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Jerry Saltz‘s Facebook page is a world unto itself. With as many “friends” as the Facebook Police will allow, Jerry regularly posts provocative questions that spark conversations that can go on for days, garnering responses from hundreds of artists of every age and stripe. What began as an experiment quickly took on a life of its own, a phenom that Jerry has described as a bit like being in a room with 5,000 people, all of them discussing art.

I am fascinated by the passionate and very public tussling that goes on in Jerryland. Rather than jumping into the fray, I usually go with the lurker stance. Some artists excel and thrive at real time art languaging. I need to mull, to contemplate, to sit quietly with ideas. I love that process, but it doesn’t happen instantaneously. After all, this blog was named Slow Muse for a reason.

One of the most recent topics on Jerry’s page was about the Wade Guyton show at the Whitney Museum. For those of you who are not familiar with his work, here is Roberta Smith‘s overview from her glowing review in the New York Times:

Like many artists Mr. Guyton, who is 40, is both a radical and a traditionalist who breaks the mold but pieces it back together in a different configuration. He is best known for austere, glamorous paintings that have about them a quiet poetry even though devised using a computer, scanner and printer. The show is titled “Wade Guyton: OS,” referring to computer operating systems.

Uninterested in drawing by hand, much less in wielding a paintbrush, he describes himself as someone who makes paintings but does not consider himself a painter…

While clearly not made by hand, his works are noticeably imperfect. The paintings in particular clearly tax the equipment that generates them; they emerge with glitches and irregularities — skids, skips, smears or stutters — that record the process of their own making, stress the almost human fallibility of machines and provide a semblance of pictorial incident and life.

The line between what the artist has chosen and what technology has willed is constantly blurred.

So earlier this week Jerry posted this statement on his Facebook page:

Last week some of you claimed that Wade Guyton’s paintings aren’t paintings. Some called them “prints” or “mono-types” or other things. Some said they’re not art at all because “he doesn’t touch them.” (In fact he’s perpetually tending & tugging the linen as it comes out of the printer.) In regards to categories like painting: Dislocations, adjustments, ruptures, and expansions are always happening. Always have. Always will. Let go of the neatness of identification (see Plato’s Cave). Painting doesn’t need anyone’s protection. Like love, let painting do what it does. Or not.

Particularly for those of us who are painters, these are topics that open floodgates of strong opinions that surge and churn. As of this post, there were 788 comments on Jerry’s page. I haven’t read them all, but here are a few that stood out for me.

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I like them. they’re less about paint and “touch” of the hand and more about touch of the mind. how the mind puts things together, relates one image or memory to another. the troublesome aspect could be how impersonal they are. but i’m thinking he’s managing to avoid falling off the wagon entirely. the saving grace is in his choices of mashups. they do feel personal to me because…he manages to capture a mood and THAT touches me. his work is a flat tragedy of too much to bear.

Jennifer Wynne Reeves

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If I were able to live for 1 million yrs. I probably would still be using my hands to make my work–with a medium that is organic like paper and pigment. But, I would still appreciate having other artists use the most current technology to make THEIR work so I could look at it and feel more of who I am–and go for that with every thread of myself…call me Wilma Flintstone–It’s okay with me.

Kyle Gallup

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I could give a fuck if they are paintings or whatever, but are they good and why are always my questions. And the first? The best? Eff that shit too. Do they open the world and excite my brain? I don’t care about anything else. It is only empty dialog. New materials always find a way to present new cases, if you think about it. That is what is cool about technology and even paint has advanced if you think about how many different mediums there are now.

Alan Van Every

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I know you want a cease and desist from all dead-enders fighting for what painting is. However, you were correct to identify the label as political. This summer, you took offense to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, claiming she “crowed that her Documenta would have ‘not much painting’.” You went on to say that Carolyn “seems hostile to art’s old unruly cave creature, painting.” Not coincidentally, she is crowned this years most powerful person in the art world. As ridiculous as the Power100 list is, your fight for painting in Documenta 13 might just as easily have put you in the ranks of a dead-end-last–war fighter too.

Aaron Holz

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Soul and a good brain connected to a good pair of eyes is the most important thing. The tools come later – to serve, not lead. Guyton’s stuff is too art-about-art for me.

If that sounds schizo, it is. BTW, Did anyone here read through the super-schizo 500-page 50th Anniversary Issue of ARTFORUM – Art’s New Media? I quote from it: “Media resist unification. They resist ontology. They are much like art. And art, we might say, is always becoming media.” — Michelle Kuo, editor, ARTFORUM, September, 2012. Perhaps as a result of reading this mass of conflicting information and opinion the takeaway was to forget such tired dialectical distinctions as analog/digital. Just look, listen, read, feel, enjoy, ponder, move and theorize with sensetive intelligence and without boundaries.

Joseph Nechvatal

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Wade Guyton looks to me to be a really interesting twist on contemporary printmaking. But why the attempt to conflate his effort -or even describe it simply as painting -I am not directing this particularly at Jerry who could be simply reporting here as this is an ongoing effort with art world heavyweights the likes of Ann Temkins weighing in (I paraphrase) Pollock dripped, Richter squeegeed and Guyton hits the print button- well within the perimeters of extending the venerable tradition in western painting of radical innovation.’ In other words Wade -who is on the hot list with the international set of curators at the moment -is being touted as yet another way of assaulting painting while employing its strength as a tradition to ad contextual weight to his work -work that probably doesnt even need the curatorial assist. This is more from the painting is dead crew (well you can still paint -but there must be irony, some form of caveat that speaks to the degradation of painting.) When these people, the generic internationalists, happen to choose an actual painter, its usually a poor one -Tuymans is a good example, the apology for painting hence its degradation continues….its called spin. If it doesnt matter, why claim its painting—when it really is not—answer: it completely matters in terms of contextual weight.

