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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Charles Demuth (1883-1935). Dancing Sailors, 1917. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 8 x 10 in. (20.3 x 25.4). Courtesy Demuth Museum, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“Why do you bother?” two likeminded art-world friends asked, when I told that that I’d been to the media preview of “Maurizio Cattelan: All” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through January 22). They knew—and I knew---that none of us was going to rhapsodize about the show, but I feel it my responsibility as an at least semi-detached observer to tell my readers -- well, not all of what’s going on (who could do that?) but at least a balanced view of what’s to be seen (maybe it’s the social historian in me). This balanced view must include not only shows I recommend, but also shows that seem to be garnering more than the average amount of attention, even if I don’t recommend them. A balanced view requires negative reviews upon occasion, nor can I afford to limit my negatives to non-Greenbergian art (any more than I can afford to limit my positives to Greenbergian art--at least, if I value my reputation as a critic who looks at the art instead of evaluating it upon the basis of its credentials).

That said, I limit the negative reviews I write. In the past, I’ve been asked to write “formalist” reviews about younger artists, even when I didn’t really approve of what they were doing, but I’ve avoided such negativity, for two reasons. The first is that I feel younger artists—however much they may benefit from the ageism that afflicts the art world---have enough problems getting started, without my jumping down their throats. The second reason is that negative reviews can be counterproductive. It takes a very secure artist to realize that I may essentially admire what s/he is doing, and am only attempting to suggest how s/he might be able to do it better (which is almost invariably the case when I am critiquing emerging Greenbergian artists). And I am always afraid that if I come down hard on some young non-Greenbergian artist, s/he will take it as a compliment, and run around saying, “Look at me! I managed to shock the Greenbergian Establishment, so I must be the True Avant-Garde!"


Certainly, this is a shibboleth of postmodern artistry, the notion that shock value is the sign of True Excellence---and too many observers are apt to fall for it, too. At the moment, there is a dandy example of how this works in one show at the Brooklyn Museum. The instance I’m about to cite is one work of art in “HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” an otherwise quite respectable & sometimes handsome show billed as "the first major museum exhibition to explore how gender and sexual identity have shaped the creation of American portraiture" (through February 12; thereafter at the Tacoma Art Museum, March 17 through June 10).

There are some very nice things here, at least in the exhibition's earlier parts, including lovely photographs by Berenice Abbott of the celebrities of the Parisian lesbian community in the 1920s, attractive watercolors of dancing sailors by Charles Demuth, one of Marsden Hartley’s wonderful abstract portraits of a German officer, and forthright oils of semi-nude men and boys by Eakins and George Bellows, though inevitably the selection disintegrates when it gets into the 60s, and deifies the usual pop icons, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns. (the deification is particularly noticeable with Warhol, who in addition to figuring in the main part of the exhibition also gets a special darkened gallery with 7 (count 'em, 7) monitors showing his "Screen Tests").

Robert Mapplethorpe was certainly a splendid photographer. Unfortunately, the examples of his fine work on view also show up the deficiencies of the many lesser photographers in the latter part of the exhibition. Indeed, on the whole there are few surprises in this show in terms of quality: the better artists look better, and the lesser ones look lesser. Neither the modernist nor the postmodernist canons are in any danger of needing revision.

Also, even when the work is good, there is an awful temptation to fixate on the labels and ignore the work itself, because one is constantly thinking, “Really? Was So-and-So gay, too?” The labels do their best to imply that nearly everybody in this show is or was at least a little bit homosexual, including such dedicated heterosexuals as Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O’Keeffe. But I digress.

The point I really wanted to make concerns how this show originated last fall at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, a museum that is part of the Smithsonian Institution and therefore partially supported by taxpayer dollars. As such, it was vulnerable to political pressure, when both Rep. John Boehner and the Catholic League got upset at the fact that a crucifix covered with ants was momentarily included in a film in the show called “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz.

To placate these protesters, the Secretary of the Smithsonian removed the film from the show, whereupon all hell broke loose. The Andy Warhol Foundation, which (unsurprisingly) had given $100,000 to fund this show, announced that it wouldn’t fund any further Smithsonian exhibitions, and museums from San Francisco to London leapt to announce that they would exhibit the film (you can see it online, too). Nor has the Brooklyn Museum lagged behind (it evidently remembers what huge box office success resulted when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani protested the inclusion of a Madonna decorated with images of pudenda & real elephant dung in the Saatchi Collection show back in the 90s).

In “HIDE/SEEK,” there are not one but 3 (count ‘em, 3) monitors showing “A Fire in My Belly.” One of these screens is in the exhibition proper, while the remaining two are located in a special alcove which has been made into a shrine for Wojnarowicz. Not only are there the two monitors, but also a “time line” posted on the wall of the artist’s life and career, underneath which a shelf holds 6 (count ‘em, 6) books and catalogues by or about the artist.

If you ask me, this is making a mountain out of a molehill. It's certainly very sad that the artist died at the age of only 37 from complications of AIDS, but the circumstances of artists' lives and their deaths are essentially irrelevant to the quality of the work they create. It has to stand upon its own merits, and I'm afraid that the merit of "A Fire in My Belly" did not impress me. The film itself is only fragmentary, and not very attractive to look at, with grainy black-and-white images showing clumsily-photographed bull fights and cock fights and other unappealing subjects. If Boehner & the Catholic League had kept their traps shut, this object would have received the neglect it deserves, but as I say, given the postmodernist fascination with work that attracts obloquy, we now have another 9-day wonder.

