Collection of Articles on Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson

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ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Trends

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

 ART NEWS

Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

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Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).
4

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.
5

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to
imagine.
8

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.
9

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

Footnotes
  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255

===

R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe

 

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the

statistical.

There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

Footnotes
  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

========

DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

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The Triumph of Painting

ESSAYS

AN ART THAT EATS ITS OWN HEADBarry Schwabsky


Painting in the Age of the Image


We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.


It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.


Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.


Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.


Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.


A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.


Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.


This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.

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The Triumph of Painting


The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras


‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen


The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.


Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’


Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.


Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.


Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.


By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.


Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.


Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.


Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.


Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.


Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.

On Walter Hopps: Interviews and Reviews

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Bruce Conner

by Walter Hopps


Bruce Conner, Frankie Fix, 1997, photocopy on Bristol paper and mixed media, 48 × 40″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.

I’d never seen Bruce Conner’s work and had no idea what to expect, when all of a sudden a small San Francisco gallery advertised a show of his. I went up to see it (this was in the late 1950s, when I was running the old Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles with Ed Kienholz). I could see the work through the gallery’s windows, but on the glass there was a notice that said “Presenting the work of the late Bruce Conner”—as though, sadly, he had died, and the work was being put up regardless. On exhibit were a few of the early Ratbastard-type assemblages. Everybody figured, Well, whoever the hell Bruce Conner was, he’s already dead. It was all fake, of course—he hadn’t died. But Bruce was living in the Midwest at that point, and although we’d heard about him through the poet Michael McClure, who was a friend of his, nobody on the West Coast really knew what he looked like. So Bruce got to see how people reacted to his work assuming that he was deceased. Later, after we became friends, he attended an opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as me. After that, I sort of took the cue from him and went to social events as someone else on occasion, and once sent someone else out to California as me.

We started showing Bruce at Ferus in 1959. In 1961, he moved with his wife down to Mexico, and shortly afterward I joined him there. I wanted to go down to where my relatives were in Mexico City. (My grandfather, Walter Hopps Sr., went to Tampico to seek his fortune in 1880. He was a character much like the old man in Treasure of the Sierra Madre—except tall instead of short.) While Bruce and I were there, ruins were discovered on my relatives’ property outside of Puebla, south of Mexico City, on the side of a mountain. We wanted to go down and excavate with some workmen and see what we could find. We dug up some old pots and artifacts—nothing spectacular, no gold or anything. It was dusty and difficult work, but quite an adventure. Bruce had been on an expedition once when he was in college, in North Dakota or someplace, trying to excavate Native American relics, so he was really interested in doing this. You could say he generally wanted to be in touch with the old. We found a human skeleton, which we ended up giving to my relatives who owned the property. There was an old stone building and we slept in there in sleeping bags. It wasn’t always easy to get a normal night’s sleep with Bruce around. Stoned, he had visions and thought strange things were going on in the night sky, winged beings coming after him and so on.


Bruce Conner, still from Cosmic Ray, 1961. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

I stayed with him at his place in Mexico City for a while, and during that time I helped him edit Cosmic Ray, the movie he made about Ray Charles. He had me cutting up pieces of film. He was quite fun to work with, but he could be crazed as well. One Sunday, we went to my aunt and uncle’s house for an afternoon soiree. We had a late lunch, and then people played croquet in the garden. Bruce refused to play croquet like a normal person, and he was driving everybody nuts by going around and hitting the wrong balls and goofing off.

While he was in Mexico, Bruce was finding things—really raggedy stuff—on the streets. The work he made there took a different turn; it was certainly influenced by the scene in Mexico City and what he was finding. It looked more handmade than the earlier assemblages, a little more crude. Wherever he is, Bruce somehow gets connected with what’s going on. I get the feeling that in certain periods of his work, even when it’s changing, he has a strange instinct for what it is he’s looking for. In terms of the work he made in Mexico, there is a kind of fragile quality to a lot of the materials he used; an almost fugitive quality—fugitive in the sense of being impermanent. Fabrics, cardboard, melted wax—these are vulnerable materials. And in his very best work he tends to use a lot of that, giving things a mellow, often rather dreamy surface—in the assemblages, the inkblots and also the Angels series of photograms, which are life-size versions of what Man Ray had done on a much smaller scale; silhouettes of objects on light-sensitive paper.


Bruce Conner, Guadalupe, 1962, assemblage, 27 × 20 x 5″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.

Some of Bruce’s drawings from early on are also very faint—strong, but not bold. The more bold graphic works are these strange Rorschachs and repeating patterns, which are mysterious and unclear but nonetheless beautiful abstractions; inchoate symbols or emblems that, if they can be compared to anything else, they would remind me of the French Symbolist Odilon Redon.

Bruce Conner is an original. His art has a quality and a look all its own—even in its several different ways. Bruce has always had a certain mystique, and he’s a terrific contradiction. He’s from Kansas, and when you meet him he can seem like the most normal Midwestern man—like a classically constructed Kansan house. But then there are all these odd corners and nooks; he’s got quite an attic stuck on him, and there are strange things going on in it.


Bruce Conner, stills from A Movie, 1958. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.


Bruce Conner, The Mutants, 1978, black-and-white photograph #1 of 3, 9 × 13″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.


Bruce Conner, stills from Cosmic Ray, 1961. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

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Feature

Reflections on Walter Hopps in Los Angeles

Ken Allen

Ed Kienholtz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959.

With Walter Hopps’ passing in late March of 2005, the art world lost one of its keenest curatorial minds.1 Hopps was an iconoclastic figure who embodied the free-wheeling climate of the “culture-boom” years of the early 1960s in which American artists and American museums seemed to carry the mantle of modernism as well as renew the avant-garde experiments begun in Europe earlier in the twentieth century. Hopps ended his career as curator of 20th century art and the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston and as adjunct senior curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but in approach and attitude he was the product of the sparse cultural landscape of postwar Los Angeles. Born in Glendale in 1932, Hopps grew up in a period in which artistic modernism was a kind of secret history in Los Angeles, a city that saw a series of conservative backlashes against progressive ideas of many stripes during the early Cold War from abstract painting to public housing. It was this atmosphere that contributed to Hopps’ lifelong commitment to cultivating a public for new and ambitious art in a way that both increased and intensified its audience. Responsible in large part for drawing attention to the burgeoning Los Angeles art world beginning in the late 1950s, Hopps’ special talents might be best defined by looking back at his early career as it shifted from promoting a number of artist friends to participating in a “scene” which exemplified the particular combination of creativity and commodification that characterized the 1960s.

According to Hopps himself, he attempted to carve out a unique position within the tradition of curators and “museum men” from the beginning of his career at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) in the early 1960s. As he told an interviewer in 1987, “even in the Pasadena days, as I got to know Michael Fried, he would curse me, saying, ‘You just aren’t part of the profession at all. You’re a damned anthropologist.’ And I would say, ‘You’re damned right I am.’”2 Hopps explained that he cultivated relationships with artists of different backgrounds and temperaments, and while he was always conscious of their distinct visual languages he attempted to remain above the fray of the kinds of value judgements often made by critics, dealers and the artists themselves. He combined a closeness and loyalty to artists with a kind of participant-observer role remarked upon by Fried, a forceful critic at the start of his career at the time.

But Fried’s comment also gets at a part of Hopps’ character, which grew out of his education in the sciences. Born into a family of physicians, he was home-tutored before attending the Polytechnic School in Pasadena and Eagle Rock High School, where he excelled at math and science. In 1950, he enrolled at Stanford, but left shortly thereafter to study microbiology at UCLA. His aptitude in the sciences did not limit his curiosity about the arts, however, and it was during a high school trip to see the best collection of modern art in the area, at the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg in Hollywood, that his interest was seriously piqued. Hopps made several return visits to see the tremendous examples of surrealism, cubism, the sculpture of Brancusi and especially the work of Marcel Duchamp, which particularly intrigued the young student and could be conceived as a series of experiments about the nature of art and aesthetics. As Hopps would later demonstrate when he mounted the show he was most noted for, the first career retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963, the sense of an exhibit as a finely-tuned experiment, as an occasion in which bring together sensitive visual material and then to observe the interaction between art objects, ideas, artists and the public, was central to Hopps’ approach. But the results of this show–a galvanized Los Angeles art world and international media attention–were preceded by a number of earlier activities in which Hopps honed his skills as an arts organizer.

Hopps’ transition from college science major to arts impresario in the mid-1950s is marked by his interest in jazz and his earliest attempts to bring a wider audience to contemporary art in Los Angeles.3 As young students, Hopps, Jim Newman (later director of the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco) and the artist Craig Kauffman organized jazz concerts in the early 1950s under the name Concert Hall Workshop. In the summer of 1954, Hopps and Newman spent time together in San Francisco exploring the work of a group of artists, most of whom came out of the abstract expressionist milieu that had developed at the California School of Fine Arts (which became the San Francisco Institute of Art).4 These artists, such as Hassel Smith, James Kelly, Julius Wasserstein, Roy De Forest, Sonia Gechtoff, Wally Hedrick, and Jay DeFeo, exhibited at a few dynamic galleries in San Francisco committed to new, local work, such as the King Ubu Gallery (which later became the “6” Gallery) and the East & West Gallery. Inspired by the creative energy and dadaist spirit of these galleries and fascinated by the work of the artists they represented, Hopps wanted to bring what he found in San Francisco to Southern California. While attending UCLA around this time, he had founded a gallery in Los Angeles called Syndell Studio, which he operated with his first wife Shirley and the poet Ben Bartosh. In a bizarre building in Brentwood constructed of old telephone poles painted white, Syndell presented a mix of San Francisco and Los Angeles artists. As Hopps has remarked, Syndell functioned for him “like a discreet laboratory. I didn’t care if four or five people came, as long as there were two or three that were really engaged.”5

But along with this rather private endeavor, Hopps was inclined to try to bring this work to a larger public and conceived of a large survey of West Coast abstract painting called Action. Held in May of 1955 under the auspices of the Concert Hall Workshop group, the detailed exhibition announcement reveals Hopps’ interest and struggle to secure a public place for the exhibit. Originally conceived for a super market space on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, then slated for the Frank Lloyd Wright Pavilion (the Hollyhock House) at Barnsdall Park, the announcement states that “because of pressures of certain groups in Los Angeles who have always been in opposition to contemporary art we found the usage of the Wright Pavilion unfeasible.”6 After proposing to use outdoor theater spaces also controlled by the city, the Action show was finally mounted on the Santa Monica Pier, in the merry-go-round building rented by Hopps for $80 for the week and therefore “subject to no pressures.”7 Because the Concert Hall Workshop was the main sponsor of the “merry-go-round show,” as it is often called, it is not surprising that recorded jazz music was playing throughout the show, adding to the unusual mix of abstract art within the amusement park atmosphere of the pier. The flyer text states that this combination of music and visual art “implies only aesthetic compatibility, not a reciprocal relationship.”8 Because this was the first large-scale exhibit of California “action painting” in a public venue, the show is described in the text as “an attempt to begin to provide the concepts and facilities for the exhibiting of indigenous contemporary works.”9 The fact that this show was followed by Action 2 (“Action squared”) the following year, which included many of the same artists but in a more refined venue, is proof that these “concepts and facilities” were beginning to take root in Los Angeles.10

Action 2 was the result of the collaboration between the “6” and the East & West Gallery in San Francisco and the two galleries in Los Angeles that had established themselves as places for local, avant-garde art in the year since the first Action show, Syndell Studio and Edward Kienholz’s Now Gallery in the Turnabout Theater on La Cienega, where the exhibition was actually held. The two main organizers of Action 2, Hopps and artist and poet Robert Alexander met through Alexander’s friend Wallace Berman, a central figure among a number of artists working in collage and assemblage outside of the network of art schools and annual city shows that constituted the most visible aspect of the Los Angeles art world at the time. The change in the size and location of the second Action show, and the lack of any accompanying music, marks a further refinement of the presentation of the avant-garde in Los Angeles and an interest in the attracting a different public. From the work of twenty-three artists installed in the spectacular display context of an amusement park building on a public pier to the presentation of the work of twelve artists hung in a gallery space located on La Cienega in West Hollywood — a street that was to become known as “gallery row” in the mid-1960s — Action 2 marks a renewed ambition to carve out a new space for vanguard art within the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.11

Charles Brittin, Ferus Alley (Bob Alexander, John Reed, Wallace Berman, Juanita, Walter Hopps), Los Angeles, California, ca. 1957.

The exhibition brochure for Action 2 was designed and printed by Robert Alexander in collaboration with Hopps and includes tipped-in, black and white photographs of paintings by Craig Kauffman, Jay DeFeo, Sonia Gechtoff and a collage by Alexander himself. These images are accompanied by a series of short, poetic statements that tellingly illuminate the spirit in which Hopps conceived of his activity in this period. As he remarked on the conception of these texts, Hopps recalled that he and Alexander “just talked it through,” echoing the improvisational style of many of the works on display.12 The introductory text, following the title page, encapsulates the mix of serious intent and bohemian attitude that surrounded the Action shows:

WE CAN MAKE, HANG, WRECK, SHOW, sell or enjoy them, but it’s “….almost impossible for us to measure the efficacity [sic] of a work of art which we have written or painted, since true admiration…..is almost always accompanied by an insurmountable uneasiness”[ellipses and capitals original].13

Hopps has admitted that he invented the portion of the passage within the quotation marks, but it is printed in such a way to suggest an authoritative text has been excerpted, although the uneven ellipses and use of the incorrect “efficacity” lean toward parody. 14 Another cryptic message declares:

paintings (the other works too) demand being seen (under a variety of circumstances); sometimes they’re good to trade for other things.
observe, & involve even yourself.15

Hopps and Alexander may be referring to Kienholz’s penchant of bartering art work for services here, but the last line emphasizes the kind of democratic, open-ended aesthetic experience which the show was designed to offer. The most radical aspect of the show was a gesture of pure dadaist aggression performed by Alexander when he knocked a hole in the gallery wall clean through to the alley behind the building and pulled in the tall weeds and vines that were growing there, leaving them sticking into the exhibit space.16 This piece, a precursor to later alterations of museum and gallery spaces of the 1960s, was surely meant to represent the anarchical spirit of the “outlaws,” as he liked to identify Wallace Berman and himself, and one with which Hopps still identified years later.17

But these two shows preceded the endeavor for which Hopps is most remembered in the LA art world, the founding of the Ferus Gallery with Edward Kienholz in 1957. Kienholz’s 1959 piece, Walter Hopps, Hopps, Hopps, is a cunning assemblage portrait of his business partner, but one which literally embodies the contradictions that Ferus quickly came to represent as the contemporary art market developed in Los Angeles. In this piece, Kienholz altered a popular gas station advertisement of the time, the Bardahl Man, to make a unique contribution to the modernist tradition of dealer portraits. Hopps is represented as a street hustler hawking paintings from under his jacket as if they were hot merchandise. He shows off mini-paintings by Willem deKooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, in order from top to bottom. The reverse of the figure reveals a series of compartments containing various notes and items pertaining to Hopps’ work as a dealer. In the box behind his head, for instance, can be found a long list entitled, “Major Artists I Want to Show,” which doesn’t include a single local artist, but consists of puns on the names of major New York artists such as, “Willem de Conning,” “Franz Climb,” “Jasper Cans,” “Adolph Gothis,” “Robert Nothingwell” and “Jackson Potluck.” Other compartments are labeled “Important People w/influence or money” and “Competitors and Other Un-informed Types.” According to Hopps, Kienholz was criticizing his preference for New York School painters over any of the Los Angeles artists he represented, including Kienholz himself.18

The piece is striking in its indictment of the local and national art worlds within which Los Angeles artists such as Kienholz had a stake. As Hopps’s founding partner in the Ferus Gallery, only Kienholz could make such a biting caricature and perhaps only he was willing to challenge the shift in the gallery’s direction, from a cooperative arrangement devoted to the California avant-garde to a commercial endeavor positioning itself to represent New York artists in Los Angeles. As a new partner and director of Ferus, Irving Blum imposed a vision of the gallery that was resisted by many of its artists. He urged Hopps to streamline their operation by reducing the roster of California artists and to widen the scope of the enterprise by utilizing his East Coast connections in order to arrange joint representation for New York artists in Los Angeles. In this, Ferus would be competing with other local galleries that showed New York painting, but the cache and notoriety the gallery had developed through its support of local avant-garde artists gave it an edge that would be fully exploited as the 1960s unfolded. Ultimately, Blum’s blueprint made the gallery into the centerpiece of the rapid rise of a new Los Angeles art market in the 1960s. So the figure in Kienholz’s dealer portrait, although unmistakably Hopps in his horn rimmed glasses and black coat and thin tie, can also be seen as a representation of Irving Blum’s influence on the gallery. Shortly after this piece was made in 1959, in fact, Ferus opened the 1960 season with a show entitled 14 New York Artists that included works by deKooning, Kline, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Hoffman, Motherwell and others. This was the first time Ferus had shown work other than that by Los Angeles and San Francisco artists. By this time, the gallery had moved across the street in a new, more professional space designed by Blum. As Hopps remarked at a recent museum talk, the new Ferus space “was slicker than deer guts on a door knob.”19

Kienholz’s portrait ultimately represents Hopps’ greater ambitions as a new Los Angeles art scene got off the ground in the early 1960s. It shows him as the tireless promoter of contemporary art which he was, carefully cultivating a collecting public through art history courses he gave at UCLA Extension, that helped introduce the avant-garde to collectors such as Betty Asher, Monte Factor, Fred and Marcia Weisman, and Ed Janss. After leaving Ferus and consulting at the Pasadena Art Museum where he officially became a curator in 1962 and then director in 1964, Hopps went on to mount many groundbreaking shows, including an early survey of pop art, New Paintings of Common Objects and the Duchamp retrospective in 1963. Picked to curate the U.S. section of the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1965, one of the first extensions of the international art fair beyond Europe, Hopps’ earlier efforts were beginning to pay off. He would continually face resistance from more conservative members of museum boards, however, and never alter his idiosyncratic working hours and sometimes autocratic management style which lead him to leave jobs in Los Angeles and later Washington D.C.. In a 1965 column in Frontier magazine, Philip Leider (then editor of L.A.-based Artforum) provided a sense of just exactly how valuable Hopps was to the Los Angeles art community in this period:

The Duchamp exhibition climaxed almost a decade of the most intense activity on behalf of the contemporary art scene by Hopps. Practically living in studios in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Hopps acted as a kind of one-man liaison between avant-garde artists in the three cities. His friendship with countless artists, including Rauschenberg, Johns, Conner, Diebenkorn, Kienholz, et. al., extends to the earliest days of their careers, and as curator at the Pasadena museum, he exhibited young artists such as Ruscha and Goode before they had ever been seen in commercial galleries. He was instrumental in the development of many private collections of contemporary art in Los Angeles, and to this moment he can be credited, by coaxing, cajoling, teaching and demanding, with bringing more important contemporary art into Southern California than any other single figure.20

Having returned to the area for his first local project in decades, Hopps passed away shortly after celebrating the opening of a tremendous survey of the assemblage work of George Herms he curated at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in March. As Doug Harvey noted in his LA Weekly review of the show, “It isn’t very often you get to orchestrate your own requiem, but Walter Hopps–who once compared curating to conducting a symphony–has managed it neatly.”21 Herms was one of Hopps’ oldest friends and a member of the original group of “outlaws,” who pushed the boundaries of the Los Angeles art world in the 50s and 60s with gritty and poetic, found-object sculpture that embraced the lived experience of the jazz, drugs, sex and love which defined the era. As a tribute to the spirit in which Hopps began his career in Los Angeles, nothing could have been more fitting.

Ken Allan received his Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Chicago in June 2005 with a dissertation on the relationship between artistic practice and social space in postwar L.A. entitled, “Making the Scene: Assemblage, Pop Art and Locality in 1960s Los Angeles.”

Footnotes

  1. Support for the preparation of this article was provided by an ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
  2. “Pasadena Art Museum: Walter Hopps,” Joanne L. Ratner, interviewer, October 11, 1987, Department of Special Collections, Oral History Program, University Research Library, University of California Los Angeles, 1990, p. 36.
  3. For a more detailed reading of Hopps’ activities and his collaboration with Robert Alexander and Wallace Berman in this period, see my “Creating An Avant-Garde in 1950s Los Angeles: Robert Alexander’s Hand-Printed Gallery Brochure in the Archives of American Art,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 42, Nos. 3-4, 2002.
  4. Much of this account of the history of the period leading up to the Action show is drawn from the “James Newman Oral History Interview,” Paul Karlstrom, interviewer, May 13, 1974, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  5. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps hopps hoppsoart curator,” Artforum, February 1996.
  6. Action exhibition flyer, Craig Kauffman papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
    Washington D.C.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The artists included in Action were James Kelly, Sonia Gechtoff, Adelie Landis, Paul Wonner, Bill Brown, Robert Craig Kauffman, Hassel Smith, James Bud Nixon, Relf Case, Madeleine Diamond, Gilbert Henderson, Larry Compton, J. DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, David Stiles, Richard Diebenkorn, Roy De Forest, Richard Brodney, Julius Wasserstein, Jack Lowe, Paul Sarkisian, Phil Rober, and James Corbett.
  11. The artists included in Action 2 were Fred Wellington, Paul Sarkisian, James Kelly, Gilbert Henderson, Sonia Gechtoff, Elwood Decker, Julius Wasserstein, Gerd Koch, Robert Craig Kauffman, Wally Hedrick, J. DeFeo, and i.e. alexander. Robert Alexander often signed his poetry and artwork with the name “i. e. alexander.”
  12. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  13. Action 2 exhibition brochure, Sonia Gechtoff papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  14. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  15. Action 2 exhibition brochure, Sonia Gechtoff papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  16. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  17. Robert Alexander quoted in Sandra Leonard Starr, Lost and Found in California: Four Decades of Assemblage Art (Santa Monica: James Corcoran Gallery, 1988), p. 82.
  18. Walter Hopps, Kienholz: A Retrospective (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996), p. 32.
  19. Walter Hopps, “Walter Hopps and George Herms in Conversation,” March 8, 2005, Santa Monica Museum of Art.
  20. Philip Leider, “Culture and Culture-Boom,” Frontier, April 1965, p. 25.
  21. Doug Harvery, “Herms the Messenger, Hopps Down the Rabbit Hole,” LA Weekly, April 15-21, 2005, p. 38

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Correction to This Article
The March 22 obituary of art curator Walter Hopps gave an incorrect name for the Smithsonian Institution museum where he worked in the 1970s. The correct name is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walter Hopps; Curator Of 20th-Century Art

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B06

Walter Hopps, 72, the self-taught curator who specialized in 20th-century art and gained an international reputation for his innovative exhibitions, died March 20 at a hospital in Los Angeles after falling and breaking three ribs earlier in the month.

In a career that spanned from Los Angeles to Washington to Houston, where he most recently was 20th-century art curator at the Menil Collection, Mr. Hopps was known for a renegade spirit that attracted much attention in the art world.


Walter Hopps, known for a renegade spirit, was director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1967 to 1972. (Gary Cameron — The Washington Post)

 


 

He showcased the work of leading abstract expressionists as well as emerging pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Among his landmark exhibits was the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp, the first museum exhibition of Frank Stella and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a 1962 exhibition that signaled the rise of American pop art.

He also was art director of Grand Street, a New York-based literary magazine.

Jean Stein, the publication’s editor, said Mr. Hopps surpassed his job description. She said his vision guided the magazine, which combined art, literature, science and political thought and published works by internationally known artists and writers.

“He influenced so many people in the art world to care for artists the way he did,” Stein said. “He cared for them and nourished them.”

Mr. Hopps relished doing “small exhibitions” — photo layouts in the magazine — particularly when it became more difficult for him to get around, Stein said.

His last full-scale exhibition was for Beat generation artist and poet George Herms, one of the figures from Mr. Hopps’s early days in Los Angeles. “George Herms: Hot Set” opened March 4 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, and Mr. Hopps and Herms held a talk March 8.

In a 1991 New Yorker magazine interview, Mr. Hopps was described as “a tall, imposing man with flowing hair and with Mephisto eyebrows that form bushy circumflex accents over blue eyes.”

In the article, Mr. Hopps compared his work to one of his other passions: music. “I think that the closest analogy to installing a museum exhibition is conducting a symphony orchestra,” he said.

This was a fair analogy, wrote Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker story: “Like some artists, he has the visual equivalent of a musician’s perfect pitch.”

Mr. Hopps was born in Eagle Rock, Calif., on May 3, 1932. In high school, he started a photographic society and organized exhibits. During this time, he also met the influential art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, which further spurred his direction. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities but never earned a degree.

In 1957, he and artist Edward Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, a legendary spot where Warhol exhibited his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans.

In the 1960s, he became director of the Pasadena Art Museum in California. He left Pasadena in 1967 and later became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until 1972. He reportedly was fired from the Corcoran because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behavior.

He then was curator of 20th-century American art at what is now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art and served in 1972 as U.S. commissioner of the Venice Biennale exhibition in Italy, where he featured artists such as photographer Diane Arbus and painters Richard Estes and Sam Gilliam.

In 1979, he settled in Houston and soon became founding director of the Menil Collection.

In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There, he organized a traveling retrospective of the American pop artist James Rosenquist, one of his many path-breaking exhibits.

Guggenheim director Thomas Krens once called Mr. Hopps “one of the preeminent curators of his generation” and said that he “redefined how we look at art of the modern era.”

The Menil Foundation established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement in 2001 to recognize and encourage a continuation of Mr. Hopps’s “spirited tradition of innovation and excellence.”

A colleague once said Mr. Hopps merely “wanted the world to see what he saw.”

Survivors include his wife, Caroline Huber of Houston.

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 Current Issue Cover

The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps

What Is a Curator?Under the Roman Empire the title of curator (“caretaker”) was given to officials in charge of various departments of public works: sanitation, transportation, policing. The curatores annonae were in charge of the public supplies of oil and corn. The curatores regionum were responsible for maintaining order in the 14 regions of Rome. And the curatores aquarum took care of the aqueducts. In the Middle Ages, the role of the curator shifted to the ecclesiastical, as clergy having a spiritual cure or charge. So one could say that the split within curating—between the management and control of public works (law) and the cure of souls (faith)—was there from the beginning. Curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest.

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, Commodity, the bias of the world—
—Shakespeare, King John1

Portrait of Harald Szeemann. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

For better or worse, curators of contemporary art have become, especially in the last 10 years, the principal representatives of some of our most persistent questions and confusions about the social role of art. Is art a force for change and renewal, or is it a commodity for advantage or convenience? Is art a radical activity, undermining social conventions, or is it a diverting entertainment for the wealthy? Are artists the antennae of the human race, or are they spoiled children with delusions of grandeur (in Roman law, a curator could also be the appointed caretaker or guardian of a minor or lunatic)? Are art exhibitions “spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organizing society,” or vehicles for cultural tourism and nationalistic propaganda?

These splits, which reflect larger tears in the social fabric, certainly in the United States, complicate the changing role of curators of contemporary art, because curators mediate between art and its publics and are often forced to take “a curving and indirect course” between them. Teaching for the past five years at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I observed young curators confronting the practical demands and limitations of their profession armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything. Where did this image come from?

When Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps died in February and March 2005, at age 72 and 71, respectively, it was impossible not to see this as the end of an era. They were two of the principal architects of the present approach to curating contemporary art, working over 50 years to transform the practice. When young curators imagine what’s possible, they are imagining (whether they know it or not) some version of Szeemann and Hopps. The trouble with taking these two as models of curatorial possibility is that both of them were sui generis: renegades who managed, through sheer force of will, extraordinary ability, brilliance, luck, and hard work, to make themselves indispensable, and thereby intermittently palatable, to the conservative institutions of the art world.

Each came to these institutions early. When Szeemann was named head of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961, at age 28, he was the youngest ever to have been appointed to such a position in Europe, and when Hopps was made director of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1964, at age 31, he was then the youngest art museum director in the United States. By that time, Hopps (who never earned a college degree) had already mounted a show of paintings by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and many others on a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier (with his first wife, Shirley Hopps, when he was 22); started and run two galleries (Syndell Studios and the seminal Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz); and curated the first museum shows of Frank Stella’s paintings and Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the first U.S. retrospective of Kurt Schwitters, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art, and the first solo museum exhibition of Marcel Duchamp, in Pasadena in 1963. And that was just the beginning. Near the end of his life, Hopps estimated that he’d organized 250 exhibitions in his 50-year career.

Szeemann’s early curatorial activities were no less prodigious. He made his first exhibition, Painters Poets/ Poets Painters, a tribute to Hugo Ball, in 1957, at age 24. When he became the director of the Kunsthalle in Bern four years later, he completely transformed that institution, mounting nearly 12 exhibitions a year, culminating in the landmark show Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969, exhibiting works by 70 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman, among many others.

While producing critically acclaimed and historically important exhibitions, both Hopps and Szeemann quickly came into conflict with their respective institutions. After four years at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps was asked to resign. He was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1970, then fired two years later. For his part, stunned by the negative reaction to When Attitudes Become Form from the Kunsthalle Bern, Harald Szeemann quit his job, becoming the first “independent curator.” He set up the Agency for Spiritual Guestwork and co-founded the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) in 1969, curated Happenings & Fluxus at the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, and became the first artistic director of Documenta in 1972, reconceiving it as a 100-day event. Szeemann and Hopps hadn’t yet turned 40, and their best shows were all ahead of them. For Szeemann, these included Junggesellenmaschinen—Les Machines célibataires (“Bachelor Machines”) in 1975-77, Monte Veritá (1978, 1983, 1987), the first Aperto at the Venice Biennale (with Achille Bonito Oliva, 1980), Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, Europaïsche Utopien seit 1800 (“The Quest for the Total Work of Art”) in 1983-84, Visionary Switzerland in 1991, the Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1993, Austria in a Lacework of Roses in 1996, and the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. For Hopps, yet to come were exhibitions of Diane Arbus in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the Robert Rauschenberg mid-career survey in 1976, retrospectives at the Menil Collection of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst, and exhibitions of Jay DeFeo (1990), Ed Kienholz (1996 at the Whitney), Rauschenberg again (1998), and James Rosenquist (2003 at the Guggenheim). Both Szeemann and Hopps had exhibitions open when they died—Szeemann’s Visionary Belgium, for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Hopps’s George Herms retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum—and both had plans for many more exhibitions in the future.

What Do Curators Do?

Szeemann and Hopps were the Cosmas and Damian (or the Beuys and Duchamp) of contemporary curatorial practice. Rather than accepting things as they found them, they changed the way things were done. But finally, they will be remembered for only one thing: the quality of the exhibitions they made; for that is what curators do, after all. Szeemann often said he preferred the simple title of Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition-maker), but he acknowledged at the same time how many different functions this one job comprised: “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat.” I have heard curators characterized at different times as:
Administrators Advocates
Auteurs
Bricoleurs (Hopps’ last show, the Herms retrospective, was titled “The Bricoleur of Broken Dreams. . . One More Once”)
Brokers
Bureaucrats
Cartographers (Ivo Mesquita)
Catalysts (Hans Ulrich Obrist)
Collaborators
Cultural impresarios
Cultural nomads
Diplomats (When Bill Lieberman, who held top curatorial posts at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died in May 2005, Artnews described him as “the consummate art diplomat”)
And that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. When Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Walter Hopps to name important predecessors, the first one he came up with was Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “for his unrelenting rigor.” He continued, “Fine curating of an artist’s work—that is, presenting it in an exhibition—requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work that a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibition. . . . To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand. It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always tried to get as peaceful and calm as possible.”3

But around this calm and peaceful center raged the “controlled chaos” of exhibition making. Hopps’ real skills included an encyclopedic visual memory, the ability to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that made them sing,4 the personal charm to get people to do things for him, and an extraordinary ability to look at a work of art and then account for his experience of it, and articulate this account to others in a compelling and convincing way.

It is significant, I think, that neither Szeemann nor Hopps considered himself a writer, but both recognized and valued good writing, and solicited and “curated” writers and critics as well as artists into their exhibitions and publications. Even so, many have observed that the rise of the independent curator has occurred at the expense of the independent critic. In a recent article titled “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” Mark Spiegler opined that “on the day in 1969 when Harald Szeemann went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turned against criticism.”5 There are curators who can also write criticism, but these precious few are exceptions that prove the rule. Curators are not specialists, but for some reason they feel the need to use a specialized language, appropriated from philosophy or psychoanalysis, which too often obscures rather than reveals their sources and ideas. The result is not criticism, but curatorial rhetoric. Criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, while the inflationary writing of curatorial rhetoric is used to obscure fine distinctions with vague generalities. The latter’s displacement of the former has a political dimension as we move into an increasingly managed, post-critical environment.

Although Szeemann and Hopps were very different in many ways, they shared certain fundamental values: an understanding of the importance of remaining independent of institutional prejudices and arbitrary power arrangements; a keen sense of history; the willingness to continually take risks intellectually, aesthetically, and conceptually; and an inexhaustible curiosity about and respect for the way artists work.

Portrait of Walter Hopps. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

Szeemann’s break away from the institution of the Kunsthalle was, simply put, “a rebellion aimed at having more freedom.”6 This rebellious act put him closer to the ethos of artists and writers, where authority cannot be bestowed or taken, but must be earned through the quality of one’s work. In his collaborations with artists, power relations were negotiated in practice rather than asserted as fiat. Every mature artist I know has a favorite horror story about a young, inexperienced curator trying to claim an authority they haven’t earned by manipulating a seasoned artist’s work or by designing exhibitions in which individual artists’ works are seen as secondary and subservient to the curator’s grand plan or theme. The cure for this kind of insecure hubris is experience, but also the recognition of the ultimate contingency of the curatorial process. As Dave Hickey said of both critics and curators, “Somebody has to do something before we can do anything.”7 In June of 2000, after being at the pinnacle of curatorial power repeatedly for over 40 years, Harald Szeemann said, “Frankly, if you insist on power, then you keep going on in this way. But you must throw the power away after each experience, otherwise it’s not renewing. I’ve done a lot of shows, but if the next one is not an adventure, it’s not important for me and I refuse to do it.”8

When contemporary curators, following in the steps of Szeemann, break free from institutions, they sometimes lose their sense of history in the process. Whatever their shortcomings, institutions do have a sense (sometimes a surfeit) of history. And without history, “the new” becomes a trap, a sequential recapitulation of past approaches with no forward movement. It is a terrible thing to be perpetually stuck in the present, and this is a major occupational hazard for curators.

Speaking about his curating of the Seville Biennale in 2004, Szeemann said, “It’s not about presenting the best there is, but about discovering where the unpredictable path of art will go in the immanent future.” But moving the ball up the field requires a tremendous amount of legwork. “The unpredictable path of art” becomes much less so when curators rely on the Claude Rains method, rounding up the usual suspects from the same well-worn list of artists that everyone else in the world is using.

It is difficult, in retrospect, to fully appreciate the risks that both Szeemann and Hopps took to change the way curators worked. One should never underestimate the value of a monthly paycheck. By giving up a secure position as director of a stable art institution and striking out on his own as an “independent curator,” Szeemann was assuring himself years of penury. There was certainly no assurance that anyone would hire him as a freelance. Anyone who’s chosen this path knows that freelance means never having to say you’re solvent. Being freelance as a writer and critic is one thing: The tools of the trade are relatively inexpensive, and one need only make a living. But making exhibitions is costly and finding “independent” money, money without onerous strings attached to it, is especially difficult when one cannot, in good conscience, present it as an “investment opportunity.” Daniel Birnbaum points out that “all the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship and branding in contemporary art today are fully articulated in [‘When Attitudes Become Form’]. Remarkably, according to Szeemann, the exhibition came about only because ‘people from Philip Morris and the PR firm Ruder Finn came to Bern and asked me if I would do a show of my own. They offered me money and total freedom.’ Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue seems uncanny in its prescience: ‘As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are committed to support the experimental,’ writes John A. Murphy, the company’s European president, asserting that his company experimented with ‘new methods and materials’ in a way fully comparable to the Conceptual artists in the exhibition. (And yet, showing the other side of this corporate-funding equation, it was a while before the company supported the arts in Europe again, perhaps needing time to recover from all the negative press surrounding the event.)”9 So the founding act of “independent curating” was brought to you by . . . Philip Morris! 33 years later, for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02, Szeemann designed a pavilion covered with sheets of gold, containing a system of pneumatic tubes and a machine that destroyed money—two 100 franc notes every minute during the 159 days of the exhibition. The sponsor? The Swiss National Bank, of course.
When Walter Hopps brought the avant-garde to Southern California, he didn’t have to compete with others to secure the works of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, or Jay DeFeo (for the merry-go-round show in 1953), because no one else wanted them. In his Hopps obituary, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight pointed out that “just a few years after Hopps’s first visit to the [Arensbergs’] collection, the [Los Angeles] City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.”10 In 50 years, we’ve progressed from banning art as Communist propaganda to prosecuting artists as terrorists.11

The Few and Far Between

It’s not that fast horses are rare, but men who know enough to spot them
are few and far between.
—Han Yü12

The trait that Szeemann and Hopps had most in common was their respect for and understanding of artists. They never lost sight of the fact that their principal job was to take what they found in artists’ works and do whatever it took to present it in the strongest possible way to an interested public. Sometimes this meant combining it with other work that enhanced or extended it. This was done not to show the artists anything they didn’t already know, but to show the public. As Lawrence Weiner pointed out in an interview in 1994, “Everybody that was in the Attitudes show knew all about the work of everybody else in the Attitudes show. They wouldn’t have known them personally, but they knew all the work. . . . Most artists on both sides of the Atlantic knew what was being done. European artists had been coming to New York and U.S. artists went over there.”13 But Attitudes brought it all together in a way that made a difference.

Both Szeemann and Hopps felt most at home with artists, sometimes literally. Carolee Schneemann recently described for me the scene in the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, when she and her collaborator in “Happenings and Fluxus” (having arrived and discovered there was no money for lodging) moved into their installations, and Szeemann thought it such a good idea to sleep on site that he brought in a cot and slept in the museum himself, to the outrage of the guards and staff. Both Szeemann and Hopps reserved their harshest criticism for the various bureaucracies that got between them and the artists. Hopps once described working for bureaucrats when he was a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts as “like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal.”14 And Szeemann said in 2001 that “the annoying thing about such bureaucratic organizations as the [Venice] Biennale is that there are a lot of people running around who hate artists because they keep running around wanting to change everything.”15 Changing everything, for Szeemann, was just the point. “Artists, like curators, work on their own,” he said in 2000, “grappling with their attempt to make a world in which to survive. . . . We are lonely people, faced with superficial politicians, with donors, sponsors, and one must deal with all of this. I think it is here where the artist finds a way to form his own world and live his obsessions. For me, this is the real society.”16 The society of the obsessed.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Although Walter Hopps was an early commissioner for the São Paolo Biennal (1965: Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Richard Irwin and Larry Poons) and of the Venice Biennale (1972: Diane Arbus), Harald Szeemann practically invented the role of nomadic independent curator of huge international shows, putting his indelible stamp on Documenta and Venice and organizing the Lyon Biennale and the Kwangju Biennial in Korea in 1997, and the first Seville Biennale in 2004, as well as numerous other international surveys around the world.

So what Szeemann said about globalization and art should perhaps be taken seriously. He saw globalization as a euphemism for imperialism, and proclaimed that “globalization is the great enemy of art.” And in the Carolee Thea interview in 2000, he said, “Globalization is perfect if it brings more justice and equality to the world . . . but it doesn’t. Artists dream of using computers or digital means to have contact and to bring continents closer. But once you have the information, it’s up to you what to do with it. Globalization without roots is meaningless in art.”17 And globalization of the curatorial class can be a way to avoid or “transcend” the political.

Rene Dubos’s old directive to “think globally, but act locally” (first given at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972) has been upended in some recent international shows (like the 14th Sydney Biennale in 2004, and the 1st Moscow Biennial in 2005). When one thinks locally (within a primarily Euro-American cultural framework, or within a New York-London-Kassel-Venice-Basel-Los Angeles-Miami framework) but acts globally, the results are bound to be problematic, and can be disastrous. In 1979, Dubos argued for an ecologically sustainable world in which “natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications.” At their best, the big international exhibitions do contribute to this. Okwui Enwezor’s18 Documenta XI certainly did, and Szeemann knew it. At their worst, they perpetuate the center-to-periphery hegemony and preclude real cross-cultural communication and change. Although having artists and writers move around in the world is an obvious good, real cultural exchange is something that must be nurtured. Walter Hopps said in 1996: “I really believe in—and, obviously, hope for—radical, or arbitrary, presentations, where cross-cultural and cross-temporal considerations are extreme, out of all the artifacts we have. . . . So just in terms of people’s priorities, conventional hierarchies begin to shift some.”19

The Silence of Szeemann & Hopps Is Overrated

‘Art’ is any human activity that aims at producing improbable situations, and it is the more artful (artistic) the less probable the situation that it produces. —Vilém Flusser20

Harald Szeemann recognized early and long appreciated the utopian aspects of art. “The often-evoked ‘autonomy’ is just as much a fruit of subjective evaluation as the ideal society: it remains a utopia while it informs the desire to experientially visualize the unio mystica of opposites in space. Which is to say that without seeing, there is nothing visionary, but that the visionary should always determine the seeing.” And he recognized that the bureaucrat could overtake the curer of souls at any point. “Otherwise, we might just as well return to ‘hanging and placing,’ and divide the entire process ‘from the vision to the nail’ into detailed little tasks again.”21 He organized exhibitions in which the improbable could occur, and was willing to risk the impossible. In reply to a charge that the social utopianism of Joseph Beuys was never realized, Szeemann said, “The nice thing about utopias is precisely that they fail. For me, failure is a poetic dimension of art.”22 Curating a show in which nothing could fail was, to Szeemann, a waste of time.

If he and Hopps could still encourage young curators in anything, I suspect it would be to take greater risks in their work. At a time when all parts of the social and political spheres (including art institutions) are increasingly managed, breaking out of this frame, asking significant questions, and setting the terms of resistance is more and more vitally important. It is important to work against the bias of the world (commodity, political expediency). For curators of contemporary art, that means finding and supporting those artists who, as Flusser writes, “have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”23

This essay will be included in the forthcoming Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating
Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, published by Apex Art. It will be available by January 2007.

Endnotes

1 Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, Act II, Scene 1, 573-74. Cowper: “What Shakespeare calls commodity, and we call political expediency.” Appendix 13 of my old edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, edited by G. B. Harrison (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 1639-40, reads: “Shakespeare frequently used poetic imagery taken from the game of bowls [bowling]. . . . The bowl [bowling ball] was not a perfect sphere, but so made that one side somewhat protruded. This protrusion was called the bias; it caused the bowl to take a curving and indirect course.”

2 “When Attitude Becomes Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann,” Artforum, Summer 2005, p. 55.

3 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews, Volume I, edited by Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), pp. 416-17. Hopps also named as predecessors exhibition-makers Katherine Dreier, Alfred Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, René d’Harnoncourt, and Jermayne MacAgy.

4 In 1976, at the Museum of Temporary Art in Washington, D.C., Hopps announced that, for thirty-six hours, he would hang anything anyone brought in, as long as it would fit through the door. Later, he proposed to put 100,000 images up on the walls of P.S. 1 in New York, but that project was, sadly, never realized.

5 Mark Spiegler, “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” The Art Newspaper, no. 157, April 2005, p. 32.

6 Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators (New York: Apex Art Curatorial Program, 2001), p. 19.

7 Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility: Proceedings from a symposium addressing the state of current curatorial practice organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, October 14-15, 2000, edited by Paula Marincola (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), p. 128. Both Szeemann and Hopps passed Hickey’s test: “The curator’s job, in my view,” he said, “is to tell the truth, to show her or his hand, and get out of the way” (p. 126).

8 Carolee Thea, p. 19 (emphasis added).

9 Daniel Birnbaum, p. 58.

10 Christopher Knight, “Walter Hopps, 1932-2005. Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2005.

11At this writing, the U.S. government continues in its effort to prosecute artist Steven Kurtz for obtaining bacterial agents through the mail, even though the agents were harmless and intended for use in art pieces by the collaborative Critical Art Ensemble. Kurtz has said he believes the charges filed against him in 2004 (after agents from the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Depeartment of Defence swarmed over his house) are part of a Bush administration campaign to prevent artists from protesting government policies. “I think we’re in a very unfortunate moment now in U.S. history,” Kurtz has said. “A form of neo-McCarthyism has made a comeback. . . . We’re going to see a whole host of politically motivated trials which have nothing to do with crime but everything to do with artistic expression.” For the latest developments in the case, go to caedefensefund.org.

12 Epigraph to Nathan Sivin’s Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

13 Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968-2003, edited by Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004), p. 315.

14 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps—Art Curator,” Artforum, February 1996.

15 Jan Winkelman, “Failure as a Poetic Dimension: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann,” Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over Hedendaagse Kunst, No. 3, June 2001.

16 Carolee Thea, p. 17 (emphasis added).

17 Carolee Thea, p. 18.

18 With his co-curators Carlos Basualdo, Uta Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

19 Hans Ulrich Obrist, p. 430.

20 Vilém Flusser, “Habit: The True Aesthetic Criterion,” in Writings, edited by Andreas Ströhl, translated by Erik Eisel (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 52.

21 Harald Szeemann, “Does Art Need Directors?” in Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, edited by Carin Kuoni (New York: Independent Curators International, 2001), p. 169.

22 Jan Winkelman.

23 Flusser, p. 54.

Copyright

Contributor

David Levi Strauss DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is a scholar and writer living in New York. He is the chair of the graduate program in Art and Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts. The author of several books on photography and politics, his recent collection Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow was published last year by Aperture.

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A final farewell to Menil Collection’s Walter Hopps

A final farewell to Walter Hopps
PATRICIA C. JOHNSON, Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle | May 1, 2005

Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, was buried in a private ceremony on April 23 in Lone Pine, Calif., a breathtaking site at the foot of Mount Whitney. His coffin was a marvelous Duchampian assemblage crafted by California artist Richard Jackson: A pine box with a lid made from a five-panel mahogany door from Hopps’ Pasadena, Calif., house, complete with round brass knob and metal plaque with Hopps’ signature.

Hopps, who died March 20 at age 72, began his long career as a brilliant if unorthodox curator in 1957 when he and artist Edward Kienholz founded the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles to spotlight progressive art by then unknown artists such as Robert Irwin, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

His 50-year career as museum director started at the Pasadena (Calif.) Art Museum, where he introduced the work of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell to the American public. He moved on to direct the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then to the Smithsonian Institution as curator of 20th-century art. He came to Houston in 1981 at the invitation of Dominique de Menil to direct the museum she was building. In recent years he was also adjunct curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Hopps not only championed art, but also the artists.

He died in California, where he curated a retrospective for the Santa Monica Museum of Art of West Coast assemblagist and art-world comrade George Herms. The artist gave the eulogy, a loving remembrance that also captured Hopps’ brilliant connoisseurship and his penchant for “stealing” art to make a point.

(Hopps “stole” an early assemblage from Ed Kienholz’s studio to prevent the artist from destroying it. Years later, to make a point about security, he stole a painting by Julian Schnabel from an exhibit at the University of Houston‘s Blaffer Gallery.)

Herms told the mourners that when artists enter heaven’s gates, instead of signing St. Peter’s book, they make drawings. After Hopps went through, Herms joked, St. Peter noticed that all the drawings were gone.

He added that the curator in Hopps is now looking around at cumulus clouds, saying, “We only need three clouds, and I know which three are the best!”

Another celebration of Hopps’ life will be held 6-8 p.m. May 17 at the Menil Collection. The Santa Monica Museum of Art honors him, as well, with a gathering this Wednesday.

Caroline Huber Hopps, Hopps’ wife, requests that in lieu of flowers, anyone wishing to make a gift in Walter’s memory make a donation to the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, established in 2001 by the Menil Foundation (1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400).

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 DICTIONARY OF ART HISTORIANS

Hopps, Walter C

Date born:  1933

Place Born:  Eagle Rock, CA

Date died: 2005

Place died: Los Angeles, CA

Seminal curator of 20th-century art and founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston. Hopps hailed from a family of California physicians. A chance visit to the modern art collection of Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) and his wife Louise Arensberg (1879-1953) in Los Angeles piqued his interest in modern art.  He became close friends with the Arensbergs. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities without ever securing a degree.  As a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hopps and two friends opened a gallery space called Syndell Studio. In 1955 Hopps married a University of Chicago graduate student in art history, Shirley Neilsen [see Shirley Neilsen Blum], in a ceremony at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The Studio’s one-person shows included Craig Kauffman and Ed Kienholz. In 1957, he and Kienholz opened another gallery, Ferus Gallery showing the work of a new generation of artists Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. Hopps, however, lacked the presentation skills to market art to wealthy collectors. He encountered Irving Blum (b. 1930), who became a gallery partner, and the two made Ferus a seminal space for modernist art in California.  Hopps organized exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum (today the Norton Simon Museum) in 1959,  joining the staff in 1962.  He rose from curator to director. At the Pasadena Art Museum, he was responsible for the first American retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp (1963) and Joseph Cornell as well as featuring the art collection of the California art historian Kate Steinitz. He was selected to be United States commissioner for the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1965.  Hopps’ wife began an affair with Blum, divorcing Hopps and marrying Blum in 1967. He joined the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967. Again he identified and showed cutting-edge modern art, such as Gene Davis, street art from Los Angeles, and Chicago’s Hairy Who group.  Hopps was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art where he featured Paolo Soleri’s architecture and an installation of David Smith’s extending outside the building.  Hopps was fired from the Corcoran in 1972, reportedly because of his habit of leaving for extended periods of time without notifying staff, in part due to his mental illness.  He worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum under Joshua C. Taylor, acting as the U.S. commissioner for the Venice Biennale in 1972.  Dominique de Menil (1908-1997), the visionary Houston collector, hired Hopps in 1980 to assist in building a museum for the collection of art that she and her late husband assembled. Hopps urged the selection of Renzo Piano, assigning the architect to design flexibly lit galleries, resulting in the innovative system of roof shutters which the Menil is today. He married a third time, to Caroline Huber in 1983. Hopps was director of the Menil from its opening in 1987 until 1989 when he became curator of solely 20th-century art. He mounted retrospectives of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. His closeness with Kienholz resulted in a retrospective of that artist at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996.  The following year he organized a Rauschenberg retrospective with Susan Davidson at the Guggenheim Museum which traveled to the Menil.  In 2001, the Menil established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement. In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There he and Sarah Bancroft mounted a James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2003.  He died of pneumonia after having sustained a fall in 2005.

An eccentric personality, nearly every person who worked with him remarked he would disappear for hours or days at a time, sometmes later being found in contemplation, other times simply unexplained.  Hopps, according to many, had an inate sense of what modern was. Los Angeles was practically without modern art representation, overwealmed by New York. Hopps tapped into indigenous southern-Californian modernist art movements, exploiting them to the fullest and developing a serious contemporary art presence in Los Angeles. LS

Home Country:  United States

Sources:  McKenna, Kristine. The Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin. Steidl, 2009; Cool School [documentary video]; [obituaries:] Richard, Paul. “Walter Hopps, Museum Man With a Talent For Talent.” Washington Post March 22, 2005 [see correction], p. C01;  Lamb, Yvonne Shinhoster.  “Walter Hopps; Curator of 20th-Century Art.” Washington Post March 22, 2005,p. B06;  Smith, Roberta. “Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern.” New York Times March 23, 2005 , p. C15.

Bibliography: Marcel Duchamp: a Retrospective Exhibition. Pasadena, CA: Padadena Museum of Art, 1963; The Art Show [of Ed Kienholz].  Washington, DC: Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1968;

Sujbect’s name: Walter Hopps; Walter C. Hopps

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WALTER HOPPS | 1932-2005

Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

March 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Walter Hopps, an art dealer and museum curator who was instrumental in bringing the first generation of postwar Los Angeles artists to international prominence and whose 1963 retrospective of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp ranks as a seminal event in modern museum history, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief hospitalization. He was 72 and lived in Houston.

Frail and in ill health for some time, Hopps had pneumonia, according to artist Ed Moses, a longtime friend. Hopps was in Southern California for a 45-year survey of assemblage art by sculptor George Herms, which he organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Artist Larry Bell said that he had unexpectedly encountered Hopps in the coffee shop of a Venice hotel last Tuesday and that he insisted on taking him to see his doctor.

Bell said Hopps had fallen earlier and broken several ribs, which contributed to a buildup of fluids in his lungs. On Saturday, Bell and Moses had hoped to visit Hopps at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but Hopps had been moved to intensive care and was in a coma. He died there Sunday morning.

At the time of his death, Hopps was curator of 20th century art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he had been founding director, and an adjunct senior curator at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. When the surprise dual appointment was made, Ned Rifkin, then director of the Menil, described Hopps as “a giant among his peers in the arena of modern and contemporary curators.” He organized a large retrospective of paintings by American Pop artist James Rosenquist for the Guggenheim in 2002.

Hopps’ most celebrated exhibition was the 1963 Duchamp retrospective, held at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in its original home on Los Robles Avenue. Hopps was in his first year as curator. He had been introduced to the French expatriate’s iconoclastic work in the late 1940s, during a high school visit to the Hollywood home of art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Their formidable collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Dadaist and other modern art, now a centerpiece of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, included such classic Duchamp works as “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912).

During the Pasadena show, Hopps arranged two chess matches with the impish artist — one for himself and one for the young writer Eve Babitz, who famously played her match nude.

The Duchamp exhibition was typical of Hopps’ modus operandi as a curator. He had come upon the artist by accident as an impressionable and inquisitive youth, and he was determined to follow his instincts; he knew from his conversations with young artists that their interest in Duchamp’s art was far ahead of the museum establishment’s. A Duchamp retrospective was not mounted in New York, where the artist lived, until 1973, five years after his death. The Pasadena show entered the realm of legend as a symbol of a more freewheeling, less tradition-bound artistic climate in Southern California.

Hopps’ first exhibition, organized with his first wife, Shirley, in 1954, was itself unorthodox. Dubbed “The Merry-Go-Round Show,” it arose from his concern that a new generation of Abstract Expressionist painters was not being seen in L.A. Hopps rented the merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier for $80, stretched tarp around the poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Jay De Feo. All were for sale, none for more than $300. Nothing sold.

