I’m just coming out of what feels like a deep sleep. It was in fact not a sleep at all but a protracted and extremely focused period of time working in my studio. Making: it’s a strange state of mind, hard to describe and mostly inchoate. And when you are deep in its folds you can neither see where you are headed nor can you accurately evaluate the quality of the itinerary that reveals itself one step at a time. My most common entry in my studio log: TBD.
But some valuable insights into the terrain I’m traveling through did become more defined for me over the last few weeks. A major train of thought began when I read the profile by Calvin Tomkins of artist Julie Mehretu in the New Yorker, Big Art, Big Money. One of the current art world’s bona fides, Mehretu was paid $5 million to produce a “mural” for the lobby of the new Goldman Sachs building.
OK. There are oh so many ways in which to approach this article and this topic. Tomkins is an even-handed writer, and he walks a careful line. (That would put Tomkins at the other end of the spectrum from our beloved and fabulously volatile Jerry Saltz who, according to certain members of the art world demi-monde, is running a “Benito Mussolini” Facebook page. But that’s a whole other discussion.) Tomkins does offer a contextual perspective on this commission by quoting Rolling Stone’s description of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” (Wow. Hats off to whoever came up with that image.) But the GS bashing is pretty much over after that and the article spends most of its real estate on the art making machine that is Julie Mehretu, age 39.
The creation of the “mural” took two years and up to 30 studio assistants. (According to Tomkins, 80% of her commission fee went into fabrication costs.) Reading about its evolution and construction brought to mind an architectural project rather than a painting. Which isn’t to say that it is wrong or suspicious to approach a fine art project with that degree of linearity and cerebrality. (This undertaking required serious project management skill and coordination, resulting in Tomkins’ claim that Mehretu had to be “multitasking like a CEO”.) But reading the article reinforced my sense of the cleavage that exists in art making: The cerebralists have locked in on a way of working and of viewing the world, and the intuitives have their own set of approaches. And they are completely different.
As discussed in several of Roberta Smith’s recent articles in the New York Times (and written about here at length,) the tilt of attention in the museum/curator/art publishing/high end gallery continuum is heavily weighted towards the former. It was the lack of advocacy for another point of view that drove me four years ago to start blogging about another way to see things, along with many other artist/writers who are now friends.
The first time I saw a Mehretu piece was at the Whitney Biennial in 2004. It stunned me—the craftsmanship of the meticulously layered imaging reminiscent of blue prints, isometric schematics and mapping was breathtaking. That, and the scale of the works themselves, made her work stand out. And as if overnight, her work started showing up everywhere.
But what I noticed is that their compellingness and my interest in them as individual pieces increasingly declined with each viewing. It’s like you can “get” what Mehretu is up to with one view. Even with the buttressing of the deconstructed languaging that conceptualists usually include with their work to “curate” us through the meaning being visualized, my response to her work has been limp.
Meaning. Or perhaps it should be written with quotes: “Meaning”. I have come to see it as the sugar/fat/salt of the art world—designed to keep you ingesting without being consciously aware of what you are doing. As my musician sister said to me, this cerebrality that is so prevalent in the art world makes her feel that she is forced to choose between her head or her body. Why can’t we figure out how to satisfy and care for both?
For example, this is Tomkins’ description of Mehretu’s Goldman Sachs commission win:
The three of them [Mehretu and her two architect friends Laurence Chua and Beth Stryker] spent several months on the proposal, which outlined her plans for a visual history of capitalism in abstract terms—what the document described as “the layered confluences and contradictions of the world economy as a mural.” That summer Mehretu gave a PowerPoint presentation to a group of Goldman Sachs executives in New York, complete with illustrations, historical sources, and citations from Fernand Braudel’s magisterial “Civilization and Capitalism.”
I am a pluralist. Of course there is a place in my visual landscape for art that is created within an overwhelmingly conceptual armature. But my eyes, like my body, need variety. And there’s not enough to counterbalance the “Big Art, Big Money” syndrome to feel satisfying.
The most compelling part of the article for me was Tomkins’ description of Mehretu’s “Berlin paintings,” works that will be shown at the Guggenheim later this year:
The Berlin paintings…are primarily black-and-white, with empty places where markings have been erased, or partially erased. Muted colors run through some pictures, but the mood throughout the series is spare, evanescent, and mysterious. “This happened without me directing them in a particular way,” she explained. The experience has made her want to work more intuitively in the future.
Blessed be for smudges, even the small ones.