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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."



Miljan Suknovic, Diptych. 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 115".
Earlier this spring, I pulled a groin muscle, so I’ve schlepped to Chelsea only occasionally recently, nor have I gotten to those Lower East Side venues that the Times now touts as the hangouts of the new. Maybe I’m only making excuses, but one big reason I haven’t been feeling overly guilty about my lassitude is that I’ve been made aware of only a very few solo shows that I really wanted to see---and practically none by those younger artists who are supposedly our new standard-bearers and whom (from time to time) I have been exhorted to write about (regardless of whether I like their work or not).

To the extent that I have gotten to solo shows by newer artists that have been praised in the press (both general-circulation and art publications), I’ve been disappointed, and not just by the pomonian/dada-oriented shows that I expected to be disappointed by (video, performance, installations, kinetic, light-oriented, etc.). More seriously, I am disappointed by the exhibitions of traditionally-made paintings that I’ve seen, representational and abstract. The latter, in particular, strike me as depressingly safe and tame, predictably gestural, predictably geometric, and/or predictably pomonian ugly. I think there is a reason for this, although I can’t fully explicate it without giving a little background, a little look at the rationale behind such shows. After all, there are, and will always be, more artists than galleries. But who among those many artists get gallery exhibitions, and why?

It’s begging the question to say that the “better” artists get shows. That answer only leads to further questions, for example, who decides what’s “better”, and why? Even critics disagree on the merit of individual artists, while gallery-goers may disagree with all of the critics. Pomonian art historians will tell you that there are no absolutes at all: that it’s all subjective, or that taste is socio-culturally determined, and what seems great in one time and place may not so appear in another. Greenbergian artists & critics maintain that there are absolute criteria for excellence --- but that those criteria can‘t be put into words. None of this helps to define which artist gets that show.

Art dealers may well tell you that their taste leads them to exhibit Artist A instead of Artist B. I remember this in particular in the mid-80s, when a number of galleries that had formerly shown Greenbergian painters now abandoned them in favor of neo-expressionist art. “My taste has changed,” dealer after dealer would say --- by way of explanation --- and if the Greenbergians got to be a little cynical about this response, it was probably because obviously neo-expressionism was selling very well, and the work they admired wasn’t doing as well. I won’t deny that taste, or esthetic sense, is certainly an invaluable asset to a dealer, but let us face it, folks: economics also enters into their decisions.

I don’t say (as so many artists do privately) that all dealers are money-grubbing cynics. The artists who have been shortchanged by dealers may be more numerous than those who make the news, but there must also be many cases of dealers who have nurtured artists and/or stayed with them long after they went out of style. Selling art, after all, is a high-risk business—especially new art. A dealer takes an enormous chance whenever s/he mounts a show, particularly a show by a younger and/or lesser-known artist. There are many, many easier ways of making a living. Dealers must therefore be idealists, but they must also be realists: if the work they exhibit doesn’t sell well enough, sooner or later their galleries go out of business.

Dealers are not responsible for this situation, either. Back before World War I, some people who were horrified by cubism claimed that Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was conning the market by showing Picasso and Braque. In the ‘60s, some people who were wedded to abstract expressionism similarly complained that pop art was all a put-on by Leo Castelli. Yet what enabled cubism and pop to catch on was the fact that the public liked the art well enough to buy it in quantity, and this is the general rule: dealers can only sell what the public will buy, so in the end, it’s public taste that determines which galleries stay in business, and which artists get shown.

Perhaps I should say public tastes, as obviously several different kinds of art find a market today, but this is really the bottom line, what has determined art history for the past four or five centuries. I give it that length of time because “public taste” has been variously defined since the Renaissance, as the “public” has varied. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the art-buying public consisted primarily of the Roman Catholic Church, the nobility, and wealthy members of the upper middle class, with civic bodies occasionally factored in. With the decline of clericalism and the aristocracy, and rise of the art dealer, the role devolved increasingly upon the middle class, which by the middle of the 19th century, might include many art buyers with only relatively modest incomes (all the petit bourgeoisie social-climbers so killingly caricatured by Daumier who bought academic paintings in the Salons).

