VENICE BIENNALE BATTLE RAGES ON
For several months now, a curatorial battle royale has been raging over last summer’s 52nd Venice Biennale -- in the letters pages of Artforum magazine. The dispute has gotten delightfully nasty, if you like that sort of thing, with some of the art-world’s most sophisticated curators acting like so many playground bullies. The war pits "Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind" curator Robert Storr against three of his critics, fellow globetrotting curators all: former Venice Biennale curator Francesco Bonami (whose 2003 installment, incisively titled "Dreams and Conflicts," was called by some the worst biennale ever), Documenta 11 artistic director Okwui Enwezor and Tate curator Jessica Morgan. (For a report of the opening salvos of the conflict, in which Storr’s show is called "gloomy," "lackluster," "enervating" and "awkward," see "Artnet News," Sept. 20, 2007.)
One thing seems clear from the contretemps, and that is that none of these curators take criticism well. Since 2008 began, no less than three issues of Artforum have devoted their letters pages to bitter exchanges between Storr and his critics. In January 2008, Storr launched an exhaustive offensive against his detractors (and "barely disguised rivals," as he aptly terms them), filling seven magazine pages with type so small that only a mother could be expected to read it all. After explaining his curatorial strategy in detail and boasting about its results (attendance of 1.5 million, prizes to difficult artists like Emily Jacir, works by 101 artists on view), and listing his curatorial credentials at embarrassing length (which Morgan had, mistakenly, belittled), Storr engaged what he called the "blindingly ad hominem" reviews of his show -- with attacks of his own that are themselves amusingly ad hominem.
Morgan, "should she ever be offered a chance to organize a biennial. . . has a lot to learn about making an exhibition." A "third-rater" and an "aging prodigy," Bonami has "blown his tryout for the big time," and his discussion of the biennale is "replete with half-truths, blatant untruths and nonsensical fiction." What’s more, Bonami has become Storr’s "stalker," and "a clown who’s lost his timing." As for Enwezor, he displays an "arrogant and dissembling belligerence" that "emits the dispiriting and regrettable aura of wasted promise," and also doesn’t understand abstract painting. More importantly, perhaps, Storr charges Enwezor with attempting to monopolize all of Africa as his "curatorial capital" on the international art circuit.
In the end, Storr makes an undeniable point -- that none of the three reviews of the 52nd Venice Biennale actually said much of note about the actual art in the show. But however much a reader might sympathize with Storr, he does come off as a little obsessed. He might have garnered more sympathy had he simply kept quiet; the same letters page contains a concise and eloquent defense of the 52nd Biennale against Morgan’s "spiteful ad hominem attack" by Irving Sandler.
A month later, Artforum’s February 2008 issue included replies from the three critics. While Morgan’s conciliatory response simply reiterates her opinion that Storr’s curatorial concept was weak, and Bonami primarily limits himself to mocking Storr’s wordiness, Enwezor kicks it up a notch. Storr’s "African Pavilion" initiative was hardly progressive, he writes, but rather represented a naïve "Afrophilia." In fact, Storr is like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the trader who constructs a personal kingdom in the Congo, where he lords over the natives. "Long believed to be dead and buried in the sludge of the 19th-century colonial game, Mr. Kurtz, we learned in 2007, is alive after all," writes Enwezor. "His latest incarnation is Mr. Storr."
Which brings us to the April 2008 Artforum, where Storr counterattacks with four more pages of hostile argument, only to be met by yet another Enwezor riposte. At this point, the exchange revolves around such meaningful details as whether or not, in fact, Storr or Harald Szeemann was the first curator to travel to Africa for the Biennale. The charges and countercharges of racism also take on a newly vicious tone, and even extend -- bizarrely -- to the question of the significance of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Storr: "Is this how scurrilously low the dialogue of race if going to be brought by an influential figure in the arts the same year in which the first African-American candidate with a genuine shot at the White House has done everything in his power to raise that dialogue higher than it has been in several generations?" Enwezor: "Storr is onto something here: For him, revealingly, race is a trope of objectification; thus Obama is reduced to his race, his African-Americanness. Nay, his blackness singles him out, and that is the reason Storr wishes to equate his presidential candidacy with racial healing."
