In New York panels come, we go
Seeking a Michelangelo
Not quite T.S. Eliot, but it came to me on a run between auditoriums the other night. Why attend to the endless talk show in halls and galleries up and down Manhattan? So many panels, so little time. Yet, after struggling all day over intricate scholarly arguments (those I read and those I write), or even the quotidian chores of Making a Living, a little live discourse about art can be bracing. Along with observing the personae of art world "mucky-mucks, " one can potentially find information, insight into the creative process, or perhaps even, by example, inspiration. I can report that all this and more was offered in public talk in New York this fall--although as frequently as from "Michelangelos" it came from the mouths of "Artemisia Gentileschis."
Early in the season, the Public Art Fund interrupted its Tuesday Night Series' obeisance to artists (Magdalena Abakanowicz inaugurated this year's run) with an Oct. 15 talk by Mary Jane Jacob, a seasoned museum curator who for the past few years has been working independently and specializing in outdoor or site-specific projects. Jacob showed slides from some of her prominent exhibitions, including "Places with a Past: New Site-Specific Art in Charleston" for the 1991 Spoleto Festival, a 1991-94 "Culture in Action" series under the "Sculpture Chicago" program, and last summer's "Conversations: Atlanta and the World Community for the Olympic Games." Jacob moved outside the museum context, she explained, to see "how the artist could use that greater realm for exploration" and "how the art could say something to the larger culture." Her strategy, she said, was to "question the authority of history, society and cultural authorities."
The Charleston show featured installations--"an environmental form which is particularly engaging"--using local history as background, resulting in work "that is conceptually site specific as well as physically." Kate Ericson & Mel Ziegler adopted the hues officially approved for use on residential exteriors in the city's historic district, but painted them in an enlarged military camouflage pattern. This could be read as bringing the concurrent Desert Storm invasion back home but also more widely as a questioning of what else was being camouflaged by this restrictive palette. In an 1802 jail, Anthony Gormley's installation of 20, 000 clay figures of birds alluded to slavery and incarceration. On America Street in the ghetto--never previously open to Spoleto Festival activities--David Hammons built a house the width of a single door comprising many vernacular architectural elements and then sat on an exterior bench and talked with visitors. In another local building Lorna Simpson told the story of regional migration from West Africa through photographs and water jugs.
For the Chicago project, Mark Dion taught 15 high school students about ecology in conjunction with his hydroponic garden Flood, which had to be tended daily and where they observed the root system growing together, a metaphor of social bonding. In Atlanta, international artists all worked downtown within an eccentric historic former private residence, the Castle, and made works on-site, engaging in direct and Internet conversations with visitors. Although the plethora of projects she described became almost too much, Jacob's discussion of public art, as methodically conceptualized as it is visionary, was a highlight of the fall.
Seeing all these "visual" people talk reminds me that an artist's personality can make or break one's connection to the art. A charming artist can soothe the savage reviewer (or at least make her feel guilty). On the other hand... when Andy Goldsworthy spoke at Urban Center Books (part of the Municipal Art Society, on Nov. 5) he was TOO charming. Or maybe not analytical enough: Here we had an example of liking the work less after hearing the artist's technical descriptions and lame witticisms about such things as of working in Scottish snow welding icicles together with sputum. Goldsworthy's photographs of ephemeral structures made of indigenous materials in wilderness terrains are visually stunning, but after that vapid commentary they reminded me of Serra Club albums. I will note, though, that many in the audience seemed delighted to discover an environmental bricoleur as hapless stand-up comedian. The Municipal Art Society, with its large membership (myself included) of civic-minded, esthetically-sensitized citizens, has a built-in audience for discussion of public art issues like those presented by Jacob, but so far their serious forums have been restricted to urban planning.
