The annual College Art Association conference has become a monster with a thousand tentacles -- each one with a PowerPoint presentation. Typically, the CAA offers about 75 illustrated lectures at 15 concurrent panels every two-and-a-half hours, a panoply that is repeated eight times over four days, with shorter sessions squeezed into the interstices. If you have a taste for visual arcana and its interpretation, this is the place to be.
Add to that a simultaneous, parallel universe of panel discussions designed specifically for artists (some also appealing to me as a critic), a vast "fair" of new art books and art supplies, and the hundreds of friends and colleagues that you want to catch up with, and you have the stress, and thrill, of the annual CAA meeting, which recently brought almost 6,000 art historians, artists and other CAA members to the 94th Annual Conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Feb. 22-25, 2006.
Such an omnigatherum is especially tough on an omi-iconophile like me, who has a taste for all kinds of images from all sorts of sources. So, well before my Amtrak train pulled into Back Bay station, I had an intricate schedule on my Palm PDA, a sequence that included the CAA awards ceremony, a Women in the Arts presentation honoring Moira Roth and Trinh T. Minh-ha, several consultations with artists I’d never seen face-to-face, a meeting with a graduate student whose dissertation I was reading and several get-togethers and meals with friends. Also on my list was a special meeting of pedagogical techies for the latest on ARTstor, the gigantic image database that schools subscribe to for delivery of digitized pix, of which I’m a devotee.
I had downloaded the preliminary CAA conference program from the CAA website, and begun to prioritize my obligations. It seemed clear enough. Dozens of panels demanded that I show my face out of considerations due to manners, politics or some other obligation, while a sadly smaller number, though still substantial, had the allure of actually sounding interesting.
But it wasn’t until I trekked the length of the high barrel-vaulted shopping galleria that stretched from my hotel to the convention center’s oppressively severe, Albert Speer-like halls -- a daily jog that called out for a pedometer -- for conference registration that the extent of the next days’ rigors hit me with all the weight of a bag of printed matter -- the conference program, the book of all the lecture Abstracts, a booklet of attendees’ addresses plus some publishers’ advertisements and invitations to receptions. It was clear I would not escape from the recycled air of the vast commercial village for days.
There was only one thing to do: immediately exit and head to Cambridge for the one show I really had to see, "Frank Stella 1958" at Harvard’s Sackler Museum.
"Frank Stella 1958"
The simple, geometric, but raggedly brushed beauty of Stella’s monumental paintings provided just the energizing shot of "art" that I needed as an antidote to the coming days’ crush of verbiage. The show reveals Stella pre-fame -- in the fulcrum between his graduation from Princeton (BFA 1958) and his breakthrough recognition in "Sixteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art in December 1959. The exhibition catalogue, which I had seen ahead of time, is itself stunningly designed, so I had expected to enjoy the show. But the power of the actual paintings took me by surprise.
By contrast, Stella’s bright, flat, systematic paintings from the mid-1960s exemplify buttoned-down corporate superficiality, a sensibility that has since converted into the clotted hysteria of the artist’s later metal conglomerations. The restrained ferocity of Stella’s black stripe paintings of 1959 are strongest, and this show examines their predecessors. Simultaneously moody and witty, they are both gorgeous and express a moral gravitas.
Of course, in their composition Stella’s horizontal stripes are related to Jasper Johns’ 1955 flag paintings, and also to Robert Rauschenberg’s Yoicks (1953), his gender-bending painting of red horizontal stripes loosely brushed over polka dot fabric. Exaggerating the latter, Stella distinctly used his stripes to paint out color beneath. This coverup suggests using patriotic stripes -- nationalistic identification -- to suppress vital individuality. The toned colors manifest the seriousness of the post-war and McCarthy-era milieu, making the paintings resonate both as historical documents and as newly relevant to our present experience of liberties under threat.
In other words, these compositions function both formally, as abstraction, and metaphorically, evoking deep engagement with social issues. How often today do artists manage latent metaphors with such finesse -- without resorting to blunt social realism?
Danto on Art and Interpretation
And how difficult is it to even describe what good art is? The opening evening of the conference, Arthur Danto demonstrated some of the problems in his "convocation address" delivered after the CAA awards ceremony. Danto’s presentation followed a brief video of Edward Kennedy, a signer in the mid-1960s of the bill to originate the NEA and now co-chair of the Senate cultural caucus, thanking the CAA for his "Special Award for Lifetime Achievement on Behalf of the Arts and Humanities." He looked about a decade less wearied than he does on current newscasts and didn’t mention the College Art Association by name.
