Saturday, January 31, 2009

Priorities and Roses

One of the hopes I have for the Obama era in America is that we are inspired by his example to be a little more reflective, a little more long-term in our thinking, and a lot more concerned with the legacy we leave future generations compared with our immediate "needs" than we have been as a nation. It's not only the extreme Me-ism of the past few decades that has led us to the brink of witnessing of the fall of the American empire in our lifetimes, but also a ridiculous short-sightedness and near abandonment of our responsibilities to leave this world better than we found it.

On the "Brandies: Art = Cash" thread, an anonymous commenter associated with the university offered the following justification for the decision by their board to close the Rose Art Museum in order to be free to sell off its "permanent" collection:
Yes its a shame, but perhaps its time that the tail no longer wags the dog. Don't forget that the donors get a nice fat charitable tax deduction for the "fair market value" of the art. Remember former Brandeis Professor Maslow's theory-- we need to provide for our basic physiology and safety before we get to be able to worry about our self-actualization. I would suggest that our chemistry, biology, and physics graduates have a better chance of improving the life of mankind than artists.
I would submit that it's debatable whether the basic physiology and safety of anyone at Brandeis is truly threatened by a budget deficit (if so, universities would have been forced to liquidate their museums' permanent collection repeatedly throughout the last century, economic cycles being what they are). But this notion, that art is secondary to chemistry, biology, and physics in terms of importance during difficult times, reminded me of another Rose. Not a museum, but a person.

This Rose, however, faced true threats to her personal safety, not merely the inconveniences of tightening one's belt that every department at Brandeis should be willing to do voluntarily to save the museum, IMO, but actual torture or death if her mission had been discovered. I refer, of course, to Rose Valland:

Rose Valland (1898-1980) was a curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris during the Second World War. In 1940, as German forces began their occupation of France, Nazi officials took over the Louvre's Jeu de Paume Museum -- a modest gallery of Impressionist works, located in the Tuileries Gardens. They used the building for a sinister purpose: to store priceless works of art confiscated from French museums and Jewish-owned private collections. Valland supervised the daily operations of the Jeu de Paume, while the Nazis filled it with plundered masterpieces. The Germans likely viewed her as a quiet, methodical administrator. What they didn't suspect was that she understood German. And perhaps Valland never suspected the importance of the role she was about to play.

[...]

The Nazis enlisted Valland to catalogue their stolen art objects. As she quietly worked, she eavesdropped on discussions in German and kept secret lists of the plundered treasures. As much as possible, she tracked the dispersements and shipments of art. Because the Nazis photographed every object they stole, Valland pocketed the negatives as she left at night and made copies of them. On four occasions, the Nazis became suspicious of Valland and threw her out. Yet each time, she managed to return and to continue spying.

[...]

By the end of the war, as the Nazis grew anxious to evacuate the museum and ship out their precious cargo, Valland thwarted them. A train bound for Germany, loaded with French paintings and other valuables, never made it out of Paris -- thanks to Valland. She reported her observations to the French Resistance, whose sabotage efforts stalled the train until the Allies came to liberate Paris. After the war, using Valland's documents, the French informed the Allies where some of Europe's most cherished art treasures were hidden.

Valland spent the remainder of her life working diligently to recover and protect French cultural property. The French government awarded Valland numerous honors for her lifetime of courage and devoted service. She was a recipient of the Légion d'honneur, the Médaille de la Résistance, and was named a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters. In the 1950s, she also received the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In comparison with the threats Valland faced, the temporary financial difficulties of any American university at the moment obviously pale. Moreover, it's highly insulting to treat a collection as rich as the Rose's as mere property, IMO. As Pablo Helguera so eloquently put it in his post on Art World Salon, a collection like that the Rose has built represents "the labor of generations of collectors, curators and philanthropists." In other words, a significant slice of our collective culture and a collective commitment to preserve it, as such, for future generations. What will emerge from the labs of a university's chemistry, biology and physics departments may indeed greatly benefit future generations' minds and bodies, but what of their spirits...what of their souls? It's short sighted to suggest only the former are worth preserving.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Mood Enhancer for Enduring the Corrections

Someone asked me the other day how I sleep at nights...knowing the state of the economy, the art market, the world in general....

I answered that, personally, I get by on a steady diet of denial and Scotch.

When that doesn't help, I watch a video of a child laughing, and somehow that always makes me more optimistic:



Consider this an open thread on keeping things in perspective.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Brandeis: Art = Cash

When you add it up it's clear that the board of trustees at Brandeis University equate the highly esteemed collection of art at the Rose Art Museum with cash and nothing more. They've said so in just those terms. Geoff Edgers' article today provides the quotes that total this shockingly philistine view for a body responsible for educating future generations and that ironically prides itself on promoting the arts:
Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis University president, yesterday opened the possibility that the university would not sell its $350 million art collection but said he would not change his mind about closing Rose Art Museum and turning it into a study and research center. [...] "We have no particular mandate from the board of trustees as to when to sell, how to sell," Reinharz said in an interview.
+
Marty Krauss, Brandeis provost, also shed light on the reasoning behind the closure, which is scheduled for late summer. In an interview, she said university officials believed they could not operate a museum, which is expected to abide by a code of ethics limiting the reasons it can sell off art, and then sell art to pay for needs other than the museum. Closing the 48-year-old museum entirely would provide the university more freedom, Krauss said.
+
Should Brandeis hold onto some or all of its art, "we will do what other universities do," [Reinharz] said. "Lots of universities have collections of art, which they display or don't display."
= A decision designed to turn what had been a gem of a museum into an ATM machine.

Even more incredible about all this is the farce it makes of Brandeis' stated support of the arts:
The arts at Brandeis unite the imagination and the intellect in the pursuit of personal truth, social justice and artistic freedom. We believe that creativity, community and arts participation are essential to global citizenship and a new vision for this century.
I mean, if you're that ambivalent about displaying any of the work you own and your stated goal is to have the freedom to sell whatever piece you like whenever you feel like it, what message is that sending to your students and community about the importance of art in our culture?

Indeed, what I find particularly hard to stomach about their defense of this decision is the message they're sending their art students. As if the students can't connect the dots from this bone they're being thrown:
[Reinharz] said the study and research center would have a gallery space, which will be of "great importance" to the university's fine arts students and to its core educational mission.
to this:
"Lots of universities have collections of art, which they display or don't display."
...and feel that the ultimate destination of their own art (should they work really hard and get acquired by some collector who one day donates it to a gem of a museum at a university that will, as all universities do, struggle from time to time financially) isn't the occasional appropriate exhibition but rather some crate in storage waiting for the day the trustees decide its easier to cash it in than find some other means to survive the next recession. Add to this that many of the donations the trustees see as cash at their disposal were reportedly only given with the stipulation that they be on display and that the museum itself is financially sound, it's clear to my mind that there has been some extreme shift in what art means at that school.

To be perfectly honest, I could not in good conscience now advise an art student to consider this university. No offense to the arts department or professors there, but there are some messages and some actions that undercut any trustee lip service to understanding the importance of art in our culture. When a museum pulls its own weight and acquires the world-class artwork in the Rose's collection, it's simply shameful to say in essence, "Screw all that, we want the cash."

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"A junkie pawning his wedding ring"

You do the math.

Brandeis University has a projected annual budget shortfall of $10 million and is using that to justify the complete liquidation of the collection at its highly esteemed Rose Art Museum.

Their so-called Permanent Collection, on the other hand, is described as such:
The permanent collection of The Rose Art Museum is internationally recognized for its quality and comprehensiveness. The collection numbers over 8,000 objects and is particularly strong in American art of the 1960s and 1970s. In line with seminal acquisitions of works by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol in the ’60s, The Rose, through the establishment of the Rose and Hays Purchase Funds, continues its committment to acquiring art produced in our time. Recent acquisitions have included works by Matthew Barney, Helen Frankenthaler, Nan Goldin, Alfredo Jaar, Donald Judd, Annette Lemieux, Robert Mangold, Judy Pfaff, Anri Sala, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, and Jackie Windsor. [emphasis mine]
Artnet reports:
Among the pieces that might be particularly coveted by the art market, according to those familiar with the collection, are Robert Raushenberg’s Second Time Painting, and Andy Warhol’s early-career Saturday Night Disaster.
In another article, Artnet notes that unbridled Warholmania seems to be over, but should Saturday Night Disaster sell for even a third of what Warhol's other seminal Death and Disaster series painting, Green Car Crash, did in May 2007 ($71.7 million), that should cover the budget shortfall for a few years at least, giving them time to find some other means of raising the money, no?

