You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Museums’ category.
The etymology of the term “jaded” surprised me. It has been traced back to a 14th century Middle English word for a worn-out horse, one that can no longer pull a cart or work the fields. It is about being wearied, exhausted, spent, bored, out of juice.
While the roots of the term are utilitarian and agricultural, it has now morphed into a condition that is all too human. It is used to describe someone dissipated through sybaritic overindulgence as well as a person who has worked with the public too long and just has no patience left for collective human idiocy. Sheer repetition of the mundane, like the barrage of noninformation that is Fox News and talk radio, can also result in a dulling and deadening of our response.
But it is overexposure of a loftier kind that troubles me most. In many ways it is the dark side of devotion: Our passions drive us to excess, but answering that appetitive call for more, more! can also come at a price.
James Elkins offers a cautionary warning in his book, Pictures and Tears. As part of his research on emotional responses to art, Elkins polled his art history and critic colleagues to find out if they had ever cried in front of a painting. He was amazed by the responses. Some said they remembering tearing up in front of a work of art when they were younger, but that had not happened since they became trained experts. Some of Elkins’ colleagues said they thought it would be viewed as extremely unprofessional for them to exhibit that degree of emotionalism toward a work of art.
Of course saving face (even though we could have a whole other discussion about what that means) is not the only reason a distancing takes place over time. Can you look at and contemplate art every day for a lifetime and still keep the fresh openmindedness that drove you to art and art making in the first place?
I fight this flagging in myself. I have to watch my thoughts with vigilance when I find myself glazing over. It can be a slow drift into disconnection, but the symptoms are obvious: Walking too fast past paintings I have seen hundreds of times; listening to the conversations in my head rather than letting my body feel and lead; feeling uninspired and well, jaded.
And sometimes you need to relearn enchantment from those who are new to an experience and fully present to the joy that comes from discovering art, music, writing for the first time. Yesterday was a good example. I brought two friends to Dia:Beacon, their first visit to a place I have been to many, many times. Yes I am still moved by Robert Irwin‘s vision for that former Nabisco box printing plant, and many of the artists on exhibit continue to speak to me. But watching my two companions discover room after room of extraordinary work—from Robert Ryman‘s rarefied explorations of white to John Chamberlain‘s phalanx of twisted metal stanchions to Agnes Martin‘s exquisite invitations into a silent stillness to Sol LeWitt‘s enchanted graphite tooling of walls—made me stop and consider how I have allowed distance and overexposure to detach me from the joy that is there, ambient and freely available. When I read what my partner Dave wrote about his visit, “Being in 3 rooms full of Agnes Martins definitely leads one to believe in a female deity,” I was reminded that receptivity does have an aspect of conscious will. Magic is happening whether we are tuning in or not. I don’t want to miss any of it.
One of my favorite books right now is Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists. I have so much more to say about this book, and hopefully I will write about it in more detail later on. But right now I want to share an excerpt that is particularly pertinent to my current preoccupations.
This exchange was captured in Michael McMillen‘s interview with Kim Abeles:
McMillen: One of the fascinating aspects of your work is that you reach into history and culture and drag out and synthesize things into someting that’s not quite historical or formalist but more interesting than both.
Abeles: I’m interested in making my art interdisciplinary because usually you see history as a package deal in a museum, especially in the United States. In Europe you can walk the streets, and history surrounds you. Because I grew up in this culture, the only sense of history I ever had was if I went to a museum and paid for my ticket. I would go in, and history was in a little box, neatly labeled. That makes it hard to get a feeling for your position in history.
McMillen: The fact that an object is in a museum represents one person’s point of view or a school of thought, whereas that’s not really what history is. It’s only one of many views.
Abeles: Right, because when people see history like that, or when they read a book, they assume that a fact is absolute. They forget that there’s poetic license, that there are editorial changes, so in a sense, it’s not real history, even though the packaging looks real.
The new Islamic Art wing at the Met (the official name, “Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue) is a perfect example of the problem Abeles discussed. I have no frame of reliable reference with regard to the 13 centuries of elaborate, highly developed and complex culture covered in these rooms. It IS history in a box for the likes of me. But oh what a telling. I was utterly enthralled by every room. The advice a friend gave me was well taken: You can’t do it in just one visit. Plan to make pilgrimages repeatedly.
