Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Provisional Criticism and the New Mannerism

No matter whom you ask the concept of the provisional is likely to start an argument. This is all the more interesting not as it illuminates the work, but for what it reveals about the discourse surrounding contemporary abstract painting.[1] I have already written on my view that Provisionalism[2] represents a trend in art that has snaked through a good deal of modernist history; that its roots have tended to be ignored within larger established narratives has only broadened its connection among a diverse set of artistic practices. As it has emerged on the scene (again!) in the work of younger painters[3] it has found itself the object to both legitimate criticism and off-hand derision. If this this is the first real “new” movement in abstraction in some time[4], and the jeers appear as retrograde calls for “moving forward”, then perhaps it is time to reconsider our thinking on direction and the ground art is traversing.

Alan Pocaro’s Three Hypotheses claims to be searching for a way forward, but ultimately offers little more than condescension born of running in circles, before giving up. The introduction starts by planting a field of straw men[5] and continues on to try and figure out just what is Provisionalism’s “inexplicable appeal to artists and writers alike.” The first hypothesis is that provisional painting is something writers have created, trying to tell a good story.[6] The second states that the artists who make the work are little more than poseurs, dashing off minor efforts and propping it up with complicated theory and discourse.[7] His third hypothesis has artists mining a dead history out of nostalgia, turning backwards because of the impossibility of describing something new.[8] In truth, if there is enough art being made in a similar vein that can be grouped into a trend or style, a writer who isn’t trying to make “the evidence fit into a preconceived narrative” should probably be able to come with more varied ideas about its popularity. From a critical standpoint this is a limited set of options that betrays either an unwillingness to consider either a different point of view or an unimaginative assessment of the inherent possibilities of painting. His conclusion turns back on writing, claiming that any “disquisitions” will only support anachronistic theory. This likewise betrays a very limited sense of the possibilities of art by means of limiting its discourse to the sound bite and the press release. Refusing the utility of careful looking and thinking, and communicating the results of those investigations will not do painting any favors.

What stands out in Pocaro’s essay is the assumption that the painting in question is self-evidently “bad”[9] and that the author’s unstated biases towards art history, theory, and technique are obviously correct; I would argue that it are these assumptions that are the real problem. While they are not directly stated, we can infer that he, like many critics, want to see more work in painting, “sweat on the brow” that showed a dedication to craft and skill. Echoing Greenberg’s lament about the lowering of standards ignores the hierarchies of privilege that come with being the arbiter of those standards. Provisionalism did not remove the need for manual skill in art (that ship has long since sailed), but as it has become a focus in the practice of young artists it has become threatening exactly because it challenges the need for skill and craft within painting. This is the last high ground the old academies and hierarchies have. Appealing to a silent majority to refute aesthetic challenges harkens back to the tyrannies of the past rather than looking towards a more egalitarian (we hope) future.

There is no small irony in defending the Pre-Raphaelites from dismantling by Roberta Smith as “highly skilled.”  The Pre-Raphaelites tried to save art by looking backwards to better days, using empty displays of technical accomplishment to do it. But it, as Smith writes, “the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have made some of the first so-bad-it’s-maybe-good modern art” then they are strangely linked to artists interested in a provisional approach; both made or make art without care for what they were told art had to look like, had to be. If the works of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are valuable to contemporary artists, it is because they showed that there was value in striking out on one’s own direction, to make the art and painting that they wanted to see. Smith notes that the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is not necessarily of individual celebrity, but is embedded as a strain of DNA across wide swaths of visual culture. I believe that Provisionalism is another such trend, perhaps more recent, but also more attuned to our times.

It is pointless to decry criticism, theory, and just plain writing about art; you may just as well complain about talking about it. Every Modernist movement has had its theorist, from Baudelaire’s championing of Manet and Delacroix to the ‘bergs Stein and Green each advocating for different facets of the New York School. Artists being able to write cogently about the issues that they deal with gives a voice to the makers of the work, which is a point of view often missing from the writings of historians.[10] I think this is particularly lacking in the discussion on Provisionalism; for a painter who has been given a dry foundation instruction on stretching and priming canvas and properly mixing colors, why has no one considered the excitement that it must bring to rip up that structure and just play with the materials, to add in elements from the street and hardware store[11], to explore with one’s hands in the studio?  If the art is made, it can and will be talked and written about and if artists do not lay out their own ideas someone else will certainly fill the void for them. . That “the old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century” is an argument for the status quo… and would cede authority back to the Established power structure by default of not allowing for an alternative. The last thing that’s needed is another silent majority.

