New York City is gearing up for the arrival of thousands of pieces of modern and contemporary art (and perhaps just as many gallerists and art collectors) from around the globe, as the city on the Hudson will be playing host to several major art fairs all at once over the next several days. Although west coast dealers have always been willing to brave Manhattan’s freezing temperatures in order to place their artists’ work in front of new eyes during “Armory Week,” Los Angeles gallery representation at the city’s annual March shows is more extensive than ever this year.
The biggest of the Armory Week fairs is the The Armory Show (March 5-8) itself, with 199 total participating art galleries, including 15 from Los Angeles, showing work at Piers 92 and 94 on the west side. “The L.A. art community is really having a moment right now,” suggests the Armory Show’s Executive Director, Noah Horowitz, “from a flourishing gallery and institutional scene to a huge number of artists who have recently taken up residence throughout the city. [Our] exhibitor list this year absolutely reflects that trajectory.”
Although the Anat Ebgi gallery, situated on La Cienega Boulevard’s gallery row, has participated in other New York art fairs before, gallery director Paolo Di Stefano says the “much broader scope” of the Armory Show, where it will be exhibiting for the first time, “opens us up to be seen by a lot more people. It’s not just for young, emerging galleries and young, emerging artists.” Ebgi, Hollywood’s Various Small Fires, and M+B of West Hollywood are among 21 international galleries less than ten years old that are showing work by one or two represented artists in the Armory Presents section of the fair.
Several prominent Los Angeles galleries are bringing work to the Armory Show’s main Contemporary venue. “New York brings a lot of collectors from all over the world,” Cherry and Martin gallery director Michelle Pobar affirms,“ and a lot of them are excited to see what’s coming from Los Angeles these days.” Even OHWOW, which has generally eschewed art fair participation in the past, will be showing up for the first time. “Face time with collectors in New York is important,” acknowledges OHWOW partner Al Moran. Otherwise, “some people don’t even see the work [they buy] until it gets to their homes.”
Marc Selwyn Fine Art and Louis Stern Fine Arts are representing L.A. in the Armory Show’s Modern section, showcasing twentieth century art. A veteran Armory exhibitor, Louis Stern says “it’s always been a positive experience. We’ve always left the fair with a lot of optimism.”
Just a few blocks south of the Armory Show, the SCOPE New York art fair’s 55 exhibitors will include six Los Angeles galleries. Described by co-founder Alexis Hubshman as “the X-Games of the art world,” the SCOPE franchise, which includes fairs in different cities throughout the year, defines its mission as “tapping into the cultural psyche to present only the most pioneering work across multiple creative disciplines.”
Soze Gallery director Toowee Kao describes this weekend at SCOPE as a “sneak peek” at the seven or eight artists who will be having solo shows in Soze’s West Hollywood space in the coming year, though all of the pieces she’s bringing to New York “were made specifically for this fair.” Gallerist Lawrence Cantor, based on West Adams, describes his participation at SCOPE as an opportunity “not so much to make money as to meet people. It gives me a voice in a cutting edge, young market.”
Further downtown, in the Chelsea art gallery district, Independent New York is “a little funkier” than some of the city’s other fairs this weekend, suggests Kurt Muller of the David Kordansky Gallery on South La Brea. “It’s a great way for us to show something more atypical or radical” to the New York art world, “something unexpected.” The Hannah Hoffman Gallery and The Box will also be there.
Four L.A. galleries will be showing work at Volta NY on Pier 90, right next to the Armory Show. Distinguished in part by its emphasis on one- and two-artist exhibitions, the Volta event is not quite as slick, not quite as polished as other fairs in town, according to participating Santa Monica gallerist Richard Heller. “The people there are super cool, and it’s all a bit more collaborative.”
Another snowy, terrible New York City afternoon (a people-watching game to play with younger fairgoers is “snot bubble or tiny septum piercing?”) was no deterrent for a flock of art enthusiasts descending on today’s Independent art fair in Chelsea. Some of them were even too eager to speak: “There’s a time to look and a time to talk, and I’m looking right now,” collector Mera Rubell said in the fair’s opening hour. At least at Independent, there is a relatively (compared to the harrowing Armory) manageable amount of stuff to see.
Hanging out at the booth of Berlin’s Société gallery is a giant lightbox photograph by the German-Mongolian artist Timur Si-Qin approximating the aesthetics of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaign. In the photo, two absurdly hunky young white male models share a draped American flag around their oh-so-broad shoulders.
Si-Qin has in the past worked with materials as disparate as swords and Axe Body Spray (side note: we look forward to that inevitable moment when Axe Body spray sponsors an art fair), so for him to take on the aesthetics of an Abercrombie campaign fits nicely in line with his style as an artist, which for now is represented by a Yin-Yang crest with the words PEACE in all-caps below it, a signature that can be seen in the corner of his work on display at the Independent and on most of his works.
New York’s Real Fine Arts brought to the fair a giant Cookie Monster-esque sculpture by the artist Stefan Tcherepnin, originally made for a movie included in the artist’s recent exhibition at the gallery. “It had a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome in it as a setting,” said RFA cofounder Tyler Dobson, explaining the video, “so they were walking around in this atmosphere, and a few sculptures came out of that film.” Dobson described the flick as having a “dystopian, abstract narrative,” and although actual actors donned the suit in the movie, at the Independent the monster was merely stuffed.
In order to reach the piece, one has to navigate a series of very small sculptures by Sam Anderson (on display at Tanya Leighton), a perilous path guarded in part by Dobson and a very attentive security guard. The guard stationed in front of Anderson’s miniatures is probably in for a very long shift. “I’m gonna have a heart attack myself,” she said after seeing a visitor nearly stomp a small sculpture of a dog wrapped in some sort of sheet. (Canada Gallery’s Phil Grauer, perhaps noticing a reporter’s slack-jawed fascination with Tcherepnin’s monster, offered a pithy explanation of the work his gallery had on display: “This booth is very serious art, it might not work for you, move along.” The art in question was from the deceased first generation conceptual artist Gerald Ferguson, hailing from—incidentally—Nova Scotia.)
A less stressful installation came from Karma, tucked in a corner by a window, showing photographs by the sculptor Robert Grosvenor—sexy cars, large-scale toy ships, a gorgeous pair of green doughnuts floating, Ophelia-like, on water. Another piece, not on view, unfortunately: a rat surfing on a life preserver. The works are a kind of preview for a show opening Friday at the gallery, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE ARE FLOATING IN SPACE,” which features Grosvenor and some of his contemporaries, like John McCracken, Brice Marden, Charlotte Posenenske, Robert Smithson, Ken Price, and Anne Truitt.
Speaking of floating around up in space somewhere, there was Jose Martos, owner of Martos Gallery, displaying Jory Rabinovitz’s copper installation, EEB. Trimmed in oxidized-green fabric tubes, copper squares missing penny-sized holes are mounted as a sort of conceptual shrine to the lowest denomination of the American dollar. The missing copper, like indulgence change, is scattered just below the Ur-plates of metal. Martos was quick to summarize the history of the American penny to a willing listener—how it was once made of pure copper, until the government switched to a bronze alloy of copper and zinc and the actual material worth of the coin dropped. He compared a set of white steps scattered with pennies to Fascist architecture, and his eyes lit up.
“I love Fascist architecture,” Martos declared. “And Futurism.” We also learned that he admires Alfred Hitchcock’s fastidious eye for design, particularly the cavernous theaters in Spellbound; periodically, he goes through and rewatches Hitchcock’s entire filmography. The James Bond series receives equal attention. He asked if we’d like to meet his assistant, claiming she was much better at talking than him. That’s doubtful.
Tyson Reeder, represented by Canada Gallery, had a few paintings on view courtesy Brussels’s Office Baroque; one of them, Untitled, depicts a spirited longhaired rock band jamming out in front of an artificial brick wall. Elsewhere, Matthew Higgs, director of White Columns and one of Independent’s co-founders, was discussing a forthcoming vinyl LP produced by White Columns of the noisy and not entirely musical Piano Party—pretty much exactly what it sounds like—Reeder threw at Canada earlier this winter. (Today, however, Higgs was selling records out of his booth by Emily Sundblad and Matt Sweeney, which were, according to Higgs, “Much more conventional.”) Higgs also had a work on view by the dealer Gavin Brown. Brown was a floor above, selling watercolors by the German, L.A.-based artist Silke Otto Knapp. Brown’s piece was a rendering of his own hands, one spray-painted neon pink and the other black, each mounted on a circular mirror. Small world.
The V.I.P. promenade of the 15th iteration of the Armory Show, taking up the bird filled halls of Pier 92 and 94 alongside the frozen Hudson River, opened today with a seasonal flurry of sales.
Leaner and meaner this year with “just” 199 galleries from 28 countries, the larger and more heavily trafficked contemporary component aptly demonstrated that art fair fatigue has been placed on hold or those still suffering from it have entered rehab. Before a line was formed for checking coats and bulky bags, sales were clicking along at Paris/Salzburg Thaddaeus Ropac.
A handsome, woven, glass beaded and patterned abstract canvas by Liza Lou, “Ixube 3” from 2011, sold for $495,000 and Jules de Balincourt’s rather edgy and new protest scene at a posh ski resort, “US as in you me and them” in oil and acrylic on wood panel, measuring 82 by 55 inches, sold for $175,000. On a smaller scale, Robert Longo’s “Study for Chevalier” from 2013 and part of his shiny armor series, as in Medieval Armor, and scaled at 18.5 by 15.8 inches, in ink and charcoal on vellum, sold out of the back room (aka closet) for $48,000.
Nearby, at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery, a large-scale and exotic landscape by Chris Ofili, “Last Light, First Flight” from 2008, in paper collage on canvas, sold in the high six figures. “It sold right off the bat,” said director Glenn Scott Heron, noting that the recent New Museum Ofili survey “finally got people past the dung paintings of the ’90s.”
Museum exhibitions definitely stoke the market for recently featured artists as also evidenced by Kehinde Wiley’s “Portrait of Natasha Zamor” from 2015, at New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery, which sold for $125,000. It was scaled at 72 by 60 inches and features one of the street found models Wiley sources and celebrated at the current Brooklyn Museum show of 40 paintings. The gallery also sold Antony Gormley’s standing, 74 inch-high figure “State XIII” from 2012, in cast iron for £350,000 and Marina Abramovic’s horse mounted “The Hero I” from 2001, a framed color photograph for €90,000.
Still in the relatively low price point video/photography sphere, David Claerbout’s edgy “Oil workers (from the Shell company of Nigeria) returning home form work, caught in a torrential rain” from 2013, a single channel video projection, HD animation, color, silent endless (as the description goes), sold two editions at €65,000 each.
At New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, another new gallery artist, the Iraqi painter Hayv Kahraman, currently enjoying a solo there in Chelsea, was represented at the stand with “Hapool Meshkhor,” a new painting scaled at 100 by 79 inches in oil on linen and exclusively focused on a female figure, went for $75,000. The more established and first-rate Kerry James Marshall, ”Study for Bed Man” from 2013, done in ink wash and collage and depicting a nude black man on a fur covered bed with an African flag, in a kind of brilliant reprise of the famed Goya “La Maja desnuda,” c. 1797-1800, quickly sold for $42,000. The gallery also sold Nick Cave’s spacey and post-Spock-like “Soundsuit” from 2011, in mixed media including shopping cart, buttons, upholstery, metal, and mannequin, for $125,000.
In those early V.I.P scouting hours, the general atmosphere was calm and bubble like, without much hysteria, apart from one observed moment in the wake of an upset collector who very much wanted dibs on a hard to source Mickalene Thomas painting at LA’s Suzanne Vielmetter, where Thomas’s “Portrait of Qusuquzah #6” from 2015, set in rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and silk screen on wood panel, sold to an otherwise unnamed American institution for $65,000. It was one of the standout pieces in the fair, showing the artist’s expanded use of collaging and painting on the surface in a kind of Cubist styled approach, capturing a woman in profile. The dejected suitor made a loud fuss but moved on.
The mood was lighter at New York’s 11 Rivington, which experienced a small avalanche of early sales in the comfortable price range of approximately $5,000-20,000 and ranging from unique, small scaled laser toner on paper abstractions by Marsha Cottrell, such as “Spectral Sun” from 2014, to Volker Huler’s large-scale, 74 by 52 inch etching “Lost in the Stars V,” from 2014, and Evan Nesbit’s acrylic, dye, and burlap abstraction “Untitled,” from 2015. The Lower East Side gallery also sold works by Mika Tajima in spray enamel and thermo formed acrylic in the $13,500-20,000 range.
Concentrating on more emerging artists, at least on this promenade, there was more activity at New York’s Fredericks Freiser, as recent Yale grad Mark Thomas Gibson, currently better known as Kara Walker’s ace studio assistant, had three text based paintings on view, including “Search Light” from 2015, which sold for $8,500. In stenciled-like letters and mashed up with other poached images, the painting reads “Some monsters loom large,” a great phrase for the current market. The gallery also sold photo-realist styled, faux Surreal works on canvas by Jocelyn Hobbie in the mid-$20,000 range, including the sexy “Kitten,” from 2015, at 36 by 24 inches.
Fitzrovia dealer (as in London) Josh Lilley enjoyed great success with his stand of still underknown artists, including a sassy, Louise Bourgeois-like floor sculpture by Kathleen Ryan, “Bacchante Reclining” from 2015 and aggressively potent in concrete, marble, and stainless steel. The silvery blue grouping of balloon-like forms tethered together like convicts on a chain gang sold for $18,000. Lilley also sold a group of figurative paintings by Aliza Nisenbaum, who was recently featured in a White Columns show, with works depicting Central American families the artist befriended in Queens. The evocative portraiture mix of Diego Rivera and Alice Neel, perfumed to the plight of paperless but hard-working immigrants, injected a heady gravitas to the work. “Gloria, Angelica, Jessica,” executed in oil on linen from 2014 and scaled at 51 by 33 inches, sold for under $10,000.
Amidst the low-octane hubbub, a performance artist gracefully skateboarded along the aisles on an electric contraption resembling a flying carpet, complete with fringe — the performer was decked out in a skull cap and caftan-like costume. It added a light and enjoyably Surrealist touch to the Armory Show.
The Modern section will be covered here on Thursday.
The 10 Best Contemporary Artworks At The 2015 Armory Show
The VIPs were out in force at the preview of the Armory Show on the Hudson Piers on Wednesday. We spotted Neil Patrick Harris, fresh off his Oscars hosting performance, chatting with none other than George Lucas in the aisles. REM’s Michael Stipe was seen picking up lunch with Bill Arning, director at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and some other friends. Museum directors like Glenn Lowry were on the prowl.
Aiko Hachisuka’s large sculpture Couch caught our eye at Eleven Rivington (New York). It’s a large, comfy-looking couch covered with stuffed clothes, all bought at a yard sale from a single family. It brings to mind Mike Kelley’s work with stuffed toys, as well as Yayoi Kusama’s furniture sculptures covered with soft phallus shapes. The gallery’s Augusto Arbizo (see 14 Young New York Art Dealers To Watch) points out that it’s actually more closely inspired by early works by John Chamberlain. By the time we got back to the office, it had sold to someone for $20,000. Only that person will get to sit on it, so don’t try to sit down.
An array of ceramic sculptures by William J. O’Brien, each on a custom-designed stand, makes for a dramatic presentation at Marianne Boesky’s booth. The Ohio-born artist lives in Chicago and he’s 37. These zany sculptures in all sorts of colors dominate the booth to great effect, each standing a couple of feet high. Some depict partial figures, some are angular and abstracts, some show crazy heads. In one, showing a figure from thighs to elbows, the hands sport fingernail polish.
I don’t know the work of German artist Michael Müller yet, but you can’t help but be drawn into the stand of Aanant & Zoo/Thomas Schulte, in town from Berlin. The artist has lined the floor with pink carpet and the pink wall with text of his own writing. There are sculptures throughout the booth, including a creepy one showing a man sitting in a shower stall, with nothing where his genitals should be. Another, Relaunch at the Museum Shop, has an aluminum cut-out of German artist Albrecht Dürer atop a plinth, with a Louis Vuitton–style handbag emblazoned with the artist’s own logo of a D nestled within an A.
I can’t get enough of Martin Wong. His painting Iglesia Pentecostal, 1986, shows the whitewashed façade of a church on Avenue B on New York’s Lower East Side, with the metal security gates closed. Wong, a Chinese-American artist who died from AIDS, has been deservedly in the spotlight in recent years, with the Museum of the City of New York mounting a show of his street art collection and Danh Vō devoting his Hugo Boss Prize show at the Guggenheim to a display of other items Wong collected. This painting, to me, delightfully plays with the notion of a flat picture plane and of shutting the viewer out, while depicting a bombed-out Lower East Side that’s unimaginable today. It’s showing at P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.
Edge of Arabia Projects (EOA), London, hosts an endearing project by artist Darvish Fakhr, who is dressed in a flowing garment and a fez, like a whirling dervish (yes, his name has the same root), and is riding a magic carpet around the fair. It sits atop a motorized device and, echoing the motor’s sound, is called Whirring Dervish. He won’t be hard to find. Just watch for everyone smiling and directing their iPhones his way as he cruises by. On a break at EOA’s booth in the Focus section, devoted to galleries from the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean, he told me he hopes to lighten things up and deal with a troubled part of the world with some humor. When I asked if I could try it out, he said, “I don’t know, can you ride longboard?”
London’s Moving Museum, one of the nonprofits accorded a tiny booth, introduced me to a fine project by Soheila Sokhanvari, an Iranian artist who somehow managed to smuggle some crude oil out of Iran. She used the substance to create monochromatic drawings based on photographs from pre-revolutionary Iran. The works couldn’t be more timely, with Iran’s nuclear capabilities on the front page as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was invited by Congressional Republicans to give a campaign speech in Congress this week, slamming Obama’s still-in-negotiations arms deal.
Ryan Gander has a fine sculpture at Berlin’s Johnen Galerie that gooses Donald Judd, which can only be a good thing. He’s arranged a series of IKEA shelves in a column, just like Judd’s iconic “stack” sculptures. Atop them rests a potted plant, as if to turn some of the most beloved exemplars of minimalism into nothing more than interior decor. (It reminded me of a fine piece by David Scanavino at Marlborough recently that similarly tweaked the famously prickly artist by treating his chairs in ways that probably wouldn’t have pleased him.)
Wael Shawky’s drawings at Lisson Gallery (London, Milan, and soon New York) are a delight. He’s shot a series of videos that use marionettes to tell the tale of the Crusades, as he puts it, from the Arabs’ perspective; they’re now on view at MoMA PS1 (see Puppet Jihad at MoMA PS1 Puts Burlesque Into Extremism), along with the marionettes. The drawings are subtler, but the fancy that infuses the puppets and the videos is also on display here.
Nara Roesler, with galleries in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, has a great sculpture by Julio Le Parc, with hundreds of little yellow panes of plastic hanging in a giant globe from the ceiling, making a mesmerizing avant-garde sun in the fluorescent-lit gilded trenches of the piers. The artist, born in 1928, has been showing at biennials since Venice in 1966 and São Paulo the following year, and has stood up to repressive military regimes in Brazil and participated in collective artistic acts of protest against fascist movements in Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
El Anatsui has received plaudits for institutional solo shows like the recent one at the Brooklyn Museum, which opens soon at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. A giant wall hanging at Jack Shainman’s booth is tagged at $1.5 million and incorporates hundreds of aluminum remnants from liquor bottles to create a great, swirling black curtain. (See El Anatsui’s Exciting New Work Is Even More Majestic Than Ever.) Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, once wrote of his sculptures, “Their drapes and folds have a voluptuous sculptural presence, but also an undeniably glamorous bravado.” That bravado is on plentiful display here.
Darvish Fakhr, Whirling Dervish, 2014. Photo Brian Boucher.
Aiko Hachisuka, Couch (2011). Photo: Courtesy of Eleven Rivington Gallery.
Michael Müller. Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Schulte.
Julio Le Parc at Galeria Nara Roesler.
Martin Wong, Iglesia Pentecostal, 1986, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of The Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
Ryan Gander, I Am Broken, 2011. Galerie Johnen, Berlin.
Soheila Sokhanvari, drawings in smuggled Iranian crude oil, at the Moving Museum, London. Photo Aaron Sherman.
William J. O’Brien, Untitled (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
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The NY Observer Guide An Opinionated Guide to the Art Fair Avalanche of NY’s Armory Week
By Alexandra Peers and Ryan Steadman | 03/03/15 7:00am
An illustrated guide to the fairs of Armory Arts Week 2015. (Photo: New York Observer)
An illustrated guide to the fairs of Armory Arts Week 2015. (Photo: New York Observer)
Don your Prada and grab your sunglasses, the art world is coming. Over the next few days, you won’t be able to walk around Manhattan without stumbling into an art fair. A dozen of them showcase their wares through March 8, in neighborhoods all over town.
Here’s our guide:
Art Dealers Association of America: The Art Show
Now in its 27th year, this jewel box of a show on the Upper East Side is one of the first of the week to open, and it features a curated slate of 70 veteran powerhouse galleries like Acquavella, 303 and Brooke Alexander. There’s some fine young art here, but, at its core, this elegant fair offers blue-chip art for blue bloods.
Park Avenue Armory
Park Avenue at 67th Street
Open March 4-8; VIP preview March 3
Wednesday-Friday 12 p.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday 12 p.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-5 p.m.
The Armory Show
The largest Modern and Contemporary art fair in New York, and one of the largest in the world, this year’s edition boasts big-time galleries like David Zwirner and Victoria Miro as well as a host of hot young spaces like Various Small Fires and Bischoff Projects. You’ll spot all the big collectors (Eli Broad, David Geffen), the alleged-but-beloved art flippers (Aby Rosen, Peter Grant) and the MoMA folks (director Glenn Lowry, drawing followers like the Pied Piper), all shopping a century’s worth of paintings and sculpture—plus a conga line of art advisors.
Piers 92 & 94
12th Avenue at 55th Street
Open March 5-8; VIP preview March 4
Thursday-Saturday 12 p.m.-7 p.m.
Art on Paper
Brought to you by the team behind the popular Miami Project, the inaugural Art on Paper Fair just south of the Williamsburg Bridge provides a mix of drawings, photographs and prints, so there may be bargains. The opening night party benefits the Brooklyn Museum.
299 South Street on the East River
Open March 6-8; VIP party March 5
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. -6 p.m.
Usually one of the more interesting fairs, this one for cutting-edge heavy-hitters (Gavin Brown, Balice Hertling) opens the old Dia Center space up to well-considered installations rather than sales booths (or so they say). If past is a predictor, expect big crowds and bigger sales at the Independent’s last appearance in this historic space.
548 West 22nd Street
Open March 6-8; vernissage March 5
Friday-Saturday 12 p.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-6 p.m.
New City Art Fair
And now for something completely different: New York’s only fair for Contemporary Japanese art, now in its fourth year, will bring a tight-knit group of Tokyo, Sapporo and Nagoya galleries from their island to ours.
529 West 20th Street
Open March 5-8
Thursday-Saturday 12 p.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-6 p.m.
Still lively and experimental in its 15th year, this fair bills itself as a venue for “the discovery and acquisition of cutting-edge Contemporary art.” Its preview brunch on Thursday is among the more crowded see-and-be-seen events of the week.
The Metropolitan Pavilion
125 West 18th Street
Open March 5-8; preview brunch March 5
Thursday 1 p.m.-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
This well-established satellite fair, which was showcasing emerging and performance art before some of its rivals were even paying attention, moves to a new and convenient location this year not far from the blockbuster Armory Show.
639 West 46th Street
Open March 6-8; preview March 6
Friday 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Spring/Break Art Show
If an art fair can inspire affection, this scrappy, sometimes delightful and often inexpensive one, with a “hang it on the wall and see what sticks aesthetic,” can be said to be loved. Here, curators choose the art, not galleries, which results in some of the week’s most interesting projects.
Skylight at Moynihan Station
Northwest Corner, West 31st Street & 8th Avenue
Open March 4-8; preview March 3
Wednesday-Sunday 12 p.m.-8 p.m.
Moving Image Fair
Here, video art is taken seriously by those who know and love it. This critically acclaimed fair is back with the promise of “allowing moving image-based artworks to be understood and appreciated on their own terms.” This fair is a good, thoughtful, even restful, choice when the sales buzz of its rivals overwhelms you.
Waterfront New York Tunnel
269 11th Avenue between 27th and 28th Street
Open March 5-8; opening reception March 5
Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Volta New York
Now on Pier 90, snuggled up next to its corporate big brother the Armory Show, this is a generally smart and particularly thoughtful invitational fair of solo artist presentations. (Carribbean artists are particularly strong this year.) Shoppers take their time here, and the “Volta Salon” also generally offers a good lecture/panel program.
West 50th Street at 12th Avenue
Open March 5-8; vernissage for the public March 5
Thursday 6 p.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 12 p.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-7 p.m.
Possibly the smallest fair you’ll go to this week (six galleries), this LES salon actually takes place within the gallery space of one of its exhibitors, Galerie Zürcher. If you’re someone who gets easily overwhelmed, then this might be the place for you.
33 Bleecker Street
Open March 2-8; Opening March 2
Monday 5 p.m.-8 p.m; Tuesday-Saturday 12 p.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m.-5 p.m.
(un)Scene Art Show
There are many ways to draw attention to your art fair, but free ice cream is perhaps the most laudable. That’s what the folks behind this event did at their last venture (the unFair), and this time they promise a “happening.”
549 West 52nd Street
Open March 4-8
Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
The Armory Show, New York’s leading modern and contemporary art fair, opens to the public tomorrow at Piers 92 & 94. As the extravagant centrepiece of the city’s Armory Arts Week, it plays host to the world’s most influential dealers, and some highly significant works of art. Highlights this year range from Barbara Hepworth’s polished abstract sculpture Six Forms on a Circle (1967) at Osborne Samuel (the modernist sculptor is the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Britain this June) and On Kawara’s I WENT at mfc-michèle didier – a great example of the obsessive conceptual cataloguing for which the artist is famous. Chantal Joffe’s recent portrait of a Woman in a Blue Coat on Green (2014), and Alex Katz’sOona (2006) are eye-catching, enigmatic images of women; while American modernist Marsden Hartley’sFinnish-Yankee Wrestler (c. 1938–39) and Jim Dine’s Self-Portrait from 1970 are no less arresting explorations of male identity. We’ve picked out a few of our other favourites below.
The 2015 Armory Show delivers pretty much what you’d expect of the 2015 Armory Show: some quite good art, some pretty bad art, and a lot of completely harmless stuff in between. The long-running fair feels, for better or for worse, quite set in its ways, and its ways are those of the traditional art fair; no secret bars or booths-turned-totally-wacky-installations here.
There can be a certain charm in that — or, if not quite “charm,” a certain amusement, predicated on accepting the fair for what it is and letting it entertain and wash over you. In that spirit, I decided it might be nice to hand out accolades this year, to salute the galleries and artworks that — for better or for worse, among the hundreds of others (in the Contemporary section; I did not visit Modern) — moved me to stop and take their pictures. Here they are.
Most Bookish Booth: mfc-michèle didier
Given that mfc-michèle didier is a publisher, it’s not entirely surprising that the booth focuses on printed objects like books. Still, it was a good booth. In addition to Allen Ruppersberg’s binder book The Novel That Writes Itself (which collectors could buy their way into for the right price), the booth has a wall of imposing tomes by On Kawara, comprising a documentation trilogy of the artist’s daily conceptual exercises: I GOT UP, I WENT, I MET. In sharp relief to these precious objects is a funny photo series by the artist Muntadas, which documents the interchangeable nature of some of our beloved bookstores.
Best Booth to Linger In: Gallery Espace
Gallery Espace has, I think, put together one of the best booths at the Armory Show. It could be easily missed, because there’s nothing very flashy in it, but if you visit, you’ll be rewarded. Quirky, imaginative collages from Chitra Ganesh’s Cat Women series (2013) hold court in one corner, resonating with nearby Ritual Drawings by Manjunath Kamath — who also has a series of Miniature paintings (2014) on view around the corner. The artists share a playful surreality grounded in traditional figuration, and their work in small series connects them to Zarina Hasmi’s eye-catching black-and-gold collages that dominate the back wall.
Best Art-Fair Art: Zipora Fried at On Stellar Rays
On Stellar Rays is exhibiting in the Armory Presents section of the fair, which features solo or duo displays by galleries less than 10 years old. Artist Zipora Fried gets the whole booth, but this work is really all you can see. Nothing says “art fair” like a gold-tinted mirror propped up by a shitload of baseball bats.
Best Art Object Likely to Be Mistaken for Trash: Gavin Turk at Ben Brown Fine Arts
… Because, you know, it’s a lifelike trash bag! This one had all the eyebrows raising and the smartphones shooting today. Good thing it’s probably too heavy for security to accidentally throw out.
Best Ass and Air-Conditioning Combination: Andrew Kreps Gallery
The painting is Robert Overby’s “Summer Fram” (1977–86). The air-conditioning unit I couldn’t find wall text for. Is it art? Your guess is as good as mine.
Best Recycling Project: Bade Stageberg Cox, Street Seats
This is the fourth year that the Armory Show has asked Brooklyn architects Bade Stageberg Cox to design the fair. One of their standout projects — not new this year, but still great — is Street Seats, for which the firm salvaged pieces of furniture from the the sidewalks of New York City, repaired them, and painted them taxicab yellow. The chairs and tables would be cute regardless of their origin, but their recycled nature and connection to the city make them excellent design.
Best Oversize Christmas Ornament: Berta Fischer at James Fuentes
I couldn’t quite figure this thing out. I’m going with Christmas ornament because it’s colorful and hanging, although you’d certainly need a big tree. Barring that, maybe it’s hospital art? It does resemble a tangle of in-patient wristbands blown up and gone haywire.
Best Art That Looks Textured but Isn’t (Got Ya!): Amir Nikravan at Various Small Fires
These paintings by Amir Nikravan seem to be one of two things: either tantalizingly textured paintings or extremely well-Photoshopped prints. They are neither! In fact, Nikravan has a very elaborate process that involves using objects to create a pattern on a wood panel, then stretching fabric over it, then vacuum sealing the whole thing, then spray-painting the fabric, then removing it and mounting it on aluminum. Photoshop is so 2004.
Most Underwhelming: Michael E. Smith & Franz Erhard Walther at KOW
There is a place for both of these men in art, but that place is not here, together, comprising a booth so dull it makes your heart hurt.
Best Amalgamation of Things You’d Find in Your Home: Rachael Champion at Hales Gallery
Champion injects new life into a category of art I thought had been laid to rest in 2009.
Best Art Befitting Its Gallery’s Name: Nick van Woert at OHWOW
How do all those rocks stay balanced? How does this thing not topple over? Wait, wait, it’s made of copper? Oh wow!
Best Art That Is Also a Functioning Slot Machine: Andrew Ohanesian at Pierogi Gallery
Those who can’t buy, gamble.
Most Photogenic Art with No Discernible Meaning: Glenn Kaino at Honor Fraser
According to the explanatory materials on offer at Honor Fraser, “the form [of Glenn Kaino’s ‘A Shout Within a Storm’] appears to change relative to our experience of the position of the viewer, suggesting a set of contingencies that reflects our experience of the world.” I really couldn’t tell you what that means, but this thing sure is fun to photograph. See?
Best Lumpy Ceramics: Benedetto Pietromarchi at Josh Lilley Gallery
Surprisingly, I didn’t see any other lumpy ceramics on view at the fair, so this may be an unfair contest. But I do enjoy these pieces by Benedetto Pietromarchi; they strike just the right balance between beautiful and weird.
Best Immersive, Color-Coordinated Booth: Michael Müller at Aanant & Zoo/Galerie Thomas Schulte
I didn’t honestly have enough time to spend in this booth, reading all the text and taking everything in. But a short walk through suggests that it’s worth spending time with. The booth feels like a rarity at an art fair: a complete presentation that foregrounds the artist’s vision.
Best Thing Sewn Together from Other Things: Aiko Hachisuka at Eleven Rivington
The only thing wrong with this is that you’re not allowed to sit on it.
Best Selfie Bait: Jeppe Hein at Johann König
I’m not sure what reason this could possibly have for existing besides selfies. Editions for every night-club bathroom in Chelsea!
Best Donald Judd Remake for the 21st Century: Ryan Gander at Johnen Galerie
Because Ikea shelves are the building material of the 21st century, and if their assembly is DIY anyway, why not stack them? The plant is an especially nice touch — a domestic rejoinder to the austere machismo of Minimalism.
Highest Art: Jessica Stockholder at Kavi Gupta Gallery
There are most certainly fewer women than men represented at the Armory Show, but at least the women who are there will not allow themselves to be limited by silly things like booth walls. From afar, this nifty sculpture by Jessica Stockholder seems to climb over Kavi Gupta‘s wall; close up, it dangles madly. I appreciated that it was literally the highest art I could find.
Most Striking Photographic Portraits: Valérie Belin at GalerieNathalie Obadia
Best Thing Masquerading as Art: Gilles Barbier at Galerie Vallois
It’s certainly some kind of sculptural super-someThing.
Best Kehinde Wiley: Kehinde Wiley at Galerie Daniel Templon
With an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and his work on offer in at least three booths at the Armory Show, Kehinde Wiley is the man of the moment. I often feel like, once you’ve seen several Kehinde Wileys, you’ve seen them all, but this piece feels a lot richer and more thoughtful than his mega-portraits.
Biggest Abstract Painting: Secundino Hernández at Galerie Forsblom
When you can’t paint better, paint bigger.
The 2015 Armory Show continues at Piers 92 and 94 (West 54th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through March 8.
No Art Fair Lull as One Gallery Sells $1 Million in Three Hours
William J. O’Brien Sculptures
Glazed ceramic sculptures by William J. O’Brien at Marianne Boesky gallery sold for $12,000 to $16,000 in New York. Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg
(Bloomberg) — Sean Kelly Gallery sold more than $1 million of sculptures by British artist Antony Gormley in less than three hours on March 3, as a week of art fairs in New York opened with a flurry of purchases by wealthy collectors.
The gallery pulled in another $1 million for works by blue-chip and emerging artists the next day at the Armory Show, the city’s largest contemporary art fair that anchors about a dozen concurrent shows and countless exhibition openings.
“These Gormleys go up 20 percent to 25 percent a year,” Kelly said about the cast-iron blocks evoking human figures shown in his booth at the Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory. “You can’t get 2 percent from a bank.”
New York is the first major stop this year on the global art fair circuit that continues in Hong Kong; Maastricht, the Netherlands; and Dubai later this month. In recent years, fairs have become one-stop shopping malls for the mega-wealthy seeking to diversify their stock portfolios with paintings and sculptures by brand names and hot young artists.
Many galleries are participating in five to 10 art fairs a year, hopping from one time zone to another, according to dealers and fair organizers.
“It gets more intense every year,” said Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel, the contemporary art fair whose Hong Kong edition opens next week. “The time-crunched new wealthy collectors aren’t going to spend weekends going to every gallery in town. They go to art fairs.”
In 2014, 204 fairs specialized in fine art and design, up 32 percent since 2007, according to Skate’s Art Fairs Report, with 80 events representing 95 percent of all business. Last year, 65,000 people attended the Armory Show, which has 199 galleries from 28 countries.
On March 3, 2,600 people braved the snow and sleet to show up for the gala opening of the Art Show, which featured 72 top American galleries. Select guests included ex-Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner Jonathan Sobel, AllianceBernstein Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Peter Kraus, and Barnes & Noble Inc. Chairman Leonard Riggio.
Petzel gallery mounted a minimal installation by Wade Guyton with small, black-and-white prints displayed on a bright yellow surface inside five long, custom-made vitrines. A set of 15 vitrines with 146 prints was reserved for a U.S. museum, the gallery said. Asking price: $750,000.
Dominique Levy gallery exhibited works by Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Maekawa, whose roughly textured, creased oil-on-burlap canvases looked like a cross between painting and sculpture. The largest one, “Work” (1963), priced at $425,000, sold within the first 10 minutes of the opening.
Droves of collectors hit the Armory Show at two hangar-size piers on the Hudson River on March 4. Guests included CIT Group Inc. CEO John Thain, Tishman Speyer Properties chairman Jerry Speyer, this year’s Academy Awards host Neil Patrick Harris and actors Tobey Maguire and Mike Myers.
“The Armory Show has officially turned a corner,” said New York dealer James Fuentes, who sold a neon Plexiglas sculpture by Berta Fischer for $15,000 to New York collectors Zoe and Joel Dictrow. “It doesn’t have the baggage of a fair people aren’t interested in anymore.”
Several prominent galleries including Metro Pictures, Galerie Lelong, Andrew Kreps and Kamel Mennour returned to the fair after years of absence.
“We stopped because it wasn’t sexy,” said Kamel Mennour, the owner of the Paris-based gallery that mounted a solo show of Daniel Buren, whose signature vertical stripes have appeared on pavements, palaces and paintings. Like other dealers, Mennour said he was persuaded to give the fair another try by its director Noah Horowitz.
“He has a precise vision,” said Mennour. “He sees it as not only the market, but also the content.”
Mennour returned with Buren’s works from every decade starting in the 1960s. There were paintings on wood, canvas and plastic. A sequence of black and white stripes on marble sold for 150,000 euros ($165,405) during the first hour of the opening.
First-time participant OHWOW gallery from Los Angeles did brisk sales throughout the day, said partner Al Moran.
“We are testing it out,” he said. “So far it has exceeded our expectations.”
The gallery’s sales included Luis Gispert’s assemblage made with glossy black rocks and fake gold chains for $24,000 and two large canvases covered with bark by Nick van Woert for $35,000 and $40,000.
Actor Christian Slater joined a mob of collectors snapping up glazed ceramic sculptures by William J. O’Brien at Marianne Boesky. The gallery sold 18 of O’Brien’s 27 pieces, priced at $12,000 to $16,000. An ephemeral wall sculpture made of fiberglass by Diana Al-Hadid went for $85,000.
“We could have sold it three times,” said Adrian Turner, the gallery’s senior director.
Jack Shainman’s booth, anchored by a large, shimmering, black tapestry by El Anatsui, attracted New York collectors Susan and Michael Hort and Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker director of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Canadian collector Robert Rennie, who has a private museum in Vancouver, inquired about a work on paper by Kerry James Marshall depicting a nude black man in an odalisque pose. Priced at $45,000, it was already sold. So was Nick Cave’s white sound suit, priced at $125,000.
While lower-priced works went fast, pieces at about $1 million were a tougher sell.
There were no immediate takers for the Anatsui tapestry priced at $1.5 million at Shainman; for Buren’s 1966 canvas, offered at 850,000 euros at Kamel Mennour; or Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s $800,000 signature smiling man painting at Galerie Daniel Templon.
“There’s no frenzy, but very consistent traffic all day long,” said Augusto Arbizo, director of Eleven Rivington, where the Horts picked up an abstract painting by Evan Nesbit priced at $16,000 and Dallas-based collector Howard Rachofsky bought Aiko Hachisuka’s multi-patterned couch sculpture for $24,000. “There was no lull.”
Six years ago, when it started out, the art fair called Independent really was sort of that. It had a cool guerrilla buzz. In the former Dia headquarters on West 22nd Street in Chelsea, it was tiny compared with the cattle-call Armory Show. More rebelliously, admission was free. And the look was new. Instead of booths the size of stockyard stalls, there were wide-open prairies of exhibition space on all three floors. Within these democratic vistas, you could hardly tell where one gallery ended and another began.
Democracy is fine and independence is fun, but they don’t pay for the farm, so things changed. Now there’s an entry fee ($20) and many more partition walls than there were of yore, enough so that some gallery spaces are all but self-enclosed. Despite such bows to convention, though, one thing is the same: Independent still feels more like an art experience than a shopping experience, and that sets it apart from the competition.
What accounts for the atmosphere? For one thing, less-is-more is the prevailing style. Sparsely hung spaces at least suggest that you’re looking at art, not inventory. Traces of neighborliness linger on. You have to pass through galleries to get to others, which means you see pretty much everything in the show whether you mean to or not.
The relatively relaxed and uncompetitive vibe encourages a degree of visual subtlety. The black-on-black North Atlantic landscape paintings of Silke Otto-Knapp at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, for example, might have been swallowed up on the Piers: Here they do just fine. So do the abstract, delicately detailed sculptures of the young Los Angeles artist Matt Paweski at Herald St., one of six London galleries this year.
Possibly the geographic breakdown of the fair’s 50 participants might make a revealing study in art fair demographics. New York, of course, dominates, but Berlin, with 11 galleries, comes in a strong runner-up. Is it significant that Los Angeles has only three galleries and Mexico City the same? Or that no African, Asian or Australian galleries are in the mix at all? To my eye, at least, such statistics mean little, since, in an era of global pluralism, everything here could come from almost anywhere within a Euro-American sphere. This gives Independent a somewhat clubby look — there may be galleries from 14 countries, but everyone speaks the same visual language — which is the not-so-fabulous flip side of neighborliness.
Anyway, in the end you’ll come away with memories of what you liked best (or least), some of it familiar, some not. On the second floor, JTT, a young gallery from the Lower East Side — and one of 16 first-time Independent exhibitors — opens the show on a solid, no-nonsense note with a beaconlike sculpture made from a truck tire balanced on a column of stones by Charles Harlan. Nearby, Elizabeth Dee, who founded the fair with Darren Flook, has strong pieces by three veteran artists Mac Adams, John Giorno and Julia Wachtel. And the Box, from Los Angeles, highlights 1960s work — tiny, vaguely sinister assemblages of seashells, broken dolls and severed bird wings — by Barbara T. Smith, an early West Coast feminist artist who should be far better known in New York than she is.
Further on, at Canada, another undersung figure, the conceptualist painter Gerald Ferguson, who taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for decades and committed suicide in 2009, has what amounts to a full-fledged show of late abstract landscapes done in black house paint on plain canvas. Galeria Agustina Ferreyra Gallery, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, goes for high color and high energy in a wraparound installation of paintings by Adriana Minoliti, from Buenos Aires. Closer to home — Greenpoint, Brooklyn — Real Fine Arts, a stimulating place, mixes intensely marketable abstract painting (Jon Pestoni, Ned Vena) with more interestingly kooky and no doubt harder to sell sculpture: a life-size, purple, faux-fur Cookie Monster-ish figure by Stefan Tcherepnin and bust-length heads combining alpaca wool, metal spikes and “nonorganic garbage” by Mathieu Malouf.
Plan B, a gallery with branches in Berlin and Cluj, Romania, has made an impression at the Armory Show in the past and is worth a visit on its first Independent appearance. The gallery has brought just two artists. Navid Nuur, originally from Tehran, now living in Europe, makes both modular sculptures and crusty, glowing paintings that swirl with calligraphic lines. These are complemented by the paintings of a younger artist, Achraf Touloub, born in Morocco, who turns similarly swirling lines into tree trunks and branches that look both realistic and unnaturally continuous, like arabesques.
Old and new, alike and different, are braided together on the third floor. Labor from Mexico City and Supportico Lopez from Berlin — share a space and a single artist, Jan Peter Hammer, with Labor also representing the estimable Pedro Reyes and Nicholas Mangan, who is in the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial. Two other galleries connect “outsider art” dots both from across the Atlantic and from opposite sides of the fair’s third-floor space. Galerie Susanne Zander/Delmes & Zander in Germany are showing cosmic diagrams by the psychologically troubled German artist Harald Bender (1950-2014), while Chelsea’s own White Columns has a cache of erotic Rapidograph fantasies by the New Yorker Anthony Ballard (1945-2008), who was schizophrenic and exhibited at Fountain House in New York.
Mendes Wood DM, a gallery from São Paulo, has a solo by the Brazilian artist who uses the gender-free moniker f.marquespenteado (full first name: Fernando). He says that he works best when permitted “to occupy an entire space.” And so he does here, creating an environment of paintings, drawings, embroideries and collages that serve as a stage set for a multicharacter narrative about masculine stereotypes and how they thwart the path of true same-sex love.
A debut Independent appearance by the Mexico City gallery Kurimanzutto brings a rare visit from the long-expatriate American artist Jimmie Durham in the form of a 2007 installation, “The Sacred, the Profane and Everything Else.” The piece, which incorporates seven metal oil drums, suggests a combination of altar and industrial no-go zone and refers to, among other things, death, Rome (where it was first shown) and the worldwide battle for fuel. A couple of battered suitcases folded into the mix read as stand-ins for the artist himself, politically alienated from his homeland and always on the global move.
On the fourth floor, you’ll find some of the quietest work, and some of brashest. Ms. Otto-Knapp’s penumbral landscapes are here. So is a geometric corner mural painting by Lydia Okumura, its form made three dimensional by strings stretched, like drawn lines, between two walls at Broadway 1602. Not that a sculptural extension in painting is necessarily abstract. The same gallery has a 1963 Pop picture by Marjorie Strider (1934-2014) of a pinup model with a seductive smile and 3-D breasts. Directly across from it, at Thomas Erben, is a large pieced-together text painting by Mike Cloud, color-rich, rough-surfaced, annotated and argumentative. And not far away in a niche-like area occupied by the Modern Institute from Glasgow, murals by Nicolas Party — huge Modernistsquiggles and a gargantuangrisaille version of Picasso’s 1904walleyed “La Celestine” — cover the wall from floor to high ceiling and are themselves covered over by superimposed pictures of stilllifes.
What Mr. Party’s installation is exactly about, I can’t say, but I remember with some pleasure another he created at Salon 94 Freemans on the Lower East Side in 2012. That one was called “Dinner for 24 Dogs” and featured a big round table with two dozen customized place settings in an every-inch-painted room. With respectful nods to Matisse, Judy Chicago and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking-as-art, the piece was artful, eye-catching, conservative and companionable, all of which Independent is, too.
Many other satellite exhibitions will take place during March Fair season. Here are a few recommendations:
ART ON PAPER, featuring work by artists who use paper as a major influence in their sculpture, drawing, painting and photography, runs through Sunday; Pier 36, 299 South Street, Lower Manhattan; thepaperfair.com.
PULSE NEW YORK, a showcase for cutting-edge contemporary art, runs through Sunday at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, Chelsea; pulse-art.com. 212-255-2327.
VOLTA NY, which focuses on solo-artist projects, runs through Sunday at Pier 90, next to Piers 92 and 94, the platform for the Armory Show; ny.voltashow.com/index.php.
Anselm Kiefer’s Deutschlands Geisteshelden (Germany’s Spiritual Heroes), 1973, another of the Broads’ works by the artist, is painted on burlap mounted on canvas
Eli Broad with a piece from his collection—Maginot, 1977–93, by Anselm Kiefer, an acrylic and emulsion woodcut mounted on canvas.
The Broads’ collection also includes Anselm Kiefer’s Laßt 1000 Blumen Blühen (Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom), 1998, which uses mixed media on canvas
Much like the collection of paintings he has so carefully amassed, Eli Broad’s passion for contemporary art and the city of Los Angeles has certainly not lost its luster. Talking with the larger-than-life, self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist is like being at a one-man TED conference titled, “The history of art since the 1970s, and why LA is the best.” The collector has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern and contemporary art history and is a fascinating storyteller, recounting not only the inside dish on which artist almost went bankrupt (revealed only off the record) but also how Downtown’s Grand Avenue continues to transform the cultural landscape of the entire West Coast.
Although Broad could be seen as just another wealthy trophy hunter, spend a little time with him and it’s immediately clear his obsession is much more about culture than commerce. He has famously rescued local institutions LACMA and MOCA from the brink of financial ruin and is currently in the midst of building his own museum, The Broad (on—you guessed it—Grand Avenue). As the fall art season of annual events heats up, we sat down and talked to Broad about losing his innocence with MOCA, why Los Angeles is currently white-hot, and the excitement surrounding the highly anticipated 10th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) next month.
You and your wife, Edythe, made your first major art acquisition of an 1888 van Gogh at Sotheby’s in 1972. Was this the catalyst for everything that was to come?
There was no catalyst—it was sort of a progression. If one looks at art and looks at various periods, you move from one period to the next for various reasons. [After the van Gogh], we also bought a 1933 Miró—a very large Miró that had belonged to Nelson Rockefeller—that we still have. So it was a great progression. In 1979 my innocence ended as a collector. Why? Because I became the founding chairman of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).
Why do you say your innocence ended then?
[Former New York Governor] Nelson Rockefeller once said, “I learned my politics at the Museum of Modern Art.” When you’re dealing with a diverse group of trustees from all kinds of backgrounds— some are very nice ladies who have never been engaged in an organization and never attended the meeting of a board—you try to keep everyone happy, and I find it to be quite a chore.
You, Maria Bell, and Jeffrey Deitch have done unbelievable things at MOCA. It’s the darling of the art world right now.
If you go back and look, MOCA had lost its way. We weren’t showing a permanent collection and so on. So three years ago, the attendance got down to 148,616. This year it will exceed 400,000—triple what it was. We’ve had balanced budgets in 2009 and 2010, with no debt. We’ve added about 25 new and returning trustees since December 2003 and raised some money. David Galligan was at the Walker Art Center for 17 years, and he is now here as executive vice president and COO, allowing Jeffrey to do all the things he’s good at, which is being an impresario for visiting artists and collectors, doing what he does down at Art Basel Miami Beach, and all that stuff.
Can you expand more on the progression of your personal collecting?
After several years—this is going back now 27 years—our walls were filled at home. And we became art addicts and wanted to keep collecting. So I said, “You know what? We are going to create a foundation. And it’s going to be a lending library for museums and universities throughout the world.” And as you may know, we’ve made more than 8,000 loans to nearly 500 institutes worldwide.
And you’re building the new museum now to house your collection, correct?
Yes. For years we said we’d rather find a place where we can have most of the storage and archives together in climate-controlled conditions. The building is 120,000 square feet with 50,000 square feet of galleries, which is more than the Whitney. And we had an architectural competition for it.
So why were Diller Scofidio + Renfro chosen to design the museum? I mean, why not, say, Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA or Sir Norman Foster?
What was the challenge? We’re right next to Walt Disney Concert Hall. How do you do something that doesn’t clash but isn’t anonymous? [Diller Scofidio + Renfro] came up with a fascinating idea, this veil type of building. It’s an interesting answer—a complex answer.
Is starting your own museum rather than giving the collection to another art institution about having as many people see the collection as possible?
Absolutely. In fact, I talked to Glenn [Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art] and I said, “Glenn, if I gave you our collection what would you do?” He said, “Don’t give it to me. I’d only show 20 or 30 things—the rest we’d put in storage.” The same thing would be true at any other major museum. I’ve been involved in Downtown for a long time—MOCA since 1979, then Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. I got involved after many people thought it was dead and would never happen.
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The Broads’ collection also includes Nürnberg (Nuremberg), 1982, in which Anselm Kiefer introduces straw to add visual complexity to his piece
Eli Broad in front of another of Anselm Kiefer’s works, Alarichs Grab (Alaric’s Grave), 1969–89
The Broads’ collection of Anselm Kiefer pieces includes Das Balder-Lied (The Balder Song), 1977–88, a photograph superimposed with mistletoe and mounted on treated lead
You are referring to the Grand Avenue Project?
Grand Avenue, yes. I created the Grand Avenue Committee together with people from the city and the county and others saying, “We need to have a master plan for all of this or else they’ll screw it up, piece by piece.” I finally got the city and county, who do not like one another, to form a joint-powers authority.
You wanted your museum to be Downtown because of critical mass?
I believe every city in world history or today needs a vibrant center for the same reason people from the other boroughs come to Manhattan from Connecticut or Westchester or New Jersey or wherever. It’s because there is only one place where you have sports, entertainment, culture, etc. And by the way, Los Angeles has the performing arts—no one has a better symphony or symphony hall than we do. We have more theatrical productions than New York or London. So Grand Avenue is the place. And on Grand Avenue within three blocks, there are going to be works by [architects] Wolf Prix, Frank Gehry, Arata Isozaki, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and a couple blocks away, Thom Mayne. I can think of no city in the world with that.
It is amazing. And what is the date for the opening of your space?
[It should open in] 2013.
You say you only attend three art fairs—Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and Frieze Art Fair. For someone as passionate about art as you, why do you attend only those three fairs? Every city in every country seems to have some kind of art show now—what does ABMB specifically have that attracts you?
The difference is quality. There are so many fairs nowadays that you could travel for an entire year just going from fair to fair, but they’re not all created equal. It’s important to focus. The Art Basel fairs and Frieze Art Fair have strong material and sophisticated participants.
And you started going to ABMB from the beginning, 10 years ago?
From the beginning.
What is it that you love about ABMB? How do you think it has differentiated itself from all the other fairs?
There is a lot going on. It’s a party town, and I love going to see Martin Margulies (The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse) and other collectors when I’m there, and everyone has dinners, and so on. It’s a way to get reacquainted and have fun. It’s a big social event.
Do you attend the parties?
We go to some of the parties. The beach concerts held at The Raleigh are the most consistently impressive. This year MOCA LA will present a performance at The Raleigh by 2manydjs and their band, Soulwax. Jeffrey Deitch is a great impresario, and he can always be counted on to put on a spectacular event.
Is The Margulies Collection your favorite of the private collections?
Yes, the Rubell Family Collection also. They’re the two—oh, and also Norman Braman’s collection.
Have you ever purchased a piece at the show by an emerging artist you weren’t previously acquainted with?
Not that we weren’t totally acquainted with. We bought a Roxy Paine from James Cohan’s gallery. We just loved the work.
Do you have a favorite program, like the artist conversation series? Or do you go to the satellite fairs?
Some, if we have enough time. I haven’t spoken at the artist conversation series in a few years. I was on a panel with David Rockefeller a number of years ago selling Los Angeles as the new contemporary art capital.
I think you were the perfect person to do it!
That was fun.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT Paul Schimmel and Hauser & Wirth pick downtown spot for arts complex
This early 19th century old flour mill building on east Third Street will be renovated to become the new Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel Arts Center in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
By Deborah Vankin contact the reporter
Paul Schimmel, formerly of MOCA, joins with Hauser & Wirth to plan an arts complex for DTLA
Art, events, food, coffee; an immersive experience. That’s what’s planned at a seven-building compound in DTLA
Former Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel and international gallery powerhouse Hauser & Wirth will officially announce on Friday the location for their ambitious, multidisciplinary arts center: a former flour mill complex in the downtown Los Angeles arts district.
The 100,000-square-foot, seven-building compound at 901 E. 3rd St. — which includes a Neoclassical bank building, a five-story mill structure and a 20,000-square-foot interior courtyard — will open as Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in January with a two-month pop-up group show before closing for renovations. It’s scheduled to reopen permanently in early 2016, offering “a new paradigm for the 21st century art gallery,” organizers said in a statement.
Hauser & Wirth, which shows contemporary and modern art and has exhibition spaces in London, Zurich and New York, has long been planning a Los Angeles outpost. Last spring it signed Schimmel as a partner and set about scouting for a location.
The arts center will be a for-profit business with intimate rooms as well as wide-open warehouse spaces for what organizers said will be “museum-caliber” exhibitions, at which art will not be for sale, as well as commercial art shows, project spaces for art-making and public events. A restaurant and bar will be on site.