Buried in what amounts to colorful art-world infighting is the only point worthy of real controversy -- the questions that plagued Storr’s attempt to "bring the representation of African art into the core areas of the Biennale." In hindsight, granting this historic privilege to the Angola-based Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo would seem to have been less than ideal [see "Artnet News," Feb. 23, 2007]. Acknowledging a mistake is typically a good way to deal with it, but as his Artforum correspondence demonstrates, such an approach is not Storr’s style [see "Reply to Storr," July 17, 2007].
With luck, the biennale will leave us with more than an ugly lesson about curatorial ego and bad faith. In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art’s "Primitivism" exhibition set off a vigorous exchange in Artforum, and led to a rethinking of the way non-Western art was shown, "[p]erhaps the beginning of multiculturalist theory in the art world," as Jerry Saltz put it in his recent "New York Canon." Similarly, the dispute over the African pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale should provoke a more thorough-going investigation of the role played by contemporary art and patronage in the real world, as well as in the ivory tower.
OPRAH SARCOPHAGUS IN CHICAGO
Connecticut realist sculptor Daniel Edwards, the mischievous classicist who has brought us 3D depictions of a nude Britney Spears giving birth on a bearskin rug and Hillary Clinton in a bra, is unveiling a new artwork for Art Chicago. The Oprah Sarcophagus is a life-sized golden sarcophagus for Chicago’s hometown talk-show host and all-around cultural avatar, Oprah Winfrey. Styled in the manner of King Tut’s coffin, the golden sculpture debuts at GARDENfresh Gallery on 119 North Peoria in Chicago, courtesy of the Leo Kesting Gallery in Manhattan, on Apr. 24, 2008. The artist is ostensibly offering the work to Winfrey to encourage her to discuss funeral-planning on her television show.
Edwards has also completed a related work titled The Oprah Burial Mask, described as "a celebration of an inner beauty for which we could all aspire" by gallery director David Kesting. At this writing, The Oprah Burial Mask is up for auction on eBay, with a current bid of $102.50 -- though it is the sort of thing that may be pulled by the auction site (eBay cancelled the sale of a Daniel Edwards sculpture of Suri Cruise’s "poo" several months ago). A book depicting the piece, featuring 32 pages of fabricated emails between Oprah, Dr. Phil, Gayle King and Daniel Edwards is available for $12 on Amazon. Kesting is also selling t-shirts and coffee mugs with the Oprah image; for details, see www.caplakesting.com
As for Edwards’ sculpture of Britney Spears [see "Artnet News," Mar. 28, 2006], Kesting reports that he has sold the sculpture to a "high profile fashion designer," who wants the work fabricated in 1.5 scale in marble.
ANTHONY CARO "BUBBLIN’ IN DUBLIN"
Anthony Caro, the dean of British sculpture, is having his first exhibition in Ireland at Hillsboro Fine Art on Parnell Square West in Dublin, May 1-26, 2008. Spanning the period 1977-2005, the presentation includes three important large steel works: Emma Wave (1977-79), Toward Centre (1984) and Descent (1985). The show also boasts bronzes from the "Court" series and the "Concerto" series, three sculptures of brass with bronze or wood, and two works on paper from the "Obama" series. The show includes a catalogue with a foreword penned by the Irish sculptor Michael Warren. For more info, see www.hillsborofineart.com
OPTIMISM AT ART FAIRS
As the Artropolis mega-fair opens in Chicago, Apr. 25-28, 2008, the Armory Show in New York -- owned by the same corporate parent as Artropolis, the Merchandise Mart -- reports that preliminary results from its 2008 installment demonstrate "a healthy market" that "dispels fears about the economy’s effect" on the art business. Last month’s Armory Show, Mar. 27-29, 2008, drew 52,000 visitors, the same as last year. The report remains mum on estimated total sales, however, which hit $85 million in 2007.
