Can you believe that I’m still reading art magazines in 2010? I mean, shouldn’t everything be streamed directly into our brains by this point? Can magazines even hope to provide a snapshot of the ever-expanding art world these days?
Sure they can! Just take a gander at the latest issue of Modern Painters, chock full of insightful and entertaining tidbits linked to the inchoate trends of this new century -- just don’t expect any articles about, you know, "painters." It’s all about crossing the streams. Artists today can be sculptors in the morning, movie directors over lunch, curators in the afternoon, venture capitalists over drinks and critical critics before bedtime. Once upon a time such eclecticism was frowned upon; nowadays the opposite is true.
We have Andy Warhol to thank for this, or at least that was the take-home message of the much-discussed "Pop Life: Art in a Material World" exhibition at the Tate last fall (it just closed, actually). The reviews for that one keep rolling in. In this month’s Modern Painters, Matthew Collings, a fixture on the British art scene who used to host the Turner Prize on TV, skewers the show and especially its curatorial team: "The artists seem anything from morons to cynics," he writes, "but they rarely seem exactly critical." I can’t help but wonder, however, if Collings is not here speaking a language that has become increasingly esoteric to the audience at large. Wasn’t the whole point of that show to herald the artists who are so immersed in the market that the difference between criticism and branding had vanished?
This blasé attitude towards mixing art and commerce is becoming more and more the dominant way of thinking about art -- and if Collings needed proof, he need only have wandered over to the profile of Pharrell Williams in the very same issue of Modern Painters. Williams, co-founder of the hip-hop group N.E.R.D. and a Grammy Award-winning producer, is one of several musician-cum-entrepreneurs who recently crossed over into the art world. The 36-year old Virginia native has worked with Japanese designer Nigo on the fashion brands Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream Footwear, has designed furniture and produced a sculpture, The Simple Things, in collaboration with Takashi Murakami that sold at Art Basel last summer for $2 million. Unsurprisingly, Williams cites the work of Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and Warhol as his inspiration. Not too keen on criticality, Williams takes an experiential stance toward his art and his own creations: "I move from a feeling, and when the work’s done, it’s done. Then we can talk over tea and scones about how it should be categorized."
Add to this writer Samantha Peale’s rosy account of her days working in Jeff Koons’ studio, circa turn of the latest century. Peale answers an ad in the New York Times, meets a Hawaii-shirted Koons and is soon working long hours securing materials (plants, small toys, discontinued industrial plastics) and liaisoning with dealers. To hear Peale tell it, Koons is a Siegfried-like figure of determination and authenticity, a role model of "naked ambition" and hard work, not the gelled, trumped-up hack that his many critics see. Peale is impressed with Koons’ "kooky idealism" and his ability to navigate whatever realm he happens to be operating in for his own benefit. "He raised the bar for what my best could be," she writes. Peale’s close attention to the workings of this star machine proved salutary, as she went on to publish a well-received novel about the bohemian New York art scene.
In tandem with this kind of new flattened criticality is an emerging generation of collectors, hip to the lingo of art and looking to buy. Erica Orden reports on efforts by major museums and institutions to woo rich 20- and 30-year-olds to enter the contemporary art market. MoMA is launching a series of dance parties for young patrons, and at least one prominent auction house will soon have DJ’d events. The collapse of the art market last year as made it possible for younger collectors to swoop in and make a killing on discounted works by Blue Chip artists or start cultivating those new to the scene.
The latest issue is no exception. Reviews of shows in L.A. and NYC make up the bulk of it, combined with profiles of working artists, all in the form of interviews. Mike Mills, an artist who also makes films, is featured, as is painter Jason Jägel, the photographer known as Yone, who works on the edges of porn and is big in Japan, and the Singapore-based graphic art collective Phunk Studio.
Of particular note is the interview with Kehinde Wiley, who portrays young African-American men in a Neo-Classical manner. The precision of Wiley’s technique, paired with his subject matter, has made his work all the rage among curators and critics of a post-colonial bent, and the paintings deserve the attention (they are stunning). The artist, trained at the Art Institute of San Francisco and then at Yale, talks about his upbringing in South Central L.A. and his twin obsessions: African-American literature (James Baldwin; Eldridge Cleaver) and John Singer Sargent. He is obviously well versed in graduate school jargon, but likewise seems pretty down to earth. You get the impression Wiley does not let critical talk determine what he is doing, but likewise does not turn a deaf ear to the meaning of his work. That’s admirable.