The center foresees three to five exhibitions on view at any one time, turning over multiple times a year, by artists from around the world and not necessarily affiliated with Hauser & Wirth — though the gallery will also show its own artists, including a heavy L.A. contingency.
“More of our artists live in L.A. than in any other city. They’re a diverse, multigenerational group whose work informs our international program and shapes contemporary dialogue,” said the gallery’s president and owner, Iwan Wirth. “It seems particularly fitting to launch our third decade by creating Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and pioneering a new gallery model in the city known around the world as a place for imagination, reinvention and new forms of cultural expression.”
Schimmel, who will run the L.A. arts complex, spoke about his vision and programming plans for the space, which he calls “a magical place that time has not touched.”
Why did you choose this particular neighborhood for Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, and did you look elsewhere?
The neighborhood, I have to say, was the center of where we were looking. It’s remarkable the changes that’ve been going on there, a real groundswell of people moving into these live-work spaces and the creation of this sort of Lower Manhattan. It’s transformed, almost overnight, into this serious urban center. It’s also a couple of blocks from the Gold Line. But we looked all over, on both sides of the river, in West Hollywood, the Wilshire Corridor.
First on my mind was to find a unique space where we could show different kinds of work, simultaneously. Here there are seven different buildings, built over a period of 40 years and built around a courtyard. That meant a great deal to me. Artists love the idea of sitting outside and having coffee and looking at something. It was really the unique assembly of buildings — and there were simply more of them in this area.
You envision the arts center as a sort of exhibition-gallery-event space hybrid with free admission. What would you compare it to, physically and programming-wise, in Los Angeles right now?
I’d compare it to the Geffen, in terms of scale and that it’s downtown. It’s a little like Mass MOCA [in Boston], one of the children of MOCA, in that it’s in an industrial area in different buildings. It’s of that lineage.
Hauser & Wirth is a major international gallery with a very strong representation of L.A. artists, so that’s one kind of programming. The commitment is to do both historical exhibitions, like you’d see in museums, that really explore things thematically, generationally, conceptually. It will also be a space that will invite artists with whom Hauser & Wirth has no affiliation, or maybe have never even shown in L.A., to come and make projects, so it’s a project space too. It’s a facility that’s really a destination — a strong educational component, with exhibitions, events, a restaurant and bar, and places for people to linger and experience art in a more casual manner.
Will it be anything like Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the arts complex set to open in southwest England next month?
There are similarities. But Hauser & Wirth Somerset is very bucolic, two hours from London. It is the romantic 19th century version of this, which is, in some ways, coming out of the early 20th century industrialization.
Tell us about the debut show planned for January, prior to renovations. Will it include Hauser & Wirth artists such as Mark Bradford, Paul McCarthy and Sterling Ruby?
It’s a group show, artists who have emerged in the last 15 years. There may be some lesser-known names and quite a few well-known names. There will be five or six artists, and each will have their own building. So five or six gallery-sized, one-person exhibitions, with people from the gallery and people who have never shown with Hauser & Wirth previously. But all with a connection to L.A. I wanted to start with work made by artists working here and now. I wanted it to be relative to the 21st century, rather than, say, the 1980s.
I remember when PS1 opened years ago in New York. It was quite special that they invited artists to come in and make works that would go on display in a building that was untouched, a raw space. [In January] we will have made none of the improvements to the space yet. It will have 100 years of history in it. We’ll put up lights and it’ll have security and the art will be safe from the elements, but other than that, it will be untouched, the way it looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
What’s the commitment, financially?
It’s a very substantial commitment in terms of the capital improvements to the facility. And it’s a very serious, long-term commitment overall. We have a 10-year lease with two five-year options after that. So it’s something that will evolve, organically, over many years.
You’ve described the courtyard as one of the largest in downtown L.A. What do you plan to use it for — and will you commission new art for the space?
It will start with Day One. There will be sculptural works there, some amazingly large-scale works. The first one is new; I’d describe it as a small temple, but I can’t say who it’s by. I suspect you’ll see a beautiful, Louise Bourgeois spider there and possibly a Paul McCarthy monumental bronze work.
I think the courtyard will be both part of our exhibition program and sometimes it will stand alone. It’s surrounded on all four sides by buildings and it’s quite large, like a courtyard in a monastery, so it has a kind of wonderful, isolated meditative quality. Who knows — maybe one day we’ll have a sound piece with nothing to look at, just art to listen to.
ART REVIEW LONDON
LA’s Art Wave
Upgraded spaces, secondary spaces and new galleries, Jonathan Griffin reports on Los Angeles’s growing contemporary art scene
By Jonathan Griffin
Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Rebel Dabble Babble (detail), 2012. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the artists and the Box, Los Angeles
Mike Kelley, Switching Marys, 2004–5. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles
MOCA board cochairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, MOCA curator Bennett Simpson and MOCA director Philippe Vergne (left to right). Photo: Rachel Murray/WireImage
Henry Codax at Michael Thibault, Los Angeles, 2014, curated by Shoot the Lobster. Photo: Laura Schawelka. Courtesy Michael Thibault, Los Angeles
Things move fast in Los Angeles. Enterprises bloom, seemingly overnight, and then wither without warning. Careers too. The city is in a perpetual state of emergence and disintegration; a young settlement that is already older than people imagined it would ever be when they perched their stilted wooden homes on dusty hillsides in the early decades of the twentieth century. Someone recently told me that the hundreds of towering Washingtonia palm trees that were planted to prettify the city for the 1932 Olympics are now at the end of their natural lifespans, and will start keeling over any minute. A compelling image; also totally untrue, it turns out. LA was built on imaginative fictions, and they continue to be the city’s major export.Los Angeles’s art community is eyeing the eastern horizon with a mixture of anticipation and scepticism. We are witnessing an influx of commercial galleries and midcareer artists, many arriving from New York. Two significant new institutional hires – Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, and Philippe Vergne, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art – relocated from the East Coast. (Butler has ties to the city, having served as curator at MOCA from 1996 to 2006.) The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.
The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.
Plenty is happening from within, too. Three of LA’s prominent galleries – David Kordansky Gallery, Michael Kohn and Various Small Fires – have chosen 2014 as the year to upgrade to bigger – and/or better-placed – buildings, adding to the gallery district that has emerged in Mid-City around Highland and La Brea Avenues. Across Grand Avenue from MOCA, in Downtown, the distinctive latticed ‘veil’ designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad’s museum is now mostly in place; the porous structure will provide a foil to its brash and shiny neighbour, the Frank Gehry-designed 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall, when the Broad opens in 2015. Fans of the city’s irreverent new art fair, Paramount Ranch, organised by newbie gallerists Alex Freedman and Robbie Fitzpatrick with artists Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen, are waiting to see whether it will become a regular fixture in the art calendar.
To equate Los Angeles’s short-term, mercurial dynamic with the abundance of chutzpah among its creative and entrepreneurial classes would be to see only half the picture. Rarely has a city developed with such scant regard for its own future. The institutions that flourish here – and I include certain successful commercial galleries alongside art schools and major museums such as LACMA and the Hammer – do so because of their farsighted commitment to the ongoing cultural life of their community. It was not always thus. LACMA’s atrocious Art of the Americas building was completed in 1986 in a half-baked attempt to augment its existing galleries; it is already in a state of dilapidation. The museum recently unveiled a proposal by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to bulldoze most of its campus and replace it with an elevated black building whose liquiform footprint rhymes with the site’s prehistoric tar pits.
Drivers are still confused by signs around Downtown pointing to the Temporary Contemporary – the huge warehouse space adopted by MOCA in 1983 and renamed the Geffen Contemporary in 1996, after it proved too popular among artists and visitors to relinquish. Hopes are high – though cautious – that Vergne will shore up the museum’s financial and scholarly foundations after they eroded under previous directors Jeremy Strick and Jeffrey Deitch. Both discovered, to their grave cost, that LA’s philanthropic class is not easy to mobilise in the service of high culture. At the lowest point of Deitch’s leadership, commentators looked on in anguish as even the museum’s own board hesitated to part with the necessary funds to save the institution. Following desperate discussions about the possibility of subsuming MOCA within another, more solvent institution, the endowment soared, passing $100 million in January this year.
Noncollecting, kunsthalle-style nonprofits have traditionally been LA’s weakness. In January of this year, attempting to redress this deficit, curator Cesar Garcia opened the Mistake Room, an exhibition space in a warehouse south of Downtown that pledges to focus on underexposed artists working outside the United States. Hearts sank when Oscar Murillo was announced as the first artist to get a show. Such slavish adherence to current market trends has been the failure of other nonprofits, such as LAXART (where Garcia used to work). The Santa Monica Museum of Art, the region’s foremost kunsthalle, will move into a new and expanded building when a light-rail station, connecting the east and west sides of the city, opens at the redeveloping Bergamot Station Arts Center in 2016.
Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city
Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city, many of them secondary spaces for galleries established elsewhere. Sprüth Magers, of Berlin and London, will open an LA gallery helmed by Sarah Watson – formerly director of the defunct L&M gallery that opened in Venice, California, in 2010 – towards the end of this year. Alongside local hero John Baldessari, who is unrepresented in his hometown, the gallery already boasts a range of West Coast artists, including Thomas Demand, who recently relocated here from Berlin. This spring, Martos Gallery will complement their current New York programme by opening a gallery on LA’s Washington Boulevard, next to Michael Thibault Gallery – where Jose Martos’s project Shoot the Lobster presented monochromes by the fictional artist Henry Codax in January.
Gavlak Gallery, which has operated from Palm Beach, Florida, since 2005, will move in June to a building on Highland Avenue, directly between Regen Projects, Redling Fine Art and Hannah Hoffman Gallery. Founder Sarah Gavlak will return to her Palm Beach space during the busy Florida winters, but will benefit, for the rest of the year, from being nearer to the numerous Angeleno artists on her roster, Lisa Anne Auerbach and Mungo Thomson among them.
Construction is already under way on Michele Maccarone’s LA outpost, a large warehouse next to 356 S. Mission Rd, the gallery opened by Gavin Brown specially for Laura Owens’s blockbuster solo show in January 2013, now operated jointly by Brown and Owens. (Maccarone’s choice of location echoes her decision, in 2007, to move next door to Brown in the West Village.) She is following two of her artists, Oscar Tuazon and Alex Hubbard, who recently moved to California, and aims to open in spring 2015. Team, also from New York, plans to open an LA space in September 2015 with shows by Cory Arcangel, Ryan McGinley and Gert & Uwe Tobias.
The really big news, of course, is that the widely respected Paul Schimmel – chief curator at MOCA until he was unceremoniously ousted by Deitch and Broad in 2012 – will himself be partnering with Zürich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth in 2015. Although details have yet to be announced, Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel is expected to set up shop in the district of Downtown close to the Box, the gallery owned by Paul McCarthy and run by his daughter, Mara. McCarthy is thought to be a major reason for Hauser & Wirth’s expansion westwards, alongside other locally unrepresented gallery artists Thomas Houseago, Rachel Khedoori and Sterling Ruby (the last of whom also happens to be affiliated with Sprüth Magers).
Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise
Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise. One could even cast as far back as 1948, when artist William Copley and his brother-in-law opened a gallery in Beverly Hills showing surrealist art by Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte. Due to the indifference of the local customer base, it closed the following year, as did the nearby Modern Institute of Art – an underresourced, proto-MOCA that lasted only two years and makes the latter-day museum look like a financial triumph. During the late 1980s, Luhring Augustine had a short-lived foothold in Los Angeles, in partnership with Max Hetzler. Between 2005 and 2007, New York dealer Zach Feuer ran an LA outpost, partnered with local gallerist Niels Kantor. Last summer, L&M closed its Venice space after just three years in the city. Most recently Perry Rubenstein, who moved his entire New York gallery to a large, handsomely renovated space on Highland Avenue in 2011, filed for bankruptcy in March this year. These enterprises all failed for subtly different reasons, but the moral remains: LA’s promise of boundless opportunity may simply be another one of those fictions that it is so successful at exporting.
None of the gallerists I spoke to claimed to be moving for commercial reasons; although there are serious collectors in California, there are not enough to support even a fraction of the businesses located here. Galleries sell their wares far and wide in order to maintain bricks-and-mortar programmes under the SoCal sunshine. Meanwhile, their clients also travel far and wide in order to build international-quality collections. There is nothing chic about provincialism.
Rather, galleries want to be close to their artists. Inexpensive real estate, skilled fabricators and a low-key (though intellectually serious) social scene provide near-perfect conditions for artistic production. Not to mention the magnificent landscape and great food. Those artists who move here – whether to study or teach, to step into the limelight or out of it – rarely seem to leave. Made in LA 2014, the second of the Hammer’s biennial exhibitions, this time curated by Michael Ned Holte and Connie Butler, will open in June. It promises to reveal what Dave Hickey, reflecting on the California Minimalism of the 1960s and 70s, describes as ‘a flowing stream of interests, passions, proclivities, and occasions – a fluid micro-chronicle of the artist-as-citizen, coping with paradise [… with] a sequence of tactile, visual solutions to specific visible occasions that take place at the blurred interface of the artist and the world.’ That flowing stream, today, seems more like a river delta.
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.
On a crisp evening on Wilshire Boulevard, pop star Christina Aguilera is leading the parade down the red carpet. Tom Hanks and his wife follow, along with actor James Franco, reality TV fixtures Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger and Hollywood power broker David Geffen.They aren’t here for a film premiere. The crowd is celebrating the opening of a new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, named after the Fiji Water and POM Wonderful billionaires who donated $45 million to Lacma in 2008.
The $54 million structure, designed by Renzo Piano, the go-to architect for major museum commissions, is the latest symbol of Los Angeles’s art boom.
It’s an art world with its own unique structure and rules. Billionaires don’t just donate to museums, they build their own. Hollywood agents, media personalities and studio executives pack museum boards, alongside traditional philanthropists. And contemporary art—a market that’s fluctuated wildly in recent years—is the only art that really matters to many top collectors and museums.
New art buildings are springing up around the city. Lacma has added about 100,000 square feet of gallery space since 2007 and increased attendance by 50% to 905,000. Nearly 7 miles away is the site of a new museum that art collector Eli Broad is creating to display pieces from his collection of 2,000 artworks. Art dealer Larry Gagosian has doubled the size of his Beverly Hills art gallery and recently bought a midcentury-modern glass house once owned by Gary Cooper for $15.5 million in nearby Holmby Hills, where he will host an art party to coincide with next year’s Academy Awards.
The Los Angeles Power List
“L.A. is more than catching up to New York—in some ways, it’s moving past it,” says Agnes Gund, a prominent New York-based art collector who used to run the board of trustees at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and served on the board of Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Trust for 12 years until 2006.
In June, Jeffrey Deitch, one of New York’s most powerful gallery owners, relocated to Los Angeles to become the director of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a rare move from the private art-dealing sphere to the museum world. The owners of the Armory Show, New York’s largest art fair, are putting together a major art fair to debut in downtown L.A. next fall.
“The art world is a very fluid place, but there is no question that L.A. is very hot at the moment,” says Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
To be sure, L.A.’s transformation into a world-class contemporary art city is an overnight sensation several decades in the making. It has long been bolstered by rich cultural institutions like the museums of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and by its leading art schools. The city still doesn’t possess the extensive collections of older art found in New York, Paris and London, but it does boast a cadre of notable contemporary artists and powerful collectors.
One of the most active figures in the art scene is Mr. Broad, the 77-year-old billionaire who revived MOCA in 2008 with a $30 million infusion after it teetered on the edge of a financial crisis. In August, Mr. Broad announced that he would build a museum in downtown Los Angeles to display works from his art collection, which includes a 22-foot-tall Richard Serra torqued ellipse and a nearly 12-foot-high Jeff Koons balloon sculpture. Designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the museum, called the Broad Collection, will boast 36,000 square feet of gallery space—more than the entire Whitney Museum in New York. A spokeswoman for Mr. Broad said that the new museum will help make his works accessible to the largest possible audience.
Building a museum of one’s own is also in keeping with local tradition. In the past few decades, private collectors like industrialist Norton Simon and petroleum magnate Armand Hammer have opened some of the area’s most prominent museums—long after families like Whitney, Frick and Morgan launched a golden museum era in New York.
The directors of L.A.’s museums have been moving aggressively to tap into the wealth of collectors in the entertainment and tech industries. These days their boards look quite different from those of their New York counterparts, which are largely composed of traditional philanthropists and established financiers.
Since Michael Govan moved from New York’s Dia Art Foundation in 2006 to take over Lacma, he has added 30 trustees to the now-49-voting-member board, transforming its makeup with new additions like Dasha Zhukova, the girlfriend of Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich; fashion designer and restaurateur Eva Chow, and David Bohnett, the Internet entrepreneur who created GeoCities.com. He has also added Willow Bay, the newscaster wife of Mr. Iger, and Terry Semel, former head of Warner Bros. and Yahoo.
Maria Bell, the head writer of the daytime soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” became co-chair of MOCA’s board of trustees last summer and immediately began working with Mr. Broad to recruit new members. MOCA has added 19 new trustees since December 2008, including London diamond dealer and art collector Laurence Graff and newsprint mogul Peter Brant, who lives in Greenwich, Conn. Last year, MOCA raised more than $4 million from a gala where Lady Gaga performed. Next month, it will host another gala, curated—down to the food—by video artist Doug Aitken with contributions from musicians Beck, Caetano Veloso and Devendra Banhart.
Eli Broad at home in L.A. (Johns) “Flag,” 1967 copyright Jasper Johns/VAGA, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection
Ann Philbin, who moved to the city a little over a decade ago to run UCLA’s Hammer Museum, took in just over $100,000 at the museum’s 2002 fund-raiser. Now, the event raises more than $1 million each year. Her board of overseers numbers five executives from major talent agencies, including Bob Gersh of the Gersh Agency and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment’s George Freeman, who represents Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe.
In the auction world, Christie’s says consignments from the Los Angeles region have tripled in the past year. Next month, Christie’s plans to auction three major L.A. estates, including those of actor Dennis Hopper and art dealer Robert Shapazian, a collector of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol who helped Mr. Gagosian build the L.A. outpost of his gallery. This past spring, the auction house sold the estate of “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton for $93.3 million, including a flag painting by Jasper Johns that sold for more than $28 million. Some in L.A.’s art world have complained that collectors here are more likely to have their estates auctioned off than to bequeath them to museums.
Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, says he used to travel L.A. three or four times a year to pay visits to clients. In the past year, he flew here twice as often. “After Manhattan, L.A. is my top priority,” Mr. Porter says.
Lacma’s Resnick Pavilion Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal
Still, Los Angeles has yet to develop its own auction scene. After opening a salesroom in Beverly Hills in 1997, Christie’s closed the outpost two years ago, finding that its auctions there weren’t generating significant revenue. Now, it focuses on consigning works from L.A. collectors to sell at its other salesrooms.
“Rather than putting together a $5 million sale twice a year, it made more business sense to nurture collectors and go after $50 million worth of art to sell elsewhere in the world,” says Andrea Fiuczynski, president of Christie’s, Los Angeles.
Los Angeles collectors overwhelmingly focus on contemporary art, and the city’s art scene owes much of its rapid ascent to the upswing of prices for the genre, which soared during the art market’s boom years. In 2000, Sotheby’s sold $157.8 million worth of contemporary art world-wide. That figure rose to $1.48 billion by 2008 before falling to $442.8 million in 2009, after the art market crashed. Prices are now stabilizing, although industry experts say that they likely won’t return to astronomical precrash levels.
The volatility of the contemporary art market—as well as the overall economy—shook up some institutions in L.A., in particular MOCA. MOCA’s 2008 federal tax returns showed that the museum had drained about $24 million of its reserves to cover operating expenses after a spate of overspending. It was saved by Mr. Broad’s donation.
A Nancy Rubins sculpture outside MOCA Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal
Still, as prices for contemporary art rose, so did the value of art created by many of the elder statesmen of L.A.’s art scene. Pop artist Ed Ruscha, a MOCA trustee known for his deadpan images of parking lots, gas stations and L.A. architecture, now sells pieces for $3 million to $6 million at auction; he didn’t come close to crossing the $1 million barrier before 2002. Works by John Baldessari, a conceptual artist and former UCLA instructor whose signature style includes overlaying historical images with opaque colored dots, now fetch more than $1 million.
The city also boasts an ascendant community of younger artists, many of whom came to Los Angeles for the city’s art schools. Michigan-born Mike Kelley moved to L.A. to attend the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with Mr. Baldessari, and decided to stay on. Now his pieces, from comic-book-style drawings to sculptures that incorporate found objects like plush toys, are shown in museums like MoMA and the Whitney in New York.
“You cannot talk about contemporary art today without taking into account what is happening in L.A.,” says MoMA’s Mr. Lowry.
L&M Arts, a blue-chip Manhattan gallery that sells work by artists from Picasso and Matisse to Warhol and Rothko, opened its first Los Angeles space last month on Venice Boulevard, a central thoroughfare in L.A.’s beach neighborhood. It was a big shift for a gallery that in New York resides in a classic-looking townhouse on the Upper East Side.
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and artist Doug Aitken at Mr. Aitken’s Venice Beach studio. Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal
“In New York, we largely did prestigious historical shows, but we wanted to be more involved with living artists,” says Robert Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker who co-owns L&M. So far, the gamble has paid off: Within a week, all the Paul McCarthy sculptures on view at its inaugural exhibition were snapped up. The sculptures cost between $2 million and $5 million apiece.
Matthew Marks, another New York dealer, plans to follow suit. Mr. Marks, who last year purchased a house in the Hollywood Hills to accompany his new gallery space, says many artists on his roster—which includes Ellsworth Kelly, Peter Fischli and David Weiss—rarely showed their work in L.A. in the past and now seek more exposure there.
Veteran L.A. dealers Timothy Blum and Jeff Poe say they have also profited from the explosion of demand. The duo opened their 500-square-foot gallery, Blum & Poe, in 1994. “Back then, there was no market here to speak of,” says Mr. Blum. “The change has been tectonic.” Blum & Poe currently occupies a 22,000-square-foot building in Culver City.
While contemporary art is booming, other sectors still lag behind. That is why Lacma’s Mr. Govan, after a spate of building projects and contemporary acquisitions, has branched out to areas like costumes, Oceanic arts and tribal art.
“We’re done growing,” Mr. Govan says. “We’ve done the quantity. Now it’s about quality.”
12/11/2014 at 11:19 AM
Maurizio Cattelan’s L.A. Art Tour, With a Stop at Jim Carrey’s Painting Studio
Maurizio Cattelan with Jim Carrey at the actor’s art studio in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.
Fueled by kombucha, sprouted raw almonds, Whole Foods sushi, and chocolate-covered espresso beans with a very special ingredient, we traveled all over Los Angeles visiting nine artists and 14 galleries in four-and-a-half days while the majority of the art, fashion, and PR worlds flocked to the other side of the country for the annual mayhem that is Art Basel Miami Beach. After dodging the initial inquiries — Are you going to Miami? So, you’re not in Miami? Why aren’t you in Miami? — we began our quest in earnest to see what happens in L.A. when “everyone” is in Miami. (Our expedition was from November 30 to December 4.) The answer: artists inspired by Hollywood, anarchy, pop culture, the body, animals, vegetables, minerals, and a recurring theme of Surrealism, which reinforces the notion that anything goes in L.A., a city where artists feel free to take risks, fail, and experiment without the dark cloud of the market hanging over them.
Our first stop (directly from LAX) was New York artist and gallerist (47 Canal) Margaret Lee’s exhibition at Team (bungalow) in Venice. The second exhibition at the gallery’s new West Coast outpost featured one chrome banana and one rose atop a chrome plinth set on softer-than-soft alpaca. It was raining, an extremely rare, newsworthy event, and it continued to pour for most of the week. During a brief respite from the weather, we popped in on Venice locals Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen at their home/studio compound. They showed us around their gallery space, Paradise Garage, and Nathalie Jones’s installation in the window on the back alley. Craft gave us a sneak peek of her new, life-size marionette-like ladies that she’ll be showing at the hip, new gallery Jenny’s in Silver Lake next year and her giant bronze teepee with eyes in the yard. During the visit, Mexican artist and Venice local Gabriel Kuri stopped by with his kids for a play date and some pizza. Craft and Monkkonen are both sculptors who met while studying at UCLA (she was his TA and their teacher Charles Ray played matchmaker) and are key figures in the L.A. art scene as artists, gallerists, and co-founders of the coolest art fair ever, Paramount Ranch, which runs from January 31 through February 1 of next year and takes place on an old Western movie set in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Margaret Lee, “Do You See What I See (Banana and Rose)” 2014. Steel, chrome, plastic, platinum rose, alpaca fur; 2 pedestals, each: 16 x 16 x 57 inches. Photo: jwpictures.com. Courtesy of the artist and Team (bungalow).
The next evening we popped in to see painter Alex Becerra at his Venice studio where he had been laying down some tracks with a friend. Becerra recently had his first solo exhibition of his so-bad-it’s-good, gooey, and irreverent paintings at L.A. gallery LTD and there were several finished or nearly complete paintings in the studio including one of a naked lady playing the tuba, an office chair on a studio floor, and the tour de force Rex-Goliath (2014) depicting a naked black man lounging in a pose reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia, his orange-and-yellow robe splayed open, an empty bottle of Rex Goliath wine on one side. The figure lies on a white ground built up with thick gobs of paint over two years. Becerra also showed us his handmade tattoos that he applies himself (except for hard-to-reach areas) and that cover his legs, arms, chest, and elsewhere. Becerra compared them to prison tattoos — very DIY — and told us how he started out as a self-taught tattoo artist and referred to the crude style as “bad lines, good intentions.” He also showed us a giant book of his sketches — scanned, copied, and bound at Kinkos; thick as a phone book — that featured every good, bad, weird, and funny drawing he’s made in the past few years — a taste of his process and source imagery for the paintings.
Jim Carrey in his art studio, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.
Next stop was Jim Carrey’s studio. Yes, that Jim Carrey. He’s been drawing and painting since he was a kid. And for several years now, Carrey has been making art that is as expressive and emotive as his work as a talented funnyman. One technique he has devised involves applying wet paint on top of a layer of dry paint and then scraping it off — it creates the look of a silkscreen from the lifting of the bottom layer of paint and remnants of the top layer. His imagery ranges from portraits of women to self-portraits, as well as pop icons like James Dean as a child, a baby gorilla, a mad elephant, and more. He often incorporates text and occasionally disrupts the paintings with slashes that he later stitches back together. His energy is boundless, and he’s clearly having fun testing the boundaries of painting and sculpture. Carrey is also gradually inserting his art practice into his Hollywood persona — if you didn’t catch it, he debuted a new piece, a Jeff Daniels puppet, on Jimmy Fallon, and it’s a must-see moment.
Jim Carrey with his puppet of Jeff Daniels. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.
After visiting Jim, we stopped by LACMA to see the sublime Pierre Huyghe show, a mind-blowing exhibition, filled with evocative beauty and wonder. The show is also quite groundbreaking for its open floor plan and meandering installation, which left us a little starry-eyed (L.A. will be its only American venue). And we caught Larry Sultan’s inspiring show, which reveals a master lensman’s ability to capture lives that exist behind closed doors.
Day 3 Despite the heavy rain, we started off with a visit to L.A. native Aaron Sandnes, who showed works in progress incorporating bullets, gleaming auto-paint paintings, bullet-wound drawings, and even a custom motorcycle. Very relevant. The studio is a boy’s dream come true — it’s filled with toys and weapons. Sandnes was bursting with ideas for ambitious works like a spinning-neon-hands sign. Definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Next up was a visit to Jonas Wood’s exhibition of large paintings of ceramic pots and plants at the new home of David Kordansky Gallery in mid-city. We almost didn’t get inside because of the rain (leaking was a prominent theme of the trip — keep reading). In typical L.A. fashion, we drove across the street to what is arguably the city’s most beautiful gallery, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, to see Mark Handforth’s sublime exhibition of new sculptures, including an old-school telephone-receiver light sculpture, a turquoise star and giant coat hanger in the courtyard, among other works. Gallery partner Maggie Kayne set us up in the James Turrell perceptual cell for a little dose of Zen and then took us on a tour of the gallery’s back room where we saw new resin works by Romanian artist Daniel Knorr.
Next, we ventured to the new downtown gallery scene (actually more like east of downtown, not an easily named district). First stop, Night Gallery to see the new show, “Paris de Noche,” featuring new Michael Jackson–face wall reliefs and truck paintings by Monkkonen (the exhibition’s curator), Amy Yao ladders, and Andrei Koschmieder’s corrugated fence paintings. A few buckets that could have passed for art revealed yet another leaky roof. Across the parking lot (this time we walked), we visited Francois Ghebaly Gallery (more leaking) to see the partially de-installed exhibition by L.A.-based artist Sayre Gomez with works in the back by another local, Joel Kyack. One highlight — his truck-nuts chair, which we tried on for size. We continued our journey through the rainy streets of industrial warehouses to see Christina Forrer’s brightly colored, hand-woven tapestries at the new gallery Grice Bench (co-founded by artist Jon Pylypchuk). Here the leak came from under the front door, so buckets were useless. Forrer’s weavings featured varying textures demonstrating her unique take on the traditional craft with startling imagery of dark fairy-tale-like imagery of girls and boys behaving badly and a portrait of a gypsy woman, among others.
Maurizio Cattelan with Frances Stark (left) and Ali Subotnick (right) at Stark’s studio. Courtesy of Frances Stark.
Then a visit to Frances Stark’s Chinatown studio; we met up with Stark and her muse/protégé Bobby Jesus. After an adventurous and drenched trip to Little Tokyo for lunch, which culminated in two flat tires, Stark showed us works around the studio and we watched her recent video of photos from her Instagram feed (What Goes on @threalstarkiller, 2014) as well as parts of her revealing video Osservate, legette con me (2012), which features Skype conversations between Stark and online paramours, set to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. And before calling it a day, we stopped by to see the “Support/Surface” exhibition at 356 Mission Rd. (more buckets) and got a preview of Jay Chung and Q. Takeki Maeda’s show of new photos in the basement gallery. The space, which pioneered the new downtown scene and is run by Laura Owens with Ethan Swan and others, is one of the most active, dynamic, and exciting venues in town, featuring exhibitions and programs that rival the local museums. Legendary book- and art-wares shop Ooga Booga set up an outpost in the front of the space so we couldn’t help but browse the merchandise. We also met up with Joel Kyack, who, because his studio in the building next door had been flooded, gave us a run-through of his work via a slideshow on his laptop that he made for a recent talk at Pomona College. He showed images and recounted his outlandish performances, several fountain pieces, videos, and multimedia paintings. The works are multilayered, humorous, boyish, and complicated, mixing survivalism and Surrealism in unconventional ways.
Kaari Upson holding the mattress she is going to cast for Cattelan, which will be a hanging sculpture made entirely of silicone. Courtesy of Kaari Upson.
After a visit to the Hammer Museum to see shows of Robert Heinecken, Jim Hodges, Frances Upritchard, Yuri Ancarani, N. Dash, and Mario Garcia Torres, we made a drive-by visit to Marilyn Monroe’s burial site across the street, Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, where Farrah Fawcett, Don Rickles, Truman Capote, John Cassavetes, and Heather O’Rourke (of Poltergeist fame) were also laid to rest. Heading east, we stopped at Matthew Marks Gallery to check out a couple of flower drawings and two new sculptures by artist and UCLA professor Charles Ray (stainless-steel sculptures of a mime on a cot and a compacted car). We touched the art. Then we headed to the Koreatown studio of Kaari Upson, whose stellar show is currently on view at Lower East Side gallery Ramiken Crucible. Upson made us green tea and pumpkin pie and showed us her molds for her recent work. With her large-scale installations, esoteric videos, layered narratives, soft sculptures, and intuitive drawings, Upson could be the bastard child of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, with a strong feminist bent. As the rain became lighter, we headed to Silver Lake to see Max Hooper Schneider’s new show at newish gallery Jenny’s. Inside we found a popcorn trolley turned aquarium filled with live snails, a retrofitted ’80s treadmill with snakeskin printed on leather, and intricate drawings of amoebalike shapes in bright colors, sandwiched in Plexiglas and suspended from the ceiling. The show is entitled “The Pound” and is a precocious, strange, and compelling work.
Max Hooper Schneider, “Aral Spring Trolley,” 2014. Modified popcorn trolley, live freshwater ecosystem, genus Pomacea snails, submersible filter. Photo: Michael Underwood/underwoodpix.com. Courtesy of Jenny’s.
Moving on, we headed across town to the Culver City gallery district (no buckets there). We started at Susanne Vielmetter to see Dasha Shishkin’s new large-scale, strange, and colorful drawings of people from another world and time, reminiscent of the turn of the last century (you can almost taste the absinthe) as well as new abstract paintings by Angel Otero. We drove (rain clouds hovering) to L.A. powerhouse and Culver City pioneer Blum & Poe, to look at new photographs by Florian Maier-Aichen — more fantastical imagery with impossible landscapes and digital drawings. We then walked (!) to Cherry and Martin to see new video/paintings by Brian Bress (Surrealist inspiration with a mix of Hollywood, humor, and art history) and discovered, whilst strolling down La Cienega, Jeff Colson’s tromp l’eoil overfilled storage unit, Roll Up, at Maloney Fine Art. New York–based UCLA grad Sanya Kantarovsky’s new video Happy Soul (2014) at nonprofit LAXART brightened things up with its infectious soundtrack and inventive animation projected over a wall with a painting, which plays an essential role in the video. Next, we saw an eclectic group show about collage, “Saying Yes to Everything,” organized by former Hammer curator Corrina Peipon at Honor Fraser Gallery, and we finished the tour at China Art Objects Gallery, where new paintings of semi-biblical semi-mythological scenes, ethereal landscapes, and abstracts by JP Munro (husband of Christina Forrer) were on view. Whew!
Day 5 Our journey culminated in a visit with Dan Finsel. His studio walls were filled from floor to ceiling with large drawings of two-by-fours, photo stands, and an organic, exotic image of something like a pear with a butt and a vagina. Finsel showed us some video clips and detailed his plans for his upcoming show at Richard Telles Fine Art. The work stood out for its weirdness, originality, and intensity.
A view of Dan Finsel’s studio. Courtesy of Dan Finsel.
What did we learn on this expedition? The rain was gone, the sun was out, and the bright-blue sky returned the city to its normal state of endless summer. L.A. is teeming with inventive, creative minds exploring universal issues, telling stories — fictional and not — and sharing their trippy worldviews with the rest of us. Who needs an art fair?
Dan Finsel and Maurizio Cattelan. Courtesy of Dan Finsel.
When Phil Lord — co-director of The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — isn’t busy creating box-office hits, he finds time to serve as co-vice chairman on the board of LAXART, one of Los Angeles’ most innovative art spaces (7000 Santa Monica Blvd.). Now he’s among a high-powered group of supporters who have donated to launch a new chapter for the exhibition hall, founded in 2005 by director Lauri Firstenberg. “LAXART fills the gaps between larger art institutions and the for-profit gallery scene, presenting new and original work that often wouldn’t be supported otherwise,” says Lord.
On Jan. 10, LAXART, known for commissioning pieces by on-the-rise contemporary artists, will open in a former Hollywood recording studio, Radio Recorders, where Billie Holiday and Elvis Presley sang. The quirky space — built during the late 1920s and housing a warren of rooms perfect for staging multiple shows — is more than double the size of LAXART’s former home in Culver City.
Oysters by Lily Stockman; her Gavlak show opens Jan. 10.
The nonprofit’s arrival in Hollywood adds a player to L.A.’s latest hot arts district, clustered within a few blocks of the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Long populated by film production offices, the area now is home to 20,000-square-foot gallery Regen Projects, which moved from West Hollywood in 2012, Various Small Fires, Hannah Hoffman, Redling Fine Art, Gavlak and Kohn Gallery, which opened in the spring with a blockbuster Mark Ryden show. The neighborhood lacks a proper hipster coffee shop but boasts a landmark artwork: a colorful abstract mural by Sarah Cain alongside the headquarters of public-art nonprofit LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division). Nearby restaurants include Trois Mec, Mud Hen Tavern, the Mozzas and Ammo. “Regen Projects is amazing — it’s like a small museum,” says Brillstein Entertainment Partners manager JoAnne Colonna, an avid collector. “And I like this artist, Amir Nikravan, that Various Small Fires recently showed. The area is going to be a real destination.”
Regen Projects is exhibiting the works of British artist Gillian Wearing through Jan. 24.
LAXART — whose shows have included a buzzy interactive Walead Beshtyinstallation in which visitors walked over safety glass, creating a cracked reflective landscape — will reopen with a suite of exhibits, including one that will look back at the influential L.A. art collective Deep River. Says LAXART board member Mara Brock Akil, creator of BET’s Being Mary Jane: “LAXART is a place where new voices can be discovered and validated. It’s also a safe place for established artists to try something new, that allows them out of the box that commerce sometimes forces them into.”
January 8, 2015 Art of The Possible: A Reappraisal Of The Eugenia Butler Gallery
For a few years at the end of the 1960’s, Eugenia Butler exhibited some of the most exciting and important artists of the period. Between 1969-1971 her eponymous gallery on N. La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles was a cradle of non-object oriented and conceptual art, showing pioneers like John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, Allen Ruppersberg, and Richard Jackson among others. Despite her brief but cutting-edge career, her name is seldom mentioned when discussing this period. If it is, it is often with a mythical reverence based more on her larger-than-life persona than on real knowledge of her actual contributions. Her influence and continuing legacy on the L.A. and international art scene is revealed through interviews with artists and others who knew her, as well as archival research.
Born in Bakersfield, CA in 1922, Eugenia Louise Jefferson grew up in Los Angeles. During WWII she became a nurse sergeant in the Marines, where she met her future husband James G. Butler who was a fighter pilot. After the war, James went to law school on the GI Bill and became a prominent lawyer, handling many high profile class action suits, including cases involving thalidomide and airline crashes. The two were committed to civil rights. “They were considered extremely left wing at the time,” remembers their daughter Cecilia Dan, and Jim helped found an NAACP chapter in Compton where they lived when they were first married. As Jim became more successful, they moved into a stately house on South Rimpau street and had eight children. Although they appeared on the surface to be the picture of the post-war American Dream, the Butlers were interested in pushing boundaries — social, cultural, and artistic — and shared a passion for challenging art. Eugenia Butler’s future business partner Riko Mizuno recalled the important role that art played for the couple when they were courting, before Jim became successful. “She told me they used to date, but didn’t have much money, so they’re going to museums, galleries,” Mizuno said. “That’s how she loved art, so that’s kind of beautiful.”
The L.A. art scene of the 1960’s was much smaller and more intimate than it is today. Curator Hal Glicksman noted in 2011 that “there was so little audience, outside of the artists and a few collectors, and so little money and so little support, that the artists formed a self-supporting community. It wasn’t all done with an eye on the market, or on the critics either for that matter…things here were just what artists and their friends wanted to do, support each other.” New York City was the center of the art world then, which gave artists in L.A. a certain amount of freedom. “One of the nice things about that period was that L.A. was so intimate. The lines between dealers and collectors and artists were permeable because everyone was making it up as they went along and they didn’t have a bunch of established predecessors…like in New York,” notes writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. The community of serious collectors was just beginning to form, so sales were not expected. “It was fun in the sense that money was not an issue, and the joke used to be that if anybody sold anything you must be doing something wrong,” remembered artist John Baldessari in 2011.
There were only a handful of galleries of L.A. at the time, but the one that is perhaps best known is the Ferus Gallery, which was active from 1957 – 1966 on N. La Cienega Blvd. Founded by Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz (who would soon be replaced by the suave salesman Irving Blum), Ferus brought to L.A. the kind of serious art that was being shown in New York and Europe, including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns, as well as kick-starting the careers of a number of L.A. artists. These ranged from assemblage artists like Kienholz and Wallace Berman, to So Cal light and space artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell. The Ferus scene was glamorous, cool, and macho. They expanded the boundaries of what was being shown in L.A. at the time. But in a lot of ways, they were still adhering to a conventional model of showing and selling painting and sculpture. By the mid-1960s, a few forward thinking artists and dealers were showing work that was not confined to physical objects. One of these was Eugenia Butler.
Galleria del Deposito, Genoa, Italy
Beginnings: Galleria del Deposito, Riko Mizuno and Gallery 669
Although her gallery was only active for a brief period, Butler had been involved with contemporary art for a number of years. In the mid-1960s, she served on LACMA’s Contemporary Art Council and New Talent Award Committee, through which she met many young artists, and began collecting art. Her interest in the cutting edge drove her to look beyond the confines of the small L.A. art scene at the time. “The special thing about Eugenia and her husband Jim is that they were avid collectors, but both extremely intelligent, extremely articulate, and they wanted more from art than what was being given to them here in L.A. at that time,” recalls gallerist Rosamund Felsen. “So they went to Europe a lot and intellectually and conceptually the Europeans were further ahead that what was going on in L.A.”
On her European trips, she was introduced to the Genoa-based artist collective Galleria del Deposito (1963-1968) whose members included Lucio Fontana, Victor Vasarely, and Eugenio Carmi among others. In their opening newsletter from 1963, they proclaimed their intentions: “These people have got together in a kind of co-operative society; by forming an association of this type they mean to stress the fact that the gallery is not to be run on a profit-making basis. The common purpose is to bring the public’s attitude to the modern visual arts up to date.” According to LAND director Shamim Momin, this sort of un-orthodox model proved attractive to Butler: “Deposito is interesting because it was kind of like an artists-run collaborative so to speak, making art more accessible to the public, and they were in an old ice factory or warehouse of some kind, and really predicated a lot of artist practices, and she of course with similar kind of prescience, just kind of understood that this was a great vein in which to move.” In 1966, she became an L.A. representative of sorts for Deposito. Later that year, she briefly worked for trailblazing gallerist Virginia Dwan.
Butler then partnered with gallerist Riko Mizuno, who had been running Gallery 669, located at 669 N. La Cienega Blvd., for about a year. As Mizuno recalls, it was people associated with LACMA, specifically then-curator Maurice Tuchman, who suggested the two would make a good team. Both women were interested in work that wasn’t then being shown in Los Angeles. Butler’s boundless energy would prove to be a foil for Mizuno’s reserved nature. “Riko Mizuno was an unusual dealer,” recalled the late artist Jack Goldstein in the 2003 book “Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia” by Richard Herz. “She never did anything; she sat in the back and drank coffee. She had an interesting persona, somewhat inscrutable with her broken English, and was very laid back.”
Mizuno remembers Butler’s enthusiasm: “She’s very active, alive. I used to tease her, ‘you look like vitamin’… I never met a person like that, so much energy. I’m sleeping behind the gallery, I have a kind of apartment, so she knocked on door from early in the morning ‘Get up, get up!'” In 2011, John Baldessari summed up a sentiment repeated in a number of interviews: “Incredible energy, incredible enthusiasm, I can’t remember her ever sitting still.”
The pair presented a number of important exhibitions, showing L.A. mainstay Ed Kienholz, as well as then unknown painter Richard Jackson (who would later become Butler’s first gallery assistant). The gallery was best known for Joseph Kosuth’s groundbreaking 1968 exhibition “Nothing,” the pioneering conceptual artist’s first solo show in the U.S. Before the year was out however, tensions between the two women led to the dissolution of the gallery. “I think if you knew the two of them, you would know it would not work. They’re just too independent,” recalls Felsen. Mizuno even broke out with a bad case of hives that she attributes to their conflict. Mizuno kept the space, renamed the Riko Mizuno Gallery, and Butler opened her own gallery just up the street at 615 N. La Cienega. According to Mizuno, the two never entered each other’s galleries after that.
Installation view of “Joseph Kosuth: Nothing,” at Gallery 669, October 1968. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
The Eugenia Butler Gallery
Right from the start, Butler was dedicated to showing work that explored new directions, that was in opposition to trends of the time, work that she felt passionately about regardless of its financial viability. “She was brilliant, she had energy, she was fearless,” said Felsen, “and this is what she thought should be done, and she went ahead and did it and it was challenging, and it was challenging for her, challenging for the viewer.” Butler was not interested in the more established painters and sculptors of the Ferus scene. Instead, she was attracted to a number of artists whose work would come to be labeled conceptual art. Curator Anne Ayres offers an excellent description of conceptual art in an essay from “Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible,” a 2003 Otis College of Art and Design catalog to an exhibition of work of Butler’s daughter, also named Eugenia Butler, who often worked in this vein: “In fact, pioneering conceptual art was the very definition of exhilaration — passionately argued, greatly contested, and thus never monolithic, as the following partial list indicates: language propositions; detailed record keeping of personal activities; serial and other pedestrian formats; all sorts of documentation, graphs, and photographs; erasure of individual touch, the pretense of artist anonymity, and the elevation of the viewer as part of an expanding environment; social and political deconstructions; concern with space, time, duration, absence, removal, and invisibility; a search for new materials (words, electricity, gasses, steam, light, odors, mental operations, and so forth) – while erasing (dematerializing) the (visual) art object (perhaps better to say the devisualization of the art object) as a locus of aesthetic delectation.” Butler was not limited to exclusively showing conceptual art, but her focus on dematerialized and non-object oriented work prefigured much of what was to come, both in L.A. and worldwide.
“When you look at work that comes out of L.A. in the early 70’s…it’s intellectually oriented, it’s conceptually oriented, it’s photographs, it’s text, it’s the antithesis of what happened in the 60’s,” remarks Drohojowska-Philp. “It’s all about non-retinal art, art that’s about ideas, art that’s about experiences.”
Absence, the void, performance, interaction, the invisible, the temporary — often with a dash of irreverent humor: these were the hallmarks of the Eugenia Butler Gallery. She opened the gallery by giving Allen Rupperberg his first solo show for which he presented “Location Piece” (1969). “There was nothing in the gallery except the address of an old office building on Sunset Boulevard where I’d installed a big theatrical sculpture,” the artist told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
Later that year James Lee Byars — an enigmatic artist who was a favorite of Butler’s — built a wall around her office, separating it from the rest of the gallery. The work was called “Shutting up Genie.” According to the press release: “Her name comes down from the front of the building, and ‘Shutting up Genie’ is lettered in red on the wall directly behind the Gallery window, visible from the street. Eugenia Butler is forbidden by the artist to enter the Gallery exhibition space during this five-day period.” For his piece “Wall Shadow,” Eric Orr built a cinder block wall in front of the gallery, painted its shadow on the ground and removed the wall, leaving only a trace of the light it blocked. For a 1970 exhibition Robert Barry simply locked the gallery doors and put a sign up that read “From March 10 through 21, the Gallery will be Closed.”
Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Butler was also one of the first gallerists to show the work of then-unknown conceptual art godfather John Baldessari. She held his second gallery exhibition ever in 1970 after he left his previous dealer Molly Barnes. Their relationship was also significant for the fact that Butler was the first person to sell one of Baldessari’s photographs. It is typical of her vision that she ignored the traditional distinction between high art and photography, then considered a lesser artform.
“At that moment, photography and art were pretty much ghettoized. I mean photographs were shown in photography galleries but not shown in art galleries. They were literally two different worlds, and very distinct art histories for both,” recalled Baldessari in 2011. “So I had some documentation of a work, called the “Ghetto Boundary Project.” I remember her calling me, she said, ‘You won’t believe what I’m going to tell you, I sold the photographs.’ You don’t get it now, but you didn’t sell photographs at art galleries. That was my first breaching of boundaries I guess.”
One of the most notorious exhibitions at the gallery was Ed Kienholz’ 1969 “Watercolors” show, commonly referred to as “The Barter Show.” Each hand-printed work stated on the face what Kienholz wanted in exchange for it. These ranged from various monetary amounts, to a Rudi Gernreich dress, a Timex watch, an artwork by Baldessari, and so on. They were otherwise identical, the same size, each framed the same, and authorized with Keinholz’ thumbprint. It was “an early acknowledgement on the cult of celebrity and the commodification of art” reads the exhibition text from the 2012 LAND exhibition, “Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler.” The work directly addressed the very notion of art as investment — and confronted collectors with this idea — in a way that meshed with Butler’s love of controversy.
Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
“She wanted art that would make people mad, and it was a perfect fit with the Kienholz watercolors. He knew that they would make everybody angry… yeah they should have, that’s what they were for,” recalled Glicksman in 2011. “They weren’t for Dwan or for Ferus or for any other regular gallery, that he had to have someone who was really up for strange ideas…well because it’s under this heading of institutional critique. People weren’t used to that, of having their face rubbed in the idea that they were collecting art because it would become worth money.” According to rumor, the city tried to shut the show down, arguing that the barter system evaded sales tax.
Even more groundbreaking than Kienholz’ barter show was Swiss/Icelandic artist Dieter Roth’s 1970 exhibition “Staple Cheese (A Race).” Although Roth had been exhibiting in Europe since the early 1950’s, this was his first U.S. gallery exhibition. Roth filled the gallery with 37 suitcases full of cheese, leaving them to rot in the L.A. summer heat. As the show progressed, the smell filled the gallery, wafting out into the street. Maggots and flies filled the gallery.
Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
“Everyone talked about it, it was probably one of the more talked about exhibitions in town. People were a combination of outraged and intrigued by it. My reaction to it was wow,” recalled artist Ed Moses in 2011. “It was very powerful and as I said as you walked along this alley into the gallery, you could smell it from La Cienega and it was a good hundred yards back to the gallery.”
The health department tried to shut the show down, but Butler’s husband, the class action litigator, successfully argued to keep the gallery open on the grounds of the work’s artistic merit. Although the L.A. art community was small at the time, it would prove to be an influential show to all who saw it.
“The Dieter Roth show was just important to see, period, and to see one of the European artists that you admired, to see a work here, and have it be such a memorable and important work,” remembered Ruppersberg in 2011. “I think it’s one of the main works that was ever shown here in L.A., period, and certainly is in all the memories of the artists who were there at the time.”
In addition to exhibitions at the gallery, Butler organized important shows off-site, such as 18’6″ x 6’9″ x 11’2-1/2″ x 47″ x 11-3/16″ x 19’8-1/2″ x 31’9-3/16″ held at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969. The group exhibition included many of the seminal practitioners of conceptual and non-retinal art: Michael Asher, Robert Barry, James Lee Byars, Eugenia Butler, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner among others. The work featured in the exhibition was consistent with Butler’s gallery program in its radical break with previous forms of art-making. Often this involved gallery staff creating the works based on instructions from the artists, as described in a printed supplement to the exhibition. Byars played a tape loop on speakers outside the gallery on a certain day. Exhibition texts note that Stephen Kaltenbach “submitted a series of proposals. The one chosen by the gallery staff was carrying out of Mr. Kaltenbach’s proposal to paint the south wall of the gallery gray…The wall was painted gray.” Jim Rudnick blocked out the skylights and gave out flashlights for visitors to use. Barry Le Va drew a line from the gallery office door to the SE corner of the space. The area to the west of the line was sprinkled with flour. Eugenia Butler (the younger) simply “requested that the plate reading ‘Congruent Reality’ be placed at the entrance to the empty gallery on two alternative Wednesdays.”
“Congruent Reality,” 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Eugenia Butler as Art Dealer and Count Giuseppe Panza
More than simply championing and exhibiting challenging, conceptual art, as a dealer Butler created a market for artwork that was often represented in the physical world by nothing more than a certificate. The idea that you could sell air, or an experience, or an energy field was radical. She counted among her clients the L.A. haberdasher and collector Monte Factor, and influential Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza, one of the first Europeans to seriously collect postwar American art. Panza’s impressive collection covered abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism, and conceptual art. He was an early supporter of art in L.A., visiting the city twice a year to find new artists and new work. He remarked to the Los Angeles Times in 1985 that “history will regard Los Angeles as a great center of the art of this century.”
A letter dated January 22, 1970 reveals that Butler sent Panza information, prices and visuals of work by a number of artists she showed including Douglas Huebler, Baldessari, Stephen Kaltenbach, Kosuth, Robert Barry, Paul Cotton, Eugenia Butler, and James Lee Byars. From this selection, Panza ended up purchasing four works of Huebler’s composed of photographic documentation of actions and signed descriptions of the works. The description of” Duration Piece #12″ (1969) reads:
In March, 1969 a small quantity of sand was removed from the ocean beach at Venice, California and taken to the ocean beach at Plum Island, Massachusetts.
There it was placed where it would be carried into the Atlantic Ocean by the outgoing tide. A similar quantity of sand was, at that time, removed from the Plum Island location and taken (May 1969) to Venice where it, in turn, was carried into the Pacific Ocean.
Another exchange will mark the same sites in 1979 and so on: once every ten years until a total of eleven markings have been made at which time (2069) the piece will be complete. (It will be the responsibility of the owner to arrange for the next ten such exchanges).
One photograph of each site and this statement constitute the form of this piece.
Huebler’s original action, while certainly poetic, was distinct and finite. By holding the purchaser responsible for the fulfillment of the work, he stretches this singular act well beyond the lifetimes of artist and collector, and at the same time calls into question traditional roles of creator and consumer. This is typical of the kind of challenging work that Butler promoted. It is significant that she not only exhibited work like this, but was able to place some of it into one of the most important collections of the 20th century.
“Congruent Reality,” 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Art, Life and Performance
For Butler, art was not just something to be looked at and collected, but a force that permeated every aspect of life. To the intimate L.A. art community of the time, the Butler family house on South Rimpau provided a sense of community and support. It was as significant a gathering place for artists and art lovers as the gallery itself. It became one of a handful of important social spaces for artists, along with the homes of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein (who had founded legendary printmaking workshop Gemini G.E.L.) and noted collector and dealer Betty Asher. “Eugenia and James’ house, that was a social hub, that and the Grinstein’s house,” remembered Baldessari in 2011. “I even think sometimes they competed with each other [to see] who could throw the biggest party.”
The line between party and performance was often blurred. One such occasion was a fashion show Butler hosted featuring works by designer Rudi Gernreich, whose clothes she wore almost exclusively. Gernreich was perhaps most famous for the topless monokini he designed, often seen on his muse Peggy Moffitt. “I remember one party she had for a fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich, where these people came down the staircase nude and that was quite a radical thing in the fashion world,” recalled Moses in 2011.
“She was wearing these Rudi Gernreich clothes that were outrageous,” remembered the late Stanley Grinstein in 2011. “It’s like good art, sometimes you say, ‘what the hell is that?’ and you gotta get used to it. She was that far ahead.”
The dissolution of the barrier between art and life that Butler’s gallery embodied was also celebrated in the work of Paul Cotton, who would often dress up in outlandish outfits for performances, including a bunny costume with the crotch cut out. He was arrested at the opening of the LACMA’s Art & Technology show in May 1971, at which he arrived with Butler. He had planned to present museum visitors with marijuana joints on a platter as part of a performance, but was denied entry. “There were real joints on the tray and I intended to go into the show and just be there as a sculpture for people to take joints if they wanted to and experience it as a living sculpture,” he recalled in 2011. Much of Cotton’s work dealt with relationships between people, not simply the visual experience of looking at a static piece of art. “I think that the whole civilization is a dysfunctional family. Part of my impulses is to heal that dysfunction. One of the dysfunctions I see is seeing people as objects, and seeing art as objects to be bought and sold. The two things go hand in hand, is to only see things of value in terms of their commodity,” he said in 2011. Cotton had one of the last exhibitions at the gallery.