So what is really going on at Brandeis? No one really seems to know, but as Artnet notes, folks are wondering:
One auction-house insider contacted by Artnet Magazine noted that just one of the better works from the Rose collection might fill the $10-million budget gap, adding, "There must be a bigger picture there" -- a sentiment shared by many. While Brandeis has an immediate funding short-fall, and is looking for gap-fillers to get it through the recession, officials note that the process of selling the art "could take up to about a couple of years, minimum." There is no precedent for selling off a university collection of this size.
Having just seen 8 years of intentional over-reaching to cover your true, still highly controversial, objective by the Bush Administration, I do have to note that I wonder whether the Trustees are only saying they're closing the museum, knowing that it would cause such a stir that then, in response to the outcry, they could agree to scale back and say they would only deaccession a few lucrative pieces. Everyone would then be relieved (rather than if they started with a deaccession proposal and had to deal with the outrage that would stir).

Sad to say, I kind of hope that's the case, but it's merely that...a hope. Either way, the outcry from fans of the Rose has been immediate and is growing. There's even now a Facebook group to
Save the Rose Museum with this appeal:
Many members have already expressed reasonable and creative alternatives to selling off the museum. Please make use of the discussion boards so we can all take part in a healthy dialogue about how to best advocate for the Rose's salvation.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

"Things Fall Apart" an artforum.com Critics' Pick and Three Other Quick Notes

1. Many thanks to Lori Cole and the editors of artforum.com for reviewing our current exhibition, "Things Fall Apart," curated by Joy Garnett, as a Critics' Pick. The exhibition runs through February 21, 2009. I hope you get to see it!

2. Andrew Sullivan pointed to this amazingly high-res image of Obama's inauguration address. You can zoom in close enough to see each face in the crowd, including a friend of mine who's a reporter and was much closer to the new Prez while he spoke than we got (we're not even in the photo). Wonderful.

3. From the Simply Too Weird department, Russian Czar (er, I mean Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin now holds the record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction in Russia. Not one from his collection, mind you...but one he painted. The Art Newspaper reports:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s painting Pattern on a Frosty Window, the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction in Russia at 37m roubles ($1.14 million), went on display at the Natalia Kournikova Gallery in Moscow on 25 January.

Ms Kournikova, an art dealer and collector, secured the work at a charity auction in St Petersburg earlier this month. “The painting shows another aspect of a great personality,” she said after the auction. She did not clarify whether she had bought the painting on behalf of a client.

The previous most expensive work, Spring, by 19th-century master Alexei Savrasov, sold for 24m roubles (at that time, just over $1m) in March 2008. The fourth and final version Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square was bought for $1m in 2000 by billionaire Vladimir Potanin in a private sale.
OK, so the money did go to charity, but here's (what I believe is) an image of it. Even if that's not it, Vlad should be just a tad embarrassed I would think. At the very least he should be doing more to pump up the market value of Russian artists' work.

4. Despite nearly constant reports of pending visual artist-based reality TV shows, and I've heard of about a half dozen that never got past the planning stages,
the only one I know that has aired was Art Star and that was a few years back. (Anyone know what's up with SJP's American Artist project?) Now it seems [via Jonathan Jones], no less an art world luminary than Charles Saatchi is planning to produce one:

Charles Saatchi, the Citizen Kane of the art world, is about to transform himself into the Andrew Lloyd Webber of art.

A new BBC2 series, Saatchi's Best of British, will see him preside over a contemporary art reality show, comparable with Lloyd Webber's I'd Do Anything. Talented hopefuls (I've put that phrase in as blog-fodder ...) will attend his "intensive art school, where they will be tutored by top contemporary artists." The show will "attempt to discover the next Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin." Well, I don't suppose anyone would expect it to discover the next Cy Twombly or Jasper Johns.

Ouch.

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If You Have to Apologize for It, You Probably Shouldn't Buy It

I look to my left hand and see the can opener...I look to my right and see the tin of worms...hmmm...?

As anyone who's read here long knows, I hold a low opinion of most so-called political art. To use art to advance a political agenda, per se, always compromises the output in my view. That's not to say great art cannot touch on political subjects, but as soon as a work is designed to advance one point of view (as opposed to reflect the truth as honestly as the artist can convey it) to the exclusion of obvious other points of views, it ceases to be just art and become propaganda IMHO.

To put it another way, for art dealing with a political subject to be successful for me it needs to reveal something universally true and avoid using that to hit the viewer over the head with the artist's personal opinions on the issue. I'm not naive enough to believe an artist can ever completely remove their opinion from a piece (not and make it any good, that is), but if the universality of the work doesn't completely outweigh the political stand, it typically falls flat for me.

One piece that stands out in my mind as succeeding (indeed, the single most powerful piece of art dealing with a political subject I've seen in the last decade) is Emily Jacir's Where We Come From (2001-2003). I had such an emotional reaction to this work when I first saw it at Debs & Co. in 2003. New York Times critic Holland Cotter thought highly of it as well. The piece is a document of a performance in which Jacir asked Palestinians living outside their homeland and unable to return: ''If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?'' She then used her American passport to enter those places to perform requests such as "Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street" or ''Visit my mother, hug and kiss her and tell her that these are from her son. Visit the sea at sunset and smell it for me and walk a little bit . . . enough. Am I too greedy?'' The piece is comprised of photos of her completing the requests with accompanying texts in English and Arabic.

It's obviously a highly loaded piece, but it works because it connects the dots between the humanity of the viewer and that of the families kept apart by a political situation with no apparent end in sight.

Recently acquired and exhibited at SFMOMA, Jacir's piece has stirred up another sort of controversy. Rather, the museum has, it seems. Tyler Green reports:
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which recently acquired Emily Jacir's Where We Come From, attached an unusual wall-text to the work when it first exhibited it this winter. [...] The 'extra' SFMOMA wall-text, printed in subscript beneath a more traditional museum-style text read:
SFMOMA is committed to exhibiting and acquiring works by local, national and international artists that represent a diversity of viewpoints and positions. Works of art can engender valuable discussion about a range of topics including those that are difficult and contested, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additional information about Emily Jacir's Where We Come From, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available at the information desk in the Haas Atrium.
It is common for museum wall-text to provide art-historical context for a work of art or an explanation of how the work came to be made. (SFMOMA's primary wall text does just that.) But while museums regularly show work that addresses complicated topics, it's extremely unusual for a museum to install a wall-text directly excusing a work's geo- or socio-political roots. There is no such text attached to SFMOMA's online collection record of the work.
As Tyler reports as well, the museum has explained their decision to contextualize (in my opinion, apologize for) their exhibition of Jacir's piece in this unusual way via a statement by their spokesperson Libby Garrison:
The decision [to add the text] was made by the curators and the director, the trustees were not involved. It was made because when the work was on view (without wall text) during the acquisition process, we received numerous letters of concern from visitors who saw it on the wall. In response and for the exhibition, we felt we should contextualize the piece acknowledging the sensitivities that surround it. We deeply believe in the merits of her work but of course, are not taking political sides.
Everyone I've talked with this about over the past few weeks (yes, I was aware of the controversy before Tyler's post) had the same immediate thought occur to them...that some trustee or other important leader of the museum (presumably one who feels strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) objected to the exhibition of the piece. So trained are we to expect the worst impulses of people in response to any news from this region, and perhaps to expect all museum decisions to stem from the top down, as opposed to, as Garrison explains, from the bottom up, that such responses were natural, I believe (indeed that was my first thought as well).

Still, whether the impetus to apologize for the piece came from some trustee or an avalanche of viewer mail, my overarching reaction to this decision remains the same. I have no problem with a museum taking sides. I believe a museum should reflect the values and opinions of the people who support it and patronize it. I believe a museum should present thought-provoking exhibitions and challenge its public, but not intentionally offend it.

