Shock Therapy

John Haber
in New York City

Chelsea's Fall 2008 Opening

Damien Hirst at Auction

The art world must love Woody Allen movies. Think a real New Yorker knows every corner of the city, can afford a fabulous apartment, and has a therapist? Art is like that, honest—except for untold numbers of working artists.

Where did you look?

Where fifteen years ago one saw little more than taxi stands and a diner, Chelsea alone has grown to an estimated three hundred galleries, some at the base of high-rise condos still hoping that someone on Wall Street can still afford them. No one knows how many other dealers have spread through the five boroughs, although dealers everywhere are quaking in fear after the market's terrifying October. Yet New York also has institutions dedicated each spring to art's equivalent of therapy—to anxiously or, like Sarah Meyohas, literally taking stock. Which represents the state of the art? It depends on where you look. Allison Schulnik's Girl with Animal (Mike Weiss, 2008)

You might have looked this year to the 2008 Whitney Biennial or to the opening of the New Museum, on the hyperactive Lower East Side. You would have seen art in a state of collapse, even before the coming financial meltdown and, perhaps, art's survival in the recession. Mock architecture and appropriation spanned galleries, as if to penetrate every corner of life, but never rising very far and never complete.

You might have visited the spring contemporary art fairs—now eleven of them the same weekend. You would have seen a culture so flashy and anonymous that you might have been anywhere in the world. Museums show much the same picture of art as costly entertainment, from Cai Guo-Qiang's fireworks to a Louis Vuitton gift shop smack in the middle of Takashi Murakami's Brooklyn retrospective. Appropriately enough, the largest fair stands on piers beyond the shoreline.

Had you looked instead to the National Academy Annual, you would have seen artists working their way through painting, sculpture, and formal puzzles dating back a generation. Had you tried the largest show dedicated to emerging artists, at P.S. 1 three years ago, you would have seen the influence of a few top MFA programs. Had you dug deeper on your own, at an open studio weekend in Brooklyn, you would have seen art all over the walls, on and off the canvas, as if aspiring to all of the above—and then some.

Faced with another fall's opening, you could look everywhere, before joining the crowds past Tenth Avenue. As will appear in a moment, far too many went in search of toilet jokes and Andres Serrano. Once a Chelsea few pioneers welcomed Sunday visitors, and it seems not so much idealistic as quaint. Soho still offered some serious competition. East Village art was already a memory—and a Lower East Side not even a dream. No longer.

Or you could look to an artist who thinks that he can upstage everyone else, with an auction in London. As will again appear in a moment, Damien Hirst proves only how many artists all the money and publicity crowd out. Gagosian, according to Bloomberg financial news, now claims to make half its numbers from Russian buyers, compared to little or none just a few years ago—although they, too, now face a financial reckoning. Instead of an inner circle, swayed by art-school or philosophical dogma, new audiences have entered unfamiliar with either one. No wonder they seek out cheap thrills easier for a novice to grasp. At Sotheby's, Hirst can pitch directly to just that.

Only more so

Where do you look, then, for the state of the art? Does the state of the art still prove elusive? Feeling lost in so diverse a mix? Perhaps the whole idea of an art world, in the singular, is a myth. In a strange sense, everyone gets to stand out from the crowds, even in Chelsea. Separate articles will give proper attention to fall exhibitions worth treating as more than symptoms. And that, too, just goes to show how much the buzz leaves out.

Idealism remains alive and well, even as the state of the art remains an open, perhaps insoluble question. Not all that long ago, digital artists trumpeted their medium's potential for free distribution. Others try their best through Web sites, word of mouth, artist collectives, open studios, and eBay, and they know that they are lucky to reach a dealer much less Sotheby's. Jeff Koons really does think of his accessible public sculpture as democratic.

In short, New York is just like anywhere else, only more so. Art has not competed this much for a broader public since the French Salon, when the avant-garde first broke away. Are Modernism and Postmodernism, then, over and done at last? One stills talks of a cutting edge or a rising star. Dealers tout exactly that.