After the Gallery
The Eugenia Butler Gallery closed in mid-1971. As artist Barbara T. Smith recalled in 2011, the rent had been raised on the space. Compounding this, the Butlers’ marriage was unraveling and James Butler had withdrawn his financial support of the gallery, according to their daughter, Cecilia Dan. Larger economic forces were also at play. Although the avant-garde conceptual art that Butler exhibited would continue to be a vibrant part of the L.A. art scene for years to come, there was a growing fiscal conservatism in the city that extended to the art world. In a 1971 Los Angeles Times article, critic William Wilson attributed this to national economic woes, and described a new attitude “not now attuned to the exhilaration of risk.”
Butler continued to be involved with art, however. Instead of promoting the art of others she passionately believed in, she worked to turn her life into a kind of performance. It was around this time that she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She staged a “living wake” at her house, and invited all of her friends to participate in a performative funeral. “We lent her a limo here for her wake-up her funeral, when she got the cancer originally, so she did a whole thing at her house of a funeral, and she called it the wake-up,” recalled Grinstein in 2011. “We lent her the limo, we had a black caddy limo with big fins.”
She began an affair with Cotton and moved with him to the Bay Area, leaving her family behind. In 1972, she arrived at Documenta, the influential art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, riding a white horse, in the nude. It was there that she impersonated her daughter Eugenia, and tried to pass the younger Butler’s work off as her own. Periods of mental instability and familial turmoil would characterize her life for the next thirty years. Although she never had another gallery, what she accomplished in a few short years would have an outsized impact on the L.A. art world and beyond. As Drohojowska-Philp notes, “L.A. really was a hotbed for the development of conceptual and non-object oriented, dematerialized art throughout the 70’s, the validation for that in part could be said to be in part with Eugenia Butler who endorsed it.”
Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Reframing Everything: The Legacy of the Eugenia Butler Gallery
Despite the seminal role Butler and he gallery played, her influence is under-recognized today. “Once you start to make the connection you realize ‘all the shows I cared about, that I learned about, were at her gallery, but I don’t know her name.’ Isn’t that so incredibly strange,” says LAND’s Momin. “Looking back, turns out that she was probably one of the most important galleries, certainly up there with Ferus who we keep talking about, but it turns out she should have had equal billing,” noted Baldessari in 2011. The conventional narrative of 1960’s art in LA is dominated by the Ferus Gallery and their roster of hyper-masculine painters and sculptors. One reason for this is that Irving Blum, the suave New York transplant who ran Ferus with Walter Hopps, was a consummate salesman and promoter. The glamorous “cool school” image he promoted for himself and his artists was a tidier, more digestible story than Butler’s complicated and problematic narrative. “It’s a very complex personality and that doesn’t always parse so well for historical telling,” notes Momin, “especially for women.” In a 2012 LA Weekly article, writer Catherine Wagley cautions against letting the drama of Butler’s life divert attention from her contributions to art: “Focusing on the Butler mythos threatens to pigeonhole her, to turn her legacy into the short-lived, haphazard achievements of an eccentric.” Further complicating her history is the absence of her archives, which were destroyed by James Butler, and later by herself, after they divorced.
To correct this historical omission, Butler’s granddaughter Corazon del Sol and LAND’s Momin put together a 2012 exhibition, “Perceptual Conceptual,” as part of the Getty’s massive Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show began with one box of archival material that del Sol came across, (“It’s just like a cardboard box and it says like ‘archives’ on it. It had two boxes of slides, a few super 8 films, a few small artworks,” she notes), and grew as they conducted extensive interviews with artists of the period. They also utilized the archives at the Getty Research Institute to piece together the timeline and events surrounding the gallery. It was an important step in restoring Butler’s legacy. “I felt so happy that I put my grandmother back in the world because she’d been written out of history…because she was crazy or she was a woman,” said del Sol, “when in truth her story kind of reframed everything.”
The work that Butler championed was about finding the exceptional in the everyday, finding meaning in space, in words, in actions. “It’s all art of the possible. It changes you,” says del Sol in Wagley’s 2012 article. Counter to the notion of conceptual art as being heady and opaque, “these projects are really silly and sincere and about trying to figure out how to communicate things…this was conceptualism that was very human,” says Wagley. Barbara T. Smith recalled in 2011 a scene from an Easter party at the Rimpau house after the Butlers had divorced. Eugenia had returned from Documenta and was planning a performance at the party. “A fat woman with pink teased-back combed hair wearing a tight baby blue double knit suit complained that her life was utterly empty. With great focused intensity, Eugenia turned and said, ‘You have to look for it. It’s there all the time.’ Pink hair then said, ‘I’ve been searching.’ Then Genie said ‘I don’t mean search, I mean see. You put your own clouds over your eyes.'”
Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Tokyo, Japan, March 1970. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Installation view of “Perceptual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler,” at LAND, January 25 – April 21, 2012.
Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Berkeley, CA 1971. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate
Ayres, Anne. Eugenia Butler – Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible. Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design, 2003. Exhibition catalog.
Baldessari, John (artist). Interview with Corazon de Sol, March 25, 2011.
Barry, Robert (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, July 27, 2011.
Cotton, Paul (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, April 13, 2011.
Dan, Cecilia (daughter of Eugenia Butler / art dealer). Interview with the author, Malibu, CA, May 29, 2014.
del Sol, Corazon (granddaughter of Eugenia Butler). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 6, 2014.
Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter (writer / art critic). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 22, 2014.
Edge, Doug (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, May 18, 2011.
Felsen, Rosamund (gallerist). Interview with the author, Santa Monica, CA, April 19, 2014.
Galleria del Deposito. Mostra N. 1 – Sedici Quadri Blu, November 23, 1963.
Glicksman, Hal (curator / preparator). Interview with Corazon del Sol, September 14, 2011.
Goldstein, Jack. “Chouinard and the Los Angeles Art Scene in the Late Sixties,” in Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, by Richard Hertz, 18-28. Ojai, CA: Minneola Press, 2003.
Grinstein, Stanley (founder, Gemini G.E.L. Graphic Editions Limited). Interview with Corazon del Sol, April 5, 2011.
Kavanaugh, Gere (designer). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, March 1, 2014.
Kienholz, Lyn (art organizer / ex-wife of Ed Kienholz). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 17, 2014.
LAND. Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler. Los Angeles: LAND, 2012. Exhibition text.
McKenna, Kristine. “ART : ‘Stuff’ Is His Middle Name : Conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg surrounds himself with odd books, strange posters and other knickknacks. So how does all this ‘stuff’ help him make sense of the world around him and then become art? It just does,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1993. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-11-21/entertainment/ca-59231_1_conceptual-art
Mizuno, Riko (gallerist / former partner). Interview with the author, West Hollywood, CA, April 21, 2014.
Momin, Shamim (curator / LAND director). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, March 18, 2014.
Moses, Ed (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, August 16, 2011.
Newhouse, Kristina. She accepts the proposition: Women Gallerists and the redefinition of art in Los Angeles, 1967-1978. Los Angeles: Sam Francis Gallery, 2011. Exhibition text.
Ruppersberg, Allen (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, May 19, 2011.
Smith, Barbara T. (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, June 1, 2011.
There is a belief that art is universal—a belief, more often than not, perpetuated by New Yorkers who just happen to live in the city where universality comes to roost. But like the popular axiom about politics, art happens on a local level. Sure, the final product might eventually hang just as nicely in any white-walled space from Moscow to Abu Dhabi (that’s the point of white walls), but all art originates in a specific place with its own social obsessions and regional leanings. Some of the most provocative, potent art being created in the United States today isn’t coming out of New York City but clear across the continent in Los Angeles—and what’s more, those artists aren’t simply raising up their canvases like sun reflectors for NYC approval. It used to be that Ed Ruscha was the lone dignitary forced to represent the entire Southern California scene—his backward Hollywood signs and epic fires raging on vacant landscapes almost suggesting what little cultural value the environment held. But today, thanks to L.A.’s own community-building efforts, artists have moved far out of Ruscha’s shadow. Emerging talents mix with art history’s radical pioneers. Hollywood and consumer culture are consistent references, but so is the terrain of the city
itself, where the sprawling geography and jutting horizontals allow for productions that would be physically or psychologically impossible in the compartmentalized verticality of Manhattan. Experimental galleries and non-profits have exploded. Innovative collectors willing to take risks—and with more wall space than their East Coast counterparts—have risen the stakes. Contemporary art in Los Angeles is not new. But there is no question that in the last few years, a new sense of manifest destiny has electrified the city’s art scene. If art is in essence a conversation, Los Angeles, at the very least, is an opportunity for a new way of talking. It sounds completely different than anywhere else. It sounds very much like the future.
Night Gallery, Nocturnal Art Space
When you think of Los Angeles, you mostly think of the sun. But a lot in L.A. goes down at night. In honor of those late creative hours—or perhaps simply to find an excuse to get together in them—29-year-old artist and Canadian transplant Davida Nemeroff opened Night Gallery last February in a space in a run-down Lincoln Heights strip mall surrounded by taco stalls. L.A. has always been a bastion of unorthodox spaces, from the notorious Ferus Gallery of the 1960s to a recent one, unrelated to the iconic artist Dan Graham, called the Dan Graham gallery. Night Gallery is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from the hours of 10 P.M. to 2 A.M. and is located in a three-room black-walled space that used to be a party-supply store. It may still be something of a party-supply store for Nemeroff and her friends, who can be found hanging out during gallery hours. “It’s about smoking, drinking, and art,” explains Nemeroff, who makes her own art by day and took a number of odd jobs to afford the $850 a month rent to keep the gallery operating. “My own rent money went into this place,” she says. “So I stayed with friends. But I didn’t ever want to live here, because I needed it to operate as a legitimate space.” Just because lots of alcohol and smoke gets consumed doesn’t mean Night Gallery’s program, which usually changes monthly, is any less serious. One recent work by artist Justin Beal consists of a black-garbage-bagwrapped sculptural barricade bisecting the main room, which makes moving through the space at night that much more complicated. “We’ve had some pretty sketchy people visit,” Nemeroff admits. “One night a man came in thinking it was some kind of brothel.” Whether risky or risqué, Night Gallery is definitely about community building.
Jeffrey Deitch, Museum Director
When it was announced earlier this year that gallerist Jeffrey Deitch was going to take the reigns as director of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, many in the West Coast community feared a New York mutiny of their stake in contemporary art. But fans of Deitch’s SoHo gallery could have immediately set Californian minds at ease. Deitch is no invader. He’s a gracious, thoughtful improviser. His biggest asset is his ability to build a community—one, in the 15 years of Deitch Projects, that gave a home to some of the most exciting grass-roots urban art projects ever seen in downtown New York.
One city’s loss is another’s gain, and now the 57-year-old ex-gallerist and current museum head is firmly rooted in Los Angeles: in the hills of Los Feliz to be exact, where Deitch has taken abode in a Spanish-style mansion once owned by Cary Grant (the recent addition of a Richard Woods wall-to-wall installation of cartoonish blue wood paneling with a Vegas-esque light piece by Tim Noble and Sue Webster in the room off the pool certifies that the new resident is more art lover than Hollywood legend—for now). “I’m still just finding my way around,” Deitch says modestly while sitting in a chair by the pool. “I’m immersing myself.” He’s a quick learner. Having tapped artist Doug Aitken to create a happening for the famous moca gala in November, Deitch has already put together a show called “The Artist’s Museum” which frames an institutional dialogue between artists and the museum in its 31-year history. Staying true to his long-held interest in graffiti, Deitch is planning his first monumental exhibition to be this spring’s “Art in the Streets,” an extensive multimedia show devoted to the history of graffiti art. “After Pop art, graffiti is probably the biggest art movement in recent history to have such an impact on culture,” he explains. Deitch’s own impact on Los Angeles culture is starting off with a democratic gesture: art from the ground up.
Elad Lassry, Photographer, Filmmaker
Deceptively simple, aggressively frank, and yet incessantly jarring, the photographic work of Tel Aviv–born artist Elad Lassry has managed to strike such deep nerves in the art world that he has already been claimed as a conceptualist, a realist, a neo-Pictures
Generation artist, a pop recycler, and just about every other genre that has anything to do with objects and their consumption. All of this means, of course, that the 32-year-old artist’s output is as poetic as it is rooted in our cultural climate, toying simultaneously with formal structures and pop-culture signifiers. Lassry, who works out of his East Hollywood studio where he often brings his two black standard-size poodles, has a predilection for shooting still lifes of vegetables and fruits, cosmetics and animals, figurines, and even friends, usually set against bright colored backdrops, occasionally arranged on pedestals, often manipulated so multiple exposures allow for doubling, ghosted images, or a blur. Other times he appropriates from vintage photography, turning stock shots into menacing collages.The audience is left to deal with a series of subjects that should be easy to digest but instead become disarming psychograms. “I’m interested in the status of the picture in the 21st century,” Lassry says. “What happens to the picture outside its many institutions.” If Lassry has freed the image from its usual constraints, he has also freed it from our own expectations. Hollywood, or at least filmmaking, is another institution that he has been tackling in a number of recent film works. He has made films with ballet dancers, actress Radha Mitchell, and, most recently, one that starred a California king snake and the actress Rose Byrne. Many of Lassry’s photographs are even devoted to Hollywood legend Anthony Perkins, in whom the artist first became interested while watching Psycho as a child. It somehow seems fitting that the actor who played a man who played his mother who killed women whom her son had crushes on who then had to clean up all the evidence and make it seem like nothing happened should hold Lassry’s attention. There is a parallel here to the artist’s pictures, where everything seems normal but everything has happened.
Piero Golia, Mixed-media Artist, Professor, Businessman
It’s hard to keep track of the various highly conceptual, devoutly serious, and sometimes utterly hilarious art projects that 36-year-old Piero Golia has going, but it’s easy to know if he’s in town. Earlier this year, the Naples-born artist erected a large white bulb on the roof of the West Hollywood Standard Hotel that is lit when Golia is in L.A. and darkened when he’s not. That may seem a rather pompous gesture, but Golia is no quiet, solitary creator. Not only does he run his own graduate art school (the Mountain School of Art, which operates out of a bar in Chinatown that he started five years ago with artist Eric Wesley), but he has started his own corporate business (called New Atlantis Enterprises, with its office in the Pacific Design Center). “I’m a radical,” he says ingenuously. And he’s right. Golia formed New Atlantis Enterprises because he realized that if art is going to have a large impact in society, then the current operating budget and scale for it is too small. “It will take $24 million to build a wall separating Los Angeles from Orange County,” he says. “In the business world that is nothing. In art, forget it.” When asked why he wants to build this wall, he says, “I think we need it. Walls keep people happy.” Golia may be best known for compacting a 35-foot bus into an art booth in 2008, but he doesn’t always work in three dimensions. At his office, he is currently displaying a piece that consists of ten years of his life in posters—a series of wall hangings from 2003 to 2010 (purposely not ten years) that document everything from grants he didn’t win—“Boycott California Community Foundation”—to a recent snapshot of a taxi which ran into the front of his Hollywood Hills home. Another piece is a photographic diptych of two stacks of cash, each totaling one million dollars. “Thanks to a collector, I borrowed one million from a bank, got it delivered, took the picture, and returned it. Do you know it cost $3,800 to take the money out that long?” By doubling the image, Golia made two million out of one. “People always think I’m joking,” he says. “But I am a serious man.”
George Herms Mixed-Media Artist, Bohemian Pioneer
The closest thing to a West-Coast art shaman, 75-year-old sculptor, painter, assemblage master, and jazz lover George Herms has roots so deep in the Los Angeles creative community that his vertiginous three-dimensional collages could be described as odes to timelessness and decay while unquestionably running on a Pacific Standard clock. Herms, a Californian by birth, who originally studied engineering at Berkeley, decided to pursue a life as an artist when a drifter in a Sacramento bus depot sat down next to him and said, “There’s the makers, the takers, and the fakers. Which will you be?” Around that time, Herms met Wallace Berman, the epic Beat artist, in Topanga Canyon, and even helped him hang his first show in 1957 at the equally epic Ferus Gallery, “when it was behind Streeter Blair’s antique store. You went down a little passage and there was the gallery and John Reed slept under a work bench, courtesy of Ed Kienholz, whose shop it was.” Herms went on to become associated with the influential assemblage Southern-Cal art group Semina, creating found-object poems that range from sculptural balancing acts of detritus to ripped and semantically re-anchored textual wall collages. Herms has a home in Irvine, but he keeps a basement laboratory in a friend’s house in Topanga Canyon, stuffed full of scraps, cuttings, boxes, and rusted metal that look like finished works waiting for the right venue (actually, the studio is the right venue—only the mass audience the works deserve would disrupt the tranquility of the place). “The feeling I get when leaving a jazz club is how I want people to feel when they leave an exhibition of mine,” Herms says. Right now, he is working on the stage setting for an avant-garde opera to be performed at REDCAT, CalArts’ experimental art venue, in 2011—a visual piece that may or may not include spiral staircases, paper plates stamped with Herms’s own mysterious music notes, an abstract sculpture suggesting a giant clarinet, and even the inclusion of a cardiogram screen. The project fuses his deep love of music with his eye for visual pyrotechnics. “This whole town is an opera,” he says.
Chris Burden, Mixed-media Artist, Sculptor, Performance-art Icon
The violent, provoking, groundbreaking performance and duration works by Chris Burden in the 1970s didn’t simply redefine the direction of art (although it did just that by questioning the role of the artist, where art was held, how dangerous it could get, and if viewers were really innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire). Burden’s loaded performances arguably predicted cultural issues— and the viewer response to them—that ranged from escalating gun violence (Burden famously had a bullet shot into his arm in a performance in 1971) to consumer car worship (he also crucified himself on a Volkswagen). Today, residing with his wife, artist Nancy Rubins, in Topanga Canyon, Burden seems less interested in his role as an L.A. art icon to a young generation increasingly returning to performance art than he is in the raw, hyper-masculine, large-scale sculptures that have been consuming his practice for the past two decades. Currently, his warehouse studio, which sits on eight acres of rugged land, is overtaken by his latest ode to car culture: Called Metropolis No. II, the piece is a bigger, faster, and more epically labyrinthine version of a sculpture he created in 2004. This second rendition is a fully motorized boy fantasyland where roughly 1,200 specially produced Matchbox-style cars circulate around undulating tracks every 40 seconds: That means about 100,000 cars an hour fly through this Burden maze at such a velocity that it is impossible to follow a single car. “It’s like freeway noise in miniature,” Burden explains. “The sound adds another level of anxiety. And there are also trains for additional motion, although those are slower than the cars.” The result is like a roaring mechanical waterfall for commuters in a J.G. Ballard dystopia. Burden, whose wilderness of vintage streetlamps permanently adorns the plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hasn’t stopped working on his other architectural monuments: two stainless-steel Erector set towers stand guard in front of his studio. He’s also currently devising the engineering details for the construction of a miniature zeppelin air balloon.
Kaari Upson, Multimedia, Installation, Video, And Performance Artist, Portraitist
The ongoing project that has consumed multimedia artist Kaari Upson for most of the last decade could possibly only come about in Los Angeles—California is home to some of the strictest anti-stalking laws in the United States. And certainly obsession is a big part of the 38-year-old artist’s oeuvre. But it would be reductive to write off the mesmeric, messy, and psychologically molten productions Upson has staged over the years as a simple case of fixation. Her work delves into anonymity far more than fame, and the results are intense self-portraits even while they focus on somebody else. It all started in 2003, when Upson returned to her childhood neighborhood in San Bernardino, California, to check on her parents’ house as wildfires were raging through the area. She ended up going into the semi-abandoned McMansion across the street. Inside she photographed nearly every corner of the house and discovered a number of boxes of personal items left behind by the owner (soon to be given the name “Larry”). Upson confiscated three boxes containing photographs of the man from the late ’70s and early ’80s (often with young, pretty women in the vein of a Playboy lifestyle), journals that documented his troubled businesses, and forays into demode psychological therapies. These documents—which revealed so many details about a man Upson had never met—became the backbone of a project where identities were created, swapped, interfused, and finally exorcised. “When I was trying to kind of hijack his life and put it together, I was researching how you could assess who somebody is,” Upson says. “For example, I had a graphology [handwriting analysis] report done.” In uncovering the man who is Larry, Upson created a doll, interfused her portrait with his, built a Playboy-type grotto with video-art coves of sexual pleasure and frustration, and even assembled her own doll twin, which was molded and cast in charcoal. Now in her Koreatown studio, she is working on the final stage of her “Larry” project, which involves an inverted version of the staircase of that old McMansion made from a cast molded into the earth. “It’s been like a relationship with myself. But I think it’s time for it to go,” she says about her last tribute to a man she never really knew—or maybe knew better than he ever knew himself.
Rosette Delug, Collector, Trustee, Epic Hostess
The Lawrence Weiner text piece—which reads “Stretched As Tightly As Is Possible (Satin) (Petroleum Jelly)” across the floor of Rosette Delug’s pool—used to be red. A few weeks before she was to host a party for Weiner’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008, a pool man came and accidentally washed the red to a lavender. “I sent Lawrence pictures, and he said he actually liked it that way,” she remembers. “I’m not one to go against the artist’s wishes.” The Turkish-born 60-year-old, who moved to California in 1972, has become one of the biggest personalities in the Los Angeles art world in the last decade, opening her home for parties and serving on the board of overseers for the Hammer Museum (she used to be a MOCA trustee before Eli Broad’s intensified involvement in the museum caused her resignation in 2008). But the clever, outgoing, outrageously funny Delug is also one of the most adventurous collectors in terms of taking a risk on newcomers and more marginalized talents. Sure, the walls of her minimalist Trousdale home feature works by certified stars like Chris Ofili, John Baldessari, Matthew Barney, and Ed Ruscha, but Delug has proven a champion of emerging talents like Scott Campbell, Tomory Dodge, and Mark Manders in a city far less known for chance-taking buyers. “I focused on things I liked,” Delug explains of her collecting instinct. “I really didn’t know better. I hadn’t studied. When I believed in something, I bought it in the first place immediately.” Ironically it was her emotional intuition that first led her into the art world. In 2001, when her marriage was breaking up, Delug flew to New York to spend time with one of her children. By chance, she ran into some friends who were headed to the Armory Show. “I didn’t even know what an Armory Show was,” she says. “But I went and got so excited I ended up buying a few pieces—Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans. When I got home and hung them around my bedroom, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t so alone.” Now Delug has plenty of company.
For an artist whose hyperprolific output jumps from inchoate stalagmite sculptures covered in a urethane coat akin to a nail-polish lacquer to a refurbished bus that once transported California prison inmates; from neon-dappled semi-abstract graffiti paintings to one recent video work of masturbating male porn stars, the studio compound of Sterling Ruby is surprisingly organized. Located southeast of Los Angeles in the industrial stretches of Vernon, California (Pennzoil motor oil is produced directly across the street), the artist’s headquarters, staffed by 10 assistants, is divided into five separate workshops for drawing and collage, ceramics, paintings, urethane, and woodwork. Ruby, who was born in Germany but grew up on the East Coast and attended college in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for graduate school, is probably one of the most accomplished material-jumping art stars of the last decade. He’s known for producing bright, pop-colored works that belie more sorrowful, failed underpinnings—as if the 38-year-old’s sculptures can’t seem to organize themselves into a form and the canvases can’t cohere to produce a single order. This, of course, can be read as a structural breakdown or the beginning of new possibilities. “I’ve found a pretty happy route in using a lot of different mediums,” he explains. “Even video. I feel very capable of picking it up without preconceived rules and regulations to make it work.” Currently, Ruby has two different bodies of work taking up most of the activity of his studio. One is a series of Mexican scrap-metal sculptures, many of which seem to be shaped like guns, which was inspired by a recent stay at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, near the Mexican border. The second is a number of large ceramic basins glazed in vibrating colors and filled with broken shards that reflects Ruby’s “basin theology” (his belief that in placing past work in these containers, he might reclaim his futile gestures). In a sense, these pieces may be the receptacles of Ruby’s past mistakes, but they are also small monuments celebrating their own subsistence.
Eugenio Lopez, Collector, Trustee, Future Museum Head
In his native Mexico City, Eugenio Lopez is known as the dashing heir to the Jumex fruit-juice–company fortune and the radical art patron who is responsible for Mexico’s most prized collection of contemporary works. In fact, the 43-year-old Lopez is currently planning the construction of a monumental museum to house the collection in downtown Mexico City (for now the collection exists in the northern outskirts of the city inside the Jumex factory compound). No matter how much cultural weight Lopez has brought to his homeland, Los Angeles is where the collector feels most at home—and it is where he first became obsessed with contemporary art. He moved to the city in 1994 and started his own art gallery. “I opened it on Roberston Boulevard representing Latin American artists because I needed an excuse to live outside of Mexico City,” he remembers. “I could convince my father that it was a business.” Although the gallery is long gone, his interest in art has only grown. Lopez’s influence on the L.A. art scene is now seismic. Not only is he on the board of trustees at the MOCA, his massive collection travels all over the country and abroad, gaining pieces at every turn and often promoting Latin American stars. “We have over 2,400 pieces in the collection, and I change it around, even in my home, all the time,” he says. Lopez’s own sleek international-style house, tucked in the hills of Trousdale, is studded with contemporary masters: Richard Prince joke paintings, a Damien Hirst formaldehyde cow head, a Tracey Emin neon sign, a yellow aluminum Jeff Koons elephant sculpture in the back garden—even a Cy Twombly scribble painting in the bedroom that covers the television set. If there is a sense of the playboy in the scion’s collecting attitude, there is also a clear message that he is building a legacy.
Artist Curated Projects, A Radical Artist-for-and-by Artist Collective
Artist Curated Projects cannot be accused of false advertising. The grassroots, pro-artistic-freedom endeavor was the brainchild of artists Eve Fowler (a highly prolific photographer) and Lucas Michael (a multimedia artist). “I remember we were on a hike together in 2008, talking about art,” 46-year-old Fowler says about the project’s genesis. “We were saying how we knew so many friends who made great work that no one knew about. It occurred to us to ask artists to curate a show for us.” ACP was born in the summer of 2008 out of Folwer’s apartment in Hollywood—in a building memorable to anyone passing down its hidden alley for a frieze of writer Jack London on its façade (the site was originally an art school founded by sculptor Finn Haakon Frolich, and London used to stay here when he visited L.A.). “We’re a no budget operation,” explains Michael. “And our projects tend to have a queer bend. The evolution has been really organic, and now about 135 artists are involved.” Early projects saw sculptures, ceramics, and video work installed across Fowler’s room floors (as well as up walls, on top of the dining room table, and hanging from the ceiling). Participants included K8 Hardy, Tony Payne, and Amanda Ross-Ho, and while there is an ad-hoc feel about the setting, the result is emotionally and intellectually invested. It wasn’t long before ACP spilled out of Fowler’s home and found provisional satellites around the city. Other artist’s houses, non-profit art spaces, online, and even, for a recent series of artist-led tea ceremonies, at the iconic Schindler House. Fowler and Michael are supplying a platform to build a creative cross-pollinating community outside of the usual commercial or museum setting. Community is so essential that our photograph of ACP needs to include one editor note: Fowler and Michael went to great lengths not to be the center of this photograph. And we apologize if they appear any more significant here than the equally invaluable artists who encircle them.
Matt Chambers, Painter
Very few artists admit to painting with their glasses off, but very few artists paint so prolifically and—more to the point—so arbitrarily as 28-year-old Matt Chambers. Originally from Boise, Idaho, Chambers initially came to L.A. for film school but dropped out, opened a short-lived closet-sized gallery space in Chinatown, and eventually began making his own art. Today he produces drawings, books, and paintings in an industrial studio space he shares with artist Brendan Fowler in Atwater Village. Chambers’s large rectangular canvases, often thick with layers of oil paint, have the energy and giddy imprecision that suggest a deeper interest in getting the image down than making it right. The subject matter comes from an onslaught of “classical” sources—junk mail, advertising fliers, magazines, and basically whatever else lands near the artist’s feet to grab his attention (he tends to shy away from Internet searches). In effect, Chambers seems to be taking an anti-conceptualist stance with his work, refusing to play philosopher, spiritual guide, and translator for his audience. “I never have to deal with the repercussions of how people are going to read my paintings,” he says. Here, process is more important than product. “It’s never about finishing a picture,” he swears. “That’s why I’ll work on 40 canvases at a time.” When a canvas becomes too loaded, he will rip it into strips and create sculptural paintings by weaving the strips together. For a recent show at the UNTITLED gallery in New York, Chambers swore he sent the nearly 40 canvases without giving direction on what the gallery should do with them in terms of their exhibition. “That ends up reading to me like, ‘artist as tastemaker’ and ‘artist as arranger,’ ” he muses. Certainly, even a refusal to play the game of the art institution is playing the game, but Chambers fresh, free-flying tactic of swallowing and spitting out is about as alive as painting can get these days.
Zackary Drucker Performance Artist, Filmmaker
The most memorable work to date by 27-year-old performance artist Zackary Drucker may well be a piece entitled The Inability To Be Looked At and the Horror of Nothing to See, staged four times in 2009, where Drucker lays on a table wearing only underwear and a blond wig with a steel ball in her mouth. A prerecorded tape of Drucker’s voice instructs audience members to pluck out body hairs with provided sets of tweezers. The artist’s tone is reminiscent of guided spiritual meditations while she consoles her listeners for their sadistic hair-pulling act with pronouncements like, “Don’t be afraid, the bitch can take it.” This piece has come to represent the duality of Drucker’s work: a direct, unapologetic confrontation between the audience and her body, gender, and voice. “I wrote that piece in the summer of 2008, when I was participating in a performance-art boot camp in the Mojave Desert run by Ron Athey and Julie Tolentino,” says the upstate New York native, who moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to attend school at CalArts. Drucker seems to have learned a lot from such performance-art masters—and in fact, she lives and works in a Silverlake apartment that Athey leases, where a few scenes of Bruce LaBruce’s queer L.A. cult film Hustler White (1996) was filmed. Drucker, a transgender artist whose work often celebrates and amplifies the viewer’s inability to affix easy norms and codes, is one of the leading participants in a new generation that is rediscovering performance as a space for revolt, expression, and creative bedlam. Drucker has also been incorporating film and video into her practices—often collaborating with other queer and transgender performers in overt, uncompromising, sexually vocal works. In You Will Never, Ever Be a Woman . . . Drucker and Van Barnes, who Drucker describes as a close friend and sort of sister, demean and embrace each other in a domestic setting, demanding privacy while playing up for the camera. “I’ve always been interested in mixing signals,” Drucker says. “I don’t think any of us are easily defined. Trans people have a tendency to adhere to normative culture, but I think all the rules and truths are being redefined.”
Brendan Fowler, Multimedia Artist, Occasional Rock Star
Previously known for his rock act/performance piece/performance piece-disguised-as-a-rock act, BARR (for an example of this theoretical knot, please listen to BARR’s track “The Song Is The Single”), 32-year-old Brendan Fowler has recently emerged as one of the most intrepid artists coming out of Los Angeles. As with his music, Fowler’s visual productions operate in a series of aggressive negations and reassertions—often one image literally crashing through or canceling out another, but only to have the second image further the narrative of the first. Sound confusing? It really isn’t. “For years I performed as a deconstructive pop band,” he says in the Atwater Village studio—which used to be the warehouse for Beastie Boys–approved clothing line, X-Large—that he shares with artist Matt Chambers. “So the music dealt with narrative and formal arrangements, but I was also appropriating from improvised music and free-jazz compositional structures.” Take for example a series of posters of a 2008 musical tour Fowler was supposed to go on with the band Deerhunter. He was not the headliner nor was the tour cancelled—only BARR’s appearance—but Fowler spelled out “Cancelled” over screen prints of the poster which had already been cancelled out by his application of white paint over the information; he then cancelled out the cancellation by printing letters over those letters, which reinstates the act of cancellation. This may sound like a lot of rhetorical gamesmanship, but many of his sculptural paintings, where multiple frames are stacked on top of each other or smashed together, are quite biographical. In his various flower studies—a subject, according to Fowler, that announces itself as a high aesthetic but in doing so already proves itself to be an exhausted motif—one of the image layers is a shot of a computer screen, recording the exact time and file name of the flower image it is bisecting. Many recent works contain white Masonite sheets, another piece of memoir. “I almost got killed by it,” Fowler recalls. “Thirty sheets fell on me when I was in the studio alone and I was pinned there until my friends finally showed up to save me.”
Land: Los Angeles Nomadic Division, Multi-platform, All-terrain, Non-profit Art Organization
When former Whitney curator Shamim Momin moved from New York to Los Angeles in early 2009, many of her peers thought she was leaving the epicenter of art activity for the wild west. But the truth was the 37-year-old curator had been coming out to Los Angeles for years on the hunt for fresh, untapped talent. “Historically, the L.A. art community has always been interesting, but it really feels like it’s gathering a critical mass over the last few years in an exciting way,” she says. Momin linked up with another former New York curator, Christine Y. Kim, who is now associate curator of contemporary art at the Los Angles County Museum of Art to form the ambitious non-profit art organization Los Angeles Nomadic Division (a.k.a. LAND), which basically turns the entire city landscape into potential art exhibition sites. “At this point I can’t look at anything without thinking about it as a venue,” she says. LAND’s various projects tackle long-term multi-platform productions such as the year-long “VIA” which brings significant Mexican artists to public sites around L.A., like Yoshua Okon, whose video of 15 pit bulls was shown on the walls of a hot dog stand by the pier in Santa Monica last September. But they also organize more roving one-night fetes for emerging talents. Last October LAND hosted a video and lecture by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe in the historic Schindler Buck House. Momin, Kim, and her team of associates (Taylor Livingston and William Parks, among others) don’t just see the Pacific Ocean as their horizon lines. While based in L.A., LAND is aiming to stretch its creative opportunities all over the globe. They are already planning an exhibition in Marfa, Texas, in fall 2011, but first LAND is taking over an island—at least for a night—in Miami during Miami Art Basel.
Kori Newkirk, Multimedia Artist
Most mornings Kori Newkirk takes the bus to his studio in downtown L.A., making him one of the few established artists not reliant on a car. “I haven’t had a car in a year,” he says. “With so much of the art world imploding lately and funding changing, I figured that when my car died I really didn’t need it.” There is something of this scrap-the-past-and-start-over mentality about the 40-year-old artist’s own career, which has already experienced several distinct progressions in the last decade: from this former New Yorker’s rising-star status as a “post-black” artist making decorative paintings to his more complicated media-driven installations in recent years. Now Newkirk seems to be undergoing another creative metamorphosis. “I’m trying to figure out again what it means to be an artist,” he says. “It’s a re-investigation. I’m playing around in my studio.” Most artists of Newkirk’s generation have been boxed into specific mediums or motifs, but Newkirk has always resisted easy classifications. At a recent solo show at the Schindler House, he added black circular magnets with jagged edges to windows, which had the sense of sunspots. “I’m really into science fiction these days,” he explains. “But I also realized that if I lived in a house like that one, it would be all shot up, and the windows would be riddled with bullets.” Another piece in that show was a circular pattern of T-shirts arranged on the floor, covered in sweat and dirt. One day at the studio he realized that his own shirt stains looked almost like tie-dye. Tie dye is traditionally a hippie symbol, but Newkirk says, “that sculpture had to do with labor. My parents might have wanted to enjoy the Summer of Love but they couldn’t. They were working. ‘I’d love to be outside with you but I have to be in here scrubbing floors.’ ” Let’s hope Newkirk never gets stuck in classifications.
LOS ANGELES — For the next six months, Southern California will be awash in celebrations of Southern California art: close to 170 separate exhibitions at 130 museums and galleries stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Pacific Standard Time, as this festival is known, is an exhaustive accounting of the birth of the Los Angeles-area art scene, but it is also a statement of self-affirmation by a region that, at times, appears to feel underappreciated as a serious culture center.
This multi-museum event, in all of its Los Angeles-like sprawl, suggests a bit of overcompensation from a city that has long been overshadowed by the New York art establishment, a place that — arguably unfairly — still suffers from a reputation of being more about tinsel than about serious art, and where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair.
“It’s corny,” said Dave Hickey, an art critic and a professor in the art and art history department at the University of New Mexico. “It’s the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time. It is ’50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary.”
Still, for many Los Angeles artists and critics, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, is a long-needed accounting of the emergence of the region as an art capital in the same league as New York, Berlin and London. Indeed, Los Angeles these days has more than its share of ambitious museums, adventurous art galleries, wealthy collectors, top-notch art schools and — perhaps most important — young artists drawn here by relatively cheap rents, abundant light and an atmosphere that encourages experimentation.
“Since 1980 the art world has become global — New York is not the epicenter,” said Peter Plagens, a painter and essayist who has worked extensively in Southern California and who was here for some of the openings. “So L.A. is kind of doing this joust: ‘We want our art history to be in the books.’ ”
The shows cover the postwar outpouring of art from the Southern California region. The festival will run for half a year, and just as well: art enthusiasts intent on seeing all the exhibitions are approaching this as the art world equivalent of an Ironman Triathlon.
“I am going to treat it like a graduate course in art history,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
For less determined mortals, highlights can be seen at the Getty, which features works by Los Angeles sculptors and artists like Ed Ruscha and George Herms, from 1950 to 1970; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with an exhibition of California-inspired modern furniture design and a retrospective of work by the Chicano performance and Conceptual art group Asco; the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, with a light and space exhibition; the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, with a display of prints; and the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, with work by local African-American artists.
In many ways, this multi-museum extravaganza goes against type, or at least stereotype. “It’s a coming of age for a city that sometimes doesn’t think of itself as having an art history,” said Michael Govan, the executive director of the county museum.
That novelty alone seems likely to feed curiosity about what is taking place here. “Los Angeles just presents itself as a fresh and new story — people will be interested in hearing some different narrative they haven’t heard before,” said Thomas E. Crow, an art historian. “And because so much of the art is really, really good, that will sustain the interest in these new narratives.”
No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital; it is not lost on people here that the executive directors of three of the four biggest museums in Los Angeles came here from New York. James Cuno, the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which is financing the event, noted the abundance of galleries, auction houses and money in New York.
“It’s understandable that artists and collectors would find their way there,” he said. “In the art world, the world tilts to New York. New York has been dominant and held our imagination since the late 1950s. That has cast everyone else in the shadows.”
There are certainly obstacles here to the establishment of a thriving art scene. The sheer sprawl of the city means that it is hard to have the kind of concentrated art district that has characterized New York over the last 50 years, though there has long been an influential colony of artists out in Venice. And there are obstacles that come with living in this part of the country: Curators talk about the difficulty of encouraging people to walk indoors for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year.
But increasingly over the decades, there has been an abundance of art produced here and no shortage of people who want to see it, even if it is not necessarily the old masters exhibition your parents might have taken you to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A show devoted to graffiti at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown set a record for the institution by drawing 201,352 visitors before it closed in August. A Tim Burton show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has also brought overflow crowds.
The draws for young artists are particularly compelling now, including renowned art schools, among them California Institute of the Arts; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And the sheer size of the city means that there are plenty of large spaces to rent for relatively little money.
“I drove around Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, and a lot of this reminds me of New York in the 1970s, where artists lived in real interesting neighborhoods near each other, and the rents aren’t really that high,” said Mr. Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Compared to New York City, compared to London, the rents here are affordable. A studio space that in Brooklyn would be $6,000 a month you can get here for $1,000.”
“There is now enough critical mass of galleries, of places where artists meet, blogs, magazines,” he added. “There is enough of a strong community in places for artists to see each other’s work that it now makes sense to be here. L.A. is increasingly central to the art dialogue.”
Mr. Cuno said his perception was that people in Los Angeles did not really spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of them. “I don’t feel or hear any ‘second city’ mentality here,” said Mr. Cuno, who came from Chicago, where that kind of talk is common. “People in Los Angeles are pretty happy with their position in the world and needn’t get the confirmation from elsewhere.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 14, 2011
Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about the Pacific Standard Time art festival, at 130 museums and galleries in Southern California, misstated at one point the name of the Los Angeles museum where Jeffrey Deitch is the director. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, it is the Museum of Contemporary Art, not the “Los Angeles Modern.” (There is no museum by that name.
“Success always leaves footprints” is a statement famously attributed to Booker T. Washington. In 1967, two years after the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, artists and educators Alonzo and Dale Davis realized this dictum when they opened the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood affectionately referred to by residents as “the village.” The Brockman Gallery was founded during the heyday of the so-called Black Arts movement. Though numerous galleries opened in Los Angeles and across the country in the 1960s and 1970s with the aim of advancing the notion of a black art form, the Brockman Gallery — a commercial gallery in the midst of community focused ventures — was unique for the time period. Through their gallery Alonzo and Dale Davis provided early exposure to a number of artists who today are widely acclaimed, including Betye Saar, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge.These artists, along with other Southern California artists of the era, were included in the notable 1989 exhibition “19 Sixties: A Cultural Awakening Re-evaluated,1965-1975.” Recently, a renewed interest in black Los Angeles artists active from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s has spawned their inclusion in a variety of noteworthy exhibitions.Growing Up in the ‘Old South’Alonzo and Dale Davis grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, a small southern community of self-made residents not necessarily tethered to the more traditional jobs held by blacks in larger northern or western cities. The history of entrepreneurship among African Americans is inextricably intertwined with the history of segregation and Jim Crow laws, which limited black people’s mobility and restricted their access to services. As children, the Davis brothers were greatly influenced by the pervasive attitude of self-reliance that was commonplace in the tight-knit college community where they lived. Higher education and self-sufficiency were highly valued at Tuskegee Institute, a place where one could witness numerous manifestations of black achievement. Founded by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute was a model institution held up by the U.S. government, as well as major corporations, to illustrate that blacks could excel in American life if given the opportunity — even under segregation. Despite a dark smudge on its history — the notorious syphilis experiment executed in the 1930s by the US government 1 — the institute became world-renowned as the training ground for the Tuskegee Airmen, another government-sponsored experiment, and served as a bastion of higher education and an example for the many dignitaries from different parts of the world, especially those from African and Caribbean nations, who made frequent trips to the campus.Alonzo Davis was born in Tuskegee in 1942, just one year after the famed Tuskegee Airmen took to the air. 2 Dale was born in 1946. The Davis brothers grew up on Bibb Street in a community of educators who worked at the institute. Their father taught psychology, and their mother was a librarian at the college library. During the final years of the war, the boys left Tuskegee for St. Paul, Minnesota, where their father completed his Ph.D at the University of Minnesota. When they returned to Tuskegee, their father was made dean of the Education Department. Alonzo remembers a childhood of privilege, summers spent lying in the shade of a stretching magnolia tree in the mid-1940s in front of his house, participating in campus-sponsored activities such as swimming and tennis, and lounging on the flat clay soil at Dead Man’s Peak, a popular meeting place for the community children. Renowned entertainers and other luminaries frequently visited the campus. The institute was an insular community, aware of but situated away from the demeaning Jim Crow laws in the town of Tuskegee.
Interior view of the library reading room at the Tuskegee Institute ca. 1902 | Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress
When asked about the influences that contributed to his artistic and entrepreneurial sensibilities, Alonzo recalls that his first job was collecting and selling pop bottles back to the Flakes Store and coat hangers to Reid’s Cleaners. On Saturday mornings Dale worked at sweeping out Le Petite Bazaar, the small women’s clothing shop owned by Mrs. Dawson, the wife of William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), the celebrated composer, choral conductor, and professor. Dale also liked fishing and befriended local fishermen, selling them worms and crickets so that they would take him out with them. Away from his friends, Alonzo grew zinnias because he liked their bright colors. His friends teased him when they found out, so he began tending his zinnias on his way to play baseball — a move that quelled some of the teasing. Working with zinnias made Alonzo more interested in color and inspired him to take art classes from Elain e Freeman (Thomas), who later became chair of the Art Department at the institute. Freeman’s father, who was paralyzed, painted with his toes. Alonzo and Dale often visited Freeman’s family home to look at his work and watch him paint. Alonzo remembers his most rewarding art experience taking place at the institute’s Chambliss Children’s House School, an elementary school where practice teachers taught classes on everything from drawing to gardening to the children of the institute’s employees as well as the townspeople’s children. Winning an award there for a landscape painting encouraged Alonzo to pursue art.
For Alonzo, artistic endeavors were just another part of an active childhood, mixed in with the 4-H Club, the Boy Scouts, and Saturday-morning visits to the ROTC shooting range to fire a .22-caliber rifle. His schedule of varied activities was typical of most institute boys in this academic yet rural environment, often described by the college staff as “a ship in a rural sea.” Alonzo and Dale also had many experiences unheard of for other black youth.
By the time Alonzo was ten years old, the Tuskegee Airmen had made a name for themselves, and he was taken for a ride in a Piper airplane flown by Charles “Chief” Anderson, famous as the first instructor of the Airmen and for taking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for a plane ride in 1941 (Alonzo boasts that since then, he’s never feared flying).
Because their father held such an esteemed position at the institute, Alonzo and Dale had ample opportunities to meet dignitaries and be exposed to people from the African and black diasporas. Visits from these international figures often resulted in invitations for students from their home countries to study at Tuskegee, so the Davis brothers were accustomed to mingling with foreign students from a young age.
In addition to their exposure to people from the African and black diasporas, the Davis brothers met members of Tuskegee’s Jewish faculty, many of whom had fled the Nazis before settling in the United States. Historically black colleges and universities worked with various organizations to place recently emigrated Jews in colleges and universities around the nation, regularly opening their doors to the displaced scholars. This was especially evident in the art departments on these campuses. Artist and art historian Samella Lewis has discussed the important role played by Viktor Lowenfield in the art department at Hampton University in Virginia, and artist Mary Lovelace O’Neal has likewise stated her respect for Ronald O. Schnell, who was recruited from Stuttgart, Germany, in 1959 to the art department at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.
At Tuskegee Institute, a diverse group of writers, musicians, and other creative people visited and worked on the campus, including Dawson, who Alonzo insists made him “listen to another voice,” the creative voice in his head. Alonzo came to view Dawson as a kindred spirit, someone who understood “creative spirits — those of us who were into other things besides baseball and football.” He continues, “I wasn’t academic in the way my dad was, and Dawson picked up on that right away.”
Like one of his friends, the painter Aaron Douglas, Dawson was interested in the development of African American musical forms. His Negro Folk Symphony had its world premiere under the direction of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, the same year that Douglas painted his Aspects of Negro Life murals at the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch in Harlem. Both composer and artist explored parallel themes in these works. Dawson’s symphony was composed of three symphonic movements (“The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O Let Me Shine”), while Douglas’s mural consisted of four oil-on-canvas panels (“Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting,” “An Idyll of the Deep South,” “From Slavery through Reconstruction,” and “Song of the Towers”).
Portrait of William Levi Dawson ca. 1926. | Photo: Courtesy of Emory University
Influenced by the nationalistic views of Anton Dvořák, Dawson traveled to West Africa in 1952. His exposure to African music inspired him to revise his symphony to include African rhythms. 3 Dawson’s interest in African culture was proudly displayed in his home, just a few houses down from the Davis home on Bibb Street. There the Davis brothers enjoyed Dawson’s personal collection of African and African American art, including works by Douglas, August Savage, and Hale Woodruff. Beyond their neighborhood the Davis boys had several other opportunities to view artwork, from the George Washington Carver Museum (named for the famous scientist and artist who was an important presence on the Tuskegee campus) to Lifting the Veil of Ignorance, Charles Keck’s monumental public sculpture of Booker T. Washington with a kneeling former slave. “One of my most memorable experiences was spending time in the George Washington Carver Museum looking at the brightly colored vials containing samples of his experiments and displays of his work,” Dale remembers. 4 A local gallery specializing in ceramics — a medium that would become an early focus for Dale’s art practice — also fueled the brothers’ desire to pursue art.In 1956 Alonzo and Dale’s parents separated, and the boys took the Super Chief passenger train from Chicago to Los Angeles with their mother. In 1948 restrictive real estate covenants had been lifted in Los Angeles, allowing black people to buy property west of Western Avenue. The Davis family did so, though moving into the new neighborhood was a cultural shock for the brothers. In Tuskegee the Davis brothers had lived in a closed community of black educators. The area where their family settled in Los Angeles was much more diverse. Alonzo remembers the student population at the new school: “It was comprised of black kids whose fathers worked at the U.S. Rubber Company, white kids [whose] parents worked at USC and wanted them to ‘toughen up’ in public school, and Japanese kids [who] had been in internment camps.” 5 In Los Angeles the Davis boys were exposed to a more racially diverse group of children than they had experienced in the predominantly black and insular Tuskegee.
Both of the Davis brothers entered and graduated from colleges in Los Angeles. Alonzo remembers that while in college they never learned anything about Africa or African Americans. For them, the seeds of their African heritage — a heritage that would later inform the naming of their gallery — had been firmly planted during their youth in Tuskegee. “We had spent our formative years in what people now refer to as ‘the Old South’ — Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta, and Durham, North Carolina. These were places we visited with our family, and even though young, we were very aware of the issues of segregation confronting the South,” says Dale. 6 By the time they began giving serious thought to opening a gallery, Alonzo had graduated from Pepperdine University, and Dale was an art student at the University of Southern California.
In 1966 they embarked on a cross-country road trip along I-20 in a Volkswagen Beetle, stopping off to visit with local artists along the way. Reconnecting with their southern roots, they visited colleges and universities, found vibrant art programs, and talked to students and faculty. In Washington, D.C., they met Topper Carew, who opened the New Thing Art and Architecture Center in the late 1960s. Carew inspired the brothers’ vision of a gallery as a place to at once enliven the black community and generate revenue. Before leaving the East Coast, they drove to Philadelphia and met with Romare Bearden in New York City, circled back to upstate New York, and continued into Canada, returning to the United States through Detroit. They returned to Los Angeles in 1966 after participating in the Meredith March, billed as “a march against fear,” which Alonzo says “test[ed] [our] resolve and commitment to be a part of a national response to the racism issues of the time.” 7 Within nine months of returning to Los Angeles, Alonzo and Dale found a building in Leimert Park Village. After talking with family members, who discouraged the brothers from doing it, they spoke with a lawyer and leased the building. While the brothers both taught art in high school, their main focus was on opening their gallery. Alonzo was twenty-four and Dale was twenty.
The corner of Degnan and 43rd in 1968, 1 year after Alonzo and Dale Davis opened Brockman Gallery. In the background the art deco Leimert Theatre, now the Vision, originially designed by the architectural firm Morgan, Walls & Clements | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Opening in a location on Degnan Boulevard, the main commercial strip in Leimert Park Village, the Davis brothers felt that they had secured a commercially viable space in a growing black community. Leimert Park is a village at the foot of the “Hills” — including View Park, Baldwin Hills, and Windsor Hills — which offered sweeping views of the Los Angeles basin and the Hollywood Hills to the east and the north, as well as Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu as they stretched to the Pacific Ocean on the west. Leimert Village, with its small triangular park at 43rd Place, is one and a half miles square, bordered by Crenshaw Boulevard, Leimert Boulevard, 43rd Street, and 43rd Place. The village was developed by Walter H. Leimert in 1928 and designed by Olmsted and Olmsted, brothers and sons of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), one of the two designers of Central Park in New York. They designed two-story Mediterranean-style buildings — a favored style for many communities in Los Angeles — for the commercial strip running through the center of the block.
Leimert envisioned his village as a self-sufficient community for upper-middle-class families with comfortable accessibility to schools and churches. The tree-lined streets and hidden utility lines created an oasis — an ideal atmosphere for families. It was no secret that a legal provision forbade selling property in this ideal family enclave to black families. In 1947 the neighborhood made headlines when the bisected and mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, the victim of the notorious Black Dahlia murder mystery, was found in a vacant lot in the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue. The area was in the news again one year later in 1948, this time for the lifting of the racially restrictive covenants that had prevented blacks from moving to the neighborhood. Free to move farther west, black middle-class families began settling between Western Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, soon to be a core area of black business achievement of the sort that was previously found near Central Avenue. Wealthy black Angelenos gravitated to Leimert Park and to the Hills. Leimert Park Village became one of the first communities in Los Angeles to have a homeowners association. To maintain an integrated community, blacks and Asians — with a few whites — founded the Crenshaw Neighbors Association in 1964. The Davis brothers believed that this community of black wealth was ripe with patrons for their gallery. As more black families moved into the area, whites moved farther west.
In 1965, a few years before the Brockman Gallery opened and in the midst of increased white flight, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) separated from the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art (founded in 1913) on Exposition Park and moved to the Miracle Mile neighborhood on Wilshire Boulevard. This left many blacks with few options to see and experience fine art from other parts of the world. LACMA’s move to Wilshire Boulevard meant that most of the communities of color that encircled Exposition Park had to travel farther to see artwork. Residents of communities in the Hills, many of whom were already patronizing shops on the far west side of Los Angeles, generally embraced the move.
A Spanish style apartment house in Leimert Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
The homes in this tree-lined neighborhood — typically furnished with Provençal furniture and grand pianos — created a comfortable environment for wealthier blacks, in stark contrast to life in the sprawling black communities farther east and south in Los Angeles. Before the Davis brothers embarked on their cross-country journey, in 1965 the Watts uprising erupted, and the National Guard set up a no-cross line on Crenshaw Boulevard at the foot of the hill communities. The residents of Leimert Park, situated on the east side of Crenshaw Boulevard, must have felt a pronounced sense of vulnerability. Alonzo was in Europe, sitting in a Paris café, when he heard about Watts. He recalls people he met in Paris asking him: “You’re from Los Angeles. What are you going to do about this?” 8
In retrospect, Davis observes that it was for the best that he wasn’t there at the time, since he was “hotheaded” and likely would have found himself in trouble. Of course, he knew many artists who actually lived the experience, watching Watts and South Los Angeles burn as fires continued to spread, with no end in sight. Many artists were livid about the destruction, the police brutality, and the poverty that sparked the uprising, and in the aftermath of the rebellion their frustrations manifested in their work. The Davis brothers met a number of these artists before the uprising — including Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, and John Riddle — when their work was exhibited at the Watts Recreational Center, the site of the Watts Summer Arts Festival.
Alonzo met artist Dan Concholar in a park where he often went to read. With so many contacts in the arts scene, a lack of local venues in which to experience art (resulting from LACMA’s move), and the artists’ passionate desire to do something in the aftermath of the Watts uprising, the Davis brothers had all the motivation and resources they needed to open the Brockman Gallery. Alonzo notes: “After the Watts riot, there were a lot of artists doing works that were politically significant. They were making statements that were social. We filled a gap and a void there. We just opened a window that had never been available, especially on the West Coast.” 9
The Brockman Gallery opened in 1967 at 4334 Degnan Boulevard in the center of the Leimert Park Village shopping district. The gallery was named after the brothers’ grandmother Della Brockman, whose maiden name was also Dale’s middle name. Della Brockman’s father was from Charleston, South Carolina, and was of mixed race, the child of a white slave master and a black female slave. He was indentured, and when he left the plantation, he married a Cherokee woman in the Charleston region. The family has never been sure why, but it is known that he eventually returned to the plantation. In the late 1960s, as blacks and African American organizations actively adopted African names, the Davis brothers decided to use the name Brockman in honor of their great-grandfather, the mixed-race slave who married the Cherokee woman. By celebrating their southern roots rather than their more distant African ones, they hoped to display that they were comfortable with their family’s history and felt no need to deny their slave and racial heritage. Such an outright embrace of a slave name ran counter to the position of some black nationalist groups. “When we adopted Brockman as our name, we took heat [for the] slave name because it was a time of Black Nationalism in Los Angeles. We were respected [for our efforts] but we had a slave name,” recalls Alonzo.