Having said all that, however, I feel a museum owes it to the artists whose work they acquire to stand behind that work, without apology or excuse. If you cannot present a work without an extraordinary explanation, you're probably not the institution that should have that work or present it to your public. In other words, the forum in which to "contextualize the piece acknowledging the sensitivities that surround it" is before the acquisition committee, not before the public. If you decide it's right for your institution, stand behind it unequivocally.

P.S. I've blogged in the political sphere long enough to know you can't open a discussion touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without inviting emotional charges from all sides. To help keep this thread on topic (which is whether it's appropriate for an institution to apologize for a piece they exhibit), I will note now that no comment that diverts off into whether or not Israel has a right to protect itself or there are players in the Palestinian world hellbent on harming Israel will be posted. Yes, all of that is brought up by the piece, but if the best diplomatic minds of the past 50 years haven't been able to resolve the conflict, we're hardly going to do so here. Again, no comment with charges against either side of the conflict will be posted. Please stay on topic: is it appropriate for a museum to apologize for exhibiting a piece? I feel that that is what SFMOMA has done here, and I find it highly disappointing.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

File in the "If Only" Bin : Open Thread

We exchanged gifts with our friends in DC this past weekend. Jo from London brought the most amazing goodie basket of British junk food I've ever seen (McVities, Jaffa Cakes, Wispa Bars, and Walkers Salt & Vinegar crisps, to name just a few), and our host Anne gave us these truly awesome Inauguration party/survival kits, with flags, buttons, Champagne, bubbles, hand warmers, toe warmers, nibbly bits, and maps. But for sheer hilarity, my friend Ann from Seattle took the prize with this offering of "Understand Modern Art InstantlyTM Breath Spray" (in "Surreal Peppermint Flavor," no less). Click on the images to see larger.



Consider this an open thread on the public perception that too much art is inaccessible. (Play nice!)

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Trekking Toward History

If you traveled to DC or watched the coverage of the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, you've undoubtedly had your monthly fill of cliches and patriotic rhetoric. So I'll keep the sentimental responses I had watching all this to a minimum, but I will admit to having teared up on more than one occasion.

We had the chance to travel down and witness the event with some friends we rarely get to see these days. But then "witness" is a bit of a euphemism. We had no tickets to any of the events at which the new President made an appearance, and in fact the closest we actually came to him was when his motorcade sped by (meaning we were separated only by a few yards of space and, of course, 5 inches of bullet-proof glass) outside the Verizon Center.

Here is what the concert on Sunday looked like from where we stood.
Thanks to the technology that has brought us Jumbotrons, however, we were able to see that the tiny specs on the stage were in fact (in no particular order of importance to me, but more of a reflection of our photos that came out ok...does that sound detached enough?):

Bruce Springsteen

Stevie Wonder and Usher

Bono

Oh, yeah, the 44th President of the United States was there too (couldn't resist having my photo taken with his digital likeness on a massive screen 200 yards off to my right):
He went on for a while (actually his speech here was my least favorite of the weekend...more or less a "greatest hits" from the campaign...which is fair enough when you consider he had to rock the house two days from then at his inauguration...which in my humble opinion he did), so Bambino and I switched places:

It was freakin freezing down there on The Mall (we had hand warmers, toe warmers, and layers and layers and layers), but wisely we left the flasks at home. The short-lived warmth provided by a shot of Bourbon was not worth repeatedly subjecting oneself to the horror that was the Porta-Johns.

Monday we visited with some art world friends of ours, including Leigh and Jamie of Conner Contemporary, whose fabulous new location has given me the worst case of gallery envy I've had in a long time. Afterward they treated us to the Palace of Wonders, a burlesque club on H Street. Here's the Master of Ceremonies (from the balcony above)

In addition to sword swallowing, flame eating, and one particularly disturbing trick with a screwdriver, the act included a snake charmer who got about as intimate with two large boas as I'm sure the law allows. Here she is seen, again, from the balcony.
Bambino is not particularly fond of snakes, so he refrained from the post-show photoshoot with the writhing reptiles. Leigh and I, on the other hand, being art dealers, are not anywhere near so squeamish (I'll let you connect the dots as you please on that one):

We caught up with our friend Tyler later as well (always a informative treat!) who introduced us to Zola's, but we had an early start the next day, so we headed back to our friend Anne's in Virginia. Anne deserves a Medal of Honor for putting up with the international crew of revelers she hosted (of course, she instigated most of the silliness, so don't feel too sorry for her). Here's one of my favorite photos of the kind of maturity engaged in all weekend long (that's our friend Jo from London racing Bambino ... perhaps, it's just best not to ask):


It took us 2 hours to get from Anne's home to the Mall on Inauguration Day morning (a 20-minute trip normally). The Metro trains were so phenomenally crowded, we ended up taking one the opposite direction to the end of the line, just to get on one that would eventually head back in again. If you saw the photos of live images from the Capitol Building, then you know it was a sea of humanity in attendance. Here's what it looked like looking toward the Capitol:

Yes, that's right...you can't actually see the Capitol in that photo (it's up there, about half a mile away)...welcome to our Inauguration Day experience! Again, though, there was a jamboree of Jumbotrons, and the audio was remarkably clear given how far we were from the swearing in ceremony:


I'd give Obama an A- on his speech (high praise from me, actually). It was truly inspiring and such a refreshing experience to hear the leader of the nation say things that didn't make me roll my eyes and impulsively feel the need to parse what I thought he surely must really have meant. The mini-panic I felt each time Bush used a metaphor was replaced by a profound sense of relief that here was an intellectually competent person about to take over running things. People cheered a number of times throughout the speech, but mostly the crowd simply nodded in thoughtful approval, often looking around to see confirmation in the response of those next to them these sensible things were indeed being uttered by the leader of the country.

Two points in particular made me incredibly happy we've elected this man. First was his assertion that the years of promoting a false dichotomy (between upholding our nation's values and keeping us safe from terrorism) are over ("As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals"). I've never believed we had to surrender our civil rights (or strict opposition to torture) to be collectively vigilant. In fact I've felt that the more rights we surrendered, the more we've essentially accepted being ordered to hand over the responsibility to stay calm and stay aware that I believe we all own. Bush never conscripted the entire nation into doing anything truly effective in fighting the so-called war on terror, and that was his single greatest failing as our President, and why we're still as vulnerable as we are. Terrorists should be weary of the people of a nation, not just its military.

Second was Obama's message to the leaders of other countries that their people would judge them by what they build, not by what they destroy ("To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy"). Those are the words from his speech most likely to reverberate and spread our ideals as we enter a new era of truly global interconnectedness, IMO. It's a measure we'll use to judge our own leaders from this point as well.

But there are months and years in which to see how those ideals are lived up to by the new President. He's in office and working hard already. I remain as hopeful as ever, despite the obvious challenges we all face. Besides, when all else fails, a man can always measure the success of his life by the love he feels toward and from his family and friends. I adore the friends we participated in history with this week, and as corny as it might sound, our trip to DC was extra special for us because we were there together. Here's the motely crew doing their best Eskimo impressions at the concert:

From left to right, back row, Anne (from Virginia [originally from Virginia]); Kevin (from Seattle [originally from London]); Ann (from Seattle [originally from Massachusetts]); yours truly; Gary (from London [originally from Scotland]); front row, Bambino (from New York [originally from Kyrgyzstan]); and Jo (from London [originally from Kent]).

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Inaugurations

As surreal as it was to see images yesterday of an airbus bobbing in the Hudson, it was equally surreal to realize it was bobbing right past the gallery building (not my photo at right...off the web). Our horror at the initial news was eventually replaced with relief when we heard everyone aboard was rescued, but the desire to get constant information and learn more brought me back to that day in 2001. It's amazing how information is now strength. This morning all of us tip our hat to clearly one of the coolest men in the country, pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger. Well done indeed!

