Friday, March 12, 2010

You Say you Want a Revolution

You may be thinking (and I don't blame you) that I'm about to go into a long rant about how our situation is dire, about how we need to take down the Post-modern establishment, about how now is the time to rally the troops. But you will have thought wrong. What I bring today is a message of hope.

I was talking with my good friend Adam Miller yesterday about the state of the young art world in NYC. He confirmed something that I felt was true: that American Art professionals under 40 are not really indoctrinated with this anti-realist sentiment. He had been speaking to the owner of a very hip, young gallery in Williamsberg and showed him his work - expecting a grimace and a "Sorry, we're not interested in that kind of work". Instead, he got an enthusiastic "Wow man, that's cool shit!". Certainly, the ones in power: the major institutional curators, the big art critics, the influential art historians... are all over 40 and all anti-humanist. But this division is clearly there, and it won't be long before the 30 and 40 somethings replace the retiring old guard.

I'm recognizing a trend here. Recently, Rembrandt and Raphael had record breaking prices at Christie's.. in the middle of a global economic crisis. Damien Hirst's exhibition of his own paintings in the Wallace Collection elicited everything from groans to outright debasement (sacrilege!) from the critics - pretty much all of them. Many of them even pointed out his lack of skill. In the past 10 years, Andrew Wyeth's ranking (via Art Net) has risen from around #4,000 to #1,925. His prices, also have increased (and it is well deserved). The auction prices for "contemporary Art" reflect it's volatility and have been heavily hit by the recession, while Odd Nerdrum's sales have increased.
This is an ever growing list. And though the trend is in our favor, we shouldn't sit back and enjoy a martini thinking we're out of the woods. This transition will take years, as our generation slowly replaces the last in positions of power. On the cusp of victory, now is not the time to be side tracked. We still need to rally the troops. But at the risk of being less entertaining, maybe I should now be a bit kinder, a bit more sympathetic, a little more understanding.......

Nah, melodrama is more my style.

"They may take our lives, but they will never take our Freeeedooom!!!"

The CIA and the Art Conspiracy

Oleg Korolev, a fellow painter, writer, and philosophical ally; sent me a link to this article about the CIA meddling in the Art market. This is a theory that I had not yet stumbled upon, a theory that modernism arose - not because of philosophy, shifting aesthetics, or modern life, but for economic and political reasons. Being sceptical of but fascinated with all conspiracy theories, I boldly dove in. I have to say that the underlying theory seems logical to me. The idea that all of western culture would shift so remarkably in such a short amount of time over a few logically, aesthetically, and ethically flawed philosophies seems a bit much to swallow. I've always thought that there was more to it: some profiteering collectors, art historians, etc... The common driver to most paradigm shifts in history tends to be money and power.

So, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Clement Greenberg was one of the first to buy Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollack at dirt cheap prices, then after showering praise upon them the likes of which you might find in a tent with Billy Graham, Greenberg sold the works at astounding profits. But the theory that the CIA was also behind the success of American abstract expressionism, in order to combat communism, came as an interesting surprise to me.
Now, I have not done a fact check on this article any further than Clement Greenberg, which I know to be true. The rest I will have to reserve judgement on until more information surfaces. But it is certainly compelling.

Also, Oleg pointed me to the list of the most influential artists of 2010.

