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by Grant Mandarino
So many art magazines, so little time. Even with the recession-induced thinning of the herd, there’s more than anyone could expect to keep up with. And with the new season, well, who has the time? Here, then, is a crib sheet for the current crop of major periodicals:

September 2009 is the one-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and assessments of the art-market meltdown can be found everywhere. In the latest issue of Artforum, editor Tim Griffin reminisces about those turbulent post-Lehman days when contemporary art, suddenly overwhelmed by a "pragmatic air," seemed poised to make good on its critical promise. Alas, things have taken a turn for the worse since then, we are told.

Griffin acknowledges that a "deep-seated anxiety about the efficacy of art as a discursive instrument" courses through the September issue. Then again, anxiety about "the efficacy of art" has suffused, well, every issue of Artforum for as far back as I can remember. And art doesn’t seem to be going away. Even with the much-noted drop in ad space, Artforum retains its substantial heft at 315 pages -- complete with a killer six-page layout for Yves Saint-Laurent.

In its perennial survey of the upcoming art season, the Arforum editors list their choices for the best exhibitions around the world this fall. One show that makes the cut, unsurprisingly, is co-organized by the magazine’s editor-at-large, Jack Bankowsky, along with Pinault Collection curator Alison Gingeras and the Tate’s own Catherine Wood: "Pop Life: Art in a Material World," Oct. 1, 2009-Jan. 17, 2010, at Tate Modern in London. It’s not about Pop Art as much as it is about the artist as superstar, like when Andy Warhol traded screen-printing for a guest appearance on Love Boat. Plus, the show includes a Damien Hirst "installation" of actual, live twins.

Gingeras tells Artforum that "Pop Life" highlights a new "criticality of affirmation," presumably less lugubrious than that stolid institutional critique stuff we’ve come to expect. Still, faced with the usual gang of Warholian art divas -- Tracey Emin, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince -- I can’t help but be reminded of Suzi Gablik’s dig (in a 1981 catalogue for the Arts Council of Great Britain) that Warhol’s genius "lies in having constructed an awesome career based on the emotional depth of a potato."

The bulk of the magazine, however, is given over to a recap of the latest Venice Biennale. Frequent Artforum-er Thomas Crow, now ensconced as a name professor at NYU, provides a rather mundane overview of the major works and places them against the grand themes laid out by Daniel Birnbaum in the exhibition catalogue. It was Birnbaum who chose the notably vague title "Making Worlds" for the ’09 Biennale, and Crow wonders what this title might mean in connection with the art on display (he might have just shot Birnbaum an email -- he is also associated with Artforum, of course). I hope I’m not giving anything away when I reveal that no definitive conclusion is reached on this important subject.

Following Crow is a piece by Lynne Cooke, the Australian intellectual who was the curator at Dia for a very long time and who is now chief curator at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. She can’t get over the confusing layout of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and offers a walk-through sprinkled with reflexive ponderings on the state of contemporary art, and the writings of "Against Method" philosopher Paul Feyerabend (this is, after all, Artforum). Neither Crow nor Cooke are all that critical of Birnbaum’s efforts, and both struck me as rather blasé about the whole enterprise.

By contrast, Diedrich Diederichsen, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, views the festival as representative of an all-too-prevalent tendency to emphasize contemporary artists’ art-historical lineages over their present engagement with existing cultural and social conditions. Individual artists working today are linked to the practices of their forbearers during the halcyon days of the ‘60s and ‘70s -- remember those? -- when idiosyncratic techniques were radical instead of de rigueur. But "radical" then is not necessarily "radical" now, Diederichsen suggests, implying that the idiosyncrasy of today’s artists may not be as heroic as it seems. I think he may be onto something!

The September issue of Art in America, meanwhile, is also devoted to Venice -- but first be sure and check out the latest rumination by A.i.A.’s new star writer, Dave Hickey. Brought on board as part of an editorial overhaul when the mag’s ownership changed hands, Hickey has now outlasted the editorial director who hired him (Glenn O’Brien), and plenty of people expected him to get the boot as well (who cares what a curmudgeon from Las Vegas has to say, anyway?).

At any rate, Hickey’s current column -- his tenth -- is entitled Provenance and begins with an anecdote about his trips as a hillbilly college student to New York City, where he ruminated over Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dripping in nostalgia for a time when Manhattan was supposedly an Elysium where unencumbered 16-year-olds could meander through the city in search of transcendence, Hickey relates how he discovered the beguiling esthetics of 16th-century Flemish painting and hung out at Sidney Janis Gallery.

Hickey goes on to praise the New York Public Library, the Met and the Cloisters for introducing him to the finer things, as well as providing him with convenient places to use the bathroom. "These places were all cheap and strategically located, and you could pee there without encountering too many unwelcome erotic opportunities." Hopefully some publisher will consider reissuing the series as a stand-alone book, as there is always an audience for this kind of information.

