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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Art, American Style

A few news and notes this week, specifically American in nature:

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why I’m Not Going to Miami

Where I won't be this week; photo courtesy Art Basel Miami BeachFor some reason, people have a hard time believing that I don’t make the annual pilgrimage to Miami for Art Basel Miami Beach. The fact of the matter is that I just don’t have a lot of interest in spending the weekend that deep in the belly of the art market beast.

I’m more into the art than into the art scene. I get the sense that early December in Miami has rapidly become more about the scene than about the art.

But there is a host of secondary reasons why I don’t make the trip. Here’s a partial list:

I don't want to underestimate the value of being able to see so much art in so little time in one place, but I just can't get myself excited enough about ABMB to actually make the time to go. Heretical, I know.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

It's Good to be the Wizard

Annie Leibovitz imagines Chuck Close as the Wizard of OzBeing the Wizard means never having to say you're sorry. Even when you run over things with that chair of yours.

Like when you flatten Dorothy's little dog Toto in that wacky Annie Leibovitz multi-page, artist-filled Wizard of Oz spread in the December Vogue. (See the Wizard crunching his furry victim at right and the penultimate item here for a full description of the spread.)

Or like when you run into the back of Mrs. FtF's seat and then roll over the kid's diaper bag at Sarabeth's at the Whitney on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

We love you Chuck. We really do. But we would love you even more if you wheeled around a bit more courteously.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

What Do You Think?

What would happen if I put the baby into this?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What Can You Do with All That Sublimation?

Richard Tuttle, Drift III,1965I'm supposed to be giving gallery talks on the Richard Tuttle exhibition at the Whitney, but I've been on the road so much lately that I haven't even seen the show yet. (I figured out yesterday that excluding time spent at airports and in cabs, I've had a grand total of 24 hours and 45 minutes in New York over the last two and a half weeks.)

I have, though, been doing some reading on Tuttle in preparation for the show. One of the things that has struck me is Tuttle's continual emphasis on not asserting meaning through his work. Here's a quote from Tuttle that appears in the catalogue for season 3 of Art:21:
There's a division left over from the twentieth century where certain people might think that art is something that is made outside of any personal expression (Josef Albers or the Bauhaus), that it's really coolly detached. And then there's the other side, where art is full of personal expression. I guess the personal expression side is great, but then you can get an art which is just an expression of some twisted personal idiosyncrasy. In order to get over those polarities between no personal expression and personal expression, the only possible expression is one of some sort of sublimation.
I'm curious to see how that sublimation takes shape in the work selected for the show and in the gallery installations. And I'm really curious about how the heck I'm going to put together a coherent talk about work that is so purposely indirect.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Why Do I Bother?

Another year of blogging, and I still didn’t make The List.

Actually, no art writers did. None. Not that Carol Vogel is known for deep, investigative journalism, but you would think that the list makers would have given her a little love here for the way New York museums bow, scrape, and hold back info to give her those press-release friendly exclusives.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Mistakes Were Made

I’ve heard the same thing said in a couple different contexts lately. Art students in top programs today are facing too much pressure to produce quality product too quickly. The stakes are too high for them to use their school years to experiment and make mistakes.

Charlie Finch visited the Columbia MFA studios recently and returned with an interesting report about how the young painters there are dealing with the pressures of not having enough quiet time to focus on their work.

Paul Schimmel made a similar point last weekend at the panel discussion I attended. Students, he said, are working to make gallery shows, not art. “If you can’t do something awful when you’re a student,” he asked rhetorically, “when can you?”

At the National Museum of Catalunian Art on Sunday, I happened to stumble across a show of video work by eight recent Yale graduates. (The screening was part of the Loop Festival of video art running this month in Barcelona.) I’m happy to report that the video division of this venerable art program hasn’t caved one inch to market pressure. It’s still turning ’em out old school style in a way that would make Schimmel happy. All eight of these Yale grads, I have to say, have made truly awful things.

I don’t mean to slag the artists whose work was included in the screening, so I won't name names (other than that of professor John Pilson who selected the work). But, man, the pieces chosen to showcase Yale at this international event give student work the world over a bad name. And Yale a very bad name.