Hopps and his wife regularly held informal exhibitions in their Brentwood apartment, where occasional sales helped keep them afloat. He briefly operated a gallery housed in a small structure built from used telephone poles. Called Syndell Studios, it was named in memory of a farmer who was killed in a freak accident while Hopps was driving cross-country. At Syndell Studios, Hopps showed the seminal Beat generation artist Wallace Berman, and he met Herms.

In 1957 he and artist Ed Kienholz, who would become an important figure in the development of assemblage art on the West Coast, opened Ferus Gallery. Ferus, the first professional space in L.A. to be principally devoted to the Southern California avant-garde, rapidly became the most adventurous and influential contemporary art gallery west of Manhattan.

In addition to showing the work of established Abstract Expressionist painters, Ferus introduced young L.A. artists to the growing scene, including Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin. Moses had his first exhibition at Ferus while still a student at UCLA. Hopps once told The Times that the name Ferus — Latin for “uncivilized” or “wild” — was “borrowed from an anthropological description of an aboriginal tribe with subhuman, irascible, possibly dangerous tendencies.”

The implied link between science and art came naturally. Hopps was a native of Glendale, born in 1932 into a family of prominent surgeons. He was home-tutored until junior high school, when he entered the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena. From there he went to Eagle Rock High School. After so many cloistered years, he described high school as “the most exciting time of my life; all of a sudden kids, boys, girls — friends.” It was with a class of Eagle Rock students that he first visited the Arensberg collection, to which he later returned on his own. The work of Duchamp, Picasso, Brancusi, Dali, Miro and many others made a profound impression on him.

“That was the clash,” Hopps later told a Times reporter. “I thought of myself as a rational positivist. And I couldn’t figure out why this seemingly nice, intelligent man [Arensberg was a prosperous businessman] had devoted his life to this collection. I started reading.”

The Arensbergs had been the unofficial center of the European emigre Dada movement when they lived in New York; in Hollywood, where they moved in 1927, their role changed to that of keepers of its history.

Duchamp had been the primary advisor in the development of their collection, and for them he was the center of that legacy. It was a legacy that encountered much hostility in Los Angeles, where, just a few years after Hopps’ first visit to the collection, the City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.

In 1950, Hopps enrolled at Stanford; a year later he switched to UCLA to study microbiology. He also studied art history. Shortly after opening Ferus, he began to teach at UCLA Extension; over the next four years he helped to cultivate a group of art collectors informed about the avant-garde, including Betty Freeman, Monte Factor, Ed Janss and Fred and Marcia Weisman.

Kienholz made a witty 1959 assemblage-sculpture portrait of his early partner at Ferus, the title of which, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” suggested his peripatetic energy. Its allusion to Beat era slang for illegal drugs also described a problem that followed Hopps for many years.

Part homage, part satire, the sculpture was made from a gas station advertising sign that featured a cutout of the Bardahl motor oil man. Kienholz turned the clean-cut image into a picture of a slippery salesman of Modern art. Hopps, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, black suit and skinny necktie, is shown pulling open his jacket as if he were a sidewalk slicker hawking hot merchandise to unsuspecting passersby. Instead of jewelry or watches, however, he reveals vest-pocket pictures of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

Turn around the sculpture — at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, appropriately just larger than life — and the back features a spine made from animal vertebrae, a rotary dial telephone and annotated lists of important people in the L.A. art world.

Kienholz left the gallery to pursue his own work, and Irving Blum, a Knoll furniture salesman, became Hopps’ partner in Ferus. Conflicts between them — which later resulted in Shirley Hopps’ becoming Shirley Blum — led to Hopps’ departure. In 1962 he was hired by Thomas Leavitt to become curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. In addition to the Duchamp retrospective, Hopps organized the first museum show of Frank Stella’s paintings, a landmark survey of box assemblages by Joseph Cornell and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a groundbreaking 1962 survey that heralded the emergence of Pop art. When Leavitt departed the museum in 1964, Hopps was elevated to director; at 31, he was the youngest art museum director in America.

He was asked to resign four years later, the first of many times that jobs ended badly or in a cloud of complications. He was celebrated for his curatorial abilities and his working relationships with artists, but was a notoriously poor administrator.

Perhaps the most famous art-world story about Hopps concerned his chronic lateness. During his tenure at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the staff made lapel buttons that said, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.”

“He didn’t like museum bureaucracies,” Moses said. “All his files at the Pasadena Art Museum were kept under the carpet. When he left there, he didn’t let anybody know about the files. Later, when they rolled up this giant carpet, they found very careful files and letters.”

Hopps was named director of the Corcoran in 1970 and fired in 1972. His seven years at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art) were marked by chronic absenteeism, which prompted Director Joshua Taylor to pay his curator only for the time he spent inside the building. Hopps joined Houston’s Menil Foundation in 1980 — artistically an excellent fit, given the collection’s strength in Surrealism — and became founding director of its celebrated museum in 1987; but patron Dominique de Menil despaired of her director’s administrative failings. He was made chief curator and a new director was hired. In 2001 the Menil Foundation inaugurated the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, a $25,000 prize bestowed biennially by an international jury.

Hopps once estimated that he organized more than 250 museum shows during his career. Most were well received. Among his great successes was a pair of Robert Rauschenberg surveys — one for the National Museum on the occasion of the 1976 American Bicentennial, the other, in 1991, for the Menil. Among his rare failures was 1984’s “The Automobile and Culture,” a show for L.A.’s then new Museum of Contemporary Art that ironically ended up demonstrating what little influence automotive imagery had on Modern art.

“With him goes a certain breed of unorthodox curator,” said painter and Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens, who lived in Los Angeles during Hopps’ heyday at Ferus and the Pasadena Museum. “Museums now are much more business-based and focused on the bottom line. There are fewer margins for error, so you don’t have guys like Hopps who are not organization people — much to their credit. He might have been the last of the breed.”

Hopps is survived by his second wife, Caroline Huber. A memorial service is being planned.

Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.

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Walter Hopps Obituary
by gary c. (2005)

Billy Name: “Walter Hopps was a surprisingly brilliant and very well-liked and admired curator as a young man. He had a magic-like inspiring air like enlightened, creative people have. He was very engaging and easily knowable. I liked him a lot, as did everyone in the art scene.”

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Walter Hopps
(Photo: Gary Cameron)

Walter Hopps died on March 20, 2005 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 72 years old and had been suffering from pneumonia. The last exhibition that he organized for a museum was George Herms: Hot Set at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from March 5 – May 14, 2005.

Hopps made several important contributions to Pop. He was one of the original owners of the Ferus Gallery which was the first gallery to show Warhol’s Soup Cans in 1962 and during the same year he organized what is generally regarded as the first Pop exhibition in a museum, New Painting of Common Objects, at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). The following year he organized the first U.S. retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the same museum.

Walter Hopps:

“Here’s how it all began. By 1959 I had bought out my partner, Edward Kienholz, and taken over Ferus Gallery. I shopped around for another partner because I was supposed to still be going to U.C.L.A. When Irving Blum came into Ferus Gallery, I gave him a third of the stock to act as its director… In 1960 in New York, I met a man named David Herbert who worked for Betty Parsons, then Sidney Janis… Herbert knew Andy Warhol, whom we had never heard of in California. Herbert said ‘You’ve got to meet this artist, Andy Warhol,’ and this finally happened in the fall of 1961. Herbert’s friends hung out in this trendy Manhattan store called Serendipity. Herbert arranged the meeting there and finally Warhol showed up. Irving Blum and I went to Warhol’s studio on Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side.” (PK43)

Among the works that Warhol showed him were the Pop paintings of comic strip characters and newspaper advertisements that Warhol had displayed in the window of Bonwit Teller in April 1961. Hopps also recalled being shown an unstretched canvas of a work “that has since disappeared” of Superman flying through the air with Lois Lane in his arms. Although Hopps was “blown away” by Warhol’s work it wasn’t until the Soup Cans that an exhibition was arranged. (PK44)

Walter Hopps:

“At some point, we may have also seen, in Warhol’s studio, work in progress that included one of his first Campbell’s Soup cans. Blum was running Ferus Gallery, but I still had ownership stock and had stayed involved. I said to Warhol, ‘Absolutely, I want to take some of this work for a show in Los Angeles.’ Warhol, who had never been to California, answered with some excitement, ‘Oh, that’s where Hollywood is!’ In the sea of magazines and fanzines scattered on the floor, so deep it was hard to walk around, were all those Photoplay and old-fashioned glamour magazines out of the Hollywood publicity mill. So a show in L.A. sounded great to Warhol. He agreed, and thus the multiple-image soup can show came to Ferus in 1962. Warhol missed that first exhibition of his Pop images, but he finally made it to California in September 1963 for the opening of the Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and his own second Ferus show.” (PK44)

The now historic exhibition of Warhol’s 32 canvases of individual soup cans took place at the Ferus Gallery from July 9 – August 1, 1962. New Painting of Common Objects opened the following month at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). Hopps organized the New Painting show as curator for the museum .

Walter Hopps:

“By the time the Warhol show hit, I was working full time as curator and then director at the Pasadena Art Museum. I had started doing some shows there in 1960, never having thought of my future as being a gallery dealer. Somebody asked once why I did the gallery work and it was like when Max Ernst was asked why he painted. He replied, ‘So, I have something I like to look at.’ In a way, I did the gallery work because the art that the California artists and I wanted to look at, we couldn’t see in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, early 1960s.” (PK48/9)

The New Painting exhibition featured 8 artists each of whom were represented by three works. Warhol’s contribution was Campbell’s Cream of Chicken, Campbell’s Pepper Pot and Green Stamps. The exhibition catalogue consisted of mimeographed pages contributed by the artists. The show’s poster was designed by Ed Ruscha – by telephone.

Walter Hopps:

“… we couldn’t afford a full catalogue, so instead we created a special portfolio – copies are rare now. What I was able to do – we didn’t have photocopiers or fax machines in those days – was crank out a checklist and my gallery notes by hand from a mimeograph stencil. Then I got every artist in the show to do a page as a stencil, and we ran off these line drawings. We put the whole package in a white envelope with a gummed label, red on white. I had a rubber stamp made that I stamped on the label in blue ink: New Painting of Common Objects. Edward Rusha designed the poster by calling up a commercial printer who made posters for concerts and boxing matches. Ruscha dictated all the copy over the phone, and his only directions on the type and style were to ‘make it loud!’ The poster came back with bold red and black type on a bright yellow background. Our limited budget dictated the portfolio and poster, though the off-the-shelf look fit right in with the show’s aesthetics.” (PK45)

In an art world still suffering withdrawal pains from Abstract Expressionism, the critical reaction to the show was mixed. It wasn’t until Pop was embraced in the general press that it was accepted by many old school art-tellectuals.

Jules Langsner [Art International, September 1962]:

“This critic finds himself in the unfamiliar (and vaguely uneasy) position of being cantankerously at odds with a serious effort to fashion a new mode of vision in the pictorial arts. That effort is the attempt to invest commonplace objects with a hitherto unsuspected significance, usually in painting with a straightforward presentation, on a magnified scale of things characteristic of our machine way of life. To be sure, this tendency, variously described as New Social Realism, Common Object Painting, and Commonism, currently is receiving the endorsement of the more zealous enthusiasts of “Pop” Culture as well as the shrill acclaim of the more chic circles of the art world… The Pasadena Art Museum’s current exhibition – New Painting of Common Objects – has brought this emerging tendency into sharp focus… A can of Campbell Soup by Andy Warhol, or a Travel Check by Dowd, initially rivets the viewer’s attention by the simple expedient of removing the mundane object from its ordinary surroundings and enormously increasing its scale. The initial shock, however, wears off in a matter of seconds, leaving one as bored with the painting as with the object it presents.” (PC33)

Walter Hopps:

“Langsner championed abstract art. He literally coined the term ‘hard-edge painting’ to describe the refined geometric renderings of John McLaughlin, for example – I will give him credit for that. He also wrote the first positive reviews of the young Abstract Expressionists in California such as Craig Kauffman.” (PK46)

The following year, Hopps organized the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Warhol, who was in Los Angeles to see his second show at the Ferus (the Elvis paintings), also attended the opening party of the Duchamp exhibition. It was during that trip that Warhol filmed Elvis at Ferus and shot footage for Tarzan and Jane Regained…. Sort of.

Andy Warhol:

“Marcel Duchamp was having a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum and we were invited to that opening… I talked a lot to Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, who were great, and Taylor [Mead] danced all night with Patty Oldenburg – she and Claes had been living in California for a year ‘to get the feel of a new environment,’ she said, so they could send back a ‘bedroom’ for a group exhibit at the Sidney Janis Gallery in early ’64… They served pink champagne at the party, which tasted so good that I made the mistake of drinking a lot of it, and on the way home we had to pull over to the side of the road so I could throw up on the flora and fauna. In California, in the cool night air, you even felt healthy when you puked – it was so different from New York.” (POP43)

Two years after joining the Pasadena Art Museum as a curator, Hopps was promoted to director of the Museum at the age of 31 – making him the youngest director of a museum in the U.S. at the time. (AI) Other exhibitions that he presented there included the first Joseph Cornell retrospective and the first American retrospective of Kurt Schwitters. (MP) He left the museum in 1967 to become the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where he remained until 1972. From 1972 – 1979 he was the curator of 20th Century American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum where he organized the mid-career retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg during the American bicentennial in 1976. (PG)

Hopps’ success as a curator was exceptional for someone without a college degree. Although he attended various universities he never earned a degree. His unorthodox approach to his curatorial duties generally endeared him to artists and his staff although he was reportedly fired from the Corcoran because of the hours he kept – or didn’t keep. According to one account of his days there, he was fired “because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behaviour.” (WPL) James T. Demetrion, who worked as a curator for Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum, recalled Hopps hanging a Jasper Johns exhibit the night before it opened: “He said he’d show up at 9 pm, though, of course he didn’t. He strolled in after midnight, and we were there all night. Still, the show looked great.” (WPR) Hopps’ boss at the Smithsonian, Joshua C. Taylor, sometimes remarked, “If I could find him, I’d fire him.” The staff at the Smithsonian produced a badge which ironically read, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.” He never was. (WPR)

In 1980 Hopps joined the Menil Foundation in Houston and became the Founding Director of The Menil Collection in 1987. He organized the Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s exhibition for The Menil Collection and in 1996 was responsible for the Edward Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following year he organized a survey of Rauschenberg’s work at the Guggenheim which traveled to several museums in the U.S. and Europe. In 2001 the Menil Foundation created a biannual award in his name – the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement – and he also became Adjunct Senior Curator of Twentieth Century Art at the Guggenheim. In 2003 he organized the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim with co-curator Sarah Bancroft.

In addition to his curatorial work, Hopps also served as the art director for Grand Street, a New York literary and arts magazine edited by Jean Stein, the author of Edie: American Girl. Warhol stars Gerard Malanga and Brigid Berlin were both contributors to the magazine. Issue no. 55 included reproductions from Brigid’s Cock Book and an article about Brigid by Anne Doran; issue no. 68 featured a piece written by Brigid on sweets; and issue no. 63 included Gerard Malanga’s poem, Leaving New York.

Hopps’ life was celebrated at two memorial events – one at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on May 3, 2005 and another at The Menil Collection in Houston on May 17th. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Huber, of Houston.

gary c.
Warholstars 2005

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Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern, Is Dead

By ROBERTA SMITH Published: March 23, 2005

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Walter Hopps, left, with the sculptor John Chamberlain in 2003.

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Walter Hopps, a leading curator of 20th-century art and founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 72 and lived in Houston and Los Angeles. The cause was pneumonia, a spokesman for the Menil Collection said. In the museum world, Mr. Hopps was famous for groundbreaking exhibitions, inspired installations and an empathy with living artists, many of whom he helped push to the forefront of the art world, including Ed Ruscha and Edward Kienholz. His career coincided with the coming of age of postwar American art and contributed significantly to the emergence of the museum as a place to show new art. His exhibitions included the first American retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, and the first museum survey of American Pop Art, all organized at the Pasadena Art Museum, where he worked as a curator and then as director from 1959 to 1967. He also organized the first midcareer survey of the work of Robert Rauschenberg (in 1976 at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and in 1997 organized an exhibition of Mr. Rauschenberg’s early work at the Menil that traveled to four other American museums. He once likened installing exhibitions to conducting a symphony orchestra. Mr. Hopps was born in Los Angeles in 1933 into a family of doctors. His aptitude for science and math was sidelined by a chance visit to the formidable modern art collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg, with whom he became close. While he was still in his teens and was studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. Hopps and two other friends opened the Syndell Studio, a free-form exhibition space in which they gave one-person shows to Craig Kauffman and Kienholz. In 1957, with Kienholz, he opened the Ferus Gallery, which became a crucial force in the Los Angeles art scene and showed the work of a new generation of artists, including Mr. Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. Mr. Hopps also began organizing exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum two years later and joined the staff in 1962. He served as United States commissioner for the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1965 and the Venice Biennale in 1972. In 1980 he began working for Dominique de Menil, the visionary Houston collector, who wanted to build a museum for the extraordinary collection of modern, ancient, African and Byzantine art that she and her late husband, John, had assembled. Mr. Hopps helped select the architect Renzo Piano to design it and, according to a 1991 profile in The New Yorker by Calvin Tomkins, requested flexible galleries “where you can turn daylight on and off.” Mr. Piano complied with an innovative system of roof shutters and a design that over all is among the most admired museum buildings in the world. Mr. Hopps was director of the Menil for two years after it opened in 1987 and then became its curator of 20th-century art. At the Menil, his exhibitions included a retrospective of the French artist Yves Klein as well as exhibitions of the work of John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. He organized a Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996; a second Rauschenberg retrospective (with Susan Davidson) at the Guggenheim Museum and the Menil in 1997; and a James Rosenquist retrospective (with Sarah Bancroft) at the Guggenheim in 2003. In 2001, the Menil established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, with a cash prize of $15,000. Throughout much of his career Mr. Hopps was also known for his eccentric work habits, his mysterious disappearances and an autocratic manner that caused conflicts with museum boards, even while his curatorial imagination inspired fierce loyalty in many of his colleagues. But detractors and admirers alike agreed that the quality of his curatorial work rarely faltered. Mr. Hopps’s first marriage, to Shirley Neilsen, ended in divorce, as did a brief second marriage. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Huber, whom he married in 1983; and his brother, Harvey Hopps of Amarillo, Tex.

== http://www.egglestontrust.com/hasselblad_hopps.html Eggleston’s World by Walter Hopps ‘I think of them as parts of a novel I’m doing.’ These were the first words William Eggleston uttered when I asked what he felt he was accomplishing with his photographs. Another fine photographer from the South, William Christenberry, had brought Eggleston to meet me at the Corcoran Gallery of Art around 1970. The three of us had looked through a box of Eggleston’s 8 x 10 chromogenic coupler prints in silence. By the time I went through the prints a second time, I believed them to be the finest work in color photography I’d seen. In 1974 while serving at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, I was planning an exhibition of Eggleston’s work which would have been that institution’s first exhibit of photography as fine art. When I learned that John Szarkowski, the distinguished curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York wanted to make the first museum presentation, I deferred my plan. To accompany the exhibition, Szarkowski edited a selection of Eggleston’s color photographs, largely people and places in the Mississippi delta published as Eggleston’s Guide. His essay, the first important text addressing Eggleston’s work and to this day perhaps the best, emphasized in a positive light the way Eggleston made his seemingly documentary photographs carry the enriched reverberations of fiction. Eggleston’s color is always naturalistic. If the color print seems lurid, that’s the way the subject was found. Calm, subtle, uncolorful subjects are photographed in just this way. Nonetheless, the subjects would mean far less if they were presented in black and white. However, over the years Eggleston has done bodies of work in black and white photography and videotape. With each shift in medium, the kinds of compositions and nature of the images somehow changes to fit his vision. Eggleston’s home is Memphis, Tennessee, on the northern edge of the Mississippi delta. The places, parts and people of the region comprise the center of Eggleston’s world just as they had for the great American novelist William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi in the eastern part of the delta. Both of these men have had the ability to imbue seemingly modest subject with extraordinary moral weight and dignity. Over the past forty years Eggleston has exposed an enormous amount of film for someone who does not work on assignment. Perhaps his only contemporary, Gary Winogrand is as comparably prolific. Eggleston’s editing process is rigorous. To date, a relatively small portion of his finest work has been exhibited and published. Eggleston, working with Caldecot Chubb, has chosen original prints to be presented in four bound books and five unbound portfolios. In 1991 the Barbican Art Gallery in London staged the most recent important survey of Eggleston’s photographs: William Eggleston: Ancient and Modern. In the introduction, Mark Holborn concludes: ‘His prodigious output has barely been seen, yet he is only in mid-stride. He continues to cut to the heart of the ordinary, probing at those things which constitute tangible dimensions, like some concrete explorer. Or, as a great exotic, he can be in the kitchen or in Zanzibar, staring at the dirt by his boot or looking up at the sky. – Walter Hopps ====== BROOKLYN RAIL

The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps

What Is a Curator?Under the Roman Empire the title of curator (“caretaker”) was given to officials in charge of various departments of public works: sanitation, transportation, policing. The curatores annonae were in charge of the public supplies of oil and corn. The curatores regionum were responsible for maintaining order in the 14 regions of Rome. And the curatores aquarum took care of the aqueducts. In the Middle Ages, the role of the curator shifted to the ecclesiastical, as clergy having a spiritual cure or charge. So one could say that the split within curating—between the management and control of public works (law) and the cure of souls (faith)—was there from the beginning. Curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest. That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, Commodity, the bias of the world—
—Shakespeare, King John1

Portrait of Harald Szeemann. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

For better or worse, curators of contemporary art have become, especially in the last 10 years, the principal representatives of some of our most persistent questions and confusions about the social role of art. Is art a force for change and renewal, or is it a commodity for advantage or convenience? Is art a radical activity, undermining social conventions, or is it a diverting entertainment for the wealthy? Are artists the antennae of the human race, or are they spoiled children with delusions of grandeur (in Roman law, a curator could also be the appointed caretaker or guardian of a minor or lunatic)? Are art exhibitions “spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organizing society,” or vehicles for cultural tourism and nationalistic propaganda? These splits, which reflect larger tears in the social fabric, certainly in the United States, complicate the changing role of curators of contemporary art, because curators mediate between art and its publics and are often forced to take “a curving and indirect course” between them. Teaching for the past five years at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I observed young curators confronting the practical demands and limitations of their profession armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything. Where did this image come from? When Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps died in February and March 2005, at age 72 and 71, respectively, it was impossible not to see this as the end of an era. They were two of the principal architects of the present approach to curating contemporary art, working over 50 years to transform the practice. When young curators imagine what’s possible, they are imagining (whether they know it or not) some version of Szeemann and Hopps. The trouble with taking these two as models of curatorial possibility is that both of them were sui generis: renegades who managed, through sheer force of will, extraordinary ability, brilliance, luck, and hard work, to make themselves indispensable, and thereby intermittently palatable, to the conservative institutions of the art world. Each came to these institutions early. When Szeemann was named head of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961, at age 28, he was the youngest ever to have been appointed to such a position in Europe, and when Hopps was made director of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1964, at age 31, he was then the youngest art museum director in the United States. By that time, Hopps (who never earned a college degree) had already mounted a show of paintings by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and many others on a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier (with his first wife, Shirley Hopps, when he was 22); started and run two galleries (Syndell Studios and the seminal Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz); and curated the first museum shows of Frank Stella’s paintings and Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the first U.S. retrospective of Kurt Schwitters, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art, and the first solo museum exhibition of Marcel Duchamp, in Pasadena in 1963. And that was just the beginning. Near the end of his life, Hopps estimated that he’d organized 250 exhibitions in his 50-year career. Szeemann’s early curatorial activities were no less prodigious. He made his first exhibition, Painters Poets/ Poets Painters, a tribute to Hugo Ball, in 1957, at age 24. When he became the director of the Kunsthalle in Bern four years later, he completely transformed that institution, mounting nearly 12 exhibitions a year, culminating in the landmark show Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969, exhibiting works by 70 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman, among many others. While producing critically acclaimed and historically important exhibitions, both Hopps and Szeemann quickly came into conflict with their respective institutions. After four years at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps was asked to resign. He was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1970, then fired two years later. For his part, stunned by the negative reaction to When Attitudes Become Form from the Kunsthalle Bern, Harald Szeemann quit his job, becoming the first “independent curator.” He set up the Agency for Spiritual Guestwork and co-founded the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) in 1969, curated Happenings & Fluxus at the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, and became the first artistic director of Documenta in 1972, reconceiving it as a 100-day event. Szeemann and Hopps hadn’t yet turned 40, and their best shows were all ahead of them. For Szeemann, these included Junggesellenmaschinen—Les Machines célibataires (“Bachelor Machines”) in 1975-77, Monte Veritá (1978, 1983, 1987), the first Aperto at the Venice Biennale (with Achille Bonito Oliva, 1980), Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, Europaïsche Utopien seit 1800 (“The Quest for the Total Work of Art”) in 1983-84, Visionary Switzerland in 1991, the Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1993, Austria in a Lacework of Roses in 1996, and the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. For Hopps, yet to come were exhibitions of Diane Arbus in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the Robert Rauschenberg mid-career survey in 1976, retrospectives at the Menil Collection of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst, and exhibitions of Jay DeFeo (1990), Ed Kienholz (1996 at the Whitney), Rauschenberg again (1998), and James Rosenquist (2003 at the Guggenheim). Both Szeemann and Hopps had exhibitions open when they died—Szeemann’s Visionary Belgium, for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Hopps’s George Herms retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum—and both had plans for many more exhibitions in the future. What Do Curators Do? Szeemann and Hopps were the Cosmas and Damian (or the Beuys and Duchamp) of contemporary curatorial practice. Rather than accepting things as they found them, they changed the way things were done. But finally, they will be remembered for only one thing: the quality of the exhibitions they made; for that is what curators do, after all. Szeemann often said he preferred the simple title of Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition-maker), but he acknowledged at the same time how many different functions this one job comprised: “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat.” I have heard curators characterized at different times as: Administrators Advocates Auteurs Bricoleurs (Hopps’ last show, the Herms retrospective, was titled “The Bricoleur of Broken Dreams. . . One More Once”) Brokers Bureaucrats Cartographers (Ivo Mesquita) Catalysts (Hans Ulrich Obrist) Collaborators Cultural impresarios Cultural nomads Diplomats (When Bill Lieberman, who held top curatorial posts at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died in May 2005, Artnews described him as “the consummate art diplomat”) And that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. When Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Walter Hopps to name important predecessors, the first one he came up with was Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “for his unrelenting rigor.” He continued, “Fine curating of an artist’s work—that is, presenting it in an exhibition—requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work that a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibition. . . . To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand. It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always tried to get as peaceful and calm as possible.”3 But around this calm and peaceful center raged the “controlled chaos” of exhibition making. Hopps’ real skills included an encyclopedic visual memory, the ability to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that made them sing,4 the personal charm to get people to do things for him, and an extraordinary ability to look at a work of art and then account for his experience of it, and articulate this account to others in a compelling and convincing way. It is significant, I think, that neither Szeemann nor Hopps considered himself a writer, but both recognized and valued good writing, and solicited and “curated” writers and critics as well as artists into their exhibitions and publications. Even so, many have observed that the rise of the independent curator has occurred at the expense of the independent critic. In a recent article titled “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” Mark Spiegler opined that “on the day in 1969 when Harald Szeemann went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turned against criticism.”5 There are curators who can also write criticism, but these precious few are exceptions that prove the rule. Curators are not specialists, but for some reason they feel the need to use a specialized language, appropriated from philosophy or psychoanalysis, which too often obscures rather than reveals their sources and ideas. The result is not criticism, but curatorial rhetoric. Criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, while the inflationary writing of curatorial rhetoric is used to obscure fine distinctions with vague generalities. The latter’s displacement of the former has a political dimension as we move into an increasingly managed, post-critical environment. Although Szeemann and Hopps were very different in many ways, they shared certain fundamental values: an understanding of the importance of remaining independent of institutional prejudices and arbitrary power arrangements; a keen sense of history; the willingness to continually take risks intellectually, aesthetically, and conceptually; and an inexhaustible curiosity about and respect for the way artists work.