As for AiA’s Venice reviews, they share many of the preoccupations that appear in Artforum’s pages. Marcia E. Vetrocq, the mag’s current editor-in-chief and a veteran Venice hand, provides the first and follows the walk-through format. Like Artforum’s Lynne Cooke, Vetrocq bemoans the difficulty of getting around the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (is "better signage" a program that an otherwise fractious art-critical establishment can rally around?) and refers to the exhibition hall as "a warren of rooms that defies smooth navigation." She likes the current festival better than Robert Storr’s in 2007, but wonders why Birnbaum is so averse to contemporary painting.

Vetrocq also takes Birnbaum to task for not putting the Biennale’s newest site, the Giardino delle Vergini, to better use, blasting the artists Birnbaum has placed there. She goes so far as to characterize Miranda July’s goofy interactive works as having "all the wit of an ‘I’m with stupid’ T-Shirt." Ouch. Lynn Macritchie, a London-based artist and critic, gives a run-down of the various national pavilions that is informative but rather ho-hum, while Faye Hirsch does better by summing up the various "opportunistic exhibitions" coinciding with the Biennale, a great and useful term, to be sure.

Artnews devotes its September issue to the more interesting task of profiling emerging players in the curatorial field. Of those mentioned, two stand out in particular. The first is a Croatian team of five women, Ana Devic, Sabina Sabolovic, Ivet Curlin, Natasa Ilic and Dejan Krsic, collectively known as What, How and for Whom (WHW). In addition to running a nonprofit art space in Zagreb called Gallery Nova, WHW have been chosen to oversee this year’s Istanbul Biennial (opening this month, how’s that for a preview?). According to the article, they are activists as well as art-world insiders, and have chosen some explicitly political fare for Istanbul, such as a Parisian socialist-inspired cooperative called Société Réaliste and a St. Petersburg group named Chto Delat? -- Russian for "What is to be done?" and the title of a (in)famous pamphlet written in 1902 by Vladimir Lenin -- that publishes a newspaper and stages protest marches. If that sounds like fun, wait till you hear about the WHW’s 2008 show in Zagreb, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, sort of a "Communist Manifesta." Ha ha.

The second of ARTnews’ promising new curatorial talents is Yasmil Raymond, who becomes the Dia Art Foundation’s newest chief curator this month. Raymond is formerly the associate curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where, ironically, she worked for her new boss, Philippe Vergne, who oversaw exhibitions at the Walker before taking over Jeffrey Weiss’s spot at Dia last year. It is a small art world after all. She is characterized as an "artists’ curator" in the article, which means that she can be expected to defer to the artist’s wishes when installing their work -- which was, of course, Dia’s premise from the very beginning. "I’m not interested in tweeting about art," she says, by way of explanation of her philosophy. She adds, "I’m going to sound like a 60-year-old woman, but I am only interested in art."

Questions of art loot and national restitution claims occupy the short Artnews feature on Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. Espousing a heartfelt though politically hopeless cosmopolitanism, MacGregor promotes his institution as a kind of global resource whose treasures belong to the world. Museums, and the British Museum in particular, are "probably the first physical consequence of a global economy," he says, arguing that the answer to things like Greek demands for the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles is more loan exhibitions and partnerships. As it happens, his museum has just such an arrangement with the National Museum in Tehran, and is working on one with Abu Dhabi.

In a more amusing article, longtime ARTnews contributor Ann Landi explores the continued fascination with Van Gogh’s severed right ear. A Google search of "Vincent van Gogh ear" apparently returns 96,900 references on the web, including restaurants and several morbid toys. My own attempt pulled up numerous reports of recent claims that van Gogh did not cut off his own ear in a moment of psychological turmoil but that it was, in fact, the result of a saber blow supplied by none other than Paul Gauguin. Landi discusses this theory at length in her article and the debate it has sparked among art historians and the van Gogh cognoscenti. Cutting-edge stuff.

Also, don’t miss the amazing reproduction of Alice Neel’s portrait of burlesque superstar Annie Sprinkle on page 110!

Finally, if you are looking for a respite from the major magazines, well, I suggest checking out the summer issue of Bidoun, the five-year-old magazine that chronicles "contemporary arts and culture from the Middle East." (The title means "without" in both Arabic and Farsi.) The mag features captivating interviews with hip-hop megastar MIA, artist Lawrence Weiner and John Wilcock, one of the original editors of Interview magazine and later co-founder of the Village Voice. Also featured is a wide-ranging interview with New York dealer Tony Shafrazi, who of course grew up in Iran and was organizing art shows in Tehran at the time of the Iranian Revolution. He is also photographed standing on a chair, for some reason.

Best of all, however, is the interview with Mohamed Moussalli, the so-called "King of Portraits," who single-handedly painted campaign posters for Lebanon’s political class for 30 years -- including 3,750 images alone for the 1972 elections. Moussalli says he used to work so hard that he did not have time to break for lunch and his wife had to feed him sandwiches while he painted. It’s a portrait of the artist as a working stiff. Now that’s something you don’t often hear about in art magazines.

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