Many years ago in art appreciation class we were assigned an essay on a 1964 sculpture by Andy Warhol -- a stack of Heinz tomato ketchup boxes. Ever slow on the uptake, I gave a strictly formal reading, lyrically extolling the work in terms of form and volume, syncopation and asymmetry, color and geometry. Nothing from me about Pop’s conceptual aspect, the commercial modes of production or mundane subject matter, in which machine-made consumer products replace the lyrical vision of the artist.
I was thinking with my senses, to paraphrase Venice Biennale curator Rob Storr. I just wasn’t seeing with my mind.
Such an "esthetic mistake" is easily forgiven today, when every avant-garde gesture is as pretty as can be. Witness the conceptual "painter" Rudolf Stingel, whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum [see "Stingelese," June 27, 2007], a thing of "jaw-dropping, thought-provoking beauty," according to New York Times critic Roberta Smith. High praise for a guy whose painting practice includes such gambits as laying bright orange carpet on a gallery floor and presenting gold brocade fabric on stretchers.
(By the way, who was first to lay carpet as an art act? Smith has Stingel doing it in 1991 at Daniel Newburg Gallery, but surely it’s not that new. The artist David Diao reminded me of a ca. 1970 Lawrence Weiner piece where he cut a perfect square out of a carpet, but that’s not quite the same.)
Another expert at making anti-art into an objet d’art is Urs Fischer, who has an installation of large-scale painting-like works at the current Venice Biennale in the Church of San Stae (paired with white olive-tree sculptures by Ugo Rondinone). Fischer makes Stingel look like a softie -- his works in Venice are essentially large-scale images of floor sweepings silk-screened in gun-metal black on silver sheet metal, a pitch-perfect homage to both Warhol and Jackson Pollock.
The random scatters of schmutz and tangled hair look just like Pollock’s skeins of paint. Indeed, channeling Marcel Duchamp through Abstract Expressionism and Color Field is the esthetic underpinning of such gimmicky gestures. "This joke is getting tiresome," said one observer, obviously insensitive to what is yet another way that Pollock’s esthetic is not the dead end it once seemed.
(Even more astonishing, for their installation at San Stae -- a beautiful Baroque church that housed a Pipilotti Rist vid of romping nymphs projected on its ceiling in the 2005 biennale, one of that show’s definite hits -- Fischer and Rondinone built their own "white cube" in the church space, blocking out its architecture altogether.)
Pollock is the touchstone too for the Puerto Rican artist Chemi Rosado Seijo, whose mural-sized To TT Pollock (Personal Version) (2005-06) is designed to "collapse the history of skateboarding and contemporary art into each other." The 12 x 24 foot work, made of white-painted sheets of wood panel that have been scuffed with marks from use as skateboard ramps, is included in an exhibition of works by artists from Galería Comercial in San Juan, a show that opened last month at Nicole Klagsbrun on West 26th Street in Chelsea. The work sold for $14,000. It’s a great time to be a skateboarding artist.
Another mural-sized update of the moldy allover esthetic, which seems so tired when done with paint, can be found in "Agitation and Repose," a group show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. The exhibition includes Ragna Róbertsdóttir’s Lava Landscape (2007), a 10 x 26 foot work constituted of tiny bits of stone stuck directly to the wall. Is art about taming the volcano?
The sensibility even comes in digital versions, as in "Automatic Update," curator Barbara London’s new show of recent video installations in the film and video gallery at the Museum of Modern Art. It includes a wall projection by Cory Arcangel called Two Keystoned Projectors (one upside down) (2007), made by projecting the ready screens of two digital projectors, as described by the title. The result is a blue and violet minimal abstraction that updates both Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman.
