It’s an Andy Warhol moment in art-magazine-land this month. The Tate’s "Pop Life" exhibition started it, and Sotheby’s sale of his 1962 painting of dollar bills for $43.7 million hammered it home. Warhol is omnipresent, and next to impossible to top.
And according to ARTnews, Warholmania is big business. "Warhol is probably the biggest market in contemporary art, dollar-wise and volume-wise," Sotheby’s expert Alex Rotter told ARTnews staff writer Eileen Kinsella. Warhol’s works are especially popular with the Asian and Russian nouveau riche who helped inflate the art bubble of 2005-08.
According to Kinsella’s research, almost anything connected with Warhol is a moneymaker -- officially licensed products include gowns, perfume, snowboards and even Japanese condoms printed with the message "They’ll never see you coming." A three-man team oversees the business for the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, and according to its leader, Michael Hermann, fees for fiscal 2009 totaled an epic $2.5 million (up from $400,000 in 1997).
Such products, says foundation chairman Joel Wachs, must "enhance Warhol’s legacy." Funny. The challenge today would be to come up with a product that Warhol could somehow not be able to endorse (cigarettes, we are told, are a no-no).
But as everyone knows, money also brings suspicion (didn’t they watch the Treasure of the Sierra Madre?). In a second article, Kinsella illuminates the shadowy details of the ongoing "Brillo Box Scandal." Information first revealed by the Swedish newspaper Expressen in 2007 suggests that Pontus Hulten, the much-loved former director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, had fabricated 105 faux Brillo Boxes in 1990 and passed them off as legitimate Warhol works originally made for a 1968 retrospective that Hulten oversaw. Hulten even provided certificates testifying to the boxes’ authenticity, according to Artnews.
In the mid-1990s, the Warhol Authentication Board examined several of these "Stockholm type" boxes, as they were known, and pronounced that 94 were "genuine" and could be included in the 2004 catalogue rasionné. But the criteria used to make this decision remain unclear, and the disclosure of Hulten’s actions has persuaded the board to reopen the case.
The boxes’ uncertain authenticity has left their present owners in the lurch, and the financial fallout looks to be considerable. One of the "Stockholm type" boxes sold at Christie’s London for over $200,000 in February 2006. Should the board decide it is not the genuine article, the buyer would be, as the Swedish might say, knullade. The Moderna Museet has already removed from view its six boxes, which are of course purported to be "Stockholm type," and reclassified them as "archival material." Ouch.
In the end, the whole case revolves around the rather philosophical question of whether anything Warhol made can be called "genuine." His first Brillo Boxes, presented at the Stable Gallery in 1964, were made of wood. Those that were shown in 1968 were instead made of cardboard. According to a former associate of Hulten named Olle Granath, who worked on the 1968 retrospective and became director of the Moderna Museet in 1980, Warhol originally wanted to show wooden boxes but, because their construction would have been too expensive, he instead decided simply to buy 500 cardboard boxes direct from the Brillo Company (then a subsidiary of Purex Industries). So the boxes shown in ‘68 were, ironically, real Brillo boxes, if only marginally real Warhols. Granath claims that a small number of wooden boxes were constructed after the show as a kind of "souvenir," with Warhol’s permission. Whether Warhol ever told Hulten that he could manufacture boxes in the future is unknown. I don’t envy anyone in this conflict.
Elsewhere, the mag profiles fellow Pop-pioneer James Rosenquist, who has just published a memoir. We learn that he once took part in an antiwar demonstration during the Vietnam war with actor John Voight and Dr. Spock (the pediatrician, not the Vulcan). Also profiled is 2008 Whitney Biennial vet Phoebe Washburn (b. 1973), who makes lovely ecological systems with raw lumber, conveyor belts, growing plants and the odd yellow golf ball now and then. "High-school science projects gone awry," mutters one unsatisfied critic quoted in the article.
Further highlights in ARTnews include a preview of the now-opened Tim Burton show, a brief report on Frank Gehry’s twisted jewelry, an item on the director of the Qatar Museums Authority (not a native, surprise, surprise) and a collection of five book reviews, rather more than usual.
ARTnews also reprises the story of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and her cocaine performance in Bogota, first reported in English in these pages [see Artnet News, Sept. 17, 2009]. Apparently the artist herself assured the magazine that she personally procured the coke used in the show, which she passed out to the audience of 300-400 people.
