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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."



Maurizio Cattelan’s waxworks are not the only show in a Manhattan museum to dress up a fundamentally silly idea with rafts of bureaucratic stuffing & mountains of portentous Artspeak. Two other museums are also weighing in (if that’s the word I want) with undertakings that are even more outspokenly dedicated to the Duchampian notion that anything can be art if the artist says it is.

At the Whitney Museum of American Art, we have “Sherrie Levine: Mayhem,” a project developed by the artist in collaboration with three curators: Johanna Burton, a guest curator; Elizabeth Sussman, a Whitney curator of photography, and Carrie Springer, a Whitney curatorial assistant (through January 29). At the New Museum, we have “Carsten Höller: Experience,” which required three more curators to organize it: Massimiliano Gioni, director of the museum’s exhibitions; Gary Carrion-Murayari, associate curator, and Jenny Moore, assistant curator (through January 15). Both shows are, or will be, accompanied by fully-illustrated heavyweight catalogues, the Levine at 272 pages, and the Höller at 248 pages–both with the obligatory handful of essays by other luminaries.


Sherrie Levine (b. 1947, in Hazelton, PA), has been known since the late ‘70s as a leader in the “appropriations movement” (along with Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince). Their claim to immortality was that they were “appropriating” images from the major media – or from other artists–but really, postmodernism has been all about appropriations ever since pop got its start in the ‘60s. Andy Warhol appropriated the Campbell’s Soup Can and the Brillo box, while Roy Lichtenstein appropriated the comic-book style of Milt Caniff. In other words, from the beginning pomonia has been largely (if not exclusively) concerned with appropriating style & imagery–and I was already noticing how younger artists were copying the masters of pop in this respect back in February 1969, when I did a whole story on “art for art’s sake,” with 2 pages of color illustrations, for Time.

One of the stars whom I featured was a lady named Elaine Sturtevant (b. 1930, Lakewood, Ohio). Her thing was making line-for-line copies of all the top pop artists–not only Warhol & Lichtenstein, but also Segal, Wesselman, Oldenburg, Stella, Johns and Rosenquist. This practice she has apparently carried on up to the present, and for it she was awarded a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2011 Venice Biennale. It wouldn’t surprise me an awful lot to learn that Sherrie Levine had read my article about her, way back in 1969, because Levine’s thing is copying art works, too, from Duchamp’s “Fountain” to the gritty realism of the photographs of Walker Evans.

To judge from the talk being delivered by a docent when I was in the gallery (and couldn’t help but overhear) this is a way of challenging the modernist notion of originality, and also expresses a female artist’s way of confronting a male artist’s output. “What does it mean?” the docent kept asking. (As if "meaning" guaranteed quality in art.) But the only thing that really separates Levine from Sturtevant is that Levine alters her imitations, not for the best. “Fountain” has been cast in shiny bronze, which turns it into a decadent luxury product as opposed to a stark utilitarian one, while the Evans photographs are really photographs of photographs in books, which is to say two steps removed from the original, and greyed out in the process. The whole show, in fact, is somehow gray–cold & sterile.


Carsten Holler, the artist starred at the New Museum, considers himself German, though born (in 1961) in Brussels & currently residing in Stockholm. He likes to say he was a scientist before he became involved in art. “His pieces,” says the museum press release, explore “such themes as childhood, safety, love, the future, and doubt.” Childhood I can certainly see, as the three main attractions in this show are not too far removed from the entertainments offered by amusement parks, and were being much appreciated by the many children who’d been brought to this “exhibition” when I was there.

The news media covering it had made much of the fact that the like had never been seen in a museum before, but what kind of parents are so benighted that they only take their children to museums, and never to amusement parks? Why do we need both, one might ask, if the two serve exactly the same function? On the fourth floor of the museum is a slow-motion carousel, except that nobody gets to ride on wooden horses; all they get is swinging chairs hanging on chains. On the third floor of the museum, the big attraction is floating (one at a time) in a large bath with warm water & Epsom salts. People were patiently lining up for this privilege when I was there (even though it entailed them stripping to the buff).

People were also lining up for the third main attraction, which stretched from the fourth floor to the second, and was referred to as a “slide.” Actually, it is more of a cross between a slide, a luge, and “Shoot the Chute,” a popular amusement park ride invented in the late 19th century. At the New Museum, a person (adult or child) sits down(one at a time) on a small mat in front of a circular orifice on the fourth floor, wearing special footwear & a helmet. Then he or she is pushed down a narrow circular decline that whooshes him or her through the third floor and debouches onto the second.

Nobody seemed fazed by the lengthy list of qualifications and waivers of immunity that people who wanted to do this had to sign. Nor did anybody object to the fun-house goggles that people could also wear, with lenses that were supposed to discombobulate the wearer, or the pallid video screens in the elevators, or the huge statues of cartoon-like mushrooms on the ground floor (the closest thing to traditional art in the display, though there were also some cutesy animals on a higher floor). Nothing in this show prepares its viewers for looking at more serious (and better) painting & sculpture. It does, however, enable parents who aren’t too particular to say that they’ve been exposing their little darlings to “culture.”

On December 8, Randy Kennedy in the NY Times online reported that this show had already become the most highly attended in the New Museum’s 35-year history, with an average daily attendance of 1,700 visitors–despite the fact that it’s jacked its general admission price from $12 to $16, in order to pay for all the extra guards needed to shepherd the mobs through Holler’s interactive “exhibits.” I'm sure business has been even better over the holidays, with so many kiddies out from school & needing to be amused.

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