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Friday, April 29, 2005

Back from the Exurbs

Oh, it feels good to be back home in the city. I have a warm spot for Chicago--striving city on the lake that it is--but the miles and miles of suburbs that surround it make me really anxious. All that traffic going from nowhere to nowhere. All that margin with absolutely no connection to the center. I feel unanchored there--and not in a good way. I had better get used to it, though. I'll be spending a lot of time there over the next few months.

But, on the flip side, all the stars aligned for me Thursday night, and I managed to slip into the city for a quick peek at Millennium Park and the new American galleries at the Art Institute. I'll have some impressions of both next week.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Seen on Artnet

Jerry Saltz's latest Village Voice column went up on Artnet yesterday, and it's a must read.

Rather than covering a show, this installment treats the much maligned Artforum Diary. Saltz's take on the feature: "It makes you feel shallow, irked, envious or nauseous. Sometimes . . . you feel all four at once."

Unlike most of us lazy bloggers, though, Saltz doesn't stop with the cheap shot. He actually continues on to say something smart:
The characters in the Diary are only actors in a passing infomercial. If enough young artists and dealers start turning away, this turning away will turn into something else. . . . Artists needn't give up partying; everyone should have as much pleasure as possible. Some claim the glibness of the Diary is causing "brand erosion" to Artforum. Perhaps, but despite the superficiality of the Diary, the general situation is actually improving. Artists don't have to say the destroying "no" of punk. A promising cast of newcomers is taking the stage and they seem ready to deploy the seditious "yes" that says, "I'll participate, but on my own terms."
I like that. I have a piece coming out shortly in another forum that talks about the future state of the art market, and I make a similar point there. I'm of the opinion that the pendulum will be swinging back in the near future, and seriousness and innovation will be rewarded over the novelty and superficiality that drive much of the market today.

The only enhancement I would make to Saltz's point here is that I called it "brand dilution," not "brand erosion." But that's not a big deal.

A bigger deal, though (while we're on the topic of making clarifications to Artnet's content), is Richard Polsky's most recent contribution to the site. Polsky might have mentioned that the NBA simile in his first paragraph was first used somewhere else last month.

That's it for me. Today I'm on a flight to the Midwest (lugging along a case of bronchitis I picked up in Europe) where I'll be firing on three cylinders for the rest of the week. Anything else that gets posted here this week will be gravy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Lead Us Not into Temptation

But deliver us from over-zealous city council members. Please deliver us from them.

By way of JL of Modern Kicks, guesting this week at Grammar.police, comes this item from Massachusetts. Here's the lede:

NORTH ADAMS -- The North Adams City Council will review today an ordinance proposed by Councilor Robert R. Moulton Jr. "on moral grounds" that would prohibit displays of nude artwork in downtown shops, galleries, sidewalks and public places.

In his letter to the council, Moulton stated that he wants councilors "to look into adopting some kind of city ordinance to prohibit the public display of any picture, artwork, painting or statue that shows any nude or partially nude male or female that would be covered on a public beach."
The proposed ordinance doesn't have the universal support of Moulton's colleagues on the council. Says one, William Donovan:
"There must be more to this, because what's on the surface here is something that the City Council should not consider," said Donovan. "If we pass that, we're going to look like a rerun of the Beverly Hillbillies."
Actually, if I'm remembering my 1960s sitcoms correctly, the Beverly Hillbillies showed a pretty healthy attitude toward public display of the female anatomy. Maybe Donovan should have referenced something a bit more puritanical and a bit more local--something like The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible, perhaps.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Exhibition That Ought to Be an Essay

Japan Society’s current exhibition, Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, leads the field of spring shows in terms of press exposure. In one respect, that’s the way it should be. The show, curated, by Takashi Murakami, presents an important and compelling thesis on contemporary Japanese culture.

That thesis, though, isn’t thoroughly supported or developed in the small installation at Japan Society. Murakami’s idea would be better illustrated in a catalogue essay than it is by the exhibition.