We’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop in this peculiar case, but in the meantime, is Bruguera’s action an important artistic statement? My father likes to relate a story of his high-school days in Washington state, where the local police addressed a school assembly on the dangers of marijuana. In order to familiarize the kids with the drug, three joints were put on a plate and passed around. When the plate returned, the officers found five joints.
It’s a great story, but I don’t think the event had any significant artistic value. Ditto, I’d say, for Bruguera’s stunt.
Not to be outdone, Artforum this month includes a review of Arthur Danto’s new book on Warhol, penned by Daniel Birnbaum, fresh from his summer job in Venice. Danto has been trying to strip Marcel Duchamp of his mantle for years and crown Warhol as the progenitor of all things postmodern. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, beloved of Danto, once referred to the emperor Napoleon as the "world soul on horseback" because of the way he embodied the zeitgeist of his era, and if Danto has his way, we would recognize the frazzled Warhol as a "world soul" in his own right, sans horse.
Warhol embraced the values of ordinary people, Danto claims, while Duchamp mocked them from the outside. Warhol was inclusive rather than subversive. Birnbaum suggests that Danto is rather too taken with his idol, practically elevating him to sainthood. Apparently the Brillo Box is compared at one point to the Holy Grail -- which is quite apt, at least in the sense that there have been many bogus grails, too.
More, more, more, the mag ain’t thick for nothing. Elsewhere in the issue, veteran film critic Amy Taubin writes about a new horror-thriller titled The Box, which moves me to quote not her essay but the New Yorker, which called it "religio-mystico-eschatalogical humbug" but seemed to like it all the same. Back in Artforum, the mag’s always interesting Top Ten list is compiled by the delightfully named Basel-based gallery group New Jerseyy. I got as far as number three, which is: Tbilisi, Georgia.
But on to a feature on the Bauhaus. Strangely, not a word is said about the British band Bauhaus, which released the single Bela Lugosi’s Dead in 1979 and more-or-less launched the whole goth rock movement.
No, Artforum is talking about something birthed rather earlier, in 1919, when the Bauhaus, that hallowed fortress of Weimar Germany, briefly held the best hope for art’s regenerative potential. Harvard professor K. Michael Hays surveys the mega-retrospective that has just opened at the Museum of Modern Art, and finds it good, sort of. "No designer practicing in the United States or Europe has escaped its aura," he writes, in a master statement of inconclusion. Yes, I’m afraid we’re stuck with Ikea.
Hays praises the utopian impulse of the Bauhaus, but believes it’s got no chance today, since we no longer believe in abstraction as "the unifying geometry of the modern spirit." Our world, Hays says, is diffuse, "atmospheric" and impervious to holistic generalizations. Could it be all those digital apps? That’s one thing that unmoors us from mere furniture and buildings.
Last month Artforum featured excerpts from the new book by anti-globalization gurus Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In his opening editorial this month, Tim Griffin revisits the question, in response to some negative feedback he received on that particular editorial decision, specifically with regard to the fact that Hardt and Negri’s enthusiasm for contemporary art is misplaced. The ruling ethos of today’s art world, or so someone wrote to Griffin, can be summed up as: "Theory is bad, political thought in art is wrong, activism is jejune, the free market is good, individualism is great, the amoral artist is genius."
Griffin claims that Hardt and Negri nevertheless prod the art world to revisit itself with the future in mind and indulge in some fanciful imagining. In Hardt and Negri’s view, thinking in the abstract is often more important than dealing with the crude, materialistic realities of the everyday world. In a long essay responding to this argument as laid out in their new book Commonwealth, David Harvey, a radical geographer who teaches at the City University of New York, calls bullshit, bless him.
"Far too many of Hardt and Negri’s proposals remain locked. . . in the realm of immaterial abstraction," Harvey writes, "and, unfortunately, never acquire concrete form." Fast on his way to becoming the pre-eminent Marxist of his generation, Harvey is a theorist who has both feet on the ground. He accuses Hardt and Negri of overlooking the importance of class-based identity and the immiserating machinations of global capitalism. At the same time, Harvey graciously commends Hardt and Negri for highlighting aspects of our contemporary situation others generally overlook.
