Babylon Revisited

John Haber
in New York City

Chelsea's "Battle for Babylon"

If I needed confirmation that contemporary art had joined the entertainment industry, I had it that first Thursday in September. And I do mean industry. Chelsea galleries had not just held their fall 2005 openings. They had jump-started fall.

One does not introduce new product in August, as the White House chief of staff noted in pushing for an Iraq war. Art has long played it even safer. If time shares end on Labor Day, culture still largely follows the calendar when it comes to declaring a new season. Or so I thought until that September night, and all too much of the art in the two or three dozen open galleries seemed designed with marketing intent as well.

Had I seen art's future, and should I worry? Yet another critical plea for art on the edge asks just that. So does a Chelsea pioneer, with Dia:Chelsea's plans to lose half its name and head elsewhere. Both Jerry Saltz and Dia want to move contemporary art and openings like these closer to the edge, but can they even find the edge, when the cultural territory sprawls so far? Can anyone? Bill Owens's Suburbia: Growing (James Cohan gallery, 2005)

Jump start

Artists know all too well that terror, lust, and disdain approaching Chelsea—the sheer density of galleries, fall openings, the weekend crowds, and the organized tour groups, all in search of aging masters and emerging artists. Who can navigate the terrain between big shows at galleries and museums or between galleries and the Armory Show and other global art fairs or anti-art fairs, together a seemingly irresistible force? Who still has time and perspective to make discoveries—or to care enough to try? Who still understands "slow art" that does not reduce to a single, prefabricated image or blow itself up to electric scale? And will it only get worse next year?

In fact, many do understand, and many more keep trying, including those crowds so notable by their very absence right after Hurricane Sandy. They know that art matters to New York's vitality, and it can aspire to mass entertainment, but only by redefining entertainment, art, and New York alike. The buyers come and go, like Sarah Meyohas making art from Wall Street, but the public at large still hardly cares what artists do Thursday nights. When art gets political—in galleries, nonprofit spaces, or parks, it underscores Chelsea's distance from Hollywood even more. No one blinks at the success of a movie like Good Night, and Good Luck. Conversely, it took a museum as barely visible as the Drawing Center to start a controversy over art at Ground Zero.

Galleries have their defenses, too. Again and again, I had watched them spread to other neighborhoods, only to ignite gentrification or simply return to the fold and lend weight to museum collections. I had seen the glossier ones divert openings from predictable Thursdays—or, as with a show of Lucas Samaras just a few months ago, refuse to let the rabble like me in at all. The upcoming 2006 Whitney Biennial will revel in their contrary spirit.

I have never followed openings, unless to catch up with friends. Even if I had the clout to make enough press lists, I might find myself writing for no one but myself. Openings rarely reflect the difficulty that ordinary human beings experience in seeing the work. For a museum, that means crowds. For a gallery, it means time. Better to wait for an afternoon, when one can linger over an exhibition—or breeze through several dozen.

This once, however, I wanted art to reach me more quickly, if only to assess the future of the gallery. I wanted that shock again after a long, hot summer. I needed it badly. To my surprise, I ended up stumbling through a good twenty shows, among more than two hundred reported September openings, as well as through untold people spilling onto sidewalks everywhere. Was this really the first full week in September?

Jerry Saltz captures it perfectly. "Amid art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust, and market hype; between galleries turning into selling machines, gossip passing as criticism, and art becoming a good job; the system, while efficient, feels faulty, even false." No wonder, Jerry Saltz concludes in The Village Voice, "people are frustrated" by contemporary art that plays it all too safe—even, he believes, as the most adventurous exhibition spaces are playing it safe as well. Hal Foster and three co-authors raise much the same concern in a new textbook, Art Since 1900.

Half the battle

Journalism operates within strict limits, imposed by space, special advertising sections, and by an audience more concerned for what to see this weekend than what it means. Soon after I began this site, a "Preface to Criticism" promised very different priorities. I demanded the space to get the art right without the pressure to make snap judgments. Yet in ten years, my own volume has grown to epic proportions, as I strive in vain to keep up. Did you notice that many of the words here began on this site's home page, now converted to a blog? Now I can no longer keep up with myself.