Given the amount of hype it has received, the show is surprisingly small. Filling the modest second floor gallery space at Japan Society and spilling out across the city with a few pieces of public art, Murakami doesn’t really have the space to thoroughly illustrate his concept of “superflat.” And that’s a shame.

Murakami’s reading of Japanese society’s reaction to the atomic bombing and forced demilitarization is insightful. It’s an example of what every scholar practicing cultural studies should aspire to. The show, though, doesn’t present enough work to fully illustrate the idea or tease out its nuances.

A mixture of commercial products (one installation contains more Hello Kitty product than I’ve ever seen in one place), regional mascot costumes, Godzilla toys, anime, and painting, the show illustrates the interconnectedness between what we in the West consider to be high and low art.

Because of the limited space, though, the installation shortchanges the originating concept for the show. Walking through the installation I wished for more painting. I didn’t want less of the cute product Murakami includes in the show, but I did want to see more examples of how painters, sculptors, and print makers are responding to popular culture’s infatuations.

The most interesting aspect of the show is the dialectic that emerges between the commercial products and the work of what we call fine artists. There just isn’t enough art in the show, though, to produce the level of dialogue that Murakami’s reading of culture warrants.

My advice: save the $12 admission charge and use it to buy the catalogue when it is released on May 1. I’m assuming the argument will be well made there. And that it will be fully illustrated.

Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (through July 24, 2005) at Japan Society.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 8

Sometimes it’s good to be bad. Here’s a favorite that still drives a fair bit of search engine traffic.

I was a little worried in the days after I posted this because I was getting significant traffic into the site from the good people at S.C. Johnson & Sons—that family company that owns the Glade® brand. Fortunately, I guess, those folks in Wisconsin had a sense of humor. Or maybe they let it slide because I remembered to use the ®.

The Thomas Kinkade Company Acquires Maurizio Cattelan

Thanks for putting up with my self-indulgence over the last several days. Next Monday we’ll be back to regular posting.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 7

Most of the time, getting snubbed is annoying. Occasionally, though, it can provide the hook for a decent review of a piece of public art.

Made for TV at Rockefeller Center

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 6

A couple weeks ago, Tyler spent an afternoon at MoMA teaching kids to walk on the art. I’ll step on an artwork any chance I get, but aside from the occasional Andre work I don’t get too many of those opportunities.

Last summer, though, I had the privilege of walking on one of the most monumental works of the twentieth century—Spiral Jetty.

When I returned from Utah, I blogged a sort of travelogue documenting the experience of visiting Smithson’s piece. This post talks about what it’s like to actually walk on the jetty.

Walking the Jetty

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 5

Today I am in Geneva moderating a panel discussion on workflow in new business operations at the International Underwriting Congress.

You may be wondering what, exactly, I know about this topic.

I know enough to make sure that I talk about something I actually know a little bit about. So in my introductory remarks, I’m speaking about architectural history--to be specific, about Gordon Bunshaft’s Wilde Building and corporate campus outside Hartford, CT.

In the mid-1950s executives at the Connecticut General insurance company commissioned Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to replace their downtown Hartford headquarters with a new building on a plot of land located several miles outside the city. Bunshaft and his client fundamentally rethought how work was completed in the insurance industry. Working together they designed a building that functioned, in certain respects, as a factory for processing insurance paperwork.

In the process, Bunshaft (along with Florence Knoll who did the interiors and Isamu Noguchi who designed the building’s courtyards and contributed a monumental sculpture for the grounds—seen below) created a new paradigm for thinking about the office and the suburban office park. For complex reason, though, this steel and glass jewel is threatened with destruction today.





Too many examples of modernist architecture are being compromised or destroyed these days. Last October, I attributed this to what I called the “forty year itch.”

