Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Decade That Wasn't as Bad as Its Rep

I got a lovely Facebook note from my 13-year-old niece the other day. She lives with her mother (my sister), father, three other sisters and brother in another state, so I only get to see her on rare occassions. Let's call her K.

K has come to symbolize to me everything that is right about this world. Born with spina bifida and forced to wear a leg brace, I have never once seen her let that get her down, whether she's chasing her siblings across the yard, back in the hospital for more surgery, or dreaming about her future, she is an energetic burst of good cheer in a gorgeous face and it's not overstating the case to say she has this way of making the clouds part and the sun come out when she smiles at you. Life has been one challenge after another for K, but she remains a paragon of optimism. I honestly don't know how she does it.

I've been thinking a fair bit this year (with the passing of a few dear friends) about optimism. Wisdom, it seems, is the burden of age. Optimism, especially in the face of contradictory evidence, is the burden of youth and the young at heart. On the radio this morning, I heard the "man in the street" interview people about the decade that's passing. Despite turmoil and conflict from beginning to end of the last 10 years, the young folks he interviewed had big plans and big dreams. And even the grumpy older guy who was pessimistic about the future admitted that that won't stop him from buying lottery tickets (the epitome of optimism, if you ask me).

Someone recently scrawled on the wall in our local subway station that all in all things are actually not that bad. Indeed, compared to what Europe was like during WWII or the US was like during the Civil War or plenty of other places (Iran, Afghanistan, etc.) are like right now, overall life is pretty damn good here. Yes, there are hardships, anxieties, stress out the wazoo, and even heart-breaking deaths, but no one is bombing our city on a nightly basis or breaking in with machine guns and searching our home, food is plentiful (if expensive), the water and heat work in our building, we still have friends and loved ones around us. Even the act of contemplating how nice it would be to have a Porsche or a penthouse apartment is, itself, an extreme luxury we shouldn't take for granted.

Plenty of people are bidding "good riddance" to the decade this week. From Paul Krugman ("It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.") to Time Magazine who called it "the worst decade ever," I have to wonder what zapped their memories. Surely they can recall worse decades with just a moment's reflection (the 1930's anyone?). Why all this mindless self-pity? (Because it sells newspapers and magazines?)

I intend to take away from the tail-end of this decade how happy I am to have my health, my darling Bambino, our friends and family, our gallery, and how if a 13-year-old girl with more on her plate than any of the chattering class will likely have to deal with in their lifetime can find the courage and strength to look forward to her own bright future, I simply won't be a part to wallowing in the negative or focusing on how horrible life has been. Life has been grand! And I so look forward to much, much more of the same if this is as bad as it gets.

Have a very Happy New Year! I wish you optimism and growth in 2010!


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Umida Ahmedova

Full disclosure: We work with several artists who use documentary film and photography methods in their artwork. As in all artwork, the medium (even when it is the message) serves the end, not the means, in my opinion. Great artwork that is created through documentary processes is still great artwork.

This is an anti-art horror story that needs far more international attention by artists and everyone who believes in universal freedom of expression.

On November 17, acclaimed Uzbek artist Umida Ahmedova was summoned to the Police station in Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan) to be questioned and informed that she was being charged with "insult and slander against Uzbek people and traditions."

According to Umida Akhmedova, captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov, investigator of the Tashkent city police department, told her that the criminal charges have been filed against all local authors who cooperated with the Gender Program of the Swiss Embassy. Akhmedova is incriminated in the production of “Women and men: from dawn till dusk” photo album [EN - phtos], produced in 2007 under support of Swiss Embassy Gender Program, writes There's no information on other authors against whom the charges were filed. The website continues:

The investigator explained Umida Akhmedova that the case against her was produced, based on conclusions of Tashkent public prosecutor’s office experts, noting that the album “is the insult and slander of Uzbek people”. At the same time, it is absolutely unclear which photo (not the photomontage, not the screen version) may be “slander” or “insult”. It is also not clear who and when authorized Uzbek agency for press and information, the state structure, to represent the outraged honor of Uzbek people.

Umida Akhmedova shared first time she was called by police on November 17. Captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov invited her to Mirabad RDIA to give the report of witness on her “Women and men: from dawn to dusk” album. The investigator interviewed Umida for two hours and asked questions, related to Akhmedova’s participation in the production of photo album and as such movies as “Men and women: rites and ritual” and “The burden of virginity” EN]

On the Canadian website Zone of Tensions, an open appeal to the international art community to speak out on behalf of Umida's right to present such artwork un-harassed by uniformed Uzbek bureaucrats, summarizes what's at stake in this:

It is important to mention that freedom of expression is one of the key criteria of any state governed by the rule of law. Judging any artwork should be done by experts and viewers and not by forces of any official organs. Art is not equal with social and political journalism and cannot be viewed as a “document” in legal sense, therefore it cannot be an agent of “slander”.

Photographs of Umida Ahmedova possess obvious artistic value and are considered as Central Asian cultural asserts by international professional community. The government should be proud of the creativity of the talented photographer and not threaten her with criminal persecution.

