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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Ezra Stoller. TWA Terminal at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport, Eero Saarinen, New York, NY 1962. Gelatin silver print. (c) Ezra Stoller, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York
In early February, I trotted down to Chelsea, to see three gallery shows that I’d heard and/or read about. Working my way uptown, I started first with the new HQ of Hauser & Wirth, on West 18th Street. The gallery turned out to be a huge, cavernous space of 24,000 square feet, located behind a block-long & exceptionally ugly parking lot (or perhaps it’s really a junkyard—it looks like a combination of both). The gallery was formerly the site of the Roxy roller disco---according to the New York Times, which devoted an enormous article in its Sunday Arts & Leisure section for January 20 to it and to its inaugural show, “Dieter Roth. Bjorn Roth” (through April 13).

The name of Dieter Roth, this Swiss-German-Icelandic artist, coupled with photographs of & picture captions referring to chocolate sculptures, rang a bell in the back of my mind, as did the facts that Dieter (1930-1998) was dead & his son Bjorn was carrying on his work (with the assistance of his own two sons, Oddur and Einar). Specifically, I thought I remembered having written about a gargantuan retrospective of this work at MoMA’s PS 1, in the not-too-distant past. When I got to the Chelsea show, it too looked familiar-- not as extensive as the PS 1 show (which, I learned at the gallery, had taken place in 2004) but including some items that I didn‘t remember having seen there.

For instance, I don’t recall having seen any of the large, claustrophobically over-painted, dingily colored and remarkably ugly mixed media abstract paintings that hang along one wall, and that are joint father-son collaborations. Also new are two mountainous (approximately 20’ x 40’) pieces of floorboard, stood on their long sides so that they tower over the spectator, painted a shiny shit brown with the occasional square cut in them & paint dribbled over them. Turns out these are actually pieces of the floor of a studio that Dieter used to have in Iceland, and while the checklist modestly bills them as simply “found objects,” it looked to me as though they were supposed to be at least surrogates for paintings. Would it be too cruel to say that artists who can’t paint a picture to save their lives can & do make names for themselves by pomonian hi-jinx?

Talent, however, isn't necessary to land in the Times, at least not talent for making art (talent for making publicity, on the other hand, definitely helps). Not only did the Times give that full page of news coverage in the Sunday January 20 issue, but Roberta Smith, senior art critic for the paper, also gave it a prominently-placed, prolonged and very favorable review in the Friday art section, the day after I’d visited it (February 8).

Smith described the paintings as “demure” and covered with “delicate, almost impressionist brushwork.” Hard to believe we were looking at the same pictures! She raved about the floor pieces as examples of how the Roths had been able to merge “art" with life. She also described a portfolio of 52 muddy brown, black & beige intaglio prints as “elegant” and the work of a “masterly draftsman.” My words for this portfolio would have been “dull” and “undistinguished,” though it’s possible that I was at least partially turned off by Roth’s name for it, which Smith didn’t mention, but which is “die Die Verdamte Scheisse (the The Damned Shit).” If memory serves correctly, there was other art related to excrement in the PS 1 show, too, as well as a variety of other works that were not in the this show, but that are pictured in the Roth “Diaries” that I saw in the Yale University Press booth at the
College Art Association conference in mid-February, edited by nearly a half-dozen editors.

What is on view at Hauser & Wirth includes a 128-screen video with loops showing Dieter going about his day’s activities, plus trays of and pillars built out of small candy sculptures. These are of two distinct types. One is a chocolate (often speckled, and correspondingly stale-looking) bust of Dieter himself as an old man, and the second is brightly-colored sugar-and-water statuettes that apparently started out as lions but end up looking more like dogs. In the most remote part of the gallery is a huge installation of workbenches, paints, brushes & other and tools, dusty and overladen with bits of garbage of all types. I’m sure there was at at least one and maybe more of these concatenations in the PS 1 show, but really they’re little beyond overgrown examples of types of neo-dada or Nouveau Realiste assemblage/installation that we have been seeing ad nauseam since the late 50s.