1. Andy Warhol
2. Pablo Picasso
3. Bruce Nauman
4. Gerhard Richter
5. Joseph Beuys
6. Robert Rauschenberg
7. Cindy Sherman
8. Paul Klee
9. Sol LeWitt
10. Henri Matisse
11. Ed Ruscha
12. Louise Bourgeois
13. John Baldessari
14. Sigmar Polke
15. Joan Miro
16. Martin Kippenberger
17. William Kentridge
18. Roy Lichtenstein
19. Man Ray
20. Lawrence Weiner
21. Vasily Kandinsky
22. Max Ernst
23. Georg Baselitz
24. Olafur Eliasson
25. Fischli & Weiss
26. Andreas Gursky
27. Thomas Ruff
28. Dan Graham
29. Marcel Duchamp
30. Douglas Gordon
31. Jasper Johns
32. Alberto Giacometti
33. Paul Cezanne
34. Mike Kelley
35. Donald Judd
36. Salvador Dali
37. Nam June Paik
38. Pierre Huyghe
39. Marina Abramovic
40. Damien Hirst
41. Anselm Kiefer
42. Richard Serra
43. Thomas Struth
44. Francis Alys
45. Claude Monet
46. Paul McCarthy
47. Vincent van Gogh
48. Gilbert & George
49. Rosemarie Trockel
50. Jeff Wall
51. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
52. Pipilotti Rist
53. Franz West
54. Max Beckmann
55. Rodney Graham
56. Bill Viola
57. Christian Boltanski
58. Tacita Dean
59. Wolfgang Tillmans
60. Vito Acconci
61. Alexander Calder
62. Gabriel Orozco
63. Yoko Ono
64. Fernand Leger
65. Jackson Pollock
66. Claes Oldenburg
67. Maurizio Cattelan
68. Edgar Degas
69. Jeff Koons
70. Jenny Holzer
71. Mona Hatoum
72. Richard Prince
73. Valie Export
74. Nan Goldin
75. Tony Oursler
76. Felix Gonzalez-Torres
77. Dieter Roth
78. Ellsworth Kelly
79. Willem de Kooning
80. Gordon Matta-Clark
81. Marcel Broodthaers
82. Cy Twombly
83. Liam Gillick
84. Michelangelo Pistoletto
85. Ilya & Emilia Kabakov
86. Paul Gauguin
87. Lucio Fontana
88. Anri Sala
89. Philip Guston
90. Daniel Buren
91. Jonathan Monk
92. Thomas Hirschhorn
93. Frank Stella
94. David Hockney
95. Yves Klein
96. Dan Flavin
97. Matthew Barney
98. Carl Andre
99. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
100. Erwin Wurm

Whether or not the CIA was involved in this, is up for debate and research, but one valuable purpose this article did serve was to begin a train of thought that revealed quite a bit about the Art market to me. And it has given me some more ammunition to reveal a couple of common myths associated with realist art.

1. That realist or Academic Art dominate and repress modernism, creativity, free expression.

One glance at this list will reveal to you the opposite. At least a quarter of the artists in the top 100 don't even make their work. They buy cheap skilled labor (i.e. us) and have them design and execute the work for them. These are the people in power. Notice that the first person you come to who has any skill whatsoever is Van Gogh at #47. Degas is just above Jeff Koons at # 68. And they're both dead. Not one old master, not one living master in the top 100. Most of them in the top 500 hundred are living artists that I've never heard of, but they quietly rake in the dough for their "work".

Andrew Wyeth #1,925
Odd Nerdrum #8,798.

As to Academia, it has been run by modernist and post-modernists for the last 100 years. Any University you go to anywhere in the world will teach you the 20th century philosophies of Art and very little else. The economics and educational systems in the Art world are both controlled by the 'good ol boys club'. So, the post-modern establishment can't claim to be the underdog.

2. That honoring skill is elitist, aristocratic, and undemocratic.

First, let me say that paintings are not created equally. And even though the American constitution says that people are, that is not the case. However, we cannot know or judge anyone's potential (I, for instance, once lived in a trailer park), and often people don't even know their own potential. So, I think what the constitution should ensure (and the art market, like any other sector of business) is equal opportunity.

Since the market is obviously controlled by collectors/investors, and Art historians/investors, (and I'm guessing that insider trading wasn't invented by Martha Stewart) then having or acquiring skill does you no good. It's all about who you know. And who knows the Oligarchs who run the game? Mostly other Oligarchs. With the 'good ol boys club' artificially controlling all the prices, there is no equal opportunity. You don't have the opportunity to work very hard and become a great great artist unless you get lucky enough to cozy up to the powers that be. But I'm telling you nothing new, though I think it's important to point out in this context.

3. That realist painters have sold out and make lots of money.

Take another look at that list above. One of the factors that they take into account when calculating these rankings is the price of the work. Damien Hirst is the richest artist alive. Not far behind are Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Brice Marden, Julian Schnabel, Anish Kapoor, and Jasper Johns.

There is a glass ceiling for contemporary realist painters because the big collectors mostly buy from the list above. There are a few incredibly independent collectors with good eyes, minds, and hearts who buy good work, and that is why you have some successful masters. But even Odd Nerdrum, who probably commands the highest price for a living master, only sells for a small fraction of what Koons, Hirst, or anyone in the top 500 do. The rest of the public, who largely prefers realism, generally can't or won't spend more than $10,000 for a painting. That may seem like a lot to you, but when you spend 3 or 6 months (or a year) on a painting and it sells for $10,000 (half of which the gallery keeps) you have a hard time just paying the bills. You either have to paint faster and possibly compromise your work, work at least 80 hours a week (like I do), come up with a clever gimmick and meet the right people, or become an abstract painter.

So, is there a CIA conspiracy? Perhaps. But one thing is certain, the Art world is more about politics and power than it is about Art.