Starting the gallery in 1967 was not easy. Alonzo was teaching art at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles on Figueroa Boulevard, less than fifteen blocks from where Dale was completing his undergraduate degree in art at the University of Southern California. Recognizing a need in their community and driven by a longing to go into business for themselves, they established the gallery as a private enterprise rather than a nonprofit entity. Even though they were community-minded, they viewed this opportunity as a career path and from the beginning focused on selling art as a commercial venture. They joined the Art Dealers Association of Southern California and received help and ideas from the professional organization. A number of people in the art business at that time were members of the Jewish community, and they wanted to see Brockman Gallery succeed. One such person was Benjamin Horowitz, who founded the Heritage Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles and was well known to the Davis brothers because of his early promotion of works by Charles White, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. In 1965 Horowitz authored Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, a text that helped make Charles White wildly popular. 10
Alonzo Davis with printmaker Ruth Waddy | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive
Another of Alonzo and Dale’s allies was Joan Ankrum, founder of the Ankrum Gallery, established in 1960 (to 1990), also on La Cienega. She showed the work of Bernie Casey
for many years. Both Horowitz and Ankrum sensed that while the Davis brothers lacked a working understanding of the art business, they possessed a strong desire to fill a void in their community. Alonzo and Dale also credit William “Bill” Pajaud, artist and curator of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Art Collection, as an “active participant in the growth of our experience as gallerists — he was very focused on our contributions [to the black arts community] and challenged us to maintain a very professional business model — Bill was [a] dynamic and forceful challenger,” according to Dale. Alonzo remembers, “[We] learned by the seat of our pants — bookkeeping, consignment, and setting up a business account, sales and recordkeeping — [we] had no formal education.” Both brothers contributed to the daily management of the gallery, including conceptualizing and implementing the diverse programming that became a signature of the Brockman Gallery.
Alonzo and Dale found themselves caught between the model of community involvement embodied by Topper Carew and the strictly business model informed by lessons they were learning from other art dealers. Shortly after the Brockman Gallery opened, Suzanne Jackson opened Gallery 32 on North Lafayette Park Place near MacArthur Park and the Otis and Chouinard Art Institutes, not far from downtown Los Angeles. Jackson’s approach to running a gallery differed from the approach favored by Alonzo and Dale Davis. Her gallery, much like Carew’s space, was a vehicle for community activism and change, a place where artists gathered to discuss politics and society. As young entrepreneurs running a for-profit business, the Davis brothers made difficult business decisions that some community-minded artists did not favor. Frequent comparisons were made between the commercial example of the Brockman Gallery and the nonprofit example of Gallery 32; the former was often derided for pursuing a business model, while the latter was celebrated as a site where social change could be effected. Despite such criticisms, the Brockman Gallery hosted the Black Artists Association (BAC), offering a forum for dialogues on the work of black artists. Nevertheless, the Davis brothers experienced some backlash from artists represented by the Brockman Gallery who felt that Alonzo and Dale were taking advantage of them.
Interior of Brockman Gallery, unnamed John Riddle sculpture and Portrait of Paul Robeson, by John Scott | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive
Some artists believed that the brothers should share more of their profits. Artists who thought that they should receive more than the standard percentages that other art dealers were awarding began to sell their work independently of the Brockman Gallery, although the Davis brothers continued to promote the artists’ works. Some artists, however, were endowed with a keener understanding of the art world and the challenges faced by the Brockman Gallery; in any case, the Davis brothers had no shortage of talent to represent. John Outterbridge recalls many of the artists who came through the Brockman’s doors, including Timothy Washington, Ruth Waddy, and Samella Lewis. Lewis and fellow artist Bernie Casey also founded Contemporary Crafts Gallery in 1970, and Lewis opened the first African American-owned art book publishing house, Contemporary Crafts Publishers, Inc., in the gallery.
As a result of the Watts rebellion, more attention was focused on LACMA’s need to service a broader community with its programs. In 1968 the BAC, founded by its black employees, advocated for and organized a black cultural festival in conjunction with the exhibition “The Sculpture of Black Africa: The Paul Tishman Collection.” In 1972 Robert Wilson became their first black board member, and in 1976 LACMA became one of the first museums in the country to organize an exhibition of the work of African American artists: “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by artist and art historian David Driskell. Also in 1976 Samella Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art in the May Company Department Store building on Crenshaw Boulevard, just blocks from the Brockman Gallery, and the California African American Museum, chartered by the state in 1977, opened its doors in its new forty-four-thousand-square-foot building designed by black architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Exposition Park, the same park where LACMA once operated.
List of artists who exhibited at the Brockman Gallery or participated in Brockman Production programs | Courtesy Brockman Gallery Archive
These new institutions signaled the promise of a healthy black cultural scene for Los Angeles. After opening the Brockman Gallery, Alonzo left his high school teaching job to enter graduate school at Otis Art Institute. Though it had been difficult to sustain the business, the Davis brothers calculated that by 1970 the gallery could survive on its own. But the challenges from the black arts community continued to swell, ultimately obstructing the brothers’ desire and ability to fully implement the business model they had developed. Finally, they decided to form a nonprofit. As a nonprofit, the Brockman Gallery could receive grants from the city, state, and federal government for programming and educational projects. While the Brockman Gallery focused on exhibiting artwork for sale, Brockman Productions was established to address the social and artistic needs of the community. Brockman Productions received funding for film festivals notable for a number of important screenings, including “Child Resistance” by UCLA film student Haile Gerima, and one of the earliest screenings of Larry Clark’s film “As Above, So Below.”
In the 1970s Brockman Productions screened the films of UCLA film student Ben Caldwell. Caldwell and fellow film student Charles Burnett, director of “To Sleep with Anger,” joined forces to focus their cinematic attentions on L.A.’s black communities, setting up shop in Leimert Park Village. With other creative professionals moving into the area, the neighborhood soon became a black cultural Mecca. The Brockman Productions mural program included muralists such as Richard Wyatt, Judy Baca, Kent Twitchell, and Frank Romero. The Brockman music component introduced the music of instrumental group Hiroshima and offered frequent music happenings with Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra at free concerts. When the Brockman Productions programming became successful, the Brockman Gallery began to attract emerging artists from other parts of the state and beyond: Mildred Howard, Carrie May Weems, Joe Sam, Maren Hassinger, and Martin Payton, among others. Many established black artists also exhibited there, including Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden. Dale attributes Brockman’s success as a nonprofit to a cultural shift that offered new, broader opportunities to cultural centers in the area. The Davis brothers’ exposure to art and culture as young children impacted their view of the art world, their sense of aesthetics, and their investigations beyond image-based art. In the gallery, they offered high school and college students internships to help them learn the business of art and become familiar with some of the issues associated with community-based and for-profit galleries.
Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive
Initially, events put on by Brockman Productions were not actively promoted; the Davis brothers mistakenly thought that they were in a financially stable neighborhood and assumed that if they developed events, the population in the Hills and beyond would support them. However, the wealthier Hills residents were looking westward, and that is where their income went.
Though some collectors purchased from the Brockman Gallery and attended Brockman events, their support was limited. Realizing that they could not rely solely on the black community to sustain themselves, Alonzo and Dale expanded their support base, reaching out to Hollywood and Jewish communities that in turn brought in another group of clients and made residents in the Hills community more responsive. Like Gallery 32, the Brockman Gallery featured black artists — though not exclusively. To expand their support base, the Davis brothers also featured Hispanic, Anglo, and Japanese artists who had grown up in the area and had gone to school there and were still part of the surrounding community. While Alonzo was at Otis, he convinced his artist colleagues to exhibit at the Brockman Gallery, which was viewed as an alternative exhibition space. Because of the diverse roster of artists promoted by the Davis brothers, a community joke circulated that the Brockman Gallery showed non-black artists more than the white galleries showed black artists.
After Dale married in 1980, he became less involved at the gallery. Though he continued to marginally participate in gallery activities, he became much more active in the nonprofit side of the business, Brockman Productions. Later Alonzo left the for-profit side of the gallery in 1987 to become the interim director of the public art program for the city and county of Sacramento:
Part of leaving Los Angeles and relocating to Sacramento was trying to find my identity as an artist and move from other artists pulling at me, wanting more of my time and resources for community-oriented programs — [as an artist] I wanted to do my own thing. The community was so hard and expectations were so great and you were only seen in one direction and not as a multi-directional person — it just wasn’t working.
Debbie Byars, a former student of Dale’s, became acting director while Alonzo was away. As an artist and administrator, Alonzo continued to pursue his personal interests. After his stint in Sacramento, he was awarded a six-month fellowship at the East/West Center in Hawaii. On his return, Alonzo realized that the gallery was failing and that his and Dale’s interests lay elsewhere. In 1990 they decided to close the gallery. They turned over their lease to Mary and Jacqueline Kimbrough, who opened Zambezi Bazaar. Mary and Jacqueline come from a politically active family and, along with their brother Alden, collect books, ephemera, and recorded music, as well as many other objects that help tell the story of blacks in America. At the time, the Brockman Gallery consisted of four storefronts: for twenty years the Davis brothers had worked to build an artistic village, and they had several artist-in-residence spaces. Dale remembers their creation as an icon of cultural pride, entrepreneurship, and the power of vision, common purpose, and determination.
A close up view of Alonzo Davis and Brockman Gallery as part of the historical tableau (alongside Horace Tapscott and Richard Fulton of 5th St. Dicks) on the mural behind the Vision Theater | Photo: Alvaro Parra
In the 1990s, just after the Brockman Gallery closed, “the village” experienced a cultural rebirth, with new businesses popping up in Leimert Park. Along with the Kimbroughs’ Zambezi Bazaar, the new crop of businesses included Brian Breye’s Museum in Black (specializing in the exhibition and sale of African art and artifacts and of black memorabilia), Marla Gibbs’s Vision Theatre Complex (formerly the Leimert Theater, built in 1930 as a joint venture between Walter H. Leimert and Howard Hughes), Gibbs’s Crossroads Art Academy (a provider of arts programs for youth), Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn (a club that relocated from Central Avenue to the Village), Kaos Network and Project Blowed (which offered creative adults and young people a meeting place and focused on new media technology; it was created by Ben Caldwell, who had worked at the Brockman Gallery in the 1970s), and Kamau Daaood’s World Stage (a venue for spoken word readings, jam sessions, workshops, and performances, founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins). The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, established in 1961, continued to be an active cultural presence in the village.
Although homeownership in Leimert Park remains high, many businesses in the village, a
prime piece of Los Angeles real estate, are leased. Village rents steadily rose, and many businesses lost their leases between 2000 and 2010. New cultural footprints have begun to take hold in the area. Artist Mark Bradford has opened a street-level storefront studio in Leimert Park on the site of his mother’s hair salon (where he was a stylist before going to art school at the age of thirty). In 2010 Eileen Harris Norton founded the Leimert Project, a promising new space, next to the Zambezi Bazaar in one of the same storefronts occupied by the Brockman Gallery during its years on the block. 11
Today Los Angeles is experiencing a resurgence of interest in its art scene, and artists every-where — including black artists — increasingly participate in a transnational art dialogue. Decades ago Alonzo and Dale Davis planted an entrepreneurial cultural seed that continues to manifest in Leimert Park Village. That seed germinated many miles away in a small, predominantly black college community founded on Booker T. Washington’s affirmation of the virtue of self-reliance, a notion that was reinforced by the boundaries of racial segregation. Though society has come a long way since the days of Jim Crow, the story of the Davis brothers reminds us that it is more important than ever to acknowledge how viable community examples and business models can nurture desired outcomes and affect the way a community thinks about itself. Author’s Note
Although Alonzo continued his art practice, it has suffered due to the time he has devoted to running a private gallery. After closing the gallery, he reestablished himself as a visual artist without, as he says, “having the chain of the gallery holding me down.” He was an artist-in- residence at Lawrence University and then became a visiting artist at San Antonio Art Institute in Texas before taking a position from 1993 to 2002 as academic dean at the Memphis School of Art in Tennessee. He had gained a great deal of business and nonprofit work experience with the Brockman Gallery, so arts administration was an easy transition, and he was at ease in a creative environment where fresh and innovative ideas could flourish without the restrictions of racial expectations. He has also been a fellow several times at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and now serves as one of its advisers. After leaving Memphis he continued his entrepreneurial activities, opening his own artist residency, AIR, in the artist community of Paducah, Kentucky. Most of the year he spends his time in his studio at Montpelier Art Center in Laurel, Maryland, and he exhibits widely. Dale still resides in Los Angeles, not far from Leimert Park Village and the site of the former Brockman Gallery. Dale taught art at nearby Susan B. Dorsey High School in Leimert Park until he retired from teaching in 2002. His mixed-media art practice has continued without interruption, and he is exhibiting more due to the renewed interest in LA artists. He also continues to be involved with Brockman Productions as a board member.
1 In 1932 the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute
enrolled four hundred poor black men in a project to study untreated syphilis, known in the local community as “bad blood.” The men actually had syphilis.
2 According to the Tuskegee Airmen website, “The black airmen who became single-engine or multi-engine pilots were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Tuskegee, Alabama.”
3 See Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: Norton, 1983), 419. Dawson knew Douglas, and when I visited Dawson in the early 1980s, he had examples of Douglas’s art in his home. Southern states, “According to the composer, a link was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent into slavery.”
4 Dale Davis, pers. comm., February 28, 2011. Additionally, George Washington Carver, the scientist and artist, is known for his cultivation of amaryllis bulbs, which he shared with the institute community. He also developed printers ink from surplus
peanuts. The ink was of particular interest to the campus print shop.
5 Alonzo Davis, interview by author, March 27, 2011.
6 Dale Davis, “Brockman Gallery,” photocopy, February 2011.
7 The Meredith March was named after James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi after federal courts ruled that blacks could not be denied entry based on their race. Meredith continued his graduate studies at Columbia University, and on June 5, 1966, he and a few companions began a “march against fear” walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to register black voters. On June 6 he was wounded by a shotgun blast.
8 Alonzo Davis, interview by author, March 27, 2011.
9 See Jeannette Lindsay, dir., Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles, 2006.
Special Thanks to Duke University Press. You can find the article in its original form here:
Lizetta LeFalle-Collins, “Planting A Seed: The Brockman Gallery and the Village,” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Volume 3, no. , pp. 4-15. Copyright, 2012, Nka Publications. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press.
LATIMES Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice to bring art, social services to Leimert
Carolina A. Miranda
ntemporary art gallery, opened its doors on the same block.
The eastern side of Degnan Boulevard and West 43rd Place in Leimert Park at first glance seems like just another crestfallen Los Angeles block. Doors are closed. Gates are shut. Plywood obscures the windows on an ornate Art Deco-era structure topped by a stupa-like tower.
But walk closer and you’ll hear a hive of activity in storefronts along the block as workers sand, paint and debate where the light switches will go. A singular art and social services collaboration is being constructed.
Art + Practice, as this unusual project is called, will showcase museum-grade contemporary art exhibitions, while also offering services for youth in the city’s foster care system.
Art and Practice: Eileen Harris Norton and Allan DiCastro
Spearheaded by artist Mark Bradford, Art + Practice will bring a unique combination of contemporary art, as well as social services for foster youth, to Leimert Park. A+P co-founders Eileen Harris Norton, left, and Allan DiCastro check in on construction of a gallery space. (Christina House / For The Times)
“This is the bookstore,” says Allan DiCastro, the organization’s interim director, as he walks through an empty Degnan Boulevard storefront being lined with wood panels. “We’re adding a second floor right there — that’s where the lectures will be. And we’re adding oak shelves. It will have a nice, warm feel.”
Behind him follows noted art collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, one of A+P’s founders, who on this brisk Friday afternoon stops to admire the day’s work. “It’s going to be an incredible space,” she says, as she takes it all in.
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When it opens in February, A+P won’t be a typical community arts center. The Hammer Museum is providing curatorial muscle to stage exhibitions. The RightWay Foundation, which moved its headquarters in August to A+P, provides job training and mental health services to foster youth. And the bookstore is the venerable Eso Won Books, which will leave its Degnan Boulevard space for a storefront in the A+P complex.
Providing inspiration and guidance throughout is co-founder Mark Bradford, whose work has been shown at the Hammer, New York’s Whitney Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Bradford is also a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
“No one in L.A. County has a program like this,” says RightWay founder and director Franco Vega. “In fact, I don’t think anyone in the country has a program like this. There’s a program in Boston that mixes sports and mental health services, but not art.”
A+P is a result of the concerted efforts of Bradford, DiCastro and Norton, a close-knit, easygoing crew. DiCastro and Bradford have been a couple since the late 1990s. And Norton met Bradford in the early 2000s, just before the artist’s the historic 2001 exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Art + Practice Street View
On South Leimert Blvd., A+P is teaming up with the RightWay Foundation to offer job training and mental health services to L.A. foster youth. (Christina House / For The Times)
“I was the first to buy from him,” she says. “He was a struggling artist. He’d finished CalArts but was still working at [his mother’s] hair salon. I had my hair done by him — back when I still had hair.”
A+P is a long-held dream for Bradford and DiCastro.
“For years, Mark and I have been talking about how we can do something that crosses volunteerism and art,” says DiCastro, who has a banking background and for nearly a decade helped run the Mid-City Neighborhood Council. “So much of what happens has to do with kids not having enough to do. So how can you change that?”
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When the Art Deco building at Degnan and West 43rd Place went on the market a couple of years back. DiCastro says they found their place: Leimert Park, around the corner from where Bradford’s mother once operated her hair salon and where Bradford long maintained the studio where he began to produce the expressive, abstracted works for which he’d become known — works that, in their early days, contained the paper end wraps used in perms.
Once complete, the A+P campus will consist of half a dozen buildings housing not just the art gallery, bookstore and RightWay offices, but space for artist studios.
Bradford and DiCastro supplied a majority of the seed money to launch A+P, which has allowed the organization, a privately operated 501(c)3 foundation, to purchase some of the real estate it is occupying — including the graceful building at Degnan and West 43rd Place that will serve as the art gallery.
The project is also covered, in part, by a $600,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, as part of a Hammer initiative to create programming and increase arts access to residents of African American communities in South Los Angeles.
No one in L.A. County has a program like this. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the country has a program like this. – Franco Vega, founder and director, RightWay Foundation
“Almost every department in our museum is engaged in the process,” says Hammer director Annie Philbin of her institution’s relationship with A+P. “Whether it’s administrative helping with a budget or public relations supporting them on marketing and publicity. The expectation is that we will support and guide them in not-for-profit practices, but it also brings the museum out beyond our four walls.”
Bradford, unavailable to join DiCastro and Norton on this day’s tour, adds in a short statement, “Annie has been a supporter of Art + Practice since the inception.” He also notes that it’s a natural collaboration with an institution that has shown his work for almost 15 years. (The museum also honored him at its annual gala in October.)
DiCastro and Norton took me on a tour of the in-progress spaces. The gallery that will be housed in the Art Deco building is still raw and un-primed, with wires and pipes poking out dangerously from an uneven cement floor. (They are awaiting permits from the city to begin construction.) But the social services offices — a couple of well-appointed storefronts on South Leimert Boulevard — are not only complete, they are already in use, boasting a tidy computer lab and a training center.
For DiCastro, one of the most crucial aspects of the project was getting the social service component just right. He and Bradford conducted extensive research on what sorts of services the neighborhood might need.
“In doing our research, we realized that in this ZIP Code, there is an epidemic of kids in foster care,” he says. “So it became important to us to focus our efforts there.”
In fact, L.A. County has the largest foster youth population in the nation (almost 30,000 kids), says RightWay’s Vega. A lot of that population resides in South Los Angeles. Dorsey High School and Crenshaw High School, both less than two miles from A+P, have the city’s highest concentrations of foster youth.
Vega, a former foster child himself, says that when he was approached by A+P, he was intrigued by the model — which not only has the potential to expose foster youth to art but the art world to the challenges faced by Los Angeles’ foster youth.
“I remember, [Mark] called me about a meeting,” he says with a chuckle, “and I was like, ‘Who is Mark Bradford?’ But we had the most relaxed conversation ever. He was asking me, ‘What do you want do do?’ ”
Mark Bradford at Hammer Gala
For years, artist Mark Bradford maintained a studio in Leimert Park, where he is now involved in establishing A+P. He is seen here in October at the Hammer Museum gala in his honor. (David McNew / AFP/Getty Images)
The next day Bradford approached him about meeting with the A+P board. Vega says the session went so well he not only decided to participate, he moved the RightWay Foundation’s headquarters to A+P’s Leimert Park campus. Since late summer, the organization has been providing life-preparedness classes for foster youth at its A+P location, which has a new computer lab. RightWay’s service include clinical counseling, resume building and job training. (The organization regularly places foster youth in jobs at places such as the Staples Center and USC’s Galen Center.)
“Everything they have promised us has come through,” Vega says. “And you couldn’t pick a better location. When the Metro is finished in 2019, you won’t be able to make it easier for youth than this.”
The bonus: RightWay gets two years’ free rent as part of the deal.
The Hammer’s Philbin says that the time and care that A+P has put into finding strong partners has been important to the museum, too.
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“Mark and Allan are very serious and thoughtful,” she says. “They’ve done a lot of research on foster care issues and their approach is not springing out of nowhere.”
Equally important to all of this is Leimert’s Park history as a center of African American culture.
The neighborhood, home to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other important African American figures, is where brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis ran the Brockman Gallery, L.A.’s first African American-owned commercial gallery. It was part of the community from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. And for a time, Norton ran a space on Degnan Boulevard called Leimert Project. Last February, Papillion, a contemporary art gallery, opened its doors on the same block.
Eso Won Books space
Longtime Leimert Park culture outpost Eso Won Books will have a new store within the A+P space. Eso Won owners James Fulgate, center, and Thomas Hamilton, right, visit the under-construction shop on Degnan Boulevard with members of A+P. (Christina House / For The Times)
“I have a foundation, and the issues I’ve been concerned with are families in underserved communities,” says Norton. “But the art component is very important to me, too. This area has so much history. Brockman helped bring them all in. This helps keep the arts here.”
As part of its mission, A+P will provide studios to three artists in residence, terms that already began in August. Among the first artists to participate: Dale Brockman Davis, founder of the famed Brockman Gallery, who is using the space to work on his archive.
The public lecture space will be programmed in collaboration with the owners of Eso Won Books, James Fulgate and Thomas Hamilton. Since the 1980s, their bookshop has been a gathering place for African American authors and the community. (In 1995, the shop played host to a little-known activist by the name of Barack Obama, who was promoting his book “Dreams From My Father.”)
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And, of course, there’s the exhibition program, which will include a wide range of shows managed by Hammer Museum curators. The first exhibition, opening Feb. 28 in A+P’s remodeled, two-room gallery space on South Leimert Boulevard, will showcase new work by L.A.-based conceptual artist Charles Gaines. This show will be in conjunction with a Hammer survey of early works, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989,” which goes on view at the Westwood museum on Feb. 7.
“It all fell right into place,” says Norton. “He’s local and he’s having a big show at the Hammer and he was very enthusiastic. It was an opportunity to show some new works.”
Among the new pieces at Gaines’ A+P show will be a 12-part series that combines a 1911 Manuel de Falla opera with a 1964 speech by Black Panthers activist Stokely Carmichael. Gaines will combine music and text to draw attention to class and race issues.
In the A+P computer lab
A+P co-founders Norton, left, and DiCastro, stand inside the computer lab operated by the RightWay Foundation at A+P. The lab allows underserved youth to check email, apply for jobs and do research. (Christina House / For The Times)
Subsequent A+P exhibitions will feature L.A. assemblagist John Outterbridge and mixed-media artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
Michelle Papillion, who operates Papillion gallery, couldn’t be more thrilled by A+P’s imminent debut.
“People want culture,” she says. “They want things that they can participate in and go to in their own neighborhood. And then go home with that information and continue to sort it out in conversation in their own circles.”
DiCastro’s hope is that A+P can honor the history of Leimert Park, while offering its residents fresh moments of discovery.
“The idea is to enhance what is already here,” he says. “Mark has spent so much time here. This is his way of giving back.”
Mark Grotjahn’s New Work Stars With Castoff Cardboard
By JORI FINKELMAY 7, 2014
LOS ANGELES — It started out as a lark. After long days in the studio making his labor-intensive “Butterfly” paintings about a decade ago, Mark Grotjahn would unwind by taking empty supply boxes or beer cartons and gluing on toilet-paper tubes as noses. Then he would paint crude eyes and mouths.
The cardboard sculptures offered him a chance to “get dirty and messy, to be expressive in a different way,” he said, unlike the densely layered “Butterfly” canvases, which have been compared to Barnett Newman’s “zips” for their focus on a single abstract motif.
He did not intend to exhibit what he called his masks and gave several away as gifts. The bathroom humor was obvious.
But intentions can change; the art world has a soft spot for a certain amount of nose-thumbing irreverence; and these days, even Mr. Grotjahn’s clownish sculptures — now cast in bronze before being painted — are getting serious play.
Early works from the series, introduced at Gagosian Gallery in New York two years ago, were bought by the Guggenheim and Broad museums, among others. Newer and larger examples are now heading to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for Mr. Grotjahn’s first museum exhibition of sculptural works, opening May 31.
“I think the masks are fascinating objects and also important as painting surfaces that allow for tremendous freedom and experimentation,” said Jeremy Strick, director at the Nasher. “You could see it as a way for Mark to give himself license to do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do, to paint in different ways.”
On May 1, Blum & Poe, his longtime gallery in Los Angeles, opened a space on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a survey of the “Butterfly” paintings, through June 21.
The May shows represent two extremes of this artist’s work that are not always easy to reconcile. What is a rigorous abstract painter doing making funny faces out of leftover Heineken cases, works that he himself compares to grade-school art projects? Has he lost his way as a painter, or discovered an important second act as a sculptor?
What becomes clear from a recent visit to his sculpture studio is that Mr. Grotjahn has found a second act in his personal life, having stopped drinking about a year ago. And he has begun giving back to the art world, donating money to the Mike Kelley exhibition now at the Museum of Contemporary Art and joining the board there as its youngest artist-trustee, at 46. The move surprised many who didn’t see him as much of a joiner, and Mr. Grotjahn, who is married to the painter Jennifer Guidi and is the father of two young girls, called it a personal first.
Sitting in his studio, a large space that used to be an embroidery factory, he looked fit and relaxed, with his graying beard neatly trimmed and his pale blue eyes clear. “I was a binge drinker; I drank when I traveled,” he said with a bit of a surfer-dude drawl and some expletives for emphasis. “From what people say, I look a lot better and a lot younger than I did. It’s a completely different way of living your life.”
Mr. Strick, director of the Nasher, said what strikes him about Mr. Grotjahn right now is “his amazing productivity,” as he works on several new paintings and sculptures spread out over two studios.
One room of the sculpture studio is filled with a small army of the boxy, rough-and-tumble figures heading for the Nasher. Many look as if they were attacked with pencils or knives, poked and ripped, before being cast in bronze and painted.
Most are finger paintings, though done with gloved hands for protection.
Of the sculptures’ primitive look, Mr. Grotjahn said: “I think my masks reference artists who reference primitivism. They’re not directly connected to tribal arts. I think they look more like third-grade art projects.”
“There’s obviously a lot of phallic humor and toilet humor,” he added, looking at a tall, skinny bronze mask smeared with red and yellow paint. “But it also comes out of some of the art I was thinking about when I first moved to L.A.: artists interested in the pathetic,” he added, mentioning Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.
“And just because the masks started out casually or were fun personally doesn’t mean they’re any less serious,” he said.
The masks have been growing more complex, featuring double noses or incorporating some tools used in lost-wax casting into the structures. They are also becoming more painterly, with one mask in a loose, Impressionistic style that makes Mr. Grotjahn think of Monet’s water lilies, he said. He sees echoes of Cy Twombly and Julian Schnabel in the dense looping scrawls on another. Others recall Jackson Pollock.
Today, Mr. Grotjahn’s paintings often surpass the million-dollar mark at auction (with a record $6.5 million for a work bid up by Mr. Gagosian at a charity auction). And selling one “Butterfly” painting from his own stock enabled him to make a down payment on a house in Los Angeles.
But he was hardly an overnight success. Born in 1968 in Pasadena, Calif., he grew up in Mill Valley, a suburb of San Francisco “that was all hippies back then,” he said. “We were dirty kids on dirt bikes.”
After getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, he settled in Los Angeles in 1996. For a year or so, he ran an art gallery in Hollywood with a friend from the University of California, Berkeley.
He also pursued his own art projects. For one series, he replicated the signs of small businesses in the area and then gave business owners his painted signs in exchange for their real ones. For another, he began drawing or painting perspective lines converging in a way that made the surface itself seem to bulge and recede.
He had his first solo shows with Blum & Poe, then a promising small gallery in Santa Monica, in 1998 and 2000. He remembers selling only one artwork from the second show, pocketing $1,750.
“Selling only one piece for a year and a half of work was a bit of a whipping,” he said, noting wryly that Jeff Poe, one of the gallery’s owners, called the show “a critical and financial disappointment.” Mr. Grotjahn turned to poker for income, spending the next 10 months playing Texas Hold ’Em in a casino in the nearby city of Commerce. “I played like an addict, maybe 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said, picking at a snack of vegetables on a tray. “I wasn’t playing to win but to lose myself.”
During this period, he began the “Butterfly” paintings, so named because of the way their lines radiate from a central, vertical axis. The first one started as a colorful perspectival painting in which nested V’s radiate from the horizon line, like a sunset and streetscape.
But he wasn’t happy until he flipped the canvas 90 degrees: “I found that rotating it took all the landscape out, so it became a nonobjective painting.“
Douglas Fogle, an independent curator who organized the “Butterfly” exhibition for Blum & Poe, calls this series Mr. Grotjahn’s breakthrough work. He notes that the artist’s off-kilter, hand-painted geometry — unlike the hard-edge look created by applying and peeling off tape — places him in “a tradition that goes back to early abstract painting by Mondrian and Malevich,” adding, “I see his ties with Constructivist painting.”
Mr. Grotjahn stopped painting the “Butterfly” works in 2008, after tearing his rotator cuff and breaking a shoulder bone in a ski accident. He found he couldn’t paint for more than two hours at a time. Since then, he has discovered physical therapy and looser, less intensive ways of painting. One resulting series, the “Face” paintings, feature almond-shaped, Picasso-like eyes peering out from wild skeins of color. When reviewing the work in 2011, New York magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, responded to the images’ untamed or “shamanic” power, calling it “the best show by a midcareer painter that I’ve seen in a long time.”
Mr. Grotjahn has since turned his attention to the so-called “Circus” paintings, which are close in spirit to the “Faces,” though the ropes of paint look even more tangled — almost braided — and the almond eyes have morphed into larger leaflike structures. These new paintings will be shown starting May 16 at the Kunstverein Freiburg, a swimming pool turned exhibition hall in Germany.
He painted both the “Face” and “Circus” series on cardboard mounted on linen, a clear link to his cardboard sculptures. “It’s all connected,” he said. “When I started the masks, I left them in my studio where I painted. I looked at them all the time. And now, I’m watching them become more like traditional paintings. I think you’ll see them influencing my painting in the future. I’m sure of it.”
Correction: May 18, 2014
A picture caption last Sunday with an article about the visual artist Mark Grotjahn referred incorrectly to the titles of three of his works. The painting in his “Circus” series is “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)”; the painting in his “Butterfly” series is “Untitled (Orange Butterfly Blue MG03) #1”; and the bronze sculpture is called “Untitled (African, Gated Front and Back Mask M34.b).” These works were not untitled.
The sculptor Thomas Houseago was practically bouncing off the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art late last month as he toured some of the treasures on the first floor. He unleashed a torrent of praise — “insane,” “unbelievable, “crazy,” “weird,” “wicked” — as he pinballed from an ancient Greek grave stele to a striking series of squatting Aztec and Maya figures.
The British-born Mr. Houseago lives in Los Angeles but knows the Met’s collection well, and some of the Central American pieces directly inspired one of his best-known works, “Baby,” a huge crouching figure in plaster, wood and iron that was shown in the Whitney Biennial in 2010.
He stopped in front of a 19th-century wood house post figure from the Indonesian Sentani people with a wide, carved grin. “He’s smiling at death,” said Mr. Houseago, whose bright blue eyes were blazing beneath his fiery red hair. “Sculpture beats death.”
Coming from him, it made sense: the high-energy Mr. Houseago (pronounced HOWZ-a-go), 42, sculpts as if his life depended on it.
And according to him, it does. “My practice sustains me,” he said. “If I don’t work, I get socially bizarre and agitated. I need my practice to kind of keep me good with the world.”
His intensity has propelled him on an unusual path, from a modern version of a Dickensian childhood in Leeds, England, and then 15 years of struggle — from bankruptcy to boozy binges and a car accident that had him “hanging off the edge of a cliff,” in his words — to art world success.
As late as 2006, he was working in construction to make ends meet in Los Angeles; now, he is represented by two of the most powerful galleries, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth. And he tore through a succession of other top dealers to get there. This week, Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea debuts a single large installation, “Moun Room,” which Mr. Houseago calls his “first truly American piece” — he holds dual citizenship — and his “first proper New York show.”
Mr. Houseago made his name with towering, hulking figures and masks that draw on ancient art as well as the tradition of Picasso, Rodin and Brancusi. The plaster pieces have rough-hewed surfaces, with the iron rebar that holds them together exposed in places, giving his work a sense of vulnerability at odds with their size. Wood and other materials are also incorporated, and he often draws on the sculptures.
But “Moun Room,” an architectural installation rather than a figure, is something of a departure for him.
He called the work, a 36-by-45-foot environment with 12-foot-high plaster walls and a progression of different spaces, “a visual maze with a spiritual dimension.” In this case, the gallerygoer who enters it provides the human figure, not Mr. Houseago.
The name is meant to blend a reference to the moon — the walls have bas-reliefs and voids in circular shapes — with the name of his girlfriend, Muna El Fituri, a writer and translator. Mr. Houseago is getting a divorce and has two children, and he said that his new relationship had opened a chapter for him. “ ‘Moun Room’ is a piece about light and life,” he said. “The future.”
With its rough, primitive air, “Moun Room” is of a piece with Mr. Houseago’s earlier work. His friend the actor Julian Sands, who is also from the Leeds area, said, “I expected to meet the Minotaur in the center.” Mr. Sands, who went through the piece when it was assembled in Mr. Houseago’s Los Angeles studio, added, “It was like walking through the Labyrinth.”
If the details get sorted out, Mr. Houseago said, he hopes to debut a large, long-planned work at Rockefeller Center next spring: a series of five large masks that the public can walk through, in the same location as Jeff Koons’s recent “Split Rocker.” Few artists work big as Mr. Houseago does. “It might be the reason you like the work, or the reason you hate it,” said Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles who has written about Mr. Houseago. “It could feel like aggrandizement.”
She admires the way “his work at a big scale has the intimacy of drawing.”
When it comes to materials, Mr. Houseago is fairly old school. He usually sculpts in clay and then casts the pieces in plaster or bronze, or both. “I started working with clay because it was cheap, but there’s something about making sculpture from the earth,” he said. “There are so many religious and ceremonial associations.”
Mr. Houseago works with a crew of about 20 people to make the sculptures, which are so large they sometimes fall apart as they are born — which he said he did not mind.
“I believe in these broken sculptures,” he said. “I love that. Sculpture is a constant dance with gravity. In my case, anyway.”
The blustery sincerity in Mr. Houseago’s work and approach makes him an odd man out in today’s irony-rich art world. The South African artist Marlene Dumas, one of Mr. Houseago’s tutors from his time at the Amsterdam art school De Ateliers, wrote in an email that her former student “makes warm work in cold times.”
“Art without a face-lift,” she added.
She contrasted him with Mr. Koons, a comparison other critics have also cited. “Thomas works like a force of nature,” she wrote. “If Koons is (clinical) Culture, Houseago is (disastrous) Nature.”
A childhood surrounded by poverty and violence in Leeds took Mr. Houseago to the edge of disaster many times. “It left me with a fight-or-flight response to the universe,” he said.
But Mr. Houseago declared himself as an artist at an early age, and by the time he attended Jacob Kramer College (now the Leeds College of Art), he was already testing the limits of expression. “I had a Chris Burden-esque phase,” he recalled, referring to the artist who had himself shot. “I went into the forest, set myself on fire and then leapt into water, and photographed it.”
He attended Central St. Martins College of Art in London at the time of the “Young British Artists” phenomenon, though he felt at odds with their polished approach. When he saw a show of late Picasso work at the Tate in 1986, something clicked. “I came away thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Mr. Houseago said. “I saw the cosmic freedom that comes from a life dedicated to art.”
After studying at De Ateliers, he moved to Brussels. It was a hard-partying period he described as “eight years of lost weekends.”
Having had little luck making a career of art in Belgium, Mr. Houseago ended up in Los Angeles, where he eventually found the first dealer with whom he found success, David Kordansky, and his first serious patrons, the Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell. The Rubells, known as tastemakers in the art world, showed up in a studio that Mr. Houseago had borrowed. “The work was incredibly powerful, and we bought the entire contents of the studio,” Mr. Rubell said.
Ms. Rubell said they were taken by his fearlessness. “Thomas takes on all of history, with a vengeance,” she said. “He doesn’t apologize. He says, ‘I’m going to stand up to Picasso, and sit at the table with all the greats.’ And he does.”
The same ambition that fueled what Mr. Houseago acknowledged was a “violently fast” rise also incurred some casualties, like his relationship with Mr. Kordansky.
“He went through a whole bunch of galleries,” said Mr. Kordansky, who is now close to Mr. Houseago again. “That can be perceived as a game of steppingstones. But he wouldn’t even deny that. Only a few galleries can work with monumental sculptures. He wants the best for his art, and that’s something I respect.”
Mr. Houseago said that being represented simultaneously by Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth was “extremely complex,” and that he often self-funds his large pieces. “I have a new power I’m enjoying,” he said. “It’s my work, I paid for it. And it’s the privilege of having a market.”
His “Moon Figure I,” a bronze, sold for $269,000 at Christie’s last year. Hauser & Wirth says that his figurative sculptures sell for up to $1 million. The fact that large pieces rarely make a big profit, since they are particularly time consuming, does not deter Mr. Houseago. “It’s physically difficult to be a sculptor,” he said. “So if you’ve already made that leap, you’re already really comfortable with the absurdity.”
He added: “The tradition I’m coming from is not pleasure. It’s a certain shamanistic excess.”
September 10, 2014 9:00 pm September 10, 2014 9:00 pm
David Kordansky might not be the biggest player in the L.A. gallery scene, but his manic enthusiasm and seemingly genuine determination to draw attention to underappreciated artists make him the most interesting by far.
There is little in the world that David Kordansky enjoys more than talking about art. According to the artists he represents and the collectors to whom he sells, this is his gift. The artist Rashid Johnson, whom Kordansky has represented since 2009, said he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he and Kordansky have spoken about sales. There is no doubt that Kordansky, who is 37, can sell art like few other dealers, but he prefers to leave the closing of the deal to his staff. The venality of the current art business dismays him. Even in the 11 years since he opened his first gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, the market has become bloated beyond recognition, he said, especially in the auction houses of New York and London. “I believe in art much more than I believe in the art world,” he told me last summer in the kitchen of his home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, the artist Mindy Shapero, and their two young children.
As he christens his new space in Los Angeles, he shares his creative touchstones — including several artists he doesn’t represent but admires nonetheless.
In person, Kordansky is almost compulsively candid, by turns hectoring and vulnerable, outspoken and shy. “He wears his heart on his sleeve,” is the phrase I heard over and over again from the people who know him best. Candor can, of course, also be a form of performance. Collectors who enjoy the company of artists appreciate his eccentric, intimate manner, which make them feel like the chosen few.
Beneath his gym-fit, boyish exterior and positive, Californian outlook, his persistence and gritty ambition are evident still. He may disdain aspects of the art market, but the success of his business is obviously a source of pride. “I didn’t come from money. I’ve bootstrapped every step of the way,” he said.
Kordansky’s latest gamble is on a 12,705-square-foot gallery — designed by Kulapat Yantrasast, head of the architecture firm wHY — which recently opened in a nondescript midcity neighborhood halfway between the L.A. art hubs of Highland Avenue and Culver City, where his last two spaces were situated. With its bow-truss ceilings and abundance of light, the former martial arts studio and car dealership now exudes an ambience of cloistered calm. Comprised of two equally sized galleries, a viewing room and on-site art storage, the space also boasts a lounge for artists and their families, and private gardens for staff. Kordansky has always aimed to create “a culture of ownership” among his gallery’s employees. In return, he receives a degree of loyalty rare in the notoriously factious and gossipy gallery world.
Kordansky was born in Biloxi, Miss., to American Jewish parents; his father was a doctor and his mother a family therapist. In the late ’90s he was accepted at the small but esteemed Hartford Art School. In 2000, he moved to the West Coast to study in the graduate art program at the California Institute of the Arts under conceptual artists including Michael Asher, Charles Gaines and Martin Kersels. (Kordansky now represents the painter Thomas Lawson, the dean of the art school.) After college, he continued to make installations, perform and curate exhibitions of friends’ work with his classmate, Jeff Kopp. From the outset he approached running a gallery as a creative project, perhaps more like an artist than a businessman, and soon became known as the primary dealer for what has been called “the post-Mike Kelley generation.”
Washington, D.C.-based artist whose paintings, spanning the 1960s to the present day, had been much neglected prior to Kordansky’s interest. ‘‘Wide Narrow,’’ 1972. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Israeli-born artist who often appropriates or digitally modifies images, transforming them into something more like sculpture. ‘‘Untitled (Boot A),’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
One of the Californian artists whose work helped bring ceramics to museums in the late 1950s. Sculptures from the exhibition ‘‘Crosses, Figures, Spears, Torques,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Known for his colorful, flat interiors, often depicting his own Los Angeles studio, as well as for paintings of boxers and basketball and baseball players. ‘‘Kitchen with Aloe Plant,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Artist who refers to aspects of African-American culture in paintings and sculptures made from materials such as black wax, mirrors, zebra skins and shea butter. ‘‘Un-American Idol,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Painter whose abstract works, made by building up thin washes of paint and attaching strips of neon, are inspired by California’s coastal landscapes. ‘‘Neptune’s Net,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Australian-born artist who casts his small sculptures, made from cardboard and rope, in painted bronze. ‘‘Magnifying Glass with Rope No. 1,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Los Angeles-based painter whose small-scale, luminous abstract paintings are inspired by traditional still lifes and landscapes. ‘‘Untitled,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Stories abound from those early days of Kordansky’s limitless, sometimes maniacal enthusiasm for his artists. The collector Mera Rubell remembers meeting him in 2006. Kordansky was determined to show her and her husband, Don, the work of a young artist he was representing, Aaron Curry, while Curry was on vacation. Reached by phone in Hawaii, Curry gave them permission to break into his studio, where Kordansky was soon pulling sculptures out of boxes and expounding on the artist’s ideas. The following morning — at 6 a.m., while shuttling the couple to the airport — Kordansky took them to meet Thomas Houseago, another sculptor he had recently begun to champion, who laid out his work in a studio borrowed for the occasion. Rubell says she was “blown away.” She and her husband later invited the two artists and their dealer to visit their museum in Miami. The trip was an inspiring and formative experience for the three men, who stayed up late into the night, drinking and arguing about Picasso, classicism and figuration in sculpture.
Kordansky’s passionate nature has not always worked in his favor. His professional relationship with Houseago buckled under the weight of its own intensity in 2009, when the artist left David Kordansky Gallery — a loss Rubell described as “a huge wake-up call” for the young dealer. Houseago finally settled with the international powerhouse Hauser & Wirth in 2011. “There was this abundance of youthful energy bouncing off each other that, in the end, was bigger than both of us,” Kordansky said ruefully. (Houseago agreed, but noted, “I can confidently say my career would not be where it is now without him.”)
The majority of his artists have stuck by Kordansky, however. His very first exhibition in Chinatown included Matthew Brannon, Patrick Hill, Will Fowler, Lesley Vance and William E. Jones, all of whom continue to show with the gallery. Brannon told me that Kordansky’s often blunt manner can be an asset, despite artists’ often fragile egos: “My therapist loves Dave. He says, ‘You always know where you stand with this guy; he treats you right, he’s telling you the problem.’ ”
Kordansky now represents over 30 artists and counting, hence the need for space. He is still far from being the biggest fish in the L.A. pond — nor, perhaps, would he want to be. He prefers to avoid competition with his neighbors, who include Regen Projects near Highland Avenue, Blum & Poe in Culver City, Overduin & Co. in Hollywood, Marc Foxx, also a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the power players Gagosian, Matthew Marks and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, the last of which will take over a former flour mill in Downtown in 2015. When asked which galleries he feels a kinship toward, he instead looks across the Atlantic: to Johann König in Berlin, Standard (Oslo) in Norway or Herald Street in London. The art world loves youth, and Kordansky currently occupies the sweet spot between blue-chip establishment and cutting edge.
In contrast to his imposing new gallery space, Kordansky’s home is modest, perfectly scaled to a family of four and designed for living, not for entertaining. Kordansky grows kale, Meyer lemons and Persian cucumbers in the garden. He gave me the tour with the eagerness of a child showing off new toys. Succulents exploded from earthy ceramic planters made by Robert Maxwell and David Cressey on the deck outside the kitchen. In addition to pieces by artists Kordansky represents — Valentin Carron, Larry Johnson, Elad Lassry — the interior was furnished with Brazilian and Mexican Modernist pieces in rosewood and leather, and ceramics were displayed beside rows of art books on floor-to-ceiling shelves. A painted sculpture of a nude trapeze artist by the Japanese Pop artist Keiichi Tanaami sat on a coffee table, and drawings of outlandish figures by the Chicago Imagist Karl Wirsum hung on one wall.
Kordansky appreciates the Californian tendency to disregard hierarchies between creative disciplines; his gallery represents artists such as Ruby Neri and the Geneva-based Mai-Thu Perret, who both work in the tradition of John Mason, one of the Californian artists who, in the late 1950s, first brought ceramics into contemporary art galleries. (Mason, now 87, joined David Kordansky Gallery last year.) About half of his roster is made up of Angelenos, and a Californian sensibility infuses the program — not only in its emphasis on the region’s art-historical legacy, but also, more broadly, in its bias toward esoterica and marginalia, domestic themes and profane materials.
Kordansky likes to talk about “curating one’s life.” Shouldn’t we consider the architecture, the objects we handle, the furniture we sit on and the artwork we look at all as part of a unified aesthetic experience? He showed me a shelf of tiny Doyle Lane vases, each glazed a different color and texture. He would always rather stand in front of an object than look at a screen, and is particularly skeptical about what has recently been labeled “post-Internet” art — work made from Internet memes, online avatars, stock photos, patents and 3D scans. “We don’t even want to talk about the world any more,” he said. “We’re disconnected from core emotionality.”
In other places, talk of lifestyle is always related to an embarrassment about class, but in L.A. it’s an ongoing philosophical discussion. “The exterior of my life kind of runs itself,” Kordansky admitted over a lunch of grilled chicken and kale salad. “Now it’s about the interior, the spiritual. It’s about getting at the core of my existence — which is about my family.” There is little distinction in his mind between his professional and personal lives, or between his tastes in art and his philosophy of being. “It’s about having an open, holistic view rather than a myopic view,” he said. “Here culture is more attached to nature.” The greenery beyond the wide window, the home-grown salad and the stoneware planters seemed to reinforce his point.
Two years ago, Kordansky undertook a pilgrimage to the D.C. studio of Sam Gilliam, an 80-year-old African-American painter of the Washington Color School. Gilliam never achieved the level of recognition that his peers from the 1960s such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis did, in part because the art establishment didn’t know what to make of a black artist who refused to make work about race. Kordansky had been a fan of Gilliam’s radically innovative, unstretched, stained canvases for years, and had shared his enthusiasm with Rashid Johnson when they first met in 2009. (Johnson, who didn’t know many dealers — let alone young white dealers — who were interested in Gilliam’s work, was impressed, and agreed to join Kordansky’s gallery himself.) The pair asked Gilliam to do an exhibition in L.A., which Johnson would curate. They feared they were overreaching, and when they put their proposal to Gilliam in his studio, they thought he was laughing at them. In fact, they realized, he was crying.
As Kordansky told me this story, I saw that he was also close to tears. Since first working with Gilliam, he has placed his paintings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts. Without Gilliam, he said, the new gallery would probably not have been possible. There is nothing Kordansky is prouder of than having been able to bring him back into the spotlight. “The work has done for other people what it did for us,” he said. “There is no money in the world that can buy an experience like that.”
Correction: September 21, 2014
An article last Sunday about the Los Angeles art dealer David Kordansky, which recounted the key role he played in bringing the paintings of the 80-year-old African-American artist Sam Gilliam back into the spotlight, erroneously included a product among the types of things Gilliam bartered his work for at a lower point in his career. While he exchanged art for services such as dental work, he never traded art for laundry detergent.
Sun-soaked isolation seems just the thing to spark inspiration.
When Thomas Demand and Ryan Trecartin relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, they added momentum to the city’s burgeoning status as an art capital to rival New York, London and Berlin. Of course, its abundant light and space have always drawn a certain kind of artist — members of the Light and Space movement, for instance, like Bruce Nauman and James Turrell. But now, with new gallery neighborhoods in Hollywood and Downtown, the endless expansion of LACMA and the impending arrival of the esteemed FIAC art fair, it seems that everyone, major figures and young guns alike, wants to call L.A. home. In the past two years, David Benjamin Sherry, Sam Falls, Gabriel Kuri, Silke Otto-Knapp, Amalia Ulman and Jordan Wolfson have relocated to the Southland, while others, like Liz Craft and Amy Yao, have returned, choosing its sprawl over more cosmopolitan art meccas.
L.A.’s appeal lies in “the possibility of disappearing,” says Ulman, an Argentine who previously worked in London and Spain. “I’m so autonomous here,” Wolfson adds. “I have my studio, my house and my small life.” Both artists create work that explores isolation: Ulman shoots selfies in airplane bathrooms and five-star hotels; Wolfson’s scantily clad robotic dancer at David Zwirner caused a sensation this spring. “In L.A., artists can test things out without the glare of the spotlight,” says Ali Subotnick, a curator at the Hammer Museum, who moved from New York in 2006. “The proximity to the entertainment industry guarantees that the art world will never be the main industry in this town, so artists are able to work on the sidelines.” Anonymity has become its appeal: Like no other place, L.A. offers artists the ability to be alone, together.
A Primer on L.A.’s New Arrivals
Liz Craft Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery: none Style: Craft’s fantastical, dreamlike sculptures often veer in the direction of nightmares: they include glossy, upended spiders, functionless house-like constructions, goopy unicorns, baby carriages and assorted monsters.
Sam Falls Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery:Hannah Hoffman Gallery Style: Falls creates sculptures and paintings that he exposes to the elements, then takes photos of them to document how they change over weeks, months and sometimes years.
Gabriel Kuri Arrived from: Brussels L.A. gallery:Regen Projects Style: Kuri’s playful sculptures repurpose materials from the manmade and natural worlds, combining them into forms that frequently comment on the role of commodities in society.
Silke Otto-Knapp Arrived from: Vienna L.A. gallery: none (shows with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York) Style: Otto-Knapp applies soft, ethereal layers of gouache and watercolor to produce muted representations of performance and place.
David Benjamin Sherry Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery:OHWOW Style: Sherry photographs grandiose American landscapes and tweaks them with vivid, monochromatic tints.
Amalia Ulman Arrived from: London and Gijon, Spain L.A. gallery:LTD Los Angeles Style: Ulman has riffed on contemporary decorations: Ikea paintings, aphorisms spelled out in romantic scripts and those wavy willows people stuff into vases. Lately, she has also documented cosmetic procedures via social media.
Jordan Wolfson Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery: none (David Zwirner in New York and Sadie Coles HQ in London) Style: Wolfson makes films, videos and installations that merge a cartoonish love for aesthetic variety (and cartoons themselves) with an underlying nihilism. This year, his animatronic stripper wearing a witch mask has become an art-world lightning rod.
Amy Yao Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery: none (Canal 47 in New York) Style: Yao’s work spans virtually all mediums: painting, sculpture, photography, performance. But it’s her objects — umbrellas adorned in funereal garb or a top hat and sequins; folding fans with attached pearls or cigarettes; brightly colored sticks with equally brightly colored hair extensions — that offer a through-line in their crooked anthropomorphic qualities, suggesting serious jokes about contemporary life.
Correction: September 3, 2014
An earlier version of this post misspelled the surname of a curator at the Hammer Museum. She is Ali Subotnick, not Subotnik.
Los Angeles Times The Mistake Room brings global view to gritty downtown L.A. art scene
The Mistake Room is a new nonprofit art space downtown with big plans
The hard launch of Mistake Room will feature an exhibition by artist Korakrit Arunanondchai
Gallery owners question Mistake Room’s arrangement with collectors
Construction workers hammer away in a warehouse near the southern edge of downtown Los Angeles. A buzz saw hits fever pitch, screeching in the background; the air is thick with dust.
Art entrepreneur and curator Cesar Garcia, who is turning this former garment factory into a nonprofit exhibition space called the Mistake Room, rushes out from the back in a black dress shirt and Italian loafers, giddy if a bit frazzled. He cradles an armload of loose items — a leather binder stuffed with to-do notes, a cellphone, a tape measure, an envelope that needs to be mailed.
“Oh my god, I’m learning so much about sheetrock and construction,” the 28-year-old says, laughing. He shifts the bulk of the objects into the crook of one arm, freeing up the other for a handshake. “Welcome!” Then he turns and leads the way straight into the drywall dust storm. “Lemme show you around.”
This place is a dream, a long time in the making. – Cesar Garcia, art entrepreneur and curator
The Mistake Room is the newest art space in a burgeoning but still gritty art enclave downtown. By night, the dark and deserted area bound by 20th Street, Washington Boulevard, Long Beach Avenue and Santa Fe Avenue is studded with lively pockets of art-going foot traffic. Night Gallery is around the corner, as is Francois Ghebaly Gallery, 2nd Cannons Publications, which puts on art shows, and the nonprofit research and exhibition space Fahrenheit/Flax Foundation.
Garcia, formerly associate director of the Culver City nonprofit LAXART as well as a curator of the Hammer Museum’s inaugural “Made in L.A. 2012″ biennial, created the Mistake Room to feature contemporary artists and curators from around the world. The space debuted in January with a pop-up solo exhibition by London-based Colombian artist Oscar Murillo. The 4,500-square-foot warehouse space remained raw and unrenovated at the time, with cracked concrete floors and exposed insulation. The show closed in April, and the space has since undergone a redesign, led by Tijuana-based architect Alfonso Medina. The hard launch Friday features an exhibition by Bangkok-raised, New York-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, whose first solo museum show is on view at MoMA PS1.