The generalities continued in Danto’s talk, which was titled "Art and Interpretation." Since "the definition of art is neither possible nor necessary," the emeritus philosophy professor thinks of it as "embodied meaning." Sounds good, but frankly, for trained viewers of visual culture like those in the room, every object embodies meaning. A Prius, for instance, which has captured my attention a lot lately, embodies "green" consumerism, which makes it all the worse that the car’s shape is ungainly.
The singsong tenor of Danto’s grandfatherly voice reminded me of Daniel Dennett’s Philosophical Lexicon definition for "arthurdantist, n. One who straightens the teeth of exotic dogmas, viz., ‘Little Friedrich used to say the most wonderful things before we took him to the arthurdantist!’ -- Frau Nietzsche." Danto’s talk seemed to be generic "Public Intellectual" -- not unlike Kennedy, offering blather on a broad topic -- and inappropriate for this discriminating audience facing three more days of tight 20-minute arguments.
Better would have been a keynote speaker who might have grappled with issues of the day, such as W.J.T. Mitchell, who, as editor of Critical Inquiry is a theory maven but in his latest book addresses topical visual culture -- What Do Pictures Want? His talk at NYU last December on photographs of Abu Ghraib torture was both casually accessible and acutely perceptive. Or Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of "Whose Culture is It?" about the increasing demands of third-world nations for the repatriation of their cultural heritage, published in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 9, 2006), and also of the influential Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
Obviously, the mind wandered, and onto the question of whether the forthcoming reception at the Museum of Fine Arts, priced at an exorbitant $50, would be as good as last year’s post-convocation party at the High Museum in Atlanta, which cost only $30. It wasn’t, as it turned out. And because the convocation had run long, the MFA reception was compressed to grabbing a few baby veggies and a peek at the diverse masculinities in its "David Hockney Portraits" show.
Global Art History
At the sessions, the sheer variety of topics is a good measure of the wide range of approaches to teaching and researching art history. Promoting understanding of ethnic "diversity" is basic, except that now it is less local than international and is called "globalism."
("Africans and the Avant Garde" was well-attended.) Faced with a similarly global range of panels, I simply abandoned obligations and went with idiosyncratic pleasures.
Anna Chave, one of the few senior scholars speaking, is so famously associated with her transgressive feminist analysis, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power" (Arts magazine, January 1990), that she joked, from the dais, that that identification will be her epitaph. Chave came through with "Minimalism, Patronage and Aura" and described how, in contrast to a material interpretation of these starkly reductive objects, Minimalist sculpture and Land Art, particularly by West Coast artists, can be understood as generating a "presence" or spiritualized aura designed in part to accommodate patrons such as the de Menils, Heiner Friedrich and Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.
Chave’s talk was less about esthetic qualities of the objects than the structure of their presentation and consumption. In recent conferences, such topics of "institutional critique" have been big. Similarly, Julia Bryan-Wilson, a younger version of Chave’s fine-boned, slim, cool, sharply clipped manner, spoke on "Artists, Dealers, Pimps and Whores," contextualizing Andrea Fraser’s sensationalist (but boring) 2003 video of sex with an art collector as continuous with "anxieties about paid artistic labor in a time of the rapid professionalism of the art market" in the 1990s, an anxiety that was generally manifested in contemporaneous remarks that disparaged female artists, critics and curators as prostitutes. This revelatory talk would be better read than listened to, and I hope she publishes it.
Throughout the sessions, audience members continually come and go, exiting a talk mid-sentence to catch other speakers on simultaneous panels. Rushing down halls, one can discern professions in a flash. Those in banker suits (actually, they look more like bank tellers) are on site to interview for a teaching position; scruffy dressers (generally male) are art students; those wearing all black scream "theoretical" or "grad student in a major Ph.D or MFA program" (memo to Robb Storr: tell the Yalies that when it comes to attire, "postmodern" doesn’t mean "postmortem"); creative sweaters and boots on women connote "artist"; less imaginative feminine scarves or skirts suggests an art historian "secure in job," whereas the male academic uniform of button-down Oxford, striped tie, tweed and cords displays "more important things to think about than clothes." We hope.
"Impressionistism," Phalluses, Pollock
Nature is always a hook for me so I took in "Landscapes of Exclusion: Contemporary Painting’s Neglected Vistas." The soft-focus romanticized countrysides by Thomas Kinkade, James Lee, Howard Behrens, et al. are largely overlooked by art professionals. Their shopping-mall customers avidly collect what presenter Monica Kjellman-Chapin cleverly calls "Impressionistism" -- paintings that are chronologically "contemporary" but stylistically faux historical. Kiellman-Chapin’s analysis of low culture/popular taste (tastelessness?) -- despite her rapid, beat-the-clock delivery -- was fun and perceptive.