Umida has worked with our artists, Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, and participated in their 4th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, this past year. Her credentials as a recognized fine artist are solid. Granted, Ahmedova's work has been presented in journalistic contexts. This image, for example, of life in Tashkent, Uzbekistan appeared (courtesy of the Associated Press) on the New York Times website. But the images for which she's being charged with slander were clearly (to my eye at least) created as artwork. Here are a few (posted here to illustrate this point from her website here): and the one that simply breaks my heart (cultural traditions, duly noted, but still....Ouch! [even the man I assume is the boy's father is clearly in anguish...can't they figure out a less traumatic way to go about this?]): Now, when you begin to pick this story apart it seems to reveal a sneaky government effort to find some way to punish Ahmedova for her film, “The burden of virginity.” This film discusses in details a cultural practice that leads to many destroyed lives (men and women) over things that really are no one else's business:
According to the old tradition, the relatives of the groom want to demonstrate the bed sheet with blood spots as an evidence of virginity after the wedding night. It is a big shame for the girl if the bed sheet is clean. Sometimes, the newly wedded couple paints the bed sheet with the blood, prepared in advance. According to the film characters, there were even few cases of suicide among frustrated husbands.
It seems to my mind, though, that the Uzbek government knows they're on shaky legal ground in building their case against Ahmedova, so they're combining their objections to this film with trumped up objections to the “Women and men: from dawn till dusk” photo album because that series was commissioned by a foreign embassy. According to this article on the website for the Association for Women's Rights in Development:
On 16 December 2009 Umida Ahmedova was called to Mirobod Department of Internal Affairs, where she learnt that she was officially suspected of charges of slander (article 139) and insult (articles 140) and article 190 “conducting activities without license” of the Uzbek Criminal Code. She was advised to hire a lawyer. The charges relate to the publication of an album of her photographs, “Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk”, published in 2007; “Women and Men in Customs and Rituals” a documentary film also produced by Umida Akhmedova with the assistance of the Swiss Embassy Gender Program; and to “Virginity Code” produced by Umida Akhmedova but not finally approved by the Gender Program.

“Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk” contains 110 photographs which reflect the life and traditions of the people of Uzbekistan. The Tashkent Prosecutor's Office has brought charges on the basis that the album of photographs and film constituted “an insult and slander of the Uzbek people”. The charges carry a possible sentence of imprisonment up to six months, or 2-3 years of “correctional work”.

Uzbek regulations require any publication produced by an NGO or international organisation to receive permission from state officials, including the Cabinet of Ministers.
That last bit seems critical for the prosecution. Should they fail to prove the work is slanderous, they can at least save face by wrangling a conviction on article 190. The only problem there, though, as noted above, is that none of the other Uzbek artists participating in the Swiss program have been singled out. All of which convinces me that it's her film and not her photographs that have the Uzbek government's undies in a bunch. As such, it seems that Ahmedova is being used to send a message to other Uzbek artists.

Fortunately, in this era of mass communication, such messages can go both directions.
The website Frontline has a pre-written letter you can send to the Uzbek government here. But feel free to express yourself in your own words about this matter. Here's the contact info for the Uzbek President:
President Islam Karimov
Office of the President
43 Uzbekistan Avenue
700163 Tashkent

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Free Desks

Bambino and I had a lovely Christmas weekend, but spent about 12 hours yesterday moving from our current space into our new space. It's shaping up nicely, but the two very well-made desks (office desk and reception desk) we inherited (very generously from Zach Feuer) will not fit in the new space, so we're giving them away for free to anyone who will come collect them by this Thursday.

The office desk has a drawer and two sliding shelves (great for a printer that you tuck away) as well as a well-designed system for your cables and such. The base is wood veneer and the top is matte black Formica (I'm guessing).

The reception desk (pictured just a bit in the photo on the cover of my book [below]) has the same design and is on wheels. Both are somewhat heavy, but Bambino and I moved them from 24th Street to 27th Street by ourselves when we first inherited them.

Please call 212.643.3152 and leave a message (we'll call you back) or email (info [at] if you'd like to come by and see them. Again, we must vacate the space (meaning with the desks gone somehow) by Thursday.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 10 New York Art World News Stories of 2009

If you'll indulge me just a bit (this format isn't my forte I've found, but it's fun and apparently that time of year again, so...), I'll give this my best effort. Here are what I would call the top 10 New York Art World news stories of 2009, selected in terms of entirely unscientific, anecdotal evidence of how frequently they came up at cocktail parties and such:

10. The art market turns away from that light at the end of the tunnel and returns to consciousness...only to find it's still in intensive care. Despite nearly universal relief that things picked up a bit in the fall of 2009 (after what can be described as a Spring and Summer sales season straight out of Edgar Allen Poe) and what turned out to be a surprisingly festive and even fun Miami, the art market in New York isn't a rosy picture of health just yet. At the end of 2009 we still see that art fairs are struggling, the auction results were pale reflections of their former selves, and despite the total number not being as high as predicted some mighty fine galleries called it quits this year.

9. Metropolitan Museum responds to recession with plans to do less with less. After cutting 357 employees from its payroll to help close a budget gap (resulting from a drop in endowment funding), the Met didn't so much announce its upcoming season of programming as mumble it and apologetically scurry away. As L Magazine's Benjamin Sutton termed it, the line-up is "Super Boring." Of course, after the past few years, in which the Met had blasted it out of the ball park again and again and again, perhaps we're just spoiled.

8. Notable passings. While the world of entertainment saw a stupefying number of high-profile celebrities pass away in what was termed The Summer of Death, the art world too lost its share of giants and perhaps less known artists, curators, collectors, historians, etc., just as worthy of respect and consideration. In no particular order, this year the art world lost the following : Nancy Spero, Peter Forakis, Jeanne-Claude, Evelyn Hofer, Amos Ferguson, Ruth Duckworth, Dietrich von Bothmer, Nat Finkelstein, Charles Seliger, Michael Mazur, Tony Rosenthal, Michael Martin (Iz the Wiz), Aldo Crommelynck, Sir Michael Levey, Hyman Bloom, Tyeb Mehta, Thomas Hoving, Larry Sultan, Roy DeCarava, Robert M. Murdock, Irving Penn, Don Fisher, Dina Babbitt, Barry Flanagan, Olga Raggio, Vivien Raynor, Ray Yoshida, Andrew Wyeth, Robert Delford Brown, Ernest Trova, Willoughby Sharp, Coosje van Bruggen, Louise Deutschman, and Robert Colescott.