Art monthlies face pressures, too. They depend on gallery advertising, on readers in search of the latest thing, on full-color layouts that promote the wow factor, and on a diverse body of freelance writers—all, naturally enough, with strong attachments to the subject of their reviews. And forget about conservative culture critics, more worried about their own political agenda or an imagined opposition between tradition and contemporary art's future.

It takes artists—plus working critics such as Saltz—to say no to the now and yes to the not yet, but can they? In "The Battle for Babylon," he observes the price of growth without losing hope, thanks to artists empowered to act as curators and to alternative spaces. Maccarone may know the price of everything. Yet, says its press release, the gallery is still "fuckin' psyched" about its latest exhibition.

This Web site keeps returning to the politics of art institutions—including the demands of art fairs such as Pulse and Volta, corporate collectors, magazine puff pieces, art as spectacle, proliferating galleries, and earlier and earlier openings. I have argued that they put pressure on art to deliver readily intelligible images, whereas Saltz worries more about critics reduced to "cheerleaders, reporters, or hip metaphysicians." In other words, I worry less about the good intentions of writers, artists, and dealers than about the roles of each. In the past century, art could stake its future on taking chances, on real alternatives. Before that, it could rely instead on shared traditions vital enough to permit reinterpretation and reinvigoration, as implied in speaking of the Renaissance. What does that leave for the future now?

An efficient, commercial art world implies a degree of conservatism and yet also the fragmentation of a free market, unlike anything an economist like David Galenson could imagine. Does that supply what David Carrier would call art-world democracy? Does that render both the cutting edge and the Salon equally inoperative? Curiously, the avant-garde and the academy remain influential, both as ideas and as institutions. Witness the recent focus on emerging artists who just happen to attend the right school. That produces a lot of good art, but not necessarily a certain future.

Unfortunately, just a couple of days after his first article, Saltz wrote that he would rather "just breathe . . . in" that show at Maccarone "than look directly at it." I myself gave Anthony Burdin a try, with everything from trash heaps and video to unstructured, half-ironic abstraction. It may have worked fine as the stage for his opening-night rock band, but I found the air stifling. I found much the same air everywhere in September, and I want to break my rule of passing weaker art in silence to explain. After all, even this article picks only the highlights. And subsequent uploads will return to the calm, bright side of autumn and some rather nice work.

The urban nightmare

Significantly, many a show seemed expressly designed as and for the urban nightmare. Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg, who once exhibited a collapsed hockey goal perhaps more suggestive of Buffalo, turn their blue-green spray paint on the wire fences and trash bins of a neighborhood playground. Sure that Industrial Light and Magic could improve on almost anything, but especially people? Suling Wang suggests a CGI version of Willem de Kooning, and its veering between garish color and black-and-white drawing has at least some of the master's sense of humor, if not his map of the world. Fans of LA may also like Adam Cvijanovic's Love Poem, a surrounding mural in which gravity fails and negativity pulls everything to pieces. I suppose I do not expect artists to provide accurate physics, but I admit the disaster did look glib the week after Katrina.

Elsewhere I seemed to have wandered into a thoroughly casual and obvious putdown of the world beyond New York, an interesting compromise from the gallery that has shown both art with political messages and Will Bartlett's love-hate relationship for the hissing of summer lawns. Ann Agee surrounds her tabletop ceramics with crested mounds of hot pink. She could almost be taking the viewer into the world's largest snow globe, and I hate to ask who stands outside watching—or how I shall get the flakes off my clothing. The characters misbehave in reasonably mild ways, as perhaps you would, too, under those circumstances. Yet for all her distancing cutes, Agee claims to be exhibiting "the temporal realities of her own life." Then again, I call this Web site self-expression, too.

Kevin Francis Gray prefers his figurines larger and ever so artistic. His shiny black, white, and silver sculptures aspire to such themes as a Madonna or the fall of Icarus, and it seems only to rub in their glibness that one could just as well mistake the latter for a lamentation over the dead Christ. Up close—well, not too close—one notices the expensive sneakers and other ghetto wear. As another visitor put it, Charles Ray meets Banks Violette, and one may as well throw in Jeff Koons with his balloon dogs and John Ahearn as well. I may have taken it all for snide parodies of art history and the south Bronx, but Gray is in fact using "timeless" themes to address the realities of his native London. The trouble, as with Ahearn, is that praise for actual ghetto pathology tends to appear some years later more as condescension.

