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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."



Andrew Masullo (b. 1957). 5030, 2008-10. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in. (61 x 76.2 cm). Collection of the artist. (c) Andrew Masullo; courtesy Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles.
My third & last big overrated show is the “2012 Whitney Biennial,” organized by Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders and exhibiting work by 51 artists (through May 27). Whatever else I may say about it, it has prompted me to a few fresh thoughts about art history, the notion of "peaks & troughs". These Biennials often attract negative reviews, but this year, some of our leading tastemakers are praising the exhibition. Roberta Smith, in the NY Times, called it “one of the best Whitney Biennials in recent memory,” and Peter Schjeldahl, in the New Yorker, described it as “enchanting,” adding that it was “decidedly among the best ever.”

As for me, I can’t go into any thundering condemnations. I attended the media preview, where Director Adam D. Weinberg hailed the Biennial as one that “expands our ideas of what art can be.” I acquired & have saved the press kit, with its very useful checklist and some transcripts of all those lengthy labels that so illuminatingly record the latest art world buzz words. I dutifully worked my way through all five floors of the show itself, taking copious notes, but I find, as I review those notes and try to condense them into publishable form, that I wasn’t outraged by anything this year, nor was I overjoyed. I guess my overwhelming feeling was of being confronted with quantities of mildly novel or overly familiar work, neither excellent nor terrible. Dare I use the word “mediocre”? Can I admit that I was bored?


Maybe I was missing all the fun, since there are so many examples on view of what Roberta Smith calls “time-based art,” and what I call “the performing arts:” dance, theater, music and film (though mostly only at specified times; also slide shows & videos, which often perform around the clock). Oh, there have been some examples of these art forms in earlier Whitney Biennials, but never as many, nor have they been given as much attention. This year – on a guess---the performing arts, in their various manifestations, take up maybe as much as 40 percent of the museum’s exhibition space. Put another way, there are just under 100 items on the checklist that move, either in whole or in part, while about 140 items could, I suppose, loosely be described as examples of what Smith calls “object art,” and what I think of as “the visual arts” (further subdivided into “the fine arts” and “the applied arts”). For me, alas, film, theater and so on are a hobby, not a business – an avocation, not a vocation. I don’t pretend to expertise in them, so I don’t try to evaluate them on a professional level.

I feel it’s a mistake to spread myself too thin: I would prefer to develop my observational powers within the realms of the visual arts, and above all the fine arts. I feel that with that added concentration, I may be able to say something more meaningful about them–though I’m well aware of how many of today’s younger museum-goers increasingly see museums only as a form of theater, and can’t be bothered to give their full attention to painting & sculpture. It’s very educational to watch them as they cruise through the galleries at MoMA which contain the permanent collection of contemporary painting & sculpture (and prints & photography). Most of these folks rarely stop long enough to take in anything They just want to be able to say that they’re been there, but in truth, they’d rather have something that flashes by, and makes no demands on their staying power, or willingness to concentrate. Ai me! What Marcel Duchamp started with his “Roto-reliefs”!


Looking at all my notes, I realize that one thing I’d really been looking for at the Biennial was the presence (or absence) of color in the works on view. I’d been thinking about color ever since David Cohen, editor and publisher of artcritical.com, wrote that the color in the paintings of Jack Bush at Freedman Art was in general “un-ingratiating” and in one case even “nauseatingly meat-like.” I myself had reviewed the same show (see my review below). To me, Bush’s colors, and his color combinations, were lively and beautifully off-beat (what to Cohen was “nauseatingly meat-like” was to me “lovely...orangey-rose”).. But the thing is, I rejoice in the daring, the unfamiliar---in color, no less than in composition and facture. To use the words of Adam Weinberg, they expand our ideas of what art can be. But you know, if you look for the daring or unfamiliar in matters of color in the Whitney Biennial, you will have to look a long time — like maybe forever.