Readings of history are subjective. The nexus between and Modernism and Post-modernism and their interrelationship with critical theory need not be fixed for each viewer.[12] Artists are free to take what they can use from any given intellectual site before moving on and continuing to explore; the ones who become too loaded down with the ideas if others are the ones who will become immobile and stagnant. The artist is not to prize novelty, but to place the focus in being true to one’s own interests, My reading of western art’s history has the Modernist project reaching a singularity where the art object breaks down at the arrival of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art.[13] Post-modernism was born out of that singularity as art is indistinguishable from the common material that sits beside it that is not art; context and intent became as important as matter. The early days of Post-modernism saw a similar wild expansion just as Modernism did, with Feminist and Multicultural practices gaining recognition, and proliferation of new approaches: appropriation, pastiche, the Pictures Generation, Neo Expressionism, Neo-Geo. After the initial explosion the art world has continued to expand, but the initial influences of those first conglomerations exert a lesser gravity of influence.

The new Post-modern landscape of the art worlds[14] is now akin to a near infinite desert where no mode or medium is off limits and any aesthetic is viable for new work or reinvention. This is already being likened to a new Mannerism[15], and while I find the label fitting, my view that what I do not share is the pessimism for contemporary arts on this relative turn of events. I ascribe to the model of the desert in that there is near-infinite possibility to move and ultimately it is that freedom that eclipses any other detriment. Any sort of directional movement is no longer distinguishable from another; what would “forward” mean in such a context? Depending on the position of the viewer it may be an awkward tangent and to another the work will be heading backwards (and likely right through their own ideas of progress). To say that this is a perfectly fine state of affairs (let alone something desirable enough to fight for) is not to suggest that everything is just OK or that there is no use for critical thought, but the terrain of art will be constantly changing and more subtle, more difficult to read. One’s approach to looking at and thinking about art must allow for this, considering that the artist may have a radically different frame of reference. Of course a great deal of the work will be bad, some of it will just be “bad”, but some small bit of it will be good.[16] The work necessary to find art that is good[17] can hide the fact that it is a positive thing that it was made, however now it must be judged on individual merits and accomplishment, not the category it is assigned to. Categories are only generalizations; what is important are the specifics of the artwork and the relationships in question.


[1] I think it as at least safe to say that the majority of work under discussion is abstract, although there are certainly exceptions. Perhaps not all the work is “painting”, but it is at least the medium that most of the discourse centers around.

[2] And yes, I’m keeping the “ism.” It’s just easier that way.

[3] Perhaps therein lies the distinction between “Provisionialism” as a broader stylistic trend like “abstraction” and “Casualism” as described by Sharon Butler; “Casualism” has become much more specific to a time and place, and focused on a specific generation of painters. See her ‘The Casualist Tendency’ for her response to Pocaro.

[4] I am not sure that it is, but it is often treated as such.

[5] The only “massive realignment” I’ve noticed that is underway in the art world is the shift that focuses more money and attention on fewer artists through a few dealers dueling at the very top of the market. I haven’t noticed that very many (or really any) of these artists are labeled as either “provisional” or “casual”; the only people I’ve noticed lavishing the attention on it that would otherwise indicate that Provisionalism represents a new “flagship abstract style” are those going through the trouble to vociferously condemn it.

[6] This makes it seem as if the category has been created from whole cloth by fictioneers, rather than writers who focus on the history, theory, and criticism of art and painting. Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler were responding to work they were seeing in studios, galleries and museums; taking the work as evidence and fitting it into a narrative is not an example of “trying to tell a good story,” it’s an example of scholarship.

[7] While it’s always nice when an erstwhile educator speaks derisively of his students in a public forum, and always enjoy making fun of how people different from me dress, I think the greater critical flaw in this argument is that takes the weakest possible work, student painting that is not even being offered for exhibition, and assumes that criticism of it and its makers is a suitable stand-in for the category as a whole. One may as well pull any fourth generation Abstract Expressionist out a West Village garret and hold their work up as a repudiation of Pollock and deKooning. (And I bet he’d be dressed funny, too. I bet you could find someone with a beret.)

[8] Given the direction it seems most of Provisionalism’s detractors would like art to go, complaining about it not being forward thinking enough is highly ironic.

[9] Granted, Provisionalism is sometimes labeled as purposefully “bad”, but I think Pocaro’s meaning here is limited to only a qualitative judgment.

[10] I’m reminded of a discussion I had with an art history student on the occasion of deKooning’s recent MoMA retrospective. We were talking about the relevance of the newspaper transfers in his great urban abstractions of the mid-Fifties; but the historian saw them without realizing they were an accident of trying to keep his oil paint wet on the surface, not anything he was purposefully trying to do.

[11] It is worth noting that a great many artists are working day jobs that require “sweat on the brow” and are typically surrounded by the tools and materials of manual labor.

[12] Just as they are not for scholars and historians.

[13] Yes, it is heavily influenced by Arthur Danto’s writing, especially “Beyond the Brillo Box” and subsequent texts on ‘the end of art.’

[14] There are plural art worlds, and it is possible to occupy a small niche or spread out and move between a wide strata of socioeconomic, intellectual, and aesthetic orbits. I use “art worlds” to indicate that spheres of interest and influence can be so different that there is no universal focus of those who operate around art. One cannot ascribe something to “the art world” without inherently limiting the frame of reference under discussion; art certainly also contains the opposition.

