is simply working overtime to think of other things.

In a nutshell, the film's about a not-to-distant dystopian future in which mankind is no longer able to reproduce. Women can't have babies. The pockets of protected parts of the world creepily celebrate the youngest living person on the planet (who is now over 18 when the film begins), but most places on earth have descended into violent chaos and miserably squalid conditions.

In Britain, thanks to its geography one supposes, things are generally better for most people than elsewhere (except for illegal immigrants who are brutally rounded up and sent to camps for deportation), permitting our protagonist (named "Theo," no less) to call upon his powerful and well-protected cousin, Nigel, who's involved in saving the world's masterpieces from the rampaging mobs in other parts of the world. Not all of the masterpieces were saved in time though, such as Michaelangelo's David, which clearly took a beating before being whisked off to Britain. (Sidebar: read this awesome commentary on the symbolism of this presentation of the broken David on The Naked Gaze.)

In a surreally funny, yet poignant scene (with a Led Zeppelin Pink Floyd-inspired levitating pig over the Battersea Power Station, where Nigel lives/works), Theo asks his cousin why he bothers collecting these things that no one will be around in 100 years to see. Nigel responds that he just doesn't think about it, right before popping another pill.

Among the works of art Nigel had rescued was Picasso's Guernica, which hung in his dining room (sweet job if you can get it, eh?). It wasn't clear how many works he had managed to save, but given the state of David, it didn't appear all that many were salvagable. I found the scenario intriguing though. What works of art would it be worth taking extreme risks to try and rescue? More than that, what does art mean if there's no future generation to view it (i.e., no hope)? A distraction, sure. A way to fill one's day while waiting for the the end to come...why not.

What the film didn't touch upon is whether there were still any working artists in this hopeless place. There's a great scene near the end where the survivors are descending into an underground canal in one of the bombed out refugee camps, and they pass graffiti on the staircase that looked like nothing so much as the Lascaux cave drawings (only rather than buffalo and other animals, the images were of airplanes and such). Those drawings seemed to represent a desperate need to record their final hours, for someone. But there didn't seem to be anyone making studio art (for whom? I suppose is the question).

Cheerful start to the week, this, eh?

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Losing My Assumptions

We've been debating something in the gallery, our talented Associate Director, Max-Carlos Martinez---who just so happens to have a retrospective of his work up at the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth, Minnesota, at the moment (Go see it, if you're in the area!)---and I. Being the stubborn loggerhead I am, I can't get myself unstuck from an assumption about the importance of intent in art. Especially intent with regard to communicating.

Taken to its logical extremes in our debate, however, this assumption has led me to conclude that the work of Henry Darger, for example, is not "Art" because (or so it's been reported) he had no intention of ever showing it to anyone, meaning it was not created with the intent of communicating anything with anyone, and that then made it something other than "Art."

Now I can look at Darger's work and feel my jaw involuntarily drop. I can marvel at the vision. I can delight at the composition and especially the color. But because I know (or think I know) these works were the result of a masturbatory effort, they don't meet my own definition of fine art, which goes beyond just intent to communicate to include what bnon called, in the thread on child prodigies yesterday, the act of "submerging [one]self in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche."

I can hear your gasps and "hmpffs" from here...stay with me though.

Roberta Smith opens
her review of "outsider" artist Martín Ramírez's exhibition in The New York Times today with a rather bold declaration:

The American Folk Art Museum’s transporting exhibition of the scroll-like drawings of the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction. [...] Whatever ideas about art you hold dear, expect them to be healthily destabilized here.
On the heels of my debate with Max, I took this challenge personally when reading the paper today (see note above re: stubborn loggerhead). Immediately I wanted to draw a distinction. If Ramírez hadn't intended to communicate (given he made this work in a mental institution, it's difficult to say whether he did so in the fine art tradition sense) and if he hadn't submerged himself in art history (again, considering his biography, that doesn't seem probable), then he doesn't meet the central assumption I've used to define fine art, my reasoning went.

But then I looked at the images: Holy-freakin-moley, was he something. Where his gift came from is obviously irrelevant. The proof is there...he was a genius. But I'm still not ready to drop my assertion about communication.

Andrew Sullivan linked to this amazing video yesterday, in which A.M. Baggs, a brilliantly insightful thinker who happens to have autism [UPDATE: see this differing opinion here], demonstrated and then translated her own private language and discussed its relevance to notions of personhood. Like the Jonathen Lethem article in Harpers I read earlier this week, this video has radically altered how I'm looking at the world lately:

Combining the quote Lethem uses to open his Harper's Article:

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated....
---John Donne

with this real eye-opening statement in Bagg's video essay:

Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as "being in a world of my own" whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am "opening up to true interaction with the world."
I started to wonder whether or not artists who limit their exploration to submerging themseselves in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche aren't missing a big chunk of the world. It did eventually dawn on me that the two are not mutually exclusive...that artists can do both (submerge themselves in art history via a process that opens up their senses to this wider world that Baggs and Donne argue is out there), but thinking of the world (as seen by mankind) as having one author and of revealing itself through all the senses if one is simply open to it goes a long way toward explaining how certain artists, living in mental institutions or keeping to themselves in their garrets, can still perceive enough to make our jaws drop without having to study the art history that the rest of us use as a sort of cultural Cliff Notes to "get it."

That's enough of my rambling for now (this has made my head hurt)...your turn.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Funding and Flipping and Pint-Sized Picassos

Three stories caught my eye while scanning the art news this morning.
First was that the Bloomberg administration and New York City Council have agreed to rework the way New York arts institutions receive City money:

The hope is that arts groups will find it less necessary to appeal to their council representatives for small amounts of financing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at the news conference, in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. [...]

“There will no longer be any cut and restoration dance,” he said.

“They can stop all the lobbying,” he added, “and get back to what they’re supposed to be doing.”


Arts organizations outside the Cultural Institutions Group are expected to compete for the $30 million between March and June of this year, Mr. Bloomberg said. Peer panels will evaluate the applications on a range of criteria, from education programs to management and financial stability.

“What this does is tell groups, ‘You’re going to move forward, or we’re going to take away funding and give it to groups that are moving up,’ ” said Dominic M. Recchia Jr., chairman of the City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee. “It’s a sign that you have to produce.”

Organizations with large building programs will receive multiyear appropriations, the mayor said; smaller groups will have to apply on an annual basis. “They’ll have to keep proving themselves,” he said, adding, “It will give the city new ways to discover and reward excellence in our cultural institutions.”
As it should be.

The second story is somewhat sensationalistic, but might indicate the first real evidence that the art boom is slowing, for real this time:
Like shrewd traders making timely killings on Wall Street, a small group of collectors have been selling off some of their bounty in recent months and reaping king-size profits.

Such boldfaced names as Hollywood mogul David Geffen, plastics magnate Stefan Edlis, former equities star Kent Logan and 30-something hedge-fund whiz Adam Sender are among those who’ve been divesting themselves of major works. [...]