I can’t help but feel sorry for these recent grads. I mean, imagining paying Ivy League rates for a professional training program that only enables you to produce output like this. Now I understand where the term "starving artist" comes from. Having massive loans to repay and making work that no one would ever be interested in buying (let alone actually watching--even once) must make it pretty darn hard to put food on the table.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Groaners, All of Them

The art blogosphere is suffering from a lack of really lame jokes. Let me do my part to correct that problem.

How many curators does it take to change a light bulb?
That’s not a curatorial task. You’ll have to call maintenance.

How many educators does it take to change a light bulb?
That’s a very important question and many artists have addressed it, each in his or her own individual way, since the turn of the last century.

How many development staff does it take to change a light bulb?
Just one. But if we had the funding, we could put two or three people on it, ensuring a much higher quality outcome. Would you be interested in supporting that effort?

How many publications employees does it take to change a light bulb?
Wait a minute. Are you sure you have all the permissions nailed down to do that?

How many communications staff does it take to change a light bulb?
I’m not sure. Let me follow up on that. Can I give you a call back later today?

How many security officers does it take to change a light bulb?
Excuse me. Stand back from that bulb, please.

How many art handlers does it take to change a light bulb?
That’s not really in the job description, but what the hell. Where’s the fresh bulb?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

One the Kid Won't Be Seeing

I took a bit of a drubbing recently in comments at the parenting blog Daddy Types. It seems that some people don't approve of taking children to see work by Shirin Neshat. My favorite cheap shot over there was this one:
Now I can't decide who's worse - moms who force their kids to potty train at 6 months, or dads who make their 8-month olds watch films about self-mutilating hookers.
Well, when you put it that way....

Günter Brus, Malerei- Selbstbemalung- Selbstverstümmelung, 1965So I'm glad to say that one of the shows I saw today was one that I saw sans la fille. Günter Brus: Nervous Stillness on the Horizon at MACBA is a career retrospective of work by the Viennese Actionist. One interesting outcome of having so much of Brus's work from the 1960s and '70s assembled is the ability it gives to see the lines of influence running from him to American artists such as Paul McCarthy and Ana Mendieta who emerged during those years.

But, whoa. What a tough show to look at. Take, for example, this description (lifted from the gallery brochure) of Brus's 1970 performance piece Zerreissprobe (Breaking Test) which is documented in the exhibition in stills and on film:
In it Brus, totally shaved, injured himself in the style of the historical and pictorial tradition of the martyr. The action focused on the vulnerability of the individual, pain and "pure" madness, and marked the climactic and final moment of the period.
That, I think, pretty much describes the ethos of the whole show. Brus's work makes McCarthy's gross out nastiness stuff look like the child's play it really is. Oh, and I almost forgot. There's another film in the exhibition showing Brus wetting himself. Nice, I suppose, if you're into that kind of stuff.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dirty Dealing?

Last Sunday afternoon, a group of museum administrators and curators assembled in the Dahesh Museum’s auditorium for a panel discussion on collecting contemporary art in this overheated market.

The panel, part of a larger conference on museum acquisitions and deaccessioning organized by the American Federation of Arts, featured Raymond Learsy (collector and Whitney Museum trustee), the artist Jeff Koons, Paul Schimmel (chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), and gallerist Marianne Boesky.

Insights by panel members ranged from the obvious (Learsy: the art market isn’t the insular little world it used to be) to the sound (Schimmel: explore more affordable work by underappreciated, mid-career artists) to the surreal (Koons: “This machine, this market, is showing how people love each other.”)

What intrigued me most, though, was a statement that Marianne Boesky let slip.

Boesky has made no secret about the process she uses for determining who gets to buy work by her very in-demand artists: identify a museum where she wants to place a work, find a collector affiliated with the organization, sell the collector a piece with the requirement that it be given as a partial gift to the institution.

Reiterating these well documented points for the museum staffers last weekend, Boesky added, “I work for the artist. We pick and choose who gets access [to work] for strategic reasons, for careers to grow,” adding generously that Whitney trustee Learsy could walk into her gallery and buy anything he wanted.

Not everyone is so fortunate. Boesky clearly has scorn for the new hedge fund collectors who think they can buy access to work by desirable artists. “Waiting lists are not linear things,” she said. “It’s not who gets there first.” Or who arrives with the most money.