[15] I was already thinking of this framing when I heard Mark Staff Brandl articulate it on Bad at Sports. More recently it has gained even greater currency with Jerry Saltz’s latest lament on what ails contemporary art.

[16] I still believe in Sturgeon’s Law as a guiding principle when looking at art.

[17] Again, from one’s own point of view.

What 101 Spring Street Means to Me

My essay on the reopening of Donald Judd’s studio after extensive renovations was published in the journal Big Red & Shiny (volume 2, issue 9) originally published on May 20, 2013. You can read it here.

Where I Am Now: In Conversation with Peter Soriano.

My conversation with Peter Soriano regarding the evolution of his practice is up now at Idiom. You can read it by clicking here.

Written by Brian Dupont

September 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Intent or Artifact: Richard Serra’s Drawings.

I will confess that I have long had a fascination with the drawings of sculptors. Drawing as a medium is immediate in a way no other medium is; a mark on paper direct from the artist’s hand is about as close to thought or intent as you can get. Where a painter’s hand will leave an equivalent gesture from drawing to painting (think of Terry Winters or Brice Marden), a sculptor (may) have an interesting turn as the marks turn to towards the artist’s thinking in three dimensions. There was something to a drawing with the directness of a schematic, something only as refined as it needed to be yet dealing with idiosyncratic manufacture that spoke to me, but in a dialect I couldn’t quite fathom.

Richard Serra’s drawings approached this basic interest from the opposite horizon. His sculptural output seems to be about taking the basic language of art that is regularly commanded by drawing (line, volume, mass, gesture) and transposing it into sculpture (and from sculpture, one could argue, to architecture). A product of the late 60’s, Serra’s early concerns dovetailed with larger questions raised by the reductiveness of late Modernism in a way that could not help but engage painting. His early installation works of paintstick on linen stapled directly to the wall could easily be called paintings if the artist wanted to. (And matches the polished and otherwise anonymous metal wall reliefs of  painters like Ellsworth Kelly.)

Abstract Slavery (1974) is a monochrome masterpiece of subtle orientations of mass, angle, and material that communicates with little in the way of vocabulary beyond the considerable work of making it. One edge is trimmed perpendicular to the floor, and the irregular plane suggests a cut into space that remains flat on the wall. The scale and irregularity alter the viewer’s space with a shove, which is about as direct as communication gets.

As a retrospective of his drawings organized by the Menil collection opens at the Metropolitan Museum, viewers will get a chance to see a less trumpeted side of the artist, his commitment to process. Serra’s drawings are not composed pictorially, but of an intent to act on a space or material. Since his heralded list of verbs and his under-recognized process based works of splashing, scattering, and other action on found industrial material that preceded his props, the artist’s commitment to the materials and process has not been as explored. Large bends in steel plates are not always talked about for the work of their making, but it is clear that the artist approaches them in this fashion, as would the ship builders whose steel plants help manufacture the pieces. Likewise his approach to his drawings exhibits a particular rigor that does not necessarily privilege the object.

Laura Gilbert’s look at the provenance and dating of the material that will be on view strikes me as utterly beside the point. The “installation drawings” simply do not exhibit any concern with finicky notions of a precious object or the artist’s hand. It is likely that anonymous assistants did a good deal of the manual labor of applying heated paintstick to linen, and it seems much more appropriate to consider those pieces of linen as no more special than a particular plate of steel or lead. Any minor surface inflection is beside the point, and with them dates of production or concerns about whether they are originals or copies. They are, as the artist bluntly states, material.

That is not to say that the Mr. Serra has discarded any care about his work in favor of some ephemeral notion of the dissolution of the art object; how could anyone with such an obvious dedication to weight and mass? I continually find myself thinking about his early work To Lift in MoMA’s collection. Made by the artist simply grabbing a piece of vulcanized rubber and lifting it up off the floor so that the sheet could support the weight of its new found (sculptural) volume, it is as direct a gesture as drawing can get. My engagement with the work comes from my day job as an art handler tasked to pack and crate works for shipment. Looking at the task of crating the sculpture with little information other than the picture, I wondered if the volume needed to be crated, or if we might just be shipping a flat piece of rubber that would be “re-lifted” for the exhibition. There was also the chance that nothing would be sent, and a new piece of rubber would be trimmed to size and lifted, duplicating the original (an exhibition copy).

Any of these courses of action would potentially fit within Mr. Serra’s practice. As it turns out I was able to talk to a colleague who had designed a crate for the work, one that supported a very aged fold of vulcanized rubber (a decidedly non-archival material that does not age well). I asked after the possibility of replacing the rubber, and it turns out that the artist was unconcerned with change in the material over time, looking at it as a natural process in the life of the piece. In the end the matter is one of an artist with a realized and considered practice working through his concerns through an engagement with materials and the process enacted on them; just as some bent plates sitting in a steel yard in the Bronx do not a Serra make, some new linen, paintstick, and staples do not change the artist’s intentions on the space around him, or us.

