Conceptual Arts in the Plural

John Haber
in New York City

Dan Fischer, Olaf Breuning, and Robert Storr

30 Seconds off an Inch

Conceptual art omits so much, one often hears. Gone are the demands on an artist's skill and the pleasures of an artist's hand. That leaves only quick shortcuts and cheap jokes, backed by the shallow fancy of critical theory. Right? Better check first with Dan Fischer.

Fischer appropriates familiar images from books. Yet his seemingly tired retread of photography gives all the pleasures of skilled draftsmanship, for he has redrawn them all. Conceptual art has come under enormous attack in the last year, most pointedly from Robert Storr. It has come to embody the excesses of art-world stardom and childish installations. But could it mean something else entirely? Dan Fischer's Sol LeWitt (Derek Eller gallery, 2005)

In fact, one can see conceptual art as the antithesis of those excesses. One can also see conceptual art as many practices—including diverse and very personal art. For Olaf Breuning, text-based art reads like one-liners, but with a melancholy undertone. For the artists in "30 Seconds off an Inch," conceptual art packs visual immediacy and African-American identity. They use a range of media, too. They oblige one to look at the trendy attacks on trendy art more closely, in search of conceptual arts in the plural.

Conceptual art that takes skill

Dan Fischer displays some of the stalest and yet most memorable images of the last century. They include Arshile Gorky at his most magnetic and Franz Kline beaten down by time. They include Andy Warhol in drag long before Warhol's last decade, and Ana Mendieta with a moustache. Marsden Hartley and Richard Prince look ever so stylish and dissolute. Louise Bourgeois nestles in the strange forest of her work, while Piet Mondrian is as drawn and precise as his art. Throw in the Brillo box and Duchamp's urinal, and these studio visits add up to a final exam in modern art.

With his uncombed hair and warm smile, Sol LeWitt looks anything but conceptual. But enough conceptual art—including LeWitt's rule-driven Minimalism. It is all so high-brow, right? It is all just theory. It is all just a test. The show's very title, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space," not only puns on the idea of continuity and tradition, but also ramps up the test, by quoting the title of a Futurist sculpture. I myself barely passed.

When it comes to Fischer, in fact, I flunked, and you may, too. Is this "rephotography," like Sherrie Levine with her photographs of famous photographs, and what does that say about the appeal of the past? Maybe nothing, for Fischer has meticulously redrawn each one. Up close, his pencil has the fine grain of the paper. His form is appropriation, but his skill and the illusion are real. He copies the assault on authenticity of Levine and "The Pictures Generation," but the copying takes an artist.

It has become fashionable to dump on theory and conceptual art, in favor of nostalgia for the handmade. Conservative critics ramp up their assaults on art criticism and contemporary art, as subversive of plain beauty and common sense. I have often defended the need for criticism to draw on difficult ideas, in order to renew the encounter with art. In recent articles, however, a scholar and curator has shifted the blame to artists. Echoing an even shriller New York Times Op-Ed by Denis Dutton, Robert Storr argues that theory and conceptual art have led contemporary art to a dead end.

No complaint in years has resonated with so many artists, ironic given the dire straits it claims for art. Links to the articles sprung up everywhere online. I could protest that no one is imposing theory on artists. Critics like Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro earned their intellectual chops by sticking up for American art. Later artists found inspiration in feminism, deconstruction, and other theories—back when philosophy and literature departments simply ignored them. Still, artists need to know not just what art means, but that it still matters.

They can fairly object, too, to show after show of glib art—what another show of conceptual art called "The Shallow Curator." The master of glibness, Jeff Koons, curates the very next exhibition at the New Museum. Besides, new forms art open the academy to more players, and that comes with costs as well as benefits. For more than a hundred years, from photography to conceptual art and abstraction through silkscreens and video, people have complained about amateurs entering the game. Storr, now a dean at Yale, must grow especially tired of concepts. I remember how clever my every idea felt when I was a student.

Existential crisis cartoons

On top of that, some artists really do like one-liners, like the spare transformations of found objects by Gabriel Orozco. They are good one-liners, too, as well as good art. Could they already hint at problems in Storr's argument, and could they also show why there is more to conceptual art than a joke book. Like Fischer, they should get one asking questions left and right. Can a cartoon suffer an existential crisis? And could an artist witness one without laughing?