Portrait of Walter Hopps. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

Szeemann’s break away from the institution of the Kunsthalle was, simply put, “a rebellion aimed at having more freedom.”6 This rebellious act put him closer to the ethos of artists and writers, where authority cannot be bestowed or taken, but must be earned through the quality of one’s work. In his collaborations with artists, power relations were negotiated in practice rather than asserted as fiat. Every mature artist I know has a favorite horror story about a young, inexperienced curator trying to claim an authority they haven’t earned by manipulating a seasoned artist’s work or by designing exhibitions in which individual artists’ works are seen as secondary and subservient to the curator’s grand plan or theme. The cure for this kind of insecure hubris is experience, but also the recognition of the ultimate contingency of the curatorial process. As Dave Hickey said of both critics and curators, “Somebody has to do something before we can do anything.”7 In June of 2000, after being at the pinnacle of curatorial power repeatedly for over 40 years, Harald Szeemann said, “Frankly, if you insist on power, then you keep going on in this way. But you must throw the power away after each experience, otherwise it’s not renewing. I’ve done a lot of shows, but if the next one is not an adventure, it’s not important for me and I refuse to do it.”8 When contemporary curators, following in the steps of Szeemann, break free from institutions, they sometimes lose their sense of history in the process. Whatever their shortcomings, institutions do have a sense (sometimes a surfeit) of history. And without history, “the new” becomes a trap, a sequential recapitulation of past approaches with no forward movement. It is a terrible thing to be perpetually stuck in the present, and this is a major occupational hazard for curators. Speaking about his curating of the Seville Biennale in 2004, Szeemann said, “It’s not about presenting the best there is, but about discovering where the unpredictable path of art will go in the immanent future.” But moving the ball up the field requires a tremendous amount of legwork. “The unpredictable path of art” becomes much less so when curators rely on the Claude Rains method, rounding up the usual suspects from the same well-worn list of artists that everyone else in the world is using. It is difficult, in retrospect, to fully appreciate the risks that both Szeemann and Hopps took to change the way curators worked. One should never underestimate the value of a monthly paycheck. By giving up a secure position as director of a stable art institution and striking out on his own as an “independent curator,” Szeemann was assuring himself years of penury. There was certainly no assurance that anyone would hire him as a freelance. Anyone who’s chosen this path knows that freelance means never having to say you’re solvent. Being freelance as a writer and critic is one thing: The tools of the trade are relatively inexpensive, and one need only make a living. But making exhibitions is costly and finding “independent” money, money without onerous strings attached to it, is especially difficult when one cannot, in good conscience, present it as an “investment opportunity.” Daniel Birnbaum points out that “all the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship and branding in contemporary art today are fully articulated in [‘When Attitudes Become Form’]. Remarkably, according to Szeemann, the exhibition came about only because ‘people from Philip Morris and the PR firm Ruder Finn came to Bern and asked me if I would do a show of my own. They offered me money and total freedom.’ Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue seems uncanny in its prescience: ‘As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are committed to support the experimental,’ writes John A. Murphy, the company’s European president, asserting that his company experimented with ‘new methods and materials’ in a way fully comparable to the Conceptual artists in the exhibition. (And yet, showing the other side of this corporate-funding equation, it was a while before the company supported the arts in Europe again, perhaps needing time to recover from all the negative press surrounding the event.)”9 So the founding act of “independent curating” was brought to you by . . . Philip Morris! 33 years later, for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02, Szeemann designed a pavilion covered with sheets of gold, containing a system of pneumatic tubes and a machine that destroyed money—two 100 franc notes every minute during the 159 days of the exhibition. The sponsor? The Swiss National Bank, of course. When Walter Hopps brought the avant-garde to Southern California, he didn’t have to compete with others to secure the works of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, or Jay DeFeo (for the merry-go-round show in 1953), because no one else wanted them. In his Hopps obituary, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight pointed out that “just a few years after Hopps’s first visit to the [Arensbergs’] collection, the [Los Angeles] City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.”10 In 50 years, we’ve progressed from banning art as Communist propaganda to prosecuting artists as terrorists.11 The Few and Far Between It’s not that fast horses are rare, but men who know enough to spot them
are few and far between.
—Han Yü12 The trait that Szeemann and Hopps had most in common was their respect for and understanding of artists. They never lost sight of the fact that their principal job was to take what they found in artists’ works and do whatever it took to present it in the strongest possible way to an interested public. Sometimes this meant combining it with other work that enhanced or extended it. This was done not to show the artists anything they didn’t already know, but to show the public. As Lawrence Weiner pointed out in an interview in 1994, “Everybody that was in the Attitudes show knew all about the work of everybody else in the Attitudes show. They wouldn’t have known them personally, but they knew all the work. . . . Most artists on both sides of the Atlantic knew what was being done. European artists had been coming to New York and U.S. artists went over there.”13 But Attitudes brought it all together in a way that made a difference. Both Szeemann and Hopps felt most at home with artists, sometimes literally. Carolee Schneemann recently described for me the scene in the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, when she and her collaborator in “Happenings and Fluxus” (having arrived and discovered there was no money for lodging) moved into their installations, and Szeemann thought it such a good idea to sleep on site that he brought in a cot and slept in the museum himself, to the outrage of the guards and staff. Both Szeemann and Hopps reserved their harshest criticism for the various bureaucracies that got between them and the artists. Hopps once described working for bureaucrats when he was a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts as “like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal.”14 And Szeemann said in 2001 that “the annoying thing about such bureaucratic organizations as the [Venice] Biennale is that there are a lot of people running around who hate artists because they keep running around wanting to change everything.”15 Changing everything, for Szeemann, was just the point. “Artists, like curators, work on their own,” he said in 2000, “grappling with their attempt to make a world in which to survive. . . . We are lonely people, faced with superficial politicians, with donors, sponsors, and one must deal with all of this. I think it is here where the artist finds a way to form his own world and live his obsessions. For me, this is the real society.”16 The society of the obsessed. Where Do We Go from Here? Although Walter Hopps was an early commissioner for the São Paolo Biennal (1965: Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Richard Irwin and Larry Poons) and of the Venice Biennale (1972: Diane Arbus), Harald Szeemann practically invented the role of nomadic independent curator of huge international shows, putting his indelible stamp on Documenta and Venice and organizing the Lyon Biennale and the Kwangju Biennial in Korea in 1997, and the first Seville Biennale in 2004, as well as numerous other international surveys around the world. So what Szeemann said about globalization and art should perhaps be taken seriously. He saw globalization as a euphemism for imperialism, and proclaimed that “globalization is the great enemy of art.” And in the Carolee Thea interview in 2000, he said, “Globalization is perfect if it brings more justice and equality to the world . . . but it doesn’t. Artists dream of using computers or digital means to have contact and to bring continents closer. But once you have the information, it’s up to you what to do with it. Globalization without roots is meaningless in art.”17 And globalization of the curatorial class can be a way to avoid or “transcend” the political. Rene Dubos’s old directive to “think globally, but act locally” (first given at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972) has been upended in some recent international shows (like the 14th Sydney Biennale in 2004, and the 1st Moscow Biennial in 2005). When one thinks locally (within a primarily Euro-American cultural framework, or within a New York-London-Kassel-Venice-Basel-Los Angeles-Miami framework) but acts globally, the results are bound to be problematic, and can be disastrous. In 1979, Dubos argued for an ecologically sustainable world in which “natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications.” At their best, the big international exhibitions do contribute to this. Okwui Enwezor’s18 Documenta XI certainly did, and Szeemann knew it. At their worst, they perpetuate the center-to-periphery hegemony and preclude real cross-cultural communication and change. Although having artists and writers move around in the world is an obvious good, real cultural exchange is something that must be nurtured. Walter Hopps said in 1996: “I really believe in—and, obviously, hope for—radical, or arbitrary, presentations, where cross-cultural and cross-temporal considerations are extreme, out of all the artifacts we have. . . . So just in terms of people’s priorities, conventional hierarchies begin to shift some.”19 The Silence of Szeemann & Hopps Is Overrated ‘Art’ is any human activity that aims at producing improbable situations, and it is the more artful (artistic) the less probable the situation that it produces. —Vilém Flusser20 Harald Szeemann recognized early and long appreciated the utopian aspects of art. “The often-evoked ‘autonomy’ is just as much a fruit of subjective evaluation as the ideal society: it remains a utopia while it informs the desire to experientially visualize the unio mystica of opposites in space. Which is to say that without seeing, there is nothing visionary, but that the visionary should always determine the seeing.” And he recognized that the bureaucrat could overtake the curer of souls at any point. “Otherwise, we might just as well return to ‘hanging and placing,’ and divide the entire process ‘from the vision to the nail’ into detailed little tasks again.”21 He organized exhibitions in which the improbable could occur, and was willing to risk the impossible. In reply to a charge that the social utopianism of Joseph Beuys was never realized, Szeemann said, “The nice thing about utopias is precisely that they fail. For me, failure is a poetic dimension of art.”22 Curating a show in which nothing could fail was, to Szeemann, a waste of time. If he and Hopps could still encourage young curators in anything, I suspect it would be to take greater risks in their work. At a time when all parts of the social and political spheres (including art institutions) are increasingly managed, breaking out of this frame, asking significant questions, and setting the terms of resistance is more and more vitally important. It is important to work against the bias of the world (commodity, political expediency). For curators of contemporary art, that means finding and supporting those artists who, as Flusser writes, “have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”23 This essay will be included in the forthcoming Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating
Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, published by Apex Art. It will be available by January 2007. Endnotes 1 Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, Act II, Scene 1, 573-74. Cowper: “What Shakespeare calls commodity, and we call political expediency.” Appendix 13 of my old edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, edited by G. B. Harrison (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 1639-40, reads: “Shakespeare frequently used poetic imagery taken from the game of bowls [bowling]. . . . The bowl [bowling ball] was not a perfect sphere, but so made that one side somewhat protruded. This protrusion was called the bias; it caused the bowl to take a curving and indirect course.” 2 “When Attitude Becomes Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann,” Artforum, Summer 2005, p. 55. 3 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews, Volume I, edited by Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), pp. 416-17. Hopps also named as predecessors exhibition-makers Katherine Dreier, Alfred Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, René d’Harnoncourt, and Jermayne MacAgy. 4 In 1976, at the Museum of Temporary Art in Washington, D.C., Hopps announced that, for thirty-six hours, he would hang anything anyone brought in, as long as it would fit through the door. Later, he proposed to put 100,000 images up on the walls of P.S. 1 in New York, but that project was, sadly, never realized. 5 Mark Spiegler, “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” The Art Newspaper, no. 157, April 2005, p. 32. 6 Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators (New York: Apex Art Curatorial Program, 2001), p. 19. 7 Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility: Proceedings from a symposium addressing the state of current curatorial practice organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, October 14-15, 2000, edited by Paula Marincola (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), p. 128. Both Szeemann and Hopps passed Hickey’s test: “The curator’s job, in my view,” he said, “is to tell the truth, to show her or his hand, and get out of the way” (p. 126). 8 Carolee Thea, p. 19 (emphasis added). 9 Daniel Birnbaum, p. 58. 10 Christopher Knight, “Walter Hopps, 1932-2005. Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2005. 11At this writing, the U.S. government continues in its effort to prosecute artist Steven Kurtz for obtaining bacterial agents through the mail, even though the agents were harmless and intended for use in art pieces by the collaborative Critical Art Ensemble. Kurtz has said he believes the charges filed against him in 2004 (after agents from the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Depeartment of Defence swarmed over his house) are part of a Bush administration campaign to prevent artists from protesting government policies. “I think we’re in a very unfortunate moment now in U.S. history,” Kurtz has said. “A form of neo-McCarthyism has made a comeback. . . . We’re going to see a whole host of politically motivated trials which have nothing to do with crime but everything to do with artistic expression.” For the latest developments in the case, go to caedefensefund.org. 12 Epigraph to Nathan Sivin’s Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968). 13 Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968-2003, edited by Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004), p. 315. 14 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps—Art Curator,” Artforum, February 1996. 15 Jan Winkelman, “Failure as a Poetic Dimension: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann,” Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over Hedendaagse Kunst, No. 3, June 2001. 16 Carolee Thea, p. 17 (emphasis added). 17 Carolee Thea, p. 18. 18 With his co-curators Carlos Basualdo, Uta Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya. 19 Hans Ulrich Obrist, p. 430. 20 Vilém Flusser, “Habit: The True Aesthetic Criterion,” in Writings, edited by Andreas Ströhl, translated by Erik Eisel (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 52. 21 Harald Szeemann, “Does Art Need Directors?” in Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, edited by Carin Kuoni (New York: Independent Curators International, 2001), p. 169. 22 Jan Winkelman. 23 Flusser, p. 54.

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Frieze Fair New York 2015: Images, Reports and reviews + Satellites

 

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 THE DAILY BEAST /LILLIE CROCKER
Frieze Art Fair in New York City
Price Point05.16.156:55 AM ET
Welcome To Frieze, The Art Fair That Drives The Rich Insane
The wealthy and well-dressed flock to Frieze, New York’s most glamorous contemporary art fair. But do they know, or care, what they are buying?

The annual Frieze New York art fair is generously stocked with women in their 50s and 60s, shouting out three figure prices and authoritatively mispronouncing artists’ names.

They mill around the tent on opening day, buzzing and squawking at the thrill of spending their husbands’ money.

Dressed in their finest, their faces nipped and stretched taut like a snare drum, they look more labored over than most of the art on display.

“I love this. How much? Around $60K?” one woman shrilly asks a gallery attendant, eyeing an aluminum sculpture by a Danish art collective. The attendant quietly and politely corrects her: $100K.

“In New York people steal everything,” the prospective buyer remarks half-heartedly, seeking reassurance about her purchase. “They’re not going to steal this,” the attendant promises, securing a sale.

It’s a Kobuki dance I’ll witness again and again at Frieze. Indeed, there’s an amusing tension between the unbearably pretentious art world natives and the Real Housewives, who don’t speak the language of art.

They point at works on display like children in a toy store, referring to artists’ methods and materials as “this” and “that.” These clueless collectors have democratized art fairs, where there are fewer snobby intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals.

But then they would never be allowed in without oversized Birkin bags.

In a clear indication that Frieze knows its audience, the fair is distributing free copies of the Financial Times. The booths themselves are prohibitively pricey: $815 per square meter.

At the Parisian gallery Mon Charpentier, installed in one of the fair’s smaller, peripheral booths, a young foreign woman is assured that she’s looking at a “very, very important piece.”

The buyer cares less about its cultural significance than she does about how it will look in her living room. “Can it be built on site?” she asks.

But she cares less about its cultural significance than she does about how it will look in her living room. “Can it be built on site?” she asks.

Meanwhile, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise—one of the larger booths and more well-known galleries—artist Jonathan Horowitz was commissioning Frieze visitors to participate in his work, 700 Dots.

Fair attendees are asked to paint a black circle eight inches in diameter on a 12-by-12 inch white canvas, instructed on their technique and told to spend at least 30 minutes on their masterpiece. Each square is then mounted on the wall in groupings of 100, priced at $100,000.

Participants are paid a $20 profit, but their black dot is worth $10,000.

When I pressed Brown about the artist’s vision, he mumbled that Horowitz was “exploring a way to make a painting,” and that each dot is a “self-portrait.”

“High art is labor,” he adds, begrudgingly. “And here he has distilled a painting down to its elemental particles. Despite the very straightforward, reductive template, each one is unique. “Inevitably, when you ask someone to make a perfect geometric circle, it’s not going to be perfect.”

By Thursday afternoon, they had already sold three or four groupings, Brown told me.

Collectors are quite literally paying for the Frieze 2015 experience. But in contemporary art, the concept is never as impressive as the Gavin Browns of the world make it out to be.

It’s the interactive art that draws the most attention at Frieze, along with the most shocking, the largest in scale, and the most of-its-time. Gagosian reserved its entire booth for Richard Prince’s uninspiring, $90,000-a-piece New Portraits—blown-up ink on paper screenshots of other people’s Instagram posts that he has commented on.

Gallery owners like Gavin Brown, aloof and enigmatic, are sought after by both artists and collectors.

In the contemporary art world, there is no benchmark for what’s “good.” There is only a social structure, an attitude, that determines which works and names are most valuable. And, of course, all that taut skin, decoratively clothed, pointing at “this” and “that”—the women knowing not what they want, but that they want something. They’re shopping, after all.

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LUXURY

  • GIUSEPPE PENONE, Verde del bosco, 1986

    Picture: Marian Goodman
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Frieze New York 2015: old, new and some participation too

Frieze New York has come of age with some heavy-hitting, historical art; without losing its contemporary and participative roots, says Louisa Buck

By Louisa Buck

May 15, 2015 18:01
Richard Prince instagram picturesRichard Prince instagram pictures
Giuseppe Penone, Albero di 10 m, 1989 and Verde del bosco, 1986Giuseppe Penone, Albero di 10 m, 1989 and Verde del bosco, 1986
Emily Mortimer and the staff of Madrid gallery Travesia CuatroEmily Mortimer and the staff of Madrid gallery Travesia Cuatro
American artist Jonathan Horowitz asks Freize attendees to paint a freehand, eight-inch circleAmerican artist Jonathan Horowitz asks Freize attendees to paint a freehand, eight-inch circle

It is only in its fourth year but Frieze New York has already become a Big Apple fixture. Even the notoriously bridge-averse Manhattanites have stopped moaning about its rather remote (for them) location on Randalls Island between Harlem, the Bronx and Queens and everyone now agrees that the fair’s trademark long, curving, naturally lit tent is a triumph, showing off the 190 participating galleries to their best advantage. The fact that visitors are also serviced by pop-up versions of some of the city’s favourite eateries – from Dimes in Chinatown to Frankies Spuntino from Brooklyn – also helps.

And then there’s the art. Proof positive that the Frieze NY has come of age is the fact that, for the first time, New York heavy-hitters Pace Gallery, Matthew Marks and Acquavella have all deigned to take part, with the latter presenting a booth bedecked with top-notch Picassos. Overall, the fair feels lucid, elegant and considered, with more galleries putting on solo artist shows as well as an increasing tendency to enrich the mix by combining the contemporary with the historical. This can take the form of a clutch of Philip Guston paintings on the McKee Gallery stand, or Alison Jacques from London showing vintage feminist works by Lygia Clark, Hannah Wilke and the little-known Czech artist Maria Bartuszova alongside a pair of show-stopping surrealist paintings by Dorothea Tanning, the last wife of Max Ernst.

Embracing the past with the present has been actively encouraged by the fair itself. Harnessing the popularity of London’s Frieze Masters, Frieze NY has cannily inserted one of its mature sister fair’s most popular sections, Spotlight; in which galleries present a significant 20th century artist who is ripe for a new airing. Notable inclusions in this category are the octogenarian Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi – the first African artist to be given a retrospective at Tate Modern – showing his distinctive fusions of modernist abstraction and Arabic calligraphy on Vigo’s stand, and Carolee Schneemann: influential pioneer of bodily performances who has a classic New York action of 1966 documented in photos, drawings and film on the booth of Hales Gallery.

Another stand-out historical highlight is David Zwirner’s inspired pairing of recently-deceased sculptural maverick Franz West with Minimalist John McCracken. Also extraordinary is a solo show by Italian Arte Povera giant Giuseppe Penone, whose wall of fragrant dried bay leaves, along with tree-bark rubbings, tree trunk carvings and an astonishing billboard-sized graphite work based on his own wrinkled skin, all combine to transform Marian Goodman’s stand into an uncanny glade that is worth the trip to New York alone.

But Frieze New York is first and foremost a fair devoted to the contemporary, and this year finds even the most high-end galleries prepared to let their hair down and take some risks. Hauser & Wirth is hanging its costly wares on walls vividly roller-painted by Martin Creed in green, red and blue crosses and stripes; while Gagosian has an entire booth devoted to a procession of Richard Prince’s giant, vacuous prints of Instagram portraits, against which a constant stream of fair visitors are in turn busily Instagramming themselves.

Audience participation seems to be all the rage this year. In one of the fair’s bespoke art projects, Mexican artist Pia Camil persuades visitors to parade through the tent in her specially designed ponchos (which they can take home afterwards). A more restful site-specific project comes in the form of Bangkok-born artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s massage chairs, upholstered in his trademark tie-dyed denim, which are dotted throughout the fair, doling out gentle pummellings to prone and weary visitors. On the opening night even the celebs were put to work, with actress Emily Mortimer on the stand of Madrid gallery Travesia Cuatro handing out flowers from the exuberant sculptural ceramic containers of Mexican artist Melana Muzquiz.

But Gavin Brown took visitor involvement to a new level with all the art on his booth created in situ by the visiting public. Over the first two days of Frieze an eager throng of fairgoers were given a 12-inch square canvas and some black paint to carry out the task set by the American artist Jonathan Horowitz: painting a freehand, eight-inch circle (not as easy as it sounds) in return for a $20 cheque signed by the artist. Each piece then formed part of a collective grid of 700 black circles lining the booth; but what each batch of 100 was ultimately selling for the gallery would not disclose. It was certainly more than the $2,000 labour charge; although the individual cheques are already likely to be worth more uncashed as artworks in their own right.

This participatory tendency has been given official endorsement with the best booth prize for Frieze New York 2015 being awarded to Galeria Jaqueline Martins, a young gallery from Sao Paulo for its solo project by Martha Araujo entitled “Para un corpo nas suas impossibilidates” (For a body in its impossibilities). This involves intrepid Frieze visitors donning special jumpsuits patched with Velcro and then launching themselves onto a Velcro-covered skateboard ramp and attempting (but often unsuccessfully) to adhere. And who said that the art world was stuck up?

Frieze New York runs until Sunday 17 May

Frieze New York
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by Andrew Stefan Weiner

May 15, 2015

Frieze New York

FRIEZE ART FAIRNew YorkMay 14–17, 2015

Far above the North Atlantic, a plane is flying from Venice to New York. Most of the passengers in business class sleep comfortably in their lie-flat seats, but one stays awake sipping complimentary champagne. His voice barely audible above the jets’ white noise, he muses: “Is there even any difference between biennials and contemporary art fairs?” The knee-jerk answer to his question would be, Of course. Biennials are typically organized by curatorial teams who engage in protracted research to stage thematic arguments. Whereas they ask their visitors to look and think, art fairs tell them to buy, or at least window-shop. Venice notwithstanding, most biennials exist in relatively peripheral locations and often target non-art audiences, while fairs are built to serve the needs of the global 1 percent who comprise their clientele. But another, more pertinent answer might be, Less and less, or even, Was there ever? As the sociologist Olav Velthuis has shown, aesthetic and commercial modes of exhibition have been indissociable throughout the history of the Venice Biennale. For its first 70 years, the Biennale had a sales office that worked on commission. Following the protests of 1968, it adopted new practices that spawned what Velthuis has called “the Venice effect,”(1) wherein the putative independence of the Biennale comes to serve the needs of the market. The pretense of purity is often a smokescreen for covert business arrangements, even as it is belied by many artists’ dependence on dealers to finance their production costs. In a perverse but perfectly logical twist, the symbolic capital accrued by a biennial’s “autonomous” validation of an artist can readily be converted into increased exchange value.

More recently, the inverse of this dynamic has taken hold as prominent art fairs strive to resemble biennials. In what might be called “the Frieze effect,” fairs have increasingly incorporated discursive or participatory elements; they have also emphasized site-specific commissions and educational programs. The most obvious explanation for this shift is that it functions as a fig leaf, politely disguising the shameless promiscuity of the ever-tumescent contemporary art market. Yet as with biennials, the semblance of autonomy is a potent means of value production. Biennial-icity adds a veneer of intellectual sophistication, allowing work to be marketed as “critical.” It also allows a fair and its exhibitors to align their brands more strongly with the global contemporary, a now-ubiquitous category that invokes an abstract, near-empty universality. Given that this universality is in many ways indistinguishable from that of neoliberal capital, we might conceive of the global contemporary as a potent aesthetic ideology. Within this fantasmatic structure, the fair assuages its patrons’ fear of missing out even as it indulges their desire to discover (then flip) the next Oscar Murillo. The links between these imagined affinities and the conventions of pricing are at once indirect and indisputably real.

While the commercial success of Frieze New York is sometimes ascribed to the moribundity of its competition, it likely also derives from its canny application of the biennial formula. Though New York still fancies itself the center of the global art world, its connections to the biennial and fair circuit have been rather belated and indirect. Such conditions have surely increased the appeal of the Frieze brand, with its cosmopolitan, sophisticated connotations. The 2015 edition traded on this cachet by convening a team of international curators, a number of them with biennial experience. Not surprisingly, the majority of the fair’s more impressive offerings were in the stalls that had effectively been pre-curated. Shanghai’s Antenna Space exhibited a sharp suite of works by Liu Ding, “Karl Marx in 2013” (2014), one of which turned on the artist’s confrontation with Chinese tourists at Marx’s grave in London. Warsaw’s Le Guern Gallery showed compelling selections from C.T. Jasper’s photomontage series “In the Dust of the Stars” (2011). The Spotlight section, advised by Adriano Pedrosa, was a quiet revelation amidst the overweening vulgarity of the fair. Some of the artists shown there, like the marvelous Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, presented in London’s VIGO booth, have received major shows in Europe but remain largely unknown in the U.S. Others, like Geta Brătescu, whose drawings and collages were on view at Bucharest’s Ivan Gallery space, spoke to the formidable, largely uncharted range and depth of Eastern European conceptualisms. Such practices are still often treated as isolated curiosities despite their exposure to (and transformation of) Western models; one fascinating example of such an encounter was Natalia LL’s series of performance photos from 1977, “Natalia LL at LGBT Demonstration in New York,” shown by Warsaw’s lokal­_30.