Somewhat fresher are the workbench & cooking pot where the chocolate busts have supposedly been cast, emitting a delicious odor of chocolate & presided over by a gallery attendant in overalls (more to answer questions from gallery-goers, one gathers, than to do any casting himself). I didn’t recall having seen one of these before. But really, as I remarked earlier, today’s art lovers are accustomed to seeing everything in a museum or gallery setting from food to merde. The scheiss goes back to Duchamp's "Fountain" -- the original capitalization on the nervous laughs that scatalogy provokes--and foodstuffs have been with us since at least the 1960s (or, more likely, the 30s, though no examples spring to mind just at the moment). Not long ago, I was reading about a show featuring sculpture from the 60s and 70s, way up in the Midlands of England; its star attraction was a pyramid of oranges “recreated” from a sculpture of 1967. Even closer to Roth would be Joseph Beuys, the German artist who, being born in 1921, was somewhat Roth’s senior; both were featured in a show called “Eat Art” that was staged up at Harvard in 2001, and that (yes, you guessed it) also rated Sunday coverage in the NY Times.

Roberta Smith was very impressed by the size of the new Hauser & Wirth gallery, and especially by the long, broad flight of stairs, marked off with a series of platforms and decorated with what looked to me like Regency striped wallpaper (though it’s actually the handiwork of another gallery artist). My note on that grand entryway reads, “Pretentious,” not least since the only alternative is one small elevator that—though it only goes from the first to the second floor and back---takes almost as long as does the elevator at 529 West 20th Street (which has to be the slowest elevator in Chelsea).

Smith was also very impressed by the amount of money that the show represented, and on the recent increase in large, expensive projects that cost a lot to build, buy, exhibit and maintain – on what she called “art that is public and spectacular rather than private or intimate; art that most people could never live with, even if they could afford it, arrayed in spaces they would never live in. It is the Grand Canyon approach to art making and showing, deeply depersonalizing.”

Then again, public & even “spectacular” art isn’t new. It’s been with us since the Great Sphinx, the palaces at Nineveh, the Parthenon, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Arch of Titus in Rome (to say nothing of those uncounted ancient monuments in non-Western cultures, such as the Taj Mahal and the temples at Angkor Wat). More recently, the world has welcomed the "Burghers of Calais," Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials, and so on. But I know what Smith is talking about, and I believe that Peter Schjeldahl or Calvin Tomkins discussed the same situation not long ago in the New Yorker (though I can’t remember precisely when).

The way I read their comments, and what I consider really at issue is not the proliferation of “public” art so much as proliferation of large & transient art (almost all of it tracing its lineage back to St. Marcel, with his fondness for cracked glass & dust as part of his art works, and his mechanized “Roto-reliefs”). By “transient” I mean not only huge installations that take over an entire space, and hence can’t be left in place forever, but also videos and performance art. None of the artists who are responsible for such undertakings can expect to make much money by selling their work to private collectors. All are much more at home in museums, or sponsored by organizations who stage these multi-media projects in large open areas (public or private), like Creative Time. But they are also targeted toward critics like Smith and Schjeldahl, who – however much they may decry any possible results of their behavior -- are (I suspect) more eager to write about such big, “newsy” projects than about painting & sculpture (though painting & sculpture still butters their bread more often than they might like).

There’s no doubt that such critical endorsements affect what many younger artists then try to make, and whom they see as their primary market. At CAA this year was also a panel discussion sponsored by the International Association of Art Critics. One of the panelists was Walter Robinson, for many years the editor of artnet.com, now devoting himself largely (though not exclusively) to his own painting. After listening to another member of the panel rhapsodize about the latest outsize installation at the New Museum, he said, “If you’re an artist, you gotta think museum.” The panel sidelined this hot-button issue by getting into a discussion of whether or not it was permissible to write “gotta” instead of “got to.” I think that Robinson said a mouthful—to which, however, I’d add that there are still private collectors around, so there will continue to be a market for smaller works of art, and yes, even (dare I say it?) abstract painting.