Positive sales results are cited for Sean Kelly Gallery (a large Joseph Kosuth work for $275,000, plus sales of everything on hand by Rebecca Horn and Los Carpinteros) and Greenberg Van Doren Gallery (a sculpture by Katsura Funakoshi for $275,000, and a painting by Sharon Ellis for $90,000). Celebrities who attended the fair include Lance Armstrong, Matt Dillon, James Franco, Calvin Klein and Mary Kate Olsen.
Not to be outdone, the AIPAD Photography Show New York, Apr. 10-13, 2008, announced record-setting attendance of 8,000, up 18 percent over last year. The AIPAD gala benefit on Apr. 9, 2008, raised $280,000 for the Museum of Modern Art photo acquisition fund, and saw many "boldface names" in attendance, including Cindy Adams, Kathy Bates, Anthony Bourdain, Bob Colacello, Matt Dillon and Jessica Lang. Extensive sales were reported including a Pierre Dubreuil vintage gelatin silver print at Michael Shapiro Photographs for $130,000, a salt print by Charles Negre from 1851 at Hans P. Kraus, Jr., for $90,000, and a Tina Modotti unique print at Throckmorton Fine Art for $25,000.
Other dealers reported quantity rather than price. Bonni Benrubi Gallery sold 45 prints, Etherton Gallery sold 25 prints, Barry Singer Gallery sold eight works, Richard Moore Photographs sold 12 works, the Czech Center of Photography sold more than 27 works, and Keith de Lellis Gallery sold 17 prints, many to first-time buyers. Charles Isaacs Photographs sold 12 albumen prints by Louis Lafon, ca. 1880s, with six going to museums. "Given the state of the economy," Isaacs hazarded, "we really dodged a bullet."
And last but not least -- and in contrast to the less-than-sanguine report filed by art dealer Kenny Schachter [see "Art Dealer’s Diary," Apr. 22, 2008] -- Art Cologne 2008 said it had 55,000 visitors and strong sales figures, and claims to be "back on track." Galerie Thomas reports selling works by Heinz Mack and Jim Dine for €150,000 each, Maulberger gallery from Munich sold a work by Antoni Tàpies for a six-figure sum, and Schlictenmaier gallery from Grafenau sold an Ernst Wilhelm Nay painting for €130,000. Melsheimer gallery from Cologne sold an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner for €140,000, and Terminus gallery from Munch sold a bronze by Tony Cragg for €290,000, as well as several works by Jan Davidoff and Peter Anton.
The €10,000 Art Cologne Prize for 2008 went to former Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris director Suzanne Pagé, who is honored for her work promoting "classical modernism." The €10,000 Audi Art Award for New Talents was won by Valerie Kraus (b. 1976), who also gets a solo show at the Cologne Artothek. New Art Cologne director Daniel Hug comes on the job on May 1, 2008.
LATE KIRCHNER AT MICHAEL WERNER
Michael Werner Gallery on East 77th Street in Manhattan is presenting "The Unexpected New: Late Work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner," Apr. 18-June 14, 2008, an exhibition of paintings made during 1921-35 in Davos, Switzerland, a period rarely examined in any depth in Kirchner exhibitions. Though Kirchner’s works from the "Die Brücke" period (1905-13) are highly regarded, as are the street scenes painted immediately thereafter, his subsequent production, during which the artist sought to re-energize his painting style, remains debated by art historians. The exhibition at Werner, which is accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by art historian and curator Pamela Kort, features portraits, landscapes and nudes done in Kirchner’s new style, which is characterized by "rhythmic, architectonic compositions" and an "almost hallucinatory palette." For an online preview, click here.
CLIVE OWEN FOR FREE ARTS NYC
British actor Clive Owen, star of the cult actioner Shoot ‘Em Up (2007), is sponsoring the forthcoming benefit auction for Free Arts NYC, a ten-year-old program to provide "creative arts mentoring" to children and families. The "Portraits & Polaroids" auction, featuring works by 75 top contemporary artists, many of them custom-made 20 x 24 in. Polaroids, takes place at Phillips, de Pury & Co. on Apr. 30, 2008, with Simon de Pury serving as auctioneer. One of the Polaroids is by Spencer Tunick, who posed 150 nudes in the Four Seasons Restaurant on Mar. 22, 2008.