Whether it’s simply a matter of taking advantage of a very hot market or lining up the funds for more-expensive prizes (many have speculated that Geffen is pooling his resources in order to buy the Los Angeles Times), there’s a palpable and growing sense that a “cash in your chips” mentality is taking hold of the upper tier of the market.

“It’s very aggressive now,” says one New York art adviser. “These collectors have been exposed to a lot of aggressive behavior from dealers, and now it’s their turn.”
There is a possible third explanation: this is simply how the art market has evolved. It's the new reality. With a good deal of work priced as highly as it is, and many colletions too large for their owners to really bond with each work (and many collectors having bought young artists in bulk), not every individual piece will have the same emotional value and some works are bound to be seen like any other commodity that the wealthy move around to suit their needs. In other words, perhaps more collectors are behaving like Saatchi, who, as the article puts it, is "known as much for disposing of art as acquiring it." The point being, though, he's still acquiring it. Moreover, maybe it's not the art market that's changing as much as the "art" of collecting.

Then again, this might be the beginning of a serious downturn. We'll see.

The final story probably deserves its own thread, but we've covered a good deal of its subplots here before. It's a swirling mix of topical issues, centering on a supposed art prodigy, a documentary filmmaker who wanted to believe, a family that now feels betrayed, and the ever-popular notion that contemporary art is a scam:

The painter, Marla Olmstead, was 4 years old when her work, with its vivid swirls of colors and dynamic brush strokes, began selling for thousands of dollars. She became a news media cat toy, with writers and camera crews parachuting into Binghamton, N.Y., from all over to cover the prodigy, a term her parents, Mark and Laura Olmstead, have never used. As often happens, the coverage crested, then curdled, and it was alleged by Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” that her father, a night shift manager at a Frito-Lay plant and an amateur painter, was helping her with the work.

Back in 2004, [Amir] Bar-Lev, a filmmaker who directed the documentary “Fighter,” an intimate, hilarious portrait of two Holocaust survivors, read a commentary about Marla by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, and thought it would serve as the basis for a good film about the subjectivity of expression in the context of modern art. (Mr. Kimmelman also appears in the

The documentary gradually became a meditation on truth instead, one that manages to explore and sometimes indict the motives of all the adults who have swirled around Marla: her parents, gallery owners, reporters and, eventually, the filmmaker.

The film, “My Kid Could Paint That,” also reportedly delves into what happens to normal people who get caught up in a big story and indicts the media itself as much as the art world:

“Amir did not set out to use the family in the course of making his film,” said Elizabeth Cohen, a reporter for the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, who figures prominently in the documentary. “The film makes us confront the realities of the media process, the predatory aspects of journalism, filmmaking and storytelling. There is a constant need to feed a 24-hour news cycle, but what about the people we write about? What happens to them?”

More often than not, the apparatus unpacks, gets what it needs and then leaves town, leaving the subjects to try and reassemble their lives. Speaking on the phone, Ms. Olmstead was friendly, but understandably reluctant to re-engage with the press. It was not the first time she had heard something along the lines of, “Hi, I’m from the media and I’m here to help you.”

Again, we've discussed most of that before, but on the heels of lecturing to a group of BFA students recently (hi folks!), where the question of whether someone's art career is really over if they haven't made it by the age of 30 came up, I find the notion that working artists might also have to compete with 4-year-olds for the world's attention a bit too absurd for words. So, despite not having enough information to really say one way or the other, I'll confess to wanting to believe the father was responsible for painting (or at least resolving) the works:
In a talk with Ms. Olmstead [Marla's mother], Mr. Bar-Lev reveals that he has doubts about the agency of Marla’s work — his effort to film her working have produced paintings that don’t resemble the other finished work.
Which got me to thinking about my feelings on prodigy in general. I love the idea of a Mozart, for example, but the idea of a pint-sized Picasso creeps me out a little bit. Perhaps it's because I don't work in the music industry or because Mozart is no longer with us, but he seems truly marvelous. But Marla, with her work selling for thousands of dollars, is problematic for me, I'll admit. Not only because of what she represents for older artists not selling their work, but also because she would, if truly a prodigy, confirm the film's title to a good number of people and add high-octane fuel to the scepticism about contemporary art in general. Then again, no one assumed that just because Wolfgang could bang 'em out at age four that anyone else who sat down at the piano would sound anything close, so, perhaps my misgivings about pre-school art stars are unfounded.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Reportedly, an influential Chelsea art dealer was asked once what characteristic she felt separated the artists who would feature prominently in the history books and those who would be lucky to be footnotes. Representing several who’ve already entered the history books, she responded that the ones who make it, wake up everyday, look themselves in the mirror, and say “I’m the best fucking artist in the world” before heading off to their studios.

Mind you, the heading off to their studios is no small part of their success, but the belief in the importance of their work is something I’m beginning to believe might be crucial to that level of success as well.

I did a studio visit with a young artist the other day who told me point blank that he believes he’s the best, in the world, at doing what he does. He told me that in all earnestness. Not knowing of anyone better than he is, I paused a moment, thought it over, and then concluded to myself “Good for you. Right you are to assert that. Why the hell not?” I mumbled something of the same sort to him a moment later.

I’ve retold that exchange to a number of people since and received the same embarrassed response almost uniformly---one that suggested the young artist was wrong to be so immodest. I must admit, I was initially a bit taken back by his confidence in the matter. Had I known of better artists in that medium (and admittedly, I haven’t compared them all, but…) I might have ---gently---questioned had he seen the work of “so-and-so,” but I honestly couldn’t. So, despite my Mid-Western aversion to such aplomb, I've concluded he was correct to say so.

In all honesty, it was exhilarating to think he was right. But it’s got me to wondering about the so-called virtue of being a bit more modest (something they teach where I grew up) or whether there are limits to modesty, especially when what’s at stake are the very limited lines in the next revision of the art history texts.

One advantage to being more modest might be that you’re not, by essentially tossing down the gauntlet, inviting the rest of the world’s artists to a duel of sorts. Defending such a statement from those who’ll see it a direct challenge might distract from precious studio time. Then again, studio time is the only way to confirm it, so perhaps that’s a good motivational trick.

Another benefit to being more modest is the cover it provides should you be sorely mistaken in your privately held assessment. For this and other reasons, conventional wisdom says it’s better to let others declare you the “world’s best,” but as competitive as the art world is, even if others think that, they’re not always willing to admit it. And isn’t false modesty an obnoxious, duplicitous form of pride anyway?