Olaf Breuning has trouble taking anything seriously, except maybe himself, but it scares him. At once glib, flippant, heavy-handed, and painfully sincere, he sees things literally in black and white. At first glance, his show feels like a collection of tired jokes. By the time one leaves, it has actually become too ponderous. Along the way, though, it leaves room for the artist's real uncertainty—about life and about himself. Call his works one-liners, but at least he has the timing right.

Naturally he works mostly in two dimensions. He thinks that way, too. Practically every item includes words, and they come in obvious pairs—yes/no, half full/half empty, brain/stomach, me/you. Not that opposites mean a life in balance. The word ME fills out a face in clumsy profile, with just a single acknowledgment of YOU. Is it my imagination, or has Breuning placed it where the ear should be, like a reminder to his own ego to start listening?

Anxiety takes over in three dimensions, where jokes function as a defense mechanism. Rods poke into (or out of) an eye, and a chessboard has undertaken regicide. The words life and death are stacked next to a black wheel of fortune. In the largest wall drawing, a small boat rides the waves like a roller-coaster. In the largest sculpture, a gallows faces the wrong way, so that the ladder leads safely down. Perhaps indecision holds out hope.

From the Simpsons to Chris Ware, American graphics smirk or cry without taking themselves too seriously. Breuning reflects a distinctly European sensibility, with roots in Neo-Expressionism and theater. Like another Swiss artist desperate to make an impact, Urs Fischer, but unlike Heidi Bucher, he appeared in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Like many a German artist, he has a fondness for black human silhouettes and impending doom. An American may spot the remnants of much earlier conceptual art, when words refused to carry a clear message, as with Roni Horn or Lawrence Weiner. Breuning's cartoons do not allow much space for laughter or reflection, but they sincerely try.

As cheap jokes go, Phillip Toledano's are a lot funnier. "America the Gift Shop" imagines souvenirs of the Bush era—like a Cheney snow-globe, Abu-Ghraib figurines, "Choc and Awe" candy bars, and "Regions Destabilized While U Wait" in neon. "I was rendered to a secret prison," says another of our last president's gifts that keep giving, "and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." The show shares space with a sophisticated Soho furniture showroom and fund-raising for Amnesty International. Both make me uncomfortable alongside the art, but it gains from the unintended irony. I had to laugh, but somewhere else conceptual art will keep the punch line and not the one-liners.

Concepts of blackness

Can one save conceptual art, then, from its critics and defenders alike? One could reserve it solely for what it once meant—spare, thoughtful work that puts enigmatic text or rule-driven acts above the art object or the artist's ego. Or one could welcome instead many versions of conceptual art. Up in Harlem, "30 Seconds off an Inch" makes a very good case for both. The show merges "conceptual art and identity politics," but without a dead shark or death tantrum in sight. It reflects how much more vital the debates over contemporary art could become.

Think of conceptual art as art's death rattle? Adel Abdessemed may mock just that, when he hangs upside down from a helicopter. No single-engine plane crashes for him this time out, and no scaling museum walls or drawing under restraint like Matthew Barney. Nicole Miller may mock it, too, when her video actor mimes a more dramatic performance, but without speaking or gesturing. It leaves him somewhere between madness and a minstrel show. Chris Ofili uses his trademark dung for the modest, comic Shithead instead of shock art.

Those suspicious of conceptual art still have a case: the forty-two artists are business as usual for the Studio Museum, where many appeared before as emerging artists in "Freestyle" or "Frequency" (with "Flow" and "Fore" still to come). However, those wanting to take a deep breath have a case, too. Many of the hundred or so works pursue older media and older strategies. Words here lack Weiner's impersonality or the anger of Jenny Holzer. That is where the identity politics comes in.

Plenty of text appears, starting with the show's title. It, too, aims for modesty. (Think of a mere "thirty-seconds of an inch," and with luck everyone here will be famous for thirty seconds.) Glenn Ligon makes text a marker of blackness, with the smeared painting I Found My Voice—and with neon alternating Black and Live and Black and Die. Dave McKenzie links blackness and invisibility, with the blue-on-blue letters of Do You Feel Me? Clifford Owens allows even reserve to run riot, with framed white-on-black snippets like Paik is dead (alas, yes), her panties were soaking wet (perhaps), poverty, love, and I practice failure every day.