7. Dash Snow dies of drug overdose. Probably because it's always shocking when someone so young dies so unexpectedly, the death that seemed to send the biggest shock waves through the New York art world this year was that of 27-year-old Dash Snow. Whether you loved or hated his work, there was no denying that his rebellious nature and energy added excitement to the scene.

6. Glenn Beck, Art Historian. Too unimaginative, apparently, to drudge up any new boogie men boogeymen to scare his audience into submission (and, as a paid spokesperson, to steer them toward peace of mind via purchasing gold in these times of uncertainty), blow-hard Glenn Beck instead turns to his favorite fantasy time (you know the America that only exists in Hollywood films and Beck's delusions) and teleports a favored boogeyman from the 1950s (the communist under the bed) back into Fox viewers' living rooms. He gets a scare-the-bejesus-out-of-the-heartland two-fer by inferring (just asking questions, mind you) that arguably communist iconography in the art at Rockefeller Center reveals a threat to our way of life and just so happens to indict Fox competitor NBC who are headquartered there. New York art critic Jerry Saltz was so incensed by Beck's transparent scaremongering that he encouraged the gold-hawking blabbermouth to curate an exhibition of "Degenerative Art." No word yet on whether Beck will accept the challenge.

5. The Obamas' Art Choices (and the wingnuts' response). What should have been a wonderful way to encourage national pride and interest in visual art (and for the most part seemed to have accomplished just that), also turned political as the President and First Lady made public their desire to decorate the White House with a selection of artworks that reflected their tastes (including Rothko, Ruscha, Albers, Johns, Morandi, etc.). Also in the initial list, though, was a work by Alma Thomas that was an appropriation play off of a Matisse. Displaying truly epic ignorance, right wing pundits launched a campaign to (distract from their lack of leadership ideas) have that choice reconsidered. The White House did eventually send that Thomas painting back, which upset the other side...which was clearly the right wingnuts' intent all along.

4. Performa outperforms. Everyone took their hats off to RoseLee Goldberg and the Performa crew for an extraordinarily successful biennial of new visual art performance. Perhaps the timing was right to refocus on un-commodifyable art, or perhaps the Performa folks just worked really hard to put together a fantastic program of strong work that took over the city, but the rave reviews for this year's effort poured in from all over. All of which seemed to prove that Goldberg was right when she declared before it all began that ""There is no such thing as an intellectual or artistic recession."

3. Surviving the Recession. Panel discussion after panel discussion, article after article, and surveys and entire blogs were offered, all geared toward helping folks in the arts and creative world survive the recession. Unlike beer or prostitution, which are apparently recession proof, the way that art industry types earn money (yes, insert your prostitution jokes here) is by convincing people to buy things they (and their accountants) know they don't actually need. After a rather unsettling period during which collectors were unsure how much they were worth, let alone how much they now had to spend on art, more clarity seems to have returned. (See number 10 above, though, as to why the
Veuve Clicquot will still flow a bit less freely at parties celebrating this year's end.)

2. The Salander case (and especially)- Madoff comparisons. I'll quote myself here (even though this story has cooled off a bit over the past few months): "Journalists of the art world: please do the math: Bernie Madoff is to Larry Salander what AIG's losses are to your personal 401(k)." Although there was plenty to be pissed about if Salander owed you money, the amazing array of news sources who lazily relied on a wholly out-of-whack comparison shorthand for their ledes on that story was more of a sad commentary on the lack of originality in contemporary journalism than anything approaching relevance. Madoff took his investors for
49.9 billion dollars...Salander took his clients for $88 million. That's a difference of more than 49.8 billion dollars. And yet, even in the art world press (where we have a right to expect a bit of original thinking, no?) we saw this used. I mean, it's not like I can't see the's just that I can't see why arts journalists weren't embarrassed to regurgitate the same line used in so many other accounts of the story (let alone in horridly racist accounts like this one).

1. The NuMu Controversy. Not much more needs said here about that than to point you to the highlighted text in the #2 choice from Jerry Saltz's "Best of 2009" list:

Wishing you and yours the warmest and happiest of holidays! See you next week!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Talk About Your Poor Sports

News out of the Alexandria Biennial in Egypt is that an Algerian artist (Zineb Sedira [navigate to her page from here to see work]) has been rejected from the exhibition. Not, mind you, because anyone found her proposed artwork objectionable on political or religious grounds. No...Ms. Sedira has been ousted because Egypt lost a soccer match to Algeria and the Egyptians are still steamed about that. explains:

The Algerian artist Zineb Sedira has denounced her eviction from the Alexandria Biennial in Egypt. As Agence France-Presse reports, Sedira, who was to represent Algeria in the exhibition, found herself barred from the event by Egyptian authorities, who cited the violence that has marred the qualification matches between Egypt and Algeria for the World Soccer Cup in 2010. Last November, Egypt’s defeat by Algeria led to violent clashes in both countries. Sedira, a Franco-Algerian artist who lives in London, was said to be “appalled” after being impacted by the soccer affair between Egypt and Algeria. The artist received a letter from Mohsen Shaadan—the president of the biennial and the head of Egypt’s fine arts sector—who informed her that Algeria would no longer be participating in the biennial due to the “anger” of the Egyptians about the behavior of Algerian soccer fans who went “beyond all the criteria and customs of the Arab citizen.” Sedira was reported to be “disappointed” by the link made by the Egyptian authorities between a soccer crisis and her own artistic activity. “I thought that we shared the same values and celebrated the virtues of art in its capacity to go beyond the national borders of a country and other vague nationalist desires,” stated the artist, adding that she had no intention to transform the Algerian national pavilion at the biennial into a soccer field or courtroom.

The Alexandria Biennial, which features artists from countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, runs until January 31.

The most pathetic part of Shaadan's lame defense of this decision is that fans on both sides seemed to have gone "beyond all the criteria and customs of the Arab citizen":
Egyptian soccer fans burned Algerian flags and rioted outside the Algerian Embassy in Cairo, smashing cars and shop windows, in an escalating row between the two countries over a bitter World Cup rivalry.