 

 

Written by Brian Dupont

April 14, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in General

Tagged with , , ,

My List

As the little tempest in a teacup that is some artists on Twitter finding Modern Art Notes Tyler Green’s Art Madness Bracket rather light on works of the post-war art that wasn’t produced by white males, noted art writer Sharon Butler solicited alternative lists that were published on her Two Coats of Paint blog. I submitted my own list as did several other artists, writers, and critics. I found the entire exercise to be very interesting; looking at the other lists I had quite a few “Oh, how could I leave that work off?” moments. In other cases it allowed me to gain a slightly more subtle understanding of another artists own work, development, and interests. I found drawing up my own list to be fairly eye opening; some artists that I hadn’t consciously thought about for awhile wound up having a lot of pieces on my first draft (that I had to cut 3 Bruce Nauman works was a surprise). In other cases I found that artists that were important to me didn’t have a singular work or even series that stood out in proportion to their overall career (or against the other works I listed).

In the end I approached my list as I think the individual writers who rank baseball prospects do. It has to be considered a snapshot of what I think right now, it is not the same list I would’ve produced a year ago and may change even in the near future. It also almost certainly contains a bias towards works that have influenced me in the past and work that I look at and consider in relation to what’s going on in my own studio now. I think this was a consideration for all of the artists who participated. As one of my primary issues with Mr. Green’s list is that focusing on individual masterpieces was one of the systematic biases that lead to so few women making the list, I made much broader allowances than he or his co-jurors did.

1. Pollock Number 32
2. Judd 100 works in milled aluminum
3. Ellsworth Kelly La Combe
4. Joseph Beuys Arena
5. Smithson Spiral Jetty
6. Gordon Matta-Clarke  Splitting
7. DeKooning   Excavation
8. Frank Stella   The Marriage of Reason and Squalor
9. Cindy Sherman   Untitled Film Stills *
10. Judd  Untitled 1962
11. Serra  Belts
12. Nauman  South American Triangle
13. Roni Horn   Paired Mats – for Ross and Felix
14. Terry Winters  Good Government
15. Brice Marden  The Grove Group *
16. Gober  Silly Sink
17. Richter  October 18th *
18. Christopher Wool  Apocalypse Now
19. Glen Ligon  Untitled (Text paintings) *
20. Paul Thek Technological Reliquaries *
21. Matthew Barney  Cremaster 3
22. Eva Hesse  Untitled 1970
23. Catherine Opie  Untitled (Icehouse series) *
24. Blinky Palermo  To the people of NYC
25. L. Bourgeois  Spider 1997
26. Felix Gonzalez Torres  Untitled (Perfect Lovers)
27. Nauman  Corrider Installation (Nick Wilder Installation)
28. Flavin  Untitled (Marfa Project) 1996
29. Barry LeVa  Continuous and Related Activities
30. Maya Lin  Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial
31. Julie Meheretu  Goldman Sachs Mural
32. Wade Guyton Untitled 1997 *(kind of)

Works marked with an asterisk point to series or bodies of work that are so closely related that I think pulling out a single work is beside the point.

My last changes were removing Martin Puryear’s Bask in favor of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and cutting Moria Dryer’s Random Fire. The works that just missed were Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series, Rachel Whiteread’s House, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, Robert Frank’s The Americans, Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet, and Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth. Clearly some of these works will be seen by others as more deserving, or “better”, but the point is that they just aren’t to me. I’m not arguing that Wade Guyton’s Untitled is of greater historical importance than Frank’s masterpiece, but The Americans doesn’t hold any interest for me or my practice. On the other hand I still find myself referring back to that painting of an “X” that was run through a big Epson printer, and thinking about how it has changed how I approach ideas of text and touch in my own painting. Similarly, early on I toyed with the idea of adding John Beech’s Make in the last spot on the list. I wanted the end to point towards a new work that had recently affected me and caused me to reconsider a broad swath of the art I was seeing around me every day.

At the top I still have Pollock and Judd. I wanted to put Judd’s Chinati Foundation (the entire Foundation and everything in it) ahead of even Pollock, but that wouldn’t really have been in the spirit of the list or the response to Mr. Green. As it stands, Pollock’s drip paintings in total represent a great deal to contemporary art, and I think one of the major differences between post-war European and American art turns on the different spaces in painting and process he opened up with these works. I can oscillate between Number 32 and Autumn Rhythm, but I prefer the stark graphic quality of the uncorrected black enamel on cotton duck. That it all starts with drawing appeals to me.

It has also been interesting to hear suggestions to what we missed. John Powers noted that Jay DeFeo’s The Rose was left off everyone’s lists. (If women are denied the admission of genius that would “let them produce a singular masterpiece, she’s an excellent example of an opposite bias – she produced that single masterpiece, but is otherwise not considered for not having a more level career.) John Morris pointed out that I missed any reference to street art, and that Henry Darger perhaps should have been listed. I’ll speak to street art at another time, but Darger would’ve presented an interesting case. My own list is remarkably light on figuration (even in the photography), and Darger also raises the issue of “outsider” art. It’s a different angle, and one I don’t have an answer to, but considering everything from his opus as a single work would turn notions of art’s canon on it’s head.