Tomorrow, after the gallery closes (and don't miss the artists' talk in our space at 1 if you're in the area and do stop by for our opening tonight!), Bambino and I are training it down to DC to celebrate the inauguration of one of the other coolest men in the US, soon to be President Barack Hussein Obama!!! Funny how smart and nerdy is cool now. Guess that's what you get after brush-clearing cowboys you'd wanna have a beer with demonstrate that a drawl and a smirk alone don't make for competent governance.

Blogging will be light at best next week as we gallivant around DC (in parkas not tuxes) and reconnect with dear friends from London and Seattle and Northern Virginia. We'll also finally get to check out the new digs of our friends at Conner Contemporary. I'll see if I can talk Bambino into posting a DC version of SEE and Be SEEN. Michelle, if you're reading (and why wouldn't the future First Lady of the United States who's moving into a new home, preparing for a dozen balls, starting her daughters off in a new school, and adjusting to an entirely new level of constant attention not be reading the mindless ramblings of an art dealer/blogger?), Bambino would love, love, love to get a photo with you!! Just meet us at the Lincoln Memorial at 4:00 PM on Sunday.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Things Fall Apart," Curated by Joy Garnett & Artists' Talk @ Winkleman Gallery

Things Fall Apart
A Group Exhibition curated by Joy Garnett
January 16 - February 21, 2009
Opens January 16 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Featuring work by
Stephen Andrews
Paul Chan + The Front
Mounir Fatmi
Yevgeniy Fiks
Joy Garnett
Susan Hefuna
Christopher Lowry Johnson
Carlos Motta
Renata Poljak
Susan Silas

Winkleman Gallery is very pleased to present Things Fall Apart, a group exhibition curated by Joy Garnett.
January 16 – February 21, 2009
Opening reception: Friday, January 16, 6-8pm.

Things Fall Apart takes its title from a line in a well-known poem by William Butler Yeats1 that warns of ominous forces unleashed in the political vacuum following World War I. The poem reverberates in twentieth and twenty first century literature and culture, from Chinua Achebe’s eponymous novel2 about African societies giving way under colonialism, to Joan Didion’s collection of essays on California in the 1960s3, to Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Allusions to the poem regularly color news items, notably The Economist’s cover story after the U.S. market collapse, and New York Times articles covering the failed war in Iraq, the increasing dysfunction of the U.S. right wing political axis, and the spread of the current economic crisis to global markets.

If Yeats' poetic imagery and its subsequent iterations seethe with foreboding and even despair, by contrast, the international group of artists presented in Things Fall Apart mark precipitous global power shifts in their work while positing the darkest moments—when things fall apart—as salient points of departure for change.

The graphically political work of Mounir Fatmi (Morocco) directly addresses the constructed political hierarchies at hand: flags of each of the G8 nations are poised like so many icons of power atop push-brooms, symbolizing the burden placed upon those who bear the brunt of the global decision-making system, and emphasizing its forced semblance of equilibrium. Global power dynamics and the intricate process of enemy construction are likewise made legible in the oil paintings of Yevgeniy Fiks (Russia), which point to a forgotten moment in U.S. history (1943-1944) when the goals of the American and Soviet propaganda machines coincided; the story turns poignantly on the ironic twist provided during the McCarthy hearings, when artists fulfilling that particular call to patriotism were rewarded by being blacklisted. Nationalist propaganda is again repurposed as so much raw material when Joy Garnett (USA) re-invents the candy-coated public relations photographs from the Yangtse Three Gorges Development Corporation website in a series of oil paintings that show the earth itself giving way in the widening gyre of China’s monumental and controversial public works project.

Plucked from televised footage of the earliest US bombardment of Iraq after 9/11, the drawings of Stephen Andrews (Canada) signal the coming of the Americans as “liberators” with a mixture of horror and humor, focusing on those instants, magnified by the media, when everything changes irrevocably. Paul Chan (USA/Hong Kong) and members of the New Orleans-based artist-run collective The Front4 present a selection of drawings, prints and photographs direct from the Ninth Ward, NOLA's ground zero. Displayed salon-style, these works combine images of destruction and displacement, personal memory and political disturbance, reflecting the people and places of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In her new dual-channel video installation, Renata Poljak (Croatia) explores the intersections of the personal and the political, identity and nationalism, by juxtaposing the escalating collapse of a fictional relationship with the suppressed history and memory of the war between Serbia and Croatia. Susan Silas (USA/Hungary) inverts memories of past barbarism through a haunting retrospective lens with her series of paired photographs that reunite images from the Olympic Stadium in what was once West Berlin, with images from the Jewish Cemetery at Weißensee, in what used to be East Berlin. The layered, transparent drawings of multimedia artist Susan Hefuna (Egypt/Germany) play on metaphors of separateness and stereotypes of otherness through the filter of her dual heritage; multiple vantage points and interpretations—from the Modernist grid to Orientalist mystification—infuse her abstract renderings of mashrabiya screens, a traditional Islamic latticework window element that allow a building’s inhabitants to observe the outside world while remaining hidden.

Carlos Motta’s (Colombia) stacked, mass-produced newspapers comprehensively list the history of U.S. global interventions in Latin America in print form, offering a bloody inventory of counterinsurgency, weapons use, psychological warfare, interrogation and environmental degradation; the broadsheet points to the production of alternative histories, and suggests both the potential power as well as possible limitations of distributing information freely to the public. In his latest series of oil paintings drawn from news items covering the implosion of derelict buildings across the country, Christopher Lowry Johnson (USA) zeros-in on our brute fascination with physical destruction, while suggesting a climactic end to the era of American global dominance. Brimming with the heartbreaking drama of a lost “Americana,” this work evokes a once powerful and alluring past now very much past its prime and facing the prospect of being torn down in order to start anew.

1.
THE SECOND COMING
By W.B. Yeats (1920)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

2. Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things fall apart. London [u.a.]: Heinemann.
3. Didion, Joan. 1968. Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
4. The 14 artists who form The Front are Kyle Bravo, Andrea Ferguson, Rachel Jones, Morgana King, Jenny Le Blanc, Michelle Levine, Jennifer Odem, Stephanie Patton, Julie Pieri, Claire Rau, Jeff Rinehart, Megan Roniger, Natalie Sciortino and Jonathan Traviesa. The Front is located at 4100 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, LA 70117. More info: http://www.nolafront.org/

Image above, image courtesy of Paul Chan, courtesy of Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.

AND SATURDAY:
Gallery Talk by Paul Chan + The Front @ Winkleman Gallery, Saturday Jan. 17, 1pm

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3173/3019738352_76baaa0357.jpg?v=1229564011
Jonathan Traviesa: Sculptural Awareness #7
2005
20 x 30 inches
Pigment print (editioned)
Courtesy of The Front, New Orleans, LA

Please join us for an informal gallery talk by Paul Chan and several members of The Front who are visiting New York from New Orleans on Saturday, January 17, at 1pm (the day after the opening of the "Things Fall Apart" exhibition). They will talk about how The Front was formed, its mission, its members, and the transformation in the NOLA art scene over the past few years.

The 14 artists who form The Front are Kyle Bravo, Andrea Ferguson, Rachel Jones, Morgana King, Jenny Le Blanc, Michelle Levine, Jennifer Odem, Stephanie Patton, Julie Pieri, Claire Rau, Jeff Rinehart, Megan Roniger, Natalie Sciortino and Jonathan Traviesa.

The Front is located at 4100 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, LA 70117. More info: http://www.nolafront.org/

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Thought We Won the Cold War : Open Thread

OK, so I'm torn.