Other contributors are Christopher Wool, Chuck Close, Donald Baechler, Adam Fuss, Kehinde Wiley, Laurie Simmons, James Nares, Marilyn Minter, and Rirkrit Tiravanijia. Last year’s benefit raised over $650,000. Tickets start at $300; for more info, see www.freeartsnyc.org. Nota breve for Clive Owen fans: the star may not be able to attend the actual benefit.
BANK ART COMING TO A MUSEUM NEAR YOU
The Charlotte-based Bank of America, which holds more of our money than any other U.S. bank, has long been a top corporate arts patron, sponsoring museum exhibitions and funding free entry for its credit-card holders to more than 50 U.S. museums and nonprofits. In 2006, according to reports, the bank gave about $25 million to the arts. The bank also has a collection of several thousand works, worth an undisclosed sum, typically displayed at its hundreds of offices and branches. These holdings, which have grown as the bank has acquired more than 3,000 smaller banks, range from Matisse illustrations and works by the Wyeth family to 18th-century landscapes and contemporary photography. The bank’s current art curator is Lillian Lambrechts.
Now, the bank has launched an "Art Exhibition Program" that allows museums to organize exhibitions from its holdings, with expenses paid by the bank. All told, more than 25 shows are on the schedule through 2010, including "Arbus / Avedon / Model: Selections from the Bank of America Collection" at the International Center of Photography, May 16-Sept. 7, 2008, and "Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography" at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, June 24-Sept. 22, 2008. The program actually began last year, with "George Caleb Bingham: The Making of the County Election" at the St. Louis Art Museum, Oct. 12, 2007-Mar. 9, 2008, and "Girls on the Verge: Portraits of Adolescence" at the Art Institute of Chicago, Dec. 8, 2007-Feb. 24, 2008.
Other museums taking advantage of the program are the Loyola University Museum, the Boca Raton Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Napa Valley Museum and the St. Louis University Museum of Art.
OMER FAST TAKES WHITNEY AWARD
The Jerusalem-born, Berlin-based artist Omer Fast has won the Whitney Museum’s munificent Bucksbaum Award for 2008, a prize that comes with a $100,000 purse and an exhibition at the museum. Fast’s 14-minute-long video, The Casting (2007), is included in the current Whitney Biennial (and also appeared in "Art Unlimited" section of the 2008 edition of the Art 38 Basel fair -- see "Art Capital," June 18, 2007]. The four-screen projection artfully combines two parallel tales, one of a U.S. soldier who accidentally kills a civilian in the Middle East and a second of a young man on a date with an irrational young woman.
CLARK PRIZE TO SCHJELDAHL
New Yorker art critic Peter Scheldahl has won the 2008 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. The prize includes a $25,000 honorarium as well as an award sculpture designed by architect Tadao Ando, architect for the museum’s expansion. Scheldahl’s new collection of writings, titled Let’s See (Thames & Hudson), officially hits the stores next month.
APPLEBROOG AWARD TO RAFAEL SANCHEZ
Performance artist Rafael Sanchez has won the $10,000 Ida Applebroog Award at Exit Art in New York, established to nurture outstanding artists at critical points in their careers. The biennial prize, which is in its inaugural year, also includes a solo show in the Exit Art project room. A native of Newark, N.J., Sanchez is known for performances like Calienté/Frio (2007), in which the artist traced the migration process of two women from Cuba to America during the 1960s.
The award is to be presented at the Expose 2008 Exit Art Benefit Auction on May 1, 2008. Co-chaired by Sanford Biggers, Patty Chang, Paul Pfeiffer and Wangechi Mutu, the Exit Art benefit features a silent and live auction of donated works by scores of artists, ranging from Marina Abramovic, John Ahearn and Diana Al-Hadid to Stephen Westfall, David Wojnarowicz and Saya Woolfalk. Tickets begin at $125; for more details, see www.exitart.org