And the "Visual Gossip" session turned out to be amusing, particularly Guy Tal’s drolly delivered, incisive analysis and sparkling collage of images around Parmigianino’s Witch Riding on a Phallus. This cartoon-like 16th-century etching displays both anxieties about domineering (thus evil) women and cuckoldry, and in its visual exaggeration before pictured witnesses, the process of gossip itself.
Of course, why just learn about gossip when throngs of conferees prompt you to do it? The buzz circulated around the status of the discovered "Pollocks" being promoted by scholar Ellen Landau as genuine. The controversy made Landau’s talk one of the best attended of the conference. As a bonus, her declaration that she was being hounded by the press and had booked the hotel under an assumed name (Lee Krasner?) gave everyone an anecdote to take home. (This revelation probably stimulated, in equal measure, the audience’s sympathy and envy.)
I’ll skip condensing her reasoning -- by the time the "Pollocks" go on view this summer in a NYC gallery, we’ll all learn more than we want to know about these works and have a chance to make up our own minds. One major scholar told me he is absolutely convinced of their validity, another is skeptical of the uncharacteristically garish colors -- "more typical of a designer [like Herbert Matter, the "Pollock’s" owner] and not seen in any other Pollocks." Another, a connoisseur of mid-century art, practiced in the skill of authentification, remarked that the works are such "dogs" that whenever she sees pictures of them, "they call to me, woof woof!"
This was barked to me in passing in the publications hall, as good a place to schmooze as peruse. (Many sessions that one thereby misses are audiorecorded for purchase; for details, see the website. I learned that the Women’s Art Journal, long privately published, will now be under the protective institutional aegis of Rutgers University Press.
Ecological interests were well-represented at the booth of the virtual exhibition space Greenmuseum.org, where I picked up a copy of the catalogue for the important Carnegie-Mellon exhibition this fall, "Groundworks, Environmental Collaboration in Contemporary Art," which contains several significant essays on artists’ engagement with environmental crises and the increasing prominence of the "green esthetic." Nearby, author Linda Weintraub’s booth presented the first of her "Avant-Guardians" series -- photocopied, twine-bound "textlets on art and ecology," such as ECO-Centric Topics -- Pioneering Themes for Eco-Art, a useful guide to understanding and teaching it.
The presence of these independent booths -- and those of a few local used book stores -- was unusual. Most are university presses and a few vanguard commercial ones (Routledge), who customarily offer a 20 percent conference discount, with some selling the books remaining on Saturday morning at 50 percent off so they don’t have to ship them home. A favorite I always visit is Duke University Press -- it specializes in the nexus of progressive-eccentric-beautiful, as in their gorgeous Physician’s Art: Representations of Art and Medicine, a great gift for favorite doctors.
This year I picked up copies of Duke’s Nasher Museum catalogue The Forest, Politics, Poetics, and Practice, and, to help me teach Kara Walker’s art soon to be on view at Metropolitan Museum, Seeing the Unspeakable, The Art of Kara Walker. Also, the author of the latter, Gwnedolyn Dubos Shaw, was hanging around, and she signed it. And at the University of California Press, which published my own Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, I purchased a new political art history by the endlessly creative senior scholar, Peter Selz, Art of Engagement, Visual Politics in California and Beyond. (Did I mention that I arrive with a suitcase half empty, and leave bulging?).
Of course, presses really want to hit the jackpot by having professors "adopt" a book as a course’s required textbook, which can command student purchases of thousands of copies. Prentice-Hall, the textbook behemoth, rolled out a new multi-author edition of the venerable survey textbook History of Art -- called "Janson’s" after its initiating editor Horst W. Janson, with a generous spread of both sandwiches (rare and welcome sustenance) and forms for gratis review copies. I’m rather amazed by their belief in this book, as it is swimming the pedagogical tide with two weights: Its anti-feminist history, as Janson staunchly refused to include women artists (a condition since rectified, but remembered by lots of us), and its continuing coverage solely of western art (see "diversity" above). Who can use this textbook? Only universities that require students to take two art history surveys: European & American, and Other.
This year CAA billed itself as "The world’s best-attended international art conference." But wait till Feb. 14-17, 2007, when the conference meets -- as it does every fourth year --- in New York City. Then, on average, more than half of the CAA membership of 18,000 attends. And most of the sessions are held at the compact Hilton Hotel (conveniently down the street from the Museum of Modern Art). The call for participation on sessions will be going out from CAA soon -- potential speakers, start your PowerPoint!
SUZAAN BOETTGER has been attending College Art Association conferences since 1977.