Obviously I’m completely missing Johns, Rauschenberg, Rothko, Guston, Barnet Newman , and Warhol. This exercise has me reconsidering John’s White Flag. (I still think the Ballantine Ale Cans are a fairly lame joke, however.) With the others, I still just don’t come back to them anymore. I think all of these artists produced great works, and they’re works that I love, but they’re not something I relate to day to day anymore. John Powers has written an excellent repudiation of the concept of the masterpiece itself in response to the uproar. Looking over the lists the other artists provided, I think that may point to where artists are going to take art. Less masterpieces and more work is more democratic after all. If more voices is deemed a good thing then maybe shouting down the masterpiece is a good use of breath.

Written by Brian Dupont

March 25, 2011 at 7:42 am

Bracketology

Although I am not a basketball fan, the NCAA tournament has always represented the turning point where winter turns to spring. I have no interest in March Madness or associated workplace gambling; my sport is baseball and the annoyance posed by my co-workers trying to get me to go in on the office pool really only means that opening day is around the corner…

This is the second year Tyler Green has given his readers a set of brackets ostensibly for the art world. Last year he pitted the America’s abstract painters against one another (Cy Twombly beat out Ellsworth Kelly for the crown), but this year’s version is a bit more problematic. He aims to present a tournament of the greatest post-war works of art, but has instead managed to expose just how ingrained some of the systematic biases that haunt art and its attendant institutions can be.

Looking at his selection of 64 works of art, you’ll find only 3 works by women: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the other hand, most of the (very) old white males of the art historical canon are represented multiple times. Ruscha, Serra, and Judd are found twice; Richter three times; Johns, Rauschenberg, DeKooning, Pollock, and Barnet Newman four times; and, perhaps fittingly for this kind of popularity contest, Warhol leads the pack with five works. That’s more than half the total bracket represented by only 10 (white) men.

Mr. Green did not generate the list of works himself; he amalgamated a seeding selection from five guests (two of whom were women) to get the final brackets, but the process is his, and despite facing complaints from myself and others (on Twitter) he has chosen to defend these results as given by the process he set up. I have suggested (in an exchange on Twitter) that such results may point to a flawed process and that as the organizer he could have made some changes, but his response was “Why on earth would I presume I’m so smart I should overrule the five other (distinguished) people I invited to contribute?”

An exercise of this sort, intended to be lighthearted and in good fun, is bound to contain most of the works that populate the very end of a mammoth art history textbook. The broad outlines and movements of post-war and contemporary art will be illustrated with a few key works, as space allows. If women and minorities are not well represented, whose fault is that? The makers of the list only picked personal favorites and had them compiled after all. If Joan Snyder, Helen Frankenthaler, Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Ana Mendita, Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Lee Krasner, Lynda Benglis, Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, Howardina Pindell, Elizabeth Murray, Dorthea Rockburn, Mona Hatoum, Yayoi Kusama, or Louise Bourgeios (to name just a few of the notables from the same time period as most of the works on the list off the top of my head) weren’t the favorites of these critics and curators, why is that necessarily a problem within the context of this harmless little game?

The answer is that because Mr. Green’s game has managed to illustrate quite succinctly how easy it is to exclude women and minorities and still have everyone involved remain blameless. Whether it be a small lark of a bracket or the larger art world, it is too easy to point at a system or process as an excuse without actually examining who set up the system or how. It may be “just a game”, but games allow us to distill and process some of life’s messier and complex interactions into a simpler form that is more comprehensible for its abstraction. In short, they make it easier to see what is fair, and I think it becomes very clear that the system as devised is not (either in the brackets or the art world).

At least in the case Art Maddness II, the problems are easier to identify and fix. Looking at the list I think it is evident that there are shifting evaluations based on lax guidelines. If it makes sense to consider Cindy Sherman’s entire Untitled Film Still series and Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings as a single entity, why does Jasper Johns need three different flags? Is Three Flags really that different from Flag? Similarly, how different are the DeKooning Women or any of the Newman zip paintings? Is the point to consider groundbreaking work or major statements? Isn’t Vir Heroicus Sublimis so closely related to Onement I that context that they can be discussed in the same breadth? Pollock’s individual drip paintings are different enough, but isn’t their scope related to the collective breakthrough they represent?