Egyptian fans – and the country's media – have been thrown into a frenzy over reports that Algerians attacked and injured Egyptians after their countries' teams squared off in a World Cup qualifier in the Sudanese capital Khartoum this week. Algeria won the game 1-0, giving them a spot in the 2010 Cup in South Africa.

Several hundred Egyptian fans rampaged in the streets around the Algerian Embassy overnight into the early hours Friday, scuffling with black-uniformed riot police. It began as a protest, with demonstrators beating drums, shooting jets of flame from aerosol cans and shouting obscenities and slogans against Algerians.

So by Shaadan's logic, Egypt should ban itself from the Alexandria Biennial as well.

OR...perhaps (and this is just an idea, mind you) Shaadan should re-read the mission for the founding of the biennial:
The aim of the Alexandria Biennial is to fortify the cultural and artistic dialog not only between Egypt and its neighboring Mediterranean countries but to extend it all over the world as well. This year, the Alexandria Biennial celebrates its 25th edition that aims to be a panoramic view of the latest in artistic creativity coming from our region.
Kind of hard to be panoramic when you've got such an infantile, patriotism-induced blind spot. Sedira doesn't even live in Algeria any more...she's based in London. The Egyptians should learn to separate national pride from international cultural and artistic dialog if they expect the Alexandria Biennial to truly be viewed as a significant contribution to humankind and not simply a chance to toot their own horn.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Want to Become a Successful Artist? A Case Study in Best Practices

If Carmen Herrera didn't exist on her own in the world, someone who teaches the fundamentals of how to think about your art career would have made her up. Point by point, this 94-year-old painter is a living confirmation of the validity of the most popular adages and seemingly hackneyed encouragements...seemingly, that is, until you hear Carmen's story.

The New York Times' Deborah Sontag explains:
After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”
She may have waited quite some time to sell her work, but it went into the level of collections any artist would be thrilled to enter (Fontanals-Cisneros, Brodsky, Gund). This is no charity case human interest...Herrera is being described as "a pioneer," "a quiet warrior of her art," and someone who played "a pivotal role” in “the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas” by some impressive historians who should know.

Moreover, exemplifying a nearly heroic adherence to the best career advice for artists, Herrera refused to change her explorations to meet the latest fashions, she refuses to discuss her work in terms of anything other than how she approaches it (sometimes a triangle is just a triangle), and she never lost sight of the fact that the essence of success and recognition is and forever will be working hard:
Recognition for Ms. Herrera came a few years after her husband’s death, at 98, in 2000. “Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above,” Ms. Herrera said, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud.” She added: “I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”
And it's not just critical acclaim and the satisfaction of having big-name collectors and art historians recognize her contributions that Herrera earned through her patience and faith in her work. It has paid off with what Warhol termed the sincerest form of admiration: money.
Ms. Herrera’s late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 — sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. “I have more money now than I ever had in my life,” she said.
The article is a delight from beginning to end, but to summarize the career advice points that Herrera' story illustrates:
  1. Keep at what you're passionate about. Don't chase after trends or different media with the hopes of igniting your'll never catch up to those doing something fashionable now and you probably won't be as good at something you're faking.
  2. Discuss your work on the terms in which you think about it. If people in the art world want to bring other things to it (if they see sex where there is none or politics where you didn't intend that) let them carry on...but don't feel pressured to agree. Let your work speak for itself.
  3. Your best "in" will always, always be your friends in the art network! It was Herrera's good friend (another painter) Tony Bechara, who recommended her for a women's geometric abstraction exhibition that launched her success.
  4. Nothing...I repeat nothing...replaces hard work if your goal for your art is true recognition and lasting importance. If they bottled what it took, everyone would be a historically important artist.


Friday, December 18, 2009

On the Move

We're in the middle of moving madness at the moment, looking forward to opening in our new home at 621 West 27th Street on January 8 with a great show by Ulrich Gebert titled "This Much Is Certain" and the inaugural Curatorial Research Project, "Read-Only Memory" organized by Stamatina Gregory (stay tuned for updates on the new CRLab Website!)...

...But before we get there, you have one last chance to see the fabulous new work by Ivin Ballen and help us party out of our current space with a Holiday Concert, this coming Tuesday, December 22, 6:30 - ???, featuring
6:30 PM


7:30 PM
Come enjoy these amazing performers, share in some Holiday Cheer, and help us bid So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu, Adios, Arrivederci, Au Revoir, and a Big Buh-Bye to 637 West 27th!

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thinking about Art Aging : Open Thread

In his somewhat mixed review of Gabriel Orozco's current solo exhibition at MoMA, Holland Cotter echoes something that's been brought up here with regards to work that incorporates ready-made components or relies on installation-based gestures (a staple of Orozco's practice):
Gestures tend to lose some of their energy when they’re repeated. The shoebox is in the MoMA survey, it’s the first thing you see in the galleries. The dirty ball is there too. So are the yogurt lids, nailed to partition walls. But they feel archival.
I saw this show, and a few of these works feel more archival than others to me, but as Mr. Cotter goes on to note, "No one’s to blame; this is the way certain art operates in time." But this idea of art operating in time is something I've been thinking about, in three parts, no less.

First was the fascinating discussion I had had with conservator Elizabeth Estabrook in doing research for
my book (it makes the perfect Christmas gift :-)) in which she noted how it was as wrong in restoring a painting from the 1940's to make it look like it was brand new as it was for a plastic surgeon to try to make a 65 year old look like they're 20. Even if you pull off a miraculous illusion, there remain tell-tale signs that something isn't quite right. Elizabeth noted that a work of art should look its age.