From Peter Schjeldahl‘s review in the New Yorker:
Clash or no clash, Islamic and Western civilizations hardly harmonize. Consider that almost none of the religious, courtly, and domestic objects in the Met wing were created for exhibition. They had uses. Many—very many—are beautiful. Beauty rolls in waves and seethes in eddies throughout the installations of dazzling ceramics, noble architectural fragments and statuary, fabulous carpets, enchanting miniatures from manuscripts and albums, and the extraordinarily varied and elegant calligraphy of handmade Korans, along with choice fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons. But it’s beauty with a purpose. The logic of Islamic art isn’t iconographic. It is poetic and all but musical. The Islamic wing affords adventures in difference.
What did the curators do to make every room feel so beguiling? The sensibility in the choices of artifacts and how they are assembled together feels especially aligned with contemporary Western tastes and aesthetics. A modern bent towards minimalist design and more subtle expression is evident. As a result, I have never felt so at home among objects and artifacts so far from my own Western cultural milieu.
Knowing so little but loving these objects so much, I think the best approach is to show, not tell. With no context to share other than the utter pleasure of the eye, I am like the opera goer who can’t understand a word of the lyrics but loves the music so much it doesn’t seem to matter.
I have tried to be rational, objective and evenhanded in thinking about the Clyfford Still Museum that finally opened this week in Denver. But it isn’t easy to stay in that place and here’s why.
The problem with Still is that many of us are holding a split deck on him and his work. On one hand many support his famously incendiary condemnation of hypocrisy in the art world (imagine what his response would be now!) and his unflinching refusal to participate in its shenanigans. He painted away, putting the works in storage. Very few were sold or circulated in his lifetime. The subversiveness of his extreme counterposition has its appeal.
But then there is that damned narcissism behind it all. And just plain bitchy curmudgeonlyness. His will stipulated that his estate would only be bequeathed to an American city that agrees to build a museum that will be a temple to Still and include nothing else. No works can ever be sold. No other artist can ever show a single piece alongside his. All Clyfford Still, all the time.
Are you serious?
There was a time when his massive canvases brought praise. Motherwell‘s response to Still’s first solo show in New York in 1946 was that it was “a bolt out of the blue.” Yes, the Stills are physical, soaring and overwhelming.
But there is something missing in the work for me. And I have been looking at Still seriously for 40 years. My problem is that even after having given his work serious time and attention, it feels static. The vibrancy I still encounter when I look at a Pollock or a Rothko or a Newman from the same era just isn’t there for me with a Still.
Much of the museum pre-publicity has been in answer to the “does he deserve it?” question that everyone has been asking, tacitly and at times overtly. Because Still’s full body of work has never been seen before, some have said the new museum is the first time Still can be fairly evaluated and appraised in the context of his own era.
That may prove to be true. But in the meantime I’m just not feeling a trip to Denver is going to do it for me.
Last night the previously disenfranchised and much beleaguered Rose Art Museum on the Brandeis campus reopened with much fanfare, a celebration being called The Rose Art Museum at fifty. In spite of a torrential rainstorm, the museum was chockablock with donors, students, artists, patrons and, specially introduced to the crowd, art luminary James Rosenquist. A DJ played music from the 50s while crowds milled through the newly renovated space, eating and drinking in a party tent assembled at the front of the museum.
That temporary facade at the face of the museum is not without significance. Clearly there are lots of reasons to want to start fresh after an extremely unbecoming chapter in the university’s history. Roy Dawes, the new director of museum operations, gave a short speech as did new Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence (who recently navigated closure for the lawsuits resulting from his predecessor Jehuda Reinharz‘ harebrained scheme to sell off the Rose art stash to cover the university’s operating shortfall.)
OK. I get the need to start new and unencumbered. And certainly I am grateful, as is the whole art loving Boston community, that this amazing, AMAZING collection of art is once again available to the public. But in the opening ceremony, no one spoke about or owned up to the crisis the museum has luckily survived. I have to ask: Is the best path to act as if nothing happened? For those of us who have followed this story closely, it doesn’t bring a sense of closure. A fancy brochure reprinting highlights from the Rose’s first director Sam Hunter‘s 2001 memoir is not adequate cover for the fact that it was the strong arm of lawsuits brought by museum patrons Meryl Rose, Jonathan Lee, Lois Foster and Gerald Fineberg that saved the day for all of us 99%ers.
