It’s that time of year again: frosty mornings, delicious treats, the bustle of holiday shopping. The art world settles down for a long winter’s nap, while critics ponder the end of a decade and make lists of the best 2009 had to offer. This is, at least, what happens in the pages of Artforum this month, and I thought I’d follow suit by listing my own the Top Ten items plucked from the estimable magazine’s ever-popular year-end picks. It’s a "meta-top ten list."
Counting down: No. 10 goes to Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, scourge of art history graduate students the world over, who selects Piero Manzoni’s retrospective at the Gagosian Gallery in New York last January as the standout show of 2009. The U.S. is finally beginning to understand the importance of postwar Italian art, Buchloh claims. Manzoni "opened up a wide set of questions concerning the fate of somatic experience and the conditions of the bodily dimension of art in an emerging empire of accelerated and totalitarian object consumption." Right on Buchloh! Nobody dresses up the fecophiliac antics of young Italian aristocrats with quite the same sonority.
No. 9 goes to Venice veteran Daniel Birnbaum, who singles out John Baldessari’s recent retrospective at the Tate Modern as "no doubt the show of the year." Although this exhibition has been much hyped, Birnbaum is the only contributor to put it on his Top Ten. Baldessari won a lifetime achievement award at the biennale last summer and created the entrance to the central exhibition space, so maybe Birnbaum just had the artist on his mind.
A recent show at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) called "Target Practice: Painting under Attack 1949-1978" takes No. 8. The show appears on the list compiled by Matthew Higgs, director of NYC’s White Columns. That SAM show was the debut of the museum’s new curator of modern and contemporary art, Michael Darling, formerly of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Controversy arose during the show’s run last summer when a museum security guard-cum-performance-based photographer meddled with Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail [see Artnet News, Sept. 2, 2009]. Seattle has tried hard to shed its provincial reputation; maybe Darling can help.
Coming in at No. 7 is L.A.-based writer Rachel Kushner (of Telex from Cuba fame), who chooses The Coming Insurrection as her favorite book of the year. First released in France in 2007 (Semiotext(e) published the English translation last May), it is authored by something called the Invisible Committee, a shadowy group of would-be revolutionaries. Kushner describes the book as a post-industrial critique of consumer culture, notable for its "unqualified rejection of our entire civilization." Fox News Quatschmeister Glenn Beck referred to it on his show as proof that "the left" is planning a violent uprising in the near future. If Beck hates the book, it must be worth reading, right?
No. 6 belongs to Hal Foster’s reflective piece on noughties art. He sums up the last decade with a single adjective: "precarious," and amplifies his judgment with five examples: a 2005 Robert Gober show at Matthew Marks Gallery; Jon Kessler’s The Palace at 4am performed at P.S.1 that same year; Mark Wallinger’s 2007 State Britain; a outdoor installation by Isa Genzken; and Paul Chan’s series The 7 Lights. All of these works apparently show that the art of the noughties "attempted to manifest, even to exacerbate" the political uncertainty of our present world. They also demonstrate the narrow focus of Foster’s piece.
A review of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial takes No. 5, primarily because this was the show I wish I had seen during the year. As described in the September edition of this column, the festival was organized by a Croatian curatorial group called What, How & For Whom, and promised to be more political than many of the other shows on the festival circuit. According to the Artforum reviewer, Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum, it contained many works critical of the art establishment but did not exactly live up to its initial hype. Even so, a protest against the festival’s main sponsor broke out on opening night. As Esche quips, "Institutional self-critique opens up a can of worms."
No. 4 goes to Rosalind Krauss, the eminence grise of modernist studies, who picks a series of lectures by T. J. Clark collectively titled "Picasso and Truth" as the best soon-to-be book of 2009. Krauss calls the presentation "the greatest intellectual stimulation and the most superb rhetorical skill I experienced in 2009," notable praise from a scholar known for holding standards too high for most mortals to meet (though many have tried). The lectures are currently available for download at www.nga.gov/podcasts.