I guess what I’m trying to work out with all this is whether the influential dealer is right. Does it require a fairly large ego to overcome the obstacles to becoming an art historically important artist? Or is it simpler than that? Does it require you convincing yourself that the sacrifices will pay off one day, hence the need for the mirror? Or is it even simpler yet? Someone has to be the best. If a particular individual is, then wouldn’t he/she be the best judge of that?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Appropriate Appropriation

Short on time today, so I'll use the fact that Hungry Hyaena did a much better job of writing about these than I could have to point you to his brilliant post (thesis actually) on two articles in the February's Harpers on some very sophisticated thinking on art and appropriation. An artist we're working with had kindly sent me both articles in the mail (thanks!), and I was planning to blog on them, but after reading HH's amazing take, I'm not sure I have anything of substance to add.

One of the articles is co-written by the trailblazing art blogger and painter Joy Garnett, whose work is sourced from images in the media. Her co-writer is the photojournalist Susan Meiselas, whose iconic image of a man tossing a molotov cocktail Joy used as the basis of a painting in her "Riot" series. Both artists offer a compeling arugment for their stance on appropriate appropriation, and although in general I side with Joy's take, I will note that I'm struggling with what I suspect will be a bias toward Susan's argument among the general public because they can relate more easily to the danger photojournalists place themselves in to get such images than they can with the struggle a studio artist goes through to break new ground. I know that's irrelevant to the intellectual argument at hand, but I was struck by the appeal in Susan's argument to the nobility of something bigger than herself (a slightly manipulative appeal, I'll note, given that there is some opportunistic sugar-coating about the Sandinistas she offers in her short history), but a compelling appeal for those who may not understand the heroics of taking on all of art history (and oneself) with just a brush and boldness.

The other article is just as compelling, but alas, I'm out of Hungry Hyaena's take. Again it's wonderful

Monday, January 22, 2007

What They're Willing to Pay (and how that applies, or doesn't, to emerging art)

Working with emerging artists, I explain my thinking on pricing on a regular basis, so it's always something I'm looking for confirmation on or reasons to reassess. In a nutshell, I believe it's a good idea to keep prices attractively low until there's a constant demand for the work. Once there is a constant demand, the prices can rise steadily and carefully, and no one will have to wonder down the road what might have been if the market dries up (i.e., if prices rise too quickly and the market dries up, that might be the sole by not raising them too quickly, you take that out of the equation).

Anyway, I note this as introduction to the fascinating article in ArtNews about the astronomical rise in prices of Klimt's work lately. After a thorough history of how several of Klimt's major works recently became available, the article delves into the very mixed assessements on whether Klimt is good enough to warrant the records prices. Even Ronald Lauder, who reportedly paid $135 million for Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I last June, seems to have been among the sceptics until recently:

In 1997 the record for Klimt hit £14.5 million ($23.5 million) at Christie’s London. At the time, amid speculation that Lauder was the buyer of Kammer Castle on the Attersee II, he issued a statement to the ARTnewsletter through his curator, Elizabeth Kujawski: “This is an artificial market created by one person who has bought the last three Klimts at auction. In all cases the values of the paintings were only half of what they sold for. The average price of a Klimt should be $6 million to $7 million.”

Asked about this recently, Lauder said that he had been concerned that two collectors fighting for Klimt’s work were driving prices to irrational heights. Of the price he reportedly paid for Adele I, he says, “I didn’t even think of that. I knew there was nobody who wanted the painting more than me.”
Taking Mr. Lauder at his word, then, the $135 million illustrates the widely debated concept that any given work of art is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. I mean, it's not at all likely that Mr. Lauder, after being on record in 1997 as noting that the average price of Klimit should be $7 million, would now, only a decade later, argue that the average price should be $135 million. His agreement to pay that price seems to single out Adele I as better than the average Klimt.

Conventional wisdom would seem to say that by paying more for Adele I than anyone has knowingly ever paid for any other painting in history, Mr. Lauder raised the prices of all Klimts considerably, but that may not be the case:

Nicholas Maclean, a New York dealer and former co-head of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department, says of Adele I, “We’ve never seen a Secession picture take a price like this, but it’s driven by a number of things. Great pictures find themselves in a different price bracket—in some cases they can be worth 1,000 percent more than a good work by the same artist.” He adds: “What would van Gogh’s Dr. Gachet get if it came up at auction today?”
So great works can be worth 1,000 percent more than an average work by the same artist. This, of course, throws a wrench into my arguments on pricing work by emerging artists. What if an artist knows that one particular piece is the best work they've ever done...should they insist its price be higher than their other work? And, conversely, just because the market goes nuts for one particular piece by an emerging artist, does that mean that the price of all subsequent work should be higher? What if that one piece is the one true gem and the later work not quite so?

In general I think it's difficult to apply so directly the rules of the secondary market to the emerging art market. There's been a steady worldwide increase in interest in Klimt since the 1980s, making the demand for his work rise while the supply can only do so in spurts. (An interesting sidebar in the ArtNews article is how prices will rise on the secondary market if a good chunk of work becomes available all at once, as opposed to if works become available too infrequently, explaining why Klimt's prices have soared but the more critcally acclaimed Oskar Kokoschka's haven't:

Meanwhile, [David] Norman [head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Sotheby’s] points out, sales of Kokoschka oils have also been infrequent, with the record price of $2.97 million established more than 15 years ago. “So little has come on the market in recent years,” he says. “You need the right combination of rarity and supply to really maintain and move a market.” [emphasis mine]
Again, because it's difficult to apply the way the secondary market works to the emerging art market, in general, I stand by my guideline for pricing the work of emerging artists: keep the prices attractively low until there's a steady demand and then raise them steadily and carefully. This assumes of course that all ships rise with the tide, meaning if the average price of other works by emerging artists (without waiting lists) are rising over time, so should yours.

Of course, at this point in such discussions someone invariably notes how this seems unfair to artists, because everyone else stands to make a killing off their early great works except them. One way emerging artists can ensure they're not being taken advantage of through all this (and I recommend this to every working artist out there) is to keep back very good pieces (at least one a year) for yourself. If the pressure to produce more work seems too great to do this, consider sending one great piece a year off to live with a friend or relative with instructions not to let you take it back for at least x number of years. That is, get them out of your studio or home where curators/dealers/collectors might see them and pressure you to sell (don't hate them for that, btw...that's their role in all this). Or, better yet, if you can, just let everyone know that you're keeping that one for yourself. If they object, just calmly explain why you're doing it and note that you'd rather they not pressure you to sell it. If they still do, after that, just smile and change the subject, or consider whether you really need to work with them. Look at it as an investment in your future and you'll see that you're right and they're not.