The pressure can make gallery-going a pleasure. It also makes it hard for artists to nurture a career over years. Gallery scenes do not start on the cheap as Soho, the East Village, Williamsburg, or even Chelsea once had. More than one prominent dealer has set up shop on the Lower East Side, not to begin a career, but to look cool. In turn, more than one downtown dealer has headed north—to gain more foot traffic or, conversely, to become more exclusive.

I still feel hope on the streets. I feel it in galleries and studios. I feel it as David Byrne makes sound art in a derelict ferry terminal, Mike Nelson recreates the past in an abandoned food market, the Whitney plans a move to the foot of the High Line, for a new home in May 2015, breaking ground a month before the High Line reached Chelsea, and Olafur Eliasson's Waterfalls rise under and around the Brooklyn Bridge. But these are well-funded public projects, not rebels with or without a cause.

The art year ended with two major departures. Thomas Krens quit the Guggenheim, after turning it into a franchise operation. Alanna Heiss is leaving P.S. 1, under pressure from MoMA, after running New York's most important alternative spaces for some thirty-five years. Which ending says most about the state of the art? Does the future promise new beginnings, an ever-greater corporate squeeze, or shock therapy? I have no idea, but I knew I had to join the Chelsea crowds that first Thursday evening in September.

Electricity in the streets

If possible, traffic that evening spilled more into the Chelsea streets than last year and the year before put together. It helped that an alarm emptied several galleries and brought fire trucks to West 21st Street. Was I looking forward to the energy? The electrical fire made a good metaphor. Some artist should have used it.

Yet for September 2008, more galleries chose to stagger openings. That actually brought it closer to other months in Manhattan, which lack the agreed-upon gallery opening evening of smaller cities. In New York City, refusing to admit one needs to work with others can even contribute to a gallery's reputation. While behind closed doors Gagosian offered its breadth and dignity to Fashion Week, the edgier strip way west on 27th and 28th Streets, for one, held its openings on Friday. That left the curious combination of big crowds in upscale spaces. High art truly had absorbed mass entertainment.

Could that account for all the jugglers and the clowns on display? At least one even flies through the air. Olivier Blanckart's 3D parodies of modern art can get giddy but hardly subtle. Take the mannequin of a blind woman, after a photograph by Paul Strand but bearing the sign CRITIC. Self-satisfied visitors will recall the blind eyes in The Critic Sees, by Jasper Johns, but I should not dream of taking it personally.

Other mannequins act out their status as art stars and suspect characters by posing in a police lineup. As for Blanckart's flying superheroes, in place of Superman or Batman they include Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman, and Cindy Sherman. Not that all the jugglers and the clowns get their kicks for you. Aaron Johnson's merely pose in front of American flags, like a meeting of folk art, the GOP convention, and Peter Max. Much as with the movies, however, the big money seems to lie with teenage males, and they prefer dark humor—as in dark brown.

Sherman has posed in abject settings before, including simulations of her own vomit. Would she care for Allison Schulnik and her Hobo Clown and other figures, in mostly black oils built up like human waste? If so, she would have spotted perhaps the real theme of the evening.

In an old Firesign Theater routine, the winner of a game show finds herself with a bag of doo-doo. "Yes, Mrs. Kresge," says the smiling host, "but it's good shit." This evening's accent was never on the good, and the audience hardly cared.

Shit happens

Surely the most egregious art (or bowel) movement belongs to Andres Serrano. Perhaps Gilbert & George out in Brooklyn prove that they were there long before. Yet now, with Rudy Giuliani too busy to complain, a packed house sipped harsh wine while admiring large photographs against tastefully painted walls. The photographer's turds, at least partly animal in origin, suggest a high-fiber diet. For further validation, the catalog solicits an essay from Hélène Cixous, the French feminist and advocate of Freud's "polymorphous perverse."

Serrano, however, seems less a scholar of abjection than a kid with an all-too-obvious comment on the art world. He must relish that the whole idea of "the art world" would not persist without anointed rebels like him. At least his Piss Christ had some grounding in many a young adult's rebellion against his religious upbringing.

Keith Tyson returns this year, too, with more of his own childish excess. I am talking student work, and anyone who has taught undergraduates will recognize the experience. "Professor, did anyone ever notice that Piet Mondrian and the Bauhaus look like Tinker Toys?" Um, yes. Hey, shit happens, but does it have to happen on this scale? And does it have to beg this hard for applause?