Bill Owens's photographs make me cynical about Chelsea nights versus the heartland, too, but at least the cynicism of his subjects keeps staring back as well, until they refuse to go away. He crosses America to capture a bride blowing through bubble gum, a Tupperware party that looks far older than the early 1970s despite the hairdos, a kid on a tricycle with a pretend shotgun, Ronald Reagan as a B actor presiding over a Christmas display from the TV set, or a "nude interracial love dance." His judgmental tone compared to Diane Arbus or Garry Winogrand manifests itself all too quickly, especially when paired with caption testimonials to suburban happiness. Yet I had to admit it: by the time I left, the sheer accumulation of images had created a frightening portrait. Do politicians create truths about terror by the same repetition?

Leopold Kessler's "interventions" offer improvements on the Chelsea scene. His adapted birdhouses have room for alcoholic beverages, even if I worry more about his being able to keep them stocked than about my arrest for drinking in public. (So there is a reason for the wine at openings.) Other public amenities all his own include locks on London phone booths and a PA system for a bus stop in Vienna. The videos documenting them range from incredibly dull to just plain unintelligible without a press release, but one can always praise them as deadpan. Besides, he makes a good case that anyone can look convincing dressed in the right vest and toting a spool of wire.

I had met the city, and it is us, and it is now. But is it art? Even before waiting for October, another round of exhibitions, and a deepening experience of past and present, people keep reaching for solutions. Most obviously, art can simply get up and go, and Chelsea's very origin and anchor has decided to do just that.

Location, location

Reading about the New Museum's architecture on the Bowery, Dia:Chelsea's proposed relocation, or the latter's temporary use by the X-Initiative, I could not help feeling, as the line goes, déjà vu all over again. Or so things seemed at first, until it sunk in how greatly the plans reflect the seemingly inexorable pace of art and real estate in New York now. Will Dia, with its usual larger than life approach, help sustain the pace, put a new and revivifying spin on it, or suffer the bubble to burst at last?

Of course, what I still prefer to call the Dia Arts Center shut its doors well over a year ago for renovation, promising a reasonably quick return. Most recently, its Web site pushes the date to 2006. However, The New York Times reports that simply fixing such things as "leaky roofs, an antiquated elevator, and a lack of air-conditioning" would run more than $8 million. In addition, exhibitions have been pushing the building's limits. Richard Serra and his Torqued Ellipses, now on view at Dia:Beacon, required Dia's warehouse space across West 22nd Street.

And so the hunt was on, with a proposal now for an elegant façade of green glass, to nest beneath a former freight railway at its southern end, where conversion into a park is set to begin. Among other advantages, it would help overcome lingering doubts about the High Line, as less an elevated public space than a relic of urban decay and a utopian imposition on a changing city. The integration of building, rail bed, and site in the High Line may yet add up to more interesting architecture. They could accelerate the growth of art still further downtown. Together, they really could bridge Greenwich Village and the Hudson. They promise relief from the Meatpacking District's uninviting daylight sights and smells—and its equally forbidding late-night trendsetters.

The move enacts a familiar scenario, with Dia once again both art-world pioneer and curator of contemporary art's endangered heritage. Once Heiner Friedrich, a founder of Dia, had an essential West Broadway gallery. Other Soho locations sustain Walter de Maria, with his icily majestic version of Minimalism, to this day. As galleries proliferated, competition became a ritual, and surrounding streets turned into a shopping center, Dia staked out a deserted block of west Chelsea, landscaping it with irregular stelai by Joseph Beuys. With Dia:Beacon and more distant outposts devoted to one artist, it showed again that it could draw crowds away from the expected. Now, long after the days of casual Chelsea walks on welcoming Sundays, can Dia repeat its experiment?