Respect and the Forty Year Itch

Related: my remembrance of noted architectural photographer Ezra Stoller (the individual responsible for documenting most of these great mid-century buildings) who passed away last November

Monday, April 18, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 4

I’ve been taking more than my share of cheap shots at docents in the last two weeks. But that’s OK. It’s healthy to laugh at yourself and your own foibles, right?

I wouldn’t have to make so much fun of my well-meaning colleagues, though, if they would just follow a small set of rules for talking about art when they’re on the museum floor. I listed five of these rules back in August, and I added a sixth after a visit to the Getty Center last September.

Rules 1-5: Five Simple Rules for Talking about Art
Rule 6: A Day in LA

Friday, April 15, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 3

Last October, I had the opportunity to interview sculptor Robert Lazzarini. Lazzarini, as you can see, speaks eloquently about his sculptural objects.

I originally ran the interview over five consecutive days. Today’s link points to the first post in the series. You’ve got all weekend. Go ahead and make your way through all five parts.

Discussion with Robert Lazzarini: Part 1 of 5

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 2

Last Friday police in Oslo arrested a man in conjunction with the August armed theft of two Edvard Munch paintings. While the works have not yet been recovered, officials are optimistic that they will be.

In the days after last summer's theft, I contemplated museum security policies and proposed a few steps that New York’s Dia should take to ensure the security of their collection in response to this new threat of brazen daylight armed robbery. The post could just as well be called "How to Steal a Serra."

Proposed Security Enhancements in Light of the Munch Theft

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Best of From the Floor: Part 1

Much of what gets posted here is due to serendipity. That was certainly the case last October when I happened to run across a review of Roger Kimball’s most recent book and Jacques Derrida’s obituary on the same day.

Seeing these items in quick succession brought me back to my graduate school days when I rubbed shoulders with both these men. This piece arose from my momentary bout of nostalgia.

The post still drives a fair amount of search engine traffic to the site. Every few days there is someone, somewhere in the world, looking to Google to provide instructions on how to use a waiter's corkscrew. This piece, like much of what else gets posted here, is a tease that way--promising something useful but never actually delivering as it peters off into self-absorbed musings. But, hey, that's what blogs are all about, right?

If a blogger and arm-chair critic could have an artist’s statement, this would be mine.

Why We’re Called “From the Floor”

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Over There Again

I've drawn the travel straw at the office again, so I'm heading overseas for the next week and a half.

Since I don't plan to do much blogging while I'm away, I thought I would try something different. Over the next several days, I'll be running best of From the Floor features that point back to some of my favorite posts strewn throughout the archives.

The pieces I've picked are a mix of issues-based items, reviews, and funny stuff. I'll include a bit of additional commentary on each to bring it up to date. Enjoy.

Monday, April 11, 2005

NYPL to Deaccession Artworks

The New York Times reports today on the New York Public Library's plans to sell 19 significant pieces of art to fund it future collections activity.

The cache of works includes two Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington and one of Asher Durand's most well-known paintings, Kindred Spirits (at right). The sale, to be handled through Sotheby's, is expected to bring $50M-75M.

The library has stated its intention to give preferential pricing terms to any New York museum interested in purchasing pieces from the collection.

Let's hope the Met has enough left in its special acquisition coffers after the Duccio Madonna and Child purchase to step up to the plate for a couple of these pieces.

Arbus Out Loud, Way Loud

One of the pleasures of a single-artist retrospectives comes in the ability to view familiar pieces in the context of the artist’s larger body of works. Occasionally surprises emerge, causing changes of opinion. The Diane Arbus retrospective provides just that experience.

Arbus is best known for her sympathetic photographic portraits of those living on the edges of 1960s American society—from debutante princesses at one end to burlesque performers at the other. Arbus throws in a delightful gaggle of transvestites, ladies who lunch, and nudists for good measure.

The traveling exhibition now at the Met rolls out all of Arbus’s greatest hits: the identical twin girls, the boy with the hand grenade, the Jewish giant, and the young Brooklyn family with the troubled son.

