George Condo is a gifted painter who you could say specializes in making truly awful works that people just love. Many of these pictures are currently gathered together at the New Museum. The two-floor installation boasts an entire wall of portraits of bug-eyed, buck-toothed cartoon characters, which everyone is saying are like Old Masters. People find this amusing, and that seems to be enough.
Condo’s fans, if you trust the reviews, include a prize-winning New York Times art critic and the New Yorker’s veteran in-house writer of artist profiles. And, of course, art collectors.
The collectors, judging by the magazine profile, have not only made Condo exceptionally wealthy, but profligate besides -- artists are typically profligate, aren’t they, whether rich or poor? His paintings sell for around $450,000 a piece. He occupies two rented townhouses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (one for family and the other for a studio), and has a chauffeur-driven Mercedes (as Condo let his driver’s license expire long ago). He used to fly to and from Europe on the Concorde.
So, the guy with the solo show at the New Museum is filthy rich, is that news? Aren’t they all rich, the artists who get solo shows at museums? Would you want it any other way?
Okay, well, not everybody is a Daddy Warbucks. Luis Camnitzer (b. 1937), whose survey show has just opened at El Museo del Barrio, comes to the museum on the train, or so says Elvis Fuentes, the curator in charge up there. Camnitzer makes a particularly warm and accessible kind of text-based art -- "sometimes it’s just a punch line," he says -- and is now represented by Alexander Gray Associates after decades of next to no New York exposure.
One installation from 1969 fills the room with stenciled labels, Jasper Johns-style, of the names of the various furnishings that would convert the cold museum space into a human habitation; especially nice is the label "rug" in the center of the floor, surrounded by a square of strips of paper with the words "fringe," "fringe," "fringe," "fringe."
In another gallery is a large gray rectangle filling the wall almost from floor to ceiling, very neatly painted. Taped in the center of the square is a sheet of paper, an itemized invoice from Alpine Painting and Sandblasting, detailing the cost of paint, labor and so on. It is $489.94.
At the entryway to the exhibition is a series of stacks of paper on pedestals, each with a printed slogan in Spanish; my favorite translates as "looking without paying is theft." For 25¢ (dropped in a slot), a visitor is allowed to take one and then stamp it with an ink impression of Camnitzer’s signature. Want an artwork? Make it yourself.
Anyway, I had met Fuentes at Sosa Borella, an Argentine restaurant on Eight Avenue in Midtown, celebrating the opening of a show at Haunch of Venison of works by the senior Argentine modernist León Ferrari (b. 1920), whose sculpture of Christ crucified on a USAF jet plane was a highlight of the 2007 Venice Biennale. The artist himself was not in attendance, though his two granddaughters, who are launching his foundation, were.
Ferrari is known for his calligraphic drawings, which look soft and even girlish compared to the hardcore bathroom-stall scrawls of Cy Twombly. It turns out that every line is filled with political protest against a hidebound society and a repressive state -- it’s just all written in code. Or so says Rafael Vargas-Suarez Universal, whose mural-sized Virus Americanus painting-on-wood is on view (along with a work by Ferrari and two dozen other artists) in a new, appropriately Conceptual-Minimal selection from the El Museo collection, installed alongside the Camnitzer show.
Other talk at Sosa Borella, encouraged by me, involved what seems to be the migration north of classic modernist Venezuelan artworks, encouraged by the socialist policies of Hugo Chávez. Though he apparently suggested using museums as refugee shelters, and inaugurated a "peoples’ art prize" competition, Chávez doesn’t show the active animus to modernism shared by Nazism and Stalinism.
Government officials haven’t bothered Henrique Faria Fine Art in Caracas, for instance, according to the animated dealer, who was at the next table, and who urged a visit his New York outpost -- at 35 East 67th Street, in a space shared with Mireille Mosler Ltd. -- to catch the final day of his show of works by Gerd Leufert (1914-98) and Gego (1912-94), another two Venezuelan modernists. Gego, whose auction record is north of $500,000, is celebrated for irregular, Minimalist, 3D sculptures in wire that she began making in the 1960s, as well as the woven-image collages she made at the end of her life.
Eleven blocks north, L&M Arts has just opened a show of new painting-objects by David Hammons, a dozen or so striking, monumental canvases whose smeared abstract brushstrokes, some done in silver enamel, are more or less obscured by being draped with torn sheets of plastic or toweling or drop cloth, material that more than one viewer noted seemed to have been ripped from the bedroll of a homeless person.
One painting is blocked by an old oak bureau, with its back facing the audience. "It turns away, it’s cryptic, like David," said L&M gallery director, Sukanya Rajaratnam. Hammons grounds New York School painting in his own esthetic history, she said, stopping short of claiming that these works come from the streets, or are particularly African American, or even contemptuous of the finer mainstream traditions, represented by the gallery itself with its shows of paintings by Willem de Kooning. Word is that they are priced at $500,000-$1,000,000.
Earlier in the day I had journeyed down to the Lever Building on Park Avenue and 53rd Street to peek in the windows at curator Richard Marshall’s installation of Rachel Feinstein’s Snow Queen, a white-painted room of Rococo-styled jigsaw boiserie -- I’ve said before that this is a good idea -- plus a painted mirror room and some life-sized cutouts of Nutcracker soldiers. I’m not quite so sure what part of the contemporary world is in step with her fascination with "let them eat cake" royalty.
The last stop of the evening was Carriage Trade, Peter Scott’s storefront gallery at 62 Walker Street, which was jammed with participants in his benefit exhibitions of small prints made from cell-phone photographs -- $40 a piece, in a random drawing. The bargain Dan Graham photo of a staircase is gone, but plenty of other works are still on offer (through Feb. 5).
At the opening I met the sound artist David Schafer, who did a text performance on Martin Kersels’ 5 Songs sculpture in the Whitney Museum lobby gallery for the 2010 Whitney Biennial. You can look him up on YouTube and find not only his Whitney performance but also a scene of him playing noise music in a field at night. It’s only got 26 views, several of them mine, so take a look -- you know you’ll be in select company.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.