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ASK AN ART CRITIC

by Jerry Saltz
 
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Dear Jerry,
Amid the chatter about of the videotape by David Wojnarowicz that was removed from the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, someone told me that a New Republic writer has protested that the New Museum is now showing the video in its lobby. Is this true?

 -- Things Getting Ugly

Dear Things,
I’m afraid you heard right. The New Republic writer you’re referring to is the ultra-conservative art critic Jed Perl. He’s a man who regularly disparages contemporary art, and he’s taken this opportunity to grandstand, putting his foggy fury forward, accusing the New Museum of "political calculations" for showing the Wojnarowicz tape. He charges that the museum is now censoring "many New York artists with distinguished careers who have never been given space," and sniffed that the institution supports only "free speech for powerful artists and dealers and collectors."

How cynical, stingy, and churlish. Fools rush in: One prominent and depressing aspect of the culture wars has been how fast they make people stupid, and Perl’s suggestion that the New Museum censors art by virtue of everything it doesn’t show is absurd. Do he and The New Republic censor everyone they don’t write about? Of course not. (And speaking of what he should or should not write about, my fellow-critic Peter Plagens has noted that Perl often covers artists who show at his wife’s gallery.) I also note that he’s picking on a dead artist who can’t defend his work.

Besides, the New Museum isn’t out of line. More than a dozen other institutions -- including the Walker Art Center, Smith College Art Museum, ICA Boston and the UCLA Hammer Museum -- are showing the Wojnarowicz. The New Museum also mounted a large retrospective of his work in 1999 and has special ties to this artist. Co-curator Jonathan Katz is right to say that "you may or may not like [the] history, but it’s a job of a museum to examine that history." (And bear in mind what Wojnarowicz himself wrote: "When I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.")

This screening of "A Fire in the Belly" is simply a gesture of solidarity, a way to allow the public to form its own opinion, and a protest against the bullying. It’s an "I am Spartacus" move -- and we should remember that, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film, the Roman general Crassus promises not to punish the slaves if they will betray their leader, and once they step forward, he crucifies them all. Just as Jed Perl is trying to do.

Dear Jerry,
I liked your 2010 Top Ten list, although I was surprised you didn’t include the Robert Rauschenberg show at Gagosian Gallery. That aside, what were ten low moments that would make your list this year?

 -- David Jones

Dear David,
I loved the Rauschenberg show at Gagosian, too. (As Jasper Johns generously said, "Rauschenberg was the man who in this century invented the most since Picasso.") And I liked a whole lot else: the wittily titled art book Pop Touched Me, by Rob Pruitt. The two-hour "Power to the People" at Feature Gallery, in which art that had been donated by artists was given away for free. "The Independent," a three-day cynicism-free experimental art-fair organized by the folks who gifted us last season with the X-Initiative, particularly Jayne Drost. The New York Art Book Fair, organized by Printed Matter and hosted by MoMA P.S.1, celebrated with over 200 international presses, booksellers, artists, and publishers displaying their amazing wares.

Now counting down backwards, ten low moments.

10. A batch of skin-scrawling quotes from a great Guy Trebay New York Times story about Art Basel Miami Beach. The designer Silvia V. Fendi gushed, "Everyone wants to be a follower, to have the same collection," adding, "art collecting is the new shopping." Kim Heirston Evans, art advisor, said, "I tell all my clients to look at Baselitz again." Aby Rosen, real-estate mogul, offered this: "The three most important worlds in culture right now [are] fashion, real estate and art." He then observed that art fairs are places where the super-rich "can socialize with people at their same level." Collector Beth Rudin De Woody probably meant the same thing when she effused, "Anywhere in the world you go, you’re always welcomed." Please pass the Kool-Aid.

9) The Tim Burton retrospective at MoMA opened in late 2009, but packed the house through May. This wasn’t an art show -- it was a ploy to pull in crowds to the museum. That said, it worked so well and was such a significant cash cow for MoMA, let’s not get too much in a huff.

8) Rivane Neuenschwander’s saccharine New Museum exhibition was sentimental, obvious and overliteral.

7) "Skin Fruit" at the New Museum. What can I say? I liked some of the work in this show. Still, I don’t remember an exhibition being disliked this intensely by so many or causing so much controversy than this poor puppy.

6) Peter Greenaway’s bloated filmic installation at the Armory focusing on Leonardo’s Last Supper. The whole thing emits an aura of failure, unchecked extravagance and unresolved ideas.

5) In spite of a few magical moments, Gabriel Orozco’s MoMA retrospective was anemic and (intentionally) precious, and showed how this artist over-controls the way his work is shown, nearly strangling it.

4) A tie. Damien Hirst’s "The End of an Era," at Larry Gagosian’s Madison Avenue space, featured gaudy cabinets filled with fake diamonds and bad photo-realist paintings of same. Monika Sosnowska’s New York gallery debut at Hauser & Wirth of twisted metal staircases was so obvious and derivative that prices between $90,000 and $120,000 seem a just punishment for those who bought them.

3) This low was a high for at least one person involved. At Greene Naftali, the outstanding Austrian collective Gelitin had all its members blindfolded, then enlisted local artists to help them make sculpture on-site. When I was there, I watched a woman artist I know bending down in front of one nearly naked Gelitin-ite, whose penis was bobbing directly in her face, from under his garter belt. Suddenly he announced to another group member, "Hans, come here. Give me a blow job." Hans did, as the woman watched from inches away. We both just started laughing. Austrians!

2) "50 Years at Pace." This four-venue 50th-anniversary celebration contained plenty of great art. But much of the work was so shoehorned in that it was hard to appreciate. The result was one of the most visually abrasive exhibitions seen in some time.

1) Robert Wilson created my definition of hell in his ludicrously over-produced, extravagantly expensive, pompously titled "Perchance to Dream" multimedia portrait of an Italian ballet dancer. Once long ago Wilson excelled in the theater. He has absolutely no talent as an artist.

Dear Jerry,
If you could write a book about one living artist, who would it be? You can offer a top five if you like.

 -- Warren Thomas King

Dear Warren Thomas King,
Off the top of my head, here are five art-world women I’d like to read a book about. I name the first three because it’s amazing that they’re all still alive (two of the three are 100 years old) and their stories will likely disappear with them soon. I name the fourth woman because she’s great, I’ve had a mad crush on her for decades, and I want her to do a "portrait" of me. I name the last person because she’s the only person on earth who knows what she does.

1. Leonora Carrington (born April 6, 1917) British-born surrealist painter and novelist.

2. Dorothea Tanning (born August 25, 1910) American painter, printmaker, sculptor and writer.

3. Hedda Sterne (born August 4, 1910), the only woman in a group of Abstract Expressionists known as "The Irascibles."

4. Cynthia Plaster Caster, artist and self-described "recovering groupie" who made casts of rock star penises.

5. Maya Widmaier-Picasso, daughter of Picasso’s mistress and muse of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Maya is said to know the intimate details of her parents’ extraordinary sexual electricity.


JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at jerry_saltz@nymag.com.