There’s a certain amount of musty red and other dingy colors in the paintings and collages of Richard Hawkins, and in the group of assemblages & other works by Tom Thayer, but, although Thayer’s statuettes of storks (or is it flamingoes?) were graceful, this color scheme (combined with the techniques of collage & assemblage) reminded me inevitably of Robert Rauschenberg and other neo-dadas of the 1950s – i.e. familiar. Then there were the color photographs by K8 Hardy, dedicated to the foot fetish. To me, color photography is a snare and a delusion, nor am I seduced by the quantities of it around: I’m not saying that it can’t have documentary value, but as a vehicle for color, it’s a washout: imitative of its subject, not original, & almost always too flaccid & over-hyped at the same time– too nicely-nicely pretty-pretty.

Nicole Eisenman exhibits one cartoon-like painting and 45 medium-sized & mixed-media monotypes, mostly leaning toward the hot and oily in her orange and yellow color schemes, while her subject matter & draftsmanship owe much to Edvard Munch (as one of the public programs accompanying the Biennial, she gave a drawing class, and the press release describing it said that her style “references a range of traditions–from WPA murals to surrealism.” What a barbarism is this Artspeak verb “to reference!” Why not say “refers to” or “imitates” or “is influenced by,” which is to say, why not tell it like it is?) Vincent Fecteau’s somewhat static little sculptures, toad-like painted compositions of gypsum cement and resin clay set on pedestals, have marginally more imaginative colors – deep greens, pinks and purples–but these colors do nothing to enliven the sculptures themselves; they simply sit upon their surfaces.

Jutta Koether exhibits four semi-abstract paintings of “The Seasons” on hanging glass panels, a setting that hopes (according to the printed label) to make painting “relevant in the environment of today’s art world.” How I love that word, “relevant!” I shall have more to say about it anon, but meanwhile Koether’s artfully crude facture and her simpleminded palette, centering around boiled greens, red, yellow, blue and brown, situate her in the heart of the sizeable segment of the art world that still battens upon traditional abstract painting— provided that it doesn’t stray too far from one of the two current popular extremes, in this case the extreme of the messy-messy (sometimes sanctioned by references to the “gestural” and de Kooning). The messy-messy abstracts and semi-abstracts often write their pretensions large.

Andrew Masullo represents the other popular current extreme for abstraction, of the small and hard-edged (though not as surrealistic or well-regarded in this category as Thomas Nozkowski, who is not present in this Biennial). Masullo is represented in it by 34 small and smaller paintings, neat little abstracts with many little hard-edged, semi-geometric forms in a variety of bright, cheerful colors. Their modest scale is disarming: the viewer needn’t feel threatened by them, even if they are abstract. Their hard-edged, geometric style goes back to the 1960s and the 1930s before then, so familiar that nobody need feel threatened by it, either. As to the colors, they’re nice, but not very offbeat, nor do their combinations explore much if indeed any fresh territory. Safe. Conventional. That’s a very popular kind of color in the art world today.

The four preceding paragraphs discuss only those works in the Biennial that make some claims to color sense. As to most of the rest of the visual art on view, its colors range from the acid (works by Sam Lewitt, Luther Price, et al.) to the near-colorless (Kate Levant, Moyra Davey, etc.). All in all, I was reminded of third and last “Millennia” show, staged at MoMA at the end of the 20th century, just before the old building closed down to make way for the new. The color in that exhibition was terrible, too, but that was when Kirk Varnedoe was still chief curator of painting and sculpture, and he had the excuse of suffering from color blindness. As far as I know, nobody at the Whitney can claim the same excuse.


Maybe the most entertaining part of the Biennial is the small gallery devoted to the life and work of Forrest Bess (1911-1977), as curated by Robert Gober, the intentionally weird contemporary sculptor. Bess was an unintentionally weird East Texas outsider artist (or, to use terms more commonly employed in his own era, a primitive or self-taught artist--assuming that indeed, he was self-taught, although some material in the Archives of American Art hints that he may have had more artistic training than he is generally credited with). In the late 1940s, he captured the attention of Betty Parsons, the Manhattan dealer who was making a name for herself by exhibiting Pollock, Barnett Newman and other top abstract expressionists. She exhibited Bess’s strange (but quite nicely colored) little semi-abstract, semi-symbolist paintings on through the 1960s (thereby once again following in the footsteps of Peggy Guggenheim, who besides exhibiting Pollock & other abstract expressionists in the mid-40s had also exhibited the primitive handiwork of Janet Sobel, the Brooklyn housewife who, according to feminist hagiography, taught “Jack the Dripper” how to drip).

