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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.

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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.

Agreed.

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.


Adam, Eve, by Philip Taafe (Taafe is one of several undervalued painters mentioned in Roberta Smith’s Sunday Times piece)

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.

Bravo RS.


Man dressed as Bat, by Peter Doig (Doig is also mentioned by Smith as a working painter whose early work deserves more attention.)


Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I just found a spunky rebuttal to the much-discussed article by the Times’ Robin Pogrebin about the recent era of museum overbuilding. Pogrebin’s article is referenced in yesterday’s post, and anyone who has read her piece should also read through Lee Rosenbaum’s article on CultureGrrl, Not Dead Yet: Museum Building Projects Are Alive and Kicking. (Rosenbaum has written a more detailed analysis of major omissions in Pogrebin’s piece in an earlier posting, also very interesting.)

Rosenbaum’s bottom line with expansion delays and other ongoing projects:

Museum expansion isn’t an evil to be avoided, as Robin’s article seems to suggest. It just needs to be done for the right reasons and with a secure financial underpinning. That means not only knowing in advance where the necessary construction money is coming from, but also amassing the endowment funds required to cover the increased operating costs of the expanded facility. If you don’t know where that money is coming from, you need to delay the project. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Showing a geographical bias, I was pleased to see Rosenbaum highlight U.K.-based Apollo magazine’s choice of Boston’s MFA director Malcolm Rogers as their Personality of the Year. “Among its many photos of its cover boy, the magazine features a shot of Rogers ‘amid construction of the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Visitor Center’—part of the major renovation and expansion (including a new American wing) designed by Norman Foster. The project successfully concluded its capital campaign in June 2008 (good timing), raising a whopping $504 million.”

The scheduled date for completion of the MFA project is the end of 2010.

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Damien Hirst with his diamond-encrusted skull. Photograph: HO/Reuters

Jonathan Jones writes for the UK-based Guardian, and more often than not I find safe harbor in his point of view. He’s not a complexifier or a critic caught in the po-mo net of obfuscation (my exhaustion with that gamey approach to art is showing, isn’t it?) He speaks with an Everyman simplicity about issues that are often parsed and minced ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I like his proclivity to speak straight.

Jones is an art critic equivalent of food writer Mark Bittman. Bittman’s approach to cooking (in his New York Times column “The Minimalist” and in his many excellent cookbooks) consistently focuses on simple recipes that produce delicious feasts without 20 pages of directions or a reliance on exotic ingredients. It is a simple soulful approach that has no pretense or artifice.

In a recent posting, Jones addresses the segment of contemporary art making that is focused primarily on providing commentary on contemporary culture. A reasonable question can be asked: Is it possible for something to be brilliant as culture, yet rubbish as art?

Jones defines “culture” in its broad anthropological sense as “a whole way of life, plus the forms of art—elite and popular, readable and abstract—that represent that way of life to itself. British culture, in other words, means not just museums and Jane Austen but sports events, newspapers, hairstyles, going to the shops and falling in love.”

As Jones phrases it:

The works of art that make most impact on most people are the ones that directly address and even participate in this larger culture. Art, since the 1980s, has become very good at doing that. It stands to reason that if a work makes a cultural impact it is good – doesn’t it?

Well, obviously not. There’s a long list of works of art that have made a spectacular cultural impact with little or no critical approval as art. Diamond skull, anyone? Myra Hindley portrait?

But a diamond skull is manifestly a cultural symbol: an artist who presents one is acting in culture, playing with collective meanings. Does artistic merit in the old sense actually matter, in the age of potent cultural intervention chronicled by Tate Modern’s exhibition Pop Life?

I think it does. But I don’t think it is the only truth. A work of art can be both horrible and effective. That happens again and again—often on the fourth plinth. But we desperately need a quiet space where art can be enjoyed in itself, for itself. A cultureless museum.

Yes, yes, yes.