By the 21st century, we also have a whole new class of buyers: museums and “advanced” organizations like Creative Time which purchase spectacles and performance art in order to lure in spectators and/or museum-goers. (Museums had not yet taken on this role in the 1970s, the result being that video and performance art didn’t sweep all before it then, the way it does now.) Although the museum is the immediate purchaser, its selections are to some extent (and perhaps a very large extent) determined by the number of ticket-buyers that it can hope to lure with its “avant-garde” spectaculars. Meanwhile, the audience for the kind of art one finds in the galleries, especially traditional painting, remains limited---in fact, perhaps more limited than the Salon was in the 19th century. One could, I imagine, purchase, say, a flower piece at a Salon for a relatively modest sum. But today, when one goes around to the galleries, one sees that even lesser-known artists are asking $6,000 or $7,000 for a painting --- far beyond the budgets of 95 percent of the population, who are more accustomed to picking up a mass-produced pop poster or flower print in the malls for $29.95.

Some observers have balked at my analysis of the art scene as an art market, with consumer preferences driving art history. Perhaps they think that surely reputations may exist independently of commercial considerations, and certainly history does present examples of artists whose work didn’t sell that well originally, but who have since come to command big bucks at the auction houses. When this happens, the explanation is that these artists have somehow managed to alter the climate of the art world, to such a degree that what once looked bad, now looks good. For example, the impressionist vision fundamentally changed the way people saw art, and by people I mean not only buyers but also critics and fellow artists. Not only did Monet and Renoir become accepted & even wealthy in their old age, but also it became almost impossible for an artist within the Western European frame of reference to paint a landscape that wasn’t in some way indebted to Monet and Renoir. In addition, whole genres of early art benefitted from the rise of impressionism, from etchings by Rembrandt to sketches and studies from the Renaissance through the 18th century---all of which began to look more like major art and less lilke minor art, thanks to the impressionist emphasis on working spontaneously sur le motif and not finishing their paintings in their studios.

To the extent that other artists and critics (as well as buyers) have played follow the leader, it’s still the leader artists who are ultimately responsible for the course of art history, but every leader is only a leader to the extent that s/he has followers, and the way in which this “following” must take place is with the leader artists communicating something to their followers—communicating something that inspires those followers to imitate, praise and buy. And, without the buying, neither the following artists nor the critics who praise the leaders will be able to hold out forever. Observers who resist my market analysis may point to critics who have passionately defended unpopular art over the decades until it became popular, and cite the sort of artist known as a “painter’s painter” (usually an abstract artist with a circle of admirers who is not well known outside of that circle). These “painter’s painters” can usually count on at least a few critics who admire them (or at least like them well enough to be willing to write a paid catalogue essay on their behalf), thereby perpetuating the fantasies of those observers who like to think that the critical response is more important than who may or may not be buying the work.

Nobody would like to celebrate the importance of critical discernment more than I do, but I'm afraid the truth is that the critic is not who makes an artist famous; rather, the reverse is true. The critic is remembered by posterity only when the artist that s/he celebrated is. As a critic, Apollinaire is remembered for his early celebration of Picasso (if the only artist he had championed was Marie Laurencin, his lover, he’d be just as forgotten today as she is). Even Vasari is remembered because he managed to pick such a collection of winners. Similarly, Greenberg is best remembered today as the critic who discovered Pollock. His later enthusiasms have – for many observers –- earned him only the sneering epithet of “influential critic,” and all that this means is that at a certain point in time, collectors would follow his advice and buy the artists he admired. I am certainly happy that those who did follow his advice – to buy, say, Morris Louis --- have found their investments multiplied a hundred-fold (a picture selling for $15,000 in the ‘60s might bring as much as $1,500,000 today). But it’s hard to ignore the fact that if these same collectors had bought Warhol or Johns instead, their investment would have multiplied two- or three-thousand-fold. It may that more (if lesser) critics plumped for Andy and Jap, or it may simply be their sort of art communicates whatever it does communicate more easily, and to a larger (though on the whole less intuitive and sophisticated) audience (regardless of how many advanced academic degrees it may boast). Therefore the law of Adam Smith applies: price is determined by the relationship between supply and demand, with the greater demand being what brings the higher price – always assuming that the supply is equal, as it so often is when comparing artists of approximately the same generation.