Primitive or self-taught artists were at least as popular in the 40s and 50s as they are now, Picasso having started the vogue before World War I with his fondness for Le Douanier Rousseau, but Bess had other interests besides painting. Widely if erratically self-educated, he developed a medical theory which suggested that he might live forever if he could turn himself into a hermaphrodite, so he performed self-surgery on his genitals. He wanted Parsons to exhibit his medical theories alongside his paintings. She politely declined, but Gober has at long last gratified this wish, to the extent that the exhibit includes a vitrine with documentary material about Parsons & Bess’s medical research, including Polaroids of Bess’s genitals, before and after his self-surgery.


The vitrine in the Bess gallery displays an article by Lawrence Alloway about Parsons that ran in Vogue in 1963. Too bad they didn’t use the earlier Vogue article on Parsons, by Aline B. Louchheim (later Saarinen). It came out in 1951, when Parsons really was the hottest dealer in town (by ‘63, she was no longer anywhere near the top of the heap). Then again, it’s obviously asking too much of the Whitney to pay any attention to abstract expressionism these days. On their top floor, where they customarily exhibit selections from their permanent collection, they at present have a show called “Singular Visions,” which is officially dedicated to “images,” and offers a series of galleries each displaying the work of a single artist.

Most of the galleries are devoted to art since 1960, with the born-yesterday crew well represented. The only art from before 1940 is by Alexander Calder, and then only his cute little circus figures (together with the inevitable little movie showing him dancing them around). After that, the next two works are a Jasper Johns flag painting from 1958, unimaginatively colored grimy red, white and blue, and a large, garishly colored Lee Krasner from 1957, with big, billowing forms of black, white, red, white and green–definitely not Krasner’s best period, instead the one that prompted Clement Greenberg to describe the work as “hollow.” No work by any other abstract expressionist – and nothing else from the 40s or 50s – was on view at the Whitney. But I see an explanation for that.


One of the born-yesterday crew in “Singular Visions,” is Matthew Day Jackson, represented by a half life-size Viking burial ship, entitled “Sepulcher” (2004). Inside it are laid out the garments of a punk rocker (appliquéd jeans and jacket, beret, leather gauntlets with metal spikes). The sail is green, black, pink and blue on the back, and the front is a huge semi-replica of a Mondrian, with red, blue, white and yellow rectangles, separated by black lines and dirtied up with Rauschenbergian stenciled words. The label explains that Jackson intended the whole to refer to the death of Modernism and “what he considered an obsolete approach to art-making and art-thinking.” I take exception to this word, “obsolete,” just as I take exception to Koether’s use of the word “relevant” – and, for that matter, to Schjeldahl’s description of Fecteau’s sculptures as “old-fashioned-looking.”

“Relevant” may be the latest equivalent to “with-it,” “cutting edge” or merely “edgy,” in other words, this year’s word for “in style.” It implies that to succeed as art, new work must bear more relation to other art now being made than to any art of the recent past. “Old-fashioned” also implies that the best contemporary art is the art that is currently in fashion, and that if something is “old-fashioned” it isn’t as good. “Obsolete” is the most damning, implying that because art was made one way in the past, it must now be made another way in order to qualify as new art. All three of these words are based in the assumption that because some art has come after other art, it must needs be superior to it – in short, that there is such a thing as progress in art. I do not accept that assumption.

I’m not saying you can’t have progress in medicine, technology, politics or even dress design. Buggy whips, I would agree, are obsolete. The eradication of smallpox is progress, and, for all its flaws, democracy is still a better form of government than absolute monarchy, oligarchy or theocracy. I would also agree that the styles of women’s clothes that demanded corsets and/or pantalettes under them are very old-fashioned. But art is different—or so many museums wouldn’t be in business, nor would so many tourists flock to see the art of so many other countries — and other centuries. People still get a kick out of contemplating the Elgin Marbles, Han Dynasty figures, Titian, Pre-Columbian sculpture and so on. Anybody who can’t see that, with their own eyes, has no business writing or even talking about art, let alone making it.


