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by Grant Mandarino
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As we go to press, the Republicans have just captured the U.S. House of Representatives and several governorships, crushing any hopes -- and they have grown fainter with each new fumble of the Obama administration -- that good sense would prevail in Washington, D.C. It’s all too depressing. Luckily, the contemporary art world remains blissfully unaware of this reality, which was nowhere reflected in the October issues of the publications under review.

Art in America is a good place to start for a chuckle. In the October issue, longtime art critic, curator and now Yale dean Robert Storr launches his latest broadside at the ivory-towered commissars of the October art journal. This new polemic purports to be a book review of German curator Dietmar Elger’s Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (Chicago, 2010), well-timed to coincide with the current Richter show at New York’s Drawing Center. But in fact the text is little more than a way for Storr to get some jabs in at Octoberites like Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, widely considered to be Richter’s foremost interpreter. It’s not all invective; Storr does welcome the bio’s insight into the painter’s 1961 defection to the Federal Republic of Germany (i.e. the West) and the kooky Düsseldorf art world he launched with fellow Ostdeutsche Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo.

Richter is reticent to link his personal story to his art, but Storr suggests that information regarding the artist’s relationship to the nastier bits of Germany’s 20th century (his schizophrenic aunt fell victim to the Third Reich’s slaughter of medical undesirables, his uncle was a proud member of the German Wehrmacht) can only help us grasp the complexity of his oeuvre. He thus celebrates both Elger’s book and Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007 (DAP, 2009), edited by Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist

What Storr cannot stand is the new collection of critical essays compiled by Buchloh, titled Gerhard Richter (MIT, 2009). Buchloh’s approach, he says, evinces a "general impatience with looking at pictures, except when searching for an example that can be used to confirm a preexisting conclusion." Still, Buchloh and Richter are longtime colleagues -- by way of illustration, if that’s what you would call it, Storr mentions that both men were romantically involved with the artist Isa Genzken -- and this book is filled with transcriptions of their meandering discussions. And while Storr ascribes Buchloh’s inability to nail down Richter’s painting to the critic’s narcissism and fatuous orthodoxy, it is just as legitimate to see his and Richter’s squabbling as a healthy dialectic between friends that benefits us all (or rather those who understand what the hell they are talking about -- or care).

It’s understandable that Storr bears a grudge; after all, Rosalind Krauss, founding editor of October, skewered Storr’s Museum of Modern Art survey of Richter’s work in Artforum, calling the exhibition design a "failure." Perhaps this explains why in this review he credits that 2002 show with securing Richter’s place in the international pantheon of 20th century greats. Even were this true, it comes off a bit gauche to brag about one’s own accomplishments in what is ostensibly a review of other people’s efforts.

The rest of AiA’s October issue focuses on sculpture and includes an interview with performance-cum-video game artist Brody Condon as well as two feature profiles, one on Roxy Paine, famed fashioner of life-size metal trees, and the other on Orly Genger, who works primarily with knotted ropes. More noteworthy, however, are a pair of articles that hustle up some modest enthusiasm for what is billed as a new interest in the human figure among contemporary sculptors.

Nancy Princenthal reviews "Statuesque," an installation in New York’s City Hall Park of mostly cast-bronze works by Pawel Althamer, Huma Bhabha, Aaron Curry, Thomas Houseago, Matthew Monahan and Rebecca Warren. From these generally expressionistic humanoids, Princenthal concludes that we are in a time of renewed historicism, with Marcel Duchamp traded in for Pablo Picasso. She cites 1980s Neo-Expressionism as an earlier example, and indeed, such idle twists and turns in esthetic sensibility are typically a post festum attribution at best.

The process works both ways, as contemporary preoccupations can lead to the rehabilitation of artists long held to be stuffy or boring. Wexner Center for the Arts chief curator Christopher Bedford examines the case of the British sculptor Henry Moore, whose biomorphic figures once made him the "quintessential establishment artist." Now, Bedford claims, Moore is once again a touchstone for representational sculptors.