Frieze this month contains a preview of shows and artists to watch in 2010 -- many of whom I’ve never even heard of -- but the most anticipated exhibition of the coming year, at least on this side of the Atlantic, has got to be the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Luckily, Frieze got the chance to interview the curator, biennial stalwart Francesco Bonami.
First off, a review of the facts: The show, magisterially called "2010," is smaller than in the past and features only 56 artists (down from 90 in 2008). It is also be limited to the Whitney building, although Bonami hints that some intervention may go up at the site of the future Whitney in NYC’s meatpacking district. Featured artists range in age from 23 to 75, and, for the first time ever, women outnumber men -- "We didn’t do it on purpose," Bonami admits. All this adds up to what may be the most introspective biennial in many years.
Bonami says something similar when speaking about the esthetics of the exhibition. He riffs on what he calls the "post-waterfall syndrome," a reference to Olafur Eliasson’s 2008 installation on the East River, and claims that artists are now more likely to avoid grand, spectacular gestures in favor of more inward-looking actions. Bonami terms this "self-modernism": a search for "a more intimate form of modernity." He sees this shift in the prevalence of abstraction, performance and body-centered work around the U.S., as opposed to overtly political art, which one might have expected, given last year’s crises. Whether Bonami can wrestle these inklings into a popular show remains to be seen.
The January issue of Frieze also contains a fascinating interview with the artistic director of the International Academy of Art in Palestine, Khaled Hourani. Super-erudite, Hourani talks about the difficulties Palestinian artists and art institutions face, and have faced for the last 30-odd years. He is currently trying to bring a painting by Pablo Picasso from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven to Ramallah in order to spark a discussion about modernism among his students and the local scene. The obstacles are considerable, given the lack of adequate museum space (or even a museum for that matter), and the insurance companies’ aversion to sending a priceless work of art to conflict zone. The interview is paired with a piece on the cultural scene in Ramallah penned by Berlin-based curator and writer T. Z. Toukan. Both are not to be missed.
Author Joan Ockman, an architectural historian and critic based in Philly and NYC, fills in the blind spots she identifies in the current retrospective exhibition at MoMA, particularly those related to the early years of the school, when it was defined by a quasi-metaphysical Expressionism. Before Laszlo Moholy-Nagy became a guiding figure and helped usher in the mechanical esthetic we all know and love (or hate), the dominant personality, besides the headmaster Walter Gropius, was Johannes Itten, a itinerant monk of the Mazdaznan offshoot of Zoroastrianism, who established the foundational course that made the Bauhaus the pedagogical experiment that it was. Kandinsky, of course, was part of this earlier Expressionistic ethos. Ockman argues that the performances and semi-regular dances held at the school express a Dadaistic revelry more in line with this earlier ethos and proves that the early Bauhaus never entirely went away so much as changed shape when Constructivism came to the fore and Itten was forced out.
Ockman also expands upon the political background of the school. Recent revelations in the press about the association of certain Bauhaus students and teachers with the Nazi regime after the school closed in 1933 have gone some length toward tarnishing the progressive credentials of this bastion of modernism. Far from blackening the school as a whole, these revelations only prove, once again, that the Bauhaus did not evolve in a vacuum and that art has no intrinsic political significance. As far as I know, at no time was the Bauhaus aligned with a particular political ideology. Sure, many of the students sympathized with the left during the 1920s -- but so did the majority of young German artists working in cosmopolitan styles.
Although the school was long seen to be a hotbed of "cultural bolshevism," only one of its faculty members, director Hannes Meyer, was a vocal Communist (he was fired by Gropius in 1930). The Bauhaus was officially labeled "un-German" by the Nazis during the early 1930s, and it was only several years later that the regime started to mimic the functionalist style the school had popularized. Why this came to occur is an historical question, not an esthetic one, as is the question why former students of the Bauhaus would choose to work for Nazi party.
Ockman does not address these issues (no one could in a single article) -- but she does discuss how Mies van der Rohe, the final director of the Bauhaus, and early exhibitions devoted to the school, such as MoMA’s 1938 show "Bauhaus 1919-1928" overseen by Alfred J. Barr, strove to de-politicize the school’s past and shift attention to its formal innovations alone, thereby shifting the frame of reference from history to esthetics. This is the legacy we continue to butt our heads against today.
That’s all this month. Next time: little heart-shaped candies.
GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.