Harvey’s response is dense, and long -- so long that part of it is relegated to that netherworld at the back of the issue, beyond the reviews. Hardt and Negri’s reply is, thankfully, shorter, and touches briefly on Harvey’s most striking critiques. Overall, you get the sense from both pieces that hidden beneath all the accommodating prose are strong disagreements that would come out in a public debate, but are smoothed over for the glossy page. Still, it is nice to see these impenetrable know-it-alls forced to admit they haven’t got it all figured out: "in some areas in which, as a geographer, he has great expertise. . . he points in directions our arguments could be extended," H&N say of Harvey’s essay.
Props to Griffin for putting this kind of material into an art magazine -- it is almost like reading old issues of Artforum from the ‘70s.
Speaking of the ‘70s Artforum, perhaps the juiciest text actually comes in the letters page, almost lost between all those ads, where venerable critics Annette Michelson and Rosalind Krauss tell their side of their 1974 departure from the Artforum editorial board to form the art theory journal October. It was, they say, not the result of their disapproval of the famous naked-Lynda Benglis-with-a-dildo ad, as the tale is usually told, but because of the sense of "invasion of editorial policy by commercial fiat" (which is why, they note, October has neither ads nor pictures). Their letter, they say, was inspired by a Roberta Smith review of the "Lynda Benglis/Robert Morris, 1973-74" show at Susan Inglett Gallery. "Since the New York Times has declined to print our letter addressing the inaccuracy, we now turn to the publication where Benglis’s advertisement first appeared in order to set the record, distorted by Smith, straight."
This last summer Laib mounted his biggest work yet at the Fondazione Merz in Turin. The Fondazione, named after the late Italian artist Mario Merz, hosted 45 Brahmin priests from southern India who held a series of Vedic fire rituals, or yajna, over the course of seven days in the courtyard of the industrial building where the Fondazione is housed. According the author of the piece, Laib views the elements he borrows from Indian religious practices like these as "universal symbols that transcend their original contexts."
While I’ve never gone in for the symbolic qualities Laib likes to talk about, the work itself is mesmerizing and his dedication exemplary. (Laib collects pollen by hand!) Often he will trace a square on the floor of a gallery with the pollen he has gathered, creating a ghostly blotch of color that has a pronounced material effect for anyone who suffers from hay fever. His latest manifestation, Frieze of Life, the first large-scale pollen installation in the city in 23 years, can be viewed at Sean Kelly Gallery over on West 29th Street.
The November issue also includes two interviews: one with Mike Kelley, who organized a noise-music festival show for Peforma, and another with Chi Peng, the 28-year-old lion of the Chinese art world. Sarah Valdez covers a traveling exhibition of 12 contemporary South Korean-born artists currently on view in Houston. A lengthy reflection by Peter Plagens on the curatorial methods he used for the 2009 Mississippi Invitational in Jackson is both amusing and informative. Benjamin Genocchio’s overview of the art of contemporary Iran lacks the comedy but makes up for it with info on how artists in that country are starting to break out globally.
And last but not least, Dave Hickey offers yet another nugget of wisdom for readers, this time regarding the subject of "blockbusters." Blockbusters, it turns out, piss Hickey off. Back in the day (you know, "the day," the 1960s), the entertainment industry did not bother about generating massive publicity. Separate markets for high and low culture were catered to by different kinds of entertainment. Hickey noticed that all this changed more than 30 years ago, with the rise of "blockbuster" museum exhibitions in the mid-1970s, which entailed the use of mass-marketing techniques and enlarged the museum-going public.
"When the goal of making a profit is replaced by the goal of making an enormous profit," he adds, "the vision of the artist, high or low, is replaced by the dream of a franchise that can be perpetually reconstituted." Well, that sounds more like music residuals than anything the art world has been lucky enough to invent -- hey Dave, didn’t you used to be in the music business? -- though you gotta admire the museum ticket-selling deal, which is around-the-clock, while movies only get you every two hours.
At any rate, Hickey offers no solutions to what he sees as a sorry situation. Readers are left instead with the particularly jaded take-away that "[p]opular culture reminds us that we have things in common and that we are mostly okay. High culture reminds us that we are alone, not that virtuous and bound to die." Jeez Dave, way to be a bummer.
That’s all for this month. Enjoy your turkey!
GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.