One of the good things about the supposedly evil art boom -- setting aside for the moment the notion that it may be destabilizing right now -- is that under-known mid-career artists are getting second chances at recognition. In November, Mary Heilmann, who is 67 and whose work has always been respected but never A-listed, scored the covers of Artforum and Art in America simultaneously. Today, she’s the subject of a traveling retrospective, selling paintings for upwards of $200,000. Amy Sillman, 52, made the cover of Artforum last February, and her prices have reached $85,000. After decades of neglect, Marilyn Minter, now 59, not only ended up in the last Whitney Biennial; her work was featured on the cover of that show’s catalogue, and her paintings now sell for more than $130,000. Recent seasons have seen the reemergence of Robert Bechtle, Olivier Mosset and Michael Smith, all of whom, along with Heilmann, will be in this spring’s Whitney Biennial.
Joyce Pensato is the latest overlooked artist getting a shot at the limelight. For more than three decades, this Brooklyn artist has made demonic black-and-white (or black-and-silver) enamel paintings of cartoon characters. In her Easter Island-meets-Disney-de Kooning-and-Warhol portraits of Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and others, Pensato combines the gesturalism of action painting, the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism, the blatancy of Pop and the wild style of graffiti. Warhol gave us Double Elvis; Pensato paints a diabolical Double Mickey. De Kooning destroyed the female form to make his Woman paintings; Pensato destroys preconceptions of cuteness and innocence. An older woman is using Expressionistic male angst to make these buggy subjects while pointing out a disturbing racism inherent in many of our most loved cartoon characters.
Pensato spikes her mix with the black-and-white starkness of Christopher Wool and the defiant abjection of Joan Jett’s I Hate Myself for Loving You. To this she adds discredited strains of East Village Expressionism, the stuff typical of painters like Rick Prol and Richard Hambleton, who spilled splattered paint at random. I also see the garish bravado of near-forgotten German neo-Expressionists like Rainer Fetting and Helmut Middendorf. Her work even evinces traces of 19th-century academic figuration.
In her gnarly Petzel show, Pensato gives us a rogues’ gallery of raving, debased, pop-eyed beings -- a pale fright-mask Homer Simpson, a psychotic-looking Felix the Cat, a slaphappy Daisy Duck, South Park’s Stan Marsh looking like a Warlock out of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. A few of Pensato’s new works are as voracious and haunting as anything she’s ever made. In fact, I would’ve liked to see representative samples of the rest of her art: Because all the works are paintings of around the same size, depict similar subjects and display consistent surfaces and palette, the show gets repetitious. Pensato is an extraordinarily versatile artist who also makes amazingly physical wall drawings and lush works on paper, and, had she included a few of these wonderful monstrosities, she might not need another show after this one to prove her point.
Why all the newfound interest? For almost 20 years the art world has been fixated on the artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s as a kind of "greatest generation." It goes without saying that Nauman, Serra, Morris, et al. are fine artists, but really, that’s a misleading term. "Greatest" means different things to different people in different places at different times, and every generation elects its own defining artists. Nowadays, artists aren’t automatically rejecting isms, approaches and styles that until recently were deemed tainted. For the first time in years, I know students who appreciate Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer unironically. Serious mid-careerists such as Marlene Dumas or William Kentridge or Huma Bhabha all employ types of physicality, surface and gesturalism, as well as cut-and-paste assemblage-collage methods, that are widely held to be dumpy ‘80s leftovers. They are not, strictly speaking, part of the preapproved, much cooler conceptual lineage that still dominates galleries.
One artist who combines cool-school cerebralness and assemblage is 53-year-old John Miller. Not exactly undiscovered, Miller, who lives in Berlin and New York, has been represented by Metro Pictures Gallery for decades. In addition to being a talented critic, he’s known for a series of wall works made of junk that has been painted all brown. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, these things were excellent analogs for the intersection of abstraction, scatology, commodity art and the rise and fall of the art market. These ugly-beautiful puddings made him into a brown version of Yves Klein, he of the all-blue monochrome paintings. Then Miller stopped making them and produced over-ironic installations and paintings involving game shows.
He’s back to making monochrome paintings. Only now they’re gold. This makes them perfect metaphors for the fusion of new money and new art. On view at Petzel through Saturday, Feb. 2, Miller’s gaudy gold-leaf bas-reliefs look simultaneously like Schnabel plate paintings, the ocean floor, ersatz architectural artifacts, kitschy bling and modern-day Dutch still-lifes touched by Midas. They play a snarky, Quasimodo-like American cousin to Damien Hirst’s $100 million death’s-head bauble. But where Hirst goes with diamonds and death, Miller gives us soda cans, sunglasses, belts and bras, in effect putting a clown nose on Hirst’s skull.
It’s not just nice that the market is allowing dealers to take a flyer on artists who haven’t had enough chances. Artists like Miller and Pensato are gaining relevance, as the art world consciously looks for ways to not attack the market as evil but try to comment on the system from within, without playing directly into the hands of commerce. (He doesn’t need to sell designer objets, for example, the way Takashi Murakami does.) Miller’s gewgaws can be seen as modern equivalents to Warhol’s dollar-sign paintings and Daniel Buren’s stripes -- fetishes that have no inherent value in themselves but that externalize unconsciousness, destabilize our relationship to art and are vivid symbols for their own status as placeholders for the rich. These paintings could easily be labeled stylish crap. Still, they’re ornery and raffish and show an artist being served by the market’s excess, our uneasy awareness of it and artists grown tired of greatest-generationalism.
Joyce Pensato, "The Eraser," Dec. 19, 2007-Feb. 2, 2008, at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 537 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011; John Miller, "The New Honeymooners," Dec. 19-Feb. 2, 2008, at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, and Dec. 19, 2007-Feb. 16, 2008, at Metro Pictures, 19 West 24th Street New York, NY 10011
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org