Elsewhere, and despite its more high-minded aspirations, Frieze New York is largely a crass spectacle of predictably conspicuous consumption. Finance bros in Gucci loafers rubbed shoulders with fashionistas, fashion victims, and the occasional celebrity; walking through the fair was a numbing, enervating experience rather like speed-reading the ads in Artforum. It became clear that “the global,” at least in this context, is a site of massive structural imbalance, even if exhibitors tended to revert to a much more superficial conception of global contemporary art: oversized photos of airport runways; displays of time-zone clocks; countless map collages and globe sculptures. Prominent displays were given to veterans of the biennial circuit, like Isaac Julien and Yinka Shonibare MBE; the most affecting was Allora & Calzadilla’s Intervals (2014) at Paris’s Galerie Chantal Crousel, which refashioned transparent plastic lecterns into odd plinths for dinosaur bones. Numerous galleries seemed intent on selling NYC-themed art to international buyers; the most diligent of these was New York’s Skarstedt, with iconic works by Warhol, Sherman, Holzer, and Haring, any of them perfect for your new luxury Tribeca pied-à-terre. With a fittingly gargantuan display of Richard Prince’s obnoxious Instagram paintings, Gagosian ventured the depressing proposition that global is just a fancy word for “lowest common denominator.” In fact the overwhelming majority of exhibitors were from the North, with hardly any from the MENASA region, Africa, or the Pacific. Those from the center could choose, though few did, to showcase their cosmopolitanism, as with Berlin’s Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, which brought works by Slavs and Tatars, Guan Xiao, and Katja Novitskova. In contrast, it was as if the galleries from the periphery were expected to showcase their own difference in a kind of compulsory self-exoticization. Athens’s The Breeder was outfitted with carpets, columns, and Byzantine-esque icons for Andreas Angelidakis’s Crash Pad (2015). Madrid- and Guadalajara-based Travesia Cuatro set itself up as a kind of tropicalist flower shop by Milena Muzquiz, complete with gallerinas in matching floral dresses. The one exception to this tendency was Mumbai’s Project 88, with Sarnath Banerjee’s “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” a group of 36 drawings by that incisively satirized Western stereotypes of postcolonial provincialism.

The few exhibitors who tried to resist this pervasive tendency did so by combining historically and geographically specific work with analogous contemporary practices. Paris’s Galerie Frank Elbaz assembled a stellar showcase of art from the former Yugoslavia, with memorable contributions from Josip Vanista, Mladen Stilinović, and Julije Knifer. Bogota-based Casas Riegner showed subtle, thoughtful contributions by Carlos Rojas, Bernardo Ortiz, and Johanna Calle. Berlin’s Galerija Gregor Podnar paired terrific, seldom-seen 1970s work from Ion Grigorescu, Irma Blank, and Goran Petercol, with strong recent pieces by Tobias Putrih and Anne Neukamp.

I left the fair with the impression of a massive embarrassment of riches, in both senses. On the one hand, it was possible to see more good art in a few hours than in a typical season in Chelsea. On the other, it was impossible to ignore the glaring contradictions of its very existence. These were perfectly encapsulated in the fair’s site: a multimillion-dollar bespoke tent with multiple VIP sanctums, located next to Icahn Stadium (named after the 1980s pioneer of corporate raiding, leveraged buyouts, and “asset stripping”) and just across the river from the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in the U.S., where over 250,000 live in poverty. Inside this stylish white bubble, members of the global elite could be entertained by Amalia Pica, John Bock, and Geoffrey Hendricks’s reconstruction of George Maciunas’s Flux-Labyrinth (1976/2015), originally an attempt to develop an anti-capitalist aesthetics. Many eagerly lined up to participate in Wearing-watching (2015), a commissioned project by Pia Camil, in which they could don smocks modeled after Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés from the 1960s (first designed in conjunction with residents of Rio de Janeiro’s Mangueira favela). Upon leaving the bubble, visitors were whisked back to lower Manhattan by a private water taxi. With the South Bronx quietly receding from view, they were free to ask themselves whether they had just been to a fair or a biennial, when and where the next big event might be, and whether such questions were even worth worrying about.

(1) Olav Velthuis, “The Venice Effect,” The Art Newspaper Magazine (June 2011): 21-24.

Andrew Weiner is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU-Steinhardt.

View of Frieze New York, 2015.

1View of Frieze New York, 2015.

View of Antenna, Shanghai, at Frieze New York, 2015, with Liu Ding's “Karl Marx in 2013,” 2014.

2View of Antenna, Shanghai, at Frieze New York, 2015, with Liu Ding’s “Karl Marx in 2013,” 2014.

View of Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw at Frieze New York, 2015, with C.T. Jasper's "In the Dust of the Stars," 2011.

3View of Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw at Frieze New York, 2015, with C.T. Jasper’s “In the Dust of the Stars,” 2011.

View of Vigo Gallery, London at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Ibrahim el-Salahi.

4View of Vigo Gallery, London at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Ibrahim el-Salahi.

View Ivan Gallery, Bucharest at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Geta Brătescu.

5View Ivan Gallery, Bucharest at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Geta Brătescu.

Natalia LL, "Consumer Art" series, 1974.

6Natalia LL, “Consumer Art” series, 1974.

View Gagosian Gallery at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Richard Prince.

7View Gagosian Gallery at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Richard Prince.

View of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin at Frieze New York, 2015.

8View of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin at Frieze New York, 2015.

Andreas Angelidakis,  Crash Pad, 2015.

9Andreas Angelidakis, Crash Pad, 2015.

View of Travesía Cuatro at Frieze New York, 2015 with Milena Muzquiz's, Untitled, 2015.

10View of Travesía Cuatro at Frieze New York, 2015 with Milena Muzquiz’s, Untitled, 2015.

Sarnath Banerjee, “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” 2014.

11Sarnath Banerjee, “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” 2014.

Josip Vanista, "Déposition," 1986.

12Josip Vanista, “Déposition,” 1986.

Anne Neukamp, Untitled (Transfer #3), 2015.

13Anne Neukamp, Untitled (Transfer #3), 2015.

Geoffrey Hendricks, Upside Down Forest, 1975/2015.

14Geoffrey Hendricks, Upside Down Forest, 1975/2015.

Pia Camil, Wearing-watching, 2015.

15Pia Camil, Wearing-watching, 2015.

  • 1View of Frieze New York, 2015. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
  • 2View of Antenna, Shanghai, at Frieze New York, 2015, with Liu Ding’s “Karl Marx in 2013,” 2014. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
  • 3View of Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw at Frieze New York, 2015, with C.T. Jasper’s “In the Dust of the Stars,” 2011. 26 pairs of framed magazines, 80 x 56 cm each. Courtesy Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw.
  • 4View of Vigo Gallery, London at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Ibrahim el-Salahi. Courtesy of Vigo Gallery, London.
  • 5View Ivan Gallery, Bucharest at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Geta Brătescu. Courtesy of Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and the artist. Photo by Matt Grubb.
  • 6Natalia LL, “Consumer Art” series, 1974. Original color print, unique piece, 51 cm x 61.5 cm each. Courtesy of lokal_30, Warsaw.
  • 7View Gagosian Gallery at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Richard Prince. © Richard Prince. Photography by Robert McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
  • 8View of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin at Frieze New York, 2015. Left to right: Slavs and Tatars, Guan Xiao, and Katja Novitskova. Image courtesy of the artists and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. Photo by Matthew Boot.
  • 9Andreas Angelidakis, Crash Pad, 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of The Breeder, Athens.
  • 10View of Travesía Cuatro at Frieze New York, 2015, with Milena Muzquiz’s, Untitled, 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Travesia Cuatro, Madrid and Guadalajara.
  • 11Sarnath Banerjee, “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” 2014. Series of 36 drawings. Charcoal and pastel on A4 sheets, 8 x 11 inches each. Courtesy of Project 88, Mumbai.
  • 12Josip Vanista, “Déposition,” 1986. 12 black and white photographs on archival paper, 24 x 24 cm each. Edition of 3. Courtesy of galerie frank elbaz, Paris. Photo by Zarko Vijatovic.
  • 13Anne Neukamp, Untitled (Transfer #3), 2015. Acetone transfer on paper, 100 x 70 cm. Courtesy of Galerija Gregor Podnar, Berlin.
  • 14Geoffrey Hendricks, Upside Down Forest, 1975/2015. Tribute to George Maciunas’s Flux-Labyrinth (1976/2015), Frieze Projects, Frieze New York 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
  • 15Pia Camil, Wearing-watching, 2015. 800 pieces assembled and sown by hand, made from leftover fabrics or discards from local factories in Mexico City and distributed freely to fair visitors. Frieze Projects, Frieze New York 2015. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
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T MAGAZINE, NEW YORK TIMES

At NADA, a Fresh Crop of Young Talent

  • The Los Angeles-based M+B Gallery is among the spaces exhibiting at this year’s NADA fair, featuring photographic works by Mariah Robertson (left wall) and Phil Chang. Courtesy of M+B
  • “Salton Sea,” 2015, is one of several new photographic works by the artist Matthew Porter at the Invisible-Exports booth. Courtesy of Invisible-Exports
  • In conjunction with NADA’s opening, Daata Editions launched its web-based platform dedicated to the promotion of artists who work specifically with sound, video and the Internet. In addition, limited-edition works, such as Ilit Azoulay’s photographic still “Object #1,” pictured here, will be for sale. Courtesy of Daata Editions
  • For his space, the Cologne-based gallerist Berthold Pott chose to exhibit works by two artists, including Max Frintrop’s “Untitled (‘Seeworld’),” 2015. Courtesy of Berthold Pott
  • The triptych of paintings that make up Josh Reames’s installation at the Johannes Vogt Gallery booth.
  • The Berlin-based gallery Duve is exhibiting works by Maximilian Arnold, Vera Kox and Roman Liska.

With all the commotion of Frieze New York playing out uptown on Randall’s Island, it might be easy to overlook the action unfolding at the decidedly downtown New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair. Now in its fifth year, the New York arm of NADA (the other fair takes place in Miami) once again returns to Pier 36, exhibiting 100 galleries in a cavernous warehouse space bordered by the Lower East Side and the East River. Billed as a nonprofit arts organization with the aim of promoting new and emerging artists, NADA has gained a reputation as a go-to destination for art world insiders and collectors looking to take the pulse of the next generation of artists.

Fair highlights include the exhibition mounted by the New York-based Johannes Vogt Gallery, a series of three paintings by Josh Reames. With images of cigarettes, an erotically tinged neon light and a grinning skeleton, Reames’s choice of imagery channels the über-cool aesthetic of the fair’s attendees. “Introducing new artists is what the spirit of NADA stands for,” Vogt, a longtime veteran of the fair, says. A similar sentiment was expressed by his fellow NADA alum Risa Needleman, the co-founder, along with Benjamin Tischer, of the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, which is exhibiting works including vibrant photomontages by Matthew Porter — sure to please NADA visitors who, as Needleman is keenly aware, “expect young and exciting work.”

For first-timers, the fair is a unique opportunity to gain exposure — and importantly, access — to an often-exclusive segment of the art world. “The best way for young European galleries to enter into the U.S. market is through NADA,” Berthold Pott, owner of his namesake Cologne-based gallery, says. Among Pott’s exhibited pieces, large-scale ink-based gestural works by Max Frintrop call to mind the likes of the Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler and her watery fields of color. Meanwhile, another first-time gallery, the New York-based Queer Thoughts, looked to be in for the ultimate NADA experience. Having just arrived at the fair, the megawatt curator and writer Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf were overheard declaring the gallery’s exhibition of Darja Bajagic’s “Ex Axes – Larissa Riquelme (2015),” an ax bearing the photograph of a despairing young woman, to be the highlight of NADA. Talk about making the cut.

NADA New York is on view through May 17 at Basketball City, 299 South Street, newartdealers.org.

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Opening day of Frieze New York 2015 – in pictures

Now in its third year, the art fair has arrived at Randall’s Island in New York City, with the world’s most eminent artists showing their wares in a giant tent

Frieze New York review – navigating the maze of art fair’s eccentric fun
Just how well dressed are New York’s art lovers?

 

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HYPERALLERGIC

Galleries

Painting According to Frieze New York

Wilhelm Sasnal, “Untitled (car)” (2015), oil on canvas, 40x40 cm at Foksal Gallery Foundation

It’s been about a hundred years since Kazimir Malevich supplanted all imagery in painting with iconic shapes that point not to this world but to one he thought would come. It was around the same time Marcel Duchamp put a handlebar mustache on the Mona Lisa and titled the work “L.H.O.O.Q.” — or “She is hot in the arse.” It was a time of agitation that proved critical to painting’s history as methods of filling up the canvas split, for the most part, in two directions: one of abstraction or non-objectivity; and another that held ground representing “things of the world,” however absurd or beautiful. This year’s Frieze New York art fair on Randall’s Island shows artists using both methods in collision or collusion in a struggle to find firmer artistic footing.

The need for footing comes from a growing restlessness with riffing on 20th century abstraction and the inability to sustain irony, a once-dominant theme in recent representational painting, since it is more of a pretense of not caring rather than a risk of vulnerability. These methods may be losing their effectiveness, and, since painting never dies, new ways of pushing forward emerge.

Patricia Treib, “As-of-yet-untitled” (2015), oil on canvas, 66 x 50 inches at Wallspace Gallery

Patricia Treib’s “As-of-yet-untitled” (2015) in Wallspace Gallery‘s booth either is abstractly figurative or figuratively abstract — complete and without tension. The relaxed, abled gestures and colors of Matisse suggest a sense of place and life of leisure, without giving us the goods or robbing us of their pleasure. Paul Heyer’s “Burnout,” an acrylic and oil on silk painting tucked around the corner of Night Gallery‘s booth, presses ordered black splotches against a facile rendering of flowers painted in watery pastel colors. The bold and abstract interruptions provide both a tension between types of picture-making and compositional stability, a structure holding all elements into place.

The multiple ways in which artists at Frieze mine the languages of both the abstract and representational traditions, in their multiple iterations however broadly conceived, remind us that every mode of working has a time, place, and specific motivation. From sublime geometries and Freudian dreams to fits of anxiety seeking universal expression and commercially-produced homogenous batches, all artistic fabrications have a context. So when today’s artists seek stability, erasure, or obfuscation by combining image-based content with abstract impulses, these visual inheritances and borrowings are transparent enough to put in high relief the strengths — and weaknesses — of artists’ imaginations.

Johannes Kahrs, “OT (green fingernails)” (2015), oil on canvas, 44.4 x 48.2 cm at Zeno X Gallery

Johannes Kahrs’s “OT (green fingernails)” (2015), in the booth of Antwerp’s Zeno X Gallery, is sexy without substance. The reproduced image, sourced from a photograph or video, uses seediness in the lives of others to convey a sense of raw experience, like a short-cut search for authenticity. Figuration or “the real” is here depleted through cropping and blurring, a splicing effect that flirts with obliteration. George Shaw’s painting “She Had an Horror of Rooms” (2014–15) in the Wilkinson Gallery booth, of wood scraps resting in leaves, could be the remains of a discarded project or hobby, or a realist painter’s examination of failed Bauhaus ideals.

George Shaw, “She Had an Horror of Rooms” (2014–15), Humbrol enamel on board, 56 x 74.5 cm at Wilkinson Gallery

In the Taro Nasu booth, Simon Fujiwara’s “Fabulous Beasts” brings “the real” into abstraction, sewing and stretching together swaths of shaved fur coats for a result that’s close enough to painting for me. Possible associations include Dadaist sculpture and linear abstract painting. Jens Fänge’s assemblage on panel in Galleri Magnus Karlsson‘s booth recalls early Cubism and mid-century photomontage.

Portia Zvavahera, “I Can Feel It in My Eyes [16]” (2015), oil-based print ink and oil bar on canvas, 209.5 x 163.5 cm at Stevenson

The most accomplished paintings at this year’s Frieze are by Zimbabwean artist Portia Zvavahera. Her “I Can Feel It in My Eyes [16]” (2015) is one of several beatific visions of corporeal entanglement nearly lifting themselves off Stevenson gallery’s booth walls. With the strength of Marc Chagall’s spiritual interiority, she envisions a world of romantic longing hardly seen since Gustav Klimt.Anna Bjerger, “Halo” (2015), oil on aluminum, 50 x 40 cm at Galleri Magnus Karlsson

Anna Bjerger’s “Halo,” also hanging in Galleri Magnus Karlsson’s booth, features luscious, buttery paint that in its own right commands attention. But in the painting’s facile slips and turns, a remarkable articulation of a woman, lit from the back, appears with the same sense of seduction. More cold in feeling, but likewise straddling the abstract-representational divide, is Wilhelm Sasnal’s “Untitled (car)” in the Foksal Gallery Foundation booth.

Kon Trubkovich, “A heart with an iron lining” (2015), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in at Marianne Boesky Gallery

The most prominent example of strategic collision is Kon Trubkovich’s “A heart with an iron lining” (2015) at Marianne Boesky‘s booth. Rather like video and paint in conflict, the work, all in oil, is more cerebral than enticing. Zhang Hui’s “Pearl 2” (2015) at Long March Space is more tactile, inviting touch and wondrous questions. Like the modernist method of “all-over painting,” whereby the entire canvas is covered and never lets the viewers’ eyes rest, Mircea Suciu‘s “Iron Curtain” (2015) at Zeno X Gallery covers the “subject,” all over, in suffocating plastic.

Peter Davies, “Come Hither” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 59 13/16 x 48 in at The Approach

Peter Davies’s “Come Hither” (2015) at The Approach‘s booth is geometric abstraction waving its hand or growing from the ground and reaching into the air. The black masses, all joined, fill the canvas plane to create a sense of activity within the flattened space. In the Modern Institute‘s booth, Urs Fischer channels Willem de Kooning to confront an aged photograph of a stool and magazine rack, setting a replica of mass produced images and articles — light fare — against the self-serious ethos of Abstract Expressionism. A comparatively older work at the fair, yet one that is resolutely contemporary, is Larry Bell’s “Big Mirage Painting #53” from 1991. By introducing to a reductive abstract composition various reflected lights, kaleidoscopic and variant in intensities, Bell gives represented “materials” a sense of non-objectivity, a kind of constructed non-space. That White Cube chose to show the piece here highlights the singularity of Bell’s work.

Exceptions prove the rule at Frieze, even though there are no rules in what artists here are doing. That openness to potential, space, and means ready for invention — or possible lapses into pastiched mimicking — makes the fair exciting and gives reason to believe that painting around the world is turning a corner.

Larry Bell, “Big Mirage Painting #53” (1991), mixed media on canvas 89 9/16 x 70 3/8 in at White Cube

Urs Fischer, “Free advice is usually worth what you paid for it” (2015), aluminum panel, aramid honeycomb, two-component polyurethane adhesive, two-component epoxy primer, galvanized steel rivet nuts, acrylic primer, gesso, acrylic ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, acrylic paint, 96x72 inches at The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd

Mircea Suciu, “Iron Curtain” (2015), oil, acrylic, and mono print on linen, 156 x 121.8 cm at Zeno X Gallery

Zhang Hui, “Pearl 2” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 180 x 116 cm at Long March Space

Jens Fänge, “The Inner Wedding” (2015), assemblage on panel, 112 x 75 cm at Galleri Magnus Karlsson

Simon Fujiwara, “Fabulous Beasts” (2015), shaved fur coat, 115 x 65 cm at Taro Nasu

Frieze New York continues in Randall’s Island Park (Randall’s Island) through May 17.

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HYPERALLERGIC

Photo Essays

Close Readings from a Cozy Art Fair

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As part of the frenzy of Frieze Week, Zürcher Gallery is hosting Salon Zürcher, a more intimate fair featuring both emerging and established artists. In its tenth edition, the Salon once again positions itself in opposition to the other large–scale, superstore–style fairs and offers a two–room gallery filled with unique and thoughtfully curated pieces. Six galleries are present: Galerie L’Inlassable, Galerie Mathias Coullaud, and Galerie Isabelle Gounod from Paris; Cathouse FUNeral from Brooklyn; Amsterdam outfit The Merchant House; and hosts Zürcher Gallery. Below, I’ve collected some of the highlights.

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French artist Éric Rondepierre has been using movies as his medium of choice for many years, and recently made the transition from working with traditional celluloid film to digital film. These four images are video screenshots from classic movies that Rondepierre streams on his computer; he stops and captures moments where the file is buffering due to poor connections, freezing the image as it struggles to resolve, sometimes caught between two different frames. In Rondepierre’s screenshots, the pixels and eerie colors become reminiscent of painterly strokes, recalling the gas–lit figures of Degas’s interior scenes.

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Marcella Barcèlo, a 22–year–old artist, creates “embedded collages” by layering Japanese paper; she covers up her drawings with successive sheets, sometimes sandwiching other elements like printed paper, until the pieces become thick and sculptural. Ghostly drawings of mythological characters, like the devil, a drowning woman, and religious icons, are trapped under paper. Behind swathes of watery colors, the barely perceptible lines of her underdrawings add dimension and depth, and, on the outermost layer of paper, disembodied arms grasp and gesticulate as if tenderly and anxiously holding the paper sheets together.

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Farideh Sakhaeifar who had a solo show at Cathouse FUNeral earlier this year had two series on display in the gallery. In “ISIS/NASA” she culls images from ISIS bombings and NASA spaceship launches, using Photoshop to conflate the two, and thus explores the dual themes of spectatorship and nationalism (and of course the similar formal appearance) present in the two types of images. The postcard–sized images are seemingly arrayed as tourist souvenirs.

In her other series, “Workers are taking photographs,” Sakhaeifar had 200 Iranian, male, working class laborers take their own photos. She stood directly behind them, holding up white backgrounds that framed their heads and upper bodies. The white background decontextualizes their bodies, catapulting them into the space of the sterile, white gallery.

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For each of her pieces in “The Folds Series,” André De Jong spends years building the thickness of the paper through successive applications of ink, gesso, and charcoal. When the paper is ready, he shapes it, folding it to produce cracks and reveal the white paper underneath the color. The folds read as expressive, white chalky lines, producing sculptural drawings, and as De Jong told The Parool, “The destructive act [of the fold] is necessary to infuse life into these works. A remarkable thing about this type of object is that it retains the traces of this act, and that they are in fact decisive in determining its beauty.”

Form, as articulated through the handling of paper, is essential to De Jong’s cracked paper just as it is to Barcelo’s translucent drawings, while Rondepierre and Sakhaeifar grapple with the production and dissemination of the digital image. With these pieces, the ones that stood out to me at Salon Zürcher, the viewer can leave an art fair having contemplated the act of artistic creation.

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Salon Zürcher continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, SoHo, Manhattan) through May 17.

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VOGUE

New York City is Frieze-ing! What’s Happening at This Year’s Fair

While half the art world is still coming down from the magnificent high of the Venice Biennale, the other half is reveling in the first billion-dollar week of sales at Christie’s. And right on the heels of both high points comes Frieze New York, which has better food, better lighting, and better ponchos (more on that later) than any other annual fair in this city. Here, a rundown of the interesting things happening out on Randall’s Island this weekend.

Frieze New York Art Fair
Solo booths are looking good
Bringing one artist’s work to a fair usually makes for a more compelling booth than a random assortment. Showings from David Kordansky and Pace Gallery are evidence enough, but Gladstone Gallery’s T. J. Wilcox takeover is the best example. In addition to a reworking of “In the Air,” Wilcox’s 2013 Whitney show, Gladstone is showing his specially commissioned video for the Metropolitan Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann. A combination of stop-motion animation and more traditional cartoons—think an operatic version of Space Jam—it is a total delight.
Photo: Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery
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Articles

HYPERALLERGIC

A Contemporary African Art Fair Arrives in New York

The entrance to 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It may at first thought seem odd that the newest addition to Frieze Week in New York is a fair devoted to contemporary African art. How could one expect to cover the ground of a whole continent in a single art fair, and an exceptionally small one at that? Is “African art” a useful category?

But the bigger problem may be that it doesn’t seem all that strange, accustomed as we are, in the US, to seeing the many countries of Africa stereotyped and lumped together as one big, general place. That contradiction is in fact built into the name of the art fair: 1:54, whose numbers stand, respectively, for the one continent of Africa and the 54 countries it contains. “To share and give visibility to the diversity of the African art scene,” is how 1:54 founder Touria El Glaoui described the goal of the fair to Hyperallergic — “to be a player in the international scene.”

The fair seen from above (click to enlarge)

El Glaoui, the daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, founded 1:54 two years ago in London, timing the first edition to Frieze Week there. She is now testing the waters of New York, though it sounds like it was something of a last-minute decision: El Glaoui told me she had six months to plan the fair’s trans-Atlantic voyage. 1:54 landed on the shores of Red Hook and is moored for the weekend at the multipurpose arts center Pioneer Works.

The fair features only 16 galleries, half of them from Africa and half from other countries but showing work that falls under the admittedly vague rubric of “African.” The layout is standard, as far as fairs go: big, tall white walls carve up the cavernous industrial space into pristine booths. These mini-showrooms are quite big, a decision that gives the art plenty of room to breathe but also has the unfortunate effect of eating up any potential free space on the building’s ground floor — so that you may end up feeling (as I did, at times) like you are little more than a murine aesthete lost in an art market maze.

Happily, the art you’re trapped with is largely very good and largely by people whose names are not yet well worn in the art world. “It’s also about where the artists are in their career,” El Glaoui told me. El Anatsui, for instance, isn’t at 1:54 because he “doesn’t need to be here.” William Kentridge is, his work greeting you immediately upon arrival (at the booth of David Krut Projects), but along with Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta (two of the most famous photographers in African history, both at Magnin-A gallery), Kentridge is an exception. 1:54 is mostly focused on bringing new artists to the attention of New York audiences.

Peter Clarke, "Black Cowboy" (1982), gouache collage on paper, 50.5 x 65 cm

New doesn’t necessarily mean young, though, and one of my favorite discoveries of the fair was the work of Peter Clarke, a towering South African artist who died last year at the age of 85. Clarke, who was forcibly uprooted from his home when he was young because of apartheid, made art his whole life but only received recognition “later, due to the political situation,” explained Marelize van Zyle, associate director of SMAC Gallery. “He depicted Cape Colored life, life in that community.” Zyle brought two pieces of Clarke’s work that she thought would resonate with American audiences: one, a gentle gouache showing a branch of KFC in a poor Cape Town neighborhood in the 1980s (the company was one of the only international chains that did not pull out of the country during the economic boycott), the other a brighter imaginary scene inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Featuring a stylish black cowboy painted in gouache, the work also contains a collaged Jack Daniels label at the center, on which Clarke hand-wrote a text that ends: “Only, the westerns never show that in real life the cowboy hero was sometimes a Black Man … ”

Wall of photos from Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall's studio at Axis Gallery's booth (click to enlarge)

Perhaps predictably, questions about identity ripple through the fair, connecting much of the work on view and coloring many of the conversations I had when I visited. Axis Gallery‘s wall of dazzling photographic portraits by Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall — who established what Axis curator Gary van Wyk called “the first color photography studio in Africa” in 1961 in Durban, South Africa — resonates with a number of more contemporary works at the booth of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, among them Fabrice Monteiro‘s sumptuous photograph of a woman dressed as a signare, as the lawful wives of colonizers in the 18th and 19th centuries were called. These little-remembered women were “covered with fashion and jewelry” and “extremely emancipated,” said Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, the gallery’s director. Hanging catty-corner in her booth is an arresting black-and-white, composite self-portrait by Ayana V. Jackson that features six versions of the artist dressed in different Victorian outfits and posed together as in a family photo. “If, at the time of slavery, it were egalitarian and equal — if there were no slavery, what sorts of costumes would the black body be wearing?” Ibrahim-Lenhardt asked, by way of explaining the impetus for the work.