Secondly, I recently attended the opening at PPOW of the fabulous exhibition of work by the late Martin Wong. The indefatigable James Kalm was there too, and we had a lovely conversation about Martin (who James had known) and how his work looks positively prescient in light of much of the work being created today. When Martin was making it, James told me, many of his friends thought it was too "out there." Today however it looks like something you might expect in any emerging art gallery.

Except, and thirdly, Martin's canvases (most from the late 70s up through the mid eighties) have that patina of age about them. Personally, I love that's comforting in many ways, none the less of which is the associations I make between it and work that belongs in museums, but it does serve like a set of crows feet on an otherwise smooth complexion to suggest, as Bambino reminds me often (transliteration intentional), that "you're not a fresh chicken anymore."

So art do humans...what's the issue? As my father (now 70) says, getting old sure beats the alternative. As opposed to people, however, it's better when art that has that certain patina has been declared historically important. Otherwise it's potentially dumpster bound.

And so Gabriel's shoebox (which was first exhibited at the 1993 Venice Biennale) is presented again, out of context this time, but with a stamp of historical relevance, so we get to see it. Or not, as the case may be. The opening we attended was so crowded, I missed the shoebox. Which is too bad. I do love to see how works have aged.

Consider this an open thread on the ramifications of artwork aging.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Better and No Worse

About a year and a half ago I outlined my sense of the usefulness and limits of political correctness as such:
My personal take on political correctness is that it's an artificial construct that has benefits in the short run, but will outlast its usefulness and eventually become harmful. What I mean by that is shaming people into considering others' feelings (or at least keep their hurtful opinions silent) long enough for those others to gain some power socially is a good thing, but for everyone to truly be on an equal playing field, that pseudo-politeness eventually has to end. It's foolish to think you'll ever get everyone to like/accept each other. The only practical thing you can hope for is that people have equal opportunity and equal protection under the law and that with those protections they can fairly fend for themselves.
Like freedom, the ability to compete fairly and fend for yourself with equal opportunity (and equal protection under the law) is a constant struggle. But milestones toward equality not only level the playing field but also serve as important measures against which future efforts can be judged, thereby hopefully perpetuating awareness. It's with that in mind I was pleased to see that the list of artists in the 2010 Whitney Biennial has more women than men (updated). A first, I believe, and as such a very useful milestone.

Jerry Saltz,
as usual, however, has contextualized this milestone wonderfully:
The inclusion of all the women artists in this cattle call does not mean that the upcoming Biennial will be much better or worse than usual. Art exhibitions should never be about quotas. Still, in all likelihood, Bonami’s 2010 Biennial will prove once and for all that women artists are no better and no worse than their male counterparts. Once this is acknowledged, we’ll be able to get on with the business-as-usual of tearing the Whitney Biennial to shreds. Or not.
Even the New York Times announcement about the list suggested the celebratory aspects of this Biennial will be somewhat less festive than in years past:
The 2010 edition of the Whitney Biennial — that giant survey of American art on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — will not only try to chronicle current goings-on in contemporary art, but it will also reflect the world at large. Thus, in these recessionary times, the show will be smaller than it has been in recent years, with just 55 artists, down from 81 in 2008 and 100 in 2006.
So the year the glass ceiling is shattered just happens to correspond with the Great Recession. The question, to my mind, is will the two be associated in the minds of those about to "get on with the business-as-usual of tearing the Whitney Biennial to shreds."

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Godlessness : A Meandering Rant on Belief

Rachel Maddow, who has done more to illuminate for me the appeal of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (i.e., a pundit sharing clearly political opinions on the issues of the day from an unapologetic point of view...something I never quite got until, well, a Liberal started doing it so well [and even better, from an intellectually honest standpoint]), had a segment on her show that tied in with something I've been mulling over a fair bit lately. We've had a few threads here about the belief or non-belief in God and I've noted how I'm increasingly agnostic the older I my long-held position of feeling it's better to leave my mind open to the possibility of an Almighty being than close it off to such a notion, even though there is nothing in this world I see that convinces me "God" is anything more than a human construct abused far too often to let go unchallenged out of wanting to play it safe, still leads me to stop short of declaring myself atheist.

But that point of view, arrived at honestly, after decades of reflection, is so threatening to some folks (including members of my immediate family) that sharing it has serious social consequences. In some places, as Rachel explains, it has consequences that reach all the way up to the US Constitution. Here's the clip:

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As Rachel noted, North Carolina and another 6 US states (Arkansas, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennesse, Texas, Mississipi) all, in variations of terms, make it illegal to hold public office if you don't believe in God. Here's how North Carolina's Constitution states it:

Sec. 8. Disqualifications for office.

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

And to just be clear, here's the same topic covered in the US Constitution (which, again as Maddow points out, reigns supreme should there be any discrepancies between it and a state's constitution):
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. [emphasis mine]
This seems as iron-clad a legal issue as one could imagine. The US Constitution wins.

But the issue for me here cuts a bit deeper and isn't as clear. The part of this wider topic that I have so much trouble wrapping my mind and comfort level around is what is someone who is sincerely not sure God exists expected to do socially. There is something very twisted going on here in America.

I suspect goodhearted, sincere folks who support North Carolina's qualifications for office might suggest that if you're that confused about something so fundamental to the moral fabric that would make you fit for office, you should spend some time soul-searching until you work it all out, but stay out of public office where your muddled mind could do real harm. They'd recommend a spiritual counselor, or invite you to their church, but tell you you're not quite ready to be a public official. I mean, I can't imagine they'd want you to 1) just accept God, doing whatever it takes you to quell those questions in your mind or 2) fake it even if you don't really believe.

And yet, that second approach does seem to be what some people want. I mean, it wasn't that an atheist was elected that upset so many people in North Carolina (otherwise he wouldn't have won election). It was that he wouldn't say "So help me God," leading me to suspect that had he simply uttered those words (i.e., faked it at that moment), he'd be happily buried under petty local political red tape by this point and not a national controversy. This willingness to let people fake it is what's really been bothering me lately. I mean, it's not like one could argue that someone's willingness to simply go along with something they don't sincerely believe is a better indication of their moral fabric than their openly stating they have questions or simply don't believe, is it? Doesn't honesty trump everything else in the moral fabric department?