Next on my list in Chelsea was Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe, where the show was “Esteban Vicente” (closed February 9). On view were medium-sized paintings made at the artist's studio, in Bridgehampton on Long Island, between 1998 and 2000, when he was between the ages of 95 and 97 (he died in 2001). I have written about how much I admired Vicente’s earlier work, from the 1950s and the 1960s. Though born during the same period as the first generation of abstract expressionists, he didn’t begin to exhibit abstract expressionist work of his own until after 1950. This places him artistically in the second generation of abstract expressionism. Never mind. His paintings were always a pleasure to look at, because he had a fine color sense, and because he didn’t overload his canvases with paint or adopt a fashionably anxiety-ridden idiom.

Even this late work was pleasant, principally for its luscious colors. The catalogue suggests that the soft greens, yellows and oranges employed come from the artist’s contemplating the phlox, helianthus, foxglove and daisies in his garden in Bridgehampton. That seems quite possible---though the best painting in the show, “Storm” (1999), reminded me more of the surrounding atmosphere, peach-colored clouds against a purple sky. All of these paintings hovered in a middle ground between abstraction and representation, not least because the brushwork was rather fuzzy and wavering. As best I recall the earlier work, it was more decisive, but for an artist to produce even work this good at such an advanced age is an accomplishment in itself.


Another show of more intimately-scaled work, although its subject matter often achieved the monumental, was “Ezra Stoller: Beyond Architecture,” at Yossi Milo (closed March 2). Stoller (1915-2004) is best known for having photographed so many examples of great modern architecture in the US from the 1930s on through the 1960s; in fact, as Michael Kimmelman recalled in the NYTimes for February 6, to be “Stollerized” became a verb and a necessity for designers. I decided this was a show I had to see, if only because I spent five years of my childhood at North Country School, a marvelous little institution in the Adirondacks whose original main building was such a good example of modern architecture that it had been “Stollerized,” in the December 1942 issue of Architectural Record (the designer was Douglas Haskell, an architectural critic whose early endorsement of the International School has led to a dissertation about him; he was also the brother-in-law of the director of North Country).

According to Kimmelman, Stoller left behind some 50,000 photographs when he died, so, hoping that the show might include some of North Country, I beat feet to it. Alas, I didn’t find them, but the show was interesting in other ways. The front gallery was dedicated to the famous kind of Stoller image, showing -- all in striking black-and-white-- the TWA terminal at JFK, designed by Eero Saarinen (1962), the Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1958), the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, designed by Alvar Aalto (1939), the Johnson’s Wax headquarters in Wisconsin, by Frank Lloyd Wright (1950), and the Salk Institute in California, by Louis Kahn (1977). An apparently very rare image, placed on a separate shelf, showed Lever House, by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (1952), the first of the many “glass boxes” to line Park Avenue. All of these photographs were just as exciting now as they must have been back then: visual excellence doesn’t age.

In the back gallery, however, was a less familiar kind of Stoller, not portraits of architectural masterpieces but commissions by magazines like Fortune and corporations like IBM, seeking to immortalize the latest breakthroughs in business and industry as they existed 40 to 70 years ago. These, due to their World of Yesterday subject matter, looked dated, although some were in color, and though their very datedness may have appealed to nostalgia-lovers. It’s quaint to see how appallingly big the multi-part IBM 702 computer was, back in 1955, with the operator at a separate console, and almost amusing to contemplate the rows of office calculators at the Olivetti Underwood factory in 1969 (“Mommy, what are those?”)

The opening reception for this show was also a book launch for “Ezra Stoller: Photographer,” by Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller, the photographer’s daughter. Since it’s also published by Yale University Press, I got a chance to glance through it at the CAA conference. It’s a big handsome picture book, and has images I didn't find in this exhibition, including some memorable ones of Wright’s immortal Fallingwater (1935). Still, as the gallery's website includes a Fallingwater image and others that I didn't see in the show, it's possible that they'd been on view, then sold & removed before I got there.

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