Another Tuesday, another Public Art Fund-sponsored artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko at Cooper Union's Great Hall (Oct. 29). Wearing an outfit that was a cross between a high-collared black silk Cossack and the jump suit and boots designed by Alesandr Rodchenko, this Polish émigré visually identified himself with Russian Constructivism, the early 20th-century precedent of his intricately technological objects for social engineering. Wodiczko, director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT but a New York City resident, won widespread recognition in the 1980s for his nighttime slide projections onto corporate facades and public monuments. In 1985 he projected U.S. and Soviet missiles against the plinths of Brooklyn's Grand Army Arch; in 1988, manacled hands grasping abundant fruit were thrown up against the tower of the San Diego Museum of Art.
Describing this body of work, he noted that "Monuments sustain, stabilize and perpetuate certain values, " which he aims to disrupt. He seeks to "expose experience that is completely new, giving voice to those who are silent." His work participates in the delegitimization process that Peter Bürger ascribed to progressive early 20th-century artists in his book, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984). Uttering stern pronouncements with a gentle European voice, Wodiczko claimed, "The city as a monument must be interrupted--or we will all die." In this, "the projection becomes the instrument via performative art."
Wodiczko's nocturnal communal gatherings around a source of light, and the spectacle of an illuminated picture show against night sky, have an atavistic appeal that helps make his social aims seductive. Wodiczko's constructions, a multipurpose Homeless Vehicle, and more recently his Alien Staff and Mouthpiece, which can play pre-recorded self-narratives and display personal tschotschkes to strangers, aim to serve social needs more directly. Yet the latter appear to me to be self-alienating--intrusive and cumbersome. Nevertheless, Wodiczko's ideas are admirable for the artist's bold confrontation of social problems with design solutions.
By contrast, on Nov. 20 I saw what a little ambition and a lot of chutzpah could produce. Audiences seem ever-ready to hear "names" speak; the Vera List Center for Art and Politics got a good crowd in the striking deco oval hall at the New School for a panel addressing "What is American about American Art?" The idea of "American exceptionalism" is fundamental to American history; for instance, early American art has been thought to have a linear and realist tendency because of its foundation in Puritan pragmatism. So the prospect of reconsidering this national focus in our period of post-structuralist, context-bound international New Historicism was intriguing. Yet scanning the roster of speakers, one could only say "Huh?" Donna De Salvo, the organizer and moderator, is a curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio. Chuck Close is a major painter, Isaac Julien, a British filmmaker and artist, Elaine Reichek, an artist, and Marcia Tucker is the founding director of the New Museum.
While all are very accomplished, none are "Americanists, " so it was really only curiosity and a little wishful thinking that drew me there. As for De Salvo, what was she thinking? She positioned speakers around a circular table to promote interchange, that social gesture didn't seem to make a difference as none were aware of the history of the discourse about this topic--nor was she--and their idiosyncratic speculations amounted to novices' stabs in the direction of American essentialism.
Thus Reichek described historic American art as having a "'butch' edge, " fed by the "rape and pillage attitudes of 'robber barons'" (perhaps the sort that gave us that macho Frick Collection?) and that produced Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism", undemocratic in their obscurity of associations and in their aggressive, monumental forms." That burlesque of art history was then contrasted to current art with its "vernacular referencing, homely visions, energetic mixture of cultures and references, with borders under stress and fluid populations." After Tucker offered us a miscellany of historic quips about American art, she declared the panel topic a "useless enterprise" and said "the last thing I want to engage in is trying to define American art." One would have expected that recalcitrance from the organizer of the fantastically border-crossing "Labors of Love" exhibition at her museum earlier this year (where Reichek's conceptual weavings marvelously referenced the needlepoint vernacular). Then Tucker tried to be accommodating by describing both the Social Realism of the 1935-43 Works Progress Administration and what she called the "Paul Bunyan School of Painting"--Abstract Expressionism--as "muscular painting" (this is the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard's term), and the typical American artist as "rebel, outsider, avant-garde" (as in 19th-century France, say?).