I'm not 100% certain that God doesn't exist, so I can't actually speak to the minds of those who are that would like still to serve their country or state (I do believe firmly that the Constitution makes it crystal clear that it's no one else's business what they believe and their rights as Americans cannot be be denied). I'm more obsessed with the idea of being in between the two camps.

Rather than let folks work through the mind-numbingly complicated questions of belief in an Almighty on their own time and in their own way, there seems to be this collective need to have politicians (or even non-politicians, by their families at least) sweep any doubts under the rug in public. This is willful deceit.

I know there are those for whom even suggesting you have doubts will lead them to conclude then that you're not ready to lead (our leaders can't question things, they have to know what to do based on unyielding values and the guts to start wars without any idea how to pay for them because, well, their bad-ass deciders selves said so). But leaders who think that way have been roundly discredited, at our great expense, to my mind.

The most ironic and pathetic part of the willful deceit that demands that folks pretend they believe is the presumption that it will somehow ensure better behavior. As if lying about believing in God is a better foundation for honest behavior and treating others well than openly questioning God's existence. How anyone could think that a public face founded in a lie isn't more treacherous boggles my mind. Lying to people is seemingly preferable than making them think for themselves. "I mean, if that talented and obviously honest public figure doesn't believe in God, why am I so sure He exists?"

After 9/11 we saw the appeal of organized religion surge in the US:
Church attendance increased by about 25 percent nationwide after the attacks, according to Barna Research Group, a California company that tracks social, religious and political trends.
Personally, this time period coincided with two people close to me passing away in succession and a severe anger at the universe (i.e., anger at the force that presumably controls the universe) and a fair bit of soul-searching about what I personally believe, making the folks who turned to religion to cope with the attacks and uncertainty afterward seem utterly cowardly and sheepish in my eyes. The religious leaders springing up everywhere like mushrooms in their shopping-mall-like mega-churches were absurd charlatans in my eyes. Opportunistic wolves come to prey on the quivering sheep.

And yet, I do wonder, what might have been the longer term response to the attacks had people not had someone repeating the reassuring, love-your-neighbor-like lessons of Jesus or Mohamed or Abraham or whoever to help them calm down. Would their fear and anger have turned even more ugly and violent? Wasn't it better to let them drink from the opiate fountain of religion than shoot anyone who looked foreign?

And yet, that notion, that's it was better (safer) to let them be dazzled by the charlatans than honestly and openly express their fear and anger is the ironic flip side to my complaint above about asking folks to fake it for the sake of polite society. It's still willful deceit.

All of which leaves me more confused than ever about all this.

I didn't promise any useful conclusions here...just a meandering's something that's been on my mind for a while and it's helpful to get it out of my system. Carry on.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

What Does "Too Many/Much" Mean? Open Thread

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want.

Back in the heady days of the art boom (ahh, I remember them well) the virtually uncountable proliferation of ways to participate in the viewing/making/buying of art were prompting a common refrain among the folks inclined to ponder such things: Are/Is there too many/much _________?

Back in 2006, for example, Big Red and Shiny's editor Matthew Nash asked, "Is there too much art" and quoted Jean Baudrillard who noted "Art does not die because there is no more art, it dies because there is too much." No one who treks down to Miami each December with the hopes of taking it all in would argue there are too few art fairs there. And in May 2009, Joanne Mattera asked "Art there too many artists?" (to which one commenter said, no, there are simply too few collectors).

The question is not limited to New York or even the US, though. The question of whether we've collectively reached a saturation point has been raised over the past decade in Norway with regards to biennials, in Melbourne with regards to galleries, and in the UK with regards to museums. And it's not just visual arts. The question is being asked about creative writing, design and artistic direction, theater companies, film festivals, and on and on and on.

In reflecting a bit on what we mean when we ask whether there are too many of this or that, I keep coming back round to those two cornucopias of contemporary choice: supermarkets and cable TV. Not that we don't still hear the same complaints about how much time we waste sifting through the crap offered up via those channels of distribution, but because so many people turn to both so frequently, our species seems to have evolved or adapted to the point that we're able to navigate them and get on with our lives without too much duress. We seem to have developed defense mechanisms against the bombardment of competing options. Yes, this slows us down from the days when we might have had only two types of pasta sauce to choose from and three major networks, but product by product or channel by channel we seem to have refined our sense of what we're willing to spend money or time on and become more savvy consumers.

Or have we simply given up and settled for the crap we know over the crap we don't know?

I'm always very impressed with the class of collectors I lovingly consider "the curious ones." These are the true addicts in the art world who relentlessly seek out new ideas and new visions with an open mind and generosity of willingness to be reminded, all over again, that despite their accomplishments in this world, their education, the depth of their collection and their years of viewing and buying art, there is always something new for artists to teach them. It requires a great deal of mental and physical energy to participate in the art world on that level, rather than settle on what you feel you've earned the right to declare the important art of your time and ease into that niche for the remainder of your days.

In talking with the curious ones, you understand that the question of whether we're seeing "too much" or "too many" of this or that is a sign of exhaustion. Certainly understandable at times, but not as a fixed position on things. There may be too many fairs, for example, to take them all in one trip, but that new one that opened over there might just be the gem that will once again rock your world and renew your passion for exploration. In other words, the "too many" question seems to be a response to wishing (now that you've got a grip on things) that things would stand still for a while (thereby securing your grip). Again, understandable at times, but a limited point of view in the long run.

Consider this an open thread on what constitutes too much/too many with regards to the art world.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Harper Blynn Tonight @ Winkleman Concert Hall!