Don't take this too far though. You do want some of your best work out there selling your other work for you.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Kasmalieva and Djumaliev @ Art Institute of Chicago

Just as winter arrives, Bambino and I are finalizing our plans for a quick trip to Chicago, and staying right on the lake, no less...can you say "brrrr?" But we're going for the opening of Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev's solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (we couldn't be prouder of them if we tried), so we'll deal with it. Curated by the amazing Lisa Dorin, the exhibition includes a brand new body of work titled "A New Silk Road," which explores contemporary life along this ancient trading route and presents video and photographs from the very road Bambino and I travelled along during our stay in Kyrgyzstan last October. We got to see just some of this new work in their studio while there, and it blew me away. I can't wait to see the final installations. Here's the press release from the museum:

For their Focus exhibition, Kasmalieva and Djumaliev will debut a new, multichannel video and photographic installation, A New Silk Road (2006), created especially for the Art Institute. The project follows the extensive scrap-metal trade via truck caravans traveling through the high mountain passes between Kyrgyzstan and China. With almost no manufacturing infrastructure and limited funding for building and growth, Kyrgyzstan’s role remains that of trader, the middle man between China’s booming production and countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan that are in the economic position to support the vigorous importation of consumer goods. Eschewing nostalgia for the historical Silk Road era, Kasmalieva and Djumaliev instead foreground the current, arguably hard, existences faced by the communities along these well-worn trade routes.

Also on view will be the three-channel video installation Trans-Siberian Amazons (2004). Shot during a tour through Siberia organized by the artists to encourage artistic and cultural exchange, this work portrays two elderly women traders who undertake the arduous task of hauling domestic goods by train across Central Asia. Previously employed in the professional sector, these women and others like them have been forced, as a result of post-Soviet economic devastation, to create new, transient economies based on small-scale trade and transport in order to support their families. The video captures the protagonists’ yearning for times gone by, as they pass the time mournfully singing the Soviet songs of their youth in the dim confines of the train car. At its essence, the practice of Kasmalieva and Djumaliev redefines the terms of art in the face of what the latter refers to as “the collective phobia, skepticism, and disappointment” that pervades the milieu they inhabit. Melding the poetic with the political, they employ beautifully haunting imagery with minimal narrative structure in order to recount poignant tales of human struggle, perseverance, and hope for the future.
Unlike other times when we're travelling to another city and doing the bulk of our planning at the last minute, I'm hoping to be more organized in making the most of our time in Chicago, so I'm putting out feelers well in advance for what exhibitions/restaurants/etc. we shouldn't miss. All suggestions appreciated. If you make it to the opening (Feb 1), please do say Hi.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Jacks and Jills of All Trades

In a post on the Stranger's blog, in which the always insightful Jen Graves wonders about the perhaps greatly exaggerated reports of the death of sculpture, she discusses the state of the "post-medium" condition, "in which artists work in any and all mediums." This is an approach to artmaking I've discussed ever-increasingly over the past 10 years, but I've never seen it described as succinctly as Jen does:

In this world, the term “sculptor” can be considered an insult, a way of diminishing an artist.

Artists are supposed to be defined by their ideas, not their materials, and yet the materiality of art, in truth, is going absolutely nowhere. What else is the art market other than an exchange of art objects?
Which will of course lead some folks to conclude that what's wrong with the state of art today is the art market (to which I'll direct them again to this), but I'm wondering about that widely subscribed-to notion that "artists are supposed to be defined by their ideas, not their materials."

I go back and forth on this. I consider, for example, Warhol or Picasso and how they each triumphed in a variety of media, and I'd agree, that their ideas were what defined them. But then I wonder whether Philip Guston, for example, would have achieved what he did in painting had he not been as focused on that as he was. In other words, even if an artist is defined by their ideas, isn't it highly possible that their ideas are best explored in one particular medium? And if that's the case...if one's ideas are best explored in "sculpture," for example, what's wrong with saying that artist is a "sculptor?" John Coltrane would most likely not have objected to being called a "saxophonist." Aren't many visual artists being perhaps a bit too sensitive about this?

I guess, with the fickle nature of fashions in the market and the lingering misunderstandings likley with even once-charming labels like "dumb like a painter," it's better to be safe than sorry, but I do so often see work that insults the ideas behind it because it's so poorly made and wish the ideas being offered had a little more help from the handling of the materials. Often such work comes with posturing defenses of "personal aesthetic choices" if poor craftsmanship truly underlines one's insights into man's inhumanity to man, or whatever.

I guess I'm a purist about concept. By that I mean, I feel strongly that each choice made in the creation of an artwork should be carefully considered, as to whether it supports the central ideas or not. Not every choice can be equally important (lest the work be less about the idea than the materials, I realize), but even that determination should be considered. Excuses about budgets, time constraints, or lack of expertise may be valid in terms of exhibition deadlines, but don't expect the authors of art history to care. Especially lack of expertise. Unless a work is about carelessness, or unless an artist truly believes they regurgitate "art," I can't fathom a justification for making something less than as well as humanly possible. In other words, to my mind, there's no excuse for not becoming a master of the medium, so that the work looks exactly how the artist intends it to.

Which brings me back to this notion that artists are not defined by their materials. I think that's fine if you can paint, engrave, draw and sculpt as well as Picasso could. If not, however, perhaps a bit more focus is called for. Otherwise, we're left with a host of Jacks and Jills of all trades, possibly with very important ideas, but unable to express them due to their lack of mastery.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Life is Short Open Thread

I heard a charming tale a while back about an exchange within a family of exotic short-lived flies, you know, the kind that are born, reproduce, and then die all in the space of 4 hours. Gathered around their grandfather fly (who was what? 3.5 hours old?), a group of younglings marveled to his stories of how different life had been when he was a kid. "Legend has it," said the grandfather fly to his captivated audience, "that long ago, the sun was actually over there, in the east."

That story came to mind while I was thinking about updating my blogroll this morning. It seems incredible that blogs emerge, develop an enthusiastic audience, and then disappear so quickly, but that is the medium.

Someone in a thread the other day asked what happened to Edna. I don't know. Anyone?

Also, Art Soldier hasn't disappeared, as much as evolved into Friendly/Agitate, which I encourage you to check out.

Pressed for time today, I'll make this an open thread for sharing favorite art blogs (ones not on my blog roll already). Feel free to mention your own.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

If a Sculpture Falls in an Empty Gallery, and Nobody Hears It....

The fine folks at Triple Candie, now unquestionably Manhattan's most controversial alternative art space, have stirred things up again. And the long, mostly glowing, article by Holland Cotter in today's New York Times only tells part of the story. Not that that part isn't a good chunk to deal with on its own. From the Times:

The word is that, with the art industry so flush, nonprofit alternative spaces are thriving. And why shouldn’t they be? Some of them now look all but indistinguishable from commercial galleries.

White Columns in Chelsea recently devoted its space to a survey of 2006 art season highlights from distinctly for-profit Chelsea galleries. The SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, is currently giving over its main space to a large-scale piece, already shown elsewhere, by Monica Bonvicini, an Italian artist who has been thoroughly vetted and long supported by the international establishment.

But aren’t alternative spaces where we should look for introductions to new or commercially unrepresented or undervalued or lost careers? Or for projects too impractical or arcane or outré to find a mainstream platform? Isn’t the alternative space, by definition, where the possibility of failure is written into the mandate, and where a record for risking failure is not only a gauge of institutional success but also the justification for existence?