The exhibition, showcasing her original vision consistently realized, confirms Arbus’s place in the canon of twentieth-century American art. At the risk of sounding retrograde and shamefully pre–post-modern, seeing the exhibition reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s thoughts in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Arbus’s work reconfigured the canon when it entered, changing how we look at what came before her (the famous FSA portraits from the Depression era now look stilted) and defining new terrain for those who came after her (think of Nan Goldin, among others).

The presentation of the show, though, leaves much to be desired. As a typical Met installation, this one features dark walls, rooms with little ambient light, and harshly spot lit work. (The show, thankfully, avoids the onerous wall texts regularly seen there.)

Arbus’s photography doesn’t suffer from this presentation as much as work in recent painting shows has, but the collections of her journals and other ephemera are practically unviewable in this environment. Presented in darkened rooms constructed within the large galleries, the items (all lit by overhead spots) fall into a deep shadow when viewers bend over to examine them. I actually yearned for some diffuse florescent lighting in these spaces so that I see the items on display.

Seeing Arbus’s work brought together here gave me a new view of one of her well-known series. In 1969 Arbus began visiting what used to be called “mental hospitals” in New Jersey to photograph the residents. Many of the subjects of these photos have Down Syndrome. Arbus wrote to her daughter about these individuals, “They are the strangest combination of grownup and child I have ever seen.”

These works, installed near the end of the exhibition, provide a jarring moment in the show. They just don’t feel right here. They’re loud. Too loud. Much too loud.

Arbus, prior to this point, had perfected the approach of finding a hint of the grotesque poking through the veneer of normalcy: the young man, looking uncomfortable with himself, wearing a button that says “Bomb Hanoi”; the people next door who happen to spend weekends at a nudist camp; the pursed lip of a heavily made-up Puerto Rican woman hinting at something sinister in her personality.

In the photos of the institutionalized individuals, though, Arbus turns the volume up. With these subjects the difference from society’s norm is abundantly clear, but Arbus chose to square that difference by shooting her subjects in Halloween masks and costumes—adding culture’s most visible manifestation of the grotesque to her strongest flirtation with physical and mental deformity to that point in time. She wrote of these subjects and photos, “It’s the first time I’ve encountered a subject where the multiplicity is the thing.”

The multiplicity, here, becomes too much. This series is well known. Seen in isolation, the works have a tragic beauty and a power to them. But seen in the context of Arbus’s quieter, more delicate and sensitive work, they screech. They grate like fingers pulled down the chalkboard. They offend.

Arbus mastered the art of looking closely, and sympathetically, at the outsider. That eye is on view throughout the exhibition. In the few rooms that present her portraits of the institutionalized, though, that sensitive eye turns voyeuristic. I had never noticed that change in perspective before. Sometimes it takes seeing a large retrospective for insights like this to arrive.

Diane Arbus Revelations (through May 30, 2005) at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Docent Tour I Skipped

Heard as I was entering the Basquiat show today at the Brooklyn Museum.

"I am going to talk about Basquiat's aesthetical development more than other things. I've heard the curators talk about it a couple times, and I think I can do a good job."

Friday, April 08, 2005

Enforced Brevity

Earlier this week someone jokingly accused me of being a bourgeois intellectual because of a couple longish posts I've published recently. I countered that I didn't think the Maoists would send me off for reeducation because, even though the posts were long and heady, I used the word "revolution" a few times in one.

I shouldn't have spoken so soon. Blogger updated their publishing software yesterday, and the update contains a bug (at least I hope it's a bug) that keeps posts of greater than 150 words from publishing. All blogging must now occur in sound bites.

I have something on the Arbus retrospective ready to go, but it exceeds the 150 word limit. So no Arbus until the bug is fixed. Or until my reeducation is complete and I can boil my thoughts on the show down to the length of a propaganda slogan.

Update: Looks like the bug is fixed. We'll be back to wordy bourgeois intellectualism with a Diane Arbus review on Monday.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Best and Worst

From around the blogosphere this morning.

