Each October all eyes in the art world turn to London, where the annual Frieze Art Fair casts its bright light on the latest and greatest, courtesy of over 150 participating international galleries and the sponsorship of Germany’s financial Koloss, Deutsche Bank. Since Frieze is where it’s at, I thought I’d cast an eye on Frieze, the magazine that spawned the fair, and Britain’s answer to Artforum.
Truth be told, apart from a few advertisements, the October issue does not speak all that much about the fair. The lofty tone of Frieze (the magazine) always was a strange fit for Frieze (the fair), with its aura of champagne and sparkly art.
Instead, we are treated to a double-barreled blast of John Baldessari, two articles on the enigmatic West Coast artist who is the subject of a major retrospective opening at Tate Modern this month (alongside the grandiose, soul- and headline-sucking "Pop Life" spectacle). Baldessari is undoubtedly an all-time great -- a fact that is testified to by the way that the two authors tasked with paying homage to the cryptic weirdness of his work run aground trying to accomplish their mission.
Benjamin Weissman, an author based in Los Angeles who has collaborated in the past with Paul McCarthy, goes first. He refers to Baldessari as "Mr. Longevity" in regards to the artist’s ability to remain relevant for the last four decades, and characterizes his works as "pleasure-inducing, luscious mind-fucks," high praise indeed, if not all that specific to Mr. L. As is typical with features of this kind, Weissman gives the laundry list of people Baldessari has influenced, blue-chip contemporaries like Bas Jan Ader, Robert Longo, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince. Weissman goes as far as to say that "Prince couldn’t have got up in the morning without JB paving the way," which doesn’t make a lot of sense as a metaphor or as history, but sounds cheeky.
Unfortunately Weissman’s observations and tidbits are strung together in a futile attempt to reproduce Baldessari’s bricolage esthetic. Disparate snatches of an interview are juxtaposed with Weissman’s own ruminations on the deeper significance of Baldessari’s oeuvre. One section in the article is even called "Author Talking to Self," and offers all the witty repartee one might expect from exactly that exercise.
The second feature on Baldessari, written by his former student Barbara Bloom, the New York-based artist, pairs images of Baldessari’s paintings with jokes and book excerpts the two have passed back and forth over the years. Why the editors thought this was worth publishing is beyond me, but I suppose it brings a personal touch to Baldessari’s cool West Coast demeanor.
Later on in the issue, Barry Schwabsky, newly crowned head art critic at The Nation, interviews Tehching Hsieh, managing to draw from him a nice biographical thumbnail sketch, and to convey the mad gravitas of his art. He is a classic character: Before illegally immigrating to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1974, Hsieh performed the first of many "actions," jumping from the window of a two-story building onto the pavement below. Hsieh, whose earnestness borders on masochism, broke both his ankles (we learn that they still cause him considerable discomfort). Between 1978 and 1986, after a period spent as a lowly dishwasher, Hsieh famously completed a series of year-long endurance pieces: First he spent a year living in a cage, followed by a year during which he punched at a time clock every hour on the hour; then he lived outside for a year, spent the next tied to the artist Linda Montano with a two-meter rope and finally forswore art completely for 12 months.
At any rate, if Bloom and Weissman’s strained idiosyncrasy doesn’t do justice to their idiosyncratic subject, Schwabsky at least manages to capture the spirit of Hsieh’s punishing performance art without himself being a chore.
Enwezor claims that although it is difficult to find a one-to-one correlation between the theories of Empire and individual works of art, "vestiges of the authors’ theorizations" were being absorbed into numerous "counterpractices" during the 2000s. Then he goes vestige-hunting. He lists Alfredo Jaar, Thomas Hirschhorn and the Raqs Media Collective (subject of an article in the same issue) as examples. One need only let fly the word "deterritorialization" to imply knowledge of Negri and Hardt’s universe and its ethereal shibboleths. Enwezor refers at one point to his own Documenta (number 11) as the "deterritorialized Documenta." I assume this is supposed to mean that it tried to supplant curatorial choices based on national identity for a focus on transnational global networks -- but I like to think it instead alludes to the fact that it was damn near impossible to find the majority of the exhibits outside the main building (trust me, I was there).