Wesley Kimler

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Here goes…
The printer is a TOOL; Artists use tools.
The “digital” (as with images or photographs) is MATERIAL; artists use materials.
Job one of the artist is: EMBED THOUGHT IN MATERIAL (whatever material that is with WHATEVER tools).

I would highly recommended for the long-term health of your own particular Cave and your own particular Cave Art that you NOT worry over anything beyond these three very basic starting points.

Trust me on this.
I am a professional.

Take time to think about it. A lot of time. Ten, fifteen years at least. Then get back to me.
Trust me on this …

Or … see you OUTSIDE the Gates of Thebes …

(Oh and see the damn show; hate on it; hate on the ptgs; hate on me. Just DO NOT worry over the above things.)

—Jerry Saltz

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So in sum, and in the long view, it really doesn’t matter if you embed specific thoughts or not in your work, what matters is that you make work that inspires other people to think, to feel, to have an ongoing relationship with the piece instead of just glancing at another abstract rectangle on the wall and never looking at it again. The goal should be depth, and therefore duration, for the viewer. It doesn’t matter if he or she grasps the artist’s thoughts or not.

Mia Pearlman


Charles Burchfield, Gateway to September


Tanglewood in Winter


Autumnal Fantasy (This painting was not included in the original Hammer exhibit but was available for inclusion in the Whitney show)

How easy it is to think you know an artist’s work. I’ve seen Charles Burchfield paintings all of my life, but now I know that really isn’t the case. I didn’t see or understand his work until I visited the show currently at the Whitney Museum.

Now I can’t stop thinking about Burchfield. I am sending everyone to see the exhibit so we can do the exclamatories in unison. And to think that just a few days ago I had him squirreled away—as have so many others who have crafted a cursory narrative of American art—in the Regionalist catch all art drawer.

Burchfield (1893-1967) is actually category immune. He had no interest in being part of any school and said so. (Peter Schjeldahl at the New Yorker calls him a “one-man movement,” and Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo refers to him as an “American Modernist.”) He is definitely not a Regionalist, that embarrassingly dismissive term that dustbinned his work for years. In many ways he shares an independence that is also evident in several of his contemporaries like Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1886). But unlike those art superstars, Burchfield has remained below the art alert radar for most of us.

What I discovered is that the quiet and unassuming Charles Burchfield, denizen of small towns in Ohio and of Buffalo New York, father of five and a life long partner to his one and only wife Bertha, was a visionary. While his life’s work moves through a number of styles over time, what holds his oeuvre together is his fierce struggle to represent both his perceptions of the outer world as well as those of his private inner terrain. Using watercolors as his preferred medium, Burchfield’s ethereal and “almost abstract but not quite” landscapes feel as if they have been launched from another dimension, one that is multi-sensory, layered and complex.

This exhibit was the idea of Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. When Philbin saw newly purchased drawings by Burchfield at the home of sculptor Robert Gober, Philbin suggested Gober curate a show of Burchfield’s work. Fresh from his successful adventures in curating at the Menil Collection in Houston, Gober turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant candidate. The choices Gober made in this exhibit allow the Burchfieldian vision to unfold slowly and powerfully. (To hear Gober talk about his curatorial experience, here he is as part of the Hammer’s Watch + Listen series.)

Burchfield is the green man in the lagoon who sees things the rest of us miss. He said that he liked to think of himself “in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone’s opinion.” He also said that “an artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” Another journal entry gives this advice: “Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”

His work is an exemplary example of the kind of art that Roberta Smith doesn’t see enough of these days: “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” (For more about the Smith Art Taste Test, go here.)

The most moving pieces in the show for me date from two distinct periods in Burchfield’s life. The first is the year that is referred to as his “golden year”, 1917. The work flowed out of him effortlessly, without constraint. The second period is near the end of his life when Burchfield went through a creative crisis. He returned to that earlier period of time and expanded the vision of those powerful works. His later paintings become increasingly illuminating and illuminated. As Gober writes in the show catalog, “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature and are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace and beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man…And in so doing, he transformed himself and his practice, producing one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

Making great art until the end of life—that’s another extraordinary quality that Burchfield exemplifies. This passage is from his journal (which he wrote in assiduously most of his life): “How slowly the ‘secrets’ of my art come to me—it seems to me I have been searching all my life for this motif…; when I said this to Bertha, she said, ‘Aren’t you thankful that at 71 new secrets are being revealed to you?’ And I certainly am.”

I love when this happens, when a mad passion comes from something that was right there all along.


Insect Chorus, from his “golden year” of 1917


Landscape with Gray Clouds, one of my favorites of the later works (Photo: DC Moore Gallery)

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.

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.

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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.

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Leslie Vance

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.

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Curtis Mann

Mann is able to bring together photography, retinality (a “painterly” sense) and politics in a cogent and innovative fashion. Very memorable.

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Tauba Auerbach

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.

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Suzan Frecon

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!)

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Pae White

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.


Aurel Schmidt

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.

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Jeffrey Inaba

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.

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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.