Torn between staying true to my word on this Artworld Salon post in which I note:
As Barack Obama keeps demonstrating, however, success does seem to come from listening to a wide range of informed opinions and them choosing wisely. So with that, I will note, as a dealer in Chelsea, that I would very much appreciate any feedback or advice on how best to navigate the current economic situation.
and unleashing a torrent of snark upon Charlie Finch for this
How would a new gallery system work? The first step would be to require written contracts between a gallery and its artists. A gallery would commit to a stable of, say, ten artists for a contractual period of five years. Each artist would receive a monthly stipend to cover the basics such as rent, food and materials. In return, any monies received from the sale of works by gallery artists would go into a collective pool to pay these stipends and the expenses of running the gallery. Part of the stipend arrangement would require the artists to commit a small amount of time weekly to working in the gallery to cut down on labor costs.
Mr. Finch goes on to make some other suggestions in his article on Survival Strategies (a topic worthy of considering as many view points on as possible), but this particular idea smacks of a Neo-Soviet Artists Union...5-year plans and all. Putting my urge to dust off my repertoire of Cold War-era rhetoric on hold and taking the suggestion seriously, though, my sincere questions about such a plan would include the following:
  • If artists must work in the gallery, how could the process of selecting artists for the gallery stable not include asking them about their "gallery worker" skills? And how would that not impact the quality/vision/identity/professionalism of the gallery? It's more than simply skills, as well; gallery workers need to be reliable. If Artist A refuses to show up on time or pull his/her weight compared with the other artists, but Artist A still has a 5-year contract, what option does the gallery have for resolving such slackery?
  • Moreover, in building a stable, how could a gallery in good conscience include an artist who they know won't have a market as strong as the other artists for years, if ever? Weighing whether the artist would bring other things to the gallery, such as great press or prestige is clearly one part of this, but no stable I know of manages to reach enough of an equilibrium of sales among artists that would prevent eventual resentment. This concept seems to require a great deal of magnanimity among every artist in the stable.
  • How much start-up capital would this model require and how would that impact who can start a gallery? Stipends for rent, food, and materials (which would vary per artist, obviously) x 10 (in New York) = about a million times more than your average Williamsburg gallery had to start off with (and with emerging artists programs it can take years to become profitable anyway). Does this plan spell the death knell for the likes of my space and others that founded on the bootstrap model?
  • Profit is not mentioned at all here. Is that even part of the model? Monies from sales go into a pool to pay the stipends and running the gallery (and believe me, you can always expand on the expense of running the gallery...increasing advertising, increasing the number of art fairs you participate in, etc.), but what say could/should the artists have in what the owner's take should be? Any?
And that's just off the top of my head.

Still, and sincerely, I'm interested in what others think about Charlie's suggestion. What are its pluses, and what are its minuses?

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Lows in Time-Pressed (i.e., Lazy) Blogging

See this post and carry on.

(Hey, it's an installation week in the gallery).

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Arts Under Obama: A Brainstorming Session

What does "increased support for the arts" from the Federal Government mean to you?

I ask because, in reading through the few comments at the end of this Art Newspaper article on all the hopes being projected on to President-Elect Obama's administration and his awareness and commitment to promoting the arts in America, it dawned on me that people have some very different ideas about what that means. I know that's a central complaint among Obama skeptics, that he makes beautiful but vague promises that he most surely will not be able to deliver on, but I sincerely think the only folks who see that as a serious problem are those who don't understand their obligation to participate in supporting him in such efforts.

Here's the gist of the article:
In November, during his first interview after winning the election on NBC’s weekly news programme “Meet the Press”, host Tom Brokaw asked Mr Obama what kind of cultural and artistic changes he would make as president. “Our art and our culture…that’s the essence of what makes America special, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House,” said Mr Obama. He has announced a three-person advisory team dedicated to reviewing the two main agencies responsible for providing government grants to arts and culture projects, the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). [...]

But some groups think Mr Obama can do more. A coalition of arts organisations, including the American Association of Museums, Americans for the Arts, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, among others, submitted a report to Obama’s office recommending further measures to improve government support of the arts. Among the suggestions—such as increasing the NEA’s annual budget to $319.2m, expanding international cultural exchange, and reinstating an arts curriculum in schools—is the important idea of appointing a senior-level official in the White House that would be responsible for overseeing the administration’s entire arts and cultural policy.
One of the comments in the post questions whether the sense that the Bush administration ignored the arts was actually true. I too recall reading that Bush had increased funding for the NEA (what didn't he increase funding for?), so I'm not sure that's a fair call, but a more overt and public support would have unquestionably been preferable in terms of rallying public opinion to help save arts programs in schools and increase a shared national sense of pride in our arts.

But there's only one week left in that administration (and all I want to know of Bush is when he's going on trial for war crimes), so let's look to the future. Clearly if the country is going to turn itself around, it's going to fall to all of us, not just the President-Elect, to do that heavy lifting, and so having read that the way Obama operates is to seriously listen to the opinions of those in the know and then make his decisions, why don't we (in our way) help him out? What would "more support" for the arts look like to you?

Related: For an ongoing record of how folks in the arts are supporting and/or responding to Obama, check out The Obama Art Report.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Kasmalieva and Djumaliev "Last Chance" in Today's New York Times

Many thanks to Roberta Smith for her beautiful response to our current exhibition, "A New Silk Road," by Gulnara Kasmlieva and Muratbek Djumaliev. You have two days left to see it:
GULNARA KASMALIEVA AND MURATBEK DJUAMLIEV: ‘A NEW SILK ROAD’ In a five-channel video commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, an artist team from the Kyrgyz Republic documents with bare-bones lyricism and exquisite editing the struggling economies that have sprung in this former Soviet republic along one of the original Silk Roads. Ancient trucks as rusty as their cargo take junk to China; pristine Chinese trucks bearing factory goods come the other way. Makeshift villages along the way provide food, housing and the occasional song, all against a stunningly austere landscape. The bottom line? We will survive, and make art too. Winkleman Gallery, 637 West 27th Street, Chelsea, (212) 643-3152, winkleman.com; closes on Saturday. (Smith)
It is an exhibition we're very proud of.

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Blogging Break Open Thread

I've cranked out in excess of 6000 words here already this week. I think I'm used up for now. Need to refuel.

What do you want to talk about? How about this study?

Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?
Sex differences in conversational behavior have long been a topic of public and scientific interest. The stereotype of female talkativeness is deeply engrained in Western folklore and often considered a scientific fact. In the first printing of her book, neuropsychiatrist Brizendine reported, "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000". These numbers have since circulated throughout television, radio, and print media (e.g., CBS, CNN, National Public Radio, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Washington Post). Indeed, the 20,000-versus-7000 word estimates appear to have achieved the status of a cultural myth in that comparable differences have been cited in the media for the past 15 years
.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Show Your Love for PPOW

The lovely folks at PPOW entered their gallery yesterday morning to find nearly utter destruction in their space caused by a fire in the space above them. Not only had the water from the fire hoses used to extinguish the flames claimed all their office equipment and computers, but firemen had trampled across framed drawings they had laid (lain?) out in preparation for installation and destroyed them. Thankfully the work in their storage area and main gallery was spared.

Where many people might have simply been devastated to wake up to this, however, PPOW unleashed a Herculean effort to move their art and what remained of their office, and against any reasonable expectations will actually host the opening reception tonight for their artist, Teun Hocks, who had travelled from Holland, in a temporary location:

The temporary location for the Teun Hocks exhibition will be:
PPOW
511 West 25th Street Room 301
New York, NY 10001
Opening Reception January 8, 6-8pm

info@ppowgallery.com
If you're heading out to any of the openings in Chelsea this evening, I encourage you to show your support and stop in to wish Wendy, Penny, Teun and the whole gang the best as they regroup and move on. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and worked their asses off yesterday to make this show happen. Show your love.

UPDATE: See this updated report on artforum.com. Wendy told me how truly gracious and extraordinarily generous some of the people in the gallery community were when they heard the news. Unfortunately, there were also a few folks who had the means to help but who decided to take advantage of the situation to gouge them instead. Those people know who they are and should be wholly ashamed of themselves.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Topic du Jour Deux

For a less controversial topic than whether or not America should celebrate culture by elevating one person a year to prominence for their efforts, I'll point you to the following, which cheered my agnostic heart to no end:
The advertisement on the bus was fairly mild, just a passage from the Bible and the address of a Christian Web site. But when Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer, looked on the Web site in June, she was startled to learn that she and her nonbelieving friends were headed straight to hell, to “spend all eternity in torment.”

That’s a bit extreme, she thought, as well as hard to prove. “If I wanted to run a bus ad saying ‘Beware — there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!’ or ‘The “bits” in orange juice aren’t orange but plastic — don’t drink them or you’ll die!’ I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims,” Ms. Sherine wrote in a commentary on the Web site of The Guardian.

And then she thought, how about putting some atheist messages on the bus, as a corrective to the religious ones?