None of this is news—surprising as it might be to those who think markets do, or should, operate efficiently. A Google search on Boesky’s name turns up several articles that quote her describing this strategy. What was new, though, was a piece of information that Boesky dropped almost in passing.

She mentioned that a few years ago Takashi Murakami paintings were selling at galleries that represent him for $60,000 while they were fetching $600,000 at auction. Murakami’s dealers from around the world, Boesky told the audience, got together to “do something” in response to this large price differential. (I assumed she was implying that they decided to either raise Murakami’s primary market prices or influence secondary market pricing, but she did not say this directly.)

That’s a fairly innocuous comment taken in the context of the whole of what Boesky does to manage the market for her artists’ works. But it’s one that may indicate that her market practices have crossed a line.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division makes available on its website a pamphlet entitled “Antitrust Enforcement and the Consumer.” The purpose of the document is to help the general public identify antitrust activities. It contains the following advice:

How Can You Know if the Antitrust Laws Are Being Violated?

If any person knows or suspects that competitors, suppliers or even an employer are violating the antitrust laws, that person should alert the antitrust authorities so that they can determine whether to investigate.

Price-fixing, bid-rigging and customer-allocation conspiracies are most likely to occur where there are relatively few sellers who have to get together to agree. The larger the group of sellers, the more difficult it is to come to an agreement and enforce it.

Keep an eye out for telltale signs, including, for example:

  • any evidence that two or more competing sellers of similar products have agreed to price their products a certain way, to sell only a certain amount of their product or to sell only in certain areas or to certain customers
That bullet point (the first of several which I haven’t quoted) summarizes many aspects of Boesky’s market practices—especially the practice of meeting with competing sellers of the same product to “do something” about how that product is priced (if that is indeed what the discussion was about).

I’m not an attorney, and I don’t claim detailed knowledge of U.S. antitrust law. But as a consumer of products offered for sale on the art market, it seems to me that antitrust authorities would be justified in investigating whether Boesky has violated the law.

Boesky is a very bright woman and, I believe, an attorney herself. She has also had ample, first-hand exposure to the penalties faced by individuals who do not play by the market’s rules. (Her father, Ivan Boesky, famously plead guilty to involvement in a massive insider trading scandal in the mid-1980s. He eventually served jail time and paid a whopping $100M fine.)

All this would lead me to believe that Marianne Boesky would want to stay on the right side of the law as she makes markets in the work of the artists she represents. But listening to her talk about her activities makes me wonder if she is doing otherwise.

Related: Felix Salmon from last March on the irrationality of the art market.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Getting His Show on the Road

MoMA HMLSSThe blogosphere's favorite institutional rabble-rouser, Homeless Museum director Filip Noterdaeme, will be setting up an admission-free alternate MoMA in front of $20 MoMA on November 21 to mark the one year anniversary of the museum's reopening. His museum in a suitcase (dubbed MoMA HMLSS) contains over 100 miniaturized pieces from the full-sized MoMA's collection.

A major benefit of housing a museum in a suitcase? It travels well. MoMA HMLSS has already been on display in France, Belgium, and Kansas City, MO. The next stop after Manhattan is Madrid.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Universal in Art, or Another Post about Crying

The concept of universalism has long been out of fashion in the art world. It’s common belief today that the meaning and value carried by an artwork are culturally and temporally based. The criteria by which people evaluate art, the argument goes, are woven so deeply into the tapestry of the viewer’s place and time that they feel fundamental to human experience when in reality they are constructed by society.

All well and good in theory, but I had an experience last weekend that has caused me to start questioning this belief.

Saturday afternoon the kid and I stopped by Gladstone Gallery to see the new Shirin Neshat video, Zarin. The kid is always happy to see art and, believe it or not, at eight months she’s even starting to express a preference for video. Most of the time she’s got an attention span measured in seconds. But put her in front of a large screen of moving light and she’s transfixed. At the Whitney recently she actually sat through the whole 30 minute Robert Smithson film on the making of Spiral Jetty. Given that, I figured we would be good for 15 minutes of Neshat.

When we walked in, the gallery was packed. All the benches were full, so we made our way to the front of the room to sit down on the floor. I took her out of her carrier and set her on the floor next to me. She immediately turned to face the screen and started watching.