Oleg also gave me a reading list which I will tackle, but may take some time to complete.

“Literary Star is Reborn” by Celia McGee
“Abstract Art and the Cultural Cold War” by Mark Vallen
... See More
The Real Agenda” by Richard Cummings
“The Empire Strikes Back,” by Karl Wenclas, and “A Crazy Tale“:
“The Fiction of the State” by Richard Cummings
War Stars — by H. Bruce Franklin
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters — by Frances Stonor Saunders
“Cold War Duplicity” in Reluctant Radical — by Maxwell Geismar
The CIA calls the tune…“ iMomus

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Insert Emotion Here

"Painting Paintings" By David Klamen at Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago until April 3, 2010.

Upon immediately viewing these paintings, everyone who has seen them has uttered the same, single question: "Why?"

With the goal of answering that question in mind, allow me to embark on another of my pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-poetic, pseudo-critical musings.

What we've got here is a strange breed. The paintings of David Klamen seem to be more question than statement. Though fairly well painted, they are not purely realist because they are too dependent on the fallacy of photography. They aren't solely narrative. Nor are they intended to be relegated to those genres. My reading is that the artist views realism as inherently limited. But, they are not purely "contemporary", as the skill and almost imperceptible hints of beauty that they propose are distracting to the conceptual reading. Thus, he seems to say that conceptualism is equally limited. They seem to be more closely related to the tradition of iconography.

These paintings are conceptually dense. Like an icon, like an onion, when you peel back one layer of meaning you discover another. As an academic project, I find them quite fascinating. One could explore the hard crisp skin: the question of originality vs. appropriation. One could ponder the nature of appropriation within the dialogue of contemporary realism. One could read them as a statement about the institutions (museums) where great Art eventually goes to live, (or die). That's how I read these paintings of paintings. They speak of the museum experience, in its power and in its monotony. There's something lost when a painting leaves the intimacy of someone's private collection - someone's home - where it can be contemplated at leisure over a dark cognac. This is a full, living experience.

There's something lost when the work enters the clamor of a contemporary museum. The often stark setting, the multitude of other voices emerging from each painting, all trying to hook your attention like hundreds of fisherman all casting into the same, small, wary pond. Yet, there's also something gained: the immortality and care of a carefully controlled environment, the ability of a young artist to come and learn from the masters in person, or the chance for an art lover to just visit an old friend.

The competent, yet somehow dead, rendering of these images conveys an objective distance. The old masters, like a glass darkly, dim under the dark varnishes. They seem to dissipate, yet grow more poetic with age. The modern paintings seem colder and more dead, yet somehow louder, like a single death bell being played again and again at a constant volume. They have nothing to say, but to memorialize their own death.

Cold objectivity in painting typically turns me off immediately. There's not much that bores me quicker than a barely competent painting which has no compositional beauty, no technical virtuosity, no passion for the language of the paint or brush, no human hand, no human voice. This is where these paintings fail. They are clearly painted from a photograph, giving them yet another removal from subjective experience. This, coupled with the severe objectivity in the painting of Mondrian here almost repels me. This piece is so cold, so clinical, so alien, that there is no way to enter this painting, nothing with which to identify.

Even the best pieces are almost unreachable. Almost.

Even so, Klamen's paintings are able to succeed. As overtly removed and conceptual as they are, the barely detectable and often too subtle beauty of the light, especially the darkening varnish, the subtle and mysterious images of the masters... all invite you to fill the void with your own experience in museum "x". Being an artist myself, I often find the experience of standing in front of a Rembrandt, a late Goya, or Velasquez to be something akin to a cathartic and holy experience - not in the way of a standardized religion, but more like a meeting of twin souls. In a great masterpiece I often find my own empathetic image staring back at me across the ages and there is an intangible chord stretching through the ether like those I used to stretch between my bedroom and my friend's next door. If I put the paper cup up to my ear, I can barely hear the muffled voice of my dear friend, recounting his hope and his fears, reminding me of our shared humanity.

However, it is my poetic nostalgia that gives them this power. Yes, the greatest paintings demand that you bring your own experiences into the piece. But they meet you halfway. The weakness of these paintings is that they don't demand. They quietly and politely wait until you meander over and grace them with your attention. All in all, I applaud Klamen's attempt to bring some degree of skill and beauty into conceptual Art, or bring conceptual Art into contemporary realism. Though this seems to be too great a challenge. These two make bad bed fellows. The nature of conceptual Art is that you must have all these thoughts to bring to the table. You require a certain amount of education, you require a certain knowledge of context. You are required to entertain yourself. And so, if you strip away all the context from these paintings, what you have left are photocopies, thrice removed from the original.

