How endearing was David Hockney last weekend with his "Art & Optics" conference in New York, apparently motivated by the British painter's own low opinion of his drawing abilities (despite the riches and renown they've brought him)? Hockney's argument, laid out in his new book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Viking, $60), faced two days of examination by art historians, museum curators, physicists and Susan Sontag.
In the end, the assembled experts seem to have dashed Hockney's hopes that Ingres, Caravaggio and Vermeer needed to trace photos to get a good likeness, just like he did. "I'm going back to my studio," Hockney told a New York Times reporter at the end of the affair.
The indisputable fact is that some artists have uncanny eye-hand coordination. Witness Carlo Maria Mariani, the Roman-born classicist painter who exhibited his work beginning in the 1970s and '80s at Gian Enzo Sperone in Rome and Turin, Paul Maenz in Cologne and Sperone Westwater in New York. His painting is now the subject of a new book by David Ebony, Carlo Maria Mariani (Edition Volker Huber, $65), complete with over 200 color illustrations.
Ebony describes the artist's debut as a hyper-realist in Rome in 1973, in which he displayed huge oils of body parts by leaning the canvases against the walls. Though some viewers may not share Mariani's fascination with allegorical investigations of time, history and the modern, his mastery of "the ideally beautiful human figure," as Donald Kuspit has written, is indisputable.
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Some 25 years ago, in 1977, a group of young artists got together for the rather cynical purpose of forming an "alternative space" in order to obtain federal and state grant money that was ordinarily the exclusive province of "arts administrators" like the Kitchen and the Clocktower, which were then two thriving venues for new art in downtown Manhattan. The artists wanted to cut out the middleman and grab some of the dough themselves -- an altogether reasonable strategy at the time, as tight as government purse strings may be now.
After discovering that "The Green Corporation" was already taken, the group settled on the name Collaborative Projects, and so a legend (of a sort) was born. One media highpoint came on Jan. 1, 1980, when members of the group broke into a long-shuttered, city-owned storefront on Delancey Street at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge to mount "The Real Estate Show."
Easily the best work in the exhibition was a huge "anti-form" pile of empty cigarette packs gathered from the surrounding neighborhood by the artist Bobby G, a particularly concrete demonstration, the artist pointed out, of the way that global corporations extracted money from the impoverished neighborhood without investing anything in it. It was sort of like an early version of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres accumulation, but with a particularly pointed political message.
The "Real Estate Show" was a success. The press came, Joseph Beuys came and the NYC Department of Housing came to reclaim the space. In the end, the kindly bureaucrats gave the group a different city-owned storefront nearby on Rivington Street, a storefront that became ABC No Rio, something of an artist-run alternative space itself. Along with Bobby G, Alan Moore and Rebecca Howland ran the operation. One of the memorable shows there was a photo studio operated by Tom Warren, in which neighborhood people could get a black-and-white instamatic portrait for $1.
Next up was "The Times Square Show," mounted in a two-story former massage parlor at 7th Avenue and 41st Street in the summer of 1980. This exhibition, which was organized by Tom Otterness, John Ahearn and many other Colab members, became something of a sensation. Besides having a "souvenir shop" where low-priced artist multiples could be had -- the following year, a similar store was opened during the holiday season in SoHo by Otterness and Kiki Smith -- the exhibition was reviewed in Art in America by Jeffrey Deitch and called "the first avant-garde art show of the 1980s" by the Village Voice.
Other Collaborative Projects enterprises included the New Cinema, an actual movie house opened on St. Mark's Place showing super-8 films by Tina L'hotsky, Becky Johnston, James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Michael McClard and others; Potato Wolf, a public-access cable tv show; and an assortment of pick-up exhibitions, ranging from "The Batman Show" held in Robin Winters' SoHo loft in 1978 to "The Buffalo Artists Open" in 1982 at Hallwalls in Buffalo, N.Y. (this last included any local artist who cared to pay $2 to hang a work; at midnight on the opening day, the accumulated entry fees were handed out as prizes to exhibitors).
Funding for all this came via earnest and creative application to the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. Grant money was divided up at group meetings that were surprisingly egalitarian in spirit, despite the often venomous tone of the debate. Veterans of Colab, in addition to those already mentioned, include Diego Cortez, Peter Fend, Colen Fitzgibbon, Matthew Geller, Jenny Holzer, Christof Köhlhofer, Cara Perlman, Uli Rimkus and another 30 or 40 people (plus your correspondent). For what it's worth, circumstances at the time -- economic and social -- conspired to produce for a few years a productive fellowship of artists that is still impressive.
All this is rehearsed at such unwieldy length here by way of introduction to two books that take up the idea of artists' groups and their activities. Especially fascinating from a historical perspective is a book by Lewis Kachur published this summer, Displaying the Marvelous: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Surrealist Exhibition Installations ((MIT Press, $34.95). In engaging detail, Kachur reports on three elaborate exhibitions organized by the Surrealist group between 1938 and '42.
In the avant-garde business, it doesn't hurt to remind people that there's nothing new under the sun, and when it comes to adventurous public exhibitions, the Surrealists did it all. For the "Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme" in 1938 -- held in Paris at the illustrious quarters of Georges Wildenstein's Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris -- Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and several lesser Surrealist lights all decorated their own mannequins. Kachur thoroughly reconstructs this fascinating show, illustrating his text with photographs by Raoul Ubac.
In 1942, Duchamp organized the "First Papers of Surrealism" exhibition in New York, the now-famous installation in which the gallery was criss-crossed with a spider's web of string. In between these two shows was the third, Dali's Dream of Venus, the artist's very own pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in Queens, N.Y., a populist Surrealist environment complete with racy mermaids cavorting in huge tanks of water.
As Kachur points out, this early effort at turning the avant-garde into a kind of penny arcade proved less than a grand success, though it did launch Dalí's Hollywood career and certainly helped construct an image of dream psychology in the popular mind.
The Surrealists were a small, exclusive group, of course, while today's contemporary art world as a whole is a rather larger collective, a milieu that is nevertheless esoteric as far as mass culture is concerned. Despite our claims to grandeur and global importance, we remain small and cut off, our own little community. And one thing that epitomizes the avant-garde artist is a certain look -- serious, incisive, self-contained, black and white.
Nowhere was this look better expressed than in the photographs of Richard Serra and other artists included in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' 1981 exhibition at Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in New York. It seemed as if the photographer had completely absented himself, capturing the artists not by chance or by design but exactly as they were supposed to be. "Look straight at the camera, no smiling, chin up. One, two, three," as the critic and dealer Robert Pincus-Witten described a Greenfield-Sanders sitting in 1999. The images were perfect (or at least had the illusion of perfection).
The Pincus-Witten essay is included in a new book on the photographer by Demetrio Paparoni, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Gabrius, $85), replete with pages and pages of both black-and-white and color portraits as well as an introduction by Francesco Clemente, an interview with the photographer, a time-line with lots of personal info, and essays by Peter Halley, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Stephen Greco, Wayne Koestenbaum, Lou Reed, Jerry Saltz and Doug and Mike Starn.
Over the years, Greenfield-Sanders' portraits have evinced a somewhat broader variety of pose and subject, including Hollywood stars, for instance, or performance artist Karen Finley posturing covered with her trademark chocolate. His project is, to quote Pincus-Witten again, to photograph "all the citizens of our fin de millénaire, the celebrities of our Human Comedy, our Vanity Fair... shot in a time frame running from Abstract Expressionism to the present.
For me, it will always be those severe black-and-white pictures of artists that hold at least one secret of art success.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.