There is however one spot in the current exhibit that owns up the true account, and hats off to the individual(s) who fought for this to be included in the (re)inaugural show. That spot is downstairs, in the last gallery. Steve Miller‘s piece, seen below, was accompanied by this commentary on the wall:
Following a January 2009 announcement that the Rose Art Museum was to be closed and the art sold to provide funds for Brandeis University’s operating costs during a budget crisis, Miller returned to campus to work with students protesting the decision. Together they created a large canvas ATM sign, which was installed above the museum’s main entrance, as well as a slew of signs…which students planted across campus. The entire project amounted to a mock advertisement, proclaiming the Rose a place to get quick cash. It also declared that Art Trumps Money (ATM). The highly engaged reaction of students expressed the extent to which the museum’s original mission—to communicate, to forge links, to give students direct access to the work of living artists—made an impact.
In the wake of the announcement, museum supporters brought a lawsuit against Brandeis University to prevent the closure of the museum and the sale of art. The suit was resolved during the summer 2011 with a renewed commitment between the universithy and its museum. The Rose is collecting art and planning new exhibitions. No works of art were sold during the crisis.
So back to what really matters: The collection. It’s a feast. I know I will never take the Rose for granted again even though its caretakers often fall short.
I’m of several minds when it comes to the oft-argued place that museums should/could/would claim in the cultural milieu of contemporary life. Beyond the obvious tensions—high brow vs low brow (in a world that is increasingly no brow), elitism vs art for the common man—it is daunting to create a meaningful experience of contemporary art. Unwieldy and uncategorizable, it is bit like herding cats and not a job I would want. No matter what you do, some of your stakeholders are going to be unhappy.
So yes, the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA in Boston that opened last weekend pleases some and irritates others. As has been pointed out, the collection is not a comprehensive one. (Not surprising given how many years the MFA was not actively expanding their contemporary holdings.) The thematic approach to the galleries—each room of eclectic work is held together by titles such as “What’s it about?,” “Quote? Copy? Update?,” or “What’s going on here?”—is the increasingly common Art For Dummies approach to complex visual traditions. But to focus on listing the important contemporary artists whose works are missing or to roll one’s eyes at commentaries written for middle school level reading comprehension is to overlook what is extraordinary about a new and updated museum wing devoted to contemporary art and its issues. I’m for celebrating the rising tide that raises all boats, for increased exposure, visibility and comfort with contemporary art memes.
I grew up near San Francisco, and the only museum that showed contemporary work, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was housed on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center. While paltry and small, the SFMOMA still gave the adolescent version of me a chance to sit with a Rothko in person, to see Stellas and Motherwells and Diebenkorns. I didn’t visit New York City or Europe until I was 18 so this was my art world as a child.
That space was dinky and dingy when compared to Mario Botta‘s iconic five story museum that now holds a city block just south of Market Street. The new structure offers twenty times the viewing venues of its earlier incarnation, and the face of contemporary art in the Bay Area today in general is substantially improved. But thank god for its earlier incarnation. It changed my life.
It is a different world now of course. My kids grew up with the MFA just a 20 minute walk away and with frequent trips to New York City, Europe and Asia. The Boston area is now museum rich with new and improved versions of the ICA, the Fogg, Peabody Essex, de Cordova and the Gardner. But in a political landscape increasingly dividing haves from have nots, I have a heightened appreciation for institutions that are committed to universal access and to the common weal. During dark times like these, I just can’t be overly critical when gratitude is the more appropriate response.
One reason to visit the museum soon: Christian Marclay‘s The Clock. I have read—as have you no doubt—all the hype about this 24 hour long montage. I was curious but a bit skeptical. Well. I was and am completely intoxicated. I walked in and thought I would stay for 20 minutes. Three hours later, I was rapt and still didn’t want to leave.
This trancelike work flows from one scene to another, stitched together with references to time (in complete sequence with IRL time) and a deft weaving of haunting moments of human life. Using elements such as rain falling, the view from a window or a running figure to move from one sequence to the next, Marclay lifts you ever so gently into a transcendent sense of our own collective unconscious, a (mostly) Western dreaming that is breathtaking. Almost 24 hours later, I’m still caught in its magic. As Sebastian Smee wrote, it is a dazzling piece of work.
(Note: The MFA is mounting the full 24 hour showing on October 9 starting at 4pm and running through Monday. I will be out of town that weekend for a wedding but if I were in Boston I wouldn’t miss it.)