And so were planted the seeds of the Atheist Bus Campaign, an effort to disseminate a godless message to the greater public. When the organizers announced the effort in October, they said they hoped to raise a modest $8,000 or so.

But something seized people’s imagination. Supported by the scientist and author Richard Dawkins, the philosopher A. C. Grayling and the British Humanist Association, among others, the campaign raised nearly $150,000 in four days. Now it has more than $200,000, and on Tuesday it unveiled its advertisements on 800 buses across Britain.

“There’s probably no God,” the advertisements say. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Spotting one of the buses on display at a news conference in Kensington, passers-by were struck by the unusual message.

Not always positively. “I think it’s dreadful,” said Sandra Lafaire, 76, a tourist from Los Angeles, who said she believed in God and still enjoyed her life, thank you very much. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t like it in my face.”
Read the rest...after years of feeling oppressed by a culture fueled by an administration that talked the talk, but hardly walked the walk with regards to believing in God, I find it remarkably refreshing that in England and now elsewhere* folks are openly debating whether or not God exists with a hearty freedom.
*Inspired by the London campaign, the American Humanist Association started running bus advertisements in Washington in November, with a more muted message. “Why believe in a god?” the ads read, over a picture of a man in a Santa suit. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
I'll be honest...I'm unconvinced that God exists. None of the feeble attempts to use logic ("there must be a God, look at the 'miracle' of life...look at how complex the human circulatory system or the brain or whatever is) or romance ("look at that sunset and tell me there's no god") or coercion ("One nation, under God...") have ever truly made me believe. So STOP using them! Alright already?

As with the gay community, until atheists boldly come out of the closet in this country, little-minded people will continue to project all sorts of heinous behaviors and beliefs upon them. The atheists friends I have count among the most decent and truly good people I know. The only differences between them and some of the decent religious people I know in terms of behavior are arbitrarily adhered to ritualistic practices. Not exactly the stuff of persuasion one way or the other.

As for me, I am agnostic only because I like to hedge my bets...not because I've seen anything that has utterly convinced me God exists. I've seen plenty to suggest others who claim to believe in God are willing to insult Him or ignore Him on a daily basis, though. I've also met people who believe in God who are so lovely and kind and generous (exceptionally so) that I figure if religion is what it takes to produce such a humanity in some people, so be it...let 'em practice the re-enforcing rituals.

None of which means anything within the debate as to whether it's OK for a religious group to shove in others' faces that they believe nonbelievers are headed straight to hell but it's not OK for atheists to point out humorously that that assertion is impossible to prove. In this particular battle, I'm ever so more comfortable siding with the atheists.

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American Captain of Culture 2008

Alrighty then. Since the mainstream media doesn't seem interested in such designations, why not, as James Kalm suggested in yesterday's post, nominate our own Captain of Culture for 2008 in the States (with an emphasis on fine art being my bent, but don't let that limit you). (As James also noted, do not suck up and nominate me, please.)

Having set the bar as high as they did in Britain, selecting someone who "turned the British Museum into an arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace," it won't be easy, but still, who do you think had the biggest impact on culture or engaged with culture to the most effect this side of the pond in 2008?

I've started with the suggestions James listed and added a few of my own, just to get the ball rolling and spark some ideas, but feel free to add your own (you may want to read any existing comments before choosing to see who's been added). Also, adding one or two lines as to why you nominated the person you did would be interesting:

A. Thomas Krens
B. Jerry Saltz
C. Roberta Smith
D. Philippe deMontabello
E. Oliver Stone
F. Tyler Green
G. Eli Broad
H. Jeff Koons
I. Louise Blouin MacBain
J. The Rubells
K. Richard Prince
L. Tobias Meyer
M. Alana Heiss
O. Glenn D. Lowry
P. Michael Govan
Q. Kathy Halbreich
R. Richard Serra
S. Larry Gagosian
T. Other _______________

Vote only once, please.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Wide Disparity of Priorities : Open Thread

Wilde once quipped that the English "have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.” I'd humbly submit that you could easily swap out "language" for "cultural priorities" and in a way that perhaps confirms another Wilde quote about the U.S.:
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
I can hear the right-wingers blood vessels bursting from here as they prepare to call me a "hate-America-first Liberal"...but take as evidence the news that The Times of London this year named British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, as their "Briton of the Year."

Not that I would disagree with Time magazine's choice of Barack Obama as their Person of the Year. Our President-Elect surely deserves this accolade. But the rationale The Times of London gives for choosing a director of a museum for their honor is one I cannot fathom ever being offered by the US media:
By emphasising the importance of an international community of inquiry, of a “republic of letters” as it would have been called in its Enlightment roots, he has helped to create a global society that is quite separate from others that constantly get caught up in the squabblings of government and politics.

Through this society he has managed, over the years, to create important cultural links with countries – including, perhaps most notably, China, Iraq and Iran – that have not enjoyed the warmest of political relations with the West.
Culture as diplomacy. What a concept. What a wonderful, intelligent, peaceful concept.

Mind you I don't blame our cultural institutions for this disparity of priorities. They are phenomenally engaged in such efforts and respected throughout the world (when they're not being sued for smuggling, that is :-). And I don't blame our government either, to tell the truth. They understand full well how culture serves our foreign interests, and when I've worked abroad I've always found our embassies highly engaged in promoting American culture.

No, I blame our media. After all, it wasn't the museums or government of the UK that selected Saint Neil as the Briton of the Year, it was their capital's most influential daily newspaper. Read more of why they made this choice:
Helping to release the power that lies implicit in the world’s ancient artefacts, MacGregor has turned the British Museum into an arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace.
Now compare that a passage from Time magazine's rationale for selecting Obama...it discusses art as well:
Our cover portrait is by the street artist Shepard Fairey, whose roots are in the skateboarding world and whose early poster of then Senator Obama became the great populist image of the campaign. With this cover, Fairey has now created a new iconic image of the President-elect — a rich, multilayered poster that echoes but then expands on his original.

In keeping with the theme of citizen art, we open our Person of the Year package with a dazzling array of images culled from those created by thousands of individuals from around the world and posted on the image-sharing site Flickr. Obama always said his candidacy was not about him, but "you," and now, along with Flickr, we're helping give "you" a voice.
See the difference? On one hand, is culture viewed as an "arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace" and on the other hand, culture is viewed as a means of casually flattering one's paying customers.

Consider this an open thread on how American priorities regarding the role of culture might be changed or at least taken more seriously by our media.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For

Over the holidays I reflected on what I thought might be next in contemporary art, what will happen now that the market is no longer driving things...no longer "the story" of contemporary art. In doing so, I should note, I considered "contemporary art" as a dialog between artists, curators/museums, critics, collectors, fairs, and yes even galleries, although clearly artists are the raison d'etre for the rest of us. With that in mind, I'll save my thoughts on how any of this applies to artists until the end and work through the other players first. Before that, though, permit me to set the stage for these thoughts (you may want to grab a coffee first, this one goes on for a few gigabytes):

Context for My Conclusions
Early on in his career, Andy Warhol embellished his paintings of cartoons and other Pop images with drips and "expressionistic" passages so that the world would know to take him seriously as an artist. Or so the story goes. More likely he simply hadn't reach the point at which he understood himself what he was working toward...who knows for sure?

Yet now that we're this side of Andy's choice to abandon the obligatory tell-tale signs of "seriousness," we can point to it as evidence that art movements have a down-side to them. They can keep artists from clearly focusing on where their explorations might otherwise take them. The "rules" of a movement that might provide the structure for mining deeply into a rich vein also keep directing adherents (or worse, those who see adherence as their only access into the "dialog") back into choices others have predetermined as valid.

Still, often one hears in the cacophonous contemporary art world a longing for a return to the days of movements or at least a salivating anticipation of the "next big thing," either of which will presumably provide some direction, something to really rally behind or invest in. Like waiting for Godot, it borders on tortuous, this sense that their must be something that will bring clarity or at least a wider urgency. I'd like to suggest we take a cue from the improbable new President-elect and consider instead that we are the ones we've been waiting for.