However, the very repetition disturbs that idealistic scenario, in that it reinforces the past. The Times notes Dia's fixation on a single generation increasingly distant from the present, although not the way its exhibition spaces tend to put that generation on a pedestal. The very scope of its needs underscores the problem. Apparently, it does not find four stories and a facing warehouse enough. The price tag on its perhaps discarded renovation, even though Dia:Chelsea has closed each year for the hottest months anyhow, makes me fear for my next maintenance increase. I cannot help noting, too, that the foundation's director, Michael Govan, worked under Thomas Krens, whose dreams of empire, with expenditures to match, have all but emptied the Guggenheim of art, not to mention vitality. Will he call the new space as Dia:Restaurant Row?

Perhaps the colons give the game away, as if Dia were an XML specification with accompanying namespaces rather than display spaces. Then, too, however suspect its global reach, perhaps Dia no longer can break new ground. Art has learned all too well how to absorb change. Not just nightlife, markets, and film studios, but Chelsea galleries as well already extend to its proposed location. I think, too, of the time frame, with an opening two years away, rather than a visionary dealer's impulsive dash into the unknown. Then again, perhaps those intervening years offer hope, in one's very inability to imagine art, downtown, and Dia itself so far away. Well, I can hope.

The numbers game

Perhaps art cannot find answers in the Village, the changing Lower East Side spanning "Lush Life," Brooklyn, or elsewhere, simply because the spread testifies to the problem. Saltz looks beyond the commercial dealers, too, but not to geography. His optimism rests on the artists themselves, on their choices rather than the system's. Are even they enough?

It sounds comforting to oppose dealers or critics to artists, but if it overlooks how much even fancy galleries care about what they do. Besides, if one does oppose them, I cannot promise that artists will emerge the winners. The artist as curator can mean who you know rather than what you know—or, worse, another self-destructive artist collective. I would take a great patron like the pope for Michelangelo, Cubism's Ambroise Vollard, the modern museum's Alfred Barr and Hilla Rebay, Soho's Leo Castelli and Paula Cooper, or Dia's Heiner Friedrich anytime. Rather, the problem is the very possibility of great patronage today.

One could put it all down to numbers—and I do not mean dollars. With one person's taste, one gets a few irreplaceable insights and a distorted picture of the present, as with pop music's Lester Bangs. With a larger circle, one gets beyond the top 40, as with the days of free-form FM radio. As the numbers grow still further, however, one gets a stifling mass culture or, with luck, the clash of alternatives, instead of the alternative. When Dave Hickey puts his faith in art's consumers, he only ends up finding art inferior to media that do sell out.

Art has not attained as large as a role in culture as the art world tends to think, however—or as elitist an exclusion from culture as others hope and fear. Moreover, each stance has seeds of its own undoing, and artists can thrive on that. Once art gained by appropriating pop culture, by performances that invaded public spaces, and by transformations of new media that reflect on their own commercial veneer. Whether aiming small, large, or somewhere in between, artists still have to create, and critics still have to discover where they have aimed.

I have not given up worrying about economic and institutional forces. I have not ceased to hate what Saltz calls today's "super-paradigm" or to look for conflict among the paradigms it pretends to encompass. I have also not held out hope for a postmodern salvation based on the perpetual critique of those paradigms and forces. I do still expect a great deal from individual artists, dealers, and exhibitions.

For now, I veer between despair and hope for the novelty of multiple alternatives. Too much cynicism can shape notions of oneself and the world, and it can retreat from both into sarcasm and product placement. That realization can prompt alternatives—or it can make gallery-going all the more unsettling. What will it be like in two more years?

BACK to John's arts home page

Anthony Burdin at Maccarone through September 2005, Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg at Cohan and Leslie through October 15, Suling Wang at Lehmann Maupin through October 11, Adam Cvijanovic at Bellwether through October 15, Ann Agee at PPOW through October 8, Kevin Francis Gray at Roebling Hall through October 22, Bill Owens at James Cohan through September 24, Leopold Kessler at Lombard-Freid through October 15. "Ups and Downs" by Jerry Saltz appeared in The Village Voice for September 23. Saltz wisely jumped ship (for New York magazine) in spring 2007.


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