As for the actual extracts of Commonwealth, well, they follow a familiar path for anyone who is acquainted with the dynamic duo’s past work. The primarily leitmotif this time out is "the common," defined by the authors as the "common wealth of the material world" and "those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction." A political project based on this idea, they claim, will cut across the "false alternatives" offered by capitalism and socialism. So far, so vague.
Most surprising, however, is their belief that the key to this project is corny old "love." Not just any kind of love, mind you. They offer a metaphor (taken from their own gurus Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari), to specify the kind of love they have in mind. Certain orchids, it seems, produce an odor similar to the sex pheromone of female wasps and even replicate the female wasp’s sex organs. Male wasps pollinate these orchids under the impression that they are mating with their own kind. This kind of fantastical, cross-species productivity provides a model of subjectivity far superior, in Hardt and Negri’s view, to the dour "socialist utopia" represented by run-of-the-mill worker bees. Thus, they conclude "Let’s have done with worker bees, then, and focus on the singularities and becomings of wasp-orchid love!" Boy oh boy, are we in trouble if this becomes the rallying cry of the next generation of activists.
For a walk down art-and-politics memory lane, however, turn to Harvard professor Maria Gough’s review of the various celebrations that recently popped up around the centennial of the Futurist movement, widely regarded as the most bellicose of the classic avant-gardes. That group’s founding manifesto was published on the front page of the French daily Le Figaro on Feb. 29, 1909. Gough reminds us that the manifesto "agitated for a radical presentism in both esthetics and everyday life." Of course, it also agitated for war, the destruction of museums, brutality and scorn for women. (The movement’s founder, Filippo Marinetti, gravitated to the far-right after the conclusion of WWI and was soon enough socializing openly with Mussolini’s Fascisti, who ended up, you know, not getting it.)
Politics aside, Futurism bequeathed to later artists a number of "strategies" that have become second nature today, we are reminded. According to Gough, one of the things that set Futurism apart was "its pioneering redefinition of the work of art as publicity stunt," a lovely formulation. Today we know all too well where this strategy has taken us -- I believe they’ve got a whole show devoted to this idea over at the Tate -- though one could argue that Marinetti’s knack for publicity is only his update on a much older model going back, at least, to Gustave Courbet’s overt self-promotion during the 1855 Exposition Universelle, when he mounted an independent exhibition of his work after the judges refused to include his The Painter’s Studio, Real Allegory. Is modernism just one long publicity stunt? Could be.
This view finds some justification. Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for the entry hall of her New York apartment, the 13 x 8 ft. monster is commonly seen as a turning point in Pollock’s career. Ed Harris’ sturdy 2000 film Pollock certainly turns on this reading, and Clement Greenberg commented once that after one look at Mural he knew Pollock was "the greatest painter this country had produced." As to Adams’ "signature thesis," the letters Adams claims to see in the painting are not, how shall we say, visible. (In fact, it was Adams’ wife who first pointed them out to him.) Inchoate squiggles can look like a lot of things.
Other scholars have expressed skepticism. Pepe Karmel, professor of art history at NYU and former colleague of the late Kirk Varnedoe (together they mounted the major Pollock exhibit at MoMA in the late 1990s), was asked for his opinion by ARTnews. Adams, Karmel replied, was "way off-base."
From hidden messages to messages that are censored: The October ARTnews also touches on the censorship in Russia, a thorny issue that is apparently getting thornier. Konstantin Akinsha, a contributing editor to the magazine, describes the increasing persecution artists have faced over the course of more than a year. In a fascinating, disturbing and rather convoluted case, last April, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, sued the artist German (Gavik) Vinogradov for libel. The suit focused on an anagram Vinogradov had produced from the mayor’s name -- "ukluzhii vor" or "skillful thief" -- that was appropriated by protestors fighting the city’s proposed demolition of the Central House of Artists in Moscow (home of the Tretyakov Gallery’s department of modern and contemporary art). According to Akinsha, plans to demolish the cherished building were put in motion by the developer Elena Baturina, one of the richest women in Russia. The article tells us that she is also Luzhkov’s wife, surprise, surprise.