This situation with regard to ‘60s art casts its shadow over the present. True, the stars in the Greenbergian firmament of the ‘60s still shine today. The current exhibition of Noland at Mitchell-Innes & Nash rated discussion & a color photo in the New York Times on Good Friday, and five handsome sculptures of Sir Anthony Caro are the guests of honor on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer (I’ll be writing a separate discussion of that show). Still (rightly or wrongly), I’ve been advised to downplay any association between Greenberg and younger artists whom he may have admired. Maybe this is because Greenberg is considered old-hat or even resented. But maybe the feeling is that investing in such work cannot hope to be any more profitable than investing in Louis might have been in the ‘60s. One had better put one’s money into photographs or installations or videos or assemblages or screamingly-pop-oriented paintings, anything that traces its lineage more directly from the real monetary heavyweights of the ‘60s. Put another way, the ‘60s vision of modernism triumphant has seemingly been eclipsed by the prevalence of what Greenberg would have called “novelty art,” and what I (rightly or wrongly) think of as “circus art” (I mean the more extreme forms of art in the dada tradition). As Caro very wisely said at the media preview for his show at the Met, one always wants some “craziness”’ in art, but maybe not all crazy.

When writing on Olitski many years ago, I similarly observed the happy medium in his work, the need – and the ability --- to sail between the Scylla of minimalism and the Charybdis of neo-expressionism (or words to that effect). I think this happy medium is still what’s so hard to find among younger artists today. On the one hand, we have all the calculated lunacy that can hope to be picked up and broadcast wholesale by some affluent sponsor and/or museum. And, on the other, we have the safe and sane abstract paintings by the assorted newcomers who are meant to be successors to the greats of the ’50s & ‘60s, but who are almost invariably more careful, more conservative. As Greenberg remarked, in a very similar context in the ‘40s, “Politeness covers all.” Very few dealers want to take chances on anything more extreme, because after all, in today’s market, we can’t ever expect abstract paintings to escalate in value all that much.

Meanwhile, almost anybody who might be more daring (but not ridiculous) is left out in the cold. This is particularly true of younger and lesser-known abstract artists, painters and sculptors who haven’t amassed reputations. It’s the art-world equivalent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: to get a show, you have to have a reputation, but you can’t get a reputation without shows. Artists I admire only rarely discuss the rejections they get from dealers with me, but I do recall one painter who described showing her work to a dealer, and the dealer’s response: “Beautiful, but I can’t sell it!” Another painter told me that dealers he’d approached told him that they didn’t want “another abstract expressionist.” This comment reminds me of the old story about the chorus girls discussing what they should give one of their number for a birthday present. “Let’s give her a book,” says one chorine. “Nah, “ says another. “She already has a book.”

Most critics limit themselves to reviewing dealers’ selections, with occasional forays into the world of artist-run or non-profit venues (especially school & college art galleries; both can be liberating but in Manhattan only rarely stray far from gallery norms). I’m one of few critics, I guess, who seriously considers venues whose primary purpose is something other than displaying art. This to me is the only way I can see art with the profit motive eliminated (or at least directed elsewhere than toward the art). In the past five or ten years, I’ve reviewed exhibitions (among other places) in an advertising agency, an office offering creativity training for businesses, a clothing shop, two theater lobbies, several office building lobbies (including the particularly hospitable one on Maiden Lane where shows have been sponsored by the philanthropist Francis Greenberger), a couple of consulates, and a dealership for vintage autos.

Such venues sometimes offer artists more freedom to express themselves than traditional galleries do. Last fall, I reviewed Jill Nathanson, who endeavors to combine her religious feelings with modernist abstract painting. She had two shows simultaneously, one at a small gallery in Chelsea, the other in the Judaica museum of a senior citizens’ community in Riverdale. The Chelsea show attained a consistent level of professionalism, but lacked adventurousness. The Riverdale show was amateurish in some parts, but in others, more daring and successful than anything in the Chelsea show. My latest find was in a Tribeca hair salon -- of paintings by Miljan Suknovic. It combined a number of somewhat hackneyed joke-type paintings with some reasonably appealing abstractions, and one big wonderful one. If this artist’s next show is at a gallery, I will certainly go to see it, but I will be seeing it in a context that I am aware of, and that some other critics may not be. Apparently, they prefer to float in that tepid bath which is the current art mart, without any awareness of what the air temperature outside is, whether it’s warm or cold, and just how hot the bathwater really is – or isn’t.
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