Lest I be accused of not presenting an alternative, I find that I only need to look at another rite of spring, one that relates to my own sporting interest and would not require any great investment to change. Every spring Baseball America ranks the top 100 prospects in baseball’s minor leagues. It is every bit as contentious as any other interested battle of minutiae, and their process is remarkably similar to Mr. Green’s. Each of their writing staff compiles a list of their opinion of the top prospects, and the results are compiled in a spreadsheet. However instead of that being the end of it and having the final list generated by having Jim Callis hit ‘print’, the writers get together to look at the raw results and debate and argue for them. They curate the list, revising and reconsidering so that there is, if not consensus, then at least a sense that the biases and idiosyncrasies that arise from such a small sampling of opinion can be removed and that the final list is stronger. Mr. Green could have had a simple conference call with Michael Auping, Kristen Hileman, Dominic Molon, Ed Schad, and Katy Siegel to see where duplicate works that present the same idea could be reconciled, and to see what deserving works that may have been left off could take the place of the duplicate.

To be inclusive may have been a bit more work, but it is disappointing that a writer who purports to hold himself to high standards and certainly holds others to similar account did not make the effort. The tournament hosted by Modern Art Notes is a small offense, but the reason to speak out against such minor infractions is to hold the larger system to account. That “it’s just a game” shouldn’t be an excuse if we don’t want “it’s just art” to be a similar refrain.

Written by Brian Dupont

March 22, 2011 at 8:56 am

Art Fairs & Evolution. (Where I Defend the Market…)

Seasons change, New York is starting to get slipping glimpses of spring and as Armory week rolls into NYC, and right on cue the art world starts to fidget about naked displays of commerce. Or at least part of the art world does. Organizers and participants have likely been a bit too busy with the reality on the ground, leaving the broader social implications to critics, theorists, and self-proclaimed contentious objectors. The feelings of ambivalence that artists have towards fairs (and the larger commodification of their work) were raised by Jen Dalton’s and William Powhida’s #Rank project during Art Basel in Miami.[1] But where #Rank cast a wide net addressing the unease emerging artists have with fairs and considered both the reasons for and possible alternatives to the art fair model, Charlie Finch has launched a broadside at the entire economic structure of the art market.

I’ll admit to finding Mr. Finch’s writing largely problematic for its curmudgeonly insistence on snark as an argumentative coup de gráce. As a current example he compares the (rather standard) desire of artists for gallery representation to be the equivalent of a child pleading for its Mommy. While ‘the credential of representation’ is no longer provides the guarantee of a stable career (if it ever did), it is still a step that moves the artist’s career forward and (at least, hopefully) better positions them to spend more time making work as opposed to working a day job to pay the rent. His justification for this infantilization is only that it leads to the affront on his ideals for art by virtue of enabling the volume of transaction in the art market. The sentiment that the structures underlying the production and distribution of art have sometimes unsettling political implications always seems to be in the background when critiquing the primary market, but where Mr. Finch departs from most others (including the discussion at #Rank) is with a hard and fast proposal. Of course his proposal represents his particular sense of idealism; He calls for new funding that would remove art from the agency of the rich by enabling a new WPA style system that would make art a local, grass-roots enterprise.

Of course this plan is utterly unrealistic in this fiscal day and age. If any segment of government could or would actually “tax the hell” out of the super-rich enough to start a new WPA, artists will not find themselves the beneficiary beyond the likely promotion of the labor they would do as a day job. (In fact many would see a decline in their circumstances given how many (who lack representation) make ends meet by working within the art services sector.) The closest thing to a new WPA was likely found in the stimulus package, and that did not do much to promote a new vision for art. My interest is not so much in Mr. Finch’s plan as the assumptions that underlie any sort of need for it.

Mr. Finch’s assertions that art has “become formulaic and debased” and it is in need of the rise of a new avant-garde to save it assumes that the present situation hasn’t always been the case. Art since the Renaissance has served a primary function of reinforcing the tropes of the powerful, anything else was secondary. That the art was meant to instruct or inspire a populace in the pews seems more like the frosting in a press release; the grand architecture and decoration is much more about reinforcing the church’s Earthly authority. The end of feudalism and rise of capitalism has changed whose authority is being flattered and promoted, but art’s service to that end has remained as constant as the flow of money.[2]

It is my feeling that as art’s[3] ties to the church as it emerged as autonomous from the craft work of the guild system is what has led to the idea of art as an arena for transcendence or spiritual fulfillment. Aesthetics and a narrative of the personal vision of the artist may have replaced the strict doctrine of organized religion, but the elevation of the physical matter to something that may nourish an individual’s soul has continued along as part of the discourse. While I very much do think that art and aesthetics have a value that may not be easily quantified or understood, I think it is the specific link to past iconographies and power structures has largely been to art’s detriment. It has confused the real value of artist’s labor and its necessary relation to power so that when these realities are brought to the for it causes anxiety with idealists and puritans alike. This microscopic (or myopic) view obscures the advances art has made on a timeline that takes a Macro view.