The clarity we seek will not, I suspect, emerge in conjunction with the rise of a dominant voice or bold new direction by a band of brilliant artists (the essential "art world" is probably too dispersed for that now), but rather with a broader point of view, a step back if you will, that permits us to recognize that Pluralism isn't a temporary brainstorming session, but rather a progression into a richer and wider cultural inter-connectivity. I'll explain more in detail below what I think that means in a fine art context.

First, though, for broader context, consider that socially we're already way ahead of this notion and increasingly very comfortable with it. When I check the stats on this blog, I see I enjoy a daily dialog with people living in virtually every corner of the world. My "friends" on Facebook live in nearly every continent and that circle keeps expanding. What we lose in intimacy with such environments, we make up for in immediacy and quantity. Yes, there's plenty of flotsam bobbing about in the blogosphere and social network sites, but there are absolute gems that come to those who put even the tiniest of efforts into finding them as well. But even the flotsam, especially in its database-convenient accumulation, becomes a ponderous thing, a raw material that provides satisfaction via its quantity (think: hit counters).

Of course, there's more value in this than merely the daily dispensing of digital pellets of personal validation. I don't mean to valorize sitting at a computer, but rather to point to how these tools are enriching our off-line social lives. When I meet someone at an art fair who comments on the blog or am prompted to visit an exhibition by a previously unknown "friend" of a "friend" on Facebook (someone whose profile and mutual friends I can see in preview), for example, I encounter these folks with a remarkable jump-start on real-world intimacy. An artist friend of mine just admitted the other day she finally gave in and joined Facebook because she felt she was missing out on too many invitations to events that everyone else seemed to know about.

Furthermore, we are collectively creating an exhilarating and phenomenally accelerating new
lingua-franca (centered in English, which is rapidly closing in on 1 million words) through such tools, one that keeps blending all of recorded human history into an ever-widening pool of referents. (See this list of words added to the Oxford Dictionary recently....origins for new "English" words range from Scotland to East Africa to Japan, some of them just now, nearly 100 years after first coinage, and much of them created in response to the need to discuss new technology among ourselves).

More than that, though, we are collectively sorting through the content of recorded history and tagging it...in essence, through the Internet we're building the most remarkable content management system (CMS) the world has ever known. Consider Wikipedia or YouTube. How much money would it have cost someone to find and input all that data, let alone add all that metadata, let alone refine the quality of the data (via ratings and/or feedback) in a socially relevant way? These are truly historic projects, and we're all contributing to their generation (willingly and for free I might add). (Yes such systems suffer from the bane of any database [i.e., garbarge in = garbage out], but I'll get to that in a moment.)

Moreover, with the speed with which you can now access information that the Internet provides, more of history, more of contemporary life, more of everything is quite literally at your fingertips. I recall, for example, a bit they did on Monty Python decades ago and within seconds I'm watching it on YouTube. If I want to share its significance, I no longer need to summarize or transcribe the telescript, I send out a link and voila, we're all watching the exact same bit. This ability accelerates what I can communicate more accurately. It connects us more succinctly (especially as I would have undoubtedly remembered it incorrectly had I been left to summarize it from memory).

Finally, this ability (and more importantly, our collective acceptance of communicating this way) permits me to draw more casually and eventually more effectively from all of history (images and titles and text and video) to try to convey something. When I wish to suggest humorously that the order for the New Year is Hope, it takes me mere minutes to provide a series of images that reach back millennia. A few key strokes and voila, history condensed and sewn together with ease to underscore my point.

It's not just the access (dedicated travelers or scholars could always spend their lives researching dusty volumes or the back roads of the world and then regurgitate what they found toward their own ends), though, but the ease of it. The speed of it begins to blur it all a bit. Indeed, all of world history and human accomplishment is our fertile playground and the ravenous rate with which we can consume it is changing how we feel about boundaries between times, places, and things. It didn't take me a week to make an appointment with a library and then hours of searching to find the Monty Python sketch, during which any number of life events might have derailed my quest or interest. I found it in seconds and combined it with another idea and moved on.

But why isn't this bad, you might ask? This speed surely leads to shallower observations or offerings, no?

Taken individually, perhaps (depending on the effort or the skills of the person offering it), but collectively I would argue the opposite. The following is an excerpt from something I wrote for the Daily Constitutional, Issue 6, Summer 2008:
It's widely accepted that programming has advanced to the point that no mere mortal will ever again consistently be able to beat the best computer applications at playing chess. The best that even the World Chess Champion can consistently hope for is a tie. And that may be but a momentary situation. Indeed, the notion has been raised that the brute force of intelligence available to a computer now produces the same results as the most intuitive human mind (leading to the situation where humans now prefer to pit their machines against each other at chess tournaments). In terms of processing future possibilities, things have reached the point at which quantity becomes indecipherable from quality.
Effectively directing such quantity into meaningful connections (it's not enough to take your opponent's queen if that then facilitates their checkmating you) is still an achievement of high purpose, though. And for human purposes that will always require understanding what is important from a human point of view. Against this furious backdrop, this new rapidly evolving reality, then, what reflects most accurately what's important now? How can you elevate one idea or achievement or time period over another in such a sea of arguably equal options/sources/references? The answer seems to be you don't. Not in the manner you used to at least. Perhaps moving forward, you assess what's important (to you or to society at large if that's your role), not solely through a chronological canon of individual achievements (although those are still essential elements), but rather through our new-found ability to see deeper, more complex, more subtle connections, independent of linear history or place.

What that means for the players in the art world constitutes the balance of this post:

Curators/Museums
Two "trends" (if you will) or perhaps simply emphases in curating seem to be acknowledging that inter-connectivity is important now. The first is overt collaboration, as evidenced most succinctly perhaps by the collective What, How and for Whom (WHW; Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic) who formed in 1999 and will be curating the upcoming Istanbul Biennial. Second is the growing interest in mixing historical with contemporary art or older historical works with more recent historical works...any dismissal of linear time seems of urgent interest (see, for example, this, this, this, this, and this) to present a more accurate overall picture of the works' significance or, as the recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum called it, to "draw connections." This achronological approach has captured the imagination of nearly everyone I speak with about it these days. Part of the enthusiasm is admittedly designed to correct what's seen an "imbalance of commercial interest." But I suspect more of it is because of the synaptic connection it sparks...evidence of how it answers a floating question about our times.

Critics
Art on Paper has been carefully balancing its coverage of the medium it's dedicated to, independent of the year the work was created, since the early 90s (see their summer issue reviews for a range of their interests)
. Their medium-specific mission has permitted this connecting thread across history more easily than that of, say, Artforum or other art publications dedicated to contemporary art, but the history of that publication has been one of continuously widening its scope. It's not irrelevant that its publishers are Peter Nesbett and Shelly Bancroft (the brains behind the sometimes controversial and always thought-provoking non-profit space Triple Candie [currently without a physical location]), two art world insiders with a knack for seeing the big picture.

The depth and breadth that focus permits is but one part of what I think art criticism must provide at the moment, though. The writers at the New York Times cover an incredible range of exhibitions, spanning all of art history, and still maintain more credibility collectively than any other daily publication in the world. But that, I believe, is their strength...their collective voice. Other publications have identifiable points of view or voices, but a singular point of view for any publications' readers increasingly seems a fetishization to my mind. So much so that I suspect publications with only one art critic will benefit greatly from those critics also voicing their opinions via other, perhaps less-formal channels, to permit these (non-edited) critiques to balance out their formal contributions. Blogs are one such channel, but other (less time-consuming channels) are being used effectively by writers for this as well.

Collectors
A high-profile contemporary art collector (a fairly brilliant man recognized as such in his industry) recently noted with great enthusiasm that he had moved past the point in building his collection of only buying "brand" names and had found great joy in also acquiring work by less-established artists that complemented or connected his trophy pieces. He had learned enough about contemporary art to connect the dots, so to speak, he said. Juxtaposing works based on formal or conceptual connections had become his new passion. But more than that, the line that cut through from a budding artist to a highly celebrated one seemed more relevant than any individual piece.