Like Schulnik's shit-faced people and pets, these artists aim for James Ensor and his deviltry, but on the cute. Critics may argue whether Postmodernism has ended or feminism has reached its third or fourth wave. Yet here even women have to play little boy games.

Phoebe Washburn does it ingeniously, too, as one might expect from her. Her recycling act winds through three rooms of plants, sheds, piping, and fish tanks, with drinks on sale and golf balls as the filtration unit. The result lacks the fanatical care and precariousness of her past struggles against decay, but she sure knows how to work the system. Make that, as her title puts it, Tickle the Shitstem.

Could anyone upstage all that shit? It took someone with an international market large enough to put Chelsea in the pale. Yet even Damien Hirst could do it only for those who equate auction lots with the pulse of art. With more than two hundred works, Hirst took his latest directly to Sotheby's in mid-September, and speculation briefly extended beyond prices. Would the end run around Gagosian and White Cube strike a blow for democracy? Would it instead mean a fatal wound to any remaining standards in contemporary art?

Circling the sharks

Hirst luckily beat the stock-market crash and did sell, handsomely, to the tune of more than $200 million, well above the high estimate—and his dealers, among others, stand to profit by it. Perhaps Jay Jopling of White Cube will finally make back some of the money he is rumored to have sunk into Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull. As for democracy, Roberta Smith of The Times nailed it with her usual clarity: "Hirst pooh-poohs dealers and their 50 percent commission because he can." As she points out, too, the market has a history, and artists have been seeking ways around it for as long as it has existed. Denied the Salon, Gustave Courbet set up his tent across the way.

Those who instead wish Hirst to stand for a degraded world of big money in art are stuck quoting Robert Hughes. Unfortunately, if a stopped clock gets it right twice a day, Hughes is decades behind. He continues to disdain pretty much all contemporary art as conceptual and theory driven. He cannot even discern the scary part—quite apart from the visceral scare of Hirst's shark tank. Like artists, plenty of critics and theorists have hoped to puncture the bubble for a long time now (or at least keep it transparent), and the bubble keeps absorbing them all. If anything, London and New York have too many good artists, with too few chances for a future, and their future is only likely to grow dimmer with the collapse of global markets.

Smith finds it "amazing how many people behave as if, until quite recently, art and money have always been on opposite sides of some ethical bundling board." I find it just as amazing that news like this still polarizes much of the public between skeptics and hero worshippers. Only someone desperate for a rebel as outsize as Jackson Pollock could equate Modernism's first media blitz with today's cult of money and celebrity. Only someone desperate for a more open system could find it at Sotheby's. At the same time, only someone desperate to eradicate modernity could write the present off as a sham or as conceptual art. Marcel Duchamp or Lawrence Weiner might call it an insult to conceptual artists.

Hirst, like Joseph Beuys or Sigmar Polke, is selling his own personal history, as Smith also notes—but only because they share a serious obsession with death and the past. I may find Hirst's dead butterflies or Beuys's and Polke's references to World War II on the Eastern front shallow, tiresome, and obscure, but not for their lack of investment in the physical art object.

Hughes's first major villain, Julian Schnabel, may always grate on one's nerves, but he began as an earnest seeker of meaning in painting. And he went from there a film director able to address themes of fame, artistic insight, and mortality. Hirst, too, tries so hard for shocks because he genuinely believes that he is exploring matters of life and death. Most dealers care just as much. They are in business in the retail sector. However, they can still provide a service to artists, clients, and the public, much as a market model would predict.

Hirst, his buyers, Hughes, journalists, and sharks will all keep circling. Wherever one looks, though, one would do better to bear in mind the scope and diversity of the challenges masked by a blanket term like democracy—or the art world.

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Olivier Blanckart ran at P.P.O.W. through October 4, 2008, Allison Schulnik at Mike Weiss through October 11, Aaron Johnson at Stux through October 18, Andres Serrano at Yvon Lambert through October 4, Keith Tyson at PaceWildenstein through October 4, and Phoebe Washburn at Zach Feuer through October 4. Roberta Smith was writing in The New York Times for September 20. The first two sections of this article appeared as a fall preview in a special issue of Artillery magazine devoted to New York City.


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