It is within the context of the narrative of art’s advancement that Mr. Finch’s call for a new avant-garde is in fact particularly retrograde. The ultimate historical progression through Modernism to the present has essentially removed any and all constraints on artists and the art object, allowing the artist the freedom to pursue their own interests rather than be yoked to moving a narrative progression forward by working in opposition to the fashion of a dominate practice. This atomization of direction and the end of the master narrative within art has been facilitated by the art market as more voices and ideas find their way into the market. Base motives are tied to evolutionary drives and needs; if someone can find a niche and profit from bringing new voices to the market that increase in population should be seen as a net positive. I would expect that someone whose major listed publication is entitled Most Art Sucks would display a greater consideration of the roll volume plays in cultural production[4] and it seems to me that the only way to return to the dialectic opposition and progression that a cultural avant-garde requires is for a mass extinction within the art community. Such a near apocalypse may very well push the cause of art back far enough that Mr. Finch would have a new avant-garde to fight for, but it would also likely remove minority interests that have found a voice in recent decades and see the reinforcement of power in the hands of white males. Culling the market to save art is tantamount to aligning with the new conservatism of the Tea Party movement, turning back past victories in order to give the critic something to do.

I think the issue is not that the supply and demand of the art market functions as Darwin’s forces of natural selection, but that what is being selected for does not meet the higher values commonly ascribed to art. Mr. Finch would remove the ugly economic struggle for survival on the forest floor that is the art market with central planning from the government. Any attempt to remove art from the larger global economic system is a fool’s errand, and think what you will of the results, the matter of Capitalism vs. Communism has largely been decided. It is not an issue of political values as much as it is of accepting the inherent messiness of an emergent, bottom up process, and the results might not be what was expected. Allowing art to function and continue to evolve within the mess of the market will ultimately be what moves it forward, even if it has to leave a (non-existent) soul behind.


[1] #Rank, and its predecessor #Class were a source of inspiration for my own Art & the Mainstream posts here.

[2] Other structures, such as how artists move into the professional ranks, have also adapted and changed to fit historical and technological advances, but that hasn’t altered the overall relationship to funding by the elite.

[3] Speaking specifically of Western art as it has progressed from the Renaissance through to the emergence of Modernism and Post-modernism, and the hegemony these strains of art exhibit within the current global art market.

[4] See my references to Sturgeon’s Law elsewhere on this blog.

 

 

Written by Brian Dupont

March 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I stumbled onto an interesting convergence while sitting on the deck of a lakeside cabin in New Hampshire. While my wife finished up a burdensome freelance project that was imposing on her vacation, I was reading Mira Schor’s A Decade of Negative Thinking and watching to make sure my son didn’t fall into the lake. I was also intermittently following Twitter and saw Craig Platt’s invitation to submit work to him for a show called “Stay at Home.”

The show will be at his home and will include work made by others in their own homes (rather than in a studio), exploring how the constraints of raising children have been dealt with by a variety of artists. I thought of the drawings I did just after my son was born. I had moved what art supplies I could to our apartment so I could continue to work while doing what I could to help; being gone from the house and leaving my wife alone with “the Critter” for long hours while I was on a painting vacation was out of the question. The resulting drawings seemed to point to a new direction. Platt’s invitation seemed like a great chance to re-examine, and possibly exhibit, that work. Owing to the limits of Twitter and my own inattention, I did miss that his intent is for the show to focus on stay-at-home moms. I queried about stay-at-home dads, and Platt said he’d need some convincing.

I was already considering the issue of gender separation in curating. I had just finished reading Schor’s essay “Generation 2.5,” with its discussion of the debate on the inclusion of men in shows on feminist art, such as the “Bad Girls” exhibitions of 1994 curated by Marcia Tucker and Marcia Tanner. I was also skimming through Robert Pincuss-Witten’s “Introduction to Maximalism,” which includes the idea that “figure painting of interest today has stressed the private talisman, a sign of an intensely peculiar personal episode. Perhaps the success of feminist art occasioned this.” Considering the contradiction between Schor’s and Pincus-Witten’s views, separated by nearly twenty years and each given different weight (one, a section of a well-thought-out book; the other, a few lines meant to serve as a bridge to a broader idea in a rather short essay), Platt’s project raises some interesting questions for the present.

First off, my intention is not to ape some conservative argument about the “difficulties” that political correctness has imposed on the white male in this polymorphic age. Not only are the statistics on the opportunities in the art world clear (as Schor readily and efficiently points out), but the issues confronted by stay-at-home fathers and mothers are particular to each. (Even in the case of our family, where I try to carry as much of the weight as I can, I think it’s safe to say that our division of labor is not 50/50.) However, it appears that “Stay at Home” is not really looking to explore how working from home has influenced artists and changed over the years, or even what it means right now. If this were the case, I think I might have more of a chance at changing Platt’s mind, as fathers today are spending more time at home with their children than their own fathers did, and they (we) might bear representation. Instead, it appears that stay-at-home moms simply form the set from which the work for the exhibition will be drawn.