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The Lawrence Tree, by Georgia O’Keefe. Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

We spent several days last week in western Massachusetts, seeing Shakespeare plays and looking at art. There’s lots of both (plus music and dance) to be had within an amazingly small radius. As my travel wizard and friend Lesli points out repeatedly, a place becomes popular for a reason. The Berkshires have earned their stripes as a great vacation spot over years of building on a set of cultural offerings that are unmatched. This long tradition was brought home when I stood in the Fox Hollow mansion (formerly owned by the Westinghouse family and now the headquarters for EnlightenNext) and was shown the spot on the lawn where Tanglewood first began. The rest is, of course, history.

Two interior visual experiences stood out for me. One was the Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove exhibit at the Clark, Dove/O’Keefe: Circles of Influence. While neither artist has ever been one of my inner sanctum influences, this show provided a context for the evolution of their work that was memorable and compelling. Unlike the staid and yawn-ish tradition of presenting an artist’s work in a chronological manner, the curatorial approach for the show was more organic and, can we say, rhizomatic. It did not require a start here/end here linearity, and the focus on the relationship between these two artists who were lifelong producers was much more of a free flowing exploration. Their interests coincide and diverge, than come together again. And the selections for the show are a refreshing break from the overviewed, canonical works that are so commonly associated with each of these larger than life figures. Some of the earlier works feel so open-faced and raw, far from the cliché of what too many umbrellas and address book covers can do to any good artist’s body of work. This is curating that shifts the experience quite dramatically.

And I was so pleased to finally see the Stone Hill Center, Tadao Ando’s structure that sits on the hill just up from the Clark.

A second memorable viewing: The Williams College Museum of Art, one of the most substantial college collections in this country. (And how cool that it is also free of charge.) In the introduction to a show of work drawn from the museum’s collection, the curator took issue with 20th century taste maker Bernard Berenson’s assertion that museums have an obligation to present only masterpieces and to provide the standard of exemplary excellence. Instead this was a show that brought together a variety of works which were interesting in their own right. Not obligated to only present the finest work by any given artist, the show gave more freedom for the viewer to maneuver and navigate on his or her own. Once again, more rhizomatic than linear, more open ended than elitist and prescriptive.

As for the visual feast that happens outside of a sequestered gallery, that happens everywhere—from the hike to the mountain top in the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Refuge to the pond full of lilies next to the Clark Institute to the gardens at the River Bend Farm. Lush, and more lush, all of it bursting out with a chaotic but hard-wired drive to manifest.

A sobering and heartfelt reminder for my return to the labor of indoor studio work.

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Lily Pond at the Clark

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Stone Hill Center, Tadao Ando

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Wood staining at Stone Hill Center

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Garden at River Bend Farm

Here’s a well deserved shout out for Mass MoCA. One of my all time favorite museums, this innovative, expansive and lively space is celebrating its 10 year anniversary. That’s no small feat.

(A piece about its inception is posted on Slow Painting, excerpted from an article by Geoff Edgers in the Boston Globe.)

Here are a few shots from a recent visit:

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The extravagant installation of Sol LeWitt walls

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(No hurry on seeing these–the LeWitts will be on view through 2033)

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Riki Moss and Thalassa Ali, day trip companions

And from the Anselm Kiefer exhibit, Sculpture and Painting:

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A few words on Kiefer’s work by Ken Johnson:

Mr. Kiefer’s career-making move was to draw an analogy between two big ideas: transforming raw materials into art and transforming the raw history of Germany into a mythology of redemption and rebirth. These transformations are not literal. Rather they happen in the viewer’s mind. We see his paintings as expanses of viscerally physical raw material, and at the same time we see them as big, artistic pictures and mythic images. The thrill is not in one or the other but in holding both views in mind at the same time.

That, in a sense, is the lesson of Mr. Kiefer’s art: that we can see through a kind of parallax vision, literally with one eye and spiritually with the other. We are all alchemists. Every day we perform mental acts that transform inert objects into things of meaning, beauty and desire, reviving the world by creative acts of imagination. The lead and concrete in Mr. Kiefer’s works remain just lead and concrete if we are unable or unwilling to see them otherwise.

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