Moore’s restoration has been prompted by books and essays by art historians Alex Potts and Anne Wagner (newly appointed research curator at Tate Britain), not to mention a major Tate exhibition this year. What changed? Bedford writes that the new scholarship showcases an edgier, darker Moore more in line with the morbid and sexually charged preoccupations of contemporary sculptors, not to mention Moore’s concern with physicality and rough-hewn figuration. "I hated him for a long time," Houseago has said, "but now think he’s brilliant."

Otherwise, the October art mags offer slim pickings -- although ARTnews has a nifty little feature on "green" art materials. Artforum’s new editor, Michelle Kuo, has yet to establish herself with a path-breaking issue. Here’s hoping that the magazine can connect in the months ahead with the drastic socioeconomic, political and cultural changes affecting artists across the globe.

Meanwhile, readers might do well to check out some of the more academic periodicals out there. They can be pretty entertaining from time to time. The fall 2010 issue of usually humdrum Art Journal, a publication of the College Art Association, for instance, is now under the editorship of the estimable Katy Siegel, and includes several essays that zero in on specific issues with that academic zeal for detail. David McCarthy puzzles over the conspicuous antiwar messages in two works made right after World War II by David Smith, while Jung-Ah Woo analyzes the political consciousness underlying On Kawara’s apparently apolitical "Date Paintings."
Of greater import is the section on Yun-Fei Ji’s Three Gorges Dam Migration (2009). A monumental hand scroll printed from over 500 wooden blocks and stretching 32 feet in length, it depicts the social impact of the construction of a gigantic dam across the Yangzi River -- a project begun in 1994 and scheduled for completion in 2014. Ji, who appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and is known for works that touch on big social issues, created the piece in collaboration with Beijing’s famous Rongbaozhai studio, which specializes in traditional forms of printmaking.
The comments of the Rongbaozhai artists are doubly interesting when read in conjunction with the essay by Joan Kee about the paradoxical status of ink painting in narratives of contemporary art. An artist like Ji, Kee explains, is considered to be contemporary because he makes current events the subject of his work, despite the fact that he uses traditional mediums like ink painting. In fact, in the eyes of many critics, the use of older mediums only confirms his status as an artist unconcerned with medium specificity and thus hip to the fragmented reality of our globalized millennium. This kind of reading overlooks the medium’s rich history as well as the fact that, in places like South Korea, ink painting has "enjoyed the status of a vanguard in relation to other media" at times during the last 50 years.

Another place to look for stimulating perspective on contemporary art is the New Left Review, long the home of a left-leaning coterie of perspicacious intellectuals. The latest issue finds Julian Stallabrass, who made a name for himself lambasting the yBas at their height, calling foul on avant-garde darling Jeff Wall. Stallabrass claims that the photographer’s work has gradually become conservative, moving from a concern with cultural praxis to an embrace of high estheticism, a tale told with the not-so-subtle moralizing one would expect.

For evidence, the critic turns to Wall’s use of huge lightboxes, which ensures that his photographic works are unique. Couple this format with Wall’s manipulation of the image through digital and montage effects to create unified scenes devoid of the artist’s touch and we arrive, so Stallabrass claims, at an image that is more or less singular and therefore the exact opposite of what is supposed to define photography: its reproducibility. The denial of reproduction in Wall’s lightboxes and their assimilation into a traditional understanding of individual craftsmanship are what make them the supreme example of what Stallabrass calls "museum photography," that is, photography that is accommodating to museum presentation and its obsession with unique objects.

Stallabrass probably makes too much of Wall’s capitulation to the demands of the museum. Photographs can be displayed in many ways, however many prints of the image there may be. And it’s not like the market hasn’t long assimilated multiple prints of the same image -- that’s what the high prices paid for vintage prints are all about. On the other hand, the question is relevant, especially for photographers who work in both the commercial and fine art arenas. Annie Leibovitz, for instance, has begun to limit the size of her print editions, according to an article in the Financial Times, to boost their art-market value. Wall may be turning his back on his younger radicalism, but he’s not stupid.

That’s all this for this month. Keep your chin up!

GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.