Indeed, I suspect such collections will prove to be more important in the future than deep assemblies of brand names. They will prove to have been more insightful of what was really happening at this time. I know I can't say that without seeming to indict a wide range of what are considered very important contemporary collections, mostly because of their remarkable depth (how many pieces they include by "significant" artists), but having informally surveyed visitors to such collections they nearly universally report the ennui such visits left them feeling. Why? I began to wonder. What is it about such an approach that seems so ho-hum now? Why is the idea of connecting the dots so exhilarating?

Fairs
Two years ago we were invited to participate in Art Chicago, which I had never done before (this was the year of its rebirth via the Merchandise Mart team) and we were excited to try it. Upon seeing our placement at the fair, though, I grew rather anxious. We were surrounded by galleries with programs so different from ours (a secondary market gallery that sold important Modernist works, a print gallery, an old Masters gallery, and contemporary galleries that I considered to be having a very different dialog than the one we're investing in [which is my nice way of saying they were too commercial for my tastes]) that I didn't know what to expect. Most of the fairs we had done before were much more consistent in their scope. A few of them were all but homogeneous (you'd find the same well-selling contemporary artists in several booths). Oddly, though, as the week wore on I began to love the context. To see the connections between what our artists were doing and what had come before, sometimes long before, was very eye-opening. Of course I knew the references that were obvious, but sometimes a subtle connection would reveal itself and it was, indeed, exhilarating.

Now that the market has cooled down, I do wonder whether fairs that had focused on traditional (i.e., older) works but began to embrace contemporary art or contemporary fairs that expanded to include more traditional work will back off that trend. I think that would be unfortunate for the public, even as it might be necessary temporarily for some organizers. The homogeneous art fair increasingly has the same impact that the too-indepth collections have on viewers if anecdotal evidence counts for anything.

Galleries
I suspect we're going to see more exhibitions like the one that just ended at Kinz and Tillou, pairing the photography of contemporary artist Kim Keever with paintings by Hudson River School artists. Indeed, if a contemporary art gallery's role is to explain to the public what an artist is doing and why he/she is important, such exhibitions are surely much more effective than lengthy press releases, no? Another gallery presenting work in this manner for years now to great effect is Pavel Zoubok Gallery, which strategically deals in both the primary and secondary market more seamlessly than any other gallery of its size. Presenting their contemporary artists' work alongside historically important work in an ongoing series of group exhibitions, they connect the dots brilliantly (not to mention improve their odds in any market climate).

More than that, though, galleries will see education on inter-connectivity as a solid means of selling work. A friend of mine who owns a gallery rocked my world when she described her program, which seems consistent to me but confuses some of their collectors from time to time, in terms of imagining that each gallery artist were a segment on a color wheel. You have connections between the artists that mimic the relationship of complementary colors and those that are more akin to the relationship of colors next to each other, both formally and conceptually. It may not be immediately obvious how artist A makes sense in the same program as artist B until you see how one completes a segment of the same wheel.

Not all galleries strive for consistency in their programs, of course, but the same thinking can be incredibly useful in connecting certain artists in one's stable with the artists in a collection. Using the axis system of a color wheel and the main categories of formal concerns and conceptual concerns, connections that may have required painful lengthy explanations may be easier to communicate (provided they're actually there, of course).

Artists
If we accept that the role of contemporary art curators is to investigate and present what's important among the studio practices of living artists, then the two "trends" suggested above should be reflected in what artists are doing, no? Collectives are certainly alive and well, even as their membership, raison d'etre, or output ebbs and flows (as is the norm with collectives it seems): from Fluxus to the Gorilla Girls to Forcefield to K48 to What is to Be Done? and countless others, contemporary collectives continue to form in response to issues or merely a convergence of interests and time and place. Whether curating collectives have any meaningful connection to artist collectives is a fair question though.

Collaboration is also not only alive and well, but seemingly reaching a critical point as a medium unto itself among contemporary artists. Not only are artist teams still thriving (husband and wife [or husband and husband or wife and wife] teams seem everywhere interestingly enough), but we're seeing artists now who see collaboration with a wide range of others (artists and non artists alike) as the main thrust of their practice. Most interesting among such approaches (especially for me admittedly) is that practiced by Christopher K. Ho, described by Jonathan Neil as "collaboration [that] implies or even necessitates a certain antagonism. [Ho's] favored analogy is to the tennis match, where two players not only compete against one another but also collaborate in the creation of the match itself, which
somehow exceeds the inevitable outcomes of victory or loss. Here, ‘working together’ is stripped of its hackneyed utopian veneer and set up as a constant and never frictionless negotiation."

So while friction is in abundance still (evidenced as well by the individual goals of artists that can drive collectives apart), a deeper understanding of the value of collaboration is emerging. Indeed, the "match" (the collective series of points, the back and forth, the connection between the players that creates the drama, and the rules that facilitate the accomplishment) itself becomes what is most interesting for the viewer. Any individual play might indeed make all the highlight reels (even go down in history as spectacular), but the satisfaction comes from witnessing the accumulation of individual plays, some fabulous, some merely moving the match forward.

How this seems relevant to artists not working in collectives or using collaboration as a medium is perhaps best illustrated by looking at two ongoing trends in art making that seem to be converging. One is what I'll call the accumulation (connect a thread through Yayoi Kusama, Tara Donovan, and Daniel Zeller to name but a few) and cataloging processes (connect a thread through Mark Lombardi, Jennifer Dalton, and Danica Phelps, again, to name but a few)
trend. What these processes have in common is an approach to organizing vast amounts of information, seemingly the greatest mental challenge of our time. The second trend is the battle to realize the 2-D object (read: painting) in space trend (connect a thread through Elizabeth Murray to Frank Stella's wall sculptures to Matthew Ritchie [and yes, Ivin Ballen]).

What the mutation of these seems to be heading toward is a complex approach to composition that incorporates a huge amount of information and presents it in multi-dimensions (I've seen Rauschenberg-esque photog-collage canvases cut into all manner of forms, painted over in parts with outrageous palletes, and installed such that it's all coming out into the room and along the floor recently...exhilarating, but still in the resolution phase I would say. Not to be confused with installation or scatter art, this effort is a single wholly connected object, not architecture or sculpture unto itself either, but a painting in which the artist confines his ambition to a singular composition.)

But even that, I would submit, is only the beginning of where the foundation being laid now can take art. Talking with three of the smartest people I know in the art world in Miami (Jonathan Neil, Franklin Boyd, and András Szántó) it was suggested that where this is heading, these achievements in visualizing so much information, is an incorporation of the fourth dimension, or in other words, the temporal. I'll leave it to artists to figure out what that will look like.

Conclusions
So it seems to me that what some of us are missing, as we're anxiously anticipating the next big thing, is that it's right here, right now, under our noses and that we, in fact, are actually all participating in it. The systematic connecting of the dots across all of history, the uploading and tagging of the videos, the databases we're voluntarily building in social network sites, the knowledge base we're creating and constantly refining in Wikipedia, all of this is a necessary part of building the foundation for the coming new way of seeing and processing the world around us. We're collectively creating a massive content management system, but it is simply a tool, not the product. This multi-dimensional interconnectivity is merely the new "Perspectiva!"

I suspect it's an evolutionary survival strategy, actually. We simply must be able to process information more quickly to survive. But it must be noted again, that as in any content management system, the output (or what you can actually do with the system) is only as good as the input. In other words, the quality of the individual paintings or photography or video or installations that go into this system, that we tag and collectively connect the dots to, is as important as what anyone ever expects to get out of it. Quantity must be directed by high purpose to reach its quality potential. (The real potential there, again, is something I can't wait for artists to show us.)

What this means I feel is that artists are free to focus intensely on their individual contributions, in the media of their choice. Free of adherence to any manifesto other than their own. This, I know, is where we are...the Pluralism that defines our time, and yet, still, you hear the frustration that the lack of a dominant movement has created in talking with one another about what's important now. I would argue that what's important now is what we are collectively doing. It must come first, and in a way it's an essential part of the art of our time.

UPDATE: Ben, of Emvergeoning, offers a thoughtful response and a few counterpoints:
[A]rt world observers still looking for “the next big thing” need to take a deep breath and accept that fragmentation is here to stay; and this is, in fact, “the next big thing.” This isn’t a crisis, it’s just a way of being.

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