There are, of course, small alternative spaces in the city that are doing things not being done elsewhere, staying strange and risking, among other things, critical heat. Triple Candie in Harlem is one. Established in 2001, it offered in its first few years fairly traditional solo and group shows, often of artists either locally underknown (Charles Gaines) or unaffiliated (Rodney McMillian). Lately, though, it has been trying something different. The gallery has begun to take a less orthodox course.

That course has included an unauthorized retrospective of work by David Hammons ("composed entirely of photocopied catalog illustrations of that elusive artist’s work') and a highly controversial exhibition of replicas of work by the strongly anti-establishment artist Cady Noland (see descriptions for both on this page of the space's website). And yet, despite some heavy-handed feedback for those exhibitions, founders Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett (full disclosure: whom I've been friends with for years) continue to push the envelope, keeping the dialog honest and interesting, as they do.

Their latest is an exhibition of work by Lester Hayes. Who?, you ask. Don't worry, you shouldn't know him. If you have time, you really should stop reading here and instead read the Times article first...

But it doesn't make sense for me to try to summarize, let alone improve, upon the fine job Mr. Cotter has done in setting up this idea, so I'll just cut to the chase:
[T]here is no Lester Hayes. He never existed. He is entirely an invention of Triple Candie. The gallery’s directors, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, the co-publishers of the magazine Art on Paper, who assembled the Hammons survey from photocopies and the Noland from replicas, cobbled together all the “Hayes” work from scrap material and cooked up the detailed biography to go with it.
Invented artists are not new, of course. "John Dogg," whose work "was widely assumed, but never confirmed, to have been made by [Colin] de Land and the artist Richard Prince," is a classic example, but Bancroft and Nesbett, who are not artists and will tell you so, seemingly made a point of exhibiting "art" by the imaginary Lester Hayes that shouldn't really fool anyone:

So, with no real artist and no real art, what do you have here? You have many questions raised about art and the often unquestioned ideas surrounding it, like originality, authenticity, influence, history, formal value and biography-as-value. Is contemporary art largely a promotional scam perpetuated by — in no particular order of blame — museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam to want to keep it afloat?

If you are affected — moved, amused, provoked — by the assembled Hayes oeuvre, then is it art? Are Ms. Bancroft and Mr. Nesbett artists? (They would certainly say no.) Are they themselves perpetrators of a scam? Or are they critical thinkers working in an alternative direction to the market economy? Imagine the consequences if lots of people started creating “fake” art without acknowledging what they were up to? The whole art-as-investment illusion would evaporate. The market would crumble. Art myths could no longer be trusted. The Triple Candie’s Hayes biography, in other words, is spun largely from myths and clichés that sell art and artists today.

Like Triple Candie's previous exhibitions, this one serves to raise a series of fascinating (and I'd say important questions), but one question that I'm not sure they'd intentionally invite is whether or not it's important to actually go see this exhibition. I mean, it's clearly important that they installed an exhibition and that the context provide for the opportunity for some viewers, at least, to assume the work is legit, but once you realize what's going on, can't you debate the questions it raises from the comfort of a bar or via the Internets, without having to see the "fake" work? There is the apparently well-written psuedo-biography of the fake artist in the space, and the details of that life never lived provide interesting fodder for debate as well, but in general...why look at the fake work if it's admittedly not "art"? That is, other than to congratulate Triple Candie on another thought-provoking exhibition, of course. :-)

At the beginning of this post, I noted that what Mr. Cotter covers in his review is only part of the story up at Triple Candie at the moment. On their website is listed another, perhaps even more controversial (and I assume unauthorized) installation in their project space. Titled "The Matthew Higgs Society," it appears to be a ribbing of fellow alternative space director, Matthew Higgs:

Established in 2006, the Matthew Higgs Society is the largest organization devoted to a living U.S.-based curator and is dedicated to promoting Higgs' legacy through education, outreach, and advocacy. The Society meets regularly at bi-monthly opening receptions at White Columns in the West Village, New York City, and on a more frequent basis at art fairs, galleries, and museums around the world.

Our current initiatives include the creation of The Matthew Higgs Archive, consisting of press clippings that mention Higgs by name and photographs of him at art openings. In time, we hope that the Archive will have its own dedicated gallery at White Columns. We also plan to organize symposia celebrating Higgs' achievements.

I find myself almost afraid to laugh at this, not being sure whether Higgs is a willing participant in the fun here, and I could pick up the phone and call Shelly and Peter and ask, but then that's obviously not their intention with the average visitor to their website, I'm assuming, so I'll run with an incipient impression. Even as I chuckled here (because Mr. Higgs has been in the art news a good deal the past year), context is critical to whether this is mean-spirited or not. Triple Candie and White Columns are both competing for the same audience to a large degree, if not the same funding. Furthermore, is it OK to criticize one's competition so openly, regardless of whether it's an honest, heartfelt critique? In the commercial art world, I would consider it taboo to do so. But why? Am I too timid? Should those of us committed to open dialog accept that sometimes that dialog isn't going to be flattering to all concerned?

One thing's for sure, Triple Candie continues to boldly go where no art space (that I know of) has gone before.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Gallery Lighting

Before we opened in our new location last March, I had spent a ridiclous amount of time and energy and (given how it didn't quite work out as planned) too much money on trying to design a lighting system. My goal was to create an even lighting throughout the gallery, using florescents, but combine the right combination of temperatures in the bulbs to keep it from feeling arctic. Like a growing number of gallerists apparently do, I like the idea of "lighting the space, not the invidiual works." Philosophically, it feels more honest than the theatrical effect too often created by the systems of individual spot and flood lights galleries have traditionally used.

But, after visiting a half dozen lighting stores, spending hours online, and taking armfuls of bulbs back and forth from the gallery to the stores, again and again, we decided to go with the best overall effect we could get in the space with a series of4 foot florescents, one blueish and the other sort of yellowish, which...duh...resulted in a dull greenish gray. We lived with this flat unflattering lighting for about a week into the first exhibition before turning on the spots we had also bought (not having enough faith that we had gotten it right, I guess). The exhibition looked so, so much better for it.

Still, when I see the overall even lighting in other galleries (those who've done it well, that is), I want to try again. One space that's done an excellent job, IMO, is Casey Kaplan on 21st street. And yet, while praising it to a group of friends visting the gallery recently, the artists among us were not convinced. Their reasons ranged from not liking how people looked under that light to asking what about work, like some sculpture, that incorporates shadows. I personally don't care about the former concern, but the latter one is a reasonable consideration. Having both options available does seem the best solution, perhaps, but...human nature and tradition being what they are, I imagine some artists will be tempted to invent elaborate rationales for why the spots and floods are essential to their particular exhibition.