Director John Waters is by far the most amusing of the contributors to this year’s collection of Top 10 lists and deserves No. 3. One of the films he chooses is Antichrist, Lars van Trier’s latest slice of masturbatory misanthropy. Waters describes the film eloquently: "If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made." What a great comment, but I still don’t want to see the movie.
No. 2 goes to roving power-curator Okwui Enwezor, who includes the inauguration of President Obama in his Top 10 list. Enwezor claims that "no event of this entire year, and perhaps no event for years to come, could rival the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as America’s first postcolonial commander in chief." True enough. Yet does not the more recent Nobel Peace Prize speech Obama gave as "commander-in-chief" of two wars constitute a similarly monumental event, and one at odds with the hope for change unleashed by his inauguration?
But the best item of all, my own No. 1, comes from Scott Rothkopf, senior editor at Artforum and newly appointed curator at the Whitney. Whereas Enwezor sees historical significance in Obama’s inauguration, Rothkopf focuses instead on the accessories worn on that particular day. You guessed it -- or maybe you didn’t -- Rothkopf has Aretha Franklin’s inauguration day hat in his Top 10, and he’s found some poignant symbolism in that bowed accoutrement. "Aretha’s exuberant headgear is the enduring emblem of a high point in our nation’s optimism and pride." Can’t wait to see how things work out at the Whitney.
Baku is probably not the first city that comes to mind when thinking of contemporary art. "Oil" or "governmental corruption" is more likely. That’s all going to change in the next few years, though, thanks to plans for a new museum of contemporary art currently in development by the Orwellian-sounding Global Cultural Asset Management, a consulting firm run by Thomas Krens, former head honcho of the Guggenheim Foundation.
According to ARTnews, the Azerbaijani government hopes that Krens can do for Baku what he once did for Bilbao. If all goes according to plan, the new museum, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, will help this Central Asian nation to overcome its poor reputation. Krens is apparently in talks with the governments of Kazakhstan and Libya as well. Mr. "Me Medici," as Peter Schjeldahl once called him, is still the go-to guy for boosting a country’s cultural capital.
The two main features of ARTnews this month are devoted to women artists. The first, penned by writer Phoebe Hoban, looks at the "evolving" prominence of women in the collections and exhibitions of major New York art institutions since the show "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" made such a splash back in 2007. Since then, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a key work of "feminist" art, was put on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, and Louise Bourgeois’ retrospective at the Guggenheim won the International Association of Art Critics’ best monographic museum show in 2008.
According to Hoban, the Whitney has been leading the way, and chief curator Donna de Salvo notes that the number of women represented in the Whitney Biennial increased to 40 percent last year from 29 percent in 2006 (it’s over 50 percent for 2010). Several solo shows of important women artists (Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker and Georgia O’Keeffe) have also been mounted at the Whitney in recent years, and the museum has acquired works by most of them. "You don’t have to go out of your way to find phenomenal women artists," de Salvo says.
One of the art world’s most prominent living female artists is Marina Abramovic, subject of an ARTnews profile by Linda Yablonsky this month. Arguably the "world’s leading performance artist," Abramovic is the subject of a retrospective at MoMA in March 2010 organized by the museum’s newly appointed head of the media and performance department, Klaus Biesenbach. Abramovic speaks about her parents, war heroes who later became high-ranking members of the Yugoslav Communist Party, and her beginnings with performance. She got her start in 1973 and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and was soon after collaborating with the likes of Joseph Beuys and the Viennese Actionists. Before long, Hermann Nitsch, the maestro of the blood-and-guts art scene, was strapping Abramovic to a cross and covering her with 30 pounds of sheep’s eyes -- a token of affection for an Actionist like Nitsch.