“I’m excited. This is the artist’s biggest commission to date,” Garcia says. “This place is a dream, a long time in the making.”
The Mistake Room fills a niche in the city, Garcia says, joining LAXART, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood, REDCAT downtown and the Santa Monica Museum of Art as mid-size, nonprofit, non-collecting exhibition spaces — entities that fall between commercial galleries and larger museums with permanent collections.
Bangkok-raised, New York-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai works on his exhibition at the Mistake Room. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)
Such art spaces are particularly prevalent in Europe, Garcia says. Many of them — the Renaissance Society in Chicago, White Columns in New York, Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, among them — co-produce shows, and Garcia hopes to tap into that network. He wants to expose local artists, particularly students, to influences they might not otherwise come across as well as educate international curators about L.A. artists.
“We want to connect Los Angeles to other burgeoning regions of the world, art wise,” Garcia says. “We want to be the mid-sized institution that can collaborate with places like the Chisenhale Gallery and the Serpentine in London, Beirut Art Center or Vitamin Creative Space in Hong Kong. We want to be part of that conversation.”
In summer 2010, with funding from a Fowler Museum Latin American research grant he received while pursuing his doctorate at UCLA, Garcia traveled through Chile, Colombia, Peru and Brazil to research his dissertation on alternative art spaces. Two years later, after the Hammer biennial opened in 2012, he used his own savings (and, later, money from the Mistake Room’s nascent board started that fall) to set out for about six months traveling around the world, visiting art spaces and making connections.
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“I wanted to make sense of what was happening in the art world in South America and the Middle East mostly, but I went to Europe too,” he says. “What are these spaces doing? What do the cultural infrastructures look like? What is the support for artists?”
In his travels, he talked with foreign curators about the L.A. art scene. Most were aware of L.A.’s reputation as a prolific visual art center, he says, but many also felt alienated by L.A.’s physical sprawl and car-dependent culture. That had deterred some from exploring the city.
“There are tangible consequences for artists working here — that their international exposure, particularly for young and emerging artists, isn’t as great as in other cities that may be more accessible,” Garcia says.
Cesar Garcia’s Mistake Room
As part of its visiting curators program, Garcia says, the Mistake Room will bring three curators a year to L.A. from other countries for a residency of at least seven days; it will cover travel expenses, lodging, a stipend and a driver with an itinerary of artists’ studios to visit that guest curators may not have found on their own.
Hendrik Folkerts, curator of public programs at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, is the first to participate. He started this week.
The residency “enables me to tap into the rich and extremely lively Los Angeles art scene, through an elaborate program of studio visits and institutional meetings,” Folkerts says. “This kind of exchange is essential for an international curatorial practice.”
The Mistake Room commissions original work for exhibitions; none of the art is for sale and admission is free. When shows close, the work goes back to the artists. If the artist sells that work at a later date, Garcia says he’d request a donation in the amount of exhibition costs.
The Arunanondchai show cost about $50,000 to $60,000 to put up, Garcia says. The Mistake Room’s recent renovation cost about $100,000, and operational costs include three full-time staff: Garcia, deputy director and senior curator Kris Kuramitsu and assistant curator and exhibition manager Grecia Santiesteban.
Launching the Mistake Room wasn’t easy for Garcia, who immigrated with his family from Mexicali when he was 6 and grew up in Pico-Union, an area he calls “the Ellis Island of L.A.” He’s still paying off student loans while finishing his doctorate.
“In terms of my parents’ social circles and individuals I was able to reach out to, I didn’t have access to resources or [wealthy] family friends,” he says.
Money for the Mistake Room comes from fundraising events and gifts, a “closed membership program” and a 14-person board with deep pockets. It includes former Santa Monica Museum of Art board chair Dr. V. Joy Simmons, now the Mistake Room’s board chair, Oprah Winfrey Network executive Tina Perry and CAA agent Thao Nguyen. In keeping with the Mistake Room’s vision, about a third of the board is from another country. Glenn Kaino, a founder of the now-defunct downtown L.A. art space Deep River, is one of four artist trustees. The Mistake Room has gotten 501(c)(3) status, so it can start applying for grants.
The membership program is limited to 40 patrons at a time, each of whom donates $20,000 annually in exchange for benefits: inclusion in international art trips to destinations such as the Venice Biennial, studio visits and participation in an “artists multiple program” in which they receive a piece of original artwork, four times a year, from a different artist. A board member in Guadalajara, Jose Noe Suro, underwrote the artists multiple program, covering the cost of producing the art.
Just because it’s a nonprofit doesn’t mean it’s pure or that people aren’t making money — as they deserve to. They’re just getting their money in a different way. – Paul Kopeikin, Kopeikin Gallery
It’s this part of the business model, however, that some people call questionable.
“They’re grooming artists to move up the institutional ladder and connecting those artists with collectors — people who’ve paid them a chunk to be members,” Coagula Curatorial gallery owner Mat Gleason says. “It’s insidious because it appears to be pure, since they’re a nonprofit rather than a commercial gallery, but there’s still commerce going on.”
Added Paul Kopeikin of Kopeikin Gallery: “Just because it’s a nonprofit doesn’t mean it’s pure or that people aren’t making money — as they deserve to. They’re just getting their money in a different way.”
Arunanondchai says he’s just grateful for a place like the Mistake Room.
“Art spaces in this kind of scale — if you were in New York and you wanted to do a project like this, you’d have to be with a museum or a big Chelsea gallery,” he says. “I like that it doesn’t feel commercial. It’s a dream project for me.”
Arunanondchai’s solo L.A. debut at the Mistake Room is “Letters to Chantri #1: The lady at the door/The gift that keeps on giving.” The installation of 100 mannequins, a “timed experience” that accommodates about 15 viewers at once, also includes paintings, sculptural elements and two short films Arunanondchai directed featuring performance artist Boy Child. The exhibit speaks to the commodification of Eastern religions as it focuses on a single character, a disillusioned artist, that Arunanondchai hopes to incorporate into a feature film.
The Mistake Room’s fall schedule includes two historical shows of abstract expressionist painters from the ’50s and ’60s, Matsumi Kanemitsu and Ed Clark. In September, Garcia and his team will screen the site-specific films of New York artist Gordon Matta-Clark and invite local artists, writers, choreographers and others to respond to them.
“We’re interested in their relationship to the city and what’s happening downtown,” he says as the Mistake Room’s construction crew shuts down for a break.
As the dust quite literally settles, Garcia looks out across his cavernous exhibition floor.
“Bringing in artists from other places, curators, we’re learning so much about our own city,” Garcia says. “It’s seeing L.A. through their eyes.”
Theater & Dance
Paul McCarthy’s ‘WS’ and ‘James Turrell’: The spectrum of color and off-color on the East Side
James Turrell “Aten Reign,” fills the Guggenheim rotunda with light. (David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)
By Sarah Kaufman Dance critic July 26, 2013
This is a country of mystery, a sweet land of irony. What unites our states but declining incomes and anxiety? We haven’t even got a royal baby of our own to distract us as our cities go bankrupt and children go hungry and so many, and so unbearably much, is simply going down.
The stock market has been going up.
Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post’s dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive
But can there be any such thing as good news anymore?
Paul McCarthy and I are a little skeptical about that. Well, he’s more skeptical than I am. His immense installation “WS,” which fills the Park Avenue Armory with a giant phony forest, assorted phony horrors on display and on video, and a very real sense of sickness — all of it tells us he’s gone well past skepticism. His view is apocalyptic. We’re living in a carnival of chaos, “WS” announces. Ours is a world of villainous trickery and moral impairment.
McCarthy, however, is no self-serious postmodernist, nor is he one of those vacant-eyed Queen of the Undead performance artists. He’s a freewheeling, eccentric Californian with a wicked sense of humor, and he targets such icons of his state as Walt Disney, Hollywood, ranch houses and the porn industry. All of these figure in “WS,” whose kinky retelling of “Snow White” takes place in a suburban tract house inhabited by Dionysian man-dwarves in UCLA hoodies.
Paul McCarthy’s “WS” is an X-rated retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. (Joshua White)
The city’s art scene is having a California moment. A mile and a half away from the Armory, California-born James Turrell has transformed the Guggenheim Museum with an installation that rivals McCarthy’s in importance. This is his first exhibition here in 33 years, and the centerpiece of it, “Aten Reign,” fills the museum’s multi-story rotunda with changing colors of light. You could say that Turrell plays with the sunshine and mystical tendencies of his birthplace the way McCarthy romps with its kitsch, but that’s where any similarity between the two artists ends. Turrell’s work is quiet, orderly, Apollonian, and optimistic. It is also self-absorbed, and reverent to the point of sterility.
There’s nothing sacred or, God forbid, sterile in McCarthy’s work. This is the man who created inflatable poop, to the delight of headline writers attempting to top reports of how McCarthy’s giant “Complex Pile,” on display in Hong Kong, went splat in a storm last spring. There is great comic energy in the gory, X-rated “WS,” which lends it an unmistakable charm.
But it’s how McCarthy takes his battle to the body that gives the show its power.
He explodes the tale of Snow White (the show takes its name from her initials, reversed), with a seven-hour-long, four-channel video of performers playing the lost princess in full Disney costume, along with dwarves and assorted doubles. They’re in the throes of a house-trashing orgy. WS blithely plasters her decolletage with slices of bologna. She applies American cheese over her eyes. American cheese; ho ho! She’s helped in this by an avuncular Walt Paul (an amalgamation of Disney and McCarthy, played by the 67-year-old artist himself, in a bristly mustache and prosthetic nose).
Eventually everyone is naked, pouring Jack Daniel’s down one another’s gullets. Other substances follow, but the most repulsive is also the most benign: McCarthy/Walt Paul drinks tomato soup concentrate straight from the can.
Andy Warhol gave us a cold, distanced view of the Campbell’s can, neat and clean, but McCarthy takes that a few steps further. He shows us what’s inside: the curious terra cotta color, the unnatural sheen, the greasy, wet, synthetic texture. And then he takes all that glop into his body, letting it spill all over him, disgorging it and merrily gurgling it until the sight of it is just about more than you can take.
This is a minor example of what the bodies endure onscreen in “WS,” and it’s one of the few I can describe in a family newspaper. But as with every element of this engrossing installation, the effect is to make you feel, physically, something of the absurdity, inanity and horrors of American life upon which McCarthy seeks to intervene.
Take the monumental plastic forest that occupies much of the Armory’s vast drill hall: It’s set on a raised wooden platform, so as you follow the winding path through it, its painted styrofoam ground is at eye level (or at least it was for me, with my rather economical proportions). You feel dwarfed, diminished — however illogically — by the tangle of fakery above, the snapped-together rhododendrons and waxy daffodils.
In this forest, there is a model of the dwarfs’ house, elevated at a distance; it’s a copy of McCarthy’s childhood home. It looks cute and cozy, but that’s another trick of scale. This version in the forest is a miniature. At one end of the drill hall, there are full-size rooms that we can peek into, offering a startlingly realistic view of American middle-class decor. The beds are unmade, the toilet unflushed, the toothpaste uncapped. The artificial Christmas tree bears a prominent “Made in China” tag. Amid the mess on the floor is a magazine ad for Bally boots. A girl can dream, can’t she?
It all looks normal enough, but normalcy is dead, for here is also the aftermath of the partying taking place on the video screens looming overhead. Naked sculptures, uncannily realistic corpses of Walt Paul and WS, bear signs of unmentionable violence. One has a porcelain figurine of a Disney character stuffed in her mouth. There is evidence of Abu Ghraib-style abuse. You imagine the walls echoing with shrieks and screams. Our icons have been ravaged and left to rot.
The hall fills with moaning. The longer you spend there, the louder it gets. As time passes, the videos grow more excessive, more orgiastic, more revolting, and watching them makes you feel worse. You take a break, leave the Armory and walk around the block, where you find yourself confronted by glutted storefronts: Madison Avenue’s orgy of excess. This makes you feel worse still. This is McCarthy’s point, and it is a fine one.
McCarthy makes you think. But he also wrestles with the body, his own body, and he’s been doing this for decades. Sticking things in his orifices, vomiting, smearing himself with ketchup and feces, taxing viewers’ tolerances and his own. There is a kind of clownish heroism in this very visible battle. He’s not just grappling with paint on canvas, engaging in an intellectual struggle. He’s putting himself in the middle of it. He’s the one gobbling up the grotesque. He’s leading the pants-less conga line; he’s jumping up and down just as enthusiastically as the much-younger dwarves and WS characters.
How much can be tolerated? What are the limits? The answers can be approached only if we put ourselves at risk. And here is where McCarthy stands apart from so many in the performance-art world: He doesn’t set himself above us. There is no do-you-get-it? challenge here. In making the experience of his art so visceral, so gutter-level and cannily extreme, he takes us with him on this physical journey into the heart of horror. We may feel soiled by it, or disgusted, or moved. But whatever we feel, it’s likely to be strong. McCarthy saves us from the morally vacant stance of cool appraisal.
In the Guggenheim rotunda, Turrell’s “Aten Reign” is an effect more than a thing: a cycle of colors filling the space overhead, brought about with layered scrims and LED fixtures.
I walked in during the white section of the cycle and thought, is that it? The jewelry being hawked outside on Fifth Avenue had more visual excitement. But then there was a subtle darkening, like lights going down before a concert, and concentric oval rings of lavender and deep violet appeared. The colors continued to change, all in the richness of dyed silks: shades of magenta, yellows, greens; the blues of every sky you’ve ever seen. The colors hover in space, suspended like Rothko’s rectangles.
Upstairs, smaller galleries of Turrell creations offer more subtleties of light: a slash of brightness in a darkened room, a shadow appearing and disappearing in near-darkness.
These two big shows beg to be compared, though their differences are almost too obvious to list. Where McCarthy’s show is heavy and dark, Turrell’s is airy and transparent. The Armory is sensory overload; the Guggenheim is sensory soothing. It is weightless, nothingness. McCarthy’s show is crazy, comical, nasty and rough, Turrell’s is wondrous and serene. McCarthy gives us hell; with Turrell we peek at heaven.
Where would you rather end up? It’s not an easy question.
Both shows offer a hangout. You can spend hours in the Armory, wandering through the side galleries (more videos, more sex, more fun with food) and sitting on the floor to take in the main video narrative. Similarly, visitors settle into the Guggenheim rotunda for a good long time. They lie on the floor, looking up, or view the colors from inclined benches.
There’s a certain glamour to “Aten Reign,” with its elegant simplicity and magnificent hues. The light feels like sunset on the Riviera, or the grace of God. But the smaller galleries feel precious and overworked.
McCarthy’s show is funnier. There’s a witty nihilism to his dwarfish house-trashing, with the celebrants in children’s party hats as they march around like rebellious toddlers, trousers at their ankles. These big, hairy, bare-bottomed men clutch balloon animals between their legs. When the camera zooms in, between the wigs and false noses and flopping organs, you don’t always know what end you’re looking at.
There is no confusion in Turrell’s world. He has teased out the bit of reality that interests him, picked it up with tweezers and put it under a microscope. He has studied it and manipulated it to an infinite degree. He takes us deeply into one thing — how light can alter perception — and there is something deeply moving about that, in the way that the quest for perfect understanding is always a story of discipline and struggle.
But McCarthy’s show is warmer, and contains emotional truths. In the exhausted people-pileups and relentless energy of his videos, there is a raw, unvarnished drive for physical sensation and connection. Watching that drive, being dragged inside it, viewing it from all angles so that the visuals were no longer simply working on my imagination but were getting under my skin — this is what kept me inside the Armory for many hours on a fine summer’s day that felt much more complicated when I left.
is on view through Aug. 4. at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. Admission is restricted to audiences over 17. http://www.armoryonpark.org.
Of all the disagreeable species of humanlike beings Jonathan Swift invented in “Gulliver’s Travels,” the Yahoos are the worst and most human of all. Island-dwelling bipeds, they are lewd, lying, dirty, territorial and aggressive. They copulate in public, speak in shrieks and moans and kill for valueless baubles. They eat to excrete; when on the attack, they use excrement as a weapon.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Violence, humor, sex, impotence, appetite, degradation: Snow White (a k a WS) cavorts with dwarfs in a video in Paul McCarthy’s vast multimedia installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
A video with the artist as a remade Walt Disney, with Elyse Poppers as WS.
Paul McCarthy’s film-and-sculpture installation, “WS,” which fills the immense drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, is basically a Yahoo epic, its satire framed in the language of Disney, Duchamp, 1950s suburbia, 21st-century greed and Craigslist pornography. The piece is grand and gross, with ambushing flashes of beauty and an X rating.
It’s also the larger of two McCarthy spectacles in town this summer, the other being “Rebel Dabble Babble” at the cavernous Hauser & Wirth space in Chelsea. The ostensible theme of the Chelsea show, the making of the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause,” is specific. But as with “WS,” the real subject is moral dysfunction played out on a cinematic scale.
Mr. McCarthy, who was born into a liberal Mormon family in Salt Lake City in 1945, has lived and worked in and around Los Angeles since 1970. While his reputation has long been high among artists, until a decade or so ago his career was largely a West Coast phenomenon. And even there, museums and galleries didn’t know what to do with him.
Like many other California artists who came of age around 1960, he was attracted to the materially messy, psychologically fraught side of Abstract Expressionism, which he transmuted into performances. Alone or in front of small audiences or on video, he chainsawed furniture, painted with his penis, slathered himself with ketchup and made love to a lump of ground beef.
In the early 1980s he added masks and costumes to his repertory. He cooked up the persona of a demented Santa. He did obscene riffs on children’s book characters, like Heidi and Pinocchio. Using mechanized mannequins, he turned the Wild West, long a staple of America’s televised identity, into a vaudeville of exploitative sex. Long before the abject body became a dominant theme of art in the 1990s, Mr. McCarthy was on the case, presenting the human form as a gaseous, leaky container, and gender as a fluid condition. Just as his anarchic early art had made psychological sense during the Vietnam War years, his later work, with its direct assault on American normality, fit the emotional chaos of the AIDS era. While rarely referring to specific political issues, this was still intensely political art.
It was so intense that no one bought it, so for years he supported his family by doing pickup work in construction and photography that sometimes brought him into Los Angeles film studios. Hollywood and the mechanics of film fantasy are a primary source of his art. This is particularly true of the recent works that tend to be big-budget projects, now that the market has finally discovered him.
The Armory installation, his biggest so far, is a compendium of signature ingredients: violence, humor, sex, impotence, appetite, degradation, art history, politics and pop culture. The piece is based on two intersecting elements: the 1937 Disney animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and the suburban home of Mr. McCarthy’s childhood.
But like the installation’s title — “WS” stands for White Snow — everything is in a disordered version of an original form. On an islandlike platform in the center of the Armory, Mr. McCarthy has constructed a three-quarters-scale facsimile of the facade of his childhood ranch house in Utah and set it, inaccessibly, in a kind of dank rain forest of plastic trees and fake flowers.
The rest of the house is set up outside the forest and is approachable, with cutaway walls and windows. But while its rooms are precise in their period décor, they are strewn with refuse, splattered with dark fluids and unoccupied except for the nude bodies of a man and a woman, apparent victims of torture and murder.
A seven-hour film shot both inside the house and in the forest is projected onto screens on the drill hall walls and elsewhere. It’s a thing of many components, among them the story of Snow White, as told by Disney. The beginning of the McCarthy reimagining adheres fairly closely to the animation, with Snow White wandering out of the forest and into the house of the dwarfs, who discover her napping there.
There are, however, some stark differences. This Snow White (played by the actress Elyse Poppers) sleeps in the buff and, once awake, poses like an odalisque. The dwarfs — nine in this telling — are a mangy, misshapen, sex-starved lot who think nothing of turning up naked for breakfast before being packed off to work by their newfound nymphet-mom.
At that point, the familiar story ends, and another begins. Enter Walt Disney, here named Walt Paul and played by Mr. McCarthy with a prosthetic nose and overbite. Almost instantly, he and his cartoon creation engage in a constantly table-turning Oedipal courtship.
“I own you!” he shouts.
“I want you to crawl!” she shouts back, and the path to excruciatingly prolonged disaster is open.
At the same time, breakaway sections of the film are playing in the Armory’s side galleries. The scenes veer from Food Channel shtick to Pier Paolo Pasolini-style degradation and include at least two startling art historical references.
In the first, the splayed-legged nude woman of Duchamp’s “Étant Donnés” finds multiple male sexual partners. (Mr. McCarthy uses professional porn-film actors for these scenes.) In the second, Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Popper enact the tableau from Massacio’s famous 15th-century fresco of a wailing, disconsolate Adam and Eve leaving paradise.
The Duchamp scene is outrageous, funny and flat, the way pornography can be. The Masaccio tableau is unexpectedly moving, all the more because it is re-enacted several times, with the two nude performers repeatedly assuming a posture of shame and grief.
Meanwhile, the main film continues, its pace and volume building in a raucous orgy of bingeing and purging that eventually ends in the death of Walt Disney/Walt Paul at the hands of his dwarfs and the demise of Snow White/White Snow herself. Their bodies are those we see, in the form of life casts, in the house.
What all this means, I don’t exactly know, although it obviously touches on regret for lost innocence and on a recoil from — and a satirist’s relish of — a homegrown plague of give-us-more-pleasure that has spread to much of the world. What I suspect is that in Mr. McCarthy we have a Swift for our time, or maybe a Hieronymus Bosch, and in “WS” — organized by the Armory’s artistic director, Alex Poots, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in association with Tom Eccles — a scabrous American “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Like the Armory installation, “Rebel Dabble Babble” at Hauser & Wirth is a collaboration between Mr. McCarthy and his son, Damon. It too is conceived as a film-and-film-set unit. It began as a project by the actor James Franco. After bringing in the McCarthys, Mr. Franco dropped out, and they expanded the piece by dovetailing the plot of “Rebel Without a Cause” with the legend of the erotically intertwined lives of its director, Nicholas Ray, and its starring actors, Dean and Natalie Wood.
As in “WS,” Mr. McCarthy, with the same crazy nose, takes the male lead, playing Ray; the father of Dean’s character in the film; and himself. Other actors also have multiple roles, with stand-ins for the pornographic bits. Over all the work feels at once narrow and diffuse. You may have to care a lot about 1950s Hollywood (I don’t) to stick with it.
Still, vintage McCarthy themes surface: the family as self-lacerating unit; masculinity as a state of fury fueled by impotence; nostalgia as a fool’s faith; Yahooism as an American and now global way of life. As ever, what makes it all work is that Mr. McCarthy sees the Yahoo in himself and in us, and lets us see it too. In a world of brute, pandemic excess, self-knowledge is a minute thing, but a grace.
“Paul McCarthy:“WS” runs through Aug. 4 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, at 67th Street; (212) 616-3930, armoryonpark.org. No one under 17 will be admitted. “Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy: Rebel Dabble Babble” runs through July 26 at Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, Chelsea; (212) 790-3900, hauserwirth.com .
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 29, 2013
An art review on Friday about “Paul McCarthy: WS,” an art exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory, misstated the surname of the Armory’s artistic director. He is Alex Poots, not Potts.
A version of this review appears in print on June 28, 2013, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: The American Fairy Tale, Fun House Style.
Eugenia Butler: How a Wacky Gallerist Inspires the L.A. Art World Today
On Good Friday in 1974, L.A. gallerist Eugenia Butler Sr. called artist Charles Garabedian to say she was dying. “Will you come to my funeral Sunday?” she asked. Sunday was Easter, and Garabedian arrived to see two burly men rolling Butler into the yard on a gurney. Halfway to the waiting hearse, she threw off her covers, stood up entirely nude and said, “I’m resurrected.”
“She was in love with the idea that art is something really crazy,” says Garabedian, who showed at Eugenia Butler Gallery during its 1968-71 run. “She wanted to behave like an artist in a far-out, spectacular way.”
A new exhibition, “Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler,” revisits, for the first time, the gallery’s short, singular life. Organized by Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) and Butler’s granddaughter, Corazon del Sol, it opened in a half-vacant West Hollywood strip mall a mile from Butler’s original La Cienega location.
It’s a historical exhibition, but it feels somehow ahistorical, even contemporary. Maybe this is because Butler, a woman in the early L.A. art scene, defies gender narratives about that time. Her gallery coincided with the peak of the notoriously masculine Ferus Gallery, where, according to art historian Shirley Nielson, who was married to Ferus dealer Walter Hopps and helped bankroll the venture, “The women serviced the men — it was as simple as that.” It also coincided with the start of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, which more or less invented the term feminist art.
But in Eugenia Butler’s gallery, spectacle, uncertainty and risk proliferated in a way that made conventional gender dynamics seem blurred and peripheral.
“In a strange sort of hodgepodge way, it captures some of the original anarchy,” says Tom Jimmerson, co-owner of Culver City’s Cardwell Jimmerson Gallery, of “Perpetual Conceptual.” Though he visited Butler’s space as a college student, he more clearly remembers opening art magazines and reading about her latest run-in with the law. “Eugenia trafficked in scandal,” he recalls.
There was the Dieter Roth cheese show, where the Icelandic artist planned to open one suitcase of unwrapped cheddar or brie each day for five weeks, then leave its contents exposed. L.A.’s Public Health Department ordered an end to that.
Tax officials investigated Ed Kienholz’s “The Barter Show,” in which the artist spelled out across his watercolor paintings what he wanted in exchange for each (a Timex watch, for instance).
“There was no dream of perfection in Butler’s gallery,” Jimmerson says. Risk interested her far more than the polished professionalism achieved by some of her peers, such as gallerist Virginia Dwan or Butler’s onetime partner, Riko Mizuno.
While offhand, mythic anecdotes about Butler have floated through L.A. art history, the work she showed stayed more or less undocumented. Her records were burned after her marriage to lawyer James Butler ended, and though she lived until 2001, mental illness and other distractions kept her from documenting own story — not that it’s clear she would have cared to do so.
The current exhibition’s genesis was del Sol’s discovery, about two years ago, of a shoebox full of slides of work her grandmother had exhibited. She says, “I was taking [slides] around to everyone, saying, who is this?”
Del Sol’s mother and the gallerist’s daughter, artist Eugenia P. Butler, had, according to some accounts, been the only Eugenia in the family for the first 16 years of her life, before her mother, formerly called Jeannie, decided to go as Eugenia as well. Leila Hamidi, now the project assistant for Pacific Standard Time, was once a studio assistant to the younger Eugenia, and she introduced del Sol to Shamim Momin, director of LAND.
When you enter “Perpetual Conceptual,” you see George Miller’s One Cubic Foot of Water, a foot-high stack of hundreds of foot-wide, weathered images of water drops. Near the desk, a framed, gold pentagon says in red letters, “This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling.” Byars, an itinerant artist who often lived with the Butlers, made this when he hired a woman in a red silk suit to sit in the gallery corner on his 37th birthday and answer written questions others had posed about him.
Next is William T. Wiley’s Movement to Black Ball Violence (1968-69), a ball of black tape Wiley created because he’d been wadding up adhesive tape while listening to news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. He decided to keep “black balling” and invited others to add to what now looks like an amorphous head and wears a golden halo.
In the back of the space hangs People’s Prick, by Paul Cotton (who now calls himself “Adam II, the late Paul Cotton”). If you pull the winged metal penis that hangs from a furry, phallic thing with a vaginal slit down its middle, the song “The Impossible Dream” begins to play.
The art in the show feels like it’s trying to butt up against and rupture what’s most baffling about the real world. Can you summon a spirit with a question, it asks, or blur gender lines with fur and a song? “This work is a lot more human than it’s often presented as,” del Sol says.
“We wanted this show to be less about personal history and more about this extraordinary period at the gallery,” adds LAND director Momin. She and others I’ve spoken with tiptoe around the Eugenia mythology. Craziness doesn’t have much clout these days, especially since the art world has just recovered from an era obsessed with identity politics, where the autobiographies and idiosyncracies of creative people (especially women and others from underrepresented groups) often garnered more attention than their work. Focusing on the Butler mythos threatens to pigeonhole her, to turn her legacy into the short-lived, haphazard achievements of an eccentric.
Still, it’s unlikely Butler will ever not be an enigma. “I never got a sense that I got even remotely close to understanding what Eugenia really wanted to accomplish with her gallery or how it functioned for the artists,” says curator Kristina Newhouse, who featured Butler in her exhibition “She Accepts the Proposition,” which focused on women gallerists in 1960s and ’70s L.A., and closed in November. In fact, Newhouse found all the gallerists she contacted — Claire Copley, Riko Mizuno, Constance Lewallen, Morgan Thomas — resistant to “making any pronouncements about what it all meant.” They saw themselves as enablers, not arbiters.
“Artists appreciate it when their history’s not being told back to them,” del Sol says. This, she thinks, is part of why her grandmother’s sensibility feels important now. In the midst of the Pacific Standard Time–fueled celebration of SoCal art’s past, it suggests there are priorities beyond defining history. “A lot of the artists in Eugenia’s gallery were just happy to push boundaries,” a feeling compelling to a younger generation that’s trying to do the same thing.
“Voices [like Butler’s] are the ones I want to be hearing more of,” says writer Danielle Sommer, who learned of Butler just before the show opened. “She’s not a feminist from the 1960s, who decided to show only women artists. She didn’t embody that zeitgeist. Her project gets away from that very rigid idea of what it means to be a woman practitioner.”
In 1971, Butler, wearing a white cocktail dress, accompanied Cotton, in a bunny suit and declaring himself a living sculpture, to an invitation-only reception at LACMA. Cotton carried a tray of what the L.A. Free Press, too discreet to say marijuana, called “rolled paper tubes containing an illegal vegetable,” which he “planned to distribute … to the elite of the Los Angeles art world.”
Guards ejected him, carrying his stiff body out as if it were a sculpture. The photos look like fantasy; it’s hard to believe it could have happened. “This art,” says del Sol, “it’s all art of the possible. It changes you.”
PERPETUAL CONCEPTUAL: ECHOES OF EUGENIA BUTLER | 8126-8132 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Through April 21
PHOTO BY MALCOLM LUBLINERButler speaking with designer Rudi Gernreich at one of her gallery openings in 1969
The strange and beautiful house recently renovated by the Mexico City art dealers Mónica Manzutto and José Kuri not far from the trendy Condesa neighborhood began its life in 1899 as a nunnery for the nearby church of San Miguel Arcángel. But Manzutto and Kuri have subverted that particular history, with its theological and colonial connotations, and have named their new home Platanera—Banana Tree House—after a grove of plants in the garden that bloom only once in their seven-year life cycle, then die. “Time is an important issue with the house,” says Manzutto, 41, a lithe former model who speaks five languages. Platanera, she explains, ages before your eyes, the wear and tear of previous years gloriously apparent on its bare-wood and raw-stone surfaces.
That wear and tear has been considerable. At some point in the mid–20th century, the nunnery became tenements, and, eventually, parts of the ceiling collapsed. Manzutto and Kuri have restored some of the original nuns’ quarters for themselves, their two young children, and their collection of contemporary art but have kept others as they found them: ruined rooms that are now reimagined as enclosed gardens. This old/new–indoor/outdoor house, which incorporates a freshly built second-story master bedroom suite and a detached office pavilion designed by the Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, is hidden from the street by a plain facade. Right behind it, in a small garden forecourt with damp gravel underfoot and a leafy canopy overhead, is arguably Platanera’s most striking feature: a native tepozán tree as thick as an arm growing out of the house’s adobe-brick wall like a supernatural oddity from a magical-realism novel. “We wanted the entropy to be present,” says Kuri, 45, of the decision not to remove it. “There is a certain dignity to the things that were already here.”
That Manzutto and Kuri chose to keep the tree speaks not just to their domestic aesthetic but also, in some subtle way, to their vision of Mexico’s vibrant art scene and, in particular, to the group of artists that their gallery, Kurimanzutto, has represented since it opened 15 years ago. Gabriel Orozco, Damián Ortega, Gabriel Kuri (José’s brother), Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Dr Lakra, who are all in their 40s and 50s, have careers that are international in scope yet deeply connected to Mexico’s history and culture. Like the tepozán, they embody an indigenous vigor that has sprouted, adamant and unruly, in the cracks of an older cultural edifice, which they’re not pulling down but rooting into as a living buttress. Their work isn’t always glamorous in a conventionally collectible sense, but it is formed with ambitious intent. The centerpiece of Manzutto and Kuri’s personal collection at Platanera, for example, is Orozco’s Mexican flag painted on a flattened cardboard box—the detritus of consumer culture recycled into a 21st-century artistic identity.
Like the galleries started by Manzutto and Kuri’s professional heroes, Leo Castelli and Marian Goodman, Kurimanzutto was present at the birth of an artistic generation and has grown with its artists’ commercial successes; as Mexican contemporary art has matured, so has Kurimanzutto’s prestige as an international powerhouse. What Platanera represents, then, is both a status symbol in keeping with the couple’s position in the upper ranks of the global art hierarchy and, in its idiosyncratic form, a notion that they have shared with their artists from the outset. “It is the idea of the local, of Mexico, of our roots in a broader context,” Kuri says. “It’s not popularizing or exoticizing Mexico, but really understanding where we come from.”
The morning before our visit to Platanera, Manzutto and Kuri meet me in their upstairs office at Kurimanzutto. Manzutto has just returned from a 10-day trip to Korea and professes to have had just three hours’ sleep. Still, her eyes are bright behind a pair of librarian glasses, and she smiles often to reveal a Lauren Hutton–esque gap in her front teeth.
The office’s decor runs to tropical modernism—all sleek lines and burnished hardwood surfaces—and it gives a sense of what Platanera will look like once the furniture and art are installed in the weeks ahead. Both the house and the gallery were designed by Kalach—a perfectionist whose inspirations range from the Mexican modernist Luis Barragán to traditional Japanese carpentry—and the two spaces clearly share the same DNA. The gallery was originally a lumberyard, which Kalach has sculpted into a compound of flexible spaces, some under roofs and others open to the sky. Bursts of greenery and curtains of hanging vines overrun the courtyard beneath the gallery offices, which are reached by climbing a wide concrete staircase that suggests the monumental ruins at Teotihuacán. The building materials, like those of the house, include bare steel oxidized to a velvety patina and native lava rock. In the back courtyard, which boasts a full kitchen, dining tables, and conversation nooks, an outdoor sink was carved on-site from a massive block of lava—its hand-hewn geometry appears half-Aztec, half-Bauhaus.
Multiple exhibition spaces purposefully challenge perception, with some walls carefully misaligned to leave gaps flooded with light and colonized by creeping philodendron. As at Platanera, Kalach used glass walls and skylights to diffuse Mexico City’s high-altitude light; you begin to lose track of what’s indoors and what’s out. Kurimanzutto is the opposite of an anal-retentive white cube—it’s more like a community center for Mexico City’s art scene. “We wanted a space that had to do with our weather, our economics, our politics,” recalls Kuri, who is wearing a color-block cardigan and Buddy Holly glasses. “Not to replicate a gallery from London or New York City.”
Kurimanzutto has been in its present location since 2008. Before then, it was a gallery with no fixed address. The inaugural show opened on August 21, 1999—by chance, the same day that Castelli died—in a stall at a local produce market. For the next nine years, Manzutto and Kuri mounted exhibitions in venues that included an old movie theater, a carpet showroom, and an airport terminal. Their reasons were both practical and ideological. On the one hand, they started with “zero money,” Kuri recalls, and they preferred to invest in traveling abroad to meet curators and collectors rather than tending shop at home. At the same time, they were skeptical about the very idea of a gallery as a showroom for selling objects. Their ambition, like that of their artists, was more elusive. They believed that the role of the artist is largely conceptual and includes catalyzing human relationships in a social context. “Not having a space was very important,” Manzutto says. “The gallery was about all these friends, together.”
Manzutto’s early life plan was to be a diplomat or a civil servant. She was born in Colombia to a Colombian mother and an Italian father, who died young. Her Argentine stepfather was an engineer, and the family moved around the world before settling in Mexico City when she was 12. As a teenager, Manzutto started modeling, a job that provided financial freedom and a sense of independence. Still, she never doubted that she would finish her studies in international relations at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. She met Kuri when she was 19 and he was 23, and the two have since been partners “in every sense,” as she says.
Kuri’s father is of Lebanese descent; his Mexican mother took her sons to museums when they were growing up. As a teenager, Kuri loved art and even won a national drawing contest, but the social expectation for a smart kid was to strive for financial success, so he studied economics at the prestigious Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. “I didn’t think you could make a living out of art,” Kuri says. “Now, art has become an industry. At that time, you were basically choosing to be a bohemian. I thought I could work in business, and then later I could be involved in art in some way.”
His eventual entrée into the nascent Mexico City art scene came via his younger brother, Gabriel, who never wanted to be anything but an artist. Gabriel Kuri got to know Orozco, nearly 10 years his senior, when Orozco invited the artist to join a weekly group along with Ortega, Cruz-villegas, and others of that generation. Soon dubbed the Friday Workshops, these meetings combined high-minded talk with late-night drinking in local cantinas. It was the world before NAFTA, the dot-com boom, the requisite annual art-fair migrations, and the arrival of art-hungry billionaires from emerging-market economies. The narrative of mainstream Mexican art at that time was straightforward: Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the muralists painted a new national identity. In the 1950s, an opposing current of abstract painting arrived from abroad to inspire a movement called La Ruptura. A return to figurative painting, Neomexicanismo, followed in the 1980s. A decade later, the generation of the Friday Workshops threw out their paintbrushes to create conceptual works that were often critical of the mainstream art establishment. The outcome was predictable: a cold shoulder from local galleries and the need for young artists to support themselves with day jobs.
Meanwhile, in 1997, Kuri and Manzutto moved to New York to pursue master’s degrees in public policy and cultural studies, respectively. “And then everything changed,” Manzutto recalls. Orozco, who was also living in New York, suggested more or less out of the blue that Kuri and Manzutto open a gallery in Mexico. His logic was simple: He wanted to go home, and there was no gallery to represent him there. While Kuri -finished his degree, Manzutto got an internship at Marian Goodman, Orozco’s gallery, and learned the back-office functions. The couple returned to Mexico in 1999 and mounted Kurimanzutto’s first exhibition in the market stalls, where works were sold at the prices of the market—an Orozco could be had for the equivalent of $15. Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was a close friend of Orozco’s in New York and had joined the gallery at the outset, cooked lunch. They called the show “Market Economics.”
Whenever its artists had produced enough work, Kurimanzutto would pop up with a new exhibition. Its second, “Permanencia Voluntaria,” ran over a weekend at an old movie theater with a lineup that included local artists’ re-creations of important video pieces by Paul McCarthy and Bruce Nauman—which they’d read about in books but never actually seen—as well as Exodus, Steve McQueen’s Mexico City premiere. The 2002 show “Travelling Without Moving” was held at Mexico City International Airport; every work sold, netting Kurimanzutto a slim profit of about $1,000. All of those early exhibitions were group shows, Kuri explains, to emphasize the “generational energy” represented by the artists who emerged from the Friday Workshops. “In the beginning we were very famous for doing great parties,” Kuri says with a laugh. “We were living on $300 a month, $400 a month, but we felt happy. We were so lucky to have made the decision to open the gallery. We always thought that we were doing the right thing.”
But Manzutto also makes it clear that their strategy, which, in retrospect, seems idealistic to the point of utopian, did not amount to idleness. “We didn’t just wait for it to happen,” she says. Starting in 2000, Kurimanzutto began participating in international fairs. Its artists gained further momentum after the 2003 Venice Biennale, where an Orozco-curated show, “The Everyday Altered,” displayed works by the Friday Workshop artists, including Ortega’s iconic Cosmic Thing, an exploded Volkswagen Beetle that was to the group what Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde was to the 1992 London exhibition “Young British Artists.” Early supporters of the gallery included the Mexican collectors Eugenio López and Patrick Charpenel; as well as Howard and Cindy Rachofsky and Deedie Rose, all from Dallas. Today, Kuri estimates that 70 percent of their sales are made abroad, and the gallery’s roster of 26 artists is likewise increasingly international, with Monika Sosnowska from Poland, Akram Zaatari from Lebanon, Roman Ondák from Slovakia, American expat Jimmie Durham, and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. If Mexico City seems distant from those artists’ native grounds and, indeed, far from the international commercial art centers of London and New York, that’s exactly the point. “One of the greatest things about being at the periphery and not the center was the freedom,” Manzutto says. “It still is.”
Platanera is just a five-minute walk from Kurimanzutto. As Kuri shows me around the neighborhood, he nods a courtly “Buenos días” to everyone he meets, pointing out the sights as we go. There’s the fruit stand, where he wants to rent a shelf to sell books; a dry cleaner; a simple cantina. He says that he and Manzutto were drawn to the area because it is in transition. The facade of Platanera was recently tagged with graffiti. “We’ll leave that,” he says, adding that they want to blend into the neighborhood, not occupy it. I ask Kuri if he feels ambivalent about their success. “Certainly,” he says, as if answering a question he and Manzutto have discussed many times. “Success isolates you; that’s inevitable.”
He tells a story from the early years of the gallery, when he and Manzutto worked from home. It was a very hot day, and he had on nothing more than a pair of shorts and flip-flops. “This is my idea of success,” he told her. If they could continue to work that way, he would consider them “completely successful.” As for the financial gains, jet-set lifestyle, and media profile that followed, Kuri says that they must remain “very, very skeptical.” He mentions an artist friend who lives with his family and dogs in an isolated village, in a house he built with his own hands. “I would see it as a very successful life to be that free,” Kuri says, acknowledging all the same that he and Manzutto have committed themselves irrevocably to a profession of ever-increasing social and financial obligations.
Kurimanzutto’s recent exhibitions have grown far more complex—and expensive—than “Market Economics,” as artists create larger-scale works with heightened production values. And the couple continues to look for opportunities to present them in non-gallery situations. Sarah Lucas’s first show in Mexico City was an installation of pantyhose sculptures at Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli Museum, which now houses his pre-Columbian art collection. Manzutto and Kuri, who once operated without a program, are now preoccupied with how to place their artists’ works in major public collections—and how to perpetuate them in the history books.
Later that night, some 200 guests arrive at the gallery for the opening of a show of Tiravanija’s new work. He’s spent the day cooking, and the installation includes a buffet of tacos and endless Mexican beers. Even after the party officially ends, a large crowd hangs on, fueled by mezcal and cigarettes. Damián Ortega laughs when he thinks back to the young Kuri who set out for New York to study public policy—back then, “he was just our friend,” Ortega says. As for changes at the gallery itself, he shrugs: “Oh, it has been fluid, natural change.” Nearby, a boisterous game of ping-pong is under way at tables Tiravanija painted with the phrase mañana es la cuestión (“Tomorrow is the question”). Kuri remembers that back in the early days, when Kurimanzutto events got really wild, guests would slip off to the bathrooms for drugs and sex. That doesn’t happen tonight; even so, the opening is not a prissy reception but a real party. Manzutto and Kuri have maintained a sense of the unruly, even while surrounded by the high-stakes business of international art.
Above the din, they explain the story behind a hammock, large enough to hold 10 people, that is suspended from the gallery’s beams. Tiravanija commissioned it from a group of prisoners in the Yucatán who run a small workshop, and he had them weave a message into its warp and weft. Over the course of the night, as the noise level climbs with every round of mezcal, Kuri and Manzutto take turns swinging in the hammock with their guests. Its woven text, which becomes visible only when the hammock is stretched open by occupants, reads todos juntos—“all together.”
Kurimanzutto gallery is the brainchild of husband and wife duo, José Kuri and Monica Manzutto. Founded in 1999, the gallery is now based in a converted timber yard in the heart of Mexico City. Kuri and Manzutto are credited with raising the international profile of major Latin American artists, including Gabriel Orozco, Damián Ortega, Gabriel Kuri and Allora & Calzadilla.
The Art Newspaper: How did you first meet?
Monica Manzutto: I met José in 1992. A friend thought we should meet, and she was right—we’ve been together ever since.
TAN: Were you always involved in art?
MM: José has always been close to artists but for me, meeting him was the beginning—I was 19 then. I became very exposed to artists in Mexico after that.
TAN: Why did you decide to open a gallery together?
José Kuri: A lot of factors came together. There was a fantastic generation of artists living and working in Mexico in the 1990s, but no gallery system or market to support them—they were really on their own. I knew that Gabriel Orozco wanted to come back to Mexico to work more, and he didn’t have a gallery there to help develop projects.
MM: We talked with Gabriel about this generation that didn’t have representation in Mexico. That was the moment when José and I said we should do it together. We knew we understood the context, so knew we could do it. We were all living in New York at the time—we were there for two years from 1997.
TAN: What were you doing there?
JK: We went to do masters degrees. I was studying economics at Columbia, and Monica was at NYU. Even though art was my passion, I studied something else because I never believed I could make a living from art. But, I learned from the masters that you have to devote yourself to what you are good at, and don’t worry. I just thought I should do what I love.
MM: I dropped out of NYU and went to work for Marian Goodman. I went as an intern, knowing I wanted to open the gallery. Marian was very important in exhibiting a certain group of artists that no one in New York knew before her shows. It was very important to understand how a gallery functioned, and also how to work with a specific generation—[as] we did later.
TAN: Why not stay in New York and open a gallery there?
JK: You could easily fail in New York because there is so much at stake. The market is tighter and there is little room for experimentation. In Mexico, there was no developed market or gallery system. People weren’t paying attention, so there was a lot of room for new things. We were really excited. It also felt like doing it was a kind of historic obligation for us.
TAN: When was this?
MM: We left New York on 1 July 1999 and opened the gallery in Mexico on 21 August.
JK: We had no money so we opened a gallery without a space. At the very beginning we worked from my parents’ house—we had to go back there to live because we couldn’t afford a place. It was actually a good thing—we concentrated on developing the artists, instead of spending the little money we had on a space. We worked like that for the first five or six years—later from our apartment in Mexico City. We travelled a lot and it gave us the opportunity to really focus on what is important—the artists. It was great to just close our apartment and go away for a month to see our artists—something that you cannot do with children. It was an adventure [The couple now have two children].
TAN: Was it difficult to live and work together?
JK: At first, very. We almost separated. Our office was in our home—at one point the storage was in our kitchen. It was so full we had to have our meals outside. But we figured out how to do it. We have a fantastic team now, it really has grown a lot.
MM: It was very difficult at the beginning. It was not about us—it was hard to understand how to work with artists that are also your friends, and to work without a space. Now we’ve found equilibrium. José is very rational. I am more intuitive. It’s a balance.
TAN: When did you get a proper space?
JK: In 2008. We’ve grown organically, little by little.
TAN: Now you have it, does the gallery live up to your expectations?
JK: It’s fantastic. It has a gallery, a beautiful kitchen and a bar, so once a month we have an open house where the artists come and we cook. It’s really how we always dreamed—like a community.
TAN: Has having a permanent space changed your programme?
JK: Certainly. When I look back, I feel nostalgia—we had the most fantastic time. But now we have amazing possibilities.
MM: It has changed a lot, but in a good way. Now we function differently—our work goes out further. Before, we would not have an idea of how many people were coming in but now we can see what is happening in the gallery. The nicest thing is that people are doing a lot of research and we are able to give that information out.
TAN: Latin American countries have traditionally looked to Europe and North America. Is there more dialogue within the region now?
JK: Yes. I think we came to realise that, when the crisis hit Europe and the US so hard, that you don’t need those economies so much. Why go abroad for validation when you have fantastic artists that really relate much more to your reality, your politics, your economics, your weather? It has been very interesting. For us now, we’re trying to be even more connected, and there are fantastic collectors. Lima is a super interesting place. Peru is fantastic—it’s economy has grown 8% in the last eight years. Bogotá is beautiful.
TAN: Do you think that will continue?
JK: Yes—once you create a tie, why break it? Confidence has been growing. We sold a couple of works at Frieze to some great collectors from Peru.
TAN: Were there collectors in Mexico when you started?
JK: Yes, very good collectors. And, they’re not conventional. They are really willing to support challenging works, and they help the flow of information. There are many more now—at least 15 or 20 really top collectors, and then more people at a lower pace. It’s lively.
TAN: How were the Frieze and Fiac fairs?
MM: Fiac has wonderful works around that are fantastic. It is a high quality art fair. Frieze was very important for us—we have been going for a few years but didn’t do it the past three years because we were concentrating on our space. But the response this year was quite amazing in the sense that we were able to sell to institutions—we sold a Jimmie Durham to the Tate—and it was a good moment to talk to curators.
TAN: Could you have achieved so much solo?
MM: No, never.
JK: Absolutely not. I rely so much on Monica. The gallery has created a sense of community. What we share is an act of love, so I think it has a meaning. It’s exciting.
Gabriel Orozco’s exhibition @ Kurimanzutto Gallery. (Learn more here.)
courtyard at Kurimanzutto gallery.
Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto Gallery Has Eight Artists in Documenta 13, Barely Trailing Marian Goodman
Internationally, though, Ms. Goodman has at least one close competitor, the redoubtable Mexico City gallery Kurimanzutto (or kurimanzutto, if you prefer), which announced today it has eight artists in the exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Those artists are:
– Abraham Cruzvillegas
— Adrián Villar Rojas
— Allora & Calzadilla
— Anri Sala
— Apichatpong Weerasethakul
— Jimmie Durham
— Rirkrit Tiravanija
— Roman Ondák
Kurimanzutto has been in fine form in the e-mailing department lately, having just last week sent out a message with the subject line “Long live the students,” in support of the Mexican political reform movement #YoSoy132, which read in part:
We are now witnessing a historical movement by which college youths all over the country, take organised action in order to shape a better future for Mexico
Kurimanzutto opens doors to new art gallery in Mexico City
NOVEMBER 30, 2008 | 1:43 PM
The beautiful people were out in force on Saturday afternoon in Mexico City for the opening of the new Kurimanzutto contemporary art gallery in the San Miguel de Chapultepec neighborhood.
Cool young Mexicans mixed with a manicured, international crowd; back-combed hair and skinny jeans mingled with manicured, slender women, over-sized glasses and fake gold handbags. It was so retro, and so now.
Rather than sipping champagne from long-stemmed glasses, guests sucked fruit juice out of cardboard cartons. American English blended with Spanish in this elegant and luminous inside-outside space that looks a world away from the timber yard that it once was. Visitors start inside the building but under an open sky, then walk into a showroom covered by a ceiling of fogged glass that lets in the daylight and is supported by grand, wooden beams reminiscent of a farmer’s barn.
Then it’s outside again and through a tiny, Japanese-style garden and up the back steps into a smaller space hung with paintings and photographs.
Kurimanzutto boasts a collection of some of Mexico’s most up and coming contemporary artists, including Damián Ortega, Daniel Guzmán (see video below) and Gabriel Orozco. To the uninitiated, the main showroom might be reminiscent of a secondhand store, with installations including a suitcase full of ’70s style pornographic photos and a cork pin board covered with photographs –- all mounted on bare metal bookshelves. But a closer look proves more fulfilling, and the choice of such basic furniture to present the exhibits was, of course, part of the message.
“For this exhibition we have decided to evoke the testimony of an incidental –- yet fundamental –- protagonist: the bookshelf living in almost any artist’s studio,” reads the introduction handed out at the opening.
“This piece of furniture is confident and witness to the working processes of its owner, neatly reflecting his/her interests, obsessions, references and current ideas…. The shelf is equally storeroom, shelter and plinth.”
Attendees seemed impressed.
Daniela Hernandez, 23, a law student, welcomed the space, saying, “It’s really important that they’re changing the gallery spaces here because they really need it and there’s a lot to do.”
“This is the most important contemporary art gallery in Mexico,” said Mariano Rocha, a 26-year-old fashion magazine editor.
That’s not strictly true. La Coleccion Jumex, situated about half an hour north of the city in the gritty, industrial neighborhood of Ecatepec, is 15,000 square feet of Latin American art open to the public and owned by Eugenio Lopez Alonso, heir to the Mexican Jumex juice fortune. But Jumex’s is a permanent collection and although widely regarded as one of the world’s most important public showcases of Latin American art, nothing is for sale.
Kurimanzutto, on the other hand, is a commercial gallery, so comparing the two is rather like comparing apples and oranges. However, for people who are looking, not shopping, Kurimanzutto does have the advantage of being located more centrally, and is just a stone’s throw from Mexico City’s central park, Bosque de Chapultepec.
Abdon Flores, a Paris-based Mexican fashion designer at Saturday’s launch, said that he enjoyed the size of the new gallery: “It’s huge –- that’s important for Mexico because galleries here are usually small.”
Flores’ companion Anna Rockwell, a 27-year-old American artist, said: “I like the idea that it’s collective. It raises a new way of structuring art shows that’s not so much about individual ego and ‘I’m making it as an international art star and you’re not,’ but more about working together and sharing ideas.
“It’s more of a dialogue, which for me is a lot more interesting because that’s the most interesting thing about art.”
Click on the video for a glimpse of part of Daniel Guzmán’s installation at the Kurimanzutto gallery.
— Deborah Bonello in Mexico City
Photos: The beautiful people, top, are out in force Saturday afternoon in Mexico City for the opening of the new Kurimanzutto contemporary art gallery in the San Miguel de Chapultepec neighborhood. Daniela Hernandez, 23, a law student, and Mariano Rocha, 26, a fashion magazine editor, middle, are among those at the launch. Others attending the exhibition opening, bottom, include Abdon Flores, a Paris-based Mexican fashion designer, and American artist Anna Rockwell. Credits: Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times
* This post was edited at 12:27pm Mexico City time. La Coleccion Jumex is not a commercial gallery, unlike Kurimanzutto.
Throughout his career, the German artist Anselm Kiefer has confronted the weight of the past and the power of myth on a monumental scale. As the RA stages a major retrospective, Martin Gayford chronicles the extraordinary vision and transformative force of this colossus of contemporary art.
Walking down a hillside in the foothills of the Cévennes, we come across a group of massive towers. Multi-storeyed, irregular, almost tottering, these look at once old and new. The material they are made from – cast concrete – gives them the appearance of a contemporary shanty town or some haphazard industrial structure. Their form and presence, silhouetted against the clear southern French sky, suggest the architecture of Dante’s Italy or medieval Greece.
These extraordinary objects – it is hard to know whether to call them sculpture, architecture or installation – are among the landmarks of La Ribaute, the estate near the town of Barjac on which the German artist Anselm Kiefer Hon RA has created perhaps the most ambitious and complex work of art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At La Ribaute’s centre is a disused silk factory, a rambling building in vernacular stone architecture containing a house and workshop. Around this, however, has accreted what can only be described as a Mediterranean landscape strewn with contemporary art spaces. The long, winding drive is lined with some 50 individual pavilions, each containing a group of paintings, sculptures or installations. Other works are housed in a maze of underground tunnels, and in glass structures of Kiefer’s own invention – part greenhouses, part vitrines.
Just in scale, what Kiefer has done at Barjac is daunting. A day is scarcely sufficient to see everything. Asked how his retrospective at the RA would relate to this gesamtkunstwerk – this total work of art – at Barjac, Kiefer replied, “It will be a concentration of all this.”