The funny thing is, I’m not sure that this overreaction to criticism is an exclusively postmodernist phenomenon. I have no idea of who reads this column, and maybe it’s only my paranoia, but twice in the recent past I have given somewhat negative reviews to modernist shows---only to find that two or three weeks later, other critics have risen passionately to those exhibitions’ defense. Is this all coincidence--or dare I think this may be a case of cause & effect? If so, my rejection will ultimately encourage people to go and look at what I consider less than topnotch art.

Well, Greenberg would have been the first to agree that there is no way of proving a critical judgment, and that although there are criteria, they can’t be put into words, so the art lover is simply left to herself or himself to decide who gave the truer assessments of these shows. It’s a little irksome to think that I may actually have contributed to the attention given shows that I don’t think deserve it, but hey, if the alternative is to shut up altogether, I can’t do it, particularly when my target is somebody like Cattelan, that Italian-born darling of the auction houses who is now only 51, and so successful that he is already talking of retiring from art (I am reminded of the many farewell appearances of old-time celebrities like Nellie Melba).


The Cattelan media preview was particularly illuminating in that we – all professional critics who evaluate such shows, presumably upon the basis of our knowledgeability and sensitivity to art—weren’t allowed in to see this exhibition directly. Instead, as we arrived, we were directed away from the main entrance to the museum and channeled down a ramp to its 275-seat auditorium (and it was a near-capacity crowd—not many seats were left unfilled). There we were subjected to a PowerPoint presentation on the exhibition by Nancy Spector, the museum’s chief curator and organizer of the show, who ran through the major “masterpieces” in the exhibition, neatly cataloguing them under the chapter headings in the catalogue—“The Aesthetics of Failure,” “Political Dimensions,” “Duality and Death,” “Spectacle Culture and the Mediated Image,” etc. I do not feel this was leading from strength.

Evidently the art in this show was not considered able to speak for itself—not least because of the way it has been installed, which seems to have been the artist’s conceit. Instead of locating the 128 works in the show along the walls of the museum, and placing labels at some reasonable distance from them, all the works have been hung on an extended skeletonic armature that clings to the museum’s oculus on the ceiling and occupies the normally empty center of the rotunda, with different two- and three-dimensional works becoming visible as one strolls down the ramp (or struggles up it). Viewed from the lower levels of the ramp, this combination of objects and metallic skeleton resembles a giant Christmas tree, with decorations, while if viewed from above, the impression is created of many large & small kitchen scraps swirling down toward a giant drain. If one wants to know what everything is called, there is a brochure available with numbered drawings of everything, surrounded by labels (with title, date, media & owner).

Cattelan might be called “a verist,” in the sense that most of his sculptures are so recognizable that they can be equated to literal representation. In this, I was reminded of the works of Duane Hanson. But in the macabre humor of the work, especially in the case of people and animals truncated and attached to boards or otherwise subjected to unpleasant situations, I see more similarities with Robert Gober. Some of the wax sculptures are toy-like figures: John F. Kennedy in a coffin, the pope felled by a meteorite, a small kneeling Adolf Hitler, and a number of small hanged people --- all somewhat tasteless, were they not rendered so cute by their scale. There are also less faithfully rendered, plastic doll-like statues of Picasso and Pinocchio, plus a lot of stuffed dead animals (“taxidermied,” to use the technical term): equines of various kinds, the occasional cow, a couple of hares, many dogs, and even more pigeons (the latter seated on many different works).

The novelty is entertaining, for a while, but all the dogs, for example, get to be repetitive. So do the hanged people (there are 4 of them). So do the monochromatic “paintings” that borrow the slashed-canvas device of Lucio Fontana, Cattelan’s countryman, except that each canvas has a “Z” (for Zorro) slashed into it. I counted 10 of them as I worked my way down the ramp, identical except that they were different colors. One woman to whom I was speaking thought that these might have all been from the same exhibition, and would have been more effective if hung together, but browsing through the catalogue (really a book) accompanying the show, I learned that these “Zs” are cranked out individually by the artist to sell to collectors who want an authentic Cattelan and can’t or won’t pay the six- and seven-figure prices that larger and more complicated pieces go for (the kneeling Hitler, “Him,” went for $10 million a few years ago, and apparently the market for Cattelans has held up pretty well, despite the recession).

According to one of the Guggenheim’s press releases, Cattelan is “a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times…” God knows, he tries, but three-dimensional sculpture of any sort is pretty traditional these days, and the various live-action stunts in which he has indulged make better catalogue reading than they provide visual satisfaction. As to “tragic poet,” I never would have guessed it without being told: nearly everything is bright and shiny and new-looking, which is not my idea of tragic, and the literalness of everything equates more to prose than poetry (and not very imaginative prose, at that) More from the press release: “While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and abuse of power.” You need a docent to tell how this applies. I think most of the children who come to this show will simply look at all the animals and the little people and think it great good fun. Which is probably how 90 percent of the adults viewing it will see it, too. All this heavy ideology is for people writing about the art, but the general public doesn’t care all that much about it—and rightly so, as it isn’t really intrinsic to the art.

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