It’s not a show about stay-at-home moms; it’s a show by them, which certainly makes sense, as it would likely be difficult to cull a body of work tailored to a concept as specific as staying at home. As the curator of a survey, Platt will need to connect the works included to themes beyond that of the conditions of their making. He will also be forced to grapple with some thornier issues relating to power, gender, and selection (and I infer that some have been raised by women interested in the show), but I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, based on his enthusiasm relative to the scale he’s working with. He is proposing to give an opportunity to many who may not find it easy to gain access to exhibition space, and he will himself live within the exhibition. The success or failure of “Stay at Home” will depend on how he shapes the pool of work and talent he can draw out of other homes and into his own.

Written by Brian Dupont

August 25, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Posted in General

Tagged with , ,

The Market for Language

While stumbling through the internet and Twitter looking for any art related podcasts, I found Art Tactic.com. As far as I can tell (because I don’t and have no reason to subscribe to any of their services), Art Tactic is a website that addresses art solely as a market commodity. This is the focus of their podcast, but occasionally extra-market (i.e. aesthetic) judgments sneak in, and they can be interesting for what they reveal about a large audience for art  that is either disparaged outright or otherwise ignored in most discourse.

Richard Polsky, author of I Bought Andy Warhol and the follow up I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), had an interesting recent turn. While addressing Damien Hirst’s market he also noted that many collectors value artists who can make their own work. This was actually nice to hear, even if he allowed for Koons and Murakami as caveats. He also commented on Richard Prince’s reputation, who was seen as “a second tier artist” to Salle, Schnable, and Fiscl, and as an artist who was “clever, not good” and is still “not a great artist.” The more current assessment seems to be shared by  the New York Times’ Ken Johnson, but I would still always rather see his work than that of his Neo-Expressionist compatriots.

Mr. Polsky’s most interesting stand comes when he declares that collectors should buy with their eyes, not their ears. He makes many of his market judgments (writing on Artnet.com and his own blog) based on what he sees in the work, and on Art Tactic he states that one of my own favorite artists, Christopher Wool, will be “the new hype.” He compares Wool to Edward Ruscha, who “used language before Wool and used it better”, noting that if Wool got five million dollars at auction, what must Ruscha be worth?

It feels like a silly comparison and strawman; Polsky states elsewhere that his dealing interests remain the pop artists, who I envision as crossing the street so as not to get mugged by Wool. Both artists do much more than just work with language (I’m a big Ruscha fan as well), and as a artist who is slowly working text and language into his paintings I shudder to see a first/ best dictum applied to any particular subject matter. It doesn’t seem accurate to the art market and it ignores issues of both context and concept that are germane to the discussion. More importantly it raises the issue of how connoisseurship can easily be confused with personal taste. Asking people to look more, even at representations of the language they see every day, is asking them to bring their own personal interpretations and interpretations to bear on the art they see, and those of us who make, look at, and think about art should probably allow for different interpretations than we might expect.

Written by Brian Dupont

May 31, 2010 at 12:17 am

Claiming the Blacklist

Craig Robins’s lawsuit against the New York gallery of David Zwirner is the new Skin Fruit. It is exposing some of the more unseemly connections between money and influence that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all knew were there, except that this time the concerns of artists, collectors, and private dealers take the place of institutional realpolitik. The artworld blogosphere has done an excellent job covering the fray, with Sarah Douglas, Hrag Vartanian, Greg Allen, and Ed Winkleman providing news and insight.

The legal proceedings and the question of whether or not there has been a breach of contract between the parties is less interesting to me than the sensationalizing idea of a blacklist. Blacklists have an ugly history, almost exclusively of the wealthy and powerful exercising their influence to exclude and marginalize people who thought to challenge their standing or interests. Blacklists have been a brutal exercise of top-down power, and it is easy to see why cultural critics would recoil from them; those who are historically aware know how easily they might suffer under similar constraints.

In this case though, the blacklist is that of the artist Marlene Dumas. Like any other blacklist, hers is about control; she aims to influence how her work moves through the marketplace and into institutions. She prefers that prominent collectors hold her works for a long time and has blacklisted collectors who speculate in her work and flip the paintings on the secondary market for a large profit. This turns the normal power structure of the blacklist on its head, with the wielder of money and power finding himself shut out and unable to find purchase.

A blacklist is a blunt tool, and certainly some of the questions asked about Ms. Dumas’s motives or the lengths she will go to are valid. Hrag Vartanian asked on Twitter “What if she were refusing to sell to minorities?” and Charlie Finch certainly finds the mere existence of a blacklist condemnable. But despite the history of the blacklist, I can’t really find any great fault with Ms. Dumas’s employment of it. She will not see any of the profits on the resale of her work, and she sees value in securing her legacy; if that means that she limits her market and tries to sell her work to people who will eventually donate it to a public collection, I don’t see why (or how) she should (or could) be forced to sell her work to either the first or the highest bidder. In the end it is her right to do as she sees fit with her work, whereas the collectors she is denying have no inherent right to purchase it. Ms. Dumas could possibly harm her market by continued capricious action, but she has probably accrued enough power and influence of her own to make this outcome unlikely. Indeed, from where I sit, that is progress.

Written by Brian Dupont

April 26, 2010 at 10:58 pm

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