Sarah links to an ad for what appears to be the best art-related internship ever.

Greg highlights a couple reviews that put two curmudgeons in the running for the title of worst art critic ever.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Style Beyond Fashion

A couple things I’ve seen recently have caused me to think about time, the duration of artistic styles, and the whims of fashion.

Tim Hawkinson has included Spin Sink in his current Whitney retrospective. These twenty-four interlocking gears, the larger of which use wide-wale corduroy for teeth, serve as a giant clock of sorts. The first miniscule gear spins at 1400 revolutions per minute. With each successively larger gear in the chain, the number of revolutions per time cycle decreases rapidly, until the final gear rotates once every century.

(Hawkinson trivia: If you Google around to find out about this piece you’ll see other mentions of the final gear rotating once every 83 years. After the work’s original showing, Hawkinson slowed down the first gear from 1600 RPM to make the last one mark out an even century.)

Watching the piece run forces viewers to contemplate their embeddedness in time. It’s impossible to see the motion of the first couple gears because they move too quickly for the eye to register. It’s also impossible, while viewing the piece, to see movement in the last 17 or 18, as their rotational cycles are measured in days, months, and years.

With this piece Hawkinson has given us a clock that marks off a century. In the period it takes the largest gear to complete one revolution, all of the work’s viewers will pass away.

Of course, the piece will never actually measure a century as it is often unplugged, moved to a new location for display, reset, then plugged back in. The work is conceptual in that way. It’s not about measuring an actual century as much as it is about the idea of measuring a century.

I thought of Spin Sink recently while I was walking through Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Begun in 1882, construction of the cathedral continues today, with completion of the nave scheduled for roughly 2035. The building is being completed on a medieval time scale, with a groundbreaking-to-dedication project schedule that stretches over six generations. It’s possible for craftsmen on the project to spend their whole careers involved with it, and still never see the building near completion.

Society no longer works on the time scale of centuries. In today’s corporate world a five-year time horizon is considered long-term. Hawkinson’s work calls our attention to the fact that time exists in larger increments than we plan for or observe in our everyday existence. Gaudí’s work, still moving toward completion 120 years after it was begun, reminds us of an era when taking the long view was admired.

In the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first, a work like Sagrada Familia being completed over a century gets locked into a style that will be anachronistic by the time it is completed. Gaudí’s cathedral has one entrance that drips with Spanish, neo-baroque ornamentation and another that is a case study in spare, angular (but still decorative) modernism. The cathedral embraces two artistic styles that, different as they are, will both be signs of past eras when the building eventually reaches completion.

By expending tremendous amounts of effort to finish a work in a style that has moved out of fashion already, the builders of the cathedral make us take the long view, make us want to sit with Hawkinson’s Spin Sink for a little longer than we ordinarily would to see if we can spot one of the larger gears moving, to think about what will endure and what will blow away when the winds of fashion change direction next.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Consensus

Last week Mark Stevens asked the question in the title of his New York Magazine piece.

This week Michael Kimmelman answers in the last sentence of his review for the New York Times.

Monday, April 04, 2005

de Kooning Wins the Pulitzer

Following up on its National Book Critics Circle Award, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's de Kooning: An American Master has won this year's Pulitzer Prize for biography.

A complete list of this year's award winners is available here.

Housekeeping

I've done my quarterly update of links in the right-side navigation bar. I've added several blogs to the "Selected Daily Reads" section so that it more closely matches what I'm looking at daily in my new aggregator.

I have a couple pieces in the works for this week--one on the Diane Arbus show now at the Met and another on the subject of style vs. fashion based on a few things I saw in Barcelona last week.

For those of you anxiously waiting for the post on bug zappers that I promised recently, don't hold your breath. The item itself got zapped when I realized that I wasn't able to make something suitably interesting from the fact that I've seen more pieces that include bug zappers in the last month than I have in the last few years. So we'll leave it as an uncommented observation and move on.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Enough with the Heavy Stuff

I know, I know. Too much seriousness lately. Here's the antidote.