In addition to being pleased to see works by Richard Tuttle, El Anatsui, Kiki Smith and Sigmar Polke, here are a few other personal favorites on view:
Another note: For a more in depth view of the new wing, see Greg Cook‘s review in the Phoenix.
Two Boston museum recommendations:
At the ICA
I have looked at examples of Charles LeDray’s work online for several years, but seeing his work in person is a whole different kettle of fish. As an idea his approach seemed almost too precious—his curious obsession (and I mean that literally) with the fabrication of thousands of miniatures, done with a decidedly fine art flair. But that originating concept disappears when you are actually in conversation, face to face, with these artifacts. His Art Angel sponsored exhibit, Mens Suits, is best experienced in silence. The absence of the living forms for whom these items were fashioned is so palpable I found myself tearing up. This is work that must be seen in person, whether you catch it here or at the Whitney Museum in October.
The description from the ICA website:
For over 20 years, New York-based artist Charles LeDray has created handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay. LeDray painstakingly fashions smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.
The exhibition gathers approximately 50 sculptures and installations, from seminal early works to the first U.S. presentation of MENS SUITS (2006-2009), his highly acclaimed project presenting three complex, small-scale vignettes of second-hand clothing shops. The ICA will also premiere Throwing Shadows (2008-2010), an extraordinary new ceramic work including more than 3,000 vessels made of black porcelain, each less than two inches tall.
At the MFA
Nicholas Nixon’s new exhibit, Family Album, is a loving family portrait by a consummate photographer. Seeing the Brown Sisters hanging together on a wall is always a show stopper. But I loved the chance to view new images of Nick’s children Sam and Clemmie (who grew up with my own in Brookline.) One photograph is of a note scrawled by a very young Clemmie apologizing for her bad behavior. In another, Sam’s hands are grubbily holding a stack of bills. These fit right in alongside the flesh of these babies next to Bebe’s breast or an array arms and legs indecipherably intertwined.
Certainly other families have been portrayed in an artistic setting. The most notorious is probably still Sally Mann’s photographs of her children 20 years ago. But without being showy or self-aggrandizing, Nixon has captured a wholeness and healthiness in his family that is hard to fake. And the photos are, as always, masterfully toned and exquisitely composed.
From the MFA website:
Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s series of photographs are the portraits that he has made of his close-knit family. These photographs, taken over time, explore the nature of long-committed relationships. The exhibition features the entire sequence of the celebrated portraits of the artist’s wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Taken annually, the Brown Sisters pictures reveal gradual changes in their physiques and shifts in their relationships. The exhibition also includes photographs of the artist’s daily life with Bebe and their children Samuel and Clementine (born in the early 1980s), which enable viewers to share in the daily interactions and joys of parenthood. Also included in the show are recent portraits of Bebe and self-portraits that stand for the steadiness of long marriage. Nicholas Nixon, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, is one of the most celebrated American photographers of our generation. The Brown Sisters photographs are a promised gift of James and Margie Krebs. Many of the other works in the exhibition are loans from the photographer.
Back from California, visiting with both the Northern and Southern tribes. As always, the eye gets fed, and sometimes the finds are a surprise and unexpected.
Richard Diebenkorn: A gallery show at Paul Thiebaud Gallery consists of works that belongs to the late artist’s son Christopher. (In strange symmetry: Paul Thiebaud is artist Wayne Thiebaud’s son.) Fabulous range of paintings and works on paper. I was particularly enchanted by the small works (at the top, below) on cigar box lids.
Helen Frankenthaler: John Berggruen Gallery, one of San Francisco’s largest and most prestigious contemporary art galleries, is showing two floors of paintings by Frankenthaler. Her work played an important part in my development as a young artist (as did Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series in particular) so my interest in her work tends more towards sentimental homage. The best Frankenthaler I’ve seen in a long time is actually hanging at LACMA (see below.)
The Culver City galleries are full of lively, spunky, compelling work. Here’s a random sampling:
LACMA has great hours (open til 8pm, with “pay what you will” starting at 5), and is open on Monday. Unlike New York City where museums stagger their closed days, most of LA’s museums are closed on Mondays.