Still from Shirin Neshat's film Zarin, 2005We arrived just at the point in the narrative where Zarin, the emotionally disturbed title character, enters a public bath. Everything was fine with us until Zarin’s covering fell away and her washing crossed the line into self-mutilation. (A still from this scene is at right.) All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the kid started wailing. She wouldn’t stop. I had to walk her out of the gallery to calm her down.

I found the point at which she became upset to be curious. It’s exactly the same point at which Edward Winkleman reported that he and others watching the film began sobbing.

Winkleman situates his emotional reaction to this scene in a cultural understanding of the mores that it transgresses:
Now I know just enough about Muslim culture (but not enough about Persian subtlties) to be rather wobbly informed about this, but it's my understanding that total adult nudity is highly inappropriate in the public baths. It certainly is for men, and so this scene was particularly confusing and thereby even more powerful for me.

What the other 15 or so folks watching at the same time I was thought it symbolized, I'll never know, but I do know I was not the only one sobbing at this point in the film. (Sniffles carry.)
My kid couldn’t possibly know this, yet she reacted in the same way at exactly the same point in the film.

This makes me wonder if there isn’t something hard coded into humans, something existing deep in the preconscious portion of our brains, that recognizes when certain, basic assumptions about human behavior are challenged.

When Zarin begins scrubbing her skin raw, Neshat shows a person violating something fundamental to human nature—a will to self-preservation, a preference for pleasure over pain.

Witnessing these assumptions being transgressed, I am starting to think, creates an involuntary response in any viewer. Distributing feelings of shock, horror, pity, and perhaps fear arise unbidden. It’s as if we can’t help but feel these emotions if we are human. It’s instinctual.

My daughter’s reaction to Neshat’s work has to have been made at the level of instinct. She’s too young for it to have been anything else. She responded by vocalizing the distress that the video made her feel. I didn’t cry during the scene, but that doesn’t mean that I too didn’t have a strong emotional response. Perhaps it was my ability to dissociate representation from reality (something she is not yet capable of doing) that allowed me to retain my composure.

Could it be that in this work Neshat goes to a place in every viewer’s biological makeup and flips a switch causing an involuntary emotional response to occur? If that is indeed what happens here, that fact should be enough to open up for discussion again the notion that art can carry a universal meaning.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I've got a couple things in the hopper for this week. I just need to find the time to write them. So stop back over the next few days to find out 1) why Marianne Boesky ought to be afraid of Eliot Spitzer and 2) who else has been crying in Chelsea lately.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Excuses, Whining, and Moaning

Not much posting of late, and it's going to stay that way for another few weeks. The day job is using up all my excess mental capacity (and free time) these days, so there hasn't been any mind space (or hours) left over for blogging--much less thinking--about art.

I'm heading back home today, and I have a full weekend of art-type stuff planned (gallery walk with a museum group, auction previews, panel discussion on collecting in the current market environment). So maybe, if time and other paying commitments allow, there will be a few notes of interest showing up here next week.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Where the Power REALLY Lies

Last Saturday afternoon we walk into P.S.1 at 3:45. The sign at the admission desk says the Turrell room will be open at 4:45.

We wander for a while, looking at the new shows. Mrs. FtF (usually pretty charitable in her opinions) says of one group exhibition, "This is horrible." She's right. It is.

The tool with so many more than five usesBy 4:30 we've seen enough. But I want to see the Turrell. So we sit down in the hallway outside the room to wait. Soon a crowd starts to form. At 4:45 it's me, the wife and kid, and a group of 20 German tourists. I can understand exactly three words of what they are saying among themselves: "Turrell," "Roden," and "Crater."

At 4:55 the door still isn't open. The Germans are getting restless. One of them starts making paper hats for the kid out of the floor plans they are all carrying. Security staff members are pacing the hallway. Mrs. FtF overhears them discussing the problem. They've lost the key to the door. Brilliant. You put a major piece of contemporary art behind a locked door, and you don't keep a spare key around?

I'm about ready to pack it in when along comes one of the art handlers. He's been installing a show in another gallery on the floor. He sizes up the situation, pulls a Five-in-One painter's tool out of his pocket, sticks it between the door and the jamb, gives a little pull, and pops the door open for us.

Now I know who really holds the keys to the art world kingdom. It's that anonymous guy who nobody trusts with a key but who's always got the right tool in his back pocket.

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