So, yes, I understand the artist's intention. This is the state of the Contemporary Art world. Any power, any poetry, any beauty that these paintings have are reflections of the paintings that they are copies of. Contemporary Art is all nothing more than copies of copies of copies, riding on the coat tails of the great, mirroring something powerful that he believes (and I strongly disagree) we can no longer create ourselves. The fact that these paintings function at all is due only to the mystery of the old master paintings themselves. Klamen's choice to render them faithfully and to emphasize the darkening varnish was his saving grace. Aesthetically, they are about as exciting as an hour long explanation of the process of manufacturing gravel. Conceptually, they are marginally more interesting: certainly, more interesting than most conceptual Art I've come across in the last 10 years. But, sadly, that's not enough.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is American Art Standing Still?: Whitney Biennial 2010

The Whitney Biennial this year came off pretty much the same as it has every year. Though I certainly expected nothing new, seeing as this year's curator was none other than a rank-and-file Art Cheka, Francesco Bonami. The Whitney has a reputation for presenting Art which taps the pulse of the American mainstream (if it had a pulse), and it has again done its job. This year's exhibition was another in a long drudging line of annoying and ultimately boring repetition; something of a full sensory manifestation of a Bruce Nauman video where he repeats "Thank You, thank you" over and over in the most nerve racking voice you could imagine. But, no offense intended to you Mr. Nauman, it's not your fault that you ate lead paint chips as a child.

Being its 75th birthday and all, there was of course an installation of highlights that have come to grace the Whitney in years past - kind of a "Whitney, this is your life" experience. The usual suspects were in force: Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Eva Hesse, and Julian Schnabel among others. Hesse once said in an exhibition statement in 1968

"I wanted to get to nonart, nonconnotive, nonanthropomorphic, nongeometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point,"

If Hesse's quote tells you anything at all, it is something of a mantra for the entire hokey, banal, and incoherent assemblage of dementia that we now call the Whitney Biennial. In that regard, Bonami has done no worse than any other curator. This years event included the vast breadth of American creative expression: abstract pastiche, political pastiche, feminist performance pastiche, installation pastiche, and conceptual-conceptual pastiche. He even threw in a bit of "representational" Alex Katz pastiche by way of Maureen Gallace, whose paintings had all the beauty, pathos, and intelligence that you might find in that painting your aunt once made while watching Bob Ross. (I'm sure she's a lovely person.)

Why the only thing missing was life and humanity!

Instead of wasting my time describing the likes of Sarah Crowner's Sunday paintings with Rothko in watercolors (Jesus! aren't you tired of minimalism yet?), or Mike Asher's 1960's-ish conceptual pastiche: a proposal asking the Whitney to remain open for 24 hours for a week, I will instead jump to the two moments which stood out in their mediocrity among the wealth of drivel.

The works of photojournalists Nina Berman and Stephanie Sinclair described the stark phantom of casualties from America's wars in the middle east. Most of Berman's photos were very descriptive, but incredibly removed from their subject. Yet her mangled groom in "Marine Wedding", actually surprised me in that through the shock value, there lay a deep well (if somewhat juvenile) of empathy. Sinclair's photos of self immolating Afghani women were more consistently striking. These women who set themselves on fire in order to escape abusive husbands were quite touching. As journalism, their work is valuable; as fine art merely competent. The human content makes this collection the most powerful works in the Biennial. These belong in a fine edition of one of Time magazine's photo collections. It is a very rare photograph indeed that transcends its medium to become an emotive and communicative piece of beauty, and being held back by their average level of craftsmanship, none of these quite achieved that goal.

The biggest disappointment was the over baked, 'what if Georgia O'Keefe were sad', hastily painted still lifes of Lesley Vance. Her work from the last few years, interesting and representational, which seemed promising, was compromised by her desire for acceptance by the Art fascist state. These paintings embody the closest approximation of a mastery of the medium in the Biennial, yet this compromise has bled out most of the humanity.

"The whole history of painting is in painting—I don't see that as being something outside of my practice. There's so much in the history of painting, I can't even think of taking on anything beyond that. I just respect painting too much." Yet, Vance characterized her regression into abstraction by saying "There wasn't much abstraction that felt warm and intimate. Abstraction that works like representation, that invites you in. I wanted the energy of my works to be interior. I was looking at 17th century Spanish still lifes. In Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) the lemons almost become pure form, but they stop just short. The representation pulls them back. I felt like I wanted to keep painting the lemon past the point of representation, so that it could become something else."