Come warm your soul for a special performance by Harper Blynn at Winkleman Concert Hall (7:00 PM sharp)

More info here.


It's Who You Read

What's one to think?

At the same time that the news spreads across,, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, ABC News, etc., etc., that, according to an NEA survey, attendance at US Museums is declining:

A new report released by the National Endowment for the Arts said that the number of American adults attending arts and cultural events has sunk to its lowest level since 1982, which was when the NEA began conducting the poll.

The study, which was organized in partnership with the Census Bureau, noted that the downward trend was at least partially due to the deteriorating economic conditions of the last two years, including the rise in the price of gasoline and an overall drop in consumer spending.

But it also emphasized larger shifts in the American public's relationship to the arts. The report, which uses data collected in 2008, said that the share of adults who attended at least one arts event was 34.6%, down from 39.4% in 2002, which was the last time the survey was conducted.

Moreover, those who did attend arts events did so less frequently. The report found that the average number of attendances per individual was 5.2 in 2008, down from 6.1 in 2002.

The Art Newspaper reports instead that "Museum attendance rises as the economy tumbles":
It may be because of the relative bargain of a museum ticket, an increased popular interest in contemporary art, or just a rainy summer, but admissions at the majority of art museums in the US have been holding steady through the recession—and many are dramatically on the rise. A survey by The Art Newspaper of 20 museums across the country found that two-thirds have experienced a clear increase in visitor numbers over the past three years.

The trend holds for institutions with free and paid admissions alike, and institutions that show contemporary art have seen the most clear-cut increase. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the nation’s most expensive museums at $20 per ticket, had the best year in its 80-year history, bringing in 2.8 million visitors between 2008 and 2009. The size of its membership rose to a record 120,000. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective was its best-attended show yet, attracting 372,000 people. The New York museum has also broken its 2008 attendance record of just over one million.
Mind you, the discrepancy here is not just a matter of semantics (i.e., it's not that the NEA survey is centered on ALL arts and cultural events and The Art Newspaper survey was museums alone). According to
According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 22.7 percent of Americans made a visit to a museum during 2008, down from a not altogether more impressive figure of 26.5 percent in 2008.
Ignoring the suggestion that museum attendance for 2008 was compared with museum attendance in our parallel universe for 2008 (editor, shouldn't that be "only 22.7 percent of Americans made a visit to a museum during 2009"?), how is one to parse?

Perhaps the NEA survey included far more museums than 20. The Art Newspaper article does report, for example, that:
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, has seen a dip in visitor numbers, but its director Richard Koshalek has plans to reverse the slide (The Art Newspaper, November 2009, p12).
But even so, they conclude that:
Overall, many institutions have been pleasantly surprised by how well they have fared since the economic crisis.
Obviously, someone with more time that I have should compare the survey results and means to help get to the bottom of such extremely different results. Any takers? Email your results to info [at] and I'll publish, with my adoration.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Art Is My Life...Not

Every now and then someone does something so remarkably self-absorbed in their pursuit of promoting art, either theirs or their artists, that it makes me wince and wonder where the Foreign Legion is bouncing about these days. How could I get far enough away from this place to cleanse my soul?

We often hear folks argue that "Art is my life," but that is hyperbole. It might makes sense in the context by which generally they mean that they've made a series of decisions to ensure their practice within the art world remains front and center to where and how they live, how they socialize, what they do with their free time, etc. We hear this from artists and curators, gallerists and writers alike. But that distinction needs to remain clear to them.

Art isn't actually anybody's life, even if it dominates their lifestyle. Art, in the broadest sense (the making, selling, curating, collecting, contemplating, and writing about it), is and forever will be a luxury. For many people, myself included, it becomes essential at the Safety level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (for lack of a more universally accepted vocabulary and structure for discussing such things). But it's not even remotely essential at the Physiological level (despite what Tracey Emin may argue :-)).

This became horrendously clear to me in reading Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road, recently. (I've heard the movie is so-so, but the book is as poignant a human experience as you're likely to ever have, short of living through some type of holocaust). The fight for survival in this novel (a father and his increasingly weakening son trying desperately to walk South in a post-apocalyptic world where the sun never shines, all plants and animals are dead, and the few other humans alive are more likley to want to kill and eat you than befriend you) is such an unimaginably dark and detailed portrait of what it is one really needs to live another day (one reviewer, rightly IMO, wrote that you feel that should you put the book down, the characters will die...that their very survival depends upon you continuing to read their story) that there was no place at all in this world for art. Even toys that the child used to distract himself for a while were purposely left behind at one point, becoming cruel reminders of just how futile escapist fantasies were.

Of course, that's not our world (not yet, anyway), and Art is indeed a very important part of our thriving, which we rightly want. But I drag you through this dreary post, on a morning when I browsed through the most moronically hedonistic photographs of parties in Art Basel Miami (seriously, a few photo editors should be embarrassed), to make a point that becomes somewhat blurred in the frenzy of activity (which I myself enjoy) each December in Miami. This is all a luxury. It's not anyone's birthright, and it's most definitely not anyone's life. It gives no one a license to behave as if real life and death matters are secondary to any part of it. You know who you stop it.

There...I'm climbing down off my soapbox now...carry on.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Binary Takes on Contemporary Art : Open Thread

OK, so we've collectively seen what I would consider significant progress through the discussions here in gaining consensus on the idea that the best contemporary art isn't steeped in the "conceptual" tradition or the "formalist" tradition, but in work that effectively takes from either and/or both traditions toward a more perfect resolution of the artist's vision. What had begun several years ago as a fairly binary argument seems (to me at least) to have subtlety enhanced nearly everyone's take on the issue.