An entire show of this kind of thing is available in "Substance & Surface" at Bortolami on West 25th Street in Chelsea. Billed as "monochromatic works made on or with alternative materials," the funky collection of down-at-the-heels formalism features a real achrome by Piero Manzoni and goes on from there, with sheets of sandpaper dipped in resin by Eric Wesley, an altered readymade made of a black towel by Paul Lee, a piece of painted carpet by Mike Kelley, a mattress covered with silver gaffer’s tape by Jim Lambie (for $25,000) and a square of pegboard painted pale green by John Armleder ($100,000).
Stretching the definition the furthest, perhaps, is an old television set dangling from a hook by Bozidar Brazda. Called Idle Idol, the thing has been painted orange, as if in a body shop, and is a timely reminder of just how antique the pre-digital cathode-tube television set has become. It’s yours for $10,000.
Once you realize that all pictures are essentially the same, you’ll appreciate the seamless similarity among things like a carpet, a skateboarding ramp and a field of flowers. Thus, at Marianne Boesky Gallery are the new lightboxes by the Swiss artist Thomas Flechtner, which contain swooningly lovely images of pink and white Japanese cherry blossoms, treated exactly like Pollock’s paint splatters or Christopher Wool’s smudged and erased paint smears -- though the esthetic is turned on its head, so that the cloying and clichéd sweetness of the photos doubles as the conceptual point.
In the rear gallery is a second series of works, large color photographs taken of the semi-surreal landscapes that can be found at flower farms and other highly cultivated sites where plants are grown for market. As an essay in "the end of nature," these pictures are something else altogether.
At Tracy Williams, Ltd., in Greenwich Village is "In the Belly of the Whale," a show organized by Patrick Callery and inspired not so much by that Bible story as by a notion of a "dark, theatrical ambiance" for things "discarded, resurrected, deteriorated and nostalgic." Among the 15 artists in the show is Karsten Krejcarek, who provides a ghostly white sculpture of a dove-like winged spirit swooping out of a vagina-shape set flush with the wall. Titled It Don’t Pay to Think Too Much on Things You Leave Behind, the urethane fiberglass sculpture is apparently inspired by an old girlfriend’s tale that her pussy was haunted. It’s $3,000 in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof.
At Postmasters is "Not Your Parents’ MTV: Music Videos from Hell." Because Washington Is Hollywood for Ugly People, a kind of animated political cartoon by San Francisco artist Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung with lyrics by MC Paul Barman and sound by John Blue, gives hard-core scatological treatment to Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and other members of the George W. Bush administration. Sometimes it just feels so right to call someone a shit. One copy sold right at the opening for $6,000, someone said.
Up on the fourth floor at Margaret Thatcher Projects on West 25th Street is "Chill," which includes examples from a new series by Richard Thatcher (yes, the dealer’s husband) in which he clamps copies of Artforum magazine in between thick metal plates, giving art criticism the kind of bullet-proof qualities that it really needs. They’re $5,000 each, and a real keepsake.
Last but not least is "Tease," an exhibition "exploring the subject of sexuality and the nude model" via drawings dating from the 16th century to the present, assembled in collaboration with dealer Jill Newhouse and currently on view at Mireille Mosler, Ltd, uptown at 35 East 67th Street. Many of the works are academic nudes, including drawings by George Bellows, Puvis de Chavannes and André Derain, and a few have more caustic component, like George Grosz’s Couple with Harlequin, a classic scene of Weimar decadence.
Other items aim for that more visceral response, and would do honor to both bordello and salon. Perhaps most astonishing is a ca. 1770 drawing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard titled Les Jets d’eau, showing three apparently overheated nymphs in a sumptuous bedroom being cooled by hoses that miraculously protrude from a hatch in the floor. The price is $650,000.
The selection also features contemporary works of various heat levels, including a new drawing of sloe-eyed waifs by Rita Ackermann, several overtly salacious watercolors by the masterful Martin Eder and an untitled drawing by Chris Hammerlein, perhaps better known for his elaborate neo-Goth works at Derek Eller Gallery in Chelsea, that has a nice level of kink (not to mention a sunshiny, summery feel). For details, I refer you to the accompanying illustration.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.