Close announced he "didn't prepare, " and as for the topic--"Who gives a shit?" Well. After that belligerent demonstration of the Americanism Reichek had just described, Close then told the story of how in the late 1950s, the U.S. Information Agency circulated exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism throughout Europe and behind the Iron Curtain, thereby making advanced abstraction a sign of "freedom" and a weapon in the Cold War. This familiar adjunct to A.E.'s "triumph" was undoubtedly known to many in an audience drawn to an "art and politics" forum. He also railed against the "crippled" National Endowment for the Arts, allowing him to cue the audience for a laugh in relation to his own wheelchair-bound condition.
ulien, as the non-American and the most theoretically inclined of the group, tried to make overview assessments like "the celebration of the everyday being influential to British art." He dramatically proclaimed that the "question that needs to be posed, the crisis of American art that is on everyone's lips...[is] entertainment as culture--one of the most troubling aspects of American art." Now THAT seems like a provocative issue, and in topical contrast to another unrecognized customary view, articulated by another Britisher, Lawrence Gowing, almost 40 years ago, that American art gained its then-present force (A.E.) from being a visual manifestation of "the material poetry of the country." Aside from the shabby treatment of this historic topic of "Americanness, " the most troubling aspect of this panel is how an institution with the credibility of the New School could sponsor such an uninformed blather fest.
Lastly, we come to the New York Studio School, which partially compensates for its lack of art history instruction by having regular Tuesday (artists) and Wednesday (critics, historians) evening talks. Nov. 25 brought together an usually strong lineup of art world pundits (organized by ARTnews contributing editor Ann Landi) to discuss "Ripe for Rediscovery: Artists Deserving Fresh Appraisal." As veteran professionals, most did their duty articulately and succinctly. NYU professor Robert Rosenblum, ever topical, spoke of his belated recognition of Ben Shahn's relevance. Asserting that "the best way to stay alive is by changing my mind, liking artists I used to dislike and vice-versa, " he said he now appreciates Shahn's 1940s and '50s abstracted figuration on socially engaged urban themes. He is also newly interested in the postwar British figural expressionist Graham Sutherland and, on a truly obscure note, in Jean-Oliver Hucleux. Graham Nickson, director of the New York Studio School, then described his long-standing bond with Pierre Bonnard, "a great colorist, with great haunting images."
The photography critic A.D. Coleman (New York Observer, ARTnews) came close to being a spoil-sport by saying that he "felt uncomfortable being there" because he didn't think a critic should be put in the position of a market tipster. After exclaiming moral outrage over an artist's publicist recently trying to buy his endorsement, Coleman then relented and extolled the photographer Michael Martone. Noting that he has championed Martone's work over several years and that the artist has nevertheless yet to receive due fame and fortune, he then resorted to tipsterism and told us exactly how to reach him.
Jeffrey Wechsler, curator of the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers, offered three Abstract Expressionist painters "who went against the grain": Charles Seliger, who did small-scale field paintings; Sal Serugo, who made tiny palm-size drip paintings, and Ralph Rosenbourg, "an original watercolorist." Then Eric Gibson, ARTnews executive editor, spoke of his fascination with "one of the most extraordinary sculptors who ever lived, " Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), whose marbles not only portrayed meticulous textures of clothing and skin, but "captured sitters' interior life--although they seem in a pose of utter spontaneity." He also spoke reverently of Josef Albers' dynamic "Homage to the Square" series, (all in all confirming his sensibility as fundamentally Classicist). Gibson concluded by remarking graciously, if paradoxically as a writer, that, "We need to spend more time looking at the objects themselves and less time labeling them. If we do this, there will be fewer artists in need of rediscovery."
The Ideal Reader may now be wondering where the inspiration was that I promised at the beginning of this account. Not had any lately yourself? I got a big shot of it last week at the Whitney Museum when, in conjunction with the Nan Goldin show, a half dozen distinctive women artists spoke on the vicissitudes of their creative processes. But that will have to wait, Dear Reader, I can also tell you about a related panel of biographers on delving into artists' private lives.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is an art historian and critic in New York.