Work by Fabrice Monteiro at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery's booth, showing a signore

Work by Ayana V. Jackson at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Billie Zangewa, "Ma vie en rose" and "Homecoming" (both 2015), silk tapestries, at Afronova's booth (click to enlarge)

Both of these pieces, in turn, seem to be distant cousins of a couple of beautifully assured silk self-portrait tapestries by Billie Zangewa, at Afronova’s booth, and more closely related to a series of costumed self-portraits by Omar Victor Diop at Magnin-A. For the project, Diop researched “Africans sent to various parts of the world, either as slaves or as representatives of their kingdoms,” many of them since “left out of the history books.” He then found images of them and photographed himself modeled after them, adding the occasional contemporary touch like a soccer ball or a whistle. The series is indebted in equal parts to Kehinde Wiley and to Keïta, but the results possess a potent agency that the works of Diop’s predecessors lack.

Omar Victor Diop's series at Magnin-A's booth (click to enlarge)

“As African artists, of course we don’t want to be locked in an African ghetto,” Diop said when I asked him about the idea of an African art fair. “But if you don’t speak, you let others define what an African artist is. You’ll always be from somewhere. You can’t change your Africanness, but you can change the perception.”

Those remarks contrasted sharply with the words of Lavar Munroe, an artist showing disturbing and surreal collaged renderings of animal and human figures with NOMAD Gallery. “I’ve always resisted the label” of African artist, he said, explaining that he initially refused to participate in the fair but was persuaded by his dealer. “Why the fascination [with African art]?” Munroe asked. “I think it has to do with the notion of the other, exhibiting the other.”

Work by Lavar Munroe at NOMAD Gallery

Most of the gallerists I spoke with (who were almost exclusively white) seemed far more at ease with the label, probably because they know that successful selling generally requires successful branding. But perhaps one of benefits of using such a broad term as “African” to describe a category of art is that it can be widely applied, so that Voice Gallery founder Rocco Orlacchio — who told me, “I don’t like very much labels” — could show work made in Kenya by a Japanese artist living in Morocco (a country that itself raises more questions of identity because of its location in the north of the continent and its uniquely hybrid identity).

“In the most ideal world, you would have no 1:54,” El Glaoui acknowledged, “but the truth is 0.05% of African artists are represented anywhere at any given moment.

“The best death of 1:54 will be that you don’t need it anymore.”

A sculpture by Nidhal Chamekh at Primo Marella Gallery

Lawrence Lemaoana, "I didn't join the struggle to be poor" (2015), fabric and embroidery, 155 x 110 cm, at Afronova's booth

Conrad Botes drawing his installation at Bennett Contemporary

Olu Amoda, "Medium Sunflower iii" (2014), blind revert, steel belt, mild still pipe, 52 x 52 in, at the booth of Art Twenty One

Work by Eric van Hove and Younes Baba-Ali at VOICE Gallery

Work by Edson Chagas at A Palazzo Gallery's booth

Looking down on one of the booths

Sammy Baloji, "Raccord #5," at Axis Gallery's booth (click to enlarge)

The entrance to 1:54 art fair

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through May 17.

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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

The Art Market: big spenders in the Big Apple

  •   New York ‘Auction-tigue’; Frieze looks to the past; Giacometti show for Shanghai
‘Swamped’ (1990) by Peter Doig©Christie’s

‘Swamped’ (1990) by Peter Doig

“Fair-tigue” gave way to “auction-tigue” this week in New York, with a logjam of evening sales triggered by the changes in Venice Biennale dates this year. Crammed into the week were four evening sales plus a swathe of day sales: as we went to press, nearly $2bn had been splurged on the art of the 20th and 21st century in a seemingly unstoppable paroxysm of spending. Records tumbled across the categories: Peter Doig’s Swamped (1990) sold for $25.9m at Christie’s; Polke ($27.1m at Sotheby’s); Christopher Wool ($29.9m at Sotheby’s) or Soutine ($28.2m at Christie’s).

Christie’s emerged the clear winner, having clocked up an eye-popping $1.36bn by Wednesday night in two evening sessions alone. In a knockout blow to the opposition, its curtain-raising Monday sale scored $705.9m for “Looking Forward to the Past”, a “curated” sale of 34 lots which mixed categories, from early 20th century to contemporary art. Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version O)” (1955) sold for an estimate-pulverising $179.4m (presale expectations were $140m; estimates don’t include fees: results do), while Giacometti’s “L’homme au doigt” (1947) made $141.3m — setting auction records for a painting and a sculpture.

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However, the sale was heavily guaranteed with half of the lots backed by Christie’s or third parties — which was the case for the Picasso but not for the Giacometti. As a result, the auction was curiously unexciting, with most bidding on the telephone and little action from the room — except to applaud the prices. “It was like watching a piece of theatre because ultimately so much was presold,” said one dealer. Guarantees also littered the catalogue at Sotheby’s the following night, but to a lesser extent, with 19 of the 65 lots so covered. Six of them were irrevocable bids announced during the sale, presumably because guarantors were encouraged by Christie’s results. That Sotheby’s sale made $379.7m with a Rothko taking the top spot at $46.4m; one disappointing result was for Lichtenstein’s “The Ring” (1962), which made just $41.7m, going to a private Asian buyer. It was estimated at about $50m and guaranteed, meaning a possible loss for the auction house. Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale had been held the previous week, raising $368.3m.

Then Christie’s blasted back on Wednesday night with a sale of contemporary art that racked up another total of $658.5m, led by a Rothko which made a stunning $81.9m. And a record was set for Lucian Freud, when his fleshy “Benefits Supervisor Resting” (1994) just topped its high target at $56.2m.

. . .

‘L’homme au doigt’ (1947) by Alberto Giacometti©Christie’s/Alberto Giacometti Estate

‘L’homme au doigt’ (1947) by Alberto Giacometti

The interest in mixing modern with contemporary art, as exemplified by Christie’s Monday night sale, was also evident at the Frieze New York fair, which opened this week on Randall’s Island. The organisers had sought out “blue-chip” dealers and encouraged them to bring more traditional art — “contextualising”, as this is called. So among the newcomers this year are a clutch of blue-chip galleries. They include Skarstedt, McKee, Pace, Matthew Marks and Acquavella — with some showing more established names alongside their contemporary artists. Pace is holding a solo show of Richard Tuttle, while Acquavella has a couple of million-dollar Picassos along with Brice Marden and Ed Ruscha. “I have clients who started with contemporary art, and now their attention is being taken by earlier works,” says Michael Findlay of Acquavella, “and the prices are so high for contemporary now.”

Among the successes of the fair was Vigo gallery, with Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi: New York museums bought a number of his works (priced between £250,000 and £650,000) and the collector Beth DeWoody another two. Frieze finishes on Sunday.

. . .

The $141.3m paid for Giacometti’s “L’homme au doigt” is a just reflection of the significance of the Swiss sculptor. And now that peace has broken out between the previously warring Giacometti foundation and association, the foundation’s new director Catherine Grenier is pressing ahead with a number of projects.

This week she and the Chinese/Indonesian collector and museum owner Budi Tek announced that they will stage the biggest exhibition yet of Giacometti’s work, from March next year in Tek’s Yuz Museum in Shanghai. It will comprise 240 works, including drawings, original plasters, sculptures and paintings, all from the foundation and displayed in a 2,000-sq metre gallery. “Giacometti has influenced Chinese artists for a long time,” says Tek. “And yet this is the first exhibition of his work in China.” Grenier says she has known Tek for some years, and that the project “was born very quickly after my nomination”. Tek is supporting the Institut Giacometti, an outpost of the foundation to be used for research and exhibitions, due to open next year. This Friday, “Beyond East and West”, a talk between Tek and Alexandre Colliex, development director of the Giacometti Foundation, will be held at Art15; the fair opens on Thursday in London’s Olympia.

. . .

‘Untitled’ (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat©Christie’s

‘Untitled’ (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which realised $13.6m at Christie’s on Monday

“Filthy Lucre” is the title of an immersive new work by contemporary artist Darren Waterston which goes on show in Washington’s Freer Gallery of Art from Saturday. The installation is a reinterpretation of Whistler’s Peacock Room, originally designed in 1876 for the London home of the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland.

The commission proved poisonous: Whistler and his patron had a bitter falling out, both because the artist gave full rein to his creativity while Leyland was away and because he demanded the vast sum of 2,000 guineas for the work. Leyland paid just half that, and Whistler finished the room by painting battling peacocks on one wall — with a poor artist/bird being attacked by the patron/bird. Whistler exacted further revenge by painting vindictive portraits of Leyland — one entitled “The Gold Scab — Eruption in Filthy Lucre”.

Waterson’s work recreates the room in a state of disrepair, its porcelains cracked and broken, shelves sagging, its central female portrait decaying and disfigured.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

Photographs: Christie’s; Christie’s/©2015 Alberto Giacometti Estate/Vaga and ARS, New York

 

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INTERVIEW MAGAZINE

Josh Faught, Issues, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley Gallery.

Faught’s large-scale quilt is not the kind you’d receive from your grandmother. Although it might seem haphazard in construction, there is a method to his madness: Faught references themes that touch upon domesticity and sexuality, resulting in charged works that are, ironically, very much home-spun.

 

Jonathan Horowitz, 700 Dots, 2015. Photo: Marco Scozzaro, courtesy of the artist, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and Frieze.

Audience participation is one prevalent theme throughout this year’s fair. For his installation, Horowitz paid visitors 20 dollars each to paint black circles on white canvases. A clever inversion of the fair business model or a fantastic advertisement to draw in new collectors? Your choice.

Dashiell Manley, It and Another Other, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery.

Manley’s minimalist works first caught my eye at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The young Los Angeles-based artist engages with the environments in which his works are staged, referencing the movement of the viewer while also playing with light and reflection.

 

Tom Sachs, Big Tits, 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

Ever since Sachs took over the Park Avenue Armory in 2012 for his mega-installation Space Program: Mission to Mars, a staged DIY NASA-inspired expedition to the titular planet, we’ve been a huge fan. A common characteristic of Sachs’ creations, as with this boom box, is his use of bricolage- the incorporation of found objects and everyday materials in the construction of works. Fully functioning, it also happens to play the intro sample from Dre and Snoop’s hit “The Next Episode.”

Jordan Wolfson, Untitled, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist and Sadie Coles HQ.

Wolfson’s masked dancing anamatronic stripper that was exhibited last year at David Zwirner freaked us out, but in the best way possible. Living up to his reputation as an artist who shocks his audience, Wolfson’s work this year somehow reminds us of the once ubiquitous tabloid fixture, Bat Boy.

Giuseppe Penone, Albero di 8 m, 2000 and Albero di 10 m, 1989. Photo: Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and Frieze.

If we’re going for sheer size, nothing seems to rival Italian artist Giuseppe Penone’s installation. Works include a wall of mesh-encased panels containing laurel leaves, as well as denuded tree trunks. The monumentality of Penone’s works beg the viewer to pause and marvel amidst the madness of the fair.

Richard Prince, New Portraits, 2014. Photo: Robert McKeever, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

One of the biggest names from one of the biggest galleries, Prince’s appropriation of Instagram posts belonging to other users is representative of several high-profile artists at the fair this year. Many works on view engage with issues surrounding social media and the Internet. Make sure that selfie looks its best; your feed may be next.

 

 

 

 

GUARDIAN LONDON

Frieze New York review – navigating the maze of art fair’s eccentric fun

There are massage chairs and the opportunity to stick to the wall in a Velcro suit – but the real thrill is discovering great artists beyond the blue-chip names

An artwork at Frieze New York made with hundreds of crushed beer cans.
Kader Attia’s Halam Tawaaf, an artwork at Frieze New York made with hundreds of crushed beer cans. Photograph: ddp USA/REX Shutterstock/ddp USA/REX Shutterstock

There was a new ingredient on the first day of this year’s Frieze New York: the sun came out. Three years in a row it rained at the opening of the American cousin of Britain’s most important art fair, and I’d grown used to the very English grey sky over the art fair’s custom tent, a cunningly sinuous thing designed by the Brooklyn firm SO-IL. It looked better than ever this year with light streaming through, and still affords better sightlines than any fair this side of Paris’s FIAC, which has the unfair advantage of being housed in an Art Nouveau masterpiece.

Frieze New York is ticking along – the fair that once seemed a British invasion is now a major Big Apple event, as much a pleasure palace as an art fair. The ferry up the East River to Randall’s Island, the fair’s unlikely home, is an indulgence for locals and foreigners alike. The aisles are clogged as ever with dealers, curators, hangers-on. The food is still a major draw – chia pudding from a popup version of Chinatown hangout Dimes seems to be the big ticket, to be washed down with a $7 latte with a Brooklyn pedigree. Real art fair pros, though, bring their own granola bars.

In its first edition, in May 2012, galleries went out of their way to establish Frieze New York’s commercial bona fides. It’s not that blue-chip trophies are not in short supply this year: multiple Anish Kapoor discs are yours for the taking. But even the largest galleries are playing a little faster and looser than before. Hauser and Wirth has mounted a winningly anarchic booth whose walls have been painted by Martin Creed in various patterns of blue and black stripes – against which paintings by Rita Ackermann, sculptures by the late Juan Muñoz, and photographs by Roni Horn look positively groovy.

Art therapy at the Gavin Brown stall.

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Art therapy at the Gavin Brown stall. Photograph: Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze

Over on Gavin Brown’s booth has the look of an art therapy class: long folding tables, which fairgoers are hunched over in uncommon silence. Have a seat and someone will offer you a canvas, some brushes, and black paint. Your task, as set by the American artist Jonathan Horowitz: paint an eight-inch circle at the centre of your canvas. For your effort you’ll be paid $20 (a handsome price, if your technical skill is as pathetic as mine), and your black dot will take pride of place in a collaborative grid whose irregularities surpass any coloured circles from the Hirst factory.

Then there is the stand of uber-gallery Gagosian, given over, I’m afraid, to Richard Prince’s ho-hum prints of Instagram screenshots. Prince is a great artist when he wants to be, but lately he’s been leaving comments on cute girls’ selfies, then reproducing the image and the comment at wall-holding scale. (When they first appeared last year, the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl heroically described his response as “something like a wish to be dead”.) How dull are they? So dull that they are outshone by the floor that Team Gagosian has custom installed: a plywood deck that proves even the cheapest materials can turn luxe with the right framing.

Martin Creed’s wall paintings at the Hauser & Wirth

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Martin Creed’s wall paintings at the Hauser & Wirth. Photograph: Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze

As always, the best reason to come to the fair is to see art from galleries outside New York, and ideally from outside the big-ticket western consensus. The Zimbabwean painter Portia Zvavahera has been given a solo presentation by Cape Town gallery Stevenson, and her churning, disquieting paintings of couples embracing or asleep seem haunted by public history as much as private nightmares. Galerie Frank Elbaz, from Paris, has put together the most impressive group presentation under the big top: a showcase of Croatian avant-garde artists pushing the boundaries of fine arts in the midst of the cold war. The painter Julije Knifer embraced stark abstraction in the form of meandering fat lines; the trickster Mladen Stilinović took white out to a dictionary page, then added in, over and over, the word “pain”.

Galeria Jaqueline Martins, a young gallery from São Paulo, deservedly netted the fair’s best booth prize for a solo presentation of Martha Araújo, whose 1985 project Para um corpo nas suas impossibilidades (For a body in its impossibilities) consists of a quarter-pipe, the sort of thing you see in skateboarding parks, covered in black Velcro. The gallery proves jumpsuits covered in Velcro straps, allowing participants to clamber to the top or hang upside down. For you, reader, I suited up. I bounced to the top of the quarter-pipe, smushing the front of my body against the wall. Naturally I came crashing down. Someone took a photo. I jumped up again, this time in the other direction, but instead of sticking all I did was hurt my back. More photos. The dealers were laughing at me, but I got the hang of it on my third go, and clung to the wall like a not very ambulatory spider.

The funhouse atmosphere continues in the noncommercial section of Frieze New York, for which half a dozen invited artists have created new works. Korakrit Arunanondchai, best known for belting out Thai rap music while sucking on light-up e-cigarettes, has installed a bunch of massage chairs upholstered in bleached denim and speckled with paint; an easy gesture, and a forgettable one. Rather better is a choose-your-own-adventure maze created by the young Japanese artist Aki Sasamoto, an absurdist personality test in three dimensions. Hanging from two white doors are baskets full of coffee or tea – pick your preference. I’m American; it was coffee for me, and walked through that door to a chamber with another pairing, and then another, until at last I had to choose between two toilet rolls, one unspooled from above, the other from below. I picked the first one, and a kind young man was waiting for me behind the door, proffering a pin with my personality type on it: “Into Big”. And this before they asked any questions about my sex life.

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Our Mega Guide to all the Fun at Frieze New York
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We hope you’re well rested, because this is one incredible week for art fans in New York City.  The FRIEZE art fairhas been building momentum for the past three years, and this year’s edition on Randall’s Island won’t disappoint.  Plus there are tons of satellite fairs — including an “invasion” of our turf by the folks from Art Miami — and gallery openings, auctions, pop-ups and much more.10168c4eddbc0ae503e4dc07366af2ee4c92e650.jpgFRIEZE New York opens for “invite only” VIPs and collectors on Wednesday, May 13th, and then it’s open to the public for four days starting on the 14th.  Over 190 galleries are exhibiting in 2015 and, as usual, there are cool side-projects including a “Tribute to Flux-Labyrinth 1976/2015″ where contemporary artists will construct a maze of narrow corridors and obstructed spaces for you to explore.  Elsewhere, look for several “clandestine rooms” by Aki Sasamoto and “underground environments” by Samara Golden.  If you need to chill after these mysterious challenges, look for one of the free massage chairs placed around the venue by Korakit Arunanondchai.  There are also daily talks including one called “Ask Jerry” with New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz on Saturday at noon and a talk-show panel hosted by the artist/comedian and 2015 Paper Beautiful Person Casey Jane Ellison on Friday at noon.  A single day ticket is $44 and the hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except Sunday, when things shut down at 6 p.m. The full schedule is HERE.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 4.18.21 PM.pngMaripola X

For the first time, the folks behind Art Miami – that city’s longest running art fair — will host a New York spin-off on Pier 94 (12th Avenue at 55th Street) with over 100 galleries showing works from May 14th (VIP Preview) to May 17th.  FRIEZE VIP cardholders get in free and there’s also a courtesy shuttle service from the FRIEZE ferry dock on East 35th Street.  It’s open from noon to 8 p.m. daily, except Sunday until 6 p.m. A single day ticket is $25.  On Saturday, May 16th, 3 to 6 p.m., photographer and designer, Maripol, will sign copies of her limited-edition book MARIPOLA X  in booth #B19.  The book includes unreleased photos and poems chronicling the early-80s NY underground. Also: NYC’s Keszler Gallery is showing several works by UK artist Banksy and The New York Academy of Art has a special exhibition of alumni work curated by Natalie Frank.

Gerard-Quenum-La-Cour-du-Roi-2013-acrylic-on-canvas-130-x-170-cm.jpgGérard Quenum, ‘La Cour du Roi’, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 130 x 170 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Art Twenty One

Another fair making it’s NYC debut this year is the “1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair
happening out in Red Hook at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn) from May 15th through May 17th.  The fair was founded in London in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui to showcase emerging contemporary African art. Sixteen galleries will be on hand with works by over 60 artists.  The award-winning London architecture and design studio RA Projects will do the lobby and exhibition spaces for the fair.  A single day ticket is $10 and it’s open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. (6 on Sunday).

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NADA returns to Pier 36, Basketball City (299 South Street), for the fourth edition of their New York fair. The not-for-profit collective offers a great mix of global galleries and special projects including a fashion show on Thursday, May 14, 7 p.m., featuring limited-edition clothing designed by artists including Cheryl Donegan, Amy Yao, Sarah Braman, Bjorn Copeland and Daniel Heidkamp.  Richard Haines will be on-hand to document the show with his drawings.  This is a collab between NADA and Print All Over Me and was curated by Sam Gordon.  Admission to this fair is free and it’s open to everybody, so check it out on Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., or Friday thru Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (5 on Sunday).

The fifth LIC Arts Open runs from May 13th to May 17th with tons of open studios, exhibits, music etc. happening throughout Long Island City.  The complete list is HERE. Flux Factory (39-31 29th Street, LIC) is participating with a BBQ, artist talks and an exhibition by Roopa Vasudevan on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Sixty-one exhibitors are showing at the Spring Masters New York art and design fair at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue).  This fair opened last week, but you still have a chance to check it out before it closes at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 12th.  Tickets are $25.  Acclaimed architect Rafael Vinoly did the booth layout.

4928h.jpgBerndnaut Smilde,”Nimbus”

NeueHouse (110 East 25th Street) is once again the official VIP partner for FRIEZE and will host the VIP lounge with music, food and cocktails; plus artist talks including David Salle in the fair lounge on Sunday, May 17, 11 a.m., and Stephen Posen and his son, Zac, on Tuesday, May 12, 7 p.m., in their 25th Street location.  Also at 25th Street, on Wednesday and Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde will present “Nimbus,” creating artificial indoor clouds.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 4.51.08 PM.pngThe local auction houses are hosting their contemporary art auctions this week with Bonhams on May 11, Sotheby’s on the 12th & 13th,  Doyle on May 12, Christie’s on May 13 and Phillips on May 14th & 15th.  Swann Auction Galleries (104 East 25th Street) hosts theirs at 1:30 p.m. on May 12th and it includes several items in what we like to call the “never throw anything away” category.  There’s a 1984 invitation to Keith Haring and Larry Levan’s “Party of Life” at the Paradise Garage that’s estimated to go for between $1,000 and $1,500.  Haring printed the invite on a cloth handkerchief.  Also up for bidding is a leather jacket from the collection of a “door girl for the Danceteria VIP room Congo Bill” that includes tags by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Fab Five Freddy, Ad-Rock and many other downtown notables.  It’s estimate is $5,000 to $8,000.  You can check out all the cool items in this auction HERE.

FRIEZE week also overlaps with NYC X DESIGN, New York City’s official celebration of everything design related, featuring hundreds of showcases, fairs and events all over town from May 8 to 19.  These include the Collective Design Fair which runs from May 13th to the 17th at Skylight Clarkson Square (550 Washington Street); WantedDesign in Brooklyn at Industry City (274 36th Street, Brooklyn, from the 9th to the 19th and also in Manhattan at 269 11th Avenue from the 15th to the 18th; plus ICFF, the “luxury/high end” furniture fair at Javits Center from May 16th to 19th.  Check out the massive list of events HERE.

If you’re looking for an alt-fair experience, we suggest the FRIDGE Art Fair running May 14th through the 17th in the Retro Bar & Grill in the Holiday Inn (150 Delancey Street).  Their opening on Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m., benefits BARC (Brooklyn Animal Rescue Coalition) and is sponsored by Heineken, Zevia, Perrier and Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery with a raffle, performances, surprise guests and more. Tix are $20. And would you like a portrait of your fave pet?  Bring him/her by on Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. to be photographed and then painted by the fair’s founder Eric Ginsburg. Prices start at $1200. A portion of the proceeds go to BARC.

Picture 97.pngphoto from FLUX by Shahram Entekhabi

Harlem’s first contemporary art fair, FLUX, runs from Thursday through Sunday in The Corn Exchange Building (81-85 East 125th Street @ Park Avenue). Works by over 50 international artists will be on view, and the fair’s curator’s have tried to focus on the theme of “the 21st Century artist as a nomad.”  It’s open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sunday when things close down at 6 p.m.  Tickets are $20.  If you’re going to stop by FLUX, you should also check out THIS list of events during the inaugural edition of Harlem EatUp! — “A celebration of food, culture and spirit” — put together by Marcus Samuelsson and Herb Kalitz.

RISD hosts a private reception on Sunday evening at the WantedDesign fair in Industry City, Brooklyn, with RISD President Rosanne Somerson.  RSVP only.

8921d146-a290-4486-b24a-cf39fcbc48e4.jpgAby Rosen and Vito Schnabel are hosting a pop-up exhibition called “First Show/ Last Show” on Saturday, May 16, 5 to 8 p.m., in the old Germania Bank (190 Bowery).  That’s the former home of photographer Jay Meisel, recently purchased by Rosen’s RFR Realty for a reported $55 million.  Schnabel curated the show featuring artists including Harmony Korine, Julian Schnabel, Mark Grotjahn, Ron Gorchov, Jeff Elrod, Joe Bradley and Dan Cohen.

main.gifMoMA PopRally (11 West 53rd Street) presents “Serendipity,” featuring the films and photography of Awol Erizku on Sunday, May 17, 7 to 10 p.m.  This includes the premiere of the LA artist’s new film; plus a sound performance by MeLo-X, a DJ set by Kitty Cash, open bar and access to the museum’s latest contemporary art exhibition: “Scenes for a New Heritage.”  $25 tickets are HERE.

W Magazine and Stefano Tonchi celebrate their May art issue at the “premiere” of Ian Schrager’s newest hotel, The New York Edition (5 Madison Avenue) on Tuesday night with Q-Tip spinning the tunes.  Invite only.

Maiyet, Conscious Commerce and Milkmade host a cocktail party on Wednesday — also at The NY Edition — with Alexandra Richards on the decks.  Again, it’s invite only.

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 1.50.19 PM.pngSunglass Hut (496 Broadway) and Mr. Brainwash launch their new collab collection on May 14th.

mccarrenrachel.jpgRachel Libeskind and Swaai Boys present “Ancient Baggage: Recent Discoveries in Ritualistc Objects” on Thursday, May 14th, 8 p.m., in the Sheltering Sky lounge at the McCarren Hotel & Pool (160 N. 12th Street, Brooklyn). This is Libeskind’s performance piece that deals with “the rituals imposed by the suitcase” in a colab with experimental music from Swaii Boys.

aligleighbowery.jpgLeigh Bowery by Michael Alig.

The SELECT Art Fair (548 West 22nd Street) runs from May 13th to the 17th in the old DIA building in Chelsea. Several floors of galleries — including “one entire floor of Brooklyn-based galleries” — will be on hand; plus there’s an exhibition of Michael Alig’s prison artwork. Check out the daily rooftop parties in a maze structure called “You Are Here” designed by the art duo TROUBLE, featuring DJs, bands, performances etc. including Blondes on May 13, Jungle Pussy on the 14th and James Chance on the 15th.  A day-ticket is $20.

Peter Brant, Interview Magazine, Paul Kasmin Gallery and 1stDibs celebrate FRIEZE with a private cocktail party on Thursday evening.

TUMBLR hosts a private “unveiling” of Richard Phillips’ new studio in LIC on May 14th, 7 to 10 p.m. Invite and RSVP only.

The Standard High Line (848 Washington Street) and High Line Art host a private cocktail party on Tuesday for Rashid Johnson’s “Blocks” commission on the High Line.  Invite only.

Denis Gardarin Gallery  has a pop-up exhibit by French artist Mathieu Mercier from May 13th to the 16th, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, at Skylight at Moynihan Station on West 33rd Street.