Kiefer’s towers punctuate the parched landscape around Kiefer’s studio complex at Barjac in southern France, 2012.
When Kathleen Soriano, curator of the RA’s exhibition, first visited Kiefer’s studio, she found the experience overwhelming, but by her third visit she felt more reassured, because she had grasped that all of Kiefer’s works were connected.
All of Kiefer’s art, she says, is concerned with “a handful of issues, themes, stories that he is constantly revisiting; at the heart of it are ideas about cosmology, the connection between heaven and earth”. Thus everything Kiefer makes is part of a whole that is always in the process of evolving. “He isn’t someone who thinks about time being linear,” as Soriano puts it. “He thinks about it being cyclical and everything being connected.” On the May morning when I saw those towers, Kiefer told me he had woken up with the idea for a new building in his mind, and an intuitive feeling – on which he did not elaborate – about what he would put inside it.
Change and decay are built into his art, in the way that planned obsolescence was a feature of American cars. His paintings often contain materials that are bound to mutate: straw, lead that once flowed like a sluggish liquid. Some of his recent works were given a final touch by electrolysis – they were placed in a chemical bath with a cathode and an anode so that copper was deposited on its lead, which in turn became part of the surface of the painting. The copper turned green, but – and this was the point that delighted Kiefer – alterations carried on occurring. People who bought these works, he told me with glee, would have to be told that in six months they would have a different picture.
Two of Kiefer’s towers, entitled Jericho, were exhibited in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard in 2007. Around the towers at Barjac is strewn the wreckage of similar mini-Babels that have come tumbling down. I asked his studio manager, Waltraud Forelli, whether Kiefer minded when his works collapsed in this way. “Oh no,” she replied, “Anselm loves it when they do that!” Rubble, indeed, is one of his favoured materials. In a glass gallery space nearby lies a lead battleship, perhaps 12 feet long, having foundered on the waves of a sea of smashed concrete.
Detail from Kiefer’s book work ‘For Jean Genet’, 1969, showing a photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute.
Ruins, as a matter of fact, were exactly where Kiefer started. He was born on 8 March 1945, just two months before V.E day. His arrival in the world therefore corresponded with the beginning of the postwar era; and – equally relevant to his development as an artist – he grew up among the debris of saturation bombing. A few years ago, he told me how he had been powerfully affected by that beginning. “I was born in ruins. So as a child I played in ruins, it was the only place. A child accepts everything; he doesn’t ask if it’s good or bad. But I also like ruins because they are a starting point for something new.”
This is Kiefer’s fundamental beginning, aesthetically and emotionally: his life started after a cataclysm. Unlike a German artist of a slightly older generation, Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who has memories of growing up in the Nazi era, Kiefer knew only the aftermath: a world which had been shattered by high explosives, and a society in which the immediate past was mentioned as little as possible because it held terrible secrets.
Unearthing that hidden past was one of his first undertakings as an artist. In the ‘Occupations’ series of 1968-69, he was photographed in various places in France, Italy and Switzerland performing the Nazi salute, as seen in his book work For Jean Genet. At the time – and for some people still – it was an outrageous (and illegal) thing to do. When work, including these images, was submitted for his degree at Freiburg School of Fine Arts, some on the jury were appalled. But the point of this extreme gesture was, of course, not to extol Nazism, but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it. Only by doing so, he felt, would it be possible to reclaim the past – to start building again from the ruins. This was no doubt why the young Kiefer was supported by Joseph Beuys (1921-86), a leading figure in German art of the 1960s whose works, which took forms including sculpture and painting but centred around performances, often examined ideas of rebirth.
Beuys was an occasional mentor of Kiefer’s, though not a formal teacher. Kiefer remembers how, as a young artist, he would take work to show to the older man. “I was working in the forest and I would roll up these huge paintings, put them on the roof of my VW Beetle and drive to Du?sseldorf to show him.” Of all the major postwar German artists, including Richter, Georg Baselitz Hon RA and Sigmar Polke, it is Beuys to whom Kiefer is closest. A profound interest in ritual and metaphysics is something Kiefer has in common with Beuys, as well as a deep sense of German Romantic heritage, in literature and philosophy as well as the visual arts. There is also a stylistic similarity between Beuys’s works on paper and Kiefer’s delicate and intimate watercolours, such as Winter Landscape (1970) – a counterpart to his massive paintings, sculptures and installations.
The artists also shared a ritualistic feeling for materials. Again and again in his art Beuys used felt and fat, both materials that are connected with a personal myth about his healing after being injured in an air crash during the war. In Kiefer’s case the signature substances, as well as lead and straw, include concrete and sunflowers. In his case, too, there are probably biographical associations. His affinity with concrete, for example, is perhaps the result not only of the pulverised townscapes of postwar Germany but also of a formative stay at the monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, outside Lyon, designed by Le Corbusier during the 1950s in starkly moulded concrete. There, Soriano notes, he was affected by “the combination of spirituality and scholarship that he saw in the monks”.
Kiefer is both spiritual and extremely well read, as well as unexpectedly jolly. A conversation with him might begin with medieval philosophy, and progress, via alchemy, to architecture. In origin, he is a Catholic, from Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, near the border with France and Switzerland (in contrast to Richter and Baselitz, who come from the Protestant north-east, almost another country from southern Germany). You could not, he told me, “imagine anywhere more Catholic” as Donaueschingen. He was an altar boy: “I’ve forgotten a lot of the poems I learned by heart but I still know the mass in Latin.”
As befits someone who once assisted at the mystery of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine become the body of Christ, Kiefer has a metaphysical approach to materials. No doubt he relishes lead for its physical attributes: its enormous weight and sombre matt-grey surface. But he likes it as much for its metaphorical qualities. As Soriano explains: “Lead is the basest of materials but also it is changeable. If you heat it up, it bubbles, it is constantly in flux. Above all, to Kiefer’s mind, there’s its weight: he considers it the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.”
Kiefer uses lead paradoxically. He makes it into the kinds of objects you would least employ it for from a practical point of view: aeroplanes too heavy to fly, boats that would immediately sink, books whose pages would require huge effort to turn. At the entrance to the Royal Academy exhibition will stand a new sculpture, incarnating this paradox: lead books with wings (The Language of the Birds, 2013).
In alchemy, lead was to be transmuted into gold, and Kiefer is intensely interested in alchemy – he admires the writings of the Jacobean English astrologer, cosmologist, cabbalist and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). His work, especially in the last two decades, has been fed by deep interests in many esoteric traditions, such as the Jewish Cabbala and ancient Egyptian religion. Just as Soriano felt overwhelmed by the volume of art in his studios, one can feel as if one is drowning in references and allusions when one reads about Kiefer’s work. But – this is a crucial point – it is not necessary to decode all those layers of meaning in order to appreciate his art. They are all compressed into a visual experience; you can just look, and sense the complexities.
Kiefer also has a deep interest in poetry. He has said that when he “looks inside himself he finds poetry”, yet he thinks in images. Indeed, he is haunted by the German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-70), whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. Celan’s poem Death Fugue (1948) gives the titles and themes to Kiefer’s paintings Margarethe (1981) and Sulamith (1983). They refer, respectively, to a German guard and a Jewish prisoner in a death camp. Celan wrote of “your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith”. Each painting has their name inscribed onto the canvas. Kiefer’s works often contain words in this way and, as in these paintings, they affect the meaning of the work. Sulamith depicts the funerary crypt of the Soldier’s Hall built in Berlin in 1939 by the architect Wilhelm Kreis. It was a grim expression of the Nazi cult of the dead transformed by Kiefer into a memorial to the victims of Nazism, as art historian Daniel Arasse put it in his 2001 monograph on the artist.
If one wanted to find a stylistic description for the earlier phase of Kiefer’s art, in the 1970s and early ’80s, far better than Neo-expressionism – which was tried, but doesn’t fit – would be postcataclysmic romanticism. The principle theme of Kiefer’s work at this time was, Arasse concluded: “How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?”
Kiefer depicted, for example, a path through a forest merging with a railway line leading to the concentration camps. He painted the forests that had been a place of refuge and also fear for his family during the final stages of the war. He also painted primitive halls of wood, often based on his own studio in the upper storey of an old school house in the town of Buchen. In one, Nothung (1973), the magical sword of the mythical hero Siegfried sprouts from the floorboards. Others in the series were executed in a sinister, shamanistic combination of oil paint and blood. This attic, as Soriano says, was “a theatre, a space in which he could act out history”.
A number of works took as their settings the starkly severe neoclassical monuments of Nazi architecture. Interior (1981) depicts the mosaic room in the New Reich Chancellery, designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, and virtually destroyed in 1945. In the foreground, flames flicker. Such paintings have the melancholy grandeur of the masters of 19th century German art and architecture – painter of northern landscapes Caspar David Friedrich, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect of Berlin – but are overlaid with a much darker mood. The vanished Nazi buildings, destroyed in or after the war, reappear like sombre ghosts, witnesses to a terrible history. Such paintings have a spectral, sinister magnificence.
Fire, destructive and transformative, was a presence in Kiefer’s work at this time. The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975), one of his many book works, documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.
The ultimate purpose of Kiefer’s art in the 1970s and ’80s, Arasse argued, was “to perform an act of mourning for the whole of German culture and all of its finest and most ancient works”. But, he continued, the changes that took place in Kiefer’s work during the 1990s “seem to imply that the time of mourning is over”.
In 1992, Kiefer moved to France and began to work at Barjac. From being an artist preoccupied by German history, he became, in the words of critic Matthew Biro, “a global artist”. He travelled the world and his art took on an international sweep. A series of works, including the earlier Osiris and Isis (1985-87), take as their central subject huge ruined pyramids of sand-coloured brick. These are based on structures he had seen in Egypt, Israel, Central America, southern India and the China of the Cultural Revolution.
Kiefer’s preoccupation with starry skies and sunflowers is both cosmographical and a response to his new environment in the south of France. Barjac, after all, is not far from Arles, where Van Gogh painted both the flowers and the sky at night. When Kiefer depicts wheat fields, however, as he has in his new series of paintings, ‘Morgenthau’, some of which go on show for the first time at the RA, he has in mind not only the cycle of life and death evoked by Van Gogh’s harvests with their yellow corn and black funereal crows. He is also thinking of the Morgenthau Plan, named after the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr, and proposed late in 1944 (around the time when Kiefer was conceived). Morgenthau’s idea was that after the war Germany should not just be demilitarised, but also deindustrialised, transformed into a peaceful bread basket: the European equivalent of the Prairies.
This quixotic, historical might-have-been both amuses and inspires Kiefer. It also demonstrates that, no matter how far he ranges in time and space, in some way he remains rooted in his beginnings: the end of the Second World War and the start of the new era in which we are still living. A large space at Barjac is also devoted to work based on this scheme. It is an installation: a plantation of grain in the centre of the room, the ears gilded with gold-leaf and – nestling in the middle – a serpent.
Anselm Kieferis in the Main Galleries at the RA from 27 September – 14 December 2014.
Tim Marlow gets a guided tour of the German artist’s new retrospective.
The first major British retrospective of the work of painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer – widely considered to be one of the most important artists of his generation – opens this weekend.
The exhibition, which runs from 27 September to 14 December 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts, spans more than 40 years from Kiefer’s early career to the present day.
Kiefer at the RA
Born in Donaueschingen in 1945, Kiefer’s work often explores the darker episodes of German history, as he explains in an exclusive forthcoming short film for BBC Arts Online.
He tells Tim Marlow about his Occupations and Heroic Symbols (Heroische Sinnbilder) series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which record Kiefer’s re-enactment of the Nazi salute in locations across Europe, made in the belief that one must confront rather than suppress the experiences of history.
He also discusses his more recent work, including pieces made especially for the exhibition. You can see more of Kiefer’s work below.
Things are always falling off Anselm Kiefer’s work. Straw, sunflower seeds, chunks of concrete, you name it. Curators at the museums to which he sends his work have fastidiously collected the fallen debris and returned it to him, presumably in the expectation that he might want to repair the damage. But Kiefer, whose work is the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts this autumn, just shrugs. He may be one of the great artists of our time; but he is not, it turns out, a preservationist. He’s keener on ruins.
Like many artists, when he is near to finishing a work, Kiefer will often get frustrated or succumb to a sense of dissatisfaction. He has learned to recognise this feeling and to respond, writes Richard Davey, the author of an essay in the show’s catalogue, by reintroducing “chaos”:
“He lets go of the work, deliberately withdrawing… so that his paintings and sculptures can take on a life of their own. He allows nature and chemical reactions to take over the creative process. Paintings in process are burnt, slashed, buried or exposed to the elements. Canvases are laid on the ground to have paint and diluted acid poured on them, while works on lead are placed into electrolytic baths and left to stand and corrode. Many paintings are put inside locked shipping containers, to await their moment of rebirth in the dark; when these voids are reopened later, it is as if Kiefer is seeing these works for the first time.”
At times he has gone even further. He has covered his works in earth, and has even been known to strafe his paintings with bullets. In a corner of his studio in Croissy, on the outskirts of Paris, he has a jet aircraft half-buried in sand.
Provocatively, but perhaps inevitably, book-burning is also in Kiefer’s repertoire: he has produced many weighty books, some from sheets of lead, many with carbonised pages, deliberately calling to mind the Nazi delirium, and Heinrich Heine’s prophecy: “Where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings.”
Kiefer was born in a town called Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest region on 8th March 1945. The town, which is just north of the Swiss border, was both a rail hub and the base of a military garrison. It came under intensified Allied bombing in the period prior to Kiefer’s birth, and the situation continued to deteriorate in the following months. “During the daytime when I was a baby,” Kiefer later said, “my grandparents and my mother had to go into the woods to protect us from the bombing.” His parents’ house remained intact. But their landlords, who lived next door, were not so lucky: their dwelling was blown to pieces.
The ruin next door turned into Kiefer’s playground. Before the age of six, when his family moved, he spent long stretches of his boyhood playing in the rubble. He would take loose bricks home to build new, multiple-storey structures, which became more ambitious by the month.
He was doing much the same thing decades later when—already a world-famous artist—he turned his sprawling, 35 hectare studio-estate in the south of France, formerly a silk factory, into a massive, constantly morphing artwork in its own right, replete with ruin-like concrete towers, freestanding staircases and an underground network of crypts and tunnels. But by this time Kiefer’s playfulness—like his absurdist sense of humour, which is a central but often overlooked aspect of his work—had taken on darker overtones.
Kiefer came to notoriety in 1969 with a series of photographs of himself dressed in his father’s army uniform performing the Nazi salute—which had been banned in Germany since the end of the war—in various historically-loaded locations around Europe: the Colosseum in Rome, Paestum, south of Naples, Arles in the south of France.
Kiefer has said that during his school years, mention of the Nazi era was scrupulously avoided. But this omission only fuelled his fascination. When he heard a recording of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering, it triggered something deep inside him. “The sound goes right through the skin,” he said. “Not only through the ears and the head. I was simply shocked. And that’s how it began.” For Kiefer, the two series of saluting photographs (called Occupations and Heroic Symbols) were “performances… acts of mourning” and—against the general inclination to forget—of remembering.
Hitler’s ruinous legacy, although far from being Kiefer’s only subject, has found its way into all corners of his work. Even as he draws on ancient history and mythology, 20th-century literature and philosophy, cosmology, physics, and alchemy, his work is always in dialogue with this more recent history.
Heroic Symbol V
Kiefer uses a vast panoply of materials in his art, each of which have intricate symbolic meanings. Studiously parsed, they trigger a kind of spiritual-historical giddiness. There is the straw, for instance, that symbolises the hair of the German prison guard Margarethe in Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.” There are the seven flames that represent Margarethe’s antagonist in the same poem, the concentration camp prisoner Shulamith, reduced to ashes in the furnaces. There is the lead Kiefer uses, again and again, to invoke the weight of history and the flux and potential of the human spirit. There are the sunflowers and crows that refer to specific paintings by Van Gogh, and the concrete that connects in his mind with spiritual striving, and with the modernist architect, Le Corbusier. On it goes. Sometimes, the allusions feel pointed, precise, and powerfully charged. At other times, it’s all quite bewildering.
Overwhelmed and confused, perhaps, by his work’s undisguised ambition, critics have occasionally accused Kiefer of getting into an uncomfortably intimate dance with Nazi tropes. When he showed his work, alongside his friend Georg Baselitz, in the West German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1980, one critic, Werner Spies, accused Kiefer of inflicting on the public “an overdose of the Teutonic.”
The accusation would have been offensive if it weren’t also true. An overdose of the Teutonic is exactly what Kiefer foists on us all. But he does so with his eyes wide open, and there is insight, empathy, and great moral energy in his approach. (Werner Spies would go on to become one of the artist’s great champions).
Kiefer’s efforts to get to grips with Nazism emerge most viscerally in two of his overriding obsessions: the aesthetics of the ruin and the motif of the forest. Much of Kiefer’s early work, as Christian Weikop points out in another of the Royal Academy catalogue’s essays, revolved around forests, trees and wood grain. In 1971, Kiefer had a studio in the Oden Forest. He made a painting, Man in Forest, which showed the artist himself in a nightshirt holding a flaming branch in the midst of a dense pine forest. “I think I illuminate the forest in such a way that it could ignite,” he said, comparing himself to Prometheus. A key Kiefer woodcut from 1978, Ways to Worldly Wisdom: Arminius’s Battle, alludes to the ancient Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which the German soldier Hermann (also known as Arminius) triumphed over three Roman legions. The battle was a nation-defining event, to which Hitler often referred.
Kiefer’s preoccupation with forests chimes uncomfortably with the Nazi valorisation of Germany’s landscape. Again and again, Hitler and his henchmen defined the rooted, forest-dwelling Aryan race against the “homeless, desert-roaming” Jews. In 1935, Heinrich Himmler commissioned research on the role of the forest in German culture and history. And the following year, Hitler presented winners at the Berlin Olympics with sapling oaks, a symbol of Aryan supremacy. (In a strange irony, one of the four oaks presented to the African-American athlete Jesse Owens now towers over the Cleveland high school where he trained.)
“Our stories begin in the forest,” Kiefer has said, echoing this rhetoric. His statement is made bitterly ironic not just by the Nazi associations, but also by his own beginnings: his family’s forced sanctuary in the forest as his nation collapsed around him under an onslaught of Allied fire-bombing.
Rubble also piles up relentlessly in Kiefer’s work. He has always been infatuated with the poetry of the ruin. It’s why he lets his sculptures and paintings degrade. It’s why he abandons them to chaos, subjects them to the elements, and lets them develop a patina in which colours and tones seem to merge into greys and pale yellows, so that they achieve the poetic unity of tint common to ruins and old, once-vivid fabrics.
Hitler, too, cherished the poetry of ruins. He commanded his architects to build in stone because he wanted his buildings to project beauty and power long after the society that built them had expired. Stone made for beautiful ruins. This idea—Ruinenwert, or “ruin value”—was pioneered by his favourite architect, Albert Speer.
What makes Kiefer so dizzying, and at times so profound, is that, although he is forever conscious of Nazi tropes and ideas, he is also involved in an endless attempt to recoup them, to salvage meaning and beauty and something even deeper—something frankly cosmic—from the black hole of Nazism.
Kiefer once described painting as “a ceaseless shuttling back and forth between nothing and something.” Ruins operate in his imagination as an analogue of that incessant movement. The idea of the ruin represents a kind of deeper human dispensation, far from the perverse logic of the Nazis. It is a notion that was beautifully articulated in 1911 by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in an essay called simply “The Ruin.”
The ruin, for Simmel, represented a deeper reality than the pristine work of art. If art or architecture represent “the most sublime victory of spirit over nature,” as he wrote, the ruin represents a shift in the balance of power between these two opposing forces—in which nature regains the upper hand. In the ruin, nature transforms the work of art “into material for her own expression, as she had previously served as material for art.”
Simmel was telling us something Kiefer has taken to heart. He believed that the ruin, for all its poetry, was a reminder of the limits of aesthetics (limits Hitler never recognised: he wanted his fascist aesthetics to enter into every field of endeavour, especially military endeavour). When we perceive aesthetically, claimed Simmel, we are effectively demanding that the contrary forces of existence—nature and spirit—be frozen in equilibrium. But such equilibrium is an illusion, because life is always in flux.
In the ruin, we see the bigger picture, not just the false aesthetic moment. And, although it is, in the end, art that Kiefer is making, I believe he aims for a similarly broad perspective in his work. In its embrace of decay, its toying with rubble, his work is a valiant attempt at solving the problem of the “merely” aesthetic—the feeling that, as Theordor Adorno famously put it, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” His work is an attempt at summoning, instead, that deeper reality perceived by Simmel, reclaiming the idea of “ruin value” from the perverted logic of Hitler and Speer.
LONDON — Anselm Kiefer’s retrospective comes at an odd cultural moment. Pop artist Nicki Minaj recently came out with a music video so steeped in offensive Nazi imagery that the Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913 to fight anti-semitism, was compelled to make a statement. A Middle Eastern collector beat out multiple interested parties to purchase a painting by Adolf Hitler for an unprecedented $161,000; demand for Hitler’s other works is predicted to increase. And after being briefly banned from the festival for something between a bad joke and an expression of Nazi sympathies, director Lars von Trier is no longer a persona non grata at Cannes Film Festival. Are the images and symbols of Nazism, after decades of embargo, making some sort of cultural comeback? Could they even be … in vogue? The notion is stomach churning.
Amid this problematic milieu comes theAnselm Kiefer retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition is a case study in epic, from the sheer number, size, and visual depth of the works on display to the breadth and weight of the topics with which this contemporary German painter grapples. We encounter a collection of illustrated books in which delicate cathedrals emerge from between the thighs of women; a horizontal swathe resembling a sandstorm that has been sprinkled with real diamond dust; a rusty bear trap embedded in canvas, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Courbet’s scandalizing “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World). Every carefully selected allusion is multilayered in a jaw-dropping tapestry of alchemy, poetry, history, mythology, theology, and philosophy. But in the thick intellectual web produced by the works on display, it’s Kiefer’s handling of Germany’s cultural memory of the Third Reich that is the most compelling strand.
The appropriation of blatant Nazi imagery is an artistic tactic Kiefer seems to have moved away from as of late. Throughout his career, though, the artist has reenacted the Nazi salute — banned in his native Germany since 1945 — in photographs throughout Europe, recreated the buildings of Nazi starchitect Albert Speer in thick lashes of paint, and suffused his canvases with the cultural language wielded by Nazi propaganda: the forests, the ruins, the Wagnerian heroes. Unlike Minaj, however, Kiefer exercises these taboo images carefully, to wide-ranging effects.
Sometimes, as with his salutatory self-portraits, Kiefer plays the role of the provocative conceptual artist, mocking the representational prohibitions that give force to the tight-lipped fantasy of a national tabula rasa. Other times you can feel him genuinely mourning as he grapples with a cultural inheritance of shame, guilt, grief, and layers upon layers of loss: a sentiment so prevalent in postwar Germany that they developed a word for it,Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The exhibition’s most moving works in memoriam are a pair of paintings, “Margarethe” (1981) and “Sulamith” (1983). They reference a haunting poem reprinted on the gallery wall, “Death Fugue,” by concentration camp survivor Paul Celan. Each painting is scrawled with the name of its corresponding character from the poem: the ashen-haired Jewish girl Sulamith and the golden-haired German girl Margarethe. In “Margarethe,” the flaxen straw that stands in for the girl’s hair is matted on the canvas, a failed pastoralism caked with grey, black, and white paint. Depicting Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 design for a funeral hall honoring German soldiers, “Sulamith” scrapes at Third Reich monumentality to reveal what lies beneath: an ash-blackened vault reminiscent of an oven. With a little pyre, menorah-like, where a tomb would be, the vault is a memorial to Sulamith, to all of the Sulamiths.
Kiefer’s work asks the big, impossible, questions: How can Germany remember and represent the Holocaust? What is a German artist to do with the deluge of images and cultural reference points that were appropriated and exploited for such an unforgivable end? Kiefer’s work isn’t riding the wave of fascism’s fetishization (though it likely has and will reap the financial rewards of such a wave). Its earnest intentions are to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust stay fresh in our collective memory; to try to understand how the Nazis leveraged culture for killing; to parse through the artist’s role in the process of memory and memorialization.
In “Ages of the World,” an installation piece that Kiefer made especially for this retrospective, a mass of stacked canvases pricked with leaden sunflowers creates a pylon-cum-pyre that attempts to capture not only decades of his artistic work but also a geological timeline of the world. The piece is an apt metaphor for the retrospective: the show at times seems to collapse under its own weight as it unapologetically — boldly, bravely, a bit foolishly — aims for the epic. Yes, it’s hubris. But if there’s anyone I trust to do hubris right, with intelligence and care, it’s Anselm Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through 14 December.
TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION LONDON
Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: cataclysmic, transformational, stupendous
2 OCTOBER 2014
Alex Danchev on the artist’s extraordinary and formidable work
Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment
Royal Academy of Arts, London
27 September-14 December 2014
Anselm Kiefer By Kathleen Soriano, Christian Weikop
and Richard Davey
Royal Academy of Arts
240pp, £48.00 and £28.00
ISBN 9781907533792 and 808
An original artist follows the path of the oculist, says Proust. Their art acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. “When it is over, the practitioner says to us: ‘Now look.’ And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear…Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a painter or writer with an original view of the world.”
That geological catastrophe has just opened at the Royal Academy in London. It has Anselm Kiefer’s name on it. Like all great artists, his work is his own, an untracked continent as yet unnamed. Contrary to popular belief, it is given to artists, not politicians, to create a new world order. The Kieferworld is rich and strange, boundless and immersive, elemental and metaphysical. This artist traffics in fundamental truths. “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth,” affirms Kiefer. “It never can, but it can get quite close.” At the same time, things are in flux. There is something cataclysmic about the Kieferworld. Heaven and earth take their chances in the rag and bone shop of the heart that is the artist’s studio. Kiefer’s studio is at once laboratory and crucible.
Perhaps the most striking quality of the cataclysm at the RA is the material. Kiefer sees artworks as actions, as he says, and not as consummate creations. The Kieferworld is in the process of perpetual transformation. Climate change has come indoors. The artworks slip and slide, corrode and erode. They age, and shed, and flake. They are weathered and distressed, scarred and mutilated. Violence is done to them, with a variety of weapons. Here are the survivors. They may or may not be happy in their skin. The dates of some of these works testify to an epic struggle: Ash Flower (1983-97), for example, a characteristic blend of oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas – a canvas of continental proportions (382.3cm x 761.4cm), practically covering one end wall of gallery 3.
Ages of the World
An installation made specially for the RA brings home the sense of action and transformation, and the sheer physical presence of these stupendous works. Ages of the World (2014), summarised rather coyly in the catalogue as mixed media, is a kind of recapitulation; it seems to speak of last things. The installation fills a whole gallery. It is described there as part totem, part funeral pyre. One might add part pyramid, part tomb; part sacrifice, part pile of the artist’s signature stuff. Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment.
There is a place for belief in the Kieferworldview, belief in something above and beyond the featherless biped, but not a “salvator” or saviour. The artist’s outlook is perhaps more intellectual than spiritual. Kiefer is nothing if not a thinker-painter. Like Cézanne – another law student turned artist – he is a mighty reader. In an almost biblical sense the book is central to his practice. He makes books of his own (books of lead and books of words); he ransacks the pages of the poets for their wisdom. “I think in images,” he told the assembled company, accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2008. “Poems help me do this. They are like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost.”
He is a formidable intellectual. The lectures he delivered as chair of artistic creation at the Collège de France in 2010-11 are published under the title of Art Will Survive Its Ruins (2011), an apt title and an apt calling. Kiefer’s breadth and depth put common or garden professors to shame. His lectures are compelling, erudite, individual. As a thinker, he is both playful and profound. “Some artists wait all their life for the word of God, and it never comes. This is the case with K, who waits in vain in Kafka’s The Castle; and even more radically with Vladimir and Estragon in [Beckett’s]Waiting for Godot, who merely play at waiting. Like spoken words, a painting may happen to contradict itself. It is by nature an aporia. It feeds on chance, signifies everything but ordains nothing.”
Books and their authors are Kiefer’s interlocutors. He responds to them in his own idiom. This can produce surprising results. Invited recently to respond to The Cathedrals of France (1914), a book by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, Kiefer produced a book of his own with the same title (2013), combining studies of cathedrals with erotic watercolours: another speciality of the celebrated sculptor. One shameless sheet on view at the RA shows a lascivious nude with an erect cathedral in her lap – Rodin meets Magritte!
The Orders of the Night
At once the most considered and the most sustained engagement is with the poems of Paul Celan (1920-70), entwined with those of Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73), his lover, regarded by Kiefer as the greatest poet of
the second half of the 20th century. Celan’s Death Fugue is now canonical; for Kiefer it is a foundational text, as this exhibition triumphantly demonstrates. Bachmann’s Darkness Spoken is perhaps less well known, but no less vital:
The string of silence
taut on the pulse of blood,
I grasped your beating heart.
Your curls were transformed
into the shadow hair of night,
black flakes of darkness
buried your face.
Celan and Bachmann deal in the same darkness, broker the same black flakes. Kiefer pays tribute to the poems and the poets in his meditation on their plight. His exploration – one might better say his excavation – honours theirs: he probes the limits of language and the possibilities of art. “With art,” said Celan, “you go into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free.” The Kieferworld is a free world, but a heavily burdened one, full of dead souls. Kiefer’s art is, among other things, an inquest and a reckoning – a reckoning with the history of the terrible 20th century.
Two vast canvases bracket that endeavour. For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night (1998-2013), with a Kiefer-figure lying in the foreground, is framed through a series of arches in gallery 8, as if the image of the artist himself were impregnated in his work. Looking back through the arches, at the other end of the galleries is The Orders of the Night (1996), with another Kiefer-figure lying at the foot of the giant sunflowers that are a recurring motif in his work, redolent of another insistent interlocutor: Vincent Van Gogh, a painter-philosopher of heart-breaking eloquence.
There is lyric poetry after Auschwitz. The labours of Anselm Kiefer offer proof. Whatever else it may be, the Kieferworld is a challenge – an extraordinary feat of sustained creativity, an oeuvre that beggars belief. The result is monumental, inexhaustible, unmissable. Be brave. Go now. Think on.
Anselm Kiefer at the RA
Enter into the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty and history.
Walk into the first room of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition and you are struck by Nazi salutes and bonfires, followed by derelict landscapes and decrepit sunflowers. You have entered the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty, horror and history.
Kiefer was born into ruins, in 1945, towards the end of the second world war and the end of the Nazi regime. His country’s past was hidden from him as a child, yet the taboo topic fascinated Kiefer and lead him to explore Germany’s willfully forgotten past in his work.
In one room an imposing pile of lead books and unfinished Kiefer paintings tower up towards the ceiling. The work crumbles at your feet, just like the art work which burned at the hands of the Nazis. The weight of history is represented by the lead books, stained by the erosion from reacting with the air. There is something intriguing about his choice of metal here. Lead is almost impenetrable, and yet it is also poisonous.
I found it unsettling to look at the crumbling pile of Kiefer paintings even before I came to understand the meaning behind it. Paintings worth millions of pounds crumbled and dismantled all for a metaphor. It seems the world’s richest living artist is not precious about his paintings. I read recently that he reportedly left some of his Royal Academy exhibited paintings out in the rain by accident, later claiming that ‘the rain won’t harm them, it might even make them better’.
With a vast amount of wealth and a 200-acre art studio in the South of France at his disposal, Kiefer’s mental playground has become a reality. As I wander into another room I confront dark and textured surfaces, hanging from the walls, like the surface of an unknown planet or the night sky on a clouded evening. I move closer I notice the paintings begin to twinkle as little stars appear. As I move closer still the alarm begins to scream and it becomes apparent that Kiefer has placed hundreds of little diamonds into the night sky.
My favourite room is a wash of serene blues and magnificent yellows, six different paintings, each on a vast scale, all reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. The decrepit sunflowers that feature in so much of Kiefer’s work are also present. Objects reach out from the paintings as you see into the landscape before you and not at it. The scale at times feels a bit overwhelming, but you soon come to appreciate the real beauty captured in these near-ephemeral paintings – they look as if I could break a piece off with the touch of my finger.
Just after the room of blues and yellows is a welcome transition to some works by Keifer that I had never seen before. Subtle and simple nudes, all of which are from sketch books. There are no lead books, or crumbling landscapes, just delicately painted bodies that look soft to the touch.
This exhibition is on until the 14th December at the Royal Academy or Arts.
One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art
Tactically, conceptualism is no doubt the strongest position of the three; for the tired nominalist can lapse into conceptualism and still allay his puritanic conscience with the reflection that he has not quite taken to eating lotus with the Platonists.
Philosophers often add “-ism” to a term in order to highlight a distinct approach to a fundamental question, that is, to name a philosophical doctrine. For example, when it comes to universals, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that “Conceptualism is a doctrine in philosophy intermediate between nominalism and realism that says universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.”2 There are other definitions, but the point about the use of “-ism” to name a philosophical doctrine is clear. For art critics, curators, and historians, however, “-isms” have somewhat different purposes: they name movements in art, broadly shared approaches that have become styles or threaten to do so. During the heroic years of the modern movement, when critics, artists, or art historians first added “-ism” to a word, they usually meant what the suffix usually means in ordinary language: that x is like y, even excessively so. Often with ridicule as their aim, they highlighted a quality twice removed from the source of that particular art, from its authenticity. Thus “Impressionism” and “Cubism,” neither of which names what is really going on in the art to which it refers: each takes up a banal misdescription and then exaggerates it into a ludicrous delusion on the part of the artists. The success of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes led to a plethora of “-isms” that gradually lost these negative connotations and become almost normal descriptors. By mid-century, anyone could generate an “-ism,” and too many artists did so in their efforts to link their unique, often quite individual ways of making art to what they, or their promoters, hoped would be market success and art historical inevitability. When Willem de Kooning, at a meeting of artists in New York in 1951, said: “It is disastrous to name ourselves,” his was a lone voice, quickly silenced by the tide that named all present Abstract Expressionists.
By the 1960s this kind of naming had become so commonplace, so obvious a move, and such a sure pathway to premature institutionalization and incorporation, that many artists rejected it, to avoid being comfortably slotted into what they regarded as an ossified history of modernist avant-gardism. In the 1970s, for example, artists driven primarily by political concerns consciously blocked efforts to designate their work as belonging to a “political art” movement. Yet for some artists, long excluded from any kind of historical recognition, this was a risk worth taking: feminist artists emphasized their feminism, for instance, precisely because it connected their practice to the broader social movement to vindicate the rights of women.
As the artists most acutely aware of the powers and the pitfalls of exactly these processes, conceptual artists refused to embrace the term “conceptualism” during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They were, however, happy to use terms such as “conceptual” for their work, because questioning the concept of art was precisely the main point of their practice. As we shall see, they foresaw that the tag “Conceptual Art” would inevitably be associated with their work, and thus tie it too closely to art that had already resolved its problems. Their goal was to keep their art (practice) problematic to themselves by keeping it at a (critical) distance from Art (as an institution). They therefore sought to prevent the precipitous labeling of their art by adopting one or both of two strategies: insist that the term “conceptual” be applied so broadly (describing any art no longer governed by a traditional medium) as to be meaningless, or so narrowly (indicating only language-based art that dealt with Art per se) as to be offensive to almost everyone.
Art and Language, Art and Language Australia, 1975.
It is a nice paradox that the term “conceptualism” came into art world existence after the advent of Conceptual art in major centers such as New York and London—most prominently and programmatically in the exhibition “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999—mainly in order to highlight the fact that innovative, experimental art practices occurred in the Soviet Union, Japan, South America, and elsewhere prior to, at the same time as, and after the European and US initiatives that had come to seem paradigmatic, and to claim that these practices were more socially and politically engaged—and thus more relevant to their present, better models for today’s art, and, in these senses, better art—than the well-known Euro-American exemplars. I explored a variant of this idea—that conceptualism was an outcome of some artists’ increased global mobility—in my selections for the “Global Conceptualism” exhibition, and in my catalogue essay, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand.”3 Retrospection of this kind has also shone spotlights on what were once regarded as minor movements in Euro-American art (Fluxus, for example).
The question posed by the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980,” presented at the University of Toronto Art Galleries in 2010, is whether a similar valuing structure might be applied to certain strands in art made in Canada from the 1960s to the present. Even though Canadian artists were conspicuously absent from “Global Conceptualism,” certain artists have since been valued as contributors to the international tendency. Thus the exhibition asks us to look in more detail at work of the time made throughout the regions of Canada and consider whether perhaps this valuing can be extended to them. There is no suggestion that this art was nationalistic—on the contrary, it was everywhere based on skepticism about official national culture-construction. The implication is that regional conceptualisms existed—that is, that conceptualist developments (in the broadest sense) occurred differently in each of the distinct regions of Canada. Again, the implication is skeptical: in every case it is about regionality in transition, not a self-satisfied parochialism.
Triggered by remarks made by some of the key artists back in the day, I wish to revisit the terms “Conceptual art” and “conceptualism” as indications of what was at stake in the unraveling of late modern art during the 1960s and in art’s embrace of contemporaneity since. I will do so by asking what conceptualism was before, during, and after Conceptual art, and I will show that there were at least one, usually two, and sometimes three conceptions of conceptualism in play at each moment—and that these were in play, differently although connectedly, in various places, at each of these times.
Josef Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea (Meaning), 1967. Photostat on paper mounted on wood.
Pop or Conceptual? Or both and neither?
Let me begin with the question as seen from within orthodox art historical narratives, as a matter of the meaning of style, a concern of art historians. I start from before Conceptual art was named as a style, before the term “conceptualism” had any currency, to see what might count as Conceptual art in that circumstance.
Ian Burn, in conversation in late 1972, said of Joseph Kosuth’s Art as Idea works: “If they were made in 1965 like he claims, they are Pop Art. If they were made in 1967–8, when they were exhibited, then they are among the first conceptual works, strictly speaking.” In his 1970 essay “Conceptual Art as Art,” Burn gave these works this latter dating and characterized them as key examples of the “strict form of Conceptual Art” because they were analytic of the nature of art, their (minimal) appearance being of the most minimal relevance.4 Why did an artist with such a critical attitude toward orthodox art history’s puerile dependence on style terms apply such crude criteria to the work of a close colleague?5
Kosuth’s response was outrage at applying such anti-conceptual criteria to such work: he was an art student who had the ideas but not the resources to realize them; by the time he did have these resources a few years later, everyone (including Burn) was dating their work to the moment of conception—immediacy was the new currency.6
Josef Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.
In one sense Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) is Pop-like in that its statement about what constitutes a sign is all there, all at once, and obvious, as in your face as Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, but without the fascinated irony that informs the British artist’s perspective. To an observer outside the US sphere of cultural influence—or, more accurately, at its waxing and waning borders—One and Three Chairs might seem to offer viewers an open choice as to which item seems the most attractive constituent of “chairness,” thereby reducing spectatorship to supermarketlike art consumption, and artmaking to the provision of competitive goods.7 To the extent that this is true, Conceptual art that turns on overt demonstration or the instantiation of an idea (as does much of the better known and easily illustrated work—think Baldessari, Acconci, or Huebler) shares something with what might be called ordinary language Pop art, that which recycles the visual codes of consumer culture.
But the matter does not end there. In my view, the invitation to look in One and Three Chairs is at least as subtle as it is in key works on this subject by Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol in its conceptual questioning of what it is to see, what an image might be, what an idea looks like. These artists regularly juxtaposed photographs and objects such as actual chairs (in Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim, for example), or evoked black-and-white photography and overtly displayed the tools that made them (Johns’s Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, for example). Warhol’s Dance Diagram (“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”), 1963, is an appropriation of an illustration, but it is also a demonstration of what constitutes a visual sign, especially when displayed, as he preferred, on the floor. Indeed, Warhol now seems the most nakedly conceptual of artists (in this pre-Conceptual art moment), precisely in his instinct for setting out one visual idea at a time, in showing an image as an idea, in making artworks that plainly demonstrated how visual ideas achieved appearance in the culture, in the visual culture, in popular imagination, in unArt, in America. The idea-image, for him, was in David Antin’s brilliant perception, a “deteriorated image.”8
There were of course many others striving to picture the many dichotomies afforded by the idea-image interplay that was taking shape at the time: a random list must include Guy Debord, with his films such as Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and his collaborations with Asger Jorn; concrete poets of all kinds; Jim Dine; Kaprow, with his early happenings; Ed Ruscha; and many others, all of whom converge with Pop in certain ways, although they, like the artists mentioned above, were on a track much more interesting than that which can be encompassed by that term. In Canada, Greg Curnoe’s work throughout the 1960s offers a fascinating instance of a figurative painter, alert to the stylistics of Pop and flat color abstraction, yet, like Kurt Schwitters, drawn irresistibly to the potency of words and texts as they occur in the flow and stuff of everyday life. Add to this a Wittgensteinian consciousness that we are all products of our language-worlds, and an interesting outcome is assured. Thus, in Westing House Workers (1962), the names of a group of laborers are stamped out on a sheet that seems taken from a factory cafeteria notice board, while Row of Words on My Mind #1 (1962) stamps out a set of names of people, things, promises, and so forth, that seem as random as anyone’s everyday ruminations. By 1967, however, Curnoe had evidently seen tautology-based conceptualism (either through reproductions or via the agency of Greg Ferguson): Front Center Windows (1967) is a blue vertical rectangle stamped with black letters that describe a façade in the language of a builder’s report, while Non-Figurative Picture (1968) is a vertical column stamped with the letters of the alphabet.
These examples tell us that the question “Is it Pop or Conceptual art?” is at best a provocation (as it was for Burn), and at worst a badly formulated misunderstanding of the deeper stakes of both kinds of work. Rather, we can see that various kinds of conceptualization inspired the most inventive artists of the late modern era, and that the conceptual qualities of their work were among its most important. This is the first, the most rooted, sense in which the three ideas of what it is for art to be conceptual could count as one idea: the term “conceptual” as an adjective is most fitting to this sense. Quite properly, this basic usage precedes any real usage of the terms “conceptualism” and “Conceptual art” in art discourse, as these are derivative from it. It permits us this proposition, the first part of a proposal that I advance—with full awareness of how paradoxical a gesture it is—as “a theory of conceptualism”:
1. At its various beginnings, conceptualism was a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible).9
Dan Graham, March 31, 1966.
A work of art becomes consequential when it counts as art
It is lazy-mindedness to say that all art that evidently reflects on its own medium, that does so in ways unusual enough to raise the question “Is this art?,” qualifies as conceptual. There is a widespread sense, in today’s sloppy art babble, that any art that has resulted from the artist having any kind of idea is “conceptual.” Not so. You have to show that particular works, or groups of works, or a set of protocols, or a practice did these things consciously as opposed to by instinct, intelligently as distinct from intuitively, and did so effectively, with impact, with consequence.
On a number of occasions in conversation, Joseph Kosuth has pooh-poohed as pure pedantry my referencing Henry Flynt’s use of the term “Concept Art” in 1961, despite the fact that it is the first documented usage in an art context.10 “Who was this Flynt? A nobody. Who heard him, who knew of him, who cared what he said? So what if some thirteenth-century Chinese painter threw ink around in ways that look Pollock-like, or that Max Ernst did?” To Kosuth, what counts is not who said what when as a matter of plain record, or what was done in some isolated, adventitious circumstance, but whether the utterance, the work, the proposition counted in the dominant art discourse of the time. This alerts us to the internal struggle, among artists, critics, and theorists—that is, within art discourse itself—as to what was at stake in Conceptual art and conceptualism as practices of art.
Thus Kosuth’s famous statement, in “Art After Philosophy,” that “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually” is not to be taken to mean that all art influenced by Duchampian strategies is conceptual, and that other art is some other kind of art. It means that only Duchampian art is truly art, and that other art is not art precisely because it does not take on the challenge of framing new propositions about art and as art.11
From this perspective, Robert Morris has a much stronger claim to consequence in works such as Card File (1962): these overtly pit the complexity of his actual life and self against the limited information contained in official descriptions of a person. Two Untitled works of 1962 (recently added to MoMA’s collection) are nothing more, but no less, than grey gouache painted over sheets of newspaper to the point of nearly obliterating the images and text. But did Morris go on with this particular line of inquiry? A short answer would be that it became one of the many lines that he has since pursued, but a longer answer is needed to do justice to such a profound oeuvre.12
Robert Morris, Card File, 1962.
In Poland, Roman Opałka began his “infinity” paintings in 1965, sizing them to his studio doorway, beside which he has had himself photographed as each one is completed. On Kawara began traveling the world and sending daily postcards in 1959, then started making a date painting every day in 1966, and two years later embarked on the production of hisOne-Hundred Year Calendar that lists everyone he meets each day. Examples of such total commitment to applying a routine to a life, knowing that the two are fundamentally incompatible, abound. They may be found all over the world during this period, and are constantly being taken up nowadays by young artists (Emese Benczúr, for example). I think that we are getting close to the core of conceptualism worthy of the name, and to the basis of its appeal to serious young artists today: it is something to do with rigor, without cause, and with implacable commitment in the face of meaninglessness. So, in retrospect, it is no surprise that such a spirit should emerge from within the conflicted confusions of the mid- and later 1960s.
Sol LeWitt’s statement, in his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” is famous:
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.13
This seems clear to the point of being classical (indeed, the last sentence is one of the epigrams to “Art After Philosophy”). But we need to ask: what did LeWitt mean by “the idea or concept”? If one examines closely the nature of these paragraphs, as an artist’s statement—that is, if you put them back into the context of his own practice and see them as first and foremost a statement of the principles governing that practice (not all possible practice, not the practice most desired of all artists from now on)—then it becomes obvious that what LeWitt meant by an idea was a geometrical figure, and what he meant by a concept was a procedure for carrying out the realization of this idea, for example, as a singularity or as a specified sequence.
If, however, you read closely the 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” [copies of the handwritten and corrected versions of 1968 have recently come to light], you are immediately thrown into the paradox just mentioned:
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.
3. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.14
The contrast between rationality and mysticism is weak, and soon disappears. More important is that here we can see awareness of the reach but also the limits of ideas and concepts narrowly defined. It is their potential to create chaos, disorder, and revolution that comes to be valued, thus the peculiar poignancy of the proposals from visiting artists—to be realized by students, and, occasionally, the artists themselves—in David Askevold’s Projects Class at NSCAD from 1969 forward. The postcards of the instructions, shown in the “Traffic” exhibition, are exquisite mementoes of each artist’s unique, distinctive mode of thought. More generally, objectivity was not the point: rather, rationality had to be shown to be crazy by being enacted literally; the Organization Man was nuts, viz. General Idea, Pilot (1977).
Let us return to One and Three Chairs and see whether it meets these deeper criteria—Kosuth’s own—of what counts as conceptual. In the most immediate sense, it looks like a simple demonstration. Signified + signifier = sign. All there, all at once. A rose is a rose is a rose. But there are two signifiers, after all, which open up a space of ambiguity (which may be closed again when we read the work as an illustration of Plato’s three stages of knowledge). The project becomes more interesting when we realize that other chairs could be used under the same title, and other objects—for example, a shovel, à la Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, an authorized replica of which is owned by Kosuth. The point is that One and Three Chairs is not a one-off, singular visual statement: it is an instantiation of a proposition that may be realized using any matching set of elements. Like many other works conceived at the time, it is an exemplification of an act of thought. Kosuth’s “Art as Idea” series seems to be a set of tautological objects: actually, they are visual propositions about themselves as signifying instances, presented as Art (or Art as Idea as Idea)—on the post–Ad Reinhardt grounds that that is all that art, in conscience, at this time, can be.15
A step forward was to take stated propositions as thesaural, which opens out their closure, their two-way tautology, as Kosuth did when he placed thesaural categories in newspapers in his Second Investigation (1968–9). In a parallel way Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting, made in 1967 in London en route to New York, becomes a comment on the limits of painting as a practice. Such questioning could be consequential: it released artists elsewhere in the world to begin an interrogative practice. For example, Robert MacPherson in the 1970s in Brisbane deployed this strategy to appropriate ordinary language use—in his case, roadside signs. So did Greg Curnoe, in his banner paintings of the 1980s.
Propositionality—its apparently categorical force, but also its materiality and its provisionality—is what language-based conceptualism recurs to: it is its core, from which it opens out again. First this is understood spatially (sculpture is residual here), as in Dan Graham’s March 31, 1966, a description that evokes a spatial zooming beyond spatiality. (His Schema for Aspen magazine, and for the first issue of Art-Language, is his masterwork). Then it is understood as a phenomenon of perception (painting is residual here), as in Ian Burn’s No Object Implies the Existence of Any Other (1967). This is, in fact, a thought that is impossible to have in a literal sense: you cannot think the idea of an object not implying another object without thinking about at least two objects, one and an other; in front of an object made to be seen by an other (us), consisting of a statement on a mirror that cannot but show you yourself and other objects. (That is, it demonstrates the rest of Hobbes’s statement, “…that is, if we consider these objects in themselves and never look beyond the ideas that inform them.”) Yoko Ono was closer to Hobbes in her 1961 “proposal”: Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through. Burn’s Xerox Book (1968) is more resolute: it embodies the idea of a tautological process.
Yoko Ono, Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through, 1966.
LeWitt’s 35th and last sentence read: “These sentences comment on art, but are not art.” The editorial to the first issue of Art-Language, in which these sentences appeared in 1969, asked itself the question, “What would follow [for the art community of language users] if this editorial itself came up for the count as a work of art?”
It is these innovations that allow us to recognize the second proposition in my theory of conceptualism:
2. That, as well as being a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible), conceptualism was also a further integrated set of practices for interrogating the conditions under which the first interrogation becomes possible and necessary (that is, an inquiry into the maximal conditions for art to be thought).
Martha Wilson, Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971.
Conceptual Art Arrives
Conceptual Art arrives as a paradoxical supplement, and art-institutional instantiation, of the interaction between these two approaches. By 1970 we were well inside an art movement, as evidenced by the number of books, exhibitions, articles, and so forth, with Idea Art, Konzept Kunst, and so on, in their titles. This includes Lucy Lippard’s exhibitions and the Six Years book, as well as exhibitions such as “45°30′N-73°36′W + Inventory,” presented in Montreal in 1971 by Gary Coward with Arthur Bardo and Bill Vazan.
Common consensus now is that the full-glare moment of art-world and public recognition was the 1970 exhibition “Conceptual Art, Conceptual Aspects,” curated by Donald Karshan at the New York Cultural Center (with Kosuth and Burn as “ghost curators”). Note that the double has already appeared: yes, there is core Conceptual art, but there is also art that has some conceptual qualities (“aspects”), that is, there is also conceptualist art.
But there was, by 1971, a big shift under way within the movement itself, leading to the third element of my theory:
3. The conditions—social, languaged, cultural, and political—of practices (1) and (2) were problematized, as was communicative exchange as such (that is, inquiry became an active engagement in the pragmatic conditions that might generate a defeasible sociality).
Put more simply, if Art & Language’s self-critique was at the core of conceptualism at this time (as in the indexing projects such as Index 01, 1972, at documenta 5), other artists were taking up these analytical procedures and applying them to real-life situations. Obviously, this occurred differently in different places, and differently again for artists in transit between them. Well-known examples are Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et. al (1971) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–9). Less known are Martha Wilson’s Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971: these are an extraordinary application of nominative generalities to life situations so as to bring out the absurd gap between the two, and the power structures built into them. For instance, Unknown Piece has this instruction: “A woman is prevented from knowing the identity of her partner (sleeping pill, blindfold, total darkness) with certainty. On the evidence the child’s features give her, she guesses who she slept with.” Determined Piece: “A woman selects a couple for the genetic features she admires (good teeth, curly hair, green eyes, etc.) and raises their baby.” Chauvinistic Piece: “A man is injected with the hormones that produce symptoms of motherhood.” It is as if the 1960s, far from being the moment of free love and so forth, was already organized along the lines of Plato’sRepublic.16
Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé, It’s Still Privileged Art, 1976. Comic book.
Transformations occurred within Art & Language, such that its work joined the third sense I have identified. We realized that our extreme adoption of avant-garde strategies was belated, was infused with a sense that we were being avant-gardists after the death of the form. When Allan Kaprow invited me to lecture at CalArts in 1974, he introduced me as “a living dinosaur, an actual avant-gardist.” Thus we moved to embed our practice in the world, starting with ourselves as actors in the art world.17Blurting in A&L (1973) enables readers to enter a conversation and shape it according to their own preferences; Draft for an Anti-Textbook was a 1974 issue of Art-Language that, among other things, took on provincialism in theory; the exhibitions recorded in Art & Language Australia (1975) did so in practice. The three issues of The Fox (1975–6) constitute the group’s most direct assault on the modernist art world. Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, and I continued this kind of work in Australia when we returned in the mid-1970s, creating an Art & Working Life movement that persists, in a dispersed fashion, to this day.18 Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé’s comic book It’s Still Privileged Art (1976) was based on Maoist practices of constant self-criticism; the Cultural Revolution comes to the New York art world (we saw a lot of these publications in Chinatown).19 I cannot overstress how important critical conceptualism was for the success of work with trade unions and dissident groups in Australia, Toronto, and elsewhere, and how important this particular commitment to consequence remains for subsequent artists of major caliber (such as Jeff Wall and Allan Sekula), as well as for the hundreds of artist collectives that operate all over the world today with this kind of work as part of their inspirational armory.
Conceptualism Already Redux
Now we arrive at the moment after conceptual art, when “conceptualism” appeared as a term in art discourse. Let us examine it from the point of view of the “theory” I have advanced. The key question will be: are we looking at delayed, or belated, or simply particular, peculiar, and other instances of (1) and (2), a local instance of (3), or is this a fourth sense/term/proposition that must be added to the three so far advanced? My answer will be: yes, no, and yes. One and three ideas, non-contemporaneously and contemporaneously, again. I will explore two cases among the many that arose during these years all over the world.
When Boris Groys coined the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” in 1979, he created a verbal artifact that, I believe, attempted to stand at the same kind of critical (ironic yet implicated) distance from international art discourse, and to its own circumstances of production, as he understood the art itself to be. Writing for readers in Russia (knowing that the circulation of his essay there would be clandestine), and for readers in France, who would presumably read it in English, he wanted to draw attention to how deeply embedded this kind of work was in the specific conditions of what it was to make “apartment art” in Moscow, to the awkward, embattled, ironic inwardness of the work (the artists wished to be anywhere but Moscow, but could not be). Similarly, in a society that ignored or repressed them, and was condemned to the skeptical resignation that filled “the Russian soul” like a lead balloon, the artists could only dream of being regarded as paragons of heightened subjectivism like the German and English Romantics. But dream they did—and why not; dreams are cheap. Finally, their art stood at a deliberate distance from the concerns and character of US and European Conceptual art as we have discussed it. Thus, by “Conceptualism” Groys meant that this art was like such art in its self-reflective character, but in reverse, precisely in its deliberate effort to be intuitive, allusive, affective—that is, nonconceptual. In other words, each term within Groys’s label had its opposite built into it—thus its acuity, as an art critical artifact.