Courtesy of Iconoduel, a link good for one free download (or two or three or more) of the 1999 Simpsons episode where Homer becomes an outsider artist, complete with guest appearance by Jasper Johns. One of my favorite lines:

Homer: What's going on here? You weirdoes love this stuff.

Astrid: Homer, I'm afraid they only love what's new and shocking. These pieces are just like your earlier work.

Gunter: You've gone from hip to boring. Why don't you call us when you get to kitsch?


Friday, April 01, 2005

Food for Thought: Fried

In the March Artforum, Michael Fried looks back almost 40 years to “Art and Objecthood” to develop a new approach for understanding Thomas Demand’s recent work, now on view at MoMA.

Fried’s take goes like this. With his photography of paper sculptures of documentary photographs, Demand wrests back the artistic intentionality that the Minimalists ceded to the viewer.

To get to this point, Fried reads Demand’s work through the theoretical framework he developed for understanding how work by the Minimalists (or, as he called them, the “literalists”) functioned in relationship to its viewers. He recaps his original argument this way:
To the literalists, what mattered or ought to matter was not the relationships within a work of art, as in modernist painting and sculpture, but the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder, as the beholder was invited to activate (and in effect to produce) that relationship over time by entering the space of exhibition, approaching or moving away from the work. . . . The literalist work, in other words, was incomplete without the experiencing subject, which is what I meant by characterizing such work as theatrical in the pejorative sense of the term.
Demand’s work, by contrast, exists without regard for the viewer. Fried writes:
Simply put [Demand] aims above all to replace the original scene of evidentiary traces and marks of human use . . . with images of sheer authorial intention. . . . [N]othing could be plainer than that his project is fundamentally, not to say hyperbolically, opposed to the literalist attitude. . . . Demand seeks to make pictures that thematize or indeed allegorize intendedness as such, not simply assert the intendedness of the representation. . . .
Fried’s reading of Demand’s work provides a useful theoretical basis for the more practical impressions I took away from the MoMA exhibition. I found Demand’s work there to be cold, aloof, hermetic, and self-reflexive. Fried’s reading confirms those impressions and bases them in Demand’s conceptual practice. The work exists in an agnostic state towards its viewer, according to Fried, so the viewer should not expect to feel welcomed to the work or easily engaged with it.

But once again, as he did years ago in “Art and Objecthood,” Fried missteps when he makes a value judgment on the work using his theoretical framework. Fried excludes the viewer’s experience from his evaluation of the work's implicit value.

The problem I have with Demand’s work is that it turns its back on, shuts out, its viewers. Demand does not create work that is generous, that provides a space for engagement and the play of discourse between object and subject. The photographs are objects that exist to proclaim their existence and the intentionality of their creator. In a sense, the work doesn’t require an audience because it doesn’t care about its audience. The work acts like the public speaker who continues talking, answering questions that he hasn’t been asked, long after his audience has left him.

Fried sees this as a strength in Demand’s work, and he saw the Minimalist’s requirement for viewer engagement to be a detrimental aspect of their work. In Fried’s world, art exists as self-contained, internally referential objects that live without viewers. In Fried’s world, by extension, a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound.

That’s not the practical and pragmatic world that I live in. In my world, a tree that falls in a forest creates waves of modulating atmospheric pressure that must be received by an ear drum in order to become a sound. Likewise, in my world, an object can have an existence on its own, but it requires a viewer to engage with it before it becomes a work of art.

In stating his preference for the ontological nature of art objects in his original essay and in his reading of Demand’s work, Fried leaves out the human experience and actually implies that an object is better—more pristine—if it doesn’t have a viewer. That approach is how art is treated in the academy, in its journals and in its classrooms. That’s not how art is treated in the studio, the gallery, or the museum—the places where art really exists.

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