In a similarly distressing story, two curators currently stand trial in Moscow for breaking a 1996 law against "inciting religious hatred." This demonstrates, according to Akinsha, the growing power of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two curators are Andrei Erofeev, former head of the Tretyakov Gallery’s department of "current trends," and Yuri Samodurov, former director of the Andrei Sakhraov Museum and Public Center. Both face fines and/or prison terms (and have been championed by Amnesty International and other good-hearted international watchdogs). Samodurov has already been found guilty of inciting religious hatred in 2005 for working on an exhibition called, appropriately enough, "Caution! Religion!" and the current troubles stem from an exhibition the two organized in March 2007, entitled "Forbidden Art -- 2006," which rounded up 20 works that had been banned during that year. After the opening, members of a nationalist organization called the People’s Synod accused the show of insulting religious beliefs and pushed the Moscow prosecutor’s office to shut it down. Which it promptly did.
One witness at the current trial has claimed that the 2007 exhibition caused the death of his wife because "the sight of such blasphemy took away her will to live." In this case, the old maxim that "any press is good press" might actually not apply.
Despite the sluggish art market, the "real matter of concern," Melikian argues, "does not lie in the global numbers but in the reason underlying them." He seeks to prove this assertion, first of all, via an excessively long exposition of recent sales where good prices were fetched when good (or bad) lots were on offer. The basic problem is two-fold: our old friend, the "relentless erosion of quantity," which brings fewer and fewer good lots to the block; and the ruinous competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which has resulted in all sorts of lavishly wasteful overhead, not to mention excessively high guarantees.
Not quite revolutionary bits of dirt -- the much-liked Melikian has been sounding this alarm for a while now -- but this time around he makes the case with some rather fearsome language, declaring that the auction biz is in for "a transformation on a scale hitherto unparalleled" if it wants to survive, and concluding that "auction sales will cease to be big business. . . if holding auctions continues to be the core activity of these houses," i.e. auction houses will cease to exist if they remain auction houses!
So far, the auctioneers have responded to the economic crisis by 1) upping the fees they charge both buyers and consignors, 2) heading East, in pursuit of those big-spending Asians, and 3) cultivating more private sales and other ancillary businesses. Melikian wisely counsels just these moves, and also insists that "guarantees must be banned by law."
This last is wildly improbable, and in practice has already been willingly embraced by the auction firms, by their own admission. At present, the auction market does seem rather quiet, save for the occasional Chicken Little (hello Souren!). Interested observers can only hope that the buzz will increase in volume as the big November sales approach. And if not, then there’s always Art Basel Miami Beach and the February auctions in London. Etc.
Finally, Annie Leibovitz turns 60 this month and still seems to be on the wrong side of a possible bankruptcy claim. October’s Art + Auction has an article explaining all the ins and outs of her financial troubles, plus some revealing background on the rather sketchy past of Art Capital, the firm that lent Leibovitz $24 million in exchange for exclusive selling rights to every image she has ever taken as collateral.
According to the article, Art Capital and many of its affiliates, collectively controlled CEO Ian Peck, are quick to bring lawsuits against any and all interests that stand in their way (including, it should be noted, journalists who have the temerity to refer to their business model as "predatory"). One prominent New York attorney interviewed in the piece says he would advise artists seeking emergency funds to steer well clear of the firm. So all you rich, troubled artists, take note!
In any case, the Art + Auction feature raises the specter of a perpetually indebted Leibovitz being forced by cigar-chomping creditors to stage spectacularly kitschy photo shoots well into her Golden Years to pay off her debts. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Good luck Annie!
GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.