However, I would also argue that art goes in cycles. There are up periods, when great art is commonplace, and then there are periods of decline which follow the up periods–not necessarily all the time, but I could cite a number of examples. First, classical Greece of the 5th century BC, with its clarity and simplicity, was followed by the Hellenistic sculpture of the 4th and 3rd centuries, with its straining musculature, hermaphrodites and grotesqueries of old age. Second, the Renaissance, with all its energy and elegance, was followed by Mannerism, with its rubbery bodies, stagy light effects, and exaggerated necks.

Third, the French Academy in the early 19th century was followed by the French Academy of the later 19th century. In 2003, I attended an exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of Art, back when it was still located on East 57th Street, on French artists in Rome from 1803 to 1873. As the Dahesh is (or was) committed to the academic tradition, and the show had been organized by the French Academy in Rome, most paintings in it were by artists of the French Academy. During the early years of the 19th century, this meant many wonderful pictures (the delicious little landscapes and views of Rome stand out in my memory). However, by the end of the exhibition, we had heavy, phony Salon “machines” and other tired---and tiresome—work. You can even have peaks & ensuing troughs in the development of individual artists -- for example, the case of Renoir, whose later work I review just below.


As for the later avant-garde, it had an outburst of brilliance in the first 14 years of the 20th century, when fauvism, cubism and Munich Expressionism all came into being — but then a steady though gradual decline through the 1920s and 1930s, with the silly japes of dada, the many tedious little followers of the academic tradition in surrealism, and worn-out fauvists like Dufy and Vlaminck, to say nothing of the haute camp of Art Deco and its German and Italian equivalents – as assembled by Kenneth E. Silver for his exhibition on “Chaos and Classicism,” last winter at the Guggenheim. Again, the 1940s and 1950s saw a big push up, with the abrupt rise of abstract expressionism–only to be followed in the 60s by an almost equally abrupt reaction against it, and a long slide down that is still going on.

I won’t say that every down period is all down. In the years between the wars, after all, Mondrian and Miró both managed to establish & maintain high standards. In the 60s and since, modernist painters have also kept up with the grand tradition of high art, though anybody who tries to describe their efforts as “mainstream” during the 60s doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. I lived through that period, and I am here to tell you that even at their acme of popularity, their work appealed to only a minority of art lovers. The majority at the time was far more hipped on pop, op, minimalism, earthworks, conceptual art and all the other whimsies of the day, including the now all-but-forgotten craze for kinetic art. It is only through the modernists’ distinction that they survive at all – even at present, when I would say contemporary art as a whole is ever more deeply into a trough.


If I had to hazard a guess as to what unites all the peak periods, I would say perhaps it has to do with the ability to make beauty appear effortless, however painstaking the craftsmanship involved. If I had to hazard a guess as to what unites all the troughs, I would say that it’s an anxious, sometimes even frenzied striving after special effects–whether we’re talking the grotesqueries of old age, elongated necks, or art shows that attempt to make “definitive” statements over such a wide range of cultural activities that the effort is bound to fail.

Another distinguishing characteristic of both up and down periods is that both are most likely to relate to their corresponding levels of culture in the past. This explains the current popularity of late 19th century cornball Salon paintings, insipid Art Deco from the 1920s like that of Tamara de Lempicka, and the histrionic 17th century lighting effects of Caravaggio (to my way of thinking, much more of a late Mannerist than an early proponent of the baroque). It also explains why the Whitney – and a lot of other people & institutions who should know better — can’t get a handle on abstract expressionism any more. The modernism of the 60s was always a tough call for them, but now a lot of them seem to feel they don’t even have to make the effort to appreciate it. They are only interested in what’s “relevant,” meaning what’s on the same level as the rest of the art in the trough.

This can’t last forever. The flip side of my cyclical theory is that eventually we will climb out of the trough and onto higher ground. I’m not at all sure that I will live to see this day, but — if the experience of the past is any indication, and I believe it is — eventually it will dawn.
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