Jabu Arnell's Disco Ball 2 (courtesy of the artist, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2009)If practice makes perfect, the Studio Museum makes the best case of all for practices in the plural. Rashid Johnson spells out Death Is Golden, but he also has one of his tightest constructions. Its black shelves contain soap, personal and cultural allusions, and images of tiny worlds at night. Maren Hassinger shreds The New York Times, but into mushroom-like growths on the floor that she intends as anklets for dancing. Paul Mpagi Sepuya has worked in portraiture, fashion photography, and appropriation, and he, too, looks for personal content in found images. Deborah Grant throws in everything from cotton and a "final notice" to Souls of Black Folk, but none of the history sticks to her.

Personal identity here is conceptual and physical, but also muffled. Xaviera Simmons's nude dancers cannot uncover their heads, while Nadine Robinson and John Outterbridge make indiscernible self-portraits in human hair. A tiny ladder hangs down from the second floor, like an image out of Joan Miró or an unrequited longing to escape. Stacey Lynn Waddell has fashioned it, too, out of hair. Physical traces appear less directly in wine stain on canvas from Kianja Strobert, a black abstraction by Gary Simmons, and Simone Leigh's shower-curtain undershorts. Anthracite in a suitcase, by Demetrius Oliver, suggests uncontrolled growth out of Louise Bourgeois and Bourgeois prints.

From conceptual art to the Salon

Like hair, some markers of blackness turn up too often for their own good. Shinique Smith and Jabu Arnell both offer disco balls, of clothing and cardboard. I count at least two boom boxes, by William Cordova and Jayson Keeling, plus a Walkman by Jennie C. Jones and a marquee from Nari Ward. A collage by David Hammons includes still more dung, plus the elephant to make it. And then comes a restaging of Hammons, in Thierry Fontaine's photo of a basketball net of cowrie shells hanging to the ground. It, too, looks like long, curly hair.

The show, organized by Naomi Beckwith, spans all three floors of the museum without filling them. One can appreciate the possibilities without choking on them. The purest conceptual work of all puns links the museum space to private lives. A partition rests on an old-fashioned coffee table. Ready to give conceptual art a rest? Karyn Olivier leaves the partition blank.

What then is wrong with Storr's picture of conceptual art? For one thing, theory and conceptual art both peaked more than twenty years ago—just as issues of identity became so pressing. Storr is still agonizing over the evolution of modern art, just as when he curated "Making Choices" at MoMA before its flashy expansion. Maybe he no longer notices, but show after show aims not for conceptual spareness and rigor, but for dead sharks, crushed automobiles, visceral sensation, and market impact. Are there any serious ideas in Koons's puppies and fishtanks? It takes a real stretch to call either one too smart, rather than just plain stupid.

Storr's objections seem remote on a day in Harlem or Chelsea. About the only hint of theory is in the casual excuses of gallery press releases. Meanwhile, the dullest shows stick to traditional media. Is Storr covering up the real culprit in a system that he represents—dominated by big museums and MFA programs? He sounds like a curmudgeon worried about the French new wave, just as film has entered its Jude Apatow stage. Worse, he sounds like the embodiment of the studio system in film, when its hold has never been stronger.

People have decried modernity from the beginning as too conceptual and too formal. How could Claude Monet and others have all these theories about vision and color, instead of caring about beauty and common sense about nature? How could Whistler fling that pot of paint at the public? Art has now surrendered formalism not for conceptualism, but for something like the nineteenth-century French Salon. Storr finds himself in the position of a Salon director and an ignorant public, even as he tries to defend formalism and personal expression. And he does it as part of a system based on academia and celebrity that have marginalized formalism and personal expression alike.

Maybe it really is time to leave the labels behind. Maybe it is time to reserve the term theory for thoughtful, critically informed work. Maybe it is time to reserve the term conceptual art for the ascetic reserve of an older generation, not for what Roberta Smith calls "big-box" art. Or maybe it is time to learn from Fischer, Breuning, the Studio Museum, and others: one can speak not of conceptual art, but conceptual arts in the plural.

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Dan Fischer ran at Derek Eller through December 19, 2009, Olaf Breuning at Metro Pictures through December 5, and Phillip Toledano at Hous Projects through December 19. "30 Seconds off an Inch" ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 14, 2010. Robert Storr has made his case in a variety of venues, including panels and The Art Newspaper online. Dennis Dutton, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, wrote in The New York Times for October 16, 2009.


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