In the 1979 issue of A-YA, the English translation of Groys’s essay had some oddities. It offers two definitions, the first of which states that “The word ‘conceptualism’ may be understood in the narrower sense as designating a specific artistic movement clearly limited to place, time and origin.”20 The revised translation in History Becomes Form adds the phrase “and limited to a specific number of practitioners” to this sentence.21 The reference here is to US and European Conceptual art. The second definition is this:
Or, it may be interpreted more broadly, by referring to any attempt to withdraw from considering art works as material objects intended for contemplation and aesthetic evaluation. Instead, it could encourage solicitation and formation of the conditions that determine the viewer’s perception of the work of art, the process of its inception by the artist, its relation to factors in the environment, and its temporal status.22
The recent translation changes the last two ideas to “its positioning in a certain context, and its historical status.” This ties the description more closely to the Moscow group, and to art concerned with art, but it remains rather general.
“Romantic” got dropped from the term in the years after 1989, when this art (as distinct from the modernist, informal, protest art) began to be read as a prefiguration of the collapse of the Soviet system, and as the basis for all subsequent art in Russia of any seriousness. Groys’s pragmatism enables us to see other artists carrying on the spirit of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists, albeit in equally unorthodox ways. His key exemplars are Andrei Monastyrsky and the Collective Actions group, which dedicated itself to actions that heightened the specificity of everyday life while remaining, at the same time, scarcely distinguishable from it. The Medical Hermeneutics group made “work” from speculation about whether such actions were art or life.
To me, the real parallels in work such as Ilya Kabakov’s Answers of the Experimental Group(1971)—the originary moment of “Moscow Conceptualism,” according to Matthew Jesse Jackson—are with the interrogatory nature of the late 1950s / early 1960s work of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, which I have suggested is conceptual in the broad sense of the term.23 More precisely, it accords with my first proposition above, that conceptualism was, at its various beginnings, a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world, and the minimal situations in which art might be possible. Moscow Conceptualism is not consonant with my second proposition, exemplified by the Adornoesque negative criticality of Kosuth et al., yet it is in quite specific ways an instance of the third. The fact that it was produced after the institutionalization of Conceptual art means that one element in its makeup was a refusal of such art, a sense that adopting its modes would be irrelevant to local concerns and to local audiences. I do not see any artist working in the Soviet sphere as producing classical Conceptual art—indeed, there is no reason to expect that any one would wish to do so. On the other hand, groups such as Collective Actions and Medical Hermeneutics and a number of individual artists were, in the 1970s and 1980s, making art in a context where they were aware of conceptual art before and during Conceptual art, and were contemporaries with conceptualist art after it, so they made their choices accordingly. Again, the work emerges out of the concerns expressed in my third proposition. If parallels have to be found, it is closest to Fluxus in Europe.
In his otherwise excellent survey, Jackson never questions the term “Moscow Conceptualism.” There are, however, extensive discussions of it, along with a range of other terms that were in use at the time and that have been developed since, in the new book edited by Alla Rosenfeld, Moscow Conceptualism in Context.24 The most detailed account is “The Banner Without a Slogan: Definitions and Sources of Moscow Conceptualism” by Marek Bartelik, who concludes a useful survey by warning us against the danger of those who would manage the politics of memory:
It is crucial, therefore, to assure that the history of the movement not be reduced to a few textbook names of artists at the expense of others who for some reason or another fell out of the picture. In other words, our history of Moscow Conceptualism should be inclusive rather than exclusive of as many artists as possible. After all, it was Moscow Conceptualism’s ethereal, dispersed, and fragmentary nature—as opposed to the official, solid, and permanent nature of Socialist Realism and its correlates—that helped its development and survival for more than twenty years, and that constitutes its unique value for today’s audiences in both Russia and the West.25
This is well meant, but it does not tackle the point about consequence. A similar politics of hope drove the curatorial project that has been most influential in defining the term “conceptualism” in art discourse in recent decades. In their foreword to Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss distinguish two periods, “two relatively distinct waves of activity”: the late 1950s to around 1973, during which time worldwide political changes led artists to call into question the underlying ideas of art and its institutional systems, and the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, when artists mostly outside Euro-America abandoned formalist or traditional art practices for conceptualist art.26 As they write:
It is important to delineate a clear distinction between conceptual art as a term used to denote an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of minimalism, and conceptualism, which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art upon physical form and its visual appreciation. Conceptualism was a broader attitudinal expression that summarized a wide array of works and practices which, in radically reducing the role of the art object, reimagined the possibilities of art vis-à-vis the social, political and economic realities within which it was being made. Its informality and affinity for collectivity made conceptualism attractive to those artists who yearned for a more direct engagement with the public during those intense, transformative periods. For them, the de-emphasis—or the dematerialization—of the object allowed the artistic energies to move from the object to the conduct of art.27
Luis Camnitzer, Uruguayan Torture Series, 1983–4.
The implication is that Euro-American style Conceptual art—even as it came to dominate understandings of what counted as conceptual art—amounted to little more than an essentially formalist critique of minimalism. It was an internal art world style change, whereas conceptualist tendencies elsewhere were always broader, more social and political, and became more so as time went on, eventually eclipsing Euro-American tendencies. Works by Camnitzer, such as his Uruguayan Torture Series (1983–4), give some substance to this view.28 While in general I support this openness, especially as we come closer to the present, we must also be watchful that it does not lapse into a kind of reverse reductivism, one that downplays the internal complexities of Euro-American conceptualism and fails to see its progressive transformations, as suggested by my propositions.
The “Global Conceptualism” curators did espouse a critical geopolitics, noting that the changes within conceptualism occurred most significantly on local levels: “the reading of ‘globalism’ that informs this project is a highly differentiated one, in which localities are linked in crucial ways but not subsumed into a homogenized set of circumstances and responses to them. We mean to denote a multicentered map with various points of origin in which local events are crucial determinants.”29 A number of interesting alternative terms appear in the essays, including “Non-object art,” applied to Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés by Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar in 1959, and “Post-Object Art,” used by aesthetician and sculptor Donald Brook in Sydney in 1968–9. Curators from all over the world were invited to mount mini-exhibitions of art that would meet this understanding of conceptualism. Margarita Tupitsyn argued that in Russia two tendencies—Kabakovian “stylelessness” and Sots Art (Soviet kitsch into high art)—combined to generate a word-image interplay that was uniquely inflected by its peculiarly Soviet context.30
In some of these situations, it may be that “conceptualism” works as a substitute for what I believe the artists involved were—and remain—primarily concerned about: as Reiko Tomii demonstrates in the case of Japan, they sought recognition of their contemporaneity with the Euro-American artists, and even of their precedence in some cases.31 Given that Conceptual art was the most radical, avant-garde, innovative, and consequential-seeming art of the time and has retained much of that aura since, they wanted to expand its definition to include themselves. On the most obvious level of simple fairness, they want to be seen to have been contemporary. This, I suggest, is actually more important to many of those involved than whether or not their art was, or may now be seen to be, conceptual.
From the perspective of the broad historical account that I am developing in my work at the moment, I see these artists as wishing to be acknowledged as equally important innovators within the worldwide shift from late modern to contemporary art.32 In this sense, they are right to seek such acknowledgment. However, like all claims for consequence, it comes with responsibilities.
Mel Ramsden described Conceptual art as “like Modernism’s nervous breakdown.”33 A more parochial way of putting it was “Clement Greenberg’s nightmare” (although that had already happened, when Frank Stella showed his black paintings in 1959, and MoMA exhibited them soon after). Michael Fried’s nightmare, then. From my perspective, these intense disputations are all indicative of the moment in which late modern art became contemporary, that is, it was obliged to change fundamentally as part of the general transformation of modernity into our current condition, in which the contemporaneity of difference, not our declining modernity or passé postmodernity, is definitive of experience.
Clearly, there is a spirit of openhandedness in post-conceptual art uses of the term “Conceptualism.” We can now endow it with a capital letter because it has grown in scale from its initial designation of an avant-garde grouping, or various groups in various places, and has evolved in two further phases. It became something like a movement, on par with and evolving at the same time as Minimalism. Thus the sense it has in a book such as Tony Godfrey’s Conceptual Art.34 Beyond that, it has in recent years spread to become a tendency, a resonance within art practice that is nearly ubiquitous. Thus the widespread use of terms such as “postconceptual” as a prefix to painting such as that of Gerhard Richter and photography such as that of Andreas Gursky. And the appeal for inclusiveness cited earlier, as well as the nearly universal use of “conceptual” for any art based on any kind of idea (as distinct from it issuing from instinct, taste, or the materials).
Joseph Kosuth, Clock (One and Five), 1965. Clock, photograph and printed texts.
But inclusiveness, however desirable, does not mean that everyone was, and is, making the same kind of art, nor that they did so, or are doing so now, with the same degree of consequence. If we want to address critically the contemporary ubiquity of the idea that “After Conceptual art, all art is conceptual” (of course echoing Kosuth on Duchamp in 1969, but in a bland, generalizing fashion), we could do worse than contrast a piece by Kosuth,One and Five (Clock) (1965) (in the Tate collection, London), with a celebrated work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987–90). We can see in retrospect that Kosuth is searching for his “Art as Idea” format; he had not quite settled on the absolute tautology that drives it in the classic three-part presentations with which we are familiar. Instead, he lines up a photograph, an object, and a set of definitions that display the conceptual architecture of clock-time, arraying it across its pictorial, mechanical, and linguistic aspects. One thing after another, Judd-like, in a row, minimally. Five ways of shaping time are displayed. The printed definition of “time” is front and center, and is flanked on one side by an actual clock ticking time along and away, and by a photograph that will forever freeze the time shown on the clock it recorded but which will, being printed on paper, itself fade. On the other side are printed definitions of “mechanization” and of “object,” concepts that elaborate the contexts of both the clock and the camera. The idea world of clock-time is being probed, its relevant concepts being assembled almost spatially. This is conceptualism just before it becomes Conceptual art, the quest before the rigor sets in.
If, in regard to Pop art and Euro-American conceptualism, we are, as Boris Groys has remarked, looking at art that presumes a society built on freedom of choice (however apparent, spectacularized, and ultimately consumerist it may be), for the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists the very idea of having a choice was but a dream (yet impossibility is precisely what occasions dreams). This, too, but very differently, is the point of “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). The only “choice” for lovers in a time of AIDS was about the manner in which they died—including whether they died together, as comrades of a dying time.
Consequence counts differently at different times, in different places. This, above all, is what we need to keep in mind when we puzzle over what was at stake in art when it was made, and what we need to look for in art that is being made now.
These remarks combine elements from three recent lectures. The first was delivered on November 27, 2010, at the conference organized by Barbara Fischer, director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, in association with the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptualism in Canada,” shown at the University of Toronto Galleries during the preceding months. The second, dedicated to the memory of Charles Harrison, was delivered at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, on March 8, 2011, as part of a series on Global Conceptualism organized by Sarah Wilson and Boris Groys. The third was presented on April 14, 2011, as part of a conference titled “Revisiting Conceptual Art: The Russian Case in an International Context,” convened by Boris Groys and organized by the Stella Art Foundation, Moscow. I would like to thank all those concerned.
By way of an introduction to this issue of e-flux journal, I would like to discuss the changes in our understanding and perception of art engendered by conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing not on the history of conceptual art or individual works, but rather on the ways in which the legacy of these practices remains relevant for us today.
I would argue that from today’s perspective, the biggest change that conceptualism brought about is this: after conceptualism we can no longer see art primarily as the production and exhibition of individual things—even readymades. However, this does not mean that conceptual or post-conceptual art became somehow “immaterial.” Conceptual artists shifted the emphasis of artmaking away from static, individual objects toward the presentation of new relationships in space and time. These relationships could be purely spatial, but also logical and political. They could be relationships among things, texts, and photo-documents, but could also involve performances, happenings, films, and videos—all of which were shown inside the same installation space. In other words, conceptual art can be characterized as installation art—as a shift from the exhibition space presenting individual, disconnected objects to a holistic exhibition space in which the relations between objects are the basis of the artwork.
One can say that objects and events are organized by an installation space like individual words and verbs are organized by a sentence. We all know the substantial role that the “linguistic turn” played in the emergence and development of conceptual art. Among other currents, the influence of Wittgenstein and French Structuralism on conceptual art practice was decisive. This influence of philosophy and later of so-called theory on conceptual art cannot be reduced to the substitution of textual material for visual content—nor to the legitimations of particular artworks by theoretical discourses. Rather that the installation space itself was reconceived by conceptual artists as a sentence conveying a certain meaning—in ways analogous to the use of sentences in language. Following a certain period of the dominance of a formalist understanding of art, with the appearance of conceptual art, artistic practice became meaningful and communicative again. Art began to make theoretical statements again, to communicate empirical experiences, to formulate ethical and political attitudes and to tell stories. Thus, rather than art beginning to use language, it began to be used as language—with a communicative and even educative purpose.
But this new orientation toward meaning and communication does not mean that art became somehow immaterial, that its materiality lost its relevance, or that its medium dissolved into message. The contrary is the case. Every art is material—and can be only material. The possibility of using concepts, projects, ideas and political messages in art was opened by the philosophers of the “linguistic turn” precisely because they asserted the material character of thinking itself. Thinking was understood by these philosophers as the operation and manipulation of language. And language was understood by them as thoroughly material—a combination of sounds and visual signs. Now the real, epoch-making achievement of conceptual art becomes clear: it demonstrated the equivalence, or at least a parallelism, between language and image, between the order of words and the order of things, the grammar of language and the grammar of visual space.
Jean-François de Troy, Lecture dans un salon, ca. 1728.
Of course, art was always communicative: it communicated images of the external world, the attitudes and emotions of artists, the specific cultural dispositions of its time, its own materiality and mediality and so forth. However, the communicative function of art was traditionally subjugated to its aesthetic function. Past art was judged primarily according to the criteria of beauty, sensual pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction—or calculated displeasure and aesthetic shock. Conceptual art established its practices beyond the dichotomy of aesthetics and anti-aesthetics—beyond sensual pleasure and sensual shock. This does not mean that conceptual art ignored the notion of form and concentrated itself exclusively upon content and meaning. But a reflection on form does not necessarily mean the subjugation let alone the obliteration of the content. We can speak about the elegant formulation of an idea—but by doing so we mean precisely that this formulation helps the idea to find an adequate and persuasive linguistic or visual presentation. On the contrary, a formulation that is so brilliant that it obliterates the idea is experienced by us not as beautiful but as clumsy. That is why conceptual art prefers clear, sober, minimalist forms—such forms better serve the communication of ideas. Conceptual art is interested in the problem of form not from the traditional perspective of aesthetics but from the perspective of poetics and rhetoric.
It makes sense to reflect for a moment upon this shift from aesthetics to poetics and rhetoric. The aesthetic attitude is basically that of the spectator. Aesthetics as a philosophical tradition and a university discipline relates to art and reflects upon art from the perspective of the art spectator—or one could also say from the perspective of the art consumer. Spectators mostly expect an aesthetic experience from art. Since the time of Kant, we know that this experience can be one of beauty or of the sublime. It can be an experience of sensual pleasure. But it can also be an anti-aesthetic experience of displeasure, or of frustration provoked by an artwork that lacks all the qualities which an affirmative aesthetics expects it to possess. It can be the experience of a utopian vision that could lead away from present conditions to a new society in which beauty reigns. Or, to formulate this differently, it could be a redistribution of the sensible, one that refigures the spectator’s terms of vision by showing certain things and giving access to certain voices that were previously concealed or obscured. But, because the commercialization of art already undermines any possible utopian perspective, it can also be a demonstration of the impossibility of positive aesthetic experience within a society based on oppression and exploitation. As we know, these seemingly contradictory aesthetic experiences can be equally enjoyable. However, to experience aesthetic enjoyment of any kind, a spectator has to be aesthetically educated. This education necessarily reflects the social and cultural milieus into which the spectator was born and in which he or she lives. In other words, an aesthetic attitude presupposes the subordination of art production to art consumption—and likewise, the subordination of artistic theory and practice to a sociological perspective.
Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, Bauhaus Building Block Set, circa 1923.
Indeed, from the aesthetic point of view, the artist is a supplier of aesthetic experiences, including those produced with the goal to frustrate or modify the viewer’s aesthetic sensibility. The subject of the aesthetic attitude is the master—the artist is the servant. Of course, the servant can and does manipulate the master, as Hegel convincingly demonstrated in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, but nevertheless, the servant remains the servant. This situation did not change much when the artist became a servant to the public at large, instead of being a servant under the patronage regimes of the Church or traditional autocratic powers. In previous periods, the artist was obliged to present “contents,” for example subjects, motives, narratives and so forth, that were dictated by religious faith or the interests of political power. Today, the artist is required to treat topics of public interest. Just as the Church and autocratic powers of yesteryear wanted their beliefs and interests to be represented by the artist, so today’s democratic public wants to find in art representations of the issues, topics, political controversies and social aspirations by which it is moved in everyday life. The politicization of art is often seen as an antidote to the purely aesthetic attitude that allegedly requires art to be merely beautiful. But in fact, the politicization of art can be easily combined with its aesthetic function—as far as both are seen from the perspective of the spectator, of the consumer. Clement Greenberg remarked long ago that an artist is best able to demonstrate his or her mastery and taste when the content of the artwork is prescribed by an external authority. Being liberated from the question “What should I do?” the artist can concentrate on the purely formal side of art—on the question “How should I do it?” This means: “How should I do it in such a way that certain contents become attractive and appealing (or maybe non-attractive, repulsive) to the aesthetic sensibilities of the public?” If the politicization of art is interpreted as “making certain political attitudes attractive (or maybe unattractive) for the public”—as is usually the case—then the politicization of art becomes completely subjected to aesthetic attitude. At the end, the goal becomes the packaging of certain political contents in an aesthetically attractive form. But aesthetic form loses its relevance in any act of real political engagement—and is discarded in the name of direct political practice. Then art functions as a political advertisement that becomes superfluous once it has achieved its goal.
In fact, this is only one of many examples that demonstrate why an aesthetic attitude becomes problematic if applied to the arts. Actually the aesthetic attitude does not need art—and functions much better without it. It is an old truism that all the wonders of art pale in comparison with the wonders of nature. In terms of aesthetic experience, no work of art can bear comparison with an even average sunset. And of course, the sublime aspects of nature and politics can only be fully experienced by witnessing a natural catastrophe, revolution or war—not by reading a novel or looking at a picture. This was the opinion shared by Kant and the Romantics who launched modern aesthetic discourse. The real world, they claimed, is the legitimate object of an aesthetic attitude (as well as of scientific and ethical attitudes)—not art. According to Kant, an artwork can become a legitimate object of aesthetic contemplation only as a work of genius, e.g. only as a manifestation of natural force operating unconsciously in and through man. Fine art can serve only as a preliminary means of education in taste and aesthetic judgment. After this education is completed, art, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, can be thrown away—to confront the subject with the aesthetic experience of life itself. Seen from an aesthetic perspective, art reveals itself as something that can and should be overcome. All things can be seen from an aesthetic perspective; all things can serve as sources of aesthetic experience and become objects of aesthetic judgment. From the perspective of aesthetics, art has no privileged position. Rather, art is something that posits itself between the subject of the aesthetic attitude and the world. However, the mature subject does not need any aesthetic tutelage via art—being able to rely on personal sensibility and taste. Aesthetic discourse, if used to legitimize art, de factoundermines it.
How, then, should one explain the fact that the discourse of aesthetics acquired such a dominant position during the period of modernity? The main reason for this is a statistical one. Artists were a social minority during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the founding period of aesthetic discourse—and spectators were in the majority. The question of why one might make art seemed irrelevant—artists made art to earn their living. This seemed an adequate explanation for the existence of the arts. The problem was why other people should look at art. The answer was: to form their taste and develop their aesthetic sensibility. Art was a school for the gaze and other senses. The social division between artists and spectators seemed to be firmly established: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude—artworks produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century, this simple dichotomy began to collapse.
The picture phone.
Today, contemporary networks of communication like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer global populations the possibility of presenting their photos, videos and texts juxtaposed in ways that cannot be distinguished from those of many post-conceptualist artworks. The visual grammar of a website is not too different from the grammar of an installation space. Through the internet, conceptual art today has become a mass cultural practice. Walter Benjamin famously remarked that the masses easily accepted montage in film—even if they had difficulties accepting collage in Cubist paintings. The new medium of film made artistic devices acceptable that remained problematic in the old medium of painting. The same can be said for conceptual art: even people having difficulties accepting conceptual and post-conceptual installation art, have no difficulties in using the internet.
But is it legitimate to characterize self-presentation on the internet, involving hundreds of millions of people all around the world, as an artistic practice?
Cyberia, Britain’s first internet cafe. Photo: Andy Hall/Observer.
Conceptual art can be also characterized as an art that repeatedly asked the question “what is art?” Art and Language, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys and many others that we tend to situate today inside the frame of an expanded conceptualism asked and answered this question in very different ways. One can also ask this question from an aesthetic perspective. What now would we be ready to identify as art, and under which conditions; what kinds of objects do we recognize as artworks and what kinds of spaces are recognized by us as art spaces? But we could abandon this passive, contemplative attitude and ask a different question: what does it mean to become actively involved in art? Or in other words, what does it mean to become an artist?
Speaking in Hegelian terms, the traditional aesthetic attitude remains situated on the level of consciousness—on the level of our ability to see and appreciate the world aesthetically. But this attitude does not reach the level of self-consciousness. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel points out that self-consciousness does not emerge as an effect of passive self-observation. We become aware of our own existence, our own subjectivity, when we are endangered by another subjectivity—through struggle, in conflict, in the situation of existential risk taking that could lead to death. Now, analogously, we can speak of an “aesthetic self-consciousness” that emerges, not when we look at a world populated by others, but when we begin to reflect upon our own exposure to the gaze of others. Artistic, poetic, rhetorical practice is none other than self-presentation to the gaze of the other, presupposing danger, conflict and risk of failure.
The feeling of almost permanent exposure to the gaze of the other is a very modern one, famously described by Michel Foucault as an effect of being under the panoptical observation of an external power. Throughout the twentieth century, an ever growing number of humans became objects of surveillance to a degree that was unthinkable at any earlier period of history. And practices of omnipresent, panoptical surveillance are increasing in our time at an even greater pace—the internet becoming the central medium of this surveillance. At the same time, the emergence and rapid development of global networks of visual media are creating a new global agora for self-presentation, political discussions and actions.
Political discussions in the ancient Greek agora presupposed the immediate living presence and visibility of its participants. Today everyone has to establish their own image, their own visible persona in the context of global visual media. We’re not just talking about the game “Second Life:” now everyone has to create a virtual avatar, an artificial double to begin to communicate and to act. The “First Life” of contemporary media function in the same way. Everyone who wants to go public, to begin to act in today’s international political agora has to create an individualized public persona. This requirement is relevant not only for the political and cultural elites. Today, more people are getting involved in active image production than in passive image contemplation.
This autopoietic practice can be easily be interpreted as a kind of commercial image making, brand development or trend-setting. There is no doubt that any public persona is also a commodity—and every gesture of going public serves the interests of numerous profiteers and potential shareholders. Following this line of argument, it’s easy to perceive any autopoietic gesture as a gesture of self-commodification—and, accordingly, to start a critique of autopoietic practice as a cover operation that is designed to conceal the social ambitions and economic interests of its protagonist. However the emergence of an aesthetic self-consciousness and autopoietic self-presentation is originally a reaction—a necessarily polemical and political reaction against the image that others, society, power have always already made of us. Every public persona is created primarily within a political battle and for this battle—for attack and protection, as sword and shield at the same time. Obviously, artists were always already professionals of self-exposure. But today the general population is also becoming more and more aesthetically self-conscious and getting more and more involved in this autopoietic practice.
General Idea, Light On, 1972.
Our contemporaneity is often characterized by the vague notion of an “aestheticization of life.” The commonplace usage of this notion is problematic in many ways. It suggests an attitude of aesthetic passivivity toward our society of the spectacle. But who is the subject of this attitude? Who is the spectator of the society of spectacle? It is not an artist—because the artist practices polemical self-presentation. It is not the masses because they are also involved—consciously or unconsciously—in autopoietic practices and have no time for pure contemplation. Such a subject could be only God—or a theoretician who took a divine position of pure contemplation after God was proclaimed dead. The notion of aesthetic self-consciousness and poetic, artistic practice must now be be secularized, purified of any theological overtones. Every act of aestheticization has its author. We always can and should ask the question: who aestheticizes—and to what purpose? The aesthetic field is not a space of peaceful contemplation—but a battlefield on which gazes clash and fight. The notion of the “aestheticization of life” suggests the subjugation of life under a certain form. But as I’ve already suggested, conceptual art taught us to see form as a poetic instrument of communication rather than an object of contemplation.
Ilya Kabakov, Noma, 1993. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.
So what is constituted and communicated in and through the artwork? It is not any objective, impersonal knowledge as constituted and communicated by science. In art subjectivity comes to self-awareness through self-exposure and communicates itself. That is why the figure of the artist manifests the inner contradictions of modern subjectivation in a paradigmatic way. Indeed, the transition from the divine gaze to surveillance by secular powers has produced a set of contradictory desires and aspirations within the heart of modern subjects. Modern societies are haunted by visions of total control and exposure—anti-utopian visions of an Orwellian type. Accordingly, modern subjects try to protect their bodies from total exposure and defend their privacy against the danger of this totalitarian surveillance. Subjects operating in socio-political space struggle permanently for their right of privacy—the right to keep their bodies hidden. On the other hand, even the most panoptical and total exposure to secular power is still less total than the exposure to the divine gaze. In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra the proclamation of the “death of God” is followed by a long lamentation about the loss of this spectator of our souls. If modern exposure seems excessive, it also seems insufficient. Of course, our culture makes great efforts to compensate for the loss of the divine spectator. But this compensation remains only partial. Every system of surveillance is too selective, it overlooks most of the things that it is supposed to see. Beyond that, the images that accumulate in such a system are mostly not really seen, analyzed or interpreted. The bureaucratic forms that register our identities are too primitive to produce interesting subjectivities. Accordingly, we remain only partially subjectified.
This condition of partial subjectivation engenders within us two contradictory aspirations: we are interested in retaining privacy, the reduction of surveillance, and the right to obscurity for our bodies and desires, but at the same time we aspire to a radicalized exposure that transgresses the limits of social control. I would argue that it is this radicalized subjectivation through acute self-exposure that is practiced by contemporary art. In this way exposure and subjectivation cease to be means of social control. Instead, self-exposure presupposes some degree of sovereignty over one’s own process of subjectivation. The arts of modernity have shown us different techniques of self-exposure, ones that exceed the usual practices of surveillance. They contain more self-discipline than is socially necessary (Malevich, Mondrian, American minimalism); more confessions of the hidden, ugly, or the obscure than are sought by the public. But contemporary art confronts us with even more numerous and nuanced strategies of self-subjectivation, which of internal necessity situate the artist in a contemporary political field. These strategies include not only different forms of political engagement but also all the possible manifestations of private hesitation, uncertainty and even despair that usually remain hidden beneath the public personae of standard political protagonists. A belief in the social role of the artist is combined here with a deep skepticism concerning the effectiveness of that role. This erasure of the line dividing public commitment from personal vicissitudes has become an important element of contemporary art practice. Here again the private becomes public—without any external pressure and/or enhanced surveillance.
Among other things, this means that art should not be theorized in sociological terms. Reference to the naturally given, hidden, invisible subjectivity of the artist should not be substituted by reference to his or her socially constructed identity—even if artistic practice is understood as the deconstruction of this identity. The subjectivity and identity of the artist do not precede artistic practice: they are the results and the products of this practice. Of course, self-subjectivation is a not a fully autonomous process. Rather, it depends on many factors, one of them being the expectations of the public. The public also knows that the social exposure of human bodies can be only partial, and therefore unreliable and untrustworthy. That is why the public expects the artist to produce radicalized visibility and self-exposure. Thus, the artistic strategy of self-exposure never begins at a zero point. The artist has to take into consideration from the outset his or her already existing exposure to the public. However, the same human body can be submitted to very different processes of socially determined subjectivation, depending on the particular cultural contexts in which this body may become visualized. Every contemporary cultural migrant—and the international art scene is full of migrating artists, curators, art writers—has innumerable chances to experience how his or her body is situated and subjectified in and though different cultural, ethnic and political contexts.
Dmitri Prigov in his installation Russian Snow, 1990. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.
But if so many people all around the world are involved in autopoietic activities why should we still speak about art as a specific practice? As I’ve already said, the emergence of the internet as the dominant medium of self-presentation seems to lead us to the conclusion that we don’t need any more institutional art spaces to produce art. And over the last two decades, institutional and private art spaces have been subject to a massive critique. This critique is completely legitimate. But one should not forget that the internet is also a space controlled primarily by corporate interests—not a celebrated space of anonymous and individual freedom as was often claimed in its early days. The standard internet user is, as a rule, concentrated on the computer screen and overlooks the corporate hardware of the internet—all those monitors, terminals and cables that inscribe it into contemporary industrial civilization. That is why the internet has conjured for some the dreamlike notions of immaterial work and the general intellect within a post-Fordist condition. But these are software notions. The reality of the internet is its hardware.
A traditional installation space offers a particularly appropriate arena to show the connectivity to hardware that is regularly overlooked during standard internet use.
As a computer user, one is immersed in solitary communication with the medium; one falls into a state of self-oblivion, potentially unaware of one’s own body. The purpose served by an installation that offers visitors an opportunity to make public use of computers and the internet now becomes apparent. One no longer concentrates upon a solitary screen but wanders from one screen to the next, from one computer installation to another. The itinerary performed by the viewer within the exhibition space undermines the traditional isolation of the internet user. At the same time, an exhibition utilizing the web and other digital media renders visible the material, physical side of these media—their hardware, the stuff from which they are made. All of the machinery that enters the visitor’s field of vision thus destroys the illusion that everything of any importance in the digital realm only takes place onscreen. More importantly, however, other visitors will stray into the viewer’s visual field. In this way the visitor becomes aware that he or she is also being observed by the others.
Thus one can say that neither the internet, nor institutional art spaces can be seen as privileged spaces of autopoietic self-presentation. But at the same time these spaces—among many others—can be used by an artist for his and her goals. Indeed, contemporary artists increasingly want to operate not so much inside specific art milieus and spaces but rather on the global political and social stage—proclaiming and pursuing certain political and social goals. At the same time they remain artists. What does this problematic title mean, within the extended, globalized, social-political context? One can perceive the title “artist” as a stigma that makes any political claim suspicious and any political activity inefficient—because inescapably co-opted by the art system. However, failures, uncertainties and frustrations are not the sole privilege of artists. Professional politicians and activists experience them to the same, if not to a greater degree. The only difference is this: professional politicians and activists conceal their frustrations and uncertainties behind their public personae. And accordingly, the failed political action remains final and unredeemed within political reality itself. But a failed political action can be a good work of art because it reveals the subjectivities operating behind this action even better than its possible success. By assuming the title “artist,” the subject of this action signals from the beginning that he or she aims at self-exposure rather than the self-concealment that is usual and even necessary in professional politics. Such self-exposure is bad politics but good art—herein lies the ultimate difference between artistic and non-artistic types of practice.
‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ included work by well over 100 artists and artists’ collectives, many of them not widely familiar but deserving of interest. They were grouped regionally and by period: 1950s to circa 1973 included Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand; c. 1973 until the late 80s, the Soviet Union, Africa, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The breadth of material was intended to be seen in critical relation to the more conve-ntional account of Conceptual art as a North American and Western European export of the 60s. The exhibition might be seen as something of a riposte to Los Angeles MOCA’s ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965-1975’, a more cohesive but less challenging Conceptual art show.
The inclusiveness of ‘Global Conceptualism’ rested in part on a distinction emphasised by the project directors, Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss in the highly informative catalogue: a distinction between Conceptual art as ‘an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of Minimalism’ (though this may come as a surprise to some of its practitioners) and Conceptualism, ‘which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art on physical form and its visual apperception’ and was characterised by the de-emphasis of the object in favour of the ‘idea’ (a largely unexamined term in the discourse on Conceptual/ist art) and the conduct of art. This is perhaps too fine a distinction, which tends to separate good (political) from bad (formal) Conceptual artists.
The desire to valourise conceptualism as woven into moments of political and social upheaval yields plausible results, especially in Latin American contexts: Brazilian artist Cildo Mereiles stamped questions about political assassination onto money in circulation in her piece Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Banknote Project (Who Killed Herzog?) (1973) and the most radical example, the Argentinian mass-media art/guerrilla collective action, Tucam·n Arde (1968). But what are we to make of the relations between art, politics and history in the Hungarian Miklos ErdÈly’s metaphysical puzzle, a vacuum flask containing Snow of Last Year (1970)? (Let alone, say, the work of Joseph Kosuth.) If, as the exhibition demonstrates, many politically active artists have taken approaches that look a lot like Conceptual strategies – de-materialisation, engagement with institutional contexts, emphasis on relations between language and perception – those artists have also, clearly, been concerned with the form of their acts. (We might consider, for example, the Australian artist Ian Burn, an integral participant in North American/Western European Conceptual art and a committed leftist.)
The show opened with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965. This seemed auspicious, particularly in terms of centre/periphery arguments: Ono is a transcultural figure, and the first gallery, with works from Japan on one side and from Western Europe on the other, was the most successful illustration of one of the exhibition’s premises: a globalism which acknowledges global links, but which insists on the difference between conceptualist movements ‘spurred by urgent local conditions and histories’. There were a number of striking relationships, though not necessarily structured by relations to political events, but by relations to everyday experiences of Capitalism. Documentation of Akasegawa Genpei’s Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident (1965-7), in which Akasegawa was tried and convicted of currency fraud for making one-sided copies (‘models’) of bank notes, sat opposite Yves Klein’s Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: Sale to M. Blankfort (1962), in which the artist (who studied Judo in Tokyo in the 50s) ‘sold’ a zone in exchange for a quantity of gold supplied by the collector, which the artist then threw into the Seine.
Works which were confined to regionally-organised galleries made connections and parallels between ideas less clear. Upstairs – particularly, where Africa, the Soviet Union, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were located and where the focus shifted to work made in the 70s and 80s – multicentered globalism seemed to fall prey to a kind of uneven development argument, as though Conceptualism were the inevitable corollary to political and social oppression or upheaval. Here, unfortunately, no matter how interesting – and in many instances valid – the attempt had been, conceptualism became too baggy, temporally distended and leaky a category to make productive sense of the relations between works made not only under different, local conditions, but long after the global emergence of Conceptual/ist strategies. By the end, Conceptualism didn’t seem like a strong enough context in which to consider, for instance, the astringent irony of Komar and Melamid’s abstraction of the bureaucratic means of Soviet surveillance in the form of a red square (Documents: Ideal Document, 1975) or the reflection on meaning and freedom that underlies the Chinese artist Wenda Gu’s series of works using ‘pseudo characters’, fake Chinese characters (begun in 1985). But if ‘Global Conceptualism’ overreached itself, it was nonetheless compelling.
Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov is the issue’s guest editor. He is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Address for correspondence: Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RF, UK. email@example.com.
Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art. This article introduces this concept and contextualizes it in art and anthropology by focusing on the following questions: What is gained by anthropology by explicitly bringing conceptualism into it? And, the other way around, what is gained by conceptualism when it is qualified as “ethnographic”? What is “ethnographic” about this kind of conceptualism? What is “conceptualist” about this kind of ethnography?
In two essays of the mid-1970s, leading conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth identified his method as “anthropologized art.” This is a kind of art that, like anthropology, makes “social reality conceivable.” It comes out of artists’ deep immersion in cultures that are subjects of their reflection. Its aim is a “‘depiction’ of art’s (and thereby culture’s) operational infrastructure.” And, above all, anthropologized art is a “socially mediating activity.” It “‘depicts’ while it alters society” (Kosuth  1991:117–124, emphasis in the original;  1991).
Ethnographic conceptualism invokes these formulations of “artist as anthropologist.” But its goal is to make this link with art wholly symmetrical. Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art.
I thought of the term “ethnographic conceptualism” when Olga Sosnina and I curated the exhibition Gifts to Soviet Leaders (Dary vozhdiam) (Kremlin Museum, Moscow, 2006). This was an exhibition of public gifts that Soviet leaders received from Soviet citizens and international leaders and movements. It was about a gift economy that was comparable in global scale and size to the one that the British monarchs, US presidents, or the Vatican has attracted but which was articulated through a distinct idiom of devotion to communist ideas, the inner working of Soviet leaders’ “personality cult,” and Cold War diplomacy (e.g., Figure 1). But as the exhibition of these gifts became an instant hit, it also revealed a political and cultural anxiety over post-Soviet identity as well as the ways in which museum projects articulate it. The term ethnographic conceptualism became for me a way to situate this project in anthropology and art and also between this exhibition as an end as well as a means: a presentation of research results on Soviet history but also a means of doing this research, a post-Soviet artifact and a tool in ethnography of post-Soviet Moscow.
A key example that conveys the concept of ethnographic conceptualism is a comment in this exhibition’s visitors’ book: “Thank you for the exhibition—we found the visitors’ book of comments particularly interesting and educating.” The book became a site of heated polemic about Soviet history. But this comment highlights a paradox of this polemic itself becoming an exhibition artifact on par with the exhibited gifts to Soviet leaders. It collapsed the distinction between commentary and the objects of commentary, between the visitors and the exhibits—and, for me, between an ethnographic notebook and a conceptualist means to produce an ethnographic situation.
But this comment also dramatizes the relationship between this exhibition project and its audience that extends beyond the exhibition site. It is visible, for instance, in the decision of the Kremlin Museum to gift the exhibition catalog to President Vladimir Putin for his fifty-fifth birthday in 2007. This unexpected reaction to the exhibition came from a peculiar kind of audience that included its host, the Kremlin Museum, and the host of this host, the Kremlin. This act interlinked the gift relations that this project charted and the gift relations in which it was immersed—including complex power relations that formed both the subject matter and the context of this study. It drew attention to the performative links between museums, academia, social memory, and politics—to how the Soviet past was debated in the early 2000s and how it was used politically and aesthetically. As a study in ethnographic conceptualism, Gifts to Soviet Leaders both performs and describes post-Soviet society from the vantage point of gift/knowledge relations (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). Ethnographic conceptualism is in this case an ethnographic research and a conceptualist depiction of this exhibition’s operational infrastructure—an “exhibition experiment” in the double sense of curatorial innovation and a laboratory that creates new knowledge (Macdonald and Basu 2007).
Anthropological Theory as Art
In the spirit of the title of this journal, this special issue is a Laboratorium manifesto of ethnographic conceptualism. The goal of this introduction is to situate it in conceptual art and anthropology as well as to situate individual contributions to this issue.
Conceptual art experiments with the reduction of art objects to concepts—with the so-called dematerialization of art—and with the reduction of artwork to the question of what is the concept of art in a given work and among a given audience. A work of art, from this point of view, equals questioning what art is, a depiction of how whatever is taken as art is framed and situated. It makes art out of its audiences and their reactions. In a narrow historical sense, it refers to a movement that took place roughly between 1966 and 1972. But its critical mood captures much of the twentieth-century artistic landscape, from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) to relational or situational aesthetics. Thus, an historical reading that traces conceptualism to Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) or some earlier formulations, such as that of “Concept-Art” by Henry Flynt in 1961 (cf. Buchloh 1990:107), can be contrasted with a broader philosophical perspective in which this chronology is not as important (Alberro and Stimson 1999; Beke et al. 1999; Goldie and Schellekens 2007). The replication of concept of art within art is also linked with an even longer durée in modern thinking and aesthetics, in particular, with the baroque technique of “theater within theater,” in which artwork contains a miniature replica of itself or its author, as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas (cf. Corsín Jiménez 2013).
But conceptual art is a declaration of the end of art as a distinct activity. Does ethnographic conceptualism similarly mean the end of the distinct activity of ethnography? How is it then related to a familiar narrative of the end of ethnography, as was implied by its literary turn and the postmodernism of the 1980s? Ethnographic conceptualism (EC thereafter) means not an end of ethnography as a method but its reconfiguration. It is an ethnography that does things—and not just by saying them, to use J. L. Austin’s (1962a) formulation of the performativity of language. It explicitly manufactures the social reality that it studies and in doing so goes well beyond a mere acknowledgement that we modify what we depict by the very means of this depiction.
EC uses art to generate ethnographic situations. But it is very far from a claim that ethnography is “in fact” art in that it works through “poetics” and persuasion, through aesthetics rather than analytics. What is meant by art in such claims looks too much like the “Western art” of textbook anthropology, that is, art as a distinct practice that has an affect because it is aesthetically compelling—about things that are “simply beautiful” (cf. Jarillo de la Torre, this issue). This kind of art is no longer there in Western art itself. The link with conceptual art that ethnographic conceptualism proposes is precisely to highlight the extent to which contemporary art is itself analytics rather than aesthetics.
But EC’s link with conceptual art is also useful for reformulating the theoretical debates from the 1980s onward from a new angle. The 1980s is an arbitrary date. It is not so much a ground zero for critical and reflexive anthropology, which it is not, but this is roughly when the anthropological critique of scientism begins. I agree with Kosuth’s acknowledgement that at the time of his thinking about “the artist as anthropologist” anthropology was quite different from the cultural critique that was at the heart of conceptual art. With the exception of the Marxist anthropological tradition and its notion of praxis, he admitted, anthropology had no interest in altering society by means of depicting it. It was “outside the culture” that it sought to describe and therefore akin to what he called the “modernism” and “scientism” of art criticism and art history (Kosuth  1991:117–124). However, what follows below is not a story of how anthropology “finally” caught up with Kosuth of 1974 and 1975. Nor it is a review of projects between anthropology and art, which has been abundantly done elsewhere (Enwezor et al. 2012; Marcus and Myers 1995; Foster 1995; Marcus 2010; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010). What I am interested in is what links with art are made within anthropological theory and what in these links can be further illuminated by parallels withconceptual art.
First, I read anthropology’s turn to artistic and literary tools in the 1980s as “not ‘Ethnography’ in itself but a means of creating it”—to paraphrase a conceptualist artwork title “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it.” In other words, I approach the “writing culture” school as an intriguing attempt at substituting anthropology with a depiction of anthropology’s “operational infrastructure” (Kosuth  1991:121). There is an interesting question as to whether this depiction is indeed a departure form objectivism, as it was claimed at that time (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). But, second, what I would like to stress in this section is not whether this departure is from “science” to “art,” but what analogy with art was made in the depiction of anthropology as science.
Consider George Marcus and Fred Myers’s remark that the anthropology of the 1980s evinced a “critical ambivalence” of the desire for objectivity, which required distance as evidence that the subjects of study were “independently constituted,” and an awareness of the opposite: of existing relationships of power and histories of encounter, “which make anthropology itself already a part of such subjects of study” (Marcus and Myers 1995:2). It is this ambivalence that parallels developments in art. Anthropology’s objectivism, predicated on the autonomy of the observed cultural phenomena from the culture of the observer, shares Kantian foundations with the notion of the autonomy of aesthetics related to art’s “occupation of a separate cultural domain” (6, emphasis in the original) during modern European history. But the other side of anthropology’s objectivism is its holism, which implies that no dimension of cultural life can be considered in isolation. Thus anthropology is both enabled by and critiques these foundational distinctions, as does contemporary art. Anthropology’s critical reflection on its own objectivism can be viewed as an “ethnographic avant-garde” (20).
This analogy with avant-garde highlights that instead of “whole” cultures of extreme difference, anthropology deals with fragments of and crisscrossing lines, borders and cultural flows. But in suggesting a link with conceptual art, my goal is to illuminate not only what this anthropology looks at but how.
Anthropology’s reflexive turn has been associated with strategies of writing and the notion of culture as text. This was in contrast with the anthropology of the earlier part of the twentieth century that privileged vision—the camera-like presence of an ethnographic observer (Clifford 1983:118; 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The critique of vision is central to conceptualism too. As LeWitt put it, “[c]onceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions” (1967:84). It aims at a substitution of seeing with thinking and a material object with a concept. It “dematerializes art” to the point that material artwork becomes “wholly obsolete” (Lippard and Chandler 1968:46). But textualization is the flip side of this dematerialization. Conceptual artwork often includes the commentary—such as in Keith Arnatt’s “I’m a Real Artist” (1972) that includes famous discussion of the ambiguity of the notion of the “real” from J. L. Austin’s (1962b) Sense and Sensibilia. I submit that the textualization of anthropology, the expansion of prefacing as commentary that sets the stage for ethnography, parallels conceptual art.
Now consider an example of this “linguistic turn”: Olga Sosnina’s exhibition The Dictionary of the Caucasus (Sosnina, this issue). This exhibition, held at the Tsaritsyno Museum (Moscow, 2012), arranges material objects, photography, and art from and about the Caucasus neither regionally nor historically but by “keywords.” Sosnina’s experiment alludes to the conceptualist function such as the The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić but also to Stéphane Mallarme’s Livre, an idea of the novel with interchangeable pages that can be read in any order (see discussion of open artwork below). Among her entries are the ones on the Caucasian War, the “bandit” (abrek), the “elder,” and the “feast”—but also on “archaeologist,” “ethnographer,” and “tourist” as a composite section for the outside scholar/visitor. If her point is that material objects are vehicles of translation and Orientalist imaginary of this region, this section focuses on the figure of the collector, interpreter, producer as well as consumer of this imaginary.
A “linguistic turn” in this kind of art refers not merely to the central role of language as a conceptualist tool or simply words appearing on the exhibited objects. If commentary was traditionally the domain of art criticism, conceptualism “annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary” (Kosuth 1991:38). Art making became art criticism (Goldie and Schellekens 2007:xi), and, furthermore, the commentary could easily and deliberately substitute the artwork that is the subject of commentary. If thinking itself approaches art as a form, then, as Terry Atkinson asks in his famous inaugural editorial of Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art (1969), “Can this editorial … [as] an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is … count as a work of conceptual art?” (quoted in Alberro and Stimpson 1999:xix).
These relations of substitution between the artwork and commentary become a subject of conceptualist art practice (see Carroll, this issue). Conceptualism treats the wall as a book page (Rorimer 1999); journal issues become forms of conceptual art—and not just in Eastern Europe where nonconformist exhibitions were impossible (Degot’ 2004); the term “artwriting” is coined (Carrier 1987). But “A Media Art (Manifesto)” by Eduardo Costa, Raul Escari, and Roberto Jacoby ( 1999) goes further. It is an account of how these artists created “the written and photographic report of a happening that has not occurred” that included “the names of the participants, an indication of the time and location in which it took place and a description of the spectacle that is supposed to have happened” (Costa, Escari, and Jacoby  1999:2–3). Ilya Kabakov incorporates the history of art, as something that explains and situates a given artistic project, into the work of art. He created the work of three fictional artists to illustrate the historical stages of Soviet art in the transition from avant-garde to socialist realism and from the latter to conceptualism.
But this raises a question of the status of this very piece of writing in relationship to conceptual art. This is, on the one hand, an academic argument about conceptual art and ethnographic conceptualism in a social science journal. But, on the other, if conceptualism substitutes objects with concepts, if an editorial that outlines an artistic view as to what conceptual art was could itself be seen as a work of conceptual art, and if conceptual art annexes the role of its critic and historian, can this textualization be extended to a theoretical argument? I suggest pushing the dematerialization of art (Lippard and Chandler 1968) to the point of including anthropological theory. Art as theory rather than theory as art.
The Gaze at the Gaze
But if the gaze can be associated with an anthropology as “science” that reflects, and textuality with an interpretive hermeneutics of anthropology as “art” that manufactures, it is worth keeping in mind that, both in anthropology and art, textuality did not so much eliminate the gaze as redirect it. In conceptual art, the “linguistic turn” constituted new kinds of material objects (texts) that are open to view. They were often meant to achieve their performative effect when a momentary glance was cast at them. In this condensation of reading and viewing in conceptual art, there was a corresponding condensation of a work of art and the definition of art. But even the most nominalist statements of anthropology’s reflexive turn (cf. Rabinow 1996) stop short of declaring “I’m a real anthropologist.” The “writing culture” perspective invites us to view commentary on anthropology. It resituates the knowable social world from the reality under this scholar’s gaze to the relationships between this reality and the scholar. It is the ethnography of ethnographic framing and ethnography as the history of the ethnographic gaze (Asad 1991; Clifford 1983, 1988; Fabian 1983; Stocking 1968, 1993).
The artistic analogy to this second gaze—what I would call conceptualist realism—is the depiction of the viewer. Julia Secher’s 1988 project Security by Julia placed surveillance apparatus in exhibition venues, with the aim to depict the human flow of visitors, its regulation and self-regulation, and to view the impulse of the public to be seen and to see its own visibility. Hans Haacke’s Gallery Visitor’s Profile (1969–1973) accumulates and displays information about the statistical breakdown of museum visitors according to age, gender, religious belief, ethnicity, class, occupation, and so on. Privileged social groups constitute the art audience and frame the discourse of art. This project acts as a mirror that returns this frame to the viewer. But in this mirror reflection the frame becomes realistic in its depiction of this ideology of art and its audience.
But this realism itself could be performative. One of the methods of Michał Murawski’s (this issue) exploration of the meanings of Warsaw’s Stalinist skyscraper, the Palace of Culture and Science that still dominates Warsaw’s cityscape, is distributing a questionnaire and assembling a statistical breakdown and collective portrait of his respondents. But this is not simply a social science study of the attitudes of his audience but a performative deployment of the image of research and researcher. Indeed, a mirror that reflects an audience implies a corresponding reflection of this figure of the artist. For the purposes of this study, he designs “The Department of Issuing Anecdotes of the Palaceological Department of the Dramatic Theater” and at some point comes out to an audience of his interlocutors dressed as this office’s bureaucrat.
My second contribution to this special issue is also an exercise in conceptualist realism—the second gaze on the gaze and the depiction of its audience. I root it in anthropology’s “new empiricism” which is not an unreflected objectivism, but is the one that is mediated by the performativity theory—a description of how knowledge is situated and what are its performative affects in such fields as studies of science, gender, and economics. But I use ethnographic conceptualism to push performativity theory further and to consider how performative is the very distinction of the performative and the descriptive. “The performative” in this sense does not refer to one of the poles of the distinction between the performative and the descriptive but to the drawing of this distinction itself (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue).
The Anthropology of the Contemporary and Open Artwork
Gustav Metzger’s First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art in 1960 included a transparent garbage bag filled with newspapers and cardboard. When this installation was recreated at the Tate Britain in 2004, a cleaner accidentally binned it. The gallery subsequently retrieved the damaged bag, and the new one made by Metzger was covered over at night for the remaining time of the exhibition. In this section, I consider some of the artistic and anthropological uses of the unexpected.
This accident should have been invented if it had not actually happened. An unanticipated destruction, almost accomplished, illustrates the point of this kind of artwork perhaps as well as the artwork itself. This point is to highlight, first, temporality as art but also, second, something that is the opposite of literal destruction: a creative process that Helio Oiticica called “anti-art” in the sense of the artist being not the sole author of the work but “an instigator of creation—‘creation’ as such.” This process, he argued, “completes itself through the dynamic participation of the ‘spectator,’ now considered as ‘participator.’” The artist “activates” the creative activity which exists in society, albeit latently—it is as such a “social manifestation, incorporating an ethical (as well as political) position” (Oiticica  1999:9, emphases in the original).
James Oliver and Marnie Badham put it in their contribution (this issue, 157), “there is no object but the practice; the practice is the object(ive).” Their case in point is an art project/participatory ethnography aimed at development of a sense of home that they conducted among inhabitants of an underprivileged, stigmatized, and highly divided area of Melbourne. Their artwork is an ethnography—an “articulation of actually existing, or ‘lived (social) space,’ where people go to work or school and are potentially deskilled, made sick, deprived of benefits, are not permitted to withdraw their laboring bodies or not to participate” (Oliver and Badham, this issue, 156). But it is about making difference in this space. This articulation of space links ethnographic conceptualism with the “situationalism” of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre, aimed at disruption of “the bourgeois life” by staging street events to jolt passersby from their “normal” ways of thinking. The movement’s key concept was dérive, a disruption of the expected.
But Internationale Situationniste is no avant-garde “International” that in the early twentieth century called for a total revolution in society and artistic signification. This and other art after the 1960s seeks difference but is suspicious of a radically different outside. It protests against inequality, elitism, consumerism. According to Kosuth, conceptualism was “art of the Vietnam war era” (quoted in Alberro and Stimson 1999:345); Metzger’s “auto-destructive art” was part of his antinuclear politics. But like Jacque Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s “tactics,” or the Gramscian “war of attrition” (hegemony), in this art “Social Utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies,” writes the theorist of relational aesthetics Bourriaud (2002:13). He calls plainly “futile” any more radically critical stance as based on the impossible, if not “regressive,” illusion of artists’ marginality (13).
A disruption of the expected was also one of the key points of the “reflexive turn” in anthropology. Opening up to view conventions of ethnographic description sets in motion the reality that is being described—by showing how it is contested, negotiated, and subject to change. Opening up aesthetics or the society under study inserts a break and is an important point of intervention. But in the “writing culture” perspective, radical difference is part of the modern macronarratives of progress that this school critiques. The anthropology of the contemporary posits “a type of remediation” as its goal, not “reform or revolution” (Rabinow 2008:3). Both stress the open-endedness of the processes under investigation; neither are radical calls for alterity.
The anthropology of the contemporary is built not merely on the explicit contrast with anthropology as a window to the past but also on the analogy with “contemporary art”. It replaces modernism (cf. Foster 2009; Smith 2009) in addition to being about what is “here and now” as opposed to “far-away” and “timeless” (Marcus 2003). “The contemporary” is open-ended, incomplete, and ultimately unknown. The emerging is a different state of being than what has emerged, however recently, and can be compared precisely with the old. The emergent may include novelty or may not, may hold a degree of repetition, and its contingency does not necessarily equal difference: the “problem for an anthropology of the contemporary is to inquire into what is taking place without deducing it beforehand” (Rabinow 2008:3).
This directly parallels the notion of the audience’s reaction in conceptual art, which works best when unexpected. But the status of repetition here is interesting. One of Rabinow’s most vivid examples of “the contemporary” as a method is the series of performances of Richard Wagner’s Rings, conducted in 1976–1980 in Bayreuth by Pierre Boulez. He sums this up with a quote from Foucault’s review of these performances:
Boulez took seriously the Wagnerian idea of [operatic] drama in which music and text do not repeat each other, [that is, which] are not saying each in its own way the same thing; but rather one in which the orchestra, the song and the play of the actor, the tempos of the music, the movement of the scene, the decors must be composed as partial elements so as to constitute, during the time of the performance, a unique form, a singular event. (in Rabinow 2011:201)
This unique form and singular event to some extent repeats the musical score or dramatic plot, but this repetition entails difference. It is a reworking of the original script by the means of performance. Rabinow calls this “remediation,” a creative transfer between different media that constitutes the key methodological device of the anthropology of the contemporary (2008:3). Boulez’s performance illustrates the notion of remediation for Rabinow. He uses this to remediate art for anthropological purposes. Boulez’s performance is “a contemporary solution” for Wagner (Rabinow 2011:201, emphasis in the original) which works as “a contemporary solution” for the anthropology of the contemporary—“the accompaniment of time” at a time when “no single sensibility—modernist or otherwise—dominates, overarches, or underlies current affairs” (Rabinow 2008:78; Rabinow et al. 2008).