Many of Abramovic’s most important works were created during the 1980s in collaboration with Uwe Laysiepen (better known as Ulay), who was the artist’s partner in life and performance before they split in 1988. In recent years Abramovic has become more active as a teacher, though she continues to perform, often in the nude and at psyche-stressing length. The MoMA retrospective features five of her early works re-created by 35 artists, all trained by Abramovic. Several involve nudity, and the museum is expected to take precautions to keep those not accustomed to the sight of bare breasts and penises well away from the performers. The artist herself (clothed) will sit at a table in the museum’s atrium during operating hours silently waiting for any brave visitor to sit across from her and lock eyes. Nudity and the you-blinked game, sounds like a show not to be missed.
Benglis got her start as a pioneer in what was known at the time as "process and materials" art, or Postminimalism, to use Robert Pincus-Witten’s favorite term. In 1970 she was featured in Life magazine, echoing the spread done for Jackson Pollock 21 years earlier. Both artists worked on the floor, Pollock with thinned house-paint, Benglis with day-glo latex. Benglis’ "pours" got bigger over time, and eventually moved to the wall.
Other highlights of the December AiA issue include a studio visit with painter Wayne Gonzales, who plays tricks with familiar images of crowds and politicians; a review of the newly published writings of Abstract Expressionist painter Jack Tworkov, who like so many of his brethren took to the pen to defend his definition of art; a critical piece on three recent re-creations of Allan Kaprow’s Yard; a profile on the Borges-inspired Argentinean artist Guillermo Kuitca; and a review of a South African show that deals with the ongoing AIDS crisis throughout the Third World. Alas, no wisdom from Dave Hickey this month.
The other main Art in America feature reports on William Kentridge’s upcoming production of Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, which debuts at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on March 5, 2010. The opera is based on Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 story of the same name, of course, a fantastic tale of a man who wakes to find his schnoz has left his face to become a higher-ranking member of the Tsarist civil service. The story has been a favorite of Russian literature buffs for generations, and Shostakovich’s interpretation dates from 1928, at the height of Stalin’s power, when the composer was only 22 years old.
Kentridge, who is well known for his hand-drawn animations (and who has done opera before), is described as having been attracted to The Nose by its ability to give "urgent voice to social and political struggles as timeless as they are universal." Live performers are paired with video projections, including animated adventures of the errant nose, archival footage of 1920s-era Russia, Stalinist symbols and Suprematist geometric forms. A Kentridge survey runs concurrently at MoMA.
The December issue has a long interview with John Baldessari, much better than the one Frieze published back in October, an article comparing U.S. and UK conceptual art, and the first review I’ve seen of Michael Fried’s new book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Fried is famous for having denounced the "theatricality" of Minimal art back in the late 1960s, and has spent almost his entire career defending his own idiosyncratic model of modernist painting. But the advent of large-scale photographs by the likes Thomas Ruff and Jeff Wall struck Fried like a ton of bricks, and convinced him that photography could do the work modernist painting failed to achieve. His arguments, which occasionally surfaced during the past decade, are presumably gathered together in Why.
In an interesting feature, Mark Wilsher critiques contemporary notions of public art -- and not only "Plop Art" but the newer "relational" artworks as well. You know: those public interventions that include chairs, TVs, headphones or books and that invite viewers to discuss the meaning of esthetic ontology. According to Wilsher, works like this promise more than they deliver, and in fact "are often purely rhetorical spectacles where we the audience are asked to affirm that we have been offered the possibility of participation."
Wilsher suggests that we re-think the entire notion of public art, whether it takes place in a newspaper, a gallery or a park. Transient public art, like Antony Gromley’s wildly successful Fourth Plinth piece in London’s Trafalgar Square, is mentioned as one viable alternative for institutions that don’t want to take a chance on permanent contemporary sculptures that might well be greeted by public controversy. Wilsher does not come right out and define a new paradigm, but his argument offers food for thought.
That’s all for this month. Season’s Greetings and party hardy.
GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.