Sadly her deep interest in 17th century Spanish painting came across as an earthy mimicry of 1980's pop decor, which in turn was a mimicry of cubist formal abstraction. Though if you look closely at these paintings, every once in a while there is a moment of light and shadow which reveals itself to be almost significant: the melancholic umbra of something that once had meaning.

I can't blame the artists for this sad showing. They are merely responding to the state of Art as it is. I would hope to encourage these three women above. Have heart, you have something here, but don't compromise it for the desire for acceptance. I know this is easier said than done. The real culprits are the art historians and curators, Cheka like Bonami, who define the rules of the game in order to shore up their own power. Understandably, they have made their livelihood in this system and they don't want it to change. And admittedly, my own brotherhood suppressed modernism once upon a time. But, that time passed long before my grandfather was even born. Like any movement, you have to recognize the moment you change from being the revolutionary to the oppressive establishment.

The Modern art world did not notice this moment 100 years ago. The Post-moderns didn't notice while they were burning cast drawings and dismembering sculptures in l'École des Beaux-Arts during the student revolution at the Sorbonne in 1968. They didn't notice that while they were fighting for "liberation", they were also crushing a long and valuable heritage, destroying a cultural tradition, and robbing future generations of their freedom to choose. So, my goal is not to repeat the French revolution: by replacing the aristocracy with a bourgeois (or replacing the bourgeois with aristocracy) just as vicious and decadent, but look to the civil rights movement. Equality.

All in all, the birthday bash of the Whitney Biennial gave me the sense that American Art (along with the rest of the Art world) has been barking up a dead tree for a long time. Not only has it made no progress, it has actually lost ground.

So, is American Art standing still? I should say not.

It's chasing its tail.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Shock of the Old: Anti-modernist appointed to Venice Biennale

Vittorio Sgarbi, the celebrity Art critic and politician, has been selected to curate the Italian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. The Art world is appalled and outraged, not at his political track record of changing parties like one flips through pages in the New Yorker to find the cartoons - but because of his consistent support of classical, old master, and new old master Art.

His appointment will finally bring a breath of fresh air into the stagnating Venice Biennale, whose banal repetition of 9th generation elitist conceptualism has grown so boring and mindless that I can think of no better sedative for a sleepless night.

Among his biggest adversaries is Francesco Bonami, this year's regressive curator for the Whitney Biennial, and thus a self-appointed guru of the Art World establishment.

“Unfortunately we deserve Sgarbi,” he says. “Contemp­orary art is to Sgarbi what America is to Bin Laden. Once in a while, Sgarbi, like Bin Laden, rants against his enemy. I have to say that Sgarbi’s joint appointment is very close to a suicidal attack on Italy’s dignity,” Bonami told The Art Newspaper.

This reminds me of a recent exhibition we had with Odd Nerdrum and others in Stockholm. The local critic derided our work as "Nazi-Kunst", claiming that we were attempting to repress free, democratic expression and force our fascist views on them. That's exactly the same kind of reactionary, hypocritical, logically flawed argument that I love to hear from the academic establishment which has been repressing our creative expression for over 100 years. Bonami has one thing right: they are the world dominating behemoth who enacts economic and cultural colonialism over the lesser countries. And we are the revolutionaries/terrorists/freedom fighters breaking their dominance. They, like America, have a vast arsenal of bombs, but we live in tents in the mountains. But the analogy stops there. I think the story of David and Goliath is more accurate to our current situation.

So, why am I happy to hear this outrageous criticism? Why am I not offended? Because we can use this to our advantage! These moments are our opportunity to capitalize on the way the media functions: on sensationalism. The one thing that the post modern academics have that we don't is a cohesive front against us, though they certainly don't have a cohesive philosophy or belief structure. While we are creating master pieces in our studios, they are going to parties, networking, and schmoozing. What we lack is organization. And, now with the internet, we can continue spending our time in the studio making masterpieces as well as network and collaborate.

You may have studied at the New York or Pennsylvania Academies, Waterstreet, Grand Central, or the Angel or the Florence Academies. You may have studied with Nelson Shanks, or Odd Nerdrum, or Steven Assael. You may be a beginner, emerging, or a master. But we share a common vision. Why is it that we, as classicists, as humanists, are more divided than they, though we have much more in common with each other than they do. They don't even have a coherent ideology! Let us stop fighting amongst ourselves and collaborate. I'm not arguing against competition: we can and should compete as this is the path to mastering our work. But it should be in a spirit of brotherhood.

We will never convince them. But that is not the goal. All we must do is convince the people. Let us put our message before the people and let them decide. What both you and I know (and academia fears) is that the people will choose us.