It’s a sprawling campus—becoming more so with each massive building addition—and the experience doesn’t lend itself to just wandering organically from pavilion to pavilion. But treasure abound nonetheless. There’s green space nearby when you need some nature for counterbalance, and the play of light throughout the day makes the space enchanting in its own eclectic, aggregated way.
Looking west over the soon to be open Resnick Pavilion; late day light on the whiteness of the Bing; The Resnick at sunset
Big discovery for me was the work of Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968). Trained as a musician and fascinated by the concept of synesthesia that was very popular in artistic circles at the end of the 19th century, Wilfred created devices that could merge light, music and visual form. On display is one of only 18 existing Lumia devices (lent by Carol and Eugene Epstein) that plays a stream of moving images. Wilfred’s work was included at the 1952 show at the Museum of Modern Art that also featured Pollock, Still and Rothko. Intriguing and seductive, I sat through the full cycle of few times, felt my vibrational level drop into meditative ease.
Roberta Smith continues her one-woman campaign (or so it seems—are there others on this bandwagon?) of bringing thoughtful and reasonable thinking to the world of art making, viewing and buying. Like so many other subcultures, this is one that regularly runs off the rails and into the hollers of ego, greed and elitism.
Her recent piece deals with the dicey challenge of museum expansion, in this case the Whitney Museum’s Renzo Piano project for the west end of the meatpacking district. But her article addresses the larger issue that sits right behind the Whitney’s expansion: Why are so many museums so poorly designed for art viewing?
Here’s her brief take on the uptown Whitney:
Its 1966 Marcel Breuer building has all the disadvantages of starchitecture and few if any of the rewards. Even in a country where museums are rarely designed with art in mind, it stands out as relentlessly unforgiving to works of all styles and periods. If the stone floor doesn’t kill, the oppressive overhead concrete structure almost undoubtedly will.
Unlike the Guggenheim, the Breuer building is not considered a must-see destination by tourists, regardless of what shows are on view. And Breuer’s Brutalist bunker is not getting better with age, or inspiring artists to come up with new, exciting uses for it as Wright’s spiral is.
The larger problem of museum design as Smith sees it is fundamental to the infrastructure of influence that seems to be de rigeur for most museums:
Not to diminish the financial and logistical risks of a venture like this, but New York’s recent museum debacles have taught us that space can justify the means. The success of an undertaking like this hinges not on the size but on the quality of the space, which is never thought about enough and never by the people who really know what they’re doing where museums are concerned. The idea that trustees have the final word on a museum’s design, considering all the atrocious buildings that have been erected in this country, is chilling. When will they ever learn to listen, and to people who have the right experience? They would get better spaces if they would loosen the reins.
A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles, as is the case with the Guggenheim (no disrespect intended). It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly. Its spaces set a standard for display that seems to have been lost in Manhattan, and it was lost, again, because of trustee arrogance and administrative mismanagement that put too many of the Dia’s eggs in its Beacon, N.Y., basket.
So what’s a step in the right direction? Common sense perhaps. Who should the museumologists listen to? Who knows how to make art look good? Clearly the answer is not architects nor is it the trustees. Smith suggests a well chosen committee of artists and dealers to review, comment and (hopefully) influence these projects. For the Whitney, she is quite direct: Hire Larry Gagosian as a consultant. After seeing the Gagosian Gallery’s exhibit of Calder’s work, that choice seemed intuitively obvious to her.
It’s a thought.
Jeffrey Inaba’s installation warms the cold cement interior of the Whitney Museum lower level
It is a ritual I have witnessed for over twenty years (and one I have participated in with variations in intensity): The Whitney Biennial Grouse. The cacophony of anger, outrage and “how could they?” that erupts around this show every two years has become as much a part of its tradition and import as the work on display. And as if to codify (and perhaps co-opt?) that external form of the Whitney ritual, this year’s catalog includes news clippings from previous shows. The headlines read as vituperously as the American press’ reception to the 1913 Amory Show.
I have referenced this phenomena before (see Gimme Shelter) and have to smile when I think about how many years I have been approaching this event as the “ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, ‘I can’t wait to hate it’ Whitney Biennial.” So in the spirit of the times, when old forms are imploding and new ones emerging, I have embraced a new methodology with which to approach the show.
Here’s my new game plan:
1. Treat it as you would a gallery exhibit, nothing more.
2. Go with another artist friend who is not bitter, narrow-minded or prone to grousing . (My partner for this and all future Biennials will be the inimitable Paula Overbay.)
