Jan. 6, 1997--The "Video Viewpoints" series at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Barbara London, showed tapes and films by New York artist Jem Cohen. The auditorium was full and the video projection was as sharp and as large as any film. Lost Book Found, Cohen's 36-minute video, is a selection of visual portraits of the myriad, unnoticed details of mercantile Manhattan streets: bits of paper blowing across the sidewalk, an old broken sign, part of a doorway, a wind-filled thin white plastic bag doing a kind of dance on the sidewalk, the people and the rhythm of the city itself.
Connecting this slow-moving stream of images is the narration of a pushcart vendor who thinks to himself, "As I became invisible, I saw things that had been invisible to me." The vendor tells the story of meeting a sidewalk fisher (a person who drops a string down sidewalk grates "fishing" for coins and jewelry) who offers to sell him a composition book full of dates and addresses all over Manhattan listed under enigmatic headings such as "Glass is a Liquid" and "The Rain [or is it Reign?] of Coins." The book's obsessive entries, as reported in the vendor's tale, give life to the innocuous vignettes of the city. It's a poetic and sympathetic portrait.
My old acquaintance Diego Cortez was sitting in the back row and he told me he didn't like the video, it was slow and too long. He is in a pissy mood. Slow is deliberate on Cohen's part. I think of an unreleased music video I once saw, of R.E.M. with Patti Smith singing backup vocals. The shots are long and meandering. In one, the drummer, instead of pounding away on his instrument, is sitting at the drum set reading a book. Now that's refreshing!
Jan. 7, 1997--Up to MOMA again to catch the last day of the Antonin Artaud drawing show. Since this show opened last October many words have been written and spoken about Artaud. Peter Schjeldahl and Donald Kuspit have weighed in, the Susan Sontag-edited writings of Artaud have been reissued, there have been symposia and film screenings and an excellent catalogue of the show edited by Christopher Lyons. When I was at the show I saw Sylvere Lottringer, who was copiously transcribing Artaud's "Spells." These are small pieces of paper with writing and strange diagrams and, sometimes, holes burned into them. Sylvere said that these works hadn't been translated and published. I asked him if he would translate Artaud's Spell for Hitler for me. He said that in 1939, after Hitler had taken Poland and before going into France, Artaud's spell invited Hitler to France. "There are a lot of little Hitlers running around here, " Artaud wrote. "But if you come be forewarned." Sylvere said that the tone was a dark humor. An envelope was addressed to the Reichs Chancellor, but obviously it was never sent.
For a change of pace I walked over to the former Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets to look at the art in Gianni Versace's new boutique. The raging debate here is the art-vs.-fashion question. See for instance Carol Vogel's piece in the Jan. 4 New York Times, which discusses the Donald Judd and Dan Flavin installations at Calvin Klein's new Madison Avenue digs, or Benjamin H. D. Buchloh's surrender (if that is not too strong a word), in the Jan. 1997 Artforum, in the face of fashion's increasing hegemony over art. The Gianni Versace store has works by Peter Schuyff, Ross Bleckner, David Salle, Philip Taaffe and Jim Dine. The sales staff seemed to like Taaffe's tondo installed just under the skylight at the top of the grand staircase.
On one floor, Dine's drawings, torn from a spiral notebook, of Greek and Roman busts were installed like a frieze all around both rooms and the main hallway. This is a single work consisting of 150 drawings. Dine shaves away at the surfaces of his subjects, and works, reworks and rubs the surfaces of his objects (the drawings themselves) until they have a classical patina and feeling. Where this observer comes down on the fashion/art debate is unclear at this point. One very well known and important 'artist has said simply, "I like fashion."
ROBERT GOLDMAN is a New York artist.