What I'm saying, I guess, is the difference of opinion here seems to fall mostly along the line of gallerist vs. artists. So I'm curious if there are artists who prefer allover lighting, gallerists who also hate it, others who have an opinion one way or the other, or do most people not notice either way?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ah Nuts, He's Still on about the War

I'm the odd man out among most of my friends when it comes to the war. I marched against it and fiercely opposed it right up until the moment we took Baghdad. At that point, believing what Powell said to be true, I assumed we owned the state that we had broken.

Now I've had that line shoved back down my throat by hawks who'd retort, "it was broken before we got there" (as if that settled the matter in any practical way), but I still earnestly believe we're morally obligated to ensure as many Iraqis as possible survive this fiasco. To me, that's always meant not leaving until the country was secure and stable. Actually, more than that, to me it's meant delivering on the promise to leave them better off, with an Iraqi-sensible government that's fair and just in place.

After Baghdad fell, I continued to criticize the decision to enter the war (I believe it's important not to let huge mistakes like that go unpunished, lest they be repeated [read:"Iran"]), but I've tried as best I can in my rehtoric to give Bush the elbow room needed to beat back the insurgency and install some workable government. I've understood that meant supporting the continued presence of US troops in Iraq until that could happen. I've taken it on the chin from a few friends for doing so as well, but the President's not the only stubborn fool in the US, so I cling to what I believe is right.

Where I differ, and most vehemently, from the President about how this difficult transition is best made is in what the people of the US should be doing to support the effort. Bush tells us ad nauseum that Iraq is part of the overall "war on terror," and that it's the central conflict of our era, and that we cannot afford not to win that conflict, etc., etc., but for something so momumental, he never tells us what our role in it all should be. Leading up to the speech, pundits were reporting that he was going to make "sacrifice" a central them of his appeal to the nation. He mentioned it, but only in an nonspecific sense:

Fellow citizens: The year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice and resolve. It can be tempting to think that America can put aside the burdens of freedom. Yet times of testing reveal the character of a nation. And throughout our history, Americans have always defied the pessimists and seen our faith in freedom redeemed. Now America is engaged in a new struggle that will set the course for a new century. We can and we will prevail.

During WWII, non-military Americans were brought into the war effort with a nationally promoted set of very specific sacrifices: from war bonds, to rationing, to Victory Gardens, to women entering factories, to civilian defense efforts, there were clearcut things the average American could do to help win the war.

In my snarkier moments, I'll sneer that Bush has asked for sacrifices in the War on Terror: he's continually asked us to sacrifice our civil liberties...oh, and to shop more...but as Thomas Friedman notes in his column in the NYTimes today, there are very real and actually crucial sacrifices he should be demanding, and now [this is behind the Times ridiculous Times Select access control system, so I'm retyping it...all typos mine]:
Mr. President, you want a surge? I'll surge. I'll surge on the condition that you once and for all enlist the entire American people in this war effort, and stop putting it all on the shoulders of 130,000 military families, and now 20,000 more. I'll surge on the condition that you make them fight all of us--and that means a real energy policy, with a real gasoline tax, that ends our addiction to oil, shrinks the flow of petro-dollars to bad actors and makes America the world leader in conservation.
Friedman goes on to hand the President his Commander-in-Chief balls on a platter, but that's for another day. I agree with Friedman that it's morally bankrupt of a President to expect the military families of the US to endure this seemingly endless agony on their own, without their neighbors having to interrupt their lives in the slightest. If his rhetoric about how important all this is is even half true, then he should be asking much, much more of his fellow Americans than just their patience as he fumbles his way from one sure-fire failure of a plan to the next one. Actually, at this point, if he was really serious about winning the war on terror, he'd resign (and I mean that), but then we'd have Dick Cheney as President, openly I mean, and, well, ... out of the pot, into the fire...and all that.

So the speech on Wednesday was essentially a "stay on course" speech, regardless of how many poll-tested buzz words Rove managed to wedge in there. We're marching forward, sending more troops and spending more money, but still not involving the entire nation in what we're being told is the "decisive ideological struggle of our time." In other words, Bush is still not serious about winning. So the question is, what the hell is he really doing?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It's Iran, Stupid!

While the extremists on the right will see it as another call to rally 'round the flag, and the extremists on the left as justification for their continuing call for Bush's head on a platter, last night's presidential speech to the nation, which I read in full, but caught on TV when he was half way through, will likely go down in history as George W. Bush's first attempt to sell his already planned attack on Iran to the American people. The mumblings throughout the blogosphere about the mounting "evidence" that we're preparing to do so is reaching a deafening pitch (see here, here, and here,...and then there's today's news that US troops stormed an Iranian consulate in Northern Iraq and have taken computers and detained 6 [or 5, depending on who you read] Iranians), and although I constantly have to keep in check my tendency to automatically believe any conspiracy theory that comes along, it is getting difficult to ignore the indications that they're right.

A few years ago, a good friend of ours, with several PhDs and a very good track record at reading between the lines and sensing what the administration is really up to, said that all of this (meaning Afghanistan and Iraq) were really about Iran. He said that's why the administration never cared how well those fledgling democracies developed...that it's not about spreading democracy in the Middle's about creating just enough chaos to let the oil companies take what they can and keep the new state governments occupied while we positioned our troops to take down the Iranian government.

That struck me as rather far fetched...until he told me to look at a map:

Then there's the recent
build-up of our Naval forces in the Persian Gulf, including two aircraft carriers (is there room in there for two???)...which the US says is merely a deterrent, not indications of a pending attack on Iran, but then there's the rather ominous (or at least nebulous) mention in Bush's speech about sending Patriot Missles to Iraq:
We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies.

As a diarist on Kos noted:

You don't use a 17 foot long surface launched missile with large radars and other trucks that tracks incoming aircraft, helicopters and long range missiles in an urban street battles. You would use it to defend against incoming Iranian aircraft and Scud missiles.

And note that even when talking about the diplomatic aspect of resolving the conflict in Iraq, the President, despite the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and countless other informed folks that they be included, isolates Iran and Syria and frames our dealing with them as hostile, first and foremost:

These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

I'm no fan of Iran, mind you, but given that peace in Iraq is unlikely to come without their participation, this poking-them-in-the-eye rhetoric makes the rest of his argument that we actually want peace for Iraq ring false.

I'll end this with a sobering thought about the difference between attacking Iran and invading Iraq, as provided by a diarist on Kos:

Five days ago I had dinner with one of the officers on a ship in one the carrier groups heading to the Gulf. He is an officer who has served at the Pentagon and spent time training at the War College. He is not a gung-ho type, rather he is the type of considered, intelligent officer who gives you hope for the military and pride in our country. ... But during converstaion, the subject of casualties in Iraq came up and his wife began looking nervous so I said, "Well, at least Iraq has no Air Force." The officer turned to me with a look that suggested I was the dumbest person on the planet and said, very slowly and clearly, "Yes, but Iran does."

I truly hope I'm just being paranoid, but it doesn't look like it.