3. Find the work that moves you. There have been years when there was only one. But one is more than zero. And this year there were several!
4. Wear earplugs.*
And this is the year to approach the show without all the vitriol because it is different. For the first time, more women than men. And fewer artists are included so the experience is more manageable. I enjoyed the day. Truly.
*The only negative comment I will make about the 2010 Whitney Biennial is the unfortunate spillover of installation soundtracks into every gallery. There is work in this show that deserves quiet and self-reflection. This was impossible given the curatorial decision to blend media and formats. So Suzan Frecon’s masterful pieces can only be seen in concert with a completely incongruous soundtrack emanating from the Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s installation next door. I like both of these works, but they should not be sharing the same wall. It’s like trying to roll out a delicate confection on a garlic cutting board.
Here is a sampling of my favorites. Each artist’s name is linked to the Whitney Museum site so you can read more about the artist and the works included in the show. BTW, these are in order if you start on the top floor and work down.
Vance reminds me of a more lyrical version of Tomma Abts. Her work has a very specific technique and approach, but the results are quite lyrical and evocative. Beautifully painted.
Mann is able to bring together photography, retinality (a “painterly” sense) and politics in a cogent and innovative fashion. Very memorable.
A young artist who already has a number of bodies of work is exhibiting extraordinary large scale trompe-l’œil paintings. Fresh, fun and intriguing.
One of the older artists in the show (go girl!), Frecon is exhibiting two paintings that are absolutely exquisite. Subtle and yet strong, powerful and yet intimate. I could have stood with them for a long time were it not for extenuating curatorial circumstances. (OK, enough. I’ve already made my case. No grousing!)
White’s piece is a massive tapestry that is based on an image of light reflecting off of metallic surfaces. This work is so massive and yet lyrical, beautifully attentive to both the craft and the aura. Wow.
If there is a breakout darling from the show it is probably newcomer Schmidt who is 27 yeas old and untrained . Who needs art school when you can draw like this one can? A must see.
The images at the top of the post are a better view of architect Inaba’s massive upside down flowers hanging over the lower level. They slowly change color and are such a perfect counterpoint to the hard edge qualities of that open space in the museum. I wish they could stay as a permanent installation.
My favorite review of the show is (of course) by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. It is so worthy of a full read, as is this biennial.
Roberta Smith secured the premier position in the Sunday Times Arts section, above the fold and in the center. The visual arts rarely show up in the top slot these days. Her article, Post-Minimal to the Max, is great reading in its totality. In it she addresses the state of museum shows of contemporary art, particularly in New York, and her viewpoint is strongly stated.
Referencing recent shows at the MOMA and the Guggenheim, her bottom line is similar to my point of view:
Regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.
The goal in organizing museum exhibitions, as in collecting, running a gallery and — to cite the most obvious example — being an artist, should be individuation and difference, finding a voice of your own. Instead we’re getting example after example of squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism. Either that or we’re getting exhibitions of the movement’s most revered founding fathers: since 2005, for example, the Whitney has mounted exhibitions of Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Gordon Matta-Clark and Dan Graham. I liked these shows, but that’s not the point. We cannot live by the de-materialization — or the slick re-materialization — of the art object alone.
I too have noticed a particular aroma that seems to permeate most contemporary exhibits in major museums, in New York City as well as other major metropolitan areas. Many art observers have made the case that a small coterie (cartel might be too strong a term) of art gatekeepers is determining the curriculum of graduate programs, defining curatorial trends and coming to way too much confluence about which international art superstars are show worthy. It’s a little like eating at a chain restaurant. Not the Olive Garden mind you, definitiely something better. Since the first visit is pretty good, you go back again. But after a while every meal tastes the same. It is unexciting and predictable which is what happens when the menu and food prep result from following instructions rather than inspiration.
But the killer passage in Smith’s piece comes a bit later on:
After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.
Nothing says it better: “Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity.” I sat with that thought all day yesterday, and last night it brought on one of the most extraordinary dreams I have had in some time. It was the kind that just can’t be described in language but leaves you with a sweet penumbra of time-release wisdom.
Smith goes on to identify her favorite undervalued painters. Her list isn’t mine although there are some overlaps. But her point is so well taken and so timely. I hope her article is read and considered seriously.
Her closing paragraph offers a particularly pointed challenge to contemporary curators:
They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.
These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.
Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.