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Close Encounters

by Linda Yablonsky
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Over dinner the other night, conversation drifted to retrospectives for mid-career artists in New York museums. It seemed to one of my companions, Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf, that such shows used to occur more frequently at the Whitney, which in the 1980s and '90s seemed to specialize in monographic shows of hot younger artists.

Thinking back, we ticked off the subjects of some of them: Richard Tuttle, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Terry Winters, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Glenn Ligon -- the list is longer than our memories. It includes mid-career surveys that arrived at the Whitney from museums elsewhere, like those for John Currin and Kara Walker, to name just two.

Let's face it: New York is as rich in retrospectives as it is in museums. On Nov. 4, 2011, the Guggenheim, where Brice Marden landed at mid-career in 1975, will open a full-scale survey for Maurizio Cattelan, who is hanging everything he has ever made from the rotunda ceiling. In February, the Museum of Modern Art pays Sherman her due. Neither is a mid-career artist, but Cattelan, who is 51, says that the occasion will mark his retirement from art-making. He wants to devote himself to Toilet Paper, the semi-annual picture magazine he is producing in Milan with photographer Pierpaulo Ferrari, and which looks like art to me. Sherman, at 57 not exactly a senior, shows no sign of slowing down.

I wondered, though, if living artists, especially those judged to be at mid-career, always welcomed their retrospectives. Though hard to turn down, such summations can make it seem as if the career is over, or at least will never be the same -- a situation to which Cattelan's "retirement" gives tacit acknowledgement. Sometimes it is a good thing, bumping up the artist's public profile, at least for a while, and certainly the market for the work. Other times the pressures these shows create can be deadly.

Tuttle did not become a household name after his 1975 retrospective at the Whitney, but the uproar that greeted it was partly responsible for curator Marcia Tucker's forced resignation, after which she founded the New Museum. So let's count that as a good thing.

The mid-career show that current New Museum director Lisa Phillips championed for Prince in 1992, when she was a curator at the Whitney, helped to propel him from artist's artist to famous artist. Sherman, who was in her early 30s she had her Whitney retrospective, was already a power -- but now says she thinks the show arrived too soon.

"At the time, I didn't even bother installing my big shows, which I can't imagine doing now," she told me in an email. "I knew having a retrospective at my age, in my home town, was an honor, but I didn't comprehend the extent of that honor." It certainly didn't hurt her work or her career, but it can't be easy for young artists to withstand the level of scrutiny that mid-career shows aim at them. For all her success, years went by before Sherman began to feel comfortable with her celebrity.

Nan Goldin's photography seemed to plateau after her hugely popular Whitney retrospective in 1996; even though she has continued to show in museums and galleries worldwide, most of her exhibitions depend on a reshuffling of her early work or pointedly refer to it.

John Currin has made some risky choices with subject matter since his 2003 mid-career show, but none of his recent work has resonated with the public the way his earlier paintings did. That may be because they haven’t been given major museum treatment yet, or because their provocations meet, rather than confuse, expectations, which some perceive as a let-down.

Of course, public perceptions are not the best or the most astute way to assess an artist's work -- not when they are manipulated by the media or the auction market, and not until sufficient time has passed to judge the actual impact or influence of an artist on a culture. Warhol's market was bottoming out in the ‘70s and look at him now: still the king of Pop and a million other things.

Generally, mid-career shows take account of the first ten years of an artist's work. That was the case for Jeff Koons' 1992 show at SFMOMA, as it is for the Neuberger Museum's current survey for 33-year-old Dana Schutz, but Bruce Nauman's first show at the Whitney, when he was 34, made do with less. Next year, that museum will shine its light on the last decade of work by Wade Guyton, 40, a specialized taste for many and an artist who may be better known for his collaborations with Kelley Walker, who has not yet been offered such a show.

I asked Rothkopf, curator of the Guyton and Ligon shows, if the mid-career pause wasn't a mixed blessing. "Working at a museum with an 80-year commitment to living artists and the art of our time," he said, "I think it's important that we continue to provide younger artists with this kind of forum, and to connect their work with a much wider audience than it would reach in a commercial art gallery."

That makes sense, but because a mid-career survey represents a career pinnacle, everything that comes out of the artist's studio afterwards is going to be measured against it. How easy can it be to find the logical next step when everyone is looking over your shoulder? Is there not a temptation, or pressure from a dealer, to enrich the brand by continuing in the same vein? Or does the wrap-up free an artist to strike out in a new direction? How long can even the most inventive of artists keep coming up with surprises? How long can they afford to experiment? How long can they afford not to?

At dinner, I wondered which artists today have created a substantial enough body of work with the game-changing impact of a Schnabel, a Basquiat or a Koons. What are the criteria? Is it the breadth of their accomplishment, the number of collections that include them or how many times they get their names in the paper? Is celebrity the new measure of value? Or is a curator's faith enough? If Schutz merits a retrospective, does Sterling Ruby? Rob Pruitt? Cecily Brown?

Ambitious curators must be making exactly these kinds of calculations, since organizing important shows by popular artists is, in many cases, a professional objective. The question of financing must also play a behind-the-scenes part in these decisions.  

"The goal is not to rush to be first, but to choose artists who one believes have made real contributions to the field, and who might benefit from this kind of treatment," Rothkopf said. "You have to be able to see the arc of the work in your mind and see it in a space. Of course, no one knows who will be important 25 or 50 years from now, but I believe that museums devoted to contemporary art should muster conviction about what's worthwhile in our moment, frame it in a serious way, and share it with the public as best they can."

Who are the great young artists today? Is there a de Kooning or a Rauschenberg among them? Is there a Basquiat or a Warhol? Does a mid-career retrospective make the difference? Or do we have to wait till they're gone to know?

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.