The new art season isn’t supposed to begin until after Labor Day, on Sept. 8, 2009, but if you’re waiting till then you’re too late. The art world, with its avant-garde tendencies, has already started.
The Sept. 1 "House Sale" at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center is a case in point. It should have been a fairly sleepy affair, occurring at the tail end of what was still a glorious summer. Idlers such as yours truly noticed a batch of small paintings by Louis Eilshemius, the eccentric American modern whose paintings of nymphs in the landscape and moonlit cityscapes were featured in a retrospective at the National Academy Museum organized by painter and art dealer Steven Harvey in 2001.
Several of the works were from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which has been quietly cleaning out its storage all summer long (the museum reportedly has 250 works by the artist). At Christie’s, many of the smallish pictures were offered without reserve, and they carried presale estimates from $600 to $2,000, a particularly attractive price level for an artist of such historical interest. A few went in that range, but the standout of the group, a painting from 1909 titled The Moon over Manhattan Rooftops, took off like a rocket and sold for $12,500 (with premium). A sign of things to come?
Two days later, on Sept. 3, the amiably bicoastal dealer Jack Hanley held a closing party at his space at 136 Watts Street in Tribeca for a show titled "California Investigative Healing (organized by Kal Spelletich)." Though boasting a banjo player at the front door and a fortune teller in a booth in a corner, most of the gallery was given over to jury-rigged little machines devised by the San Francisco-based Spelletich, which ostensibly deliver various pataphysical health benefits, sort of as if Jean Tingueley had settled in Marin County and become a homeopath.
One contraption allows viewers to crank a pair of handles to power a turntable playing Herb Alpert’s Taste of Honey, another coats chewable vitamin C tablets with melted chocolate, and still another distills a healing elixir comprised largely of vodka mixed with a long list of herbs and other medicinals, including yerba mate, cocoa, alfalfa, pea fiber, eleuthero root, broccoli powder and a secret ingredient that may well be mud, from the looks of the stuff. Sales of this liniment, dubbed Spelletich’s Electric Elixir and conveniently bottled in two sizes, were altogether lacking, according to Hanley, even at the bargain art rate of $25 a bottle.
A closing party hardly counts as a welcome to the new season. Actual grand openings were in fact to be found a ways down Canal Street in SoHo, where the two galleries of Deitch Projects were premiering new photos by Kehinde Wiley and abstract works, plus a new two-person organ, by Tauba Auerbach, and Team Gallery was debuting a show of paintings-on-plastic by Davis Rhodes. In the dense crowd I bumped into a guy with my bag and I thought he said fag, which led to words -- he and his pal glared at me like two Grant Wood caricatures -- but it was only later that I realized my mortifying mistake.
Looking natty in a bright red jacket, Wiley was being trailed by a documentary cameraman and generally swarmed by fans and well-wishers. With these photos, the artist has clearly branched out to quicker mediums, like other labor-intense photo-realist painters (Marilyn Minter comes to mind). The imagery remains the same: striking color portraits of serious, stylish young black men -- a new pantheon of saints -- surrounded by decorative floral patterning that looks like it comes from Victorian, Eastern and other sources.
What’s up with these pictures? A sophisticated mediation on nature and culture, they take hip-hop style -- already both peacock and preppie -- and add Wiley’s signature baroque, even effeminate spin. Like Isaac Julien in his True North vid, Wiley embeds blackness into a global, historical context; he also manages to conflate machismo with high-key decoration. Are flower prints the new bling? Individual photos are $5,000, or a portfolio of all 18 can be had for $75,000.
The big blowout at the huge Deitch Projects garage space was reserved for Tauba Auerbach, where the gamine artist and her pal, heartthrob Keegan McHargue, were surrounded by the paps. The crowd was waiting for the debut of Auerbach’s custom-built pump organ, dubbed the Auerglass, which the artist played with its co-designer, Cameron Mesirow of the band Glasser. The organ requires two operators, one to play and one to pump; the composition sounded a little like Philip Glass, but then these days what organ music doesn’t? The audience loved it. Further performances are scheduled daily at 5 pm.
Deitch’s estimable gallery director Nicola Vassell masterfully explained the artworks with a deft phrase or two. Photos from Auerbach’s "Static" series are shots of "purely random analogue information" off the television; her "Crumple Paintings," hand-made black-and-white Op Art abstractions, plumb the "shadowy gap between chance and pattern"; and the new "Fold Paintings," well, they’re both structuralist and illusionistic. Prices are $8,000 (in editions of three), $70,000, and $30,000-$50,000, respectively.
Around the corner, José Freire of Team Gallery has hung his gallery cheek-to-jowl with tall, thin, bright enamel monochromes painted on clear plastic sheets and tacked to the wall, some with a tall, thin numeral "one" in the middle, others with the number cut out, so that the plastic droops. It’s like a Jasper Johns "number" channeled through a Robert Morris felt piece, with color and texture borrowed from Gary Hume. The colors are pink, dark gray, aqua, red, blue, yellow, white -- take your pick. They’re $8,000 each, and made by Brooklyn artist and Columbia University MFA Davis Rhodes. "It’s the first time José has had all the lights on in the gallery," remarked artist Slater Bradley, who added that Rhodes was also an accomplished tennis player.
Outside in the throng was Rafael Vargas-Suarez, whose summer drawing installation at White Box on Broome Street off Bowery remains on view for a while longer. Vargas-Suarez explained that the pair of huge wall drawings (8 x 40 ft. each) are derived from videofeeds projected directly to earth from the helmet-cams of spacewalking astronauts on the International Space Station. The drawings, then, frame aerospace architecture -- moving at 17,500 miles an hour -- against the depths of the cosmos. "I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about commissions," V-S said. The price? "$1,000 a linear foot, regardless of height -- Sol LeWitt gave me the formula."
One more art event for Sept. 1, the alert for which came via Facebook, when 57th Street art dealer Frank Bernarducci sent a message saying, "Julie hired a bunch of go-go dancers to perform at MoMA. I love this," linking to a picture by artist Julie Harvey of mini-skirted dancers clustered in front of Henri Matisse’s The Dance. It turns out that video artist Thilo Hoffman had been inviting museum visitors to "do whatever they wanted" at MoMA for a video project called "30 Seconds," and Harvey was able to get involved.
"I still can’t believe it actually happened," wrote Harvey in an email. The choreographed performance took place while the museum was closed, and was accompanied by saxophone music played by Duke Guilliame. "Everyone who performed had an out-of-this-world experience. . . . We never wanted to stop dancing." A hopeful omen, to be sure.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.