I would like now to compare this with the uncertainty principle in physics. In this comparison, however, my point is not to root this conceptualization in the authority of science but, on the contrary, to extend the theoretical connection with art. Umberto Eco makes this link with physics in his discussion of “open work” ( 1989), an artistic movement in which Boulez was one of the key practitioners and which goes back to Mallarme’s Livre that can be read in any order. Open work is not so much a “composition as a field of possibilities.” For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstiick XI presents the performer with a single sheet of music paper with a series of note groupings. The performer is to choose where to start and in which order to play. The performer is not merely free to interpret the composer—this happens, Eco says, in any performance of any music—but to decide on the sequence of the piece. The “instrumentalist’s freedom is a function of the ‘narrative’ structure of the piece.” These “mobile compositions” or “open artworks” generate “theoretical aesthetics” that are shared across cultural production but also make developments in art, from Eco’s point of view, akin to the general breakdown in the concept of causation in contemporary physics, with its principles of uncertainty and complementarity ( 1989:13). The transition from compositional aesthetics to open artwork is akin for him to the move from Newton’s mechanics to particle physics. It is a move in scale from physical bodies to particles but also from mechanical determinism to indeterminacy and multiplicity of causations.
Via Boulez, let me link Rabinow’s remediation and Eco’s open work with the way artistic performance can be approached ethnographically. Sergio Jarillo de la Torre (this issue) explores two examples of contemporary art. One is the photography of Thomas Struth, who snaps how visitors of the Prado, the Hermitage, or the Louvre contemplate iconic artworks. These viewers and their unposed body language create relational possibilities between the artwork and the art world in the age of mass tourism—from appreciation and curiosity to boredom and fatigue, from art as fetish to a box to be ticked. This exemplifies an ethnographic archive of such performances of meanings of art. But second, Christoph Büchel’s installation Simply Botiful, in a large warehouse in East London, is an environment which is not marked explicitly as art. It is for the audience to explore and make—make into art or possibly not into art.
The uncertainty principle pervades these projects, much as Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll’s art and ethnography is an exercise in “performing viewers.” She created artwork out of public commentary on the former Yugoslavian monuments, “subtracted the physical monument from the acts of public writing on them” (Carroll, this issue, 101), made this into installation for the 52nd Venice Biennale and Škuc Gallery in Ljubljana in 2007, and presents here an ethnography of this commentary—an autoethnography of her project and a contextualization of socialist and nationalist monumental politics in the Balkans. Yet her study also warns of a flip side to the uncertainty principle that Eco celebrated. If observation influences what is observed and performance is not merely a repetition, the opposite is always a possibility too. Influencing and performing may entail repetition of more that we intend. With regard to Yugoslavian politics, Carroll sums this up with the saying “fight the dragon long, the dragon you become.” But there are also dragons in the shadows of Stalinism and empire that other cases in this special issue discuss (see Murawski; Sosnina; Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay; all in this issue).
Making the Unknown: The Laboratory of Ethnographic Conceptualism
Like conceptual art and the anthropology of the contemporary, EC reveals social and aesthetic potentialities. It elicits new responses and reactions, explicates unexpected links, points out unforeseen aesthetic figurations. But if it is no avant-garde as it does not posit a “new world” that it aims to achieve by artistic or research means, and if what it does then is add complexity and multiplicity to the existing world, what does it add to anthropology and art that deal with complexity and multiplicity? What difference does ethnographic conceptualism make/describe with regard to what was called in the 1980s the postmodern and now the emergent and open-ended?
Hirokazu Miyazaki and Annelise Riles observed that the focus on emergence, complexity, and assemblage “implicitly resigns to the fact that little can be known about the world except for the fact of complexity, indeterminacy and open-endedness.” In these “aesthetics of emergence” there is “a retreat from knowing.” Furthermore, this retreat avoids, from their point of view, the recognition of failure of our own knowledge, as the anthropology of the contemporary locates indeterminacy and complexity “out there” in the world (Miyazaki and Riles 2005:327), rather than within our own episteme. As a solution, they suggest that we observe this failure of knowledge in parallel between the ethnographic knowledge situation and the contexts that we explore. For instance, in the financial markets that Miyazaki and Riles study, they observe an analogous retreat from knowing and a replacement of knowledge with hope.
“The method of hope” is a valuable resource for ethnographic conceptualism that Felix Ringel (this issue) deploys by means of his conceptualist interventions in Hoyerswerda, a town which used to be a model of socialist modernity in the GDR but has undergone a steep decline following German reunification. But there his own “method of hope” is not merely analogous to his informants’ but mutually constitutive. The social reality that he depicts is partly a reaction to himself writing anthropological commentary in a local newspaper, engaging Hoyerswerda youth in ethnographic projects, and initiating an art project in what was once a model part of the “model city” that was soon to be demolished. Just before this block’s final deconstruction, it was painted all over, inside and outside, and filled with various artifacts—such as countless little purple figures, two inches tall and cut out of cardboard, that were installed throughout the staircases and flats, said to be “running around” and asking the tourist’s question, “Excuse me, what is the way to the city center?” (Ringel, this issue, 50).
But let me consider a different, but equally methodological, implication of the aesthetics of emergence. For me, the problem with acknowledging complexity and open-endedness is not only an implicit retreat from knowing (Miyazaki and Riles 2005) but also the opposite of this retreat. It is actually the repetition of what is already known. If we already know that things are complex, we do not really need ethnography, conceptualist or not, just to affirm that. Complexity is a good question but a bad answer.
But it is more interesting to approach complexity and open-endedness not as results but tools of highlighting what is unknown. It is in this quality that ethnographic conceptualism is useful in its performative stance. If it constructs the reality that it studies (“thesis four” above), this means that it actually fabricates the unknown. I suggest treating this complexity and open-endedness not as “fact” but anti-fact. Anti-facts identify areas of the unknown, although they are not, or at least not yet, “new results”; and they contain precisely the kind of unexpected that is central to contemporary art. The notion of anti-fact complements Helio Oiticica’s “anti-art.”
Anti-fact is different both from a fact and from the exposition of a fact as artifact. Facts already describe what is established (what “we know for a fact”). The anthropological critique of objectivism describes what procedures and arrangements and what taken for granted assumptions constitute the conditions of possibility for this knowing (Callon 1986; Latour 1999). But the vector of this description runs parallel to the vector of scientific discovery, although it renders discovery as manufacture. Artifacts are facts of sorts. They appear when the aura of complexity of science—and, as Kosuth puts it in his “Notes on the Anthropologized Art,” the “opacity” of the traditional language of art—began losing their “believability.” With that “began, through the sixties, an increased shift of locus from the ‘unbelievable’ object to what was believable and real: the context” (Kosuth  1991:99). Emergent as the context may be, in a way it is no surprise. To make it a surprise again, the anti-fact of ethnographic conceptualism is a move in the opposite direction. It defamiliarizes the context, and it is in this sense the opposite of the conceptual as in conceptual art and also in the anthropological theory as artwork that I suggested above. It is an “auto-destruction” (in Gustav Metzger sense) of concepts in the unknown.
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From avant-garde and surrealism onwards, anthropology has been a continuous source of inspiration for contemporary art. Kosuth’s perspective is distinct as it does not draw on the anthropological trope of otherness for artistic imagination. Kosuth in fact critiques this trope as it existed in the 1970s: “what may be interesting about the artist-as-anthropologist is that the artist’s activity is not outside, but a mapping of an internalizing cultural activity in his own society. The artist-as-anthropologist may be able to accomplish what the anthropologist has always failed at” ( 1991:121). This is not “artist as ethnographer” who is “locating truth in terms of alterity” (Foster 1995:204). ↩
A man carried two full-length sandwich boards with “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it,” printed on them (graduation exhibition, School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University, UK, 2004 [Lamarque 2010:220]). ↩
An example of this questioning of object is Air Show/Air Conditioning, a proposal for a column of air as artwork by Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson (Baldwin 1967). ↩
The Alternative History of Art, Garazh, Moscow, 2008. ↩
This was a radical political and cultural movement, which centered around journals Internationale Situationniste (1957–1969) and Spur (1960–1961). ↩
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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON
Last updated: December 13, 2008 1:38 am
Indian art defies global conceptualism
By Jackie Wullschlager
Two London exhibitions, the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway and Aicon’sSigns Taken for Wonders, are the UK’s most ambitious attempts yet to distil coherence into the chaotic rush of art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.The marriage between the conceptually minded Serpentine and Indian art – whose overriding characteristics are narrative drive, flamboyant figuration and sensuous colour – is interesting because it is so unlikely. Recent memorable Indian installations have been sprawling, direct and often rooted in the animal motifs of folklore: Bharti Kher’s “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own”, a collapsed fibreglass elephant adorned with bindis (female forehead decorations) at Frank Cohen’s Passage to India, or Sudarshan Shetty’s bell-tolling aluminium cast of a pair of cows, now at the Royal Academy’s GSK Contemporary. Nothing like that is in Indian Highway; with conceptual aplomb, the Serpentine turns the accessibility and energy of Indian art into a taut cerebral game.
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The highway of the title refers both to the literal road of migration and movement, and to the information superhighway, which together are propelling India to modernity. Dayanita Singh’s wallpaper-photographs of Mumbai’s central arteries illuminated at night introduce the theme in the first gallery, and a crowd of sober documentary films worthily continue it – but a pair of installations catch the symbolism best. One is Bose Krishnamachari’s celebrated “Ghost/Transmemoir”, a collection of a hundred tiffin boxes – widely used to convey home-cooked lunches to workers across cities – each inset with LCD monitors, DVD players and headphones, through which everyday Mumbaikars regale audiences with their stories, accompanied by soundtracks evoking the high-pitched jangle and screech of Mumbai street life.
The other, towering upwards to the North Gallery’s dome like a beating black heart at the core of the show, is Sheela Gowda’s “Darkroom”, consisting of metal tar-drums stacked or flattened into wrap-around sheets, evoking at once the grandeur of classical colonnades and the ad hoc shacks built by India’s road workers. Inside, the darkness is broken by tiny dots of light through holes punctured in the ceiling like a constellation of stars; yellow-gold paint enhances the lyric undertow in this harsh readymade.
Opposite is N S Harsha’s “Reversed Gaze”, a mural depicting a crowd behind a makeshift barricade who tilt out towards us – making us the spectacles at the exhibition. All Indian life is here in this comic whimsy: farmer, businessman, fundamentalist Hindu, anarchist with firebomb, pamphleteer, aristocrat in Nehruvian dress, south Indian in baggy trousers and vest, tourist clutching a miniature Taj Mahal, and an art collector holding a painting signed R Mutt – linking the entire parade to the urinal, signed R Mutt, with which Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1917.
Essential to the meaning of “Reversed Gaze” is that it will be erased when the exhibition closes – a slap in the face for the predatory art market. So will the pink and purple bindi wall painting “The Nemesis of Nations” by Bharti Kher, who recently joined expensive international gallery Hauser and Wirth. And a canvas of drawings greeting visitors as they enter is all that is left of Nikhil Chopra’s performance piece “Yog Raj Chitrakar”, in which the artist this week spent three days assuming the persona of his grandfather, an immaculately dressed gentleman of the Raj, and lived and slept in a tent in Kensington Gardens, entering the gallery only to daub the canvas that stands as an art of aftermath – a memory drawing.
Painting here is a vanishing act. Maqbool Fida Husain (aged 93) has made 13 bright poster-style works – red elephants, a tea ceremony after a tiger shooting, a satirical Last Supper with dapper businessman, umbrella, briefcase, body parts – to surround the exterior of the Serpentine. MF Husain is India’s most respected artist; with these billboards, executed in his standard style of forceful black contours, angular lines and bright palette, he returns to his career origins as a painter of cinema advertisements.
In the catalogue, curator Ranjit Hoskote argues that “transcultural experience is the only certain basis of contemporary practice” and that “the chimera of auto-Orientalism, with its valorisation of a spurious authenticity to be secured as the guarantee of an embattled local against an overwhelming global, has been swept away”.
But Husain, godfather to generations of Indian artists, and indeed every piece inIndian Highway – from feminist painter Nalini Malani’s looping fantasy figures intricately inked on bamboo paper in “Tales of Good and Evil” to Jitish Kallat’s photographic series “Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer)”, chronicling the demolition of slum dwellings – proves the opposite: however hard a western gallery tries to make Indian art talk a global conceptual language, its local strengths speak louder. Indian art, on this showing, is visually arresting and thoughtful, but nothing here is formally or conceptually innovative, or aesthetically provocative. We thus respond to its distinctive idiom and themes as cultural tourists.
This is the context in which Aicon, London’s leading commercial gallery of Indian art, opened last year. Signs Taken as Wonders is a Christmas selling show but is also intelligently structured around the perennial subject of India’s shifting identities, with misrecognition the trope: out-of-focus photographs of buildings and anonymous steel workers in RAQS Collective’s “Misregistration”; deconstruction of stereotypes in Vivek Vilasini’s “Vernacular Chants” prints; the contrast between questioning pose and expression and monumentality in Riyas Komu’s cropped, close-up “Borivali Boy II”.
This show complements the Serpentine’s by emphasising the painterly, such as the fragmented textures and touches of surrealism in Husain’s veiled “Women of Yemen”. In particular, the swirling abstract patterns and slabs of twisting colour in Krishnamachari’s “Stretched Bodies” – portraits of disintegration and change that deny the possibility of single truths, and the delicate ink-on-silk drawings of his “Mumbiya” depiction of a typical citizen, which seems to fade into elusiveness as you draw near – add layers to the vision of chaotic, vibrant Mumbai in the artist’s “Ghost” installation at the Serpentine. Krishnamachari describes the average Mumbaikar as “an ocean of anxieties that have arisen from the everyday question of acceptance”. Flitting between these shows, you feel most of all that uneasiness, both in the creation of Indian art and in our uncertain response to it.
GLOBAL CONCEPTUALISM: POINTS OF ORIGIN, 1950S–1980S
SHOWINGOctober 24, 2000 – December 31, 2000
Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, featuring more than 200 works by over 130 international artists, offers snapshots of the diverse iterations of conceptual, or idea-based, art over the course of several generations.
The exhibition examines the contemporaneous burgeoning of art that draws its meaning primarily from its content rather than from its form, or appearance, across the world beginning in the 1950s. Grouped into regional sections the exhibition is organized in two chronological sections: the 1950s through around 1973 (Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand); and 1973 through the end of the 1980s (the Soviet Union [Russia], Africa, South Korea, and Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). These periods correspond to two waves of conceptualist activities that took place in various parts of the world as post-war social and political upheaval prompted among artists a re-examination of traditional forms of representation and a renewal of questions regarding art’s social utility. Much of the art in the exhibition, which takes the form of photographs, documentation, films, videos, postcards, posters, drawings, as well as paintings, mixed media objects, and installations, was made to provoke the viewer by disturbing previously accepted ideas about social, political, and cultural systems.
Global Conceptualism; Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s was organized by the Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, New York, by a curatorial team consisting of former QMA director of exhibitions Jane Farver, now director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center; artist, critic, and curator Luis Camnitzer; and Rachel Weiss, an independent curator and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The three primary organizers were joined by a corps of eleven international curators who provided intelligence on each of the regions examined. They include: László Beke (Eastern Europe), Chiba Shigeo and Reiko Tomii (Japan), Okwui Enwezor (Africa), Gao Minglu (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), Claude Gintz (Western Europe), Mari Carmen Ramírez (Latin America), Terry Smith (Australia and New Zealand), Sung Wan-Kyung (South Korea), Margarita Tupitsyn (Russia), and Peter Wollen (North America).
How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?
‘Tucumán Arde’, 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale
A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first Conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. – Eduardo Costa1
On 28 April 1999 the exhibition ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ opened at New York’s Queens Museum of Art. Organised by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, consisting of eleven geographically defined sections and curated by a large, international group of art historians and researchers, the exhibition formulated one of the riskiest and most controversial interpretations of so-called Conceptual art at an international level. The show was ambitious. Its structure created a geographical spill-over that called into question the lesser or secondary place to which certain critical productions had been consigned. The framework of analysis was the global set of social and political transformations that have taken place since 1950, and the emergence of new forms of political action that formed the backdrop to a renewed repertoire of visual language. Such a scope allowed the curators to gather aesthetic proposals not defined in the exhibition by a Conceptualist ‘aesthetics of immateriality’, but instead by their capacity for intervention.2This approach, without doubt, shifted the very rules according to which the history of Conceptual art had been written. Those radical changes of the modes of producing andgiving value to art exposed by ‘Global Conceptualism’ reveal complex processes in which political subjectivities oppose the consensual organisation of power and its distribution of places and roles, mobilising singular and collective resistances and dissenting energies.
Ten years on, the shockwaves can still be felt, perhaps even more intensely than at the time. In different ways, ‘Global Conceptualism’ updated some of the debates that had been attempting to raise the issue of subjectivity in social practices from a post-colonial perspective, disputing the geographical and temporal orders of a modern or colonial Occidentalism.3 Hence, it was no surprise that the show became one of the most quoted (and most questioned) referents of the revival of 1960s and 70s critical production that has taken place over the past decade in exhibitions, seminars and publications around the world.
While much has been said about the decentralising virtues of ‘Global Conceptualism’, in retrospect its most significant legacy appears not only to be the broadening of the Conceptual art map (a move that had a bearing on several subsequent curatorial projects), but the way in which the exhibition questioned the identity of a Conceptual art with universal aspirations. The curatorial operation of ‘Global Conceptualism’ started from a categorical distinction between ‘Conceptual art’ – understood as a North American and Western European aesthetic development associated with a formalist reduction inherited from abstraction and Minimalism – and ‘Conceptualism’, a term denoting a critical return to an ‘ordering of priorities’ that made visible certain aesthetic processes on a transnational level, allowing for diverse historical, cultural and political narratives to be set in place.4 Conceptualism was presented as a phenomenon that took place in a ‘federation of provinces’, with the ‘traditional hegemonic centre [being] one among many’, drawing a multiplicity of points of origin and questioning the privileged position claimed by Western modernity and its politics of representation.5 The exhibition seemed to work as a performative apparatus determined to re-politicise, reconfigure and rewrite the memory of those decades. As a result Conceptual art, which from the perspective of the United States and Western Europe had until then been an unavoidable prism for reading other critical productions, appeared fractured.
The shrewdness of the ‘Global Conceptualism’ gesture no doubt managed to effectively dominate the critical framework from which one would contemplate and validate those antagonistic practices. But more importantly, and perhaps without intending to, it allowed for the reconsideration of Conceptualism as the effect of a discourse (or multiplicity of discourses) that had itself caused breaks and a major questioning of the fabric of certain local memories – albeit in some cases at the expense of reinforcing lineages and typologies. These are complex manoeuvres, and their political implications must be addressed. What do we achieve today by reflecting on Conceptual art’s radical dimension from the perspective of the ways in which it has been historicised? How should we assess the political impact of such histories, and their effect on possible forms of recognition? Furthermore, how might we assess this effect on the production of certain forms of subjectivisation and sociability?6
The struggle of Latin American historiography to place local episodes within global narratives, in an attempt to counter the dominant geographies of art, has been successful. For some time now, artists such as Hélio Oiticica, León Ferrari, Lygia Clark, Alberto Greco, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Oscar Bony and Artur Barrio, or collective experiences such as ‘Tucumán Arde’ (‘Tucumán Burns’, 1968) and ‘Arte de los medios’ (‘Art of Media’, 1966), have become unavoidable references in virtually all recent accounts that trace the so-called inaugural landmarks of Conceptualism on a transcontinental scale. Today, however, this apparent expansion of discourse seems to demand renewed reflection, as it is no longer a matter of tirelessly continuing to accommodate events in the endless container we believe history to be, but of questioning the ways in which they reappear and the roles they play within it. Such reflection will enable us to examine the anachronisms and discontinuities of historical discourse – its fragments, snippets, shreds – and activate their ability to disrupt once again the logic of the ‘verified facts’.
In the recent essay ‘Cartografías Queer’ (2008),7 the theorist Beatriz Preciado discusses the formation of historiographic models of the so-called sexual difference from the perspective of a queer epistemological critique that could be very useful for us in this task. Considering the political scope of the historical exercise, Preciado avoids the taxonomy of places, situations or individuals and instead proposes, in direct dialogue with Félix Guattari’s ‘schizoanalytic cartographies’, a map that gives an account of the technologies of representation and modes of production of subjectivities.8 This map makes explicit how certain dominant diagrams of representation of sexual minorities come dangerously close to becoming mechanisms of social control and discipline. Can we envision a way of reading and representing that does not result in an illustrative exercise of description, but that instead allows for the perception of variations and displacements that appear as forms of subjectivisation, or even as machines of political transformation that disrupt previously established arrangements?
Preciado brings into play two antagonistic historiographic figures: the conventional model of ‘identity cartography’ (or ‘cartography of the lion’, as she terms it), concerned with seeking, defining and classifying the identities of bodies; and a ‘critical cartography’ (‘queer cartography’ or ‘cartography of the bitch’), which sidesteps writing as a topography of established representations in order instead to ‘sketch out a map of the modes of production of subjectivity’, observing the ‘technologies of representation, information and communication’ as genuine performative machines.9 These two models are divergent not only in their modes of producing visibility, but also in their ways of battling the technologies that mediate the political construction of knowledge. These issues are pervaded by the relationship between power and knowledge, and even to a greater extent by biopolitical modes of production linked to the codes of representation and the allocation of places in social space.10 Such crucial issues must be considered at a time when ‘dematerialised’ logic has begun to strike up an effective dialogue with the dynamics of global capitalism on immaterial goods.11
Following (or perhaps perverting) Preciado’s reflections, it may not be difficult to acknowledge that until recently most historiographies of modern and contemporary art have been ‘cartographies of identities’. Among these, ‘Conceptual art’ surfaced as a sanctionable identity, and the historiographic task resembled that of a detective tracking down the still unfound remains of Conceptualism in order to introduce them into the topography of the visible. It strives to offer a genealogy and geography of that which is totally representable – bringing those experiences into historical account, dispelling the mists that surrounded them, and clarifying a place apparently recovered.12
But let’s try the opposite exercise too. Let’s imagine a cartography not interested in seeking out the fragments of Conceptual art, one that even doubts the existence of such pieces. Let’s imagine a map that instead aims to explore the label itself, observing its uses and noting how it produces identities in different contexts; a map that, before attempting to function as a technique of representation, tries to expose power relations, ‘the architecture, displacement and spatialisation of power as a technology for the production of subjectivity’.13 Here it would no longer be a question of establishing formal resemblances between works, or of dating those that can effectively guide us in recognising the ‘Conceptual’ or ‘Conceptualist’ category (and its regional derivatives such as ‘Argentinean’, ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Latin American’) but, rather, of finding out how those narratives have determined the materiality and forms of visibility of what they hoped to describe, how they have negotiated their place within and without the institution and distributed it after having transformed these critical art forms into received knowledge.
Taking that tension between the cartographic models in their identitarian and queer versions as a starting point, I would like to pose a series of questions concerning some of the recent cartographical representations of Conceptual art: first, by revisiting one of the most influential accounts of so-called Latin American Conceptualism and the re-inscription of the ‘ideological’ as a category from which to consider aesthetic trends in the region; and second, by analysing a recent, almost unnoticed Argentinean exhibition that proposed a strategy for reflecting politically on how it is possible to reassess the ruptures triggered by 1960s avant-garde movements and the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. The show, notably, put forward an approach to the archive that refuses to treat this event as a chapter in the history of art and instead reactivates the anachronistic heterogeneity of meanings borne by the documentary remnants.
It was not until the early 1990s that one of the first programmatic essays of Latin American Conceptualism was published, and its ideological reverberations have accompanied many of the considerations on the subject since. Art historian Mari Carmen Ramírez wrote the essay ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ (1993) for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century’, curated by Waldo Rasmussen and organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1992.14The exhibition, which was first opened to the public in Seville and produced in the context of the celebrations commemorating the fifth centenary of the ‘discovery of America’ – a controversial exhibition on account of its perceived condescending and stereotyping discourse15 – was one of the culminating stages of the boom of Latin American art that began in the mid-1980s and fostered a depoliticised representation of Latin American culture and history, which was strongly associated with private promotional and funding interests both in the US and Latin America. The political landscape at that time included the re-establishment of democratic governments throughout the subcontinent, the internal crisis of the Left and the introduction of neo-liberal policies following the Washington Consensus.16 For several of the intellectuals who were symbolically mediating the cultural production between North and South America at the time, such as the Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera, the Chilean feminist cultural critic Nelly Richard or Ramírez herself, it was clear that what was at stake were the mechanisms of representation of the American continent at the end of the Cold War, and therefore a totally renewed political economy of signs catalysed by a sequence of exhibitions of Latin American art outside of Latin America – exhibitions that effectively were beginning to draw a new exotic, formalist and neo-colonial framework of interpretation.17
The very title of the text – ‘Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ – announced Ramírez’s focus on disruptive aesthetic forms and their socio-cultural conditions, something that was not in Rasmussen’s exhibition. The essay attempted to provide a unitary legibility to radical experiences that had until then been in large part unrelated (some of which not only had remained indifferent to the nomenclature but even rejected it),18 and by doing so it gave the label ‘Latin American Conceptualism’ one of its first major concrete manifestations. Ramírez’s intention was to challenge the then common assumption that Latin American Conceptual art was a poor, late imitation of Conceptual art ‘from the centre’, and hoped to politicise its readings by means of an argument that assigned positive value to an apparent Latin American difference. In opposition to the limited North American and British ‘analytical’ or ‘tautological’ model, the Latin American model was presented as ‘ideological Conceptualism’. Ramírez traced this binary distinction back to 1974, when it was discussed by the Spanish critic Simón Marchán Fiz, but did not go as far as to question it.19
Ramírez believed the dichotomy revealed the prominence of the ideas of a sadly self-referential Kosuth, heir apparent to the positivist legacy of Modernism. ‘In Kosuth’s model the artwork as conceptual proposition is reduced to a tautological or self-reflexive statement. He insisted that art consists of nothing other than the artist’s idea of it, and that art can claim no meaning outside itself,’20Ramírez says, echoing – voluntarily or not – some of the criticism that art historian Benjamin Buchloh had put forward fiercely just four years before,21 and indirectly playing down the political dimension implicit in the linguistic turn and its break with late-modern formalism. She thereby created an interpretative formula repeated almost to the letter in several of her subsequent essays, opposing, in general terms, a ‘depoliticised’ North American canon with a ‘political’ Latin American Conceptualism that subverts the structure of the former and actively intervenes in social space. The assertion, though somewhat provocative, traces a particularly narrow and dichotomous path of analysis, indebted to essentialist nuances that fail to establish a genuine antagonism.22
However, our intention here is not to denounce an ‘incorrect’ reading of Conceptualism, to dispute labels or to reduce Ramírez’s discourse to the use of such categories (conversely, her work puts forward noteworthy observations on the political use of communication and the ‘recovery’ of the mass-produced object in these processes). Rather, it instead is to note how that ‘difference’ shaped a specific visibility and morphology, making the distinction part of many of the debates surrounding the interpretations of the situation and, surprisingly or not, part of the ‘central’, dominant narratives, where it functions as a mystifying cliché in a process of categorisation and normalisation. Returning to some of Ramírez’s ideas, the philosopher and art theorist Peter Osborne observes:
‘Ideological content’ is the key term of Latin American Conceptual art. In distinction from the more formal ideational concerns of most US and European Conceptual art (the act/event, mathematical series, linguistic propositions or the structures of cultural forms), this was an art for which ‘ideology itself became the fundamental “material identity” of the conceptual proposition.’23
Along similar lines, though without circumscribing the ‘analytical-linguistic’ to North American Conceptualism, Alexander Alberro repeats the argument:
[T]he most extreme alternatives to models of analytic Conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 70s are those that developed in the deteriorating political and economic climate of a number of Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile.24
And in a more recent book, formulated as a Conceptualist ‘census’ of Spain with categories such as ‘poetic’, ‘political’ and ‘peripheral’, the historian Pilar Parcerisas revisits Ramírez’s thesis,25 scorning ‘the premises of the analytical orthodoxy of Conceptual art in English-speaking countries’ by attempting to elaborate on the political character of the ‘periphery’. From a range of perspectives in Latin America, that difference has been repeatedly recovered, with variations, in several recent accounts of the 1960s and 70s.26
Rather than objecting to the use of the term or any of its related epithets, what I am attempting to do is underline the need to deploy it as a diagram of power, to assess which meanings and distinctions, and which processes of normalisation and resistance are concealed in such consensual representations. This reconsideration demands a different articulation to the other concepts used by critics and artists when considering their own positions: minor expressions (to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari),27 the gradual erosion of which has contributed to the standardisation of radical experiences in order that they may establish an ‘appropriate’ exchange with centralist discourses.
For example, it would be provocative to consider the term ‘dematerialisation’ in the context of Argentina’s experimental art scene in the 1960s as the Argentinean theoretician Oscar Masotta proposed in 1967 – independently from Lucy Lippard – as deriving from El Lissitsky and his plan to integrate artists into the publishing industry of revolutionary Russia of the 1920s.28It also would be challenging to rethink a term such as ‘no-objetualismo‘ (non-object-based art), coined in Mexico by Peruvian critic Juan Acha around 1973, as part of a Marxist approach to counter-cultural protest and collective artistic experiences of the Mexican ‘grupos’ (Proceso Pentagono, Grupo Suma and No-Grupo, among others), but most significantly to indigenous aesthetic processes, such as popular art and design, that question Western art history.29 Or to re-examine concepts that artists employ to reflect on their own practice: Argentinean Ricardo Carreira uses the term ‘deshabituación‘ (‘dishabituation’) to refer to an aesthetic theory based on the political transformation of the environment through estrangement.30 In the early 1960s Alejandro Jodorowsky spoke of ‘efímeros‘ (‘ephemerals’) in reference to his series of improvised and provocative actions confronting conventional theatre, halfway between psychotropic mysticism and fantastic esotericism,31 while Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s ‘revulsive’ aesthetic agenda pledged to destabilise the roles of the artist – on other occasions Vigo defined himself as an ‘un-maker of objects’.32 These are but a few of the entries in the critical repertoire still in the shadow of the hegemonic rhetoric. Such subterranean theoretical constructs pose a latent conflict, a multitude of not-yetarticulated and potential genealogies. Beyond mere naming, these words appear as proof of the fact that there is something irreducible – a discordant crossing of stories that point to divergent ways of living and constructing the contemporary – its capacity to unfold other times.
Forty years after ‘Tucumán Arde’, the exhibition ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, organised in 2008 in the Argentinean city of Rosario, offered one of the sharpest readings among the host of curatorial approaches that have explored the episodes of radicalism and rupture in Argentina in 1968.33 That year, several groups of artists, film-makers, journalists and intellectuals organised a series of experiences that connected cultural and artistic production with dissenting forms of political intervention – often with revolutionary claims – in collaboration with militant sectors of the workers’ movement. These collaborations dramatically modified artistic and cultural practices, resulting in progressively radicalised experiences in several contexts. In this context, a group of artists – invited to the exhibition ‘Experiencias ’68’ that was organised by the pre-eminent Instituto Di Tella – broke with the institution, exhibiting in ‘Experiencias’ politically critical artworks. When the police banned one of these – an installation of a public toilet, in which the public wrote slogans critical of the military dictatorship – the artists protested, destroying their works in the streets and distributing a text denouncing the increasing repression in the country. This incident became the trigger for a major rethinking of their commitment to the artistic avant-garde, formulating a new programme of action that comprises the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. Once outside of the institution, the artists began a process of documentation and social intervention aimed at generating counter-information about the causes and consequences of the crisis that was affecting the Tucumán province after the closure of several sugar mills, and then mounting two public displays in the labour unions in Rosario and in Buenos Aires, which was closed by the police. The project connected artists with sociologists, journalists, theorists, unions, the workers’ movement and others in a process of dispute and intervention in which aesthetic and political strategies were interchanged.34
The ‘Inventario’ exhibition tried to re-assess the celebrated entry of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into the canonical historiography of international art,35 as well as its recognition as a foundational episode of Latin American, even global, ‘ideological Conceptualism’ (or ‘the mother of all political works’, as artist and sociologist Roberto Jacoby has ironically called it).36 The project introduced itself as a questioning of the process of legitimisation and institutionalisation of ‘political art’ that in recent years had focused on the 1968 events, in particular on ‘Tucumán Arde’, and resulted in a global tour that took it, among other places, to documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007.37 What is won and what is lost in the process of ‘Tucumán Arde’ becoming a legend? How should we approach the complex and heterogeneous weft of political subjectivities inscribed in the rupture of the Argentinean avant-garde of the 1960s? Is ‘Tucumán Arde’, as a landmark, a watershed moment, capable of giving an account of the most intense and radical moments of that process?
The exhibition took the transformation of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into an artwork as its starting point, approached through a selection of photographs and documents from the Carnevale archive in an attempt to visually compose a chronological micro-narrative that would describe the events of 1968. The adoption of this origin not only implied returning to the several narratives in which the Argentinean event had been inscribed over the past decade, but also exploring the documentary framework, the material background from which those reconstructions seemed to appear and disappear. The archive was put forward as capable of disrupting all narrative certainty. The exhibition had four sections, and its focus was on the display of the Carnevale archive, the most comprehensive archive of Argentinean art in the 1960s. The installation made the archive freely available (providing desks and the possibility of consulting and copying documents), enabling the circulation of conflicting accounts coming from other people involved at the time. If the fetishising logic had managed to fix the image of ‘Tucumán Arde’, reducing its complexities to mere forms with seemingly immediate meaning, this exhibition attempted to suggest a totally different cartography based on the analysis of the processes of institutional legibility, their discursive production, exhibition formats, economic transformations and publishing products, uncovering their interrelations and tensions.
‘Inventario’ opened with a long, empty corridor in which beams of light were aimed at the walls and floor. At the end of the tunnel a large number of archival images (many of them photographs taken by the group of artists from Buenos Aires and Rosario in 1968) were projected, accompanied by audio fragments of interviews held in the 1990s with trade unionists, artists and student leaders, protagonists and witnesses of several of the actions.38The entrance thereby presented an empty architecture that both revealed its own modes of display and suggested the impossibility of establishing a single story, disrupting, implicitly, the idea of the singular official version.
A second corridor presented a substantial part of Carnevale’s archive on walls and tables: photographs, posters, catalogues, writings and manifestos of the various Argentinean avant-garde events, alongside graphic work, pictures and other documents of experiences that connected art and politics in other contexts (from silkscreen prints by Taller 4 Rojo in Colombia to posters of the Brigadas Ramona Parra made before or during Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and others of the Encuentros de Plástica Latinoamericana in Havana). A panel in a third corridor traced the numerous events and exhibitions in which ‘Tucumán Arde’ had been recovered, quoted, exhibited or referenced, including information about the political and economic protocols in place in each institution, and photographs of how it was installed on each occasion. Materials related to the exhibition venue of ‘Inventario’ and the catalogue of the project (a detailed inventory of all the material in Carnevale’s archive) were displayed on several of the tables, where each publication, catalogue and edition referenced in the gallery was made available. Finally, a space presented the contributions of two recent archives generated by Argentinean activist-artists more recently involved in local experiences, posing questions about the different ways of granting visibility to those practices in an exhibition space.
The show was constructed as a series of interludes that paradoxically reformulated the collisions that had initially configured the history of the archive. The passage between one space and another acted as a distancing effect that rejected any possible teleology of facts. While the first gallery had seemed to point out the impossibility of a narrative through the random polyphony of voices and images, the third gave an account of an ‘excess of narratives’ on ‘Tucumán Arde’ and on its own construction (historiographic, curatorial, institutional, economic and social) through its recognisable trajectories and the multiple ways in which it was activated.39 Conversely, in the second gallery, the archive appeared as a potential story, an exhibited archive in use that offered its own migratory movements, its excesses and absences, its revolutions to come.
Put to use, the archive not only attempted to misplace ‘Tucumán Arde’, but to question its simple narration, re-enacting its original misidentification (its initial refusal to describe its practice as art but also its dissolution as an event driven by urgency), opening and exposing the layers of sedimentation it had accumulated. Unlike some recent interpretations that have tried to make it legible as a work of art either by taking a small number of documents and images accompanied by comments, a system of marks and footnotes for illustration purposes, or else by a total lack of comments or stories (dangerously verging on aestheticisation, as in documenta 12), this mise en scène brought fragments together according to their differences, including everything that was usually excluded from the consensual art-historical configurations that repeated its name. The installation of this exhibition rejected from the start all ‘reasonable’ understanding, showing, as Georges Didi-Huberman would say, not only the direction of its movement but the locus of its agitations.40
By presenting the actual archive, ‘Inventario’ also fell into contradictions: in spite of an attempt to present a multiplicity of times and events, as reflected by the heterogeneous archival material presented in the second tunnel, the inclusion of images of some of the most recognisable actions within ‘Tucumán Arde’ contributed to a repetition of the excessive prominence that ‘Tucumán Arde’ had already been given in written accounts of the late 1960s experiences. The photographs displayed throughout the gallery space, which had been enlarged for previous exhibitions in which they had been shown, provided an imposing presence themselves, at times even offering an unwitting chronology, especially if compared to the assemblage of documents that pointed to the complexity and impossibility of offering full descriptions. And yet, is it possible to escape from this already constructed significance?
In his most recent book, Luis Camnitzer establishes two key events for the reading of Latin American Conceptualism: the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the late 1960s in Uruguay, and the experience of rupture that led to ‘Tucumán Arde’ in 1968.41 What is important for me here is the invocation of the Argentinean experience in relation to politics from the point of view of militants, or even armed conflict. Despite the possible good intentions behind its attempt to politicise historiographic accounts, we should ask ourselves whether the twosome Tupamaros/’Tucumán Arde’ and the idealised image of ‘resistance’ in which it places the Latin American Conceptual art history implies a pre-established consensus that reaffirms a certain stereotype of subversive art. If that is the case, does this point to a dead end for the politicisation of Conceptualism, and for its criticism? To what extent has an experience such as ‘Inventario’ managed to suggest an alternative representation of the usual story, to fracture narrative certainties or to dispute its stereotyped places? Is it possible to establish a topography of that which cannot yet be named, an index that refuses nomenclatures and stands alone, only to become disorder and pure unpredictability?
I have followed two clues in what I consider the cartographic or diagrammatic forms of critical reading that operate in tension with recent processes of historicisation of ‘Latin American Conceptualism’. The first is an open question that speculates on the interpretative categories stabilised and legitimised in a specific order of discourse, and other secondary notions subsumed in that particular configuration of the ‘Latin American’ which presents itself as a uniform fabric – decentred concepts that would otherwise distort the usual flows of meaning and expose us to dissenting testimonies. The second is the gap between the conventional exhibition formats of ‘Tucumán Arde’, between the individuation of a set of documents that present the chronology of what is considered the artistic ‘episode’, and the presentation of the archive that disrupts and dismantles the order of this appearance. Besides its obvious limitations, the return to the archive is also a misidentification of an event countless times named – classified, arranged, defined – and whose name and materiality are repeatedly questioned in an attempt to bring difference to the surface. On display are merely temporary installations that enable us to return to those operations as a potential space from which to redefine relations between spaces, words and bodies.42
Forty years ago the Argentinean artist Eduardo Costa made a piece in which he proposed a counter-history of Latin American Conceptualism, one based on mixing up the dates: A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. In this short text, written for the exhibition ‘Art in the Mind’, Costa suggested stealing history as a political activation of Conceptual practice, challenging ‘reasonable’ consolidations by historical narrative – a historiographic practice deliberately formulated around error.43 His work seemed to insist on the possibility of thinking that rationalist history has been permanently mistaken – that there is no possible story, but merely a circumstantial sum of paradoxes, trades and sleights of hand, and that an erratic alteration in its diagram of successions simply adds to its most joyous (in)coherence, celebrating its impossibility.
Costa’s work reminds us that history is never neutral, and if there should be any pending task it is precisely to be unfaithful to it, to betray it. This does not mean giving up on historical reflection, but rather corrupting whatever degree of Christian fidelity and Calvinist obedience history still inspires, unravelling its destiny and ultimate causes. Looking back at those events consigned to oblivion should allow us to recover their salutary force, their emancipatory thrill and at the same time to activate a nostalgia for the future. We do not recover the past in order to make it exist as a bundle of skeletons, but to disturb the orders and assurances of the present. The task of reintegrating the subversive component of whatever we happen to be historicising can’t be resolved by communicating as truth what we apparently know. It is neither a question of producing exhibitions or books on a certain theme, nor of drawing up lists, directories or summaries. It is a question of making the event spill over and break down established modes of thinking about the past and the future, and generating ways of allowing for whatever is excluded to eventually challenge the consensus and bring back the parts of an unresolved conflict.
Eduardo Costa, quoted in Athena T. Spear (ed.), Art in the Mind (exh. cat.), Oberlin, OH: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1970, n.p.↑
The term ‘dematerialisation’, introduced by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, for a long time was used as the key term to identify Conceptual art in North America and Western Europe. See Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’,Art International, vol.12, no.2, February 1968, pp.31-36 and Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, 1973.↑
In Latin America those discussions happened around the Bienal de La Habana, which, since its creation in 1984, has become an important forum of discussion disengaged from the international art market. Another significant moment at an international scale is the coinciding in 1997 of documenta X, curated by Catherine David, and the second Johannesburg Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor.↑
Luis Camnitzer points out that ‘while “conceptual art” is an anecdotal little label in the history of universal art, “conceptualism” as a strategy created a rupture in the appreciation of all art and in the behaviour of artists, regardless of their location’. Fernando Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer: “Global Conceptualism fue algo intestinal e incontrolable, al mismo tiempo que presuntuoso y utópico”‘, Ramona, no.86, November 2008, p.29. See also Rachel Weiss, ‘Re-writing Conceptual Art’, Papers d’Art, no.93, 2007, pp.198-202. Translation the author’s.↑
F. Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer’, op. cit., p.26.↑
This last question was put forward by theoretician José Luis Brea in his considerations of the political effects of visuality. See J.L. Brea, ‘Los estudios visuales: por una epistemología política de la visualidad’, in J.L. Brea (ed.), Los estudios visuales: La epistemología de la visualidad en la era de la globalización, Madrid: Akal, 2005, pp.5-14.↑
Beatriz Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer: El flâneur perverso, la lesbiana topofóbica y la puta multicartográfica, o cómo hacer una cartografía “zorra” con Annie Sprinkle’, in José Miguel Cortés (ed.), Cartografías disidentes, Madrid: SEACEX, 2008, n.p.↑
See Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1989.↑
As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt remind us, these biopolitical modes of production do not only involve the production of tangible goods in a purely economic sense, but ‘affect all spheres of social, economic, cultural and political life, at the same time as they produce them’. A. Negri and M. Hardt, ‘Preface’, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.xi.↑
Boris Groys has clearly expressed some of the effects of this paradox in art: ‘If life is no longer understood as a natural event, as fate, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicised, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these new conditions of biopolitics – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. Now, however, time, duration and thus life too cannot be shown directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact-finding reports, statistical inquiries and project plans. It is no coincidence that art also uses the same medium of documentation when it wants to refer to itself as life.’ Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’, Documenta 11_ Platform 5: Exhibition (exh. cat.), 2002, p.109.↑
The issue also involves the critical modes of working around the concepts that sustain these historiographic exercises. It is possible to say, for instance, that to a certain extent ‘Global Conceptualism’ adopted the task of the ethnologist, raking up experiences in different geographies and marking its affinities and Conceptualist identities, and yet, paradoxically, its strategy facilitated the mise-en-critique of identity itself. An acritical example of the identity discourse is provided by Álvaro Barrios’s book Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1999), which offers a narrative made up of interviews in which several leading figures of the 1960s and 70s guide the story’s main character (Barrios himself), who appears increasingly convinced of his ability to truly recover the unrecognised Conceptualist element. Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1968-1978), Bogotá: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 1999.↑
Mari Carmen Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’, in Waldo Rasmussen, Fatima Bercht and Elizabeth Ferrer (ed.), Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, pp.156-67.↑
The exhibition presented Latin American art production as a tame continuation of modern Western aesthetic movements, avoiding any type of political reflection on the colonial history of the subcontinent. Most critics agreed in characterising it as a blatant attempt to ‘maintain a total control of the ideological and aesthetic premises […] and of their interpretation’ from categories projected from the outside. Shifra M. Goldman, ‘Artistas latinoamericanos del siglo XX, MoMA’ (trans. Magdalena Holguín), ArtNexus, no.10, September-December 1993, pp.84-89.↑
Drawn up in 1989 and promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury Department, the Washington Consensus is a list of measures for economic reform that presented itself as the ‘best’ programme to face the crisis and ‘underdevelopment’ of Latin America, among which were liberalisation of trade and investment, deregulation and a general withdrawal of the state from economic matters.↑
Some of these debates, from a Latin American cultural perspective opposed to European and North American dominance, can be found in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: The Institute of International Visual Arts, 1995.↑
Juan Pablo Renzi, a driving force in ‘Tucumán Arde’, was emphatic about this. In a work titled Panfleto no.3. La nueva moda (Pamphlet no.3. The New Fashion, 1971), which he contributed to the ‘Arte de Sistemas’ exhibition organised by the Museo de Arte Moderno/Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires in 1971, he stated: ‘What is in fashion now is Conceptual art […] and it turns out that (at least for some critics like Lucy Lippard and Jorge Glusberg) I am one of those responsible for the onset of this phenomenon (together with my colleagues from the ex-groups of revolutionary artists in Rosario and Buenos Aires from ’67 to ’68). This assertion is mistaken. Just as any intention of linking us to that aesthetic speculation is mistaken.’ And he concludes: ‘REGARDING OUR MESSAGES: 1. We are not interested in them being considered aesthetic. 2. We structure them according to their contents. 3. They are always political and are not always transmitted by official channels like this one. 4. We are not interested in them as works but as a means of denouncing exploitation.’↑
The same reference to Marchán Fiz’s ‘ideological Conceptualism’ had already been made one year earlier by the North American critic Jacqueline Barnitz in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Encounters/ Displacements. Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles’, curated by Ramírez and Beverly Adams. However, Ramírez’s voice was the one that consolidated and furthered the argument most effectively, making it an indispensable reference for many subsequent interpretations. A decisive factor in this consolidation was the repetition of the line of argument in the catalogue of ‘Global Conceptualism’ and later on in two large-scale international surveys of Latin American art she was also in charge of: ‘Heterotopías. Medio siglo sin lugar 1918-1968′ at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in 2000; and ‘Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America’ at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2004. Marchán Fiz doesn’t quite completely confine the ‘ideologisation’ to Conceptual art from Latin American nor self-referentiality to European/North American work. See J. Barnitz, ‘Conceptual Art in Latin America: A Natural Alliance’, in M.C. Ramírez and B. Adams (ed.), Encounters/Displacements: Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles (exh. cat.), Austin: Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, 1992, pp.35-47; M.C. Ramírez, ‘Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980′, in L. Camnitzer, J. Farver and R. Weiss (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (exh. cat.), op. cit., pp.53-71; Simón Marchán Fiz, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Madrid: Alberto Corazón Editor, 1974 .↑
Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art, 1962-1969)’, in l’art conceptuel, une perspective (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, pp.41-53.↑
Historian Jaime Vindel has also noted the contradictions in responding to the centre/periphery relationship through an equally binary opposition: ‘By basing their position on an antagonist with no real voice, these discourses run the risk of making their publicity dependent on the centre/periphery logic against which they declare they stand and to which they are still yielding.’ J. Vindel, ‘A propósito [de la memoria] del arte político: Consideraciones en torno a “Tucumán Arde” como emblema del conceptualismo latinoamericano’, lecture given at the 5th International Conference of Theory and History of the Arts – 13th CAIA Symposium, Buenos Aires, October 2009.↑
Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2002, p.37.↑
Alexander Alberro, ‘Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977, in A. Alberro and Blake Stimson (ed.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, pp.xxv-xxvi.↑
Pilar Parcerisas, Conceptualismo(s) Poéticos, Políticos, Periféricos: En torno al arte conceptual en España. 1964-1980, Madrid: Akal, 2007, p.27.↑
In a 1997 text Camnitzer celebrated Ramírez’s argument, which he found enlightening for its understanding of the regional differences of Conceptualism, which emphasised the relationship between Duchamp and the modern tradition of Mexican muralism, starting from its foray into the social sphere with communicative goals. Broadly speaking, however, Camnitzer shares Ramírez’s view of North American Conceptual art, which he brands ‘a quasi-mystical search for the imponderable’. L. Camnitzer, ‘Una genealogía del arte conceptual latino-americano’, Continente Sul Sur, no.6, November 1997, p.187. Other historians who have used the expression ‘ideological Conceptualism’ more or less critically over the past few years include Andrea Giunta, Ana Longoni, María José Herrera, Ivonne Pini, Miguel González, Cristina Freire and Alberto Giudici. Due to problems of space, this text will not compare the conflicting meanings and the implications inscribed in their uses.↑
‘A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. […] The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. Minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. […] We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (trans. Dana B. Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp.16-18.↑
See Oscar Masotta, ‘Después del pop, nosotros desmaterializamos’ (1967), in O. Masotta,Revolución en el arte: Pop-art, happenings y arte de los medios en la década del sesenta, Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2004, pp.335-76. For Lucy Lippard’s use of the term, see L.R. Lippard, Six Years, op. cit.↑
As yet, there is no study dealing with Juan Acha’s critical thinking of the 1960s and 70s, and the political process that led to the emergence of ‘no-objetualismo‘. For a first, partial attempt, see Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, ‘Juan Acha y la Revolución Cultural. La transformación de la vanguardia artística en el Perú a fines de los Sesenta’, in Juan Acha, Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass-media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos , Lima: IIMA – Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008, pp.1-17.↑
Ana Longoni, ‘El Deshabituador: Ricardo Carreira in the Beginnings of Conceptualism’, in Viviana Usubiaga and A. Longoni, Arte y literatura en la Argentina del siglo XX, Buenos Aires: Fundación Telefónica, Fundación Espigas and FIAAR, 2006, pp.159-203.↑
See Cuauhtémoc Medina, ‘Recovering Panic’, in Olivier Debroise (ed.), The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997, Mexico DF: UNAM, 2007, pp.97-103.↑
In October 1968, in a newspaper and on local radio Vigo made the surprising call for his first ‘señalamiento‘ (‘appointment’) titled Manojo de Semáforos (A Handful of Traffic Lights). The proposal called for people to look at an ordinary object for its aesthetic potential to cause ‘revulsion’. See F. Davis, ‘Prácticas “revulsivas”: Edgardo Antonio Vigo en los márgenes del conceptualismo’, in C. Freire and A. Longoni (ed.), Conceitualismos do Sul/Sur, São Paulo: Annablume, USP-MAC and AECID, 2009, pp.283-98.↑
‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, Centro Cultural Parque de España, Rosario (3 October-9 November 2008). The team working on the show was made up of the artist Graciela Carnevale, historians Ana Longoni and Fernando Davis, and Ana Wandzik, an artist from Rosario. This project constituted the first curatorial experiment in political activation by the Red Conceptualismos del Sur group.↑
For further discussion of the experiences of 1968 in Argentina, see G. Carnevale et al. (ed.), Tucumán Arde. Eine Erfahrung: Aus dem Archiv von Graciela Carnevale, Berlin: b_books, 2004.↑
While its earliest mentions date back to the late 1960s, its incorporation within the canon since the late 1990s, through a series of essays, exhibitions and publications, quickly multiplied its visibility. International exhibitions include I Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 1997; ‘Global Conceptualism’ in 1999 and ‘Heterotopías’ in 2000; ‘Ambulantes. Cultura Portátil’ curated by Rosa Pera at CAAC, Seville; ‘Inverted Utopias’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2004; and ‘Be what you want but stay where you are’, curated by Ruth Noack and Roger M. Buergel at Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2005.↑
Roberto Jacoby, ‘Tucucu mama nana arara dede dada’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.86-91.↑
Even though the most prevalent reading of ‘Tucumán Arde’ places it within the ‘Conceptual’ genealogy, others have tried to relate it to a history of political intervention, collective production or militant research. Examples of this are the dossier ‘Les fils de Marx et Mondrian: Dossier argentine’, published in Robho magazine (nos.5-6, 1971, pp.16-22) or anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s discussion of ‘Tucumán Arde’ in the context of the process of integration of artistic avant-gardes with popular organisations. See N. García Canclini, ‘Vanguardias artísticas y cultura popular’, Transformaciones, no.90, 1973, pp.273-75. More recently, Brian Holmes has noted the impact this experience had on several activist groups operating in Europe in the late 1990s. See A. Longoni, Daniela Lucena et al., ‘”Un sentido como el de Tucumán Arde lo encontramos hoy en el zapatismo”: Entrevista colectiva a Brian Holmes’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.7-22. Similar readings are proposed by exhibitions such as ‘Antagonismes. Casos d’estudi’, curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and José Lebrero at MACBA, Barcelona, 2001; ‘Collective Creativity: Common Ideas for Life and Politics’, curated by What, How and for Whom at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel in 2005 and the project ExArgentina, organised by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmman.↑
The interviews were conducted by Mariano Mestman and A. Longoni; some of them were eventually published in their book Del Di Tella a ‘Tucumán Arde’. Vanguardia artística y política en el ’68 argentino, Buenos Aires: El cielo por asalto, 2000.↑
See F. Davis and A. Longoni, ‘Apuntes para un balance difícil: Historia mínima de “Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale”‘, unpublished text presented at the 2nd Red Conceptualismos del Sur Reunion, Rosario, October 2008.↑
‘Politics are only displayed by exposing the conflicts, the paradoxes, the reciprocal clashes that weave history,’ says Didi-Huberman in his considerations of the Brechtian notion of montage. ‘[M]ontage appears as the procedure par excellence in this exposition: its objects are not revealed when taking position but once they have been taken apart, as is said in French to describe the violence of a “unbridled” storm, wave against wave, or as is said of a watch “dismantled”, i.e. analysed, explored and therefore spread by the passion of knowing applied by a philosopher or a Baudelairian child.’ G. Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes toman posición, Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2008, p.153. Editors’ translation.↑
See L. Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp.44-72. Camnitzer, however, points at alternative coordinates, such as the writings of nineteenth-century Venezuelan writer and educator Simón Rodríguez, who taught Simón Bolívar. For Camnitzer, the Tupamaros’s use of ‘aestheticised military operations’ and Rodríguez’s ‘ideological aphorisms’ contribute to what he calls a ‘didactics of liberation': communication process aimed at generating actual changes in society.↑
‘Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche. It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions “proper” to such classifications.’ Jacques Rancière, ‘Dix thèses sur la politique’, Aux Bords du Politique, Paris: Gallimard, p.229.↑
A.T. Spear, Art in the Mind, op. cit. Translated by Josephine Watson.↑