Victor Skrebneski @ Winkleman / Plus Ultra

January 12, 2007 to February 10, 2007
Opening Reception: Friday, January 12, 6-8 pm


Winkleman / Plus Ultra Gallery is delighted to present "Athletes," a series of new work by legendary photographer Victor Skrebneski. Organized by Oksana Salamatina, this exhibition presents Skrebneski's large-scale black and white portraits of athletes who competed in the 2006 Gay Games Sports and Cultural Festival in Chicago.

Better known for his highly inventive fashion photography and strikingly reductive celebrity portraits, Skrebneski chose his subjects in this series to reflect diversity within gender, race, ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Still apparent throughout, of course, is Skrebneski's signature highlighting of the sculptural in the human form, but the frequent juxtaposition of more formal poses with action or illuminating close-ups reveals the contradictions within the personality of an athlete, at once both fiercely competitive and generously hopeful. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the often-demoralizing cultural war waging over gay rights in the U.S., Skrebneski's portraits exude an unabashedly optimistic spirit of strength, beauty, resolve, pride and pure joy.

Victor Skrebneski is considered one of the finest fashion, figural and portrait photographers of all time. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Nassau County Museum of Art in New York, the Oragne County Museum of Art in New Port Beach, CA, and numerous contemporary art galleries in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Paris.

For more information, please call 212-643-6152 or email

Victor Skrebneski

January 12 to February 10, 2007
Opening Reception: Friday, january 12, 6-8 pm

Winkleman / Plus Ultra Gallery
637 West 27th Street (Ground Floor)
New York, NY 10001
T: 212.643.3152
F: 212.643.2040

Hours: Tuesday thru Saturday, 11am to 6pm or by appointment.
Directions: C or E train to 23rd Street. Walk North to 27th Street. Plus Ultra is between 11th and 12th Avenues.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

HB2LDd'A (or, An Excuse to Revisit Modernism) Open Thread

As Jonathan Jones notes in The Guardian today, the year 2007 represents the 100th birthday of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Jones calls Picasso's painting the birth of "Modernism in the arts" and argues how, as such, this anniversay provides as good an excuse as any for reflecting on what Modernism has done for/to the visual arts. Perhaps because the movement is such a rich and complicated one, Jones' exploration of what the painting means gets a bit muddled by the end, IMHO, but he starts off extraordinarily well in explaining why LDd'A is worthy of special notice:

Most of all, this is a painting about looking. Picasso looks back at you in the central figure, whose bold gaze out of huge asymmetrical eyes has the authority of a self-portrait. It's interesting that we're trained to see transvestite self-portraits in the art of Leonardo or Marcel Duchamp, but it doesn't often occur to us to understand this painting in that way, misled as we are by the caricatures of Picasso as a patriarchal voyeur. What he painted in 1907 is a work of art that looks back at you with furious contempt.

What struck Picasso about African masks was the most obvious thing: that they disguise you, turn you into something else - an animal, a demon, a god. Modernism is an art that wears a mask. It does not say what it means; it is not a window but a wall. Picasso picked his subject matter precisely because it was a cliche: he wanted to show that originality in art does not lie in narrative, or morality, but in formal invention. This is why it's misguided to see Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as a painting "about" brothels, prostitutes or colonialism. The great, lamentable tragedy of 18th- and 19th-century art, compared with the brilliance of a Michelangelo, had been to lose sight of the act of creation. That's what Picasso blasts away. Modernism in the arts meant exactly this victory of form over content.

I would love to spend all day drawing the lines from 1907, at which point, apparently, in order to regain sight of the act of creation, subject matter was shoved to the back burner of importance, to today, where we find a fierce insistence in certain quarters that subject matter regain the central position in visual art (i.e., that art be "about" something, especially something relevant to everyday life, again), but, alas, I'm pressed for time.

Don't let that stop you from having a go at it though....

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Louvre Lite

I haven't kept up and so don't know if it ever went anywhere (it could be up and running, for all I know), but a while ago I heard of plans to build in/near Orlando a replica of Key know, a sanitized version of the Southernmost Florida town, in the middle of Florida...for those tourists too fussy to subject themselves to the potential for real life to occur in KW or the extra hours of driving/flying to get there. Personally, I feel that anyone who's in too big a hurry to drive through the Keys, at least once in their lives, especially at sunset, won't ever get what's so special about Key West anyway, so why bother?

I was reminded of this theme-park absurdity (it'd be like building a replica of Brooklyn outside Philadelphia), when reading this news brief on plans to replicate the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi. From the
Henri Loyrette, the president and director of the Louvre, has responded to growing criticism of the museum’s new policy of establishing footholds abroad, arguing that the Louvre cannot ignore the “internationalization” of museums. Last month three prestigious figures of the French art world, including Françoise Cachin, former director of French museums, attacked the Louvre’s current three-year loan program to the High Museum in Atlanta as well as a proposal to create a new “Louvre” in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. While the Louvre will receive $6.4 million for its Atlanta project, news reports suggest Abu Dhabi is willing to pay $500 million to $1 billion for the Louvre’s name, expertise and the loan of artworks. A French art Web site ( has since organized a petition opposing these operations. Mr. Loyrette, who was reportedly at first unenthusiastic about the Abu Dhabi plan, told Le Monde yesterday that the Louvre’s mandate was not merely to exhibit art. “It also has a scientific, educational, social and diplomatic mission,” he said. Feeding the debate is the absence of detailed information about the Abu Dhabi plan. The Culture Ministry, which is handling negotiations, has described the dossier as “top secret.”
Now, I'm on record as opposing the imperialistic tendencies of the Guggenheim and other cultural institutions primarily because I believe what it takes to sustain such global expansions inevitably waters down their central mission to the point of uselessness. It changes their mission, essentially. The Bilbao branch, for example, is not about Peggy or Solomon or their's about Krens and his vision.

OK, so perhaps the board of a museum selects a director specifically to ensure he/she continues to adapt their vision to keep the institution relevant. I get that. But I don't believe that the expansion and increase in number of physical locations today is as much about the core values, which shouldn't change IMO, as it is about acquiring power. I get that going global is the model corporations feel they must follow to stay competitive, and I get that cultural institutions are, not totally unlike corporations, innately highly competitive, but there's an aspect of corporate ambitions that makes me want to shower, and there's a big part of globalism that fires up the militant individualist in me, and I don't like associating either of those feelings with museums I like.

But more than that, there's a significant overall aesthetic loss with these satellite locations, IMO. Like the Orlando-based replica of Key West, the Abu Dhabi-based Louvre, regardless of how many billions they can afford to spend to build it, won't have the history, and thus for me, nor the charm or power of the original. It will always be Louvre Lite. A knock-off. A watered-down version. Why the fine residents of Abu Dhabi don't have enough civic pride to launch their own world-class institution remains open for debate, I guess, but suckling at the teat of the Louvre's reputation is so remarkably tacky I doubt they have a word for it in French.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Note to AN: Leave the Sensationalism to the Artists

Because I find art enthralling enough as it is, I don't understand what seems to be a rising trend toward sensationalism in reporting at The Art Newspaper (AN). Perhaps they've always been this histrionic about the "news" and I've just only recently noticed, but it's getting a bit embarassing.