DM-FLYER3 copy.jpgCanadian artist Daniel Mazzone has a pop-up called “Torn Apart” on Thursday, May 14th, 7 to 11 p.m., at Carriage House Center (149 East 38th Street).  Mazzone’s “collage portraits” of historic figures often incorporate personalized elements relating to the subject.

SAVETHEDATE_HP.jpgR & Company (82 Franklin Street) has a solo exhibition by LA-based designer David Wiseman called “Wilderness & Ornament” featuring cast bronze works and porcelain decorative walls.  Check it out during their normal business hours all week.

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The Van Alen Institute hosts their “Celebrate Spring” benefit party and their on-going auction on Wednesday, May 13, 6:45 to 11:30 p.m., at the Surrogate’s Courthouse (31 Chambers Street) with a seated dinner and performance by My Midnight Heart; plus DJ David Pacho and the “dystopian funk super group” LA-BAS.  You can get tickets HERE and bid on auction items now through May 20th via Paddle8. There are lots interesting things up for bidding including a “hot tub roundtable” with architect Charles Renfro at his fab Fire Island beach house and a private fitting with menswear designer Patrik Ervell in his NYC studio.

Several art jewelers and street artists have hooked-up to create some unique works that will be on view starting Saturday, May 16th, 6 to 8 p.m., at The Gallery at Reinstein Ross (30 Gansevoort Street) in a show called PLACEMENT.  Some of the artists participating are Skullphone, Logan Hicks, CYRCLE, ASVP, Arthur Nash and Tara Locklear.  Have a look before the end of June.

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No Longer Empty will present a big multi-media group show called “Bring in the Reality” at the Nathan Cummings Foundation (475 10th Avenue, 14th floor). The exhibition features works that “speak candidly, freely and boldly…works that speak truth to power.”  Participating artists include John Ahearn, Mel Chin, Tim Collins and K.O.S., Dread Scott, Nari Ward and many more.  The opening is May 12th, 6 to 8 p.m. and you should rsvp to exhibits@nathancummings.org if you plan to attend.  It’s on view through the summer, but, again, you should make an appointment via the same email address.

And check out some recs from our friends over at the Mirror Cube, a new events site where artists suggest their favorite happenings in NYC and LA.:

Nathan Hoho of the band, Walking Shapes, recommends checking out the Garth Greenan Gallery at Frieze, which is focused on giving established artists greater visibility: this year, they will be showing minimalist ’70s color studies from Howardena Pindell, which she painted during her years as a MoMA curator. “I’ve only recently been exposed to the gallery but was blown away by the last show I saw there,” Hoho says.

Lyz Olko, the designer behind clothing label Obesity + Speed, suggests stopping by the 303 Gallery, which is known for championing contemporary artists like Stephen Shore, who got his start documenting the goings-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory at the tender age of 17. This year at Frieze, they will be showing 3D mixed media works from Israeli artist Elad Lassry.

Both photographer Natalie Neal and artist/PAPER Beautiful Person Chloe Wise recommend Foxy Production, a NYC-based gallery that’s new to the fair and will be showing manipulated photography from Sara Cwynar and a video installation from Petra Cortright. “Petra’s unique vision mixes technology, ready-mades, and femininity in an unforgettable way,” Neal says. “Every piece she shows is a piece you don’t want to miss seeing in person.”

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Articles

Your Concise Guide to Frieze Week 2015

Inside the Frieze Tent at Frieze New York 2014 (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

Have you finally recovered from Armory Week? Are you ready to do it all again? Too bad, because it’s Frieze Week in New York City! This year’s lineup features one exhibition and eight fairs — three of which are making their New York debuts — spread between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Randall’s Island, where Frieze New York and its 200 exhibitors await. For those trying to make sense of it all, here is our primer on all the fairs, including notable special projects, talks, performances, and panels.

Also, don’t forget to follow Hyperallergic on Instagram for pics from the fairs all week.

 

 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair

When: May 15–17 / Friday, Saturday: 12–8pm; Sunday: 12–6pm ($10)
Where: Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn)

Far and away the most interesting addition to this year’s Frieze Week lineup, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is bringing 15 galleries either based in Africa or that specialize in African contemporary art to Pioneer Works. Among the former will be Art Twenty One from Lagos, Afronova from Johannesburg, and Marrakech’s VOICE Gallery.

The London-based fair’s first New York outing also includes an impressive schedule of panels and talks, among them a discussion between artists Hank Willis Thomas and Lyle Ashton Harris on the importance of the term “diaspora” to their practices (May 15, 4:15pm) and a panel on the importance of “cultural specific curating” at major institutions that will feature Christa Clarke from the Newark Museum, Thomas J. Lax from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Franklin Sirmans from Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (May 16, 1:15pm).

Art Miami New York

When: May 14–17 / Thursday: 5–9pm; Friday, Saturday: 12–8pm; Sunday: 12–6pm ($25)
Where: Pier 94 (55th Street and West Side Highway, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan)

If you’re experiencing Armory Week withdrawal and looking for an excuse to trek back to the Hudson River piers, Art Miami New York — which boasts the most geographically confusing art fair name since Paris Photo Los Angeles — is the fair for you. It is bringing 100 galleriesto Pier 94, most of them from Europe and North America, as well as a handful of outliers from Uruguay (Piero Atchugarry), Bogota (Galería Casa Cuadrada), Hong Kong (AP Contemporary), and elsewhere.

Art Miami New York’s schedule of talks and panels will be particularly compelling for those interested in the art world’s commercial side. It includes a talk by collector and art financier Asher Edelman on the use of art in real estate developments (May 15, 3pm) and a panel on art collector faux pas (May 16, 3pm).

Collective Design

When: May 13–17 / Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday: 11am–8pm; Friday: 11am–9pm; Sunday: 11am–5pm ($25)
Where: Skylight Clarkson Sq (550 Washington Street, West Village, Manhattan)

A presentation at the 2014 Collective Design fair (photo by Sarah Archer for Hyperallergic)

Frieze Week’s lone design fair — whose “design council” features designers, architects, and Oscar-winner Julianne Moore — Collective Design boasts 29 galleries specializing in everything from 20th century modern furniture (New York’s BAC and Stockholm’s Modernity), jewelry (New Jersey’s Gallery Loupe and Hudson’s Ornamentum), Mexican modernism (ADN Galería), silver (Madrid’s Garrido Gallery), and modern and contemporary children’s design (New York’s kinder MODERN).

The fair’s special programming includes an exhibition by the lighting designer Ingo Maurer, a special section devoted to Italian design and its global impact on the field, and a site-specific installation curated by Noguchi Museum Senior Curator Dakin Hart. Notable talks and tours include a walkthrough of the fair with Museum of Arts and Design director Glenn Adamson (May 14, 2pm), a talk on the function of nostalgia in contemporary jewelry design (May 16, 11:30am), and a panel on the intersections of craft and digital design (May 16, 4pm).

 Flux Art Fair

When: May 14–17 / Thursday–Saturday: 11am–8pm; Sunday: 11am–6pm ($20)
Where: Corn Exchange Building (81 East 125th Street, East Harlem, Manhattan)

Another one of this year’s Frieze Week newcomers, the Flux Art Fair foregoes galleries to match up artists and curators. Its inaugural lineup features 57 artists including Willie Cole, Lina Puerta, Sol Sax, Ai Campbell, Ivan Forde, and others. The curators include New York Foundation for the Arts’s David C. Terry, No Longer Empty founder and chief curator Manon Slome, and RaúI Zamudio, one of the co-curators of the 2013 El Museo del Barrio biennial.

 Frieze New York

When: May 14–17 / Thursday–Saturday: 11am–7pm; Sunday: 11am–6pm ($44)
Where: Randall’s Island Park (Randall’s Island)

With just under 200 galleries split into four sectors — the main fair, the Spotlight section for solo booths, the Frame section for galleries established since 2007 showing one artist’s work, and the Focus section for galleries founded in or since 2003 — Frieze New York is a monster fair. Luckily it is also sited on a verdant stretch of Randall’s Island inside an airy and bright tent and boasts the best food and drink options of any art fair this side of the Atlantic.

This year’s Projects program of site-specific interventions includes a recreation of the “Flux-Labyrinth,” a 200-foot-long labyrinth originally conceived by George Maciunas and other Fluxus artists in 1975, a subterranean environment by Samara Golden, and secret interrogation rooms peppered throughout the fair in which Aki Sasamoto will conduct personality tests on visitors. The highlight of the program of talks and panels is a discussion between Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden and outgoing Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman (May 15, 4pm) in which they’ll attempt to answer the question: “Whom do museums serve?”

NADA New York

When: May 14–17 / Thursday: 6–8pm; Friday, Saturday: 11am–7pm; Sunday: 11–5pm (free)
Where: Pier 36, Basketball City (299 South Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

Looking down on NADA New York 2014 (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

The week’s second-biggest fair, NADA New York‘s 2015 edition features 106 exhibitors —76 of them with traditional booths, 30 of them presenting solo projects. In addition to the usual set of Lower East Side galleries (Nicelle Beauchene, Callicoon Fine Arts, Regina Rex, Essex Flowers, etc.) there will be plenty of out-of-towners, including Detroit’s What Pipeline, Rome’s UNOSUNOVE, Dubai’s Carbon 12, and Springsteen from Baltimore.

The fair’s lineup of talks and performances includes a lecture and slideshow by artist Joshua Smith titled “You inspire me with Your determination And I Love You, Tracey Emin!” (May 15, 2pm) and the intriguingly titled panel “Cloud Based Institutional Critique” with Orit Gat , Zachary Kaplan, and Mike Pepi (May 16, 12pm). Perhaps most intriguing, however, is Melissa Brown and Where’s project “Eyes in the Sky Hold ‘Em,” a high-stakes poker game to be held off-site and streamed live at the fair in which artists will wager their own works in a winner-takes-all Texas Hold ‘Em tournament.

Salon Zürcher

When: May 11–17 / Monday 5–8pm; Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 12–8pm; Wednesday: 12–4pm; Sunday: 12–5pm (free)
Where: Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, SoHo, Manhattan)

The 10th edition of the little fair that could, Salon Zürcher, features six galleries: Galerie L’Inlassable, Mathias Coullaud, and Isabelle Gounod from Paris; Cathouse FUNeral from Brooklyn; Amsterdam outfit The Merchant House; and hosts Zürcher Gallery. Expect a range of works and media, from an installation by Tim Simonds (courtesy Cathouse FUNeral) to paintings by Regina Bogat (from Zürcher Gallery), and drawings by Anne Deleporte (shown byGalerie L’Inlassable).

 Select Art Fair

When: May 14–17 / Thursday, Friday: 2–10pm; Saturday: 12–10pm; Sunday: 12–6pm ($20)
Where: Center 548 (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan)

The entrance to the 2014 Select Art Fair (photo via Hyperallergic/Instagram)

The Select Art Fair has come a long way and seems poised to make the jump to a major satellite fair this year with its impressive lineup of 44 galleries — 19 of which hail from Brooklyn and will occupy their own floor of the fair — extensive schedules of rooftop musical performances, talks, and performance art. And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, Rebecca Goyette’s “Dentata Umbrella Lounge” definitely will — metaphorically and actually.

Seven

When: May 13–17 / Wednesday–Sunday: 12–6pm (free)
Where: The Boiler (191 North 14th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn)

Don’t call it a fair, Seven is a collaborative exhibition organized by seven New York City galleries — bitforms, Metro Pictures, Momenta Art, Pierogi, Postmasters, PPOW, and Ronald Feldman — under the title Anonymity, no longer an option. Surveillance-themed works on view include pieces by Addie Wagenknecht, Trevor Paglen, Suzanne Treister, and Katarzyna Kozyra, though the main attraction is undoubtedly “The Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument 2.0, AKA The Snowden Statue” (2015), the sculpture bust of Edward Snowden that was illegally installed in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park last month.

Art Basel 2015 Highlights

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FORBES

The results are in: The third edition of Art Basel Hong Kong featured a new, moved-up date and reported strong sales and attendance.

This was the first year the fair took place in March instead of May. The new dates translated to the strongest lineup of galleries to date, with 29 galleries exhibiting at Art Basel in Hong Kong for the first time. The timing also coincided with the city’s “Art Month.” Throughout March, a wide range of arts and culture events are took place in Hong Kong, such as satellite art fairs and public arts and exhibitions.

“Over the last three years Art Basel’s Hong Kong show has gone from strength to strength, with the quality of the art, and of the collectors’ attending, improving each year and proving that Hong Kong truly is the art hub of Asia,” says Pascal de Sarthe, director of de Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong. “I am very happy about the date change to March.”

The fair featured 233 galleries with exhibition spaces in 37 countries and territories. Half of the participating galleries had exhibition spaces in Asia and Asia-Pacific. Nearly 60,000 people attended the show—and unlike past years, many of were local residents. ‘This is our fourth year in Hong Kong and there was undeniable new momentum at the fair this year with sales in the seven figures to clients in the United States, Mainland China, the United Kingdom and Europe in general,” says Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of London’s Victoria Miro Gallery.

Couldn’t make it? Below are the top five reported sales from Art Basel Hong Kong. (Some galleries do not disclose sales figures.)

Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

1. David Zwirner Gallery, New York and London

Chris Ofili

Dead Monkey -­‐ Sex, Money and Drugs, 2000

Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, pencil, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen

The price: Sold for $2 million within the first hour of the fair.

Courtesy of Liang Gallery
2. Liang Gallery, Taipei

Chen Cheng-po 陳澄波 Foliage 綠蔭, 1934

Oil on canvas

The price: Sold for $1.95 million.

Courtesy of Liang Gallery

3. Liang Gallery, Taipei

Chen Cheng-po 陳澄波 Footbridge in Shanghai上海路橋, 1930

Oil on canvas

The price: Sold for $1.95 million.

Courtesy of David Zwirner

4.David Zwirner Gallery, New York and London

Neo Rauch

Die Fremde, 2015 Oil on canvas

The price: Sold for $1 million to a new client from mainland China in the last minutes of opening day.

Courtesy of David Zwiner Gallery

5. David Zwirner Gallery, New York and London

Neo Rauch

Marina, 2014 Oil on canvas

The price: Sold for $1 million to a collector from Shanghai.

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TELEGRAPH LONDON

Art Basel Hong Kong: 2015 highlights

Surreal artwork has captivated crowds at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong. This remarkably life-like sculpture, “Untitled (Kneeling Woman)”, was created by Australian artist Sam Jinks.

Art Basel stages contemporary shows in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong each year.

Here, a man peers into US artist John Baldessari’s “Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) Opus # 133″.

Picture: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Jake and Dinos Chapman's 'Isn't this great? The salty sea air! The wind blowing in your face! *sigh* Perfect day to be at sea!'

This year’s Hong Kong fair brought together 233 galleries from 37 countries.

British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman’s created this, entitled: “Isn’t this great? The salty sea air! The wind blowing in your face! *sigh* Perfect day to be at sea!”.

Picture: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Skull by Philippe Pasqua

Pilippe Pasqua’s “Skull” is shown here.

Picture: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

 

'Emotion in Motion' by Nezaket Ekici

Turkish performance artist, Nezaket Ekici, created the artwork “Emotion in Motion” by kissing a white blank canvas with red lipstick throughout the launch.

Read more: the best hotels in Hong Kong

Picture: Imaginechina/REX

South Korean artist Myeongbeom Kim made this deer with wood branches as antlers, seeking to create a balance between reality and fantasy.

Picture: Imaginechina/REX

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FORBES

Art Basel HK 2014 Discoveries. Courtesy of Art Basel

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NYTIMES
Photo

Visitors in front of works by the Australian artist Tomislav Nikolic at Art Basel in Hong Kong. Credit Vincent Yu/Associated Press

HONG KONG — The busiest week on Hong Kong’s contemporary art calendar drew to a close on Tuesday with the conclusion of the third edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, Asia’s most prominent contemporary art fair. Any lingering concerns about the change in the fair’s dates — moved up from May to March, and starting on Friday instead of Wednesday — were addressed during the brief, three-hour V.I.P. preview on the first day, with what many veteran attendees said were larger-than-usual crowds of wealthy collectors and delegations from major art institutions around the world.

About 60,000 visitors swarmed through the white-walled booths, slightly less than the 65,000 who attended last year, in part because the fair was open to the public for one less day. Adding a bit of star power to the event were celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Wendi Deng and Dita Von Teese.

“This year especially we’ve seen a lot more action, a lot more interaction, and a lot more interest from local and regional collectors in less-established names,” said Larkin Erdmann, director at the Massimo de Carlo Gallery of Milan and London.

Photo

A visitor taking a photograph of Andy Warhol’s “Dollar Sign” (1981) at the Hong Kong fair. Credit Vincent Yu/Associated Press

Buyers at the fair appeared to be enthusiastic from the start. Within the first hour of the show, David Zwirner of New York sold a work by the British artist Chris Ofili, who was the subject of a 2014 survey exhibition at the New Museum. The large-scale piece, “Dead Monkey — Sex, Money and Drugs,” from 2000, was bought by a new client for $2 million.

By the end of the second day of the invitation-only preview, Hauser & Wirth had sold two paintings by Atsuko Tanaka to the Karuizawa New Art Museum in Japan for between $400,000 and $600,000 each, and eight paintings by the Chinese artist Zhang Enli for between $250,000 and $350,000 each, among others.

Photo

The South Korean artists Hyung Koo Kang’s “Monroe” (2015), at left, and Ahn Chang Hong’s “Rude Dog” (2010) at Art Basel in Hong Kong. Credit Vincent Yu/Associated Press

White Cube, which has an outpost in Hong Kong, sold one of Damien Hirst’s Black Scalpel Blade cityscapes of Shanghai for about $1.2 million, while White Space of Beijing reported that 70 percent of its works sold within the first two days, including several works by the young Chinese conceptual artist He Xiangyu.

But despite the early sales, many galleries noted the tendency of Asian buyers to warm up to the works before buying, a sharp contrast to the fair’s sister editions in Switzerland and Miami, where collectors often come in knowing exactly what they want.

Photo

The artist Samson Young presenting a visual and sound installation at the Art Basel event. Credit Art Basel

“We’ve always found Hong Kong to be a fair where we expect things to happen until the end,” said Ellie Harrison-Read of Lisson Gallery. “It’s good because it keeps the momentum going.”

Many galleries expressed surprised at the especially strong showing of mainland Chinese collectors. At David Zwirner, two Chinese collectors spent $1 million each on two separate works by the German artist Neo Rauch, who was on hand at the booth.

Photo

Susan Sarandon speaking recently in Hong Kong about her career. Credit Kin Cheung/Associated Press

Eslite Gallery in Taipei reported that several works by the Chinese artist Xu Bing sold to Asian collectors for unspecified amounts.

David Chau, a young collector in Shanghai, said the overall quality of work at the fair improved this year. Western galleries in particular, he said, are responding to the increasingly sophisticated taste of Asian collectors by bringing better works, compared with past years when the work was often “secondary or not very good.”

Photo

A visitor walking past David Hockney’s “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire.” Credit Vincent Yu/Associated Press

At the end of the fair, A.M. Space, a local gallery, had one last available work, which was on reserve for M+, the Hong Kong museum set to open in 2018. For its inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong booth, the gallery presented a solo exhibition by Samson Young, a local artist.

In one piece, “Pastoral Music,” Mr. Young drew on his background in music composition to present a visual and sound installation exploring the history of Hong Kong’s involvement in World War II and the concept of the role of the artist in warfare, more generally.

This year’s fair helped further cement Art Basel Hong Kong’s reputation as a convener of East and West, juxtaposing emerging Asian artists with established Western artists and drawing buyers from both regions.

The scene at the Galerie Gmurzynska booth one afternoon gave a sense of that blended identity. Perusing the booth at once were Joan Punyet Miró, a grandson of the Catalan painter Joan Miró; the Hong Kong style icon Bonnie Gokson; and Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. By the end of the fair, the gallery had sold a number of works, including paintings by Wifredo Lam for between $150,000 and $300,000 and a work by Fernando Botero, which sold for $1.2 million in the minutes before closing.

“It’s an extraordinary moment,” said Ms. Chiu, who once was the director of the Asia Society Museum in New York. “Whereas contemporary art was once exclusive to a small coterie of collectors that were really centered in places like New York or London, now it’s very much a global phenomenon.” Art Basel Hong Kong and its auxiliary events, she added, have helped bring that about.

Correction: March 26, 2015
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article, using information from The Associated Press, overstated what was known about the location of Ms. Sarandon’s speech. The AP could not confirm whether her speech was part of the Art Basel Fair or was given at another event.

2015 (56th) Venice Biennale Reviews

 

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FRIEZE MAGAZINE

Postcard from Venice pt.1: 56th Venice Biennale, ‘All the World’s Futures’

May 07, 2015 by Amy Sherlock

Glenn Ligon and Oscar Murillo, installation view at the Central Pavilion, Giardini, 2015

I generally find Venice an uplifting sort of place. When the hazy, watery sunlight bounces off the campanile in San Marco or the dome of San Giorgio, it’s hard not to feel filled with wonder that such structures – which have stood, more or less unchanged, since the 15th century – were built in a lagoon. The whole city is a testimony equally to ingenuity and folly, as well as to the benefits of international trade and the patronage of the mercantile classes. Venice is also sinking, slowly, at a rate that has, over recent decades, increased due to rising sea levels. This inevitability, just far off enough to be unimaginable, makes the city a particularly interesting setting for an exhibition titled ‘All the World’s Futures’. Curator Okwui Enwezor’s central exhibition for the 56th Venice Biennale considers how contemporary artists are responding to the crises and instability of the globalized present. The Biennale’s own history as a cultural event inaugurated to celebrate the recently united Italian state and its structure – which is still informed by global power relations of the early 20th century – also make it a highly charged setting for considering what ‘all the world’ has historically meant.

A first glance at the central pavilion along one of the Giardini’s tree-lined avenues is enough to ascertain that a consideration of all the world’s futures implies a re-evaluation – and maybe re-writing – of certain narratives of the past. At the top of the pavilion’s bright white facade, a neon work by Glenn Ligon spells out blues blood bruise – unlit, but forming firm dark lines in the bright sunlight. The work overwrites the words ‘La Biennale’, in parts seeming to blur with them, the forms becoming slightly unclear where letters overlap. Below, between the neo-classical columns that lead to the entrance, hang the 20 black canvas ‘flags’ of Oscar Murillo’s signalling devices now in bastard territory (2015). Both foreboding and theatrical, they create an ominous partition. My immediate reading of them is not as flags (without poles, without states) but as tarpaulins used for transport or concealment, or even as shrouds. They look sticky, dusty, heavy. I imagine suffocating beneath one.

Glenn Ligon,‘Come Out #12 – 15’, 2015, installation view, Central Pavilion

Ligon’s piece is related to four large works on canvas that hang in their own room within the pavilion (‘Come Out #12 – 15’, 2015). Across them, the words ‘come out to show them’ are over-printed repeatedly in black – swarming and gathering to the point of being illegible in places, like thunder-cloud haze. They seem to thrum, these canvases: you can almost hear the words as they stumble into one another, an indistinguishable chorus in some parts, a clear voice in others. Both the ‘Come Out’ works and ‘blue blood bruise’ quote from the testimony on Daniel Hamm, one of the Harlem Six, six young black men sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1965 on the grounds of forced confessions taken whilst in police custody. Hamm’s description of police brutality, recorded 50 years ago, feels devastatingly relevant against a backdrop of ongoing ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray whilst in police custody: the latest in a horrible succession of injustices that reflect the strained nature of the relationship between police forces and communities – and race relations more broadly – across the United States. A future of history repeating itself is a sombre prospect, which sets the tone for the entire show.

Robert Smithson, Asphalt on Eroded Cliff, 1969, ink and coloured chalk on paper

The rest of the exhibition, however, can’t quite sustain the clout of this initial punch. It is a truism to say that an exhibition on this scale – including a whopping 136 artists – will necessarily be uneven. In this case, the breadth of the theme – to reflect all of the world’s crises and injustice – means that the varied responses end up almost cancelling one another out. Specific horrors like the Holocaust, referenced in Fabio Mauri’s The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall (1993), a stacked wall of suitcases that is the first sculpture visitors come across in the space, and forgotten histories (such as that of the revolutionary left in Bangladesh, which is the subject of Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Last Man in Dhaka Central [The Young Man Was, Part 3], 2015) sit alongside more speculative references (the barren earth suggested by Robert Smithson’s Dead Tree, 1969/2015) and works that gesture more broadly towards death or suffering (Marlene Dumas’s beautiful series of ‘Skulls’, 2013–15). The effect is overwhelming – which I’m sure is part of Enwezor’s intention – but also flattening. The result, for me at least, is a sense of helplessness and paralysis, rather than politicization or engagement.

Marlene Dumas, Skulls, 2013-15, oil on canvas

There are some powerful moments here – such as the inspired pairing of photographs from Walker Evans’s iconic images of Great Depression-era rural Americans (‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, first published in 1941) with Isa Genzken’s architectural maquettes for ‘Realized and Unrealized Outdoor Projects’. Painted ghostly white, with some proposals as simple as running Two Lines between the roofs of high-rise housing blocks to form a barely visible umbilical connection, these are timeless potential monuments. Read against Evans’s photographs, they speak of loss, frailty and resistance – and the idea that sometimes the most quotidian of objects and gestures are the ones worth commemorating. (A pair of monumental white orchids that stand quietly on the opposite side of the Giardini, Two Orchids (2015) are Genzken’s fully materialized testimony to these ideas.) John Akomfrah’s magisterial Vertigo Sea (2015) is another highlight. Shown over three vast screens, its dense, roiling montage combines archival footage of the hunting and butchering of whales with underwater marine landscapes, aerial shots of birds flocking and dispersing like beads across the surface of the sea, and black and white photographic portraits. The work is hypnotically beautiful yet oblique enough to hold all of the multiple and contradictory significances of the ocean – as freedom and the passage to enslavement, as environmental battleground, as provider and waste dump.

Walker Evans and Isa Genzken, installation view

The show in the Arsenale is more heavy-handed and didactic from the get-go, opening with a blackened room containing neons by Bruce Nauman flashing words and phrases including Eat Death (1972) and Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983) and Adel Abdessemed’s Nympheas (2015) – clusters of knives pointing up from the ground, like deadly flowers. The whole thing feels simultaneously too literal and too general to be thought-provoking. Weapons recur – down the hall in a black cannon by Pino Pascali (Cannone Semovente, 1965), which detonates the forceful symbolism of Melvin Edwards’s tortured but contained ‘Lynch Fragments’ (1963–ongoing), buckled and twisted assemblages of scrap metal, hung from the wall like machinic stags’ heads. Alone these are quietly powerful works; amongst the cacophony of Terry Adkins’s aggressive music-machines and Monica Bonvicini’s black, rubber-clad chainsaws (Latent Combustion, 2015), their meaning feels over-determined. Moments of lightness – such as Ernesto Ballesteros’s wire and balsa wood planes that float like feathers to the floor, travelling no distance at all, the distance of a breath (Indoor Flights, 2015), and Mika Rottenberg’s film installation, which takes a wonderfully weird view of bodily functions and workplace productivity – are few and far between. And the most poignant encounters are those that take you by surprise – for instance, coming across Lorna Simpson’s dreamily delineated painted figures next to Goncalo Mabunda’s The Knowledge Throne (2014), made from decommissioned machine guns.