I like to think that many things that were framed as either "good or bad," "black or white," and "you're either with us or against us" by that horrid, simple-minded opportunist running the country before Obama became President (i.e., Cheney) will now be examined with a bit more maturity and nuance. [UPDATE: in re-reading this I realized the irony of calling for "maturity" after calling someone "horrid" and "simple minded."] The best way to approach an ever more complicated world is not with an oversimplified worldview. It may make being "the Decider" less time consuming, but it hasn't proven itself to lead to better results for the rest of us.

Last night at the MoMA opening for Gabriel Orozco's fabulous new exhibition, Bambino and I had a chat with a well-respected art critic about another oversimplified binary feud that still seems alive and well in the contemporary art world. We've touched on it a bit here, but the discussion last night centered on the terrific NYT article on William Powhida. (Full Disclosure: Bill and I know each other fairly well, and Bambino and I own a few works by him. He has collaborated with Jen Dalton on a Compound Edition, and we regularly disagree about things. I admire him greatly.) Here's a snippet of that article:

“The bubble never burst, it just got smaller,” Mr. Powhida, 33, said, standing over the poster-size drawing. “For the people on the outside the oxygen ran out.”

Put another way, he said, “this is about how out of touch the art world is with economic reality.”

Income disparities and class, many in the art world say, are subjects that get short shrift in the contemporary art represented at shows like this one, which cater largely to rich collectors. Over the last two years the Great Recession has seemed almost entirely absent from the thousands of works at Art Basel Miami Beach and most of its offshoots. With a few exceptions — usually art depicting consumerism or the dollar in various forms — the largest economic shock in decades and its fallout seem to have gotten little play at the nation’s most comprehensive contemporary art extravaganza.

Mr. Powhida (pronounced pow-HIGH-da), who lives in Brooklyn, stands out here not only because he is one of the few artists to regularly address these issues, but because he takes them on in the context of this very world. Though he is unassuming in person, he has become known as something of a gadfly in the art establishment, with work that uses humorous text, draftsmanship and careful painting to lampoon some of its biggest stars and institutions.

The art critic at MoMA last night expressed disagreement that the issue is that binary, though. I wanted to take notes, the critic's exact phrasings were so sublime (but alas, a head cold and too much medicine has left me with a short-term memory lapse, so I'm left paraphrasing). It's not like you have the anti-establishment artists eschewing the commercial side of things and everyone else is a sell-out, the critic argued. There's a universe of options in between. Moreover, it really is possible to ignore how much any work costs and train yourself to focus on how that work does or doesn't speak to you. Time and energy are well spent in doing that.

Again, I don't do the author of those sentiments justice here, but I wanted to springboard off that take on things to ask whether or not the debate on being a sell-out has been oversimplified. We're a nation addicted to snap polls and top ten lists. We like things boiled down to their bite-sized nuggetness for us. But in discussing the impact of the art market on the historical importance of the art being made now (always my yardstick), have we gone far too binary?

Consider this an open thread.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Miami Time Tunnel (and a Few Post-Fair Impressions)

I stopped blogging while at fairs a few years back because it took too much time away from what I was there to do full time (meet [new] collectors and curators and sell them art) and because others were already covering the fair I was in and all the others full time. {{We were very pleased to participate in the PULSE Miami Art Fair this year...which looked fantastic and ran like clockwork even though director Helen Allen had to fly back to New York...her second child anxious to join us all in this world (see Sarah Douglas' wrap-up here on [go on, read it all, I'm not quoted until the end]).}} But that doesn't stop me from blabbing away now that we're back!

There's this odd time warp that happens to me each year when we travel down to Florida for the festivities. We're working from 8 in the morning (either meeting clients for breakfast or finishing up the paperwork we didn't get done the day before) to about midnight (not that we're in bed by then...just that my mind insists it shuts its semi-intelligent functioning down by them). The fair runs through Sunday, which means Monday feels like the first day of the weekend. And then just when we finally have time (Monday morning) to laze about a bit at the beach, a few hours later we're back in freakin' freezing New York and it's Christmas everywhere. This throws my inner sense of timing entirely out of whack. I think I still might have sand between my toes, but there are Holiday parties I'm attending in a few days.

The other part of the process that impacts this time warp sensation is that, all the while, we're running a gallery back in New York (OK, so Max was running the gallery, flawlessly, but it was still on my mind). This Friday, what has been nothing short of a fantastically fun series of performances continues in the gallery with Harper Blynn (don't miss it!).

But what happened in Miami? Well, we sold art. A good chunk of it. It wasn't like it had been in previous years where something by nearly everyone you brought found homes (at least not for us, we heard some folks sold out their booths, but usually that happened for solo projects...we also know several galleries who left with no sales at all, though...). Meaning to my mind that certain types of work are selling and certain types are not. Established names and new work that looked like "something I've never seen before" seemed to be the big sellers.

Having said that, the 2006 class of speculators seem to be still lurking in the shadows or not coming at all. But dedicated collectors were out in force and we were very, very pleased with where what we sold is going. Most folks (us included) reported selling to many first-time collectors. A colleague of ours pointed out the most optimistic observation I heard in Miami, which was that the art consultants were back in force with their clients. A good sign for the market.

There were tons of parties and openings and such, most of which we didn't get to, having a somewhat complicated installation and both Bambino and I suffering from a severe lack of sleep (we're moving in less than a month !!! and those preparations have been an ongoing extra load for some time). But we did have some lovely smaller parties with collectors and other dealers and writer friends in the lobby of our hotel or out-of-the-way restaurants. Love goes out to Larry and Marla; Jonathan, Ossian, Andras, and Franklin; Courtney, Amanda, and Jen; Sebastian and Silvia; Lisa, Larry and Baby X!!!; Ivin; Leigh and Jamie; and Eve, Simon, Catherine and John for helping us celebrate what turned out to be a very, very good year in Miami.

Finally, thanks so much to all the folks who read here and were kind enough to stop by the both and say hi. It humbles me that you'd take time during the madness to mention the blog...and I'm very grateful for your encouragement. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

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