I noted the melodramatic headline in an AN article on the market (which twice used rare examaples to making sweeping generalizations about who you shouldn't trust in the art market) and how, although it raised some interesting question, it was overall misleading. Today, another writer virtually screams between the lines "Get excited...this is huge...are you reading?!?" I haven't encountered such heavy-handed reporting since my Junior High School weekly. And I'm not saying the story isn't noteworthy, mind you. Just that it smacks of breathlessness. Here's a snippet:

We can report that a painting in the National Maritime Museum in London was looted by British troops from the Mürwik Naval Academy, in Germany, and later presented to the Greenwich museum. We have tracked down a 1945 photograph, showing the picture hanging in the main hall of the academy (right). Mürwik is near the port of Flensburg, on the Baltic coast, near the Danish border.


Nothing is known about how the Bergen painting was acquired, but it was probably taken from the ceremonial hall in May 1945 by British troops. It was taken to the UK, where it came under the control of the government’s Naval War Trophies Committee. In early 1947 the committee allocated the picture to the National Maritime Museum. Partly because of its size, it has mainly been in store, where it is now.
Who writes like that? "We can report...." OK, so apparently Martin Bailey (whom I don't know, but assume is a likeable enough person) writes like that. But why wasn't this nostalgic dose of film-noir-esque prose edited down a few hundred notches? Especially if it does turn out the painting should be returned, doesn't the story deserve a more objective treatment? Or is this an editorial posing as reporting?

Compare the AN's tone with the calm, evenhanded, rational response of the National Maritime Museum:

The National Maritime Museum told The Art Newspaper that although it suspected the picture might have come from Mürwik, it had no conclusive evidence, and had not yet contacted the naval academy: “we are planning to complete our research as far as possible before contacting any other organisations.” The museum also said that its initial research on works of art with an unclear provenance for the Nazi period had focussed on objects “that had been misappropriated by Nazi Germany and its allies”—not by British forces.
Bailey even notes that since the painting arrived in the UK, policies toward war-appropriated art have changed (and that seems to imply things are systematically being returned), and it does indeed take some time to research the provenance of such loot, so why the journalistic case of vapors in the reporting here? It's not as if the Museum is saying they won't research how they came upon the work. As one commenter noted in the Talkback section on the AN's website, "This article seems suspect with very little, if anything, to actually support what it claims."

I don't disagree. Consider this line (which alone should have prompted his editor to send him back out to do more research): "Nothing is known about how the Bergen painting was acquired, but it was probably taken from the ceremonial hall in May 1945 by British troops." "Probably"? That passes as journalism today? Speculation on the heels of admitting "nothing is known" (and why doesn't that make him want to dig deeper?) But that doesn't prevent another misleading headline, asserting an unsupported degree of certainty: "Revealed: Nazi painting in London’s Maritime Museum looted by British."

I like the Art Newspaper. I read it regularly (it has some truly gifted writers). I point this out because I want to keep reading it regularly. Tone down the drama, please.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Art About Art

A wonderfully observant article by Roberta Smith in today's NYT had me see-sawing on a finer point in my general argument on "art about art." In what I don't mind calling one of the most delightful pieces on viewing art I've read in a while, Smith describes a wide selection of works at the Met depicting artists in the process (or artists "caught in the act" as the article's headline puts it) of making their work, inspired by noticing that a canvas by Alfred Stevens wasn't three women having tea, but rather three women engaged in a studio visit:

If not entirely enthralled by the fussy realism of the painting — which hangs in the long, wide thoroughfare that leads past the 19th-Century Paintings and Sculpture Galleries — I became fascinated with its story line and the spell it cast.

I began to wonder what else the Met might have on view in the way of images of artists or artisans at work. Aided by suggestions from several Met curators, I set forth under crowded holiday conditions a few days before New Year’s Eve, combing the collection for moments of self-disclosure, self-reference and self-celebration.


The notion of the artist as a worthy subject for art became especially prominent in the West in the 17th century and was further bolstered by the onset of Romanticism in the first half of the 19th. So I wasn’t surprised that most, but happily not all, of the working artists I came across at the Met were in works made in Europe or the United States after 1750.

The article is a wonderful virtual tour through the museum, in addition to an insightful history lesson (one of the notes Smith makes that captured my imagination is how artists use mirrors to "circles behind us and puts us in the picture, a frequent hook in images of artists at work"), and it went a long way toward blunting the pressure I've been feeling (in part due to commentary on this very blog) to reconsider how much I love art about art.

Of course, as soon as I thought, "A-ha! Vindication," it did occur to me that art about artmaking isn't the same as art about art exactly, but I wonder whether that's a distinction with no signficant difference (i.e., as Smith notes by including a description of a Red Grooms piece showing two Ab-Ex masters sitting in Washington Square park, "perhaps, ... for some artists, not working is just a less productive, more tormented form of working" and so using an artist as subject in any way, whether considering process or biography or what-have-you, is to choose artmaking as subject).

So if there's no meaningful difference between "art" and "artmaking" as subject, and, as Smith demonstrates with the inclusion in her essay of wall paintings in a tomb at Thebes showing ancient Egyptian artists working [seen above], if art as subject is anything but new, isn't what folks are objecting to with regard to "too much art about art" today possibly misplaced blame for what they see as lack of spiritual or intellectual reward in other aspects of contemporary life?

I mean, I suspect part of why I love art about art is an insider's thrill at "getting it," but even after I had started to consider relegating my love for it to the "guilty pleasure" category, I kept finding myself being enthralled by this or that newly discovered piece with art as subject. Further, I began to suspect that what drew me to visual art as my primary interest in life might be that its parts/tools/stuff (i.e., aesthetics, formalism, visual, concepts, etc.) are simply how I see/interact with the world...they're the language that I understand. Moreover, for me, other potential paths toward spiritual or intellectual reward are too clumsy...make me too self-conscious...aren't quite "me."

But why, one might still ask, are the workings of that "stuff" equally important to me.

As I think about that, I recall the line Hillel reportedly used to explain the Torah: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it!"

Without being sacrilegious or elevating art to the status/role of religion, for me, all the commentary about artmaking or art itself is so very valuable because it continually reinforces what art is to me: another important life lesson ("Look, really look, and then connect.") That's the whole of it. But I see the value in studying the rest.

I don't expect folks who are left cold by art about art to change their opinion just because I stumbled upon this morsel of vindication. It might be a subject only some folks respond to, and even for some of its advocates, it might have its limits, but I feel a bit better about my passion for it and for not having gone so far as to label it a "guilty pleasure" before I read Smith's fine article.