Monica Bonvicini, Latent Combustion, 2015, chainsaws, wood axe, black polyurethane, matt finish, steel chains

The through-line that seemingly underlies the various economic, social and environmental issues that different works address is capitalism – the ceaseless drive to produce wealth through the exploitation of resources, both human and environmental. This is placed literally centre stage (in an ‘Arena’ designed by architect David Adjaye) through an epic series of readings of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (1861, 1885, 1894) staged by Isaac Julien. Enwezor has called capital ‘the great drama of our age’ and, in so far as it determines almost every aspect of our lives, this may well be true. But Capital is not a dramatic text; it’s a rigorous and complex economic analysis, which gains little in either impact or understanding from being read aloud. As a reminder of the omnipresence and power of money, it is hardly necessary – far starker, unavoidable examples are to be found moored in the lagoon, flanking the route to the Giardini.

I do, however, like the idea that the human voice will be heard throughout this exhibition. I saw performances in the arena by Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, which sample, loop and re-imagine traditional workers’ or chain-gang songs, and a capella renditions of Jeremy Deller’s collection of broadsides – songsheets sold in the streets in industrial Britain, some of which are reproduced close by. These daily performances are reminders of the social, embodied reality of labour. Work is, after all, not only a source of pain but also of pride, ambition and self-realization, and the sense of community and solidarity that these songs evoke is a necessary complement and counterpoint to Marx’s abstract theorizations.

Lorna Simpson, Nightmare?, 2015, graphite and ink on gessoed wood panel with aluminium perimeter

‘All the World’s Futures’ is an ambitious show. The breadth of ‘the world’ that is represented is laudable – artists from 53 countries are included, fifteen more than the ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ in 2013, an overdue and important corrective to previous editions of the biennale. And many of the issues that it addresses are urgent and affect us all. However, for an exhibition whose title might suggest looking forward, much of the work is caught up in the past. The danger of including so many archival or documentary projects is that the whole show gets caught up in wider ethical questions about what it means to document: is to show alone ever enough? Can we just point to the world’s problems? What does that mean in terms of responsibility, in terms of solutions? These are enormous questions and art doesn’t have all the answers. But this show doesn’t appear to be looking for them, transfixed as it seems to be – like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, which is discussed by Enwezor in his introduction – by the rubble of the past that builds up at its feet.

One of the strongest works in the Arsenale is Chantal Akerman’s Now (2015). This five-screen projection combines roving camera footage of the desert with a composite soundtrack of shouts, engines and what sound like gunshots. It’s like speeding through an empty Western film set to the soundtrack of a The Fast and the Furious getaway sequence – disorientating, dizzying, anxiety-inducing. It brought to mind an only half-joking refrain that stayed with me as I walked back through the exhibition: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’

About the author

  • Amy Sherlock's photoAmy Sherlock is reviews editor of frieze and is based in London.

Postcard from Venice pt.2: 56th Venice Biennale, ‘All the World’s Futures’

May 09, 2015 by Paul Teasdale

Hito Steyerl ‘Factory of the Sun‘ (2015) film still; courtesy: the artist; photograph: Manuel Reinartz

If exit polls are to be believed (and the recent UK elections have sadly shown they should be) the main show of this year’s 56th Venice Biennale is a flop. ‘Dreadful’, ‘dire’, ‘depressing’ are some of the more printable adjectives I’ve heard to describe it. ‘Venice is Bad’ was the insightful email header from a supposedly serious art news source.

Call it the typical grumbles of footsore, spritz-lite art tourists but an easy show to digest ‘All the World’s Futures’ ain’t. The Okwui Enwezor-curated exhibition is a dense, theory-crammed, historically-ridden conceptual disquisition. If you like your exhibitions with light and shade and a generous guiding hand, you won’t find it here. Enwezor’s title ‘All the World’s Futures’ exemplifies his tendecy to invert common logic, as he sees no contradiction in taking this as free license to mine the past for his curatorial inspiration. He summons the spectre of Marx in programming the reading of all four volumes of Das Kapital – explicitly an analysis of historical and 19th century labour and market conditions that, some economists would argue (c.f. Thomas Piketty), no longer apply to today’s intrisically networked structures of global capital – and in the show’s accompanying statement, Enwezor invokes Walter Benjamin’s hallucinatory description of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a painting Benjamin owned, as justification for his historical methodology as well as the lever to illuminate ‘both the current “state of things” and the “appearance of things”’. As well as the reading of Marx throughout the Biennale’s duration in the ‘Arena’, a theatre designed by David Adjaye in the heart of the Central Pavilion, work by Fabio Mauri and Bruce Nauman open the Central Pavilion and Arsenale respectively, and ‘anthologies’ of Terry Adkins, Hans Haacke, Harun Farocki, Walker Evans and Chris Marker can also be found scattered throughout this dense show featuring works, and often groupings of works, by 136 artists.

Simon Denny, ‘Secret Power’ (2015), installation view Marco Polo International Airport, Venice. Courtesy: the artist & New Zealand Pavilion

It’s a fair gambit, learning from history to shape the future, but what the historical positions in this year’s exhibition tell us about ‘a project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things,’ as Enwezor describes the show in his accompanying statement, is unclear. Moreover a narrative that would guide us through the admirably diverse yet fractured groupings of artists, a way of positioning their often rewarding work into a coherent structure, was lacking. Perhaps that’s the key missing ingredient here, legibility. In its desire for fulsomeness, this show has overcompensated. (For a far more detailed and thoughtful analysis of Enwezor’s show read Amy Sherlock’s blog here and see the forthcoming Summer issues of frieze and frieze d/e for in-depth reviews on the Biennale and pavilions.)

Hito Steyerl, ‘Factory of the Sun‘ (2015), installation view, German Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist; photograph; Manuel Reinartz

‘We need knowledge of future-futures not past-futures’, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell. If Enwezor’s focus was on the past, two Berlin-based artists outside of his curatorial remit focused on the contemporary issues which Enwezor presumably had in mind; with a charm, wit and attention to storytelling missing from Enwezor’s overwrought exposition.

Hito Steyerl, ‘Factory of the Sun‘ (2015), film still. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Manuel Reinartz

Hito Steyerl’s film Factory of the Sun (2015) was screened in the large dark ‘basement ‘ of the reconfigured German Pavilion – a high up mezzanine which led down to three ground-floor chambers – with grids of blue LEDs created a Tron-like environment where viewers could lounge in deckchairs. Steyerl’s fractious, digitally-buzzing film follows the creation of a spoof video game that discusses, amongst many other things, the shooting down of a Deutsche bank drone that has targeted an innocent bystander. We the viewers are supposedly implicated, by watching from the ‘studio’ the game was created in – the characters one can choose in the game, wearing lycra bodysuits, intermittently breakout and dance to techno. We hear the backstory of one of the female characters, her Russian grandparents sold all their possessions to buy a car and leave the country, only for the borders to change and find themselves back in the USSR; a disembodied bust of Stalin floats in soupy digital waters (a dig at Enwezor’s raising of Marx?). One scene shows our tough-looking protagonist firing a gun at a practice range. In the specification drop table that appears on screen, the gun is classed as ‘tested at Ferguson’. The visuals chop from video game footage, to its motion-capture making, to faux news channels lambasting a Deutsche Bank spokesperson for the company’s implication in the drone strike. (‘Super, so I’m supposed to be the German twat, right?’) It’s irreverent, silly stuff but also poignant and sadly pertinent. Implication in the systems of power to the point where the only form of resistance is complicity (the making of a video game) ultimately delivers a pessimistic payload that the humour can’t efface. But at least it speaks to a reality we recognize as today.

Simon Denny, ‘Secret Power’ (2015), installation view Bibliotheca Nazionale Marciana, Venice. Courtesy: the artist & New Zealand Pavilion

‘Is it Gameable?’ reads text on one of Simon Denny’s data farm-like installations in his show ‘Secret Power’ for the New Zealand pavilion. Housed in the opulently beautiful Bibliotheca Nazionale Marciana, this bastion of knowledge features some of the oldest surviving maps of the globe. This quote is taken from GCHQ files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, and the show as a whole takes as its star the former NSA Creative Director of Defence Intelligence, David Darchicourt, and his graphic designs revealed in the Snowden leaks. Starting with a 3D modelling of Darchicourt’s LinkedIn profile and ending with a Terminator 8000 skull, each terminus mimics the simplicity and legibility of information presentation that Darchicourt prized (shown somewhat ominously are reproductions of children’s games Darchicourt also designed). But Darchicourt is not the bad guy here, more an unwitting pawn to a faceless, borderless system of organizations – the overarching target is the ‘Five Eyes‘ intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Where Denny plays brilliantly is in that weird lacuna that arises in the fact that a secret service employs a designer to make their work more legible.

Simon Denny, ‘Secret Power’ (2015), installation view Marco Polo International Airport, Venice. Courtesy: the artist & New Zealand Pavilion

Are Steyerl and Denny’s takes too funny, too cutely ‘accurate’? Are they too implicit in the horrors they describe? ‘Give us critique not comedy!’ we might pompously demand. Now, as Snowden has shown, disruption comes from within, not from a retrograde spirit of ’68, ‘man the barricades!’ nostalgia. Fighting intelligence requires intelligence and tactics that match. Close studies of the past are important and the needed revisioning of historically-skewed narratives and forgotten positions are welcome, but any depository of knowledge relies on that information’s accessibility. Speaking to the Guardian recently about the content of the Snowden leaks and his Venice exhibition, Denny put it like this: ‘These images contain a lot of cultural information that we just haven’t been able to unpack. The attempt with this exhibition is to give people the tools to do that.’ It wasn’t just the water that was cloudy in Venice this year.

Hito Steyerl, ‘Factory of the Sun‘ (2015), installation view, German Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist; photograph; Manuel Reinartz

About the author

  • Paul Teasdale's photoPaul Teasdale is assistant editor of frieze and managing editor of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.

 

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Venice Biennale 2015
The Observer
56th Venice Biennale review – more of a glum trudge than an exhilarating adventure

There’s an awful lot of fretting about the state of the world in the Biennale’s 88 national pavilions, but little power, wit or bravado

The Key in the Hand by Chiharu Shiota
‘Irresistibly beautiful’: Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand at the Japanese pavilion. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Cumming

Sunday 10 May 2015 02.00 EDT

 

There is a Rolls-Royce pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale – a gorgeous palazzo on the Grand Canal with a garden full of scented roses. Inside, British artist Isaac Julien is showing his equally fetching views of sparkling glacier caves in outermost Iceland. Visions of diamond-bright ice and cascading blue water flow across five film screens to the brimming-point of saturation, with the figure of the Spirit of Ecstasy cunningly worked into the swirl. These works could double as promos for the country as well as the luxury brand.

Down the canal, however, Julien is putting on a different front altogether in the official Giardini, staging a live reading of Das Kapital in its entirety in the Biennale’s new spoken-word venue, Arena. No doubt he can live with the preposterous contradictions involved. But the double act is emblematic of this 56th edition of the world’s grandest art event, which is nothing if not explicitly critical of capitalism, consumerism and filthy lucre while relying upon them all for its very lifeblood.

The big thematic show in the Italian pavilion, organised by the Biennale’s first African curator, Okwui Enwezor, is full of ladies in Louboutins picking their way nervously through an assault course of videos about global starvation, industrial pollution and the atrocious conditions of garment workers in developing countries. Whole galleries are given over to ecology and the arms trade. Coal sacks dangle like trade union banners from the walls to put us in mind of the decline in mining, and this year’s Golden Lion award goes to the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui for his sumptuous hangings – large enough to cover palazzo facades – made out of flattened bottle tops woven together with fine copper wire; consumption transformed into beauty.

Art can take you anywhere, but this year it is straight into the heart of darkness in many of the national pavilions – the prisons of Brazil, the gay brothels of Chile, the psychiatric hospitals of the former USSR. The predominant media are film and photography, with a preponderance of documents – newspaper cuttings, passport photographs, historic letters and even, in the case of the German pavilion, an entire edition of a Nigerian magazine reporting the recent election, every spread presented in glass cases as if this could possibly pass for art of any sort, let alone actual thought or imagination. You can read all this online.

 

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Deep Cream Maradona by Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas’s Deep Cream Maradona at the British pavilion. Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP

In the British pavilion, Sarah Lucas stands out purely by virtue of having no political content whatsoever (pace the fake tabloid election coverage, as crass as it’s meant to be). Her custard-yellow rooms are full of cast versions of the stuffed-tight porn dollies of the past, reprised this time round as both male and female. She squeezes Dalí’s already much-reprised figure from Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) in a gigantic yellow sculpture with a balloon-dog head, dangling balls-cum-breasts and something that might be a phallus or a single finger raised to the art world. One in the eye for those saps who buy her lavs, fags and plaster pudenda.

It’s a laboured assault, all this eye-poking rudery, cigs shoved in here and there – the smoking ass, the Monica Lewinsky fanny. You wouldn’t think Lucas, at 52, could still summon the will to turn out these pervy one-liners. Still, we are coming to the end of the YBA revivals at Venice; time for another generation.
Party spoils and pink ladies: behind the scenes at the Venice Biennale
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Next door’s French pavilion looks a little mimsy at first – empty of everything except a growing tree, and its roots, dug up and prettily installed indoors. But the sound of its rising sap is somehow continuously recorded, making a low and beautiful thrum. And then outside is another tree and another, and as you examine them, trying to discover the source of this inner music, so the trees start to move almost imperceptibly towards you, taking on a life of their own. Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.

Finland has an enchanted forest by night – silver trees moving against black – that ages through whole centuries in moments on a spectral screen before you. Canada’s comic BGL collective fences a real lonesome pine, scattering rusting cans at the bottom to parody generations of compatriot campers. Australia’s marvellous Fiona Hall finds driftwood on the beach and in her sculptor’s hands turns it into a pageant of lithe creatures, bodied forth like three-dimensional cousins of the prehistoric cave drawings at Lascaux.

Hall’s pavilion is a condensed museum of wondrous objects – warrior masks knitted out of military fatigues; precious weaver-bird nests created out of shredded banknotes; strange new fish fashioned out of the unscrolled lids of sardine cans. Time ticks both forwards and backwards in her fantastical imagination: art makes the future look ancient.
Cate Blanchett with Fiona Hall sculptures.

Actor Cate Blanchett looks at driftwood sculptures by Fiona Hall on display at the Australian pavilion. Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP

While Julien’s actors are reciting Marx in the Arena space to an audience of practically no one, Hall is one of the few artists here to respond to the real and urgent political present instead of simply rehearsing the usual art-scene rhetoric. A map of the southern Mediterranean is strewn with tenderly formed figures representing the migrants who drowned between Africa and Italy last week; a miniature requiem.
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But in general there is a flatness to the Giardiani this year. The American art crowd haven’t come because the timing conflicts with the Frieze art fair in New York, so there was no buzz over Joan Jonas’s US pavilion, in which children appear as naiads and dryads in double-exposure films of a certain dreamy gentleness. And there isn’t very much else to look at otherwise. So many of the pavilions feel like Commonwealth Institute lectures that the clear winner, by general consent, is the irresistibly beautiful installation of exquisite red nets in the Japanese pavilion, through which thousands of keys from all over the world cascade – some caught, others lost; a simple but concise meditation on memory.

It all powers up a little more in the Arsenale, which opens fittingly with an arsenal of weapons – chainsaws, cannons, fierce blades gathered into sheaves and titled Nymphéas by the Algerian artist Adel Abdemessed for their startlingly sinister resemblance to waterlilies. A wall devoted to the African American Melvin Edwards assembles many of his curious fetishes soldered out of cast iron hardware, manacles and hammerheads – a potent row of heavy metal knuckleheads – and Okwui Enwezor, purposefully featuring as many black artists as he can, includes strong mini-retrospectives by Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall and Chris Ofili.
Irina Nakhova Venice Biennale exhibition

 

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‘Devastatingly direct’: Irina Nakhova’s huge helmet confronts a visitor to the Russian pavilion. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Wandering through this mile of art, you learn about the pioneering feminists of the Swedish glove-makers’ union in 1898 and the history of the US airforce pilot who fell to earth in communist Albania. The artists of Georgia make you walk across shattered glass to understand what it’s like to live there now. The artists of Tuvalu make you walk across fragile bridges through which water seeps at every step – not so much alluding to the rising tides that threaten that tiny island as recreating them with a certain literal exactness.

And this is the odd thing about the latest Biennale. Most years, one would shy away from the question of what kind of art the world is making now for fear of running into absurd generalisations based on 90 pavilions (88 now that Kenya has pulled out over the very high ratio of Chinese to Kenyan artists selected by Italian curators, and Costa Rica has quit after the curators tried to charge its artists €5,000 to appear in Venice). But this time certain characteristics emerge.

These artists are worried about the state of the world, and their own nations, and many of them don’t care if what they produce is on the level of agitprop. If I saw one endangered plant species I saw 10; if I saw one symbolic skull I saw 20, and I lost count of the number of cankered trees and felled buildings. The vocabulary of Biennale art is diminishing. There are trashed flags and ticking clocks everywhere, along with a whole variety of shop installations – capitalism in microcosm. Which is slightly farcical, since so many of the pavilions have become shops themselves now, the shows paid for by the artists’ galleries and all of the work up for sale.
Ukrainian artists occupy Russian pavilion at Venice Biennale
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Of course there are exceptions, not least among the many collateral events such as Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa’s monumental fine-mesh head appearing in the dusk of San Giorgio Maggiore like a disembodied soul; and a fine show of Peter Doig’s latest paintings, full of jauntily piratical lions and strange new characters to add to his mythological dramatis personae, at the Palazzetto Tito.

But I can’t recall a Biennale with so little visual power, originality, wit or bravado. It feels more like a glum trudge than the usual exhilarating adventure. Art worlders mutter that the soul has gone out of the event as the money pours in, and certain pavilions seem exemplary in this respect. Azerbaijan, for instance, has not one but two, paid for by super-rich plutocrats whose oil wells have not yet run dry. One of them, small and sidelined, contains work by local artists; the other is an ostentatious affair on the Grand Canal stuffed with big names, including the mandatory Warhol – not so much a pavilion as a display of bluechip investments.

At the very end of the Arsenale, their tails rippling in the marine breeze of the docks, are two colossal dragon-like creatures hovering above the water. They are the work of Xu Bing, a Chinese artist hired to make a sculpture for the World Financial Centre in Beijing. Appalled by the primitive conditions of the migrant workers, he used the worn-out tools of their trade – pliers, shovels, jackhammers – to commemorate their labour and make something magnificent from the debris. These creatures are unarguably symbolic, and so, perhaps, is their positioning as a coda to the whole show: a pair of phoenixes rising from the ashes.
Venice 2015: the 5 best pavilions

Russia A black helmet the size of a room confronts visitors to Irina Nakhova’s haunting pavilion. Sinister and funereal, this surrogate head appears both blind and dead until it suddenly blinks into life and the artist’s own eyes appear trapped inside on a film-screen. The political history of this piece is complex – the artist was one of the suppressed Moscow conceptualists – but its impact is devastatingly direct. At 60, Nakhova is the first woman to represent Russia.

Japan This exquisite installation by Chiharu Shiota was the immediate popular hit of the Biennale. Thousands of keys shower down from the ceiling into tangled nets of crimson thread, some slipping through, others caught in wooden boats straight out of Hokusai. An accompanying video of children trying to summon their earliest memories completes the metaphor of this beautifully simple work, with its intensely meditative atmosphere.
Armando Lulaj’s‘terrific tragicomedy of cold war Albania’.
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Armando Lulaj’s‘terrific tragicomedy of cold war Albania’. Photograph: PR

Albania A sperm whale mistaken for a submarine, a mythical mountain and an US airforce plane that fell to earth in 1956, its bewildered pilot forced to apologise for spying, the craft itself installed on the roof of a medieval castle in Enver Hoxha’s birthplace: just a few of the interwoven elements of Armando Lulaj’s terrific tragicomedy of cold war Albania told in sculptures, videos and original film footage.

United States At 79, Joan Jonas is the veteran star of the Biennale and her multimedia installation is both eerie and elegiac. Children appear on double-exposed screens as the spectral spirits of beehives, forests and rivers while disembodied voices attempt to describe ghostly phenomena seen in nature. Mirrors and windows draw the real Giardini into the plot of what becomes a peculiarly poetic visual narrative.

Australia Fiona Hall’s wunderkammer of glimmering objects in the brand new Australian pavilion, opened by Cate Blanchett, shows her extraordinary gift for juxtaposing ideas and materials – guns made out of bread, watercolours out of banknotes, a bestiary of imaginary critters woven from the grasses where they might live. Real insects weave cocoons around miniature monuments and mythical beasts emerge from the relics of the past in this futuristic natural history museum.

 

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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

May 1, 2015 4:52 pm

Venice Biennale: Politics show

Okwui Enwezor curates an exhibition laced with commentaries on gender and geopolitics
Installation by Katharina Grosse, part of ‘All the World’s Futures’ at the 2015 Venice Biennale
©Nic Tenwiggenhorn/ Studio Grosse

Installation by Katharina Grosse, part of ‘All the World’s Futures’ at the 2015 Venice Biennale

V

enice Biennale visitors, be warned: this year’s edition may be unlike any you have seen for some time. This year’s curator, Okwui Enwezor, is a man with a profound conviction that art has a responsibility to civil society. The centrepiece of his exhibition, which is entitled All the World’s Futures and includes no fewer than 136 artists, will be a continuous performance of readings of Das Kapital. Given that even not-for-profit events like the biennale are sucked in by art’s symbiotic relationship with the market, Enwezor’s decision to challenge the system is bold.

“What I find incredibly [dispiriting] is the infantilisation of artists,” he tells me. Refuelled by the canapés provided by the Italian Cultural Institute in London where we meet, we have settled at a table in the library. Surrounded by books, the harmonious setting is of a piece with Enwezor himself; tall, languid and unselfconsciously handsome, he exudes a mood of calm yet switched-on self-possession.

He is appalled by art’s failure to speak truth to power. “We expect writers to ponder the big questions, and musicians and composers. But somehow in the current moment the things that are most celebrated in our field are devoid of position. They do their job; they don’t disturb. They don’t raise questions.” He pauses and then adds gloomily: “There is a lot of painting.”

Many of the artists he has invited to his biennale mine their work from a seam of political awareness. Some names are familiar, such as those of Marlene Dumas, Hans Haacke, Theaster Gates and Glenn Ligon. But others, such as the Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, reflect his determination to incorporate voices from beyond orthodox parameters.

Gulf Labor’s ‘Abu Dhabi 2014’ (2014)©GLC

Gulf Labor’s ‘Abu Dhabi 2014’ (2014)

At his exhibition’s core will be the Arena, a space for live art and film built by architect David Adjaye in the central pavilion. Here, as well as the readings of Das Kapital, performances will include Jason Moran’s assembly of prison songs; Olaf Nicolai’s synthesis of music by the left-wing composer Luigi Nono with poems by Pavese and Parisian graffiti; and Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s film of seminal works by the composer Julius Eastman.

Enwezor is particularly excited by the resurrection of Eastman. Extracting his phone from his pocket, he plays me a few minutes of his piece, “Evil Nigger”. A torrent of notes flooding from four pianos simultaneously, it gives me the shivers, even through YouTube’s feeble recording.

“Eastman’s been forgotten; his music is not performed. He was a gay African-American composer who defied the category of jazz and his own sexuality [in writing classical music], so to have a memorial for this kind of outsider . . . ” Enwezor’s voice trails off into a sigh.

Okwui Enwezor©Alice Whitby

Okwui Enwezor

Such retrievals mirror Enwezor’s own journey from margin to centre. Although the biennale will stamp him as one of the world’s most high-profile curators, his journey to prominence has not been orthodox. Born in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1963 to a “normal, bourgeois, postcolonial family”, he arrived in New York in the early 1980s to study political science.

Soon he had fallen into the city’s “incredible burgeoning arts scene”, and he found himself increasingly drawn to visual artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hammons and Xu Bing, the Chinese artist then living in New York. After a few small shows, in 1996 he curated what turned out to be a landmark exhibition of 30 African photographers, held at New York’s Guggenheim museum.

Today, he is the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and also holds a fellowship at the Whitney Museum in New York. Yet his place in the spotlight has, if anything, boosted his own determination to remain “not part of the art-world establishment”.

The Venice Biennale is not exempt from his critique. He points out that its inception, in 1895, may have been motivated by “enlightened ideals of art, and nation, and grandness” but that the “shadow histories” of many of its participants are less admirable.

As a result, this year’s catalogue will include “a small dossier” tracing changes made to the pavilions in the Giardini over the course of the 20th century. “The central pavilion was originally neoclassical, but in the 1930s it was given its fascist façade. Under Franco, Spain’s pavilion got its brick cladding and all the monarchical characteristics [were removed]. You have to look at the skin of the buildings [to uncover] renovations and concealments.” He is also ambivalent about the institution’s prolific expansion. “I wonder if the biennale is cannibalising its own success,” he murmurs, taking a sip of coffee. “We now have 60 pavilions in two settings. To what extent does it really contribute to the ability to enjoy the exhibition?”

Samira Alikhanzadeh’s ‘#16 Family Album’ (2008)

Samira Alikhanzadeh’s ‘#16 Family Album’ (2008)

Given the fever of growth that is gripping today’s art world — larger works, bigger institutions, grander blockbusters, higher prices — is he not out of sync with the zeitgeist? Suddenly, his laid-back smile vanishes. “The art world may be awash with money but it’s also a moment when many institutions are deeply impoverished because of a lack of public support.”

Enwezor believes that intelligent development should not depend on grandiose new wings or crowd-pulling exhibitions. “The rampant expansion of museums is not for the public; it’s for the glorification of capital,” he continues, in a nod to the private interests — sponsors, galleries, auction houses — who all have a stake in institutional life. “Do we really need more exhibition space? More programming?” he continues. “We should be asking instead what it means to be a public institution.”

Installation of Xu Bing’s work at the biennale©Alessandra Chemollo

Installation of Xu Bing’s work at the biennale

He believes big museums should lead the way. “Instead of making stupid Björk exhibitions,” he growls, in a swipe at MoMA’s critically-panned retrospective of the Icelandic singer, “they could have made a really interesting show about [for example] MTV as a cultural phenomenon which saw gender and racial barriers broken.”

He pauses, and then observes the difficulty of raising money for a biennale which, though 15 per cent of its financing comes from the Italian Ministry of Culture, is chiefly sustained by sponsorship. “There are people who come for a few hours and pay £50,000 to dock their yachts. They have no idea what it takes to set up this exhibition.”

As we say goodbye I wonder whether secretly he would like to send the yachties to the guillotine. Or is he merely hoping that they drop a few of their millions at the biennale’s door? Whatever the answer, those Das Kapital readings could send them scuttling back to their expensive moorings.

Venice Biennale, May 9-November 22. labiennale.org

Photographs: Nic Tenwiggenhorn/ Studio Grosse; GLC; Alice Whitby; Alessandra Chemollo

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